Big thanks goes again to kawaiikittey who edited this!
I know that it took a while, but we're getting there... really. ;)
The Dumb Smile of the Knowing
Part 10 - Smoker's Clarity II
None of the few visitors that came to Ace's cell in the brig were people that he remembered, none of them anyone he cared about. He wouldn't deny that he liked the improved healthcare, despite that things such as a blanket or gurney were denied to him. Ace sometimes thought that it might be better that way, that those would have refreshed memories that were a bit painful from his current perspective.
After all, it was bad enough, sitting day by day, trying his hardest not to wait for the grumpy Commodore to stomp into the cell.
Really, what was he waiting for?
It didn't help that Ace was pretty certain after a while that the man wasn't on board anymore.
Because, as if it all wasn't absurd enough, apparently Smoker had come to invade his dreams.
And even if Ace had decided that the guy might be likeable . . . He was royally fucked, Ace understood that much, the moment he started to miss the freaking Marine who'd made sure he was delivered to prison.
Then came the moment when Ace realized that at least one "familiar" crew member had stayed aboard even though Smoker, Tashigi, the weird Doc and the nurse hadn't. However, as soon as he recognized the most likely strongest vocal chords on the Grand Line, he wished he'd never heard the yell, nor the words "Impel Down" and "Gates open."
It was the last he heard before they came to get him.
He'd healed enough, thanks to the improved care of that new doctor, so that he was able to leave the cell with some last kind of dignity: on his own two legs.
Two strangers held his cuffed arms while he was escorted out of the brig and back onto the deck that he hadn't seen in a while. Ace turned to look around in an attempt to search for certain familiar faces, but - as expected - they were not there.
In front of him, looming like a dark shadow over him, he could already make out the threatening building where he would quite possibly spend the rest of his life. A mighty silhouette against the disturbingly clear blue sky: the Great Underwater Prison.
There was a strange silence on board as the crew members watched him march off.
Ace saw Admiral Aokiji, who was already on land, speaking to another man, a huge creature of a man, who Ace correctly guessed as the chief in charge of the prison. Their brief exchange ended, and they both strode off into the building while Ace was dragged into the same direction.
It turned out there was an entry ritual to that very peculiar prison. He noticed a subtle but biting acidic smell at first and knew it meant no good. The path "his" small group took followed the eerie trail and it didn't take long for him to encounter its source: They had brewed him a fuming, sputtering, hot welcome bath to clean him from dirt, portions of his skin, and any ideas of leaving this place alive. It was here that he met the woman who introduced herself as "Sadi-chan."
While at first, the woman's sparse outfit that only barely covered her bosoms and hips had reminded Ace of the women on Lupanalo Island, it didn't take long before he realized that those two horns on her head were much more telling.
She'd prepared him one hell of a bath in the literal sense. Ace didn't feel like giving the smirking devil, standing on the side watching his face and naked form intently, the pleasure of caving into a bit of pain. As impossible as it sounded, after all he had endured in the past weeks, that was what he thought of a bit of heat.
He should have known this initiation would only be the beginning of his experience of true pain inside this prison.
When he'd arrived in Level Five, he had seen it all. Sadi-chan hadn't simply thrown him there. No, the creepy blonde domina from the bathhouse pleasures apparently lived off of seeing her prisoners writhing and screaming in pain-and since Ace had denied her such with his rather unfazed entry, she was bent on getting it through other means.
Thus, she'd introduced him to all levels of the cleverly managed prison, subsequently, both as quickly as and as thorough as possible.
She'd dragged him through the Crimson Hell, and laughed as the razor sharp leaves cut into his barely healed skin, but she soon stopped when she saw that he wasn't responding at all - she couldn't have known that he'd almost grown used to that kind of wound by now.
Then she'd called for another guard, and together they'd brought him down to Level Two, where apparently he was supposed to be bothered by huge, threatening creatures that tried to prey on him. He wasn't. The reason wasn't that he was trying to show off nor was he trying to play the "hard pirate." It was simply that even though he still couldn't discern what part of his encounters on the strange island had been real, all of them had definitely frightened him more and brought him closer to death than any big snake here could ever hope to.
Next had been the Starvation Hell, which to Ace's surprised delight his guards skipped. They passed through the prison level quickly but Ace still caught a good impression of the thin, haggard bodies behind the cell bars there, moaning and begging for water and food. Perhaps Sadi-chan didn't have the patience to sit by and wait for Ace to slowly waste away. Perhaps it was because the pain of starvation wouldn't bring the right type of pain into his features for her liking, he really didn't know. What he did know was that he was lucky because his natural appetite would have been a real torture in that level.
Probably, Ace decided later, Sadi-chan simply couldn't wait to reach Level Four. She was eyeing him very intently as they stood before its terrifyingly beautiful, blazing inferno. Ace's guards knew of course about his Devil Fruit as probably every Marine on the Grand Line knew about it, and so they'd simply thrown him into the devouring heat, seastone shackled as he was. For a sadist, seeing flames burn the skin and hair of a Flame man, was probably like finding a tree that grew grilled portions of meat as fruit would be for a glutton like Luffy. And somehow, Ace reasoned, in a twisted way, he could follow that train of thought. So he smiled at the busty blonde satan, understandingly.
That had been a very unwise decision.
Tashigi wasn't going to believe any of it.
"Clarify something," my ass.
She'd served the man for almost as long as she'd been with the Marines and had come to think she knew him. From that knowledge she could tell very easily that the way her Captain Smoker behaved now was far from normal.
She had observed how her Captain had spent an entire afternoon washing his hands, always coming back from the sink, looking at them frowning, obviously seeing something she was unable to see, and then going back to again wash away whatever it was that disturbed him so much.
She had also observed how he had not smoked a single cigar that same afternoon, whereas he normally would have produced a whole ashtray full of stubs in that time span.
That had only been in the beginning.
The next day, he'd acted as if nothing was wrong, standing on deck, facing the winds of the bow direction with a grim face, two fat cigars polluting the air around him as always. He could have fooled her, almost.
Later, however, when he'd come into the mess and taken his meal together with her and some other officers, she'd caught him rubbing at the inside of his palm in an absent-minded motion. It wasn't the last time she saw it.
Another downright frightening indication practically slapped her square in the face when she'd come to Smoker's quarters and found him seated behind his large desk, furrowed brows and cigars well in place, but with a shocking amount of papers spread out before him. His left digit was tracing down something on the documents while his right hand scribbled notes - and Tashigi had observed very closely since the whole picture seemed so foreign to her - Smoker apparently had been working through at least a month worth of paperwork. Pa-per-work! For a good two seconds, her heart had stopped beating.
And of course, there was, maybe above all, Smoker's strange decision to "clarify something" by taking a "small detour" via Impel Down.
The crew hadn't noticed anything, or at least Tashigi tried to think so, as they were used to Smoker's rash decisions, his unusual courses, his 'moods' and, basically, his way in general. They didn't see any reason to believe something was unusual even when they were being ordered to approach the Great Gaol without a pirate on board.
Tashigi, however, had noticed and only two days had passed until she'd made a decision. In retrospective, the decision to act had been much more difficult than the decision how to act. Acknowledging that her Captain needed to talk about what was occupying his thoughts and also acknowledging that he -sadly- wouldn't speak to her about it, there was really only one option left.
That's why she wasn't surprised as the look-out, a day later, called out, "Ship in sight!"
Smoker immediately propelled up to the man shouting, to also take a look at the approaching vessel. "Can you see the flag?" he inquired.
"It looks like," the man with the telescope strained his eyes and slowly answered, "Hina, the Black Cage!"
Tashigi heard the words and smiled inwardly. Captain Hina was such a dear friend to Smoker! After Tashigi had told her that he was troubled, Hina had agreed to come at once. Apparently she had just arrested some Baroque Works agents and delivered them to Impel Down, so she had already been close anyway.
Tashigi looked up to the platform where Smoker hastily snatched the telescope from the other man's hands. After one view through it his face paled even whiter than his hair was and he announced with thundering urgency, "Quick! Veer off! Change of course, immediately!"
Tashigi blinked in disbelief.
Although she had seen Smoker sometimes react a bit reluctantly when he met his old friend, she hadn't expected that kind of rash decision now, especially when he was so obviously in need of a good and understanding friend who might even have some understanding on what was troubling him.
Admittedly, Smoker and Hina had their occasional misunderstandings and friendly banters - that much even Tashigi could tell - but at the end of the day, Hina was the only one to be ever on the receiving end of Smoker's favors. And if that didn't tell something about his benevolence towards her then Tashigi didn't know what else would. Not even the Fleet Admiral personally would ever be favored by her Captain, but Hina would.
Shaking her head, Tashigi realized that she, even after spending her entire career at Smoker's side, still didn't really understand him.
They left Hina's boat behind for now, but Tashigi was certain that the other Captain would find her way to Smoker later - whether he liked it or not.
When they arrived at the Great Gaol, nothing seemed changed from the last time Smoker had been here, and that was oh-so-many years ago. Back in the time before those other nasty events had ended up in his order to watch over Logue Town. There were a great number of Marine ships anchored in a big circle around the underwater prison. High above, the flag with the prison's symbol had to be held by two flagpoles because of the lack of wind in the Calm Belt.
However, he'd never been quite so keen on getting inside the building since dropping the pirates at the gate and quickly signing off the papers was already enough of an inconvenience and he'd always wanted to be back on the sea to clean it by catching even more of those worthless scoundrels as soon as possible.
Today, Smoker would not only peek inside, he even wanted to visit a prisoner, although the word "visit" wouldn't quite form in his mind and he still looked for excuses about what exactly his business with Portgas was.
Just checking . . . just making sure that . . .
That what? His mind was reeling, condemning him already for even coming here; the voice urged him to leave this instant.
...if everything's alright! If there's no hidden agenda, if no civilians get murdered over the brat - things like that, another voice in his mind calmed the first, but Smoker was fuming.
Fuming at himself for the insanity that was the little chat in his head over the fucking pirate he wanted to . . . visit.
The chief warden quickly introduced him to Sadi-chan, who had a strikingly appropriate behavior and who was probably the best choice for that job, Smoker kind of understood. With a devilish smile, she offered him the "full tour" - meaning he would get to see all levels, their respective forms of torture, maybe 'meet' some of the other pirates he'd delivered here, writhing, bleeding, and screaming in desperation and agony. Smoker declined the offer with a short but determined move of his head.
"I don't have too much time, just bring me to Portgas, let me have a quick talk and then I'm gone."
He had said that to her, but a part of himself needed to hear those words too, to remind him that whatever strange idea had led him here, this was all there was going to be.
Sadi-chan looked him over but didn't reply. Instead, she gestured towards the lift that they would take to descend to Portgas' current level. She knew already that the pirate would be brought one level down afterwards because of the new "situation" but since she didn't know how much Smoker was supposed to know about those developments, and since she had nothing to gain from informing him of anything, she didn't mention it.
It was so cold that Smoker pulled his jacket closed, the skin of his face immediately built small goose bumps and his eyes started feeling dry and hurt.
Sadi-chan led him along a white path where he could see cell bars coated with glistening ice to his side but, even more so, he could hear agonizingly broken voices, ranging from soft whimpering to husky screams. The sounds felt out of place knowing that the people here crying like little girls had once been strong, feared, men. Smoker didn't hear Portgas' voice, however, and he wasn't much surprised about it either.
They reached a cell where the warden stopped; it was more like a small cage, narrow and empty apart from the figure on the ground. With a clack, Sadi-chan's key opened the door so that the Commodore could enter. He closed the door behind himself and waved her away.
I can handle this easily, his gaze said.
You want to be alone with him, the voice in his head laughed.
It was as he should have expected. Crouching on the floor, shackled to the frozen wall with both hands, Portgas' body was all shades of blue and violet, the coloring a result of the various kinds of tortures: whippings and beatings and frostbites. He was wearing nothing more than his trousers and the red necklace, and obviously even a Whitebeard pirate that seemed to somehow survive everything, would freeze when being exposed to the polar winds ghosting through the bars of his holding cell in the prison level called Freezing Hell while sitting there half-naked.
Not quite acknowledging that he had checked, Smoker saw that the older wounds on the pirates' body had almost disappeared, although a couple of new ones made up for them well enough: cuts and scratches, dried blood caking the skin of his chest, his arms . . . Smoker didn't want to count the other's injuries, so he quickly addressed the pirate. "Portgas!"
Black locks moved and a face came in sight. Piercing dark eyes found Smoker's own narrowed ones, their gaze so intense that Smoker's breath stopped for a moment.
"You-! Huh. Gotta be, kidding?" came the rather undignified response. The pirate's eyes were still wide and seemed to grow even wider, taking in the appearance of his visitor.
Smoker moved closer and fought the embarrassing urge to strip off his jacket and throw it over Portgas' obviously cold body. Fuck, this had been a bad idea.
The pirate seemed to have found his words again and easily his cockiness just as well as he spoke, "What are you doing here? Missed me, Smoker?"
He's joking, Smoker warned himself, just in case.
"I've got new orders." Why the hell did that sound as if he was excusing his absence on Portgas' transport? He was certainly not!
"Your brother's grown really popular now, after-" Oh, just brilliant. Smoker had almost told him about the incident in Enies Lobby, but caught himself in time.
It wouldn't do any good if Portgas knew. Smoker had learned about it in the context of his new orders, and had finally understood why it was that the Whitebeard pirate had been delivered directly to prison without a visit to the Island of Judgment before. The irony! The idiot's idiot brother had put said island out of commission! He still wondered how the hell the World Government planned to decide on his penalty now but of course, he wouldn't share that information with Portgas.
"Anyway, I had one last thing to do before going back to my real work." And dammit, stop looking like that, idiot. Bloody gaze gives me nightmares.
"About what happened on Selva Island, the nurse, the flight," - your calling, your gaze, your smile - Smoker paused, averting his eyes from Portgas' face because he felt like the other was observing and judging him in some twisted way.
"Uh, Smoker, you would believe me if I told you?"
Smoker had to look back and the warmth that Portgas' now relaxed features radiated was in stark contrast to the freezing air surrounding them. Smoker felt his heart beating too loudly. Ba-dump, ba-dump.
What the hell. The thought hadn't even crossed his mind that he probably shouldn't simply believe the pirate's version of the events. Was Portgas really such a good person in his books that Smoker was unable to even consider the possibility the pirate might lie to him? Holy freaking justice, he should probably leave. Now.
But as if the door behind him was firmly welded up by seagull shit and the only possible exit out of the situation lay absurdly in front of him, Smoker stupidly, instead of doing what would have been best, did just the opposite and stepped forward, planting his boots in a firm stance not even an arm length before the pirate's form on the ground.
Said pirate, maybe because he didn't like having Smoker loom so high above him, stood up as well. Portgas' joints cracked loud enough that even Smoker heard it and he grimaced lightly. The seastone chains rustled, as the pirate pulled himself up, levering his weight against them. He straightened his back and was now face to face with his visitor.
"There was a bull of a guy, huge and very strong, and I think he might have been a Marine." Portgas' voice was a bit hoarse and not very strong, but it carried well as his face was now so close - much too close for comfort. "You know," his lips curled into that damn trademark smile, "the way he called me pirate and stuff."
Smoker tried to concentrate on the words and not on the breath carrying them that tingled on his skin. He'd have Tashigi do some research about that attacker later. "And you think that guy wanted to kill nurse Elena?"
"Hell, Smoker, it's not what I think. It's what I saw. It happened in the cell, and he was using a freaking lighter!" Portgas' voice had sped up, and in his fervor he'd unintentionally extended his neck a bit further in Smoker's direction, his face distorted with tension, brows jumped up, lips twitching.
Smoker, however, was very aware of that movement. He swallowed quickly, before he focused again on what the other had said, "A lighter to burn her. So he was trying to frame you?"
In all honesty, Smoker had already heard of that from Elena, only that she was still thinking the attacking stranger must have been an accomplice to Portgas. Normally, it would be hard to believe that there was a third party involved, and that that party was going after some unimportant nurse and not the pirate. Yet for Smoker, it really wasn't. He'd suspected something fishy was going on the whole time.
That was why he was here. Only that was why.
Portgas shrugged his shoulders while his burning, unnerving, gaze still lay on Smoker's face. "I think so."
Smoker pondered stepping back. Their close proximity was almost entirely his own doing since the pirate was chained to the damn wall and couldn't possibly retreat. But then again, stepping back would mean that Smoker had acknowledged that he was thinking about how close their faces were and that it, in one way or another, bothered him.
His mind jumped back to the conversation, latching onto it as the straw of normalcy in this absurd situation he'd brought himself into. Yes, if he focused on that then it didn't matter how close the pirate's dark eyes, his thin lips, his sharp nose, his frostbitten cheeks were - it would just be a way of conversing without everyone around knowing what they were talking about, right? "So you fought with that guy and fled with Elena?"
Portgas nodded. "We fought, I knocked him out; then I took her. Honestly, I had no clue, well, still don't have any really, what was going on."
A deep breath left Smoker's mouth, almost like sighing. Which, of course, he did not. "You saved her."
Portgas' eyes widened, but not from the words. It was, as Smoker now realized, because the air escaped from his lungs blew through the black locks framing the pirate's face, moving the icy strands just a tiny bit and feeling probably hot against the other's cold skin. Oh shit.
You've been thinking about nothing but him for days, you idiot! The voice in his head laughed at Smoker, manically. What did you expect would happen when you come here and he even confirms that he's saved one of your crew? That you wouldn't feel anything? Oh, the voice sounded so dangerously much like Hina that Smoker had to put a conscious effort into not turning around to make sure that the woman wasn't really there.
It was strangely silent between the two men, the other prisoners' screams of agony and pain reduced to nothing but ambient noise. Portgas' face was right before Smoker's, blue and violet from the cold but still full of childish freckles and his usually cocky eyes - they looked at him, bore through him. It was the same damn knowing gaze the pirate had thrown at him on that island.
Smoker knew he had to get out. Not only because time was almost up. He couldn't stand the idea of thinking any more about why the brat did to him what he did because, all things considered, Smoker wasn't entirely stupid to these kinds of things.
Wanting to avoid something wasn't the same as not knowing about it. The simple truth is that he would rather take a bath in acid than start feeling this way for a pirate. The bad guy! The enemy!
The next time he would meet Portgas, the guy would probably be back side by side with the rest of Whitebeard's notorious scum, and then, it would be much easier to see him as the man, the pirate, he really was, than it was now, here, where he was just the tortured youth who'd saved Smoker's crew mate. Yes, that was a good, reasonable, explanation. It was most likely the currently strange circumstances that confused Smoker this way. Once he'd made good with the man, he could leave and would never have to look back . . .
"Thank you," he breathed, very quickly but audible for the pirate - and the words still felt like they were going to rot away his tongue as they passed his mouth, "for saving her." Even an idiot like Portgas would know that was not something Smoker would say to just anyone, that he meant it and that it was almost as absurd as biting off his own thumb to say it into a pirate's face.
Before his voice betrayed his carefully constructed facade, Smoker needed to leave. He'd eased his guilty conscience. They were good. Now. Whenever Whitebeard's influence catapulted Portgas out of here, he'd start being just as annoying as he'd been before. Now-
His feet didn't move fast enough and just then, the pirate deliberately strained his long neck even further, bending his head to the side and moving forward. His lips brushed Smoker's jaw while his hair tickled at the Marine's nose when he approached to whisper in Smoker's ear, "You're warm. Can you come closer?" Portgas' voice was hushed; it was not sensual but it dangerously felt that way to Smoker. The pirate was trying to get some benefit out of his gratitude, right?
"Just a second . . ." The pirate's surprisingly hot breath burned his ear lobe, sending shivers down Smoker's spine. Portgas' skin, on the other hand, was like ice against his own warm cheek, initiating goose bumps that he would all too readily blame on the temperature, and together, the various sensations were almost too much to handle.
In a gesture born out of pure instinct that he was too late to suppress, Smoker's right arm shot up, and his hand fell against the pirate's head who quivered at the touch; his fingers trailed further into the frozen black locks as Smoker stepped forward and leaned into the cold body in front of him, pressing the pirate's face against the crook of his neck in a swift motion. A second.
Smoker felt the added weight when Portgas buried his face deeply into the fur of his jacket, and his icy nose grazed the skin of his neck just the slightest bit. A dangerous invisible force kept Smoker in place and he felt utterly powerless despite his agonizing, desperate, inner push to step back and leave.
Smoker heard the heavy pounding that pressed his blood through his veins, faster and faster, and like a flood strong enough to overrun a concrete barrier, he felt it distinctively - when something inside him shattered.
Now, the vicious voice rasped, you've really clarified it, moron.