SPOILER WARNINGS: As noted in the summary, this fic is set in the future. It has plenty of speculations that canon probably won't confirm, just because it's hard to guess right about One Piece. It spoils a lot of things about the current manga arc, at least up to chapter 565 or so. Also, it makes an assumption that in itself is a kind of spoiler: to spare the unwary browser, this is put in an Author's Notes at the end of this chapter.

Constructive criticism and other feedback is welcome and appreciated!

Betaed by Tonko, great and patient treasure that she is. Any remaining faults are solely my responsibility.

DISCLAIMER: The characters, settings and situations of iOne Piece/i were created and are owned by Eiichiro Oda. They are used her without permission for entertainment purposes only. This fic is not to be used for profit.

Sparks

A One Piece fanfic by Elin B

First shot

The first time he reaches out it's a hot, sunny day, the sails hardly moving but for the faintest of breezes. However, it's still pleasant enough in the shade of the tangerine trees, where Portgas D. Ace is sleeping while leaning against one of the trees. Usopp notices a leaf that's fallen down on Ace's bare shoulder, leaning over to brush it away without really thinking about it. He finds his hand lingering briefly, sweeping like a paintbrush over the line of Ace's collarbone – then he yanks it away and moves back a step, as quickly as if he's been burnt. But their guest is still sleeping soundly.

Usopp isn't any more afraid of fire than he is of other highly dangerous things, which is to say he's still plenty afraid of it. Roaring camp fires are just great, and fire attacks are both cool and effective. Still, when you're in close vicinity to someone who's actually made out of fire, and who can unleash it whenever he wants, in quantities enough to take out a time or a dozen battle ships at once – it would make a decent amount of sense if that's what made him jump just now.

But it isn't. At least, he's pretty sure it isn't that. Ace has shown no signs of not being able to control his fire, during the days he's spent on the Thousand Sunny. (Ace is ostensibly there to go with Luffy and crew to the next island, where he'll be able to help the Strawhats out, having been there before. But actually, as Whitebeard's men have made clear, he's mostly there to rest and recuperate as much as possible, without the responsibility of command.) So far, he never breaks out in flames without intending to, far as Usopp can tell. He only uses his fire to fight off sea kings and the like (making some barbecued meat in the process that Sanji's known to click his tongue at), and to show off some neat tricks. As long as he doesn't make Ace really angry over something, Usopp figures he should be okay.

Anyway, Ace doesn't seem like the type to explode at people without any warning. Somehow, Usopp just plain doesn't think Ace would ever burn him, any more than he thinks one of the giants he's friends with might trample him to death.

There's no lack of other reasons, either. Ace was already very impressive when the Strawhats first met him in Alabasta, not just because of the whole amazing strength and Devil Fruit thing but also his amazing politeness, his resolve in chasing Blackbeard and his clear devotion to Whitebeard – and his utter fearlessness. And that was back then. By now, Ace must be an extremely well-known pirate, even back in backwater places out in the Blues like Usopp's home island. Everyone seems to have heard about the near-execution, the war, and maybe most of all, the shocking truth of his parentage. Someone that impressive and important doesn't need to be made of fire to be intimidating. Not to mention he's the brother of Usopp's captain and best friend, which makes it all even more mixed-up and confusing.

Usopp supposes no-one could blame him for being fascinated by Ace, or for feeling a strong aesthetic admiration for him, or even having an innocent idol-crush. But that's not really what it feels like. Usopp doesn't even think about these things all that much anymore, hanging out with Ace. They're no longer what he sees when looking at the older pirate - except for moments like this one, when he's watching and trying not to, having to remind himself why he shouldn't.

What he does see, most of the time, is an easygoing young man who seems to enjoy just hanging out and lazing about on the Strawhats' ship for the moment. Ace likes fishing, fighting seakings, strolling around Sunny and finding out how it works, talking about similar or utterly different arrangements among the Whitebeard pirates in general and his own division in particular, battling Luffy for food during dinnertime, watching Brook pull his skeleton tricks, training… But mainly just taking it easy, it seems. He's on casual terms with all the Strawhats by now, and has even started to pull a few good-natured pranks on his hosts, while not immune to falling for one or two of them himself.

He carries a Dendenmushi on him at all times. It rings at least twice a day, when his own division calls to let him know how they're doing, and often other Whitebeard pirates will call as well. That's when his face lights up the most, all tension going out from his frame as he sits back and chats for many minutes, mostly about small, trivial matters of little apparent consequence. For his part, Ace calls his crewmates once a day, always right after dinner. "They made me promise not to call them more often," he says with a half-sheepish grin when Sanji makes a remark about it.

When his crewmates don't call at the usual time, Ace says nothing about it, but he gets a lot more itchy and restless than usual, also more prone to chew his brother out over small if admittedly boneheaded things. Until the Dendenmushi signal sounds at last and it turns out they're quite fine – then he's all smiles and sunshine again, laughing with relief.

But he also has fresh scars, welts, bruises and even burn marks all over him, some of them looking quite ugly. Those make Chopper frown a lot and run off to make salves and ointments for Ace to use, then lectures him about keeping still more and not stay in the hot sun too much. Ace seems to be embarrassed about the doctor's concern, though he does accept the salves.

Ace has been sleeping a lot: Luffy claims that's normal for him. Yet even Luffy has looked alarmed, briefly, several times when Ace has cried out in his sleep before waking up, looking all sweaty and wild-eyed. Sometimes his body is shaking, even, and he'll hug his knees with a vacant look, not seeing or talking to anyone. It passes soon enough – Ace blinks and looks normal again, yawns and stretches and comes to his feet with an easy grin – and just like the others, Usopp pretends he hasn't seen anything, as that seems to be what Ace needs.

And right now, Ace is sleeping quite peacefully in the shade of the trees, looking very much at ease and free from nightmares. His snores are long, his breathing deep and regular, and he doesn't stir as the odd leaf gently drifts down on him. Nor does he seem to feel Usopp's hesitant touch. And maybe that, in the end, is why the sniper lets his hand fall, shrinking back from the sleeping young man, feeling this isn't something to disturb or take advantage of.

He sits back on his haunches at first, just watching Ace and listening to him sleep, unwilling to move and break the spell. Then he gets a hold of himself as he realizes this would look odd to the others, stumbling just a bit as he gets up and moves further away.

It's still too hot in the sun where his workbench is, though, or maybe he can't seem to concentrate for some other reason. He winds up aimlessly picking at weeds, checking the spice bed and looking for beetles in Robin's flowerbed instead. His eyes keep going back to the sleeping figure under the tangerine tree, as if he's standing guard over him.

-To Be Continued

Spoilery Author's Notes: This fic is written with the assumption that Whitebeard has survived the current arc and that his and Ace's respective goals remain the same as they've been until now. As I write this, this seems a possible though perhaps not very likely outcome: but assuming this made the fic easier to write.