Sparks. Fourth shot
The weather stayed much the same all through the rest of that day and evening. Slowly, very slowly, the multitude of winds shifted down to just one mild eastern breeze, but the rain kept falling steadily, only straight down now, or almost. All the cisterns were full to the brim with rainwater, and Franky had adjusted the drainage so that the rain falling on roofs and decks was now led directly down to the sea.
The Strawhats and their guest stayed indoors as much as they could, apart from rotating guard duty. Mostly they stuck to the warm galley, which got quite noisy and crowded as a result. Sanji bore this invasion of his premises fairly well for the most part, though he showed no compunction when it came to recruiting male crewmates for assistance with his work or unceremoniously pushing them aside when he felt they were in the way. And when it came to Nami and Robin, he seemed quite happy he didn't have to go very far to shower them with snacks and attention.
Ace fell asleep almost immediately, only half through his pile of scones, his face buried deep in jam. Sitting close by but not itoo/i close, Usopp only glanced at him through the corner of his eye, then washed his own scones down with another drink of lovely hot cocoa. Slowly, he felt himself warm up and calm down.
The presence of his crewmates all around him was reassuring. Partly because with them around, Usopp couldn't reasonably be expected to take anything back, or to go even further – and Ace couldn't easily say anything, either. Partly because they anchored him, making him feel more grounded, less hapless and adrift. Ace didn't have that kind of presence right now, Usopp thought, watching the older pirate twitch and mumble in his sleep again. But he would, soon enough. He'd go back to those who anchored him. Once he could bear to.
Usopp wondered what it would have been like for Robin, if even one of them had died during the attack on Enies Lobby. His chest hurt even trying to imagine it. Maybe Robin was the one best suited to understand Ace, now that he thought about it – in some ways at least. He hadn't seen them talk much, though.
Something happens during that long rainy afternoon and evening, when on the surface nothing happens. It's just them sitting there in the warm, brightly lit galley, for the most part surrounded by the crew. Usopp finds it hard to put his finger on it and say exactly what's changed, though. And it might be that it only goes for him – the shift he feels inside him, the way he stops blushing, stops flinching, stops being afraid of being caught looking at Ace... something seems to have lifted from him like a bird taking flight, leaving him feeling relieved and light-headed. Maybe it's simply because he's not afraid of being found out anymore.
The nervousness doesn't go away, not completely, but it gets smaller and doesn't thump so loudly. It gleams like a spark inside him, moving from point to point; now it's in his stomach, now in his chest; now in his left hand, as Ace happens to brush against it when leaning past him to grab an apple. But it doesn't get in his way, doesn't stop him from feeling oddly open and floaty. He hasn't even been drinking, except for some brandy in his coffee at one point. Yet he finds himself talking to Ace quite unguardedly now, without trying to think of "safe" conversations or obsessing over what he might sound like.
The Dendenmushi sounded sometime after dinner. Ace jumped, realising with a start he'd forgotten to call his division for the first time during his stay on the Sunny. He hung his head and apologised as he started to talk. But oddly enough the voices on the other end actually sounded fairly pleased, once they were certain he was fine. The guys had been caught in the same storm as the Strawhats were, only a little earlier; so they and Ace could trade storm anecdotes back and forth for a while. In relief that everyone was fine, they all babbled on a fair bit, their stories turning wilder and funnier the longer they talked.
At one moment Ace had to stop himself from exaggerating a little itoo/i much in recounting how bad the storm had been. Then he blinked as he realised who exactly he'd picked ithat/i up from, heat spreading across his cheeks. Swallowing, he turned his head so the closest Strawhats wouldn't see his face too easily, feeling annoyed with himself because it would have made more sense to laugh.
But mostly he just smiled and talked and listened to the voices of his crewmates, as the snail on the other end was passed from man to man. It almost felt as if he was there already, with them. As if he was starting to become whole.
They didn't hold his heritage against him, none of them did. He should have told them ages ago, he realised. Maybe it was okay to have two fathers, even if you only truly cared for one of them.
And maybe he didn't even have to hate the other one quite as much as he'd thought for such a long time, no matter how feared and loathed his name was. Maybe it was okay not to. It didn't make him love the old man any less.
He glanced over to where Luffy was sitting right now, leaning backwards on his chair and blowing soap bubbles with Brook and Chopper, looking quite entranced by the shiny, transparent globes. Luffy still wasn't healed completely from his injuries, but he did seem to be a lot stronger and healthier by now, much like Ace. Ace thought they could both afford to step up a bit when sparring the next day, though he would still have to be careful so Luffy wouldn't overextend himself. But he couldn't pamper him either. Luffy really did need to get a lot stronger.
So did he, for that matter.
The hours go by, long and lazy. There's some carrot-chopping and pot-scrubbing to be done, or so Sanji insists; there should also be a watch by the helm but oddly enough it never seems to be Usopp's turn, not that he's complaining. Otherwise he just hangs out by the dinner table, like the others, nibbling on pears and bread with jam, drinking hot coca and one cup of coffee with brandy. He'd swear he didn't plan to, yet somehow he winds up sitting right next to Ace more often than not. And because something's happened but he doesn't know what, only that it feels different, he's soon talking about all kinds of things.
It's strange, but it just seems to happen so easily, going from light chatting and colourful lies to deeper matters, only lowering his voice a little for those. Some things slip out that he might not normally say even to his crewmates – sometimes, they are things he didn't know himself until he says them. Then again, the crew is all here; there's no need to send a lasso of words and try to tie them closer. But Ace will be going away soon.
He talks about his home island and what life is like there; he talks about his dreams and how he came to decide to follow them for real; he talks about Luffy and Nami and Zoro and all of them; and of their great long journey together. Even to someone like Ace who knows Luffy so well, it's hard to describe it all properly, their long story so far. He can't help but fall into bragging now and then; and gives an embarrassed laugh as he kinda waves the lie away seconds later, trusting Ace to understand that was a small lapse but now he's going back to the truth.
Lowering his voice, at a moment when the others are being noisy enough, he talks a little about Merry and Water 7; about leaving the crew and coming back. He doesn't go into that stuff all that much, though. Ace asks a little bit, mostly keeps quiet, hums a little. Doesn't fall asleep at least.
And eventually, after dinner has come and passed and they've helped clear the table and do the wash up, and Brook is playing on the violin and Ace has fallen asleep three more times but is awake again now, Usopp finds himself talking about Kaya, too. This seems fair somehow, and he needs to and he wants to. But it is kinda tricky to be honest about her: not only is he not sure what she feels for him, but also about what he feels for her. They never talked about it, back home.
Sometimes he suspects she's waiting for him back home, and not just as a friend, but that one particular meaning of 'waiting'. And sometimes that thought makes him feel warm inside, and stronger, that he needs to live up to her – other times, it makes him feel guilty, especially recently. But in any case he's not really sure. They never promised each other anything, after all…
It's all so vague and uncertain it's almost silly to talk about, except not really. She's still very important to him, no matter what; she doesn't deserve to be kept quiet and hidden away. He tries to describe what it was like, seeing her pale face look out from the window, lighting up when she saw him; how it felt to coax laughs and thrilled questions out of her when she otherwise seemed lost in her grief. How wonderful it felt to be needed, to feel you were the person best suited to help someone – and maybe, if he's being very honest, that's part of why he likes her so much.
He stops there, doesn't push further. There are some rather private things that you can still tell other people under the right circumstances, and others that you just can't. But maybe Ace can still pick up on what Usopp now wonders; if maybe that's not terribly different for why he's now drawn to Ace, in part. Ace might be insulted to infer something like that – after all, he's a super-strong guy with a Logia fruit, full of courage and toughness and good cheer – but there it is, anyway. Usopp can't help it.
He's well aware that the nightmares and the dark moments with cool, silly stories – he's not a complete idiot. But he still wants to reach out and try.
Eventually people drift away, one by one, to bed or the night watch. Again, Usopp is pretty sure it's his turn to stand watch, but nobody says anything. It's almost enough to be suspicious, except he's not in the mood to. He just accepts it as good fortune and stays with Ace and Sanji in the half-lit galley, drinking black tea and half-heartedly trying to fix a broken watch with slow, drowsy fingers.
After a while, he looks up and realises Sanji is gone, maybe just stepping out for a minute. Ace has fallen asleep again, leaning on Usopp this time.
Ace's head feels like any old head on Usopp's shoulder, neither warmer than Luffy's nor heavier than Zoro's. Lighter dressed than those two, of course, his bare shoulder and arm pressed to Usopp as well. But the galley is slowly turning chillier for the night, and it just feels good.
It's hard to keep in mind the weight and importance this peacefully slumbering head has in the eyes of the world, how many ships and men has been sacrificed in the struggle to sever it or save it – and how truly strange and miraculous for it still to be here, still attached to Ace's shoulders and leaning on Luffy's sniper in the galley of the Thousand Sunny.
Usopp is yawning himself by now. All right, time to get up. He pushes Ace upright carefully, then stands.
Ace stirs, half-opening his eyes, peering up at Usopp. "Hey," he murmurs drowsily. "C'me here, wanna tell you something…"
Usopp raises his eyebrows suspiciously, neither approaching nor retreating. "If you blow a raspberry in my ear, I'm prepared to retaliate," he warns.
"Oh," says Ace, in apparent dismay, too sleepy to be convincing. "Damn. Found out." He chuckles, his laugh deep and low, leaning his cheek on his knuckles.
"Hey!" Usopp yelps indignantly. He tries to think of what else Ace might try and how to counter it. He's fairly good at tickling…
"Okay, I'll just have to… go with plan B," mumbles Ace. He reaches up, holding Usopp's shoulder and pulling him just a little closer as he kisses him from underneath. The kiss lands half on his cheek and half on his mouth.
Usopp stands very, very still.
It's almost dark in the kitchen, one single lantern at the end of the table still glowing. He can't hear the rain beat down on the roof anymore.
Seconds pass. They're long, heavy seconds, like the beating of albatross wings.
At last, Usopp finds his vocal cords again. "Oh. A prank kiss. Very funny," he mutters hoarsely, trying to keep his voice dry and sardonic and not trembling at all.
But he doesn't try to pull away. In fact, he reaches out to hold Ace's other shoulder. His cheeks are getting hot, maybe from Ace's warm breath on his face.
His heartbeat fumbles, noisy and clumsy. The moment feels hovering, hesitant; spinning on the edge, wondering whether or not to fall in, to risk it…
"Wasn't a prank," says Ace, voice still low. "That was just… that was just something I wanted to do. But…" His fingers are drumming Usopp's shoulders softly, lifting one overall strap briefly. Then he lets go of it. "…but you can prank me right back, too," he continues, leaning his forehead on Usopp's chin, his wavy hair covering his face.
"Yeah?" whispers Usopp. Gently, he puts one knee on Ace's thigh to get to a somewhat more comfortable position. Then he holds his nose for a moment, so it will bend in the best direction, before he leans down and holds Ace's head up to kiss him fully on the lips. He grabs Ace's shoulders again, while Ace's hands move over his back.
"Mhm," hums Ace as they break off, as if Usopp's just said something he happens to agree with.
His hands are moving upwards again, drumming on Usopp's shoulder blades, then the back of the neck. Usopp shivers; closes his eyes for a moment. He lets Ace unclasp one of his overall straps, but does the other one by himself, pulling it down before he moves closer in for a second or third kiss.
Halfway through, he figures this position isn't that great after all, and swings one leg over to sit down in Ace's lap. Yeah, this works better, he decides.
Ace is pulling the top of Usopp's overall down slowly. Usopp traces Ace's cheek with his finger, up to his eyebrow, then down to the neckline, up to the ear, strangely fascinated with the line and hue as if he's never seen shapes like this before.
"You'll be on this island with us," mumbles Usopp, moving on to twirl his fingers in Ace's hair, the other hand stroking his shoulder, the back of his neck, under his big red necklace. "And then you'll go away. To be with your own crew."
"Yeah," Ace confirms simply.
"And you still want to make Whitebeard the pirate king," says Usopp. Ace hasn't moved on to pick at his sash; he moves his hands languidly over Usopp's back. Usopp shifts his weight a little as he continues his own exploration. "Even though he wants to make you the king," Usopp adds, because he's picked that much up from well-informed crew members (Robin).
Ace stills a little at that. He doesn't pull away, but he moves his head a little to give Usopp a serious, level-headed look. "I don't want that title," he states. "I'd hate to have it. I'll make the old man see reason." He pulls Usopp closer again, kissing him on the neck.
"Hey," mumbles Usopp a minute or so later, "if neither of you want it, why can't you just step back and let Luffy have it?" He grins at Ace hopefully, trying to convey that clearly this is the best idea ever.
Ace tosses his head back and laughs. "Because the whitebeard pirates are the best in the world, of course." His teeth are gleaming in the dusky galley as he answers, then moves his head to kiss Usopp on the nose. "It's a pride in your crew kind of thing, don't you see?"
Usopp sighs. "Yeah… I kinda figured that." He sits back a little, thumbing Ace's collarbones. "Then our crews will probably have to fight one day," he says, his shrug slow and ponderous. In a way, he supposes he's always known that, since the first meeting with Ace.
Ace nods. "Yep." He kisses Usopp again, his arms holding him tight. "Go easy on me, okay?"
Usopp starts. "Hey, that's my line - I mean, oi! Don't make fun of me!" He glares down at Ace, who ducks his head in apology or the semblance of it – though what Usopp can see of his laughing eyes doesn't look very apologetic. "What will be, will be, right?" whispers Ace, tugging gently at Usopp's sash. "Jokes are better than worrying."
"I guess," mutters Usopp, because he knows that all right. He reaches out to move his hands up and down Ace's arms; the right with bare skin, the left with tattoo, armband, bracelet, watch. "You ought to get a new hat, you know," he says absent-mindedly, then sighs again as Ace pulls him closer.
"Don't talk so much," whispers Ace. "It's okay to just…"
"Uh, yeah," says Usopp after they've broken off the kiss. "Okay. Okay."
And right now there isn't any uncertain future to think about, in worry or hope or fear; there isn't any past, no messy, muddled memories to get in the way. Everything is here and now; warm breath on his face, dark wavy hair, the strong, muscular frame before him and underneath him; still bearing traces of captivity, torture and battle but growing healthier from day to day while the scars fade away. The creaking wood of Ace's chair; the creeping darkness of the galley, as the last lantern flickers, its oil going low; the room around them and the ship and the waves; and himself too, he's real as well, every inch of him no matter how frail and awkward. Everything is here, everything is real.
He knows there are dark shadows hiding under Ace's skin, but he also knows Ace is doing his best to keep them at bay, not letting them overpower him. There really isn't much Usopp can do, is there? His hand strokes Ace's left arm up and down, feather-light, as if the darkness is just a little dust he could brush away as easy as that. He wonders if he should tell Ace more about Merry, how the spirit of her is still present within Sunny's sturdy frame; how there's no way remembering her could be a bad thing. She wouldn't allow that... But he suspects Ace would know all that already.
"Yeah, I'll be going back to them soon," murmurs Ace in a very low voice, right into Usopp's ear. "Soon. I have to, and… and I want to, too. I think I had to be away, for a while, but – but I miss them so much. He's my father. They're my brothers and sisters."
Usopp blinks, moving his head a little to give Ace a questioning look, ignoring how the movement makes the nose squish up more. "Um… yeah? Of course you're going back. I'd want to go back here, if it was the other way around. I missed the others an awful lot when we were separated, that really sucked." He thinks a little, imagining how it might have been like as a guest among the Whitebeard pirates. The thought makes him rather self-conscious: but he shakes that away and focuses on the part that would mean being with Ace and then leaving again. "Although it wouldn't just… I'd kinda be sad to go, too," he mumbles, then grows even more self-conscious and looks down on Ace's necklace, twirling the stones around.
"I… I know that," says Ace, his voice sounding rather tight. Usopp glances at him. He's looking away now, too, his cheeks pretty red. "I know it's not strange, but I just – I mean – I like it here too, you know? It's – it's a good place to be, just not… Well. Not quite real, I guess? Not for me, I mean."
"Oh." Usopp's voice is small, his face falling.
Ace lets go of the small of Usopp's back and taps the table next to him. "But this feels real. And the rain today, the storm… that felt real, too." He takes Usopp by the arm, holds the arm closer, kisses the wrist. Then he pulls Usopp's head down, further down than before as he dips his own head back. He's already gotten good at manipulating the nose, notes Usopp, breathless and dizzy. "So does this," mumbles Ace.
"Geez, you could have said so right away," mutters Usopp, moving closer, rubbing against Ace just a little; he's growing harder now, but it still feels more pleasant than immediately insistent. Just really nice, like a promise of more to come later. How much later he doesn't know, though his sash has been flung to the other side of the room and they're both barefoot now. Everything seems so strangely, wonderfully slow, like an avalanche of molasses. Not stopping anytime soon, he figures, and feels a sudden stab of triumph as he realises he's not scared by this thought.
"It's okay," he tells Ace. "I know you'll be going away." But, he thinks selfishly, one day, I want to have an adventure with you. Only you. "That's all right, really. I mean" – he reaches out to draw two fingers back and forth over Ace's collarbone, then leans down to lick it; he's surprised but very pleased to hear a soft gasp and then a happy hum that sounds almost like a purr – "after all, I'm going away, too. On our own adventures. You've got Whitebeard and I've got Luffy and that's just how it is."
"You've got that lady back home, too," says Ace, nibbling on his earlobe. "Or maybe you do, at least. Don't forget."
Usopp falls silent at that, his cheeks redder. He wonders if Ace doesn't have someone like that in some island or other, waiting for him; or someone special on his crew, even. It feels wrong to ask, right now, as if he wants promises and assurances when he can't give any himself. His hands have stopped moving.
Ace notices this. He frowns at Usopp, then huffs in apparent concern; Usopp feels oddly reminded of Sanji. "That wasn't… I just meant, I'm not expecting you to, to… I'm just not expecting anything, I suppose." He shrugs awkwardly. "So let's just… let's just relax. Okay?"
Usopp nods. "We're here right now," he says in a low voice. "Let's just… stop talking a bit, eh?"
"Aye aye, captain," mumbles Ace under his breath. The lantern finally goes out, but there's stars shining through the window, so it's not pitch dark. When he leans away from the other man, Usopp shivers in the creeping cold. But Ace has all the warmth he needs in this room. The worries and speculations, the vague guilt and self-consciousness all go away again, unable to stay in the overpowering nowness of the moment. "Let's stay right here," he mumbles softly, closing his eyes.
- The End