Her name was Sora.
As cliché as it sounded, when Ace had first met her, he felt the breath catch in his chest. She was a delicate flower, standing about a head shorter than him with her dark hair billowing behind her, contrasting against her fair skin. Her eyes were like the sky, blue, and endless like the sea and flecked with shades of green and gold. Ace found himself drowning, suffocating, wanting to surface but at the same time, yearning to be submerged. She was proud and strong; Ace could feel her presence – grounded and confident, never faltering. Her presence consumed him, crushing him, overwhelming him. She was a woman, in every sense of the word.
A woman jabbed her finger up Ace's nose and the man leapt backwards, shaking his head out of shock. "What the hell?" he said, rubbing his nose and furrowing his brows at her.
"Wasn't me," she said, holding her hands up.
Ace sighed exasperatedly. "I saw you come at me."
"You saw my boobs come at you," the older woman teased, smirking at him.
"Tiny, tiny boobs," Ace sighed, sounding genuinely disappointed as he purposely directed his eyes at her chest. He crossed his arms over his chest and sighed loudly, shaking his head as though a tragedy had occurred.
She looked down at her chest as well. "They're not that tiny," she complained, pouting as she moved past Ace, heading back to the village behind Marco and Thatch.
They weren't. Not like Ace would admit it, though.
"Oh yeah," she said, turning to face Ace again. She grinned, and Ace immediately noticed her dimples. "My name's Sora."
"She's got to be the reason why Marco and Thatch bought those flowers," Jozu mumbled to himself, but loud enough so that Marco, and Thatch could hear him from up ahead.
Marco and Thatch turned around to shoot Jozu a look.
"Untrue," Marco mouthed.
"Very untrue," Thatch chimed in, and in an instant, presented Sora with a bouquet of sunflowers and irises. "I got these for you from the last island."
"These are from me," Marco added, showing off his bouquet of lilies.
Sora laughed, pushing both arrangements from her face. "Thanks for the thought, boys, but you know I don't like flowers," she said, waving them off. "Dunk 'em in some water and put 'em up in the bar, I guess."
Both division commanders looked a little dejected, but proceeded into following her into the town. "I'm stoked to see Oyajii," she said aloud, clapping her hands together.
It was then that Ace noticed her tattoo. It was the same as the one on his back, the purple Whitebeard Pirates' Jolly Roger emblazoned on her right arm, decorated with swirling black tribal marks that ran down the length of the entire limb. It was an intense contrast between her fair skin and the bold tattoo.
Ace also had to double take upon hearing the woman call Whitebeard 'Oyajii' - 'Pops'. Ace had never seen a woman a part of the Whitebeard Pirates. Izou didn't count because the man was a cross-dresser. The Ice Witch, Whitey Bay, was an ally, so that didn't count either. A daughter amongst Whitebeard's sons? Ace had never heard of her.
Arashi Island. Ace had also never heard of this place, but here they were, sand crunching beneath their shoes as they followed some dark haired woman into a village. It was a modest place, the streets made of old concrete and the houses still deciding if they wanted to e made of wood or stone, as each house was made differently and some looked in better shape than others.
But the people looked happy, despite their little village. People going about their daily business stopped to chat with each other, not minding that they were putting their own agendas aside for a few minutes to talk with someone they saw everyday.
The part that amazed Ace the most though, was that a group of pirates could walk through the streets. It wasn't even about being feared, or having whispers shadow them, no, it was the fact that they could walk through the streets. They didn't need to sidle between people, or wear disguises, or run away from the marines and villagers waiting to tattle – no, they could just stroll along as though they were normal civilians. There was no discrimination between a pirate and a native.
"Marco and Thatch have been swooning over her for years now. Marco more so than Thatch," Jozu sighed, shaking his head at the two men who were chatting up a storm with the new woman.
"Why?" Ace asked. "She's kind of weird."
Jozu laughed heartily. "You can scour the seas, lad, but you will never find a woman like Sora. There is no replacement."
Ace was skeptical. "Really." It was a statement of disbelief rather than a challenge. Sure, the girl was pretty, but she had just stuck her finger up his nose.
"Sora," Jozu called, and the woman turned around.
The woman turned at the sound of her name, pausing in her steps. "Diamond Jozuuuuuuu," she said, shimmying goofily towards him. "What's up, buttercup—"
Jozu enveloped his arm in diamonds, pulled it back, and launched it at the small woman at full power. Ace could feel the diamonds cut the air as Jozu's fist whizzed right past him. Ace jumped, startled by the sudden explosion of power.
But if he had blinked, he would have missed it. Sora's arm shot out just as quickly, and there an enormous eruption of wind. Marco, Thatch, and Ace had to shield their eyes from it. But when Ace looked up again, Sora's palm was resting gently on Jozu's giant knuckle.
"You've gotten stronger," the large man noticed, and the diamonds receded. Ace watched in disbelief as the man shook out his hand, as though the five-foot-two woman had actually injured a diamond-encrusted fist.
Sora pulled her hand back, not showing any sign of pain. "You, too, big guy. Can we go see Oyajii now?" She spun on her heels and skipped through a door.
Ace looked up at the building they were entering. The Sky Pub.
It was just like Party's Bar back on Dawn Island, a cozy place where every single customer was a regular. Ace noticed that the Whitebeard Pirates who currently had bounties had their wanted posters hanging on the wall behind the bar. He scanned the place, his eye catching on old bottles of sake and champagne, the many, many beer taps, and most oddly, a picture frame that was turned down. If Ace hadn't been paying attention, he would have missed it. He wondered what an overturned picture frame was doing behind the bar.
"Oyajii!" Sora greeted loudly, making her way over the giant man seated in the corner of the bar. It seemed like that section was made exclusively for Whitebeard; the ceiling was raised and the booth was large enough to fit the rather large man.
"Sora!" he bellowed, laughing heartily and poured sake down his throat. He slammed the bowl down, having finished the last drop. Ace wasn't surprised that Whitebeard had already finished a serving of sake within the first several minutes they had been here. "Sake got better!"
She laughed, hooking hair behind her ear. "Been practicing for when you come."
"How else has everything been?"
"Same old, you know, boring stuff," Sora shrugged, grinning. Ace couldn't help but smile a little as well. Her happiness over seeing Whitebeard was spreading to others in the bar.
"You should come out to sea with us again," Whitebeard suggested, and for one moment, Ace saw weakness. She gasped in a little bit of air and her body froze. But before anyone could say anything about it, the moment passed, and the woman smiled.
Her voice had quieted a little. "Nah, you know I couldn't."
"Have you met the new second division commander?" Whitebeard asked, and gestured for Ace to come forward. The younger man stepped forward, running a hand through his hair and offering Sora a smile.
"We've met," Sora said, grinning at Ace. She seemed to notice something, and her smile softened, along with the look in her eyes. It made Ace's knees go weak. "I, ah, like his freckles." She seemed to be talking to Whitebeard, but her eyes were locked with Ace's, blue crashing with brown.
He cleared his throat and looked away slightly, rubbing the bridge of his nose with the back of his thumb. "Thanks," he mumbled.
"I'm sure you both will become good friends," Whitebeard said, his giant hand patting the little girl on the head. She didn't say a word grinned up at him in admiration. When she was sure that the man's attention had drifted off of her, Sora turned back to the four division commanders.
"So, as usual, you boys will be staying with me," she said, putting her hands on her hips. She was about to open her mouth to say more, but there was a small ruckus from behind the bar and Sora's head whipped around.
Standing on boxes that were piled on chairs and more boxes was a younger boy. He looked about ten and was stretching his twiggy arm out towards a big bottle of sake on the highest shelf. "Kohaku," Sora said, her voice deepening with concern as she stepped towards him.
Seeming alarmed that he had been caught, the boy looked back, and at that moment, toppled from the top box. Ace made a move to run towards him but there was a rush of wind and Kohaku seemed to hover in mid air for a moment, before stepping onto the wooden floors, unharmed. Unharmed after falling nearly ten feet? Ace blinked several times.
Sora waved her hand and the bottle tipped off the top of the shelf, dropping into her hands. "What'd I tell you about climbing on shit, man?" she asked the little boy, shoving his face lightly.
"I wanted to get the bottle of sake," the boy answered as though Sora had asked him a stupid question.
"Yeah, obviously," she said, holding the bottle just out of his reach, Kohaku jumping for it. "You're like, five years old, why do you want sake?"
"I'm ten," Kohaku stated as a matter-of-fact, crossing his arms over his chest. "And I wanted to give the bottle to Whitebeard."
"I already gave him sake."
"But I didn't."
Sora sighed and leaned her elbow on his head, resting her fist on her chin. Kohaku tried to brush her off, but Sora followed his movement, giggling as Kohaku became agitated. "Oy," Sora said, hooking her fingers under the younger boy's chin, and turning him to face her. Kohaku scrunched his face together, the bridge of his nose wrinkling. Sora sighed, and shoved the bottle into his hands. "If I find out you drank any, I'm literally going to kick your ass."
Kohaku grinned. "Don't worry. Sake tastes gross anyway," he added before skipping past her and the division commanders to Whitebeard.
"How would you know what sake tastes like?" she called after him, but Kohaku just ignored her, plopping into Whitebeard's booth and handing him the bottle that was nearly half his size. The woman just sighed, shaking her head. She turned to the boys. "Kids, huh?"
Ace furrowed his brow. How old was she? Ace knew that she was several years older than himself, but old enough to have a ten-year-old and still keep a slim, firm body? She recovered well. Ace was impressed.
Then again, if Kohaku were Sora's son, she probably wouldn't use profanity around him or address him as 'man'. But Ace decided it was better not to ask. The last thing he wanted to do was offend her. Maybe that was just how mothers addressed their kids nowadays.
"Anyway," Sora said, flicking her wrist as though it was supposed to erase the incident with Kohaku. "As usual, you lucky boys will be staying with me."
Ace hadn't comprehended her the first time. "What?"
"We house the Whitebeard Pirates because our lodges would get full if everyone just stayed there. And why stay on a ship when there's land everywhere?" Sora answered, giving Ace two thumbs up. She clapper her hands together, and picked up an apron from behind the bar. "You guys know where your rooms are, so hop to it! I have some things to take care of here." Sora tied on the black apron and slipped behind the bar.
"Belleville, when are we gonna have a rematch?" Marco called after Sora. She looked up and laughed.
"You want me to beat your ass again, Phoenix? How sweet."
"I got new tricks. You better watch yourself," the blonde teased.
"Yeah, yeah, we'll go a round when there's time."
"You better make time for me."
After they were sure that Sora's attention was elsewhere, Marco and Thatch raced up the stairs, the wood creaked loudly beneath their heavy footsteps. Jozu and Ace headed up afterwards to hear the two arguing. "Oy, I want the room by Sora's," Marco said, his bag acting as a flag as he threw it in, claiming territory.
"I got here first," Thatch said, playfully shoving Marco aside. Jozu rolled his eyes at the two grown men who were acting like children.
"It doesn't matter, 'cause the both of you are sharing anyway," Jozu commented, gesturing to the two beds in the room Marco and Thatch were in. "And stop fighting over Sora. She will always reject both of you." Marco and Thatch rolled their eyes as though Jozu's accusation was completely false.
The door next to Marco and Thatch's room was painted white and the purple Whitebeard Pirates Jolly Roger was painted on. The door was also much larger, corresponding with the larger part of the bar below. Ace assumed that this was the captain's room. Next to that was a door that read, "DIAMOND JOZUUUUUU" in bold lettering.
The large man laughed, jabbing a thumb at the sign. "Guess this is mine." Ace glanced around, noticing that the only door was the door to the bathroom. He assumed the unlabeled closed door to the right of Marco and Thatch's room was Sora's.
"Where am I staying?" Ace asked, raising an eyebrow. "Are we sharing?"
Jozu pushed open the door to his room, only to see several mattresses lined up to make a giant bed that could only fit the diamond devil fruit user. Ace furrowed his brows, confused. Would he be staying a lodge? Whitebeard and the other three high ranking division commanders were all staying with Sora, so why wasn't Ace? She had to have known that there was a second division commander; she had said, 'as usual' twice, so he assumed that she had prepared a room for him.
"You should ask Sora about that," Jozu suggested.
"But she's busy," Ace said, waving him off. "It's fine. I'll go walk around for now and come back when the bar dies down."
"You sure?" Jozu asked, but Ace was already walking away. The younger man gave a salute as his farewell and hopped down the stairs, feeling his hollow footsteps make a ruckus. He reached the bottom, and turned his head for one moment to look behind the bar.
Sora was already looking at him, a confused expression on her face. Someone was calling her, as he could hear her name in the background, but time seemed to slow down when their eyes locked. People moved around them, but they were just scenery; Ace and Sora the main attraction, fireworks exploding as shades of blue and brown twisted and converged, becoming one. Ace knew he wasn't just imagining it; he knew that she felt it too. It was like they were in sync, sharing the swelling feeling in their chests, the rippling chills down their spines.
She opened her mouth to say something, paused, seemed to think about it, and then closed her mouth. Sora decided to just toss Ace a light wave, breaking the atmosphere. Ace watched as everything around them moved at a regular speed again and Sora looked away, towards the voice that had been calling her.
Ace smiled to himself, and left the bar.