1. The first time Luffy kisses him they are eight and eleven respectively and running for their lives.
Sabo is sick from a poisonous insect bite; they left him at Dadan's lodge because of it. Hunting without him doesn't feel right, but they're almost out of meat, and anyway, they'll see him this evening. It's not like they're going to make him stay there by himself. So in the end it's Ace and Luffy on opposite sides of a clearing getting ready to jump the enormous wild goat in the middle of it.
Maybe it's because the goat is so big that they're not expecting anything bigger. But there is something bigger – another goat, this one's mother, and she has fangs and she snorts steam and she's not happy about them attacking her baby. And she's right behind Luffy and then Ace is across the clearing, grabbing Luffy and making a run for it between her forelegs before she can stomp him into the ground.
And both goats are bleating furiously and crashing around like crazy and Ace is running and Luffy is wrapped around him several times, screaming in his ear. Until he's not screaming anymore, but that's only because his mouth is stuck to Ace's mouth.
Ace is still running. Their eyes are open and they're staring at each other over the smush of their noses. The mother goat is kicking the forest to pieces behind them and they're gonna die if they don't run, so Ace runs with Luffy's mouth stuck to his and tries not to fall down.
It feels like forever but it's probably only a couple of seconds before Luffy pulls his mouth away and starts screaming again. Ace keeps running.
Eventually they get away from the enormous fanged goat and go catch a gator because gators are less trouble. When they get back to Dadan's house Sabo grins sleepily at them and Dadan yells at them but there's plenty of roasted gator for dinner so she can't be too mad.
And when he's finally full enough to feel how tired he is, Ace lies on his back in their old room listening to Sabo's whistling snores and Dadan's louder ones and waits for Luffy to crawl in next to him the way he always does.
Then he has to wait without moving for Luffy to settle like always, but instead of pretending to be asleep the way he usually does he says, "What did you do that for?"
"What'd I do?" Luffy mumbles, burrowing closer.
"Kissed me, stupid."
"Oh." He can almost hear Luffy's brain trying to work it through. "Makino says you're supposed to kiss people you love. And I thought we were gonna die and I thought it would be bad if I never kissed you."
It's the kind of explanation only Luffy could come up with. "Idiot," Ace says, and smacks him on the head.
He falls asleep with Luffy's arm across his middle and Luffy's leg across his legs and Luffy's snores loud in his ear. He sleeps all night and he doesn't dream. Luffy is still there when he wakes up.
He pushes him off. Luffy promptly rolls onto his back and starts snoring again, and Ace gets up and goes out into the main room. Dadan is sitting by the fire, yawning (and looking) like a hippo with bad gas and glaring at the coffee pot. She glances up as Ace walks by and glares at him too. "What have you got to smile about so early in the damn morning?"
He didn't know he did have anything. Now that he does, he stops. Gets his pipe and pack and goes out looking for eggs. Gator is good. Just not for breakfast.
The next day Sabo is better and they leave Dadan's. While they're walking home Luffy decides he should kiss Sabo, too. Just in case.
Ace watches Luffy chase Sabo around, arms stretched twice their length; he watches Sabo shriek and flail and run around in circles and laughs himself sick. There's a small part of him – and it's very small – that's glad he didn't have the chance to get away.
2. Luffy kisses him again four months later. It's the first and only time he crawls into bed with Luffy instead of the other way around.
He's not sure what time it is when he gets back from the cliffs, but the lodge is silent and dark except for the glow of banked coals near Dadan's futon. Luffy is in their old room, asleep on Ace's futon. His hair is stuck to his forehead and his cheeks glisten wetly in the faint light coming through the open window.
Ace kicks off his slides at the door and goes to stand over Luffy. He stands there a while, touching his pocket now and again to feel the crackle of paper inside it.
He's not thinking about anything. Just watching Luffy sleep. It's pretty gross. Luffy drools when he's unconscious and Ace would know. He wakes up covered in Luffy and drool most mornings.
Tonight Luffy's twice as gross because he's leaking snot and tears along with the drool. When Ace gets tired of looking at the mess he picks up Luffy's discarded t-shirt and wipes his face clean. It won't do much good in the long run but at least he's snot free for now.
Ace tosses the shirt away. Tells himself that the only reason he's doing this is because Luffy forgot where his stupid bed was, then he nudges Luffy over and slides in next to him.
Immediately, Luffy rolls over and grabs on. Ace grabs a rubbery wrist and an equally rubbery elbow and tries to pry him off. "Get off!"
"Ace," Luffy whines sleepily. "Went away. Couldn't find you."
"I'm right here," he hisses, "now get off me."
"Said you wouldn't go away. Said." But the octopus grip on him loosens and uncurls. Luffy sits up, rubbing his eyes.
Ace isn't sure if Luffy's really awake. His eyes are slits and he seems to be looking at Ace but Ace can't tell; there's not enough light.
"Promised," Luffy slurs. "Gotta 'member." Leaning down, he plants a wet, smacking kiss on Ace's chin. Then he yawns and falls down onto Ace. His head lands Ace's shoulder; the rest of him is a rubber sprawl. He starts snoring right away.
Ace swallows and swallows and when that doesn't work he grits his teeth. And when that doesn't work he lies still with his shoulder falling asleep under Luffy's stupid unconscious head and the rest of him going numb under Luffy's stupid unconscious body and tries not to feel his own stupid face getting wet.
Stupid Luffy. Stupid, stupid, stupid Luffy, making him stupid, making him—
Stupid. Stupid him. Luffy's the smart one. If Ace was half as smart he would've kissed Sabo that day, too.
3. They spend the night before he leaves out on the cliffs, drinking sake stolen from Dadan because stolen sake tastes best.
He guesses they could have gotten some from Makino. She threw a party for him down in the village earlier, and it was awesome. Good beer, good food, good company. He dragged Luffy away from the long tables of food early, though; he hates goodbyes, but there are some that need to be made, and this is one of them.
It's not a goodbye to a person, or even a place. Tonight he's saying goodbye to a feeling. And maybe a dream.
The dream died six years ago, but some part of Ace has hung stubbornly on. Has believed that when he set sail it wouldn't just be him. They'd count three and they'd have a real pirate ship, and they'd take Luffy with them because he and Sabo together would be enough to take care of him. Protect him.
They were so stupid back then. So sure they could take anything that came at them.
Even together they weren't strong enough. Ace isn't strong enough now. Not yet. But he will be. By the time Luffy needs him to be, he'll be strong enough. Which doesn't make it okay that Sabo won't be there tomorrow, but it helps.
And in a way Sabo is coming with him. He still has the letter.
This afternoon he asked Makino to sew it into the lining of his hat. She just smiled at him the same weird way she's smiled at him several times over the years – he still has no idea why – and said, "Yes, of course."
Sabo in his hat and Luffy sitting next to him, packing away the food Makino packed for them. Sake warm in his stomach. He guesses it's as good a way to say goodbye to a life that never was as any.
He's relaxed and a little sleepy. Maybe even content, just for now. Right now everything's okay, which is good enough for him.
The heat from the fire feels good on his skin and his pack makes a comfortable pillow. The sound of Luffy chowing down is so damn normal it's reassuring, so much a part of his daily background that he doesn't usually notice it. It'll be while before he hears it again, though, and maybe that's why he's noticing it now.
Noticing it enough that he notices when it stops. Cracks an eye to see what Luffy's up to, and Luffy's face is only a few inches away.
"Shit!" He plants his palm in the middle of Luffy's face and shoves. "Don't do that, it's—" not freaky and he's not freaked, he's just— "It's rude," he says and shoves again.
Luffy says something behind his hand.
Peeling Ace's hand away from his face, Luffy says, "There's something on your mouth." And leans forward and sucks Ace's bottom lip into his mouth.
Ace grabs a handful of messy hair and yanks him off, and Luffy sort of hangs there, blinking at him until Ace lets go and shoves him away. Ace wipes the back of his hand over his mouth. Glares at Luffy.
"Stop doing that," he says, as though three times make it a habit. "You can't just go around kissing people."
Luffy looks at him with those wide, dumb eyes: the same look he's been giving Ace for seven years. "I don't," he says. "Just you."
"Don't do it to me, either!"
"Okay," Luffy says, and picks up another hunk of meat. "It was a bug."
He's not going to ask. He's not.
"On your mouth," Luffy says, and sticks the rest of his meat into his mouth. "Do you think the bugs'll be even bigger on Grand Line? I bet they will be."
"Yeah," Ace says. "I bet they like to eat rubber, too."
Luffy says, "Really?" and Ace says, "How should I know, dumbass? Oi! Don't eat allof it! Some of that's for—I'm serious, Luffy, give me a piece before I kick your—"
4. Even after three years it feels normal to have Luffy's arms circle him from behind and wrap several times around him. To have Luffy's calves hooked over his knees and Luffy's chin digging into his shoulder.
"This is my special seat," Luffy says. Ace grins at the faint note of reproach.
"I know. Your princess with the duck said. I figured if I sat here long enough you'd show up."
Luffy's laugh is the same as the rest of him. Same dumb laugh, same dumb smile, and although he can't see it right now he knows it's pressed up against his shoulder with the rest of Luffy's face.
"Isn't she cool? I told you she was. They all are. I'm glad you're here," Luffy says, his voice muffled by Ace's shoulder. "I'm glad you got to meet them. Everything's gonna be twice as cool now."
His hat is hanging down his back. Luffy's probably crushing it. Ace drops his head back and to the side, knocking it against Luffy's rubber skull. "Don't get used to it," he warns. "I won't be around long."
"I know. That's okay." Luffy settles, chin back on Ace's shoulder. Breath warm against Ace's neck. "We're gonna have fun, yeah?"
Something brushes the back of his neck, warm and just a little damp: Luffy's mouth. Slight pressure, barely there and gone just as fast, leaving a shiver behind.
Ace realizes his hands are gripping Luffy's knees instead of resting on them. He lets go. "What was that for?" he asks lightly.
"Huh? Oh. Sometimes Nami and Vivi sit kind of like this and Nami does that. Vivi likes it. It makes her smile. Are you smiling?"
He… is. Weird. "Maybe."
"'Kay. Hey, you know what? I was right. The bugs here are bigger."
Ace leans back against Luffy. Leans his head against Luffy's head and laughs because the only options with Luffy are laughing and knocking his stupid head into something. The second option's never worked before; Ace doesn't see why it would now.
5. Luffy doesn't wait another three years. He doesn't even wait three days before he crawls into Ace's tent in the middle of the night and crawls on top of him.
Ace opens one eye. All he can see is the outline of Luffy's messy head, but he doesn't need to see him to feel him. He's gotten heavier in the last three years and most of his weight is pushing down on Ace's diaphragm. "Oi. People are trying to sleep here."
"Uh-huh," Luffy mumbles. "Me. Everybody else, too." His sandals go flying, hitting the cloth wall opposite.
"Don't knock it down, idiot." Luffy's hair has always been ridiculously soft. It slides through Ace's fire-smooth fingers without catching. "Who's on watch?"
"Dunno. Zoro?" Luffy yawns and lifts his head. "Hey, are you gonna keep talking?"
He lets go of Luffy's hair and hooks his thumbs into the corners of Luffy's mouth, pulling out in either direction. "So what if I am? This is my tent."
"Owwwww, Aaaaaaaace quit—"
"Whose tent is it, huh?"
He pulls a little harder, feels rubber stretch a little more. "Can't hear you."
"S'yours, ow!" His head rocks back when Ace lets go, letting his cheeks snap back into place. "Why'd you do that?"
"Because you're my dumb little brother." He smacks him lightly on the back of the head. "I don't need another reason. Go to sleep."
"'Kay." But he's still propped over Ace. Looking down at him, Ace is pretty sure. Not positive, but he knows that cocked head, knows the look that goes with it.
"What?" Ace says, tired and getting impatient.
Luffy says, "Nothing." But then he leans down and presses his mouth against Ace's mouth and it's not nothing. It's something.
It's not the first time he's wanted to kiss Luffy back. It's just the first time he does.
Kisses him back and keeps kissing him, all the places Luffy's kissed him before and a lot of others he hasn't. Luffy seems okay with that. Really okay.
Ace is a little surprised to realize he's okay with it too.
6. doesn't hurt anymore.
heard it's like that sometimes, heard... pain too much, body shuts down. other things get… clear for while, but—
sorry for it. want to. feel. Luffy.
arms around, he's there, know that. and them, all here, they're all, can—can feel—
Luffy. Pops. Marco, guys…
not Sabo. weird, always thought Sabo… first thing would… see.
maybe later. right now there's… everything else… matters. best. best things ever… ever happened, all here, almost. need to tell them, gonna try—
don't think… really works. doesn't matter. get it. they do. tired. getting really… really tired, but something. something else—
don't, don't, don't, s'okay, don't, Luffy, don't, s'okay, s'gonna be… okay. promise.
don't regret anything. nothing to regret, but there's… wish?
just once, should've… gone first. not made you do… all the work. least once. would've liked that. wouldn't you? would've… smiled. after.