There was one thing that Ace hated about his train of thought; that whenever the opportunity to think about who his father was and how everyone not-so-hypothetically would want him dead because of that and how even Dadan thought the same way presented itself, he would without fail brood about it. At times he felt foolish for worrying about that because at least neither Luffy nor Sabo seemed bothered by it. They were the ones that counted after all. It wasn't that Ace didn't believe them when they said it didn't matter, but... there were times when he couldn't help but feel a little anxious. Whenever he went out with Sabo and Luffy he could avoid having to think about this, but that wasn't exactly the case right now. The secret base was empty save for Ace, who huddled himself in the back, hugging his knees close to his chest.
Ace was so lost in his thoughts that he failed to notice that someone was climbing up the rope to their secret base until it sounded like they were only a few feet away. The boy panicked, blindly grabbing around him for his steel pipe only to find out that he left it near the entrance. Curses were streaming throughout his head, his imagination picking now to come up with worst case scenarios. What if Bluejam's comrades finally found him? What if they had captured Sabo and Luffy already? What if—
And then a familiar black top hat came into view, soon after that were goggles and the rest of the boy from the Gray Terminal.
Ace sighed and let his body relax. He shifted a little before returning his arms around his knees. "Oh, it's only you, Sabo."
Sabo tilted his head in slight confusion. It wasn't like he was expecting a warm welcome from Ace, but... "What? Were you expecting someone else?" Ignoring his own question, Sabo looked behind him and back out of the hideout when Luffy's shrill voice reached his ears. He gave the younger boy a grin and a wave before facing Ace once again. "Luffy said he wanted to try and come up here without using the rope; you know, with his Gum Gum Powers and all."
"Is that so?" Ace commented halfheartedly.
"..." Gears were starting to turn in Sabo's head. Something was wrong. Ace didn't not take advantage of the opportunity to tease Luffy's supposedly useless powers. He could have at least said something like "Oh? I guess we'll have the hideout to ourselves for the rest of the day, then". But NOTHING. "Say, Ace? Is something bothering you?"
The other boy was quick to avert his gaze, subconsciously tightening himself up in his little ball even further. "No."
So suspicious... Rather, it was extremely obvious? Now that Sabo knew for sure that something was wrong, all he had to do was find a way to deal with it. It wasn't like Ace was a big confronter of his feelings, so trying to get him to talk about it probably wouldn't work very well. Having to think of a way to cheer up his brother like this—it was times like now that made Sabo wonder if he was the older brother to Ace.
The two of them waited in an uncomfortable silence. Within a couple minutes the atmosphere was getting too heavy for Ace and just as he was about to open his mouth to tell Sabo that he should help Luffy up, Sabo ran around Ace and hugged him from behind. He could feel blood rush up to his cheeks and his words were caught in his throat. But it was okay because he quickly thought of something else to say.
"SABO, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?"
The outburst was expected and didn't faze Sabo in the least. In fact, he was annoying calm about it. "What? I'm hugging you, obviously."
Sabo's nonchalance did nothing but embarrass Ace further. He wanted to get out of the hug. He did. If he really did, then he could've gotten out of it; he was just a little stronger than Sabo after all. But. A small, small part inside of him didn't want to. "Fine," he grumbled, "Why are you doing that?"
'That'. As if it was too embarrassing to say the word 'hug'. Gosh, Ace could be so shy at times. Had this been the "right time", then Sabo definitely would've laughed, but that probably wouldn't help Ace feel any better. Instead, Sabo tightened the hug a little, silently enjoying that it caused Ace to squirm. "Hmmm. Why? You looked sad, so it seemed like the right thing to do. You're my brother and I like you, Ace. If you're ever sad, then I gotta do what I can to cheer you up."
The hug was still a little uncomfortable for him, but slowly—very slowly—Ace began to lean into it. "Really?"
"Really?" Sabo repeated, unsure. Everything he said should have been obvious. Why did Ace not believe him?
Ace bit his lower lip. Sabo didn't get what he was saying, but saying it out loud would be... a bit much for him. There was a short pause before Ace spoke again, in a much softer voice. "You like me...?" even though I'm Roger's kid? That last part was left unsaid, but when Ace took a peak back at his brother, he saw something click in Sabo's eyes and Ace knew that Sabo understood where he was getting at.
The blonde grinned wide enough to show his gap. "That's what you were mopey about? Of course I do. And I'll keep telling you that if you ever doubt it again."
While Ace was stuck between yelling again and feeling extremely grateful, a certain rubbery someone decided that now would be a good time to fling himself into a branch, causing the entire foundation of the secret base to shake.
"OW! Owowowow—AH, S-SABO. IS ACE UP THERE? B-BECAUSE IT DOESN'T HURT!" There was some rustling and light sobbing but eventually Luffy showed up in the door way, clutching his head and doing his best to not wail out in pain. When Luffy looked at his brothers to show them that he totally wasn't crying, what he saw was ironically weird enough to block out the pain he felt and actually stopped his crying.
There was no way he was seeing this right. Sabo hugging Ace? Sabo... hugging... Ace... Luffy kept looking back and forth between his two older brothers.
Back at Sabo.
Then back at Ace.
"OH! ARE WE HUGGING ACE NOW? I CAN HUG HIM, TOO, RIGHT?" Without even waiting to get approval, Luffy ran as fast as his little legs could carry him and he dived right into his two brothers. Although Ace was trying to protest and shove Luffy off, the rubber boy wrapped his arms several times around the other two. It was like being in a vice grip. "Shishishi. I don't get to hug you all that much, Ace. So stingy!"
"WHATEVER! GET OFF, LUFFY, OR I'LL—"
"Ahh, don't worry about that, Luffy. It's just 'cause Ace is shy. I bet he actually wants you to hug him more often."
"OHO, REALLY?" Luffy's hold got stronger as he nuzzled his face into Ace's chest.
"NO, NOT REALL—" Ace's words were cut off when Sabo suddenly decided to cover up his mouth.
"By the way, Luffy?" Sabo did his best to ignore the fact that now Ace was licking and biting his hand so he could properly ask Luffy a question. "You like Ace, right?"
Both D. brothers stopped what they were doing to give Sabo a look. Luffy was the first to respond with a big huff. "DUH, of course I do, Sabo! That's a stupid question! I thought you were the smart one out of us, too."
Pleased with the answer, Sabo let go of Ace and went back to hugging him. "See? Luffy likes you too. Aren't you happy?"
"I-idiot, why would that make me happy?" His face felt like it was burning and with Luffy in the front and Sabo at his back, there was no where that Ace could really look where he could avoid being seen by one of them. There's no way in hell that he would admit it out loud, but he was actually really, really, really happy. Even if everyone else in the world hated his existence, he had two brothers would like him no matter what. That alone was enough to cause tears to form at the corner of his eyes.
"OI, SABO! YOU MADE ACE CRY!"
"E-EH? ACE, YOU'RE CRYING?"
"I-I'M NOT! GET OFF YOU GUYS, RIGHT NOW!"