Summary: Whitebeard's first commander vanished years ago – so long ago in fact that his existence is just a myth nowadays. When Ace is handed a rare hybrid of a bird, he has no idea how much his life is about to change and how the world will respond, sparking the end to the war on Devil Fruit users. Dystopian AU, Marco/Ace.

Pairing: Ace x Marco

Warnings: Dystopian AU, on-going rebellion, themes of oppression including scenes of forced removal of people from their normal lives. Also mention of human experimentation/torture references. Planned to fit alongside a bigger series, but is a standalone piece.

so I could be the snake

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and still look like a dove

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Sleep lifted from Ace slowly as he felt someone touch his shoulder gently. He smiled, opening his eyes ever so slightly as Marco brushed their lips together tenderly, welcoming him to the new day. He rolled onto his back as Marco left the bed, eyes half-closed as Marco shrugged his clothes on and left the room, looking back towards the bed with a grin before he ducked out.

It took a moment, but Ace groaned and stretched out, smiling as he heard Marco rattling around in the kitchen. He was making good on his promise of breakfast then, Ace thought, and sat up. He ignored his clothes on the floor and pulled on a pair of shorts and a baggy top, walking out of the room to sit at the small kitchen table, an amused smile on his face as Marco cooked eggs and bacon.

"You didn't have to cook you know," Ace said and Marco turned to him with a raised eyebrow.

"I promised I would," he said, poking at the food in the pan. "And I can't break a promise when it's related to food."

Food was served a moment later and they both dug in quickly. Ace felt his gaze shifting to Marco's face every other bite, Marco himself distracted by a day-old newspaper that had been on the kitchen side. He hummed to himself before looking up, seeming surprised that Ace was watching him.

"Is everything okay?" Marco asked, looking at Ace's plate.

Ace smiled. "Everything's great, it's just odd to see your full face." He shoved a forkful of food into his mouth. "It's nice."

A smile from Marco was all he received and they fell into a comfortable silence, the only sound the flipping of newspaper pages as Marco read the headlines. A soft breeze passed through the flat, the ever-open window the source, and Ace sat back in his chair, sighing contentedly at his full belly.

"Tell me about yourself," Ace said suddenly, looking at Marco with narrowed eyes. He smiled and Marco folded the paper sharply, pushing his plate aside and linking his fingers as he rested his chin on his hands. For a moment, Ace thought he wasn't going to reply, but then he spoke.

"You don't want to know about me," Marco said quietly, but Ace couldn't let that pass. Of course he wanted to know about Marco, had wanted to know about him for weeks, ever since he'd first set eyes on the blue and yellow masked man. He'd grown close through their texts, but they'd never shared anything substantial. At least not in the way he'd wanted.

"I do," Ace insisted. He'd always been strong-willed and stubborn, traits he and Luffy shared and were probably derived from living with shady people in their childhood, so he wasn't about to let Marco get out of this. He wanted Marco, he'd got Marco and he wasn't going to let Marco go.

"I'm dangerous," Marco said after a lengthy, weighted pause. His eyes were shadowed with something akin to regret, but Ace couldn't be fully sure of that. Still, his pulse sped up with Marco's words as his previous ideas were confirmed.

"Because you're a pirate?" he asked and Marco looked directly at him, not remotely surprised Ace had figured that out.

"Because of who I am in the pirate world," Marco corrected, folding his arms over his chest. "And because of the things I have done, the things I am doing now and the things I will do."

Ace considered the words for a moment. It was logical that Marco would warn him of a dangerous lifestyle, but such warnings were lost on Ace. He was a Logia user, fire to boot, and brother to one of the strongest pirates out on the seas. Not that he'd ever let Luffy know how strong he was, Ace was the older one after all and would always take care of his little brother.

"I'm a Devil Fruit user hunted by the government for what I was born as. I have people after me for something I have no control in. My own family are insane and either running the government or sailing the seas." Ace swallowed thickly, aware not to give too much away. He trusted Marco, but that didn't mean he'd threaten Luffy or his crew.

Instead of speaking, Marco stood up and walked around to Ace, nodding to him. He took Ace's hand silently and placed it over his heart, something almost wild in his eyes.

"Undo my shirt," he said, almost too quietly for Ace to hear. Frowning, Ace obliged, fingers pausing when they hit the third button and a deep, navy blue mark could be seen on a tanned chest.

"What…" he began, not waiting to complete his sentence and instead undoing the rest of the shirt's buttons. When he was done, he pushed the shirt to the floor, eyes wide at the tattoo covering Marco's torso.

"Whitebeard's mark," Ace whispered and Marco nodded. "You're one of the Whitebeard pirates?"

It was a redundant question, but Marco still nodded. Of course he was a member of the Whitebeard pirates; why else would he carry the mark?

"Thatch is too," Marco began. "He's commander of the fourth division."

That surprised Ace and he took half a step back, eyes wide. Everyone knew of Whitebeard and his commanders, feared and revered them. They were the strongest crew on the sea and to know that the leader of the fourth division was his friend came as a shock to Ace.

"Thatch is a commander? One of Whitebeard's commanders?" he couldn't help but say and Marco smiled a little sadly, nodding.

"I am too," Marco said quickly, looking down. His hands were clenched tightly and Ace's mouth fell open. In hindsight, it was predictable, but the shock was enough to make Ace forget any words he'd been about to speak.

"I'm captain of Whitebeard's first division, Marco." He opened his mouth, as if he was about to add something, before shaking his head gently. Ace looked away, eyebrows raised in shock.

"You…" Ace broke off, covering his mouth with his knuckles. "I don't know what to say."

Marco nodded and closed his eyes.

"I'll leave for now, to let that sink in. I'm sorry I…" he trailed off, opening his eyes and the pain in them was almost enough for Ace to launch himself at Marco and hold him until he'd burnt all of his demons away. But then Marco was turning away, expression sad and eyes downcast, believing he'd lost their fledgling connection for the truth.

"Come over for dinner tomorrow," Ace whispered as he caught Marco's arm, pulling him back with a grin. "If you can. I'll give you my den-den mushi number and you can tell me if there will be a problem. I have a friend – a chef, the best fucking chef in the world. I'll get him to cook." Ace licked his lips; he was rambling now, but he just needed Marco to know he needed him, as ridiculous as that sounded. "It'll be-"

Marco kissed him, pulling Ace to his body tightly. The kiss lasted for only a few moments, but when Marco pulled back his eyes were lighter and he wore a smile.

"I'll see you tomorrow," he said and then he was gone, breezing through the house and shutting the door behind him.

Ace spent the day between cleaning and looking out of the windows. He'd called in sick to work, coughing pathetically and been given the time. He had a stellar record anyway, there was no need for them to complain that he was ill. Besides, it wasn't as if Ace cared anymore whether he had a job or not – it would be easier if they did fire him. Now that he knew Marco was with the Whitebeard pirates there was hope – perhaps more than hope even – that he could start his own adventure.

If Ace had to choose turning points in his life, there would be three. His birth, Sabo's death and the moment a bird trapped in a cage was handed to him. The first couldn't be helped and the second had shown him how cruel people could be, how horrific they were. Luffy had been too young to hear and understand the gossip and hadn't bothered to read the letters in the bin that Garp had tried to throw away before anyone could see when he kept them company at the mountain bandit's home.

Ace hadn't been too young though. All three of them had had grand adventures and aspirations of taking out to sea and yet every letter that Garp threw away spoke of the number of people who had been rounded up, the number of people who had been slaughtered, the number of people who were being hunted just for how they were born.

(In reality, it wasn't Sabo's dying that opened Ace's eyes to the misery of the word and crushed his hope. The letters had always been there, but he'd been searching for more, a little hidden note that said Sabo had survived, that it was all a trick and instead of hope he'd seen the truth of the world and it had crushed his childish dreams.

He'd hidden it all from Luffy though, pasting on a brave smile and letting his brother walk into the wide world, clutching the papers every morning and even visiting Garp's office in the first few weeks on the pretence of tea. Neither of them had tea, instead they scanned lists of the caught pirates Garp would somehow manage to get a hold of, nodding to each other and going their separate ways when one Monkey D. Luffy was absent from their list. Garp may have sheltered them by turning a blind eye to their abilities when they were younger, but if either Ace or Luffy were caught using their powers then it would be off to the cells and – most likely – the executioner's block.

These visits had stopped after the first sightings of a kid with a straw hat came in and Ace went back to his mundane life with a spring in his step, safe in the knowledge that Luffy was living his dream.

It was the bird though, really, that had changed Ace's life. He'd gone to San Faldo after that, realised he could be more than an empty shell with the power of fire. His fire was destructive, but he could use that power, use it for something good. All pirates sought freedom and Ace… Ace was sick of being locked up in the government's palm. He wanted, needed, his freedom.

However loosely, the bird had led him to Marco and to the freedom he'd always secretly craved.

Stretching, Ace put down the cloth he held and closed his eyes for a moment. He'd almost finished and moved to the den-den mushi, punching in the number for the Thousand Sunny's den-den mushi. Franky had managed to get one that connected only to Ace that was off the government list and while he felt bad for using it like this, he had promised Marco a meal by the greatest chef in the world.

"ACE!" came the roar over the phone as Luffy answered, laughing manically. A voice in the background followed and Ace gathered that Luffy had sprinted from the infirmary to pick up the phone. Despite his adorability, Chopper wasn't someone Ace wanted to cross where medicine was concerned.

"Hi Luffy," Ace muttered, smile spreading across his cheeks. "And hi Chopper, I'm sorry my little brother's being a pain."

The phone switched hands and Chopper thanked him, giggling to himself before turning to shout more threats to Luffy.

"I actually called to see if I could borrow Sanji tomorrow," Ace started quietly. He wasn't sure if he could borrow Sanji, but he hoped that it would be okay. He got on well with Sanji, but that didn't mean he was entitled to steal the man away to demand him cook.

Luffy roared out Sanji's name and, a moment later, Ace heard footsteps over the line. He smiled as Luffy gave his trademark call for meat before he was pushed off his chair (or at least that's what Ace could gather from the noises he heard) and Sanji took over the phone.

"Hello?" he said simply, inhaling on his cigarette and leaving Ace to his request.

"I'll be over around lunchtime," Sanji agreed when he'd heard. "It'll be an interesting challenge to cook for you and your… friend."

So perhaps Ace had referred to Marco as just a friend, but while they had spent the night together and had promised to meet again… well Luffy was listening on the other end and it had been less than 24 hours since their relationship had started. Friend was the best way to put it, even if Sanji made it seem something only just short of a scandalous affair.

After a quick text to Marco that said he wouldn't be going to the Carnival tonight, Ace set about making dinner. He'd missed lunch for cleaning and looked disdainfully at the piles of recycling and rubbish he needed to take out after food. He'd been meticulous and disposed of anything that he didn't need – just in case he needed to pack a bag and board a ship. He couldn't waste time rummaging through clothes that no longer fit or books that would be useless.

When he was done and a quick pasta dinner eaten, Ace flicked through the TV channels, ignoring the news and the pressure advertisements that called for any suspicious behaviour to be reported. He eventually settled on a plot-less action film, more guns and explosions than story, and drifted off to sleep.

He woke to a new feature the next morning. It was one of those rag programmes, more rumour and speculation through the grapevine than actual truth, but one of the headlines caught his attention and he shook his head.

There was no way Luffy would form an alliance with Whitebeard. Luffy wouldn't form an alliance for anything other than meat and fun and there was no way a man like Whitebeard needed an ally in Luffy… well, to any extent Ace could think of.

He stood and walked to the kitchen, only mildly surprised at the time. Sanji would be here in an hour or so, but it wasn't uncommon for Ace to sleep for long periods of time. He had a tendency to fall asleep in the most bizarre places when he was stressed and so tried to sleep as much as possible when he was on his own. Of course that meant he was so used to it that when he slept and didn't need to wake up, he'd keep on sleeping for as long as he could.

Showering and changing into presentable clothes, Ace checked his mobile phone and shot a text to Marco, checking that he was still free for tonight. The reply came a moment later, saying that he was looking forward to that evening, and Ace smiled, letting the phone fall onto the sofa cushions as he headed to make tea. Sanji would appreciate a drink when he got here and the only other things Ace had to offer were alcohol (off limits while Sanji was working his masterpiece) and water. Tea was nicer.

"I apologise in advance," was all Sanji managed to get out when Ace opened the door to him before someone tackled them both, laughter echoing in the corridor.

"ACE!" Luffy shouted, jumping up and running into the apartment. "I came to help!"

It took a few seconds, but eventually both Ace and Sanji were standing again. Thankfully the provisions Sanji had brought were unharmed (trust Luffy to avoid harming food) and soon the kitchen was bustling as Sanji began lunch preparations. They'd eat and then go through what needed to be done for dinner.

"When will your boyfriend get here?" Luffy asked, swinging his chairs while they waited for Sanji to dish up. Ace, who had been taking a sip of tea, choked and turned to Luffy with warm cheeks.

"He's not my boyfriend!" he protested, though it sounded weak and there was a scoff in the direction of the kitchen.

Luffy pouted, but corrected himself. Even if the look he shot Ace made it clear he meant boyfriend.

"When will your friend get here?" he repeated, smiling widely as Sanji dished ut lunch – a meat platter for Luffy and a lighter salad for the rest of them.

"You'll be having a filling dinner," Sanji explained and they tucked in.

"He should be here about five or so. We're having an early dinner in case… well in case he has to work." It was a little lie, really. Work, attack, pirate duties, it was all the same really.

"Where did you meet him?" Luffy continued, throwing out a barrage of questions as he stuffed food in his mouth.

A good thing about being rubber was that Luffy didn't choke despite the vast quantities of food he shovelled down his throat. He barely got enough air with the rate he ate. Ace was bad enough but Luffy? Luffy took it to a new level.

"At San Faldo," Ace said, truthfully. There was no point lying about it – there wasn't anywhere else he could meet people unless he literally plucked someone from thin air.

"The Carnival?" Sanji piped in, raising an eyebrow. "Robin-chan will be pleased to know you're using her card," he said with a smile, before returning to his salad and observing the brothers.

"If you could thank her from me," Ace said, frowning as he slapped Luffy's hand away from his lunch.

"So he's a pirate?" was the next question and Ace shrugged, feigning ignorance.

"Is it like one of those stories where the fair maiden gets swept off out to sea by the rugged pirate and they live happily ever after?" Luffy said, laughing at his own words. He pushed his hat further down on his head (they'd hidden it on their walk over in one of the bags – Luffy hadn't been happy, but they had to at least try and hide their identities when visiting Ace) and leant back in his chair.

"No, Luffy," Ace said, shaking his head as he stood to clear the plates. No one was going to rush him off to sea unless he chose to first and he was no fair maiden anyway.

While Sanji cooked, Luffy asked him meaningless questions as they watched cartoons. Nothing of substance was on and Ace began to doze off. A hand patted his cheek gently and he opened his eyes with a frown, rolling his eyes at Luffy's wide grin.

"Your boyfriend's here," he said with a laugh and Ace vaulted off the sofa, looking at the clock in horror.

"Shall I let him in?" Sanji asked, apron on and a spoon in hand. "Dinner's almost done, I just need to add one more thing. You can go and get ready, I'll try to keep Luffy from asking too many bad questions."

That was more motivation than Ace needed to run and hurry to get ready. He threw on a shirt and some jeans, returning to the living room to see Luffy practically wrapped around Marco on the sofa. Luffy's face was right up against Marco's, but Marco was just laughing, answering Luffy's questions.

He was a keeper alright.

"Ace!" Luffy called out, as if they hadn't seen each other for hours, not minutes. "I wanted to hear about Whitebeard's phoenix!"

Ace rolled his eyes, preparing to apologise for Luffy's fairy tales when Marco surprised him.

"You should just come over to our ship. I'll let Oyaji know you have a fascination with our phoenix only." He paused. "And get him to set some meat aside."

Luffy laughed as if his birthday had come early and Sanji poked his head into the room to check everything was okay. He raised an eyebrow to Ace before heading back to add finishing touches.

Meanwhile, Ace's heart was pounding in his chest and he was sure the neighbours would be able to hear it. Unknowingly, Marco had just shattered every illusion Ace had put up that he was okay the bird had left. Because if that bird was any bird, it had to be Whitebeard's phoenix, right?

Sanji eventually managed to drag Luffy away and Ace sat down at the table, picking from various dishes Sanji had provided. He swallowed heavily before launching his heart through his words.

"You didn't have to lie to Luffy, you know." Ace laughed softly. "He's just fixated on the idea of a phoenix."

Marco chewed thoughtfully before answering, eyes honest.

"There really is a phoenix on board the Moby Dick." He took another slice of duck. "And I think Oyaji would be amused by Mugiwara no Luffy's energy. He'll take to him like a duck to water."

"He does have that quality," Ace murmured before shaking his head. "But… a phoenix?"

Marco looked up for a brief moment before he shrugged. He didn't seem comfortable by the topic, but Ace wanted to know if Whitebeard's phoenix was his phoenix and then if… well if he could see it.

"It's not something that should be talked about in the open," Marco said with a soft smile. "I'll book us a private room at the Carnival for tomorrow. I'll invite Thatch too and we can blow off some steam before I tell you more in the security of the Carnival."

Ace looked down and almost jumped as a warm hand touched his.

"I promise I'll tell you the truth about the bird and any other questions you have tomorrow. At the moment, anyone could be listening in," he said, voice lowered ever so slightly.

Ace understood though and he nodded. At least he would get his answers tomorrow and that was more than he'd ever started the day with. He'd been patient until now and he could be patient until tomorrow. Marco was honest, Ace had known that since the first time they'd met, and he would meet Ace's questions with nothing but the truth.

"Thank you," Ace said and Marco smiled.

"Don't thank me until you hear the rest of it," he said. It puzzled Ace, but he pushed it to the back of his mind. There was plenty time for that tomorrow.

Their evening was gentle. Good food, a slow stream of alcohol and good talk. It was the best evening Ace had had in a while, having forgotten the smaller things in life such as good company, good food and good conversation. He was sure he could talk to Marco every day for the rest of his life and never run out of things to say. Judging by the feeling in his stomach it was something he very much wanted.

"Thank you for dinner tonight," Marco said in the hall as he shrugged his coat on. Outside was deceptively cold, a storm blowing in from the coast. He'd assured Ace he would be okay getting home – back to the Moby Dick that was – when Ace had offered for him to stay. Being the first division commander was harder than just a title and as Marco looked genuinely regretful, Ace wasn't too bothered.

Besides, they needed their space in the fledgling stages of their relationship. At least that's what Ace told himself to make it a little easier every time they parted.

"I'll talk to Oyaji," he said suddenly, eyes ablaze with determination. "If… if you wanted me to that is."

While he hadn't specifically said anything, Ace knew it wasn't hard for anyone to draw the conclusion Marco had. He'd been dropping subtle hints the entire dinner, hints that he had nothing holding him back, that he loved adventure as much as Luffy did, that he'd dreamt of the seas when he was younger and was only just starting to believe in those dreams once more.

He left with a kiss and a smile, leaving Ace alone to his thoughts. Tomorrow he'd get the truth about his bird and find out if his dream could finally come true.

I'm sorry it's taken me so long, Sabo, Ace thought to himself as he looked to the window. He moved over to it with a smile and closed it, locking it shut as he began to pack everything of his old life away inside of him.

Tomorrow… well tomorrow was a brand new day.

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The Carnival was bustling, more than usual. Ace pushed his way through with a smile, greeting a few familiar masks and nodding as many more noticed him. It had been a while since he'd been here and a few asked if he was to fight tonight. Ace shrugged and laughed, passing so many strangers and wondering if he knew any of them in his day to day life.

His old life.

Thatch and Marco were due to arrive a little while later, they'd sent a text saying they were running behind schedule, but Ace had wanted some time to himself anyway, to adjust to the old self and the new one he was about to become. Even if he wasn't carried away to the seas tonight, Ace was resolved to change his life, no matter how small he started. If that meant standing up when he saw someone being dragged off by the government then he'd stand up. If it meant smiling more to strangers then he'd smile more.

Nothing small changed the world, but it could change a person.

Ace wasn't the best at spotting change, but he felt the change in the Carnival that night. It happened in an instant, the crowd were talking cheerfully and the referee was trying to separate a fight that had gotten out of hand in the ring. Many people were cheering at the ring and perhaps that was what made it too late when people did notice something was wrong.

Like an electric spark, the feeling ran through the crowd and, in an instant, the place fell silent. People turned with drinks half raised and sentences half completed, eye s widening. Ace heard the shattering of glass as some people's hands slipped and he heard many more take steps back, trying to put distance between themselves and the man floating towards the central arena.

Shiki was here.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he said, voice flowing imperiously through the crowd. Men and women began pushing each other in effort to get away from Shiki, but others pushed back and they were only silenced when Shiki set himself down on the arena floor.

"I hope you'll forgive me for not being in disguise. There's not much point in hiding when one wants to be noticed!" He let out a horrific laugh and Ace felt his fire burn deep inside of his body. We're here, the flames said, reassuringly.

"You're all going to help me out in a little experiment," he continued, pacing the arena. His lower legs were swords and he dug deep into the arena floor with each step. It would have been surprising that he could continue walking, until Ace remembered that Shiki was a man who could fly.

"The government paid no mind to my little stunt before," and with that, Shiki began inspecting the crowd, though Ace had a feeling there was only one person he was really looking for. "And I've been keeping the pirates who usually help civilians busy these past weeks. If they're within range to even get here on time, they certainly won't be enough to stop me."

People began trying to flee, but it was no use. They were blocked in by Shiki's men, dressed-up thugs wearing sick smiles. A few of them began pushing through the crowd and ripping masks off people, still searching whoever Shiki was after. Ace was willing to stake his life on the fact that Shiki was after him.

An explosion rocketed the outer rooms and Shiki smiled.

"Your exits have been sealed off, there's no hope anymore." He laughed to himself and Ace took his mask of himself, throwing it to the floor as people screamed around him and tried to run. They all knew they'd never get anywhere, but it hardly stopped them running and trying. Every single one of them just wanted to live and Ace refused to be the cause of their death.

People moved out of the way as Ace sent his flames towards the arena. Fresh screams echoed round him, but Ace didn't care. He shrugged his shirt off, knowing there was no point if he was to fight with everything he had, and Shiki turned to him with a manic gleam in his eyes.

"Finally showing yourself," he commented, as one commented on the weather. He'd dodged Ace's flames, but they hadn't meant to harm, only draw attention. If he could distract Shiki then perhaps someone would be brave enough to knock out a few of Shiki's men and try to escape. If only Smoker had been there – he was a man who would already be battling Shiki's men.

"You didn't need to make such a display just to get my attention," Ace replied with a smirk. Shiki began circling him but he reciprocated, keeping Shiki in his sight.

"Perhaps not," Shiki said, all humour gone from his face. "But I find one needs to take the things they want or nothing s ever achieved."

Without warning, pieces of the ceiling broke away and were hurled towards Ace. He managed to duck and dodge most of them, though he was caught on his arm and his flesh burst into flame. It hurt, but he was unmarked, thankfully.

It wasn't that Logia users couldn't get hurt. Yes their body would turn into something else – in Ace's case, flames – but that didn't mean they were invincible. Getting hit still hurt and if it was large enough or deadly enough then Ace would still be severely hurt. Unlike a lot of people thought, Logia users weren't immortal.

Shiki kept a constant stream of brick, metal and whatever he could think of flying towards Ace. While he shot back fire whenever he could, Ace knew this would be a losing fight. People had begun to empty the room though, the presence of Shiki's men no longer a threat, and Ace smiled, knowing that they would get out at the very least.

And if they could get out, they'd be safe. And while they were safe, they'd call someone to help, someone who would put Shiki away for good.

(And by that time, Marco and Thatch would be there to drag him off to sea, even if only to lie low for a few days from the government.)

Life wasn't that smooth, however. A chair took Ace by surprise and hit him in the chest, knocking the wind from his lungs. He fell back, startled to feel something against his back. Shiki leant over him, floating with a wide grin.

"I don't need you anymore," he said, eyes widening in madness. "But by killing you, I'll be able to eradicate his blood from the world."

Ace's eyes widened in shock and he flinched as small pieces of rubble fell from above to streak down his torso. He directly up, almost afraid to look away from Shiki, and felt his blood run cold. Not even fire would be able to save him from the cracks in the ceiling. He could try to burn his way free, but with the madness in Shiki's eyes, the man's determination and grudge against Roger (it had to be about his father, there was no one as influential to the seas as Gold Roger and Shiki had accidentally let Ace knew they were somehow acquainted when they'd first met), there was no way Ace was going to get out of this situation alive – short of killing Shiki.

So that was it then, Ace thought. This was it, his life. It hadn't been so bad, though he wished he'd listened to the stir of the ocean in his veins, listened to the spray of sea-salt against his skin and listened to the cry of the gulls as they passed him over.

"I'm sorry, Luffy," he whispered as larger chunks of the ceiling began to fall. His flames protected him from them and he didn't hold them back. Let his fire take San Faldo. Let them burn Shiki to the core and purify his soul. Let him suffer, just as he'd made others suffer.

"I wish I could have seen your dream," he said and Ace' thoughts turned from a laughing Luffy to Marco's soft smile. He was sorry about that too, but Marco was his small secret, a love that would never happen.

Ace closed his eyes and smiled at the huge crack above him.

This was it then, but it was okay. He would die, but that was okay.

The sound of something moving at high speed caught his ear and Ace hoped that Shiki would somehow get trapped as he tried to flee. His eyes began to burn with light and though he thought it might be his fire burning in effort to save him, Ace couldn't feel that much change in his body.

It happened in a few milliseconds. One moment Ace was prepared to die and the next he was opening his eyes as blue fire surrounded him. Around them, the world collapsed forever, but Ace felt the strong heartbeat of the bird and knew, he just knew, that this was his bird – though it was bigger than he'd ever imagined it could be – and that his bird was also Whitebeard's phoenix.

And as he listened to the steady beat of the phoenix's heart and the crackle of its flames, Ace suddenly realised he had been wrong.

It was not okay. He hadn't wanted to die.

.

Notes:

As you lovely readers can probably guess by the time between updates, I struggled with this chapter. I still don't like it but… I'm as happy as I'll ever be with it!

Things will probably begin to wrap up in the next chapter and I'll try to update much sooner! Thank you for all your kind words and support, they mean a lot to me and have kept me from going insane writing this.

Thank you again!