With sullen eyes and pursed lips, Ace glared at the TV box. The speakers shook with jeers and mean laughter from the surrounding masses witnessing the public funeral. Amidst them stood his supposed Grandpa. His brows were furrowed deep and the crease of his lips set into a firm line.
They lowered the casket into the ground, drilled shut and buried without any customary flowers. Ace half-listened to the speech about justice and the extermination of monsters that the Superintendent General announced live on TV. Ace's gaze lingered at the tomb stone raised and carried toward the pitfall, focusing intently on the curves of his name scrawled across the slab of stone, reading: Here lies Gold D. Ace.
Ace blew the air from his cheeks and blinked the tears away from his eyes.
"Ace remember—this isn't your fault."
He gnawed the inside of his cheeks, training his gaze at the screen. His fingernails dug into the folds of his trousers.
"You never did anything wrong."
From the start, Ace had always been certain he would never find a home in the middle of a forest. No matter how many times they described this dingy cottage as his newfound home, Ace knew it wasn't, regardless of what his supposed 'Grandpa' said.
It would take more than a nightmarish night to stain every memory of his birthplace pitch-black. It had to take more for the strings connecting his heart to his mother to tear apart.
Nothing could possibly replace his past – his memories. The life he had lived.
No matter what they said—
No matter what they did—
He will always be Ace.
"No, you can't!" Dadan screeched, her face red with frustration at Ace's stubborn refusal to assume a new identity.
"You can't tell me anything, you old hag!" his throat hurt under the excessive strain. Ace's pitched voiced visibly grated on her nerves as she gnashed her teeth in response, screeching louder.
"As long as you live under my roof, you abide by my rules!"
"I never chose to live under your roof! I never even wanted to be here!"
"Go then!" she retorted, "Go and get yourself killed out there. See if I care. It's not like I sacrificed my life to safe you, you little—!"
"—I don't need you to tell me that!" Ace had enough, his fisted hands trembled at his side in anger, and without another word, he turned on his heels and stomped out of the door. Ace slammed the door shut with such a force it rattled, droning out Dadan's continuing shouts that reverberated from behind him.
He stomped his way through the forest, wandering aimlessly until he stumbled across a clearing with the sea stretching out below the edge of the cliff, vaguely noting the fresh breeze from the sea. Its scent different from the harbour of his hometown and yet it felt strangely just as calming, as it ebbed the tension from his shoulders away, and cleared his head from anger.
Ace blew the air from his cheek and threw himself on the grass, gazing at the bright blueness of the sky. He tilted his head at the flock of birds, spreading their wings near the edge of his vision. From the corner of his eyes, Ace saw a slab of stone on the ground.
From the cracks at its foot, he guessed someone must have shoved the gravestone into the ground with nothing but brute strength. An image of his over-zealous Grandpa came into his mind, and Ace frowned at the thought. He pushed himself up and jogged towards the chuck of stone from pure curiosity alone, increasingly startled to find his mother's name scribbled inside the epitaph.
Ace traced his fingers over the characters, thinking whether Grandpa bothered to set up a make-shift grave for his mother when he memorised each letter with the stroke of his fingers, vowing to himself to always honour her even if the rest of the world painted lies over her existence.
Ace glanced around and picked up a little piece of stone from the ground, scribbling his birthname at the tombstone, for no other reason than he didn't want his mother's name to stand alone.
He read over her name one last time before he ran back into the woods to find some chrysanthemums, wondering how much those ex-criminals would flip if he told them he wanted to adopt his mother's maiden name instead of a completely new identity.
Because no matter what anyone else said—
He will always be Ace.
And nothing could take that away from him.
Ace brushed away the vines dangling from the tree branches of the forest as he wandered deeper into the woods. His memories guiding the trek of his walk.
From a far, Ace recognised a familiar puff of smoke floating above a group of tree trunks. It rose from a distant chimney and surrounded the pleated roof of a house, worn and dull under the thick layer of bright paint.
Ace could smell a thin trace of musk even before he pushed the front door open. As usual, the old hinges creaked under the sudden movement, and after a moment, Ace heard the familiar gruff of a voice grunting "Who is it?". From its echo, Ace guessed it came from the living room.
Ace slipped off his shoes and padded across the floorboards loud enough to catch Magra's attention. The elder suddenly poked his head out of the living room and swept his gaze across the length of the hallway with a curious expression until it contorted at the sudden sight of Ace.
Magra furrowed his brows, but Ace simply ignored him and headed directly for the living room. Almost automatically, his gaze landed on the large couch, finding it empty despite the streaming television in front of it. Ace frowned. "Where's the hag?"
"I asked where is—you." Ace turned on his heels, facing the doorway where Dadan towered over. Her rifle pointed at him, even though Ace was certain she must have realised by now that he wasn't a thief breaking into their shag of a house, but their long-lost foster son.
Ace snorted, surprisingly a little glad that aside from a couple of white strands growing at her hairline, Dadan looked the same as always. "I was looking for you."
"Oh, were you now?"
"Yes," Ace answered, fully aware that it wasn't a question. Dadan shifted her weight from one leg to another and placed a hand on her jutted hip. From the sass of her stance, Ace knew she was already irritated, possibly by something he may or may not have committed. . .
Dadan's gaze narrowed at him sceptically, and her lips pulled over her teeth, almost mocking. "Why?"
Ace furrowed his brows at the blatant hostility she threw into that single word, and before she could insinuate anything else, he told her. "I didn't do anything."
"I didn't say you did."
"But you were implying it." Ace retorted. "And I'm telling you I haven't done a single thing."
She rolled her eyes and dug the dirt from her nails. "Let's suppose you did not. How would you know that?"
"I—" Ace halted and thought about the lack of evidence. There were only the letters in his pockets. A confession of a deed that no-one yet uncovered—well, no-one uncovered except himself (and maybe the Straw Hats from what little he told them).
"Gut feeling," he answered at last.
Dadan shook her head, her mane of orange hair swaying behind her. "That's not good enough. Don't you have anything more concrete?"
The letter burned in his pocket. "No."
Dadan sighed, loudly and motioned toward Dogra. His uncertain stare lingered at Ace before he disappeared down the hall, clutching a phone in his hand.
"You're not going to call the police, are you?"
"And why should we not?" Dadan challenged, raising a brow at him. "You're a missing person Ace—"
"—Garp had called. I know you ran away. You need to go back—"
"I don't need to go anywhere."
"Have you forgotten that they'll hang you if you're caught? You know what happened at South Blue."
Ace looked away, scowling. He hated the accusing glare from Dadan. She had no right to look at him like that. None of what happened in South Blue was his fault. Not to mention that – "Gold D. Ace is dead. They have no reason to come after me now."
"Of course, they do!" Dadan said, shrill and obnoxious. "You look just like your dad!"
Ace's face darkened. He ignored the familiar burn in his chest and gritted his teeth. "I look nothing like that bastard!"
"It's only a matter of time before they realise that they buried an empty grave," Dadan continued, "And once they do, it'll be like before—"
"No, it won't be as long as everyone keeps quiet."
"Are you listening to me? Because of you East Blue might be erased off the map!" Dadan snapped, her eyes blazing. "Don't be silly and go back to the hospital. Garp and the others won't let them get you—"
"Until when?" Ace suddenly asked, throwing Dadan off balance. "How long do you expect me to stay at the hospital? Until what exactly happens? You and I know both that they'll keep me there forever."
"No, they'll have to let you go eventually," she answered simply, adjusting her grip on her rifle. "As long as you remain a nameless amnesiac, no-one will know you once shared the surname of Gold D. Rogers' wife."
Ace stared at her long and hard, wondering for the nth time whether she had lost her mind during his absence. "What are you talking about I'm not nameless. Everyone knows I'm Portgas D. Ace."
Dadan only stared at him and a sickening feeling welled in his stomach. They couldn't have—no, they wouldn't dare, would they? Dadan only pursed her lips at him, and Ace felt the floor beneath him disappear. "Tell me, you didn't. . ."
"We had to."
"You had no identifications on you when they found you at the site of the accident. Be grateful, they didn't call you Joe—"
"Yes!" Dadan retorted. "Had we not destroyed everything about you, they would have immediately understood who you were!"
"That doesn't allow you to take away my name!" Ace shouted back, his veins throbbing at this temple as the heat rushed to his face. "I'm Portgas D. Ace for heaven's sake!"
Dadan's gaze lingered on him long and hard. "You were smart enough to lose most of your memories when you first woke up. Call it a blessing."
Ace's teeth clenched out of anger as his fists shook uncontrollably. "You cannot take away my name!"
She looked at him, her face hard. "We did."
"Then I'll take it back!"
The slap that resonated inside the room couldn't have been louder. Dadan glared at him ferociously as if a beast had taken over her body as she growled and prickled his skin with newfound anger and irritation.
"What's more important to you – a dumb name or your life!?"
Ace gritted his teeth. Did she not understand? "My mother's—" name is the only thing I have left. Ace squeezed his eyes shut. It sounded so cringey, like a loser and yet—I never wanted to lose it!
"Your mother is dead!" Dadan shouted and Ace's head turned to glare at her. This time there was no Garp to keep her mouth shut or hold either of them back.
There were footsteps thundering on the weakened hallway, but Ace didn't care. He only focused on Dadan and the fury she cruised through his boiling blood with every word of hers.
"SHUT UP!" Ace shouted. He didn't need to hear that from her. But Dadan barrelled forward regardless. The latch Grandpa had held firmly shut over the years broke open and a stream sloshed forward, fuelled with anger and hatred she had felt for him ever since he stepped foot into the threshold of her life fourteen years ago.
"She died for you! She died because of you!"
"I TOLD YOU: SHUT UP!"
"LISTEN, YOU CONCEITED KID! She gave up her life for you And you want to replace that with a STUPID name?"
"IT'S NOT A STUPID NAME!" His throat hurt, sore from a strain that he hadn't felt since his childhood. Dadan re-fixed her gaze on him, still mad beyond belief that he wouldn't acknowledge the meaning of her words—but he had. Ace understood. But still—they had taken the only thing that connected him to his mother. And now there was nothing left.
He was Ace.
"But it's true—it is," there was a hesitance clinging to Magra's voice, and beads of sweat clung on to the elder's forehead, whether it came from nervousness or his sudden ran into the living room Ace couldn't tell—and frankly, he didn't care. Magra swallowed, visibly hard. "It's just a name. It's not worth anything."
"And that's just a vase, isn't it?" Ace's fingers tightened at the neck of a decorative vase standing on the table. Its petals tickled his arm as Ace lifted it over his head and hurled it across the room. It smattered against the wall and its shards scattered across the floorboards in tiny pieces. Ace ignored the screams, ignored the bits of glass cutting into his skin as he shouted, "Not worth anything, is it!"
Magra stepped back, surprised and a little fearful at the expression on Ace's face. But Dadan's gaze lingered at him unwaveringly with a spark of anger igniting in them, and Ace hated that she didn't understand the point he was proving.
"It wasn't just a name. It was the only thing I had left."
Now he had nothing.
Ace couldn't even bring himself to feel the embarrassment or hesitance he had strongly felt moments prior. Instead, he felt loose, as though he was kipping too far on a chair, beyond the grip of control and security he had felt for the most part in his life.
"No, it's not. You have your life," Dadan answered, lowering her voice as if she wanted to control the quivers that continued to linger. Her face was set hard and her eyes alarmed as if she was seeing something wild and crazy. For a moment it seemed as though she thought: This must be the expression they saw when Ace killed them.
Dadan looked at him. From the expression on her face, Ace knew he wouldn't find any sympathy in her. Dadan tightened her grip on the rifle, and Ace was glad he wouldn't have to deal with teary eyes, hurt voices and disappointing stares that he had found in Luffy, Usopp and Chopper.
After all, Ace was used to everyone's "I don't care" attitude. He was used to their apathetic gazes when they sized him up and stamped him as insignificant and unimportant, as though Ace never entirely existed in their eyes even though he was a breathing, living person that should have been valued as much as anyone else. And yet Ace kept finding himself written off dead by every person he encountered, as though they had always somehow known who Ace was – who his father was – even after Grandpa had spent years keeping a lid over the matter, fastening it close with such strength no-one could wedge it open, and yet it always seemed as though someone had pried it open. Even though Ace knew they couldn't.
But still, it was strange to think that there were a handful of people out there, willing to trust and care for him when normally no-on else would, and a part of Ace was still a little baffled how someone like the pineapple man could venture out of his way to vouch for the twenty-year-old Ace twice, even though they both weren't entirely sure anymore who his elder counterpart truly was . . .
Ace had always been much more accustomed to everyone's apathy that the more thought of someone else caring about him threw him off, and at this point Ace wasn't entirely sure what to think of it. All he knew was that their apathy had always made it a little easier to digest and dismiss moments like these when people like Dadan suddenly started to care only when Ace's existence started to pose a threat to their own existence in East Blue.
After all, Dadan had always been vocal that she much rather preferred for him to fall by himself and leave the rest of them alive in his wake. To sacrifice himself for the sake of others was a noble feat in her eyes even though to Ace's own ears it sounded nothing but a pile of faeces. But Dadan never understood that, and Ace never expected her to understand.
Even without looking at Dadan's unflinching stare, Ace knew that no matter where he went—no matter where he lived—he would always be a threat. He would always be a monster. Someone that took the lives of others whichever direction he went and yet—
He was alive.
"There's something you're not understanding, Dadan," Ace's lips shifted into an ironic smile. The words had roamed in his mind for the millionth time and now it was tumbling out of his mouth for the first time since the epiphany had hit him. "It's not like I have to live. It's just that I am."
Dadan's face was still set hard, but her eyes flickered, confused.
Ace waited for her to speak but it seemed like his confession had shocked her into silence. Next to her, Dogra was staring at him with wide eyes, uncomprehendingly, and Ace was strangely reminded of Usopp, the way his head flickered between him and Chopper when the young Doctor had seen straight through Ace's lies . . .
But this time there won't be any tears.
Luffy wasn't here to bail his eyes out. He wasn't here to shout at him—to gaze at him with disappointment as if Ace had failed to keep his promise to him (even though Luffy had failed to keep his own first).
"If I had a choice, I would have died a long time ago," his voice carried through the silence, undisturbed, and Ace tried not to think about Luffy's excited expression when he came up with the idea to be his reason to live on a day too long ago—tried not to think about the scared whispers (Don't die on me, Ace) nor the sad whispers (Don't leave me yet, Ace) and most of all, he did not want to remember the lie he had told straight up to Luffy's face, (I have absolutely no intention to die).
"But I couldn't—I had to live because none of this was my fault." (Promise me, you'll never listen to a word they say.) "But now I have absolutely nothing left."
His home, gone. His mother, dead. His friend, vanished. The rest of society wanted him locked up for a crime, he may or may not have committed. And a portion of them wanted to make him pay for that same crime, he may or may not have committed.
And now, Ace had lost his only piece of sanity—the only piece that made him, himself.
Now he was just simply Ace.
Dadan stilled, watching him with the eyes of a stranger, and from across the room, Ace realised once again that he had absolutely no-one.
Alone and forgotten like a paper bag strewn at the roadside.
Without anything left.
The silence sneaked across the hardwood, tracing the path of Ace's footwork, following him into the confines of his old bedroom as Ace turned the knob and pushed hard to open the jammed door, not entirely surprised that his bedroom had been converted into a storage room in his absence.
The air was thick, musky and full of dust. He sneezed and rubbed his index finger under his nose, stumbling inside and counting the amount of sealed carboard box piled across the room that carried his initial. Ace grabbed them and placed them on an empty space, sitting at the floor, cross-legged, rummaging through his old content to find anything—anything that could give him even small inkling to who he had been before the accident. Ace browsed through old, broken toys and outgrown clothes—most of them ripped and frayed, and he wondered why no-one had thrown them out when no-one seemingly needed them. . .
It wasn't long until he found wrinkled articles about two rascals ransacking the streets, and plenty reports about their dines and dashes, and he couldn't quite fathom the silliness of their names. Couldn't the police come up with a better idea than Smiling Blond? Scowling Rowdy?
Ace snorted and threw the articles back inside and grabbed another box, wondering whether someone had mistaken his boxes for a trashcan when they threw those articles inside. But the next box wasn't better and neither were the others. The only odd item he found – well, other than those articles – was a minibox full of lighters.
Ace didn't think he was a smoker. He couldn't remember the taste of cigarettes and never found himself craving for one ever since he first woke up.
For these lighters to be here, stacked away inside his memory box, Ace figured he must have liked playing with fire more than Luffy thought he did.
Ace placed the box next to him. He dived his hand into the memory box once more and found a was old. The title at the spine read, Sparks. It didn't spark a single memory and yet the weight felt familiar. Ace flipped the book open, surprised to see more news articles wedged between the pages.
Carefully, he took one of them and squinted at the small-printed page. It focused on an arsonist. Someone was illegally burning buildings—buildings, which were empty, uninhabitable, and stamped for abolition on legal documents. Ace lowered the papers next to the minibox of lighters, slightly wondering what the fuss was about when no-one was getting hurt.
His attention turned back to the book. It mainly discussed the scientific side of combustions. Flipping through, Ace noticed the articles placed inside were more or less talking about the same arsonist from before. It seemed he was never caught.
Ace glanced at his minibox of lighters, the book about combustions, the piled articles about the two hoodlums and the free-running arsonist and stowed them back into the box, refusing to put two-and-two together. As far as Ace knew, he had no reason to roam the streets and look for empty building to burn down. Ace knew he had an affiliation for fire but this was too weird to be true.
Instead, Ace focused on the letter he had found inside Sparks. It was smeared and tattered, most likely years old from the dust that rose and fell when he pulled it out. Ace was startled, once he realised it was an announcement for his guardian that he had been expelled from school. According to the date, he should have been in his fifth year in primary, around ten years old. Ace frowned and recounted the years, but his math was correct. A sudden thought came up and he jumped up and dashed towards Dogra's bedroom. The elder was sitting on his leather chair, reading a novel, his reading glasses perched on his nose, dangerously close to falling down.
"What is it?" Dogra asked, not raising his eyes off the pages.
"What year is it?" Ace asked, wondering why it had never occurred to him to check the date.
"X714, why?" he asked as he glanced up to an empty doorway. Ace was already gone, running back toward the storage room.
He was born on the year X694 which meant he really did hit the age of twenty. He was expelled ten years ago. The date matched. The remaining dates should also match. Ace grabbed the newspaper articles from Sparks and calculated the numbers in his mind. It spanned a year from his expulsion in spring toward summer the next year.
Ace tried to think about the summer of X705 but nothing came to mind. He frowned and glanced around for a piece of scrap paper. His eyes landed on his letter and took it, flipped it over to its blank backside and used a half-dried felt-tip to organise a timeline of his life with the key dates marked. The first event was his birth, next the fall of South Blue, followed by the arrival of the island on the same year, his schooling up to his expulsion until the year X712 where he first worked for Whitebeard after meeting Marco, and it ended with the year X714 when he first woke up on the hospital three months ago.
Ace pursed his lips, his fingers diving into his pockets and pulled out the wrinkled letters he had addressed to Luffy and scribbled the dates onto his timeline.
The letter Ace had found inside Luffy's treasure box was written eight months ago, whereas the latter the Straw Hats had given him was almost six months old.
Ace kept the thoughts bubbling inside his mind at bay as he climbed onto his feet and padded down the hallway towards Dogra and yet stumbled onto Magra. He was carrying a pile of folded towels, seemingly on his way to the bathroom before his eyes rested on Ace and he faltered in his steps.
"Great timing—I was about to get you," Magra said, sighing out of relief before Ace could even gather his thoughts. He pulled out a towel from the stack he was carrying and threw it at him. "Here, take a shower and meet us in the kitchen. It's almost time for lunch."
"Wait—" Ace grabbed his arm before Magra could leave. "There's something I want to ask you. Did anything happen when I was a kid?"
Something crossed his eyes and the latter looked around, seemingly uncomfortable as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Yeah, but ask Dogra about these things."
Ace tightened his grip on him. "There's nothing you can tell me?"
Magra's gaze landed on him, and Ace realised from the intensity of his stare that there was nothing Magra wanted to tell him, if anything, he wanted to leave and keep a measured distance between them.
Ace dropped his hand by his side and watched the elder scurry away, wondering whether he had thought wrong and his recent admission did have an effect on his make-shift family. Ace glanced at the towel in his hand and sighed before he wandered toward the bathroom, turned the faucet on and drenched himself in cold water.
Ace closed his eyes and gathered his thoughts. He had already realised that he needed to find Whitebeard as soon as possible to recover the remaining pieces of his memories. The newspapers and his own letters only revealed too little. Regardless of the direction they pulled him, it was only part of a version of the truth Ace wanted to know. He wouldn't simply blow up a group of people that have taken him in and considered him as one of their brethren. Something must have happened. Ace was sure of it.
He turned the faucet and relaxed at the warmth drizzling his skin. He grabbed the soap, fully aware that before he could even confront Whitebeard, he needed to know more about himself—more about the twenty-year-old Ace, who pointed his middle finger at the world and willingly prepared himself to take hundreds of lives with him to hell. He could only hope that Dogra knew enough to fill in the missing gaps of his timeline.
Ace grabbed a bottle of shampoo, his fingers brushing through his hair as he pursed his lips, thinking back at the newspaper article Nami threw at him. It was strange, bizarre and weird—but it was true. He was Ace and twenty years old, even if he couldn't remember it. The face on the poster was his own—even if he didn't look exactly like him—it was him—at one point—at some time.
Ace tried to breathe slowly through his nose, droplets of warm water drizzled down his shoulders, loosening the tension in his muscles and relieving his mind from distress as he fought to remember the names written on the pamphlet. . .
Ace closed his eyes and thought deeply, but nothing came to mind.
He needed to ask Dogra about it.
His fingers grabbed the tap and pushed it all the way to the side, drizzling hot water on his skin and Ace sighed, wholeheartedly comfortable, rinsing the shampoo from his hair before he stepped out of the shower stall and slipped a towel around his waist. He threw his clothes in the laundry basket on his way to Dogra's room, opening up a closet for a pair of shorts and a tank shirt that he found inside the elder's room.
Dogra didn't utter a single word, and Ace cleared his throat, zipping his fly shut. "There's something I want to ask you."
"Did anything major happen in my life when I was a kid? Magra said, you knew these things."
Dogra glanced at him, "Why?"
"Why not? I don't remember much, and I want to know what kind of person I was."
Dogra sighed and book-marked his page. He pinned his gaze at Ace, clearing his throat. "You were a rude boy, completely egoistic. Short-tempered, foul-mouthed and always on your own. In short, you were an asocial brat who simply cared for nothing. Does this answer satisfy you?"
"No," Ace answered, pushing the books toward the edge of the table before he sat on the space he just cleared. "Did anything happen when I was a kid? You know in school or something?"
"Many things happened." Dogra rolled his eyes as he shifted on his seat. "You were such a problem child."
"Can't you be more specific?"
"Can't you remember?" Dogra retorted. "You were picking up fights with adults and your peers—anyone who looked at you the wrong way. You were ostracised in all your classes and because of your suspensions you spent so many hours out of school than in class. It was a wonder you even held up with the curriculum for four years. You got into so many arguments with Dadan—it was chaos all around."
"Yes way," Dogra sighed and took of his reading glasses. "You were such trouble. I thought, you finally became a normal kid when you befriended Sabo, but instead we heard only about your dine-and-dashes and the ruckus you two caused on the streets. It was the sherry on top when they finally expelled you from school."
Ace bit the inside of his cheeks as he listened, thinking he could ask who Sabo was later. "What happened next?"
"You stayed at home. Played in the forest whenever you got bored—at least that's what we thought. But you kept going out to burn stuff instead of climbing on trees. Goodness, you were insane. . ." Dogra shook his head as though he still grappled to come to terms with that part of Ace's existence.
"When Garp found out chaos broke loose. He took you to the city with him. Said, he'll take it upon him to raise you himself by this hand." He raised a fist and laughed, and Ace tried not to think about how mad the old man must have been at that time.
"I dunno. I haven't seen you since then. But I heard that you finished high school and enrolled in some university. I'm not sure—was it for paramedics?"
Paramedics? Ace's brows shot up and he laughed, disbelievingly. "It would be more believable if you said I was training to become a fire fighter instead."
Dogra waved a hand dismissively. "Yeah, but you called it quits anyway after a year and deferred your re-enrolment. I'm not quite sure what happened."
Ace frowned, wondering whether he had met Marco at that point when he asked. "How did I get on track anyway?"
"That still remains a mystery to me. But I heard it's because you've finally met some decent people—of course, that includes. . ." Dogra suddenly stilled and his brows furrowed slightly. He looked at Ace as though he was gauging his reaction if he let the name slip.
"Who?" Ace asked, leaning forward. "Includes who?"
Dogra looked a little uneasy, glancing at the book on his lap. "People. You've met a lot of people at that point. And I remember correctly, you and Marco became brothers around that time too."
Brothers? Ace rummaged through his memories, but nothing quite like that appeared. It was the first time he had heard that. Normally, everyone was queasy when he talked about his missing memories, stamping anything he remembered as imaginary and none-existent. But since Ace's eyes had landed on that newspaper that orange-haired woman had given him, he was fairly certain there were some truths to his remembrance. Ace chewed on his tongue, thinking about the best way to approach this without given too much away.
"And?" Ace asked, snapping Dogra's attention back to him. "Was I the only one who managed to get into University?"
"And no-one else?"
"That's what I said."
"So Luffy stopped studying after high school?"
"Yes—wait, why are you asking me that?"
It was just as he thought. "So, you do know Luffy."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Everything," Ace answered, starting to understand why everyone kept denying Luffy's existence on purpose, adamantly writing everything he remembered off as nothing but his imagination when it was nothing but the truth of his recollection.
Ace noticed how stiff Dogra suddenly became, and decided to ease into the subject matter. "You know, before I came here I met some people. They said they were Luffy's friends."
"Yeah," Ace nodded, thinking about the Straw-Hats. "I asked them where Luffy was, and they showed me a dated newspaper. I was really surprised. I didn't know that happened to him."
Beads of sweat glistered on Dogra's face as he glanced at everything but Ace. "Oh yeah?"
"Yeah." Ace nodded yet again, steadily keeping his eyes on Dogra, silently wondering why Dogra didn't take the bait. "Everyone was fussing about me when I was in coma. I'm surprised that no-one went to visit Luffy." The pallor on Dogra's face whitened like a sheet of plain paper and Ace's brows furrowed. "Why is no-one visiting Luffy?"
"Ace, it's not that easy. We can't visit him even if we wanted," Dogra sighed. His voice was strained, drained from energy. "Stop bringing him up. He's as good as dead. Even Garp couldn't do anything for him. It's futile."
Ace only looked at him and shrugged. "I was just surprised."
"There's nothing surprising about it. As long as the Celestial Dragons are keeping an eye on him, we can't take him back." Dogra pursed his lips together, his fingers tightening on his book. "You better not be thinking about anything stupid. We have lost a child already; we don't want to lose another."
Ace smiled thinly, not believing a single word when he finally asked, "And who's Sabo?" He had an inkling already, it kept creeping up on him, bugging him as though Ace should remember something, but only those ridiculous names written on the reports crept up into the foreground of his mind, and Ace had a feeling that it couldn't be it.
Dogra looked uncomfortably on the floor, and so he asked for the second time.
Who is Sabo?
"Someone, you don't need to concern yourself over anymore. He was just someone you played with as a child. A long time ago. I doubt he remembers you. Just keep your head low. Stay away from the Straw Hats and the Whitebeards. They'll get you in trouble."
Dogra stood up and threw the book on his seat, patting Ace's shoulder who rose to follow him. "Just let the entire thing blow over and finish your degree. It's never too late to start over. Although, it might be safer to change your name entirely. We can't have something like this happening again—"
"Something like what?"
"People finding out about you. We can't have anyone knowing that you're a D."
"A devil, so to speak. It's an ancient folklore or something among the Celestials." Dogra explained, hastening to the door and padding down the hallway toward the kitchen. "They think anyone carrying the D. is their mortal archenemy. They are quite eager to get rid of every single one of you."
Ace perked up. "Who else besides me and Luffy?"
"Right now, it's just you." Dogra said. "Despite their power and standing, they can't simply attack anyone. They need a justifiable reason. And right now, you are the sole suspect of a bombing case."
"It's a little more complicated when it comes to him. But no matter, I hope you have some excuses prepared."
Ace rose a brow at him, slightly confused when Dogra nodded at him curtly and swiftly opened the door leading to the kitchen. Before Ace could even ask, what was this about; Dogra pushed him inside.
Ace stumbled inside the kitchen, face-to-face with Dadan's stern expression, and she clicked her tongue at him, her gaze wandering toward the shadow moving in his peripheral vision. Ace glanced to his left and his breath stuck in his throat when he met the angry eyes of Grandpa.
And this time, Ace was sure not even a tight hug and a soft spoken I love you would cast the thunder raging inside his eyes away. He had never seen Grandpa so angry before, and Ace felt sick to his stomach realising that half of his anger stemmed from disappointment. Ace cleared his throat but found that his voice had failed him.
"Ace," Grandpa called his attention and pinned him with a hard stare that prickled against his skin. "What are you doing?"
"I-I'm just finding out stuff about myself. . ." he hated the way his stomach flipped when Grandpa's eyes fastened on him relentlessly. "I don't want to be an amnesic forever, you know?"
Uneasily, Ace watched Grandpa's hands tightly curl into fists. Ace pressed his eyes shut when Grandpa raised his hand, but instead a blow, his fingers drove through Ace's hair. Ace opened one of his eyes and found Grandpa towering over him.
"I know when you're lying, Ace." He tightened his grip on Ace's head and lifted him up. Ace struggled, dug his nails into Grandpa's arm and kicked in the air, shouting for him to let him go, but his protests fell on deaf ears. "Dadan, check his pockets. He's bound to have something on him."
"Wait—no!" Ace shouted when he felt her hands patting his trousers, and he struggled harder, but Grandpa only enveloped him in a tight hug, stilling his movements as she rummaged through his pockets, and Ace was relieved to notice that his pockets were empty—until Ace remembered that he left all his letters carelessly on the storage floor. His face paled and Dadan must have noticed since she hollered for Dogra and Magra to check every nook and cranny around the house for anything that Ace might have carried along with him.
The door slammed shut behind them. Ace fell flat on the floor when Grandpa released his grip on him and pulled a chair from the table, sitting down. Ace grumbled but climbed onto his feet and gave his old man a weary look. "What is this about?"
"I should be asking you that."
"I haven't done anything." Ace said, frowning, wondering why everyone was so cross with him ever since he arrived. Grandpa only gave him an irritated look, and Ace saw his fingers clenching on the table.
"And you're a hundred percent sure?"
Ace straightened his shirt and stared at the dirty smudge at the table, his lips pursed into a thin line.
"What gave you doubts?"
Ace glanced at his grandpa. From the glint in his eyes, it seemed that he had already an inkling as to why Ace had doubts about his own innocence. "I have read some letters that I addressed to Luffy. It makes me think that I went out for vengeance."
"So, you're confessing?"
"I don't know. It doesn't make sense. From the sound of them, I was grateful to the Whitebeards. I have no reason to hurt them."
"So, who were you trying to hurt instead?"
Ace wetted his lips and averted his gaze. "I'm not entirely sure. I still need to figure that out."
Garp nodded, his fingers tapping on the table top relentlessly. His mouth opened and at the same time the door banged opened, Dadan strode in with his wrinkled letters and attempted timeline. Dogra was right behind her with Sparks and the newspaper articles about the escapades from the Scowling Rowdy and Smiling Blond.
"Seems like he really was doing some research." Dadan muttered, not sparing him a single glance as her gaze fastened on Grandpa. "Although I have heard that he met the Straw Hats. They might be putting some ideas in his head."
"I would be surprised if they didn't," Garp muttered as he turned his attention back to Ace. "What you're going to do, son? Throw your life away and go into hiding, or ride your crazy fantasies and get yourself in trouble?"
Ace was stunned. "You will let me go?"
"Yes." Garp's face was set hard. "But you'll most likely die."
Ace looked at him, disbelievingly. Dadan cleared her throat, "It's because of your father, Ace. Gold D. Rogers had too much influence on the people when he died. The Government is trying to establish new order by doing away with his son and the rest of the descendants from the D. dynasty—"
"What they want to do has nothing to do with me." Ace replied, curtly, his brows furrowing. "Why should I be prosecuted for what that old man has done? Even if his blood is flowing through me, he is not my father."
Grandpa quieted down, staring steadily at him, before his lips pulled back, revealing a row of pearly teeth as he grinned before his lips pulled into a taunt line and he resumed his serious demeanour. Ace frowned.
"It's not what it is, but what it represents." He started to explain, and Ace remembered a rainy night. A group of people taking them by storm and the nonsense Luffy sprouted as he cracked his fist against someone's face when a metal bat slung on Ace's skull at the same time. For a moment, Ace could still feel the phantom pain from the bump as he messaged his scalp, deep in thought and remembering, ("This is not a fight about meat but the legacy we were left behind!") before his gaze landed back on his grandpa.
"It might be blood to you, Ace, but for them it's a lineage. It needs to be stopped as an example for the following generation."
"Why do I have to die for someone else to feel better?" Ace challenged. "I haven't even done anything."
"We don't want you to die either, Ace." Garp sounded patient, so patient Ace was half surprised that he hadn't snapped yet. "But we can't protect you forever, so what will you do? Go into hiding or barge forwards?"
"Barge forwards," Ace answered without a second thought, and Grandpa buried his face into his hand, seemingly so disappointed that Ace's heart thumped in his chest. Ace bit his lips and glared at his feet. There wasn't much else he could do other than moving forward. Running away was for weaklings, Grandpa should know that.
"There's no shame in starting over. See it as a new life somewhere else, where no-one recognises you—"
"I'm not going to run away."
"Why did I figure you'll say that?" Garp sighed and dropped his hand from his face. "Then from here onward we'll go our separate ways. Whatever happens, you better not leave behind a single regret. And if I see you shed a single tear out of bitterness, I will personally bring you back from the dead to pound you one over, is that clear?"
"Yeah," Ace muttered, slightly annoyed that Grandpa was already writing him off dead.
"Alright, this is what you chose." Garp said, nodding, as his fingers dived into his breast pocket and pressed a small business card into his hand. "From here on, we will stand on the opposite side of the law. You are a suspect on the run, and it's my duty to howl your ass into a cell. Don't let me catch you, alright?"
Ace nodded, a little numb at having his own Grandpa as an enemy when he glanced at the card. Marco's name was scribbled onto the paper along with his contact information. Ace swallowed. "Gramps, didn't I tell you already?"
Ace cleared his throat. "You will never catch me."
"We'll see about that!"
Ace listened to his grandpa's roaring laughter, and he felt his lips sinking south. If he had known that they would separate like this, he might as well have held his grandpa's hand a little longer at the hospital, laughed and spoke with him more as they spent their limited time together. Ace glanced at Garp, and from the crinkling of his eyes, Ace saw it, and in Grandpa's laughter, Ace heard it too.
His grandpa's I love you too.
Ace was glad to escape the dinner table.
The scent of cooked meat and flavoured rice still hovered in the air for Ace to drool. He rubbed his sleeve against his mouth, surprised at how famished he still was, but Ace was set against returning to the kitchen.
The recent memory of Dadan, shooting glares across the dinner table, still annoyed him. And whilst Ace had avoided looking at her, he noticed how Magra had been avoiding looking at him, pinning his gaze on his fried chicken and flinching whenever he noticed Ace's gaze on him. It didn't help that Dogra paid no heed toward the tension swirling around them as the elder's pointed indifference was directed at everything except Grandpa, who managed to uphold the sight of a family-friendly lunch with his boisterous chatter across the dinner table despite the unease the others felt.
Ace inhaled up his food as quick as he could and disappeared from the room. It didn't take him much to realise that he was the cause of their discomfort.
He wandered into Magra's room and nicked a bag from him, stuffed plenty supplies and clothing that might fit him. It didn't help that his stature massively differed from Magra and Dogra. He had to make do with whatever he found. He was glad that he managed to grab the research items Dadan brought into the kitchen to incriminate him without their notice. They laid at the bottom of his bag, hidden from sight, beneath the hardcover of Sparks.
Ace picked up his bag and tip-toed out of the room into the hall and out of the front door. He stole a single glance back and listened to the laughter he heard the kitchen, the conversations much brighter than he remembered and he slowly closed the door behind him with a soft click.
The forest greeted him with its earthly colours, deep greens and browns and faint yellows, and beyond the treetops, he saw the glow from the sun reaching beyond the horizon. His boots sank into the soft mud and grass, and he noticed a squirrel scurrying past him, an acorn swelled its cheeks beyond its usual size, and Ace wondered whether it wasn't really spring but the middle of autumn when a cold breeze crept up his arms.
The way back to the Straw Hats wasn't as difficult as he first imagined. Their hideout was East of his old house resting on the outskirt of the forest, and Ace found himself at their place within an hour later.
Their front door was firmly locked when Ace turned the knob, and he rapped his knuckles against the door, slightly wondering whether he could climb in from the window, when the door suddenly swung open. A pair of annoyed brown eyes glared at him. Her hand lay firmly on her jutted hips, leaning against the doorway as the orange haired blocked the entryway.
Ace glanced at the hand she stretched out in front of him with furrowed brows, and she teased with a wink. "A thousand berries. It's not easy housing a little brat."
Housing? The freckled boy stared at her, wondering whether her brain suffered from deficiencies, or whether her thinking was borderline delusional on default. "You guys kidnapped me."
"So? You left, didn't you? Obviously, we're not keeping you."
Ace blinked, once, twice, and nodded. He had been right. Her thinking was borderline delusional on default. It wasn't like he had any choice but to return. Mt. Colubo might be reasonably small to anyone knowing this forest well, but Fuusha was still long away from here by foot. Dadan had only one beaten car which she used to buy supplies from the nearest village, and that old piece of junk would never reach the Whitebeard Inc. in one piece. His fingers tightened on the card, sliding over the engraved numbers of a phone number.
Ace sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "There's a place I need to be."
"And you expect our cooperation?" the orange-haired surmised, glancing at her nails.
She stretched out her hand.
She raised a brow.
"I'm not rich."
She gazed at him, sceptically, and Ace pulled out the inside of his empty pockets. As far as he knew, he didn't even have a wallet, much less a debit card. How did she expect him to pay, much less such a huge amount?
"Well, there are always other ways to pay up a debt," her smile turned sharp. Her hand titled into a sideway position, ready for a hand shake, and Ace cautiously waited for her terms and conditions. Her manicured finger tapped against the side of her cheek, seemingly deep in thought (even though Ace had seen the glitter in her eyes, everything was planning out the way she wanted, and he hated it).
"I don't have a debt," he reminded her, rolling his eyes, more than frustrated but she simply ignored him.
"You could always agree to help us," she glanced at him and he stared right back, gazing past her hair at the shadow flittering past the beige wall from the hallway. The door opened wide behind her and Ace saw the curly eyebrow before he recognised Sanji's face.
"Why don't you take this conversation inside, Nami-sawn? I made some nice desserts," Sanji said, retreating back inside and motioning them to follow him. The orange haired glanced at Ace before she moved, leaving enough space for him to enter, and Ace did, but not without casting a lingering glance at her direction, when he heard the metal locks falling in rapid succession.
It didn't take long for Ace to realise that he was trapped.
"Since you obviously cannot pay for our services, you need to pay up through other means," the orange haired woman explained almost immediately after she scooped the last remnant of her sweet treat. Ace had barely eaten his own, and he was starting to suspect that whatever Chopper, the doctor, gave him might have been the cause of his dwindling appetite.
"And which is?" he asked, pushing his dessert further away from him, reluctantly aware that if Luffy had been around he would have slurped the entire thing in one go. . .
"A favour," Orangey said, and from what the tone in her voice he could tell it was less of a favour and more of a demand.
"We need you to infiltrate Impel Down."
Ace should have recognised that this was where the conversation would head. The mechanism of a payback had always been an eye for an eye, body for a body, and a soul for a soul. The only issue Ace thought from the top of his head was that he had none to spare. There was no way these integral features of his existence could ever make up for the four people they were missing at Mary-Juice.
But Ace also knew he wasn't someone who would simply roll over and die just because someone wanted him to. Hands be bloodied or not, Ace decided to live his life on his own terms, regardless of anyone else he needed to slight in the process, and so he said, "You can't expect me to turn myself in without proving to me that you can guarantee a meeting with Whitebeard."
A strange sound had escaped from someone that Ace suspected to be Long Nose, who nervously sipped from his milkshake. He had sat through the conversation in utter silence despite his mouth twitching to say something ever since Orangey began this conversation.
"Of course, we can or else we wouldn't be discussing this."
From the thin sheet of sweat on Long Nose's face, Ace deduced that it was a No – they couldn't guarantee it, and there was no surprise there. If Ace remembered correctly, the old geezer had disappeared from the public eye ever since that accident occurred. If there was anyone who had a tangible connection to Whitebeard then it would be Marco.
Marco, who had visited Ace at the hospital and vouched for the twenty-year-old Ace twice. The same Marco, who talked to him at the roof where Ace had swayed barely outside the reach of his grip, and the same Marco who had watched in sheer terror as Ace fell right in front of his eyes. . .
Ace doubted Marco would cooperate with him after that. Especially since Ace had told him to screw himself all the way to hell too. . .
"As long as you can guarantee that I can meet with Whitebeard then I don't care what I have to do," Ace said at last, knowing that Orangey was still waiting for a definite reply that Ace still didn't feel comfortable to give. "But that's only as long as you won't resort to any backhanded tactics and call the cops on me when I'm not looking."
"If we wanted to hand you over, we would have done so already." Orangey said, still not sealing the deal as she regarded him sceptically, seemingly not having expected him to agree with her outrageous proposal so quickly, and in that respect, she was right – he hadn't.
Not that it mattered at the moment, Ace was sure they would force him to a decision sooner or later. So, he figured he only needed to give it a slip before that happened. . .
Ace glanced at Orangey who was still dismayed at the uncertainty in their deal, although Ace was sure she must have expected it, and taken precautionary measurements to ensnare him to the outcomes, should he flake out for their agreement (as he intended to do).
"Alright then," Orangey said, getting up, "Then I leave the rest to you, Usopp. I'm going to go make some phone calls."
"Ay. Ma'am," Long Nose replied, giving him a warily glance, and Ace wondered for the nth time what the kind of life this was that he had woken up to ever since he first opened his eyes at the hospital.
Just as Ace had expected the recipient of Orangey's phone call was none other than Marco. After all he was the only one affiliated with Whitebeard, who still regarded Ace as objectively as possible – or at least, as much as the pineapple man could, as he willingly volunteered to give Ace a ride to Whitebeard's whereabouts. And whilst Ace felt reasonably grateful, a part of him still felt awkward being around Marco after the incident at the rooftop.
After several uncomfortable seconds in which Marco casted a single glance at him from his peripheral vision, Ace couldn't stand the stifling silence anymore, especially since Marco turned away each time with nothing but an annoying, self-satisfied hum,
"Aren't you going to say something?"
"What's there to say, yoi?" Marco muttered, concentrating on the road, and Ace rolled his eyes.
"Don't you have something to say to me?"
"At this moment? sure, plenty. But what's the point, you'll regain your memory soon anyway."
"And how do you know that?" Ace said, puzzled at how strangely certain Marco sounded.
"Do you remember when we first met?" Marco asked, and Ace was too surprised to answer, taken aback at the sudden strange turn in the conversation that appeared out of nowhere. "You were as brash as you are now. Aside from your memories, you haven't changed much. I'm certain Whitebeard will tell you the same. You will always be Ace to us, so calm your nerves already."
You will always be Ace?
Bewildered, Ace stared at Marco, how did he know his own personal mantra?
"Sounds familiar, doesn't it?" Marco said, training his gaze on the road as he drove them to who knows where. "Do you remember where you first heard it from?"
Ace shook his head.
"That's what Whitebeard said to you when you first met, and somehow it has stuck with you ever since. I thought it might spark your memory, if I mention it."
"But I don't have any memories about that."
"I don't have any memories about you either."
"I know that too."
Silently, Ace leaned his head against the window pane, staring at the darkened sky when the conversation grew more and more pointless.
"To be honest I didn't expect you to remember anything," Marco said, startling Ace out of his thoughts once the silence blanketed over them once more. "You've got a strong case of dissociative amnesia so I've thought that whatever happened must have been pretty traumatic to set it off."
"Do you think?" Ace said, sceptical about what he was hearing. "According to the reports, my amnesia was simply a consequence of a head trauma—"
"Ah, those reports are fake."
"No, they are not," Ace said, remembering the bundle of cash his grandpa slid over to officer Smoker. There was no way his grandpa would have forked over such an amount without checking the legitimacy of the information first.
"Yes, they are. Thatch and I made sure they were."
"I said, Thatch and I—"
Marco chose to keep his mouth shut as Ace still struggled to comprehend his recent confession. The younger still remembered clearly the bits and pieces that he had read—had they really been nothing but lies?
"Pretty much, yes." Marco said once it dawned on him what Ace might be thinking about, "We couldn't possibly share the extent of the damage with anyone other than ourselves. And before you ask, no – not even the police."
"So, the casualty rate and the percentage of survivors—"
"It's all false, yoi."
Ace was beyond confused, and slowly he was realising that reality continued to elude him even though he had tried so hard holding on to it, and so Ace let go, allowing himself to free fall into this nonsense.
"So, what's the actual casualty rate?"
"Less than 15%."
"And the actual death rate?"
"Wait—shouldn't it have been more?"
"Aren't you glad it's less?" Marco cocked an eyebrow.
"I am. But explosions cause more damage than that. A rate that little isn't normal—anyone knows that."
"Well, in this case it's normal. Especially if you consider the possibility that we might have been tipped off beforehand."
"What kind of criminal tips you off beforehand?" Ace said, wondering whether the hours Marco spent driving had messed up the logical part of his mind.
"Can't you tell what kind?"
"How should I be able to tell that?" Ace was slowly becoming more and more confused, and he realised talking to Marco was like getting lost in a maze. Bewildering and infuriating.
"Can't you figure that out?" was the only thing Marco said, and Ace found himself dizzy from spinning in circles, trying to catch the riddles the pineapple man threw his way.
"No. You tell me why."
"No, I can't—there won't be a point in jogging your memory otherwise," Marco pulled the parking brake at the roadside in the middle of nowhere. The highway stretched on forever and even at the horizon it still stretched on. Not to mention when Ace clambered out of the car, he could barely differentiate his right from his left. Everything was synonymously clad in darkness as though it was the perfect area for crime—
Ace turned around, completely startled when a set of bright headlights flashed on.
Ace drew back, startled. Was it his imagination or was the car inching forward?
"Cut it out!" Ace shouted, completely sure driving for hours on end had made the usual rational Marco crazy when the pineapple man suddenly stepped on the gas.
Ace sprinted out of the way, thinking that Marco might have made a mistake when he skilfully swerved a U-turn, skidding the length of the car just enough to align the pointed edge of the nose at Ace, charging at him once more, and Ace realised that—no, this wasn't a mistake, but an intentional attempt to end his life.
But something like that—
For Marco to be doing something like that—
Ace didn't believe it—
No, he couldn't believe it.
For Marcoto want him dead out of all people?
Ace knew better than to fall for something like this—
For something as laughable and crazy as this.
"Enough already!" Ace shouted, pushing himself out of the way, aggravating his scabs when he skidded headlong across the road, and he knew he was bleeding when he felt something trickle down the length of his arm, hot, red and gushing, but even then Ace ignored it, distressed and unnerved as he was. "You can't trick me with something like this!"
The bright headlights flashed on him again, the engine revved up, heading his way, and Ace still struggled to believe that this was happening.
To think that Marco would try running him over—
Marco, out of all people.
Marco, who had the capability to remain objective even though he had wanted to avenge his brothers and sisters as much as anyone else.
Marco, who voluntarily vouched for the twenty-year-old Ace twice even though he should have been hating him the most.
Marco, who never showed him any hostility that made Ace second-guess whether the elder might have been wishing to gut out his stomach in revenge like his brethren's had wanted.
Marco, who couldn't possibly have planned this out from the start—ever since their first meeting, having been placating and reassuring Ace at a time when he had been nothing but a blob of confusion, deciding Marco to be trustworthy for no other reason than he had remained cordial and impartial at a time when everyone else seemed to have something against him.
Marco, who might have had laid down the groundwork for his plan, murdering him on the first chance he'd get once Ace grew careless enough to trust the façade Marco concocted around him, and Ace had trusted him—trusted that pineapple man even more than he liked to admit.
Ace felt the strength leave his legs. Marco's black sedan was charging toward him, and this time, Ace realised it was too late to dodge it.
The bright light from the headlights blinded his vision, and strangely that sight was vaguely familiar. Ace smelled the bleak residue of worn tyres, remembered the smoke burning underneath his nose, and the sickening feeling when he saw recollections of memories flashing before his eyes. Zapping through him like the shock of an electric current stronger than the one running through the transmission tower, standing in the distance, emerging from the surrounding treetops he saw flickering underneath his flapping eyelids.
Ace chased the afterimage that seemed more and more like a mirage sent from the blue lit sky, adorned with the caws from crows, nested on the blackened rods, their beaded eyes, staring, staring, staring, at the listless body from—
Ace clutched his head when a strange feeling overwhelmed him that carried insurmountable number of thoughts that he couldn't even begin to grasp, but even then Ace knew what that sizzling feeling inside his chest was—
He had felt it before—
He had felt it on this forsaken road after having been—
After having been—
Ace gnashed his teeth and gripped his hair tightly, his anger rising high enough to pop out the veins on his temple. Overcome with such overwhelming amount of hatred, it was almost impossible to think that these emotions had slumbered deep inside his memory for so long without him knowing,
To think he could have forgotten this rage—this immeasurable desire totear apart the very same person who dared—
Ace shut his eyes tightly and pressed his palms against his ears at the sound of cracking bones, of screeching wheels across the asphalt, and laughter emanating from the suffocating smoke rising from the front of his car, and across the car he saw—
From across the car, he could see—
A pair of faces—
Sitting in the—
Ace clenched his teeth and gripped his hair tightly, ripping it apart with such a force as though his head could have been split apart, just to retrieve the memory idly sitting in his mind, casted behind a smokescreen, so vague and blurry during each recall, even though Ace was fairly certain he had known these faces—had known these people who owned these faces happily sitting in the car that swerved at him, wedging his vehicle against the guardrail that stretched out along the highway. His car had toppled over and veered headlong across the road from the impact. Even as they charged a second time.
And as fleeting as it was, Ace remembered swearing an oath during that fleeting moment to rise up from the ashes and grab each and every one of them by the neck, dragging them to the underworld with him, inflicting punishment upon punishment beyond human imagination for having dared to commit the single piece of action Ace could never in his heart even remotely forgive.
His life be ruined—
His future be ruined—
If Ace didn't punished these—
Ace screamed from the top of his lungs, delirious from the pain, dizzy as the colours swirled in front of his eyes, even as the anger brewed in his chest and the fumes choked him, rising from the engine of his damaged car, blinding his vision as he crawled out, tearing his skin at the smithereens that once resembled the windscreen of his car as he pushed his body with the sole strength of his arms, having long since lost feelings from his legs the moment the car toppled over, crushed by no-other than the very same person that he once considered his brother—
Ace screamed even as his voice cracked from the excessive strain, as his bloodied fingers held onto the collar of Sabo's shirt, drenched in blood as he pulled his listless body along with his own.
"I'LL RIP YOU TO PIECES!"
Up ahead, the car charged forward, and Ace still struggled to get Sabo out of the car, realising with a start that he won't make it. Sabo was still barely conscious from having taken the brunt from the collision, and Ace knew he should have kicked Sabo out of the car when he still had the chance—
Ace gnashed his teeth, frustrated and angry. If only these two scumbags hadn't decided to ambush him, then none of this would be happening!
"I'll get you out of here, you hear me?" Ace said as he threw himself over the window screen, tearing his skin along the broken glass as he fell from the nose of his car, dragging Sabo along with him, whose head crashed on the ground as he fell, scattering droplets on the concrete as red as the blood on his blond hair.
"I'll definitely get you out of here so don't die on me—"Ace tightened his grip on Sabo's collar despite his busted fingers, dragging him across the road with nothing but adrenalin and rage when he heard the faint whisper of Sabo's breath.
The impact of the second charge came soon after, and the last images flashing behind Ace's eyelids were a familiar crooked grin, red, streaked teeth, and wide dead, dead, dead eyes of—
Ace screamed from the top of his lungs, delirious from the phantom pain clutching his heart. He barely breathed between chokes of his cries, echoing through the nothingness of the night when he suddenly remembered the blond boy from his childhood with the missing gap in his teeth and the smiles in his eyes.
How could I forget—
How could I have forgotten—
Ace cried as his snot ran down from his nose and mixed into the trails of tears streaming down the length of his neck into the fabric of his clothes, struggling to comprehend the unfathomable realisation of sudden loss—
How could Sabo—
How could Sabo have—
Ace chocked on his own tears and pressed his hands against his mouth at the onslaught of memories tearing the inside of his self apart when Ace still grappled to come to terms with the realisation that he had managed to live—had managed to remain alive whilst his best friend had—had—
(Living on ignorantly when your friend has died—)
(Why was it you that survived? You should have died.)
(How dare you live. You nasty piece of shit.)
"I'M SO SORRYYYY!"
The packages of self-loath carefully hidden in a compartment deep inside Ace's memories burst open, and this time, Ace couldn't stop himself from submerging into the depth of his memories that he had hidden deep inside himself, locked away deep into his unconsciousness where he had quenched the stifling sensation that called for his death during every second of his existence ever since the fall of South Blue.
Even though Ace had fought tooth and nail to will himself to live in his final moments when the smoke chocked him and his vision blurred, swearing a silent oath for revenge that he had forgotten ever since he first woke up on an unrelenting hospital bed. And Ace was both, surprised and shocked to find out he had finally willed himself to exist even though his desire stemmed from nothing other than revenge.
Ace threw his head back and laughed even though he was still screaming from the depth of his soul, wondering what kind of hellhole of a life elder Ace had lived to be arriving at these kinds of twisted conclusions that did nothing but eradicate the entire validity of his existence. Because even now – at twenty – Ace had absolutely nothing.
Nothing other than his pathetic self who couldn't even save his mother in front of adversity as she had done for him. A pathetic person who couldn't even reclaim his name in front of authority without fearing he would die at the hands of violence. A pathetically worthless person who let his best friend die in a moment when he could have lived instead of him.
Ace cried until his tears ran empty and his voice was hoarse, choking on his own breath as he hiccupped, not noticing the figure approaching behind him as his eyes rolled into the back of his head, passing out from the intense psychological strain of sudden remembrance, losing yet again another piece of his sanity when the dark took him and the memories faded inside his mind.
Marco suddenly hit the brake and lurched forward as the car skidded to a sharp halt. The strap of his seat belt dug into his shoulder, and his head was strangely suffocated from the sudden forward force. Its pressure pulsated in his ears and throbbed even more at Ace's screams that vibrated through the night until his pupils rolled into the back of his head,
Silently, Marco kneeled next to Ace, gently slinging his arms over his shoulders, picking him up for a piggy ride that Ace would definitely have hated had he been conscious. Marco carried him back inside the car and strapped him securely with trembling fingers. Still surprised that the book Recalling Amnesia that he and Thatch found online proved far more useful than he had initially thought. His fingers still trembled when he clutched the steering wheel. Those screams still lingered in his ears, and Marco couldn't fathom the kind of effect flooding must have had on Ace for his vocal cords to endure such excessive strain and stress.
Marco breathed out and felt the air rush out from his entire body, knowing with every fibre of his being that nothing could ever move him into doing this again. He took a deep breath and calmed his unsettled nerves for a few moments, feeling more and more relieved that the realisation that had come to him several days ago on the hospital roof proved truthful.
He pulled out his phone and shared the good news.
Ace's memory can be recovered, yoi.