It's complete for real this time.
Chasing down a single ship across the entirety of the Grand Line was not Sabo's idea of a good time. He had other responsibilities as the Chief of Staff, not to mention the veritable mountain of paperwork waiting for him back at the base. There were important missions, debriefs, and information packets buried in there. But no, here he was, out on the water with salt coating his skin and the ship rocking gently under his feet.
Still, there was nothing to be done about it, and, despite the responsibilities awaiting his return, he was enjoying the travel. He'd never been able to refuse the allure of the open sea. He rested his elbows on the starboard railing and peered out at the distant horizon. Dawn had come a couple hours prior, but intermittent clouds kept the weather comfortably cool.
"I figured I'd find you out here."
Koala leaned against the railing next to him, the ruffles of her pastel green shirt rippling in the breeze.
"What can I say? I'm predictable."
Koala's lips twitched. "I just know you." Her shoulders dropped as she looked out over the water. "Think we'll find him?"
"You know I can't say for sure. I hope we do."
After a few more seconds of contemplative quiet, Sabo pushed off the railing. When Koala raised an eyebrow, Sabo merely pointed to the sky. "Seagulls," he said. "We're close."
Koala followed him belowdecks. They both spent a minute getting their gear in order. This was not an infiltration mission—more of an exfiltration if their hunch was right—but there was no sense advertising the Revolutionary Army's every move, so they were on a single unmarked ship. If anything went wrong, there would be no reinforcements.
The skeleton crew actually steering the ship docked without issue. The captain, a man who had helped Sabo with errands many times before, disembarked to negotiate with the dock authority. Sabo and Koala disembarked as well, pausing until the men in uniform nodded permission to go ashore.
"Nothing's on fire," Koala noted. "That's a good sign, right?"
Sabo scanned the shops lining the main road. True, there was nothing burning, and there were no signs of a fight, either. This was a small island, more of a footnote on a map than anything else, but the Revolutionary Army had long known about suspicious marine activity passing through its waters. There was no confirmed black site, but that was only because they hadn't yet been able to spare the resources to thoroughly investigate. Ace had reported his intent to come here weeks ago and hadn't been heard from since. The islands he should've hit on the way had given no indication that Ace had visited them. The agents Dragon had sent out to investigate after Ace missed his second check-in had also reported nothing.
So here Sabo was. Investigating where the other investigators had failed. All he'd managed to do was decide to check Ace's final destination one last time. If there was a black site here, and if Ace had somehow been captured, then it was the logical place to hold him—if it was anything like the facility from the fog-laden sector, at least.
They spent a while merely walking around town, playing the part of a curious tourist couple while sweeping the streets for anything suspicious. There were more marines than there should've been for a town and island this size, but nothing extreme. When Sabo's stomach finally complained about the lack of lunch, they settled on an old café just off the main road. Shielded from the sun by a simple umbrella over the table and thoroughly refreshed by the café's excellent smoothies, Sabo scanned the faces of the people walking by as discreetly as he could. Koala, he knew, was doing the same.
"It's quiet," Koala murmured.
"Marines are all in standard uniform," Sabo replied. "Their base is a tiny building just off the marina. Bedrock underneath, from what I saw on the approach. No room for sublevels."
"Other buildings looked clean."
"Captain said there aren't any other docks. No one lives on the far side of the island."
Koala frowned into her tea. "Convenient."
"How do we get there?"
Sabo sipped his smoothie. "We ask."
"Impossible," the old woman said, shaking her head to further emphasize her words. "Can't be done. Why in the heavens would you want to go there, anyhow? Nothing to see but bog and bones."
Koala and Sabo leaned into each other, all smiles. "My husband and I just love to explore," Koala gushed. "It's what we do! Why, for our honeymoon, he took me to this breathtaking island in the East Blue. We spent days hiking in these beautiful mountains. We just can't miss opportunities like those."
The woman frowned. "Nothing like that here, I'm afraid. Locals tried to clean the place up and make it livable, but too many people went missing. It's a dangerous place. They closed down all the routes years ago. Stick to this side and you'll have a much safer time of it. No reason to tempt fate, that's what I think."
"Aw," Koala said, slouching a little. "Are you sure?"
"Quite. Stay on the safe side, lassie. Even the marines know that."
Sabo watched the woman walk deeper into the shop, leaving Koala and him alone in a little tucked-away corner. Racks of clothes dampened the sounds of the store, making it the perfect spot for a quick planning session.
"We have to go," Koala said as soon as the woman was out of earshot. "It's way too suspicious to leave it alone. The original intel we have from here even mentioned it as a possibility."
"The original intel mentioned that the island had another half that was unexplored," Sabo corrected. "We don't want to jump to conclusions."
"Do you think Ace went there?"
"I don't know."
"His powers wouldn't be very useful in a bog."
"Not really." Sabo leaned against the wall, staring at the floor in thought. "The locals all think the bog is too dangerous to explore. People went missing when they tried."
"It isn't unheard of for the marines to make some people…vanish, or something, when they get in the way."
Sabo inclined his head. "The captain said he hadn't heard of any docks on the far side, but that doesn't mean there isn't somewhere for boats to come ashore or offload cargo. The marine base at the front here is a great way to throw off suspicion. Why have two bases on one island?"
"The bogs could also explain the increased marine presence," Koala noted.
"We haven't seen the paths," Sabo mused, "but if we look…"
"I bet marines guard them," Koala finished. "Worth a shot." She paused, and then frowned, peering over Sabo's shoulder at the bay. "Hey, Sabo, that ship—the one just arriving. Does it look familiar to you?"
Sabo snuck a glance behind him under the pretense of cracking his back. There was only one ship sailing towards shore: a small, unremarkable craft with a white figurehead and an unassuming build. It was precisely its innocuous appearance that made it resonate in Sabo's memory.
He faced Koala again. "That's Straw Hat Luffy's ship," he murmured, making sure to pitch his voice so no one nearby would hear.
"Why is he stopping here? Our last sighting of him had him going in the opposite direction. The base here isn't even big enough to warrant an all-out assault. He's always gone after larger targets. Does he know about the possible black site?"
"Impossible. Even we haven't confirmed it, and he hasn't gone after any other ones. Only known bases on islands he's sailing past."
"I don't know. Ace seemed to know his poster, but beyond that, I can't see how they could be connected. I do know his arrival is going to cause a serious commotion here, though."
Sabo nodded. "Exactly."
They both stood. "Can't let an opportunity like this go to waste," Koala said.
"Certainly can't," Sabo agreed.
They both watched the ship pull up to an open dock.
"We should really get going."
"How does he do it?" Koala finally said. "He's got a small crew."
"He's a kid."
"Took down Arlong."
"Does he make allies?"
"Charisma can only get a pirate so far."
Koala narrowed her eyes. "The crew's coming off. The dock chief's talking to the redhead."
"No chaos yet," Sabo noted.
Koala went to reply and then stopped. "There's another ship coming."
"No. Smaller. Look, just south of west."
Sabo peered out at the horizon. Sure enough, there was a tiny smudge where sky met sea. "It could be a bounty hunter."
"Maybe," Koala said, but she didn't sound convinced. "You said Ace was weirdly interested in Straw Hat's bounty poster, didn't you?"
"He recognized it, but played it off when I asked him about it. He told me later they're brothers."
"I think," Koala said slowly, "that he might be more interested in a reunion than he hinted he was. Look at the approaching ship."
Sabo took another long look. The ship was getting closer at incredible speed, but it wasn't growing much in size. It looked to be even smaller than Straw Hat's vessel. Possibly only room for a single man. How could it generate enough power to go as fast as it did? Unless that fire coming out the back—
Sabo sucked in a breath. "Fire."
Koala nodded. "Fire. We need to intercept him."
"Think about it. Ace and Straw Hat Luffy going against all the marines on this island? Way too much attention."
Sabo waved a hand. "You don't need to convince me, Koala. I know. Let's go, before Ace destroys the island."
As they ran, weaving between townsfolk when they could and shoving through them when they couldn't, Sabo kept close track of the fire ship's progress. They didn't know for sure that it was Ace, of course, but if it was and they did nothing, this whole town would be at risk of immolation. Ace had a bad reputation for collateral damage. Never on purpose, but his fires raged out of control all too often after too many years of being forcibly extinguished.
"I just don't understand," Koala said, running on Sabo's right. "Where's his ship? Where's his crew? If he's alive, why didn't he check in?"
"I don't know," Sabo grunted. "We'll ask him when we see him. Guessing isn't going to get us anywhere."
"This way, it's a shortcut."
They split off the main road into a series of winding alleys with walls that pressed in close on either side. Sabo vaulted over a tipped barrel and then leaped over a low fence, Koala a step ahead. Their footsteps echoed harshly off the leering walls and curious faces peered at them from open windows, but Sabo ignored them. No sense in maintaining their cover at a time like this.
Breaking back into the open, Sabo blinked away the glare of the sun off the water and scanned the piers for Ace's ship. He should've been docking or about to dock.
"There!" Koala said, taking off again. Sabo chased after her, seeing what she'd seen a second later: Ace drifting up to the nearest dock in his banana-yellow boat, the last of the flames from the engine flickering out. He was already chatting with the dock authority who was walking over, an easy smile on his face. Sabo and Koala pulled up short in surprise as Ace handled the logistics of his arrival without once giving any sign of the murderous rage he was so infamous for.
But it was, without a doubt, Ace. Sabo had not seen him since his departure from Baltigo, but the time on his own had clearly done him good: the bags under his eyes were gone, his hair was longer and more unruly in a style that suited him better, and he'd picked up various accessories during his travel, including a bright orange hat, a dagger with an ornate green sheath, and a necklace of red beads. Of most note, though, was the tattoo on his arm. How Ace had managed to get the ink to work with the scar tissue, Sabo didn't know, but now the A-S-C-E was visible for the world to see.
Strangely, though, the S was no longer crossed out. A sign of his freedom?
"He looks…good," Koala said hesitantly.
"Not on the warpath, you mean," Sabo said.
"Yeah. He's, uh, he's all yours, I guess. I'll keep watch while you two catch up."
Sabo tipped his head in acknowledgement and then strode across the dock, his boots making the wooden slats beneath creak with every step. He passed the dock authority with a nod and continued on to Ace, who was rummaging in his ship with his back to Sabo.
"Ace," Sabo said. No response. "Ace," he said again, louder this time. Ace started and then stood so fast he nearly tipped into the water.
"Sabo?" Ace peered at him in clear surprise, then relaxed as he threw a watermelon-patterned bag over one shoulder. "Really is you. What're you doing all the way out here?"
"What am I—what am I doing out here? Really?"
"You missed two check-ins, Ace. Two. We couldn't find any sign of you, so I got sent out here to track you down."
Ace frowned. "Missed? There's no way I—" he stopped, realization dawning. "Oh."
"What do you mean, oh?"
"The crew and I were having a good time a few weeks back and may have…accidentally drowned our snail."
Sabo felt the sigh welling up from the deepest parts of his soul but pushed it down. "You drowned your only means of communication with us?"
"Look, I'll swing by HQ and grab another one once I'm done here. It'll be fine."
"Where is your crew?" Sabo asked.
"We had to stop at Water 7 for ship repairs. I left them there once this beauty got finished—" he nudged his boat with his foot—"and came here."
Sabo really wanted to rub his temples. He really did. But he resisted. "Why did you come here, Ace?"
"Uh. The suspected black site?"
"You don't sound very sure about that, and if you did, you wouldn't leave your crew behind. What did you really come here for?"
After a second's hesitation, Ace sighed. "I needed to see Luffy."
"All this for your brother."
Ace nodded wordlessly.
"Let me get this straight," Sabo said. "You went to Water 7 for ship repairs, drowned your snail, heard about your brother coming this way, left your crew and ship behind, and came here to meet with him?"
Ace shrugged. "Pretty much. I didn't want him to think I was a bounty hunter or rival crew. I did say I was going to come this way before our snail died. Besides, the spot we're hitting after this is back by Water 7. No sense wasting supplies by dragging the whole crew out here and back."
"So you're not here for the possible black site."
"Only half the reason I came. I can take a look while I'm here. I just didn't expect them to stop at this island. There's that much bigger kingdom nearby—Alabasta, I'm pretty sure it's called."
"Maybe," Sabo said dryly, "they wanted to stop and investigate the strange ship that had been following them. Did you ever bother to introduce yourself as something other than a bounty hunter?"
"Uh…no. I'm not sure how to approach him. Doing it on open water didn't seem right. What if he doesn't recognize me?"
And there, just a flash of it: true anxiety. Ace was putting on a brave face, but Sabo could see right through it. He was scared of rejection. Terrified of it.
Sabo reached out. His hand fell on Ace's shoulder and Ace went rigid.
"Just talk to him," Sabo advised, squeezing once and letting go. "He's family. He'll know you."
Pain flickered across Ace's expression. "Yeah, you'd think that, wouldn't you?"
Sabo didn't really know how to respond to that. Luckily, he didn't have to: Ace glanced over his shoulder and set his jaw.
"Well, the redhead from his crew is talking to your friend there. I don't think I have a choice anymore."
"To Koala?" Sabo turned and, sure enough, Cat Burglar Nami was holding an animated conversation with Koala. When Ace approached, though, Nami broke off the conversation immediately.
"You," she said, pointing at Ace. "You're the one that's been following us, aren't you?"
"And if I am?"
Nami crossed her arms. "Then Zoro here is going to have words with you."
"Zoro," Ace repeated. "Green hair, three swords?"
"The guy who took a wrong turn about half a block back?" Nami went white. Ace raised his hands in the universal gesture of peace. "Relax. I'm not a bounty hunter or anything like that. I just want to talk to your captain."
"Uh, to catch up?"
"How do you know Luffy?"
"I'm his brother."
"Not a good eno—his brother?" Nami shook her head. "That's not possible. His brother is—"
"Imprisoned in some top-secret marine black site without any hope of rescue?" Ace finished. "I escaped."
Sabo would describe Nami in that moment as "floored." There was no way to know how much Luffy had said about his missing brother, but Ace's simple interruption apparently provided the minimum required evidence.
"I just want to talk to him," Ace repeated.
Nami's gaze flicked to Ace's tattoo, then back to his face. The gears, after that moment of shock, were turning. "What's your name?"
"My name? Ace."
"All right. What's Luffy's name? His full name."
Sabo wanted to scoff at the ridiculousness of the question. Surely everyone knew Straw Hat Luffy's full name. It was simple, something…something like…
He didn't know it. Hadn't even really thought about someone like Straw Hat having a family name.
"Monkey D. Luffy."
Ace said it like the name was just that: a name. But to Sabo, it rang like a town square bell. Monkey. D. Both of those meant something incredible. Straw Hat Luffy had some kind of relation to Dragon—father-son, most likely, provided that Luffy did not share the same family name by sheer coincidence. And with a middle initial of "D," that seemed unlikely.
Ace, completely unaware of how he'd just thrown Sabo and Koala for a complete loop, fell into step behind Nami as she led the way back to Straw Hat's ship.
"I convinced everyone else to stay on board," she explained as they walked. "I didn't think this would take very long. We just wanted to get you to stop following us."
"I thought I was doing a better job staying out of your line of sight," Ace admitted.
"Can't really hide on open water."
"No, I guess you can't."
"Are we just following them?" Koala whispered.
"I guess," Sabo whispered back. "Ace doesn't seem to mind. What else are we going to do? Straw Hat isn't here to cause trouble, so the distraction isn't going to happen. We might as well see just how deep his and Ace's connection goes. Who knows? He might be a useful ally in the future."
"If you say so."
Sabo listened to Nami and Ace's conversation with half an ear. The marines wandering the port were throwing glances their way, but no one was making a move yet. Did they recognize Nami? Sabo's face wasn't as well known, and neither was Koala's. Ace hit bases so quickly and so brutally that no one escaped with a description, making him the most anonymous of their group. For the moment, their anonymity was holding, but for how long? Even marines on a backwater island like this would eventually realize something was strange about the new ship on their shores.
Speaking of that ship, it was really just as unassuming up close as it was from afar. Sabo would be tempted to call its sheep-like figurehead cute. Koala didn't bother with such reservations, saying quietly: "Aw, look, it's a sheep."
"Don't touch anything," Nami advised. "Usopp cares a lot about this ship and we've done enough repairs already."
"It's not made of Adam's wood," Koala muttered, tapping her foot against the wooden boards that made up the deck. "It isn't going to last out here for very long if they keep getting into fights."
Sabo nodded. "Ace can lead them to Water 7 if he wants. It's their choice."
The two revolutionaries quieted down and did what they did best as Nami went into the ship's small mess: they melted into the background, letting all the attention gather on Ace. It was almost too easy with the way Ace drew the eye. His shoulders were squared, one thumb hooked through his belt, the other hand hanging loosely at his side.
"He's nervous," Sabo commented.
"How can you tell?"
"I just can. Can't you?"
Koala frowned. "No. He looks perfectly comfortable."
Movement above: a young man with a long nose, curly hair, and brown overalls climbed down from the crow's nest.
"You're Usopp, right?" Ace called. Usopp froze, then glanced at Ace. "I'm Ace, Luffy's brother."
That calmed Usopp down immediately, but not all of his suspicion disappeared. Ace raised his hands with a wry grin. "I come in peace?"
Sabo doubted Ace had ever said those words and meant them at any point in his life. Usopp dropped all the way to the deck and looked right past Ace, focusing on Sabo and Koala, startling them both.
"Who are they?"
Ace glanced over his shoulder. "Ah, just some friends of mine. Don't worry about them."
The door to the mess slammed open and Nami marched out. She stopped several yards away from Ace, scowling something fierce as she crossed her arms. "I knew it," she said. "You're lying."
"Where's Luffy?" Ace asked quietly.
"Not coming. He says you can't be here, and I believe him."
Usopp moved to stand next to Nami as another blond boy came up on her other side, looking just as irritated as Nami.
"Where. Is. My brother?" Ace repeated. Tongues of flame flared up in his hair. A bead of sweat slipped down the back of Sabo's neck.
"Ace," he said, "calm down."
"My brother," Ace growled. "Where is he? Last chance."
"Why don't you get off our ship?" the blond boy suggested.
The air around Ace was quite literally rippling with heat when the door to the mess opened one last time and a boy with scruffy black hair, a scar under one eye, and a simple straw hat emerged.
Ace's heat vanished like a fire in a flood. His shoulders dropped and all the hard lines on his face melted away.
"Luffy," he breathed.
Nami, Usopp, and the blond boy all glanced over their shoulders.
"Luffy!" Nami said. "I told you to stay inside."
Luffy, eyes wide, didn't even seem to hear her. He walked right by his crew, crossing the invisible line like it wasn't even there.
"Ace?" he whispered, voice quiet and shaking. "Ace, is that you?"
Mesmerized, Sabo watched them close the gap. They all but tackled each other when they finally made contact, Luffy launching himself at Ace hard enough to make Ace spin around. Ace knotted his fingers in Luffy's vest, tears sliding out of his closed eyes as he choked back a sob. Luffy had no such restraint: his rubbery arms wrapped around Ace once, twice, three times as he openly bawled.
"You're okay," Ace hiccupped into Luffy's shoulder as Luffy repeated the same mantra. "You're okay, you're okay, you're okay."
Sabo exchanged a look with Koala. They felt like intruders, but there was nowhere else to go, and leaving would be far worse than staying quiet and out of the way.
Still, as Sabo watched them sink to their knees, still holding each other as close as they possibly could, something empty and cold yawned open in his chest. It happened so quickly that he had to look away and bring one hand to his heart just to make sure it was still beating.
"Sabo?" Koala asked, worry lacing her tone.
"Fine," he grunted. "I'm fine."
He forced himself to recover his equilibrium and stood straight. Ace's spinning had ended with him facing Sabo, his back to Luffy's crew, but the opposing trio was making no moves, just as shell-shocked as Sabo and Koala. Ace was still crying, glimmering tracks running down his cheeks, but he sniffled and pulled back from Luffy. The younger boy's arms unwound and snapped back to normal length. Ace kept his hands on Luffy's shoulders, eyes shining as he took in every detail.
"You're okay," he said one last time.
Luffy reached out and poked at Ace's face. "You're here."
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm here, Luffy."
They embraced again, still on their knees.
"How?" Luffy mumbled.
"I had help getting out. Heard about what you've been doing while I've been gone. Doesn't seem like you, Luffy."
"Had to find you."
"You did. I'm here."
After another several seconds of drinking each other in, Ace and Luffy finally got back to their feet. Luffy's eyes were red and puffy; Ace was looking no better. Yet, despite that, both were practically glowing. Ace had an arm around Luffy's shoulders and didn't look inclined to let go. Luffy was leaning into Ace like a compass finding its true North.
Ace and Sabo made eye contact. Ace beamed. Not a smirk, or a brief quirk of his lips, but a full on smile that made his whole face light up.
The void in Sabo's chest grew colder.
Worse, that niggling feeling of familiarity that had always bugged him when he spent time around Ace was growing. He knew Ace, he knew Luffy, he knew that he knew them, but he didn't understand how or why or from what. Seeing them together was practically giving him a headache from the force of it.
Koala's elbow dug into his side. Sabo winced. "Ow, what?"
"You're crying," Koala said.
Blinking, Sabo wiped his eyes. His sleeve came away darkened with moisture. He was crying. Why was he crying?
"Jeez, you're white as a sheet, too. Hey, Nami, got somewhere he can lie down?"
Nami tore her attention away from the two reunited brothers. "Um." After another glance at Ace and Luffy, she nodded. "Over this way."
Ace watched, the euphoria of reuniting with Luffy slowly ebbing away, as Sabo staggered into the ship's small, understocked medical room. Koala nodded at him as she walked past, a tacit signal that she'd keep an eye on him. Ace squeezed Luffy's shoulder, stuck. Did he check on Sabo? But then Luffy would want to know who Sabo was, and hearing the name would probably be enough, but then Ace would have to explain that Sabo didn't remember anything, and he really, really didn't have the strength for that right now. When he'd smiled at Sabo and had gotten a blank stare in return, the reality of the situation had all but taken the floor out from under him. He had Luffy back, but Luffy wasn't the same kid he'd left behind; he had Sabo back, but Sabo didn't even know him anymore.
Their brotherhood was broken, and the cracks weren't the kind you could just will away.
"Hey, I was in the middle of making lunch when you showed up, so if you want some food…" The blond boy jerked his head towards the mess. Under Ace's arm, Luffy perked up.
He started to move, then paused and glanced back at Ace. "You still eat, right?"
Ace wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the question, but he settled for a playful knock on Luffy's shoulder that only staggered Luffy a little bit. "Of course I do, moron."
They settled around a table. Ace, naturally, claimed a spot next to Luffy, even though he knew he was going to have to fight for his food because of it. Nami had begged off after getting Sabo and Koala situated, saying she was going to hunt down Zoro.
Once the food was served and everyone had settled in, Ace figured it was time for a round of introductions. While fighting Luffy with his left hand and eating with his right, he explained who he was and apologized for being hostile.
"I thought you were keeping him from me," Ace finished. "I didn't mean to get aggressive. I apologize."
Clearly caught off-guard, Usopp and Sanji glanced at each other before Usopp swallowed his food and took the lead. "Um, ah, thank you. We didn't realize you were, um, telling the truth."
"You just wanted to protect Luffy. I can understand that." Ace tipped his head, narrowly avoiding a stripped-clean bone to the eye. "So, you're Usopp, right?"
Usopp nodded, puffing out his chest. "Yes, Usopp, the best shot you've ever seen!"
Ace shifted to the other man. "Sanji," the blond said. "The cook, obviously. So you're the shitty captain's brother?"
"Not by blood," Ace clarified, elbowing Luffy in the side when he got too aggressive on the food acquisition. "But yeah, we swore brotherhood when we were younger, before we got…separated."
"Not by blood," Usopp repeated. "Okay, that clear things up. You act a lot differently than he does."
"I paid attention," Ace said with a shrug. "Getting this idiot to listen to any kind of instruction, no matter who's giving it, is way more trouble than it's worth."
Usopp and Sanji both nodded with the wisdom of experience.
"What about that other guy travelling with you?" Sanji asked. "And that gorgeous mademoiselle that tended to him?"
"Ah…yeah, that woman was Koala. She and the guy are friends of mine."
"So who's the guy?"
Ace shot an uncomfortable glance at Luffy, who was still focused on mopping up the last of the meat Sanji had prepared. "It's complicated," he finally said. "You'll just have to trust me."
Sanji took a long drag of his cigarette and sighed. "If the captain trusts you, I guess we have to do the same."
"So what was Luffy like when you were growing up?" Usopp asked. "He doesn't talk about it."
Ace raised an eyebrow. "Do you ever ask?"
"Ah…no, not really."
Leaning forward, Ace rested his elbows on the table. "He was a handful. Always chasing after me. I got really annoyed when he wouldn't give up."
"He pushed me off a bridge," Luffy said around his last mouthful. Sanji choked on his next inhale, coughing out smoke. Ace nodded.
"I wasn't a nice kid," he acknowledged. "Without Luffy, I would've been a lot different. I had another friend at that point, but neither of us knew how or where to draw the lines. Luffy gave us a new perspective. We ended up pulling a lot of crazy stunts together."
"Don't forget the treehouse," Luffy put in.
"Right. We built this big treehouse. Put a wheel in it, made a crow's nest—we wanted to be pirates, each of us a captain of our own crews, eventually. We made an agreement to all sail out when we turned seventeen. A storm nearly tore the whole tree down. Luffy went out to save our flag and nearly got blown away himself. Plus the times he nearly got eaten by a croc, or the giant centipedes—"
"How giant?" Usopp asked.
"Hmm. Twenty feet?"
Usopp relaxed. "Not really centipedes."
He misunderstood. Ace shook his head. "No, I mean twenty feet long."
Sanji caught Usopp before he fainted his way to the floor. "Rough island you grew up on."
"Yeah. Those were the good years, though. Things went south after we swore brotherhood."
"That's when you," Sanji started, then gestured with his free hand. Ace nodded. Sanji looked away, brows knitted in thought. For his part, Usopp had recovered but was still visibly shaken by the knowledge that twenty-foot-long centipedes existed.
Ace came to a decision. He stood. "I'm going to check on my friend. Luffy, you mind coming with me? I think you should meet him."
Luffy followed without complaint. As they briefly stepped out onto the main deck on the off-chance Sabo had wanted fresh air, Nami returned with the swordsman Zoro. Seeing the two, Nami paused.
"Sanji and Usopp are in there," Ace said, pointing back at the mess. "I'm pretty sure he hid some food away for you guys."
"There was more?" Luffy asked. Ace whacked his shoulder.
"You had enough. Leave some for your crew."
As Nami and Zoro walked by, Ace overheard Zoro ask, "Who's the other guy?"
He hoped Sanji and Usopp would just repeat what he'd already said, since he didn't relish the idea of saying all that again. Reminiscing about his time with Sabo and Luffy had brought up painful memories that he'd prefer not to visit again.
When Ace knocked, Koala opened the door. "How is he?"
She pursed her lips. "Pretty out of it. He said he had a headache, then fell asleep, but he's not really resting."
She shifted her weight, letting Ace look over her shoulder. Sabo was on a cot in the room beyond, face glistening with sweat as he twisted and groaned on top of the sheets. Behind Ace, Luffy rocked on his feet, already losing interest.
"Mind giving us the room?" Ace asked. Koala frowned.
"Why? Don't tell me you're going to try burning Sabo's fever out of him because I'm pretty sure that only works for you."
"No, of course not. Look, I just—there's something he and I and Luffy need to talk about."
"He really isn't in any condition to talk."
"It's something he needs to hear."
"Something I can't hear? What is this about, Ace?"
Ace bit his lip, glanced at Luffy, and then sighed. "He's my brother."
"Luffy? Yes, I've heard."
"No, not—I mean, yes, Luffy, but Sabo too."
For his part, Luffy was no longer rocking on his heels. "Sabo?"
"It's a long story," Ace said, "but I knew it the instant he rescued me from that facility. He's our brother. I know it."
Luffy tugged Ace's sleeve. "Why are you talking about Sabo?"
"Is everyone here related to you?" Koala asked.
"Just these two."
She sighed, but it quickly turned into a frustrated groan. "All right, fine, go on in. But if you do anything to him, I'm kicking you overboard."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Ace ducked into the tiny medical bay, Luffy still asking questions as Koala shut the door behind them.
"That's Sabo," Ace finally said, facing Luffy. Luffy frowned, peering at the cot.
"That's what I thought too. Apparently we were both wrong."
Luffy approached slowly, eyes wide and wondering. Sabo, completely unaware of the world around him, continued to quietly suffer in his own head. Ace rested a hand on Luffy's shoulder as they both looked down at their brother.
"What happened?" Luffy asked.
"I don't have all the information," Ace replied. "But when that noble bastard shot Sabo's ship, Sabo survived. The leader of the Revolutionary Army rescued him, but Sabo lost his memory."
"He doesn't remember us?"
Luffy glanced at the small counter. "He still has his hat."
"Or he found a similar one. I guess some things never change."
Sabo screamed. Ace flinched, Luffy dropped Sabo's hat, and Koala slammed the door open.
Ace grabbed Sabo's flailing arms and held them down. "Get his legs!" he barked. Koala and Luffy rushed to restrain Sabo before he hurt himself, but the blond was strong; Ace was thrown into the far wall, slamming his head against the boards. He turned to fire at the last instant to avoid a concussion, but it was a near thing. Staggering back to Sabo, he grabbed his brother's wrists and levered all of his body weight against Sabo to avoid being tossed again.
Sabo cried out, the sound digging into Ace's ears, but this time Ace was ready for the thrashing. He, Luffy, and Koala held on until the fight abruptly drained out of Sabo, leaving him limp on the cot. Ace, muscles aching, slouched against the wall. Koala did the same. Luffy, who had used his rubbery arms to great effect, was massaging his left arm and wincing.
"What did you do?" Koala asked.
"Nothing," Ace said.
"He just started yelling," Luffy added.
They all looked at Sabo, who was breathing evenly but showed no signs of waking up.
"We should take him back to base," Koala said. "They'll have doctors—"
"I don't think this is an issue with his body," Ace said quietly.
"Think about it. Was he sick on the way over here? He seemed fine when I first talked to him."
"No, he was…he was normal."
"So it was only when he saw Luffy and I together."
"Your reunion was pretty emotional," Koala admitted. "He was pretty distracted during it."
"And then this happened."
"I guess you have a point. What do we do, then?"
Ace glanced around, then pulled up a stool. "We wait."
Sabo's was not a peaceful wakening. His world rocked, throwing him to the floor as his dream disappeared from his memory. His head bounced against the wood, jarring him into consciousness as the boards beneath him tipped. He scrabbled for a handhold—the bed's nearest leg—as the ground shifted to a nauseating degree before righting itself. Groaning, Sabo staggered to his feet. His head was mess, and the new welt didn't help matters in the least.
The boat rocked again, throwing Sabo into the wall. Outside, he could hear shouting and gunfire. He grabbed his hat from the nearby counter and yanked the door open.
Marines. They were everywhere: swarming the beaches and climbing their way onto the deck as a small group of kids tried to fight them off. Sabo blinked. Kids. No. Straw Hat Luffy's—no, just Luffy's—crew. His pirate crew. Because he'd sailed out at seventeen, just like they'd all promised.
"GET. AWAY. FROM. MY. BROTHER!"
A raging tornado of flame slammed down onto the largest gathering of marines on the beach, scattering some and killing most. Ace followed it up with a hail of exploding fireballs that threw the reforming units into complete chaos. In the clearing smoke, Sabo saw Luffy, now freed from the dogpile and wreaking havoc with flying fists and feet.
He blinked. Luffy looked older than he remembered. Or—or no, he didn't. Sabo shook his head. His headache wasn't going away, but it wasn't getting worse, either.
Movement. Sanji of Luffy's crew was in front of him, one foot raised. A yard to Sabo's left, a cannonball was halfway embedded in the wall.
"If you're gonna get up and wander around in the middle of a fight," Sanji advised, "pay attention. The shit captain has enough on his plate already."
Another flash of movement. Two halves of a cannonball sliced cleanly down the middle sailed past, splintering the wooden panels on either side of Sabo and Sanji.
"I could say the same thing, swirly-brows," the green-haired one—Zoro—growled around the sword hilt in his mouth.
"What's going on?" Sabo asked. "The last thing I remember is Koala taking me into that room."
"The marines figured out who we are," Sanji said, kicking another cannonball back at its cannon. The soldiers manning the weapon dove out of the way as the cannon backfired, resulting in an explosion that took out the other two cannons next to it. "This island has way too many of them. They took out our sails first. We had no choice but to fight. If you can help, do it. If not, I'd recommend getting back in that room."
Sabo frowned, flexing his fingers. No matter how much fog lingered in his brain, he had trained for years to make sure combat was reflex as much as intention.
"I can fight."
Sanji kicked a marine into his fellow soldiers, sending the whole group tumbling into the water below. He and Zoro quickly disappeared into the fray. Sabo adjusted his gloves and settled his gaze on the nearest group pulling themselves onto the deck.
"Gentlemen," he said.
They saw him coming but could do nothing to stop him. Sabo launched them all overboard with a myriad of broken bones. Seeing that the deck was clear, Sabo kicked off the railing. He landed hard on the shoulders of a marine, sending him face-first into the sand as Sabo rolled away. All the remaining marines on the beach went down in a hail of fiery bullets.
In the lull as the remaining soldiers retreated and regrouped, Sabo stood still. Ace approached slowly, as though fearing he would disappear.
"Sabo?" Ace asked cautiously. "You're looking…better."
"Not passed out on a cot, you mean," Sabo said. "Yes, I'm feeling better, too."
Ace knitted his brows. "Do you…" He paused, restarted. "How's your head? Koala said you had a headache."
"A bit jumbled," Sabo admitted, "but clearer than it's been in years."
Ace's shoulders straightened in hope. "You—"
Relief and joy swept across Ace's expression, washing away the trepidation and fatigue. In that moment, there were no soldiers, no battle scars, no years standing between them: Ace closed the distance and threw his arms around Sabo, staggering them both. Laughing a little—more incredulity than anything—Sabo reciprocated, bunching his fingers in the material of Ace's shirt.
"You remember," Ace repeated into Sabo's shoulder.
"All the important parts, I think."
Ace drew back, staring into Sabo's eyes, and Sabo finally realized that Ace had been looking for that spark of recognition all along. Swallowing, Ace stepped away and awkwardly glanced around. The marines had drawn back for now, but they would attack again eventually.
"And you're not…I mean, I didn't try to tell you."
Sabo shook his head. "That was probably for the best. I don't think I would have believed you, or if I did, I wouldn't have had any memories to go with it." He paused. "I think I understand why you acted the way you did when we first met a lot better now."
Ace snorted. "Really."
"I did wonder why you trusted me so easily."
Sabo turned, and there was Luffy, stopped on the edge of the sand and staring with wide eyes. Luffy glanced at Ace, who nodded just once, at that was all the confirmation Luffy needed.
This time, staggering didn't save Sabo; Luffy tackled him to the ground, sending up a puff of sand.
"Hello—to you—too—Luffy," Sabo gasped. He got a brief glimpse of Ace a second later. Time slowed. Ace was smiling. Not that euphoric, incredulous smile from earlier, but a quiet, warm expression that Sabo had never seen on him before.
It suited him.
And just like that, the smile disappeared. Cold and focused once more, Ace turned as Sabo sat up, Luffy still clinging to him. Koala shot out of a nearby alley, skidding to a stop at the edge of the beach.
"You're okay now?"
"More or less."
"Glad to hear it. You'll never guess who I spotted while you were all fighting."
Sabo narrowed his eyes. Koala was leaning forward a little, her eyes alight with anticipation—vengeance, almost. She kept sneaking glances at Ace.
"Jaus," he guessed.
"No, it's—how did you guess that?"
"Limited options," Sabo said.
"Where is he?" Ace asked, the frost in his voice freezing over the previous conversation. Even Luffy looked taken aback, and his crew, who had been steadily approaching, decided to keep their distance.
Koala blinked. "Uh. He, uh, went into the base."
Fire flared along Ace's shoulders. "I'll burn it down."
"Not that one," Koala said, sliding in front of him and holding her hands up. Ace paused, confused. "The black site. It's real. I saw it. And I can lead you to it. We have to hurry—they're preparing to evacuate. We have less than an hour before their ships are fully supplied and ready to sail."
The air around Ace was shimmering again. "Let's go, then."
"Wait," Luffy said. Ace scowled.
"What? He's not getting away from me this time. I won't let him."
"I can't leave Merry."
Sabo looked past Luffy. His ship had taken a beating during the days of fighting; Usopp was desperately repairing the worst of it, but if they all left, the marines would torch it without hesitation. A pirate wasn't a pirate without a ship.
"We'll stay." Sanji took a drag from his cigarette and nodded at Ace. "This is personal, isn't it? Not something I want to interfere with, honestly."
Zoro grunted his agreement. "I'm not about to get between a man and his demons."
"And I think the ship is just a better place for me to be at a time like this," Nami said. "Because it's safer—I mean, because I have a really good eye for detail and could help Usopp with repairs."
After a brief moment of hesitation, Luffy nodded.
"We'll keep her safe, captain," Sanji said. "You focus on this."
The three brothers turned to Koala. Without a word, she led the way through a twisting maze of alleys and side streets, only to abruptly drop down into a sewer drain. When Sabo followed, he saw that Ace had let his fire burn as light, helping them all avoid taking an unfortunate dive into the channels running next to the path. It wasn't the most unpleasant place Sabo had ever travelled through on a mission, but it wasn't the nicest, either. Behind him, Luffy gagged.
They ran for several minutes before Koala abruptly stopped. Ace nearly ran into her but sidestepped at the last possible moment. Koala glanced right, then left, then up.
"I think…yes, this is it."
"There's nothing here," Ace said.
"That's what they want you to think." Koala marched right up to the slime-coated wall and pressed a hand against it. Sabo's stomach turned a little bit at the squelching noise, and even Koala, for all her confidence, gained a queasy tint to her expression. The brick she'd pressed retreated into the wall. A second later, to the sound of grinding gears, an entire section of wall slid out of the way, revealing a pristine tunnel.
"It leads into the facility's main lobby," Koala said. "They'll know we just opened the door. Jaus will escape if you don't move fast."
Ace's whole body flickered, an inferno just barely contained. Luffy's skin shimmered with the beginnings of true armament haki. Sabo flexed his fingers, feeling the joints crack. Tearful reunions were well and good, but theirs was a bond forged in blood and fire. It was only fitting to restore it the same way.
"Let him try."