"We're what?" Surely he misheard.
"I just said. They can't get the resources in this room. The only way to make sure they don't is to destroy it."
"The munitions in here will destroy this whole base. I dunno if you've noticed, but we're included in that."
A distant boom rattled the shelves. The Assistant turned away from the door and headed towards a rack of explosives. "I am well aware. There's a way out with a ship that we can reach in a couple of minutes. Everyone in this base knows what to do in the event of an attack. The plans always include detonating things here. We're the only ones who made it. Thus," he began priming a timed explosive, and it beeped when it was ready, "we have to be the ones to do it."
Ace caught a glimpse of the time on the bomb. "That's not a lot of leeway."
The Assistant set the bomb back on the shelf. The timer ticked down. "Any leeway for us is also leeway for the UBMC. Come on; we no longer have time to waste."
With one last glance at the rack of explosives, Ace shook his head and followed the Assistant to the back of the armory. There, the Assistant carefully inputted a passcode, using his shoulder to block Ace's sight, into a keypad neatly hidden by a cover. Ace rolled his eyes; it wasn't like knowing the passcode would help him after the bomb went off. A trapdoor near the Assistant's feet hissed open. Ace stared down into the pitch-black hole, déjà vu momentarily holding him still.
"What are you waiting for?" the Assistant asked. "Get down there."
Scowling, Ace put on his helmet, put his hands on either side of the ladder, and slid down. His suit flipped to night vision, amplifying the soft green emergency lights on the sides of the chute. His HUD flashed a warning that there was no ship connection found, which Ace ignored.
He hit the bottom after about ten seconds and stepped out of the way so the Assistant didn't land on his head.
"Where are we heading now?"
"Hangar. There's a small emergency one at the end of this tunnel. Stay in front."
"You still don't trust me?"
"That's not it. Go, Portgas. Or do you want to keep wasting time by arguing?"
Ace bit his tongue and ran down the hall, the Assistant keeping pace right behind him. If he wasn't careful, the top of his helmet scraped the low ceiling, and his shoulders had scant inches of room between the walls on either side.
At the end of the corridor stood a door. Ace skidded to a stop, boots sliding on the dusty, gravel-coated ground. The Assistant pulled up next to him—the tunnel widened out just enough to permit it in front of the door—and hesitated.
"What's the matter?" Ace asked. "I thought we were in a hurry."
The Assistant turned away and held up one hand in an obvious sign to wait. "Someone is broadcasting on all Revolutionary channels."
Ace stiffened. Nothing good happened when someone broadcasted on all channels. "What are they saying?"
The Assistant's shoulders dropped.
"Hey. What are they saying? What's going on? I don't know what frequencies you guys use."
The Assistant flinched and then shook his head. The transmission was over. "Orbital bombardment," he said.
The Assistant lifted his head. "They're not here for prisoners or information. They're here to wipe us out. The strike teams have all pulled out; they were only here to cripple our escape ships and take whatever they could in that brief window. They don't want anyone getting away."
"I don't know. This person just heard one of the teams mention it before they died."
Ace yanked open the door. It squealed, its bottom scraping on the rock floor. "Then we'd better move."
As the Assistant had promised, there was a hidden hanger beyond the door. Inside was a single ship, an F20, five years out of date but still more than serviceable and perfect for a quick getaway under fire. Ace took note of the IPEC logo on the side.
"Did you steal this?" he asked as they ran up the cargo bay ramp.
"Don't worry about it."
The cargo door groaned shut while the Assistant slid into the pilot's chair. Ace hesitated before he dropped into the copilot's seat. "Any word on that orbital bombardment?"
"No. We'll be finding out the hard way if we're too late."
Ace wrapped tense fingers around his seat's armrests. "Great."
The Assistant ran abbreviated checks, a step required for ships that had been idling for too long, and then eased them into the air. Ace forced himself to relax. Either they made it or they didn't. Being a twitchy mess wouldn't change anything.
The hangar doors trundled open. Even the Assistant was feeling the encroaching deadline now; he was leaning forward in his seat, helmet turning ever so slightly as he switched his attention from window to monitor and back again.
When the doors were open wide enough, the Assistant wasted no time. Ace slammed into the back of his seat, the breath leaving him with a gasp. The ship jerked as the Assistant was similarly thrown back, but he recovered quickly and aimed them at the stars. Ace's gaze drifted higher. As the shaking eased up with the atmosphere, he twisted in his seat to look back at the base.
"God," he whispered.
"What is it?" the Assistant asked.
Ace could only stare. UBMC ships painted the sky like clouds. Giant, hulking bruisers of assault craft mixed with darting F-series dogfighters that made continual low passes over the base, hunting for escapees. He'd never seen this many ships in one place before. If they were noticed—
"Stealth shielding is holding," the Assistant muttered. Ace raised an eyebrow. That wasn't standard. "But it's only a matter of time until they realize that their equipment is identifying a null point when it should be identifying nothing but air."
The ships began to scatter. Ace reported everything he saw, muscles straining to hold him steady as the Assistant increased their speed to compensate for the thinning atmosphere. As the haze of air cleared into the vacuum of space, he saw it: the destroyer. Its shadow completely eclipsed the base below, its arrowhead shape laden with armor-piercing weapons.
"I thought that thing was a myth," Ace said.
The bottom of the ship released a burst of smoke. Missiles, Ace realized. They hurtled towards the planet's surface, towards the base cleverly hidden among thought-to-be-collapsed mines. Even as far up as it was, their ship could easily display the explosions on its monitors.
Two ships peeled off from the horde, and Ace tensed.
"They noticed us."
"Too late for them," the Assistant said. He finished punching in their coordinates, and slipspace closed in around them.
Ace fell back into his chair, then cleared his throat in an attempt to hide his stumble. "Where are we headed?"
"We're jumping to the emergency rendezvous point." The Assistant checked a scanner. "No pursuit. I'll stay here. Take some time to clean up; IPEC would've modified this ship with a hygiene suite."
"They are sticklers about that," Ace acknowledged. "Fine. Let me know if anything happens."
After stripping off his jumpsuit and throwing on the spare mercifully clean and unburnt clothes, Ace ran a hand through his hair, only to pause halfway through. Frowning, he pulled a bunch of strands out and nearly crossed his eyes in an effort to examine them. He glanced around and found a semi-reflective surface. He didn't look nearly as dirty as he should, all things considered. Ace combed through his hair. It was greasy, yes, and speckled with dried blood and other residue, but not even close to the extent he expected.
Narrowing his eyes, Ace concentrated and turned his hair to fire for just a second. When the strands settled back into place, they were as clean as they'd ever been. Now curious, Ace hunted around until he found a streak of oil on the sealed ramp door that made up the back of the cargo bay. He rubbed a part of his shirt against it until there was a noticeable mark on the shirt. Then Ace combusted his torso, which took some of his shirt with it. When everything settled back into place, the blood was gone.
Apparently, he could burn away foreign elements. Nice. No more laundry.
"We're going to have to detour," the Assistant called from the cockpit. "This trip will take a while."
"Does the autopilot really need you to look over it?" Ace replied.
"Better safe than sorry."
"We're in dead space. Relax a little." Ace thought he heard the Assistant mutter something, but he couldn't be sure. There was movement, and then the Assistant emerged from the cockpit. Ace ticked an eyebrow. "And you can take off your jumpsuit. I've got the temperature thing well under control, I can assure you."
"Hm?" the Assistant reached up, gloved fingers resting against the helmet. "Ah, I forgot. It's become habit to wear this around you."
"Make a change," Ace said. "Gotta admit, I really wanna see your face. I've been guessing this whole time."
"Oh?" The Assistant began releasing the seals, which created soft hisses when they opened. "What do you picture?"
Ace crossed his arms and leaned against the projector pilon jutting up from the floor in the middle of the cargo bay. The end of it pressed against his hip. It was pretty useless now; there weren't any supply organization plans for the hold to project. "Honestly? You speak like some kind'a noble. I picture you as some strapping young man who got roped into deskwork, and taking care of me was your big break. Brown hair, white skin, probably had corrective eye surgery at some point."
The Assistant undid the last seal and laughed. "You…are fairly far from the truth, there."
"Prove me wrong."
The Assistant lifted the helmet. "Fortunately, this time I can."
The helmet came off. The Assistant tucked it under one arm and smiled with very white teeth. Ace stared, the old whip-fury feeling stirring, except a tide of familiarity overtook it. The blond hair, the blue eyes, the cocky grin—Ace had seen it all before.
But that was impossible.
"Well?" the Assistant asked. His left iris was somewhat distracting for Ace, as the blue color had turned milky, and the skin around the eye was heavily scarred. Ace recognized that kind of scar; the Assistant had been in a fire. A bad one. Ace was willing to bet that the scarring covered much more than just his face. If he looked, he could see it winding down past the beginning of the Assistant's suit. "Am I the strapping young man you expected, Portgas?"
"Younger than I thought," Ace admitted, stifling whatever crap his mind was throwing at him now. "How old are you?"
"A bit of a personal question, there."
Ace didn't budge.
"Twenty-two. We are the same age, if I'm not mistaken."
A coincidence. "Funny. I had you pegged at twenty-five."
The Assistant shrugged and began the process of removing his jumpsuit. "I blame my upbringing, what little of it I remember."
"Were you raised a noble?"
The Assistant hesitated, sighed, and finished pulling himself out of his jumpsuit. "Something like that."
While the Assistant hung up his jumpsuit by Ace's, Ace considered his next question. "This entire time, you've just been 'the Assistant' to me. What's your actual name?"
The Assistant turned back around, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. "You're rather curious. Getting greedy now that you've seen my face, are you?"
"Neither my sanity nor my life is currently at risk. Besides, we've fought together now."
"I suppose you have a point. My name is Sabo. It's—Portgas?"
One coincidence was just that. Another was happenstance. And a third? A third was proof. Ace's thoughts flattened out into a line and his fist was flying through the air an instant later. The Assistant's polite confusion didn't even have time to leave his face, and he hit the floor hard, holding his cheek, eyes wide with shock.
"What are you—"
"Shut up," Ace said. He realized he was burning, and struggled against himself to reign in the flames. They receded, barely, and in that time the Assistant struggled to his feet. "This whole time, I suspected—I knew something wasn't right about you. About the way you spoke, the way you carried yourself, the way you said my name."
"I don't understand," the Assistant said slowly. He was sliding towards the lockers, towards his staff. Ace shot a single burning bullet from his fingertip to halt him in his tracks. The pieces fit so well. He was an idiot for not seeing it sooner.
"You don't understand," Ace repeated. "You don't understand, standing there, staring at me." He lowered his hand. "Alive."
The Assistant raised his hands. "Look, I don't know what is going through your head, but this really is not the time for a fight—"
"The hell it isn't!" Ace shouted, slamming his fist down on the projector. The metal dented, the sound echoing in the small space, and a few of the glass decals on the side shattered, spreading shards across the floor. "You're alive, you asshole!"
Ace strode forward, grabbed the Assistant by the collar with a bleeding fist, and pulled him close. "Look me in the eye," Ace growled, "and tell me you still don't understand. That you don't remember anything."
Ace slammed his other fist into the metal wall directly next to Sabo's head, and Sabo broke eye contact.
"Look at me, Sabo," Ace hissed. Sabo did, eyes wide and confused. Genuinely confused. "Do you really not remember?"
All at once, Sabo's expression cooled. His knee slammed into Ace's groin and then, when Ace's grip around his collar loosened, he batted Ace's hand away with his left hand and punched Ace hard across the jaw with his right. Stars exploded in Ace's vision and he staggered, lost his balance, and fell. Pieces of glass cut into his arms, but this time, the skin merely turned to flame. When Ace got his wits back, he saw Sabo standing over him, eyes hard.
"Look," Sabo said, "I don't know what you want from me. I do not know you beyond our time together in the cells. Whoever you think I am, I am not. I suggest you get ahold of yourself before we land."
Ace stared, speechless. A myriad of emotions battled for control of his voice, and raw pain won out.
"I'm your brother," he said, voice cracking. This man—this man, he was—everything about him—he had to be, or Ace was going crazy. "God dammit, Sabo, the treehouse on Goa Island, digging for ship scrap in the Gray Terminal, Luffy—you seriously don't remember any of it?"
Sabo's expression, for a horrifying second, didn't change. Then his eyes scrunched just slightly, his brow began to furrow, and his lips—his lips parted, confusion now painting over everything.
"I—" Sabo started, lost for words.
His eyes widened, then rolled up in his head as he collapsed. Ace, scrabbling on the glass-coated floor, barely caught him before he hit the ground. He hastened to check Sabo's vitals. Was he injured? No. Just out cold.
Ace, supporting his brother's neck, carefully arranged Sabo in one of the seats lining the walls. Sabo's head lolled a bit, but there wasn't anything Ace could do about that. He sank into a crouch and took the moment of peace to look at Sabo—to really look at him, to compare him to the boy he remembered. Sabo's frizzy hair had grown into smooth waves that framed his face. The scars were new to Ace, but old on Sabo's skin. When Ace'd had him by the throat, he hadn't seen that old gap in his teeth, either. The blue was the same. The staff, too. Ace stood and brushed a lock of hair out of Sabo's face.
"You better have one hell of an explanation for this."