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Embers and Frost

Chapter Text

Ace would never stop thinking that the ocean looked beautiful in the sunlight. The way the light reflected off the blue waters, sometimes dancing through the liquid like tiny, harmless bolts of lightning, always brought a smile to the fire-user’s face. The Spirit of Summer soared slowly over the ocean, letting his hand drift through the water and beaming when he felt no weakness from the action.

Even after two— almost three— years, Ace still was not used to being able to touch salt water and even swim in it again, but being able to do so without negative side effects was just one of the many benefits of being a Spirit. He never knew how much he missed the cold, silky feeling of the water until he gained the ability to enjoy it once more.

With a whoop, Ace let the fire keeping him aloft putter out, diving beneath the waves before shooting back up to the surface, fire collecting at his hands and feet and propelling him upward. Taking a breath, the Summer Spirit dove again, spotting a Sea King far beneath the surface. It stared at him in confusion but did not attack, more bewildered by the strange not-human than wanting to eat it.

Ace broke the surface once more, laying on it and letting the water float him where it would. A chuckle interrupted the fire-user’s playtime and he turned to look at his companion with sparkling fire-colored eyes.

“Going to join me, Jack? Or is it too wet for you?”

Jack Frost, the Spirit of Winter, stood stiffly on a small island of ice he had created, staff gripped tightly in one hand. The Guardian did not like swimming, and the fact that most water froze when he was near it did not help to increase his tolerance for the liquid. Neither did the small detail that he had drowned in a lake before becoming a Spirit.

All things considered, Jack was quite calm for being where he was, in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. Despite his tense posture, his smile was relaxed as he rolled blue eyes at the ex-pirate.

“Not everyone likes water as much as you. I’m beginning to think you should have been an Ocean Spirit instead of a Summer Spirit.” Jack teased.

“I just gained a recent appreciation for actually being able to be in the sea. Do Ocean Spirits exist in your world?” Ace asked, always eager to know more about the Guardian’s home.

Jack nodded, stretching his arms over his head casually. “Yeah. There’s a couple. There used to be more than fifty— all that were almost as powerful as the Seasons!— but they got into trouble a few hundred years before I became a Spirit.” At Ace’s questioning look he continued. “They became arrogant and kept purposely attacking and killing humans. Mother Nature and the Seasons take care of most oversea storms and hurricanes now, while the remaining Ocean Spirits deal with the sea.”

“Ah.” The young Summer Spirit winced, deciding he did not need to know more.

Ace relaxed on the surface of the water, gazing up at the sun. He and Jack had been doing this a lot lately, just exploring the Grand Line and New World. Not that they had anything better to do anyway. It was odd, not having to rush somewhere or do something.

As a Spirit trapped in a world that he was not meant to interfere with, Ace had very few things he was meant to do and almost no one to tell him to do it. Technically, the only person he had to answer to was Jack, and that was only when the Spirit fretted like a mother hen whenever Ace tried to manipulate nature beyond his capabilities and ended up knocking himself out. Or when the fire-user partook in other reckless activities.

Any comments from the Summer Spirit about hypocrisy and said mother henning were ignored by the Guardian. Even so, overprotective tendencies were a step up from how the Winter Spirit had treated Ace after he had first been reborn. It had taken three months and a literal explosion— courtesy of an irritated Ace— for Jack to stop looking at him like he was going to collapse any second.

But still… being so free of responsibility and mortal worries was strange.

Even on Whitebeard’s ship Ace had missions to complete, duties to fulfill, and orders to follow. There were expectations to meet and fears to cover up. Even though Oyaji had known that he was Roger’s son, most of the crew had not, and the fear of rejection had always lingered beneath Ace’s skin.

Now Ace was no longer a Whitebeard Pirate. Now he was no longer a mortal with limited time. Now he was no longer defined by his father’s blood, legacy, and name.

He was Hiken D. Ace, Spirit of Summer. Not Portgas, not Gol or Gold. His father’s identity no longer bound him to his unwanted heritage. It was wonderful to not have the burden of the Pirate King’s name on his shoulders any longer.

He was finally, truly free.

Naturally, Ace’s sense of inner peace could not last forever. Guilt, slow and icy, trickled into his mind and he bit his lip, his thoughts flashing back to the darkest— and final— moments of his life.

“Thank you… for loving me!”

Pain was fading away, blackness reaching for him with its kind embrace, and Ace could feel himself slipping from his brother’s shoulder. Even as all of his senses faded away, Ace could still hear the teen’s frantic sobs, gasping breaths quickly becoming howls of grief. Luffy’s screams were the last thing he heard before everything simply ceased, and his mortal life slipped away…

Immortals did not need to sleep much, but whenever it became necessary for Ace to get some shuteye his nightmares were filled with the sights and sounds of the war at Marineford. Sometimes he died and was never reborn, trapped in an endless darkness for all eternity. Other times he did not reach Luffy in time and could only watch as Akainu punched his little brother through the chest, burning him from the inside. And then there were the dreams where his allies and loved ones abandoned him to his fate, unwilling to save the son of a monster like him…

So much for being free of his father’s name and his mortal life.

Even with his resolve to live his new life to the fullest and without regrets, Ace could not truly abandon or forget who he once was.

The fire-user would never wish that the Man in the Moon had taken his memories like he had taken Jack’s— of course he didn’t— but having previous responsibilities and knowing people— mortals— he cared about were out there was difficult.

Ace was trying— he really was— but he could not stop himself from feeling selfish and awful any time he let himself think about those he left behind. The Summer Spirit had not heard much about his brother or the Whitebeard Pirates in the past two— three?— years.

As an invisible Spirit, it was a little difficult to keep up with the not-so major events in the world— and the ones that the World Government and Marines covered up, so days, weeks, and events passed by without the young Immortal noticing. Although, if Ace were honest with himself, he was afraid of what he would read if he picked up one of the newspapers he always saw whenever he and Jack drifted into a town.

Long story short, Ace was not watching over his little brother. Nor was he keeping track of or trying to reconnect with him. He was alive— technically— and yet he was not even attempting to seek out Luffy. What kind of older brother did that?

“You have your ‘worrying about Luffy’ face on again.” Jack mentioned.

Ace glanced sidelong at the other Spirit, pulling his orange cowboy hat down over his eyes. “I have a face for that?”

“Yep.” Jack informed him, popping the ‘p’. “Spill. What’s bothering you?”

“Maybe I should go see Luffy.” Ace forced the words out, fidgeting with agitation. “I mean, it’s been almost three years. He must be better now, right? And adventuring again? I know he took a break after my— after Marineford, but I think I saw his picture in the paper a few months ago.” The fire-user had been too cowardly to go and see exactly what Luffy had done, but a glance at his brother’s grinning face— from a distance— had told him he was not dead.

“Ace—” Jack began.

“I’m sure he doesn’t need me anymore though.” Ace continued, not hearing the Winter Spirit. “But it would be nice to see him. Just see him. I don’t have to try to interact with him.”

“Ace, I think—”

Should I try to interact with him? He seems to have moved on but what if he hasn’t? What if he blames himself for my de— Marineford? I should try to reassure him, right? I’m the big brother, it was my job to protect him and I would never regret dying to save him.”

“Ace, maybe you should—”

“But what if I go and he can’t see me? What if he can? What if I’ve been avoiding him for nothing? What if he hates me? What if—?”

Jack grasped Ace’s shoulders, spinning him around in midair to face him.

“Calm down.” The Guardian said solemnly. “You’re starting to make a thunderstorm.”

Ace glanced up and saw that the sunny sky had turned dark. Menacing grey clouds covered the heavens, and the waves below were no longer calm. Instead they thrashed about angrily, stirred up by the differences in pressure in the air. As the first lightning bolt ripped through the air, letting out a bone-shaking boom, the Summer Spirit bit his lip guiltily, praying no ships would get caught in the storm.

When he first became the Spirit of Summer, Ace thought he would have no problems controlling his powers. The fire-user had mistakenly believed that his only powers were control over fire, like what he had when he was human. It turned out he could do so much more.

Clouds would usually dissipate when he entered an area, the temperature would climb ten or even twenty degrees, and if the clouds did not go away he may unintentionally cause thunderstorms. He himself could not shoot lightning from his hands or anything like that but it turned out that the Spirit of Summer had as much of a chance of making rainstorms as Spring did.

I always thought Summer was just heat and fire, Ace mused. I guess I have more to learn about my powers and what I’m supposed to do than I thought.

Fire and slight temperature manipulation— specifically known as making it hot in the immediate area around him in his case— were just like his old Mera Mera no Mi powers, so his decent control over them had transferred into his new life. As a result, when Ace got upset, he did not burst into flame like one might expect. Instead he caused droughts and thunderstorms. Or would this be a tropical storm?

“That’s not going to become a hurricane or something, right?” Ace asked worriedly.

“I don’t think so. It should disperse before it reaches land.” Jack said with a little hesitance. He was no meteorologist after all. “Do you think I should make it a snowstorm? It doesn’t thunder in winter, I think.”

“I think it can.” The fire-user mentioned, vaguely remembering hearing about a phenomenon known as ‘thunder snow’ during his travels. “We’d better leave it alone.”

They watched the sky continue to turn dark and moody, the remaining white puffballs rapidly transforming into angry cumulonimbus clouds. Ace felt remorseful that he had literally ruined the sunny day, but even as he worried about the humans that might be caught up in the storm, the Summer Spirit could not deny the stirring in his core at the sight of nature’s power.

The way the clouds shifted and churned, the heaviness and tension in the air, the pure force the forming storm exuded… It was almost beautiful.

But that beauty did not distract him for long.

Ace sighed, trying to reign in the stress and worries that plagued him. “I just don’t know what to do.” He whispered. “I can’t just forget Luffy and my crew. But at the same time, I don’t want to make things harder on them by showing up, only to have to leave again whenever North finally opens a portal to your world. I… I feel like I’m being pulled in two directions, and I don’t know which way to go…”

The Guardian studied him with sad blue eyes, breathing out slowly and causing little snowflakes to dance around him.

“I think I finally understand why Manny took away my memories when he made me into the Spirit of Winter.” Jack murmured, almost as if he did not mean for Ace to hear his words. “By the time I remembered my family, they were long gone. I didn’t have anyone to hold me to my mortal life.”

The Winter Spirit laid down on his ice island again, looking up at the gloomy sky. “I won’t tell you what decision is right. Luffy is your little brother, and it’s your choice whether you want to see him again or not. I won’t persuade or dissuade you.”

A part of Ace wanted Jack to care more about his little brother, but he brutally squashed such thoughts before he could voice them. He loved his little brother, he really did, but at the same time the Summer Spirit could understand why Jack distanced himself from the Straw Hat Captain.

Luffy had stopped believing in Jack after Sabo had died, and the fire-user knew that the loss of two believers in one day still hurt the Guardian. Ace had a feeling that Jack was avoiding Luffy in order to keep his own hope that the pirate might actually see him again one day carefully under lock and key where it could not be smothered by rejection.

The Winter Spirit was normally the type to face such things head on and stubbornly attempt to get the result he desired, but when it came to the possibility of people he once cared for walking through him, the Spirit could not handle it. He would rather never find out if Luffy could see him again than have the boy— now young man— walk through him like a ghost.

Ace knew this was Jack’s reasons because, in a way, they were his own reasons now as well. The thought of meeting his brother again, only to be unable to interact with him…

“It’s getting a little hot over here, Ace.” Jack mentioned, creating a frosty haze around himself as the temperature climbed. He also reinforced his little ice island, raising an eyebrow as a chunk fell into the sea. “We really need to keep working on your control before we get back to my world.”

“Oops. Sorry.” Ace apologized.

The fire-user could not stop the pang of worry that gnawed at his gut when he thought about his inevitable job in a completely different world. It was true that right now he and Jack were doing little more than flying around the world and making sure Ace had enough control to not cause a natural disaster— or the end of the world— but the knowledge that he was going to have to leave this world and all he knew on it unsettled Ace.

I’m going to be leaving Luffy behind. We’re already separated by whatever keeps humans from immediately seeing most Spirits and my… issues, but at least in this world I’ll hear if he’s in trouble and needs help. Once North figures out a way to get us back to Jack’s world, will I even be able to come back here? I’m immortal now. What if I come back after losing track of time, and Luffy’s an old man? What if he’s dead?

Ace floated over to Jack’s ice island, landing lightly near the edge. He tried to breathe evenly, but his breaths came out as ragged gasps.

It’s not just Luffy. I’m going to outlive everyone I know except Jack. Except maybe Marco, but I don’t even know if he’s actually immortal or if that’s a myth. It was fine to think my brothers would die one day when I knew I’d join them but now… I can’t think about this. If I do, I’ll make myself sick. Can Spirits even get sick?

The crack of thunder startled him out of his near-panic and he looked up to see lightning strike the water, arcing dangerously through the liquid. A moment later it began to pour, with the droplets turning to snow around Jack. Ace was already soaked from his dip in the ocean but knew he could just vaporize the water with his powers to dry off once they reached shelter. He could technically do that now, but the sudden burst of heat would only increase the instability in the air.

The two Spirits began flying through the rain, yelping and laughing as the storm raged around them. Lightning struck the water menacingly, making cracking and booming noises loud enough to make grown men quail, but they were unafraid. Jack and Ace were Mother Nature’s children, and even in a different world they had little to fear from the elements under her control. Or maybe they were just reckless.

But even as he flew, Ace’s thoughts refused to turn away from his brother and the choices he would soon have to face. To see his brother or not. To keep out of the pirate’s affairs or protect him as he always had. To let Luffy keep thinking Ace was dead and gone, or to reveal himself in his new, Immortal form, only to have to leave again eventually.

Did he even have the right to make such a choice anymore?

ROTGOPROTGOP

Marshall D. Teach, also known as Blackbeard, smiled triumphantly as he watched the villagers flee before him. His satisfaction was even sweeter because it was not just any island that he was attacking, but one of the many under Whitebeard’s protection. It felt wonderful to attack those that looked to that old fool to defend them if need arose.

Although the Whitebeard Pirates were still strong, the balance of power had changed after Marineford. New people had been drawn to lives of piracy, seeking glory or treasures or power, inspired to follow their dreams by what had transpired in the Marine stronghold. But not all of the newcomers were kind or genuine people.

Many new and ferocious pirate crews had formed, attacking all in their path and claiming territories that none had dared to invade just a few years earlier. Not only that, but the other Yonko— specifically Big Mom and Kaido— had taken the Whitebeard Pirate’s weakening as a sign to expand their own territories. Even with their strength and numbers, the Whitebeard Pirates were facing opposition from too many sides at once in order to combat them all as quickly as they once did.

Blackbeard briefly wondered if it was because they were still grieving, and sneered visibly at the thought. Those that were hindered by the loss of one person did not deserve to wield such power and influence over the world. It was long past time that Whitebeard and his ‘children’ step aside and let the newer generations make their marks upon the world.

Smiling, the pirate used one of his favorite attacks, sucking up a few escaping villagers and taking down a few buildings along with them. The civilians screamed as they were dragged into the darkness, helpless to avoid their deaths. From nearby Teach’s crew laughed and cheered, marveling at their Captain’s power.

Basking in the praise, Blackbeard almost did not see the change in his darkness, as if another, darker shadow was forming within it. As it were, he easily noticed the glowing yellow eyes that appeared out of nowhere and stared at him from the blackness.

For an unknown reason, Blackbeard felt fear.

His helmsman, Jesus Burgess was the next person to spot the new presence. “What in Oda’s name…?”

The Blackbeard Pirates could only stare in shock as the wraith-like figure became a definitive man, peeling away from Teach’s darkness like a shadow splitting in two. He was tall, clothed in black, with skin as grey as ashes and hair as black as night. The only colors on him were his yellow eyes and white teeth, which flashed when he gave an unreadable smile.

Blackbeard thought he saw a speck of greenish blue flit out of the shadows as well, but before he could think more about it, the man spoke.

“I thought I kept seeing new shadows that weren’t mine popping up somewhere.” The man mused, walking on the darkness that covered the dirt as casually as one walked on solid ground. “Congratulations, human. You made me curious enough to come and investigate.”

The tone in which he spoke was both condescending and sincere, sending a bolt of anger through Blackbeard’s veins.

“Who are you? How did you do that?” the pirate yelled, stepping forward.

Shock crossed the man’s face before a slow, cruel smile formed on grey lips, and yellow eyes gleamed as they studied the pirate.

“You can see me…” the man breathed. He saw them all looking at him at last. “You all can see me…”

“Of course I can see you, you dimwit.” Blackbeard sneered. “Now answer my questions.” Shadows gathered around his hand

“Aww. The little human thinks that he controls Darkness. How adorable.” The man purred, deeply amused.

Fear— This man was not human— and anger— How dare he talk down to him!— warred for dominance in Blackbeard’s gut. Eventually the rage won out and he glowered at the grey man, puffing out his chest.

“Do you think you can mock me? I am Blackbeard, soon-to-be the next Pirate King!”

The shadow man looked unimpressed. “And I say again… how adorable. Although…” His expression shifted from boredom into something close to rage. “Even with your vileness and age, I can feel the power of your dream. It’s so… hopeful.” Disgust flitted over his features before vanishing. “Still, if even the dreams of adults have power here… Though you could immediately see me as well…” Yellow eyes glinted with excitement and he gave a genuine smile. “Excellent.”

“What are you blabbing on about?” Teach growled, irritated.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” The man said politely, hands up in a calming gesture. “I’m just talking to myself… thinking of the possibilities…” His smile grew unnaturally wide and his gaze changed, almost becoming… hungry. “You have so much fear…”

Annoyed— and ignoring the uncomfortable twist of uneasiness in his chest— Blackbeard swept his hand sideways, letting his darkness fly at the man. The newcomer merely laughed as the blackness flew at him, reaching up a pale grey hand and twirling it lazily.

Blackbeard screamed, barely able to keep his footing as agony ripped through his torso. Like a limb being torn off, Teach felt the darkness break from his control, drifting slowly to the grey man and looping around him like a loyal pet greeting its owner. The man reached up, stroking the Darkness gently.

“You really do think that you can control Darkness. Foolish mortal. I think you need some lessons from an expert.” The man murmured.  “After all, what is Darkness without fear?”

The Darkness shot outward, expanding up into the sky like a monster opening its maw. Blackbeard flinched but the Darkness did not touch him. He could only watch in horror as the Darkness swarmed over his crew like a swarm of piranhas, all of them vanishing within it before they could even scream.

Ice crawled up Teach’s spine and he stared at the thing in front of him with terror.

“W-What are you?”

“My name is Pitch Black. I am the Nightmare King. I am Fear. I am Darkness. It is mine to wield.” Pitch snarled, the calm expression he wore dropping like a mask from his face. “And I will not share it with a human.”

The Darkness, vengeful and merciless, lunged like a predator. Blackbeard yelled and was somehow able to dodge the shadowy tendrils, bringing out his own darkness. The pirate howled and fell to his knees, feeling as if he had been stabbed in the chest when Pitch tore the darkness from him, adding it to his own power.

“You are nothing compared to me, human!” Pitch crowed, “You think you control Darkness and shadows, but I am nothing but those things! You don’t understand true Darkness. You have never experienced real nightmares!”

The Darkness settled in his hands, shifting and changing. Before Blackbeard’s eyes, it became a black scythe that was as long as the Captain was tall.

“And you never will.” Pitch stated.

With a single swipe of his black scythe, the Nightmare King beheaded the pirate. Teach’s corpse fell to the ground and the Darkness covering the dirt retreated from him, as if the shadows themselves did not want to be anywhere near their former wielder.

Pitch let the scythe disperse, closing his eyes and letting the aura of this new world wash over him. “So much fear… and despair… and Darkness…” He smiled. “I will gain so much power here.”

Something touched his hand and he opened his eyes. The yellow orbs lit up like a child’s on Christmas, if said child had slight sadism hidden within the glee when they opened an unexpected gift. Nine black creatures stood dutifully beside him, their heads slightly above Pitch’s own, even as they shifted restlessly. The Boogieman reached up, dismissing the warning hiss the creature gave him.

“Well, well. I certainly did not expect to be able to form some of you out of this Darkness.” Pitch mused aloud, gently stroking one of the creatures’ heads. He glanced at the beheaded pirate and sighed. “I should have made him into one of you, too. Oh well.”

The creature snarled menacingly, snapping at his hand, and the Nightmare King smirked.

“This world is perfect for us. It’s brimming with fear and violence, there are so many dreams to crush, and apparently adults can see Spirits as easily as children. As a bonus, there are no Guardians—” He spat the word with all the hatred he could muster. “— here to protect it.”

The Nightmare King stepped back, shooing away the black creatures with a hand. “Now go. Seek out those whose will fall to fear and nightmares and… Well, you know what to do.”

The creatures shot into the sky, clouds gathering ominously as they became smoke-like, soaring through the clouds with speeds unheard of on this world.

Pitch watched them go, yellow eyes glowing with malice. “It’s time for this world to enter a Dark Age. I wonder how long its people will last.”

Chapter Text

Monkey D. Luffy, Captain of the Straw Hat Pirates and future Pirate King, hummed vaguely as he looked at the clear blue sky. He could barely hear a few seagulls calling to each other in the distance, along with the soothing sound of waves hitting the shore down below. It the pirate were the poetic type, he may call the comforting, rhythmic noises a song or melody. Of course, he was not the sort of person to think such things. All he knew was that the ocean’s low hum and the birds’ calls calmed him.

Luffy sat on the edge of a cliff, his legs swinging in the open air. He was high enough that he could not feel the ocean’s spray, but low enough to clearly hear the wave’s crashing against the rocks. He supposed it was a good thing the water could not reach him, seeing as how it might make him get dizzy and fall.

No it wouldn’t. Even if the water did somehow reach him here, Ace would never let Luffy plunge off the cliff into the sea. His big brother sat serenely beside him, hands in his lap and posture relaxed as he observed the endless blue abyss above them.

The younger brother idly noticed that the fire-user was not wearing his hat. Ace must have left it hanging on a branch behind them, though Luffy could not fathom why he would do such a thing.

“I’m glad we were able to meet up, Luffy.” Ace said, not looking away from the beautiful view in front of them.

“Me too.” The Straw Hat Captain said eagerly, shooting his brother a beaming smile.

Luffy did not remember exactly when or how he had come to be with his brother on this cliff, only that Ace was with him, and that meant everything was wonderful. With the noteworthy exceptions of Sabo and Shanks, most of his precious people were all together, in one place.

He could not be happier.

The pirate looked to the left and could just see the Thousand Sunny floating peacefully not too far from the beach. He briefly wondered if his crew was waiting for him on the ship or if they were still on the island. They must have stopped here for a reason, right? Or was it just because Ace was here?

A stray thought niggled at the back of his mind, the feeling that something was wrong with this scene pestering Luffy insistently. He disregarded it, laying down on the soft grass and squinting at the sun. Ace remained sitting up, his gaze shifting to follow the former path of his brother’s. The fire-user sighed, and even the infamously-oblivious Luffy was able to tell how mournful the noise was.

“Hey, Lu? Even with our own crews, we’re still family, aren’t we?” Ace asked softly.

Luffy sat up abruptly, wide dark eyes fixating on the fire-user’s pensive face.

“Of course Ace is still a part of my family!” Luffy gasped, shocked that his brother could ever think he was not one of the Straw Hat Captain’s most precious people. “Remember the promise we made? You’re my brother, and always will be. That will never change.”

Ace’s grey eyes grew impossibly sad. “Really?” he queried, voice carrying the same, somber tone that made something in Luffy’s chest squeeze uncomfortably. “I’m still your family? But families are supposed to protect and never hurt each other, right?”

Befuddlement momentarily gripped Luffy but he pushed it aside, reaching for Ace and pulling him into a rubbery hug. “Of course! You already know that.”

The lanky pirate looked up at his brother, who smiled back at him, grey eyes soft.

“Then why…”

Blood dripped from Ace’s mouth, his white grin turning red.

… did you kill me?

Something warm and sticky was covering Luffy’s right arm. He looked down to see his own fist was punched through Ace’s chest, his clenched hand protruding from his brother’s back. The younger pirate flinched, mouth opening, but no sound came out. Luffy jerked back, pulling his arm out of the gruesome wound, and Ace slumped onto his shoulder, breathing harsh and gurgling.

Crimson splattered onto the ground, a pool of red surrounding the two brothers as everything else faded into darkness. The ocean, the sky, the sun all vanished, with only the cold ground, the two brothers, and the blood remaining. Luffy could not move, could not even scream as he watched his brother’s lifeblood drain from him and stain the earth, his body going weak.

Ace spoke weakly, tears in his eyes and pain in his every word. “Why, Luffy?” he choked, coughing up red. “Why did you let me die?

Before the pirate could respond, his brother turned to ash in his arms.

Luffy bolted awake, breathing sharp and body covered in sweat. His teeth clenched as he kept himself from screaming, and his eyes roved over his dark room frantically. The pirate sat up, turning on the lamp beside his bed and illuminating his room. He looked down at his trembling hands, and was relieved that they were free of blood. Luffy let out a sharp breath and clenched his fists to stop their shaking.

“Just a dream.” He mumbled. “A nightmare.”

The pirate flopped back down on his bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. Again he checked his hands, spreading the fingers apart and turning them over. He blinked and suddenly there was crimson staining his skin. Luffy’s breath hitched but when he blinked again, the blood was gone.

Swallowing roughly, the pirate put his hands to his face, fingers gripping and pulling at his hair.

“Just a nightmare.” He whispered. “Just a nightmare. It wasn’t real.”

Except parts of it was. Luffy would never forget how Ace died to protect him. The feeling of his brother’s blood on his hands and front, how Ace had struggled to say his final goodbyes, how his grey eyes had been filled with agony even as he smiled and passed into death… The horrible memories would haunt Luffy forever.

The pirate could only hope that the nightmares would not. They were not nearly as common as the months after Ace’s death, but Luffy estimated that he had one at least once every week or two lately.

That is, until three nights ago when he had started having them every single night. The first night had the usual scene where he dreamt of Ace’s exact death and what happened after, Akainu, coma-like blackout and all. The next night he remained conscious for the aftermath and watched as his brother’s unseeing grey eyes turned to Luffy, the fire-user hollowly asking why he had not saved him. And tonight…

Tonight it was his own hand that had murdered Ace.

Luffy gulped, struggling not to vomit. His hands continued to shake like leaves in a storm. It had been so vivid, so clear, as if the dream had been as real as the world around him now. Once again he had to stop himself from crying out as he recalled how it felt to have his brother’s blood on his hands. He could not let himself scream or cry, no matter how much he wanted to.

His crew was tired after having to deal with an unexpected storm that had snuck up on them a few nights ago. It was only through luck that their ship had not been damaged when the air around them had turned into an arena of wind, rain, and lightning.

Everyone from Zoro to Nami to even Law were beyond exhausted once they managed to escape the hurricane, but Luffy knew that if he made a sound his entire crew— and a totally-not-concerned Law— would be breaking his door down not long after.

That would only lead to questions the Straw Hat Captain did not want to answer. Luffy was open, friendly, and blunt to a fault, and he cared for his nakama more than anyone, but even he had secrets he wanted to keep from them. His nightmares were one of them. Yes, night terrors were to be expected after such a traumatic event, but still…

I thought I was getting better, Luffy mused. I thought I was to the point where I could think of Ace—

Again, Luffy thought he saw blood on his hands. He flinched.

— without dreaming of his death. We’re in the New World. What if I lose someone else because I was too tired to protect them?

Fear, cold and icy, trickled into the pirate’s gut and he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to even out his breathing.

Maybe it’s only because I’ve got nothing to do but think while we’re in the middle of the ocean. Nami and Franky would get mad if I break the ship when practicing, and we haven’t spotted any other ships in days, Marine or Pirate. I’m so bored.

As his thoughts went sideways, Luffy almost forgot about his nightmare. It was only because he looked at his treasured straw hat and saw the tiny slip of paper within it that his mood soured once more.

If he told his crew about the nightmares, they would worry about him, when it was his job to worry about them. Everyone would get all somber and moody, glancing sidelong at their Captain and wondering if he was okay. They’d ask questions, and not like the answers, and Luffy, quite frankly, did not feel as if he could deal with that happening. And as much as he liked Traffy, he did not want the Heart Pirates Captain to know he woke up screaming during the night.

His crew and Law did not need to know about his nightmares. Luffy could handle them on his own, like he had before. It was not like they could do anything about them anyway.

ROTGOPROTGOP

The next morning, the Thousand Sunny anchored near an island that was rather underwhelming-looking for one being in the New World. The trees were green and bright, the beaches were clean and friendly-looking, and the cliffs almost looked soft. There was not even any ominous fog.

“Well, this island looks normal.” Usopp commented as he squinted at the forest. “What’s the catch?”

“Why does there have to be a catch?” Chopper asked, looking rather relieved that they were not at another one of those crazy climate islands for once.

“Because we’re in the New World with Luffy.” Usopp pointed out. “That means that we simply can’t land on a normal island and have a normal day.”

“Define ‘normal’.” Nami demanded, hand on her hip.

The sniper thought about it. “No monster attacks, no accidentally starting revolutions, no bumping into royalty, no Marine ambushes, nothing trying to kill us—”

“No fun, you mean.” Franky interrupted. “I personally think our adventures are all SUPER!” He struck a pose, but everyone ignored him.

“Why have we even stopped here, Straw Hat-ya?” Law asked, shifting on his feet and eying the forest warily.

His ally gave him a beaming, idiotic smile. “Because I felt like it. And there could be something cool here on…” He trailed off, frowning. “Hey, Robin. What’s this island called again?”

“The Island of Wood and Cliffs.” Robin replied.

Nami snorted. “Really? I never would have thought that.”

“Perhaps.” The archeologist said calmly. “I don’t recall ever reading about anything of interest here. There are only a couple of villages scattered throughout the island, and none are of any note…”

Luffy had already wandered off, running into the forest while calling back over his shoulder. “I’m gonna see if there’s anything fun to fight! Or eat! Or fight then eat!”

“Doesn’t he realize there’s a town with restaurants less than a mile that way?” Nami asked, pointing to their right. She sighed and then answered her own question. “Of course he doesn’t.”

“I’ll go make sure nothing eats our Captain. Again.” Zoro said flatly, gripping a sword hilt and following the excited pirate.

“And I’ll go make sure the shitty Marimo doesn’t get lost.” Sanji grumbled, stalking after them both while muttering under his breath.

The remaining Straw Hat Pirates all looked at each other, wondering what they should do.

“Well, if this island is one of the safer ones, I should go to town to find some medicines I need.” Chopper piped up. “We’re running low on a few of them.” The reindeer looked hopefully at his crewmates. “Would any of you like to come with me?”

“Sorry, but I have to make sure the Thousand Sunny is okay after that rough storm.” Franky said in his usual exuberant voice. “I can’t have my beautiful masterpiece be anything less than SUPER!”

“I’m afraid that I also cannot explore this beautiful island.” Brook said morosely. “I have been inspired, and must work on my newest song before it falls out of my skull, yohohoho. Skull joke.”

“I promised Brook I would watch him practice.” Robin informed the doctor gently.

Nami was about to decline as well when she saw Chopper look pleadingly at her. The navigator groaned mentally, unable to resist the reindeer’s hopeful, innocent eyes.

“…I’ll go with you.” She muttered. “And so will Usopp.”

“Actually I was going to go back to the ship—” The sniper began.

Chopper wilted, and Nami turned slowly with a menacing aura, staring at Usopp with the promise of murder in her eyes. “No. You’re going with us.”

The navigator did not need to say any more. Forced to choose between facing an unknown island and inciting Nami’s wrath…

The sniper twitched fearfully. “On second thought, this island seems great and peaceful and there’s nothing to be afraid of at all, ha ha ha. I could totally use some new, uh, nice rocks for my sling. Yup.” He smiled nervously.

The dark aura around Nami vanished and she smiled sweetly. “That’s what I thought. What about you, Traffy?”

The Captain of the Heart Pirates was unaffected by the warning glower that the orange-haired thief gave him, his hat shadowing his eyes. “No.”

The navigator’s eye twitched. “And why not?”

“I don’t want to.” Law said bluntly. “Knowing you Straw Hats, you’ll run into trouble the moment you step into town. I don’t want to be caught in another hare-brained scheme.”

“But Chopper might need help with deciding what medicines and tools to buy.” Nami wheedled in a disarming voice. “Seeing as how you’re a surgeon, maybe you could help him.”

The Heart Pirates Captain looked unimpressed “I said that I am not going to—”

Law winced, stumbling slightly, and clapped his hand to the top of his head. He frowned and took off his hat, looking at it. Grumbling under his breath, he put the cap back on. “I thought I felt something hit me. Must’ve been a stupid leaf.”

“You know, you seem kind of tired.” Chopper mentioned nervously, noting the darker than usual shadows under the surgeon’s eyes. “You had to keep moving around debris and us during the storm with your abilities, so maybe you should take a rest?”

The doctor’s advice was carefully worded as a suggestion that Law could follow if he pleased. Unlike with his own crew, Chopper did not try to make the surgeon to follow his commands. They all knew Law did not like being ordered around, and Chopper was still unwilling to push past the man’s boundaries to see if he would listen to him or not.

Their aloof ally’s eyes narrowed slightly as he considered the doctor’s words. “I am not inhibited in any way… but I do admit that it would be nice to be able to sleep without you loud crazy people making a racket.”

Nami opened her mouth to angrily retort that they were not ‘loud crazy people’, thank you very much, but stopped when she realized that they kind of were…

The navigator huffed, crossing her arms over her chest. “Fine. Usopp and I will go with Chopper to town. It’s less than a mile from here, so you’ll know if there’s any trouble.”

“Have a SUPER time!” Franky called enthusiastically, waving.

The three Straw Hat Pirates began the comparatively short trek to the closest village, cutting through the dense forest that surrounded the beach they had landed on. Even as birds sang in the treetops and the leaves rustled gently around them, Nami felt unease trickle through her. It was almost too peaceful, too serene to not be hiding something malevolent within.

She kept her hand on the hostler that contained the pieces of her Clima-Tact, ready to pull out and assemble the weapon the moment something unfriendly popped out of the foliage. Usopp and Chopper were being cautious as well, with the sniper’s hand twitching towards his own weapon and the doctor looking around constantly with wary eyes.

Naturally, no enemies rose up to attack them, and when the town came into sight as they walked through a cliff-sided valley to reach it, Nami felt silly for being so tense. The town was simple and small, made up of only a few streets and well-placed buildings lined neatly up in rows. A quick scan of the place as they entered revealed no Marines ready to attack them.

In fact, there weren’t any people at all.

Not a single person walked on the cobblestone streets, leaving them eerily barren. A few bags and other items were scattered around the street, as if someone had dropped them and left in a hurry. The only sounds Nami could hear were the wind, the crash of a door opening and shutting repeatedly, and a barely discernable high-pitched whining noise.

Something isn’t right, the navigator thought.

“Where are all the villagers?” Usopp asked, looking around at the empty streets. “I don’t see anyone.”

 “Maybe they’re at a festival in another town?” Chopper asked.

“Maybe.” The sniper mentioned, but even he did not believe his lie. “Uh. Do you really need those medical supplies or whatever?”

“Well—” Chopper began, but Nami interrupted him.

“Oh no.” she almost snarled. “You are not wasting my time by making me come here, and not buy anything. We are getting those supplies.”

Nami stalked forward purposely, shutting the wind-blown door to an unknown person’s home so it would stop making a racket. The wind howled mournfully, seemingly louder than before, and in the background the navigator still heard the continuous strange shrieking sound. It sent shivers up her spine, and her arms prickled.

Following the noise, the orange-haired pirate opened an unlocked door and entered a deserted restaurant. Plates and food were still on a few of the tables, and many of the chairs around the place were knocked onto their sides.

Some personal belongings such as bags or purses had been left behind as well, but the thief ignored the potential free Beri for the moment. On the other side of the bar, she could see a tea kettle whining loudly, steam spurting from its spout. The navigator strode over to the stove, turning it off.

The whistling cut off abruptly, leaving behind a suffocating silence.

Usopp let out a high-pitched, undignified giggle. “Maybe the villagers like to prank visitors?”

“What kind of people would leave Beri behind for a prank like this?” Nami demanded as she dug through a few of the abandoned bags, pocketing any valuables that interested her.

Her two crewmates did not try to dissuade her, used to the thief’s kleptomania. Usopp watched the door, sling out and ready to fight, even as his hands shook.

“I really don’t like this. Can we just get your stuff and get out of here now?” the sniper begged Chopper.

The doctor mumbled an affirmative and they went deeper into the town, which was just as hastily abandoned as the outskirts. Many doors were wide open and slamming in the wind, but Nami did not feel like going around and closing each of them. The only thing that kept her from going into the homes to see if there was anything worth stealing was the air of unease and danger that covered the whole place.

The part of her that insisted that she should really assemble her weapon now was continuously ignored. The problem with this town was not that there were people that wanted to hurt them, but that there was nothing there at all. The navigator found herself wishing that something would happen already, just so that the building tension plaguing them would cease.

The pharmacy door— like so many others— was wide open, but it at least was meant to be. A small block of wood acted as a doorstop, letting potential customers know that they were welcome to come in. The inside of the shop was surprisingly clean and tidy compared to the rest of the town, with not a single bottle or product on the floor or out of place. If the owner had fled like the rest of the town, then he had done so without causing a mess.

Chopper’s gaze zeroed in on one of the many items on the shelf and headed towards it, brightening considerably.

“This is exactly what I need!” the doctor said excitedly, running through the aisles and grabbing items off the shelves with the air of someone who knew exactly what they were looking for.

Nami produced a large bag and stuffed everything Chopper handed to her into it, being careful to wrap any fragile-looking items in the paper she found behind the counter. Soon enough, the doctor had everything he needed. The navigator hefted the bulging sack over her shoulder, more than ready to depart.

“Great, we got your stuff. Let’s go.”

“We have to pay first.” Chopper pointed out.

All three Straw Hats looked at the barren counter.

“No we don’t.” the orange-haired female of their group huffed.

Chopper looked uncertain. “But some of these are really expensive, and this is someone’s livelihood…”

“We’re pirates.” Usopp mentioned hesitantly.

“Yeah, we are.” Nami grumbled. “Which means we’re not giving any Beri to people who don’t bother to run their own store.”

She shifted the bag of medical supplies to a more comfortable position on her shoulder and stalked out the door. Chopper and Usopp hurried after her, with the sniper closing the door gently behind them. The doctor’s ears twitched and he stilled, glancing around nervously.

“Does anyone else feel like we’re being watched?”

“If I do, I can’t tell because I’m already creeped out by this place.” Usopp informed him, twirling his sling in one hand. “I mean, not that anything here could stand a chance against the Great Sogeking, but…” His usual bravado was absent even as he said the words. “Can we leave now, please?”

The Straw Hats did not run, but they walked very quickly out of the town and back into the forest. It seemed to be darker than before, with long shadows stretching across the ground. Nami listened for the birds’ singing, and discerned that they were either gone or being absolutely silent. The sounds of their footsteps were as loud as gunshots in the silence, but the navigator did not want to slow down in an attempt to quiet their footfalls.

Move faster, Nami’s mind urged her, nervous and fearful in the face of the unknown. Get back to the others.

As they passed through the canyon-like valley surrounded by cliffs, the three Straw Hats stuck close together, looking around warily. The sounds of three footsteps became two and Nami and Usopp stopped, turning to look at Chopper. The reindeer was frozen in place, gaze directed upward.

The doctor’s eyes widened with terror as he looked up at the clifftop. “N-Nami.” His voice came out as a shaky squeak. “M-Mon—”

The navigator followed Chopper’s gaze and her heart froze in her chest.

Six monsters stood at the top of the rocky cliffs, staring down at the Straw Hat Pirates. They were black and oddly unstable, as if they were made from smoke or shadows. They almost looked like horses that were the color of night, but their shape would constantly shiver and shift.

Their eyes glowed like demons’ and as Nami stood there, unable to move or even gasp in fear, one gave an unearthly scream. It sounded like a mix of a human shriek and an animal’s dying, terrified cry.

Usopp gave his own scream, and the monsters seemed to grow even larger without getting closer. Nami forced her body to move, dropping the sack, grabbing the shuddering Chopper and sniper, and running as fast as she could into the woods. Behind them, the creatures screeched like demonic horses, flying down the cliff and giving chase.

The sniper swiftly regained his footing and flight instinct, dragging Nami and the still-frozen Chopper along as he ran at breakneck speeds. Usopp gripped the navigator’s hand so tightly her fingers were growing numb.

“Luffy!” Nami screamed as they ran. “Zoro! Sanji! Help!

The creatures were moving just fast enough to keep them in sight, but Nami knew deep down that, if they wanted to, they could catch up and take out the Straw Hats at any moment. Two of the creatures sped up, flanking the fleeing pirates, and the navigator fearfully recognized a commonly used pack hunting maneuver.

Surprisingly, Usopp was the first to try to attack the creatures, out of a burst of self-preservation or fear Nami did not know. The sniper paused for a moment and shot at one of the monsters with his exploding Pop Green, hitting its nose. The projectile detonated in the monster’s face, only for the dust to clear and show the monster was unscathed. The creature only snorted, shaking its mane before rejoining the chase.

“Uh oh.” Usopp said faintly, even as he turned on his heel and bolted after his still-running crewmates.

Nami did not even think to draw her own weapon, only able to comprehend the pounding of her heart, the sound of the monsters’ hooves as they galloped behind her, and her crewmates’ terrified breaths as they fled before the creatures. A root caught her foot and as she tumbled, all the navigator could do was tumble face-first onto the ground, head smacking against the dirt.

“Nami!” she heard Chopper scream.

She turned, eyes widening as one of the creatures pounced like a wolf, eyes gleaming with triumph and unstable body rippling as it went for the kill. A fist slammed into the side of the creature’s head and it crumpled, falling apart like sand.

“Luffy!” Nami gasped.

Her captain landed in front of Nami in a crouch, the skin on his arm still darkened from the use of Armament Haki. His eyes were shadowed by his hat, and for once his face was serious, not even the slightest grin on his features. Around him the other creatures snorted and neighed in their eerie tones, keeping their distance as they studied the human that had killed one of their own.

“Hey, Robin. I thought you said this island was normal.” Luffy commented, still uncharacteristically stern.

“It appears that I was mistaken.” The archeologist said as she, Law, and the others emerged from the trees, eying the creatures with varying degrees of wariness.

“Are you all right, Nami-swan?” Sanji asked tersely. “We heard your scream from the beach.”

“F-Fine.”

Even with her Captain and crew here, the navigator could not stop the fear pulsing through her veins. There was something about these creatures that was unnatural, wrong, as if they were not meant to exist in this world. Her eyes caught those of one and its yellow orbs seemed to glow brighter. As if they were reacting to her fear, the monsters gave another unearthly screech and lunged.

Hands sprouted from two of their backs, reaching up to snap their necks. Another was destroyed by Sanji’s swift Armament Haki-enhanced kick, and the fifth was sliced to pieces by Zoro. The final creature, realizing it was the last, gave an angry-sounding hiss before leaping into the sky, galloping away too quickly for Law to trap it in his Room or Luffy to try to grab it.

The Straw Hats stood for a moment, gazing down at the piles of black sand on the ground in front of them.

“What the hell were those things?” Law asked testily, breaking the silence.

“Yeah. And why were you guys running from them? They were easy to beat.” Luffy piped up, calmer but still irritated that one of his enemies had gotten away.

“My Pop Greens didn’t work on them.” The sniper admitted reluctantly. “And… I think they might’ve killed everyone in the town. It… It was completely empty when we got there.”

There was a heartbeat of uneasy silence as his words sank in. Almost all of them had the same thought, but they refused to voice their suspicions aloud. Nami felt her fear of the creatures grow. Could they really have…?

Chopper groaned abruptly, slapping his forehead. “The supplies. This is all my fault! I insisted that we go to get supplies, and we dropped those somewhere in the woods when we were attacked, so in the end we went to town for nothing—”

“I’ll go get the bag.” Sanji offered kindly, an unlit cigarette stuck in his mouth.

“Look out for more of those monsters.” Robin warned. “I think that you might only be able to kill them with Haki or a Devil Fruit ability. That means those without Devil Fruits or Haki will die if they try to fight them.”

Sometimes, the crew forgot about the archaeologist’s tendency to be morbidly blunt.

“Really? Great.” Nami said unhappily. That means that even if I did use my Clima-Tact, it would have been useless.

Law crouched next to the black sand that the creatures had dissolved into, a vial in his hand as he put some of the sand within it, careful not to touch the dark substance. He did not explain himself as he corked the vial and pocketed it, but Nami knew their private ally well enough to recognize the curiosity in his grey eyes.

Sanji returned with the medical supplies, which were mostly undamaged, and the Straw Hats quickly retreated to the Thousand Sunny. Luffy protested of course, wanting to hunt down the monster that had tried to hurt his nakama, but Zoro eventually talked him down by saying the creature had obviously flown somewhere else.

No one mentioned that they should investigate the other villages to see if anyone was there. None of them wanted to. And with their luck, if they stayed Marines would show up and blame them for the islanders’ disappearances.

“What do you think those creatures were?” Nami asked the crew at large as they all loitered on the Sunny’s deck, still pale from her encounter with the monsters.

“They may have been creations made by an unknown Devil Fruit user, or a new creature native to the New World, or even an experiment gone wrong.” Law explained as he held up the vial of black sand. “We should try to see if this stuff can give us any answers.”

“Why? It’s just sand.” Luffy said, only interested in making sure the creatures did not hurt his nakama again.

With the thought of who he was talking to in mind, Law replied in a way that would hopefully keep the Straw Hat Captain’s attention. “Because we may run into more of them, and we aren’t one-hundred percent sure that Haki and Devil Fruit powers are what can kill them. If those things really did wipe out that village, they are dangerous. We now have an unknown enemy out there that is capable of flight and is resistant to many attacks. We know nothing about them, which means that for all we know they are not just random monsters. We may have stumbled upon something we were not supposed to, and need to be ready for another fight.”

The Straw Hats were silent as they took in his grave, foreboding words.

Usopp moaned morosely. “So much for having a normal day.”

ROTGOPROTGOP

Baby Tooth saw everything from her perch on the mushroom-hatted man’s— Law’s— cap. She had been flying alone ever since she followed Pitch through one of his shadows to this world, and had just so happened to stumble upon— fall onto— this strange group of possibly-pirates through sheer luck. The Fairy had thought she had sensed some of Jack’s ice in the darkness on the other side of the shadows that had led her here, so she had dove into the darkness without hesitation in an attempt to find her friend.

She did not expect to end up in a world mostly covered by water and with pirates sailing the seas, but according to Tooth this was exactly where Jack had ended up nearly twenty-three years ago. Manny claimed Jack was okay, and had found a new Spirit of Summer and potential Guardian to boot, but Baby Tooth still worried for her friend ever since he fell through that portal.

Now she was finally in the other world and could look for Jack… if she was not so tired.

The air here was wrong. There was so much fear, and it was difficult for the Fairy to fly without Tooth’s believers. So she crash landed on the fluffy-looking hat of the one known as Law, sluggishly flitting away and landing more gently when he unintentionally tried to swat her.

Baby Tooth sighed in relief, glad that these humans had been able to defeat the Nightmares on the island. At the same time, she was worried. These Nightmares were not the same creatures that Pitch had created when he first got to this world. They were also fiercer-looking, stronger, and more durable than the Nightmares Pitch had made back on Earth. That meant only one thing.

The Nightmare King was more powerful here, and he was building his army again. He was going to try to drag this world into a Dark Age, and would eventually destroy it like he had done so many times before.

Baby Tooth settled comfortably on Law’s hat, the world literally making her weary. She would just rest for a little bit, then she would have to go find Jack and the new Summer Spirit— Ace— and warn them about Pitch. Hopefully Manny would tell the other Guardians what Pitch was doing and send them here.

Jack and Ace would not be able to beat Pitch alone. He was already too strong. For the sake of this world, North, Bunny, Tooth, and Sandy needed to get here, soon.

Chapter Text

Nicholas St. North focused intently on the ice sculpture he was carving. It was a miniature ship that would soon come alive, able to float around his office running on pure magic. Around him, his other creations were whirring, soaring, spinning, and humming, toys and other sources of Wonder gathered together in a collection of joy and awe.

The Guardian carefully sliced off another thin layer of ice, blowing gently on his creation to brush away the unwanted shavings. The ship was a brig sloop, with a lion-shaped figurehead that mimicked a sunflower and a large number one on its side. North did not know what exactly had inspired him to make such an odd, unique design for the ship, but who was he to question the path of his creativity? His creation was almost complete. All that was left to do was shape a tiny helm—

The office door crashed open, making North jump and shatter the sculpture in his hand. The Cossack watched the ice fall like sparkly dust to the floor and sighed in exasperation. He turned to the Yeti that had burst into his office.

“What have I said about knocking?”

The unapologetic Yeti said something in his native tongue, urgency in his tone. North straightened at his words, broken sculpture immediately forgotten.

“Manny needs to speak with us? Well why didn’t you say so? I’ll activate the Lights!”

The Yeti merely groaned and wandered off, more than used to the Guardian’s absentminded behavior.

Half an hour later Toothiana, E. Aster Bunnymund, and Sanderson Mansnoozie had all joined North in the Globe Room, summoned by the Aurora Borealis. The Pooka tapped his foot impatiently on the ground, warding off an elf that tried to give him some eggnog and cookies with an irritated wave.

“Why do you always call us right before my holiday, North?” Bunny growled. “I swear you’re try’na sabotage me.”

“Thanks for idea, but no.” the Guardian of Wonder chuckled before growing serious. “Man in Moon wants to talk to us.”

The Guardian of Hope looked up at the Moon that floated serenely in the sky. “Get on with it, then. I have things to do.” His words were brash but his tone held a slight fondness as he addressed MiM.

“We can’t start yet.” Tooth protested, the eight Mini Fairies that came with her nodding in agreement. “Jack isn’t here— Oh. Right.”

Her multicolored feathers drooped as she recalled that the Winter Spirit was not on Earth. Sandy laid a hand on her arm comfortingly and gestured for North to begin.

North turned to the Moon. “Manny! What do you need, old friend?”

Moonbeams shone down from the sky, forming images and speaking in a way that only the Guardians could decipher. At first none of the four responded to his news, unable to believe what the Man in the Moon had just told them.

“Pitch has gone to the same world as Jack?” Tooth gasped.

As if her words had been a trigger, the other Guardians came to life. Bunny let loose a string of Australian insults that Jack would have loved to hear and make fun of. North did not beat around the bush and went straight for curses in Russian. Symbols appeared rapidly over Sandy’s head, too quickly for any of the others to attempt to try to decode them. And Tooth’s Fairies huddled close together, squeaking worriedly.

The moonbeams continued to ‘speak’, the Man in the Moon’s next sentence only distressing Tooth further.

“Baby Tooth went with him?” she fretted. “Oh no. I noticed that I hadn’t heard from her in a few days but I thought that she was out collecting teeth and I lost track of her!”

The Mini Fairies settled on their ‘mother’s’ head and shoulders, crooning softly in an attempt to comfort the distraught Guardian of Memories.

“Let’s not waste any time then.” Bunny said, pulling out his boomerangs. “North, grab one of yer Snow Globes and let’s go kick Pitch’s arse back under the bed.”

Nyet. Is not that simple.” The Cossack said regretfully. “I still cannot figure out why the Snow Globes can go to the other world, but refuse to open portals back to Earth. Pitch can travel freely between the worlds without problems, but we cannot. Even if we did take Snow Globes there, we would be unable to return here. And Pitch would not hesitate to attack Earth when we are not on it. Getting there will not be the problem. Getting back will.”

“What about some of the other Spirits?” Bunny demanded. “Can’t they keep watch while we’re gone?”

The Pooka was not normally the type to suggest such a thing, but the thought of leaving Pitch to do what he pleased on the other world rubbed him the wrong way.

North gave him a look. “You know as well as I do that the only Spirit other than us that stand a chance against Pitch are Mother Nature and her Seasons. And she will not help us. She is a neutral party.”

Bunnymund threw his paws up in frustration. “At least tell me MiM told Jack about Pitch?”

The Moon reluctantly informed the Guardians he could no longer contact Jack in the other world, only observe, ever since he used his power alongside Mother Nature’s there three years ago. He also mentioned that it was becoming increasingly difficult to even see there, a thick haze covering his view like a growing shadow.

“Do you think that world is dangerous? Is that why it’s been blocked off from the rest of the galaxy?” Tooth asked, flitting about in the air with ruffled feathers. “I hope Jack is okay.”

Her Mini Fairies looked equally distressed at the thought of Jack and his snow-white teeth being in peril.

“Manny would tell us if Frostbite was in trouble.” Bunny assured them gruffly. “The Show Pony is probably frolicking in the snowfields and harassing people right now. Besides, I’m pretty sure that Ace kid will keep him out of trouble.”

“Ace?” North’s face went blank as he tried to recall who the Pooka was referring to. His blue eyes lit up. “Ah, the new Spirit of Summer and potential Guardian!” He looked eagerly up at the Moon. “Manny, we should make him a Guardian as soon as he comes to Pole. No waiting this time. We’ll throw a party!”

A couple elves immediately scampered off to get their trumpets and other instruments. North caught one by the hat, preventing it from leaving the room. The elf continued to attempt to run, feet moving uselessly above the ground.

“He is not here yet. No music.” The Guardian of Wonder chided with a nostalgic smile.

The elf pouted and dropped from his hold before wandering off dejectedly. The elves that had managed to grab their instruments threw them on the ground or huffed angrily, upset that there was no party to play their music at.

“I must admit, I too am excited to meet Jack’s friend.” The Guardian of Wonder admitted jovially to the others. His expression grew solemn. “We should thank him for believing in Jack all these years.”

Bunny and Tooth exchanged a glance, while Sandy nodded seriously. An image of a flame and snowflake playing and dancing together floated over his head.

The tall Pooka crossed his arm over his chest, a stern expression on his face. “I still don’t like having to stay here like this. Are we really going to leave Frostbite and Firecracker to fight Pitch alone?”

“If the situation gets bad, we go.” North said without hesitation. “With or without a way back. Just because the world is not ours, does not mean we will leave its people to the Nightmare King.”

ROTGOPROTGOP

Snoooooowwwww Daaaaaayyyyy!” Jack shouted.

The Spirit swooped down from the cloudy gray sky, laughing maniacally. Snow fell heavily around him, covering the small town below with a thick layer of white. The Winter Spirit did not bother holding back his power as he let the flakes dance around him, floating and soaring randomly in the air.

The island he and Ace had flown too was one of the New World’s Winter Islands, the type where it snowed all year round. Jack could not be happier. Here he did not need to keep a lid on his Seasonal powers, letting them loose after weeks of keeping them contained.

It was as if the Guardian had been holding his breath for hours and could finally let the air in his lungs free. Relief, joy, and an adrenaline-like rush flowed through the Spirit, and he had to hold back another exhilarated chortle. The already frigid air grew colder and colder as Jack let himself manipulate it, whooping and laughing as he flew haphazardly in the sky like a drunk.

He could hear Ace chuckling behind him, watching with amusement as the Winter Spirit played, literally in his element. Jack glanced at his sworn brother and snorted when he saw the snowflakes turn into steam before they could touch Ace’s skin. The Summer Spirit was completely unbothered by the cold, but still looked slightly crestfallen that he could not join the Guardian of Fun as he frolicked in the snow.

Ace perched on a low rooftop, sitting down, and the snow around him immediately melted, leaving the roof clear. The new Summer Spirit’s lip jutted out in a pout as steam wafted into the air.

“Damn it.” He cursed dejectedly.

“You’ll be able to touch snow eventually.” Jack encouraged him. “It took me a couple decades to stop freezing everything when I went through the other seasons. The Spirit of Spring would always get so mad whenever I froze her flowers.” He smiled fondly at the memory of being chased through the sky by the irate Spirit. The Guardian was proud to admit she never caught him.

“It took you that long to walk around without affecting everything?” Ace questioned glumly.

“Yeah. But the other Guardians think it took a lot longer.” Jack confided slyly. “I kept freezing Bunny’s ears together whenever I ran into him and claimed that I couldn’t control my powers for about a hundred extra years.”

Ace snorted. “I bet he was happy about that.”

“He was absolutely thrilled.” Jack claimed loftily. His expression grew solemn as his companion stayed melancholic. “Really, don’t worry about having absolute control yet. You’re trying to manipulate nature. You have a long way to go. No one expects you to be a master in a couple of years.” He hesitated before continuing. “Though to be honest, if it weren’t for ‘freezing cold’ being this island’s natural climate and my presence here, this place would be experiencing its first heatwave.”

More snow melted around the Summer Spirit, water dripping off the edge of the roof and making a few people look up in surprise as the liquid splashed onto their heads.

“Great. How was that supposed to make me feel better?” Ace complained.

The Guardian of Fun waved his hands in front of him a placating manner. “I’m just letting you know so you don’t overestimate your control and end up doing something stupid.”

“And now you’re insulting my intelligence.” Ace grumbled. “You’re a mean older brother.”

“Like you weren’t.” Jack teased, and instantly regretted it.

Ace’s face fell, misery flashing over his features before he hid it behind an unbothered mask. “Yeah. I was a bit of a brat to Luffy when we were kids, wasn’t I?”

He sounded so wistful, and Jack found his heart clenching in empathy. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s fine,” the Summer Spirit interrupted, fiery eyes hidden by the brim of his hat. “I need to get over myself and stop sinking into a depression whenever I think about Luffy.” His tone was intentionally sarcastic, but still held a tinge of grief.

Jack floated down and sat next to Ace on the rooftop, the snow unable to decide whether it should melt because of the fire-user or stay frozen because of the ice-wielder. It showed just how upset the Guardian had made the new Spirit when heat won out and the area around Jack stayed thawed and free of snow and frost.

The Winter Spirit looked upwards at the sky, humming vaguely and pretending to focus on making it snow harder, while in reality his thoughts were on the quiet ex-pirate beside him.

I don’t know what to say, he mused helplessly. This isn’t exactly something you can get a ‘feel better!’ card for. Is this why Manny took my memories away when he made me a Spirit? Jack wondered. Being alone was terrible, but if I were unable to interact with my family and eventually had to watch them— and my sister—grow old and die

He shuddered at the thought.

Ace noticed the Guardian’s dropping mood and appeared to pull himself out of his funk. “Don’t worry about it, Jack. Have some fun. It’s not every day that you can go all out somewhere. And since I can’t throw snowballs yet, you’ll just have to pull double duty on pranking these poor villagers.”  

Jack could not tell if his smile was real or not, but returned it anyway. “You’re right. These people look so grumpy. Maybe a snowball fight will brighten their day.”

With that, the Guardian casually threw a snowball at a particularly sour-looking man, both Spirits cracking up at the indignant, stunned look on his face when the white orb smacked him in the nose. Jack did not put any of his ‘fun magic’ into the snowballs he threw at the adults, knowing it was unlikely to work on them, but soon enough the children he had benignly targeted had started an all-out war in the middle of the street.

Ace laughed from the rooftop as he watched Jack play with the kids, both Spirits unseen by the human participants but enjoying the fight nonetheless. More snowballs hit the buildings or passing adults than the eager children, but the elder villagers took it in stride, chuckling or rolling their eyes at the young ones’ antics.

Jack tossed a snowball at Ace and pouted when it vaporized before it could hit the Summer Spirit in the chest. “You’re no fun.”

“That was totally unintentional.” The fire-user claimed with a straight face.

Jack tapped his staff on the ground and the snow that was hanging off of the second-story roof above Ace fell on him. The snow pile melted in a burst of heat and steam, revealing a spluttering fire-user. Flame-colored eyes glowed menacingly as they glared heatedly at the ice-user.

“Why you…” Ace growled threateningly.

The Guardian’s laughter became a yelp as Ace turned Jack’s own tactic against him, a mini avalanche covering the Winter Spirit. Jack poked his head out of the mound of white and scowled at the Summer Spirit. A small heap of snow was piled on his head, making it look like he was wearing an elf’s hat made of white powder.

Ace smirked. “That was also unintentional. I definitely didn’t melt part of the snow and make it fall on you. Nope.”

“I guess your control still sucks then.” Jack groused.

The expression on the fire-user’s face was too naïve and pitifully crestfallen to be genuine. “Indeed. How sad.”

Jack rose out of the snow pile, shaking off the remaining flakes and narrowly dodging a snowball from an overenthusiastic little girl. It struck a man passing behind him, knocking the poor soul off his feet.

The Winter Spirit sniggered and he complimented the girl. “Nice shot.”

The Guardian’s eyes caught sight of a familiar blue and white uniform in the masses and his cheerful attitude soured.

Memories, harsh and nightmarish, tried to force themselves to the forefront of his mind, but the Guardian pushed them away. Ace had also spotted the newcomers, and if his sudden discomfort and anger were of any indication he was as pleased to see them as Jack.

“I wonder what Marines are doing here.” The fire-user said, eyes clouded with painful memories.

Jack’s own blue orbs glinted with repressed disgust. “How about we find out?”

Ace floated down to the streets, hovering just above the ground. His presence almost melted the snow again but some extra concentration from the Winter Spirit kept a layer of white on the dirt. Ace landed gratefully, and the two Spirits left no footprints as they followed the Marines through the village, both noting when some of the villagers went out of their ways to avoid the lackeys of the World Government. One man practically vaulted over a fence in order to get out of their path.

“Is it just me, or do these civilians trust the Marines less than usual?” Jack mused aloud.

Ace cocked his head, reading the expressions of the townsfolk critically. “Perhaps. Most people are a bit wary of Marines by default, but I’ve only seen this amount of fear from places that have something to hide.” He frowned. “Or it could be that the World Government has grown stricter again, and these people are afraid that they’ll be arrested for something minor. The Celestial Dragons don’t tolerate any pirates or criminals, no matter how small their crimes are. It’s even worse for people who didn’t actually do anything.”

“Okay, seriously. Why haven’t people rebelled already?” Jack demanded, scowling.

He had always hated the World Government, Celestial Dragons, and most Marines in general ever since he found out Ace would be hunted down and killed simply because the Pirate King Gol D. Roger was his father, but that hatred had grown to utter loathing after Marineford.

Seeing Marines here only reminded Jack of Sabo’s death at the hands of a Celestial Dragon and Ace’s own demise at the hands of that bastard Akainu, and the more he looked at that Moon-forsaken uniform, the more difficult it was for the Guardian not to attack the Marines before they could hurt his believer again.

It did not help that their presence simultaneously reminded him that he had no right to attack humans, could not interfere with this world’s politics, and was unable to somehow kick the corrupt bigots out of office.

I don’t think the Guardians would be able to function in this world like they can on Earth. Back there, there are pockets of tyranny to deal with, but here the entire world is under the control of immoral zealots. Being immortal sucks when you can’t do anything about corruption and general human stupidity, Jack thought irritably.

High-pitched, joyous laughter snapped the Guardian out of his thoughts. Both he and Ace tensed as one of the playing children, trying to dodge a friend’s snowball, wandered into the Marines’ path. The little girl bounced off the leader’s— a Marine Captain’s?— leg, falling to the ground with a yelp. The child looked up, tears in her eyes, and fire burst to life around Ace’s hands the same time ice formed along Jack’s staff.

The Guardian realized what he was doing and gritted his teeth. “Stand down, Ace. We can’t attack him.”

The fireballs shrunk into nothingness but flames still rippled over the Summer Spirit’s tan skin. Before he could respond verbally, the Marine spoke.

“Watch where you’re going, brat!” the man snapped.

The girl’s lip trembled. “I’m s-sorry, mister.”

Cold eyes narrowed and both invisible Spirits tensed.

“You should have watched where you were going, girl.” The Marine growled menacingly. “I didn’t become a Captain to deal with impudent snot-nosed brats like you. You need to learn some respect!”

The Guardian recognized the sight of Armament Haki on the Marine’s hand even as he pulled his arm back, ready to strike. Just as Jack shouted a command to the Wind, Ace leapt in front of the girl, and the punch connected with his stomach. The Wind managed to push the girl out of the way as the Summer Spirit flew backwards with a pained cry, crashing into a building.

It immediately burst into flames, the wooden structure going up in seconds. The civilians and Marines shrieked and yelled in shock, more than one villager running off and screaming for someone to get buckets of water. Part of the house collapsed on Ace, hiding him from Jack’s sight.

Anger, quick and freezing, rushed through the Guardian, making him see red. He turned on the Marine Captain, frost snaking over his thin frame as the snowstorm reacted to his ire. The snow came down twice as fast, the soft flakes becoming icy and sharp, and hail the size of golf balls joined the flakes in their descent to the earth. The Marine winced in pain as they struck his exposed skin like a thousand freezing rocks and knives.

The Spirit of Winter’s blue eyes grew harder as he glared at the Marine. The blue orbs were icier than usual, lacking their normal glimmer of joy and fun.

He was furious at the mortal in front of him, fear and rage growing stronger as he registered that the man had just struck his brother. He had just hurt Ace. Ace, who he had almost lost once, who was a selfless idiot whose first instinct was to jump in front of people to save them, who Jack was not going to lose again to a damn lowlife like a Marine Captain.

A few people— Marines and civilians— cried out as the ice and snow stung their exposed skin, promising to give them frostbite and make their lives an icy hell for what they had done. The Marine Captain looked more like a snow man than a human being, ice and snow coating his clothes and hat. He bellowed at his men to move, cursing as the Wind blew into his face and almost knocked him down.

How dare he—

“Jack.”

He distantly heard Ace’s winded voice and turned his head in time to see the fire-user stumble out of the wrecked building, hand pressed against his abdomen and slight pain on his face. He limped over to Jack, the snowstorm strong enough that flakes actually managed to land on and cover his hat. The fire-user shivered slightly, and looked unnerved by his body’s reaction.

“Apparently Armament Haki can hurt us.” Ace mentioned with a wince.

“But the guy didn’t even know you were there. He was aiming for that girl!” Jack snarled, stalking over to the Summer Spirit. “Let me see.”

He forcibly moved Ace’s hand, scowling darkly at the already visible bruise that marked his stomach. It was in the shape of a fist, which only added to the Spirit’s anger.

The storm grew thicker and even more violent, the Wind screeching and growling with a fury that rivalled Jack’s own. The few remaining people in the streets fled for shelter as nature attacked with an uncontrollable rage. Warm hands gripped Jack’s own, the left one wrapping around his wooden staff over his own.

“Jack, you need to calm down. You’re hurting the kids!” Ace said urgently.

The Guardian’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed the streets once more, realizing that no, not everyone had run to safety. The little girl was huddled in a doorway with a few of the other children nearby, crying softly as the blizzard raged and screamed angrily and icy snow struck her skin.

Guilt opened up like a void in Jack’s chest and he closed his eyes, forcing the figurative storm of emotions within him back under control. The blizzard lightened to a manageable snow fall and the people slowly stepped out of hiding, hurrying to get to their actual destinations.

The unrelenting snow had managed to put out the building Ace had set alight, but when the Winter Spirit looked into his companion’s flame-colored eyes, he saw the guilt reflected back at him. At least the place had been empty.

“So much for me and my great control.” The Spirit said, trying to make light of the situation.

Ace forced a smile. “Yeah.”

His eyes darted towards the charred building and away rapidly, guilt clouding his features.

“We should probably get going.” Jack mentioned, unwilling to look closely at the damage they had caused.

Ace nodded silently and both Spirits took to the air. The Wind murmured quiet comfort and assurances to them both. Mostly to Jack, who clenched his teeth and soared onward without comment.

He had always had overprotective papa wolf tendencies when it came to people he cared about, but ever since he came to this world they had only gotten worse. And as much as Jack wanted to avoid introspection, he knew why.

Back on his world, Jack had the Guardians and his believers. He had people who loved him. People who could see him, cared about him, talked to him, could touch him without going through him…

But here, he only had Ace.

A few years as a Guardian could not erase three hundred years of loneliness and fear, and Jack honestly did not know if he could have endured with his sanity intact if he hadn’t had Ace to talk to in this world.

If Ace died again, not only would someone who was a brother in all but blood to Jack be gone forever, but the Winter Spirit would be completely isolated once more. Just like he had been for three hundred years, everyone he met would be unable to see him, everyone would walk through him, and he would be an invisible nobody without a purpose.

The Guardian gripped his staff tighter, ignoring the trickle of anxiety that trailed up his spine.

Pitch had been right. Even now, being alone was still Jack’s greatest fear. The only difference? Now he had something to lose.

Jack’s brooding thoughts were interrupted by Ace’s gasp.

“What the hell is that?!”

The Winter Spirit looked down, spotting a familiar dark shape against the snow. His arm was moving before his brain fully comprehended what he was looking at. Jack swung his staff, shooting a barrage of ice lances at the hated creature. The horse-like creature— the Nightmare— evaded all of his attacks, shrieking once before diving into the shadows beside a tree.

“Manny curse it!” Jack exploded, landing hard on the ground and slamming his fist into said tree.

Snow fell heavily to the ground around him but he ignored it, the temperature around him decreasing rapidly. Ace landed beside him, fire around his hands and eyes alert as he scanned the area for the threat.

“Jack, what was that?” the Summer Spirit demanded. The Winter Spirit did not respond, and Ace placed a hand on his arm, wincing as the frigid cold touched his skin. “Jack?”

“It was a Nightmare.” Jack spat.

The implications of the shadowy creature’s presence began running through his mind, fear, anger, and concern whirling around his head too fast for him to settle on any of one of them.

“A ‘Nightmare’?” the fire-user questioned. Understanding dawned on his face and he paled. “You mean…”

“That’s right.” Jack spun to face Ace, blue eyes grim and a shaking pale hand clenched around his staff. “It was one of his minions. Pitch Black is here.”

ROTGOPROTGOP

Pitch Black stood in the shadows, watching the ignorant humans walk by as they cheerfully went about their insignificant lives. The sunlight and chipper atmosphere of the town made him want to cringe, but he resisted the urge as he observed the people of the world he had ended up on. Pitch idly petted a Nightmare that had arrived not long before, bearing news that intrigued— and irritated— him greatly.

“So some of these humans have powers capable of destroying you, without knowing what you represent? I suppose since dreams and fears have such power here, courage would as well. Or perhaps it has to do with these ‘Devil Fruits’ I keep hearing about…”

The Nightmare King let his yellow eyes slide closed as he continued to mentally sift through the information his minions had gathered. “That boy— Luffy— is quite the conundrum. He was able to defeat one of you, and yet he has so much fear inside him… Oh yes, what terrible nightmares he has.” Pitch chuckled lowly. “His fear will give me so much power.”

Another Nightmare emerged from the shadows beside him. It neighed impatiently and Pitch obligingly dismissed the first Nightmare, beginning to stroke the newcomer’s mane. The first Nightmare huffed unhappily and retreated through the shadows, leaving the two alone.

The new Nightmare shared its findings with its Master, who ceased in his petting much to its annoyance. The Nightmare King’s expression had lost its pleased air, eyes narrowing to angry yellow slits.

“Who would have thought you’d be here, Jack Frost.” Pitch murmured tonelessly, only his clenched left fist revealing his rage.

The Nightmare grumbled, butting his hand like an impatient pet, and he continued to pet its head.

“I had heard that Jack had been sent to another world, but I had no idea that it was this one.” Pitch murmured.

The Nightmare shared more of its memories, and the Boogieman’s scowl deepened.

“Another Spirit? Here? I wonder how that happened… Their presence matters little. That Spirit is probably only a low-tier sprite that got lost. No, Jack Frost is the most prominent threat.” A cold smirk made its way onto his face. “Not that he will be able to beat me alone. It always takes more than one Guardian to defeat me, and poor Jack is all by himself here with no believers to assist him.”

Pitch pulled his hand away from the Nightmare’s mane, rejecting its hopeful neigh for more caresses. “Still, I believe a preemptive strike is in order. I will not give Jack the chance to interfere with my plans again. Find him and inform me of his location. This time I’ll deal with him myself.”

Chapter Text

Six days.

The two Spirits had been searching for Pitch Black for six days nonstop. No breaks, no fun, no random side-adventures and trips. Just constant flying and hunting for the Nightmare King, without a single second being spent on the ground.

Add the three weeks that they had already been awake for beforehand and Ace felt like he was going to drop any second. Even Spirits needed sleep, and the fire-user was beginning to suspect he needed more than the normal Spirit as a way for his narcolepsy to continue to plague him even in his immortal life. Only piling onto his exhaustion was the fact that it was currently nighttime, when all the sane people were asleep in their beds.

If Jack's current mood were any indication, they would not be stopping to rest any time soon. Ace had never seen Jack so frantic or driven before, not even in the few times the Winter Spirit had tried to interfere in a perilous situation during the fire-user's mortal life. The Guardian had not smiled once since finding out the Nightmare King was in this world, and quite frankly his behavior was beginning to worry Ace.

The fire-user trailed behind the Winter Spirit as he urged the Wind to make him fly faster, swooping close to the ground as he scanned the shadows with his sharp blue gaze. If Ace looked closely enough, he swore that Jack had dark bags under his eyes. Apparently the Summer Spirit was not the only one who needed some shuteye once in a while.

With that in mind, the raven-haired fire-user halted in midair, his flames extinguishing as he landed on solid ground for the first time in nearly a week. Jack almost left him behind, not noticing Ace’s sudden descent. When he saw his companion was no longer following him, he swooped around, landing beside the Summer Spirit with his staff held offensively.

“What is it? Did you see something?” The Guardian demanded.

Ace shook his head. “No. Jack, we need to stop for a minute.”

The Winter Spirit’s teeth clenched audibly, making an unhealthy grinding noise. “I’m not stopping until we find Pitch.”

“We can’t just fly around randomly and hope we run into him.” The fire-user said bluntly. “We’ve been trying that for a week and it hasn’t worked. We need a plan.”

“Like you’ve ever used a plan before.” Jack snapped.

Ace pushed back the anger— and flames— that wanted to burst out of him. “I’m going to ignore that.” He said flatly before letting his expression soften. “Please, Jack. We’re not going to find Pitch like this.”

The fire-user blinked blearily and held back a yawn, an action noticed by Jack.

The Guardian of Fun scoffed. “Don’t tell me you’re already tired? I hate to break it to you, but Summer lasts about three months at a time on Earth, maybe more. Good luck with your future duties if you can’t stay awake for a few days.”

Ace’s eyebrows crept upwards slowly. “Hello, Bunnymund. I must say, I never expected to meet you so soon. You look different than I was told. Just as moody though.”

Jack opened his mouth and paused, a mortified and sheepish expression rippling over his features. “Oh, Manny. I have been acting like the Kangaroo on a bad day, haven’t I?” He seemed to droop, all antagonism melting from his body. “I’m sorry, Ace.”

“It’s fine.” Ace consoled him. “I can tell you’re stressed.”

Jack gave a harsh laugh. “That’s an understatement. You… You don’t really get it. Even with the stories I told you about Pitch, you don’t really understand what he can do.”

The Guardian drifted upward into the branches of a tree and landed, one leg dangling lazily in the air while the other was pulled to his chest. Ace perched beside him, strictly reminding himself not to catch the wooden limb on fire.

“I wasn’t there when Pitch was at the height of his power, during the time he destroyed the Golden Age. I did not find out the full extent of what he did until after I became a Guardian. But I know that without the Guardians to stop him, he can do a lot of damage.” Jack sighed heavily. “Last time it was close. Too close. If Jamie’s belief in the Guardians hadn’t been so strong, Pitch would have won.”

“What does Pitch plan to do if he wins?” Ace asked hesitantly. “He doesn’t seem like the type to want to rule people.”

Jack’s blue eyes clouded. “No wonder, no hope, no dreams, no memories. He wants there to be nothing but fear and darkness and him.” He spoke the last sentence as if quoting something that had been said to him.

A shiver went up Ace’s spine. “He’s going to hate me then. Fire, warmth, and light, am I right?”

He meant it as a joke, but Jack looked caught between feeling intrigued and disturbed by his statement. The fire-user continued before the ice-user could land on one reaction or the other.

“Is Pitch really such a threat? His Nightmares turned against him last time, didn’t they?” Ace asked, trying to recall everything that Jack had told him about the last war with the Boogieman.

“That was only because we were currently kicking his shadowy ass.” Jack admitted. “We had gotten past our fears and sort of got a happiness boost because Sandy came back, so the Nightmares attacked the only person left who was afraid. But… I’m worried it will be different here. I know it will be different here. Back on Earth, only the belief of children can give us Spirits power, with Seasonal and Nature Spirits being the exceptions, of course. Here you believed in me even when you were an adult. If belief being more abstract like that is the norm here, that means that Pitch may be able to use the fears of everyone— not just kids— to get stronger.”

“But that’s just speculation.” Ace said hopefully.

“Hmm.” Jack mumbled disbelievingly with a shrug, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

The fire-user groaned. “Wonderful. That still doesn’t fully explain why you’re so stressed and insistent on finding him right now. I doubt Pitch will pop out of the shadows to destroy the world in a day.”

The Winter Spirit stayed quiet, twirling his staff in one hand. “…I’m the only Guardian here.” He said at last. “And I don’t think I can beat Pitch on my own. Every time I faced him by myself last time, he either played with me or beat me. And then there was that one time he used Baby Tooth as a hostage—” Pain flared across his face at the memory of what followed that little exchange. “—but other than that he pretty much swung me around like a chew toy and taunted me.”

Ace’s disliking of Pitch went up a few notches at the thought of the Nightmare King hurting Jack. He gave the Winter Spirit a friendly— but forceful— nudge, nearly knocking him out of the tree. “I think I might feel a little insulted. You’re not by yourself you know. I can help fight Pitch, too. I’ll have your back.”

The Guardian of Fun smiled for the first time in nearly a week. “That’s right. You know, you’re probably correct that Pitch is going to despise you. Fire will be really effective against shadows and black sand. I wonder if it will turn into glass…?” He pondered the question before his expression grew serious once more. “Just remember that Pitch’s real power isn’t really darkness or black sand. It’s fear. The moment he looks at you, he’ll know your greatest fear and will use it to manipulate you. He also likes to make his opponents angry, so try not to take the bait for once, okay?”

“I’ll try.” Ace said, though secretly he doubted that would happen.

His track record was not exactly the best when it came to ignoring enemies that insulted or threatened the people he cared about. Ace touched his chest where Akainu’s fist had impaled him and winced. Though maybe this time he would have the motivation to think more rationally while being goaded.

“We still need to find Pitch.” Jack said, pulling the fire-user out of his dark thoughts. “If we could just locate a Nightmare we could follow it to him.” The Spirit groaned. “That’s easier said than done. Every time I met Pitch, he either found me or wanted to be found.”

“Maybe he’s under a bed?” Ace suggested, only half-joking.

The Guardian nodded vaguely before sitting bolt upright. “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that before?”

He flew off, the fire-user quickly leaping into the sky to follow him. The tree burst into flames behind them as Ace took to the air.

Oops, he thought.

Ace caught up to Jack, following his snowflake-like flight pattern as they headed further inland.

“What did you figure out?” the fire-user asked.

“Even though adults may be able to give power Pitch here, he’ll still send Nightmares after children’s’ dreams to corrupt them and make more Nightmares.” Jack said, somehow managing to sound both happy for his revelation and disgusted by the implications. “It’s likely that we’ll run into a Nightmare if we stick around a large town.”

“Good plan, except I’m not about to let a Nightmare get near a kid.” Ace said, cracking flaming knuckles.

“Me either. Nightmares flee easily if they find themselves facing a strong opponent without Pitch there, so we should be able to scare it off and follow it.” Jack informed him. He paused, remembering an important fact about Pitch’s minions. "Use your flames to herd it to the sky and keep it from vanishing into the shadows. We'll have to make it take the long way to Pitch's lair."

The two Spirits headed to a rather large village surrounded by strange rock formations. Ace could not tell if they were natural or not, the stone too rough to be carved, but resembling objects too much to be natural. The town was already asleep, everyone who had one tucked safely in their beds with the exception of those without homes and those that were out drinking or partying.

Attracted to the sound of one party, Ace drifted towards an open bar, stepping through the door and watching with amusement as three men sang drunkenly while dancing on a table. The wooden structure gave out under their combined weight, sending all three crashing to the ground in an undignified heap. The Summer and Winter Spirits laughed alongside the humans that had observed the event, some patrons clapping enthusiastically for the tipsy dancers.

“Did I ever act that stupid when I was drunk?” Ace asked fondly, feeling oddly nostalgic.

“Nope. Mostly because you didn’t drink for pleasure until after you got the Mera Mera. And then you couldn’t get drunk because your powers burned away all the alcohol.” Jack teased.

“True, true. It’s a pity I couldn’t enjoy such simple things in life like embarrassing myself in front of crowds of people.” The fire-user sighed, smiling mischievously. His flame-colored eyes grew thoughtful. “Do you think I could now?”

Jack considered his question. “Possibly. You might run into the same problem because your body temperature still runs pretty high, but I know that North’s special eggnog has a kick. You should see what happens when the elves get ahold of it. Pure. Chaos.”

“Now that I want to see.” Ace chuckled. “Shall we—”

“The Whitebeard Pirates are a bunch of weaklings, that’s what they are!”

The ex-pirate went very still, slowly turning to look at two men that were conversing near the fireplace. Jack put a hand on his arm in warning but Ace did not even look at him, momentarily forgetting that the humans could not see either one of them.

“What did you just say?” he growled to deaf ears.

“Careful what you say, mate.” One of the blissfully ignorant men told his comrade. “The Whitebeards are still a powerful lot. Sure, their Captain’s health declined after the Marineford War, but he’s still a Yonko.”

The first man snorted. “Some Yonko he is. I think Whitebeard’s actually dead and those idiots are just pretending he’s alive in order to try to scare people away from their territories. Why else would they keep losing islands to a bunch of new pirate crews? You heard what happened a couple years ago with Blackbeard, didn’t ya?”

“Yeah, yeah.” The second man sighed, rolling his eyes as if his companion was talking about old news. “The Payback War. The Whitebeard Pirates lost. Badly.”

“I’m telling ya, Whitebeard must be dead.” The first man insisted, taking a swig of his whiskey. “How could his crew have lost otherwise?”

“Probably still injured.” The second man said optimistically. “He got stabbed a lot. Those wounds certainly didn’t kill him though. The Navy would have shouted the news to the world if one of the Yonko had fallen.”

“Whatever.” The first man said dismissively, swallowing another large gulp of his drink. “It’s a shame either way for such a ‘grand’ crew to fall so heavily—”

The fire beside them roared up to the ceiling, making both men scream and leap away from the sudden heat. Ace stormed forward, literally on fire, the flames on his skin unseen by all of the mortals around them.

“See here, you.” The fire-user shouted in the startled, ignorant man’s face, the fire in the fireplace illuminating his eyes. “Whitebeard and his crew are stronger and braver than you’ll ever be! You think a lowlife coward like yourself can insult the man who was my father? You—”

The man sprang to his feet, dashing away from the raging fire, and unintentionally though Ace. His flames went out like a blown candle, an icy cold feeling ripping through his chest as the man ran through him. The Summer Spirit gasped painfully and fell to his knees, clutching at his chest as his flame-colored eyes dulled like dying embers. A moment later and the coldness receded, leaving Ace trembling on the ground.

A cold hand— that was practically hot compared to the chill he had felt in his heart a moment ago— landed on Ace’s shoulder and Jack looked at him with sad blue eyes.

“I’m sorry. It’s been a while since you’ve been walked through, hasn’t it?” the Guardian said with empathy in his gaze.

He offered his hand. Ace was not prideful enough to shove the Winter Spirit away, instead accepting the assistance and standing unsteadily. A different icy ache was in his chest now and he stared at the wooden floor with unseeing eyes.

“Let’s go outside.” Jack said quietly, guiding the young Spirit along.

As soon as they made it to an abandoned alleyway, Ace fell to the ground once more, bringing his knees to his chest and clutching his hat with both hands.

“It was all my fault.” Ace choked. “If I hadn’t gone after Teach, Oyaji and the others wouldn’t have had to come rescue me. He wouldn’t have been wounded, and those new pirates—” he could barely stand to call the greedy hounds that “—wouldn’t be taking all of Oyaji’s land. People wouldn’t call my brothers and father weak and…” He trailed off, guilt weighing heavy on his heart.

“You always have to blame yourself, don’t you?” Jack murmured as he sat beside Ace. “Listen. Something like this would have happened eventually, with or without you getting captured. People can’t stay in power forever, and the balance has to shift sometime.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that I’m the reason for their fall.” Ace whispered. “Don’t try to deny it. They probably went after Blackbeard because of me.” Because I was the idiot that went after Teach, got captured, and started the whole Marineford mess…

“I doubt it was just because of you.” Jack said solemnly. “It was probably for Thatch as well, and also for revenge because of everything else Teach did to hurt your crew. Either way, it was their choice to take part in a ‘Payback War’. You had nothing to do with it. Besides, you should be happy about one thing. Your Oyaji survived. He and Marco and the others are still out there, alive.”

“…You’re right.” Ace breathed, managing to smile. “They’re alive.”

He had suspected that his Captain and the other Commanders had not fallen in the past three years simply because— as the one drunk had stated— the news would be shouted to the world, but it was nice to have confirmation that Whitebeard, Marco, Izo, and the others still lived.

“Of course I’m right.” Jack said with a flourish. “I’m always right.”

Ace gave him a look. “You’re not always right. Unless it turns out that Maelstrom Island was north of us—”

“I swear that island moved. Besides, the extra ten days at sea were fun. We got to see some cool Sea Kings.”

“—And that you can, in fact, make popcorn out of regular corn while it was wrapped in the husk—”

“How was I supposed to know it would catch on fire? You were the Fire Logia, you should have done something!”

“—And then there was the time you swore that the Princess of Alabasta was actually a clone of her mother.”

“That was not my fault. Blame the people I overheard. They were the ones spreading rumors, not me!”

“—And how about when we were going to meet Shanks and you claimed you could ‘lighten the snowstorm’ and ‘totally make it go away’? You ended up making it worse and had to spend the entire time I was with Shanks trying to make sure the storm didn’t bury us all!”

“Okay, I might have been wrong that time,” Jack admitted grudgingly. “I should have known better than to fight against nature and try to hold it back. Still, it’s not like I missed anything important! Shanks wouldn’t have been able to see me anyway.”

His bottom lip jutted out childishly, revealing that he was still sore over the fact that he had missed out on seeing the red-haired Yonko. Ace chuckled, mood lightening, and shared a grin with the Guardian.

“I’m surprised, Jack. You managed to make a friend.”

The voice was silky, calm, and almost comforting, but sent shivers up Ace’s spine. The fire-user looked towards the source of the sound as besides him Jack leapt to his feet, staff raised.

“Pitch!” the Guardian spat, stepping defensively in front of Ace.

The fire-user got to his feet as a grey-skinned, black-clothed man stepped out of the shadows, a calm expression on his benign face as he separated from the darkness that had spawned him.

“Hello, Jack. I’ve heard that you and your companion have been looking for me.” Pitch said.

Sharp yellow eyes settled on Ace but he met them evenly, readiness burning away his confusion. The fire-user did not light himself but kept his powers right under the surface of his skin, ready to draw them out at a moment’s notice. The Nightmare King’s lips twitched.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your Spirit friend?”

Those yellow eyes seemed to pierce Ace, digging deep into his soul to see what secrets they could rip out of him. The Summer Spirit remained unintimidated.

“I already know who you are, Pitch Black.” Ace said tensely. “Nice to meet you.” He added with light sarcasm.

“Oh, Jack told you about me?” Pitch responded cordially. “I assure you, his tales of my misdeeds were greatly understated.”

“Good to know.” Ace said, unafraid.

“What do you want, Pitch?” Jack butted in, stepping in front of Ace again.

The fire-user did not protest, knowing they had to keep a united front in the presence of this enemy. Now was not the time for petty squabbles, and the fewer openings they gave Pitch the better. Ace was not the type to be careful by default, but something about the Boogieman put him on edge.

“You’re being very rude, Jack.” Pitch admonished him as if he were speaking to a child. “I’m just having a nice conversation with your new friend. Not all Spirits are my enemies, you know. You don’t have to drag him into the Guardians’ war. He could get hurt.”

He sounded genuine and friendly as he threatened the Summer Spirit. It creeped Ace out.

Jack’s grip on his staff grew so tight his knuckles turned bone-white. “You’re starting with outright threats? How unsubtle of you.”

Pitch raised his hands in a placating manner. “I’m not threatening him, Jack. I’m just giving him the opportunity to leave. I truly do not like to involve third parties in my business. Why do you think I didn’t call on other Spirits to assist me in our last battle?”

“Because they’re not homicidal maniacs like you.” The Guardian growled. “And you were busy trying to recruit me. Remember how well that worked out?”

Pitch did not respond to his jab. Instead he studied the Winter Spirit for a moment, as if Jack were a puzzle he was unable to solve. Yellow eyes widened and the Nightmare King grinned savagely, showing too many teeth for either Seasonal Spirit to be comfortable.

“I’m impressed, Jack.” Pitch murmured deliciously. “Your greatest fear has changed. Fears evolve all the time, but to have your biggest one switch… That is quite the accomplishment.”

If possible, Jack grew tenser. Pitch’s eyes focused on Ace, and the fire-user was suddenly reminded of a time he had come face to face with a giant tiger while alone in his youth. The beast had the same hungry look in his glare that the Boogieman did now, as if Ace were nothing more than a snack he could not wait to devour.

“You really did your friend a disservice by doing that, Jack.” Pitch chided. “I’m afraid it turns out that he is involved with our little war.”

Ace slid into a defensive stance, flames forming around his hands. “I was involved before you even knew I existed.”

Pitch’s eyes darkened as he saw the flames, anger, shock, and— was that sadness?— flitting over his face before he settled on a neutral expression. “I recognize that power. So Mother Nature finally chose a new Spirit of Summer. You’re a young one, too. I can tell by your lack of finesse.” He grinned predatorily. “I killed the last Summer Spirit when he was less than a decade old. Do you want to help me break his record for shortest immortal lifespan?”

Like shadows rushing across the ground Pitch struck, filling Ace’s vision as a spear formed in his right hand. Ace leapt backwards, throwing a stream of fire at the Boogieman as Jack swung his staff, shooting Pitch with a bolt of ice. Both attacks went through the Nightmare King as he turned to smoke, sinking into the ground and reforming behind Ace.

The fire-user created two walls of flame around the Spirit of Fear, slamming them together, but Pitch evaded the flames, leaping at Ace as his weapon became a scythe. Ace ducked beneath the formidable weapon and kicked a leg out, fire blooming from his foot and hitting the Nightmare King in the ankles. Pitch yelped and stumbled, right into Jack’s ice barrage, a couple lances stabbing through his cloak.

Ace and Jack advanced but something dark caught the corner of the fire-user’s eyes and he ducked, barely avoiding a pounce from a Nightmare. He and the Guardian immediately went back-to-back as more Nightmares slunk out of the shadows, surrounding them.

“You didn’t think I came alone, did you Jack?” Pitch mocked.

“You really are a dirty coward, you know that Pitch?” was the Winter Spirit’s harsh response.

To both Seasonal Spirit’s surprise, Pitch did not take the bait and become enraged. “No. I’ve just learned from my mistakes.” His voice darkened. “Normally I’d be less direct and more manipulative, but let’s just say I’m feeling a little vengeful at the moment.”

The Nightmares closed in, snarling and screaming eerily. Ace could feel Jack’s cold back pressed against his. The creatures were in the alley, on the streets, on the rooftops. Even if the two Spirits did try to escape, they would not get far. Not that Ace was planning on running.

“I’ll take the ones on the left, you take the ones on the right?” Ace asked, eying the horde of enemies warily.

He felt Jack flinch, but before he could ask what was wrong the Nightmares attacked. Ace took out a large chunk with a widespread fireball, as Jack froze and shattered some more with ice. A shrieking Nightmare jumped at the fire-user through the flames like a demon, but Ace deflected its lunge with a small superheated fire wall. The Nightmare turned to glass, hitting the ground so hard it shattered into shards.

The fire and ice-users followed up the attacks with a series of precision strikes, Jack hitting any Nightmares that came too close with his staff while Ace smashed them to bits with his fire and bare hands.

A loud shriek made both Spirits jump, and Jack looked up, face going pale. “Oh no…”

Ace followed his gaze, spotting new enemies among the Nightmares. They were black as night and vaguely human-like in shape, with odd, clawed hands and thin proportions that reminded the fire-user of starving corpses. They had no legs, floating in the air like ghosts, their bottom halves like tattered pieces of black cloth. Overall, they looked more terrifying, more disturbing, and more dangerous than the Nightmares ever could.

“Jack, what are those?” Ace asked urgently, glancing at the Winter Spirit.

“I’ve never seen one before, but I think I have an idea…” Jack said, trying to stay calm. “Those aren’t Nightmares. They’re Fearlings.”

“What’s the difference?” Ace asked warily.

The Winter Spirit swallowed. “Short version? Nightmares are corrupted dreams. Fearlings are corrupted souls.”

Ace blanched. “Oh.”

The Fearlings screamed, the sound eerily human, and both Spirits had to resist the urge to clap their hands over their ears. Jack threw bolts of ice at them, the ones that struck expanding rapidly and freezing the Fearlings in place. The Wind quickly crashed into the paralyzed creatures, shattering them into pieces.

Ace released a large plume of flames, letting it split apart into seven separate streams. Pitch’s minions attempted to dodge the fire, only for the flames to follow them through the air until they struck, turning the creatures into ash.

Instinct made the two Spirits look up. They dove away from each other as a Fearling and three Nightmares jumped at them from above. Ace ducked under the Fearling’s swipe while Jack faced off against the three Nightmares. The Summer Spirit backed away to give himself more range, forced to dodge again as the Fearling doggedly chased him, floating through the air.

Ace sidestepped another clawed strike, raising a flaming hand and letting the fire within it explode an inch from the Fearling’s head, covering it completely. Needless to say, it was gone when the flames went out.

The fire-user spotted Jack smacking a Nightmare with his staff and stepped forward to assist him, only for everything to go black. Ace stumbled in disorientation, briefly falling into nothingness, and instinctively sent out a burst of fire from his entire body. The darkness wavered and the silent town returned with him lying on his back in the street. Ace leapt to his feet and thought he heard a curse.

“I must applaud you,” Pitch said as he emerged from the shadows. His voice held a slight wheeze, and he rubbed his left wrist with his other hand. “You have an impressive reaction time.”

Ace slid into an offensive stance, flame-colored eyes scouring the area for Jack. He was still in the same town but a different street, and the Guardian of Fun and the Nightmares were nowhere in sight.

Was Pitch taking me away to kill me or use me as a hostage? He wondered.

The fire-user felt a chill as he considered how far Pitch could have dragged him or what the evil Spirit could have done if Ace had not gotten out of the darkness so fast. He quickly banished that fear, focusing on his foe.

It doesn’t matter. I won’t be captured again. “You underestimated me. Don’t think I’m easy prey, Boogieman.” He warned coldly. “I don’t need Jack with me to kick your ass.”

Pitch smirked. “Such arrogance. Do you truly believe that a rookie Spirit such as yourself stands a chance against me?”

“Last time you were defeated by a group of children so I think I might be okay.” Ace sneered defiantly.

Anger darkened Pitch’s face and he lunged, a scythe forming in his hands. Ace raised his own arms defensively, a shield-like firewall forming in front of them, and was pushed backwards from the force as the scythe struck the protective flames. The Summer Spirit skidded to a halt a few feet back, letting the shield fade.

I can block his attacks with fire. Good to know.

Pitch kept up his assault, scythe shifting into a spear. He stabbed at Ace, who dodged— Not a Logia anymore. Strikes like this will hit. Don’t forget— and counterattacked with five fire lances. The Boogieman evaded each one, cloak flicking out of the way just in time to avoid being pinned.

Ace leapt at Pitch, fire forming in his hands like daggers, and struck at the Nightmare King, who backed up rapidly, blocking the flames with his spears. The fire-user put more energy into the flames, letting the daggers expand in length, and one stabbed Pitch’s right arm. The Spirit of Fear gave a pained shout and swung his weapon haphazardly, slicing Ace’s side.

Both combatants retreated slightly to clasp their wounds. When Pitch pulled his hand away, he had a small burn on his forearm, the skin blackened. When Ace did, he noticed an odd black grit in the wound. He was also bleeding. He did not know Spirits could bleed. The fire-user ignored the pain— and worry about what the hell Pitch had gotten him with— and lunged at the Nightmare King, fire forming around his fist.

“Hiken!” he shouted out of habit, and watched with satisfaction as his flames managed to clip Pitch’s side, sending him sprawling.

Ace stepped forward to continue the attack and faltered, tiredness gripping at his limbs. It almost reminded him of what he felt before a narcolepsy attack, but instead of warmth this pulling feeling felt cold. As Ace swayed, the Boogieman stumbled to his feet, breathing heavily. His eyes were wide with delight.

“Of course. Portgas D. Ace.” Pitch breathed. “I recognize you now.”

“My name is Hiken D. Ace.” The fire-user said without missing a beat.

He threw a couple thin lines of fire at the Boogieman— ignoring the draining feeling the action caused— holding the ends as they arced through the air like whips. Pitch dodged his attempt to strike him, dancing out of Ace’s range.

“It is truly an honor to meet you. I mean it.” Pitch said, hands clasped in front of his chest. “I must say, your brother’s nightmares are a sight to behold.”

Horror washed over Ace like a bucket of ice water down his back. It was quickly replaced by anger. He threw a large stream of fire at Pitch, but his foe sank into the shadows. Ace turned around in a circle, wary and alert as he waited for the Nightmare King to emerge once more.

So much fear. So much doubt. So much pain. All because he could not save his dear big brother.

Pitch’s voice echoed around Ace, making him unable to pinpoint him. The Spirit of Fear laughed hauntingly, shadows in his shape all along the walls around the fire-user.

“Stay away from Luffy!” Ace snarled threateningly.

Pitch ignored him, still cackling in a low, mocking way. “But I’m hardly doing anything. I assure you, his nightmares are more memories than visions. Although I will admit that I’ve added a few things every now and then to spice things up a bit and add some variety.”

Helplessness and anger melded together, filling Ace’s body with an almost physical pressure.

“Leave my little brother alone!” Ace bellowed.

He exploded into flames, the orange fire covering his entire body and blasting outwards. The inferno struck a startled Pitch with the force of a speeding train, sending the Nightmare King through a wall. Ace was honestly surprised that no one had come running to— or away from— the chaos yet. Were these people heavy sleepers or what?

Or maybe Pitch has something to do with it… Ace mused morbidly, but pushed the thought away.

When Pitch stumbled out of the wreckage he found himself surrounded by tiny green balls of light. The fire-user detonated the Hotarubi, watching with satisfaction as they blew up in the Nightmare King’s face.

Ace stepped forward, readying a follow up attack, only for the coldness to pull at him again. His flames went out a few mere inches from his body and his knees almost buckled but he caught himself at the last second, shaking his head to clear it. He heard Pitch laugh.

“I see Jack didn’t tell you about all of my abilities. Then again, even he might not realize the full extent of what I can do. He wasn’t there when I was at full power. My sand does more than create Nightmares. You won’t be able to experience its full capabilities because of your… ‘Mother’, but I’m pleased to inform you that you’ll feel enough. Like the Dream Sand it was based on, my sand can make people tired and fall asleep.” Pitch explained casually. “But instead of dreams… you’ll fall into nightmares filled with your worst fears.”

Ace’s vision blurred and he blinked rapidly. After a moment of crushing darkness he opened his eyes to find Pitch right in front of him, fist pulled back. The Nightmare King’s punch slammed into Ace’s stomach. The fire-user flew back as his hat flew off his head, overcome by a terrible sense of déjà vu. His back hit a stone wall, forcing the air from his lungs, and he landed on the ground with a thud.

Get up, his mind urged as he laid there and groaned, vision swimming. Get up! I can’t let Teach beat me!

Teach? No, he wasn’t fighting Teach. He was fighting—

Pitch grabbed him roughly by the shoulder, lifting him up easily with a strength that he did not look like he should possess. His spear changed shape, turning into a sword. Ace tried to struggle but his wound burned and he let loose a scream of pain.

“Ace!” He heard Jack shout.

Ace looked up and saw the Winter Spirit diving towards the two, staff held threateningly. Pitch spun him around and pressed his newly-formed blade to the fire-user’s back in warning, exactly where Akainu had punched through him.

Jack froze in place, horror in his expression, not daring to come closer. Ace could feel his heart pounding in his chest, but refused to let fear take hold of him any further. It was only through sheer force of will that he kept the memories of his death at bay. He couldn’t panic now. He had to stay strong.

“Shall I kill him, Jack?” Pitch asked, caressing Ace’s cheek with a cold grey hand. “He’s all you have here. Lose him, and you’ll be all alone again.”

Standing stock still, Ace desperately tried to call the tiniest flame to the surface, but could not gather the energy to even bring heat to his skin. He could feel the icy burning from his wound spreading up his side, as if a clawed hand was ripping through his insides. The sword of black sand or shadows or whatever it was made of was frigid against his back, as if someone had crafted a blade out of the coldest ice and put it there.

“Don’t touch him!” Jack snapped, staff pointed directly at Pitch’s face.

He made no move to strike. All three Spirits knew that the Guardian would not attack, not when the Boogieman had Ace in his clutches. Pitch seemed to be enjoying Jack’s powerlessness, baring his teeth in a grin.

“Give me a reason why I shouldn’t run him through right now.” The Nightmare King said to his foe, hand gripping Ace’s left arm tightly. “One. Reason.”

Jack scanned Ace’s face, searching for an answer with unadulterated anguish in his eyes. The fire-user stared back, putting on the encouraging expression he used whenever Luffy was upset. He wanted to tell the Guardian to fight or run, but knew saying such things would be useless. Jack would have to be knocked out or incapacitated before he would abandon Ace, especially when he was in the hands of an enemy.

How are we going to get out of this? Ace thought, trying not to despair.

His fire powers were not working, and he could not get out of Pitch’s grasp without being stabbed. Maybe if he made some type of distraction—

“He’s practically Emily Jane’s kid.” Jack blurted.

Ace felt the blade stab slightly into his skin. He bit back a pained grunt, feeling blood trail down his back. The hand holding him in place was shaking in anger.

Don’t you dare speak her name!” Pitch spat, fury coloring his every tone. “You think that I care for Mother Nature’s children? Hah! I already told you that I murdered the previous Spirit of Summer. Plus, using that line of logic that would make you her child as well. Do you honestly think that being a Seasonal Spirit would stop me from doing this?”

Ace felt the tip of the blade twist deeper into his back. Despite his best effort he let loose a distressed cry, his breathing quickening. Suddenly he could not tell if it was metal or a burning fist against his back, reality and memories blurring together. Was it Jack or Luffy in front of him, their eyes wide with fear as they stood helplessly before their enemy?

Through the haze, Ace vaguely became aware of the black creatures creeping closer— Nightmares. He was with Jack and Pitch in a little town. Not at Marineford. Not at Marineford.— and pushed his memories away, clinging to every ounce of courage he could muster.

He was a brother, an ex-pirate, a Summer Spirit, a damn ‘D’. He would not let this overdramatic bed-haunter frighten him. Ace calmed himself, moving past his fear. There was a way out of this. They would both be okay.

If his frown was any indication, Pitch noticed his feat. The expression vanished before Jack could notice the Nightmare King’s annoyance as well.

“Don’t worry, Jack. I won’t reenact his first death. What would be the fun in that?”

Pitch’s hold on him shifted and Ace found himself pressed securely to the Nightmare King’s chest, one grey arm holding both of his to his sides. The sword lifted to Ace’s throat, caressing it almost gently. The fire-user swallowed, wincing when the action caused the blade to nick his skin. He felt a bead of blood drip down his neck.

Of all things he could be thinking about in this moment, all Ace could process was that he could feel the Nightmare King’s heart beating against his back. For some reason he had thought Pitch was heartless— ha ha— but apparently that wasn’t true. Physically speaking, that is.

Ace’s thoughts about the physiology of Spirits were interrupted when the sword dug just a bit deeper into his throat. He could not stop the pained grunt that escaped his lips as the blade sliced into his skin, and wished more than anything that he had managed to keep silent when Jack’s eyes dulled with terror.

“Don’t.” Jack begged. “Please don’t. Ace had nothing to do with your defeat. I was the one who beat you. Hurt me instead. Take your revenge on me.”

He sounded like he wanted to be angry but could not quite manage it, a hint of a sob in his tone. Ace’s heart twisted with sadness and guilt that he was causing his brother such pain. That did not mean he was going to stay quiet about his words though.

“No. Don’t even think about giving yourself up, or a trade.” Ace said harshly. “He’ll kill me anyway, you idiot! You told me about what he did with Baby Too— Ah!

The fire-user grunted as Pitch’s free hand reached up, pulling his head back by his hair.

“That’s enough from you.” The Nightmare King said steadily. “However, you are correct. I will kill you. But I think I’ll let my Fearlings and Nightmares play with my good friend Jack a bit first, hmm?”

The Nightmares crept closer, the Fearlings floating in the air, and the Guardian tensed, eyes darting around. For a second, Ace thought that Jack was going to give in, but then their eyes met and the fear in the Winter Spirit’s gaze was replaced by determination.

The first Nightmare pounced and the Guardian knocked it away. Jack spun, shooting ice from his staff like it were a rifle, hitting each enemy that came close.

“Oh look. He got a second wind. How cute.” Pitch seemed more amused by his resistance than angry, certain he would be victorious.

Ace growled low in his throat but said nothing, using the time to silently search for a way to get free of the Nightmare King’s hold. His limbs felt like cold lead, the warmth of fire just a distant memory, and as the Summer Spirit peered dully at his injured side, he noticed the blackness that creeping through his tan skin like black veins.

At least Jack was too busy to notice.

The Guardian continued to beat back the Boogieman’s minions, icing them, shattering them, even stabbing a few with his staff, and Pitch’s patience faded.

“That’s enough playing.” He said coldly. “Now kill him.”

The Nightmares and Fearlings were eager to obey, all leaping for the Guardian at once. Jack gave an enraged cry, staff sweeping sideways as he froze the closest creatures of Fear solid, unintentionally creating a wall of ice and black sand between him and the rest of his enemies.

It was then that his extended period of wakefulness and stress decided it was time for his body to shut down. Ace could only watch as Jack abruptly collapsed, staff still held in his hand as he slumped to the ground.

Pitch gave a startled laugh, finding the situation to be extremely hilarious. “That’s it? That’s what knocks him out? A lack of sleep? How ironic!” He smirked maliciously. “I wanted him to be conscious, but beggars can’t be choosers I suppose. At least you get to see him die.”

The Nightmares and Fearlings closed in on the unconscious Guardian, the Wind rushing around the fallen Winter Spirit in an attempt to keep his enemies away. It was doing a good job for the moment, but Ace knew one of them would get past its defenses eventually.

And Jack would die.

Maybe it was desperation. Maybe it was the pure need to protect.

Ace did not know what caused the familiar, commanding force to rise within him like a storm, but he recognized what he felt. It was the same power he had used to save Luffy from Bluejam so many years ago, the same power he had never bothered to learn to control— had never acknowledged— because it was associated with his father.

Ace could not care less about using the same power as Roger now, so he let the torrent free.

The Nightmares and Fearlings crumpled— not into piles of sand— but like normal creatures would when struck unconscious. Even Pitch went down, not knocked out, but winded. A second later he rose, a scythe forming in his hand, but Ace used the remainder of his strength to tackle the Nightmare King. The fire-user grappled with him, knocking away the scythe and keeping Pitch away from Jack.

I just used Conquerer’s Haki, he thought distantly, but focused on more important matters.

“Wind, get Jack out of here!” Ace shouted, still struggling with Pitch.

He could practically feel its reluctance.

The Nightmare King seemed to remember that he had powers of his own and summoned another spear, slashing at the fire-user. Ace grabbed Pitch’s hand, barely able to keep the spearhead away from his body. He was weakening quickly, the strain of using Conqueror’s Haki on top of his possibly poisonous wound and earlier exhaustion making it hard to remain coherent.

Now, Wind!” Ace commanded.

The Wind dove down, knocking away a few lingering Nightmares and dragging Jack’s limp form into the sky. The fire-user smiled as he watched Wind carry Jack away to safety, too fast for the Nightmares to give chase. As soon as his friend was out of sight, Ace felt the tiredness grip his body in its angry claws, his muscles going slack as his remaining strength left him.

The blunt end of Pitch’s spear hit him in the face. Ace stumbled and fell to his knees, breathing heavily. Instantly the spear was at his throat, hovering millimeters from his skin. Ace met Pitch’s enraged gaze steadily, still smiling in relief. Jack was safe. He would be upset that the fire-user sacrificed himself for him, but the Guardian of Fun would live.

“What was that power?” Pitch asked dangerously.

“None of your business.” Ace replied calmly.

He had no reason to answer the Nightmare King. The less information he revealed— either unwillingly or through gloating Ace may very well deserve at this point— the more surprises others would have for Pitch when they fought him. Ace briefly wondered what would happen if Luffy battled Pitch, and his smile grew bigger.

Luffy would beat him of course.

The spear pricked his neck, drawing a bead of blood, ready to slice open his throat.

“You are in a very bad position, Ace.” Pitch said conversationally but with a snarl in his voice. “You interfered with my revenge. You’ve been infected by my Nightmare sand. You helped my enemy get away.”

The blade dug deeper. Ace refused to tremble or shut his eyes.

I’m going to die here, he thought calmly. I’m going to die to save someone I love again. That’s okay.

Surprisingly, he was not afraid to die, even after his gory demise at the hands of Akainu. He never had feared death itself. Especially not when it was his choice to die in the place of another, so that the other person could live.

In this moment, there was no fear or regret or sorrow in his heart.

All he felt was acceptance.

“I’m not afraid of you.” Ace stated.

Pitch’s expression twisted. “I know. But you fear for them.”

The fire-user felt a flicker of something but was too calm— detached, serene, tired?— to truly react to his words.

“Maybe. But I know they’ll beat you.” He said simply. “Luffy, Jack, whoever they might be… They’ll defeat you. Threatening them won’t make me afraid. You’re nothing more than a pathetic shadow of a man, and they’ll demolish you.”

The only one who his death would affect would be Jack. Everyone else already thought Ace was dead, so dying here would not cause them to grieve for him again. The fire-user felt a little guilty for leaving Jack alone and failing to live long enough to meet the Guardians, but he would rather die here than have his friend perish in his place.

The Nightmare King was silent, studying Ace with intense yellow eyes. “I see.” He murmured. “Even after your mortal death, you are unafraid of it. But you are still afraid of life. You do not fear others failing you. You fear failing them.”

He lifted the spear away but Ace could not summon the energy needed to attempt to fight him. His body would not move, the black veins surrounding his side wound creeping towards his navel now. He briefly wondered if the marks surrounded the cuts on his throat were expanding too, but did not glance down to see. Pitch eyed the marks studiously, like a scientist looking over an intriguing new experiment.

“Normally, infecting a person with my sand would cause them to become a Fearling or be assimilated—” Like Sandman, Ace’s mind supplied. “—But Seasonal Spirits such as yourself are immune to such transformations. Em— …Mother Nature made certain of that. Instead, you’ll slowly sink into nightmares, unable to tell dreams from reality as your every hope and dream is stripped away…”

Pitch trailed off, considering the possibilities, and a slow smile stretched across his face. “Killing you now would be a waste. You need to be made into an example.”

Blackness crept into Ace’s vision, expanding slowly, and finally the fire-user felt fear slip into his mind as realization forced its way past the numbness and took hold.

I’m not going to die. I’m going to be captured again.

He shivered, specks of terror gripping his heart as history repeated itself and he was swallowed by darkness. The last thing Ace heard was Pitch’s smooth voice.

“Besides, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that Jack is quite easily manipulated when I have a hostage.”

Chapter Text

Jack snapped awake in midair, the ground above his head and the sky beneath his feet. The Winter Spirit yelped and righted himself with an undignified flail, rubbing his forehead in an attempt to get rid of his disorientation. Memories returned like a slap to the face and he struggled against the Wind’s insistent pull as it dragged him through the heavens.

“Ace!” he shouted, looking around wildly for the Summer Spirit. “Where are you?!”

His frantic gaze found nothing but a clear blue sky, with Ace nowhere in sight. Dread settled like a stone in Jack’s chest. The last thing he remembered before falling unconscious was the fire-user in Pitch’s clutches. But surely he had escaped too somehow, right? The Guardian would never abandon Ace.

So where was he?

As he felt the air continue to rush past him, the Winter Spirit felt a glimmer of hope. The Wind would know what happened after Jack was knocked out. He vaguely recalled feeling a pulse of power after he had fallen, a wave so strong it had reached him even in unconsciousness. Had that been Ace? If so, he must have gotten away from Pitch, right? That meant Ace must have told the Wind to take Jack to safety, maybe providing a distraction for a bit until they got away. That was good. Wind would be able to tell him what happened to the fire-user, and they would be able to meet up.

“Wind, where’s Ace?” Jack demanded.

The Wind kept carrying him along in silence, ignoring his question.

“Did he tell you to take me somewhere to wait for him? That idiot didn’t try to face Pitch alone did he?” the Guardian asked worriedly.

The Wind said nothing.

“Wind, come on.” Jack said, patience waning. “Why won’t you just tell me where Ace is?”

The Wind miserably whispered an answer in his ear, and the Guardian’s naïve assumptions were ruthlessly crushed. Because Ace had not escaped Pitch. He had not flown away and was waiting somewhere for Jack to regroup with him. He was not free and laughing, floating in the sky as he anticipated teasing Jack for his unwarranted concern.

The last the Wind had seen of his brother, Pitch had been putting a spear to Ace’s throat.

Jack listened to its halting explanation, a distant part of his mind speculating if he could actually hear sorrow in the Wind’s ‘voice’. The rest of him was slowly detaching itself from his body, mind going cloudy as literal clouds darkened the sky overhead. The Winter Spirit ignored the snow that began falling around him, lost in his turmoil, unable to believe what he had just heard.

Ace stayed behind to distract Pitch so I could get away, Jack thought numbly. He was injured. He could barely fight, had no firepower, and couldn’t fly. He wouldn’t be able to escape Pitch, let alone fight him. He’s probably— He’s probably—

Jack could not even think the word. He could not think about how, after everything they had gone through and everything that had happened, Ace was most likely—

Instead he focused on anger.

“You left him?!” Jack shouted.

The Wind faltered, almost dropping the Guardian, but kept carrying him along. They were over a winter island— or at least it was one now— Jack noted faintly, but the Guardian quickly refocused on more important things.

“How could you leave him like that?” he snapped at the Wind.

It started to defend itself but Jack cut it off.

“No, don’t give me that! We both know Ace is a self-sacrificing idiot. Of course he’d tell you to go without him. That doesn’t mean you could abandon him! You could have picked him up too. You could have blown Pitch away from him. But you didn’t! Instead you just left him to di—”

The Wind gave what could only be described as a heartbroken wail. Jack yelped as he was dumped unceremoniously on the snowy ground, skidding a few feet and landing face first in the slush. The Wind blew past him, rustling his hair and clothes…

And then the Winter Spirit was alone.

“Wind?” Jack asked in a small voice.

He pushed himself up onto his knees and elbow and scanned the air frantically. It took a moment for the Guardian to realize the Wind had indeed left him, the silent stillness in the air only adding to the sense of abandonment that struck him like a physical blow. Jack bit his lips, fearing his companion for more than three hundred had finally had enough and deserted him.

“I didn’t mean it.” Jack croaked. “I didn’t… Wind, I’m sorry! Come back!” Please don’t leave me alone.

There was no stirring of air or comforting whispers in his ear. Only stillness and silence. The Spirit of Winter let loose a sob, shifting so he was sitting upright on his legs in the thickening snow.

“Good job, Jack.” He whispered. “You made the last entity that cares about you in this world desert you.”

He slowly got to his feet, staring blankly at the endless sea of white around him, the heavy snowflakes barely fluttering as they made their way to the ground. Any wind that was here with him was soulless, mindless, not like the Wind that had been his companion for so long. The companion that could not take his self-righteous anger anymore and left him.

Jack looked down at his bare feet, shame rushing through him as tears pricked at his eyes. I’m so sorry…

An invisible force ruffled his hair and Jack’s breath hitched. He leapt into the air, grabbing at the Wind as it danced around him. If Wind had a physical form, the Spirit would be hugging it right now. As it were, he clung to seemingly nothing, but in reality that empty space held a life, a consciousness, a friend.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Jack rambled. “I wasn’t saying— I didn’t mean— I’m not angry at you. I— I—”

The Wind drifted in front of the Guardian, and Jack’s blubbering apologies ceased as he noticed it was carrying something. Without a sound, the Wind dropped its offering into his palm. The Winter Spirit stared at the familiar orange cowboy hat, reaching up to trace the blue smiley and frown-faced buttons. His pale hand shook and his breath shuddered as he tried not to cry.

“Did you see—?” he began, but cut himself off.

If Pitch did murder Ace, the Summer Spirit might not have left behind a body. Sandy hadn’t, but then again the Guardian of Dreams had been assimilated into Pitch’s sand, not killed.

The Wind whispered in Jack’s ear, telling him it was sure the fire-child was alive, because if he was not, the shadow-evil-fear man would surely have made sure the ice-child had known his comrade was gone.

The Winter Spirit exhaled slowly, gazing at the hat he held. “You’re right. Pitch wouldn’t go through all that trouble just to kill him when I’m not there to see it. Which means either Ace escaped and is alone out there, or… or Pitch has him.”

Jack felt ill at the thought, his stomach churning and twisting uncomfortably. He knew what Pitch was capable of and knew that the Nightmare King was sadistic, manipulative, and cruel to those he despised. If he really did have Ace…

His grip tightened on the hat. “I guess there’s only one thing we can do then.”

Blinking tears out of his eyes, Jack put the string over his head, letting the orange cowboy hat lay on his back. It settled just below the hood of his sweatshirt, with just enough added weight to remind him it was there. To remind him of what he had lost.

“Let’s find him, Wind.” Jack said, and let it carry him into the sky.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Ace was drowning.

He flailed and struggled in the darkness, but it surrounded him, choked him, seeped into his skin and left him with nothing but cold isolation for company. Ace tried to find a way out of the void, but any time it seemed like he made progress the darkness grabbed him tighter, squeezing him like a toy it wanted to snap in half.

It was empty yet had a presence, emotionless yet malevolent. Were there creatures in the darkness, or did they only exist in his panicking mind? Ace could not see them, but could feel them, silent, mocking giggles echoing through the nothingness as he was tormented.

The fire-user found himself wishing he was wearing a shirt, just so he had some illusion of protection from the claws that tore at his skin, invisible blades raking along his arms and torso. Tiny knives dug into his flesh, cutting deep without drawing blood, the darkness mutely laughing as it— they?— pulled at his hair and limbs.

He may have screamed, but Ace could not hear his own cries, thrashing violently as he tried to fight off the enemy-enemies that surrounded him but were invisible to his eyes.

The darkness wrapped around his throat in a gentle embrace and slowly tightened its grip, cutting off his air and strangling him.

He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t—

Ace snapped awake, pulling in desperate gasps of air. He opened his eyes to darkness, but it wasn’t that darkness, wasn’t an endless void filled with unseen creatures that wanted him dead. Every part of him ached, and he felt chilled, as if he had been dunked in ice water before being thrown out into a winter storm. The fire-user tried to put a hand to his pounding head but found he could not, gradually becoming aware of the metal bands around his wrists.

He blinked, squinting in an attempt to see in the darkness, and his heart froze. Ace was in a prison cell. A familiar, dark, cold cell.

No no no no nononononono.

Ace’s breathing quickened. It has all been a dream. Marineford, his temporary rescue, his death, those three years with Jack… none of it had been real. He was still in Impel Down, left to rot alone until everyone forgot about him or he was executed for Gol D. Roger’s crimes. Despite himself, Ace let out a sound that may have been a sob.

The fire-user heard someone chuckling.

“How glorious. If I’d known you were going to react like this, I would’ve woken you earlier.” A silky voice said.

Pitch stepped out of the shadows, walking casually up to the bars of Ace’s prison with a mocking smirk on his face. The Summer Spirit’s fear vanished as memories returned and he glared silently at the Nightmare King.

“Do you like the décor?” Pitch asked. “I thought you’d appreciate the familiarity.”

Ace tried to summon his flames to attack the Nightmare King, only to feel a cold emptiness where his fire once resided. He shivered, the chilly dungeon feeling even more frigid than before, and reluctantly gave up on summoning his fire as the iciness— and pain that accompanied it— grew stronger.

These chains aren’t seastone so how— Wait, I’m a Spirit. Seastone doesn’t affect me anyway. Ace thought. Which means something else is preventing me from using my powers...

The fire-user felt as if he were forgetting something important, but dismissed the thought in favor of giving Pitch a death-glare.

“Go suck an egg.” Ace spat.

 “Now, now.” The Spirit of Fear chided. “There’s no need to be rude.”

Ace could not think of an insult vile enough to describe Pitch, so he merely glowered. He shifted his legs, pulling at the chains that were cuffed around his ankles, before settling in a cross-legged position. His back was straight and his gaze unwavering as he stared down the Nightmare King, calmer now that he knew he was not trapped in the hell-hole known as Impel Down.

“What do you want, Pitch?” he asked coldly. “Here to gloat?”

“Oh no.” the Boogieman said, waving his hands idly in front of him. “I’d just like to explain some things to you, if you don’t mind.”

“Be my guest.” Ace snarled sarcastically. “Go on. Explain your evil plan to me.”

Pitch disregarded his snappish tone, more amused by it than anything. “This has to do with your… future, so I suggest listening to what I have to say. Do you remember why I kept you alive, Summer Spirit?”

Ace kept his expression blank. “Yeah. So I can be a good little hostage. You know, I’m really sick of people using me to try to hurt my family. It’s getting old fast.”

“I can see that.” Pitch said soothingly, as if the fire-user were an old friend who was venting to him about frustrating happenstances in his life. “But I’m afraid you’re more than just a hostage.”

A grey hand gestured at Ace’s body, and despite himself the fire-user looked down. His breath caught. The black markings that had surrounded his side wound were now past his navel, stretching towards his other hip like an intricate, unwanted tattoo. If Ace looked at the black lines too long, they seemed to shift beneath his skin, making him queasy.

“Do you like them?” Pitch asked. “I decided to focus on that injury instead of the cuts on your throat. There is more of my sand in there. Do you want to know what it’s doing?”

“You said it normally turns people into Fearlings when it gets in their bodies, but Seasonal Spirits are immune.” Ace remembered, surprisingly calm for someone who had what was pretty much soul-corrupting poison in their veins.

“Immune to the transformation, yes.” The Nightmare King admitted. “But not the nightmares. Unlike when the victim is given a topical dusting of my black sand, the effects of it will last as long as it is in your bloodstream. Every time you dare to rest, your dreams will be plagued by your worst fears.”

Pitch stepped forward, appearing in the cell and smirking down at Ace.

“As time passes, the visions will become more and more real, until you can no longer tell the difference between fiction and reality.” He continued sadistically. “You’ll slowly sink into madness, your mind snapping because of all the horrors you have seen. Your hope, your dreams, your wonder, your memories, your joy… all of them will abandon you, until nothing remains but a shattered, agonized soul and a body that’s little more than a corpse.”

Pitch sounded gleeful as he described the fate he had planned for the Summer Spirit. Ace remained unintimidated even as he became more and more aware of the creeping cold feeling that was settled in his bones.

“That won’t happen.” Ace stated. “I’ll fight whatever you throw at me. I won’t fall to you.”

The Nightmare King laughed. “Of course you will. A little determination and courage is never enough to ward off pure terror.”

“You sound so certain.” The fire-user growled. “I already told you not to underestimate me. I’m going to break out of here and kick your ass.”

“How do you expect to do that?” Pitch asked curiously. “Your powers have been neutralized by my sand.”

“Like I’d tell you.” Ace sneered. It was true that he did not have a plan yet, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to just sit around and wait to fall into nightmares. “Besides, even if I can’t escape on my own, Jack will come for me.”

Pitch snorted. “Do you really think that Jack will rescue you? He can never even find me unless I want him to. Don’t worry; I’ll let him stumble across this place eventually. If only to see your mangled, broken body and crushed spirit.”

“Don’t count on it.” The fire-user said.

“Oh, I am.” Pitch said gently. “After all, how do you think I killed your predecessor?”

Ace scoffed, dull eyes flickering like glowing embers that were about to light. “How many times do I have to tell you… I’m not afraid of you. And nothing you say or do will make me afraid of you. You want to know why I’m so confident? Because you plan to use me to torment the people I love, my family, and I will never let you hurt them!” The last sentence was uttered in a defiant shout.

“Family…” Pitch murmured, the malice in his eyes fading. Then it was back, accompanied by a sneer. “How sentimental. How naïve. Family and love will not be enough to save you.”

“Well dreams have power, so why shouldn’t bonds?” Ace said lightly and determinedly, but also with a biting undertone.

The Nightmare King studied him, a knowing smirk on his lips. “I suppose we shall see how strong your will is soon enough. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other matters to attend to. Sweet dreams.”

He vanished before Ace could respond.

The fire-user leaned his head against the wall, closing his eyes and breathing softly. If he concentrated enough, he could feel exactly where the black sand was creeping through his body, the areas feeling empty and cold and wrong where the nightmarish poison was etching itself through his flesh.

I wonder what my nightmares will be, the fire-user thought.

Ace recalled the empty, frigid void he had woken from and felt a shiver of fear, but banished it just as quickly, thinking about Jack and Luffy and the freedom of the open skies and sea.

Don’t freak out already. I can’t give Pitch any more power over me than he already has through the sand. I need to think about this logically, try to predict what visions I’ll see, so when I finally do fall asleep I will know what to expect and know it’s not real.

Ace would persevere. Pitch may not be able to turn him into a Fearling, but the fire-user still wasn’t going to fall to the Boogieman’s nightmares. He wouldn’t be used against his loved ones, as an example or a threat. He would stay sane, live, survive for them.

The Summer Spirit had always lived for others, never himself. He had always lived so that others would be happy, would have people to protect them, would have someone to turn to if they needed help. He had lived for Luffy, for Jack, for Sabo, for Oyaji and the Whitebeard Pirates… this challenge would not be any different.

I’ll beat the nightmares and fear and regain my freedom, Ace thought stubbornly. I can’t let fear control me, not even for a second. Even if I break out of here, the nightmares won’t go away, so I need to stay strong. For them.

Sitting along in the cold, dark prison cell, the fire-user began to plot his escape.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Luffy hummed cheerfully as he walked out of his room on the Thousand Sunny. His stir craziness from being stuck on a ship for weeks had been sated by the short island adventure he had took part in more than a week ago. He was actually happy to be out at sea again. It helped that Sanji had cooked him meat and Nami and Franky had actually let him train and fish without yelling so the days were passing in a blur.

As far as the Straw Hat Captain knew, Traffy had been in his room ever since they found the mystery sand, but if experimenting and being antisocial made the surgeon happy, who was Luffy to judge? The mystery sand and mystery creatures had held Luffy’s attention for all of three seconds before he moved on and almost forgot about it.

Luffy’s thoughts wandered to more important matters, like breakfast, and the pirate dearly hoped that Sanji was cooking meat again. The Captain had actually hunted and caught a few large animals on the mystery island, so the pirates had plenty to spare.

The Captain grinned, pushing the door to the kitchen. “Hey, Sanji! What’s for…”

The room was empty.

Luffy blinked, looking around in confusion as he walked deeper into the silent galley. “Sanji? Are you not up yet?”

There was no answer, and the pirate frowned. “Maybe it’s not morning yet.” He mumbled, hurrying out of the kitchen.

A glance out of the window at the shining sun revealed that theory to be false. First he checked each of his nakama’s rooms, finding only made beds and eerie quiet. Then he went to Law’s guest room, but it was as vacant as the rest. Nervous, Luffy quickened his steps, dashing from room to room, leaving doors open as he rushed around the ship.

The aquarium bar: empty.

The sick bay: empty.

The library: empty.

The bathroom: empty.

Usopp’s Factory: empty.

Franky’s workshop: empty.

The crow’s nest… empty.

Luffy felt cold.

He made his way down the mast, turning around in a circle as he searched desperately for someone, anyone else on the ship. His nakama was gone. Unless they had all managed to turn invisible, something had happened to his friends. They had disappeared, and he had no idea how or why.

Were they taken by Marines? He thought angrily, fists clenching. No, that can’t be it. They would have captured me too.

An uncomfortable, uneasy feeling was forming in his chest, but Luffy ignored it, trying his best to think.

“Use your brain, rubber-head.” He could practically hear Nami saying.

“Okay.” Luffy said aloud. “My crew is gone. They were here last night.” He gritted his teeth, eyes roving over the pristine condition of the ship around him. “There probably wasn’t a fight. I would have heard it, and the ship would be damaged.”

His voice was the only thing to be heard in the silence. Even the sea was refusing to make a sound, the waves eerily mute as they crashed against the ship’s side. The pirate did not like the silence. Not a bit.

Luffy’s right hand began to tremble from an emotion he did not want to identify, and so he broke the terrible quiet once more. “So where did they go?”

“You shouldn’t be thinking about where, but why.” An unfamiliar voice said.

Luffy spun on his heel, raising his fists and narrowing his eyes at the speaker. A teenaged boy that might be around his age sat on the railing of the ship, bare feet waving over the deck as he swung them back and forth. His skin was pale, his hair was white as snow, and he wore a blue hoodie. A wooden staff dangled from his right hand, held in a loose grip.

He seemed… familiar.

“Who are you?” Luffy demanded. “What did you do with my crew?”

Blue eyes looked at him, and the stranger spoke in a voice like an icy wind, sharp and frigid. “You know who I am. And I didn’t do anything with your crew. They left on their own.”

Something sharp stabbed through the pirate’s chest but he ignored it, baring his teeth and pointing a shaking hand at the stranger. “That’s a lie! My nakama would never leave me.”

“Oh, really?” the white-haired intruder asked. “Why do you think that? Because they’re loyal? Because they love their Captain?”

“Yes!” Luffy proclaimed, loudly and confidently.

The stranger scoffed, crossing his arms over his chest. “How hypocritical of you. You think they won’t abandon you, when all you do is abandon others.”

Luffy stared at him in shock before shaking his head, turning away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re wasting my time. I’m going to find my crew.”

Cold gripped his feet and the pirate looked down to see ice crawling up his ankles, pinning him to the deck.

Did that Ice Admiral guy die? He wondered briefly. This mystery guy has his powers!

“Don’t turn your back on me again!” the stranger snarled in a low voice.

A look back at him revealed blue eyes that literally glowed with rage. Tensing, Luffy attempted to throw a punch, only for his arm to remain its normal length and the blow to miss spectacularly. The pirate stared at the nonworking rubber limb in confusion and attempted to coat his legs with Haki to break free of the ice. Nothing happened.

Luffy shoved aside his rising bewilderment, glaring at the stranger. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, mystery guy. I don’t know you.”

If possible, his response only made the stranger angrier. Ice crackled loudly as it covered his staff and thin frame, and his blue eyes shone with loathing as they met Luffy’s.

“I shouldn’t have expected more from you.” He snarled. “But fine. Let me spell it out for you. You abandoned me, left me alone, and couldn’t be bothered to even try to remember me! You always claim that you love your nakama, and will never forget your nakama, and will do anything for your nakama—” He said the precious word with open scorn, the ice thickening around him each time it left his lips. “—but that’s a lie. You claim that being alone is worse than death, but how do you think you left me? The only person I had left in this world died because of you!”

The ice was covering the deck now, the sky above darkening ominously as a storm rushed in. The waves slammed into the ship with gusto, rocking it back and forth, and if not for the ice covering his legs, the pirate might have stumbled.

“I’m sorry.” Luffy did not know what prompted him to say the words, but they fell from his lips with an ease he was unused to.

“Don’t give me that crap.” The ice-user spat. “Don’t pretend that you’re actually sorry. You’re never sorry. You never care about anyone except your precious nakama, yet you fail, forget, and disregard them as easily as you do strangers, don’t you? What an amazing Captain you are! I’m certain you’ll be a great Pirate King with that track record, kid.”

Images flashed in front of Luffy’s eyes. Losing the Going Merry. Fighting Usopp. His crew being taken away by Kuma. Ace dying in his arms.

“When were you ever able to protect them?” the stranger asked coldly. “When were you ever able to keep your ‘promises’? You’re an idiot, a hypocrite, and a failure, and the sooner you get that, the better off everyone will be. Your crew realized that you weren’t strong enough to protect them, and decided to leave before they all died because of your incompetence.”

His words seemed to echo around the empty ship, the silence that followed more noticeable then before. Ice began to manifest in the air around the stranger, hovering eerily above the ground.

“That’s not true.” Luffy said, unable to move as ice crept further up his legs, passing his waist. “They’d never leave me alone.”

The stranger walked up to him, something akin to pity in his hard gaze. “Maybe.” He conceded.  “But you’d leave them. Forget them. Just like you left and forgot me.

The ice floating around the intruder finished forming, taking the shape of spears. Luffy made to dodge, but his limbs were trapped and refused to obey him.

He could not even scream as lances of ice flew at him, plunging into his arms and chest—

Luffy awoke with a shout, heart pounding.

Someone was knocking on his door, and it opened without prompting. Sanji poked his head into the room, raising a curly eyebrow.

“Breakfast is ready, Shitty Captain. Chopper thought you might be sick because you didn’t rush in an hour before it was done.” He said casually, taking a draft from his cigarette.

Luffy stared at the cook, causing him to shift uncomfortably under his gaze. The pirate abruptly bounded over and glomped Sanji, wrapping his arms around him several times.

“Gah! What the—?” Sanji spluttered.

“I’m so glad you’re here!” Luffy mumbled, still holding the cook tightly. “Are the others here, too?”

“Yes.” Sanji said slowly, before deciding the Captain was just being his scatterbrained self. “They’re in the kitchen. I made bacon and—”

Like the words were a trigger, Luffy forgot about his nightmare, bolting towards the galley with Sanji still wrapped in his arms.

Meeeeaaaaattttttt!

“Shitty Captain! Let me go!” Sanji shouted.

Luffy laughed heartily, smiling at his nakama as the last remnants of his fear drained away from his mind. His crew was here. They had not left him. They never would. And he would never abandon or forget them either. No matter was the mystery dream ice-guy said.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Being allied with the Straw Hats was an interesting experience to say the least. Perhaps those with the ‘Will of D’ were prone to bouts of madness, because why else would Trafalgar D. Water Law allow himself to be dragged into the craziness of Straw Hat and his crew day after day.

Even worse, the surgeon did not exactly get annoyed by Luffy’s insanity anymore, and was seriously beginning to consider asking Bepo to lock him away next time he saw his navigator so the madness did not spread.

At least Law was currently away from the Straw Hats and their antics, in the room their shipwright Franky had kindly set up for him shortly after he came to the Sunny. Vials, beakers, and other tools were spread across his work table. The Heart Pirates Captain was no chemist, but he loved to experiment on the unknown, and the black sand was certainly an enigma worth investigating.

It did not reform or try to rejoin a larger source like Law considered it might. It also reacted like nonliving objects did when subjected to his Room. Using Observation Haki revealed nothing as well. In fact, it disappeared entirely as if there was nothing there to sense.

Yet the sand still gave off the same feeling it did when shaped into the form of those creatures, expelling what could only be described as a malicious aura. An aura that would suggest that it held some type of life when it in fact appeared to not be living at all.

The only reason Law knew the sand was giving off a dark feeling was that any time he or another Straw Hat entered the room holding it, they’d feel uneasy. Usopp and Nami were the most vocal about their discomfort, asking why the surgeon wanted the sand and avoiding it as best they could.

Law leaned back in his chair, staring at the black sand contemplatively. In the week and a half since he and the Straw Hats had faced the nightmarish creatures, all he could conclude about the sand was that it gave him a bad vibe and should not be touched under any circumstances until it was deemed to not be poisonous. It had taken some manipulation of his allies, but the surgeon was eventually able to surmise that the sand somehow caused anxiety or fear in anyone who was near it.

Reactions ranged from flinching and paling in the more controlled Straw Hats’ cases, to outright screaming or sweating for the more fearful crew members. It was almost as if the sand were a predator waiting to strike from the shadows, with the humans unable to see it but knowing that something near them was watching them with the intent to kill.

Even Law had felt slightly uncomfortable when he had been near the black sand at first, but as time passed his curiosity stamped out his worry and he could be near the sand without issues.

Prolonged exposure leads to lessened effects…? The surgeon mused.

It was all very interesting indeed.

Law stretched his arms over his head and cracked his neck, wondering what time it was. His only indicator that days had passed since he had first locked himself in his room was Blackleg, whenever the cook brought his food.

The surgeon was honestly surprised that Sanji and the others had not insisted on him joining them in the aquarium bar or galley for meals. He briefly pondered if they too were worried about the sand and the creatures it came from, but dismissed the thought of the Straw Hats having such a normal reaction to anything. Most likely they had decided to give Law space to do what he wanted to for once.

The Heart Pirate frowned at the walls of his room, wishing for a moment that it had a window so he had an idea what time it was. He pushed back his chair and removed his gloves before rising to his feet. Perhaps he would be able to convince Sanji to give him some coffee. He was not worryingly tired yet, but he would rather remain alert then drift off and—

An explosion rocked the ship, making Law stumble. The bang was followed by Franky and Nami’s raised voices, the navigator and shipwright’s ire unanimously directed at their Captain. The surgeon caught himself and regained his footing, rolling his eyes.

It took long enough for Straw Hat-ya to break something again. I wonder what it was this…

His right hand was tingling.

Law blinked, looking down at where he had caught himself. His hands were on his desk, the right on wood, the left planted in the black sand. As if his realization had summoned the symptom, Law began to feel lightheaded, the room blurring around him.

Without hesitation, he took a breath, shouting as loud as he could. “Luffy!

He wanted to say more, to get the sand off his hand, to warn them not to touch it, but blackness reached up like a monster’s maw as an unnatural exhaustion clung to his body. Law was falling again, and this time he did not have the strength to catch himself. He hit the wooden floor hard, head narrowly missing his worktable.

The first thing he noticed was that he was cold, like he had been left outside in the snow.

The next thing he noticed was that his heart was beating faster, his breathing quickening as if he were having a panic attack.

The third thing he noticed was a little green hummingbird-like creature flitting in front of his face, mismatched blue and purple eyes looking at him with what could only be identified as horror.

Before Law could consider the oddity in front of him, the tiredness yanked at his consciousness, and his grey eyes slid shut.

He lingered long enough to hear running footsteps and the sound of a door slamming open, and then his senses abandoned him.

Sight returned, and Law found himself standing in familiar white streets. White roads, white houses, and white stone fountains surrounded him, the only splotches of color around being the emerald trees and clear blue sky. The surgeon turned in a circle, staring at the hauntingly peaceful white buildings in shock, when a giggle caught his attention.

He looked to his right, stiffening when he spotted the three people standing in front of the unburned townhouse-like hospital. A black-haired man, kind-faced woman, and brunette girl stood together before the building, all smiling gently at Law.

“Big brother!” the brown-haired girl— Lami— called, waving and laughing from where she stood beside their parents. “Come play!”

Law stared at his family speechlessly, taking in his father’s easygoing smile, his mother’s serene expression, and his sister’s laughing face. Their skin was clear of white spots, their eyes shining with hope and light, and for a single moment the surgeon thought that maybe all the terrors he had lived through had been nothing more than a terrible nightmare.

Then the image wavered, and everything was in flames. Human-shaped shadows ran and screamed around Law, some falling to the ground as crimson blood burst from their bodies. Smoke and ash polluted the air alongside the smell of burning flesh, and as Law watched Flevance became a living hell.

And yet still the surgeon’s family smiled, as if they could not see the horrors and despair around them. Shadowy figures with those loathed hats rose behind them like demons, guns raised and ready to fire.

“Move! Run!” Law shouted, but his family did not hear, continuing to smile at him as the Marines aimed their rifles at their heads.

Law’s paralysis faded and he jerked forward, only to realize his limbs were too short. The distance between himself and his family lengthened, each step he took seeming to move him further away from them. He tried to summon a Room, but his hands were small and not-inked with hearts or death, the hands of the child that had lost everything.

The surgeon— ten year-old boy?— screamed as his family was each shot in the head, falling to the ground with open eyes and cheek-splitting grins on their faces. Law made it to their sides at last, collapsing to his knees in their blood, and Lami’s head turned, her unseeing eyes staring blankly at the surgeon.

“Let’s play together forever, big brother.” She whispered.

Law felt cold metal press against the back of his head but could not turn to look at the Marine that was going to kill him. He shut his watery grey eyes, taking in the sounds and smells of the massacre, and a shot rang out.

The Heart Pirate jerked into consciousness, grey eyes snapping open as he pulled in gulps of air.

His skin was clammy and he trembled slightly, a cold sweat covering his brow. Law sat up quickly, nearly knocking heads with Luffy, who had noticed his return to wakefulness and had been hovering over him. Luckily for the surgeon, the rubber pirate leaned backwards out of the way, grinning happily.

“Traffy’s awake!” Straw Hat gasped. He turned away from Law. “Chopper! He’s awake!”

“I see that, Luffy.” The doctor said sternly, shooing his captain away. “Please, give him room so I can look him over.”

“I’m fine.” Law croaked, cursing mentally when his voice wavered.

He realized that he was in the bed in the sick bay, the desk and all its components easily visible from where he lay. Straw Hat and Chopper were the only ones present, though Law had a feeling the only reason the rest of the crew was not crowding around him was because of the limited space. Or because the doctor kicked them out. The reindeer could be rather forceful when it came to his patients.

The tanuki-like doctor gave Law an unimpressed glare. “You were unconscious for more than a day.”

“I’m still—”

“Say you’re fine again and I’ll have Zoro get out the seastone and chain you down while I check you over.” Chopper said threateningly.

Despite his words, the doctor’s voice shook slightly, but Law had a feeling that it wasn’t because of wariness of the Surgeon of Death for once. Surprisingly, Luffy backed away to let the doctor work on his patient without comment. Alarm bells rang in Law’s head at the Straw Hat Captain’s actions.

“What happened?” he asked forcefully, sensing that there had been more to his illness than just falling unconscious.

Chopper busily took his pulse, not quite meeting the Heart Pirate’s gaze. “Luffy caused an explosion that rocked the ship. You fell and touched the black sand you were experimenting on. You called for Luffy before it caused you to fall asleep. We couldn’t wake you, not even with smelling salts or other remedies. I believe that the sand is some type of malevolent sedative and…” He hesitated. “…I think it causes nightmares.”

Law shifted uncomfortably, feeling oddly exposed, but had to ask. “Why do you say that?”

Chopper checked his pupils, flashing a light in his eyes. “You… um… Well, you…”

“You were screaming a lot.” Luffy revealed, quietly subdued. “You sounded like you were in pain. I… We couldn’t do anything to help you.”

Law glanced at Straw Hat’s glum expression, guessing the reason for his miserable visage. Luffy could usually punch enemies that threatened and hurt his nakama, but he was helpless against a foe that targeted the mind. Despite himself, the surgeon felt a little touched that he was counted among the people that Straw Hat wanted to protect.

He would never admit that aloud, though. Not even upon pain of death.

“Do you think that mystery sand can give nightmares without the person touching it?” Luffy asked randomly, interrupting the surgeon’s disgustingly sentimental thoughts.

“It might be able to.” Law hypothesized. “Until we find out more about this stuff and the person who controls it, we must consider all things possible until proven otherwise.”

The Straw Hat Captain nodded without comment, still looking disturbingly solemn.

“There appears to not be any lingering side-effects.” Chopper said at last, finished with his exam. “Your heartbeat’s still a little quicker than normal, but that’s most likely from the lingering adrenaline. I’ll keep you under observation for a couple more days, just to be safe.” His gaze grew hard, unyielding. “And stay away from that black sand. When we found you, you had brushed it off your hand, but the little time you had been exposed to it was enough to knock you out for twenty-four hours.”

“All right.” Law agreed, too tired to argue with the small doctor.

He did not remember getting the sand off his skin, though admittedly his memories from right before the incident were a little fuzzy. For some reason, a greenish-turquoise hue kept popping up in his mind, but he could not recall why he would be thinking about such a color.

Regardless, the black sand was dangerous, more dangerous than he had previously thought. It made it all the more important that they find its source, before the person became more of a threat. The horse-like creatures on that island had been sent out for a reason, and Law guessed it was for more than just sightseeing.

Something big was coming, and without a doubt Straw Hat Luffy was going to jump into the middle of it. It would be in Law’s best interest to be ready.

ROTGOPROTGOP

The Man in the Moon really was a meddling old fool.

Pitch ground his teeth as he flipped through his minions’ viewpoints, searching hopelessly for the elusive Winter sprite known as Jack Frost. He knew Tsar Lunar had to have something to do with his sudden inability to locate the Guardian of Fun.

Even with all of the power gained from the people of this world, Pitch could not track his enemies through fear alone, relying on his Nightmares to be his eyes and ears throughout the world. The Nightmare King had wanted to go to Jack to gloat about Ace’s capture, to ensnare the Winter Spirit and make him watch helplessly as his most precious person fell to madness, but no matter how hard he looked, Pitch could not find the elusive Guardian of Fun.

The Man in the Moon must have done something. There was no other explanation. The Boogieman did not know what exactly the Guardian of Children and Earth had done, but he had done something. Even when he was in a different world, he still interfered with Pitch’s plans.

The Spirit of Fear gave an angry growl as he paced back in forth in his lair, a few Nightmares and Fearlings watching him from the shadows. It was only Pitch’s control and dignity that kept him from throwing what would only be described as a hissy fit, his anger mounting the more time he spent trying— and failing— to discover where Jack was.

Pitch let loose a curse, darkness flaring around him like a formidable cloak. He did not know how MiM had cloaked Jack, so he had no way to counteract it. The interfering light-bringer had blinded him and his minions, making them currently unable to track his greatest enemy in this world. The Nightmare King paused, a slow smile replacing his scowl as a plan formed in his mind.

If Pitch’s minions were unable to find the Spirit, then he would just have to use pawns that could.

Chapter Text

Ace knelt on the sandy beach of an unknown island, chains around his torso and hands pinned uncomfortably behind his back. The manacles on his wrists and ankles cut painfully into his skin because of his position, but the fire-user ignored the ache, staring straight ahead with blank eyes.

Two of Whitebeard’s Commanders— Jozu and Vista— held the ends of the chains that kept the Second Division Commander captive, pulling them taut, while the rest of the Commanders and Whitebeard himself stood around the raven-haired pirate with pure hatred in their eyes. A distant feeling niggled at the fire-user’s mind, murmuring that something was not right about this.

Ace refused to look up at the towering figure of the man he knelt before, focusing firmly on Whitebeard’s feet. He could feel the anger emanating from his Oyaji, the Yonko’s rage permeating the air like heat wafting off of magma.

“You won’t even look upon me, traitor?” Whitebeard growled in a voice reserved only for his worst enemies. “You will not face what you’ve done?”

Oyaji would never call me a traitor, a small part of Ace’s mind whispered.

“I haven’t done anything.” Ace insisted aloud as steadily as he could. “Oyaji, what—”

His head snapped to the side, only Vista and Jozu’s grips on his chains keeping him upright, as Marco struck him with a Haki-imbued fist. Blood trickled from Ace’s mouth and he shivered, wincing in pain.

Marco wouldn’t hurt me. He’d never hit one of his brothers, not even in anger.

The First Division Commander looked upon his former brother with utter loathing in his glare. “You have no right to call him that after what you’ve done. You damn bastard!”

The Phoenix’s hand rose threateningly and Ace tensed, but Whitebeard stopped his Commander with a gesture. A large hand gripped the fire-user’s chin, forcing him to look his Captain in the eye. The disappointment and rage on Whitebeard’s face made Ace want to sink into the ground or flee, but it was the underlying apathy in his father’s gaze made the pirate want to shrivel up and die. The Yonko was angry at Ace, but not surprised that the fire-user had betrayed them, as if he had expected the son of Roger’s treachery.

But I didn’t do anything wrong. Even if I did, they’d never hate me like this, right? Then why…?

“Do you feel no remorse? You caused the deaths of my children. Your brothers.” Whitebeard informed him coldly.

“I would never!” Ace pleaded. “You’re my family. I’d never betray any of you!”

“Lies!” Whitebeard spat. “Take responsibility for what you’ve done!”

He grabbed the fire-user roughly by the throat, dragging him upward into the air and turning him so he could look at the island behind him. Gravestones lined the ground, each carved with a name. Among them were markers for Thatch and Oars Jr., countless other grey slabs covering the island as far as the eye could see.

Before he could despair, Ace blinked, the distant nagging feeling that had been pestering him rushing to the forefront of his mind.

“No.” he stated. “You won’t trick me. This isn’t real.”

Whitebeard’s grip on his throat tightened and the fire-user gasped, feeling his bones strain, ready to break.

“You dare to deny the deaths you caused? You dare to—”

“Shut up.” Ace growled, confirming his suspicions because he could still speak clearly despite Not-Oyaji choking him. “This isn’t real. Thatch was m-murdered, and maybe Oars Junior as well, but their deaths were not my fault. And even if they were, Oyaji and the others would not punish me for it. So shove off, Pitch!”

Not-Whitebeard was silent, fury still in his expression and large hand still wrapped around Ace’s throat. The fire-user met his gaze evenly, certain that his belief that this reality was false was indeed correct.

Slowly, Not-Oyaji’s grasp tightened, and Ace could feel the bones in his neck breaking with agonizing slowness. He remained unafraid, glaring defiantly at the fake Whitebeard until his neck snapped and everything went black.

Ace flinched slightly as he stirred in his cell, willing away the feeling of the Not-Oyaji crushing his trachea and spine.

Whitebeard Pirates hating me and blaming me for the deaths of the fallen, check, Ace thought grimly, still feeling the ghostly touch of Not-Whitebeard’s hand around his throat. The pain is nothing but an illusion, he reminded himself sternly. My body will be unaffected, and so I will not let it influence my mind. I am real, this is reality, and my fears are unfounded. They will never come true.

The words were familiar and had become his recently adopted mantra as he cycled through waves of nightmares. Ace had already searched inside himself and predicted multiple fears that the black sand would try to trap him in, stoically plotting ways to recognize and counter the horrors he saw. He needed to be ready for when he inevitably lost consciousness in order to have some semblance of control to tell fiction from reality.

Logical thinking and looking within himself for his fears weren’t Ace’s strongest suits but they were all he had to prepare himself, and he would use his mind to the best of his ability to keep himself aware and ready for Pitch’s next mental onslaught.

As best he could, anyway. At least he was better at using his brain than Luffy.

Ace did not let himself grow despondent when thinking of his brother, instead smiling as he pictured the red-faced, constipated look Luffy got when he tried to think about something too hard. His grin faltered slightly as he recalled why he had been caught up in the latest illusion at first.

I didn’t realize I fell asleep. I’m constantly exhausted now, and when I closed my eyes for a second, I was out like a light and started dreaming. I need to be more careful.

Because his prison was more like a glorified cave, Ace did not even have stones to count to attempt to keep himself alert and busy. Or maybe he just could not see the individual bricks in the dark. Either way, all he could do was sit in his cell with only his thoughts to keep him company.

Think about more potential nightmares or plot my escape? Ace mused sarcastically.

He considered his energy level, grimacing as the ever-present iciness in his veins flared to remind him of its presence. Stay positive. I’m less tired than before, so hopefully I’ll be awake for a few hours at least. Escape plan it is.

It was more difficult to come up with a way out of his prison than he thought it would be. Ace was currently powerless, his flames contained by the black sand that poisoned his body, so busting out with brute force was an unlikely option. His hands were chained to the wall above his head, so reaching the lock picks he kept in his boot was out of the question as well.

The Summer Spirit also did not need to eat, go to the bathroom, or be released from his chains for any reason he could think of. So he would have as much of a chance of tricking Pitch into releasing him as convincing Marco to change his name to ‘The Great Flying Blue Chicken’.

Ace cracked another smile as he pictured the expression the Phoenix would make if the fire-user made such a suggestion to him. He had to stay lighthearted. Smiles, laughter, and funny thoughts were all his allies here. The Summer Spirit wasn’t one for reckless optimism like Luffy, but he would try his best to emulate his little brother and just let his happy emotions run free.

Imagining kicking Pitch’s shadowy ass was also a great way to pass the time and keep a positive attitude.

Focus, Ace, the fire-user reminded himself. Just because I’m adopting Luffy’s happy-go-lucky attitude doesn’t mean I need to borrow his scatterbrained tendencies too.

Coldness washed over him like an icy wave and Ace shivered, shifting uncomfortably. After eating the Mera Mera no Mi, he had thought his days of feeling chilled were behind him. That notion had been thoroughly dashed when he had been captured in Blackbeard’s darkness, and again when he was chained up in Impel Down.

It really should not surprise him that here, in the Nightmare King’s prison, that he couldn’t get warm. Especially with the poison in his blood that felt both empty and sharp, like an endless black abyss was ripping through his veins, threatening to drag him into—

Focus.

The fire-user redirected his thoughts back to plotting his liberation. He couldn’t bust out with his current strength and Pitch wouldn’t release him unless he was planning to kill him out back— or in front of Jack. That currently left Ace with the option of waiting to be rescued by the Winter Spirit, who was definitely looking for him by now.

Oh, yes, a sneering voice mocked in the back of his mind. Because having others rescue you worked so well last time.

Ace pretended the negative voice did not exist, determinedly not following the line of thought that told him said voice was a very bad thing that should not be there. Jack was looking for him. That was a fact. There was no way that the Winter Spirit was going to leave the Summer Spirit to rot in Pitch’s clutches.

If only Ace had a way to contact him or get his attention. The Man in the Moon and Mother Nature had given him so many other powers; couldn’t they give their children telepathy or super-tracking skills or something?

Ace chuckled aloud at the ridiculous thought.

“Ace? What’s so funny?” an achingly familiar voice asked.

The fire-user’s smile immediately vanished, leaving behind a stoic expression. His eyes widened briefly before his gaze turned apathetic as well.

“This is your next tactic, huh? You really know how to piss me off, I’ll give you that.”

What appeared to be Luffy stood before Ace, confusion in his expression as he stared at the chained fire-user. The Straw Hat-wearing pirate looked older than the last time his brother had seen him, a little taller than he had been at seventeen and wearing a new outfit. He spun in a circle, looking around the dungeon with open bewilderment. That face looked so genuine, so real, so familiar, but Ace hardened his heart to the sight.

It’s not Luffy. Ace told himself. I fell asleep again. It is not Luffy.

“What are you talking about, Ace?” Not-Luffy asked after he finished inspecting the room, looking him up and down. “Why are you chained up?”

“Don’t even try it.” Ace said vehemently. “I won’t fall for your tricks.”

Hurt flashed across Not-Luffy’s face and Ace forced the guilt that threatened to rise away. This was not his brother.

“I don’t understand, Ace.” Not-his-brother said pleadingly, sadness in his voice. “What did I do wrong? Why is Ace angry at me?”

Ace remained unmoved by Not-Luffy’s wide, teary eyes. Don’t fall for it. This isn’t Luffy. Focus on anger, focus on apathy. Distance yourself. This is an image created by Pitch, so it’s practically him in disguise. Act like it.

“Don’t play games with me. Just scram.” He hissed.

“But I…” Not-his-brother looked so downtrodden, so confused. “Why are you still in here? Usually—”

The fire-user scoffed, interrupting the fake. “Stop pretending that you don’t know what’s going on! You’re the one who left me here, asshole. I won’t forget!” I know what reality is, and I will continue to know.

Not-Luffy flinched. “That’s not true. I tried to rescue Ace. I’d never leave my brother behind!” Tears began to stream down the fake’s cheeks.

Ace kept his voice cold, wrestling with the brotherly instinct that wanted him to comfort the illusion. It’s Pitch. It’s Pitch. It’s. Pitch. Shut up. You’re not my brother. Don’t pretend that you are! Luffy would never be such a weak crybaby.”

Luffy— Not- Luffy— backed up a step, trembling visibly with a heartbroken expression on his face. “H-How— How can you…?”

Suddenly anger clouded Not-Luffy’s features and Ace braced himself.

Here we go.

“You’re the one who keeps talking about me abandoning you, when you’re the one who abandoned me! Why did you leave me?!” Luffy— Not-Luffy, the fire-user reminded himself— screamed, punching Ace in the stomach.

The fire-user let out a pained grunt and clenched his teeth, refusing to make another sound. The apparition of his brother punched him again and again, screaming incoherently and blaming him for dying and being stupid and deserting his little brother. Ace did not cry out again as the rage-filled blows rained down on him, staring past Not-Luffy stoically.

“You promised. You promised you wouldn’t die!” Not-his-brother shrieked, grief and anger melding together unsettlingly in his voice. “You broke your promise! You always do!”

Not-Luffy’s knuckles were bleeding. Ace briefly wondered how that was possible before he remembered this was a nightmare. The rules of reality had no value here, so fists made of rubber would split and bleed when it came into contact with his skin.

It’s not Luffy, Ace repeated silently as the illusion continued to beat him up. This is all fake. None of this is real.

Not-Luffy was openly crying now, ceasing in his attack as his arms wrapped around Ace. The fire-user tensed, expecting his— Not-his-brother to go for his throat, but the elongated rubbery arms remained around his torso, only exuding enough pressure for a hug. It hurt badly because of his wounds, but it was almost as if the vision wasn’t trying to intentionally harm him.

“Why?” Luffy hiccupped, burying his face in Ace’s chest. “Why did you leave me alone?”

“I’m sorry.” Ace mumbled and instantly berated himself. “Get off! You’re not real!” he snapped, thrashing in the fake’s hold.

Not-Luffy gave him that wounded puppy-dog look again, mixed with the expression the pirate used whenever someone missed something obvious. “Ace is the one who’s fake.” He said simply, as if he believed it with every ounce of his being.

An odd, numbing feeling settled over Ace’s limbs, and he looked down to see his arms and legs were fading away, like a ghost’s. Not-Luffy watched his vanishing with open horror in his expression, crying out as he clutched at his brother, his limbs going through the fire-user’s body.

“No! Don’t fade away! I didn’t mean it! Ace!

Ace wanted to say something— to either reassure or snap at the Not-Luffy— but found he could not speak. Soon enough his entire body was gone, vanishing as if he had never existed. He did not fall into nothingness like he feared, instead lingering in his chains as an unseen, untouchable spectator in the cell.

His little brother wailed and screamed, desperately crying out for him, unable to ever see him again, and Ace slowly realized that he had done much worse than just abandon the Straw Hat Pirate.

He had left Luffy completely alone, a fate that was worse than death to him.

In his cage, Ace woke up with bruises on his skin. He winced as his wounds flared with pain, peering blearily at his torso. His tan abdomen was now a mottled mix of purples, black, and yellows, which would only look even lovelier once the contusions fully formed.

The fire-user swallowed hard, disturbed by the developing discolorations. Some of the injuries I receive can transfer to reality? Shit.

His thoughts turned to the other aspects of his latest nightmare and his mood darkened further. He had known the nightmares would use Luffy eventually. His brother was the obvious choice to break him with cruelty and fears, especially since so many of Ace’s deepest worries centered around Luffy. Even though he knew in reality that his brother would never hurt him, the thought of the Straw Hat Pirate blaming him for his misery made Ace feel physically ill.

Ace knew he would not survive it if Luffy ever decided to hate him in real life. His brother had always been his light, his pillar and most trusted family in a world where many despised the mere possibility of Gol D. Roger having a child. The thought that Luffy could turn against— despise— Ace… it would destroy the fire-user if that ever came to pass.

It was a good thing he knew that those hallucinations were false. Still, to have his nightmares take over so seamlessly, for Ace to fall asleep without knowing…

It was so real. Luffy’s voice, his expressions, even the fact that he looked older now… It was all so life-like. Everything from his reactions to his emotions were spot-on for how Ace predicted he might act if they ever saw each other again, though he was certain that his little brother wouldn’t be so violent towards him.

And the way he had screamed when Ace had unwillingly left him again…

It wasn’t Luffy. It wasn’t Luffy, Ace repeated.

Despite his conviction, tears pricked at his eyes. I’m a terrible brother. How could I ever think Luffy would get over my death and move on like nothing happened? The fire-user shook his head violently. No. Stop that. It wasn’t Luffy. That was just your fears manifesting themselves based on your assumptions.

But what if Luffy really did think those things? What if he did resent and blame Ace?

I deserve it, the fire-user thought morosely. He threw his head back, smacking it against the rock wall behind him and letting the bolt of pain focus his mind. No. Don’t start thinking that already. That’s what Pitch wants.

The coldness inside him was growing stronger, harsher, and the fire-user could not summon the happy thoughts necessary to hold it back. He looked down at his toned stomach once more, watching numbly as the black lines extended slightly, creeping up towards his chest and down past his waistband.

Damn it. He thought as he sat alone in the silence. He blinked away his tears, clenching his fists. Get a grip. You can’t start cracking already. Focus on reality. Plan an escape. You have to rescue yourself.

His little self-pep talk lightened his mood slightly as he turned his mind away from the latest nightmare and towards his future prison break. But even as Ace continued to plot a way to escape, an ugly thought planted itself at the back of his mind.

Maybe I should have just stayed dead.

ROTGOPROTGOP

The Straw Hat Pirates settled lazily across the deck of the Thousand Sunny, enjoying the warmth of the sun that shone brightly above them. Both the day and ocean were surprisingly calm, and the pirates had taken the time to unwind after the harrowing last few weeks.

Zoro was napping— as usual— and Sanji had taken it upon himself to attempt to make the swordsman do something productive. Again. Robin was reading a book, Nami was relaxing in a chair, Brook was joking with Chopper, Usopp was telling tall-tales to an amused Franky, and even Law was just sitting down and merely enjoying the nice day.

Only one person on the ship was not present, his absence becoming more and more obvious as time passed and the quiet peacefulness lingered.

“Where’s the Shitty Captain?” Sanji asked, directing his attention away from Zoro for the moment.

“He went back to his room right after breakfast.” Nami mentioned, brushing her hair out of her face as she sat up. “He looked a little tired.”

“Do you think he’s sick?” Chopper gasped. “Does he need a doctor?”

“He has been acting strange lately.” Usopp mentioned. “Well, stranger than usual.”

Sanji thought about Luffy’s behavior for the past couple weeks, silently agreeing with the sniper’s statement. The Captain had always been an overly affectionate and tactile person, but lately it seemed like he was wrapping his limbs around and touching his crewmates whenever possible. Almost as if they would disappear if he did not make sure they were there.

He’d also taken to zoning out in the middle of conversations, staring blankly into the distance as the color drained from his face and his eyes darkened. Luffy would snap back into cheerfulness and throw a smile at whoever he was with before they could ask what was wrong, and would only change the subject or wander away if the issue was pressed. Overall, it was very odd, and very worrisome.

Zoro cracked his eye open, gaze drifting over his crewmates. “I think he’s just taking a nap. He hasn’t been sleeping well. I’ve heard him up during the night.”

“And you didn’t think to mention it?” Nami shrieked.

The swordsman shrugged. “It’s not my business.”

“What if he is sick?” Usopp asked, looking distressed. “Maybe we should check up on him.”

“Check up on who?” a familiar voice mumbled.

They all looked towards the door that led below deck, the crew displaying a range of reactions as they saw their Captain. Luffy looked exhausted. Dark circles were under his eyes, his face was pinched and slightly gaunt, and his hair was so mussed it was noticeable even with his straw hat. His skin was also paler than usual and he moved with a tense heaviness, almost as if he were in physical pain.

Naturally, it was Chopper who noticed the most distressing detail about their Captain’s appearance.

“You’re bleeding!” the reindeer gasped, rushing forward.

He grabbed Luffy’s hand with his own, looking at the split knuckles with horror. The other Straw Hats and Law gathered around as well, some making concerned noises.

“What did you do?” Nami demanded.

Luffy shrugged dismissively. “I must’ve punched the wall in my sleep. Shishishi.”

“Don’t laugh it off!” Chopper said forcefully. “You could have splinters.”

The Straw Hat Captain’s grin faltered. “No, it’s fine. I didn’t hit wood.”

The doctor looked ready to argue. “But you just—”

“I said it’s fine.” Luffy snapped, jerking his hand out of the doctor’s grasp. He stiffened, guilt flashing across his face as he smiled apologetically. “Sorry, Chopper. I’m just… tired.”

It was a weak excuse, and even Luffy seemed to know it. The doctor just silently took out some bandages and disinfectant, wrapping his Captain’s knuckles. The other Straw Hats observed the exchange without comment, with Sanji subtly moving to block the door that led to below deck and leaning against the frame with a cigarette between his teeth.

Luffy turned towards it a moment later, frowning when the cook did not step aside. “Ah. Could you move, Sanji? I really want to go back to sleep—”

“I don’t think so.” The blonde-haired cook said stubbornly. “Something’s wrong.”

Their Captain looked anywhere except at his crew, lips pursing suspiciously. “Nope. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t try it, Luffy.” Zoro said sternly. “We aren’t as unobservant as you think. You’ve been having trouble sleeping for weeks, haven’t you?”

Luffy could not come up with a lie, so he remained silent. Sanji saw Law shifting uncomfortably in the background, and silently apologized for involving the Heart Pirate in a private Straw Hat matter, but if they did not confront their Captain here, he would avoid them or change the subject, leaving their questions unanswered.

“Have you been having nightmares?” Chopper asked bluntly, concerned. His ears twitched as his eyes widened. “Is that why you asked if that black sand could cause bad dreams without touching you?”

“Noooo…” Luffy mumbled unconvincingly, looking sideways.

Sanji bit back a curse, turning directly to Law and glaring at the surgeon. “Take that sand and dump it in the ocean. I don’t care about learning its secrets. We can’t—”

“I’ve been having nightmares since before we got the mystery sand, actually.” Luffy blurted, before chuckling awkwardly and scratching his ear. “They started up again before we went to the island.”

He clapped his hands over his mouth before he could say more. The cook brutally squashed the feeling of failure that threatened to rise up as he realized that his Captain had been plagued by night terrors for weeks and they had not noticed nor tried to help him. He had a bad feeling he knew what the ‘returning’ nightmares were about as well.

“All right.” Nami said suddenly with extreme force as she marched up to Luffy, poking him in the chest. “Spill. Tell us about the dreams. Talking can help you know.” Her tone was abrasive, but held a hint of gentleness that made Sanji want to swoon.

That’s my beloved, beautiful Nami-swan. So caring, so considerate, so—

“Usually I dream about Ace dying. Tonight, I was with him in his prison cell, and he told me I wasn’t his brother because I left him to die.” Luffy said flatly.

That was one way to snap Sanji out of a perverted mental state. He shifted the cigarette in his teeth, studying his Captain with serious eyes as he tried to think of what to say.

“Luffy…” Usopp murmured, sadness in his tone.

“It was not your fault.” Robin was the one who spoke the words they were all thinking. “Ace would never blame you for what happened.”

“I know.” Luffy said quietly, too quietly. His expression wavered, as if he were barely able to keep control. “It’s just… after he said that, I got mad and I— I started hitting him. And he just took it. He didn’t scream or flinch at all, and he had this look on his face like he was expecting me to hurt him, like he was used to it and— and—”

Sanji felt horrible as his Captain struggled to keep his emotions in check, curling up slightly as he gripped his beloved straw hat in his hands. The cook was definitely beginning to regret demanding answers in front of Law, who watched his ally break down with an unreadable expression.

“His eyes were so empty.” Luffy croaked. “They were this weird orange-ish color, but they were really dull, like dying embers. He kept saying things that didn’t make sense, and insisting I wasn’t his brother, and when I finally told him he wasn’t real… He faded away.”

He left me alone.

The Straw Hat Pirate did not say the words, but everyone present knew that was what he was thinking.

Chopper patted the rubber-man’s arm gently, speaking in a soft but firm tone. “Nightmares are to be expected after… after what you went through. You don’t have to be ashamed of them.”

“We’ll help you deal with them in any way we can, bro.” Franky added his two cents. “You don’t have to go through this alone.”

“Sometimes sharing really can help.” Usopp mentioned. “Really, we’re here for you if you need an ear. That’s what friends are for.”

“Your mental state affects your crew.” Zoro said bluntly but with compassion layered in his tone. “Don’t let bad dreams drag you down.”

Luffy shot them all a beaming smile, misery trickling away before their eyes. “Thanks.” He mumbled, straightening.

Sanji could practically see his normal exuberance returning, like sunlight breaking through dense clouds.

“Is it possible that the proximity of the black sand might be affecting his nightmares?” Robin asked Law candidly.

Sanji would never glare at his beautiful Robin-chwan, but he still felt slight disapproval at her refusal to at least wait until Luffy was out of earshot to ask such things.

“Yes, it could be a factor.” Law replied just as curtly. He visibly hesitated, then sighed. “I still cannot discover anything new about the sand’s origins or exact purpose. There’s nothing new I can learn, so I suppose we could dump it at the first opportunity we have. I’d rather get rid of it in a stable environment though. I don’t know how it might affect a Sea King or the like.”

Alright, so maybe the Heart Pirate wasn’t that bad of a guy. He looked a little too curious about how a Sea King would react to the black sand for Sanji to fully like the man, but his heart seemed to be in the right place.

Without warning, a frown flickered across Law’s face and he removed his hat. He looked at it, huffing, and returning it to his head.

Why do you keep doing that?” Nami complained, the surgeon’s new habit annoying the orange-haired thief greatly.

Law scowled. “It feels wrong. Heavier.”

“Maybe you should wash your hat?” Usopp suggested.

The glare he received could have melted steel. Or vaporized it. Sanji was honestly surprised when Usopp did not die a gruesome, fiery death.

“Or not.” The sniper squeaked, hiding behind Robin.

Luffy giggled at Usopp’s terrified expression, and the Straw Hats moved on to less heavy subjects, their worries about nightmares and black sand slowly leaving their minds. Still, as Sanji looked at his Captain’s bandaged hands, the cook could not help but feel that they were missing something important.

The thought was quickly forgotten as Zoro fell asleep in the middle of the deck once more, nearly causing Brook to trip over him, and Sanji decided a flying kick was needed to wake his lazy ass.

ROTGOPROTGOP

“This is hopeless!” Jack shouted in frustration as he soared above yet another island.

This one had plenty of towns, plenty of kids, plenty of targets for Pitch, but not a single Nightmare had poked its nose out of the shadows around Jack since they attacked him and Ace five days ago. The Wind whispered soothingly in the irate Guardian’s ear and he gritted his teeth, only half-listening to its comforting words.

This is even worse than trying to just find Pitch, Jack thought. Where am I even supposed to begin looking? Pitch can set up a lair in any cave or hole he wants, and I’m pretty sure he’s not going to have it under a broken bed this time. Not like I’d be able to find one little bed in a huge world with millions of islands anyway!

Jack landed roughly on the ground, pacing back and forth as the Wind and snow swirled in the air around him. Luckily for the islanders, his little snowstorm remained contained in his immediate area.

“Pitch is probably watching me from the shadows and laughing right now.” The Guardian muttered under his breath. “What’s the point of attacking me once but not coming back again, huh? It’s not like I have anyone to save me this time.”

The Winter Spirit kicked a loose stone irritably, watching it go flying into the distance. “I bet he knows I’m too mad to be afraid of him. Stupid freaking Boogieman with his stupid freaking mind games! All this talk about wars and revenge, and he just ends up playing hide-and-seek with me!”

Jack whacked another rock with his staff, sending it soaring. There was a distant thwack as it hit a tree, sending a few leaves fluttering to the ground. The Wind patted his head consolingly, ruffling his white hair. The Guardian sighed, sitting heavily in a snow drift he created as he put his head in his hands.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I can’t find Ace. I can’t find Pitch. All I’m doing is flying around like a confused goose and waiting for something to happen.”

The Wind murmured encouragement in his ears, but Jack found himself wishing that he had a real voice to answer him, a touchable, seeable person to talk to. Specifically, he missed Ace.

“Who knows what Pitch is doing to him.” Jack whispered, trying not to let his imagination run wild. “I know Mother Nature put some type of failsafe in us Seasons so we can’t become Fearlings, but Pitch knows that. He wouldn’t take the time to capture Ace only to kill him, right? So if he hasn’t killed him, can’t turn him, and hasn’t contacted me with demands yet, then what in Manny’s name is Pitch doing to Ace?”

“You know, talking to yourself is a sign of insanity,” a vaguely familiar voice said from behind him.

Jack leapt to his feet, spinning around to face the newcomer. To his shock, a Marine stood before him, two cigars in his mouth and his hands in his pockets as he observed the Spirit. Jack easily recognized the man from three years ago in Alabasta, when Ace had faced him to protect Luffy.

“S-Smoker?” The Guardian stammered, stunned.

“You know me?” Smoker said calmly, observing the Winter Spirit with intense dark eyes. “I shouldn’t be surprised.”

Jack grappled with his thoughts, trying to rectify his previous encounter with the Logia with the fact that the stern, no-nonsense man was currently talking to him.

“Y-You can see me?” he gasped at last.

“Yes. I can.” The Marine growled.

In a single, fluid motion, Smoker unsheathed his jitte, lunging for the Winter Spirit.

The snow pile Jack had been residing on exploded in a rather dramatic puff as Smoker’s weapon struck it. The Guardian swayed out of the way of the Marine’s next blow, yelping as his opponent turned to smoke and lunged for him once more. Jack barely dodged Smoker’s next strike, dancing backwards and gripping his staff in both hands.

Why are you attacking me?!” he spluttered, more surprised by the fight than alarmed.

“You are wanted by the World Government.” Smoker growled, swinging his jitte again.

Jack ducked beneath his first swipe and cartwheeled out of the way of his second. The Guardian stayed light on his feet, confusion ebbing away as he realized that yes, Smoker could see him, and yes, the man was currently battling him so head in the game Show Pony!

Huh. That last thought sounded like Bunny, Jack mused as he carefully parried the Logia’s sideways sweep, leaping out of range.

“Thanks. That explains everything.” The Winter Spirit said sarcastically. “How would they even know I exist?”

Again, the Logia refused to answer, and Jack found his patience dwindling. He’s the first human who is able to see me in three years, and all he does is try to fight me. Forget this, I’m out of here!

“This was fun, Smokey, but I have to go. Places to go, people to find. You know.” Jack said with a wave.

He leapt into the air, feeling Wind swirl around him to take him to the sky. He made it about fifty feet into the air before something wrapped around his ankle. Jack cursed as Smoker’s detached fist dragged him back towards the ground.

The Wind blew the hand away with extreme force— literally— and the Guardian managed to catch himself before he hit the dirt. Jack studied the Logia critically as the man’s extremity reattached to his arm, uncertain of how far Smoker’s range was. His ankle stung where the Wind had ripped the Marine’s hand away but he did not mention it.

That hurt, he complained silently.  Jeez, his attack was fast! I don’t know if the Wind would be able to get me away quick enough before he could grab me again. Or he might just send his whole body into the air. Can he do that? Can he fly? Does he know Haki? Blast. Better figure out a way to incapacitate or distract him before getting out of—

The Logia turned his bottom half into smoke and flew forward. Smoker’s jitte slashed deep into the ground as Jack evaded it. The Marine followed up the attack by literally throwing his fists at the Winter Spirit.

Jack blocked the punches by spinning his frost-covered staff, ducking beneath a sword thrust as Tashigi appeared out of nowhere and attacked him from behind. The Guardian darted out of range once more, raising an eyebrow at the newly arrived Captain.

“Hi Tashi. I was wondering when you were going to show up.” Jack said conversationally. “You two are always together.”

The swordswoman looked disturbed by his statement. “You know us?”

“Tashigi, focus!” Smoker commanded before Jack could reply.

“R-Right.” The Captain stammered, holding her sword defensively. “G-5 are on their way, sir. I went ahead to assist you in capturing the criminal.”

“Do you guys even know my name?” Jack asked, feeling slightly insulted. “Seriously, how can you see me and why are you after me? Give me some answers, dammit!”

Smoker ignored his questions again, he and Tashigi moving as one and they charged the Guardian. Jack carefully parried the Captain’s slash while twisting out of the way of the Logia’s assault. He did not dare to use his ice powers because even though he hated Marines— not these Marines specifically, but still— and they were trying to capture him, he could not risk killing them.

See, this is why it’s a good thing adults can’t see Spirits back on Earth, the Winter Spirit thought grumpily as he back flipped over a sideways sweep from Tashigi.

He almost froze as a thought struck him but was a good enough fighter to resist the urge, landing a hit on Smoker and wincing when the attack did not go through.

“Sorry! I forgot my ice can hit Logias.” He apologized.

Jack skipped backwards and leapt up into a tall tree, continuing his battle of misdirection and evasion. The problem with this fight was not his opponents’ strength per se, but the fact that the Guardian technically could not fight back directly.

Time to use his other favorite tactic then. Most commonly known as acting like a troll and like they weren’t worth his time. If there was one thing the Winter Spirit was good at, it was irritating his opponents. Best to use that to his advantage.

Smokey’s grumpy and serious like Bunny. I bet it’ll be easy to push his buttons so I can escape. Time to act immature then. Not that I’m ever mature anyway… Wait, I can too be mature! Manny, now my thoughts are sounding even more like Bunny. I am never going to tell him my brain admitted he was right. The Guardian leaned out of the way of Smoker’s next barrage. Right. Fighting. Should probably focus on that.

Jack settled on a high branch, eying the Marines suspiciously. “You guys don’t want to experiment on me or something, do you?”

“W-What?” Tashigi spluttered. “Where would you get that idea?”

“Well you can see me, haven’t said something like ‘Why wouldn’t we be able to see you?’, you’re after me, and seem to have an idea of who and what I am…” the Winter Spirit mentioned casually. “Plus you work for the government, and the government always wants to experiment on people!”

With exaggerated ease, he flipped out of the way of another series of long range strikes from Smoker, moving up a branch and sticking his tongue out at the Marines. As Smoker’s body reformed, Jack spotted the familiar blackish color covering parts of his skin.

Okay, so Smokey can use Armament Haki. Good to know.

“What’s wrong guys? Can’t climb trees?” Jack mocked.

Smoker gave the Spirit a glare, while Tashigi looked positively bewildered by his attitude. Jack mentally patted himself on the back.

All right. So it takes less than a second for Smoker’s… smoke to reach me up here. Maybe if I throw up an ice shield as I depart, just to give him something to have to break through and slow him down, I’ll be able to get away.

A thought struck him suddenly and he gave a happy laugh that only confused his enemies more. “Wait wait wait. If you guys want to catch me… does that mean I have a bounty?”

It proved that Jack had been spending too much time with Ace and other crazy pirates when the news excited rather than distressed him. A wide smile grew across his face as he twisted out of the path of Smoker’s next attempted hit.

Ace would be so proud that Jack had gotten a bounty, maybe almost as proud as he had been when Luffy had received his first Wanted Poster. The Guardian did not know how he had earned a reward for his capture or death, but he had somehow pulled it off despite being— mostly— invisible and from another world. Quite a feat, if one asked him.

“So do I have a cool nickname or what?” Jack asked hopefully. “Come on, you have to give me something to brag about!”

If Smoker ground his teeth any harder, they would crack. Tooth would be very upset if that happened, Jack supposed.

“‘Winter Spirit’ Jackson Overland Frost.” The Logia growled grudgingly. “Bounty: 150,000 Beri. You are wanted alive by the World Government for aiding and abetting pirates, kidnapping and attacking civilians, and having forbidden knowledge.”

Let it never be said that Jack Frost is unable to use his brain. Like a candle being blown out, the Guardian’s playful, teasing mood vanished halfway through Smoker’s first sentence. Jack stilled, expression going dark as he eyed the two Marines with rapidly cooling blue eyes.

“‘Overland’, huh? You… You couldn’t know that name.” he said slowly, quietly. “Only three people here have heard that name, one is gone, and none of them would tell you. Actually, four people here would know, and I only like three. Which means…” The Guardian kept his ice strictly under control, letting his power build up in his skin. “You wouldn’t happen to be trying to capture me for a creepy man called Pitch Black, would you?”

Smoker’s gaze betrayed nothing, but Tashigi’s showed surprise before she could cover it up. Jack did not smile, chuckle, or feel any pride when he spotted her slip up. Even as a part of him protested that there was no way that the Marines or the World Government or whoever decided on such actions would ally with Pitch…

“You recognize that name, too.” The Guardian said tonelessly. “I see. That changes everything.”

Ice and wind exploded out from him, throwing the two Marines back. A sweep of his staff froze their feet to the ground, and some well-placed ice blasts relieved them of their weapons. Jack grimaced and quickly sent ice shooting up over Smoker’s body, leaving only his head exposed. He could not bring himself to completely cover the man in ice, even though the Logia could detach his head or turn into smoke and break free if he really wanted to.

Better not risk it. “I feel obliged to tell you again that my ice is capable of wounding and killing Logia.” The Guardian warned quietly but firmly.

Smoker was shivering slightly, but the stern, unmoving look in his eyes told Jack it was from the cold, not fear. His dark eyes met Jack’s blue steadily. “So it was you who attacked Fleet Admiral Sakazuki at Marineford.”

It took Jack a moment to recognize the name, and when he did it took all his effort to not let the ice freeze the two Marines any more than they already were.

“So that psychopath became the Fleet Admiral.” He snarled, barely able to contain his loathing. “You guys are doomed. If Pitch doesn’t kill you all, the magma bastard’s leadership certainly will. Speaking of which…” The Spirit of Winter pointed his staff directly at Smoker’s face. “Where is Pitch Black? Did you see him or were you only told about him?”

“As if we’d tell you.” The Logia replied stoically.

Jack pressed his lips together, anger, annoyance, and concern warring within him. His voice cracked with tension when he spoke. “Okay. Fine. Don’t tell me where he is. How about I give you some information then? I don’t know what Pitch promised or told you Marines, but he cannot be trusted. Where I’m from, he’s known as the ‘Nightmare King’. He’s a monster, a maniac, a demon, and he’s killed more people than you can comprehend. When he gets what he wants from you, he will betray and kill you all!”

“Vice Admiral! Captain!” a voice called.

Jack turned, spotting eight men rushing towards them, weapons drawn. The Guardian eyed the rifles a few were carrying warily.

If these guys can see me, will bullets hit me or not? The Spirit thought. I don’t want to find out.

“Stay back, men!” Tashigi commanded instantly. “Frost is dangerous!”

“Frost?” one man asked, eyes roving the area near his two commanders in confusion. He blinked, eyes focusing on Jack, and gasped. “He’s here!”

The others spotted the Guardian as well, staring at him like they were noticing him for the first time. A few of their men pointed their guns at the Spirit, who reacted instinctively.

Not chancing it, he thought, and blasted them away with a mixture of ice and snow.

A few flew back while the sturdier men kept their footing. The Wind buffeted at the Marines, pulling hats off of heads and guns out of hands. Another quick slash of his staff and some helpful ice on the ground from Jack threw the rest of them off their feet, and the Guardian frowned reluctantly.

He became acutely aware of how fragile these normal humans could be. Did any of them have Devil Fruits? Haki? Anything? An ice lance would run them through. A slip on the ice could break their skulls. They did not have a Devil Fruit eater’s vitality, a Haki user’s protection, or a Spirit’s endurance. These men were normal people just doing their jobs for all he knew.

They’re just cannon fodder. They don’t stand a chance. They may be Marines but… I don’t need to hurt them. Smoker’s trapped, so they can’t pursue me.

But they were working for Pitch. They had come to an agreement with the Nightmare King, intending to capture his greatest enemy in exchange for who-knew what. The Marines— and World Government?— were doing the one thing that allowed Jack to discard the no-harming-humans rule and retaliate against them, to fight against the humans it was normally his obligation to protect.

This interaction with humans did not involve harmless pranks or little playful falls on the ice. It did not involve spreading fun and throwing snowballs at unsuspecting adults. This was fighting using Nature’s power, using Nature’s wrath.

And it had never felt more wrong.

Ice crept up the Marine goons’ shoes, causing a few to cry out in terror, but Jack halted it before it could encase more than their ankles. He hesitated, staff held aloft, but kept the freezing where it was, not letting it go further.

The Marines would easily be able to break themselves and their superiors out of the ice before their lives and health were threatened, but just in case the Guardian softened the ice just a little bit. Seeing the humans, wide-eyed, shivering, and afraid before him… Jack’s gut twisted as he remembered Pitch’s offer from so long ago.

For all his bemoaning about not being able to fight the Marines or World Government, now that he actually could…

I didn’t want this.

“Remember what I said, Smoker.” He said hollowly to the Logia. “And tell the magma bastard or whichever idiot thought it was a good idea to listen to the Nightmare King this: Don’t trust Pitch Black. And don’t think you’ll be able to kill him when he betrays you.”

The Vice-Admiral studied the Guardian for a moment, eyes resting on the skull-like medallion on his chest. “That was Fire Fist’s hat.” He mentioned.

The Winter Spirit’s right fist clenched around his staff. “It still is.”

Without another word, Jack flew into the sky, leaving the Marines behind him.

He had a lot he needed to think about.

Chapter Text

Smoker watched as his men chipped away the ice that surrounded Tashigi, each movement careful and precise in order to not harm the frozen Captain. The rest of G-5 Unit 01 were already free of their frozen imprisonment, with only two suffering from frostbite on their ankles. It could have been much, much worse, but that fact did not help to lighten the Logia's mood.

There was no denying it. 'Winter Spirit' Jackson Overland Frost had utterly curb-stomped the Marines with an ease that showed just how dangerous he truly was. The Vice Admiral, Captain, and G-5 unit had all fallen to Frost in mere seconds, incapacitated almost instantly by their supposedly easy target.

But the Winter Spirit's prowess and power was not what bothered Smoker. His utterly unfitting and laughably low bounty was.

One hundred fifty thousand Beri was an infant's bounty, a tiny reward, unnoticeable among the masses and absolutely minuscule when compared to those of the New World and even most in East Blue. Bounties such as that were reserved for the lowest of threats and the most incompetent of criminals, and yet Frost was the one who had beaten back now-Fleet Admiral Sakazuki at Marineford. Frost had fought expertly with ice, snow, and wind, in a way that told of years spent honing his abilities. Frost had beaten Smoker— a Logia and high-ranked Marine— and his unit with absolutely no difficulty, as if the Marines were not even close to being a threat to him.

The facts did not add up. Why would such a low bounty be requested for such a powerful, formidable individual? Then again, it had not been the Marines who had decided on the number…

Smoker's scowl deepened as his thoughts turned to the one who had told the World Government about Jack Frost. Pitch Black; an enigma, a supposed ally, and— according to the one he hunted— a monster who had slaughtered more people than the Logia could comprehend. Through his brief interactions with Black, it was not difficult for Smoker to believe Frost's claims.

It was only through chance that Smoker even knew about the shadowy, grey-skinned 'man'. His unit had been in Marine headquarters, intent on receiving the report on their latest target— who had turned out to be Frost— when Tashigi had almost literally run into Black. A move that— in hindsight— was too coincidental to be anything but planned on their 'ally's' part.

Smoker did not know exactly why the so-called 'Nightmare King' had decided to show himself to him and Tashigi, but he would rather not have anything to do with Pitch Black. The way those yellow eyes had stared at Smoker, as if they were seeing into his soul with the anticipation of tearing it apart, had disquieted the Logia in a way he thought nothing could.

Not even the allegedly genuine and friendly way Black had introduced himself and explained why he was at the headquarters had lessened Smoker's unease. Their ally's voice was velvety, calm, and smooth, each word spoken openly and politely, but his tone reminded the Logia of a spider inviting flies to its web.

There was no doubt in Smoker's mind that Black was using the Marines for his own ends. Had the enigmatic man approached Unit 01 merely because they were one of the many teams hunting down the Winter Spirit, or had Black known for certain that he and Tashigi would be the ones to run into Frost?

Frost had not reacted with genuine hostility until after it was confirmed Pitch Black was involved with the Marines. However, once he knew they were allied with the Nightmare King… the Spirit actually attacked. No more playful banter, no more cheerful evasions, no more childish laughter. He had gone straight for the capture— luckily not the kill. Was that why Black introduced himself, so that Frost would know they were working with him and strike with the fury of a blizzard?

Smoker had heard of Devil Fruit users that could control Nature, but the extent of Jack Frost's powers went far beyond what he thought was possible. The Marines had been woefully unprepared, and if Frost weren't so hesitant and— dare Smoker say it— kindhearted, they would all be dead.

Smoker had long ago grown used to seeing more than what the higher ups wanted him too. He had learned there were always ulterior motives and hidden agendas in almost all of his missions, and so had gained the habit of seeking out reasons for the actions of his superiors in order to be ready for when everything spiraled out of control.

There was only one reason Pitch would want such a low bounty for Jack that Smoker could think of. He wanted normal people— Marines and bounty hunters who did not stand a chance against such a foe— to attempt to capture the Winter Spirit. Black wanted them to fail utterly, despite his request that the Marines capture Frost, which meant that he truly did not want his capture at all. Smoker could picture the countless attacks the Winter Spirit would face, the constant barrage of unprepared mundanes, and eventually that great power he so carefully used would get out of his control and…

Did Black want Frost to kill the Marines that went after him?

The thought disturbed Smoker, though not as much as it should. Deep down, he was unsurprised by Black's possible motives. He would attempt to pass on the Winter Spirit's warning about the Nightmare King, but he doubted it would be heard. Black had promised the World Government something in exchange for their services, and Smoker knew it was important enough for them to ignore the blatant threat in their midst.

And as seen time and again, the higher ups were also unwilling to admit when they were wrong. Being told their new ally likely wanted them all dead would only cause them to grip onto the alliance more stubbornly and refuse to believe they had been deceived instead of doing the smart thing and calling off their arrangement with the Nightmare King.

It was obvious to Smoker that Pitch Black was an expert manipulator, and the Marines were dancing on the ends of his strings.

Quite frankly, the Logia trusted Frost more than Black at this point. That would not stop him from demanding Frost's bounty be raised accordingly as soon as possible, but only his orders kept him from leaving the Winter Spirit be and confronting Black right now. Which led Smoker's thoughts to the other part of his report, a part that he was most definitely not looking forward to handing in.

No, not 'hand in', per se. The information he had gained would not be a part of his official dispatch to Headquarters. The possibility was too fantastical, too impossible, for anyone to take it seriously, but Smoker had just faced a young man who could control the weather in a way not even Devil Fruit users were capable of, and had seen enough impossible things to have a more open mind. He could not disregard the chance that what Frost had claimed was true.

Still… how did one inform Garp the Fist that his oldest grandson might be alive?

ROTGOPROTGOP

Ace lay on the hard, cold ground, staring blankly at the clear blue sky above. He was unable to move as blood dripped from the giant hole in his torso, pooling around his body like a sticky, warm blanket. Pain washed over him in a wave, blocking out nearly everything else, but the fire-user could not cry out, no matter how much he wanted to.

He was burning. He was bleeding. It hurt. Had Akainu attacked him again? Was Luffy okay? Luffy had to be okay. Where was his little brother?

As if he had been summoned by Ace's thoughts, his brother leaned into his field of vision, tears in his eyes. The fire-user could not even shift his gaze to look at Luffy— To apologize, to let him know it would be all right— only able to stare unblinkingly at the sky.

Whitebeard stepped up beside Luffy, placing a gentle hand on the Straw Hat Pirate's head. "I'm sorry, boy. He's gone."

No, I'm not! Ace screamed mentally. I'm still alive!

His wound ached and bled as he continued to lay there, suffering silently. He could just see the other Whitebeard Pirates gather around him, some openly sobbing while others stared stoically into space with tears running down their cheeks.

Luffy continued to weep next to his immobile brother, rubbing at his eyes as he looked at the Yonko. "We… We need to bury him."

"You're right." Whitebeard said gently. "It's only fitting that we give a funeral for the one who was born to die."

Oyaji lifted him gently in his arms, but the action gave Ace no comfort.

He blinked and suddenly he was being lowered into a simple wooden coffin. The fire-user managed to move his eyes, looking straight at Luffy, and his brother smirked, saying nothing as the wooden cover snapped shut, blocking the sky from view. Ace heard the sounds of shovels digging into dirt beside him and fought harder against his paralysis. He tried to scream, to shout, to do anything to tell his family he was still living, but couldn't.

He could only lay there, paralyzed, as his family buried him alive.

The moment the coffin was moved into the grave, Ace's immobility faded. He burst into motion, pushing desperately at the lid that was mere inches from his face.

Ace did not fear death. Be it his own nature or the Will of D within him, the fire-user was unafraid of his life ending. But he had always thought he would die protecting the people he loved or in battle, or even of old age if he was unnaturally lucky enough. Not buried while still breathing by his family, slowly losing oxygen as he met a slow, painful, but unremarkable demise.

Not like this. Not like this.  Not like this .

"Help!" he shouted as loud as he could, because surely Luffy and the others were still there and could hear him. "Luffy! I'm alive! Help me!"

No one answered his pleas. Ace tried not to panic as he clawed at the wooden lid of the coffin, the small space closing in around him. He could already feel the air growing stale.

"H-Help…" Ace choked, sucking in precious dwindling oxygen.

There was a loud cracking noise above him and something trickled onto his face. The fire-user stiffened, recognizing the gritty feeling of dirt as it made contact with his skin. No longer able to hold back his panic, Ace screamed, scrabbling at the dirt that flowed into the coffin.

Soon enough it covered his face, his desperately groping hands finding nothing but earth. It filled his nose and mouth, forcing its way down his throat and burning his lungs. His cries became nothing more than feeble choking sounds, and the blackness seemed to grow darker.

In the distance, he heard Luffy laughing.

This can't be real, Ace thought as his head swam and it became impossible to breathe.

Lungs aching, body jerking frantically, the fire-user's hands fell limp at his sides as his energy left him. He was suffocating, alone and afraid in the dark as his brother laughed above his grave, listening and doing nothing as Ace died in agony.

Tears trailed down the fire-user's cheeks, making dirty streaks down his face as it melded with the earth.

It's not real. It's not real. Its. Not. Real!

Ace jerked awake in his cell.

The fire-user gasped, putting a hand to his burning throat and coughing harshly. The dull greys and blacks of his unwanted place of residence swam into view and he sighed, rubbing at his forehead. Ace realized what he had just done and looked at his unbound hands in surprise. His wrists were raw and chaffed, blood trickling out of his skin due to the constant strain put on them, and he flexed his fingers experimentally.

Further inspection of his surroundings revealed his ankles were still restrained, the manacles attached to a chain that led to the wall. Ace allowed his thoughts to linger on his freed hands, wondering why Pitch would partially release him.

Unless I'm in another nightmare, the fire-user thought.

If he wasn't in a nightmare, he needed to make use of his now usable limbs. Maybe if he still had some of his lock picking tools…

Ace shuddered as he felt the black sand slither further along in his skin. If the cold and slight pain that was beginning to accompany the poison was any indication, it was up his back and almost completely down his left leg by now. It had surprisingly avoided his altered Whitebeard tattoo and the center of his chest, based on the lingering warmth in those sections of skin. Ace wondered if the evasion was symbolic or a threat. After all, the heart was probably the last thing to be corrupted, right?

The Summer Spirit rolled onto his side, shivering violently. He felt as if he were ill, chills raking through his tired, lethargic body. It was like he had a mix of the flu and a bad injury where he'd lost too much blood, the feeling inching towards a state that was too similar to how it felt when he died for Ace to ignore his growing unease any longer.

He closed his eyes for a second and when they opened again Pitch was standing in front of him. The fire-user flinched before quickly letting his expression fall into a scowl.

The Nightmare King smirked. "Boo. Did I scare you?"

"Go away." Ace said flatly.

His voice sounded scratchy and soft, and he realized that he had not actually spoken aloud— other than to scream, possibly— in… how long had he been here? The fire-user tried not to freak out when he realized he did not know how many days he had been in the Nightmare King's tender care.

One of Pitch's elegant eyebrows rose. "What? No insults? No cursing? No oaths?"

"Just leave me alone, Pitch." The fire-user whispered, too exhausted to deal with the Spirit of Fear.

"Oh, are you tired?" the shadowy Spirit asked, almost sounding concerned. "I decided to let you out of those handcuffs because you'd be able to sleep easier. You do need the rest."

"Oh, yeah. I've just been having the most peaceful naps ever since I got here." Ace snarled.

For a moment he saw a blood-covered Luffy staring at him from the corner of the room with fear in his eyes. His little brother opened his mouth, and blood dripped down his chin in a stream. Ace blinked and the illusion vanished.

"I think I might be able to help you rest easier." The Nightmare King said with equal sarcasm. "I've been watching your brother. He's been doing just fine… except for the nightmares of course. He sees your death nearly every night. It's so… sad." The last word was spoken with elegance and gleeful sarcasm. Pitch's eyes lit up, and his smirk grew cruel. "Maybe I should go meet him. Introduce myself. He has enough fear inside him that he would most definitely turn into a Fearling."

Fear swept through Ace, and he could practically see the Nightmare King bask in it. The fire-user felt the emotion transform into the always-lingering anger and he leapt to his feet, straining against the chains that kept him close to the wall.

"Go near him and I'll destroy you!"

"How?" Pitch asked incredulously, gesturing at Ace's disheveled, weakened, and captured state. "You're my prisoner. You have no power. You can't escape. Tell me, how would you stop me if I decided to hunt down your dearest little brother and kill him right now?"

Ace's fists clenched and he swung a punch at the air, despite knowing the blow would never hit. To his and Pitch's surprise, flames sputtered briefly around his hand before going out, only strong enough to send a burst of harmless heat at the Nightmare King's face.

Pitch backed up a step, eyeing the Summer Spirit neutrally. "So you still have some fire in you. I don't know whether I'm impressed or annoyed."

For his part, Ace felt no different after expelling the unexpected flames. He did not feel warmer or as if his powers were returning, but he did not feel more exhausted either. He tried to summon anger to breathe life into his fire again, but naturally his emotions were not easily controlled, and nothing happened.

Ace wobbled unsteadily, becoming aware of how tired his legs were. How long had it been since he had actually stood up? He refused to sit down again, unwilling to show weakness even though Pitch was definitely aware it was there. The fire-user desperately wanted to punch the knowing smirk off the Nightmare King's face.

"Speaking of your precious sibling, I just think it's so ironic how so many of your fears involve your family turning against you." Pitch commented as if Ace's little fire burst had not happened.

I know, the fire-user thought bitterly. But I also know that would never actually happen. I just need to keepremembering that.

"My brother would never betray me or cause me harm." Ace stated with conviction, throat starting to ache the more he spoke.

The Nightmare King's visage darkened. "Your faith in him is misplaced. Family will betray you as readily as anyone else."

Maybe Luffy's stupidity had infected Ace somehow, because the filter between his brain and mouth vanished. "Just because Emily Jane abandoned you, doesn't mean other people's families would."

In that moment, Ace was certain that this was where his immortal life would end.

Pitch lunged for him, fingers wrapping around the fire-user's throat as he lifted Ace fully off the ground. The Spirit of Fear slammed him into the wall and held him there securely, pointing a black spear at his jugular. Enraged yellow eyes glared at Ace, revealing an unstable darkness lurking within, and the Nightmare King growled threateningly.

"Don't say her name." Pitch hissed like a venomous snake, shadows flaring angrily around him and murderous madness in his gaze.

Ace did not dare to speak— did not know if he could in his current position— merely meeting the crazed— sorrowful?— eyes of his captor. He was not strong enough to push the Nightmare King away before he could stab him, and felt helplessness rush though him, leaving him feeling more pathetic than ever.

He felt so cold.

What a great warrior the Summer Spirit is, not even bothering to fight his enemy anymore! The ever-present voice sneered at him. Look upon him and see a defeated man who's nothing more than a coward. What's the matter? Where's your bravado? Are you finally afraid of death, or are you so broken you won't even fight to live anymore?

Shut up, Ace thought.

Pitch smirked, calming as he enjoyed the forlorn look on the fire-user's face. He pulled his spear away and let Ace fall to the ground. The Summer Spirit stayed on his hands and knees, breathing heavily, his throat burning worse than ever as he forced his lungs to take in air. The fire-user ignored the voice, ignored the cold, ignored the growing hopelessness in his heart, and met the Nightmare King's gaze once more.

"You look tired." Pitch repeated mockingly, but with a dark undertone. "How about I tell you a bedtime story to help you sleep?"

Ace said nothing, but the Spirit of Fear began his tale anyway.

"Once upon a time there was a man named Kozmotis Pitchner. He was the hero of the Golden Age, tasked with capturing and guarding the terrible Fearlings that threatened the prosperity of the galaxies. One day, he was doing his duty, standing guard outside the door that contained the vile creatures… when he heard his daughter scream from within the prison."

The Nightmare King's voice lowered. "Desperate, afraid, he opened the door, and the Fearlings devoured him, taking over his body and warping his soul. He was transformed into the Nightmare King, the enemy of goodness and light, losing himself to darkness and fear all because he was tricked into believing his poor daughter was in danger."

"For years, the Nightmare King wreaked havoc upon the cosmos, committing genocide and other atrocities, until he was captured and contained. He was released again, obviously, and went on to menace the little blue planet that the last Lunanoff Prince had decided to guard. He could have destroyed the Earth like so many others, could have torn it apart by tipping the fragile balance of Nature in his favor, achieving such a feat by killing the one who controlled it. But do you know why he didn't?"

Ace remained silent, and Pitch continued without prompting.

"Because the one chosen to be Mother Nature, the one given the task of keeping the Seasons in sync, was none other than his daughter. I don't know if she got her powers naturally, or if she was given them, but those manipulative bastards knew that if they wanted to keep the power of Nature out of the Nightmare King's hands, it had to be in the hands of the one person he would never attack. Still, the Nightmare King approached his daughter, hoping to have her at his side, wishing to fight alongside the only good thing left in his life…"

"…Instead she abandoned him. Betrayed him. Left him to be defeated by the Guardians after claiming that she no longer loved him, that he was no longer her father." Pitch's voice shook, whether from grief or rage, Ace did not know. "The last light in the Nightmare King's life abandoned him, and the last sliver of good inside him died."

The Spirit of Fear's eyes focused on the Summer Spirit, fury burning in his gaze. "Never believe that family will stay by your side. Never believe that they will always love you, no matter what you become. Loyalty is an illusion, and love never lasts forever."

"I don't believe that." Ace said firmly, thinking of his little brother and letting memories warm his heart. "I also don't think your daughter betrayed you. She refused to work with who you are now, but did what the person you used to be would have wanted. She chose to protect the Earth."

"She did it to spite me," Pitch snarled. "She even went so far as to take preemptive measures and put a kill-switch in her Seasons so none of them could become my Fearling Heirs."

"Or maybe she did it so none of us could become possessed prisoners like you." Ace murmured.

Pitch faltered slightly before his features smoothed out. "You are an unobservant one, aren't you? Didn't you just hear what I said? Mother Nature—"

"—Did something so the Seasonal Spirits would die instead of becoming Fearlings, I know." The fire-user replied calmly. "But I won't let myself reach that point, and your daughter doesn't sound like the type to kill someone she thinks can be saved."

Dull flame-colored eyes met eclipsed yellow orbs, and Pitch looked away first.

"No one can beat fear." He said quietly, almost resignedly, turning away from the Spirit and walking towards the door.

"Maybe. But if anyone can find a way, it's with their family's help. I think she still loves you, deep down." Ace called after him, thinking about Luffy's joyful smile. "You can't just erase the love you feel for your most precious people." His thoughts drifted to Whitebeard and his lips quirked upward. "Especially the love for your father."

Pitch's fists clenched and he stalked into the shadows without another word, leaving the Summer Spirit alone. Ace exhaled slowly, feeling his eyes droop, and shook his head to clear it and wake himself up. He had a lot to think about, with the stories he heard from Jack and Pitch melding together as they attempted to coexist.

The fire-user looked down at his freed hands, flexing his fingers, and glanced around the empty cave. Once he was reasonably certain Pitch was not lingering in the shadows, he took off his left boot, checking for the lock picks he kept there. Naturally, his tools were gone, confiscated by his captor. Ace put his boot back on and grabbed the chain that hooked him to the wall, pulling at it irritably. It rattled obnoxiously but did not give an inch, causing the Summer Spirit to sigh.

So much for that plan, he thought as he laid down on the cold stone floor.

A very Jack-like thought was creeping its way into his mind, and as much as he wanted to ignore it, Ace found himself willing to try the idea. Pitch had a weakness, a chip in his armor that revealed a sliver of humanity that was concealed by malice and darkness. The fire-user was not naïve enough to think that he could make the Nightmare King change or let him go— and Ace wasn't exactly the type to try— but if he could get Pitch to give in just a little, to hesitate just a tiny bit, it might be worth it.

At the very least Ace could try to keep Pitch off-balance enough to increase his own chances of surviving the nightmares. The fire-user settled more comfortably on his side, closing his eyes as he considered the new possibilities…

…And jerked awake in his cell.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Jack had no idea where he was anymore.

The island he had retreated to was yet another Winter Island, so using that as a gauge to attempt to guess his location was pointless. Well, the island having a naturally cold climate might not actually be true. The panicked expressions on the bikini and shorts-clad natives suggested the place was meant to be a bit warmer.

"Sorry." The Winter Spirit murmured, hoping no one was caught out in the snowstorm.

He could practically hear Ace teasing him about his lack of control and trying his best to lighten the mood. The weather worsened as Jack thought of his missing friend, the fire-user's absence even more potent in the unnatural winter wonderland.

The Guardian's self-appointed mission to find Ace was a fool's errand, with little chance of success. This world was too big, with too many places for Pitch to hide. Having the Marines hunting Jack— and somehow being able to see him— was only making his impossible task more difficult. The Winter Spirit never thought there would be a time where he would want to be invisible.

Which brought him back to the main source of his grim mood.

I could have killed those Marines so easily, Jack thought. Some of them could get hypothermia if they don't get out of my ice fast enough.

Jack looked around him at the snowy island, gaze drifting over the tall mountains, beaches, and palm trees that were being covered with white.

So this is meant to be some type of tropical island. Oops.

His Wind stayed close as mundane wind that was-yet-wasn't under his control rushed around them, sending the last remnants of bewildered and terrified inhabitants running to their homes.

Mother Nature would blow a gasket if I pulled something like this back on Earth. Jack mused. It's just... The Marines have allied with Pitch. I have every right to fight them because they're working with a genocidal Dark Spirit, but I never actually wanted to be able to fight humans. To kill them. What happens if I face someone who is ready and actually stands a chance, like an Admiral? What if I can't freeze them harmlessly and run away? Can I actually kill someone intentionally?

The snow fell harder, and Jack sighed, curling up and gripping his hair in frustration.

Pitch is probably just going to keep sending Marines after me like cannon fodder. I thought the bastard would find me himself, but instead he's sending humans. Does he realize I don't want to kill them? Is murdering someone actually a fear of mine? Or is he trying to make the Guardians seem like bad guys? Why would he do that?

He could not think of a reason for Pitch's actions, and as he sat alone in the chilly snowfield, his mind inevitably returned to his absent, fiery companion. The Guardian of Fun groaned and stood up, feeling the Wind ruffle his hair and clothes.

I feel so useless. I can mess with the natural climate of an island but I can't do anything to save the world. I can't find Pitch. I can't find his Nightmares. I can't find Ace. What good is fun and snowstorms when they can't help me find my friend?

BOOM!

Fire burst into the sky, an explosion of orange and red stretching over the mountain peaks. The flare was easily visible against the white and grey backdrop of the snowy mountains, and the Guardian could feel the heat wafting off the blaze even from his position miles away. He flinched, stumbling back and shielding his eyes against the brightness, before he lowered his arms and gaped at the fire.

"Ace?!" Jack gasped.

The flames vanished as quickly as they appeared, grey and white dominating the sky once more.

The Guardian was already moving. "Let's go, Wind!"

He leapt into the air, the Wind catching him easily as they flew towards the source of the fire. The Wind dragged more than carried the Guardian, just as excited as the Winter Spirit to find Ace. It was so eager, in fact, that Jack hit the side of the mountain instead of flying over it.

The Guardian yelped and cursed as he tumbled down the steep, rocky slope. He barely kept a hold of his staff, clutching it tightly and jerking it out of harm's way so it would not snap as he fell. The Wind picked him up once more, apologizing profusely.

"It's okay." Jack said hurriedly, ignoring the pain from his unexpected descent. "Go, just go!"

He flew upward and safely over the mountains, his eyes immediately zeroing in on two colored humanoid shapes that stood out sharply against the snow. Disappointment rushed through Jack when he recognized neither person— they weren't Ace— but his unhappiness was swept away nearly instantaneously when he studied the situation more closely.

First, he noticed that both humans were unconscious and tied up.

Second, he saw the bodies of several Marines scattered around the area, their blood splattered on the snow.

Third, he spotted ten Nightmares stalking casually towards the helpless survivors, knowing they had no chance to escape.

Jack dove into action. As the Nightmares closed in, the Guardian of Fun landed before them, standing protectively in front of the two surviving humans.

"Hi." He greeted one Nightmare, before blasting it with ice.

The snow fell heavily around him as the other Nightmares screeched and lunged, but a casual sweep of his staff froze half of them while the Wind forced the rest backwards. Adrenaline thrummed through Jack's veins and he attacked the horse-like creatures with gusto, letting out his frustration with every blow.

It might have been because he was already in his element and there were no shadows for the Nightmares to escape through, but Pitch's minions went down in seconds, hardly a challenge for the fuming ice-user.

The one-sided battle was over quickly, and Jack merely stood in the snow for a minute, breathing harshly out of repressed anger more than exertion. He belatedly realized he should have let one Nightmare live to try to follow it. But that would mean leaving these people. Jack sighed, lowering his staff, and turned back to the humans he had managed to rescue. He did a double take and cursed.

"Manny blast it!"

Urgency in his steps, the Winter Spirit ran to the humans' sides, barely able to see them under the snow that had covered their still frames. Desperately, Jack dug them out, biting his lip in worry when he saw the blue tinge to their skin. He could see enough of the pair to know one was male and the other was likely female, but any distinguishing features and colors had been hidden by the snow that latched onto their clothes and hair.

"No no no no no no no!" Jack groaned, gritting his teeth and looking around frantically. "Dammit. I am not killing two people because I had a hissy fit!"

The storm was not letting up any time soon, and the Spirit was uncertain that he could carry them to safety. Strength wasn't an issue, but not dragging their already chilled— and possibly injured— frames through the icy snow was.

Jack made an irked sound and paused, glancing at the bodies of the Marines. They were almost buried by the snow by now, and the Guardian felt a glimmer of guilt. They may be Marines, but no one deserved to be killed by Nightmares like that.

He took a breath, silently apologizing to the men. I have to save the ones that are still alive. I'm sorry.

Quickly, he took a few of the Marines' coats, haphazardly tying them together to make an odd, large sling. Not wasting any time, he put the two humans on the makeshift carrier, pulling them a few feet to make sure it would stay together. The Guardian noticed a weird-shaped lump near where the man's head had lain. Guessing it may be something he owned and would want later, he picked up the covered object and tucked it under his arm.

"Wind, do you see a cave or a house anywhere?" Jack asked urgently.

The Wind hastily replied that there was an abandoned vacation home less than a quarter-mile down the mountain.

Jack nodded jerkily. "Good. Help me carry them, okay?"

With him pulling and the Wind pushing, they made their way towards the residence. Jack glanced behind him frequently, relieved when each view revealed the man and woman were still breathing.

When he reached the house, he did not hesitate to kick the door open, the plank of wood splintering slightly as it was forced past the security lock. It was a nice place, if a little dusty, and Jack guessed that it belonged to someone rich who only came yearly. The Guardian dismissed his unimportant thoughts and hauled his passengers inside. The Wind slammed the door shut behind them before retreating to make sure it did not cause more discomfort to the mortals.

Jack dropped the now-dripping object he had grabbed from the snow on the floor when he spotted a large fireplace and some wood. He glanced at his icy hands and touched a piece, watching angrily as it frosted over.

"Dammit." He whispered, for what seemed like the thousandth time.

The Guardian abandoned the idea of making a fire, turning back to his charges. Being inside the house had already helped melt enough of the snow that he could see some of their features now. The woman had orange hair and was wearing a red hat and pink shirt. Her companion had blonde hair, a scar on his face, a black tailcoat and a blue shirt with a white frilly thing— a cravat. Jack blinked and glanced at the peered object he had grabbed, realizing it was a top hat.

For some reason, his heart clenched.

The blue top hat, the blonde hair, the tailcoat, the cravat…

He looks like… Stop that. Don't go there.

The Guardian pushed away his unhappy thoughts and busied himself by running around the house and grabbing as many blankets as possible. He would prefer new clothes for the humans— awkwardness or not, he knew better than anyone the dangers of having wet clothes in icy weather— but to his surprise there were none in any of the bedrooms or closets. So blankets would have to do for now.

Jack untied his two charges and lifted up the worse-off woman. He wrapped her in a few of the blankets he found before setting her on the nice couch that was situated in the center of the room. He turned to the man, gaze zeroing in on the familiar cuffs around his wrists.

A Devil Fruit user? Does that mean he was the one who made the fire…? The Guardian stilled, comprehension dawning as to what that meant.

Jack did not know how to feel. The flames that he had seen earlier had probably come from the man, perhaps during a fight with the Marines. That meant it was likely this man had Ace's Devil Fruit, the Mera Mera no Mi. At least he was not a Marine, seeing as how he had been captured by them and all. But he was not someone Ace knew either.

The Guardian wanted to be upset about it, or angry. He really did. Someone else having Ace's old power seemed wrong. Jack should be furious, jealous, hurt, enraged that some other human had dared to eat the fruit that had once been Ace's, but something about the blonde was so familiar… Or maybe the Winter Spirit was feeling more forgiving than he normally would just because the man looked a bit like Sabo.

Thinking about the deceased young boy did not help Jack's dour mood.

The storm continued to rage outside, and a few flakes fluttered around the Winter Spirit. The Guardian blinked in confusion, wondering if a window was open, before realizing he was making it snow inside the building, too. The humans continued to shiver, unconsciously shrinking away from the frigid air.

"Sorry. I can only keep you cold." Jack mumbled bitterly, distressed.

He paused, eyes landing on the man again. If this guy really does have Ace's fruit, that means he's a Fire Logia.

He grabbed the seastone cuffs by their manacles, letting them frost over. A careful squeeze later and they shattered, the cuffs turned fragile and unable to withstand the pressure due to the ice. Color instantly returned to the man's cheeks and his breathing evened out. Flames flickered over his body and Jack leapt back as the heat touched his skin.

"Keep doing that." He told the man, even though he knew he couldn't hear him.

The Guardian ran to the fireplace, snatching up a long piece of wood and holding it over the flames.

"Come on, come on…" he mumbled, praying it would light.

To his delight, the wood caught, and the ice-user quickly put it back in the fireplace before retreating hastily. Poking at the fire would only cause him to put it out. He considered wrapping up the man in blankets then, but decided to leave him be when he noticed the man was still ablaze, charring the rug but luckily not catching it on fire.

But even with his distance from the fireplace and the Logia's powers, the cold in the air caused by the Winter Spirit's presence prevented the room from heating up. Jack had been near fires before and had not had this problem, so he knew why. He needed to calm down and rein in his control.

"Please be okay by yourselves for a little bit." He said to the humans, before diving out the window.

The sky was a dark, threatening grey and the wind howled loudly as it rushed over the mountains, carrying snow through the air and not caring about the island it was not meant to exist on. As the Guardian observed, the blizzard became a whiteout, everything but whiteness fading from sight.

The temperature had to be far in the negatives by now, dangerous and deadly to any humans that risked coming out into the storm. This was especially true since they would be unprepared to deal with such frigid weather. Jack looked at the monstrosity he had unintentionally created and clenched his hand around his staff.

I really messed up, the Guardian thought. All because I let my emotions— my powers— get out of hand. That's such a rookie mistake. If I had done this in Bunny's Warren or something, he'd kill me. Tooth would give me a harsh lecture too, at minimum. North probably wouldn't mind at his place but…

Thinking of the Guardian of Wonder brought up memories of the North Pole, snow falling outside while warmth and wonder reigned supreme within. Wonder like the kind that had been represented by a nesting doll…

Jack was an idiot. Calming himself would not help him dismiss the storm. Calm wasn't his center. Fun was.

The Guardian flew up into the air and let himself fall, laughing as his element rushed around him. He caught himself before he hit the ground, drifting like a snowflake and letting the winds carry him through the sky. He did not worry about Ace, or Pitch, or the Marines, or even the humans he had left behind.

Jack twisted as he soared through the clouds, doing flips and tumbling like an acrobat. He raced up above the clouds and looked down, the endless sea of grey reminding him of a fluffy blanket. Laughing, he descended once more, letting himself gain speed as the snow swirled around him.

The Guardian felt his worries drift away as he played in the storm that was not a threat, but a friend. He was a Nature Spirit, and this was his creation. Ice and snow was not something to hate or fear. It was meant to be played in, to be used for fun. That was why he, a playful trickster, had been chosen to represent the season of cold and frost.

He just needed to remember that.

The snowstorm lightened, heavy, large snowfall becoming soft, tiny flakes. Soon after, the clouds drifted away, and heat began to slowly return to the area. As the Guardian hopefully watched, the snow began to melt before his eyes.

Jack grinned triumphantly and flew back to the vacation home at top speed, diving through the window with practiced ease and skidding to a halt in the center of the room. To his surprise, the man was stirring, flames flickering over his body and blackening the floor further. The Guardian decided it was a miracle the house had not caught on fire and burned to the ground while he was gone.

The Winter Spirit observed silently as the man opened blue orbs, looking around in befuddled bewilderment at his surroundings. His gaze landed on Jack and he flinched, mouth falling open and eyes going round.

Jack looked back at him, just as stunned. And yet another person can see me, apparently. "Uh. Hey there. Friend." He said awkwardly.

I am great at talking to people, Jack thought sarcastically, recalling the bewildered rambler he had been reduced to when Jamie had first seen him.

The man continued to gape.

Well of course he's gaping. I don't exactly look human, do I? Not to mention I'm causing it to snow a bit again. Indoors. And I'm frosting the floor. I should try to stop—

"Jack Frost?" the blonde-haired man interrupted his thoughts, voice betraying his shock. Then a smile appeared on his face as his eyes filled with unshed tears. "It's really you."

The man stood up and hugged him, making the Guardian stiffen. Jack's preconceptions and beliefs fell down around him as he looked over the man's shoulder at the blue top hat on the floor, the familiarity and joy in which the 'stranger' acted erasing any lingering doubts he had about his identity.

"S-Sabo?"

Chapter Text

Garp the Fist stared silently at the not-quite-legal report he had received a few days ago, looking at the letters written on the page without actually seeing them. He knew what the missive said word for word, having read the message from Vice Admiral Smoker many times before, yet he still did not know what to think.

When he had first received the information, his foremost instinct had been to seek out Smoker and show him just how painful the Fist of Love could be. Luckily for the Logia, reason had actually shown up to quell Garp's rage, informing him that Smoker was not the type to joke about such a thing. And yet the Vice Admiral's claim was impossible. It could not be true.

How could Portgas D. Ace, his grandson, still be among the living?

Garp let his gaze drift over the familiar message once more, mouthing the words as he absorbed them for the hundredth time.

"'Fire Fist' Portgas D. Ace may be alive. The exact circumstances surrounding his survival and his whereabouts are unknown, and how I have come to learn of this information is classified. Do what you will with this intel."

The letter was short, cryptic, and secretive, and if Sengoku were still Fleet Admiral, Garp would have stormed into his office and demanded to know everything by now, covertness and clearance be damned. But Sengoku was no longer Fleet Admiral. Sakazuki was, and there was no way in hell that Garp was going to let that bastard catch wind that the grandson he murdered might still be breathing.

This left Garp with a dilemma. He was not a Vice Admiral anymore. He was an instructor. He was still respected and held some superiority— and would enthusiastically put anyone who claimed otherwise in their place— but he did not have the same pull he once did. For the first time since his retirement, Garp regretted vacating his previously held position. Beating sense into upstart recruits was rewarding, but he needed information. Even worse, he needed information clandestinely.

Garp hated doing anything in a clandestine manner. He would rather be out in the open and breaking through his opposition with brute force. But he could not do that now. Not this time, when Ace's life was on the line. He could not lose his grandson again.

Memories of Ace's tragic, brutal demise crept to the forefront of Garp's mind, flashbacks of burning flesh, crimson blood, and anguished words flickering through his consciousness. The Marine almost crushed the poor paper in his large fist, crinkling it so tightly he was surprised when it did not turn to dust in his hands. He grimaced and threw the report in the fireplace, watching it burn up and vanish without a trace.

Perhaps I am a sentimental old fool, the Fist mused. I have no proof for myself to show that Ace is out there, but I already believe he is.

He turned on his heel, leaving his office with large, stiff strides. Either way, I think it's time for me to request an overdue vacation. And if I happen to run into Vice Admiral Smoker while on holiday, well, that's just a coincidence.

His eyes narrowed dangerously, and the few Marines he passed in the hallway were quick to scurry out of his path. But if Ace is alive, why hasn't he shown himself? Why hasn't he told his loving Grandfather? Could he be in trouble? Could he still be captured somewhere…? A dark thought came to Garp and something close to disgust trickled down his spine as a foreboding snarl distorted his face. If it turns out the Marines have been keeping my grandson prisoner… Sengoku won't be there to hold me back this time.

The thought was traitorous at best, but Garp did not care. He had already failed his grandson once. He was not going to let Ace die again.

Ace isn't a criminal. He is family. I should have realized that sooner, and done more to save him. I will not make the same mistakes I did before, Garp vowed. That won't stop me from giving him my Fist of Love when I find him. Damn that brat for making me worry! I'll have to increase his training time to make sure he will not fall again.

Garp grinned widely and any Marines in his vicinity fled in fear. They did not know who the target was of the dreaded, crazy smile the instructor wore, but they could not help but feel bad for them.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Inside of an abandoned vacation home, twenty-three year-old man and immortal Winter Spirit stared at each other in silence for the longest time, both unable to believe who exactly they were seeing. Then Jack began to laugh out loud, even as weeping threatened to join his uncontrollable mirth.

"Sabo. You're alive. You're actually…"

The Guardian could not help himself. He flew forward, hugging the blonde tightly once more, and reaffirmed that Sabo really was solid and there and real and alive. He could feel the lost boy's heart pounding calmly in his chest, steady and strong, providing even more proof that the Spirit was not imagining things and Sabo was right there, in front of him, among the living.

"You're alive… You're alive…" Jack found himself repeating. He choked on another undignified sob. "We thought you had died."

Sabo's arms tightened around the Guardian and he spoke quietly. "I know. I'm sorry. I lost my memory after my ship was blown up by the Celestial Dragon. I was found by Dragon— the leader of the Revolutionaries— and became one of them, unaware of where I came from for years. When I saw the news article about Ace's death… everything came back." He gave a hollow, joyless chuckle. "I almost thought you were imaginary, but then I read about the snowstorm in Marineford and I knew you were as real as everything else I remembered."

Jack stiffened and pulled away from the Revolutionary, biting his lip. "Uh… About that—"

"Sabo, who are you talking to?"

The orange-haired woman was awake. She stood, still wrapped in the blanket, and scanned the area in which Jack stood, eyes not focusing on the Guardian's position. Her expression was etched with concern as she witnessed her comrade speaking to and holding what appeared to be thin air, and Jack had to repress an amused snort.

The blonde-haired Revolutionary exchanged glances with Jack and sighed. "Of course she can't see you. Jack, this is Koala, my partner. Koala… you need to believe what I am about to tell you. There is an eighteen year-old boy standing next to me. His name is Jack Frost. I need you to picture him as I describe him, okay?"

The orange-haired woman looked at her partner with confusion, while Sabo stared back determinedly. The blonde gestured at Jack, who chuckled openly at the continuously bewildered expression on Koala's face as she attempted to see who he was pointing at.

"He is wearing a blue hoodie and brown pants, and is holding a wooden staff. His hair is white, spiky, and short. His eyes are bright blue, and his skin is almost as pale as snow. He is a little shorter than I am. Picture him standing next to me. Imagine him. See him in your mind. Believe that he is here."

Jack recognized the persuasive tone of voice Sabo was using as the same one Ace used when he was trying to make the then ten year-old blonde believe in the Guardian. Before he could sink into bittersweet nostalgia, Koala inhaled sharply, eyes going round. Her sharp azure orbs met the Winter Spirit's icy blue and Jack instinctively smiled and waved.

"Hi."

Koala made a sound that was an amusing mix of a cat screeching and a mouse's startled squeak. She continued to make the hilarious noise, and Jack found it harder and harder not to burst out laughing. Her partner smiled ruefully and ignored Koala's distress, picking up his precious top hat off the floor and placing it on his head.

"I think we broke her." Jack informed Sabo, who turned red at the reminder of his own reaction to the Winter Spirit.

Koala found her voice before the blonde Revolutionary could respond. "Wh— How? He was— How?"

Sabo shifted his weight and repositioned his top hat with a sheepish air. "Jack's another one of my friends from childhood. He's also the Spirit of Winter from another planet that was accidentally sent here more than twenty years ago."

Koala stared at Jack for a bit longer before looking at her partner. She blinked. "Okay then." She said rather calmly, taking the new information in stride. Then her eyes narrowed. "You never told me about him."

Sabo raised an eyebrow, unintimidated by her dangerous expression. "Would you have believed me?" His face brightened abruptly and he turned to Jack, practically oozing eagerness. "Speaking of belief, how have things been with Luffy? He didn't mention you last time I saw him, but I thought that might be because we were in front of people who wouldn't understand, or he thought I didn't remember you."

The Guardian's mood soured and he crossed his arms over his chest, gripping his elbows tightly as he turned slightly away from the Revolutionary. "Luffy stopped believing in me after you 'died'." Jack said in a clipped voice, hiding his hurt behind an apathetic façade.

And it's starting to snow inside again, he noted, staring at the falling flakes moodily. Aaaaannnnd now the floor is an ice rink. Dammit.

Sabo's blue eyes softened with compassion and guilt. "I'm sorry. You've been all alone."

Without warning, he hugged the Winter Spirit again, gripping him tightly as if he would vanish if the Revolutionary let go. The blonde's body trembled, shaking them both, and it took the feeling of wetness on his shoulder for Jack to realize that the top hat-wearing man was crying.

"I'm sorry." Sabo choked. "I'm s-sorry I wasn't t-there to save h-him."

Comprehension dawned and Jack pulled away from the Revolutionary, grabbing his face and forcing him to meet his eyes. "Don't blame yourself. It wasn't your fault that you weren't there at Marineford." The Spirit said firmly. "You didn't remember Ace, and for all you know, you being there could have made things worse. Do you honestly think Luffy would have been able to focus if he found out you were alive while in battle?"

Sabo winced at the thought as he recalled Luffy's tearful, clingy reaction to his return. "Probably not. But I—"

"You can't change the past." Jack interrupted bluntly. "What happened, happened. It's done. But… Well…" Dammit. I wanted to ease into this, the Winter Spirit thought. He took a breath and spoke in a rush. "Ace is alive. He did die at Marineford, but the Man in the Moon and Mother Nature made him into the Spirit of Summer."

The look that came to Sabo's cerulean eyes made him appear to be years younger than his actual age, reminding Jack even more of the ten year-old he thought had been killed. The Revolutionary blinked, nodding slowly, but his breathing grew louder and faster as his skin turned an unhealthy white. To the Guardian, it looked as if Sabo were doing his best not to hyperventilate, his entire body trembling distressingly. Flames licked at his shoulders, flaring and writhing, as if the Logia were barely keeping the literal firestorm within him contained.

Jack tensed and let his grip on his staff tighten, fully prepared to protect himself and Koala if Sabo lost control and exploded. The orange-haired woman lingered at her partner's side, hands fluttering uselessly in the air as she debated between trying to comfort Sabo, darting to a safe distance, or preparing to catch him if he collapsed. The blonde Revolutionary's blue eyes grew shiny as his body shook harder, and for a moment Jack thought the man truly was going to faint.

"Ace is alive?" Sabo whispered in a strangled voice.

His hope looked so fragile, so easily broken, that Jack could only nod in confirmation, fearing that any other action would cause Sabo to go over the edge into unconsciousness or hysteria.

"You wouldn't joke about this." Sabo breathed. "You wouldn't— He's actually—"

Like a sun breaking through the clouds, a toothy smile crossed Sabo's face and he laughed, a pure, hearty sound that brought warmth to Jack's chest. "He's alive! Ace is alive!"

Sabo hugged Koala and Jack, knocking their heads together and ignoring the woman's half-hearted protests as he lifted them both off the ground. He spun around in a deliriously happy circle, dancing like a fool as he continued to laugh with unadulterated joy.

The Guardian of Fun chuckled out loud with him— even as he winced in the man's strong grip— while Koala smiled softly despite her discomfort. The Revolutionary eventually let go of his relieved partner and the Winter Spirit, looking at Jack with ecstatic eyes.

"Where is Ace? Is he nearby? Has he revealed himself to Luffy yet?" He asked rapidly.

Sabo's grin faltered as his eyes drifted to the familiar orange cowboy hat on Jack's back.

"You have his hat." He said flatly, merriness fading as fear darkened his gaze.

The Guardian grimaced, his euphoria draining away with Sabo's own. "Ace was captured by Pitch Black." Jack revealed bitterly, self-hatred ringing in his tone.

Koala's visage grew confused once more, and even the blonde Revolutionary did not understand the implications of the Guardian's statement at first. Jack saw the moment when Sabo recognized the name, and the young man's complexion paled several shades, an unbridled terror creeping onto his face that Jack despised.

"Pitch Black? As in the Spirit of Fear? The Nightmare King? The World Destroyer? That Pitch?" Sabo demanded, horror and anger lowering the timbre of his voice.

"Yes." Jack admitted grimly. "Pitch somehow got to this world and has been causing havoc. He's been building an army and allied with the Marines."

"Sabo and I were sent here to find out what happened to the civilians in a town on this island." Koala interjected, much more invested now that the conversation had to do with their mission. "More than two hundred people have vanished, gone without a trace. We thought the World Government might be kidnapping civilians for slavery or experimentation. Are you saying this 'Pitch' character is the one responsible?"

"Yeah." Jack grunted, mood darkening further. "Manipulative bastard. I don't understand why he needs the Marines though. He's never had a problem finding and mocking me by himself before."

Rather than comment on Pitch's uncanny tracking abilities and apparent loss of them, Sabo focused on the Nightmare King's alliance with the Revolutionaries' enemies. "It's doubtful that the World Government knows that Pitch is amassing an army." The blonde-haired man analyzed thoughtfully. "They'd try to stop him if they realized he threatened their power."

Koala scoffed. "With our luck, they'll try to blame pirates or us for the disappearances."

The three freedom-loving people scowled almost simultaneously at the thought of innocents becoming scapegoats.

"Stupid bigots." The Guardian muttered under his breath. "Someone should kick them off their thrones."

"That's what the Revolutionaries are trying to do. Want to join?" Sabo asked, only half-joking.

Jack shook his head. "Nah. Being in one organization is enough for me. Besides, I'd never follow orders." The Guardian's teasing mood faded and he looked between the two Revolutionaries. "I would be willing to work with you guys though. I'm betting that you have a lot of spies in the Marines, and maybe they can help me find Ace."

Any flippancy seemed to drain from Sabo and he released a shuddering puff of air. "That's right. Ace is alive. He's been captured again."

The Revolutionary spoke as if he were reminding himself of that fact, and his blue eyes widened with panic as his mind drifted away from the 'big-picture' mindset of a freedom fighter and the brother within him fully realized what he had been told. Sabo grabbed Jack's shoulders again, a terrible, frightened look on his face.

"Was Ace hurt when he was captured? Is there a chance he could escape on his own? Is he still weakened by seastone? Pitch won't kill him, right?"

Jack wiggled out of Sabo's grasp as flames started to flicker around the blonde's fingers, the frost on his shoulders thickening to ward off the heat. The Revolutionary jerked away on his own, remorse flashing through his expression, but the Guardian spoke before he could apologize again.

"No, Pitch wouldn't go through the trouble of capturing Ace just to kill him." The Winter Spirit said stiffly, trying to delay answering the first question. "Ace isn't weakened by seastone anymore because he's a Spirit. As for escaping… I don't think he'll be able to alone."

Jack dragged his gaze to the window, where snow was once again beginning to fall on the normally tropical island, and thus avoided meeting Sabo's worried eyes. The window was getting covered by jagged frost.

"Ace was wounded by Pitch in our fight with him. He got slashed by one of Pitch's black sand blades." His voice came out in a low, guilty whisper, audibly distraught as he gave the news. "I don't know what it does exactly, but if it acts anything like Sandy's dream sand, it could keep Ace from waking up." Or worse.

Sabo was quiet as he tried to remember every story Jack had told him about Pitch and his powers. The strained, frantic look that came into his eyes kept both the Guardian and Koala from interrupting his silent recollection, and both watched mutely as his hands clenched into fiery fists and his jaw locked minutely.

"I… I see." The Revolutionary said at last before clearing his throat. "Well, we'll just have to find Ace soon then. We shouldn't waste any more time." He adjusted his hat again, pushing it down over his eyes much like Ace and Luffy often did before entering a battle.

Jack blinked. "What?"

Anxiety faded away and Sabo gave him a look that told the Guardian that he had missed something embarrassingly obvious. "You don't honestly think we're just going to go on our merry way and let you find my brother without us, do you?" The man asked incredulously.

"I— Well—" Jack stammered, shame rushing through him as he realized that was exactly what he had been thinking. The possibility that the two Revolutionaries would want to accompany him on his search had not even crossed his mind.

Ace has other people that care about him, the Spirit slowly understood. I guess I never actually thought that other people would believe that he had been resurrected as a Spirit, and would be willing to help. I spent so long being unseen— not believed in— by people, I thought Ace would be the same. But his circumstances are different. I— We're— not alone in this. The thought brought a glowing smile to his face.

"What about our mission?" Koala asked, albeit reluctantly. "We can't just run off to find your brother."

"We were sent here to find out what happened to those villagers. Pitch happened, so the next step is finding him— and by extension, Ace." Sabo said smoothly, but with a slight hard edge that forbade any disagreement. "I'm sure Dragon will understand."

Koala drooped visibly and gave a sigh, rolling her eyes. "I'm not going to argue with you. Let's just report to Dragon before we vanish this time, okay?"

The familiar, blinding smile Sabo gave her made the heavy weight in Jack's chest— that had been present since Ace's capture— lighten, and suddenly, his mission did not seem to be so impossible. The Revolutionary turned to the Guardian, determination in his gaze.

"Let's go find our brother."

ROTGOPROTGOP

The Moby Dick was burning.

Ace stood on the flaming ship, watching in horror as his crewmates— his brothers and sisters— ran across the deck, screaming and shouting as fire consumed their home. Beside them was another ignited vessel, the other ship too damaged to be recognized, nothing more than a flaming wreck that sank slowly into the sea. The fire-user stumbled back as the mast went up like kindling, flames devouring the wood as easily as small twigs. He felt the heat from the blaze, but unlike everyone else, it did not harm him. It was almost… comforting.

A hand grabbed Ace's arm and he was spun forcibly, the only other person who was immune to the flames holding his arms in a vice-like grip. Marco's blue eyes were wide with desperation and fear as he looked at Ace, azure flames coating the Phoenix protectively and keeping him from burning alive.

"Ace, stop!" Marco shouted pleadingly, voice barely audible over the roaring fire. "You're better than this, yoi!"

It took a moment, but the fire-user realized his brother thought he was the one destroying their home.

"W-What are you talking about?" Ace stammered, hurt that the Phoenix could think he was capable of doing such a thing. "I'm not d-doing this!"

He flinched as the mast fell over, nearly hitting Izo. The Sixteenth Division Commander scrambled out of the way just in time, the edge of his kimono blackening before he put the small flame that had ignited on it out. Others were not so lucky, and were either crushed or thrown into the sea.

"You're out of control, yoi. You're hurting our family." Marco said brokenly, sounding more sad than angry.

"It's not me." Ace insisted, stomach twisting uncomfortably at the distraught look on his friend's face. "Don't worry. I'll fix it!"

Ash and smoke clouded the air around them, making both Devil Fruit eaters cough. Ace brushed the soot away from his eyes and glared at the gluttonous flames angrily. He was fire. It was his to control. He could take in the flames, tear them away from the vulnerable wood, make them stop destroying his home.

Ace lifted his right hand, fingers outstretched, and called the fire to him, ordering it away from the ship it so eagerly consumed.

The fire ignored his command, instead growing stronger, fiercer. Marco was forced to dodge as pieces of glowing wood rained down upon him. The Phoenix grunted in pain as the broken end of a board sliced his cheek, the wound healing almost instantly in a burst of blue healing fire.

"What are you doing? Put it out!" Marco yelled.

"I-I can't! It's not working!" Ace cried.

His panic fed the flames, the orange burning brighter and closer to a deadly blue, and the ship below groaned painfully under the stress. The fire-user saw a few of his crewmates jump desperately from the deck into the ocean, most disappearing under the waves without resurfacing.

He felt ill. They were in the Grand Line. Every sailor worth his salt knew that you could not simply swim in the Sea King infested waters here.

Beside Ace, Marco gave a small, broken laugh. The younger pirate met the Phoenix's sad blue eyes while the man stood there quietly, as if all of the will to fight had drained from him. Marco's tears evaporated from the heat the moment they formed, unable to even run down his cheeks.

"You honestly thought something like this would never happen, didn't you?" he asked hollowly. "You thought that by becoming fire, no one you loved would ever have to fear it again. Well guess what? Now they don't fear fire, yoi. They fear you."

The flames parted, revealing the center of the deck, and Ace's already hurting heart felt as if it were being stabbed with a knife. Two small, familiar figures stood in the center of the blaze, clinging to each other and looking around them with terror.

The blonde-haired boy was missing his top hat, the accessory most likely destroyed by the inferno, while the dark-haired boy clung to his greatest treasure protectively, warding off the flames as best he could and crying as they attempted to take his precious straw hat from him.

"Ace! Why are you doing this?" ten year-old Sabo asked fearfully, trying to drag seven year-old Luffy away from the blaze.

"I-I'm not." Ace denied. "I can't control them!"

He reached for his brothers, and the flames followed the movement, burning tendrils stroking their arms. Luffy gave a terrified scream, and Sabo cried out.

"Stay away!" the blonde boy screeched, attempting to protect their little brother with his coat.

"Sabo? Why is Ace mad at us?" Luffy sobbed. "Why is Ace hurting us?"

The fire-user stumbled back, both in an attempt to keep the fire off of them and in reaction to his little brother's words. The ship— Moby Dick? Going Merry? Another vessel?— was almost completely incinerated, large burning planks falling into the water below. An ominous creaking noise could be heard above the flames, and Ace realized the ship was about to break under the stress.

Gritting his teeth, he stepped towards his brothers again, only for the fire to mimic his movements once more. Sabo was forced to discard his tailcoat as it began to smolder, quickly catching alight and turning into ashes.

"Stooooooopppppppp!" Luffy howled, burying his face in Sabo's chest.

"Stay back!" the blonde boy snarled, tears making tracks through the ashes on his face. "You're doing this on purpose. You're not our brother. You n-never wanted brothers. You never cared about us. You really are a monster. Monster!"

Ace flinched, feeling as if he'd been struck in the chest. The blaze reacted to his distress, doubling in size, and a loud crack snapped through the air. Demonic and uncaring, the fire consumed the remainder of the ship and everything on it, apathetic to the cries of the falling.

The fire-user could only watch as his little brothers burned alive before his eyes.

Ace inhaled sharply, feeling tears making their way down his cheeks. He sat quietly for a moment, breathing in the scent of musk and stale air that was a welcome relief when compared to the smell of burning flesh and scorched wood.

Not real. He silently chanted his new mantra. It wasn't.

He squinted in the darkness, taking in the sight of the soothing yet frustrating cell he had woken in, and bit his lip uncertainly.

Am I actually awake this time?

No one appeared out of nowhere to hate or blame him, no monsters rose up to tear him apart, and there were no bodies of his loved ones laying about, so he supposed he might be.

Ace gave a cursory check over his skin, watching detachedly as the black markings stretched down his calves. A glance at his left arm revealed that his ASCE tattoo was no longer discernible among the black lines the nightmare sand made.

The fire-user felt a pang off loss as he stared at the spot where the crossed out S normally resided, indecipherable among the mess. He could not help but feel as if he were tarnishing Sabo's memory by allowing the sand to make it so far.

I got this tattoo to honor him, so he could be with me when I sailed for him… But look at me now. Imprisoned, regretful, alone… I'm such a joke.

The black vein-like marks mocked him by creeping further down his arm, reaching his hand.

Tired. Cold. Don't sleep.

Ace tried to be optimistic. At least his Whitebeard tattoo, face, and the center of his chest were still clear. That meant he was still fighting. The fire-user felt some pride at the fact that he was still enduring, but it was overshadowed by the knowledge that he was slowly sinking towards his demise.

Will I actually die if it corrupts my heart, or will I just go crazy? Ace thought idly, and instantly wished he had not. No. Don't think about that.

But all he could do was think.

And have nightmares.

Pitch had not visited him since he had stormed out after revealing his history, so Ace had been unable to implement any half-baked plots he had concocted to try to unbalance the Nightmare King. It had also been a while since he thought of ways to break out of here. At least, it might have been. Counting seconds was useless when most 'realities' he found himself in were dreams.

It won't matter if you escape anyway, the voice whispered. The nightmares won't magically go away if you get out of here.

I know, Ace replied.

Shut up! He added as soon as he realized what he had done.

The fire-user began to play idly with his chains, making them jangle as he picked them up off the floor and dropped them repeatedly.

Well aren't you being productive, the voice hissed.

Shut. Up.

Ace was uncertain whether the voice was the black sand, Pitch himself, or his own mind tormenting him, but he knew that it was separate and wrong, so he was still okay, wasn't he?

Tired. Cold. Don't sleep.

Adding to his misery was the constant pain in his side and stomach. He did not know if Pitch's sand was messing with him or his presumptions about immortality were wrong, but he felt hungry. His insides felt hollow and twisted, with near-constant pangs ripping through his abdomen. It was the same ache in his gut that he had when he had first been trying to assassinate Whitebeard and refused the food the Whitebeard Pirates offered, believing it to be poisoned.

He and Jack had been unable to steal enough food for a normal person, so a big eater like Ace had soon found himself growing weaker and starving on the ship. It had taken an impromptu collapse, a frantic Jack, and a very insistent Thatch to get him to let his 'enemies' feed him, and for the rest of his days of stubborn refusal and afterward, he had never gone hungry. Not until Impel Down, anyway.

He thought he would never have to worry about a lack of food again.

Maybe it's because my fire is out. Ace mused. Or do Spirits actually have to eat occasionally? Then how did Jack manage for all those years when he was alone?

He had seen the Winter Spirit steal the random drumstick or cookie during the fire-user's human years, and had joined him in playful raids on bakeries and restaurants after he himself had become the Spirit of Summer, but did they truly need the food, unlike what Ace had assumed? The thought of Jack being alone and scared for hundreds of years, desperately searching for something to eat in a world he did not remember and where no one could see him, made the fire-user's stomach hurt even more, sympathy pangs accompanying his other aches.

So cold.

"Well aren't you just cheerful this fine morning."

Ace looked up, meeting Pitch's yellow eyes as the Nightmare King stepped out of the shadows of his cell.

Don't you have anything better to do than bother me? The fire-user thought, but did not voice.

His throat hurt, from a lack of talking or an overabundance of screaming he did not know, but he honestly no longer cared to speak with the Spirit of Fear. Pitch liked to get a reaction out of him, to see his fears and determination war for visibility on his face, so he stayed quiet, ignoring the Nightmare King as best he could like he was another illusion.

At the same time, he was proud to say that he was not broken enough that even his thoughts were silenced.

"I do miss our conversations." Pitch lamented. "You insulting me and acting all brave, me tearing down your walls and threatening your brother… Well, at least you're conscious this time."

Ace just kept staring at him. I really think I hate you, he thought, a small spark lighting in his dull orange eyes. Screw redemption and your sob story. When I get out of here, you're going down.

"Still nothing to say?" The Nightmare King sighed, even as he noted the glimmer in the fire-user's glare. "Despite what you think, I cannot read minds. Only see nightmares and fears."

Good to know, Ace mused mockingly, a slow sneer forming on his face.

Pitch eyed him thoughtfully. "You are quite the enigma. I can't decide whether you are being defiant or are slowly losing your mind. Well, I have some news that I thought might interest you. I've been told that your dear friend Jack is looking for you. Isn't that wonderful?"

Ace stayed unimpressed and the Nightmare King scoffed.

"Fine. Maybe you'll be happy to hear about this, then. I've allied with your 'World Government'. They're hunting Jack right now. He ran into a group of twenty men and killed them all because they would not tell him your location. How does that make you feel?"

The Summer Spirit tensed slightly, studying the Nightmare King's face for any signs of deception. Pitch's expression remained stoic and clear. Ace let his mind drift, trying to think of why he would tell the fire-user this 'information', or lie about such a thing. Maybe to make him feel guilty that he caused Jack to kill, or for the lives lost?

They deserved it, the voice whispered.

Of course they did, Ace thought back, and paused.

The right answers were 'No, they didn't' or 'Maybe not', the voice murmured, pleased.

Ace leaned against the wall, hands gripping his biceps tightly as his arms pressed against his chest in a hollow imitation of a hug. Above him, Pitch chuckled, sounding eerily similar to the voice in his head.

"You really are a monster, aren't you? We're more similar than you think." Pitch said coolly. "I don't care about human lives and neither do you, apparently. Except for your 'precious people', correct? Everyone else could burn for all you care. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. That's a trait you share with your brother."

The fire-user was not stupid. He knew what Pitch would pull next. The Nightmare King loved to torment him with tales of Luffy's nightly terrors, intertwined with the threat of the Boogieman going to visit the Straw Hat Pirate himself.

Maybe it was the stress and exhaustion, maybe it was growing insanity, but Ace abruptly found it hard to give a damn about Pitch anymore, so he did the most logical— or was it idiotic?— thing he could think of.

Screw it, Ace thought.

He casually took off his right boot, weighing it in his hand.

Pitch looked openly amused by the action. "Well done. You can take off your shoes by yourself. Now what are you going to—"

With a skill to be proud of, Ace aimed and threw. The boot hit the Nightmare King directly in the face, connecting with a loud thwack. The fire-user's throat hurt too much to giggle, so he smirked mutely at the Spirit of Fear.

Ha ha, he laughed mentally, even as Pitch angrily stormed up to him.

The Nightmare King did not grab or threaten him, to his surprise, only standing there and fuming. Either Ace's eyes were getting better at seeing in the dark, or a small bit of light had found its way into the lair, because he could see the dirt on the soles of the boot had left a partial imprint over Pitch's eye, nose, and cheek.

That looks good on you. You should get it tattooed, the fire-user suggested silently.

"I hate you. So. Much." Pitch hissed.

Ace just kept smirking. When he blinked, the Spirit of Fear was gone.

The Summer Spirit frowned down at his feet, pleased to see that his right foot was still shoeless. So Pitch had been real. Unless he was still in a dream. Ace ignored such pressing matters and wiggled his booted left foot back and forth, looking between it and the boot that lay outside his cell.

Ace shrugged and tore his remaining boot off, setting the shoe beside him. It was followed by both his socks, which the fire-user tugged experimentally. Maybe if he tied his socks together he could strangle Pitch with them. And his last boot could be used as ammunition!

Didn't he have a plan to exploit the weaknesses Pitch had shown him?

…He probably should have tried to unbalance Pitch again instead of antagonizing him. Oops.

I'm going crazy, the still-sane part of him whispered. A lack of sleep, paranoia, and isolation can do that. Plus there's that damn sand.

Half the time, he was in pain and afraid. The other half, he was too tired or detached to care about anything, including his own well-being. It was an endless spiral, and even in his state of possible delirium, impeding insanity, and exhaustion he knew that the spiral was heading downwards fast. Eventually he was going to fall somewhere, and when he did…

I don't know if I can do this much longer, the still-coherent piece of him murmured. I should be more afraid of Pitch, shouldn't I? Or should I be less afraid of the dreams? Or neither? Both? I'm so confused…

He blinked and Luffy's corpse appeared in the corner, blood dripping thickly from the gaping wound in his chest. Ace stared at him blankly, tired, cold, and perplexed. But not distressed. Not afraid.

Odd, but the nightmares that took place in this cage were easier to spot than the ones that took place in other settings. Not that he meant the nightmares were actually in the cell— they were still in his brain, of course they were— Oh right, Luffy.

The fire-user leaned against the wall, observing distantly as a red pool spread around Not-his-little-brother's still carcass.

Ace knew for a fact that he was dreaming— he always knew he was dreaming— whenever he saw the bodies of his loved ones in the dungeon with him now. He did not know what caused him to realize reality was false in those instances, but somehow every time Luffy or Marco or Oyaji or Thatch's unmoving forms appeared while he was in his prison, Ace immediately knew they were hallucinations.

A dark part of him wondered if Pitch was doing this on purpose, preparing for something that would lead to fear and grief and guilt if Ace did not react appropriately. He had seen certain fears so many times, again and again, that he had become accustomed to them. The fire-user knew what was slowly happening, but could not stop it any more than he could remove the nightmare sand from his veins.

Because this was the three hundredth twenty-eighth time Ace had seen his brother's body in this cell.

It was the twelfth time he felt nothing.

Maybe he really was a monster.

ROTGOPROTGOP

When Bunnymund saw the Lights in the night sky, he immediately opened a rabbit hole to the North Pole and jumped in, popping out in the middle of a snowstorm. The Pooka shivered as the heavy snow froze his fur and quickly ran for North's Workshop on all fours, wincing each time his paws touched the ground.

"Cold. Cold. Cold. I should've made a tunnel right inside. Bloody snow." He muttered.

He raced through the door that a helpful Yeti was holding open, sighing in relief as the Pole's heat began to warm his fur.

"Thanks, mate." Bunny said to North's helper.

The Yeti gave a garbled response, but the Pooka was already on his way to the Globe Room for the second time in a month. He nearly tripped over an elf in the doorway, but a harsh glare at the annoying little bugger sent it sprinting in the opposite direction as fast as its legs could carry it. Bunny huffed and strode into the Globe Room, ducking beneath a flying plane and standing beside Sandy. He shook off the lingering snow and shot North an irritated scowl.

The Guardian of Wonder did not seem to notice his companion's surly mood, beaming as he greeted the Pooka. "Bunny! Glad you could make it."

"Second time this month, North." Bunny said pointedly.

The Cossack shrugged unapologetically. "Manny needs to speak with us again." His smile dimmed and his voice lowered. "He sounded… urgent."

Bunny felt his ire trickling away as it was replaced by worry. The Man in the Moon did not wait for any of his Guardians to ask what he wanted, speaking in quick, jerky moonbeams that practically radiated guilt and distress. The words were clear as the bluest sky to Bunny, but for the life of him he wished that he was interpreting Tsar Lunar's message wrong.

"The new Summer Spirit, Hiken D. Ace, was captured by Pitch Black more than a week ago. Jack escaped, but Pitch is hunting him." Was the Moon's dire news.

Toothiana made a small sound that may have been a gasp or sob. Any lingering joy in North's visage faded and he closed his eyes in grief. Even Sandy seemed to dim, glow fading and face paling as his eyes grew round.

The Moon apologized sorrowfully, and Bunny could practically see the guilt in the moonbeams. He explained that his vision in the other world had faded because of Pitch's presence, and he had not realized what had happened until it was far too late. By his estimate, Pitch had captured Ace more than two weeks ago.

Bunny did not know how he felt. Horror and disgust tried to take hold of him but were blocked by an odd, numbing feeling that trickled from his ears to his toes. Vague, horrific memories tried to force their way to the front of his mind but he beat them back, breathing evenly as his left paw clenched into a fist.

He would never forget what happened to the last Spirit of Summer when Pitch had captured him. Mother Nature had been distraught for decades, rampaging through the hemispheres with no one able— or willing— to stop her, and the resulting imbalance in Nature had only made things harder for every other Spirit. Bunny had not been present for the Summer Spirit's demise, but he had heard tales of the horrors and torture that the lad had lost his life to.

To think that the new Summer Spirit, Ace, Firecracker, Jack's friend was going through that now…

"North, get a Snow Globe." Bunny said flatly. "We're going to the same world as Jack."

The Guardian of Wonder nodded grimly, reaching into his pocket, when more moonbeams made him pause and remove his hand from the teleportation device. The Man in the Moon told them to wait a moment, and quietly said that Sandy could not travel to the other world.

"But..." Tooth began, but trailed off as she looked at the Guardian of Dreams.

Sandy's frustration was visible on his face as he nodded in agreement with Manny's decision. Symbols appeared above his head, showing a rabbit, a man, a fairy, and himself. He sent the images through a wall of sand, and showed a sun and moon rising and falling repeatedly, signifying passing days.

On the unreachable side of the wall, evil faces began to appear, hovering over sad-looking children. When the Guardian's figures tried to go back to the other side, the wall stopped them, and eventually the evil faces overcame the kids, devouring them completely. Sandy let the images vanish, studying each of his companions with solemn eyes.

Protests died in Bunny's throat as he realized that the Guardian of Dreams was right. Sandman was required to ferry dreams every night, and unlike Toothiana, he worked alone. Many of those dreams also involved the other Guardians, which helped reinforce the children's belief in them. If Sandy left, it could cause children to stop believing in the Guardians again, which would not help anyone when they had to face Pitch.

From his place next to the Pooka, North focused on a different element of Sandy's charade show.

"The barrier that will keep us from returning will be a problem, but we cannot wait here any longer." The Guardian of Wonder declared. "Despite Bunny's insistence, we have a couple months until Easter and nearly a year until Christmas. We'll have time to figure things out if we get stuck. Jack needs us now."

The colder part of Bunny wanted to protest that Easter was closer than North thought, but luckily the rest of him was kinder than that and knew stopping Pitch and helping Jack was more important than worrying about his holiday right now.

The Moon interrupted, talking once more in halting beams of moonlight, almost as if he were hesitant to speak. The Guardians looked up at the serene orb in the sky in surprise, uncertain that they had properly heard what Manny said.

"You know how we can get back?" Toothiana asked, shock clearly visible on her fair features. "I thought the world was completely blocked off."

The Moon gave an affirmative that he did indeed know how the Guardians could return, and gently asked them to listen to him just a little longer. Because it turned out he did know how they could travel back to Earth. It turned out he did know which world Jack had ended up on.

It had taken longer than it should have, but the Man in the Moon had realized exactly where Jack was, and was ashamed to admit he should have figured it out sooner. He had lived for so long, that the short time he had spent on that world had faded into the recesses of his memory, along with his fleeting interactions with some of its inhabitants not so long ago…

And so, with the attention of all four of his Guardians riveted on him, the Man in the Moon told them the truth.

ROTGOPROTGOP

The Summer Spirit was shivering so badly he looked like he was convulsing. Pitch stood in the shadows and watched as the fire-user trembled and shook, limbs jerking and body taut with pain and stress.

It would not be much longer now. The boy had lasted almost a month, but soon the sand would reach his heart, and his mind would snap. After that, Mother Nature's little kill-switch would activate, and her new Summer Spirit would die in an instant.

Looking upon the slowly fading Spirit, Pitch felt nothing but… loss.

A week ago he would have felt triumphant and gleeful as the Summer Spirit— Ace— died in agony, but now all he felt was that the boy's passing would be a waste. It was a shame. His strength was impressive, as was his will. Even as his flames were smothered, there was still a spark in his eyes. The Nightmare King found himself wishing that he had tried to convert the fire-user to his side, but the past was the past.

That did not stop him from feeling slight regret, however. All because of one stupid, ignorant comment made by the foolish boy.

"I think she still loves you, deep down. You can't just erase the love you feel for your most precious people. Especially the love for your father."

Pitch knew he longed for companionship. He knew it, and he despised himself for it. Jack's rejection of his offer more than twenty years ago had broken that desire for a time, but it had lingered in the back of his thoughts, the last traces of his humanity yearning for someone to care for his well-being, to acknowledge and be happy he existed.

More specifically, he wanted his daughter to love him again.

The side of him that was unrelentingly the Nightmare King scoffed at such sentimentality, but the other part of him, the one that was still capable of complex emotions like longing and love, wanted desperately to accept and see that dream come to fruition.

It did not help that the one who had reopened those ludicrous gates had so many of the same fears as Pitch.

They both feared being alone. They both feared being forgotten. They both feared their loved ones seeing them as monsters.

They both feared those same people leaving them.

Ace gave a sharp, pained gasp, curling into a fetal position as tears trickled down his cheeks. Pitch's hand jerked, reaching to comfort the boy, but he quickly pulled back before he could touch Ace, baring his teeth.

He had to remember why he was killing this Spirit of Summer, why he had targeted and slain the last one. The Spirit represented everything he hated. Fire, warmth, light, freedom. All those years ago, Ace's predecessor had been a toe-in for becoming a Guardian, news of meetings between Mother Nature and the Man in the Moon being reported to Pitch through his minions.

The Nightmare King had hunted down and killed the Summer Spirit immediately, testing out his recently-created black sand on the young immortal, and had thought the Spirit's death had been enough to warn his two greatest enemies not to try to make a Seasonal Spirit a Guardian again.

Two hundred years later, the Winter Spirit Jack Frost was born. Pitch had assumed he was merely a Seasonal Spirit, because how could someone representing cold, death, and ice be a candidate to become a Guardian? He had left Frost alone until it was too late, but even then he had tried to get the Winter Spirit on his side before attempting to kill him as well. Just like the Man in the Moon and Mother Nature had planned, he supposed.

If Jack Frost were at his mercy right now, being ravaged and ripped apart by his nightmare sand, he would be the happiest Spirit in the cosmos. As it was, he was in an odd state of… not remorse, but awareness of what he had potentially lost.

Pitch could not help but wonder, what would have happened if he and the fire-user had met under different circumstances, just as Ace and Pitch. No outside influences saying they were enemies, no people to attack or defend in turn on opposing sides, no vengeance getting in the way.

They were both told that they were monsters for existing. They had both been willing to sacrifice everything for those they loved. They had both died for others.

Pitch never thought he would have more in common with a Summer Spirit than a Winter one. Yes, he and Jack had similarities, of course, but that potential bond had long ago been severed when the soon-to-be Guardian had refused to come to his side. The Nightmare King knew that encounter had been the closest he'd ever gotten to gaining a true ally, but in the end Jack's morality won out.

Between choosing the world as a whole and choosing a friend, what would Ace have done?

Pitch supposed it did not matter. It was too late for what-ifs.

The Summer Spirit let loose a strangled, gurgling scream that was cut off by a sob. Pitch casually scanned his nightmare and winced. This time Ace was still a Spirit, and everyone he loved was walking through him. No one was able to see him. No one believed in him.

That hit close to home for Pitch, but he still did not approach the fire-user. He could not comfort him. The Nightmare King part of him was too strong, too gleeful, and too evil for that. Instead, the Nightmare King taunted Ace, tore open his fears, and mocked him, leaving Pitch as a silent observer.

The Boogieman began to wonder when a distinction had formed between Pitch and the Nightmare King.

Ace stopped shaking, falling limp on the ground, and Pitch dashed forward before he realized what he was doing. He checked the boy's pulse, and was relieved to feel a steady beat beneath his fingertips. Ace's skin was icy cold to the touch, startling even the Boogieman, and again he felt dissatisfaction.

Such a waste of a potential ally, the Nightmare King mused irritably.

I'm sorry, the other thought apologetically.

To his surprise the boy stirred, waking once more against all odds. Pitch bade a hasty retreat before he opened his eyes.

The further he got from his prisoner, the more his flickers of guilt and regret were forgotten. With the Summer Spirit out of sight and soon out of mind, the Nightmare King's thoughts turned away from what-ifs and could-have-beens, towards his future plans for the world. He had the Marines chasing down the Guardian of Fun, pinning the attacks and disappearances orchestrated by his Nightmares and Fearlings on the Winter Spirit.

Unlike with his old corruption techniques, which required careful manipulation for the more strong-willed souls, his black sand could infect and turn anyone with fear in their heart into Fearlings. As a result, his army of Nightmares and Fearlings were growing by the hundreds each day. Soon enough, he would be able to come into the open and bring this world into a Dark Age.

But first Frost needed to be found and disposed of. He had learned from his past mistakes, and knew a single Guardian could be enough to rally the humans and stop his plans in their tracks. The Nightmare King would not let that happen. Not this time.

Once this world fell, he would return to Earth with his legions at his back. Then the Man in the Moon would see how well his few protectors fared against hundreds of thousands of foes. Pitch could potentially see his armies even becoming believed in by the adults on Earth because of the undeniable amount of destruction they would cause, and wouldn't that be a sight to behold?

A Nightmare appeared out of the shadows, informing him that a ship was approaching the island. Pitch raised an eyebrow at the news.

The island his lair was hidden on was completely deserted. At least, if it had not been before his Nightmares and Fearlings had found it, it was now. Pitch did not want anyone— Marine, Revolutionary, or Pirate— to stumble upon his growing army. People who did that had the pesky habit of having one of their number escape somehow.

"Kill everyone on board." Pitch ordered dismissively. "Marine or Pirate, it doesn't matter. I will not let word of this place get out."

A horde of Nightmares and Fearlings eagerly rushed to obey, heading towards the blissfully ignorant vessel.

Blood would be spilled tonight.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Ace hummed vaguely, staring at his hands and the crimson that covered them. Luffy was dead again, for the… sixth hundredth time, maybe? The fire-user had lost count long ago.

Luffy's blood was splattered over the walls and Ace himself, and the monster that was his older brother was proud— disgusted— to say he felt nothing. The fire-user let out a strange giggle, before his breath hitched.

Ace childishly clapped his hands over his mouth and jerked them away just as quickly, barely holding back sobs. He knew it wasn't real, but his growing apathy to seeing Luffy die was only giving birth to another fear. Or, at least, it was heightening another insecurity that lurked in his mind.

"You bastard."

Ace recognized the voice that had spoken but did not look away from his bloodstained hands. They were shaking now. He could feel the cold, accusing eyes boring holes into his head but refused to meet them, flexing his fingers and curling them.

"You won't even look at me?" Sabo hissed. "You broke your promise, you monster. Luffy just died and you felt nothing!"

The fire-user stayed silent. There was no point in communicating with the Not-Sabo. No matter what he said, the illusion would hate him, yelling threats and screaming at him. It was best to let the dream run its course.

"Do you even care?" the blonde-haired boy asked shakily. "Luffy's g-gone."

His voice wavered, as if he were trying not to cry. His older brother remained detached.

Not real. Not real. Not real. Ace chanted silently.

Sabo gave a frustrated, anguished shout, voice taut with grief and rage. "Say something, damn you!"

The metal pipe that his brother always carried connected with Ace's ribs and he flinched slightly, but gave no other reaction. This only angered Sabo— Not-Sabo— further, and his brother began to yell incoherently, striking every part of Ace he could.

The fire-user barely felt any of the blows, more than used to this type of nightmare by now. He did not know if Pitch's plan was backfiring and he was becoming immune to his own fears, or if something more sinister was wrong with him.

…Who was he kidding? Of course it was something sinister.

"How could I ever expect you to care for Luffy?" Sabo spat bitterly. "Demons don't care about anyone but themselves."

Ace practically mouthed the words with his brother, having heard them many times before from different people he thought might have loved him. He did not think that Sabo had ever said such things in reality, but was not entirely sure anymore.

No. Sabo would never say that. That's the nightmares talking. I have to remember. My brothers don't hate me. Oyaji and the others tolerate me. People care about me?

Then why haven't they come for you yet? The voice whispered.

It took Ace far too long to remember the reason. What seemed like years of constant negative interactions and hateful comments from his loved ones were slowly getting to the fire-user, confusing and warping his thoughts and memories. He vaguely recalled Pitch mentioning something about losing memories, but prayed that was not the reason for his slow recollection.

I'm a Spirit. My family doesn't know I'm alive. But Jack is coming for me. I know he'll come. I have to keep hoping.

Not-Sabo finally ran out of energy, breaking down crying in front of his dispassionate brother.

"How could you?" Sabo whispered, disappointment and disgust in his tone. "How could you fail so badly? I told you to protect him!"

I'm sorry. Ace thought hollowly, more out of habit than anything.

As if the nightmare realized it had no hold on him, it faded out, letting him regain consciousness in his cell. Pitch was there to greet him, his usual smirk on his face. Ace let his hand drift towards his remaining boot, but left it where it was. He did not have the energy or desire to throw his other shoe at the Nightmare King.

"Hello, Ace." Pitch greeted him calmly. "I thought I'd inform you of my progress."

Ace just stared dully at him, uninterested. He was so tired…

His eyes slid closed as Pitch continued to speak.

"My army is over three hundred thousand strong. I wiped out more than a few islands, including ones that had a flag similar to the skull tattoo on your back." The Nightmare King leaned forward, yellow eyes glinting. "Do you understand? I believe I may have killed a few of your comrades. How does that make you feel?"

The fire-user felt something hot flicker in his chest and he forced his eyes open, meeting Pitch's gaze.

The Nightmare King chuckled. "I see that got your attention. I don't have confirmation of course, but apparently there were a few— what are they called?— 'Whitebeard Pirates' present when my Fearlings attacked."

Ace tried to be angry, or upset, or worried, but all he felt was a void-like emptiness. He had seen his companions die so many times. Only hearing about their potential deaths was not enough to get a reaction out of him anymore.

Monster. Monster. Monster. The voice taunted.

Pitch sighed, shaking his head slowly. "A broken soul is no fun to play with. I guess I'll have to seek out someone new then. Starting now."

The fire-user did not reply, blinking lethargically. For a second, Ace thought he saw Luffy standing in the corner of the cell. He focused on the spot and his brother wavered before vanishing.

Pitch followed his gaze and chuckled, low and menacing. "I do believe you're cracking. That's what happens when you've been a prisoner for three years."

Ace stilled, staring at the Spirit with wide eyes before his gaze hardened. "Liar... 'asn't… been tha' long." The words hurt badly as they slowly ripped their way out of his aching throat, coming out distorted, raspy, and barely audible.

The Spirit of Fear gave him an amused smile, as if he knew something that the other did not. "How do you know? Between the nightmares and lack of way to tell time, how can you be sure?"

"Jack… would've foun' me… by now." Ace claimed hoarsely but with conviction.

Pitch's head tipped curiously. "Not your little brother? Surely he'd rush to rescue you. Then again, he thinks you're dead."

There was something odd about the Nightmare King's tone, an extra layer of malice and dramatization in his voice. It was almost like he was trying to exaggerate his evil, like he was trying to put on a show…

A splotch of red caught Ace's gaze and he met fearful dark eyes. Luffy was there. But he could not be there. Or maybe he could? Was this a dream or not? Was Ace awake or asleep?

The fire-user did not know. He tried to think of a time he could have fallen unconscious, tried to search for discrepancies in the world around him, but everything looked perfect, from the walls to Luffy's horrified expression.

"'re you real?" Ace found himself asking in a slurred voice, and immediately cursed himself for his stupidity.

His mind clicked and he identified the moment he must have fallen asleep. It had to have happened when he had closed his eyes for too long.

"Of course I'm real. Why do you always ask that, Ace?" Not-Luffy demanded, eying Pitch warily. "Who is this guy? Did he do this to you?"

Yeah… Ace thought, but the fake could not hear him.

"What are you doing, Luffy?"

Pitch spoke, but the voice that came out of his mouth was not his. Instead, it was the high tones of Luffy's navigator, Nami. Both brothers looked at the Nightmare King, and for a moment it was like the fiery orange-haired thief's image was covering the Spirit's. Pitch put his hand on his hip, an odd position for him but a natural one for the thief.

"What did we tell you? You're stronger than these nightmares."

"Right. I'm dreaming. Okay then. What am I supposed to do?" Luffy asked casually, while Ace watched in silent confusion.

'Nami' gave her Captain a stern look. "Make Ace go away. You don't need him anymore. He's not real."

Luffy brightened instantly. "Yeah! That's right." He turned to his brother. "You're not real." He informed Ace. "You're dead."

Ace slowly began to realize what type of nightmare this must be. It was one where Luffy did not believe in him. Of course. The fire-user was about to relax when Pitch vanished, appearing directly behind his little brother. Ace jolted upright, trying to stand but failing.

"Lu, behind you!" he cried out in warning.

Luffy turned and looked up at the Nightmare King calmly. "It's fine, Dream-Ace. None of this is real. Ace is dead."

"Oh really?" Pitch said silkily, face half-hidden by shadow. "If you say so. I'll admit I am highly disappointed. Your brother has been calling for help all this time, and you've done absolutely nothing."

"Ace is dead." Luffy repeated flatly. "This is a dream."

The Nightmare King chuckled. "Is it? Then why don't I—" He blinked, yellow eyes going distant, before a cruel smirk crossed his face. "Oh dear. So you're the ones who found my island. How about I give you some information so you believe this is very real, then?"

"In twenty minutes, your ship is going to be attacked by my Fearlings and Nightmares." Pitch revealed. "They're the 'mystery monsters' or whatever you call them. I planned on keeping you here a little longer so we could have a friendly chat about your brother and I could give a… demonstration, but I don't want you sleeping through the attack. A pity. I just started to work with you and you're already going to be corrupted or killed. Oh well. Have fun."

Luffy vanished, leaving behind a smirking Pitch and a bewildered Ace.

The Nightmare King turned to the fire-user. "As for you, I guess I'll have to find another nightmare to entertain you for now. Don't worry. If my minions do kill your brother, I'll make sure they bring the body. Maybe then you'll actually feel something."

The world shook.

Ace snapped awake in his empty cell, just in time for the ground to shake once more. Dust fell from the ceiling and the fire-user looked up warily. He hoped it was not an earthquake. The memories of his nightmares of being buried alive were still fresh in his mind, and he would rather not repeat the experience. Another tremor rocked the earth, accompanied by a loud boom.

"Ace! Ace, where are you?"

The Summer Spirit's breath hitched as he recognized the voice. "Jack…" he croaked, barely able to hear his own words.

There was a crash and another boom, and with a blast of icy air the Winter Spirit dashed into view. He scanned the area and looked through the cell bars, blue eyes widening with shock, before a happy grin crossed his face.

"I found you." Jack said, voice shaking with emotion. His joy vanished and was replaced by a serious look. "Let's get you out of here. This place is crawling with Nightmares."

Ace nodded mutely, tears of relief stinging at his eyes. Jack was finally here. He was going to be set free. The Guardian touched his staff to the metal bars and froze them before striking them hard. The weakened metal shattered on impact, and Jack stepped into the cell. He gave a small gasp as he saw Ace's condition.

"Ace… Those markings…"

"I know." The Summer Spirit whispered.

Jack struggled to keep his dismay and fear off his face. He stepped forward and gently froze the manacles around the fire-user's ankles. Even with the Winter Spirit's caution, the ice still stung Ace's skin and he held back a wince.

"Sorry." Jack apologized and quickly broke the chains.

Ace looked at his freed feet in shock, wiggling his toes, before returning his gaze to the Guardian.

The Winter Spirit shifted uncomfortably under his scrutiny, even as he carefully grabbed his arm. "Come on. Let's ditch this place."

The fire-user resisted his pull for a moment, instead wrapping his arms around Jack and hugging him as tightly as he could. "You came." Ace whispered, smile almost too wide for his face. "You really came."

Jack returned his embrace readily, arms cold against Ace's skin. But it was a nice cold. A comforting cold. Not like the black sand.

"Of course I came." The Guardian murmured. "I won't leave you." He pulled back, expression soft. "Come on. I'll help you walk."

Ace sniffled— He was not crying, dammit!— and nodded. He accepting Jack's offered arm, leaning wearily on the Winter Spirit as they slowly made their way out of the dungeon. The Guardian kept his staff held aloft in his other hand, the tip glowing slightly with frost to hold back some of the darkness.

The fire-user's legs hurt and burned with every step but he did not care. He paid little attention to his surroundings, instead taking in Jack's calm, pale face. He was just so glad that the Guardian had finally found him. Ace also felt slightly ashamed that he had begun to doubt that his brother was going to rescue him.

Jack noticed his inspection. "Do I have something on my face?"

"I'm so happy you came." Ace mumbled. "I thought I was going to die here."

As he spoke the words aloud, a chill went through his frame. He gritted his teeth and focused on the warm-alive iciness of Jack's grip instead of the empty-dead iciness ripping through his body. The Guardian saw him shudder and frowned, brow furrowing in concern.

He turned, grasping both of Ace's upper arms. "You're not going to die here. Not now, not ever. That sand won't beat you. I won't allow it."

The Summer Spirit gave a hollow laugh as he stepped out of the Guardian's grasp, gesturing at his body. "I'm not sure you'll have a choice. This isn't going to go away."

"You're right about that." A new voice agreed.

Ace and Jack looked up, spotting a figure in the shadows. He was too bulky to be Pitch, yet no matter how hard the fire-user tried, he could not discern any of the man's features as he stayed out of the light, face hidden by darkness.

"North?" Jack gasped, an elated grin appearing on his face. "How did you get here? When?"

"That doesn't matter." The Guardian of Wonder said. "Step away from the Fearling, Jack."

Ace tensed, and Jack pushed the Summer Spirit behind him, staff held in both hands. "Ace isn't a Fearling. He's a Seasonal Spirit. He can't be turned."

"That doesn't mean he's not a threat, Frostbite." Another accented voice claimed.

The Seasonal Spirits' heads turned left to see another figure in the shadows, long ears barely visible among the darkness and one hand casually playing with a boomerang. The odd-shaped head turned, and Ace felt himself being pinned down by cold eyes. Jack turned on the newcomer next, frost crawling over his hoodie and staff.

"How can you say that, Bunny? He sacrificed himself for his family. He was chosen by Manny. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

"Not when he's been corrupted by Pitch." A soft female voice spoke.

A third vague figure joined the other two, and Ace was able to spot the outline of wings as she hovered above the ground.

"You have to understand, Jack. He's never going to recover." North continued.

"Look at him. He'll never be able to do his job. He can't use his powers, and Spirits will hate and mistrust him just because he looks like a half-baked Fearling." Bunny snarled abrasively.

"It's best to put him down now and end his suffering," Toothiana said gently, as if Ace were a sickly animal. "He's going to die soon anyway."

"Never!" Jack spat, staff held threateningly as frost permeated the air around the tip. "I won't let you touch him."

Ace could only watch the exchange in mute confusion, hurt and fear warring for dominance in his chest. He was finally meeting the Guardians, but they wanted him dead. They did not trust him. All because he had allowed Pitch's sand to bleed through his skin, turning him into a fading soul with a death sentence that would never be accepted by anyone ever again.

It was then that the fire-user realized the truth.

He stumbled away from Jack, shaking violently as he met the Guardian's confused blue eyes. The Winter Spirit stepped towards him, keeping an eye on his fellow Guardians even as he raised his free hand consolingly.

"Ace, it's okay. Don't worry. I won't let them hurt—"

"Y-You're not real." The fire-user interrupted Jack. "Y-You're not—"

The world faded away, and Ace woke in his cell.

Ace looked around at the familiar dungeon before his gaze dropped to his bound feet. And just like that, his hopes shattered. It felt like something tore in his chest, ripping through his heart and making him curl up in physical pain. A sound burst from his lips, low and melancholic, and he slowly recognized it as a sob.

Like a dam being broken, the fire-user began to cry, gasping hysterically and unable to take in enough air. He felt like he was choking, being strangled, and getting punched repeatedly in the stomach all at once, his entire body trembling like a leaf in a gale. Ace's vision blurred, his heart pounded painfully, and he breathed too quickly, hyperventilating.

I'm never getting out of here. I'm going to die in this place. I'm never going to see Luffy or Jack again.

It was like a knife to his heart. The thought of death itself did not scare Ace, even now, but the fire-user found himself drowning in an overwhelming feeling of anguished regret.

He was not going to be able to even attempt to reveal himself to Luffy. He was not going to stay with Jack and ensure he would never be alone again. He was not going to be remembered for anything other than being Gol D. Roger's son. He was going to break every single promise he had ever made, dying alone with a whimper where no one would know or care.

Pathetic, the voice whispered.

Ace curled up, covering his mouth, even as he screamed aloud in despair. Because he was still imprisoned. He was still infected. He was still dying. Even if Jack did somehow find him, the black sand was not going to leave. He was terminally ill, and it would only be a matter of time before death or madness claimed him, depriving him of an end without regrets. His new chance at life would be a waste, just like his first, and for the first time since Marineford the fire-user wondered why he continued bothering to breathe.

Ace let loose another, wailing sob, his anguish culminating into a single thought.

I wish I'd never been reborn!

ROTGOPROTGOP

Law was not a happy man.

Well, he was rarely happy, but at the current moment he was grumpier than usual. The source of his ire was a certain hyperactive Straw Hat Pirate, who had come barging into his room in the middle of the night claiming that they all were about to be attacked and that he needed to be ready to fight before dragging the irritated surgeon to the deck.

Why did the idiot think such a thing? Because a guy in his dreams said it was going to happen.

"It was a nightmare, Luffy." Nami said tiredly for the twelfth time, rubbing at her eyes. "There is no 'Shadow Man', or 'Nightmares' coming to ambush us."

"But he let me go because he wanted me to be awake when they attacked." Luffy protested. "He was going to do something to Ace but he stopped when he noticed his mystery creatures were coming for us. He said we were too close to his island."

Zoro gave a low sigh, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Think about what you're saying. You believe the 'Shadow Man' was real, but Ace was also in your dream. Because your dream was just that: a dream."

"It wasn't a dream." the straw hat-wearing pirate stated, not doubting himself even for an instant.

Luffy stayed stubborn, his jaw set and his eyes unnervingly alert despite the shadows underneath them. Law had only seen that expression on Straw Hat's face when one of his nakama was in danger, and could not help but take the pirate a little more seriously because of it.

Sanji took note of his Captain's expression as well. "I do not see any harm in staying up a few hours to keep watch together." He mentioned.

"Watch what?" Nami demanded. "I can't see a thing through this fog."

Indeed, the sea was covered by a thick, white fog that wrapped around the ship like ghostly smoke. Law could barely see the people standing on the deck with him, let alone anything around the ship. A ship the size of a mountain could be bearing down on them and they would not be able to see it until it was on top of them.

"You know what? Maybe we should stay up." The navigator of the crew quickly changed her tune as she too realized how dense the fog was. "The last thing we need is to hit something or run aground because we can't see where we're going."

Chopper shivered slightly, looking around them with wary eyes. "Does anyone else feel like we're being watched?"

The doctor looked spooked, and had obviously taken Luffy's warning seriously.

Law sighed in exasperation. "Oh yes." He said sarcastically. "I'm sure we're about to be attacked right n—"

Zoro lunged for the Heart Pirate, tackling him to the ground as something slammed into the deck where he had been standing. The Straw Hat Pirates and their ally all stared in shock at the familiar horse-like creature as it stood upright, hissing angrily because it had missed its target. It was Usopp who broke the stunned silence.

"Oh shi—"

Sanji twisted, fire racing along his leg as he kicked another horse-like creature in midair, causing it to veer off course and strike the ship instead of the sniper. It screeched in displeasure and what seemed like hundreds of glowing yellow eyes appeared in the fog around the ship.

"Oh my." Brook said, surprisingly not making a skull joke for once.

Law did not resist as he was pulled by Zoro to the rest of the Straw Hats, the pirates going back-to-back in the center of the deck. Each one drew their weapons, some more reluctantly than most. The reason for their hesitance was voiced by Usopp.

"I don't think we're going to be much help. If it's true that these things are immune to anything except Haki and Devil Fruit powers, Nami, Franky, and I are… useless." Helpless, the sniper did not say aloud.

The cyborg looked offended by Usopp's statement. "Nonsense. We can beat any foe we come across. I don't think they're so tough. These creatures don't intimidate me!"

With those bold words he swung at one of the monsters with a large fist. To their shock, it crumbled on impact, the punch strong enough to demolish its head. Even the creatures seemed stunned by the shipwright's successful attack, lingering in the air around the ship. Only Luffy was unsurprised by the events unfolding around him.

"I told you so. It's the Nightmares and Fearlings." Luffy said simply, calmer now that the threat was in front of him where he could fight it head on. "Shadow Man was right."

"Hold on… I'm guessing the 'Nightmares' are these horse-things. But… 'Fearlings'?" Zoro asked. "What are Fearlings?"

Chopper looked up, eyes going round. "I th-think I know."

The rest of the pirates followed his gaze. Different creatures floated eerily above them, human-like in shape but with what appeared to be tattered shadows instead of feet. They looked like demons straight out of hell, the very human-sounding screaming noise they made as a few of them dove at the Straw Hats only adding to that sentiment.

Zoro cut two in half with Wado Ichimonji and the Fearlings faded into black smoke before vanishing. Sanji took down another with Diable Jambe, while Luffy's Haki-infused fists quickly killed the rest of the divers. Like their actions were a signal, more of the creatures attacked, pouring down on the ship like sentient meteors.

"Oh no!" Usopp squeaked, but the crew ignored him.

"Room." Law said quietly, letting the blue sphere expand around the ship.

To his relief, the 'Fearlings' floating far above them were inside his range as well, though he was uncertain what his usual techniques would do to the creatures. Call it a hunch, but the surgeon doubted the Nightmares and Fearlings had hearts or organs.

The two sides clashed, ten pirates against a horde of demonic creatures.

Law slashed through ten Nightmares at once, using Shambles to swap randomly with different enemies in order to attack the monsters from within their ranks before swiftly teleporting back out of their midst. His Amputate technique also killed the creatures outright instead of allowing him to manipulate their parts, the Nightmares falling into piles of sand when cut.

Luffy did what he did best, punching every enemy that came within his long reach and knocking them out of the air with huge sweeps of his arms, expression hard and eyes shadowed as he defended his home. Most of his blows went through dozens of foes at once, with only the occasional Fearling able to evade his strikes.

Robin's arms appeared on multiple enemies, and with practiced ease she broke their necks and spines, the kills as effective as they were on humans. Zoro was a blur of metal and swords, slashing through the sea of foes with an excited light in his eyes as he took down dozens with every swing of his blades.

Franky was just as effective as his Captain with his fists, but also chose to unleash a variety of explosions and long range attacks when it was necessary. Usopp and Chopper stayed close to the shipwright, the sniper having already accepted that he was useless in this fight and the doctor still frozen by the sight of the Fearlings, eyes dilated with terror.

Law switched with another foe, stabbing a Nightmare in the side and slicing three more with his next blow. The surgeon could feel the steady drain on his energy, and realized he could not keep using his powers much longer. Law teleported back next to Luffy and grimaced. He reluctantly deactivated his Room, instead attacking normally with his sword. To his pleasure the weapon was just as effective out of the Room as in it, slicing the creatures to pieces with ease.

"It's going to be all right, Nami-swan." He heard Sanji saying. "I'll protect you!"

Law turned to see the chef fighting at the orange-haired thief's side, kicking any Nightmare or Fearling that came close and burning them into glass or nothingness. The navigator was frozen, fear in her eyes and Clima-Tact gripped uselessly in her hands as she watched the battle.

Sanji struck another Nightmare, kicking the horse directly in the nose, when dark arms wrapped around his torso from behind. The cook broke out of the Fearling's grip before it could lift him into the air, only for it to strike him in the face, sending him sprawling onto the deck. Law tensed, prepared to intervene, when something in Nami's terrified orbs changed, her gaze growing hard.

"No!" she shouted, and clouds formed around her weapon.

Electricity sparked between the clouds, striking the Fearling with gusto. It gave a harsh, high-pitched shriek that made more than one Straw Hat clap their hands over their ears. When the lightshow faded the Fearling was gone. Sanji smiled happily, hearts in his eyes as he swooned before Nami.

"My Nami-swan is so strong and beautiful! She saved my life, that means she must—"

"Duck, idiot!" the navigator shouted, swinging her staff.

Sanji did as she commanded, and Nami's weapon slammed into the stalking Nightmare, slicing through it like a knife in soft butter. It scattered into sand. Seeing the two could take care of themselves, Law casually dodged and struck down another Nightmare, scanning the sky once more as he watched the lingering Fearlings above.

Most of the Fearlings were continuing to ignore the humans below them, circling around the front sail and crow's nest. Occasionally one would swoop at the mast, slashing at it with their claws in a way that was almost like they were curious children. The surgeon watched them prod the ship in confusion. Why would they focus on the wood, instead of the pirates?

The answer dawned on Law and he gave a shout. "Straw Hat-ya! They're trying to destroy the mast!"

As the words left his mouth, a large group of Fearlings all lunged for the tall wooden post, tearing at it and slamming into the wood with no regard for their own well-being. Some Nightmares joined their kin in the attack, and an ominous cracking sound echoed through the foggy air.

A blast of wind from Nami sent a few of the creatures hurtling away from their target. The pressurized air tore a brief hole through the fog around them, and Law spotted a dark, rocky shape in the distance. An island. The surgeon pushed the thought away and refocused on the fight, gritting his teeth as their enemies dove for the mast again. His mind ran at a hundred miles a minute, and an idea slowly formed. He gripped his sword in one hand.

This will tire me out, but I don't have a choice. "Room."

The blue sphere expanded once more, covering the attacking monsters and the sea around the ship. Without hesitation, Law swapped the Nightmares and Fearlings for sea water, causing a few of his allies to shout in protest as the liquid rained down on them from above.

Behind the surgeon, a Nightmare pounced, only to be smacked away by an invisible force. It chased after its elusive, invisible enemy, before dismissing the annoyance and focusing on the larger threat. Franky intercepted the creature before it could try to ambush Law again, punching it into nothingness.

"Keep swapping them, bro! They're sand so they won't like the water."

Law did not bring up the fact that only the Nightmares were made of the black sand, while the Fearlings appeared to be shadows or physical darkness. Instead he continued to exchange all of the creatures for saltwater, using Shambles on ten to twenty at a time. He could feel his stamina steadily decreasing, but kept going, unwilling to stop until all of their enemies were gone.

The Straw Hat Pirates surrounded him like an honorary guard, keeping the Fearlings and Nightmares away from the surgeon that kept teleporting them, and destroyed more than a few themselves in the process. A large bucketful of water descended on Law's head as he switched it for a Fearling that had been diving at him from above, and his already tired body grew weaker.

He pushed on, and soon enough, silence fell over the Thousand Sunny, the sounds of battle fading. Law scanned the deck and air once more for any signs of more Nightmares or Fearlings, and, seeing none, promptly fell to his knees, breathing laboriously. Rubbery arms wrapped around him and prevented him from collapsing completely, and Luffy's annoyingly cheerful face entered his vision.

"Wow, Traffy! You teleported over a hundred of those mystery creatures."

Nami made an odd screeching sound. "Why are they a 'mystery'? You're the one whose been calling them Nightmares and Fearlings!"

"Oh. Right." Luffy said dismissively with a goofy smile.

The navigator looked like she was going to burst a vessel.

Chopper rushed to Law's side, fur still on end and antlers quivering slightly. The surgeon noticed his eyes were still dilated with fear, though his expression also held some guilt. The Heart Pirate had a feeling he knew the source of the reindeer's dismay.

He froze. He didn't fight at all. I wonder if he has some deep-rooted instinct that keeps him from fighting those creatures…

"Are you injured?" the doctor asked, voice tinged with worry.

"No. Just tired." Law said shortly. "Thank you for your concern." He added as an afterthought.

Franky was busy inspecting the damaged mast, visage growing grimmer by the second. Even with Nami and Law's quick intervention, the surgeon could see obvious cracks and missing chunks of wood in the post. As if to emphasize how damaged it was, the mast gave another ominous creak. Franky patted it gently, as if to comfort it.

"This is bad." The shipwright said grimly. "We need to dock somewhere so I can make repairs." He gave a sigh. "At least they didn't go after the rudder. Then we'd really be stuck."

Usopp swallowed hard. "But the only land nearby is…"

Everyone turned to look at the shadowy island that was barely visible through the fog.

"I hope the Shadow Man doesn't kill us all when we land on his island." Robin commented. "That's his territory, and most likely his base of operations. He'll have all of his minions and hold the advantage there. And I doubt he'll be happy about trespassers."

Nami began to tremble. "Thanks, Robin. I really needed to hear that."

"We don't have a choice." Franky broke in, grimacing as he looked at the cracked mast. "It's not safe to travel with the mast in this condition. One strong gust of wind and it could break and fall, causing more damage."

More than one pirate grimaced. They knew having the mast snap while they were out at sea could be a death sentence for them all. The Straw Hats and Law all looked to Luffy, who gazed back at them with an oddly serious expression.

The future Pirate King sighed. "Let's go to the mystery island. If we do run into the Shadow Man, we'll beat him!"

He sounded confident, but Law could not help but feel that Straw Hat-ya wasn't as undaunted by the prospect of meeting the 'Shadow Man' as he was pretending to be. Luffy's nightmare had been correct.

That meant either the idiot could predict the future, or the 'Shadow Man' really did exist. Could he truly be the source of the 'Nightmares', and be able to control and walk through dreams? Law could not help but wonder what else in Straw Hat-ya's 'dream' was actually authentic.

ROTGOPROTGOP

It could not be.

Red-Haired Shanks, one of the Four Yonko and Captain of the Red Force, stared silently at the report Rockstar had given him. Normally, Shanks was not one to sit and read paperwork, but he had taken the slip of paper from his first mate Benn on a whim— and maybe to annoy the man a little— and noticed something… disturbing.

Shanks had quickly retreated to his cabin alone— much to the worry of his crew— and read Rockstar's message over and over again, taking in each and every word. It could not be what he thought. It was impossible. But the facts lined up.

People going missing and being killed, with the found bodies sporting odd or sometimes no wounds.

Odd black creature being spotted around towns and cities.

Strange weather patterns and snow storms where there should be none, even in a place as unpredictable as the New World.

And rumors that the Marines were allied with a shadowy 'man'.

Shanks looked out his window, letting his gaze drift to the moon. He pressed his lips together and nearly crinkled the report in his hand as his fingers tightened around the paper. It was impossible, it could not be, but he should know better than anyone by now that anything was possible in the end.

The Yonko turned to his Den Den Mushi, dialing a number he thought he would not have to use for many years to come. The line rang for a few moments, before someone picked up on the other end.

"Hello? Who is this, yoi?"

Shanks did not smile as he recognized the voice. "Marco. This is Red-Haired Shanks. Tell your Oyaji that we need to meet. We have some important things to discuss."

Chapter Text

The island could only be described as 'dark'. It was impossible to tell whether it was day or night, with looming black clouds enveloping the sky and a permanent fog blanketing the rocks and ground. Luffy could just see the outlines of tree trunks a few paces from the water, the rocky cliffs that accompanied them making it seem like large monsters were hidden within the mist, waiting for the humans to come in range in order to snap them up in their jaws.

His sense of adventure begged him to walk into the unknown, but his rarely-utilized self-preservation instincts told him to stay with his crew. The entire place had a threatening presence, like something otherworldly and menacing was covering the island, and even the ever-oblivious Star Hat Captain felt the heaviness in the air that spoke of danger.

Luffy himself was not afraid of the island, but he could tell some of his nakama were. Chopper was visibly shaking, as were Usopp and Nami. Brook seemed more uncomfortable with the dense fog than the island itself, staying near the crew as they made their way onto the beach. The Thousand Sunny was anchored as close to the island as it could be without going aground, and Franky leapt to the shore last after giving the mast one more look over.

"As much as I hate to say it, we may have to make do with a patch job." Franky said with obvious disappointment and reluctance. He spoke the words lowly, as if the mere utterance of them pained him greatly. "Normally I'd never suggest such a thing, but I don't think that we should take down the mast completely and attempt to replace it here."

"If you think that's best." Luffy said, trusting the shipwright's judgement without question.

Nami's eyes flicked rapidly towards the dark, menacing forest and she stepped closer to Zoro. "How long do you think it's going to take?"

Franky thought about it. "A few hours, no more. If I were replacing the mast it would take a large part of a day, but I'm just stabilizing it for now."

"The sail is damaged as well." Law mentioned, pointing at the large tear in the raised cloth.

The cyborg looked unconcerned. "That's an easy fix. Nothing to worry about."

Luffy's eyes drifted back to the woods. He really wanted to explore and see what was hidden within the shadowy trees, but a tiny— very tiny— piece of the pirate tingled in warning, whispering that he should not enter the forest under any circumstances. Still, the Straw Hat Captain could not help but feel drawn to the dark trees.

"Luffy…" Someone murmured.

"What was that?" the rubber pirate asked, turning back to his crew.

They all looked at him with an ensemble of confused, neutral, or bored expressions.

"None of us said anything, Luffy." Usopp informed him.

"Oh. Okay." Luffy said with a shrug.

Without consciously controlling the movement, his gaze strayed back to the forest.

"So now what do we do?" Chopper asked, looking up at Franky. "Do you need help with the mast?"

"Usopp, Zoro, Sanji, and Robin can assist me." The cyborg said after a moment. "And maybe…"

He glanced at Luffy, who was now shifting impatiently from foot to foot while picking his ear, and shook his head without saying anything more. The Straw Hat Pirate did not notice Franky's scrutiny, eyes locked on the mystery forest.

"Luffy…"

Again he heard the whisper, but did not associate it with his crew this time. Yes, he knew it wasn't one of his crewmates. It did not sound like any of them. But it did seem familiar…

"I'm going to go explore." The straw hat-wearing pirate found himself saying.

"I don't think that's a good idea." Nami said immediately. "What about the 'Shadow Man'?"

Luffy gave her a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, Nami! Zoro and Sanji will be here. They'll protect you."

"That's not what I meant." The orange-haired navigator muttered.

"Luffy…"

The voice called again, and the Straw Hat Captain felt an odd pull in his heart. He knew it from somewhere. He needed to follow the voice. He needed to find it, to find out who was speaking.

"I'm going." Luffy said resolutely. "All of you need to stay with the Sunny in case the mystery creatures try to strand us here by targeting the ship again."

"I don't…" Sanji began, but paused. "That is actually a good point, but you shouldn't go alone."

"Luffy…!"

This time the voice sounded like a shout, and Luffy found himself trembling. He knew that voice. He recognized it. But who…?

And then the pirate realized who the voice belonged to.

The knowledge struck him like a physical blow, followed swiftly by unease and a tingling confusion. The Straw Hat Captain did not let himself hesitate any more than that, and Luffy burst into motion, running into the trees.

He might have heard his nakama calling his name behind him, but he ignored them, leaping over a tree root and darting into the thick fog. He almost tripped over another root, then a rock, followed by a fallen branch, but they did not slow him. Nothing could hinder him as he ran. Not this time.

"Luffy, help!"

He ran deeper into the mist, tree trunks jumping out of the fog like monsters, but he did not decrease his speed, even as his heart pounded too quickly and his breath came in labored gasps. He had to keep going. He had to reach the one who called his name.

Because he knew that voice. He should never have forgotten it.

"Luffy, help me!"

The voice cried out again, filled with desperation and pain, and a response built in Luffy's throat. The name ripped its way from his mouth in a shout, overflowing with all the joy, fear, sadness, and confusion that had been bottled up inside him for the past three years.

"ACE!"

ROTGOPROTGOP

Ace lay on his back in his cell, watching idly as water spilled through the cracks between the stones and filled the dungeon rapidly. He didn't bother sitting up as his prison was flooded, the liquid going over his head in a matter of seconds. The fire-user observed distantly as the water turned everything a murky black, allowing small bubbles to float from his lips. He breathed in painfully, letting the water fill his lungs, and was relieved when he drowned.

He woke in the middle of the Marineford battle.

Ace apathetically witnessed as Akainu evaded his protective leap and killed Luffy instead of him, burning the teenager from within. His little brother died in a burst of heat, blood, and fire, but Ace did not grieve, scream, or cry. He merely ran toward the magma-using Admiral in a suicidal charge, ignoring his crewmates' desperate shouts to stop. Akainu punched him through his already-dead heart and he woke in his cell.

The Admiral was still there when Ace opened his eyes.

The next few days-weeks-minutes-years-seconds-decades-Makeitend became a blur of pain and blood as he was tortured by Akainu-Teach-Smoker-Sengoku-Luffy-Marco-Garp-Oyaji-Thatch-Sabo-PleasestopI'msorryplease, friends and enemies alike whispering how worthless he was in his ears as they told him he deserved this, and that did not deserve to live, that he needed to be punished for daring to breathe. He wanted to tell them that he already knew that, that he understood, but he had lost his voice long ago, and so they continued to convince him. It ended when Izo shot Ace in the gut, and he bled out hours later.

Ace woke on the Moby Dick, with the Whitebeard Pirates walking around him.

Marco appeared in front of the fire-user, focused intently on a paper in his hands, and Ace tensed, prepared for a collision. The Phoenix walked through the Summer Spirit, causing an icy void to rip through his heart, and was instantly followed by Vista, then Haruta. Ace stumbled around, gasping and clutching at his chest, feeling as if he were being stabbed each time someone passed through him.

No matter how loudly Ace cried out in pain as ice shot through his heart, no matter how hoarsely he sobbed as his nakama unknowingly hurt him, he remained a Spirit, forever unseen by the ones he loved. Unable to be touched. Unable to be seen. Unable to be loved.

But the worst was yet to come. Years passed slowly, agonizingly, miserably, without companionship, and before Ace's eyes, the people around him aged. As he watched, they withered away, the fire-user remaining unchanged by time as his nakama faded into dust and left him alone.

The Summer Spirit dropped to his knees in grief, closing his eyes, and woke in his cell.

Marco, Oyaji, Izo, and Thatch stood in front of Ace, all staring at him with undisguised disgust. He stared up at them from his position on the floor, silently pleading for acceptance and support, but knowing he would receive none.

"Look who it is. The demon spawn!" Marco spat, hatred in his half-lidded gaze.

I'm sorry.

"Traitor! Monster! You have no right to take my mark and call yourself my family!" Whitebeard hissed.

Please don't hate me.

"You're Roger's son." Izo snarled. "How could I ever be brothers with a disgusting creature like you?"

You can't.

"At least you're showing your tainted blood now." Thatch said coldly, gesturing at the black marks that covered Ace's skin. "You need to pay for your father's sins. Blood for blood."

I know.

Whitebeard and Thatch stabbed. Marco slashed. Izo shot. Their blades, talons, and bullets dug into Ace's flesh, killing him in a spray of blood.

He woke strapped down to a table.

Two shadowy figures leaned over Ace, indiscernible from the darkness, but the fire-user could see the outline of that hated Marine hat on one of their heads. He tried to speak but found himself gagged, the cloth used to silence him coarse against his tongue. Ace breathed shallowly, pulling at his bonds, but they refused to give an inch.

"We found it on the beach near HQ." The Marine was saying. "Shot it a few times only for it to regenerate. The higher ups think it's somehow immortal and want you to find out how."

"Immortal, you say?" the faceless scientist asked. He smiled, showing eerie white teeth. "How interesting. Let's see how it ticks."

Again Ace's world blurred into indescribable pain as the man took him apart piece by piece, seeing just how far his 'immortality' could be pushed and abused. Skin was sliced— Let me die—organs were removed— Let me die— limbs were amputated— Pleasepleaseplease—, and the fire-user suffered for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually his dissector nicked the wrong vein and the Summer Spirit mercifully bled out after years of torment, his immortal body finally failing under the constant strain.

Ace woke chained down in the middle of a large room, five figures standing around him.

He could not see their faces, but knew they had to be the Guardians and who could only be Mother Nature. He spotted Bunnymund's long ears, North's large frame, Sandy's light glow, Toothiana's fluttering wings, and Emily Jane's shifting cloak even as the five circled around him, speaking as if he were not there.

"How could Manny ever think this wanker could be Guardian material? He must have been out of his bloody mind. The brat was a pirate, a criminal, the son of a demon. He tried to kill a child when he himself was a child. How could someone like that be anything more than a monster?"

I can't.

"He's too prideful, too selfish, too cruel to be anything more than a villain, just like they all say he is. He broke all his promises. His death was his own fault. The fool caused so much pain, so much destruction. He never deserved a second life. He never deserved a first life. All he did was bring misery to those around him."

I know. I'm sorry.

"He's probably a spy for Pitch. Look at him. He's practically a Fearling. He let Pitch corrupt him. He allowed this to happen. He has too much fear, anger, and hatred. What good person— what Guardian— has any of those emotions? He'll betray us at the first opportunity. How could we trust something like that?"

None. You can't. It's all my fault.

"He is not a Guardian. He is not a Nature Spirit. He is an abomination, and I refuse to let him command one of my Seasons. I made a mistake. I never should have chosen him. This needs to be rectified."

Please, don't…

Fearlings stepped out of the shadows, eyes wild and hungry as they looked upon the silent, unmoving fire-user. Ace could not shut his eyes as the monsters lunged, surrounding him, and devoured him like they had destroyed Kozmotis Pitchner. He could only scream as they tore at his body and soul, tearing him apart like tigers with meat, before reforming him into something awful and demonic. His entire self became fear and pain, and he joined the evil that he had been fated to become since the day he was born.

The son of a demon, infected by demons, doomed to become a demon.

Ace slowly came to consciousness, gripping his head with hands so tight he threatened to dig his nails into his skin. The fire-user took a moment to let his fingers slide down his face and explore his features, allowing himself to feel a semblance of relief as he realized he seemed to be still human. He was not a newly-formed wraith that had been born from the massacre of fear and shadows.

Who's to say that won't happen anyway? The voice crooned.

Ace did his best to ignore it. The fire-user curled up on the floor, pale and chilled, but too tired to even tremble anymore. Ace suspected that the nightmares had released him momentarily again, the last echoes of his will forcing him back to wakefulness. Yet even here, in supposed reality, unnatural shadows with sadistic grins lingered at the edge of his vision. He covered his eyes with his hands, refusing to look at them.

Go away. He mouthed. Just go away.

The hallucinations refused to leave him alone, laughing and sneering at him as they whispered in his ears, calling him a coward, telling him he was worthless, encouraging him to die. He tried to block out the noises by covering his ears and zoning out, but the sound of footsteps drew him back into his body and he looked up, expecting either Pitch or a new nightmare.

The sight that met his eyes filled him with a dull feeling of acceptance, and Ace felt something else in his already damaged psyche crack. Maybe repetition really could lead to insanity.

Here we go again… the voice sang.

For outside of Ace's cell stood Luffy.

ROTGOPROTGOP

The moment Luffy ran into the woods, Law went after him, expanding his Room in an attempt to stop the fleeing pirate. The Straw Hat Captain darted out of his blue sphere too quickly to be grabbed. With a curse, the surgeon went after him, switching once with a loose log within the woods before his tired body reminded him of his low stamina.

Letting loose a vehement oath, Law continued chasing Luffy on foot, leaping over tree roots and large rocks as he followed the younger pirate into the dark forest. The Straw Hat Captain appeared to have a destination in mind for the end of his frantic run through the woods, face pointed forward and no hesitation in his run as he pelted towards his goal.

It took longer than Law thought it would to catch up with the running Straw Hat Pirate. When his Room finally encased his ally— almost invisible because of the thick fog— the surgeon appeared behind Luffy, wrapping his arms around the rubber man and keeping him in place.

Luffy thrashed and struggled in his grip, eyes too wide and breathing slightly panicked. Law held back his ally as best he could, guessing that Luffy must recognize him because the pirate could easily break free if he really wanted to.

"Straw Hat-ya, calm down." Law said as he was thrown about slightly by his ally's thrashing. Despite Luffy's efforts, the surgeon was somehow able to keep himself on his feet. "It's just me."

"I know I know I know." Luffy repeated rapidly, still wiggling. "Let me go, Traffy! I need to get to him!"

"Get to who?" Law asked cautiously.

"Ace!" the Straw Hat Captain shouted. "I hear him. He needs help!"

It took a moment for the surgeon to realize who the straw hat-wearing pirate was talking about. "Fire Fist" Portgas D. Ace. Luffy's older brother that had died at Marineford three years ago. Law had barely considered the possibility that the dead fire-user was here somehow before he remembered the effects of the black sand and recalled whose island this was, coming to a conclusion that he greatly disliked. His grip on Luffy tightened.

"Your brother is dead, Straw Hat-ya." Law growled. "It must be a trick set up by the Shadow Man."

Luffy shook his head violently, swinging it back and forth. "It's not a trick! It's his voice! I can hear Ace. He's in pain, Law."

His voice sounded so small and scared, nothing like his usual exuberant tone, and Law almost let his grip slacken. Almost. Instead he held Luffy tighter and wondered if cutting him into pieces and dragging him back to the Thousand Sunny was worth the berating and headache he would get from the idiot's nakama.

"I do not know what you're hearing, but it is not your brother, Straw Hat-ya." The surgeon said sternly. "I—"

"Luffy! Help m-me!"

The distant scream made both Law and Luffy flinch. Both of their heads snapped in the same direction, and there was another shout.

"Help! Please help! N-No... Please don't! Stop!"

Law felt the hairs on his nape raise as a wordless, agonized scream ripped through the air The wail was long, keening, and speaking of unbearable pain. It cut off abruptly, leaving behind a terrible silence, and the surgeon could only stand there in a stunned silence, mind reeling as he tried to identify what he had just heard. A fist slammed into the Heart Pirate's stomach, winding him, and Luffy slipped from his grasp, stumbling forward.

"Ace! I'm coming!" the straw hat-wearing pirate yelled.

Luffy sped off, darting over tree branches and vanishing into the fog.

"Damn it…" Law hissed, gripping his sword hilt and running after the Straw Hat Pirate once more.

Law did not know what the hell was going on. He did not remember ever hearing Portgas's voice, but if both he and Luffy could hear someone that his ally identified as his older brother…

The surgeon caught up to his ally, following him through the mist and watching as he tripped over every other tree root in his haste. It was a good thing the idiot was made of rubber or he would be covered in bruises by now. Luffy skidded to a halt in a clearing not far ahead of Law, turning around in a circle and putting his hands around his mouth.

"Ace! Where are you? Ace!"

There was no response, and the Straw Hat Captain's expression drooped with dismay. He gave a frustrated shout and punched the ground before sitting down hard and putting his head in his hands. Law slowed down, approaching the visibly distraught pirate cautiously.

Luffy looked up at him, tears threatening to fall from his dark eyes. "I heard him. We both heard him. I know we did."

Law bit his lip, uncertain of how to respond. "Luffy—"

Below Luffy's feet, there was an ominous crack. The rubber man's eyes met the surgeon's, filled with confusion, before ground beneath the Straw Hat Pirate gave way.

Luffy vanished into the newly-formed hole, swallowed up by the earth in an instant. Law did not even have time to fully comprehend what had happened before a rubbery arm appeared out of the fissure, groping blindly and grabbing the front of his shirt.

Shi—

Law was yanked forward and into the hole by his ally, darkness surrounding him as he plunged into the abyss. He was too stunned to scream as air whistled past him and unable to tell which way was up as he tumbled downward.

His brain screamed at him to do something to slow his fall, because dying because of Luffy's stupidity would be an embarrassing way to go. The surgeon was about to summon a Room when he landed roughly on something, knocking the air from his lungs.

"Ow." Said 'something' whined.

Law blinked rapidly, grey eyes adjusting to the darkness, and found himself staring at a pouting and wincing Luffy. The surgeon's eyes narrowed, and he cuffed the other pirate upside the head.

"Ow ow ow! Why is Traffy acting like Nami?" Luffy complained.

"Because you dragged me down into a hole, you idiot!" Law snapped.

He got to his feet, peering upward at the small speck of light that could be seen far above them. They had fallen at least three hundred feet, and the surgeon was honestly surprised none of his bones had broken. Luffy was a rubber idiot, so he would be fine unless he fell into the ocean. Law was sorely tempted to test that 'theory' out and dunk the Straw Hat Pirate in the sea once they got out of this hole. The surgeon filed away that desire so it could be fulfilled at a later time.

An odd shape caught Law's eye and he focused on it, instinctively putting his back to the rising Luffy's. They had landed in what appeared to be a large cavern of some sort, but there was no way it was natural.

The walkways that lay dangerously above the abyss were too smooth to be anything but manmade, and parts of the cave looked as if they had been carved. Looking down over the edge of the walkway, the surgeon was thankful that he and Luffy had landed where they did, for he could not see the bottom of the cave from where he stood.

He spotted ornately shaped doorways leading to darkness were scattered orderly around the outskirts of the chasm. If that was not enough evidence that someone had remodeled this place, the spiky-barred cages that hung from the ceiling removed any doubts from Law's mind.

The cave— lair?— looked like a mix of a regal palace and a torturous prison, giving off an air of smoothness, grace, and overall creepiness that made a shiver go up Law's spine.

A logical thought slowly formed in Law's mind, and he dearly hoped it was not true. Please don't tell me this is 'Shadow Man's' base of operations.

The spiked cages creaked and swayed sinisterly, giving off low groans that echoed loudly through the caverns. If Law listened closely enough, the surgeon swore he could hear low whispers among the harsh creaks, speaking in an indecipherable language.

It was almost like they were in his head, gently stroking his consciousness as they prepared to grab him and tear his mind apart. Law's heart pounded in his chest as he listened, his curiosity not quite able to drown out the unease that the lair gave him.

Luffy appeared to have no such reservations.

"What is this place?" the pirate asked, walking along one of the black stone bridges casually and looking around with wide, eager eyes. "Do you think someone lives here?"

Law resisted the urge to sigh and pinch the bridge of his nose, catching up to the wandering Straw Hat Pirate and rolling his eyes.

"Based on our assumption of who owns this island, I believe this may be the 'Shadow Man's' home." The surgeon suggested dryly.

Luffy's sandaled feet stopped moving and he stood in the middle of the walkway, out in the open, with an unreadable expression on his face. Law growled lowly and grabbed the idiot's arm, pulling him into a doorway that led to descending stairs. He glanced back the way they had come, and mentally applauded his decisive action as he spotted what appeared to be a Nightmare peel away from the shadows before walking along a path on the other side of the lair.

So this actually  is  their hideout. Dammit.

"As in, we may be in enemy territory, Straw Hat-ya." The surgeon explained, slightly irritated by the pirate's lack of caution. He pointed at the Nightmare, who had been joined by two more of its kind. "This cave is likely crawling with those things."

"Yeah. Got it." Luffy said absently, scanning the area with a frown. "Since we're here, we should try to find Shadow Man and get him to leave us alone."

He paused, body stiffening visibly. Then he bolted down the staircase without another word, sandals clopping loudly against the stone floor. Law muttered a curse as he found himself chasing Luffy once more, skidding around the corner just in time to see the pirate take in a deep breath, preparing to shout. Law clapped his hand over Straw Hat's mouth before he could give away their position.

"What are you doing?" he hissed.

Luffy struggled a bit, pulling the surgeon's hand away as he began to walk once more. In hindsight, Law counted himself lucky for not getting his hand licked by the childish pirate.

"The Shadow Man had Ace in my dream." Luffy said stubbornly. "I heard Ace screaming, and his voice led me towards here. What if the Shadow Man has Ace here?"

Law stared at the Straw Hat Pirate, saying the first thing that came to his mind. "That's ridiculous, Straw Hat-ya. That was a dream, and your brother is dead."

But the Shadow Man's warning and attack were actually real… The illogical part of Law's mind whispered. He ignored it.

Luffy adopted an expression comparable to that of a kicked— no, a stabbed— puppy and the surgeon mentally winced. But it had to be said. Law had a theory that 'Shadow Man's' unknown abilities had to do with nightmares and fears, and while parts of the visions he gave to Luffy may be grounded in reality, there was also a high probability that he was crafting hope-crushing illusions as well to get a reaction out of the Straw Hat Pirate.

Law was uncertain if Shadow Man's gifts included some type of telepathy, but him having control over waking hallucinations was not that far of a stretch. They lived in a world where a person's Devil Fruit ability was only limited by what they thought they could do with their powers, so the surgeon was willing to bet the Shadow Man was purposely manipulating Luffy.

The Straw Hat Pirate did not consider any of this, however, caught up in the trap the Shadow Man had unintentionally— or intentionally— set.

"I heard Ace. I'm awake right now, and I heard him." The Straw Hat Pirate growled. "Shadow Man has him, and we're in his house, so we need to see if Ace is here."

Law's lips pressed together unhappily when he spotted the mulish jut of Luffy's jaw. The pirate would not back down on this. He firmly believed in the illusion he thought was true.

We should be trying to find a way out, not heading deeper into the lair. There is no way that this will end well. Law sighed and gave a shrug. "You're an idiot. Fine. So how do you expect to find him?"

"We'll look everywhere." Luffy stated stubbornly, reaching the bottom of the stairs. "I know he must be here. I can find—"

He glanced inside the room and froze in the doorway, entire body locking as his skin turned white. In a fluid motion, Law stepped around the unmoving pirate, drawing Kikoku as he prepared to face whatever had made the Straw Hat Captain stop. He nearly dropped his blade in shock.

This isn't possible, Law thought.

Sitting in the first room— the cell— chained to the wall by his ankles and staring at them with hollow eyes, was Portgas D. Ace. He looked the same as he did three years ago at Marineford, except for the faded orange eyes and strange black markings that streaked through his pale skin like vein tattoos. As Law watched, one on his collar bone grew longer, creeping up his neck.

The surgeon let himself take in Fire Fist's other injuries, noting the bruises and cuts that covered his skin, the feverish tinge to his cheeks, and the infected-looking wound on his side. He noticed the densest group of the black markings by the wound, and a half-processed theory began to niggle at the back of his mind.

"A-Ace?" Luffy whispered in a tremulous voice, finally breaking out of his paralysis.

Portgas reeled back visibly, clenching his teeth and pressing his back harder against the stone wall. His orange eyes squeezed shut. He was mouthing something, and after a moment's studying, Law deciphered his inaudible words.

"Go away. Just go away."

Luffy was undaunted by his brother's lack of response, walking up to the bars and pressing his face against them. "Ace, it's okay. I'm here now. I'm going to get you out."

Portgas did not speak. Instead he curled up, placing his head on his bent knees and gripping his hair. He rocked back and forth slightly, saying nothing. Luffy pulled at the bars, growling when they did not budge. A few more tugs yielded no results, and the pirate gave an angry huff. He knelt down, reaching his hand through the bars.

"Don't worry, Ace. We'll—"

Portgas jerked away from his invading hand, retreating as close to the corner as his bindings allowed. His eyes looked anywhere other than at Luffy, finally noticing Law in the darkness. Confusion crossed Fire Fist's features, and his gaze randomly fixed on the surgeon's hat like he had never seen one before. Dull orange orbs widened.

Meanwhile, Luffy's arm stayed its normal length, refusing to stretch, and his brow furrowed.

"Law? I can't use my rubber powers." The Straw Hat Pirate commented.

The surgeon immediately tried to summon a Room, only for nothing to happen. It was then he noticed the extra weakness in his limbs, and looked around instinctively for the seastone that was preventing him from using his powers. But seastone required physical contact to work— didn't it?— so why were his and Luffy's Devil Fruit abilities being rendered inert?

Luffy gripped the cell bars again. "We're going to get you out, Ace. We won't let whoever's keeping you here hurt you anymore."

The Straw Hat Pirate pulled at and punched at the bars with Haki-imbued fists, but the iron refused to give even the slightest bit. Luffy emitted a frustrated sound, his next punch connecting with the iron with a loud, echoing bang.

Portgas continued to observe his brother, expression rapidly shifting from bewilderment to horror. His gaze flicked past Law and the surgeon turned in time to see a Nightmare lunging for him. The Heart Pirate cursed aloud and swung his sword erratically, cutting the creature in half. The unexpected attack and lack of resistance from his foe caused Law to fall to his knees, and his bare palm pressed against the floor. Dizziness swamped him, making his vision blur.

"The floor is made of seastone." He realized out loud. How did the 'Shadow Man' get so much of it? "Straw Hat-ya, we need to get moving!"

"I'm not leaving without Ace!" Luffy snapped, swinging around to face him with an angry intensity in his eyes that struck Law momentarily speechless.

Finally, Portgas broke his silence. "I'm not real, Luffy."

His voice was hoarse and soft, and each word sounded painful, but the fire-user spoke with a conviction that forbade any argument. Luffy turned back to the cell and argued anyway, a foolish, tearful grin on his face.

"Don't be silly, Ace."

Law heard a distant rumble and a cold draft blew into the room, making the pirate shiver despite his warm clothes. He eyed the empty door warily as the dungeon grew steadily colder… and darker?

Panic flickered across Portgas's features before they smoothed out. His head tipped and he smirked mockingly. With the black markings and orange eyes, the pose made him look almost demonic. "I'm not joking, Luffy. I'm a hallucination. The Shadow Man created me to draw you here so he could kill you, idiot."

Luffy looked at his brother in confusion, while understanding came to Law in a rush. The tendrils of disbelief within him that claimed this was some odd hallucinatory copy of Portgas D. Ace faded away as Law slowly realized that this was indeed Luffy's brother, he was indeed real… and he was trying to get them to leave without him because something was coming that they would not survive an encounter with.

The ground rumbled ominously again, and the whispers that lingered in the air grew louder, excitement entering their murmurs as they eagerly anticipated the humans' ends. Law darted to the doorway, spotting shifting shadows creeping around the entrance to the staircase that led to the dungeon. He did not need to see clearly to know that those were Nightmares and Fearlings, either patrolling through the lair by chance or slowly, intentionally boxing the two intruders in.

"Straw Hat-ya, there are a ton of those creatures out there. We're being cut off." Law told his ally.

"Your friend can't see me." Portgas interjected smoothly before Luffy could respond. His voice held a slight raspy strain, as if it were becoming increasingly difficult to talk.

"Stop being stupid!" Luffy snapped. He turned to Law, desperation shining in his dark eyes as he looked half-defiantly, half-pleadingly at the surgeon. "Law? You can see Ace. You can."

"No he can't." Ace insisted, and gave an unwilling, dry cough.

Luffy looked at him. Law did not.

They were about to be surrounded. They did not have their powers. That took away their advantage over huge swarms of Nightmares and Fearlings and they would be easily overwhelmed. The 'Shadow Man'— whoever he may be— evidently wanted Luffy dead, and had taken the trouble to somehow copy— or amplify— Portgas's screams to lure the Straw Hat Pirate here.

Fire Fist knew Luffy would not leave him if he thought he was actually there, so he was trying to convince his brother he was one of the nightmares that had haunted the pirate for the last few weeks, as fake as the dreams that had plagued him at night.

But he was there. Somehow, Fire Fist was alive, and imprisoned. How was he not dead? Why was he being kept prisoner? Why were his eyes orange? Why did it look like he had not aged a day since his 'death'? Law had so many questions but did not— could not— ask them.

These factors raced through Law's mind as he tried to choose his response, but in reality it was the look in Portgas's eyes that made the decision for him.

He knew that expression. It was the look of an older brother trying desperately to protect his younger sibling, one that he recognized far too well. Despite his walls and general apathy, Law felt a bond with Portgas in that moment, fully understanding his desire to save his little brother no matter the personal cost.

"No, Luffy. I don't see anyone there." He lied.

The betrayed look that Straw Hat gave him nearly made him reconsider, his heart squeezing painfully in his chest. Huh. He did not know he was capable of feeling such guilt anymore. Luffy glanced back at his brother and gave an odd, strangled sound that may have been a sob. He pulled his hat over his eyes and turned away from Ace.

"Let's go." Luffy mumbled, bolting away.

Before Law could follow, he heard Portgas speak. "Thank you…"

The words faded into another coughing fit, and a slight wheeze accompanied Fire Fist's painful-sounding breathing. The part of Law that was a dedicated doctor wanted nothing more than to check on and assist Ace, but he ignored the urge, unwilling to let Portgas's efforts go to waste. Gritting his teeth, the Heart Pirate nodded and made to follow the prisoner's younger brother.

A strong memory clicked at the front of his mind and he paused in the doorway, not looking behind him. When they had entered the dungeon, Portgas had looked defeated, resigned. But slowly, as if realizing his brother was truly there with him, the man had regained his instinct to save his sibling— to protect— and a small fire in his eyes had been rekindled.

The surgeon could not free Fire Fist, but maybe he could give him the motivation to free himself, or at least continue to survive. It would be a waste to just let Portgas's lingering flame go out.

Law spoke, low enough for only Ace to hear. "Sabo is alive."

He heard Fire Fist inhale sharply, but did not turn back, darting out of the dungeon and into the lair. The draining feeling of seastone plagued him as he caught up with Luffy, taking the stairs two at a time as they ascended. Law felt the moment the seastone floor became just stone, the weakness vanishing from his bones when his feet landed on the normal ground.

It was just in time too, because the Nightmares spotted the intruders and lunged for them with angry shrieks. Law summoned his Room, and was disheartened to discover that Ace was too far out of his range to teleport the fire-user to his side.

Ignoring the guilt that was steadily growing heavier in his chest, the surgeon grabbed Luffy by the shoulder, switching them with some Nightmares outside the lunging group and allowing them to pounce onto their unlucky fellows.

Luffy cocked his fist back, swinging his extending arm and rapidly punching through multiple foes. Law bisected more of their enemies with long-reaching strokes of his nodachi, and the allies pushed forward, running along one of the railing-less bridges as they made their way up through the lair. However, every time a Nightmare fell, five more came to take its place, and the two pirates soon found their path blocked by a horde of snarling, advancing Nightmares.

Again the two pirates found themselves surrounded by a sea of black sand, the wall churning and writhing unnaturally. Law and Luffy stood back-to-back as the swarm surged around them sickeningly, the pirates unable to see through the mass of swirling darkness.

Luffy spun in a circle, arm stretching and pounding swarms of enemies to crumbled sand, but the fallen were immediately replaced, filling in the holes the Straw Hat Pirate made in their wall. Law's large slashes and attempted repositioning of the Nightmares did nothing more than irritate the mob, and the two pirates remained trapped in the cyclone of darkness and sand.

To Law's surprise, the Nightmares did not close in to kill the humans, instead deciding to keep the pirates contained. The reason why soon revealed itself. A tall, thin figure peeled away from the shadows around them, forming into a grey-skinned humanoid with glowing yellow eyes.

Law could not call the male human, not even in his mind, because something about the newcomer just oozed unnaturalness even more than his minions, as if he did not belong in this world. He gave off an almost physical feeling of malice and danger, and every time Law blinked he thought he saw his loved ones' deaths and Flevance burning. The surgeon shivered, something uncomfortable coiling inside him and making his skin go cold, and after a moment's deliberation he realized it was fear.

"You know, leaving without greeting a house's owner is quite rude." The definitely-not-a-man said pleasantly. "Then again, so is entering someone's home without permission."

"You're the Shadow Man." Luffy growled.

His grey forehead crinkled. "Is that what you've been calling me? Well, that name is actually not far from the truth. Let me properly introduce myself. I am Pitch Black, also known as the Nightmare King, the Fearling King, and the Spirit of Fear. Oh, and those aren't just nicknames. I mean literally."

Shadows danced along the wall, creeping in like a closing maw, and Law instinctively gripped his nodachi tighter. He gritted his teeth, struggling to expand his Room. The ground was just outside of his range, hovering mockingly just above where he could teleport.

If he could, the surgeon would have swapped him and Luffy for an object to gain some distance before teleporting again, but there was nothing between the walkway and roof of the cave for him to move. His instincts also told him that if they reappeared in the cave, Pitch would kill them before they could even think to switch again.

Law saw Luffy's hand clench, but before he could stop the idiot, the Straw Hat Captain swung at the Nightmare King. Pitch leaned back lazily, easily avoiding the attack, and Luffy gave an angry cry, lunging forward with a pulled-back fist. The Spirit of Fear caught his strike with a casualness that made Law's skin crawl, and threw the young pirate at the surgeon.

Luffy hit Law with the force of a speeding train, sending them both crashing to the ground. The Heart Pirate felt a rib snap as his ally collided with him, and he let out a pained grunt as his back slammed into the stone floor. The Nightmares and Fearlings hissed and screeched around the crumpled pirates in what could only be their distorted version of laughter. Law breathed shallowly, each intake of air painful, and fought his already exhausted body's desire to fall into unconsciousness.

I'm low on stamina. This isn't good.

Luffy got off of Law and helped him stand, expression taut with concern. "Sorry, Law." He apologized, before his sharp gaze returned to Pitch. The normally cheerful pirate bared his teeth in a snarl.

"You! You drew us here by copying Ace's voice." Luffy said darkly. "How could you use my dead brother like that!"

The Nightmare King stared at the Straw Hat Pirate in confusion for a moment, before his expression cleared. Pitch began to laugh, a joyful, but oddly disturbing sound that was a mix of a human's chortle and a demon's mocking cackle. He hunched over slightly and clutched at his stomach, almost lost in his mirth, but Law's knew better than to try to attack the Spirit when he was seemingly distracted. The Spirit of Fear composed himself and straightened, yellow eyes still glinting with a sadistic glee.

"Is that what you think? You really are an idiot. I won't bother correcting you and waste more of my time. Long story short, I don't need you alive, Luffy. I just need a recognizable corpse."

A black scythe formed in his hands, his arms already moving to swing the weapon, and Law forced all of his energy into expanding his Room, feeling something above ground enter his range.

The surgeon grabbed Luffy by the collar and switched them both with a log. As they appeared above ground, Law heard a loud, threatening shing as Pitch's scythe connected with the large chunk of wood that had replaced the humans. Based on the sound, the Nightmare King had been able to easily slice through the thick, resistant trunk.

The pirate expanded his Room again, switching them with another trunk, then did it again, and the space between them and Pitch increased rapidly. He had seen the so-called 'Spirit' walk out of the shadows, and knew he could appear from within any dark spot around them, but to his surprise Pitch did not rise from the depths with his scythe raised to kill.

Law had a feeling that the Nightmare King was not even trying to catch them.

With that in mind, he stopped moving himself and Luffy in his Room, breathing harshly as his already low stamina reached a near-critical point. Now that the danger had passed, Law could barely stay conscious, his vision swaying and darkening. He put a hand to his ribs and winced when he found the broken one. It did not seem to have punctured his lung, but damn did it hurt.

The Heart Pirate curled in on himself a little, focusing on breathing evenly. His previous exhaustion from all of the fighting was hindering his ability to power through the pain like he normally would and the surgeon was honestly surprised he had not collapsed yet.

"Good job, Traffy." Luffy said brightly. He noticed Law's closed eyes and waved his hand in the surgeon's face, nearly hitting his nose. "Oi. Oi. You can't go to sleep now."

Law barely had the energy to growl at him. "Broken… rib…" he managed to say through gritted teeth.

The Straw Hat Pirate's chipper mood instantly vanished. "Sorry, Traffy. We should go to Chopper. He can fix you."

Law merely nodded and looked in the direction of the ship. He spotted what appeared to be smoke on the horizon, visible even beneath the dark grey sky. Closer inspection revealed the 'smoke' was moving erratically, unnatural and precise, and it did not take long for the surgeon to realize that the substance was actually black sand.

Luffy followed Law's gaze, and pushed his hat down on his head "They're attacking the Sunny, aren't they?"

He started forward and paused, glancing back at Law and biting his lip. The surgeon shooed him away with a hand, still hunched against a tree with his other hand pressed against his chest.

"Go… without me…" Law said sternly. "I'll… catch up…"

Luffy nodded grimly, not arguing with the surgeon. Without another word, the pirate dove into the woods, racing to assist his friends.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Tree branches struck Luffy's limbs and face as he rushed through the forest, but he ignored the sharp wood, intent on reaching his destination. The sounds of battle reached his ears, with human shouts and animalistic shrieks echoing through the air, and the Straw Hat Pirate put on a burst of speed, reaching the beach at last.

Black sand and shadows swamped the air like a dark tornado, surrounding the Thousand Sunny and the occupants that desperately defended the ship. Luffy grabbed two trees and used them to launch himself forward, breaking through the swarm and landing neatly on the deck. Sanji nearly attacked his Captain but stopped his kick right in time, planning his feet solidly on the wood.

"Luffy! Where's Law?"

"Traffy was injured and told me to go ahead." Luffy explained as he struck a Nightmare that flew at him, sending it sprawling into its kin.

"He's injured and you left him alone?" Nami demanded as she caught more enemies within her clouds, zapping them into oblivion.

"You guys needed help. Traffy can take care of himself." Luffy said stubbornly.

The Straw Hat Captain believed that with all his heart, but still felt a small trickle of guilt as he recalled that he was the reason Law had been injured in the first place. The thought was discarded as a Nightmare lunged for Luffy, who gave it a Red Hawk to the face. The fiery fist turned the black sand to glass an instant before the impact shattered it, making the rest of the sand crumble lifelessly to the deck.

"We need to get out of here. There's too many!" Franky growled reluctantly as he blew apart ten more foes.

"We can take them." Luffy said stubbornly, eager to fight.

"Idiot!" Nami snapped. "We've been fighting them since you ran off. Franky was barely able to stabilize the mast."

"…Oh." Luffy said, smile slipping.

He could see his friends' exhaustion now. Zoro was moving slower than usual, Nami's face was pinched, and even Robin's impassive visage held a tiredness that spoke of a long fight with no end in sight. They all looked weary and battered, many sporting bruises that matched the dark shadows under their eyes. It took a moment to process, but Luffy slowly comprehended that he had left his crew while they were in danger, had left them to fight alone, without him.

The realizations struck hard, and Luffy felt something cold settle in his chest. A group of Fearlings turned on him, and the Straw Hat Captain was forced to dodge as they slammed into the deck where he once stood, tearing the wood with their sharp claws. Zoro bisected the lot of them, eye narrowed dangerously even as it gleamed with excitement for the battle.

"I agree that we should retreat. We can't keep fighting them forever." The swordsman said as he stabbed two more Nightmares.

The ship rocked dangerously and Luffy peered over the railing, extending his arm to beat away the Nightmares that were crashing into the starboard side of the Sunny. Hands sprouted alongside the wood and Robin grabbed any Nightmares that came close, dispatching them easily.

"We need to wait for Law." The archeologist said calmly. "I hope these creatures haven't killed him."

I hope the Shadow Man hasn't killed himHe was really tired and that guy was strong. Luffy thought, and the cold feeling got fiercer.

A distant memory of accusations and nightmares floated to the front of his mind, and something clenched painfully in the Straw Hat Pirate's chest.

"You think they won't abandon you, when all you do is abandon others."

"You never care about anyone except your precious nakama, yet you fail, forget, and disregard them as easily as you do strangers, don't you?"

The words came easily to Luffy's mind— easier than they should— and the rubber pirate's next blow only batted a Fearling away instead of killing it. The understanding that he had left an injured comrade alone in enemy territory slowly made its way into Luffy's thick skull, and the pirate felt something he rarely ever experienced: doubt and guilt.

In the middle of a battle, surrounded by his nakama minus an important person— two important people?— Luffy could not help but feel like he had made a mistake.

I didn't abandon Law. I didn't. My nakama needed me—

Ace's tired, hopeless face flashed through Luffy's mind and he barely dodged a Fearling's clawed swipe. Brook dispatched the enemy easily before dashing away to assist Usopp. Luffy could not focus, a terrible confusion clouding his mind as he dazedly fought the Nightmares.

No, I'm worried about Law, not Ace. Ace wasn't actually there. He's dead. I didn't abandon him too.

Then why did he feel like he did?

"I see him!" Usopp shouted, pointing at the treeline.

Luffy followed the sniper's sharp gaze, spotting the surgeon limping towards their position, with a hand to his ribs. Even from a distance, the Straw Hat Pirate could see that Law was as pale as a ghost, stumbling and struggling to put one foot in front of the other.

Zoro slashed an opening through the Nightmares, shouting to his Captain. "Luffy, grab Law!"

Luffy shook himself. "Right!"

He stretched his arm, grabbing Law by his coat. The surgeon's tired expression shifted into one of resignation just before he was pulled forward, landing on the deck with an audible thud. Law's pained grey eyes briefly met Luffy's before they rolled back, and the Heart Pirate slumped limply to the floor.

"Oh no!" Chopper shrieked, dashing to the surgeon's side immediately.

A Nightmare dove for the fallen Law as well, but the reindeer kicked it away, sending it flying into the sea.

"Stay away from my patient!" the doctor snarled protectively.

Franky was already at the helm, shouting to his crewmates. "Clear a path! We need to get out to sea!"

With a nod, Nami forced the Nightmares away from the ship with blasts of wind, hair wild and messy as she continually sent forth bursts of lightning and air. Zoro sliced through another mass of foes, while Robin restrained and killed some more. Even Usopp was assisting, using smoke pellets and other distractions to block the Nightmare and Fearling's view.

All the while, Luffy stood in the center of the deck, staring down at the unconscious Law as Chopper worked over him frantically. The surgeon's coat and shirt were open, revealing bruising on his chest, and the doctor was carefully feeling the spot, expression dark with concern.

"The rib pierced his lung. I need to get him to the sick bay. Usopp, Luffy, carry him!" the doctor snapped.

Both pirates rushed to obey him, picking up the surgeon carefully. As he looked down at Law's pale face, Luffy's remorse could only grow.

That's your fault, a voice whispered in the Straw Hat Captain's mind. You hurt your friend.

The coldness disappeared, and Luffy felt numb.

The Thousand Sunny gained speed, breaking free of the swarm of Nightmares, and they escaped to the open sea.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Pitch watched the pirates' ship sail further from the island. He ordered his minions to stop their pursuit of the vessel and they pulled back, clearing the air around the vessel.

If you want something done, you need to do it yourself, the Nightmare King thought.

Pitch formed a large, menacing harpoon out of sand, drawing his hand back like he was holding a bow. The Spirit of Fear aimed for the ship, focusing on the stern. The vessel was moving quickly, but he remained unhurried, making sure his weapon would strike true. He wanted to merely disable the boat, not immediately sink it. He needed Monkey D. Luffy's body after all.

The ship drew farther away, fleeing to the ocean, and Pitch had to hold back a snort. The Nightmare King had caught and destroyed stars. Did this archaic vessel really think it could escape him?

Certain of his aim, Pitch poured potential energy into his harpoon, ready to launch it at the pirates' ship with a force that could pierce any matter—

An explosion ripped through the air, creating shockwaves that sent Pitch sprawling His harpoon flew harmlessly into the sea, soaring seamlessly into the waves. The Spirit of Fear stumbled back onto his feet and looked behind him, seeking out the cause of his fall. It was easy to spot the smoke that floated into the grey sky, looking almost white when compared to the dark clouds.

It didn't take the Nightmare King long to realize what had happened.

"No," Pitch whispered. "No!"

As he watched, a small orange speck flew off in the opposite direction from where the Nightmare King stood. Its flight path was haphazard and wobbling, but the flier remaining airborne, flaring brightly as he gained speed. Rage ripped through Pitch's chest and he gathered black sand at his feet, shooting into the air in pursuit of the freed Hiken D. Ace.

"Follow him!" Pitch roared at his minions. "Don't let him escape!"

The Fearlings and Nightmares he had called away from the ship rushed to obey.

Chapter Text

This isn't right…

The thought rang through Ace's head even as he struggled to stay afloat in the middle of an endless ocean, a wave crashing over him and nearly forcing him into the depths of the sea. He was barely able to stay above the surface as he was violently pushed under by the uncaring flood. The fire-user did not fear for himself, but for the little brother that clung desperately to a piece of driftwood on the other side of the wreckage of a broken, flaming ship, holding on with barely enough strength to keep his head above the water.

No matter how fast Ace swam or how hard he fought against the waves, he could not reach Luffy. He could only watch with horror as his brother gradually weakened, his grip slackening with each pulse of the sea. Soon he would lose his hold on the only thing keeping him afloat, and Luffy would drown.

Ace had to make it in time. He had to save Luffy— to protect him. He made a promise.

How did we get here…?

Ace could not recall. He was not sure he wanted to. The ship was too big for two people to sail by themselves, and yet there were no other survivors floundering in the ocean. All Ace knew was that he and Luffy had ended up alone without a ship in the treacherous ocean, and if he did not get to his brother in time, he would die. Ace pushed against the water, yelping as another wave went over his head and filled his mouth with saltwater.

The boy-teen-man? burst above the surface, coughing loudly as the water clawed its way into his lungs and made them burn. He ignored his own pain and continued his fruitless struggle. He had to save Luffy. He had to reach him.

This isn't real…

Ace wanted to believe that. He truly did. He wanted to pretend that he and Luffy were home and safe on Dawn Island. But they weren't. They were here, shipwrecked, desperate, alone, and with only Ace to rescue them both.

He had to reach him. He could not let his brother die. If Ace lost Luffy— if Luffy perished because Ace failed to save him— the older brother knew he would not have a reason to keep living. Losing Luffy would be worse then losing anyone else, because Luffy was good and pure and deserved to live, unlike his older brother.

Unlike the monster with demon's blood.

The blue waters darkened, turning an inky black. As Ace watched, Luffy released the driftwood, slipping silently beneath the waves. The older brother cried out in fear and the black liquid went into his mouth, cold and empty. It filled his lungs and his head and his limbs and his eyes, until nothing remained but an infinite darkness both inside and out.

The darkness became as thick as molasses, squeezing its victim like an over-sized hand and demanding that he submit to its deadly embrace. Ace refused to submit. He floundered and fought as he drowned, reaching blindly for his brother, even as he lost his sight and his arms went numb. Because he did not matter. Luffy did. Only Luffy. He had to save—

Two hands gripped Ace's, unhindered by the blackness, and pulled him upward.

He broke the surface, taking in cool gulps of oxygen. His vision instantly cleared, light and feeling returning to his world, and his eyes fell upon his saviors. Jack floated above the black ocean with a smiling Luffy clinging to his back, the Guardian easily supporting them both safely above the dark sea. The Straw Hat Pirate laughed and waved at Ace, eyes shining with an excitement and joy the fire-user thought may have been lost. But it was the man that sat in a sturdy wooden boat that drew Ace's attention.

The man's face was shadowed by his blue top hat, but any uneasiness that might be caused by his darkened features was negated by his familiar, glowing smile. Even though he was hidden in darkness, Ace knew who he was, for he still wore the ridiculous cravat and tailcoat he had cherished back when he was a child. The fire-user watched his mouth move, words unable to reach his deafened ears, but felt himself calming merely by being with the other.

With Sabo.

He and Luffy were not alone anymore. Jack and Sabo were there. They could help Ace protect Luffy. They would help make sure he did not fall.

Jack set Luffy down in the boat with Sabo, and Ace's three brothers all smiled encouragingly at the fire-user. The blonde offered his hand to Ace, but before he could accept it, the darkness pulled at the vessel. Stretching and writhing, it crawled up the sides of the small boat, trying to get to Luffy, always Luffy.

Jack beat it back with bolts of ice but it was undeterred, lunging and flaring angrily as it fought to reach their little brother. Sabo did nothing to defend Luffy. He remained unalarmed by the swirling darkness, continuing to serenely offer his hand to Ace as he silently spoke. And suddenly, the fire-user knew what his blonde brother was saying.

Wake up.

Ace did not want to. Not now that he and Luffy were relatively safe. Not now that Jack and Sabo were here with him, like they should be. It was true they were being overcome by the shadowy waves, but he did not want to leave this dream…

But it wasn't all a dream, was it?

Recollection came slowly to Ace, and he remembered the words that the darkness tried to erase, words that rekindled the hope he thought had been destroyed.

"Sabo is alive."

The darkness was not cold anymore. In fact, the fire-user could no longer feel it at all. It was almost as if it could not touch him anymore, even though he was trapped in its embrace. Ace met Sabo's vaguely visible blue gaze and his brother's triumphant smile widened.

Wake up, he urged. Come find me.

That was right. Sabo was alive. Sabo was out there, in the real world, not this nightmare Ace thought he was stuck in. The fire-user did not look away from Sabo as the boat was overcome by the darkness, an odd feeling that was notfear overwhelming him as his brothers appeared to die in front of him again.

For the first time in a long time, he was serene as he observed the horrors around him, knowing full well it all was fake.

Wake up!

Ace woke in his cell with a gasp. He opened his eyes, blurry vision gradually clearing, and peered at his surroundings with a fragile hopefulness he did not understand. Memory struck and he looked around more wildly, heart sinking when he saw he was alone.

Before the fire-user could plunge into depression, a small squeak sounded and the Mini Fairy that had been with Luffy's friend Law fluttered out of Ace's discarded boot. The Fairy— Baby Tooth— flew into the Summer Spirit's face, chirping in concern. Ace could only look at her in awe.

You're real, he thought, feeling something… bright. It was all real.

He cupped his hands and she landed in them, a tiny, soft spot of warmth against his chilled skin. Ace could not bring himself to smile, but even the simple inclination to do such a thing was an improvement over how he had been before.

All thanks to the little Fairy in his hands, and a man he did not personally know.

Ace could not be more grateful to Baby Tooth, even though her assistance had been mostly unintentional. When Luffy had appeared before his door, Ace had assumed he was another figment of his imagination. The presence of his friend— Law— had confused Ace slightly, but it was not until Baby Tooth had revealed herself that the Summer Spirit had realized his brother actually existed.

There had been no reason for his nightmares to involve one of Tooth's Mini Fairies, and it was that thought that made Ace understand that Pitch had likely drawn his brother to his lair. It was not difficult to think of why. Ignoring the part of him that wanted to reunite with Luffy and his questions on how the Straw Hat Pirate had come to find Pitch's lair in the first place, Ace had made his brother disbelieve, knowing full well that would make him invisible to the pirate.

He was thankful that Law had gone along with his plan, the understanding in his grey eyes making Ace feel that Luffy had someone to rely on in the mysterious pirate. When the fire-user escaped, he would have to thank the man.

Not if he escaped. When.

Because Law did not just help him get Luffy out of the lair. He gave Ace something to get himself out as well. News the fire-user could not believe, yet knew the man would not mention unless it were true.

"Sabo is alive."

The moment he heard those words, something ignited in Ace's chest. The drive he thought had vanished had returned, just like the blonde brother he once believed had perished.

Sabo was out there. He was not dead. He was alive.

Ace could not think of a reason why his brother had refrained from showing himself to him and Luffy, but trusted that Sabo had his excuses. The fire-user was not upset with Sabo for his inability to contact him and Luffy because he himself had avoided Luffy for three years, doing the exact the same thing. No longer.

Ace was going to break out of and reunite with his brothers— all three of them.

The fire-user felt the black sand try to drag him into nightmares again but he resisted, listening intently as Baby Tooth chattered aimlessly about her adventures since she had arrived on this world. The Mini Fairy seemed to have a basic understanding of what was going on with Ace, and had apparently decided that her stories and gentle nudging might keep the fire-user focused and awake. The Summer Spirit silently appreciated her attempts to keep him alert.

It was quite the odd situation that the two friends of Jack Frost had met under. Ace could not hold a conversation with the Fairy or even introduce himself, for his voice had failed after he had spoken with Law. His lack of speaking and overabundance of screaming had finally caught up with him, and the Summer Spirit was effectively mute. Every dry cough caused his throat to ache and small amounts of blood to drip from his lips, and the only sounds he could make were soft croaks if he pushed himself.

However, Baby Tooth was unperturbed by the Summer Spirit's lack of voice, remaining determinedly bright and cheerful in stark contrast to their surroundings. She told stories to pass the time, tapped him on the nose and cheeks if he began to drift off, and stayed in his hands or near his face as a warm, soft reminder that she was there, and real.

It the short amount of time he had known her for, Ace could see why Jack liked the Mini Fairy so much. She was smart, determined, feisty, and unafraid and the fire-user knew that without her he would have fallen asleep and been overcome by nightmares a thousand times over again already.

You've been hanging out with Luffy's friend, Law? Ace thought in response to her latest topic of conversation. He recalled Luffy's friend's stiff demeanor and a small smile threatened to curl his lips. He seems like the life of the party.

As if she could hear his thoughts, Baby Tooth enthusiastically— but quietly— told the Summer Spirit about Law's grumpiness and only-sane-man tendencies among the Straw Hat Pirates. Ace listened to the Mini Fairy complain about the idiocy of the people she hung out with and felt the foreign urge to smile again. The desire only grew stronger when she quickly assured him that the Summer Spirit was not an idiot of course, but why did her companions always have to follow the voice and go into the dark creepy lair?

Ace chuckled mutely as Baby Tooth continued to rant, knowing she was over exaggerating her feelings and tale to keep him distracted. It was working— partially— so her efforts were greatly welcomed.

The fire-user's eyes glazed and he gritted his teeth, shoving away the black sand's tiring murmurs once more. He refused to fall asleep again. Who knew how many hours or days he had lost during his last bout of nightmares? He could not lose any more time.

He had to get out. Sabo was alive and Ace had to find him.

That's right. Sabo is alive. My brother. He's alive. He's okay. They're  both  okay.

A feeling Ace could not identify ignited in his chest. He winced as warmth flared through his body, hurting in a way similar to the pain one felt if they stuck their hand in hot water after being outside in the cold. The fire-user ignored the ache and gripped the heat instead, refusing to let it go.

Baby Tooth flinched in his grasp and fluttered away from him, chirping worriedly. Ace tried to give her a reassuring look, still unable to smile.

It's okay. I... I think I have my fire back.

And he did. He could not claim that he had regained his powers fully— not by a long shot— but he could feel his flames reigniting, jolts of heat and pain stabbing through his body.

Sabo is alive, Ace recalled again, savoring the thought, and again the flames burned brighter. have to find him.

Before he registered what he was doing, Ace was on his feet, staring unseeingly at the cell door that stood between him and freedom— him and his lost brother. Could he do this? Was he strong enough to free himself? To his surprise, the voice did not make a snide comment to make him doubt himself, and his only thought was 'Yes'.

Baby Tooth seemed to understand what was happening and retreated to the corner of the room, fluttering nervously. Ace nodded at her and took a breath, closing his eyes and reaching for the warmth— the flames— in his chest.

The fire hurt.

Ace could feel the inferno clashing with the black sand, parts of his body feeling as if it were being twisted and shredded as the two opposites collided. The Summer Spirit struggled through the pain, focusing on heating up his ankles.

He felt a surge of triumph as the metal turned a reddish-white, melting on his skin. Much to his relief, the scalding iron did not burn him. Ace watched the liquid iron drip to the floor, shaking his foot to discard the excess. The coldness of the black sand tried to snatch him again but he dismissed it.

Sabo is alive. I have to find him. He repeated.

I have to find  them .

The fire-user placed his palms on the iron door, heating them rapidly. The grate collapsed before him pathetically— no longer capable of containing him— as the melted metal slumped into a puddle on the ground. Ace stepped over it, unbothered by the heat wafting off the liquidized material.

The stone floor was cold against his bare feet as he hobbled along, step by wobbly step, using the wall as support. Baby Tooth stayed close, darting ahead and back as she scouted for Nightmares, Fearlings, and Pitch and chirping encouragingly as she cheered him onward.

Ace kept one of his hands on fire despite it making him more visible in the dark. It was a risk he had to take. He was unwilling to discover if he could or could not reignite if he let the flames go out.

They made it to a walkway, and Ace looked up at the hole in the ceiling curiously, watching as the moving clouds and soft light made strange patterns on the floor. He found himself lost in the swirling, smoke-like shadows for a moment, picking out patterns among the wisps on the ground and having the odd urge to smile once more.

A hiss redirected his attention back to his surroundings and Baby Tooth hovered close to his head as Fearlings and Nightmares stalked towards the Spirits, splitting from the shadows. Ace eyed them blankly, and that strange feeling trickled through him again.

The emotion seeping through his veins was not anger or fear like he expected, but an unfamiliar, glowing one that made his heart lighten and a kind warmth rush through his chilled body. Because Sabo was alive. Luffy was okay. Jack was looking for him. And Ace…

…Ace would escape.

Happiness and determination burst to life in Ace's chest and he laughed without a sound, letting his rekindled flames free.

The explosion of fire was large and glorious, breaking more of the ground above his head and letting moonlight into Pitch's lair as it tore through the clouds far above. The Summer Spirit blinked rapidly at the inferno, spotting dashes of white dancing among the orange flames before he was momentarily blinded by his own creation. Fire-colored eyes squeezed shut, unable to take the intensity of color after being in the dark for so long. Ace listened to the roaring flames, feeling comforted by their presence, and let them run wild and demolish his foes. Any nearby Nightmares were turned to glass, unintentionally forming a wall between Ace and his numerous enemies, while Fearlings dissipated into nothing when faced with the overwhelming pulse of fire and heat.

The fire-user's vision cleared and he took a moment to stand in the dull light, closing his eyes again and breathing deeply. Baby Tooth prodded his cheek, emitting a squeak, and Ace looked at her, smiling for what seemed to be the first time in forever.

He planted his feet and called flames to his limbs despite the slight pain the action caused. Ace gritted his teeth, and slowly began to hover, rising awkwardly but steadily as he floated out of the lair. He rose above ground, and landed clumsily beside the hole he had made, looking around at the trees and dark grey sky. The black woods and dark clouds would have been menacing and scary to almost everyone else, but to the fire-user the sight of such ominous things meant something other than fear.

They meant he had escaped.

It was then that realization struck him, and Ace's slowly lightening heart brightened further, burning with a joy and passion he thought would be lost to him forever. The fire-user gave a whoop and launched himself into the sky, shooting towards the clouds. They were wet and cool, and he giggled silently as he drifted through them, enjoying the sensation of the moisture against his skin.

He could not fly nearly as quickly as normal, but he was airborne. He was out.

He was free.

A low rumble made Ace flip around as he flew, soaring backwards with the wind rushing past him as he sought out the source of the noise behind him. A wave of black sand hurtled towards the Summer Spirit, hundreds of yellow eyes gleaming from within the mass of darkness.

Ace found himself smirking at the Nightmares and Fearlings, putting on a burst of speed and lengthening the distance between himself and Pitch's minions. A few Nightmares tried to block his path but he burned them to ashes, smiling all the while as he evaded and destroyed the enemies that got near.

They were trying to get between him and his brothers. They were trying to get between him and his freedom. He would not let anyone stop him. Not now. He had to find Sabo, find Jack, find Luffy. Sabo was alive, Jack was out there, Luffy needed him. He had to reach them, to locate them, to reunite his family once more.

Mindful of Baby Tooth, Ace spun in midair, sending out a cyclone of flames, and watched the glass tunnel he created in his wake fall from the sky and shatter into the sea below. A tiny, arrogant part of the fire-user wanted to linger and massacre all of his pursuers— including the Nightmare King that was no doubt following the swarm— but he ignored the urge, focusing on what was important.

Find Sabo. Find Luffy. Find Jack.

After being lost and confused for so long, Ace finally had a goal, a mission, a dream. He had to reunite with all three of his separated brothers and bring them together again.

And he was not going to die trying.

Disregarding his pursuers, the fire-user decreased his altitude and flew just above the waves, spotting his reflection in the ocean below as he soared above it. Ace extended an arm and dipped his hand below the surface of the sea, causing small ripples to form in his wake. For a moment he was content to enjoy the feeling of the cool water on his palm, another smile tugging at his lips as the liquid ran through his fingers. He never thought he would see the ocean again.

Baby Tooth chirped a warning as Ace's danger sense tingled, and he swerved out of the way of a nasty-looking black arrow. The Summer Spirit turned as he continued to soar, narrowing his eyes at Pitch. Good. If the Spirit of Fear was after Ace, he was not chasing Luffy. The fire-user was uncertain how long ago his brother had left the island, but Pitch's lack of taunting told Ace that Luffy was not in the Nightmare King's clutches.

Pitch looked livid, his face set in a snarl that oozed pure malice. Ace smirked at him and channeled his inner Jack, sticking his tongue out at the Spirit of Fear. He had to immediately evade another arrow but Pitch's furious expression made it worth it.

I need to lose him. I can't fight him now, Ace thought logically. I have to get out of here. I need to get to my brothers.

It hurt to admit it, but Ace had to leave— to retreat.

The cursed pride he inherited from Roger tried to rear its head but Ace smothered the instinct to stand and fight— not run— with the mere thought of Akainu. He could not afford to make the same mistake that cost him his mortal life.

He spotted an island below and dove down, flying rapidly between buildings as he tried to make a plan to hide from Pitch. He had just gotten his freedom back. He was not going to lose it again, not now, not ever.

With Baby Tooth at his side, Ace swooped below an awning, turning quickly around a corner, then another. He flew over a tall building, springing off of a chimney, and twisted in midair to soar upward. The fire-user landed on top of a brightly-lit building.

He looked around, ready for an attack. For the moment, nothing popped out of the shadows to assault him, but the Summer Spirit did not relax his stance. The full moon shone down upon him, covering the rooftop with its glow. Ace did not know if Manny was watching, but for the first time in a long time he felt safe.

Instinct made him dodge and Pitch's spear hit the rooftop. The Nightmare King pulled the blade free, advancing menacingly.

"Are you done running away, Ace?" he asked darkly. "Have you decided to face me and stop being a coward like the rest of your pathetic family?"

Ace froze.

Don't do it, the logical section of his mind screamed. Don't do this again!

Baby Tooth seemed to agree with his survival instinct's desperate shouts, pulling at Ace's hair and pleading with him to run. But the fire-user could already feel the hot-headed recklessness taking over, his blood boiling and heart pounding with anger as he turned to glare at the Nightmare King. Flames flickered along his skin, warm and furious, and his entire body burned with rage.

I never run from a fight, he thought.

Pitch smirked.

Ace sent forth a cyclone of flames, not nearly as strong as his usual but still impressive. The Nightmare King stepped out of the way of the inferno with a casual air, simultaneously forming a scythe in his hands. The fire-user darted forward with blazing palms, ducking beneath Pitch's swing and blasting him at point blank range with his fire.

To his surprise, Pitch was only slightly singed, but he took the opportunity to sink into the shadows. Ace anticipated his next move and spun, kicking the Nightmare King solidly in the gut as he rose behind him. Pitch stumbled backwards and swung at Ace, scythe elongating to an impossible size as it sliced through the air. The Summer Spirit evaded each blow, dancing backwards and swaying out of the blade's path.

Pitch is stronger this time, Ace noted grimly. The next scythe swing nearly gave him a haircut at the neck. And faster.

He dodged two more attacks, jerking sideways when the weapon shifted into a stabbing spear. Pitch went for a fierce downward slash and Ace barely avoided the move, feeling a rush of displaced air as the pointy end went past his ear. He threw out five quick fireballs, sending out another two small, green ones close to the ground. The Nightmare King batted away the larger flames, not noticing the emerald fireflies until they exploded near his feet.

The Spirit of Fear flew back a few feet, but landed like a cat, not even knocked on his bottom. Frustration visible on his face, Pitch threw a wave of sand at the fire-user, blocking out the sky and moon. Ace did not pause to stare at the menacing tsunami, responding with his own fireball and the sand and fire collided. The outer layer of the wave turned to glass, and the fire-user took a second to breathe, legs trembling slightly.

The black sand in his veins pulled angrily at his consciousness and he swayed, vision darkening.

The sand. I'm still tired. Damm—

The glass exploded in a burst of black sand, sending Ace and Baby Tooth flying. He threw up his hands to protect his face and gave a shocked cry as shards sank into his skin. The fire-user landed on the rooftop and skidded along the stone, back stinging. He immediately leapt to his feet, scanning the area. Pitch was nowhere in sight.

The Summer Spirit ignited his hands once more, and spotted a darting shadow on the wall. He shot tiny bullet-like flames at the figure, only for Pitch to laugh mockingly.

"You never learn, do you?" The Nightmare King's voice echoed eerily and he gave another cackle. "Foolish boy. You stand even less of a chance now than you did before. Not only are you weaker, but I am stronger."

Ace spun in a circle, seeking out every detail on the darkened rooftop. The air shifted behind him and he turned, hands raised defensively as Pitch split from the shadows and swung at Ace with his sword. Before the blow could connect the Nightmare King gave a pained bellow, stumbling backwards as a small turquoise figure flew into his face and punched him solidly in the eye.

Baby Tooth gave a defiant squeak as she darted in for another strike. Too quick for Ace to act, Pitch grabbed the Mini Fairy, expression livid, and threw her as hard as he could. The fire-user tried to scream but no sound came out as Baby Tooth struck the wall, falling limply to the ground in a ball of crumpled feathers.

Pitch watched her tumble, and laughed.

The Summer Spirit's horror became rage and he exploded, fire bursting from his body in a pillar that reached the sky and set the building ablaze. Pitch was thrown back by the furious flames, but regained his footing, sidestepping to evade Ace's blue-tinged fireball and responding with his own shadowy spears.

The fire-user avoided the dark lances, hearing them impact the ground behind him. Ace could feel himself tiring, his flames growing smaller, but he dashed forward and engaged anyway, fist igniting as he swung for Pitch's head. The Nightmare King dodged the punch and his following three blows, the smile never leaving his face—

There was the sound of a blade piercing flesh.

Ace gasped, eyes widening with pain. He looked down at the sword hilt sticking from his chest in shock, and a shudder went through his frame. Pitch observed the Summer Spirit's numb confusion with a chuckle, studying him with amusement as Ace's mind refused to comprehend what had happened, his mouth opening and closing silently.

An involuntary whimper escaped Ace's lips and his shaking fingers scrabbled at the hilt of the sword, failing to grab it. The Nightmare King smirked sadistically as he watched the fire-user writhe like a fish on a hook, twisting the blade cruelly. Blood trickled over his and the Ace's hands, staining them both red, and dripped onto the rooftop between them. The fire-user gave a choked gurgle and more crimson splashed over his chin.

"You died with a blow to the back when you were human." Pitch murmured, releasing his grip on the sword hilt. "I thought I might as well do the opposite, for a matching set!"

Pitch kicked Ace hard in the gut as he shouted the last word, sending the Summer Spirit flying off the roof and plummeting to the cold ground in an alleyway. The fire-user hit the cobblestone with a thud and the air was knocked out of his lungs. He heard the sword snap where it had exited his back, the broken part of the blade cutting into his skin as he landed on it. Another bolt of pain accompanied the ache in his chest and if he had a voice he would have screamed.

Ace moaned, struggling to sit up as he grasped feebly at the remains of black sword still in his chest. He managed to wrap his fingers around the hilt, but his attempt to remove the blade only caused him to nearly black out. The fire-user gave up on his panic-induced goal, shifting his arms and legs in an effort to rise to his feet. All he managed to do was get to his knees, leaning heavily to one side as he barely remained conscious. Each breath felt like someone was grabbing his lungs and squeezing them with hands full of broken glass. The Nightmare King landed lightly beside the fire-user, straightening with a casual air.

"Why did you have to do this, Ace? Why did you have to escape? If you had just stayed put, you might have lasted longer. Oh well. At least you put up a better fight than the last Spirit of Summer, I'll give you that." Pitch said sincerely as he walked slowly towards the injured fire-user.

He reached down and ripped the sword from the fire-user's chest.

Ace let out a silent, agonized scream, his damaged vocal chords unable to voice his pain. With every beat of his heart he felt more blood drip down his front and back, and he found his mind being pulled back to his last moments in Marineford. Ace pressed a hand to his chest injury, trying to stem the flow, but his palm became sticky in seconds. He pulled his hand away, shocked to see the large amount of red coating his fingers.

"Do you see now?" Pitch asked gently. "You are not as invincible as you think you are. Foolish boy. You really should have learned your lesson from last time."

Ace tried to sit up again but his strength failed him. He was barely able to breathe, each intake of air being accompanied by a gurgling wheeze. Pitch had run him through exactly where Akainu had impaled him, but unlike with the Admiral, the wound was smaller and had not caused in his organs to be burnt to a crisp. The fire-user could not decide whether this injury was less or more painful than the one that caused his previous death.

I'm going to die again, he realized with a jolt. I'm going to die I'm gonna die I'mgonnadie

Pitch approached with slow, deliberate steps, savoring his victory as he sauntered towards the injured Spirit. "It's truly a shame. You are quite powerful, worthy of being one of my allies. Too bad your arrogance is going to cause your death… Again."

He kicked Ace in the side, directly on his infected wound and caused him to let out a silent gasp. The Nightmare King's next blow— to the gut— made the Summer Spirit slam into the wall, blood splattering onto the bricks as he slid to the ground. Black spots danced in front of Ace's eyes and the weaker side of him began to wish he would just fall into unconsciousness already. Pitch stalked over to him again like a hunting tiger playing with its food, eyes gleaming with loathing and rage.

"Where's your precious family now, Ace? Hmm? Where's your brothers? Where's Jack? You should have known they wouldn't bother to save you. You should have known they would abandon you. You're worthless. You're a monster. Why would anyone care for you?!"

Pitch kicked the fallen Summer Spirit in the stomach and chest repeatedly, fury in his every blow. Ace curled up, hand pressed against his wound, and flinched with each harsh strike. A foot met his head and his skull cracked against the concrete, his sight blurring and doubling. For a moment it wasn't Pitch attacking and hating him, but Luffy, and all the fire-user could do was silently apologize.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry I couldn't see you again. I'm sorry I broke my promise. I'm sorry…

The hallucination faded and Pitch ceased his frenzied attack, breathing heavily. Ace trembled on the ground, eyed half-closed as his vision swam. The Nightmare King grabbed the fire-user's chin, lifting him slightly and meeting his pained orange eyes.

"Still alive?" Pitch questioned. "How stubborn of you. Don't worry, Ace. It's over now. I'm finally going to let you sleep."

Ace could not respond. The Nightmare King scoffed and threw the fire-user against the wall, leaving him slumped beside the brick in a sitting position.

The Summer Spirit slowly met the Spirit of Fear's gaze and refused to avert his eyes from Pitch's own. He was ashamed to note that he could not die with a smile this time. He had too much that he wanted to do— too much unfinished business, too many regrets— to die with a grin now. At least he was still unafraid of death itself. Pitch had not taken that from him.

Pitch raised his spear above his head and Ace looked up at him blankly, quietly accepting his demise. There was still no fear, but there was regret.

Luffy, Jack, Sabo… I'm sorry I didn't make it back.

Pitch stiffened.

His arm shook, and a pained expression crossed his face. It was quickly followed by an array of emotions, his visage shifting too quickly for Ace to identify any of his thoughts. The Nightmare King stayed in that position for a long while, spear held aloft, body rigid, and as the minutes passed he still did not kill the Summer Spirit. The fire-user could only stare in confusion as the Spirit of Fear lowered his weapon, refraining from dealing the finishing blow.

"You'll die soon anyway." Pitch said coldly.

The Nightmare King turned on his heel and vanished into the shadows, leaving a wounded Ace alone.

Ace watched him go, hand pressed uselessly to his wound. His remaining energy abandoned him and he slumped fully to the ground, the wall unable to support him any longer. The cobblestone alley was icy and slick against his skin, and he could only observe dispassionately as his blood flowed outward in a pool around him.

A new, but familiar coldness was gripping Ace's limbs, and he realized that he was indeed dying again. The fire-user's hand slipped from his injury, unable to stem the flow of blood any longer, and he watched the puddle of crimson around him grow larger.

The thought of his brothers rose to the forefront of his mind and he closed his eyes, picturing Luffy, Jack, and Sabo. A solitary tear trickled down his cheek.

I'm going to die because of my pride again. I deserve this. It's my fault. I'm so stupid. Ace thought distantly, unable to feel the cold stone against his back anymore. Jack, Luffy, Sabo… I'm so sorry…

He was going to leave them again. Permanently, this time. Luffy and Sabo would never know he had been resurrected unless Law told them. Jack would be alone again, searching fruitlessly for the brother he would never find. Oyaji and the others would not have a clue he had ever lived past twenty. The Guardians would never know him.

As for Ace himself…

I want to do so much more. I want to live.

The thought was sudden but strong, and Ace forced his heavy eyes open.

I want to live, he repeated. I want to live. For them and for me. There's so much I need to do. I can't die here. I won't.

He had fought so hard to survive the black sand, to escape his prison, and to regain his freedom. He was not going to let Pitch make all his effort be for nothing.

Think of my brothers. Think of the Whitebeard Pirates. I want to see them again.

Ace shifted, shaking slightly as he put a hand over his chest injury once more. He knew it was pointless because of the blood dripping from the exit wound in his back, but right then he would do anything that would even partially stem the flow of blood and delay his demise just a little bit.

I want to meet the Guardians— The real ones. North, Sandy, Bunny, Tooth, the Man in the Moon. I want to hug Luffy, find Sabo, and fly over the ocean with Jack. I want to explore the Earth, usher in Summer, just live and be free…

Logic told him that there was no chance of him surviving. Only Jack would be able to see him, and the likelihood of the Winter Spirit finding him here was so far in the negatives it was laughable. The probability of a passing human being able to see and assist him was even lower. But Ace refused to accept his fate and let death take him, refused to let it separate him from his family again.

I can't give up. I need to hold on. Just a little longer.

A shudder went through Ace and he coughed up flecks of crimson, feeling it dribble down his cheek. The fire-user forced his body to keep breathing, even as his vision darkened. It hurt so badly but he clung to the pain. It let him know he was still living, still fighting.

Hold on… Just hold on…

Ace's eyes slipped closed once more and the pain lessened, growing distant as his senses deserted him.

He thought of his three brothers, and wondered what Sabo looked like now. He thought of the Whitebeard Pirates, and imagined their shock when they saw him again. He thought of the Guardians, and looked forward to meeting them. He thought of Baby Tooth, and hoped she was all right.

He would see his brothers again. He would reunite with Oyaji and Marco and the others. He would finally be introduced to the legendary Guardians. He would thank Baby Tooth and Law.

He would live.

Hold on. Hold on.

"…Hold on…!"

Strange, but Ace thought he heard someone's voice…

And then everything was gone.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Being the First Mate of a Yonko was a tiresome job. There were crewmates to supervise, upstart rookies to fight, missions to hand out, paperwork to complete, and moronic Marines to ruthlessly defeat, humiliate, or ignore. But first and foremost a First Mate must look after their Captain.

Benn Beckmann loved his Captain and his duty, he truly did, but at times he felt that Shanks was the most difficult of the Four Yonko to deal with.

Despite being known as a partier by many, it was rare for Shanks to actually get fall-on-the-floor drunk. He pretended to be intoxicated and obtuse often enough, his naturally laid back, benign personality only adding to the image of unbothered casualness and drunken apathy he portrayed, but in reality rarely went past the tipsy stage of drinking. Shanks could handle his alcohol, and so being drunk was usually not the reason why he was whining at his First Mate.

Instead he complained because he was being dragged away from booze without being even slightly buzzed.

"But Bennnnnn." Shanks wailed in a voice that reminded his First Mate of a two year-old. "I barely had a bottle. Why are you being so stingy?"

If Benn had less respect for his Captain, he would be pulling him along by his ear through the street. Or by his precious red hair. Luckily for Shanks, the First Mate had decided marching him away by his arm with a gun held in his hand was warning enough.

"We aren't here to party." The First Mate of the Red Hair Pirates reminded his Captain sternly. "We're here to meet with Whitebeard, remember? You'll drink enough with him."

Shanks frowned at him, unimpressed. "That's never kept me from hitting the bars before. And you've never stopped me. What's so different this time?"

This time, I don't think you'd stop. Benn thought but did not say.

He knew his Captain well enough to recognize the strained, distant look in his eyes. It was the stare that Shanks gained when self-respect and restraint went out the window, replaced by a deep worry and Sea King-sized pile of stress. Benn suspected that if he let the red-haired Yonko go through with his usual partying now, he and Whitebeard would end up in a war rather than a peaceful meeting due to the younger Captain destroying a chunk of the Strongest Man's island in a drunken rage. The fact that Shanks had left all of his crew except Benn at the Red Force while he went to a bar only supported his theory.

"You're scaring the locals." Was all Benn said, tipping his head slightly in the direction of two nervous-looking civilians.

Shanks gave them an easy-going smile, which neither returned. Instead they fled into a building as if a giant man-eating tiger were on their tails, the door slamming behind them. Both pirates heard the locks click audibly.

"Huh. Tough crowd." The Yonko muttered. "They don't actually think that door would stop us? Do they?" He added after a pause.

"They're probably just waiting for Whitebeard to show up and kick us off the island." Benn said in a bland tone. "He won't be happy that you asked to meet on one of his territories."

Shanks shrugged. "He's the one who agreed to it." A shadow crossed his features. "I think he has an idea of what is happening too."

Benn did not ask what his Captain was talking about. He was uncertain of the exact reason why Shanks had requested an audience with Whitebeard, but knew it had to do with all of the disappearances and strange attacks that had been happening throughout the world. The red-haired Yonko was being surprisingly tight-lipped about the whole affair, changing the subject or making distractions when asked about it, and Benn had long ago accepted that Shanks would tell him more about the situation when he wanted to. Still, it was odd for him to be so secretive.

"I'm surprised that Whitebeard allowed us to come here." Shanks commented as he stretched his arm over his head and cracked his neck. He continued a few more paces with a leisurely gait, and a smile crossed his face. "I guess the old man trusts me enough not to blow something u—"

An explosion ripped through the air, sending waves of heat towards the two pirates. Shanks's hair was visibly blown back from his face, the red strands settling messily when the gust of wind ceased. The Captain and First Mate looked up to see fire burst into the sky, and impressive inferno reaching for the clouds. The few remaining civilians in the street scrambled into their homes, some screaming loudly as they ran away from the flames. Shanks was already moving, racing towards the blast with Benn at his side.

"On record, I did not do it." The Yonko said awkwardly.

Benn merely grunted, pulling out his other gun. It took longer than the pirates liked to make their way through the maze-like streets to the site, but the Yonko and First Mate eventually halted before the building where the explosion had originated, peering upward. To Benn's surprise, there was hardly a blaze on the roof, the remaining fire going out as he watched.

Based on the size of that explosion, the building should be rubble. A Devil Fruit, perhaps? He mused, stumped by the lack of damage. Or maybe it wasn't an explosion, but a firestorm...

Next to him, Shanks surveyed the ground, no doubt looking for injured people. His gaze rested on the dark alleyway next to the now not-burning building and he drew in a breath.

"Shit."

The Yonko darted forward into the dark, kneeling down next to something Benn could not see and reaching out. He jerked, flinching backwards violently, and the First Mate raced to his Captain's side, prepared for the threat that had caused Shanks to react so.

There was nothing there.

Benn only saw an empty alley, but Shanks swore out loud.

"Damn it all!"

His hand pressed against thin air, his eyes focused and hard as he let loose another string of curses. The First Mate could only watch his Captain's actions in bewilderment, unable to comprehend what he was doing, unless, unless…

Is something there?

"Hold on!" Shanks said forcefully. "Hold on, kid. You can't die here. Luffy will want to see you again." He turned to Benn, eyes burning with a frantic light. "Why are you just standing there? Help me!"

Benn's mouth moved wordlessly for a second. Eventually he found his voice. "Captain, there's nothing there."

Still pressing against air, Shanks whirled to fully face his First Mate. Benn balked at the expression on his face. It was a rare for him to ever see the Yonko so angry and so scared.

"Are you kidding—? Benn, Portgas D. Ace is laying here, bleeding to death. He needs help!"

Benn could not believe it. For a moment, he thought he had to be dreaming. Why else would his Captain be acting so oddly— even for him— claiming that Monkey D. Luffy's already-dead brother was currently dying in the alleyway?

Shanks was not the type to joke about such things. Nor was he drunk or crazy enough to see hallucinations. Benn knew his Captain, trusted the man more than anyone else, and if he said Portgas D. Ace was there then that meant—

And Benn saw him.

Fire Fist Ace materialized before his eyes, limp and pale under Shanks's bloody hand. Crimson covered his skin, along with strange black markings that made Benn's stomach churn at the mere sight of them. But it was the gaping wound in the kid's chest that worried the First Mate the most, and his questions and shock were shoved aside as instinct took over.

"We need to get him to a doctor." He said, stepping forward and scooping the kid carefully into his arms. "Keep pressure on the wound."

Shanks nodded, white sleeve and shirt covered with red. His expression was taut with concern, and Benn briefly wondered if it was because Ace was Luffy's brother, Roger's son, or was simply Ace. The Yonko did not know the kid well, but what he had seen of Fire Fist had been enough to leave a lasting and positive impression.

Benn recalled the kid's polite, genuine gratefulness towards Shanks for saving Luffy's life, and felt a twinge of urgency. He was a nice guy, a man of trust, and he did not deserve to die here like this. Fire Fist had somehow survived Marineford, and Benn and Shanks were not about to let him fall again.

"Take him to the Red Force." Shanks ordered. "The hospital won't help him."

Benn could sense a hidden meaning in his Captain's layered words, adding his suspicions to the other questions that had been piling up since Shanks demanded to see Whitebeard. His Captain knew more than he was letting on, but Benn would not press for answers. He did not voice his racing thoughts, merely running for the Red Force with Shanks at his side.

They had a life to save.

Chapter Text

It was pure chaos.

Enraged black clouds covered the sky, shifting and angry as they churned like a dark smoke monster taking form. Lightning split the atmosphere, streaking towards the ground as it ripped the air apart. The booms of thunder never ceased, each concussive blast like a blow to the skull as nature bellowed its dominance, daring anyone to try to stand before its wrath. The wind howled, perilous and rampaging as it pushed through the sky with a force that could send ships flying.

The only souls brave— or foolish— enough to face the storm sat within a sturdy red sleigh, holding on tight as the vehicle weaved through the hazardous, electrified air. Bunnymund was nearly thrown from the flying contraption as it jerked to the left, the latest bolt barely missing North's pride and joy. He clung to the sleigh like his life depended on it, fur standing on end and emerald eyes wide and panicked.

"I know that Manny said this world's weather was crazy, but this is ridiculous!" he shouted.

North laughed heartily as he evaded another lightning strike, watching the jagged silvery streak shatter the ground below. "Where's your sense of wonder, Bunny? I think this is amazing!"

"The entire island is a huge lightning storm. It's an island of lightning. The island where it was blizzarding all bloody day was bad enough, but at least we wouldn't be fried there!" the Pooka snapped from his hunched position in the back seat. Another bolt made his fur fluff up and he practically shrieked. "Why are we even here?!"

Lightning ripped a jagged path through the inky sky, bursting from the clouds like an omen of death. The Guardian of Wonder gave another carefree chuckle and pulled at the reigns, causing the sleigh to veer to the right. Bunny slid on the seat, bumping into Toothiana, who shot him a sympathetic look. Her fingers were wrapped around the edge of the sleigh so tightly they were white, and her turquoise feathers were ruffled with nerves.

"Jack likes storms and trouble. I thought he might be here." North claimed easily.

Bunny snarled at him, quivering as another crash of thunder hit his sensitive ears. The long appendages flattened on his head. "Even Jack isn't so off his rocker that he'd fly in a thunderstorm. You did this just to mess with me didn't you? You ratbag!"

North just grinned at him. A twitch of the reigns sent them soaring out of the storm, the air calming the moment they broke out from under the clouds. The Guardian of Wonder lowered the sleigh closer to the ocean, and Bunny took a moment to slow his oxygen intake, ears twitching as he listened to the whispering waves below.

"That was fun." North said cheerfully.

"I hate you." Bunny growled.

Tooth ignored them both, wringing her hands as she looked around them. "Finding Jack is going to be a lot harder than we thought, isn't it? I thought the Snow Globe would take us straight to him, but instead we ended up on that snowy island…"

They glided over the waves, close enough that Bunny could feel the spray on his fur. The ocean murmured softly, almost gently, but the Guardian of Hope knew better than to think it was friendly or tamed.

"Popping up next to Jack would have been too easy. This way, we have an adventure to look forward to, a whole world to explore!" North said jovially. His merriment dimmed slightly and he adopted a serious look. "There is no use in worrying about what we cannot control. We will run into Jack and Ace eventually. I feel it… in my belly!"

Bunny was about to make a snide comment when the waves below them rippled. North yanked on the reigns and the sleigh shot upward out of the way as a gigantic fish burst from the sea, mouth agape. Having missed its target, the monster slipped back below the surface, watching the Spirits with feral eyes. It was easily the size of North's palace, and both Bunny and Tooth gawped at the enormous creature as it grew disinterested and disappeared back into the depths.

"What was that?" the Guardian of Memories squeaked.

"I do believe that was a 'Sea King'." North said in the same excited tone as a child who got their most wanted gift for Christmas.

"I hate this world." Bunny moaned.

ROTGOPROTGOP

It truly was a beautiful day. The sky was a clear blue above, the ocean was calm and serene below, and a soft wind ruffled Marco's hair, tousling it as it continued its journey out to sea. The Phoenix stood beside Whitebeard on the deck of the Moby Dick, feeling the ship dip and sway gently beneath his feet, but could not find the fortitude to enjoy the niceness of the afternoon.

The atmosphere on the Moby Dick was tense, tenser than Marco had seen in a while. All eyes were on the Red Force, which was anchored out at sea just ahead of the larger ship. Unlike what Shanks had first requested, the Yonko was not at one of Whitebeard's islands itself. Instead, the territory was just in sight, as if the Captain of the Red Force had belatedly decided it would be best not to disturb the locals. The Phoenix highly doubted that was the reason Shanks was not on the island like what had been agreed on, and wondered what the red-haired Yonko had done this time.

The fourteen present Commanders gathered around their Oyaji, close enough to have a united front, but far enough away from him that it would not seem like they were making a threat. Some gazes were wary, some neutral, but none looked forward to the meeting between the two Yonko. Having learned their lesson from last catastrophe, the weaker crew members were all safely below deck. Not everyone could stand in Red Hair Shanks' presence, after all.

The Phoenix could not help but be reminded of the last time Shanks had called for an audience with Whitebeard, and quickly aborted that train of thought before it could lead him down a distressing and guilt-ridden path. Three years later, Ace's death— Marco's failure to save him— was fresh in the First Division Commander's mind. He still had nightmares of burning flesh and splattering blood, his youngest brother's final words often being replaced by hurt and accusations in the darkest recesses of his dreams.

If the Whitebeard Pirates had managed to get their revenge on Blackbeard for what he had done, Marco may have been able to sleep more soundly at night, but as it were, they had failed. They had underestimated Teach— again— and had lost the Payback War they had fought with him. It had been a disheartening experience, but at least there had been few casualties.

Marco forced his thoughts out of the past, focusing on the present. The Moby Dick had pulled up beside the Red Force, and a gangplank was placed between the ships. The Phoenix did not know why Shanks had insisted on speaking with Whitebeard, but he dreaded the meeting without quite understanding why. Even Oyaji did not know the full details. The red-haired Yonko was being stubbornly secretive about it all, and it was only the grim, serious way in which he'd demanded Whitebeard hurry in his most recent call that stopped the older Yonko from pressing for answers.

Shanks strode onto the Moby Dick, and Marco's dread deepened. The pirate looked strained. There was no other way to describe the frazzled, dark look in his eyes as he walked up to Whitebeard. His seriousness was only made more apparent when he only nodded at Marco, not even asking him to join his crew, and there was also a noticeable lack of sake in his hands.

The Phoenix briefly wondered if the world was ending.

"Whitebeard." Shanks greeted shortly.

"Brat." The older Yonko replied, a tankard lying untouched at his side. "You have quite some nerve, demanding to see me like this."

The red-haired pirate said nothing for a moment, expression growing stiffer. Marco and the other Commanders tensed.

"My original reason for calling you can wait. Something else has come up." Shanks said forebodingly.

"Then speak, brat." The giant Captain commanded.

Shanks's sharp eyes flicked over the Commanders before returning to Whitebeard. His lips pressed together. "I'm assuming that if I insisted on this be said in private, you'd just want me to tell you in front of your children?" His tone was not disrespectful in the slightest, instead holding a weary understanding.

"You would be correct in your assumptions." Whitebeard rumbled with a low laugh. "You're learning, brat."

Shanks did not smile. "I'd still rather not say this here. The information I have is… sensitive."

The elder Yonko finally took a gulp of his sake, eyeing the pirate over the rim of the cup. "It's not like you to be so cryptic. My children can be trusted."

Marco hoped Shanks would drop it. Any more insistence would cause Whitebeard to go from cautiously amused to outraged at the disrespect shown to his crew's bond. The Phoenix could already picture the hefty amount of Beri it would take to cover the costs of the two Yonko fighting on and demolishing parts of the ships. To his relief, the Captain of the Red Force merely let loose a sigh.

"Very well. I'm about to tell you something you won't believe." Shanks said in a solemn tone, firmly meeting Whitebeard's eyes. "But know it is the truth." He paused, almost as if he were readying himself for a storm. "I found Portgas D. Ace." Shanks revealed. "He's alive, and on my ship right now."

Silence.

For a moment, all Marco could hear was the wind, the creaking ship, and the brushing waves, all accompanied by the low hissing and beeping of the machines attached to his Oyaji. If he was more naïve, he may have let his attention drift to the soft sounds, allowing himself to be absorbed by the foreboding quiet. But he knew better, and so he braced himself.

The wave of Conqueror's Haki nearly blasted the Phoenix off his feet. A few of his fellow Commanders could not take the onslaught and crumpled to their knees, eyes dilating and sweat trickling down their faces as they fought to remain conscious. Marco stayed upright through sheer force of will, face remaining stoic even as his own rage threatened to break free of his rigid control. His bubbling fury also helped contain the other emotions that wanted to burst out of him, a churning mixture of confusion, shock, fear, and possible joy writhing beneath his calm façade.

We saw Ace die. The memory of Ace's death tried to reveal itself but he brutally locked it away. We saw it. How can Shanks say he still lives?

The alert Commanders became a mob of angry pirates, shouting questions and snarling threats at the red-haired Yonko for daring to claim Fire Fist Ace still lived. Whitebeard rose to his feet, eyes furious and cold and his bisento in his hand, but before he could speak, Shanks did.

"Before you get pissy, think Newgate. I would never lie about this." The red-haired Yonko said harshly, unmoved by the fierce blast of Haki.

Shanks did not raise his own Conqueror's Haki to counter Whitebeard's, but he did not submit either, meeting the elder pirate's gaze evenly. The standoff lasted for one minute, then stretched to two, neither Yonko willing to back down. Abruptly, the tension in the air faded, and the elder Yonko sat down heavily, the anger draining from him. His voice was low and curt.

"Explain. Now."

Shanks did not even raise an eyebrow at the demand, happy to oblige. "Benn and I found Ace in an alleyway on this island. He was injured and unconscious, but alive. We don't know where he's been or what happened to him, but he looks like he went through hell. He's still knocked out. My doctor will go into the specifics."

The terse invitation to go on the Red Force was obvious, and Marco and a majority of the Commanders found themselves moving forward in response. Shanks put up his hand in a halting motion, expression relaxing slightly now that he knew the Whitebeard Pirates were not going to attempt to attack him because of the news he bore.

"Hold on. All of you can't come over. James will only let a couple people in at a time."

Whitebeard was already detaching many of his medical machines from his body, ignoring his children's protests. He strode forward, tall and strong. "Marco, Izo, with me. The rest of you will remain here."

Marco could see his brothers— specifically Haruta and Namur— holding back protests, but in the end no one argued with their Oyaji's decision. The three Whitebeard Pirates followed Shanks onto his ship, with the Phoenix idly noticing Yasopp up in the crow's nest. The sniper waved and put away his weapon without an ounce of sheepishness or shame. The rest of the Red Hair Pirates ignored the newcomers, going about their business casually as if a fellow Yonko and two of his Commanders being led onto their ship was a normal occurrence that happened every other day.

"Just so you are aware, you might not be able to see Ace at first. Someone's… power is keeping him hidden from people. You have to believe he is there in order to see him." Shanks explained as he walked. Something nostalgic flashed through his expression before vanishing. "When I found him, Benn thought I was leaning on thin air."

"Understood." Marco said in a clipped voice.

Hiding someone from view was not that odd of an ability, all things considered. The Phoenix had seen less believable things during his many years on the sea, so he could readily accept that someone had the power to make others invisible. His mind drifted back to Marineford and he frowned, recalling another person who could not simply be seen.

Much of the battle after Ace's body had vanished was a vague blur of anguish in Marco's memory, but he remembered the ice and wind that had attacked Akainu with a rage he himself wished he could show to the Admiral. He had seen ice lances appear out of nowhere within the swirling snow and gale, watched them impale Akainu, and after recalling Ace's claims about having a 'Wintery Guardian Angel', the Phoenix had seen… something.

The snow had been too thick for him to see clearly, but Marco had spotted a humanoid shape within the blizzard, a vague outline of white and blue. On instinct he had called out to it, him, Jack Frost, and the mysterious figure had listened. The Phoenix did not understand why the 'Guardian Angel' had not slaughtered Akainu then and there before helping the pirates escape, but he still felt grateful to the mysterious, invisible friend of Ace.

Because of him, the Whitebeard Pirates and their allies had been able to leave Marineford with their lives, including Whitebeard. Marco knew his Oyaji had been prepared to sacrifice himself so his children could retreat, but Jack's snowstorm had made such a move unnecessary. Marco wondered if the Wintery Guardian knew he had saved Whitebeard's life. He also wondered where he had gone after Ace had died…

…Except Ace was not dead.

The news that Marco had been unable to comprehend suddenly clicked, and Marco felt emotions build up in his chest. He clenched his teeth in an attempt to keep them contained. The Phoenix did not know how to feel. Should he be happy? Worried? Confused? Hurt? Angry? Ace was alive, somehow. He had been injured, somehow. He was here, somehow.

How did he survive? Where has he been? Why didn't he come back to us?

A part of the Phoenix wanted to feel betrayed that Ace had not immediately revealed himself to be among the living after Marineford, but the logical side of him knew that it was likely the fire-user had a reason for avoiding his family. A reason that probably involved being held prisoner…

They reached the sickbay before Marco could continue that dark line of thought.

The doctor— James— was not the type of person one would think was a medical professional. His long blonde hair was held back in a bandanna that flaunted his crew's Jolly Roger, and his eyes were covered by rose-tinted sunglasses. His expression was set in a firm, stern look, not angry or scowling, but not joyful either. He also carried a sword with the air of someone who knew how to use it. Reddish sunglasses reflected in the light, and Marco did not need to see James's eyes to know he was looking at the Whitebeard Pirates with suspicion.

Shanks stepped into the doctor's territory, grinning easily as he clapped the man on his shoulder. "Don't look so grim, James. They're friendly, I swear."

"Hm." James grunted eloquently, still eyeing the Whitebeard Pirates skeptically.

The Captain of the Red Force gave an exaggerated sigh, turning back to his friendly rivals. "Don't worry about James. He's just a bit overprotective of his patients."

"Can you blame me after I worked on the kid?" James said a little darkly. "He went through hell."

Shanks's smile faded and he adopted a solemn look. "I know. Might as well show him to these guys before they break apart the ship."

His tone held a slight warning, and Marco realized blue flames were licking at his shoulders. Whitebeard's fists were clenched and shimmered with the energy of his power, while Izo crossed his arms defiantly, doing his best not to reach for his guns. The two Devil Fruit using pirates forced their powers back under control, all signs of them ceding from their bodies.

"Fine." James said shortly, though his posture relaxed a little. He looked pleased, though Marco could not understand why. "He's in the private room. This way."

They went deeper into the medical bay, passing by standard white beds and neatly ordered equipment. Shanks and James halted outside the door at the end of the bay, and the doctor spoke up.

"You can go, Benn."

The Red Hair First Mate stepped out from behind a machine, and Marco blinked. He had not even realized the man was there, but the gun he was placing back in its holster revealed his reason for hiding. A bead of warmth blossomed in the Phoenix's chest as he realized how seriously Shanks and his crew were taking Ace's safety. The red-haired Yonko had already done more than Marco thought he would, and despite himself he felt his respect for the partying, rowdy pirate rise just a little bit.

James opened the door and paused, looking behind him at the three Whitebeard Pirates. "When we said Ace looks like he's been through hell, we meant it. He's been beaten up pretty badly."

"Understood." Whitebeard said roughly.

The doctor nodded, and led the way into the room. Marco's eyes instantly found the occupant of the sole bed in the space, and his breathe caught in his throat.

Ace was almost as pale as the sheets he was tucked under. Bruises were littered across the fire-user's skin, making a collage of yellow, green, and blue splotches. Some were in the shape of hand prints and fists, and Marco brutally refused to follow that line of thought further, because if he did he would go kill something. Or someone.

Marco's gaze locked on the bandages wrapped around Ace's torso, going from just under his armpits and reaching under the sheets. They were already tinged red, sullied and unclean, and in need of changing soon. Despite knowing it was not the case the Phoenix kept picturing a gaping hole below the strips of cloth. He quickly averted his gaze, finally noticing the most disturbing thing about his lost brother's appearance.

The black tattoo-like markings that were drawn through Ace's flesh from his neck to his toes only added to the First Division Commander's dismay, the lines oozing a malice that was almost physical in nature. He did not need the doctor to explain that the black veins were poisonous and wrong, the phoenix in him hissing and urging him to remove the threat to his little brother. Marco wanted nothing more than to rip the streaks away from the fire-user's body, every glance at them making his stomach churn sickeningly.

Ace's bandaged chest rose and fell faintly, each breath clouding the mask over his mouth and nose. Machines beeped lowly around him, scanning his vitals and only providing more proof that he did indeed live. Marco took a moment to just watch the steady movement of the fire-user's torso, irrationally fearing that each intake of oxygen would be his last.

But his fear was unfounded. Ace continued to breathe. His heart continued to beat. He was… he was alive.

Something scared and heartbreaking wanted to burst free of Marco, but he did not let it. He could not let it. Not here.

"I can't believe it." Izo whispered.

Beside Marco, Whitebeard made a sound the Phoenix thought his Captain was incapable of making. It was not quite shocked, not quite relieved, and not quite broken, but held a fragile grief that could become a storm of guilt and sadness if left unchecked. The large Yonko approached his lost son almost hesitantly, as if he were afraid going near the young man would cause him to vanish. Carefully, gently, the giant man placed his hand on Ace's head.

"My son…" Whitebeard whispered, brushing a large hand through Ace's hair.

The fire-user flinched and shivered, unconsciously pulling away from his touch, and Marco saw something in his Oyaji's calm mask crack. The doctor spoke before the Yonko could shatter, either thinking the Whitebeard Pirates had enough time to process what they were seeing or sparing Whitebeard from having a breakdown in front of distant allies.

"Ace was stabbed through the chest when Shanks found him. He also had multiple contusions and broken ribs. Evidence suggests he was impaled and severely beaten." The doctor reported stoically. "I managed to stabilize him, but he has not woken since we brought him in."

Izo swallowed visibly, tucking a loose hair behind his ear and looking one second away from losing his composure. Marco could relate.

"Is Ace comatose?" the okama asked tightly.

"No." the doctor said. "He's asleep. He just can't wake up."

His words did not make anyone present feel better.

"Explain." Whitebeard demanded for the second time, voice low and dangerous.

James complied without batting an eye. "That—" He said, pointing at a few of the black markings on Ace's arm. "—is made of some type of sand-like substance. I was able to take a sample from his stomach wound and it appears to be mixed in his bloodstream. From what I can tell, it's a type of malevolent sedative. It keeps the victim asleep, not unconscious."

"How do you know?" Marco asked, not truly wanting the answer.

The doctor scowled darkly. "A scan of his brain waves shows him attempting to wake, only to be pulled back under. In addition to that, eye movement and increased respiration rate suggest he is trapped in the REM stage of sleep. He isn't cycling through the stages like he would normally, but he is not in a coma either. He's just… stuck."

Almost on cue, the monitor beside Ace's head started to beep rapidly. Before the pirates' terrified eyes, the fire-user's body began to jerk, back arching off the bed as his limbs spasmed and flailed. Marco instinctively grabbed Ace's shoulders, holding him down, only to be shoved away by the doctor.

"Don't! You could dislocate his shoulders." The blonde-haired man snapped.

"But—" Marco began, but James cut him off.

"It will pass."

Ace convulsed a few more times and then went limp, breathing evening out. The frantic beeping of the machine slowed to a less frenzied rate. James checked to make sure his throat was clear and stepped back, lifting his sunglasses and rubbing his eyes tiredly.

"This is the fourth seizure in an hour. He's also suffering from dehydration, malnourishment, exhaustion, internal bleeding, lacerations, sepsis, anemia, and an irregular body temperature. His temperature is approximately twenty-eight degrees below what it should be. His larynx is also strained, damaged, and swollen. It's unlikely he will be able to speak for a while."

Marco clenched his fists, careful not to let his nails break his skin. Any sign of blood— regenerative abilities or not— would cause the doctor to scold and fret over him, when it was Ace he should be worried about.

"What's 'sepsis'?" Izo questioned.

"Infections." The doctor said briefly. "In Ace's case, the wound on his side is inflamed and emitting a blackish pus. Based on the patterning around the lesion, I believe that is where he was infected by the sand."

"Do you think it was intentional?" Marco blurted. "Him being poisoned, I mean?"

James pushed his glasses up his nose, expression unreadable. "I'll hazard a guess and say yes. It would not surprise me if someone put the sand in his system to see how his body would react to it."

The fiery anger returned and Marco slowly understood why Shanks had been so upset and tense about the whole situation. It was hard to stay laid-back and detached knowing that a good kid like Ace had been hurt, almost murdered, and likely imprisoned and experimented on for who knew how long. Anger was also an effective means of holding back the shame the Phoenix felt that he had left his little brother in such a situation in the first place. Even though they had no way to know he was alive...

For a moment they just watched Ace breathe, the low beeping and the hisses of oxygen as it forced its way into his lungs being the only noises to break the silence. Again, Marco's eyes went to the ashen skin, the bandages, the bruises, the cuts, the marks, and the guilt that settled in his chest grew heavier, weighing on his heart and threatening to force him down to his knees under the pressure.

"How is he still alive?" the Phoenix found himself asking.

The doctor shifted uncomfortably. "Well, he is a D, and a Devil Fruit eater. They are quite durable."

"That's not what I meant." The Phoenix clarified. "How is he alive? We— We saw him die."

Whitebeard's face grew stony. Izo glared at the wall with shining eyes. Shanks looked at the floor, lips pursing. James shrugged helplessly.

"I don't have an answer for you. You'll have to ask Ace if— when he wakes up."

"He'll wake up." Izo stated ferociously. "He can't just come back from the dead somehow and leave again. Do you hear me?" The Sixteenth Commander turned his fierce glare to the sleeping fire-user. "I want answers, answers that you will give me. You are going to wake up and be fine and tell us where the hell you've been these past three years and, and—"

He broke off, a strained expression crossing his fair features as his jaw locked.

"Excuse me." The okama said stiffly, and walked swiftly out of the sickbay.

The remaining pirates watched him retreat, none commenting on the tears that were ruining his makeup. Marco hesitantly approached the bed, taking Ace's pale hand in his and careful not to pull at the IV that was attached to it. Again, the fire-user flinched when he was touched, shifting uncomfortably. The Phoenix noticed a familiar band around his wrist and frowned.

"Seastone?"

James was unapologetic. "Yes. We put a seastone bracelet on him just in case. The last thing we need is him bursting into flames here."

Does he even still have his Devil Fruit? Marco thought.

The Phoenix remembered the Mera Mera no Mi being auctioned as a prize in some type of tournament last year. They had been too far from Dressrosa to reach it in time, but Ace's thought-dead brother, Sabo, had won and eaten it. It was only because it was him that the Whitebeard Pirates did not go and hunt down the person who dared to take Ace's fruit. Devil Fruits only respawned when their eater died, so how did the Mera Mera no Mi reappear if Ace was still alive?

Marco shoved his questions away. There were more important things to be concerned about.

"We should move him to the Moby Dick." The Phoenix suggested. "So he'll wake up somewhere familiar."

James frowned at him. "That may be a good idea. I will continue to treat him on your ship."

It was not a request, and even Whitebeard knew better than to argue with a stubborn doctor.

"Of course." The Yonko said graciously, though with a slight bit of tired amusement. He was obviously thinking about his own nurses and their possessive mentality when it came to patients. His gaze locked onto the red-haired pirate that was standing in the corner and his eyes softened.

"I owe you, Shanks." Whitebeard said softly.

Shanks gave him a smile, accepting his gratitude with a slight nod. "I like the kid. He has a good soul. And he's fun at parties." He pushed away from the wall, stretching easily. "You should probably get some of your nurses to help move Ace. Otherwise James will try to do everything himself."

The doctor glared at his Captain, who smiled unapologetically. Watching the red-haired Yonko, Marco was struck by a sudden rush of unease. Now that his panic and confusion were subsiding, his questions and alertness returned, and he noticed that the easygoing man was hiding something. His smiles were a little too strained, his posture a little too tense, and his words a little too thought out. It was almost like he was hiding something. There was no other explanation the Phoenix could think of.

Marco could not help but feel that Shanks knew more than he let on.

ROTGOPROTGOP

The town was cute.

There was no other way to describe it. It was cute.

Quaint little white houses were lined up along quaint little cobblestone streets with cheerfully quaint people milling about, minding their own business as they went about their lives. The buildings looked more like enlarged doll houses than places where people lived, and the air was so welcoming that Jack wondered if he had accidentally stumbled upon a fantasy village. At least the people seemed to be normal enough, even if they were surprisingly friendly.

More than one civilian stopped to nod at and warmly greet the strangers in their town, though they only saw two. The invisible Guardian of Fun observed them all with a bemused air, brow furrowed slightly as a bewildered frown tugged at his lips.

"Did we somehow end up in East Blue? Or a dreamland? This place is way too peaceful." The Winter Spirit commented.

Sabo chuckled lowly and adjusted his hat, turning to the Winter Spirit. "Not all places in the New World are being threatened by monsters and evil. Some islands are actually quite calm."

To outsiders, it looked as if he were addressing the orange-haired woman who walked beside him, though there was a noticeable space between the two. None of the civilians gave the two Revolutionaries a second glance, their words unheard and their speaking to 'thin air' misinterpreted as them talking to each other. Jack walked casually between the two with his staff in one hand, taking in the sights with a raised eyebrow.

"This is so weird. I'm used to bad things happening everywhere I go on this world."

Koala gave a soft snort. "Despite what you think, the whole New World isn't a violent hellhole. But since you're so interested; this island is protected by Whitebeard. That's why it isn't attacked by pirates every day of the week."

She noticed something at a nearby newsstand and wandered closer to see it, leaning over as she studied whatever had caught her attention.

"Ah. That explains it." Jack nodded. "So why are we here? This place is so bubbly Pitch would probably die of disgust if he came here."

"We need more supplies before we head out to the island Hack told us about." Sabo reminded the Winter Spirit. His tone grew teasing. "Don't tell me you forgot humans need food."

"I need to eat too." Jack sniffed. "Though not nearly as much as you. Where do you put it all?"

"Are you really asking that when you've been with Ace for twenty-three years?" Sabo asked sarcastically and then shook his head. "Never mind. The supplies are being loaded onto our ship right now, so it won't be much longer."

Jack smiled and did his best not to stress about every second Ace stayed in Pitch's hands. "I know. I guess I can't just carry you with me through the sky, but I really hope it won't take too long to— Oof!"

A small body slammed into Jack and he stumbled, surprised by the contact. He looked down and met a tiny blonde-haired boy's wide eyes, the kid looking as stunned as the Guardian felt. The boy stepped back, peering up at the much-taller Spirit with innocent blue orbs.

"Sowwy, mister." The boy— who could not be more than four— squeaked.

He can see me? Yes! The Guardian mentally crowed. Jack gave the child a laid back smile and ruffled his hair. "It's fine, kiddo."

Before he could say more, a female voice called out. "Anthony! How many times do I have to tell you, no running?"

A woman with blonde hair the same shade as Anthony's walked up, taking his hand. Her eyes met Jack's and she smiled apologetically.

"I'm so sorry about my son, sir. He's always—"

She froze, skin turning a ghostly white. Jack and the Revolutionaries tensed, with Sabo looking behind them to see what was wrong, when the woman screamed.

"Jack Frost!" she shrieked. "The Winter Spirit is here!"

The terror in her voice shocked Jack into stillness, and he almost didn't react when a spear was thrown his way. Koala struck the weapon out of the air, and the two Revolutionaries closed around the Guardian like body guards. The atmosphere of the town went from peaceful to hostile in an instant, and the crowd merged around the three outsiders, fearful eyes all staring at the Winter Spirit.

"Get out of here, you monster!" a man shouted with a shaking voice.

"Leave our children alone!" another woman yelled, holding her little girl close.

"You won't take any of us! The Whitebeards will stop you!" a second man bellowed, and the townspeople voiced their defiant agreement.

Jack felt ill. Sabo grasped his arm, and Koala gripped his other hand.

"We have to go." The blonde-haired Revolutionary said softly, blue orbs eying the mob warily.

The Guardian nodded and took to the air, carrying the two humans easily as they flew over the gathering crowd. A few of the humans screamed in terror, while others began to throw objects at the retreating trio.

Sabo stopped a bottle from hitting Koala in the face while she prevented an apple away from striking Jack's side. The Winter Spirit twisted sideways to avoid a stream of bullets, and gasped as one went through Sabo's thigh, turning it into fire.

"It's fine! They're not seastone. Go, go!" the blonde Revolutionary urged.

The Guardian soared higher into the clouds, out of the villagers' sights. He spotted the small ship they had arrived on and descended directly onto the deck. Hack jumped slightly when they landed next to him, but Sabo regained his footing and strode forward purposely, barking an order.

"Set sail. We need to get out of here."

The Fishman did not question the blonde, hurrying to lower the sails. Distant shouts reached the ship, and Jack spotted the mob running towards them. Many were holding weapons, while those without brandished tools with a menacing air. The trickster in him wanted to laugh at the cliché nature of it all, but most of him felt strangely numb.

"Wind, help us out." He mumbled.

It obeyed instantly, blowing on the sails and sending them gliding out to sea. Jack turned back to the island, just able to hear the raised voices and angry— fearful— shouts directed at them at them as they retreated. The Wind tried to mute the yells but its efforts only amplified them in Jack's ears.

"That's right. Get out of here you demon!"

"We have to do a roll call. We need to make sure no one is missing."

"Who were those people with Frost? Do you think they were Revolutionaries like the papers claim?"

"I thought they were supposed to fight against oppression!"

"Do you think he'll come back to hurt us?"

"Don't worry. If he does, Whitebeard will get him."

Koala touched his arm and he twitched before forcing himself to give her an assuring smile. She was not fooled by his meager attempt, squeezing his hand before releasing it.

"I… saw this…" she murmured, handing him a piece of paper.

It was a Wanted Poster, with his face displayed prominently on the front.

'Winter Spirit' Jackson Overland Frost

Wanted Dead or Alive

Reward: 200,000,000 Beri

Jack felt no pride in the new bounty. Frost trickled over the poster, covering the numbers with a thin layer of ice. He let the paper slip from his fingers and flutter to the deck, mind clouding as he slowly realized why the civilians had been so hostile.

"They're blaming me for the disappearances, aren't they?" he whispered. "They're… they're making people fear me."

If Sabo or Koala said anything, Jack did not hear them, senses hazing as he processed what he had just learned and the horrific implications. Pitch had to be the source of this. He was making people believe in the Guardian not through love, hope, and fun, but through fear, just like he had wanted back when the Nightmare King had asked the Winter Spirit to be his ally.

The Guardian's stomach lurched and he leaned over slightly, physically sickened by the thought of having 'believers' who believed in him out of terror. Pitch was taking what should be a joyful and wonderful occurrence and turning it into something vile and unwanted. Jack would rather be walked through be a million people than have them see and be afraid of him.

I think I hate him. The Winter Spirit realized slowly. I think I actually hate Pitch Black. First he hurts and kidnaps Ace, then he kills a bunch of innocent people, and now he warps belief like this? How dare he. How dare he take something that is supposed to be good, pure, and wonderful and mutilate it like that!

Anger, dark and cold, formed in Jack's chest, and his eyes grew icy, changing from a brilliant blue to a cerulean-tinged white. He met Sabo's solemn gaze and when he spoke, his voice was like an arctic wind.

"This needs to stop. We're going to find Pitch, and we're going to bring him down. What he's done… It's unforgivable."

If Pitch thought making people fear Jack would draw the Winter Spirit to his side, he was sadly mistaken. The Guardian felt the savage fury grow stronger in his heart and his grip on his frosted staff tightened.

You've gone too far this time, Pitch. You've done something inexcusable. No matter what it takes, I'm stopping you. Even if I die trying.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Ace felt… warm.

The unfamiliar sensation of heat slowly registered with the fire-user, and he took a minute to enjoy the feeling of serenity and safety that wrapped around him like a blanket. But… he actually was wrapped in a blanket. Ace frowned unconsciously as he let his hands twitch over the soft material that covered him, urging his eyes to open so that he could figure out where he was.

The last thing he remembered before falling into blackness and nightmares was—

Stabbed-blood-hurt-pain-dying—

Ace shut the memory behind a wall in his mind, refusing to think about what had happened before he had fallen unconscious. At least, he was mostly sure that was his last real memory. It was difficult to know for certain. The Summer Spirit had been cycling through nightmares ever since then, and was proud to realize that he could identify the last few worlds he had woken in as hallucinations afterward.

He could still tell fiction from reality, even if it was only after his fears played out before him. He was not completely gone. He could still beat this.

The fire-user felt his lips twitch into a smile, and felt a rush of confusion. Why was he so happy? Why did he feel so safe and warm? Why…?

I escaped. I escaped, I'm free, and I'm alive.

If he had the energy, Ace would have laughed aloud. He was still having nightmares and he was still infected by the black sand, but he was out. He had gotten away from Pitch, and had apparently been found by someone after the Nightmare King had—

Don't think.

"Ace?"

The fire-user twitched when the unfamiliar voice spoke, too close for comfort. His stomach twisted with nerves, and he briefly wished he had pretended to still be asleep. But he was not dead, so that meant the speaker had helped him, right? They— he?— had healed him after—

Repress.

Taking a chance, Ace lifted his heavy eyelids, letting his gaze roam over his surroundings. He was in a bed in a medical bay, the clean and orderly space completely dominated by the color white. He vaguely recognized the hospital on the Moby Dick, though he supposed any infirmary could have those cursed white walls. The bright opposite of grey and black hurt the Summer Spirit's eyes and he winced, lifting a hand to cover them. Odd, but he thought he would be in more pain after what Pitch had—

Forget.

Ace uncovered his eyes, letting them drift to the only person in the room. He did not recognize the man, but his white coat pinned him as a doctor of some sort. The Summer Spirit hoped he was the healing kind of doctor. Because the other kind of 'doctor' that wore white coats tended to cut him open and—

That wasn't real. Breathe.

"You're awake." The doctor said pleasantly. "How are you feeling? Do you hurt anywhere?"

Ace opened his mouth to respond but no sound came out. He swallowed roughly, gritting his teeth when the action caused pain to flare through his aching throat and tried again. His efforts yielded no results.

The doctor noticed his struggle and waved his hands in a stopping motion. "It's all right. Don't try to speak. Your larynx is damaged. I'm afraid you won't be able to talk for a while."

Ace frowned at him, not pleased by the news. If he could not speak, how was he supposed to apologize to Sabo and Luffy for leaving them? The fire-user paused as he comprehended what he just thought and he found himself smiling a little again.

Sabo's alive! His mind sang happily.

That was right. He had to find his brothers. Ace struggled to sit up but the doctor put his hands on his shoulders, lightly pushing him back onto the bed. The fire-user went still when the man touched him, his skin crawling where the doctor's hands met his skin.

"Oh no you don't. You're not running around just yet. You Gol D.'s are always so reckless and arrogant, aren't you? You're still injured."

Ace blinked at the man, lips pressing together. Didn't the doctor understand he had better things to do than heal? He needed to search for his three brothers. It wasn't like he was that badly wounded—

The fire-user looked down, noticing the bandages around his chest and stomach, and a shudder went through his lithe frame. Memories of pain and a brutal beating threatened to force their way to the front of his mind but he locked them behind a door, skillfully suppressing them.

"Just let me look over you to make sure you're okay, all right?" the doctor asked reasonably, not appearing to notice his patient's distress.

Ace bit his lip and nodded reluctantly. The sooner the doctor saw he was fine, the sooner he could begin his self-appointed mission to locate his family.

The doctor prodded gently at his ribs and stomach, expression set in one of deep focus. Ace watched him warily, flinching at every touch. It was like the man's fingers were daggers instead of skin and bone, stabbing the fire-user despite the doctor's careful precision. Ace did his best to stay still, unwilling to antagonize the man who was fully capable of harming him if he wanted to.

Something in the back of his mind whispered that his first priority shouldn't be how to make people not hurt him and that having such a mentality was bad, but before Ace could follow that line of thought, the doctor picked up a scalpel. The fire-user's gaze zeroed in on the sharp utensil, and the horror paralyzed him, icy fear ripping through his frame.

The doctor noticed his expression and his own features softened. "It's all right. I'm just going to remove these bandages." He explained calmly, as if he were speaking to a frightened child.

I pretty much am a frightened child, Ace thought bitterly with a surge of self-loathing.

He watched warily as the doctor cut away the bandages that were wrapped around his chest, the man careful not to nick his patient's skin. Ace relaxed minutely as he observed each accurate slice, the doctor gradually making his way upward. The doctor smiled comfortingly at him, twisting his hand, and dragged the scalpel across the fire-user's throat.

Ace's mind went blank, but his numbness was slapped away by pain, his body jerking as it comprehended that his jugular had been slit. His next breath came out as a wet gurgle, and crimson splattered over his chest and chin, quickly turning the white sheets read. The doctor watched his patient hemorrhage with a serene expression.

"I'm sorry." The doctor said sincerely. "I can't allow you to come back, Gol D. Ace. Some of my brothers died because of you and your father, and you can't be forgiven for that. You understand, don't you?"

The fire-user choked on his own blood, mind hazing as death beckoned him with its empty embrace. Ace refused the call, clapping his hands to his neck and attempting to stem the flow. He had to search for Sabo, apologize to Luffy, and reunite with Jack. He had escaped, hadn't he? He'd gotten out. Was he really going to die now after he had fought so hard to be free?

The pain that once burned like magma quickly faded away to an icy numbness. Ace felt a different panic then. He could not die now. But willpower could not stop him from bleeding out.

The fire-user's fragile heart beat one last time, and was silenced.

Ace did not dare to open his eyes. He used his experience with faking narcolepsy attacks to feign sleep, willing his breathing to remain slow and even. He could hear the gently beeping of a heart monitor near his head, and felt smooth sheets beneath his fingers. He smelled antiseptic and bleach, the sharp stenches stinging his nose as he inhaled.

Just a nightmare. Just another nightmare.

He idly noted that his body hurt— especially his chest. Ace tried to raise his arm to touch the spot and immediately regretted it. Fire shot through his entire frame, momentarily making him black out, and when he could feel other things again the aching pressure lingered tauntingly. The fire-user wanted to voice his discomfort — even if it was just through muffled croaks—but withheld that desire, staying still and silent.

He knew pretending to be asleep was useless in a dream, but if he could just buy himself those few precious seconds where his fears weren't being thrown in his face it would be worth it. He had no way of knowing what terror the black sand would exploit this round, after all.

Based on the beeping machines and the mask on his face, the fire-user was 'in a sickbay', likely on the Moby Dick. That did not give Ace hope. He remembered now that he had experienced countless nightmares back in the prison where he had been 'rescued' and 'safe', only for his family to hate him and turn on him. Because time held no meaning in dreams, sometimes they lasted months or even years before his crewmates eventually got fed up and killed him. Ace was more than used to those betrayals by now.

But Ace had rescued himself this time. He had escaped. He knew he had. The only problem was he had fallen unconscious, and had no way of knowing if he was waking to reality or another nightmare. The last 'betrayal' was proof enough that his ability to see truth from fiction was almost nonexistent.

Footsteps drew Ace's attention back to his surroundings. The fire-user felt the black sand's familiar chill as fear swept through him. Should he open his eyes and face the new potential threat, or try to buy himself a few more minutes? But if this was a dream, then they knew he was awake, right? What if they stabbed him again? Or what if this was one of those dreams where he was trapped inside his body and could only lay there, paralyzed, while they made him pay for being born?

With this panicked thought in mind, Ace tried to lift his eyelids and see where he had ended up this time. His eyelids refused to obey him, taking his orders to open as a suggestion and deigning to ignore them.

The beeping near his head grew faster and Ace cursed his beating heart. He heard the person at his bedside inhale sharply.

"Ace? Ace, can you hear me, yoi?"

The fire-user stayed limp and unresponsive. He knew the voice but could not identify it, his brain scrambling as he tried to put a name to the distinctive accent. He had heard it recently after all, in one of his latest nightmares, but Ace's mind refused to associate the voice with someone he loved— someone who had hurt him on so many occasions in dreams.

That's right. He only hates me  in dreams . But this could be a dream. It also might not be. What do I do? Should I try to communicate with him? But if this is another nightmare it's useless…

How many times had he cycled through the motions, 'reuniting' with his friends and family, believing he was 'free', 'telling' his story, and either being rejected by his comrades or 'accepted' then eventually betrayed?

His inability to tell whether he was sleeping or awake was nerve-racking. There was always chance that he would be awake one of these times and would do something wrong that would cause irreversible damage or make people hate him for real. That possibility terrified him more than he wanted to admit.

Quite frankly, Ace did not know how to react to things around him anymore. His family must already think he was a freak because of the black sand staining his skin, but that didn't mean he should showcase his confused mental state. It would be best to stay as apathetic as possible until he knew for certain if he was dreaming or not. Was he even with someone he knew, or was he in another fake nightmare?

I have to be awake to find Luffy, Jack, and Sabo, he reasoned. They won't reject me. They won't hate me. Well, they might, but at least if I see them I'll know for certain. Wait, no. That's not right. They won't hate me. They would never hate me. But if they do that's okay. They don't need me.

He was distantly aware that something was very wrong with his thought processes, but accepted them readily anyway. He wasn't important, others were. His brothers were. He had to make sure they were happy. He had to make sure they were safe. He had to—

Didn't I decide I wanted to live for me? I'm so confused.

Before he could consider the question, something touched his arm, feeling like broken glass against his skin.

Ace jolted away wildly, the machine picking up its frantic pace. He felt something tear from his arm but he dismissed the slight pain, more concerned about the world that swayed and danced around him when he opened his eyes. The bed vanished from under him and the fire-user felt himself falling.

He was caught by burning, jagged metal shards that fought angrily with the cold black sand in his veins. Ace's vision momentarily blacked out, his stomach churning as the awful-feeling person continued to touch him and the black sand tried to tear out of his body like a monster. His gaze zeroed in on the man and he slowly recognized Marco's blonde hair through the haze of confusion and pain.

Let go let go let go! Ace silently screamed.

"Careful, Ace." The Phoenix soothed, not noticing— or not caring?— about his discomfort.

Marco set him back on the bed, and the Summer Spirit let loose a shuddering breath. His nausea faded when the Phoenix released him. The fire-user carefully laid his hands in his lap, forcing himself to meet the Phoenix's worried blue eyes. Was he actually worried though? Was he real or fake?

Marco's eyes shone with unshed tears and he gave Ace a watery smile. "I'm so glad you're finally awake."

He reached for the fire-user's face but Ace twitched, squeezing his eyes shut. When he opened them, Marco's hand had fallen to his side. The Phoenix's jaw was clenched and Ace nervously realized he had upset the Commander somehow. His gaze dropped to his hands.

I'm sorry.

"You gave us quite the scare, you know." Marco said softly. "I thought— We thought—" He paused, expression clouding with guilt and slight disgust. Before Ace could wonder what he had done wrong, the Phoenix gave a disgruntled grunt. "I need to call in the doctor, yoi. Idiot."

He stood up, but paused when Ace's skin blanched white. The fire-user ducked his head, hiding his expression behind his hair. His last nightmare was fresh in his mind. He did not want a doctor to look over him. Marco touched his arm, stabbing him in the process, and Ace's limbs shook.

Stupid. I should be used to it by now. I'm pathetic.

"…I don't have to call the doctor right now." Marco said slowly.

His gaze flicked past Ace and he jerked his head. The fire-user turned to look behind him but no one was there. The door was clicking shut though, so maybe someone had been. He belatedly realized he was in the Moby Dick's infirmary again— Or not again. Was this another dream or not?

Ace felt a rush of frustration and his expression twisted into a snarl. He was supposed to be finding his brothers, not constantly wondering if he was asleep or conscious. He had gotten free. He had escaped Pitch. But now he had no way of knowing if he was in damn reality or not.

Heat rippled through his cold skin but he held the flames in. He could not take his anger out on the Not-Marco that might actually be Marco. If it turned out he hurt his family in a fit of rage…

Stay distant. Stay calm. It might be real. It might not be. Don't react to anything.

Easier thought than done.

"…Ace? Ace!"

He heard Marco calling his name and focused on the Phoenix, jerking back when he noticed how close the man's face was to his own. Marco retreated slightly, that same worry crossing his features, but it disappeared almost instantly.

"I want you to know that you're safe. You're on the Moby Dick. Shanks found you and brought you to us after patching you up."

The Phoenix explained his situation carefully and precisely, as if he were uncertain that Ace would understand the words. The fire-user felt another rush of bitter dismay at his words.

Like I haven't heard that before, Ace thought darkly. Though the Shanks part was new. He felt another wave of barely-contained flames. Calm. Okay. I need to think about this logically. Think about the facts. That'll help, won't it?

He stared blankly past Marco as he struggled to organize his thoughts.

Reasons this could be real: My injuries match— Don't think about it— what I remember from before falling unconscious. Marco has not betrayed, yelled at, or attempted to murder me yet. Shanks apparently found me, which was an oddly specific and random detail for a nightmare to have… Why Shanks?

Reasons this could be fake: Every touch hurts. I swear that the Moby Dick was destroyed at Marineford, although that may have been one of the smaller ships. I… I can't remember.

Marco made an audible, shaky sound and Ace broke out of his thoughts, meeting his gaze instinctively. He was stunned by the tears threatening to run down the normally stoic Phoenix's cheeks, his blue eyes shiny with unshed droplets.

"I'm so happy you're alive." The normally stoic man choked, smiling shakily. His hand twitched but he did not touch Ace, much to the Summer Spirit's relief. "I don't know how you did it, but I'm glad you came back to us. You're safe, and you're home, Ace."

For a second, Ace truly believed it, drifting out of his careful apathy as his lips twitched and his eyes softened.

Then the door burst open, making both occupants jump, and someone raced into the room.

"I heard Ace is awake!" the newcomer blurted, a joyful grin on his face.

Standing in the doorway was none other than Thatch.

For what seemed like the thousandth time, Ace's hope shattered like glass.

His breathing grew rapid and shallow as the machine next to him beeped frantically, the steady chirps becoming a near-constant, panicked wail. Ace curled up on the bed, back to the headboard and hands pressed over his mouth as salty tears dripped from his stinging eyes. He felt as if his brain were being shredded from the inside, his consciousness dissolving into an abyss of despair. The nightmare became a mess of vague shapes and shadows as his mind shut down, the realization too much for his body to cope with.

Stupid. It's  fake . I should have known. I should have known. I should have—

Something touched his arm— burning awful evil— and that single point of contact snapped into focus. He did not want to be touched, touching in nightmares meant hurting and he couldn't handle it, not again, it was wrong wrong wrong

Detach. Be numb. Don't feel don't feel don't feel.

Someone was speaking to him but Ace ignored them, free-falling into numbness as he disassociated himself from the false world around him. Then another hand grasped him, pushing him down, pinning him, and panic snatched the fire-user's mind, throwing away everything else. Ace thrashed in the person's grasp, their too-hot hands causing bolts of pain to flare from his scraped flesh. He never thought he would despise warmth.

Ace felt cold metal snap around his wrist, and fear was replaced by a stunned blankness. They were chaining him. Chains meant he was a prisoner. Being imprisoned meant he wasn't free. Being unfree meant he couldn't find Sabo.

Ace's mouth opened in a scream he could not voice and he kicked the person holding him. His foot connected with something hard and he heard the person bellow, but they did not release him. The fire-user's vision blurred and darkened and he yanked desperately at the manacle that kept him trapped on the bed. He felt his skin rip open but he kept fighting, hearing the headboard crack.

Escape fight escape fight escape! His mind screamed.

More hands held him in place again, four on his shoulders, four on his legs, and two more on his hips, effectively immobilizing him. Another pair of deft fingers pulled his arm taut, and he felt something prick the inside of his elbow. A needle. They were injecting him with something. Was this one of those nightmares where he was experimented on? Had they already cut him open? Was that what the bandages around his chest and abdomen were from?

Not real. Not real. It's just an illusion. Not real.

An unknown substance was forced into his veins, icy and burning and thick. The fire-user could feel it slide through his blood, jabbing his insides like fragments of sharp ice. Ace's muscles went lax, a different cloudiness dulling his mind and senses, and to his relief the pain dimmed as well.

Most of the hands released him except two, and he was pulled to someone's chest, their arms wrapping around him and their heart beating loudly in his ear. An invasive hand stroked his hair, each touch painful and burning as it pushing the locks away from his sweaty face. A voice whispered in his ear in what was supposed to be a soothing tone.

"Shh. Shh. It's okay. It's okay, yoi. It's going to be all right, Ace." Marco murmured. "You're safe now. You're safe."

Ace knew it was a lie. As everything drifted away, the fire-user felt a small bit of comfort. At least he would be unconscious if they took him apart this time. He just hoped when he regained consciousness again he would wake up in reality.

He would not let these nightmares stop him from finding his brothers.

Chapter Text

One of the main drawbacks of traveling by boat was that it could be… slow.

Don't get Jack wrong, the Revolutionaries' ship was a fast little vessel, but the Guardian still felt that they were moving at a snail's pace compared to the speeds he could accomplish on his own. However, he dealt with his impatience, unwilling to leave Sabo and Koala behind and continue his search by himself. The blonde Logia in particular would never forgive him if he left alone to hunt down Pitch and save their raven-haired, fire-wielding brother.

Jack sat on the railing of the ship, one leg pulled to his body while the other swung freely above the water. The waves made low hushing sounds as they brushed against the boat, rhythmic and soothing. Out of curiosity, the Guardian attempted to freeze some of the water by shooting a bolt of ice at the sea. To his satisfaction, ice formed over a wave, making an odd ripple pattern on the top of the water.

"Cool." Jack murmured.

He froze more waves, aiming further and further from the ship. The ice made strange designs on the surface of the water, the cold creations moving back and forth as the waves pushed them across the sea. The Winter Spirit hit every one of his targets, and a smile made its way onto his face.

I've gotten better at long-range attacks, he mused, recalling when he had to touch his staff to everything to make it frost over. I wonder if it's because I'm more experienced, or because I have more… believers.

An icy anger gripped his heart and his next strike froze three times more area then he meant to, stretching dangerously close behind the ship. Jack mashed his lips together unhappily, still seething over what Pitch had done.

He gave me believers by making them  fear  me. How does that even work? I'm the Guardian of Fun. Fun is the opposite of fear!

But Winter can be pretty scary, the darker part of him murmured. Don't act like you don't know how deadly you and your Season can be.

Jack irritably blasted the water again, watching it freeze into spiky icy. The fact that the pattern reminded him of what he and Pitch had created in Antarctica did nothing to improve his troubled mood. He did not turn when he heard someone walk up behind him.

"Still brooding?" Sabo asked casually.

Jack blinked, then huffed. "I'm not brooding. I'm angry. Pitch corrupted something he had no right to touch. Add all the other things he's done, and I think I have a right to be ready to turn him into a popsicle."

He aimed without looking, and a huge chunk of ice formed in the air, falling into the ocean with a large splash that caused the boat to rock. The Revolutionary looked past the Guardian at the menacing ice sculptures, watching as they grew smaller the further away the ship sailed from them.

"I think you need to calm down." Sabo mentioned softly, brow furrowed.

Jack twitched and spun to face the Revolutionary, expression stony. "And I think you don't get how awful this is. Pitch gave me believers by making them fear me. Do you know how sick that is? Here's a comparison: Imagine instead of becoming brothers through shared sake, you did it with poison."

He smacked his staff onto the deck with more force then necessary, causing frost to spiral around the wood. "No, forget that. You didn't do anything. Instead an outsider heard you wanted brothers and forced the poison down your throats without your permission. It won't kill you, but it'll hurt a damn lot, and every time you think about the event you'll also remember the unnecessary suffering you went through to have brothers. How would that make you feel?"

Anger, shock, and disgust flickered across Sabo's face before he grimaced. "When you put it like that… I'm sorry."

Jack's own animosity faded, leaving him feeling tired and worn. "No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you." He got off the railing, bare feet making a soft thud as he landed on the deck and he forced his posture to relax. "Just forget it. Did you need something?"

Sabo's visage grew shifty and he fiddled with his hat, avoiding the Guardian's expectant gaze. "I wanted to talk to you about… Luffy. IthinkweshouldtellhimAceisalive." The last sentence was spoken in a rush, almost too quickly for the Guardian to understand it.

Jack blinked. And blinked. And blinked again. His grip on his staff tightened. "Huh."

The Winter Spirit could not conjure a more detailed response, a mixture of sad, hurt, and hopeful feelings rattling around his chest. Old fears threatened to rise to the surface but Jack pushed them away, plastering a grin on his face. It felt as brittle as dying leaves.

"Why now?"

Sabo's worry about the Guardian's reaction was so blatant it was almost laughable. "I wanted to talk about it earlier but it never seemed like the right time. Luffy stopped believing in you, and we both know that hurt you, and… and you resent him for it."

Jack's fragile grin became a careless, fake smirk. "Maybe a little."

The Revolutionary looked at him solemnly, a heavy question on his tongue. It burst out of him before he could stop it. "Are you angry at Luffy because Ace died for him?"

Jack reeled back like he had been struck. "What?!" The Guardian spluttered. "No! Why would I be?"

Sabo visibly relaxed, as if a weight had lifted from his shoulders. "I think I already knew that but I needed to be sure." He leaned against the railing and stared out to sea, glancing sidelong at the Winter Spirit. "Could you explain why you're so upset at Luffy then? Why you don't want to try to make him believe again?"

Jack released a gust of air and sat cross-legged on the deck, back against the wooden posts. He put his staff across his knees and traced the grains in the wood with his forefinger.

"Luffy isn't the first person to stop believing in me." He said slowly. "It's hard, but I'm used to kids growing up and losing belief. It's part of being a Guardian. But… Luffy was different. I'm not upset because he stopped believing in me. I'm upset because he didn't try to believe again."

"The kid who wants to be Pirate King, loves 'mysteries', and dreams of adventure and miraculous tales couldn't see me." Jack threw his hands up in the air before letting them fall limply to his sides. "It's easier for people to believe in this world, so much easier for them to see Spirits than back on Earth. Ace and I did everything we could to convince Luffy I was real, but none of it worked. It took me a while, but I think I figured out why."

The Winter Spirit rolled his head and looked up at Sabo, eyes a dull, unhappy blue. "Luffy refused to see me. He saw evidence of my existence, and chose to ignore it. He was like a child that refused to admit that they had hidden their vegetables in their napkin. The parent can point them out but the kid is adamant that they aren't there. I don't know if he did it consciously or it was his nature, but Luffy was told about something he did not like and chose to think it— I— didn't exist."

The Guardian did not bother to hide the hurt and sorrow in his gaze. "No nonsense, realist Smoker can see me. Random strangers on islands can see me. I'm pretty sure Marco the Phoenix saw me at Marineford. Those who are down to earth or don't believe in magic and the supernatural can see me, but Luffy could not."

Sabo was silent for a long while, processing Jack's revelations with a stoic expression. When he spoke, his voice was low. "When you say it like that, it does seem like something Luffy is capable of. But I still think we should tell him about Ace. He's our brother. He has the right to know. And you won't be face to face just yet. I'll call him and we'll meet to make a plan." He rubbed the back of his neck, sighing audibly. "And as much as I hate to say it, we'll makeLuffy believe in you. If his crew claims you exist, he'll be forced to acknowledge you as well."

Jack frowned. "I don't know how I feel about that."

"I understand, but we're trying to find and fight Pitch. Our allies will need to know you are there." Sabo pointed out.

The Guardian rolled his staff in his figners, face shadowed. After a moment, he stood up, tapping the wood on the deck. "Fine. Call him. We'll deal with whatever happens after."

Sabo grinned happily. "That's all I ask."

ROTGOPROTGOP

It was a wonderful day.

Luffy practically skipped as he made his way through the Thousand Sunny's lower deck, humming Bink's Sake as he went. More than a week after leaving the mystery island behind, the ship had finally made it to the next island the day before, which thankfully had everything Franky needed to repair her mast. The Sunny was fixed, no Nightmares had been spotted running about, Law was awake and moving around— ignoring Chopper's screeched orders to stay in bed— and the strange remorse that had been gripping Luffy for the first couple days after their departure had all but faded.

The Straw Hat Pirate could not even recall why he had been feeling so upset in the first place. Yes, he had accidentally hurt Law but the surgeon was okay now. Yes, he had accidentally abandoned his crew but none of them had been injured in his absence. Yes, he had seen an illusion of Ace but it was just that— an illusion. It was all in the past, and Luffy was not one to be dragged down by meaningless regrets.

Purupurupuru.

Luffy paused, then took off running with a wild grin on his face as he recognized the sound of a Den Den. He skidded to a halt inside the room with one of the snails, who continued purring lowly. The Straw Hat Pirate lunged for the receiver, picking it up and grinning from ear to ear.

"Hello! This is Monkey D. Luffy! I'm going to become the Pirate King!"

The person on the other end gave an amused chuckle. "So I've heard, little brother."

The Straw Hat Captain's smile widened. "Sabo!"

"Hey." The Revolutionary greeted casually, though he sounded strained. "Listen, I don't have a lot of time. We need to meet."

Luffy frowned, gripping the receiver a little tighter. "Is everything okay? Are you in trouble?"

He reached up, taking a vivre card out of his hat, and let loose a relieved sigh when he saw it was still whole.

"No. I'm not in any danger or anything." Sabo was quick to reassure his brother. "I— Uh. I found out… Well, you see... Oh, Manny curse it, I'll just tell you. Ace is alive."

Luffy's mind went blank and the receiver slipped from his fingers, falling to the tabletop. His brain attempted to comprehend what had just been said, but it refused to turn the statement into discernable words. An odd, jumbled mess formed instead, emotions meshing together into a white noise that overtook his consciousness. He still had his senses, but the room seemed dark and far away, colors and sounds fading into a muted, eerie blur.

And then the thought snapped into place, ricocheting around his head like a bullet.

Ace is alive.

Ace is alive.

Ace is alive.

Ace is alive.

He's alive he's alive he's—

"—ffy! Are you okay? Answer me!"

Noise slowly returned in the form of Sabo's frantic voice, accompanied by the low buzz of two other speakers in the background. Luffy distantly identified them as a boy and girl, but his thoughts once again derailed as he circled back to his previous realization.

Ace is alive.

Sabo was not a mean brother. He was a nice brother. He was a brother who would never say something like this unless he knew for a fact it was true. Sabo said Ace was alive. That meant Ace was alive.

Elation tried to burst free of Luffy and a grin attempted to break out across his face, but for some reason he could not be happy and could not smile like he should. Instead a cold feeling settled in his heart and his pulse pounded in his ears, a rapid beat that spoke not of joy but of urgency, of panic. But why would he feel that way?

Sabo was still shouting through the Den Den, the other voices pitched high with unified worry. Vision gradually returned and Luffy fumbled with the receiver, holding it to his lips with quivering hands.

"Sabo? Is it true?" His voice was small, soft, and childish. It was not the tone of the exuberant future Pirate King, but of a terrified young boy who wanted reassurance from his big brother.

He did not know why he asked for confirmation. He already knew Sabo spoke only facts. The faint remorse that had been pestering him shot to the forefront of his mind, digging its claws deep into his gut as a realization that even he could not be oblivious to screamed the truth at him.

Ace is alive. I saw him, didn't I? I  left him in prison  on that island. I  abandoned  him.

The reality he tried to deny suddenly was crystal clear to Luffy, the source of his distant guilt and insecurity storming into the light as it mocked him with its presence. The cloud of rampant emotions threatened to overwhelm the Straw Hat Pirate again, and he barely heard Sabo's gentle response to his question.

"Yes, it's true. Look, Ace is out there and we need to find him. We don't know where Ace is exactly. He's been captured by a man named—"

"Pitch Black." Luffy said numbly.

The Den Den's eyes went wide. "How do you know that?" When the pirate did not respond, the Revolutionary's voice grew hard. "Luffy? Tell me how you know that name."

"I met Pitch when I saw Ace." The words somehow made it past the Straw Hat Pirate's numb lips. "Ace— He was in a dark lair on a mystery island. I… left Ace there. I didn't think Ace was real."

Happiness— Ace is alive— tried to take hold again but was beaten back mercilessly by the weight of Luffy's failure, his thoughts repeating the same dreaded phrase over and over.

I abandoned Ace. I abandoned Ace. I abandoned Ace. I—

I'm wasting more time.

The guilt tried to grip Luffy harder, but he found himself slipping from its grasp as another feeling took hold. Floundering happiness faded, remorse locked itself behind a steel door, and the Straw Hat Pirate's eyes hardened. He had made a mistake. He had left Ace in enemy hands. But sitting around and wallowing over the past was not going to help his brother.

"I need to rescue Ace."

It was not a question. It was not a suggestion. The sentence was a statement of fact, a promise burning with an unbreakable desire that was more important than anything else.

"Luffy, listen to me. Don't go running off, okay?" Nervous urgency entered Sabo's tone. "You said you found Ace on a mystery island? Is it near you? I'm already using your vivre card to locate you so we can make a plan. We're not that far away! Don't go without—"

Luffy hung up. The Den Den Mushi immediately began purring again, but the Straw Hat Pirate ignored it, racing to find his crew. He found them in the galley, with Sanji just setting out the midday meal. The cook crossed his arms, huffing as the rubber man burst into the room.

"There you are. I was about to send Chopper to find you. Seeing as how you weren't an hour early for lunch I was worried that—"

"We need to go back to Shadow Island." The Captain of the Straw Hat Pirates ordered.

His tone and his words got his crew's attention, the more relaxed pirates straightening as they all looked at Luffy. Nami was the first to speak, posture stiff and hands clasped together nervously.

"W-Why would we do that? We barely got away from those Nightmare things last time!"

Luffy's response was short and curt. "Sabo just called me. Ace is alive. He's being kept prisoner on that island."

Usopp nearly dropped his plate. Only a quick save from Sanji stopped the food from splattering on the floor. The cook gave the sniper a death glare, but Usopp's attention was on the Captain.

"W-What?!" the sniper squeaked.

"Ace was on the mystery island." Luffy said impatiently, hating every second they were wasting. "I thought he wasn't real but he was there."

"I— What are you— People don't just come back from the dead, Luffy." Nami blurted.

Luffy gave her a flat look. "Sabo said it was true."

She dropped it, holding back her protests. Zoro had no such reservations, levelling his Captain a stern stare.

"You can't just run in here and drop something like that on us. Take a minute to explain what the hell you're talking about, would you?" the swordsman said.

"Sabo called me. He said Ace is alive. I know where Ace is and we need to rescue him." Luffy emphasized, voice lowering as slight anger accompanied his impatience.

Why did they not understand the urgency of the news? Why did they not get that they had to make it in time this time? Why did they not comprehend that Ace was… Ace was…

Luffy sat down heavily, eyes wide and breathing uneven. "Ace is alive. Ace is alive."

He's alive. He was on the island. He was in that dungeon. I saw him. We both saw…

His gaze drifted to Law, who up until then had been sitting quietly in the corner. The surgeon met his gaze, fingers flexing but posture rigid and unyielding. Law cleared his throat, drawing the attention of all of the Straw Hat Pirates, but bowed his head so his hat shadowed his eyes.

"Straw Hat-ya is correct…" Law bit his lip, unable to look at Luffy. "His brother was there on Pitch Black's island."

At his confirmation, the rubber man went still, every inch of him freezing as if he had been turned to ice. His eyes went round, and a feeling he was unused to wriggled in his chest. It was cold and constricting, digging into his heart like a knife and hurting worse than almost any physical wound he had ever received. It felt like… like…

betrayal.

Luffy felt numb.

"Wait… you saw Ace?" Usopp asked tremulously.

"Yes. But the man who was keeping Fire Fist-ya imprisoned was too strong for us." Law continued quietly. "If we had stayed and attempted to free him, we both would have been killed. Fire Fist-ya realized this, so he pretended he was a hallucination in order to get Straw Hat-ya to leave without him."

"Do you think he's been kept there for the past three years?" Nami asked, face pale.

"It's possible." Law said flatly. "Fire Fist-ya did not react to us at first. He seemed to be under the impression that wewere illusions in the beginning. He was also injured."

Something hot sparked to life in Luffy's chest.

"What are we supposed to do?" Usopp asked frantically. "If that Pitch guy is strong enough to keep Ace prisoner, how do we stand a chance?"

The spark became a steady, small candle.

"And if Ace has been tortured or something, he won't be able to fight with us." the sniper moaned, his imagination running wild as fear took hold.

"Usopp—" Chopper began, looking at Luffy.

"I mean, he has to have been tortured right? Pitch is a creep who can control nightmares, and how he drew you guys in with Ace's voice … He must have done something like that with Ace, right?"

The candle became a growing flame.

"Usopp—" Chopper repeated, eyes locked on his Captain.

"Not to mention that Pitch was probably really mad that we got away. Mad enough to take out his anger on Ace—"

"Usopp!" Chopper said sharply. "Please, be quiet!"

The sniper finally noticed his Captain's pale complexion and trembling form. Guilt washed over his features.

"Luffy, I didn't— I mean, I'm sure Ace is fine." Usopp stammered.

The flames continued to simmer under the Straw Hat Pirate's skin. He noted them with a distant curiosity, letting the emotion fume aimlessly as it roiled and burned.

"Well, I think—" Law began.

"You knew he was there." Luffy said lowly, hat shadowing his eyes.

They all looked at him, but the Captain only paid attention to one grey stare, lifting his head slowly to meet Law's gaze. Looking into those calm, unrepentant orbs was all it took for the flames to become an inferno, exploding out of Luffy in an enraged shout.

"You lied to me! We could have helped him!" the Straw Hat Pirate screamed.

Chopper and Usopp flinched. Zoro and Sanji's visible eyes went wide. Robin set down her book. Brook and Franky fell back a step. Nami openly gaped at Luffy.

Law did not react, expression stoic and unruffled by his ally's furious outburst. When he spoke his voice was even. "I told you, Fire Fist-ya wanted us to get out. Even at full strength we would likely be no match for Pitch Black. It was illogical to linger and be trapped by our enemy."

The inferno burned white hot in Luffy's veins and he advanced on the surgeon, grabbing him by his shirt front and pulling him so they were nearly nose to nose. Law grimaced in slight pain, but quickly covered up his discomfort.

"I don't care! We could have tried to free Ace anyway." Luffy snapped, giving Law a harsh shake.

The surgeon paled slightly and yanked his shirt free of the rubber man's hold, glowering at his ally. His hand twitched towards his ribs but remained at his side.

"Staying there would have gotten us both killed." Law shot back. "Fire Fist-ya knew that. He made the decision to make you leave without him. As your brother, he chose to sacrifice his potential freedom to ensure you survived."

"You don't know that! You don't know what Ace would want!" Luffy snarled, fury overcoming his normally forgiving nature. "How would someone like you know about being a brother?"

"I was one!" Law shouted.

A heavy silence fell over the galley.

Law breathed heavily, grey eyes wild and jaw visibly clenched. The surgeon's hand reached up to press against his rib cage, and it was only then that Luffy remembered he had been injured. Before the Straw Hat Pirate could feel guilty or apologize, Law emitted a small, shuddering gasp. His angry expression faltered for a moment, revealing a harsh, heart-wrenching grief that was far from being healed.

"No older brother should let their younger sibling die." The Heart Pirate's voice shook and he tilted his hat so it hid his expression. "Not when they can prevent it."

The quiet lingered as the surgeon gathered himself, slipping back into stoic neutrality. "He wanted us to escape. He needed us to. How do you think he would have felt if you died in front of him?"

"Probably the same way I felt when he died in front of me."

The words escaped before Luffy could stop them. He blinked rapidly, shivering slightly, and wrapped his arms around himself. Memories of blood, fear, and grief welled up, but were pushed away as warm arms enveloped the Straw Hat Pirate. The rubber man peered around at his crew, who continued to hold him tightly. Of the Straw Hats, only Zoro and Sanji stayed away from the group hug. A glare from Nami sent them slinking over to join the impromptu huddle, their arms joining the others surrounding Luffy.

"You won't lose Ace again. We won't let that happen." The navigator assured her Captain quietly.

"I'm sure Ace will be okay. He's really strong." Chopper encouraged.

"It's going to be different this time." Zoro stated. "We're with you."

"The shitty Marimo is right." Sanji agreed without hesitation.

"Pitch may be a tough opponent, but we've beaten tougher guys before." Franky proclaimed with a fist pump.

"In this rescue attempt we're together, as we should be." Robin said firmly.

"Indeed. You aren't alone." Brook affirmed.

"We'll show that Pitch guy why he shouldn't mess with one of our friends!" Usopp boasted.

Luffy looked past them at Law, who held his gaze evenly. The Heart Pirate gave a slight nod, silently giving his distant support.

Fear and uncertainty drifted away, remorse and guilt faded into nothingness, and the Straw Hat Pirate punched the air, a brilliant smile on his face. "Let's go save Ace!"

ROTGOPROTGOP

Ace wanted to break down and cry. It appeared he had enough pride left to resist the urge to burst into tears, but the fire-user was finding it harder and harder not to suffer a complete meltdown.

He was on the Moby Dick.

Again.

He had woken in the infirmary.

Again.

He was injured.

Again.

And he was pretty sure his crewmates hated him.

Again.

His room in the sickbay had become his new cell, and the fire-user did not have a clue whether it was an illusion or not. By his vague count, he had woken in over a thousand nightmares already.

He had been killed in more than a half of them.

He was abandoned in a third of the remaining ones.

If he somehow managed to stay with the Whitebeard Pirates for an extended period of time, he usually found himself placed in a psychiatric ward, hospital, or underground lab, accounting for another quarter of his dreams.

That still left over a hundred worlds were nothing noticeably bad had happened yet.

And then there were the numerous times where he regained consciousness to immediately find out Luffy was dead…

Ace had enough awareness to know he had roused in this reality before— if his broken collar bone and other wounds weren't enough of an indication— but he had no idea if he was still trapped in nightmares. If he remembered correctly, he had attempted to leave the ship after months of being held onboard, only to be… brutally stopped. Marco had gotten pretty angry when he tried to escape this Moby Dick, resulting in the fractured clavicle his hand was cupped against.

The fire-user sat beside the bed in his private room in the infirmary, disregarding the wires that should be attached to him and staring blankly ahead. He breathed in and out slowly, taking time to feel each intake of air, before letting it out in a rush. The action hurt, but he did it anyway, focusing on the pain and not the building anxiety.

He remembered what happened now. He had fallen unconscious after the Phoenix's furious attack, gone through another sixty-odd versions of life on the Moby Dick, and had eventually woken up back here with a terrified confusion and mounting despair. He was not certain, but this world was the one he most commonly 'woke' in, and he was beginning to nervously suspect it was in fact real.

This Moby Dick had been rather nice at first, maybe five months ago now? No one had tried to kill him when he first woke up, his crew did not despise him for being Roger's son— to his face, anyway— and Luffy was apparently still alive in this… world? Dream? Reality? The Whitebeard Pirates here had been patient, and accepted that he was brok—… not well, taking his problems in stride and accommodating for his… issues.

Ace had been relieved in the beginning, finding this world to be a kind reprieve between bouts of nightmare-filled unconsciousness. He had done his best to heal, to be a good son and brother and friend, and to learn to trust again with varying degrees of success. It had all come crashing down when he tried to find Jack, Luffy, and Sabo about a week after he regained consciousness. The fire-user had told Marco about his quest, and the Phoenix had shot him down furiously.

"We're your family now. You don't need them."He had said.

The Summer Spirit silently disagreed, and had tried to fly off that night. Jozu broke Ace's leg catching him, and apologized profusely for it, saying it had been for the fire-user's own good. Ace believed him— he was weak, he wasn't strong enough yet, he would die before he found his brothers in his condition— but as soon as his leg healed he tried to leave again.

And again.

And again.

Every time a Whitebeard Pirate stopped Ace from searching for Jack, Luffy, and Sabo. Every time they said he should know better, and them keeping him here was for his health and sake. He was weak, they said. They were afraid to lose him again, they pleaded. They needed to protect him, they claimed.

Every time Ace's suspicions that they did not want him to find his sworn brothers grew stronger.

He would never say it aloud, and prayed that the Whitebeards would never know of his treacherous thoughts, but he slowly realized they were trying to make him choose. Choose between them and Jack, Luffy, and Sabo. Choose one family over the other.

It was never a choice, and it hurt to acknowledge that.

The door to his cell— room opened, and Marco entered, laid back and calm. Ace did not turn to look at the Phoenix as he sat on the bed beside him, staring down at the fire-user with half-lidded eyes.

"I'm sorry about hurting you." Marco said, sounding as sincere as he always did. "But you really should know better. We are not your enemies, yoi."

It was like Ace had traveled back in time to when he was trying to kill Whitebeard. He had gained many injuries then— much to Jack's displeasure— but in the Commander's and Yonko's defenses, the fire-user had been trying to assassinate their Captain. The injuries had happened because of his own stubbornness and pride. He had gotten thesewounds because he was just in another prison he had been trying to break out of. A fancier, bigger, seemingly nicer prison, but a prison nonetheless.

Getting no response from Ace, the Phoenix sighed, rubbing his hand over his face. "So that's it, then? You're not going to even argue or agree? It's nice to know you haven't lost your obstinate stupidity."

The fire-user said nothing, and Marco shook his head in disgust. "Fine. Be a selfish idiot. Oyaji's had enough. He's leaving you at the next island tomorrow morning."

The words were and were not what Ace wanted to hear. On the one hand, he could finally seek out his brothers— If this is real— but on the other…

"Don't think we've giving in, yoi. We've just grown tired of waiting for you to get over your little trauma." Marco continued curtly, proving his fears.

Ace lowered his head, cradling it on his knees as his eyes stung. He wasn't going to cry in front of Marco. The First Division Commander already had a low enough opinion of him, apparently. Even with his lack of tears, the fire-user's passive, accepting actions and lack of protest caused the Phoenix to scoff.

"I've run out of patience. How selfish can you be?" Marco snapped. "You think you had a hard time? I've had brothers who were tortured for years and have recovered quicker than you. You're pathetic, and worse than that, you're useless. You can't talk, you don't fight, and you flinch like a coward whenever one of us comes near. We don't have time to coddle you, yoi. And Whitebeard has no use for a broken son."

Ace gritted his teeth, breath hitching. His shoulders shook slightly but he refused to let the tears fall.

This is a good thing. He tried to tell himself. I'm not bound to stay here. I can go find Jack, Luffy, and Sabo now… if this is even real.

He did not cling to the hope that he was trapped in a nightmare and Marco was not really kicking him off the ship. He acknowledged he was damaged but surely the Whitebeard Pirates would not up and abandon him because of it?

I tried to get better. I really did. I— I—

Marco stood up, towering over Ace with shadowed eyes. The fire-user eyed him nervously caught between preparing to fight or run. The Phoenix saw his trepidation and scowled.

"Get some sleep. You'll need it. We'll be removing your tattoo before you go." He said flatly.

Ace's stomach twisted into knots and he felt the urge to retch. He knew Whitebeard was kinder than many pirate Captains, but had a feeling the removal of his mark did not involve simply taking out the dye. The Whitebeard Pirates had been furious when they saw the alterations done to his tattoo, and despite it being out of Ace's control, had blamed him for allowing it to happen. But even with the changes, the tattoo marked him as one of Whitebeard's sons, something that the fire-user no longer had the right to be.

Marco left and locked the door behind him, leaving Ace trapped inside. He momentarily considered breaking out before morning, but dismissed the idea. He would not run away. He would face his expulsion from the Whitebeard Pirates with dignity. Or as much as he could muster, anyway.

The black sand beckoned at him, the only constant in every one of his nightmares, but he ignored it, clenching his hands and making his nails dig into his palms. He was so tired, his exhaustion far past what was healthy and so deep in his bones he knew it would never leave. He had slept more time than he ever had, even with his narcolepsy, but he had not rested since long before Pitch captured him. He just wanted to sleep without nightmares, without death, and without fear.

Stay awake. Who knows where I'll wake up next. Stay  awake .

Despite his best efforts, he slipped into darkness.

He woke in the cell.

An agonized wailing noise reached Ace's ears, and it took a moment for him to realize he was the source of the awful sound. His jaw clicked closed even as his chest heaved, panicked ember-colored eyes roaming over the place he swore he had escaped. He instantly spotted the last person he wanted to see and the fire-user felt ice-water trickle through his veins.

"Calm down, Ace. I'm not going to hurt you." Pitch said, seemingly sincere.

He pushed off the wall he had been leaning against and approached at a casual pace. Ace eyed him warily, standing up and pressing his back to the stone behind him as the chains around his ankles clinked. His mind raced frantically, but he managed to summon a neutral expression.

I escaped. I know I escaped. I did. I was— am free. This is a nightmare. Just a nightmare. Pitch can't actually hurt me again. His fear faded and his glare grew hard. I know this is a dream. There's nothing to be afraid of here.

Pitch chuckled. "Are you planning on giving me the silent treatment? You're in a dream. You can talk here if you want."

"Screw you." Was Ace's quiet response.

The Nightmare King looked offended. "Now that's rude. I spared your life and that's what you have to say to me?"

"Oh I'm sorry." Ace snapped. "Excuse me for being upset with the bastard who nearly b-beat me to d-death."

He twitched but repressed the memory that wanted to rise, readily gripping the anger that simmered in his veins. Pitch spotted his initial discomfort and smirked.

"How inconsiderate. I was quite glad to find out you survived." Pitch said in that genuine-sounding tone of his.

"Why? So you can keep trying to break me?" Ace growled. "I escaped your lair. You can't touch me."

The Nightmare King's hand snapped out and gripped his arm, sending bolts of pain up the limb. The fire-user cringed, body contorting slightly as he doubled over in response to the black sand churning in his veins. Thankfully, Pitch released him almost immediately, his point made.

"Foolish boy." The Spirit of Fear sighed, shaking his head as an elegant hand gestured at the Summer Spirit's cursed body. "You may have gotten away from me physically, but you didn't escape that. Besides, I am the Nightmare King. How do you think I'm talking with you now?"

A part of Ace seethed at the Spirit of Fear's mocking tone. Another part curled up into a tiny ball and whispered that he just wanted it all to stop.

"I can still win." Ace said, hiding his insecurities behind a confident front.

Pitch saw right through his façade. "Don't lie to me. I know that you haven't the slightest clue if you've woken up since our last confrontation. How about I give you a little help in that matter? You've regained consciousness once, and only once."

The fire-user did not bother searching the Nightmare King's face for any signs of deception. Pitch was as open as a book coded with invisible ink that was scribed in a long-dead language no one knew. He chose the truth when it suited him, twisted it to fit his goals when it did not, and abandoned honesty all together if it got in the way of his manipulations.

Can I believe him? Ace asked himself. Why would he tell me that?

"You wouldn't happen to want to tell me which world was the real one, would you?" he asked rather sarcastically, despite knowing the answer.

"No." Pitch said simply.

Ace ground his teeth, temper flaring. "Then fu—"

The fire-user could only watch helplessly as Akainu tormented Luffy, the Admiral not going straight for the kill this time as he burned his screaming little brother's limbs one by one—

He ran through an empty ship as it sank, unable to find anyone as water surged up through the woodwork and he drowned alone—

He flinched as bottles and objects were thrown at his head, broken glass cutting a deep gash above his eye as the villagers screamed at him that he was a monster because of his blood—

He kept his head down as Whitebeard looked at him in disgust, lip curled up in a sneer as he informed Ace that he was not his son, he would never be his son, he did not deserve to be his—

Ace found himself on the floor of the cell, curled up into a fetal position as he shuddered violently. Pitch smirked down at him, crouching beside the Summer Spirit and gently ruffling his hair. The touch felt cold, slimy, and constrictive like a snake's fatal squeeze, and the fire-user gagged, his skin crawling.

"You really don't understand, do you? It will never end. You're already broken. You're already irreversibly changed. Even if you 'get better' you won't be the same. Your fear will torment you, haunting you until you give up and die."

Pitch stood once more, head tipped and eyes glinting in the darkness. "And you really should die rather than meet the Guardians. They won't welcome you. Not after you abandoned one of theirs."

For a panicked moment, Ace thought he had somehow left Jack in danger. Yes, he had abandoned Jack in the sense that the Summer Spirit had been captured, but that hadn't been his fault. It hadn't. Then what…?

He remembered crumpled turquoise feathers.

"Where is Baby Tooth? What did you do to her?!" Ace shouted, leaping to his feet and struggling against his bonds.

"Always so protective..." Pitch chuckled appreciatively, clapping his hands together. "She's alive and in my care, of course. Don't worry. I haven't infected her with my sand. Though I do wonder what that would do to Toothiana…"

"I'll rescue her." Ace snarled. "And I will destroy you."

The Nightmare King looked unconcerned by his threat. "Right. Be careful with that anger, boy. You may just do something you'll regret."

Sand shifted in his hands, turning into a spear. Ace swallowed roughly but did not flinch, more than used to dying by now.

"After all… you want to be able to go home, do you not?"

Smirk duly in place, Pitch stabbed the Summer Spirit straight through the heart.

The ceiling of the Moby Dick or 'Moby Dick' or wherever he was waking up was becoming a repetitive, unwanted sight. Ace could only stare at the familiar wooden planks with a tired, angry acceptance.

The fire-user felt bandages wrapped around his torso and identified each of his other aches with a detached casualness. The injuries were the ones he had gotten when Pitch had— from Pitch. That meant he was in a new cycle of nightmares, or close to the beginning of one at least.

Falling into routine, Ace did not hesitate to sit up and detach the wires from his body, ignoring the pain as he tried to get to his feet. He dismissed the shrieking of the machines beside him and laid his hands on the bed, using them as leverage to wobble into a standing position. Based on the patterns he had grown used to, the Whitebeard Pirates would be barging into his room in a second.

Don't react to them, he recited, weary beyond words. They're probably nightmares.

He desperately wished he had a way to tell if he was asleep or not.

His hand clenched into a fist, and it was then that the fire-user noticed something around his wrist. Ace looked at the thin seastone bracelet, unimpressed, and melted it with a burst of flame. The metal sizzled as it turned red hot and dripped down his hand and onto the floor, but the Summer Spirit was unharmed. Heat would never hurt him again.

Right on time, a doctor he did not recognize, Whitebeard's own doctor— Bay— and Marco slammed open the door and raced into the room…

…And there was Thatch again.

Dammit.

Thatch seemed to be a pretty good way for him to tell if he was experiencing a nightmare or not. He knew the Fourth Division Commander was dead. He had seen the body sprawled on the deck more than three years ago, and had gone out for vengeance hours afterward. Besides, surely Marco or one of the others would have mentioned if Thatch had somehow survived at Marineford.

"Why is it that every time I leave for a se— What are you doing?!" Bay snapped, outraged to see her patient up and stumbling around. "Get back in bed right now!"

Ace did not care about her threatening tone. If she hurt him for his impudence, then that would only add proof to his belief that he was dreaming. The real Bay would not punish him for ignoring her… right? He completely disregarded the fakes, walking forward determinedly and fighting the exhaustion in his limbs.

As had become his habit, Ace would attempt to get off of the Moby Dick the moment he woke. On the off chance he was somehow in reality, he needed to start searching for Jack, Luffy, and Sabo— and Baby Tooth now as well. Honestly, he had grown tired of explaining his mission to 'the Whitebeard Pirates' over and over, and had long ago decided just to act like they did not exist until they forced their way into his life. Usually through one of his crewmates striking him and demanding he 'stop zoning out' or the like.

He would not fight back if they stopped him from leaving the ship though. The amount of force they used varied from nightmare to illusion, but at worst Ace usually ended up with a few broken bones or a stab wound. They rarely outright killed him, although if they did it was almost helpful. Nightmares where he died resulted in fewer different dreams to cycle through, and that meant he was closer to finding reality, right?

Reminded of his inability to know if he was currently stuck inside his own mind, Ace wanted to sit in the corner and sob like a lost child. He stifled the urge, marching forward resolutely. Marco and Thatch predicted his destination and blocked the doorway. The fire-user immediately paused. They did not grab him, much to relief, and so the three former crewmates stared each other down— two confused and concerned, one nervously detached. Ace's gaze flicked to Thatch repeatedly, without his permission, and he felt his mood sour further.

You can't be alive. You can't be. Why am I even bothering to try to get off the ship when I know this isn't real?

The Summer Spirit felt anger bubble up inside him but he held it back. He made sure to take note of the unknown doctor and Bay's positions as well, not trusting them to refrain from drugging— or attacking— him when his back was turned.

"Ace, it's okay. You're on the Moby Dick. You're safe, yoi." Marco soothed, stepping forward with a peaceful gesture. Ace inched backwards and the Phoenix halted, then continued talking in that same soft tone. "How about you get back in bed? James and Bay need to look you over."

Ace glanced at the male doctor again, finally noticing the Jolly Roger on his bandanna. So he was one of Shanks' men.

Shanks. Shanks. When did I last hear about Shanks…?

Memory struck and Ace backed away from the doctors, his bandaged back smacking into the wall opposite the door. He could feel his heart pounding loudly in his chest and his hand twitched, covering the crook of his elbow.

This is the one where they drugged me, he thought, stomach churning. That stuff made me fall into a different nightmare— worse nightmares. I couldn't get out. What if they do that again?

Marco grimaced before covering the expression up with a placid look. "Do you remember waking up before?"

The terror that traveled through Ace's veins stayed off his face, a mask of serene apathy plastered on his features. He kept his arms crossed, hands pressed protectively over the insides of his elbows as he did his best to stay still and not make any sudden movements. Just because he was used to things going badly for him, did not mean he was overcoming his fears or wanted to trigger the darker parts of the nightmare.

I have to be careful. If I do something wrong, they'll turn on me. They always turn on me. But it's fine. I'm fine. I can do this.

He clenched his teeth, refusing to cry in front of the hallucinations. However, he could not stop the tears from welling up in his eyes, and Marco inhaled sharply.

"James, Bay, please give us a moment." He said.

The two doctors left without protest and with near-identical expressions of discontent on their faces, but Ace relaxed, happy they— and their needles— were gone. Marco approached the Summer Spirit slowly, while Thatch stayed back by the door.

To guard it or keep me from running? Ace wondered.

He could not retreat further, and found it more and more difficult to keep his face impassive as Marco closed the distance between them. When the First Division Commander was just over an arm length away, Ace's mask cracked and he could not stop the panic that made his eyes widen with fear. Marco immediately halted.

No. Don't show fear. Detach. Repress.

Ace managed to summon a stoic expression again, but knew Marco was not fooled by it in the slightest.

The Phoenix gave a tired sigh. "I don't know what's going through that head of yours, but know you are safe, Ace. You are safe and home and no one here is going to hurt you."

Ace stared at him in disbelief and sank deeper into apathy. How many times had he heard similar phrases from the First Division Commander's mouth? How many times had he dreamt up 'reunions' that only ended in suffering and grief?

If— When he finally did meet the Whitebeard Pirates again, the fire-user predicted he would be too used to the same old comforts and meaningless words to feel emotional about the whole thing. It was like hearing the same song over and over, each consecutive listen resulting in less joy in the experience as the tune got stuck in one's head and grew irritating and boring.

Ace hoped that he'd be able to act appropriately when he truly saw his friends and family again. How hurt would they be if he acted like an emotionless, uncaring ghost when they reunited? They would be angry at him, and would likely hate him. At least he was still capable of caring about Luffy, Sabo, and Jack. Very few of his nightmares involved them now— and if they did his brothers usually died— as if the black sand could sense that he would not be caught by fake brothers telling him he was hated. Ace was not completely lost. Not yet.

Lies, lies, lies, Ace chanted silently. I don't have time for this. I need to find my brothers and rescue Baby Tooth.

He avoided touching Marco, inching around him and heading back towards the door. Thatch did not move, standing firmly in the doorway with a hand raised at chest level. He did not touch Ace.

"Oh no you don't. I know you're always eager to get out of here, but this is a new record even for you." The cook said cheerfully but with an underlying layer of stress. "I'm honestly surprised you're able to walk around right now."

The more the illusion talked, the louder the flames roared under Ace's skin. His fist clenched as he stared at the fake with an unreadable expression. Thatch's strained smile grew dim but he held it in place.

"Um, so I'm alive. So are you, apparently." The Fourth Division Commander blurted, and gave an awkward chuckle. "You know, this isn't the reunion I pictured..."

The fake continued to ramble and Ace's carefully-maintained apathy shattered. Rage tore through him with the ferocity of a wildfire. He hated Pitch, he hated the black sand, he hated the nightmares, and he despised these fucking illusions that pretended to be people he knew were dead. Over and over and over and over and over and OVER—

Ace's frustration reached its boiling point, and he gave Thatch a harsh shove. The cook flew back out the door before hitting the ground with a thud, skidding another foot before coming to a halt out in the main sickbay. Everyone present in the infirmary froze. The Fourth Division Commander lay on his back for a moment, surprise etched on his face. Then Thatch propped himself up onto his elbows, looking at Ace with stunned, hurt eyes.

The fire-user went bone white.

I pushed Thatch. I pushed Thatch. Oh Manny, they're going to hate me. I hurt their brother. I attacked him. They're going to—

Ace retreated back to the wall as Marco's expression shifted from confusion to anger. The Phoenix approached and the Summer Spirit slid to the floor, covering his head as a shadow fell over him. At the edge of his vision, he could just see the blonde pirate raise his arm. Ace flinched, prepared for a blow, but Marco only laid a hand on his forearm. Knives stabbed into his skin at the point of contact and the fire-user jerked out of his grasp. The Pheonix put his hands up in a calming gesture.

"Calm down, Ace. I'm not going to hurt you, yoi." Marco soothed, echoing Pitch's words from his last nightmare. "It's okay. You're okay…"

Panic, fury, and disgust churned through the fire-user, and he mutely shook his head back and forth, not letting his guard down.

Pathetic. Pathetic. Pathetic. I just want my brothers, he thought brokenly, expression crumpling. He forced the mask back into place. Idiot. Don't show fear. But since this is a nightmare they must already know about it… Don't think about it. Calm down. Calm.

Thatch joined his fellow Commander as he knelt in front of Ace, smile brittle but still bright. "Hey, hey. I'm fine. Nice to know you can still pack a punch."

Ace stared at him dully, not saying a word. Not that he could even if he wanted to.

Lies. Fake. It's all—

Something dark caught the corner of his eye and he twisted his head, peering upward.

Pitch stood in the doorway.

It took a moment for Ace to realize what he was seeing, but when he did, his eyes widened and his mouth opened in a voiceless scream. Marco spun as blue flames rippled down his shoulders and Thatch drew his swords, but when they turned to the Nightmare King they did not attack.

Why? Did they know who he was? Were they allies in this dream? Was that actually Pitch or a figment of his nightmares taking the form of the Nightmare King?

The Phoenix transformed back into a full human and went back to Ace, gripping his shoulders. The Summer Spirit registered the heat, pain, and discomfort of Marco's hands on him and he shuddered, shying away from the Phoenix. The contact did not calm him, instead feeling unwanted and stressful and disturbing.

"Ace, what's wrong? What are you looking at?" Marco asked urgently, dismissing the fire-user's obvious nausea for the moment.

Ace stared past him at Pitch, who smirked back at the Summer Spirit. He lifted a thin finger to his mouth and made a shushing motion before vanishing like a fleeing shadow. Ace's breathing slowed to a healthier pace, and he felt himself relaxing now that the Nightmare King had gone. The black sand beckoned at him and exhaustion caressed his limbs, making his eyes flutter.

No. No. Not now. Stay awake. Stay in this reality.

He felt himself being pulled downward again, the most recent sickbay fading away no matter how hard he tried to maintain it.

Stay awake. Stay awake. Stay…

For over the thousandth time, Ace fell into nightmares.

He woke in the sickbay, with Marco at his side.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Pale orange eyes slid closed, and Marco let out an unhappy sigh as he caught Ace before he could slump to the ground. He scooped the unconscious fire-user up into his arms and set him gently on the bed, brushing his black hair out of his face.

What happened to you, kid? He thought sadly. What did you go through that has made you so afraid?

"He hates me."

In any other circumstances, Marco may have found Thatch's moaned words to be amusing. As it were, he put a hand on his brother's shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly. He moved past the cook, poking his head out the door.

"Bay! James! He's asleep again."

The two doctors unapologetically shoved the Phoenix aside as they returned to their patient. James began reattaching the wires Ace had torn out and checked his vitals, while Bay pinned the two conscious Whitebeard Pirates with a menacing glare.

"Why did you make us leave? We should have stayed in here." She growled.

"He was terrified of you, yoi." Marco defended himself. "He remembers you sedating him when he woke before."

"He was hurting himself and could have hurt you." Bay replied shortly. "Now get out. You're in the way."

Marco and a crestfallen Thatch were unceremoniously ousted from the room. The Phoenix watched the door slam shut behind them and shook his head, crossing his arms over his chest.

"I have to wonder if all doctors are so possessive of their patients, or if it's just a trait in every single one I've met."

Thatch did not respond and Marco glanced at his brother, taking in his miserable visage. His shoulders were hunched, his hands limp at his sides, and even his pompadour seemed to be drooping. The chef gave the Phoenix a look that would not seem out of place on a wounded puppy.

"He hates me." Thatch repeated quietly.

Marco sighed, running a hand through his hair. "He doesn't hate you, yoi."

"Yes he does." Thatch said miserably. "You saw how he reacted to me. He was distant or scared with you and the doctors, but when he looked at me, he was pissed."

"That doesn't mean he hates you." The First Division Commander denied. "He's probably just… surprised you're okay."

It had been a miracle that Thatch survived Teach's attack. The Fourth Division Commander had passed out from blood loss and been taken to surgery, but by the time word came along that he would live, Ace had been long gone. The Fire Logia had not brought a Den Den Mushi with him when he left the ship, leaving the Whitebeard Pirates with no way to contact him to tell him the good news. The next time they met was at Marineford and there had been no time to share that Thatch had survived then.

Thatch had been on a mission when Ace was first brought to the Moby Dick, arriving back to the ship the day before the fire-user had awoken. When the fire-user finally had regained consciousness after nearly a week of worry, the cook had dashed to see his long-time friend once more… only for Ace to react so badly to the sight of Thatch that the doctors had to sedate the kid.

First Thatch survived, now Ace, Marco mused. I still can hardly believe it. But based on his reactions to everything, Ace must have been held prisoner some time for the past three years...

It was the logical conclusion that explained Ace's fear and mistrust, and the First Division Commander despised it. The thought of the fire-user being held against his will somewhere while his brothers moved on with their lives made the Phoenix's blood boil, but he withheld the urge to rampage through a few Marine bases.

Even if Ace had not been captured for all of the years since Marineford, he still went through the wringer recently. Along with the physical injuries, there was a deep-rooted fear that his youngest brother tried to hide which was still visible in his near-lifeless ember-like eyes. The kid was obviously doing his best to detach himself from everything and failing miserably.

What had he gone through that made Ace flinch so terribly every time someone touched him? What had he been subjected to that made him so terrified of people he should know would never harm him? After he pushed Thatch, the kid had acted like he thought Marco was going to straight up murder him in retaliation. The way he had curled up and shielded his head, cowering before the First Division Commander… The Phoenix aborted that line of thought before it could anger him further, speaking to Thatch again.

"Trust me, Ace would never hate you for surviving. He's just a bit disorientated and confused right now. Once he calms down a bit we'll talk to him and you'll see he's glad you're alive." The Phoenix's lips quirked. "At worst he might punch you for making him think you were dead."

"Hypocrite." Thatch said, but there was no malice in the word. He glanced back at the closed door and exhaled sharply, fury flashing across his normally-kind features. "I hope we get some answers soon. I want someone to blame for Ace's condition. When I find out who hurt him…"

Marco agreed with his unspoken promise of violence. Sitting around without an enemy to get revenge on was not his style, and he wanted nothing more than to maul whoever had tormented Ace into bloody shreds. For now, however, they had to wait. For Ace to recover, for bonds to be reforged, and for a name to hunt down and make pay.

Marco clapped Thatch on his shoulder, steering him out of the sickbay. "Come on. We'd better report to Oyaji. He'll want to know what happened."

Chapter Text

Ace stumbled between Izo and Vista as they dragged him onto the island, throwing him carelessly to the dirt. The fire-user hit the ground, sand digging into the lacerations on his back and making his teeth clench in pain, but he somehow kept his expression controlled. He could not show more weakness. Not that it mattered anyway. The two Commanders were already walking away, not bothering to say a word to the pirate who used to be one of them.

The fire-user lifted himself up into a sitting position, leaning heavily on to one side, and watched hollowly as his former brothers got further and further from him. Ace twisted his arm and attempted to touch his back, only to falter when his movement caused his wounds to tear further.

He did not need to see it to know his tattoo was gone. His mark was no longer decipherable among the strips of bloody skin his back had become, the tattoo having been whipped off less than an hour ago. The grinning, mustache-bearing skull he had once born with pride was now lost among the crimson gashes and swollen flesh.

Ace could take some pride in the fact that he had not fallen unconscious during the ordeal, but the feeling was overcome by a numb, distant desperation. Even as he was flayed he had clung to the hope that there had been a mistake, that he was in a nightmare, and that the Whitebeard Pirates were not actually expunging him from the crew and leaving him alone.

And yet here he was, sitting on a deserted island as Izo and Vista returned to the Moby Dick without him. Whitebeard and Marco could not be bothered to say goodbye to the forsaken ex-Commander, ordering Ace off the ship as soon as the final lash had struck. They had not given him any bandages to care for his wounds.

But it's okay. I'm okay. I can do this.

Ace tried to tell himself that this had to be a nightmare, and even if it was not, everything was still alright because he could search for his brothers and Baby Tooth freely now. His lackluster attempts at consoling himself resulted in nothing, and the fire-user began to tremble as the Commanders got into a small boat and sailed back towards the anchored Moby Dick.

Don't leave me. Please. I'll get better. I'm still strong. I can prove it, if you just give me a chance.

He could not speak the words, and was not sure he wanted to. The Commanders had reached the ship, and Ace could see as they climbed up the side of the ship on the offered ladder.

I don't need to be a Commander. I don't even need to be part of the crew, or your family. Just let me stay. Just…

The ship vanished on the horizon. Ace let himself fall back to the ground, watching the tide push and pull the water in front of him. He could not summon the energy to cry, so he simply stared ahead without truly seeing anything at all. He should be happy. He was off the Moby Dick. He could find Jack, Luffy, Sabo, and Baby Tooth… if this was real.

It's okay. I'm okay. I'm fine.

But his father had abandoned him. His older brothers were gone. They were disgusted with him and had effectively disowned him, not even thinking to bandage his wounds before leaving him on the first island they saw. And yet Ace could not bring himself to hate or blame them. He knew this might be a nightmare, but he also knew that the world did not revolve around him. If Whitebeard thought it best for the crew that the fire-user be dismissed, then Ace had no right to argue with him.

Ace knew he was trying to rationalize it all, but his efforts did not help dissuade the emptiness in his chest. He curled up on the sand, uncaring of the burning dirt in his wounds and looming tides that crept towards him, and gladly let the black sand grasp him, pulling him away from this terrible reality.

He was in his bed in the infirmary once more.

Thatch stood over him, a kitchen knife in his hand.

Ace froze, entire body tensing as his gaze fixated on the dagger. The cook did not move, arm raised and knife pointed downward as he frowned delicately at the fire-user. The Fourth Division Commander lowered the blade to his side.

"Oh, you're awake. I'll come back later." Thatch said with a serene smile.

He backed out the door, closing it quietly behind him.

Ace watched him go, too shocked to move. His heartbeat slowed eventually, but he kept his eyes on the door. Even with the blankets covering him he was still cold, shivering violently as he refused to look away from the only entrance to the room.

His limbs and eyes grew heavy but he resisted the lull of sleep, too terrified that Thatch was going to come back and…

Darkness.

Touch.

Vision.

…Infirmary.

Ace let his gaze drift to the wires attached to his arm before looking away, not bothering to tear the IV from his skin. Bay always got mad when he did that, often shouting about how stupid he was for touching the equipment, and getting angry enough to inject him with cyanide in one nightmare. His death had not been quick or pleasant in that dream, with the doctor not giving him the dosage necessary for an instantaneous demise.

The fire-user shivered at the memory, then snapped his head to the left when the door to his room opened. Bay walked in, humming vaguely and dragging a cart of equipment behind her. Her expression brightened when she spotted Ace.

"You're up again. Good." The doctor said calmly.

Please don't hurt me this time, was Ace's only thought.

Bay went through her usual routine, checking his vitals and bandages while chatting amicably about unimportant things. Ace let the words wash over him, not quite willing to relax. He watched her every move like a hawk, tensing when she frowned as she checked his pulse.

"Your heartbeat is a little fast for my liking. Not to worry. I have something that will help."

She went back to her cart, pulling it closer to the bed. Ace purposely tried not to look at it, but a reflection caught his eyes, and soon enough he found himself staring at various needles that were placed neatly in a row. His heartrate increased and a sheen of sweat covered his skin.

Please don't hurt me.

Bay noticed his expression and gave him a gentle, reassuring smile. "I know you don't like shots, but these are going to help you, Ace. They're going to make you feel better."

Ace did not care. He was perfectly content with the constant ache in his chest and the slight pain in other parts of his body. It wasn't like medicine would make the black sand go away, so he could handle the discomfort his wounds brought. He also did not want Bay to stick him with anything.

The fire-user did not shake his head in rejection, however. He did not dare to. He could not remember if it was exactly true in reality, but even before all of this Bay tended to get angry if people tried to avoid treatment. Ace did not want to be on the brunt end of her rage.

And so he did his best to stay calm as Bay reached for the first injection, picking it up delicately. Ace flinched but did not resist as she grabbed his head, forcing it back as she emptied the syringe directly into his neck. The fire-user felt his body lock in place, and was horrified to discover he could not even twitch his fingers.

No. Not again. No. Nononono—

Bay released him, still smiling serenely. "Sorry about that. I can't have you wiggling about."

She picked up the next drug, flicking the syringe with her forefinger to make sure there were no air pockets floating in the liquid. "I really hate you, you know. You've hurt us in the worst possible way, and yet you don't even feel bad about it. You made us go to war with the Marines, caused the deaths of so many of your brothers, then had the gall to die and make our efforts worthless... And after all of that you had the nerve to come back and expect us to welcome you."

The needle went into the crook of his elbow and every touch grew more pronounced, the drug amplifying his tactility, and the doctor's gentle prodding felt like iron nails being driven into his skin.

Bay picked up a third syringe. "Jozu lost an arm."

Same arm, further down. Ace's veins burned as if they were filled with magma, his insides smoldering and disintegrating even though they remained intact and unmarred. He wanted to scream, to shudder, to show his pain, but he could only lay there, helpless, immobile.

Stop. Please stop. It hurts.

"Oars Junior was killed, along with countless other crewmates."

Other forearm. This injection was knives of ice that was nearly as cold as the black sand. It stabbed through flesh and bone without leaving a mark, refusing to let him be numb.

I'm sorry. Please don't blame me. He shouldn't have come for me. None of you should have come…

"Atmos was forced to fight and murder his own division."

This one went in his stomach, the doctor slow to push the large needle into his abdomen before emptying it. It felt like Ace's organs were being torn apart by a beast's claws, his wide eyes rolling back in his head. Other than that he could not move an inch.

I'm sorry. Please stop.  Please . I won't do it again. I'll repay you. Or I'll leave. I'll do whatever you want. Just don't—

"And Whitebeard almost died. My Oyaji was almost killed. And do you know why all of that happened?"

The next needle was jabbed into his ribcage, its contents expunged, and Ace found it difficult to breathe. He gasped, low and rasping, his paralyzed body unable to spasm as it thought he was being suffocated. Tears trickled down over his temples as he lay there, burning, freezing, and choking, unable to show his pain in any other way.

Bay leaned close to him, eyes dark and filled with hatred. "It was all because of you. You. A stupid, arrogant son of a demon. You should have just died when Teach captured you. No, you should have been killed before you had a chance to be born. All you do is bring misery and pain to the people around you. You're a monster. You're not worth saving, and you're not worth protecting."

I'm sorry. I'm sorry I was born. Ace did his best to convey his remorse with his teary eyes, but if the doctor saw his sorrow she ignored it.

She straightened, expression going flat, and calmly picked up another injector. "As the doctor it's my job to protect this crew from diseases, and that's what I plan to do." She gave him a cruel smirk. "I just have to perform some tests to see which 'cure' can kill the parasite."

Ace closed his eyes. The next drug forced its way into his veins, ripping him apart from within, and the fire-user could not even scream.

The cold stone of the cell floor was almost a relief.

Ace flicked his eyes up to meet Pitch's before letting them concentrate on the Nightmare King's feet. The fire-user was positioned on his uninjured side, one arm under his head while the other lay limply over his stomach. He shifted his feet and heard the manacles clink.

"I'm almost disappointed." Pitch said casually, not waiting for the Summer Spirit to speak. "You're doing even worse than you were with me. Do you want to know your current statistics?"

Ace did not try to respond.

"You've been through over eighteen hundred nightmares, and have only managed to wake up six times. Oh, and that last little world was a dream by the way. Thought you should know."

The fire-user stayed mute.

The Nightmare King shook his head, lips twitching. "Still, what an abysmal record for someone who was so determined to reunite with their brothers."

The last few words were spoken mockingly, and Ace felt a bolt of anger. It drifted away too quickly for him to grab it. He decided he was just happy Pitch was not killing him yet. The Nightmare King had already done it five times, and although the fire-user was used to it, he could not help but panic slightly whenever Pitch murdered him, thus forcing him into another most-likely fake reality.

And it had to be fake, because the Nightmare King always showed up on that 'Moby Dick', smirking in a doorway or corner and watching Ace with knowing yellow eyes. He never spoke, and no one else noticed him but he was always there. It was both unnerving and creepy, and Ace knew Pitch was doing it on purpose.

Only six times…? Ace mused unhappily. I've only been awake six times?

He felt a small glimmer of joy when he realized that meant the Whitebeard Pirates whipping and abandoning him had indeed been a dream, but his triumph was swiftly snuffed out when he remained incapable of identifying reality.

Still, I woke up. I did. I'm not just cycling through nightmares.

I can do this.

It was so, so hard to cling to the dwindling threads of hope, but Ace did not have another choice. He still had to try even though he would likely fail, otherwise he would fall to the black sand. He had to survive against all odds. Even if his heart had already given up, and he was deluding himself into thinking otherwise.

"Here's an idea." Pitch offered. "How about you kill yourself in a few of those dreams? I'm sure that will deplete the number of nightmares you'll suffer."

His words were callous, but his tone was polite and sincere, as if he were telling the Summer Spirit that herbal teas might help. For a moment, Ace seriously considered his words, but recoiled as soon as he realized what he was doing.

Bad thoughts. Bad. Don't ever think of— What would Jack think? What would Luffy and Sabo think? And the others?

The fact that he had thought about it— even for a second— made Ace feel colder than he already did.

"I'm not that desperate." He whispered with more conviction than he felt.

"Trust me, you will be." Pitch said ominously. "And you'll cry when you don't succeed. The nightmares… It's almost like you're trapped in a time loop. You wake up and try to move on with your life, only to fall asleep or for your fears to manifest at random, resulting in the cycle starting all over again. Your fears may be numerous, but they are not infinite, and so they repeat. Over and over and over until you grow tired and... give in."

Intense eclipse-like eyes bore into Ace's and Pitch spoke in a soft, velvety tone. "I wonder how long it will be before you give up on everything. Like I told you before: Determination can only take you so far."

The fire-user shivered at Pitch's caustic tone as he described his fate. A thought niggled at the back of Ace's mind, and he sat up, lifting his head to peer at the Spirit of Fear.

"You speak as if you've lived it. Did you go through this when you became the Nightmare King?" he found himself asking.

Pitch's expression jerked, shadows dashing across his sharp features before his face grew stony. Ace flinched, and felt a rush of shame at his reaction. Before he could berate himself, the Nightmare King responded.

"Indeed." His savage grin held no joy as he took in the Summer Spirit's stunned expression. "What? Did you think the Fearlings just devoured Kozmotis in an instant and I was born? No. To the outside world, it only took a second, but the battle in m— his soul took decades. I saw my fears play out over and over in front of me, until his will was vanquished and his spirit was torn to shreds by his nightmares."

It was too easy for Ace to picture it. Months, maybe even years had passed in the fire-user's nightmares, but he was certain it had not been nearly that long in the outside world. The black sand had all the time it needed to wear him down, unbound by ticking clocks and passing hours. Nightmares were mental, and could extend and warp time to suit their needs. Knowing that Pitch had gone through what the fire-user was experiencing now…

"I'm sorry." Ace said sincerely. "You didn't deserve that."

Pitch's eyes widened before they narrowed dangerously.

In a flash realities merged and Ace's wounds from the previous nightmares littered his body, the fire-user letting out a pained scream as his former injuries were inflicted all at once. He nearly lost consciousness but he felt the Nightmare King grab his mind, using his control over dreams to keep Ace in this one.

The Spirit of Fear gripped the Summer Spirit by his throat, dragging him upward and off the floor. As his feet dangled and jerked frantically, Ace registered how much taller the Nightmare King was than him now, looming at about eight feet in height. His hand felt a wolf's jaws was closing around the fire-user's jugular.

"Don't you pity me!" Pitch snarled, voice echoing slightly and eyes as black as the darkness he wielded.

"I'm not p-pitying you." Ace choked, hands scrabbling at the Spirit of Fear's as he tried to pry his fingers off his neck. "I'm s-sorry that—"

The Nightmare King slammed him into the cell floor hard enough to crack the stone. The fire-user's mind was overwhelmed by pain, every nerve screaming in agony, and he knew if this was real he would have fallen unconscious. Here, Pitch would not let him fall into the bliss of darkness.

"I know what you're trying to do. Are you so stupid that you think you could manipulate me? I am the Spirit of Fear, the Nightmare King, the Destroyer of Worlds!" The enraged Spirit snarled.

"I'm not manipulating." Ace pleaded. "I'm sorry. I just meant—"

Pitch grabbed his head with both hands, thumbs pressing frighteningly close to the fire-user's eyes, and the Nightmare King's irises expanded to cover his sclera.

Images flashed before Ace's horrified gaze. Luffy drowning alone in the ocean. Sabo burning alive as he was blown up by a Celestial Dragon. Jack bleeding out after being impaled by hundreds of black spears. Whitebeard dying at Marineford. Marco being torn apart by Fearlings. Thatch blaming him for his death as he stared at Ace with sightless eyes and a bloody hole in his chest.

And then the visions changed, and Ace was dragged into new fears, fears that were not his own.

He was a Spirit, observing helplessly as the humans waged war and slaughtered each other with weapons he could not comprehend. He was a human, watching fearfully as his town was overtaken and transformed into Fearlings. He was a man, unable to protect his family as Marines stormed through the door and shot them. He was a father, crying softly as his terminally-ill baby breathed his last.

He was a hostage, terrified of death as a gun was pressed to his temple. He was a prisoner, head bowed and hands chained as he prayed his captor would not notice him. He was a slave, smiling blankly as he bled in an attempt to keep his master from murdering him.

He was a teenager, fleeing in panic as he was pursued by a pack of hungry wolves, forever unable to go home. He was a child, curled up in a corner and shaking as a shadowy, looming figure stalked towards him with a raised fist. He was a toddler, trembling on a bed as monsters smirked at him from the shadows. He was an infant, cold and alone as he was abandoned by a dumpster.

Ace snapped out of the illusions, blinking tears out of his eyes. Pitch continued to hold him upright by his head, and for a moment the fire-user thought he was going to crush his skull. The Nightmare King unceremoniously released him and Ace slumped to the floor, hands covering his mouth as he resisted the urge to vomit.

"Did you like them?" Pitch whispered silkily, all signs of rage gone. "Those fears? They aren't mine of course, but I can sense them, see them, twist them in ways you can't even imagine. Fear is evil and savage and cruel, and I love it. I love what I am, I love what I do, and I love what I can destroy. Do you still pity me, boy?"

I don't pity you. I have compassion for you, Kozmotis. I understand why you fell, and I'm sorry that happened to you. You fought so hard but you failed. You were twisted and corrupted. You lost everything.

I don't want to end up like you.

Ace did not have the nerve to speak his thoughts. Instead he looked up at Pitch, deciding it was best to change the subject as he asked a quiet question.

"If I come back, will you let Baby Tooth go?"

It was obvious the Nightmare King still valued him in some way. Why else would he keep appearing in Ace's nightmares and taunting him with his failures? The fire-user could not pinpoint where his idea for an exchange had come from, but he could not bear to leave Baby Tooth with the Spirit of Fear if there was a chance he could get her out.

The only difference between being with Pitch and being 'free' is I have a minuscule chance of waking up to find my brothers, Ace thought tiredly. If I can, I should at least try to help Baby Tooth. Otherwise my life is… is…

Pitch studied him solemnly. Then he smiled like a shark, revealing too many sharp teeth. "You truly are foolish, boy. Do you really think you have anything to negotiate with? If I wanted you back, I could just waltz over to the Moby Dick and take you. No. I find it more amusing to see you struggle and fall with your family around you, watching helplessly as you spiral down towards your death."

Like a switch being flicked, Ace felt the full brunt of his accumulated wounds strike once more, blood splattering on the stone and body failing as it was overwhelmed. Pitch finally let him pass out from the stress, and when he opened his eyes, he was in the infirmary for more than the thousandth time.

Ace looked hollowly at the ceiling, hysterical gasps threatening to break free of his throat. He swallowed hard and dug his nails into his palms before turning his head to look at the person seated beside his bed.

Marco was there— This time? Again?— reading a book. Or at least, attempting to. One glance at the cover told Ace the novel was upside down, something the Phoenix did not seem to notice as he glowered at it with eyes that were almost completely shut. There were noticeable dark shadows under his normally half-lidded orbs, and Ace wondered what had happened to make the usually unruffled pirate look so ragged. The fire-user suspected it was his fault.

It doesn't matter. None of it matters. Nightmare after nightmare after nightmare. Why even  bother tr— No. Don't give up. I can't give up.

Marco finally realized he was being watched and set down the book he was failing to read, smiling at Ace. Even his grin seemed tired.

"Good. You're awake again." The Phoenix's greeting echoed Bay's, and Ace held back a shudder.

The fire-user sat up robotically and let his gaze drop to his lap.

Marco kept speaking, probably used to his silence by now. "You woke up a few hours ago. Do you remember what we talked about?"

He tried to recall, but the nightmares all blurred together into a jumbled mess he had no hope of deciphering.

No, I don't. Ace thought, still looking at the sheets.

There was a small hole in the blanket, and the fire-user poked at it, twisting his forefinger as he prodded the small tear in the cloth. A hand grabbed his forearm and Ace recoiled, trying his best not to rip his limb from Marco's grasp. The touch felt like teeth and claws that stabbed into his skin and bones yet somehow not drawing blood. The Summer Spirit clenched his teeth, forcibly keeping himself from pulling away.

Maybe if I act okay he'll like me again, he rationalized. Wait, wait. That was a different nightmare… right?

To his relief— and shame— Marco saw his tension and released him. Ace pulled his arm protectively to his chest.

"Sorry." The Phoenix apologized. "Bay would be upset if you ruined her precious sheets."

His tone was gentle and teasing, but Ace could not bring himself to smile, the memory of needles stabbing into his flesh plaguing his mind. He was not sure if he was supposed to find it funny anyway. The fire-user moved his hands and clasped them together in his lap, avoiding the Phoenix's calm gaze. Marco was joking, right? Or was he angry that Ace was destroying Bay's property?

I don't know. I can't tell.

It would not be the first some people berated him with kindness in their voices and genuine smiles on their faces. Something in Ace tried to break again, but he held himself together with the remaining remnants of his will.

Calm. It's okay. I can do this.

"That's okay. We were discussing your status with the doctors, remember? All of your wounds are healing nicely, even the one on your side." Marco reported calmly. "Your larynx is still strained, so it will be a little longer before you can speak again."

Ace listened distantly as the Phoenix continued to talk, his voice becoming a low buzz in the back of his mind. He looked glanced down at his torso, finally noticing the lack of bandages wrapped around his chest. His abdomen was still covered, including the wound that started all this, but his chest was clear without even a scar to show he had been—

A cold and brutal feeling tried to beckon Ace, but he pushed it away. The fire-user stared past the Phoenix, counting the planks of wood on the floor. His arms reached up to wrap around his stomach, each hand gripping the opposite elbow as the fire-user attempted to gather himself.

Okay. I'm close to the beginning of a loop. If I pretend to be fine, maybe they'll let me go find my brothers? Or should I try to escape the moment I'm let out of this room? All those other times they tried to stop me from leaving. He quivered at the memories of knives, bullets, and broken bones. Why would this nightmare be any different? No, no. This might not be a dream. If it's a dream, trying to locate Jack, Luffy, and Sabo is pointless. I… I… I don't know what I'm doing anymore.

"Ace? Ace!"

The fire-user jumped and saw Marco leaning in front of him. He shuffled backwards a little, shoulders hunching. The Phoenix's eyes darkened and he retreated, looking even more exhausted then before.

I'm sorry, Ace mentally apologized.

"Did you hear me, yoi? You can leave the sick bay today if you want to."

Ace stared at him, not quite comprehending what he meant. Then his mind raced at a thousand miles a minute, caught between bouts of hope and anxiety. He felt as if an anvil had been dropped into his arms, leaving him floundering and unprepared as he struggled to adjust to the heavy load that had been unexpectedly dumped on him.

I can leave today? Already? But what should I do? Escape or stay for a bit?

He must not have been as good at hiding his panic as he thought, because Marco spoke hurriedly. "Don't worry about meeting everyone again right now. Oyaji would like to see you, but James and Bay have warned everyone else not to crowd you. They're all just happy to have you back."

Ace stared at him in confusion. Meet them again? But I already did. Or was that a different dream? I guess it was? Or is this a test to see if I remember?

The fire-user closed his eyes wearily, snapping them open just as quickly and glancing at Marco to make sure he had not vanished. The Phoenix was still looking at him expectantly, so hopefully Ace had not drifted off again. He slowly understood the First Division Commander was waiting for a response from him.

If I stay in bed I'll fall asleep again. I might as well see Oy— Whitebeard and get it over with. I can fake being fine. I can. I'll smile. I'll pretend. Then he won't be disappointed in me. Even if it's a nightmare, I still have a chance to get them to let me stay, right?

He found that he could not even convince himself.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Marco watched with observant eyes as Ace stared unseeingly at the wall, obviously struggling to come to a decision. The constant fear behind those dull orange orbs was like a stab to the gut every time the Phoenix spotted it, but Marco did his best to hide his dismay. Just like the fire-user was failing to.

It was painful to see Ace clamor to appear disinterested and unaffected by everything around him, but Marco saw his flinches, spotted his trembling, and took in every shifting emotion on the fire-user's face. He did not confront Ace about it, as much as he wanted to, because he had a feeling calling the kid— and he would always be a kid to all of the Commanders no matter how old he got— out about his continuous state of near-panic would only cause him to retreat further.

It was exhausting and stressful to see Ace like this. Every time the kid woke, he did not seem to remember waking before, alternating between trying to escape the sick bay and merely laying on the bed and staring at the people around him like he expected them to chop him into pieces. He was most wary of the doctors and Thatch, much to the medical professionals' understanding irritation and the chef's disheartening misery.

They had decided it would be best not to expose Ace to too many people yet, much to the displeasure of pretty much everyone other than Marco. Out of all of the pirates the kid had woken with, he reacted to Marco the best so the Phoenix was the one who most commonly stayed at the fire-user's bedside. It was not trust, but his reaction to the First Division Commander was the least terrified. Or perhaps he was just pretending to not be scared for some reason.

Marco did not know, and the lack of information and reasons for Ace's behavior were becoming steadily more infuriating.

Ace planted a fragile mask of indifference on his face and nodded his head. He shifted his legs and planted his hands on the bed as he struggled to stand. Marco did not touch him, but hovered at his side.

"We don't have to go to Oyaji right now." He said but Ace ignored him, getting to his feet with the sturdiness of a small flower in high winds.

The fire-user took a step and his legs nearly buckled. Marco saw Ace purposely jerk his body in midair to fall out of the blonde pirate's reach, regaining his footing and evading the Phoenix's gaze. The supposedly-reassuring smile that he planted on his face when he not-quite faced the Commander did not reach his distant eyes.

It was so phony Marco wanted to gather the kid into his arms and hug him, whispering that everything was going to be okay and nothing would ever hurt him again. He did not, stepping closer— flinch— and holding out his arm.

Ace's façade cracked and for a split second he looked as if the Phoenix was offering him a ball of spikes to grab onto. Then the blank maybe-meant-to-be-reassuring smile returned and he took the arm, visibly shaking. Pure agony flashed across the fire-user's face but it was smothered instantaneously.

The dead grin did not come back, the kid already too exhausted to keep up the front.

Marco really wanted someone to kill for all of this.

It was slow going, with each shuffle-like step taking a lot out of Ace, but they gradually made their way out of the sickbay and through the halls. The fire-user avoided looking at Marco the entire time, staring at his own bare feet. In hindsight, the Commander should have given the kid shoes, but he had a feeling Ace would not accept them.

The Phoenix talked about random, unimportant things, but the kid did not seem to hear him, his apathetic mask cracking more with every step they took. Their path was thankfully empty, with a majority of the crew performing their various duties elsewhere this time of day. Or maybe Bay and James threatened to inject anyone who loitered outside of the infirmary with all manners of unpleasant substances.

The door to Oyaji's room was closed, and a quick scan with Observation Haki told Marco that his father was awake and with Izo and Haruta. He could hear the low hum of their voices conversing.

The Phoenix paused and glanced at Ace, wondering if he could handle three people. The fire-user noticed his look and tried to mold his face into that awful, hollow grin, but ultimately failed. His skin was almost as pale as a corpse's— Don't go there— and he shuddered like a leaf in a gale.

Marco bit his lip. "We can come back later. You don't have to…"

He trailed off as Ace furiously shook his head, a glimmer of his old determination lighting in his gaze. It was accompanied by a dim, fearful acceptance that spoke not of a calm acknowledgement of unavoidable happenstances, but of something much darker that the Phoenix highly disliked. Sighing, Marco knocked firmly on the door, raising his voice.

"Oyaji, it's Marco. I brought Ace."

The conversation inside immediately ceased, and the door swung open. Haruta stood there, eyes wide and teary as the Twelfth Division Commander looked upon his long lost brother.

"Ace!" Haruta wailed and tackled the fire-user before Marco could stop him.

If he looked freaked out before, Ace looked absolutely horrified now. He did not fight Haruta as the short Commander sent them both crashing to the ground, but he did not return his hug either, his arms staying limp at his sides. The fire-user's chest heaved and he turned his head to stare at the wall with pupils the size of pinpricks. His mouth moved wordlessly and his eyes glazed over. Marco slowly deciphered Ace's silent words, and felt his heart sink.

"Don't move. Don't move." Ace mouthed repeatedly. "Don't move."

Izo came to his rescue, grabbing Haruta by the back of his shirt and lifting him off of the kid. The Twelfth Division Commander looked ready to protest when he finally spotted Ace's expression. Guilt flashed across his face. Ace did not see it, laying on the ground for a moment before he slowly got to his feet. His gaze flicked from person to person nervously, but he specifically avoided meeting Whitebeard's concerned eyes.

Ace's hands fluttered uncertainly at his sides before he clasped them in front of him, bowing his head. It was then that Marco realized what the fire-user's attitude reminded him of. He was acting like the slaves who smiled constantly so their masters did not kill them. It took more effort than the Phoenix liked to keep his expression from hardening. Based on Ace's prior reactions to such things, he would think the glare was meant for him.

Marco saw Whitebeard's hand clench around the book he was holding as the Yonko also realized the implications of the fire-user's nervous attitude. The giant set the poor novel down before it could become a casualty, looking at his lost son with calming dark eyes.

"Ace. It's been a while, my son."

The fire-user took a jerky step, then two more, inching closer and peering up at the giant with those tired orange orbs. He did not look happy to see the Yonko, instead appearing as if he were patiently waiting for Oyaji to cleave him in two. The kid looked lost and hopeless. His posture was stiff, and he could not decide between looking at Whitebeard's chest or his feet. Ace settled on lowering his head again, hiding his face behind as much of his hair as he could.

He was still shaking.

Izo made as if to move forward but halted, fingers crumpling his kimono as he gripped it. He eventually settled on crossing his arms over his chest to save his clothes, expression cold. Marco guessed the Commander of the Sixteenth Division was as clueless as him as how to help Ace.

Marco felt another bolt of frustration.

Just talk to us! He wanted to shout at the fire-user. We're your family! Just tell us what happened and what's wrong. Let us help

Whitebeard leaned forward, large hand looming over his youngest son, and Marco saw Ace's eyes squeeze shut. The fire-user quivered as the Yonko touched his head, as gentle as if the kid were an injured baby bird.

"Welcome back, my son." Whitebeard murmured. "I'm overjoyed that you found your way back to us."

Eyelids slid closed and a shudder went through Ace, vibrating him from head to foot. The moment he opened his eyes again, Marco knew something was deeply wrong.

Once-grey orbs that shone with joy and mischievousness, which had just recently been a faded orange, had now become almost black, only small flecks of flame remaining. Ace's eyes looked like dying embers. They were practically lifeless, the emotion draining from them and leaving behind an apathetic compliance. But why would Oyaji's words cause such a response?

Marco and Izo exchanged a worried glance, the Sixteenth Commander having seen the change as well. Whitebeard let out a sigh that carried all the sadness and grief their father felt, the Yonko not quite succeeding at hiding his own concern.

"Oh, my son. What did they do to you?" he murmured softly.

Ace did not seem to hear him, his sporadic attention abruptly caught by the seastone bracelet around his wrist. It was the third one he had been given, the first two having mysteriously disappeared. Marco had no idea how the kid had gotten out of the other bracelets and watched him closely, desperate for any hint of what was going through his head.

Ace continued to stare at the seastone and fiddled with it in a rather curious manner. A detached anger flashed across his features, and Marco felt his hopes rise. Maybe Ace was not as far gone as he feared. Maybe he was not broken. Maybe he was still fighting. Maybe he was not becoming lost in his mind. Maybe—

Ace burst into flames.

Whitebeard jerked his hand away from his son's head before he could get burned. Haruta gave a startled shout. Izo was forced to hastily retreat so his kimono did not catch on fire. Marco dashed forward, skidding to a halt next to Ace and watching helplessly as the fire-user burned fiercely, almost lost in the inferno. His face remained unnervingly blank as the fire crackled and burned around him.

Before their stunned eyes, the seastone melted, unable to withstand Ace's burst of power. As soon as the liquefied metal slid to the floor, the fire vanished, snuffed out like a candle. The kid tipped his head downward, looking at the puddle on the floor with that same dissonant serenity, then sat down, pulling his knees to his chest.

No one said a word, all too shocked to shatter the quiet that fell over the room.

"What… the hell." Izo croaked, breaking his silence at last.

"There goes your seastone." Haruta muttered, eyebrows raised as he gaped at the puddle. "Ace, how did you do that?"

The fire-user ignored him.

"Ace? Ace! Acccccceeeeee?! I'm talking to you. Hello?" Haruta made a discontented sound as Ace stayed mute. The Commander placed his hands on his hips and scowled. "Are you serious? I heard he wasn't responding to people but this is ridic—"

"Haruta." Whitebeard said in a warning tone.

The Twelfth Division Commander's mouth snapped shut. Marco saw Ace pull his legs tighter to him, forehead pressed firmly against his kneecaps. The kid was listening, he just was not answering. And the Phoenix did not know why. There were so many things he needed to know but he had no answers. It was infuriating, it was stressful, it was nerve-wracking, and if he kept this up, Marco would probably manage to get an ulcer or five despite his regenerative abilities.

Without warning, Izo breathed in sharply, eyes on Ace's back. Marco tensed, stepping closer with the expectation that the kid's wounds had opened again. His fears were quickly shot down.

"What happened to your tattoo?!" Izo demanded, outraged.

A slight flinch was Ace's only response. If it was possible he curled up into a tighter ball.

Making himself a smaller target? Marco wondered darkly, then pushed the thought away.

"Not the time, Izo." The Phoenix snapped back at his brother before he could speak again.

Truthfully, the fact that Ace's mark had been changed to sport a sun behind it was so far down the list of the Phoenix's concerns that he had failed to even consider how others would react to it. A sun was a sign of many different pirate crews, but not Whitebeard's. To have one behind Oyaji's mark instead of the cross on someone who was one of the Yonko's Commanders could be seen as an insult or division of loyalty by some.

Marco did not give a damn about that, however, feeling an urge to slap his idiotic kimono-inclined brother for bringing it up when it was clear Ace was already having a hard time. The okama blinked, remorse crossing his made-up face, before he cleared his throat.

"I just meant… The coloring is beautiful." Izo mentioned after a moment of consideration. "It's so bold and vibrant. Like a painting."

Ace turned his head a little, peering at the okama from the corner of his eye. A little bit of orange had returned to his irises, much to Marco's relief, but he looked more confused by Izo's approval than happy about it. The Phoenix looked back at the flames that surrounded Oyaji's mark and swore they were moving.

"Do not fret, son." Whitebeard rumbled soothingly. "Your tattoo is not important."

Ace's irises darkened again and he went back to inspecting his knees. Oyaji sighed, rubbing his hand over his face and looking to Marco.

"I believe it might be best for Ace to return for the infirmary for now." He said softly.

"He does look tired." Haruta chirped.

Ace stood up like a puppet whose strings had been ruthlessly pulled. He began walking around the room, steering clear of Whitebeard's bed and the Commanders. The Whitebeard Pirates watched him in bewilderment as he took stiff, wobbly steps along the wall, staring blankly ahead. He paused and rubbed furiously at his eyes before resuming his impromptu stroll.

"…He's broken." Haruta muttered.

Luckily, only Marco heard him. He gave the Twelfth Commander a sharp kick to the shin, shooting him a disapproving glare. Haruta glowered back.

"What? We're all thinking it." He hissed lowly.

"Ace was injured. He was likely imprisoned. He just woke up. He hasn't had time to deal with anything, Haruta." The Phoenix retorted just as quietly.

"Well maybe if he stopped dismissing us and acting like a crazy person with no explanation—" Haruta began hotly.

He faltered when he was given a stern glare by Whitebeard and another disinterested stare from Ace. The fire-user turned away and continued walking around the perimeter, head down and gaze directed on his bare feet. He still shook like a leaf. Haruta's jaw tightened.

"I'll be back later." The short Commander said coldly.

He stormed out of the room before Marco could stop him. The Phoenix sighed, feeling as if the entire encounter was a disaster. He approached Ace, who halted in the center of the room as if he had run into a brick wall, his gaze locked on the corner of the room opposite the door.

"Come on, Ace." The blonde-haired pirate said wearily. "Let's…"

Finally, an emotion appeared unhindered on the kid's face.

Ace stared at the corner with pure unadulterated terror, stepping away from it with his arms raised protectively in front of his chest and face. The three remaining Whitebeard Pirates followed his gaze, seeing nothing, and Marco's lingering fear and confusion spiked again.

Hallucinations? He wondered. Bay said it was likely because of the trauma but—

The door behind them opened.

"Oi, old man! Benn finally let me break out the sa— What the hell?!"

Faster than a blink, Shanks rushed into the room, sword out and slashing at the corner. His blade sank into the wall, and the red-haired Yonko spat a curse, backing away as he scanned the area. Seeing nothing, he turned to his shocked audience.

"Sonofabitch got away. Are you all right?"

The Whitebeard Pirates looked at him with bewilderment. Ace looked at him with cautious neutrality, eye color shifting to a glimmering orange hue.

"We're fine. Would you please explain why you are fighting my ship?" Whitebeard asked, slipping seamlessly out of his stunned silence.

Shanks grew incredulous. He gestured at the slashed corner wildly. "You didn't see him? How the hell…"

Something odd crossed the younger Yonko's face and his visage darkened. His gaze landed on Ace, who stared back, mood switching back to distant, fretful suspicion.

"Kid, does the name Pitch Black mean anything to you?" Shanks asked bluntly.

Ace did not avert his gaze from the Yonko's, recognition and slight terror flashing through his expression. He blinked once, twice, then crumpled to the ground. Marco barely managed to catch the kid as he collapsed, cradling him in his arms.

A small shake did not wake him but his pulse stayed strong, and the Phoenix realized he had fallen asleep again. If it was before this whole mess, back when Ace simply had narcolepsy, Marco may have chuckled. Now all he could do was look at his unconscious brother with fear.

"He's asleep?" Izo asked.

"Yes." Marco confirmed curtly.

He shifted Ace into a more comfortable position in his arms, lifting him up off the ground. The kid dangled limply in his grasp, head slumped against the Phoenix's shoulder. He was icy cold to the touch, and Marco had to watch his chest move in order to believe that Ace was still among the living. The fire-user was so pale…

"I should take him back to the infirmary." The First Division Commander said.

"Not yet." Whitebeard said, shifting so there was room on his bed. "Lay him here."

Marco was about to protest when he saw his Oyaji's eyes roaming the room suspiciously, lingering on the shadowy corners. He did as Whitebeard asked, carefully setting Ace next to his father. The fire-user shifted uncomfortably, curling up into a little ball. He looked positively tiny when compared to the giant. The Yonko covered his son with part of the blanket, and to their relief, Ace relaxed a little, rolling up in the sheet.

"Shanks, please explain what just happened." Whitebeard half-commanded, his attention back on the other Yonko now that it was established Ace still breathed.

Shanks hesitated a moment, eyes on the unconscious fire-user, then let loose a sigh. "I… don't really know. I have my suspicions, but I won't tell you all of them because if I'm wrong, it'll only hurt the kid more."

Red Hair's expression grew hard, and he pierced each of the Whitebeard Pirates with an unyielding glare. "This doesn't leave this room. None of it, understand? You cannot tell your allies. You cannot tell the Captains. You cannot tell the other Commanders. This stays with us four for now."

"Agreed." Whitebeard said, as eager as his two Commanders to get any information he could.

Shanks retreated to the hallway and retrieved the sake he had been dragging behind him, shutting the door firmly before sitting down before Oyaji. He did not yet offer the drink to his fellow Yonko, and Marco wondered if it was because he felt they would need the alcohol later.

"I guess it's time I tell you about our enemy…" Shanks began.

ROTGOPROTGOP

"No."

"No?"

"Yes."

"Yes!"

"No, North!"

"No?"

"Are you a five year-old?!"

North gave one of his belly laughs, taking in Bunny's irritated expression with open amusement. "Relax, Bunny. You do not need to be so uptight."

The Pooka's eyes narrowed and he jabbed a paw into the Guardian of Wonder's chest. "Uptight? I'm not being 'uptight'. I'm being reasonable. That's a terrible idea and you know it."

North slung his arm around Bunny's shoulders. "Terrible? I think not! We are in a whole new world, Bunny. One where anyone has potential to see us. Do you not wish to experience it?"

"No, I don't." Bunny said shortly. "Going into town would be a waste of time. We need to find Frostbite, Firecracker, and Pitch."

"And Baby Tooth." Toothiana reminded the Pooka softly, expression pinched with worry.

The Guardian of Hope gave an affirmative grunt.

"That is why we should go see some humans." North said persuasively. "They can see us, and they can see Pitch. That means they may have information we will not find by flying about willy-nilly."

"I agree we need a different plan." Tooth voiced her opinion on the matter. "We do not have our information networks here like we have on Earth. I can't send my Fairies to search, not that it would help. I cannot sense Baby Tooth's location at all." Her feathers ruffled slightly. "I think none of us are connected enough to this world to see what is going on throughout it."

"That's probably a good thing." Bunny muttered pessimistically. "Between Pitch and those Marine wankers, this place is corrupted with a side of horrible."

"The Marines will not be problem unless we anger a Cesspool Dungheap." North said casually.

Bunny stared at him.

Tooth gave an undignified snort before covering it with a cough. "You mean a Celestial Dragon?"

"That's what I said." The Cossack claimed cheerfully.

"With that attitude, we'll have a bounty the moment we step into town." Bunny said dryly.

"We'll be careful. We won't cause trouble, and if trouble finds us, I'm sure we are strong enough to handle it." North cajoled him. "Besides, what are the chances that a Cannibal Dimwit will be in this little city?"

"Celestial Dragon." Tooth corrected.

"I just said that." North gave a firm nod.

Annoyed emerald orbs met hopeful, mischievous blue, and Bunny groaned aloud. "You're going to keep pestering until we go, aren't you? You're worse than a kid wanting to see Santa!" He realized what he said and slapped a paw to his face.

"Who would not want to see me?" North asked with a grin.

The Guardian of Hope's eye twitched.

Tooth intervened before a fight could break out. "Do you think we'll stand out?"

She looked down at her feathery body and then glanced at the Pooka, who crossed his arms and scoffed.

"I've seen some pretty odd people on this world. I say we'll fit right in. If someone asks, we'll just claim you and I have those Zoan Fruits or whatever."

Tooth twisted her hands uncertainly, brushing them over her plumage. "Is this how they work though? I can't remember what Manny said…"

"It'll be fine." North boomed, clapping her heartily on the shoulder. "If you have trouble giving answers, bend the truth a little bit. If they continue to ask questions, pretend they did not floss and give them a glare."

Tooth's eyes narrowed.

"Just like that!" The Guardian of Wonder congratulated her. "Good job."

Bunny gave a disgruntled grunt. "Let's just go already. At least we'll be out of that death trap you call transportation for a while…"

They landed outside of a good-sized village. North refused to cover the sleigh with anything to hide it and the Pooka muttered that if it got stolen, then good riddance. It was easy to use Bunny's tunnel to pop up in an alleyway, with the three Guardians watching the humans pass by for a bit from the shadows.

"This place seems nice." Tooth commented, smiling as she watched a child hold her father's hand and skip along with a red balloon.

"Still need to be careful." Bunny grunted. "We're not dealing with kids. We're going to be talking to adults, and they can be a nasty bunch."

North surveyed the passing humans, eyes alight but also thoughtful. "I say we start at the shops and only go to a bar if necessary. We cannot have Santa on Naughty List for being in bar fight, haha!"

Tooth spotted a friendly-looking storefront and pointed at it. "Why don't we start there?"

"Good plan." Bunny grunted. "You do the talking."

The Guardian of Memories raised an eyebrow at him. "Why me?"

The Pooka's ears flattened. "Because North is an idiot and I'm… prickly."

"So you admit it!" North crowed triumphantly.

"Shut yer trap." Bunny snapped.

They made their way across the street, drawing no more attention than the humans going about their business. A man who was most likely the shopkeeper was laying out produce in the front of the store.

"Excuse me?" Tooth said politely.

The man kept stacking fruit, ignoring her completely. The Guardian of Memories bit her lip and glanced at her companions. North shrugged helplessly. Bunny crossed his arms. Tooth sighed and stepped closer to the shopkeeper.

"Excuse m— Whoops."

She bumped into the stand, causing a few pears to fall. Both the Spirit and human caught the fruits before they could hit the ground. Tooth fumbled with the pears a bit before setting them back on the stall. The man stared at the fruit, eyes unfocused, then did a double take, gaze shooting up to meet Tooth's eyes. She heard Bunny gasp aloud behind her.

He can see me, she thought, shocked. Just like that, he can see me.

It was one thing to hear about such a phenomenon, another to experience it. Tooth found herself smiling awkwardly at the man, holding back the urge to squeal aloud and glomp him in excitement.

"S-Sorry." The Guardian stammered.

The shopkeeper blinked again, squinting slightly, before his expression cleared. "It's alright. No harm done. Do you need help finding something?"

Don't hug him. Don't talk about teeth. Act like a normal human adult. No problem.

"Um, no. I just need information, if you'd be willing to give it to me." The Guardian of Memories said.

The shopkeeper rearranged a few of the pears before putting a hand on his hip as he glanced sidelong at the Spirit. "Everything is worth something here, including my time. If you want information, it'll cost you." His rubbed his fingers together in the universal gesture for money.

"I don't have any..." Tooth struggled to remember what the currency for this world was called. "Berries."

The shopkeeper hummed vaguely, gaze drifting over the Guardian of Memories. His eyes rested on one of the sheaths on Tooth's hip, taking in the ornately carved handle that could be spotted jutting out of the plain holder. A hint of what appeared to be glass or diamond peeked over the edge of the sheath.

He grinned. "That dagger looks like it's worth a hefty price."

"That's not for sale." The Guardian of Memories said firmly, shifting the sheath so it was no longer in the man's line of sight.

The man scowled. Tooth heard Bunny growl and North crack his knuckles. The human did not appear to hear them, and Tooth abruptly realized he could not see her companions.

"Then I can't help you." The shopkeeper claimed. "I'm not giving out information and getting nothing in exchange. Go loiter somewhere else."

Tooth opened her mouth, struggling to come up with a rebuttal, but she knew she held nothing of value other than the dagger, and there was no way she was giving that to the man. She exchanged a hopeless glance with Bunny and North, but before they could leave, a voice spoke.

"I may be able to help."

A blonde-haired man in a blue and white uniform sidled up beside Tooth, shooting her an easygoing smile. His hat blatantly identified him as a Marine, making even the ignorant Fairy a little bit wary. She did not remember the whole story, but remembered a Marine had murdered Ace. She decided it was best to err on the side of caution.

The Guardian of Memories glanced past him and spotted three other Marines lingering in the background, shoving each other and grinning in their direction. She wondered what they were so happy about, but dismissed that train of thought as she looked back at the man before her. His expression seemed kind enough, so the Spirit gave him her full attention. His teeth were very white.

"You have a lovely smile." The Tooth Fairy blurted before she could stop herself.

"Thank you." The Marine preened, flashing another pearly grin. "I heard you need information, cutie."

North and Bunny turned to stare at the man, emerald and sapphire eyes identically hard. The Cossack put a hand to his sword, while the Pooka let a paw drift towards his boomerang. Neither Tooth nor the Marine noticed.

"That would be helpful, yes." The Guardian of Memories said, giving the Marine a smile. "I'm looking for someone named Jack Frost. Have you heard of him?"

"Jack Frost?" The man's eyebrows inched upward. "As in 'Winter Spirit' Jackson Overland Frost? Why would a precious little thing like you want to find a dangerous criminal like him?"

At the last sentence, Tooth's confusion over his silky tone was brushed aside and her brow furrowed. "'Dangerous criminal'? What did he do?"

The Marine scowled, leaning back and crossing his arms. "He killed a bunch of Marines and has been kidnapping civilians. No one knows how. People have just been vanishing from towns all over the world."

Something cold settled in Tooth's gut as the Marine spoke, and she struggled to keep her voice steady. "I still need to find him." An idea clicked and words left her mouth before she could process them. "My daughter is missing."

It was not really a lie. Baby Tooth was missing. Tooth was trying to find her. It just so happened that Pitch might have her instead of Jack.

"I'm sorry to hear that." The Marine's voice was low, but his eyes lit up like he had just found gold. "Still, a pretty girl like you shouldn't try to fight a monster like Frost."

Tooth twitched. That's not true. Jack could never be a monster.

"Apparently he's a merciless killer—"

Tooth's hand clenched. What terrible lies.

"—with eyes as cold as an arctic winter and an empty heart to match—"

He's one of the most loving and caring people I know. How can you believe he's a criminal?

"And I heard his teeth are all rotted and black. Guess evil can show on the out—"

Tooth's fist slammed into the Marine's face. "Don't insult his teeth!"

The Marine went down with a bloody nose, drawing the attention of his companions. They rushed forward, drawing guns and weapons, and the civilians in the area fled, screaming in terror. Instinctively, Tooth struck down two more of the Marines with swift punches to the nose, while a boomerang knocked out the remainder.

Bunny caught his weapon. "Time to go."

The Pooka tapped his foot and the Guardians fell into the tunnel, the hole closing and a flower popping up in the street before the bewildered Marines. The three appeared in the forest beside the sleigh, and soon enough they were airborne, leaving the village behind.

The Guardians sat in silence for a moment, and the two males turned to look at Tooth, who stared straight ahead with wide eyes.

"That went well. So… who wants to bet Tooth has a bounty now?" North asked cheerfully.

Tooth put her head in her hands.

Chapter Text

The ocean was beautiful at night. It was beautiful during the day as well, but beneath the moonlight the sea held a different kind of beauty that Jack could appreciate. The Winter Spirit stood at his usual perch on the deck of the Revolutionary's boat, preferring the drowsy outside world to the cramped depths of the vessel.

He had spent many a night sitting outside beneath the moon before becoming a Guardian. He usually talked to Tsar Lunar about what he had done that day or asked questions about his purpose and wondered why the Man in the Moon had left him alone.

But even back then he had loved the night, how the snow shone beneath the moonlight and the sky was filled with luminous stars. In Jack's opinion though, it was out at sea that a clear night sky looked best, the giant orb above having just enough light to reflect on the water. Like the sunlight, the moonlight would dance, swaying and shifting with the waves. Unlike under the light of the sun, however, the moonlight-filled water carried a hint of mystery. The bright whiteness contrasted sharply with the water that looked black, making the reflection seem even more vibrant than its daytime counterpart.

It was quiet and calming, and Jack found himself smiling even though he was surrounded by darkness. This was not a darkness to fear or hate after all, the moon providing just enough light to chase away any worries the shadows may bring.

The Guardian reached up and gripped the skull-like medallion that lay against his chest, feeling the slight weight of Ace's orange cowboy hat against his back. Even now the hat was a reminder of what he lost and what he was trying to find, but the distant hopelessness that his search was futile had been replaced by a low, forceful determination.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the information, they now had a way to locate Ace. They were that much closer to finding him. Jack chose to concentrate on the positive instead of the negative, because he was honestly sick of constantly worrying. Something good had finally happened, and as a generally cheerful person it was the Guardian's decision to be happy about it. To focus on the approaching reunion instead of the reason for it. To fixate on one brother instead of the other. To be joyful instead of afraid.

If only his companions could do the same.

Footsteps sounded behind Jack but he did not turn, leaning on the railing as he observed the tranquility of the open ocean.

"Shouldn't you be asleep?" the Winter Spirit asked quietly.

"Shouldn't you?" Sabo retorted in a raspy voice.

Jack glanced at him, eyebrows inching up his forehead. The Revolutionary did not look well. His hair was noticeably ruffled, his eyes had dark smudges beneath them, and he looked like a soft breath of wind would knock him over. The Guardian frowned at the blonde man, eyes narrowing in a way rather reminiscent of Bunny.

"I took a nap a couple days ago. I'm good." He looked the Logia up and down. "I'm all for no curfews, but you look like you could use a day of sleep. Or ten."

"Can't sleep." Sabo grunted. "Already tried."

Jack released a puff of air, watching the breath fog the air in front of him. "Let me guess. You're worried about Luffy."

"Why would you ever think such a thing?" Sabo snarked.

"You and Ace always get twitchy when Luffy is in danger." The Guardian commented. "And since Ace isn't here to be snippy, you're being snippy for him. Aren't you supposed to be the calm one?"

Exhausted blue eyes peered at him. "Can you blame me? Luffy ran into Pitch, found Ace, left him imprisoned, and is now going back to Pitch to rescue Ace. If I'd had an inkling that Luffy knew where Ace was, I would have just met with him instead of revealing his survival over the Den Den. Now our little brother is running off to fight the Nightmare King!"

"You had no way to predict…" Jack began, but the Logia ignored him.

Sabo began pacing back and forth, throwing his hands up in the air as he fretted. "Even worse, he isn't answering my Den Den calls, and he isn't calling back. I don't know if the signal has been blocked or if he's just ignoring me. And even if I did talk to him, he wouldn't wait. Did I mention that Luffy is walking right into a trap?"

"Pitch won't expect them. And we might reach Luffy before he returns to the island." The Guardian soothed optimistically.

"I doubt it." Sabo revealed. He took his brother's vivre card out of his coat, shoving the wiggling paper in the Winter Spirit's face. "The whole time we've been sailing, Luffy has been heading towards us. Unless my brother has had the biggest personality change in the cosmos, he's likely heading towards the mystery island, which is somewhere between our locations. It's probable that he will reach it before we reach him."

The Revolutionary took in a shuddering breath. "He met Pitch before but somehow escaped. Now he's trying his luck again. I don't know how Luffy got out last time, but this time Pitch will be ready for him. Not to mention that he isn't above using Ace as a hostage to stop Luffy from fighting…"

It was unnerving to see the normally calm Fire Logia be so panicked, though it made sense since his dear little brother was in danger. The Winter Spirit himself was surprisingly nonchalant about the whole thing. Perhaps he and Sabo had switched roles for the week, with the Guardian providing level-headed support while the technically younger man freaked out. Or maybe it was because they now had a way to find Ace and locate Pitch, so Jack's main source of stress had shrunk to a more manageable size.

Either way, Jack watched as the Revolutionary paced back and forth, back igniting every few steps. Sabo abruptly turned, grabbing the Winter Spirit's shoulders so tightly he could feel the Logia's fingers through his hoodie.

"I'm supposed to protect Luffy. I'm his big brother. But here I am, chasing after him helplessly so he doesn't try to fight a maniac alone. For all we know, we could be half a world away from him. We might not make it in time. What if he gets hurt? What if he gets captured? What if he—?"

"If you're going to panic so loudly, could you please wait until morning?"

Jack and Sabo glanced at Koala, who stumbled out of the door leading below deck. She was dressed for the day, but her hair was mussed beneath her cap and her clothes were slightly rumpled. She yawned and rubbed at her eyes, looking at her partner irritably before transferring her gaze to the Guardian.

"You don't know this because you don't go below deck much, but this idiot has been insufferable since Luffy hung up on him." Koala told him vehemently, as if her circumstances were Jack's fault. "He spends his nights stomping around his room and fretting like a mother hen instead of sleeping." Her glare returned to the blonde Logia. "I thought I'd be able to rest for an hour because you went up here but I can still hear you."

"Sorry." Sabo said briskly, looking one second away from pulling his hair out. "I tried to sleep but… it didn't go well."

Something in his tone caught Jack's attention. "What do you mean?"

The Revolutionary sighed, pressing a hand over his eyes. "It's just the usual nightmares with a few twists. Though now they usually involve Luffy and Pitch."

The Guardian stilled.

It's just a coincidence, he told himself. Don't add unnecessary paranoia to your list of problems. Not all nightmares are caused by Pitch. Of course Sabo would have bad dreams after all the stuff that happened. It's mundane, and normal, and not supernaturally-originated in the slightest.

"I don't like the expression you're wearing." The Revolutionary commented warily. "What's wrong now?"

"Oh, I'm just being a little overly wary." Jack deflected. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not really." Sabo declined, ignoring Koala's disapproving glower.

The intense stare went to Jack, who raised his hands defensively. What did I do? I'm not going to push him for answers. He's your partner!

The orange-haired woman's eyes flashed dangerously and the Guardian sighed in exasperation.

Fine. "When did these nightmares start?"

The blonde Revolutionary said nothing. Koala cuffed him upside the head. The Logia met his partner's dark gaze and decided it was not worth it.

"Shortly after Luffy hung up on me." Sabo grumbled with a sigh. He managed to shoot the two a disarming smile. "It's nothing. Just stress, I'm sure."

"Right." Jack breathed, relaxing slightly.

Koala made an unhappy clicking noise with her tongue, shaking her head. "That's not right. You were fine until we stopped at that little island for more supplies. We didn't get enough for the trip because we got chased out of town, remember?"

Sabo blinked, then frowned. "That's true. How odd."

Jack's paranoia slinked back into the forefront of his mind, and he found himself glancing around at the shadows warily, gripping his staff.

Crrraaaaaaacccccccckkkkkk!

The sound of wood splintering reached their ears, ripping through the air like a gunshot. Three heads turned in the direction of the harsh noise, and Sabo gave a soft curse as he dashed to the back of the ship. It took a moment for the humans' eyes to adjust, but Jack could immediately see the problem.

"Damn it!" he shouted, blasting the Nightmare with ice.

The black horse froze and fell into the ocean with a loud splash, but even in the darkness Jack could already see the damage was done. What used to be a rudder was now a mangled mess, the top half of the plank of wood floating away from the ship.

Because of its sandy nature, the Nightmare had only been able to attack the part of the rudder above the water, but the Guardian could see that the creature had succeeded in nearly pulling the entire part off of the boat. As Jack, Sabo, and Koala watched, the remains of the rudder were pulled away by the waves, the metal attachments sinking while the rest lingered on the surface.

Sabo was the one to break the silence. "You have got to be kidding me."

Koala dashed off, calling for Hack, while Jack swooped down to survey the damage more closely. He scowled unhappily at the place where the hinges had once been, relieved that a hole had not been torn in the ship. If the circumstances and participant had been different, the Winter Spirit might have applauded the horse-like creature with no hands for removing the rudder so relatively cleanly.

The Guardian flew up and landed next to Sabo. "I'm no shipwright, but I'm pretty sure we're not going anywhere anytime soon." He informed him grimly.

The Revolutionary clenched smoldering hands. "How long do you think that Nightmare has been following us?"

"How long have you been having nightmares again?" Jack asked darkly.

Sabo put his face in his hands. "I thought we would have noticed if one of those was near us." He moaned. His head snapped up and he looked at the Guardian with horror. "How do they communicate with Pitch?"

"As far as I know? Telepathy. Range probably depends on his strength, and Pitch is pretty strong right now." The Guardian revealed after a moment's consideration.

His stomach twisted uncomfortably, and it took him a while to identify the reason for his sudden bout of terror. When comprehension formed, Jack met Sabo's equally terrified gaze.

"Pitch just marooned you here intentionally, didn't he?" the Guardian whispered.

"Probably."

"He's been spying on us for weeks."

"Most likely."

"And we were just talking about…"

"Luffy heading back to Pitch's island, yes." Sabo said shakily.

The two older brothers looked at each other with guilt and fear, the realization of what they had done hitting both with the force of a speeding train. In a place they had believed it was safe, they had openly discussed what should have been kept quiet. Through no fault of their own, they had taken their brother's secret mission and hand-delivered it to the enemy, removing one of the very few advantages the pirate had over the Nightmare King.

It was Jack who finally put their failure into words.

"Pitch knows Luffy is coming back."

ROTGOPROTGOP

He had done it. He had finally done it.

Ace stood on a sandy beach, wide eyes caught by two familiar shapes just ahead. Luffy and Sabo were sitting near the water, back to the fire-user as they watched the sun rise above the horizon. His youngest brother had his straw hat placed proudly on his head, while his blonde brother wore the familiar top hat Ace thought he would never see again. The Summer Spirit felt a rush of emotion as he watched them, a smile almost able to come to his lips, and he mutely mouthed their names.

He had found them. He had found two of his brothers.

I… I did it.

It took him a while, but slowly identified the warm feeling he felt that made him want to laugh, dance, and grin. Happy. He was happy. It was such a foreign emotion to the drained Summer Spirit, but Ace decided he liked it.

The fire-user took a calming breath, then another, refusing to let his fears take hold as he walked slowly towards his brothers. They could hate him. They could reject him. They could despise and hurt and kill him. But it would be okay, because Ace had finally found them. He would finally let them know he was alive, and no matter what they did he would love and protect them.

He would have something to live for again.

A hand clapped over Ace's mouth as an arm wrapped around his waist, pinning his hands to his sides. The hand was suffocating and the arm was knives and claws against his flesh, and the fire-user writhed in pain. Happiness vanished like a torch into an abyss.

Ace panicked, thrashing in his captor's hold, but they kept him contained easily, as if he were as strong as a tiny flower when compared to them. The fire-user tried to scream even though he was physically incapable of crying out, but he was unable to make the slightest sound as he was dragged backwards. He felt warm, sticky blood gather in his mouth due to his futile efforts, the taste of metal coating his tongue.

He was so close. His brothers were right there. He had searched so long, through so many nightmares for them, but he had finally made it. He had finally done the impossible and located Luffy and Sabo.

His fear of losing them again overwhelmed his fear of being hurt by his captors, and he struggled harder, digging his bare heels into the dirt and wiggling with as much force as he could muster. Ace jerked his head back, but his head met the person's chest instead of their nose like he intended.

His captor cursed. "Feisty little bu— Stop— Calm down, Firecracker!"

The accent was odd but distantly familiar. Ace ceased his escape attempts for a moment, turning his head a little and meeting emerald eyes. Although the bright green orbs were the first feature he noticed, the fire-user gradually noted that the… person holding him was not human. He appeared to be a tall rabbit, towering over Ace by nearly a foot. He was accompanied by a winged humanoid and a large old man, both of whom looked at the Summer Spirit in concern.

The… Guardians?

This was not the first time Ace had 'met' them, but they had never looked so detailed before. Toothiana had pink eyes. North had tattoos on his forearms that spelled 'Naughty' and 'Nice'. Bunnymund had dark patches resembling eyebrows above his emerald eyes. Ace found their appearances to be rather fascinating, used to seeing the Guardians only vaguely or in shadows.

His distraction only lasted a minute before he began trying to escape Bunny's hold again. The Pooka shifted his paws so both arms were wrapped around Ace's chest, keeping the Summer Spirit's arms at his sides.

"Sorry, kid. We don't have time. We need to get back to Earth right now. The portal's gonna close."

Ace finally noticed the odd, shimmering distortion in the air. The portal looked like a mirage or window, with what appeared to be warped buildings on the other side. The fire-user did not care however, straining against Bunny's hold and gesturing frantically at Sabo and Luffy.

My brothers are right there. I've been looking for them for so long. They're right there! I won't be able to see them again. We'll be separated forever. Just let me say goodbye at least…

The Guardians did not understand. It was almost like they could not see the humans that were so important to Ace. The humans he would never be able to see again.

"We need to leave. Now." Bunny said urgently.

Ace shook his head violently, throwing his body around in an attempt to break free. The Guardian of Hope refused to release him, dragging the Summer Spirit backwards and away from his brothers. Why were they doing this? Why couldn't he say goodbye? Where was Jack? He would understand. He would stop them. He would reason with them.

I just need to say goodbye. Please, let me say goodbye, Ace begged silently.

The Guardians did not hear him, ignoring his struggles as they pulled him towards the portal. The Summer Spirit jerked in their holds, reaching for his brothers, but they were too far away.

Let me say goodbye. I need to say goodbye. Please, just let me say good—

The ground crumbled away beneath his feet, and Ace fell. He plunged into the darkness, looking up in time to see Sabo hold Luffy back as his little brother reached for the fire-user and desperately screamed his name and—

Ace did not know where he was.

He sat up, glancing around frantically at the unfamiliar room he had woken in. It appeared to be a type of office. He lay on a type of couch, with a chair and low table placed neatly beside him. The chair was occupied by Bay, who brushed a loose lock of hair behind her ear.

"Are you alright, Ace? You fell asleep during our session. Do you remember that?" she asked.

Ace searched his 'memories' and discovered that he most definitely did not. The fire-user reluctantly nodded for the first question and shook his head for the second.

"That's okay." The doctor said gently. "We were talking about what happened to you."

He did not recall. A suspicion settled in his mind, but it was snuffed out when he spotted a notebook and pen on the table. Apparently that was how he had communicated with Bay. Ace had no memory of any of it, but his recollection skills were far beyond unreliable at this point.

"Shall we continue or do you want to start over? Either is perfectly fine." Bay encouraged.

Ace faltered, then wrote Continue on the pad. He did not want to waste the doctor's time any more than he already had.

"Okay then." Bay said. "We were talking about personality traits. You were afraid the sand was making you lose all the good things about you, and that it was taking away what made you 'you'."

Ace looked down at the notebook he held, unnerved by the doctor's astute analysis about his fears. Though, if she had been tasked with trying to help him, maybe he had already opened up to her?

"I know I've said it before, but I won't judge you. And everything you say will stay just between us." Bay said firmly, likely spotting his nerves.

The fire-user swallowed and nodded, not quite able to summon a smile. The doctor notice his efforts and gave him an encouraging grin in return.

" Excellent. Now, write down all of your positive traits. Go on. You can do it." She urged.

Ace stared at the paper blankly. It took a long time for him to think of anything at all. Memories and nightmares jumbled together, making him uncertain of who he was and used to be. He eventually focused on interactions with his brothers and Jack to look for good mannerisms of his.

Brave. Polite. Determined. Intelligent. Protective.

There were more. There had to be more. But Ace could not think of them, his struggling mind unable to look within himself and see something good. Still, he felt some pride that he could muster up five things, and gave the paper to Bay with a small, hopeful smile. She nodded slowly, then abruptly shook her head.

"This is all wrong. If you're determined, why did you give up at Marineford? If you're brave, why didn't you go tell Luffy you were alive? If you're polite, why do you keep ignoring people like an entitled asshole? If you're protective, why did you abandon your brothers? If you're intelligent, why did you turn back to face Akainu?" Bay looked into his eyes, expression stern. "Stop lying to yourself, Ace. You are none of those things."

Ace felt cold.

Bay smiled sweetly. "Now, tell me what you really are."

The bad came so much easier than the good, words flowing onto the page within seconds. Ace felt his eyes begin to sting but he did not let the tears fall.

Selfish. Stubborn. Hot-blooded. Stupid. Impulsive. Violent.

Bay took the paper and studied it before scoffing and shaking her head in disapproval. "You're missing a few. Think really hard about it."

More negative traits came easily to him. Ace's hand shook as he wrote.

Worthless. Useless. Ungrateful. Weak. Pathetic. Unworthy. Broken.

He blinked and saw water droplets fall onto the page. He wrote a final, sloppy word. Crybaby.

Bay nodded in agreement. "That's more like it. You need to be honest with yourself, Ace. That's the first step. Now, let's talk about what you let happen to you, shall we?"

The fire-user looked at her in confusion, attention caught by one word. Let? He wrote.

The doctor sighed, rubbing a hand over her face in frustration. "Don't deny it. You were a Commander. You are a Nature Spirit. You were strong. Pitch could not have captured and infected you unless you let him. You allowed this to happen to you, Ace. It's your fault. I want you to understand that."

Ace could barely see the paper anymore. His writing was jagged and wobbly as his hand shook. Why?

"Because I need you to hate yourself and what you've become so that you can turn into something new." Bay said kindly. "As you are now, you're just a burden and you're not going to get better. All you're doing is dragging other people down with you. Why are you inconveniencing them with your problems?"

I'm sorry, Ace wrote shakily. I'll try to do better.

"Good." She approved. "That's why we're here. Now, let's talk about your brothers, shall we?"

He was writing before he registered that he had put the pen to the page. They love me.

"Perhaps." Bay said in a tone that suggested she did not believe it. "But you don't want to hurt them, do you? If you go back to them, you'll just have to leave again. You'll have to abandon them just like you did when you died, causing them grief and pain all over again. Not to mention that since you're so broken, they'll waste time worrying about you when they should be following their dreams. You'll just hold them back. Isn't that selfish of you?"

Ace could feel something breaking. Like a sand castle facing a tsunami, pieces crumbled away, unable to withstand the forces that sought to tear the foundation apart. Her words repeated in his head, over and over again, chiseling away at his carefully maintained perseverance and leaving widening cracks behind.

The fire-user tried to hold himself together by thinking of his brothers, but the accompanying thought of his presence hurting them made the waves rise higher and he found he could not stay afloat anymore.

I… can't do this, he realized. I can't do this anymore.

He tried counting nightmares. He tried spotting discrepancies in the world around him, relying on things he knew without a doubt to be true as reference. He tried bringing up former conversations to see if other people remembered them. He tried drawing images on his arm to identify where he was waking up. He tried acting normal or apathetic in order to stop his fears from being triggered.

It did not work. None of it helped him determine which world was the real one. It was like looking for a silver needle in a pile of shiny grey ones. Every wrong move resulted in pain and misery. Again and again and again.

A sharp tap on his head made Ace flinch.

"I said, isn't that selfish?" Bay growled.

Ace did not respond. Something numb and empty washed through him, overtaking the fear and sadness and leaving nothing behind. He lay down on the couch, turning so his back was to the doctor, and tuned out her angry demands for an answer. Eventually she got fed up and struck his head, knocking him out or possibly killing him.

In the next nightmare, Luffy died.

Sabo died.

Jack died.

Ace was left alone.

In the world after that, he was abandoned by the Whitebeard Pirates again.

His brothers were killed before he could find them.

The next set of visions ended with him in a lab, taken apart by the World Government to see if they could copy or harness his powers.

It took years, but he bled out eventually.

Another dream where the Guardians shunned him.

Another dream where his crew hated him.

Another dream where Luffy and Sabo blamed him.

Life after life after life.

Death after death after death.

Nightmare after nightmare after nightmare.

"What the hell are you doing? Idiot!"

"You ruin everything!"

"You were trying to 'help'? You call that 'help'? You can't do anything right!"

"You're useless."

"I can't believe how weak you've become."

"You're a disgrace."

"You're not my friend."

"You're not my son."

"You're not my brother."

"We never wanted you."

"Why would anyone love you?"

"I hate you."

"I wish you'd never been born."

"Pathetic."

"Arrogant prick."

"You're a monster."

"Pig-headed fool."

"Stubborn ass."

"Reckless idiot."

"Demon!"

"What the hell was that? He almost died because of you!"

"If you weren't so incompetent, this wouldn't have happened."

"If you want to die so badly, how about you go and off yourself already? Save us the trouble."

"Get out. You're not welcome here."

"Are you crying again? Why are you such a baby?"

"Yeah, just keep feeling bad for yourself. That will fix everything."

"You're so selfish. You think you're the only one suffering? What about what you put us through, huh? First you abandon us, then you come crawling back, and now we have to deal with you and your issues."

"It wasn't that bad, drama queen."

"You're overreacting."

"Get over it already!"

"You're so broken."

"We don't need you."

"What happened to you was entirely your fault."

"Why were you so stupid, Ace? It's your fault that you died."

"You deserved it."

"You never should have come back."

The cycle repeated.

Again.

Again.

Again.

Again.

Ace woke in the infirmary.

The fire-user did not cry. He did not punch the wall or rage at the heavens. He did not try to get up. He did not even move. Ace merely stared at the ceiling apathetically with eyes that could barely see it, a strange cloudiness dulling his senses. He physically felt no different than he had not so long ago, but at the same time something was missing.

It doesn't matter. None of it matters.

He wondered if he should be crying. It seemed like he always cried these days, so why wasn't he now? This empty, cold, numb feeling had to be despair, right? So why wasn't he reacting?

I… should try to find my brothers.

The thought was formed more out of habit than out of a desire to see them again. Ace blinked rapidly, but his eyes remained dry.

No I shouldn't, he admitted. If I show myself to them, I'll only cause them more pain. Even if I find them, I'll have to leave again. Either to Earth or through death. Probably through death.

There was still no urge to cry. He just felt tired of it all. Tired and cold.

I guess I really am broken.

His eyes did not even sting.

Ace turned off the machines that tracked his heartbeat before methodically detaching the wires from his body. He had done it enough times to know how to remove the devices without triggering them, thus causing the doctors to be alerted that he was awake. He did not want to face Bay or James or anyone else. They would just pretend to worry for a while or throw away all pretenses and hurt him, like they always did.

I'd deserve it.

The fire-user got to his feet and exited the room. He did not exactly walk, instead drifting through the lower deck of the Moby Dick like a ghost, wandering through the halls without a destination in mind. The crew members he passed did not acknowledge him, but the fire-user could not summon the ability to feel sad about it. He was not worth their time or attention. Instead he carefully inched around the Whitebeard Pirates so as not to disturb them, heading up to the deck.

It was dawn. The bright yellow sun peeked over the horizon, painting the sky a mixture of blues, pinks and purples. The ocean looked like it was made of gold in the light, the waves causing the sunlight to reflect off the water and make it shimmer and sparkle.

Sunken eyes stared out at sea, unable to take in the beauty of the morning. Ace leaned against the railing, looking down into the ocean. If he weren't so broken, he might have marveled at how detailed the nightmares always made the worlds he found himself in. Now all he could do was sink into his spiraling thoughts and wonder why he bothered anymore.

It's all nightmares. Every time I wake up.  I can 'live' or 'love' or 'search' or 'die', but it's all just in my head.  I can't escape. I can't endure. I can't be fixed.  None of it matters. None of it.

Ace stared down at the sea, wild and mysterious, then tipped his head upward and looked at the sky. What was stopping him from just flying away in this dream? What was preventing him from abandoning the things and people that always ended up hurting him? Very few things could reach the sky, so maybe if he flew he would not be hurt again, and he would not have to inconvenience anyone with his issues.

Before Ace comprehended what he was doing, he was on the railing. He balanced easily on the wood, both his natural equilibrium and instinctive light-footedness letting him casually perch on the crossbeams. The waves bounced the ship gently beneath his feet but he remained firm and unbothered by the movement. The fire-user tilted his head towards the sky and lifted his arms, closing his eyes and letting the wind brush over his face, rustling his hair.

He supposed he could lift off directly from the deck, but instead found it darkly amusing to put his life in the unreliable hands of chance. After all, Ace's powers might not work in this dream. He could fly into the heavens, or he could fall into the sea and drown. It was inconsequential either way. Plus there was the fact that Whitebeard Pirates tended to grab him if he tried to fly away while in their reach…

I don't have to find Jack, Luffy, and Sabo, he thought morosely. They don't need me. I don't have to stay with the Whitebeard Pirates. They don't need me. I don't have to meet the Guardians. They don't need me. I'm just a problem, a mess, a… burden. They're all better off without me. I'll just leave on my own this time.

"Oh."

The exclamation came from behind him, gasped in a low, panicked voice. Ace merely turned his head, too numb to worry about being attacked anymore. Thatch stood a few feet from him, open terror on his face, and the fire-user idly wondered if the chef was afraid of him. He decided it did not matter.

"Ace. Ace, b-buddy." Thatch stammered. "Hi. Um, you want to get off of there?"

Ace ignored him, turning back to the sea as he balanced precariously on the railing. The fire-user thought he spotted brightly-colored fish below the waves and watched them swim out of sight with a muted curiosity. He heard the chef's breathing quicken.

"D-Did you know I just got a shipment of chocolate in? I know you love it. Want to come have some? We'll have to e-eat it before MARCO! finds out." Thatch shouted the Phoenix's name, a terrified strain in his voice. "MARCO!"

The chef stepped forward, halting immediately when Ace tensed. The fire-user closed his eyes and bowed his head, weary beyond words.

Why am I even scared anymore? It doesn't matter. I'm in a nightmare. I'll likely die again anyway.

I never should have been reborn in the first place.

Ace supposed he should be argumentative, grieving, defiant, sad, determined, or scared right now. All he felt was numb. He sought the sky, tipping his chin up and staring up at the endless expanse of blue. If he could just reach it… he would be free.

Thatch moved, catching the wary fire-user's attention, but the chef merely raised his hands at chest level, his arms outstretched. He was shaking. That was strange. Usually Ace was the one who was always apprehensive and trembling. Was he right before? Was this a nightmare where the chef was afraid of him? That was a pretty unique one, comparatively.

"Ace, please come down." Thatch's voice cracked. "I don't know what's going on in that head of yours, but we can help you. Please, let us help you. Just— Just get back on the ship."

Ace's bare toes curled around the edge of the railing, and he slowly comprehended why the chef was acting so frightened.

He thinks I'm going to jump, the fire-user realized, surprised. I mean, I was, but I can fly— maybe— so it's fine. And even if I fell, it doesn't matter. I would just die. I always die.

The sound of a sob caught his attention, and he when he looked back the chef was crying. Tears raced down Thatch's cheeks as small cries broke out him, his body lurching slightly with each jagged breath. The Commander's knees wobbled before he fell to the deck, hand clapped his chest while the other still reached pleadingly towards Ace.

"I'm sorry you almost died because of me." The man babbled. "I'm sorry you were captured, and tortured, and who knows what else because of me. I'm sorry this happened to you. But please, don't do this. You're my friend, my brother. You're strong and brave and resilient, and I know you can beat this. I know you can live. So please…"

Ace watched the man break down, and felt something stir in his chest. This picture was very, very wrong. Thatch was a cheerful person. He should not cry, especially not because of the fire-user.

The Summer Spirit found himself stepping back onto the deck and inching over to Thatch. The chef stilled as he approached, eyes red-rimmed and puffy. Ace knelt in from of him but did not touch him, merely staring silently. He reached out, placing his hand on Thatch's arm just for a second— knives glass pain— before withdrawing.

The Fourth Division Commander's arms lifted like he wanted to encase Ace in them, but he resisted the instinctive urge to hug the twitchy fire-user. Instead Thatch lowered his arms and shot him a tremulous smile that managed to be sunny and bright.

"Okay. We're okay. You're okay." He rambled, taking in a shuddering breath.

Ace decided he did not like that word much anymore.

Purple caught Ace's eye and he peered at Marco, who was standing in the center of the deck. The Phoenix looked like decades had been stripped from his life, his eyes round and his skin ashen. Namur stood beside him, gripping the First Division Commander's arm tightly. The Fishman looked as horrified as the blonde pirate. He released the Phoenix and Marco rushed to Ace and Thatch's sides, sitting beside them.

"Are you all right, yoi?" he asked urgently.

He sounded scared, too. Ace should apologize. He didn't want the Whitebeard Commanders to be scared. Fear gave Pitch power.

But this is a nightmare, remember? Nothing matters.

So why did I come to Not-Thatch?

Ace did not know. He did not understand. He did not care.

"We're fine. We're okay." Not-Thatch said that awful word again. He wiped at his eyes and looked welcomingly at Ace. "I was serious about that chocolate shipment. Bay might get grumpy because you haven't really eaten anything substantial in a while, but I swear chocolate makes everything better.

He looked so hopeful, but Ace could not find the energy to respond.

Did Not-Thatch think things were better? They would never be better. It would never end.

This little incident did not change anything. The fire-user was just going through the motions again. He knew the patterns, he recognized the hints, he predicted the outcome. Only this time… he knew there was no escape.

And that he did not deserve one.

Ace wished he could cry.

Not far from the Moby Dick, dark clouds formed in the sky.

ROTGOPROTGOP

It had been seventeen days since Ace woke for the first time, and Marco felt no closer to figuring out how to help the fire-user. After the scare this morning, the Phoenix was more terrified than ever about the state of the kid's mind. Thatch refused to leave Ace's side, forsaking his duties for the day and leaving them to the cooks under his command. Marco let it slide, because he himself wanted to do exactly the same thing.

He had panicked when he went to Ace's room only to find it empty, immediately dashing through the ship to find the kid and dismissing the concerns of other Whitebeard Pirates so as not to cause a stampede of searching pirates. When he had seen Ace on the railing, his heart nearly stopped. Namur— who had been with him when they heard Thatch shout the Phoenix's name— had grabbed his arm to prevent him from lunging for the kid.

"If you run at him, he might jump or fall." The Fishman had hissed lowly.

Marco had been unable to speak, only able to observe fearfully as Thatch tried to talk Ace down. When the chef had begun crying, his paralysis had almost faded, but in hindsight he was glad he had not approached. Ace had gotten off the railing by himself and gone to his friend's side to comfort him, mostly-willingly initiating contact for the first time since he woke up. If he hadn't come back to the deck, or if Thatch had not stumbled upon him by accident…

Don't think about it.

Instead Marco felt his mind wander back to the conversation with Shanks they had almost a week ago and a frown pulled at his lips.

"I guess it's time I tell you about our enemy." Shanks said. He brushed his hand through his hair, the red locks becoming slightly ruffled because of the action. "All right then. Like I said, I won't tell you everything, or how I came to get this information. I've sworn not to, and seeing as how you're confused right now, my Captain did not tell you about this. I technically should not either…"

His gaze flicked to the sleeping Ace. "…but I think Roger would understand. What you need to know is about a… man named Pitch Black. He is known as the Nightmare King and the Spirit of Fear, and he's— for lack of a better term— a complete monster."

Izo and Marco exchanged a glance at the red-haired Yonko's harsh words.

Shanks smirked almost bitterly. "I'm not exaggerating. He's killed more people than you can comprehend. You know those black creatures that have been popping up all over the world? The 'black horses' and 'shadow demons' the newspapers claim do not exist? They're his creations— his Nightmares and Fearlings— and they were made with the dreams and souls of the people who disappeared."

"I'm telling you all this because Pitch Black was standing in the corner of this room when I walked in. One of his powers is invisibility, though it has a catch. You have to… know he exists in order to see him. That's why you didn't see him earlier, though now I think you'll be able to. You couldn't see him, but Ace did."

Marco slowly began to put pieces together, and his stomach lurched uncomfortably. His gaze snapped to the shadowy parts of the room, and the Phoenix inside him tingled in warning even though there was currently no threat. Shanks poured four cups of sake, handing them out almost as an afterthought. The blonde pirate did not touch his. Oyaji took a swig. Izo downed his drink in a single gulp. Red Hair smirked humorlessly and poured him another cup.

"I wasn't sure before, but I'm certain now that Pitch was the one who kept Ace captive." Shanks revealed. "Those markings on the kid? They're from Pitch. His methods appear to be slightly different than what I was warned about, but I've seen the end result before and it's the same. I think Pitch may have been trying to turn Ace into a Fearling, but for some reason the kid is immune. So instead of turning Ace, the sand is likely forcing him into nightmares filled with his greatest fears. Over and over, every time he's asleep, until he could no longer differentiate between dreams and reality."

They all looked at the unconscious fire-user, who twitched and shifted in his sleep, expression pained. Marco stood up, but Shanks put a hand on his arm, stopping him from going to the kid.

"Shaking him won't work. If it's anything like the dr—… other sand I heard of, the black sand is designed to keep its victim asleep."

"What do we do then?" Whitebeard asked sharply. "How do we help my son?"

"You can't." Shanks said quietly. "As long as the sand is in Ace, he'll continue to have nightmares. Eventually… he'll likely die. Once the sand reaches his heart, it's over. All you can do is be there for him when he is awake and try to support him. If he keeps fighting, the sand won't beat him… but he can't just expel it either. It isn't going to magically go away, so you'll have to be there to try to keep his head above water. I'm sorry."

They had asked a few more questions and voiced protests— Was he certain the sand had no cure? Did he have an idea of where Pitch was and if the bastard could remove it? Was there a way to prevent the sand from infecting someone?— but the conversation ended shortly after that.

Shanks had warned the Whitebeard Pirates not to be too direct or to bring up Pitch with Ace, because that would only reinforce the kid's belief that he was in a nightmare. As far as the fire-user knew, it was impossible for the two Commanders and Yonko to know about Pitch, and he would likely panic, believing they were allies in the 'dream'. Marco, Izo, and Whitebeard had agreed to be subtle in their attempts to convince Ace this was reality.

The Red Hair Pirates had left shortly after that, with promises to return to the Moby Dick in a few weeks. James had reluctantly gone with them, unwilling to leave his patient but also unable to trust his idiot of a Captain to not get injured while he was away. Apparently they had received word of 'something important' that Shanks refused to disclose. The only hint the Whitebeard Pirates received was that it involved 'friends of an old friend'.

The red-haired Yonko swore he would tell Whitebeard if he received any intelligence about Pitch and his location before sailing off. Marco just wished he would be less cryptic, though he understood his silence and half-answers were due to the promise made to his deceased Captain, so he let it slide. For now.

One thing was for certain. Ace was in a dangerous mental state, worse than the doctors had predicted. And Marco could only be there, support him, and try to catch him when he fell.

The kid was still out on the deck under Thatch's watchful eye after rejecting the chef's offer of chocolate. None of the pirates had the heart to force him back to the infirmary when they saw how he looked at the sun.

The way those ember-colored eyes lingered on the sky and yellow star made Marco's already strained heart want to break. Ace looked so fragile beneath the open expanse of blue, like he could barely believe that he was seeing it. It had only taken a whispered suggestion from Vista about the possibility that the kid had not seen the sky in years to make Bay back off and let him stay outside.

Everyone watched him though. Subtly, of course.

But naturally, the peace could not last long.

The Whitebeard Pirates— the proud, savvy, veteran pirate crew of the World's Strongest Man— were caught completely off guard.

The darkness swept over the ocean without warning, the sky turning from day to a false night in a matter of minutes. The thunderstorm did not meander to the Moby Dick, it pounced on it, appearing out of nowhere like an enemy's ambush.

The wind did not howl, it screamed, shrieking with the outrage of a mindless, wounded beast as it took out its anger on the ship. The sea was just as unforgiving, waves the size of mountains rising up and beating against the Moby Deck, eager to pull the vessel into the depths. The rain pelted down with the strength of Haki-imbued punches, knocking more than one pirate off their feet as they stumbled across the rocking deck.

Marco braced himself as the ship tilted, riding up along a wave before crashing down jarringly. He saw Izo lunge for one of their less sturdy brothers as he slipped, barely able to keep the man from falling overboard. Namur was forced to dive over the railing after another less lucky crewmate was sent soaring into the sea with a scream that was lost among the concussion of thunder and wailing winds.

The Fishman popped up above the raging ocean mere seconds after his decent with the man held securely in his arms. Vista threw them a rope, feet planted to keep himself from being bowled over, and with the help of a few others they pulled the two back onto the ship. Another crew mate immediately took the shivering, near-drowned man to Bay.

A bolt of lightning struck the sea so close to the ship the Phoenix felt the charge in the air, the hair on his arms rising. A second, third and fourth strike split the sky all at once, the air ripping apart with an ominous crack. Marco prayed the mast would not be hit.

The First Division Commander tried shouting orders, but his voice was lost to the shrieking winds, the raging gale determined to keep his commands muffled. Luckily, the Whitebeard Pirates were not ignorant rookies, and each man did what he was meant to without being asked. Crew members ran left and right, pinning down free-falling items and assisting their brothers as an electricity-filled ocean descended from the heavens.

The Phoenix dashed water from his eyes and went to help a struggling Curiel tie down a loose rope. He barely made it a step before the wind struck him, smashing into Marco like a thousand blows and sending him sprawling.

He crashed into Thatch, who steadied the Phoenix as best he could, the wind and rain hammering against them both. Marco could not be surprised it the chef and his other brothers woke with bruises lining their skin. Flashes of lightning revealed Thatch's well-maintained pompadour was now a drooping mess, locks of hair sticking to his forehead.

The chef said something, gesturing animatedly, but his words were lost to the gale. Booms of thunder drowned the sound out even more, the ship trembling with every lightning strike. Haruta managed to help Curiel with the rope, and the two Commanders staggered off to assist their other brothers. Another wave lifted the Moby Dick, and many pirates gave startled shouts as the ship went up almost ninety degrees. It slammed back into a horizontal position, sending many pirates sprawling.

Marco winced when he saw an unlucky Fossa bounce his head off the deck, the dazed Commander being grabbed by Namur before he could slide into the sea. Thatch clung to Marco, bellowing urgently, and the Phoenix finally noticed that Ace was not with the chef. He scanned the deck, heart freezing as he spotted the only person who stood firm against the storm.

Ace gazed up at the flashing sky, unbothered by the forceful winds and torrential rain. As the Whitebeard Pirates scurried and shrieked around him, the fire-user was still and silent, looking calmer than he had since he had returned to them. As lightning flashed, rain poured, and people panicked around him, Ace was as solid and unmoved as a mountain, almost otherworldly as the bursts of light illuminated the black marks covering his skin.

His eyes lowered to meet Marco's, the orange irises almost glowing in the darkness, and a ghost of a smile flitted across his features. Then his head snapped to the side, staring out at the thrashing ocean past the Phoenix, and his grin faded into a peaceful expression. Seconds later, a new shadow fell over the Moby Dick. Marco turned to look behind him, horrified to spot the 700 foot wave bearing down on the ship.

"Brace yourselves!" he bellowed.

The pirates clung to whatever sturdy structure was within reach. They all looked at the incoming wave with uneasiness, determination, or fear. All except Ace. The fire-user did not move from the center of the deck, watching the wave approach with that same serene expression.

Marco moved before logic could stop him, releasing his anchor and dashing for the kid. Ace saw him approach, and finally an emotion flickered through his detached gaze. Fear. The fire-user reached for the Phoenix as the blonde man did the same to him, the wave bearing down on them both with a promise of death. The First Division Commander tried to turn their bodies, to shield Ace's with his own, but the kid refused to move, sturdy as a stone.

It all happened too fast for Marco to react.

One second, Ace clung to Marco, as if he were trying to cover every part of the larger man he could. The next the kid exploded, fire shooting out protectively like a sphere that closed around them both. And then the wall of rushing water was upon them. The storm grew muffled under the sounds of the crackling flames, everything turning from a dark grey to brilliant swirl of orange and blue. Marco barely had time to register the heat before the sphere vanished, his burns healing instantly thanks to his Devil Fruit.

The Phoenix realized he was entirely dry for all of a second until the rain drenched him to the bone again. He and Ace were in the same position in the center of the deck, with a circle of scorched wood around them.

Everyone else had been thrown to the deck or were hanging off the railing. Those that could rushed to assist their flailing comrades, some shouting for help, but Marco could only stare at Ace in wonder.

Because after days of apathy, fear, and indifference, he had just stopped Marco from being doused by and potentially pushed into the sea. Because he had forsaken all previous uncaring habits and intentionally protected the Phoenix. Because he had just used fire to block water. Such a thing should be impossible, and yet the kid had managed it.

The kid that looked almost happy to see that the Phoenix was all right, his orange eyes shining with concern.

For the first time since Ace was returned to them, Marco felt that the kid might actually be all right.

Before Marco could speak, Haruta stormed up to them both, expression as ominous as the dark clouds above. He grabbed Ace by the head and pulled him down to his eyelevel, ignoring the fire-user's winces.

"What the hell was that?" The Twelfth Division Commander shouted, giving Ace a rough shake. "You fucking moron! Marco could have died because of you!"

Orange eyes darkened to flecked black and something dead and horrifying entered the fire-user's gaze. Marco did not have time to rebuke Haruta before Ace shoved the Twelfth Division Commander, bolting away from them both. It took too long for Marco to realize that the kid was not heading below deck, but towards the side of the ship.

The pirates closest to Ace lunged for the fire-user, but the wind buffeted them away, keeping him out of reach of their desperately grasping hands. The Phoenix could only scream as Ace leapt over the railing… and soared into the sky.

Maco was airborne before he fully registered that Ace was flying, the blue phoenix following the orange flames the kid left in his wake as he fled through the clouds. He heard muffled shouts behind him but did not turn, fighting against the wind as he followed his youngest brother. There was not any time.

The Phoenix knew that if he did not go after Ace, they would lose him. To the sand, to Pitch, to the Marines, or even to the expanse of the world. Marco sent a mental apology to Oyaji and the others as he fluttered and soared, raging against nature, desperate to keep Ace in sight.

The fire-user and the Phoenix vanished in the storm.

ROTGOPROTGOP

At first, Ace felt free.

With nothing but the open sky around him, the clouds below and the sun above, the fire-user felt almost-content. The Summer Spirit soared through the atmosphere, away from the storm and the Whitebeard Pirates and the fears that tried to drown him. It felt wonderful, just being by himself without pitying eyes watching him and without having to pretend to be whole.

The fire-user was too tired to swoop and perform tricks like he once might have, but he flew steadily and almost-smiled as he looked down at the sea of clouds, oddly at peace. Ace had been right about the sky. Here, no one could hurt him. Here, no one could touch him. Here, he was unbound, not a prisoner, and free.

It took Ace an hour to realize he was running away.

The understanding of his cowardly choice struck the fire-user like a blow, and suddenly the flames keeping him aloft could no longer be maintained. The Summer Spirit plummeted, the world rushing by in a blur. And yet at the same time, everything seemed to move slower, the ocean below frozen in time as he fell towards it.

He should be scared. He wasn't. Ace wondered if it was because he was still unafraid of death, or if he wanted it. The latter thought did not even disturb him anymore.

A tan splotch formed in front of him, and the fire-user noted he was falling towards an island, not into the ocean. He briefly considered trying to alter his plummet so he could dive into the waves, but decided it did not matter.

Nothing mattered anymore.

The island filled his vision, and at the last second Ace instinctively twisted, trying to make it so he would fall feet first. He did not quite succeed, his body turning so he was in a strange diagonal position. He hit the ground hard, bones jarring unnaturally as he slammed into the earth. His skeleton strained and groaned but somehow did not break.

Ace did not simply stop, instead rolling and skidding on the sand, parts of his skin scraping and tearing as he slid across the beach. He eventually came to a halt, exposed skin stinging. The fire-user lay there for a long time, staring up at the deceptively bright sun and feeling strangely… disappointed.

I survived. Huh.

He sat up and his body brutally informed him of every new ache and pain. A glance downward showed tiny cuts and forming contusions lining his flesh, some weeping crimson. The fire-user shifted, grimacing as pain flared through him, and froze when the tan sand beneath him dug into his open wounds. It stung, but that was not the reason for his dismay.

Panic took hold as the familiar, gritty substance got into his blood. Ace's throat strained but no sound came out, only speckles of red. He clawed at his skin, brushing the sand off of him as if it were spiders. The natural sand fell off, but the black sand remained, and so he scrubbed harder, trying to rid himself of the disgusting poison.

Small streaks of red smeared over his chest and limbs, causing the fire-user to still, staring at the crimson on the ground and his hands. His black-mark detailed fingers twitched and the Summer Spirit gagged, covering his mouth. It was inside him. He did not want it inside him.

Get it out. Get it out. Get it out.

Ace rubbed furiously at the marks on his arms and stomach, making his skin raw and reddish but the sand refused to go away, trapped within his body and beneath his skin. His fingers spasmed again and desperation took hold. He could not do this anymore. He could not handle more nightmares. He needed the black sand gone. He needed it out.

He dug his nails into his side and stomach— above the wound that began all of this— but hands grabbed his wrists, pulling them away. The contact hurt— knives needles lava stabbed— like it always did now. Ace met Not-Marco's wide blue eyes and felt a little more of his fractured psyche crumble.

The Phoenix had followed him. He had hunted him down. He must be angry at the fire-user for making him risk his life.

Ace knew the storm had been his fault. He had let his powers get out of control like he always did. He was a dangerous, violent Nature Spirit, and all he did was hurt and destroy. He knew that now.

The fire-user had been fully prepared to die to his own creation, as he should, even smiling as the storm raged around him and he realized the latest nightmare was going to end. But then the Phoenix had run to him, disregarding his own safety to help Ace.

Ace did not know why he had saved the Not-Marco from the wave. Maybe it was the terror in his blue eyes as he ran towards the Summer Spirit. Maybe it was the way he had tried to shield the fire-user's body with his own. Maybe it was the fact that the ocean was one of the few things that could kill the Phoenix. Maybe it was the small detail that Ace had seen his old friend die so many times he could not bear to see it again.

Whatever it was, Ace had felt the sudden urge to protect, moving between Not-Marco and the wave as fire burst from his body. The flames had felt wonderful, warm and calming and bright, and although the fire-user was uncertain exactly what he had done, he had succeeded in his goal. He had kept Not-Marco safe, shielded him from the wave that could strip him of his abilities and push him into the sea.

Ace had actually felt proud, for a single second.

Then Not-Haruta had proven that he was still in nightmares, shouting that the fire-user had almost caused Not-Marco's death. It was then that the Summer Spirit saw the flickers of blue flame on the Phoenix, and comprehended that he had nearly burned Not-Marco alive. The realization that even when he tried to help people he was still a monster had been the final blow.

It had been too much.

It had been too much long before then.

So he had run.

And Not-Marco had followed.

Ace could only wonder what the Phoenix was going to do to him now.

A tiny part of him whispered that he should fight Not-Marco, but the desire was suggested more out of fear than defiance. Ace would not be able to get away and escape. He was never able to flee from the people that hurt him. All he could do was hope that he died quickly.

So when Not-Marco grabbed his wrists and pinned him to the sand, Ace did not resist. When the Phoenix pressed his arms down at his sides, holding them there so he could not defend himself, the Summer Spirit did not struggle. The numb acceptance of his fate was back, and so the fire-user only stared at Not-Marco's chin hollowly, unable to meet his likely-furious eyes. He could not tell if the blonde pirate was upset or angry. Probably both.

"Enough." The Phoenix said harshly. "That's enough, Ace."

Ace turned his head towards the ocean and watched the waves brush against the shore. He tried to focus on the movement of the sea to distance himself but could not do it. He did not bother to tell himself everything would be fine. It would not be. The fire-user trembled, and waited.

He was not afraid. Not anymore. Ace was tired. Tired of fighting. Tired of fleeing. Tired of betrayals. Tired of nightmares and fear. He knew he had given up— He had given up a long time ago— but instead of feeling bad, all he could do was accept it. How could he even claim to be who he once was anymore when the similarities between him and Fire Fist Portgas D. Ace were practically nonexistent?

The black sand was crawling again, for the first time in a long time. Ace felt it slither over his back and inch up his ribcage, bringing its icy numbness with it. He experienced the smallest glimmer of panic as it crept up over his throat and face, feeling like a noose around his neck and a smothering pillow over his mouth and nose.

Not-Marco breathed in sharply. "Oda, no. Ace, you're okay. You're fine. You can beat this." He sounded scared again. "Don't give up, kid!"

I already have. I'm sorry, Ace thought morosely, refusing to look at him. Besides, this is a nightmare anyway. It doesn't matter.

He blinked rapidly as the sand slid over his eyelid, past his eyebrow and caressing his hairline. He supposed he should be more concerned about the blackness moving towards his heart, but he could not muster the effort. Numbness faded and bolts of pain ripped through him, making his breathing stutter and his body jerk.

Ace vaguely remembered Pitch's promise of an agonizing death, and distantly hoped this was real. He did not want to fall to the black sand more than once. It was starting to hurt. In fact it hurt a lot, like Bay had injected him with that organ-shredding drug again. At least he could show his pain this time, limbs twitching and jaw quivering as he clenched his teeth.

He belatedly realized Not-Marco was holding him upright, hugging Ace. The pain from the pirate's touch was overwhelmed by the black sand's progress. The Phoenix breathed quickly, his normally half-lidded eyes fully open with terror.

"Don't you dare. You are not losing to this. Don't you want to see your brothers again? Luffy and Sabo?"

Ace kind of did, but they were better off never knowing he had been reborn.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe, each intake of air slow and rattling. It felt like his lungs were being filled with ice-water. He felt the black sand stretch more, circling his heart like a predator with prey. Ace knew it was mocking him and prolonging his suffering. As if it knew his thoughts, the sand prodded at his heart— his soul?— each jab like a knife plunging into his chest.

Again, his larynx strained, unable to let loose the screams he should be voicing. He coughed instead and felt blood splatter onto his chin. The fire-user tried to claw at his own skin— Get it out. Get it out.— but the Phoenix kept his arms pinned, wrestling with him and keeping him from attempting to remove the sand. Didn't he understand it was causing Ace pain?

Not-Marco was still rambling about people who would apparently miss Ace if he died here, saying things about how he was strong, and was a fighter, and could do this, and would survive. The fire-user did not have the cognitive ability to wonder how the Phoenix knew the sand was killing him, his mind sinking into a whitish-grey haze as the poison overwhelmed him. It was just like when he had been stabbed by Akainu and Pitch. His limbs grew heavy and numb, and a harsh coldness slithered through his veins.

H-Hurts.

Ace slowly comprehended that he was dying in a loved one's arms again. He supposed he should feel sorry about that. Marco or Not-Marco did not deserve to see him die again. But the fire-user had already fought for so long. He had already tried to stay strong for himself and his family. Comforts grew meaningless, reunions grew repetitive, trying did not change anything, and nothing mattered in the end. Ace had nothing left to sustain him.

"What about Jack?" Not-Marco blurted, voice shaking. "Surely you don't want to leave him alone?"

He… knows… Jack?

Ace forced his eyes to open and move to meet the Phoenix's. He frowned subconsciously. Did he ever tell Marco about Jack? He might have, but he could not recall. So many memories were gone, fake, or altered, and the fire-user had no way to sort them. Not-Marco misunderstood his bout of attentiveness.

"I saw Jack once, yoi. At Mar— A while ago. He was sad when you… left." The normally coolheaded pirate babbled. "I never saw him after, but I bet he was searching for you all this time. I never met him personally, but I know Jack will never give up on you. He's still looking for you, yoi. Don't you want to see him again?"

Ace… did. It was a surprising revelation, but the fire-user could not deny that he still wanted to reunite with Jack, even after everything. It took a while, but Ace identified the reason why he could think of the Winter Spirit without remorse or terror.

Jack never hurt him.

In all of his nightmares, the Guardian of Fun never harmed or betrayed Ace. Jack had been with Ace since he was an infant, so he would not suddenly up and abandon the fire-user. The Winter Spirit did not give a damn about Ace's heritage, so that fear was out as well. Jack might have died once or twice, but such an occurrence was much rarer than Luffy or Sabo losing their lives.

In fact, Jack was rarely present in Ace's visions of fear at all. He wouldn't be. The Guardian was the opposite of fear. He was fun, and snow days, and freedom. The fire-user wondered how he had not noticed that before, and felt… something.

The black sand ground to a halt, unable to proceed further.

"That's right." Not-Marco whispered, staring intently at Ace's face. "You can do it. You can keep fighting. Come on, kid…"

The pain and iciness retreated slightly. Ace could breathe again. The fire-user scrutinized Not-Marco carefully, wondering why a figment of his nightmares would be helping him so much. Unless… he wasn't an illusion?

The logical part of Ace warned him not to hope again, but the part of him that always stayed desperate to identify reality leapt upon the possibility. The fire-user wiggled in the Phoenix's hold, trying to stand up and failing spectacularly. He ended up curled at the Commander's side, tucked protectively against his body like a child with a parent. The contact felt nauseating and awful, but he could not care less. A while ago, Ace may have found the position to be embarrassing. Now, he did not give a damn, just glad to possibly be safe for once.

The Phoenix murmured something about Ace being all right, telling him to rest for a moment, but the fire-user ignored him. The Summer Spirit glanced around, pointing urgently at a nearby stick, and Not-or-maybe-Real-Marco obediently leaned over and handed it to him. The fire-user wobbly drew in the wet sand near the water, barely legible words forming in the dirt.

Are you real?

The answer was instantaneous. "Yes. I'm real, yoi. Shanks told Oyaji, Izo, and I about what is happening with you. He told us that you've been trapped in nightmares… and who did it. Pitch Black."

The Phoenix spoke quickly, as if he were rushing the words out in order to not give Ace time to fret about an explanation. The fire-user briefly wondered how Shanks would know all of that, stomach clenching uncomfortably as Marco indirectly mentioned Pitch, then dismissed the concerns. Hope was almost as terrifying as his nightmares now, but surely the visions would not be elaborate enough to have a fake-Shanks with knowledge of the black sand. That was too fantastical to be believed, but the fire-user was nervous to realize he did indeed believe it.

Marco met his gaze, expression firm. "I am real, Ace." He confirmed again. "I am real, and this is reality. You're awake."

It felt ironically surreal. Ace did not know how to react to it. The fire-user felt the black sand beckon angrily, likely upset it had lost its grip on him but he ignored it, blinking tiredness from his eyes. He gripped his stick uncertainly, and dropped it when it started to smoke. The Phoenix gave a low, shaky chuckle.

"Careful there." He paused, eyes roaming over the fire-user's tattoo-like marks. Before Ace could feel self-conscious, the Phoenix continued. "I don't fully know what's going on. I don't know exactly what happened to you. But I am here for you now. I will help you keep track of reality. Every time that you 'wake up', come find me. Every time. The real me will not hurt you. I will not yell at you. I will not reject you. The first thing I will say to you is that I'm real.Okay?"

His voice was firm, blunt, and unyielding, but his tone comforted Ace instead of disturbing him. This was new. This had never happened before. It was not a repeat, or a loop, or a nightmare that could be predicted. He should worry that the sand was simply giving him a spot of levity so that it could take it away, but somehow Ace suspected that was not the case.

The fire-user felt the brief urge to hug Marco, but did not, instead managing to shoot the Phoenix a smile. Tendrils of hope bloomed in his chest, and his eyes turned into the color of flames.

Thank you, he thought.

The furious black sand yanked at Ace and muscles gave out. Marco caught him as he fell, but for the first time in a long time, the fire-user was not afraid. Now he had someone to help him. Now he had someone to search for. Now he finally had a way to identify what reality was.

I… can do this, Ace thought with amazement.

And the black sand whisked him away.

Chapter Text

Ace had to wonder if hope truly was a good thing like people claimed. At first it seemed like a light in the darkness, an aspiration to achieve, and a reason to fight. Yet at the same time hope was a cruel, mocking presence that always attempted to slip away from him. It dangled just out of reach or slid through his fingers like smoke, present but unattainable as it forced him to cling to the baseless idea of it. But no matter how much it hurt, the fire-user could not afford to lose hope again.

Ace stood outside of Marco's room for the one hundred seventy-third time, hand raised to knock. The fire-user swallowed nervously, fist hovering in front of the thin layer of wood that separated him from the Phoenix. He noticed it was trembling slightly but could not make the movement cease.

It might be him this time, he told himself. It might be the real Marco. I have to keep checking.

Unless the sand had pulled the cruelest trick it could on Ace, the Summer Spirit had found reality. He had been on a real island, in the real world, with the real Marco, who had firmly informed him of said realness and encouraged him to find him. The Phoenix had given Ace a possible way to identify existence at last and so the fickle, unkind hope the fire-user once lost had ensnared him once more.

But with that hope had risen a new fear which the black sand had pounced on with gusto. Every time Ace woke somewhere he sought out Marco, just like Real-Marco had told him to. Every time, it turned out he was still in nightmares. Some Not-Marco's acted like Real-Marco, but they did not assure him that he was in reality like Real-Marco had promised. Other Not-Marco's attacked him the moment he approached them. Frankly, Ace preferred the former to the latter, not only because of the lack of fury and attacks aimed at him, but also because the Not-Marco's that acted more like what Real-Marco might were easier to escape.

If the fire-user did not wake on the Moby Dick or with a Marco nearby, or encountered a fake Phoenix's lack of reassuring and understanding, Ace could simply lay down and 'fall asleep', letting the black sand drag him to the next dream. If the Not-Marco began to hurt him, moving between worlds became a lot harder. It turned out pain ironically kept him conscious, so until he was killed or got knocked out, the fire-user was trapped in whatever hell he woke in.

Ace did his best not to become afraid of Marco though. He was not as sure as he was with Jack, but he was at least a little certain than the real Phoenix would not hurt him. He just had to keep remembering that. He found it helped to stay detached as long as possible and follow the latest routine he had created for himself in order to keep himself from falling into despair once more.

Wake up. Find out where I am. Seek out Marco. If he's nice, ask him if this is real. If not… try to get away. If the nice-Marco is confused, go back to sleep. Repeat.

It was tedious and nerve-wracking— especially whenever something unexpected happened to interrupt his procedure— but Ace kept at it. Maybe it was stubbornness or desperation, but he did the same thing over and over with the hope that this time it would be different, that this time he would find the real world again.

With that in mind, the fire-user finally knocked.

"Go away. I'm busy, yoi."

The cold, snappish response came through the door, and Ace lay on the floor in the hallway. He heard footsteps approach but ignored them, letting the sand snag his consciousness.

He woke in the infirmary. The fire-user went through his routine, detaching the wires and sneaking past Bay. As usual, the Whitebeard Pirates in the halls did not speak to him, some passing through him as he went. The Summer Spirit barely twitched at the contact— or lack of it— instances where humans believed in and actually could touch him feeling far worse than instances where they could not. He vaguely recalled a time when being walked through was the worst pain imaginable. Nowadays it did not even bother him. It was all like clockwork now.

Ace stood before Marco's door again, swallowed, and knocked. The door opened. Possibly-Marco yawned widely, rubbing at his eyes. He squinted at Ace, who stared back alertly.

Maybe this time. Maybe this time. Please please please—

"Ace? Why are you up?" the First Division Commander asked.

The fire-user lay on the floor, dismissing Not-Marco's confused words, and drifted away.

The Phoenix was at his bedside this time. Noticing Ace's opened eyes, he marked the page on his book and set it down.

"It's about time you woke up." the blonde pirate said.

Ace waited patiently— and nervously— for the man to continue. It might be him this time. It might be.

"Bay said you can leave the infirmary today…"

Ace went back to sleep.

He woke in the infirmary.

I'll find him this time.

He detached the wires.

He escaped Bay.

He went to Marco's room.

He knocked.

"What the hell are you doing out of the sickbay? You're still injured you id—"

Ace went to sleep.

Different nightmare.

He was not on the Moby Dick.

Luffy was dead.

Sabo was dead.

Jack was dead.

Ace followed.

Woke in infirmary.

Maybe this time.

Removed wires.

Escaped Bay.

Marco's room.

Knocked.

Not-Marco slashed him across the face with his talons. Ace passed out from blood loss.

Infirmary.

This time.

Wires.

Escape.

Room.

Knock.

The Phoenix asked if he was okay. No mention of reality.

Ace went to sleep.

Different nightmare.

Imprisoned.

Experiments.

No escape.

He could not find Marco.

They tore him apart.

He wanted to die.

He did.

Infirmary.

Please…

Wires.

Escape.

Room.

Knock.

Marco opened the door.

"Out of bed again, yoi?"

Ace did not bother to lay down.

He just collapsed, Not-Marco's horrified shouts sounding in his ears before blackness drowned him.

Marco was at his bedside again, perched in a sturdy little chair opposite the door.

Ace looked at him, taking in his slumped posture and the permanent shadows beneath his eyes. The fire-user's throat tightened but beyond that he felt no urge to shed tears or burst into hysterics. Not that he could allow himself too. He did not want to scare what might be the real Marco away. The Phoenix finally detected that he had an observer and glanced up at Ace.

Possibly-Marco closed the book he was reading with a snap, making the Summer Spirit jump. The Phoenix shifted in his chair so that he was leaning forward, blue eyes intense as they met the fire-user's.

"I'm real, Ace." Marco said without preamble. "This is real, yoi."

There was so much Ace wanted to do and say, but he could not. He wanted to thank Marco and babble about how happy he was to see him. He wanted to hug the Phoenix and never let go. He wanted to laugh and dance around the room, overjoyed to be with his family again. He wanted to race around the ship, greeting the Whitebeard Pirates one by one and apologizing for leaving them for so long. The fire-user could do none of those things. Instead he stared at Marco uncomprehendingly.

He said it? He said it. I found Real-Marco. Huh, Ace mused, still unable to register the thought.

This was the real Marco. He had finally been reunited with his real family.

Ace… did not know what to do. He was confounded by the situation. He had gone through similar scenarios thousands of times before, and to repeat the gestures, greetings, and events of those nightmares seemed unacceptable. But he had to do something. He was supposed to, wasn't he? This was real. This reunion was real. Shouldn't he be happy?

Ace's fingers twitched and that strange tightness came back, encompassing his chest and throat. He was shaking. Why was he shaking? He should not be. He wasn't afraid. His lips parted but no sound escaped, so he pressed them together again. His eyes stung.

Marco's hand rested on his shoulder and Ace stilled, resisting the urge to thrash and escape the man's hold. He needed the contact as much as he despised it, because through the knives and nausea, Ace could feel the firmness of the Phoenix's palm, the realness of it.

He's real. I'm awake.

Ace did not know whether to laugh or cry.

He ended up doing both.

Marco murmured softly to him as he wept and mutely giggled, the mixture of sobs and chuckles soon transforming into a bout of panicked hiccups and gasps. The Phoenix's touch was uncomfortable and Ace's chest hurt from the stress put upon it, but the fire-user did not shy away from the sensations. He was finally conscious. He was finally in reality. He had done it.

Ace felt exhausted— in more ways than one— but he fought against the tiredness, clinging to awareness with the desperation of a man hanging off the edge of a cliff. Marco glared at the door for some reason, then returned his gaze to the fire-user and whispered the usual phrases quietly in his ear.

"This is real. It's okay. It's okay, Ace. You're all right. You're safe. You're home now, yoi."

For the first time, Ace believed it. That did not lessen his confusion, however. So much had happened, and so much had not happened. He had so many questions…

Calm down. I need answers. Calm. Act normal.

The fire-user inhaled sharply and forced his emotions back under control. Tears ceased, hysterics faded, and Ace's face settled into a placid expression. He had gotten quite good at faking it in the past few 'years'. His abrupt shift from sobbing to stoic made Marco's half-lidded eyes flick open with alarm, but Ace could not care less.

He peered at the Phoenix with wary flame-colored eyes, mouth moving wordlessly. Ace waved his hands and attempted to mime what he wanted, but the blonde pirate did not understand at first. Marco stared at him for a long period, brow furrowed, before his eyes lit with comprehension.

"I'll be right back." He promised.

He stood up and left the room. Ace heard him rummaging around outside, the noise briefly accompanied by Bay's questioning tones. The fire-user twitched and held his breath, letting loose a sigh of relief when Marco returned alone. The Phoenix handed him a notebook and pen and the Summer Spirit immediately began to write.

"How long has it been since you found me? Who found me? Have I met Oyaji yet? What happened when I woke up last? Was the storm real? Did I hurt anyone? Does anyone hate—"

The questions flew onto the page, with Ace too frantic for information to hold them back. He quickly stopped writing the last one, crossing it out furiously. Marco must have spotted it though, because his expression darkened. The fire-user swallowed nervously.

"Sorry." He wrote.

"Don't apologize." The Phoenix said firmly but kindly. "It's been twenty days since Shanks found you on one of Oyaji's islands, yoi. You did go to see Oyaji with me. Do you remember what happened when you met him?"

Ace stared at the page, tracing a few of the letters. He thought back to all of the 'reunions' he could remember, and twitched, accidentally dragging the pen across the paper and leaving a long black streak. Before Marco could comment, the fire-user wrote.

"Did he hit me?" He did not mean to write the question, but it came out anyway.

"No!" Marco nearly shouted. He composed himself and continued in a calmer voice. "Oyaji would never hurt you, yoi. That wasn't real."

It felt real, Ace thought, shivering.

"Oyaji was happy to see you, and we talked about your tattoo, remember?" the Phoenix asked.

Ace stared at the page, drawing random squiggles on it instead of responding. He ended up doodling a couple flowers and a sun, focusing on the sketches instead of the lingering silence. To the fire-user's surprise, the blonde pirate did not huff or demand an answer from him. Though he supposed Marco would not.

It's the real Marco, he reminded himself. This is real.

It did not feel like Ace was awake. Everything seemed off, distant, and wrong. Like he was watching a play about his life instead of living it. Perhaps it was the lingering suspicion— fear—that it was all a nightmare that made it so hard for Ace to connect to the world around him. Or maybe he was so used to this scenario that actually living through it was more repetitive than joyous. The Phoenix would probably be sad if he noticed the fire-user felt that way.

I'm doing this all wrong. I'm messing it up. I'm not acting right. I should be excited. I should be happy. I'm  trying  to be.

I'm still broken, aren't I? I'm sorry, Marco.

"Here's what we'll do, yoi." Marco decided abruptly, interrupting Ace's darkening thoughts. "If you are uncertain about something being real or from a dream, ask me about it and I'll tell you to the best of my ability. I won't know everything, but I'll be able to help answer some of your questions at least, yoi."

The offer was given so genuinely Ace momentarily could not form a response. Not that he was doing much of that before. The fire-user drew circles and swirls on the paper for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts.

He thought he saw panic flash across Marco's calm gaze but when the Summer Spirit looked at him, the Phoenix was encouraging once more. Ace mentally shrugged, eyes drifting back to the paper. He could do this. He could do better. Small steps.

He cast his mind backwards, picked a memory, and wrote.

"Vista was with Whitebeard when I saw him?"

"Not real." Marco responded instantly.

He was wearing that bored expression that told Ace that he was hiding his emotions. The fire-user chewed on his lip, otherwise keeping his own face blank. Internally he shrank self-consciously, feeling like a fool.

Sorry. I upset you. What if I'm wrong again?

"Do you want me to tell you what happened?" the Phoenix offered quietly.

The fire-user shook his head stubbornly, swallowing his nerves. He recalled another version of his reunion with Whitebeard as he scribed another sentence.

"Izo was there?"

"Real. He was, yoi." Marco said, brightening.

Ace wrote the next sentence quickly, knowing if he hesitated he would never get it out. "He said my tattoo was like a painting?"

The Phoenix was openly grinning now. "That's right. Real."

Ace felt like he was forgetting something extremely important about that one encounter. After a long moment of consideration, he recalled Haruta's angry words and furious departure. That brought up memories of another encounter with the short Commander and the fire-user's mood dropped.

"The storm?"

The Phoenix sighed. "Real."

"Haruta yelling at me?"

Marco winced. "…Real, yoi."

Guilt gnawed at Ace's gut. "Sorry. Did anyone get hurt?"

"Other than a few bruises and some colds, no. You don't have to apologize." The Phoenix said firmly. "It's not like you can control the weather."

"I'm…"

The Summer Spirit nearly snapped the pen in half. He loosened his grip and held the utensil above the page, trying to force his hand to move. It deigned to dismiss his demands, staying stiff and still where it was just after the first word.

not human anymore, he thought. And I did control it.

"…sorry." he wrote.

It was true. Ace was sorry for causing the storm and hurting the pirates. But he was not ready to tell Marco he was no longer a human. He was a Spirit— a Nature one at that— and he was too uncomfortable with the idea of the Phoenix knowing about his current state to inform him of it.

Marco was already so stressed and sad. If he realized Ace truly had died and been resurrected, he might blame himself or something equally stupid. The fire-user's death had been his own fault. He was the only one to blame for it. Ignoring the blatant hypocrisy of his thoughts, the black-haired Spirit tuned in as Marco denied that he had to apologize again.

"Sor—"

Ace crossed it out, but not before Marco spotted the word and shot him a glare. He instinctively turned the unfinished letters into an elaborate set of leaves and drew a circle next to the remainder of the word, making a crude pineapple-like drawing.

Ace was not sure why he did it. His hand moved on its own. Maybe he was just that desperate to distract the Phoenix and make him stop glowering, the expression on his hard features reminding the fire-user too much of the Not-Marcos of his nightmares. Ace wrote next to the picture and pointed at it, showing his creation to the blonde pirate.

"Look. It's you."

The Phoenix blinked. Ace added two large, half-lidded eyes to the pineapple as an afterthought and looked nervously at Marco. The blonde pirate gave a loud chuckle that startled them both. Soon the chortle became full-blown laughter. The First Division Commander nearly doubled over as he cackled, and the fire-user felt his own lips twitch.

For the first time since waking, Ace felt like he did something right.

Marco took the notebook, holding it up next to his face as he raised his eyebrows. "Are you saying that I look like a lumpy potato with a mohawk?"

The fire-user snatched the notebook back, hesitated, and wrote what felt natural. "It's obviously a pineapple."

"It's terrible." The Phoenix teased.

The Ace of old would have immaturely stuck his tongue out at Marco. The Ace of a few days ago would have broken beneath the perceived criticism, looking down to hide his insecurities. The Ace of now considered his words and shrugged, not exactly bothered by them, but not confident enough to respond with his own taunts.

"It's awesome. Thatch would be able to—" Ace's writing slowed and he crossed out the sentence.

His mind drifted back to the storm, and he frowned subconsciously. According to Marco, the storm and its aftermath were real. That meant the stuff before it was real. To preserve his fragile balance of serenity, Ace ignored the very important piece of information that arose from that memory. Instead he diverted his attention away to something safe but related.

"The railing?"

It took a moment for Marco to realize what he was referring to, and when he did, his skin blanched white.

"Real." He croaked.

Ace wondered why the Phoenix looked so shaken. He felt a surge of remorse for ruining his happy mood. But Marco said to ask questions so…

The blonde pirate controlled his expression when he saw the fire-user watching. "You thought you were in a nightmare." He comprehended. "Did you think there would not be any consequences or— or were you trying to—" His mouth moved, but the words stuck in his throat.

Ace watched him struggle in confusion. Then he remembered the conversation he had during the encounter with Thatch.

"I wasn't trying to kill myself, Marco." he wrote, trying to make the Phoenix feel better. "I was trying to fly away and escape."

The blonde pirate exhaled harshly, the breath shaky and ragged. "You're telling the truth? I need you to be honest with me, Ace."

The fire-user tipped his head and looked at him curiously. "I never got that desperate." he wrote. "I swear I didn't. It wouldn't have mattered anyway. I died plenty of times in the nightmares."

Except it had been real that time. If Ace had fallen into the ocean, he would have let himself drown and would truly be dead.

I could have killed myself on accident, the fire-user mused. Oh. I should be horrified by that.

He wasn't. That was probably a bad reaction. What else was new?

Sadly, the Phoenix noticed his lack of dismay.

"Tell me what you're thinking." Marco pleaded more than demanded.

Ace considered it.

"But then you'll be sadder." he wrote instead, the sentence feeling rather childish in hindsight.

The Phoenix did not laugh at him, much to his relief, responding to his worry seriously. "Perhaps, but I'd rather be upset than ignorant. I know I'm pressing you for answers, but I need to know what's going on in order to help you."

"I don't—" Need? Want? Deserve? "— require your help."

The look Marco gave him told the fire-user how much the Phoenix believed him. "I'm offering it anyway. You've been suffering alone for who knows how long, but I'm here for you now. How would you feel if Luffy was in your position?"

At least that response was uncorrupted. "I'd want to help him."

But Luffy wouldn't let this happen to him. He's stronger than I'll ever be, he thought, unable to share that sentiment with Marco.

I don't trust Real-Marco, Ace gradually realized, heart clenching. Not fully. I thought I could, but I can't. It's— Too much is too similar to the nightmares.

It was difficult not to let the guilt and shame weigh him down, but the fire-user managed to struggle free of it. Ace was in the real world now. Things he did and how he reacted mattered. What an alien, unfamiliar concept.

I'm not better, Ace admitted only to himself. I am very not-better. I'll try to be though. I have to try.

"I can't tell you everything," he forced himself to write. "I'm so"— The unfinished apology was scribbled out. "I'm not ready," he said instead. "It's too soon. You were my en—" The last two letters were furiously hidden amongst the ink. "—not my friend too recently, for years in the nightmares. It's not your fault. It's mine. I let Pitch" Scribble "lost myself to the nightmares."

Marco's face fell. "Ace…"

Sensing his upcoming words, the fire-user guiltily circled "I'm not ready." on the page. He knew he was hurting the Phoenix with his refusal, but he could not take the leap of faith that the man required. Ace could not trust Marco enough to tell him about becoming a Spirit, hiding from his family like a coward instead of revealing himself, being captured and tortured, and having to eventually leave them for Earth anyway. Not yet.

He had already 'done so before' in the nightmares, all of which were too fresh for him to repeat the experience. Even if Marco was absolutely fine with every single secret and trauma Ace kept close to his heart, the fire-user was still uncertain about burdening the poor Division Commander. Not to mention the lingering fear that all of this was a trick.

Please let me be selfish and keep things to myself. I can't tell you. I  can't .

Ace refused to let his eyes do more than sting as he gave Marco a small offering to hold onto. "I'll try to explain one day. But not right now."

He needed to figure out some things by himself first.

Marco nodded in agreement, cerulean eyes growing sharp for a moment as he glared at the door. Ace glanced behind him to see the doorway was empty. At least, he hoped it was.

Could I still be hallucinating even when I'm awake? I must be able to, since I saw Th—

The revelation Ace had been trying to ignore since remembering the railing took the opportunity to barge into the forefront of his mind. The pen snapped in his hand, sending ink spraying across his fingers, the paper, and the sheets. The fire-user brushed off Marco's gasp and concern, flipping to a clean page and scrawling on it with the remnants of his writing utensil.

"Thatch was real?"

Ace frantically circled the chef's name on the paper, shoving it in the Phoenix's face. Marco pushed the notebook down, giving the fire-user a look that was equally amiable and cautious.

"Yes, Thatch was— is— real." He murmured.

Thatch was alive.

Ace's friend, who he was sure had been murdered, who he had gone out to get vengeance for in a quest that had cost the fire-user his life… was alive.

This is unexpected.

In contrast to his dissonant thoughts, flames flickered to life along the Summer Spirit's shoulders, causing Marco to jump to his feet. Ace smothered the blaze— and the emotions flashing across his face— before the Phoenix could comment, returning to a detached— fake?— serenity.

Calm.

He was happy, and worried, and confused, and angry, and felt very, very guilty about feeling that last emotion. Was this how the Whitebeard Pirates felt when they discovered he was alive? Ace hoped not, as hypocritical as it was. Because a part of him wanted to storm up to Thatch and demand to know what the hell happened, at the same time worrying that someone was going to do that to him.

So selfish. I don't think I care. Is that bad?

Ace casually wiped the ink on his hands on the already ruined sheets and then chucked them carelessly onto the floor. Bay was probably going to murder him. He was used to it so it was fine. But… this was reality. So he really did just irreversibly stain the blankets.

Oh. Things I do matter. Oops.

It was so hard to remember that. He thought he saw Marco glowering at the doorway again, but when he looked back at the man, his expression was calm. The Phoenix stood up and firmly shut the door before turning back to Ace.

"Would you tell me how you feel about Thatch's survival, at least?" he persuaded. "As much of an annoyance he can be, I'd like some warning if you decide to punch him again."

Ace recalled the correct 'vision' and paled. "I shoved Thatch?"

"Real." Marco confirmed unenthusiastically. "He's fine, yoi. He even said he deserved it."

Do I deserve to be punched then? Was the fire-user's foremost concern. He considered it, then took a breath and nodded to himself. Yes, I do. It's fine. I can handle it. Calm.

Ace kept his posture relaxed and his expression placid, imprisoning the tendrils of nerves that began gripping his limbs and heart. He thought he did pretty well until he heard the Phoenix curse lowly.

"Shit. I wasn't saying— That's not what I meant, Ace. No one's going to hurt you, and if they do, they are wrong." Marco hesitated. "They are wrong, and you need to fight back, do you understand?"

Nope, Ace thought. "Of course." He wrote.

Marco's obvious disapproval made the panic want to break free, but Ace kept it hidden away where the Phoenix— hopefully— could not see it. The fire-user was getting tired— thankfully not physically— of keeping his emotions in check, and found himself doodling on the page again to distract himself.

"I know you better than you want me to." Marco said sternly, diverting Ace's scrutiny back to him. "It's not your fault that you were captured. It's not your fault that this happened to you. Do you understand?"

It seemed like all the fire-user could do was make the Phoenix unhappy. Guiltily, Ace looked at the paper and demolished pen, flipping to another page.

"Understood. It was not my fault." The fire-user wrote obediently.

They both knew Ace did not mean it.

Marco let the matter go for the moment. The Phoenix glanced at the closed door, frowning as he shifted on his seat. The fire-user studied the blonde man, wondering about the reasons for his agitation. His psyche wanted to blame himself for the man's distraction— Why would the Phoenix want to spend his time with a wreck like Ace?— but this was Real-Marco and Ace was certain he would only be here in the first place if he wanted to be… right?

For the first time Ace wondered how long Marco had been at his bedside. It could not have been that long, seeing as how he was the First Division Commander and all. Ace was not so important that Marco would forsake his many duties. He had things to do, people to lead, meetings to attend, reports to fill out…

Oh.

"You need to be somewhere." Ace wrote.

"No I don't, yoi." The Phoenix denied.

Ace did not buy his lie. Marco only got so twitchy when he was late, and he had to be late to something pretty big to want to leave now.

Or he just doesn't want to deal with me anymore, the fire-user thought rationally.

The stab of grief the thought brought was distant and muffled, carefully locked behind Ace's straining shield of normalcy. Little things like that would not hurt him. He was stronger than that. He had to be.

Don't be a baby. I'm not that important. Just stay calm a little longer.

Ace wrote what Old Ace would likely say. "I'll be fine without you for ten minutes. Go. Do what you need to. Mother hen."

When Marco continued to watch him with those searching eyes, the fire-user purposely put on a smirk and shooed him away exaggeratedly.

Hide the fear. Hide the mistrust. Hide the paranoia. Hide the loneliness. Just hold yourself together for a little longer.

Ace felt like such a fraud.

Marco exhaled, his intense gaze softening. "All right, yoi. I have to go meet with Oyaji, but I'll be back right after. I'll bring some food from the kitchens."

"Just you?" Ace asked, thoughts drifting to a certain pompadour-sporting chef. His heart squeezed painfully. Don't think about it. Detach.

"Just me." Marco confirmed, and departed.

As soon as the door closed behind the Phoenix, Ace drooped, clapping a hand over his mouth and breathing slowly in order to prevent hyperventilation. He did it mostly out of habit to ensure he did not accidentally alert Marco to his distress if he somehow made a sound. He finally allowed his body to tremble, the mixture of fear, stress, and excitement he had been holding back reaching the surface at last.

He didn't hurt me, Ace marveled. Marco really didn't hurt me.

He could hardly believe it. Ace had been certain the Phoenix would snap at him at least once during their conversation, losing his temper or running out of patience because of the fire-user's evasiveness and twitchiness.

The Summer Spirit had waited with bated breath for Marco to turn on him, prodding the man both intentionally and unintentionally, but the anticipated betrayal never happened. Instead the blonde pirate had remained calm and supportive, relenting instead of pushing and not forcing Ace to do or reveal anything too uncomfortable. It seemed too good to be true.

It is true, Ace reminded himself. I can't let myself doubt that. If I do, I'll end up doing something I'll regret.

Even though the thought was ominous, Ace felt his lips move upward. He was genuinely smiling. It was just a little thing, but it meant a lot.

Little steps. I am not okay. It is going to be a while before I am close to being okay. But at least I'm on my way now.

The worst had passed, and yet at the same time it had not. The black sand was still in Ace's veins. It would still pull him into nightmares whenever he lost consciousness. But now the Summer Spirit had the ability to single out the real world among the horde of fakes. He had someone to help him if he wished.

He had found Marco.

He had found reality.

Now he just needed to stay awake in order to remain in it.

Don't sleep. Don't sleep. Don't sleep.

ROTGOPROTGOP

"Stupid idiotic brothers." Marco hissed lowly as he stormed through the infirmary. "Bay, if anyone tries to go see Ace, you have my full permission to knock them out."

"With pleasure." The doctor said with an unnerving grin.

She directed the sadistic smile at Speed Jiru and Vista, who graciously accepted their fate. Marco trusted Bay not to cause a scene that would worry Ace when she chewed out the two Commanders for attempting to sneak into the kid's room, and made a mental note to give them a lecture of his own when he got the chance.

All of the Commanders and Whitebeard Pirates had been sternly warned that they were still not allowed to see the fire-user yet, though their blatant disregard for Bay's 'usual prickliness' was understandable. In the Commanders' defense, Bay was always this possessive of her patients, so to those not in the know it seemed like she was just being her usual self.

Whitebeard, Izo, and Marco— and kind of Bay— were the only ones fully aware of Ace's condition and mental state. They knew how overwhelming and catastrophic unexpected and ignorant visitors could be for the kid at this point. Marco was not about to break his vow to Shanks and his confidentiality with Ace by bringing the rest of the Commanders into the know, however.

Though the fact that they were acting out because of withheld information was not going to prevent the First Division Commander from giving them all cleaning duty either.

For now, he needed to report to Oyaji.

Marco had been scheduled to see Whitebeard an hour ago to discuss summoning their allies to search for and combat Pitch, but that meeting had been shoved to a lower priority when Ace had woken after three days of being unconscious. Marco thanked whatever deities that existed that he had been in the room when the fire-user had stirred. The thought of the kid stumbling around the Moby Dick, running into ignorant pirates as he desperately searched for the Phoenix, made his stomach churn.

Marco knocked and quickly entered Whitebeard's room, shutting the door behind him. The lights in the bedroom were dimmed low for the night, just barely enough to illuminate the room. The giant was still awake, surveying the Phoenix with unjudging eyes as he halted before the Yonko.

"Sorry I'm late, Oyaji." He greeted. "Ace woke up again. I was able to convince him this was reality, yoi."

"I guessed that was your reason, my son." Whitebeard rumbled. "Good. How is he?"

"He's better than he was." Marco hedged. "He's willing to communicate with me, and seems to have enough trust in me to share at least some of his thoughts."

Whitebeard continued to look at him knowingly. The Phoenix's stoic front crumbled a little and his shoulders slumped.

"Ace is a mess." He revealed quietly. "He flips from one emotion to the next quicker than I can track, and is even more suspicious of me than he was when we first captured him before he joined us, yoi. He thinks he's hiding it but I could tell. Not only that, but I just saw my emotional and hotheaded little brother go from hysterical to apathetic in half a second flat. It wasn't a mood swing. He did it intentionally. It's like he just turned his emotions off. I'm a little… rattled, yoi."

The Phoenix paced before his Oyaji, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. "That's not all, yoi. I made a joke about Thatch saying he deserved to be punched by Ace for making him think he was dead, and Ace thought that meant he should just sit by and take it if one of us attacks him in anger! He— He has this expression that he puts on where he just accepts bad things are going to happen and there's nothing he can do to stop it. It's…"

Marco stopped before Whitebeard, feeling years older than his actual age. "Ace isn't just unwell mentally. He seems to be having trouble identifying normal social cues, and whether the people around him are teasing or serious. It doesn't happen all the time, but he sometimes fakes the proper response, like he knows what is expected of him but only acts the part instead of feeling it. When I told him he nearly jumped off the ship, he barely responded. He acted like I had just told him to go get some bread, yoi. He isn't suicidal, per se. He doesn't care about his own life. Not in the D. 'unafraid of death' way either. He literally doesn't care. It's like dying is an everyday occurrence to him."

It was not a report so much as a fear-filled ramble, the words spilling out of the tired First Division Commander like water from a stream. Marco blinked and sighed, running a hand through his hair.

"He's… He's not well, Oyaji. It hurts to see Ace like this."

Whitebeard was quiet for a moment as he absorbed the plethora of information that had been thrown at him. "And how are you holding up, my son?" he asked.

Marco rubbed his hand over his tired eyes. "I'm fine, yoi."

"You are not." Oyaji said firmly. "This is putting a strain on you. You are already busy with your other duties. I can have someone else—"

"Don't you dare." Marco said sharply, but eased up on his tone when he recalled who he was talking to. "I won't abandon Ace or make him try to rely on someone else, yoi. That would destroy him. He needs me. I'm his anchor with reality." His voice lowered. "It's bad, Oyaji. His memories are all jumbled and he seems to have completely forgotten about seeing Pitch in your room. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. Ace is awake, and seems to be fighting again, but he is far from okay. I… don't know if he'll ever recover."

It was the fear that kept Marco from sleeping whenever he had the opportunity to rest. The simple worry that Ace was still going to collapse beneath the pressure and the Phoenix was going to lose him again. The kid was strong, stronger than many gave him credit for, but even the strongest could fall eventually. Not to mention that the thing wearing him down was still happening.

"Do you think the black sand will move towards his heart again?" Whitebeard asked solemnly.

The Phoenix internally shuddered as he recalled Ace's pained trembling, bloody coughs, and animal-like intent to claw the black sand from his skin. He remembered orange eyes turning black as they looked at him hopelessly, pleadingly, silently begging the blonde pirate to let him die.

"I honestly don't know, yoi." Marco said. "Ace could be a thousand times worse than I observed and simply be faking it all. He's become quite a good actor. I just know if I leave him to his own devices, he'll get lost in the nightmares again, go batshit crazy, or accidentally kill himself. I need to be the one thing he can always turn to and trust in his life."

Even though he's hiding things from me…

Whitebeard seemed to age before his eyes, a heaviness settling on the proud Yonko's shoulders.

"Very well. Divide some of your duties among the other Commanders while you are there for Ace. Make sure to take care of yourself, too." Whitebeard ordered.

"Yes, Oyaji." Marco said obediently, recognizing the dismissal, and retreated from the room.

It was not until he was returning to Ace, a tray of food in his hands, that the Phoenix realized Whitebeard never asked him to discuss the original purpose for their meeting.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Ace stayed awake.

It took a lot of effort, but he somehow managed to not fall asleep for a full thirty-two hours thus far. His task had been made more difficult by the fact that he was stuck in a bed in the infirmary, but Marco's presence had helped greatly. The blonde pirate knew that if the fire-user drifted off he would be trapped in nightmares again, so the Phoenix did his best to distract and entertain Ace in order to keep him conscious.

Marco really was a nice man— a fact the Summer Spirit still had trouble believing. He was certainly kinder than Ace deserved, yet the raven-haired ex-pirate found himself yearning for that kindness.

If only the fire-user could stop feeling guilty about keeping the Phoenix up as well.

"You should go to bed." He wrote as he watched Marco do some paperwork at his bedside.

The First Division Commander read the words and shook his head. "There's no point now, yoi. It's morning."

I'm sorry for keeping you awake, Ace thought. "You still should try to get some rest. I'll be okay for a couple hours."

Marco gave him a disbelieving look. "Like you were 'okay' for the twenty minutes I was gone yesterday?"

Ace winced. It was true he had been relatively fine for the first chunk of the Phoenix's absence, but he could only draw and doodle for so long before the black swirls on the page reminded him of the black marks on his skin. When Marco returned with a tray of food for him and the fire-user, Ace was scratching at his arms rather… vigorously. He did not have a chance to break the skin before the blonde man stopped him. And quickly gave him a new pen with blue ink while simultaneously warding off a concerned Bay.

"I wasn't going to hurt myself." Ace explained again. "I was just trying to get it out."

"Clawing at yourself isn't going to remove the sand, yoi." Marco stated firmly but patiently. "That you think it would isn't a good thing, Ace. And… you do realize the contradiction of those claims, don't you?"

"I know." The fire-user admitted. Ace supposed digging out the sand would involve hurting himself, but he did not see why it was such a big deal. He paused, then continued. "I'm just not used to things being real."

He acknowledged that Marco did not truly understand the true depths of that statement, but he was trying— like Ace was trying— so that was enough for the Summer Spirit. Ace did not understand himself and what was going on in his own head either, so how could the Phoenix? The fire-user… wasn't exactly stable, a fact that he himself was bitterly aware of. Did that self-awareness mean he was crazy or not crazy?

Clarity and trust came in waves, riding in and pulling away at random without rhyme or reason. Sometimes Ace could not bear to burden Marco any more than he already had, feeling selfish and stupid and remorseful for keeping the Commander here when he was only one of the many brothers the man had to look out for. He shoved the Phoenix away during those episodes in an attempt to make him leave, refusing to 'talk' to him and only responding with scathing notes and angry glowers that hid a desperate plea to not be left alone.

At other points he did not even realize Marco was there, or forgot that the Phoenix was actually a person and not a nightmare conjured up by the sand. Despite initial appearances, Ace had so little control in the dreams that he had become used to things happening without him, and as such usually just traveled through each dream like an unhappy spectator. Conversations would turn sour, bad things would happen, unlucky coincidences would unfold, and all of it would occur without the fire-user doing a thing.

As such, Ace's gained habit to ignore things and act like he— and others— did not exist or matter resulted in more than one awkward occurrence where he would completely brush off Marco without warning and not respond to him at all. It was only after a few minutes or even hours that Ace would recall that this was the real Marco and interactions with him were happening in reality, which meant things had lasting effects and he was being rather rude. It was so confusing.

The Phoenix always understood, somehow.

Other times words flowed onto the page easily, with Ace revealing his every thought and fear only to belatedly realize with horror that the Phoenix was real and the revelations were now shared with him forever. The fire-user usually slipped back into panicked mistrust and self-loathing again after that.

At least he never revealed that he was a Spirit during those uncontrolled bouts of openness. Ace would not be able to handle it if he did.

And yet somehow Marco did not run out of patience. Somehow, he did not become frustrated or disgusted with Ace's swaying mood, outbursts, and wavering trust. Say what you would about pirates, but the Commander was a freaking saint in the fire-user's opinion. Ace really did not deserve the Phoenix's help and attention. Marco was just wasting his valuable time on something worthless. The fire-user made sure to keep that sentiment to himself though.

Ace drew a few snowflakes on the paper, carefully constructing five unique shapes. He also outlined a top hat and straw hat, taking care to fill in the top hat with blue ink. The pictures made him smile a little, and he added a little moon in the corner of the page along with a small fairy. He blinked and noticed Marco was in a different position than he had been, leaning forward with the report sitting on the tabletop. The look he gave the fire-user was not expectant, but why else would he be staring unless he was waiting for something from Ace?

"Were we still talking?" the Summer Spirit wrote guiltily. "Did I zone out again? How long?"

"Yes. Another hour. But it's all right, yoi." Marco said soothingly.

Sorry, Ace thought but kept off the page.

The Phoenix always got sad or insisted that it was unnecessary if he apologized. He went back to sketching snowflakes, putting a rabbit over by the side. Ace paused and looked at Marco again.

Was I still supposed to say more? Sorry. Ace did not want to write it, and desperately searched for a new topic of conversation so that Marco would know the fire-user cared about his attention, he really did"Did I meet the others yet?"

"They were on the deck with you before the storm, but the only ones you've interacted with were me, Thatch, Haruta, and Izo." The Phoenix said.

Ace squinted at him. "Jozu broke my leg?"

"Not real, yoi." Marco confirmed.

The fire-user considered his words. "Haruta yelled at me?"

"Real."

Ace frowned. "I already asked that, didn't I?"

"Yes, you did."

Sorry. The Summer Spirit's attention shifted, like it so often did as of late. "You have other duties."

Marco gestured at his pile of papers. "I can fulfill them here, you."

"But this isn't all that you do. You have chores around the ship. You—" Ace crossed out the entire thing. "We already talked about this too?"

"Real. We did, yoi." The Phoenix confirmed gently.

Ace wanted to explode, that stupid calm look on his face making the fire-user want to punch him. Marco had to be faking it. It was impossible for him to be so kind. It had to be an act. It had to be. He had to be irritated, or mocking Ace internally, or waiting for him to relax in order to break him. Just like Marco had so many times before.

How can he be so  damn  patient? I'm just wasting his time and repeating things like a fucking moron. He has other people to look out for. He doesn't need to ditch them all for me. I don't deserve his attention. Maybe if I snap at him he'll go away?

Ace's expression shifted into a glower, but Marco spoke before he could put the pen to the page.

"Don't try it, Ace. Throwing a tantrum won't convince me to leave, yoi." He said warningly.

The wording fueled Ace's anger and he grasped it, reaching over and shoving the pile of sorted papers from the table. He watched them slide to the floor in a jumbled mess, and just like that the immature fury was snuffed out, replaced by fear. The fire-user dove off the bed and knelt next to the fallen sheets, fumbling with them as he tried to decipher which was meant to be sorted where.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid, he thought. He's been working for hours and I ruined it. Fucking immature idiot.

The black sand beckoned. Ace ignored it. His fingers twitched.

The words blurred on the reports and Ace threw them back down in frustration before pulling his knees to his chest and covering his head. Marco had not moved from his chair, watching the fire-user with glazed eyes. Ace caught sight of his marked arms, reached up, and grabbed his notebook. He drew short lines on the page so hard that the pen ripped through the top paper. The Phoenix still said nothing.

Is he finally going to leave me? "I'm sorry." He wrote, then scribbled over it.

No, idiot! He berated himself. You want him to go away, remember?

Marco breathed out slowly. "You don't have to apologize. You've been through a lot, yoi."

"I know I'm broken, but that's not an excuse." Ace scribed, a snarl forming on his face. "I'm being a brat." Hate me, damn you!

Of course his eyes were stinging.

"You're not bro—" the Phoenix began, then sighed. "I'm not going to abandon you, yoi. You can't make me abandon you. I know you're going to try again anyway, but I'm here to stay."

"You'll get annoyed eventually." Ace predicted viciously. "You might as well leave now."

"No." Marco stated simply.

The fire-user blinked, vision blurred by unshed tears. "Why are you helping me? And don't say it's because you love me. You don't."

"I do love you." The Phoenix insisted. "You're my younger brother, yoi."

Ace did not understand. He could not understand. How could Marco claim that? Even without the Nightmare-Marcos haunting the fire-user's memory, how could the Phoenix say he cared about and wanted to fix the irreparable mess Ace had become?

"I don't need you." The fire-user wrote harshly, forced anger in his every stroke.

"Then what do you need?" Marco questioned with that irritating infinite patience.

Ace honestly considered his words. "Jack." he wrote.

The fire-user stared at the wet spots that formed on the paper in surprise. He clenched his teeth and brushed away the tears, banishing the remainder and refusing to let them free. His hand moved without his permission again.

"Jack never hurt me. Luffy did. Sabo did. Whitebeard did. You did. I can't trust you. I'm sorry."

He immediately regretted writing the sentiments he swore to keep under wraps, but they were out in the open for the Phoenix to see. It was too late to take them back. What was the purpose of his anger again? Ace could not remember, and the fury drained away, leaving a tiredness that made him want to pinch himself to ensure he stayed awake.

"I understand." Marco said calmly, and damn him he actually did. "I know I'm not the person closest to you. I know you and Jack have a special bond I cannot hope to compete with. We'll try to find him for you. Oyaji is already searching for signs of Jack, and Sabo and Luffy. But in the meantime I'm still going to help you. I'm going to help you and stay with you because you deserve it and I care about you and I want to see you be happy. And I'm going to make sure you believe that one day."

Ace was too tired to argue, but he could not go to sleep. "I don't know what I'm doing." he told Marco.

The Phoenix gave a low, shaky chuckle. "That's all right. I don't know either. But we'll figure it out. Together."

Ace did and did not believe him.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Jack was honestly surprised the ship had not caught on fire yet. Not due to further complications in the vessel, but because of the twitchy, panicking Fire Logia that was pacing across the deck. Sabo was moving back and forth with such riled intensity the Guardian would not be shocked if he wore through the deck and fell into the depths of the boat. Which would then catch on fire.

As amusing as that would be, causing more damage to the ship would only worsen the Revolutionary's mood, so Jack pushed away from his position leaning against the mast and grabbed Sabo as he passed. The blonde man nearly turned to flames in his hold, but thought better of it and let the Winter Spirit stop him. It was a good thing the Guardian had the foresight to cover his hand with ice, otherwise he would have been burned. Jack kept a firm grip on Sabo's coat.

"Calm. Down." He ordered firmly. "You aren't helping Luffy like this."

"I know." Sabo said harshly, the words accompanied by a spurt of flames from his mouth. "I know. We're stuck, Jack!"

"So I've been told." The Guardian replied dryly. "But turning the ship into kindling is not going to help us get to Luffy and Ace."

"I know." The Revolutionary repeated. "Hack called for another of our ships to pick us up, but they won't be here for days. Luffy will be back with Pitch by then!"

"Panicking isn't going to help anyone." Jack said calmly, feeling all of his three hundred plus years. "Instead of worrying about things out of our control, how about we try to adapt and make a new plan, okay?"

"How can you still be so calm?" Sabo demanded. "Have you forgotten who Luffy is going to face?"

Jack's mind flashed back to mocking laughter and a sharp pain in his chest. His grip on his staff tightened. "Trust me, I know how dangerous Pitch is. But you're letting your fear overcome you. If you're going to face Pitch with me, you can't let that happen."

The Revolutionary gritted his teeth and exhaled slowly. He took off his top hat and began spinning it in his hands. "Right. Okay. Why? Will I be unable to harm Pitch if I'm afraid?"

"Most likely." Jack revealed. "Trust me, we'll need your flames. His Nightmares are made of sand, so they turn to glass if you hit them with a hot enough fire. Ace was able to do it easily when we fought him."

Sabo blinked. "Ace still has fire— Oh, right. Summer Spirit. I… forgot…"

The Revolutionary grew quiet, a forlorn expression crossing his face. His lit his hand on fire, staring at the flickering orange flames for a moment.

"…Do you think he'll be angry at me?" he asked suddenly.

"What?" Jack asked, hearing the question but not understanding the reason for it.

"I couldn't save Ace. I wasn't there." Sabo whispered guiltily. "And now I'm not there for Luffy." He paled dramatically. "What if I fail both this time?"

"We'll make it in time." Jack stated. "And Ace would never be mad at you. Well, a couple years ago he might have punched you in the face for not showing yourself, but now he'll understand you had your reasons."

Sabo gave a low chuckle. "That's right. He didn't reveal himself either. Our reunion is probably going to be a brawl once things calm down."

Blue eyes continued to study the flames solemnly, and the Guardian began to suspect the reason for the Revolutionary's melancholy.

Does he feel like…?

"You know, out of all the people that could have gotten Ace's fruit, I'm glad it was you." Jack said warmly and casually, meaning every word.

Sabo looked stunned before he smiled widely, face lighting up. "You don't know how much that means to me." His voice shook slightly. "Thanks."

Jack nodded. "Like I said, you'll be a big help when we fight Pitch. Make sure not to rely on intangibility though. Spirits can hit Logia with their powers. That's how I fought Smokey."

"I'll remember." Sabo promised. "I haven't had the Mera Mera for long, so I still tend to block or dodge instead of letting attacks go through."

The Guardian grinned slyly. "Oh really…?"

He made a snowball and chucked it at the Revolutionary. Sabo yelped at it hit him in the face and shattered into glimmering crystals, then gave a startled laugh.

"Jack—!"

The Winter Spirit's next projectiles struck his chest and nose, and the Logia spluttered indignantly.

"Training time. Learn to dodge!" Jack crowed, throwing five more snowballs at Sabo. Three hit. "You're doing even worse than you did when you were a kid."

"I'm out of practice." The Revolutionary defended, blocking the next five snowballs with his pipe. The sixth one struck his cheek. "Damn it, Jack! This isn't fair!"

"You're a Fire Logia. Melt them." The Guardian teased. "Or is the Chief of Staff of the Revolutionaries too mature to have fun?"

Jack summoned a heap of snow and let it fall on Sabo, who took his advice and melted it before it could bury him. The Revolutionary dodged another snowball, running for the Winter Spirit, but Jack leapt off the deck and perched on the mast, smirking down at the blonde Logia. With a burst of flame, Sabo followed him, hovering next to the Guardian.

Jack poked him between the eyes. "Tag. You're it."

The Winter Spirit leapt away. Sabo gave an indignant squawk and chased after the Guardian, who darted lithely about the sky and ship, careful not to go out above the water. The blonde man would probably try to follow him, and the last thing Jack wanted was for him to fall into the ocean.

Jack laughed aloud as the Revolutionary frantically dodged his next barrage of snowballs, which nearly hit Koala and Hack as they went out onto the deck. The Guardian shouted an apology at the startled Revolutionaries.

"Sorry!"

Sabo took the opportunity to tackle him from behind, but Jack was stronger than he looked and stayed airborne instead of plummeting to the deck like the Logia predicted. The Winter Spirit snickered at the Revolutionary's expression, keeping them both aloft easily with the man clinging awkwardly to his waist.

"What? Did you think I couldn't lift— That's it!"

The Winter Spirit's sudden exclamation made Sabo release him in shock. The blonde Logia descended to the deck with a thud, forgetting to turn into flames to cushion his fall. He grimaced for a moment, then looked up at the excited Guardian that hovered in front of his face.

"What is it?" Sabo asked warily.

"I can get you to Luffy." Jack said eagerly.

"What?" Koala said flatly as she and Hack came up beside them.

"I'll get you to Luffy." Jack repeated, landing on the deck before the three Revolutionaries. "That way we don't have to wait for the other ship."

"How would that work?" the orange-haired woman spluttered.

"Could you really?" Sabo asked instead, looking taken by the idea. He eyed Jack critically. "How?"

The Guardian waved his hand dismissively. "I carried you when we had to escape those villagers. It was only difficult because I was holding you weird. If you were in a sling or on something I could pull over the water, I'm sure I could do it." His eyes gleamed. "I could make an ice boat."

"Please tell me you aren't considering this." Koala pleaded with her partner.

Sabo ignored her, eyes shining. "An ice boat is unnecessary. Maybe we can use one of the smaller vessels. How quickly can you fly?"

"I'd say about two hundred miles per hour pulling you two." Jack estimated. "Safely, of course. Koala, can you use Armament Haki?"

"Y-Yes." She said. "But I don't think this is a good idea."

"It's a great idea." Sabo denied. "Why does she need Haki though?"

"Bugs and birds." Jack said simply. "They usually avoid me because I can freeze them, but it would suck to run into one at two hundred miles per hour."

Koala stared. "Won't you get tired?" she tried.

Jack was deeply insulted. "This trip will be nothing. I herd Winter around Earth all the time, and sometimes have to go from one side of a continent to the other in a day. Sometimes I spend weeks in the sky maintaining the storms. You should have seen the Blizzard of '68. Besides, at our speed I bet this trip will only take a day or two, tops. Luffy can't be too far from us. And I can just land on the boat if I get tired."

"But what about supplies?" the orange-haired Revolutionary offered hopefully.

"We'll bring enough for a few days." Sabo decided, already impatient to get moving. "Worse comes to worst, we'll stop at an island."

Hack had already scurried off and packed two good-sized bags, handing them to the determined Sabo and stunned Koala.

"I'll stay here and wait for assistance." The Fishman said calmly. "That will give Jack less weight to pull."

"…This is never going to work." Koala moaned.

"You don't have to come." Sabo offered gently.

The orange-haired woman's eyes hardened. "You're not leaving me behind."

They eventually settled on taking one of the sturdier dinghies, with Jack tying thick ropes to the front and around his waist.

"Bunny would be making jokes about me being a reindeer right now," he commented. "Ready?"

Sabo nodded and grinned. Koala clung to the boat, face pale. Jack chuckled and called on the Wind, who grabbed the Winter Spirit eagerly and took off. The humans jolted backward as the boat shot forward, the little vessel almost skipping over the waves as they sped over the water, leaving white foam in their wake. Both Revolutionaries grabbed their hats to keep them from blowing away, the stranded ship quickly disappearing behind them.

"Pretty fun, right?" Jack shouted above the wind.

Sabo laughed.

Koala screamed.

Chapter Text

Tooth could not shake the feeling that the Guardians should not be here. There was nothing obviously wrong with the island they had traveled to, yet she could not help but feel like every villager they passed was watching them even though none of the humans could currently see the three Spirits.

The brightly-colored Fairy, tall Pooka, and jolly Cossack were out in the open, standing at the side of the street as the native inhabitants moved around them. So far no one had even looked at them yet, and the Guardian of Memories was not exactly keen on making their— or specifically her— presence known.

"Are we sure about this?" Tooth murmured.

"Not on your Nelly." Bunny said. "But that article is the best lead we got on Frostbite."

A few days before while making a trip through one of the busier cities in order to find some food, the Guardians had stumbled upon a newspaper stand and spotted the first solid hint they had having to do with Jack's possible location. The article Bunny noticed had woven a tale of fear and mistrust, stating the town had been attacked by 'Winter Spirit' Jackson Overland Frost and two 'Revolutionaries' before going on to say how careless someone named Whitebeard must be for not defending the place from 'Frost's menace'.

The news had infuriated Tooth as much as it excited her, because even if the information was false— Jack would never attack people— it would be strange for the newspaper to just pull a story like that out of the blue, so pieces of it must be fact. It was more than they had found since arriving on this world, anyway.

So here the Guardians were, on the little island from the paper that was defended by 'Whitebeard'— She recognized that name from somewhere…— hoping beyond hope that they could get something they could use to find Jack. Or Baby Tooth. Or Ace. Or even Pitch.

North patted Tooth on the shoulder, giving her an easy grin. "Are you ready, Tooth? Remember, no punching Marines this time."

The Fairy turned red at the memory but straightened her shoulders, giving the Guardian of Wonder a piercing glare. "You would have done the same thing and you know it."

The Cossack gave one of his belly-laughs, not denying her statement. "Maybe. Do you think that you will be able to control yourself?"

His tone was teasing and Tooth huffed, feathers ruffled. "I will. I don't understand why I have to talk to people again though."

She always felt strange when she had to talk to human adults. Tooth was by no means shy, but there were certain social norms and standards that adults followed that the Guardian of Memories did not fully understand, and so she felt odd when having to use them. The only time she felt comfortable was when she talked about children or teeth, and not all adults liked to converse about such things— especially not teeth, to her disappointment.

"They seem to be able to see you easier than us." Bunny pointed out for the thousandth time. "Maybe it's because they believe in memories more than wonder or hope here?" He flattened his ears and gave an unsatisfied grunt. "I swear this world's Spirit-seeing system is bonkers…"

Tooth could not argue with his complaint. In all the towns she and the others had visited, North had been seen two times and Bunny had only been spotted once, while she was seen most of the time. She did not understand why, having formerly believed that North would be the most-easily spotted because he looked the most human, but Bunny might be going somewhere with his idea that the humans had a greater capacity for trusting memories rather than hope or wonder in this dangerous world.

She debated between heading to the newsstand on this side of the street or approaching another shopkeeper to try to gain some information. Deciding that a townsperson would likely have more truthful information about Jack and what happened with him here, the Guardian of Memories began walking towards the first vendor she spotted.

Tooth did not expect to instantaneously slam into another person in the middle of the road. She and the human stumbled away from each other after their collison, with the Fairy awkwardly catching the man by his elbow in an attempt to prevent him from falling to the ground. After a bout of undignified flailing, she and the human righted themselves. They stared at each other for a moment, sporting near-mirrored expressions of surprise, before both fell back a step.

The first thing Tooth noticed was that the man looked tired. His clothes were rumpled, his hair was a mess, his beard and mustache were unkempt, and dark smudges marked the areas under his eyes, giving him a sallow look. He had the appearance of someone who had not slept for days, and was far past the point of caring about his own health.

The Guardian's heart immediately softened with compassion.

"Sorry." The man said in a low, exhausted voice. "I wasn't watching where I was going."

"It's all right. I wasn't either." She said gently. "Are you… okay?"

"Fine, fine." The man said airily even though he blatantly was not. He cleared his throat. "You're not from around here. Do you need directions or something?"

Tooth took a breath. "No. I just need information. I heard Jack Frost was spotted here a few weeks ago. I—" She stumbled over her words before deciding to keep to her mostly-true story from her last interactions with humans. "My daughter is missing."

The man's eyes went round before they softened with sympathy— and understanding? "I see. That's brave of you, going out to find her." His gaze grew glassy. "My daughter disappeared too, along with three other children on the island."

"Oh." Tooth blinked, eyes stinging.

She rubbed her hand across her face, struggling not to let her emotions get the best of her. If the man's daughter had vanished, it was likely Pitch had taken her. And unlike with Baby Tooth, the girl's chances of still being herself were tragically slim…

"We call my little one B.T." Tooth murmured to distract herself, mind drifting. "She's a gentle, a tiny little thing, but adventurous and strong. If someone insulted her loved ones, she'd be the first one to defend them. Not that she would pick fights, but she cares so deeply for her friends…"

The Guardian cut herself off, feathers drooping more with every word. An ache formed in her chest as she acknowledged how much she missed Baby Tooth and Jack, fearing for their safety in this world and just wanting them back at her side. And yet, at least she had a glimmer of hope that they were unharmed.

"What about your daughter?" she asked.

The man chuckled, gaze brightening the slightest bit. "Her name is Moda. She's quite the dreamer. She would always write stories and plays, then act them out just for her mother and I. One day she went to gather shells to use as props for her latest tale and…" He blinked rapidly, expression clouding. "…she never came back."

"I'm sorry." Tooth choked on the words, feeling awful for not being able to prevent the girl's disappearance even though it was impossible for her to even know she existed.

The father gave her a sad smile. "Thank you. We— The other parents and I— we're trying to contact Whitebeard to see if he can send anyone to help search for them. It will take a while, but when they come I can tell them about B.T., too."

The name 'Whitebeard' still sounded familiar, but Tooth could not place where she had heard it before.

"Thank you." She said sincerely. "I'm sure they're all right. I have to believe the children are okay."

The Guardian could not allow herself to think about the lives possibly lost to Pitch yet. If she did she would be overwhelmed, falling into despair and becoming trapped in the past as she wondered what she could have done differently to save them. In the last battles with Pitch, the Guardians had managed to keep the death tolls comparatively low on Earth when the Nightmare King had attacked. That had mostly been thanks to Sandy's involvement and Pitch's imperfect, slow, and more personal Fearling-creation system.

Now Pitch had the ability to make thousands of Fearlings at once, and his army of Nightmares was growing bigger by the day. Which was why the Guardians needed to find and stop him as soon as possible. Find him, find Jack, save Ace, and try to fight Pitch even though the gap between their powers was most likely astronomical…

It does not help that people fear Jack because they think he's a monster, Tooth thought miserably, then shook her head stubbornly.

"I have to find Jack Frost." She determinedly said the words aloud, momentarily forgetting her audience.

"I wish I had the same conviction as you." The man said, misunderstanding the reason for her firmness. "I'm afraid I don't have much information to give you. Frost and two Revolutionaries showed up on the island a couple weeks ago. We thought we chased them off, but soon after kids started going missing. Twelve have vanished by now."

Tooth's fist clenched, her sadness at the news and anger at Pitch building in her chest. The Guardian of Memories glanced around at North and Bunny, who were still unseen by the wall. They met her gaze, with the Cossack raising his eyebrows. Both looked visibly upset. The Pooka no doubt was hearing the entire conversation and had relayed it to North.

A part of her wanted to shout at the man and tell him the truth, that he was wrong and Jack was not to blame for the missing children, but it was not like she could… could she?

"I've heard… rumors." Tooth began hesitantly. "…rumors that it isn't Frost who has been kidnapping children."

The man grew alert, staring at her intently. "Who is it then?"

"I'm not exactly sure," the Guardian partially lied. "But I heard he has control of these… shadow creatures. Some look like black horses, others look like humanoid monsters made of darkness."

She was wary of revealing Pitch's name, worrying that such an act would give the Spirit of Fear more believers— and more power. Seeing the man's intense stare— he was engaged, not angry or mistrustful— Tooth decided to take a chance.

She lowered her voice conspiratorially. "I saw one, you know. One of the Nightmares— the black horses. I tried to chase it, but it vanished into the shadows."

The man's brow furrowed. "So you're saying that the World Government might be using Frost as a scapegoat?" His eyes narrowed into a hateful glower. "Wouldn't be the first time."

Tooth paused before recalling that apparently Whitebeard was a pirate, so the people under his protection might not like the Marines. "Perhaps." She said vaguely. "Either way, Frost is involved. Is there anything you can tell me to help me find him?"

The man shrugged. "Like I said, he was seen with two Revolutionaries. They escaped on a boat and were headed west if I'm not mistaken. According to the papers— and their information is sketchy at best— snowstorms tend to follow Frost so it might help if you look for strange weather patterns. Then again, this is the New World so the weather is weird by itself most of the time."

Tooth smiled sincerely at the man. "Thank you so much. This is— This is more than I've gotten from anyone. Thank you."

The man hesitated, then smiled back tiredly. "You're welcome. Just… If you find the kids, could you look for my Moda as well?"

"Of course." Tooth promised, refusing to think about the low likelihood of the girl's survival.

It might be possible that Pitch had merely captured the girl. If she was a dreamer, she may have powerful nightmares, and the Spirit of Fear might want to keep her to keep creating those creatures. The chances were slim, but there was still a chance.

Tooth bade him farewell and made her way back towards the other Guardians. A flash of turquoise caught her eye and she lingered in the street, focusing on it.

"Oh my."

Tooth did not intend to let loose the soft exclamation, but the control over her voice abandoned her as she spotted the poster placed prominently on a newsstand.

The poster that sported a drawn picture of her.

'Fairy Queen' Toothiana

Wanted Dead or Alive

Reward: 150,000,000 Beri

Suddenly, the town did not seem so safe anymore.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Ace had been awake for a full seventy-two hours. Marco had been awake for who knew how long. Any attempts to make the Phoenix go take a nap had failed, and the fire-user was beginning to entertain the thought of knocking the stubborn man unconscious. Bay would probably help, if her sidelong glances at the First Division Commander were of any indication.

It was all-too easy for Ace to pretend the doctor did not exist as she looked him over, preferring a blatant, rude dismissal of her presence and questions to the anxiety that her closeness would bring. Marco had been nice enough to delay Bay for as long as he could, but the fire-user's obvious discomfort at the mention of medical professionals had been unable to keep her away forever.

Like it or not, Ace was Bay's patient and in need of checkups. And the fire-user was definitively in the 'or not' category. The only reason he was allowing Bay anywhere near him was because Marco had asked, claiming that he wanted to make sure Ace was okay— and didn't that sound familiar?

"This is for your own good, Ace." Not-Marco said soothingly as Not-Bay drove a scalpel into Ace's eye, smiling gently as he writhed and bled. "I just want to make sure you feel better."

It was hard not to look at Bay and remember all the times 'she' had hurt him. It was hard not to hear Marco's proclamations of concern about Ace's wellbeing and think they were fake.

So the fire-user put up an impassive front, gazing at the walls or drawing in his notebook as he did his best to ignore Bay. She had tried to gain his attention at first, but a few words from Marco had stopped her attempts, and she went about her business without comment. It did not help that every touch and prod still made Ace feel ill, though he did his best to hide it. If he showed he was capable, Marco might go to sleep. He should not be neglecting his own health for Ace.

Hide it. Repress.

He did his best not to notice Bay probing his side, tracing the black streaks that marked the former placement of the wound that resulted in his current condition. Even with his determination, the touches still hurt. Ace winced, shying away from the contact.

Bay withdrew, looking at Marco. "The laceration has healed completely. Other than the black substance that you refuse to tell me more about and his throat, I'd say Ace has a clean bill of health."

"Can he leave the infirmary yet, yoi?" The Phoenix asked unrepentantly.

Ace wondered if they thought he was not listening. Although wasn't that what he was trying to do? Not listen? It might be better for him if he was not. Perhaps he was not as good at disassociating as he thought.

The Summer Spirit's vision blurred and his eyelids grew heavy but he shook his head, clenching his hands and digging his nails into his palms. The small burst of pain cleared Ace's tired mind and when he focused again, Marco and Bay were looking at him expectantly.

"What was that?" Ace wrote out of politeness more than interest.

"Bay has to look at your throat now." The Phoenix explained as if he had not done so just a few seconds ago.

The fire-user unhappily turned to the doctor, who remained unbothered by her patient's wariness.

"Your vocal cords were put under a lot of stress, and I just want to see how they're healing." She said soothingly. "I swear I just need to look at and feel your throat a little. There won't be anything invasive."

Ace wondered if she was asking for permission or this was just another thing out of his control, but nodded anyway. Bay reached for his neck and the fire-user instinctively tucked his chin, covering the vulnerable spot.

The doctor let her hands fall to her sides and sighed. "Ace…"

"How about she looks first, yoi?" Marco interrupted. "No touching."

Ace forced his lips to smile acceptingly and nodded. He obediently opened his mouth, staring up past Bay' head instead of at the doctor as she leaned in front of him with a light. Keeping her promise, she did not attempt to stick anything down his throat, merely taking in what she could spot through vision alone.

"Still swollen." Bay murmured. "In fact, it seems to be more inflamed then before." She looked to Marco. "Has he been screaming?"

The First Division Commander went to answer, reconsidered the question, and frowned. "Not aloud, but I've noticed him thrashing and opening his mouth in his sleep. Now that I think about it, it's almost like he's trying to make noise but can't…" The Phoenix trailed off, looking centuries older than he should.

Ace snapped his fingers to gain their attention and quickly jotted down a sentence in his notebook, showing it to the somber man. "It's not your fault. You can't stop the nightmares. Don't be ridiculous."

Marco gave a low, humorless chuckle. "I'm aware of that. That won't stop me from worrying, yoi."

"No wonder his vocal cords haven't been healing. They haven't been given time to rest. His body keeps instinctively trying to use them when he's asleep." Bay spoke almost to herself, drumming her fingers on her leg. She paused and then continued reluctantly, looking at her patient. "At this rate, you may lose your voice permanently."

Ace did not write a word. He stared at the wall and forced his fingers to loosen around the blue pen so he did not break it, but other than that he could not conjure a reaction. For a moment, he considered that he may be in another elaborate nightmare, but immediately sneered at himself for his overreaction. All things considered, possibly being mute for the rest of his immortal life was not the worst thing that could happen.

The fire-user distantly heard Bay ask something and nodded without hearing the question. It was inconsequential if he agreed or not with what she said. She would do what she wanted anyway. Ace stayed lost in his thoughts, struggling to come to terms with yet another bombshell that had been dumped on him. His throat strained and he swallowed rapidly, each gulp causing his vocal cords to ache.

Stop that. It's not that bad. It  isn't . So what if I might never be able to talk again? At least I'm awake, and alive. I should be grateful I'm as okay as I am. If it weren't for Mother Nature's failsafe, I'd be Pitch's slave by now. Be happy that—

Something stabbed his throat, a thin dagger sinking into his jugular.

Ace barely registered the pain before he reeled back, jerking out of Bay's reach and nearly crashing to the floor. Marco caught him with practiced ease and again the Summer Spirit felt a blade, this time in his shoulders where the man grabbed him. The fire-user struggled in his hold, right hand clasping at his neck, while the other tried to pry the Phoenix's arms away from his body.

N-No.

His mind could not form coherent thoughts, a panicked, unending wail overtaking all semblance of lucidity. Ace could not be in a nightmare. It was impossible. He had not fallen asleep. He was certain he hadn't.

When Ace withdrew his right hand from his neck, he was stunned to find there was no crimson on his fingertips. When he inhaled, he was shocked that he could breathe without the accompanying gurgle that meant he was choking on his own blood.

Ace swore Bay and Marco had stabbed him. He had felt the familiar cold sharpness of metal slitting his jugular, a sensation he was used to having 'died' to it so many times before. Yet the doctor was frozen before him, looking at him in confusion with her empty hands held up peacefully.

The low buzzing in Ace's ears became Marco's voice, and words slowly formed out of the jumble of sounds that had overcome the fire-user's senses.

"—safe! This is real, Ace. You're awake. You're safe!" the Phoenix almost shouted.

Ace's chest heaved and his heartbeat gradually slowed. The fire-user fumbled out of Marco's hold, perching back on the bed and staring at the two Whitebeard Pirates with round eyes. Realizing how defenseless he looked, Ace schooled his expression into its default apathy setting. The Phoenix's calm expression faltered for the barest second but he reigned in his own emotions.

"Ace—"

"Oh." Bay gasped softly, silencing Marco. She met Ace's eyes, her own filled with compassion— or was it pity? "I'm so sorry, Ace." She murmured. "I should have realized sooner…" She cleared her throat and smoothed out her skirt, sitting down so she no longer towered over her patient. "Do you know what tactile sensitivity and sensory defensiveness are?"

The fire-user warily shook his head.

"Tactile sensitivity is where a person reacts adversely to stimuli that are normally non-painful. Sensory defensiveness is a negative reaction to certain sensations, such as touch." Bay told him concisely. "Sometimes they are a side-effect of certain medical conditions, but they can also be caused by traumatic events. You feel pain when we touch you, don't you?"

Ace nodded cautiously. Her words bounced around his head, bewildering but also strangely uplifting. There was a reason for it hurting when people touched him. The fire-user had not even considered such a possibility, blaming his own fears for his issues with physical contact. To be informed that might not be the case… it was almost heartwarming.

Bay picked up her own notebook and jotted something down. "Could you describe it?"

The fire-user retrieved his pen and glanced uncertainly at Marco, who nodded encouragingly.

"Sometimes it feels like I'm being burned or stabbed." Ace wrote. "Other times I just feel sick to my stomach and contact makes my skin crawl."

"Nausea." Bay muttered lowly as she made more notes. She set her book on the table and smiled at the fire-user. "Thank you for telling me this."

She looked sincerely happy about his admissions. Ace did not get it. That did not stop the slight warmth in his chest as her gratefulness.

"You're welcome." He wrote, making sure not to put a question mark at the end of the statement.

Ace blinked lethargically and rubbed at his eyes. He scooched away from the headboard of the bed, sitting up under his own power to ensure he did not relax too much. The fire-user drew a couple swirls and snowflakes next to the latest sentence, then flipped to a clean page and sketched a pirate ship. He was working on the sail when he belatedly realized Bay was talking to Marco.

"...recommend tea with honey and other warm liquids to help soothe his throat. Tell Thatch. Ace can leave the infirmary if he wishes, but make sure he does not spend too much time breathing cold air. That can irritate his vocal cords even more. Make sure no one smokes around him as well. And I know it will be difficult, but try not to touch him. Even a hand on his shoulder will feel like shards of glass. Let him initiate contact, all right?"

"Understood, yoi." Marco replied willingly.

Bay gathered up her equipment and made to leave the room, pausing in the doorway. "And get some sleep, would you? You look like shit."

The Phoenix gave a startled laugh at her language, but before he could respond the doctor was gone. Ace's lips twitched at Marco's expression. He stopped drawing and stared pointedly at the First Division Commander, who raised an eyebrow at him.

"I told you before and I'll say it again. I'm not going to sleep and leave you by yourself." The Phoenix grimaced, unable to hold back a yawn.

"I can't sleep because of the sand. You don't have that problem. You need to rest." The words were scrawled impatiently across the page.

Marco sighed. "Let me worry about you, not the other way around, yoi."

"But you worrying about me and not sleeping is making me worry about you." Ace scribed. "If you take a nap I'll be happy."

Ace was mostly certain that was true. As much as he did not wish to be alone— while simultaneously not feeling ready to meet the other Whitebeard Pirates yet— the fire-user wanted Marco to be healthy and happy. Not only because the Phoenix was his friend and one of the best people he knew, but because he deserved a break from fretting over Ace.

"That's manipulative." Marco pointed out wearily but without malice as he read.

Ace frowned at him. "Fine. I'll be direct then. Sleep or I'll knock you out."

A part of him waited nervously for the Phoenix's response to his threat, but most of the fire-user refused to back down or regret his promise of violence. Marco did not laugh, but he did not seem to be angry either.

"Do you really think you are capable of that?" he asked curiously.

Ace was uncertain whether the grin he gave the Phoenix was mischievous or unhinged. "Watch me."

Marco put his hands up placatingly. "All right, yoi. Wake me up if anything happens."

I think I'll get Bay instead so I don't have to wake you, Ace thought as he watched the Phoenix settle more comfortably in his chair. The fire-user paused and analyzed his thoughts. I'd be willing to get her… Does that mean I trust Bay? I think I do. A little at least. How did that happen?

Ace did not care. He watched Marco relax, his breathing evening out. The fire-user glanced at his sheet and shrugged before throwing it over the Phoenix. The blond-haired man did not even twitch, proving just how exhausted he had been.

It was very quiet. Ace did not allow himself to sink into his thoughts and muse about the past like he so often did since he woke. His eyes grew heavy but he forced them open. The fire-user considered getting up and walking around, but did not want to disturb Marco. Instead he drew more snowflakes, a top hat, and a straw hat. He looked at the images and set down the pen, tracing each one with his forefinger.

I should ask about my brothers. I think Marco said the Whitebeard Pirates were trying to find them. I should ask for any information they have.

His stomach twisted at the thought, old fears threatening to creep to the surface and drown him.

I want to see them again. I do. But what if…? No. Don't think about this now. If I think about it, I'll freak out and that could wake Marco. Breathe. I'm fine. I'm  fine .

Ace closed his eyes, inhaling and exhaling rhythmically.

His eyes slid open.

He was not in the infirmary anymore.

He was in an alleyway.

Oh no. Nightmare.  I fell asleep .

Ace did not give himself time to panic or wonder how he got there. He had to leave the nightmare quickly before anything could go wrong. The fire-user curled up tighter behind the dumpster he leaned against, nose wrinkling at the smell. Before Ace could fall asleep— attempt to wake up—hands gripped him, yanking him roughly out of the safety of his hiding spot. He looked up to see three large, unfamiliar men, all who stared at him with a mixture of disgust and fear.

"I found it! I found the demon!" the one holding him shouted.

Ace did not fight his captor but the other two men grabbed him anyway, pulling him into the street. His skin grew scraped and wept blood as he was dragged over the sharp stones and into a mob. The crowd swarmed around them, some brandishing clubs, stones, sticks, and pitchforks. Others wielded more deadly items; swords, spears, even the occasional gun.

Weapons meant to harm. Weapons meant to maim. Weapons meant to kill.

The fire-user was surprisingly calm.

It's not real. Remember it's not real. I was on the Moby Dick. I was with Marco. I'm safe.

The men released him and backed away, merging with the swarm. Ace did not try to run. He knelt in the street as the crowd closed around him, the people hurling insults and shouting threats at the monster they had captured.

"Demon!"

"Look at it. It's cursed!"

"Freak!"

"Go back to Hell!"

"Monster!"

Ace detachedly wondered if they hated him because he was Roger's son or because of his appearance in this nightmare. He supposed the answer was trivial. The nightmare would go on without him, and seeking answers would not stop the mob.

Not real. It isn't real.

Someone threw a stone.

It struck Ace in the temple, knocking him to the ground, and like the attack was a signal the crowd converged on the fire-user. He sank into an apathetic haze as the mob beat him, spears, bats, and other weapons striking without mercy. Bones broke, skin tore, hair was pulled, and his right eye swelled shut, but Ace barely cringed, curling into a ball.

Something— a bat?— hit his head. Once twice thrice. His vision grew spotty but he ran towards unconsciousness rather than fearing it. Unconsciousness meant he would leave this dream behind. He had to escape the nightmare and find Marco.

It was not enough. Ace lingered in the nightmare, a bloody and broken mess on the ground.

"It's still alive?!"

"It isn't human!"

"Kill it before it murders us all!"

Someone stabbed Ace.

More than one someone stabbed him.

In the stomach, the chest, the arms, the legs, in places that were not inherently fatal.

If they wanted him dead, why didn't they strike his heart or slash his throat?

Someone's foot slammed down on his arm, snapping the bone.

A fist struck his jaw, knocking out a tooth and making him spit blood.

A sword went through his shoulder, pinning him to the street.

A pair of hands wrapped around his neck, squeezing.

As his air cut off, the fire-user relaxed instead of fighting because he knew it would be over soon.

Ace finally blacked out.

He woke in the infirmary— or was it?

Possibly-Marco was sleeping at his bedside.

Don't freak out.

Ace took a shuddering breath and shook the Phoenix awake. The First Division Commander woke with a jolt, sitting upright as his eyes snapped open. Blue flames flared threateningly along his shoulders, making the Summer Spirit freeze, but Marco noticed the fire-user before he could fully transform. The flames vanished and the man released a shaky breath, rubbing a hand over his eyes.

"Ace, yoi. You startled me."

The fire-user waited. Maybe he forgot his promise. Maybe he's disorientated. Don't leave yet. This might be reality. Give him some time to gather his bearings.

He only realized Marco had been attempting to speak to him when the man placed a hand on his arm. Ace locked his jaw and muscles so as not to flinch or strain his damaged voice box. He did not want to cringe and make Marco sad. He did not want to try to scream and possibly lose his voice. So he remained stiff and silent beneath Marco's palm. Confusion flashed across the Phoenix's still-tired features.

"Marco!"

The feminine voice came from the doorway, and Bay rushed into the room. Her gaze was dark with disapproval, but to Ace's relief, the glare was not directed at him. The doctor stormed forward, pinning the Phoenix with her glower. She grabbed the surprised First Division Commander's wrist, tearing his palm away from Ace's arm. Marco's nails accidentally scraped the fire-user's skin as his hand was forcibly removed, but the flame-eyed Spirit could not care less.

"What did I tell you?" Bay said harshly.

Comprehension crossed Marco's face, followed swiftly by guilt.

Ace still looked to him blankly, waiting, praying, hoping

Say it. Please say it. I need to hear you say it.

"I'm sorry." The Phoenix said, facing the doctor. "I forgot what you told me."

"It's fine." She nodded firmly. "I guessed that was the reason. Remember, you're supposed to do this."

The sensation of a dagger stabbing into his side startled Ace but he did not flinch. It was not real. He had not actually been stabbed. It was just Bay touching him.

Ace felt a warm liquid trickling down his stomach and looked down at the blade embedded in his gut in surprise. His mind blanked but he shut panic away behind a door before it could swamp him.

Not real. Nightmare. Not real not real not real.

Not-Marco held him in place as Not-Bay carved a gash across his abdomen, speaking casually to the Phoenix. Ace did not bother to take in the not-doctor's words, and instead let himself become lost in the pain. The words and insults his 'friends' threw always hurt worse than the temporary torturing and death. The words would stick with him, lingering at the back of his mind as it tried to make him question reality and doubt himself. Ace could not let that happen again.

He had just taken steps to open up to Marco. He had just somehow learned to trust Bay. He could not allow himself to backtrack and lose what little progress he had made.

The real Marco was supportive and patient. The real Bay was nice and wanted him to get better in a way that did not involve torture or cruelty.

These were frauds, hallucinations, fakes. His friends would never act like this.

Ace just had to keep remembering that. It was all about remembering the truth.

Not-Bay's dagger tore open his chest and the numbness of death swept over the fire-user, accompanied by the warmth of lost blood.

As the latest nightmare faded away, Ace clung to the memories of the real Marco and Bay.

He woke in the infirmary.

Here we go again…

ROTGOPROTGOP

The fog was so thick it almost looks like the area was filled with grey snow instead of vapor. It was impossible to tell whether it was day or night, with only swirling mist and darkness as far as the eye could see. The dark island was a black smudge blanketed in the whiteness, the mountains and trees sharp and claw-like amidst the fog.

A boat carved its way through the black waters surrounding the island, its occupants as silent as the grave as they sailed towards the dark land. The vessel halted abruptly far from the island's shore, bobbing up and down with each pulse of the sea. Franky turned to his Captain, a frown on his usually grinning face.

"Are you certain about this?" the shipwright asked solemnly.

"Of course." Luffy said cheerfully. "Just be ready to leave, okay?"

"Franky, Brook, and I will be prepared." Robin said calmly, looking at the dense fog with serene blue eyes. "And we will ensure that no enemies harm the Sunny."

"Are you sure you three won't n-need help with that?" Usopp stammered, gaze fixated on the menacing island. "I can totally stay h-here."

"Quit complaining." Zoro said unsympathetically. "We might need your skills."

"As a sniper or a distraction?" Usopp mumbled, trembling like a leaf.

Law groaned, shifting his nodachi irritably. "It might be best for Nose-ya to remain here. Pitch's power has to do with fear and he has plenty of it."

"Usopp will be fine." Luffy defended his friend. "Whenever we need him, he always pulls through."

The sniper managed to respond to the Captain's trust and wide grin with a nervous smile of his own. Chopper finished digging through the small bag of supplies he was carrying and looked up.

"I'm ready too." The doctor informed them.

"All right." Sanji said, an unlit cigarette in his teeth. "Remember the plan. Everything is an enemy until proven otherwise. Be prepared for hallucinations. And make sure we stay together." His glare settled on Luffy as he said that, and the Straw Hat Pirate smiled innocently back at him. "The plan, shitty Captain."

"Law teleports us in. Find Ace. Nami, Usopp, Law, and I will guard the door while Zoro and Sanji go down. Zoro frees Ace. Sanji carries him. Fight our way out of the seastone and teleport out." Luffy surmised dutifully.

The pirates had discussed it often enough on the week-and-a-half long trip back to Pitch's island, with the strategists of the group predicting everything that could go wrong and how to adapt to such circumstances. They had also taken the time to beat the plan into their scatterbrained Captain's head so he would not run off and leave them scrambling to look for him and escape. This was not an island to explore or get sidetracked on. They were on a mission.

"And if Pitch isn't there, we are not going to try to find him." Sanji stated.

"And if Pitch isn't there, we are not going to try to find him." Luffy parroted. His grin faded and his expression grew serious. "I won't get distracted this time."

Not when the last time, distractions had cost him Ace.

Luffy's stare returned to Pitch's island, the trees and darkness not something to fear, but something that must be overcome to reach his goal. He adjusted his hat and punched his fist into his other hand, flanked by his crew and Law as they all glared determinedly at their enemy's base.

"Let's go." The Captain commanded.

We're coming to save you, Ace.

ROTGOPROTGOP

It was as if the color had been stripped from the world. Everything was black, grey, or white as far as the eye could see, and what the eye could see was not that impressive. Fog settled over the mountains and ground, obscuring their vision further and turning the forest around them into near-formless shadows.

The island was silent except for the soft howls of wind and low creaking of shifting branches. The tree limbs looked like long, skeletal fingers, burnt and blackened beyond recognition as they reached futilely for the sky, unable to escape their bitter fate of imprisonment in the darkness. The ground was seemingly comprised of dirt, but it loosened and stuck to their shoes like ash, coating Law's boots with grime and turning them from black to a dusty grey.

The Heart Pirate was not as blinded as his sight-reliant companions, however. The surgeon sensed everything in his room, closing his eyes and focusing on the empty space he could feel below ground. Grey orbs slid open, and Law turned to Sanji. He did not know exactly when the cook had been made the temporary leader of this mission, but guessed it had to do with stealth being needed for the first part of it rather than the luck, mayhem, and brute force Straw Hat excelled at utilizing.

"I've found an empty cavern in the lair for us to appear in." Law told the cook. "There are no Nightmares or Fearlings within. However, if I cannot find another empty room to go to, we will have to walk into the open for a time in order to reach the cells and Fire Fist-ya."

"Let's go." Luffy said immediately, but his swordsman shook his head.

"Not yet." Zoro said firmly, before he turned to Law. "Are you certain that getting in and out will not be a problem?"

There was an odd look in his eyes, and the surgeon wondered if the swordsman was suspicious of him for some reason. Feeling a tinge of annoyance, Law gave a small huff and a glare.

"I am fully rested and capable. Why? Do you believe I will abandon you?" he challenged coldly.

"No. I just don't want you to be distracted." The green-haired man claimed.

Law noticed his perceptive look but shrugged, dismissing it. "I do not see what would 'distract' me. And if you are worried about me being overwhelmed by fear, then you are even less observant than I thought."

"Hmm." Zoro grunted.

"Let's just go already." Luffy said impatiently. "We need to free Ace."

Law nodded and checked to make sure his allies were ready. Luffy shifted impatiently. Zoro and Sanji were calm. Nami trembled slightly. Chopper and Usopp trembled a lot. Overall, they looked as varied and unpredictable as usual, which may or may not be a good thing.

Law mentally sighed. If I die because of any of these idiots, I will find a way to haunt them from the afterlife.

And then they were in the cave.

They had underestimated the blackness of the lair. Law could barely see the outlines of his companions in the darkness. Someone— likely Usopp— tried to shriek, but another person silenced him before he could utter a sound.

"Quiet." Sanji hissed. "We're in enemy territory now." The round shape that may have been his head shifted in Law's direction. "Can you sense an empty space closer to Fire Fist?"

Law carefully expanded his room again, holding his breath as a group of Fearlings and Nightmares entered his area of awareness. The creatures did not react, evidently not seeing the blue sphere as it passed over them. The surgeon did not feel any movement in a good-sized area further down, and told his allies so.

"I can do one more. The stairway to the dungeon is one hundred feet to the left of that position if I remember correctly."

"You better." Sanji said without humor. His stern gaze shifted to his Captain. "Remember, no fighting until it is absolutely necessary. We are not trying to draw attention to ourselves, at least not until we grab Fire Fist. If they're alerted to our presence too early, they might use him as a hostage."

"Got it." Luffy said, not resenting the reminder that was mostly directed towards him.

They appeared in the new cavern. This one had slightly more light in it, just enough to see some of the pirates' features. Law deactivated his room, conserving his energy. They would need to move quickly once they grabbed Ace, and his ability was the most adept for retreating and getting out of danger.

Usopp crept to the doorway and glanced around. He paled, obviously disturbed by the creepy lair that would do well as a horror attraction, but kept scanning the area anyway.

"I don't see any of those creatures nearby." He said in a low whisper. "Should—" He swallowed nervously. "Should we get moving?"

Luffy moved past him and walked casually out the door, only refraining from running off due to his crewmates' glares and his navigator's grip on his collar.

"Stay." Nami growled like her Captain was a disobedient dog.

The Straw Hat Pirate smiled shamelessly, and allowed himself to be maneuvered into their predetermined formation before they headed out to a walkway. Luffy and Zoro went first, with Nami next to Sanji and Usopp with Chopper. Law stayed at the back, eyes scanning the shadows as he searched for Nightmares while he simultaneously watched over the jumpier members of the Straw Hat crew.

He really did think that having the more 'cowardly' pirates join them in this mission was going to cause a plethora of problems in the near-future, but Ace would need medical attention from Chopper that Law may not be able to provide, and Usopp was their greatest long-range fighter. The two quivering Straw Hats were needed, as much of a hindrance they might become.

That did not stop Law from hoping Pitch was unable to sense fear itself. The Nightmare King's powers were still a mystery to the Heart Pirate, with only hypotheses and logic helping him with identifying the Spirit's potential abilities.

If he can sense people through fear, we're doomed, the surgeon thought darkly as he followed the trembling doctor and sniper.

The lair was silent. So silent in fact that the pirates worked hard to keep their footsteps from echoing through the caverns, walking slowly and carefully. Unlike with some tunnels like this, there was no dripping water, not even a splash. The unnatural lack of noise was almost suffocating, pressing down on their ears with no relief in sight.

The cave itself was deceptively empty, and Law felt his skin prickle. He kept searching the darkness for threats, fully expecting a horde of foes to leap from the shadows and swarm the invaders. It was far too quiet. Even the whispering that had haunted the surgeon last time he was in the cave were absent.

Something isn't right about this.

Usopp breathed in sharply, looking up, and immediately Sanji grabbed the sniper's arm, dragging him into another side-cave. The other pirates hurriedly copied them, peering out the doorway. Law followed the wide-eyed sniper's gaze, spotting the five Fearlings that were floating through the air above them. Zoro gripped his swords, but Sanji put a hand on the swordsman's wrist, shaking his head.

"No. See if they pass first." He hissed.

Luckily Zoro did not argue with his rival. Law was glad the Straw Hats were taking this so seriously. If only they could act like that in other situations as well. Then they'd be less of a headache to deal with.

The surgeon belatedly noticed that he was at the back of the group, with the others forming around him like an honorary guard. For a moment, he was confused by the placement, but then understanding struck.

This is intentional. I'm our ticket out of here. They want to ensure I don't get injured or knocked out. Did they discuss this without me?

Law was unsure if he felt touched or annoyed by their concern. His ribs were fully healed from last time and he was perfectly capable of taking care of himself, thank you very much. Plus the fact that they had apparently talked about it behind his back instead of with him was rather irksome. But still, it was… nice to see them care.

Don't get all sentimental. It's only because I'm important to the mission.

The Straw Hats' idiocy must be infecting Law and making him soft.

In the back of his mind, the Heart Pirate knew better than that though.

They waited with baited breath as the Fearlings floated above them, Luffy tensing with his arm pulled back, but the creatures did not notice the humans. They drifted away like demonic ghosts, leaving the air empty once more.

Sanji exhaled slowly. "Forward."

The group stepped out of the cavern, returning to their previous positions as they headed down the open hall. Law made to follow and paused, the hair on his nape prickling.

The Heart Pirate heard whispering behind him.

Something covered Law's mouth and an arm wrapped around his waist, but before he could fight or attempt to shout a warning, he was pulled violently backwards. Blackness slammed over his vision like a blindfold, his sight and hearing snuffed out in an instant, and the surgeon plummeted into darkness.

Chapter Text

It felt like everyone was watching her. The people passing her on the streets. The man standing at the small shop that sold clothes. The child playing with his friend as they kicked a ball back and forth. It felt like all of them were looking at Tooth, appraising her, judging her, even though a majority could not see her.

I have a bounty.

The back of her neck prickled. Her palms were sweaty. Her hands shook.

Tooth's face looked back at her from the wanted poster on the stand. If she had not been so distraught, the Fairy might have appreciated how accurate the sketch was. The artist had done everything near-perfectly, from her eyes to the shape of her face to her feathers. The reward for her capture was large and mocking right below the drawing. The Guardian of Memories stared at the number, mouthing it to herself, and felt a rush of both panic and shame.

I have a bounty. There's a reward for my capture. What if someone strong comes after me? What if children see and are afraid of me?

The thought made her feel sick to her stomach, and she stumbled over to the edge of the street, staring blankly ahead. A hand clapped down on her shoulder and she flinched, reaching for her swords as she spun out of the person's grasp. Bunny met her gaze, paws raised peacefully and emerald eyes soft with worry. Tooth slowly sheathed her swords and let her hands drop to her sides, before abruptly bringing them together to wring her fingers. From his position next to the Guardian of Hope, North did not say a word, looking past the Fairy at the poster.

"Are you all right?" the Pooka asked.

"Fine." Tooth insisted distractedly. "I— uh— I did not expect to actually get a bounty. I'm a little—" Scared, confused, ashamed, afraid. "—surprised."

The Guardian of Hope crossed his arms over his chest, foot tapping like only a rabbit's could. "This world is whacked, remember? And ya did cause trouble back at that other village."

"But I only punched a few Marines." Tooth protested weakly. "Surely this world isn't so corrupt just that would cause me to get such a large bounty?"

"Manny said Pitch is working with the World Government." Bunny pointed out. "He probably realized it was you and pulled a few strings to give you such a bounty." His eyes swiveled and twitched. "Probably how they knew yer name too."

The possibility of corruption being the reason for the price on her head did not improve the Fairy's mood. Tooth still felt miserable. Her feathers were drooped and some of the color seemed to have left her normally bright plumage, making it closer to a pastel blue.

The Guardian of Hope shifted uncomfortably and gave a dismissive huff. "Besides, that number isn't so big." He pointed at the other posters that were visible. "Look, those other rewards are in the upper hundreds of millions. You're small fry in comparison. I'm sure no one will go after you."

"Based on the prices I've seen, I think that one hundred-fifty million Berries is still a lot of money." The Guardian of Memories informed him, feathers flat against her body.

"One hundred-fifty million?" North gasped, breaking his stunned silence at last. He gave Tooth a grin. "It seems that the Tooth Fairy is most certainly on the Naughty List this year."

"This isn't funny, North." Tooth almost snapped. "I have a bounty that's big enough to warrant attention but probably small enough that people will think I'm an easy target. Humans are going to come after me!"

The Guardian of Wonder's teasing expression shifted into a more solemn visage. "I am aware of implications, but it is unlikely any humans will be able to track us down. Unless they can see you and know about flying sleigh, they will have trouble finding us. But if you are so worried…"

He slowed down next to a clothing store, considering a dozen green cloaks that were hanging on one of the racks outside. A single shopkeeper was rearranging shirts nearby. The Cossack stared at the man for a long time, even clearing his throat, but the human did not turn to face him, going about his business. North chuckled and grabbed a cloak. The salesperson did not even bat an eye as the Spirit made off with the item, handing it to a stunned Tooth.

"Put this on for disguise." The Guardian of Wonder told her.

The Guardian of Memories gawped at the cloak. "…Did Santa just steal?" she asked wonderingly.

Bunny glared at the grinning North accusingly. "You're trying to get a bounty, aren't you?"

"Me? Never. Why would you ever think that?" the Guardian of Wonder asked jovially. "Santa cannot be on his own Naughty List! Now, put it on."

Tooth reluctantly placed the cloak over her shoulders, pulling up the hood. It was a well-made item, comfortable and soft, and she felt a surge of guilt. This was that man's livelihood. Who knew how hard he had worked to make this? What if he had a family or kids he had to support with the revenue he made selling these?

With that in mind— and her guilt weighing heavy on her conscience— Tooth went back to the shop, ignoring North's protests. The shopkeeper was not out front, having returned to the inside of the store. The Guardian of Memories entered the small establishment and looked around, not spotting the man among the racks of clothing.

He must be in the back, Tooth mused, considering her options.

She had some quarters and 'Berries' that the Guardians had found lying about on their journey, but she doubted that it would be enough to pay for the cloak. North had a point about disguising herself in case someone unfriendly was able to see her, but Tooth was uncomfortable with the idea of stealing the item.

I'll find something later, she decided.

The Guardian of Memories removed the cloak and turned to her companions, giving North a pointed look. "I'm returning this. I'll just leave it on the—"

"Hush." Bunny said sharply, ears standing straight up.

Tooth and North watched the appendages quiver and twist, before the Guardian of Hope's eyes narrowed dangerously.

"Do you hear that?"

The two other Guardians listened intently. For a moment, all Tooth could hear was distant footsteps as someone— likely the shopkeeper— moved around in the basement. Then there was a thud, a sharp curse, and a soft— yet high-pitched— cry.

Tooth did not get out much. She had gotten better in the years since Jack joined the Guardians, but most of the time her only interaction with the outside world was through the memories she gathered. She viewed every memory she received, both the good and the bad. Losing a tooth was not always pleasant. Sometimes it could hurt quite a lot. Many times, it would be accompanied by sobbing, wails, or screams.

Which was why when Tooth heard the small cry, she immediately knew it came from a child.

The cloak was forgotten on the floor. The Guardian of Memories was moving before she realized what she was doing, pulling open the door behind the counter and literally flying down the stairs. At first she saw nothing, but she heard another faint sob, accompanied by a man's harsh voice.

"Shut up you little brat! Did you think you could escape?"

The words were like a spark, igniting the fire that was Tooth's alarm and turning it into a protective fury. The Guardian of Memories stormed across the basement, weaving among the piles of boxes and items as she made her way to the sound. She rounded a neatly-stacked heap of items and froze, gaze fixated on the open trapdoor she spotted beside a moved rug.

Tooth stared inside the compartment and spotted the shopkeeper down below as he advanced on a little girl, arm raised. It took only a second for the Guardian to take in the situation before her, and by the time her mind caught up to her instincts she was already leaping into the hatch.

"Get away from her!"

The Guardian landed almost directly on top of the man, her feet slamming into his upper back and sending him crashing to the ground. The shopkeeper swore, twisting out from beneath her and shoving her off of him. But Tooth kept her footing, already winding up a punch. Her fist connected with the human's jaw with a crack, and he slumped bonelessly to the ground, head lolling pathetically.

Tooth stared down at him, anger still thrumming through her veins, but it soon became obvious the man was unconscious. As her adrenaline faded, memory returned, and the Guardian looked up at the child— children— she had just saved. Four children stared back at her fearfully— three boys and one girl. The girl and one of the boys were positioned defensively in front of the smaller two children, doing their best to glare at the Guardian.

Their attempt at looking fierce was not quite as impactful as they intended. They were so scrawny, dirty, and scared that they would have little luck in intimidating a baby mouse at the moment. Tooth's motherly instincts emerged but she held them back, resisting the urge to gather the kids into the arms and hold them.

"I'll go get authorities." North said from his position behind Tooth.

The Guardian of Memories had not even realized he and Bunnymund had come into the compartment with her. The large man retreated up the ladder with an agility that was contrary to his size. The children did not watch him as he went, nor did they notice the large Pooka that glowered down at the unconscious shopkeeper with a murderous expression on his face.

"Who are you?" one of the boys whimpered, looking at Tooth.

"Don't talk to her!" another boy snapped. "She might be the buyer."

Tooth felt the uncharacteristically violent urge to kick the unconscious shopkeeper again, but refrained from showing her rage. She would not—and never would— regret attacking the human. It was obvious what the man had been intending to do. He was going to ship off the children and sell them. Children. The Guardian took a breath, flattening her feathers, and knelt so she was closer to the height of the wary kids.

"I'm not a buyer." She spat the word with all the venom she felt towards it. "My name is Tooth. I heard you guys were in trouble so I came to help."

"Don't believe her." The one girl of the group said, sharp eyes never leaving Tooth. "The mean-guy said this room was soundproof. She couldn't have heard us."

"I have good hearing and this ba— ...idiot kept the trapdoor open." Tooth told them calmly, even as her heart was shredded into pieces.

She could not break down, cry, or do anything to scare the kids. She had to be a calm and controlled figure they could trust. The Fairy studied the girl carefully, just enough to take in her features. Tooth took a gamble and spoke.

"Are you Moda?" she asked the girl.

The child perked up instantly, before retreating again, slight suspicion on her face. "You know my name?"

"Yes, I talked with your dad. He told me about you. You like to make plays." Tooth said, hoping to give the girl a reason to trust her.

Moda's expression cleared. "You're here to save us!"

To Tooth's relief, it was not a question. Immediately, the four children crowded around her, clinging to the Guardian tightly. One cried against her side, one asked if he could go home now, and the last boy kept commenting how pretty her feathers were. Moda was silent, though she gripped Tooth's hand so hard the Fairy felt her fingers go numb. She did not pull or away or complain.

"It's all right." Tooth soothed. "You're safe now."

One of the kids gasped, eyes going wide as he looked over Tooth's shoulder. The Guardian spun, swords unsheathed, but paused when she only spotted an equally-alert Bunny.

"There's a bunny!" the smallest boy said excitedly. "Look!"

He dove past Moda and the older boy's protective arms, halting before the stunned Pooka and staring up at him with a wide grin.

"Hi Mister Bunny!" he chirped.

The Guardian of Hope slowly knelt so he no longer towered over the kid, giving him a soft smile. "Hello there, anklebiter. Seems you got yerself in a bit of trouble."

The kid was completely unsurprised by Bunny's ability to talk. He nodded rapidly. "Uh huh. But the feather-lady saved us and you're here now too so it's okay. You look soft. Can I hug you?"

Bunny hesitated, surprised by his forwardness, then nodded obligingly. The boy squealed and hugged the Pooka tightly, pressing his cheek against Bunny's furry chest.

"Soft." He whispered happily.

The other boys crept towards the Pooka and asked to touch him as well, while Moda lingered at Tooth's side, keeping her unbreakable hold on the Fairy's hand. Now that the adrenaline had faded, the Guardian of Memories had time to realize what she had just done.

I attacked a human. One that wasn't allied with Pitch, she thought. Spirits aren't allowed to hurt humans like that.

Tooth found that she could not regret it, broken laws or not. She would do the same thing over again in a heartbeat. She was a Guardian of Children, on Earth and any world, and she would rather lose that title then allow kids to be hurt while she could prevent it.

I hate that rule, the one that says we cannot harm humans even if they are hurting children. I know the origin of that rule now thanks to Manny, and I understand the reason for it, but I refuse to sit by and do nothing while a child is in danger in front of me. Moda abruptly clung to Tooth's side, and the Fairy exhaled slowly, petting her dirty hair. Besides, the only way they will know about this is if one of us tells them. I just need to remember to never go too far.

She purposely did not think about Earth and all the children she could not help— all the adults she could not stop. For right now Tooth was able to help and stop a small evil in the world, and that was all that mattered.

There was the sound of many footsteps above them. Faces appeared in the opening of the trapdoor, including a relieved North's. Tooth recognized one of the people among the group, and so did the little girl that clung to her.

"Daddy!"

The man ignored the other's protests and clambered down the ladder, taking Moda into his arms. He tried to say something, either to her or Tooth, but instead burst into tears, sobbing loudly as he rocked his daughter back and forth. Soon enough other people climbed into the compartment, with one of the boys running into the arms of a teary-eyed woman.

The littlest and suspicious boy lingered near Bunny, who stayed invisible to the crowd. The older child looked nervous, while the younger stared around hopefully. The Pooka placed a paw on the elder boy's head, making the kid look up at him.

"Don't worry, anklebiter. None of 'em will get near you unless you know them."

The kid relaxed.

"How about we all get out of here?" one of the men who climbed down said, not hearing or seeing the large rabbit in their midst.

Moda was lifted by her father, and the one boy by the woman that was likely his mom. Tooth offered open arms to the youngest boy, who leaped into them with a giggle. She paused, hesitated, and looked at Bunny and the last child.

"How about you carry him?"

The Pooka stared at her in confusion before his emerald eyes widened slightly.

He glanced at the kid. "Whaddya think, kiddo?"

"…Okay." The boy said.

The adults blinked as the kid levitated, but then their expressions cleared. They did not yelp, or question why a large rabbit had appeared in front of them, instead addressing the Pooka as if he had always been there.

"Mister Mink." One man said. "I apologize. I did not see you there."

Bunny's ears twitched, and he forced his expression to stop mimicking that of a startled deer. "No worries. Let's just get these anklebiters home."

Apparently North had been less than subtle in getting help— not that Tooth could blame him since he needed to work to get people's attention in the first place— because a crowd had gathered outside the store. Many faces were pinched with concern, but when the rescuers emerged with the children, they transformed into expressions of shock and joy. Five people broke from the crowd and the boys in Tooth and Bunny's arms wiggled out of their grasps and raced to meet them. The suspicious boy was surrounded by a woman, man, and two other boys. The smallest child was scooped up by another man he resembled greatly.

"Daddy! Daddy! There's a big bunny! Do you see it?" the youngest boy asked, pointing frantically at the Pooka.

The father frowned, squinting at the group that emerged from the store, and eventually his expression cleared. He smiled apologetically at Bunnymund.

"I believe he's a Mink." He told his son. "I don't know if he likes being called a—"

"Bunny." The boy insisted.

The man sighed, but relented with a soft grin. "Bunny. Of course."

Tooth was distracted by the police— or whatever substituted for police in this world— dragging the unconscious shopkeeper out of the store. More than one look of utter loathing was thrown in his direction, the reason for his arrest blatantly obvious to even those who were unaware of the situation.

One of the officials went to the Guardians and asked a few questions, most of which they answered readily and truthfully. The only thing they kept out was North's theft being the reason Tooth went into the store. Instead, she had been intending to ask a question about the cloak. The Guardian of Memories felt uncomfortable with the lie, but knew better than to trust the villagers to just let it go.

At least they did not seem to know about her bounty.

After the men wandered off to question a couple of the children, Moda's father went to Tooth and clasped her hands with both of his own, startling the Fairy. The little girl stuck to his side and smiled up at her.

"Thank you." Moda's father gasped. "I can't believe you found my daughter. You rescued her. Thank you."

"I didn't intend to." Tooth admitted uncomfortably, stunned by his gratitude. "It was purely an accident."

"Maybe, but still. You found Moda. You found my daughter." The man looked close to tears again. "I can't believe she was here this whole time with that bastard—" He paused, looking down at his child. "Don't say that word around your mother." As Moda blinked in confusion, his gaze returned to Tooth. "If you hadn't been here, she would have been… gone."

His arms tightened around his daughter, but she did not complain. Tooth's mood darkened slightly at the reminder. She knew this kind of thing happened back on Earth, but to see it nearly playing out right in front of her… Adults truly could be cruel, selfish creatures.

"The shopkeeper probably used Jack Frost's appearance as a cover so that he could take the kids and make it seem like Frost was the one who kidnapped them." Tooth guessed.

The man grimaced and held Moda close. "Perhaps. I never thought something like this would happen to us. We moved here three years ago because we thought this island would be safe. It's under Whitebeard's protection, you know."

"Of course." Tooth said even though she really did not know what that entailed.

They both were surprised by the sniffle that came from Moda. The Fairy and man looked at the girl, who stared back at them with tears in her eyes. Moda abruptly buried her head in her father's leg, clinging to his pants. Her father's expression shifted into a look of horror, then regret.

"I shouldn't have mentioned…" He trailed off and stroked his weeping daughter's hair before leaning forward and speaking lowly to Tooth. "Moda always gets upset whenever I mention us moving. She's not sad about the change itself but the reason we moved. I don't know if you remember, but a few years ago Portgas D. Ace was murdered by the Marines. Moda met him shortly before that and saw him as a friend."

Tooth stared at the man wordlessly, mind going blank.

The man continued, not noticing her expression. "We used to work on a Marine base— her mother and I were chefs. Moda was a milk maid. After Portgas was killed, Moda was distraught. Back then the papers and the Marines we worked with said Portgas deserved it, and… many other horrible things." He met her eyes, visage conveying a heavy sadness. "We knew better. Moda knew better. But it was dangerous for a child to believe the son of Gol D. Roger was a good person, and Moda got more and more upset every time they dragged Portgas' name through the mud so… we moved to this island."

The Guardian of Memories was still speechless, even as her heart constricted with empathy— and slight fury.

Moda's father finally realized who he was talking to and chuckled awkwardly. "I'm sorry. I'm sure you don't care to hear our life story. I was just… reminiscing." His strained laughter faded into a soft sigh. "Memories are quite powerful, aren't they?"

"Yes." Tooth whispered. "They are."

She looked at Moda, who kept her face buried in her father's side. The Guardian was shocked that the little girl had known Ace when he was human. Out of all the children Tooth could have saved, it was one who had a connection to the Spirit she was seeking. It was amazing and impossible, but sometimes the world worked strangely like that.

"I… knew Ace." Tooth told the father slowly. "Could I talk to Moda for a moment?"

The man hesitated, then nodded, kneeling down and murmuring lowly to his daughter. Moda rubbed at her eyes and nodded, and her father retreated a short distance, keeping a watchful eye as he spoke with one of the men North had gathered. The Guardian knelt before the little girl, who peered at the feathery Fairy with red-rimmed eyes.

"Thank you for being Ace's friend." She said softly. "I'm sure he is glad to have known someone as brave as you."

The little girl mashed her hand across her face again, obviously trying to hide her tears, and mumbled under her breath. "Wrong tense."

Tooth blinked. "I'm sorry?"

"Mama says you're supposed to use 'was' for the past." Moda informed her, not looking proud of her knowledge.

She looked so small and sad, and the Guardian of Memories had to wonder what she had seen or heard to make her so upset so long after Ace's death. What terrible things had been said about the person this child looked up to as a friend? Tooth hesitated for a second and took a risk, for no other reason than wanting to see the girl smile again.

"Your mom is right, but I did use the correct word. Have you… ever heard of a Guardian?"

Moda looked confused by the question and shook her head. "What's that?"

"A Guardian can be many things, but the kind I am talking about is a special person who protects children like you." Tooth began. "They are the Spirits of brave warriors who defend the children of the world from evil."

"Evil like that mean man?" the girl questioned.

From now on, yes. "Yes. Let me tell you a secret." Tooth whispered. "When Ace died, he became a Spirit, a Guardian." She winked. "Like me."

Moda's eyes went wide. "Really?"

"Really. Hiken D. Ace is the Spirit of Summer now." Tooth told her. "His main job is to bring summer to the world, but he will always defend those that need him. Just like I came to help you."

"So the Marines didn't beat him?" Moda asked. "He's free?"

"He's free." Tooth agreed solemnly. "And you might even see him again someday."

The girl stared at her wordlessly, eyes round. Slowly, a smile crossed her face. "Ace was really nice. He helped me find mom and dad." The grin vanished. "After he died, the Marines said really mean things about him. They kept saying how he died for nothing and in a cage."

"Ace selflessly gave his life for his brother." The Fairy said firmly. "He is a Nature Spirit now. He'll never be caged again."

"I'm glad." Moda said happily, eyes shining.

Her father returned, scooping up his daughter in his arms. "We have to go to the hospital with the other kids, Moda. Your mom is going to meet us there. She's so happy you're all right."

"Okay." The girl said, clinging to her father's back. "Bye Tooth!"

The Guardian of Memories waved as the man and his daughter retreated with the other parents. It was only after they were out of sight that she realized she had never learned the man's name. Bunny and North returned to her sides, with the Pooka looking away suspiciously as his nose twitched. His ears flattened abruptly and Tooth followed his gaze. Her own eyes narrowed.

The shopkeeper was conscious and thrashing in his arrestors' holds. They ignored his struggles and dragged him away, faces set in stone as they carried him to jail. The Guardian of Memories hoped he would be there a very long time.

"Sometimes I forget what evils humans are capable of." Tooth whispered.

Bunny stayed silent for a long time. "Yeah. It's true that humans can be right-old ratbags. They're selfish and petty and destroy without a care for anyone except themselves. But not all of them are like that. There are lots of good people in the world; here and on Earth. They are worth defending, worth protecting. When we fight, it's for them."

Tooth looked up at the sunny sky, closing her eyes and pretending for a moment that she was home on Earth at nighttime, beneath Manny's gentle light instead. She thought of the children's joyful eyes as they were freed, thought of the parent's relieved smiles as they were reunited with their little ones, thought of Moda's happiness when she was told about Ace. Bunny was right. Those were the people they guarded. They were the reason they faced threats like Pitch.

"I know."

She would never forget.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Law was gone.

Law was not at the back of the group.

It took Sanji a moment to realize this fact, but the surgeon was no longer there.

The cook had only looked behind him by chance, almost spinning around in circles as he scoured the area for Nightmares and looked over his dear Nami-swan. As eager as he was to always show up the Marimo and impress the navigator, he was actually pleased when he did not see any enemies. On the other hand was decidedly unhappy when he did not spot Law.

Sanji halted, causing his companions to do the same and follow his gaze. Usopp gasped loudly, only for Nami to silence him, but all of the pirates stared at the surgeon's empty place with shock.

"Shit. How long has he been missing?" Zoro hissed.

"Traffy wouldn't leave us." Luffy said with complete faith in his friend.

"That's not what I was saying." The swordsman said, eyes darting around warily. "If Law is gone, Pitch likely knows we are here."

Usopp looked terrified. "M-Maybe Law found another spot to switch to and went without telling us?" He offered weakly.

"I'm afraid not." A silky voice said. "I just decided to remove that pesky teleporter before he could cause trouble again."

The Straw Hats spun around, with Zoro drawing his swords. A grey-skinned, black-haired 'man' that could only be Pitch Black peeled away from the shadows, smiling pleasantly at the pirates. The Straw Hats crowded together, with Sanji taking the initiative to watch their six as his friends all eyed the Spirit of Fear.

The Nightmare King's yellow eyes drifted over each of them, lingering on Nami, Chopper, and Usopp for longer than the Monster Trio. His gaze was not sadistic, annoyed, or disappointed, but almost amused. The sniper, navigator, and doctor shook visibly, eyes round with terror, and the Nightmare King's grin expanded, showing teeth.

"Aren't you going to introduce me to your friends, Luffy? You went through all that trouble just to bring them to my home…"

The Straw Hat Captain glared at the Spirit of Fear. "Where's Law?"

Pitch hummed vaguely, tapping his chin. "So impatient. Don't worry, the teleporter isn't dead. I have him kept somewhere safe for a little while, just until I'm finished with you." He chuckled. "It's rather funny. You came here to save someone, but instead now you've lost someone else. How counterproductive."

Luffy's fist clenched at his side. Before he could attack, a horde of Nightmares and Fearlings formed from the shadows, lingering at the walls and on the walkways as they stared intently at the pirates. Nami began to hyperventilate, her breathing loud and sharp from where she stood beside Sanji. The cook moved closer to the navigator, deadly serious as he studied the gathered creatures. It would be easier to count places where there weren't any foes than trying to guess the number of enemies surrounding them.

Luffy remained unafraid. "We came to save Ace, and we'll save Law too. You won't stop us."

"Of course that's your reason for returning." Pitch shook his head. "But I'm afraid you're too late. Your brother is dead. I killed him."

The Spirit of Fear said the words so casually that for a moment, they could not register in Sanji's mind. His thoughts went blank, and he stared dumbly at Pitch, unable to comprehend his claim. The cook's gaze went to his Captain, who was looking at the Nightmare King with open, childlike bewilderment. Something unpleasant settled in Sanji's stomach.

"It was an accident, I swear." Pitch said, hands raised. "You see, I was so angry that you escaped me when I worked so hard to get you here. Your brother actually had the nerve to laugh at me about it. I didn't appreciate that…" Cruel black eyes met Luffy's. "…so I took the opportunity to torture him to death."

It can't be true, Sanji thought. It can't be. If it is—

"You're lying." Luffy whispered, just loud enough for Sanji to hear.

The Straw Hat Pirate was deathly pale, eyes not moving from the Nightmare King for a second. It was as if Luffy had forgotten his friends and the Spirit's minions were there, everything falling out of his awareness except himself and Pitch. Sanji did not forget, and prepared for a wave of enemies to strike.

Pitch smiled nostalgically. "You should have seen him writhe. He lost his voice pretty quickly, but I could see the agony on his face. His last death was merciful and painless compared to what I did to him."

— If it is, that means we came here for nothing. Worse than that, it means Luffy lost his brother again.

"You're lying!" Luffy repeated, louder this time.

"Poor Ace was so broken towards the end that he kept thinking you were the one tormenting him." Pitch told him. "I may have cast a little illusion or two to convince Ace of course, but it was oh so amusing to see him try to apologize to his dear little brother when he was choking on his own blood and could not even scream."

We left Ace behind. We were right here, on the island. We could have saved him, but we left him behind. If he really is dead…

…will Luffy ever forgive himself?

"Stop lying! Ace isn't dead!" Luffy shouted, lunging for the Nightmare King.

Pitch easily avoided his attack, smirking and blocking Sanji and Zoro's following strikes with an ease that the cook despised. In a snap Luffy found himself subdued by tendrils of black, the stuff crawling over his body and preventing him from stretching his limbs. Sanji cursed and tried to get the shadows— or was it sand?— off of his captain, only for more to wrap around his legs, holding him in place.

Nami, Chopper, and Usopp gave terrified screams as they too were caught, their cries of panic cruelly audible in the quiet cave. Angry bellows told Sanji that Zoro had been trapped as well, the Nightmare King snaring them all like flies in a spider's web. Pitch grinned at the pirates, eyes gleaming with a mad light.

"You humans truly are foolish. You have no idea what you are up against, and yet you still try to fight me. You should know better…" His gaze settled on Usopp, who quivered in absolute terror. "…especially when half your group is comprised of cowards who fear death. Did I not tell you? I am the Spirit of Fear, and fear gives me power."

We messed up, Sanji slowly realized, even as he struggled to escape the sand's unyielding grip. We messed up really bad.

They knew Pitch was strong. They knew his powers had something to do with fear. They knew he had Ace.

They did not consider he might be powered by fear. They did not consider the Nightmare King somehow anticipatingtheir return.

They did not consider he might have killed Ace before they came to rescue him.

"But why should I just gloat about poor Ace's demise, when I can just show you?" Pitch crooned.

And then the Straw Hat Pirates were in hell.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Ace ran.

He could not stop himself from fleeing as Not-Marco lunged for him, his nails scraping the fire-user's back as he hastily retreated out of the man's reach. The Phoenix gave an angry bellow as Ace got further from him, darting between confused Whitebeard Pirates as he tried to escape.

Not escape exactly, but find a place to sit down long enough to fall 'asleep'. Ace knew this was a nightmare. Real-Marco would not hurt him. Real-Marco would not yell at him. Real-Marco would not tell him he should die like the Not-Marco had just done. He had to get out and find the real Phoenix. He just needed time.

Ace made it to the Moby Dick's deck, spinning in a circle as he searched for a place to hide. He paused for too long and Not-Marco tackled him from behind, pinning him down with his hands behind his back. The fire-user hesitated, then struggled in Not-Marco's hold, unwilling to face the Phoenix's torment again.

He immediately regretted his decision to fight when Not-Marco grabbed him by his hair, lifting his head before slamming it into the deck. He repeated the move five more times despite Ace's lack of continued resistance, splitting the skin on the fire-user's forehead as it connected with the wood. Ace made himself go limp and still, blinking blood out of his eyes.

Not real. It's not Marco. Ride it out.

"Coward." Not-Marco spat. "I'd expect nothing more from that demon's son."

Ace tried not to listen to his taunts, but it was difficult when the Phoenix was literally on top of him. He had heard the insults many times before but they still stung, even though the fire-user was mostly certain the real Marco did not think those things about him.

None of the other 'Whitebeard Pirates' milling around the deck tried to help Ace. They never did. He was used to it. He never had any allies in the nightmares anymore. They watched with apathy— or joy— as Not-Marco dragged the unresisting fire-user to the side of the ship, bending him over the railing.

Ace watched droplets of blood fall into the ocean below, wincing slightly as the wood dug into his stomach. The First Division Commander kept one hand on the back of the fire-user's neck and the other on his thigh, balancing him precariously on the railing. All the Phoenix had to do was push up on one of the Summer Spirit's legs and he would plummet headfirst over the side.

It was a move Ace vaguely recognized Marco using in battle against certain foes, though now he mostly identified it as just another technique the Commander commonly used to get rid of the fire-user. This would not be the first time he had thrown Ace into the sea.

"See how much they care for you?" Not-Marco mocked. "None of them want to help you. None of them came to save you. We all moved on after you died, we all healed after you abandoned us, and yet you insist on trying to come back into our lives. You're a selfish, vile monster, and you should have just stayed dead."

Not-Marco's hand lifted and Ace fell, hitting the water with a painful splash.

The icy water went over his head and he floundered for a panicked moment before remembering it was all a dream. The ocean was quick to sap the strength from his muscles, coldness creeping into his flesh and making his struggles slow and lethargic.

The fire-user literally gulped in a mouthful of seawater, then breathed in, allowing the liquid to fill his lungs. It was quicker this way, though not much less painful. Ace quickly went from lightheaded to drowning, the already dark ocean bleeding into a numb black.

He woke up holding the body of a Not-Luffy, with Akainu standing above them both. The corpse of his not-brother turned to look at Ace with accusing, dead eyes, silently blaming the fire-user for his demise. He barely had time to feel guilty before the Admiral's hand ignited, turning from flesh to deadly magma.

Ace shut his eyes and hardly flinched as the man's fist went through his torso. The fire-user held onto his not-brother as he slumped over, suffering silently as the injury took his life. He was certain it took longer to die this time than it had in real life, but eventually the blood and burnt flesh faded and he woke to the unspectacular view of the infirmary's plain ceiling.

He quickly re-shut his eyes and slowed his breathing, listening to the world around him. He heard Possibly-Marco speaking with Possibly-Bay, and strained his ears in an attempt to listen in on their conversation.

"—tell him. He has the right to know, yoi." Maybe-Marco was saying.

"Ace is under enough stress as it is. This might destroy him." Maybe-Bay replied.

There was the sound of approaching footsteps, and the click of a shutting door. When the Phoenix spoke again, his voice was much closer than before.

"Ace is stronger than you think. He can handle it. He has to, yoi." Ace felt eyes on him, and Might-Be-Marco sighed. "If he would just wake up…"

Ace slowly opened his eyes, turning to look at the Phoenix. His expression shifted from melancholic to shocked, before he gave the fire-user a relieved smile.

"You're awake? How much did you hear?"

The fire-user blinked at him, feeling incredibly uncertain. Maybe-Marco had not mentioned reality right away like he promised, but Ace could not shake the worry that the Phoenix would forget to assure him he was awake. The First Division Commander had a lot on his mind and he was not infallible. He also might not realize how important it was to Ace that he confirms reality.

It was that thought that kept Ace from going back to sleep right then and there. He spotted his notebook on the tabletop, but before he could reach for it, Possibly-Marco sat on the edge of his bed and spoke.

"I have your brother."

Ace stilled, staring at the Phoenix in confusion. The blond pirate smiled, and the grin was all wrong, sharp and shark-like with too many teeth. His eyes flashed from cerulean to a cold yellow, almost too quickly for the fire-user to spot it. But see it he did, and horror was quick to grasp Ace in its claws.

"I have your brother, Ace." Not-Marco said silkily. "I did not even have to look for him. He came right back to me with the intent to rescue you. Such a pity. I really wanted you to be there in person when I killed him. But I know better than to wait."

Not-Marco flickered, a familiar black and grey figure momentarily overtaking his form, and Ace's gaze snapped to Not-Bay, who had vanished from the room. It was in that instant that the fire-user realized who was speaking, and the implications of his message hit Ace with the force of one of Whitebeard's blows.

Pitch was in the nightmare. Pitch was speaking to him. If what he claimed was true, Pitch had Luffy.

A part of Ace reminded him that he was in a nightmare, and thus all of this was an illusion, but his instincts screamed at him that something was very wrong. Beyond that his brain refused to work, his mind too detached from his body to even consider a physical reaction to the panic that was trying and failing to rise in his chest.

It can't be true. It can't be true. It can't be true.

It was telling that he thought that, instead of his mind claiming it was not real.

"It's a shame you won't get to see him die." Pitch mocked. "I'm having enough trouble contacting you as it is. Your nightmares are so strong that even I can barely interrupt them." He paused, tipping his head in consideration. "I suppose I could swing by the Moby Dick and retrieve you, but you'd still sleep through it all anyway and would miss out on the fun. Oh well. When I get the chance, I promise I'll show you how your dear little brother died. Maybe I'll even bring you his body."

Pitch smirked sadistically. "I think I have a little scenario to keep you preoccupied for a while. Just sit tight and stay asleep until I come for you, would you?"

Ace leapt out of bed without a plan, lunging for Pitch— to attack in fury, to promise vengeance, or to beg for Luffy's life he did not know— but the Nightmare King departed before he could reach him. Instead the fire-user slammed into Not-Marco, whose calm expression shifted into one of pure rage.

The Phoenix backhanded Ace, sending him to the floor, but before the fire-user could think to get up, the man's foot slammed into the downed Spirit's temple. As blackness crept into his vision for the millionth time, Ace readily accepted it, praying that he would truly wake this time.

Pitch has Luffy. Pitch has my brother. I have to wake up. I have to save him!

Ace had wrongfully believed that he was past the point of feeling such unadulterated terror. This was not the first time the fire-user had been told Luffy was in danger. It was certainly not the first time he had been informed of his brother's coming demise. But it was the first time Pitch was the one to come to him and say he had Luffy and was planning on ending his life.

One thing Ace could count on was that the more unique a 'nightmare' was in recent loops, the more likely it was to not be a nightmare at all. Another thing he discovered and could believe to be true was that the Spirit of Fear that haunted some of his nightmares was always real. Why create a fake Nightmare King to mock and manipulate the Summer Spirit when the real thing could do so much better?

Pitch lied and manipulated unless the truth hurt more, and what was more terrifying than the thought of Luffy in the hands of the Nightmare King? Unless Pitch— or the sand— had been holding onto this specific nightmare for all this time, the Nightmare King had his brother. Ace had to save him, rescue him, because why would Pitch claim such a thing if it wasn't true—

Not-Marco's foot met his skull again, making his head slam into the wood… and Ace jerked awake in the middle of a snowstorm with no memory of the previous dream, wondering why he was so afraid.

ROTGOPROTGOP

Dark.

So dark.

Everything was dark.

Senses abandoned Law and he floundered hopelessly in the void, blackness covering his vision as if he had been dragged into an ocean made of shadows. He could have been falling or flying or spinning in place for all he knew, but there was no such thing as direction in the darkness. His hands groped desperately, his eyes saw nothing, and when his mouth opened no sound came out, or at least he could not hear himself scream. He was without senses but could feel, in his body but unable to move, aware but trapped in a cage he could not begin to comprehend.

Law felt like he was floating, plummeting, choking, flying, drowning. He became gradually aware of how cold it was becoming, so cold that he was surprised when his breath did not fog the air in front of him. Was there even air here? Was he even breathing?

The shadows seemed to creep into his bones, caressing him with the gentleness of a mother's touch, and surgeon stilled, drifting listlessly as his eyes fluttered. They might not be open anymore, or never were in the first place. Law could not tell, his mind detaching from his body and leaving him untethered in the abyss. The feeling reminded him of what he felt before the black sand put him to sleep, but a thousand times more potent. Rather than feel afraid, Law was distantly confused.

Am I dying?

The thought may have scared someone else, but in the surgeon it caused another emotion flicker to life. It was not quite desperation, anger, outrage, or regret, lingering somewhere between all of those emotions while not really being an emotion itself. In its core it was merely a fierce, powerful need to escape. It was almost like stubborn indignation.

Law knew this darkness was trying to trap him. He knew it was trying to sedate and tame him as it held him for unknown purposes. The surgeon was not going to lay there and wait as the darkness either stripped away his life or released him at the whim of its controller. He had things to do. He had people to live for. He had survived so much. He was not about to let a Blackbeard-wannabee take all that away.

Room!

Law could not see the sphere, but he felt it. He was still blinded, but could feel his body, clothes, and weapon again, his Room bringing back his awareness of himself even if the void remained empty. He unsheathed the nodachi he could sense at his shoulder and swung with the fury of a raging storm, letting loose an attack without a target in mind, just acting upon the primal desire to get out.

The darkness rippled and shattered.

The surgeon slammed into the ground, gasping and coughing as he blinked white spots out of his eyes. Law's vision eventually cleared, and he saw he was back in Pitch's lair, on one of the upper walkways. The shadowy cave looked like daylight when compared to the darkness he had just escaped, and he could see nearly everything around him.

Law pushed himself up and onto his feet, wheezing slightly as he took in gulps of comparatively fresh air. He wiped at his brow and looked up, realizing he was up near the cages that hung from the ceiling of the lair. They creaked lowly despite the lack of wind, unaccompanied by any other sounds, and the surgeon frowned to himself.

I've been separated from the others. Did Pitch know about our plan? I need to get back to them.

He had barely gone a step before he heard… something.

The surgeon paused, listening intently. Among the creaking and groaning of the cages, he heard it again. A… squeak? Law stared up at the cages once more, sharp grey eyes staring at the jagged metal constructs. He could not see anything, but he swore he heard a noise from one of them. The surgeon hesitated, and summoned a room.

"Room."

The blue sphere expanded, and Law became aware of everything within it. He could feel the cages up above, the Nightmares down below, the walkway beneath his feet… and a small something inside one of the cages. Blaming Luffy for his newfound curiosity, the surgeon summoned the small thing to his hand, and found himself holding a tiny turquoise creature.

It almost looked like a hummingbird, though it was rather humanoid in shape, with bright greenish-blue feathers that the surgeon had still been unable to spot among the greys and blacks of the lair. Law mentally decided that the little thing was a girl, though he had no basis for his assumption. She was smaller than his hand, nestling snugly in his palm with room to spare, and she was so light that he barely felt her there.

Blue and purple eyes opened and peered at the man, and the tiny creature gave a warbling squeak that was almost relieved. Her eyes snapped to the left and she gave a warning chirp. Law sensed the Nightmares coming and dove into a doorway, staying hidden behind it and letting the creatures pass. The man was uncertain if they were aware of his position, and did not want the source of the endless darkness to find and target him again.

He and the fairy— She did look like a type of fairy so that was what the surgeon was going to call her— waited with bated breath as the Nightmares flew by, unaware of the escapees. Once the monsters vanished around the corner, the fairy looked up at him with adoring eyes.

What…?

To his further surprise, she clung to his thumb, nuzzling into his hand happily as she gave a small chirp. Based on her actions, she seemed to trust him already, not scared in the slightest while being held by a human that could easily crush her with his fist alone.

Law felt distinctly uncomfortable with her obvious and sudden attachment to him. People did not look at and trust him. They backed off, studied at him skeptically, and thought he was creepy. They did not hug the only part of him that they could while chirping joyfully at him. Was she just relieved he had freed her from the cage and was grateful to her savior? He cleared his throat, and the little fairy looked up at him. She squeaked and chittered, while the man stared back in bewilderment.

She's clearly intelligent, he deduced. But she seems to be unable to speak in my language. Could she be a new type of Mink, or another creature from the New World I haven't heard of?

"Are you all right?" he asked curiously.

She stopped chattering and nodded.

So she can understand me, but cannot speak my tongue. Regardless, if Pitch had her captive here, he must want her for something. A grin flashed across his face. The more I can inconvenience Pitch, the happier I'll be.

The fairy tapped on his palm, and pointed at herself, then her teeth.

Law's brow furrowed. "Are you hungry?" He said, feeling foolish for talking to the adorable— No, not adorable. He did not think things were adorable!— fairy.

She shook her head before he could worry about what fairies could eat. She pointed at her teeth again.

"Tooth?"

She nodded, then put her hands close together, indicating something small.

"Mini? Small? Tiny?"

No. The fairy hesitated, sighed, and put her thumb in her mouth, obviously trying to convey something. Law raised an eyebrow and then understood what she was trying to do.

"Baby Tooth? Is that your name?"

She clapped happily, hugging his thumb again and giving a joyful squeak.

The surgeon smiled a little. "I'm Law. I did not know you were being kept prisoner by Pitch, but I suppose you can stay with me while we get out of here."

Baby Tooth gave an affirmative squeak, before following up with a long stream of chirping. Her tone suggested a question, and Law randomly guessed she was wondering why he was in the lair.

"A crew I am allied with and I are on a rescue mission. The Captain's brother— Ace-ya — is being kept here and—"

The fairy pulled at his thumb urgently, letting out warbling chirps. When she saw she had his attention, she shook her head, blinking rapidly. Closer inspection revealed she was holding back tears.

Did I say something wrong? Is she afraid? Wait, she was a prisoner and so is Ace. Could she possibly know… Law paused, careful not to let his fingers clench.

"Do you know Ace-ya?" he asked softly.

The fairy sniffled, nodding. Law's heart sank. He could easily think of a reason for her reaction.

Don't jump to conclusions.

"Is Ace-ya still here?" he asked.

His horror grew when Baby Tooth shook her head again, still fighting back tears. The final question stuck in his throat, accompanied by another emotion he did not understand. It might be grief, but he should not feel such a thing if Fire Fist had been killed. True, it meant that their mission to save Luffy's brother was all for nothing but…

…Or maybe it was because he was Luffy's brother. Law remembered his grief and sorrow when he lost Lami, but cut off that line of thought before he could consider what it would be like to have to go through that pain twice.

Compassion. Empathy. That's what you're feeling, his mind informed his coolly. 'Just allies', huh?

Law ignored it and finally got the question out. "Is Ace-ya dead?"

Baby Tooth shrugged helplessly. The surgeon thought about that, the different possibilities running through his mind. The fairy was certain that Fire Fist was not in this lair. She was uncertain whether he was alive or not. That meant, no matter what—

Law froze as her answer to his second question fully rendered. Ace was not in the lair. He was not here. He might be dead— again. That meant that the Straw Hats and he were here for nothing.

And the person they were relying on to quickly escape the Nightmare King had been separated from them.

Law placed a confused Baby Tooth on his shoulder and took off running with the fairy clinging to his coat, resisting the urge to shout for the Straw Hats or attempt to teleport around the lair looking for them. He would need as much energy as possible for when they had to face Pitch and escape.

Pitch had to know we were coming. He knew what my powers could do. He planned for our return. He set up a trap without risk to himself because Ace is not actually here, and we walked right into it.

He hoped he would make it in time.

Chapter Text

Ace stumbled through the thickening snow, shivering as the harsh flakes and icy wind bit at his skin. He could barely feel his fingers and toes, his once-tan flesh now an unhealthy mix of purples and blues. His eyelashes were stuck together and covered with frost, each blink painful and slow as the ice stung his eyes. He braced against the wind, feeling it pull his snow-covered hair away and back into his aching face, each smack feeling like a strike from a whip.

The blizzard was not kind. The snow was not soft. The cold was not pleasant. The cursed blood in Ace's veins did nothing to bar the chill from his muscles and bones, allowing the frigidness of the world around him to sink into his body with the brutality of an animal's claws. It left him pale and shaking, muscles spasming almost too violently for him to remain upright, and yet he could not fall to the storm. It was not a matter of determination or will. The Summer Spirit literally could not fall.

Ace knew this was not real. He knew this was a nightmare. And yet this vision refused to let him go. He had been alone in the blizzard for more than a month now by his vague count, and yet he somehow had not died yet. The fire-user was uncertain whether the sand had somehow smartened up to him 'falling asleep' or 'dying' in order to move to a new nightmare, or if another factor was at play but no matter how much he relaxed and how harshly the blizzard wore on him, the fire-user would not pass out.

He lingered, freezing, conscious, and in agony in a world of bitter white that had no end.

And so with nothing better to do, the Summer Spirit walked. His skin was more blue than flesh-colored at this point and his fire powers were nonexistent in this nightmare, leaving him with nothing to try to warm himself. Not for the first time, Ace wished he at least had a shirt, but even that small potential comfort was denied to him. The sand wanted him to suffer, and to keep suffering. Ironically, he did not wish for shoes, however. The idea of them just felt wrong.

Ace moved on aching, frostbit legs and feet through snowdrifts that went up to his knees, wincing and shuddering with every painful step as he journeyed through the empty wintery wasteland. Another gust of wind struck him and he stumbled back a couple steps, gasping lowly as the skin on his feet tore open again, the gathered ice filling the widened gashes with snow.

Despite his acknowledgement of this being fake, he felt cold, and afraid, and so very alone. There was no Marco, no Sabo, no Luffy, and no Jack to turn to here. There were not even any enemies to flee from or fight. There was no one but him, and the force of nature that beat ruthlessly at his weakening body but refused to let him die.

Ace tripped and fell to his hands and knees, releasing a wince as his palm split against the harsh snow. The smear of red became the only color in the endless expanse of white around him, and the fire-user watched it vanish as more snow buried the evidence of his wound. He could barely swallow, icy breath hardly moving past his blue lips, and he abruptly collapsed to the ground, unable to stay upright anymore.

The fire-user did not get up, letting the falling snow pile on top of him like a deadly, cold blanket. Would he finally die when it buried him, or would he be able to breathe beneath the crushing pounds of white, trapped and suffering for eternity as his immortal body refused to let him pass on?

Ace closed his eyes, body wracked by tremors and possibly sobs as the ice stabbed deeper into his veins. His tears turned to icicles on his cheeks, and the ice felt colder than even the black sand that was the source of this hell. His legs and arms were going numb and he realized he likely could not move again even if he wanted to.

The snow piled over him, blocking out the light grey sky, and Ace slowly began to hate the color white, despising it for taking over his world and stripping it of warmth and color. This was almost worse than the nightmares where the Summer Spirit was captured and experimented on. At least then he could usually rely on a nicked artery or deadly test to end the dream. Here Ace lingered, immortal and in pain, trapped in the element that was his greatest foe…

Ace's eyes snapped open. His cracking lips bled as he moved his mouth without uttering a sound. Misery and confusion faded away as fury took their place, and the fire-user's lips twisted into a painful snarl.

Don't… you… dare…

He finally comprehended what the black sand was trying to do. Ace was uncertain whether the poison was capable of such evolution or if his own mind was responsible for his situation, but he chose to focus on the enemy he could better fight and blame, directing his rage at the substance inside his skin.

For the first time in a long time, Ace was truly outraged, fully unrelentingly furious. He knew the sand was a manipulator like its master, taking his fears and tormenting him with them, but since he had been under its thrall for so long and knew how to identify reality, it now sought to add to his list of terrors.

You won't make me fear Jack. I'll  never  fear Jack!

Winter was Jack's season. Snow and ice were his elements. It was true that Ace feared being alone and the lengths of his own mysterious maybe-immortality, but it was obvious now why the sand was using those fears as an excuse to dump him in this wintery hell. It was trying condition him to see things associated with the last person he could fully trust as a threat, as something to mistrust and fear. Just like how it conditioned him to accept so many other terrible things.

Ace would never stop believing in Jack. And not just because he had promised.

Jack was his Guardian. Jack was his friend. Jack was his brother. And quite frankly… the whole fire versus ice cliché was bullshit.

The fire-user rolled onto his back, throwing a heap of snow off of his body. The cold still nipped at Ace, but it was more distant than before, either because of his newfound determination or because his body had finally given up on its failing sense of touch.

The black sand might be cold, but that did not make cold his enemy. The sand might feel like jagged ice, but that did not make ice something to hate.

Ace stared at the storm, shuddering but not cowed, then brushed his near-blackened fingers over the snow. It did not hurt anymore. He stayed laying down, ignoring the frigid wind and dangerous blizzard, and imagined Jack was at his side. Winter was Jack's to control. It was his Season.

It was meant for fun.

Ace moved his arms and legs back and forth, closing his eyes and imagining a snow angel carving its way into the snowbank. His numb lips may have smiled, and he abruptly felt a rush of warmth. In reality that meant he would be dying right then. But this was a dream. This was all a hallucination. So it was okay.

Besides, Jack would never hurt him.

The cold, the warmth, the pain, and the numbness all slipped away…

And Ace woke.

The infirmary was almost painfully hot in comparison to the blizzard he had been imprisoned in, the warmth so startling that for a second the fire-user thought he was burning alive. He gasped, causing his throat to ache, and sat up abruptly with eyes flipped wide open. There was a soft yelp and a crash next to him, but Ace ignored the source in favor of staring down at his body.

He was not on fire or freezing. He was not covered in burns or frostbite. He just had the usual black markings, the sight of which ironically relieved Ace and made him relax.

Ace glanced around the familiar infirmary, flame-colored eyes focusing on the one out of place thing in the room, and somehow a smile threatened to form on his face.

Maybe-Marco was sprawled on the floor in an undignified heap, a stunned look on his normally stoic face and an overturned chair beside him. The Phoenix looked so bewildered and outraged by his demeaning position that Ace felt the desire to laugh, though his usual nerves kept him from giving in to the urge.

Jack would find it funny, he mused.

And then Ace found himself laughing. He tried to, at least, and despite the ache his attempted chuckles caused in his throat, the fire-user smiled and his shoulders shook, letting out the mirth he felt at Maybe-Marco's situation. The possibility that he was stuck in another nightmare could not hold back his amusement, and he kept snickering even when the Phoenix shot him a glare.

The blond-haired pirate's expression softened abruptly and he let loose a small snort. "I'm glad you find my humiliation to be funny, yoi." He stood up and righted the chair before sitting on it and looking Ace in the eye. "This is real, Ace."

The tension Ace did not know he was feeling left his body, and his chuckles faded into a tired sigh. The black sand prodded at him and he mentally smacked it away, snarling internally. He took a moment to observe the very-real pirate. Marco looked a little less tired than before, though not by much. He was certainly less haggard, though the dark shadows under his eyes were still a permanent fixture on his face.

Ace felt a rush of gratefulness to the Phoenix. He despised his need for the man's presence as much as he appreciated it, wavering between a desire to not burden Marco and a desperate need for companionship. A memory, clear and uncorrupted among the distorted mess his 'past' had become, rose to the front of the fire-user's mind.

Ace glared at Jack with all the ferocity the tiny six year-old could muster. The Guardian was unbothered by his impressive glower, smirking like an idiot with his arms held out invitingly as he looked down at the short boy.

"Come on, Ace." The Spirit cooed. "It won't kill you."

"No." Ace said flatly.

Jack pouted. "Please? For me?"

"I said no." Ace spat, crossing his arms and holding back a wince. "Don't need a hug."

"You fell out of a tree and scraped up your arms." The Winter Spirit said. "It's tradition to receive bucket-loads of affection after getting an injury. That includes hugs."

"'s not that bad." Ace mumbled. He held up his bandaged arm. "You fixed it."

The Guardian held back a sigh. "Yeah… but I still want to give you a hug. It's part of the healing process. When a little bro is hurt, the big bro has to take care of and embrace him to make him feel better." Jack's flippant mood faded and he rose an eyebrow at the child. "You were fine with getting a hug from your bestest big brother a year ago." The Guardian's nose wrinkled with distaste. "And don't try to tell me you don't want one because you're 'growing up.'"

Ace continued to scowl, carefully hiding his insecurities behind an angry front.

A year ago, I didn't know I am the son of a demon, he thought self-loathingly. How can Jack still want to be around me when he knows what I am?

"Hugs are for babies." The boy claimed out loud. "I don't need any."

"Right." Jack was undeterred. "Humans need physical contact, and hugs can literally make you feel better. I read it in a book once."

Ace's eyes widened mockingly. "You can  read ?"

The Guardian opened his mouth to retort, closed it, and sighed. "I set myself up for that one." His eyes narrowed dangerously. "Fine. But my point still stands. You are a human child who deserves and needs affection for proper development, and I currently have an excuse to smother you. So come here and accept your fate."

Ace avoided Jack's amused— and searching— gaze, scuffing his foot on the ground and tracing lines in the dirt with his toes.

"'m not a human. 'm a monster." The child stated.

Something dark flashed across Jack's expression before it quickly vanished. He knelt before Ace, still not touching him, but kept his arms open invitingly.

"You are not a monster." The Guardian said fiercely. "Your father may not have been the greatest guy, but what he did has nothing to do with you. You are your own person, and you aren't guilty of any of his crimes. I know Dadan and Garp aren't the most… parental people, but you deserve to be loved, Ace. And you are getting a hug."

The Guardian wrapped his arms around the six year-old boy before he could protest. Jack's body was cold but somehow the embrace felt warm. His arms were firm around Ace's back, solid but not tight as they encased the child. His hoodie was soft and bore the slightest presence of frost as it pressed against Ace's cheek, and the boy found himself snuggling into the hug instead of pulling away. The Guardian smelled like snow and icy winds and woods and freedom.

Ace felt safe.

Ace felt secure.

Ace felt… loved.

His arms circled Jack without his permission, but he did not try to pull away. Ace wondered if a mother's hug might feel like this. If not for the embarrassment that accompanied the babyish thought, he might have teased Jack with it. The Guardian remained blissfully unaware of Ace comparing his actions to motherly instincts, humming softly as he held the child to him. After a long pause, the Winter Spirit spoke again.

"Feel better?"

Ace did not meet Jack's amused gaze, instead nodding into the Winter Spirit's stomach. The Guardian chuckled and gently placed a hand on the child's head, ruffling his black hair.

"Good. Now that wasn't so bad, was it?"

Ace did not respond. Jack already knew the answer anyway.

The warm memory was immediately followed by ones that were much less pleasant. His mind flashed back to the 'years' without a shoulder to lean on— specifically the past 'month' alone in the raging blizzard— and suddenly all of Ace's reservations fell away.

The fire-user reached out and gripped Marco's arm for a moment, then discarded his aversion to touch and pain and outright glomped the man. The Phoenix froze, unmoving as Ace grabbed him. Giving a name to the fire-user's disliking of contact did not help lessen its impact in the slightest. The Summer Spirit powered through the aches and queasiness caused by touch in order to cling to Marco desperately.

It did not feel okay but it also did, because to Ace it had been a 'month' since he had seen any other person and a 'few more years' since someone had touched him without injuring him, and the fire-user just wanted contact where the other person did not— intentionally— hurt him. He was the opposite of a touchy-feely type of guy— He wasn't Luffy— but after being alone for so long Ace needed basic human contact as much as he despised it.

A part of Ace complained about how childish and stupid he was acting, but a majority of the fire-user did not care in the least about his behavior. In hindsight he supposed he could have simply kept touching Marco's arm to fulfill his panicked need for interaction instead of invading the man's personal space and embracing him without warning but it was too late to regret it. However, giving a damn about such social etiquettes was not even present of the fire-user's list of priorities.

The Phoenix was stiff and still in his hold, most likely feeling awkward and uncomfortable— and not returning the hug. Ace understood though, and did not take it personally. Marco was not an affectionate person by default. He might also be too shocked to return Ace's embrace. Or maybe he was uncertain the fire-user would want the blond pirate to touch him. Or it could be that he secretly hated the Summer Spirit, although now Ace guessed that possibility was much less likely than he had previously believed. Either way, Ace let himself be selfish and refused to let go.

He was not in a nightmare, or asleep, or alone. He needed to know Marco was there, and real and maybe even cared about him a little bit.

Ace really missed Jack.

Eventually the Phoenix patted his head, allowing the suddenly touch-inclined fire-user to cling to him like a confused baby monkey. As Ace calmed, embarrassment reared its mocking head and he abruptly released Marco, withdrawing and fiddling with his bracelet. The blond pirate did not comment on his shifting mood.

The fire-user felt like he was forgetting something extremely important, but could not put his finger on what it could be.

"You were only asleep for a few hours this time." Marco reported encouragingly, interrupting his thoughts. "That's much better than the days you were out before, yoi."

Ace momentarily allowed himself to feel unhappy about his inability to stay awake nonstop before shoving the negative feelings aside and focusing on the positive part of the Phoenix's statement.

I'm getting better. I got out again, quicker this time. Could it be because of what the last nightmare tried to do?

The thought of the vision's attempt to make him fear Jack was enough to make him scowl, flames licking across his shoulders. Marco leaned back and Ace extinguished the fire, glancing apologetically at the Phoenix. He spotted his notebook, and finally noticed the tray of food that was set beside the papers. The blond followed his gaze.

"Thatch stopped by and left this, yoi." Marco said casually, though his half-lidded eyes were alert. When Ace did not react adversely to the chef's name, the Phoenix continued. "There's tea with honey to help soothe your throat, though it might be cold by now."

Ace picked up the mug, feeling the coolness of the liquid through the ceramic. He frowned subconsciously at the tea and glanced at the small pile of sandwiches on the tray.

I don't need all this. I'm a Spirit now. I don't need to eat that much.

It was true that he was a little hungry but the twisting in his stomach may just be the guilt that came from the food that would be wasted— and the secrets he kept.

I should explain to Marco. I should.

What was Ace supposed to do? Just casually write down that he was formerly dead, had been resurrected by a Patriarchal Moon Spirit and Matriarchal Nature Spirit from another world, and was expected to go to that world eventually, leaving all of this behind? Ace stared at his reflection in the brown liquid, just able to make out the black marks that covered his face and the flame-colored spots that were his unnatural eyes.

Marco had not pressed him for answers about anything yet, but the fire-user knew that his situation was too far out of context for the Phoenix to ever figure it out on his own. He felt another surge of remorse as he abruptly realized that Marco likely thought things were going to go back to the way they were before Marineford, maybe even with Ace reclaiming his position as the Second Division Commander. In fact, all of the Whitebeard Pirates probably thought that, including Whitebeard himself.

No matter what, it can't go back to the way it was, Ace thought morosely. I'm so sorry. I should explain to him now. All of it. I should… I can't.

Marco was watching him, noting his every shifting expression. The Phoenix's brow furrowed with worry, but again he did not press Ace to reveal his thoughts. He was probably waiting for the fire-user to tell him things on his own. He really was kinder than the lying, secretive Summer Spirit deserved.

"If you want, I can have Thatch—" Marco began, only to go silent when Ace shook his head.

The Summer Spirit closed his eyes and focused on the mug, carefully heating up his hands.

Control. I am in control. Just a little warmth.

Steam stroked his face and he opened his eyes, watching the vapor drift up from the reheated tea. The drink was warm and the mug was fully intact, and Ace felt a small bit of renewed pride. Marco's expression was bored, but the fire-user could spot the curiosity in his eyes. The Summer Spirit knew that the Phoenix really wanted to ask about his powers, but the man proved the strength of his restraint when he did not.

Ace sipped his tea, savoring the slight sweetness and ignoring the morose feeling of shame that threatened to rise up again. No matter how much Marco insisted that he was helping Ace because he wanted to and cared for him, the fire-user would never believe he deserved the Phoenix's attention.

I should tell Marco I'm a Spirit. I should tell him about my powers. I should tell him about Pitch.

He didn't.

I'm so selfish.

Again Ace's gaze was drawn to the dark bags beneath Marco's eyes. He wondered how soon after the fire-user fell asleep that the Phoenix had woken. Had he panicked? Had he shouted for Bay? Had he blamed himself? Ace doubted that the blond pirate had slept again since.

I screwed it up. I fell asleep when he did. Now he won't want to rest because he'll be afraid I'll conk out again.

He kept his self-hatred off his face as he continued to sip his tea, thinking.

They won't trust me to stay awake by myself anymore, and Marco won't leave me alone anyway. He shouldn't be stuck with me all the time. Maybe if I can convince Bay to stay… No. She has work to do and needs to be ready in case someone else gets hurt.

Ace paused mid-sip, nervousness flashing across his features before he reeled it in. A new plan formed in his anxious mind, and he lowered the mug before setting it on the table. Marco watched as he picked up his notebook and wrote before he could be hindered by nerves.

"Bay said I can leave the infirmary?"

"Yes, real." Marco responded, more than used to confirming things by now.

Ace hesitated, then quickly wrote another question. "Can I go see some of the other Whitebeard Pirates?"

Ace did not feel ready to re-meet the other Whitebeard Pirates. Not at all. He knew they had been ordered to stay out of his room and barred from visiting him, and was grateful to Bay and Marco for keeping his former crew from swarming the infirmary. Not only did his nightmares fill his head with 'memories' of pain and suffering at 'their' hands, but apparently some events like Haruta yelling at him were in fact real. Some of the pirates might actually hate him.

But if seeing them all gave Marco a break, Ace had to do it. Now he just had to convince the Phoenix that his question was genuine, and that he could totally handle interacting with a bunch of people. As in maybe three, to a couple thousand people.

What am I  thinking ? …About Marco's health. Right.

Marco looked at the words for a long time, slowly lifting his gaze to study Ace's face. The fire-user kept his fear and insecurities hidden, adopting a solemn and determined visage. He was determined. Determined to involve other people so Marco could relax for a bit. It was not the most honest reason, but it was a reason nonetheless.

"I want to see them." The fire-user partially lied. "I missed them."

At least the second sentence was sincere. He missed the real Whitebeard Pirates that he vaguely recalled from his memories. Many of their interactions were fuzzy and vague, but he clearly recalled pranking with Thatch, competing with Haruta, and partying with so many others. If they had done that, then surely they could not hate him too much?

Marco released a slow breath. "All right, yoi. If you're feeling up to it, I suppose we could go visit them. It's lunch time, so they should all be in the mess hall, including Oyaji."

Ace nearly backtracked at the news, but held firm before he could show any uncertainty. If Marco knew how nervous he truly felt, he would tell the fire-user he could wait, not to push himself, and to take it slow. If Ace showed hesitation, the Phoenix would rescind his permission and the fire-user could not have that.

I'm doing this for Marco. I can be capable for him so he doesn't have to worry all of the time.

The Phoenix was still scrutinizing him, waiting for a response. He frowned. "We don't have to go right now…"

He trailed off as Ace circled the sentence about his desire to see the Whitebeard Pirates again, morphing his expression into what was hopefully a pleading look. He congratulated and hated himself for his deception when Marco sighed again, nodding in agreement.

"If you're sure, yoi."

Nod, Ace ordered himself. His head did not move. Nod. His head bobbed up and down. Good job.

Marco ducked out of the room to talk to Bay. When he returned, Ace tried to stand, only for the Phoenix to wave his arms negatively.

"Don't rush yourself. Bay has to check something first, but then we can go, okay?"

Ace held back a frown, not pleased by the news. If he did not go now, he would have time to think, and pondering about everything bad that could happen would only make it harder for him to keep calm. He shot Marco an impatient look before doodling in his notebook again.

At first he thought Bay's business had to do with giving him another checkup, but when the doctor did not come into the room he realized her business was with someone else. The fire-user was rather pleased that he was not the recipient of Bay's prodding for once, though eventually he comprehended that the doctor going to see someone might be a bad thing. He stopped drawing a fairy that resembled Baby Tooth to ask about it.

"Is someone hurt?"

Marco was quick to reassure him. "No. It's… just a report. Bay will be back soon."

Ace looked down at his picture, relieved, and wished he had the correct shade of turquoise for her feathers. He would not ask. It would be a waste of ink anyway. After a time, Marco's eyes flicked to the doorway and he stood up. Bay walked into the room, shooting Ace a smile.

"Good to see you up again." She scrutinized him, searching for any signs of weakness or uncertainty. "Are you sure you want to see the others right now? The mess hall is quite busy."

Ace did not take the offered way out, instead nodding firmly. He could do this so that Bay and Marco were not stuck fretting over him all the time. He could try to expand his circle of people, if only for a little while, so that the Phoenix would not have to worry so much anymore. It was only then that Ace realized he wanted to reunite with the Whitebeard Pirates not really because he truly wanted to see them, but mostly because it would likely benefit Marco. There was something decidedly wrong with that being his motivation, and he wondered if he was so far gone that his former crew had become conveniences more than missed friends. The guilt tried to eat at the fire-user but he pushed it away.

Under Bay and Marco's watchful eyes, Ace stood under his own power, bare feet settling firmly on the wooden floor. The Phoenix dithered at his side but did not offer his arm this time, and the doctor followed his example without comment. The fire-user greatly appreciated their presences and lack of touching, and resolved to walk to the mess without the pirates' assistance.

It was odd that it was more difficult to move around on the Moby Dick than when he had been stumbling through a snowstorm. His legs almost cramped, each step was rather slow, and the fire-user had to work hard to keep his balance and not fall on his face. Ace's mind told him he had just been walking a few minutes ago with relatively no issues, while his body reminded him that he had truthfully just been in bed for a long time, allowing his muscles to grow stiff.

At least his muscles had not atrophied. He appeared to have lost a little weight compared to before he was captured, but Ace guessed he might just look strange to himself because of the black sand marring his flesh. If he had somehow resisted weight-loss during his captivity, he supposed it must have something to do with Spirit biology.

Ace wondered if Marco or Bay were questioning his relative lack of problems in the weight and muscle department, but brushed his worries away before they could choke him.

Instead Ace remembered the uneaten sandwiches on the table beside his bed, and let a different source of stress plague him. They were going to the mess hall, and the fire-user would probably be expected to eat. He would not need much, and his lack of appetite would likely result in a whole new mess of misconceptions for Marco and Bay to fret about. He just hoped people wouldn't start shoving food in his face and expect him to eat it like he used to.

The mess hall was packed. Ace's old friend regret waltzed back up to him as he froze in the doorway. Too late he second-guessed his decision, mind screaming at him that coming here was the worst idea he ever had.

What am I doing? There are so many people here. I can't meet them yet. Oh Manny, I look awful. I have the marks and I keep flinching and I'm jumpy and I can't talk and I forget things anddon'trespondtopeopleandthey'regoingtopitymeorhatemeorgetdisgustedorannoyedor—

Ace returned to his body and gradually became aware of a yellow blob in his blurry vision. The blob slowly morphed into Marco, who stood in front of the fire-user with his hands hovering near Ace's shoulders. He did not touch the Summer Spirit. Before the Phoenix could speak, someone in the hall noticed his presence and called out to him.

"Hey, Marco!"

Heads turned towards the door as everyone went to greet the Phoenix. The First Division Commander stepped aside as he turned, unintentionally revealing Ace to the Whitebeard Pirates. One second, the pirates were cheerfully chatting with one another, the next, a deafening silence fell over the hall as they all stared at their returned brother.

Ace's flight instincts screamed warnings at him, while his body locked in place and refused to respond to said instincts commands to run. The fire-user's heart pounded loudly, threatening to burst free of his chest, and he was too terrified to even tremble before the hundreds of eyes that bore into him, judging him.

This was not the first time this had happened. Many nightmares included 'reunions' where the Whitebeard Pirates would gawp at him, horrified, shocked, or revolted by the physical changes done to the fire-user. They would whisper about him behind their hands, avoid his gaze or meet his eyes coldly, or sometimes attack and overwhelm him the moment he stepped through the door.

Except… those had all been nightmare scenarios. This was real. This was their real reunion. These were the real Whitebeard Pirates. There were no do-overs. Things Ace did mattered. The fire-user could not risk ruining it all and let his offensive actions mar their future relationships and interactions forever.

So he did what Old Ace would have done.

He smiled and waved.

"Ace is back!" Someone shouted.

The room exploded into movement and sounds, many pirates cheering while others leapt to their feet and rushed for the fire-user. Before they could reach him, they skidded to a halt with the abruptness as a bird hitting glass, some paling as their skin grew covered with a sheen of sweat. Ace glanced to the sides to see both Bay and Marco flanking him and giving glares that promised a gruesome murder for anyone who dared to overwhelm the fire-user.

The Phoenix noticed him watching and relaxed, giving him a half-grin, but the doctor stayed firm, cowing the stampeding pirates with a glower. Bay had her sword with her, and she looked ready to use it if she had to.

"Commander Ace is here!" Someone called from the mob.

"Welcome back!" Another shouted.

"I'm so glad you're okay." One more person sniffled.

"Commander Ace, sit here!" A pirate offered.

"No, sit here." His comrade argued.

"Here, sit with us!" yet another suggested.

The Whitebeard Pirates continued to crowd and babble, speaking over one another as they tried to gain their brother's attention. The onslaught of noise and bellows aimed at him was reminding him of numerous unpleasant scenarios, but luckily he was able to differentiate the friendly banter from the threats spat at him in his dreams. Mostly. Even with that knowledge, Ace felt extremely claustrophobic and his panic simmered at the back of his mind. It almost choked him, hindering his breathing and making his hands shake.

However, as he stood in the middle of the swarm—not being attacked— the fear slowly lessened. It was as if Ace's heart was becoming too tired to keep beating so quickly, his body unable to maintain the instinct to flee. Marco noticed his hesitance and leaned over, speaking in the fire-user's ear.

"You don't have to do this now." The Phoenix murmured. "If you aren't ready we can—"

Ace shook his head and stepped into the crowded hall, notebook clutched to his chest. No one commented on his makeshift shield, and to his relief the pirates readily cleared the way, giving him a path to the Commanders' table by Whitebeard. The looks the fire-user was receiving from that location were mixed. Some looked openly happy, others were neutrally pleased or bored, while still others looked uncomfortable and upset.

Specifically Thatch and Haruta.

What did I do wrong? Is it the marks? Or because I look weak? Or—

Memory clicked, and the fire-user recalled previous, real conversations he had with Marco. The fiascos on the deck had been real. Thatch thought Ace was going to off himself, and Haruta had yelled at him after he had put the First Division Commander in danger. His stomach twisted at the memory, and he speculated whether anyone would act upon their negative feelings towards him. Ace mentally began to plan an escape route, eyes darting about the hall as he considered the best way to flee if needed.

I'll need to make sure to get out of Whitebeard's reach. I'll have to look out for those with ranged weapons as well. Speed Jiru is fast, but if I react quick enough I may be able to drop him and get away before he can grab me. If I can't get to the main exit I'll head into the kitchens and out the back…

Ace's thoughts cut off as he reached the table and he accepted that he was too far into his 'great idea' to back out now. His honorary attack dog— also known as Bay— snapped at the flocking pirates and bullied them back to their tables, saying they could bug Ace later, and positioned herself somewhere behind the fire-user, nails tapping on the hilt of her sword. Vista and Izo scooched aside on the bench and Ace found himself sitting between the okama and Marco.

Across from Thatch and Haruta.

Great.

Ace felt another gaze on him and looked up, staring into Whitebeard's calm eyes. The fire-user belatedly realized that he should have gone to the Yonko first, but he supposed it was too late for that now. At least he was able to meet the giant's eyes without flinching— outwardly. That was something.

"I'm glad you are joining us, my son." The giant said in a low voice that only carried to the Commanders' table.

A large fist crushed his trachea, strangling him until his neck snapped. A hand struck him and shattered his bones, sending him flying through the wall where he was left a crumpled, bloody mess. A cold voice told him he was not his son, expelling him from the crew that he once saw as family. That same voice ordered the removal of his sacred mark, and was followed by the sound of a cracking whip.

Ace stared at the Yonko for a long moment, and somehow managed to summon a small smile. If he stayed at this table, the number of people he would have to deal with went from thousands to sixteen including Whitebeard, fifteen if he did not count Marco. That number was less scary, more tolerable. He could do this. The Yonko seemed content to let his children converse with Ace first— Thank Manny— and the fire-user's attention was swiftly taken by Izo.

"It's nice to see you out of the infirmary again, Ace." The fair man said calmly, dabbing at his mouth with a napkin.

A smooth voice spoke in calm tones as a gun was pressed to Ace's temple, informing him of all his flaws and faults as the okama told him that if he had any remnants of honor left he should take his own life.

Ace smiled politely, unsure of how to respond. He supposed he could write in his notebook, but did not want to draw attention to his handicap. Did the Commanders know he could not speak? Before he could worry about it, food as set in front of the fire-user. It was far too much for him.

He nodded graciously at the cook, who beamed at him, and picked up a fork, prodding at a piece of chicken. A few of the Commanders, and Whitebeard, were watching him carefully. They tried to be subtle, but Ace could sense their eyes on him. Feeling like an escaped prisoner caught in a search light, the fire-user put the meat in his mouth, chewing slowly. The chicken was good, tender and flavorful.

He already felt full.

I don't need this. It's a waste.

Thankfully, the Commanders were content to cease their observing of Ace. They did not continue to stare. They did not bring up the fire-user's appearance or the fact that he had been thought dead for years. They did not wonder why he was not speaking. Instead they merely turned back to their own conversations, and Ace could almost pretend that this was just another meal from before the whole Teach debacle, where he was just one of the many Whitebeard Pirates eating lunch with their brothers.

Except I'm not a Whitebeard Pirate anymore, am I? I can never be one again. And none of them know it.

Ace became horribly aware of the sand-streaked, defiled tattoo on his back, Whitebeard's altered crest almost burning on his skin. His hand shook a little as he poked another piece of meat, but other than that he kept himself from showing his dismay outwardly. The second piece of chicken tasted like ashes in his mouth. The fire-user caught Namur's eye, who shot him a friendly smile.

The swimmer watched calmly as Ace floundered in the water, crossing his arms and observing in amusement as the fire-user drowned. As Ace's vision blackened and his lungs screamed in pain, he saw the Fishman smile, as apathetic to his suffering as the shark he bore a resemblance to.

Ace set down his fork and picked up his pen, glancing at Marco and noticing him frowning at his mashed potatoes with narrowed eyes like they had personally offended him. Either that or the Phoenix was about to fall asleep in them.

Wouldn't that be a role swap? Ace thought. He might even find it funny.

Ace shifted his gaze to Izo, who was daintily eating some rice. There was something the fire-user wanted to say to him. It lingered at the back of his mind, and sat on the tip of his silent tongue. He was sure it was nothing too important, but… Ace sifted through his memories with Real-Marco, and recalled bits and pieces of one of the conversations he had with the Phoenix. He wrote in his notebook and showed it to the Sixteenth Division Commander, who paused before taking it and reading the words on the page.

"Thank you."

Izo read his message two more times before meeting the fire-user's gaze. "For what?" he asked, handing the notebook back.

"You liked my tattoo." Ace wrote carefully. "Thank you."

It was just a little compliment. Ace was not even sure that Izo had meant it. But he wanted to thank the okama for the praise regardless. The fire-user had been a little preoccupied at the moment to show his gratitude back then, but it was only polite to do so, even if his response was late. Not to mention that Ace wanted to get all the small things out of the way this time for when he had to leave again.

I really should tell them. I'm sorry.

Something in Izo's gaze softened. "You're welcome."

There was a thud next to Ace, and he turned to see Marco fast asleep with his head barely missing his mashed potatoes. The Phoenix mumbled lightly as he napped, oblivious to the world and that he almost got mush in his hair. Izo sighed and looked skyward while Thatch broke out of his melancholy and laughed openly. A few of the other Commanders joined in, more amused then worried about the First Division Commander because of the loud snores emanating from him.

Fossa chuckled and grinned at Ace. "It seems that you gave Marco your narcolepsy, eh Ace?"

A fiery katana was shoved into his leg, pinning Ace to the ground. The fire-user barely flinched as the blade was yanked sideways, nearly severing his limb. The swordsman grew infuriated by the 'traitor's' reaction, and stabbed him through the hip.

The fire-user identified his tone as friendly. Teasing. Not hostile. Not accusing or judging.

Ace returned his smile and nodded. His eyes caught Thatch's, and the chef beamed toothily before he remembered who he was looking at. The Fourth Division Commander deflated instantly and dropped his gaze to his gravy as if it were the most interesting thing in the world. Next to Thatch, Haruta sneered at his empty plate, stood up abruptly, and left without saying a word to Ace.

Ace felt something stir in his chest. He forced himself to eat another bite of chicken as he mulled over the feeling, trying to identify it. It was not quite sadness, or anger, or even the dull acceptance he had grown used to feeling. Instead it caught in his throat, almost making him choke on the meat he had just consumed, and he struggled not to cough and make Bay think something was wrong.

The fire-user had become quite good at hiding and burying his feelings. He had become accustomed to holding in or ignoring his feelings so that they could not overwhelm and imbalance him more than he already was. He had also become adept at 'forgetting' things that would hurt him more than something else, pushing them away like an unwanted assignment that could be completed at a later date.

But Ace could not stay in blissful denial forever, and was slowly beginning to comprehend that a certain friend he thought was dead was in fact alive, and that another one of his former friends apparently hated him.

Ace stared blankly at his food, stomach churning unpleasantly. If he were more naïve, he may try to blame the chicken for his sudden discomfort, but he knew that the cooks were above giving anyone spoiled meat. Suddenly everything seemed to be too close, the voices around him blurring into a low roar as the thousands of people pressed in around him. The fire-user's hand shook slightly but other than that he reigned in any physical reactions, refusing to have a panic attack in front of everyone.

Especially not in front of Thatch, who kept stealing glances at Ace as if he expected the fire-user to crumble into ash.

Thatch is alive.

The fork in his hand fell to the plate with a startling clatter. Beside him, Marco jerked awake, sitting up and blinking sleep from his eyes. Ace stood from the table. The hall grew silent as everyone watched the fire-user walk around the table and pause before the frozen Thatch, staring at him expressionlessly. Izo moved as if to follow— and maybe hold back— the fire-user, only for the Phoenix to hold him in place. Ace could feel all of their eyes on him, but he only saw the nervous-looking chef sitting before him.

For a moment, Ace stood there unsure of what he wanted to do. His old confusion, joy, grief, and anger welled up again, with the fire-user unable to land on a single emotion. He distantly wondered what the Whitebeard Pirates would do if he punched Thatch, and felt a burst of defiant nonchalance at the thought of them attacking him. Then he remembered that this was reality, what he did would have consequences, and Thatch was his friend. The Summer Spirit finally settled on an emotion.

Screw it, Ace thought, and hugged Thatch, arms wrapping securely around the older man.

The chef stiffened in his hold, just like Marco had done. He smelled like cinnamon and vanilla, just like Ace could vaguely remember. The fire-user could still feel everyone's eyes on him, but he was incapable of caring. He could just hear the sound of Thatch's heartbeat, and feel like pulse of blood in the chef's veins.

Thatch was alive. His friend was here. His friend had not been murdered. Ace could not be angry at him. It was inconsequential that seeking revenge for Thatch had caused the fire-user's death. Ace's death had been his own fault anyway, so he would never blame the chef. The Summer Spirit decided that he was happy to finally be back with his friends.

I'm so glad you're alive, Ace thought, wishing he could tell the chef.

He supposed he could write the words, but doing so seemed impersonal. Thatch deserved better. He deserved to know Ace cared.

After a heartbeat, Thatch returned the embrace, arms wrapping securely around Ace's shoulders just like Jack's had so many years ago.

Ace felt safe.

Ace felt secure.

Ace felt wanted.

Ace felt… happy.

Finally, after days, 'months', 'years' of terror and uncertainty, Ace relaxed.

ROTGOPROTGOP

"Room!"

Law barely let the blue bubble expand before he switched with a nearby Nightmare, causing its kin to land on the doomed creature and tear it apart instead of him. Baby Tooth clung desperately to his shirt as he took off running once more, swiping his nodachi at any monsters that came near and deactivating his Room. He had to conserve as much stamina as possible. A feat that was easier said than done.

The surgeon could not decide if it was simpler or harder to be dashing through Pitch's lair alone. The overwhelming amount of enemies hunting the pirate and fairy was a problem, but at least he did not have to worry about protecting anyone else. Baby Tooth was right there with him— on him— so it was unnecessary to fear she might be left behind in the confusion. She even managed to help from her position by watching Law's back when his Room was inactive and chirping a warning whenever a Nightmare or Fearling tried to ambush him from behind. Which happened often.

The deep chasms, winding pathways and shadows only made thing more difficult for Law. The lair was more a maze then a cave, with caverns leading to nowhere, other halls leading to abysses, and still other paths that circled around back into danger. The surgeon was beginning to suspect that Pitch had somehow redesigned the place since the last time he had been here, turning the lair into a labyrinth. Most likely so the Nightmare King could just trap the invaders even more. The Heart Pirate would not put it past the Spirit.

Baby Tooth squeaked an alert and Law spun, slashing three Nightmares in half. Their sandy bodies crumbled into dust before the particles hit the ground. The surgeon kept moving deeper into the lair, darting to the right and watching as another group of Nightmares dove past him and into the abyss. Sadly the creatures caught themselves before they could hit the ground far below, flying back up towards the Heart Pirate with angry screeches.

The surgeon activated his Room and swiped at the lot of them, slicing a majority in half. Law turned the sphere off again and ran around another corner, descending down some stairs. He had no idea where his allies were. He knew he should have requested a piece of Luffy's vivre card before this mission. Though in hindsight, being separated from the Straw Hats like Law had was not something any of them considered. How could they have known that he would be captured and taken away through shadows?

Law skidded into another cavern and jumped when Baby Tooth gave a startled shriek. He looked left to see a horde of Fearlings floating towards him. He activated his Room, slashed, and switched with another unfortunate Fearling. If he were less jaded, the surgeon might have winced as the creature was literally torn apart by his pursuers. One wrong move and that would be him. Law really hoped the Straw Hats were still alive.

He kept running, breathing slightly labored, and cursed his body for its weakness. Law was by no means unfit, but he estimated he had been running and fighting for hours with no rest. Not even for a second. As a fighter who did not do much jumping and moving when battling, the unintentional marathon was doing nothing to help his energy levels.

A howl next to his ear made Law flinch and he spun, sword unsheathed, and decapitated the reeling Fearling that had been sneaking up on him. On his shoulder, Baby Tooth made a disgusted face, apparently having stabbed the murderous creature with her sharp beak. Her wings fluttered and clung to Law's shirt, lingering close to his neck. The surgeon took a moment to absently— not comfortingly— pat her on the head before taking off once more.

Law cursed mentally as he nearly ran smack dab into more Nightmares, bisecting the creatures before they could alert their kin. Screams and shrieks sounded behind him, making his skin prickle, and he leapt off a walkway, disappearing in midair before reappearing a few floors down. He looked up and saw the Nightmares circling like a swarm of large, angry bees. On cue they dove for him, still howling in excitement and rage.

The surgeon barely made it another step before something far-too similar to a hand wrapped around the wrist wielding his nodachi. He twisted, other hand rising, only for the Fearling to slam him headfirst into the wall. Stars danced before Law's eyes and his vision blurred and swayed sickeningly. He thought he heard Baby Tooth scream.

The Fearling grabbed his other wrist and lifted him off the ground, dragging the surgeon down the hall like a demon taking him to Hell. Law could just see a speck of turquoise flying frantically after them, and realized Baby Tooth had fallen from his shoulder. Before his head cleared enough to fight, other Fearlings assisted the first, wrapping their arms around the Heart Pirate and practically piling on top of him. And just like that Law was trapped.

His arms were pinned to his sides, his hands were grasped in vice-like grips, his legs were held together and his mouth and nose were covered. Law internally shuddered at the feeling of the cold, clawed appendage that prevented him from speaking and smelled like death. It was like a pillow made of shadows was covering his face, suffocating him.

Law instinctively struggled, trying to break free of the creatures, but he could not even twitch his fingers. He comprehended that the Fearlings may have partially figured out how his powers worked, and so were attempting to stop him from moving and speaking to activate them. The surgeon gave a furious, muffled shout against one Fearling's clawed hand.

When the Heart Pirate's blue Room did not activate, the monsters gave what only could be triumphant shrieks and laughter. The noise made the hair on Law's nape rise, and gooseflesh form on his skin.

Another Fearling approached the mob that was holding down the surgeon, and a couple moved off of Law, leaving his torso exposed. A thin split formed in the shadows that made up the creature's face, and the heart Pirate became aware that it was grinning. Its hand drifted over Law's stomach, sharp dagger-like appendages flexing. With a flick it ripped his shirt open, releasing another unnatural laugh as he unintentionally flinched.

Law kept his expression stoic. He had assumed that Pitch wanted him alive for some reason— likely to torment the surgeon— but now it seemed that the Nightmare King had decided to let his minions have him. He was not afraid, however. More furious and upset with himself. The Straw Hats were relying on him to get them out. What kind of frie— ally would he be if he doomed them all by dying like this?

Despite his thoughts and fury, Law dare not try to break free or move as the Fearling jeered at him. Its claws almost stroked his abdomen, not yet breaking the skin as nails that may as well be knives slid over his flesh. All it would take was a small flick of those sharp claws and he'd be gutted like a fish. Again the Fearling poked at him, careful not to impale him yet, and the monsters giggled and hissed, chortling like cruel children stabbing a bug with a stick.

The Fearling was taunting him and trying to make him afraid before it killed him. Law understood that. He did not fear these creatures, however. Or their master. So the surgeon stared straight into the Fearling's unnatural eyes and smirked mockingly, wishing he could move his fingers enough to flip the monster off.

Even without the ability to move, the creature seemed to understand his sentiment and its cackles and grin faded, replaced by what could only be described as a sneer. The Fearling bent its fingers, claws resting on Law's stomach, and the surgeon felt the smallest of pricks. He felt no fear, instead glowering at the monster with defiant grey eyes.

Fuck you.

Pain— sharp and cold— ripped across Law's body, and for a moment he thought all of the Fearlings had slashed him at once. It scattered across his exposed skin, stabbing sharp and quick like tiny knives of ice. His vision went white as sharp pinpricks shot across his flesh, feeling as if he had been thrown into a blizzard. A loud roaring accompanied the onslaught and pounded on his eardrums.

Before the surgeon could wonder if he was injured or dying, the flashes of pain faded, though the biting cold remained. The roaring ceased as well, and Law gradually grew aware of someone… yelling?

"—ease be alive. Manny damn it! I did not just show up too late to save you. Come on, open your eyes!"

Law could not distinguish when his eyes had slipped closed. He swore he could still see the impossible white light that had blinded him, like the sight of it had burned its way into his retinas. The surgeon shifted and raised a hand to his head before letting his eyes flutter open. He blinked once, seeing nothing in front of him. But he swore that he heard someone. Someone had to be there. They had talked to him. The Heart Pirate blinked again, shaking his head to clear it, and when he looked again, he found himself staring into intense blue eyes.

"Oh thank Manny." The newcomer— who was wearing a blue sweatshirt with the hood pulled up— breathed. His voice identified him as male. "I didn't see any blood but I thought they might have still—"

He stopped speaking, gaze growing sharp as he looked to Law's exposed torso. The surgeon subconsciously wrapped his arms around his stomach, covering the spot where the Fearling had intended to impale him, and somehow his rescuer's blue orbs grew icier than they were before.

"Let me see." The newcomer snapped. When Law stared at him uncomprehendingly, he repeated his order. "Let me see!"

When the surgeon still did not move, the hoodie-wearing person grabbed his arms and forced them away from his stomach. The Heart Pirate was too stunned to resist. His rescuer studied Law's abdomen intently for a long minute, thankfully not touching him, and breathed a sigh of relief.

"It didn't break the skin. You're not infected." He straightened, and Law found himself meeting sharp blue eyes. "Then again, if you were you would already be a Fearling by now."

Law filed that ominous piece of information away to be mused about later. His thoughts were currently caught by the blanket of ice and snow that now covered the area surrounding them, and the complete absence of the monsters that had been tormenting him. It was like a blizzard had passed through the cave, covering everything with snow. Questions about what the hell had just happened rose to the forefront of the surgeon's mind.

"The Fearlings…?" he asked uncertainly.

His rescuer's eyes were hard. "Iced 'em all. Damn cowards always like to gang up on people like that…"

He continued to mutter angrily under his breath and tapped the wooden staff he held on the ground. More ice formed on the stone around the tip, supporting his claim. Law nodded slowly, his mind finally accepting that he was out of danger, not about to die, and that he was currently safe. Maybe. The ambiguity of his situation and rescue dawned on the Heart Pirate at last and his naturally suspicious nature snuffed out his confusion. He took a breath, gathering himself, then stepped away from the ice-wielder and stared stoically at him with a hand on his nodachi.

"Who are you?" he asked dangerously. "Are you with Pitch?"

It was unlikely, but one could never just accept help from a stranger at face value. At least, Law could not. His savior's blue eyes lit up with rage and he tipped his head back so his expression was no longer shadowed by his hood, revealing a young pale-skinned face that lingered at the edge of adulthood and a furious snarl.

"Never." He spat with enough venom that Law could not doubt the validity of his claim. "I would never work with him."

The tension in the air grew, and Law gripped his nodachi tighter, wondering if the ice-wielder would attack him for his seemingly offensive question. A spot of turquoise caught his eye and the surgeon stiffened as Baby Tooth flew into the room, speeding towards the hooded person. Law briefly wondered if the fairy was partaking in a misguided attempt to protect him and stepped forward, a warning on his tongue.

"Don't—!"

Baby Tooth gave a happy squeal and flew into the newcomer's face, hugging his nose and cheeks as tightly as she could. The ice-wielder gave a surprised squawk before following it up with a cheerful laugh.

"B-Baby Tooth? It's you!"

The newcomer's previous ire was forgotten as he cupped the fairy in his hands, squeezing her gently in a smaller version of a hug. His icy blue eyes softened to a warmer shade, and he practically danced as he held her, grinning foolishly all the while. Baby Tooth clung to his thumb, chattering happily, and the ice-wielder nodded and smiled on cue, as if he could understand everything she said.

"I missed you too. I didn't know you were here. Is Tooth on this world as well?" he asked eagerly.

Baby Tooth shrugged.

The ice-wielder frowned. "I hope she is. We can use all the help we can get." He finally seemed to remember Law and where they were. He looked at the man. Bright blue eyes widened slightly. "Wait a minute. You can… Later." He shook his head, then offered his hand to Law. "Hi. I'm Jack. I'm a— I'm known as the 'Winter Spirit'. I'm here to save someone. Let's team up." He paused, then continued. "Sorry about the cold by the way, I was in a rush to get the Fearlings off of you so I accidentally froze you a bit."

The words were said quickly, bluntly, and in a way that slightly reminded the surgeon of his hyperactive ally. Despite his lack of knowledge on 'Jack,' his background, and his motives, Law immediately accepted the hand and shook it. Jack was offering to be an ally in a dangerous situation, so the surgeon would work with him for now. Besides, Baby Tooth seemed to recognize the 'Winter Spirit', so that was enough for the Heart Pirate.

"Apology accepted." The surgeon said without inflection. "I'm Law. I came here to rescue my friend's brother from Pitch Black, but I was separated from them."

Baby Tooth said something and Jack grimaced, visage darkening.

"You're with…" He trailed off. "Of course. I should have guessed as much. Come on. Let's go save Luffy and—"

"Jackson Overland Frost!"

The Winter Spirit, Heart Pirate, and Fairy all tensed, only for Jack to immediately relax and rub the back of his head sheepishly.

"Guess they finally caught up. Oops." He leaned in and whispered in Law's ear. "I kinda flew off without them and left them on the beach…"

To Law's surprise, Sabo and Koala the Revolutionaries dashed into the cave, with the woman angrily punching a Nightmare into dust as they passed. Both were fuming, with the Logia literally burning with apparent rage. The orange-haired woman stalked up to Jack, who raised his hands in surrender and gave her a charming smile.

"Sorry?"

"You left us behind!" Koala snapped, finger jabbing into the Winter Spirit's chest. Law felt a burst of sympathy as Jack winced with every furious poke. "It only took a second to tie the boat up. You could have waited, idiot!"

"A second would have been enough for Law here to be a Fearling." Jack defended, pointing at the surgeon.

The two Revolutionaries spun to face the Heart Pirate, apparently just noticing him for the first time.

Sabo immediately went from outraged to sunny, shooting the Heart Pirate a grin. "It's you. Hello! Traffy, right?"

Law's eye twitched. "What are you doing here, Sabo-ya?"

The Logia grimaced and held up a piece of paper. What had to be Luffy's vivre card was burning at the edges, the ember-like pieces glowing in the darkness. However, it was also pointing to their left, still able to track the Straw Hat Pirate's location.

"We're here to save Luffy and Ace." The Revolutionary stated.

The eldest brother's name being mentioned instantly caught Law's interest, but Sabo continued before he could voice his newest set of questions. "We'll explain everything later. For now, let's go save my brothers."

He began to walk off, obviously believing the conversation was over and that more important things needed to be done. Law briefly met Baby Tooth's sorrowful gaze.

He hesitated then spoke. "According to Baby Tooth-ya, Ace-ya is no longer here."

Koala breathed in sharply. Sabo stopped walking. But it was Jack's reaction that Law noticed the most. The Winter Spirit went from cheerfully calm to angrily grim, eyes returning to their icier shade. The surgeon was shocked to see the horror and sadness that overcame Jack's visage, the warmth draining from him like sunlight on a cloudy day. A few words and prods from Baby Tooth made his expression smooth out but the grief— and fury— lingered. Before Law could ponder about it, Sabo spoke.

"Still have to save Luffy." He said resolutely. "And beat some answers out of Pitch."

"With pleasure." Jack growled, frost covering his staff.

Baby Tooth eyed him worriedly before flitting over to Law. To the surgeon's surprise, she settled on his hat, gripping it and giving an affirmative squeak. The weight was familiar, and Law frowned, eyes narrowing. Baby Tooth climbed onto the rim of his hat and looked at him upside down. She smiled adorably, widening her eyes and giving him an innocent look.

"You were on my hat before, weren't you?" Law asked flatly.

Jack noticed her perch and sniggered. Baby Tooth grinned sweetly at the surly surgeon, probably trying to appeal to the part of people that instantly forgave cute things. Law was not most people but he relented anyway, sighing.

"Fine. You can stay there. But I expect answers later."

She squeaked in agreement.

Two rescuers—now five— raced to find their missing friends.

ROTGOPROTGOP

It.

Wouldn't.

Stop.

Saying the images flashed before Luffy's eyes would be a lie. They did not 'flash'. They drilled into his skull like nails, stabbing and pushing their way into his brain as they made themselves be viewed by his consciousness. The visions lingered long enough for the Straw Hat Pirate to understand what he was seeing before harshly dragging him to another scenario, drowning him in a sea of fears that had no end. Some fears were his, many others were not, and yet even those that were not his own filled him with a terror he could not escape…

Words could not describe the joy Luffy felt in battle. He tore through enemies with ease, swords slicing through the fodder that had no hope of being a challenge to him like they were made of wet paper. Another group raced to face him and he met them head on, slashing their bodies and removing their limbs almost casually. Blood spurted from their wounds as they fell and more than one unfortunate minion plummeted— screaming— from the cliff they battled on.

There was a noise behind him and he spun to face the new foe with a grin, only to freeze when he caught sight of the newcomer. The young girl flinched, more startled than scared as the sword-wielding man towered threateningly over her. She raised her hands and instinctively stepped back… only to fall off the clifftop, plummeting to the ground faster than he could think to save her.

She hit the dirt hard, and even from this distance, he could hear the bones in her neck snap. He stared at her broken form with shock, looked to the sky, and screamed.

Ace looked at Luffy defiantly, orange eyes hard and the barest hint of a mocking smile on his face. The Straw Hat Pirate felt rage simmer in his chest and he stalked forward, grabbing his brother by the throat and lifting him into the air. The smile vanished instantly as Ace struggled and gasped for breath, hands scrabbling at Luffy's as the pirate strangled him. He felt the fire-user's nails dig into his skin, and smirked to himself before slamming Ace into the ground. The floor cracked— along with a few of his brother's ribs, and Ace's mouth opened in a silent scream.

I…

Luffy watched helplessly as his bound and gagged nakama were shot one by one.

First a defiant Zoro.

Second a sobbing Nami.

Third a terrified Usopp.

Fourth a grim Sanji.

Fifth a blank-eyed Chopper.

Sixth a solemn Robin.

Seventh a silent Franky.

Eighth a shocked Brook.

Their bodies fell to the ground in splatters of blood, their unseeing eyes staring at Luffy almost accusingly.

And then it was his turn, cold metal pressing to his forehead. Luffy felt fear then, fear that could not be his own. It was like ice in his veins, freezing his limbs and making his breathing stutter. But how could he be afraid? He was not afraid of death. He had never been afraid of death. He was a D. And yet he trembled fearfully as a shadowy figure stood over him, a sadistic grin crossing its face.

The trigger compressed, and Luffy barely had time to feel a bolt of terror before the bullet ripped through his skull.

Luffy kicked Ace in the stomach repeatedly, his own shouted words inaudible to himself as he lost himself to rage. The Straw Hats had escaped because of the foolish boy. His plan had been ruined because of his prisoner, a stupid child that should have been broken long ago. And then Ace had tried to  escape . He tried to  abandon  Luffy. Just like everyone else.

His brother curled up futilely, flinching with every blow, but he could not voice his pain even if he wanted to. A particular harsh strike to Ace's abdomen made a low squelching sound emanate from his gut, and the fire-user curled up, expression set in a look of pure agony. The foolish boy coughed up a clot of blood, and more crimson trickled from his mouth.

I do…

Everything was out to get Luffy. Monsters loomed over him. Enemies surrounded him. Shadows smirked at him. There were too many. He could not face them. They would kill him. His heartbeat quickened and sweat ran down his nose. His breathing grew rapid and his body shook.

The countless, powerful foes loomed. He ran. His fear granted him speed and he fled, but the monsters pursued. Stronger than him. Faster than him. Deadlier than him. Luffy could not fight them. He would never be brave enough to face such odds.

He was weak. He was useless. He was a liar. He was a fraud. He was scared.

He was always scared.

Ace finally started to cry when Luffy began to break his bones and stab him. Each cut with the black sword he wielded was nonfatal, slicing up his brother's arms, legs, and torso bit by bit. Each finger was bent backwards until they snapped, one by one, followed by his toes, ankles, and legs. He watched Ace falter, writhe, weep, try to beg, make an effort to scream. The fire-user moved faintly, perhaps attempting to fight or get away, but Luffy was the one in control. He would not allow him to escape. He impaled Ace through the shoulder, making his body arch in agony. The floor was stained red.

I do not…

Luffy sat alone in a cell, a heavy iron mask on his face. Whispers rose up around him, distant voices calling him weak and unwanted as mocking laughter sounded in his ears. The more they whispered, the more he wondered if they were right. Was he as weak as they claimed? Was he a failure? Was he unwanted? Would he die alone?

Time passed. Days. Weeks. Months. Years. Not a single person came to see him. Not a single person thought to help him. Luffy gradually became aware of the ache in his stomach and the tiredness in his limbs. The weakness and exhaustion that only grew as the hours passed. And still no one came to him.

He sat, forgotten in the dungeon with no one to care, and slowly starved to death.

Ace went limp, the fire fading from his eyes and leaving behind an empty, accepting look. He bore the visage of a person who knew they were going to die, but no longer had the strength to attempt to face death with a smile. He did not flinch anymore as Luffy kicked and punched and stabbed and broke him, his bruised skin splitting from the force of the blows that the Straw Hat Pirate rained down on his fading brother.

A fierce strike sent Ace flying into the wall again and his head smacked into the stone, leaving another smear of red. Luffy took the opportunity to carve gashes through the tattoo the fire-user once wore with pride, defiling the mark of the boy's father with a sadistic glee. Ace barely moved. Luffy grabbed his weakly struggling brother by his throat once more, dragging him upright. He pressed the tip of his sword to his prisoner's bloody chest. Ace met his gaze, and fear flickered through his eyes as he comprehended what the pirate was about to do.

I do not deserve…

Luffy's crew looked at him coldly, sneers on their faces and fear in their eyes.

"Freak." They whispered.

"Coward."

"Unnatural."

"Abomination."

"You aren't one of us."

"You will never be one of us."

"We don't want you."

"Why would we want you?"

"Monster."

The last word was not said with nonchalance or the usual cheerful meaning that was special only to them. It was said with hatred, with fear, with disgust. They did not accept him. They would never accept him. No humans would ever accept him.

How could he fool himself into thinking they would?

Ace's eyes widened with shock as the Straw Hat Pirate stabbed him right where Akainu had impaled him three years ago. The black sword went straight out his brother's back, exiting his body covered with red. The fire-user's trembled and choked like a fly pinned on the tip of a hook and he gaped down at the blade, eyes round.

He reached up with a shaking and grabbed feebly at the hilt, unable to find the strength to grasp it. His actions smeared more red onto the Straw Hat Pirate's hands. Ace's dull orange eyes met Luffy's, filled with confusion and pain. The pirate smirked at his brother, and ripped the sword out of his chest.

I do not deserve to…

Luffy was alone.

The silence lay heavily over the island, as cruel and oppressive as a poisonous fog. He knelt before eight graves, each name etched crudely on the face of the stones, and could not prevent the tears from falling from his eyes. Luffy did not know how his nakama had died, but he knew it was his fault. He had not been strong enough. He had never been strong enough. He had not been strong enough to protect them.

Just like he was not strong enough to protect Ace.

Ace slumped to the ground, body wracked by tremors and blood pooling around his shivering frame. He pressed feebly at the wound on his chest, crimson dripping from his moving mouth and between his fingers. Luffy watched him cling to life, watched him shudder and mouth inaudible words, watched him die. He slowly realized his brother was apologizing, and felt another flare of sadistic amusement. The sword in his hands became a spear, and he rose it above his head. Then he stabbed.

Luffy was not kind enough to go straight for the kill. Instead he took cruel pleasure in driving the spear into Ace's stomach. Over and over he impaled the helpless fire-user, until the foolish boy's shuddering body went limp and his eyes grew sightless. The mangled, bloody chest that once desperately fought for air heaved a single time more, and went still. Now-dead eyes were trapped in an eternal expression of pain and sorrow, tears still dripping down paling, freckled cheeks and to the bloody ground below.

Ace was dead.

I do not deserve to be…

"Pathetic, isn't it?" A silky voice whispered in Luffy's ear. "How Ace died? He could not even fight back. No noble sacrifice this time. All he could do was writhe and suffer like a lamb being slaughtered."

Luffy stared down at the blood-covered hands that were not his own, shoulders shaking and a terrible feeling building in the back of his throat. He wanted to retch, and scream, and cry, but instead he found himself sinking into the numbness he had experienced when he lost Ace the first time. Darkness crept into his vision, cold and suffocating, but the Straw Hat Pirate did not have the ability to either accept or reject its presence.

The darkness lunged, surrounding him, and Luffy plummeted into the abyss, heart in his throat. He hit the floor, gasping, and felt the absence of weight on his head. The pirate looked around frantically for his beloved straw hat and grabbed it, stumbling to his feet. Mocking laughter echoed around him, volume jumping from soft to loud eerily. It sank into his mind like the visions, clawing at his brain like nails on a chalkboard, and Luffy cried out aloud, pressing his hands to head as he nearly collapsed in agony.

Pitch happily drove the nails deeper into the pirate's coffin, sealing the frozen Luffy into his despair. "You could have prevented his death, you know. If you had not abandoned him, your brother would be alive right now. Isn't that a pity?"

Luffy blinked and new wet spots accompanied the red, tears dripping silently down his cheeks. His failure weighed heavily on his heart, unable to be ignored as it mocked him among the different hells that were the fears of his crew. Never before had a mission gone so horribly wrong for the Straw Hat Pirates. They had always managed to pull through when they were together, always facing terrible odds and accomplished their goals.

But this time, their goal had been long dead. This time, they had been effortlessly trapped, their deepest insecurities and fears exposed for all of them to see. This time, they came for nothing and succeeded nowhere because no matter how one looked at it, there was nothing to be gained except escaping with their lives.

Because even with his training, loyalty, and the Straw Hats' support, Zoro still felt burdened by his promise to Kuina. Because even with the Straw Hats' strength Nami still feared they all would die. Because even with great feats of bravery under his belt, Usopp still saw himself as a useless coward. Because even with companionship and plenty of food on the table, Sanji still remembered being hungry and alone. Because even with the Straw Hats' uplifting speeches and support, Chopper still worried he was a monster.

Because in the end, Luffy would always fail the people he cared about.

Just like he had failed Ace for the second time.

He let his brother die. He let Ace die alone, without comfort, suffering and unfree.

I do not deserve to be Pirate King.

The darkness reached up to swallow Luffy whole…

…and shattered into shards of blue and white light.

Chapter Text

Jack had forgotten how fun it was to fight with a group. For years, it had mostly been him and Ace versus the world, with the Winter Spirit providing subtle assistance in instances where they were accompanied by others in battle. Now the Guardian was in a group of five for the first time in more than twenty years, grinning and unafraid as they faced down hordes of Fearlings and Nightmares together.

The Winter Spirit took a little more pleasure from fighting the Fearlings than he usually would, smirking as he tricked them, trapped them, or blasted them apart. He was a trickster at heart but currently his taunts and mischief were a bit more furious and vengeful than playful. Pitch had kept Ace captive. The Nightmare King had kept Baby Tooth imprisoned. And now the Spirit of Fear had Luffy and his crew locked away somewhere, tormenting them with Manny-knew what kind of terrible fears.

In his opinion, the Guardian of Fun had every right to be a bit ticked.

The fact that Ace was not here only fueled Jack's simmering rage and as he froze another Fearling over with ice, he imagined a certain Nightmare King in its place. The Winter Spirit was done chasing Pitch and stumbling around blindly as the Spirit mocked him from the shadows. He wanted answers, and he wanted them now. And the Spirit of Fear would give them to him.

Jack casually froze another horde of Fearlings, grinning in satisfaction as Sabo incinerated a separate group with his flames. Koala had taken to punching through enemies with a ferocity that told the Guardian he was still unforgiven for leaving her and the Logia behind on the beach. Luffy's friend— Law— was also doing his part, slashing through swarms of foes with relative ease now that he had more people to watch his back.

Sabo had quickly explained the surgeon's powers to Jack and the grey-eyed man himself had added that his 'teleportation' ability had been what the Straw Hats had intended to use to escape. The Winter Spirit really wanted to see the Heart Pirate's 'Room' in action but let the man keep his dwindling stamina for obvious reasons.

That plan might still be needed once we find Luffy and deal with Pitch, Jack thought, smashing a Nightmare into sand with his staff. Still, Law was lucky. Trapped in a lair full of nightmarish creatures that can kill him with a single slice, and yet he managed to avoid them and fight them off for hours. Humans on this world sure are tough.

He hoped that toughness applied to the Straw Hats as well. And that Pitch had not decided to turn them into Fearlings on a whim. Luffy was still alive— his vivre card proved that— but the states of his crewmates was ambiguous. They could be dead. Or worse.

I hope they're okay. They seemed like nice people back in Alabasta. Besides, losing any of them would probably destroy Luffy…

That train of thought brought Jack down a darkening path and his next ice blast completely blocked off a side-corridor, sealing the Nightmares within it inside. He felt a burst of heat behind him and turned to see Sabo tearing through the Fearlings blocking their way. The Logia was constantly burning, flames dancing down his sleeves and Luffy's burning vivre card clutched in his left hand. His movements were sharp, angry… and urgent.

"How are you feeling?" Jack asked.

"I'm determined, not scared." Sabo reported shortly.

"Same." Koala called as she decapitated a Nightmare with a well-placed strike.

The three had decided beforehand to monitor and share their mental states with each other while in the lair. Fear was their enemy— literally— and they needed to give Pitch as little advantage as possible. Jack's snowballs might be able to inspire a feeling of fun in others and ward off fear but he did not want to rely on them to help if someone was overcome by terror. The Nightmare King was so strong by this point that the Guardian did not know if his snowballs would even do anything anymore.

A Fearling leapt from the shadows in front of Jack and he blocked its attack with his staff, pushing the creature away with a blast of ice and wind. Law slashed it in half as it soared towards him and the monster dissipated into shadows. Nightmares took its place but the Guardian and Sabo destroyed them before they could get close.

The Revolutionaries were right. Determination was Jack's foremost emotion, with fear nowhere to be found. Instead the anger simmered, ready to boil over at any moment. More Nightmares and Fearlings were frozen and shattered by merciless snow. The vivre card led them down a confusing path, with the rescuers having to travel through many twists and turns as they ran to save the Straw Hats. Jack guessed that Pitch had intentionally taken them deep into his lair in order to reduce the chance of others saving them easily. Luckily for the Spirits and humans, while the Nightmares and Fearlings were numerous, in these halls they could only attack a few at a time.

The rescuers just had to be careful not to block their way in with glass or ice.

"Damn it!" Sabo shouted as he did just that. Haki covered his arm, and he punched the glass wall he had just created with all the rage of his element. "Let me through!"

The sand-created glass shattered, breaking into pieces and Jack had to physically stop the blond Revolutionary from storming through it recklessly.

"You can't get cut!" he reminded the Logia. "If the sand gets in your blood, you'll turn."

Something haunted flickered through the Revolutionary's blue eyes before he nodded and proceeded with caution through the sharp shards. The others followed and Baby Tooth gave a warning cry as a Nightmare popped up behind Law. Koala struck the creature before it could attack. He returned the favor by stabbing a diving Fearling before it could sink its claws into her back.

They went down, further and further.

Left, right, left, left, down, right, left. Sabo was eventually forced to stay ignited to light their way, the lair growing darker and darker, but they did not grow worried. They did not become afraid.

And then they found them.

It was like a scene from a horror movie. The Straw Hat Pirates were suspended from the ceiling by black tendrils that covered most of their bodies with expressions of pure terror on their faces. Seeing the looks on Nami, Usopp, and Chopper were not unusual, but to see fear in Luffy, Sanji, and Zoro's eyes was unnerving and wrong.

Tears leaked from Usopp's closed eyes. Nami's breathing was more like hysterical gasps. Chopper was trembling and constantly shaking his head, mouthing denials. Sanji was as pale as a ghost. Zoro scowled and occasionally flinched, straining as if he were trying to back away from something. But it was Luffy who worried Jack the most.

The Straw Hat Captain was blank-eyed and slack jawed, staring straight ahead without seeing anything at all.

If not for his suspended position, he would look exactly like he had when Ace had died in front of him three years ago, that same brutal oblivion overtaking the rubber pirate and leaving him as helpless and unaware as a sickly baby. Sabo emitted a sound that was a mix of a wail and strangled gasp. He stumbled forward, hand ablaze, but Koala grabbed his arm to stop him.

"Don't." she said. "You don't have enough control yet. Besides, your fire might not even free them and that stuff could cling to you."

Sabo opened his mouth to protest but Law interjected before he could.

"Don't waste time bickering. We are better suited to fight the Fearlings and watch for Pitch."

The Revolutionary clenched his teeth but did not argue with the surgeon, turning and glowering at the shadowy hall like he was daring any Nightmares to show their ugly mugs. Unluckily for the creatures, some did. They were swiftly disposed of by a plume of roaring flames. Law refrained from attacking as well and let the Logia vent, instead keeping a hand on his nodachi as he surveyed the many shadows around them. Baby Tooth remained an extra set of eyes on his hat. The Guardian and the Revolutionary left them to it. Jack and Koala approached the comatose Straw Hats carefully, with the Winter Spirit reaching out to hold the orange-haired woman back.

"Whatever you do, don't touch the black stuff. If you do you'll probably be trapped or knocked out as well."

"Noted." She said testily, jaw locked with anger and disgust. "So what do we do?"

Jack leaned over and studied the black shadow-like gunk the pirates were suspended in. It was neither gas, liquid, nor solid, instead shifting between all forms as if it had none. It was nauseating and unsettling to observe, and looked like it was sucking in the light around it. More importantly, the longer he watched, the paler and more strained the Straw Hats were getting. They needed to get the pirates out. Fast.

"Law actually might be able to help. He's good at separating things." Koala mentioned.

Jack glanced at her. "Can he remove fear? If they're still afraid, the shadows might just latch right back onto them."

Her uncertain grimace was answer enough. The Winter Spirit and Revolutionary flinched as Luffy writhed in his confinements, back arching and tears leaking from his unseeing eyes. The Straw Hat's mouth opened in what had to be a wail, but no sound escaped him. Jack's skin crawled but he stomped out the fear that wanted to grip his heart.

Forget 'fast'. We need them out  now .

He formed snowballs in his hands, blowing on them gently and infusing them with magic. They turned from pure white to a whitish-blue. Koala watched him curiously, having never seen his 'fun snowballs' before, though her face held slight skepticism.

"Jack…"

"These things made Pitch smile and laugh for a second. Non-evilly." The Guardian said. "If these don't work, I don't know what will."

The orange-haired Revolutionary hesitated, then gave a nod. "Do it."

Jack formed enough snowballs for the six Straw Hats, gathering them in the crook of his left arm with one in his right hand. He inhaled and exhaled, remembering snow days, snowmen, sledding, snowball fights, and good times with Ace. Joyful times, adventurous times, fun times.

"Please let this work." The Guardian of Fun mumbled and threw the snowballs.

They connected with the Straw Hat's faces, exploding into bluish-white crystals. Jack swore the shadows shrieked, releasing their holds on the pirates like they were hot coals. The Straw Hats crumpled to their knees or fell onto their backs as they were dropped. They gasped like drowning people breaking the surface of the water, coughing and wheezing as they blinked bluish-white magic out of their eyes.

Reactions to the snowballs varied. Nami and Chopper gave startled giggles, caught between mirth and hysteria. A smile flashed across Sanji's face before it vanished. Zoro gave a relieved sigh, the tension in his body fading. Only Usopp and Luffy remained outwardly unaffected by the snow's magic. The sniper had stopped crying and awareness had returned to the Captain's eyes, but both stayed silent and pale as they sat on the cave floor.

The moment the shadows were gone, Sabo abandoned his guard position and dashed to his brother, kneeling before him.

"Luffy?" he called his name softly, then more loudly. "Luffy!"

The rubber man did not respond. Koala, Jack, and Law went to the pirates as well and the other Straw Hats finally noticed the newcomers— specifically the Guardian. Zoro stumbled to his feet, wobbly unsheathing his sword with the finesse of a heavily inebriated person.

"Who are you?" he growled, but his menace was greatly diminished by the sheen of sweat on his forehead and the unsteadiness of his stance.

"He's an ally." Law said before a fight could break out. "He's with Koala-ya and Sabo-ya."

The swordsman relaxed, but Jack guessed it was only because he was too tired to keep up the ominous front. Sanji dropped his defensive stance as well and turned to Nami, who was still sitting on the ground. The navigator was ashen and quivering, pupils the size of pinpricks.

"Are you alright, Nami-swan?" the cook asked urgently.

She nodded despite how obvious it was she was lying, gaze shifting to her Captain. Her tremors lessened greatly and she stumbled to her feet, heading over to him.

"Luffy, are you okay?"

The Straw Hat Captain did not appear to hear her. As his brother and navigator fussed over him, Zoro went to Chopper, lifting him up. The doctor did not protest about it, instead clinging to the swordsman as his wild eyes darted around nervously. Usopp got up on his own and went to Sanji, who patted the quiet sniper on the shoulder briefly. Then the chef focused.

"How did you find us? Who is this?" he demanded, gesturing at Jack.

The Winter Spirit went to respond but the Logia of the group interrupted before he could.

"We'll answer that later. First we need to get out of here." Sabo said.

The Guardian swung to face him. "We're leaving?" Jack demanded. "But Pitch—"

Sabo shot him a stern look. "We're leaving. We can't win like this. Usopp and Chopper are afraid, Jack. And…"

He gestured vaguely at the Straw Hats. Nami was breathing heavily, clutching her chest. Usopp was still pale. Sanji grimaced occasionally, hand twitching towards his stomach. Luffy remained silent and subdued, eyes unfocused. The Straw Hats were in evidently bad shape and were in no condition to fight. Jack still wanted to protest.

"We just found Pitch. After this, he might smarten up and move his base. If he leaves, we might never be able to locate Ace—"

"Ace is dead." Luffy whispered, breaking his silence at last.

Jack and Sabo slowly turned to stare at the Straw Hat Captain, who looked blankly at his feet with the air of someone who could not connect with the world around them, instead drifting away as their body spoke on its own.

"Pitch killed Ace after I left him here." The rubber man continued hollowly. "He showed me it— He showed me how…" Luffy began to tremble, that horrific catatonic look returning to his face, but he rambled on. "Pitch beat Ace up, and broke his bones, and cut him up, and then Pitch kept stabbing Ace." The Straw Hat's eyes grew glassy, and a hysterical edge entered his voice. "Ace didn't smile when he died. He cried. He was in so much pain he cried. He— He died alone."

Jack went numb. Anger, worry, fear, frustration, and sorrow all washed away, leaving nothing behind but an endless emptiness. The Guardian could not believe what he had just been told. He refused to believe it. Because if what Luffy claimed was true, Ace was dead. His friend, his believer, his little brother, who he had known and cared for since Ace was an infant was dead. Permanently this time.

All because of Pitch.

"Well done, Luffy. I think you broke him."

The Nightmare King peeled away from the shadows, accompanied by more Nightmares and Fearlings than Jack could count. The pirates, Revolutionaries, and Spirits instinctively gathered together, going back-to-back. The worryingly unresponsive Luffy was shoved in the middle, not even reacting to the Spirit of Fear's presence or words. Pitch only had eyes for Jack, looking at him with a savage hunger that made the Guardian's skin crawl.

"Jack Frost." The Nightmare King spoke his name like it was a delicacy he could not wait to devour. "I apologize for breaking my promise of killing dear Ace in front of you, but I'm afraid I lost control of myself." His eyes flickered to Sabo and Luffy and he grinned. "However, if you would accept a slight alteration, I believe that I can think of some close replacements."

The Winter Spirit's mind was too caught up in what he had been told to take in the threat, though the two Revolutionaries and a few of the Straw Hats certainly did. Zoro and Sanji inched closer to Luffy, and Koala did the same with Sabo. The Logia was paler than Jack had ever seen him, but he glared at Pitch with utter loathing and no trace of fear. Flames sparked to life on his skin.

"You…" the Revolutionary growled.

Pitch raised an eyebrow. "So that's where Ace's old fruit went. I was wondering. No wonder you thought he'd hate you. And blame you for leaving him to die… twice."

Sabo flinched and the flames on his shoulders extinguished. Jack snapped back into his body and stepped between the Nightmare King and the Logia, glowering at the Spirit of Fear. His shock was fading, giving way to a deep rage that was surprisingly unaccompanied by grief. It took a moment, but he realized he could not grieve for Ace like this. Hearing about his death… it was not enough. He could not believe the Summer Spirit was dead. He could not believe Pitch had killed him like that. Especially since…

Blue eyes narrowed to slits.

"If Ace is dead…" Jack said lowly, dangerously. "…Then show me his body."

Something flickered across Pitch's face. Next to the Guardian of Fun, light returned to Luffy's eyes, dark orbs seeking out the stoic, furious Winter Spirit as hope sparked in near-dead eyes.

Jack glared at the Nightmare King, expression challenging. "You promised me you would. But you can't, can you? Which means you didn't kill Ace." He aimed his staff at Pitch, frost crackling along the wood. "So where is he?"

Pitch met his glare and sighed. "You're no fun, Jack. Ironic, considering it's you. And you are correct. Your little…" A devious smirk crossed his face. "…friend is still alive out there. I know where. But I won't tell you. I think it's funny to watch you fly around the world searching for him like a confused goose."

The Wind slammed the Nightmare King into the wall before Jack could. The Winter Spirit flew up to where the Spirit of Fear was pinned, ice crackling over his clothes and staff and his eyes burning with icy rage. He aimed the conduit of his power directly at Pitch's nose, blueish-white gathering at the crook.

"Where. Is. He."

If Jack cared to pay attention, he may have noticed how his voice echoed, carrying a menace and weight akin to clouds hiding a deadly storm. He had believed he would be reunited with Ace soon. He had believed he would finally find his brother, and everything would be okay. He had believed wrong.

Ace was not here. Ace was out in the world somewhere. Ace was likely hurting, in pain, and alone. The Guardian was in no mood to partake in Pitch's manipulative games. He wanted answers, and he wanted them now.

Too bad Pitch disagreed.

The Nightmare King smirked, yellowish eyes gleaming. "Do you think you can threaten me, Jack? Even more ludicrously, do you think you can scare me?" He grinned with too many teeth as shadows crept up the wall behind him. "You weren't there when I explained this to the pirates, so I suppose I must repeat myself. You cannot beat mewhen accompanied by cowards."

Jack's instinctive shield of ice barely slowed the Fearlings as they lunged for the Winter Spirit. The Guardian was thrown out of the air as they struck him, slamming him into the ground with enough force to make it crack. His breath was forced from his lungs with a whoosh and as the creatures bore down on him, Jack could only lay there, stunned. A blast of fire from Sabo prevented the Fearlings from continuing their attack, but they and the Nightmares still swarmed, filling the air above the intended rescuers with writhing darkness.

Freed of the Wind and Jack's holds, Pitch casually flicked his hands and a wave of black sand rushed towards the humans and Spirit. The Guardian swiped his staff and a wall of ice shielded the pirates and Revolutionaries from the blast. There was an ominous rumble as the sand beat against the shelter. He saw hairline cracks forming in his ice and his stomach dropped.

"Run." He said to his allies, who did not move, staring at the growing tsunami with wide eyes. "Run!"

Law regained his bearings and suddenly the rescuers vanished. They reappeared in time to see Jack's shield shatter, the wave of sand overcoming the place where they had just been. The swarm did not stop, continuing after them like a flood, and the Guardian grabbed the closest Straw Hat— Luffy.

"Come on!"

They ran with the sand filling the halls behind them. Usopp gave a terrified shriek as it nipped at his heels like a wolf, but Zoro grabbed his arm, dragging the sniper along and out of the substance's reach. Sabo took the opportunity to send a plume of flames at the sand and the front layers were transformed into glass.

The fleeing rescuers' relief was short-lived as the sand blasted through the obstacle, continuing its pursuit. The Winter Spirit kept his hold on Luffy and took off again, with the humans following suit. Jack spotted a few side-caverns ahead and blocked them off with thick ice, hoping to prevent more enemies from appearing and trapping them on both sides. His foresight proved to be beneficial as Nightmares and Fearlings slammed against the barrier, glaring at the escapees through the clear substance.

Sadly, he could not stop them all. The humans and Spirits did not slow as Nightmares and Fearlings blocked their path, diving for the escapees with unearthly shrieks. Jack dodged one such attack and Luffy reactively punched the Fearling through the head, dispelling it.

"Make sure to stay together." The Guardian ordered as he brought his staff down on a Nightmare's head. "Pitch may seal the exit behind us."

Luffy nodded even as he was dragged along by the Winter Spirit, then turned his head unnaturally to look at Law. "Traffy, can you get us out yet?"

"Not yet." The surgeon said, grunting as he blocked a Fearling's strike.

A Nightmare lunged for the Heart Pirate's back, but Zoro bisected it before it could reach him. The next Nightmare nearly bit the swordsman's face off but Sanji destroyed it with a kick. Jack swore flames appeared around the First Mate as he glared daggers at the cook.

"Don't interfere in my fights, shitty cook!"

Sanji snarled right back. "If you want you lose your other eye, be my guest Marimo!"

Startling them all, Luffy laughed from his position in Jack's hold. A wide grin flashed across his face and he looked directly at Sabo.

"Sabo, Ace is still alive!" he cheered.

The black sand halted for a single moment, but it was enough for the Guardian to block off the path behind them, separating them from the pursuing creations of Fear. The ground shuddered as the sand beat against the ice wall, and once again cracks spread in the thick blockage. Dust fell from the ceiling with every blow, and small pieces of ice fell to the floor and shattered.

Jack blinked and they were elsewhere, three floors up if he could guess correctly. A blue sphere expanded from Law's hand and again they vanished, appearing above ground. They teleported once more just as the ground beneath them exploded. Sand, Nightmares, and Fearlings shot up from the caverns below, pouring into the open air like a hellish geyser.

"So much for avoiding them…" Usopp squeaked.

He screamed as a Fearling went for his throat, sharp claws poised to rip out his jugular. Law did not ask for permission or waste time explaining, instead moving the humans, Fairy, and Spirit to a new position. The sniper nearly sagged in relief as he was swept out of danger but was kept on his feet and pulled along by Sanji.

Law accidentally brought a couple Nightmares with them but Jack and Sabo dispatched of the creatures before they could gain their bearings. A Fearling appeared from the shadows, targeting the surgeon and Nami intercepted it this time, knocking its head off with her staff.

Two more went for Usopp— who gave another yell. A punch from Luffy dissipated the monsters. The future Pirate King gave another laugh and took out a dozen creatures of Fear with a single blow from his stretching arm. The Nightmares and Fearlings stood no chance against the smiling, cackling Straw Hat, and Jack found himself cracking a grin as he watched the rubber man gleefully fight.

"Ace is alive out there!" He proclaimed out loud, as if he wanted to share the words with the whole world. The air around him practically sang with his infectious joy and he gave a whoop. "Ace is alive and free!"

Abruptly, the Nightmares and Fearlings stopped appearing with the humans and Spirits. It was likely because Law was being more careful.

Or maybe because of something else, Jack mused.

A few attempted to chase the pirates down through the air, but soon enough the Spirits and humans were on the deck of the Straw Hats' ship. Crewmembers the Guardian did not recognize— Is that a skeleton? Cool!— immediately brought the ship out to sea. Jack waited tensely for a wave of Fearlings or even Pitch himself to pursue them, but surprisingly not a single black speck dove at them from the air. The Guardian glanced at the sunnily grinning Luffy and had a feeling he knew why.

And then they had time to breathe.

Usopp collapsed to his knees, covered in sweat and laughing weakly in unstable disbelief. "We made it out. We're still alive!"

Next to the sniper, Chopper appeared to be torn between dancing for joy and laughing hysterically, the look on his face suggesting he could not believe they had all made it out in relatively one piece. Law sat down heavily against the mast, brushing off Baby Tooth's worried squeaks, and was instantly asleep. Zoro took that as an excuse to follow suit, much to Sanji's annoyance. The blue-haired guy who was steering the ship finally noticed the added people and missing person from their group, and spoke in a low voice.

"Sabo, Koala, and…" He blinked at Jack. "…white-haired bro are here? But where's Ace-bro?"

Luffy's smile faded. "He wasn't there. But he's alive. We just have to find him."

Jack could only marvel at the Straw Hat Pirate's simple-minded optimism. All it took for him to bounce back was the news that his brother was indeed not dead. Even after what he had been subjected to, Luffy still prevailed and moved forward with the same strength and stubbornness he always had.

It was then that the Winter Spirit finally realized what had happened. He had touched Luffy.

He had dragged him around Pitch's lair.

The Straw Hat Pirate had seen him.

That meant he— he—

Jack looked at Luffy.

Luffy looked at Jack.

The Guardian smiled. He remembers—

The Straw Hat Pirate grinned back. "Thanks for the help, Ice Guy. Who are you anyway?"

ROTGOPROTGOP

Ace still could not believe this was real.

Everything was going too well for him to accept that. He had not fallen asleep since escaping the blizzard nightmare. He had been freed from the stressful infirmary, though he still had to return for check-ups. None of the Whitebeard Pirates had hated or been disgusted with him upon their reunion— to his face at least. He had even succeeded in getting other people to watch over him— specifically Thatch, Izo, and a couple others— so Marco and Bay would not strain themselves. It was all going too smoothly. Something had to go wrong. He was not lucky enough for his life to let him be happy for long.

Ace did his best not to worry, however. If he did not worry, he found that he could actually almost enjoy himself as he hung out with Marco, Bay, Izo, or Thatch. He was not quite comfortable enough to be alone with anyone else yet, but could not push himself to extend his trust more so soon after the last leap of faith.

Many offered to watch over him though. Ace suspected they missed him and wanted to see him. Especially Whitebeard. The Yonko had been giving quite a few subtle and not-so subtle hints that he wanted to speak with the fire-user somewhere private but the Summer Spirit did not have the mental fortitude to meet with him alone yet.

The fire-user was ashamed to admit that he was still wary of Whitebeard, even with Marco's constant reassurance that the Yonko loved and would not harm him. The 'memories' of broken bones, torn skin, and ruptured organs had blended together with Ace's real memories of the aftermaths of trying to assassinate the giant, confusing the Summer Spirit further and making him question which instances had been malicious and which had been done in self-defense and thus his own fault.

Ace wanted to discuss the matter with Marco, but felt incredibly awkward and uncomfortable with the idea. Even before the nightmares the fire-user always felt bitter and remorseful whenever he thought about his failed attempts to assassinate the man who would become his father and knew that he deserved every single injury he received during those attacks. Ace just could not recall which of the now-thousands of 'interactions' had been real, only able to dismiss a few of the wounds he had received from Whitebeard as fake because they had been fatal.

He could not talk about it with Marco, as much as he wanted to. The Phoenix was understanding, listened, and did not rebuke Ace for his false memories and problems, but he did not seem to comprehend that to the fire-user, every strike from Whitebeard— and so many others— had been real. He had 'lived' through their taunts and torture— unless he didn't. He had felt every blow, accepted every insult, and endured more attacks and beatdowns than he had experienced in all his years as a human.

Ace just could not claim all of the attacks had been fake. He knew Whitebeard had hurt him— to defend himself as he should— but he could not think of where to draw the line between 'defense' and 'cruelty'. The real Yonko would never be cruel to him. He would never go so far. The fire-user knew that. But where was the line so that he could try to tell the difference between memorie