“Have you ever noticed that Ace doesn’t make sense?” Haruta asks, staring up at the stars, mostly empty bottle in hand.
“What?” Thatch says. “He’s just being a teenager, probably.”
“No, like, he deeply doesn’t make sense. Haven’t you noticed?”
“Yeah, here. What do you know of his childhood?”
Thatch takes a thoughtful swig. “I think he grew up in a forest, right? And has a little brother?”
“Cool,” Haruta says, and without bothering to sit up or look around, bellows, “Hey Ace!”
“What?” Ace’s harried voice yells back, and Haruta grins up at the stars.
“C’mere a sec!”
“I don’t want to!”
“I didn’t ask what you wanted, I asked you to come here!”
There’s the sound of grumbling and light taps of boots on the deck, which is also odd. Those boots of his are big stompy combat boots, and the only way they wouldn’t be terribly loud is if their owner walked very lightly indeed. “What,” Ace says flatly, leaning over to block Haruta’s view of the sky.
“Hey,” Haruta says. “Settle a bet for us?”
“Oh,” Ace says. “Sure.” He falls to sit next to them, a—well, not graceful, not quite, but practiced and exact movement that again makes little noise. Haruta waves the hand with the bottle towards him, and Ace takes it.
“It’s warm,” he says petulantly, but drains it anyway, and Thatch hands him another because Thatch is made of magic and beer bottles, apparently. “What’s the bet?”
“Is it polite to remove your hat indoors?” Haruta asks instead of answering.
“Uh,” Ace says, and scratches at his head under his own hat. “It kinda depends.”
“Depends on what?” Thatch asks, because he’s caught on—he knows no wild forest brat should know this.
“Location, audience, and hat,” Ace says promptly. “It’s considered passé to wear a hat indoors right now, but that’s kinda a modern thing, and only in the Blues; Grand Line rules say that if the guest doesn’t take their hat off, you don’t ask them to. You probably shouldn’t wear it at the table, though—well, except ladies; they can always wear theirs anywhere.”
“Right,” Haruta says. “What’s the biggest danger in a trash dump?”
“Avalanches,” Ace says promptly. “Those piles aren’t sturdy and you can never tell what way stuff’ll fall. The one I grew up in was kinda—”
“And what’s the best season to hunt a forest tiger?”
“Depends on the island. The forest I grew up in, it was spring; they were more focused on hunting than being wary.”
“What’s the best way to ambush travelers?”
“Well, I don’t know first-hand, of course, but the bandits I grew up with said—”
“And what’s the best selling dish in a small town bar?”
“Makino—she’s the bartender who kinda raised us—always said fried fish.”
“What size bullets does the standard-issue Marine handgun fire?”
“And what are your brothers’ names?”
“Luffy and—wait, what the hell kinda bet is this anyway?”
Haruta finally moves, pushing up with shoulderblades and down with the head to level an upside-down stare at Thatch. Thatch looks back, then nods.
“Yeah,” he says. “Okay. You win.”
“Why would you bet against Haruta?” Ace says, and Thatch hands him another bottle. “Like, ever?”
“I wasn’t aware I had,” Thatch grumbles. “Still, it’s a good point.”
“Thank you,” Haruta says.
“What point?” Ace asks, and Haruta lays back flat, ignoring him with grace.
“So what are you gonna do about it?” Thatch asks, and there’s some mysterious bottle clinks going on from that direction.
“Dunno yet,” Haruta says. “I think I might have to get involved.”
“Really?” Thatch asks. “You think it’s that dangerous?”
“Could be,” Haruta says, then rolls over and twists up to stare at Ace. “I dunno, it could just be like Izo though—long ago and involuntary.”
“Yeah,” Thatch says, thoughtfully. “Maybe I’ll go find Izo and ask.”
“Cool. Lemme know what you find.”
“You’re not joining me?”
“I’m right here,” Ace says plaintively and they both ignore him.
“Nah,” Haruta says. “I’m gonna investigate.”
Thatch shudders. He wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Then again, “Better you than me,” he says to Ace, raising the bottle up to the sky and wishing him luck.
“Hey, Marco,” Haruta says, catching his sleeve. “Hey. Hey, do you think Ace is insane?”
“What?” Marco says, coming to a stop. “What even makes you think that?”
“He makes no sense!” Haruta hisses, leaning in close. “He lies so much!”
“Ace lies? About what?”
“Do you know where he grew up?”
Marco pauses a second and then says, “A forest, I think?”
“I’ve heard that too,” Haruta says, finishing off a mug of coffee. “And sometimes he tells stories about the trash dump he grew up. And the restaurants in High Town he’d dine’n’dash from as a kid, after escaping down a garden wall. And the treehouse in the forest he lived in. And the sea he grew up next to. And the bandits who raised him. And the bartender who raised him. And that he ran wild and no one raised him.”
“I’d believe it, yoi,” Marco murmured. “Still, that’s a lot of different stories—”
“And his family changes, too, depending on when you ask,” Haruta says. “The other night, when he was drunk, he said he had a grandfather and two brothers. This morning, he claimed to be both an orphan and an only child. Does no one else think this is weird?”
“Maybe he just isn’t comfortable talking about himself yet, yoi,” Marco says. “He’s still pretty new; maybe he just doesn’t want to tell us.”
“Or is it can’t tell us?” Haruta says, tugging wildly at loose hair and trying to drink from the empty mug. “Because he also fights with Marine techniques! And I swear I’ve seen him sending letters at night! And he’s out on deck practicing fire flares—what if he’s a spy?”
"Don't you think you're being a little paranoid?"
"I'm not paranoid!" Haruta hisses, eyes darting everywhere. "He's either the best liar I've ever met, or--well, he's not, because if he was I wouldn't suspect anything, but I do, I suspect he's a spy!"
Marco sighs, then leans forward and takes Haruta's cup away. "How much caffeine have you had today?"
"Irrelevant," Haruta says. "What is relevant is the Marine spy in our midst!"
"Ace isn't a spy, yoi."
"That's exactly what he wants you to think!"
"Fine," Marco says. "If he is a Marine spy, he'll know Marine slang, right? Hey, Ace!"
Ace wanders over to them. "Sup?"
"Haruta has a question for you, yoi. Haruta?"
"Hey, Ace, is your rack unsat?"
Ace rocks back on his heels and squints at them. "Nah, it's actually pretty nice? Better than the ground, that's for sure. I've slept in worse places. Why?"
Haruta turns dead eyes to Marco. "Just checking to see how you're settling in."
Ace looks between Marco's thoughtful expression and Haruta's murder glare and visibly decides it's not worth it. "Okay," he says, backing away. "I'm just gonna...go."
"Bye," Haruta says, staring Marco down until Ace is out of earshot.
"Okay," Marco says. "Maybe he's a spy."
“Hey, Ace,” Haruta says, sitting down next to him.
Ace garbles a hello and continues eating.
“You know you can trust us, right?”
Ace stops eating, then swallows and wipes his mouth, sitting back from the table a bit. “What do you mean?”
“Are you sure there’s no, y’know, deep dark secret you wanna tell us?” Haruta asks, leaning in.
“Uh,” Ace says, leaning just as far back. “I have no secrets that I wanna tell you, I’m sure.”
“Too bad,” Haruta says, leaning in even farther. “Tell me anyway.”
“I have the right to my own secrets!”
“Not when they put my family at risk you don’t.”
“I—” Ace starts, but then he stops and closes his eyes. “It’s not—” but he doesn’t finish that either. “You don’t need to know.”
“I really really do,” Haruta hisses. “I’ve already guessed, anyway. I just want confirmation.”
“You guessed? How—what did you—”
“Ace. You’re not subtle.”
“I—yeah, subtle isn’t my strongest suit, huh?” Ace says, and there’s pain on his face, but it’s the clean kind that comes with a break, not the festering kind that incites murder sprees. “But it’s just—it’s a dangerous thing, you know? To tell people. To…be.”
“I knew it,” Haruta says loudly, spinning away to pace wildly in front of the other Commanders. “I knew it! No one believed me, but I told you all!”
“Are you really?” Jozu asks, eyeing Ace speculatively. “I mean, coming here, of all places, with a secret like that… isn’t that dumb?”
“I never said I was smart,” Ace says, eyes downcast, but it’s hollow instead of bitter. “I knew it’d get me killed one day, but it’s not like I had a choice. I never asked for this.”
“Orders can suck,” Izo says sympathetically. “Don’t worry; we’re not mad.”
“Yeah, they—” Ace says, then his head snaps up. “Wait, what?”
“It’s not like we even let you near any important information anyway,” Izo continues. “And all the truly sensitive information’s not even written down, so you can’t have stolen it.”
“Wait,” Ace says, glancing back and forth between them all. “Sensitive information?”
“See!” Haruta says, pointing at Ace. “See! He wants to know the sensitive information! Because--”
“No, I—” Ace says, eyebrows pulling down.
“ --because he’s a sneaky Marine spy!”
“I’m a spy?” Ace repeats, befuddled.
“He admits it!”
“I—hang on now! I’m not a spy!”
“You just said you were!” Haruta yells in his face.
“It’s okay,” Izo says. “We’ve decided to keep you anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”
Ace’s face is a study in confusion, but Haruta just leans back into his space and says, “I’m watching you, spy.”
“I’m not a spy!”
“That’s what a spy would say!”
“Dunno how you thought you’d get away with it,” Jozu says, already losing interest and standing. “You’re kinda a shit liar, kid.”
“I’m an excellent liar!” Ace says, standing up too and leaning on the table.
“You’re really not,” Izo says kindly. “You’re as good a liar as you are a spy.”
“But I’m not a spy!” Ace says, turning wounded eyes Izo’s way.
“Right, just like you’re not a liar?”
“No, I lie! I lie very well! I’m a liar but not a spy!”
“Case in point,” Izo says and puts a hand on his arm, trying to calm him. “Don’t worry, we can teach you to be a better liar. And a better spy.”
“I don’t—” Ace says, turning to Haruta.
“Well you know what I don’t? Care,” Haruta says. “You think you can just show up and put on a show of attacking Pops to gain our trust? I’ve been onto you since you got here, mister!”
“I,” Ace says, and it’s his turn to lean in, “announced my intention to become a pirate at the age of five and never once looked back. I have literally fought my entire life to not become a Marine.”
“Then how do you explain the messages you send to Marine HQ every month?!”
“Don’t give me that, Ace. Of course I read the outgoing mail of spies!”
“You what? No, I—it’s to be expected, it’s—” Ace cuts himself off, then huffs. “I have to send my gramps a letter every now and again, or he’d come looking for me, and trust me, no one wants that.”
“That makes no sense, Ace.”
“You’re the one not making sense here! And stop reading my mail!”
“You know,” Izo says, resting his chin on his hand and looking up at Ace. “All this repression is bad for you. Admitting your true identity to yourself is the first step to true happiness.”
“He’s not repressed,” Haruta says, and Ace says, “Thank you,” but then Haruta continues right over him, “He’s not repressed, he’s a spy.”
“They’re not mutually exclusive,” Izo says, and Ace pushes off the table.
“I’m not repressed, I’m not a Marine, I’m not a spy, and I’m not listening to this!”
They all watch him stalk off and Izo sighs. “I can’t help but worry for him.”
“Don’t worry too much,” Haruta says cheerfully, already bouncing up to follow. “I’ll have proof soon enough.”
It turns out that the main problem with one of your siblings screaming about imaginary spy allegiances for everyone to hear is that, well, people hear it.
Ace is leaning on the rail, staring out at the sea, when a guy he vaguely recognizes as a Third division member sidles up to him. The guy’s got some bland name, right? Smith?
Probably-Smith leans on the rail next to him, copying his posture, and then murmurs, “I think your cover’s pretty blown, sir.”
Oh, for shit’s sake. “I’m not a sir,” Ace grits out, and the other guy blinks at him.
“Of course, of course you’re not,” he agrees easily. “Totally, I got it. I’m just saying, if you were, hypothetically, burned and needed a secure backchannel… well. There’s options.”
“I’m not a spy,” Ace says, and if his voice is flat, it’s only as flat as his hope.
“Sure,” Smith says. “Yessir. I understand completely.”
“I really feel like you don’t,” Ace says, but the idiot just salutes him and turns neatly on a heel to leave him alone.
Ace sighs and pushes himself off the rail. That makes five in the past two days. Still, if they’re gonna be that stupid, he may as well make use of it.
It only takes him a few minutes to track down Haruta because Haruta, despite appearances, does actually have responsibilities and often spends afternoons in the communications center.
“Hey, Haruta,” he says, dropping a list of scribbled names on the desk.
“What’s this?” Haruta asks, picking it up.
“It’s a list of Marine spies who have come up to me to confess,” Ace says. “And I wrote them down and I’m giving them to you to prove that I’m not a spy.”
Haruta picks up the list and inspects it. “Thanks, I think.”
“You think?” When he gets nothing in response, Ace sighs and props on hand on his hip. “So? Does this prove I’m not a spy?”
Haruta looks up this time. "What? No. This is obviously a sacrifice ploy to get us to trust you. You tell me the ones you know we know, and leave just one or two that you think we don't know, right? Newsflash, bro, it ain't working. I still got my eyes on you."
Ace stares for a second, then throws his arms out and makes incoherent upset noises.
“If you’re gonna have a breakdown because I’m smarter than you, go do it elsewhere,” Haruta tells him. “I’ve got work to do, spies to root out, regimes to topple. You know.”
“I hate you,” Ace says blankly. It’s a clean kind of hatred, this, one he’s never felt before; it is simple, utter denial of everything Haruta is and stands for.
“That’s nice for you,” Haruta says. “Now, shoo.”
At the next port, a whole passel of brothers are put off the ship. Ace stands there and watches them file off the gangway and down onto the shore because Haruta has dragged him there and is now standing right behind him to prevent him from running.
“You’re amazing,” probably-Smith says, stopping to salute him. “Good luck with your mission, sir!”
“I’m not a Marine!” Ace yells, probably too loud, and every single spy in the line nods and agrees.
“Of course,” another guy Ace has never seen before says, stepping up and holding out his hand. Ace stares at it a bit but ends up taking it because it’s polite. “Been an honor serving with you, sir. Good luck.”
Ace stares at him as he pumps Ace’s limp hand up and down in a vigorous shake and peels away, leaving a sharp-folded piece of paper in his palm.
The last guy, a rather compact man that plays the flute during music nights, nods at Ace and says, “Don’t worry. We’ll tell headquarters all about this innovative approach.”
“Please don’t,” Ace says helplessly, but he just throws a lazy salute and then they’re all gone.
“Bye!” one of the spies on the dock says, waving as the gangway is retracted. Ace stares at them all and most of them wink back at him.
He turns to Haruta. “I don’t know them.”
“Sure,” Haruta says unsympathetically.
“I’m not a Marine,” he says for the millionth time.
Haruta turns and walks away, so Ace leans against the rail and watches the dock disappear into the distance. He’s been there long enough for the sky to shade its way to sunset orange when someone leans on the rail next to him and sighs explosively.
“Yeah,” Ace says and sighs too.
“You’re not actually a Marine spy, are you?” Teach asks him, and Ace turns pathetically grateful eyes to his new best friend.
“I’m not, no. Thank you.”
Teach just laughs at him. “You’re too loud to be a spy,” he says.
“I—” Ace stops, torn between pointing out that being loud is actually a valid spying technique and joyful acceptance that someone believes him. “Yes,” he finally says. “Aren’t spies supposed to be all quiet and sneaky? I’m too loud and obvious and not at all trustworthy. I’d be a shit spy. Exactly.”
Teach stares at him. “Huh,” he says slowly. “You know, I didn’t believe it.”
“Didn’t?” Ace says, not liking that past tense.
“But you’re not dumb. They’re talking about making you Commander and they don’t let idiots be in charge of stuff.”
“Making me what?”
Teach is looking him over speculatively. “Actually,” he says, “you would make a great spy, wouldn’t you?”
“No,” Ace says, all his hope gone. “No, I wouldn’t.”
“You came out of East Blue with no prior record and got a super high bounty really fast,” Teach says. “Almost too high for what they say you did.”
“I got my bounty because I’m an evil, amoral, ruthless pirate,” Ace says but he has no hope of being believed.
“And then you fought Jinbe, sure, but he’s a Shichibukai,” Teach continues. “That’s—not a bad setup for an infiltrator. And no one suspects an angry murderboi of being a spy.”
“Because I’m not.”
“You fight with Marine moves sometimes, did you know?”
Ace scowls and looks away. He knows. His Gramps made sure they were strong enough to survive, and that meant training until moves were instinct. It’s not his fault Gramps taught them straight out of the Marine handbook.
“I don’t mean to,” Ace says.
“Okay,” Teach says, looking away. “Hey, can I ask you something?”
“Wish you wouldn’t.”
“How would….one go about becoming a shichibukai anyway?”
“I dunno. Murder, chaos, probably. Sell your soul and prove it, basically?” Ace shrugs. “Not a career path I was ever very interested in.”
Teach hums. “Makes sense. They say you turned it down, but of course you would, huh? Man, your backstory is really thorough.”
Ace thinks of his gramps and the secrets he keeps behind his nightmares, and he sighs. “I suppose it is, isn’t it?”
Teach bumps him with his shoulder, and Ace stands his ground and bumps back. “Thanks for almost believing me,” he says, and Teach grins back at him.
“Any time. You wanna go raid the kitchens?”
Ace finds that he really does.
Haruta’s up the mizzenmast indulging in a new favorite pastime (hiding in tall places and avidly watching Ace’s every movement), which is why Haruta is the first to notice when the weird stranger with blatant spy tendencies shows up to debrief Ace.
He comes out of nowhere, all dressed in blues and blacks, and knows Ace by name. He’s also loud, full of lies, and could not be more obviously a spy if he wore a sign.
He starts talking in a weird code at Ace, who at first refuses to acknowledge his presence. Then he attacks Ace with a pipe, and the two of them brawl it out for a while, shouting a whole bunch of stuff that doesn’t make sense.
Haruta makes notes of what they say anyway. They talk a lot about a “gramps”, which is obviously code for superior officer—Ace’s few letters were always addressed to a “gramps,” so that holds.
Apparently Blondie was dead? Or away on a deep cover mission, sounds like. Haruta scribbles madly, trying to pinpoint locations and times as the two boys try to murder each other on the deck.
When they finally stop, Haruta looks up and watches more closely. The blond spy kid pulls out a book, thick with notes and pieces of papers shoved into it and hands it over to Ace, who takes it like it’s a treasure.
New code manual? Possibly orders. Report forms, new rendezvous spots? Haruta needs to see that book, even if it means going through Ace.
Still, that’s about as much as can be learned at a distance. Time to get closer and see what a bit of prudent questioning and baiting can drag out of them.
Haruta slides off the lowest rail of the mizzen, grabs a rat line and hits the deck just far away that they don’t notice, then wanders that way.
They both shut up when they hear footsteps, though, and they are anything but subtle about it. “Oh, sorry,” Haruta drawls. “Sure didn't mean to interrupt your secret spy info exchange time."
Ace sighs. "For the last time, Haruta, I'm not a spy."
Mmhmm. Haruta eyes the new kid. "How about you, blue boy, are you not a spy either?"
Blondie grins up, big and bright and full of bad life decisions. "Me? Oh, I'm totally a spy."
Yeah, that’s what—wait. "See? See!?” Haruta whirls, but there’s no one in range to point this out to. “Wait—hang on, does admitting to it make you a better or worse spy than Ace?"
Blondie draws himself, all offended and it’s almost cute. "I am the best spy, excuse you!"
"Worse than, got it,” Haruta nods. “Good to know.”
“Hey now,” Ace says, and Blondie’s bristling up hilariously, but also Hiroto is coming up and gesturing to Haruta.
“New report in, he says, and leans in to murmur about an attack on the island of Basque Ripp not two hundred miles from them.
Ugh, work. “Later,” Haruta says, waving off Ace and Blondie, already making mental lists about who’s where and who could have and who has motive--
“Get back here!” Blondie howls, fighting as Ace pins him down.
“Chill,” Ace hisses, and some other stuff that Haruta doesn’t hear. Ace is a fun puzzle, but there’s work to do.
Ace turns back, looking over his shoulder. For a second he’s expecting another ambush with a pipe, but it’s just Teach.
“Oh, hey,” he says. “Haven’t seen you around recently. What’s up?”
“Was off the ship,” Teach says, throwing a thick arm over Ace’s shoulders and shaking him a bit. “Just got back!”
“Welcome back then,” Ace says, ducking to get out of the friendly gesture and shoving him playfully. He comes away with red tacky liquid on his hands and makes a face. “Hey, think you got some of that cherry filling stuff on you.”
“Nah,” Teach says, laughing at him. “It’s just a bit of blood.”
Ace stops, looking down at the tacky red on his hands and yes—it is, isn’t it? It’s blood. “Are you hurt? This is a lot of blood. Let’s get you to the infirmary—”
“Nah, it’s not mine; don’t worry so much, Ace!”
“It’s not yours?” Ace says, eyeing the black coat his friend’s wearing and how it’s just a bit off its usual shade. “Were you on a mission?”
“Nope, just doing what you told me,” he says, smiling. “Haven’t heard about Basque Ripp yet?”
Actually, Ace has; it’s the first time since the whole spy thing Haruta’s talked about something different. “Massive attack, right? I heard that a lot of civilians were…”
The red on his hands suddenly looks redder to his eyes.
“You said murder and chaos, right?”
Teach is still grinning at him. “To apply to be a shichibukai. That’s what you said.”
“That’s what I said,” Ace repeats numbly. “So you went and…”
“Yup. Is that it, or do I need to do more?”
There’s bile in his throat, blood on his hands, and the weight of dead civilians on his shoulders, but Ace swallows, drops his hands and squares his shoulders. This is on him, and he’s gonna fix it.
There’s no evidence, not that Ace has. Haruta might, but Haruta needs time and Ace can’t risk attacking a brother on the deck of the Moby Dick without proof, not when they’re all convinced he’s a spy.
Wait, they do think he’s a spy, right? So he may as well lean into it. He turns off his heart and thinks what would Sabo do?
“That should do it,” Ace says, closing his eyes and twisting his lips up in a smile. He wipes his palms on his shorts and bounces on his toes a bit. “Couldn’t have done it better myself. I’ll even put in a good word for you!”
“Knew I could count on you!” Teach says, clapping him on the back, and it makes Ace’s skin crawl, but he laughs, keeping it light.
“C’mon,” he says. “Nearest Marine outpost to here’s, what? Grand Belle? We can be there in two hours.”
“There’s one on Isla Preto, right?” Teach says, glancing at Ace sideways and Ace thinks calm, calm, and laughs again.
“Have you seen it? It’s a shed with a petty officer in charge. Nah, Grand Belle’s got at least a Captain leading it up, which means a secure line to HQ.”
“You really are smart, aren’tcha?” Teach says, smiling. “Sure. When do we leave?”
Ace feels blood drying on his soul and pulls up a big bright grin. “No time like the present! Lemme just grab some, uh, identifying papers and we’ll head out now.”
Teach laughs. “Sure, works for me. You don’t waste time, do you?”
“Hesitation and dithering just gets what you love killed,” Ace says as lightly as he can, and makes his escape, ducking into his cabin to grab his travel pack and making it back up to the deck in record time, where Teach has got a small launch ready to go.
Because of course he couldn’t have picked the cutter, could he? He doesn’t care about speed, not like Ace does.
Well, maybe he can use this anyway. It’s not his Striker, but necessity is the mother on invention and Ace really needs to get this over with, so he slips his legs up under a bench, wedges his toes against the hull and takes a second to angle his arms just right.
“Hang on,” he says, then lights his hands up. It takes a bit of trial and error, tweaking how much and how wide the flame hits, but he finally gets them skipping along faster than the wind would carry them otherwise.
Teach laughs and yells something, but Ace can’t hear it over the crash of the hull over the waves and the roar of the fire he’s putting out. Which is great, come to think of it, because the last thing he wants to do right now is make smalltalk.
It’s not his Striker, not optimized to handle this speed or to minimize fire usage, and it ends up taking a lot out of Ace to keep it up, but he digs deep and powers through anyway. When they do eventually approach the island, he cuts the fire gratefully and lets them drift in naturally.
He needs the time to stop shaking before Teach notices.
Docking is easy, and Ace digs up a shirt out of his bag to cover his tattoo then leads the way into town. He’s been here before, just once and long ago, but the vague memory and some judicious guessing means he gets them to the Marine base on the first try.
There’s a grunt behind the front desk and Ace marches right up and leans both hands on the wood. “Hey, lemme talk to the captain.”
The guy looks up at him and raises an eyebrow. “Why should I?”
Ace grits his teeth and glances over his shoulder. Teach is standing there, watching him, so he does the only thing he can, the one thing he swore he’d never ever do.
He snaps to attention and salutes and says, “It’s an eyes-only report for the captain.”
“Oh!” the grunt says. “Yeah, just a sec, he should be free right now. Wait just a second.”
Ace steps back and watches the grunt duck into the office on the left. Teach comes up behind him, he can feel the approach like a shadow over his nerves, and he carefully doesn’t react.
“You really are a Marine, then,” Teach says. “I knew it, but I just couldn’t see it.”
The trip to get here has shredded his nerves and his grin is being held on with determination and hatred at this point, so he doesn’t turn around. How does Sabo live like this? It’s exhausting and he hates it.
Luckily the grunt’s looking towards him and making a gesture, so it’s almost over. He sighs and says, “Wait here a sec? I’ve just gotta vouch for you.”
“Yeah, course,” Teach says and pulls out one of those cherry pies he likes. The sight turns Ace’s stomach, and he sets his eyes forward and marches off to the captain’s office.
“Report?” the captain asks, and Ace sighs.
“I’m not a Marine,” he says.
The captain’s eyes snap up and he frowns. “Then why are you here?”
“See that guy out there?” Ace says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder and then turning to look himself. They both stare at Teach through the glass and Teach looks back mildly and nods at them.
Ace takes a deep breath. “He’s a wanted pirate. From the Second Division of the Whitebeard Pirates. And I’m here to turn him in for the bounty.”
Ace hauls himself back over the rail, glancing around. Maybe no one noticed his brief absence?
“You missed lunch,” Haruta says, popping up right in front of him, and he nearly goes backwards over the rail. “You never miss lunch.”
“Had an errand to run,” Ace says, shrugging his bag up higher on his shoulder.
“A spy errand?” Haruta demands, leaning in, and Ace frowns.
“In order to run spy errands,” he says, “I’d have to be a spy. And I’m not.”
Haruta frowns but steps back, making the I’m watching you eye finger gesture.
Ace stares until Haruta’s gone, then sighs and goes straight back to his room. He’s got stuff to do tonight, like scrub his skin til he feels clean again and possibly stare at the ceiling in regret for a few hours.
He does doze, but only fitfully, and he’s tired enough in the morning that his first stop is the mess to beg some coffee from Thatch.
Or that would be his first stop, but he’s not even halfway across the deck when there’s a faraway sound that sends shivers down his spine.
He looks around but there’s nothing unusual to be seen, so he turns and scans the horizon instead.
There’s a shape off the portside, and he squints at it. It looks kind of familiar, like something he should know…
“Brat!” someone screams in the distance and Ace freezes in horror.
It’s not fair. He turns on his heel, fully intending to go back to bed until this day is over.
But of course he can’t, because of course Haruta chooses that second to pop up between him and the door.
“So, Ace. You know why we’ve got Marines coming at us?”
“This is your fault,” Ace hisses. “You and your stupid spy crusade. I told you, didn’t I? I told you you didn’t want Gramps coming by, and you’ve gone and got him to visit.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Haruta says and Ace snarls and tried to dodge past to the door behind.
Haruta trips him, then adds insult to injury by sitting on his back as he thrashes and yells.
“I hate you,” Ace says, clawing at the deck with his fingernails. “I hate you and I’m not gonna mourn for even a second when you catch a cannon ball with your face.”
“Why would I do that?” Haruta asks absently, but then something comes flying at them from the Marine ship and it’s not a cannon ball at all.
“Ace!” Garp the Fist yells, hitting the deck and leaving a sizable dent. “Ace! Where’s the brat?”
Ace has stopped fighting and is now trying his best to hide behind Haruta as Garp starts screaming about how he always knew Ace would get over himself and make a great Marine one day!
He finds Ace eventually because Haruta is a traitor who gives him up at the slightest provocation. Garp picks Ace up by the arms and shakes him wildly back and forth as he goes on; he's so proud! the spies on the Whitebeards' crew had reported how amazing he was! he's already turning in bounties! Can a promotion to admiral be far behind?
“I knew it, I knew it,” Haruta hisses. “This is the proof I need. You’re totally a Marine spy!”
Ace looks around at his family staring at him while his Gramps yells about being a perfect Marine and he just---he gives up. "Fine," he says, eyes as dead as his voice. "Yes. Marine, me. Totally that thing. Spying all day. Secrets and shit. You got me."
“I’m so proud of you, Ace,” Izo says, stepping forward to clap him on the shoulder. “Coming out like this is a big step, you know? We’re all very proud of you.”
“Nice to see you being honest, kid,” Jozu says with a crooked smile.
“We support you in all your life choices,” Atmos tells him, swooping in to grab both of his hands and wave them wildly. “We’re so honored you feel comfortable enough to tell us this!”
A hand lands on his head and he looks up to see Marco smiling at him. Marco just nods, then tilts his head towards the left.
Ace’s eyes follow and he sees Pops sitting there, grinning widely. “It’s good to be true to yourself, son,” he rumbles, gesturing, and Ace goes to stand in front of him. “Thank you for telling us.”
“Yes,” Ace says hollowly, letting himself bounce when people start slapping his back. “True to myself. My spy self. That’s me.”
Pops laughs at him and pats him carefully on the head. “We love you anyway, son,” he says.
“Thanks,” Ace says, and stands there and endures it until he can wander off to look for the cause of his misery.
He gets away in just enough time to overhear Haruta hiss at Marco, and he gets closer because apparently eavesdropping on Haruta is now a necessary preventative measure in his life.
"I have been studying Ace for two years now, trying to catch him in his lies,” Haruta is saying, low and fast to Marco. “I know every tell that boy has and exactly what he means when he says stuff."
"That's because you're a terrifying stalker, yoi."
"Yes, but the point is, is I know when he's lying, and Marco, Marco--” Haruta leans in so close they’re practically nose-to-nose. “When he admitted to being a spy just now? He was lying."
Marco blinks, laughs, and straightens up, leaving Haruta to let go or get lifted off the ground. "Sure, Haruta. It's okay, you don't have to cover for him just because you feel guilty, yoi."
“You don’t understand. I think maybe Ace was telling the truth all along—”
Just then, Thatch slams open the door and starts passing out a really alarming amount of food. He’s holding too much and one of the platters starts to tip.
“Hold that thought,” Marco says to Haruta and takes off.
Ace takes his place. “Hello,” he says, spreading his arms. “I hope you like living in a constant bubble of disbelief because you’re the one who made it.”
“I didn’t--” Haruta starts, the stops, looking around. “Huh. No one will ever believe me again, will they?”
“Oh, they will,” Ace says, and he should be pissed, should be petty and vengeful, but all he is is empty. “They’ll believe you so hard that you’ll never convince them you were wrong.”
Haruta just nods, and they stand there in commiserative silence for a minute. “I'm gonna go take a nap," Ace says, but he really means more along the lines of lay down, stare at the ceiling, and regret my life.
Thatch leans over his shoulder, offering him a cup. “A nap?” he asks. “When there’s all this going on?”
Izo elbows him in the side and hisses, "That's code for steal secrets from Pops, you idiot."
“Oh,” Thatch says at the same time that Ace and Haruta chorus, "No, it's not!"
“I thought we were past this denial, Ace,” Izo says, then gives Haruta a withering look. “Don’t enable him. Backslides are dangerous.”
“Here,” Thatch says, shoving the cup into Ace’s hands. “C’mon, we’ve got a cake for you and everything! It’s strawberry; your favorite!”
“That’s not my favorite,” Ace says. “It’s Izo’s favorite and he told you that so you’d make it anyway.”
“What?” Thatch says, turning wounded eyes to his brother. “Did you really?”
Izo shrugs, stepping away. “Ace wouldn’t tell me his favorite and no one knows, so I guessed.”
“That’s not the point of a celebratory cake! It’s supposed to be Ace’s favorite! Get back here! Will you still like it so much when I drop it on your head?! Get back here, Izo!” and they’re gone.
“I’m in hell,” Haruta says, staring after their retreating brothers. “I’m in a backwards hell where you’d actually be a great spy but you’re not one after all.”
“It’s not hell,” Ace says. “This is my life.”
Haruta considers this for a moment. “I should probably apologize.”
“Probably,” Ace agrees. “But you’re not gonna, are you?”
“Let’s get drunk instead.”
Three bottles later, Haruta looks at Ace and says, “Did you really turn Teach in for his bounty?”
“Yeah,” Ace says. “He was the one behind Basque Ripp.”
“I know,” Haruta says. “I found out after you’d left. He’d just disappeared, and you were gone.”
it's Ace's turn to probably apologize, but he doesn’t. He just sighs and looks out at the speck on the horizon that’s the retreating Marine ship.
Haruta nudges him. “Whatcha gonna do with the money then?”
Ah, yes, the silver lining. There is at least one good thing that came of this mess. “Already spent it.”
“Yeah, every belli.”
“It was several thousand belli! What could you have possibly spent it on in one day?!”
Ace can’t help it; he grins. He may be exhausted, sleep deprived, at fault for several murders, a traitor to at least one ex-brother, and apparently an outed Marine spy, but he’s also done this one thing right. “I had a bar tab to pay off,” he says, “back home in East Blue.”