“So you know how Usopp has the Tele Tele ability? When she was a kid, she ate it and teleported to a bunch of places without being able to decide where she can go. One of the places she ended up at was my home.”
“She stayed with us for three days, and she spent those three days whining and crying and following us around,” Ace added. “When she finally left, she came back a week later. This was a recurring thing—her reappearing and disappearing—until we were, what, fourteen and seventeen?”
“Luffy told me that I stopped showing up a few months before your departure,” Usopp said.
“Oh, yeah. What happened, by the way?”
She shrugged. “I just stopped teleporting there. It wasn’t like I intended for that to happen.”
Ace was eleven-years-old when a girl showed up at their secret base.
"Hey, who the hell are you?" Luffy demanded.
Ace smacked him upside the head. "Remember what Makino-san told you, moron!"
"Oh, yeah." Luffy executed a short bow and shouted, "Nice to meet you! I'm Monkey D. Luffy, the future King of the Pirates! Please tell me who the hell you are!"
"Wait, there's something wrong with that..."
As Ace mused over what exactly sounded off with Luffy's introduction, the girl suddenly burst into a fit of tears. Both boys reeled back, alarmed by the crying girl. They panicked for a moment before jumping into action. Given how they had no idea how to properly handle crying girls, they responded with the best way they knew how.
"Quit crying!" Ace snapped, brandishing a fist. "Or I'll hit ya!"
"Yeah!" Luffy joined in. "We'll give you a nasty bruise!"
That just made her cry even harder.
At a loss, Ace and Luffy helplessly exchanged looks. Yelling angrily usually worked with them, especially whenever Gramps was the one who did the yelling. What was so different this time around? Was it because the kid was a girl?
"Ace, do something," Luffy whispered.
"What the hell am I supposed to do?" Ace whispered back. "I don't know how to deal with girls. I can barely put up with Dadan."
"What about Dadan?"
"Dadan's a girl, Luffy."
Luffy's eyes grew as large as dinner plates. "Dadan's a girl?" he shrieked, astonished. "I thought she was a goblin!"
"I thought so too, but when I asked her if she was one, she started screaming my ears off. I think she's tricking herself into thinking that she's a girl, but whatever."
"Aren't girls supposed to be, like, nicer looking? Like Ma-chan?"
Ace wasn't sure about looking nicer (although, Makino definitely was pretty), but he did remember hearing about girls being much more delicate than boys. If that was the case, then what was Dadan, really? She was hardly delicate but ogreish. She actually reminded him of Garp in terms of their brutish strength. That line of thought came to a halt when the girl's crying escalated up a pitch. Ace and Luffy winced.
"Wh-where am I?" the girl said, or at least what Ace gathered from the intervals of hiccuping and blubbering.
"You're in our secret base!" Luffy said.
Ace smacked him again. "Idiot! The point of a secret base is to keep it a secret!"
When the crying devolved into whimpering, the girl managed to introduce herself as Usopp.
Ace was twenty-years-old when he held Usopp's body in his arms.
He remembered standing between Akainu and Luffy, willing to take that blow that had been meant for his brother when—pop!—Usopp had appeared out of nowhere.
The next thing he remembered was Akainu's fist plowing through her chest.
Ace couldn't process it. His mind fell blank despite the words that had burst out from his lips. He didn't know what he had said. He didn't even register how long he had been on his knees, cradling Usopp to his chest. Her hot blood gushed out of the gaping hole in her chest, painting his arms and lap red. It was hot, yet Ace felt frigidly cold.
"Ace!" he vaguely registered, a cry coming from the distance. "Ace! Ace!"
Someone yanked him on his feet and got him moving.
Somewhere along the disarray, he and Luffy sustained an injury from Akainu even after the blow that Usopp had taken for them.
The shock of Usopp's unseeing eyes, however, had numbed the pain.
Ace was twelve-years-old when he and Luffy tried to train Usopp.
It was hopeless. She kept whining about how difficult it was and would give up halfway into the exercise. Despite her unwillingness to get stronger, Usopp continued to boast about how she would become the greatest warrior of the seas, be the captain of eight thousand men, and conquer the world with just her handy-dandy slingshot.
Ace found it irritating. The girl believed that everything would work out in her favor when she hardly put in the effort. She had griped about being only nine, that she didn't need to worry about the hard stuff until years later. Yet off she went, parading the forest grounds while crowing about her nonexistent qualifications. It was annoying when Luffy would lap it all up as though it was the truth.
But what was even more annoying was when she would talk about her father.
"Anyway, my dad's a fearless pirate. You met him, Luffy; he's Yasopp, the greatest marksman who has ever existed!"
"Whoa!" Luffy's eyes twinkled in his awe. "That's so cool, Usopp!"
The girl preened, a wide smile spreading across her face. "Heh, isn't it?"
Whenever she would get like this, Ace wanted to march up to her and say, "Well, I'm the Pirate King's son! Do you see me lying around doing nothing?" But he never did. His words probably wouldn't get through her, and she might not even believe him if he disclosed his relation to Gold Roger. Not that it mattered—Usopp was just some dumb girl who kept showing up at their base because she sucked at controlling her power. She was hardly his friend.
Still... There was a part of him that didn't want to leave her alone.
Maybe it was how she was relying on the belief that if her father was an amazing pirate, then she would become one naturally. That notion deeply vexed him, but, for some reason, he couldn't find it in himself to direct that anger at her. He was more exasperated by her laziness and lies.
One day, when she was complaining about Luffy forgoing playing for training, Ace told her to join them instead. Usopp scoffed and dismissed him, to which Ace replied, "Oh, I see. You were joking about wanting to be a pirate this whole time, then."
Ace hadn't put much thought in what he had just said; it had been more of an offhanded remark than a jeering one, but it was enough to incite a reaction out of her. Usopp gaped at him before charging, screaming like a lunatic. Ace, having years of fighting experience, easily evaded her clumsy attacks. He tilted his body to the side to dodge her swipes and then jumped away when she lunged forward. Usopp ended up tripping over a protruding root and falling on her face.
When she lifted her dirt-smudged face, she began to wail and accused Ace of being a jerk. Ace scowled, covering his ears to muffle the noise. Finally, her cries petered out, leaving her to do nothing but sniffle and glare balefully at him.
Ace reluctantly dropped his hands. "Feel better?"
"No!" she snapped. "I don't! And I won't unless you apologize!"
"What do I have to apologize for?" he huffed, baffled by the demand. "I didn't do anything wrong!"
"You should have let me hit you! I ended up getting hurt because you didn't!"
"You got hurt because you tripped. If you trained, you would've avoided that—"
"Train, train, train—that's the only thing you can ever think about." Usopp pushed herself onto her feet and rubbed her face, inadvertently smearing the dirt. "You don't know how to have fun!"
Ace bristled at that. "I do! It's just that I take my dream seriously, unlike a certain someone who pretends that she does."
"I'm not pretending and I do take my dream seriously! I'm going to become the greatest warrior of the seas you'll ever see!" Tears gathered in her eyes again, but she didn't cry; rather, she looked like she was desperately holding it in. Her cheeks were blotchy and puffy. Her hands clenched at her sides as Usopp regarded him with indignant determination. "I'm the daughter of Yasopp, member of an all-powerful pirate crew, so don't look down on me!"
This again? Ace didn't have the energy to put up with any more of her usual nonsense, and he decided that he didn't have to. He spun on his heel and waved a hand. "Whatever. Do as you like, Miss Warrior," he said. He started walking towards where Luffy should be waiting for him. He ducked below an overhanging branch, and that was when Usopp unexpectedly called out to him.
"I-I mean it, you know. Even if you don't believe me, I'll make it happen," she shouted. "So—so..." Her words trailed off before picking up again with renewed resolution. "So I'll do your stupid training! I'll prove to you that my dream is for real! Even if I have to put up with your boring self and your boring training!"
Ace looked over his shoulder with narrowed eyes. He doubted she would commit till the end. For all her tantrums and crying and how much she outright refused to comply, Usopp wouldn't last long. She never did. Her will was weak and her fortitude was all for show, and yet...
"You swear on it?"
"I swear," Usopp said.
This was the first time she decided for herself. She was going to train on her own volition, and that made him feel oddly proud of her. Ace quickly turned away when he felt the corners of his lips tug upwards. "Come on, then," he said, resuming his pace.
"Hey! Wait for me!"
Ace was twenty-years-old when he met Yasopp again after three years.
Their first meeting had been in a time of celebration. Drinks and stories had been exchanged, and laughter had been shared. Ace had bonded with Shanks over Luffy, and he likewise had bonded with Yasopp over Usopp. It had been funny watching Yasopp's expression morphing into shock when he had informed him about his daughter's Devil Fruit ability, and a part of him—the drunken part—had relished in the idea that he had known something that Usopp's daddy dearest hadn't.
Then again, what with the man being gone from home for nearly a decade, that hadn't been much of a feat. Of course Yasopp hadn't known much about Usopp. Not like how Ace had.
Their first meeting had been a time of happiness. Perhaps a little bittersweet as reminders of Ace's heritage had been dredged up, irritatingly floating in the back of his head as he had listened to sharpshooter proudly ramble on about Usopp despite not truly knowing her anymore.
But Yasopp hadn't been the one who had cursed him with the title of the Pirate King's hellspawn. Yasopp hadn't been the one who had cast him under an impossible shadow. Yasopp hadn't been the one who had left him as a condemned existence, always haunted by the image of Gold Roger no matter how far he ran. And Ace could have been angry for Usopp's sake, angry at the man who had been long gone in her time of need, but he hadn't.
Usopp had loved the idea of the man for being a brave pirate, just as much as Yasopp had loved the idea of his sweet daughter waiting for him back home. For as long as Usopp would place her father on a pedestal and revere him no matter the distance set between them, it wouldn't be Ace's place to hold Yasopp under contempt. Yasopp wasn't his father, after all. That was for Usopp to decide.
So Ace had smiled and laughed with the man, enjoying the lively company of the Red Hair Pirates.
Their second meeting was at a funeral.
There had been a debate over where Usopp should be buried. One side of the argument had been for Syrup Village, Usopp's birthplace, but Syrup Village was located far out in the East Blue. Naturally, they couldn't send her body there since it would be nothing but rotting flesh by its arrival, so they would have to cremate it. But if they were going to do that, then who was going to transport the remains?
Yasopp, for whatever intents and purposes, had to continue sailing along with the rest of the Red Hair Pirates, and it certainly wouldn't do him good keeping his daughter's ash in the men's quarters. Ace couldn't do it either since he had Whitebeard to help bury. And...he too wasn't in the right state of mind to carry such a task. Someone had suggested that Usopp should be buried alongside Whitebeard, but that had been quickly shot down.
It was when Ace had spoken that the issue had been resolved.
"Usopp loved the idea of piracy so much. I think she would prefer a sea burial."
And that was that.
Usopp was adorned in white. Her eyes were closed, and the cavity in her chest had been filled. She looked peaceful, almost as though she was a sleeping bride. Ace was half-tempted to reach out and shake her awake, to tell her that her joke had gone too far; he wanted to her to open her eyes and laugh at his face, to tell him that he was a wuss for not being able to handle a prank. Instead, he gingerly laid a flower on her folded hands and scurried away.
When the flower proceedings had finished, she was then wrapped tightly in a tarp and was placed on a small boat. Everyone watched as it drifted sedately out to the far open, a brown dot in an expanse of blue.
A lone arrow, brightly lit from its blazing head, soared across the waters and hit the boat. The sails burst into flames, and the fire quickly spread across the vessel. Ace made sure not to avert his gaze when the flames reached the tarp, intently watching how everything burned and eventually crumbled, committing everything to memory. Debris and ash sank into the ocean's depths, and tendrils of smoke drifted to the skies.
Usopp's body—Usopp—was now a part of the sea. Something about that should sound poetic and tragic, but the thought only made Ace's stomach roil with discomfort. This funeral was discomforting.
He slowly turned around, taking in the large crowd that gathered here to see Usopp off. The Whitebeard Pirates were here to honor the girl who had died to save their own. The Red Hair Pirates were here to honor the death of a crewmate's daughter. Ace was here to say goodbye to a friend.
But the people who really should be here...weren't. Usopp's crewmates were missing, and Luffy's injuries had been critical to the point where he had been kept under stasis. Ace himself had gotten away with cuts, bruises, and cracked ribs, but he moved and felt as though he had with dealt far worse.
Eventually, the crowd dispersed, and only a few people lingered by. Yasopp, who was one of them, stared blankly at the spot where Usopp had been last seen. For what seemed like forever, the two men stood in silence.
Finally, Yasopp spoke. "Her mother is going to kill me."
Ace didn't—couldn't—breathe. Air was trapped within his lungs. The pressure exacerbated the ache of his damaged ribs, forming a sharp and lasting sting around his chest. Slowly, cautiously, he exhaled, but not before hearing what else Yasopp had to say.
"I don't know why Banchina let her go—maybe it's so that she can emulate her old man, but..." Yasopp dragged a hand down his old, wearied face. "Shit, it's really because of me, isn't it? It doesn't matter that Usopp had that Devil Fruit power—this is all because of me."
Ace didn't understand what the older man was saying, but...he had to at least say this: "She's dead too."
Everything became quiet, still, almost as though the world was frozen in time, and then... "How long?"
"She died when Usopp was eight."
Tension enveloped them as silence took over. Ace waited.
Yasopp then collapsed onto his knees. He didn't cry—he had done all his crying when he had seen Usopp's body—but he did despair. Ace could see it unfolding before him from where he stood. Where the sea had consumed the ashes of a daughter, the shore was where the father anguished at the loss of not only his child but also his wife. He now had nothing to go home to.
The next thing that Ace knew, he found himself on the ground with his cheek throbbing.
"You bastard! Why the hell didn't you tell me back then?" Yasopp snarled in his face. Two men—Red Hair Pirates, Ace figured—rushed towards them, but they were late in stopping the sniper from delivering another blow. Ace's head snapped to the side as Yasopp's words filtered through the ringing in his ears. "Had I known—had I known, I would've rushed over to Syrup Village!"
Ace was thirteen-years-old when he and Luffy made a bet as to who got to make Usopp his sniper.
For Ace, it had been more of a halfhearted challenge. For Luffy, it was a serious matter.
"With Usopp in my crew, we'll be unstoppable!" Luffy declared.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Ace said, flapping a dismissive hand. "Sure."
"I mean it!"
Because of this bet, they had Usopp promise not reveal the location of her home. She wasn't even allowed to tell them which of the Blue Seas that she hailed from. Usopp relented with a huff, grumbling about being involved in their stupid games, but it didn't escape Ace's notice just how pleased she was being fought for.
Well, not much of a fight. This was merely Ace indulging Luffy's whims than truly wanting Usopp to be his future crewmate. But after seeing the poorly concealed delight on her face, he decided to keep that to himself.
While Usopp had happily secured herself a position for either crew, she expressed her concern about whether Luffy or Ace would actually manage to find her. She turned to Luffy and asked, "Did my dad not tell you?"
Luffy scratched his head. "No. Or I think he didn't. Wait... No, he didn't."
Knowing Luffy, her father probably did but Luffy just forgot about it, Ace thought dryly.
Usopp wilted at that. "Oh." She then perked up. "Well, that's fine. You said that you're going to set sail when you guys are seventeen, right? If no one comes for me after I turn seventeen, then I'll go and find you instead!"
"When's your birthday, Sopp?" Ace asked.
"First of April."
"Then that's going to be a problem," he said with a smirk. "Luffy's birthday is on the fifth of May, so you'd be leaving Luffy gets a chance to even start."
Usopp frowned. "Oh."
"It's not gonna be fair anyhow," Luffy groused. "Ace gets a three year start! Three years!"
"If you knew that, then why the hell did you want to make that bet?" Ace scoffed.
"Because I know that I'll beat you anyway! And I'll be on my way of becoming King of the Pirates while doing it!"
"That doesn't make sense!"
"It makes sense to me." Usopp skipped over and threw her arms over Luffy's shoulders from behind. They crashed onto the ground when Luffy failed to stabilize his stance, and they roll onto their backs, laughing. "I'll be sailing with the future Pirate King!" she declared.
Ace frowned. "Oi, don't make it sound as though I'm not the one who's going to be the Pirate King."
Her eyes flickered upwards to meet his, and she cheekily grinned. "Then you better find me before Luffy does. Having someone like me around will definitely bring you good luck! It'll be like a one-way ticket to pirate royalty."
"You can't even control your powers when it's already been two years," Ace countered, rolling his eyes. "Ugh, whatever. I'll find you and become the Pirate King on my own. I don't need something like luck to help me out."
Ace was twenty-years-old when he learned that Sabo had been alive this whole time.
The man came to him almost like a hallucination. A form entered his blurry vision with a bright halo surrounding its head, and it descended closer with an outstretched black claw. Curiosity kept his eyelids from drooping; longing made him anticipate for the end. He withdrew a shuddering breath as he waited complacently for what was to come.
And what came wasn't what he had expected. Cold water splashed on his face, causing Ace to sputter. He startled from his torpid stupor and blearily blinked. He saw the sun shining brightly in a clear, cloudless sky, and felt the drowsy warmth in the air. He also felt the sharp throbbing in his head and nausea roiling in his stomach. Ace pitched over to the side and vomited.
"It's a good thing that we're already outside, I suppose," a voice carried from above.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The figment of his hallucination was a tall and lean man dressed in a fine coat and a frilled shirt. A top hat sat on his head, magnifying the decorated appearance of a noble, yet the scar and the pipe strapped to his back were starkly out of place. Familiar dark eyes bore into his.
"Ace," Sabo said, "it's time to go."
Ace stared, and then he laughed.
"What the hell is this?" Ace wheezed. "I lose a brother to gain a sister, and then I lose that sister to regain a brother?" He grabbed a fistful of his hair, his fingers roving through the grime. "Unless I'm dead and you're here to drag me to hell?"
He heard a sigh. "I'll be taking you to hell, alright, but not to one that you're thinking of."
Hands hoisted him onto his feet. Ace wobbled and nearly fell if not for Sabo supporting him.
"Before we do anything," Sabo said, wrinkling his nose, "you need to take a bath."
Ace was fourteen-years-old when he listened to Usopp tell him about her village.
She talked about a quaint hamlet of rolling hills and long pastures, about a land that only knew peace and quiet. While Usopp had unwittingly established herself as a compulsive liar throughout the years that they had known each other, Ace was inclined to believe her about this. For someone who had lived only a life of monotony, perhaps that explained why Usopp had concocted tall tales where she had featured as the main character.
"Doesn't your Devil Fruit power take you anywhere else besides here, Sopp?" Ace asked.
"A few places," Usopp admitted. A few places, which was decidedly much more downplayed than the stories that she had told Luffy—the ones where she had ventured into unknown fantastical lands brimming with mermaids, giants, dwarves, and other mystical creatures. The girl's gaze dropped forlornly. "Towns and villages. I've never made friends with the locals, though."
"Have you been there repeatedly?"
"Maybe once or twice, but never as often as coming here."
Ace wondered why that was the case. Usopp wondered the same thing when she voiced his question aloud.
"Maybe your subconsciously doing it. Like how your friends with me and Luffy, so that ties you down here emotionally."
Usopp wrinkled her nose. "I guess?"
Spitefully, Ace wanted to flick her forehead or give her a noogie. Of course the girl wouldn't get what he had said—she was eleven! Notwithstanding how she had a better grasp at concepts than the hopeless case that was Luffy, but that didn't mean she understood everything. Ugh, why was he surrounded by babies and ogreish hags? (He ignored the pang of longing for Sabo's company.)
"As for the other places," Ace continued, "maybe you're trying to find new places to explore, but you're just too scared to."
Predictably, Usopp responded to that with outrage. "Hey, I am not!"
Ace was twenty-years-old when he and Sabo were on their way to Amazon Lily.
As the sails swelled from the wind and the ship took its course, Ace asked him questions. He asked him about his whereabouts, what he had done, and the extent of his amnesia.
For every question, Sabo answered patiently, somberly.
He had been taken in by Monkey D. Dragon, Luffy's father and the Revolutionary Army leader; he had been apprenticed under the man and had been working his way up to be the Chief of Staff; he had forgotten everything about himself aside from his name.
Sabo explained that there had never been a day where he had thought about Ace or Luffy simply because he hadn't known that they were brothers. But ever since the war—ever since Ace had narrowly escaped with his life—Sabo had remembered everything. Accosted by a torrent of past memories, his brain had seized on him and had caused him to fall into a fevered state. He had been bedridden for a few days until he had sneaked out of the infirmary.
"But why couldn't it happen before?" Ace queried.
Sabo shrugged. "You nearly dying must've been the shock that I needed."
On the second day of sailing, Ace blew a fuse.
Whatever the reason was—pent-up rage, guilt, bitterness, resentment—he lashed out by punching Sabo in the face. Having a brawl on top of a small ship was shitty, but doing it on the Calm Belt where sea kings prowled was even shittier. They spent the rest that evening killing underwater beasts that tried to capsize their vessel. At least they didn't have to worry about rations.
On the third day of sailing, Sabo asked him about Usopp.
"You said that you lost a sister," Sabo said, giving him a pointed look. Don't try to dodge this one, his eyes seemed to read.
Ace's body drew taut like a wire over a guitar, but he soon deflated, resignation filling every crevice of his body. "Yeah, I did say that, didn't I?" he sighed.
The other man's face softened. "Ace, what happened?"
And so he told him everything. About how he and Luffy first met Usopp, how they became friends with her, how their friendship evolved more so that they could consider her to be a sister... Because through all the ups and downs they had undergone together, Usopp really had been their sister all but in name, hadn't she?
Ace even told Sabo things that he had never told anyone else, like what he had always thought of Usopp and her father's relationship. Had he been projecting? Had he been hateful where Usopp hadn't been able to? Perhaps, but none of it mattered anymore now that she was...dead. Not since the funeral either.
Sabo listened to his words, alongside the sounds of the lapping waves and the cawing cries of the seagulls above. He sat there quietly as Ace, bit by bit, opened his heart to his not-dead brother, telling him stories about his really-dead sister. The circumstances were so terrible that Ace wanted to drown himself in manic guffaws.
On the fourth day of sailing, they finally arrived. The Dark King Rayleigh greeted them at the shores of Amazon Lily, somehow knowing that they would come.
"Where is he?" Ace rasped, skipping formalities.
Rayleigh gestured to the woods behind him. "Eating his feelings away, I suspect," he said wryly. He appraised Ace, his eyes narrowing behind his glasses. "You look rough, kid."
"We had a few difficult days," Sabo said for him. "If you don't mind, may we see our brother?"
"Brother? Didn't know Luffy had another one besides Fire Fist here."
Ace didn't wait to hear Rayleigh's admission. He strode past him and past the trees and past everything that stood between him and his brother.
Ace smelled first than saw. A waft of charred meat hit his nose, letting him know that he was close. Ace brushed away the fan-shaped leaves and looked ahead to see a clearing formed by a ring of verdure.
Sitting by a shoddy makeshift campfire was Luffy, who was surrounded by discarded animal bones. His bandaged back faced him as Luffy gorged himself on scraps, his cheeks bulging from his gluttony. When Ace's boot crunched on some twigs, Luffy swiveled around, his muddled eyes growing lucid the second they lingered on Ace's form.
Luffy swallowed. A pause. He then whispered, "Ace...?"
Ace, despite his weariness, managed a smile. "Hey, Lu."
It didn't take long for him to get an armful of his brother, wrapping him like a persistent octopus. "Ace!" Luffy shrieked. "You're here!"
It also didn't take Luffy long to let go when Sabo entered the scene. Sabo smiled tentatively, although his eyes were glassy with watery joy. "Long time no see, Luffy," he said.
Luffy stared at him with his jaw agape before he broke into a bawl and launched himself at him.
Needless to say, it was a tearful reunion.
The swelling around his eyes told Ace that Luffy had wept before, and yet the crybaby had more tears to shed. Luffy cried for Sabo, who hadn't died all those years ago; he then cried for Usopp, who had died not so long ago. Luffy cried and cried, and Ace found himself crying as well. Ace cried for his failure in capturing Blackbeard, for Whitebeard's death, for Usopp's death.
For Usopp, who had been killed in his place.
None of this would have happened had Ace done his job. If only Ace hadn't been such a screw-up. If only Ace had done better.
But what could he do now other than cry? So, Ace continued to cry. He cried until his eyes throbbed and his chest ached and the overwhelming grief in his heart subsided to a numbing pang. All three brothers clung onto each other until they could hear nothing but their breathing and the sounds of the jungle.
Finally, they detangled from each other's grasp, but they remained sitting with their shoulders brushing and their knees bumping.
"Who's the person who patched you up?" Sabo croaked, gesturing at Luffy's bandages. "We have to personally thank 'em."
Luffy rubbed his cheek with the heel of his hand. "Traffy? He left," he said. "But he's a pirate, so I'm sure that you'll see him around once you get sailing."
Ace couldn't help but snort at that. Luffy made it seem as though running into the same pirate in the sea was no different than running into a neighbor in the neighborhood. Although, with how Luffy was, the comparison just might be true for him.
"I don't know a pirate named Traffy. Is that a nickname you gave him?" Sabo inquired.
Luffy scrunched up his nose. "Dunno. I guess? I shortened his name to Traffy since his real name is hard to remember."
"Then Traffy is a nickname, dumbass," Ace chortled. "Can you give us a description of what he looks like?"
"Lemme see... He's tall, gloomy, wears a spotted hat... Oh! And he wears a yellow shirt and has these weird tattoos on his hands."
"That's something, I guess," Sabo muttered. "Tattooed hands, huh?"
"Think you can narrow it down to one pirate?" Ace asked.
"Among the thousand other tattooed pirates? Yeah, sure," the other replied sarcastically. "It's not like I have anything else on my schedule than to search for a single pirate with tattoos."
"Don't forget that he's tall and gloomy-looking," Luffy piped up, helpful as always.
"With a spotted hat and a yellow shirt," Ace appended.
Sabo scowled at them. "That's still vague!"
"Yeah, Luffy," Ace said, quick to switch directions, "can't you come up with something more specific?"
"C'mon, Sabo," Luffy said, pouting at the man in question, "can't you specific the vague?"
The three looked at one another until they broke into laughter.
"Specific the vague?" Sabo parroted. His grin was so wide that his eyes were pushed in dark crescents. "I'll try that on Koala next time!"
"You almost sounded smart, Lu," Ace said, elbowing him.
"I'm plenty smart!" Luffy harrumphed. "Usopp says that I..." he trailed off, his smile slipping off his face.
And, just like that, the happy atmosphere died.
Luffy buried his face in his hands, not crying—not anymore—but not holding it in. Sadness rolled off of him like a smothering miasma, and Ace could feel his heart constrict with sympathy. He had already been sad for a lost friend, for a lost sister; he had shed enough tears for that. Now, he was sad for Luffy, who had lost a precious crewmate.
"I wish that I got to meet her. She sounded like a wonderful person," whispered Sabo.
"She was," Luffy sniffled. "She told the best stories and made me laugh a lot. We—we once got into a fight about our old ship, Merry, but that was when I realized that Usopp really is—was—" He paused, choking on his words. "She was my best friend because friends aren't supposed to go along with everything you want to do. They're supposed to disagree and fight, and, in the end, we made up because that's what friends do."
Sabo slipped an arm around Luffy's shoulder, drawing him for a hug. "Can you tell me more about her?"
Luffy did just that. What Ace knew about Usopp was a cobbled recollection of the past, but Luffy's memories of her were kept alive from the adventures that they had shared.
Luffy told Sabo—told Ace—about how he had reunited with Usopp on the shores of her island and had helped her save her village. He told them how Usopp had aided everyone with her cleverness and skills and how she had grown as a fighter. Although she had never learned how to properly handle her Devil Fruit power, she had become someone remarkable.
Ace believed every word.
Usopp was—had been a pirate with so much potential. Underneath that scaredy-cat exterior had lied a brave sniper waiting to burst out. But...that never came to be. Usopp's life had been cut short—too short. She would never become the warrior of the seas that she had always dreamed to be.
And the worst part? No one knew who she had been.
The newspaper that they had received featured a grainy snapshot of Ace holding Usopp's body. Above the picture was the headlines that declared "MYSTERIOUS GIRL POPS OUT OF NOWHERE! DIES IN FIRE FIST ACE'S PLACE!"
Seeing that jarred something within Ace. Something...nasty.
Usopp had been known to the world as the sacrificial lamb, the martyr. She had been the hapless victim who had appeared at the wrong time in the wrong place. Or...the convenient meat shield that Ace had used to evade Akainu's attack.
The speculations written in black ink burned away to ash.
How demeaning could people be? For them to besmirch Usopp this way—the one who had journeyed with Luffy since the beginning, the one who had fought valiantly by his side—with a handful of audacious theories and assumptions like she was theirs to poke and prod.
This made Ace want to set the world ablaze.
But Luffy? Luffy had another plan in mind.
Ace was fifteen-years-old when Garp visited.
The man came like the monstrous menace that he was—plowing down everything in his way with his hulking form and thunderous bellow. He charged like a bull and growled like wolf. As usual, Ace and Luffy bore the brunt of his forceful nature—or, as the geezer liked to call it, his fists of love.
Love was painful.
After getting pummeled and getting their ears boxed, Ace and Luffy limped off to the sidelines as Garp pinned Usopp down with his furrowed stare. Usopp, who had failed to conceal herself behind a bush, flinched violently and proceeded to shake like a newborn lamb.
"Who are you?" he asked gruffly.
"U-U-Us-s-sopp," she stammered.
"What was that?"
"I can't hear you!"
This went on until Usopp's face turned red from exertion. Garp nodded in satisfaction, and his stern expression soften to a Luffy-like grin. "It's a pleasure to meet you, young lady. I'm Ace and Luffy's grandpa. You can call me Gramps."
Usopp stared at him in bafflement. It was the same look that Sabo had given Garp when the geezer told him to address him the same way. "Erm, okay...?"
"Now, what're you doing here up in the mountains? Where are your parents?"
"I..." Usopp glanced over at Ace and Luffy, her eyes pleading for guidance. Ace and Luffy could only stare back with pity. Usopp didn't seem to appreciate that judging by her pinched expression.
"Young lady, your parents?" Garp prompted.
"Uh! Um, my parents..." She broke into a sweat. "Well, my dad is a pir—sailor! He's a sailor!" Usopp was quick to amend, remembering what they had told her about their grandfather being a marine officer. Garp raised an eyebrow, but he didn't comment on her bumbling. "And my mom passed away due to an illness, so it's just me."
Ace didn't know about that. While Usopp hadn't been so generous in providing details—real, non-fictional ones—about her home life, it wasn't as though she had tried to hide them either. But, now that he thought about it, she had never once mentioned anything about her mother until now.
If she didn't have a mother and her father was at who-knew-where, then who was taking care of Usopp?
Garp seemed to be on the same line of thought as he asked, "Are you living with any family members, then?"
Usopp shook her head. "No, it's just me, like I said."
Wait, what? "You're all alone?" Ace blurted out.
Usopp shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant when he could tell that she was feeling self-conscious. "It's not a big deal. I mean, I can take care of myself. I've been doing so for four years."
"Since you were eight?" he said, incredulous.
"What?" Garp boomed.
"I-it's not like I've been totally alone! I had neighbors pitch in from time to time, especially back then. But now that I'm self-sufficient, I don't need anyone's help anymore." She smiled weakly. "Seriously, don't worry about it."
"Young lady, you don't look any older than my youngest grandson! How can you even say such a thing?" Garp snapped angrily. The anger wasn't directed at her, that Ace knew, but at her situation. He knew that he had been independent and strong as a twelve-year-old, but, even then, he had still required the guidance and care of adults (even though said adults were a bevy of dirty mountain bandits).
Usopp, on the other hand, wasn't as independent nor as strong, so he could imagine just how well she was faring on her own. (Not so well.)
"This is terrible," Garp muttered, more so to himself than to anyone. Then, in a louder voice, he said, "Where around here do you live, Usopp? I don't think I have ever seen you in the village before."
Usopp's eyes grew as wide as saucers. "Uh—" Then with the most opportune timing ever—pop!—Usopp's Devil Fruit powers activated and she vanished without a trace.
Garp blinked owlishly at the spot that the girl had once occupied.
Ace was twenty-years-old when Sabo gave him an offer.
The night after Luffy had rung the Ox Bell three times and had made his declaration, Ace and Sabo lay awake underneath the starry sky, idly pointing out the constellations that they pretended to know.
"I almost feel jealous by how much love Usopp received from the two of you," chuckled Sabo.
"Don't be. We used to blab about you to her," Ace replied.
"Well, that does make me feel a little better."
"She always wanted to meet you ever since we told her who you were. Even cried when we had to break it to her that you were dead—or so we thought," he continued, wryly smiling at the memory that drifted back to him. "She was so emotional that I'd get a headache dealing with her. One second, she'd be eagerly demanding to talk to you; the next, she'd be bawling her eyes out."
"She reminds me of Luffy."
"Ha, Luffy was like that, wasn't he? Still is. Must be why they got along so well." Ace's smile fell when his mirth receded to something more solemn.
Maybe he should talk to Luffy about Usopp. That was what people did when they lost a loved one, right? They had done something like that when they had lost Sabo to the seas, but the Luffy back then and the Luffy were two different people. Whereas the past Luffy had been a crybaby, the Luffy now had been able to bounce back, his resolve steeled and his determination brighter than ever.
In contrast to Ace, who had attempted to drink his sorrows away. Did Luffy even need him anymore?
Ace turned his head. "Hm?"
Sabo parted his lips to speak, but paused and waffled over what to say. Ace watched with a hint of amusement; it wasn't every day that he got to see Sabo at a loss for words. But there was also concern. What was it that Sabo was holding back?
"I know that you've gone through a lot," Sabo began carefully, his brows knitted together, "but, well—let me ask you this. What are your plans after this?"
Ace's forehead creased. "After this?"
"Yeah. When we leave, what're you going to do? Unless you intend on sticking around, which I kind of doubt that the ladies here would be all that keen about."
"Ah. True." They had met the fabled Amazon warriors, and they had been every bit beautiful as they had been fierce. Very fierce. Had Ace not been partially made out of flames, he would have been lying dead in a ditch, riddled with holes from spears and arrows. He didn't know how Sabo had survived the onslaught, although he could hazard a guess that the guy had hidden in the underbrush like the sissy that he was.
"So?" Sabo prompted.
Ace sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't know, man. I thought about finding my crew and figure something out from there. Aside from that? No clue."
"You're not one for planning ahead, I see."
"Hey, have we ever?"
Sabo chuckled. "Nah. Even after all this time, I still suck at thinking things through. Koala lectures me all the time about it, so you'd think that I'd learn by now."
"When the moment comes, the moment goes, and all you're left is your instincts."
"Wise words coming from an idiot."
"Thanks, stupid." When their laughter receded, Ace then asked, "Why do you want to know?"
Sabo didn't answer right away, but when he did, Ace couldn't be any more surprised. "Like I said, you've been through a lot. You... If finding your crew doesn't pan out and you're without direction, you can always join the Army."
The Army? Ace sat up. "Sabo—"
"I know, I know, but hear me out." Sabo also sat up, shooting him a pleading look. "It's just an idea; I don't want you thinking that I'm pushing you to join, but you should consider it, at least. I think that it'll be good for you."
"Good for me?" Ace sputtered incredulously. "How?"
"I mean, other than fighting against the Big Bad? Helping the little guy out and fulfilling a grand purpose in the world?"
"I don't know about doing community service, but I was doing something big when I was helping Whitebeard become the Pirate King," Ace said.
"Sorry, that wasn't right of me," Sabo said quickly, his face morphing into contrition. "But do you get what I mean? If you don't know what to do, then maybe this is the right path for you. Think about it. You'll have people to support you and guide you, and, what's more, you can help change the world for the better." He placed a hand on Ace's shoulder. "The World Government's corrupt regime can't go on like this unless the people stand up in opposition. And with you standing with us, that future may come sooner than later."
"Sabo, are you hearing yourself?" Ace said, shaking his head. "I'm a pirate; what sort of pirate can just be a part of an organization when I should be sailing free?"
"A pirate crew isn't any different than an organization, though," Sabo insisted. "You have established rules and regulations, don't you? And going on missions is like when you're raiding marine bases or something."
Ace sincerely doubted that last part. "I don't know..."
Sabo looked like he wanted to go on, but he let it go with a long exhale. "I'm sorry for dumping this on you. I guess I got carried away." He pulled his hand back to rub his neck as he dropped his gaze. "I just want us to stick together like old times."
Ace's chest ached at that.
So did he.
"I'll...consider it," Ace began slowly. When Sabo looked up, his eyes bright with hope, Ace sighed and dragged his hand down his face. "I can't promise you anything, you hear? I still gotta find my crew. I don't know what they'll have in plan or if I'm going to join them, but...I'll think about it."
"That's all I ask," Sabo said with a grin.
Ace was sixteen-years-old when he and Usopp told each other's dreams.
"I want to see what he sees," Usopp said when asked why she wanted to follow her father's footsteps. "Mom said that he lived a decent life at home, but he wasn't happy. She said that he felt like he needed to go out there and do something, which was why he took Shanks's offer to set sail. I haven't seen him in years. I don't even remember what he looks like." She had said that last part so casually, but her eyes conveyed a different story.
"Then him not returning home yet means that the pirate life must be that good?" Ace guessed.
"I think so." She shrugged. "I mean, can you imagine the kinds of adventures that he gets into? He must be having so much fun that he—" Usopp abruptly cut herself short. She didn't finish her sentence, but she didn't need to. Ace had heard it loud and clear.
That he wouldn't remember his family.
"Anyway, why do you want to be a pirate?" she asked him, her smile stretching wide to mask her sorrow.
"I want to prove a point," Ace told her, "that I can do things on my own, that I can make a name for myself."
"Who're you trying to prove to?"
To the world. To Gold Roger.
"To Gramps, the old bastard!" Ace exclaimed. "He keeps badgering me about becoming a marine, but I'll show him! I don't need to be a stinking officer to make it big!"
Usopp barked out a laugh. "Yeah! You'll show him!"
Ace was twenty-years-old when he saw Garp again.
Ace and Sabo had left Amazon Lily after promising to Luffy that they would meet again when they had become stronger than ever. And, of course, they had vowed to hunt down this Traffy guy and give him the warmest thanks that they could muster—so warm and cozy and heartfelt that Traffy would positively gag on the spot. If he was that kind of guy, that was. Either way, the big brothers had to convey their gratitude on behalf of their little brother.
But first things first: They had to tie up loose ends, which was why they didn't run off when they had spotted the old man waiting for them on the next island's shore.
The meeting wasn't as awkward as he had feared. It certainly was for Sabo, though.
After Garp had wrestled Sabo to the ground and soaked his cravat with tears, the old man proceeded to shake him angrily. "Where have you been?" Garp yelled, shattering poor Sabo's eardrums. "Don't you know how worried we were? You damn brat! You could have at least sent us a letter!"
When things had calmed down, Sabo (quite nervously) informed Garp about his whereabouts. Predictably, Garp was unimpressed.
"That damn son of mine! Dragging a kid into his own affairs!" Garp griped as though he hadn't attempted to do the same thing, harping at them about joining the marines whenever he had visited.
And just when Ace had believed that he could safely watch from the sidelines and jeer at Sabo's torment, Garp remembered that he had another grandson to pick on. Ace and Sabo were rendered flat on their backs, crying from agony at the sheer blow of the geezer's Fists of Love (double the packing and double the love).
Garp then gathered them in his arms. Ace and Sabo stiffened for a suplex, but that never happened. Instead, he held them—hugged them—and...wept again. This time, Garp wept with his teeth clenched and his body trembling, and Ace and Sabo melted into his embrace.
It was always easy to know the reason behind Garp's emotional outbursts. When he had been fuming, it was because Ace and Luffy had been goofing off. When he had been grinning from ear to ear, it was because their training had gone splendidly and he had been proud of them. When he was choking on his tears, it was because Ace had survived, Sabo was alive, and Usopp was dead.
Usopp had never been referred to as his granddaughter—not aloud, at least—but Garp had viewed her just the same. In a way, she had been one of the handful scruffy wayward kids for him to look after, and now she was gone forever.
"I wish that I could have talked to her more," Garp croaked. "I wish that..."
Ace patted his back. "I know. Me too."
They all wished for the same.
By the time the tears had dried up, Garp gently rapped his knuckles on their heads. "Alright, you scoundrels. No need to cling onto your grandpa. You're adults now."
"Hey, you're the one blubbering like a baby," Ace countered. Nevertheless, he and Sabo pulled away, exchanging grins when Garp huffed like a disgruntled cat.
"So," Garp began, "how's Luffy?"
"What makes you say that we met up with Luffy?"
"Don't toy with me, boy. You don't think your grandpa keeps tabs on his own grandsons?"
He didn't know about Sabo before, the thought arrived unbidden. Ace didn't echo what the voice in his head whispered darkly to him and maintained his smirk. "Ha, nosy geezer," he chuckled as though he didn't feel frayed by the edges.
Ace was seventeen-years-old when he was about to leave for the sea.
He hadn't seen Usopp in a while. He had been hoping that she would show up before his departure, but she never did.
Ace hid his disappointment with a large grin.
"Don't go looking for Usopp until I'm a pirate, Ace," Luffy said.
"No promises," he sang mockingly, laughing when Luffy stamped his foot angrily. "I'm going to be the King of the Pirates! Of course I'm going to have to get myself the world's best sniper to join my crew."
"Hey, I'm going to be the Pirate King! She's going to join my crew, not yours!"
The villagers and the mountain bandits bid him warm farewells, shouting after him to do his best and to stay safe. Ace waved back before turning around to face the blue horizon stretching infinitely before him. There was no turning back now.
Ace was twenty-years-old when...
Ace was twenty-years-old when...
Ace was twenty-years-old when...
Ace was twenty-one-years-old when he returned to the spot. The place where Usopp's funeral had been held.
Unlike Whitebeard, Usopp didn't have a gravestone for Ace to talk to. Not that that he needed a slab of rock to start rambling like a madman.
To the sea, he said, "Hey, long time no see. It's been a year since we last met."
Ace then heaved a sigh. Had it truly been a year? It somehow felt longer than that.
"So, in case you didn't know, I've been pretty busy." He paused to laugh. "I, uh, yeah. The Whitebeard Pirates tried to go toe to toe with him." That was putting it lightly. The fight had been no Battle of Marineford, but it had been momentous, no doubt about it. "We didn't win. The Blackbeard bastard had Pops's Devil Fruit power as an advantage. Also, we weren't exactly in the best shap. Not exactly our best idea, huh?"
The waves crashed against the cliff's face, lightly sprinkling Ace's bare arms with water and salt. The cool breeze teased his hair, and the sun's radiance gave him warmth.
"Still no sign of the Tele Tele Fruit, but I promise you that I won't let anyone else take it. I don't know what I'll do with it when I find it—maybe give it to Sabo? I don't think I'll be okay with being a dual user like Blackbeard, in any case. Ha, I bet you're yelling at me about how that sort of logic doesn't make sense." He tried to smile; it felt like a grimace in the end. "You're going to have to put up with my irrationality for a bit longer, I'm afraid."
I have to what now? he imagined Usopp whining. This time, Ace did smile for real.
"Yup, seriously. Even though I'm the older one, I make a lot of dumb mistakes. Let me tell you what Sabo and I have been doing lately..."
Ace was twenty-years-old when he reunited with Luffy and Usopp after so long.
“I got to see her for the first time in three years when we arrived at her village,” Luffy said. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and dragged her in close for a terribly one-sided hug. Usopp grunted her displeasure. Cheekily, he informed his brother, “And because I got to her first, I got to make her my sniper.”
Ace slapped his forehead. “Damn. We did make that bet, didn’t we?”
“Just because she’s part of your crew doesn’t mean you get to be so smug about it, ya little shit.”
"Of course it does!" Luffy crowed.
Stars above, Luffy was going to be absolutely insufferable about this, wasn't he? Granted, Ace had often teased him about getting to Usopp before he could, regardless of how serious or nonchalant he had been about making good on his promise. Now that Luffy had actually acquired Usopp as his crewmate, his little brother naturally saw this as his right to brag.
“Basically, her control was no different than it is now?” the tanuki asked, tilting his head.
Ace’s eyes widened at the words before he threw his head back and guffawed. “You still can’t control your power? That’s so lame! How many years has it been? Ten? I mastered mine not even six months!”
Usopp shot him a disgruntled glare. “Look, it’s more complicated than you think, okay?” she groused.
“Or maybe you’re just really crummy,” he countered amusedly. “Man, I would’ve thought that you at least got some rein in on your teleportation, but I guess not.” To Luffy, he said, “Looks like you got the short end of the stick, Lu.”
“Hey!” she cried.
“Ah, come on, Sopp. You know that I’m just teasing.” With a lopsided grin, Ace leaned forward and lightly drove his knuckle on the top of her head. Usopp swatted his hand away, still grumpy.
Ace pursed his lips to prevent himself from laughing again. He wanted to assure her that not getting a handle on her powers didn't detract her from being a capable fighter, but he probably couldn't do that without making fun of her again. Nevertheless, he was happy to see her after all these years. Usopp looked good. She was still scrawny as ever, even under those loose layers to ward off the desert heat, but she looked good.
She and Luffy both did. Ace wanted to properly catch up and ask them how they were doing, to learn what they had been up to, and to see just how much stronger they had gotten. Ace knew that Luffy could take down goons after that demonstration on the streets, not to mention his wanted poster that boasted an impressive bounty for someone who had been a pirate for a handful of months. But Ace wanted to determine Luffy's strength on his own accord, and a random arm wrestling wasn't going to cut it.
He also wanted to see Usopp in action. Just how much better did she become with that slingshot of hers? Did she continue their training regimen even in his absence? Did she get to battle against marines and pirates alike? How was she liking the pirate life, by the way? Was she adjusting well?
Speaking of pirates, Luffy had told him about how Usopp had taken down the Black Cat Pirates that had attempted to invade her village. Ace wanted to talk to her about that. No doubt would Usopp try to embellish the story, making herself sound like a hero from an epic fairytale. He chuckled to himself when he imagined how she would go about it.
“Oh, Ace, you still haven’t told us what you’re doing here,” Luffy brought up, his expression lit with interest as the thought occurred to him.
“I didn’t?" Ace glanced at him before returning his attention to Usopp, who looked similarly curious. He would rather save that detail for a later time, but it seemed that he couldn't avoid the topic now that he had an audience. Well, the sooner he got this out of the way, the sooner he could banter with Luffy and tease Usopp. The thought made him smile. "Well, if you must know, I’m chasing after a certain man...”