Ace tilted his head up and happily received the kiss from his husband.
“Five years,” he replied in muted awe. It's taken this long to quench the agony that accompanied this day, and even though Ace didn't think he could ever fully feel uncomplicated about it as long as he lived, he thought he was doing a fair job of healing. Making progress, the therapist Ace didn't see anymore would've called it.
Getting up from his seat, Ace wrapped his arms more fully, more lovingly around Sabo. Then he gestured at the dinner table. It wasn't a five-course meal, but rather five, six, ten main courses. All their favorites, cooked with fastidious care. He said, “time for my customary thank you feast for sticking with me another year.”
“Oh yes, your gratitude's so potent I could smell it from the station,” Sabo teased. While he had left his bag at the door, Ace noticed he still hasn't taken off the jacket of his suit. There was also something... pensively withdrawn about his airs, when Sabo circled around to the other side of the table.
Ace wrinkled his brow. “Is something wrong?”
“I... have an anniversary present for you too,” Sabo said, reaching into his jacket pocket. An envelope came out, plain white and letter-sized, pinched between two fingers.
“What, it's not divorce papers, is it?” Ace made himself smile as he joked. The disapproving scowl he got from Sabo in return was reassuring.
“As if I'd ever put us through that much paperwork,” he replied. “No. Not that. Never that.”
“Okay, then I'll take the $10,000 in cash then, awesome.” When that only got the weakest grin from Sabo, Ace threw his hands up in nervous exasperation. “C'mon then, what is it?”
Sabo sat. Gestured for Ace to sit too. Then finally, when they were level and face-to-face, slid the envelope across the table.
(That was probably the moment Ace figured it out, because all of a sudden, despite his previous cajoling, he wanted nothing less than to touch that envelope.)
“I found him,” Sabo said quietly. In the envelope were train tickets; Ace could see them now, through the thin cream paper. Could see the travel date (the upcoming long weekend) and destination, and hated, hated how much he instinctively wanted to reject them.
“Who.” It wasn't a question, but it sure as hell demanded an answer. It demanded Sabo, who could've just let the issue rest, to let it all just fade into a paper cut of memory, to say it back to life.
The paper cut split into a full, bloody laceration.
Ace wasn't angry with Sabo, but he was furious. The burst of incandescent rage propelled him to his feet, spun his back on his husband and the tickets on the table. There were so many more question-non-questions he wanted to shout. When. How long had Sabo been looking for him, been working on this? Since yesterday? Since a month before? Since the funeral, five fucking years ago? Why. Why now? Why ever? Why stoke back into hurtful flames an issue Ace had only just managed to fully extinguish?
“How?” was what he ended up asking, useless and between gritted teeth.
“Koala helped me break down the financials,” Sabo answered, steadily but softly, like he trusted anything that Ace was about to lay on him—panic or fury or sadness or blame—would be fairly and fully deserved. “He did a scary good job covering his tracks. As you'd imagine.”
Don't talk like you know him, was the bitter, nasty thing Ace wanted to snarl. But he knew better. He's come a long way from the angry child he once was, emotionally immature and keen on cutting ties with the people he loved (though, god, has he actually?). He wanted to do better.
...And that was it, wasn't it? The answer to every not-question Ace could fling at himself and Sabo. Because the one question that's never crossed his mind was: will we go. Of course they would. The envelope was thick with two tickets and of course they would go. Just as soon as Ace reassembled all the pieces of himself that's broken apart along five-year-old fault lines again. He wanted to do better. He would do better, this time around.
Ace let his hunched shoulders drop, and released his clenched fists.
“Thank you,” he whispered, and it was Sabo who cracked. Of all the types of damage Sabo could take, has taken, the worst has always been kindness: steady eyes and an expression of faith in his good intentions. Ace thought he saw Sabo's lower lip quiver before it was shielded behind a hand.
“For you, Ace?” Sabo vowed, choking up on this five-year anniversary of them finding each other again, this five-year anniversary of Pop's death. “Anything.”
The train connected to a sixteen-seater bus with broken air conditioning, then connected to a beaten dirt path twenty-five minutes long. Sabo had warned him about this before they left, so they were both in well-padded hiking boots. It was still a hot, humid day though, so when the village finally started to come into view, both Ace and Sabo were covered with a thin layer of sweat and grime.
Nothing but the start of stout buildings and a weathered old sign demarcated the entrance of the village. There was a clump of three people at this entrance. Two were seated on the wooden terrace extending from the first building—a general store, by the look of its front windows, overcrowded with colorful boxes—small and white-haired. The third was on one knee in front of them, in sandals and a white linen shirt, inspecting a bandaged leg. Blond.
Ace felt his gait stutter to a stop. Sabo paused right behind, letting Ace steady himself underneath the boiling pre-noon sun.
Glasses, Ace thought. Marco wore glasses now. Did he wear them all the time, or just when he was working? How long has he needed them for? Where did he get them from?
“You're doing a great job, yoi. Keep up the cleaning and ointment routine,” he could hear Marco say. That voice was perfectly unchanged, and its steady timber was a vicious yank of memory, hooking right behind Ace's navel. There was a time when he'd looked forward to hearing that voice every morning. There was a time when that voice was the only thing he wanted to hear, when it's the most haunted hour of the night and he just couldn't sleep.
With a start and a swallow, Ace blindly groped behind him for Sabo's hand. He found it, squeezed it tight. That time, he reminded himself, was before Sabo. He had Sabo's voice to anchor himself to now, and Marco was nearly four years a stranger.
(Ace didn't bother reminding himself that Sabo had been nearly ten years a stranger when they found each other, and loved each other again. He didn't bother reminding himself that he was the type to love, and just never stop, because he already knew.)
(Sabo did too.)
(Yet he got Ace those tickets anyways.)
“Oh,” one of the seated old villagers exclaimed, getting to her feet, “we have visitors.”
Marco turned around.
Later, Ace would be able to play back this moment nanosecond by nanosecond—that's how much his attention cranked up into overdrive. He could recite the layout of very single village building visible from this vantage point. He could count how many blinks it took before Marco's eyes widened. He could name Sabo's cologne, scent even more potent in the tropical heat.
Ace could enshrine in his memory forever the way Marco's face crumpled, before he spread his arms out wide. Ace was in those arms before he knew it, Sabo's scent washed out by the familiar smell of Marco: spiced tea and herbal medicines. Now there was a new woodsy tinge. Ace wanted so badly to know what it was from.
“Oh,” Marco sighed into his ear, arms shaking with emotion. He hasn't stopped trying to gather Ace closer, and Ace hasn't stopped him. “I've missed you yoi. God I'm so sorry—”
“No, don't, I should be the one saying sorry—”
“My,” the old villager gasped, startling Ace, who had forgotten all about their audience. “A friend of yours, Doctor Marco?”
Marco relinquished Ace ever so reluctantly, and his eyelashes, behind those glasses, got wetter with every blink.
“Family,” Marco answered. “He's family.”
This is Pop's hometown, Marco had explained on their walk through the village main street. It had been a little more extensive, a little more bustling, a little better maintained than Ace expected. I was shocked too. I don't think anybody else knows yoi. I only realized when I got here to check on the property.
The conversation had mostly been filled by Marco, during this second trek, pointing out each shop and waving to the people he knew (which was apparently everybody). Even when they got further into the foliage and Marco had less to say, Ace figured they were better off catching up—truly catching up—seated and settled wherever Marco was taking them. Sabo didn't say anything either, having been completely silent beyond the short greeting he and Marco exchanged at the entrance.
A short but steep hike pushed them through another layer of mounted ferns and drooping vines, emerging in a little clearing. A one-story house stood just off-center. It was clearly residential, made of polished dark wood, geometrically constructed and inornate.
“This,” Marco said, “is Pop's house. Renovated, of course.”
“By you?” Sabo suddenly asked. It occurred to Ace that this was already more than they've spoken to each other that first time, at Pop's funeral, and that two of the people he loved most in the world were perfect strangers.
Marco nodded with a self-conscious smile. “By me, yoi.”
Then, “come on in. I'll give you a tour.”
Ace learned that day the answer to the great mystery that had plagued the Whitebeard siblings for five long years: how did Marco mourn the death of Edward Newgate? It hadn't been obvious, in the year that followed the funeral, when Marco had still been around.
(Before the one year anniversary, before Marco's conspicuous absence at the memorial that he himself arranged. There was awkwardness, there was vitriol. There was the naive belief that Marco just needed space, and he wouldn't disappear in a way that was as good as dying, leaving all his family behind with not so much as a whispered hint of where he's gone.)
They shed their shoes at the entrance, and padded silently down the wooden hallway. Some of the planks seemed younger than the rest, and there was the same fresh scent Ace had caught on Marco earlier, a mixture of the forest all around and the little house in the center, breathing with the web of roots it was cradled in. Paper screens partitioned the building, glowed pale in windows, respiring light.
“This building sat fallow for decades,” Marco explained quietly. “There actually wasn't too much damage yoi, all things considered. But a corner of the house collapsed when a tree fell on it. The entire roof is new too.”
“You... know how to build houses?” Ace asked faintly, bizarrely. The tone or the question or both got him a chuckle from Marco.
“Not at all. There's a shipwright in the town at the foot of the mountain—you must've passed it, coming up here. Tom, he was a friend of Pop's. He made the trip up here to teach me. It took me ages yoi.”
“City boy hands,” Sabo brought up wryly. He too had made the dramatic shift from urban to rural in his life, Ace recalled. Sabo had said there was a lot of farming and construction for the sake of self-sustenance involved, and a steep learning curve. “I know the struggle.”
“Yes, but Pops would approve of the blood and sweat, I think,” Marco grinned, toothy and just a little bit wistful. “Being up here... It's like I could hear him laughing every time something went terribly wrong, and I'm out on my ass sleeping under the stars again.”
“That's nice,” escaped Ace in a whisper, with genuine feeling. He hadn't known about this house or this town, but he didn't have any trouble imagining Pops, with his big but ritualistic gestures, his grandiose presence that spread like a banyan tree, occupying this space, where everything seemed to pulse and flow. He saw much easily though, the Pops he had known in the city—first in the grand suits made grander on a man with his sheer physicality, then in the hospital gown, the endotracheal tube that seemed just another part of his big, mean grin.
He wondered if Pops had ever planned on returning to this house in the woods, if Pops had wanted to rebuild it with his own hands like building his own tomb.
Still walking, Marco caught Ace's left pinky, squeezed it once between calloused thumb and forefinger before letting go again. The way he made contact with Ace's wedding band didn't seem incidental.
“I was selfish yoi,” Marco confessed, “not telling you or anyone else.”
“Why didn't you?” Ace asked, meaning both why didn't you tell us there was one more piece of Pops to hold onto? and why didn't you tell us that was where you'd gone, to restore it, to heal with it?
“I didn't want to.”
A simple sentiment. From Marco's lips though, it had the depth of the sea. For decades, Marco had been Pop's righthand man, the mind and competence that made the whole Whitebeard enterprise function as smoothly as it did. Marco didn't lack agency—far from it—but in the time Ace has known him, he had always been defined by the needs of the family. He had agency, but he was agent for the family. This was the rare moment, Ace realized, of Marco saying I and truly meaning only himself.
It wasn't vicious, it wasn't bitter. It was almost ashamed. Ace was suddenly consumed by aching for this man, who was clearly trying so hard to define himself again, after a brutal sheering away of those he held most dear.
(But that only begged another question, the obvious one that Ace had obviously come here to ask. The one that hung above them like cracking elephant skin, stretched until straining between rusted nails.)
They stopped at open screen doors at the end of the hall.
“The study,” Marco introduced quietly, meaningfully. “The only bit I built entirely on my own.”
Ace stepped inside.
Tatami blocked out the floor, and Ace had learned enough from his time in Pop's house in the city to know to step in on the perpendicularly aligned mat. His socks glided silently over the weaving. Sabo followed like a shadow.
It was an emphatically beautiful room, to all the senses. The sweet tatami scent was fragrant enough to taste, and there was the slightest breeze whispering through the strips of windows lining the tops of threshold arches. Humid warmth was ambient, floating and pleasant. Everything was clean lines and defined spatiality, guiding the eyes to an alcove against the wall furthest from the entrance.
Pop's bisento stood mounted there. A pop of color sat at its base: a single bird-of-paradise, lifting its blue and orange head proudly from a wrap of dark green bamboo leaves.
In Ace's peripheral, he could see Sabo's head dropping in respect. On his other side stood Marco, gaze astutely averted as Ace's hand scrambled blindly for Sabo's. Ace could feel tears coming, which was always, for him, accompanied by anger. It was like Pop's funeral all over again. It was the shock of tragedy, the lack of readiness (how could anybody ever be ready for loss?), the red-eyed accusations, the absorption of blame.
(Marco had been there then too, to push Squard's angry hands away from Ace and insist, with the thunderous clarity of Pops' words, that Ace was not to blame. That, then Pop's office, had been the last time Ace had seen Marco, four years ago.)
Ace weathered it all now with a stifled sniffle and a wobble of the lips. He stepped forward, Sabo still following (always following, always so supportive, even when Ace has done nothing at all to deserve it), and folded to his knees in front of the shrine.
(Because that's what it was, this whole damn house. Marco had taken rotted wood, damaged corners and built Pops a shrine to come home to. Of course Pops had wanted to return here.)
“Pops,” Ace uttered, equally full of hurt and healing, “welcome home.”
Marco, behind him, let out a harsh, trembling breath, and it was Ace's turn to politely avert his gaze.
“Sabo,” he continued to speak, now gentler as he invited his husband forward, “this is my father.”
Sabo's forehead touched the tatami, and Ace laid a grateful, comforting hand on the curve of his back. His breath, to Ace's keen senses all finely tuned to Sabo's every move and gesture, was just the slightest bit uneven as well.
“I know you are a great man,” he said, and Ace knew by his tone that he wasn't only talking to Pops. Once again, the urge to tears rippled at the edges of Ace's very being, so touched was he by the generosity Sabo was willing to demonstrate. “That you took Ace in, became Ace's family... I will always be grateful for that.”
Marco, for whom the words were meant, stood frozen in his corner. It wasn't until both Ace and Sabo have gotten up again that he cracked himself out of the ice, eyes first, looking uncertainly between Ace, Sabo, then the glinting rings on their fingers.
“Tea?” he asked, and looked grateful on his way out the study to fetch it.
The question wasn't why Marco left. That had never been a mystery to Ace.
“All the work,” Ace said quietly, steam from the hot tea caressing the underside of his chin, “all the fixing. It got too much, didn't it?”
Marco's eyes had always been expressive. Ace got to see now, so clearly, him chipping past all the knee-jerk denial of his own dissatisfaction.
“Yes.” The agreement came dragging out of Marco like the grinding of silt underneath glaciers. “After I closed that last accounts book, I just—I knew I had to get away.”
“Marco, I'm sorry I—”
“Oh god, no, I never said anything or asked for help—”
“I remember,” Ace interrupted determinedly, even though his hands were shaking around his cup, “you standing in Pop's office. When you pulled me aside at the funeral.”
The confusion in Marco's expression was worse than if he had understood what Ace was trying to say.
“You asked me about my plans for the future.” Sabo had been there too, the first day Ace got him back, the first time he'd ever met any of Ace's new family—and what a fucking shit show it had been. Thank goodness for Sabo's steadfast insistence on staying by Ace's side because Ace would've been too ashamed to call him for months. The three of them, standing in Pop's' office, had been the only moment of quiet respite amidst the stormy memorial. Marco had seen the link of Ace and Sabo's hands then too, and asked about his plans for the future with Sabo. “And then there was this moment, when you reached to get down a ledger from the shelf behind Pop's desk.”
Marco's eyes squeezed shut with pain, as he remembered that precise moment, and understood.
“Every time I've had to see that ledger before,” Marco choked, “Pops would get it down for me. I used to be too short to reach yoi, twenty-five goddamn years ago, and he never let that go.”
“You looked so—” Shaken. On the verge of disassembling completely. Even Sabo, a perfect stranger, had been able to see it, and exchange a gaze with Ace about it. “I should've asked. There was so much going on, but there's no excuse, there's no fucking excuse. I should've asked.”
“What could you have asked?” Marco laughed through the hurt, meaning, of course, that there was nothing Ace could've done then, nothing he wouldn't have shut down and dismissed and pushed aside. But Ace, with the memory of Marco's embrace and Marco's touch still lingering on his skin, knew now better than ever how untrue that was. There was something Ace could've done.
“I should've asked who was taking care of you.”
Marco didn't move, didn't speak, didn't breathe for the longest time.
“That was never your job,” he eventually said, as final as the perfect slots of tatami fitting across the floor. And here was the heart of the matter, the unearthing of the ember that will either light the hearth or burn the whole house down.
“But I wanted it to be,” Ace whispered. “And I think you knew that.”
Oxygen poured into the heaving room, and when Ace next caught Marco's gaze, Marco was glaring. It was anger born of hurt, born of a man who had comfortably settled into desolation being made to confront an acute pain again.
“Why,” he asked, question directed in the polite space between Ace and Sabo, furiously accusing it of lying, “have you come?”
“Why,” Ace asked, voice just as volcanic, “did you never come back?”
The noise Marco made was so much more wounded than the wounding he was undoubtedly aiming for.
“What would I even go back to, yoi?”
“Ace,” Sabo answered steadily, blazingly, “and family.”
Marco surged to his feet, and Sabo matched him inch for inch. He had a wildness in his expression that dared Sabo, that wanted Sabo to keep pushing. To get the arrowhead through and out from under the skin, because there was no going back.
“And what's going on with you then, hm?” Marco asked, every bit the terrifying enforcer of Whitebeard fame. All he was missing was the unknotted tie, the wine-purple shirt pulled so open at the collar that the top of Pop's ink showed through. He wore his shirt buttoned all the way up now. “Some entity called the RA poking around Pop's financial records, that was you wasn't it yoi? Why go turning over ancient rocks?”
“Because I knew that somewhere in those numbers was a sad fucking man,” Sabo shot back, and Marco's fist clenched at his words, “who's done the monumentally stupid thing of leaving Ace behind. Call it what you will, but it's depressing to see someone repeat your own mistakes.”
Ace, who had been hovering tensely between them, felt his own fists forming, one hand on Sabo's sleeve and one on Marco's. Sabo and Marco each lifted a hand, but only Sabo's found his mark, clasping tightly over Ace's.
“Ace is here because he wants to apologize,” Sabo continued, staring so intently into Marco's eyes that Marco couldn't look away. Ace knew the feeling well, being enraptured by Sabo. “I'm here because Ace is still fucking in love with you, dipshit, and it's not fair that you've left him hanging.”
“And what—” It was a monumental exercise of effort, Marco tearing his gaze away to look at Ace instead. God, he was hurting so badly. All of them. “—is the proposal here, yoi? I don't know what I can give you.”
“Just the truth,” Ace said, one tear finally finding its escape down his cheek. He wiped it away with a rough elbow before either of them could. “Please, Marco, I just need to know. Did you ever want me back?”
Ace tilted his head up and happily received the kiss from his husband.
“Six years,” he said. Then, more wryly, “is he hovering outside again?”
“Your boyfriend's rather foolish,” Sabo mused, speaking loudly enough that Marco's shadow could surely hear him on the other side of the shoji. The shadow started, then scratched the back of his head self-consciously. “Why he's yet to take advantage of two perfectly attractive, scantily-dressed young men in his bedroom, I have no idea.”
“I am,” Marco hissed, and Ace could hear how red-faced he was, “lighting an incense for Pops. Please do not talk about being scantily-dressed when his photo's looking right at me.”
And then he muttered something about how nearing thirty was hardly young anymore, but Ace wisely didn't bring it to Sabo's attention (because, frankly, there was no way Marco was winning that argument).
“Come on, Marco,” Ace whined, knocking his feet together underneath his yukata. It was hardly a scanty piece of clothing, he thought, but there was a lot of leg on show, and just one large futon laid out. Before they got there, Marco had mentioned something about revarnishing the wood; the bedroom smelled pleasantly fragrant of oils and banyan. “You've made us wait long enough, haven't you? Pops would be ashamed.”
The screen door slid open, and Marco stepped in. He closed it behind him with a deep sigh.
“Alright, alright yoi, I'm here.” Faux beleaguerment morphed swiftly into soft-eyed adoration as soon as he took in the sight of Ace and Sabo, sprawled amidst the tatami.
“I'm gonna make fun of him so hard if he cries,” Sabo whispered to Ace.
“Aw, c'mon,” Ace whispered back, “we love that he's a sap, don't we?”
“If you two,” Marco said loudly, striding forward and finally, finally joining them on the futon, all warm sprawling limbs that pressed equally against Ace and Sabo, “are done.”
Two screen doors over, in this house that smelled of trees, there was a new addition to the study with Pop's shrine. They'd all gone out together to find the right tree together, last time Sabo and Ace were in town, and Marco explained the significance of the gesture on the way up the mountain.
It can symbolize many things yoi, but I think most importantly, it's connection.
They'd found a tree maybe a third of a meter in diameter, its trunk long and lean, reaching straight for the sky.
Connecting the earth and the sky, the inside and the outside. We neither carve nor sand down the trunk. It's a reminder yoi, of difference.
When Ace and Sabo brought their luggage in this time—no longer compact travel packs that worked for the weekend, but full-on suitcases stuffed with clothing and the longterm memorabilia of housemates, of lovers—Marco had finished replacing the center column of the study with their tree. It looked steady and alive beside Pop's shrine.
It connects us to where the house around us came from. It's unrefined, but still beautiful. There are so many kinds of aesthetics, and this tree will be a reminder of how many different forms love and appreciation can take. That we should be grateful for multitudes.
And there the three of them sat, bellies full with main courses, in Pop's and Marco's house that was slowly getting messier. Wood and cologne and incense hugged the air, and Ace, so grateful for multitudes, reached out and took his lovers' hands.
“Hey,” he said, happy. “Happy anniversary.”
(Marco did cry, and Sabo absolutely made fun of him for it.)