The Scariest Question is "When?"
Two months after they were taken in by Smoker, a month since they first met Marco and Thatch, and just a week after Luffy turned three months, in the sweltering August heat and humidity, the three boys were permanently put under Smoker's care. They were adopted into his home.
The four boys honestly had no idea that Smoker had been going through those procedures since week three – it had been a secret to them, something he decided he would surprise them with. Smoker was surprised with how smoothly everything went over, but considering the circumstances of the children and the fact that his superiors probably helped to speed up the process, he wasn't as surprised as he should have been. To tell the truth, his superiors asked him to adopt the brats - something about foster care and not wanting to separate the three.
What his superiors didn't know was that Smoker had been planning on taking them in since day three. No matter how annoying they were, Smoker liked the brats, and he didn't think he'd be able to live a happy life knowing that he could've been the reason they were separated in the system.
"We can stay? For good?" Ace asked, wary and awed all at once, thinking back to that second day's words: "I don't know how long you will stay here, but it will probably be a while." Those words hadn't affirmed anything other than the fact that from now on, they would have a roof over their heads. Ace knew what Sabo didn't – that they could've been handed from family to family for the rest of their lives until they turned 18, separated by the system. He had heard plenty about it from runaways from other towns and cities, running through his territory to escape police or gangs.
He never thought he would get a permanent home.
Smoker seemed to have realized this and nodded firmly, eyes serious and hiding nothing from him. Ace gulped, unsure of what to say. He honestly felt like crying, but he didn't want to cry, even if it was out of relief. He turned his head down and listened to Sabo cheering with a watery, relieved smile as Law sat in a chair at the kitchen table, holding Luffy with a small smile on his face.
For the first time since his parents died, Ace felt some semblance of security.
One month later, Ace wondered why he hadn't thought about the fact that being adopted meant having to go to school.
The September air was warm and a little crisp, and Ace should've felt fine and comfortable in the calm air, but he felt annoyed, uncomfortable, and nervous. He shouldn't have felt nervous, but something about the whole school thing bothered him. He was still going to be a year older than everyone, and they were probably all going to be wimps. He didn't want to have to deal with the teachers though. He knew that would prove to be a hassle.
"Hello, Ace. My name is Ms. Nico, and I'm going to be your teacher for this year."
Ace looked at the (admittedly pretty) woman and then averted his gaze. Smoker had to tell the teachers about Ace's past, so now they would probably baby him, which was the last thing that he wanted.
"You'll be sitting at the group of desks right there," She pointed to the desks right in front of her own large desk. Ace scowled. Yup, he was being babied. "I think you'll get along with your classmates just fine."
Ace grunted, slightly annoyed with her, as he moved to the desks. He hated being babied. He set his bag down next to his desk and sat, arms crossed. The other few kids there were at their desk groups, talking excitedly. It caused Ace to frown a little, though he didn't know why.
Ace was startled out of his thoughts as someone sat, rather loudly, across from him. He had startling bright red hair, no eyebrows, and a scowl on his face. He was dressed in a leather jacket, ripped jeans, and a leopard patterned shirt with goggles on his head. Ace thought he was trying too hard to look tough. He looked over at Ace with a scowl.
"The name's Kidd. Who the hell're you?" He asked, glaring. Ace felt himself getting angry – the other kid was sizing him up. Ace sat straighter, arms crossed, and glared threateningly.
"Ace," He curtly replied as he proceeded to size the other up. They both glared harder at each other, unaware that the teacher was secretly smiling at the stubborn looks on their faces.
The two jolted at the loud shouts next to them.
"Shut your mouth, moss head!"
"Make me, Cyclops!"
"What did you call me?"
"Oh! You're going deaf now? I called you Cyclops!"
"You wanna fight, seaweed?"
"Who're you two?" Ace and Kidd asked simultaneously, looking at the two boys who seated themselves at the two remaining desks in their group. Both of the boys looked at the two obviously older boys. The green haired kid crossed his arms and the blond one glared, biting hard on the lollipop sticking out of his mouth.
"I'm Sanji," The blond said, curiosity in his voice. "That green haired idiot is Zoro. Who're you?"
"He's Kidd, I'm Ace," Ace replied, pointing at Kidd and himself accordingly. Sanji and Zoro both nodded and then the four of them looked between each other.
Ace realized, at that moment, that he wasn't being babied by the teacher. He was actually feeling quite proud of himself right then. Even before his first day ever of school, he was already considered to be a troublemaker (something he would proudly attest to; when he was on the streets, the amount of trouble he caused was worthy of an Olympic medal). He looked up at Ms. Nico, who caught his knowing look and gave a wink before turning to talk to a nervous student.
Ace still didn't like her, but he was happy that she at least knew that he wasn't going to be babied by anyone.
Law really didn't know how to feel.
"I'm getting old," The teen quietly groaned as he walked toward his friends standing at the end of the hall.
"Ah, it's Law!"
"Oh, hey Law! It's been a while!"
Law grinned as he sauntered up to his friends. "Yo," he said quietly, a smirk dancing on his lips. They grinned back at him.
"We didn't see you at all this summer Law. Where've you been?" Shachi asked, looking at him with a curious expression on his face.
"We've had a lot to deal with at home," He shrugged nonchalantly. Killer looked at him with curious green eyes.
"The three brats."
Law nodded. "Mostly Ace."
"What's wrong with Ace? Is he still pranking you?" Bepo asked, looking down at his shorter friend with furrowed brows. He knew Law – if someone annoyed Law, then Law would annoy them back until they stopped annoying them. But the dark haired teen sighed.
"Yes, but that's not it."
"Then what is it?" Shachi asked, looking at his friend with concern.
"The brat didn't tell us how injured he was."
"He was injured? How did he get injured?"
Law shook his head. "We don't know. He refuses to tell us."
They had been debating all of August whether or not Sabo would be attending Kindergarten that coming September.
He was five years old and that was the normal age for children in Kindergarten. He probably had the same knowledge of the other children. But, he did not have the same lives they had – he didn't grow up in a house, he did not have loving parents like most kids did, and he probably didn't have the same ideas of how to live. As Ace had shown them several times before, it was survival over a happy life. He chose survival when he stood in front of his brothers the first time Smoker approached, when he kept sharp eyes on Smoker or Law if they were with Sabo and Luffy, when he stole food from the grocery store without any feelings of guilt, and most of all when he showed them, every day, he probably knew more than some adults about how to care for little children and infants. Having fun was foreign to the boy, so could the same be said for his brother?
Well, the second they suggested it to Ace, they thought their eardrums would explode.
"You think Sabo can't interact with other kids?"
Law plugged his ears as he stared at the child while Smoker, sitting in a chair in the kitchen, sighed. Damn, this brat was loud.
"We're just not sure if he'll be mentally ready for kindergarten. He's likely never played with other kids before, right? He didn't grow up like them either. We were just thinking it would be better to let him get used to this new life before sending him to school."
Smoker had never seen Ace's face so red before – well, red with anger, at least. He'd probably be spewing fire at them if he could.
"Sabo's been surrounded by kids his own age and older since I found him, asshole! Don't just think that because we were together, we haven't ever talked to other kids before!" Ace was screaming really loudly and Smoker was pretty sure the kid was shaking with anger.
"What do you mean he's played with other kids before?" Law asked, idly glancing at his game of Candy Crush every few seconds to swipe a piece of candy across the board.
"None of your business," Ace growled, eyes turning cold and defensive.
"Ace, are there other children on the streets?" Smoker asked, quickly catching on. The child turned to him with wary, defensive eyes.
"I'm not gonna tell you. Just trust me on this. Sabo will be fine in kindergarten."
"And if he's not?"
"I know him best. I doubt I'm wrong. Sabo's a strong kid. He'll be fine."
"You were both paranoid having to stay with Marco and Thatch," Smoker pointed out. Ace flinched a little before growling.
"Sabo was only copying me. Being dropped off in a strange place with strange people isn't exactly something I enjoy, you know. Sabo's stayed with others for a few days before, he'll be fine for a few hours at school."
"Then will you be?"
Ace growled. "That doesn't matter! This isn't about me! This is about Sabo, and I'll make you let him go to school!" Ace had stormed out of the room, leaving Smoker and Law to look at each other, knowing that when Ace said something, he meant it. Smoker groaned and ran a hand through his hair while Law chuckled.
"Have fun keeping your stance, Smoker."
Ace literally left Smoker no choice. Not only did Ace say the child would be fine, but the blond really wanted to go. And both of them pestered Smoker to no end to make him say yes – jumping on his bed at three in the morning, stealing his cigars, hiding his clothes and locking him out of his bedroom after he showered with no towels (Law had a long laugh at that one), eating his supper when he wasn't looking – basically just annoying him to no end. The whole time, Law just laughed at Smoker. Finally, after they had bleached his underwear, socks, jeans, and a few shirts white, he had said (or rather yelled at the top of his lungs) yes, Sabo could go to school.
He had never seen the brats so smug as they did right at that moment.
Though he had to admit, right now he was glad he was dropping the kid off at kindergarten. Smoker was holding a squirming baby Luffy with one arm while Sabo held onto the other, cheering about school. At least the kid was happy about this. Since last night, the brat could not stop talking and cheering and jumping around the apartment like a maniac – it was like someone threw an extremely bouncy ball in the house, turned on one of those obnoxious children's songs like "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" and put it on repeat, and then one of those creepy talking dolls he saw little girls had broken and refusing to shut up.
Ace had to bribe him with teaching him how to count from one straight to fifty (which Ace did at least one time every week) the next day after school to make him go to bed.
"We're here!" Smoker was pulled out of his thoughts by the excited cheer and incessant yanking of his hand. Yes, they were there, Sabo's kindergarten classroom.
"Hello," Smoker looked up upon hearing a woman speak and came face to face with a young woman with green hair wrapped in a bandana, most likely Sabo's teacher. She smiled at Smoker and then kneeled down to Sabo's height, smiling widely at the child. "My name is Miss Makino, and I'm going to be your teacher this year. What's your name?"
Sabo grinned widely at her. "My name's Sabo! It's nice to meet you, Miss Makino," The child exclaimed, giving a slight bow. Smoker's eyebrows tilted slightly. Since when did the brat learn manners?
Makino laughed lightly and stood, taking Sabo's hand. "It's nice to meet you too, Sabo. You must be his father…?"
"Just call me L-"
"Call him Smoker!" Sabo exclaimed, smiling innocently. Smoker's eyebrow twitched. It was like all three of the brats made it their mission to make sure everyone called him Smoker instead of Logan. He had no chance to correct Miss Makino, however, as she smiled and began to speak again.
"It's nice to meet you Smoker."
Smoker sighed. "Nice to meet you too."
Sabo had never been surrounded by so many colors in one room before. Children were still coming in, and there were only around five of them in the classroom right now. The others were playing with various toys while he stared, awed.
"It's really big, isn't it?"
Sabo blinked and turned around, coming face to face with a dirty-blond haired girl in an orange dress. She smiled at Sabo as she held onto one of the toys, one of the fishmen action figures from the show that Sabo and Ace had recently come to love, Heros of Fishmen Island. Sabo nodded, still startled, and the girl giggled.
"My name's Koala. What's yours?"
"I'm Sabo," The blond replied after a few moments, smiling. The girl – Koala – grinned right back.
"Nice to meet you Sabo. Do you wanna play?"
Sabo grinned and laughed. "Yeah!"
"Yeah, yeah, hold on Luffy, I'm working on it."
Marco sighed in relief as he finally got the cap back onto the bottle. He adjusted Luffy in his arms and grabbed the bottle, bringing it up to his mouth. The baby reached his hands up and grabbed at it, cooing as he eagerly began drinking. Marco smiled softly down at the baby as he leaned against the counter. Smoker had to go to work and had asked for Marco and Thatch to look over Luffy, something they easily agreed to.
"Marco, there's formula dribbling all over your arm."
The blond cussed slightly as he realized the milk was in fact rolling down not only the baby's throat, but his cheek as well. He sighed as Thatch laughed and gently took the bottle from the baby, who didn't seem too hungry anymore. He grabbed the bib and wiped off Luffy's face before bringing him up to his already-covered shoulder to burp him.
"Stop laughing at me Thatch. Can you go get me another shirt?" Marco asked as he gently patted the baby's back.
"Yeah, I'll be back down in a minute."
Marco watched his cousin walk out of the doorway before turning his attention back to the baby, who burped only a few moments later, spittle leaving his mouth and spilling on the towel. He suddenly thought of Smoker burping a baby and snorted at the thought as he moved to the living room to put Luffy down on his blanket so he could take off his now dirty shirt.
He'd have to ask Law how, exactly, Smoker managed to take care of a baby, a five year old, a ten year old, and Law himself without exploding.
"Hey, Ace," The black haired boy looked at the red haired boy, one year older than him. Both of them were dirty and had scrapes and light bruises on their bodies. They were both munching on sandwiches in a hidden area of the playground – Ms. Nico let them eat outside for lunch for the first day, something the four boys greatly enjoyed. Sanji and Zoro were quietly watching the older boys eat. "You fight well."
"Thanks," Ace said through a mouthful of a roast beef sandwich.
"I have to ask though, how do you fight so well with a cast on? Doesn't your arm hurt to move?"
Ace looked down at his arm, covered in a thick red cast with poor drawings on it by his younger brother and sassy remarks and get-well wishes from Law. He looked back up, shaking his head.
"It doesn't hurt as much as my other injuries."
Ace nodded and lifted his shirt. "I had to get surgery."
"You had to get surgery? Why?"
"I broke my arm a few years ago and it didn't heal right."
"Doesn't that hurt?" Sanji asked, raised one of his weird swirly eyebrows at the older boy's calm statement. But Ace only shrugged.
"I've been through worse."
The three others didn't know what worse was, but something told them it was probably worse than getting surgery or breaking a bone.
The day after they were adopted was the first time Ace let the doctors anywhere near him.
Ever since that second week they were at Smoker's, the adults had been trying to get him to get close to the doctor. He would always be fine in the car, but the second he entered the building, he was like a territorial dog. He stayed out of reach of the adults and hissed and growled at whoever got too close, which seemed to be within five feet of the ten year old. The ten or so appointments they spent to try and help the boy always ended up in failure. They could've forced him to sit still, but they didn't want to worsen his already paper-thin trust of adults.
And they didn't think the nurses would appreciate being bitten again.
So when Ace finally, reluctantly, allowed them to look at him, they all quietly rejoiced with relief.
That relief was very quickly replaced with horror.
For every day the boy spent in Smoker's house, he was always clothed. He never saw the child's chest, back, or feet. He knew it could be related to his past, but he didn't want to force the child to do anything he didn't want to do. Smoker had decided to wait until the boy was comfortable to see what damage being on the streets may have caused, even if it left him with a pit in his stomach.
And the first time Smoker saw the expanses of skin, he felt pure fury building up in him. His back was an array of scars from sharp weapons and landing on harsh surfaces. The bottoms of his feet were covered in cigarette burns and there were even scars from them being punctured. There were a few long, shallow scars on his thighs, but being in such a sensitive place must've been painful for the boy. The palms of his hands – Smoker had already known this, but the doctor had no idea – were covered with scars from grabbing. The tips of his fingers were all callouses, the palms a mess of crisscrosses. His torso was probably the worst – a large burn mark was in the center of it, not extremely old but not new either. And then they found out his arm – which he told them had been broken a few years ago – had not healed properly and he would need to undergo surgery to amend the muscles and bone structure damaged by it.
For the whole two hours in there, the boy was stiff. Smoker occasionally saw him tremble. Whenever the doctor moved or cursed, he would flinch. He refused to meet the doctor's eyes.
When Ace saw the needle to take blood, he had a panic attack.
The boy had screamed and began to throw things, picking up whatever was in reach and chucking it with all the brute force that a he had at the doctor and nurse and even a few things at Smoker. His eyes spoke of pure fear as he kicked and shouted and waved his arms about in absolute panic.
Not wanting to cause any more mental damage, they decided to draw blood another day, and they allowed Smoker to take him home.
The first few minutes in the car were tense. The boy was shaking and he refused to look up at Smoker and the kid even looked ashamed, something Smoker didn't understand. But he was also terrified – the look in his eyes said that it was deeply ingrained, something that would be hard to get rid of.
This was probably Ace's first long interaction with strangers after being taken in by Smoker – not counting Smoker himself, Tashigi, Thatch, or Marco. Smoker knew them all and for some reason, it provided some sense of security for the child. At the police station, the three boys had been left in an interrogation room with Tashigi since they were so jumpy and nervous being around so many officers. It was the only way to get them to calm down, eat something, and find some clothes for them that didn't look like five year old rags.
This was honestly the first time Smoker had seen Ace so terrified.
"Are you alright, Ace?" Smoker asked once they stopped at a stoplight, his hand holding his cigars as it rested out the window. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ace nod shakily. Smoker wasn't expecting anything more out of the boy, considering how shaken he was, so he was startled when Ace's voice spoke quietly. He had never heard his voice sound so small, scared, and submissive before.
"I'm not in trouble?"
Smoker cocked an eyebrow at the kid and glanced down at him briefly before looking at the road once more. "Why would you be in trouble?"
"Because, I…I made a mess back there and…" The child's hands clenched into fists against his lap. The car rolled to a stop as another light turned red. Smoker purposefully ignored the flinch of the boy, storing it in the back of his mind when he gave a comforting pat to the head of the youth.
"You're not in trouble Ace, not by a long shot."
At three o'clock, Ace was waiting with Kidd in front of the school. Both of them were waiting for their "brothers" who they learned were best friends. Kidd told Ace that his cousin's nickname was Killer and he had long, unruly hair and had large, bulky glasses on his face, hiding his green eyes from view along with his long bangs.
Ace and Kidd had been talking about how their older brothers – that was what they were to the two boys – were really annoying when Ace froze, staring down the street. Kidd said Ace's name several times but was reluctant to punch him in the arm because of the cast.
He did it anyway.
"Ow! You ba-"
"What are you staring at?" Ace blinked and looked warily back down the long street. Kidd's eyes followed and all he saw was a man walking away. "Do you know that man?"
"I wish I didn't," Ace replied softly. He frowned a little, but Kidd could tell he was more than a little unnerved.
"Ace-ya, you alright?" Law said, poking the boy in the forehead. He had begun to add "-ya" after Ace's name after learning that it annoyed the boy, the same as it did for Smoker. But the boy made no visibly annoyed reaction to the addition on his name. "Ace," Law said more seriously, grabbing the boy's shoulder and shaking it ever so lightly. The boy looked up, as though he had just realized the other was there. "Are you alright?" Ace blinked before nodding.
"Law, we've got to go, will you be alright?" Ace and Law both looked to the blond, who Ace assumed to be Killer. Law nodded and gave Killer thanks – for what, neither Kidd nor Ace knew – and then the blond and redhead began to walk in the opposite direction of Ace and Law's home.
"C'mon, Ace, we need to go pick Sabo up," Law said after a few moments, grabbing Ace's shoulder gently and steering him in the direction of the street Ace had just been staring down. He didn't say anything about how the younger had grabbed onto the back of his shirt or the fact that he could feel the smaller boy trembling. He didn't remove his hand from Ace's shoulder the whole walk to the kindergarten center.
"But Law, I don't want to go!" Sabo whined, tugging on the teen's shirt as the teen waved a lazy goodbye at the teacher. Ace glared at his little brother.
"Stop being a baby, Sabo. You're going back tomorrow."
Sabo pouted. "I'm not a baby, Ace!"
"Yes you are!"
"No I'm not!"
Law sighed, annoyed, as he tried to keep the two from tearing out each other's throats. After shoving Sabo's backpack to Ace – ignoring the grunt and glare it earned him – he picked the blond up while grabbing onto Ace's hand.
"Stop fighting," Law demanded, ignoring Ace's yanking motions.
"Let go of my hand, Law! I don't need to have my hand held! I'm not a baby!" Ace shouted, flushed with embarrassment, but Law refused to let go.
"And let you wander off again like you do whenever I take my eyes off of you in public? No, I'd prefer not having my ass kicked today by Smoker."
"What's an ass?"
"Nothing of your concern, Sabo, just don't repeat it."
Sabo looked skeptically at Law, but then began laughing as Ace continued to shout and protest having his hand held by Law.
"Thanks for watching him, Marco," Ace said, taking Luffy from the man's arms and holding him tightly yet gently to his chest, ignoring the cast on his arm and maneuvering it around with ease. The baby made a delighted sound and cuddled closer to the familiar warmth, causing Marco to give a small smile and ruffle the ten year old's hair.
"It's not a problem, Ace. Just tell Smoker to call us about any schedule he may need us to keep." Ace nodded and then blinked as he heard excessive cursing coming from inside the house. Marco turned around and sighed. "I better go before Thatch hurts himself. Bye," Marco said as he waved to the four at his doorstep and then entered his house, yelling for Thatch and how he was too impatient for his own good.
"He's not too heavy for you, is he?" Law asked, looking down at the ten year old as he descended the steps, watching him with cautious eyes. Ace shook his head, gesturing with his head to the make-shift cloth sling he made which was large enough for his arm and Luffy.
"I've held him in worse situations."
Law really hated to think about what those situations could've been.
Smoker got home late the night to see Law sitting on the couch, reading a book not about medicine, meaning it was most likely school work. The teen didn't seem as exhausted as he was most of the time. Smoker, on the other hand, looked as though he could fall over asleep right there.
"You should go to bed, Smoker-ya," The teen said, looking up from his book and staring at his uncle with well hidden concern. The man sighed.
"What about Ace, Sabo, and Luffy? Where are they?"
"Luffy is in bed," Law replied. "Ace and Sabo are brushing their teeth."
Right then, the bathroom door opened. Sabo walked out first and when his eyes landed on Smoker, he grinned widely and ran up to the man. He gripped the man around the thighs in a hug and began to talk excitedly about his day, going on about how nice his teacher was and how he made a friend and how happy it made him that he could go to school. Smoker gave a soft smile (slightly baffling Law while doing so) and picked the kid up as the blond boy yawned.
"Glad you had a good day, but it's time for bed now," The man said, carrying the child toward the hall, Ace trailing after him to the bedroom that the three boys shared.
The door opened and immediately they heard slight whining. Ace's eyes widened as he ran over to the crib they had, standing next to it and tending to his baby brother. Small hands grabbed Ace's larger ones and the baby gurgled, making indistinct sounds as he stared at his big brother. Ace smiled and reached his other hand in, running his hand over the baby's hair. Luffy flailed his arms about a little before yawning widely. Tired eyes opened to blink up at Ace one more time and the older boy hummed comfortingly. Ace smiled softly and fondly as he watched his baby brother fall asleep to his humming.
"Ace, time for bed," Smoker softly spoke from the boy's side, putting his hand on his shoulder. Ace looked up, slightly startled, and walked to the other bed into the room. He crawled underneath the red and orange covers and lay on his side, facing the crib as he did every night. Smoker' gave the child a quick ruffle to the hair, saying "Goodnight," before moving to the door, turning off the light as he closed it, leaving the three in a room lit by a pirate ship night light.
He walked back toward the living room so he could get to the kitchen, but was stopped by Law's voice.
"Something's wrong," The teen said quietly, staring right at the gray haired man.
"What do you mean?"
"Ace is still scared," Law stared right into Smoker's eyes as he spoke. "Something's keeping him attached to his old life. I feel like if we don't find out what it is, we could lose him."
Silence. The two stared at each other's eyes, the light of Law's iPad lighting his face in the dark room, making him look eerily terrifying, while the kitchen light silhouetted Smoker, not allowing Law to see his face, making him look like a massive shadow.
"I'm not going to let whoever those bastards are get their hands on him again. Ace has been through enough. All of you have been through enough. Even if they do come back to haunt him, I'll just lock them up where they'll never be able to see him again."
Smoker walked into the kitchen as Law stared after him, the light of his iPad going out as the device locked itself. He stared after the man with approval, nodding his head.
"I wouldn't expect anything else from you, Smoker-ya," He whispered to himself, placing his iPad next to his book on the table and staring at the dark ceiling. "You're one of the few decent adults in this world."
Ace was staring down at his hands, staring at the bright red liquid that stained them. Every drop that fell from his hands made a loud, echoing boom once it hit the ground, but he did not move.
His eyes were wide as they moved up, staring at the figures on the ground.
"It's your fault, Ace."
He tensed at the voice as he gasped, trembling at the sight.
"It's all your fault."
Law was on the ground in front of him, a hole in the back of his head, bleeding out.
"You didn't listen to us, Ace."
The blood made a sickening pool on the ground, glimmering like rubies.
"You didn't listen at all."
Sabo was lying half on Law, bullet wounds scattered across his back.
"You should've done what we said, Ace."
His blond hair was stained red like red on white roses.
"You should've done everything that we said."
A body fell with a thump next to his feet, blood making a disgusting, squelching sound as wet, sticky flesh met stone.
"You're killing them, Ace."
It was Smoker – his eyes empty, glossed over with the sheen of death Ace had become oh so familiar with.
"You're killing them all."
Cries. Familiar cries filled his ears and he looked up. There was Luffy, wailing in the arms of that horribly recognizable figure, a gun pointing at the baby's head. Ace opened his mouth to scream Luffy's name and stepped forward, arm outstretched.
Fire exploded around him.
Ace screamed and reared back. Law, Sabo, Smoker, Luffy, him – they were all gone, and now he was surrounded by that orange that was accompanied by that heat, and it drove him insane.
He flinched. That voice. He turned around, frantic, eyes looking into the red ones. Her long, blond hair she was so proud of was being swallowed by the flames and for some reason, her freckles seemed to stick out in the heat and the light and the pain.
"MAMA!" Ace screamed. He took a few steps forward, trying to run, but then tripped over something. He looked down at his feet and his eyes widened – that black mustache, those gray eyes, the broad shoulders –
Ace tried to reach out for the man, but then everything was swallowed by unbearable heat and fire and orange and yellow and red and what was up and what was down and flesh, burning flesh, thick, pungent, pain, burned, hurts, help, need help, helphelphelppleasepleasepleasepleaseplease – air, need air, breathe, breathe, breathebreathebreathebreathebreathebreathebreathebreathebreathebreathe –
Ace's eyes jerked open as he gasped, clutching at his chest. He couldn't tell where he was, but he could tell that he was shaking. Was it hot? Or was it cold? What was on top of him?
Ace struggled, rolled, flailed, until he fell from a ledge to the floor. It was carpet, and the softness made him pause. Think, where was carpet – carpet was safe, carpet couldn't hurt him – who had carpet again? Carpet, white hair, smells like smoke – Smoker.
Ace allowed himself to breathe. That sharp intake of air pierced his lungs and he coughed a little at the force of it. He ignored the throbbing of his arm – right, broken arm, that's right, surgery – and allowed his vision to clear.
Sabo was still asleep, which was good. No one had entered the room, meaning he hadn't been loud, another good thing. He didn't want to wake anyone – well, wake Smoker; for all he knew Law was destroying his eardrums.
But were they okay? What if they came? What if that wasn't a dream – what if they were dead? What if-
There was a whimper and Ace scrambled to his feet, running to the crib. Luffy was there and safe and thank god, Luffy was safe. Ace made soft shushing sounds to calm him and Luffy looked up at him, cheeks wet and red, as he stuck his hand in his mouth. Ace chuckled a little, trying to ignore the lump in his throat.
The door opened and Ace tried not to flinch, ignoring the fact that he couldn't hold the reflexive motion back. There was Law, holding a bottle in hand as he walked in.
"Luffy always gets hungry around now, so here. Does he need a changing?"
Ace shrugged, unable to lift Luffy himself with his arm the way it was. Law lifted the baby and checked his diaper, making a tutting sound when he found it wet. He left the room, Ace following after him, and knocked on Smoker's door. A grunt was his only answer. "We need the diapers." Another grunt. Law snorted in what Ace thought to be amusement and entered, immediately heading for the changing blanket set up in Smoker's room – it would be in the boy's, but there wasn't enough room with two beds and a crib.
Law and Smoker had a spat about how to correctly change a diaper – Ace noted Law, for all his "medical knowledge", was incorrect and vowed to correct him (painfully) the next day as Smoker took over – as Luffy whined a little, mixed with a gurgle every once in awhile.
Ace felt his muscles ease and he felt something in him melt with relief. No one was hurt.
That thought froze that which had begun to melt.
They may not be hurt now, but Ace knew they were coming. They were coming and they would make Ace pay for leaving. They would hurt his family. But Ace didn't want that.
Ace felt fear clutch at his heart. He knew they were coming, but perhaps the scariest part was that he did not know when.