torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
January 2012

Disclaimer: I'm not a logia user. Also, Marineford broke my heart, wah. Beta by Arduinna. Do not archive without permission.

a year of forgotten dreams

Smoker leaned against the railing and watched the dawn. White light, white sky, and the sea so dark it looked nearly black. Both ship and sea were quiet; the marines doing their early morning chores knew better than to disturb him in any way. All he wanted was to see the sun rise and let the white light of another cold day burn away all the shadows in his mind.

Felt as though his every thought was wrapped in smoke, thick smoke that he couldn't see through, and that was just wrong. Smoke shouldn't be other to him, shouldn't be an obstacle. Things had felt strange since... well, for a while. He couldn't see anything clearly, and he kept remembering things that couldn't possibly be true.

~

They are on a spring island. There's a green meadow with little flowers among the grass, tiny red stars on lacy stalks. Ace is lying on his back in the sunlight, arms and legs spread, hat tilted forward over his face so that only his mouth shows. There's a curve there, something like a smile.

Get up, brat, Smoker says, reaching down a hand. Ace takes it, but instead of letting himself be pulled up, he pulls Smoker down. Smoker could evade the grip, turn his arm to smoke, turn his self to smoke and flow away, but instead he lets himself fall, and the grassy meadow is unexpectedly soft to land on. Ace's laugh is pure delight, not a hint of mockery.

Smoker rolls over on his back, too. The sunlight really is pleasant. Ace moves next to him, shifts bonelessly sideways, and then Ace is lying with his head on Smoker's bare stomach, and the hat is left in the grass. Smoker lifts a hand and pulls his fingers through Ace's hair, hesitantly at first, then with more assurance. It's very soft, but at the same time it seems to crackle between his fingers.

That's nice, Ace says drowsily. Was nice of you to save me.

Smoker blinks. I didn't save you. That's not what happened.

Ace chuckles. I'm here, aren't I? He pushes with his knuckles against Smoker's side, as though pushing a pillow into shape.

~

Dawn was slow this morning. The light hovered and hesitated, didn't seem to break through after all. There was maybe a lighter patch in the clouds in one place, that was all. Smoker turned around so he could glare at the ship instead. He propped his elbows on the railing and slouched, feeling the hard wooden edge dig into his kidneys. It wasn't exactly a good feeling, but it wasn't a bad feeling, either.

Was nice, having a body. He relished the pure physicality of it. Ever since he ate the fruit that taught him to shift from flesh to smoke and back again at will, he'd tried to remember to let himself feel, as thoroughly as possible, what it was like to be incarnate, to have elbows and kidneys and sore feet, skin that knew the touch of linen and wool and leather.

(Skin that knew the touch of someone else's skin. But not often enough.)

Smoker liked to stand up and sit and lie down, to walk and run, eat and drink, fight. He liked to feel gravity pull at him the way it pulled at everyone.

But everything he ate and drank tasted like smoke. He tried to blame it on the cigars. Tried to blame it on the way everything had been strange since Marineford.

~

They are on a summer island, one of the ones that's almost too hot and dried out, one of the ones where the sand gets everywhere. On a beach. In a house, though all the walls but one are nothing but support pillars and screen doors, mostly pulled open; the side towards the water is nothing but air, and the floor of the house becomes porch becomes steps becomes sand becomes water.

Smoker sits on the porch and chews on his cigars and watches Ace run through the shallow waves, water no deeper than his ankles. Ace is laughing, as if this is the most fun he's had in years.

You should come out here, he says, stretching both hands out towards Smoker. Feels great. Sea water licks over his toes, and tiny flames dance over his fingertips. It's a bizarre contrast.

It doesn't feel great, Smoker says. Because it really doesn't; the touch of sea water ranges from uncomfortable to painful. It's nothing to laugh about. Hard to believe that Ace can use his abilities at all like that.

Ace leaves the water and walks up to the porch. Sand clings tight to his feet and ankles. I could stay up here, he says. Persuade me. Tiny flames dance in his eyes.

~

The world seemed leached of color today, and a little flatter than it should be. Smoker huffed out a faint sound. Wasn't just today. Every damn day since then, since that day at Marineford, and it made no sense. There had been a vast battle, and he'd lived through it, and that should be it, that should be all. Pointless to look back when the future's all set to happen in the other direction.

(Pointless to think too hard about it, because then he'd have to think about the true nature of justice, and all the arguments that had been made or just mentioned or pounded into him for years, and he already had a headache starting behind one eye.)

The light spot behind the clouds that was probably the sun had moved a little higher, but the day wasn't any brighter for that.

~

They are on a fall island, in the middle of a busy marketplace, and Ace is going from market stall to market stall, looking at ripe vegetables, huge pumpkins and piles of purple eggplant, onions tied into neat bundles, heads of cabbage with soft curling edges, boxes full of some strange root vegetables that Smoker's never even seen before. Ace loves all of it. He keeps buying things, more than he can carry, corn cobs and mushrooms and squash, piling Smoker's arms full of stuff.

There's fruit up ahead. The colors are glowing, like they're lit from the inside. All those red, red apples are just asking to be eaten. I don't have any more arms, Smoker says, but Ace just grins at him. And where's the meat, anyway.

The grin turns into outright laughter. Ace's head tips back and his hat falls off to dangle by its string. We'll hunt, he says. You look about ready to kill something.

Shut up. And who's going to cook all this? The abundance disturbs him, the extravagance. Everything is rich and lush and full of possibilities, and Ace is in the middle of it all and it's like he's shining.

You're dead, Smoker says. You're dead.

~

"Sir?" Tashigi came up to him, and Smoker bared his teeth and tried to ignore the fact that he'd evidently spoken out loud.

Everything here was clean and bare and cold. Tashigi was wearing winter gear, which was probably the right choice for a morning like this one. She could be very sensible at times.

"Nothing," he said. The silence between them seemed to ask for more words, but he had nothing to add to the nothing already spoken.

Tashigi looked consideringly at him. "Would you like me to get your winter coat, sir?"

"No."

~

They are on a winter island. In a stone house, and the walls are whipped by snow and wind on the outside, but in here there's a fire in the fireplace, of course, and they're in a big bed under layers of blankets, and Smoker has never been so warm in his life, warm all the way down to his toes. Ace puts out heat, he's like a man-shaped, man-sized hot water bottle next to Smoker.

I don't want to look at that damn tattoo, Smoker says, and Ace turns over. His face is almost harder to look at, freckles and too-wide mouth and eyes that glow with something Smoker can't put a name to.

It's who I am, he says. You always knew.

Smoker scowls. At least you wore a shirt today. Didn't think you knew how they worked.

You know how cold it is outside? Ace curls up comfortably with his head on Smoker's shoulder. He is not a small man, and the solid weight of him is both strange and reassuring. His breath is warm against Smoker's chest. Thanks for saving me.

I didn't save you, Smoker says. You're dead.

Ace laughs at him. You're good, but you're not that good. He sits up and moves to straddle Smoker's hips. Wanna try again?

~

None of this ever happened.

The story could have had many beginnings, but none of them ever came to pass, and it only has one ending, bright as fire, hard as stone.

Smoker braced himself on the railing and stared reality in the face, and reality stared back, flat and tasteless and completely inescapable.

* * *

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