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"Sanji you messed-up son of a bitch! You deaf or something?"

The sous-chef of the Baratie turns to the rôtisseur with a flip of his hair, along with a snarl pulling up his lip, "What did you say? I couldn't hear over how much mediocrity there is in this kitchen!"

"Tables twenty-seven, fourteen - five! Another waiter just bailed.” Patty barks at him with spittle flying out from behind his horsey teeth. His face is about as pleasant to look at as the hunks of raw meat he’s carving up, less so in Sanji’s opinion.

Sanji stalks over to the counter and picks up the plated food, just in time to avoid a half-hearted swipe from Patty's carving knife.

"I’d say you should do the serving, but you’d probably break the plates in your fat hands!”

"Hey… while you were arguing...” Carne says, over a huge container of beef bourguignon, “I think someone snuck in through the back door." 

"Maybe you could go deal with it when you’ve delivered those,” Patty sneers at him as he cuts a fillet of pork into medallions. “Just because your dad named you sous-chef doesn’t make you any less of a greenhorn!”

"Eat shit Patty. Oh, and if I find one more dick-shaped hole in the cantaloupes I'm going to pay someone to date you."

Patty opens his mouth to respond but Sanji is already gliding out the door with dishes stacked on his arm.

 

When he pushes aside the heavy kitchen doors he feels refreshed, leaving Patty speechless always put him in a good mood. Such a good mood that he doesn’t even mind pulling double duty as chef and waiter. From the other end of the packed restaurant he can see the latest of the new meat spouting a few choices words at owner Zeff while he tries to placate him. The waiter throws down the table napkin draped over their arm and storms out. Sanji doesn’t blame them, it takes a certain type of person to handle a busy night at the Baratie, which has been every night since Zeff started his own TV show.

Sanji relishes the crazy most of the time. Smiling at the customers is effortless as he delivers their food, and he only wishes he had more time to watch them enjoy it.

As he wanders around, making sure no customer is in need of anything, he glances towards the corner. There’s a two-seater table no-one ever wants to sit at, on account of it being next to the wildly swinging doors of the bathroom. Sanji only puts customers there if they've been rude, a time-out corner for people too important to treat waiting staff with decency.

Tonight though, he recognises the man who’s sat there, innocently twining his freckled hands like he's allowed to be there. He knows for a fact that the bastard didn't make a reservation, no one else he's ever met has the last name 'Portgas' and he didn’t see it in the reservation book. 

 

Ace gives him a dazzling grin, sheepish and yet handsome at the same time. He's at least dressed for a restaurant like the Baratie, more or less. Sanji wouldn't call jeans and a blazer/t-shirt combo 'black tie' exactly, but it's better than the shorts and t-shirts he usually wears. As Sanji walks up to the table he tries to look angry, but he’s more impressed than anything. 

Sanji flips the toothpick in his mouth over to one side, "So you’re the one who snuck in, Patty would've locked you in the freezer if he caught you."

Ace barks out a laugh and leans back in his chair, "I like a challenge, though it would’ve been easier on me if you picked up your phone once in a while."

Sanji at least has the good graces to look ashamed, he had meant to answer his voicemails weeks ago, but the weeks had somehow turned to months without him even realising it.

“Er… sorry, things have been pretty hectic. I'm doing a part time course at ABU and I'm working here, that’s… pretty much my life right now."

"You must have one day off, you need to take care of yourself man.”

Sanji sighs impatiently and shoves a menu into his hands.

"Ace, just... order something before I lose my job. If anyone says anything I’ll say you made a reservation and I forgot to write it down."

Ace flicks through the pages with a frown, then raises his eyebrows hopefully. "Grilled cheese?"

"Jesus christ… If you dine-and-dash on me, I will put my foot this far up your ass."

"Hey… I would never , what do you take me for?"

Ace flutters his eyelashes innocently, while Sanji grabs the menu back with a groan.  “One… grilled cheese, coming up.”

“You’re the best!

 

Back in the kitchen, he easily blocks out Patty and Carne's shouted orders and starts preparing the sandwich. There’s every type of cheese you could imagine in the fridge, but none have the right melting quality. He picks out a package of Mont D’Or and rummages around for more ideas. He has no idea why there’s a pack of American Singles amongst the wheels of Brie and the odd Stinking Bishop, but shrugs and pulls them out anyway. Zeff would crucify him for putting fine French cheese and cheap processed fare together, but it’s worth a try. 

 

When he brings Ace the sandwich, he dives on it and makes such an orgasmic moan that an elderly couple at a nearby table turn to stare at him.

“Oh man, Sanji… you’re a genius, you know that?” Ace says over a mouthful of cheesey goo. “Best ‘cheese I ever had.”
The praise makes heat rush to his cheeks, despite his attempts to keep a neutral face on.

“I don’t get off work until midnight you know, you better make that last.”

“That’s okay, I don’t mind watching you work.” Ace says with a wink.

Fucking hell!

He turns away before Ace can see how flustered the comment makes him, glad to be distracted by the elderly couple waving him over.

They ask him for a change of tables.

 

He tries to not let the man distract him as he goes back and forth between the kitchen and dining room. When he looks at Ace, he remembers his powerful body pressing him into wet sand, the clumsy drunk kisses and the tangle of coarse black hair under his fingers. He wonders how far they would've taken it… if the tide hadn't chosen that moment to come in and made them both shriek as cold water sloshed over their feet.

Thinking about that night distracts him so much he almost spills a bowl of soup down the neck of a businessman's shirt.

 

He stops in the middle of the restaurant with a plate of pot-au-feu in hand, when three men stride through the main doors.

The first is bedecked in red, his suit and dress shirt- even his sunglasses are tinted the colour of blood, with his hair combed over half his face in a ridiculous quiff. The second favours blue and gold, with a midnight suit and a ridiculously heavy gold watch strapped to his wrist. The last one swaggers in wearing a pure black suit and a green tie, with his slicked-back green hair that makes his thick neck and lumpy head look even more prominent.

The dish falls from Sanji's hand and shatters with a sound that breaks through the restaurant ambience like a gunshot. His throat clenches as he struggles to not vomit all over the floor. The blue bastard, Niji, snorts out an ugly laugh and looks down at the mess with amusement. 

“You gonna eat that, waiter boy? Because I’d love to watch you try!”

Sanij glances down regretfully at the shards of porcelain mixed with the once perfectly cooked French cuisine. 

“What are you doing here?” he says. The man in the red suit steps forward. “Nevermind that, we have a reservation, and we’re very hungry.” Ichiji says. "We want a booth."

Sanji flips through the reservation book, someone else must have taken the call because sure enough, there it is; Vinsmoke at 8:20pm. He wants to tell them to get the fuck out, to go somewhere else and never come back, but what actually comes out of his mouth is; “Right this way… sirs.”

He can’t refuse food to anyone, even if they spent a good portion of Sanji’s childhood beating the shit out of him.

The words are like torture as Ichiji as they come out of his mouth. “Can I take your drink orders?”

“Siddown sunshine.” The big green idiot, Yonji says as he bullies him into sitting at the far end of the booth. He sits beside Sanji to trap him in and puts his feet up on the table for good measure. Sanji is vaguely aware of Ace looking at him from the other side of the restaurant, with his eyebrows raised in concern. Sanji gives him a quick shake of his head.

Oh god Ace, please don’t get into it with them.

“What the hell do you want?” Sanji says quietly.

Ichiji smirks and picks up a menu. “Father wants you to come home, now.”

“He’s not my father, and I don’t have to go anywhere with you.” 

"Really, is that what you think?" He leans over the table and presses his face close. "Because I don't recall anyone givin' you permission to leave.”

Sanji swallows back the bile hitting the back of his throat and grips his knees with white knuckles. Yonji grabs a bread roll and takes one bite before throwing it back into the basket. "You made father look like a fool that night you ran away."

“Yeah, Niji chuffs, “we haven’t heard the fucking end of it ever since. He says you’re to come home and start acting like a Vinsmoke, stop all this waiter crap.”

“Like hell I will.” Sanji growls. “This is my home!”

“If you refuse,” Niji continues, “we can always arrange to have you dragged back.”

Yonji makes some disgusting noises as he chews with his mouth open, “He’s picked out a good match for you. A senator’s daughter, and way hotter than a weedy lil’ prick like you deserves.”

“Wait, he expects me to get married?!”

Yonji tosses a picture over to him of a woman with pinkish auburn hair, busty and tall with eyes like an empress. She’s definitely gorgeous... in a horribly intimidating way.

“Sweet right?” Her name's Galette, the 18th daughter of Senator Charlotte."

"I… I guess…"

He can’t help but glance over at Ace again, ignoring the half a sandwich on his plate and staring at him with huge eyes. 

Niji smirks at him viciously. "What's the matter, not into girls? Cooking is a woman's job after all, can't say I'd be surprised if you turned out to be a...."

Sanji can guess the word he's about to say, he's had it spat at him as a replacement for his name many times, but he stops as Zeff comes hobbling over to them, tugging on his braided moustache and looking very, very angry. “Is there a problem here?”

“We’re having a conversation with our brother, get lost.” Yonji says.

Sanji can only look at his adopted father - the only real father he’s ever had - with a silent plea for help. In the presence of his brothers, he might as well be bound and gagged. Zeff folds his arms over his chest.

“My chef needs to get back to work.”

Yonji swings his boots off the table and gets to his feet, looking like he’s ready to hit the old man. “We don’t care! Get the fuck out of here.”

Zeff doesn't budge an inch. “Threaten a chef in his own restaurant and the only thing you’ll be eating will be sucked through a straw.”

Zeff nods at Sanji with his craggy face set and moustache bouncing.

“Take the rest of the night off Aubergine, I’ll deal with this.”

“Old man…”

“Don’t argue, just go.”

“Hey, we’re not done here!” Yonji snarls as Sanji barges past him and rushes towards the kitchen. He ignores Patty and Carne yelling for his assistance, even though they're twice as angry as before. He barely avoids the chefs carrying hot soup and flames erupting from pans and bursts through the back door and into the cool night air. He puts his back to the wall and stares out at the dark parking lot, breathing in shallow little gasps. 

Before he can catch his breath fully, the door swings open, and he expects Patty to come out and a torrent of abuse to start. Instead he hears a quiet, “Sanji?” 

He turns to see Ace, with so much concern in his expression that it’s painful.

To his horror, Sanji feels something wet on his cheeks, he hadn’t even noticed he’d been crying. 

“A-Ace, you…” He swipes at his face with his sleeves and doubles down on his effort to calm himself. “You better not have left food on your plate.”

Ace reaches into his blazer pocket and pulls out the other half of his sandwich, as if surprised to see it there. He wedges it into his mouth and resembles a chipmunk storing food for the winter as he chews.

"You know," Ace says, with crumbs falling from his mouth "I think you got all the looks in that family. The green guy would lose a battle of looks with a Fiat Multipla."

Sanji laughs shakily and spits out his toothpick, replacing it with a much-needed cigarette.

“I’m sorry-” he lets out the smoke in a hurried puff “-that you had to see that.”

Ace is silent as he finishes his sandwich and Sanji sighs as the nicotine hits.

“I need to get out of here.” Sanji says, once the initial wave of dizziness passes.

“I’m glad you said that.”

Ace walks over to his ridiculous red pickup truck and pops the passenger door open for him. Sanij can only raise his brow at the garish stickers of flames on the hood. “What the fuck is that?”

“Her name is Petunia, and she is the prettiest.”

Ace lovingly pats the hood and smiles.

“Well, if you’re gonna drive me somewhere, there better be alcohol.”

“I got you covered buddy, don’t worry about it.”

Sanji crawls gratefully into the passenger seat and hums thoughtfully. 

"You cleared out all your taco wrappers just for me?"

Ace reaches over to shove him playfully and starts backing the car out of the parking lot. Sanji opens the window to let the curls of smoke out, and watches through the wing mirror as the Baratie falls away. He tries not to think about how his adopted father’s beloved restaurant no longer feels safe, and wonders about how the conversation he had with his shitty brothers went.

Ace clicks on the radio, and some indie guitars that sound like a broken ice cream truck jingle blares out. Normally he would be irritated, but the sounds and smells of engine grease and leather sink into him. It smells of warmth and comfort and home, and he wants to stay wrapped in it forever.

 


 

 

Ace stops the car at a lookout point above the city, usually a prime location for teenagers looking to make out with each other. All Blue City below stretches out for miles, thousands of lights winking on and off and the moving stream of lights of the highway moving like blood through a vein. The roar of the traffic is softened by the distance, and the occasional airplane hums overhead.

“You probably see this view all the time from your apartment, but I just love coming up here.” Ace says as he hops down from the driver’s door.

“It’s beautiful.” Sanji says huskily, and means it. The distance from the city feels like a weight off his chest. He turns around to see Ace pulling away the canvas covering the back of the truck. Underneath is a cooler full of sodas, some cushions and soft blankets, some battery-powered string lights… as well as an ashtray. 

“Surprise I guess?”

Sanji puts a hand to his forehead, swimming with the realisation. How could he be so stupid? “You wanted to take me on a date… didn’t you?”

Ace clambers up onto the truck and reaches into the cooler, presenting him with a bottle of wine.

“Maybe? I wanted to take you somewhere I knew you could smoke.”

Sanji climbs up alongside him and slumps into the pile of blankets. Exhaustion starts to hit him, and he can't stop thinking about the chaos the Baratie is probably in right now. He wonders if that table got their meal in the end, if anyone tried to pick out the shards of broken plate to salvage the food. He doesn't even notice that Ace has been staring at him. “Ah shit… I’m sorry Sanji. I don’t even know what to say."

Ace offers him a glass to pour him some wine, but Sanji rips the cork out with his teeth and drinks straight from the bottle. “God, I thought I had put this shit behind me… Judge always said I was a disgrace, that I ‘brought shame on our family line’. I thought he would be happy to never see me again.”

“I can see why you never wanted to talk about them.”

"I don't recall a single goddamn pleasant memory from those days. And now he wants me to get married to some woman I’ve never even met! Probably just wants to use me as some pawn to get in good with that senator.”

“Wait, what…?” Ace says, looking a little hurt. “Married?”

“Um, yeah… She’s called Galette.”
“You’re not thinking about actually doing it, are you?”

Sanji looks away with a wince. “I’m pathetic… The moment I saw them walk through the door all these old insecurities came back like… Maybe I was a shitty son and I should’ve done better, maybe they’re the family I deserved all along and they know what’s best for me.”

“You once told me how Judge wrapped a fire-poker in a pillowcase and hit you with it, no-one deserves that!”

Sanji has been to more therapy sessions than he can count, but no matter what, he still believes deep down that everything Judge and his brothers said about him was true.

“I mean sure, if you say so.”

He puts the bottle to his lips again, but Ace knocks it away and a dribble of wine stains his collar pink.

“I do say so! You got away Sanji, you don’t have to go back to them!”

“You don’t know what they’re like, they’ll never give up."

The wine in the bottle dips past the halfway point, but he keeps slugging it back, even though his tongue is dry and his head starts to feel like there's a pigeon roosting in it.

“We can help you okay? Me, Sabo and Loof. We’re gonna help you get through this.”

Sanji huffs, he was always jealous of the relationship Ace has with his brothers. He always felt like a spare part, or a half-starved, beat-up puppy Ace found one night and decided to bring back home on a whim. When he saw how they played and fought together as a family unit, despite not even being related by blood, he hated them. And he hated himself even more for thinking about them like that when they had shown him nothing but kindness.

Sanji had wanted that kind of family so badly. The only time his own family members even touched him was to punch him in the face or shove him over.

Sanji lets out all his breath in agitation and fumbles for his cigarettes, only to realise he smoked the last couple in the ride over.

“You should stay out of it.” Sanji says, suddenly so angry his voice comes out deathly quiet. “I once took a dishwashing job at some back alley burger joint, and then next thing I was seeing Judge’s car parking out front. That wasn’t the only time he had me tracked down either.”

"You won't be alone this time, we don’t give up either.”

“I’m telling you to stay out of it, Ace!” he snarls so furiously that Ace jerks back a little. He sees a flash of what Ace was like as a teenager as he narrows his eyes and squares his shoulders.

“Oh, you’re 'telling'  me, huh? Nothing good can come out of this and you fucking well know it.”

“Shut the fuck up! Don’t sit there and tell me what to do when your brothers would die for you! And Luffy he-"

He stops suddenly, forcefully swallowing back the words that he was going to say.

He almost did.

Sanji immediately knows he fucked up, he clamps his mouth shut but it's too late. The look Ace gives him is full of disappointment as he slips off the truck and goes to stand against the metal barrier at the edge of the lookout point.

If Sanji were less drunk, maybe he would have thought a little before bringing up such a painful memory, not just for Ace but for everyone involved. The screaming of a car’s wheels and the thumps of a body rolling over a car’s hood. Ace clinging to Sanji for dear life in the emergency room and sobbing like his heart was breaking.

"He's gonna die-! He's gonna die and it's all my fault!"

Sanji hiccups, he finished all of Ace’s wine without even thinking and the lookout point around him is starting to spin. He hops off the truck and staggers a little as he walks towards the barrier.

"I'm sorry." Sanji mumbles, glancing at Ace as he grips the barrier and stares out at the city lights.

“Yeah.” Ace says flatly.

"It... wasn't your fault."

"Okay."

Ace's dark eyes are dull as he stares into the distance. As the silence stretches on, all Sanji wants to do is vault the barrier and toss himself down the rocks. When Ace takes a deep breath to speak, Sanji can hardly stand to look at him.

"You have people who care about you Sanji, I wish you'd remember that once in a while."

Ace kicks the wine bottle over the edge of the cliff before he turns back to the truck.

 

The drive back to Sanji's apartment building is unbearably quiet - no more indie rock songs on the radio, just the quiet rumble of the car.

When they stop, Ace just stares ahead at the road and waits for him to get out, his hands are tense on the wheel and he can see the tendons sticking out in the dim light.

“Ace I…"

The look in his eyes is a mixture of that disappointment, but also a deep hurt - one Sanji knows he caused. He was just trying to help.

"...see you."

 


 

 

"Did we lose them?"

"I think so."

Sanji stood with Sabo at the mouth of the underpass they had just sprinted down, and the streets were quiet. After the robbery they had just pulled and the subsequent fight, Sanji’s body was awash with adrenaline. They had never pulled anything this big, and the fact that they stole from a bunch of thieves meant that they didn’t even have to feel bad about it.

Sabo grinned at him from under his hood as they waited for Ace and Luffy to catch up. Sanji grinned back, feeling confident and safe as wolves running in a pack.

"We might have enough to afford our own apartment with this haul!" Sabo said.

"Heh, congratulations."

"What d'you mean ‘congratulations’? You're moving in with us, dumbass."

Sanji had been too surprised to respond for a few moments, “How the hell are we gonna afford an apartment for four people?”

“Well, if we have to share I’m rooming with you! Ace and Luffy can snore with each other all night.” Sabo said with a laugh, then he turned to bellow down the tunnel. "Hey guys, hurry up!” 

Ace had taken the lion’s share of the injuries in the fight, and he was bloody and bruised all over. He leaned heavily on Luffy's shoulder after some razor wire had torn him from thigh to ankle. Putting his full weight on it seemed to hurt him deeply. Sanji ran back, crossing half the underpass in a matter of moments.

"You alright Ace?" Sanji said, lightly touching his shoulder. He raised his battered face, one of his eyes was so bruised it was almost shut completely.

"Yeah, yeah... You guys go on ahead, I’ll be fine.”

He waved at Sanji dismissively before pressing his forehead to his brother’s shoulder. He looked ready to collapse in a heap.

“Want me to take him off you, Luffy?” 

“Nah! I’m good.” Luffy said with a beaming grin, his face was scratched and bruised too, but still full of the boundless energy of a fifteen-year-old. Luffy pulled Ace along, not seeming to feel the weight of the older boy, or the two backpacks full of loot slung across his shoulders. Sanji huffed and snapped at Luffy until he at convinced him to at least hand over Ace’s bag. He kept glancing back at Ace as he walked slowly in front of them, it was going to take them hours to get back to their hideout at this rate.

Soon they heard the sounds of a car coming down the underpass in front of them. Sanji pressed himself into a maintenance doorway to let them past, but instead, the car stopped at the mouth of the tunnel. He was close enough to hear its engine rattling as it idled.

Then the driver started to rev the engine.

 

Afterwards, in the hospital, the three of them would quietly discuss how time seemed to slow at that moment, but for Sanji everything happened very fast.

 

The car’s wheels screeched as the driver slammed on the accelerator and the engine snarled as it went barrelling straight towards Ace and Luffy.

Sanji could only watch, too far away to even attempt to help them. The car drove past him with a thrum and it seemed certain that the car was going to hit them both, when at the last moment, Luffy threw Ace aside with everything he could.

 

Sanji’s brain refused to process what had happened in front of him, until he saw a straw hat fly into the air and float slowly down. Luffy’s body hit the road a few moments later.

The car weaved away with a trail of broken glass tinkling behind it. It stopped and turned at the end of the underpass, when sirens began wailing nearby. Whoever it was drove away with its back tyres spinning and squealing, away into the night.

 

"NO, NO NO... NO!

Ace’s cries bounced off the concrete walls and echoed back to him sadly; ‘no, no no… no!’.

Luffy lay still and face down, his leg was twisted at an unnatural angle and his backpack had spilled open. The ground was littered with the goods they had stolen, mobile phones and the odd games console all broken and covered in droplets of blood. Ace staggered to his feet and managed to stumble over to Luffy, only to collapse beside him.

Sabo bolted over with a cry of "L-Luffy!" while Sanji could only stand numb and silent, with the raw certainty that Luffy was dead. So much blood covered the road that there was no way he wasn’t. The sirens were coming closer, and a beat cop in a blue uniform half-stepped out of his car. His radio was in his hand and he chomped on a large cigar as he spoke into it.

"Yeah, Marineford Plaza, a kid got hit and I need the EMTs. Hurry up."

“Out of the way.” the cop gruffed at them. Though he looked quite young, his hair was a shock of greyish-white. He picked up Luffy’s limp wrist and pressed his fingers into the soft part below his palm. “He’s still alive, but for god’s sake don’t try to move him until the paramedics get here.”

Sanji knelt beside Ace to hold him as he burst into hysterical tears. Then Luffy opened his eyes and blinked at them.

"Ace… you're okay?” he said, grinning weakly with bloody teeth. He lifted a hand and tried to reach out for him. “That’s great…”

His hand fell back down before Ace or Sabo could hold it. 

"No-! Oh god, Luffy, LUFFY! "

It took all of Sanji’s strength to hold back Ace as he lurched forward to grab Luffy’s hand and desperately pull him into his arms.

“Stay awake- don’t leave me! LUFFY!"

 

Three weeks, two days.

That's how long Luffy lay in a deep, deathlike sleep in hospital.

At some point, the doctors had ordered the two brothers and Sanji to go home for 24 hours at the least, and the brothers had almost gotten themselves thrown out with the fuss they kicked up. Sanji and Ace found themselves in Dadan’s kitchen, trying to form some kind of meal after living on cafeteria food and shitty snacks from the vending machines. 

Ace stood pulling packages of sandwich fillings out of the fridge, while Sanji fumbled open a packet of instant coffee. There was a moment when Ace suddenly stopped what he was doing, eyes glazed over and hands slumping in the middle of buttering a piece of bread. When Sanji nudged him lightly, he jerked so fiercely that the plate, bread and knife went crashing to the floor.
“Ace, when was the last time you slept?”
Ace shook his head and rubbed his fingers over black hooded eyes. “Three…”

“Three days?!”

“I couldn’t… I kept dreaming that he was gone.” Tears filled eyes already red and puffy from nonstop crying, and Ace’s face collapsed in despair. "Everything hurts so much…" Sanji pulled him into a hug and stroked his shoulder.

"I know... Leave it to me, okay?"

Sanji directed him to the couch to lay down, and he was asleep long before Sanji finished cleaning up the broken plate.

Sanji had been running away his whole life. Only in the wake of utter devastation, with Ace stone-cold unconscious did he find the courage, to kneel and kiss his forehead, to wind fingers through his hair and tell him... Even though there was no chance he would hear the words;

"I love you, Ace."

 


 

 

Galette. What kind of a stupid fucking name is that? Ace thinks bitterly as he lays on his couch. There’s a lot wrong with what Sanji told him, but the part that sticks out is the thought of him getting married to some stuck-up socialite and pretending to be happy for the rest of his life. And for what, the approval of a father who he hates?

Ace makes an irritated noise to himself and strokes the fat rat in his hands, in an attempt to calm himself down. He took Flip-Flop out of his cage to cuddle, but the rat is more interested in scampering around the couch looking for things to bite. He chose to get out Chubs instead, less inclined towards moving and nice to pet while he lays around brainless and moping on the couch. Flip-Flop is nibbling happily on a pair of crocs when Sabo and Luffy come through the door. Their arms are full of shopping bags and Luffy has a stick of beef jerky wedged in his mouth.

"You couldn't wait 10 minutes until we got home?" Sabo says.

"Mrrfff!"

"Right, look at who I'm talkin' to here…" Sabo dumps his bags on the kitchen counter and turns to Ace with a grin, “Hey! How’d your date go?"

Ace sinks further into the couch and groans.

“Oh… that bad huh? I told you, you should’ve worn a tie.”

“It was not about the tie! Sanji… Sanji’s brothers showed up at the Baratie.”

The pink scar across Sabo’s left eye wrinkles as he frowns.

"His family... the Vinsmokes?"

Luffy scowls and hisses like a cat with its tail stepped on. "Gross , don't say that name!" Flip-Flop spots Luffy and abandons the crocs, too fast for anyone to catch him as he sinks his teeth into the foam of Luffy’s sandals. “AW C’MON, I JUST BOUGHT THESE!”

Luffy leans down to pick the rat up and his sandal comes with it, still munching away even with Luffy’s hand around his body.

Sabo perches himself on a chair and ruffles Ace's hair, "You want to talk about it champ?"

Ace pats the top of Chubs’ head and the fat rat looks up at him with black eyes. There’s something wrong when even a rat’s adorable face can’t make him smile.

"You should’ve seen Sanji, he was… terrified. These guys are total bullies. I haven’t seen him cry since-”
What?” Luffy stares at him, frozen with Flip-Flop wriggling in his hand. “They made him cry?” He and Sabo exchange a glance, both their expressions are thunderously dark.

“Luffy…”

“No, I mean it!” Luffy waves the rat around as he gestures wildly, “Sanji’s been through enough without those dick-heads coming back and making trouble for him!”

Ace swipes his hand through his hair, already slightly regretting bringing it up.

“I'm going to kick their asses!" Luffy says.

"Guys, we're not teenagers anymore." Ace says, "Plus they're rich, they might… I don’t know- put a hit out on us or something.”

Sabo snorts and puts his hands behind his head.
“That doesn’t scare me.”

“Well it scares me! I’m not gonna put you two in danger.”

He and Sabo look instinctively towards Luffy, at the bend in the bone below his knee from where he broke it. A Comminuted Fracture the doctors had called it. He had spent months couch-bound and losing his mind from boredom while it healed.

With Luffy standing in front of him now, it almost seems like a vaguely remembered nightmare. But it still puts the shits up him whenever he looks at his knee or the ragged X-shaped scar on his chest from where the impact had torn him up. Luffy frowns at them and tilts his head. "Will you two stop looking at me like that?"

Ace puts Chubs to one side and stands up, to pull his brother into a fierce hug. "I love you, you dipshit."  

"I know! Jeez… You need to stop worrying so much!”

Luffy starts wriggling uncomfortably and jabbing his finger into his shoulder blades to make him let go.

"No, never, because it's my job to worry".

"Mine too." Sabo adds with a wry smile.

As Ace rounds up the two rats to put them away, Luffy sidles over with a mischievous smile.

"So… how many brothers does he have again?"

Ace shoots him a warning glare as he shoves Chubs' fat ass back into his cage.

"Three, that I saw anyway."

"Perfect, one for each of us!"

"Luffy, no!"

"If we get rid of them, you and Sanjj can totally be gay together! You know you want to beat them up."

"Dumbass has a point," Sabo says, "it sounds like they totally cock-blocked you."

Shouldn't have told them about the date in the first place, damn it.

"Okay first of all," Ace snaps the cage door shut and points a finger at Luffy, "no-one is beating anyone up until we know what we're getting into this time. We are adults, and we are good, reasonable people."

Luffy folds his arms and nods seriously, while Sabo smirks.

"That being said…" Ace continues, finding an evil smile pulling at the corners of his mouth, "let's think up some ways we can make sure Sanji's brothers never fuck with him again."