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Bonds, Not Chains

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“That’s the second tray of appetisers I’ve seen you shovel down since we got here.”

The murmur is almost lost beneath the din of the ballroom, but he doesn’t lift his eyes as he feels her manifest at his side, having sidled through the crowd on silent feet, although going by the number of gazes trained in their direction, Sabo doubts her attempts at stealth are at all necessary.

If she notices the amount of eyes on her, Koala doesn’t let on. “We didn’t come here to eat,” she reminds him, still sotto voce, but there’s a tinge of fond amusement there that’s about as old as their friendship.

“Not just to eat,” Sabo agrees, popping another canape in his mouth, before pilfering a silver tray from a passing waiter. Then, around a mouthful of salmon, “But these are really good.”

Koala slides him a look, and Sabo tries not to smile too much, allowing his eyes instead to do a sweep of the room. It’s still early in the evening, and quiet, the gentle twang of some unnamed instrument sitting beneath the steady susurrus of conversation, and the balmy evening air sifting in through the open balcony doors gives the entire room a soft, almost hazy feel.

It’s a simple enough job – infiltrate an annual masquerade ball as a newlywed baron and baroness, pilfer incriminating information along with the appetisers, and topple a small kingdom before the night is done. Simple, meaning something is bound to go tits-up, although so far the evening has progressed without a hitch.

The mask sits uncomfortably tight over the scar, and the cravat is a little stifling at his neck – a stiffer one than he’s used to, his shirt’s high collar following the current, local fashion. The brocade waistcoat is a bit too much for his usual style, too, but it wouldn’t do with anything less if they’d harboured any hopes of blending in with the rest of the guests.

But – it comes surprisingly easy, Sabo finds; the manners ingrained since birth, resurfacing now seemingly without a thought. All the little courtesies and the unique language of canape small-talk that he’d once observed his parents making, and that he shouldn’t remember but does, more than ten years later. And he doesn’t know what he feels about it – that this was a world he’d belonged to, once. The fact that, stifling cravat and ridiculous mask notwithstanding, he doesn’t feel as out of place as he’d hoped he would.

For her part, Koala doesn’t seem any less at ease, as comfortable in soft pink chiffon and silk gloves as her usual attire, although Sabo can’t help but feel that they should be doing something other than just standing around. Except the dancing hasn’t started, and they still have a job to do. And with the amount of people staring in her direction – and his, he notices now, swallowing as he catches the tail-end of a distinctly appreciative glance – it feels suddenly like they’re not playing their parts right.

“Feed me one,” Koala says then, and Sabo nearly chokes on the salmon puff in his mouth.


Her expression doesn’t so much as twitch, but her eyes are practically gleaming behind her mask. “Feed me a salmon puff,” she repeats, reaching out to smooth her fingers over the cravat at his neck, in a show of making sure it’s impeccable. “We’re supposed to be newlyweds. It’ll help sell the ruse.”

He’s tempted to tell her that no self-respecting couple would feed each other in public, no matter how obnoxiously smitten, but then she turns her eyes on him, dark blue behind the rose-gold of her mask, and he promptly forgets what he’d been about to say. And so he lifts the appetiser, momentarily distracted by the adoring look she’s plastered on her face now, cheeks and mask lifting with her smile as he holds the salmon puff out for her to take.

And when she closes her mouth over it, teeth nipping at his fingers and her eyes still holding his, there’s a moment where Sabo can’t remember what in the world they’re even supposed to be doing.

Drawing back, Koala chews, a soft sound of pleasure sitting at the back of her throat, and – “Thank you, dear,” she says, tongue darting out along her lower lip, and it takes effort to drag his eyes away from the sight.

Clearing his throat, Sabo manages to drop his gaze, the collar of his shirt suddenly suffocating. “A bit over the top?” he murmurs, and hears her answering laugh, thick and throaty.

“Just putting on a show,” she hums, voice too soft for anyone else to pick up. Then, a little louder, “Something the matter, Sabo-kun?”

He cuts her a look, but it’s hard to keep his smile, and – “You’re enjoying this way too much,” he says then, a laughing sigh tumbling out with the words.

He watches her eyes drop, her smile small and pleased, and she gives a shrug of her shoulders, bare as they are – her dress gathers at the neck, and has no sleeves. It hides the mark on her back, but does nothing to hide the lithe, sinewy muscles in her arms, far too defined for a noble’s delicate trophy wife. She usually doesn’t wear them bare outside of training, and he has the sudden urge to tell her that she should, but stuffs a salmon puff in his mouth and swallows it along with the remark.

A voice from behind them then, rising above the muted din of conversation – “I couldn’t help but notice – you two are so very sweet.”

Gloved fingers latching onto his elbow, Koala turns them around to face the elderly lady having addressed them, a pretty wife’s elation at getting to show off her new husband and station bright in all her movements. And it takes him a moment to follow suit, mouth still full of salmon and fighting the distraction that’s presented itself in the soft press of her curves against his side.

The woman’s eyes lift at the corners, laugh-lines etched deep. She’s alone, but the coronet nestled in her grey curls tells him she’s not just a regular noble. “You remind me of me and my late husband,” she sighs. “Are you newly married?”

The grip on his arm tightens, and Sabo almost doesn’t recognise Koala’s voice when she coos, “Just a few weeks.”

“Oh, those are the best,” the woman agrees. “The very first.” She laughs, a sharp, trilling cackle. “A small wonder you get anything done!”

The smile on his face feels so stiff it takes effort to soften it without letting it slip into a grimace, and he divides his attention between observing the rest of the ballroom, and the nosy woman who’s apparently decided to make them her source of entertainment for the evening.

“Was it a big wedding?” she asks then, and Koala’s sigh falls with enough girlish longing that it’s a little disconcerting.

“Several hundred guests. We have, ah – a lot of friends.”

He’s almost tempted to smile at the truth she’d slipped into that response, but schools his face into a careful mask of polite interest tinged with an indulging sort of patience.

“Well I’d expect nothing less, to show off such a pretty young bride!” the woman titters, the remark directed at Sabo. He manages a chuckle in response, a little forced at first, but prompted in truth by the too-clever twinkle in Koala’s eyes as she slips him a glance.

And so the conversation continues – how many guests, and were there tears, and had they planned on where to settle down yet? – until he’s tuned out most of the questions, face carefully blank but his eyes tracking the movements of the few Government officials gathered – and the king himself, making the rounds, laughter loud and carrying across the ballroom.

“Any plans for children?”

Sabo stiffens, all thoughts of the job forgotten at the question. And he doesn’t even know what he expects Koala’s response to be to that; they have their cover story, an overly-embellished account of how they first met, the details of their courtship and the date and place of their wedding, and he’d teased Hack for spending too much time cooking it up.

But children – not even Hack’s imagination had covered that much.

“We haven’t really gotten that far!” Koala laughs, her character not even slipping for a second, and Sabo spares a thought of gratitude to her quick reaction – and a twinge of guilt for thinking that she’d be caught off guard in the first place.

But then – “I’d like more than one, though,” she says, and Sabo blinks, because the voice she uses now is one he recognises – not the girlish lilt of his pretend wife, but her own; gentle and honest.

Glancing down at her, it’s to find her gaze dropping, and her smile soft. “I don’t have any siblings,” she says. “It was just me and my mother, growing up. But I remember wishing I’d had someone – a sister or a brother.”

Then, looking up at Sabo, “And when you talk about your brothers you’re always so happy,” she says, her look so earnest, if he didn’t know her as well as he does he might have thought it all part of an incredibly convincing act.

She shrugs, turning her gaze back to the woman, and with her next breath her mask has slipped back into place. “I’d like that – a small brood.” And then, the slight incline of her head a shy wife’s deference, “If he doesn’t mind,” she adds.

It’s difficult finding the voice to speak, and the woman is expecting an answer, Sabo sees, although he doesn’t have the mind to stay in-character now, but – “I wouldn’t mind,” he says, voice a little rough, and he hears the truth in the words even before he catches Koala’s surprised look, and sees those old eyes curve with a pleased smile.

“You seem to have married a good man,” the woman says to Koala, something old and fond in her expression now.

“Yeah,” Koala answers, and the tuck of her hand in the crook of his elbow tightens its grip again. “The best.”

Eyes twinkling, the woman offers Sabo a knowing glance. “But then you usually can’t go wrong with someone who looks at you like that,” she observes, and with a laugh and a touch to Koala’s shoulder she’s making her way back into the crowd, leaving them where they’re standing, just a little more awkward than before her intrusion.

There’s a moment where they both make a point of not looking at each other, although Koala still hasn’t let go of his arm, Sabo notes.

“So,” he says then, clearing his throat. “You, ah – you want kids?”

Still refusing to look at him, she shrugs her shoulders. “I mean– it’s not something I think about a lot, but…yeah.” Her smile falls a bit. “I know it’s not a good world to bring children into, but I like to think the one we’re fighting for will be. Some day.”

Something about the way she says it strikes him, and for a moment he feels short of breath. And he hasn’t considered it before – having kids. Now that he remembers it, his own upbringing isn’t exactly an inspiration, his parents cold and their touches hard, and the weight of his future station too heavy for a child’s shoulders.

But thinking about Dadan, all warmth and bluster, and Ace and Luffy–

“What would ours be like?” Sabo asks, before he can stop himself, and he doesn’t even know if he’s asking as her fake husband-for-the-evening, or as himself.

Her expression doesn’t reveal which one she thinks it is, but, “A girl,” Koala says, smile curving around the word. “With your curls. And then two boys.” She hums, the sound soft and contemplative, before she adds, “Twins.”

His laugh is a startled sound. “Twins are a lot of work.”

“We’d have help.”

“Oh really?”

“Hack would babysit.”

“Our kids would know how to throw a punch before they learned to walk,” Sabo deadpans.

“I don’t see a problem,” Koala says. Then, expression softening, “The girl would be your favourite. She’d be a lot like you.”

Something about that prospect makes his heart do a stutter in his chest. “Yeah?”

“Hmm. Too much trouble,” she chirps.

Sabo grins. “And the twins?”

He doesn’t know which roles they’re inhabiting now – if they’re still keeping up appearances, but he’s vaguely aware that they’re touching upon a subject that rings a bit too intimate for mere friends – for partners, on a job, and with that realisation dawning he’s brought back to where they are, and what they’re there to do.

“It’s getting late,” he says then, the remark offhand – any casual observer would make no note of it, but he catches Koala’s nod.

“I’m going to the ladies’ room,” she says, voice louder than necessary, and he watches her eyes glide across the people gathered, lingering only a second on the king, standing within a small circle of guests on the far side of the room towards the balconies.

It’s as good a time as any to make their move, but before he can offer a comment she’s lifted up on her toes, and pressing a kiss to his cheek – “I’ll cover the top floor. If he’s hiding anything, it’ll be behind one of those big doors we saw when we scoped the place out yesterday,” she murmurs against his ear, her lips ghosting across his cheek beneath the mask, and Sabo loses all his words. And she’s not any closer than usual, given her penchant for invading his personal space, but the added combination of her low voice in his ear and her lips against his skin–

“If I’m not back in ten minutes, assume something’s gone wrong,” she adds, giving his arm a squeeze, her eyes holding his for the span of a heartbeat, before she lets her gaze drop.

Then she’s settled back on her heels, turning away from him to make for the double doors on the other side of the ballroom, the skirt of her dress wrapping like water around her legs; the ebb and swell of the fabric making it suddenly hard to focus on anything else. And it takes him a moment to release the breath he’s been holding, feeling his entire body sink with the exhale as he watches her disappear among the gathered people, the sea of silk and sheer fabrics swallowing her up.

His heart leaping against his ribcage, Sabo wonders idly if she’d felt it when she’d pressed herself close. Because the sound of it sits, loud and condemning in his ears, and his back is slick with sweat beneath his shirt and vest, although even with his devil fruit he suspects there’s something else entirely that makes his breath feel so light in his chest.

He catches another knowing glance from the nosy lady from before, standing off to his right now, and has to duck his head, the facade as the flustered newlywed not even needing to be feigned. And he doesn’t even need to check his reflection in one of the balcony windows to know that his cheeks must match his vest by now.

Tugging at his cravat helps him breathe a little easier, but the last half of their conversation still lingers, and the kiss, both distracting enough that it makes it difficult to keep his focus on the crowd, and the job.

He turns down three separate offers to dance – his smile apologetic but not too much, a new husband’s excuse of waiting for his wife offered with a half-sheepish, half-adoring smile. And the word sits, a strangely comfortable weight on his tongue, for all that he’s been using it less than a day.

Then, having gathered his wits somewhat – and downed his distraction with a glass of champagne – Sabo busies himself with watching the crowded ballroom. Hack and the others are stationed elsewhere, well out of sight for the time being, and it’s just the two of them within the actual palace.

But – the king is gone now, Sabo notices, brow furrowing with the realisation; the action tugging at the mask. There’s no sign of the brightly coloured robes, or the booming laughter. Sometime in the past few minutes he must have slipped out, and there’s a curl of worry in his gut – along with a pang of regret for having been so distracted he’d let it escape his notice.

He’s not carrying a baby Den Den Mushi, and neither is Koala – there’d be no place for her to hide it with that dress, and the point was not to draw too much attention to themselves. But he regrets it now as the minutes tick by and there’s still no sign of her, or the king, and he allows his gaze to scour the length of the ballroom several times, looking for a slip of pink amidst the chaos of colour and sound.

Ten minutes have passed when he tosses back his glass and makes to follow. Any other person he might have given another minute, but this is Koala, and she’s never anything but entirely punctual. Had it been him the matter would be of a different sort. He might have gotten lost, or had the minutes go by without his notice, but she wouldn’t, and it’s with that knowledge drumming against his skull that he moves to cross the ballroom.

He gets to take exactly two steps before the heavy double doors on the other end are thrown open, admitting their host for the evening, garish robes flaring and features pulled tight with fury – and dragging behind him, much to Sabo’s horror, Koala.

The crowd parts, scattering like colourful koi in a pond to let him through, and a shudder of murmurs and gasps washes across the room, half-drowned by the heavy footfalls on the marble as the king moves towards the centre. And for a moment Sabo doesn’t know what to do – mind racing for a way to salvage their operation, or at the very least, get them out without compromising the others.

Fingers clamped around her elbow, the king tosses her to the floor – something she could have easily turned to her advantage, Sabo knows, and is surprised when she doesn’t even move to catch herself.

But then he sees her dress, ripped down the length of her back to expose the mark, and for a moment his shock is so great it overwhelms the fury that physically leaps within him.

And she’s – frozen, Sabo sees. On her hands and knees, back bent and exposed and her entire posture stiff, her mask missing, and she’s got her brow all but pressed to the floor. And he wants to speak – to ask what the hell she’s doing, why she didn’t cave his ribcage in for even touching her, let alone exposing her like this, but before he can get the words out–

“A convenient placement for a brand like that,” the king says, booming voice carrying across the crowd, silencing the murmurs. “It’s a pretty substitute, if a poor one.”

Then, “This slave is the property of the world nobles,” he announces, but he’s not addressing Koala, but the guests. “Covering up their mark with your own is...bold, I’ll grant you, but ultimately foolish. Not to mention illegal.”

Sabo’s heart lodges itself in his throat, along with a shout. And there’s a moment where he expects her to push to her feet – palms flat and back straight, prepared to carve a path through the guests and the king and the guards who’ve now gathered by the exists. But she doesn’t move, sitting so still he can’t even tell if she’s breathing.

“Now,” the king says, lifting his eyes to the room, gaze accusing as it makes a sweep across the nobles gathered. “Which one of you does this one belong to? You might as well come out with it now, because I will find out. And when I do, be sure that your punishment won’t be for the appropriation of a slave, but whatever you hoped to achieve here tonight.” He offers a glance at Koala. “So? Who do you belong to, girl?”

She has to be playing along, Sabo decides – to keep the new ruse going, no doubt. Maybe Hack is upstairs, finding those documents she’d been looking for. Which means he can’t ruin it by losing his cool, except–

Except there are people looking at him now, stealing furtive glances – people who’d seen them together earlier, the happy young newlyweds. And he knows the game must be up, and is waiting for the accusation to be placed, mind reeling to think up a plausible explanation, to buy the others more time

“I’m– I’m sorry,” Koala blurts then, in the smallest voice he’s ever heard, and the quaver in it is so startling Sabo forgets everything even resembling a plan.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats, and she’s curled in on herself now, shoulder blades sharp beneath the curve of her naked back, and the brand bright red against the soft rose of her ruined dress. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry–”

And – her acting is so good Sabo is half convinced it’s real, so much so that he fears whatever he’s able to string together on the spot won’t be half as convincing.

But watching her now, there’s something off about her performance, and suddenly he has no mind for himself, because there’s a hot sort of anger sitting under his skin, pushing against it. And with his heart going still in his chest, he fixes his gaze on the curve of her back – a protective, keenly deferential gesture, but familiar, as though she’s done it before, and so many times it comes as naturally to her as all his old mannerisms do to him.

Realisation has dawned before she opens her mouth to speak again, her voice still trembling, and too much now to be pretend, the fear too potent to be fake, “I’m s–”

Fury explodes within him, shoving him forward, and he’s moving before the words have left her mouth, wrapped in fire and a shout tearing loose of his chest. And the crowd parts in truth now, scattering as the flames carve an arc through the room, catching on hemlines and draperies but he has no mind to care – has no mind for anything but the small shape huddled on the marble floor ahead of him, at the heart of the circle of flames that have engulfed the room.

He’s kneeling beside her before he’s had the chance to draw breath, and he feels her jerk in response to the press of his palm against her back, the gesture entirely deliberate, because whatever’s got her in this state, he has to get her out of it, and quickly, because there’s no salvaging this operation now, but they still need to get out of the palace.

She meets his eyes then, her own unnaturally blank. And Sabo watches the reflection of his flames in them, and – it takes her a moment, but then she seems to come back to herself, as though from somewhere far away, and when she looks at him next there’s confusion etched into her features.

“Escape first,” Sabo says, before she can speak, fingers curving under her elbow, helping her to her feet and holding her dress together with his other hand. “Talk later. Sound good?”

Koala nods, and – noticing him keeping the back of her dress together, “Leave it,” she says, voice hoarse, but that quaver from before is gone, he’s relieved to discover. And so he complies, allowing the ruined fabric to drop, exposing her back in full, and when she squares her shoulders next there’s a hard press to her mouth, and he tightens his grip on her elbow, silently seeking assurance.

She shakes her head, and Sabo doesn’t push. Instead he grips her elbow again, not seeking assurance now but offering it, her bare skin soft under his palm, and he allows his touch to linger a moment before he lets his hand drop, and when he moves he doesn’t have to look back to know that she’s right behind him.

It’s easy, with the chaos brought about by the fire, to slip past the guards with minimal effort, and the ones they come across they make quick work of. And had it been any other mission they might have done a final search of the palace – exploited the chaos for all it was worth, but with the events of the night still fresh in his thoughts, finishing the job is the last thing on his mind.

They escape over one of the balconies, stealing into the gardens surrounding the palace, sitting behind them now, engulfed in flames; fire lapping at gilded balustrades and archways, and plumes of smoke rising into the night sky. The guests are spilling into the gardens, stretching across the palace grounds into the distance, but they’ve covered most of it already, following the route they’d mapped the day before, until his breath sits like a stone in his chest and the taste of blood is sharp on his tongue.

Then, just beyond a secluded enclosure – a private corner of the gardens tucked away behind a towering wall of trimmed bushes – Sabo staggers to a stop between the maples, Koala following suit, breath ragged and the skirt of her dress gripped between shaking fingers.

It takes him less than a second to determine that they haven’t been followed, before he’s tugging loose the collar of his shirt along with the cravat, allowing himself to breathe. And then he’s making for where she’s dropped to her knees in the grass, his heart-rate settling into something manageable now that they’re out of the immediate vicinity of the palace, but all thoughts of the job shoved to the back of his mind in favour of Koala.

Reaching out to touch her, Sabo hesitates, but whatever had gripped her back in the ballroom seems to have relented, and when she lifts her eyes to his there’s not a trace of the expression he’d found on her face when she’d been curled in on herself on the marble floor.

Her exhale makes her shoulders sink, but it’s a shuddering sort of relief, and the trembling purse of her mouth is testament enough to what she’s really feeling.

“Sor–” But she stops herself, another breath tearing loose, a harsher sound this time, and Sabo watches as horror chases across her features, the expression so brief but so wrought, it strikes like a slap.

“I don’t know where that came from,” she says instead. “I–” And he watches the thoughts passing behind her eyes, numerous and nameless.

“He knew,” she says then, the words quiet – he would have called them marvelling, if it hadn’t been for the trickle of fear slipping into her voice. “It was like he could tell. That I’m– that I was a–”

She looks at him, shaking her head, and the look on her face makes him want to go back and set fire to the king – to the whole damn, corrupt country. “It was like someone flipped a switch,” she croaks. “One moment I was about to knock him unconscious, but then he–”

She stops, and shakes her head. “How did he know? The dress. He just– he just knew.”

“A lucky guess,” Sabo says then, even as he hears how feeble that assurance sounds. But then, brows furrowing – “Or it was the dress,” he says, eyes glancing off what’s left of it now, the hem still gripped between her fingers but the fabric at her back hanging open. “A lot of the other women wore dresses with open backs. The current fashion, probably. Yours stood out.”

Koala doesn’t say anything, and he realises belatedly that even offered as an assurance – that there’s no way to tell just from the look of her, what she was in her past – it also carries the weight of blame with it; that maybe she ought to have been with Hack, instead of on the inside with him.

And – “Figured it was my turn,” she says then, proving his suspicions right, her mouth lifting in a keenly self-deprecating smile, before it falls. “To jeopardise an operation.”

Koala.” She flinches at the way he says it, but the need for her to understand is too great to think about how it comes across. “This wasn’t your fault.”

Pressing her thumb and forefinger to the bridge of her nose, the sigh that leaves her now is a sharp gust – too sharp to be the laugh she tries for. “I didn’t get the documents,” she says. “The palace is on fire–”

“I’m pretty sure that one’s on me,” Sabo offers.

“–and Dragon-san said this was an important job,” she says, ignoring his interjection. “And this was our best shot. Now they’re aware someone is snooping around, and I–” She allows her shoulders to drop, and then, “I thought it was behind me,” she says. “My past.”

My past, and the words strike home with more force than she could have consciously intended, but when he considers them now they don’t spark the same ache behind his ribs as he’s come to expect. Instead the weight that settles is a comfortable one – not like resignation, but acceptance, long sought after, although maybe he shouldn’t be surprised that she’d be the one to inspire it at last.

“Back before I regained my memories,” Sabo says, and watches Koala’s gaze lift. “I used to wonder where I got them, all these…impulses. I’d have these knee-jerk reactions that I couldn’t explain. A woman would walk into a room and I’d feel the urge to rise from my chair. Someone would lift a hand in greeting and I’d – flinch.” The last example isn’t something he’s admitted to anyone, but he sees the understanding as it settles in her eyes now.

“I’d always say please, like a reflex,” he continues, and the laugh that follows is short. “Remember the grief you guys used to give me for that?” Luffy and Ace had, too, although for so long Sabo hadn’t remembered.

“I know it’s not the same,” he says then, when she hasn’t spoken. “But some things just – stick, whether we like it or not. But they’re just habits. Like scars. Sometimes the body remembers, even if you’ve moved on.”

He feels her gaze, lingering a moment on the mask he’s still wearing, but Sabo knows she’s thinking about the scar underneath, and so he shrugs. “Old habits or scars…they don’t decide who you are. Or who you were.” And he doesn’t know whose sake he’s saying it for, really – hers or his, but he suspects it might be the latter, remembering the scene in the ballroom, and the gut-sinking realisation that he’d once been part of that world. That in another reality, he might have–

Koala’s mouth quirks. “I’ve always liked that you say ‘please’,” she says.

Sabo smiles, but it turns hard when he adds, “It was ingrained pretty early.” A shrug tries to shake off some of the tension in his shoulders. “But it’s mine now. I’ll say ‘please’ because I want to, not because someone expects it of me. There’s a kind of freedom in that – reclaiming things for yourself.”

She doesn’t answer, but looking at her he finds a contemplative furrow to her brow. And he wonders how many times she’s spoken the words I’m sorry and felt like spitting them out instead. He doesn’t ask for the story behind them, able to fill in the gaps with little trouble – the way she’d spoken them, almost like a mantra, was telling enough.

Thinking about it makes his hands twitch, the fire under his skin itching to torch the palace grounds around them.

A shiver races across her bare arms then, and he’s brought back rather rudely to the fact that despite the balmy air, she’s wearing markedly less than he is – and she doesn’t have his body temperature to begin with.

He’s shrugging off his jacket before the thought has had time to properly manifest, but she doesn’t decline it when he moves to place it over her shoulders.

Looking up at him, her smile is a tired thing. “You looked nice tonight,” she says, pulling the jacket closer around herself.

Sabo grins. “I wasn’t the only one.” Then at her dry look, “I think we made a pretty convincing couple. Until I set the place on fire. That probably didn’t help sell the part.”

Her smile comes quite despite herself, he can tell, although the slight purse of her mouth tells him she still considers it to be her fault. “Probably not.”

“Hey,” Sabo says then, the thought springing to mind and pushing off his tongue before he can think the better of it. “You didn’t answer my question earlier. About our kids.”

She blinks, before her smile quirks. “The twins?”

He grins. “Troublemakers? They’d have to be, with us for parents.”

She hums, the sound not quite a laugh but close. “Troublemakers with manners.” Then, tilting her head, there’s a look in her eyes that he can’t read, before she says, “But they’d all be their own person, no matter who we are. And – no matter what happens.”

It’s all pretend, he knows that, but despite himself the image rises – three tiny makers of mischief, corkscrew curls and a whole world at their feet. Three distinct personalities, but none of them shaped by fear – not of hands raised to strike, and the word please either cheeky or earnest, never spoken in defence. And he wants to tell her that it’s not a wrong thing to want, even in this world – perhaps especially in this world, but the words have lodged themselves in his chest, because there’s a suggestion there that feels too soon, even as the realisation comes to settle with staggering calm within him, that he really wouldn’t mind, if it was her – if it was them, in the end.

But marriage carries implications that he hadn’t considered before tonight – the concept of belonging to someone, even if the bonds are kinder. He hadn’t given a thought to what it might mean to her, even as make-believe.

“Come on,” he says, rising to his feet, and holding out his hand. “We should get going. Even if they’ll be busy putting out that fire for a good long while, it doesn’t mean they won’t have people looking. And we need to find Hack and the others.”

Koala nods, but when she wraps her fingers around his her grip is tight, and when he hoists her to her feet she moves with him, until they’re standing just a few inches apart. A different scene than the one she’d put on in the ballroom, latched onto his arm, all adoring smiles and exaggerated sighs. She’s got her fingers curled around the lapels of his jacket, and it had been a tight fit on him but it dwarfs her, the shoulders too wide and the sleeves slipping down her wrists, to gather at her elbows.

“Hey,” she says then, fiddling with the lapels. And she’s not meeting his eyes now, although she hasn’t made to move away, Sabo notes. “How did you like being married?”

He has a mind to wonder if she’s asking in order to distract herself from the events of the night, or if she’s genuinely curious – or if it’s something else entirely that has to do with how close she’s standing now. But whichever it is, Sabo feels his smile curve.

“In general, or to you?”

She looks up at him, and he finds the answer in her eyes – that too-honest weight of her gaze that feels like one of her punches. There’s no evading a look like that, or what it implies, and he only spares it a moment’s consideration before he gives himself over.

“I think,” he says at length, “that one night in stiff clothes and being ridiculous in public isn’t enough to make an informed decision.”

Unbidden, the image rises behind his eyes, of the way she’d looked at him when he’d fed her that canape, and he’s glad of the cool night air now, finding his ears warming with the thought.

“But,” he adds, a smile lifting the corners of his mouth. “I don’t think I’d be averse to it. In the future.”

“Marriage in general?” Koala asks, but keeps the second half of the question unspoken, even as he reads it on her entire face, along with the suggestion he’d been afraid to offer, just a moment ago.

And there will be a better time to broach this subject, Sabo knows – any time, really, that’s not in the middle of a botched operation that quite literally went up in flames around them.

But – “No,” he says, and when he leans forward it’s to press a kiss to her brow, and he hears in the way her breath catches that she hadn’t seen that coming. And maybe it’s a small payback for that canape, but there isn’t a shred of pretending in his voice when he adds, honestly–

“Not in general.”