A/N: Sorry this came after such a wait! But at least I decided to procrastinate on studying for exams and get this done, or the wait would have been longer.
It took them a while to find the aquarium. Sabo wouldn't have minded so much if Ace hadn't been teasing him for forgetting the way the whole time, but at the very least Luffy was distracted by poking his head through all the doors. It was Sabo who pushed open the door that revealed their destination; a lounge sort of area with glass tanks filled with water and sea life on all sides.
"Well, finally," Ace said as Luffy ooh-ed and ah-ed at the ceiling-high tanks.
Sabo almost thought the room didn't have walls at all, and instead separated the ship from the ocean with a glass sheet. But that would have been impractical; glass was breakable, after all, and the ship carried four devil fruit users — five, including himself.
There was another devil fruit user in the aquarium at that moment, one who made Ace put his guard up on sight. Robin and Nami sat together, taking a pair of attractive-looking drinks from a fawning Sanji.
"Mesdemoiselles~!" the cook cooed. "Your drinks! A fragrant blend of honey and raspberries with some special ingredients, made to perfection by my own hands!"
"Thank you, Sanji-kun," Nami said with a fond exasperation. Meanwhile, Robin simply gave him a small smile.
"Ah, but it is only my pleasure to bring happiness to such beauties as yourselves! I exist to serve!"
"Can I have one?" Luffy asked, breaking the chef out of his noodle-dance.
Sanji was instantly scowling. "Shitty rubber-brain. It's not my duty to slave over you, you entitled piece of—"
"I'd suggest stopping there," Ace interrupted with a scowl to outmatch Sanji's. The chef looked a bit cowed.
Luffy shifted on his feet a little, unsure why he had gotten shut down so completely, but pressed on. "Please? Pretty please? With a cherry on top?"
He earned an odd look from the Mugiwaras for his words, but Robin, chuckling, said, "Sanji, why don't you make one for Luffy-san? He is our guest, after all."
"Right away, my queen!" said Sanji, doing a figurative one-eighty and a literal three-sixty as he slipped back into his noodle-dance mode. They all tried to ignore the strange movements of his body as he danced out of the room.
Sabo raised an eyebrow and glanced leadingly at the door. "Mood swings?"
"Like you wouldn't believe," Nami said, raising her glass to her mouth. Just before she took a sip, she stopped suddenly and sighed. "I can see you eying my drink, Luffy. I mean, Luffy-san."
Luffy pouted at her.
Nami sighed again. "Take it," she said as she held out the glass. Luffy had grabbed it before she could go on, "I can take the one Sanji brings for you later. Only this once!"
He said something that was probably meant to be "Thank you, Nami," but it was garbled as he had already started drinking.
All of a sudden, Luffy was coughing.
Breathing while taking a drink was a bad idea, Luffy knew, because liquids were all too eager to jump down airways. Apparently, speaking posed the same problem.
The honey in the drink stuck to the sides of his throat and burnt vaguely — the kind of burn that lacked the heat but held all the pain. It clotted and clogged up and he couldn't breathe anymore—
—sand in his mouth, crunching between his teeth and sticking where there's blood—
—His legs giving out underneath him and he couldn't even breathe—
There was barely an impact when his knees hit the floor, but it shook him enough that for a second, he wondered how he had come to stand on wood instead of sand.
Another impact — a slender hand on his back — and he was reminded not to think too much, because Miss All-Sunday was still there and he couldn't let himself show her anymore weakness. The first time he had, she—
Something dripped out of his mouth and onto the floor. His breath returned, with reality on its back.
She wasn't there. The hand on his back, too slender to be one of his brothers', could have been Nami's. It could have been Robin's, too, but not her. Robin was not Miss All-Sunday, no matter what resemblance.
Sabo and Ace were crouching down in front of him.
"Are you alright?" Sabo asked as soon as he saw Luffy regain some lucidity.
"U- uh-huh…" The glass was somehow still clutched, half-full, in his hand. His gaze lingered on it until Ace laid a hand on his wrist; he looked up to find that Ace kept glancing at something over Luffy's shoulder. Luffy turned his head to look.
Emerging from his hip was a pale arm—
—growing off his own body and holding him down—
—that disappeared in a flurry of petals the moment he saw it.
The glass dropped.
"Jesus," Sabo muttered, looking at the empty space where Luffy had only just stood. "He runs fast when he wants to…"
"We have to find him," Ace said with a glare in Robin's direction.
"I'm coming too," said Nami, pushing herself to her feet. Robin began to stand up, but Nami stilled her by putting a hand to her shoulder. "No offense, Robin, but maybe you should stay here." She flicked her eyes to the brothers pointedly.
"Quite right," Robin agreed with a small smile. "I shall just have to wait for this to be resolved, then."
Sabo watched Ace shifting unsurely, confused but still suspicious. The woman really knew how to disguise her motives, if she had any at all. The amused look she favoured them with cemented the idea that she was intentionally screwing with their minds at that moment.
Before they even noticed her moving, Nami was already at the door. "Are you coming or not?"
"Right," said Ace. He grabbed Sabo's wrist and dragged him away.
Sabo didn't look back, but he could practically see the expression Robin must have had. He didn't think he could trust her anymore.
"Where would he have gone?" Nami asked, putting a stop to his thoughts.
Sabo scratched his head. "Well, if he wanted to hide from someone back on our ship, he would get Perona to hide him in the women's quarters…"
Nami paused. "…Perona?"
"Yeah," said Ace. "She can't resist anything cute."
"Oh." Nami's brow was furrowed, and Sabo got the feeling she knew more about their 'interior decorator' than she was saying. He wondered what Perona's counterpart was like. "Well, he wouldn't be in the women's quarters here. Especially if he's smart enough to realise he's trying to avoid one of the girls who sleep there…" she trailed off. "…He's smart enough to realise that, right?"
The brothers exchanged a glance.
"Maybe?" Sabo said with a shrug.
"Of course." Nami brought up a hand to rub her temple. "We won't cross it off the list."
"He could be anywhere, really. He has no idea where he's going on this ship," Sabo pointed out.
Ace nodded. "Yeah, he's probably wandering around lost right now."
"Lost? Great. We can send Zoro after him."
"Huh? The green-haired guy?" asked Ace. "Why him?"
"Forget I said anything," Nami muttered, arms crossed. Sabo could have sworn a vein on her forehead was standing out. "So he could be basically anywhere?"
"Anywhere," Sabo confirmed.
"Probably anywhere that smells like food," Ace added, one hand holding his own stomach. "Is it just me who's hungry here?"
Sabo groaned and rolled his eyes. "You just ate, Ace."
"If I'm hungry, Luffy has to be hungry too." Ace patted his stomach as if he were proud of its wisdom. "Logic."
Nami rubbed her chin, looking around. "The quickest way to the galley from here…" After a second, she pointed down the hall to their right. "That way."
"Wait, wait, wait—" Sabo held up a hand. "—Are you telling me we are literally going with his gut?"
"What else can we do?"
"We could, um…" Sabo wished he weren't so clearly struggling for ideas that Ace stuck out a smug tongue at him. "Not?"
Nami lifted a brow, unimpressed.
"Fine, fine," he grumbled. "Do what you want, then."
"Can we hurry?" Ace asked, eyes darting up and down the corridor as if it would lead them straight to Luffy. "I'm seriously worried about him…"
Nami led them down a few halls and up some stairs, until they reached the empty galley.
"Hello?" Nami called. "Sanji-kun? Are you here?"
Having been summoned, Sanji's head peeked around the wall that separated the kitchen from the galley. "Nami-swan? …And guests," he added, catching sight of Ace and Sabo. "How can I serve you, my dear? I must warn you, if you wish something cooked, it may have to wait until the shitty cyborg has stopped tampering with my oven—"
"I'm making it SUPER!" Franky objected from behind the wall.
"Have either of you seen Luffy?" Ace asked. "Please tell me you have."
Franky appeared next to Sanji, wiping… something from his hands off on a kerchief. He lifted the pair of goggles he was wearing away from his eyes. "Which one, bro?"
"It doesn't matter which one," Sanji said around his cigarette. "Neither of them have been by since breakfast, by some miracle. Wasn't one with you?"
"Yeah, but we, uh…" Sabo looked away, feeling a bit stupid for the words he was about to say. "We lost him?"
"You lost a Luffy," Sanji deadpanned. "Somehow I'm not surprised."
Nami cleared her throat.
"Ah, that was not directed at you, my love!" Sanji cooed. "I was simply calling those two imbeciles for losing their brother! I'm sure you had an exhausting job trying to keep them in check; come, let me massage your tired feet!"
"That's alright, Sanji-kun," Nami demurred. "We need to find Luffy-san quickly."
Franky had moved over to the door while they were talking, and was peering out the small window. "Well, one of them is out on the deck. Can't tell which, but he doesn't look very happy…"
Sabo moved over to join him at the window, and sure enough, he could see Luffy; the boy was over at the railing, facing out to sea. He was slumped a little, shoulders hunched, with no one nearby but a sleeping swordsman on the other side of the grassy deck. Sabo could only see his back.
"What are we waiting for?" Ace asked, budging past Sabo and Franky to throw the door open. He was running over before they could blink. "Luffy! Hey!"
Ace had already reached the startled Luffy. His switch into his doting, comforting big brother-mode was surprisingly quick; he pulled Luffy into his arms without a second to spare and started rubbing small circles on the boy's back. "Hey, kiddo, you okay? We're here for you. You can always talk to us, you know."
Luffy's arms hesitated for a few seconds, before slowly wrapping around Ace's back. However, Sabo was in the position to notice something Ace wasn't: this Luffy's arms were draped in flared red sleeves. It wasn't their Luffy, but the Mugiwara captain.
"You are okay, right?" Ace asked, tucking the Mugiwara Luffy's head under his chin.
"Um, yeah…" said Luffy.
Sabo and Nami left Franky and Sanji behind in the galley. They jogged over to the two, just in time to watch Luffy's fingers curl, as if twisting into the fabric of Ace's nonexistent shirt.
Nami looked intensely concerned. "Ace, that's…"
"Hm?" Ace responded, but it was clear he wasn't really paying attention to her. To Luffy, he went on, "I know what that woman did must have freaked you out a lot… but, she's not here right now. She stayed put back in the aquarium, so—"
"Ace!" Sabo snapped when he finally got fed up. "That's the other Luffy!"
"The…" Ace trailed off, looking between the irritation on Sabo's face to the worry on Nami's. "…Oh."
"…What do you mean by 'that woman'?" Luffy asked, muffled, because he still hadn't pulled out of Ace's embrace. He still managed to convey a tone that edged on fury. "Robin?"
"Er, well—" Ace jolted to a stop as he was pushed away suddenly.
"No! What have you got against Robin, huh?! I've seen you give her dirty looks, but she never did anything to you!"
"She hurt you," Ace answered instinctively.
"That's a lie," said Luffy.
"…It's not," Sabo had to say, no matter how stupid he thought Ace was being. "She got you alone, a- and… your back…"
"No," Luffy said forcefully, "that's what the other her did to the other me. Robin did nothing! She's a good person and I'm sick of you acting like she's gonna snap and kill you!"
"I agree," Nami added. "Robin's our friend. You don't have to trust her as much as we do, but you treat her like she's a bomb."
"I've been trying to trust her, but…" Sabo stopped himself. How could he explain what had made him lose any trust he had had when it was only vague feelings?
"Your prejudices got in the way?" Nami supplied, her frown growing. Sabo felt his shame grow in response.
Ace opened his mouth, but Luffy glared at him until he closed it again.
"…Luffy…" Sabo said weakly, which only resulted in the glare turning on him instead. It lasted a couple seconds before Luffy turned away.
"I'm going," he announced, striding off in the direction of the galley. His hands curled into fists as he went, not shooting even a dirty look over his shoulder, and Nami followed his lead.
Ace and Sabo looked at each other, unsure and slightly shell-shocked, before looking back to where Luffy and Nami were nearly inside.
"Luffy, wait!" Ace tried.
Luffy did, indeed, stop and look back at them. Behind the anger in his eyes, Sabo thought he saw two kinds of pain; one was the kind he knew came from betrayal, but the other, he couldn't identify.
"Don't," was all Luffy said, stern and precise, and disappeared through the door.
The brothers glanced at each other again, and when they looked back, Nami was nowhere to be seen.
Meanwhile, the Wild Card Luffy had waited, sequestered near the aquarium, until he was sure his brothers were far out of range. He counted himself lucky that Nami had gone with them, too — himself and Robin alone was possibly the ideal.
He got the feeling he was being watched. It was probably Robin. The idea of finding her eye gazing at him from the wall or ceiling made him shudder, so he didn't look.
Instead, he merely slipped right back through the aquarium door. Sure enough, Robin sat right where he had last seen her, a book sitting in her lap. Had that been there before? If it had, he hadn't noticed.
"Welcome back," she greeted, entirely unsurprised. A bookmark seemingly materialised in the pages of her tome, which then slid out of view. Her smile was kind.
"Hello," he said back, in more of a mutter than he meant to, as he approached and took a seat across from her. He cleared his throat and tried again, "Hi, Robin."
"Hi, Luffy-san," Robin replied, her smile all the same. "Is something the matter?"
"I… No. Yeah." Luffy looked down, eyes glazing over the carpet, and said, "I just… wanna ask you some things."
"About?" she prompted.
"…You," he admitted, looking down again. "And, how you're different from the 'you' I've known."
"Of course," she said, gracious, and when Luffy looked up he saw her tilted her head. "And of course, you will answer some questions in kind, yes?"
"Yeah," he answered through his dry throat. "Yeah, I will."
Robin kept smiling.
A/N: Hope you like! I'm not sure how promptly I will be able to respond to reviews, considering the exam thing, but I will do my best. Please don't feel offended if I miss yours, I almost certainly didn't do it on purpose.