For days, Sanji's vision had been a little... off. Talking to Nami about using her oranges for pie, the light had seemed just for an instant to bend around something. He paused mid-sentence, blinked hard once, and it was… gone.
Immediately, he was all radiant smiles again, as he turned to his one and only Nami. Must have been seeing things.
It happened again, when he was lecturing Luffy about stealing food from his kitchen. The unrepentant youth was whining on about being really really hungry, and just for an instant, the deck behind Luffy blurred, as if someone invisible had just walked past.
"What the…" Sanji began, and he snatched at the air before him, but came up empty.
Sanji frowned at the empty space a moment longer before turning back to threaten Luffy with a vegetarian diet if he ever caught him stealing food from the pantry again.
The next day, he emerged from the cabin in glasses. It wasn't like he needed the glasses for anything besides reading, and the only actual reading he did was referring to some obscure recipe every now and then that he wanted to modify for the Straw Hat Pirates. He couldn't help being a little embarrassed about seeming to depend on glasses, but Chopper had suggested he try it to see if his vision problems would stop. Zoro that idiot, had sniggered, but the lovely Robin had told Sanji that he looked like an intellectual with one of her mysterious smiles, so he'd blushed and left them on.
At one point during the day, a spot just above Luffy's shoulder had shimmered suddenly while he and Usopp were messing around with Franky's cybernetic enhancements.
Nope, hadn't worked.
By now, Sanji was seriously starting to consider the possibility of a threat to his crew's safety or, a debilitating personal health issue. He was leaning towards the latter. When it came to observational haki, Sanji knew that his talent for it was the most developed among the crew. Still, had there been a real threat, it was unthinkable that Luffy and Zoro would not have detected it too. A shimmering orb had floated by several times when they were around, and both times, neither of them had noticed anything.
So it had to be him. Right?
Maybe he had a tumour that was causing hallucinations. God, he hoped not, but on the upside maybe Robin and Nami would nurse him back to health, or sob helplessly at his deathbed, as he told them to be strong without him. Sanji let his imagination run wild for a moment, and all of a sudden it happened again, and this time, he could almost make out a faint humanoid outline.
He whipped out, lightning quick, striking at the figure before him, his foot passing harmlessly through, and stopping inches away from a terrified Usopp, who let out a high pitched shriek, higher than anything he'd ever heard from Nami, that brought Franky running, guns locked and loaded.
But it was gone now.
When the orb bobbing across his kitchen had coalesced into a translucent and easily recognised figure, Sanji had done the unthinkable, and let the skillet containing the crew's scrambled eggs slip from his fingers, his jaw slack with shock.
Zoro was beside him suddenly, snatching the skillet and its contents from an untimely messy demise on the kitchen floor.
"Wear your damn glasses, if you can't see, shitty cook."
Sanji reached out, capturing a startled Zoro's arm in a vice-like grip.
"Tell me if you see what I do," Sanji croaked out in a strangled voice.
Zoro stared at the empty space before him frowning, then back at the stunned blonde, before pulling free.
"What the hell's wrong with you? There's nothing there."
The door burst open just then and the rest of the Straw Hat crew poured in chatting noisily to take their seats at the table to eat. Sanji barely registered their presence, his gaze transfixed at the familiar figure before him.
Ace D Portgas.
He looked almost as he had when he was alive except... he was definitely not all there.
For instance, Sanji was looking at Luffy through him. Luffy, who was busy stuffing his mouth and stealing Sanji's own untouched food. Ace, who was definitely dead and returning Sanji's gaze sheepishly.
Ace, Sanji realised, did not speak. Or perhaps, he could not. Seeing as how he was the only one on the ship capable of seeing the ghostly visage of the second commander of the Whitebeard Pirates, he'd tried talking to Ace, but to no avail.
Suspecting his own mental faculties, he tried bringing the issue up with Chopper again, but it was hard to do so, while staring at the other man earnestly peering at him over Chopper's shoulder, with the little reindeer being completely oblivious to it all.
If it was a hallucination though, it didn't make any sense. Sanji had not been particularly close to Ace when he'd been alive, and he didn't think it likely that he would hallucinate Ace of all people. He knew himself well. If he were dying of a brain tumour, Sanji firmly believed that his subconscious would conjure up the perfect woman (Nami's gentler twin) to see him through his dying days.
But he was in the pink of health, Chopper assured him, and he didn't need to wear glasses, not really, but he did so all the same, 24/7 now, as Ace peeked out at him around corners curiously.
Not that it helped.
The thought very briefly crossed his mind that he should mention this to Luffy, but Luffy like Chopper seemed so painfully oblivious and Sanji didn't want to dredge up painful memories. It seemed cruel to speak to Luffy of Ace, the brother he loved and lost, the brother that the Straw Hat Pirates would never ordinarily bring up in his presence, especially if Luffy couldn't see him either.
So Sanji held his tongue, and watched Ace, or what seemed to be Ace hover around Luffy mostly. Ace smiled when Luffy was happy, seeming to join in his laughter with his comrades. He frowned when Luffy was sad, and once Sanji had seen him try to grab a drumstick off Luffy's plate unsuccessfully. His hand had simply passed through the meat, and at that moment Ace had looked so forlorn, Sanji almost headed back to the stove to feed him.
Sanji's one mistake, he thought, was letting Ace know that he could see him.
Increasingly, he would catch Ace watching him from the corner of his eye, hanging at a short distance behind him, salivating as he cooked, or appearing suddenly in front of him, making faces at inappropriate moments, so Sanji had to choke back his laughter under hurried coughs, or be labelled an insensitive madman.
He tried talking to Brooke about it, hinting heavily at Ace's presence, but the skeleton had been so terrified at the thought of anything in the realm of the twilight zone, that Sanji didn't have the heart to tell him that Ace was at that very moment, perched in front of him making faces again. Besides, if Brooke could see spirits, wouldn't he have seen or sensed his crew mates' ghostly presence when they died? But maybe not everyone took to haunting pirate ships the way Ace did.
He tried Robin's mini library in the Thousand Sunny looking for a hint on anything that could shed some light on why Ace was still around, but Robin's books were mostly historical, and rarely of the occult. The few that might have touched on anything remotely supernatural such as local beliefs of various islands, he devoured, for some clue as to what Ace was doing here.
He fell asleep one day, face planted in the middle of a book and woke when he felt a sudden chill on his neck. Looking up, Sanji saw Ace's hand hovering uncertainly just above him, Ace's expression, openly curious.
Sanji jerked upright in his chair so violently it almost tipped back, as Ace flinched.
Heart hammering furiously, (was it fear?) Sanji snapped tersely.
"Don't do that!"
Ace stepped back, expression unreadable, and vanished in a little puff of smoke.
Ace shouldn't have been able to do that, Sanji thought nervously. He shouldn't have been able to touch him. He'd seen Ace try numerously times to tap Luffy on the arm, and once Ace had tried to tap Sanji on the shoulder. All those times, his hand had always just passed harmlessly through.
"I'm sorry. Was I bothering you?"
Sanji turned, to see Robin standing in the doorway, looking concerned.
Crap. He'd upset Robin. He turned a wane smile on her.
"Sorry, Robin. I had a bad dream."
He didn't see Ace for a number of days after that. Sanji told himself it was for the best, maybe he'd gone over to the other side or whatever, but a part of him, just a tiny part, couldn't help missing the annoying apparition just a tiny bit.
Soon after, Sanji fell ill.
He slipped in and out of consciousness and troubled dreams, shivering under layers of blankets.
He was cold, so cold as he huddled in on himself. Nami bore down on him with a hot broth, but Sanji couldn't keep anything down. He woke up once to see Zoro seated across the room, staring intently at him, which was greatly unnerving for a rather sick man, and another few more times to see Luffy, Chopper, Robin sitting at his bedside, all at different hours of the day.
It wasn't anything as simple as a fever. A weird illness from one the islands they had visited was leeching the very heat from his body, and there was nothing for it but to wait till it had passed according to island locals and hope he didn't get hypothermia.
He was semi-conscious, when he felt a spreading warmth from his chest. Blearily he opened his eyes, where Ace was crouched before him, brow furrowed, palms spread before him, hovering just above Sanji's chest. Ace's hands emanated heat, one that warmed Sanji to his core.
Sanji raised his eyes to Ace's and Ace gave him a small tight-lipped smile. It looked like it was costing him everything he had to continue to warm Sanji up, his figure seeming to fade in and out of existence.
"Ace… stop," Sanji murmured. He dragged himself closer, and tried to place his hand on Ace's to stop him, and just for an instant, he felt something substantial, as if he had just touched a real living being, just before his hand sank through Ace's outline again. Ace paid him no heed, and Sanji felt another surge of warmth spread through his body.
"Enough. You're draining yourself."
Ace scowled then, a determined look settling in his dark brown eyes. He reached out with both hands, gently resting them on each side of Sanji's cheeks and closed his eyes in concentration. Once again, Sanji felt the softness of a human touch.
Sanji didn't remember falling asleep, but when he woke again, he was all alone, feeling much better than he had been for a week.
Sanji had worried that he would never see Ace again after that stunt he pulled, but once Sanji was up and about again, Ace had joined him in the crow's nest, when he was on lookout duty.
Ace grinned, his nose scrunching up slightly. When Sanji had first seen him on the Thousand Sunny, he had been nothing more than a colourless ghostly outline. While he was still mostly translucent now, his figure had taken on a lot more depth and detail, and Sanji found himself wishing he could run his fingers through Ace's tousled dark hair, or down the planes of his bare chest and further down...
Sanji tore his gaze away in horror. God, it had been too long since he had been with a woman. Ace wasn't just a male, he was technically dead. The last thing Sanji needed was to have a crush on what was literally a dead man walking.
"I-Is there anything I can do for you? Do you have something you need done before you can move on?" Sanji enquired awkwardly. He didn't want to sound like he was chasing Ace off the ship, but surely Ace was still lingering around because he had an unfulfilled desire? At least that was what all the literature pointed to.
Ace simply shrugged.
Sanji tapped a cigarette out from his case, and began patting himself down in an attempt to locate his lighter. Before he could pull it out, the end of his cigarette blossomed into flame.
Sanji blinked. Ace shouldn't have been able to do that either. Taking a drag on his cigarette, he chanced another look at the other man, who looked about as startled as Sanji felt.
Once again, Ace's body flickered, before seeming to stabilise in this dimension again.
"Don't over exert yourself, hotshot."
Ace smiled, and this time he looked sad. Drifting closer to Sanji, he brought his hand up, just before Sanji's face and looked quizzically at the blonde.
Sanji hesitated for the briefest of moments before nodding. He closed his eyes, as what felt like the softest breeze threaded through the strands of his hair. He was suddenly acutely aware of just how fast his heart was beating. He could feel his face flushing (was that Ace's doing too?).
He sensed rather than felt Ace withdraw and opened his eyes again. The hungry fire of desire in Ace's eyes was not lost on Sanji.
"Don't," Sanji murmured. "It's too late now."
Sanji was deep in thought and just about done with the dishes, when he felt Zoro's breath in his ear. He jumped, and backed up against the sink so quickly, it dug painfully into his hip.
"What's the matter with you these days?" Zoro snapped.
"Nothing. What's wrong with you, Marimo?" Sanji demanded nervously.
"You've been acting weird. The old you would have sensed me walking up to you just now. And you talk to yourself. I heard you the other day, up on the crow's nest. I mean you've always been weird, but this is another level weird."
What had Zoro heard? Sanji could feel himself start to sweat. He wasn't exactly sure why, but while his first instinct when he first started seeing Ace was to tell someone, he was reticent to do so now.
"You were hearing things," Sanji muttered irritably. "Get out of my way."
Zoro scowled. He did not move.
"You're not still sick, are you?" He leaned even closer to Sanji. "You have to tell Chopper if you are. We can't have you compromising the safety of the entire crew if you can't hold your own in a fight."
Zoro was too close. Sanji gritted his teeth and whipped his leg out, meaning to kick Zoro out the kitchen door, but Zoro was faster and blocked his kick easily.
"Hey, I'm concerned about you, shitty cook!" Zoro was practically spitting the words out, as he seized Sanji's collar jerking him forward.
"I can take of myself and the crew just fine. And it's none of your god damned business," Sanji shot back, glaring.
Zoro looked furious.
"Of course it's my business! Dumb cook, everything about you… is!" Zoro hissed, eyes blazing and all of a sudden, he lunged forward closing the tiny gap between them, his lips on Sanji's, his tongue forging its way into Sanji's mouth, as Sanji froze in shock and disbelief.
It was the loud crash of every single plate in the kitchen shattering on the floor, that caused them to leap apart.
"What the-?!" Zoro began, eyes narrowed, a hand on Shusui's hilt, his gaze darting about for an unseen threat.
Sanji found himself transfixed by the sight of the hurt and angry expression on Ace's face, as he stood glaring at them, before he melted into nothing.
This was not good.
Sanji surveyed the chaos around him resignedly. Since when had Ace become a poltergeist? He couldn't quite meet Zoro's gaze now, and he sure as hell didn't understand why he felt so wretchedly guilty towards Ace.
Ace was a disembodied spirit for crying out loud. But still… Sanji bit back a sigh, and bent down to start clearing up the large shards. Zoro frowned, but followed suit after a moment.
"… I'm sorry about just now," Zoro muttered, but Sanji didn't reply.
He could sense Zoro sneaking glances over at him almost the entire time as they cleaned up, but he didn't want to think about something so confusing right now.
If he concentrated, Sanji could sense where each and every individual of the Straw Hat Pirates was. Now, when he really concentrated hard, he could sense too, a slightly less familiar presence, just a hint of a flicker at the very edge of his consciousness.
Sanji made his way to the aquarium, puffing hard on his cigarette.
Stepping into the dimly lit interior, he let the door swing close behind him. He paused a moment, letting the sight sink into his memories, to be picked apart and treasured at a later more appropriate time.
Ace stood in the center of the room, staring up at the aquarium, looking far more real and vibrant than Sanji had ever seen him. He'd started as a distortion of light, and now he looked just as he had when Sanji had first met him.
Ace glanced up as Sanji lit another cigarette, the gentle blue hue of the aquarium both accentuating his features and casting the side of his face in soft shadows. The light smattering of freckles across his nose was almost invisible in the dim room. Sanji smoked in silence for a moment, never taking his eyes off Ace, who returned his gaze evenly.
"That was a shitty thing you did. Breaking all our dishes. We're eating out of pots now. It's not like it's easy to come by plates when we're way out in the middle of the ocean," he remarked.
Ace said nothing, not that Sanji expected him to. He was hoping for just a little bit of remorse though, but Ace looked impassive.
"Look, I don't know if you are a brain tumour or whatever, but as long as you don't mess with my kitchen again..." and here Sanji paused, casting around mentally for the right words to use. "I don't… dislike you."
When Ace arched an eyebrow Sanji felt compelled to explain further.
"You're a whole lot quieter than the rest of the lot, and that automatically qualifies you as one of the best crew mates to be with among this noisy bunch. But this-" and here Sanji gestured vaguely between them. "This would work a lot better. Before. If I could touch you properly. If I could hear you," he continued bluntly.
The look on Ace's face, like a kicked puppy was kind of heartbreaking.
"I guess what I'm saying," Sanji snapped, feeling a flare of irritation at how Ace was making him feel like an animal abuser, "Is that I do like you. A lot," he growled almost unwillingly. "But I don't see a happy ending here for either of us."
But Sanji could almost see the flush in Ace's cheeks and right now, Ace was such a solid and reassuring presence.
What Sanji had was nothing but a hunch, and before he could start second guessing himself, he let his actions speak for themselves, crossing the room in two powerful strides, to tilt his head up to Ace's, kissing him gently. And this time, to Sanji's relief, Ace stayed solid. Sanji felt Ace's powerful arms tightening around him instead, almost squeezing the breath out of him. He felt the soft brush of Ace's lips on his, and Ace's tousled dark locks tickling his cheek, and if Sanji closed his eyes, Ace didn't feel any different from a warm, living being. He felt hotter than most people, quite literally. The room in fact, felt like it was broiling, but Sanji didn't particularly care at the moment. He'd either just made the worst decision in his life, or the best, but he didn't know enough of the future to decide just right now.
And still, none of the other Straw Hat Pirates could see Ace, but with each passing day, Ace felt more real, more material under Sanji's touch. He literally (annoyingly) hung himself off Sanji's shoulders now when he was prepping in the kitchen, and he now actually felt like dead weight he was. There were still days, when his hand would fall through Sanji's shoulder and Sanji would feel a breeze rather than Ace's gentle reassuring touch, but those were becoming far and few in between, and those instances seemed mostly triggered by Ace expending his energy by lighting something up.
Or boiling up all the fish in the aquarium that day. Sanji had been pissed when Ace had disappeared for days after that incident.
He'd appeared in Sanji's hammock several nights later, looking apologetic as hell and Sanji had forgiven him of course. They had spent the night, tucked up against the other in silence, no one else the wiser, Sanji tracing Ace's tattoos with his finger in the shadows of the night, memorising each and every detail for when Ace disappeared again. Maybe for good one day.
But just this moment, Sanji was strangely content, and even if it couldn't last, he had always been nothing but true to his own emotions, he mused, stirring a mug of cocoa while absentmindedly staring at Ace watching Sanji watching Ace, before lifting the mug to his lips.
"Black Leg Sanji."
Sanji froze at that familiar drawl, wide-eyed, heart jackhammering wildly against his chest, hardly believing his ears.
"I like you a lot too."
Ace's grin was wide as a Cheshire cat. And this time, it was Ace who caught the mug Sanji was holding before it crashed to the floor, as Sanji threw his arms around Ace and kissed him again for the second time, clinging fiercely to him like he would never let go.