When Sanji saw them, the plate he was holding got slammed down unceremoniously on a table at random; he stalked past the startled guests towards them like a stoat, expressionless as he reached out to cup Luffy's chin in his hand.
Anyone else would have cringed away from the palpable fury in the one visible cornflower blue eye and the strong hand that followed, but Luffy had known Sanji longer than Usopp and Nami both, and patiently allowed his face to be turned back and forth as the chef assessed the damage.
After a long moment, Usopp trying not to fidget at Luffy's side, Sanji finally withdrew his hand. He stepped back, took a long drag from his cigarette, and said, "Give me a name."
Luffy stuck his tongue out. "No, cause you'll beat him up."
"Damn right I'll beat him up. No one lays a finger on you and gets away with it, thought we established that a long time ago."
"That's just something you said, we never established it," Luffy protested. "I can beat people up just fine."
Sanji just looked at him, and asked after a minute asked quietly, "Did you?"
And suddenly the cook looked utterly exhausted. "Oh, Luffy."
Usopp couldn't blame him for that reaction in the slightest.
After all, Luffy's big brother- who still cut the crusts off his PB&J and carried him to bed when he fell asleep in weird places- had been the driving force behind those bruises.
And sure, they stooped to fist-fighting over ridiculous stuff a lot- which was really surprising to Usopp at first, since Ace and Luffy were usually thick as thieves- but Ace pulled his punches and Luffy packed a wallop in basically everything he did; so when tempers finally cooled, the scrapes and bruises were tended to and laughed over and there were no lingering hurts to possibly fester and turn ugly, no bad energy at all between the two brothers who both seemed to operate on a separate plane of thought than the rest of the world.
But this time, Luffy didn't fight back, and he wasn't going home. He hadn't even grabbed his cellphone or a jacket, or the messenger bag he usually left by the front door, just left and showed up at school looking like something the cat dragged in, and wouldn't say why.
Sharing a quick look with Sanji, Usopp had no idea what to think.
"I'm telling you, Kaya, it really shocked me. I haven't seen Luffy look that beat up in ages!"
Kaya folded her arms tightly and frowned at him, looking concerned. Her pale blond hair fell elegantly over her shoulders, the ends curling at her collarbone like art. "Oh, that's awful, Usopp. He shouldn't be allowed to do that, should he? Isn't that child abuse?"
Usopp faltered, feeling wrong-footed, and tapped his fingers on the edge of the canvas they were sharing. "Well... it's not... it's not really like that..." When she just looked at him, he hurried on, "Ace is a really good guy. He's been taking care of Luffy since they were both kids, and Luffy thinks the world of him. They fight a lot, but it's never serious. That's why it's weird, this is like- this is seriously serious. Luffy doesn't hold grudges, ever. Ever."
Kaya's face softened with understanding, her eyebrows drawing together in helpless confusion. "And for all that Luffy's easy enough to understand, sometimes he's rather complicated," she agreed softly. "Oh, Usopp, this sounds awful. I wonder what could have happened?"
"I have no idea," he groaned. "Ugh."
She put a gentle hand on his arm, and he smiled at her ruefully.
"Hey, I'm sorry," Usopp said, meaning it, and covered her hand with his. "I didn't come see you just to talk your ear off. I wanna know how you've been."
Her own smile widened a touch, some color coming to her pale face. "Oh, Usopp, you know I love to hear about your friends, especially since I don't get out much anymore." She touched his face with her free hand before his grin had a chance to falter. "I'm doing just fine. Same as always."
They spent the afternoon painting in blues and soft greens, sometimes with the sponge brushes and sometimes with their fingers, and Usopp listened to her chatter happily about some friends she'd made through her art blog until her butler poked his head in with Kaya's medication, and Usopp took his cue to leave.
Sanji didn't look surprised to see Usopp at his door about a quarter hour later. Rather, the scowl on his face deepened and he said, "Thank god. Come talk some sense into this shitty brat before I knock some sense into him."
"Woah," Usopp said with half a grin, unfazed by him anymore, "hello to you, too." He followed the man inside, dropping his jacket and bag on an armchair in the den as they made their way through to the kitchen.
It was a small apartment, but far from cramped or cluttered it was downright cozy. Exactly the type of house you'd see on the cover of a winter magazine, right down to the little fireplace and the overstuffed loveseats. The kitchen wasn't as big as the ones Usopp would see on home cooking shows, the ones he secretly sort of expected of a professional chef; but Sanji made great use of the space he had; the counter was wide, fruits hung in a bowl by the window and spatulas from a bar over the sink, and it literally always smelled like something amazing was about to come out of the oven.
Luffy was spooning chocolate into shaped molds when they rounded the corner, completely at home; he turned when they came in, and grinned.
"Usopp! So it was you at the door, I thought it would be. We're making truffles."
"Luffy canceled his plans with Zoro this weekend," Sanji said without preamble, lighting a cigarette. Usopp leveled a narrow-eyed stare at Luffy, who stuck his bottom lip out, unrepentant.
"I had to! Ace is mad at me, so we couldn't hang out at home, could we?"
Sanji rolled his eyes at the ceiling. "Tell Usopp what you told Zoro."
"Eh? I didn't tell him anything."
Usopp dropped his face in his hand with an audible smack, and Sanji murmured, "And there it is."
"Luffy, you can't just cancel plans and not tell him why!"
"I'm not gonna lie to him! And if I tell him Ace messed up my face he'd be so mad." Luffy turned back to his chocolate, stirring what remained in the glass bowl with the whisk Sanji passed over. "I mean, I don't think he'd try to beat him up or anything, especially not if I tell him not to, but he might start to think Ace is a bad guy." He paused, hands stilling, and didn't look up when he continued, "And I don't want him to think that about my big brother."
Usopp's heart actually hurt at that. "Aw, Lu... If you explain what's going on, I'm sure he'd understand, right? Uh- what is going on, by the way?" Sanji snorted, and Usopp ignored him with gusto. "I mean, you never really..."
"Oh." He did look up at that. "It's not a big deal or anything, you don't have to be worried." Usopp just looked at him, and Luffy giggled. "Fiiine! Let's finish the chocolate first and I'll tell you."
It took half an hour, and filling the truffles was an absolute experience because the filling was amazing, cream cheese and oreo pieces and sweet chocolate chips; half the bowl disappeared before Sanji could wrestle it away, actually laughing at their greedy appreciation for his recipe.
Finally they were in the den, with actual fresh strawberries probably casually stolen from the Baratie's stock at some point earlier in the day, "to keep you punks quiet while the chocolate sets," and Luffy tucked his legs up under him and plucked absently at a leafy stem.
"Well, Ace's friends are in town. And his friends are really neat and cool and they go all over the world and stuff, and bring me presents when they visit, and they really want Ace to go with them. And Ace really wants to go. But every single time they come he tells them no." The boy's eyes flashed once in pure frustration, his mouth pulling down even farther at the edges. Usopp could almost guess what was coming next, an aching sympathy filling his whole chest cavity with weight and substance, and sure enough; "He's staying behind because of me, I think."
Sanji didn't hesitate to reach over and push a hand through Luffy's hair. "You aren't holding anyone back, Luffy," he said quietly. "Especially not Ace. It isn't like that."
But Luffy was quiet, and his thin shoulders were hunched. "But he'd go if it wasn't for me. That's that."
He looks so miserable, Usopp thought, feeling for him. "There must be another reason," he said gently, and saw it when Luffy relented uncertainly. "Maybe it's a really good one." Luffy didn't answer, or even move really, so Usopp stood and held a hand out to him. "Come on, Lu. We'll go see him. And we'll call Zoro and explain everything better."
Eyes wide and endless, Luffy reached out and took his hand. "Then we'll come back to Sanji's, he'll make us amazing food and we'll build a blanket fort."
Sanji chuckled fondly, and Usopp grinned. "Sounds like a plan."
The streetlamps were on when they pulled up toward Luffy's apartment building, and Ace was sitting on the steps outside, in nothing but a T-shirt despite the chill, head snapping up when Usopp's truck rumbled to a stop in front of him.
Luffy popped his door open as Ace came rushing down the stairs, and he barely had time to hop out of the cab before Ace's hands were guiding his face up, mapping the hurt skin with gentle, familiar fingers.
"You've never stormed out before, I- thought maybe I actually hurt you- " As he tilted Luffy's face to the side, much like Sanji had back in the Baratie the day before, Usopp could see in the dim interior lighting of the truck cab that his face was pale and drawn. "I mean I- I didn't, right? Luffy?"
He sounded panicked, about three seconds from downright anguished, and Usopp's heart ached for him. Similarly, Luffy's hands came up to cuff Ace's wrists where they framed his face and he consented to the careful inspection without complaint.
"Don't be an idiot," Luffy said agreeably. "You can't hit that hard."
His big brother laughed at that, albeit a little weakly, and tilted their foreheads together.
"But Ace," the scarred boy continued after a moment, "I wanna know why you won't go. You want to, right?"
Their proximity, and the casual affection and forgiveness in their closeness, made it absolutely inconceivable for Ace to blow up at him again. He did sigh, though, and draw away.
"Why does it matter so much?"
Usopp saw Luffy's eyes flash again, the way they had at Sanji's apartment, and Luffy actually stomped his foot. "We made a promise, Ace! To be free." Ace flinched back from him, wide-eyed, and Usopp only had time to think, Woah wait what? "Do you even remember?"
"And as long as you stay, you're breaking it, right? Because you want to go, but you don't want to leave me." His face was screwed up in anger and defiance and a trembling edge of hurt; bottled up since his silent departure, bottled up all day yesterday and all the way to this moment, finally spilling out in the night under a buzzing orange street light and the stars. "So you're breaking it 'cause of me."
Usopp couldn't stand the way Luffy's voice broke, but he couldn't bring himself to step forward and hug him; not when Ace was staring at Luffy like he was some new and strange creature Ace had never seen before.
"Luffy," he said gently. "We are free. Right here and now." He bent slightly so they were eye level, moving slowly and surely. "We ran away from that mountain and from our grandpa, and we made a home here, just the two of us." He waited for Luffy to lift his head, and when he did, hesitantly, Ace smiled at him with a love that blazed like fire. "We made ourselves free, you and me."
"But- but Marco and Thatch always- "
"They have amazing adventures, and we're friends, so they want to share them with me." Ace crouched now, and Luffy blinked wide eyes at him. "But we have adventures, too, don't we?" Usopp saw comprehension dawn in Luffy's face, and Ace grinned. "I wouldn't miss them for the world."
Luffy processed that for a minute, and while he did, Ace reached up to cup his face again, running a thumb over the bruise swelling around his eye.
"Besides all that," he said softly, "I have a promise of my own to keep; to take care of our clumsy baby brother."
Luffy finally smiled, slow and stretching and wonderful, and lunged forward to throw his arms around Ace's neck, knocking him onto his butt and laughing at his pained 'oof.'
Usopp had half a dozen new questions he was dying to ask- what promise, to who, what mountain, what grandpa?- but he bit his tongue. And Ace got tugged back to the truck with them, and Sanji only bitched moderately about home invasion when they all got back, and watching movies all night with a giant bowl of chocolates between the four of them, Usopp put his curiosity on a shelf and forgot it there.