Dirty Dishes - Originally Posted 9/26/2004

This 'mission' was more challenging than he was used to. The layout of the place inherently made it much more difficult to escape than the usual patios and open doors he normally encountered. And furthermore, being on the open sea, once he got out on deck, he would have to scale the side of the ship to his vessel to avoid being noticed. He'd been completely helpless to resist though when he'd come across a restaurant floating there right in the middle of the sea -- right around lunch time, too -- and his hunger had got the better of him. He had no regrets though; it had been the best meal he'd had in ages, even if he had had to 'borrow' some nice clothes from some snobby-looking Marine's kid in the waiting lounge. Now though what was important was slipping away, unnoticed. Because while he hadn't been paying attention to prices on the menu, he was quite sure the cost would be much too for heavy for his very empty pockets. He'd first politely asked where the bathroom was and went in that direction before doubling back quickly and made his way across the dining room, crawling under and between tables stealthily, careful to avoid the slacks and aprons of the waiters.

Unfortunately for the boy, one of the Baratie's high-ranking chefs happened to pass the same table Ace was currently crouched under. A man known for his short temper and absolute unflinching attitude toward non-paying customers, Patty took two steps past the table, then paused, turned back, bowed a brief apology to the young couple occupying the seat. He then lunged under the table cloth, grabbing hold of the boy and hauling him out by both skinny ankles.

The yelp and tousle of the flailing boy being hauled up was enough to rouse the well-off customers of the Baratie into quiet murmurs. The freckled young boy writhed in the very tall man's grip, held up easily by his ankles. "Hey! Lemme down!"

Patty swung the boy under one arm, pinning him against his well-muscled side and held him there, half crushed as he bowed out of the dining room, speaking genuine, heartfelt apologies. He nodded to each of the disturbed guests as he backed out the door, head bowed near to his knees.

Once they were outside, however, Patty wasted no time in whipping the boy out from under his arm and dangling him over the high railing by just one ankle this time. His face, beet red with anger was twisted and comical, and would have left Ace laughing had his life not been very literally in this man's iron grip.

"You scrawny little no-good thief!" Patty crowed. "Give me one good reason I shouldn't feed you to the sharks right now!"

Ace's head spun with vertigo from being slung around -- and all the blood rushing to his head. He managed a nervous laugh though, eyeing the surf below. "Surely, as a maitre'de of this fine establishment you would never feed such an underfed, scrawny thing like me to anything," he ventured. And while it was true that the boy's frame was lean with adolescence, there was an unquestionable lithe muscle to him.

Word traveled fast on the Baratie and within moments, off-duty chefs and waiters were coming out of the woodwork, crowing at each other.

"Patty's got another one!"

Patty growled, ignoring the growing crowd and giving the boy another shake. "And as a highly skilled and highly praised chef of this fine establishment, I DO NOT tolerate those who eat and skip out on the bill! And smart-assery will get you nowhere, boy!" With these words, Patty's grip loosened just the slightest bit.

Ace squeaked, eyes widening as he slipped an inch in Patty's grip. He wanted to avoid a fight if at all possible -- he didn't want to hurt anyone, especially since the whole thing was his fault for failing to sneak out undetected. He could practically feel the sea pulling at him already though and was quickly realizing he might have no other alternative.

A gravelly voice interrupted his thoughts though, just as he was sure Patty was about to let go. "Oi, Patty, you're making a hell of a lot of noise out here," a man said. Ace blinked at him through the crook of Patty's arm, fist on hip. The man's lips were pulled into a vaguely annoyed frown beneath his outlandish mustache -- not entirely unlike his own captain's.

Patty craned his neck around, not bothering to pull the boy in as he searched out the voice and the face of his captain, his employer/ "Zeff... caught this kid filching food and running off without paying the bill. Won't stand for that behavior in this restaurant. Not on my watch," he grated, but he didn't let the kid go yet, smart enough to wait for a word from the mustached man.

The restaurant owner's face had a rather tired quality to it as he sized up the boy dangling over the side of the ship, meeting his wide, blinking eyes evenly. Zeff made an unconcerned sort of grunt then. "There are plenty of unwashed dishes in the sinks, Patty," he said. "And you know we're hard-pressed for help right now."

Patty grumbled, his grip tightening momentarily before he tossed the boy into the air, grabbing the front of his shirt just as he was about to fall past the chef's fingers. He spoke to Zeff, but his dramatically furrowed gaze never left Ace's freckled face. "Supposing the brat even knows a thing about how to work in a kitchen, how long do you figure he'd have to stay here to pay off that extravagantly large and exquisite meal he recently inhaled?"

"A month should cover it," Zeff said off-handedly.

Ace choked, a protest forming on his tongue. "A month--!" But he was cut short by Patty's hand tightening in the fine fabric of his borrowed shirt, reminding him what the alternative was and he sighed with resignation, bowing his head.

Patty snorted. "Letting the brat off easy..." he mumbled, but nonetheless dragged Ace back on deck, not bothering to mind the boy's shins which thumped solidly against the wooden railing, before he dumped him unceremoniously at Zeff's feet. "You'd better thank him, boy."

Ace winced at the thunk that bruised his shins but managed to mostly catch himself in front of the restaurant owner, landing on one knee but after a breath pulling himself to his feet. He bowed his head to Zeff respectfully, arms at his sides. "I'll work hard to repay my debt. Thank you."

Zeff snorted, unimpressed. "It's late and everyone's busy. I'll let the chibi-nasu show you around in the morning."

Patty didn't waste any time hauling the boy by his collar in through the back, herding him past curious glances toward the cooks' bunk room. "You'll sleep here tonight, brat. And no funny stuff or fffft," he made a sweeping motion with his hands, mimicking Ace's fall and splash into the water below. "I'll be watching you..." With that, he turned and slammed the door shut behind him.

Ace sighed, casting a glance around the cooks' barracks. A whole month in this place just for one meal? He couldn't complain though -- it was his own fault for getting caught. He could only hope that the 'job' included all the leftovers he could eat. He'd have to make up an excuse though and send a message back to the ship that he'd be delayed -- it wouldn't do for the crew to know he was just washing dishes the whole time. For the time being though, he found a bunk with no trunk to signify an occupant and started pulling off the jacket and shirt he was clad in. They were far too fine, really, and Ace found that usually 'finery' meant 'very itchy'. Once he was comfortably down to his trousers, he set off in search of the showers because he still had rice in his hair from the brief nap he'd taken during his meal.

It was in this state, bathed and all but naked save for his trousers which he'd since torn considerably shorter and some scattered jewelry, that Ace showed up in the expansive kitchens of the Baratie. He tugged at the sleeve of the first cook that he crossed paths with. "Excuse me... I'm looking for... an eggplant?"

The cook raised an eyebrow and stifled a chuckle as he pointed past a few other of his fellows to the far corner where a gangly blond stood at a sink, elbows deep in soapy water, one foot hooked in the dip of his other knee, wading-bird style.

"That's him. But don't call 'im that to 'is face. Sanji's libel to kick in your shins. Get's real riled up, real easy that kid." The cook snorted and turned back to put the finishing touches on the dish before him.

"Sanji?" Ace repeated, looking at the back of the scrawny boy's head for a long moment. He was much younger than Ace had been expecting. -- perhaps he was the head bus boy or something like that. After a moment, Ace was shoved out of the way by one of the cooks who were in a hurry to get breakfast orders started. Sheepishly offering an apology, he made his way across the kitchen, approaching the boy at the wide, silver sink. "Ah... I'm sorry," he ventured. "Are you Sanji?"

The boy turned, pushing a strand of hair from the corner of his mouth with the tip of his tongue. "Who are you?" he asked, not bothering to answer the question. "Customers aren't supposed to be back here...." he warned, furrowing his brow and never pausing in his task, the pile of washed plates growing beside him.

"Mm... I'm not exactly a customer..." Ace said, rubbing the back of his neck. "The owner -- Zeff? He told me to see you... I have... a bit of a debt to repay."

Sanji started at this, blinking for a moment, then scrunched up his nose in a scowl. "Kusojiji? Gah... leave it to the shitty old man to stick you with me...." Sanji sighed and pointed a soapy finger to the nearby wall where a row of freshly starched white uniforms hung. "You'd better put on one of those. He'll throw a fit if he finds you in here without a shirt on."

Ace pulled a slight face -- more itchy fabric. This was even worse, all thick and rough and starched. He shrugged into one of them as he returned to the sink, not bothering to button it up, instead rolling the sleeves. "I'm Ace, by the way," he said, offering a smile. "Are you a bus boy?"

Sanji's eyes widened indignantly. "I am not. I'm a cook," he corrected haughtily. "I just happen to be... washing the dishes because... well, we're terribly busy today." He then quickly indicated the space next to him and took a small step to the left to give Ace room. "Once I show you how to do this properly, I dare say I'll be leaving you to prepare the day's soup. Or possibly the fruit tart." He then handed Ace a dish and pointed out the nearby nozzle. "Rinse," he ordered. "And don't drop it."

Ace took the dish that was thrust into his hands, only fumbling slightly before catching it, managing a pained but reassuring smile at the other boy. "Ah -- forgive me. You're very young to be a cook," he explained. He reached for the sink nozzle. He'd been hoping not to get things off to too bad a start with this boy, especially since he seemed to be the only one in the crew anywhere near Ace's age. Not that Ace wasn't used to hanging around older men (he was the youngest in Whitebeard's crew) but still...

Sanji snorted. "And you're very young to be getting into trouble on the Baratie. Half the cooks here used to be pirates you know." Sanji's eyes never quite left the boy's hands, watching carefully to make sure he wouldn't drop a single plate or cup.

"Yeah, well..." Ace shrugged. "You'd be surprised. I just didn't want to hurt anybody." He looked at Sanji askance. "What about you? Were you a pirate?"

Sanji laughed shortly, paused, then realized Ace had been serious with his question. He raised a curled brow. "Ah... no." He handed Ace another dish before continuing. "But doesn't matter who you are or where you come from. The shitty ol' man'll feed you. If you've got the coin."

Ace sighed, deflated. "And sadly, I don't. But," and here he brightened, his voice turning somewhat hopeful for he wasn't entirely sure of his circumstances yet, "at least this means I'll get food while I'm here?"

Sanji gave a slight shake of his head. The boy, though taller and more built than he, seemed so much more a kid. He hoped the boy would get the hang of the kitchens quicker than some of the others who'd thought they could eat and run in the past. "Yeah, you'll get fed. Long as you don't mind leftovers."

"Ha!" Ace barked a laugh, a grin showing his teeth. "Are you kidding? Leftovers around here are a hundred times better than anything back on -- back home." His grin widened at the thought. Maybe he could just consider this a vacation; as long as he didn't get pounded by cranky ex-pirate-cooks, it really wouldn't be so bad. When he saw the look Sanji was giving him though, he ducked his head, chagrined. "Not that I won't take the work seriously, that is."

Sanji had a hard time hiding the half-grin that threatened his features at this enthusiasm though. Any compliment to the Baratie's food, he would easily take as a compliment to his own skill, seeing as how Zeff had recently been giving him (if grudgingly) more responsibility with the actual food preparation. He did nothing more than nod, however, and pulled his hands from the sink to rinse the suds from his fingers and indicated to Ace to finish up the cup he held. "Come on, I'll show you around."