It was inevitable that between Ace's own sleeping tendencies and the gentle warmth that he blanketed Sanji with in the secluded dark of the kitchen that the two boys would nod off with time. But when Ace woke it was without his usual jolt, though not without mild disorientation. His eyes fluttered open, finding his nose still nuzzled into Sanji's hair, the smaller frame still comfortably settled against him. He listened quietly to the even breath of the other boy, so calmly asleep. The storm outside had also quieted, the wind only whistling in its wake, pushing the ship into a rock but without the threatening waves crashing against its hull.
He let himself indulge in this for only a moment, though his fingers longed to steal light touches, perhaps at a pale jaw or the pink of an ear. Instead though it was his quiet voice that woke Sanji. Dawn was starting to pull just at the edges of the cloudy sky; the morning staff would be waking soon to start on breakfast. The boys made their stealthy way back to the barracks, the snores of the crew quite a din after the softness of the abandoned galley.
They parted ways only with a brief glance and not a word, retreating to their respective beds.
The storm traveled past quickly, the sun breaking through the clouds by mid-morning. By the afternoon, only a few puffy stragglers remained against the blue painted sky; crisp weather that was ideal for laundering. Stark white tablecloths flew as wide banners on the Baratie's deck, eagerly catching the lingering breeze.
Sanji wrestled with the damp fabric, draping and pinning it to the lines, hands working fast and easy. It was a beautiful afternoon and he counted himself lucky to be out in it, in the sun and ocean breeze.
"Hand me another clothespin?" he asked the shadow that moved on the opposite side of his tablecloth. A moment later, Ace's grinning face peeked around the cloth and he offered Sanji a small handful of the wooden pins. "Thanks."
They lapsed back into silence for a few minutes, moving to the next bit of free clothesline and hanging two or three more linens before Sanji spoke up again. "Do a lot of laundry on your ship?"
"Not so much," Ace replied with a faint shrug of a bare shoulder. The boy had foregone even his boots today. "We don't have any reason to keep our tablecloths so spotless," he added with a laugh. "I don't think anything this white even exists on any pirate ship I've seen!"
Sanji grinned as he shook out yet another piece of linen. "What is it like living on a pirate ship? I mean... you know. A real one. Is the Grandline really as amazing as people say?" He stopped himself there, his last word clipped a bit, embarrassed at his small outburst. "I'm just... curious. I've never really seen much outside the restaurant..." he added, tucking a bit of blond back behind an ear.
"It's very... loud," Ace contemplated, taking the other end of the tablecloth and helping Sanji shake it into the breeze. "I was raised in a restaurant too, you know," he said and then added thoughtfully, "Well, more of a bar, really..." The wind made his own messy black hair blow across his face and he tossed his head, glancing at Sanji as they threw the thick fabric over the line. "The Grandline..." There was no concealing the sparkle that formed in the freckled boy's eye. "The Grandline is more amazing than anything anyone has ever said. No stories could begin to capture it. Of course, it's as dangerous as they all say too... but every day throws something new and crazy you've never seen at you. And just when you think you've seen it all, you see the craziest thing yet." His wide grin broadened around a few clothespins. "And I've only seen a corner of it."
Sanji returned that smile, wholeheartedly. "Yeah," he nodded. "That's exactly the kind of place All Blue would be...." Finally, they found themselves with the last of the tablecloths hung, the basket empty. Sanji wandered to the railing and leaned out over the water, letting the breeze tug at his chef's scarf and muss his hair. "When you return... to your ship... where do you think you'll go next?" His voice was wistful, his eyes cast not to the boy, but out across he horizon, trailing a flock of seagulls for a bit before tracing the edge of a stray cloud.
"Who knows?" Ace replied, stretching lazily and tucking his arms behind his head. He slowly paced the floorboards behind Sanji, bare toes absently following the lines. "To be honest, I haven't been doing this too long myself. My crew thinks I'm a twerp, mostly." He grinned to himself though, turning his face skyward. "Wait until they find out I've got a bounty now." He paused then, standing behind Sanji and readdressing the subject at hand. "But that's part of the thrill, isn't it?" he mused, a soft smile tugging now. "Not knowing."
Sanji considered this a moment before answering. "Yeah... guess it must be." He shrugged. "Every thing's pretty predictable here though. Only mystery is whether the shitty old man will kick you in the stomach or in the head first." He gave a short bark of laughter, then fell silent.
A hand was suddenly on Sanji's wrist, yanking him around, forcing his gaze onto Ace, onto the eyes that purposefully captured his. A few jaunted steps back pulled the young cook into the shelter of the clotheslines, between two lightly flapping tablecloths. "Listen," he said, his voice intent but a soft smile still glowing in his eyes, his fingers still holding the other boy's sleeve. "Promise me you'll go. Not today. But promise someday you'll make it there."
Sanji stared back at the other boy, wide-eyed, breath catching in his throat. He couldn't quite give voice to his reply and he wavered for a heartbeat or two before leaning in and touching his lips to Ace's in a brief, feather-light kiss. Then he was rocking backward, biting his own lower lip in embarrassment and again, tucking that lock of hair behind his ear.
"Only if you promise I'll see you there," he finally mumbled.
The hand on Sanji's wrist pulled Sanji into a second kiss, only the slightest bit deeper, letting it linger a little longer. A kiss that only hinted at a hundred kisses. That promised of kisses that tasted like far away lands. Sealed a covenant for more, someday, somehow. "Promise," Ace said firmly then, breath still on Sanji's lips, cheeks glowing behind his freckles. He laughed as the wind tossed raven and gold hair over their eyes, whipping at their cheeks in its own agreement, finalizing the pact.
It was that very night, as the crew assembled for their late-night supper, after the doors had been closed to the customers, that Ace snagged Sanji by his elbow, catching the other boy's eye with a spark of such uncharacteristic seriousness that it startled the young cook.
"...Tonight?" Sanji repeated, barely able to muster the voice for his reply. He was glad the deck was dark, that the other boy couldn't see the emotion he knew must be paling his face at that moment. His stomach was aching faintly now and it certainly couldn't be because of dinner. He'd known the other boy would have to leave soon, but it had still caught him off guard. He'd somehow thought they'd still have days left to hang the laundry, to do the dishes, to whisper in the dark of the bunk room, exchanging stories and dreams.
A sage nod was spared. "I received a message via gull this afternoon," he elaborated, voice low. "Something's happened. I have to get back to my ship. M-my captain..." He shook his head the, unable to explain. Given the circumstances, it was probably best not to allow rumors to spread just yet anyway. "Jii-chan's wall is done..." he added, carefully avoiding Sanji's gaze. "Thank him for me, for everything."
Sanji's fingers found Ace's in the dark, felt it out, gave it a squeeze. "I understand," he murmured, face turned to the cold wood of the deck. "I... I'll tell him." He didn't quite let go of the other boy's hand though. Sanji was quiet, unsure what to say, afraid that whatever words he chose would be the last he'd have the chance to speak to Ace. Yet, he argued with himself, unless he said something else...
"Don't--" he blurted, looking up suddenly, searching out the dim shine of ocean-reflected moonlight in Ace's eyes. --go? "...don't... forget. Okay?" he finished, cringing inwardly at how childish the words sounded.
"I promised," Ace said earnestly, meeting Sanji's gaze evenly, intensely. With a smooth movement, he'd pulled himself onto the railing, in his trademark crouch. A warm hand caught the other boy's jaw then, tilting his face up. "Don't you forget, either." Another kiss was pressed to Sanji's lips, this one tingling with warmth, lingering, unwilling, unwanting to let go.
"I won't," Sanji choked, lips still touching Ace's, breathing in, tasting, memorizing the other boy's scent, taste, touch, willing his eyes to stay dry, even as his words caught tight in his throat.
Ace grinned his Cheshire grin one last time as he leaned back into the open air. "Ja na, Sanji-kun." Warm fingers slid from Sanji's skin as Ace gave himself up to the night breeze only for his boots to thunk solidly on the metal of his schooner. A moment to safely secure his belongings and tug his traveling hat into place and the bottom of the tiny boat erupted with flame, casting its glow on the inky sea and the Baratie's hull. The brilliant light allowed Sanji to follow the other boy's path to the dark horizon but Ace's craft was so speedy that it wasn't long before the glow was only a match's flicker in the distance.
"HIYA! I am Captain Onigiri-Usopp!" a riceball announced, its long and suspiciously finger-shaped nose waving as it approached a second and much larger figure. "Oh! And who might you be?"
"I'm Meshidaru-san!" Luffy crowed, proudly lifting a rather impressive snowman-like creation of rice and sausage.
The twin clang of metal striking sharply down on the backs of the two boys heads was purely inevitable and both Luffy and his sharp-shooter face planted onto the galley table.
"DON'T PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD!" Sanji roared, gripping the handles of the pots that were now firmly planted on the backs of the younger boys' skulls. "If you're both so bored, then go wash some dishes!"
Ace only simpered to himself, somewhat sympathetically as his brother's rice snowman creation crumbled in a sad pile on the table and Sanji stormed off to the sink. "Jeeze! Here I am, trying to finish making our bento before we set anchor up river..."
From his position at the table, cheek propped in his palm, Ace watched as his brother's cook rolled up the sleeves of his somewhat ridiculous desert robes, revealing that his arms were indeed just as skinny as the last time he'd seen the cook. It seemed the other man had only grown upward and not outward, though from what he could tell, Ace found very, very little to complain about.
"Want me to help with anything?" Ace asked politely, gaze fixed on the back of the blond.
Sanji paused briefly before looking over his shoulder, flashing a smile at the raven-haired boy who sat at his table. "No, you're a guest on this ship," he replied cheerfully, in a voice perhaps only a note or two lower than Ace remembered. He turned his attention back to his work in the sink. "Just sit back and take it easy."
Ace just smiled.