Note: Happy Easter guys! It makes me so happy I managed to finish it on this day and can give you all some entertainment~!

Few words from me before I go and tend to every whim of my big family and guests — large part of this chapter focuses on disclosing some pieces of information about mission Sanji, Ace and Luffy are preparing for. Some parts I wrote weeks ago and reread many times, some parts are fresh and maybe lower quality due to a brief check, so gomen. I also gave in here an insight into Ace&Sanji friendship which is my sweet, sweet spot. I had both fun while writing and also it gave me few headaches each time I bumped into a wall, but then I took a break and words flowed once again. I simply imagined what I would say to one of my friends and it was easier to put the sentences together. For most parts I listened on repeat to Nine Inch Nails "I Wanna Fuck You Like An Animal" and one part shows it, lol. I'm really curious to see whether you enjoyed it or not. It made me extremely happy to see so many of you following this fic and I want to say thank you for reading this, alerting, fav'ing and commenting. *squishes in a hug* Enjoy, my ducklings~~!

There was a long pause at the other side of the receiver until Ace spoke up, "Damn. Let me digest what you've just said. …Not only you took in another transgenic, but there's half of the Government's forces disguised as mercenaries searching for him and circling somewhere on our turf—right this very fucking moment?! …I was joking before but now I'm wholly convinced you really are a magnet for trouble, Blondie."

Sanji scowled, and flipped him off while hearing this. Knowing Ace couldn't appreciate the gesture, since they couldn't see each other, he muttered an irritated, "Fuck you."

"Nah, I appreciate the offer, I really do, but—thanks but no thanks. Ya know I'm faithful to my Lu. He'd probably castrate me otherwise." Ace grin was practically audible. "I'm wondering, though, why all of this is happening to you particularly? Ya must have really fucked up in your previous life to not even be granted a speck of breathin' space now."

"Tch. Mind your own business, Portgas. I didn't call you for a chitchat, shithead." Sanji growled, fingers clenching and unclenching over the den den mushi's receiver.

"Yea'… you called saying something about doing ya a favour, right?" He drawled.

"Don't I always have a very good reason for calling? Unlike some bored out of their freaking mind monkeys, I do have a really tight schedule to keep up with."

"Hmph. Actually, isn't that the only reason why you call? Especially—when you need something from us?" Ace scoffed and grimaced as if he swallowed a lemon whole. He sighed while massaging the bridge of his nose when he didn't receive an answer and continued. "…Not that it's a bother—far from it—since you know I would do anything to keep your curly eyebrow intact, but seriously. Months of no word from you and then—bam!—you got yourself mixed up in different kind of shit. I honestly have no fucking idea how you do it. You're far worse that Luffy. And even so that's probably an understatement of the freaking year. Like three days ago, for example. Under normal circumstances I would appreciate you falling into my welcome embrace, but—"

"—Shut the fuck up, Fire Fist." Sanji hissed and looked over his shoulder to check whether Chopper heard them talking. It was really inconvenient living in such a small chalet where keeping secrets was a hard task to do. "Walls have ears here."

"Aa. Chopper. I forgot. You don't want to get 'im involved, yeah?" Ace asked, tone of voice hushed mindful of Sanji's earlier warning. "It'd be great to have someone with a medical knowledge where we are going, y'know." He said carefully.

"Che, I'm aware. But he's off limits, Ace. I'll do better job knowing he is far from the front lines and safe. He's still a child, for fuck's sake. Not to mention easily recognizable. I won't let him go on the first high-risk mission and get himself killed or worse—captured. We'll find someone else with medical knowledge as well as battle experience. It doesn't have to be him. Tanuki will stay where he is. End of discussion."

"Ok, ok. It was just a suggestion. Don't shot the messenger, geez. You're way overprotecting of 'im, ya know that?"

"Better overprotecting than overestimating."

"Hn, true. So… since you took in another kid to watch over, mommy, I'm guessing you're asking me to double the ammo order. You know Franky Family won't give it to us without any investment. And I'm all spent." Ace pointed out.

"Don't worry about it. Money won't a problem. And I mean that. I've been saving it for Chopper in case something happened to me. I should have more than enough. But, knowing Franky's outrageous prices give them the impression you don't have nearly enough when negotiating the price of the shipment. The more they lower it the better for us. Now that I think about it we could use the rest on some other necessary equipment... like submarine. I heard the Speedo-guy has a real knack for all mechanic things. It would be awesome if we could recruit him also…" Sanji muttered the last part to himself while stroking his trimmed goatee.

"Spendy, aren't we? Didn't you say the money was for Chopper?" Ace chuckled.

"Che. Who do you take me for? I have a back up plan, of course. My good friend Iva would gladly take care of him. In case I die, that is. But following the more optimistic scenario I can just as well steal some cash from Goa's filthy rich citizens, on our way back."

"Pfft. You really have it all planned. Any farewell letters for me left under your bed?"

"Nah, you know it's not my style. But I've got some interesting map drawn behind the painting on my wall Luffy would surely get interested in finding out if it's legal. You could go from zero to filthy rich hero if it's real. But yeah, don't get your hopes up—it's in case I die, bitch. It was a gift from Robin, see. So I'm gonna be the one to prove whether it's authentic or not. Just saying for the sake of it since I wouldn't want to let it go to waste in case I kick the bucket." The blond teased.

"Fucker. Good thing half an hour ago Luffy took off hunting once again, since he devoured what he had brought few days ago, or I wouldn't hear the end of it. You know how he is about anything to do with an adventure. And, the more unreal and dangerous, the better. So don't go planting any weird ideas inside of his head, you dick. Also—stop talking about dying like it's going on a camping trip while leaving the house under neighbor's watch." The raven-hair scowled.

"Can you blame me? I like taking precautions. It's not a child's play what we are doing."

"I know. I know. It's just…" Ace paused for a second and asked while frowning, "Don't you think talking about death before an important mission is going to jinx it?"

"Ha! Right. I forgot how superstitious you can get sometimes." Sanji chuckled, amused.

"Oi. It's not funny! Even if nothing of the kind has happened before it doesn't mean it won't this time—ugh, just shut up."

"…All right, all right. I'll stop. It's just too hilarious to imagine, how you—a big bad ex-navy soldier believes in superstitions. Shocker, ladies and gentlemen." Sanji mocked while trying to keep his sniggers under control.

"Fuck you too." Ace tsk'ed.

"You wish."

Obviously Sanji had too much fin with this conversation and so annoyed Ace decided to change the flow of it. "Tch, I preferred how you were three days ago—too weak to put up a decent fight and not nearly as much of mouthy and spoiled brat."

"Ha, memory must fail you then, old timer." Sanji scoffed and got back the memory line…

…3 days earlier…

There could be heard a sound of two males gasping for air and groaning be it from exertion or because they managed to aggravate some bruising while trying to move. The chill coming from the air surrounding them was welcome on their flushed faces.

If Ace got up, Sanji didn't think he would have it in him to put the raven hair back on the ground once again. Damn, but Ace's got some serious stamina in him. The man levered himself up on his elbows and directed a toothy, blood-stained grin at Sanji. His cobalt eyes sparked with humor and he let loose a carefree laugh into the frosty, forest's air.

"I missed your kicks, Sanji. God, no one can kick like you. And no one can take it like you."

"Che, right back at cha, shithead." Despite the generous amount of exasperation he poured in this sentence, the blond man still couldn't wipe the grin off of his face. He realized that he really missed their banter. Too bad they lived in such shitty times where survival was a priority over keeping in touch with friends. "You could've held back a bit, y'know. I'm fucking exhausted from walking through the mountains."

"Ah, sorry, didn't know you are that tired, princess. As soon as we'll get into Luffy's and mine hideout I'll prepare your bedding, hon."

Sanji shot him a deadpan look and next sighed tiredly while rubbing his eyes through the thick, leathered gloves. He felt extremely weary after this unexpected adrenaline boost. "Fuck off, Ace. I'm fucking hungry and in desperate need of a shower among few other things. Don't be a bitch and take me there. I have some important news for you two concerning the Gray Terminal."

Ace's expression immediately got serious. He looked closer at Sanji and it was like really seeing him for the first time since Sanji wandered into two Ds' territory. Sanji's skin was drenched with sweat, quickly cooling in the frigid mountain air, shivers wracking his frame. Dark shades under his eyes and sickly pale tone of his skin indicated the amount of sleepless nights he had to endure lately. His clothes were in similar pitiful state, ripped, dirty, burned in few places and full of gaps of different kind. Some even suspiciously reminding Ace of bullet holes and overall it was barely giving the blond any cover from the biting cold. Suddenly Ace felt real guilt coursing through his insides for engaging Sanji into a pointless fight.

The blond looked like he'd topple over any minute.

Just as soon as the thought registered in his head, Sanji's legs buckled under him. Only thanks to raven-haired man's quick reflexes the blond averted the sure-to-happen damage.

"Dammit, Sanji. What the hell has happened to you? You look like something the cat dragged in, rather than a human." Ace jokingly said while supporting Sanji's weight. Even so, he couldn't quite hide the worry from his voice.

Sanji knew there was no point to put up the macho front any further. He pushed his face into Ace's neck, his body sagging into the raven-haired man's, desperately seeking some heat. He felt like he was frozen to the bones. Earlier he was constantly on the move, that's why when Ace launched a surprise attack he was alert and quick to retaliate. Now the bites of cold were making his limbs all stiff and unresponsive, apparently his only fuel was adrenaline up until then.

"…The border guard hunted me down for over 100 miles until I managed to lost them, but then my motorcycle broke down somewhere along the way and the rest of the route I had to continue on fucking foot. I probably have blisters the size of a pumpkin, bloody hell." Sanji wasn't a whiny person by nature, but firstly it was Ace who was so irresistibly comfortable and warm, secondly the blond was so hungry he could eat his own gloves, and thirdly sleep right now sounded so damn good, he didn't give a shit about his appearances at the moment.

Ace gritted his teeth, struggling with the stream of questions he wanted to flood the deflated blond in his arms, but he knew better. If the news Sanji brought required a swift action or infiltration mission, the blond would immediately spring it on him and they'd be off in a distance in less than half an hour. But since Sanji wasn't alarmed and rushing them while cursing like a bloody sailor to do the impossible, he was assured whatever the bits of information he wanted to share with them were something that already had happened and there's nothing can be done to undo it.

Yeah, Ace knew Sanji even better than the back of his hand. They both stationed as marine soldiers—still greenhorns at the time—on the same ship for few years until the electromagnetic pulse blast, among few other things it resulted in creating a huge polarization in the Government. Next came high unemployment, caused by the economic collapse, leading to creating a homeless population not seen since the Great Depression almost a century before. The people lived mostly in makeshift colonies under freeway overpasses, in abandoned cars and parking structures. It's been years now and nothing's changed. Among those walking with purpose and having jobs there were tides of homeless.

After they got literally laid off their jobs, they decided to go to Canada and live in the mountains. It was better decision than barely living in the dirty cities. They had freedom in the vast space of forests and food was not a problem since they knew how to hunt. The harsh training they received in the army paid off one hundred folds. But all too soon even this bit of freedom they had became threatened. The World Government and the Revolutionaries—fraction that arouse against the former in few years becoming powerful enough to threaten the World Government—were constantly at each other's throats. The boarder between USA and Canada was in constant jeopardy of attacks and riots. That's why more often than not they ventured to make trades for any necessities they couldn't produce to the Gray Terminal in Alaska. Sanji lived on the mountain pass opposite from Ace and Luffy. It was for safety measures mostly and also because Sanji took in someone of a questionable origin—mainly Chopper. An adorable teenager that wasn't in fact a human being. But a one of a kind chimera, a mix between species, having more animal DNA than human and his features required he needed to stay hidden from any unwanted eyes.

Seeing Sanji in such a devastated state coming back from relatively peaceful city, considering the times and place they lived in, he had all the reasons to be sick with worry. But he'd wait. Saving the world—if anything is still left of it—would come later. Firstly, he needed to tend to the man in his arms. Ace's comrade was hurting and he wouldn't call himself a friend if he chose the world over this particular blond, foulmouthed, fun to tease and hell of a motherfucker that was Sanji Blackleg.

"Say no more. I got ya." Ace changed a hold to Sanji's wrists, hefted his body over his back and proceeded to go up the hill to the place he called home. In passing, he entertained the thought how Sanji had a lot of explaining to do the moment he woke up.

The moment Ace got back to the hideout he started divesting Sanji from the dirty and tattered clothes the blond was wearing, or what was still left of them, that is. The raven haired man shook his head in wonder while carefully pealing one layer after another from the unconscious friend. By the state of Sanji's attire it looked like he survived a small scale bombing, but it was hardly surprising for Ace now. It wasn't a first or even a tenth time seeing the blond so beat up and exhausted that the moment Sanji felt safe he was passing out and sleeping like a log. Ace almost felt like a diligent and all-too-forgiving housewife who took care of her drunkard husband while he had one of the 'episodes', each time it happened. But he also knew there was no other way for them to live.

At the beginning when they decided to live in Canadian mountains, they made an agreement. It entitled that Ace and Luffy would provide any necessary alimentation and useful tools helpful, for Sanji and Chopper, to survive the frigid winter—because none of them took lightly the fickle Mother Nature. Living in the chalet so far in the mountains they were cut off from the outside world for long months even, waiting for the snow to melt, and the food was scarce sometimes. Sanji also wanted for them to keep up the trade with the Franky Family, from the other side of the mountain around twenty miles away from Ace's place. They were called local Dismantlers and Bounty Hunters. Your ordinary hoodlums that were into stealing, kidnapping and got their hands dirty in different kinds of shady dealings. But—if you had money and power they were really reliable source when it came to obtaining something you were in desperate need of, like drugs, bandages, toothbrushes, hiking equipment, automobiles, guns, even porn.

Seriously anything.

Sanji, on the other hand, took up the role of the informatory. It was his job to infiltrate the boarder, be it with US or The New Kingdom of Goa and acquire useful information or money. Seeing as it was a highly risky job, Ace offered his assistance, but Sanji vehemently refused it saying he'll be more efficient alone and worry-free about his friend's safety. Sanji was an ex-soldier just as Ace and the blond honed each and every of his skills to perfection. So it wasn't like Ace was worried one day Sanji won't make it. Rather it made his heart bleed a little while observing how his good friend got a bad end of stick of the deal when each time he crawled back reminding a corpse or a Zombie.

None of them could have predicted how much strained would become the atmosphere between three countries. And that they would end up in the very middle of this mess. But that's life he supposed. They could've always ended up in even worse situation, see. Even if, for the life of him, he couldn't think up worse circumstances to be placed in, but in this roundabout way he was trying to drive away the depressing cloud that from time to time hung over his head.

He got back to the task at hand with undressing Sanji. After finishing, he dumped the ruined clothes into the trash bag so they could be burned later. Ace checked over quickly Sanji's body to see how serious the damage was, but seeing only small lacerations accompanied by already blooming bruises he decided there was no need for stitches, thankfully. Only superficial wounds, this time.

He lifted the blond up and proceeded to take him underground where the chemical bath waited. Having a solidifying effect on the surface, it gave the impression of being submerged in wax. But it was simply a scientifically developed formula that raised white cell count. It could cut down the healing process by half or even more so. It would mean instead of a knife wound healing in two weeks it would heal in one. The same went for internal damage taken as well as fatigue. That's why after approximately twenty hours Ace was alerted about Sanji's awakening when he heard a violent coughing followed by deep gasps of air.

He went underground and saw Sanji laying half-way out of the chemical bath, trying to make his lungs work once again. The raven haired man crouched down and asked with relief clearly showing in his voice, "Did ya sleep well? How are you feelin', Blondie?"

"You mean before or after I saw your ugly mug?" Sanji muttered, still dazed but the haze was already in the process of passing.

Ace scoffed, "Since you're up and bitching it looks like I don't have to worry."

"As if you were. I bet you were watching your favorite anime DVD's with Great Teacher Onizuka and laughing your guts out. Some buddy you are."

"Shut up, idiot. There's nothing wrong with trying to fruitfully spent the time waiting for your friend to recover," Ace responded.

"'Fruitfully'? What kind of era are you from dude? And what the fuck have you done with my friend?" Sanji laughed.

"Just drown, you ungrateful lil' shit." Ace growled and dipped Sanji's head under the water making the blond sputter and curse.

When he recovered he realized Ace was nowhere in sight, probably pouting somewhere in the kitchen, the blond supposed. Sanji stretched his body in the water, flexing muscles to check for any pain, but he felt almost as good as new. But for him 'almost' was good enough. He hefted his body out of the bath and strolled into the nearest exit, heading straight for the bathroom. He was familiar with the layout of the house, since he's been there quite a few times. Only the first time when he walked through the door was on his own two feet, the other times he was either dragged by Ace or Luffy, leaving next as soon as he was able to stand on his feet. The blond didn't see the need to overstay his welcome, even though they often demanded it of him. Going as far as to handcuff him to the radiator. Luffy said it was the only way for him to take a hint and fucking stay for the night. But it was probably the monkey's stomach doing the talking, since damn but Sanji could cook!

Sanji turned the shower on, letting the warm water wash out any chemicals still left on his body. He wished he could enjoy the same luxury at their chalet but contradictory to the sheltered 'fortress' Ace's house was—Sanji's home was just a mere wooden shack. But it had its merits since it was placed in the highly advantageous spot and it was nearly impossible to find. Only those who really knew what to look for could find it. You could be fifty feet from it and pass it as if the chalet was a part of the landscape.

With eyes closed the blond indulged in the feeling of warm water on his face. He shifted under the spray, making it cascade all over his shoulder, then reaching lower, soothing his lithe musculature that was wrapped in a delicious package of peachy skin. Falling and rolling almost teasingly across his firm ass cheeks, sliding next over his taut and powerful thighs, lastly ending their adventure by caressing his calves and toes.

He let himself get lost in the moment and simply relax. All thoughts left but the feel of warmth.

With hands placed in front of him and head hung low, the blond relished in the soothing feeling it gave him, until the skin of his fingers begun to wrinkle and water from hot turned to lukewarm. The blond decided he was going to use all of the deliciously hot water for himself.

Serves the bastard right for almost drowning me, Sanji scoffed internally and turned the shower off before getting out of it.

As Sanji had predicted, he found Ace munching on a piece of a chocolate and positively ignoring to acknowledge Sanji's presence in favour of watching another episode about Sensei Onizuka. The blond leaned against the door frame, dry-cleaning his golden hair with a fluffy towel that had a pirate skull design painted across it. He guessed it was Luffy's favorite towel. Bummer, but he hoped to be on the way to see Chopper before Luffy came back from his hunting trip, leaving Ace do the dirty job of getting rid of the evidence of committed crime—meaning washing it. "Wow, your lil' monkey hasn't eaten you totally out of food yet? I must say I'm impressed there are some scraps left." Sanji chuckled after surveying the inside of Ace's fridge.

"You shouldn't be up yet." Ace grumbled, still not looking away from the screen.

"Who died and made you a doctor? Like I need another annoying mouth screeching every five minutes after me to be careful and not hurt myself again. Chopper is a major pain in the ass enough as it is. I really don't feel like hearing any shit from you today."

That outburst finally got Ace's attention, "Whoa. Hold your horses. What crawled up your ass and died? I'm only doing what any other person would do seeing his friend half frozen, raggedly breathing and swooning on his feet." Ace spat, eyes flashing. "I don't know any idiot beside you, who would be crazy enough to walk into Gray Terminal at this time of the year—alone to boot!"

Ace was no longer watching his favorite anime, but the raven haired man fisted the blond's shirt in his hands and next words came out of his throat as a growl. "Maybe you have a screw loose, or a death wish, huh? Because if you're feeling suicidal I can always relieve you from your misery and end your fucking pathetic life myself, so that you wouldn't bother me anymore!" He shouted the last sentence, fiery cobalt locked with cool blue in a staring match. Then Ace blinked, realizing what he said and relented, "…Ugh, fuck. Sorry. That was… That—that came out wrong. But—what the hell do you think would Chopper do to me if I let you get even more hurt? You're recuperating and you shouldn't be up and going about things like nothing's has happened. Because something obviously did, for making you crawl to my mountains and ask for help, you bitch!"

"…You done?" Sanji spoke coolly, not at all shaken by the display; the blond knew he had it coming. That's why he didn't interrupt; allowing Ace to got everything off of his chest.

"…Uff, yeah. I guess." Ace scratched the back of his neck, embarrassed slightly. He let go of the shirt Sanji was currently wearing Ace recognized as one of his own. Then the raven chuckled, "That felt real good, y'know. No wonder you spent every moment of your life bitching at each damn thing. It's stress-relieving. Or like a few rounds of good sex." He purred darkly.

Sanji wrinkled his nose, "Ugh, just stop. I don't want to think about you and what you do with your dick and a hand."

Ace scoffed, "Way to go and assume things. It's not me who lives surrounded by animals all year round. At least I have Luffy to talk to."

"Hn, I wonder how Chopper will react to hearing you putting him in the same category with animals. Way to be a total jerk, Portgas. I guess you still have some attitude of yours left from the time when you were dating that gruff marine commodore."

"Sh—shut up! It's ancient tale now. And fuck! B—but I didn't mean it like that. You know that, right?"

Sanji lifted an eyebrow.

"Fine. You can walk around. But the moment I see you having a hard time standing or even limping, I'll tie you to the bed and force feed you if necessary until you get better."

"Sure thing, nurse."

"I hate you. I really fucking hate you sometimes, y'know."

"Yeah. I've been told I tend to work on people like that. Must be my charm."

"Pfft. Charm. Right."

"What was that?"

"Nothing. So you're gonna talk or I'll have to drag it out of you?"

"Let's eat something first."

"Hmph, remember how when before the blast some children believed cookie monsters exist? Well, I have barely anything left. Luffy is my Godzilla cookie monster. Or a vacuum—inhales practically anything. Edible or barely, that is. I honestly can't believe where it all goes. He's skinny as shit."

"Poor baby. Now, now. There must be something we can use. I cocked for a whole marine ship for few years where wasting food was a sacrilege. Give me half an hour. I'll make your time worth any second."

Ace grumbled as a confirmation. He watched with delight how comfortable Sanji moved around his kitchen, as if he cooked there every day. How he wished this idyllic moment could last forever. Ace wasn't a half bad cook, but it wasn't something he enjoyed doing and to add to his frustration somehow everything he made turned out to be overcooked and burned. Even so it made him really happy Luffy downed it all as if he hasn't eaten anything for weeks and Ace's meals were the tastiest on the Earth.

Watching Sanji humming and already working his magic Ace suddenly remembered how on a bad note their first meeting started and how in a matter of weeks it turned into a—what some people call—evil type of friendship, where you take sick pleasure in teasing or annoying your buddy up, while still being the first who will throw a mean punch—or kick—when some other pussy dared to do this.

Benefits of a real friendship like they say.

"Ouch. Bend some more and those seams holding up your trousers from splitting in two may give up the fight, blondie."

Yup. Ace had said that.

In fact it had happened when he had been running late for cadets' meeting since after falling asleep at lunch. He had walked on Sanji in the hallway while the blond was bended over tying his shoe lace. What? He couldn't help it. The words practically had formed on his lips themselves, even before he had managed to process the impulse. Subconsciously he'd dare to say. Seeing one of the most beautifully shaped two pieces of arse cheeks can do that to a person.

He had been kissing the floor exactly two seconds later with an imprinted shoe on his left cheek. Damn. But the blond could flex. Yeah. Their friendship could only bloom after that. Ace snickered at the memory.

"Get that dopey look off of your face, you creep me out, man," Sanji sneered halfheartedly, making in turn a scowl form itself on Ace's face. Still as much of a mouthy little shit as ever, Ace tsk'ed internally.

"Seeing as you have time, check the contest of this chip," Sanji said while throwing the small object at Ace. The raven caught it without actually thinking of doing it, just reacting. He check it over curiously, "What's on it?"

"It's a record of what has happened at the Gray Terminal. A little warning here—it ain't gonna be pleasant so better watch it before eating. I don't think Shanks—even if he is Luffy's uncle—would appreciate you puking all over his floors." He lifted a curly eyebrow to empathize it's really gory shit and turned back to cooking.

Well shit, Ace thought. There goes my appetite.

…End of flashback…

"—ji. Dammit, Sanji! Are you still there?!"

"…Uh, what?" Sanji was startled from remembering. It took the blond few seconds to realize he was in his room talking with Ace through den den mushi. "Sorry Ace. I spaced out for a bit. I was thinking about the Gray Terminal. …The stench of the human bodies burning to crisp is not something easy to forget." He confessed sadly.

"You know there's nothing we can do about it. The page of history has been already turned. I've seen on my very own eyes how every fucking thing burned to the ground through the recorded footage you stole. Don't try to blame yourself. There was nothing you could've done to prevent it. It's enough you saved few lives and obtained this evidence. We will make sure not to let those dearths be in vain. The whole world will get to know about Government's cruelty and inhumanity. This is gonna be one of many bricks taken from the wall of their strong defenses. We will make it crumble, Sanji."

"Yeah…" Sanji acknowledged, while feeling as if something has clogged inside of his throat. He didn't know what he'd have done if it wasn't for friends like Ace. Sometimes the burden of keeping it all inside felt like having an acid eroding his insides. It was incredibly relieving to be able to share his insecurities, thoughts and worries. The blond was eternally grateful he met such good nakama. That's why for their sake he was willing to do …a lot. More than they probably realized. But it was fine with him. The only thing he desperately needed to go on was their trust and support.

He asked for nothing else.

Once again Sanji had his musings interrupted by Ace's voice, "What do you want to do with this new transgenic, he'll learn about the death of his comrades, sooner or later. He'd be furious later knowing you omitted to disclose this particular piece of information."

"I spoke no word of lie." Sanji murmured suddenly feeling defensive.

"Ha. I believe you worded it in such a way. But you should know it's not a matter of lying or saying the truth now. Although you probably could have thought up some believable story, then throw his ass out and be done with the whole drama. So the question is—why you didn't do it? And I'll recognize if you're lying to me, so just …be honest with me, man." Ace finished in a calm and soothing tone of voice.

"I—I don't know. Maybe it's—." He paused gathering his thoughts and said in a rush, "'s because I feel responsible. I'm regretting the fact I could only save few. So very few among thousands of them Ace..." The blond swallowed with difficulty at the onslaught of memories.

"It was a coincidence I bumped into a small girl by the name of Aisa and some annoying twins that were protecting her—I think their names were Johnny and Yosaku. The fire was all around us and there was only one, clear path leading to freedom. There was no time for explaining I just threw the girl over my shoulder and ordered them to follow me. If we were even ten seconds later going through the opening, we'd have been burned to death." He paused, contemplative.

"Later, I scribbled down a rough sketch of a map and told them the direction to Iva's place. Despite how eccentric the okama is, he won't mind taking in few strays, especially when they have my letter with them. I didn't tell Zoro anything also because I just—" Sanji paused hesitant, but hearing the grunt from the other side of the receiver, encouraging him to continue, he caved. "...I just couldn't force the words out of my mouth. After being faced with such unwavering hope in his eyes, I—I...couldn't do it. To crush his hope, I mean."

"Can you believe it? I acted like some bloody coward, quilt tripping him to keep him here, hoping he could help us, instead." The blond gave a weak laugh, full of contempt and disgust directed at himself.

"…But he'd die the moment he steps out of my home. You know that as much as me, since those aren't the kind of mountains where humans are welcome. And with how the Government is bend on finding or killing him it's a death sentence to let him go. Not to mention revenge won't help with bringing back his friends—it's a path straight down to hell and I refuse to let him end up like that." Sanji clenched the den den mushi's receiver so hard the animal started to protest.

"Go on, I'm still listening." Ace said in a hushed voice.

Sanji inhaled deeply and with a resolve shining in his ocean blue eyes, he said, "Rather than crushing his hope, I will take the burnt of his anger when the time comes. For now we have to focus on the mission we need to fulfill. We've been preparing for it for many months now. We can't get distracted with anything. And I mean it. It's Robin's life that is on the line and the life of many other slaves who are building the great bridge connecting Alaska to Asia."

"Another reason is that we could also use his help, Ace. I'm not a stupid optimist who thinks no one will die during this operation, but… I saw it in his eyes—the determination many people are lacking to push forward—we can save more with him watching our backs than with him raging to get revenge," he stated. "And it's admiral fucking Akainu we are talking about Ace. The Mad Dog. He almost got you and Luffy one time and fuck—but I don't know any better soldiers than the two of you."

"That's why I won't let Zoro get stupidly killed on my watch. When the time comes and he wants to take his pain and anger on my ass for being a lying shit, so to speak, then so be it. I can take him on. I won't hide nor I'll ever back down from the challenge. I've already put the gears into action. There's no stopping it now. It's decided. We are moving Portgas in a two week's time. As soon as I deem Zoro ready and worthy of being a part in the rescue mission, I'll disclose to him the stages of operation and everything about it," Sanji finished in an authoritative tone of voice, Ace knew it was a pointless battle to argue with.

Ace could only sigh after hearing all this. Give it to the sacrificial blond freak to make everything complicated. But he'd probably have done the same if he was in Sanji's shoes, so he wasn't the one to judge. He'd believe in his friend that the blond knew what he was doing. "Be careful. Even a wounded and cornered animal has some bite."

"I know. But Chopper really likes the guy and my gut feeling also tells me he is honorable man to put my trust in."

"If you say so Sanji. But, be sure to test him beforehand. We must know what kind of skill does he possess and what kind of character he is. I don't need anyone slowing us down."

"Roger. I'll get back to you and report."

"You better."

Sanji hung up the den den mushi and turned off the other attached to the first. The second one was all white and its duty was to send out psychic waves that prevented interception. He was extremely weary after the whole day and wished for nothing more than to fall face first on his bed and sleep for the whole week straight. But there was some important paperwork waiting for him, unfortunately. After giving an annoyed groan he sat behind the desk and went over the crucial points of the mission once again.

Just as soon as he touched the second thick tome he heard a crash in the hallway. Alerted, he surged to his feet, pulling out from the drawer his 9mm hand gun and quiet as a mouse he went to check what was the source of the noise. It was the middle of the night too. Surely it couldn't be Chopper since the animal slept like a dead weight at night. So that left two options, it was either Zoro who managed to get rid of the handcuffs, or someone else infiltrated the chalet. Sanji only wished it wasn't any of the mercenaries, since it would mean their home wasn't a safe place anymore. It could spell all kinds of trouble not only for their well being, but for their mission too. And he couldn't risk safety of it. The blond pulled the safety off and walked carefully through the dimly lit hallway.

He creaked the closest door slightly open. They were leading to where the new addition to their home was placed, but Sanji was strangely relieved to see Zoro sleeping in the very same position he was left in. It disturbed Sanji slightly how the thought alone of Zoro overhearing his conversation with Ace was making his chest hurt. He shouldn't feel like that for someone who he only met today, right? He didn't owe anything to Zoro and it was baffling Sanji how the idea of loosing Zoro's trust was making his insides turn unpleasantly. Did he already considered Zoro a part of their pack? Where did this trust he had in the green-haired man came from?

Stop thinking, Sanji chastised himself. It wasn't good getting distracted while there could be someone at their home ready to kill them in their sleep. Few more steps and left turn down the corridor and Sanji saw the faint light coming from the kitchen. He walked quietly to it, gun in hand ready to shot, but as soon as he opened the door he sagged with relief and annoyance.

"Luffy? What the fuck? You scared me to death! You were supposed to be hunting!" Sanji exclaimed while kicking the boy over the head. Give it to Luffy to feel at home, already going through Sanji's kitchen supplies.

"Ow, Sanji! I thought you were sleeping!"

"Tch, and that's your excuse for breaking in, shitty monkey? I could pack you full of bullets, idiot," Sanji huffed while putting away his gun.

"Nah, there's no way you could do that, Sanji. You're one of the best shooters I know." Luffy said while pausing in eating his snack.

"Che, flattery will get you nowhere with me. Now tell me why are you here?"

"I was around." Luffy said while picking his nose. Sanji was ready to blow up, but his outburst was quenched and blood froze in his veins with next words from Luffy, "And I found a rat in your kitchen. Decided to get rid of it for you." He smirked and kicked a black lump laying on the floor. Sanji's eyes went wide seeing a man wearing an army uniform now lying on the floor with a broken neck.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" The blond exclaimed.

"Hm, so..."Luffy drawled, "wanna tell me what's this all about? You know I've been away from home in the past week like five times, so I'm a lil' behind the news about what's going on in the outside world. Since we won't get much sleep seeing as it's only an hour 'till sunrise, you could just as well spill it. I'm not going anywhere before you tell me everything, San-chan." He grinned cheekily. "Oh! And make me some pre-breakfast snack, m'kay? 'M starving~~ " Luffy whined knowing the last line will make Sanji finally succumb to his wishes. He liked to push someone's hidden buttons to make them cave into his demands, see.

"Yeah, sure, why the fuck not?" Sanji sighed. Deciding to make some sandwiches for the Monkey, he plopped down on the chair near Luffy and began talking.


Few rooms away, under moonlight shine, Zoro started off in the space mulling over everything he overheard of the blond's conversation over the den den mushi. His handcuffs gave a startling rattle. The iron bar of his bed post, he managed to unscrew with a found cent, gave a whine of protest with how much strength the transgenic was squeezing it.

All dead, but three. Aisa, Johnny, Yosaku. They made it. ...They fucking made it! He clenched his teeth and steeled his heart on the flood of emotions that assaulted him. Sadness over the loss of many, regret he wasn't there to aid them, and relief he wasn't left alone. He believed in no deities, but at that moment he had a fleeting urge to clap his hands and whisper fervent, grateful prayers, that's how hard has been the blow he received when over-hearing that conversation. He felt both torn inside and as if a healing balm was poured over his insides. It made his head swim and he barely had the strength in him to get back to his room, inconspicuously, and pretend to be asleep. He had just managed to put the crew back in place, as if he hasn't ever moved, and closed his eyes. In the next moment he heard the door being opened. Zoro's keen animalistic senses assaulted a heady and alluring scent. A mix of Sanji's unique aroma and cologne.

It was hard task to keep still, but he managed. He was taught to be as quiet and stealthy as a cat and as crafty and cunning as a fox.

After Sanji went on his way, Zoro once again played carefully the facts he overheard. As much as the overheard news gave him a brief relief, there was also something that made his stomach feel unsettled. The thing he hated most was when people took him for a fool or a weakling. It was not something he could easily forgive. And despite hearing every reason behind Sanji's half-truths he couldn't just sit still and accept it. Although, it was a tough battle inside of his heart. Since it was true Zoro was the reason their safe place was threatened by being discovered, but it was also true Sanji had no fucking right to make a decision for him, about hiding the truth about the fire from Zoro.

His wounds vehemently protested when he tried shifting his position. He knew he was too weak to do anything now, but in a couple of days, week tops he'd be in good enough shape to walk around and fight if necessary. Everything he heard today was messing with his right judgment and right now he couldn't honestly tell if he should trust these people or not. He was in indebted to them, that was for sure, but in the confused and hurt state he was in right now it made him hate the blond for wanting to use Zoro in their plans. No matter how noble the intention, but the blond's way about doing it was wrong on so many levels, it made Zoro almost feel contempt for Sanji. But he also couldn't disregard the fact it was the blond who saved his nakama and this single fact was what turned the scale slightly on Zoro's saviors' side.

On Sanji's side.

Half an hour later after he calmed down and the pain in his abdomen passed there was only one thought circling inside of his head,

"What now?"

... Review~?