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Possessed

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Golden sand stretched for miles across vast deserts, heat escaping the arid landscape in waves. The sun was large and red on the horizon as it slowly sank behind the dunes. As we pan across this barren landscape, we come across the outskirts of a large kingdom, one seemingly built out in the middle of nowhere. Tiny, dilapidated huts stretched on for a distance until little, slightly better built huts took their place. The buildings grew in size and splendor as they grew closer and closer to the center of the city, whereupon a hill sat a large, white, stone castle that had been embellished with royal designs, the royal silvers, golds, and reds were liberally used to decorate the monstrous palace. As we continue to zoom in on this splendid exhibition of architecture, there is one window in particular that stands out from the rest. Curtains made of layers of brightly colored, semi-sheer fabrics were gently swaying in the hot, summer breeze. Their splendid streams of color outlined the gaping hole of a window. Cradling the decorated window from below was a large balcony, the floor of it covered with pristine, white marble. It had witnessed many an important address to the poor civilians that naively ate up the words of their aging king, the current bearer of the crown.

Today, the young prince was turning 13, which meant that a celebration was to be had throughout the kingdom. Gifts were paraded through the city and brought into the royal hall, where they were placed on one side of the grand room after having been presented to the young prince. Standing at the prince’s side was his ever-faithful servant: a boy about his age that had been assigned to him as a playmate and companion when they were both quite young. Now that they were both 13, the playmate was no longer a friend, but an official member of the prince’s personal staff. He stood beside the throne, as the prince had demanded, but he did not speak nor look at him, which was pissing the young man off substantially.

“Why aren’t you paying any attention to me?” The prince demanded haughtily, folding his arms across his chest, his jewelry clanking as he moved. “It’s my birthday! You’re supposed to pay attention to me!” He didn’t care that he sounded childish. When he wanted something, he got it, damn it.

“Forgive me, Your Highness, but for my humble eyes to look upon your splendor in the royal hall on such an important day would be much too disrespectful. I know my place, and that is as your personal servant.” The boy raised his head ever so slightly. “A gift is being presented, Your Highness, please accept it in good grace.”

“I know, I know, jeez, you’re so boring, Zoro.” The prince waved off the civilian, having long since lost interest in the things the people presented to him. “Why can’t you be like you were when we were kids.”

“We are no longer children anymore. We’re adults now, we must start acting like it.” Zoro let a small sigh escape from his lips. He leaned over and whispered into the prince’s ear “If you’d like, we can sneak out again after the feast. He straightened up and tilted his head back towards the floor respectfully when, suddenly, the prince was in his face, grin spreading wide.

"Really? Where are you going to take me this time?"

"San-ji," Zoro glared at the prince, "we're in the middle of your birthday celebration. Please return to your throne."

"Che, this is so boring." But Sanji did as he was told, sitting sideways in his high throne, feet dangling over the side.

"Sit properly." Zoro scolded.

"You know, you’ve completely stopped being any fun whatsoever. I may as well have one of those boring old men standing next to me."

Zoro looked over at the prince, an indifferent expression on his face. "I wasn't assigned to you for the sake of fun. It’s my duty to be by your side and keep your ass in line."

"You! Talking like that to me! How dare you! You're the one who—" Sanji caught himself before he could finish. He didn't care about anyone else, but he didn't like playing up the pompous ruler role around his friend. With Zoro it was different from all the others. He didn't think of the green haired boy as a servant, but his one and only friend, despite the fact that their friendship was a tad cantankerous. "Hmph." Sanji turned back to face yet another gift bearer. He simply couldn't wait for this to be over with.

Once the presentation of gifts was completed, the young prince was required to give a speech, his first official address to his people. Zoro stood somewhat behind the curtains that lead to the grand, marble balcony, watching the prince with a frown. He hated this; his hair was of a light enough shade for him to be a member of the official court, not that he'd ever want anything to do with politics, but when he and Sanji were small, they used to talk about running away and living on their own where the color of one’s hair mattered not in deciding where everyone belonged within the hierarchy. Granted, they'd been too young to understand the consequences if they'd done such a thing, but Zoro truly longed for a life he deemed worth living. He had his own dreams, his own goals, but he would forever remain beside the prince. Even if they had a good relationship, well most of the time, his life would be one of astounding solitude. The prince would forever be at the top of his priorities, not because of their bond, but because it was what people of his class did. Abandoning the prince would be looked upon as treason of the highest order. Besides, he didn't want to leave Sanji to suffer alone.

Sanji finished his speech and walked back inside, looking incredibly regal and prominent, but the second his guards closed the curtains he let his body go lax again. “Maaaan, this sucks. Do I really have to do this until I’m as old as the geezer?”

Zoro couldn’t respond as he normally would with the guards right there. He bowed slightly as he spoke, “Your speech was magnificent, Your Highness. The delivery was perfect.”

Sanji frowned, about to say something when he realized the guards were still there. “Go on, get out of here. Your presence here is unwanted.” The guards didn’t move from where they stood by he door. “GO ALREADY! Or do you dare disobey your future king!” The guards stood a moment before they bowed and left, not uttering a sound. “Che, how annoying.”

“They’re just doing their job.” Zoro dropped his respectful posture and folded his arms. “Well, your birthday banquet is in about a half hour. What do you wanna do until then?”

“Let’s go to the gardens.” Sanji grabbed Zoro’s shoulders, “Come on! I want to try and find that passage way that guard told us about.”

“You’re wearing your good robes, you moron. Plus you’re wearing all that jewelry and your ceremonial headpiece. You’ll be a total mess by the time you get back, and then it’ll be my ass that’ll be grass. Besides, we wouldn’t have enough time to go all the way down there, explore, and come back.”

“I can always take them off.” Sanji reached up and began to unfasten the complicated clasps that held up the intricate necklaces around the pale neck, ignoring the idea of not having enough time. If he wanted to go, he’d go. Everyone else would just have to wait.

“Hey, I spent a good hour getting you ready. I’m not putting those back together again.” Zoro huffed, “I’m not your damned wet nurse, get a maid or something to get you ready. Why do you always make me do it, of all people?”

Sanji flushed a light shade of red, turning away with a frown on his face. “Cause you’re my personal assistant. You’re the only one I trust with getting me dressed.” It was a shitty excuse, but it was the best he could come up with.

“Che, whatever.” Zoro looked at the back of Sanji’s neck as he turned away. “Dammit, your stupid-huge necklace is coming undone.” He walked up behind Sanji as he began to work on the complicated clasps. “If I had a coin for every time you gave me a headache your family would be broke before your 18th birthday.”

“Shut up, and fix my necklace, you dumb plant.” Sanji grumbled as the heat slowly crawled up his face. The feeling of Zoro’s warm fingers against the back of his neck was enough to get the young man hot under the collar. It was also why he liked to have Zoro dress him every day, for the physical aspect of it all. Having Zoro touch his body as he adjusted his robes, the care and focus he had while fastening everything, feeling his hands smooth out any wrinkled. He loved it most when Zoro put on his royal veil and the headpiece. How Zoro would stare up at him as he placed the royal red veil over his head before placing the golden headpiece over it. He would always stare into Zoro’s eyes as the slightly older boy got him ready. He was brought out of his musings when he felt the absence of warmth from Zoro’s hands. “There, fixed.” Zoro pulled away.

“No, now you’ve got to fix my headpiece.”

“Whaaat? Why? It looks fine.”

“No, I think the veil’s folded funny under it.”

“Then fix it yourself.” Zoro huffed, “I have to go back to my room.”

“W-Wait, aren’t you going to the banquet?”

“I’m not allowed. It’s for your family only. It’s a private event, and I’m just a servant, remember?”

Sanji’s brow furrowed as he frowned, “But, but you’re high up enough in the caste system, you could be allowed to...plus, your father is of the most elite! I’m sure you can—”

“It doesn’t matter if he is an elite, it only would matter if I was. Besides, if I was an elite I wouldn’t be your servant.” Zoro sighed, “Just go and enjoy your banquet with your family. I’ll meet you as soon as it gets dark, alright?” He smiled a bit, turning to leave.

Sanji’s frown went from upset to angry. He grabbed the back of Zoro’s tunic, “If I want you there, you’re going to be there.” He affirmed.

“It’s not my place!”

“I don’t care!”

“Do you understand how much trouble I’d get into for such “impudent behavior”? The chief of staff would probably have me beaten for even thinking of it.”

“If I say you’re going, you’re going.” Sanji grabbed Zoro’s wrist and started pulling him.

“You’re so damned spoiled, you know that?” Zoro muttered as he was pulled. “Hey, wait! I don’t have a veil on, Sanji! Let go!” He had to be quiet as soon as Sanji pushed through the doors. He bowed his head in shame as Sanji dragged him away, even if he didn’t feel any shame, only annoyance, but he didn’t want anyone to think he was being disrespectful of the royal brat.

Sanji waited outside of Zoro’s door, tapping his foot  and pacing impatiently as he waited. Zoro soon emerged from his tiny room wearing a clean, white tunic with an orange sash tied around his waist, symbolizing his position. He had his veil over his head, a thin cord of silver wrapping around his head, holding it in place. He had never worn his formal tunic before, and he wasn’t quite sure he’d put it on right. Sanji smiled at him as he emerged. “Now it’s my turn.” He went over to Zoro and pulled the top half of the tunic off Zoro’s shoulder, revealing the smooth upper body that was rippled with the faint outlines of developing muscles. Delicious, in Sanji’s young, perverted mind.

“Wh-What are you doing!” Zoro pulled back, starting to pull the tunic back on.

“Fixing it. That orange sash goes underneath diagonally, and the ends hang beneath this slit.” He pulled the tunic apart where it split on the side, admiring Zoro’s bare upper thigh and hip for a moment before Zoro pulled away.

“Okay, okay, I got it I got it.” Zoro fixed his tunic the way that Sanji advised. “There, that better?”

Sanji smiled, “One more thing...” He reached up and fixed Zoro’s headpiece, even though it really didn’t need fixing. He just wanted to be in close proximity with Zoro. “There. Perfect.”

“You didn’t do anything.”

“Did too! Shut up! Let’s go to that shitty banquet.” Sanji stood up straight and walked off, Zoro following a few steps behind.

Sanji was seated at one end of the table, his father at the other with his mother sitting kitty-corner to her husband. Zoro stood back and to the right of Sanji, face burning in embarrassment as the king stared him down, clearly displeased with his presence. Sanji had insisted upon his being there, and disobeying his master was punishable, but he still felt like he was being intrusive.

Sanji was completely displeased with the whole thing. He’d thought that having Zoro there would make things more interesting, but every time Sanji had tried to talk to him, he would acknowledge that Sanji spoke, but he wouldn’t utter a word, and it was pissing the prince off. He picked up a piece of meat and took a bite out of it. It was simply delicious, the way it melted in his mouth was to die for. He wanted Zoro to try this.

“Zoro, try this.” He held it out for Zoro to take, and was confused by the horrified look on his servant’s face. “I’m commanding you to eat.”

“Y—Your highness, if would me most disrespectful of me to do such a thing.” He glanced up at the king and queen, quickly diverting his eyes from their inquisitive stare. They didn’t seem angry, as they weren’t really those kinds of people, though they did demand the utmost respect.

“I don’t care. I want you to eat it.” The more he insisted, the more awkward Zoro felt. A sly grin broke out on Sanji’s face. “I know. Let’s play that game we used to play when we were young.” Zoro’s brow furrowed, not understanding. Sanji pulled off a piece of meat and held it between his two fingers, grin growing broader as Zoro’s eyes widened.

”Sanji, please don’t...” He whispered below his breath so the king and queen couldn’t hear.

“Zoro, sit.” He demanded. He ignored his parents and their obvious discomfort. Zoro didn’t move for a moment, so he demanded again. “Zoro, I said sit.” He watched as Zoro looked down, slowly crouching down until he was sitting on the floor like a dog.

“Good boy, come.” Zoro leaned forward and slowly crawled over to the side of Sanji’s chair. “Goood. Now, beg.”

“Sanji, I believe this has gone on long enough.” The King said, gently taking his wife’s hand as he glared down at his son.

“It’s my birthday, is it not? I can do whatever I please.” Sanji challenged, barely glancing at his father before looking back down at Zoro. “Zoro, beg.”

“Sanji, this is demeaning. We’re grown men. You’re making your parents uncomfortable, and...you’re humiliating me.” Zoro said quietly as he sat before Sanji. “Please stop...”

“If you want me to stop then beg.” Sanji held the piece of meat over Zoro, watching with delight as Zoro sat back, bringing his balled up fists to his chests. “Good boy. Speak.”

“....arf...” Zoro said in a quiet, broken voice.

Sanji held the piece of meat out to Zoro who took it between his teeth, chewing and swallowing, but not getting up from the floor. He had never been so humiliated in his entire life, and the worst part was, was that the meat had been absolutely delicious, and he’d let out a little whine as he chewed. Sanji smiled and reached down, gently patting his head. “Good dog.”

Chapter Text

Once dinner was over, Sanji left with a smile on his face. He’d actually wound up having a pretty good time. Zoro trailed behind him, having not smiled once since the incident. “Hooo~ that was a good meal. I’m stuffed!” He looked back at Zoro. “You enjoy your meal too, little doggy?” Sanji had continued feeding him scraps under the table all night like some sort of pet, and whilst he had enjoyed it, Zoro had sat in silent misery.

Zoro didn’t say anything as he followed behind Sanji. He’d been shamed in front of the King, the Queen, and the royal guards. He just wanted to go back to his tiny bedroom and sleep. As soon as Sanji got to his room, he bid him a grumbled goodnight and turned to leave. He was stopped when he felt Sanji tug on the back of his tunic again.

“Your Hi—!”

“If we’re gonna sneak out, I want you in here with me.” Sanji demanded, tugging a bit harder. “Besides, you still have to give me my bath.”

Zoro sighed, not really having any energy to fight against it. “Yes, Your Highness.” He turned around and followed Sanji back into his room. He closed the door behind him as Sanji yanked off his ceremonial headpiece, throwing it onto the floor and flopping back on his humongous bed.

Zoro picked up the headpiece and made sure the golden chains and discs weren’t tangled or broken and placed it on the mannequin head inside Sanji’s extensive closet, grabbing a towel before he left. When he came back out, Sanji had already shed his formal robes and was waiting by the bathroom door as he waited for Zoro to being him his towel.

“Come on! I want to hurry up and get my bath over with.” Sanji whined and grabbed the towel from Zoro’s hands and wrapped it around his naked lower half.

“Why would you want to take a bath when you’re only going to get dirty again?” Zoro asked as they headed towards the bath, getting swaddled by steam when he pulled the lever to start the flow of hot water.

“You moron,” Sanji scolded as he sat on the edge of the pool-like, marble bath, “if we were to go to bed without bathing, it would be a break from our usual routine, and it’d seem very suspicious. Besides, we’d probably get a scolding from Robin for not being cleanly.”

“Che, she’s just your nurse—”

“And our teacher. Don’t insult her intelligence.”

“She’s just about as low in the caste as one can get; her hair is dark as night. You usually hold the order in such high esteem, I’m surprised to hear you defending her.”

“Well, her mother’s an elite, so she’s special. Plus she’s gorgeous~” Sanji huffed, “Aren’t you done drawing my bath yet?”

“It’s ready, Sanji.” Zoro pulled the lever to stop the flow of heated water. He turned around just as Sanji was jumping into the ocean of warm water amidst the islands of bubbles. “Hey! You have to wash before you soak! You’ll just dirty the water!” Zoro scolded as he reached for the bucket filled with soapy water.

“I don’t care!” Sanji shouted as he dipped beneath the surface, enjoying the warmth.

Zoro just sighed and sat down, shedding his robe and placing it on the stone bench off to the side, sitting down on a short, stone bench just outside the tub and beginning to wash himself.

Sanji quietly resurfaced, just the upper half of his face showing above the water. He was watching with a fixed gaze as Zoro ran the washcloth over his body. He could feel a stirring in his groin the longer he watched.

Feeling eyes on him, Zoro turned and came face to face with Sanji. “Do you need something?”

Sanji could feel himself turning red and slowly sunk into the bath. “No, idiot. Hurry up and finish so you can wash me.” Sanji huffed before rolling over onto his back and floating around idly, waiting for Zoro to finish and join him in the bath.

After his bath, Zoro dried the prince off before dressing him in his night clothes.

Sanji stretched and flopped onto his bed with a happy little smile. When he looked up he saw Zoro heading for the door. “Hey, what are you doing? Come here.” Sanji slid beneath his sheets, sitting up against the countless down pillows.

“No.”

Sanji looked taken aback for a moment. Anyone else in his kingdom wouldn’t dare tell the prince ‘no’ with the exception of his parents and maybe a nanny or two when he’d gone somewhere he wasn’t allowed to as a small child, but Zoro was the only one who would ever deny him anything, not that he could deny him for very long.

“Zoro, I said, come here!” He insisted hitting the bed with his open palm for emphasis.

“I’m not your dog, Sanji.” Zoro folded his arms and turned away, a frown creasing his forehead.

Sanji huffed, lips pursed and brows furrowed with his displeasure. “Then we’ll play the dog and master game.”

“Sanji—”

“You’ll get in trouble if you disobey me, right?” Sanji smirked, “Now come, but like a dog.” Zoro frowned, but he obeyed. He got down and crawled over to Sanji’s bedside, sitting as a dog would. “What’s the matter? This used to be so much fun when we were little.” He patted the bed. “Hop up!”

“We’re not little anymore.” Zoro grumbled as he hopped up onto the bed, curling up beside Sanji.

“We’re 13. I won’t take the crown until I’m 18. That means, I’m still a boy, and because we’re the same age, so are you.” Sanji smirked, “But I am old enough to start building my harem~”

“Good for you. Can I get up now?” Zoro looked completely unfazed, much to Sanji’s disappointment. Why didn’t he get even the slightest bit jealous? Sanji couldn’t fathom why Zoro wouldn’t be upset with the idea that someone else would be taking up Sanji’s attention. He felt his irritation grow.

“No, you’re going to be my pet until we leave.” Sanji pouted, reaching back and grabbing one of the smaller pillows, throwing it to the other side of the room. “Now, fetch.”

Zoro sighed, but he turned around and crawled after the pillow, picking it up between his teeth and bringing it back to Sanji, putting his hands up on the bed as he dropped the pillow at Sanji’s side.

“Good boy, now lick you master’s hand.” Sanji held out his hand, trying to keep his face stoic as his heart started to race.

Zoro pulled a face, not used to that sort of command. He looked up at Sanji with a bit of doubt in his eyes, but Sanji’s hand didn’t move. He leaned forward and ran his tongue over the back of Sanji’s hand for just a second.

“Keep licking until I tell you otherwise.” Sanji demanded.

Zoro was confused, but he didn’t argue; there really wasn’t any point in resisting when it would spell nothing but trouble for himself. He brought his mouth to Sanji’s hand and began to lick it again, keeping his eyes trained on Sanji’s pale skin so he wouldn’t have to look into the prince’s face.

Sanji watched with incredible fascination, feeling his heart pound and his groin tingle with slight arousal. “G-Good boy...” Zoro kept licking, as he’d been instructed, only stopping when Sanji asked, “Are we leaving soon?”

He looked up at the prince, “We can leave now if you want. It’s only just gotten dark, but we can still leave.”

"Then let's go already!" Sanji smiled, getting up off his bed. "Zoro, go find our peasant clothes!"

Zoro got up off the floor and turned, heading towards Sanji's extensive walk in wardrobe. Once the servant was out of sight, Sanji brought his hand to his own mouth, kissing the wet spot Zoro had left before licking it himself. The indirect kiss only helped to flush his loins.

Zoro went to the back of the closet and opened an inconspicuous chest and pulled up the false bottom, grabbing the tattered robes that lay at the bottom along with their veils and the ropes to hold them in place. Most of the villager, the thieves aside, didn't wear head garbs, but since their hair was of such a light shade, it would be a dead giveaway that they were royalty. When he came back out, he saw Sanji fiddling with a knapsack.

"What's that for?"

"Ah! Erm, its a secret. You'll see it later." Sanji closed the bag stood with his arms out, preparing for Zoro to begin dressing him.

"You've never had secrets from me before." Zoro remarked as he began to dress Sanji in his commoner robes.

"Yeah, well, this time it's different." Sanji couldn't help the giddy smile that started to spread across his face.

Zoro noticed the smile, but he didn't say anything about it. He finished dressing Sanji before getting himself ready. He strapped his trusty sword in the belt of his robes, having learned early on to never leave without it. "Alright, it's dark, let's be off." He picked up the bag, having anticipated Sanji's not wanting to have to carry it himself.

The pair skillfully snuck out of the palace, almost getting caught on several occasions because of the noise the mysterious item in the sack kept making. Once they were home free, Zoro took a moment to scold the prince. "Dammit, Sanji did you have to bring this thing? It makes a shit ton of noise; we barely escaped 'cause of it!"

"Shut up, baka Marimo! You'll thank me for it later!"

"Since when have you been able to plan ahead?"

Sanji gave him an incredulous look. "I may be a tad spoiled, but you often seem to forget the fact that I'm substantially smarter than you. Plus I don't get lost half as easy as you do."

"Y-You...!" Zoro couldn't think of a proper retort and simply stalked off. "...F-Follow me...dammit..."

Sanji sighed, smiling a bit before he started to follow after his favorite servant and best friend.

It took a while, but they eventually made it to the top of one of the large dunes that surrounded the city. Off by about half a mile was an oasis that had sprouted about a week ago. The pool was already at least 100 feet wide, the biggest they'd seen in ages. It was surrounded by grasses that had recently sprung up, and the smooth surface barely rippled as the water glowed with the light of the moon and stars.

"It's still warm enough out that we can go swimming, but it's gonna get cold soon. Let's go!" Zoro was grinning as he bolted down the sand dune, the downward momentum increasing his speed. He was smiling broadly and laughing a tad as he ran, loving the feeling of running so fast and so free. Sanji wasn't far behind him, laughing as they bolted. His competitive side came out as he tried to get ahead of Zoro, who consequently tried to get ahead of him. Their competition ended in a rolling tumble down the last 30 feet of the hill.

The two boy's limbs were tangled up in each other, robes all twisted up. Zoro had almost lost his veil on the way down so his hair was showing a bit, but he'd worry about that in a minute. Right now, he was simply trying to get off the lad he'd landed on top of.

Sanji didn't at all mind that Zoro was lying on top of him. In fact, he wished that Zoro wouldn't try to get up and would just lay with him like this. He brought his hands up to Zoro's hips as he 'helped' try to separate them.

"Dammit, stupid prince! Your hands aren't helping!"

"Shut up, stupid swordsman! I just want your stupid ass off me!"

"If you want my ass off then stop groping it!"

"My hands are nowhere near your ass! Look! I'm grabbing your childbearing hips, see?" He gripped a little more firmly to emphasize his point.

"Child be—! Shut up!" The two began to tussle, but soon their argument lost its heat and they were simply wrestling for the fun of it. By the time they'd finally tuckered out, they were only a few feet from the edge of the water. They'd finally managed to untangle themselves and we're now lying side by side as they caught their breath.

"You know, I think I'm actually pretty lucky to be serving under you." Zoro thought aloud as he sat up.

Sanji felt his heart skip a beat and was about to respond when Zoro just had to open his mouth again.

"Aside from the fact that half the time you seem to get a kick out of humiliating me and whenever you're feeling particularly bratty you tend to treat me as a subhuman."

"No, I—"

"It's true, Sanji. You can't deny it." Zoro sighed, "but even so, there are times like this where I feel like your friend and your equal." He smiled, "And who knows, maybe someday my Dad will take me back and I can serve under my rightful title."

"No!" Sanji objected, quickly standing up as if he'd been scalded. "I don't want you to ever leave my side!"

"Sanji, my father is an elite! I shouldn't have to live the rest of my life as a servant."

"I don't care if your father is higher up than my family! You're mine! And I want you to stay with me..."

"Sanjiii..." Zoro sighed agitatedly, flopping back in the sand. When he heard rustling he sat back up on his elbows. "What are you doing?"

Sanji had his hands in the sack and he appeared to be rummaging about inside it. "You can't leave me...you can't!" He pulled out a box and a key, setting it on the sand.

"Sanji," Zoro sat up more, a feeling of uneasiness creeping up his spine, "what is that?"

Sanji stuck the key into the lock, having to jiggle it a bit before it turned. "It's why I can't let you leave."

Chapter Text

Sanji pulled back the lid of the box, letting it rest back on its hinge before he reached inside, pulling out a silken cloth, dark blue in color with ornate gold designs embroidered on. It jangled a bit as Sanji unwrapped whatever was inside.

Zoro watched as Sanji unwound the silk cloth, feeling his eyes grow wide as the object inside came into view. It was a beautiful golden headpiece with swirled designs of jade embedded in the gold. There were discs and thin chains of tarnished gold that hung down from the crown. A sun of gold with a ruby center perched on the top of the front of the headpiece; the symbol of the royal family. It looked incredibly similar to the one Sanji had been wearing that day, only slightly smaller but more ornate.

"S-Sanji...you don't mean..."

"Zoro," Sanji got down on bended knee before Zoro, smiling somewhat bashfully as he presented the princess' crown, "we've been together as far back as I can remember, and I want to keep you by my side for all eternity. Zoro, I want you to be my one true love, to sire my children and the heir to my throne."

Zoro was completely taken aback, but when he finally took in what Sanji was asking, or demanding of him really, he grew angry.

"I’m sorry, but I cannot marry you." He spat, glaring down at the prince.

Sanji was...well he didn't quite know what he was feeling. Surprise and confusion came first before anger, but once the anger hit, it exploded. "WHAT! How-How dare you! I just lowered myself and proposed to you, my servant of all people, and you have the gall to refuse me? You dare humiliate me like this?!" Sanji threw the crown down with indignation.

"Sanji, you didn't ask me to marry you, you simply wanted me to. Besides, think of your parents for once! They will want you to marry someone of equal status, or greater! Besides, I can't produce an heir! I’m a man, Sanji! I would be entirely useless! Think of the future of this country! Of your people! For once in you life Sanji, think of someone other than yourself!" Even as he was speaking, he was yelling at himself to stop. Sure, everything he was saying held an incredible amount of truth to it, and he'd often thought it, but he had stepped so far out of place as nothing more than a humble servant. He felt ashamed and opened his mouth to apologize, but Sanji's hand stopped him.

"Don't say another word or I'll have your head taken for your incredible impudence towards your master and the prince of this country. Were I King, what you’ve said I could take as treason." Sanji's glare was hard, eyes sharpening like an axe on the grind. He had tears both of anger and betrayal in his eyes. He'd always thought Zoro would want to be there beside him the same way he always wanted Zoro. Weren't they the best of friends? As close as close can be! Or so he'd foolishly thought.

Sanji adjusted his veil, turning up his chin haughtily. "I'm going on ahead. Find your own way home."

"Sanji, I—" He bit his tongue when Sanji shot him another warning glare before stalking off, running up the dune with as much dignity as one could run up such unstable terrain.

Zoro sighed, picking up the crown and it's box. Seriously, what had the prince been thinking? He was a man; what could he do as princess, as queen? It wasn't that homosexuality was frowned upon, in fact, it was encouraged. People from varying classes could have full relationships without the possibility of a child of mixed blood being born between classes, like Zoro had been. Such a birth was frowned upon, but the children weren't hated, but even if one of their parents were an elite, it was more than likely that they would never be able to take the throne.

In a way, Sanji's proposal would've been a major bonus for Zoro, but as his servant, he always had to keep Sanji's best interests at the top of his priorities. Even so, he felt no romantic connection to the blonde. He actually hadn't really thought about it. Yet, now that it'd been presented to him, Sanji's previous behavior actually began to make a bit of sense, even if it was still really weird in Zoro's mind.

Zoro waited until Sanji was over the crest of the dune before quickly following after him. He could never leave Sanji by himself, even if the blonde was terribly upset with him. When he finally made it over the dune, Sanji was nowhere to be seen.

"Ahh...shit..." he quickly took off down the other side of the dune and ran across the cooling sand. It already dropped about 10 degrees, so it was probably a good thing that they hadn't gone swimming. Zoro darted within the shadows of the outskirts of the city, as silent and stealthy as a thief in the night. His eyes were darting like mad, watching carefully for anything suspicious. Even with his hair hidden, he would still be in danger if he was caught, not to mention the trouble he'd be in for sneaking out of the palace. He just hoped Sanji would be okay.

As he wound his way down the streets, he quickly found himself back outside the city, staring at the dunes.

"Huh, how'd I wind up here?" Zoro scratched his head, trying to figure out which way to go. He was suddenly on high alert when he heard a noise behind him.

"Houu? What've we got here?"

'Shit!'

"Hey look, he's got a sword!"

"Bet it could go for a pretty price."

"And he's wearing a veil! Who even wears them at night?"

"Someone trying to hide his hair, obviously."

“Shut the hell up, man. I’m wearing a veil.”

“Yeaaah, well, you’re different, aren’tchya?”

Zoro spun around and saw three guys, probably around his age, standing in the road, blocking his way. A hand went to the hilt of his prized katana. "Out of my way. I don't want to have to hurt you."

"Look at him, talking all tough."

"Aren't you doing the same?" Zoro countered, agitatedly.

"Listen to that, he's using *high speech, he's gotta be a royal." The boy in the middle, presumably the leader, stepped forward, arms folded and wearing a frown. "Just hand over the sword and we'll let you go."

"But I thought you said that if he was a royal we were gonna kidnap him for ransom." The youngest looking of the three stepped out into the moonlight. He couldn't have been much over 10.

"Shut up you moron!"

Zoro slid his katana out an inch, preparing for a fight. "I don't want to have to hurt you, but I won't hesitate to do so."

"Then hand over the katana and show us your hair."

"I won't do either."

"Then you leave us no choice." A third boy, wearing a veil like Zoro was, stepped into the light. "We'll beat you up an take your sword by force. And you, if you’re a noble."

The three boys attacked in nearly perfect synchronization. Zoro was surprised by their speed and skill, but he wasn't immediately overwhelmed. He withdrew his sword and blocked their punches and kicks. Then one of them brought out a metal rod and the game changed instantly. Zoro stopped using just the back of his sword and attacked the black haired boy with the rod, metal clanging and screeching as they connected. Out of his peripheral, Zoro saw someone move and he lashed out, nicking the face of the youngest boy before getting hit upside the head by one of the rods. It was hard enough to get him bleeding, but not to kill him. The three boys took a moment as they looked down at their defeated opponent.

"H-Hey, we didn't kill him, did we?" The boy with the veil worried, crouching down to nudge Zoro gently.

"How should I know? I've never killed anyone before! I don't know what it takes!" The once ever so confident boys were overcome by panic. Even though they lived in one of the poorest districts, the law was still heavily enforced. If they were found guilty for murder, it would be the gallows for anyone even remotely involved. If the guy was a royal, the boys, along with their families could be placed in the stocks for weeks before they would be beheaded. Or tortured even! Burned at the stake!

The youngest boy reached forward and pulled the veil off the unconscious teen and the three of them gasped, terrified. He had light green hair, which meant he was just a step or two beneath the royal family. "W-Well...what now, Ace?"

"I'm thinking!" Ace bit his lip as his mental gears spun wildly out of control. "Guess we'll have to take him back home..."

"Dadan's gonna kill you..."

"Shut up, Sabo! You'll be in the shithouse right along with me!"

"Muuu, my face hurts!"

"Oh, shit, that's bleeding really bad... Did he get your eye? Move your hands..." Sabo gently pulled Luffy’s hand away to inspect the wound. He gave a gentle sigh of relief when he saw the cut had missed his brother’s eye. “You’ll be alright, but we should get home to Dadan.”

Ace hefted Zoro up over his shoulder, letting Sabo take care of the sword. “Come on, let’s go. Before someone sees us.”

The three boys hurried off into the night, disappearing in the shadows as they made haste to their shambles of a home.

--

“WHAT HAVE YOU MORONS DONE?!” Dadan was absolutely livid—not that she wasn’t usually, but this time the situation could result in some serious consequences. Her moronic foster kids would surely be the death of her. “YOU IDIOTS JUST BROUGHT—” she looked around before lowering her voice, “You idiots just brought someone of noble standing, bloody and broken into my house! Are you trying to get me killed? You ungrateful brats!” Each kid received a well placed wallop atop their head, wincing at the initial blow, but doing nothing to retaliate. It was the least they deserved for screwing up so royally, literally.

Zoro started to wake, roused by all the loud noises. He blinked his eyes open, trying not to make a noise as pain throbbed through his head from the blow. He twisted his arms, feeling that his hands were tightly bound behind him. He was tied to a chair, ankles tied to the legs. The chair felt brittle enough to be able to break, but with his hands bound he’d quickly be subdued again.

Luffy seemed to be the only one to notice the stirring behind them, as Sabo and Ace were still too busy being chewed out. One of the benefits of being the youngest: the blame rarely ever fell to you when everyone had fucked up. He turned to look at Zoro, noticing sweat beading on his forehead. He walked over to him, looking him over, observing the gash on the back of his head that had gone unattended for the time being.

“Naaa...that looks like it hurts.” He poked at the trickle of congealing blood, making Zoro wince. “Sorry, sorry... But you’re awake, na? Oi, Dadan, he’s awa—”

“Shut it.” Zoro growled, eyes opening and glaring at the younger boy. “You’re giving me a headache.”

“Oh look, the hothouse plant is awake—ow!” Ace took another hit to the head.

“Quit insulting the royal, and get me some rags and a bowl of water, you useless brats! And get the fire going! Luffy, I want you to go and get that boy that dabbles with medicine, he should be able to help.” Dadan barked, finally getting the boys to move, though not without some grumbling.

Ace grabbed the buckets and headed to the oasis, hurrying so as not to get caught out after curfew. Luffy skittered through the alleys, not particularly scared of getting caught, but hurrying all the same. Walking was boring anyhow. Sabo stayed behind while Dadan and her crew headed out to hide any possible evidence.

Sabo put a couple feeble pieces of wood in the fire pit over the barely flickering embers, giving them a gentle blow as he encouraged a flame. Once it was lit, he sat back, waiting for the others to return. He looked over Zoro, who had let his eyes slip closed again.

“Sorry bout the ropes. We can’t have you running away though, I’m afraid.”

Zoro looked up, more tired than anything. “Why are you holding me here?”

Sabo leaned back against the wall, looking Zoro over. “Well, you’re from the palace right? Not a member of the royal family, but you’re pretty high up there, right? ...What’s your position?”

Zoro sighed, figuring he wouldn’t really lose anything being honest. “I’m the right hand of the prince.” And his left, if Zoro was being completely honest. He had about an hour before Sanji started throwing a bitch fit about how he wasn’t back yet. Which would mean a world full of trouble for him.

Sabo tensed, an expression Zoro couldn’t quite place crossing his features. “Shit, you’re serious...” Sabo bit his lip a bit as he thought, “It might be better if we let you go...” He steeled his expression, getting up and going over to Zoro, crouching down in front of him. “If we give you your sword back, you must swear not to tell anyone.”

“It wouldn’t benefit me to do so.” Zoro shifted in his chair. “I swear I’ll keep it a secret.”

Sabo nodded, taking a peek outside. Before picking up a piece of firewood. “Sorry about this.” He drew his arm back and swung, knocking Zoro out again.

When Zoro came to, he was in his bed again, sword propped up beside it. His head hurt like hell, and when he reached up to touch it, he could feel a large lump on the back of his head. The sun was just coming up, which meant he was already late. He may have head his head practically bashed in, but that sure as shit didn’t excuse him from his duties. He just hoped Sanji wouldn’t be too angry with him.

Chapter Text

The next morning in the lower district, everyone was still on edge and varying degrees of irritated with Sabo. They were upset that the boy had acted without discussing it with them. Ace and Luffy returned around the same time, Luffy disappointed that the interesting addition to their lives had to depart so soon. He’d hoped that maybe they could be friends! Ace and Dadan couldn’t let go of the possibility that Zoro would turn on them; turn them in.

“Look,” Sabo defended, “I gave the guy an ultimatum. If he swore to keep his promise, I’d return his sword before knocking him out and taking him home. If he hadn’t sworn, I would’ve knocked him out and dragged his ass home anyway.” That did little to reassure them, as Zoro could’ve easily lied. “Look, he has no idea where we live, and it would do him more harm than good to confess to having been taken captive.”

Ace went up to Sabo, getting right in his face. “If we get caught cause you fucked up, I swear I’ll kill you before those royal bastards get the chance.”

Sabo squared his shoulders, matching Ace’s penetrating glare with one of his own. “I’d like to see you try.”

Luffy frowned as his brothers fought. It was nothing new, but he still didn’t like it when they did, especially over something that had already been dealt with. He sighed, looking back at the chair the green-haired boy had been tied to when he noticed something. He went over to the satchel that had been left behind, eyes shining with curious interest when he found a box with a lock and key inside.

“Hey, Ace! Sabo! Look at this!”

“Not now, Luffy.” Sabo threw over his shoulder before continuing to argue with Ace. The two boys had started shoving each other. It would become a physical fight soon enough.

“But guuuys!”

Ace, having finally gotten annoyed by his brother’s persistent whining, turned to yell at Luffy when he noticed what the boy was holding. “Wh… Where did you get that?”

Sabo looked past Ace and over at Luffy, eyes going wide when he saw the opened box. “Oh, shit…”

--

“You lost it!?” Sanji cried in disbelief when Zoro reported to him that morning. He removed his breakfast tray from his lap and got out of bed, still in his nightwear. “I can’t believe you were so stupid! We are going to be in the worst trouble of our lives all because of you!” Sanji stomped over to the window, hands on his hips as he silently fumed.

Zoro kept his eyes trained on the ground as Sanji threw a fit. He wasn’t going to retaliate by mentioning that this was just as much, if not completely, his master’s fault. Although, Zoro also dreaded the consequences of their actions. Not only for sneaking out of the castle, but for losing the princess’ crown on top of that.

The prince turned to continue his verbal assault directed at Zoro when he noticed that the older boy had a casual veil on. He furrowed his brow in confusion. “Why are you wearing a veil? Only members of the royal court wear their veils outside of ceremonies.”

Zoro’s brow furrowed. He had hoped that the self-absorbed prince wouldn’t notice, but Sanji was more astute than he’d given him credit for. He was about to give an excuse when Sanji cut him off.

“Take it off.” The prince demanded, watching as Zoro hesitantly began to remove the cloth covering his hair. From the front, Zoro didn’t look any different, but as he approached, circling around his servant, Sanji could see the wound on the back of the boy’s head. In a matter of moments, Sanji’s expression went from shock to realization to unbridled rage.

“Wh— Who dares t— I— Wha—” Zoro had never seen Sanji so furious. The prince was so enraged he couldn’t even get his words out. He sputtered, eyes darting as he tried to get his thoughts together.

Zoro reached a hand out, but he didn’t touch Sanji just yet. He wanted to calm the prince down before he did something rash out of explosive anger. “Sanji, it’s okay. I slipped up. This was my fault. I wasn’t paying enough attention to—”

Sanji’s eyes flickered to the extended hand, seeing the rope burn around one of his wrists. His glare darkened, his lips twitching in his anger. “Hands.” He held out his own hands expectantly, waiting for Zoro to comply. “Your hands, give them to me.”

“Sanji—”

“Hands!” Zoro gave up and held his arms out for Sanji to examine. The prince, even in his anger, took Zoro’s hands gently in his own. The alabaster fingers traced over the rough, red skin that circled Zoro’s wrists. “You were tied up…”

“Sanji, it’s not…”

“Shut up!” Sanji snapped, “This—!” The prince’s angry frown faltered and soon melted into a look of guilt. “This… this was my fault.” He let go of Zoro’s hands and turned Zoro’s back to him so he could get a better look at the wound. There were two large welts underneath where the skin had split. There were still flecks of dried blood in the green hair and a nasty bruise covered most of the back of Zoro’s head. It tugged painfully at Sanji’s heart. “Does it hurt?”

“Not at all. I barely feel it.”

Shifting from sympathetic to annoyed, Sanji gently prod around the wound, seeing his friend flinch and hiss at the touch. “That’s what I thought. We should take you to the healer.”

Zoro pulled away, shaking his throbbing head before turning back to face the prince. He placed the veil back on his head. “No. If we do that, we’ll have to explain how this happened. You’ll get in trouble, it’s not worth it.”

“I’ll take the blame.” Sanji announced firmly, “I can just say I got mad and threw something at you, or that I shoved you and you fell and hit your head or something.” Sanji’s lip wobbled as his eyes misted over. “That’s a serious injury, Zoro. You could’ve… died. I left you behind knowing how easily you get lost, and then this happened.” He reached out and pulled Zoro into a hug, sniffling against his shoulder. “I could’ve lost you…”

Zoro didn’t know what to say, what to do. Now that he knew about Sanji’s feelings towards him, he was hesitant to do anything that might leave room for misunderstanding. Although, he’d never seen Sanji so openly admit to fault. He must’ve really been rattled. After a minute, he hugged Sanji back, stroking over the blonde hair. That always seemed to calm the prince down.

The prince sniffled against his friend’s shoulder until he felt better. He managed a quiet laugh, “It’s silly that you’re the one injured, but you’re still comforting me. You really are amazing, Zoro.”

Zoro sighed, patting Sanji’s back before pulling away. “I should get hit on the head more often if it means you being nice to me.” However, his joke hadn’t landed, and Sanji was back to being angry.

“I’ll kill them.” Sanji swore, “I swear to all the gods that if I ever find the people that hurt you I will kill them. No one will ever lay a hand on you again.” His fists were balled up at his sides as he thought about the revenge he’d extract. Zoro, however, didn’t have time for the prince’s melodrama, and instead shoved Sanji back onto the bed, making the blonde blush. “Z-Zoro?”

“Finish your breakfast. I’ll go pick out your clothes while you eat. You’re going to be late for your lessons.” With that, Zoro went into the closet to begin assembling the prince’s clothes for the day. He didn’t know why he still picked the prince’s clothes out. The boy always complained about Zoro’s fashion sense and wound up picking out his ensemble himself.

Sanji frowned when he realized that Zoro’s actions had been completely innocent, but agreed. He took an annoyed bite of ham. Why hadn’t Zoro said anything about what had happened to him last night? How had he just brushed Sanji’s proposal off like it was nothing? And how the hell were they going to get the crown back?

--

Late that night, Zoro was finally free of his duties and went to his room to lie down. He flopped down on his bed face first, more than ready to immediately pass out. Sanji had been extra clingy all day and had inadvertently run him ragged. Suddenly, he heard a suspicious noise outside his window and he shot up. Moving that quickly, he realized, was a mistake. The world spun and he got woozy for a moment. The wound on his head was probably worse than he’d originally thought.

A hook flew through the open window and caught on the sill. Zoro grabbed his sword, preparing to cut the rope should he need to. He peeked outside, seeing the three boys he’d come across last night. Two of the boys remained on the ground holding the rope steady while a third made his way up.

Ace was starting to climb up the rope when a head poked out the window above him. He startled and almost fell, but kept his grip. There was a pregnant pause where neither boy moved, but eventually Zoro pulled back, disappearing back inside. When his rope wasn’t cut, Ace figured he had the go-ahead to keep climbing.

Zoro was checking the halls, making sure no one, especially the insomniac prince, was approaching his room. He closed the door and turned to face the window again, hand still on his sword as he waited for the boy to approach.

Ace pulled himself into Zoro’s room, taking a moment to shake out his hands and arms after the long climb. He had a very familiar looking satchel over his shoulder and Zoro felt relief wash over him in such huge waves that he almost sank to the floor.

“This is yours, right?” Ace whispered as he pulled the bag off his person. “Sabo forgot to bring it with when he dragged your ass back here.” He went rigid. Shit, he’d given the prince’s right hand one of their names.

“Yeah,” Zoro heaved a sigh as he approached the boy, “thank you for returning it. You really saved me.” He took the satchel from Ace’s hands, opening and checking the contents. The key and the box were both inside. With an inquisitive shake, he confirmed that the crown was also still inside.

“You know, we didn’t have to return that.” Ace crossed his arms, smirking at the prince’s servant. “We really risked our hides coming all the way here to return your precious crown. I think we deserve some sort of compensation for our efforts.”

Zoro frowned, not liking the sudden cocky attitude of this commoner. “You’re trying to blackmail me? While inside the royal palace? Are you some sort of idiot? I could get you caught in a heartbeat.” He had to hide his smirk when he saw the fear of realization dawn on the raven-haired teen’s face.

“W-Well...” Ace tutted, looking down and away, “then, I guess we’ll be going then.” He turned to leave when a hand clamped down on his shoulder.

“Wait,” Zoro removed his hand when Ace turned back around, “I can grab some leftovers before they get tossed. I don’t appreciate your tactics, but I can appreciate that you brought me the crown back.” Zoro opened the door to check the hallway once more before going over to Ace and shoving him towards the wardrobe. “Tell your brothers to get up here. It’s too risky outside. You three hide in here till I get back.”

“How the hell can I trust that? You just threatened to report us!” Ace argued back, digging in his heels and refusing to do as the younger boy demanded. “How can I know that you won’t just go get the guards while we’re trapped like rats!”

Heaving a sigh, Zoro pulled up the veil from on head and showed Ace the untreated wound. “I didn’t report this, I won’t report you now.”

Ace was taken aback when confronted with the wound he’d delivered only yesterday. Still, who was this kid to call Ace an idiot when he himself hadn’t bothered to get medical treatment for an obviously serious wound? He grimaced at the sight, turning away. “Alright, we’ll wait here.”

Zoro nodded before replacing the veil on his head and leaving to go grab the boys some food. In hindsight, Zoro would realize that leaving several commoners alone in his room was probably not the smartest thing to do, but he trusted them not to do anything stupid.

It wasn’t hard to get into the kitchen, explaining on the way that he was just following the prince’s demands. No one ever questioned him when he used that excuse, as most of the staff knew how Sanji could be. He slipped into the kitchen and grabbed a couple loaves of bread, a large wedge of cheese and several links of sausage. He bundled it all into a cloth and returned to his room. Just as he approached his bedroom door, he heard the clank of Sanji’s door opening.

Sanji had a bowl for water, a couple rags, some bandages, and a couple vials filled with what was assumedly medicine. He had a pleased grin on his face as he turned to head towards Zoro’s room, and was surprised to see Zoro out and about.

“Zoro!” Sanji whispered loudly as he ran over, hands occupied with the medical supplies. He frowned when he noticed that bundle in Zoro’s arms. “What’s that?”

“Oh, I, uh, didn’t get a chance to grab dinner so I went to the kitchen to grab some stuff.” Zoro wasn’t confident in his lying capabilities, but Sanji seemed to either not care or he bought it. He was pretty sure it was the former.

“Well, anyways, I got some stuff to help patch up your wound, look!” Sanji held up the supplies, as if waiting to be praised for thinking up such an idea.

“Oh, you didn’t have to do that. Thank you, Sanji.” Zoro furrowed his brow, troubled by his master’s sudden appearance. “You should get back to bed, though. It’s late and you’re not supposed to be out of your room.”

Sanji rolled his eyes, “I don’t care about that. I came here to help take care of your wound so that’s what I’m going to do. C’mon, let’s do it in your room.” Sanji blushed a little at the implications of his words, but leave it to Zoro’s direct nature to not pick up on it.

Zoro knew that once Sanji had decided on something, it was nigh impossible to get him to change his mind. He just hoped that the boys had managed to hide themselves in time. “Sanji,” he announced as he opened the door, alerting the boys that he was not alone, “I can take care of the wound myself. You don’t need to do this.”

“Don’t be stubborn. You won’t take care of yourself unless I tell you to.” The prince rebuffed, but Zoro was determined to make him give up.

“I wouldn’t need to take care of myself if it weren’t for you.” That one may have been over the bounds of what Sanji accepted as appropriate banter.

“That was—!” The prince’s chest puffed up indignantly as he prepared to yell at his friend, but the words caught in his throat. He couldn’t bring himself to let the tirade of abuse fall from his lips. It wasn’t right, he knew that, but that hadn’t stopped him before. So what was stopping him this time? The guilt, perhaps.

Zoro instinctively dropped his head and muttered an apology, but when Sanji didn’t get outwardly mad or try to kick him he looked back up at the blonde.

Sanji’s face was twisted up into a complex mix of emotions. This feeling, guilt... Robin had told him it was normal to feel that way when you’d done something wrong. She’d said his feeling guilty was a good thing, that it meant he was growing up, but Sanji wasn’t sure he liked it.

“No, you’re right.” He set the bowl down and sat on the floor. “I’m trying to take some responsibility here. Robin was telling me that in order to be a good ruler some day I need to take care of those under me. Can you grab your water pitcher for me?”

Zoro glanced at his wardrobe as he walked over to the stand with his wash pitcher and basin. He grabbed the pitcher before sitting down with a sigh. He was facing his window, and noticed with a bit of relief that the boys had pulled up the rope and hidden with it. The satchel too, for whatever reason. “You’re being surprisingly mature today.” He pulled off his veil, noticing with some disdain that it had adhered to his wound a little.

“Shut up.” Sanji took the pitcher and filled the bowl. He soaked the rag a moment before wringing it out. With unsure hands, Sanji began to clean the wound. “Looks like it started bleeding a little again. You should’ve gone to see the healer this morning, idiot.”

“Mm...” Zoro grunted, closing his eyes as Sanji dabbed at his wound. He winced when Sanji pressed a little too hard, earning another quiet apology.

The prince didn’t say anything more as he cleaned the blood from his friend’s head. When that was finished, he let the rag sit in the red-tinted water. He popped the cork on the topical medicine, dabbing some onto a fresh rag. “Yesterday...”

Zoro tensed, thinking the prince was going to bring up the proposal. He wasn’t sure he would ever be comfortable addressing that debacle. He didn’t push though, letting Sanji get out whatever he needed to.

“Yesterday, you were telling me that I needed to start acting my age. We’re not kids anymore, and if I’m going to be someone my country can rely on, I can’t keep acting selfishly. I want to be a good king, and to do that I need to be a good prince first.”

“That’s...hm.” Zoro wasn’t sure what to say, but he wanted to acknowledge that his master had grown as a person, seemingly overnight.

Sanji began to dab the medicine on Zoro’s wound, making the boy hiss in discomfort. “Ah, yeah, the healer said this would sting a bit. Hold still, I’m not done yet.”

“Warn me next time!” Zoro complained, but he held still as commanded. The two of them sat in silence for a moment more before Zoro spoke up again. “You’ve grown a lot after only a day. There’s no way you can go from being a selfish brat to a respectable leader after just one night—ow!”

“I told you this stuff stings.” Though Sanji had purposely been a little extra rough with that last dab. “And besides, as long as I can still be selfish with you it’ll be alright, I think.” Sanji put the medicine aside and began to wrap the bandages, though somewhat sloppily. “Huh, this is harder than I thought it’d be. It’s not staying.”

Zoro wasn’t crazy about the idea of the prince focusing all of his selfishness towards him. He’d never get a moment’s peace. “I can take care of bandaging my head. You should go to bed, Sanji, it’s past midnight.” More than anything, Zoro just wanted to sleep. He had to be awake again at first light to begin his duties anew.

“Hmpf, fine.” Sanji bunched up the bandages and got up to throw them on the washstand with a huff. “I’ll go back to my room then. You can finish fixing your own stupid head.” Sanji went back to the supplies and picked up the other medicine bottle, practically shoving it in Zoro’s face. “A couple drops of this in water twice a day for a week, okay? It’s supposed to help fight against infection.”

“Got it.” Zoro stood up and took the bottle, rolling it around in his hands. “Thank you, Sanji. This was...very nice of you.” He wondered what the prince could’ve possibly told the healer to get a hand on all this stuff, but, again, he decided not to push it.

“Well, yeah, cause...” Sanji took a deep breath, as if steeling himself. Zoro’s brow drew down in a confused frown, not particularly liking where this was going. “It’s cause I love you, you idiot! Don’t do stuff that scares me like that ever again!” With that, the prince hurried out of the room, face bright red as he fled.

Zoro’s face started to burn when he realized that the three peasant boys were still hiding in the wardrobe and had heard their entire exchange. He went over and pulled the doors open, finding the three boys huddled inside. The youngest boy had his hands clamped over his mouth as he tried not to laugh. The older two were sporting shit-eating grins, their eyes shining with mischief.

“Not a word.” Zoro warned before stepping away to pick up the sack of food. “Here, take this and leave.”

“Sooo, the prince’s right hand, eh?” Ace teased cockily as he pulled himself from the wardrobe. “More like the prince’s pet.”

“It must be pretty nice having the prince wrapped around your finger like that. You could probably use that if you played your cards right.” Sabo interjected, hopping out alongside Luffy.

“You said you brought food. Is it in here? Wooah, it feels like there’s a lot in here!” Luffy took the bag and started to pull it open when Sabo intervened, struggling to pull it away from the hungry youngest boy.

“Here,” Ace handed over the satchel, the rope hook hung over his shoulder, “I’m sure your prince will be happy to have that back.” Ace’s cocky smirk fell when he saw the glare on the servant’s face. “What’s the problem?”

“Nothing.” Zoro took the satchel back with maybe a bit too much force. “Take the food and get out of here. I don’t want to catch you here again.”

Ace put his hands up, indicating he wanted no further trouble. “Hey, man, you got it.” The dark haired teen set up the rope, letting his brothers climb down first. He climbed out the window, getting ready to descend when he looked up at Zoro with a smirk. “We better not catch you in the outskirts again either. Not everyone there is as nice as we are.” With that Ace hurried down the rope and disappeared into the night alongside the other two boys.

Zoro went to his window, grabbing the hook and pulling up the rope. He went to his wardrobe and hid it in the back. The brothers had certainly been an interesting break in the norm, and he couldn’t help but wonder if maybe their paths would cross again.

Chapter Text

Several months had passed since the incident, and everything seemed to have gone back to normal. Sanji was in the middle of his studies when Zoro burst in, clearly in a hurry. He was covered in sweat and dirt, still wearing his training armor. His hair, which had grown out a bit to help hide the scars on the back of his head, was tousled, some of it sticking to the sweat on his forehead.

“I’ve been instructed to escort you to the safety of your room.” Sanji didn’t even have time to fully appreciate Zoro’s unkempt look before he was whisked away. Zoro had a tight grip on his wrist as the two hurried through the lesser-used hallways of the castle.

“What’s going on, Zoro? I was in the middle of a lesson.” Not that the interruption was unwelcome, but something was clearly wrong. There were more guards in the halls of the castle than normal and all of them suited up. When he finally caught a glance out a passing window, Sanji saw the knights assembling out front. “Are we under attack? Zoro, answer me!”

Zoro didn’t speak until they made it back to Sanji’s room. He locked the heavy door, placing a bar over it. “Where’s the key to your safe room?” After closing the window and drawing the drapes, he started to search the room, checking every possible hiding place for intruders.

“I have it here.” Sanji grabbed the key that always hung around his neck and pulled it out from under his tunic. Every member of the royal family had one. “Tell me what’s happening. Are we under attack?”

Zoro took the key from around Sanji’s neck, making the prince’s cheeks tinge a faint red, and unlocked the secret passage in the wall behind the layers of tapestry. There was a loud clank and a section of the wall swung inwards. He wrapped the key in its cord and tucked it into a pouch on his sword belt. “There’s a room at the end of this passageway. I’ve been told not to tell you anything more until we get there.” He grabbed a lantern and lit it, heading for the opened passage.

Sanji folded his arms across his chest and stubbornly refused to budge from where he stood. If Zoro really wanted to he could’ve physically overpowered him, but Sanji knew that he wouldn’t even try it. “I’m not hiding in a dark, dirty hole in the wall until you tell me why.”

“Would it kill you to just listen to me on this? I’m on direct orders not to—” Sanji didn’t budge. He didn’t even bat an eye as he waited for Zoro to cave. Zoro bit his lip in frustration, heaving a sigh as he resigned. “There’s been a serious threat on your life. Troops from the neighboring kingdom are gathering at the southern border. I...wasn’t told why they’re gathering, just that I need to get you to safety. Someone may have infiltrated the castle.”

Sanji’s eyes widened and his brow crinkled in alarm. He had a lot of questions to ask, but he was pretty sure Zoro wouldn’t be able to answer most of them. Plus, this wasn’t exactly the time. He took the lantern from Zoro and started to make his way down the dusty, cob webbed hall. Zoro pushed the heavy door closed behind them and locked it before catching up to the prince.

Sanji was effectively creeped out by all the spider webs and skittering insects that would dart out of the light. He let out a strangled groan as he fell back to hide behind Zoro, gripping tight to his shoulder. “It’s…creepy in here… Ugh, this is disgusting.

“Try and bear with it. We’ve got a bit of a walk ahead of us.” Zoro pulled out his sword, scabbard and all, and was using it to knock down the larger cobwebs so the prince wouldn’t have to walk through them. He almost dropped his sword when Sanji suddenly screamed. The lantern clattered to the ground, but luckily stayed lit.

“Sanji, what the—”

“Something crawled over my foot!” The prince started flailing, slapping at his feet as he tried to get rid of the offending critter. “Zoro, carry me! There are bugs everywhere!”

“I’m not carrying you! Man up, Sanji, they’re just bugs.” Zoro was about to bend down to retrieve the light when Sanji suddenly clung to him once more. The prince wrapped his arms tightly around Zoro’s chest, pinning his arms to his sides and effectively bringing him to a halt. “What’re you—”

“Look, I know I said I was going to try and be less selfish, but bugs really freak me out!” He buried his face against the crook of Zoro’s neck, arms squeezing tighter.

There were plenty of times where Sanji would cling and whine and demand attention, but Zoro felt that this wasn’t just a bratty episode. He could feel Sanji trembling gently against him, but it was unrealistic to carry him, especially while he was in his armor.

“I can’t carry you all the way there, especially not when I’m in my armor. Plus, I have my weapon and the lantern to carry.”

“Then put it away and I’ll keep carrying the lantern while you carry me.” Sanji offered quietly, but he had a feeling it wouldn’t fly.

“You’ll just have to tough it out. We have to keep walking, Sanji, I need to get you to the safe room. By stopping here, you’re spending more time amongst the bugs.” Zoro tried to step forward to get them moving again, but Sanji held fast. Zoro was growing exasperated. “Sanji, your life could be in danger. This isn’t the time for you to be obstinate.”

“I know. I know my life is in danger. What I don’t know is why someone wants to kill me. Why are they trying to start a war? Why now? And for what? I’m scared enough of getting killed and now I have to hide in some dark, dirty room filled with bugs!”

Zoro went quiet as he thought about how Sanji must’ve been feeling at that moment. Zoro’d had it pounded into his head for as long as he could remember that his life was expendable. That in order to be a good guardsman and a right hand to the future king of this country, he couldn’t be afraid to die for his lord and master. He knew that in the grand scheme of things, his life didn’t matter to anyone other than Sanji. On the other hand, the murder of a member of the royal family meant the death of thousands of people, a war that could last for years to come.

“Come on.” Zoro stuck his weapon back into his sword belt and took one of the hands that clutched at his chest, gently pulling it away. “I know you’re scared, but we have to keep moving.” Once he’d managed to pry Sanji free, he bent down to pick up the lantern.

The young warrior started to walk ahead, but Sanji gripped tight to his hand. He turned to start to scold the prince, but he could see that Sanji was trying to say something so he stayed quiet. “If…” Even in the low light Zoro could see how red Sanji was starting to turn. “If you hold my hand, it might help me not be scared.”

“You—!” Zoro’s brow wrinkled into a harsh frown, his lips drawing back into a snarl. “I swear, Sanji, if this whole bit was just you trying to be sly—”

“It’s not! I swear!” A faint banging could be heard from the other side of the secret door and both boys felt their hearts drop into their stomachs. Their faces both dropped into panic as they stared at the passage’s entrance. It was probably a guard checking the premises, but they couldn’t be too careful.

“Come on,” Zoro whispered, “we have to hurry.” He let Sanji grip onto his hand as they started running down the passage. They came to a flight of tight, winding stairs that descended until they were underground before the passage turned back into a long hallway. They felt safe enough to slow their pace back to a brisk walk.

The entire time they were walking, Sanji never let go of Zoro’s hand. When Zoro had tried to let go, Sanji gripped tighter until he was sure his friend had given up on pulling away.

“Heh, it’s a good thing it’s a straight shot, or you’d have gotten us hopelessly lost.” Sanji teased, trying to ease some of his own tension by picking on Zoro. He looked down at their hands, still blushing at the warmth between their palms. Even though he wished that their fingers could be intertwined, he was pleased.

“I would not! I know where I’m going...” Zoro grumped back, picking up on the shift in Sanji’s demeanor. “If you’re not scared anymore, then let go of my hand.”

“Nope! If I do that, you might wander off.” Sanji squeezed Zoro’s hand, bumping their shoulders together. “We used to hold hands all the time when we were little, remember?”

Zoro thought back, remembering when they were maybe five or six and Sanji would drag him all over the palace on their little adventures. He wouldn’t have called it holding hands, but he supposed Sanji remembered it differently than he did. “Hm, I guess I remember something like that…” Zoro looked over at the prince, noting his pleased expression. Sanji was clearly happy that he had remembered. “How can you be so pleased while your life’s in danger?”

Sanji’s grin faltered a moment before he looked down at his feet as they kept walking. “Well, that’s... that’s because you’re here. I always feel safest and happiest when you’re with me.” Zoro couldn’t help the incredulous guffaw that escaped his lips. He was about to say something when Sanji opened his mouth once more. “Plus, there are over three hundred guards in the castle, a hundred knights, and an army of thousands. I wasn’t in any real danger to begin with.”

Zoro frowned and ripped his hand away from Sanji’s. He should’ve known that the prince would try and manipulate him, get him to play right into his stupid mind games. He couldn’t believe he’d felt sorry for Sanji for even a second. “I can see the door, we’re almost there.”

“H-Hey, Zoro? What’s the matter?” Sanji frowned when he didn’t get a response. “Don’t you dare ignore me!” Yet Zoro kept on walking, not sparing him a glance. The prince clamped a hand on Zoro’s shoulder, finally getting the older boy to stop and pay attention to him. “I’ll have you know that just because I knew my life wasn’t in any real danger, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared, okay? I was honestly afraid that something bad would happen and that your stupid ass would get hurt protecting me.”

Zoro searched Sanji’s eyes, trying to find any indication that the prince was lying to him. The clear, blue eyes were fixed on him with a firm stare, and despite Sanji’s history of manipulating him, Zoro felt he could trust the prince’s words. “…Okay.” Zoro nodded, “Okay, I believe you. Now let’s get you to the safe room, the Queen is probably there already.”

“My mother?” Sanji’s brow furrowed as the two began walking again. He knew his father would need to be present to guide the troops, but his mother was often consulted for strategic matters. Anyone who knew the royal family personally knew who really ran the country.

“How’d she get here so fast?”

Zoro paused, as if his mind needed to buffer before he could answer. “There are four secret passages that lead to the safe room,” he recited as if reading from a textbook, “one in your chambers and... uh... there’s... there’s one in the throne room, and uh... two... three? ...two others? ...leading from...”

The young guard petered out into a mutter as he tried to remember what he’d been told many times before. Sanji had to bite his lips in an attempt not to laugh, but he couldn’t help the snort that escaped through his nose. Zoro was trying so hard to remember; it was endearing.

“Shut up! Don’t laugh!” Zoro had parroted all that he could remember. A knight, Zoro’s personal instructor, had explained to him the workings of the palace for security reasons, but Zoro had always found it difficult to remember. There were too many hidden passageways and secret doors for the poor directionally challenged boy to ever hope to remember.

“I know, I know. You did well remembering where mine was, and you brought me here without incident.” The prince patted his faithful servant on the head, “I’ll make sure to let your sword master know how well you did.”

“Don’t you look down on me!” Zoro’s cheeks turned faintly red with embarrassment. He was thankful when they finally made it to the door. “Here we are. You’ll be safe in here,” the young guard explained. “Now that I’ve escorted you here, I have to get back to the knights.”

“You’re not staying here with me? Who will protect me?” Sanji was a little let down. Although, as he thought about it, maybe that was for the best. Being locked in with Zoro would’ve been nice, but his mother would have been there too, watching them closely. A mood killer, if there ever was one.

“There are two guards inside every door. You’ll be safe here.” Zoro pulled the key out of his pocket, unwinding it and holding it out for the prince to take. “I’ll be back for you once we’ve eliminated the threat.”

Sanji took the key and rolled it over in his hand. He unlocked the door, but instead of going inside right away he turned back to Zoro and hung the key around his servant’s neck. He whispered so the guards inside wouldn’t hear. “I’ll give you my blessing.”

“Your blessing?” Zoro cocked his head, confused. He held the key in his hand and looked down at it, not understanding. “I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to give me your ke—” He was interrupted when he felt Sanji kiss his forehead.

“There, now that you have a prince’s blessing, you’ll come back safely.” Sanji covered his blushing face and hurried into the safe room to join his mother, too embarrassed to look at his friend any longer. He’d finally gotten up the courage to kiss Zoro, even if it was only on the forehead.

“I’m pretty sure that’s not the saying.” Zoro mumbled to himself before turning on his heel to start the long jog back. Meanwhile, he was trying not to let Sanji’s actions interfere with his focus. He didn’t want to dwell on what the kiss actually meant, but after being made aware of Sanji’s feelings months ago he was forced to be on high alert. He was certain the prince still held affection for him beyond that of friendship, but given how poorly the last rejection had ended, Zoro wasn’t exactly looking forward to having another confrontation. He tucked the key under his armor, putting it out of his mind for the time being.

Leaving the secret passage, Zoro carefully surveyed Sanji’s room, seeing that no one had made it inside. He hurried to get back to where the knights were assembling. It was lucky that this was a path he often took or there was no way he’d have made it back in a timely fashion.

Despite making it back amongst the ranks without too much delay, he was still harshly scolded by his teacher. “You’re cutting it close again. Or does a threat to the royal family not concern you enough to be punctual?”

Zoro raised his hand to cover his right eye in salute. “Please forgive me, Sir, but if I may report that the prince—” has been secured in the safe room without incident.’ Was what Zoro was going to say, but his teacher interrupted before he could finish.

“I hope you don’t expect to be able to continue getting away with using the prince’s obstinacy as an excuse to be late.” His teacher’s words were sharp and biting. His patience had clearly already run out long before Zoro had gotten there. The boy was now just the unwitting recipient of a day’s worth of frustrations. “You are responsible for his safety whether or not he’s being cooperative that day.”

Zoro kept his arm up in salute, but let his eyes drop down in shame. “I understand, Sir—”

“Debatable. However, I assume you wouldn’t have returned without ensuring the safety of the prince.” The knight arched his eyebrow, challenging the boy to answer with anything other than an affirmative.

“Prince Sanji is safe. He was escorted without incident,” Zoro finally reported.

“Good. Now come, we’ve got a city to secure. You’ll be coming with me to secure the southern portion of the lower city.” The knight mounted his horse. A small squad of fifty men had assembled behind him, ready to head out at his command.

“I’ll be joining you, Sir?” Usually, Zoro was considered too young and too inexperienced to participate in any of the action. Plus, not that Zoro knew it, Sanji had spoken to the knight. He’d practically begged him to keep Zoro away from dangerous situations as much as possible. The knight had had to resist the urge to outwardly roll his eyes.

“Despite what I hesitate to call orders, I can’t expect you to ever learn anything if all of your training is in the castle yard. If you have a problem with this, take it up with the prince. I haven’t time for whining or complaints.” The knight looked down at the boy, surprised to see the gleam of excitement and anticipation in his cinnamon eyes. He’d never seen the kid look so happy.

“Thank you for the opportunity, Sir. I won’t disappoint you.” Zoro’s chest puffed up with pride and he tightened up his salute. He was finally going to serve with actual purpose; not just the usual trivial tasks Sanji gave him.

“Get in formation, Roronoa.” There was a touch of fondness in the stoic knight’s tone, but it disappeared the second he began to address his squad. “Alright, men! We’re looking for three assailants who, according to citizens’ reports, have taken shelter in the lower city. They will more than likely be wearing veils. We’re under direct orders to bring in anyone who seems even remotely suspicious. If you see anyone wearing a veil and they refuse to remove it, you are to bring them in for questioning. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Sir Dracule!” The troops saluted before heading through the gates ahead of their commanding officer. The squadron made haste through the city streets, citizens watching through the cracks in their windows. By the king’s decree, no citizen was to be out in the streets while the army scoured the city for the enemy.

Zoro hurried through the streets alongside the other soldiers. The excitement to prove himself had given way to focused determination. He was going to find the people who had threatened the prince and bring them to justice. He wanted to prove to the knights, and to Sanji, that he was capable of more than what anyone gave him credit for. He refused to be a lap dog any longer.

--

Once they hit the lower city, the squadron fanned out, searching every dirty alleyway and knocking on every door. Every citizen of the lower city was forced out of their home, being made to stand with their hands on their heads as the soldiers searched their homes. So far, everyone was willing to cooperate. If a war did break out, their homes would be the first destroyed in a siege. They held no loyalty to the enemy.

The young knight in training was about to knock on another door when he heard a sharp whisper from around the corner. Intrigued, but not so foolhardy that he’d check out the noise blindly, Zoro put his hand on the hilt of his weapon before turning the corner. What surprised him most was that he recognized the person who’d called out to him.

You guys...? What’re you doing—”

“Shh! Quick, before they see you talking to us!” Ace motioned for Zoro to approach from where they were hidden behind several rain barrels. He was hiding alongside the youngest boy, who was more than happy to see their friend again. Zoro was confused when he didn’t see the third boy with them.

“Hey—!” Luffy waved and started to leave their hiding place when Ace’s hand clamped over his mouth, preventing him from continuing to loudly greeting the young guard. Luffy scratched at the hand, but Ace held firm.

“We need your help.” Ace begged, his expression serious but there was panic in his eyes. He kept glancing behind Zoro as if another soldier could appear any moment. “If they find Sabo, they’re going to take him prisoner. Please, you have to help us.”

Zoro frowned, not understanding why Sabo would be in trouble, but he was willing to listen to the boys’ plight. “Where is he now?”

“He’s back at the house. We were going to steal some ink to dye his hair, but then the soldiers came.” Ace was hastily explaining in a harsh whisper, his words running together.

“His hair—?”

Luffy finally managed to pull Ace’s hand away. “You gotta help us, I don’t want Sabo to get taken away!” Luffy insisted, sucking in his lip as he pouted pitifully.

Zoro’s brow furrowed as he briefly considered his options. How could he be expected to uphold the law of the kingdom if he went against orders on his first assignment? If he got caught, he’d lose the trust and the modicum of respect he held. However, he was also aware that the veiled boy would instantly be considered suspicious. Only Zoro would believe that these three weren’t a threat to the royal family, and even he couldn’t be completely sure of that. They had snuck into the palace with alarming ease.

“I don’t—”

“You owe us one.” Ace hadn’t planned to pull the payback card, but he was desperate. “We snuck inside the castle, risked our lives, to get you your stupid crown back. You’ve gotta help us.”

Zoro chewed his lip a moment as he thought about what to do. “You and Luffy stand outside your house, hands on your head. Leave your door open, and make sure Sabo stays hidden. I’ll come back for him later.” He nodded his head, satisfied with his plan, incomplete as it was.

“Wasn’t the reason you first got caught by us cause you got lost?” Luffy helpfully piped, “We watched you go past our window three times before we went to check you out that night. It was suuuper funny!” Luffy’s mouth split into a wide grin as he laughed at the memory. The green haired guy sure was an interesting break in their everyday lives.

Zoro looked as if he’d just been scalded. His face and ears turned bright red, which Ace couldn’t help but chuckle at.

“It’s okay, Luffy, we’ll find him and bring him back to our place so he won’t be left to run in circles forever,” Ace assured.

“Roronoa! What are you doing? How’d you get so far from your route?”

The three boys just about jumped out of their skin at the sudden voice behind them. Damn, just when they’d thought they were being so sneaky.

Zoro managed to keep a cool head as he turned around to face his sword master. He saluted, “Sir, I found these two walking in the alley. I don’t believe they’re suspicious; they’re just trying to get home. Shall I escort them?”

“Hmm...” Mihawk’s golden eyes slowly scanned over the scene. The two boys were young, scruffy looking, and thin like they rarely had enough to fill their stomachs. His eyes slowly swiveled back to Zoro, who was patiently awaiting his next order.

“That still doesn’t explain why you’re so far off your route, but yes. Ensure they get back home safely. I expect a full report when we get back to the palace.” With that, Mihawk rode off, continuing to oversee the soldiers in their search.

Zoro gave a sigh of relief, his chest visibly deflating. “Alright, walk ahead of me, hands on your head. Don’t say a word to me except to direct me to your home, alright? We don’t need to draw any unnecessary attention.””

“Geez, bossy.” Luffy grumbled distastefully, but did as he was told. Ace followed shortly after, pulling an attitude like he couldn’t have cared less that he was being led through the streets like a criminal. He stared straight ahead with a harsh glare, feeling the eyes of everyone around them on him and his brother.

Zoro noticed it too, the way the citizens were looking at Ace and Luffy as if they weren’t surprised to see them being followed by an armed escort, even if the young knight was only thirteen. Zoro managed to catch a few hushed phrases as they walked.

“—no surprise—”

“—always cause trouble—”

“—can’t believe they’d do this—”

“—reckless monsters—”

Zoro brought his focus back to the brothers, who didn’t even turn their heads to acknowledge the harsh speculations. “You guys sure seem popular around here.” Zoro remarked just under his breath, but loud enough for Luffy and Ace to hear.

Ace looked over his shoulder through the hole his arm made, smirking at Zoro joylessly. “Well, when people decide that you’re trash before you’ve said your first word or taken your first steps they have a hard time letting that go.” Ace had expected Zoro to drop the subject after his snide remark, but he was surprised to see a look of empathy flash in his eyes. Ace’s smirk dropped and he faced forward. “You can keep your pity, we don’t need it.”

“Pity is for the weak and the pathetic, the gutless. You guys are none of those things, I wouldn’t waste it on you.” It was high praise for someone so high up the caste ladder to say such things to someone on the bottom rung. Ace and Luffy shared a look before turning to look back at Zoro.

“You...really aren’t like most people from the palace.” All he got was a shrug in response. It was strange to Ace how someone like Zoro could speak to them as if he felt they were equals. He wasn’t used to anyone outside his family treating him with anything other than animosity or disinterest.

“We’re here. Second from the end on the left,” Ace directed. There were several other soldiers at the other end of the street, making their way house by house towards the brothers’ home. “You can head inside, it should be open.”

“I’ll be back in a moment.” Zoro let himself in, searching the home. “Sabo?” He startled backwards when he heard a knock beneath the floorboards.

One of the floorboards lifted up and Sabo peeked out. “Zoro? What’re you— I thought you were the Sanji’s right hand, what’re you doing with the knights?”

“Training. What’re you doing under the floor?” Zoro crouched down in front of Sabo so they could talk more directly.

“What do you think?” Sabo snapped. As if he’d be under the floor for any reason other than desperately trying to hide.

Zoro felt stupid for even posing the question, but he still didn’t appreciate Sabo’s snippy tone. “Your brothers asked me to help you.”

“Then Ace and Luffy are alright... Did they get the ink?”

Zoro shook his head, “They couldn’t get it. Plus, everyone will be confined to their homes until the people responsible for the threat have been dealt with. They won’t be able to get it for you anytime soon.”

“Shit,” Sabo cursed, eyes darting as he thought, “would you be able to—”

Ace kicked against the wall, warning the boys inside that soldiers were on their way. Sabo quickly submerged again, setting the floorboard back in place.

“I’ll bring you dye as soon as I can.” Zoro murmured quietly before going back to search the rest tiny house, already knowing he'd find nothing else. One of the soldiers stopped by the door, peeking in.

“Everything in order here?”

“Yes, I just finished searching. No one else is here.” Zoro reported before heading towards the door. He didn’t spare Ace or Luffy a glance as he continued on with the soldiers. He’d be back later, but he still had a job to do, after all.

Chapter Text

It was several hours after the search began that Zoro heard the echo of distant horns, summoning the troops back to the palace. That could've only meant one thing: the threat had been detained. Zoro made sure to keep his eyes on any fellow soldier he could see to ensure he made it back to the palace with the rest of the troops, lest he be left to wander helplessly through the city for hours, at best.

When the knights and the soldiers arrived at the palace square, they saw that two men were already stood up by the executioner’s block, arms and legs bound. The king was up in the balcony, face heavy with the seriousness of the situation. These two men had claimed they were merely messengers from a neighboring kingdom, but the king had yet to see a messenger that moved under cover of darkness and kept several blades and a well of poison on their belt.

“We swear,” one of the men cried out while his companion kept his head hung low, “we are simply here to deliver a message to your royal highness from our king, the glorious leader of Dressrosa!”

“Then speak your message,” the king demanded, “and I will grant you the mercy of a swift death.”

Zoro started to push his way up the the front, curious to see what was going on when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up, surprised to see that Mihawk was the one holding him back.

“You’ll see your fair share of bloodshed, Roronoa, but today…” Mihawk paused, as if he himself was unsure as to why he wanted to protect Zoro from seeing the inevitable execution of these men. He wanted the boy to grow up to be strong in body and in will, but he didn't want him to grow indifferent to the sight of death. He wanted him to understand that every time you took a life you were impacting someone, somewhere, possibly destroying their entire world with one swing of a sword.

“But what?” Zoro questioned, forgetting to tack on a ‘sir’ at the end, though Mihawk didn't seem to notice. Before the knight could respond, the captive began to speak again.

“We were sent here to give you this message: Return our prince, or we’ll take yours.” Knowing that his life was over, the captive cocked a smirk, a drip of fresh blood spilling from the split in his lip. “Our king felt it was a fair trade.”

The crowd all turned to look at the king, awaiting his response. They could practically see him tremble with rage. “Summon the executioner. For your insolence, we will be sending your head back home with your friend here with a message of our own: I know nothing of the missing prince. Enter my walls again, and it’s war.”

The prisoners were led off the execution platform and were taken to the cells where they’d be held until the executioner had finished sharpening his axe. Mihawk looked down at Zoro, sighing quietly with a sense of relief he hadn't expected to feel.

“Go check on the prince, I'm sure he'd like to know you’re alright.” Mihawk mentally kicked himself for sounding so soft around the kid. Better toughen that sentiment up a bit. “Make sure he isn't going hysterical without his pet around.” Judging by the face Zoro pulled it had maybe been a bad call to refer to the boy as Sanji’s pet. Oh well, no taking it back now. With a salute and a quiet ‘yes, sir’ Zoro headed off to check on the prince.

Sanji was already back in his bedroom by the time Zoro arrived. There were still guards at the doors as a precaution, especially after the captive’s uproarious announcement, but they let Zoro enter the room without question.

The second Zoro walked through the doors Sanji was off his bed and barreling towards his friend, clamping his arms around him. “Thank the gods you’re safe.” Zoro could feel that Sanji was still vaguely trembling.

“It was just a search and patrol sort of assignment. Nothing heavy on the action, I promise.” Speaking of promises, he still had to get that ink well out to the boys. With this new threat rearing its ugly head, it might be more difficult to get to the lower city undetected than Zoro had originally thought. It wasn't like he could wear a veil out and about after everything that had happened.

Sanji huffed and pulled away, not happy with Zoro’s response, but for the life of him Zoro had no idea what the issue was this time. Although, he was sure Sanji would waste little time in explaining.

“Well? Weren't you worried about me? These men did come here to kill me after all.” Sanji huffed again and turned to go flop down on his bed. “I guess it’d be a relief for you if I was just murdered. Then you wouldn't have to deal with—” Sanji was interrupted by a whap upside the head. When he turned to yell at Zoro, he saw a look of fury, the likes of which Sanji had never seen before, giving him pause.

“Listen here, you may be one hell of an ungrateful ass, and you may drive me up the wall more often than not, but you are still the only person in my life who gives a damn about me. You may be my master, and you may treat me like shit sometimes, but you are also my friend. So yes, you occasionally make my life a living hell, but I would never want to see you dead. Are we clear?”

Sanji nodded dumbly, unable to say anything in that moment.

“Good. Now, do you need anything: a snack, something to drink?”

Sanji shook his head. “You’re free to go,” he mumbled in a quiet deadpan.

Zoro paused, having expected a bit more retaliation. Or at least a request for him to hang around a bit longer. “Well, alright then. Uh, I'm… going to go check back in with my sword master.” He waited a moment more, not knowing if he should be appreciative or worried by his dismissal. “...Are you sure you don't need anything?”

“Yes, I'm sure. Though if you could send for my tutor I would like to continue my lessons.” Sanji sat back down at his desk, refusing to look in Zoro’s direction. He cracked open a book and flipped the top on his inkwell open.

Zoro stared at the ink a moment, a plan slowly coming together in his mind, “Will you be needing more ink?”

The prince sighed and rolled his eyes. “First you complain about me being a slave driver, and now you can't seem to function without me giving you a task. Yes, fine, go down to the shops and get me more ink once you've sent for my tutor.” He waved his servant off, still refusing to look at him.

Nodding and backing out of Sanji’s room, Zoro hurried to find Robin before heading out of the castle and down to the marketplace. Unbeknownst to him, Sanji had been watching him leave through the gates from behind a curtain. A moment later there came a knock at the door.

“Come in.” Sanji kept his eyes trained outside until Zoro disappeared from sight. He could hear Robin enter and take a seat, but he still couldn't tear his eyes from the window.

“The events of today must be weighing heavily on you. Are you alright, Your Highness?” Robin questioned gently, as she listened to the prince heave a sigh for the fifth time since she’d entered the room.

“I'm a prince. I can't let threats like this to get to me.” Sanji hardened himself, folding his arms and finally turning away from the window. “Besides, there are many people in this palace who are here to keep me safe.”

“Yes, that is true,” Robin conceded. “Yet even the mightiest of men can feel fear sometimes. It doesn't make you weak. The important thing is knowing how to take control of that fear, and to not let it paralyze you. Always remember you have your men at arms to defend you,” she paused, “Zoro as well. He will always be there for you.” The small smile that normally graced her face fell when she saw how Sanji stiffened at that. Had she hit a sore spot?

“I don't need that grass-headed idiot.” Sanji huffed, hand going to his bangs and roughly raking through them. He was still terrible at hiding his true feelings, especially when it came to Zoro. “Besides, he left my side today when I needed him most.” Sanji’s angry frown turned to one of hurt. “How could he just leave me like that?”

Robin was unsure how to continue, she needed to tread lightly and not overstep her boundaries. “Was this during the search for the spies?”

Sanji nodded, eyes downcast, “And just now, also… I know I sent him away this time, but he didn't even protest. Sometimes I feel he just wants to get away from me. I feel like he may be coming to… hate me...”

Not wanting to say anything to further upset the boy, Robin took a moment to carefully choose her words. “It can be a little difficult sometimes to guess what he may be thinking, but I do know that he would never be purposefully dishonest with you. He is loyal to you and has stuck by you since you two were small, but as you grow older both of you will have new responsibilities and commitments. Your lives may be changing, but that doesn't mean your feelings have. A part of growing up is learning to grow together with the people you care about.”

She watched as Sanji seemed to mull this over, forehead scrunched as he chewed his lip. “I guess so… Still, I don't want to grow up. I want to stay as we are.”

“Well, a part of being young is also completing your lessons.” Robin smiled once more before opening her book. “Shall we?”

The young prince groaned dramatically before draping himself across his desk. “Maybe I do wanna grow up,” he mumbled, drawing a genuine laugh from his teacher.

--

The one area of town Zoro had managed to figure out how to navigate was the market. Granted, it was right outside the palace gates, but Zoro knew that as long as he could see the gates he’d be able to find his way back within a reasonable time frame. However, this time he wasn’t just popping out for a quick errand for Sanji, he’d have to make his way to the lower city. He was fairly confident in himself that he could make it there and back in time to avoid suspicion. Plus, after a few years of knowing the boy, the guards had mostly stopped being surprised to find him in places he wasn’t supposed to be. As he walked, Zoro briefly flashed back to a moment about five years ago when he’d brought this anomaly to Sanji’s attention. He’d just gotten lost at the market and had been escorted back to Sanji by a guard on patrol.

‘You get away with it ‘cause you’re always gettin’ lost, dummy! Stay by me more, okay? I don't wanna lose my only friend cause he got lost forever.’

Zoro gave a small smile at the memory. In his own roundabout way, Sanji really did care about him. He had to remember that. Clutching the small box of ink bottles, he turned and began to head into the city. Normally, he'd worry about Sanji’s reaction to him being gone so long, but he figured with the way Sanji had been acting that maybe he could get away with it.

Or maybe not. The sun was starting to set by the time Zoro made it to the brothers’ neighborhood. After knocking on several wrong doors he finally found them.

“I thought you’d forgot.” Ace blatantly announced upon seeing the young guard. “Sabo said you’d be right back.”

Zoro frowned a bit. “I got here as fast as I could. I'm risking my head on the block for you guys.”

Ace sheepishly backed down, his tongue tracing over his inner cheek. “Come in.” He opened the door a little wider for Zoro to enter.

“I can't stay, I need to head back, but…” Zoro pulled out one of the four bottles from the box amd handed it to Ace. “This is for Sabo, I have to. ring the rest back to Sa- the Prince. Give him my regards.” Zoro turned to leave when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“I’ll walk you back. I know the fastest route there, it’s the least I can do.” Ace made a face that indicated he wouldn't take no for an answer.

Zoro quirked an eyebrow. “It’s a long walk, a couple hours at least.” His brow furrowed again when Ace barked a laugh.

“It takes half an hour tops to get back to the palace. Man, I'm even more amazed you managed to find where we live. What’d you do, spiral through the whole city to get here?”

Zoro turned a faint shade of red, which only made Ace chuckle more. He grumbled as he turned to leave. “C’mon, it’s getting dark.”

“Hey, Zoro,” Zoro paused and looked back over his shoulder, “palace is that way.”

Ace kept to his word and got Zoro back to the palace in record time, the two of them managing to keep a conversation for most of the walk. It had been a while since Zoro had laughed that much, and Ace could've said the same. As they finally reached the now empty marketplace, they paused.

“So, uh, thanks for getting me home.” Zoro awkwardly tapped his fingers on the hilt of his sword, unsure how to say goodbye.

“Y-Yeah, no problem.” Another pause. “Hey, so… I know it goes against what is “socially appropriate” and all that crap, but… we should be friends... or whatever.” Ace reached up to awkwardly scratch at his hair. It’d been a long time since he had last tried to make friends. “Also my little brother talks about you a lot so I think he'd like to be friends too.”

Zoro cocked a small half smile. “Yeah, that sounds good.” He waved as he hurried off towards the gates. “Stay out of trouble,” he called back.

“Don't count on it!” Ace smiled as Zoro ran off. He already knew he probably wouldn't get to see Zoro all that often, but just knowing that he had a friend out there who was worlds away, but so much like himself… It was comforting to the boy.

--

“Six. Hours. How did you get lost for six whole hours?!” Sanji couldn't even be mad. If anything he was worried that his friend’s sense of direction had somehow gotten worse, or that there may actually be dirt instead of a brain under that lawn on his head. “Did something happen? Are you alright?” This was not the reaction that Zoro had been expecting, and his face showed it. “Well? Don't just gawk at me, say something!”

Zoro snapped his mouth shut and cleared his throat. “Uh, yeah, I'm fine. I… may have gotten a little turned around in the market…”

“You got turned arou– The palace gates are right there! How could you not notice when you weren't heading towards them to get back?”

“I thought I was…”

Sanji sighed, seemingly buying his excuse. “And you say I give you headaches. You even missed the execution today. I really wanted you there with me for that.”

Zoro bowed his head, “I’m sorry, Sanji.”

The prince heaved another huge sigh. “Well, you're back safe so that's all that matters. Come, it's time for you to draw my bath. You'll be taking one as well. I can't imagine how bad you must smell after sweating under that armor all day.”

Zoro would've protested, but he had caught a whiff of himself earlier and had to silently agree. Besides, after everything that had happened that day a nice soak in the bath would be absolute heaven.

--

“Ace! You’re back!” Luffy bounded over to welcome his brother back with a hug, but got a hand to the face instead. “Did you bring me something to eat?”

“It’s too hot for hugs, Luffy, and no not this time. It's too risky to steal anything right now.” Ace had just returned home, ink bottle safely packed away in the pouch on his belt. He could hear gentle snoring coming from under the floorboards and snorted a laugh. He thumped twice on the floor. “Sabo, wake up. Zoro came through.”

The floor lifted and Sabo emerged, stretching his aching limbs and yawning widely. “What time is it?” He asked groggily as he looked around.

“Well after dark. C’mon, let's see if this works.” Ace went over to the table and placed the ink down next to the comb and shallow dish they’d prepared.

Sabo sat in the chair, yawning again. “You know, I'm sort of surprised he actually got us ink.”

Luffy tilted his head, not understanding. “How come? Zoro seems really nice!”

“He’s got a very important job in the palace. Helping us, helping me, is stupidly dangerous for him. More so than I think even he understands. There's nothing wrong with being generous to someone who’s struggling to eat while you have more food than you could ever need, but this is different.” Sabo removed his veil, revealing the pale blonde curls that were matted to his head. He ran a hand through, fluffing them up a bit. He started to run the comb through the tangles as Ace prepared the ink. “Anyone who helps me is putting themselves in danger, including you guys.”

“By the gods, you're dramatic as ever. You’re our brother and that's that. We’re gonna help you no matter what.” Ace scolded, “So quit it with that shit.”

Luffy threw in his own enthusiastic affirmation. “Yeah! You're one of us now! So don't worry about it!”

“Exactly, now hold still so I don't get ink everywhere.”

Sabo smiled, a hint of sadness in his eyes that neither brother could see from the way he was sitting. “Thanks, you guys.” He watched Ace dip the comb in ink before harshly running it through his hair. “Ow! Watch it, asshole!” He felt a couple cold drops fall onto his neck and trickle down.

“Gah! I told you to hold still, idiot!”

“I would be if you weren't pulling out my hair, shithead!”

Luffy laughed and clapped as his brothers got into it again. He knew it was their way of saying they loved each other, and it was always endlessly entertaining to watch. When things had calmed down and the boys had sat in silence for a few moments, Luffy posed a question he'd been mulling over. “So is Zoro gonna be our friend now?”

Ace looked back at Luffy, unsure how to answer. He turned back to Sabo’s hair and thought on it for a moment. “I don't know if it's possible. Sabo was right about one thing: we come from completely different worlds. I don't even know how to reach him, and there's no way in hell he’s gonna be able to find our place without taking hours to do so, again. If he can even escape his guardly duties or whatever.”

The youngest boy folded his arms and legs, face screwed up in concentration, trying to physically force himself to think even harder. Then, suddenly, his eyes lit up in an ‘a-ha!’ moment. “We’ll sneak in again!”

“That’s even more risky! We’re lucky we got away the first time! Plus, I think Zoro might still have our grapple…” Ace countered, remembering that they should probably get that back.

Luffy fell to the floor with the effort of trying to think of a good plan. “Nnnnnn~” he groaned, “this would be so much easier if we just lived in the palace~!”

It was Sabo’s turn for an a-ha moment. “Well, we can't all live there, but…” He pulled away to turn to look at Ace. “You could join the army. You're old enough for an apprenticeship and basic training.”

Ace guffawed, “I'll have to join anyway in four years. Why bother now? That's four more years of dealing with all the ‘yes sir’ ‘no sir’ ‘can I wipe your ass sir’ crap.”

Sabo shrugged, turning back around. “Just an idea, and maybe the safest one. Plus, you’d be getting paid to be there. All soldiers get free food and a place to sleep and monthly pay sent to their families.”

“We get money if Ace is in the army?” Luffy shot up, grabbing Ace by the shoulders. “Do it, Ace! We would be able to eat more! Pleeeeeease, please, please, pleeeeeeease?”

It certainly gave Ace food for thought. He didn't like the idea, but it did have its perks. “I… I guess I'll think about it.”

Chapter Text

The better part of a year had passed since that day. It was the dawn of a fresh spring, and the desert air was starting to turn back to the familiar warmth from the winter chill: recruitment season. Every man of eighteen years, as required by law, was waiting outside the gates to put down their name and begin their new lives. Alongside the legally bound male signups were many female volunteers as well as a scattering of younger individuals wanting to enlist early. Many of the younger boys and girls came from the slums, hoping to make it through basic training and help their families put a little more food on the table.

The knights and guardsmen were in the barracks, getting ready for the small ceremony that was to be held for all the incoming soldiers. Zoro was amongst them, one of the youngest and fastest to have ever completed their basic training. He stood proud, a proper knight’s apprentice at only fourteen, his strength and skill on par with many of the higher ranking adults. He was both respected and envied by his peers. He startled slightly when a heavy hand suddenly clamped down on his shoulder. He turned to look up at his sword master, recognizing a hint of pride in the man’s harsh stare.

“We’re leaving now. Are you ready?”

Zoro nodded, a small smile quirking up the corners of his mouth. “Yes, sir.”

Mihawk nodded before turning to leave, the rest of the knights falling in behind him. Zoro quickly gathered up his sword and slipped it into his belt before falling in line.

The knights, officers, and members of the guard paraded out into the front lawn, excited recruits cheering from the other side of the gate. To many of the young present, these knights were their heroes. Bravely dashing off into places unknown to battle monsters and protect the kingdom; a never ending adventure. Even though many of them would never reach a full knighthood, it would still be an honor to serve under them.

Zoro looked up at the balcony, the royal family having just emerged. Even with the distance Zoro could still tell that Sanji was watching him closely. He nodded to his master who refused to return the motion, turning his attention back to the gates. The two had gotten into so many arguments over the last several months about the path Zoro had chosen that they had lost count. Zoro had decided he wanted to pursue becoming a full-fledged knight instead of being a member of the guard as Sanji had wanted.

The prince hated the idea of his friend leaving for long periods of time to serve the kingdom outside its borders and far away from him. Though in his heart he knew that Zoro’s skill would be wasted to keep him cooped up inside the palace. He’d watched some of Zoro’s training matches and they had always ended leaving Sanji both thoroughly impressed and weirdly aroused. He was an incredible fighter, as if he were born to do it.

In the end, with heavy reluctance and lots of moaning and groaning, the prince finally gave his friend the okay. There was one condition, however: as Sanji’s right hand Zoro would only be sent on missions personally approved by the prince. As much as Zoro hated the leash Sanji held, at least the prince had finally started to loosen his grip, if only a little.

Once Zoro was properly in formation he looked out at the recruits, wondering to himself if any of the faces he saw there would ever become someone he could challenge eye to eye, unlike the lazier, complacent adults. He furrowed his brow when he saw slight unrest in the crowd, undoubtedly some ruffian trying to push his way forward.

It was a struggle to weave through the flailing limbs of his fellow recruits, but Ace finally made it to the front gate. He grasped the iron bars and pressed his face to the gap between them, eyes scanning over the men until they landed on Zoro. His friend was already looking at him, eyebrows raised in surprise as he stiffened his lip to keep from smiling.

Equally surprised to see Zoro amongst the grown knights, Ace got swept up in the excitement and reached through the bars to wave. He knew Zoro couldn't wave back but he finally got the teen to crack a small smile.

The two boys had had limited interaction over the last year. Zoro had surprised the brothers with a couple late night visits to their home, always remembering to bring ink for Sabo’s hair. At the end of the night, Ace and Zoro would get to share the walk back, always taking the longest possible route. They had never really had the chance to forget their positions in society outside of when they were together. As they walked under the starry night sky all the rules and the labels were dropped for a blessed couple hours and the kids could just be kids. They had become fast friends.

Suddenly, a hush fell over the crowd as Mihawk stepped forward, his piercing eyes sending icy shivers down the recruits’ spines. The fear and respect this man held was only just below that of the king in the eyes of the people. This man had risen up from the slums to become the greatest knight the kingdom had ever known. He'd ridden off alone into hundreds of battles and had always returned without a single, visible wound. He was a legend.

“You are all here to enlist under the service of our King. You are swearing your life and your allegiance to your country. You are to become protectors of the nation and of everything you hold dear.” Zoro twisted his lips as he tried to keep from chuckling under his breath. Not that anyone else could tell, but Zoro could hear Mihawk viciously rolling his eyes as he gave the same speech he had to give every year. Mihawk hated this speech, but the king always insisted he gave it. It probably had to do with the fact that the natural gravitas in his voice and his intimidating glower always scared the recruits into falling in line right away.

Once Mihawk had finished his speech he ordered the gates to be opened. Four guards stepped forward to pull open the heavy gates. The recruits slowly began to make their way inside. Many of them looked around in awe of the splendor of the courtyard. Ace looked up at the towering walls and it dawned on him that these walls were soon to become his home. He felt nervous all of a sudden. What the hell was he doing, giving up his last few years of freedom in order to train to fight and defend the very people who had turned their backs on him when he was only an infant. He looked up at the royal family, the royal brat Zoro often spoke of standing stoically at his father’s side. He wondered how someone who could live such a luxurious and comfortable life could look so unhappy.

“Alright recruits, line up.” Ace snapped back to attention and got in line with the other thirty or so recruits. One of the captains had a portable writing board complete with a holder for the ink well. On it was a signature sheet for all of them to sign. “If you cannot sign your name an X will do, and we will write in your name for you.”

Ace could already feel his face turning red. Sabo had attempted to teach him to read and write but Ace had always gotten frustrated and given up, thinking he'd never need to learn. Soon it was his turn. As he approached the captain he noticed a couple X’s already on the sheet and immediately felt better. He glanced at Zoro before finally signing away his last few years of freedom.

The recruits were then ushered to their new quarters, the girls being separated from the boys. It was a tight fit; ten sets of bunked cots in a small room. In another small room was a wash room, stone grates covering the floor and a stack of buckets in the corner. There was a common room with a couple tables surrounded by chairs and a fireplace they were sure to be huddled by during the winter. Every recruit had a small trunk to keep their belongings. Ace hadn't thought to bring anything but the clothes on his back and once again felt heat rise to his cheeks as all the other boys began to unpack.

Instead of continuing to stand around doing nothing, Ace hopped onto a top bunk in the corner of the room, claiming his bed. He laid back with his hands behind his head, doubts and fears flying through his mind as his face remained stoic. He could hear whispers from the other end of the room, but didn't bother trying to listen in. He was already used to the stares and people talking about him when they thought he couldn't hear.

Suddenly, there was a jostling beneath him as another young man claimed the bunk under him. Ace peered over the side and was met with a gaunt face, heavy circles under the older boy’s eyes.

“Hey,” he extended a hand, “name’s Gin. Guess we’re bunk mates.”

Ace glanced at the hand, then back behind Gin to see half the room staring at them. He looked back at the hand before taking it. “Ace.” He glanced back over Gin’s shoulder again, this time the other boy followed his gaze.

“Looks like we're already the talk of the bunk house.” Gin mumbled under his breath. “Thought we were supposed to be able to leave our pasts behind us and whatever other pompous shit that knight was blabbering about.”

Ace snorted and rolled back over. “Once a bastard always a bastard.” He heard Gin chuckle a little at that.

“The bastards of the corner bunk. Got a decent enough ring to it.” Gin and Ace shared a quiet laugh and they both wondered if maybe this would be the beginning of a new friendship.

--

It had been a couple days since Sanji had been willing to speak to Zoro, still sore from his right hand’s decision to pursue knighthood. So it came as a surprise to Zoro when the prince decided to break the silence with small talk.

“So, have you met any of the new recruits yet?” Sanji cooly dropped the question as Zoro presented him his dinner. He was still refusing to look at his friend, however.

Zoro paused, momentarily unsure if he should mention Ace. He quickly decided that it would've been a bad idea. “No, not really. I was there for when they signed on, but I haven't spoken to them yet. There's a traditional induction dinner tonight and then training begins tomorrow.”

The dinner was really more of a hazing ritual. Most of the older knights and guards no longer took part, leaving the fun to the youth and only interrupting if things got out of hand. Zoro had never gotten to go through the hazing, given his standing, but he was looking forward to the dinner. In fact, it was due to start soon.

“Do you need anything else or may I be excused?”

Sanji finally peered up at Zoro, seeing just how eager he was to get going. He squinted ever so slightly and there was a certain hardness behind those clear eyes. Zoro immediately did not like that look; it meant he was plotting something.

“I want you to rub my feet before you leave. I spent all day on them and they hurt like hell.” He kicked off his slippers and stuck his feet out from under his desk. “Go on, Zoro. Rub. My. Feet.”

Zoro’s eyes drooped ever so slightly before he dropped to his knees and got to work. He kept his eyes trained on the rug beneath them, doing his best to ignore his master and the occasional degrading remarks. If this was Sanji’s only punishment for “defying his wishes” then really he couldn't complain. After dedicating several minutes to each foot Zoro stood again.

“There, may I now please be excused?”

Sanji took his sweet time chewing and obnoxiously sipping at his water. “No, I'll need you to draw my bath and assist me.”

“Uh…” Zoro hesitated, “and then will I be free to leave?”

Sanji smirked, “Mmm… I wonder…”

It finally clicked, though really Zoro should have figured Sanji would pull this sort of stunt. “You’re gonna make me miss the dinner, aren't you?”

“Oooh, you figured that out faster than I thought you would. What a clever boy you are.” Sanji startled a bit when Zoro suddenly fell to his knees at his side head bowed.

“Sanji, please, this is the first year I've been allowed to go to one of these dinners. I really want to go. Please, I'll do anything.” Never in his life had he expected to throw himself at Sanji’s feet and beg like this, but this was his chance to spend some down time with Ace and he wasn't sure he'd get another chance any time soon. If not for Ace he wouldn't have cared nearly as much.

Sanji turned in his seat, a surprised, smug smile on his face. “Anything, you say?” Many perverted images flashed through Sanji’s mind, but he nixed them. He didn't want to scare his love away just yet. He could already see the nervousness in Zoro’s tightened posture. “Alright, give us a kiss and you can go.” He tapped at his lips, indicating he would accept nothing less.

Zoro tightened his mouth, chewing on his lips a moment before standing. He cleared his throat before awkwardly starting to lean in, unsure which way to tilt his head. Sanji grew impatient with his indecision and slid a hand to the back his Zoro’s head, fingers running over the scars before pulling him in. Zoro’s lips were a little chapped from all the time spent out in the sun, but they felt like heaven to Sanji. The kiss lasted only a couple seconds, Zoro pulling away when he felt Sanji’s tongue gently run over his lips. It was both of their first kisses, and while Sanji couldn't have been happier Zoro just felt dirty. The young knight in training resisted the urge to wipe his mouth on his sleeve, knowing just how much that would offend the prince. He could feel the shame wash over him in hot waves.

“Aww, you're so cute when you blush.” Sanji cooed, “Alright, go have fun.” He waved Zoro off, his other hand going to his lips, the lingering sensation of Zoro’s lips on his own was making him tingle all over. He didn't even notice how quickly Zoro made his exit, too wrapped up in dirty fantasies. He'd have to remember this tactic for the future.

--

Zoro got to the bunkhouse just as the recruits were being served their food. Zoro and a couple of younger guards were all arriving at around the same time. The guards, there were five of them, were all about ten years older than Zoro was, having started their training at eighteen. All of them were carrying a keg each, no doubt intended as incentive for the hazing. They all looked at each other with knowing grins before turning back to Zoro.

“Little young to be testing out the new recruits, aren't you, Roronoa?”

“What are you, fifteen? Sixteen?”

Zoro maintained eye contact, refusing to be intimidated. He could beat these punks with one hand behind his back. “I'm fourteen.”

The guards scoffed, all of them expressing disbelief that the runt was already an apprentice. “Man, the perks of being a prince’s pet.”

Zoro's glare hardened and the mocking laughter turned to condescending coos. “Awww, he didn't like that, did he?”

“Baww, now his face is turning all red! I can't tell if he’s mad or embarrassed!”

One of the guards got right up in Zoro’s face and that’s when the tang of alcohol on her breath finally hit Zoro’s nose. Clearly they’d tapped into the kegs and had themselves a pre-hazing party of their own. “Look, you’re not big enough to lead the hazing with the grown ups, but we’ll throw you a bone, kid. Since you never got jumped in like the rest of us, this can be your initiation. How bout that?”

Zoro pondered the offer for a moment. If he agreed he'd get to spend time with Ace, but he'd be subjected to the whims of these drunken goons. If he declined, they would be sure to never let him forget how he chickened out. Plus, he'd already had to beg at Sanji’s feet and exchange an awkward kiss. He wasn't so eager to slink back to the prince’s side.

“Alright, I'll do it.” He nodded, already not liking the smug grins spreading across the guards’ faces.

“Kid’s got guts, I'll give him that.”

The door to the recruits’ bunkhouse banged open. Zoro alongside the drunken male guards (the female guards had made their way to the girls’ bunkhouse) marched inside. The eyes of every recruit turned from their dinners, expressions ranging from confusion to nervousness to excitement.

“Alright, fresh meat. Time for a little pre-training test. If you pass, you'll have our respect. Fail, and we will own you these next four years. Who’s ready for a little adventure?”

At first, no one moved. They were all unsure of exactly what was happening. After a moment, Ace was the first to rise followed shortly by Gin.

“Ooooh, looky here, got ourselves a couple of heroes. As a reward for not being cowards, the first drink goes to you two. Everyone grab your mugs, you're gonna be needing them tonight!” The atmosphere in the room quickly turned to one of excitement. The boys all scrabbled to get their mugs, gathering in front of the guards.

The guard tisked, “Aside from these two, you’re all gonna have to earn your first drink.” One guard set down his keg and filled Ace and Gin’s mugs half full while another guard explained their first challenge.

“In a moment, y'all are gonna follow us out to the gate. Your task is to make one full circle around the castle wall. The faster you are, the more you get to drink.” More excitement from the recruits. “And you’ll be doing it…” the guard paused for dramatic effect, “buck fuckin naked. Anyone who chickens out will not only not get a drink, but you’ll get to do pushups until the last one of you makes it through the gate. Everyone understand the rules?”

The boys looked to each other, all putting on an air of cockiness despite the slight unease of having to undress in front of a gaggle of people they’d just met. Zoro and Ace shared a look, but neither of them were about to back out.

“Alright, fresh meat, everyone outside.”

Without the sun to heat their city, the night air was giving the recruits a comfortable chill as they did their naked nighttime dash around the palace walls. Gin, Ace, and Zoro were in third, fourth, and fifth respectively with two older boys who were only in the lead thanks to a longer stride. Ace could’ve easily had a better time, but he was constantly checking over his shoulder to make sure his wayward friend hadn't managed to get lost.

However, Ace hadn’t needed to worry, as Zoro had his eyes transfixed on Ace for nearly
the entire run, except for when the older boy turned his head to check up on him. As they ran he caught himself watching Ace’s muscles move under his pale, freckled skin. Though the older boy was thin, he had clear tone to his muscles that fascinated Zoro in a way he didn’t yet understand. There was a tight pain in his chest and for a moment Zoro was worried that he was overexerting himself, but he’d often run twice this distance as part of a morning warm up without so much as a hitch in his breath. What was this?

The group of boys in the lead barreled through the main gate in a mad dash to be first. Ace came in first followed by Zoro, the older boys they overtook were both wearing sour expressions as they crossed the finish line in third and fourth place. Gin followed in right behind them, huffing and puffing, but still proud to be in the top five.

Suddenly, their attention was drawn to the peels of female laughter coming from behind them. In near perfect synchronization, the boys swiveled their heads and saw the girls lined up against the wall doing handstands. Each of them had a mug balanced carefully on the soles of their feet for their first challenge. It also gave them an interesting view when the boys came through the front gate.

The girls’ and the guards’ laughter chased the boys back to the bunkhouse where their clothes had been discarded. One of the guards had managed to stop laughing long enough to start distributing drinks to the humiliated recruits.

Gin leaned over to Ace and whispered, “I feel like they did this just to ruin the chance of any of us ever hooking up.”

Ace shrugged, not really caring. “If they don’t like what they see then I don’t want them anywhere near it.” He managed to get a laugh out of Gin at that, who nodded in agreement as he pulled on his pants. Ace glanced around, looking for Zoro, only to catch him just as he pulled his pants up to cover his ass. He noticed the way the moonlight glinted faintly off the bit of sweat trailing down Zoro’s back, how his normally grass green hair shone almost blue in the low light. When he bent over to grab his tunic Ace noticed how the thin pants were pulled taught.

Ace snapped back to reality when Zoro slipped on his tunic, obscuring the view. He quickly turned away and pulled his own shirt on over his head. He looked back to Gin who was shifting his gaze between Ace and Zoro, eyes scrunched slightly with a silent question.

“What?” Ace challenged. Gin just threw up his hands, not wanting to turn his suspicion into a spectacle.

“Alright boys, mugs up. Time to gather your reward.”

The night continued on, with task after ridiculous task. Ace, Gin, and Zoro continued to come out on top, quickly getting drunker than the other less skilled recruits. They were on their final challenge for the night. Everyone was shakily holding themselves up in a plank with mugs balanced, wobbling, on their backs while having to defend their drinks from an onslaught of old produce and rotten eggs. Ace had goopy tomato pulp dripping from his shaggy mop and he reeked of rotten eggs but he couldn't help but laugh and groan alongside his friends. It was the most fun he could ever remember having.

“Alright, alright, you guys have suffered enough. Claim your prizes, boys.” The attack ceased and all the recruits laid themselves down and clumsily navigated getting the full mugs off their backs. Well, the ones who hadn’t spilled theirs anyhow.

“Considering not one of you tapped out or gave up, we are going to let you lot finish off whatever is left in these kegs as a reward. We leave them to you to divvy it up as you please. On behalf of all of us, welcome to the guard.” A round of applause rose up from the drunk recruits, all excited to finish off the booze and pass out for the night.

Ace gulped down his drink before turning to Zoro, seeing that the boy was already looking at him with a crooked, drunk grin on his face.

“Never thought I’d have so much fun getting pelted with rotten food.” Zoro admitted, holding out his mug as one of the boys made a round to refill everyone’s drinks. “M’just glad Sanji let me come out tonight,” he slurred.

“Ahhhh, don’t even think ‘bout him righ’ now.” Ace threw an arm around Zoro’s shoulders. “Tonight,” he paused while he focused on holding his mug still for a refill. “Tonight, buddy, we’re are free men!” Ace’s voice rose to a bellow, many of the recruits joined in with a cheer even without fully knowing what they were cheering for.

Zoro threw an arm around Ace in return before knocking back his drink. After finishing, he realized that he had just crossed a threshold he didn’t previously know existed. The world and the people were melting together, looking like a smeared painting. He looked around completely dazed as the lights, sounds, and shapes swam around him. When he looked at Ace, he realized the older boy was approaching the same level of intoxication. Slowly, bit by bit, the boys were losing track of when and where they were, time turning into a series of moments with no clear connections. They were blacking out.

Eventually they found themselves on their knees in the washroom, splashing the cold water on each other in an attempt to wash off the mostly dried egg and produce. Their hands were tangled up in each other’s hair, scrubbing at it sloppily while giggling. Their alcohol laden breath tangled together as they washed, eyes meeting each other.

For a moment, their smiles dropped, eyes searching one another’s. Ace’s fingers traced over the scars he had left on the back of Zoro’s head, making Zoro shudder ever so slightly. The two came together in a shaky, nervous kiss that grew in intensity as the boys clumsily grabbed at one another, trying to pull closer even as they were pressed up tightly against each other.

They finally broke away, panting heavily through wet lips. Sitting in silence, they were both unsure what to say about what had just happened when Ace broke the tense silence.

“That was nice, like real-really nice n errthing, but uh think m’gonna…” He pulled away, turning and falling onto all fours as he violently retched into the grates covering the floor. Zoro collapsed backwards in laughter, not even feeling the pain of his back and head hitting the hard, uneven surface. The boys passed out in that washroom, half naked and dripping wet. Neither of them would remember what had happened that night, but their hearts would not be so quick to forget these newfound feelings.

Chapter Text

Zoro awoke with a gasp as a bucket of cold water was dumped over him. He quickly sat up and immediately regretted moving so fast. A sharp pain ran through his head and his stomach coiled up in tight, queasy knots. A burp gurgled up followed shortly by bitter vile. He coughed and hacked as the guard who woke him chuckled with understanding, but a complete lack of empathy.

“Morning, sunshine,” the guard greeted smugly as he went to refill the bucket.

There was a second slosh and Ace awoke next to Zoro in much the same predicament. He didn’t even manage to sit all the way up before he was overcome by nausea. Ace rolled over onto his side before he heaved. The boys had never felt so ill in their lives.

“Oh, Zoro, by the way, the prince is looking for you.” The guard noticed with a hint of glee as a look of fear bloomed on the young man's face. “He wasn’t too pleased that you missed breakfast. I’d hurry and get up there if you know what’s good for you.”

Dread tightened the knots in Zoro’s stomach as he pulled himself upright, struggling to stand. He buckled and heaved into the grates again, a string of drool stretching from his lip. The guard stood above the two boys as they took turns retching, the smell of one another’s vomit triggering their nausea. Deciding he’d had enough, the guard doused them both with another bucket of water.

“Alright, get a move on. Recruit, get dressed and head out to the yard to get suited up. You’ve already missed breakfast.” The guard dropped the bucket with a loud clang, the boys recoiling with pain at the loud noise.

“Yessir,” Ace mumbled as he pulled himself up. He grabbed his damp shirt off the floor and pulled it on, the smell of booze radiating from it. He belched, but managed to keep from being sick again.

Zoro was soon to follow, grabbing his shirt and wringing it out before slipping it on. He walked after Ace out of the wash room, the guard taking up the rear. There were several other recruits stumbling about the bunkhouse as they quickly got ready, all of them in a hungover daze. The two hurried outside, the bright daylight piercing through their eyes and into their brains like hot needles.

“This is the worst,” Ace bemoaned in a deeply raspy voice, turning to Zoro. “I’m never drinking again.”

“Agreed.”

“Move it!”

Sanji. Was. Livid. He was pacing back and forth in front of his window, biting at his fingernails as he tried to keep a lid on his temper. His breakfast sat cold, untouched on the small dining table he never used. For the first time in four years it hadn’t been Zoro who’d brought it to him. This break in Sanji’s routine was entirely unacceptable and his mind was reeling as to where Zoro could be. He was hours late, the sun having risen a while ago. What had happened the night before that would lead to his current absence? He could already feel the start of a headache throbbing at his temples.

About ten minutes later, Zoro knocked on the door before cracking it open. He peeked inside and saw that Sanji’s head had snapped to attention like a starving predator that had caught sight of prey. The bright blue eyes were radiating pure rage as his lip twitched up into a snarl. Zoro stepped fully into the room and closed the door behind him. He kept his posture as unthreatening as possible, shoulders slouched, feet together, attention diverted. In hindsight, he probably should have taken those few extra minutes to freshen himself up. He looked a filthy mess and probably smelled just as bad.

After a moment of prolonged silence, Zoro risked a glance at the prince. Sanji was leaning back against the window sill, arms folded and steadily glaring Zoro down. He wasn’t sure if he should speak or if that would just anger his master further, but it was clear that Sanji wouldn’t be breaking the silence any time soon.

“San—”

“Don’t you dare address me so casually.” Sanji spat out, stare unwavering. Zoro was starting to wonder if he had even blinked in the last couple minutes. “You’ll explain where you were and you’ll address me properly as you do so.”

Zoro winced as Sanji’s voice echoed around the room, vibrating through his throbbing skull. He closed his eyes and lowered his head. He had to dig deep to find the energy to sound sincere. “My deepest apologices, My Lord. I realize that I’ve upset you with my failure to tend to your needs. How would you see me punished?”

As he had feared, his all-purpose formal apology only made the prince even more angry. Sanji quickly strode over to Zoro, his long legs making quick work of the distance between them. He raised a hand and swung his arm like a whip, the harsh crack of the slap reverberated around the otherwise silent room. The sudden impact to his sensitive head made the room spin so wildly Zoro could’ve sworn the floor had become the wall for a moment. His knees buckled and he wobbled, stumbling back against the wall. Spit pooled in his mouth, threatening another round of violent retching. He swallowed and shakily stood back up, daring a glance up at Sanji.

Sanji’s expression was flickering between anger and worry. He’d never seen Zoro react like that from just a slap across the face. Nor had he ever seen his friend look so frail and pale. Exhausted, dirty, and beaten up from training, sure, but never so weakened and sickly. He was still mad, but his concern was softening the edges.

“What happened to you?” Sanji demanded, noting the hesitance on Zoro’s face. “What went on at that dinner last night?” The prince watched closely as Zoro tried to come up with an answer, unable to look his master in the eye. Sanji gently cupped Zoro’s chin and turned his face upwards, encouraging eye contact. He noticed that Zoro’s skin was warmer than usual, a little clammy to the touch. His eyes were bloodshot and glazed over. Despite wanting to be furious with his friend, as he believed he deserved to be, Sanji could feel the anger rushing out of him. His heart tugged in his chest seeing Zoro so weak.

Sanji heaved a sigh, “Come, sit down, you idiot.” His voice was low, gentle, but firm. He directed Zoro towards one of the wooden dining chairs before heading to his wash basin. “I swear, the number of times I wind up having to take care of you... I should be embarrassed for myself. I spoil you, you know that? No one of royal standing, alive or dead, has ever treated any one of their staff as well as I do you. Don’t you ever forget that!” He poured fresh water into his washbowl and grabbed a towel. “Get rid of that filthy shirt. You look like you rolled around in the stables.”

Zoro racked his patchy memory, wondering silently if maybe that had happened at some point. There were quite a few hours that seemed to have erased themselves from his mind, and the worry that he had somehow humiliated himself at some point buzzed in the back of his mind. He pulled his shirt off and tossed it onto the stone floor, careful to avoid letting it drop onto one of the many ornate rugs.

After wetting and wringing out the towel, Sanji walked back over to Zoro and covered his eyes and forehead. “Hold that.” Like an obedient child, Zoro lifted his hands to hold the cool towel to his face. It felt nice, soothing the tension behind his eyes and comforting the pounding in his head. “Now tilt your head back. I’ll get you some water.”

Zoro sat slouched in his chair, arms crossed and head back with the towel dripping onto the floor. He wasn’t eager to break the silence, but he was growing increasingly suspicious. “Why are you being so… kind to me?” He took the towel from his eyes, blinking in the bright light. He turned to face his master. “I thought you’d be furious.” He took the water Sanji offered, holding it in both hands.

There was a flicker in Sanji’s eyes as his expression hardened ever so slightly. He reached out and clamped a hand on Zoro’s shoulder. “Now, why would I be furious over you being sick? You know very well that I care for you and your wellbeing. Unless, something else happened? Something that you know would make me mad?” Sanji watched Zoro’s stony face like a hawk, looking for any micro expression to give away his thoughts. “You’re going to tell me what happened last night, Zoro.”

Zoro chewed on his lip, turning away from Sanji. He was running through his mind every last detail he would need to keep out of his story to avoid bringing any of Sanji’s attention down on Ace. Sanji gripped his chin and turned his head back to face him, forcing eye contact again.

“You can’t lie to me, and I won’t ask again.”

Sighing, Zoro conceded, explaining the situation of the night before. “The guards had me join in with the recruits for their initiation. They gave us tasks and the better we did the more we were given to drink.” He watched as Sanji processed this, the prince clearly displeased with his anwer.

“Why would you let people you don’t even care about humiliate you just for the reward of spirits? I’m certain we could have gotten some ourselves if all you wanted was to get drunk.” Sanji folded his arms, resetting his face so it was void of emotion. He couldn’t understand how Zoro would rather experience his first time getting drunk with people he barely knew than with him in the comfort of a royal suite. He was convinced there was something more to it.

Zoro shrugged, “I’d heard other knights and guardsmen talk about their own initiations and it sounded like fun.” He’d always been envious of the stories the other men in the barracks would tell. He’d never been able to relate to them since he’d grown up trailing on Sanji’s coattails. He finally felt like he’d gotten to experience what someone of his rank should. It was like a right of passage.

Even though he was still convinced that Zoro was hiding something from him, Sanji decided to stop pressing. He wasn’t going to get any further with the stubborn grass head. “Fine, but if you think I’m not going to keep you on a shorter leash then you are sadly mistaken.”

Zoro furrowed his brow, familiar unease settling in the pit of his stomach. He sighed and let his eyes fall closed before replacing the towel, silently apologizing to Ace. He had a feeling that despite them being so close now, it’d be a while before he’d be allowed to see him.

Ace walked up to Gin looking like a dead man warmed over. Gin returned Ace’s glassy-eyed stare and nodded in greeting. “You’re late,” Gin whispered, “what happened? Where’d you wind up last night? I woke up still in the stables.”

“The washroom apparently. I’ll tell you lat— Wait we were the stables?”

“Yeah, man… for a while. How trashed did you get?”

“Face front!”

Ace fell in line, the last few stragglers falling in behind him. Their clearly annoyed instructor stood at the front, arms squarely crossed as he glared everyone down. “Now, I understand that you all have your tradition of getting inebriated your first night as recruits. You are forgiven today for your disgraceful constitution, but if you show up so irresponsibly sick again you will be risking expulsion from the royal army. Is. That. Clear.”

All of the recruits straightened up a little bit more. This guy gave off some seriously dangerous vibes, and none of them wanted to draw his attention. “I am Sir Lucci. I will be your instructor in the art of hand to hand combat, the first of many difficult hurdles on your path to becoming warriors.”

Ace couldn’t help but pull a dissatisfied face. He already knew how to throw a punch. He was looking forward to learning how to use a sword properly. He had a vague fantasy of one day challenging Zoro to a friendly competition, a one on one duel for an audience of two. He supposed he had a ways to go before he’d get to his friend’s level, but he still looked forward to the day they’d get to have a proper match. He couldn’t help the small smile that crept onto his face. It was a strange yet refreshing feeling that washed over him as he thought of Zoro. It had been so long since he’d made a friend. It was such a new exciting feeling and it brought a tingle to Ace’s cheeks. He was only brought out of his musings by a hand on his shoulder.

“Yo, I spaced out while that guy was talking. Do you have any idea what the hell we’re supposed to be doing right now?” Gin looked around as everyone started pairing off. “I only got as far as find a partner.”

“Ahhh, well, that’s more than I got,” Ace drawled. Now that he was no longer distracted by his own thoughts he felt the headache return full force. “Let’s just find a spot in back and try and copy what other people are doing.” It was a bit of a shaky start, but Ace and Gin got a handle on the exercises, falling into the repetitive patterns with ease. They were soon to learn that these were just the warm ups, the truly grueling workout was yet to come. By the end of the day, nearly half of the recruits had vomited at some point, a couple of them unable to get up from the ground out of pure exhaustion.

Ace had his hands on his knees as he worked to catch his breath. His muscles burned and his skin felt hot, not to mention that he hadn’t had any food since the night before. Which normally wouldn’t bother him, but after a full day’s workout his stomach was practically screaming at him to eat something. “Damn, how soon is dinner?” He stumbled forward, spots dancing across his vision. “I feel like I’m gonna faint.”

“Better be soon or I might actually lose it.” Gin grunted from where he sat on the ground. He was examining the bruises that were slowly starting to form up all along his forearms and down to his knuckles. “Damn, I knew this was gonna be work, but I’m destroyed. Tomorrow’s gonna be even worse.”

Ace tisked, “Quit complaining, what did you expect? We’re not guests here, we’re here to be put to work. These people could give two shits about how we’re feeling.”

Gin looked a little taken aback by Ace’s sudden harshness. “Don’t take it out on me just because you’re hungry.” He rolled his eyes before standing up, stretching out his sore arms. “Man, you’re a lot more fun when Zoro’s around. You were all about the good times last night.”

“I think the alcohol may have had something to do with that.” Ace huffed a laugh, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d forgotten something important. It creeped up his spine and tugged at his heart. He gently shook his head to try and shut down that train of thought. “Let’s go see if dinner’s ready.”

“Sounds good, I’m right behind you.” Gin reached up in a silent request for help. Ace extended a hand and weakly helped Gin to his feet. The boys stood for a moment before their exhausted limbs gave out and they collapsed back to the ground.

Ace stared up at the sky as it dimmed with the setting sun. ‘By the Gods, Zoro,’ he thought to himself, ‘what have I gotten myself into…’

The first week seemed to crawl by at a snail's pace. By the end of the month, Ace had more or less gotten used to the routine. Six days a week, the recruits were working hard for ten hours out of the day learning various skills. On top of all the different combat skills they were required to practice, every soldier that hadn’t been able to prove they were literate were forced into basic lessons. It was the only time out of their day that Ace and Gin were separated. Gin’s mother had taught him the basics of reading and arithmetic from an early age, so he was one of the few that got an extra two hours of free time in the evening.

Ace on the other the other hand couldn't even recite the alphabet. More so than any of the grueling physical exercises, he hated these lessons with a passion. He’d never been made to feel so intellectually inadequate. Give him a fight and he’d face it head on, but learning to write was a nightmare, arithmetic even more so. The teacher was nice enough, and he was picking up enough of the lesson to coast by, but he couldn't focus for the life of him. He’d always get distracted and stare out the window for most of the time. It would occasionally get to the point where he couldn't stand it anymore, and he’d find an excuse to leave.

Today was one such day where Ace was feeling particularly fidgety. As he was watching various individuals mill about the rear yard, Ace noticed a very unique, veryfamiliar, shock of green hair making its way towards the barracks. The young recruit threw his hand up and begged to be excused to relieve himself. He never met any argument with that excuse.

Ace hurried out of the small classroom, practically jogging through the halls of the barracks in the hopes he could cross paths with Zoro. He peeked around every corner, hoping he wasn’t already too late.

It had gotten increasingly difficult for Zoro to get time away from Sanji, nearly impossible. He had only run into Ace once while crossing the training grounds in opposite directions. They exchanged brief words, both boys unable to contain how happy they were with the chance encounter, even risking getting scolded for pausing to swap quick updates on each other’s lives. This was three weeks ago.

Zoro was happy that he finally had an afternoon to himself after spending the last month in Sanji’s nearly constant company. Sword in hand at long last, he was determinedly striding down the barrack halls, adrenaline thrummed through his veins as he eagerlyanticipated getting back to training. He turned a corner and by chance he saw Ace walking briskly ahead of him and ran to catch up. Ace turned around at the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps, face stern until he recognized who was approaching him.

“Zoro!” He cocked a crooked grin, walking towards his friend and pulling him into a tight hug. “I saw you heading this way from the window, I was hoping I could find you. It’s good to see you, man.”

Zoro returned the hug, thumping him on the back before letting go. “Glad I caught you then. You just finishing up with lessons?” He pulled away, the two of them basking in one another’s company as the world around them seemed to melt away.

“No, no, just ran out for a quick break when I saw you crossing the yard.” Ace leaned in and lowered his voice, “Did his royal brattiness finally let you out of sight?” Zoro pulled a displeased frown, which got a laugh and an apology out of Ace. “You know I feel like it was easier to see you when I lived in the lower city.”

“I know. Sanji’s been more paranoid than usual, but recently something’s been keeping him preoccupied. He keeps getting pulled to court so I’ve finally been able to get back to training.” He waggled his sword to emphasize. They stood in comfortable silence for another moment, neither boy knowing how to vocalize how much they had been missing one another’s company.

“I, uh, they let us have free reign on saturdays, and friday nights, technically. I’ve gotten to see my brothers a couple times since leaving to come here.” It was a lame way to bring it up, but Ace found himself feeling weirdly shy about inviting Zoro to hang out. Was that even allowed? He wasn’t sure.

“I’m glad you got to see them.” The boys nodded, trying to come up with more idle chit chat. They looked around, making sure no one was approaching. “So, um…” Zoro fumbled, looking down at his sword as he gripped at the scabbard, shifting it in his hand as he searched for the right words. “I still have that rope you guys left. I’ll see if I can get my friday night off away from my duties.”

Ace’s eyes brightened and he flashed another one of his radiant, cockeyed smiles. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll come by.” His brow then furrowed, excitement melting into unease. “You sure Sanji will let you out of his sight for the night? He’s been keeping you locked in his ivory tower ever since initiation night. I can’t imagine he’s eager to let you have any fun.”

“Yeah, well,” Zoro bit his lip, “I’m fine with taking a chance. You stand to lose more than me, you sure you want to risk it?” Worst case scenario would be Sanji discovering that Zoro had made a friend and had kept it from him. That would undoubtedly anger the prince and he didn’t want to expose Ace to that.

Ace waggled his head as he briefly weighed the pros and cons. “I’d say it’s definitely been worth the risk.” Immedietlly embarrassed by what he said, Ace’s brow wrinkled up in a scowl and diverted his attention to the floor. He completely missed the small smile Zoro shot at him. “I mean, you agree, right?”

“Some of the most fun I’ve ever had, to be honest.”

They wanted to stay and continue talking, but both Zoro and Ace knew that they couldn’t stand around forever. They had places to be and there were sure to be others roaming the barracks’ hallways. It wouldn’t be good if they were caught idling.

“So, um,” Zoro started awkwardly, unable to maintain extended eye contact, “if I can get the night off I’ll leave a light in my window.”

“Yeah, sounds good, I will see you then. Possibly, I mean. Hopefully! I, um…”

“Yeah,” Zoro cut off. The two exchanged an awkward, choppy goodbye before heading off in separate directions. They were both already excited for the week’s end.

Zoro had been hard at work destroying training dummies when a handservant called out to him, passing along Sanji’s summons for him. With a heavy sigh and a little more slouch to his shoulders, Zoro packed up and went straight to Sanji’s quarters. When he arrived, Sanji was sitting in a lounge chair by one of the windows, caughing gently as he smoked from a pipe.

“I didn’t know you started smoking.” This unsettled Zoro a little. He thought he knew everything about the prince, whether he had wanted to or not. When had Sanji started keeping things from him?

“Leave it alone. It relaxes me.” Sanji mumbled, tapping the ash onto a tray before refilling thepipe with another pinch of tobacco. “Sit down, I’ve got something important to discuss with you.”

Setting his gear down by the door, Zoro approached slowly, taking the chair opposite Sanji. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”

Taking his time lighting a match and puffing on the pipe, Sanji seemed to be milking the stretch of tense silence. The truth of it was, he was almost afraid to say it. Saying it made it real. “Zoro, I…” he took a deep breath, hissing a sigh and making smoke curl up from between his lips. “I think we’re headed for war.”

Chapter Text

Zoro was in shock. He didn’t move, he didn’t speak. He wasn’t even sure if his face had moved. When he finally found his voice it was calm, soothing even, as if he was completely unfazed by the destressing news. “You’re sure? Is that what all those council meetings have been about?”

Sanji nodded. “Word has reached us that there have been several instances of people getting attacked in the lower city, some of them even going missing. After last year with what happened with those spies — assassins, whatever — we’re assuming that this has been going on for a while. This means that the kingdom of Dressrosa has decided to ignore our warning.” Sanji sighed as he pinched his brow. Instinctively, Zoro got up and went to the buffet in the dining area. He poured Sanji a glass of water, adding a couple drops of peppermint as he always did whenever the prince wasn’t feeling well. He wasn’t even sure if it worked, but it usually seemed to make the prince feel better.

Sanji was grateful, but he set the water aside untouched. He took another puff off the pipe instead, holding back a cough. “The five northern kingdoms have been at peace for the last four generations. It’s been a little unstable at times, but we still managed to maintain a decent enough relationship. Now, Dressrosa is going to ruin it for everyone. They’re making these stupid claims and are threatening thousands of lives just because they’re too stubborn to listen to reason.” This was all classified information, not to be shared outside the court, but Sanji could already feel the pressure from his anxiety starting to lessen as he opened up to his friend. “There’s going to be a summit at the week’s end with two of the other northern countries to try and see if they’ll ally with us. Speaking of, there’s something important I need to teach you.”

“Teach me?”

Sanji took another long drag from his pipe, his breath shuddering gently as he exhaled. He waved off Zoro’s question. “Worry about that tomorrow.”

Zoro was unsure of what to say. He sat back down across from the prince, who still had yet to look at him. There was a deep furrow in Sanji’s brow. His bright blue eyes had grown dull and were developing dark circles under them, as if he hadn’t slept properly in weeks. Even his usually immaculate hair was disheveled and lacking its usual shine.  

“You look exhausted.”

“Thank you,” Sanji snorted humorlessly. “It’s been hell, knowing that I’m going to be taking on the throne while the country’s torn by war.” He took one last puff, finishing it off. “Four generations... and the bastards couldn’t have at least waited one more cycle, huh?” He tapped out the ash, putting the pipe and tobacco away. He finally turned and faced his friend, looking more like a frightened child than a ruler in training. “I don’t want this, Zoro. I don’t want to have to lead my people into a war I don’t believe in. We’re going to be defending ourselves, losing lives, over nothing. I haven’t been able to sleep, I can barely eat. I don’t… I can’t…” He dropped his head into his hands, staring at the floor between their feet as he slumped in his chair. “It’s all happening so fast that I feel like I can’t keep up. It all feels so surreal to me, like a bad dream.”

Zoro sat forward, elbows on his knees. He could feel that gnawing compulsion to soothe and comfort his master. Sanji had been trying hard to be the strong, regal figure everyone expected him to be, but at the end of the day he was only fourteen. He was still a child, even if the kingdom no longer saw him as one. “You have a lot on your plate right now. I’m your right hand. You can share your burden with me, that’s what I’m here for.”

Sanji looked up again, eyes catching Zoro’s steady gaze which immediately helped put the prince a little more at ease. He reached out and took Zoro’s hands, bringing them to his messy, golden locks. “Spoil me,” he quietly demanded as he bowed his head.

Zoro obliged, gently massaging the prince’s scalp and raking his fingers through his hair. He could feel him relaxing under his touch, folding over further and further. Sanji reached for Zoro’s legs, hooking his fingers behind Zoro’s knees and pulling his lap closer. Zoro scooted forward until Sanji could settle his face on his legs. The prince snaked his arms around Zoro’s waist, nuzzling gently into his lap.

Zoro quirked an incredulous brow at the awkwardly folded form in his lap. “That cannot be comfortable.”

“It’s fine.”

“...I’m pretty dirty. Your face is—”

“Zoro, I don’t care,” Sanji cut in. “I’m just happy you’re with me here.” He tightened his grip, rubbing his face against the muscular thighs beneath him. While breathing in the smell of steel, dirt, and sweat, the prince felt the stress draining away. “Stay with me tonight.”

Zoro’s fingers stopped preening and he sighed quietly. “Sanji—”

“I’m not asking. I need you here.” Sanji’s voice was tense, desperate. Tension was returning to his body and even Zoro could feel it. “Just like when we were little and you’d stay with me after I had a nightmare.”

Shoulders slumping as he resumed giving Sanji a head massage, Zoro conceded. “Alright… Alright, I’ll stay. Just for tonight.”

Sanji pulled himself up, shooting a childish scowl at Zoro for trying to tell him what to do. “I’m your master, you don’t get to make the rules.”

Zoro huffed a small laugh at the familiar juvenile behavior, gently ruffling Sanji’s hair before letting go and standing up again. He decided to change the subject, not wanting to unwittingly commit himself to any promises. “I’m going to draw your bath. I’ll make sure your dinner’s on the table for when you’re done.” He strode towards the wash room before turning and pointing at the prince. “And drink your water. If you’re not taking care of your health then I’ll catch hell for it.”

Sanji blew his bangs out of his face. “Yes, yes,” he dismissed, waving Zoro off as he sipped at the peppermint infused water. It was icy cold against his sore throat and he could feel when it hit his empty stomach. He watched his friend’s figure as it retreated, quietly admiring the view. He had worried that the two of them had grown distant as of late, but Sanji was pleased to see that Zoro still obviously cared for him and his well-being and was willing to pamper him. He hummed in contentment, looking forward to dinner and a bath.

Once he was finally alone, the weight of everything that Sanji had told him rest heavily on Zoro’s mind. He thought of Luffy and Sabo down in the lower city and worried whether they were alright. Ace had mentioned seeing them recently and Zoro knew that they could hold their own in a fight, but, again, they were just kids. They had been able to overtake Zoro together, but trained assassins? He felt a creeping dread of powerlessness. How could he protect those boys without bringing attention to the fact that he’d been maintaining secret relations with the low class? Even if he thought up a convincing lie, would Sanji grant him leave and let him outside the palace walls? And on the off chance that that was allowed, what was he supposed to do? Camp outside their house?

He shook his head, drawing his thoughts back from his own personal problems to the greater threat at hand. If things progressed as Sanji had said, in a matter of months it was more than likely they would be at war. The king wouldn’t back down if threatened, and he wouldn’t stand for the insult of Dressrosa ignoring his incredibly blatant warning. Simply on a manner of principal, their king was ready to send thousands of people to their deaths. Zoro was torn between rage and understanding of the situation. If the kingdom was violated, they would need to react accordingly. If Dressrosa continued to harm their citizens, they would need to defend them. It made sense.

He cursed and gripped at his hair as he scolded himself. He knew that if he had simply kept his distance, if he hadn’t formed a bond with those ruffians he now called friends, he could keep his chin up and prepare to fulfill his sworn duty. He wouldn’t be doubting himself or feeling conflicted over his loyalties. His sole loyalty was meant to be Sanji. He was his protector, of mind and body. If he couldn’t even manage that, then what was his purpose?

As he watched the bath water slowly rise, his thoughts wandered back to Ace. He knew the strategy should Dressrosa send their forces. The new recruits and the civilian soldiers would be at the front lines, a wall of bodies to be used to slow the enemy as the archers took care of what they could before the armed forces were sent in. It made Zoro sick to think Ace’s life would be thrown against the steel of the enemy with almost the expectation that he wouldn’t make it out alive. His fingers dug in harder as he grew more and more frustrated, roughly raking at his scalp and catching on the raised scars. It was a sense of helplessness he’d never felt so deeply, gripping at his core and sparking a fire of anger deep in his gut. A hand clamped down on his shoulder and Zoro’s head snapped up, eyes wild at the unexpected touch.

“Are you alright? Did you not hear me calling for you?” Sanji’s brow was wrinkled with concern as his eyes scanned Zoro’s face. He noticed how Zoro’s breathing caught in his throat as he worked to collect himself and close off his emotions. He hadn’t thought that Zoro would be so distraught by the news.

“I was thinking about what you said.” He turned away from Sanji. He was facing the bath, but his eyes were unfocused as he tried to calm his mind.

“I figured as much.” Sanji pulled a frown before wrapping his arms around Zoro’s shoulders from behind, letting his chin rest atop the messy crop of grass. “I didn’t mean to worry you when I told you those things. It’s out of our hands, at least for right now. Try not to let it rest too heavily on you.” He nuzzled his nose in Zoro’s hair, breathing a sigh. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to keep you safe.”

Zoro snorted with distaste, “I’m supposed to be telling you that. What good am I as a warrior and a right hand if I can’t even protect the one person I’m meant to?”

Sanji pressed a kiss to the top of Zoro’s head. “I know you’ll protect me, but you’re a bigger idiot than I thought if you honestly expect me to send you out to the front lines where some random soldier without a title to his name could strike you down. I’m not losing you to anyone.”

“...As if someone like that could defeat me…” Zoro felt heat on his scalp where Sanji had kissed him, even after he’d let go to get undressed. It was strange, but he was growing accustomed to Sanji’s occasional displays of physical affection. He knew it was how the prince reassured him of his love, but Zoro still sometimes wondered exactly how deep that love ran. He’d figured that if Sanji wasn’t going to bring it up that it was probably best to not draw attention to it. Either way, he did feel a little better no longer being trapped in the vicious whirlpool of his inner monologue. He had Sanji to to thank for pulling him out.

“Your hubris will be your downfall.” Sanji snarked, throwing a smirk over his shoulder until he realized that Zoro was still trying to figure out if he’d been insulted or not. “It means overconfidence.”

“Then just say that… damn brainiac…” He muttered the last bit under his breath, but it still managed to reach Sanji’s sensitive ears. The second Zoro turned to leave, there was a rustling, the crack of a whip, and then a sudden sting on his ass. He jumped slightly in surprise. His hands went to his rear as he turned to give Sanji a look, but the prince was already twisting up a towel for another crack.

“Punishment for insulting your master.”

“Seriously?!”

“Always.”

“You’re such an a—” SNAP. “Ow!”

Friday night rolled around, and, just as he and Ace had planned, Zoro lit a lamp and set it on the window sill. He turned away from the window and went to wash off the muck from a full day’s work. As he wiped his face and neck, he realized he couldn’t quite pump himself up to the level of excitement he should’ve been feeling in anticipation of Ace’s arrival. Instead, he felt a fog of solemnness he couldn’t shake. What Sanji had told him earlier that week was still simmering in the back of his mind. There was a serious chance that Ace’s brothers could be in danger. It would betray Sanji’s trust, but he felt Ace deserved to know.

Then again, what good would it do to worry Ace over something he couldn’t do anything about? He looked up to face himself in the small, tarnished mirror that sat above his wash basin. Zoro had been distracting himself from trying to decide what to do all week, figuring that he’d go with whatever felt right in the moment. He resisted the urge to dump the whole pitcher of water over his head, deciding the cleanup wouldn’t be worth a few seconds of repreve. He slapped himself a couple times instead, annoyed that Sanji’s tendency to overthink was starting to infect him. He used to be so sure of everything. Was this what growing up meant; having more questions than answers? He slapped himself again.

“Stupid…” he grumbled, finally pulling away from his scowling reflection to go and flop down on his bed. He was starting to fall asleep when he heard the sound of a small stone hitting the floor. He pushed himself up right before another small rock hit the wall just outside his window. He got up and went to look outside, seeing a shadow in the dark that appeared to be winding up for another throw.

When Ace saw the tan face of his friend, gently illuminated by the lamp, he couldn’t contain a smile and waved. Zoro disappeared again with the light and a moment later a rope descended from the window, nearly hitting the freckled teen square in the face. He took a look around, making sure no one saw him before starting up the rope. The climb was easier this time, Ace’s muscles having grown considerably stronger with the rigorous training. He pulled himself in through the window and gracelessly deposited himself at Zoro’s feet.

“Hey there. How’s it goin?”

Zoro cocked an eyebrow as a small smile spread across his face. “Evening.” He set the lamp down on his side table as Ace picked himself up off the floor. “You’re welcome to wash if you like.”

“Yeah, thanks, I will.”

Zoro pulled up the rope, eyes shifting back and forth as he bundled the grapple. When he turned around, coiled rope in hand, Ace was shirtless and splashing water over his face and combing the water through his hair with his fingers. He noticed that the older boy had bulked up, no longer wiry with his bones showing beneath his skin. Zoro could see the clear outlines of growing muscles across his back and shoulders. Even without flexing his arms he could clearly see that they were developing definition. Zoro swallowed, his mouth suddenly and inexplicably dry.

“Do—” his voice cracked. He cleared his throat and tried again, “a towel? Would you—do you need one?”

Ace shook his hands off into the bowl. “Yes, please, thank you.” Ace took the proffered towel and quickly dried off, letting it hang around his shoulders to catch the drips from his hair. “Thanks for that, I feel way better.”

Zoro nodded, giving a pleased grunt. “Want a drink?” He watched as Ace‘s face turned up in an uneasy smile, unable to keep from laughing a little. “Don’t worry, it’s not enough to get us as drunk as we were during initiation. I won’t force you if you don’t want to, though.” He went to his wardrobe and pulled a jug he’d hidden earlier in the week. “How’s basic? Are you kicking ass yet?”

“Ah, well, I think I’ve got a handle on it. First week or so I actually thought that, like, my body was gonna tear itself apart. The second day I could barely walk, and I felt like I was gonna puke all day.” He laughed a little before turning to look at Zoro, watching him as he took a swig from the jug. Ace subconsciously licked his lips, eyes darting to Zoro’s throat as it bobbed. He snapped back to attention and followed Zoro’s lead, joining him on the bed. He took the jug when Zoro offered it. Wanting to show off, he took a heavy swig, trying not to choke at the harsh taste of the wine.

“Yeah, it’s a bit stronger than the ale.” Zoro took his turn, hissing through his teeth. “I can tell you’ve gotten stronger, though. You look it.”

“Yeah?” Ace smirked and flexed his arm proudly. “I might even be stronger than you by now.”

“Like hell you are.”

“Oh? Wanna put that to the test?” Ace challenged, the fire of his competitive spirit burning behind his eyes.

“First,” Zoro took a second swig before handing the jug back, “you gotta prove whether or not you can outdrink me.”

“Ha! If you’ll recall, I drank more than you at initiation.” Ace took a couple gulps. Now that a contest had been instigated there was no way he was going to let himself get shown up.

“You also got sicker than me.” Zoro smirked as he took the jug. “You know, I still can’t really remember most of what happened after that axe throwing challenge.”

“...There was an axe throwing challenge?”

The two of them laughed and drank into the night, scooting closer and closer as the time passed. Their thighs were pressed against each other while they took turns leaning gently on one another. As they grew more and more tipsy, they allowed themselves casual touches on the shoulder, the knee, testing to see where their boundaries lay.

“You know, Ace,” Zoro leaned down to set the still half full jug on the floor, “you’re pretty amazing.”

“Oh?” Ace immediately berated himself for the lame response all while trying to maintain a poker face.

“Yeah, I’ve… mnn… I guess I’ve just... never known anyone like you before. You’re…” Zoro ran a hand through his hair, suddenly feeling incredibly embarrassed. The heat in his cheeks was no longer just from the alcohol. He wished he was better at forming the words to communicate his thoughts.

As Zoro ruffled his hair, Ace could see the scars peeking out beneath the tufts of green. A weight started to settle on his chest. “Man…” Zoro turned to look over at Ace and was confused by the conflicted expression on his face. “I still feel real guilty for leaving that scar on you.”

Zoro shrugged it off. “It’s not so bad. I forget about it most days. Besides, we weren't friends when it happened. If this had happened, like, last week I’d pro’ly have a bone to pick with you.”

“We were gonna steal your sword, hold you for ransom...”

Zoro barked a laugh at that. “I don’t believe that for a second. You guys aren’t nearly underhanded enough to actually follow through with something like that. Maybe you’d thought about it, but you and your brothers are good people. You guys were victims of your circumstances. In fact,” Zoro cocked his brow and smirked, “I think it makes me look kinda cool; more like a warrior.”

A fond yet silly expression lit up Ace’s face, a quiet laugh escaping him. “God, how did someone like you get trapped in a place like this. You should be up in Skypiea with the gods.”

Zoro stiffened a little at that, reaching down to grab the jug again. “Mm, those so-called gods aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. At the end of the day they’re just people blessed with white hair from birth.”

Ace realized that he had touched a nerve. Even though he now had numerous questions popping into mind, he didn’t want to irritate Zoro more than he already had. He took the jug when it was his turn and swigged as he tried to think of something to say.

“You are also one of the most selfless and kind-hearted people I’ve ever met,” he bumped his shoulder against Zoro’s, “even though people seem to be a little afraid of you. You’ve got that killer scowl.” He pressed a finger to the creases in Zoro’s forehead, smoothing them out and pulling a smirk out of his friend.

Zoro swiped the jug back, lifting it to his lips. “Damn straight they should be afraid. It’s basic instinct for prey to fear a predator.”

Ace laughed and wrapped an arm around Zoro’s neck, pulling him in to ruffle his hair. “You’re also one hell of a cocky bastard!”

“Hey, careful! I’m going to spill, Ace, hold on!”

Ace relaxed his grip as Zoro put down the wine, but they immediately went back to gently roughhousing when they were no longer in danger of spilling. Ace pulled them backwards so they were lying back on the bed with Zoro’s head still in a neck lock. Zoro twisted and writhed until he was free, moving immediately to pin Ace down. He had flipped Ace onto his stomach and had one arm twisted up behind his back, but not so much that it hurt.

Ace was both surprised and curiously excited by Zoro’s display of strength and agility. Ace knew that he’d gotten stronger since he’d started training, but he still had a ways to go before he matched the boy who’d been training for most of his life.

“Alright, alright, you win, you win!”

“You give up, then?”

“Yes, o great and mighty master, I give up. My life is yours.” Ace’s voice was dripping with sarcasm, but Zoro laughed and let go, content with his victory. He sat up and reached for the jug again, but Ace remained prostrate on the bed, only moving to roll over onto his back. He looked up at the boy sitting next to him. He felt a swell of pride warm his chest as he thought about how lucky he was. He had a godsend of a friend who also thought that he, the unwanted hoodrat, was also an amazing person. That blew Ace’s mind.

His gaze wandered back to the now hidden scars. It had been over a year since then; so much had changed. In a way, they marked the beginning of their relationship. He had a growing desire to feel them. “Is it... weird that I kinda wanna touch your scars?”

His breath hitched in his throat, but Zoro shook his head, “I wouldn’t find it weird.” He turned to partially face Ace, too embarrassed to make eye contact. “So, um, you can touch them if you want.”

Slowly, Ace’s fingers ghosted up Zoro’s back, finding their way to his scars. At the first touch of rough fingers to the sensitive skin, Zoro couldn’t help flinching a little, but Ace was gentle. The older boy paused his hand for a moment before letting his fingertips gently trace over the raised lines. Only the sound of nervous, shaky breathing filled the room as Ace explored the full extent of the mark he’d left. His heart was beating wildly, to the point where he could feel it in his throat. It was like he was choking on his own nerves, but at the same time he wanted to pull even closer.

“Hey, lay back with me. It’s hard to reach when you’re so far away.” Was that too obvious? Ace gulped, trying to swallow the lump in his throat. His heart skipped a beat when Zoro lay back, his head unintentionally pinning Ace’s fingers beneath him. Ace’s free thumb continued to stroke his hair as he unabashedly stared at the boy next to him.

“Um, so…” Zoro’s voice was quiet, cracking as he spoke, “I… I think I remember something… from initiation night.” He rolled over onto his side to look at Ace, gaze flicking between Ace’s dark eyes and and his tan lips.

“Yeah? What is… What do you remember?” Ace’s voice was barely above a whisper. He shifted his arm as he rolled over to mirror Zoro, their faces now mere inches from one another. They could feel each others’ breath on their lips.

Zoro huffed a small laugh, Ace returning it. “It looks like you figured it out too,” Zoro said before closing the distance. It was slower this time, gentler than their frenzied kiss in the wash room. Ace’s hand found its way to the back of Zoro’s head, fingers languidly stroking through his hair as they kissed. Zoro brought an unsure hand up to the back of Ace’s neck, pulling him closer. He hummed at the pleasant feeling of Ace’s hand in his hair, opening his mouth to taste the wine on Ace’s tongue.

Time around them seemed to slow, the ambient noises outside the palace faded away as they shared this intimate moment. Zoro cracked his eyes open as they kissed, noticing tiny details he never would’ve seen at a distance. There were a couple of faint freckles on Ace’s eyelids and a small, crescent shaped scar hidden in his eyebrow. A sigh escaped his lips, momentarily stunned by how pretty Ace was. He quickly closed his eyes again before he could get caught staring.

When he heard the small gasp, Ace opened his eyes and immediately noticed how long Zoro’s lashes were as they fluttered gently. He pulled away from the kiss, wanting to get a good look at the boy next to him. His hand slid from the back of Zoro’s head to cup his face, gently stroking his cheek with his thumb. Zoro lazily opened his eyes and Ace was struck by how bright and beautiful they were, like two new copper coins. He was so striking in that moment that Ace’s heart skipped a couple beats.

“I think I like you,” Ace whispered as the realization suddenly dawned on him. He laughed nervously, “I think I like you a lot.”

Zoro smiled and Ace’s heart swelled, the nervousness between them melting away. “I think I like you too, a lot.”

The two giggled drunkenly with the giddiness of young, newfound love as they kissed again. Their faces hurt from smiling so much. Ace pulled away and sat up, scooching up until his legs were fully on the bed. A guiding hand went to Zoro’s hip as he silently encouraged him to follow suit.

Zoro pushed himself up, the two of them now lying fully on the tiny bed. Ace wasted little time reconnecting their lips. He leaned over Zoro, hand going back to cup his cheek. Zoro carded his fingers through the long, dark hair, making Ace practically purr whenever he gave it a gentle tug.

Hours passed, the moon now high in the sky; the jug lay empty next to the bed. Ace had his head on Zoro’s chest, stroking his waist while Zoro lazily toyed with his hair. There was a true feeling of peace as they lay in comfortable silence. Every now and again they would shift so they could sleepily kiss again.

“It’s getting late,” Ace murmured into the kiss, reluctance in his voice. “I should probably get back soon, huh?”

Zoro hummed, stealing one more peck. “Maybe… It’d be bad for both of us if you fell asleep here.”

Ace followed his lips when Zoro pulled back. “I know I should,” kiss, “but,” kiss, “you’re making it,” kiss, “difficult to want to.”

“Mmm…” Zoro patted Ace on the chest, “you’re partly to blame, you know.”

Ace chuckled, finally managing to tear himself away from his new love. “Alright, I think I’m sober enough to handle the climb down.”

Neither boy wanted this to come to an end, but they knew better than to do anything that would risk them getting caught. With heavy reluctance, Zoro fetched the rope, hooking the grapple and dropping the rope. Ace carefully climbed onto the sill and started to lower himself.

“Hey,” he clung to the sill and leaned in slightly. Zoro met him halfway for lingering goodnight kiss. “Sleep tight, Zoro.”

“Goodnight, Ace.” Zoro watched as the older boy descended, waving him off and watching him dart off into the night under the cover of shadow. He pulled the rope, picking up the empty bottle and the towel on his way, and tucked everything back in his wardrobe. He collapsed on the bed with a giddy smile, falling into a deep, peaceful sleep with the smell of Ace on his pillow.

Sanji snapped awake in a cold sweat, breath coming in panicked gasps: another nightmare. He reached for the pitcher of water beside his bed that Zoro had prepared for him the night before. He poured himself a tall glass, downing the whole thing in one go. Today was the day, the other royal families were arriving later that day and his stomach was already in knots.

Right on cue, the heavy bedroom door clanked and swung open. Zoro stepped in with breakfast, face as stoic as ever, but he was practically glowing. If he were the sort of person to do so, he’d be singing to the birds and humming in the halls. His heart felt light and he was filled with a happiness he’d never experienced before. Sanji immediately picked up on the unusual mood, practically seeing the flowers and sparkles emanating from his friend.

“You’re awfully chipper this morning. Did something happen?” He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stretched his arms up above his head.

Zoro faltered for a moment, worried for a split second that Sanji somehow knew about him and Ace. He forced himself back down into his usual mask of calm indifference. “I slept well last night.”

“Ahh, no midnight training session then? That’s unusual for you.” Sanji sat at his table and began to pick at his breakfast, trying to inspire an appetite. “I know I complain about being unable to sleep, but you’ve always had issues with that too, huh?”

Zoro shrugged as he poured Sanji’s morning tea, wanting to take the attention off himself. “Did you sleep alright? You didn’t call for me last night.”

Sanji ran his hand through his hair. “I slept, but not well. Fetch me my pipe, would you?”

“This early?” Zoro frowned, “This is becoming a habit for you.”

“Shut up, don’t scold me. We’ve got guests arriving today for the summit tomorrow. Smoking helps me relax, quiet the buzzing thoughts in my head.” He sighed and turned to look out the window. “Our guests should be arriving in a couple of hours, make sure you’re dressed in your formal tunic.”

“May I wear my ceremonial armor instead?”

“Yes, fine, whatever. Give it here.” Sanji practically snatched the box from Zoro’s hands before quickly packing the tobacco into his pipe. “You won’t be training today, you’re to accompany me until the evening, do you understand?”

Zoro nodded, noting Sanji’s irritable mood. He’d have to pay extra attention to the prince today, he could already tell. “I’ll fetch hot water so you can clean up. I’ll return shortly.” He bowed and excused himself, glancing back at Sanji’s troubled expression. He felt a twinge of guilt for being so happy while Sanji was clearly in distress, but he shook it off. Nothing could be done to make their country’s situation disappear overnight. He had to remind himself that was allowed to have his happiness. It didn’t happen often, he deserved this. He just… needed to keep it together around Sanji for the time being.

Hurrying to fetch Sanji’s water, Zoro returned just as he was refilling his pipe, breakfast practically untouched. He gave the prince a reproachful look, but said nothing. He set the water down and went to pick out Sanji’s clothes for the day, acutely aware of Sanji’s gaze following him around the room.

“You know, it’s nice to see you in such a good mood.” Sanji cracked a small smile, his first in days. “It puts me at ease.” He puffed on the pipe, no longer coughing when the harsh smoke filled his lungs. He blew a couple rings before letting the rest out on a sigh. “You’ve been so serious lately. I have to thank whatever got that sour look off your face.”

“I just got a full night’s sleep is all.”

Sanji hummed, clearly not buying it, but if Zoro was happy, he was happy. “Help me get dressed before you leave to change.”

“What about your breakfast?” Sanji tried to wave it off, but Zoro wouldn’t let him. “You’re losing weight again.” He sat down at the table kitty-corner from Sanji and speared a wedge of tomato. “Open up, we’re doing this.”

Sanji was all set to indignantly protest being treated like a recalcitrant child, but he was weak to any and all special attention Zoro gave him. He obediently opened his mouth and let Zoro feed him. He chewed slowly at every bite. It was the only way he felt he could continue to be a little difficult while still abiding Zoro’s wishes. He felt his cheeks warm up a little, touched by the level of care Zoro displayed.

“I love you.” He hadn’t meant to say it, but it slipped out nonetheless. Sanji wasn’t ashamed of it anymore, but more than anything he didn’t want to scare Zoro off like the last time he confessed. However, unlike his expectations, Zoro didn’t even flinch. He just picked up a roll and started to saw it in half.

“I know,” Zoro finally replied after a long pause, “now eat.”

“Don’t wanna.”

“I can hold this here all day if you’d like.” Zoro had spread some soft cheese on half of the roll and was holding it inches from Sanji’s lips.

Sanji felt his heart sink in his chest. Zoro had brushed off that ‘I love you’ so easily, like it hadn’t even registered. It crushed the prince to think that his feelings couldn’t reach his friend even when they were so blatantly presented. Zoro could feel it the second Sanji’s mood dropped, as if the air around them had gone still and cold. The little bit of life that had come back to those bright blue eyes was fading away again. The prince heaved a sigh and turned away from the food.

“I can’t eat anymore,” and with that, he picked up his pipe and started smoking again.

Zoro set the plate and silverware back on the tray, covering it. He stood and reached out to gently pat Sanji’s head. “I’m proud of you for eating some of it at least.” Sanji turned his despondent expression up at Zoro, face like a wounded puppy. An icy arrow of emotion that Zoro couldn’t quite place shot through him, and before he could think about what he was doing he placed a kiss on Sanji’s brow.

“It should go without saying, but I also care for you.” He gave a relieved sigh when he saw a sparkle glint behind Sanji’s eyes. “Now, eat your goddamn breakfast.”

A grand procession of trumpeters and knights in showy, formal armor escorted the first royal family to arrive in a grand display of welcome. A group of village children were scattering flower petals as they skipped down the main road, laying a colorful carpet across the cobblestone.

The king and his family stood proudly at the top of their front steps, Mihawk stationed at the bottom with his apprentice, Zoro, at his side. A couple of servants were stationed just beyond the steps, ready to assist with toting luggage. Guardsman lined the courtyard, the bright red pennons on their spears lazily rolling in the breeze. Excited cheers followed the carriages into the courtyard. There hadn’t been outside royalty in the city since Sanji’s birth. Everyone in the kingdom was excited, but they also couldn’t help but wonder what the special occasion was.

The driver hopped down from his seat and hurried to open the carriage door. He stepped aside and a beautiful young girl of about eleven years stepped out. Her long, sky blue hair was done up with silver and pale sapphire ornaments, her kingdom’s royal colors.

“Her royal highness, Princess Vivi Nefertari of Alabasta.” The driver announced as the young princess stepped from the carriage.  Another young girl with bright orange hair following close behind her, carrying the train so the princess’ dress wouldn’t dirty.

“Her royal highness, Queen Titi Nefertari of Alabasta.” The rest of the introductions fell on deaf ears as Sanji stared almost slack jawed at the two beautiful girls that were making their way up the stairs. He had never seen anyone so beautiful, aside from his teacher, and he almost forgot his manners. He quickly bowed low as his father greeted the queen and her daughter, the golden chains on Sanji’s headdress clinking gently at the harsh movement. He only looked up upon hearing his name.

“Prince Sanji, it is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance.” She curtsied, bowing her head. “I’ve heard stories about you, a shame we have to meet in such difficult times.”

“Likewise, Princess, I’ve heard of your beauty and your grace, and the stories could never do you justice.” Zoro could hear everything from where he stood and he wanted to gag. He could tell by a glance at Mihawk’s face that his swordmaster felt similarly. All these formalities were making him itchy. He wanted nothing more than to run off and get back to his training. Standing around in his formal attire waiting for royalty to arrive and exchange meaningless flattery was numbing his mind. His head whipped around when he suddenly heard his name between the lines of poetry.

“Princess, my servant Zoro will show you to your room.” Regaining his composure, Zoro made his way up the steps. He bowed low and greeted them before turning to guide them inside. A sly hand halted him and Sanji leaned in to whisper, “Remember, just like we practiced. I’m trusting you to not get lost.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Zoro’s voice was level, even as a tick formed in his brow. Sanji had made him practice navigating to the guest wing for an hour every day over the last week. It had taken him a few days, but the route had eventually burned itself into his muscle memory.

The trio walked in silence for most of the way there until the girl with the orange hair piped up. “If you’re a servant, why are you dressed like the knights?”

Zoro puffed up with chest, “I’m a knight’s apprentice,” he announced with a hint of smug pride. He stiffened when he heard a scoff come from behind him.

“An apprentice? At your age? Ha, no way! And when addressing me, you are to refer to me as ‘my lady’, understand?” Her tone shifted from amused to haughty so fast Zoro nearly got whiplash.

“Yes… my lady .”

“Man, what’s with that tone? You’re in the presence of Princess Vivi! I’ll have to report you to the prince if you don’t shape up!” The fiery redhead folded her arms and huffed. She was like an aggressive guard dog, Zoro thought to himself.

“Don’t mind Nami, she means well.” Vivi’s soft voice intervened. “Honestly, I would prefer to speak more casually when we’re alone. All of this formality gets exhausting after a couple days.”

“It’s fine when you’re with me,” Nami scolded, “but I won’t allow this ape to be anything less than a gentleman to you.”

This is going to be a long weekend, ’ Zoro bemoaned internally, unable to keep from rolling his eyes as he began to turn down the wrong hallway.

“Oh, it can’t be that way. That would lead back to the grand staircases, wouldn’t it?” Nami piped, having already started to map out the grounds in her mind.

Zoro flinched and about-faced. “My apologies, my lady,” he couldn’t help but turn his head and throw a small smirk over his shoulder, “but I was distracted by this irritating buzz in my right ear. Could that have been you?”

Nami was practically foaming at the mouth as she raved at the boy for disrespecting her, but Vivi couldn’t help but laugh. What an interesting boy the prince had for a servant. He reminded her quite a bit of Nami. She was immediately endeared to him.

“I didn’t think I would get the chance to have fun during the summit, but I look forward to all of us spending time together.” She clapped her hands together, “Perhaps Prince Sanji will join us?”

“Well, the ape here had better keep his charge on a short leash. I can’t have the prince drooling over the princess.”

“He doesn’t drool.”

The two continued to bicker as they wound their way through the elaborate halls. Vivi was delighted by their banter and occasionally broke out into giggles. It was shaping up to be a very interesting weekend, indeed.

Chapter Text

It was several hours later by the time the second royal family appeared over the dunes of golden sand. There were musicians and dancers followed by jugglers, acrobats, and fire twirlers as they lead the royal caravan through the city. The townsfolk stepped from their homes, in awe of the incredible performance that seemed to come out of nowhere. The citizens lined the streets, cheering and waving as the procession made its way towards the castle. It was such an uproarious event that the circus may as well have just come to town.

Zoro was back at his post beside Mihawk, face stoic, but his young, cinnamon eyes betrayed his excitement as he watched the caravan approach. He turned to Mihawk to ask about the party that was pulling up to the gate, but his swordmaster’s face was exceptionally sour in that moment. He curbed his curiosity, not wanting to be the one Mihawk finally snapped at.

The King watched as his dear old friend arrived, surrounded in an air of levity as always. He looked down at the prince whose entire face was shining with wonderment. He could practically see the stars in his son’s eyes.

“Will the dancers and acrobats and everything be at the dinner tonight?” Sanji asked, trying to hide how eager he was, but failing miserably. He was having a hard enough time just standing in place.

“Most likely. He always gifts us a show with dinner. Honestly, it puts our entertainers to shame. Now look sharp, show our guest the attention and respect he deserves. No more dancing about like a fool.” The King made his way down the stairs to personally greet his guest, Sanji trailing at his heels. “Edward! Spectacular entrance as always.” He firmly clasped hands with the visiting king. “It’s been much too long, my friend.”

“Agreed. Young Sanji has grown considerably in the years since I’ve seen him. I can see that he’s become a fine young man.” He clapped a large, heavy hand on the prince’s shoulder, making the boy sway slightly at the impact. “I apologize that my son couldn’t be in attendance this time. He’s currently negotiating with Krieg in the east.”

Tall, broad shouldered, not even the robes he wore could hide all the muscle hidden beneath them. One could tell from his shadow alone that this man was a force to be reckoned with. And even though his eyes were sharp, he had a charisma about him that made you want to put all your faith behind that confident smile. This was Sanji’s first impression of King Edward Newgate. Not that he knew it it yet, but the young prince would often think of this moment and of the impression King Newgate had left. He would remember it as the time he met someone who truly embodied what it meant to be a king and not just a man in a crown.

“It’s an honor to finally make your acquaintance, Your Majesty. My father often speaks well of you.” Sanji bowed to the king, but Newgate brushed aside the formality.

“Come now, let’s get out from under this blazing sun.” Newgate lead the way inside as if he owned the place. Within the five minutes since he’d arrived at the palace gate, Newgate had made the city his own with just the energy he exuded.

Almost unnoticed as he followed behind Newgate was a man with blood red hair and a massive sword at his hip. He wore the armor of a knight, but he held an undeniably powerful presence, walking with the air of a king. Zoro noticed Mihawk prickling and puffing up like an angry cat as this mysterious man approached.

“I’m looking forward to that rematch, Hawkeye.” He threw a wink and a small smile at Mihawk as he passed, earning a distasteful grunt in return.

“Who is—”

“Don’t.”

Zoro didn’t.

Once all the guests had retired to their respective suites, Zoro made his escape to the trainees’ bunkhouse. As he’d expected, Sanji had insisted on being needlessly demanding and it was high time for a moment of reprieve. He found Ace and all the other recruits pressed together like sardines at the door and every available window as they tried to catch a glimpse of the hubbub.

“Zoro!” Ace grinned, perking up like an excitable puppy when he saw his love approaching the bunkhouse for an unexpected visit. He pushed through the boys clogging the door and hurried over, taking a moment to admire Zoro in his ceremonial armor. He lowered his voice to a whisper, “You look really good in that armor. You look like a real knight now.”

Zoro bit his lip and turned away, trying to hide an embarrassed smile. Anyone else and he’d be overflowing with cocky pride, brushing off the compliment as if they had merely stated a fact.  Yet whenever it was Ace praising him, he kept feeling shy and blushing like a schoolgirl. It was a terrifyingly unfamiliar and confusingly delightful sensation. “I see you’re not holding back with your flattery.”

“After last night, I learned it’s probably better to speak my mind when it comes to you.” He stepped a little closer, “or should I have simply saluted you instead, Sir Roronoa?” Zoro hadn’t been expecting the sudden, tingly zing that raced down his spine and settled in his loins when Ace had called him sir. He coughed into his fist as his cheeks burned bright red. Ace, pleased with the reaction, was sporting a shit eating grin. He wanted nothing more than to pull Zoro in close and kiss the furrow from his brow, but he knew better than to do something so stupidly public.

“If you’re not more careful, someone’s gonna hear you, idiot.” Zoro looked over at the other boys, who were all preoccupied with watching the entertainers unload their trunks that were undoubtedly filled with costumes and equipment for that night’s performance. “Besides, that’s not why I came here. Well, not entirely.”

“Nah, they’re all too excited about whatever’s going on out there. So,” Ace leaned against the wall, folding his arms over his chest, “if you're not just here for me, then… What brings you to the bunkhouse?” Ace’s flirty grin fell when he noticed the serious air settle around the younger boy.

Zoro pulled Ace over to the side, out of the direct line of sight of the other recruits. “...There was something I needed to talk to you about. I was going to tell you last night, but it kinda… got away from me.” Zoro cleared his throat again, the last traces of pink in his cheeks fading away.

Ace straightened up a little, leaning in to whisper again. “Was it something I did? I didn’t make any wrong assumptions about…” He pointed between the two of them and Zoro shook his head. Ace huffed a small sigh of relief, “alright, then what’s the matter?”

Zoro glanced at Ace with a stern frown, but couldn’t maintain eye contact for very long. He was still on the fence about disclosing any of what Sanji had told him about the impending war, but he knew it felt wrong to keep Ace in the dark about the reality of the situation. The royal families could distract and appease the populous for now with their showy displays, but it was going to come out sooner or later. Perhaps it would be best if Ace heard the news from a friend. “I can’t talk about it now, but I’ll try and get away tonight. If not I’ll find you tomorrow morning.”

“I get the feeling it’s something really serious.”

“It is.”

Ace peeked back over his shoulder at the gaggle of boys that still hadn’t moved from where they stood gathered together. Gin had taken notice of Zoro’s arrival, but he whipped his head back around once Ace noticed him staring. “Mm, that might also be a problem…”

“What is?”

Ace shook his head. “We can talk about everything later. You probably have to get going right? I can’t imagine it’d be a good thing if Sanji’s left without his right hand for too long. Can’t be making your prince look bad in front of company, right?” Ace tried to laugh it off, but he could tell Zoro hadn’t appreciated the rib. He should probably know better by now than to try and joke about Sanji.

Zoro growled low in the back of his throat. “Yeah, yeah, no good if a pet runs from his master.”

“You know I didn’t mean it like that.” Ace checked one last time that no one was looking before swooping in to land a quick kiss on Zoro’s cheek. “I’ll see you soon, okay?”

Zoro playfully shoved Ace away, tossing him a small smirk. “Yeah, hopefully. Say hey to your brothers for me.” Ace nodded and waved in return, watching Zoro’s back as he left.

As Zoro was hurrying past the wagons to get back inside the castle, he crashed into a boy that had suddenly appeared from around a corner. They went sprawling to the ground, Zoro’s armor clattering noisily against the cobblestone. When he sat up, the boy was on his hands and knees, quivering like a leaf. The stack of items he’d been carrying had been so tall they blocked his view. Now, they were scattered all over the ground between them.

“I AM SO SORRY!” The boy cried, ebony curls bouncing wildly as he bowed over and over in apology. “Please forgive me! I am just a nobody not even worthy enough to be executed! I humbly and pathetically beg your forgiveness!”

Zoro stood and took a moment to dust himself off, watching with a distasteful frown as the boy grovelled at his feet. He felt bad at first, but the excessive apologies and self degradation were starting to make him uncomfortable.

“No, it was my fault. I ran into you.” He grabbed the boy by the arm and hauled him to his feet. His knees were scraped and bloody, small patches of bright red on the ground where he’d been kneeling. “Are you al...right...” His sentence petered off as he looked up, immediately distracted by just how long this boy’s nose was. Was he one of the performers? Though with how he trembled and quaked he was probably just one of their lackeys.

The boy flinched away and covered his face with his arms. Despite Zoro’s words he was still afraid that a swing might come at him at any given moment. “I’m very sorry, sir, I’ll get out of your way!” The boy hurried to recollect the items he dropped, awkwardly struggling to carry it all. Zoro felt pity for the terrified boy and momentarily considered helping him, but he had places to be. He gave the boy one last sidelong glance before running off again.

On his way to Sanji’s room, he caught the sound of a faint conversation coming from the guest wing. While he couldn’t decipher what they were saying, he could still hear the prince’s distinct laugh. He turned on his heel and started making his way towards the visiting princess’ suite.

The door was open, but Zoro knocked anyway. Sanji was at the window alongside Nami and Vivi. They turned to look at him in near perfect unison before bursting out into giggles. Zoro had the feeling he was the butt of a joke, but he had no idea as to why that would’ve been.

Nami was the first to speak, “What did you say to that poor kid? He was scared out of his wits by you!”

“He can’t help it, my lady. It’s his face: it’s scary to people who aren’t used to it.” Sanji helpfully supplied, laughing alongside Nami. Vivi at least had the decency to try and stifle her chuckles.

Zoro didn’t know what to say except to awkwardly continue standing there with one hand on his sword, a tick forming in his brow as he was laughed at. “I didn’t realize you were watching me.”

“We weren’t watching you, we were watching the entertainment unpack their caravan. Seeing you fall on your ass was just a bonus.” Nami hid a smirk behind her hand as she watched Zoro bite his tongue, clearly resisting the urge to launch an insult back at her.

Even though he was still fighting back his giggling, Sanji took pity on his friend. He walked over and brushed a bit of dust from the green hair. “Hilarity aside, you aren’t hurt are you? It looked like a hard fall.”

Zoro closed his eyes as Sanji preened him to keep the little bits of debris from getting in. “I’m fine. I was just headed to your room to see if you needed anything.” He cracked open an eye and glanced at the princess and her right hand, the corner of his mouth twitched up into a condescending grin as he looked right at Nami. “I’m surprised she let you in to speak with her princess. I could have sworn she said—”

“Yes,” Nami interrupted him before he could rat her out to the prince, “I was concerned for the princess’ reputation should a man be allowed into her chambers.” She shot a glare at Zoro, threatening a world of suffering should he open his mouth again. Surprisingly, most of all to Zoro, he was effectively intimidated. He got the impression this girl had a lot more up her sleeves than she let on.

Sanji immediately straightened up, completely missing the incredulous look on Zoro’s face. He bowed gently, “Please excuse me, your highness, I apologize for intruding.”

“Not at all. I enjoy your company. I look forward to speaking with you again at the feast tonight.” She perked up, eyes shining as she clapped her hands together. “By the way, are we still sneaking out tonight? I’m excited to explore the city!”

“Shh, Vivi! Someone might hear you!”

“Ah! I’m sorry, Nami.”

Zoro leaned in to whisper to Sanji. “What exactly did you promise this girl?” He got a deft smack upside the head from the now indignant prince.

“You will not refer to the esteemed Princess Vivi as ‘this girl’. Are you trying to embarrass us?” He scolded in a harsh whisper. “I told her that you would take us out tonight.” He noticed Zoro’s shoulders sagging slightly at the news. “What? It’s not as if you have anything else to do.”

Zoro sighed through his nose. “Of course, Sanji. Did you have anywhere in mind?” Sanji grinned with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “...I see.”

Everyone was in a joyous mood, the dining hall filled with laughter and cheers as fire eaters and acrobats performed elaborate routines to the delight of everyone in attendance. Zoro and Nami were positioned on the sidelines, both of them in the fine dress and regalia of their respective loyalties. After exchanging several rounds of barbs and banter the two settled into a casual conversation. Zoro was surprised by how easy Nami was to talk to once you got past her spiked defenses. She had even managed to make him laugh a few times.

“So tell me,” Nami prodded, “how did you wind up working under the prince? I wouldn’t think someone with hair light as yours would be working as a servant.”

Zoro frowned, “I’m not a servant.”

“Prince Sanji literally introduced you as one.”

“Well then only he thinks I am.”

Nami gave a thoughtful hum, turning back to the performers. “I think I understand. Sometimes life isn’t fair, huh?”

“You have no idea,” Zoro grouched. He saw Nami purse her lips out of the corner of his eye. “Although... I guess I shouldn’t assume what your life has been like.”

“Damn right.” The two were distracted from their conversation when a woman spat a massive plume of fire into the air as an acrobat flipped over her and through the flame unscathed. The hall was filled with applause as they retreated to the wings, bowing as they went. The announcer came out and all went quiet again.

“It has long since been assumed that magic in the modern era no longer exists. My friends I say before you now that this is not true! I have seen it with my own eyes: the forces of nature wielded by the hands of not a man, but a child! Now, be amazed by the youngest master of the arcane mysteries in the known world. The great, the magnificent, the unrivaled: the Mighty Usopp-un!”

A small figure stepped forward, completely enshrouded in a black robe with massive hood pulled up. Covering his face was a bright yellow mask with rays like the sun and a long, bandaged nose. Everyone was on tenterhooks, the royals sitting on the edges of their seats. Two bandaged hands emerged from under the robe with a small orb pinched between his fingers. He dramatically swept it back and forth, making sure he had the audience’s attention on it.

The boy clasped the ball in his hands, rubbing it between his palms as he muttered incantations. When he opened his hands, a puff of glittering, golden magic sprung forth followed by a rapidly growing sprout. The stem twisted upwards until it was about two feet tall, leaves unfurling as it grew. A large bud sprouted at the tip, and with the snap of his fingers it unfurled into a glorious array of pale pink petals. He plucked the flower from his hand and strode to the main table, presenting the bloom to the queen with a bow. She smiled in delight and gingerly took it from his hand as the audience applauded. She rolled it between her fingers, as if doubting the reality of the bloom. It was to her pleasant surprise that it was not only real, but one of the sweetest things she had ever smelt.

The young magician stepped back and withdrew three rods from beneath his robe, two clenched in one hand as he began to twirl the third in the other. Pale blue orbs bubbled out from the staff and the audience was enchanted as they watched them begin to float about the room. When one came close, Vivi reached out a finger and popped it like a bubble, a burst of cool air blowing over her. She turned to Sanji with a laugh, her face split into a wide, gleeful grin. He mirrored her excitement and reached up to try and pop a bubble as it floated over his head.

Zoro instinctively withdrew as a bubble floated near him. He was intrigued, but overall apprehensive of the magic wielder. Nami on the other hand reached out in an attempt to gently grab hold of it, but it burst the second she touched it. She was delighted by this strange magic and wanted to know more.

The pale blue balls of cold magic began collecting at the ceiling, soon to be joined by red orbs of warm magic. The guests gasped as they realized a cloud was coming into form inside the dining hall. The magician took the final rod and shot a single ball of crackling yellow magic into the cloud. The cloud rumbled and crackled, almost menacingly. The crowd watched with nervous anticipation as the boy snapped the rods together into a single pole.

While they were distracted, the boy prepared another orb under his robe, getting ready for his next trick. He held the rod aloft before slamming it down, all the lightening in the cloud focusing on the rod in a grand arc. When the lightning struck, a mass of swirling vines covered in large, blue flowers encased the magician. They piled upwards, forming a massive column in the middle of the room. The top of the mass opened up, and as if he’d been raised on a platform, there stood the boy. He launched more of his blue magic towards the now stagnant cloud, making it twist and swirl like an impending storm. It spiraled into itself until it imploded into a shower of gentle snow.

Most of the court had never seen snow in their lives, and even the elders were filled with childlike glee as the tiny frozen flakes fell around them. Sanji and Vivi stood from their seats as they tried to catch the flakes in their hands, surprised and delighted as it melted in their hands. Vivi stuck out her tongue and attempted to catch a couple, Sanji following suit until they were scolded for their immature conduct.

The magician was lowered to the ground by a vine before the mass of plants erupted into a cloud of golden magic, showering him in glitter as he took a grand bow before the court, all of whom rose to their feet in uproarious applause. They had all been thoroughly impressed by the magic prowess of such a young child.

“Magnificent!” The King lauded, “Edward, where did you find such a talent?”

Newgate pointed to the blood-haired man standing on the sidelines. “Shanks found him while away on a monster hunt living alone in the borderlands. Apparently everything he knows about magic was self taught.”

“Remarkable!”

The Queen leaned in towards her husband, flower now laying beside her dinner plate. “Do you think we could convince his majesty to allow us to buy the boy off him?”

“I doubt he would hand over such a talent even for all the gold in the world.” The boy was not only an amazing entertainer, but he could be equally valuable in combat. He was quite the asset and the king found himself feeling somewhat envious.

“How about this,” Newgate cut in, “if your champion can defeat my champion in a duel, the boy is yours.”

The King was intrigued by the offer, but he couldn’t see what the other man would get out of putting one of his greatest assets on the betting table. “Very well, but what is it you want should your champion emerge victorious?”

Sanji was pretending to be fully engrossed in his meal as he tried listen in on his father’s conversation through the din of the dining hall. The kings had lowered their voices to not be overheard, but judging by his father’s body language there would be a lot riding on this bet.

“That. was. incredible!” Vivi exclaimed as the four young teens strode through the halls, all of them buzzing with residual excitement after the dinner. “I’d heard rumors that there was still magic in the world, but I never ever thought I would get to see it!”

“I want to know how he did it! I bet he was using tricks or something, there’s no way any of that was actually real.” Nami debated, ever the skeptic. “There’s always an explanation. No matter how amazing, there’s always a trick to it.”

“I wonder who that kid was. He looked like he was about our age.” Sanji interjected, “Plus, I didn’t see him when the performers were coming into the city. You’d think someone that powerful would be at the front.”

“Maybe King Newgate wanted to show off at the dinner so he kept it a secret.”

The kids bickered good naturedly over the validity and identity of the magician all the way back to Vivi’s suite.

“Hey, I have an idea! What if tonight we sneak down to the performers’ camp? We could try and find the magic kid. That way we can ask him to his face whether or not it was real.”

“Yeah, but, Vivi, we don’t know what he looks like. Plus, I don’t want your mother to know that we were sneaking out. If we go to see them we might get caught.” Nami hated to always be a downer, but sometimes Vivi’s innocence needed her harsh reality.

The princess pouted, “Mmm… I guess you’re right…”

Sanji’s mind started spinning at a mile a minute as he tried to think of a way to grant the princess’ wish. “What if…” he bit his lip as he thought, eyes darting back and forth. “What if… after we’ve snuck out, Zoro can comb the camp for the boy. He’s less likely to get in trouble than we are if he gets caught. I know he’s not the most charismatic out of all of us, but maybe he can convince him to come with us. Maybe he’ll even show us more of his magic!”

The three of them turned to Zoro, eyes expectant as they waited for him to say yes to their scheme. With a heavy sigh, Zoro reluctantly agreed. “I’ll do it under one condition: she comes with me.” He pointed at Nami who slapped his hand away.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to point?”

“Never had parents.”

Nami huffed, Zoro’s unexpected honesty giving her a moment’s pause. “Very well. I’ve heard about your sense of direction, so that’s probably for the best.” She nodded to herself, knowing that her presence was clearly instrumental to their success.

“I’m not asking you to come because I’ll get lost. I’m just not willing to be the only scapegoat if this goes sideways.”

“Then you can forget it, bastard son.”

“Nami!”

“Swamp born witch— ow!”

“I swear, I’m going to beat some manners into you if it fucking kills you.”

That night, after everyone had hidden away in the shadows just beyond the castle walls, Zoro returned to the side yard. The performers had set up a camp just outside the recruits bunkhouse, tents and campfires scattered all over. The young apprentice was back in his discreet citizen’s attire. If it hadn’t been for his hair, he could have passed as nothing more than a palace servant. He weaved between the campfires, trying not to get distracted by the jugglers practicing their tricks. He kept his eyes peeled for anyone around his age, but most of the performers seemed to all be at least several years older than him. It wasn’t until he reached the back of the camp that he came upon a shabby little tent tucked up in a corner. It was so flimsy that it could barely stand against the lazy nighttime breeze.

In front of the sorry looking the tent was the timid looking boy he’d bumped into earlier, the scabs on his knees now a dark red, almost brown. He was sitting in front of a small fire, a homemade burlap satchel in his lap as he rolled a couple of the orbs from the show between his fingers. He only looked up when Zoro was about two feet from him.

“You!” He flinched backward, his arms swinging about wildly and knocking into his tent, collapsing it. “Dammit, now look what you did! Thanks a lot!” He went to fix his tent, but then froze. He bowed his head and brought an arm up to protect his face. “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to say that out loud, I just—”

“Hey, calm down, I’m not going to hurt you. Besides, you’re drawing everyone’s attention.” Zoro bent down and helped stabilize the tent, ignoring the curious onlookers. “Why is someone as powerful as you afraid of someone like me?”

The boy shifted so he was sitting cross legged again, pulling the bag into his lap as if to shield himself. “It’s not like I can fire off my magic any time I want. If I do it without permission I get in trouble. Do you know how many towns I’ve been chased out of? Huh?! They either think I’m a fake or a freak!”

“Quiet down, you’re yelling again.” Zoro dug a finger into his ear to punctuate his point. “Listen, uh… By the way, what’s your name?”

“What’s yours?” The boy challenged, still very wary of this light haired kid that he seemed to keep running into. What could someone with a cushy noble life want with a low caste freak like him?

“My name’s Zoro.”

“...I’m Usopp.” He eyed the boy up and down. “You’re probably the son of a knight, right? I saw your armor earlier. What’s your second name?”

Zoro sighed, “It’s Roronoa.”

“Never heard of that house.” Usopp idolized the knights. He often pretended to be one and would go on grand adventures of his own design. He’d memorized the rosters of all the knights’ houses in the five kingdoms, dreaming to one day see his own name on one of them. Sadly, a bastard son without a second name could only fantasize such a life.

“My birth name was revoked, so I was dubbed Roronoa when I came to the palace. Officially, I have no family.” Strange, no one outside of the royal family, save for Mihawk, knew this about him. Well, he supposed Nami and Vivi now knew a part of it too. He’d gone fourteen years without uttering a word and in just a night three people he’d not see again any time soon now knew.

“You were denied your birthright too, huh?”

Zoro was taken aback, “Excuse me?”

“Uhh th— Uhhh, w- I ha- I don—” Usopp stammered, tripping over his words. “Nevermind, forget I said anything.” He leaned to peek over Zoro’s shoulder and saw that those whose attention had been drawn in by the earlier yelling had dissipated again, no longer interested in the children. “Sooo…” he turned back to Zoro as he awkwardly changed the subject, “did you want something? I can’t imagine you’d be talking to me if you didn’t.”

Oh, right. “Prince Sanji, Princess Vivi, an attack dog—”

“An attack dog?!”

“—and I are heading out to the oasis for a swim. We were hoping we could find the kid who did the cool magic at dinner and see if they wanted to come with us.” Zoro stared at Usopp, unblinking, as he waited for a response.

Usopp pointed at himself in disbelief and Zoro nodded with assurance. The young magician took a look at his troupe and then back at the boy sitting across from him. “Well, I guess it’s okay. It’s not as if anyone will notice that I’m gone.” He immediately regretted agreeing when he saw the smile that spread over the knight’s face.

Slipping through the city was considerably more difficult with the increased nightly patrols, but the kids had a plan. Using Zoro’s terrible directional sense to their advantage, they managed a convoluted route to the outskirts where the oasis lay. Trees and shrubs had grown along the edge of the water in the time since the water first appeared. They noticed, with some dismay, that there were a couple other kids already splashing in the water, their laughter ringing out over the sand.

“Dammit,” Sanji muttered, splashing some of the sand in frustration. “Where shall we go now?” He turned to Zoro for help in devising a new plan, but his friend’s attention was elsewhere. Zoro was busy keenly watching the shadowy figures in the distance and hadn’t heard Sanji speak. “What’s the matter?” After getting ignored a second time, Sanji shoved his shoulder, finally getting his attention. “Hey, what is it?”

“Wait here…” Zoro stood from where they were laying in hiding.

“Hey! What’re you doing, you stupid ape!”

“Zoro, don’t! Get your ass back here, that’s an order!”

Zoro ignored them as he shuffled down the dune. The figures in the distance froze as he approached, clearly uncomfortable that he was jogging towards them so casually. “Hey! Don’t worry, it’s just me!”

A chorus of excited hellos came from the three figures as they threw their arms up in greeting. Sanji was flabbergasted by what was unfolding in front of him. Who were these people? Why were they so familiar with Zoro that he hadn’t even needed to announce himself by name? He watched as they chatted for a moment before Zoro waved them over. Sanji looked to the others before pulling himself upright and making his way down the dune, Usopp and the girls right behind him.

“Zoro, are you sure this is a good idea? I thought we were trying to keep this whole thing secret. Not to mention, no one’s supposed to know I exist. This could bring trouble.” Sabo was replacing the veil over his ink stained hair, shifting nervously from foot to foot. He’d made the switch to wearing a black veil after one unfortunate night when the ink had soaked through his veil.

“Well, I can’t imagine keeping this from him forever. He’s a dumbass, but he’s actually sort of a genius. If he’s going to figure it out I’d rather lead him to it than have him catch us behind his back. Plus, it’s a little late to run off now.” He stepped forward, acting as a bridge between his two lives.

“Sanji, this is Luffy, Sabo, and Ace. I met them when I was patrolling after that issue with the spies. Guys, as you know this is our Prince Sanji, Princess Vivi and Lady Nami of Alabasta and, uh, Usopp. He’s a magician.” Nami gave him a look at the unnecessary emphasis.

“A magician!” Luffy beamed, fists balled as he pumped his arms in excitement. “That’s so cool! Can you show us some tricks?”

Completely unrecognizable from his earlier cowardice, Usopp stood tall with his chest puffed out. He rubbed a finger under his nose, a cocky smile spreading across his face. “I can, for I’m The Great Usopp, youngest magician in the world!” He was proud that of all the impressive titles thrown at the boys, the youngest had immediately taken an interest in him alone. Then again, he supposed, being a magician was way cooler than havit a crown.

“Before all that,” Sanji cut in, stepping forward, “I must demand a vow of silence from you three. No one is to know that we were here tonight. Do you understand that there will be consequences should you breathe a word of this to anyone?”

The boys shared a quick look before Ace spoke on their behalf. “Works for us.” The other two grunted and nodded in agreement. “You guys swimming? Water’s perfect tonight.” With a whoop and a holler the boys ran back to the water.

“Last one in is the monster!” Luffy challenged as he sloshed in after his brothers. Zoro, Usopp, and Vivi started undressing, tossing their veils and shirts haphazardly about. They were already hurrying towards the water’s edge, only pausing to remove their pants.

“Nami, Sanji! If you don’t hurry one of you will be the monster!” Vivi called out as she dove in. The two more reserved members of their little party were soon swept up in childlike competitiveness as they both hurried to strip.

“Prince guy is the monster!” Luffy announced from the center of the pool where everyone was treading water in preparation for the game to start. Nami hurried to swim out of range as Sanji crashed into the water behind her. He was a surprisingly strong swimmer and caught up to Nami in no time, tagging her foot.

“Nami’s the monster!”

“No fair, you had your eyes open, that’s cheating!”

“I’m the prince, and I say it’s a fair tag!”

“Beyond the walls there are no crowns, only men!” Sabo cried, rallying the other kids with him. “Honor the rules, your majesty!”

Sanji conceded and closed his eyes, properly chasing after his next target at an alarming clip. They all screamed and squealed, attempting to sacrifice one another to the relentless monster. Eventually the game descended into a mass wrestling match, Nami and Luffy seeming to be the only ones to come out on top consistently.

Through the splashing and horsing around, Sanji looked over at Zoro. He was laughing and grinning wider than Sanji had seen in a long time, and he knew he was sporting a smile just as wide. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had this much fun. Zoro caught his eye and shot the prince a genuine, toothy, ear to ear smile. Sanji was filled with warmth and love in that moment. If it hadn’t been for the boy who’d just smiled at him with all the beauty and light of an angel, none of Sanji’s best memories would exist. He knew in that moment that this was the person he would always love more than anything.

Chapter Text

As the night wore on, the kids grew physically exhausted of playing around in the water. They retired to the shore, pulling their clothes on despite still being soaking wet, and collapsed onto the cool sand. Usopp had promised to perform some of his magic once they got out, and everyone was excited for the show.

“Alright, I couldn’t do this one in the palace cause it tends to scare people a little bit. Are you ready?”

“Do it!”

“C’mon, magician guy!”

Usopp grabbed a seed from his bag, rubbing it between his palms before gently blowing on it. He tossed it to the ground about five away from them and it burst in a cloud of deep purple magic upon impact. A deep green stem covered in thorns grew until it was as tall as Usopp, a large pod sprouting at the top. The four who had been at the dinner thought they knew this trick and were expecting another massive flower. Instead, the pod split to reveal a row of sharp teeth, snarling and growling as if it were alive. Its maw was dripping sweet smelling sap that Usopp warned was dangerously sticky. The kids startled away from the obviously dangerous plant, but they were all impressed with how cool and scary it was.

“Pretty neat, huh?” Usopp boasted, his chest puffed out and nose turned up.
Luffy and Vivi’s eyes sparkled as they gave encouraging nods. “What happens if something gets trapped in its sap spit?” Vivi asked, thoroughly intrigued by the monster plant, but wary of what it was capable of.
“You guys wanna see it eat?” Usopp dropped the posturing, no longer victim to his own pride. He was simply eager to show off the things he loved with people who seemed to be genuinely interested in all aspects of his craft.

“Yeah!” Luffy cried, unable to remain seated. He was practically vibrating on the spot with all the excitement thrumming through him.

Always happy to go the extra mile to please his audience, Usopp went to dig in the brush until he managed to catch a small desert lizard. He held it gingerly in clasped hands as it spat and screeched, clawing as it tried to get free. Once he was close enough, but not within snapping range of the plant, Usopp tossed the poor creature directly into the gaping mouth. It struggled for a moment against the sap until the plant snapped closed around it.

Vivi and Sabo were understandably distressed by the sudden death of the cute, wriggly creature. They could even hear a faint crunching as the lizard was crushed and they shuddered in horror. The others were morbidly fascinated by it, save for Nami and Sanji who were completely disgusted by both the lizard itself and its grisly demise.

“Now that it has food it’s safe to touch.” Usopp went up to the plant and patted it on what would’ve been its nose. “I’ve always wanted to show this guy to people, but the king forbade it cause it was “too dangerous” or whatever. Oh, by the way, don’t touch the thorns. They’re super sharp and sorta poisonous so be careful.” Luffy immediately went to approach the plant, but Sabo was quick to firmly grasp the waist of his pants. He absolutely refused to let his troublesome little brother get anywhere near the thing.

“Why would you make such a dangerous plant!” Nami scolded, pointing at the offending foliage. “How do you know it’s not going to try and eat you!”

“What are you gonna do about it once it finishes eating?” Sanji wondered. It would be bad if something this dangerous was left where someone was bound to find it and risk getting gobbled up.

“Oh, I just have to snap my fingers and it’s gone.” Usopp snapped to make a point. Despite knowing what was going to happen, he spooked himself when the plant suddenly burst and disappeared. The others started laughing at him and he straightened up indignantly. “A-Anyway, here’s my next trick!” He pulled out the rods and began to demonstrate his weather magic.

Ace twisted around to look back at Zoro, grinning with childlike glee. “There was a rumor going around the bunkhouse that there was gonna be magic at the royal banquet. I didn’t think it was actually true, though. This is so much more awesome! The other guys would be jealous as hell if they ever knew.” Ace threw his head back and groaned with exaggerated despair, “Ugghh... It’s already killing me that I can’t rub it in their faces.”

“Are you one of the new recruits?” Sanji asked, head cocked with curiosity.

“Uh, yes sir,” he mentally kicked himself for being so chummy with Zoro while the prince sat within earshot, “I started about a month ago.” Ace ducked his head a little, trying to make himself seem small and unimportant as Sanji scrutinized him.

A red flag popped up in Sanji’s head as his memory banks were confronted with conflicting information. According to what Zoro had said earlier that evening, he and Ace would’ve met about a year ago when the threat on his life had been made. Yet, when Zoro had been begging to go to that dinner he had said that he hadn’t gotten the chance to meet any of the recruits, but surely Zoro would have recognized his friend in line on registration day. It would also explain why Zoro had been so eager to go, but why would his friend keep this person a secret from him for so long?

Zoro immediately picked up on Sanji’s mood drop, seeing the gears turning in his head at a mile a minute. He needed to reel him in and get his mind off the issue before the prince came to any distasteful conclusions. “Hey, Sanji, the guard shift is going to be happening fairly soon, we should take that opportunity to sneak back.”

The prince snapped out of his musings and nodded, “You’re right, we should be heading back soon regardless. It’s gotten pretty late.”

“Awwww, but you guys just got here!” Luffy whined, not eager to see everyone leave so soon. “Can’t we just watch a little more magic first?”

“I’ve got one more trick that no one’s ever seen!” Usopp offered, a tantalizing lilt in his voice. He was also having a whale of a time and wanted this night to last as long as possible. “It’s something new that I’ve been working on.”

Sanji pulled an unconvincing frown as he tried to fight the curiosity, but he couldn’t hold the serious expression for long. His face broke out into a grin as he caved, knowing he would regret rejecting the offer. “Very well, show us what you can do.”

Usopp dug around in his bag for a moment before pulling out a drawstring pouch. He fished around until he found what he was looking for. He clasped the oblong shape in one hand as he put the pouch back in his pocket.

“Alright, stand back. These guys are a little unstable.”

The kids all stood and took a several large steps backward. If the guy that casually conjured venomous, carnivorous plants was telling them to be careful they agreed it was best to listen. Usopp prepped the seed and threw it as far from him as possible, but with his weak arms it only flew about fifteen feet away.
An explosion of crimson magic followed by a black, knotted sprout shot forth. It twisted and spiraled up, almost threatening in the way that it grew. A bud developed at the top and the plant tipped over under the weight of itself in a grand arc. The bud grew and hardened as it turned into a pale blue fruit that was the shape and size of a cow’s heart, its skin patterned with black spirals.

“Woah,” Ace muttered, voicing what everyone was feeling. They stood slack jawed and cross armed in stunned silence. The questionable looking fruit gave off an uneasy energy that the kids couldn’t quite put a name to, but they all silently agreed that the thing was probably cursed.

“That is… SO! COOL!” Luffy bellowed when he found his voice again. His eyes were gleaming bright as stars as he stepped forward to grab the fruit.

“Hold up!” Usopp planted a hand on Luffy’s chest, halting him in his tracks. “It takes a moment, but wait for it…”

On bated breath the kids stared at the fruit, enraptured. There was a muted snap followed by quiet creaking coming from inside the fruit before ice began to form on its surface. Soon, the entire fruit was covered in a thick layer of ice that was slowly starting to spread down the stalk.

“Everything that it touches freezes. I’ve been trying to imbue my weather magic into my plants.” Usopp approached the stalk and hit it, dislodging the fruit and nearly whipping himself in the face as the stalk snapped back upright. The icy fruit fell with barely a sound into the soft sand, the ground around it slowly starting to freeze and cover in ice. “See?” He kicked some sand over it and soon lacy tendrils of frost started to spread over the sand.

“By the gods, Usopp, that’s incredible...” Sabo gasped, “where did you lear—”

The fruit suddenly exploded into a violent cloud of snow and crimson magic, kicking up plenty of sand along with it. “Yeah,” Usopp coughed, “they tend to explode after a minute. I don't have it quite right yet, so I haven’t shown anyone.” He snapped his fingers and the stalk disintegrated into a cloud of ash.

“You’re amazing, Usopp!” Luffy cut in, leaping forward and clinging onto his new friend like a lemur to a tree. The pair tottered and fell back into the sand, laughing as they sat up.

“I’ve got another one I can show you guys!” He pulled a second orb from his pocket and prepped it. Just as he was about to throw it, Sabo halted him with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“As much as we all love your magic, I’m afraid we should all be getting home. You lot especially, before you’re discovered. It’s about time for the guard shift now, so we’d best take advantage of that.” Sabo turned towards the cluster of royalty. “This was a lot of fun. It was a pleasure to meet you all.”

“Likewise,” Sanji nodded, “but you’re right. We should head back.”

Feeling a little down that the fun was already coming to an end, the band of royal kids trudged back to where their veils lay, shaking out the excess sand before pulling them on. It was then that they noticed just how much sand would be going home with them that night. All of them were dreading the inevitably uncomfortable and itchy walk home.
Sabo and Luffy waved the others goodbye before turning off to head to their humble abode, disappearing into the dark. Now that there were six of them total, they feared they would be far more likely to draw attention if they all travelled together.

“Maybe we should split up,” Ace suggested. “It’ll be easier to go unnoticed if we’re in smaller groups.”

“I agree,” Nami piped, “having the five of us sneak down here together was risky enough. The prince can take Vivi and myself back to the guest wing and Zoro can get you two back by the barracks.”

Sanji gave Zoro a sidelong glance, a little disappointed to be in a separate group. He was about to suggest that Ace lead the ladies while he went with Zoro and the magician boy, but Nami’s divide made the most sense. He understood that they were both needed to lead. Besides, he would get to enjoy a moonlit stroll with two beautiful girls, an equally favorable outcome.

“Very well,” he conceded, “Zoro, meet me back at my room so I can be assured of your safe return. Just try and make it back before morning.” Zoro bristled a little bit at the rib, but said nothing. The prince never appreciated it when he fired back with an audience present.

The two groups wished each other safe travels and parted ways. Sanji watched Zoro’s retreating form for a moment before turning to head on his way, the girls following just behind. As they walked, Nami had to keep adjusting Vivi’s veil. Her long, thick locks kept slipping out from under the inadequately sized drape.

“Is it really necessary for us to wear these, your highness?” Nami asked, annoyance giving her voice a bit of an edge. “No one’s out at this time of night, and it's being more of a hindrance than a help.”

“Absolutely. We’ll be recognized as royalty immediately without them.” The girls seemed surprised and gently alarmed by this, which confused the prince. “That’s part of why it’s so dangerous to come down to the lower city. Do you not wear veils in your country?”

Nami shook her head, “Not really, at least not for the same reasons they do here. The only people that do are just protecting themselves from the sun. There’s also more people in the royal city with lighter hair that aren’t royalty. They’re descendents of disgraced families and stuff, so outside of the royal blue hair color doesn’t really determine importance there.” Nami puffed her chest out with pride for her home country. “We’re actually a pretty progressive city.”

“Your kingdom is also nearly twice the size of ours. Many more minds to push forward change. Even so, I don’t know if having people of royal blood living common lives because of something their forefathers did necessarily counts as being progressive.”

Vivi let out an exasperated groan, “Ugghh, I hate talking about politics. Can’t I just take off the veil? It’s itchy anyway with all the sand in it.”

“I’m sorry princess, but I can’t risk letting you reveal your hair.”

“Speaking of, why do you think that commoner was wearing a veil at night? His brothers both had black hair, what could he need a veil for?”

Sanji took a breath to answer, but it caught in his throat as he realized how curious it actually was. His brow furrowed as he thought. “It was strange, wasn’t it? He even kept it on as we swam.”

“Right?! It was weird! Maybe he’s got mange or something.”

“I bet Zoro would know. After all, he seemed pretty familiar with those boys. I’ll have to ask him about it when he gets back.” Remembering that Zoro had people in his life other than himself that he’d kept secret, Sanji’s heart twinged painfully. His shoulders sagged a little as he heaved a sigh. He tried to laugh it off with a joke, “if he returns before the summit’s end, that is.”

“Is everything okay, Sanji?” Vivi innocently inquired, noticing the shift in the prince’s mood. Despite being the youngest, she was remarkably in tune with the emotions of those around her.

Sanji straightened up a bit, “Of course, Princess.” He put a practiced smile on, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.The girls were not convinced, so naturally Nami pushed the issue.

“Are you that worried about Zoro getting lost?”

Sanji scoffed, “It’s hard not to be. I’ve had to look out for him since we were little. I held his hand everywhere we went for fear I’d never see him again if I ever let go.” The prince managed a genuine laugh as he recalled an old memory. “He once even managed to lock himself in the dungeon when he went looking for the toilet in the middle of the night. He was missing for nearly a day. We even had to change our guard patrols cause he kept finding secret routes no one knew about.”

“Hilarious, but even so, it’s not as if he’s going to get kidnapped or something. You two have made this trip plenty of times. Or at least I’d assume so. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

A look of guilt flashed over Sanji’s face. “Well…” he sighed, “there actually was this one time. He never told me the details, but the one and only time I wasn’t with him he got seriously hurt. I can’t stand the thought of that happening again.”

“Wait, seriously?! He got kidnapped?!”

“Shh, Nami!” Vivi brought a finger to her lips, a stern look on her adorable face.

“Sorry, Vivi, I was just surprised. Given all the talk of how undefeatable that ape is I’m shocked that someone could get the better of him. Plus, we’re just kids. What sort of creep would do something like that?”

“Someone despicable, stupid, desperate, or all three. Age doesn’t matter to criminals.”

Nami and Vivi exchanged an uneasy look. “Do you think they did it to get to you?” Nami’s voice was gentle, hesitant almost as she posed the question. “We’ve heard of the assassins that targeted you. Could it have been one of them?”

“Honestly, I didn’t ask. That whole night was… complicated. I was so wrapped up in my own feelings that I didn’t even think to get more information from him. At this point I would be surprised if Zoro even remembered the person’s face.”

“How could anyone forget the face of someone that attacked them?!” Vivi shushed her handmaiden again.

“You overestimate his memory.”

Somehow, Nami doubted that. “What if this person tries something again?”
Sanji grit his teeth, feeling the old anger start to bubble in his gut. “I swore that if I ever found out who that sorry bastard was that I would send them to hell myself. I still intend to make good on my promise should they ever be stupid enough to show their face again.”

“Man, that was fun!” Ace stretched his arms above his head. “Shame it’s back to work again tomorrow.”

“Not me,” Usopp chuckled smugly, “don’t have to lift a finger until it’s time to pack up the caravan.”

“Wish we could all be so lucky.” Ace reached over and gently socked Usopp in the arm for bragging. The frail boy stumbled over his own feet and clutched dramatically at his arm where it throbbed. He could feel heat starting to pool beneath his skin, knowing there would be a bruise there by morning.

“Ow! What’d ya do that for?”

“Sorry, Usopp,” Ace apologized between chuckles, “I thought I only tapped you.”

“His body’s so wimpy only cause he relies on that magic too much.” Zoro smirked, stifling a laugh as Usopp puffed up indignantly.

Once he finally found his words, Usopp whisper-yelled as loud as he could. “Hey, hey! For your information, I am completely average for my age! It’s just that you guys are inhuman! What sort of monster calls a hit like that a tap! I’m going to have a bruise now, or worse!” He rubbed at the spot, trying to look pitiful. He could already feel the pain starting to dissipate, but he refused to give up on the melodramatics out of spite.

Ace fell in step with Usopp and threw an arm over his shoulders, startling him. “You know, it’s a shame that you’re leaving so soon. We’d toughen you up in no time.”

“I really don’t like the sound of that.”

“Don’t worry,” Zoro came up on Usopp’s opposite side, “it’s not like we would just beat you up or something.” He mirrored Ace and also put an arm around Usopp, effectively trapping the small boy between them. “That wouldn’t do anyone any good.”

“Are you guys threatening me for real?! Are you really gonna beat me up?!”

“No, I’m saying that we won’t do that.”

“You’re not convincing at all!”

“Shh,” Ace hushed with a wink, “we’ve gotta be quiet, yeah? Someone might hear us.”

Usopp dropped his voice back down to a whispered yell, “Now you sound like you wanna kill me! To drag me off into a dark alley and snuff me out! You guys are nothing but scary sounding!” He sighed, deciding it was maybe best to just resign himself to whatever these meatheads had in store. “I don’t know whether you’re doing it on purpose or not, but you guys can be seriously scary.” The older boys laughed and let go of the poor magician, patting him on the back in an attempt to be reassuring.

“Nah, seriously, we’re not gonna do anything. We were just messing with you.” Ace looked over at Zoro and immediately felt a pulling in his chest when their eyes met. He crossed his arms over his chest to keep from trying to take Zoro’s hand, but despite his efforts it was his mouth that betrayed him. “Besides, look at him. He’s way too cute to be actually scary.”

“Cute…?”

“I am not! No one thinks that.”

“I do.” In for a penny, in for a pound as the saying went.

“Uh, what…?”

“You’re the one covered in adorable freckles.”

“...You think they’re adorable?”

“What is happening?”

The pair had forgotten about Usopp for a second, and their attention snapped back to him. They all halted in their tracks, a moment of uncomfortable prolonged silence stretched between them. Ace’s eyes shifted between the two before settling on Zoro.

“I don’t care if he knows, do you?”

Zoro noticed a soft tint of hopefulness in Ace’s voice. He pondered for a moment before deciding that if anyone were to know, a low class performer who was to be gone the next day was a fairly safe option. He nodded, giving Ace the go ahead.

“We’ve recently, uh, become involved.” Ace reached out and clumsily took Zoro’s hand in his. He huffed a shy laugh.

“Honestly, it feels kinda good to say it out loud.”

“But no one can know,” Zoro explained, face stern. “It would cause a lot of problems for several people if it got out. Understand?”

Usopp’s head was cocked as he took in this new information. He hadn’t been aware that two men could date and he was initially shocked by the reveal. He pondered it a moment with a small frown, folding his arms across his chest.

“Well,” he said after a pause, “as long as no one gets hurt and you’re happy, I guess it’s fine. So, uh, congratulations?” He hadn’t meant to sound so unsure of his support. He offered a stiff double thumbs up to make up for his lack of vocal enthusiasm, but he felt a wash of embarrassment that told him he’d somehow made it worse. His anxiety only calmed a tad when the boys snorted and started laughing.

“Thanks,” Zoro fixed their fingers so they were properly interlaced, “but we should probably keep going.” He smiled happily to himself before turning to guide them home. Thanks to a loving grip, he didn’t get far before he was pulled back and steered down the correct path.

Predictably, Sanji’s group arrived at the castle walls first. They krept low amongst the shadows as they snuck onto the grounds. There was an unmistakable clash of crossing swords that halted the kids in their tracks. They didn’t dare to even breathe until they heard another screech of steel striking steel. Sanji was confused by the out of place noise. Were there people out dueling at this hour? And if so, he wanted to know who. He motioned for Nami and Vivi to follow him as he pursued the sound.

They followed the noise to the small tournament stadium that sat behind the castle and carefully peeked over the wall that sectioned off the area. They ducked back out of sight when they saw two figures in the stands facing their direction. Still curious about what was going on, they snuck around to the gate. Sanji took the lead, daring a look.

On the field were two men, each brandishing impressive, personally customized longswords. There were also only two people in the stands, but it was too dark to see anyone’s faces. He motioned for the girls to come look, Nami leaning over him as Vivi crawled to position herself beneath him. He was so absorbed by the fight that it didn’t even register in Sanji’s mind that he was currently sandwiched between two beautiful girls. The two combatants circled each other, the fierce energy between them palpable even at a distance as they fought under the light of the moon. Everyone watching was on tenterhooks as they waited for the next strike.

With nearly inhuman speed, the fighters exchanged a series of quick, heavy blows. Their swords locked together a moment with the force of their strikes before they broke apart again. It was clear they were both very powerful and evenly matched. The kids were frozen in place by their curiosity to see which one would emerge victorious.

Fifteen minutes later and the fight was still going strong. Despite the constant, brutal onslaught, neither man seemed ready to back down or even slow their pace. Zoro’s group soon arrived at the grounds, having also been drawn in by the sounds of combat. They approached from the opposite direction and crouched down on the other side of the gate. They waved at Sanji’s group who all moved in unison to shush the boys before they’d even said anything.

The kids were stacked like totems on either side of the gate so they could all get as clear a view as possible. Zoro recognized on sight the distinctive fighting style of his swordmaster. He put two and two together and realized that this must have been the rematch that the red-haired man had mentioned earlier that day.

“That’s Mihawk,” Zoro whispered.

“And Shanks.” Usopp idolized the red-haired knight ever since he was saved by him a little over a year ago. He used to follow the man around dutifully and had never missed a single one of his tournament matches. Until he was banned from competing, that is. It was the only way that the tournament could be fair. “What’re they doing?”

“Dueling, obviously,” Nami cut in, “but we have no idea why.”

“Wait, if that’s Mihawk,” – the king’s chosen champion – “then this is the duel my father was negotiating.” Another look at the spectators and the kids realized immediately that the hulking figure could only be that of King Newgate, which meant the other man must’ve been Sanji’s father. “If that’s my dad over there we should definitely get going.”

“But I wanna see who wins…” Vivi whined.

“Me too, Princess, but not badly enough to risk getting caught.” Sanji withdrew, checking around them to see if there were any guardsmen coming. “We’ve overstayed our welcome. Let’s go.” The girls weren’t happy about it, but they conceded, wishing the other boys a good night before starting to head off.

“We should go too,” Ace agreed.

As the boys moved to rise, the orb Usopp had prepared earlier, still imbued with magic, fell from his pocket and hit the ground with a loud bang and a puff of magic. There was a cry of agony from the tournament field a second later and the kids felt their blood go cold. Even their hearts were afraid to beat. Being the only one used to thinking on their feet to escape dangerous situations, Ace reacted first.

“You guys, run. Usopp, our story is that you needed the bathroom and– run, idiots!”

The royal kids snapped out of their stupor and took off as fast as they could, hurrying to vacate the scene before the guards came in response to the sudden explosion of magic. Mihawk appeared at the gate a moment later where Ace was pretending to help Usopp off the ground.

While the knight was distracted by the obvious perpetrators, the others managed to make it around a corner and out of sight. Now that he was suddenly face to face with the most renowned knight in the kingdom, Ace’s mind went temporarily blank. Even though he had an excuse prepared, he felt as if this terrifying presence of a man could peer into his soul and see the lies before he’d even opened his mouth.

“You should not be here.” Mihawk’s voice was hard and cold and Ace thought for a second that he was about to soil himself with fear for the first time in his life. Usopp nearly did, but he was so tense he couldn’t have gone even if he wanted to. “Give me one reason I shouldn’t have you kids arrested.”

“Sir, I’m very sorry. I’m a new recruit, and I was on my way to the outhouses when I ran into him, and he was also looking for the outhouses, and I asked him why he was taking his bag with him to the outhouses, and he said it was cause he had magic in his bag, so I asked him to show me and…”

Ace was rambling in a panic. He was definitely regretting volunteering himself to be the scapegoat. His usual method would’ve been to run away, but there was no way he could’ve left Usopp on his own to face the consequences. His big brother instincts were too strong. When his words got caught on his fear, Usopp stepped in to cover. The younger boy’s legs were trembling and his voice was so choppy and stuttered he sounded as if he were shivering.

“Th-Th-Then we could hear– we heard th-th-the sounds of fighting, and we were– we just– we were curious.” Always best to sprinkle lies with a bit of truth.

“While we were walking past, I just– I tripped and– and– and one of my pre-prepared magic seeds fell from my bag and…” Usopp mimed the explosion. “I know how unlikely it sounds, but I swear we’re telling the truth! We’re really, really, really sorry, Sir. We really didn’t mean any harm, honest, it was an accident.”

The King appeared next to Mihawk, looking down at the boys. “Well, while I cannot simply let this slide, I can understand the curiosity of youth. A duel is an exciting thing, but it is well past the curfew. Not to mention your accident resulted in injury. A week in the dungeon for the both of you.” The king looked up at the arriving guards with disdain, “It worries me that it took someone this long to get here.”

“Y-Your highness, we’re very sorry, but we were instructed to vacate the area. We came as soon as we–”

“Do not argue with me. Take these boys away and wake the healer. We have a slight emergency.”

The guards bowed and grabbed the boys by the arm. “You’re off to a good start, newbie.” A guard whispered under his breath so only the boy could hear as she lead him away.

“Well, that could’ve definitely gone worse.” Somehow, despite everything, Ace managed a smile. “At least I don’t have to go to work tomorrow.”

The next morning, Zoro awoke with a deep feeling of unease in his gut. His first waking thoughts were of Ace and whether he had made it safely out of that sticky situation. He was going through all the motions of his usual morning routine while his mind could do nothing but worry. He entered Sanji’s room with his breakfast as per usual. To his surprise, the prince was already dressed and smoking by the window, leg bouncing with nervous energy. He kept his eyes trained on the hustle and bustle outside as he patted the seat across from him in silent invitation.

“You can sort of see the training grounds and the camp from here. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of the magician or your little friend all morning.”

Zoro closed his eyes, resisting an urge to sigh. “Perhaps they’re just out of sight. We can only hope they didn’t get into too much trouble.”

“I can’t trust them not to rat us out. They could easily put all the blame on us.”
“You know that’s not true. Your father wouldn’t stand for someone trying to sling slander about his son.”

“Getting awfully defensive, there.”

“I’m just poking holes in your logic. You liked them well enough last night when we were at the oasis. What’s changed?” Zoro finally sat down across from the prince after presenting him his breakfast.

The prince gave his friend a hard look from the corner of his eye before turning his attention back outside. “Nothing, I guess I’m just tense about today.”

Zoro hummed, turning his attention to Sanji’s breakfast, uncovering it and preparing it for him. “Is there anything I can do to calm your nerves?”

Sanji’s leg started bouncing even more aggressively. He kicked out with all his strength, managing to knock Zoro’s chair back several inches before it caught on the rug and tipped, spilling Zoro onto the floor. There was a moment where Zoro was simply impressed by the prince’s hidden strength before realizing that it could have only come from a place of extreme anger. He was getting better at hiding it, but looking at the prince’s face again he could tell how furious Sanji actually was. Sanji stood to loom over him, a cold look on his face. Zoro stayed on the floor, shifting to kneel before the prince. He wasn’t sure if he should speak or not. He didn’t even dare move more than he had without the prince’s say so.

Sanji crouched down so he was at eye level before blowing smoke in Zoro’s face. “Why didn’t you tell me you made a friend?”

Zoro bowed his head, “because I was worried it would upset you. You’ve had a lot on your mind and I didn’t want to make it worse by distracting you with trivial things. I was going to tell you when things were better.”

Annoyed that Zoro had predicted exactly how he’d react, Sanji righted himself and shoved Zoro in the shoulder with his foot. It wasn’t hard enough to actually hurt, but it still managed to knock him back to the floor.

“Who’s to say that would’ve upset me. I’m not a child, you don’t need to protect me against something so insignificant.” His actions failed to match his words.

“I’m only angry because you kept me in the dark about it. It makes me wonder how many more secrets you’re keeping from me.”

Righting himself again, Zoro kept his eyes trained on the floor. “Sanji, you can ask me anything you like after the summit and I will answer you honestly, but now isn’t the time. Please eat your breakfast, they’re going to call for you soon.” He braced for another kick, but the prince simply walked past him, pipe held firmly between tight lips. He went to his door and yanked it open, turning to the guard that stood posted outside.

“Escort Zoro to his room. You’re not to let him leave until I return.”

“Yes, your highness.”

Zoro’s shoulders sagged when he overheard the order. He hated the ‘time outs’ more than anything. It always made him anxious and fidgety to be cooped up in such a small space with nothing to do for long periods of time, and Sanji knew this. It was the prince’s ultimate punishment for him. He hoped that it was just the stress that was agitating Sanji’s mood, because if this was the baseline for today then anyone else crossing him was at risk for a one way ride straight to hell.

Sanji managed to externally calm himself enough by the time he stepped into the war room. He stood behind his chair next to his mother as they waited for everyone to arrive. The queen looked down at her son with a small frown.

“You look upset. Please remember that this is a very important meeting today. If something is wrong it has to wait until later. You cannot bring your emotions into this room.” Sanji nodded and straightened up, putting on a mask of emotional indifference for all their guests. Once everyone had arrived, the heavy doors were shut and barred. Sanji’s father rose and gave his opening statement.

“As you all know, save for my son and the princess, King Donquixote’s son Prince Sabo of Dressrosa has been missing for a little over a year now. Sanji, this was a little before you were born, but there used to be a sixth kingdom in our empire, Goa Kingdom. It was annexed and most of the royal family was executed. Prince Sabo was the only one King Donquixote left alive for reasons unknown.”

Sanji’s eyes went wide, but not for the reason his father naturally assumed. He went completely stiff, his eyes sliding over to Vivi. She had gone white as a sheet and was trembling gently in her seat. The adults simply assumed the children hadn’t yet developed the iron stomach of a world leader, paying no mind to their silent conversation.

They could end this. They could end this right now by opening their mouths and telling their parents that they knew where Sabo was. Vivi was about to say something when Sanji silenced her with a harsh glare. She shied away from the look, not understanding why Sanji was keeping her from speaking up, but she assumed the older boy had his reasons.

The prince started quickly running through all the different outcomes in his mind. If he spoke up and admitted to seeing Sabo — he suddenly realized that this was probably why he had worn his veil even while they were swimming — at the oasis last night, they could return the prince to the king and end this pointless fight before it could start.

However, there was more than a chance that it wouldn’t go over that smoothly. If they tried to return the prince, King Donquixote could assume they were just finally responding to his threats and had been lying beforehand. Sanji’s father had already executed one of his men and confidently proclaimed that they had no knowledge of Sabo’s whereabouts. Or worse, Sabo could be blamed for inciting conflict between two countries which he would get tried and executed for and then it could still end with war anyway.

Sanji was being torn in so many directions that he didn’t know what was right anymore. He was frozen with doubt and confusion. Everything rest on him. He swallowed, a dry lump had settled in the back of his throat and wasn’t going anywhere. God, he needed a smoke.

He raised his hand, requesting a moment to speak. “Father, while I understand that it is important for us to prepare for the possibility of war… Would it not also be wise to assist King Donquixote in his search for the prince? We could assuage the King’s anger and avoid going to war.” Not that Sanji wanted Sabo to have to return to the man that murdered his family, but if there was an option that didn’t end in mass bloodshed he figured they should take it.

Judging by the tension in his father’s brow, this was not an acceptable resolution. “If he wanted my assistance, he wouldn’t have sent assassins after you. This pretense of looking for his ‘son’ is laughable.” The king scoffed with disdain. “The man has always been unstable and his family has been a massive thorn in our collective sides for generations.”

“And most recently,” Newgate cut in, “according to my son’s messenger that arrived this morning, it’s been confirmed that King Krieg has already agreed to an alliance with Donquixote. Krieg would not normally be a concern, but we’re certain he must be getting some sort of reward for his allegiance. Krieg’s biggest weaknesses have always been his greed and his arrogance. Donquixote would know this well and has undoubtedly appealed to this side of him.”

Sanji sunk down in his chair, not saying anything for the rest of the meeting. It was clear that at this point everyone was set on going to war. The Nefertari family was a little harder to persuade, but their border lay closest to Krieg. Their large tracks of bountiful lands would undoubtedly catch his greedy eye, and if a war broke out across all the northern kingdoms, that would put them at a great risk. Hating the notion of going to war, but fearing most for the safety of her people, Queen Titi ultimately agreed.

After hours of debate, a treaty was finally drafted and three copies, one for each head of state, were presented. Watching as his father signed the first copy, Sanji felt his anxiety bubbling up and it was getting harder to maintain his mask of indifference. His leg buzzed with energy as it threatened to start bouncing. He dug his fingernails into his the arms of his chair as his father moved on to sign the second copy, a quiet whine hissing at the back of his throat as he tried to muster the courage to speak up.

Finally feeling like he couldn’t take it anymore, Sanji opened his mouth to object, but the words wouldn’t come out. In his mind he was screaming at himself to speak up and say something, anything, to stop this. The royal heads finished signing the last copy with a flourish, and it was all over. Sanji was too late. It was done, and he knew this would be a weight he’d carry with him for the rest of his life.

Chapter Text

Once the meeting was adjourned, Sanji beelined to Zoro’s room. His long strides made quick work of the cross castle journey. He came tearing down the hallway, robes billowing dramatically with the unstable energy he exuded.

“Clear the hall! No one within one hundred feet of this room!” Not wanting anything to do with the prince’s wild mood, the guards cleared without question. Besides, with the prince’s return they had fulfilled their duty.

Sanji burst into Zoro’s room and slammed the door behind him. He leaned back, head hung low with his hair covering his face. His breathing was coming in short, raspy gasps. He could feel a pressure building in his chest as his mind tail spinned into chaos.

Upon the prince’s explosive entrance, Zoro quickly stood from his bed. He didn’t know what to expect. Was Sanji angry? Was he upset? He was the prince’s only outlet for emotion, and he had to be prepared for the worst.

Defying Zoro’s predictions, Sanji suddenly crumbled to the floor. His body thud heavy against the door, but the prince didn’t even notice as pain started to well in his shoulder. He broke down, sobbing uncontrollably and calling out for his friend. Zoro was beside him in an instant, gently cradling the prince as he hung on for dear life. Sanji felt like he was drowning, chest tight, unable to catch his breath. His thoughts swam in a confusing abstract of rapidly cycling emotions that he didn’t understand. His hyperventilating soon turned to choking as his breath stuck in his throat. It was by far the worst panic attack he’d ever had.

Zoro was scared, feeling completely at a loss for what to do. He’d never seen Sanji this inconsolably emotional, and he didn’t know what was happening to him. Even when he called his name it was as if he couldn’t hear him. When Sanji stopped breathing, Zoro’s hurried thoughts immediately ceased and he instinctively lept into action. He shifted so his back was against the wall before pulling Sanji’s spasming body in beetween his legs so he was leaning back against him. He gently placed his hands on Sanji’s chest, able to feel the pounding of his rapid heartbeat through the thin cloth of his robes.

“Breathe, Sanji,” he quietly encouraged as he kept his own breathing deep and steady, “into my hands, c’mon.” He took a couple deep breaths, setting an example. “You can do it, Sanji, you need to breathe.”

There was an unpleasant tingling sensation encasing his head from the lack oxygen. Drool, snot, and tears streaked his face, but Sanji didn’t have the presence of mind to notice it. When it felt like he was about to pass out, he finally managed a choked gasp. Spittle flew down his throat with the harsh breath and it triggered a coughing fit. It took a couple seconds but he managed another raspy breath, exhaling with a sob. The panic was gripping at the edges of his mind, but he fought hard to keep from letting it pull him back into the deepest dark of it. His eyes managed to focus for a moment, finally returning to consciousness as he pulled another breath. Feeling Zoro’s chest slowly heaving behind him was helping him pace himself until his breath evened out again.

No longer panicking, Sanji simply wept. He wept for himself, for Zoro, and for the friends he’d made only the night before. He wept for the future of the country that he held in unsure hands. His actions in court that day had impacted the future in ways he couldn’t even begin to comprehend. He was hit with the painful realization that this was to be his future. He was going to have to constantly make these terrible, heavy decisions and Sanji knew he wasn’t ready. He rolled over and hugged Zoro tight, sniffling into his shoulder.

“I can’t do this… I can’t do this, Zoro, I ca– I can’t– this– it’s too much…” He clutched at Zoro’s chest. “What’ve I done… What’ve… It’s my fault… This is all my fault…” His sobs started back up and anything he said was completely unintelligible.

Zoro started to comb his fingers through Sanji’s hair as his other hand made small circles on his back, trying to distract both Sanji and himself from their thoughts and feelings. He desperately wanted to ask what had happened, but he was sure any questions right then would trigger another panic attack. It would simply have to wait.

Once Sanji had calmed a little, Zoro laid the nearly catatonic prince on his bed. He placed a cool, damp rag over Sanji’s eyes and tucked him in. He pulled up a chair and sat at Sanji’s side, a comforting hand on his arm. It was nearly twenty minutes before Sanji spoke.

“Zoro… thank you…” Tears welled in Sanji’s eyes, but they were absorbed into the rag on his face. “I’m sorry…” he rasped, “Zoro, I’m so sorry.”

“Hush, Sanji, just rest.”

“No, listen,” Sanji pulled the rag from his face and shifted so he was sitting up against the wobbly headboard. “I messed up this morning and punished you over something stupid. Yet you still care for and comfort me.” He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and finally faced his friend as fresh tears welled in the corners of his eyes. He reached out and took Zoro’s face in his hands, stroking his cheeks with his thumbs.

“You’re my most treasured thing. I should treat you like it.” He leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Zoro’s forehead. “Even though I was mad you kept them secret from me for so long, I suppose I did have fun last night. Though I would still prefer to keep you to myself. I hate having to share you.”

He let go of a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “I’m sorry for keeping them secret from you. It wasn’t my intention.” He paused, “So… you’re okay with me still spending time with them?”

The prince heaved a sigh, weak in that moment to Zoro’s pleading expression. “I suppose that every once in a while wouldn’t hurt. While I cannot allow you to associate with them publicly, yes, your friends were–” Sanji suddenly remembered the crux of the issue they’d been discussing at court and his grip on Zoro’s face tightened for a moment. Zoro feared he’d said something wrong and opened his mouth to apologize when Sanji cut him off.

“That reminds me: what do you know about Sabo?”

“Hah?” Zoro crooked an eyebrow, face still sandwiched between Sanji’s hands, cheeks comically squished in the firm grip. “Sabo? What about him?”

“I’m asking what you know about him. No more secrets, Zoro, I need you to be honest with me.”

He stuttered for a moment, confused. “Uhh… He’s a year older than us? He’s… really smart. Ace and Luffy aren’t his blood brothers, but as far as I know they’re his only family. Uhh… he wears a veil all the time, but I’ve never seen his hair. He… uh...” he bit his lip, dreading the consequences but wanting Sanji to trust that he wasn’t hiding anything. “When the city was on lock down, they asked me to fetch ink for them. For his hair.”

Sanji was flabbergasted that Zoro wouldn’t think to bring that up first. “Did– You– How were you not– Didn’t that strike you as suspicious? At all?!”

“I was a little preoccupied by the threat on your life. It never really occurred to me to ask.”

“You’ve known them for a year and you never thought to ask?”

“It didn’t matter enough for them to explain it to me at the time, so why should I ask about it?” Zoro huffed, starting to get annoyed. “What are you getting at? I don’t understand what you’re pressing for.”

Finally dropping his hands from Zoro’s face to rub at his own temples, Sanji groaned with frustration. “By the gods, Zoro, he’s a prince.”

Zoro stared at his master dead faced for a moment as his brain tried to understand what he was being told. “Of… here…?”

“No, you idiot! He’s the missing prince! He’s the reason a threat was made on my life at all. He ran away from that psychotic king of Dressrosa and came here , and Donquixote knows that . It’s your friend’s fault that we’re going to war!”

Finally understanding the severity of the situation, Zoro’s face paled and dropped into an expression of horror. “Ah!”

“Eloquently put!” Sanji spat, a thick layer of venomous sarcasm coating his words. At least the agitation was putting a bit of color back in his cheeks. He rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache coming on. “Gods, this is such a mess… Get me a glass of water, would you?”

Zoro quickly stood from his seat, happy to have something to do. As he poured a glass for the prince, he had a sudden realization. “Did you tell the court where to find him?” He handed the glass over and sat back in his chair, watching Sanji gulp it down in one go as he anxiously awaited an answer.

“...No,” he wiped a dribble of water from his chin, “I couldn’t bring myself to. I don’t think it would’ve solved anything anyway. They would’ve wanted to know how I knew, and it would’ve put those friends of yours in danger. Not to mention that it probably wouldn’t have changed anything. Donquixote is a power hungry madman and if he didn’t already want to go to war then he’d have put out a notice. He wouldn’t have have sent assassins after me as his first course of action.” He could feel his breathing start to pick up, but refused to let himself succumb to another panic attack. The reassuring hand on his knee helped. He looked his friend in the eye. “Did… Was what I did right? Did I make the right choice?”

Zoro mulled it over for a moment, huffing through his nose and gripping at his hair as he tried to work his thoughts into sentences. Sanji patiently watched as he physically acted out his thought process, wondering if he was even aware of what he was doing. “It’s not that you– I don’t think there really was a right choice. You did what you felt was best. So in that sense, I think you did. You can’t doubt every decision you make or you’ll just get stuck in your head forever and never do anything. You overthink everything, trust yourself more.”

Sanji nodded, feeling reassured. He took a deep breath, “Thank you, Zoro.” He slowly heaved himself from the bed, a little shaky but able to stand on his own. “I’m only giving you one task today. After that the day is yours.” He couldn’t help but smile a little as Zoro visibly perked up like an excited dog. “I need you to speak to Sabo. He’ll trust you, and I firmly believe we can come up with something to fix this behind the scenes. But whatever you do, you cannot let anyone know where you’re going. You cannot let anyone discover him before we’ve come up with a plan. You understand that this is important, yes? You understand that if we fuck up there will be lives lost, yes?”

Zoro stood a little straighter, brow firmly set as he nodded gravely. He couldn’t be sure Sabo would open up to him, however. Despite knowing him for over a year, he realized that they barely knew anything about each other. Then again, it hadn’t really mattered before.

The two parted ways outside Zoro’s room, Sanji heading to the guest wing to check in with the princess to see how she was handling her first day in court. He knocked on her door, announcing his presence. He was surprised when the queen’s handmaiden answered the door instead of Nami.

“Ah, I apologize for the intrusion,” Sanji bowed slightly. “I was just–” He was cut off when the princess came flying into his arms. She had been equally distressed by their day in court, but hadn’t had the emotional strength or maturity to be able to talk it through with Nami. She’d spent the last half hour huddled behind the curtain not saying a word and simply staring at her feet. No amount of coaxing from Nami could get her to respond. With Sanji, she knew he understood, and that made her feel safe.

“Please,” the handmaiden stepped aside, “come in. We‘ve been at a loss with the princess, but perhaps you can help.”

Sanji was unsure what to do with his hands for a moment before bringing them down around the princess into a hug. He gently guided her back inside the room and held her as she cried, just as Zoro had done for him not long ago.

“I know, princess,” he whispered, gently rubbing her back. He wasn’t used to being a comforting presence, but it seemed to come almost naturally to him. “Today was hard, but you did well. It’s okay to cry, we’re only human.”

Vivi pulled away, wiping her eyes as she hiccupped. “I– I– I’m– I ca–” she couldn’t even get the words out before she started crying again. Nami stepped up and gently stroked her hair. Vivi turned and buried her face in Nami’s chest, wrapping her arms around her.

“I don’t know what to say to her to make her feel better. I’ve never seen her like this.” Nami’s brow furrowed, feeling helpless as she worries for her friend. “Was the summit really so terrible? She won’t tell me anything.”

Sanji frowned, but he couldn’t really answer without breaching their pledge to secrecy. Well, not that he hadn't done so already with Zoro, but now there was a stranger present, limiting what he could say. “I wish I could discuss it with you, Lady Nami, but I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss the details. It’s a complicated situation with no easy answers.”

“I hate it!” Vivi exclaimed, pulling away and glaring at the two as she cried. “This is stupid! I hate this! Why does it have to be like this!? Why can’t people just be nice and listen!?”

It clicked in Sanji’s mind as he suddenly understood what it was that Vivi was feeling at that moment and felt an overwhelming empathy for her. Vivi had just been thrown headfirst into the pressures of adulthood years before she was ready. She had been exposed to the heavy weight that a ruler must carry whenever they make a decision that will affect the lives of thousands of people. It was a confusing, frightening, and above all an extremely lonely feeling, and she was too young to fully understand her own emotions, much less the future consequences.

Gingerly, Sanji took Vivi’s hands in his, looking her in the eye. “The world is only as good as the people in control of it. Right now there’s very little we can do, but you have to commit to be kind and to stay strong for your people. Our parents may be starting this war, but we will be the ones to end it. Trust in the people around you, in Lady Nami, in me. We will be there when it gets hard to help you keep your head held high.” He reached up and wiped a tear from her eyes as she started crying again.

A small, wobbly smile spread across Vivi’s face. “Y-Yeah…” she sniffled as she tried to keep the tears at bay, pulling a hand away to harshly rub at her face. “Thank you Sanji, and thank you Nami.” She pulled the two of them into a tight hug, already feeling a little better.

Nami was touched by Sanji’s words, surprised that the prince was able to say something so unexpectedly eloquent and wise. She’d assumed he was about as deep as a puddle, but clearly she’d underestimated him. When they had first come to the palace, she hadn’t thought they would get swept up in such a wild rollercoaster of events. Much less, that they were to leave having made lifelong friends.

Before fulfilling his duty to Sanji, Zoro immediately went to look for Ace. He needed to know just how last night had played out on his end. He looked out over the recruits practicing in the training yard but couldn’t spot him. Confused, he did a sweep of both the bunkhouse and the barracks just to be sure. It was strange; as if the teen had just evaporated into thin air. He grew worried and couldn’t help but momentarily fear the worst. He swung back to the training grounds and lingered on the sidelines until they took a break between exercises.

Gin was taking a drink of water when the young knight’s apprentice approached him. He erected himself and bowed slightly in greeting. Despite their mutual connection to Ace, the two never grew very close and it felt out of place to try and address him casually. “Good afternoon, Sir, can I assist you?”

“Afternoon, Gin, I was wondering if you knew where Ace was. There’s something important I need to ask of him and I haven’t been able to find him.”

Gin took pause, suspicion crinkling the corners of his eyes. He knew it would be out of place to ask the nature of their relationship, given Zoro’s standing, but he was starting to suspect their closeness.

“Rumor has it he was jailed for getting someone injured last night. Forgive me if this is out of line, but do you know what happened?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss it. Thank you for your help.” Zoro dashed off again, Gin’s suspicious stare following him off the yard.

Hurrying through the halls, and having to be redirected several times by patient guardsmen, Zoro eventually found his way to the dungeon. He hurried down the stairs and through bleak halls, passing a group of guards playing dice near the only entrance to the cells. They stood, gripping their polearms.

“What’re you doing here, kid?”

Zoro hadn’t expected any kind of resistance, accustomed to generally having free reign of the castle. “I’m here to question one of the prisoners.”

The guards snorted, sharing a look. “And?”

“Let me pass, I’m here under orders.”

“Whose orders?”

Zoro frowned, growling low in his throat. “Whose do you think? Listen, I don’t have much time. I need to speak with the prisoners.”

“Oh, so it’s both of them now? And by the way, how did you even know about them? We were under the impression only Mihawk and the king were aware of the situation.”

“Word travels fast.” Zoro’s brow was starting to twitch with frustration. “Look, I don’t have time for this. Let me pass, I have important business to attend to.”

“No, you look. We’ve been told not to let anyone pass, and that definitely includes overreaching servants of the royal snot. Get out of here or you’ll be joining them in there.”

“Prince Sanji wouldn’t stand for that and you know it. He also wouldn’t appreciate being referred to as a snot. What right do you have to insult him like that?” Zoro settled a hand on the hilt of his sword. “If you won’t get out of my way I’ll make you move. Either way, it’ll be easier for you if you give me five minutes to speak with them.”

The three guards leveled their weapons at the boy. “Just try it.”

Zoro tightened his grip on the hilt before releasing his weapon. He knew he could defeat them, but it wouldn’t be worth the consequences. Tempting, but ultimately foolish. He sighed and turned on his heel, chased out of the dungeon by the mockery of the guards. His face burned with shame, but he still had an important task to complete.

Walking the now vaguely familiar path to the lower city, Zoro made it to the brothers’ home in just over an hour’s time. He took a moment to feel incredibly smug about this accomplishment. Looking around, he saw only a couple peasants milling about, some of them watching Zoro out of the corner of their eye as he approached the brothers’ home.

“Open up,” he banged on the door, keenly aware of the eyes on him, “I am here on official business under orders.” The door swung open and Zoro was pulled inside and into a tight hug, the small boy clinging to him with impressive strength. “Hey, Luffy. I’m guessing you guys made it back just fine last night.”

“Yup! I’m surprised to see you, Zoro. You never visit two days in a row!” Luffy hurried over to Sabo’s hiding spot and knocked on the floorboards. “Sabo! Wake up, Zoro’s here!”

Zoro quickly shut the door behind him before going to make sure all the windows were shut tight. “Sorry, Luffy, but I didn’t come to have fun today. There’s something important I need to talk to you guys about. Sabo, specifically.”

“Oh?” Sabo pulled himself from his hiding spot and dusted off. He cracked his neck and started stretching his achy limbs. “What is it?”

Zoro opened his mouth to pose the question, but as he stared into the deceptively innocent looking eyes he found he was having trouble finding the words. How was he supposed to ask his friend whether he knew that he had unintentionally sparked a war across the northern empire? He also couldn’t easily ask him to return to the side of the bloodthirsty ruler that was tearing apart entire countries for fun. Still, he had to.

“I understand that you won’t want to talk about it, but we don’t really have a choice here.” Zoro shifted between his feet and took a deep breath, centering himself before speaking. “I need to know why you’re wearing that veil.”

Luffy was already bored, but he was a diligent little brother and a loyal friend so he remained in the room — not that there were any other rooms to be in — and did his best impression of someone paying attention. He’d never cared for heavier conversations, not having the attention span to stay invested for more than the first minute or so. However, this time it was the silence that drew his attention. He stopped rocking in his chair and fixed his gaze on Sabo who had gone completely still. His brother was tense, stare unwavering and face blank. Yet the energy he exuded triggered Luffy’s flight or fight instinct. His eyes flickered to Zoro for a moment, his friend having also gone rigid in response to Sabo’s reaction, or lack thereof.

Sabo finally moved to fold his arms over his chest, his shoulders squared off and his back straightened up. With just a shift in his posture, his disguise was stipped and Zoro could finally see that he was indeed in the presence of a prince.

“Why are you asking me this now?” Sabo’s normally jovial face was dark and furrowed. He radiated a dangerous energy, but Zoro refused to be intimidated.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. People are going missing. They’re being attacked. If we don’t do something and try and fix things soon then people are going to start dying. Lots of them. We’re talking about a full blown war. It’s come to our understanding that you may be the key. I don’t have time to play coy with you. You need to tell me everything.”

Sabo turned away, glaring at the floor as his fingers dug into his arms. All at once, the anger that seemed to be boiling behind his eyes rushed out and all that was left was hollow exhaustion. His posture slouched once more, looking defeated. He pulled up a chair and sat down, indicating for Zoro to do the same.

He fiddled with his fingers, lacing and unlacing them over and over, eyes fixated on the floor between his feet. “Who knows about me?” His voice was quiet as if afraid to speak above a whisper, but there was a definite, tense edge to it.

“Only I know where you live, but Sanji and Vivi are aware of the situation.” Zoro sat forward, steadily staring down the older boy. “Please, Sabo, we might be able to stop this before it starts.”

“I don’t know what digging into the past is going to do for our current situation, but…” Sabo sighed, sitting back in his chair and letting his head fall back as he collected himself. Resigned to the fact that his past had finally caught up to him, he figured now was as good good a time as any to come clean and finally share his secrets. “I hope you don’t have anywhere to be. It’s a long one.”

“That’s alright, I’ve got the afternoon off.” Zoro took his sword from his belt before getting comfortable in the chair. “I have to admit, though, the longer the story the less I tend to remember.”

Sabo’s mouth slowly turned up with a listless smile, eyes still dark like those of a dead fish. It creeped the other two out a little, if they were being honest. “I’ll just stick to the juicy bits then.”

Chapter Text

Sabo held no memory of his family or of the kingdom where he was born. The only things he knew of his long forgotten home came from the stories told to him in secret by his nanny. She had once been an attendant to the royal family of Goa, wife to the royal healer, and a mother of two. Her husband and daughter were killed before they’d even left the palace grounds. She managed to make it just outside the city with her son before getting captured. They considered themselves lucky when they were bound in chains and thrown into wheeled cages to be carted off to Dressrosa.

The brutal annihilation stained the royal city of Flevance red, mutilated bodies left to decay in the streets. The few survivors, save for the royal family, were brought back as spoils of war, tattooed and imprisoned until a use was found for them. Those deemed a burden or unworthy of reuse were bound together atop a massive pyre and burned.

The executions of the king and queen of Goa were held before the entire population of the royal city in the Corrida Colosseum. The event was treated like a celebration; musicians, dancers and entertainers covered the field with a grand display of coordination. They added a lightness and buffoonery to the grave moment. The king and queen were dressed in their finest, forced to stand upon the temporary execution platform from dawn to just before sunset. Doflamingo held Sabo, a babe who had only just learned to crawl, as he gave the order for the former rulers of Goa to be executed. Sabo giggled in the arms of a murderer as his parents were beheaded.

For the first couple of years, Sabo grew up as normally as he could under both the dedicated tutelage of the mad king and the kind hand of his nanny. However, as time passed, Doflamingo started to realize that the boy wouldn’t ever have the steel heart he had hoped for. Sabo was gentle, inquisitive, a bright pressense that the servants all fawned over. The king could only see him as soft, weak. In an attempt to rectify this, the help were all forbidden from interacting with the child under threat of severe punishment. It broke many of their hearts to hear the lonely cries echo through the halls as he desperately tried to get the slightest bit of acknowledgement. When the king grew annoyed by the crying, he was confined to his room.

The only time Sabo saw another person was when his nanny brought him his daily meal and gave him his week’s end bath. He would beg for her to stay, clinging to her skirts as he sobbed, but she continued to brush him aside. It pained her every time to hear the pounding of tiny fists on the other side of the door, begging to not be left alone. It made her think of her own son, whom she’d not seen since they were brought into Dressrosa. Eventually, she decided she couldn’t take it anymore, and made a deal with the guard so he’d turn his head for an hour.

For five months she took care of the boy in secret, bringing him treats, art supplies, and books. Every day they would roll back the rug and Sabo would get to work making chalk illustrations to accompany the stories she told. He deeply cherished the time she spent with him, learning all about what she knew of the world they lived in.

She in turn was impressed by the boy’s intelligence and artistry, angry that his gifts were being squandered in favor of supposedly hardening his gentle heart. By the time he’d turned five he was already able to read the little fairy tale books back to his nanny, only having occasional trouble with bigger words. The pictures he drew across the floor were slowly improving: no longer shapes and squiggles, but identifiable creatures and people. She was so incredibly proud of him.

“Nanny,” Sabo pipped as he put the finishing touches on a picture of himself in between his parents atop a dragon, “did you have a family too?”

A sad smile spread over her face as she was brought back to a time before her home had been destroyed. “Yes, my dear. I had a husband and two children. A boy and a girl. My daughter would’ve been five, just like you.”

“Did they come here too?” The boy never looked up from his pictures, instead moving on to start drawing his nanny as he waited for her to inevitably tell the story of her family. He wanted to wow her with his interpretation of how they may have looked.

“My son is here with the other children from Goa. My husband and daughter, they… they…” The painful memory still twinged like a wound that wouldn’t heal. “Unfortunately they didn’t make it here with us.”

Sabo paused in his art, noticing his caretaker’s distress. He dropped the chalk and went to her side, pulling himself into her lap and bringing her arms around him in a hug. His fingers started to trace over one of the dark, oval tattoos on her forearm.

“I’m sorry for making you sad, Nanny.”

“It’s okay, sweetheart, it wasn’t your fault.” She sniffled into the soft, pale blonde curls, hugging him tight. “You’re a good boy, Sabo.”

There suddenly came a pounding at the door, and before she could remove Sabo from her lap it burst open. One of Doflamingo’s attendants was at the door, flanked by a cluster of guardsmen. Without a word they seized her, tossing Sabo to the ground where he lay frozen in shock. Not a word was said as she was removed from the room. She knew the price should she take the risk; there was no use fighting at this point.

Sabo could only watch helplessly as his room was stripped of every gift his nanny had brought. The rug was taken away and water dumped over every foot of the mural beneath it. Unable to shed even a single tear, Sabo sat unmoving on the floor until long after the sun had set. Once again he was alone in the dark, staring at nothing. It was days before anyone came to see him again.

He’d spent the last day and a half laying on the floor facing the door. His stomach felt like it was trying to devour itself, desperate for food. He had started to hear scrabbling in the walls as his starved brain tried to create something within the unending quiet. When he heard the sound of feet rapidly approaching his room, he assumed it was another manifestation of his bored mind.

There was a screech and a clank and his door unlocked and swung open. Standing in the bright light of the outside hall was a guard and and a boy nearly twice Sabo’s age. The boy was gaunt, tan skin mottled with patches of alabaster. On his forearms were the tattoos of a former Goa citizen. His eyes were hollow and glassy, dark bags and bruises making him look like a raccoon. His jet black hair was in wild disarray, a couple patches of it missing entirely as if it’d been ripped from his scalp. He was shoved into Sabo’s room, the door slamming shut and locking behind him. The two of them had an intense staredown in the deafening silence of the empty room.

Once the footsteps outside retreated, the mangy boy quickly crouched down and set the tray on the floor. He hurried to shovel the food into his own mouth, so desperate for something to eat that he didn't care that he was depriving the younger boy of his first meal in days. Sabo’s instinct to survive kicked in and he managed to pull himself up and charge at the other, knocking him off his food. He screamed in rage, delivering a rain of terror with his tiny fists.

The older boy was surprised, but he could easily handle himself in a fight. Especially against someone who was half his size. He shoved Sabo off him and pinned him to the floor by the neck. He reared back a fist to deliver a blow, but there was something about the wild look in Sabo’s eyes that gave him pause. This child would have killed him if he were physically capable of it. He could tell in that moment that the two of them were the same.

“Hey, kid…”

Sabo stopped struggling, but he maintained his murderous glare through a fresh bout of hot tears. His lips were pulled back in a fierce snarl as his hands scratched at the grip on his throat.

“Let’s kill the king.”

Through a series of gruesome tests, Law had been selected personally by the king to be Sabo’s one and only companion. At just nine years old he had proven that he had the hardened soul and violent personality that Doflamingo had been looking for. He figured that perhaps the young prince could learn a thing or two about ruthless animosity and absolute hatred from this boy. Instead, what he’d actually given him was a co-conspirator.

Every morning after the two split Sabo’s meager breakfast they would fight hand to hand until one of them was subdued, usually Sabo. They would continue to fight, tallying up their wins and losses until they were too tired to go another round. In the afternoon, Law told him stories of the king’s cruelty and of the brutal destruction of their home. As the days and weeks went by, Sabo grew more and more angry, more violent. After a month, he came to hate everyone and everything of Dressrosa. The bright light of happy innocence had all but faded from his eyes.

After about a month of fighting and having his head filled with bloody horror stories, Sabo was nearly unrecognizable. His once cherub-like demeanor had twisted into a pessimistic glower. His bright eyes had gone lifeless and dim. One morning, as Law was telling Sabo another story about the atrocities committed against their homeland, the young prince interrupted him for the first time with a question.

“How come they killed everyone? Do you know?”

Law stuttered a moment before gritting his teeth, reluctant to explain. “My dad said that they said it was cause we were sick. He was trying to make medicine for everyone. He made me and my sister better, but they killed him and everyone else before he could cure the rest.”

“I thought you said that Doflamingo killed anyone who was sick when everyone came here.” Sabo pointed at Law’s face. “You’re covered in sickness scars. How come you’re still alive?”

“I–I don’t…” Law growled, “Shut up!”

“You don’t know, do you? Or are you a liar? I bet you everything you said was a big, fat lie.”

“I said shut up!” Law wasted no time punishing the kid for his smart mouth. Sabo fought back, but he was no match for Law’s anger in that moment. He was beaten till he was bloody and nearly unconscious, idly wondering if a person could die from getting punched too many times.

Suddenly, the fists came to an abrupt stop and the weight on his chest vanished. He peeled open his swelling eyes and saw Law kicking and screaming above him, caught in the tight arms of a giant of a man. As he tried to blink away the stars and spots behind his lids, Sabo sat up, wanting to get a better look at his savior.

Initially, his blood ran cold, thinking he was in the presence of the mad king. But as his vision cleared, he started noticing some obvious differences: longer hair, a different cape, dirtier clothes. To Sabo’s horror, the most notable difference was that this man’s mouth had been sewn shut. His face was frozen in a mask of shock as he tried to understand where the hell this horror show of a man had come from. He looked to the door, knowing he would’ve heard it if it had opened. The windows were far too narrow for a grownup to fit through. Perhaps this man was a magician? A spirit?

“Let! Me! Go!” Law finally managed to free himself, thanks to a loosened grip, and dropped from the arms of his gentle captor. He wheeled around, ready to fight when he froze in shock just as Sabo was. “Wha… Who the hell…?”

The man pulled a piece of chalk from his pocket and turned to write on the wall. ‘I am the king’s brother. My name is Rosinante. I live in the walls.’

Prince Rosinante was the king’s most treasured person as well as his greatest shame. Sabo had often reminded the king of his younger brother with his soft, forgiving nature. Rosinante had been confined to the darkness just as Sabo was, but he had eventually learned to escape. He would travel through the secret stairways and passages that existed between the walls, originally designed for the servants to move through the castle without being seen. The paranoid king had had them sealed off shortly after Goa had been eradicated, not wanting any of the survivors to be able to disappear out of sight where whispers could turn to action.

Rosinante had been keeping an eye on the activities of his brother from the shadows, growing increasingly disturbed by what he was seeing. He saw a lot of himself and his brother in Law and Sabo and had finally decided to step in, not wanting an old pattern to repeat itself. It took several weeks, but he eventually got the traumatized boys to trust him. Even though they thought this strange, silent man was a tad childish, silly even, he brought a touch of fun and whimsy into their bleak lives that they had never experienced before.

Years passed. Sabo was finally old enough for proper lessons and to be taught the ways of the tyrant. As a boy of only twelve, he had learned to hide his sensitive nature and play the part the king expected of him. His intelligence had finally been acknowledged and he even occasionally found himself at the king’s side during strategy meetings. Law, meanwhile, was trained to be a suitable right hand for the prince. At sixteen he won his first tournament, leaving behind a pile of corpses as he made his way to the top. The king was predictably delighted by the ruthlessness of his victory.

Despite how convincingly they played their roles, it was only during the day that they kept up this front. At night, they were visited by their mentor, who enjoyed the company as much as they did. Law especially grew very attached to the man. He had become a sort of father figure to the two of them, despite being an accident prone disaster of a human being. They had lost count of how many times he had accidentally lit himself on fire.

Communicating only by writing on the walls in dim candlelight, Rosinante taught the boys the art of subterfuge. He worked dutifully to prepare them for the day they would rise up against the king. He reignited Law’s interest in science and medicine, sneaking him books from the library whenever he had the chance. With Sabo, he taught him the delicate balance of deceit: how to mix fact with fiction and how to affect the politics of the city through minor intervention. He also took it upon himself to teach the boys how to show restraint, a concept Law had always had trouble grasping.

“If we’re fighting someone, isn’t it better to kill them so they can’t get back up?” Law questioned, arms folded stubbornly. “If you don’t kill them, then you have one more enemy roaming free.”

Rosinante shook his head and picked up the chalk, about to explain when he paused, lowering it again. He sighed through his nose before tossing the chalk aside. He pulled a small knife from his belt and sat cross legged in the middle of the room. The boys were confused, but joined him to sit on the floor. Their eyes widened in horrified awe as their mentor began to cut the thread that held his lips together. Dribbles of fresh blood made their way down his chin from each of the punctures. For the first time in years, Rosinante opened his jaw, the joints cracking and popping painfully. He tried to speak, voice croaky and hoarse.

“Mercy… is… just as much… for them… as it is… for you.” He forced his cracked and bleeding lips up in a smile. It was more creepy than reassuring to the two boys. “Laugh... in the face... of your oppressors…” He coughed, clearly pushing through the pain of using his voice after over a decade of silence. “Smile as you... stare death in the face... The first thing to die in a war... is joy. If they can’t... take your smile, they will never... truly defeat you.”

The boys never forgot those words.

It was Sabo’s thirteenth birthday, the day he was to be officially crowned prince. There was a grand celebration held within the Corrida Colosseum, Dressrosa’s pride and glory. The stands were packed with spectators, a gradient of hair colors from the pale and the vibrant at ringside to the pitch black at the very top.

Sabo had on his most convincing smile as he subtly scanned the crowd, waiting for his cue. The three conspirators had been refining a plan for a coup for the last month, sowing the seeds of an uprising amongst the low caste. They intended to use the chaos of the event to finally take the chance to assassinate the king. A hand clamped down on Sabo’s shoulder and he nearly jumped with surprise. He turned to look up at Doflamingo, who was smiling down at him with a crazed glint to his eye. Sabo was used to the king’s unstable mood, but there was something about that smile that set the young prince on edge. The grip on his shoulder tightened ever so slightly.

“Enjoying your party?” There was a tense edge to the king’s voice, as if a flood of rage was being held back by the wide, wicked grin.

“Yes, Your Majesty. I’m looking forward to the tournament.” Law was set to fight once again. The people had developed a sick enjoyment of watching the teenager defeat men twice his size with brutal flair. He had quickly climbed the ranks to be the number one crowd favorite.

“I’m sure your little friend won’t disappoint.” The grip tightened until it was nearly painful, “isn’t that right?”

Sabo resisted the urge to wince. “I have faith he’ll be victorious yet again.”

“Yes,” Doflamingo drawled, “but it would be a shame if he killed any more of my fighters. I need them, you see. This time, we have something a little different planned.”

Sabo felt his soul turn to ice as Doflamingo chuckled to himself. He managed to maintain a mask of calm, his smile wide as ever as his mind reeled. He feared for the boy that had become something of a friend over the years of shared suffering. His eyes immediately started to dart in search for Law. He finally caught a glimpse of him, positioned just behind a gate as he patiently waited for it to open and for the competition to begin.

The king raised his arms and a hush ran over the crowd, everyone turning their attention to him. “Dear citizens,” he bellowed to the crowd, “raise your drinks, for we have a very special performance for a very special day! Let’s welcome out our youngest champion to ever spill blood onto the sands of this sacred arena. Let him hear your love, Dressrosa!”

The crowd erupted into cheers as the gate opened and Law stepped out, dressed in partial armor with a longsword firm in his grip. He walked out into the center of the ring, a murderous glare on his face. Despite his aggressive looks, or perhaps because of them, the crowd went wild with excitement. Law didn’t mind the combat, confident in his skills, but he hated the fanfare surrounding it. He was little more than a dancing monkey to the crowd that surrounded him. He looked up and stared at Sabo a moment, the two of them sharing a silent conversation. They were still waiting for their cue; hopefully nothing had gone wrong.

Just then, the enemy's gates cranked open. Law levelled his sword, expecting a number of beasts to surge forth for the first round. It was silent for a moment before the first form made its way out from the darkness. It was a boy, about Law’s age, with tattoos on his forearms. Following him was a woman, then two other men, all of them with the tattoos of former Goa citizens. They each brandished a cheap sword, but were given nothing to defend themselves with. They didn’t even have armor.

Law felt his eyes widen and his body go stiff as horror set in. This wasn’t going to be a fight. It was meant to be a slaughter. He recognized several of these people as fellow prisoners from when he was young. Now they surrounded him with blades drawn, waiting for the start signal. One young girl in particular looked as if she were about to start crying.

“If one of you can defeat the champion, the prize is five hundred gold and your freedom!”

The people in the stands were surprised by this announcement, to say the least. Years of grooming had bred a hatred in them towards the people of Goa, believing them to all carry the deadly disease that had briefly plagued Flevance. Intermixed with the boo’s and jeers were loud, angry encouragements for Law to slaughter each and every one of them. They seemed to forget in that moment that they were encouraging their champion to kill his people.

Doflamingo, pleased with the crowd’s reaction, leaned over to whisper into Sabo’s ear. “I love it when they get emotional.” He chuckled, sinister smile never wavering.

Sabo wasn’t sure if the mad king was referring to the crowd or the fighters. Either way, this wasn’t looking good. Doflamingo had thrown them a curveball and now it was their move. Law couldn’t draw out the fight by pretending to be equally matched against these feeble prisoners. He desperately scanned the crowd, looking for any sign that the coup was underway and his friend wouldn’t have to kill these people.

The starting horns sounded and Sabo’s heart sunk. He watched with lidded eyes and a stony smile as Law began to fight the prisoners. Initially, he just kept them at bay, clearly not eager to so much as wound them. The crowd could feel his reluctance and they started to grow restless. Doflamingo’s smile cracked for a moment, an enraged frown wrinkling his face. After barely a moment it was gone again, and the seemingly permanent smile was back in place.

“Interesting,” he lilted, “when did that curr grow a heart?”

Sabo’s heart rate picked up as he started to panic. He watched helplessly as Law struck a man down. A single, agonized shout and the man fell into the dirt, never to move again. The prisoners gave pause, backing up to slowly circle around Law. He couldn’t hold his punches any longer, which meant more of them were going to start dying. The tense atmosphere in the arena mutated into excitement as the jeers turned back to cheers. The crowd’s anger finally abated now that blood had been drawn.

All of the air rushed out of his lungs, despair and betrayal sitting heavy in Sabo’s chest. Where was Rosinante? Where was the dramatic uprising? He felt the last shred of hope shatter as he finally resigned himself to the fact that he was never escaping this life.

The prisoners all jumped Law at once, and the boy reacted with instinct alone. He struck down a second, a third, a fourth prisoner. He swung his sword in broad strokes to try and gain some distance from the four remaining challengers. He stepped backwards, tripping over the lifeless body of the girl and tumbling to the ground. The prisoners took this as their chance, rushing forward and jabbing at him while he lay supine on the ground. Law rolled out of the way, barely reclaiming his sword in time to defend himself.

The muscles in Sabo’s jaw were working overtime as he clenched and ground his teeth anxiously. He knew Law was a good fighter and that he would undoubtedly escape this round victorious. It was the following trials that scared Sabo. What could this tyrant possible have in store that was worse than this? He didn’t want to know.

Suddenly, amidst the cheers, there was the sound of confusion. Attention was slowly being drawn to the very back seats of the colosseum where a fight had broken out. A twinkle of hope sparked behind Sabo’s eyes as he watched the chaos unfold. Fights were starting throughout the stands, and the young prince knew this was the moment they’d been waiting for.

Guards hurried to the royal box to escort the king and prince to safety, but Doflamingo refused to move. He didn’t even uncross his legs as he sat back in his throne. His eyes were transfixed straight ahead, the ever present smile turned down in a sharp frown. A vein throbbed in his forehead as he ground his teeth with rage.

“I see you’ve been busy.”

Realizing that the king was onto him, Sabo drew his hidden blade. He didn’t care if the guards struck him down for his actions. If it meant bringing an end to the whims of this ruthless dictator then it was worth sacrificing his life. Before he could land a blow, Doflamingo’s hand shot out and caught the boy by the throat. The mad king’s mouth turned back up in a smile as he began to laugh maniacally, chest heaving as he bellowed with sinister joy.

“Maybe I taught you too well.” His grip tightened as he stood, picking the boy up by the throat in an incredible display of strength.

Sabo’s face started prickling as the blood and oxygen to his brain were cut off. He could almost feel the tiny blood vessels in his face bursting as he was strangled. He clutched the knife in his weakening grip and lashed out with the remainder of his strength. Before he could figure out what had happened, he was suddenly flying through the air. Either way, he was just relieved to finally able to breathe again. The brief thought that he was falling for a lot longer than he should’ve been crossed his mind before he felt a heavy impact to his shoulder. Then everything went black.

What happened next was a blur, a series of flashes every time he managed to briefly regain consciousness. He remembered seeing Law’s face, furrowed with anger and worry. Then he was being carried, the sound of several sets of footsteps running over stone. It was dark. He blinked and it was bright again, the sun like hot needles in his eyes. Through squinted lids he saw Law running behind him, Rosinante’s cape billowing beneath him.

When he finally came to, he was laid out on the sand. A small fire was fighting to stay lit in the harsh nighttime wind. Law sat across from him, blood on his clothes and a bleak expression on his face. He only looked up when Sabo stirred.

“You awake for good this time?” His voice was raspy and quiet; he sounded exhausted. “You’ve been in and out the last ten hours.”

“Ten hours… Really?” Sabo tried to push himself up, but there was a sharp pain in his shoulder. He tried again with the other arm, but started feeling woozy with the effort. He quickly laid back down to avoid throwing up. “What happened?”

Law scooted closer to the fire, trying to shield it from the wind. He added another couple sticks to the pitiful pile. “...Lotta people died.” He tightened his fists until his knuckles went white, his lips pulled back into a snarl. “Rosinante,” he growled, “made sure we got out. Doflamingo was going to have us all killed.”

Sabo was quiet, taking a moment to process this information with an injured brain. “He didn’t make it...” He was almost afraid to say the words aloud, as if speaking them might somehow make it true.

“No, he didn’t,” Law bit back. “He would’ve survived if you had just done the one thing we needed of you. You had an opening and you failed. It’s your fault he’s dead.” Law turned his harsh glare from the fire over to Sabo. The homeless prince, unable to move, simply turned his head away from the accusatory look to stare at the rock they’d taken shelter under. For the first time in what felt like forever, Sabo finally cried.

The duo wandered the desert for days, neither of them breaking the silence to speak. They had no more words to share. Sabo had made a temporary sling for his broken arm out of his cravat. They were becoming dangerously dehydrated and growing faint under the ruthless rays of the springtime sun. When desperation finally settled in, they resorted to drinking cactus water and wound up spending the better part of the afternoon hallucinating in a paranoid frenzy. At night they feasted on whatever they could catch: lizards, snakes, insects, one time they even caught a sandshrew.

After a week of aimlessly plodding through the desert, they noticed with a glimmer of hope that there were storm clouds in the distance. With clouds would come rain. Their mouths suddenly grew painfully dry as they anticipated a refreshing drink of water. As they walked towards the storm, they noticed the wind starting to pick up, sand blowing past and stinging at any exposed skin. They shaded their eyes and turned to look in the direction the wind was coming from. Their stomachs dropped as a seemingly solid wall of sand and debris came over the horizon and started rapidly closing in on them. It would be a matter of minutes before the it descended upon them. As if the two boys hadn’t been through enough already, it was as if the gods themselves had sent a force of nature to wipe them out for good.

“Quick,” these were Law’s first words in nearly a week, “we need to tether together or we’ll get lost.” The boys only had a moment to figure out how to make sure they wouldn’t get separated before getting hopelessly blinded by the storm. Sabo desperately looked around for shelter as Law ripped apart his own shirt to fashion a makeshift rope, but there was nothing but dunes for miles. On command, he held his one good arm out for Law to tie the tether to, but before Law could secure the other end to himself, the vicious storm descended upon them.

Sabo could see about three feet ahead of him whenever he could manage to crack open his eyes. He could feel Law on the other end of the tether, tugging at it and unintentionally throwing the younger boy off balance. Sabo stumbled a couple feet in the direction he thought Law was in, but then the tension on the tether suddenly released.

“Law!” Sabo screamed, and for a moment he thought he heard his name amidst the vicious swirling of the wind. “Law, where are you?” His voice cracked, hitting a shrill register. His mouth was filled with sand and he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. He tucked in his chin, reaching out his arm as he stumbled blindly through the storm. He didn’t stop screaming for Law until his voice gave out. He tottered haphazardly until he tripped over something he couldn’t see, and suddenly he was tumbling down the side of a dune. Every time he hit his shoulder on the way down he was racked with throbs of such excruciating pain that he thought he would pass out again.

As he rolled, his knee, face, and forearm took a heavy impact from an outcrop of solid rock that brought the boy to a standstill. He cried out again in agony as his body lay twisted amongst the boulders. The pain reached such a point that his body gave him the sweet release of unconsciousness. He wasn’t sure how many hours passed until he woke up again, now completely alone with Law nowhere insight.

“I limped for another day and a half before I collapsed again. When I woke up, Ace and Luffy were standing over me. They’d been hunting for some mythical desert monster or something when they found me. I’d made it to about a mile outside this city.” Zoro sat wide eyed, having not moved an inch throughout Sabo’s story. There was a lot to process, and he wasn’t sure where he should start.

“Wow…” he was definitely never going to complain about his life being difficult ever again. “So, not only is Doflamingo a lot crazier than I thought, but he eradicated an entire kingdom; kidnapped its prince; enslaved, thortured, and killed your people; murdered a brother I’m not sure anyone even knows about; and kept a city wide uprising secret for two years.”

“To put decades of cruel, ruthless behavior into the simplest of terms, yes.” Sabo’s tone was glib, clearly agitated from having to relive those old horror stories. The tense atmosphere in the room was broken up by Luffy’s occasional snore. He’d conked out within the first couple minutes of Sabo’s story. In a weird way, Sabo almost appreciated the complete lack of interest.

“With these guys, I got to pretend I was normal. They never asked me about my past or where I came from. Luffy welcomed me into their family with open arms. Ace was,” he chuckled a bit at the memory, “Ace was suspicious as hell of me at first, if I’m honest. Didn’t trust anyone he couldn’t literally throw.”

Zoro smiled at the mention of Ace, but was brought back when he realized there was a possibly important loose end. “Did you ever look for your friend?”

“Law?” Sabo sat back in his chair, feeling a sense of loss and regret prickle in his gut. “I don’t even know if he’s alive. I’m only here because they saved me. There’s no way he could’ve survived on his own.”

A master of timing as always, Luffy fell off his chair, finally rousing from his deep sleep. He rubbed his eyes as he groggily sat up. “Ahhh, are you guys done talking yet?”

Zoro turned to Sabo, clearly having more questions that craved answers, but Sabo halted him. “With Doflamingo’s men knocking down doors in the lower city I can’t afford to stay out any longer than I already have.”

“Wait, you know about that?”

“That people in the lower city are being attacked? Yeah, Zoro, how could I not? I live here. Besides, word travels fast down here.” Sabo lowered himself back beneath the floor. “I don’t know if anything I told you will help, but I’ll pray to the gods every night that you and Sanji find a way to fix this. If you need my help again, you know where to find me.” With that, he lay down and replaced the floorboards, now indistinguishable from their neighbors.

Luffy sleepily looked over at Zoro with a heavy pout. “You don’t have to go, do you?” He’d been increasingly lonely since Ace had left to join the army and Sabo had to remain hidden during the day. Sure, he appreciated the now regular food on the table, but at what cost?

Zoro sighed, going over to the boy and patting him on the head. “This is important Luffy, I have to get back to Sanji.” ‘Before I forget anything,’ he finished in his head. After following him outside, Luffy listlessly waved him off before running off down the street. The boy was undoubtedly on his way to find something to entertain himself with till sundown.

The entire walk home, Zoro’s mind was a whirlwind. Sabo had given him a lot of insight on just how big of a mess they planned on meddling in. Doflamingo was far more dangerous and wicked than he’d originally thought. Until then, he was just some faraway villain. He hadn’t been real in a sense that Zoro could understand. Even now, with just stories about the man, Zoro could feel his confidence wavering. He shook his head to try and get rid of the useless thoughts. He’d pass this information to Sanji and the prince could undoubtedly come up with a foolproof plan. He had to believe in his master, because otherwise he’d have to face the fear that they may lose this fight. One thing was for sure: there was no way in hell he was asking Sabo to return to Dressrosa.

Chapter Text

A waft of smoke slowly curled from Sanji’s lips as he processed the laundry list of nightmares Zoro had just relayed to him. “There is no way I could send him back to that man with a clear conscience.”

Zoro relaxed a bit in his chair, a quiet sigh of relief escaping through his nose. He was pleased that Sanji seemed to feel the same way he did. “So what do we do now?”

Sanji took a thoughtful drag of his pipe, his other hand tapping anxiously on his knee. “I hate to admit it, but I honestly have no idea. What can we do? I can’t think of a way to fix this without people getting hurt.” His teeth clacked against the lip of his pipe as he chewed at it gently. He mentally flipped through their options and the inevitably violent outcomes, the odds rarely in their favor. “He’s leading us exactly where he wants us: onto the battlefield. We can’t even reveal what we know about him without a valid source, and obviously we can’t tell them we’ve been secretly talking to the missing prince. Our hands are tied.”

Zoro dropped his gaze to the floor, hands gripping tight at his knees. He didn’t like that answer. He couldn’t shake the feeling that they were missing something. “What if…” He gnawed his lip as he tried to think of a plan, knowing full well that that this sort of thinking wasn’t his strong suit. “What if… someone else told them?”

Sanji scoffed, “What do you mean someone el–” his eyes widened, as a plan struck him. “No, hold on, that could work.” He stood from his chair and started pacing about, pipe clutched between his teeth. His eyes were darting back and forth like mad as his mind swirled in a frenzy.

“So, what we know about Doflamingo is that he’s already taken over one country already. He’s now using Sabo’s disappearance as an excuse to infiltrate our city, just like he undoubtedly used the infection in Flevance. Our country is the second smallest of the five remaining kingdoms after Krieg’s, who he’s currently allied with, which makes us the best target. Not to mention that we’re geographically closest to Dressrosa. If there were to ever be an incursion, it would take a couple of days for help to arrive. Alabasta would be in a tough spot if they decided to send their forces to our aid as it would leave them vulnerable to Krieg’s troops–”

“Sanji, breathe.”

“Right, not worrying about that yet. What we need to focus on right now is how we can use what Sabo told you against Doflamingo.” He tried to take another hit off his pipe, accidentally sucking up the remaining ash instead. He’d been so caught up in his thoughts he hadn’t even noticed he’d finished it off. Coughing furiously, he handed it off to Zoro to refill as he continued pacing around the room in thought.

“According to what my dad said, no one has been in or out of Dressrosa for about two years. We can now assume why that was: he’s keeping his people from being exposed to outside influences and keeping outsiders from knowing the truth of what’s happened from the day the city rioted up until now. It’s a classic tactic for any tyrant to control and manipulate their people by controlling what they know, what they think. Things have probably gotten worse since Sabo escaped. Speaking of, you said he was injured and mostly unconscious during the uprising, right?”

“Right.”

“Then it’s possible he’s not remembering everything correctly. There could be important details we’re missing. A key to this whole mess.” Sanji took the pipe back from Zoro and lit it. His brain was on fire as he started to put the pieces together. “For example: why did Doflamingo wait a year after Sabo’s escape to send his spies here? What was he doing during that time? We need to investigate further into what’s happening in Dressrosa, but I can’t do that by myself. I need to convince my father that Doflamingo is more of a threat than he thinks, which is where your point comes in.”

Zoro had gotten so turned around by Sanji’s ramblings that he couldn’t remember what his original suggestion had been. He blinked, face blank, and Sanji sighed with frustration.

“We pretend to be someone else and send my father information anonymously. We could pretend to be that… uh…” He snapped his fingers as he tried to remember the name. “The person that Sabo was friends with…”

“Uhhh...”

“Well, whatever, it’s not important. It’s not as if we have to sign them from him personally. The actually important thing is that it’s more than likely he didn’t survive alone in the desert. If they do try to find him they’ll only find a body. Plus, he was the only other person that not only survived Goa’s extermination, but escaped Dressrosa. He’s perfect!”

Sanji heaved a sigh of satisfaction as he flopped back in his chair. A path had finally opened up in front of him and he fully believed that it could lead them to a resolution. “We can imply the fact that he escaped with Sabo, that the prince’s whereabouts are unknown. Hell, we could even plant the idea that he’s already dead. That might help protect him somewhat, as well.” He turned to look at Zoro with a smug smile, but was caught off guard by the pure awe that shone from his bright copper eyes. “What is it?”

Zoro felt his face split into a wide smile. He beamed at Sanji, full of pride. “I knew it. If anyone could, I knew you would think of something.”

Sanji blushed at the intense gaze, bringing the now unlit pipe to his lips to try and hide a goofy smile. “Yeah, well, of course I did, but,” he messed with his bangs, feeling uncharacteristically bashful, “thank you for believing in me.” It was a somewhat awkward silence, neither boy really knowing what to say now.

“So, um,” Sanji finally said, clearing his throat a little, “I guess we should get started. We won’t be sending the letter out now since the timing would seem a little suspect. What I need you to do…” Sanji stood and went to his desk and pulled a small coin purse from a hidden compartment. “Head to the shops and pick up some paper, the cheapest you can find. We can’t use my stationary or they’ll know it came from inside the palace.”

Zoro nodded, holding his hand out as Sanji dropped a single silver piece into his palm. “Is there anything else you need before I take my leave?”

“No, you’ve done well today.” Sanji cupped his face, bringing him close to kiss his brow before sending him on his way. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this without you.”

Zoro smirked, trying to resist the urge to say something smart. He finally had the prince in a good mood and he shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that. A better mood meant better treatment, more freedom. He’d be a fool to mess that up.

No one ever said Zoro wasn’t a fool.

“Without me, you couldn’t find your dick in the dark.” With a swift, bordering painful kick to the backside, Zoro was out the door and on his way.

“Hey… Ace… How long do you think we’ve been trapped down here?”

“It hasn’t even been a full day, Usopp.”

The younger boy rolled around the floor of their cell, moaning dramatically. He was going stir crazy in the cramped space, already missing the light of the sun. There were lanterns burning constantly, eliminating any real way of keeping track of what time it was.

Despite being children, they weren’t given particularly special treatment. They weren’t being mistreated in any way, but they were endlessly bored. Ace had immediately taken to working out: doing pushups, situps, and calf raises until his body couldn’t take it anymore. He was taking a moment to stretch his sore muscles as he listened to Usopp complain.

“We have until the week’s end before we’re getting let out of here. Whining about it isn’t going to make the time pass any faster.” He smirked, “Now would be a good time if you wanted to start building up those twigs you call arms.”

“I’ll pass,” Usopp pinched his nose and dramatically waved a hand in front of his face, “you’re already making it smell in here.”

Ace had no verbal retort, opting instead to stick out his tongue at the younger boy. The two blew raspberries at each other until Usopp eventually conceded, tired of getting spit on.

“Gross! How did a lame guy like you ever become involved with someone?” Especially someone of such high social standing.

Ace’s mind suddenly flooded with images of Zoro, the memory of his voice ringing in his ear. His mouth twisted and puckered as he tried his best to not smile like an idiot. “I’m lucky, I guess.”

Usopp noticed the sudden upturn in Ace’s mood and he dropped the attitude. Sitting up on one of the thin, straw mattresses, he watched as Ace continued to stretch. It didn't take long before the silence started to get to him again. “Soooo… uh, how did you guys find each other?”

Ace’s attempted mask of stoicism melted away as a small giggle broke free. “Uhh… that’s kind of a funny story. Given how we met it’s amazing we even became friends.” He folded his legs and fixed his gaze on Usopp. “The night we met I hit him over the head with a piece of scrap metal and kidnapped him. Only for a little bit, though.”

“You kidnapped him and he still likes you?” Usopp scoffed. “How does that even happen?”

“It’s okay, we’ve talked about it.”

“Oh good, you guys talked about it.” Usopp was in complete disbelief. How could anyone want to be with someone who’d done that to them. “Man, handsome guys have it sooo much easier. I wish I was as good looking as you guys…”

“Usopp, you’re like, ten years old. You’ve got plenty of time to grow up and find someone you really like. Someone who likes you for you.”

“Yeah, maybe… Hey, wait, I’m not ten! I’m twelve!”

“Really? Man you are tiny.” Ace laughed as Usopp rained his tiny fists of retribution down on him. “Still, I bet you’re gonna grow up and be a real catch. Plus, you’ve got that magic stuff. You could have anyone you wanted when you’re older.”

Usopp frowned, looking down at his hands and idly rubbing his fingers together. “People only ever like me for my magic. It’s the only reason that Newgate kept me arou–” Realization shot through him like a bolt of lightning. “My troupe! They have no idea I’m down here! I’m gonna get left behind!”

“Hey... Hey, Usopp,” Ace’s words weren’t getting through, and Usopp was quickly working himself into a panic over the fear of being abandoned.

“Usopp!” He grabbed his shoulders and shook him a little, which didn’t seem to help the panic but at least he had his attention. “Our kings were both there that night. Your King Ed knows you’re down here. When he leaves, he’s going to remember to bring you with, okay? You’re obviously valuable to them, you’re not gonna get forgotten about.”

Usopp swallowed, nodding and taking a couple deep breaths as he tried to force himself to calm down. “I just don’t wanna be forgotten…” He shrugged Ace’s hands off, stumbling backwards until he collapsed on his mattress. He tucked his knees to his chest, trying to make himself as small as possible. The two sat in silence, an awkwardness hanging in the air. The only thing they could hear in the unending quiet was the faint sound of the guards’ occasional laughter.

“Your magic…” Ace started, wanting to move past the uncomfortable, emotional moment. “Is it… have you always had it?”

Usopp tilted his head as he thought for a moment before shrugging. “I guess? I don’t really remember not having it. My mom started to teach me when I was little, but she died before I got good at it. I mostly just taught myself.” He sat up a little straighter, his confidence in himself suppressing the sadness he felt welling in his chest at the memory of his mother.

“So you can teach people magic? You aren’t born with it?”

Usopp shrugged again. “I dunno. My mom had magic and, well, we’re related so… I think it’s probably both? I’ve never tried to teach anyone, but I think it's something you have to be born with though. If you just had to be taught how then everyone would be using magic, probably.”

Ace hummed, nodding, “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” He was admittedly a little bummed that he couldn’t learn to use magic too. “So how does it work?”

Usopp seemed to perk up a bit, excited to be given a chance to show off. “Well, what I do is I use these ‘seeds’ I make that react to my magic, and depending on what I want to happen I change the ingredients I put in them and the magic I use to activate them. I can get all kinds of reactions depending on what catalysts I use.”

“Uh huh… Catalysts…”

Judging by the look that Ace was giving him this was an unsatisfactory explanation. “It’s hard to put to words, cause it’s more something that I feel. Like…” he scratched the side of his face as he tried to find the words. It was like trying to describe a color that no one else could see.

“So do you just take any old seed you find, put some magic feelings in it and suddenly you have a plant that can eat people?” Ace was beginning to think this whole conversation was beyond his range of understanding. He somewhat regretted asking, but his curiosity persisted.

“Noooo...” Usopp heaved a frustrated sigh as he tried to think of a relatable example. Sometimes he wished people could just get it without him having to find a way to explain it. “It’s… sort of like baking bread? Yeah, like bread!” He sat up a little more, pleased with himself for having finally found a commonplace comparison.

“You can’t just throw some wheat into an oven and suddenly have bread, right? There’s a lot of steps that go into it. Making different magics is like making different kinds of bread. Every ingredient is important and depending on what you use you get different stuff.”

Ace nodded along, understanding the metaphor thus far, but still not quite getting how it all worked. “So, the seeds are the uncooked bread and your magic is the oven.”

“Sort of yes, but it’s more complic– Wait, uncooked bread…? You mean dough?”

Ace glowered with embarrassment at having been corrected by someone years younger than himself. His brow twitched as his cheeks and ears turned bright red. “Sh-Shut up! You know what I meant!”

Usopp clapped a hand over his mouth as he tried and failed to suppress his giggling. “You forgot the word for dough!” His laughter was cut short when Ace dashed a hand out and pinched the end of his absurdly long nose. Not enough to hurt, but enough to get the point across. “I give, I give, I give! I’b sorry, you’re not ad idiot for not knowig da word for dough.”

Ace’s grip tightened just a smidge. “So I’m an idiot now, huh?”

“Ahhhh! I’b sorry!”

Ace smirked, ruffling the boy’s hair before finally letting go. Now that he had repaid Usopp for the embarrassment, he was content to listen to the rest of the lecture.

“As I was saying,” Usopp dramatically cleared his throat, “just like there’s many different recipes for bread, there’s lots of different ways to make magic. So every time I mix different plants together to make the seeds, that’s like making the dough. Without adding the ‘heat’ of my magic you would just have a useless ball of sticky stuff.” Usopp’s eyes were bright, a wide smile on his face now that he was on a roll. His arms were flailing excitedly, miming his words as he rambled on about the science behind his magic.

“Everything reacts to magic differently. The same magic on different things has different results, like the difference between baking bread and baking a cake. You can also get different reactions from the same thing if you use different magic on it. Like if you tried to boil bread instead of bake it.”

“Why would anyone boil bread dough?”

“Exactly! You can’t boil dough and get bread, just as you couldn’t bake a… uhh… What’s something you can’t bake?”

“Um… soup?”

“Right! Just like you can’t bake a soup. Not everything works together and sometimes you just get a biiig bang instead of something cool. But there's some magic that’s like potatoes: you can boil and bake them and get different results. So, when I say ‘magic is like making bread’ what I guess I mean is that being a magician is like being a cook.”

Ace was resting his chin on his hands, eyebrows halfway to his hairline as he listened to Usopp delve into the grittier details of how his magic worked. He sat in relative silence as Usopp described the delicate process of developing the seed pods he used for a vast majority of his tricks. He found he was understanding more than he thought he would, only interrupting to ask the occasional question whenever he felt he was getting a little lost with all the different food metaphors. He was impressed by how complex the seemingly effortless magic was. The timid twig had to be an actual genius to teach himself all this stuff at such a young age. “That’s some crazy smart stuff, Usopp. You keep all this in your head?”

Usopp nodded, a huge, bashful smile on his face from the praise. He knew his magic would leave people in awe with its flashiness, but he’d never gotten the chance to talk at length to anyone about everything he poured into it. “I wanna learn how to make all sorts of new things! It’s my dream to become the greatest mage the world has ever seen!”

Ace smiled at the plucky child, seeing for the first time a spark of determined fire behind the usually sad and timid eyes. There was a familiar confidence in that look. It reminded him of Luffy.

“What about your weather magic? That didn’t use seeds, right? How’s that work?”

“Oh!” Usopp shifted again, getting comfortable before starting on another in depth explanation. “So, when it comes to my weather rods that’s completely different–”

The two boys managed to pass the time by taking turns teaching each other their respective skill sets. After getting to talk at length about magic, Usopp finally agreed to try some light training exercises. He was quick to give up the second he felt the slightest twinge of protest from his underdeveloped muscles. Alternately, Ace continued to listen to Usopp’s lengthy lectures. A couple days ago he didn’t even know magicians existed. Now, he was learned enough on the subject to ask deeper than surface level questions.

“So that ice fruit thing you made: what would happen if you ate it? Also, do you think it would taste good?”

Usopp opened his mouth to explain, but stopped short when he realized he didn’t have an answer to that. “Um, well…” he thought about it for a minute, “your mouth would probably freeze and then your head would explode? Even if it did taste good I don’t think you’d be alive long enough to taste it.”

“I mean once you get it right. If you get it right, do you think someone could eat it? And would it be nasty or would it just taste like ice or something?”

Usopp folded his arms across his chest, brow furrowing as he mulled the question over. “Well… I guess… that depends on what I want it to do I guess. Huh…” He was silent for a long time, to the point that Ace briefly wondered if the lecture was over. “I just wanted it to not explode. I wasn’t thinking about what I wanted it to do.”

“Well, if you do figure it out. I absolutely want to try one. I get to be the first one to try one, you have to promise.”

“Ooookaaay, but it’s not my fault if you explode.”

“Yeah it is. If I explode it’s cause you didn’t make it right.”

The door to the cells squeaked open and four guards stepped in, twice the usual amount. One of them unlocked the cell door as another delivered the boys’ dinner. The other two were hanging back and not saying a word, which seemed incredibly suspicious to the boys.

“Right, so,” the guard started as he placed the food between them, “you’re the kid that can do the magic, right?”

Usopp made a grab for his portion of bread, stuffing his face before answering with a full mouth. “Yeah, how come?”

The guards exchanged a look, tittering with anticipation. “Could you… perform a couple of tricks for us? We didn’t get to go to the dinner, and the guys that did won’t stop talking about how amazing it was.” They were pretty jealous honestly. “We were hoping you could show us some stuff, too.”

Usopp stopped chewing, shooting Ace an uneasy look. The older boy just shrugged, mouth also overstuffed with food. He waved his hand, giving Usopp a silent go ahead. With cheeks like a hamster, it took a minute to swallow before he spoke again.

“I can’t without my bag. All of my magic stuff is in there.”

The guards retreated, closing and relocking the door to the cell. They huddled together for a quick conference. Obviously, they wanted to see the magic for themselves, but they were reasonably wary about providing their magical prisoner with his tools. Upon reaching an agreement, the guards shuffled back in front of the cell.

“Let’s make a deal: if we give you the stuff you need to perform for us, we’ll sneak you guys some cheese. Under the condition that you don’t use your magic to try anything funny, of course.”

Ace took this opportunity to cut in. “Throw in some salted meat as well and you’ve got a deal.” The guards looked at him with distaste. As far as they were concerned, this had nothing to do with him. Looking back to Usopp, they waited for his response.

Usopp looked to Ace, trying to emulate his confidence by copying his relaxed posture. “Cheese a-and the salted meat and you’ve got a deal.” His knees were bouncing nervously, but he was determined to stand his ground. He was truly surprised when the guards agreed.

The four guardsmen left the cells, returning about twenty minutes later with the promised food and Usopp’s bag. They passed the food through the bars and held the bag open for Usopp to reach in and grab what he needed. The adults sat in a semicircle around the cell and watched as Usopp performed some of his simpler tricks. He sprouted a couple foot high flowers and blew a tiny fire bird from a clenched fist. The guards were captivated, oohing and ahhing at every feat.

Now that he understood more about what went into these tricks, Ace was able to watch with a newfound appreciation. He made it look so easy, as if magic was like breathing to him. Ace had to resist laughing at the guards as they batted at the elemental orbs like cats trying to catch a bug.

The show came to an abrupt end when the guards had to leave for the changeover. Even after a long day of sitting around the cells, they were a little bummed that their shift was already over. They gave the boy a standing ovation, and Usopp ate up the applause.

“Remember, kid, this is between us.” They warned before taking their leave, having already confiscated Usopp’s tools once more. They chattered excitedly amongst themselves as they left the kids alone again.

“...You don’t mind performing on demand like that?” Ace, personally, would’ve been resistant to being put on display like someone’s pet monkey. Usopp on the other hand seemed to thrive being the center of any and all attention.

“If it means more meat and cheese I’ve got no problem with it.”

“Hear, hear.”

The sun had set, and all the daytime servants were heading home for the day. The hustle and bustle within the castle was winding down for the night as people got ready for bed. Zoro was quickly making his way to the wine cellar during the guard change, empty jug in hand. An evening drink was becoming something of a habit for the boy.

He chose a barrel at random, walking up to it as he uncorked the jug. Just as he was about to turn the spigot, he heard the sound of quick paces coming down the adjacent hall. He whipped around, trying to find a suitable hiding place in the few seconds he had. He set the jug down and darted between a couple of the large wine kegs. He managed to squeeze behind it, sandwiching himself between it and the wall.

The figure entered the room, heading for one of the ceiling high racks of bottles on the opposite wall. Zoro could hear clinking as whoever was in the cellar with him took their time selecting a bottle. Curiosity overwhelming him, he dared a peek around the keg. Naturally, one of the last people Zoro wanted to run into was standing across the room. It was his swordmaster, a bottle of wine in each hand and one under his arm as he examined the labels. Seemingly pleased with his choices, Mihawk turned and left.

Once he was alone again, Zoro pulled himself free from his hiding place. As he slid from between the kegs, he accidentally kicked over his empty jug. In the empty quiet of the cellar, the sound of ceramic clattering and rolling over the stone floor rebounded off the walls. Zoro heard Mihawk come to a halt and quickly start back in his direction. He managed to squeeze back into his hiding place before Mihawk appeared in the doorway, but it was of no use.

“...Show yourself. I know you’re here.”

Cringing as he was caught, Zoro reluctantly stepped into view. He was uncomfortable with looking Mihawk in the eye, but he could feel the heavy glare pinned on him. When he finally straightened up and managed to make eye contact, it was obvious the man was awaiting an explanation.

“I was just getting a drink.”

“Obviously. You shouldn’t be drinking, let alone taking from the royal family’s supply.”

“You are, why’s it any different if I do it?” It was definitely the wrong thing to say, and Zoro felt chills race all the way from his neck to his toes. However out of place it may have been, he wasn’t wrong.

“Firstly, despite what you seem to think you are still a child, Roronoa. Secondly, don’t you dare speak to me like that ever again.” Despite how irritated he was, Mihawk’s voice lacked its usual bite. He sounded more exhausted than anything, and Zoro picked up on that. The boy’s posture became less rigid as his brow furrowed. Mihawk didn’t like the way his student was eyeing him.

“What?”

Zoro shook his head, “You seem tired.”

Mihawk heaved a sigh as he grasped two bottles in one hand and adjusted the third under his arm, making sure it was securely in place. “Come on,” he stepped forward, “you’re coming with me. I can’t call myself your guardian and not punish you for this.” He took hold of Zoro’s collar and led him out of the room.

“Since when were you my guardian? H-Hey! Let me go!” Zoro reached for the hand at his collar, but Mihawk held firm. They moved at a quick clip, Zoro stumbling a bit as he tried to keep up with Mihawk’s much longer strides. He noticed with some confusion that they were heading down a corridor Zoro was unfamiliar with.

“Where are you taking me?”

“I still need to decide on a punishment for you. In the meantime I need to drop these off first.”

They eventually made their way to the healer’s quarters where a young woman stood with her back to them, busy aggressively tending to her loudmouthed patient.

“Ow, ow, ow! Easy, there I’m a wounded man! Do you treat all your patients like this?” Shanks writhed under the heavy hand, trying to squirm away from his caregiver as she dressed his shoulder in fresh bandages. The wound was deep, having left the limb mostly paralyzed. Blood was slowly oozing from the stitches as he continued to struggle.

“Sit still and shut up, you’re behaving worse than a child.” The ragged voice didn’t fit the youthful figure. When she turned around at the sound of visitors, her face gave the boy a start. He couldn’t contain the yelp of surprise upon seeing an eighty year old face on the body of a twenty year old. It was a frightening juxtaposition.

“Ah, there you are. I was wondering when you’d show your face down here.” Her eyes shifted to the boy that was staring at her as if he’d seen a ghost. “Who’s the brat with the rude face?”

“You know who he is, Kureha.”

“Hehehe, your apprentice really does take after you.” She cackled, further convincing Zoro that she had to have been some sort of witch. He really dug in his heels when Mihawk tried to make strides towards her. Not in the mood to fight it, Mihawk released his collar and approached with his gift.

He silently placed the two bottles in his hand on the table next to the surgical tools, much to the doctor’s displeasure. “This one,” he took the third bottle out from under his arm, “is mine. Don’t touch it, I’ll be back in a moment.”

“Ohhh, come on Hawkeyes. You finally came to visit me! Sit a minute and share a drink!” Shanks was in a surprisingly good mood despite the grievous injury. He reached for a bottle, his hand immediately getting slapped away by the doctor. “Hey!”

“You try to drink that and that shoulder of yours is gonna start bleeding even worse.”

Shanks pouted, looking at the bottle longingly. “Aw, c’mon can’t I have a little? I usually drink a lot more than this. You’re worrying too much, Doc, I’ll be fine!”

“You’re in no condition to be telling me that you’re fine.” Kureha grabbed a bottle and popped it open, taking a long swig. She gave a pleased, raspy sigh as the alcohol warmed her throat. “As long as you’re a patient in my care you’ll follow my rules.”

“Then release me from your care!”

“Like hell, you ungrateful brat.”

Mihawk sighed, sitting down with his own bottle. He’d been there not five minutes and he was already socially exhausted. He barely listened as Shanks continued to argue with Dr. Kureha. Every time his eyes wandered to the thick bandaging he felt a twang of guilt in his chest and tried to drown it with wine. In the short time he’d been sitting there he’d already made it through a third of the bottle.

“Sir?”

Mihawk had already forgotten that Zoro was there. He turned to look at his apprentice who was standing impatiently just behind his chair. The boy hadn’t been sure if it was acceptable or not to leave now that Mihawk had seemed to settle down for the night.

“What?”

Mihawk’s face wasn’t an easy one to read. He’d never been seen smiling, his brow only ever moving to furrow into a deeper scowl. Only someone who’d spent most of their life training at his side or a lifelong friend could pick up on his microexpressions.
Zoro had never seen his master like this, and it unnerved him. Mihawk’s face had hardly changed, but the way his brow had softened slightly made it obvious that he was upset.

“You guys are friends, right?” Mihawk didn’t like where this was going. He had a feeling his student was about to try and impart some wisdom on him, and he hated the idea of it. He was receiving pity from a child and he wasn’t even the one injured. However, this was not his first drink of the evening, and it was already almost half gone. He was feeling a little… looser than usual. What was the harm in a little open honesty?

“I guess it would seem that way.” The two stoics were silent for a moment as the arguing continued to get louder. Neither Shanks nor Kureha were paying them any mind at this point.

“You guys were dueling, it was an accident. You wouldn’t want him feeling guilty if you were in his shoes.”

“Mmm…” He certainly wouldn’t want to see Shanks trying to pity him. They always knew there were risks when they were dueling, but Mihawk had always counted on their skills to keep them safe from any real injury. Suddenly, he realized that Zoro shouldn’t have been privy to that information.

“Wait a moment… How did you know we were dueling?”

Every curse word ran through Zoro’s mind in an instant. He visibly stiffened a little upon realizing his slip. “Word travels fast.”

Mihawk sighed for the umpteenth time that evening. He turned back towards his friend and took another slow sip of wine. “Go to bed, kid, and if that jug isn’t where you left it you’re getting punished for real.” Zoro had no argument and quickly made himself scarce.

The quick exit of the boy drew the attention of the bickering adults. Shanks chuckled a bit. “Scared him off, did you?”

Mihawk grunted, sitting back in his chair and crossing his legs. “You’re surprisingly spirited.” Kureha took this as her queue to give the men some space, but not without viciously warning her patient of the repercussions should he disobey her rules.

There was a stretch of silence after her exit before Shanks inevitably spoke up. “So, when are we having that rematch? I think we have to call this one a draw.” He tried to laugh it off, but as usual Mihawk wasn’t having any of it.

“I’m not fighting a man with only one arm.”

“Oh? Underestimating me, are you? Once I’m all healed up we’ll settle this.” Shanks shot his friend and rival a challenging smirk, but he deflated a little with the firm look Mihawk fixed him with. His face softened into a gentle smile. “You don’t need to worry like this. I may have lost an arm, but I’m not suddenly an invalid.”

Mihawk closed his eyes again, the lip of the wine bottle resting against his chin. He heard rustling and assumed Shanks was disobeying doctor’s orders and getting out of bed. When he opened his eyes again Shanks was in front of him, reaching out with his good arm. He put his hand on Mihawk’s, guiding the wine bottle away from his lips. He crouched down in front of his friend, looking at him with a firm sincerity.

“I don’t blame you, you know that.”

“Stop it.”

“You haven’t taken anything from me.”

“Don’t.”

“If anything, this just makes us more evenly matched.”

Mihawk was starting to prickle up with irritation, and Shanks was pleased to see his friend finally looking a bit more like himself. While he thought Mihawk was distracted, he tried to sneakily steal a drink from the bottle in his hand. He was surprised when he was met by firm resistance.

“Awww, come on. You brought me a share, it’d be a shame for it to go to waste.”

“Don’t worry,” a small smirk quirked the corner of Mihawk’s mouth for a fraction of a second, “I won’t waste it.”