“I’m a naiad, you know. I can cling to rivers, to the hands of a lover who’s faithful. The dead are faithful.”
- Marina Tsvetaeva, Poem of the End
“When I said you could never replace Ace,” Marco snapped, “I didn’t mean it as a challenge.”
Every blooming tongue of fire rising from Sabo’s body flinched, sharply, while the man himself stood still and far more impassive.
“Oh, shit,” he said mildly. “So we’ve finally found it huh? Your scar tissue.”
Marco went white, an unnatural drain of color on the man who’s come to embody colors for Sabo. The blue of the sky and the blue of the sea. Visions of freedom from his childhood. The washing out of him prompted Sabo to start thinking of next words—what did Marco usually say, when they stumbled upon one of Sabo’s sunken mines? How did Marco bring him down from the jagged splashes and fissured hydrogen bonds, restore him to an even surface again?
But before the words could come (not that Sabo thought they ever actually would), Marco took leave—a two-step turn, a swallowed word. He took something that was clearly supposed to be a full-body gesture and condensed into a full-arm gesture, edited it down to a hand trimmed it down to a finger, until all that’s left was a mere twitch of an index nail against his leg before he disappeared. Dramatic in its understatement.
Sabo looked down at his palm, where the fire sat in small and steady burning.
Well what do I do now?
You’re his boyfriend, Ace replied, though he flickered in worry. The fire was expressing more than Sabo liked to leave legible of himself—was this an embedded effect of the fruit? I don’t know, what would Marco do?
If I were hurting, and the answer came so dreadfully easy. He and Marco have reached a truly disgusting level of domesticity some time ago. He’d help me heal.
So do that.
...No, I don’t think I will. It’s been weeks since Dressrosa, and Sabo’s had the time to learn to live with the fire. It’d been annoyingly easy, really, considering all the time he’s had to learn to live with Ace (or rather, without Ace, but the semantics were exhausting so it was easier to just give space to that voice inside his head and fuck everyone who wanted to look at him funny for it). Ace and the fire were precisely alike: hurt to conjure and hurt to touch, but a fundamental portion of his biology now, drenching every fatty tissue, every telomere. He doused the fire in his hand now, but felt it swimming still in his muscles and tendons.
I think I’ll help him hurt.
When Sabo went into the bedroom, where Marco sat still looking wrecked, it was to hand Marco a water glass. The water was not cool enough to cause condensation, and the curve of the glass was slightly sticky passing between their hands. Sabo’s hand was a little bit sticky as well, having dried on his way back to the house with the glass.
Marco’s expression went odd, the moment he held it. He must think the worst of me now, Sabo thought, and took some perverse sort of delight in that fact.
He must think you wish him dead, was Ace’s added observation. In the little imaginary headspace where Sabo could manifest figures of himself and Ace, he shot Ace a wink.
But when’s he gonna learn it’s all just his projections, right?
“What’s this, yoi?” Marco asked quietly, voice hoarse with readiness to just drink it, no questions asked, if Sabo told him to. It was honestly stomach-roiling, to see Marco like this, defeated under the weight of grief. Should Sabo tip him over the edge, he was ready to slip all the way down, disappear deep into ocean trenches.
Sabo had given up swimming the moment he ate Ace’s fruit, but he thought he could lifeguard Marco yet. He could be the rope to suspend from, as Marco slowly lowered himself into the depths; he could be the knots that formed Marco’s path back.
(And now, he could be the flames that banished from Marco’s lips the blue of the ocean and restore to them the blue of the phoenix. His adulthood’s vision of freedom.)
“Go ahead,” he told Marco, meaning the glass of seawater. The salt would stick. It would cling to the lining of Marco’s esophagus and stomach as tenacious as loss, as dogged as grief. “It’ll feel cold at first but don’t worry.”
He guided the glass to Marco’s lips and cupped Marco’s cheek. His motions were strong in their coaxing; Marco yielded under him like water rushing to fill the new vessel it’s just been given over to.
“I’ll warm you back up.”
“I’m sorry, yoi.”
Of course he would say that after he’s drank.
“I didn’t mean it.”
“Yes you did,” Sabo observed in mild annoyance. “You just didn’t mean to say it.”
A discomfited pallor was shoring up under Marco’s cheeks, and cold sweat dappled his brow. When Sabo took the empty glass and stepped away from him to set it aside, Marco’s eyes shuttered, pupils struggling to focus like toppled gyroscopes.
“I know I can’t replace Ace,” Sabo told him quietly. The fire coiled in his belly, seeking to comfort. “No matter how much I may try.”
Crouching down in front of where Marco sat, Sabo observed this man he called lover. He saw the flat press of feet to the ground like Marco was dying to spring up and take off. Saw the joints on joints, elbows on knees, right-angled fit of someone who currently felt more installed than organic. Saw the shaking of all these as the consumed seawater took its effect, the foundations of this statuary of Marco crumbling.
Sabo reached past all this to find the buttons of Marco’s shirt. Undid the neat row. Undid Marco’s pants as well to bare all that tepid skin. When Sabo pushed him back to free his trousers, Marco’s shoulders hit the bed with a stifled groan of malaise. A restless quivering swam under every inch of Marco’s skin, like the never-still surface of the ocean.
“You’re not trying to replace Ace,” Marco managed to whisper. His arms shifted aimlessly against his sides until Sabo took hold and laid them flat, palms up to the ceiling. “You said it yourself yoi, you won’t let him be forgotten.”
“So I take his fruit, his lover, his spot as older brother?” Sabo countered, barely keeping down an ugly sneer as he stood above Marco’s prone form. “He’s gone but I can’t let him go. There’s a hole in the world where he used to be and I won’t let it be vacated. How is that not replacement?”
The flames that licked across his shoulders as Sabo swung himself up to straddle Marco’s lap were vehement in their presence. They stung Marco’s eyes red and Marco looked away—but Sabo turned his chin insistently back.
“That’s not fair,” he spoke before Sabo could, “to you. I shouldn’t have said that. Ace is gone. You’re the one here. It’s not fair of me to draw the comparison—”
“Your problem, Marco,” Sabo interrupted, a hand splayed on Marco’s sternum to ground his attention, “is that you keep trying to be already healed, when we both know you’re not.”
Control over the element of volatility was still difficult, no matter how much Sabo’s already practiced it; he took a deep breath now, and felt the protrusion of Marco’s collarbones underneath his fingertips.
“So what the hell. Hurt with me.”
Sabo set his fingers on fire.
One full second, before extinguishing. One full second of Marco’s gaze boiling into fever. Of Sabo’s own too-even breathing, afraid to break concentration lest he break the mold of Ace’s body that he so often felt only caked into, and do the one thing Ace would never, ever allow either of them to do—damage Marco.
But I’ve already done that, Ace whispered from the spots of lingering heat where the flames had just been.
Shut up, Sabo replied, equally breathless, you’re just my projection.
The skin was pinked—heated, but nowhere near singed. Marco stared down at Sabo’s hand with the eyes of a man enraptured by the view over a plummeting cliffside.
“He’s here,” Sabo said, and they both knew that wasn’t meant to be true. It was meant to be an invitation to a mutual plunge, into depths neither of them could tread anymore. “Touch him. Let him touch you.”
“That sounds—” Marco was rasping on a breath, a fully terrestrial man now, without his powers, a taste of the sea already inside him. “—unbearable.”
The unbearable things of this world were obvious and unobvious both. Obvious: to lose what you love. Unobvious: that step on the way out of Loss where the coral cracked and calcium pierced the soles of your feet. Obvious: picking off scar tissue before the underneath has fully mended. Unobvious: when what’s underneath clawed its own way out, no matter how much fortification you’ve piled above it.
Sabo has already been torn open; a man used to scars, he’d simply darned up the ragged skin ends around the edge of the wound and let the heat geyser forth. Marco was a man used to healing. He hasn’t kept the cut breathing, hasn’t left uncapped the live volcano.
“But will you bear it?” Sabo asked, as solemn as the sea.
Marco sat up, closed his eyes, and let his head fall back.
His neck tasted of saltwater.
It was all, when it came down to it, really only necking. A still-strengthless Marco sat with Sabo in his lap. His core was quivering with strain, while Sabo glided hands and tongue over all that was within reach.
Sabo’s ankle bone was pressed against the inside of Marco’s knee. Then, it wasn’t. It was a sinewy twist of fire, like a cat twining about Marco’s leg for affection. Then it was again.
Sabo’s nails, scratching softly down vertebrae then turning to the side to follow the ribs. Scoring flames, redder themselves than Marco’s skin ever got from the brief contact. But Marco’s ribcage stuttered into expansion anyways, before the keratin came back.
The backs of Sabo’s thighs, slotted neatly into the divots between Marco’s pelvis and legs. He figured out two ways of alighting: a single unit of heat skittering down the length of his thigh, or the whole length going up all at once. The first one made Marco groan. The second made him choke on that groan and buck up into re-substantiated anatomy.
(It also made him cry, but Sabo kissed the fallen drop and streak away like he’s already done so much saltwater before it. Tasted what Marco had drank, that sea Marco had swallowed in order to surrender to.)
Sabo’s tongue. Marco’s wavering fingers slid up Sabo’s chest and Sabo obligingly flickered into flames. Two seconds, then flesh again. Two seconds more, until the red on Marco’s palm seemed angry enough to erupt and Marco himself looked a second away from swallowing the fire too. So Sabo took Marco in his mouth instead, soothing scorched fingertips with a laving tongue. He pushed a great length of Marco’s hand readily between his lips and held it there with light suction.
Then he licked again, this time with fire.
A broken cry tumbled out of Marco’s mouth like ash off a wick. Sabo’s mouth was wet again; if Marco’s fingers were fresh-scorched igneous quartz, Sabo’s tongue was the lapping tide. He cooled, and then he heated. He cooled, then he burned.
When Sabo finally released the hand, Marco’s face had gone so very humanly flushed—splotchy red from the fire, the tease, the grief dotted his entire body. His cock was hard where it pressed against Sabo’s, and when Sabo slowly reached down for it, Marco looked like he was fighting a scream and losing.
“Does it hurt?” Sabo asked when he curled each, deliberate, finger around Marco’s shaft.
“It hurts,” was Marco’s half-laughed confirmation, because that hadn’t been meant as an honest question either. Sabo smiled too, grinding his own hips forward into his grip on Marco.
“Then we’ll suffer him together.”
They lied down in the bed, after, with Marco curled up on his side. He let a long beat of silence drift past before gingerly reaching out and wrapping an arm around Sabo’s waist. Sabo’s eyes shut, and he took Marco’s hand.
“How are you feeling?” he murmured into the comforting dark behind his eyelids. He could hear Marco’s considering breaths right next to his ear, the steady thrum of them as soothing as convection currents.
“Sad,” Marco decided, with a straining swallow. “But warmer now yoi, thanks to you.”
Sabo danced his free fingers up in the air with a ribbon of flames, huffing a half-lidded laugh.
“Thanks to him.”
“Thanks—” And it was Marco’s turn to take his hand. Fingers interwove with fire before Sabo really realized what was going on and for the time it took to burn a molecule Sabo feared the worst, that he’d dropped the guide rope and Marco was gone, disappeared into the water. Then Marco’s hand shattered into blue. “—to you.”
His gaze was so earnest; Sabo wondered if it was safe to stare directly at the sun if he were looking from underwater. Two layers of protective newtonian fluid so Marco wouldn’t burn him.
Still projecting? was Ace’s teasing question.
“Shut up,” Sabo muttered with a smile, as he brought Marco’s hand over for a kiss.
“The mouth I have always felt as world: vaulted firmament, cave, ravine, shoal.”
- Marina Tsvetaeva, a letter to Rilke