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One Step Closer

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Ace wakes up that morning feeling giddy, despite having been up all night with his mind full of Sanji. He sits up in his makeshift bed, which is a couple of pillows and blankets on top of a foam mat.

His back pops as he stretches his arms overhead, making a mental note to get his mattress inside as soon as possible. He didn't have the motivation to do it last night; his thoughts had been occupied for obvious reasons. It also didn't help that his head is pounding from the hit he had taken to the head.

Ace runs his fingers through the messy mass of black that is his hair, grunting as his fingers get caught in the knots. "Can't go see blondie without lookin' nice.." He says to no one in particular as he gets to his feet.

While Ace prepares himself to go out to the beach, his mind drifts back to Sanji. It only serves to remind him how easily he turns into a lovesick fool the moment he sees a pair of pretty eyes. 

Though this time, how quickly this crush had formed surprises him. After all, they had only known each other for a total of at most twenty minutes. And for a chunk of that Ace had been out of it.

It makes him curious to see where this is heading, especially with how prickly Sanji was towards him. Ace honestly finds his attitude refreshing. It isn’t often he encounters someone so spunky. 

Ace goes to take a shower. He knows it's a little redundant as he is about to go into the ocean again. But he doesn’t want Sanji to believe he's a slob.

Once he's out, Ace changes into a different pair of swim trunks and then runs a brush through his hair in front of the mirror. He takes care with how it lays for once in his life, hoping Sanji might like it.

After snagging a couple of snacks from his bag as his breakfast, Ace slips out the front door. He takes in a deep breath, gazing out at the horizon. The sun had only begun to rise a few hours ago, blanketing the landscape in a soft haze of red. A feeling of contentment swells in his chest at the view, and he allows himself a moment to admire it. He soon refocuses himself however, continuing his trek down to the shoreline. 

Ace takes the well worn path right down to the water, which is just as calm as the day before. He's glad he didn't take his board this time around; there would be no point other than to float around on it. 

"Now...if I were a fish man, where would I be hiding?" He questions aloud, both hands resting on his hips.

As if to answer his question, he spots a flash of blond hair further out. If he didn't know any better, he would say that Sanji had been waiting for him to come back this morning. 

Ace's lips turn up in a wide smile, wading out into the water until it comes up to the middle of his torso. 

"Sanji!" He calls out, not sure if Sanji could actually hear him from underwater; but it’s worth a try.

"Sanj- Woah, there!" Ace gasps as he feels something very much like a hand on his ankle. He hardly gets a change to look down or even prepare himself before something pulls him below the surface. 

Ace doesn't linger there for too long, popping back to the surface with a gasp for air. 

"You look like a drowned rat." A familiar voice says.

Ace pulls his hair out of his face to see Sanji not too far off, only his head breaching the surface. "We only just met yesterday and you're already getting playful I see?"

He watches as Sanji's eyes narrow, his expression not forthcoming with any particular emotion. "How do you know I wasn't trying to drown you?"

"If you were, you wouldn't have let me come up." Ace tells him, a swarm of butterflies filling his stomach as Sanji circles around him. 

"I can't tell if you're brave or just stupid." Sanji tells Ace, pausing in front of him. They hold each other's eyes for a few seconds before Sanji resumes circling him. Ace swears he spots a hint of pink on his ears.

Ace would be lying if he said he doesn’t find all this stupidly hot.

"I've been told it's a bit of both." Ace jokes, only prompting Sanji to stop in front of him again.

Ace takes this as an opportunity to get a better look at his new acquaintance. From here, Ace can see that Sanji's brows curl up into little swirls. He has never seen something quite like it and finds them adorable.

Sanji splashing water into his face pulls him from his thoughts. "There are a lot better things to do than stare at me." He tells him with an indignant expression. "You're such a strange human."  

Ace shrugs, only able to laugh in response to that. His brothers often tell him that, so hearing it from a stranger isn’t much of a surprise.

"I have to ask what your intentions are with me." Sanji says with a serious tone in his voice, gliding through the water to be nose-to-nose. "If you intend on capturing me, I'll have to kill you, you know?" 

Ace swallows hard, his brain sputtering for a few moments at the proximity of their faces. "I...just wanted to be friends." He manages to say while he tries to recover his confidence. 

Sanji narrows those beautiful eyes, glaring daggers into Ace's. It causes a warm feeling to spread in Ace’s stomach and he tries his best to ignore it.

"Well...you did help me yesterday. I suppose I can trust you not to hurt me." The merman says, backing off. Ace can see that the dusting of pink on Sanji's ears had spread down to his face.

God how can one person be so cute without trying? Ace wonders to himself, clearing his throat and offering Sanji a bright smile. "Then we're friends!"

He puts his hand out for him to shake it, momentarily considering that Sanji might not know what he meant. Regardless, the merman reaches out and places his hand in Ace's larger one.

Ace pauses for a moment to admire his delicate, long fingers. All of them are connected by a thin blue webbing. Even his hands are gorgeous. They're slender but still strong, his skin soft and seemingly flawless.

Sanji quirks an eyebrow at Ace. But before he could say anything, Ace brings Sanji's hand up to his lips and places a kiss on his knuckles. This is definitely not something someone who wants to be 'just friends' does, but Sanji didn't care as much as he thought he would.

To say the least, Sanji seems surprised. His face is turning a dark shade of red that spreads all the way up to the tips of his ears. 

Sanji snatches his hand away to Ace's relief, he doesn't slap him again. 

"You're so weird.." Sanji says, his long ears trembling slightly. 

Ace's heart clenches in his chest at just how cute the merman is. 

 


 

Sanji's face feels like it’s on fire; he isn’t at all used to getting any sort of attention. Neither man nor woman has ever seemed particularly interested in him. Not that he has much experience in either area.

He locks eyes with Ace once again, swallowing thickly before he speaks. "I've never been friends with a human before." 

"I've never been friends with a merman, and a handsome one at that." 

That would be flattering if he was flirting, but there's no way a human would like me. Sanji thinks to himself, unable to keep his ears from twitching. The action only makes his face feel hotter. 

"What do human friends usually do?" Sanji swims around him again, tail brushing against Ace's legs. He smiles when he sees how the man jumps, getting rather red-faced himself. 

"Well uh...Hm, a lot of it is stuff we can't do in the water," Ace says, running a hand through his hair in thought. "But hey! I'm sure we can still have fun!"

"Come swim with me then; it's about all I can do," Sanji offers Ace his hand this time when he comes to a stop in front of him.

Ace eagerly accepts his offer, sliding his warm hand into his. Sanji pauses to look down at their intertwined hands. It was odd, but he finds himself enjoying it. 

He can tell Ace is enjoying it, too. The shade of red occupying his freckled cheeks is a total giveaway. Sanji gives him a smile while pulling him further from the shore.

"How long can you hold your breath?" Sanji asks, his own breath hitching when Ace brushes against his side. 

"At most? About a minute." Ace turns his head, much too close to Sanji for the merman’s heart to handle. 

"Better start holding it then." Sanji warns with a playful glint in his eyes. "Tap me on the shoulder when you need to breathe."

Ace only has a moment to suck in a huge breath before Sanji ducks under the surface, bringing him along with him. 

A gorgeous coral reef is laid out before them, various species of multi-colored fish swimming all around. Sanji spends a lot of his time here, taking solace in the company of the creatures living there. 

Sanji looks to Ace to gage his reaction, eyes softening at the look of awe on his human's face. With a flick of his tail, he pushes the two of them further over the reef. Fish scramble to get out of their way, weary of Ace's presence. 

They stay like that for what feels like forever, until Ace needs to breathe. The moment Sanji feels a hand on his shoulder, he brings him up to the surface as quickly as he can.

 Ace takes a moment to catch his breath before he exclaims, "That was beautiful!" 

Sanji's face lit up. "I'm glad you think so! It's one of my favorite places here." He tells him, realizing that their hands are still together. 

He doesn't make a move to let go, loving how their hands fit almost perfectly in one another. It makes his heart race. If only Ace would ever be interested in someone like him.

"None of it compares to how beautiful you are, though." 

Those words pull Sanji out of his thoughts, looking at Ace with a deadpan expression. The only thing giving away how he truly feels are his ears trembling. "I'm really not."

"But you are!" Ace insists, squeezing Sanji's hand with a warm smile on his face. He hesitates for a moment, chewing on his bottom lip. "I know I'm being a bit forward. Sorry if I'm makin' you uncomfortable at all."

The merman's expression softens. "Make it up to me by spending the day with me then." He murmurs, not realizing how much that sounds like a date to his new companion. 

Ace suddenly pulls Sanji in for a hug. "Let's make the most of it then!" He says, arms wrapping snug around his waist. 

Sanji clings to his shoulders, taken completely off guard by the sudden embrace. His pale skin becomes almost as red as the beads Ace wears around his neck. His voice catches in his throat, and Sanji shoves down the urge to push him away.

It has been ages since anyone has hugged him; not even his own family did it. 

Sanji has to take a deep breath to calm himself, knowing that Ace doesn't mean any harm. 

"You're something else," Sanji says after Ace pulls back, hands still resting on his waist. 

"Oh? That's almost a compliment." Ace replies, a lopsided grin on his face. 

Sanji internally groans. Being around Ace is bad for his blood pressure. It feels like his heart might beat right out of his chest each time the man even so much as looked his way.

"Don't let it make your head any bigger." Sanji warns, splashing water up into Ace's face.

"Oh, we're playing that game now, sunshine?" 

Sanji's eyebrows flew upwards, his face burning red once again. " Sunshine ? Who said you could call me that?" 

Ace slaps the surface of the water, sending water flying up into Sanji's face. "Did I need permission?" He asks, narrowly avoiding Sanji's tail. 

The merman pauses for a moment, considering the question. "As long as I can give you one, too." He reaches to slip his fingers into Ace's, squeezing tight. "I'll think of something."

"It's a deal, sunshine."

 


 

The pair spends the rest of the day together, using their time to explore more of the reef. Despite his initial discomfort, Sanji is beginning to believe they could be friends. 

With the sun lowering behind them, Sanji leads Ace back to the tide pools where they had first met. It’s a nice place for them to rest without Sanji drying out.

Sanji stretches himself out in the shallow water, arms resting on the rocky edge. He gazes at his new companion, watching him try to pull himself out of the deeper water and into the tide pool.

"I think I could get used to days like this." Ace comments to the merman, settling into the water beside him. He lifts his arms above his head with a yawn, back arching. Sanji was given a gorgeous view of his chest before averting his eyes.

"I think I could, too. I've been alone for a long time now." Sanji says, rolling over so he’s on his side and facing Ace.

Ace blinks down at him, bottom lip caught between his teeth. "Why are you all alone out here anyway?" He asks, concern evident in his voice.

Sanji's expression falters, a familiar swell of anxiety rising in his chest. "I wouldn't want to ruin the evening with that." As much as he likes Ace, he isn’t sure if he’s ready to tell him about his family. 

Ace reaches to take hold of his hand, causing Sanji’s heart to clench at the sincerity of the gesture. "I'm here for you whenever you're ready to talk about it." He tells him in a soft voice, bringing his knuckles up to brush his soft lips against his skin.

Sanji impulsively pulls Ace's hand close, pressing a lingering kiss to his fingers. His skin is by no means soft; it’s obvious Ace uses his hands often for physical labor. But the rough texture feels good against his lips.

"Thank you." Sanji says, ears quivering despite how much he would've liked to appear confident in this moment. Hardly anyone in his life has been so kind, and especially not after only a day of knowing him.

The merman looks up, blue eyes meeting brown in a tender way. Ace looks lovely in the setting sun, eyes lit up like amber and his sun-kissed skin practically glowing. 

Sanji swallows hard. He shouldn't be thinking this way about his new friend. They barely know each other, and he shouldn't get so attached just because Ace is nice to him.

But...something about this felt right. Maybe he just needed some time to figure out how he truly feels? 

Still, Sanji can’t bring himself to release Ace's hand. He pulls his eyes away from his human companion, looking out to the horizon. "It'll be getting dark soon." He comments, hoping to change the subject.

"Mhm, we'll be fine though. I'm sure you know better than anyone that nighttime swimming is nice." Ace says as he leans back against the rocks, rubbing the back of Sanji's hand with his thumb. 

Sanji let out a quiet laugh. "Are you planning on staying with me all night?" He asks, doing his best to ignore the feelings each touch was eliciting. 

"Do you want me to, sunshine?" 

Still adjusting to the nickname, Sanji’s cheeks light up a pretty shade of pink. "Some company would be nice, but you can't sleep out here." He murmurs, squeezing Ace's larger hand and gazing down at it. 

"Hmm, if only I could grow some gills? I'd love to live in the ocean." Ace muses, his own face red, causing his freckles to stand out even more. 

Sanji smiles at the sentiment, his tail lazily swaying in the swallow pool. The thought of Ace as a merman is enough to make his ears burn; silently stashing that away to imagine more later.

"If only. I imagine you'd be handsome as a merman." Sanji says without thinking, biting his lip a moment later. 

Ace snorts, breaking out into a fit of giggles. "I guess that means I'm ugly as a human?" He asks as he scoots closer to his side, his knee brushing up against Sanji's tail. 

A shiver shoots up Sanji's spine at the unexpected touch, looking up at Ace almost timidly. "You aren't ugly." He manages to stammer out, hand darting up to tuck a strand of hair behind his ear. 

He can't help but smile when Ace's face lights up; the brunette's smile is almost infectious. "Why thank you, sunshine."

For a moment Sanji thinks the nickname would be a better fit for Ace, feeling warm in his presence. But he decides not to say anything, already attached to it.

"Anyway, you should go home now. The water will be too cold for you, and I don't want to have to save your ass again." Sanji says, suddenly feeling a little overwhelmed again.

Being in Ace's presence is something he has already grown to enjoy, but the feelings he’s causing are too much for him to think about now.

Ace's expression softens, pressing another lingering kiss to the palm of his hand. "I'll go then. I already owe you one." He whispers before getting to his feet. 

Sanji already misses his warmth but doesn't stop him. After all, he’s the one who told him to go. "Will you come again tomorrow?" He asks before Ace can step out of the water.

Ace simply smiles at Sanji. "Of course! I had a real fun time with you, sunshine." He tells him as he reaches for his sandals.

"Meet me at the shore when the sun is the highest then." Sanji instructs him, silently grateful that Ace will come back. Despite his current worries about his feelings for the human, he finds his presence comforting.

"I will!" Ace promises him with a wink, stepping up onto the rocky outcrop before continuing to speak. "Well, goodnight, sunshine. I'll see you tomorrow." 

"Yes, goodnight." Sanji's response appears to please Ace, sending another smile his way before Ace turns to head back to the sandy portion of the beach.

He watches Ace for as long as he can, feeling breathless.

Sanji slides himself into the shallow water, hoping the coolness would help the way his cheeks are burning. Ace is so wonderful and sweet, but too much for him all at once. He feels like they were moving along too quickly, despite liking all of the affectionate touches. 

He isn’t sure what to do about it.

For the most part, Sanji dislikes humans; aside from a select few who have been kind to him in the past. But he hasn't ever had any sort of romantic feelings like this towards a human.

Sanji runs both hands through his hair, tugging at it hard. He wishes he could figure out why now feelings for a human would appear. Rolling onto his stomach, he gazes up at the vibrant purples and pinks of the setting sky. 

He feels hopeful that the more time he spends with Ace, an answer to his worries will arise.