A Matter of Time
By Cybra

A/N: I just recently got into One Piece and I am in love with Sanji and Luffy's relationship. That and Sanji and Zeff's. Going to write a bit for each of them centered around the Baratie arc.

Disclaimer: One Piece belongs to Eiichiro Oda.


The day Zeff found out that Sanji had been turning down offers to leave the restaurant to sail with various ship's crews—merchant, pirate, Marine, all manner of groups, really—had been the least proudest day of his life. Instead, he felt furious at the stupid eggplant.

How was he supposed to find All Blue for both of them if the little bastard never left the Baratie?

True, in the beginning it would've been foolish to allow Sanji to leave. For the longest time, they'd been the floating restaurant's entire staff. Morning, noon, and night centered around keeping the ship floating and the meals coming. They managed to acquire quite a formidable crew after a while, but the fact remained that they both were running on fumes by the end of the day even now. Sanji flirted with customers—barely legal according to Zeff's "no fraternizing with the customers" rule—but the young man never took a lady to bed with him. No, Zeff had done a good job kicking some damn manners into the kid to treat women with respect. All right, perhaps he'd gone a tiny bit overboard, but at least the damn eggplant had gotten the message.

Not that he'd needed to worry though. Sanji was far too busy to privately entertain a lady in his room. Zeff knew that Sanji's "hobbies" were sleeping and reading when possible. Funny how popular a floating restaurant moored so close to the Grand Line could become in just ten years. The little brat he'd saved was dedicated first and foremost to his craft and, while the former pirate would never say it to Sanji's face, that dedication had rewarded him with the skills to be the second-best chef on East Blue. (After Zeff himself, of course. The former captain of the Cook Pirates had far more experience and had more tricks up his sleeve than the young pup.) In short, any ship would be begging for the younger blond to set sail with them. Especially anyone heading towards the Grand Line where a sea cook had to be at his most resourceful.

Which was why he found it so odd that it never seemed to happen despite constant proclamations that Sanji's food was the best anyone had ever tasted. God knew Zeff himself had had strong, proud men on their knees begging for him to leave the restaurant with them.

Then one warm day not long after the lad turned sixteen Zeff went out on the upper deck to take a breather from the stifling hot kitchen and watch the water for a few minutes. He saw Sanji step out for a smoke break on the lower deck, the young man gazing out at the sea just as he himself had been doing. He wasn't alone for long, the captain of a beautiful brig approaching him with hat in hand. Zeff smirked. He recognized that stance from the ones who'd approached him in the past.

"Chef Sanji?"

The young blond turned to the man. "Can I help you, Captain Jones?"

"I was hoping you'd reconsider my offer."

Zeff scowled. Reconsider? It was more than obvious this man wanted Sanji to travel with his crew, and the older chef knew the brig had been heading to the Grand Line. Did this request mean that Sanji had turned down his dream?

Sanji leaned against the railing, taking a deep drag of his cigarette and releasing the smoke in a long stream out to sea and towards the Grand Line. "Sorry but my answer's still 'no'."

"May I ask why?" the captain pleaded. "If you're concerned about the age difference between you and the crew, it's not an issue. Sure, they give crap to new blood, but you've clearly got lots of experience with life on the ocean. Plus I know that they'd treat you with nothing but respect once they had one bite of your food."

'Yes, little eggplant, tell us why you're throwing away All Blue,' Zeff thought angrily. If he'd had two perfectly good legs, he would've jumped down to the lower deck just to kick the blond idiot in the head.

Sanji didn't look at Jones, instead keeping his gaze on the only mistress for him or Zeff: the ever-unpredictable ocean. "I've got a debt to repay."

"Maybe I could talk with the owner on your behalf then?"

"It's not that kind of debt." Sanji took another deep drag of his cigarette to calm himself judging by that almost unnoticeable tremor in his usually rock-steady hands. "I owe that shitty old man much more than I could ever repay in treasure or time."

Pain in Zeff's hands drew his attention to where he was white-knuckling the railing of the upper deck in rage. Dammit. They needed to get the stupid thing sanded again. He examined his hands for a moment, satisfied when he found only minor scrapes. Then he scowled down at the boy who'd made him lose his temper.

'That little idiot…!'

Jones looked crestfallen. "I understand."

"If you want, I can give you a few recommendations. There's a couple of guys who'd love to get out of here. Great chefs, too, but don't tell them I said that."

The captain brightened a little. "I'd like that. Thank you."

"All right." Sanji puffed on his smoke. "For starters, there's…"

The list of names went in one ear and out the other as Zeff glared down at Sanji. He knew the boy wanted to go. On dozens of occasions, he'd seen the way the young chef would momentarily gaze in the Grand Line's direction before turning the grocery boat towards the closest island to resupply their ever-busy kitchen. He remembered the little brat full of piss and vinegar who'd had the gall to bite down on his leg when the Cook Pirates attacked his ship because he refused to die before seeing All Blue.

But now it seemed that Sanji was determined to do just that: to sacrifice everything including the ocean that both of them had been mocked for believing in to pay some debt that only existed in the boy's mind.

'That little idiot!' Zeff mutely repeated to himself as the captain left to go find the chefs Sanji had named to taste their food and make a decision.

That night the fighting chefs of the Baratie were a crew member lighter. Zeff scowled at Sanji as his fingers deftly flicked the beads of the abacus to tally up the receipts for the day.

"Quit glaring at me, shit-geezer," Sanji said without any venom. "I didn't do anything wrong this time."

"That's for me decide, brat," Zeff retorted.

The younger blond's fingers snapped each bead into place with more force than necessary. "Care to enlighten me on what the hell I did to piss you off?"

"Your very presence for starters."

"Sorry, old man, but you've only got yourself to blame for that one."

The problem was that Sanji was right. He had created this situation by saving the boy's life, sacrificing his own leg in the process. He'd given up his life as a pirate so that some little brat who'd had the same dream as him could grow to become a fine chef and find All Blue when Zeff himself no longer could.

And, apparently, Sanji's twisted mind had seen that as something he had to pay back by giving up everything in kind.

"Some days I wonder if it was even worth it."

Sanji's jaw gave an almost imperceptible twitch at the scathing remark. Not that he wasn't used to the trash talk. The Baratie was like a shark tank. One sign of weakness, and the fighting chefs would pounce on it like chum. Sanji, being the youngest even if he and Zeff had been there the longest, had to put up with most of it, especially after Zeff had officially named the young cook his sous chef two years ago.

Zeff himself was one of the people who talked trash to the boy. He wasn't a fatherly man by nature, still very much a pirate at heart. However, he and Sanji had a sort of double language where genuine respect and care was hidden under vicious insults. Yet they maintained an unspoken agreement to keep the rock largely where it belonged: in the past. True, it might be referenced from time-to-time but the subject would be dropped as soon as it reared its ugly head.

Tonight, however, Zeff had broken that agreement. If he wanted to be honest with himself, he'd broken it in a way that was entirely uncalled for. Pissed at the kid he might be but basically stating his life would've been better off had he let Sanji drown was low even by the lowest of pirate standards. He knew the kid had had horrible nightmares of Zeff leaving him to his watery grave for quite a while after they'd been rescued.

Sanji didn't retaliate, instead continuing to total up the receipts. That in itself made a hint of remorse gnaw away at the old pirate's gut. Focusing so intently on a task like that was one of Sanji's tricks to hide how hurt he was by something. Now that he thought about it, it was possible that Sanji still had that shitty nightmare on occasion and Zeff had basically confirmed it to be true.

Or did the young chef agree with the idea that Zeff should've let him drown? Was that it? Was that why the idiot refused to leave the Baratie? A life debt that couldn't be repaid simply by saving his savior's life but by making up for taking the life Zeff could have lived by ensuring his new dream of a restaurant on the ocean thrived?

It fit with Sanji's at times downright warped way of thinking, and Zeff took another sip of his drink in irritation. Most people probably would've swigged it down in their frustration, but this stuff was too good to waste by chugging it.

The only sounds in the dining room were the clicking of abacus beads and the periodic scratch of pen on paper as Sanji took notes. Ordinarily, they would've discussed the day's work while this was all going on, but Zeff decided he owed the kid some time to recover from the verbal blow neither of them had been fully prepared for by way of apology. He'd never apologize aloud though. That wasn't how their relationship worked.

Some often-ignored part of him sneered that it wasn't just the little eggplant's way of thinking that was warped.

Mentally telling that part of himself where to shove that statement, he sat back in thought, periodically sipping at his drink. Sanji—arguably the youngest sous chef on the East Blue—was doing an excellent job even if Zeff criticized him more often than not. The last time he'd even acknowledged that the kid could cook well was when he'd put his peg leg down on his decision to make the boy sous chef, even admitting aloud in front of Sanji that he'd grown to become a fine chef. It was two years since that day and neither had acknowledged that statement since then. Zeff would critique Sanji's work more harshly than anyone else's, pointing out errors so minor that not even the most uptight of food critics would've noticed much less commented on. Not to mention Sanji was handling very well the pressure of chefs constantly circling him for a chance to take over his position along with all the stress involved with running a restaurant and ship, particularly on the days when Zeff himself couldn't get out of bed. Still, everyone had their breaking point where they'd throw in the towel.

Perhaps that's what Sanji really needed: To be pushed to the point where he simply couldn't take it anymore.

Sanji scratched down a few final notes before circling a number. "We came out green today," he said simply.

"Good. Skim off the extra to put in savings."

"I know the routine by now, you shitty old man."

Zeff gave a grunt of annoyance but simply stood up as Sanji's abacus beads made a few clicks as he worked out the exact amount that would be squirreled away for days when the seas were too rough to attract many customers. "I'm heading to bed. Get started on some roasts for tomorrow."

"Fine. Not like I needed the sleep anyway."

Zeff ignored the acidic tone of voice and headed up the spiraling stairs through the kitchen and to the upper deck where the cooks slept. Giving Sanji a little extra work might've seemed cruel to most people, but working him to the point where he dropped off to sleep without dreams would be a mercy. It was likely the old nightmares would be back that night given what had been said.

He settled back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling of his private cabin. Tomorrow he'd start pushing the boy until he reached his limit. Sanji was young, so it shouldn't take too long. Most youngsters weren't willing to tough things out if they didn't have to.

Of course, Zeff knew that things were unlikely to be that easy with Sanji. The kid's stubbornly loyal attitude (to the point of absolute stupidity) would likely require an extra push to step off the deck of the Baratie for good.

And three years later, he was proven right.