A Matter of Time
A/N: The final installment of "A Matter of Time". A missing scene from the end of the Baratie arc. Partially inspired by SybLaTorture's "Hat Comfort".
Disclaimer: One Piece belongs to Eiichiro Oda.
Luffy watched as Sanji waved in the direction of the restaurant until it was completely out of sight. At first it had been with a smile on his face but the captain's concern was growing with each passing second.
Sanji didn't stop crying.
Tear after tear kept falling, never slowing as they pulled farther and farther away from the Baratie. A sob would periodically join the tears in the process.
In the back of his mind, Luffy knew they needed to focus on their destination and mission. Nami was in trouble, and they had to retrieve her and the Going Merry. It was very likely that another brutal battle was waiting for them when they reached Arlong Park. However, the concerns that should've been first and foremost in his thoughts took a backseat to something few captains would've ranked as more important:
His nakama was crying, and Luffy didn't know how to stop it.
He didn't want to stop the tears for the obvious reason that there were more important things to focus on than leaving home. No, he didn't begrudge Sanji those tears at all.
It was because his nakama was in pain, and Luffy himself had inadvertently caused it.
The others had come along on this journey willingly despite initial protests. By the end of the adventures they'd shared together, there'd been a close bond of camaraderie that had been impossible to deny. Each had been willing by the end to follow the future Pirate King anywhere even if it was to Hell itself. Gut instinct told Luffy that this adventure with Nami would be a similar case in the end.
Sanji, on the other hand, had dug in his heels, resisting every step of the way. Even after their defeat of Don Kreig, Sanji had refused to bow to the inevitable until the cooks had put on a show rejecting the delicious soup he'd worked so hard on. And even then, even then he'd done so grudgingly.
So much so that Luffy had been wondering if Sanji would change his mind when he went to gather his things.
"I'm going to go see what's ahead," the chef said, bowing his head and turning away from the horizon the Baratie had disappeared over. "To make sure we don't run into anything."
It was a pathetic excuse, but Luffy simply nodded. Over the four days of working at the Baratie, he'd learned just how much Sanji hated showing weakness. The captain might not've been a genius, but even he could see why with the way the other cooks had constantly looked for an opening in Sanji's defenses. True, it'd been for the young cook's own good to drive him off to go pursue his dream of All Blue, but it had instilled a constantly-vigilant, defensive loner mentality which Luffy knew wasn't healthy.
After all, nakama should lean on each other when something was wrong.
Yosaku watched Sanji march to the bow before looking over at Luffy. "Hey, are you sure this is a good idea? He looks really upset. Maybe we should turn back around and take him home."
Luffy put one hand on top of his hat and pushed it slightly forward, lowering the brim over his eyes. "No. He can't go back now."
It was clear Yosaku didn't understand judging by the look on his face. However, Luffy knew that even with that tearful goodbye, Zeff would've never let Sanji set foot on the Baratie again until he'd finished the quest for All Blue in either success or failure. Little wonder why prying the chef away from the restaurant was so hard and why he was hurting so badly now: Leaving meant burning his bridges back to everything he knew and loved.
As much as he hated to admit it even to just himself, Luffy knew that he was ultimately the one responsible for that pain.
He didn't regret his choice of cook, not for an instant. He hadn't even knowingly tasted the man's cooking when he'd picked Sanji out. No, he'd known from the instant that Sanji served Gin that no other cook would do. Because for a brief moment, the other man's defenses had been down and showed Luffy his true character: a kind and generous young cook who'd never turn away a starving man even if that man was an enemy.
Even if Sanji hadn't been sous chef, even if Sanji had been the least experienced cook on the ship, Luffy would've picked him out because of that one small, seemingly-insignificant act.
"Can you manage things back here?" Luffy asked the bounty hunter.
"Huh? Oh, uh, yeah. Shouldn't be too hard. She sails really easy."
Not surprising. The Shimashima Shopping had clearly been designed so that one person could pilot her without any trouble. Luffy supposed that was what made her such a good supply ship.
He circled around to the bow and stopped, observing the young chef before making his approach.
There Sanji stood rigid, hands clenched at his sides as the wind tugged at his hair and clothing. His tie had come free from his jacket and was waving as though an invisible hand was pulling Sanji forward to ensure the ship didn't sail out from beneath him and leave him behind. A strangled sob reached Luffy's ears.
The chef was trying to piece himself back together, to put up his walls again.
Without thinking, Luffy removed his beloved straw hat and walked up behind the older teen, reaching up to place it on Sanji's head.
The cook turned slightly, giving Luffy a full view of his one visible bloodshot eye. Tears still fell, sliding down his cheek and dripping off his chin.
Then he hastily turned away, bringing up an arm to wipe at his eyes. "Sorry, captain. That was…" He swallowed and reached up towards the hat. "Sorry."
"Leave it on."
Sanji froze, fingers hovering just above the woven straw. "But…it's your—"
"Leave it on," Luffy firmly repeated, his tone allowing for no argument.
His nakama was hurting, and he didn't know how to fix it. He just knew that when he felt down that having Shank's straw hat had provided some comfort no matter how bad things were. It was almost like having the older pirate's hand on his head to assure him that everything was going to be okay.
He didn't even know if wearing it would help the other young man. It didn't seem like Zeff was the touchy-feely type. In retrospect, this might even make things worse since it could be something the chef was completely unused to. Who knew how he'd react?
Still, Luffy had to try.
Sanji lowered his hand. "Y-Yes, captain."
The taller teen was trembling, and Luffy instinctively knew that while the hat helped, it wasn't enough. The cook was still trying to stand strong alone. He had to show Sanji that he didn't have to put up a front anymore. He had to show the blond that it was okay to lean on someone else when he was weak and that his nakama wouldn't judge him for it when he did.
The captain reached out and wrapped his arms around the cook's waist, sliding up behind him so that his chest was flush with Sanji's back. He hugged him tightly though not too tightly, just enough to prove to the chef that he wasn't alone.
Sanji gave another choked sob, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. Luffy didn't let go, simply holding the cook and bringing his forehead forward to rest between the other's thin shoulders. He could feel the tension in every lithe muscle even through the suit.
The sobs came more frequently as more tears fell, and Luffy didn't once let go. He'd stay as long as the chef needed. Somehow, this seemed like a long-time coming as if everything since Zeff sacrificed his leg had come to the surface all at once.
It reminded Luffy of the whirlpool he'd gotten stuck in when he first set sail. He could feel himself being pulled down even as they stood on the very sturdy deck of the Shimashima. The swirling emotions that had been suppressed for so long under that cool exterior and that easily-stoked anger were like a vortex of pain triggered by the agony of leaving everything Sanji loved behind.
As a devil fruit user, Luffy couldn't swim, but he was determined not to let Sanji drown.
He wasn't sure how long they stood there, but eventually Sanji's sobs quieted and his body stopped trembling in Luffy's grip. Instead, he sagged back against his new captain as if the events of the day coupled with the surge of unbridled emotion had drained him.
"Sorry, captain. It won't happen again."
Luffy grinned at Sanji's back as he helped the other sit down, the chef's normally sturdy sea legs shaking as though they were nothing more than the molded gelatin on the menu back at the restaurant. Still, a little time and Sanji would be okay. The rubber man had a feeling that that emotional outburst had been long overdue. "It's okay."
Sanji turned around to sit and face him, looking slightly ridiculous wearing that straw hat with his suit and tie. In spite of his puffy eyes and tear-stained face, there was a small but genuine smile there. He raised his hand to put it on the straw hat. "I should give you this back."
"Nah, leave it on a bit longer. It looks good on you!"
"You think so?" There was a glint of mischief in that puffy blue eye. "Maybe I should keep it then."
"No way! You're just borrowing it! Borrowing it, you get me?!"
In response, Sanji leaned his head back and laughed loud and long like he had when Luffy had pointed out that he was using a pear knife to skin an apple. (He still didn't know what was so funny about that…or why the other cooks had been so stunned by Sanji's laughter for that matter.)
As the cook laughed, Luffy silently made a vow to never let anyone make his nakama—any of his nakama—cry again.