He used to measure Sanji's growth by how comfortable an armrest Sanji's head was.
When they first met, Sanji was a scrawny brat of nine, a foul-mouthed bundle of arrogance and insolence and something strangely, strangely off. At the end of their first meeting, he had chucked a total of seventeen plates and three soup tureens at Sanji out of sheer frustration and had had to answer to Zeff for that, was put on dish duty for months. Now, he knows better than to use kitchenware as projectile missiles (and punches don't need to be swept up afterwards).
At nine years old, Sanji was too short for him to rest his elbow on Sanji's head without having to contort his spine into the shape of a banana. At ten, Sanji wasn't much taller, and was still scrawny as hell, with sharp knees and pointy elbows that jabbed at him painfully whenever he tried to balance a tray on Sanji's head.
But at eleven, despite the alarmingly high number of cigarettes he inhaled daily, Sanji had hit his growth spurt, was finally as tall as his elbow, and this was when Sanji reached optimal armrest height, if only Sanji'd stay still long enough, or stopped swearing and trying to kick his shins.
At twelve-thirteen-fourteen, Sanji continued to stretch and stretch and stretch beyond all possibility of armresthood, all gangly, out-of-control limbs, a raspy voice that sounded like the painful death of a childhood, awkward questions made more awkward by a volcanic temper, and one existential crisis after another.
At fifteen-sixteen, Sanji was at his shoulder, had stopped tripping over his own legs and his voice had settled on one octave. The next year, he clung desperately onto the scant few inches he still had on Sanji only because Sanji slouched all the time, hands thrust deep in his pockets as he sulked with his own toxic brand of teenaged angst.
At eighteen, Sanji was a bigger bastard than ever when he stood straight-backed and confident, looked him square in the eye, took a deep drag on his cigarette, and kicked his ass.
They never got along, but Sanji never got along with anyone on the Baratie who wasn't of the female persuasion, and one would think it unseemly for a grown man to be picking fights with a snot-nosed kid, but then again—one didn't know Sanji.
None of them except Zeff really did, until—
When Sanji turned nineteen one amazingly sunny day in March, he realized amid the drunken revelry (they didn't like the kid, but a reason to raid the liquor stock was a reason to raid the liquor stock) that a) he was still distressingly sober, and b) he was going to need another way to measure Sanji's growth from now to twenty to twenty-one to all the years Sanji still had left in him.
Now, with a demon at their door and the wind on their faces is filtered through the ragged sails of a death-infested ship—
In the span of his arms, fingertip to fingertip, when they are thrown open like an invitation, or in the glacial cool in his voice, the level calm, as he challenges them all at once, "go ahead," and in the flicker of movement rippling through the circle in reaction, in hesitation, and in the end, significantly, the number of triggers they dare to pull is zero.
Or in the darkness of the red of his blood matted in his hair, soaked through his blue dress shirt, or in the number of bones you can hear snapping, the sharpness of the sound, the pitch of his cry, the impossibility of his resolve as he stands and stands fast, how he's sager for each gasp escaped from behind gritted teeth, wrenched from his battered chest.
Or maybe in the whiteness of his eyes, how wide, when he asks, sitting cross-legged on the floor, "isn't it good? I worked really hard on it!" (And in the corners of his grin you see the vestiges of an innocence you used to know.) Maybe, too, in the half-seconds it takes for his expression to sour into one of shock and anger when they overturn their bowls, you among them, because finally, you understand, you understand that Sanji needs to leave, because the Baratie is small and Sanji's dream is deep enough to swallow it whole.
For ten years you've measured Sanji's growth against your own body, charted the evolution of his smile, watched his graduation from colt-like clumsiness to wild, feline grace, and for those ten years of measuring and charting and watching, you never knew Sanji, never knew how ready and willing this boy was to die until some asshole came and spilled Sanji's blood and Sanji's secrets all over the goddamn deck, and then, finally, you understood.
And too late, because Sanji is going now, so soon, leaving on an adventure with a bunch of brats just like himself, fitting and alarming all at once, and it's your last chance to get even, to pay him back for his foul-mouthed arrogance and insolence and kindness, that's what it was all along, but he kicks your ass one last time with infuriating ease, the new bruises a good-bye gift from the heart, and then you remember that you hate him, actually. You hate him.
But when Sanji shouts, "For as long as I live," you wish silently, fervently, live long, you little shit, and when Sanji sobs, "I'll never forget your kindness!" your heart beats and beats and beats and sings no, yours.
And as he watches the tiny ship disappear over the horizon—on her way to a dream, to All Blue, far away, suddenly he is sure—a strange weight settles cold and heavy in his stomach, and stays there.
"Well, shit," says Carne, the deck of the Baratie rocking beneath his feet, his eyes stapled to the line of sky and sea.
And Patty agrees, "Yeah."
Grow, he wills it, and you will it, and they each will it, send the thought whispering over the water after Sanji, grow and grow and grow.
He has discovered in himself a dangerous and devastating weakness.
It's easy: one word. One word and he would cease. One word and his heart would break. Too unbelievably easy.
It's not a word he hasn't heard before. He's torn it countless times from the bloody mouths of men, has heard it riding on the crest of a scream, desperate and high and raw. He's learned to read it in the eyes when the voice has gone, in the hands raised in vain to shield and ward against him. He understands it in the tension of bone right before it breaks, in each fragile finger before it snaps beneath his own. He knows the word tastes like foreign blood on his tongue.
Before, it's never mattered, but now, it is all that does.
He searches for it and he does not find it.
For Sanji's mouth is silent, and Sanji's eyes betray nothing but a tempered resolve, and Sanji's hands are hidden away in his pockets, casual like he's going for a walk on water. The shatter of Sanji's bones means something else, and the taste of Sanji's blood on his tongue is incomprehensible, unrecognizable. The smell of cigarette smoke is defiance.
No, Sanji won't say it. It's one word and Sanji won't say it, doesn't even think it or else he would know, would know it the instant it first flickers traitorously across Sanji's mind.
Perhaps he should be grateful. Yes, he will always be grateful, then and now too, now when he won't fail, now when he can bring the tonfa down one last time, and with the flight of Sanji's life, this weakness too. Sanji will allow him even this, Sanji will give him even this.
But one word and Gin's heart would break. One word and it's the world. One word and Gin would be his in a million, million irreparable pieces.
Sanji doesn't catch on. Stupid kid. Stupid and insane and everything, everything, right now, with his hand fisted in Sanji's collar, Sanji's pulse against his knuckles, there is nothing else. Sanji's mouth opens, but inside there is only bitter smoke.
He should be grateful.
But he's not, not this time, not when it's the life that saved his life that's placed before him on wooden planks swollen with age and salt. The unlived years and unrealized dreams and the ragged hope timidly allowed to exist in the periphery of remorse so deep it is a chasm.
And with a jolt that makes his eyes go wide, he recognizes the taste on his tongue. Sanji's blood, yes, this is regret. It's been a while.
He feels the word bubble up in the back of his own throat then, and this time it tastes like bile.
Say it, he wants to scream, say it and I will stop, say it and I will answer yes.
But Sanji doesn't. Sanji doesn't and Gin already knows he never will, not to Gin, not to anyone, if you cut him open you still would not find it inside, because Sanji will not dare ask for anything and will only give and give and give, and Gin's heart shouldn't break, but it does anyway.
And that hurts, god, that hurts enough that he'll say it, he'll say it for him. "Don Krieg," he chokes out, the bile rising and the tears falling. It's been a while. His head reels. "Please." Spare him. Spare him. Sanji. Sanji. Sanji.
Krieg doesn't listen, just like Gin never listened, but the look on Sanji's face is almost worth the burn of blood and poison in his lungs, and when the world has ended and rebuilt itself around Krieg's impossible defeat, when Sanji is standing on deck to see him off, looking battered but happy enough, it probably is worth it, despite the shudder of his life guttering out in the hollow of his chest.
Still, the taste of Sanji's blood lingers beneath it all. Regret. He swallows hard, memorizes it so he won't forget.
He's sweet, but you don't want sweet.
When you wake up at your desk in the middle of the night with a blanket draped over your shoulders and your ink bottles carefully corked and put away, that's sweet. When the very first thing he does in a storm is to cover your precious mikan grove with a heavy tarp, that's sweet. When he brings you drinks to cool your throat in the middle of a heat-stroke-inducing, beat-down-sunny day, that's very sweet. When the drink has a colorful little paper umbrella in it that he had painstakingly cut out and painted himself, that's useless, but sweet too.
He's sweet, and it wouldn't be that much of a stretch, to be in love with him, but you don't want sweet, and so you aren't.
But he's other things too, of course. And he does other things, things that don't include fawning or twirling or melting into goopy puddles of adulation. Things that make your chest tighten when you observe him being something other than—just sweet.
There's that one thing, for instance, when Luffy is making another outlandish request for dinner, something that demands half the world's population of livestock and not much else. Sanji stands there with a hand on his hip, silently smoking a cigarette at him, and when Luffy is through thumping his chest and chanting meat meat meat, Sanji swallows a lungful of smoke like it's air, and he makes this subtle and almost imperceptible movement, like a wildcat sitting back on its haunches, the long lines of his body relaxed, confident, indulgent, his voice low and smooth as he grumbles something half-heartedly obscene that somehow always translates into got it, shithead, leave it to me, and Luffy lets loose an eardrum-splitting cheer that Sanji kicks him for.
No, that's sweet too, you guess, because everyday without fail, Luffy eats double his own body weight in meat. But it's a different sweet. Not sugary, syrupy sweet. It's a kind of sweet that's trying not to be sweet, trying not to blow its cover.
Well, there's another thing. When Zoro and Sanji tussle like homicidal, emotionally stunted boys, steel swords against steel-toed shoes, leaving craters in their wake, splinters of very expensive wood and a door ripped off its hinges to be used as an impromptu shield and/or projectile weapon. Zoro is raw power refined and conditioned by Spartan self-discipline, and Sanji is fluid grace with a blue-hot undercurrent of explosive violence. When Zoro and Sanji clash, it is electric in a way that makes Chopper's fur stand on end. And you know that when Sanji is provocative, he angles his body in a manner that screams come at me, and his expression only reads, I dare you. And while Marines and rival pirates often don't, Zoro always, always dares.
Nothing sweet about bloodlust and apocalyptic, testosterone-fueled stupidity, you'd wager, and you never make a careless wager. But then again, no. When it comes to these two, the fact that they haven't actually killed each other is practically a love letter sealed with pink hearts and slathered in glitter. Sweet in their fury-laced nakamaship. And disturbing, but boys are such creatures.
But what about the way Sanji pulls himself back up onto the deck after fishing the crew's hapless devil-fruit users out of the ocean, his clothes water-dark and heavy on his bones, and the way he kicks their skulls in (but never Robin's, of course) without a trace of remorse before they've even regained consciousness, sending them on the most terrifying subconscious guilt-trip anyone's ever had the misfortune to go on, and when they cower and beg after they are finally thrashed awake, please don't take away our snacking rights Sanji-kun, Sanji-san, we'll be good, we'll be careful, he mercilessly threatens to kick them overboard again, sometimes making good on his threats, only to have to fish them out a second time.
But that's sweet. Damn it, that's sweet and sweet, and Sanji is sweet, and you don't want sweet, but maybe you want Sanji because Sanji can be sweet in a way that isn't textbook, he can be sweet in an off-kilter, incomprehensible and incredibly oblivious way. But oh, you'd have to be someone else to get that kind of sweet out of him, because to you, he doesn't dare be anything but just sweet, and that's not what you want.
You want the Sanji you sometimes catch when you peer over the railing of the upper deck after he's just served you and Robin your afternoon snacks, the Sanji whose shoulders return to their natural slump and who loosens his tie in the blazing heat with one frustrated motion and a scowl when he thinks no one is watching or judging or caring. The Sanji whose eyes aren't wide and shining with worship, but are closed so that you can see the pale lashes against pale skin.
The Sanji who, sometimes, maybe, when it's been a long night of washing dishes and prepping meals, flops down alone at the dining table, toes off his shoes, puts his head down and sighs, "fuck it." The Sanji who wakes up with a jolt the next morning, lines of his suit pressed into his cheek, bewildered as Robin hands him the morning's first cup of coffee with a soft smile, and he forgets to melt at her feet because he is still blearily expecting to be summoned by Zeff's insistent banging on his door, can't quite shake ten years of habit and memory.
That kind of sweet, a vulnerability that is precious in a way Belli isn't. But for you, for you, he tries to be invincible and charming and perfect, nothing else, and that is the kind of sweet you don't want or need. Yes, you'd love him if only you were someone else, if you were someone he didn't try so hard to pretend for.
When Sanji catches your eye and smiles at you with blood in his mouth from across the deck piled high with bodies that don't matter, and when he flashes you a victory sign with immaculate hands, you smile and flash one back.
Sweet, you think, a little flutter in your chest. Just that.
And yes, that's fine.
Sometimes, he thinks the greatest trial of his life is not to defeat Mihawk and to claim the top for himself and for Kuina, but rather to find a way to be in the same room as this asshole without wanting to slice him into bite-sized chunks and make a nice soup from his bones and serve him for dinner in his own fucking kitchen at his own fucking table, and when the idiot's precious Nami-swan licks her lips and sighs delicious, Zoro will crow in satisfied triumph.
See? Impossible. It has to be impossible when he has thoughts like that on a regular basis.
There is not a shred of affection between them. The word itself, in association with the idiot, makes him want to gag, and he has no doubt that the feelings are completely mutual, which makes things simple.
But the cook is a goddamn contrary bastard, and so, simple still means easier said than fucking done.
Today, the sun in the sky is unforgiving. The boys have long discarded their shirts (and in Luffy's case, pants too), and Chopper is passed out somewhere in the shade, eyes dazed and tongue lolling. The girls are wearing what Zoro can only surmise to be lengths of string with strategic pieces of cloth attached. Judging from the number of times Zoro's seen Usopp lugging around a mop and bucket, there have been a lot of enthusiastic nosebleeds today, and the cook's already been banned from the upper deck, where the girls are lounging.
And with his schedule emptied of the usual fawning and simpering and love-tornado-ing, there are suddenly a lot of hours freed up for Making Things Hellishly, Freakishly Difficult for Zoro.
And so the cook, precisely because he exists to piss Zoro off, is now stalking towards him dressed in his customary black slacks and pinstriped blue shirt. His only concessions to the heat are the absence of his suit jacket and tie, and the sleeves neatly rolled up to his sharp elbows.
"What the fuck is wrong with you," Zoro states, rather than asks, feeling like he could suffocate just looking at him, and the cook blinks at him with feigned innocence.
"Whatever do you mean, Zoro-chan?"
Zoro is about to say something along the lines of please don't make me vomit, but the cook has a tray perfectly balanced on the palm of his hand, and Zoro can only stare at the tall glass of freshly squeezed lemonade, the cool condensation beading on the glass, the bright-yellow wedge of lemon crowning the sugar-frosted rim.
He swallows thickly, grunts, "is that for me?"
The cook smiles like a menace. "Do you want it?"
"Hell no," Zoro says and instantly regrets it, because the cook promptly turns on his prissy heels and begins to walk away. "Wait!" Zoro makes to stand up, realizes how desperate he must look, and freezes in an awkward half-crouch.
The cook stops and turns to him, half in the sun and half in the shade, and Zoro tries to decide if he should stand up the rest of the way, or sit back down.
He stands up with as much dignity as he can muster. "Give it," he says, and holds out his hand, resolutely ignores how he must resemble a petulant child.
The cook turns to face Zoro fully, pulling the rest of himself into the shade; the gold of his hair softens. He shakes his head and grins. "Say please."
It's too goddamned hot for this fuckery, and Zoro really wants that goddamned lemonade. His outstretched hand clenches into a fist and drops to his side. "I want it," he grounds out.
"Give me the fucking lemonade, cook!"
"Please give me the fucking lemonade, Sanji."
"You have the lemonade, dumbass," Zoro growls. "And it's mine, so hand it over."
The cook fixes him with a calm gaze, plucks the glass from the tray, and brings it to his mouth. Zoro watches, palms sweating, everythingsweating, extreme agitation making his eyebrow twitch. "Don't you dare," he hisses. "Don't you—"
The cook tilts the glass, parts his lips, and Zoro launches himself forward.
Always so goddamned difficult with this bastard. But Zoro knows the cook won't fight with food in his hands, and he's right, because the cook only sidesteps him and doesn't try to take Zoro's head off with his foot. With the distance between them now effectively obliterated, they're standing almost nose to nose, and Zoro's about to reach out and grab the glass for himself, but the cook surprises him by shoving it at his chest.
"Fuck, it's too hot for this," he grumbles. "Here, just take it, asshole."
And Zoro stands there, freshly-won victory cooling his hand as the cook flops down on the grass, spread-eagle. "So fucking hot," he grouses, lighting a cigarette.
"So take it off," Zoro says simply, because it is so simple and the cook is an idiot. He downs the lemonade in two and a half gulps, the cold citrus soothing to his parched throat, and he sucks the juices out of the lemon wedge and makes a face.
The cook mumbles something unintelligible around his cigarette and Zoro says, "what?"
"I said," the cook starts, then trails off again, smoke and half-formed words.
Zoro sits down a full two arm-lengths away, and places the empty glass between them like a demarcation line. "Don't mumble, idiot."
"Fuck you. Don't make this day more unbearable than it already is, fucker."
Zoro crosses his arms behind his head and closes his eyes against the mercilessly cloudless sky. "Whatever."
They don't speak for a while, the grass slowly cooling their bodies and the gentle rock of the ship a lulling call to an afternoon nap. A day like this, with his eyes closed, he can almost imagine he's back home on land, dozing away the dog days of summer in the backyard of sensei's dojo with Kuina sipping iced green tea on the back porch, her pale legs folded beneath her, sword neatly propped up against a sliding screen door. All that's missing, Zoro muses absently with a tinge of what must be nostalgia, is the singing of cicadas loud to fill his head.
Later, he will blame it on his state of semi-consciousness, where inhibitions are lowered and judgment lapses, or on the heat that is intense enough to melt his brain, because just as he is about to drop off to blissful sleep, Zoro murmurs recklessly into the heavy air, "you like cicadas?"
There is a beat of silence before the voice two arm-lengths away answers, "bugs creep me the fuck out."
And it's a testament to just how much the heat has addled the cook's mind if he's actually admitting to something like that. Zoro smirks, eyes still closed. "You're losing it, cook."
"Fuck you, marimo," but there is no conviction in his tone. "It's too fucking hot."
And because it is a sensible piece of advice, and because it really is too fucking hot, Zoro repeats, "so take it off."
"Can't, so shut up already."
This time, Zoro angles his head so that he can watch the cook out of the corner of his eye. He's lying completely still, eyes closed and cigarette already burnt down to the filter. "Why so modest?" he jeers, because it is the proper response between two homicidal, heat-oppressed still-teens.
"Because, fucker. Shit." Zoro watches the corners of his mouth turn down in a scowl, irritation furrowing his brow. "North Blue genetics, ok? Never been much sun up there to adapt to, asshole."
The cook inhales deeply through his nose, fist clenching and unclenching in the grass. "I sunburn really fucking easily, are you happy now."
And Zoro can't help the bark of laughter that escapes him, can't help the way he's probably ruined this rare moment of civility between the two of them, but the cook doesn't kick at him, and Zoro can't help his grin. "Always knew you were a pansy."
"God, shut the fuck up. Please, all right? There, I said it. Please shut the fuck up, Zoro. It's too hot and I am going to die."
Zoro stares at the pale stretch of the cook's forearms, the white column of his neck, and suddenly he has to ask, "does your nose get all red and peel-y if you're in the sun too long?"
He watches the cook grimace spectacularly. "Yes, bastard, ok? Leave me alone, fucking hell."
And Zoro says without thinking, "Kuina's did too."
Something thrums through Zoro's entire body like a deep drumbeat as the cook turns his head to look at him, blue eye open and alert, the air between them suddenly electric. He stares at him and says nothing for the time it takes the drums at Zoro's core to slow their frenzied beating to a sluggish pound, but it's a painfully, painfully long time before they do, and the cook is still staring at him like he doesn't want to kill him.
"Oh," the cook finally manages. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Zoro says, every fiber of his being screaming at him to look away, but he won't. "Her eyes were brown, though." He pauses. "Yours aren't," he adds, lamely, like it is necessary, and Zoro thinks to himself, you are not her, and what she was will never be again, but—
But the cook smiles at him then, and it's an even stranger sight. "No, they're not, I guess."
And Zoro is slapped with the need to say, "but that's all right," and the cook smiles again and says, "thanks, then."
Sunburned noses and eyes that are blue, not brown, and a presence that is familiar and foreign, different and exactly the same. Menace and rage and testosterone, sun and grass in the middle of the ocean and beating drums beneath Zoro's skin and empty glasses between them to catch words they don't mean to drop. Heat and a silence he trusts enough to close his eyes in.
"How about I make limeade next time, for our little green marimo?"
"Shut your mouth."
"I'll do it, Sanji."
Sanji is standing on the deck of the Sunny looking mightily unimpressed. Somewhere behind him, Usopp is keeping up an eternal mantra of oh god oh god oh god. Sanji ignores him, and nonchalantly flicks the butt of his cigarette overboard.
"Try it, and I'll put you on an all vegetable diet for a month, you shitty piece of rubber."
Luffy solemnly considers this from where he is standing on the railing, then settles for another round of "But Saaaaaanjiiiiiiiii."
"Stop it! I said no, and I mean it, captain shithead."
Luffy's expression becomes deadly serious again. "Then I'll do it."
"No, you won't."
"I will! If you don't feed me right now, I'll do it!"
"You just ate, asshole!"
"But I'm hungry!"
"Just wait for dinner, for fuck's sake!"
"FEED MEEEE," Luffy roars, throwing his head back, fists in the air. "NOW!"
Luffy suddenly falls silent and graces Sanji with one last disparaging look that makes Sanji want to ground his spine to dust. "Fine," Luffy says with an air of finality, and calmly steps over the railing and into the blue waters of the ocean below.
Usopp screeches, but Luffy's descent is abruptly halted by a hand grabbing the scruff of his neck. Luffy cranes his neck back to beam up obliviously at a very obviously livid Sanji. His heart gallops in his chest and his entire body starts to quiver with glee, his eyes wide and shining with unadulterated hope and trust. Yes. Yes, this is it. This is the Moment, Luffy can feel it. Sanji is finally going to give in, he's going to smile and say, eat as much as you want, captain mine, and he'll get rid of the locking mechanism on the refrigerator door and he'll cook all the meat Luffy wants whenever and wherever, and he'll ask Luffy if he wants more, and Luffy will say yes, always, and Luffy will never have to touch another brussel sprout again, and oh, oh Sanji, you are so wonderful.
"So? So? Does this mean you'll feed me now? Does it, San-chan? Huh? Huh? Meat?" Luffy practically sparkles at him.
Sanji's face does something weird and spasm-y, his mystery eyebrow convulsing wildly above his eye. "Oh, fuck you," he growls, and lets go.
Luffy hears Usopp's screech escalate a gazillion decibels in volume before he hits the water and sinks like a hammer, never having felt so betrayed in his life.
He will never love again.
The smile that is aimed at him seems to come agonizingly, agonizingly slow, but it is genuine, oh, it is genuine, a liar can tell these things, and it makes him feel brave.
Sanji's always done just that, and always managed somehow to throw him into the impossible and trust him to come out alive and stronger and wiser, closer to his dream, and Sanji is proud of him in a way that makes him proud of himself, and Sanji will be proud of him for this too.
Raftel is at their backs, and every scar he's ever won is a chapter in their epic, their legend, their mythology. There is one for Captain Kuro, for the Baratie, for Arlong Park, for Loguetown, for Little Garden and Alabasta, for Skypeia and Water 7 and Enies Lobby, Thriller Bark, Sabaody, Greenstone, and Fishman Island, for the Graveyard of Rio Poneglyphs, for each of the Shichibukai, for Mariejois, for Poseidon, for the revolutions they fought, for the lives they saved and the ones they lost. For Elbaf. For All Blue.
The same sprawling history that's engraved on his body is engraved on Sanji's as well, and now, Sanji's smile is another invitation to danger that he is trembling to accept, a hero's call to adventure, a warrior's odyssey.
Sanji says, "What can I do you for?"
He takes a deep breath, tastes the smoke expelled from Sanji's lungs in the back of his own throat. Swallows, smiles, says, "I