What strikes him most is not the tempered ice in her gaze but how she looks at him like she knows him, even though he's sure he's never met her before in his life—he'd definitely remember the fall of white-blond hair against the smooth curve of her cheek and the pale blue eyes as cold as her home of frost and snow.
She looks at him like she's been waiting for him all this time, and then there is the familiar urge to throw himself at her feet, to offer up everything, and he asks her, keen and sincere and desperate all at once in the way that he is, he asks her, "What is it your heart desires, my lady? I would give you anything."
"Anything?" she repeats, solemn and slow, her voice a glacial chill down his spine, though her mouth is soft and pink, and he finds that he cannot look away, and he finds that he can hardly breathe. She traces the lines of his open palm, languorous and feather-soft. She looks at him, but she does not smile. "What I want," she says, "is—
The new island is miserably, miserably cold, with a grey sky that Nami instinctively knows is almost constantly overcast. A snow-capped mountain range wraps itself in a spiked crescent around the island, the rest of the terrain shaded in with dense forests of fir and evergreen trees. There is an eerily deserted harbor situated where the mountain range curls around to meet itself like an Ouroboros, the two ends not quite converging to form a cavernous pass leading from the coastline into the heart of the island. From what they can tell, other than this pass, the island is impregnable and as uninviting as it is cold.
Never ones to be deterred, however, and in desperate need of adventure (and provisions), the crew anchors the Sunny just off the coast, solid ice around the harbor preventing them docking. They'll have to walk over the frozen water to get to shore, and Luffy wants to ice-skate. Nami says only if he behaves.
They reluctantly troop off to dig out coats and gloves and hats from the depths of various closets and trunks; their winter gear is always stored in a messy heap, readily shucked off and discarded as soon as the weather permits—it's no secret that they prefer the sun.
But suddenly, a shrill scream cuts through the arctic air, one that they recognize immediately. In half a staggered breath, they are scrambling onto the deck in various states of dress, Usopp tripping over the untied laces of his boots and Brook almost strangling himself when his scarf gets caught in the door to the men's quarters. He makes a choking sound, but it's drowned out by the deafening roar of Luffy's voice.
They see him standing atop the railing, looking ridiculous in his customary shorts and vest with the added accessory of neon-orange mittens. "What do you think you're doing!" he shouts.
Another high-pitched screech from below, and the rest of the crew throw themselves against the railing, shielding their eyes from the sunshine reflected off the snowscape. Chopper is on the ice, already in Heavy Point, hemmed in by a veritable army in peaked helmets and boiled leather armor.
"Where the hell did they come from?" Usopp shrieks, clutching at his head in panic.
"You stupid metal-heads!" Luffy rages, stomping his feet and seething. "Let him go!"
Their ambushers are tight-lipped and narrow-eyed, spear-tips bristling, all hostility and distrust. The wind whistles high and fierce as it rushes past, impertinently seeping through the gaps in their clothing. The tension is mounting and rising like a growl in the throat of a wild beast, and Usopp gulps audibly, the stutter of his breath translating into mist. Not even ten minutes, he laments inwardly, Not even here ten minutes and already with the spears and the swords and the people trying to kill us—.
But somewhere to his left, Zoro mumbles, irreverent as always, "Some welcoming party." It's not the sort of game-altering speech Usopp is hoping for, but it is followed by the metallic slide of a katana coming unsheathed, and the glint of the blade in the weak sunlight is no less menacing than Usopp remembers. "Wonder if they have booze," Zoro continues, and Sanji makes a huffing sound that is probably accompanied by an eye-roll.
"Meat too!" Luffy chimes in without missing a beat, eyes sharp and locked on their attackers. He's already winding up his arm and his smile is wide and dangerous, promise of pain right behind his teeth. "They're going to have to give us all their meat, to make up for taking Chopper hostage."
"Luffy!" Chopper sobs, a mix of gratitude and fear and anxiety, the usual cocktail of emotions when awaiting rescue from imminent impalement.
Nami starts to say something, her hand reaching for Luffy, but her words are lost amid the flapping of Sunny's sails and the wind that whips around them. The next instant, Luffy's feet leave the railing, and the islanders turn as one to face him.
So it turns out they do have booze, in outrageous, staggering abundance.
Which is expected, considering the bleakness of the landscape and climate—what else to do but brawl to stay warm and try to find something less depressing at the bottom of a bottle? Zoro appreciates this logic through and through. However, to Zoro's inconsolable and grumbling dismay, they have not offered the Strawhats the hospitality of a drink, which, Zoro thinks, is kind of blasphemous and very rude.
But this is because, unsurprisingly, the inevitable skirmish on the coastline had done nothing to endear them to the local populace. Entrances like that rarely do, which each crewmember knew either through common sense or repeated experience. But seeing as they still needed to restock before the next leg of their journey and couldn't afford being chased off the island before they did, Nami had made an executive decision.
It was a decision she found herself making very often, one that entailed calmly screeching at her crew, punctuated by a polite whack over their heads with her Clima-Tact.
Of course, the Strawhats aren't known across the Grand Line as a notorious pirate gang for nothing. Blood had already been spilt and noses already broken within the two minutes before Nami could rein them in. Luffy had bazooka'd his way into the frontlines, the crew's close-range fighters fast on his heels, and Chopper had barreled forward to meet them, as ferocious as an herbivorous mass of fur could be. Franky had quickly fired a Weapons Right into the reeling crowd, followed by a barrage of deadly accurate Tabasco Stars from Usopp. Robin had set about knocking heads together and snapping wooden spears left and right, easy as if they were toothpicks, and with a serenity that was terrifying.
All in all, it had been a rather inspiring display of Strawhat teamwork and efficiency—save for Zoro and Sanji, who had promptly rediscovered exactly how much they hated each other after heated accusations of "sloppy, limp-noodle footwork" and "spinning around like a demented, asshole pinwheel." They had then proceeded to permanently alter the landscape and ruin small ecosystems through their combined destructive energies, completely ignoring the battle at hand. Still, they racked up enough enemy casualties in the crossfire that it was all par for course in the end. The ice that had crusted the island's shore, previously several feet thick, had been reduced to sadly bobbing ice floes.
But then, two minutes in, Nami had finally managed to pummel her nakama into submission, growling at them to cease and desist and allow the islanders to take them into custody, which didn't seem fair or logical, but no one dared to argue because Nami was doing that thing again, where she crackled with electricity and mania.
Which accounts for the reason they are now crammed into a cold, damp cell after grudgingly throwing the fight, solemnly watching their self-celebrated captors get uproariously and offensively drunk. In a corner, Zoro grumbles something very vulgar.
At first, Nami had tried to sweet talk their jailors into believing that, really, the crew had meant no harm, their captain could be a little misguided sometimes, but that's what makes him so endearing, don't you think, and we'd just like the chance to restock on your beautiful island, my, the view of the mountains is simply breath-taking, and we'll be out of your hair in no time, cross my heart! But while Sanji had promptly combusted as she batted her eyelashes and pouted and twirled her red hair around a slender finger, their jailors were not so impressed and had only belched loudly in her general direction.
Which left their navigator in a thunderous mood and Sanji slightly bruised after he had tried to kick the cell door down to avenge Nami's honor, only to find himself beat back by the more sensible members of the crew.
So now they wait, trying to tolerate the smell of wet dog and rotten straw, and indignantly endure the drunken laughter of their jailors until a new development presented itself for Nami to take advantage of.
To ask that this be done in patient silence would, of course, be too much to ask for.
"What're they saying? Why are they laughing? I don't get it."
"Their language is a curious one indeed. Of course, their speech is very clumsy and slurred on account of their current inebriation, so it's difficult to make out words, but—if you listen closely, it does sound very similar to—"
"Oh, a mystery language. Why didn't you just say so, Robin, without all the boring bits."
"Don't interrupt Robin-chan when she is in the middle of imparting valuable pearls of wisdom upon you undeserving, lesser-evolved cretins! Robin-chwan, your elegant ways of speech are tragically lost on this barbaric lot, but please carry on! You, stop picking your nose, you shit piece of chewing gum—!"
"Sanji, stop stomping on him, it's so disturbing how his head just squishes like that!"
"Someone explain to me why we haven't institutionalized this idiot yet. That must be criminal negligence on our part."
"Oh, forgive me, I mistook you for a patch of mold growing on the wall. Why don't you come out of your little corner and say that to my face, mossy."
"Zoro, Zoro, calm down, remember the breathing exercises we went over together—no, don't draw your katana, don't draw! We're all going to die! Usopp, help me hold him back!"
"It's a lost cause, Chopper. We have to save ourselves! Here, we'll take cover behind Nami."
"You always know the best hiding places, Usopp!"
"Excuse me, just what do you think you're doing? Stop pushing me!"
"Hands off Nami-san, you lecherous freaks!"
"Do not. Call me that."
"All right, whatever, but since we're stuck in here, I thought now would be the perfect time to pitch the super battle ballad I composed for you guys to throw down to. It's a masterpiece, if I do say so myself. Possibly my magnum opus. Really tugs at the heartstrings. I call it 'The Blockbuster Bromance of Mossy Shark and Curly Duck on the High Seas.' You ready for this? I doubt it, but brace yourselves best you can anyway, okay? And a-one, and a-two, and—"
"What makes you think I am okay with anything you just said?! All due respect, Franky, but a battle ballad— I'm not sure I am entirely comfortablewith… what you have in mind."
"Marimo's right for once, but more importantly, ignoring the vomit I am about to spew, can I just ask where you pulled that guitar out of, because shit, I was sure I was watching, but—"
"I must confess my curiosity as well, Franky-san. Do your sea-panties have the same convenient storage capabilities as my afro?"
"Naw, bros, you're not listening—"
"Sanji, can you—stop stepping—on my face—now?"
"Usopp, everyone is insane. That is my professional medical opinion."
"Don't worry, Chopper, Nami will definitely shield us from harm."
The only warnings were the quietly gathering thunderclouds and Robin's rather understated, "oh dear," before Nami finally lost her temper and rocked the cell with an impressively contained, yet still explosive lightning storm. It was not a big storm, at least not by Nami standards, but it was enough to thoroughly electrocute everyone into unconsciousness, except for Robin, who had wisely been spared, and Brook and Luffy, who were immune on account of their being abominations of nature.
Luffy gets up from the floor, the print of Sanji's shoes stamped all over his face. He looks around briefly, sticks a finger up his left nostril and says, "Neh, Nami, that wasn't very nice. You should apologize."
Brook puts a hand up to his frazzled afro and politely agrees, although he'd forgive her if she'd give him a peek of her p—
She clonks both of them viciously over the head, veins popping in her temple.
A ringing silence permeates the room at last. Even their guards are speechless, cups frozen en route to their mouths. They regard her with matching expressions of slack-jawed surprise tinged with more than a little horror.
She can't help but send a vicious little jolt of electricity in their direction, relishing in the way they fall out of their chairs and scrabble backwards into the wall. With a sigh, she sits down next to Robin, and they proceed to wait with the unconscious heap of their nakama.
Boys. Honestly, she couldn't take them anywhere…
She knows that on other islands they leave flowers, freshly picked and carefully arranged in bright, colorful bouquets wrapped in pretty pastel paper. But there is no such custom here on this island she calls home, the only one she's ever known; here, no flowers grow except for white snowdrops with heads drooped in mourning, and even those are exceedingly rare and always frail.
So instead, every morning, she sweeps away the fresh blanket of snow that had fallen overnight, and she touches her hand to the largest of the stones, and she thinks, wherever you are, it must be warmer, for I cannot imagine a place in this world or the next that could be colder than home.
"You know, I can cut these bars, no problem."
"Hey, that's a great idea, Zoro!"
"No, that's a stupid idea. I already explained to you dimwits that we have business to conduct on this island, and how do you think that's going to happen if we break out of jail like wanted criminals? We'll not get a single discount higher than seventy-five percent."
"But Nami, we are wanted—"
"Shut up. Sit down. Stay still or I swear I'll—"
Whatever creative, murderous threat Nami was about to issue is cut short as a large shadow falls across the floor of their cell. The crew is on their feet and ready in zero-point-five seconds, weapons bared and muscles tensed, pupils dilating with the fresh flare of adrenaline.
"What the fuck," Zoro snarls around Wadou. "Didn't even hear him coming."
A man stands on the other side of the bars, impossibly tall and impossibly old, backlit by the lanterns behind him. He is robed in heavy furs, a gnarled wooden staff in his liver-spotted hand. His gaze is a watered-down blue, slipping slowly from face to face, his own expression unknowable. But suddenly, a flicker of something electric in his eyes, something like recognition, and he takes a step forward, moving with all the ceremony of a king despite his long, unkempt beard and a face lined with age.
He gestures towards them with a regal sweep of his hand and says something, voice low and hoarse. A rising inflection at the end of his sentence—a question.
"Gramps, you're talking gibberish," Luffy informs him, fists raised despite his cheeky, good-natured tone.
Robin uncrosses her arms and steps forward into the lantern light. "Do you, perhaps, speak the common tongue? I'm afraid we don't—"
The man raises a hand to cut her off. In the resulting hush, he repeats his question, tilts his chin downward as if to peer at them more closely, but this causes the shadows to fall over his eyes and they can no longer tell where he is looking.
No response but silence and bared teeth, and the man seems to consider this, the slightest hints of a frown pulling at the corners of his mouth. But then he lowers his hand and nods once, as if coming to a decision. He steps back, the hem of his fur cape swirling the bits of old straw on the ground. Gradually, the palpable tension drains from the room, leaving exposed nerves and hummingbird heartbeats yet to slow.
"I am called Grimnir," the man says in the common tongue of the seas, words tagged with a strange, indeterminable accent, and he speaks as if he has all the time in the world. "Welcome to our island."
A painful beat of silence, then another.
And then—"Cool," says Luffy, who grins. "Ya got any meat?"
"I apologize for the treatment of your crew, Captain Strawhat. It is generally not our policy to be… accommodating to visitors."
No kidding, Usopp thinks, but Luffy only says, "Hey, it's no problem, gramps! We would have kicked your butts anyway. Can we eat now?"
Grimnir's halls are of hewn stone and dark wood, rough floors and rusted chandeliers hanging low from the ceiling to cast weak light and muted shadows on the walls. The banquet table stretches from one end of the hall to the other, laden with pewter plates and goblets, tureens of stewed meat and pitchers of mead. The table is flanked by two rows of intricately carved wooden chairs, high backs steepled like a cathedral and armrests worn smooth from age.
The air inside is stuffy with the stench of wet fur and the humidity from evaporated snow, but the hall is soon filled with the cheerful, drunken antics of its diners. Luffy and Usopp dancing arm and arm atop the table, kicking over half-full goblets and sending plates clattering to the floor as Brook saws frenetic notes on his violin with Franky on slurred vocals. Sanji is at the end of the table near Grimnir, gushing at a girl with ice-blond hair and pale blue eyes, who seems intent on reading his palm. Chopper passed out about an hour ago and is safely tucked under Zoro's arm, and Zoro himself has foregone his goblet in favor of chugging straight from the jug, engaged in a to-the-death drinking contest with the locals, challenge graciously accepted.
Things have completely turned around, and it makes Nami suspicious. She sighs as Robin sprouts an extra hand to swipe her plate away from the warpath of Luffy's extended foot, not even looking up from the book she's perusing with the burly man next to her.
"Robin," Nami murmurs, leaning in close. "What were you saying earlier in the jail cell?"
Robin glances at her. "About their language, you mean?"
"Yes." Nami's mouth is set in a tight frown as she sweeps her gaze up and down the table. She takes a measured sip of mead from her goblet.
"Why the concern?"
"It's just… something is off here. Don't you feel it?"
Robin looks down to Grimnir's end of the table and is silent for a few moments amid the clamor before finally answering, "They speak the language of North Blue."
Nami turns to her, eyebrows knitted in confusion. "Really? Wouldn't you have recognized it before, though?"
"It's a bit more complicated than that."
Nami uses her plate to bat back a spoon that Usopp had unwittingly sent flying in her direction. It hits Usopp square in the forehead, and he topples off the table, dragging Luffy down with him. Their crash is met with booming laughter that reverberates off the walls. In the resulting din, Nami asks urgently, "What do you mean?"
"It is very different from the language spoken in North Blue today. But the two are undoubtedly related. Listen, you'll hear it has much of the same glottal stops, how staccato it is, how rich in vowels. Do you hear it? These characteristics have always been unique to the North and nowhere else, as far as I know."
"All right, so it's some obscure Northern dialect. What's it doing in the middle of the Grand Line? Why is there a whole island of speakers here and nowhere else we've been? The crew's been to a lot of places, Robin, and you even more."
"You see how isolationist they are. Judging from their architecture and style of dress, I'd say they've had extremely limited exchange with other cultures for at least the past five hundred years. I do believe it's deliberate."
"Well, they certainly weren't very welcoming."
"No," Robin agrees. "But not only that. This village we're in, the structures, this hall, even these goblets—they all look like they came straight out of a North Blue history book. It can't be anything but a conscious, concentrated preservation effort. And it's the same with the language. I wouldn't call it obscure, nor is it a dialect. The reason I couldn't place it before was because I've only ever encountered it in written form."
A collective roar of triumph from Zoro's part of the table as someone passes out into a dish of smoked herring. Robin graces them with an amused smile before continuing, "Scholars agree that the ancient runes of North Blue are a phonetic system. These runes have slowly been phased out as more and more countries in the North joined the World Government and adopted a new writing system for commerce and mutual communication. This left increasingly sparse pockets of people who could read these runes, and those died out quickly as well.
"The spoken language also started to change upon increased contact with the World Government. The common tongue put forth by Mariejois became the de facto language in a world that was becoming increasingly interconnected. The North Blue language is a different language now, no longer dominant in the North, and like all the unique languages of the Blues, it is dying. It's no longer taught in schools and more and more loanwords from the common tongue are being adopted with indigenous vocabulary being lost. While today it is possible for people around the world to communicate with and understand each other, to share ideas and build new cities together, all of that comes at a price we are still paying."
Nami frowns. She had never thought about it before, about how she had grown up knowing only the common tongue like everyone else around her. Like her mikan trees, she has her roots in Cocoyashi Village and in the memory of Bellemere, and sometimes, when she thinks about them, about Bellemere and Nojiko and Genzo, she finds she does not have the words to describe what she feels, what they mean to her—something beyond even the boundaries of the word vast, with an intensity she could only express with a clenched fist pressed to her pounding heart.
But now she has to wonder, did there once exist a language in East Blue, long ago, that had the words to truly articulate the pain of such things as the grave of a mother, the trembling hand of a small child, the weight of an entire village on tiny shoulders—things she knows so intimately but has no words to explain. But had she known those words once, maybe, at a time when she was not yet herself, and had she forgotten them, like everyone else had? In the entire history of the world, had there ever existed the words to curse Arlong as fiercely as he deserved, to thank Bellemere as sincerely and fully as she should?
She feels Robin's hand on her hand, and she's suddenly back in the crowded banquet hall, with the strains of Luffy and Usopp's laughter floating over her head. "Are you all right, Nami?" Robin asks.
"Yes," she says. "I'm sorry. Please continue."
Robin gives her hand a slight squeeze, and nods. "The tragic truth is that we have lost a lot under the banner of the World Government and its revisionist policies. Languages and knowledge and more, all disappearing into the ether along with the people who dared to keep them." This time, it's Nami's turn to take Robin's hand, and Robin smiles a small, grateful smile.
"But some ancient texts from North Blue have survived, and they've been translated because we recognize clusters of runes as words and have thus inferred their meanings, piece by piece. But no one knew how to read them, the sounds that went with each rune, because no one in North Blue has used them for centuries and no one remembers the original Northern words. But here on this island, everyone still speaks the North Blue language as it was before contact with the World Government, and they still write with these old runes."
She gestures to the book she'd been reading with the man next to her. "And Dag-san here has been gracious enough to teach me how to read them. Despite his rough exterior, he has been extremely patient and kind." She smiles softly at him, and the islander, Dag, grins back with all his teeth, clearly flustered and nervously stroking his beard. Nami raises an eyebrow at him and tries not to laugh.
Robin goes on, oblivious or most likely indifferent to Dag's growing infatuation with her. "So what we're hearing right now is history come to life around us. The language is all but dead in North Blue, but here, it's still very much alive, and in such a pure form. It hasn't been lost after all. Listen. All the historical texts we have on the North, all the epics of ancient kings and queens and heroes—we can give them their voices back now, and let them rise up from the pages to speak for themselves."
"Robin, that's remarkable."
"It truly is." Robin smiles, unguarded, chin propped up on one hand, fingertips tracing the runes on the cracked, yellowed page before her. "It's a conscious preservation effort, like I said, through self-enforced isolation and resistance to any sort of cultural diffusion or change. It's clearly for more than just scholarly purposes. In the end, it begs the question—why?"
Nami sits back in her chair. She can't help but be fascinated and excited on Robin's behalf, and certainly it gave her a lot to think about what once was hers and theirs, but neither can she ignore the sense of dread from before. Her hunches are the only reason she's still alive after all this time. She sighs and massages her temples. "I have a horrible feeling about this."
This boy looks nothing like him, this boy whose eyes are hooded and too dark, whose hair is the wrong shade of yellow, whose eyebrows are shaped wrong, whose chin is too sharp, lips too thin, shoulders too narrow, and smile too wide, like this world is more than he could ever ask for. This boy who breathes smoke, who keeps his hands and secrets hidden deep in his pockets when he walks.
And yes, this boy walks with the same artless grace and long, long strides, but this boy is more aggressive in his steps, a gait honed by years defying the roiling violence of the sea and her winds and storms. This boy stalks rather than glides, grinds his heels when he turns and slouches when he stands at rest.
This boy is pale like he was, despite a lifetime of ocean sun and sea spray and salt, but this boy looks too pale all buttoned up in his armor of tailored black, and the calluses and scars on this boy's hands are in all the wrong places.
But despite all the ways in which this boy is wrong and wrong and wrong, in the end, his blood is the same, and the marrow inside the sheath of his bones is all that matters.
This boy is nineteen, Grimnir learns, and Grimnir does not feel regret as he watches him leave.
He had been young too.
They had passed the outskirts of the village a while ago, her leading him by the elbow as they navigated the dense woods until they came to a dark clearing. She had released her iron grip on his arm then and moved to stand just outside a large ring of stones arranged in the rough outline of an oval with tapered ends. The shape of a ship, she tells him. She motions at him impatiently until he stumbles to stand next to her and take a closer look.
"Here," she says, guiding his hand to the one of the stones. "Touch it."
"Oh," is all he can come up with. The cut on his palm—when did that happen?—is still bleeding shallowly, and the blood leaves a wet, dark line on the stone. He laughs a little. Definitely had too much to drink tonight, but the snow-fresh air is doing wonders to clear his head, while also making him lose all feeling in his extremities. He briefly muses on how ridiculous it is that even the back of his knees are freezing, before returning his attention to the beautiful lady with her delicate hand wrapped around his wrist. "Oh," he offers again, and grins stupidly.
The ground inside the ring is clear of snow, the black, frozen earth in sharp contrast to the expanse of white that surrounds it. Strange, he thinks, but only distantly.
"He is here," she is explaining to him, and he snaps his head back to look at her.
He tries to manage a smile that is not too lopsided. "Who is?"
She gives him a look like she is exasperated, or maybe disappointed, but it is so fleeting that he wonders if he—hopes that he—imagined it. "Our prince," she says.
The way she says prince is different from the way he says it. She is still saying prince, but it sounds like a whole new word, one from her native tongue and not the common. The stress of it, the lilt of it. The same word but it's different. There's her word, her prince and all that means, and then there's prince, and then there's him. He blinks slowly, feeling himself sway just a bit on his feet. They call me Mr. Prince, he wants to say, but has enough sense to say instead, giddily, "I don't see him."
This time he does catch the tight-lipped frustration in her expression, and suddenly he feels overwhelmingly sad and guilt-ridden. He's about to apologize when she interrupts him. "He is here," she states again, slowly and deliberately.
"What do you—" He stops, half-formed words evaporating on his tongue as realization finally finds him in the alcoholic haze. "Oh," he says again. He takes a step backwards before he catches himself and forces his legs to lock into place.
"Nothing, my dear!" he quips, tries to smile again but his face doesn't seem to work. He fumbles for a cigarette instead. I will not tremble, he thinks, and he says, "Nothing at all."
"What is wrong," she snaps at him, angry suddenly and alive in her skin, and Sanji clicks his lighter to life, lights his cigarette to avoid her eyes, a paler, colder blue than his own.
"My lady, I'm so sorry—it's just I don't visit very many graves, and I just…" The dead so close, so fettered, he's never gotten used to it.
She looks taken aback by his answer. "Why not? We bury the dead," she says in the same slow, deliberate tone as before.
"We don't. I don't mean we as in us." He gestures between the two of them, and had he been a degree more sober, or not distracted by the way his toes were curling in discomfort, his brain would have registered the blip of pure, unadulterated bliss at the prospect of them being together as a we. "I mean we, as in my—the people I grew up with. At sea."
"You are from the North."
"You were born there."
"But I was raised—"
"So we bury our dead. We erect monuments in their honor, to remember them. We come back. We pray to them, speak to them. You do not visit your dead?"
"No," he can only say, simply, gently as he can. "I don't." That is a custom for land, not the sea. But they follow you still, they hear you on the water.
He casts another glance at the inside of the ring, can't help but imagine what lies encased underneath. His mind traitorously conjures up the memory of a child's gaunt face and withered arms, teeth and bony fingers, the sound of the waves far, far below, out of reach. And this hard, unyielding earth.
And then he feels her hand on his arm again, and when he looks in her eyes, and when she says his name, suddenly he feels so small and so cold and so very hungry.
"You can't be serious," Nami says. In a way, she should have seen this coming.
It's late afternoon already, and they are gathered again in Grimnir's great hall, bleary-eyed and hung-over, cotton in their skulls and mouths. The atmosphere is significantly less cheerful, the hall empty enough that the rafters throw their voices back clear and uninterrupted. Empty chairs stand in two neat rows, the table wiped immaculate, no evidence of the drunken revelry and tabletop line-dancing of last night.
"The choice was his," Grimnir rumbles, infuriatingly, infinitely calm.
"No," Nami laughs bitterly. "No, it was hers." She gestures towards the pale girl to Grimnir's right, sitting with her head bowed. "Sanji-kun couldn't say no to her."
"Because he's a perverted idiot," Zoro adds helpfully.
Nami is quick to agree. "Because he's a perverted idiot."
"Regardless, the boy has agreed to stay with us."
"But Sanji wouldn't." Chopper taps his front hooves together, looks up at Luffy and hesitantly back at Grimnir. "He wouldn't leave us!"
Usopp's hands are clenching and unclenching in his lap, and his palms feel clammy and his head light, but he rises to join Chopper's protests. "You don't understand, old man. We haven't sailed the entire Grand Line yet. We haven't found the One Piece. We haven't found All Blue. There's no way he's giving up the pirate life before we find All Blue!"
"All Blue?" Grimnir raises an eyebrow, but otherwise his expression remains unchanged. "The ocean? Such a thing does not exist."
"It does!" Chopper and Usopp cry out in unison, indignant, offended.
Franky makes an annoyed tch sound. "Back off the kids, grandpa. You let us young'uns look after our own, all right?"
A polite cough and the soft thump of a book closing silence any further outbursts. Robin levels her gaze at Grimnir and says, "Might we ask what you hope to accomplish with our nakama?"
The girl snaps her head up to look at Robin, her eyes wide and blue. She glances at Grimnir before she speaks, her words clipped and excited, her speech halting. "The prince," she says, absently running her hands through her long hair.
"Lady, if it's a prince you're looking for, then you've definitely got the wrong guy. Just look at his stupid eyebrows, they're—"
"Zoro, shut up!" Nami slams his head into the table and holds it there. "I'm sorry, but he's right. If it's some sort of prince charming you want, you're really better off with someone else."
"It's not him I want," the girl says with simple, careless honesty. "But I need him anyway."
Robin's face is carefully and dangerously blank. "And what exactly is it you need from him?"
The girl smiles, bright and inviting, more alive than she'd been even at last night's banquet. "We have been waiting for so long, for one with his blood, and he is here at last."
"Sanji does have a rare blood type, but… why would you…" Chopper jaw drops as he comes to a conclusion. "You want Sanji's blood?! Are you—vampires!" He and Usopp clutch at each other in terror, as Usopp screeches, "Extremely picky vampires!" Chopper thrusts a cross in front of them in warding.
"No," she says unfazed by their display. "The right blood means the right bones, and it is his bones we need. And he said yes. He promised. He gave his word."
"You mean bones like me!" Brook chirps from where he's standing against the wall. "If it's bones you need—"
"No," the girl says again, and Brook entire frame sags.
Frowning, Robin speaks up again. "I've read something like this, in the libraries of North Blue."
"Yes," the girl breathes, leaning forward. "North Blue, our ancestral home. Hundreds of years ago, our ships sailing the World Current. A terrible storm, dark and cold. And then this place. This place we call Walhal." She leans forward eagerly. "Lord Grimnir is old. Ask him our history. Our ancestors from the top of the world. He will tell you. He remembers."
But Robin doesn't need to ask. "I know the name Walhal," she says. "It is still heard in North Blue today, rare though it is, whispered by old crones in mourning, part of an ancient invocation to soothe and guide the dead. The tradition survives, though the original meaning's been lost over the years. Not many alive in North Blue still know the old tales."
But it's her job to know everything, and she is familiar with the name. And Robin realizes suddenly, here, the old faith must still burn amid the bitter cold and grey winds, the people cloaking themselves in furs as well as religion. Perhaps what's considered mythology elsewhere is real here, and perhaps it's the truest history they have, cut off from their roots.
"And I know the story of the bones," she goes on. "As the entire world grieves, a loved one rises in the bones of another, taking on new life. Is that the one?"
"Yes." The girl nods empathically, alight and ecstatic. "And Sanji said yes."
"That's crazy!" Usopp cries out, but after his echoes die away, a blanket of silence settles over the room, heavy and grave. Their eyes cannot help but be drawn to the seat that is conspicuously empty. Outside, the wind is howling.
"Hey, Robin," Luffy speaks at last, straw hat pulled low over his eyes. "You have to explain to me. Is there going to be trouble?"
Robin looks around at the faces of her nakama, drawn and worried and confused. She looks at Grimnir, who meets her gaze, steady and unflinching. She looks at Luffy, whose mouth is a thin, somber line. The sun is already low on the mountains and the shadows are long and dark.
"Yes," she says, sadly. "I'm afraid so, Luffy."
Luffy stands and leaves without another word.
He's already taken care of the provisions. The islanders brought him everything he needed, and then some. Cartloads of fresh and preserved food, medical supplies from a list he found in Chopper's office, small necessities like thread and spare buttons and soap. He made sure everything was there, double and triple-checked and then checked again. That was the easy part. Now he sits at his seat at the dining table amid all the empty chairs. Outside, the waves are gentle against Sunny's hull.
He writes out an inventory, a list of what's in their stores, of all the kitchenware and special utensils, which drawers and cabinets they're in, what to use them for and how. He scribbles little diagrams and pictures as annotations. He details specific instructions for taking care of the knives, how to properly lock the refrigerator and set the anti-Luffy traps. He writes warnings and tips and suggestions and simple recipes pulled from memory. He starts many sentences with do not and he double-underlines the words be careful, with the word idiots fitfully crossed out. He does not once write goodbye in the margins.
When he's finished, he puts down the quill and turns around. He is not surprised to see Luffy standing next to his pack by the door, arms crossed over his chest. He is surprised that Luffy does not look angry. It's time now, and there's no use dragging it out. It's too quiet, but maybe this is how to say goodbye.
He stands and almost winces at the scrape of the chair legs against the floor, jarring in the tense, choking silence. He walks over to the door, to Luffy, with soft, measured steps, and when he bends to pick up his pack, his head almost brushes Luffy's shoulder, a muffled trill of heartbeats in his chest, but Luffy does not move, and Sanji does not look at him. They stand side-by-side, profiles overlapping, a rest stretched too long.
Something about Luffy's silhouette throws him off, and he's afraid he's lost his nerve. He finds he's afraid of a lot of things. He wants to turn his head and ask, could you wait, Luffy, even though I might not come back, could you wait anyway, could you stay, do you understand why I have to go? He's afraid Luffy will say no.
He can't ask it, won't let himself ask it, knows he has no right to. Instead, he forces himself to walk, back snapped straight and footsteps deliberate and resolute. A crescendo building up inside him with these last few steps, quickening in tempo until it is a whirlwind frenzy, and he thinks it might kill him to hold it in, to say absolutely nothing, to leave, to leave just like this—but then the door clicks shut behind him, and his mind goes blank again, and he can breathe again.
Snow is falling in lazy swirls. He exhales, flexes his fingers, the weight of his pack digging into his shoulders. He's brought everything he meant to. He's ready.
The night is cold and the walk is a long one. It is only after he is far enough away that the lights of the ship begin to blur that he allows himself to look back, just once, blinking hard.
He remembers Zoro had once asked, So you burn them at sea and sail on? That's a bit heartless, isn't it, cook?
Zoro was always the one to bring out the worst in him, and the demonic best, but that day on the sun-washed deck, Sanji had understood that it was not a challenge. No, he had answered. It's a mercy. Zoro had turned his face away from the sun to listen, and Sanji continued, You put your dead in a box, bury them underground to rot with the maggots and worms. You leave them there alone in the dark. Isn't that heartless? There was no hostility in his tone and Zoro had only shrugged and answered, in his minimal way, They're not afraid of the dark. They're dead.
You don't believe just that. Sanji knew he didn't. None of them did; they all had ghosts to talk to in the night. So why would you trap them on land? he had asked Zoro in turn. Why would you do that? Why would they want that? There's nowhere for them to go.
They can go anywhere they want, Zoro had said, but Sanji didn't and couldn't believe him. Even the largest island is too small after the sea. Land is a prison, and Sanji knows that the earth only waits for you to die. None of us will have a grave on land, he had declared, jabbing a finger at Zoro's chest, a challenge and a demand fused into one. You better fucking promise me that, he had growled and Zoro only closed his eyes and nodded. Sanji had been grateful, though he didn't say it.
There were other things Sanji hadn't said. What Sanji hadn't told Zoro, and what Sanji had never told anyone, was how he had once been nine years old and more terrified of being alone than of death.
How he had dug and dug and dug, how it had taken him almost a week to make it deep enough, wide enough, because he was small and weak and starved, and he had said to Zeff, I am making you a bed, I am making you a bed to lie in, and he knew what he was doing was unspeakable, he knew that sailors and pirates deserved the sea and not some forsaken insular rock, but he was nine years old and terrified and he couldn't let Zeff go. Stay with me, old man, he had begged through angry tears, fingernails bloody and cracked and filthy.
Even if you die, you have to stay here with me, he had sobbed, mad with hunger and grief and a shame he was not too young to know.
Much, much later, when the ground beneath him was no longer so horrifyingly concrete, when his fingernails had healed and his stomach was full and he again rocked with the motions of a ship, he had sworn, I won't do it again. Guilt and regret and loss coloring his dreams, and in his attempts to stave off the nightmares, he had bargained and pleaded and cried for his soul, Never again. I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I was selfish.
I'm sorry. I know better now. I will never be selfish again.
Watch, just watch, see how much I can give. I'll prove it.
I will never be selfish again.
Here he is.
She strips him to the waist and draws strange runes that he cannot read or understand on his skin in deep blue ink, colored to match his irises. Runes curling indolently up his arms, marching down the column of his vertebrae, fanning out on his chest like wings over his ribs. Invitations to his bones written on his skin so that spirits can find him in the night.
She takes his hands and dips his fingertips in the inkpot so that they come away capped in blue. She paints her lips with the brush, and she kisses his palms, the right and then the left, over the cut that had healed. "So he'll know your touch," she explains, "when you reach out to him."
"Right." His voice is raspy, and he is shivering, but even now as she is preparing to trade his soul away, he is almost giddy with adoration, loves her unconditionally, absolutely. They were right about him, he realizes dimly, he must be sick, he must have some seriously fucked up brain chemistry, but he wouldn't have it any other way. There is joy in this too, twisted though it is.
She catches him grinning at her and the corners of her mouth turn down in perplexed concern. "Are you always like this?" she asks, disbelieving.
This takes him by surprise, and for a moment stretched long and thin, he does not know what to say, even though—there is so much to say, so much he could say, should say, and does not know he wants to say. Right now, for instance, he could say that he is shaking with excitement, not cold, and he could say that the tremble in his hands is from being so close to such a beautiful woman, and he could say, yes, always, this body is yours to use as you desire, and he should profess his love again, and again, and he should say, I am not sad at all.
He says, he admits, quietly, like he doesn't understand himself, "It gets me into trouble often."
And then it's her turn to smile, softly, lips blue like his fingertips. In the half-light, she is stunning, but when she glides the brush in a decisive stroke over his eyelid and down his cheek, he is glad for the excuse to keep his eyes closed, for at least a little while.
He doesn't know how anything can rise out of a cold as deep as this.
He doesn't know, but he believes it. It's better that he does. That way, it's like he's going towards something, or waiting for someone who will come, instead of wandering lost, or forgotten. He knows that feeling too.
"Now wait," she says to him, a phantom in the dark of the clearing. "He will come to you, and he will rise in you."
He smiles at her, because what else can he do, now. "That's the longest sentence you've spoken to me yet."
"Wait," she says again, and says nothing else. She leaves him.
He knows better than anyone how to wait, and wait, and wait, and how to keep time with a single-mindedness that is refuge against a hopeless reality, narrowing his entire existence down to the indifferent, impersonal passage of seconds and minutes and heartbeats.
He presses his blue fingertips to the pulse in his wrist, finds it with practiced ease. He's done this before.
He waits, eyes fixed on the horizon, the jagged line of mountaintops, and he counts the beats, keeps the time.
In the galley, Brook says, suddenly, "I think we should check the cupboard."
"What cupboard?" Nami asks, quietly.
"The one where he keeps the spices. That one above the counter, next to the stove."
Brook stands and Chopper hops off his seat to follow him. "Did Sanji leave us something, Brook?" Chopper whispers, voice hoarse from crying, and strange-sounding on account of his stuffed nose.
Brook bends to pick Chopper up and set him gently on the counter. "We'll see, Chopper-san," he says, and opens the cupboard door.
He starts removing the contents—racks of spices, canisters of coffee beans and tea leaves, containers of dried herbs labeled with a cramped but precise hand. He hands them to Chopper, who takes them and sets them neatly down on the counter, one by one until the counter is full and the cupboard completely empty. By then, the rest of the crew had gathered around, save for Luffy, who sits at his seat at the table, watching silently, and Zoro, who's looking out the porthole.
"There's nothing else in there," Franky sulks, disappointed, hair deflating.
But Robin puts a hand on his arm and says, "Wait."
Brook reaches a skeletal hand into the cupboard and raps his knuckles once against the far end.
The crew leans forward collectively, holding their breath, as Brook knocks again. Usopp's eyes widen and he exclaims, "It's hollow! It's hollow!"
Franky snaps his fingers, his hair curling upwards, as if remembering something. "Right! He had me put it in—" He hastens forward, feeling around the corners with deft fingers until he finds the tiny gap where the back and left side meet. He removes the back of the cupboard then, easily, and there in the hollowed-out space in the wall are three packs of cigarettes, unopened, neatly bound together by a length of twine.
"His cigarettes," says Usopp, unnecessarily, reaching past Franky to take them out. He traces the King Ground logo clearly visible on the front of the first pack, furrows his brow in silent thought.
"For emergencies," Robin says, slowly. "In case regular supplies run out."
"That's just like him," Nami scoffs, but she sounds close to tears.
"I walked in when he was putting them away," Brook explains. "It was back when I first joined. He said you had to be prepared. You could spend a long time stranded in one place. I said, I know, Sanji-san. I know that very well. And then he made me tea. Earl Gray, splash of milk, two sugar cubes, just how I take it!"
They are quiet for a bit after Brook's customary "yohohoho!" But then Chopper asks, "Did he forget them when he—when he—"
"No," Zoro says decisively, still standing apart from the group. "That guy never forgets stuff like this."
"No," Luffy agrees, and the crew turns around to face him, surprised to see him looking so casual, leaning back in his chair. "Never. Sanji knowseverything. It makes stealing meat so much harder, because he always finds out."
Chopper hiccups. "But then…"
Zoro yawns and stretches his arms above his head, nonchalant. "Tch, bastard better not take too long."
he used to be nine years old, you know, though to look at him now you couldn't imagine him so small (but nine doesn't mean a goddamned thing, nine is not too young to understand, to find ways to tie yourself up in guilt and in gratitude, easy as when you learned to tie your shoelaces, double-knot them for finality) and
now nineteen is not too young (to die for it, not when the past ten years were borrowed time granted to you at so staggering a price, and how could you repay a debt like that, what could you offer but everything and everything, your blood, your bones, your life, take it, it's not so grand as a dream, but it's something, isn't it),
so he'll give everything, lungs and heart and eyes, make them worth something, prove to me that they can, that I can, that I can, that I
He turns to see Usopp standing at the perimeter of the ring, looking uncomfortable and jumpy and half-frozen. Usopp is waiting for him to say something, and when he doesn't, Usopp laughs a nervous laugh, pleads, "Hey, come on, you're not already—you're still Sanji, right?"
"Still me," he answers in a fit of magnanimity. "What do you want?"
Usopp gulps, his eyes darting from shadow to shadow, survival instinct bolstered by creeping unease. "I, the fearless and ever-gallant Usopp, came all the way here to bring you back! Are you coming back? No, I mean, when are you coming back? You look so creepy with all that paint right now, and I wasn't sure if—how long you were going to stay. Because you're not actually going through with it, right? I mean, you can't just suddenly become another person, that's just weird, and all sorts of impossible, and… well, you're not going to, right? You're coming back. Of course you are, because…"
He is silent, and Usopp trails off. "You look really different," Usopp picks up again, means that you hardly look like Sanji anymore, more ghost than alive, ash instead of tall flame. "S-Sanji-kun?" Usopp tries again, can't stop trying despite the terror Sanji knows is crawling underneath his skin. "Come on. Please answer me."
He doesn't, and Usopp bumbles over his own words in his urgent sincerity. "Sanji, Sanji, you don't have to do this."
And there it is, a spark like the flash of something rising from the embers, and Sanji knows it's childish, but he jeers, "Yeah I do."
"Just piss off, Longnose."
But Usopp won't, this kid, un-fucking-believable—Usopp stands tall and he stands fast, draws himself up to full height at Sanji's words. He still looks wild-eyed and terrified, but he isn't running, not yet, and Sanji can't help but smile at that, even in a situation like this, he thinks, how sweet, this one.
"H-Hey," says Usopp, whose knees are knocking together comically, whose voice is half an octave higher than normal, whose face is tight with fear and cold.
"Hey," says Usopp, louder this time, Usopp, whose painfully palpitating heart is fearless, fearless, fearless, Sanji knows. "Are you calling me a liar?"
And Sanji has to laugh, black and humorless, and he doesn't miss how Usopp flinches at the sound. All this honest, honest courage, bleeding heart on his sleeve, poor kid, doesn't he know how mean Sanji can be, how bitter, how tired.
"Don't act like you understand," Sanji hears himself say, and when Usopp opens his mouth to protest, Sanji cuts him off, abrupt and deliriously vicious. "You don't. You don't know and you'll never know. It's different. We're different. Don't even try to compare us."
He's mean, and it's easier this way. He sees Usopp's jaws snap shut, hurt and shocked betrayal, and he regrets nothing, and he wants to scream. He's not above this, not in control of anything at all, when was he ever, and watching Usopp's face, Sanji knows that he's the absolute worst fucking person in the world.
And right now, all he can think is that Zoro would never stoop so fucking low, and he's thinking of Zoro now of all people, and that just makes him angrier, makes him feel sicker and sadder, but who's he kidding, he's never been worth what Zoro's worth, has he? Who was left standing at Thriller Bark, bleeding his life out for Luffy and for the crew? It wasn't him, and that burns, though not in the way he expects—it's not shame but rather a smoldering disappointment at a lost opportunity to prove that he can, he can too, for everyone, he could, if only you'd let him, give him the chance to show you—
And here is Usopp.
Usopp left once too, but when Usopp left, it was to stay behind with a nakama. Usopp, whose heart had broken and who couldn't abandon Merry, Merry who had carried them so far and for so long—Usopp was so certain, and he had conviction, and he had been brave. Where it mattered most, Usopp had been brave, because Usopp knew the weight and meaning of his own actions, and exactly where he stood.
But Sanji doesn't, Sanji who's here now because he doesn't know, and so desperately needs to know if—if he gave everything—would he be as brave as Usopp, could he give as much as Zoro, could he—
No. Cut him down to my level, he thinks, feverish and hot. Make him hurt and hurt and hurt because I can, because it's easy.
But instead, he spits, "You know, you never needed that mask. We wanted you with us just as you were," and he can't keep the bitter resentment out of his voice, envy snaking in his guts, and he wants to cry so sincerely. "You're more than good enough, shithead, just by existing. Don't you see?" He takes a step closer, teeth bared, livid. "Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, not even yourself, all right, Usopp? You're amazing. Do you know that?"
Usopp breathes in deep, breathes out slow. "And you?" Usopp looks like he is two seconds away from bursting into tears, but he somehow manages to keep his voice even and unbroken. "What about you?"
The anger in him is slowly churning to become something heavier, darker, and much more dangerous. He's tired, suddenly, and he doesn't want to be here right now, doesn't want to be reminded of the price at which his life was bought, of how he has to start all over in the negatives, how he needs to be good enough to replace everything he's taken, how impossible that is, how he has to keep trying.
"What about me," he says.
And Usopp whispers his name again, "Sanji."
He asks, "Why'd he do it? I'll never understand." The world starting to tip, everything sliding, sliding. The resentment and envy melting away to leave leaden melancholy inside. "What else can I do?"
He sounds small, and just like that, Usopp is striding forward into the ring, no trace of hesitation left, and there is venom on his tongue. "He did it because he wanted to!" he shouts, shaking Sanji by his bare shoulders. "Because he saw something in you that was worth saving! He chose to sacrifice his dream so that you could live because your life means something—everyone's life does, even a coward's and liar's, and definitelyyours. And you know what?"
Usopp grits his teeth and punches him hard, recklessly, puts everything behind it, and Sanji's head snaps to the side. Usopp is screaming at him, "He made the right choice! So what do you do? You just live your life, and you find All Blue, and be happy, like he wants for you, like we all want for you! And that's it!"
Trickle-down silence, Usopp's fist clenched at his side, his other hand covering his mouth to stifle the harsh sound of his breathing.
"You are worth even All Blue," Usopp says fiercely when Sanji says nothing. "You are. You don't have to keep trying to prove it. You don't owe anyone anything."
And Sanji turns away, jaw throbbing, heart aching. "Get the fuck out of here, Usopp," he says, soft.
how else but this?
I will never be selfish again.
She's back. She's back after what must have been a lifetime, long and cold, and he is so glad for the company again that he almost crumples into himself.
"Sanji." Her white hands are half-hidden by her sleeves, and she blinks at him in the weak and flickering lantern light. "I ran into your friend on the way here. The one with the long nose. He was—upset. I had not thought…" She frowns at him, and he blinks at her. "Sanji," she says again. "There isn't any other way."
The way she says it is more of a plea than a statement. He understands. His voice, when he answers her, is gravel-rough. "You know, there are these stories from East Blue," he says, and he breathes in expecting the comforting spike of nicotine in his blood, but instead there is only iced-over oxygen, and he coughs violently. "An old woman once told me," he starts again, through teeth clenched tight to keep from chattering, "a story about her little brother. How, when he was very young, he used to be very sick."
"And?" He hears so much desperation in the drop of that one word that he can't help but feel as if his heart will tumble out of his chest to bleed and beat next to hers.
"And so they changed his name so that the angel of death could not find him and take him away in the night. He got better afterwards."
He has only these stories, small faraway miracles, to offer her in way of comfort, and he already knows that it's not what she's looking for. The look on her face has not changed from one of resolute regret, and he gives her a smile that he hopes is reassuring.
He tries again, though he knows his words to her are as empty as his hands. "I once met a man from the far corner of East Blue whose name was Stone." His grin is a veneer smoothed thin over the hard, weary line of his jaw. "Fucking terrible name, I thought. But do you know why he was named that?"
"No," she whispers, and the only way he can be sure that she had spoken at all is the gentle exhalation of her breath visible in the night air.
"So that greedy spirits wouldn't snatch him up. He said that picking up a kid named Stone would be like picking up any old rock from the side of the road. Apparently, spirits would rather go after kids with shinier names like Ruby or Pearl, or whatever, so his parents gave him the most common name they could think of." Here, he tries to laugh, but his lungs are too stiff and already it is difficult to breathe. "Get it?" he rasps, a last-ditch attempt that catches in his throat and inexplicably makes him want to sob. He fights it down bravely and says, "I think maybe Dirt might have been even more effective, though. Dirt would have fit him well."
"You know those are not our customs, Sanji," she responds, slowly, and a little bit sad. "Our people do not believe stories like that."
You mean your people, he feels the need to point out, and they may not just be stories, like you believe your stories aren't just stories, like All Blue is not just a story,, but it doesn't matter. The ring of stones casts dark shadows, and the prince has already been dead for centuries, and his name has always been the same.
She hesitates, but then she moves forward, into the ring, until she is sitting on the cold ground in front of him, her legs neatly folded beneath her. The lantern she carries almost blinds him.
"Our story is an old one. Do you want to hear it?"
"Yes," he coughs, and he does.
She takes a moment to think before asking, "How old is the oldest person you know?"
He thinks immediately of Chopper's guardian back on Drum, and he tries unsuccessfully to suppress a shudder. "I don't know, hundred thirty, give or take a few decades, maybe?"
"Decades—that means ten years in the common tongue, yes?"
"Lord Grimnir is older," she says. "Much older."
"How much is much?"
"He is almost five hundred years old."
If he could right now, he would whistle, impressed. As it were, he can only nod.
She seems more relaxed than he had ever seen her. "The original settlers, my ancestors, were from a small kingdom in North Blue. Lord Grimnir was king there, before he came here on a ship, one of many, more than four hundred years ago. He came with the prince, but the prince was already dead, even then. It seems—it seems like he has only ever been dead, does it not? We never hear about his life. But he must have been alive, once. I think, perhaps, it is still too painful for Lord Grimnir to speak of it." She looks at him expectantly, and he can only nod again.
She continues. "There is another custom we have, another funeral rite. You know it, maybe. Where you place the dead on a ship, and you burn it."
He remembers Merry, bright flames and an ache in his chest, and he says, "Yes."
"They could not do it. They put the prince on a ship, and then they sailed out to sea with him, Lord Grimnir and a host of his men and women, on more ships than the prince had years. They wanted to go with him, follow him through death. And they wanted to bring him back.
"They had heard from a neighboring kingdom of a legendary city of gold. And that in that city was an ancient stone with words engraved upon it. Powerful words that might have the power to bring back the dead. They believed that. So they left to search for it, and the queen and their people bid them farewell from their shores. But they could not find it. They searched and searched, all those men and women on those ships with the prince, all those centuries ago, but they could not find the city of gold or that ancient stone. Do you think it ever existed?"
"I couldn't know," he lies through his teeth, feeling like he needs to. She doesn't have to know how they've sailed through the sky, met god in that city of gold and found even him lacking. She doesn't have to know what was really engraved on the Poneglyph in the golden belfry of Shandora—something remarkable, yes, but not what she is looking for, not what she wants to believe. So he says, "It's possible. Maybe it's out there."
"Maybe," she repeats, pondering. "But the World Current swept them on, through a terrible storm. They landed here, after many, many days. On this island. They called it Walhal. Do you know the name? It's an old word in our religion. It is the name of the place where heroes go after death. It was fitting. They thought they might find him here."
She shifts, staring unblinkingly into the lantern, pupils constricted to pinpricks, the blue of her eyes expansive. "But they did not, and the prince, after so long, his body… still, they could not let him go. They could not bear to let him go, so they brought him onto land, on his ship. Through the forests, all the way here, where we are now. And then they dug and dug and buried him, in his ship. To keep him close to them. Do you understand?"
He does, so completely that it scares him. He swallows thickly, casts his eyes down. She doesn't notice.
"There is another story from home, a prophecy almost, as old as the name Walhal. If you mourn for someone, if you mourn for someone wholly and sincerely, and if everyone mourns, cries his name, then he will come back to you. We have mourned him for more than four hundred years. It has become a purpose we inherit when we are born, it is the reason we are here. We have taken care to preserve everything the way he knows it. We have kept our language, his language, so that we can speak to him when he returns, so he will know how much we missed him, how beloved he still is. And when he returns, he will need new bones to replace the ones that have rotted away. Yours, Sanji."
She is quiet now, eyes watching him intently. He has nothing to say, and she stands and steps back, turning her head to hide her face behind the sleek curtain of her hair. "It's a little desperate, is it not?" she admits. "It is all we have left. It is all we have known, here on our island. We have to believe it. Do you?"
"I understand," he says truthfully, breaths shallow and voice cracking traitorously, traitorously. "I'll believe in anything. You should too. It's easier that way."
She leaves him again.
He brings his fingertips to the pulse in his wrist.
There are other stories too, all of them extraordinary. He collects them like other people collect truths about themselves; he remembers every one he's ever heard, folds them into his core.
In a village named for the moon, there are flowers and birdsong for a beloved daughter, a cherished rival, and here, a snow-white sword is imbued with the spirit of a dead girl who crosses over on the bridge of a promise, on the shoulders of a man who will carry her to the top of the world.
In two sleepy little hamlets with names as sweet as their children are two graves for two mothers, and before both of them there is a child saying goodbye, I am going now, I am trying to be brave, I am happier than I've been in years, is that strange, to find courage again, to be happy again even after you've gone, will you forgive me, will you watch over me still? I'm leaving to travel with monsters, with the best friends I'll ever know, with a boy who will be king. You'll be proud of me, I know.
On an island of winter and ice so much like this one, there stands an empty castle and hoisted flag, skull and crossbones so proud, a banner for all the outcasts who ever dreamt of cherry blossoms in the snow. A castle for your memory, for you to haunt, Doctor, so come in from the cold.
And scorched earth where once there grew a tree that held all the knowledge in the world, a home destroyed by a justice that calls itself absolute, and the lone survivor a child who was never allowed to be one, who had to learn how to laugh, and who will keep alive all of history's secrets. But you too are promised your place one day, with people who love you as desperately as you love them. You deserve it.
From a city of canals, a train rides the waves, tracks laid on the water because that's what one does, isn't it, conquer the impossible, show the world it can be done, with a don! And when that train carries away the most important person in the world to you to die on a foreign shore, far away, you'll lose a father and your name, but you'll understand, one day, what he believed you could do, the potential like oil on water, aflame.
And amid banished fears and shadows stolen and found, a crew is finally laid to rest after decades lost at sea, buried in the soil of your native West Blue so that you can be at peace, with home so close to your bones, the strains of a familiar song sending you off, and don't worry, you can trust me to keep that promise we made so long ago, he won't have waited in vain.
And there's more. There is a princess ready to give her life for her country, her kingdom of dry earth and sand and her people who refuse to bow to anyone but her, not to thirst or desert storms or an invading evil seeking only war. And in the sky above the clouds, under the yoke of a false god and his minions, what's sacred is not the sun or the blue sea, but handfuls of smuggled earth, green life.
Maybe it's not so bad, becoming a part of all that, letting earth inside him, deep under his skin. Maybe he needs that. Maybe he can make this story his, his own tale of land to anchor a piece of his soul that has been afloat at sea for so long. Maybe it'll be okay. Maybe they'll carry him with them too.
He understands these stories, breathes their significance, holds them close to his own heart, but he's still terrified. In the end, they do not come from him, they are not his, and he doesn't belong here. He doesn't belong here. Where will he go, afterwards? Will he have to wait again, what's left of him after he relinquishes his bones, watching the horizon, fingertips to a pulse he won't even have anymore, battling a hunger that is soul-deep.
He doesn't belong here. Everything is too heavy and too still.
"You're not supposed to cry, Franky."
"I'm not crying! Even though it's super sad. Have you no hearts?! Ow, are all of you made of stone?!"
"Ah, just let him cry."
"I said I'm not—sniff—I'm not crying!"
"Jeez, what part of 'refusing to mourn' and 'overthrowing the prophecy' did you not understand?"
"Y-Yeah! We have to be strong! Stoic! Like men! For Sanji! We can't let this happen!"
"What's sadder, losing a nakama or a dead guy staying dead?"
"Sit down, Franky. Have some cola."
"You're welcome. Don't be sad anymore, okay?"
His breath is coming in short, convulsive gasps, frantic puffs of white mist in the air, but he feels incongruously calm, serene; he's delirious, he realizes that, but he also knows what he has to do, and he's suddenly more certain of it than of his own flickering existence.
The stones are taller than he is, and much, much older, like ice beneath his hands; it doesn't make him feel sick to touch them anymore, to feel death and earth so close, and a ringing loneliness. Perhaps he is too numb. In the center of the ring, he kneels, presses his hands to the cold, hard soil, and he ignores how his lungs spasm with each stuttering inhale-exhale.
Tries to focus, tries to reach. Blue-inked fingertips digging into the frozen ground, a familiar touch embedded in his palm. Underneath him, he knows there is another pair of hands reaching up, stripped of flesh and skin, brittle bone, he can almost see them now, their palms placed parallel. They are not a child's hands this time, they are bigger, like his own now—and a pale, gaunt face, there, in the earthen darkness below, impossible but there all the same. He forgets his horror, the deep and personal revulsion that had been so strong before. Now he believes only in the symmetry of their bodies, the line of convergence between them, taste of old faith bitter on his tongue.
"Come," he whispers, curving his spine, bowing until his forehead brushes the earth. The runes on his skin seem to glow, even though the moon in the sky is new. Here is her touch, and here are my bones, come claim them for your own. "Our lady is waiting."
It's an old, wooden longship, with a figurehead of a serpentine sea monster, open mouth showing a wicked, forked tongue. It's intricately carved and very fearsome indeed, but he finds he still prefers Sunny's pseudo-lion's mane and snout. The longship is nestled in the roots of a tree so massive that he cannot see the sky past the umbrella of its branches. There is the faint sound of running water, the whisper of leaves far above. It's bright here, but beyond the sphere occupied by the tree is a formless, shifting blackness.
But there sitting in the longship with him, amid roots so large they might as well be the bodies of seakings, is the prince, who is smiling at him. He looks young. They both do. On his face and hands, and peeking out from under his high collar, are the same runes that are painted are Sanji's skin.
you shouldn't be here
"Well, actually I'm here to bring you back. You know that."
you don't have to
"But she'll be sad if I don't. And I'd hate to make a lady sad."
your friends will be sad if you do
He doesn't have an answer for that, so instead he says, "You know, I thought we'd look more alike, but we really don't."
no that eyebrow of yours is truly and thankfully unique to you
"Oho. For a dead guy, you have quite the sense of humor."
I'm not dead
"Sure," he says, like that made any sense at all. "But look. Here's a body for you, see. It's not the one you're used to, but it'll do, right? Everything's in working order, last time I checked. Blood type matches. That's important, I hear. You can have it. You can be alive again, or not not-dead, whatever, if you come with me."
Exasperation. "Come on. Why not?"
I don't want that and neither do you
"Let me get this straight. I'm giving you the chance to be alive again, to live and dream and go to sea and chase girls and eat amazing food and do all the things that living folks do, things you never got to do, and you're saying no?"
I am saying no
"Okay. Okay, but—why not?"
what will happen to you and to your friends who want you back
"That's—not the issue here." He runs a hand through his hair. "This is a promise. I promised. You're supposed to keep your promises. Always."
and you promised never to be selfish again
He presses his lips into a grim line. "Yes."
I lived a long long time ago and now I don't anymore and that is not going to change
"But can it change? Can I bring you back?"
but I'm not dead
"All right, so what are you?"
myth I suppose
yes or something like it
but listen sanji
a hand to his hand, palms placed parallel, gentle pressure but no yield
you are not me
and that's all right
you don't have to be anyone but yourself
you'll believe in anything
so will you believe that
He hesitates, looks down at himself and finds that he is already fading, alarmingly fast. He expects the runes to be glowing, especially in this light, with skin against skin, but they are only dull ink, almost black. Something's gone wrong. This isn't how things are supposed to go. "But they miss you," he tries.
I haven't left them
"Can you leave, if you want to?" he asks quickly, urgently.
when they forget me
"But do you want to leave? Are you happy now? Here? Are you trapped?"
you are kind to ask
"Are you?" he demands. "Being just here and nowhere else. Are you happy?"
it's a home
And if he tries, really tries, he thinks he might understand that, this concept of home, a place to rest your bones, a place you can come back to stay, immovable and constant and always yours. There is not much of him left anymore on this plane where he does not belong, amid the black roots of a giant ash tree, in a ship with no pirate's flag, and he feels wispy and grey and sad, but it's—"It's warm here, isn't it?"
a soft, distant smile, ghost-touch of fingertips, and a final
She had taken one look at him, his eyes, his open hand, and she had turned and left.
Everything is off-center. His mouth is empty and gasping, his lungs are empty, and his heart, he cannot even begin to understand, the weight of it in his chest, how he could possibly bear this inside of him, carry it for the rest of his life, this heart that is ultimately his. He gets up and stumbles out of the ring of stones, imagines himself tripping over black roots that aren't there.
Alive, yes. Cold, yes. Alone. Yes.
It feels like an eternity before he can register his surroundings again. It's dark here, and dreary and cold. The tree at his back and the ground beneath him are solid in a way he cannot fathom. The crash of the sea is more imagined than real, but he can hear waves break against his eardrums, and it is loud, loud, loud.
In his pack, he knows there is a crumpled carton of cigarettes, the last of what he brought with him. He needs to smoke now, or else he will really, actually die; he will evaporate, let me become mist so that I can follow you where you go, please, please—
He inhales sharply through his teeth, again, again. He misses them, he misses them so much, and are they already gone? There is only a heavy feeling in his chest to take their place, and there is still blue ink underneath his fingernails. He claws blindly at his pack, edges of jagged panic and reckless, reckless grief radiating outward from his core to prickle at his limbs. He rummages desperately, burn of emotion in the corners of his eyes, come on, come on, please, there—
His fingers suddenly brush against something he would know even blind, though he had not and would not have dared expect it now.
It's rough and scratchy beneath his fingertips, and even without looking he could map out all its nicks and scars, patches where it had been mended with a gentle hand. He grasps it, pulls it out slowly, holds it in his hands, which are shaking. He holds, and he holds, and he does not look away. How can he. He brings it slowly and reverently to his bare, painted chest, squeezes his eyes shut so tight that lights burst like supernovas behind his eyelids. His whole world is suddenly small enough to fit in the cradle of his hands.
He starts to cry. He can't help it. He starts to cry, and he recognizes the weight in his chest as something else entirely.
The waves, they are louder.
He stands. He has a long way to go, but he'll make it there. He has to.
There's a noise behind her, the deliberate crunch of snow. She lifts the lantern in her hand and turns to see him standing alone, looking ridiculous in shorts and sandals and a puffy winter coat. There's something off about him, and it makes her afraid, but there's a reason why he's here, she knows, and there's still some fight left in her yet.
"Leave already," she hisses. "We will try again. He is not yours anymore."
"You're wrong," Luffy states, simple and wise as a child, voice calm but even the wind seems to quiet down in deference. "He's our nakama."
Her nails dig bloody crescents into her palms. She's not wearing nearly enough to be standing outside in the middle of the night, but she seems to burn in the cold. "So what?" she whispers fiercely. "What does that even mean, nakama? That is nothing. That's nothing, nothing, nothing. What's a pirate on some passing ship compare to the one who rests here in this sacred ground."
"You really don't get it." Luffy moves, and her narrowed eyes follow him, even as her body begins to tremble. "It means that he means more to us than some dead guy can ever mean to you."
A terrible desperation rises in her at those words; she does not and cannot understand. The ring of stones is at her back, empty. She starts to cry, tears that run hot and relentless down her cheeks. "How dare you. How could you know? You cannot know how much, how long—you do not understand, if we could just, if I could just—then everyone, anyone is expendable—it is our dream. It is our dream, and Sanji said yes. Do you know how much that means?"
"Of course I do." The way Luffy looks at her, arms crossed over his chest in solemn fury, makes her words stutter to a halt. She can only wait and waitandwaitandwait, until he says, "But Sanji's pretty dumb, you know."
She's shaking more visibly now, all high alert and bewildered, but he doesn't let her answer before he continues.
"Everyone says I'm stupid, and that's true, but I know when my nakama are being stupid too, and Sanji's stupid because he'll believe anything you say because you've got long hair or pretty eyes or whatever, but really he's wrong and you're wrong, and Sanji doesn't have to give himself up for you or for anyone. Just because it's your dream to have him become your dead boyfriend doesn't mean that he has to do it, especially if he doesn't want to, and especially if it makes him sad, because Sanji's got his own dreams too, you know, dreams that are definitely not second to yours, or to anyone's."
She can only stare, mouth open. He sighs in exasperation, as if he can't believe this is something he has to explain, but he goes on.
"But Sanji doesn't understand that because sometimes he's stupid and sometimes he still thinks he doesn't deserve this life he's living with us and that he has to make up for it by giving everyone everything he has, like Zeff did for him, and like he tried to pay back Zeff on the Baratie, but that's silly, don't you think? Sanji doesn't have to repay anyone any more than he already has. And don't you think Sanji deserves everything too? Don't you think Sanji should be able to follow his own dreams and not someone else's?
"Don't you think he should be able to do all the things that make him happy, like cooking and going on adventures and talking to girls and fighting Zoro and searching for All Blue and just living? Don't you think he should be able to laugh and smile without having to count the ways to pay for it? Don't you think Sanji deserves that?"
He pauses when she begins to sob into her hands, a small mercy, but after a moment, he blazes on, ruthless as any pirate for all his youth and innocence. "If you don't think so, then you're wrong and I won't forgive you. We won't mourn for your stupid prince. It means more to us to have Sanji alive and happy and himself than it means for you to have him cold and dead and someone else. If that's selfish, then fine. I'll be selfish for him."
"But he is one of us," she moans. "He should give his life for him, like he is supposed to. There is never going to be another, there is never going to be another," she sobs and she knows it to be true.
"No," says Luffy. And when Luffy says, "We're taking him back now. You're done," she knows that she has lost.
It's dawn and he's made it to the fringe of the woods, where the snow-covered ground slopes gently down to the water's edge. From here to the shore, it is wide, open space, bright with reflected sunshine; no trees, no cover, no man's land. Here in the shadow between mountains he feels safer, but Sunny is waiting offshore, white sails furled and silent. The sight of her makes him ache, and he can't bring himself to look away, lest she disappears the next time he blinks.
He's not a coward, but right now, he is scared shitless, shoulders hunched against the wind, hands fisted in his pockets for warmth. He is shivering, teeth clacking together, and he knows it's not just from the cold. He had painfully scrubbed the ink from his face and hands with fistfuls of snow, but still, he can't imagine how pathetic he must look: dark circles under his eyes, chapped lips, nose full of snot, and an expression on his face that's probably one of strung-out, full-throttle panic. Fuck, he's a regular prince charming on ice.
The snapping of twigs underfoot alerts him to Grimnir's presence behind him, and he curses himself for jumping at the sound, swallows his heart down from where it had leapt into his throat. The wind is mercifully cut off when Grimnir moves to stand next to him, but there is no time to be even grudgingly grateful, because Grimnir suddenly says, "My boy, you look like death."
He wants to snarl at him, huddled up against the rough bark of a tree trunk in a flimsy suit jacket, face turned away like a kid who just got shoved into the wall by a playground bully. He's hungry and exhausted and mad with insecurity. He doesn't even have another cigarette to suck on, so he keeps his head down, blinking hard and fast, and he feels Grimnir watching him. A familiar surge in his veins, a rushing in his ears; he knows exactly what's coming before it reaches critical.
It does reach critical, and he's amazed that his body still has the energy to wound itself up so tight, after everything he's been through these past few hours, days.
And there it is, unbidden, an image of himself that has dogged him relentlessly all these years, a picture-reflection of a boy defined by the sharpness of his cheekbones, the jutting singularity of each of his ribs, the mountain-ridge of his spine down his narrow back. A boy with hollow eyes and hollow cheeks and a hollow, hollow belly.
A boy of bones and bones, he remembers them so vividly, remembers the nightmare of his own small hands raised to his face in horrified wonder, and the impossible marvel of these ligaments holding together a skeletal frame hunched under the weight of a dream larger than a body could ever grow to bear. He is on his knees again on the barren ground, wretched earth, and there is an old, defeated voice asking, again, "How many are waiting just like us in this wide sea?" A voice that does not expect an answering call, the sad timbre of it reverberating in his young, trembling soul. Will he sound like that? Does he already, after all this time stranded? He can imagine a loneliness and hopelessness so deep that you would speak and expect nothing but silence in response, and the terror of it chokes him.
It is a fear that has incubated itself inside him all those years ago and it's still in his cells, in his marrow. This specter of self that has not been fully exorcised, lurking in the corners of his vision when he has been thinking for too long, has been staring at the water for too long, when the air is dead and the sun is scorching and the ship does not move an inch.
And today, in this land of ice, without his nakama, he is visited again. Today, Grimnir towers over him and says in a voice that could bury him, "My boy," and again, he feels so small and so cold and so very hungry, for food and for more than that.
And today, now, he has to remind himself to breathe, again, again, breathe so that you do not break, and don't forget, Sanji, don't forget where you are now, rescued from death, from your own toxic guilt, from loneliness. Do you remember the defiant hope that refused to die in the cruel cage of your ribs, how it thrashed so desperately between your lungs, how it fed you when there was nothing else. It is still there. Don't lose it; there will be nothing of you left if it dies.
And do you remember the ships, Sanji? Don't forget. The first laid to rest in pieces at the bottom of the ocean, the second sailed by in the rain and you wept with such honest despair, the third that seemed to come a lifetime too late to rescue you from the cruelty of your own body, the fourth that was worth more than your meager life, the fifth burning bright at sea—and the sixth you left behind, burying your dreams between wooden planks, love and farewell.
Don't forget the ships that carried you, and don't forget what you carry within yourself, this heaviness you know is hope, desperate and intense.
His cheeks have filled out, the proof is in the mirror every morning, and he has grown, look, he has grown so tall, his bones insulated by muscle, by fire, by ambition. His hands, when he raises them to his face, are bigger, stronger, quick and clever.
And the defiant, insidious hope he had to fight down after his rescue is still there, and it has diffused through the rest of him, this once stunted, repressed thing now allowed to stretch and to grow into something called confidence, to pull at the corners of his mouth, to accompany his every stride, and it fits him perfectly, like a finely tailored suit. He has finally learned to recognize hope for what it is, sitting heavy in his chest, something he tried so earnestly to ignore on the Baratie because it gave him something he felt he would never deserve. But now he knows better, and now he can accept it as strength because now he is free to answer yes. To his own prayers, he himself can answer yes.
Yes and yes and yes. Zoro was right that time (and is always right when it counts), when he had declared so brazenly that he did not need a god. Zoro was right, Sanji understands. Don't forget the ships, and don't forget yourself. It's his nakama he believes in now, and in himself, instead of in the stretch of a flatline horizon.
So to Grimnir, he finally says, "No," and he says, "You don't know anything," you don't know how far these bones have carried and must still carry me, and you know nothing of ships, you have been landed for so long that you have forgotten the greeting of sails on the horizon beyond your mountains. The sea is not your home, but it is mine, and I know now that I can always go home.
So, "Shut your mouth, old man," he says, pushing himself to stand on his own two feet. "I'm going now."
"Stubborn child," Grimnir grumbles, but he is smiling.
And Grimnir sees, this boy looks nothing like the son he once had, this boy who is rail-thin and sharp all over, but in his proud angles there is the same acute tenacity, and there is a vastness in his smile, in his stride, and in the sweep of his hands that is impossible to measure, impossible to express in any tongue.
His son was meant for tragedy, and since then he has stretched out his own years in order to find a way to reverse that, like he had set out from home to do, all those centuries ago. But he finds that he hasn't visited his grave in recent years, and when he wakes every morning, he wakes expecting the familiar burn of grief in his chest, but it's not there anymore, or it's not the same. It had scared him, that first morning, sitting in the patch of early sunlight coming in through the window, listening to the rare notes of birdsong in the air, when he realized that for the first time he felt something like acceptance.
He would bring him back if he could, of course. He would in half a heartbeat. What father wouldn't? But he has grown old waiting, and waiting, and since meeting this boy and his cohort of misfits, his crew of singers and dreamers and their feverish optimism, he realizes that perhaps the price is too steep, even for a prince, for how could his son rise again, with a burden like that on his bones.
His son was meant for tragedy, long ago, but perhaps it was meant to be that way. And perhaps this boy is different.
There's someone waiting for him at the docks, awash in the early morning light, and Sanji sees right away that it's Zoro because Zoro's head is the greenest thing for miles around. And it's good that it's Zoro, because while he's not the first Strawhat that Sanji would have liked to see, if it were anyone else waiting for him, he might have let his courage die and started running in the opposite direction. But he won't give Zoro the satisfaction of seeing him flee like a spooked cat. Never. With Zoro, he's always got bravado to spare. He has a feeling that Zoro knows this as well.
It feels like a lifetime before he is finally standing there on the swollen wood of the docks, looking down at Zoro who looks up at him like Sanji had only been gone on a shopping trip all this time.
"Took your sweet time, beanpole."
And Sanji can do nothing but throw his pack at Zoro's head and hop down next to him on the frozen water. He loses his footing and it's Zoro who catches him before he can fall face first on the ice. I must be tired, he thinks absently.
Then he registers Zoro's hand clasping his arm and his own hand clasping back, vise-like. They are standing two strides apart, arms locked between them like a bridge.
"What'd you call me?" he whispers hoarsely, belatedly, looking Zoro in the eye even though it almost hurts to do so.
"Beanpole." Zoro's grin is brazen and bold, no hesitation. "Problem?"
Sanji stays stock-still, realizes that he can't make himself release Zoro's arm, his grip tight and unyielding like rigor mortis, and what's more, what's baffling, is that Zoro is holding on as well, just as firm.
He clears his throat. "No one's called me that since I left the Baratie." Since I've grown, he means to say.
But Zoro reads his mind, in the way that Zoro always does in the midst of battle or in toppling silences such as these, and Zoro scoffs at him. "You're still a scrawny kid. Don't get ahead of yourself."
He considers this for a moment, considers the things that Zoro says with such characteristically calm disregard that Sanji can't help but take him seriously. He swallows, straightens his spine, does not break eye contact. He forces his tongue to work. "You too." He pauses, and he adds, for propriety's sake, "I can still kick your ass, Roronoa."
Zoro barks in laughter, and says, "Invest in some gloves first," which means welcome back, jackass, and Sanji appreciates that, and Sanji appreciates—more than he can ever admit in a hundred thousand years—the fact that Zoro only lets go of his arm after Sanji lets go of his.
They start to walk back to the Sunny, their footsteps careful lest they break the ice that is still healing from their seaside skirmish, which seems so long ago. And Zoro says casually, "Kept my promise, didn't I."
Sanji knows what he means and he grins so hard his face hurts. "Don't act as if you dug me up and carried me all the way back here, asshole."
Zoro shrugs and they walk over the water in grudgingly companionable silence, Zoro carrying Sanji's pack and Sanji letting him. "I had a promise to keep too," Sanji admits, kicking at a pebble and watching it skitter over the ice.
"Myself, I guess."
"You did well."
The Sunny is getting closer and she is much, much bigger than Sanji remembers. She towers over them, the smooth wood of her hull impossible to scale and unyielding. Sanji tries to remember how to breathe as they climb the rope ladder and make their way up to the achingly familiar deck. Zoro helps him over the railing, just this once.
"They're all waiting in the kitchen," Zoro tells him, and Sanji fills in the rest—for me, for me, for you to bring me back. He can't make himself move or speak.
Zoro must have seen all the color drain from his face, because he rolls his eyes and throws Sanji's pack back at him. He cups his hands around his mouth, then, and he shouts at the top of his lungs, "Oi! The stupid eyebrow is back!"
Sanji begins to sputter in protest, but the slant of Zoro's smile is benign, and he can only manage a shocked gasp before he is barreled over by a blur of limbs and antlers, voices screeching in his ear and calling him an idiot, an idiot, the stupidest idiot.
"I know," he says, laughing or crying, he's not quite sure. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I know."
And he does know, now.
"You didn't really believe in any of it, did you, Sanji-kun?"
"Nami-san," he laughs, putting up his hands, half-shrugging. "I'll believe in anything," and he will, in myths and stories and legends, in himself and his nakama, in All Blue, he has to.
But Nami is glaring at him. "I won't," she snaps, voice laced with white-hot ferocity, hands on her hips. "I don't. Not in anything that can tear this crew apart."
Not for the first time, and definitely not for the last, Sanji feels as if he could kiss her.
"Because nothing like that exists," she says, with an air of restrained hostility. "Not in this world or the next. Got it?"
And he has to agree, in the face of her intensity, her confidence, her conviction, he has to agree, and gladly. "Got it, Nami-san!"
"Oho, don't think you're getting off the hook that easily, Sanji-kun!"
"Nah, I just know how to make the most of things."
"All right, all right, what do you want."
"Hmm. I'm off dish-duty for a month. No, two months!"
"And you take my next five night watches."
"Anything else, o benevolent one?"
"You can never again force me to eat mushroom barley soup as a punishment."
"But it's good for y—"
"Actually, I want off dish-duty for three—"
"Do you want to die?"
"Ah—the noble and magnanimous Usopp forgives you from the bottom of his heart, Sanji-kun!"
"And… I did mean everything I said to you back there."
"You really are—"
"All right, all right! You're embarrassing me, fuck." He scowls. "You too, okay? Don't forget it."
Usopp grins at him. "I won't. Oh, and here." Usopp hands him three cartons of cigarettes, neatly bound by a length of twine. Sanji can recognize his own knot anywhere. He takes them and pretends to be engrossed in examining the King Ground logo, like he hasn't already memorized every detail of it when he was ten. Usopp slings an arm around his shoulders; the sudden weight almost makes his knees buckle. "Don't smoke them all at once now, you hear?"
He shoves Usopp off him and snaps, "Mind your own business, Longnose." But he grins back.
"You didn't catch a cold or anything, did you, Sanji?"
"No, I never get sick."
"That's because you're a monster!"
"Then that makes you the only doctor in the world who can take care of monsters."
"H-How dare you, you asshole! As if I want to hear such off-hand compliments from you! You bastard! I hate you! Wait, no, I don't, I missed you so much, Sanji! You idiot!"
"I hate you! No! Wait! I didn't—"
"I got it, I got it. I missed you, too."
"Eh?! Saying things like that doesn't make me happy at all!"
"Chopper, would you like some hot chocolate?"
"Don't try to buy my love, asshole! It won't work!"
"I wrote another ballad for you."
"You try and tell me my ballads are not unbelievably intense. After hearing such a super sad story about the dead dude, I had to channel all my emotional energies into composing this totally beautiful and heart-wrenching song about your chivalry and manly virtues—"
"—and now people all across the Grand Line will sing this song forever in your honor. I have immortalized you, curly-bro. You're welcome."
"That really wasn't necessary."
"So modest. Don't worry about it. Just close your eyes and let the music wash over you."
"… Later, okay? Just… later. But thanks."
"Sanji-san! I am simply tickled pink to have you back with us! Ah, even though my cheeks are far from rosy—yohohoho!"
"Thanks, Brook. Can always count on you for a laugh."
"Indeed! There is no shortage to my repertoire of skull jokes! Would you like to hear another?"
"I'm good. But can I ask you something? Do you know anything about a tree?"
"A tree, Sanji-san?"
"I don't know if I was just hallucinating, or if I was really there, wherever 'there' was, but I think—I think it was a place after life. Not death, exactly, just somewhere you go when you're not here anymore. And there was a tree. A huge one, and I mean huge, with thick black roots and branches that went up forever. It felt… it felt like it encompassed everything. Like All Blue would feel. I thought you might know something about it."
Brook is silent as he thinks. "I don't recall a tree like the one you describe, but even as a soul, my wanderings were always in this world. I can't say I remember much about dying or death, and I don't know anything about staying dead. I only remember it was bright for a moment, before my soul was called back to the living world."
"Yeah, it was bright there too. And warm."
"It sounds like a very pleasant place indeed!"
"I guess. Just being there made me think that All Blue must exist after all, there has to be an ocean out there to match this tree."
"There must be. You'll find it, Sanji-san."
"Yeah. Thanks, Brook."
"Welcome back, Sanji."
"Ah, Robin-chwan, to be able to return to your loving embrace is truly the greatest joy a man can ever know!"
"Haha, I'm glad you feel that way. And I hope we'll be able to talk in the future about the cognitive dissonance that can arise from one's personal history. I left West Blue when I was very young, and I know it can be confusing sometimes to have your roots in one place yet have your self shaped by another, or by a sea that is itself always changing. But in the end, you must remember that home is wherever you most want to be."
"Robin-chan, I fear I could never be as poetic as you."
Robin smiles. "You are. You would not be on this ship otherwise. And I am glad I found a home with all of you."
"You know you're always welcome here with me, Robin-chwan!"
"If you'd like, though, I'd be more than happy to teach you the lost histories of North Blue and even its language. One of the islanders was kind enough to give me several tomes from their library as a parting present."
"That—that would be really cool."
"We can start our lessons at your earliest convenience. Hm, it seems you have some blue ink on you."
"Eh? Oh, it's actually all over me. They're ritualistic runes. I guess they were supposed to help with the evocation, or transfer, or something."
"How fascinating. Will you let me have a closer look?"
"I—I—you want to—m-mellorine..."
"Sanji! What's with that nosebleed! Someone, get a doctor!"
"I believe that would be you."
"Ah! It's me!"
"Please do see to him."
"Y-Yes! Out of my way, I'm a doctor! Usopp, hold my hot chocolate!"
And to Luffy, who is the only one left on deck after the bone-crushing, head-knocking, sob-fest, nosebleed of a reunion, he can only say, "Hey."
Luffy takes his eyes off the horizon to look at him. In Sanji's outstretched hand is the battered straw hat of his messiah of a captain, an entity all its own, one that saved him and brought him back because he needed to come back. Luffy takes it and places it firmly back on his head, where it belongs, and seeing it feels like homecoming.
"Hey," the boy beams, brighter than anything Sanji's ever known in his forgotten North Blue, in the East Blue that's adopted him, in the Grand Line, even in his shimmering All Blue dreams. "I knew I could trust you to bring it back," says Luffy. "Are you done being silly now?"
"Yeah, I'm done," Sanji answers awkwardly, doesn't know where to look. He coughs, nervously.
"Good! Because I'm hungry and I want meat. Like, a lot of it. All of it. You were gone for such a long time, so you'll have to make it up to me now, because I'm the captain and those are the rules that I just made up. Hm!" The wind picks up, and Sunny's sails snap to full. Luffy holds a hand to his head to keep his hat from blowing away. From another part of the ship, he can hear Franky singing.
They're on their way at last. Sanji realizes, suddenly, that he's been holding his breath. He lets go, finally, exhales smoke and relief and warmth, shaky smile that is worth everything, don't you know.
And he promises, "I got it, captain."
"We didn't cry for that prince guy, you know. Well, Franky did, a little, but the rest of us didn't. We didn't want him to come back. He had to stay gone because we wanted you." Luffy puts a hand on his shoulder, and says, "So welcome back, Sanji."
He almost wants to laugh. Everything makes sense, when Luffy puts it so simply.
"You mean that," he tries to tease, tries to be cool, but his voice is small and hoarse.
"Yeah." Luffy cocks his head and grins like it's the easiest thing in the world. "Of course!"
"In that case." He clears his throat. He smiles then, earnest, teeth and gums and all, and he says, "I'm back, shithead. Take care of me, won't you?"
Luffy brings his hand up and Sanji clasps it tight, Luffy pulling them together until their shoulders collide. And then Luffy hugs him, arms wrapped around him secure as Sunny's hold, and it's fine this way, isn't it, he tells himself, everything he deserves and more, the brush of Luffy's straw hat against his cheek, and Luffy's arms and Luffy's smile, and the sea, open and blue, and their dreams, bright and all their own. Yes. It's fine this way. His knees are week. He still feels the cold deep in his lungs. His hands are trembling. There is a feast to prepare. And he's happy.
(The story of Baldr, the wisest and fairest, husband of Nanna, beloved son of the goddess Frigg and Odin the Allfather, goes like this: after his death at the hands of Loki the Trickster (and, inadvertently, his blind brother Hodur)—a death that was dreamt by Baldr and foretold to Odin—Hel promised to release Baldr from the underworld only if all the objects in the world, if everyone living and dead, mourned and wept for him—earnestly, sincerely, fiercely. And all did except for one, the giantess Thokk, who refused to shed a single tear, who had no love for Baldr though he was loved by all. It was revealed that she was the Trickster in disguise, and because of her refusal, Baldr must remain among the dead until after Ragnarok and the end of the world.
This is a fic about someone more beloved than Baldr, and about trickster gods and goddesses who know exactly what and whom they want.
So. I will forever be hung up on the fact that Sanji is from North Blue. And North Blue = Scandinavia to me, so there are a lot of bits and pieces Norse mythology in this. And I think, also, Sanji is a story collector, like Usopp is a storyteller, and that's sweet. I wanted him to love stories, because I love stories too.)