"Admit it," He prompts her, "You're going to miss me."
"Miss the noise and fighting? You think so?" Shakky smiles at him.
"I'll be gone tomorrow and I think you will miss me. Or at least having someone to boss around." He says teasingly.
"I might miss having someone who'll still help me clear up the bar after being traumatised by me turning into spiders the same day." Shakky grins at him and Sanji flinches.
"Don't say the 'S' word." Sanji snaps in horror and squeezes his eyes shut, "I just wanted to repay you for all that you did for me the last two years. Even if you are awful."
Shakky laughs at him again and starts to wax down the bar, shaking her head at the fact that apparently Sanji is just as much of a sucker as he always has been for her. She may have broken down his barriers enough that he'll argue and snap at a woman, but he's still weak to her charms.
"You mean spiders?" She taunts and Sanji flinches and stares at her to make sure that she's not about to do that to him again.
"And I'm the one who teases you?" Sanji mutters under his breath in embarrassment.
"Heard that." Shakky calls without looking up. Sanji decides it's best not to argue and instead resolves to be helpful and starts to put the chairs in the bar upside down on the tables so that he can clean the floor more easily.
Sanji tugs the bucket and mop out of the cupboard, now that all the chairs are on the tables he can clean the floor. He adds the cleaner and water from the sink, he and Shakky mostly working in silence as she buffs the bar with the polish needed to stop it staining with the drinks that get spilt on it all of the time. It's hard to believe that by ten AM tomorrow his crew will be on their way to Fishman Island, they'll finally be moving forward again. In the meantime though the least that he can do is to help Shakky close up shop one last time.
"Remember one of the first questions that you asked me two years ago?" Shakky says after a while. Sanji pauses and frowns, trying to remember.
"About how you're able to creep me out? Because I think that's justified, even without the age thing." Sanji says darkly.
"Don't be an ass or I won't give it to you." Shakky says and glares at him.
"Okay, I'll bite, what?" Sanji asks, turning around to face her fully.
"About a cure, you asked me if there was one." She says matter of factly.
Sanji stares at her in wide eyed shock for a few long moments.
"You're serious?" He asks her, completely stunned. She had never given any indication over the last two years that she was looking into it at all like she'd said once. He'd figured that she'd just been saying that to shut him up the first few times. She'd always slapped down any conversation about Sanji wishing that he was human again, she said that she had no time for self pity and what-if's. So was that all a front in case she didn't find a cure?
"Absolutely." She nods.
"That's amazing." Sanji breathes in wide eyed wonder.
"But before I give it to you, you need to tell me why you want it, and don't give me any bullshit explanations this time." She says sharply and Sanji's brain scatters for something that she'll consider good.
"I doubt it's because you're worried about being normal. I doubt you were ever normal in your whole life and the normal humans on this island are so removed from anyone that you respect at any real level that you wouldn't want to be like them. Pirates aren't normal. If it's about looking human you already know how to do that enough to fool most people, so why do you want to know? What is it you hope for?" She presses, staring him down and her bigger, badder, older-than-you air oppressing Sanji but he knows enough by now to fight it back not not let himself be intimidated.
"Because my nakama have been gone for two years and they're older than they were and they're just going to keep-" Sanji cuts himself off, squeezing his eyes shut and taking in a juddering breath as the thought chills him. Since he saw that horrible day two years ago they've all got older, they've got stronger too but there will be a time when...
"You think that they'll all get old and die." his mentor says into the silent bar and Sanji snaps his eyes open to glare at her. He was thinking it but it still hurts him to hear her say it, much less to her her cut him off to say it for him.
"Well?" Sanji prompts. Isn't that a good enough reason for him to want to know if there's a cure? She wanted to know and now she does so she should just give him the answer.
"If you're lucky they'll all get old and die." Shakky says and Sanji actually hisses this time.
"You call that LUCK?!" He snaps at her, his real teeth coming out to play as if they would do any good against her.
"I do, if you're unlucky they die without even getting old." She says with venom in her tone, standing up and getting closer to him. Sanji flinches back like she's slapped him but he doesn't look away.
"How many old pirates do you know Sanji? People who are still pirates and not ex pirates, not those who gave it up young and did something sane with their lives. Not the kind of normal that regular people do, but like your old man, not a pirate but not a normal man either but certainly old. The only two old pirates that I personally knew were Whitebeard and Rayleigh and you know what happened to Whitebeard." She says harshly.
"You all chose to be pirates. If you are lucky you get to watch them get old and die, that is luck Sanji and make no mistake." Shakky says darkly.
Sanji's teeth snap back into place and he ducks his head, squeezing on the handle of the mop hard enough to make the wood creak.
"I know that, but… I'd always thought I'd be doing that with them, not be there on the outside." He admits quietly.
Shakky watches him for a moment or two before turning on her heel and crouching down behind the bar and rummaging around with the sounds of clinking glass. After a few moments she stands up again and places a small blue bottle on the counter. It's angularly designed, looking more like a perfume bottle than a liquor bottle but Sanji supposes that it must be based on where she got it from.
"Here's the cure." She says simply, tapping on the lid.
"REALLY?!" Sanji exclaims in awe. He'd expected maybe a recipe or some far fetched quest to go to some island and get it, not for her to have it stashed behind the whiskey in the bar. How long had it been there without Sanji knowing, and why would she keep it stored like that? Just so that he wouldn't think anything of it? He supposes a bottle in a bar isn't too suspicious, but it's so small and what if he'd sold it by mistake? It's awfully… odd. Shakky's one for mind games but still.
"Sure." She says throwing it to him. Sanji drops the mop and scrambles to catch it. He holds the cool bottle in his palm with awe.
"I've never taken it though, so it'll do one of two things if you do." Shakky says easily and Sanji looks up at her with rapt attention.
"Either it'll cure you and you'll go back to being the human that you were before you got bitten." She says.
"Great!" Sanji gasps and touches the lid, turning the cap as Shakky talks again.
"Of course, that means that you'll undo all of the progress that you made here. You'll be weak in comparison to them if they've been training as hard as you. They'll have to look out for you the whole time for the rest of your journey, two years worth of training isn't something you can catch up on by yourself, they'll keep improving and leave you behind as the weakest." Shakky continues, stilling Sanji's hand with her words.
"You'll be too weak to protect them, hell they'll be throwing themselves in danger trying to protect you. You'll probably die and you already saw how much that hurts them, you did it twice after all. Or perhaps one of them will die saving your life because you were too weak to." She says inspecting her nails.
Sanji's hand halts.
He swore on everything that he held dear that he would never go through that again, he would never see his nakama hurt and ripped apart and that he would do anything he had to in order to keep them safe, to protect their lives and their dreams. He's seen with his own eyes how much they've all changed, how much stronger and physically fitter they all look, hell Usopp barely looks like the same guy that Sanji knew two years ago. Every single one of them is stronger, but if he goes back to what he was he'll be making himself weaker. He'll be breaking the promise that he made to himself to protect them. Can he do that?
"What's the other thing? You said that there were two things that might happen." He asks numbly, looking up at Shakky who is watching him with those piercing black eyes of hers.
"You're undead. It'd cure that and put you back to how you were before you became undead." She says and Sanji grips the bottle tightly in his hand.
"You mean dead-dead, the permanent kind that humans have." he says flatly, knowing just what she means.
"Yes. So keep that cure. Do what you want to with it, decide who and what you want to be. You're the only one who can." She says in an unreadable voice. Sanji looks at her and her expression is perfectly neutral, intense, but expressionless. Sanji thinks that he maybe sees judgement or disappointment in there, but her features betray none of those, if he sees them there then it's most likely him imposing his own feelings onto her face.
He looks down at the bottle in his hand again, the cool glass in his hand and the blue edges reflecting in the few lights in the bar that are still on. Inside the dark amber liquid, though blue hued from the glass, laps back and forth when he tilts the bottle. Shakky could of course just be screwing with him, it wouldn't be the first time. It could just be a sample of fancy bourbon in a pretty sample bottle that'd do no more than make him sick and earn Shakky's eternal disappointment at his selfishness, but on the other hand it could be REAL.
There's a chance that he could be human again, he could be normal and things could be like they were. He could eat his own cooking again and feel it in his stomach, he could sleep and even dream, he could have sex with Zoro without those irritating toys or the lingering sense of inadequacy. He could be alive. He wants it so badly. No matter how cool or useful his vampire powers are, no matter how fun it is to scare the shit out of hunters by screaming dramatically and bursting into smoke… he still wants to be human again. He wants to go back to how things used to be. Sure he likes some things about being a vampire, a lot of things in fact, but he'd be a damn liar if he said that he didn't want to be human again.
He has a duty to his nakama though and he's never seen it as a burden. They are as much a part of him now as his limbs are and losing any one of them would be just as devastating. Shakky is right, he was always going to lose them, human or not. Even so, he will do everything in his power to keep them alive, to support them into their dreams and see his own too. He'd already been prepared to give his life for them, and though he's dead he'd still do it now.
If he has to watch them all die he'll make sure they're as old and happy as possible. He wants to see Usopp with eight thousand followers and every lie a truth now and for him to be the legend that people talk about in tones that suggest that a man like that can't be real. He wants everyone who picks up a sword and calls themselves as swordsman to know Zoro's name as the greatest, undefeated and untouchable. He wants to find All Blue and see it on Nami's map of the whole world, something that everyone will look at and use and wonder how the hell anyone lived without it. He wants Robin's knowledge to be in history books and Chopper's work to be the most famous name in medicine. He wants Luffy to be known the world over as the Pirate King and for everyone to know that the ship he sailed to that tile on was the Thousand Sunny and it was built by the master of masters Franky. He wants them to sail around the world right back to where they started, he wants Brook to see Laboon again… he doesn't want to… he doesn't want to put Brook through watching his nakama die around him again.
If he takes this potion, this cure, if it works and doesn't kill him then maybe he can see those dreams come true. Maybe he won't be so weak as to get hurt to get his nakama hurt. Maybe he gets to grow old with them and die an old man, just as skilled, grumpy and crotchety as Zeff is. Maybe he can do all of that. But if he does he'll have to look Brook in his empty eye sockets and know that because of him Brook will have to be the last man standing on a crew all over again.
He would kill anyone for putting his nakama through their worst memories again. If someone tried to hold Nami's town to ransom again, if someone threatened to use Buster Call again, if someone threatened to rip the crew apart again in front of Luffy's eyes… if any person tried that he'd kill them. But if he takes this he'll be doing just that to Brook.
But to be human again… a gift like that…
Sanji holds the bottle up and stares at it in the dim light of the bar. It glints in the light and Sanji feels like he's being pulled apart. If he'd never been given this then he would have been fine. Sure things would have hurt, he'd still feel that wish to be human but now that he has it he has to choose and he knows that whichever choice he makes he'll have moments or maybe even longer than that where he'll bitterly regret it. Why did she have to give him a choice?
"Go back to your ship. Think about it." Shakky says to him firmly.
Sanji stares at the bottle, barely hearing her. His hand is shaking.
"I'll finish clearing up. Go." She says firmly and shoves him towards the direction of the door.
Numbly Sanji stumbles back to the ship and up on deck. He can hear most of his nakama snoring downstairs in the bunkroom, including Brook, the way his snores rattle in his skull is quite distinctive. He heads up into the crow's nest and watches the low light play off of the bottle.
He goes back and forth on his decision all night. He could hold onto the bottle for years and make his choice, but putting it off won't do anything. If anything it'll merely widen the gap between him and his nakama in skill the later that he takes it, assuming that it works and assuming that it really is a cure and Shakky isn't screwing with him. If he takes it after they all die, hopefully of old age with legends surrounding their names, then he'd absolutely be abandoning Brook. But if he takes it right now and trains his ass off every single day without slacking at all then maybe he can catch up, assuming that it doesn't kill him for real. If he did die he'd put his nakama through hell again and they would wait around for him to wake up, which he never would.
Or he doesn't take it at all, he stares death in the face and watches his nakama die one by one. He stays with Brook, assuming that he's able to do that and look at the man without thinking of the fact that he's the only one left. But if his heart breaks that badly will he still be himself after all of that?
Shit, maybe he should just bite everyone and they can be an undead crew. But before he's even finished that thought he knows that he can't do it. Luffy's blood nearly burnt his tongue right out of his head, so they'd still be losing Luffy, Robin and Chopper. He'd just be putting other people in his position and he can't do that. Besides, who would they eat if they were all vampires or inedible because of being fruit users?
He is screwed whatever he does.
When the sun rises he finally puts the bottle into his jacket and heads down into the kitchen, trying to distract himself from his problem. He cooks and he cooks, probably making too much food, but it's the only thing that he can do that halfway takes his mind off of it. Needless to say when Luffy comes storming in with the others close on his heels it proves to be less of a problem than he'd anticipated, even if he does basically have to roll Luffy out of the room afterwards.
They've not got long before they leave and Sanji is still staring at his bottle, the blue glass seeming to mock him with it's mystery liquid. To take it or not to take it.
"Sanji!" Nami shouts irritably, her fingers snapping before his eyes, obscuring the bottle. Sanji looks up in confusion and sees her and a few of the rest of his nakama staring at him. Had he been talking out loud or something?
"Huh?" He says dumbly and Sanji sees Zoro smack his hands into his face and groan.
Nami pinches the bridge of her nose and sighs in a way that sounds almost pained.
"I said that I spent the last two years studying weather and navigation, fighting and upgrading my weapon too, but mainly weather and navigation. I was on a floating island that specialised in it." She explains.
"That's great." Sanji smiles, pleased for her.
"Stop talking, idiot." She barks at him and Sanji nods, ashamed for ignoring her the first time.
"I also said that I was in my room last night re-reading this." Nami says, holding up the book with the hole blown in it. The book with the chapter on All Blue.
"Now, it's not a sure thing. I'd need Franky to help me set up free floating monitoring points that we could get data back from, and it would rely on this book being right and a lot of luck but… I think I can get you there. I think I can find All Blue." She says slowly.
Sanji damn near drops the bottle.
He moves, faster than the eye can see, snatching Nami up from the floor and spinning her around in a whirl.
"Do you really mean it?!" He gasps in wide eyed excitement, practically jumping in glee.
"I wouldn't joke about this, you moron." Nami says, smiling nonetheless as she raps him on the forehead with the book.
Sanji's mind reels, this could be it, he could find it and prove everyone wrong, everyone who ever told him he was a fool to dream. He could find some way to tell Zeff, to tell his old man that he did it, he did it for them and that All Blue is out there. He can swim in his sea and see every fish, cook every dish and feed his nakama until they can't possibly eat any more. It's real.
"You'll be the first one to do it Sanji." Luffy pipes up, his grin so broad that Sanji thinks it might split his head clean off. The first one to achieve his dream…
"If you weren't so distracted with whatever that is then you would have heard me the first time, it was way more dramatic then." Nami pouts, looking down at him from where he still has her help up against him from his gleeful dance.
Sanji puts her down carefully and looks at the blue bottle. He missed her telling him about his dream because of this thing.
"Tch, he's doing it again. Come on Franky, lift the anchor, we've got an island to get to!" Nami calls. Franky grins and snaps a smart salute at her that actually seems half genuine.
"Wait, I have something to do, I'll be right back." Sanji says suddenly.
"Aw, what?" Luffy pouts.
"I'll only be a moment!" Sanji calls over his shoulder, leaping over the railings and sprinting across the grove.
He bursts through the door of the bar the stares at Shakky for a long moment.
"Keep it. I don't want it." He says breathlessly and throws the bottle towards her, she catches it out of the air and smiles at him, broadly. Maybe this was another one of her bullshit tests, maybe it's just alcohol in there or maybe it is what she says it is but he missed Nami talking about All Blue and he won't miss anything else because of it. He's running out of time and like hell is he going to waste any more.
"I'll see you. Here, in a hundred years. I'll tell you everything that happened." He says firmly.
"I'll see you then. I'm sure I'll need a new business partner by then." Shakky says after a few seconds. Sanji nods, by then Rayleigh will be long dead. Who knows if all of Sanji's crew will be. If this life extending thing is really strong Zoro might still be around, maybe he'll be too lost to find the afterlife. Maybe Franky will replace enough of himself that he'll keep going forever. Maybe it'll just be him and Brook but it doesn't matter.
"Only if you start serving food. I'm a cook, not a bartender." Sanji laughs.
"If you keep staying in here I'll charge you rent. Don't you have nakama to get back to?" She says pointedly.
"Yeah," Sanji nods, "I do."
He turns tail and runs back to the ship as fast as he can and when he lands on the deck Nami just shakes her head at him in exasperation and motions to Franky with her hand. The anchors come up out of the water and the ship slowly starts to move.
He heads to the railing on the other side of the ship, looking out at the sea that they'll soon be sailing under. He hears Brook walking up to him, the sound of bone on bone and smart shoes on adam wood.
"What was that all about?" Brook asks quietly, joining him at the railing.
"Nothing really, just getting a life." Sanji grins up at him.
"Even though you're already dead?" Brook replies and the two of them instantly burst into laughter.
"Oh I am going to DISMEMBER you both!" Zoro shouts furiously. Sanji turns around and sees Zoro with his swords drawn and the most menacing aura around him, it'd almost put Shakky to shame.
Sanji smiles broad and fang filled.
"Zoro, don't say things like that. You'll give poor Brook a heart attack." Sanji says sweetly and Zoro swings around to Brook, his glare hot enough to melt lead.
"Don't… don't do it." Zoro warns.
"But I don't have a heart! YOHOHOHHOOO SANJI HELP!" Brook yells, ducking under Zoro's too fast sword.
"Hey, fight me, you dumb marimo." Sanji goads Zoro, kicking him in the back. Zoro turns around and brandishes his swords, clearly all for that idea.
"You idiots are MISSING IT!" Nami yells down at them.
"I already saw it once." Zoro shoots back.
"That's because you got on the WRONG SHIP earlier!" Sanji yells at him, along with several of the others.
Sanji pauses, his foot on two of Zoro's blades. He looks out at the sea as it rises up above the mast of the ship as they sail lower and lower. Within a second the highest point of the ship is underwater.
This… this is worth seeing.