Author's Note: This probably won't make a lot of sense if you haven't read The Haunting of Black Leg Sanji first. Thanks for all the kind comments! I tend to be terrible at updating multiple-chapter stories, so every work in this series is as complete as it will be... until the plot bunny hits me across the head again. I do think Ace and Sanji want a bit more of their story to be told though. The rest of the Straw Hat Pirates were clamouring to tell their side of the story too, hence this fic. Again, spoilers for Chapter 574.
Usopp had always felt comfortable and safe around Sanji. Sure the guy was useless around females, but other than that, he was incredibly dependable. If there was a champion of the weak and helpless, it was Sanji. The man was a big softie, and also one of Usopp's favourite crew mates, so when he'd lashed out at Usopp unexpectedly, with a kick that Usopp knew contained a destructive power about equivalent to that of a hurricane, he couldn't help but screech. Usopp was sure he hadn't been that loud, but Franky was apparently near enough to explode on scene, his guns aimed at them. And Usopp couldn't help shrieking again, because cool as cyborg Franky was, he did not want to blown up by one of his many guns. He crouched on the ground, cowering for a moment, before finally chancing a glance up.
Sanji was looking confused, head whipping back and forth as if he was looking for something. The kick was not meant for him then? But of course not! Sanji would never hurt his own crew, Usopp thought with no small amount of relief. Because if he wanted to, Usopp would be dead, two years of intense training or not.
"Oi Sanji, what are you looking for?" Franky asked, thankfully lowering his many guns.
Sanji seemed to notice Usopp and Franky only then.
"Sorry Usopp." He offered Usopp a hand up which Usopp took, allowing Sanji to pull him back to his feet.
"What was that all about? I-Is there an enemy around?!" Usopp gasped, the age old paralyzing fear creeping back up.
Sanji took a long drag of his cigarette.
His voice was even, but his eyes remained disturbed, and Usopp knew Sanji well enough by now to tell that Sanji was not letting on about what was troubling him because he didn't want to worry the crew unnecessarily. He also knew that Sanji would never let anything bad happen to the crew. Damn, but that guy was cool.
When Usopp grew up (never), he wanted to be just like Sanji.
"So you've never ever been visited by one of your crew mates after they… passed on?"
"Ohohoho! Of course not! That would be terrifying wouldn't it? It'd make me jump out of my skin! Even though I have no skin! Ohohoho!"
Sanji was being creepy and coming from a guy who was nothing but a skeleton that was saying quite a lot. For days he'd been trying to find out more about the afterlife from Brook, asking him weird questions like whether he'd ever seen a spirit or if people came back from the dead. Frankly he found it a touch insensitive. Even if he had one foot deeper in the grave than most, it didn't mean he had all the answers to life and death. In general, Brook preferred not to dwell on death and how he was going to outlive everyone on this ship, never able to speak to them again or enjoy their company once they had entered the great void beyond. It was heart-breaking and he just didn't want to talk or think about anything related to that inevitable moment. Did people come back from the dead or end up haunting pirate ships? If they did, then a cruel joke had been played on Brook, leaving him closer to death than everyone around him yet unable to see past everyone's mortal shell. No, he didn't want to think on that at all, and he told Sanji so, disguising his discomfort with levity and a fake horror of the supernatural. Truth be told, Brook wasn't afraid of the supernatural. If anything, he wished he had a couple of supernatural encounters of his own. It would have been nice to meet some of his crew mates that had passed on. Especially his captain.
Sanji, being the thoughtful sensitive guy he usually was, really should have known better than to expose a skeleton's secret pain.
Sanji had been holed up in her library for days, pulling out any and all books on the spiritual beliefs of various cultures across the world. At first, when Robin had seen him in there, she had assumed he was just there for one of his more exotic recipes and would leave in a bit. But he hadn't, and the stack of books he was perusing had rather grown. Robin peered over the edge of her book at Sanji, who was frowning, dark glasses perched on his nose, looking decidedly scholarly. Robin didn't know what had gotten into the ship's cook, but she wholeheartedly approved of his new found love of academia and if truth be told, rather enjoyed the extra company. Sanji was just as loud and raucous as the rest of the crew when they were all together, but here, he was blessedly silent, as he thumbed through page after page in succession. And even when he was clearly absorbed in his research here, Sanji never forgot to make Robin as comfortable as he could. Even now, Robin knew that Sanji had just spotted her empty glass and would be offering to get her another drink just about now.
"Robin, did you want another drink? I can whip something up for both of us."
"You're too kind, Sanji. I'm fine for now."
Sanji flashed her a brilliant smile.
"Are you sure? I could give you a massage if you like… you've been working pretty hard on your research." He looked at her hopefully.
"Thank you, but maybe later, Sanji."
They lapsed into companionable silence again.
When Robin next looked up to tell Sanji she wouldn't mind a drink now, she saw the blonde slumped across the books.
Quietly, Robin stood and made her way to where Sanji lay, his head pillowed against a book. Had he been bitten by a poisonous spider that had stowed away on the ship and was dead? Ah, but his chest was raising and falling with each breath so he couldn't be. He didn't exactly look well though.
Was Sanji falling ill? He looked rather pale and there were dark circles under his eyes. Robin wouldn't be surprised. Everyone on this ship had their part to play, and Sanji more than some others (herself included) had taken upon himself a lion's share of the duties, by keeping them fed and watered, among other daily responsibilities.
They were sailing through rather frigid seas at the moment, and Robin had dressed warmly, but Sanji hadn't worn anything more than his usual suit. Robin gently laid a blanket around his shoulders, taking care not to wake the sleeping young cook up.
Well she could get her own drink for once, and his too, for that matter. Robin left her library as silently as a shadow, leaving Sanji slumbering where he lay.
For all that Nami was always yelling at Sanji for being such a guy, Nami was really very fond of her blonde cook. You couldn't help liking someone who was so nice, and so eager to please, who kept feeding you and backing up your every decision without a moment's hesitation. Not to mention he was cute, with his fluffy hair too, just like a sweet puppy. But he was sick now, and Nami was rather distressed to see Sanji lying so weak in bed. She'd tried her best to feed him the hot broth that Chopper wanted him to eat, but he kept coughing and gagging on it.
"Sanji, just have a little more," Nami coaxed.
It pained Sanji to refuse, she knew how he hated wasting food, but he shook his head, his face deathly pale, as his body shook with the force of his coughs, or was it cold?
She set the bowl aside then with a soft sigh.
"Hey, scoot over."
Sanji raised one curly eye brow quizzically, but obediently did as asked. When she slid across the sheets and wrapped her arms around Sanji, his eyes went wide as dinner plates. It was a testament to his current weakened state that he couldn't even muster up a nose bleed, Nami thought.
"You're cold right?"
Sanji nodded mutely, seeming to have lose his ability to speak for the moment.
"I've got to go in a bit, but I can stay for a couple of minutes to keep you warm." Nami didn't think she needed to deliver any warning for Sanji to behave like a decent gentleman. He seemed to ill to get up to anything lecherous. Sanji nodded again, like a man hardly able to believe that he had struck the jackpot.
Sanji was freezing. Nami did her best to warm him up the best she could, rubbing warmth into his arms, but still he shivered, pressing ever closer to her, burying his face against her neck and her long hair.
"H-Hey. When you have to go, do you think you could ask Robin to come visit?"
Nami knew that Sanji was just trying to lighten the mood and so she played along.
"Idiot." She gave him a half-hearted knock on the head, and they looked at each other for a moment before giggling madly like naughty children, and subsiding into a comfortable silence.
Nami ran her hands comfortingly down Sanji's back, as Sanji began shivering anew, and the tight knot of worry in her chest returned. Her cute puppy was sick, and Nami wanted nothing more than for him to get better again.
The worse feeling in the world for a doctor, was to see his patient suffer and know that there was nothing he could do to make him better. This was one illness that Sanji would have to fight off on his own, Chopper thought glumly.
He had put Sanji on an IV drip earlier, since he was still unable to stomach any food or even some hot soup. Sanji had always done his best to make sure the crew had nutritious meals and now it was up to Chopper to make sure that Sanji got what he needed in the way of nutrients to help him fight off that terrible illness.
Sanji moaned then and Chopper rushed to his side anxiously.
"Chopper, how's Sanji doing?" Luffy called as he came thumping down the steps, his usual noisy self.
"SHHHHHHHHH. He's asleep!" Chopper yelped, following in Luffy's noisy footsteps, before covering his own mouth.
"Jeez, he doesn't look too good, Chopper," Luffy whispered, a touch too loudly as usual.
Sanji stirred in his sleep again, his brow furrowed.
"No, Ace… don't. You'll disappear," Sanji begged hoarsely, lost in a nightmare that he alone was witness to.
Chopper gasped, turning to look at Luffy, who had gone pale as a sheet, at hearing Sanji's words. No! Why would Sanji say that? Chopper hadn't even known the two were close. If Sanji was calling out for Ace in his sleep… he must have been even more affected than everyone had thought when Ace died.
"Please Ace… stop."
Chopper glanced at Luffy nervously again. Fists clenched, Luffy was visibly trembling, as he stared down at Sanji.
"Luffy? Are you okay?" Chopper asked in a small voice.
Luffy looked up then, his expression utterly serious for once. He nodded once curtly.
"Thanks for looking after him, Chopper. I'll sit with him for a while if that's alright."
Chopper nodded quickly assenting.
The last he saw as he tip-toed out of the room was Luffy seated beside Sanji, staring intently at the ship's cook on the bed, as he held Sanji's hand clasped tightly between his two palms.
When Franky had found his way into the kitchen for his eleventh cola of the day he had found Sanji staring intently at pretty much nothing. He downed the cola in one swig, but Sanji remained transfixed on nothing, seemingly oblivious to his presence. That man was totally out of it. Maybe he still wasn't feeling 100% super yet. Franky shrugged and was about to wander out again when Sanji called his name.
Franky paused, on the verge of swigging his twelfth cola of the day.
"You're a pretty liberal guy aren't you?"
Franky would have called himself a pervert rather than liberal, but he supposed some of the things he did as a pervert was pretty liberal if you wanted to look at it that way.
"What do you think of… for lack of a better word… "interspecies" relationships?"
Franky considered this for a moment, before starting off on his thirteenth cola on the day.
"You mean like mermaids and humans?"
Sanji had been totally bowled over by the lovely ladies of the deep blue sea. Was there a special someone he was missing? A someone with green hair perhaps? Franky preferred to focus on the relationship of ship and shipwright himself, but he'd seen how stupid love could make men. Hell, he'd seen how stupid it could make Sanji.
"Um… more like," and here Sanji cast his hands about rather helplessly, "An imaginary friend of sorts?" He offered, sounding unsure.
Sanji was that lonely huh? Well, since he wasn't getting any from Nami and Robin obviously...
"Sure, couldn't hurt! Whatever gets you off and through the night so you can be super in the morning right?" This was not really his area of expertise, and Franky hurriedly began making his way out of the kitchen as he uncapped his fourteen bottle of cola.
"Hey, gotta run, make repairs to Sunny and all that!"
And they called him, Franky, a pervert. Sanji would give him a run for his title with his imaginary lover.
Luffy usually wasn't the quickest on the uptake, but even he knew enough to know that Sanji hadn't quite been himself the last few weeks.
He found Sanji smoking a cigarette and staring out at the ocean.
Luffy stretched over, left hand first, before pulling the rest of his rubbery body over, where it snapped into place.
He grinned happily at Sanji and the other man smiled back warmly.
The wind was howling furiously, whipping his hair into his eyes so Luffy braced his straw hat against his head, eyes obscured by the rim.
"Sanji, there was something you said, back when you were sick. I couldn't stop thinking about it."
Sanji quirked an eyebrow, that curly swirl almost disappearing under his fringe.
"Who was Ace to you?" Luffy asked bluntly, cutting to the chase as always.
Luffy didn't miss the way Sanji's pupils dilated when he had spoken, although Sanji's expression remained unchanged. He blew a thick plume of smoke out.
"What did I say?"
"I didn't catch it all. You were asking Ace to stop something. Did you know Ace from before?"
Sanji was hesitating.
"… I didn't know Ace before I came on board the Going Merry," Sanji replied carefully. " But we have... become close."
Had, Luffy's mind supplied helpfully. Because Ace died in Luffy's arms at Marineford two years ago.
Had. Because Ace had died saving Luffy.
"I didn't know you two were such good friends, but I'm glad Ace had a friend like you. I'm sorry I couldn't save Ace, Sanji. You must have been sad."
And Sanji did look pained now, so maybe Luffy shouldn't have brought Ace up.
Luffy knew his crew took extra care not to mention Marineford and Ace around him, and normally Luffy didn't like to talk about those painful memories either, but Ace's name spilling from Sanji's lips when he had been deathly ill had surprised Luffy.
"I'll never let anyone I care about, die before my eyes again. I promise you that, Sanji."
And Luffy would do it too. Protect everyone no matter what it took.
Wordlessly, Sanji reached out and placed his hand on the nape of Luffy's neck. A tingle of warmth ran down his spine and Luffy was surprised at how similar Sanji's touch and aura were to Ace. Why had he never noticed that before? If Luffy closed his eyes, it almost felt like his brother was back, and standing with him.
But wait, there was another thing that Luffy had wanted to talk to Sanji about.
"I'll tell Zoro to stop bothering you, if that'll make you happy," Luffy offered earnestly.
Sanji started, swivelling to face Luffy, clearly surprised.
"Ah. That. Did you see something? It's not what you think," Sanji went on hurriedly, looking nervously past Luffy, before meeting Luffy's gaze again. But Sanji needn't be worried. Luffy had seen Zoro working through a bottle of sake in the crow's nest before he had come over.
Luffy knew it was exactly what he thought it was. Zoro had watched Sanji for a long time, and now Zoro had acted on it and Sanji didn't know what to do about it.
"Both you and Zoro are important to me, and I need both my best swordsman and my best cook, so it'd be great if you could just start fighting out loud again."
"I like seeing you happy," Luffy continued, "But if Zoro's not the one who can put a smile on your face, then he's not the one. Just tell him. He'll hurt for a while, and he'll be angry, but he'll be okay. Because he's Zoro."
It was all so simple, and they were making it complicated because they were Zoro and Sanji, and they had to struggle over everything, even if it was a cold war they were waging, with neither coming out to say what they felt.
Well if they didn't sort it out soon, Luffy was just going to have to knock their heads together and make them all get along again. Even if getting along for them meant bickering constantly.
After all, Luffy was the captain.
Sanji's glasses with their thick black frames were ridiculously dorky, Zoro thought.
And yet, when Sanji wandered around the ship, with his glasses perched on his nose like that, Zoro couldn't help, but stare surreptitiously. The man could make practically anything look good, he conceded grudgingly.
On Sanji, the glasses seemed like the latest fashion accessory, rather than an optical handicap. And when Sanji looked up at Zoro, over the rim of his frames, pinning in him place with that glare, with his glasses sliding slowly down his nose… it pissed Zoro off to no end and turned him on all at the same time.
Not that Sanji was looking at him at all right now.
Kissing Sanji had been a real lapse of discipline on his part, Zoro had to admit. Not that he was 100% to blame. Sanji had to bear a lot of the responsibility as well.
It had all started with that time in the kitchen, when Sanji had grabbed Zoro's arm demanding to know if Zoro had seen anything weird. He hadn't known what Sanji was on about and Sanji had seemed so out of sorts. Staring into space and talking to himself… When Zoro had confronted him, Sanji had just been pissed and oh so aggravating.
The stupid cook had never caught on to how Zoro felt.
Sanji drove him crazy. At the end of each of their fights it was all Zoro could do not to jump the other blonde, shove him against the wall and kiss the breath out of him so the smart ass had nothing else to say. Truth be told, Zoro couldn't exactly pinpoint when he had started developing feelings for Sanji… but no that was a lie.
He knew damn well when.
It was after Thriller Bark, when the cook had the nerve to try and protect him, Zoro, by offering his own life. And after that, as Zoro was laid up in bed, Sanji kept visiting, and hovering and somehow that had changed everything.
Now, Zoro couldn't help watching the cook at all times, letting Sanji's voice wash over him, having their fights light the fire of desire in the pit of his stomach.
He wanted Sanji.
And he had been a damn fool to let Sanji know that. Zoro had never wanted things to get this out of hand. He had thought it was enough to have Sanji nearby, to admire the strength of the other man without actually acting on it. But Zoro had been wrong. Of course Sanji was avoiding him now, even as Zoro was stalking him by hovering outside the kitchen door, waiting for Sanji to appear.
So when Zoro heard Sanji's pained gasp, he burst through the door without thinking and abruptly skidded to an embarrassed halt.
Sanji looked up, startled.
He was holding his own hand by the wrist, and Zoro could see immediately, the fiery blossom of a burn injury.
Again he acted almost of his own volition, grabbing Sanji by the arm and propelling him to the sink.
Sanji winced as the cool water ran over the reddened patch.
"You need to be more careful," Zoro said gruffly.
"I'm alright," Sanji replied softly.
Come to think of it, there was nothing on the stove. What was Sanji doing when he got burnt?
A puzzle for another time. There was a reason why Zoro had been lurking outside the door after all. Might as well get to it.
"Look the other day-"
"Already forgotten," Sanji replied quickly, as if reading Zoro's mind, his eyes darting to the back, where the door was. Hn. Probably couldn't wait to get away from him. That little observation pained Zoro.
Sure, there had never seemed to be any love lost between them in the past, but Zoro knew that Sanji had trusted him then. Had trusted him with his life, and they had always worked as a team, guarding each other's back. Zoro hated this forced cordiality between them now. He longed for the zingers, the barbs, the fighting. He wanted things to get back to normal. He wanted Sanji to trust him again.
"Right. So all's good between us then?"
Sanji nodded, and so Zoro should have let go of Sanji's hand then, but his fingers lingered on the smooth expanse of Sanji's skin, hesitating, before he swept his thumb across Sanji's wrist.
And if Sanji's pulse had quickened then, Zoro pretended not to notice. And if Sanji had noticed that Zoro had not let go of his hand, he said nothing either.