"What the hell were you thinking, shitty cook?!"
Sanji had no answer that would satisfy the swordsman. He took a drag of his cigarette, the smoke burning his throat and down into his lungs before pushing out through his nostrils.
"Say something or I'll just fucking gut you where you stand!" Zoro barked, unsheathing one of his swords. The blade was pressed against his belly, popping off one of his jacket buttons.
"Hey, Zoro…" Nami breathed out, looking around at the others for assistance. "Leave him alone."
"Yeah," Chopper chimed in, looking up from Luffy's unconscious form. "Don't make more work for me."
"You think," Zoro began, his voice cracking in anger. "That you can do those things to my Captain and I'd allow you to step a foot back on our ship?"
"He's my Captain too," Sanji replied, his cigarette bouncing against his lips in his unsteady hand. "And the Sunny is my home."
"Whoa, whoa…" Franky sputtered, raising his hands in a halting gesture. "We're all tired and exhausted. We need to relax. Everybody."
"I can't believe it." Brook muttered numbly, rubbing his arms in disgust. "My skin's still crawling from where Big Mam touched me… Except I don't have any skin!"
"What is wrong with you guys?" Zoro demanded, looking around at the crew before gesturing to their heavily injured, incapacitated Captain. "That's alright with you? Seeing Luffy like that doesn't make you want to rip him apart?"
"Calm down, Zoro," Usopp pleaded.
"It's your own guilt," Zoro accused. "You did it before too."
"Zor-o!" Luffy called out, weak and raw. "Leave 'em alone. I wasn't leavin' without him. He's home, where he belongs…"
Zoro sheathed his sword, gripping Sanji's collar and twisting his fist tightly, "Your Captain shouldn't 've had to go looking for you, shitty cook." Sanji dropped his cigarette, an inch from his lips. It bounced and rolled down his jacket and across the deck. "Are you gonna fucking say something?"
"What should I say?" Sanji breathed, tapping another cigarette from his pack. His entire body shook, from his hands to his knees he quivered. He finally pushed a cigarette between his lips but then struggled with his lighter.
"Say you're sorry! Say you were wrong! Say you don't fucking deserve to be back on this ship!" Zoro shouted, the veins in his neck pulsing.
Zoro knocked the lighter from Sanji's hand. The force was stronger than anticipated and he ended up backhanding Sanji in the face. Sanji's broken cigarette dangled loosely from his mouth, his blue eyes wide with a mixture of shock and hurt.
Zoro nearly apologized for slapping him, but then figured he deserved it. He let go of Sanji and turned around, his hands curled into fists at his side. He stopped abruptly at the loud thud behind him. He peered over his shoulder, his stomach queasy as he saw Sanji had collapsed to the floor of the deck. "Just stay there, shitty cook…" Zoro breathed out furiously.
Sanji crawled along the deck toward his tossed lighter; he clutched it in his hands, trying to steady himself enough to light his snapped cigarette. He felt the crew's eyes on him, felt their heavy stares and the unbearable silence.
"San-ji," Luffy forced his voice louder, struggling to sit up properly. "What's for lunch?"
I need you, is what he was saying. I want you here. Sanji inhaled deeply, his broken cigarette burning quickly. He nodded wordlessly as tears streamed down his bruised and battered face. "I'll work on it, Captain."
"Need help up?" Usopp asked, standing over the chef with his hand extended.
"I can get up on my own," Sanji replied, sucking his cigarette until the heat burned his lips. He extinguished it against the railing of the Sunny, not caring about the look Franky shot him.
Usopp held his hand out awkwardly until Sanji took it. Usopp pulled firmly, hoisting Sanji back to his feet. Sanji rubbed his hands over his suit and adjusted his tie, still doing his damndest to ignore the stares from the crew.
"It wasn't the same without you," Usopp said suddenly.
Sanji paused, letting his pack of cigarettes fall back into his pocket, and looked at Usopp curiously. But Usopp had retreated already, back over to some silly, little thing he was tinkering with. He busied himself with his work, his tongue sticking out of his mouth at the corner. Sanji watched him for a moment longer before lighting a fresh cigarette and walking back inside to the kitchen.
Sanji woke with a start. Every inch of his skin crawled. His hands roamed over his face and neck and then down to his chest and stomach, searching for the thousands of bugs that felt as if they were scuttling all over him. His hammock swung wildly and without another thought he leapt from his bed and onto the floor. He shrieked unconsciously, letting his blanket fall to the ground and then stomping all over it.
"What's going on? Franky asked, opening one round eye sleepily. "Keep it down."
"You okay, Sanji?" Chopper asked, leaning over the side of his own hammock for a better view.
"There's fucking bugs!" Sanji cried out, slapping himself compulsively. "They were on me!"
"There aren't any bugs, brother…" Franky drawled, shaking his head. "Shut up and let us go back to sleep."
Mid-scratch Sanji realized Franky was right, there were no bugs on him, in his bed, or anywhere. Luffy snored in his hammock, his face pressed against the rope mesh, his butt stuck in the air, one arm swinging loosely over the side. Brook may have been asleep still; it was hard to tell, really. Zoro was undoubtedly in the crow's nest, sleeping guard… "Sorry for waking you," Sanji murmured, grabbing his pack of cigarettes from his dresser. He lit his smoke quickly, inhaling tar-filled lung-fulls of nicotine.
"Are you okay?" Usopp asked, sitting up in his hammock and rubbing tired eyes.
Sanji took a long drag of his cigarette before answering, "Sure. Go back to sleep."
Usopp nodded, half his face still imprinted with the pattern of the hammock. He stifled a yawn and slid down from his bed. He adjusted himself as he walked over to Sanji, the tight fabric accentuating his curvy, yet fit, bottom half. He searched the hammock and then shook out the blanket.
"You were dreaming." Usopp decided, leaning against one of the posts.
Sanji inhaled more of his cigarette, really letting the smoke burn inside of him, "Yeah. I guess so."
"You've always hated bugs." Usopp chuckled suddenly, looking down as he shook a hand through his wild tangle of curls. "Such a tough guy, being 'fraid of little bugs…"
"I'm not." Sanji argued quietly.
"Oh?" Usopp arched a thick brow. He flicked his thumb across his long nose with a smirk. "I definitely remember someone screaming like a girl, 'A bug! Help!' I can't remember what Island that was… Little Garden?"
"No," Sanji corrected, his cigarette casting an eerie red glow across his face in the dark. "I meant I'm not a tough guy."
Usopp laughed at the absurdity of the statement until he realized Sanji wasn't trying to be funny, "What? Come on. You're one of the Monster Trio!"
Sanji shrugged, dropping his smoking hand to his side, "Trio indicates some level of comradery that I just can't connect with anymore…"
Usopp stood silently, unsure of what he could possibly say to their cook. He ended up shaking his head slowly, clicking his tongue, "It will feel natural again. I promise." And who could know better than himself? Sure, Nami and Robin had defected from the crew before, but it wasn't the same and it was a joke to consider it the equivalent level.
"Maybe." Was all Sanji said before leaving the men's dormitory.
"You look better." Zoro said, watching the Captain with hawk-like eyes.
"I just needed meat." Luffy claimed, waving his hand dismissively. "Nothing Sanji's cooking couldn't fix." Sanji had been listening the entire time, but he still tensed when Luffy mentioned his name. He busied himself with another cigarette, ignoring the heat from Zoro's gaze. "Right, Sanji?"
Sanji nodded in response to his Captain. "A well-balanced diet is just as important as training."
Zoro scoffed loudly, "Food is sustenance. It doesn't replace hard work."
Sanji puffed long and hard on his cigarette, he looked up, flashing Zoro a warning glance, "You wanna go, Moss-Head?"
"Any time, Shitty cook!" Zoro challenged, bumping his fists against his muscled chest.
"Knock it off!" Luffy yelled, his shoulders stiffening in frustration. "I don't wanna hear it right now…"
Zoro didn't argue with his Captain, he wouldn't. Sanji nodded, licking his lips before taking another drag of his smoke. "I'll be in the kitchen."
"I'm kinda hungry," Nami realized aloud, watching Sanji's broad shoulders disappear into the cabin.
"You know," Robin mused. "He hasn't been fussing over us since he got back. I don't mind, I'll probably lose those last pesky five pounds…"
"Five pounds?" Franky rumbled. "Where?"
Robin smiled, "Good answer."
"Usopp," Nami called out, tossing her beautiful, orange hair over her shoulder. "Go get me a snack… Please…"
"Why me?" Usopp groaned, dropping his wrench between his legs. He wiped the sweat from his brow with a frown.
"You owe me money." Nami explained, rubbing her palms together. "You can start paying it off with chores around the ship."
"That's so messed up." Usopp complained, pushing off his knees and to his feet.
"Money makes the world go round." Nami chimed.
"He's gonna tell me no." Usopp pointed out, walking through the soft grass toward the cabin of the Sunny. "I don't have those…" Usopp gestured crudely with his hands against his chest. "He won't care if I ask."
"Try." Nami snipped, returning to sunbathing.
So Usopp wiped the grease and oil from his hands and followed after Sanji into the kitchen. He blinked in the darkness, his eyes adjusting to the absence of the bright sun. He walked the short distance to the kitchen and propped open the door. "Hey, uh, Nami was wonder-ing… if… you'd… uh…" Usopp trailed off, his stomach twisting into a painful knot.
Sanji didn't even bother to wipe his face. Tears poured from his eyes, snot leaked from his nose. He sat on the floor of the pantry, his knees bent, his legs pushed to the side, like a young child would sit. He sobbed openly, his hair sticking to his wet face. He looked so broken, so empty, at that moment.
"What's wrong?" Usopp asked, mentally kicking himself for asking such a stupid question. Sanji didn't appear to notice that Usopp had spoken at all. He gasped for air, his shoulders shaking breathlessly. Usopp walked into the kitchen and kneeled just outside of the pantry. "Sanji… What's going on?"
"Too much." Sanji choked out, his blue eyes blinking tears. "Too much at once."
Usopp didn't know what to say, didn't know how to act, so he simply reached out and hugged Sanji tightly. His heart pounded in his chest and he worried it was deafening in Sanji's ears. He held onto the cook, pushing away his worries about what he smelled like or if his clothes were getting Sanji's dirty. He pretended that his skin wasn't sweaty and covered in sea spray. And he just held onto Sanji until he ran out of tears and snot.
They didn't mention it. That would be weird, really weird and uncomfortable. Usopp was insecure and awkward and, although Sanji hadn't cried since the time in the pantry, they would find themselves alone together and Sanji would close in on the sniper. Sanji never said, never explained, what was bothering him, he would just press his head against Usopp's, or place his hand on Usopp's chest. And then, a moment later, it was over and done and Sanji would wordlessly light another cigarette and return to his business.
"He's just so different." Nami breathed out to a quiet murmur of agreement.
Brook spoke next, "Seeing his family was hard on him."
"His brothers were assholes." Luffy groaned. "I wanted to kick their asses."
Sanji paused, the tray of sandwiches balanced above his head. He pressed his back to the wall, hesitating before walking out. Eavesdropping, really.
"I'd never even heard of the Germa 66." Zoro replied, his back pressed against the counter. "Kinda sorry I missed all the action."
"Don't be." Chopper sighed.
"Weird talking food…" Luffy muttered in disapproval. "I'm hungry. What's taking Sanji so long?"
Sanji pushed off the wall and forced a smile as he entered the room, the tray of food held out in display. "Whooooo's hungryyyyy?"
"Awesome!" Luffy cheered, rubbing his hands together greedily. "Can't wait to eat your food."
The Captain's choice of words wasn't lost on Sanji. Your food. Those words made him feel special, but then he felt egocentric and daft for feeling that way. The memory of Luffy's emaciated, near-death visage flooded Sanji's mind. Luffy's body was broken and weak, but he wouldn't leave that spot. He said he needed Sanji, was it so crazy an idea to believe that?
"Smells tasty." Robin noted, handing a plate of snacks to Franky before grabbing another for herself.
"What is it? It certainly looks pretty," Brook asked, sipping from his cup of tea.
"Fatty tuna on a whole-wheat toast with cottage cheese, avocado, and a drizzle of sriracha." Sanji explained, twisting the tray so the plates were easy to reach.
"Sounds complicated…" Luffy murmured, eying the concoction curiously. "You say there's meat on here?"
"Short answer, sure." Sanji replied with a sigh.
Luffy grinned, "Good." He grabbed a slice of the covered toast and shoved the entire thing into his mouth at once. "Boddum's wup!"
"We can't understand you," Robin chimed, smiling indulgently before tasting her own snack.
"He said, 'bottom's up'." Zoro explained, pushing off from the counter and grabbing the second to last plate left on the tray.
"Yeah," Franky sputtered, covering his mouth with his enormous hand. "Of course Zoro understands Luffy when his mouth's full…"
Luffy snickered as he bit into his second slice of toast. Zoro's face reddened, his hands balling into fists at his side. "The fuck you say?"
"Nothin', brother…" Franky drawled, waving his hands peaceably.
"I don't get it." Chopper declared, shaking his head in confusion.
"Nothing for you to worry about," Robin cooed, smiling sweetly at Chopper before making furious eyes at Franky. "Franky! Never again!"
"Ah." Franky nodded obediently, it was easier than arguing with Robin.
"It's good." Usopp complimented, wiping his face with his arm.
"Yessssss!" Luffy cried out excitedly. "It's soooo goooood, Sanji!"
"Thanks," Sanji replied, flicking on the flame of his lighter. He leaned forward, lighting the end of his cigarette. He dropped the empty tray under his arm and turned around to walk away.
"Wait. Stay here and talk with everybody." Usopp suggested, shrugging his beautifully toned shoulders.
Sanji dragged slowly on his smoke before the corner of his mouth twitched upward, "What for?"
"Whaddaya mean, what for?!" Usopp snapped. "How rude!"
"The only people I wanna talk to are beautiful girls," Sanji replied, adjusting his tie neatly.
"And to think we almost got rid of you," Zoro teased.
"There's still time, Moss-Head," Sanji snarled, stepping forward in challenge.
"Wha'did you call me?" Zoro demanded.
"The same thing he always calls you," Chopper pointed out, raising a small hoof into the air.
"Such boundless energy," Robin commented.
"Yes. To be young again…" Brook agreed.
"I'm going back to the kitchen." Sanji spat, hurriedly stacking the empty plates together and carrying them out.
Luffy made a face, his eyes darting to Zoro, as if reprimanding his swordsman. Zoro grimaced and then shrugged his shoulders, "What?"
Sanji didn't think he had the energy to be Sanji. It just took too much damn effort. He wasn't sure if he had ever consciously decided how he should act in the first place or if he had just changed so much, so quickly. But he felt like a fraud. He felt like a knockoff of himself. It was fucking exhausting.
"Ya know," Franky began, casting a sideways glance in Sanji's direction. He undressed immodestly, standing naked from the waist down, leaning on his dresser as the ship swayed. "The girls are starting to feel unloved."
"Why's that?" Sanji asked, sliding the knot of his tie down with a crisp swish. He unbuttoned his buttons slowly, his hands moving purposefully and expertly.
"You're not fawning all over 'em." Franky answered, grabbing a clean pair of briefs from his top drawer.
"It is most uncharacteristic of you," Brook agreed, his jacket tossed over the side of his hammock.
Did it ever get me anywhere? Sanji thought. But instead he replied with, perhaps, an even more honest answer, "I just skipped out on my own wedding," Sanji snapped. "A man needs some time to recover from something like that…"
"Fucking Pudding…" Luffy growled under his breath, his tapping foot sending his hammock swinging back and forth. He lowered his hat over his face, blocking out the light. "I'm so angry I'm getting hungry again."
"Well stop!" Sanji groaned. "I just took off my pants! I'm not going back to work."
"Awwwwww…" Luffy complained, his face hidden from view behind his straw hat.
Sanji folded his tailored trousers neatly, placing them in the basket underneath his own dresser. The ship hit a rough wave and he grabbed the closest post to balance himself, being on the sea was absolutely natural to him. He was seamless on the water; a sort of buoyancy that he wished would transfer to other parts of his life, other parts of him.
Sanji undressed in silence, and then, when Franky turned out his light, in darkness. He shuffled around his dresser toward his bunk. He climbed up the ridges of the post, his thigh and calf muscles flexing attractively beneath his smooth, honey-colored skin.
"Hey, Zoro…" Luffy whispered into the darkness. "You awake?"
There was a heavy pause and then, "No."
"Damn." Luffy groaned, rolling over in his hammock. He placed his arm beneath his head, his large eyes blinking in the darkness. "Sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure." Zoro replied, his arm covering his eyes.
The dormitory was still for a long while. The hammocks rocked gently back and forth, the sea comforting them like a mother. The waves washed against the side of the Sunny, a peaceful, relaxing noise. The hammocks creaked slightly, the rope squeaking against the metal hooks. Someone coughed, Franky, and another person sniffled. Everything was quiet and normal.
Except Sanji. He lay in his hammock, his heart pounding in his chest. He couldn't sleep, not with his mind and his heart racing. He thought about everything. Every mistake, every awkward situation, every bad choice, every bad thing he'd ever done, it all came flooding into his mind the moment he touched his bed. He couldn't shake the feeling that everything was temporary, everything except his problems.
Once he thought everyone was asleep, Zoro slunk out of his hammock. He moved silently around the room, trying hard not to disturb anything or anyone. It was almost comical watching him sneak around the room like he fancied himself a ninja. Finally, Zoro climbed into Luffy's bunk and the pair began to whisper. Sanji couldn't believe his rotten luck. He considered saying something before things went too far, but then he couldn't bring himself to do it.
Sanji laid in his bed, the creaking of Luffy's hammock sounding more and more like nails on a chalkboard. He closed his eyes. There was benefit to being an accidental pervert, he wasn't thinking about how terrible of a person he was anymore. Sanji laughed at that realization, shaking his head.
"Shhhhhhhh!" Zoro hissed. "I heard…"
Sanji's eyes widened guiltily. He relaxed his body as much as possible, trying his best to appear asleep. To his surprise, Usopp spoke, "Why don't you go do that in the crow's nest?"
"Robin's in there." Luffy replied, sitting up in his hammock, his hair sticking out every which way.
"Oh, well, just fuck me then?" Usopp grumbled, slipping down from his hammock. "And there was no double meaning there either…"
"Sor-ry, Usopp…" Luffy apologized with a rather shameless snicker.
"Whatever." Usopp replied, walking toward the door.
"Wait." Sanji spoke up before he even realized he was going to. "I wanna escape too."
"Just great…" Zoro growled. "Seems everybody's awake."
"You're not as sneaky as you think you are." Usopp said, holding the door open for Sanji to pass through.
"I'm horrified knowing about what I usually sleep through," Sanji commented, his bare feet slapping against the deck as he walked.
"Where are you going?" Usopp asked, nodding toward the kitchen. "I wanted ice cream."
"You've got an appetite after that?" Sanji groaned, shaking his head. "I may still be sick."
"Eh." Usopp grunted. "Don't be so dramatic."
"I'm serious, damn it." Sanji insisted. "Just thinking about that Moss-Head sweating all over Luffy makes me want to die."
"So it has nothing to do with being two dudes fucking and everything to do with Zoro?" Usopp asked, arching a thick brow.
"Yeah." Sanji shrugged, suddenly feeling a bit cold, standing on the deck in only his underpants. "I mean, I don't know… It's not that weird, is it?"
Usopp grinned, flicking his thumb against his long nose, by habit, "Nah. I don't think so."
"You, uh, ever done it?" Sanji murmured, wishing he'd thought to grab a cigarette before leaving the dorm.
"W-w-w-w-w-w-w-w-what?!" Usopp stammered, gasping in shock at Sanji's question.
Sanji shrugged, feeling heat pool in his pale cheeks, "Ya know. You ever do that?"
"You mean with another dude?" Usopp questioned, his voice rising in volume.
Sanji's fingers twitched, missing his cigarette, "Yeah. Sure."
"Hell no." Usopp answered, waving his hand in flat refusal.
Sanji shrugged again, brushing his blonde hair to the side, "You ever think about it?"
Usopp looked at Sanji as if he had two heads, "You owe me ice cream."
"What? Why?" Sanji demanded, shaking his head, a soft laugh escaping past his lips.
"Asking weird ass questions…" Usopp accused, narrowing his eyes. He brushed a hand over his mess of black curls. It bounced right back to where it started and Usopp frowned.
"Don't worry." Sanji murmured, stepping back inside the cabin. He began to walk toward the kitchen, his heels thudding softly on the floor. "It's pretty."
"What is?" Usopp asked, his face twisting downward in confusion.
Sanji entered the kitchen, pulling an apron off the wall hook. He tied the apron expertly before grabbing a pack of smokes from one of the top cupboards. He lit his cigarette and took a long, slow drag. "Your hair. It's pretty."
Usopp stood there speechless, his hand darting to his hair. He patted it unsurely, almost waiting for the punchline. But Sanji merely smiled before opening the cupboard and taking out two glass bowls. He moved around the kitchen like he was born to do it. Usopp still couldn't formulate a response by the time Sanji handed him a bowl of ice cream and whipped topping smothered brownie with a split banana and toasted almonds, and as garnish, a drizzle of homemade caramel.
"What?" Sanji asked, holding his cigarette in one hand and a spoon in the other.
"Ah, nothing…" Usopp replied, shaking his head to clear it.
"You act like nobody's said it before." Sanji noted, popping an almond sliver into his mouth.
Usopp smiled, a strange laugh bubbling up from him, "Yeah, well, cause they haven't…"
Sanji leaned in closely, his fingers coiling around a strand of Usopp's hair. The curl bounced back as soon as Sanji let go. Sanji shrugged slightly, his cigarette held in front of him, "I'm not wrong." About this, he added in his head.
Usopp smiled wider, a strange burgundy color settling into his dark-skinned cheeks. "Ah, well, uh, thanks…"
Sanji nodded, dipping his spoon into his dessert and bring up a huge chunk of brownie and ice cream. He shoved the spoon into his mouth, twisting it upside down against his tongue to get every last crumb of goodness. He tapped the spoon against his bottom lip and smiled, "Sure."
This is a panic attack, Sanji realized, for all the good that did him. He clutched his chest, his back pressed painfully against the bottom shelf of the walk-in freezer. He didn't feel the cold. He undid his tie, yanking it away from his throat as if it was stealing his breath. He unbuttoned the top button of his orange dress shirt.
"Damn it." Sanji snarled, his fingers wrapping around the frosted shelf in front of him. He clenched his hands tightly and shook as forcefully as he could manage. His skin stuck to the surface a bit and pulled, leaving his fingers and palms skinned raw. "Fuck."
He cradled his hands against his chest and sat down on his bottom. He leaned against the shelving behind him, his eyes closing. This crushing feeling of catastrophe was all in his head. He was back on the Sunny, back with the crew, back with the Captain. He took a few slow, deep breaths before succumbing. He gasped for air, his chest tightening painfully.
It's not a heart attack, he reminded himself. He wondered if that made it a brain attack. He felt a heaviness on his shoulders, a peculiar discomfort in his neck and he slapped at his face wildly, searching for something that wasn't there. "What the fuck…?" Sanji spit out his words tersely.
"You're not seven anymore, you piece of shit." Sanji growled, knocking his head backward against a shelf post. "Act like a damn man."
"Saaaaanjiiiiiiiiiii!" Luffy drawled, his muffled voice carrying all the way inside the freezer. "I'm hungryyyyyy! When's breakfast?"
Sanji pushed himself to his feet, his joints popping and clicking in complaint. He grabbed several slabs of beautiful, marbled meat and carried them out, placing them in the fridge to thaw over the next few days.
Zoro popped his head into the kitchen. He looked around before nodding toward Sanji in greeting. "Can I help you?"
Zoro shrugged, "Just looking for you."
Sanji grabbed the basket of eggs and moved it toward the stove. He reached above his head and pulled the cast iron skillet down from its holder. He quickly lit another cigarette. "Here I am."
"I can see that." Zoro replied, his cheek twitching.
"Tell Luffy to hold his horses." Sanji replied, taking several feet of sausage links down from where they were drying.
Zoro nodded, turning to leave. He hesitated in the doorway, "Hey. You okay?"
Sanji wanted to laugh, but he couldn't. His face was too cold to react. "Sure."
"What the hell's going on?" Sanji demanded, appearing in the doorway holding a sizzling pan in one hand and a spatula in the other.
"Damn Navy showed up." Franky barked.
Zoro had his swords unsheathed. Luffy was blown up like a giant balloon. Usopp, Chopper, and Brook screamed, per usual. Robin stood behind Franky keeping an eye on the situation as Nami barked directional orders.
Sanji looked around, giving the meat a quick stir. "Well, keep the ship steady. I nearly dropped lunch all over the floor…"
"Oh, yeah, okay." Franky snapped, twisting the helm in a defensive maneuver. "I'm more worried about the Sunny than you spilling the food."
Sanji opened his mouth to reply smartly, but realized the pan was losing temperature too fast and his meat would stew. He shook his head and returned to the kitchen, muttering about Franky and the fucking Navy the entire way.
Sanji hooked his leg around the post of the sink, steeling himself for the coup de burst that was sure to follow. Sanji lurched to the side, grabbing all his bowls and pans and balancing them precariously as the Sunny shot through the air. He shook his head as they settled back down into the sea. He chuckled, placing all the bowls and pans back down, "Seriously. No one has any respect for my art."
What other chef, in all the world, could manage his kitchen? Sanji smiled. If there was one thing good in this world, one thing brilliant enough to outshine the bad, it was food. The best part of life was the right food, the right ingredients. And the right portion, he added, thinking of Usopp's binging problem. He chuckled again, imagining the stacked sniper as big as Luffy got and round as a ball.
Sanji shook his head. A chill creeping down his spine as he recalled his time spent on Newkama Island. The Kenpo was worth remembering, but that was about it. Sanji shook his head, trying to clear the image of himself in pink frills from his mind. Some things were just not worth thinking about ever again. When everyone had told their stories from the past two years, he hadn't said much at all.
"Luffy wanted me to check on lunch." Usopp announced, stepping into the kitchen. "He was concerned."
"It's fine." Sanji replied.
"Good. I'll tell 'em." Usopp said with a nod.
"Hey, Usopp," Sanji called after the other.
"Yeah?" Usopp hovered in the doorway, waiting expectantly.
"Which tastes better?" Sanji questioned, leaning forward and pushing a spoon into Usopp's mouth. "This?"
Usopp's eyes widened in surprise before he nodded, giving a thumb's up. "That's good."
"Or this?" Sanji asked, popping another spoon past Usopp's thick lips.
"The second one, maybe… I don't know. They both taste good." Usopp answered unsurely. "Yeah, uh, the second one?"
"Why are you asking me? I'm asking you." Sanji said, highly amused. For some reason Usopp didn't look so… Sanji tilted his head in thought. What was he thinking about? He honestly didn't know what was going to follow.
"The second one." Usopp breathed out, nodding his head emphatically.
"Good. Thank you." Sanji replied, palming his hand against Usopp's cheek affectionately. He returned to cooking, overlooking the bewildered expression on Usopp's face.
Sanji stood on the deck, his back to the rest of the crew, his eyes on the sea. He'd smoked three cigarettes and was already on his fourth. The sea was so blue, so clear. The salt clung to him, leaving his hair and skin sticky. He tapped a bit of ash off the end of his cigarette.
"I'm in no rush to meet Kaido." Nami said, drawing Sanji's attention to their conversation.
"I'll kick his ass." Luffy declared confidently. Zoro made a face but didn't say a word and Sanji wondered what it was like having to try and corral the Captain, even a little.
"I'm still recovering from Dressrosa." Usopp groaned, slapping his hands on his face in dismay.
"You did wonderfully in Dressrosa, God Usopp…" Robin teased, patting Usopp on the shoulder.
"Agh!" Usopp grunted, throwing his hands in the air. "I don't even wanna think about it. Let alone Kaido!"
"Fucking yonkos." Luffy grumbled, folding his arms beneath his head as a pillow.
"At least you've never had to sleep with one…" Brook spoke lowly.
"That just sounds…" Franky shook his head.
"Ewwwwwww!" Luffy drawled, sticking out his tongue in disgust. "Brook, you slept with Big Mam?"
"That is SO rude! You know what I meant!" Brook shrieked in frustration.
Sanji wasn't ready to talk about Big Mam or Whole Cake Island or Pudding or Germa 66 or the Vinsmoke family or any other fucking thing related to them. And he certainly wasn't ready to joke about it. He let out a hiss, putting out his cigarette. He turned around, looking from one crewmate to another. "Shut up!"
Brook stopped abruptly, his mouth hanging open. Franky scoffed in annoyance. Nami and Robin exchanged a look. Chopper squeaked in fright, as if he couldn't possibly have seen enough horror in his life to become immune at this point. Zoro was silent, his red eyes on Sanji. Luffy licked his lips, his fingertips sliding across the brim of his hat. And Usopp, Usopp looked like he knew what was going on. But that was impossible, hell; even Sanji didn't know what was going on.
Franky spoke first, "What's wrong, brother?"
Sanji took a deep breath to calm himself. He lit another cigarette and took a slow drag before responding, "I don't wanna talk about Big Mam. I don't wanna talk about any of that shit."
Zoro was the first to reply, biting out the words, "Then don't. Just fucking listen."
"Don't start a fight." Nami snapped. "Luffy, take control here…"
"Look, I'm not a micromanager…" Luffy said, raising his hands and shrugging.
"Is it true that soufflé will be ruined if there's too much noise?" Usopp asked, scratching his cheek.
"What?" Sanji asked, turning toward Usopp in confusion.
"Is it true that a soufflé will 'fall' if there's a loud noise?" Usopp repeated.
Sanji puffed on his cigarette, a humored smile twitching at the sides of his mouth, "That's a myth."
"So why do soufflés collapse then?" Usopp asked.
"There are air bubbles in the eggs, the air is heated and then starts to cool." Sanji explained. "But it depends on the chef, really. My soufflés turn out perfectly."
"Man, now I'm hungry." Luffy groaned.
"I once had a crab meat soufflé." Robin added, smiling at Usopp like he'd done something wonderful. "It was divine. I can only imagine if Sanji-kun were to make one."
Sanji brushed off the flattery. "My favorite is chocolate liqueur with raspberry sauce."
"Oh my Goooood…" Luffy drawled, drool dripping down his chin. "Make me one, Sanji!"
Sanji adjusted his tie and jacket, "Sure. But you have to wait. It takes time."
"I hate waiting…" Luffy whined.
"You can just come with me." Sanji murmured, nodding toward Usopp. "Since you made more work for me."
"Sorry." Usopp replied with an apologetic smile.
"Don't touch anything." Sanji ordered, walking into the kitchen. "Just sit there."
"Okay… sitting…" Usopp mumbled, twisting on the barstool like a child.
Sanji smiled, half his face hidden by a veil of golden blonde hair. "You know what I think?"
"What?" Usopp asked, adjusting his suspenders.
Sanji slid his mixer bowl forward on the counter. He grabbed his basket of eggs and a bottle of black liquid. He searched for the cocoa among his powdered spices. "I think some men make such pretty women you can't tell they're men."
"W-hat?" Usopp made a face, his lips scrunched together.
Sanji stepped on his tiptoes, pulling a sack of flour down from the top shelf. "Some men want to be women. There's actually a lot of them…" Sanji explained, pausing to look at Usopp. "Believe it or not, I know some."
"Okaaay…" Usopp drawled. "You've lost your mind."
"No, just hear me out…" Sanji beseeched. "What if there are even more than that? What if some of them are so good-looking that we'd never know they weren't born women?"
"You've lost me." Usopp admitted, shaking his head. "What's this about?"
"You could've hit on dudes before." Sanji said finally, grabbing his measuring cups and clapping them together noisily.
"Wow. Okay." Usopp looked toward the door, as if meaning to escape.
"But if they're dressed like women, act like women, walk around as women, aren't they women?" Sanji continued.
"Yeah. I suppose…" Usopp replied. He made a face, uncertainty etched in every feature. "Are you saying you, uh, want to, um, be a… woman?"
"What? Hell no? What the fuck?!" Sanji blurted, straightening his tie unnecessarily. "Where'd you come up with that?"
"I thought from the conversation we were having!" Usopp shouted, his voice cracking slightly.
"No." Sanji snapped. "Not where I was going."
"Agh! You're being weird. I have no idea what we're talking about…"
Sanji sighed. He busied himself with mixing the dry ingredients and then hesitated, turning back around to look at Usopp. "I just thought, I'm sure all of us have been attracted to a different sort of person before. We may not even know it when it happens."
"Maybe…" Usopp replied, chuckling awkwardly.
"It makes Luffy and that fucking weirdo seem more normal, doesn't it?" Sanji reasoned, mostly to himself.
"Honestly, I think Franky and Robin are more unnatural, but whatever…" Usopp joked, snickering at his own brilliance.
Sanji nodded and then shrugged, "It seems like you can go your whole life liking something in particular and then all of a sudden something changes…"
"Okay, I can see what you're saying," Usopp replied, folding his arms over his chest. "Like my parents, my dad was white, my mom was black. But I think they just liked each other as people, ya know…"
"Exactly." Sanji agreed. "I think affection is blind in that sort of way."
"Or maybe," Usopp challenged. "Affection actually lets you see better than ever before… Like suddenly, you're looking at someone else and all you see is who they really are. I'd rather think that affection is really knowing someone else and appreciating everything about them, rather than just ignoring the bad parts."
Sanji was silent for a moment, his heart beating in his throat. He swallowed and nodded, his fingers clutching the edge of the counter. "Yeah," he breathed out. "That does sound better."
"I know you're feeling down," Usopp continued. "I can't imagine what it was like for you. But I know you're confused… And it has to be hard to be planning a wedding… and then…" Usopp trailed off before shrugging. "You're gonna find someone. Ya know. Someone who loves you flaws and all…"
"Why not you?" The words were out before Sanji could stop them. Usopp's face twitched, like a little bunny. Sanji covered his mouth, shocked at his own insane declaration. Usopp blinked on the barstool. Sanji blanched, his heart pounding painfully in his chest. "I'm gonna make dessert now…"
"I don't understand." Usopp said quietly.
Sanji cleared his throat, "I'm talking about the soufflé."
"Oh." Usopp nodded uncertainly.
"Can you do me a favor?" Sanji asked, his eyes never leaving his hands.
"Yep." Usopp agreed readily.
"Can you go ask tell Luffy to catch some more fish?" Sanji requested.
"There's plenty in there." Usopp replied, hitching his thumb in the general direction of their massive fish tank. "I was fishing all morning."
"Yeah, but," Sanji stalled, biting down on his lip. "I plan on using most of those tonight."
Usopp nodded, "Okay. I'll let the guys know."
Sanji growled as soon as Usopp stepped out of the kitchen. He kicked the lower cupboard, the wood splintering. "Fuck!" Sanji raged, infuriated that he was now fucking up his own kitchen. It took every bit of him not to toss the fucking mixer out of a porthole. Wasting food was unforgivable, even when you were angry.
"You need to calm down, Sanji." Usopp ordered.
Sanji looked from the kitchen door to Usopp in surprise, "I thought you…"
"Yeah, well, it's obvious that you were just trying to get rid of me." Usopp pointed out, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Then why'd you come back?!" Sanji demanded, pushing the broken cupboard door under the sink and out of view with his foot.
Usopp shook his head, clicking his tongue, "A man doesn't abandon his friends."
"Oh," Sanji breathed out. "You're doing that thing you do… Where you make shit up and say it loud enough it sounds convincing…"
"Hey!" Usopp retorted. "That's not nice! I actually mean that stuff I say, I'll have you know!"
"Sure, Captain Usopp…" Sanji teased, using his spatula to form a salute.
"Okay, well, I mean the heartfelt stuff…" Usopp corrected, his cheeks stained magenta. "I speak from the heart!"
Sanji laughed out loud, "How can you say such corny stuff?"
"What?!" Usopp yelled. "It's not corny, it's cool!"
"It's not cool… it's not cool…" Sanji insisted, shaking his head and smiling.
"Yeah, well, you're not so cool yourself, ya know!" Usopp accused pointing a finger at Sanji.
"Oh? I'm not? Well, maybe, I'm not trying to be cool…!" Sanji responded.
"You are… You know you are…"
"Cool? Yes, I've heard," Sanji returned.
"Oh, you ass! I just came back in here to say something and you've just managed to piss me off!" Usopp exclaimed. "I wish soufflés really did get messed up because of loud noises…"
"Well they don't…"
"Too bad!" Usopp continued. He stomped his foot on the ground repeatedly.
"You dumbass, it's not even in the oven yet. You're just wasting your energy!" Sanji shook his head. "And it wouldn't work anyway!"
"Come on then, what did you wanna say?" Sanji demanded, waving his arm in gesture.
"Why not me?" Usopp blurted. "I mean, why not you?"
Sanji dropped his spatula. It bounced on the counter noisily. They just stared at each other for a moment, their hearts beating wildly in their chests. Sanji cleared his throat, snatching a cigarette from his pack, "Why not me? Well, I don't know, for starters I'm crazy about women."
"Okay. I can appreciate a good set of titties, just like the next guy," Usopp shrugged. "Heaven knows I'm a pathological liar…"
"Not really. It's more like exaggeration," Sanji retorted. "You know, I'm impatient. And I yell a lot…"
"So? I flip out over everything!" Usopp confessed. "Every single fucking thing. I get overwhelmed and I just turn into a whiny little coward…"
"You stay when it counts," Sanji dismissed, his cigarette held between his lips. "I'm unreliable. I disappear a lot. I like to be alone. I don't tell people where I'm going and I just go…"
"And that pisses us off, yeah." Usopp nodded. "But you're damn useful. You're so strong. I wish I could be a fraction of that…"
"You're strong too." Sanji said simply. "You just pretend you're not 'cause you're a bit of a coward."
"Maybe," Usopp conceded with a shrug. "But then you pretend you like to be alone because you're actually really fucking sensitive. You're easy to anger and you cry when you're sad and… and… You've actually got a lot bigger heart than you let on."
"I just keep thinking about you," Sanji admitted, stepping forward. "I don't know why. But I just keep thinking, over and over again. Why not you?"
"I'm not pretty. I'm a dude." Usopp answered, dropping his hand down to his groin pointedly.
"I don't care." Sanji blurted.
"You might think that now, but what about when… when…"
"I think you're beautiful." Sanji interrupted. "I like your nose and your smile. I like your dark skin. You're not a girl, but your body is, is, it's still curvy and fit and I…"
"And your hair…" Sanji continued. "The color, the texture, I love it. I just want to touch it, run my hands through it."
"You don't touch curls… It ruins the whole thing…" Usopp muttered.
"Why not me?" Sanji asked, his cigarette dropping to his side. "Am I not good enough? I mean, I never thought I was, but…"
"Oh my God. Just shut up." Usopp groaned, closing the distance between them. He folded his arms behind his back and rocked up on his toes. Usopp sighed, tilting his head to the side to get his nose out of the way. And then they kissed. It was a short kiss. A sweet kiss. A make-them-both-blush kiss.
"So, was it terrible?" Usopp asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet nervously.
"No. Not at all." Sanji breathed out, stroking Usopp's cheek. "What about for you?"
"I don't know." Usopp answered. "Maybe we should do it again."
"Sure." Sanji whispered, his forehead pressing against Usopp's. He leaned down, his hand brushing aside some of Usopp's curls. And then they kissed again. They kissed once more, longer, deeper, more passionate. Sanji cleared his throat nervously, his cigarette held away from Usopp cautiously. "What'd you think?"
"The second one." Usopp replied with a nod.
"The second what?" Sanji asked, his curly brows knitting together in confusion.
"That second, uh, kiss…" Usopp clarified, looking down at his feet. "I liked that one best."
"Oh." Sanji nodded, feeling a little drunk. "What was better about it?"
"Oh, uh," Usopp mumbled in embarrassment, his heart throbbing. "It was longer, maybe?"
"Would you like to do it again?" Sanji questioned, his blue eyes expectant, a strange fluttering in his abdomen.
Usopp smiled, snapping his suspenders, "Why not?"