The first thing Sanji saw when he opened his eyes was Zoro's face scowling down at him.
He closed his eyes again, tired. This wasn't supposed to be happening, he couldn't be there. Last night had been the seventh, the last attempt, and he had saved them. He had gone with the old lady willingly, safe in the knowledge he had won and his nakama would live. They might not forgive him for dying, but they would be alive.
But this--this was too much. Was he supposed to keep living the same day, the same awful, terrible day again and again? Was that was Hell was about? He didn't know for how long he was going to be able to stand it before he broke again, if that was the case.
Seven days of seeing his friends dying had almost cost him his sanity.
"Oi Cook," Zoro said in a gruff whisper and Sanji steeled himself to hear the rest of what he knew was coming, "I know you're awake so open your fucking eyes and look at me."
Sanji's eyes snapped open. That was different.
Zoro also looked different, he was bruised and more bandaged than the day before, and his expression was nothing short of murderous. Sanji opened his mouth to say something and found he couldn't speak, his throat was dry and the words refused to form in his dumbfounded brain.
Zoro filled the silence for both of them, his voice too loud in the quiet night, "What the fuck did you think you were doing, idiot?" Zoro yelled, specks of spit flying from his mouth and landing on Sanji's face, who was too stunned to even wipe them with the disgust it deserved. "What was going through that shitty brain of yours to do that? You think you can walk out on us like that?"
Sanji didn't answer, he couldn't. All he could do was stare at Zoro, whose face was getting redder by the minute and his voice louder, and wonder why he wasn't dead. He should be, by all accounts he should be dead.
"But--" he managed, his voice a chocked whisper. Sanji cleared his throat and tried again. "But I--she--I--"
Zoro's eyes narrowed, "She!" he spat venomously, "that witch."
Sanji blinked in surprise, "What?" Zoro couldn't know about the woman, about Death. Only Sanji had seen her, only he had known about her. "Why am I not dead?" he finally asked.
Zoro glared at him, "Do you want to die so badly?"
"No, but she said--"
"It doesn't matter what she said," Zoro said averting his eyes for the first time.
Sanji looked at him sharply, "What did you do, bastard?" he asked suspiciously.
Zoro hauled himself over the railing, glad he had the presence of mind to grab it when the bastard cook kicked him over it. He was going to give the idiot a piece of his mind for pulling that shit on him. He took a second to catch his breath, eyes scanning the fine mist still covering the Sunny. Nothing moved in it.
"Oi Cook!" he shouted looking wildly around. He had a bad feeling; the deck was unnaturally quiet considering the fight that had been going on when he had been kicked overboard. "Sanji! Answer me!"
If he was honest with himself he had been having a weird feeling the entire day, some scenes playing in front of him like déjà vu. And then, that strange conversation with the cook-- I've been going through this enough to know what we have to do,--what he was thinking was insane but he had learned to trust his instincts, which was the reason he agreed to do what Sanji asked of him.
He had not expected to be the next one supposed to take a swim, though.
"Sanji! Answer me you bastard!" He was beyond worried now, and the fucking mist didn't dissipate.
He saw her then: an old woman leaning over something--someone. She was almost translucent and her hand passed through the figure on the deck. Zoro took a step closer and saw a shock of blonde hair matted with blood, a pool of blood still forming under the body and spreading over the deck.
He rushed to their side, his white katana already unsheathed and ready to cut the old woman if needed.
"Keep your hands off him," he said, his voice an unsteady growl.
"You can and you will," Zoro said warningly taking another step closer.
She turned to look at him then, her eyes bottomless pits of sorrow and knowledge. Zoro shuddered.
He agreed, are you going to make his sacrifice futile? Are you going to mock his pain and effort?
Zoro stared at her, speechless. Sanji couldn't, he just couldn't have. Zoro remembered their conversation and narrowed his eyes. Of course he had, the hypocritical bastard.
"I won't let you," Zoro insisted stubbornly refusing to let Sanji go and wondering if that was the way the idiot had felt when they woke up in Thriller Bark. If he had it was no wonder he was pissed off, right now Zoro felt like killing him.
Only Sanji was already dead.
What can you do? He made his choice and he was happy with it.
"Why him?" Zoro heard himself asking, defeated, his sword clattering uselessly on the deck.
He was strong and selfless, it couldn't have been anyone else.
Zoro nodded. He didn't know what he was going to tell Luffy and the rest of the crew--he didn't know what he could tell himself to make it easier to breathe.
I've never encountered a group like yours, you are all so eager to die for each other.
"It won't make a difference if I say to take me instead, will it?" Zoro asked looking at her and saw how her smile made her look so much younger, almost like a little girl.
I don't think that would make him happy, have you considered that?"
Zoro snorted a bitter laugh. "At least he'd be alive to be pissed off." Which was probably the same reasoning Sanji had when he decided to get everyone away from the ship and die alone. "How long?" He asked remembering Sanji's words and wondering for how long he had endured.
Seven days, one for each piece of his soul, one for each one of his living friends. Zoro saw a glint in the girl's eyes. She was telling him that for a reason, she was still there talking to him for a reason.
He needed to think.
There was a noise behind him signalling the arrival of everyone else. Some outraged cries and curses and the wet stomping of feet on the wooden deck.
"Damn Sanji, kicking me so hard!" Fanky's voice shouted, chorused by everyone else's agreement in varied and colourful words. Zoro's heart clenched.
"Zoro! Sanji! Where are you?" Luffy shouted and he was about to say something when a shocked scream pierced the air, the mist finally disappearing.
"Sanji!" Nami rushed to his side and knelt next to the body, completely oblivious of the shimmering presence of the girl next to her. "Sanji! Wake up Sanji!"
Everyone gathered around the fallen cook, eyes wide and disbelieving. Neither of them paid any attention to the girl except for Brook. Brook looked at Sanji and then his hollow eyes turned to look at the girl and Zoro could see all the pain and sadness in his empty expression.
I didn't think I'd see you again. You're looking good, your hair looks exactly the same.
Brook nodded, for one not making any tasteless joke. "Are you taking him?" Chopper was crying, wringing his hands uselessly and shaking his head. Next to him Usopp was bawling like a baby.
I think so. Robin was now staring at Sanji silently, her pretty eyes filled with tears and her chest heaving in silent sobs.
"Is there something I can do?" Brook said slowly, looking intently at the girl. "Have you already taken him?"
Zoro snapped out of it at that, blocking the sound of grief around him and focusing entirely on the girl. "You said seven days, seven parts," Zoro said slowly, an idea taking shape in his brain. "And you said he can't do anything. What about me? What about us?"
The girl smiled proudly, as if Zoro was a small kid who got the right answer in class.
"Can you see her, Zoro?" Brook asked distantly but Zoro paid him no attention, his senses centred only on the girl.
"Seven days, seven parts--and he can't do anything. You didn't say there is nothing that can be done, just that he can't. I can, can't I? We can."
I've never seen people like you, people who share not just a friendship. You share your souls.
And Zoro knew.
"You're taking him in exchange for our souls; can't you take part of us in exchange of his?"
Giving part of your life for a friend is not easily done, you know you might not live enough to accomplish your dreams that way.
Her smile this time was the most beautiful Zoro had ever seen, almost blinding in its radiance and he wondered if she was really Death and not some kind of angel.
"Zoro?" Brooke was calling but he still ignored him.
"You can do that, can't you?" he asked, almost pleadingly.
He's not going to be happy. Zoro nodded, of course Sanji wasn't going to be happy to be rescued again, but Zoro didn't give a shit about that. He'd rather deal with a pissed off cook than the grief quickly filling everyone on the ship. They have to agree, it's their lives as well.
Zoro stood up and looked at his nakama.
"Sanji is not answering, Zoro," Luffy said, the sorrow in those simple words enough to break his heart.
"I know. But we can make it better."
"Zoro, he's dead," Chopper said his voice chocked with emotion.
"Yeah." He stared at them, their pain and tears, and knew it was going to be all right. "If you could, would you give anything to have him back?"
They looked at him uncomprehendingly for an instant, the seriousness of his words opposed to their deep sorrow, and their tears stopped. Luffy was the first one to answer, his simple mind probably understanding what was going on before the rest of them.
"Even part of your life? You might not live to be Pirate King if you do it."
"Yes," Luffy had that focused look on him now, studying Zoro intently. "Being Pirate King is not good if my nakama are not with me."
"Anything," the rest of the crew echoed.
Zoro nodded and turned to the girl. "There you have it. Do it now."
"What did you do?" Sanji repeated his voice a low growl. There was something shifty in the way Zoro wasn't looking at him.
"Nothing. I didn't do anything, we all did," Zoro said turning to look at him squarely in the eye. There was a world of pain and anger reflected in them and it made Sanji's heart clench. "But don't worry she also took a part of you. We're alive thanks to you and you're alive thanks to us, leave it at that."
Sanji closed his eyes and leaned back, a rush of relief and tiredness washing over him. He was glad to live, and even more to know everyone one else also lived.
"It's over," he said in a broken whisper. "It's really over."
He couldn't help it then, couldn't stop it and didn't even care if Zoro saw. He had been so scared, so fucking terrified of losing, of failing again. He didn't want to die, but he had wanted to lose even less. The tears stung his eyes and slid down his temples, silently at first and then in huge wracking sobs. There was no way to stop the flood now, his entire body convulsing in a mixture of pain and relief, the images of his dead nakama merging with Zoro's words in his mind.
It was over.
He felt hands clumsily patting his head, giving him the comfort of touch and warmth, the assurance of the other person's life. Suddenly the hands were grabbing his shoulders, awkwardly pulling him up and against a strong chest.
"Fucking shitty cook, always doing things your way," Zoro whispered in his ear, "always thinking you're stronger than anyone else and that you have to do everything on your own. I could kill you for pulling that shit on us."
Sanji almost laughed something about pots and kettles on the tip of his tongue. He didn't voice it, though; too busy crying his eyes out.
After what felt like an eternity his tears dried and he pulled out of Zoro's embrace slowly, looking around for his pack of cigarettes. He needed a smoke to compose himself.
"Here," Zoro stood up and grabbed them from one of the cabinets, passing them to Sanji and sitting again in the chair next to the bed. He was a bit flushed but his eyes were completely dry.
He smoked in silence enjoying the simple pleasure of the nicotine rushing through his system, the taste of tobacco in his mouth and the smell of the smoke around him. It was comforting to do something so trivial after the whole ordeal.
"I'll go tell the guys you're already awake," Zoro said after a while, standing up and moving to the door. "You're in for a long rant from Luffy and probably a couple of punches from the Sea-witch."
Sanji nodded, he had guessed as much considering the marimo's reaction. He was really lucky if that was all they did to him.
"And Sanji," Zoro said from the door, turning to look at him with a smirk on his face. "When you're out of here we'll talk about kissing dying people who won't remember it."
Sanji's heart stopped at that, his face flushing. Zoro couldn't know, could he? One look at his expression told him he could, and indeed, he knew.
Was it too late to seek Death and ask her to reconsider letting him live? Zoro was surely going to kill him.
"Let's see if you can do that again when I won't forget," Zoro finished with a last amused look and closed the door after him. Sanji stared at the closed door and sighed, leaning back on the bed.
He could hear the noise of his Captain and the rest of the crew approaching: loud cries of hunger, kicks, punches and general chaos walking toward him.
Another near death experience for the Straw Hats--too near for comfort, but what the hell, nothing new--and normal life returned to the Sunny.
Everything stayed the same.
Or not, he thought closing his eyes and smiling, Zoro's face swimming into focus in his mind.
Maybe some things did change.
The Black Ship stood still in the eye of a huge storm, its crew playing cards on the deck or just lazing about, its Captain sitting on the Crow's Nest, eyes scanning the turbulent waters of the sea.
The next red moon was almost a month away and there wasn't much for them to do until then.
A shimmering shape materialized next to him. An old woman, face wreathed in lines of sorrow and kind, gentle eyes.
Looks could be so deceiving.
"I win," she said to him.
The Captain looked almost like her, his own shape translucent and his face as aged as hers.
"You cheated," he said, not sounding very upset. It had been an interesting match, one he didn't mind losing. And besides, the Straw Hats Pirates hadn't been good candidates for Hell, they were too nice.
"I didn't!" She was offended and he smiled his face turning into that of a handsome young man. "I won fair and square; you didn't take even one of them."
"You helped them; I was so close to adding their souls to my collection--" It would have been a pity, though. He hadn't stooped so low as to enjoy harvesting good souls. But he had to do what he had to do.
She also smiled, "But you didn't, so it's my win."
"Stop repeating it, idiot! I got it the first time!" He said without much heat, a smile paying on his lips. "Do you think they'll ever notice you didn't take anything from them?"
She shook her head. "No, I don't think they will. They offered, and that was all there was to it. They passed the test."
"Yes, I knew they would. But it was close."
"It always is when they do."
He stood up and turned to look out of the window. "Hey, when can we return home? I'm getting tired of this place."
She walked up to him and put her hand on his shoulder, squeezing a bit. "Soon, we've almost served out our punishment. A couple more tainted souls and they'll let us back. The next ship is on the way, I think they are called the Blackbeard Pirates. They are perfect candidates for the game." She smiled again and there was nothing kind in it this time.
"Good for salvation?" he said, his smile matching hers.
"No, the other way round. I'll enjoy harvesting those souls."
He laughed, "So I'll have to play the kind Death this time."
She gave him a look. "You don't do kind."
They chuckled together, sharing the joke, and returned to watch the ocean, waiting for their next chance.
Soon they'd return home.