Written for a wonderful anon at the P4 kink meme. The original is still up at part 5, this version just has a few minor errors fixed, and I'm just archieving it.
Spoilers for P4's true ending and the end of Shabody Archipelago arc in One Piece.
The Weirdest Place
The restaurant had a very distinctive smell- that of expertly-made food mixed with cigarette smoke. It was a small place, so it's no wonder. There were only four tables and a ridiculously cramped bar, all of this hidden away in a nook in the shopping district, previously the place of one of the smaller business that had closed up and been refurbished in a relatively short amount of time.
Despite this less-than-stellar presentation, the place gained popularity based solely on the fact that the food was great. The four tables were always full, and those who didn't find a place simply ordered for take-out and had a fine lunch by the shrine. And according to Rise, the head chef -the only chef- was quite handsome too, and a gentleman to boot.
"He's really flattering, but it's different from when other guys do it. He actually sounds sincere!" she commented once, when the restaurant had just opened and she was excitedly telling the rest of the group about it. But it wasn't until she turned specifically to Chie and said, "And you have to try the steak," that Chie was sold.
It would have been nice if they had been able to go all together that afternoon, but first it was Yosuke the one who apologized because he had his part-time job that day, and following his lead Kanji remembered he had to finish a plush bunny some mother had commissioned for her daughter, Yukiko had to help out at the inn and Rise's grandmother was ill so there were only a few people manning the tofu shop. Naoto had been busy with a burglary case since a few days ago and had barely even been showing to school.
"Urgh, if Souji was here he would have come with me," Chie lamented as they left the school. The others were already heading in different directions, and Yukiko promised Chie that they would go together the moment she got some free time before sprinting off to the closest bus stop. Chie sighed. While she always thought that food tasted better with company, great steak was something she had to try as soon as possible, so she was set on going to the new restaurant today.
"Don't worry Chie-senpai. We'll at least walk with you there," Rise said, skipping ahead of Chie and Kanji and offering a smile. Kanji looked at Chie and shrugged.
She laughed. "Thanks, I guess."
They left Kanji at the textile shop and continued their way down the street. Rise pointed to a building further down and across from the shrine, where over a door a medium-sized billboard read 'BARATIE' in English, with the Japanese name written bellow. The façade looked western, with a wood frame around the door, a rustic lantern hanging over it and a window to its side.
"There you go. There shouldn't be too many people at this time of the day, so you just walk up to the counter and ask for Sanji. Tell him I sent you, ok? See ya." With that and a wave, Rise left to her grandmother's store.
"Right. See ya." Chie said, though Rise was well out of earshot by now. She turned to the restaurant, gripping the straps of her backpack, and began to make her way towards it with a grin on her face. Good steak; she couldn't wait.
The bell twinkled when Chie pushed the door open. The scent of recently-made tonkatsu immediately hit her.
Inside there were only three other girls sitting at a table deeply engrossed in some giggly conversation, so Chie chose to sit by the counter, as far from the noise as possible. Nobody was attending, though the menu was written on a large blackboard hanging on the opposite wall. Man, does this guy handle the place by himself? Chie wondered, leaning to the right to try and peek through the kitchen door. Right at that moment the curtain parted and a tall, blonde man strode through, carrying a ridiculously large quantity of dishes and side-dishes to the table with the three girls.
"Here you go. Special order made just for you," he said as he quickly laid the plates on the table. It ended up looking like a mini-buffet; the man bowed when the girls showered him with praises of how good it all looked. And Chie had to agree: the crispy pork, the neatly cut vegetables, the steamy soup… man, her mouth was watering.
"Ah! Another costumer!"
She was brought back to reality by the man's exclamation; he'd finished taking compliments (and complimenting the girls back) and finally noticed Chie. Now she found herself face to face with this foreign-looking, rather…handsome young man, who was looking at her with a bright smile. She only had an instant to notice the strange, curly eyebrow before he continued.
"And another lady! Today must be my lucky day," he said smoothly, striding the few steps it took to get behind the counter. "You can order anything you want. I would not be able to say no to someone as cute as you!"
His words caught her off-guard and she felt herself quickly blushing. "Oh- um, well," she stammered, glancing to the side and then fixing her gaze on the menu, starting to read it much faster than necessary.
"Don't feel limited by that!" Sanji said, extending a hand as if to dismiss the blackboard. "I mean what I say; whatever whim you think of, I'll cook it."
Chie glanced to the side; the shy smile that was appearing on her lips made her feel even more awkward. "You're pulling my hair."
"No, I'm not. C'mon, shoot."
"Well…a friend of mine recommended the steak, so that would do, I guess?" she shrugged.
"Just the steak?" he raised his eyebrow. "That's too easy. Would you like it with steak sauce, or perhaps blue cheese sauce? Or you could go the traditional way and accompany it with mashed potatoes or salad."
All that sounded great and she didn't even know what some of the things he mentioned were. She bit her lip, considering, until finally she gave up. "All right, ok, too many options! Surprise me." She gestured her hand towards him, officially handing her choosing rights back.
A satisfied smile spread across his lips. He slapped the top of the counter and turned to the kitchen. "One surprise coming right up!" And with that he disappeared behind the curtain.
Chie stared at the spot, puffing her cheeks and fanning herself with her hand out of nervousness. Was that guy for real? She understood him being all flattering of Rise and the girls on the other table, but no guy had been that direct with her (except Yosuke when she wore a swimsuit, but he was just being a pervert). It felt…nice? Haha, he'd called her cute…
Some minutes later she was presented with two juicy and crispy steak skewers covered in teriyaki sauce. Its sweet scent had a tinge of pineapple in it.
"Enjoy," Sanji said with a flourish of the hand.
And Chie did. With the first bite, her eyes widened in surprise and she had to put the skewer down to say, "This is…!" but she stopped herself, held up a hand so she could finish chewing, then continued, "This is the best thing I've ever eaten! Seriously, you just blew every other restaurant here outta the water!"
"Aah, I'm so happy to hear that!" he said, pressing a hand against his chest. "If there's anything else you need, just say the word."
"A cola, please."
"…Right." Sanji blinked before going to get one.
Chie concentrated on eating for the time being, quite happy with her meal while Sanji served a few people who came to order take-out and chatted with the trio of girls. Chie finished just as the girls were getting out of the restaurant, leaving her and the cook the only people there.
Sanji hummed a tune as he picked up the plates and glasses from the table and hurried to pick Chie's empty plate too, before disappearing into the kitchen. She observed him, the tune mixing with her thoughts. With her chin propped on her hand, a vague doubt formed in her mind. Slowly, she began to frown, looking around at the small place and then outside the window to the familiar view of the shopping district.
When Sanji returned to clean the table, she absentmindedly blurted out, "But yeah…why did you set up shop here?"
Sanji stopped humming and looked at her over his shoulder. "huh?"
"Umm, I mean," Chie hesitated, torn between trying to find the right way to word her thoughts and wondering why she had said anything at all. "It's kinda weird, this place. No offense! It's just that it kind of feels out of place here, in Inaba. This town is like in the middle of nowhere, and yet…umm," she turned to the menu, "Some of these things sound foreign, and all the restaurants are local; you know, the traditional food and that kinda stuff. So its hard to imagine that anyone as good as you would want to come make a living here of all places."
Sanji tilted his head and Chie shrugged. Inaba was used to its local things; the most foreign stuff they had were probably the Chinese restaurant and the book section of Junes. They didn't have chefs so much as cooks, except at the inn, and he'd been hired.
"So what you're saying is," Sanji said, hanging the cloth on his shoulders and taking out a pack of cigarettes from a pocket. "You wanna know why I ended up here." He put a cigarette in his mouth, but he didn't light it.
Chie considered it and in the end nodded. "Just curious, is all."
"Well, young Miss, some things happen that are out of our control. A mistake or a slip-up; whatever you want to call it." He walked up to the counter and wiped Chie's spot with the cloth. "I didn't plan to come here, and frankly I don't plan on staying for too long."
"Oh," Chie muttered. It wasn't a big deal, really, but still she had the impulse to say, "It isn't so bad here, you know."
Looking up from re-arranging some things on the counter, Sanji must have noticed the look of slight defiance on her face and offered a smile. "I didn't mean it that way. My idiot friends need me, so I gotta get back to them somehow."
"Oh?" Chie perked up a little. Though for a second she frowned. 'Somehow'? That sounded a little strange, but she pushed the thought away.
"Yup. Specially him. He's probably getting knee-deep in some crazy shit." Sanji continued as he picked up a box of matches and lit his cigarette. He took a deep drag and turned away from Chie to let the smoke out in a sigh. For a moment there was silence, with Sanji staring off into space, the cigarette smoking besides his face and Chie observing him. She could only wonder what he meant, or what had happened to him; asking right now was out of the question, but curiosity was starting to gnaw at her.
The moment ended when Sanji snapped back to the present and finally picked up Chie's empty glass and crumpled napkin, quickly throwing the later in the trash and then heading over to the kitchen. When he returned he found Chie rummaging through her wallet.
"Eh-eh!" He quickly stopped her. "This one's on the house."
"Wha- no, that's-" Chie tried to protest, but Sanji held up a hand.
"You're too cute to pay," he said, putting a hand over his heart again. The action and his words were enough to shut Chie up. But he relaxed a little and with a more casual voice, he added, "and you're the only one who's asked. Quite sharp of you." He grinned.
Chie stared. Really? Nobody else had asked him where he came from?
She had to hurry home afterwards, so the chef bid her a farewell that was a little friendlier than the one he'd given the trio of girls. As she sprinted down the street, she threw back a quick glance at that façade that looked so unlike the ones surrounding it and shook her head. That mysterious man, his words were going to keep her wondering for a while.
The next time she was at the restaurant, it was western-style pork chops with hot mango chutney sauce.
"Alone again?" Sanji asked Chie during a moment of respite, when he had served all the clients in the restaurant and no one was in need of service.
Chie, resting her cheek on her hand, said, "Yeah. They're all busy with something. It's high-season at the inn, so there are a lot of tourists."
"And this affects your friends because…?"
"Oh, right. Almost all of them have some kind of family trade, so they work at their stores. It's the stuff Inaba's made of, anyways. You know Rise, right? Kujikawa? Her grandma owns the tofu store down the street, and the son of the owner of the textile shop is my friend too. That kinda stuff." Then she paused and chuckled. "My best friend is the worse, though- she's the heiress of the inn!"
"Must be hard."
Chie rolled her eyes, but there was a smile on her face. "Yeah, she works so hard. But she's learned to love it, so what if it takes away some of our time together?" she shrugged and cut another bit of her food.
"And you?" Sanji asked after a few moments.
"And me what?"
"No family store to work at?"
"Nah. My father's a salaryman, and mom's a housewife. Nothing traditional or anything, unless you count grocery shopping as tradition."
"Wouldn't know about that," he said before a client called him to their table and he had to go.
By the sixth time she'd gone to the restaurant, she had decided that she rather liked going alone, preferably right after school when there were few people. Sometimes her mom pestered her for not getting home on time to do homework, or Yosuke told her that she better watch how much she ate -the jerk- and Yukiko apologized for not accompanying her, but she brushed it all off.
She had gotten the chance to ask Sanji where he came from once, and he'd answered that he came from the sea. Just the sea; no specification. But he said that he missed it- not with that exact word, but Chie got the message: when things were peaceful and all he had to do was cook, he was used to being near the sea.
Another time he'd mentioned him again- a throwaway that guy, as he complained about stubbornness and Chie's insistence on paying full price.
Yet another time, she saw Sanji kick an empty can an impressive distance to land a hit on the head of some high-school punk that had been giving him trouble. She stared, wide eyed, as Sanji innocently stood by the entrance of his restaurant, smoking a cigarette as the punk looked around, rubbing his head and wondering what had hit him because there was no way the chef that was so far up the street could have done that.
Yukiko wouldn't have found the conversation that followed that interesting; it was very one-sided, with Chie being very impressed at the leg-power and accuracy Sanji had shown. He took the praise in stride, and humored her when she went on talking about martial arts until she realized she was talking a lot. Had Yukiko been there it would have been just one of those Chie things for her, so Chie realized that sometimes talking with someone new by herself felt pretty good.
Some time later they met by chance on the street, and after explaining that it was his free day, Sanji offered Chie some leftovers from the restaurant; they were too much for him alone and he disliked letting food go to waste. That night, Chie's parents marveled at what good food Chie had brought.
"How did you get this? Did you get a part-time job at a restaurant and didn't tell us?" Her father joked, but Chie's smile was a little stifled as a thought occurred to her.
"You're going to what?"
"I wanna work part-time at the Baratie."
Yukiko was looking at her with a mildly surprised expression as Chie shrugged, giving her friend a sheepish smile in return.
"I think it's a good idea. I'd earn some money and I'd have something to do when you guys are all busy- which you are a lot lately." And she'd get to spend time with Sanji, but Chie wasn't going to tell that to Yukiko. Yet. In fact, she preferred not to say it to herself either, but it wasn't like some stupid crush was going to bring forth a Shadow or anything, so it was okay for now.
"Well, ok," Yukiko agreed, crumpling the aluminum paper her and Chie's lunch had been wrapped in and standing up to throw it away. "If you're up for it." She eyed her friend for a brief moment; Chie was jumpy, which meant she was really excited about her idea.
Yukiko returned to sit down besides Chie. "Costumers can be difficult, though," she continued, speaking about what the waitresses of the inn had told her and from experience. Then, putting a finger on her lips and pondering, she said, "And kicking them in the head isn't really a way to deal with them…."
Chie pouted, but recovered quickly. "It'll be fine. I-I'll just take orders or clean dishes or something. Maybe help around the kitchen?"
Both girls exchanged a glance, and then quickly diverted their attention elsewhere.
"The thing is," Chie went on, "I wanna do something useful. And he's handling the restaurant all by himself- that can't be easy! So maybe if I offer my help, he'll accept it. I mean, there is always the chance he won't, but it's worth the try." She shrugged.
"Ok, Chie, I understand. I support you." Yukiko said with a small laugh. "In fact, do you want me to go with you to ask?"
Chie was about to speak, but stopped herself. After a little consideration, she said with a wave of the hand, "No-no, it's ok. I was planning on going a bit late, so you'll probably be back at the inn by that time."
Yukiko nodded. The bell to end lunch-break rang and they made their way back to the classroom, Chie's walk peppered by a slight jump and Yukiko walking in her usual composed way besides her.
It was evening by the time Chie walked up the street to the Baratie. She'd paid a brief visit to Daidara, so maybe she was a little late. The lantern besides the restaurant's door was already on.
She clutched her hands together as she approached the door and peeked inside. Unable to take that step and enter, she observed the interior of the restaurant for a while; it looked slightly more spacious without anyone at the tables, but not by much. Remembering Sanji's words from the first time they met, Chie now realized that the small locale must have been chosen out of need- quick, I need a place to set up shop so I can sustain myself; whichever will do!- that kind of thing.
What had made this guy have to rush like that and leave his friends behind to somehow find a way back to them? Was he in hiding or something? Chie wondered, biting her lower lip. It sounded outlaw-ish. Maybe this wasn't the best idea, considering what she wanted to do once she graduated….
But then she saw the curtains to the kitchen part and Sanji came out, a lit cigarette already in his lips. When he saw Chie, a wide smile appeared on his face and he beckoned her in. Chie realized that her nerves had been taking the best of her, and opened the door.
"It's late. I'm about to close but I can make one last dish if you wish," Sanji said cheerfully, as he began to put the chairs up on the tables.
Chie was tempted, but she shook her head. "That's not why I'm here," she said as she stepped to his side. "Umm…can I help?"
"There's no need for that," Sanji said, looking at her quizzically.
"Then want me to go get the broom from the back?" Chie asked and began to go to the kitchen, but Sanji gently grabbed her arm and stopped her. She offered a small smile, as if her intentions were the most obvious thing in the world.
"Really, what are you here for?" he asked, tilting his head slightly.
She bit her lower lip and looked around briefly. "Well, the thing is," she finally spat out, "I got this idea the day before yesterday and it won't leave me alone, so I figured, what the heck, I'll ask him-"
Sanji crossed his arms. "Ask what?"
"I'm getting there," she had to hold her hands up and sigh to calm herself down. Sanji was watching her with a confused look in his eye, and every time she tried to hold the stare, she felt herself blush. Finally she puffed her cheeks, blew away strands of hair off her eyes, and said, "C-could I, um…work here?"
Sanji had to lean in to hear her low voice. Once he'd gotten the message he straightened up, looking down at the girl as she pressed her hands together in front of her. He took the cigarette off his mouth and held it between two fingers, motioning slightly towards Chie. "You wanna work here?"
She nodded firmly.
Sanji was still tilting his head, and the look of confusion was only getting deeper. Oh boy, Chie thought; this is coming right outta the blue for him, isn't it? She thought….But she stood up straighter, ready to try to convince him.
"Come one, Sanji-san; it isn't that weird, right?" but she stammered a little; it was the first time she'd addressed him like that. "Everyone has to work part-time at some point in their lives and I figured that, well, it was my turn- you know how it's been with my friends and everything. So I'd like to help you here."
It still took him a minute to answer. "I…" he turned around, and continued putting the chairs up. "Am not sure that's such a great idea."
"Whaaat? Why not?" Chie's shoulders slumped.
"I'm not used to having people work for me, is all. There's the issue of payment, and hours and the service and…" he trailed off, dragging a long breath from the cigarette before turning to face her. "I probably wouldn't be a good boss and I don't want you to get upset because of some incident that could happen."
"It can't be that difficult. I can take the heat, you know," she countered, puffing her chest proudly. "Honest. I can work under pressure, for long stretches of time, follow orders, etc., etc."
Really, after last year, she could probably do anything.
"And you wanna waste all that energy being a waitress?"
Chie glanced to the side and then nodded. This time, she held his stare.
Finally he dropped his head, sighing. "There's really nothing I can say to make you change your mind, is there? …damn, I keep getting stuck with stubborn people," he cursed, turning away and taking a drag ok smoke. For some instants it seemed like he still hadn't decided, but in the end he exhaled the smoke and said, "Go get the broom. We'll talk about the details as we finish up here."
He did not let her stay to do the dishes- not today, he insisted. But as he swept the floor and she closed the windows, they settled on a salary and decided that Chie would work after school, mostly with cleaning and tidying up and they would both handle orders. Wednesday was the day off, and she would have to come Sundays by midday, since it was the busiest day.
"If any client gives you trouble, don't hesitate coming to me. Anyone who bothers you will get a kick to the teeth." Sanji added fierily, and Chie laughed a little more than he expected.
However, the kitchen was off-limits. It wasn't a warning; simply, he asked her to understand, the kitchen was his place and he had his way of doing things.
Once they were finished they stood by the counter, watching over the empty tables and the fading light. As she glanced up to her new boss, Chie noted that he seemed strangely at peace, even though the place seemed a little eerie to her- there was just something about places that were supposed to be full….
"How long do you plan on working here?" Sanji asked.
"Until you leave, I guess," Chue shrugged.
Sanji threw her a sideways glance. "I may leave suddenly…." he said after a moment.
Chie was tempted more than ever to ask him why, but she refrained. Not yet. The knowing glint in his eye told her he knew she was curious, but he said nothing.
"That's ok. I'm telling you, I can deal with the unexpected."
Working for Sanji was simple. Most girls would have been delighted at how easy he wanted to make things. At first he didn't let Chie do the heavy jobs or clean around by herself, so it took a small outburst of frustration and Chie planting her feet on the ground and absolutely not letting him take that box of supplies from her arms to make him understand that, really, she could handle it. Taking out the trash was still strictly forbidden for her, though.
Rise just laughed it out, waving the thought away and saying that he was simply way too used to being a gentleman. Chie could only roll her eyes in response.
But despite those small quirks, things went smoothly. Yosuke teased her a little, and her parents were more than happy with her new job. It was tiring, sure, but she figured that she better start getting used to that kind of thing.
Closing time became her favorite part of the day. All through the day Sanji was cooking in the kitchen or helping to serve clients, but once things calmed down and now that Chie was there to do most of the cleaning, he had a chance to just sit at the counter to smoke and relax. Some days he was just silent, others they shared left-overs at a table, and some others he just liked to talk. Had she ever gone to a summer island? He asked her; had she ever been on a cruise? Because he'd been an apprentice in one when he was very young.
Her answer was almost invariably 'no'. She'd hardly ever been outside of Inaba.
"I'd kind of forgotten how it was to work at a restaurant," he said once. Under Chie's curious stare, he continued, "I never stopped being a chef, but serving my friends is different from serving a bunch of people you don't know the name of and neither of you care much for the other." He shrugged.
He never specified anything, but he didn't have any qualms about talking about his friends when he felt like it. Though he used the word 'nakama' to address them, it was obvious he cared about them far more than mere comrades.
"Nakama, huh?" Chie pondered one time, stopped sweeping and smiled. "I think I have those too."
"Really?" He seemed to brighten up at that.
For once it was Chie the one who got to be secretive about things, so she just smiled and nodded.
Summer vacations rolled around shortly after and Chie's workday got longer. Without school it seemed that the others had more free time than before, which turned the tables on Chie and left her being the one who always had to apologize for not being able to hang out with them when they made plans.
The one time Chie lamented this fact, Sanji simply said, "Bring 'em here."
A few days later, after the Baratie had officially closed, the lights inside were still on and the tables were still set. The chef was still cooking and the one waitress was sweeping the floor, tidying up the place for the group of people they were expecting.
They arrived in groups. "So this is what a 'classy joint' looks like," Teddie said, looking around in his usual amazed way, as he, Rise and Kanji walked in.
"Told ya!" Chie grinned.
Dojima, Naoto and Nanako arrived next. "Thanks for inviting me," Dojima had to tell Chie, as he scratched the back of his neck and watched as his daughter did a far better job than him at feeling at ease with the group. Chie just smiled; she couldn't have left Nanako's father out even if for some reason she had wanted to.
When the food was ready everyone was already settled and cheery from the warm atmosphere and music. Chie and Sanji brought in plate after plate of sushi, takoyaki, noodles, tempura, and a few other things such as ceviche and cheese empanadas, to place them on the counter and let people serve themselves. Kanji and Teddie had to quickly get used to the iron rule of Ladies First; Kanji and Sanji were about to start a squabble when Rise looked at them sternly and shook her head. She was having a blast- from enjoying Sanji's usual compliments to watching and giggling at Naoto's awkwardness when she received the same treatment from the chef.
"You are a very elegant lady," Sanji praised.
"It's what I always tell her," Rise chimed in.
"He's like that with every woman, don't worry," Chie had to lean in to tell Kanji, who was ignoring his food because he was too busy frowning at the scene.
Kanji grunted, "Is that so?"
"Honest. Don't be like that, Kanji-kun," Chie put a glass of soda in his hand and winked. "Let's have fun, ok?"
"Easy for you to say," Dojima commented through a full mouth, although he didn't look extremely worried that not even Nanako was safe from the over-doting chef; she was blushing like mad and insisting that he cooking just for her was way too much trouble. And she wasn't that cute!
"O-ok, I'll tell him to tone it down," Chie said nervously and sprinted up to Sanji, standing in tip-toe to whisper to him that Nanako could get very bashful when praised too much. Still, there was a smile on the girl's lips when she returned with a full plate to sit besides her father. Rise had to drag Kanji to sit besides her (and by consequence, Naoto) to make him stop scowling, but soon after they were all eating and talking and at ease.
For a brief moment when they both had to get something from the kitchen, Chie commented, "They're getting really lively out there," she was almost laughing. The mood was contagious.
"Were you worried?" Sanji asked.
"A little. We don't normally hang out in restaurants; sometimes we cook, but we normally go to each other's houses and stuff- y'know, where we can do whatever we want if we get bored or something, so…"
With a satisfied grin, he said, "No one can be in a bad mood if the food's good. But you cook?"
Chie stopped serving ice on a glass for a moment. "I-I'm learning," she answered sheepishly.
"Guuuys, we're out of empanadas!" Teddie's voice came from the other side of the curtain.
"You really like those, Teddie-Kun." Naoto's comment followed.
The next batch was almost done, so Sanji sent Chie out for the time being. She returned to the front and gave Naoto her new glass and looked around. It was beginning to get really dark outside.
"Hey, guys," she asked, "Yosuke and Yukiko did say they would come, right?"
"They'll come, don't worry," Dojima reassured her quickly.
Some more time passed before the restaurant's door opened again and Yukiko walked in. Chie could have sworn that, were it possible, Sanji's eyes would have turned into hearts and popped out upon seeing Yukiko.
"Hello, everyone," Yukiko said, standing by the door to hold it open. After her came Yosuke, sporting a large grin.
"Hey, guys!" he said, also standing by the door. "Guess who I ran into," he motioned for someone who was out of sight to come in. Dojima was grinning widely, and Yukiko couldn't hold back with the giggling.
"No way-!" Chie began, turning for half a second to shoot Sanji a delighted, can-you-believe-this grin before Rise squealed, "SEMPAI!"
And everyone was on their feet to greet Souji.
"Hey, everyone," he said as he hugged Nanako back. Rise followed, and Kanji went to pat him on the back.
"Now it's a party!" Teddie proclaimed.
"Yosuke, what?" Chie asked through a smile as she too went up to Souji to hug him.
Both boys shared a sly glance. "When you told me you wanted to do this, it just occurred to me to bring a surprise," Yosuke explained, shrugging and shoving his hands in his pockets.
"I was already planning on coming," Souji clarified, "it was slightly a last-minute thing, and the day fit with what you had planned, Chie. Yosuke just insisted in keeping it secret."
Many of them turned to look at Yosuke, with varying degrees of amusement on their faces. Yosuke tensed a little. "Hey, it's the first time we see him in months, so I thought, why not do it with a bang? Or you wanted just to go 'oh, hi, Souji; want me to carry your bag and stuff?'" he said, doing the imitation of the scenario in a bored voice.
"This way's fine," Nanako laughed, and Teddie nodded in agreement.
"You knew this?" Chie turned to Yukiko, fists on her hips.
Yukiko giggled. "Just at the last minute."
The group moved from the doo, leading Souji up to where the food was. Chie grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to the counter, where Sanji had been quietly watching the scene.
"First things first: Souji," Chie said, "This is my new boss, Sanji-san. He allowed me to borrow the restaurant for the evening, so I guess I owe him one,"
Sanji was leaning on the counter, arms spread apart as if to showcase the trays of food that were in front if him. For a moment, Chie noted, he looked different- somber, in a way. The polite smile he gave Souji took a little instant to appear, but Chie's strange impression went away with it.
Souji nodded, smiling, and extended a hand. Sanji shook it.
"Chie has told me about you," Souji said.
Sanji gave another polite nod. Throwing a glance at Chie, he then motioned over the food, saying, "I guess this is all in your honor, then. I didn't know, but I hope you enjoy what I've prepared. It's the least I could do for Chie-chan's friends."
"Thank you," Souji said.
The rest of the group closed in, distracting Souji with questions and starting to tell him the latest happenings and other plans they had. Sanji caught Chie's attention briefly and said, "We're running out of takoyaki; I'll go make some more. You have fun, ok?"
She nodded, eager to rejoin the group. Sanji left to the kitchen.
The rest of the evening was great; the chatter and laughter keeping up until the food was finished and well into the night, though it wasn't long past 10 when they had almost all left. Dojima, Nanako, Souji and Yosuke where the last to leave; Dojima offered to give Chie a ride home, but she declined. She had to stay and help her boss clean up.
When they left she glanced to the kitchen, where Sanji had disappeared and barely shown up to the front once the group of friends had been completed. With a sight, she began picking up the plates and napkins from the tables. For all the fun they'd had, now she had a rather tiring cleaning job to do.
When she went to pick a crumpled paper napkin from the counter, a hand reached out to hers and stopped it. Her heart going slightly quicker than normal, she looked up to see Sanji's calm smile.
"You don't have to stay," he said, taking the napkin instead. "Tomorrow's Wednesday, so not everything has to be cleaned up immediately."
Sanji shook his head decisively. "Go rest. You're gonna spend tomorrow with your friends anyway; you'll need it."
She was pretty tired, so she relented. She'd drop by for a moment to see if he needed any help, she decided without telling him, so she went to hang up the apron in the kitchen and pick up her bag before leaving.
Sanji was leaning on the counter, smoking again, when she came back to the front. "So those are all your nakama, huh?"
"Yup. Nice surprise Yosuke pulled, right?" she laughed. Sanji smiled too, but at her.
"Yeah. Good night, Chie-chan."
Friends… nakama, huh? Chie thought fleetingly from time to time over the next few days. The idea- the concept, was stuck in her mind and she couldn't help repeating it at the weirdest of moments. She saw Kanji calmly knitting something when the group hung out at his house, or she saw Naoto talking with Dojima about something that had happened down at the station, and Chie though, how had she gained all these friends?
The answer wasn't hard, obviously, though still strange. If it hadn't been for the circumstances, she wouldn't have been friends with all these people; had things happened differently, they would have been strangers passing themselves by on the streets without so much of a second glance. Normal friendships were not forged the way theirs had- through life or death situations.
Heck, even her friendship with Yukiko -the most normal one she had- was hard to explain.
So maybe Comrades- people thrown together in situations out of their control and who had to form a strong bond just to get through it- Nakama, was the best way to describe them, the Investigation Team.
It wasn't until the next Wednesday that it really hit her. The group was taking their separate ways home after an afternoon by the river, but it wasn't Chie the one who stopped to look back at the group of dispersing friends with a content smile- it was Souji, and Chie just happened to notice it.
They walked home together, since they had to follow part of the same route.
"You've been pensive lately," Souji commented after a while. Chie tilted her head. "Really. Though happy, so I have to wonder what you've been thinking about."
"Oh, just…" she shrugged. "It's this thing that Sanji-san mentioned." She started to tell him about Sanji, because really, who better to help her figure out things than Souji?
"I know he's not a bad person; I seriously can't imagine what it is that happened to him." She said after telling Souji about the mystery that surrounded the chef. She sighed. "When I left after the party last Tuesday, he asked me if you guys were all of my nakama, and it's gotten me thinking ever since. I don't even know what it is that struck me about it, but it-it feels like I'm familiar with what he feels. Does that make sense?"
Souji walked with his sight set straight ahead, hands deep in his pockets like he usually did when he was thinking carefully. "Well, I don't know much about him," he finally said, "but from what you tell me it sounds like his reason for lea- no; how do I say it? His friends seem to be very important to him, yet I get the impression his reason for being here and his friends are connected."
"It could be. He never said it wasn't, but he's not angry at them. He's worried, more like it."
"And he hasn't told you what they were doing when he got separated from them?"
Chie shook her head. "He said it was a mistake, that's all."
They remained silent for a long time, Souji frowning as he thought. "Hmm, do you think it's possible he was framed for something?" He suggested after a while, making Chie look at him in surprise. "It's the 'mistake' bit- the forceful, quick separation, the coming here to Inaba that makes me think that."
Chie looked ahead, eyes wide. It made sense, the idea of cool, goofy, kind Sanji being framed for some crime or other that had made him run away, unable to return. But as her mind began to whirl thinking about the possibility, Souji spoke again, "But…it's the here that I find even stranger. He's not Japanese, though he's fluent in the language. If he lived in another city before it doesn't make sense not to leave the country if he's in hiding. No matter how small Inaba is, someone who looks like him is not hard to find if you're really trying."
"Well, all kinds of weird things end up in Inaba…." Chie said with a nervous laugh. Souji conceded her point. He kept walking until he noticed that Chie had lagged behind. He turned to see her staring wide-eyed ahead.
"I… I got it." She said in a small voice. "Why it, what he said-" she gave a step back, getting ready to sprint. "I gotta go to the restaurant, ok? You keep going. I gotta talk to him!"
Then she turned and ran, leaving a confused Souji behind.
Chie rushed through the sleepy Inaba streets, the wind on her face and her heart in her throat. As afternoon turned into evening she made her way to the shopping district, unsure of what she would say but feeling like she suddenly understood everything. She didn't -at all- but it felt like when she saw him, the words would just come out in the right way.
She saw the streetlamps light up as she ran below them; saw the houses and trees along the way that were so familiar to her, with their earthly and grey color tones and traditional structures. There were few people outside now at this hour; men and women returning from their jobs at the center of town, to their homes where they would just kick back, spend time with their families or friends or alone, to then go to sleep and wake up the next day to continue with their lives.
You don't belong here, Sanji, do you? Chie thought; not with those stories about the sea and ships and your friends that you've told me. All kinds of weird things end up in Inaba… what if you're one of those weird things too?
Where he did belong she couldn't tell. In the end it may turn out that, yeah, he was in some kind of trouble, but that didn't matter to Chie right now; it worried her more that he wasn't happy here, displaced from his friends and the places he loved. And as she saw the town as she rushed through it, she couldn't imagine how she would feel if she was suddenly separated from it, and everything it entailed.
He's…a weird man, Chie repeated to herself the moment she arrived outside the restaurant.
Sanji lived in a flat above the locale, so Chie stepped into the alley besides it to get to the back, to the stairs that lead up to his door. The sound of some tv show grew clearer as she climbed the stairs, and it plus the clanking of the steps rang in her ears. It was a strange moment for her, the one before she knocked on the door. She still didn't know what she would say, even then.
When she finally knocks, the tv goes mute and footsteps approach the door. Then Sanji's there, his usual delighted smile -she liked to think it was special for her, at the very least because they were friends- mixed with a little bit of puzzlement. Chie'd hardly ever been there, and never inside.
"Chie-chan!" he exclaimed, picking the almost-finished cigarette off his mouth. "What are you doing here at this hour?"
Chie smiled faintly, lowering her gaze to the floor. "I wanted to see you, 'cause…. May I come in?" she asked, looking him in the eye.
"Ah…sure, of course," he stepped aside and didn't take his sight off her as she went in and he closed the door. He apologized for the mess, though Chie's seen worse. There were only two rooms -a bedroom and living room- and a bathroom; and while there was little furniture, it didn't look bad- just empty.
"Something wrong, Chie-chan?"
She turned and shook her head. "I just wanted to talk."
"Oh, ok. Sit down, please," he gestured to the only sofa. "I'll go down and make a snack for you, so wait just one minute-!"
"That's not necessary! Sanji-san," she had to stop him before she even had the chance to sit down. "really."
Sanji stopped halfway to the door and blinked. "Of course. I should know better." he rolled his eyes, and Chie gave him a sheepish laugh.
He sat down on the opposite side of the couch; Chie was huddled on the other corner, still giving Sanji the impression that something was off, but she was just a little nervous.
"Eh…" she began, trying to make things quick and make Sanji stop giving her that worried look. Yet she still didn't know what to sa- ah! There it was. "Hey, can I ask you something? It's kinda personal…?"
Sanji raised his eyebrow and, ok, she worded that wrong. She took a moment to clench her fists and bite her lower lip before she decided to continue. "When you had to leave your friends…" And Sanji's expression was already changing. "Were you all together? I mean…did you all have to split separately?"
During the silence that stretched between them for the next few moments, Sanji's expression was blank.
"I…I just-" Chie stammered when Sanji took a deep breath and lowered his head, but she was cut short when she heard a soft chuckle. It grew into a genuinely amused laugh, his shoulders trembling and him shaking his head, and for some reason Chie felt not only a little embarrassed -gosh, she'd said something that'd come right outta the blue for him again- but relieved.
Sanji finally said. "Oh boy, I brought this on me, didn't I? I've been running my mouth." He looked her in the eye, brow furrowed and a half-smile on his lips. "How did you figure that out?"
Her jaw dropped. It- just like she thought it would, the right question did suddenly appear in her mind. She was right! But… the relieve she'd felt just seconds ago went up in smoke. So he didn't really belong; he really was unhappy. She didn't like that one bit.
Chie gulped, setting her sight on her lap. From now on she was going to have to figure out what to say next by herself.
"Listen, I know you've wanted to ask what happened to me for a long time, and I thank you for being so patient," he paused, looking away. He chuckled. "You're always surprising me, Chie-chan."
He observed her for a moment as he carefully thought what to say. "Could we go downstairs? Let me cook something for you, and we can talk?" he was already standing up, motioning to the door and looking expectantly at her.
"…Well, ok," Chie agreed, pressing a hand against the back of her neck as she stood up. He allowed her out first and they both made their way to the kitchen.
"But I'll wash the dishes afterwards, ok?" Chie added, stubbornly. Sanji just nodded.
For the first minutes they were silent. Sanji worked on a small supper of soup and vegetable tempura at his usual quick, expert pace. Chie sat on a stool so low that her shoulders were level with the table besides her; it was the only place in the kitchen where she could sit to watch.
"You said you cooked for your friends, right?"
"But not in a restaurant."
"It was on a ship." He finally began, serving the soup in two bowls and putting them on a tray to bring to the front. They sat down at a table, facing each other, and because Sanji started to eat, Chie did too. "…You understand I can't tell you everything, right?"
"I figured," she sighed. "But can I at least know why that is?"
Sanji looked to the side, his chin on his hand. He pursed his lips as he lost himself in his thoughts. Then he said fuck it and picked up the cigarette pack from his pocket just to put one between his lips, not lighting it only because he had no fire on-hand. "Because you don't know the place I come from. Because I can't tell you about it without sounding like a crazy person and like I'm taking you for a fool. …Because I can't prove to you that I'm saying the truth. I don't want to loose our friendship because you feel you can't trust me."
Chie held his gaze. Her heart began to race again, though she couldn't tell if it was because he said he valued their friendship or because she sincerely felt like she could tell him she understood. She knew full well how it was like to keep a secret important to yourself; something that normal people wouldn't understand and would likely ridicule you for saying it. She could never explain to someone who hadn't been there how she had gained the friends she did, or the real reason why she'd decided to become a policeman, or that goddesses and evil plans to destroy humanity really did exist. And that she'd lived through it all.
Before she could say anything, though, Sanji continued. "But answering your original question: yes. Me and my friends were all together the moment we had to separate. I don't know where they are now, though I know that some of us are alone. At least I think so; we were supposed to split in groups, but…things happened. I was one of the first to go, so I can't be sure about the rest." He gave a long sigh, and for a lack of anything better to do, continued drinking his soup.
"It happened very quickly, didn't it?" she voiced her theory.
"Like you couldn't imagine."
Chie gave a short sigh, but said no more, and they ate in silence for a while. Now she just felt silly; she really wanted to tell Sanji that he could confide in her, and the reason why, but she couldn't be sure he'd believe her. So all she could do was understand exactly how he felt and leave it at that for now. Anyway, she thought, she wasn't sure where she wanted to get with this.
"Do you hear that?" Sanji suddenly said, looking behind Chie, towards the windows. Now that she noticed, yeah, there was a strange sound growing louder and louder outside on the street; she'd been too caught up in her thoughts to notice it. They both stood up quickly once they realized that the ringing sound was actually an alarm and that there was some commotion beginning to brew outside.
"Well, this is new…" Sanji muttered, gently pushing pass Chie to go stand and peek through the bars over the small window. But Chie was soon by his side, trying to see something too. There were lights turning on and she could see the shadows of people running across the street. The alarm seemed to be from one of the stores up the street; someone must have tried to break in.
Sanji put a hand on her shoulder. "Let's stay here. Let's not get involved, Chie-chan."
But Chie was gripping the edged of the windowsill, frowning and setting her jaw at the thought of standing idle. "But," she muttered, separating herself from the window and crossing her arms. She was getting itchy.
"You don't mean to go out there?" Sanji asked.
Tapping her foot, she looked away. "No, I-" she wanted to, but she knew that civilian interference, when not in self-defense, could really hamper a police procedural. "I'm gonna call Kanji." She fumed, taking her cell phone out and dialing the number. The dude probably knew what was going on- if someone so much as looked at his mom or the textile shop the wrong way, Kanji was sure to go to their defense. A break in? Not likely he would sleep through that.
"What the fuck, Chie?" was Kanji's greeting when he finally answered. "This is not the time for chit-chat!"
"Hey-hey, calm down! I'm at the restaurant; I can see what's happening on the street right now. But I don't know what's going on."
"Oh. Someone broke into the hardware store right across from us. Right the fuck across! Nakamura-san called; she says one of the owners was wounded and the attacker ran. I swear, if they even dare to try to step into our shop, I'll-!"
But Chie didn't hear the end of that. A loud banging noise came from the back of the restaurant and she dropped the phone.
She tried to exchange a glance with Sanji, but he was already stepping in front of her, standing with his legs wide apart in a pose Chie could only recognize as ready for battle.
The seconds felt like minutes during which they listened to the hasty noise on the other side of the curtain. Chie clenched her fists; by habit she had also taken a fighting stance, and now that there was a reason to engage the stranger, she was itching for a fight. How dare that man come trashing into Sanji-san's kitchen? Sanji must be angry about it too, but Chie knew him enough to know he was not taking action because of her presence.
And where was the police, anyway? Surely someone had-
The curtain parted. Sanji backed up closer to Chie as a scrawny man appeared through, holding a gun up at them. He was wearing a hood, but there was an unmistakable panicked glint in his eyes- Chie saw it clearly before the man switched off the light.
"Don't move," the man said, "Don't make a sound either. I'll shoot." He warned.
Sanji stayed still for an instant- then, to Chie's surprise, he relaxed. "There's no need for that," he said coolly, "C'mon man, it's just us here."
"I already shot someone, so don't try to pull anything," the man went on, sensing the negotiating tone in Sanji's voice.
"And we won't; that's what I'm saying."
"What do you want?" Chie interjected. Sanji glanced back at her, and she thought she saw a smirk.
The gun suddenly shifted to Chie. "Don't get cheeky with me you brat. You don't get to ask the questions and you-"
"You don't get to do that." His hands in his pockets and his head low, Sanji stepped between the gun and Chie. When he looked up at the man, he spoke in a dangerous growl, "Now beat it, before I kick your ass for pointing that at a lady."
Chie was familiar with the way a panicked person's mind worked- which was to say, it didn't work at all; cautions were shot to hell and reason ceased to work. She could see it now: the burglar could have run and nothing would have happened to him; that would have been the end of that. But he chose to attack.
It felt like a current of electricity ran through the room and the only thing she could think to do was to duck down as the shot rang loud and close. A pained yell pierced her ears over the previous shock, and in a horrible second all she could think was the worse.
"Sanji!" she yelled, but when she opened her eyes the scene before her was not what she'd dreaded: Sanji was crouching on top of the table closest to where the burglar had been, his leg stretched out, unmistakably having kicked something. Chie heard the gun clatter onto the floor from another table. The burglar himself was on the floor and scrambling to get up and away.
Away? Like hell he would!
Chie jumped to her feet, the previous fright vanishing completely and replaced with the familiar battle mind-set- act fast, don't hesitate. This was her chance; the police may be on their way, but it was now or never and she was not letting that man get away. Without waiting to see what Sanji would do Chie darted after the burglar, who was almost out of the kitchen. She barely heard Sanji shout after her, and maybe he followed her, but all she could see was the man ahead. She tailed him outside but he pushed his speed and gained ground. The alley was narrow; there was no way Chie could get ahead of him, unless-
She would not let him get to the street, she decided as she dashed from the door with all the speed she had. In a second she was behind the man. She jumped, planting her foot on the wall and propelling herself upward and over. The man skidded to a halt as Chie landed in front of him, but before he could turn around Chie delivered a swift kick to his mid-section, throwing him to the ground and incapacitating him.
Chie remained where she landed, fists held by her hips in a waiting stance; she did not expect the man to get up, but just in case….
Sanji was standing on the other side, right across from her; his hands were in his pockets and he seemed to be ignoring the thief, choosing to stare intently at her. Chie returned the stare, and found herself nodding even though she couldn't tell what Sanji was thinking. The burglar had apparently lost all hope; he lay on his back, clutching his stomach and muttering curses. Neither the girl nor the cook said anything during a few long seconds, but even though Sanji didn't take his eyes off her, Chie didn't feel judged; in fact, it was the complete opposite, as if Sanji was extremely proud of her, happy to be her accomplice. And it struck her that she was feeling the same rush she had had after defeating Shadows with her friends.
She would have smiled had it not been for the sirens that began blaring in the background at that moment, and she turned to look back at the red lights that were approaching. She glanced at the burglar and then to the street again.
"Go." Sanji's voice made her look up at him. He stepped forward, going to stand besides the man. "Show them where he is; I'll make sure this shitty bastard stays put."
Now she smiled, and nodded before sprinting off toward the street.
They sat besides each other at the police station, Chie leaning on Sanji's shoulder with half-lidded eyes, and Sanji couldn't be happier because of it.
The moments before and after the arrest had been hectic with the officers scrambling to get the guy into the ambulance and secure the evidence. The restaurant and the hardware shop had to be fenced, and Sanji and Chie had had to give their statement about a hundred times- or at least Chie would say as she rolled her eyes. They'd been driven to the station to give their written statements and for a few more formalities that had to be carried out when civilians were involved. Naoto had been there, explaining that this was one of the guys they had been going after since a few months and that neither Chie nor Sanji should experience any sort of legal aftermath from the whole ordeal.
Now they were just resting for a moment before Chie returned to her parents, who were just outside the hall. Her friends had all called already, their reactions ranging from worried, to slightly apologetic, to very amused. But right now she wanted to stay there, with Sanji-san.
She sighed heavily. "This kind of thing could only happen to me," she said as she straightened herself on her seat. Only for her would such a moment with a friend turn into a cop show. Sanji observed her, slightly dejected because she wasn't leaning on him anymore.
He laughed. "Maybe. But you handled it well."
"You think?" She smiled despite herself.
"Yes, completely!" He paused. Chie could almost hear the knowing smirk forming on his lips. "Almost as if you're…used to things like that."
She lifted her gaze. He was still observing her, the same mischievous mood from before lingering. She searched for any sign of suspicion, of worry or of disapproval -just to make sure- but there was none. After all, Sanji was… he was that kind of person; someone who, once you'd earned their trust, could be confided with anything and he would not judge- he had no ulterior motives, saw no reason to ridicule you. He would understand.
She retorted, "Well, you're one to talk. You had a gun pointing right at your face, and you were still Mr. Coo and stuff... umm, you kicked the gun out of the guy's hands, didn't you?"
Sanji nodded, and silence fell between them.
"Because I am used to things like that-"
"I've something to tell you-"
They spoke at the same time and turned to each other in surprise. Chie's heart skipped a beat- he'd been about to tell her something! She almost got to tell him to continue, but he insisted that she speak first, so she had no other option but to make up her mind.
She sighed, and looked at the floor. "I want to tell you something. I-it's really important, and a big secret, but I think…I think it'll be ok if I tell you."
"Of course, Chie-chan. I would like to hear it, if you want to tell me."
He must have known what the 'trade-off' was, and he was ok with it. "But tomorrow, ok? A lot has happened already." She had planned to tell him everything right now, but the words left her mouth on their own. It was true after all, and no matter how secure she felt with Sanji, it still made her nervous. She felt him put a hand on her shoulder. Without thinking, she leaned into the touch and hugged him, pressing her forehead against his chest, unable to see the goofy smile that spread on Sanji's lips because of her actions.
The moment ended quickly; she stood up, blushing slightly. "I better go home. My parents are waiting," she excused herself, but before she gave a step away, she remembered something and added, "Thank you for protecting me."
Then she hurried off.