The next day dawned clear and hot and normal. Whenever things went off in some way or another, it always amazed Chie how the façade of normalcy blanketed everything. Last year, rain had been just rain- an inconvenience at worst to other people, but to her and her friends it had been a dangerous omen, making them work harder with every rainy day that passed.
Today she was going to explain why that had been to Sanji.
What would he say in return? That it was cool? Lame? Weird? She did not know what she was looking forward to the most- it exited her to let someone in on the secret, but she was also going to hear his story. A great deal of last night had been spent theorizing about it; if it was similar to hers -vaguely, she hoped it was- or something completely different, which only intrigued her more.
It was because of this that she almost slept in, and woke up with a start only to remember that the restaurant would be closed today due to last night's incident. Still, she was restless; they hadn't set up a time to meet, so she forced herself to take it easy during the morning and go out around midday.
But before she could finish her breakfast, the phone rang. Her mother picked up, and after affirming something, handed the phone to Chie and said, "Your boss."
She stared at the phone for a moment before taking it. Gulping down a mouthful of cereal, she answered, "Yes?"
"Chie-chan? Good, I was worried I'd wake you up," came Sanji's cheery voice from the phone. Chie reassured him that wasn't the case. "Yeah? Good. Ok, listen, I got an idea for today, so I wanted to know if you've got the whole day free; no plans with friends or anything?"
"Umm… no, not really." Someone would probably call to meet up, but this once, Chie didn't think she'd mind skipping on it. They'd understand.
"Alright. Then, how about we meet at the bus station in about an hour? All expenses on me."
He was probably expecting her to ask where they were going, but Chie stopped herself, thinking that that may not be the best thing to do if her mother was present. It'd probably sound strange. And either way, knowing him, he was planning… she had no idea, but it couldn't be bad. "S-sure. I'll get ready, I guess."
After Sanji's cheerful promise that she would like his plan, she hung up. A sigh escaped her, but she felt quite happy at the moment, enough to finish eating quickly and do as she'd told him. The prospect of a trip with him, the fact that he'd be willing to offer a trip together… it'd been a while since she'd felt this giddy.
Before she could tell, an hour had passed and she was waiting at the bus stop, leaning against the wall to get a little shade. She toyed with the strap of her bag, looking around for signs of Sanji. He appeared shortly after, carrying a medium-sized cooler with a strap that hung from his shoulder.
They greeted each other, Chie's giddiness evaporating into a shy smile and a puzzled look. "So, where are we going?" she finally got to ask.
He patted the cooler. "The beach," he smiled.
She did a double-take. "Whaat? But you didn't- I don't have a-" she paused, then frowned. "Please don't tell me you brought a swimsuit for me without telling me, because that's very creepy!"
"That's oddly specific," He said, tilting his head.
"Uh… long story."
"I didn't. It didn't occur to me…" he trailed off, but he stopped himself. "But swimming is not what I have in mind, so don't worry about it. I asked around and a neighbor recommended me a small vacation spot close by. We'd take the bus here to the main station, and the trip would take about two hours. The bus there leaves in half an hour, so we'd get there by midday. As I said, everything's on me, and I brought the food. Is all this good for you?"
She did not have to think much about it. "Sure."
"Now, I don't actually know this place, so I'm just hopping we'll find a good spot to sit down and eat." He went to stand besides her, offering a smile that she returned with a slight nod. They waited for the bus a few more minutes, and soon enough they were on their way.
Despite his cheerful attitude, Sanji was pensive; he leaned back on the bus seat and looked ahead while they talked, though for most of the ride they remained silent. Chie watched the scenery pass by as they left the bus station and headed east; the town quickly turned into farm fields and the mountains fell further and further away in the west.
It had been a very long time since Chie had gone on a trip like this. The vast fields, the soft hills and the occasional stream reminded her of a place she'd seen not so long ago but that had been masked in fog when she first entered it. It had been so unfamiliar and frightening in the beginning, but the moment her adventure in the tv world ended, it all felt like it had been worth it; like it had been meant to happen. She was not someone to philosophize about things very much, yet every once in a while, as the wide spectrum of emotions that last year's ordeal had left in her began to fade, she thought and rethought about everything, and what it'd meant. The truth couldn't be easily grasped, and even now it was unclear if there was one single truth at all, so she couldn't help but wonder what the real outcome of everything would be, because it felt…it felt….
"Chie-chan, you ok?" Sanji's voice snapped her back to the present, and she quickly turned to look at him. She stared a little before affirming she was fine. "You looked a little sad for a moment. Are you sure there isn't anything I can do?"
"N-no; honest," she gave a half-hearted laugh. "I just… well, you do remember why we were gonna meet today, right?"
"Then… can you tell me where you come from?"
Sanji blinked. "Oh? I though you wanted to tell me something first."
"I asked first," she stated, leaning her head and looking up at him with a smirk on her lips. "Remember? In the restaurant before some tug decided to crash the party?"
"Aah, yes! I do, I do!" Sanji pretended like he'd forgotten. It made her laugh.
"You were gonna tell me something," she pointed an accusing finger, but she let her hand fall as she lost the desire to joke around. "You said things like, that I wouldn't believe you, or that you couldn't prove yourself. But…I'm sure I can say… I will believe you. Ok?"
Sanji looked down at her, a neutral expression on his face; Chie effortlessly held his stare, because she did not have trouble being sincere. Then he diverted his gaze, concentrating on a spot far ahead. More than doubtful, it seemed as if he was considering something, and he brought his fingers to his lips for a moment before answering, "Ok. I believe that you'll believe me. I wish I knew why, but I'm sure you'll tell me when you're ready."
Again he stared off into space, but this time it was obvious he was looking for a way to start. At last, he took a deep breath. "I'm very unused to this place; it's not like anything I've ever known. And I don't mean this place, I mean, this whole world. …'Cause- because this isn't the world I know."
He stayed silent for a while, looking at how her brow furrowed and she tilted her head. "This world…?" she said weakly.
He nodded. "The world I come from is divided in four parts- well, five, if you count the Grand Line. There are four main oceans: North, West, South and East Blue." He held his hands up, imitating the form of a globe and pointing at the place where the imagined ocean was as he explained. "Running diagonal through the middle is the Grand Line, which is a whole separate ocean. Crossing it is the Red Line, but no one cares about that. I used to live in East Blue, though I was born in North Blue."
He paused, his hands still held up as he turned to her. The look in his eye was expectant and a little searching, while Chie returned a blank stare.
"I've been to the Grand Line, too." He continued hastily. "I guess you could say that's where I currently 'live'. Remember I told you I traveled in a ship? No? But I did mention a ship at one point. I belong to a crew, because he asked me to join. Oh! My captain's name is Luffy. He's the stubborn idiot I'm always telling you about. I don't think I've told you about the stupid swordsman- that would have been hard to explain, but he's the first mate, actually. Chopper is the doctor. There's also our navigator, the wonderful Nami-swan; we'd have sunk long ago if it wasn't for her. Robin-chan's also wonderful. …and then there's Usopp and Franky and Brook.
"Those are my Nakama. And Chie-chan, I'm not the storyteller; I can't make that much stuff up."
Neither of them knew exactly how long the silence that followed lasted. But they did know that it ended when a large smile spread across Chie's face and she grasped Sanji's arm. "I-I can believe that." She nodded firmly, and then diverted her gaze elsewhere, briefly turning to the window. "It's definitely not what I was expecting, and… but somehow it…. Yeah, I believe it."
Another moment of silence passed before Sanji cracked a smile. He sighed in relieve, putting a hand to his heart. "Ah, you have no idea how good it feels to get that off my chest," he said. Chie nodded, laughing a little. "I'm serious! I was damn pissed that no one would know what I was talking about. But, well, I managed for the time being." He shrugged.
Sanji was about to say something else, but Chie interrupted him, turning to him fully. "Tell me more! I wanna know everything! Like, what do Usopp and Brook do? And Franky?"
"Ah, Chie-chan…" Sanji hesitated, but upon looking at the eager expression on her face, he nodded slowly. "Franky is our shipwright. Grand Line is a dangerous place, so ships that aren't strong can't endure it. Our ship, though, is made of this type of wood -Adam- that is the stronger there is, and it's the same as…"
He talked for all that was left of the bus ride and Chie hung on to every word he said. But if she was sincere to herself, the situation had not yet set in on her, not even after an hour had passed and they arrived at their destination- a quaint fishing town near the coast with a long beach surrounded by cliffs and forests. The bus stop was at the top of a hill, so they crossed the town to reach the busy beach and searched for a good spot.
It had been a long hour of telling, and Sanji wasn't nearly done.
They were pirates. Honest-to-god pirates, and most of them only because Luffy had asked them to join their crew. It certainly had not been Sanji's original plan- if it hadn't been for the fact that one random day Luffy destroyed part of the boat-restaurant Sanji worked at, Sanji probably would have never left the place, because it belonged to a shitty old geezer he owed a great deal to. But in the end it was the old man the one who pushed him to become a pirate and follow his- their dream: to find the legendary All Blue, a sea that was said to contain all the kinds of fish in the world. Just imagine the kinds of dishes he could create if he had all those ingredients at his disposal! It'd be the greatest!
But Pirates? Chie asked, concerned; weren't they supposed to be villains? People who robbed others and killed and…?
Sanji laughed and said that, well, he wasn't gonna lie to her because of course there were a lot pirates who did that; they were outlaws for a reason. But not his crew; their captain was not interested in that. If there was anything Sanji understood about Luffy was that he was doing it because of the freedom. His dream was to be the freest man in the world- the Pirate King.
There were also these mysterious fruits called Devil Fruits, which if a person ate one they would gain special abilities. Y-yes, like super powers, Sanji conceded after Chie had trouble wrapping her mind around the idea of a person that could stretch like rubber or someone who could duplicate any part of her body wherever she wanted. It made for some pretty tough enemies- They'd once fought a bastard who made himself the 'god' of an island because he terrorized people with his electricity powers.
What about ice? Or fire? Chie wondered. Well, some asshole had eaten the ice devil fruit. He'd tried to hurt Robin-chan! Sanji practically yelled this out in fury, earning a few odd stares while Chie sighed in disappointment. But fire turned out to be better- if Sanji remembered correctly, Luffy's brother had that one.
Oh! And the mermaids! So far he had only met one, but she was so cute! And she'd agreed to guide them to Fishman Island, where the Mermaid Princess, a beauty among beauties, lived.
By the time he had gotten to that part, Sanji may have been fueled by his enthusiasm for pretty women and was talking easily, but as Chie lagged slightly behind him she couldn't help but think about how Sanji had hesitated -faintly at first glance, but it probably ran deep- every time he introduced a new concept; he waited a little, looking at Chie and expecting her reaction. But Chie kept asking questions, nodding in fascination because she wanted to hear it all, no matter how out there it seemed.
But also… asking him questions helped him stall. He had fallen quiet after mentioning Fishman Island; he'd spoken a lot, so perhaps he was resting a little, but he still hadn't told her the reason- the way he ended up in Inaba.
It was ok for now, though. She let him rest.
They arrived at the beach and walked in silence among the people, looking for a good spot. Chie, though, was looking at the sea. The beach was surrounded by high rock cliffs that were covered in lush green vegetation and went deep into the water. The waves had eroded the base, so the bottom was abruptly further back than the rest of the cliff. Why hadn't her family come here more often? It was beautiful. The end of those far-off cliffs seemed like the place were pirate caves may be- at least the kind of pirates she used to know; the cartoon characters that pillaged and wore period clothes. It turned out it was different- of course it was; the truth never was what it seemed.
She stopped walking, her sight on the water.
"Do you wanna sit here?" Sanji asked.
A world where there was mostly ocean; where the sound of the waves was constant and what Chie could see now was only a tiny fraction of everything. Though this world- her world, was very big too. And if her world could be big, hold secrets such as last year's… what was one more secret, then?
She turned to Sanji, and thought, He's a pirate. That was the moment when she truly, irrevocably, believed him.
"Yes, here's fine," She nodded.
Sanji put the cooler down, pulled out a picnic blanket that had been folded on top and began to take out everything else. Chie went to look for stones to weight the blanket down and when she returned with the last one, there was a plastic case full of small sandwiches, two lunchboxes, homemade guacamole dip and a bag of tortilla chips to go with it set up with cups and a thermos. With a flourish, Sanji presented it all to her and prompted her to sit down. He had already taken off his shoes, and Chie kicked off her sandals before digging in.
"Looks great, as always," she sing-sang as she unwrapped the lunchbox.
"I'm here to serve, Chie-chan."
It was mostly Chie the one who ate for the next few minutes, and Sanji just watched their surroundings in silence with a light smile on his face. Now that they were settled, he finally had the opportunity to light a cigarette.
"Should've done this sooner," he finally commented, letting out a long string of smoke. "But it's better with company."
Chie couldn't answer; she was in the middle of stuffing her face with mini-sandwiches. When she swallowed, she said, "Hey, I've got another question," Sanji turned to her. "How does one become a pirate king? Do you have to, like, beat everyone else or is it like an official position?"
"I didn't tell you?" Sanji tilted his head, and without waiting for an answer he turned to face her. "Well, you already know how dangerous Grand Line is; in all of history, only one crew has managed to get to the end of it."
"But doesn't it circumvent the planet? How is there an end?"
He held up a finger. "Remember that Red Line cuts through in two points. One is the middle, and the other is the end, so you can't just keep sailing through. Before that-"
Chie cut him off. "Hold it. I'm missing a pretty big chunk of something here. What is the Red Line?"
Sanji held his breath in, and then let his head drop. "Sorry, sorry; I keep forgetting," he looked up again. "Red Line is the only continent; it stretches all around the globe, just like the Grand Line, and it rises up hundreds of meters above sea level, so it's also a barrier. …All clear?"
Chie nodded, taking a bite off a sandwich.
"Alright. So, at the end of the second half of the Grand Line there's an island called Raftel, where the last Pirate King hid his greatest treasure. No one else has managed to claim it since, and this age of piracy was started because Gold Roger dared everyone to go after it. You have to see it this way, Chie-chan: Roger was the single most powerful pirate to sail the seas; he had fame, wealth, power, you name it, so just imagining having his most prized treasure sent thousands of people on the hunt."
"And what is it?" Her eyes were wide as she leaned closer.
Sanji's smile spread wide and he held up his arms as if trying to encompass the world in them. "All the treasure in a single piece. the One Piece, they call it. If you get it, you're the king."
Although impressed, it took Chie a few seconds to respond to that. "So…you don't actually know what it is."
"Ah… no. But that's part of the fun." Sanji shrugged. He sighed and decided to lay down, folding his arms behind his head.
"That's a lot of adventure. Sounds fun." Chie chuckled, assuming a more relaxed pose and throwing Sanji a sideways glance. His response was a non-committal noise. He'd closed his eyes, and the sea breeze was making his hair sway and hers brush into her face. Tucking what little of it she could behind her ear, she moved his lunchbox away and sat a little closer to him.
The day was almost perfect except for some dark clouds that lingered in the far horizon over the sea; it did not seem like an impending storm, and nobody minded it. Chie held up her hand and closed an eye, blocking out the other people and only seeing the scenery right in front of her; that way it was easier to feel she was somewhere else other than Japan- like an ocean-covered world, for example. She had done similar things when she was younger and she pretended that she lived in a world where mystical talismans and such could give her kung-fu powers that would allow her to fight villains and defend the neighborhood. She'd been a little girl. Until many years later it turned out that some things could actually give you the power to fight evil and save the world.
She heard Sanji sigh, only to realize he was blowing out more cigarette smoke, head turned away from her so that the smoke wouldn't reach her, as always. After that, he heaved himself up and spoke. "We were at the midway point, stopped at an archipelago close by because we needed to have this thing called 'coating' done to the ship, which would be like…uh…"
"You don't need to explain that right now," Chie interrupted.
"Right." He paused for a minute, thinking. "Long story short: our captain got us in a shit-load of trouble, as usual. He punched out someone he really shouldn't have, but that deserved it more than anyone I've ever met. 'Was a Nobleman. An asshole. So because he punched this jerk, the Marines come down on us, full force. We escape the first attack, got the chance to run away and hide for a while. We figured that if we laid low for a few days and wait for things to calm down we could regroup later and continue our journey, so everything was gonna be ok.
"Things went to hell right after."
Sanji rubbed his temples, suddenly looking tired. "A Marine Admiral showed up, and that was a fight we weren't gonna win. We were in over our heads, and Luffy knew it. He gave the order to split and escape any way we could. And we were going to, when another enemy shows up- we'd faced him before, only got away because…" he stopped abruptly, furrowing his brow and searching for something with his sight in the horizon. "Tch. Wouldn't know what to call that. Recklessness, maybe."
Chie tilted her head, unsure if he was purposely being vague. She decided not to push it.
"The point is he let us go the first time, but we knew that wasn't going to happen again. Things start to get out of control now; I'm not sure I can tell you everything exactly as it happened, but the guy was right in front of Usopp, then I get knocked out. When I come to again, Luffy's yelling to escape again and Zoro was there and then he wasn't."
"What?" Chie's heart sank. But Sanji seemed more resigned than upset; his tone did not betray any kind of sadness, thing that only confused her more.
"He just vanished." Then he looked at her and startled. "He's not dead or anything! I'm telling you, he vanished. Just like Brook right after." He let out a heavy sight. "Look, our enemy was a Devil Fruit user: his ability was that, if he- not touched; it was stronger than that- if he shoved you, he made you disappear. But we didn't know that; no one knew if Zoro and Brook were dead or what. What I knew at that moment was I had to do something; I had to protect Usopp.
The cigarette was at its end, so he took one last, long drag and stubbed it on the sand. Chie pulled her knees up to her chest and just watched him as he lit another one.
"So when this guy, um… shoved you, he sent you here?"
At least now he knew his nakama were ok, but a failure was still a failure. Or so Chie suspected. She did not push it, since Sanji was not the kind of person who regretted so much as damned what had happened and picked himself up to return to his crew right away to set things straight. It was just that he couldn't right now.
Now Sanji allowed himself to sigh heavily, leaning back on his arms and closing his eyes, seeming for all the world as if a great weight had been lifted off him.
"I wasn't kidding when I said I'm glad I have company now, you know." His voice made Chie turn to see him stare ahead and then smile at her. "I'm glad I met you."
She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it quickly and turned away; there was nothing to say, and she was blushing too hard.
"Really!" Sanji laughed it off. "Meeting the one person who would believe me? And that she's such a cute girl? That's lucky!"
Chie's eyes widened a little. Unconsciously hugging her legs tighter to herself, she murmured, "Not the only one…."
Shoot! Was it really possible she'd forgotten she also meant to share her secret with him? Apparently. She'd been so caught up in tales of Pirates and other worlds and Devil Fruits that for once she'd felt like the normal one. Her heart was skipping, and she was unsure why.
She faced him again, only to find that he was staring intently at her, eyebrow raised and the faintest hint of a smile in the corner of his lips. It made her heart go even faster to realize he was actually expecting her side of the story.
Taking a deep breath, she stood up. Brushing her shorts, she stood tall, her hands on her hips and looking at the horizon when she spoke, "What if I told you that…I've been through some pretty weird stuff myself?"
"I think I'd have to believe you," Sanji replied, shielding his eyes from the sun to look at her.
She motioned for him to stand up. "C'mon, let's go to the water! I'll tell you everything."
He complied, mostly because he was pretty sure that she would not be able to stay still while she told her story.
"Ok, so it starts at the beginning of last year, with this rumor that said that if you sat in front of the tv in an empty room at midnight, the face of your soul mate would appear on the screen. It was pretty popular, but I didn't know if to try it or not- I mean, it was just a rumor; it was probably bogus. 'Sides, Yukiko was totally uninterested; there wasn't much of a point if I couldn't talk about it with anyone."
Chie walked firmly towards the water, talking a mile a minute. Sanji lagged behind slightly, but listening intently to every word Chie said. Because it was important to her, and because he was tired of wondering.
This world was almost like his own- when he'd managed to find his footing and what he needed to survive in that town, he'd taken a little time to learn about it, to make sure he wasn't just lost in an overgrown island with different technology. He wasn't; no one knew what the Grand Line was, there was no World Government, pirates were a thing of the past. Mermaids didn't exist. Even the oceans were reduced in size. He could survive just fine here because it was familiar, but there were very large chunks of something missing.
It didn't take long for him to realize no one would be able to help him get back. The missing pieces of this world impeded the people of it from believing in things that were not right in front of their faces, and nothing was ever out of the extraordinary for them.
Yet she had asked where he came from- why he was where he was. He had answered her sincerely at that moment, and that was when everything must have started; he couldn't have said anything that didn't sound suspicious, so of course she noticed. But she didn't pry, not in the gossipy way the neighbors in the shopping district did- she had just… accepted it, like she knew that he was keeping something hidden and that there was a reason for it- his own reason that no one else needed to know.
She just stroke him as different since the beginning. They did not talk about anything out of the extraordinary, but he had let his guard down around her, letting slip details about his friends and life, which he figured was as close to what he was used to as he would get.
Some time after they met, something strange happened. He'd been in the middle of preparing and order when he suddenly noticed something was missing. After checking he hadn't forgotten any steps in preparing the food, that the next dish was in the oven and that his pack of smokes was in his pocket, he had to stop, wondering, until he realized that it was not something physical. The faint feeling in his gut, a weight in his mind he'd come to relate to this world; the frustrating sense of helplessness he had just by being there- he didn't feel it anymore. Suddenly, everything was going to be ok, and he was going to get back where he belonged without a doubt.
He could assume this happened because she was an all around beautiful young woman; fun and with a wonderful laugh that made him breath easier every time he heard it- but that would be lying, like saying that he never worried about Usopp, or that he didn't admire Nami-san and Robin-chan. It would be equally unspoken, though, because he could not have guessed what that familiar feeling was.
Now here was his answer: Chie could not stay still as she told him about the day Souji Seta walked into her classroom and how it all began so normally. But then a dead body appeared hanging from a tv antenna and Yosuke's friend went missing and it turned out that the rumor about the 'Midnight Channel' was true, just not the way people thought.
There was a world inside the tv that could murder you if you did not accept yourself. She and her friends had fought Shadows created out of the feelings they forced themselves to deny and gained their Personas: an other self that allowed them to face hardship- and inside the tv world, granted them powers to fight other Shadows.
They had solved the murder case that would have otherwise remained open forever and the culprit would have probably continued killing people for fun.
The kicker, though? She'd faced a Goddess. Not a phony like Eneru and his over-inflated ego- an actual, all-powerful Goddess who could grant power at will and wanted to erase humanity. It was only because they'd defeated her that she allowed humans to go on as they are.
Chie was… short, with a cute face framed by honey-colored hair; she spoke a mile a minute, jumping and punching the air as she retold the final fight. She was not looking at him, but at the horizon. Sanji saw her standing against the half-blue and half-grey sky and thought, She saved the world.
Nothing could have erased the smile of pride off his face at that moment, as he realized that she was what was missing. Other people lived their lives as if there was nothing else but what was in front of them- to Sanji, who was so used to knowing there was wonder all around and dreaming of finding a place of legend himself, that had been the most disheartening thing. Until he met her and unknowingly met the secret, the extraordinary, and the thing he was most used to.
They were standing in the water by this point, threading on the edge with the water reaching only to their shins. Chie sighed heavily and turned to Sanji with a sheepish smile on her face as if saying, And that's the story.
She was expecting him to say something; unlike her, he'd not made a sound as she spoke.
He scratched the back of his head. "No shitty wonder you believed me!" he laughed, making her laugh too. "Can't say I was expecting it, either."
"No?" she teased.
Sanji shook his head. "You gotta remember I don't know much about this place. If you'd made shit up I wouldn't have noticed."
"Oh, damn; missed my chance!"
She was nervous. Leaning slightly to see her face, Sanji gently put a hand on her shoulder. "I know you wouldn't lie to me. I've met your friends; it's not very hard to tell there's more between you all than meets the eye."
Sanji nodded, giving her a reassuring smile. "At first I couldn't tell what. You look normal enough, but… ah, how do I put it? I could see it, even though I know that things are always normal here. But since that's not what I'm used to expect, I guess I didn't find it weird that you were weird. …Makes sense?"
Chie furrowed her brow, thinking. "Y-yeah, I guess."
"But I assumed that it was…" he shrugged. "No idea. I just don't know what to expect of this world."
She looked at him with her head tilted slightly. "So what you're saying is that… because this world is so normal, it's weird to you?"
He had to laugh. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess that's it. That's exactly it."
In the Grand Line, he was used to thinking that, well, it was the Grand Line; anything could happen. It was amazing, to be sure, but you expected it to happen. Here, though? All bets were off.
A small smile formed on her lips as she looked forward. "' Course it's weird. I'd never imagined…. Haha, you know, at first I thought I'd dreamt it. Like, I would wake up and wonder if it really happened. But then it… Yukiko was in danger, so I had to step up. After that, there was no point in doubting."
"That's amazing, Chie-chan."
He watched her rub the back of her neck and turn her face away. She was so cute when she blushed.
"Really." He put his hands in his pockets, standing right besides her. "I guess there's adventure in the weirdest of places."
It made her laugh, so as far as he was concerned, everything was ok. What laid in front of them was not the sea he knew, but with her besides him, it was good enough. A small tug in his heart told him that that feeling of longing for his own world was threatening to resurface -after all, even now he didn't know how to get back- but he pushed it back. Now was not the time.
Chie gripped his sleeve, making him return to the present and see that she was now holding up her cell-phone. "Sanji-san, let's take a picture!" she said, flipping the phone open and stepping right besides him so that their backs were facing the cliffs.
"These things take photographs too?"
"They do everything. This one takes decent pictures. You just gotta look at this lens here," she pointed at it before stretching her arm out. "And smile."
He did as he was instructed, leaning closer because she was standing on tip-toes so that their faces were together. He held her shoulders to make her relax, leaning closer himself and smiling easily. She gripped one of his hands. A loud, fake-sounding noise clicked from the phone and Chie quickly brought it close to see how the picture had turned out. It looked pretty well; they filled the screen, but a little of the cliff could be seen in a corner.
"I'll pass it to the computer later. Print it or something. I don't wanna lose it."
Sanji looked down to see that Chie's smile had fallen and her voice had gone low. She held the open cell-phone tightly in her hand. "Chie-chan?" Sanji asked, stepping in front of her.
Cheer had gone from her face, replaced by a forlorn expression. Her eyes lifted briefly to his face but she looked away. "Chie-chan, please tell me what's wrong!"
Taking a deep breath, she closed the phone. Whatever it was, she did not want to say, but she was fighting to do it. "I was just thinking…" she bit her lower lip. "Oh, maybe, just maybe, I'd be able to help you get back."
Yukiko sat besides Chie at the foot of Chie's bed, taking a moment to glance at her friend's face. It looked like Chie was completely distracted by the movie playing on the tv, but Yukiko knew better; with her knees folded against her chest and her head rested on her hand, Chie was just staring at the screen.
"Do you want some?" she said after a pause, offering Chie the bowl of popcorn she'd just brought.
"Nah, not right now."
Yukiko had come that afternoon to hang out because for once she had some free time (and energy) from her duties at the inn, but she'd found a Chie who was obviously sad about something, though she'd given no indication of wanting to speak about it. Yukiko had suggested they watch Chie's favorite movie to see if it would cheer her up, but to no avail.
So, a little worried, she finally decided to ask. She muted the tv to get Chie's attention and spoke, "Umm, you can tell me if something's bothering you, you know. If you want to, that is."
Chie looked at her, and after a moment she allowed herself to sigh and untangle herself, stretching her legs and slumping her shoulders.
"He's gonna leave soon." She said in a weak voice.
Yukiko blinked. "Who? Souji?"
"What? No. …Well, yeah, he's gonna leave too, but it's not him. It's Sanji-san."
"Oh. …Really? But he has the restaurant, doesn't he?"
"Yeah, but that was always a temporary thing," Chie sighed. "I knew that, but still,"
"It's hard to say goodbye," Yukiko finished the thought for her.
Yukiko allowed a moment she deemed appropriate to pass before saying, "Well, it's not the same, but you can always stay in touch, right? Like with Souji."
That stung Chie; she winced, and Yukiko felt a pang of guilt for bringing it up.
"It's complicated." Chie said simply.
"Oh? Well, perhaps we could come up with a solution if you-"
But Chie shook her head. "No, I can't tell you. It's his own reason. I'm sorry."
"Oh. Ok, then."
Chie saw how Yukiko's expression fell in disappointment, but she couldn't do anything about it. It wasn't Yukiko's fault, but there was not much Chie could explain; neither Yukiko nor anyone else had known Sanji the way she had. What he'd told her and what she'd told him was private, between the two of them. This time she was going to have to bear the brunt of her actions on her own.
"I'm sorry. I know he's very important to you." Yukiko's soft voice made Chie look at her. Yukiko bumped her shoulder against hers, getting a slight smile out.
Chie nodded firmly. "Yeah, he is. So I get that he has to go. He's gonna go back to his friends, and that'll make him happy, so I'm ok with it."
It felt good to say it out loud, because she really was. To her it sounded like something she would forcefully say to make herself feel better, but it did make her heart lighter if she saw it that way. It made her smile, even; after all the things Sanji had told her about his crew, the idea of them finally being reunited made her happy.
She knew that later she would regret it- hope for a way to undo it even if it was selfish, and curse herself because things hadn't turned out differently.
But that future sadness would be worth it. She just wished that it wasn't her the one who had to let go.
The idea occurred to her out of the blue after she'd told him her story at the beach. For a brief moment it made sense: help him go through a tv and see if where he exited was the place he belonged to. She'd told him that maybe it was possible, though now she realized it was not as likely as she'd imagined; wasn't the tv world connected to this world? To its inhabitant's feelings? Wasn't it a place of its own, instead of some kind of… portal to other places?
But the moment she'd voiced her idea, he became so… grateful. Like she'd said the most wonderful thing to ever have been uttered and he'd grabbed both her hands and asked her if it really, really was possible. He would be in her eternal debt, would go to the moon and back if she so wished, would cook the greatest feast only for her.
So unable to say no, they'd tested it out. Once they got back to the town they returned to the flat above the restaurant. Chie had put her hand on the screen and in mere instants felt the familiar electricity rush on her fingertips and arm; she held out her other hand for Sanji to grab, telling him to try to see if his hand passed through the screen. He did, and went as far as to stick his head through to see if there was anything beyond he recognized.
It worked. He nearly jumped away from the screen, looking as breathless as if he'd just broken through the surface of water. He had trouble finding the right way to say explain to her what he'd seen- a Sea King, a giant creature of the seas, but he'd been so excited, so relieved. Chie's heart raced as she listened to him; she'd smiled then, because he was just too happy and it had worked.
Then he'd stood up, facing the tv as if he would just cross over and never return. Chie's heart sank. But this was Sanji. He'd taken a steadying breath and looked down at her, offered a hand to help her stand up and hugged her tight.
"He's leaving in two days," Chie told Yukiko, resting her head on her friend's shoulder.
Those two days passed quickly. Really, Sanji had waited this long- that tiny stretch of time was nothing.
The restaurant had a special day on Saturday- everything half prize so that Sanji could finish the food supply quickly. It was a success. Chie had asked Yukiko and Yosuke to spread the word, so all throughout the day they had people from other parts of town and tourists from the inn coming and going, staying there or ordering take-out.
Even Yosuke and Yukiko had stopped by for a moment, along with Souji, Teddie and Rise, and somehow managed to get a table for themselves. Chie was incredibly busy handling all the orders, but having them there actually relaxed her a little. That stopped when they asked her to call the chef to their table. Chie gave them a puzzled look, which they countered with the most innocent expressions they had, so she went to get Sanji.
As she attended a new costumer far from the group, she heard Rise exclaim, "I heard you're leaving! I'm so going to miss you!" and saw how she pounced on the cook. Unable to join in on the conversation, she only caught glimpses of Sanji answering Rise's questions; Chie couldn't hear them, but Rise was probably asking what he'd do from now on, and Chie was sure of what he was saying- get back with his friends, go on with their business- the truth, but vague.
Despite the chaos of it, it was a good day. Being busy meant that their minds were occupied with other things- but they were still together, even if only for some moments in the kitchen or at the counter during which they talked about the job at hand or Sanji asked her if she was doing ok. So far, so good; with the hustle and bustle, she did not have much time to think about the inevitable.
But the day ended and in the blink of an eye it was the late afternoon of the next. They had agreed that she would help him cross at the end of the day. Close to their deadline they decided to walk around and ended up walking all the way to the top of the hill outside of town, since they deemed it a far enough place to go to.
"It's also symbolically appropriate," Sanji commented once they'd gotten to the small park at the top, realizing that he could see the entire town from up there.
Chie laughed a little, joining him by the fence. "Yeah, very poetic."
Sanji half-sat on top of the fence, hands in his pockets. Chie leaned on it.
"Ok, let's get serious, Chie-chan," he spoke then, catching Chie off guard. She winced a little; she had really preferred the relaxed conversations they had been having so far. "You do understand that it's not that I'm eager to leave you, right?"
He looked worried, so Chie quickly answered, "Of course! Of course, Sanji-san,"
Sanji sighed in relief. "Because it's not like I haven't thought about it. I don't mean to make you feel forced to do this for me, because I know-"
"I want to do it." Chie cut him off, gently but firmly. "You really think I'd be able to be at ease if I knew I could help you, but didn't?"
"…No. I know that," he said, the hint of a smile on the corner of his lips.
Chie inhaled deeply and let out a long sigh. "I mean, I get it. When we met and you told me you'd leave, I imagined that you'd disappear one day or tell me you had to leave quickly. I didn't really want to think about it, but I knew it was something you were gonna have to do. Now that I'm the one who's helping you leave… I'm…actually, I feel like I'm a train or an airplane or something!" she laughed weakly, finally being able to put into words what she'd been feeling all along. But her expression fell afterwards. "We've only known each other for a few months, but it's still hard to think I'll never see you again."
"I know. I'm not used to returning to the places I leave, but it's never been this permanent." He turned to the town down below them.
"Are you gonna miss it?"
"…Some of it. Mostly you."
Chie closed her eyes. When she opened them again, Sanji was still looking over the town; his expression was unreadable. "I may not have liked it, but I wouldn't like to forget it. It's your home, after all."
Chie nodded. She knew that. During the last two nights she had thought about what it would be like if she crossed through the tv with him and went to see a little of his world, but in the darkness she had discarded this desire; she belonged here, just as he belonged there. Neither could be sure if there was another way to get back to her world- the fact that her idea had worked seemed to her like a fluke, something that had happened only because of the circumstances, and who knew if it would work in a whole other world. It was alone in her room where she had made peace with the idea, because in the end she had always known they were meant to part ways and never see each other again. Even when she had not known the truth about him, it had felt that way.
No, she would never want to leave Inaba; she had her dream here. This was where her story had ended.
The rest of her life was still ahead of her but, she though, the murder investigation was something like a centerpiece to it: the thing she had been meant to do the most, a goal to accomplish that wasn't something vague like 'live life'. After leaving Inaba for the first time since last year Chie had realized that that feeling of something lingering in her -and in her friends and in the town- was the feeling of an end. Yes, their ordeal had finished, but along with it so did something else- nothing that could be touched or explained- she could only say, We have a story, and it has an end.
How happy it made her to be able to say that. Really, after last year she could probably do anything, and this was no exception.
Chie managed a small smile and spoke, "Thank you. But… I don't really want you to worry about me anymore. There is more than one reason I want to help you, not just because it's the right thing to do. You know why?" He shook his head. Chie's smile widened, though she did not look at him. "'Cause you gotta find the All Blue. And the One Piece. I want you to have that… that feeling of reaching what you have been fighting for for so long. Because standing at the end of it all with your friends, it's- gosh, it is the best thing in the world. In any world!" She finished without wavering, but for a moment after she had to fight the slight ache left in her throat. "I understand that- that your story hasn't ended. It's as if I was…how do I explain? Like I'm at the end of a road, and you pass me by, and you kind of just- wave hello, but you gotta keep going down your own road."
Sanji said nothing, and Chie did not look at him. "Does that make sense?" she muttered.
"Yes. Of course it does." Hesitatingly, Sanji glanced at the whole town one last time before standing up. "Thank you, too." He smiled and offered out his arm to her. She looped her arm in his and together they began walking back to the town.
Nothing's gonna change; everything's gonna change- that was the way she felt all the time it took to get back. They walked in silence because talking was not necessary; they were comfortable enough as it was. Instead they held on to each other and Chie observed their surroundings as the light of day faded. Tomorrow everything would look exactly the same, but something would have changed in an extraordinary way. Man, would Inaba ever know what really went on within itself? Probably not, but she liked it that way.
The way took too much and too little time at once, and without their knowing they stumbled upon the restaurant for the last time. The lights were out and the door was locked with a padlock. Sanji remained still for a short moment, staring at it. Chie felt a slight pang of sadness at the fact that neither of them would ever set foot inside it again, but then Sanji tugged in the direction of the alley, and she followed.
The metal steps clanked and the door creaked when it opened. The nearly empty room greeted them. Besides a couple of books and clothes, there was not much there that belonged to Sanji, and nothing that he wanted or needed to take with him; the clothes he was wearing would be good enough.
The tv screen stared blankly at them from its corner while they stood apprehensively in front of it. Finally Chie let go of Sanji's arm and walked towards it. "You ready?" she asked, turning back to him.
"Whenever you want,"
She looked down at the tv, holding her hands to her chest for a moment before motioning with her head for him to come closer. Chie gave a shuddery sigh, fighting the ache in her throat once again- gosh, this was hard.
Sanji was going to speak when she said, "When you meet them again… you'll have the greatest party ever, ok? With- with Brook-san's music and your food and in your ship and it has to last 'till dawn. Get drunk- whatever! Just promise me you'll all make it the greatest ever!"
Sanji blinked, a little taken aback, but he then grabbed her by the arms and pulled her into a bone-crushing hug. With his hand on her head, he softly said, "I promise. We surely will." A moment passed in silence, until Sanji went ahead and added, "You're wonderful, Chie; I won't forget you. Oh!" He gently pushed her away and took something out of his pocket. "I have this, too, so I will have something of yours back there."
In his hand he held a small felt doll, only as big as his palm, that had short light-brown hair, a green coat with tiny details in yellow and a grey skirt. Her eyes were beads and an x represented the mouth. Chie lost it: she burst into laughter and tears at the same time, and buried her face in her hands from the embarrassment. "Where did you get that?" Though she already knew the answer.
"Your friends gave it to me on the restaurant's last day. Yukiko-chan said that you had the picture of us together, so she wanted me to have something too. I think it's a very good idea."
Chie shook her head, wiping the tears that had escaped off her cheeks. "Those guys…" she muttered, regaining some of her composure. Sanji put the doll in his breast-pocket and patted it into place.
"So, yeah. We're gonna be fine," he smiled down at her, and she shyly averted her own smile. He was right, of course, and Chie found that at a moment like this, she preferred to smile.
"Well, no point in delaying this anymore…" she breathed out, and took a step back to kneel before the tv. She looked up at Sanji before putting an oddly steady hand on the corner of the screen.
Electricity prickled her fingertips and the waves spread across the screen from the point of contact. In an instant Sanji was kneeling besides her; the faint glow emanating from the tv lit his features as he stood still, not breathing, the situation falling on him suddenly and heavily.
In the end he breathed out and looked at Chie. He reached out with one hand and pulled their heads close together. Their foreheads touched. The last thing he said to her was, "Thank you for your kindness, Chie."
She made sure to smile as Sanji pulled back, crouched, and dived into the screen.
The room was gripped in a surreal silence. Chie kept her hand on the screen for a long time after, staring at it. What if she put her head through? What would she see: a part of his world or a part of hers?
Once she understood that the answer would likely be the later, she took her hand away. "Goodbye," she said before hefting herself up and walking away.
It was completely dark by the time she got back to her house. Closing the front gate behind her, something struck her as odd: there was a murmur of voices coming from the house. The closer she got, the surer she was that there must be guests tonight, although her parents had not told her anything. She entered the house only to be hit by the familiar sound of her friends' loud voices and Teddie walking down the stairs with a board game box in his hands.
"Chie-chan!" he exclaimed, jumping the last few steps to land in front of her. "Did you go to say goodbye to Sanji-san? How'd it go?"
"Uh, fine- how come you guys are here?" she hadn't really expected….
Teddie glanced back behind the stairs where the rest were sitting in the living room. "Oh, moral support." He shrugged.
He grabbed her wrist. "C'mon, let's go. Sensei and Naoto-kun said that they'll teach me how to play this," he held up the chess box as they walked into the living room. "'Cause I thought I knew how to but it turns out Yosuke taught me wrong."
Yosuke pursed his lips and crossed his arms as everyone else welcomed Chie. She laughed, "Hey guys," and sat down on the couch besides Rise. They really were all there; even Naoto, who'd been very busy and looked very tired, offered her a small smile. Teddie sat down besides her and Souji and began to set up the board (which, Chie remembered idly, was lacking some pieces).
Yukiko returned from the kitchen at that moment, clumsily carrying many glasses and a bottle of soda. Chie sprung to her feet to relieve her load a little. Their eyes met for a moment- Yukiko smiled tentatively and Chie nodded in return.
"Are you ok?" Yukiko asked, and Chie could feel how the others had paused to pay attention.
Puffing her chest, she said, "Yeah! I think it was a good goodbye."
"I'm glad." Yukiko passed her by to put the bottle on the table.
"Maybe he'll come back someday," Kanji said absentmindedly, torn between talking and thinking hard about what he was supposed to do about the move Teddie had just made. "Can he even do that with that piece?" he asked Naoto.
Chie considered her friend's words as she sat down back on the couch and watched how Kanji and Teddie messed around with the game rules, Naoto and Souji gave up, Yukiko laughed and Rise started talking about a new upcoming project she had.
Yeah, maybe he'd be back someday; all kinds of weird things happened in Inaba, so who was to say it was impossible? But she did not imagine it to be very soon. She felt tired, drained; she reclined on the couch and soaked in the calm atmosphere around her.
At some point they decided to watch a movie, but Chie did not last long and felt asleep halfway through. The last thing she remembered of that day was seeing her friends laughing loudly from a joke in the movie, and the thought that warmed her mind and let her rest at peace with herself: Soon enough, Sanji would be just like this- surrounded by the people he loved, laughing, letting the night pass them by.
She dreamt of the greatest party ever. There was music that she could not remember the melody of but that was wonderful. Sanji had been there, happy and much more energetic than she'd ever seen him. She did not know whether the people that surrounded her and the cook had been a pirate crew or her own friends, but -and she was sure of this in the dream and when she woke up- they were all together, home.