Sanji had thought that Thriller Bark was bad, that the Florian Triangle was horrible, and he had thought that he had seen the extent of the Grand Line's insane weather. But barely any time after the crew had left Thriller Bark battered and broken, they had run into a storm.
'A storm' didn't really seem like a strong enough description, it was as if the very ocean was trying to kill them. Against all measure of sanity the storm had been battering them for nine days straight, either it was massive or it was somehow chasing them. Nami was desperately trying to steer them through it, Sanji was sure they'd be dead by now if not for her, but even she was outmatched by a storm of this calibre, all she could do was make sure they survived.
The whole crew was exhausted, the sails were furled and everything on deck was either strapped down tight or already bolted to the floor. Franky and Usopp had been making on the hop repairs to the ship as they were battered by the storm. Nami was getting only a few hours sleep a night before returning on deck to keep them safe, with Robin covering when Nami was asleep and helping out as much as she could elsewhere, it was invaluable to have a pair of hands literally wherever you needed them. Zoro was still weakened considerably from Thriller Bark and though other men would be dead long ago Zoro was still trying to help.
Above all else Sanji was tired. He was tired from the lack of sleep, from the constant threat of death, from crazed warlords trying to kill them, from zombies and other horrors that shouldn't exist. He was just tired and had no moment to rest, even in the little sleep he managed to get it was restless through worry of his nakama on deck fighting through the storm.
But on the morning of the tenth day Sanji wakes up and grudgingly goes above deck expecting to still see the storm battering at them. But instead he comes up to see no rain or wind, just brilliant sunshine. Nami stands weakly on deck behind the wheel, her raincoat still slicked to her from the pounding rain of earlier. In the sky behind her lays an ominous ugly looking streak of cloud, but the sails are open and the cloud is disappearing to their rear. They were finally out of the storm.
"We're about… two hours off of land. Just there." Nami says weakly, her finger shakily pointing at the horizon before the ship. Sanji squints, he can't see anything but he trusts Nami's navigational instincts implicitly.
"I'll take the wheel and get us there, you go to bed." He orders gently, his hand pressed against the small of her back, steering her away from the wheel. At any other time she might have protested but now she just nods mutely, unclips the log pose from her wrist, gives it to him and walks down below deck to her room in the stupor of sleep. He dutifully follows the log pose for an hour until Robin relieves him so he can make the crew breakfast.
He feels the weight on his shoulders lift slightly, his nakama aren't in danger for the moment, they can rest, relax and heal up. He and Chopper can force Zoro to stay in bed and rest for a while, Franky and Usopp can repair the ship properly without worrying about being dragged out to sea by a massive wave from the storm. With a smile on his face he cooks breakfast, they don't have many supplies left but oatmeal but he manages to add enough extra ingredients to make each bowl as mouth-watering as possible for its intended recipient. Sweet berries in Chopper's, a subtle hint of nutmeg in Robin's, honey and mikan slices in Nami's and so on. After breakfast Nami orders Usopp and Franky to fetch fresh water whilst she takes a nap and declares that they will explore the island after lunch together.
A short lunch later, much hurried by their captain's impatience, Sanji finds himself standing on a new shore waiting for a new and potentially lethal adventure to start all over again. He lights up a cigarette as the more enthusiastic of his nakama rush forward into the jungle.
"You're looking a little green around the gills, cook. Everything okay?" Zoro grunts next to him. Sanji looks sidelong at him through his curtain of hair. He doesn't even think that Zoro should be out here, not after what happened to him on Thriller Bark, but Zoro doesn't broker any argument on his health from anyone but Chopper and even then that's a struggle.
"You're one to talk about being green. Just try not to get yourself killed or sacrifice yourself to anything for once okay?" he snorts and stomps off into the woods after Luffy and the others, leaving Zoro to follow his trail of smoke.
The forest is undeniably beautiful, the plants are lush and green with thick vegetation growing at every level. They see no animals other than birds as they walk through the forest, but Zoro spots tracks that suggest that there are animals here. Sanji is already trying to work out what they can kill to take aboard the ship with them, who knows how long they'll be at sea next or how harsh the ocean will be on them this time?
They spot a rustle in the trees ahead of them and catch a fleeting glimpse of a human face but a rush of leaves tells them before they get there that whoever they saw has escaped away from them. As they make their way further through the forest this happens more and more, glimpses of people in the shadows, footsteps in the canopy above them. It makes the crew jumpy but as Robin rightly points out, these people seem to be scared of them and apparently mean them no harm as if they wanted to harm them they would have done so by now. Sanji is not relaxed though, the Grand Line is not a place one can afford to relax in without the ever present risk of death rearing its head.
Before long though the tree line thins and they emerge from the forest they come into rows and rows of wet fields almost like rice paddies, however these large pools are not growing rice, they're growing flowers. In amongst the pools are people wading in the almost waist deep water with baskets on their backs, clearly in the business of harvesting the flowers. The people are watching them cautiously, none moving closer but none running away either.
"Hello! You don't need to be scared of us!" Luffy bellows at a volume that Sanji thinks is more likely to frighten than reassure the villagers.
They make their way closer to a pool with more of the floating flowers in; the person in this pool is a little closer to the shore, staring at them with wide and slightly fearful eyes. In the man's hand is a beautiful light pink flower, it has a long delicate stem and a row of flat petals at the base of the flower itself with more curving upwards in a delicate arc. It is, Sanji realises, a lotus.
"Hello, we just landed on your shores. We mean you no harm and would very much love to see your island." Robin says soothingly, crouching down so she's closer to eye level with the man. The man gulps and trembles a little but does not answer.
"Do you not speak my language? I know others if that would help. What is the name of this island?" She continues with a reassuring smile.
"D-Djerba. This island is called Djerba." The man replies shakily.
"Wonderful. May I ask where the main town is?" Robin asks curiously.
"I- are you pirates?" the man asks nervously fiddling with the lotus stem in his fingers.
"Yes, but we don't mean you any harm, honest." Nami responds reassuringly. The crew nods and murmurs their agreement, well aware that they look like a scary bunch of folks. It doesn't help that they've got a massive cyborg, a talking reindeer and a living skeleton on their crew.
"You'll be wanting to talk to the Oracle then. She's in the town just over that hill, in the temple." The man states, pointing down the dirt road that indeed leads to a small hill. The man quickly wades away through the water and the crew as a whole continue down the path. Sanji thinks that the man was quite jumpy, but some towns have learnt the hard way to avoid pirates as a rule. He glances over his shoulder to see the man looking an awful lot more relaxed and chewing on something with a slightly blissed out look on his face as he goes back to picking the lotus flowers from the water.
When they arrive they discover that the town is of modest size, the buildings are all painted white which gives the warm island a pleasant summery feel. More varieties of lotus are growing throughout the town, in people's gardens and ponds and in fountains on the street. In the centre of the town is a large and beautiful building with a gold domed roof, the architecture of the building is open and ornate with wooden doors with intricate lotus designs carved into them. The building certainly looks like a temple to Sanji, decorated as it is in the way people do when revering the divine. With little debate amongst them the crew walk towards the temple.
At the entrance to the temple courtyard is an archway lined with long stemmed lotus plants, the buds are folded in on themselves, their yellow petals intertwined. As the crew walks through the archway in single file the lotus blossoms bloom and unfurl majestically. Sanji stares in wonder as he walks through the archway, he can smell the heavenly floral smell of their blossoms as the buds open gently. The smell washes over him sweetly, bathing him in a haze of pleasant feelings, he's never smelt perfume so divine. He wonders if this town makes perfume from these flowers and if the lovely ladies would like some.
On the steps of the temple are several women, all but one are looking at them with shock clearly written on their beautiful faces. They're all clothed in simple thin white cloth that hangs from their necks from a golden collar. The woman in the centre, the only who doesn't look shocked, walks forward. She's young, perhaps about seventeen, she has an expression of self-assurance that reminds Sanji a little of Robin. Her dress has a slightly iridescent look to it, and Sanji thinks that if it weren't for the brilliant sunlight shining off of the fabric it would be a little bit see through too. Her hair is a deep chestnut colour and in her hair, tucked behind her ear, is a golden lotus. She descends the steps gracefully and smiles at them slowly.
"Pirates haven't made the lotus flowers bloom in my lifetime, you are exceedingly unusual. I did not think that my dream would come true, it seemed so improbable." She says in a light and slightly distant voice. Her eyes are a hazy blue, she looks as if she's half awake and half asleep.
"But, Oracle, surely they cannot both be people to make the lotuses bloom and be pirates!" One of the other women exclaims, looking frightened at Brook who wisely keeps his mouth shut for once.
"Are you questioning me?" the chestnut-haired woman with the lotus at her ear asks in a voice that suggests that a wise answer to her statement is 'no'. The other woman shakes her head, bows and steps back respectfully. With a broad grin Luffy steps forward, his hand held out in greeting.
"Hi! I'm-" Luffy starts enthusiastically.
"Luffy. The man who dreams of becoming the pirate king, I know." She smiles wanly at him. Luffy looks a little startled by this but recovers quickly, it isn't the first time that someone has recognised him, even if this island doesn't seem the type to be up on pirate news.
"I am the Oracle. Before you ask me questions I shall ask you one. I know that you are aware of devil's fruits, several of you have consumed them yourselves. And I am sure that you are aware by now that inanimate objects can 'eat' the fruits and gain their powers too. However, do you know what happens when one buries a devil's fruit on an island?" She asks, looking dreamily around the group.
Sanji thinks about this for a moment. He'd not considered what might happen if a devil's fruit was buried again. He might guess that it grows a new tree and then grows another of the same fruit. He suspects though from the woman's smile that this is not the case.
"The island eats the fruit?" Luffy guesses, scratching his head thoughtfully.
"Don't be stupid, an island can't eat something!" Nami snaps, clearly still grumpy from a lack of sleep.
"On the contrary Nami, that is precisely what happens. And it is what happened to this island. The lotuses that grow on this island are an expression of that fruit's powers, as am I and other seers before me as those after me shall be. The flowers on this island, in this temple specifically, are flowers of wishes. They make that which is not so but is desired real." She says cryptically.
Sanji turns that odd sentence around in his head a few times before venturing an answer.
"You have magic wish-granting flowers?" He asks disbelievingly. Surely that can't be, the flowers seem pretty but Sanji isn't a big believer in magic, even the powers of devil's fruit powers are limited and he doubts that any fruit could do such a thing, let alone something that is grown on an island that consumed a devil's fruit, something which would surely weaken the effect of the fruit.
"Precisely. They should be used with caution though, that which we wish for is often not that which is best for us. Usually we let pirates wish on the flowers un-aided and un-guided, more often than not it kills them and the world is better for their loss. However, you are good people and I shan't let that happen to you." She nods and turns to walk further into the temple, she gestures over her shoulder for them to follow her. At a loss for anything else to do they do follow her.
"Do you think that she's telling the truth?" Usopp whispers quietly as they follow the woman in the shimmering dress.
"I would very much like to find out, such a thing would be very remarkable." Robin murmurs excitedly.
"Sounds suspicious to me." Zoro chips in gruffly.
"How can a wish kill you if I may ask?" Robin asks the oracle as they follow her around the courtyard towards a large ornate fountain.
"Any pleasure taken to extremes is unpleasant. An endless party becomes tiring and torturous, unlimited money becomes worthless, even limitless happiness becomes numbing after time. The things we wish for consciously are often not what we want. The same applies to all of you but one, if I gave most of you your wishes you would not thank me for it." She answers as she sits down at the edge of the fountain. This thought rolls slowly through Sanji's brain. He supposes that he can see that, moderation is often a key virtue. It's part of the problem with the Grand Line that it's danger and weirdness, whilst making for an incredible adventure, is almost relentless and without any form of moderation.
"I wouldn't want you to give me my dream." Luffy states definitively and folds his arms over his chest. The girl smiles broadly at that and for a moment Sanji can see just how young she looks, despite her distant adult tone she still is a young lady.
"No, you wouldn't. I have to say that your dream is rather unusual. Most who come here who claim that they want to be the pirate king don't actually want it, what they truly desire is power or wealth or the fame and acclaim that comes with such a title. You are the first that I've seen to want it simply for what it is. Your goal would be worthless if I were to just hand it to you, the same applies to you." She adds looking up at Zoro who nods in agreement.
"I want to earn it, not have it given to me." The swordsman confirms.
"And some of you wish things that rarely turn out well, that the dead should be alive again. People are who they are, in a large part because of what has happened to them, if I were to put you in a world where someone you wish to be alive still was they would fit in that world but you would not. It ends… badly." She comments sadly, her fingers picking at the hem of her dress.
Sanji feels a well of sadness in his heart at her words, he knows how dearly Robin and Nami wish that their mothers weren't taken from them, and poor Usopp was left all alone in the world after his mother died. The others weren't immune either, little Chopper lost his adoptive doctor father, Franky too had Tom taken from him and Brook had to watch his entire crew die before him. Zoro was perhaps the worst affected, his entire life's goal revolves around a traumatic death. He feels lucky in being one of the few to not suffer from that kind of loss, he left home as a child to work aboard a ship and never looked back.
"Mr. Sanji here is however the only person who's wish should be granted." She smiles up at him.
"What? I don't want All Blue just handed to me either. I thought you were supposed to be a seer, shouldn't you know that?" He says startled. The woman has been so on base with reading them, inexplicably knowing their names and knowing what they're all about that her sudden miss shocks him.
"Ah, I see what is inside you. I see what your heart wants. And it's not your dream of finding All Blue that I speak of, that is your dream not your wish. In many they are the same thing, but in you they are not. You have a good heart Sanji, and a noble wish, I'd like to grant it." She says standing up and tapping a finger thoughtfully over his heart. He feels the eyes of his crew on him, silently questioning him.
"Well, tell me what my wish is then." He says slowly, because for the life of him he can't think what she means if not All-Blue. He can't think of anything else that drives him so much as All-Blue. And he certainly doesn't want her granting anything that he doesn't know what it is.
"You don't know?" Zoro asks in a tone that suggests he must be some kind of moron to not know what it is that he really wishes for.
"Many are unaware of what their heart wishes for, I cannot tell you. You must learn it for yourself. Here, I shall set the wish and you may do with it as you choose." She states confidently.
With a smooth movement she turns back to the fountain. Inside its clear waters lotuses are growing as they seem to all over this island. The blossoms on these ones are closed but as she bends to pluck one from the water the petals open. They're brilliantly gold as if gilded by some fine artist in gold leaf and glisten and shine gloriously in the sunlight. She snaps the stem leaving just the flower and a few inches of stem in her hand. With a soft smile and closes her eyes and opens her palms, the flower shining in her opened palms. In a voice that seems more sombre and reverent than her own she begins to speak.
"Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave
To each, but whoso did receive of them
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave"
In her palms the flower glows brilliantly and begins to rise by itself off of her hands and spin suspended in the air by nothing.
"Why are we weigh'd upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown;
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber's holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
There is no joy but calm!"
The flower, which had picked up speed in its impossible levitating rotations, slowly drifts back into her palms as she ceases her poem-like prayer and the petals of the lotus return to their golden state of before. She blinks a few times and seems to come back to herself from whatever altered state that she was in before.
"Your wish. If you want to accept it then eat the lotus. I hope it brings you what you seek along with the clarity to realise what you wish for." She says quietly as she plucks the flower from her palm and desposits it stem first in Sanji's breast pocket.
"The rest of the town should be happy to help you now that you've seen me. We are a peaceful people and you'll find no danger here. If you'll excuse me." She bows before walking away from them calmly back into the temple.
The oracle woman was correct in her statement, the crew found the people of the island no longer wary of them now that Sanji was walking around with a golden lotus sticking out of his breast pocket. In fact the townsfolk were more than helpful, they didn't have much in the way of supplies as their only vegetable foodstuffs seemed to be the lotuses that were growing in the fields or fruits from the forest that they had walked through to get to the town. Either way Sanji took back some samples with him to the ship to test as ingredients before buying any.
Dinner itself had been an excited affair, Sanji had tentatively made a side dish with the lotuses that the crew had been given to sample in town. Obviously he'd not used the golden lotus that the oracle had given him, that was still poking out of his breast pocket.
As Brook and Franky clear the table he curiously twirls the lotus stem between his fingers and watches the pretty patterns that the gilded shine on the petals makes. He can't think of what wish the Oracle had been speaking of. She had outright said that it wasn't All-Blue and she seemed to be implying that it was the sort of wish that she'd like to grant, so not one that would turn out badly for him like wishing for endless pleasures. He supposes that even wishing for an unlimited number of women who found him gorgeous would be unsatisfying eventually, although he struggles to imagine how that might be. So what could his wish be? It was his wish, shouldn't he know what it was if he thought about it hard enough?
"Are you going to use your wish Sanji? Do you have any idea what it is yet?" Nami asks, her beautiful eyes wide with curiosity.
"I'm not sure I should use it if I don't know what it'll do." He says uncertainly and fiddles with the stem of the lotus again.
"Well, she seemed genuine enough and quite forthright in saying that you were the only one who had a wish that would turn out well for you if granted." Nami muses thoughtfully.
"I think you should do it." Luffy declares with a goofy grin on his face as he rests his chin on his hand. Sanji feels rather surprised by this, surely Luffy can't be reccomending that he just eat some strange magic flower when he has no idea what it's going to do to him. But then again this is Luffy after all so perhaps it's not that unepexted.
"Yeah, you deserve to have your wishes come true." Franky calls from over by the sink, Sanji turns to look at him over his shoulder and sees Franky giving him a thumbs up and a supportive smile.
He turns back to the golden flower in his hand, should he really risk it?
"Go for it!" Usopp adds with an excited expression on his face.
"She said to eat it, do you think you have to eat the whole thing or just a little bit for it to work?" He wonders aloud as he runs a finger over a lush golden petal.
"I suggest that if you wish to go for it then eat a little first and if it does not work, eat more of it." Robin suggests sagely. He nods and steels his nerves. He should go for it, he should get something that he wants for once. Forcing bravery he plucks several of the petals off of the lotus together and with a hint of determination puts them quickly in his mouth and swallows them.
For a moment he feels nothing and looks around at his expectant nakama uncertainly, and then the feeling starts. It begins deep in his gut, it feels as if his stomach is falling away in that odd sensation one gets when falling from a great height or swinging on a rope at a steep angle. After that the world around him suddenly distorts and becomes blurred before dissapearing into blackness. His limbs feel numb and he falls backwards bonelessly into nothingness.
Sanji comes awake slowly with limbs that feel sluggish and a brain that feels like it's filled with treacle. He groans and manages to open his eyes, they feel sticky with sleep. Slowly the world comes into focus. The ceiling above him is white, flat and unremarkable. The only way in which the ceiling is at all remarkable is by not looking anything like the ceilings on the Thousand Sunny.
He frowns and rolls over slowly. In front of him is a small bedside table with two drawers in it and a lamp on top, in the semi darkness of the room he can see a large chest of drawers with some kind of picture hanging above it, the darkness makes it impossible to see the details. There's an orangey yellow light filtering through a crack in the curtains, it doesn't look like sunlight though, more artificial than that. The room is… unfamiliar. How did… how did he get here? And where is this place anyway? He struggles to remember and finds that he can't recall how he came to be wherever he is now. He remembers something… a woman and… a flower. The lotus! His wish!
The panic sets in suddenly, cutting through the calm haze of sleep, humming through his veins and making his skin tingle. The wish from the lotus has put him somewhere strange and he doesn't know where he is or if he's safe here. He jolts upright in the bed that he's in and looks around the room in a panic. The place looks more like a typical bedroom than it does a prison cell, which admittedly is a good sign. He turns quickly to check out the other side of the room, it pleasantly proves equally unthreatening with no jail bars or people lurking in the darkness to kill him. It actually takes him a few seconds to notice the person in bed with him. Snuggled under the thick fluffy duvet is a figure, he can hear deep and even breathing, whoever this person is they're asleep. Cautious of waking someone potentially dangerous he leans over them slowly to get a better look.
In his defence the dark makes it difficult to pick out colour, but as he leans in he recognises that oh so familiar marimo green hair. He leans a little further and can confirm that Zoro is indeed next to him and effectively dead to the world. A rush of relief washes through him, though he wouldn't admit it to anyone he feels a little better that Zoro is here with him, fighting of hordes of magical kidnappers with Zoro is infinitely preferable to fighting them alone. Mostly anyway.
He decides to slide out of the bed, if Zoro is here then perhaps that stupid wish took the rest of the crew to… wherever this is and they've been waiting for him to wake up again. He pads barefoot out of the bedroom that he's in and into the next room. He comes into a very large room that has the feel of several rooms inside it. Across from him is a plush sofa with a few deep comfy looking armchairs near it, all gathered around a small coffee table and facing a black shiny monitor embedded in the wall. He takes the opportunity to look around the room quickly. To the side of the room that he just entered from is a kitchen, the units are free standing which gives the space a nice open feel. Nearer to the door is a large dining table with eight chairs tucked neatly against it. On the wall near the sofas is a mantelpiece and on it resting on a stand is Zoro's precious white sword displayed proudly.
He walks cautiously over to it, it looks a little too clean and a little to presented to seem quite right. And since when does Zoro sleep without his swords right next to him? What is this one doing all the way out here? Something about this whole place is off and it bothers him that he's seen no one else besides Zoro and no evidence that the others are here at all.
A photo above Zoro's sword catches his eye, it's a picture of him and Zoro. He's dressed in what looks like some kind of martial arts wear, a white robe of some kind, and holding a golden trophy aloft in one hand. He has his arm around Zoro who is also wearing a different kind of martial arts wear and hanging from his waist is his ever present white sword, although its partners are suspiciously missing. In Zoro's hand is another golden trophy clinking against Sanji's. The pair of them have massive goofy grins on their faces. He frowns, this never happened, he's never competed in any competitions and certainly not with Zoro. How can this picture exist?
"Sanji?" Zoro's voice calls sleepily from behind him. Sanji turns quickly, his system still thrumming with adrenaline from earlier. Zoro is standing in the door frame, his hair mussed from sleep and rubbing one eye with the heel of his palm dopily.
"What're you doing up? Come back to bed." He murmurs sleepily and yawns so hard that Sanji can hear his jaw click and his earrings chime.
"Zoro, where are we? What is this place?" Sanji asks feeling nervous. What's making him nervous is not so much that he's woken up in a strange place with Zoro of all people, but that Zoro isn't looking at all surprised or nervous at this.
"Huh?" Zoro grunts, the very picture of verbal eloquence.
"This place, where is it? Where is everyone?" He repeats for the stupid sleepy swordsman. Zoro blinks in confusion for a few moments before worry creases his brow.
"Sanji, this is home." He responds.