The heat was unbearable. Sanji tugged at the Impel Down chef uniform with a slender finger as he carefully avoided the surveillance den den mushi. He waited for the snail to avert its gaze before he ran past, hauling a large bag over his shoulder. The eternal sun beat on his hat; sweat trickled down his neck. It wasn't as bad as Level 4, Burning Hell. That's where he spent most of his time. Warden Magellan's office and the kitchen were located there.
As one of the Impel Down chefs, it was his job to supply food for all the guards and prisoners. Well, all the prisoners except for the ones on Level 3, Starvation Hell.
It was so immoral. Disgusting. Sanji knew nothing more horrible than starvation and here was an entire floor, housing thousands of men and women, sentenced to starve to death. It didn't matter that they were horrible criminals; no one deserved this fate.
His foot sunk into the desert sand. Of course, it wasn't sand; furthermore, this wasn't a desert.
The blond chef watched the bones of a long dead prisoner crumble into dust, joining thousands of other former inmates as the sand on the ground. Sanji felt some of the dried up bones and dusty flesh slip into his shoes and blow down the neck of his shirt. Dead people all over him, itching at his skin. It was a feeble attempt at revenge for their long and painful death. The cook cringed. Impel Down HAD to be the worst workplace in the world.
Avoiding the third den den mushi on his path, the chef jumped the ceiling of a cell, watching with disgust as the wind swept clouds of the vast desert of remains around him. The pained sounds of people starving were clawing at his sanity. Flashbacks of his childhood hammered at his mind, causing his migraine to act up. The memory of the horrible pain as he helplessly wasted away on that damn rock. The memory of his stomach growling for food as he desperately watched the horizon hoping for someone to save him.
He pulled up a brick in the ceiling of the cell he stood on. The chiseled stonework felt rough on his fingers as he silently placed it besides him. For a moment, the terrible thought that perhaps this was made from the sand on this floor slipped through his mind. He quickly shook it away; he didn't need any more fuel for his nightmares.
He opened the bag besides him, looking around cautiously before he shook some of its contents into the cell. Leftovers from dinner fell into the cell; desperate cries and disbelieving shouts from the inmates turned into sobs as they swarmed the food, fighting for it amongst themselves. Sanji's eyes became heavy with remorse when he watched the inmates shovel the food into their mouths, complete with the sand from the cage bottom.
The ones too weak to move got their share: Sanji did his best to toss the more solid of the leftovers—meat, fruit and such— into their reach. Finally, he dropped a few bottles of water into the cage. The sobs turned into thankful sniffles. Even the most horrible of criminals felt hunger pains.
Replacing the brick, Sanji jumped from cage to cage, like a Robin Hood of food. It was only leftovers, after all; he had been tasked with throwing them out. Technically, this was throwing them out. The only difference was that this wasn't wasteful. It was a chef's job to feed the hungry; sadly, there were too many hungry to feed. The food ran out sooner than Sanji had wanted; he would have to feed the second half of the floor tomorrow.
He hid the bag under his coat, sneaking back to the corridor between floors. He had to get to his room. His skin itched with sandy remains of the dead he hadn't managed to save, people who had starved to death. People that had suffered the fate he had barely managed to escape.
He desperately needed a shower.
"Sanji!" The demanding voice reached his ears, both sending a jolt of joy through his system and chilling him to the bone. He turned to face Domino. Her long blond hair curled around her shoulders, and her sunglasses reflected the poor blue light of the hallway.
"Yes! Domino-Swan!" Sanji cooed, his eyes forming hearts as he danced towards the beautiful jailer.
"Magellan wants to talk to you in his office. Follow me." With that, Domino turned around, walking towards the giant doors at the end of the floor.
Sanji's blood ran cold, a strange feeling in this heat to be sure. Magellan wanted to talk to him PERSONALLY? This was bad. Sanji's stomach turned at the idea. What if he was being sentenced to Starvation Hell? If he were, he would throw himself into the pot of blood. He'd rather burn alive than live through starvation again.
Domino was looking at him; at least, Sanji assumed she was: her eyes were covered by hair and glasses. Knowing he had no way out, the blond chef obediently followed the woman. He kept his hands in his pockets to hide his sweating palms.
Domino held the doors open to him, gesturing to him to enter the room. Sanji was against women holding the door for him, but he knew from experience that Domino reacted badly to "ladies first", so he swallowed his principle this once, entering the room like a doomed man approaching the guillotine.
Sanji heard the door close behind him. He suddenly felt claustrophobic, trapped. To ease his mind, his eyes darted around the room, subconsciously looking for a way to escape. Sanji laughed inwardly at that. Escape? From Impel Down? Preposterous. No one had managed that since Golden Lion Shiki.
"Warden Magellan." Domino straightened her back, talking to a curtain at the far end of the room. "I have brought Sanji the Chef."
Garbled and horrid noises echoed from behind the curtain: the sound of something splattering water and loud pained grunts filled the room for a moment. Sanji felt his nose subconsciously twitch in disgust, but Domino's face was completely devoid of all emotion, so he tried his best to ignore the sounds.
Soon, the sound of a toilet being flushed filled the room like a choir of angels.
Magellan entered the room, holding a newspaper and rubbing his stomach. Sanji felt his jaw slacken a little. Magellan was huge; he had always been huge, but Sanji had only seen Magellan stand in wide open spaces, so he seemed smaller in comparison to the massive chambers of Impel Down. Now, in the small office, he looked like a giant. Magellan exhaled happily, poisonous gas escaping his lips.
"Sanji, the chef." Magellan's loud booming voice seemed to fill the room. Sanji felt helpless: a single drop of Magellan's poison and he was a dead man in 24 hours.
"Y-yes, Warden Magellan!" He tried to look as professional as he could, his handsome face the picture of innocence.
"I would like to compliment your poison soup today, very delicious."
Sanji's shoulders dropped as they trembled in shock and relief simultaneously. "T-thank you, Warden Magellan. I'm glad you liked it; I couldn't taste it, you see. None of the ingredients either."
"No. It was very delicious," Magellan continued, sitting down at his desk. "It's not often that I get such good poison food."
"No need to thank me, warden." Sanji awkwardly motioned to the door. "If that is all, I would like to get to bed. It's getting late."
"I actually like your food so much I would like you to keep making me dinner after your transfer."
"It would be an honor to— Transfer?" Sanji froze with his hand reaching for the door. He turned slowly to look at Magellan, who was sending him a very poisonous look. Of course, it was metaphorically poisonous, or he would be in pain right now.
"Yes. We know that you have been feeding the prisoners on Level 3." Magellan clasped his hands patiently, or perhaps it was impatiently, Sanji couldn't tell anymore. He was utterly terrified. His lips felt so dry he could barely open them to try to come up with some contrived excuse.
"We know that you have… issues with starvation due to childhood trauma, so we have decided that you are to be moved from the kitchen to guard duty as punishment," Magellan continued, opening his newspaper casually. "You are to report to Domino for your uniform and orders tomorrow morning, and of course, you are forbidden from entering Level 3, unless you want to stay there permanently." Magellan sent Sanji a very threatening poison sigh, the purple haze floating towards his face.
Sanji was smart enough to hold his breath as it wafted past. He nodded as Domino opened the door for him. Sanji didn't let go of that breath until he was halfway up to the staff quarters. There he absent-mindedly took a shower, his mind still a blur with fear.
Staring at himself in the mirror, Sanji ran a comb over his thick golden hair. He looked even paler than usually tonight. It was probably the shock: he was lucky Magellan hadn't had him locked up for what he had done. It was probably because his nightly escapades didn't make a real difference. The prisoners still starved; if anything, they suffered more from his occasional food deliveries.
The only tolerable thing about his work here was that he was a cook. Sanji loved cooking; it was his passion in life. It was what he had been born to do and had been doing since he was old enough to work. Now it was going to be taken away from him, along with that small joy he had in his current life.
Attempting to wash away the lightheadedness with a cold splash of water, Sanji locked eyes with the familiar man in the mirror. A jailor, not a chef anymore. He would actively have to hurt people now, people that couldn't fight back. It didn't matter if they were criminals. He didn't even look like a jailor: his fringe was covering one of his eyes, he had a slight beard and a slender face. The criminals here weren't going to take him seriously; he would have the kick his way to respect.
He fell into a fretful sleep, not sure if he was scared to fall asleep or scared to wake up.
"Here is your uniform." Domino handed Sanji a new jacket and hat to replace his chef ones. The pants remained the same baggy green style he was used to. "Here are your weapons. Do not hesitate to use them if need be." The lovely woman coldly handed Sanji a heavy rifle and a saber.
"Ah, Domino-chan, I am best at unarmed combat—" Sanji gently pointed out, feeling awkward holding the large firearm.
"We know." Domino handed Sanji a set of keys on a large keychain. "This is mostly for show. We are fully aware of your combat skills." She waited as Sanji donned the new coat and pulled the reddish hat over his blond locks. "If the inmates see you unarmed, they might try to riot and attack you."
Sanji looked in the mirror. The outfit fit him like a dream: the gloves lay thick on his hands, protecting them from harm, yet the heavy beige coat made the sweltering heat of Level 4 even more agonizing. He flicked a finger over the Impel Down logo on his cap, cleaning dust from the crown and angel wings that decorated the front.
"Every day, your job is to take a specific prisoner from Level 5 and bring him up to Level 1 for a round in the bladed trees, and then you will work him in the foundry here on fourth floor." Domino curtly handed Sanji a whip as she finished her explanation. "Afterwards, you are to put him back in his cell on the fifth floor, understood?"
Sanji took the whip reluctantly. He understood, but that did not mean he wanted to. "But won't he like coming up to this level after being on the fifth floor?" Sanji tried to sound as polite as possible; after all, the fifth floor was the Freezing Hell. "It will warm him up."
Domino didn't seem insulted, but she didn't sound happy either. "After being on the burning floor, the frost of the hell below will seem even more severe." She stated plainly, like she was explaining to a child that cookies spoil an appetite, not talking about torturing a man to death. "And we do not want him to freeze to death already; warming him up between nights will prolong his stay here, allowing us to provide maximum punishment for his crimes."
Sanji felt a little sick; he shouldn't be feeling sick around such a beautiful woman, surely he was just catching a cold! There was no way such a lovely flower could be making him sick to his stomach! Putting on a brave face he hung the whip on his belt, silently praying he would never have to use it.
"What are his crimes exactly?" Sanji asked curiously; if this was some kind of child-murdering, rapist psychopath, this would all be much easier.
"He is a pirate, believed to be the first mate in a dangerous pirate crew." Domino gestured to Sanji to follow her, and they walked down the hallway, pained screams echoed around them. "He was nicknamed the "Demon of East Blue" and is a ruthless killer. He is not to be allowed near anything sharp at any time."
"Demon of East Blue?"
"Yes. Formerly known as "The Pirate Hunter", we believed he was just a bounty hunter until he suddenly appeared as a member of a pirate crew. They have already destroyed a few towns, beaten up several marine officers, sank a number of ships, and even went so far declare war on the World Government itself." Domino slowed her walk as they closed in on a large office door. "That is why we must personally oversee his torture." Domino knocked, patiently waiting as lots of clatter and noises came from inside. "Vice-Warden Hannyabal? I have the new guardsman here."
Sanji glanced at the door. Vice-Warden Hannyabal was a very loud and obnoxious man, yet somehow popular with the guardsmen. Opening the door loudly, the pot-bellied man fixed his hat. Inside, a hastily discarded uniform that looked a lot like Warden Magellan's could be seen.
"I want to be Warden!" the man said before correcting himself. "I mean, you are here early Domino." Hannyabal frowned as he straightened his pants out, looking Sanji over. "I will take it from here." He waved off Domino with one hand as he picked his nose with the other. Sanji frowned; such disrespect towards a lady.
The disrespected lady simply saluted and turned on her heel, leaving Sanji alone in the company of the obnoxious man. Sanji allowed himself a few moments to take in the unpleasant details; the strange headdress, the cylindrical chin, and banana-shaped brows. He truly was an unattractive man.
"Let's go; I want to go back to practicing being a warden." Flicking his boogers disinterestedly across the hallway, Hannyabal started walking towards the stairs leading to the level below, the freezing cold overpowered the heat with each step. Suddenly, Sanji was thankful for his thick jacket. His breath crystallized before him as the massive doors appeared at the end of the staircase.
Sanji could see the frost and snow blowing from beneath the doors. The two guards saluted Hannyabal cheerfully, their noses red from the cold of the chamber. "Vice-Warden Hannyabal!"
"I am here to show this newbie how to handle the prisoners. Open the door." As he said this, he took off his coat, pants, and shoes. Sanji watched with slight disgust as the man stripped; for a moment, he worried he was supposed to do the same. When the other guards took the clothing, their eyes shining with admiration, Sanji remembered the guards talking about Hannyabal being so cool to enter Level 5 in his underwear alone.
He was luckily not required to remove his clothes. The doors opened enough to let them inside and were then swiftly closed behind them. Sanji couldn't help but pity the half-naked man beside him as the cold clawed at his face and the wind pulled at his hair. He could feel the blood cool in his veins.
"Stay away from the forest; that is where the wolves are." Hannyabal pointed casually, his calm tone of voice completely overshadowed by the loud clattering of teeth and profusly running nose. As they hiked through the snow Sanji felt like his limbs would freeze off as he hugged himself for warmth.
"I-is this Pirate Hunter really so dangerous that he needs to be kept here?" Sanji tried his hardest to prevent his teeth from clattering violently. Hannyabal didn't even look like he was trying anymore. The larger man hugged himself, treading through the snow with bare feet and frozen features. His nose was red and his nipples were like little blue rocks.
Sanji shuddered. He wished he hadn't noticed that.
"His will hasn't been broken yet. He's co-operating with us now, but his attitude is worrying. We are hoping that some torture will break him."
"Attitude? Is he violent? Does he resist?" Sanji frowned; he had hoped there would be minimal risk of death involved in his new job.
"No. On the contrary." Hannyabal's teeth stopped chattering as he looked at Sanji worriedly. "He is co-operating perfectly well."
Sanji was confused. "How is that a bad thing? Isn't that what we want?"
Hannyabal frowned and resumed his clattering. "He seems convinced his captain will come and break him out. He is taking all the torture with relative ease." A group of cells glazed over with frost appeared out of the blowing snow not too far ahead from them. Icicles hung precariously from the edges; snow was piled deep around them. "He even took the baptism without a single flinch."
Sanji's eyes widened slightly; he had witnessed an Impel Down baptism before. The criminals were stripped, hung by their ankles from the ceiling, and then lowered into a large pot of boiling water for disinfection. Only a few inmates had ever gotten through the baptism without showing signs of suffering; all of them were locked up down on Level 6. His hand involuntarily slid to his whip.
"When you open the cell, make sure you keep him handcuffed." Hannyabal tread through the snow towards a cell to the far right. "Even without a devil fruit, he's got the strength of at least ten men."
Sanji glanced into the cells as he walked past. He spotted blue limbs, cold skin, even corpses frozen over. The criminals sat huddled, hugging their cold legs for warmth. Some glanced up to look at Sanji; others seemed to ignore him... Or maybe they were dead.
Both options were just as likely.
Eventually, they stopped at a larger cell, Hannyabal cursed. "I REALLY want to become the Warden," he exclaimed to Sanji before hurriedly shaking his head and correcting himself. "This is him. I don't care if you lose him somewhere; I can blame it on Magellan and become the Warden."
Sanji stared into the cage. "Which one is him?"
Hannyabal looked at him like he was raving mad. "The one doing the pushups, of course. The one with the green hair." He gestured to a man around Sanji's age with green wild hair and a small hint of a green beard forming around his powerful jaw. The man balanced vertically in the air on one arm. The heat from his tanned body and sweat formed a mist around him, making him look ethereal while surrounded by freezing, blue-skinned men.
When Sanji's eyes locked with dark ones; a shudder travelled down his back. The man looked like a demon. He literally looked like he had somehow sucked the life-force out of his cellmates, feeding on them to supply the energy he needed. The man elegantly flipped over backwards, landing on his feet with agility Sanji hadn't known such muscular men could muster.
For a second that felt like eternity, the man stared Sanji right in the eye. There wasn't a single shred of hesitation in his eyes. The almost demonic killing intent that emanated from the other man set Sanji on edge. He hoped that whole "cooperating peacefully" part was true.
TO BE CONTINUED. Beta: CopperClouds.