Luffy has a huge lump in his throat.
The wind feels like ice against his skin and he's starting to lose sensibility in his arms but he's not letting go. The storm is howling around the Going Merry like some unholy beast and he can hear the voices of his crew screaming something in the background but their words do not reach him. The rain pellets slam into his face harder and harder and every now and then, a huge wave envelops him whole and threatens to drag him into the furious water below. The whips of the storm are unforgiving on him but he doesn't seem to be aware of them at all. Right now, only two things have his full attention, the solid wood of the front of the Going Merry that he is holding onto for dear life and his death grip on Sanji's hand somewhere in the water.
The last five minutes keep replaying in his head like a broken record. His life line snapping, Nami's scream, his desperate attempts to grab something, anything but his hands grasping only empty air. He remembers sliding along the deck land then falling into the freezing water. For a few seconds, his head reels, the waves thrash him around like a toy. He cannot breathe, cannot think. He's sinking like a stone, very aware of a crushing pain in his chest.
And then, strong hands wrap around his waist and even stronger legs kick the water propelling them both back to the light. Blond hair flashes before his eyes when his head breaks the surface and sweet oxygen fills his lungs once again. Despite his exhaustion, his lips part in a wide smile, as he recognizes the cook. Sanji, his own personal lifeguard, the one who always dives into the water to save him no matter what. As he feels himself being pulled upwards to the Going Merry's deck, he can see his pale face in the water, urging Nami and Zoro to hurry.
Completely unaware of a humongous wave about to engulf him and drag him underwater once again.
Luffy doesn't think, he reacts. His right hand shoots out and grabs Sanji's arm, trying to snatch him from the water's grasp but discovers to his horror that he cannot even pull him closer to the ship. The realization makes his stomach churn. As he remains rooted to the Going Merry's front, his eyes fixed on Sanji, he feels true terror for the first time in his life.
He can feel he cook's fingers digging into his arm, trying to fight against the strength of the current pulling them apart but the ocean is stronger than both of them. He can see his blonde head bobbing among the waves, so helpless and alone in the middle of the raging sea and every time it disappears under the water he can feel his heart stopping. He tries to scream the cook's name but his voice breaks and fails him. As Sanji's grasp on his hand seems to weaken, he cannot help but experience a sickening dejà vu.
Drum Island… snow all around them… Sanji saving his and Nami's lives… and that sinking, horrifying feeling of the blonde's hand slipping from his grasp leaving him holding an empty mitten.
He would be damned before he let that happen again.
His voice finally finds its way back to his throat and as the name escapes his lips he can feel his fear turning into anger. His blood boils at the memories of Sanji diving into the water after him, Sanji flying backwards as the avalanche at Drum Island swallowed him whole, all the times the blonde cook has risked his life to save him without a second thought, without considering the consequences of his actions. And now, when he needs him the most, Luffy is incapable of doing the same. He's right there, right before his eyes, struggling against the waves, gasping for air and Luffy is not strong enough to save him. Tears of helpless rage sting his eyes as he feels Sanji's hand slipping from his grasp, the fabric of his shirt starting to tear under his fingers. He wants him back… he wants to hear his voice again… he wants to see him grin as he wolfs down his breakfast…
He wants a second chance to tell him how much he means to him.
His arm creaks under the pressure. He sees a long red streak running down his elbow and dripping into the white foam below but he does not feel the pain. Sanji's hand is about to lose its grip on him as he lets out a scream that echoes in the storm like a battle cry and pulls back with all his might.
He can hear something crack and snap and he feels his right shoulder going numb. He knows he just wrecked his arm in several different and creative ways but he cannot bring himself to look at the damage done. His eyes are fixed on his right hand as it shoots out of the water like a long pink slingshot carrying Sanji with it. As the cook's body slams into him and they both fall back upon the deck, the relief is so great he almost feels dizzy. He feels the hands of the crew grabbing them both, pinning them down to prevent them from being swept into the sea again as Robin's arms work against the clock to secure their life lines to the mast again. Sanji's body feels like a rag doll in his arms as he clutches him to his chest incapable of letting go. And when he suddenly stiffens and starts coughing up water, Luffy grabs him by his slender shoulders, his dark eyes prying into the cook's blue ones.
"Sanji, you idiot! Why did you do that?"
The cook looks at him confused. His lips are tinged with blue and he's shivering as Luffy pulls him closer and wraps his arms around him protectively.
"What do you mean, dumbass? You can't swim, remember?!"
"You could have died!"
"So could you! I was the closest when your rope snapped, I saw my chance and I took it! Would you rather have me let you drown next time?"
Luffy's breath is caught in this throat. For a second, he cannot answer Sanji but when he does; his words are a strangled whisper.
"What?" Sanji's defiant attitude is gone in a second as he notices the shift in his captain's demeanour. "What do you mean you're sorry? It's not your fault that you can't sw…"
"I'm sorry I almost killed you." Luffy finds his voice again and buries his head into Sanji's shirt almost crushing him in his embrace. "I'm supposed to protect you and I almost let you drown! You have saved me so many times and I almost let you…"
Understanding dawns on Sanji as he slowly pulls away from Luffy's grasp and looks into his face. His eyes are red with tears and his arms are still wrapped around him like a safety net, like he's trying to shelter him from the storm still howling around them. He manages to free one hand and rest it on the rubber boy's head ruffling his soaked black hair.
"We're all supposed to protect each other, dumbass, that's what nakama do. That was me taking care of you and this…" he looks down at Luffy's arms around him, "This is you taking care of me. I think you did pretty well considering the circumstances"
"But… but you almost died…" Luffy shakes his head in disbelief as he keeps staring at him almost trying to convince himself that Sanji's still here in front of him. "What about All Blue, Sanji? What about your dream? You can't find it if you're dead!"
So that's what this is all about… Sanji sighs. He can feel the struggle against the water taking his toll on him and as the adrenaline in his body wears off, he's starting to feel lightheaded. For a second he feels tempted to just let go and succumb to the darkness looming over him but he gathers the last of his strength and with his free hand smacks the rubber boy upside the head.
"Idiot! You're supposed to become Pirate King! You can't do that if you're dead either! Are you saying my dream is more important than yours?"
"Yes! I mean… no… I mean…"Luffy's stammering catches Sanji completely by surprise. "I mean… I do want to become Pirate King but not if it means losing my nakama. Not if it means…"
Sanji smiles. He can almost see the cogs spinning in Luffy's head as he's searching for the right words. Something tells him that they could be here for the next two years and he still would not have found them. He decides to help him out a little.
"Are you asking me never to risk my life for you again?"
For a second Luffy freezes and the cogs in his brain stop whirring. As he looks back at Sanji, his eyes shine with determination once again.
"I'm asking you to be by my side when I become Pirate King."
Sanji can feel his eyes widen. The words replay in his head for a second, their exact meaning still escaping him. Despite being as simple as a baked potato, Luffy could be really enigmatic when he wanted to be. He tries reading more information from his face but there is nothing there except Luffy flashing his biggest and brightest grin at him as usual.
He chooses to nod back instead.
"I promise…" Sanji can feel his whole body getting heavy. Luffy's smiling face swims before his eyes and he can feel his hand sliding from the raven haired boy's hair. He can still hear him calling his name but suddenly another voice interrupts him and he can feel himself and Luffy being dragged along the deck.
"Nami says we can manage on our own." Usopp sounds nervous and probably a bit relieved to get away from the whips of the storm at least for a while. "Chopper has been screaming bloody murder since you managed to pull Sanji out of the water. You both look like you could use him right now."
The captain's response is lost in the wind and the rain. Sanji tries to open his eyes and at least reassure their prone to overreaction reindeer doctor but Luffy's arms around him start to feel strangely comfortable. As the sharpshooter keeps babbling on to keep his fear under control, he feels Luffy's fingers curling around the back of his shirt, like a kid clutching a really big plush toy and, with a smile, finally allows the darkness to claim him.
And he dreams of All Blue.