It's dark, and they're all barely awake, and when Sanji flicks open his lighter Luffy flinches away.
Sanji snaps it shut on reflex, shoving the offending item into his pocket, and Luffy doesn't really seem to notice the atmosphere he'd unwittingly created, blinking a few times before stretching his arms, and clambering out the door to the deck.
Zoro follows him without a word, and then Brook and Usopp, and it's only Chopper and Sanji alone in the men's quarters, because Franky was still on watch, and it was Franky who'd just woke them all up by announcing the oncoming squall.
"What was that just now?" Sanji asks quietly, because the little doctor's eyes are worried.
"I don't know," Chopper whispers.
It's a week later, and Luffy wakes violently from a nightmare; utterly silent, he doesn't scream or cry, but he pitches himself out of his bunk and lands on the floor hard. It wakes up Zoro, but when Luffy sits up all Zoro does is scoot over, and Luffy climbs in next to him.
Luffy sleeps better that way, but Zoro lays awake for the rest of the night.
Two bunks down, Sanji lays awake too.
When Sanji gets hurt in a fight, Luffy takes the whole thing down like tumbling a house of cards. Throws an arm out, and Zoro knows it's his cue; he stops and with him the rest of the crew stops, and when he gives the order, Usopp and Chopper rush to Sanji and haul him to his feet. The burst of their captain's Haki passes by them in something like a soundless soundwave they can feel in the air, and the marines fall like puppets.
There's never any need for Luffy to monopolize a fight this way- other captains may strut like that, but never Luffy. And yet he wraps it up in moments, and gives the command to return to the ship, and it only feels out of place to the few of them who won't mention that it does, because they all hurry home and set sail without a word.
Sanji will be fine in a couple of days, and he can still perform his duties as the cook. Chopper warns him to take it easy, the ladies urge him to take care of himself, and Luffy doesn't look at him once.
And Sanji should have done something about it then, because Luffy still can't look at him. Can't or won't, but either way he doesn't, and it's a subtle thing, and maybe it's all in Sanji's head, but it really feels like Luffy's pulling away.
Or maybe after two years he was never that close to begin with.
"He hasn't told us anything about- about anything," Chopper tells him, voice tiny and miserable, when he seeks the doctor out. "I mean, none of us have really talked about those two years, and Luffy's not the type of person to talk about himself as it is, but... I'm scared of what he's keeping to himself."
Sanji lights his cigarette for something to do with his hands. Luffy, who was the most open and giving out of the whole crew, had initially revealed precious little about himself beyond his dream of becoming King of Pirates and the promise made on his old straw hat. Someone like that, who listened to all of their stories and saved all of their lives, got taken for granted.
They only had to ask him and he would tell them anything they wanted to know. Like when they met an unfamiliar man by chance in a sprawling desert, and Luffy claimed him proudly.
They only had to ask, and they didn't. Because Luffy was always only taken at face value; there was a selfish faith his crew had in him to never lie or deceive or hide away like any hurting person might.
Sanji is beginning to realize that Luffy could crack and crumble under the weight of what he isn't saying.
99% of the time, Luffy's pure Luffy, down to the giggle and the glee and the wide bright eyes soaking up the whole sea.
But it's those few, scattered moments that leave Sanji ill at ease. When his eyes would go far away, and he would shrug his shoulders sharply like he was shaking off a blanket, like he wasn't giving thoughts time to settle, and he'd jump up and hurry off with Usopp and Chopper and make up for the deficit in his cheer with laughter, and laughter, and laughter.
The cook takes a drag from his cigarette, and a glance around at his nakama. Robin, Brook and Zoro return it.
Robin and Brook know loss and solitude, and Zoro knows Luffy.
It's late in the afternoon when Sanji gets the three of them to himself, and they sit around the kitchen table with cups of tea and determination.
"You should just talk to him," Zoro says right off the bat. He looks like he's only there for damage control, arms folded, one dark eye steady and unfailingly loyal. Sanji wonders suddenly how the swordsman met his captain, what the circumstances of his joining Luffy had been, if there was some life-changing breath-taking moment of chance or faith as there had been with Nami and Chopper, and Usopp, Robin and Brook; or if fate played favorites, and Zoro had seen his future in a silly scarred grin from day one.
"I agree," Robin says quietly, her hands folded in her lap. But the frown on her face is distressed, and she flicks an understanding look at Sanji. "I'm uncertain how to, though. He's my dear captain, and for all that he's hurting and I want to help him, I just don't know that I want to press on these wounds."
Brook taps bony fingers on the tabletop. "Two years is a long time to be without nakama. Luffy-san wasn't completely alone, thank goodness, but without us there I'm not sure who he might have talked to about the pain and the guilt. It's incredibly lonely having no one to talk to, yohohoho, it's a wonder he didn't end up like me!"
The skeleton's insanity is a subject he treads on with humor, but Robin lays a caring hand on his arm and Zoro mutters gruffly, "You're as sane as you need to be around here." Brook laughs again, and Sanji rubs his cigarette out in an ashtray.
"So what you're saying is that Luffy's never vented about it."
"He'd just been through a war," Robin says. "He lost his precious brother. We don't know anything more than that, but I can only assume he was lost. It's incredibly devestating to a person's mental health to go through a crippling ordeal like he did, and then sweep it under a rug and push on."
"If that's what he did," Sanji stresses, and she inclines her head gracefully in concession that they both know is just good manners.
Zoro shakes his head and leaves them to their plotting. Sanji knows he's going right back out to nap in that grassy deck like everything's fine and dandy, and he wonders how Zoro, of all people, could care so little.
Luffy's drowning, and Sanji dives into the roaring water without a thought.
And there's a pit in his stomach when he finally reaches his captain and hauls him over his shoulder, because there always is, Luffy's so limp and light and barely breathing in his ear how could he not be a little afraid.
Nami throws them a line and Franky and Usopp haul them back up, and for a worrying moment he doesn't come to, but it only takes Chopper a few pumps on his chest and he's rolling onto his side and coughing up water and wheezing "Thanks Sanji," like he always does-
and it's a common thing, it happens all the time, Luffy almost drowns almost every day, but this time it's shaken Sanji to his bones and even as everyone else is turning away, he blurts, "Would you just talk to me?"
Luffy blinks at him, the others blink at him, and he shakes when he tries to light a damp cigarette.
"Talk to you?" the boy captain asks, and big brown eyes, searching and direct, are such a welcome sight after so long. Sanji wonders if the shuttered, sideways glancing of the past week or so had been his fault somehow. Luffy was alarmingly good at reading people, even moreso at reading his nakama, and Sanji realizes abruptly that he'd probably been giving off some hugely conflicting vibes that had even their unassuming captain faltering in his approach.
He slumps, runs a hand through his hair, gives up on the tobacco.
Everything is always so simple in the end.
"Yeah, captain. Talk to me. I'm worried about you. I want to know what you did those two years I didn't get to see you. I want to know about Ace and the war and how you survived to make it back home to me. You're my nakama, and I want you to tell me everything that I missed when I couldn't be there for you." He's laying his heart open and bare, but it's not hard.
Because it's Luffy.
Luffy, who looks surprised, and leans over to touch Sanji's arm.
It's always so simple in the end, because to take care of Luffy they only had to ask. Nami wraps a blanket around his shoulders as he tells them about an island and an empress, prison and poison, friends and escape and war, and holding Ace when he died. He tells them about Law, and a rampage, and Jimbei's advice.
It's quiet as he speaks, just the wind in the sails, gulls overhead, and Luffy.
He apologizes for scaring them, assures them that he has nightmares sometimes, and can't help but remember scary things sometimes, but everything's really okay.
"Because back on that island, I still had you when I thought I had nothing. You saved me that day, and you've been taking care of me this whole time."
It's sunny, with a smile, and Sanji chokes on tears.
Luffy thanks him the next day.
Sanji tells him to shut up and sit down for breakfast.
And if Luffy gets a few extra pancakes and a show, as Sanji flips them high off the skillet and onto a plate, there's no real reason for it.
Sanji's the cook, and Luffy's the captain, and they're sailing through an ocean that's whole worlds wide, on a mad little lion ship with friends like family, and if Sanji ever wants fame, or glory, or a handful of stars to keep in his pocket,
all he has to do is ask.