It’s a rare quiet day on the Thousand Sunny. They docked at a new island the day before, so most of the crew’s gone into town to shop and restock on supplies. Sanji and Luffy have been left behind to watch the ship, and while the straw-hatted captain would normally be driving Sanji half-crazy in the galley, jumping around and pestering his cook for food, today’s a bit different.
It’s past noon, but the Straw Hats’ captain’s still asleep. As it happened, this island was being terrorized by one of the low-bounty pirate crews that’d started up after the War of the Best, and Luffy, being who he was, couldn’t stand to watch innocent people be brutalized and scared into submission like that. So, he’d decided to kick the bastard’s ass while his crew handled the captain’s weakling crewmates. Honestly, it was all over embarrassingly quickly.
Still, the jerk managed to get a few good shots in with his Logia-piercing Devil Fruit ability, so Luffy had needed some of Chopper’s expert medical care. The reindeer reported to the anxious crew three hours later that he’d be fine with a day or two of rest, but that meant he wouldn’t be able to go into town with them the next day. The rubber boy had been disappointed and whined a bit at first, but cheered right up when Robin suggested they stay an extra day on the island just for Luffy, and Nami gave in, saying she supposed he’d earned it (but she’d have to charge him extra interest for the time – as usual, he didn’t seem to mind).
Of course, as to be expected, when it came to deciding this morning who would go where and when to return, both Chopper and Zoro were reluctant to leave Luffy. But ever the voice of reason, Robin reminded them that no one else would know what medical supplies the reindeer needed, just as no one would be able to get Zoro’s swords repaired as flawlessly without his eye for detail and a top-notch blacksmith. Uncertainty hung in the air for a stretched moment, and then Sanji, sitting on the stairs, raised his hand to volunteer.
“I restocked plenty at the last island,” he explained smoothly, taking a second to light a cigarette. Privately, he was reflecting on the two years he’d just spent without his captain, and he felt the need to be close to him again, even if he’d just be sleeping. “Besides,” he reasoned, “somebody's gotta be here to make sure he eats properly once he wakes up. He needs to get his strength back," a puff of smoke and confident grin, "and I'm just the cook to do it.”
So he ended up being the one to stay with Luffy, and it turns out to be one of the best decisions he’s ever made.
He's in the middle of making a meat medley stew, a meat lover’s pizza, and numerous other meaty dishes for his ever-carnivorous captain when piercing, gut-wrenching cries of agony from below deck fill the air. Startled, Sanji nearly burns himself, but he pays that no mind. Dropping everything, barely remembering to turn off the stove in his haste, he scrambles, nearly killing himself multiple times on the way, down to the men's quarters.
What he sees almost makes him wish he'd stayed in the galley. Almost. But he's not, could never be, that cruel.
His captain, having fallen from his top bunk and landed in a wounded heap on the floor, is facing Sanji on his side. He’s writhing in a pain the cook can't pinpoint – damn it, he tries, and it's hard to see because the kid’s curled up like he's been Haki-kneed in the gut, but there's nothing there apart from the bandaged injuries he had already – and the mix of strangled, full-blown screams leaving his mouth make Sanji feel like he's drowning in despair that's not his. And— His breath hitches so violently in his throat he doesn't even realize it's not smoke that makes him choke, but his own saliva (his cigarette fell from his mouth the second he entered the room). Luffy... He's crying...!
That last bit of knowledge is enough to snap him out of his stupor, and he's rushing to his captain's side even quicker than he got down here. Dropping to his knees beside him, he reaches out…only to hesitate.
Maybe he shouldn't. This is Chopper's area. He hadn't had to give Luffy anything for the pain, he remembers the little doctor telling him before he left with the others, so he knows it's not a side effect of anything medical. But still, what if this is some kind of hallucination, not just what appears to be a normal, if violent, nightmare?
His second gut reaction, freakily enough, is to wish Zoro were here instead of him. He's better at soothing Luffy and setting him straight than all of them, even Sanji's precious Nami-swan. But he's not here, and even if there were a way to contact him, the idiot would probably just get lost on the way back to the ship, and besides...calling him would be admitting defeat. It would tell that stupid mossheaded first mate that he's not capable of taking care of their captain. And Sanji's not one to admit defeat, especially not now.
He wasn't there for his captain two years ago when he should have been, never mind that they were all doing their damndest to be at his side until he'd given the order to get stronger with him. So he will be now, even if it kills him. Bring it on, captain, he silently challenges. Let's see how much stronger you've become.
A gurgling, shattered cry reminds Sanji of what he'd been doing before hesitating, and he only now notices the way Luffy's grappling at his chest—at his scar. His raking nails seem terrifyingly ready to tear himself raw just to get it off, but then desperate to keep it where it is at the same time. The tears in the shout, in his squeezed-shut eyes and streaming down his face and neck and mingling with the snot running from his nose, twist Sanji's heart so painfully that he feels it as clear as day, as acutely as he had when he'd read about Ace and Marineford and Luffy in the paper so long ago.
And yet, somehow, something about this feels worse. There's a sense of foreboding hanging in the air he can't name, can't even put his finger on, but it's something that makes his skin crawl and him instinctively shift ever closer to his currently defenseless child-captain. Come at me, you damn nightmares! he wants to snarl. Do your worst!
But all the fire and hate and wanting in the world won't change things as they are now. He knows that from personal experience. He doesn't let himself go back there, though, stuck on that rock in the middle of an endless, empty, silent ocean with seemingly equally as endless days without food or water or shelter, waiting for death alongside an old geezer who ate his own leg to survive long enough to ensure at least Sanji himself made it out of this Hell on Earth alive. No. This is about Luffy. Gan Fall knows his own past hurts haunt him enough.
So he throws caution to the wind—but that doesn't mean he's not gentle as hell about it. Sanji has a bedside manner, all right. It's just something the others almost never get to see.
“Luffy,” he says softly, but gets no response. Reaching out to take his hands and pry them from his chest as gently as he can, grimacing at the way his protesting captain's nails bite into his fingers in the process, he tries again, louder this time. “Luffy!”
There's something of a flinch in the boy's face this time, and Sanji'll take it because it's something, even if it makes his heart hurt because this is his captain, and he's an idiot who nearly gets them killed on almost a daily basis, but he's also saved them all in one way or another, saved countless others (even enemies), several countries, and started a war against the world to bring just one of them home. He's their joy and fury and despair and guiding light all in one, and they'd be lost without him the way a part of them was during those two endlessly long years. And that’s why Sanji needs more than ‘something.’ He needs to save him from this, needs him to wake up. Because if he has to hear or see his beloved captain in this much pain for much longer...frankly, he doesn't know how he'll last.
So he shifts to crossed legs and transfers one of Luffy’s smaller hands (even smaller than he remembers, he swears) to the one already holding the other, feeling the sting of broken skin again as his palm greets the open air, but he barely pays it any mind. Normally, he'd just about kill anyone for injuring his hands, endangering his position on the ship, but he's managed with far worse, and anyway, his captain always takes priority.
Reaching down as slowly and carefully as he’s able, he cups Luffy's sweaty cheek, caressing it on instinct because the kid reels back sharply this time, almost like he's been burned, and the pained cry and increased tears suggest the same. His mouth stretches open wide, a gasping sort of choked sob escaping, and for a split second, Sanji swears he hears a name underneath it all. He can’t be sure, however, because it's drowned out almost immediately by still more, and it doesn't matter to Sanji anymore. His captain needs him. That's all he cares to know.
Dropping Luffy’s hands to his stomach with a tenderness he wasn't aware he possessed, he cups his other cheek now, stroking them both in an effort to make those heinous tears and decidedly ugly creases in his brow leave and never return. How dare they? "Luffy!"
This last yell, loudest of all, does the trick. Luffy jolts awake and upright so quickly that the cook barely has time to get out of the way, lest he want to add 'broken nose' to his list of minor injuries. He’s wide-eyed and breathing heavily, bandages and clothes soaked with sweat, and he’s grappling at his chest again, looking down at it like he’s not sure if what he’s seeing is real. He looks more like a frightened child than he has in the longest time. (Probably since Marineford, but Sanji wouldn’t know since he wasn’t there to see it – and the most selfish part of him thanks Gan Fall for that because he doesn’t know what he’d do with himself if he saw his captain that broken.)
Sanji, for his part, watches him cautiously, worriedly, his name on the tip of his tongue. He’s not really sure what his next move should be. He doesn’t want to hurt him or make him even more afraid than he is already, but he doesn’t want him to think he’s alone either…
Before he can do anything, however, Luffy’s falling back down, and Sanji instantly lunges forward to catch him. For several moments, he doesn’t know what to do, cradling him against his chest in a careful, protective grip. Eventually, he lowers him back down to the floor, removing and folding his suit jacket so his captain can use it as a pillow.
“Luffy,” he starts, quiet and soothing, “you okay? Can you hear me?”
Because, just looking at him, it’s hard to tell. His eyes are half-lidded and unfocused, as far away as Sanji's ever seen them, and his breathing’s turned shallow and deep like he’s about to fall asleep again.
Then, he hears it. That croaked, barely-there plea that's so close to a whisper Sanji wouldn't know what to do with himself if it were a scream like all the others.
Sanji’s heart turns to stone in his chest, the rest of him to ice, the smallest shards smarting in his eyes. Shit. Now it all makes sense. He can’t believe he didn’t see it before. The screaming, the tears, the scar…!
Zeroing in on one of the golden buttons on his captain’s jacket, it takes every shred of willpower he has to shake his head. It wouldn’t be fair to keep him waiting, not when…not when it’s his precious big brother on the line.
“No, captain… It’s Sanji…” he corrects softly, even more so than before, running his fingers through the child’s hair in any effort to make this easier on him—because he knows this is most likely going to hurt worse than that nightmare did, if that's at all possible. “Ace is...” the words get lodged in his throat, but he swallows and forces them out for Luffy’s sake, “...Ace is gone, captain… Two years ago now…”
He’s silent for at least a minute while he waits for any kind of reaction. When he doesn’t get one and finally gathers enough courage to look at Luffy again, the hand in black hair stops short. The nineteen-year-old’s eyes are wide open and fixed on him, totally lucid and filled with slowly-dawning, haunted remembrance, tears flooding agonized baby browns until they course down his face once more. Sanji can feel his own heart shattering piece by piece in his chest with each one, is one hundred percent sure the pain shows on his face. “Captain…”
“I…I’m sorry,” Luffy apologizes, raspy and hoarse as he raises his wrist to wipe his eyes, and the rest of what the blond was going to say dies on his tongue. What? “For hurting your hands and…for taking you from the food… I-I didn’t…” he grits his teeth and tries to purse trembling lips as best he can to keep from sobbing outright, and to his credit, it succeeds for now, “…I didn’t mean to make you worry…”
Sanji’s on him like a shot, but rather than angry, his voice is naught but breathless in its fondness, thumbs moving automatically to once again brush away Luffy’s tears. “You really think I care about any of that, you idiot?” Taking the boy’s hand in a grip so gentle it surprises them both, he brushes Luffy’s fingers against his lightly scratched ones. “You feel that, Luffy? I’m fine. Lunch can wait, and my hands will heal in no time. You know I’ve had way worse.” He holds his breath a moment before releasing a long-suffering sigh through his nose. “To be honest, the only thing I’m worried about right now is you, nothing else. My purpose on this ship is to be your cook so you’ll be able to fulfill your dream someday…” Sanji’s voice lowers as he hesitates, but ultimately decides to follow through with ghosting his hand over the teen’s scarred chest, stopping at his semi-rapidly beating heart, “…but it’s also my job to look after your heart, just like you do ours…” he makes sure they’re locking eyes, “…if you’ll let me, captain.”
To even try to begin to make up for back then.
Something flashes across the younger’s eyes, and given just enough of his silent, intense scrutiny, he grins a tamer version of that wide, toothy beam that makes everyone’s hearts soar. “Of course!”
And Sanji loves to see that smile and hear that confidence (in him) so much that he hates what he’s about to do.
"Good. Then…do you want to talk about it?”
At the mere prospect of reliving his nightmare, the worst moment of his life, the smile drops like a bird struck mid-flight, and his breath stops and eyes are blown wide with fear. That only lasts a few seconds, though, and then it’s like the question really registers, like all the healing that’s both torn him down and built him back up over the past two years comes hurtling back, and he starts calming down. Sanji isn’t quite looking, wanting to give him as much privacy as he can (one man’s undying respect for another), not moving a muscle or allowing any change in his expression in what he hopes is a show of solidarity.
Slowly, hands blind, Luffy makes to push himself up with Sanji’s help, leaning back against his surprised, touched cook for strength the man’s only too ready to give. His hand wanders to his scar again absently, jumping a bit like he hadn’t realized when his fingers brush the old wound, a marker and trophy in one.
“I…” his free fist curls in Sanji’s pant leg till it trembles, shoulders following, and his voice sinks to a whisper, “…I-I lost Ace…all…all over again…”
And though Sanji’s been expecting this answer the whole time, that doesn’t make it any easier—on either of them. Luffy…
“I see…” he acknowledges softly, sensitivity in every word, syllable, letter, his eyes shutting tightly while he strengthens his gentle grip on his captain’s middle as much as he dares.
Mentally, he kicks himself. He should say more. Damn it, he wants to, it’s just…he isn’t sure what. ‘I’m sorry’ would be like a slap to the face, no amount of ‘should’ve, would’ve, could’ve’s had done him any good over the last two years, and he isn’t willing to take the chance of any of it negatively affecting Luffy. Really, he should be better at this. He’s lost people he loves, too. They all have. But still…this is different. Their losses were all when they were younger, and none of them fought through hell and back just to spearhead an all-out war to save someone who meant more to them than anything…just to lose him at the end of it all…
Just then, an idea sparks in the cook’s mind, and a tiny smile lifts his lips. It might be a bit unorthodox, but it’s the best pick-me-up he has to offer (something that might even put the mosshead’s to shame!), and he knows his captain, of all people, will appreciate it like no one else.
“Hey, Luffy,” he proposes, breaking the relative silence that’s settled between them, “why don’t you come back to the kitchen with me? You can talk while I finish lunch. I know you like watching sometimes, and you must be pretty hungry by now, right? I’ll listen. You know I can multitask with the best of them."
Luffy’s still and quiet for but a moment, and then relief and pride fill Sanji’s chest in watching a slow, albeit still small, toothy grin and nod bubble to the surface. Moving to a crouch at his side, the cook holds out a hand to help him up, reaching back to retrieve the trademark straw hat from the bed-corner and jam it gently on the boy’s head the way Luffy always does. Automatically, its owner reaches up to finger the rim and pull it down a little tighter, his smile that much brighter. It makes Sanji feel warmer inside than he has since Luffy got hurt.
“Hey, Sanji,” there’s an excited lilt to the ray of sunshine’s words for the first time since this morning, and the cook can’t help the way his heart beats faster upon hearing it, “is there gonna be meat?”
Sanji can’t help it. Bright laughter tosses his head back, Luffy joining in as the man assures the bottomless pit there will be plenty and shoves him lightly toward the stairs while he bends to pick up the cigarette he dropped earlier. Chopper would kill him if he left it lying there. Once they get inside and Sanji’s properly treated and bandaged his hands (thank you, doctor!), the cook picks right back up where he left off, his captain plopping down on the cushioned bar at the counter to watch him work with childlike (and salivating) interest.
“Okay, captain,” he invites once he’s all set, practically bleeding tender reassurance, “I’m all ears.”
It’s just over two hours later when the first signs of their crewmates’ homecoming greet their ears.
“Sanji, is Luffy awake yet? We brought back souvenirs!”
Instantly, the nineteen-year-old leaps up from his stool to race over with stars in his eyes. “Really?! You guys brought presents?! You’re the best!”
The blond in question grins widely at Luffy’s antics as he flicks on the burners and oven to get the food warming up again, knowing the rest of them won’t be far behind. (Really, Zoro’s lucky he had Chopper with him or he might not have been back till dinnertime, if that. Actually, in a way, Sanji’s kind of disappointed. That would have been something to hang over the moron’s head for a while!)
As if on cue, Zoro leaves a blushing “Thanking me doesn’t make me happy, you bastard!” Chopper and his excited captain’s side to stand near the counter, keeping his eye on Luffy a moment or two longer before it flits to meet his rival’s. Sanji knows immediately what he wants. The protectiveness in that narrowed green always means the same thing when it comes to their idiot leader. What happened?
Frankly, he’s a bit surprised Zoro didn’t miss it. Of course, he doesn’t know how anyone could miss the still slightly red, puffy eyes and Buggy-esque nose their captain sports, but this is Zoro. For all his usual idiocy, though, Sanji has to hand it to him: whenever Luffy’s involved, it’s Zoro who’s the authority. The rest of them, Sanji included, have never really understood it completely. Maybe it’s a captain-first mate thing. Maybe it’s fate. Who knows? In the end, Sanji’s always just chalked it up to one of the many marvels that make up his precious nakama.
In that sense, the cook feels he owes it to the swordsman to be honest without giving away anything Luffy might want to keep between them (although, knowing their bond, maybe Zoro already knows—and if he doesn’t, Sanji’s sure he will soon enough). So, without further ado, the man lights another cigarette and, on the way down, his hand splays across his suited chest, nails just barely digging into the fabric before it drops.
The first mate understands immediately. His one eye narrows to a slit, and what Sanji swears is guilt passes across it, one hand curling tighter around Wadō’s hilt (which he’d subconsciously reached for the instant he’d seen evidence of his captain’s tears). Sanji’s own brow furrows at that—it’s something they all feel, regardless of whether they should or it makes sense or not—but he doesn’t have time to dwell on it because Zoro’s pounced on the most important question of all. Is he okay?
This time, a smile, pleased and proud, slips onto Sanji’s face, and he nods confidently, relief rolling off him in waves. Honestly, this being the first time he’s dealt with Luffy’s nightmares, never mind all alone, he’d been nervous and uncertain, terrified of screwing up and making everything worse. But he’d done his best anyway, listened to and helped Luffy as best he could, and to his immense surprise, he’d actually done well. He swears the fact that his captain trusted him enough to be that vulnerable in front of him will humble him for the rest of his life.
So when Zoro moves his steady gaze from him to Luffy, stays there for a drawn out moment, and then comes back to nod and smile at him with a fierceness that says good, nicely handled, and thank you all in one, he has to admit, he’s thrown. Aside from in battle (and even then, sometimes), they’re not exactly accustomed to much of anything but being at each other’s throat. So, this is…—!
The tea kettle chooses that instant to shriek, effectively ruining the moment, and Sanji hurries to get it off the stove before they all go deaf. Pouring some of its contents into four cups, he serves the three and takes a generous sip of his own before checking on the dishes themselves.
That grin, now even giddier than before (which has nothing to do with that mosshead’s approval!), never leaves his face.
Over the next twenty minutes or so, the rest of the Straw Hats pile in, all of them bestowing something small upon their temporarily laid-up captain. Sanji teases the ecstatic boy about being spoiled, all while smiling fondly and brushing black bangs from his eyes, and Luffy just laughs and beams.
(Even more so once lunch is served about thirty seconds later.)
That night, after Chopper gives Luffy something to help him sleep off the rest of his injuries and he’s happily snoring away, the remaining eight crewmembers gather in the galley to get Sanji’s full account of what happened that afternoon. He tells them everything he can, and though most of them still seem a little anxious, he’s quick to assuage their fears.
"I don’t think we have to worry about him having nightmares for a while,” he tells them with an almost obscene amount of certainty, content to grin like a devil around the plume of smoke he lets out. “He’s our captain, and he’ll be King of the Pirates someday. Until then, we’ll be here to support him, just like we always have.”
The others’ reactions range from calm nods to small murmurs to loud declarations of agreement (quickly hushed and reminded of their sleeping captain a floor below), and once it’s all over, everyone but Brook, who’s on watch, heads to bed. They want to be well-rested for the time they’ll get to spend entertaining (and, knowing him, probably fighting alongside) their captain the next day.
Sanji pauses beside Luffy’s bunk on the way to his, unable to stop himself from chuckling a little at the haphazardly-strewn limbs and happy mumblings, the presents from the others still clutched in his arms. Smiling down at him with all the love for him he’s ever felt, the blond strokes his hair and draws his blanket back up to his neck. “Sweet dreams, Pirate King.”
Oh, yeah. He’ll be the the King someday, all right. And Sanji will be right there at his side, cooking up a feast fit for him with all the indescribable ingredients he can get from All Blue.
After all, that’s what he deserves. The best and so much more.