This is definitely a dream, he thinks, quite lucidly. A woman on the previous island had said as much, had said that they were entering uncertain waters in the Grand Line, where the mists were heavy and the currents ponderous and strange. She had said to be careful, to sail only in daylight when the mists reluctantly draw back like curtains to let through weak sunlight. She had been an old woman, and wise. Her hair was white and her eyes Mayan blue in her wrinkled face.
Darkness had fallen quicker than any of them were expecting. Nami had ordered the sails to be furled and the anchor to be dropped, and called it an early night.
It had been his turn for watch. Sitting in the crow’s nest, he had silently thanked Franky for the umpteenth time that he didn’t have to be sitting outside, braving the elements, swathed now in warm blankets instead of fog.
At one point in the night, at what hour he couldn’t know, when he looked out over the water again, it had become daylight. He squinted against the muted sun, across a sea of brown reeds instead of dark water. He had stood then, realized he was standing on soft earth, in reeds as tall as his elbow.
So yes, he decides now. This is definitely a dream. A wind picks up, makes the reeds bow, and he can smell no salt in the air at all.
He’s about to pinch himself awake when he sees a man standing in front of him.
The man is grinning at him over the tops of the swaying reeds, and there is something feral in that grin, something primordial and not quite human. The silence is booming in his ears. The sky above them is red, and he realizes that this does not surprise him. It does surprise him, however, how cold it is.
“Hello,” says the man, breaking the preternatural still with a voice that sounds simultaneously near and faraway. His dark hair is wild, and his eyes are silver-blue rimmed with thick black. “Hello, little boy from North Blue.”
“Hi,” Sanji says. “Nice place you got here.”
The man’s grin grows wider. “Yes. I think so too.”
“Kind of cold, though. I bet that’s a common complaint.”
“Not really,” says the man. “Your people are used to the cold.”
“Oh, is that so?” Sanji pats himself down for a cigarette and finds that he has none. “Well, can I help you with something, or what?”
“You are far from home, little boy from North Blue.”
“No,” Sanji says, his breath clouding in the air. “Home travels with me.”
“Ah.” The man takes a step closer, through the reeds, predatory. “You’re one of the lucky ones.”
“Yeah, I guess.” He’s getting impatient. “So look, is there something you need from me, or can I be on my way now?”
“Your people call me fen-dweller.”
“I don’t know who you think my people are, but my people are a bunch of limey bastards,” Sanji says, thinking of the Orbit and of the Baratie, his adoptive family, and he misses them suddenly, deeply, profoundly. He shakes his head. “Are you going to keep ignoring my questions?”
“What is your name, boy?”
He sighs. “Sanji.”
“Unfortunate,” says the man, fen-dweller. “It’s better to have many names.”
Sanji shrugs. “I can make them up as I need.”
The man seems amused by this. “Yes,” he approves. “That’s good. And what are you looking for, Sanji from North Blue?”
“Why should I tell you?”
Another step forward, and the man leans in close enough that Sanji can see the flecks of black in his irises, the flash of something aflame behind his pupils. “I have seen mighty warriors rise and fall. I have fought in more wars than you have years, and the last war the greatest of them all. I have scorched the earth with fire, and I have bit the hand of victory, and I have eaten my fill of gods and of heroes, in a time when such still existed. Little boy, Sanji from North Blue, do you think yourself a hero?”
Sanji stares at him, unimpressed. “Sometimes,” he answers. “On my better days.”
“All heroes need a quest. Tell me what it is you’re looking for.”
“A mythical ocean,” he says flatly.
“An ocean?” The fen-dweller laughs, a guttural sound, and his breath smells of brimstone and rot. “Your people believe in a tree, all-encompassing, with roots that go deep down past the core of the earth and branches that reach high and higher. The ash tree, the world tree.”
“It’s not a tree,” Sanji scoffs. “It’s an ocean where all waters flow. It’s called All Blue.”
The man gestures with a wide, sweeping motion. “Look around you, boy. Even the sky is red, instead of blue. Believe not in this false ocean. It does not exist.”
The reeds are dry and brittle as far as the eye can see, and the soft earth suddenly becomes hard and cracked. The red sky seems to wheel above them.
“Not here,” he says, calmly. “But it exists. Where I come from, there is blue stretching to the horizon and beyond.”
“I know where you come from,” the fen-dweller leers, and he takes Sanji’s hand, brings it to his mouth and grins euphoric. “And it is in your blood to fear me. Do you believe I exist, boy? Am I as real as your All Blue?”
“I do,” Sanji says. “You are.”
He watches the man open his mouth wide, sees the long canines protruding from the man’s gums. When Sanji kicks him, it is with the air of someone firmly dealing with an annoyingly persistent child.
He turns to go before he can see where the fen-dweller lands among the reeds. He can hear the fen-dweller’s laugh, a low, pervasive rumble he feels in his bones.
“When you fail to find your mythical ocean,” comes the voice of the fen-dweller from everywhere at once, “when you fail, you will come back to me, and I will take your hand, like I took the hand of victory, the Judge, now one-handed. You will return, boy once-named, Sanji from North Blue, and I will be here.”
Sanji keeps walking, through the brown reeds, under the red sky, in the bitter cold. He keeps walking and walking, and the fen-dweller’s laugh follows him.
He whips his head to the left and sees Robin, her hands around a steaming mug of coffee.
“Robin-chan!” He takes a step toward her, pushing aside the reeds, and his heel clicks on the wooden floor of the crow’s nest.
“Are you all right?”
“Huh?” The ship rocks and he stumbles a little. There is the gentle crash of waves outside. He is still cold. “Uh. Oh, yes! Absolutely fine now that you’re here!” He reaches down to pick up the blanket from where it had fallen to the floor, shakes it out and drapes it over Robin’s shoulders.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course! Robin-chwan is so kind to worry about me!” When Robin stays expectantly silent, he hastily adds, in a rushed whisper, “I just fell asleep and had a weird dream. I was walking for a long, long time. That’s all.”
Robin smiles. “Sounds invigorating. You must tell me more about it in the morning.” She says nothing else, but she means that.
He laughs, breathlessly. “Anything you desire! Is there anything I can get for you now?”
“No, thank you. Please get some rest. There’s still a few hours before dawn.”
He bows with his usual dramatic flair and twirls out of the crow’s nest.
Alone on deck, he stops and looks out over the railing, through the cloying mists that cling to him and bead on his skin. A rumble in the distance that might have been thunder, might have been something else entirely. He peers down at the water below, watches it lap gently against Sunny’s side. He lights a cigarette, finally.
“I have until I die,” he says to the stalking presence behind him. “Not a second less.”
An answering rumble, like a laugh, infinite and patient.
When he turns around, there is nothing and no one there.
Come morning, they will sail on.