Sanji sees it happen with his own eyes.
He sprints through the door, billowing smoke and stifling heat following quickly after.
Usopp is behind him. He knows he is, and he turns back to bravely face that doorway, expecting to see his friend following. Why wouldn’t he be? There’s a fucking fire!
But what he sees next surprises him. Sanji watches in shock as the door behind him disappears in the blink of an eye. That open doorway, their very escape route, pops out of existence, leaving only blank wall space where it used to stand.
He can still smell the smoke, but he can no longer see it, his breaths coming quicker, from sheer panic and disbelief, as he starts to hear muffled screams from the other side of that wall. The tortured screams of his friend.
Sanji loses it.
He runs for that wall, hands frantically feeling everywhere along the surface, as if the door may have turned invisible, but there’s nothing. Shaking fingers merely slide fruitlessly over flat wallpaper he’d bought to cover this wall only. He hadn’t had enough money to wallpaper the rest of the house.
There’s nothing to do. He bangs on the wall with fists, calling for his friend in the strange, garbled language they use to communicate, and he can’t bring himself to move from that spot.
He should probably break down a wall with the new kickboxing skill he’s finally leveled up as of five minutes ago. Or, better yet, he should probably try and escape himself. But no.
Sanji falls to his knees beside the wall, hands fisting in his hair, doubling over himself in horror. He has no control over himself. All he can do is kneel there, head shaking vigorously, hearing those screams continue for another minute.
Until there is silence. Absolute, deadly silence.
A laugh breaks it. A deep, menacing laugh that seems to resonate everywhere all at once. And suddenly, the door is back, just as quickly as it disappeared, with no evidence that it ever had.
He stares at it for a few seconds, unsure of what to do. But then, something compels him to get to his feet and open the door, despite the certainty of a fire still burning beyond.
It’s gone though, and inside, he’s faced with nothing but the charred remains of what used to be the computer room.
Everything is gone, the empty room ringed with black soot along the walls, and in fact, Usopp is gone too.
Sanji blinks blankly at the scene, unable to feel anything but confusion as eyes fixate on the one object that does remain.
A plain gravestone in the center of the room bearing Usopp’s name, and the spectral form of a dark, hooded figure holding a sickle, hovering by the stone, a skeletal hand curled over the top.
After a few seconds, the reaper begins to fade away with another malevolent chuckle. And Sanji is left, standing there alone, still in the chef’s uniform he’d changed into automatically when he made spaghetti earlier.
He is struck with one thought, in the absence of his friend.
He really has to go to the bathroom.
“Why would you do that!” Usopp whined, throwing up his arms and collapsing back in his chair, hard enough to send it swiveling in circles on its axis. “Now what am I supposed to do!”
“Just make a new Sim~” Sanji replied, the blond shooting a smirk over at his dark-haired friend, already clicking through to the furniture menu to replace everything lost in the room. “You can’t tell me you weren’t curious to see what would happen.”
“Yeah, but why did I have to be the sacrifice?” Usopp complained, huffing a breath and digging a hand back into the bowl of popcorn situated on the desk for consolation. “My mechanics skill was all leveled up, and now I gotta start over!”
“I earn the most money, is why! And it’ll only take you another day to get back to the same level anyhow,” Sanji muttered, distracted by a series of couches with rather ridiculous descriptions. Eyes lingered on that fancy loveseat before he asked, “Which couch do you like?”
But when he glanced over, the younger boy was still sulking in his direction, this time through a mouthful of popcorn.
Sanji sighed. Then, he passed the mouse over to his friend reluctantly, rolling his own chair out of the way.
Usopp grinned instantly, practically shooting his chair forward in his excitement, nearly bruising ribs against the desk.
“First of all, none of this dumb modern stuff anymore,” the boy insisted, long nose an inch from the computer screen as he clicked around. “I want a pirate’s lair! Fit to hold all of my millions of crewmembers!”
“Pretty sure if you stuck a million Sims in one room, they’d all just spontaneously combust,” Sanji mused, watching Usopp begin to drag more rustic-looking furniture out into the room, tapping a few keys on the keyboard to rotate things around.
“No more fires!” Usopp yelped, hunching protectively over the mouse and keyboard so his friend couldn’t reach it. “Miss Robin’s really been rubbing off on you…”
Sanji shrugged and flashed Usopp a broad grin, “I’m okay with that~ She was helping me with my World History homework earlier~” He sighed dreamily and propped his chin on a hand. “She’s so beautiful when she’s talking about medieval torture~”
“And you’re too impressionable,” Usopp mumbled, clicking and dragging a large black skull-and-crossbones flag onto the wall of the room. “That’s a word Miss Robin taught me when she helped me with my English homework.”
“What! Why was she helping you?” Sanji balked in rather childish jealousy.
“Because!” the other boy shot back, exasperation clear in his voice. “In case you forgot, I live here too! And it’s kind of her job to take care of us!”
Usopp flicked his gaze to his friend, a bit of sadness glazing over his eyes for a brief moment.
“Anyway, I know she’s stayed a while---three years is a long time---but we can’t get too attached to her. Sooner or later, she’ll leave too. Just like Shanks.”
There was something else behind his gaze, and, in fact, it was fear. It was enough to make Sanji simmer down, sensing his friend’s upset, and feeling his own rising a little.
Dammit, this was why he’d wanted to play Sims in the first place, to avoid these facts of life. Or at least...facts of their lives.
It wasn’t often that Usopp got pessimistic, and when he did, things were usually quite tense.
But Sanji didn’t want to spoil a fun Friday night for his friend, so he shut up, settling back down to watch Usopp finish his virtual interior designing.
Thankfully, the boy was back to cheerful chatter and wild stories a minute later, tugging his bandana tighter and jamming a thumb to his chest when he proudly declared himself captain of the clubhouse he’d just finished building.
Usopp was one of the few who could truly distract him, after all. Usopp was one of the few who could make him forget why he was here, why he continued to be here, even after six years.
He loved it here---he loved Sunny, he did. But he didn’t love why he was here.
Their house had a name---Thousand Sunny---and currently, nine of them lived there. None of the kids by choice, but they’d formed about as close to a family as they could get over the past few years---probably as close to a family as any of them had ever had.
Mr. Franky had built the place, a large, cheerful, and homey red house up on a grassy hill overlooking the ocean. It was a commission from the city, and it should have been anyone’s dream to live there. The property was sprawling, perfect for a bunch of stir-crazy kids who constantly needed to be keeping themselves busy. Well, a bunch minus a certain lazy one who Sanji didn’t like to concern himself with more than he had to.
Technically, its full name was the Thousand Sunny Home for Youths, its purpose to rehabilitate and house kids who couldn’t live with their families for one reason or another. At least that was Sanji’s understanding of it, though most of them knew what it really was. An orphanage, for a group of six kids who’d never been able to stick in a foster home.
There was a big difference between him and his friends though.
Most of them had been wanted.
“Boys, computer time’s almost up~”
A voice in the doorway, and Sanji and Usopp turned to look behind them at Miss Robin.
The tall woman was leaning against the white door frame with an enigmatic smile, shoulder-length hair pulled up halfway in the style Sanji thought looked especially pretty. It was no secret he had a thing for her, despite her being twenty-five years old. Bit of an age difference, but what was nine years in the end?
“Yes, Miss Robin~” he crooned obediently, quickly pushing up from the desk and sweeping away a few crumbs with his hand.
Three years ago, Miss Robin had come to volunteer. And three years ago, Luffy had convinced her, rather easily, to stay on full-time. Luffy had been there the longest out of any of them, left there by his grandpa when his dad up and split. Still, winning people over was a talent of his.
But the kid was hyperactive and often destructive, simply for lack of self-awareness. He’d been too difficult for most foster parents to handle.
But he’d become their little “leader” of sorts, and if he actually left, Sanji wasn’t sure what the rest of them would do.
Usopp reluctantly shut down the game, rolling his eyes at his friend who was practically humming to himself with barely-contained glee as he followed Robin’s orders. Honestly, Sanji was hopeless, a mess of raging hormones, perhaps the worst out of all of them.
It had gotten late though, later than either of them had realized. Sure, it was Friday, but they were pretty beat from school. Neither Sanji nor Usopp had too many complaints about being torn away from their game.
Sanji gathered up the popcorn bowl, tucking it under his arm and crossing the room to the door, Usopp following.
“Don’t worry, Miss Robin~ I’ll wash the dishes~” the blond assured, and whisked past the woman, enjoying the blissful scent of her lavender perfume as he headed off down the hall with a spring in his step.
“Thank you, Sanji~” Robin replied, smirking when he gave a little two-fingered salute at the end of the hallway before disappearing around the corner.
Robin brushed a hand gently over Usopp’s shoulder as the younger boy headed in the opposite direction for the stairs, now eager to join Luffy and Chopper in their shared bedroom for a few rounds of storytelling.
“I think Chopper might need some cheering up,” Robin suggested quietly. “Apparently some of his classmates were teasing him today.”
Usopp’s expression faltered only briefly, but confidence quickly returned to his features, and he puffed out his chest valiantly.
“Naturally, Miss Robin, I, the great Captain Usopp, am the absolute best at cheer-upping! In fact, I once cheered up a crowd of a thousand mopey people!” he bragged. “This was, of course, after I helped Santa Claus deliver presents to all the children in the world, plus the ones living on the moon!”
Robin chuckled, patted his back, and nudged him towards his room.
“Good~” she replied. “I’m sure your skills will work wonders~”
Sanji sighed, having paused before entering the kitchen.
Chopper was being teased? Again? He still remembered all too clearly when the poor kid had come home in tears not two weeks ago, blue paint smeared all over his face, the work of some shitty assholes screwing with him during art class.
They’d managed to get most of it off using some vegetable oil, but it had still left his nose stained blue for a day or so afterward.
Chopper didn’t deserve that. He was only twelve, and he’d lost his dad at age seven. Not to mention, he was a fucking genius, so the boy was fully aware of how much he stood out in school, nearing high school proficiency in science and math especially.
The blond shook his head and continued heading for the kitchen.
It was probably his favorite place in the house. Cooking was his favorite hobby, and he was damn good at it, he knew. It was getting to the point now that Miss Robin was letting him prepare all the meals, trusting he could provide nutritional balance and knowing that he took note of everyone’s preferences with great care.
He’d wondered, for a while, if his skill would make him more attractive for potential adoption, but as he got older, and his pastries and hor d'oeuvres had no success, it simply turned into an escape for him, another way to forget about the past.
It also made him feel closer to his mother, whose memory was beginning to fade slightly in his mind now that so many years had passed since her death. He wasn’t okay with this, and he was determined to preserve as much as possible of the woman who’d given him everything for as long as she could.
The kitchen was occupied, even this late. It was a huge room, with every appliance a chef could dream of and large windows which looked out onto the grassy backyard and the swimming pool they frequently made use of in summertime.
Mr. Franky was leaned up against the counter, bottle of cola in his hand, talking to a red-headed girl about the notebook she had between them.
As soon as the blond entered the room, the girl looked up, then quickly flagged him over.
“Oh, good, Sanji, c’mere,” Nami said. “What are you making this week? We’re doing the budget.”
Sanji smiled, heart fluttering in his chest a bit as he crossed over to the counter, hovering perhaps a little too close, eyes drifting to the smooth freckled skin of her neck and shoulder.
Her freckles were adorable, and he counted this as one of the ways he was fortunate in life, that he got to live with one of the most popular girls in school.
“Well, we already bought everything for this weekend. I want to make kebabs on Monday,” he said, meeting her gaze, a slight blush coming to his cheeks at their close proximity. “Tuesday, seafood pasta; Wednesday, steak for Luffy; Thursday and Friday, I hadn’t decided. Any suggestions~?”
Mr. Franky took a long swig of his cola and shrugged.
“Anything’s good with me, little bro. You still doin’ floats tomorrow night?”
Sanji rolled his eyes.
Honestly, the man’s hulking obsession with cola was almost as big as his form. Franky was a huge guy, whose hand practically dwarfed the glass bottle in its grasp. He was intimidating upon first glance, but that went away as soon as the man opened his mouth.
Mr. Franky was about as friendly as a person could be, and they wouldn’t be here without him.
He’d built the place, after all, and originally stayed around for maintenance and groundskeeping for several years. But he’d eventually become far too invested in the place and the lives of its inhabitants and come on as a full-time caretaker shortly after Miss Robin.
They all loved the guy, and he loved them, though most of the kids knew that Robin’s addition probably had a lot to do with his decision to stay. Everyone saw the looks they shot at each other from time to time.
“Yes, I’m doing floats,” Sanji replied, and turned back to the girl beside him. “Nami, would you like anything in particular~?”
“That orange chicken you made a few months ago was great,” she muttered distractedly, tapping her pencil against her lips before scribbling down a few numbers on the notebook page, hardly paying attention to the way he squirmed happily at her praise.
“Then orange chicken it is~” he assured. “And Friday, I can use the leftovers to make a stir fry~”
“Okay,” Nami nodded absently, writing down what he’d just said, then starting a little equation in the margin beside it.
She seemed quiet, more focused than usual. Of course, she was always focused when budgeting. It was something she was good at, and extremely diligent with, but there sure seemed to be something else.
Franky, meanwhile, had guzzled the rest of his drink. The man reached out a large hand to ruffle both of the kids’ hair before straightening and taking his empty glass to the sink for a rinse.
“How’s Vivi?” Sanji decided to ask, seizing the moment. He was curious about Nami’s new friend, whom she’d been growing very close with over the past few weeks. Vivi had just moved to their city, and it was rather rare for Nami to forge such a strong friendship with someone outside of their little group.
Because unfortunately, her popularity was fragile. If anyone found out she lived here---that her adoptive mother was dead and she’d been essentially rescued from an abusive home shortly after---that popularity might shatter on her instantly, but such was the way of high school.
Still, selfishly, it only made Sanji feel closer to her. She didn’t know where he came from, no one did, and he was okay with that, but he felt grateful he was one of the few who knew about her past. She understood, at least, that their experiences had some sort of similarities. He could see it in her eyes.
“She’s fine,” Nami replied shortly, setting her pencil on the counter, then abruptly changing the subject. “How much do you think the chicken will cost?”
He stared at her for a second, any butterflies that had been fluttering around his chest slowly dissipating at her tone.
“Not too much…..ten should be enough. Fifteen if you wanna be safe,” he answered, and ducked his head a little to try and get a better look at her face, which she kept steadily downturned.
“Nami, is everything okay?” he risked asking.
“Yes,” she answered in her usual guarded tone.
Sanji flicked eyes to Franky, who was still hovering near the sink.
The blond reached out a hand to slide it over hers, waiting until she lifted eyes to look up at him.
“Tell me? Later…?” he murmured, and he got what he was looking for.
She gave a quick and subtle nod, then nudged his hand away so she could go back to writing.
Sanji sighed, having no choice but to give up for now, so he went back to his original task, bringing the popcorn bowl over to the sink so he could wash it too.
Franky watched him as he did, tapping fingers against the counter in a bouncy rhythm.
“You headin’ to bed soon?” he asked, to which Sanji huffed out a breath as he scrubbed a sudsy sponge over the bowl.
“Depends if he’s awake,” the blond muttered.
But Franky just chuckled, despite the teen’s obvious annoyance. He reached out a hand to clap him on the back encouragingly, then pushed away from the counter and crossed the room towards the hallway.
“Well, I’m turnin’ in, you two~” he said with a wave. “Tomorrow we’re fixin’ the treehouse, so don’t go sleepin’ in too late.”
“Do we ever?” Sanji heard Nami mumble behind him.
With Franky gone, the blond thought it was as good a time as ever for him to talk to the redhead, but as he turned around, he felt disappointment flood him when he saw her back retreating after Franky, having picked up her notebook and left the room too.
Nami was like that though. He supposed they all were in a way. They had all become very close. But none of them could deny, save for perhaps Luffy, that their walls were up. They trusted each other, loved each other, but they were kids and something was missing. All of this still felt too temporary, even after years, and Sanji desperately wished that things could get better. If not for him, then for his friends.
Sanji, lost in his thoughts, hadn’t noticed that he’d actually finished all the waiting dishes, some put there after dinner when someone (or two) had snuck in and pilfered some ice cream.
He dried them off and put them away, then took one last glance around the empty kitchen, checking to make sure there was nothing else out of place before he too left the room and made his way back down the long hallway to the stairs.
The house was an odd combination of rustic decor, dark wood floors and even walls in some places, mixed with vibrant red in others, white trim around doorways. It should have been obnoxious, but somehow it managed to be charming, not to mention sturdy. It kind of had to be, given the roughhousing (and sometimes full-on fights) that often broke out.
That was Franky’s building style. And Sunny had always served them well.
The blond walked past the photo-lined walls and strode up the stairs.
Mr. Brook’s door, just at the top, was closed, but he was old, and thus usually asleep at this hour. Sanji didn’t know how an eighty-five-year-old managed to stay spry enough to help care for their bunch of crazy kids, but he managed. He’d been a rock musician when he was younger….maybe that was what gave him some of his energy.
Sanji remembered when they’d first been told Brook was coming. That an elderly man who’d never been married was going to volunteer. They’d all been skeptical, expecting a dusty old skeleton to show up, but Mr. Brook was full of life and music, with a contagious laugh that made all of them feel better in their darkest moments. Thank fuck Luffy had begged him to move in.
Sanji saw the light on in Luffy, Chopper, and Usopp’s room, the door still wide open across the hall. He hadn’t been planning on stopping, but when he heard a screech of his name as he passed, he ducked his head in.
“Yeah?” he asked, only to see Luffy, the dark-haired boy manically waving at him from where he was perched atop his desk that rarely got used for schoolwork.
“Sanji! Usopp’s telling a story about you!” Luffy exclaimed, a blinding grin on his face.
Chopper sat on the bottom bunk, below Usopp’s bed, kicking his short legs with a look of awe on his face from Usopp’s tale, even when the long-nosed boy started shaking his head and making slashing motions over his neck.
“Oh, really? What kind of story?” Sanji asked slyly, staring Usopp down.
“About a prince!” Chopper chirped, thankfully looking happy, despite what Miss Robin had said earlier. “A prince who loves every princess and tries to marry them all! But then there’s a plot twist and instead he fa---!”
“Aaaand that’s that!” Usopp interrupted. “Hehe, because he----well, he has to marry one, not all of them, but---you know, he’s a prince! Totally badass and---”
“Usopp, you said badass!” Chopper blurted out, then slapped a palm over his face as he realized he’d just said it too. The curly-haired boy collapsed back onto his cotton candy pink sheets in a fit of giggles.
Luffy joined him for no reason, and then Usopp, rather nervously, and before long, Sanji was no longer needed in the conversation now that the three were lost in silliness.
“Good night,” Sanji called, leaving the weirdos to it with a shake of his head.
Franky’s door was open, with his TV blaring commercials, but he heard the shower running in the man’s bathroom. He must have been in there.
A sliver of light came from under Nami’s closed door, and he could hear soft voices, two of them. Nami was the only one of them, besides the adults, who had her own room, so Sanji had to assume Miss Robin was in with her.
Good. Nami would talk to her, and even if Sanji felt a twinge of disappointment, again, at being left out, maybe it was something that was best shared between the two females. As long as Nami was okay, that was all that mattered.
Robin’s room was dark and empty at the end of the hall.
That only left his own room across from that, the room that belonged to him, thank you very much, no matter how much certain brutes insisted they owned fifty percent.
This was how it had always been though. There hadn’t been extra space for him, when he was first brought to the house, so he’d had to share a bedroom. And still, there was no way around that, though sometimes he thought he’d prefer sleeping on the couch.
The door was closed, but his roommate was awake. He saw the light on, heard the sound of muffled music coming from beyond. It was that terrible metal that he swore the guy listened to just to annoy him. Didn’t he know what headphones were for?
There was already a scowl on Sanji’s face when he barged right in without knocking.
And of course, that was the first thing the idiot bitched about as soon as he entered.
“Uh, what the fuck happened to knocking?” a tough voice complained from the left side of the room, his roommate’s form stretched out on the bed with his arms folded behind his head, eyes closed and his phone on his chest as it blared that god-awful excuse for music.
“Shut up. It’s my room,” Sanji shot back, taking extra care to step onto his roommate’s side of the long line of blue painter’s tape that stretched the length of the carpet, over the nightstand between their beds and even up the opposite wall.
His roommate twitched, as if sensing the disturbance, and cracked an eye open, glaring Sanji’s way, as if that would intimidate him into staying on his side.
Like a dumb punk with shitty dyed green hair would be enough to intimidate anyway.
“Turn the music off. I’ve got planning to do,” Sanji insisted, shutting the door behind him and reaching up to pull his sweater over his head, taking time to fold it neatly and place it in his laundry basket before flopping down onto his own bed across the room in his undershirt and jeans.
“I was here first. Go somewhere else,” the stupid mosshead grumbled, even going so far as to turn up the music louder when Sanji reached to the nightstand for his notebook and pencil.
“I can’t,” the blond shot back, propping up a few pillows and making himself comfortable, despite the idiot’s words. “It’s almost lights out.”
“Oh, right, because you always follow the stupid rules,” the other teen snarked, closing eyes again and making no move to accommodate for Sanji. “Idiot…”
“What was that?” Sanji growled, unable to resist rising to the bait.
But his roommate just shrugged and went back to ignoring him once more.
Honestly, if he wasn’t forced to live in the same room as this guy, he wouldn’t give him the time of day. It didn’t matter that Zoro---what kind of weird name was that anyway?---had been here longer than him. It didn’t matter that everyone else loved him, that Luffy looked up to him, and Chopper practically worshipped him.
Sanji hated him. The bastard had been nothing but nasty to him since the beginning, and he didn’t fucking know why. He’d never done anything to step on the guy’s toes. Sanji had been polite and kind, at first, knowing they were both likely here for similar reasons. But Zoro had deemed him unworthy of even respect, and ever since, they’d done nothing but argue and fight.
It was the fights that got them in trouble.
Fighting at home was one thing. It often earned them a scolding, but that was all. But they went to the same high school. They were both juniors; they somehow shared a lot of the same classes despite Zoro being as stupid as they came, as far as Sanji was concerned. And Luffy usually insisted on them all sitting together at lunch if their schedules coincided, now that he and Usopp were freshmen at the same school.
Sometimes, Sanji couldn’t fucking help himself from kicking the mosshead’s ass, even at school, and it had landed them in detention more times than he could count.
The most satisfying time had been when Zoro had gotten suspended for a few days. They’d both been arguing, but Zoro had thrown the first punch, and that was what the principal witnessed. Of course, the grassheaded idiot’s apparent hatred for Sanji had only gotten worse after that, but Sanji didn’t much care. The guy wanted to be a dick? He’d be an even bigger dick right back.
He just didn’t understand it though. Zoro was only a dick to him. With everyone else, he was normal. He was gentle and patient with Chopper. He screeched a lot when antics got too crazy or he got pulled into shit he didn’t want to do, but he was still good to everyone else.
It was only Sanji who got the shit end of the stick.
And it was only Sanji who had to share a room with him. It was the worst.
The blond sat there for all of five minutes, trying to write out a few recipe ideas he’d had, scrolling through his phone to look at his notes.
But it was no use. Little by little, eyes began to drift more and more frequently over to Zoro, to his side of the room which looked like a bomb had exploded there. Clothes were tossed everywhere without care; his blankets were all rumpled, and his desk was used as nothing more than a makeshift trash can.
His music was still playing, and Sanji could tell from the rise and fall of Zoro’s chest that he wasn’t sleeping. His eyes stayed closed though, brows drawn down in that permanent scowl that always seemed to grace the neanderthal’s face, at least when he was around.
Sanji had seen him smile before. He knew Zoro was capable. And it served his face a hell of a lot better than that furrowed brow. But there sat that scowl, and the blond had to resist the urge to throw a pillow on top of it and hold it there.
A frustrated huff and Sanji knew he wasn’t going to be able to concentrate with the mosshead around. So he slammed his notebook shut irritably and plopped it back onto his side of the nightstand with his pencil.
From there, he slid off the bed and bent over to rummage underneath, pulling out the storage bin labeled, ‘Games.’
He grabbed his blue 3DS and a pair of earbuds, nudged the bin back under his bed and settled back down, turning on the device and plugging the headphones in.
He hadn’t had it for very long, only since Christmas, when all the kids in the house (including Zoro, apparently, though he seriously doubted that), had pooled their money and bought it for him. It had mostly been Usopp’s idea, Sanji assumed, but only because Sanji had asked to borrow his so many times.
It was a truly thoughtful gift. He hadn’t received too many of those in his lifetime.
Sanji hadn’t even noticed, in the time he scrolled through the menu screen of his 3DS, that Zoro had sat up and was eyeing him.
In fact, it wasn’t until he’d tapped his way through the opening title sequence of his game that he even felt the mosshead’s stare.
He glanced up in annoyance.
Zoro’s look, oddly, wasn’t one of disdain. His frown was still in place, but there was actually a curiosity in his gaze that hadn’t been there before.
Sanji stared back at him, eventually rolling his eyes and grunting, “What?”
“What are you playing?” Zoro asked, a question which, admittedly, surprised the blond.
Was Zoro really asking him a normal question like that?
He didn’t let his surprise show though, merely scoffed and went right back to his game, even turning up the volume to drown the mosshead out in his headphones.
“None of your business,” he muttered, focusing on the screen.
He didn’t see the way Zoro’s brow furrowed a little more, almost in frustration with himself, before he too went back to his music.
The next day started out like any other at the house. Luffy nearly vacuumed up everyone’s breakfast and nearly broke the giant kitchen table for the second time that month, diving across it for Chopper’s hash browns.
After breakfast, Miss Robin and Nami had taken the car into town for some shopping. The boys had spent the morning helping Franky repair the huge treehouse he’d built on the edge of the woods behind the house, to varying degrees of usefulness.
Usopp was the most helpful. The boy had a knack for building and fixing things, and he loved to work on little robots and tinker with household items. Therefore, he knew exactly what Franky was looking for when he asked for certain tools, and could even handle many tasks completely on his own.
Sanji really wasn’t the best with that kind of thing, so he’d settled for helping to repaint some of the boards that had worn down over the winter. Unfortunately, Zoro had too, though he’d kept himself far on the upper level of the interior, up the winding stairs that encircled the massive trunk of the tree.
The blond could hear him and Chopper talking quietly above him, and Sanji cursed him for that fucking gentle tone the mosshead used, the way he cracked stupid jokes that made Chopper giggle every time.
Sanji slapped his paintbrush down harder onto the wood, trying to, instead, focus on Mr. Franky and Usopp’s conversation about space shuttle mechanics on the other side of the treehouse from him.
Outside and down below, Mr. Brook sat on the grass, having apparently given up on helping. But he was playing a lively tune on his ukelele and it was keeping Luffy interested and occupied, so there was that.
He didn’t know why his mind continued to drift to the shithead. It didn’t always. The only explanation he could think of was that it was that time of year again….
This was the time of year Sanji had first come to the house, six years ago. Luffy, Zoro, Usopp, and Nami had already been living there, though they’d all been there less than a year when he came. That was back before Miss Robin and Mr. Franky.
Shanks had lived and worked there then, and he’d been amazing. Always friendly, always kind, good at helping with their studies, and entirely relaxed. He could handle Luffy better than anyone. But his mind had been elsewhere, they’d known. He’d loved them all, of course, and they still heard from him now and again, but he’d been a sailor, one of those insane deep sea fishermen who’d based himself out of Logue Town’s port, braving long voyages and storms to bring in big catches.
Eventually, the sea had called him back, and that was perhaps why Usopp had suggested Robin would go too. It was obvious her true passion wasn’t necessarily this. Hell, social work had only been one of her points of study in undergrad. They all knew she was looking to go back to school for a Master’s in history once she had enough money.
All of them had bigger dreams. And it was around this time of year, when Sanji remembered just why he hadn’t been able to dream big before, and he felt extra disdain for those that tried to bring him down.
Zoro wasn’t nearly as bad as his family had been. Hell no. The idiot was too dumb to really get under his skin, and Sanji didn’t give him any information about himself period. Nothing the mosshead could use against him in any way.
And, besides, he was tough now. He could hold his own.
He just hated that, even in a safe place like this, assholes still loved to give him a hard time.
“Sanji! Earth to Sanji!”
Finally, the blond noticed, a little dazedly, that Usopp was calling him.
He looked up, ducking his head so he could peer under the craft table in the middle of the space at his friend, still sitting on the other side of the treehouse with Franky.
“Yeah?” Sanji asked.
“After this, wanna ride over to the game store?” Usopp said. “See if there’s anything new?”
Well, he had to admit, it sounded better than anything he had planned, so Sanji nodded.
“Sure. Franky, can we take the bikes?”
“Course,” the man answered, glancing over with a thumbs-up, several nails poking out of his mouth and a hammer in the other hand.
So it was settled, and, an hour or so later, after cleaning up in the treehouse and getting changed into something a little more presentable than the old T-shirt and jeans he’d worn to do the painting, the blond made his way out to the garage and the line of bikes Mr. Franky kept in pristine presentation against one of the walls.
Sanji selected his favorite blue one and wheeled it out onto the driveway to wait for Usopp, checking the little backpack he’d brought to make sure he had his 3DS and his phone and shit.
A few minutes passed, and he heard the garage door open, followed by Usopp’s voice. But it wasn’t just Usopp who came out to join him.
Trailing behind the other boy was none other than Zoro, his ugly camouflage skateboard helmet on his head, straps dangling by his chin, and his even uglier, battered electric skateboard tucked under his arm. On top of everything, he was wearing a stupid black T-shirt with fucking swords on it, and some crazy lettering---Chinese? Japanese? Fuck if he knew. The weirdo was way too into all that samurai stuff.
“What the---why is he here?” Sanji immediately complained, hitching his thumb at the mosshead, who merely stalked up to Usopp’s other side and dropped his skateboard onto the ground with a load clatter.
“He wanted to come,” Usopp replied with a shrug, pulling his silver bike up next to Sanji’s.
The younger boy rolled up the sleeves of his sweatshirt, hiked up his backpack, then swung a leg over his bike, buckling up his own helmet and pulling the strap tight.
“Why? Are you buying something?” Sanji growled, putting on his own helmet and glaring at Zoro. “You never have any money.”
Zoro just shot a baleful look back at the blond before stepping up onto his skateboard, nearly rolling away before Usopp threw an arm out in front of him.
“Lemme lead the way, okay?” the boy said, and he shot a wary look at Sanji, hating to be in the middle of his and Zoro’s fighting.
A pleading look at Sanji, begging him silently not to start anything. Then Usopp pushed off and started riding down the driveway to the long private lane that wound back to the main road along the coast.
Zoro ignored Sanji entirely and kicked off to ride after him, leaving Sanji to stare after the two angrily.
He watched them go for a minute, disbelief on his face, before he eventually shook his head and hurried to catch up, muttering curses to himself all the way.
It wasn’t a long or difficult ride into town, especially with the speed they had going for them on the relatively flat pavement.
Logue Town was a beach town of sorts, with many kinds of accessible shops for the tourists that usually flooded from all over during the summer. And now that spring was here and the weather was getting nicer, it would have been a pleasant ride if Sanji didn’t have to look at the back of Zoro’s head the whole time.
A few times, Zoro nearly drifted off course, the idiot’s sense of direction worse than a fucking chicken with its head cut off, and Sanji took great pleasure in almost running him over to get him back on track.
Before long, they made it, though, to Mohmoo’s, a game shop that they frequented because of its selection of both new and vintage games for older consoles. The store was rather big, on the end of a fancy mall in the Sabaody Shopping Complex, and it, oddly, attached to the Mermaid Café, another favorite spot of Sanji’s, in particular, for its plethora of cute girls always on staff.
The place was located farther back from the beach, but still, the parking lot managed to have sand strewn about, and the smell of salt was in the air as they rode up to the store front, just a little sweaty from the ride and the warm air.
They locked up their bikes and helmets outside the entrance to the game shop, Zoro clipping his helmet to Usopp’s bike and sticking his board back under an arm. And then the three headed inside, Sanji insisting upon shoving his way in first so he no longer had to look at Zoro’s shitty cactus head anymore.
The store was pretty narrow, but it traveled far back, and upon entering with the tingling of the bells on the door, they were assaulted by a slew of racks with new releases that immediately had Usopp practically drooling with excitement.
He rushed to scour the shelves, and Sanji followed, the two of them chattering over what was new and whether it was worth it to buy now or later.
The two became so absorbed that it wasn’t until a good fifteen minutes later, when Usopp had begun trying out a demo of a racing game on one of the TVs, that Sanji realized their green eyesore of a tagalong wasn’t hovering nearby.
He looked around, not seeing Zoro anywhere in the surrounding area, and his stomach twisted in annoyance.
“Hey,” he said, nudging his friend’s arm. “Where’s the mosshead?”
“Huh? He’s not---? Oh, wait, hang on, this guy’s gonna pass me---no, no, no----yes! Safe! Okay, sorry. He’s not here?” Usopp asked distractedly, not taking his eyes from the screen as fingers frantically tapped the controller.
Sanji did another three-sixty before confirming that the idiot was, in fact, missing.
“No,” Sanji groaned, even peering out the window to see if he’d wandered outside, but his helmet was still clipped to Usopp’s bike, and though the vast parking lot was busy, he saw no sign of a walking broccoli.
“Maybe he’s in another aisle,” Usopp suggested, still focused on the many bananas he shot out the back of his silly-looking car. “Can you go check? I wanna finish this---aw, come on! Not the lightning bolt!”
“Why do I have to…?” the blond grumbled, despite having first noticed he was missing. But seeing as Usopp was thoroughly preoccupied with the game, he let out a long-suffering sigh and muttered, “Fine…”
Then he stalked off across the store, peering down every aisle. He honestly didn’t know how the moron was capable of getting himself lost in such a small space. He didn’t even have a gaming device of his own, and he never wanted to play any games, so Sanji had no fucking idea why he’d been so dead-set on coming.
He noticed that Zoro did weird things like this from time to time. Mostly, the guy kept to himself, but sometimes he’d decide to take part in the most random of activities with the rest of their little crew, and there was usually no rhyme or reason to his decisions.
It seemed he mostly liked to crash things Sanji was doing, and it irritated the hell out of the blond, who was almost certain he was doing it just to be irksome.
And now he was ruining another perfectly nice outing by up and disappearing. Though Sanji supposed it might work to his advantage if the fool was really gone for good.
He was nowhere.
Sanji walked up and down every aisle of the store and there was no mosshead to be found, so he began trudging his way back to Usopp.
And he would’ve missed him if he hadn’t glanced over through the archway that led to the connecting café.
He’d only been trying to catch a glimpse of Keimi, the cute girl from the swim team at school that he knew worked there on weekends.
But instead, he saw, over the circular white tables and beneath the hanging glass globes that resembled bubbles, a green head he didn’t want to see, up at the café’s counter.
The blond narrowed his eyes in confusion, wondering what the hell the idiot would be ordering from a place that was basically the polar opposite of his grimy aesthetic. He stood out entirely amongst the tropical pastels and the relaxing steel drum music that filled the place. Somehow, he couldn’t picture Zoro sipping on bubble tea and munching on seven-layer cake.
That was when he noticed, however, that the absolute idiot had a fucking game in his hand. Was he actually trying to purchase a game at the wrong fucking counter?
He should’ve left him to fucking fail at life. He should’ve walked away and pretended he didn’t know him, but he couldn’t help standing there and watching the scene unfold like some sort of natural disaster.
Zoro was talking to a tall, pale woman behind the counter with dark blue hair, dressed in a low-cut purple hooded sweatshirt. She had an amused look on her face, like she was humoring Zoro entirely as he appeared to be asking her something about the game in hand.
There was even a fucking line accumulating behind him now. The scene was so cringe-worthy, Sanji felt like he could die, until something strange happened. The woman took the game from Zoro, then moved out from behind the counter and signaled for him to follow her.
Zoro stared at her blankly, but sauntered after her, the two of them heading back towards the game shop where Sanji still stood.
As she got closer, Sanji could see the woman was stunningly beautiful, mature-looking, with hypnotic blue eyes and dark lipstick that gave her a classy vibe, despite her casual outfit.
Zoro spotted him gaping as they advanced, though he didn’t look troubled by Sanji’s staring.
In fact, when they got closer, he quirked a brow at the blond like Sanji was the one doing something weird.
The woman noticed Sanji standing there, and she paused, a curious little smile on her face as she looked down at him, much taller than she’d looked from a distance.
“Can I help you?” she asked, and Sanji stammered for a second, the teen admittedly a little flustered by her beauty.
“U-Uh, no, I’m just---just looking, thank you,” he stuttered with a nervous smile, and he averted eyes, trying to keep them glued to the neighboring game rack and not the one belonging to the woman.
She chuckled, raised an eyebrow endearingly, then continued walking back towards the counter, Zoro trailing behind.
Sanji couldn’t resist a hissed whisper to the idiot.
“What the hell were you doing? Are you stupid?” he mocked, but Zoro merely shrugged.
“The game was just a blank box on the shelf,” he mumbled. “I wanted to know what it was.”
“Yeah, but that’s the café! You seriously thought they could help you over there, genius?”
“It’s all one place,” Zoro justified, sounding annoyed with Sanji’s bitching. “She said she works here too.”
“I’ll scan this for you boys, and we’ll see if we can’t determine what’s inside,” the woman said, and Sanji realized he’d followed the two all the way to the register, behind which sat a bored-looking man with long blond hair and odd triangular tattoos over his eyebrows. He sat absently shuffling through a deck of cards.
“Hawkins, take five,” she said, and waved the game box briefly as she slid over to the computer.
The man’s eyes shifted slowly to the game, which was indeed blank, just a white box with a barcode on the back and the clear plastic film overtop.
His expression remained unchanging, fingers casually flipping through the cards.
He picked three random ones from the deck and laid them out before him, almost as if he hadn’t heard the woman.
The five of clubs, nine of hearts, and ace of hearts appeared, and he stared at them for a long moment. Then he shrugged and gathered them up again, finally getting to his feet and heading off through a door that led to the back of the store.
The woman smirked, and began clicking away on the computer, leaning over the keyboard. It was here that Sanji noticed, for the first time, her nametag pinned to her sweatshirt, which read ‘Sharley’ in a scrawling cursive font.
Another few seconds, then she picked up a barcode scanner, swiping it over the game until a beep sounded and she set it down again.
A few more clicks, then she finally turned back to the boys, sliding the game over the counter towards them.
“Alright, because it’s a rather old release, I’ll lower the price for you to fifteen,” Sharley said expectantly.
Zoro and Sanji actually shared a baffled glance before Zoro squawked, “Oi, you didn’t even say what game it is. M’not buying somethin’ if I don’t know if it’s shitty or not.”
“No, you won’t,” she replied easily. “But your friend will.”
She jerked her chin at Sanji knowingly, who stood there, confused as ever.
“I---Forgive this imbecile’s language, ma’am. He’s not my friend,” the blond stammered, reaching out to pinch Zoro’s arm for good measure when the mosshead seemed ready to protest. “I---I’ll gladly consider your most generous of prices, but I’ll admit that I would like to know what game it is first.”
“Well, the game is for you to discover,” she said simply, resting her chin in a delicate palm, purple nails tapping a slow wave on her cheek. “Even I don’t know what it is. That’s for you to find out. You’re the one with the 3DS, right?”
Sanji stared, trying to decide if he was hearing right. As beautiful as she was, was this woman really trying to sell him some unknown game? Was it a mystery event of some sort? Maybe it was a low price, but he’d never had anything like this happen to him before.
Zoro was glaring at him; he could feel it. And it seemed enough like a challenge, that, a second later, Sanji began pulling out his wallet and dished out the cash for the game.
Even if he didn’t know what it was, fuck it. He’d at least keep the mosshead from buying it. Whether he wanted it or not.
Still, he felt the need to mutter, “This better not be a waste of money,” to the fool as Sharley rang him up with a smirk on her face.
He managed to smile and thank her graciously by the time the transaction was over, switching his face right back to a scowl as he brushed past Zoro irritably with the bag Sharley had given him.
Zoro just rolled his eyes and followed Sanji back to where Usopp was finally wrapping up his demo game.
The long-nose picked up his backpack off the floor by his feet. He noticed Sanji’s shopping bag though, and he raised a brow.
“You find something?”
“Yeah, I did,” Sanji replied, ignoring Zoro’s look of indignance, as if he wanted the credit for finding it. “Something real cheap. Don’t know what it is though. It’s a mystery. So it’s probably either really good or really shitty.”
“Weird,” Usopp replied with a laugh. “You’ll have to tell me what it is.”
“What about you?” the blond asked. “Getting anything?”
“Nah, not today,” Usopp answered, the three of them automatically drifting towards the exit. “Think I’ll come back next week to see if they have any new Amiibos. Least I could leave my name on the high-score board. Wasn’t a total waste~”
Sanji glanced back at the TV screen, which proudly flashed ‘Captain Usopp’ in the number one spot.
“Let’s get back,” the blond said, shaking his head as they headed out the door. “Before Luffy eats every damn snack in the house…”
The ride back to Sunny was considerably more pleasant, as Usopp let Sanji take the lead, the younger boy hanging back to ride next to Zoro, the two of them talking casually about some kind of sword-related thing that Sanji had no clue about. Again, Zoro’s normality with everyone but him only served to annoy him, so he sped up, standing up on his bike and pedaling faster to put some distance between them.
The salty breeze on his face, the warm hues of the sand and tall grass when they again reached the beachfront road….it was a perfect day, and he sure as hell looked free riding back to that welcoming red house on the hill, now visible when he came around the bend.
So why couldn’t he be satisfied with just this? Why couldn’t he appreciate where he was now and all he had to be thankful for, here in a safe environment with people he cared about and who genuinely cared about him?
It was frustrating to him, that he didn’t know why he felt restless, why he wanted further validation.
Maybe because he knew he was too old, that at age sixteen, his chances of adoption or moving on to a permanent home were slim to none. It essentially meant that, after he graduated high school, he’d have nowhere to go. They couldn’t legally live in the house once they reached eighteen, and he’d be on his own, with no money for further schooling, no means to become a professional chef, have his own restaurant, none of it.
He wouldn’t stop fighting, but damn….it was disheartening, to think that something about him would always be undesirable.
It was no good thinking like that though. Not when he should be enjoying this warm sunshine, the colorful umbrellas that lined the beach, and the promise of cooking some nice grilled salmon for dinner that night.
Not to mention the new game currently dangling in its bag from his handlebars. Even if he didn’t know what it was, there was still that eager anticipation that always came with getting to play something new.
He looked behind him as he neared the driveway, saw Usopp and Zoro rather far behind now, but on their way nonetheless, so he went ahead and coasted onto the driveway, braking to a halt just outside the still-open garage.
Miss Robin’s stylish black car was back, meaning she and Nami had returned from their shopping. If he was lucky, he might get to see Nami model some new clothes.
That thought alone chased some of his lingering negativity away as he parked his bike and headed back into the house, twirling the game bag on a finger.
It wasn’t until hours later, after dinner and ice cream floats had been cleaned up and everyone else was occupied with a movie, an animated favorite of theirs about space pirates on an intergalactic treasure hunt, that Sanji stole away to his bedroom, taking advantage of the mosshead’s absence for some much needed peace and quiet.
He changed into some comfy sweatpants and a T-shirt that was secretly one of his favorites, even if it was covered in a pattern of little white ducks, and curled up on his bed, beneath the posters on his wall of tranquil ocean scenes.
The blond wrote in his notebook for a little while, in the pleasant light of his bedside lamp, jotting down a few recipes, things he hadn’t been able to do the previous night thanks to rude roommates.
But soon, it was decided. Time to pop in that new game of his and see what the hell it was.
He set his notebook aside and grabbed up his 3DS as well as the game box, still wrapped in plastic.
Sanji picked at the wrapping with a nail until he could get an end lifted and peel the rest off. He tossed the waste, then cracked open the box with a satisfying sound, fully expecting to find a labeled cartridge and the usual little instruction booklets inside.
What he found surprised him.
There was a game cartridge, yes. But nothing else, and the cartridge itself was entirely blank, no label or sticker or anything. Just a small plain gray cartridge.
“What the fuck…?” he muttered to himself, popping it out of the box and turning it over. No serial number, no nothing, and Sanji began to wonder if he hadn’t been duped completely.
It didn’t even look like a sticker had been picked off the cartridge. It looked like it had been blank from the start. He’d never seen anything like it.
He debated even trying to play it, thought about leaving it and taking it right back to the store the next day for a refund.
But his curiosity got the better of him, and he found himself sticking the cartridge into his 3DS and powering it on.
It was a little creepy actually. Part of him wondered if his device would be infected by some demonic virus that completely killed his hardware, especially when he saw that the cartridge registered, but had no animated icon or title on the menu screen.
Was this even a thing? He thought about Googling it, especially after an experimental click to start the game yielded nothing for a good long minute.
But just as he was about to turn off his device and scour the internet, his screen went black and a low orchestral score began to emanate from the speakers.
He nearly dropped his 3DS in surprise when the thing suddenly rumbled in his grasp, something he knew it wasn’t capable of doing.
The music continued, swelling to a higher register before quieting entirely to the sounds of ocean waves, and the screen suddenly transitioned to show a sparkling ocean under a colorful sunset. A tall figure stood overlooking the scene, the man silhouetted against the horizon as the camera swept over him, a cape flapping dramatically off one shoulder.
And then, another transition, this time showing a bright sparkling castle on the coast, just before the sky turned dark and cloudy, the music taking a dramatic turn.
Suddenly, the screen played a well-animated battle scene, zooming in close to show certain fighters in greater detail.
And this time, Sanji really did drop the device, cowering back from it with eyes wide as it flopped onto his mattress….
Because his friends were flashing across the screen, looking several years older as they fought an intense battle against faceless opponents, but it was definitely them, and what the fuck?
Getting over his initial shock, the blond leaned forward to hover over his 3DS, watching as the camera whirled around an older Usopp, nailing enemies with a hefty slingshot before effortlessly shifting to a large gun. There was Nami, wearing a brilliant armored suit, looking fierce as she extended a staff and fired what looked to be a magical spell from it.
Miss Robin was there too, dressed in a long iridescent cloak, holding a tome under her arm, the action slowing down when she twirled in a dramatic circle, a purple glow to her hand which seemed to rejuvenate a stumbling Franky as soon as it made contact with his arm.
The man straightened and smirked, immediately whipping out a large cannon that took out at least twenty approaching soldiers, leaving an opening for Brook to rush through, wearing a fancy suit and wielding a long saber which he effortlessly slashed through another group of enemies.
He shot a wink at Chopper, who went cantering by on a large chestnut horse, certainly not a little kid anymore with a lance in hand as he too made quick work of those in his way.
The view zoomed closer to the edge of a tall cliff, where suddenly, Luffy appeared, physically punching enemy soldiers, his fists almost vibrating with a powerful red aura. It almost looked like his whole body was steaming as his back met Zoro’s, the two of them surrounded by a circle of enemies. Somehow, despite the heavy knight’s armor he wore, the mosshead was managing to wield not one, not two, but three long swords, one gripped tightly by his teeth.
He lashed out with them like they weighed nothing, shooting a confident smirk at Luffy before the two broke apart, leaving Sanji with just enough time to catch a glimpse of the scar that sliced down over Zoro’s closed left eye.
And that was when Sanji saw a final figure, kicking away hordes of enemies with a leg that had burst into flames, the camera sweeping up to him with impressive speed as the music reached a bold climax.
The action slowed again, just as the man’s face came into view, blond hair falling over one eye and a grin on his face that showed no self-doubt whatsoever.
Sanji was looking at himself, just before the shot panned up to a bright image of a blazing sun above, then plunged into darkness once more, the music fading away as well.
He sat there, still hunched over his 3DS, eyes wide with shock, amazement, and confusion, all balled into one jumble that left him not knowing how to feel. Hell, he wasn’t sure if what he had just witnessed was even real, even as a simple selection menu suddenly appeared over the blackness of the screen.
It was a simple yes or no question, but he didn’t answer it just yet, couldn’t quite move.
Of course, he found he could indeed move when, unexpectedly, the door to the room swung open, and Zoro walked in, the mosshead seeming to pay him no mind as he crossed over to his mess of a closet.
Sanji startled, heart pounding in his chest as he blinked at Zoro, who was, oddly, rubbing at his left eye as if it was sore. He looked sweaty too, like he’d just worked out for hours, when Sanji was pretty sure he’d only been downstairs watching the movie with the rest of them.
He swallowed, watching as Zoro rummaged around in the explosion of clothes and shit that lived in his closet for a towel, which he threw over his shoulder, stalking back towards the door without further word.
Sanji huffed out a breath, gathered his wits, and finally asked, “The hell’s wrong with you, mosshead?”
Zoro didn’t even look at him, just kept walking for the door with a hand pressed against the left side of his face.
“Eye hurts….” he muttered, and then he was gone, heading out into the hallway, the door shutting behind him.
Sanji was alone again, and he froze where he was for another few moments before slowly lowering his gaze back down to his 3DS on the bed, which still flashed that one-word question.
He honestly didn’t know what the hell was going on, why the characters in that intro had been spitting images of the people he lived with. If he’d dreamt it, then this was a really fucking vivid dream.
‘Proceed?’ that question read.
He took a deep breath and picked up his 3DS with hands that trembled slightly from both nerves and excitement.
‘Yes,’ he selected.