"Say we can’t escape,
Though there’s plenty of space,
Barring, holding on to what we used to have."
Vienna Teng - Copenhagen (Let Me Go) (x)
He wakes up suddenly.
It takes him a minute to realize where he is - Sunny, men’s quarters, safe.
He’s safe. He’s not in Totland anymore; he’s not with his blood family anymore. He’s on the ocean, with his friends, and he won’t be forced to marry someone (even if it’s a beautiful lady) to protect his crew.
The relief is almost overwhelming.
Thank the gods, he’s safe. Everything is over; they’re on their way to Wano, to get back with the rest of the crew and- and it’s over. It’s over, and impossibly, they won.
(It’s not a full win; after all, they didn’t really fight Big Mom, just barely escaped- right under her nose, yes, but they left Jinbei behind and Sunny’s badly damaged. But for now- for now, he thinks, for now, barely escaping is good enough, even if there are more casualties than he’d like. For now, it’s more than what he expected, if he’s being honest.)
He takes a moment to relish in that knowledge, then sighs. Well, now that he’s awake, there’s no point in trying to sleep again.
(He could sleep again, sure, but he just let his captain starve, and he feels guilty as hell, so- well, the least he can do is make himself useful.)
(And by “make himself useful”, he means “cook ungodly amount of meat”.)
And so he makes his way to the kitchen, briefly using Observation Haki just to check who’s on watch (Chopper, which means he needs to make some hot chocolate later) before stopping dead in his tracks.
There’s someone else on Sunny, someone that’s not supposed to be there.
It’s someone he knows fairly well. It’s someone he doesn’t want to think about, or talk with, or-
It’s his sister.
Reiju- Reiju has always been someone he doesn’t know what to think about.
In his childhood, she was both terrible and kind, depending on times. She was the only one of his siblings to visit their mother. She was- she used to beat him up. She helped him escape. She was cruel- he can’t remember her words, but he remembers that each one of them hurt like hell. She helped him survive when he had that awful mask on.
She hated him, or maybe she loved him.
(He hates her, or maybe he loves her.)
It’s- it’s hard, to think of her. It was hard before the failed wedding and barely successful escape, but now, even more so.
(She didn’t help him, in front of their brothers. She helped him escape, once more.)
Reiju- he can’t either love her or hate her. She’s too complicated for that- they are too complicated for that.
Even so, he supposes, asking her what the fuck she’s doing here won’t hurt.
(He’s pretty sure that she’s not here to kill anyone or kidnap someone. Seas, he hopes.)
He opens the door leading to the kitchen gently, almost expecting his sister to poison him the second he enters the room (Judge must certainly be furious enough to order her to try.)
She’s standing right by the table, in the dark, hands folded behind her back, her posture nothing short of perfect. He nearly lets out a bitter laugh out upon seeing her; the perfect heiress, as always. Hiding her knife behind a pretty smile.
(Fuck, he’s so glad he escaped the Vinsmokes years ago.)
They stare at each other in silence a little while, and then Reiju smiles angelically. Like she’s not an assassin who just tried to marry her brother off to a family that’s even more fucked up than his biological one.
"-Sanji, she says. I was hoping you would come- you always did like to cook."
She knows he’s the cook on this ship. She knows it- even if he hadn’t told her, which he did, his family has to have done some research on him before essentially kidnapping him. So why is she pretending she doesn’t know it?
"- I remember you used to cook for our mother."
Their mother. Oh, gods. She’s trying to play it sentimental? Nostalgic? Hey, little brother, remember the only person in our family who wasn’t a fucking monster? Remember the one person who died in my vicinity when I wasn’t actually trying to murder them?
"- What are you doing here?" He asks, because he frankly doesn’t have time for her game- well, yes, he does, but he definitely doesn’t have the energy.
She looks taken aback, like she didn’t really think he would take it badly to know she broke into his home.
"- I wanted to see you," she answers, like it’s perfectly fucking normal. Oh, I wanted to see you, after a decade of never contacting you or giving a shit about your existence. Tell me, how have you been since our father turned our brothers into mindless monsters and nearly killed you for being a failure?
"- I didn’t. Get out."
This time, she looks frankly surprised. Apparently, she didn’t really believe he hated her (but does he hates her?). Tough luck.
Then she sighs, and for a moment she looks truly sad, truly alone and desperate in this dark room that feels more like an arena than a kitchen (and Sanji hates her, for turning his shelter, his safe place into danger; for turning the comforting air into tension- but then, isn't it what his family does, ruin everything and anything?).
"- I suppose I deserve that, don’t I?" She whispers. "Still, if I must leave-" (At this he tenses, and she sighs once more:) "before I must leave, I wanted to give you something. A gift of farewell, if you will."
A gift? That can't be right. The Vinsmokes don't do gifts unless it's in order to murder someone creatively.
Is Reiju trying to murder him?
God, he hates his blood family. That's actually a question he has to ask himself: "Does my own sister wants to kill me or is she simply acting like a decent human being for once?"
Well, to be fair, the questions he's asking himself right now are more along the lines of "is my sister the only person of this family who doesn't want me dead? Actually, she probably wants something from me, doesn't she? Or she's trying to distract me to let Niji, Ichiji, and Yonji assassinate everyone? Should I knock her out? How did she climb on Sunny? Are Nami and Carrot alright? And Chopper, Brook, Luffy? Should I trust Reiju? No, I shouldn't, but should I let her stay aboard and talk with her? Or at least accept her gift that might try to kill me? For fuck's sake, what is she doing here? What does she want?"
But instead of asking all those questions he knows she won't answer, he just scoffs.
"- I don't really see why I should accept a gift from you, of all people. And I'm even less sure you have anything that might interest me."
She smiles then, a vicious kind of smile.
"- You can give it a try. I did use to know you well."
And, that's at least partially true, isn't it?
She was the only one, after their mother died, who cared about him a little.
But she doesn't know him now- and he's still not sure if he should trust her. Well, of course he shouldn't trust her, but a part of him wants to- wants to be able to say that his family isn't exclusively composed of utter assholes.
That's not too much to ask. Is it?
He finally takes a decision.
"- Yeah, okay."
She doesn't smile triumphantly like he expected her to; instead, she sighs, like she's relieved.
"- Careful, then. It's fragile." And she takes out of her pocket a slip of paper, before giving it to him.
Actually- it's not a slip of paper; or, not a normal one. It's a photo.
Sanji's breath catch in his throat.
It's a photo of- of him. Him and his mother.
(It's been so long since he last saw his mother's face. He had forgotten so much.)
The photo is obviously old, but still in good condition. There are some fold marks that are barely noticeable, and stains from saltwater (or tears), too; but this photo is obviously loved, and so its owner (Reiju? But no, that can't be.) made sure to keep it safe from any major damage.
Sanji's thoughts are caught in a whirlwind of incomprehension.
What the hell?
Because- this photo is old. It's from before he even escaped, probably. It doesn't- it doesn't make sense, for her to have kept it for so long.
Sanji's pretty sure that the second he escaped, Judge made sure that any reminder of him was utterly destroyed. No traces left of the family disgrace. A perfect solution to the thorn in his father's side that was -is- his life.
So that means that Reiju kept this photo; she didn't just stumble upon it recently and decided to use it to manipulate her little brother. She purposefully hid it.
It's not for their mother; surely Reiju has plenty of photos of her, that she's not forced to hide to keep because Sanji's on it.
So- that means she kept the photo for him.
That means- That might mean-
That might mean she cares about him. Genuinely.
And Sanji has no idea how to react to this.
It's fine if his whole family hates him, or some variation of it; he hates them, too.
But- but if Reiju genuinely cares about him- if she went through the trouble of keeping this photo with her throughout all these years...
If she loves him- What the hell is he supposed to do?
Because- his family hates him. That's a constant; that's certain. His mother didn't, but she's dead, now, so it doesn't count.
The Vinsmokes hate him, he hates them, there's hatred all around. But that's okay- he knows how to deal with it.
(Actually, he doesn't, but pretending his family didn't exist and forcefully forgetting all memories of them seemed to work well enough until now, so he might as well keep on doing it.)
And maybe the thought that Reiju might love him -might not be the total monster he believed her to be- shouldn't shake him this much, but- it does.
He can't abandon her if she loves him, can he?
He can't leave her with the Vinsmokes.
But- he can. He should. He wants too, even, because Reiju might have helped him and might love him, genuinely, but that's... not much, compared too how much she hurt him.
He's been staring at the photograph of him and his mother for way too long, now.
He looks up, and- realizes.
Reiju doesn't want to be saved- probably doesn't even consider her family as a danger, like Sanji does.
(Because she's valuable to them- but Sanji? The weak brother, the emotional one, the kind one? Oh, he wasn't.)
He's so used to Luffy's way -to saving friends and allies and strangers and even former enemies- that he forgot that he doesn't have to forgive and help everyone.
Reiju's his sister; she saved his life, once, yes, but-
"-You're not a good person," Sanji says, quietly."
"- I'm not," Reiju agrees.
"- You probably don't want to leave them. You don't hate them- even if they despised you like they despise me, you would still stay by their side," he continues, so lost in his thoughts that he doesn't actually realize he's talking out loud.
"- Would I? I don't know. But- they didn't give me any reason to leave them."
They tortured me, Sanji wants to scream. They made my childhood a living nightmare, and then, years later, they came back and did it again. They made me hurt my captain - they made me starve him. They made me betray my crew and they almost destroyed everything good in my life, again. They're cruel, and- barely humans, even Judge. How is that not good enough of a reason?
"- I suppose they didn't", he says instead.
Reiju smiles- it's her usual smile, the one that's so sweet and fake it might as well be coated in poison. Then her almost-grin disappears slowly.
"- I said not to come back. Ever. If you did- if you were willing to go back for them-" she tells him, and Sanji understands the they they're talking about changed.
"- Stay away from them," he just says, tense once again.
He can’t forgive her, he might not love her (or maybe he does); but if she hurts his crew once more, he’ll make sure Reiju never breathes again, smiles again, lies again.
His sister sighs.
"- I just hope they deserve your trust."
Sanji thinks about a boat sinking in the ocean forever, able to talk because they just loved it- her- so much. Thinks about a flag burning and them standing tall, defying the entire world. Thinks of two years spent training every day until he was about to break- and then some more. Thinks about bright smiles and laughter and- hat and swords and mikans and stories and cotton candy and books and "SUPER!" and tea.
Thinks about a family that would never abandon him, whatever may happen. Thinks about a crew that would defy the Gods themselves if they had to, to keep him happy.
"- They do."
And that's all that matters, in the end, isn't it?
His father and brothers might hate him, and Reiju might love him but not enough- but the Strawhats are always going to be here. He doesn't need the Vinsmokes if he has them. He doesn't need to forgive Reiju, ever. He doesn't need to cling so badly to any allies he might have.
(The next morning, there's an ungodly amount of meat for breakfast, and a slip of not-quite-regular-paper in his pocket.
His captain lends him his hat for the day.)