Sanji blinks awake and it feels like fire everywhere, surrounding him, engulfing him — heat under his skin, brimstone in his chest, burning coal at the pit of his stomach. He scrambles for purchase at the sudden intensity of it all, and pain explodes from his left arm, shooting up to his shoulder. There’s a loud noise ringing in his ears, and it takes him a few moments to realize that it is the sound of his own scream.
He gulps in a lungful of air and almost throws up, heaving and retching nothing but bile and air. He can’t trust his vision — blurred and marred by pain and involuntary tears — so he shuffles with his right hand, raises trembling fingers to trail over the scratches on his left arm down towards the source of pain.
He finds blood. A lot of it.
This is beyond just a few fractures, he knows instantly. He tries to withdraw his hand, trying not to agitate the wound, but it knocks over something, sending a bright sunburst of pain that punches the breath out of his lungs.
It’s a bone, his brain, somehow, helpfully supplies in the midst of the fever-pitch agony. It’s his own fucking bone, broken and twisted and tearing through the flesh of his left arm.
“Shit —” he curses, and feels like choking on nothing. He brings his good hand over his face out of instinct, pulling at his hair in some kind of a desperate attempt to distract himself from the pain. It hurts, it fucking hurts like hell, and he grits his teeth hard enough to see stars behind his eyelids.
He stays like that for what feels like years — sprawled over god-knows-where, hand over his face, sharp rocks digging against his backside and bleeding, oh fuck he’s bleeding so much and he can’t even lift a finger to stop it because it hurts and he pulls at his hair and pulls, pulls, pulls —
“Zoro! Zoro, oh my god, he’s here —”
The voice sounds familiar, but it’s hard for Sanji to tell who exactly it belongs to amidst the whole, well, dying and bleeding out onto the ground, excuse him. He can physically feel his body going into a shock, jolts of spasms coursing through his muscles, as if he had just been doused by ice water.
A flash of orange enters his vision, and it takes him a couple of blinks before his brain could catch up with what he sees.
“Nami-san…?” He rasps, question cut short by a violent cough that shakes his entire body. His throat feels sandpaper-dry, the syllables seemingly scrape against his throat.
Nami makes a sound at the back of her throat at that, and it sounds suspiciously like a sob. It can’t be, though. Nami doesn’t cry, unless it’s it’s something terribly dire. And nothing currently is. It’s just him, and a little scratch, and it’s not a big deal.
“It’s all right, Nami-san —” he chokes, feels as if death himself has crawled into his throat, but flashes her his best smile anyways. “I’m fine.”
And then the world around him spins and swallows him into darkness.
When Sanji comes to again, the pain is still there, but dulled. He knows he hasn’t moved much from before, can still feel the wetness of his own blood pooling around the lower half of his body, but the rest of his torso — and his head — is somehow in a much more comfortable position.
He blinks, and it takes him a few moments to realize that someone is holding the upper half of his body up, his head lying against the person’s chest.
A chest with a familiar scar across it, he notes as his vision steadily clears.
“Where’s Chopper?!” The swordsman in question yells. If Sanji didn’t know him any better, he’d say Zoro sounds panicked, but that’s silly, of course — Zoro doesn’t panic.
Nami’s voice replies back from a distance. “I don’t know!” The voice yells. “I thought I saw him nearby, he only took a different turn a few minutes ago —”
“Well, he clearly didn’t, because you can’t fucking find him here!” Zoro yells back. Sanji wants to scold him for using such a tone with a wonderful lady like Nami, but he’s kind of distracted by the way Zoro’s chest rumbles as he shouts. He buries his head further into the embrace, and Zoro’s grip on his shoulder tightens.
There are sounds of hurried footsteps approaching, and Nami’s voice is much nearer when she says, “we need you to go and look for Chopper.”
Sanji can feel Zoro’s body stiffen at that. “What?”
“I can’t find him and we can’t risk moving Sanji-kun too much without hurting him. You’re faster than I am, so —”
“No,” Zoro cuts in.
“— I can stay here as you look for him, and...” Nami trails off, Zoro’s reply finally sinking in. “Did you just say no?”
“I’m not going, Nami,” Zoro says, and he sounds pained as he says that. “You go.”
“Really? You’re going to pull that now? You pretend you can’t stand being around him for more than five minutes and when he really needs you to go — ”
“I can’t,” Zoro grits out. He pulls Sanji’s body closer to him, a gesture he probably didn’t even realize he was doing, and his voice cracks with unspoken grief when he says, “I can’t leave him behind. You know why.”
Sanji wants to ask exactly that — why — and how in the world does Nami know it, but what comes out of his mouth is a whine. He can barely see, can only feel Zoro brushing his cheek with his hand, uncharacteristically gentle. He never knew Zoro could ever be this...soft. Tender. All the pain must’ve made him hallucinate.
Sanji closes his eyes as the warmth of Zoro’s hand soothes him, and lets the darkness overtake him once more.
The Celestial Dragons called him a thing.
Like an animal, a specimen — something beneath them, something exotic, something not even human. The result of an experiment by the notorious Vegapunk and Vinsmoke Judge. He did not deserve their dignity or respect; he was an object for them to own, a toy to break so they chose to.
And they chose to.
They started with the slave brand. He still struggled then when they forced him down, kicking and screaming until his throat was scraped raw, but whatever poison they’d forced him to swallow had started to work; his limbs were heavy and his movement was sluggish, and the brand licked his chest as it burned, all the way through his skin.
He wondered if something inside him turned to ashes too, that day.
What came after were experiments after experiments; they’d caught wind of rumors about the Vinsmokes, about their bulletproof skin and inhuman strength, and they were more than willing to satisfy their curiosities through him. Sanji lost track of time, his world narrowing down to red blood and steel and pain pain pain, and he distantly thought about the kid with the iron mask.
Maybe his brothers were right. In the end, this was what he amounted to.
He phases in and out of consciousness in what feels like years after that. His whole body burns whenever he’s awake enough to feel, like being plunged into molten lava; it hurts, the kind of pain that carves him from the inside, and he’d scream until he loses his voice and then some, before it hurts too much that his mind would slip into darkness again.
Sometimes there is a voice — low and steady, like a low hum. Sanji can’t make out what it says — can’t even recognize the owner of the voice from all the pain — but it is soothing nonetheless. The voice is deep, familiar, and it is nothing like his mother’s but there’s warmth settling at the center of his chest still, the way hers would.
(“Cook,” it says, sometimes. “It’s me. I’m here. It’s gonna be okay—“)
Sanji lets go.