A small, careless whimper carried through the drafty halls of the boat, made louder by the great emptiness of the boat as it rocked back and forth, made eerier by the emptiness and inky blackness of the boat as it rocked back and forth on a sea that had nearly taken two more sacrifices—two days? Three days before?
Not long enough, anyway.
Wood met wood and Zeff sighed. He supposed he would get used to it. No one had ever accused him of adjusting poorly to the shit life threw at him, although this was really a new fucking level, wasn’t it? He couldn’t blame the kid for a whimper or two, but something drew him out of bed anyway, clanking slowly along the floorboards.
He’d blame it on not being able to fall asleep either.
As he walked, trying and failing to hide a grimace, Zeff remembered what he’d said right before they retired, and it hardly scratched the surface of ten-rudest-things-said-to-a-child, but the kid had gone pale and stammery.
Shouldn’t you just go fucking home, kid?
And really, it was one thing making great, absurd dreams on a deserted island, drunk with emaciating hunger that still rattled in his bones, and Zeff intended to keep his declaration, but he thought it was fair to offer the kid a chance to back out. Strong kid, sure, and he dreamed big, but Zeff wouldn’t blame—he grumbled, turning a corner as another whimper drifted by.
If Zeff were younger or more naïve, he might have insisted that someone had to be missing that boy. Surely there was somewhere for him to go back to, somewhere safer than with a murderous devil like him, somewhere safer than the caring and cruel sea. That’s what a home was, wasn’t it? But Zeff was not young nor naïve, so he thought, ‘This boy’s running away from something. Not my place to get in the middle of that.’
Zeff knew the look. He’d been captain of a ship long enough, and hell, he’d been running away from something once too, back before anyone knew his name or who he would become. The world was shit and people ran to the seas. He’d be a hypocrite to stop that natural order of things.
The door wasn’t closed all the way. There was a crack of light, not a lot mind, but a thin enough crack that Zeff could see the kid hunched over, that lemon bright hair like a small fucking beacon. “Kid?”
The kid froze. How it was possible to fold up smaller, Zeff didn’t know, but he wasn’t having any of that. Not if the boy wanted to stay and make good on his promise. So he felt a little stupid, felt a little like someone who was trying to be a parent but wasn’t, because who the hell would trust him with a child for fuck’s sake (he planned on having several words with the universe about that), but no one had ever accused him of being a coward either.
“D’you know there’s some recipes meant to be started overnight?” He said, remembering how calming it was on sleepless nights to find solace in the kitchen, herbs that could be cut and gravy that could be thickened, enough careful tedium to be drawn back into the fragile peace required for sleep.
The kid shook his head, little lemon brightness over that strange, curly eyebrow.
“Well, come on then, don’t be wasting time.”
He scrambled up, all evidence of tears gone, and if Zeff made sure there was a light on near the kid’s room for the rest of the trip, well, he wasn’t going soft, that’s for sure.
“Where’s the kid from?”
“The kid. Where’s he from? Ain’t yours, is he?”
Zeff never really knew how to answer that, so he aimed a kick at his new cook instead, some fucker named Patty who yelped. The other new hire, Carne, snickered.
“He works here, and he’s actually working unlike you lot, so get on with it!”
This wasn’t entirely true: Zeff had noticed Sanji’s ears turn at the question, go slightly pink even as his hands kept the blade steady. But at least he was getting food out on time.
And that was the question, wasn’t it, not so much where the kid had come from—Zeff had long stopped caring about that—but who they were to each other, those pesky things like labels for people who would never really understand…
Zeff wasn’t exactly prone to introspection, but surprise parenthood tended to do that to a person.
He was doing the best a man like him could do: men needed to know how to cook, fight, and treat ladies, so those were the lessons he imparted, sometimes gruff and sometimes with a kick to the shins, as the little eggplant got taller and thinned off from baby fat, chain smoking cigarettes when he thought Zeff wasn’t looking, making moon eyes at any of the lovely women who came in to eat—but Zeff thought that, all things considered, he hadn’t done a half bad job.
They’d built the Baratie from nothing, and it was tough, grueling work, but they’d done it, and it was still floating. Yesterday, Sanji had managed to kick down all of the target dummies Zeff had set up. Tomorrow, they would extend lunch hours because of the newly hired cooks.
In some ways, it seemed a long way since that fucking rock, the early days when Zeff had even less of an idea what he was doing, with a child who was simultaneously terrified of him and eager to be his little shadow. In other ways…
Well, Zeff still kept forgetting to turn the light off at night. Still wasn’t going soft, though.
One day, a straw-hat-wearing fuck had crashed a cannonball into Zeff’s goddam restaurant and then left with his sous-chef…with some parts in between that Zeff could never really remember.
Except, as he glanced above the stove to the wanted poster of Sanji they’d lovingly taped to the wall in all its horrifyingly bad quality, it was the first time Zeff felt like the kid was running towards something rather than away from it. He liked that.
He hoped the future king of the pirates wouldn’t fuck that up.
One day, Whitebeard died, and everything fell out of place for a while. Customers were scared or tried dirtier tricks or bragging about how they’d been there and they’d seen it, and there was no way Straw Hat had made it out alive—
When did Zeff become the kind of old geezer who listened to shitty rumors?
He had too much experience on the wonderful and wicked sea to believe anything, and despite it all he was an optimist at heart, and if anyone noticed the way the wrinkles above his forehead deepened when he glanced over at Sanji’s wanted poster…well, they were smart enough not to say anything about it.
The new wanted poster, which actually had his fucking face on it, was somehow even funnier than the first one. Zeff laughed and pretended the tears were from joy and not sheer relief.
Whispers never meant anything good, in Zeff’s experience. They only led to trouble. This was his justification behind entering his kitchen, blaze of righteous fury and completely warranted indignation, only to see Patty and Carne leaning over the newspaper on the table, faces uncharacteristically serious.
Zeff didn’t even think they could read. But here they were, whispering and not cooking.
“Lazy morning, is it?”
But neither of them blinked, and before Zeff could bemoan losing his touch, Patty slid the page over towards him. “Did you know?”
Did he know—it was an updated wanted poster, and Zeff fought to hide the proud smile as he looked at the amount, because holy shit—did he know the Little Eggplant was capable of it? Well, sure, but he wasn’t going to say it out loud—
But then, an extra word drew his attention. A surname. Which was funny, because Sanji didn’t have a surname. Not many people did, even fewer pirates did, pirates who’d run out to the sweet siren call of the sea, they didn’t have anything.
Vinsmoke…the name rang a few times, hollowly, in Zeff’s chest before striking a deep, cold chord. Those North Blue assassins his old friends at the docks used to whisper about…Germa, they used to whisper about, a royal family that was molded rather than born properly. Ruthless robots who—Vinsmoke.
“Can’t believe he never said,” said Carne nervously, when Zeff didn’t answer. “I mean, it’s…there’s an article about it too, that crazy Straw Hat fucker went after Big Mom if you believe it—”
“I believe it,” grumbled Patty. “I believe he’s crazy—”
Zeff wasn’t paying attention. He was trying to wrestle two different concepts: Vinsmoke, bloody and filled with shadowy rumors, and Sanji, the child with lemon bright candle hair and that strange curly eyebrow, kindhearted to a fault, endlessly optimistic dreamer, the devoted and self-sacrificing idiot who was cooking for the future Pirate King.
There was almost nothing in common with those two words. But Zeff had an idea now, of what Sanji had always been running from.
And from the looks of it, as Zeff’s eyes pulled unwillingly to the article, run towards.
He remembered, the small and terrified child who had to be running, running until the ship he found himself on got attacked by a gang of pirates and later by a merciless storm and later by hunger and thirst, and who looked at him with a steely scared face after he asked—
Shouldn’t you just fucking go home, kid?
Don’t have a home, said one of the Vinsmoke princes, who was afraid of the dark and even more afraid of being left alone.
He remembered, the thin and bright-eyed child who was desperate for approval, desperate for love, with the kind of natural talent in the kitchen most chefs would kill for and the kind of precise strength with his kicks that protected and with the enormous bleeding heart that got him into trouble but also brought him into the swell of one of the greatest pirate crews to sail the Grand Line.
Zeff was getting too soft.
Everyone was always running from something. His little eggplant had run from one of the most notorious families anyone could talk about, when they weren’t too scared to talk, and then—if the article were right—he’d run back. It was stupid and foolish of him to feel the strange burst of fear and fondness and even worse, deeply resolute respect. Too soft, too fucking soft.
“Bet he’s got a big head with that new bounty of his,” said Zeff, discretely turning his face away for a half second. He’d never been strong enough to run back home, never been strong enough to cut those ties strongly enough, and instead it had dissolved slowly, until home had candlelight hair and a curly eyebrow and impossible dreams. “Still a dumbass picture.”
Patty and Carne had looked at him, looked at each other, and Zeff wasn’t optimistic enough to think that they’d drop it, but at least there would be no more whispers. “It is a dumb picture,” said Patty.
“Very dumb picture,” agreed Carne, and Zeff nodded.
“Now that you’ve read your paper, get back to fucking work?”
It couldn’t be over, because running back home was never easy and never quite ended, but the man in the wanted poster still sailed with the crew of the future king of the pirates, volatile and impossible and quite prepared to take the entire world by storm.
And if anyone noticed, that VINSMOKE had been ripped away, so that Sanji himself could proudly accept his own strength and courage on his own, because he’d achieved it on his own, well, maybe it was time for Zeff to accept that he’d gone soft.
(And if he pretended not to notice, when someone had teasingly scribbled ZEFFSON beside Sanji’s name…well, he knew how to accept a compliment when handed one, didn’t he?)