It was one of the times they had to stop for supplies and water before they set sail again. A typical city, full of lively, young people walking around, smiling widely when seeing beloved faces. Children playing around the fountain and behind the houses. Birds singing. Yet there was this unspoken tension hanging around that sent chills running down Usopp’s spine.
He knew Sanji also noticed. The chef was seemingly walking with his usual, confident stride, but the sniper noticed how cautious his friend was, catching the slightest of sounds, carefully scanning his surroundings as if expecting potential threat to appear any moment now. Usopp only assumed it was Observation Haki, because Nami and Chopper didn’t feel anything when he hesitated to set foot on the island, but to his definitely-not-luck Sanji chose him to help him carry the shopping.
“Mosshead.” Snapped the chef before leaving the deck “Wait here before we get back. I would hate to look for your sorry ass before getting something to eat.”
“I know, shithead. Now shut up and go.”
Usopp wondered if they meant something specific by those words. Like, the two always argued, but the sniper saw them in action many times – they didn’t need words to communicate. Sometimes – like now – he had a feeling they were actually using some sort of a code language, something only the two of them could understand. He would never summon the courage to ask the chef, though. First, he’d rather not interfere between such private matters between two of his strongest friends, and second – strongly connected to the first one – he valued life way too much.
“Hey, Sanji.” He said when he felt the air becoming even thicker “I think something’s odd–“
“Quiet now.” The chef turned around in an instant and pushed the sniper into a dark alley, crouching beside him and putting a finger to his mouth “I feel someone with really dark aura approaching.”
If it was Luffy or Zoro, they would’ve already gotten into a fight and probably the sniper would be standing on one of his unconscious hostiles telling one of the stories about his greatness. But – for what he would later thank the heavens – it was Sanji he was with. The one from the Monster Trio who would first stop and examine his situation. The sniper leaned a little to the right, trying to catch the view of who was the source of the strange vibes, but Sanji quickly pushed him back to the wall.
“Don’t come into sight, idiot.” He said quietly “If you got spotted, we might get into trouble. If you necessarily need to watch, stay in the shadow.”
Usopp’s skin crawled when he could feel the source of the tension mere meters away from the alley hid in. When the people finally came into his sight, his eyes widened. They were two men, high, muscular, wearing some sort of white military uniforms. Their eyes were covered with sunglasses. Everyone in the street seemed to step out of their way, looking down and backing off. The sniper frowned. What was wrong with those two men?
The one person who didn’t seem to have been scared by the two figures was a child – a girl on top of that – sitting in the middle of the street and playing with some wooden toys. She didn’t even seem to notice the pair closing in, but the sniper could understand that. He too, as a child, became so lost in his imaginary adventures sometimes that he wasn’t aware of the world around him. When he was playing, though, there weren’t any extremely suspicious soldiers moving around his village.
The men stopped in front of the child and stayed there for good thirty seconds. The sniper noticed sudden changes in other people’s behaviors. Their faces were becoming pale and their eyes were wide opened, their mouths silently repeating one word.
“Hey, Sanji.” Whispered the sniper, putting a hand on the chef’s shoulder, but only got rewarded by a quiet ‘shut up, I know’. He let out a breath he’d been holding, watching the scene taking place before them. One of the men moved, lifting the child up.
“King Albert’s procession is taking place here in an hour. Any civils on his path are to be arrested for the time being.” Something about his voice was really odd, his tone was… flat. Emotionless. “You shall now be arrested and come with us.”
He was lucky. If he went there with Luffy or Zoro, he would have been involved in a fight long ago. Those two always stepped right into trouble, not caring about the potential hazards or risks their doings would bring. Sanji, on the other hand…
Was not in the alley anymore.
Usopp’s jaw dropped as he looked up. Looking at the chef. Kicking the men with power the sniper hadn’t seen in a long while. Setting the child free. Cheering up the woman who was previously crying. Oh god, Usopp was now taking back everything he said about the chef earlier that day. He was just like the other two.
“Hey, Sanji!” he called the chef, walking out of the alley “You were the one who told me to stay still and not to move!”
“Yes...” The chef turned his head away from the woman, visibly annoyed “…because that’s what I wanted you to do. Got a problem with that?”
“I thought we weren’t supposed to cause any problems! Or harm people without a reason!”
“And we didn’t. We just saved a child.” The chef raised an eyebrow, now fully concentrated on the sniper and walked towards the men and crouched beneath them “Besides, something’s really shitty about those. I’m sure I kicked through metal.”
“Wait, what?” Usopp also looked closer. He failed to notice before, but there was no blood on the figures. They were crumpled in many places, and when he chef managed to get off their coats, they could both see some wires hang loosely here and there.
“They’re robots.” Mumbled the chef, looking at the sniper “We should show those to Franky.”
“Don’t you take them with you!” Usopp heard someone shouting behind them and turned around. His eyes landed on a man, slightly older than Sanji maybe, who apparently just got at the place “They’ll find and arrest you and your friends.”
“You seem to know something.” Mused Sanji, walking closer to him. Usopp gulped, looking at the chef. The man could fit in any situation, he saved them countless times but still never stopped to surprise Usopp. He was never the one to blew their cover – unlike Luffy and Zoro – and sending him to get information was always a sure win, perhaps only Nami and Robin had better chances, but sending them alone was too dangerous on an island they didn’t know.
“The robots you just destroyed.” The man looked worryingly at the laying bodies “These are from the King’s Army. They have a built-in locator. In a short while more of them will come to investigate the case. You know, sometimes it’s better to leave them alone.”
“Are you saying I should have left this little lady in distress?” Sanji’s eyebrow went up and Usopp’s stomach flew down. The chef was annoyed, if not by the robots and him disturbing his conversation with the woman, then by this man without a doubt.
“Once they come, everyone in near distance would be called suspects and arrested.” The man shook his head “You don’t want to get there. They’re going to question you until one of the sides gives up, and if you’re lucky, they’ll let you out alive.”
“That’s not the answer to my question.” Sanji’s eyebrows went down and Usopp’s heart flew up “Should I. Have let. Those guys. Take this little lady?” It was just about time the sniper walked in and stopped this madness before the chef actually hurt an innocent person!
“Come on, Sanji.” He said, patting the chef’s shoulder “In the end you saved the girl, so there’s no need to carry on this discussion, is there–“ he noticed Sanji’s icy stare on him “I mean – sorry, please continue.”
“You know nothing about our city.” Snapped the man, taking a step back from them “You don’t know how it feels to be intimidated and powerless, when none of the bigger islands believe that we’re in trouble. You don’t know how it feels to be raised without a caring mother to support you. Our children do!” Now it was Usopp’s blood that started to boil. He got in front of Sanji, walking towards the man, feeling his fists clenching.
“Wait, weren’t you the one who said to end the discussion?” asked Sanji with a smirk. Usopp looked back at him, his expression serious. He was angry beyond any measures, how easy was it to judge others “Your call, then. I was planning to get a smoke anyway, I’ll leave him to you.”
“Listen up, man.” Usopp stopped so that he could’ve easily punched the man if you wanted to “If you’re so miserable and poor and abandoned, why don’t you riot? I can see there are quite a few young, strong men who would easily put up a fight to those robots.” The man’s eyes widened, his face turned into a grimace.
“Nice words for someone who had just arrived at the island.” He hissed “Do you really think we don’t want things to change? That we like it the way it is? Imagine, that all people who are under arrest will die if we try anything stupid.”
“Then try to save them.”
“I would.” Said the man “But there are few who would risk their lives for the case, you know? The majority just sits at home, waiting for a better tomorrow. It’s not like I can do anything alone!” Usopp’s fists clenched as he heard all the nonsense the man threw at him
“Do you even hear yourself?” he snapped “Look at the people around you! Don’t you think they would like to riot?”
“Right! That’s why they would go with you! No one wants to be scared. If I were in your shoes, I would do anything if it could make me less afraid. It’s impossible for such a city not to have at least a thousand rioting people.” He honestly wanted to punch the man by now, but he felt a hand on his arm pulling him back.
“Enough of this, Usopp.” He heard Sanji’s voice “We’re going back to the Sunny. Listen up, you guys. We’ll come back here tomorrow around this time. Our friends will kick that-king-of-yours’ ass, but for this to start we need to know you want it. A thousand men, we expect no less.”
“Sanji…” Usopp’s jaw dropped, watching the cook. He had his usual cool, yet it was moistened in something the sniper couldn’t quite place. On one hand, it was extremely powerful and made him want to obey the chef, but on the other hand it seemed… friendly, like a request for a beer. Usopp had never seen his friend stand up and take direct action, without sneaking, gathering information, avoiding unnecessary fighting. But now he noticed Sanji would make a great leader, damn it, even a king. The man took a step back, but didn’t calm down.
“You think it’s so easy? Gather a thousand men without the king suspecting anything? That we can do whatever we want?”
“Unless you’re locked somewhere in a cell with a mask to mute your screams, I guess you can. I’m not telling you it’s easy.” Sighed the chef “If you feel so empty, used up, let down, angry, ripped off, so stepped on that you claim – you’re not the only one refusing to back down, so get up, won’t you?” he turned back, pulling a bewildered Usopp behind “Let’s start this shitty riot.”
“I think we should solve this, captain.” He heard the shitty cook speaking quietly and frowned. The bastard usually avoided the spotlight like fire, something was odd. He even told him to stay on the ship with the others, which was most probably because he wanted the girls to be safe. The swordsman didn’t blame him, there was something about this place that made his skin crawl. He didn’t want to stay there any longer than necessary.
“Well, if you say it’s important, let’s do it.” Luffy cocked his head to the side, picking his nose “But is this island special to you?
“Not really.” The chef shook his head “But there’s something about it that makes me feel uneasy.”
“Shitty cook is right.” Admitted the swordsman, shifting slightly into a more comfortable position “I feel it, too. Something’s wrong with this place.”
“Well then, it’s settled!” a grin spread through Luffy’s face as he threw his fists into the air “It’s going to be an adventure!”
“Hey, shitty cook.” He nagged the other man later that day “I heard Usopp talking to the witch earlier. He said it was you who wanted those guys to start the riot.”
“I already told you…” the chef swung his leg at Zoro’s head nonchalantly “…not to call Nami-san like that, and most certainly not to eavesdrop on a lady, bastard.” A grin spread through Zoro’s face as he easily blocked the strike with one of his swords. The cook was frustrated, he could feel that.
“So what if I wanted those people to stand up for themselves?” asked his rival, examining Zoro with his icy cold stare, as if determining if he also was up to start a fight.
“Nothing, I suppose.” Zoro reached to his waist and drew the second sword, taking a swing at the other man, forcing him to jump back “Just that you never really stuck your nose into other people’s business, you know.”
“There was one guy that annoyed me nearly as much as you usually do.” The response was carried with a stronger blow, this time to the swordsman’s guts “Blabbed some bullshit about not being able to do anything.”
“There are always annoying guys wherever we land.” Shrugged the swordsman.
“He wanted to let those guys take child into tortures.” Oh shit. Now, Zoro actually did understand the guy better. No wonder the cook was so furious about that. The swordsman hummed quietly, preparing for another blow.
There had been plenty times he got to see the cook mad, in fact he could see his annoyed face daily, however this time was one which Zoro would call the pervert-cook-ultimate-stage-of-annoyance. He wasn’t furious, but there was this cold look in his eyes and those nonchalant swings of his legs, as if it didn’t matter who he fought, he just wanted to smash everything that was in his path.
He didn’t hate the man. He never did, even though at first he wasn’t too fond of the guy. They fought, sparred ad argued on a daily basis, but it felt more like siblings bickering than hostility. Thanks to that routine of theirs, he could understand the man better, his mimics and movements, postures and actions. Even if he didn’t particularly like him and if it wasn’t for Luffy they would probably never get along, he was grateful to have such a bond with him.
“So, listen carefully, everyone.” Nami cleared her throat, gathering others’ attention “Since Sanji-kun isn’t going to be involved in the actual combat with this king person, we have to divide our troops in a different way than usual. Franky isn’t going to stay on the Sunny this time, we need him in the field. Chopper, would you mind taking his place?”
“You can leave it to me, Nami.” Said the little doctor, though not entirely concerned “But are you sure it’s a good idea? I mean, I’m the doctor, I should be around you all on the battlefield in case something happened.”
“Point taken.” Agreed Robin, nodding “I also thought it wouldn’t be that good. Perhaps we should leave Usopp to guard the ship? He could also set some traps if anyone was to raid the Sunny.”
“I guess you’re right.” Hummed Nami, turning to the captain “Luffy, Zoro, you’re free to do as you wish, just don’t harm the citizens and don’t ruin the Sunny. Robin and I will sneak into the dungeons and free the people. As soon as we’re done, we’ll join you. Sanji-kun and Brook will lead the people.”
“Alright!” Luffy’s eyes sparkled “You can leave it to us!’
“One important thing.” Zoro’s eyes narrowed as he shifted, trying to reach the most comfortable position “The rioting people are going to be our most useful weapon. Sending the shitty cook I can understand, but don’t you think Brook would scare them off?”
“Right, Nami.” Protested Usopp “Wouldn’t it be better to send Brook into the dungeons and assign one of you girls to Sanji? You’ll look more… appealing, no offense, Brook, but people aren’t used to seeing skeletons walking around the streets.” Luckily, the musician didn’t seem offended in the slightest.
“That’s out of the question.” Sanji took an unlit cigarette out of his mouth “We don’t know how the people would react to us. Taking a lady would be dangerous.”
“Nonetheless–“ Usopp opened his mouth to say something, but quickly got silenced by Luffy.
“Usopp, it’s okay.” He said, smiling “They’ll manage. Brook can be very convincing when he wants to be, right?”
“Of course, captain!” agreed the skeleton “I always speak from the bottom of my heart if I have to… even though I don’t have one anymore. Yohohoho!”
“Then it’s settled.” Announced Nami with a bright smile “Get ready, everyone! We’ll strike tomorrow afternoon!”
Brook’s eyes wandered around the streets – or more precisely, would wander if he still had them. The whole place looked very neat and peaceful, he would never had guessed someone was terrorizing its people. He clenched his fists as he imagined all of the people who, according to Sanji and Usopp, were arrested and sent to tortures.
Somewhere inside, he was happy to see the chef being so involved into those people’s business, but it was unusual of him. From what the skeleton could recall, Sanji was always a distant person, rather staying away from the spotlight, even if he had the chance to. Something must had triggered him into showing up.
“Sanji.” He said, attracting the other man’s attention “It might be rude of me to ask, but why did you decide to talk to those people? I mean, it’s truly great and noble of you, but drawing attention like that isn’t quite your style.” For a moment, there was no response from the chef’s side. He took the cigarette out of his mouth, exhaling a cloud of smoke and sighed.
“I suppose it was impossible to avoid such questions any longer.” He hummed quietly, shaking his head “There was that one guy who was incredibly annoying, talking about helplessness. A young, well-build, strong man. You get the idea. It was loath to hear him spilling such nonsense.”
The chef’s tone was way too light for the musician’s liking. As far as he knew the man, he wouldn’t talk about such important matters so lightly. He was an extremely kind and understanding person, even if he really got annoyed by that man, he wouldn’t treat his concerns so lightly, as though they were only a creation of a child’s imagination.
“With all due respect, I think it’s not the case.” Brook looked narrowly at his friend, who suddenly stopped in his tracks, putting the cigarette into his mouth and inhaling deeply.
“I guess it’s not easy to make a fool of a man who had already lived an entire life.” He admitted, continuing the walk. A defeat, it meant to the skeleton. Sanji would always use that resigned tone when he was cornered and could no longer run.
“I trust that what I say now will stay between us.” The chef didn’t even look back, knowing Brook would nod. They were crewmates, friends, and the musician was a man of his words. “You see, my bounty has been changed to Only Alive. If what I’m thinking is right, someone is looking for me, and if this somebody is who I have in mind, then they will pursue us anyway.”
“In other words…” hummed Brook, analyzing the chef’s words over and over again “…you’re saying that you used to stay away from the spotlight because this someone didn’t know you were alive. Sanji.” He pierced through the chef’s back with his gaze “Are you running away from someone?”
Before he had the chance to hear the answer, they noticed a large group of people standing – wait – blocking the street, kitchen tools and other stuff that could be of use as a weapon in hands. Sanji slowed down, so that Brook and him were walking toe to toe, and stopped when the distance between them and the group was small enough to hear each other yet wide enough to avoid any attacks.
“You came, as promised.” Said one of the men, probably the one Sanji talked about earlier.
“I said to bring a thousand men.” Replied the chef, looking around “That’s not enough if you really want freedom, you know.”
“They’re in the buildings.” The man stepped closer, lowering his voice “They won’t go unless you convince them. They want to know who are they to follow.”
“You’re saying that I have to prove myself so that you will want to fight for your freedom?” the chef raised his eyebrow “Don’t you think it’s odd?”
“Sanji.” Brook put a hand on his shoulder, leaning closer “I think that he’s trying to say those people need someone to convince them to stand up for themselves. They are most probably afraid, not reluctant.” It seemed to had calmed the other man down. The musician looked around, looking at the people – hiding behind the curtains, standing in the shadows, anticipating, waiting. He knew the chef had already noticed. Question was, what was his next step.
“This is not right.” Said Sanji, looking around at those people – scared, hidden, passive “Those over here had the courage of change. They’re not afraid to get up, refusing to go down. But you, you who are just standing, who don’t know what they want, who’d rather live a life full of suffering than fight for a better tomorrow risking their lives, you’re dragging them to the rock bottom.”
Brook was just about to scold his friend for using such harsh words. He thought the man would make use of his kindness rather than… well, ruthlessness. What he was saying was offensive, not motivational. What stopped the musician, though, was the change of those citizens’ attitude. Those who were previously behind the curtains now were in full sight, looking closely at the chef, fully concentrated at his words. The ones standing in the shadows now stepped closer, leaving their dark hideouts. Their attention was fully gathered on Sanji. He knew the chef had already noticed.
“I know you feel filthy.” A shadow of a smirk glanced around Sanji’s features “Dirty, fucked up, walked on. Those people, who are sitting up there in luxury while terrorizing you and your beloved ones, they are aware of that. They know you’re afraid to stand up and fight, because they have hostages. And you obey them, because you don’t want your friends and families to suffer.”
The skeleton’s jaw would surely drop if there were muscles holding it. Although he was looking at the chef, he felt like it was a stranger. The Sanji he knew was also impressively strong, understanding and vivid, but there was something different between him and the man speaking.
“It’s painful, I know. But they’re wrong if they think they brought you all down to your knees. I’m sure that behind your fear and hesitation, you’re pissed off. You’re refusing to go down.” The chef looked around, at the people leaving their hideouts and surrounding him and Brook. He spared a look at the musician. Keep your guard up.
“You’re not the only ones.” He exclaimed, looking back at the crowd “My friends are going to strike as soon as we give them the sign. But we can’t do anything unless you get up.” He glanced at the people’s faces, now not hiding his smile anymore “We can win. Just get up.”
Nami was the first one to notice the flare lightening up the sky. A quiet sigh of relief escaped her lips when she saw the green colour spreading upon the city. Sanji-kun’s plan succeeded. The people were going to riot.
She quickly got up and ran to Luffy to tell him it was about time to start. They had no time to waste.
Brook watched the orange afterglow lighten up the night sky. It was to be expected, after all, he imagined his captain got pretty mad when engaged into a fight with someone who’d caused so much suffering to the people of this island. The fire was a good companion – it swallowed everything, never objecting, never out of hatred, just because it was its nature. He could make a good song about it one day.
His attention got dragged by the chef, walking towards him, covered in dirt and ash, a cigarette nonchalantly hanging from his lips.
“It seems like you did those people a huge favor.” He commented once Sanji was close enough to hear him “They are now free.”
“It wasn’t a favor.” The chef shook his head “If it was, I would likely want something in return. But I don’t. It was them who did the key part. I didn’t even fight much, Luffy and the shitty swordsman got all the big shots.”
“I think what you did was more important.” Gainsaid the musician. Even now, after all Sanji did, he was trying to downgrade his part in the story. Brook assumed it could be out of habit, putting himself in the shadow, away from the eyes that sought for him across the oceans. “If I may ask, what are you going to do now? I mean, with the people pursuing you.” The chef remained still for a moment, visibly surprised by the question.
“They’re going to find us.” He said slowly, letting out a sigh “Once they do, I’m going to settle things between us. I will have no choice.”
“I’m sure Luffy would likely want to help you with whoever you’ll be facing.” Brook drew his sword, looking at it closely “The same would go for me and the rest of the crew, I guess.”
“Thanks for your concern.” Smirked the chef “But it’s a thing I’d like to solve myself. I know that you’ll get my back if something goes wrong.” That said, he walked past the musician and headed straight towards the ship.
Brook followed him, piecing his cane back whole with one smooth movement. He couldn’t shake off the feeling of uneasiness. He knew Sanji was afraid, he could tell by the way he stiffened and his short responses whenever the issue came up. Some part of him told him not to pursue and think about it, but they were people the chef had been running away from for, well, years. Someone he wasn’t strong enough or couldn’t fight. If it came to their encounter, the skeleton was sure his friend would avoid involving the crew in his business, even if it meant sacrificing himself.
He only hoped Luffy would be there to stop him when the time comes.