Sanji never used his hands to fight. It was simply a fact of life, just like the sky was blue and Straw-hat Luffy liked meat. They were meant to cook, not harm. They were not meant to be harmed. As a kitchen boy on the Baratie, this lesson had been reinforced time and time again by a wooden leg and swift, sharp kicks to the rib.
Zeff had eventually taught him how to fight with his legs. He needn’t put his precious tools of trade at risk. He couldn’t cook for the hungry without his hands. That was his duty as a chef of the sea.
Sanji exhaled a long breath of smoke, stared out at the lightening sea and mulled the thought over.
Because he treasured these hands of his, he’d been rendered useless during the fight with his family. He’d been too afraid of injuring them, of losing them. If those cuffs hadn’t been broken, would he have left his nakama to die? He thought of Luffy, Brook and Chopper, all so severely beaten. He’d even dragged Nami-swan into this mess. Were his hands really more important to him than the lives of his friends?
Somewhere in the depths of his mind, Sanji realised he was being ridiculous. Vinsmoke Judge had held much more than the well-being of Sanji’s limbs hostage after all. And Luffy would never have let any of the Straw-Hats die.
But if he’d sacrificed his hands, would he have been able to escape earlier? If he wasn’t chained down by this duty he’d imposed on himself, would he have been strong enough to prevent dragging his crew into that shit-storm of a family affair? If he fought without worrying about his hands, would he be stronger?
The cuff wounds on his wrist, though clean and healing, ached heavily. He gritted his teeth, spilling the bitter contents of his cigarette onto his tongue.
The word had been thrown around a lot during his childhood. He’d always lacked the physical prowess of his siblings, the affinity for combat his family was known for. He remembered it all: the harsh training regimes, the painful spars, the endless hours of fighting, but he especially remembered the cell he’d been locked away in after his apparent ‘death’. The iron mask he’d been forced to wear was a phantom weight around his skull, aching from time to time. His father would rather have had a dead son, than one like him.
He was brought out of his thoughts by a sound behind him. The trapdoor to the crow’s nest opened and he heard the tell-tale clack of light footfalls. He couldn’t tell exactly who it was, but he knew his crew mates well enough. This person was light-footed and that alone eliminated half of them.
“Sanji-san, I can take over watch now if you’d like,” Brook said, walking closer, “It’s unusual to see you up here at this hour. You’d usually be in the kitchen by now.”
Sanji turned to look at him, pulling what remained of his cigarette from between his lips and snuffing it out on a nearby ashtray. The distinct lack of cracks in the skeleton’s frame suggested that Chopper had put him under intense calcium therapy.
“Yeah,” Sanji replied absently, “I guess I was lost in thought.”
“Oh dear. Thinking too deeply can often do more harm than good.”
Brook sounded genuinely concerned and, despite everything, Sanji quirked a small smile. If Brook still had a face, he’d probably be furrowing his eyebrows, Sanji mused.
“It’s nothing serious Brook, don’t worry.” Sanji stood, rubbing at his wrists absentmindedly. It had been a few days since the battle now, but they seemed to hurt more than before.
“The phrase ‘don’t worry’ typically causes people to worry more,” Brook said, staring at Sanji intently and somehow seeing everything despite having no eyes. “Nothing can fool these eye sockets of mine. I’ve been alive far too long for that. Well, sort of. Yohohoho.”
Sanji stared down at his hands, littered with cuts and scrapes from his brothers’ ruthlessly targeted attacks. They stung whenever he moved them and Sanji could still picture their malicious smirks clearly in his mind.
Even after all of this, he was still afraid of them.
Ignoring the pain, Sanji clenched his fists tightly.
“Hey, can I ask you a favour?” Sanji said suddenly.
“Of course.” Brook inclined his head.
“May I…hold your sword?”
If Brook was taken aback by this request, he showed no sign of it. Instead, he simply paused for a moment, put his hand to his cane and drew Soul Solid from its sheath. He held it out to Sanji, blade down.
In the dim morning light, it gleamed a misty silver. And despite being the one who’d asked, Sanji suddenly felt cowed.
Brook nodded to him in encouragement.
Sanji swallowed dryly and took the sword. It was light, lighter than even some of his kitchen knives, and felt awkward in his hand. He lifted it clumsily, swinging the narrow blade to eye-level for closer examination. The steel shone softly in the light: subdued, almost gentle.
“I hear you were trained in swordsmanship as a child.” Brook noted, watching Sanji closely.
“Yeah,” Sanji replied, “That was a long time ago.”
Soul Solid was so different to everything he remembered as a child wielding a sword. Everything back then had been so unforgiving, so harsh, so blood-thirsty. As ridiculous as it sounded, this was not a violent blade, Sanji thought.
In painfully slow waves, Sanji’s body relaxed. He hadn’t realised how tense he’d gotten.
Brook watched on, seeming satisfied with Sanji’s reaction to his weapon. He did not reach out to take it back, nor did he prompt Sanji for further information. He simply observed silently, patiently.
A moment more passed, and neither of them moved.
“Do you want to try wielding it?” Brook asked, and like a rubber-band, Sanji’s entire body snapped rigid.
He handed the sword back to its owner and shook his head. A sudden sickness settled into the pit of his stomach and he masked it as well as he could behind a neutral face. Brook somehow didn’t look convinced.
“I’m going to get breakfast started.” Sanji walked past a silent Brook, trying to keep his voice steady. “Any requests?”
Brook remained unspeaking for a moment longer before surprising Sanji with his response.
“I would suggest, perhaps, onigiri,” he said as he sheathed Soul Solid. “And if I could be so presumptuous, could I also request a pot of Earl Grey?”
Sanji frowned as he lowered himself through the door.
“Onigiri? Why would you-?”
And then it dawned on him and Sanji exhaled sharply in surprise.
Brook side-eyed him for a single, meaningful moment, before strolling over to the window, humming indistinctly to himself.
As Sanji descended from the crow’s nest, he found himself wondering when the skeleton had gotten so damned perceptive.
It took him a week to finally make onigiri.
Brook didn’t mention anything explicitly, but Sanji could feel the other man’s watchful gaze on him at times. He knew Brook thought he should go to Zoro, and Sanji hated to admit that he would need to eventually. But he avoided it for a while, because he wasn’t ready. Not yet.
Instead, he took to observing Zoro the way Brook observed him. He didn’t care much for Zoro’s inhuman training routine. Weight training, push ups and crunches weren’t of any interest to him. No, what truly interested him were the times Zoro trained with his swords.
Sanji found his eyes drawn to those swords more than ever now. Wado Ichimonji, Shusui and Sandai Kitetsu were lethal in the hands of their master, and all incredibly beautiful in their own unique ways. Zoro wielded them with effortless grace and deathly precision. They moved with him, bent to his every will and struck true each time. There was very little more terrifying – and breathtaking – than watching Roronoa Zoro wield his three loyal blades.
Not that Sanji would ever admit it aloud.
Tap tap tap.
Sanji’s kitchen knives were a familiar weight in his hands as he sliced and chopped. They felt safe – merely tools which helped him do the one thing he enjoyed most: cook. They were not weapons of war.
His father’s voice echoed in the far corners of his mind and his hands momentarily stilled.
“I-I can't go on, father. Please, I need to rest.”
Judge glared at him with undisguised contempt.
“You dare suggest resting when you're miles behind your brothers? If you have time to rest, train more! Get up!”
With a sob, Sanji complied. His entire body protested as he forced himself to his feet. There was sharp pain in his chest, where he was sure he'd fractured something, and a headache pounded in his skull from multiple traumas. He gripped his sword between bloodied hands and raised his leaden limbs.
Across from him, Niji sneered from behind his own sword, untouched.
“You're embarrassing.” Niji scoffed before launching himself forward at an inhuman speed.
Sanji willed himself to move, but his limbs had gone numb and his mind hazy.
He could only watch as Niji raised his sword and-
His knife slid easily through the fish, slicing it cleanly in half.
Sanji firmly forced away the cold dread which had settled over him. He really was pathetic to get so worked up over a mere memory. His wrists ached, but he ignored them as he deboned the fish with practiced twists.
Then, he put his knife down and leant heavily into the counter.
He needed to face this.
The Thousand Sunny sailed lazily through the water, her occupants in similar states of relaxation. Robin was laid out on a deck chair, nose-deep in one of her textbooks. Chopper was on the grass nearby, reading his own. At times, they would speak, pointing to their respective books as the other gaped in appropriate wonder. Sanji couldn’t ignore the bandages wrapped around the little reindeer’s torso, and a now familiar guilt hummed through him. For once, he was relieved Nami wasn’t in sight. He could hardly bear to see her hobble around on her one uninjured leg. Usopp and Franky weren’t on deck either, probably in their workrooms.
Luffy sat atop the lion’s head, fishing rod grasped in one lazy hand, head in the other, daydreaming. His captain recovered quickly, Sanji knew, and for that he was glad. Brook’s soft violin music wafted on the wind, a gentle lullaby to complete the scene.
Sanji inhaled deeply, allowing the warm sea air and tranquillity to chase away some of the unease.
He made sure that Robin’s glass was still full, that Chopper had enough candy and then he walked over to Brook, setting a couple of onigiri onto a plate for him. The skeleton nodded as he continued playing. Perhaps in thanks, or perhaps in encouragement. Sanji thought he may have even glimpsed a spot of pride in his friend’s hollow gaze.
He waited for the skeleton to finish his song.
“May I borrow your sword?” Sanji asked when Brook walked over afterward.
“Of course.” Brook handed over his cane, a mischievous lilt to his voice. “You made onigiri?”
“Yeah I did. Thanks.” Sanji said as he accepted the weapon, as disconcertingly light as ever.
“I hope you find the answer you’re looking for,” Brook said, inclining his head slightly as if to peer at Sanji more intently.
Sanji smiled at him and turned to face what he’d been delaying for far too long now.
He found Zoro on the back deck lifting his ridiculous weights. A sheen of sweat covered his exposed back, and his damp green hair was slicked back. He'd been at it for a while, it seemed. Kitetsu, Wado and Shusui lay on the ground nearby, silent and still.
“One day you're going to give yourself an aneurysm.”
Zoro didn't turn at Sanji’s voice, continuing his reps with resolve. The only sign he’d noticed, was the muttered, “What do you want, curly?”
Sanji paused, not sure how to proceed. He stood awkwardly on deck, plate of rice balls in one hand and a cane in the other, feeling oddly out of place.
Apparently his silence was unusual enough to break Zoro’s concentration and the man turned to look at him. The huge weight was lowered to the ground with a hefty thump.
“Cat got your tongue?”
Sanji saw the exact moment Zoro noticed what he was holding. First, his eye zoned in on the plate of food with interest, then to Brook’s cane with confusion. He rolled his shoulders and sauntered over, kimono hanging loosely at his hips, as was the norm whenever he trained.
“Why do you have Brook’s sword?”
Zoro swiped the plate from Sanji’s hand when he was close enough, an expression of pure curiosity on his face as he eyed the sword. Sanji pulled the cane close in response, suddenly self-conscious.
Zoro raised an eyebrow at this uncharacteristic hesitation. Somehow, even with his cheeks full of rice in a chipmunk-like manner, Zoro still managed to look decidedly unimpressed. Sanji wasn’t typically one to act so timid, after all.
“Well, I uh- I wanted to ask you something,” Sanji said, eyes darting to Zoro’s face and away again.
“Hoh? And is that why you’re bribing me?”
He licked stray rice grains from his hands, much to Sanji’s disgust.
“So? Get on with it.”
Sometimes, action trumped words. With a grunt, Sanji pulled Soul Solid from its sheath in one, smooth motion, surprising himself with his own fluidity.
Zoro didn't move as Sanji did this, even when Brook’s sword aligned with the side of his neck. But Sanji could see the swordsman’s eyes sharpen and feel his body tense in response. There was power coiled in this body, ready to strike out and harm anyone he deemed a threat. Although his swords were out of reach, Zoro was far from helpless.
“What are you doing?” Zoro asked, and Sanji recognised that his voice had gotten harder, terser.
“Let’s fight,” was Sanji’s reply.
Zoro’s eyes flickered from the sword to Sanji’s face, then back. He seemed strangely fixated on the blade.
“You want to fight me with a sword?” Zoro asked incredulously, “Have you lost your mind?”
“I know what I’m doing,” Sanji said.
Then, Zoro surprised him with his response.
“You don't fight with your hands.”
The words weren't malicious or accusatory, simply the statement of a fact. And in a way, Sanji was touched that Zoro cared enough to mention such a thing, whether it be out of concern or otherwise. However, Sanji needed this. He needed Zoro to challenge him seriously, and he knew the best way to get through to Zoro was to taunt him.
“Come on Marimo. Don’t tell me you’re scared?”
As expected, Zoro’s eyes snapped to Sanji’s face, expression darkening and mouth turning down into a scowl. Sometimes, it was too easy.
“Are you serious?” Zoro growled, voice surprisingly level.
Sanji hoped his eyes reflected how very serious he was and it seemed Zoro accepted this, because he stepped away. Putting the empty plate down, he motioned for Sanji to follow him. Zoro picked up his swords, attaching them to his hip as always. Then, he drew Shusui.
“Your stance is unstable,” Zoro said suddenly.
Surprised, Sanji found that he was right. He readjusted his grip on Soul Solid and strengthened his core in response. He slid into a more solid stance and Zoro nodded approvingly as he shifted into his own.
Zoro’s voice had taken on that gruffness he always possessed when fighting. A trill ran down Sanji’s neck because of it: anticipation, excitement, fear. And, as always when they sparred, Sanji’s blood hummed at the promise of battle. He almost forgot his own fear. Almost.
He could do this.
“Tch. Telling me what to do…” Sanji muttered under his breath.
Then, he focused, trying to remember what had been ingrained into his body as a child. He recalled the way his arms had moved, the rhythm with which his body followed. His footwork had been light, his wrists firm. It had been years, but he hadn't completely forgotten, it seemed.
Zoro’s eye narrowed as Sanji’s stance shifted. Then Sanji struck, hard and fast. Their swords clanged loudly as Zoro met him, echoing in the once silent air. There was no way the others hadn't heard it, and there was brief commotion from the front of the ship. He didn't have much time to dwell on it though.
Zoro freed himself with a powerful swipe of Shusui, which forced Sanji back a few steps in bewilderment. The man’s upper-body strength was monstrous.
Remembering to remain light on his feet, Sanji darted in again, at a slightly different angle this time. Zoro blocked him with an easy twist of his body, and as Sanji drew back this time, Shusui followed him. He barely managed to dodge, and Shusui sliced lethally through the air where his shoulder had just been.
Sanji noticed that Zoro’s expression had changed now. Whereas before there had been uncertainty and apprehension, there was now only a sharp hunger for battle. His mouth was upturned into a shark-like grin and Sanji recalled the countless times Zoro had worn the same expression against a strong enemy.
Zoro was excited.
“Ohohoho. This is unexpected.” Zoro’s eyes burned with an intense blood-lust. Sanji swallowed dryly, adrenaline surging through his veins. “But you're 100 years too early to be challenging me.”
Then, Zoro attacked and it was all Sanji could do to block the man’s barrage. Each strike was lightning-quick, yet incredibly heavy and Sanji panted hard as he attempted to keep up.
His spars with Zoro had never been easy and Zoro had never been one to pull his punches. Their battles were legendary for the amount of damage they caused. In fact, Franky had once banned them from sparring on the ship completely.
However, this felt different.
Never before had Sanji felt so utterly helpless in one of their fights. Zoro’s overwhelming power spoke of how well-practiced he was in comparison to Sanji and, with all of his efforts focused solely on defence, Sanji found himself completely unable to fight back. He didn't fail to notice either, that Zoro was only using one sword.
A wave of sickness pulsed through him as Zoro narrowly missed cutting his hands. Then, Sanji’s back hit something hard, and finally his arms gave way. Soul Solid flung from his hands to clatter helplessly against the deck. He'd been backed against the railing of the Sunny, Shusui at his neck in a show of complete victory. Zoro's face was inches away, his breathing laboured and his single eye bright. He stared at Sanji with an odd look on his face, unmasked by his usual gruff exterior. This look, along with the natural flush of exertion, made Sanji suddenly feel quite hot. He swallowed around the sword at his throat, its cool steel an insistent reminder of their difference in skill.
The wind picked up, tousling his hair. He panted hard as he stared into Zoro’s face, expecting to see disappointment there, frustration maybe, even mocking. But he saw none of that. Instead, what he saw was surprise, confusion and a spark of excitement.
Sanji’s blood thrummed.
Zoro blinked and stepped back, withdrawing Shusui as he did so. With this withdrawal, Sanji could breathe easy once more.
“You-” Zoro started.
Before he could finish though, an enthusiastic clapping sounded from somewhere above them. They turned to see Luffy lounging on the roof nearby, smile wide and feet dangling loosely from the edge. He was applauding them wildly. Had he been watching the whole time?
“Wow! Sanji, you can fight with swords too? You're so cool!” Luffy called, and Sanji flushed fully this time. Luffy had just seen him get his arse thoroughly handed to him.
Zoro huffed and sheathed Shusui.
“I beat him, you know,” he said petulantly and, if possible, Luffy’s grin widened.
“Yes, yes. You're cool too, Zoro.” Luffy talked as if he were placating a small child and Zoro visibly bristled.
“I’ll cut you!”
An arm blossomed suddenly on Luffy’s side, wrangling him squirming from the roof and out of sight. Sanji looked down to see Robin, Chopper and Brook peeking out from the side of the building, looking sheepish. He wished the ground would swallow him.
“Well now, this is certainly interesting.” Robin smiled knowingly while Chopper just blinked owlishly at her side.
“Sanji is using his hands?” the reindeer asked slowly.
“I apologise, Sanji-san. I tried to keep him away but he’s a stubborn one.” Brook looked entirely too apologetic for someone who'd helped Sanji so much in the past week. “Did he interrupt?”
Sanji glanced at Zoro, who was now fiddling restlessly with his swords, eyes averted.
“Don't worry about it, Brook. We were done.”
He walked over to Brook’s sword, plucked it up and sheathed it. When he went to return it, however, Zoro stopped him with a hand on his wrist.
“Actually Brook, is it alright if we keep Soul Solid for a little longer?” Zoro asked.
Sanji looked at him, surprised.
Brook tipped his hat graciously.
“I have no objections.”
He turned to Robin and Chopper.
“Well then, shall I play a song for you all?”
“That sounds lovely, Brook.” Robin replied, ushering a still shocked looking Chopper away.
They were left alone again.
Around them, seagulls cawed on the wind. Beneath Zoro’s touch, Sanji’s wrist tingled.
“You never mentioned you could handle a sword.” Zoro’s grip tightened ever so slightly, making Sanji wince. Guiltily, Zoro hastened to let go.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve touched one,” said Sanji in response, pulling his wrist back to rub it absently.
Zoro watched him.
“You've been trained, haven't you?” he said, eye darting to Soul Solid. “You’re rusty but those weren't the moves of an amateur.”
“We were trained to do a lot of things.” Sanji’s voice grew dark and Zoro frowned at the tone. He then put on a dry, posh voice. “Such is the way of the Vinsmoke family.”
The sun was beginning to set, casting dark shadows across Zoro’s face. The man was now looking at the wounds on his wrist, expression unreadable in the fading light.
“What were they going to do to your hands?” Zoro asked suddenly and Sanji almost laughed, though he was unsure why he felt the urge to.
“Blow them up.”
This time, Zoro looked visible shaken, his expression growing stormy.
And for what felt like the first time, well, ever, Sanji agreed completely.
He wasn't sure what Zoro was thinking until the swordsman drew Wado. It gleamed as it was released, blinking to life in the sunset light.
“You don't need to be afraid of using your hands.” Zoro said as he swung Wado in clean, circular motions. “Because a good sword will do its best to protect its master.”
Sanji watched on, unconvinced. Zoro had always been one for dramatics, after all.
“You're speaking as if a sword is a sentient being.” Sanji couldn't quite keep the doubt from his voice. “You're not going to tell me they talk next, are you?”
This gave Zoro pause, and he looked at Sanji blankly.
“Are you an idiot?” Zoro asked simply, to which Sanji swore he felt a vein pop somewhere.
“No, they don't talk,” Zoro said. He pointed Wado straight at Sanji’s chest. “But sometimes, it almost feels like they do.”
He swiped Wado swiftly down and Sanji felt a tingle run throughout his body.
“If you understand them, they become invaluable to you in battle.”
Sanji looked down to Soul Solid and contemplated Zoro’s words. His hands, though battered, gripped the sword firmly of their own accord. Was Zoro offering to teach him?
“Why are you giving me advice?” Sanji asked with faux humour. “What if I become the World’s Best Swordsman in your place?”
Zoro scoffed immediately. Apparently the thought alone was that ridiculous.
“Like that's going to happen.” Zoro shook his head. “It'd just be nice to have someone to spar with from time to time. Brook says I'm too forceful.”
Then he cleared his throat, scratching the back of his neck awkwardly. “Besides, you might even have potential…”
The last sentence was spoken so softly, Sanji almost didn't hear it. Almost.
“Wow moss-head, I didn’t know you thought so highly of me. I'm touched.”
Zoro growled, Wado twitching restlessly in his hand.
“Shut up and unsheathe your damn sword.” Zoro snapped. “Let's go again.”
Sanji chuckled to himself in delight before pulling Soul Solid free. It flashed at him brightly, almost happily. Sanji had very little doubt that deep down, Brook’s sword was as whimsical as its owner. He smiled as he took his stance.
He'd need to brew a nice, large pot of Earl Grey later.