Three days later, Sanji is following him, and there is nowhere for Zoro to go. The crow's nest, the engine room, Usopp's workshop, the dappled shade of the mikan grove, the darkest, quietest corners of the ship—Sanji will find him.
This continues for days, and when Zoro opens his eyes to see Sanji looming over him on Sunny's lawn, the sun eclipsed by Sanji's blond head, he finally snaps. "Why the hell are you here?" Zoro demands, because he is going crazy.
Sanji doesn't look at him, only rolls an unlit cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. "Don't be silly, Zoro," he says, voice as flat and calm as the waters of East Blue on a windless day. "Where else would I be?"
In the galley, Sanji keeps glancing over at him as he eats a messy sandwich with too much mustard and not a drop of table manners. Keeps looking away as if the sight makes him want to retch his guts out, which it probably does, and Zoro resolutely ignores him, is getting better at ignoring him, except it is never that easy.
"You are a barbarian," Sanji fires, pointblank.
"Shut up, cook."
Sanji grimaces as Zoro takes another unnecessarily big bite, and Zoro wipes his mouth on the tablecloth because he is feeling mean. Sanji hisses, "asshole, stop that."
And Zoro knows he shouldn't, but he challenges anyway, reflex and old habit and grasping at a slipping familiarity, "make me."
And this makes Sanji look away again, rolling the same cigarette between thumb and forefinger, but the air is suddenly suffocating as if Sanji had just smoked an entire pack straight in Zoro's face. And this whole play of events is wrong in a way that makes Zoro want to crawl out of his own skin, makes his throat tickle with an itch that is maddening. He looks down at his plate, feels his appetite abandon him and an irrational anger begin to smolder in the pit of his stomach.
He's about to start something, animosity being something they can always fall back on, their violence an ironic sort of damage control, but then Luffy bursts into the room, award-winning smile plastered onto his scarred young face, and Zoro can feel his entire being grind to a halt.
"Yo!" Luffy shouts in way of greeting, armored as he always is in optimism born of purpose. "What're you eating?"
Zoro feels tense, muscles bunched up and ready to let loose, and his fingers yearn for the hilts of his swords, or to flip over the table, destroy everything. "A sandwich," he growls, barely contained fury hot on the tip of his tongue. "What does it look like?"
"It looks good, is what it looks like," Luffy quips, undeterred. He tilts his head and regards Zoro with an intensity that is incongruous with his wide, wide smile, his cheerfulness clad in iron, impenetrable by necessity. "I'll let you have the rest of it, though," he says, just as Zoro is about to yell at him to knock it off. "You look like you're really enjoying it."
And Zoro can only stare in fuming disbelief as Luffy straightens his straw hat and walks out, casual. Before he closes the door behind him, Luffy throws over his shoulder, "remember to do the dishes, ok?"
"Yeah, fine," Zoro mutters darkly, feels like he was just punched in the gut. "Ok," he says, though Luffy can no longer hear him.
To his right, Sanji murmurs, "you better finish that," and Zoro cannot see his eyes, only the fall of blond hair, the line of his jaw clenched hard enough to break.
Zoro almost slams his fist down on the table, but he stops himself, tucks his elbow in close to his side, inhales deeply. "What do you want, cook?"
When Sanji doesn't answer, Zoro picks up the sandwich and takes another bite, the anger in his stomach now only cold ash.
And Zoro looks at Sanji, who does not look at him.
Zoro walks down the gangplank and Sanji matches him stride for stride, footsteps in sync. It's a small summer island this time, not much in way of markets or adventure. Quiet like Zoro's hometown, with houses built close enough for you to jump from roof to roof chasing stray cats or fly-away kites. Shade-giving trees and fields that light up with fireflies at night, alive with the orchestra of crickets and cicadas. It is a summer of Zoro's childhood captured and protracted to lulling eternity.
When they reach the edge of the docks, Sanji stops and shoves his hands into his pockets.
"What?" Zoro turns around, the abrupt absence of Sanji's presence jarring. "Not coming?"
Sanji shrugs, glances to the endless stretch of sea they've just left, to Sunny anchored just behind them. "Nah," he says. "Nami-san said only a couple hours, right? Not much of a point."
It's a lie. Zoro is still for a few moments more, doesn't argue and tries to convince himself that this is normal. When he sees Brook come down the gangplank after them, his gait an angular symphony, Zoro suddenly feels like bolting, but his feet are cemented to the ground where Sanji's eyes are fixed, soil and rock instead of wood.
Brook stops at the edge of the dock where Sanji is, stands next to him and in front of Zoro, and Zoro watches intently for the way their arms brush, the two of them so close—but they don't, and he waits.
"Gentlemen," says Brook, hat to his skeletal chest, and Zoro can't tell Brook's expression, but the smile on Sanji's face is soft.
"I'll see you later," Sanji hums, and he turns and strolls back to the ship; Zoro watches him go.
And Brook does not move until Zoro does, following him into town for their brief reprieve on dry land, solid ground that does not rock underfoot. They have the same sea-salt popsicles here that they have back home, and they melt just as fast in Zoro's hand, on Zoro's tongue. When Brook politely and unobtrusively offers to lead him back to the Sunny at the end of their allotted time, Zoro accepts without offense.
He gives his thanks, and Brook bows with a flourish. "Any time, my friend," Brook says to him, and to the warm air, Brook whistles a little tune, as if to mean, not to worry, my dear, my dear.
Sanji is already waiting for him when Zoro climbs into the crow's nest for night watch. Zoro remembers the bottle of good rum he has tucked into his haramaki, and almost feels guilty before he catches himself and shakes it off. "Go sleep," he grouses at the figure sitting cross-legged on his weight bench.
"Later," Sanji replies without missing a beat, and then Zoro does feel a little guilty. "Let's talk."
And this takes Zoro by surprise, though it really shouldn't, because Sanji's always pulling crazy, random shit like this. He does recognize, however, that this is somehow more important than it is weird, even if it is very weird. "What about?" he allows, already uncorking the rum bottle, readying his mental defenses.
It's dark, but Zoro is pretty sure Sanji is smiling and that has never been a good sign. "Tell me," Sanji says, "about her."
Ah, Zoro thinks. He takes a measured sip of rum, then chases it with a large swallow, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He can almost feel Sanji's disapproval from across the room, palpable disgust, but Sanji himself remains stubbornly silent.
Zoro knows, and has known. This unacknowledged struggle that they are both aware of. Zoro can see where this will almost definitely veer off, and Zoro is not a coward, but he's always had to be careful when it comes to Sanji, and they are trespassing on a territory that comes with dangers you cannot swing a sword at, things too fine and delicate for creatures as bloodthirsty and as voracious as they.
He says, "you will never mean what she means to me."
It comes easy because it is something he's often repeated to himself, a reassurance before he was even conscious of doubt. He means for his words to be a blow, a preemptive strike to cut the flow of conversation before they have to breach something that neither of them are, or ever will be, ready for. But Sanji does not cringe, only shrugs. "I know, idiot. That's fine."
Zoro has to think about this. Zoro has to consider how that is fine, why Sanji would say that, does Sanji mean it. Perhaps Zoro does not know, after all, and definitely Zoro does not understand.
And because Zoro is honest, and because he cannot help himself, and because he might not have realized before, he says, slowly, "you are something different."
"I am something different," Sanji confirms, smug as if he's been waiting for this answer all along. "Brand new."
And then Zoro realizes, oh.
No, Sanji will never mean what she meant, and that is because Sanji will never be her, but what is significant is that Sanji has never tried and has never wanted to. Zoro has always been wary, cautious, recognizes the violent intensity that is Sanji's existence and Zoro is afraid that he will obliterate her, overthrow her if he gets too close, and so he has fought and fought and fought, snarled insults and put up barriers for Sanji to batter himself against.
But what Zoro has never understood and what is just dawning on him now, is that Sanji has never once touched those barriers, has always drawn Zoro out from behind them whenever they've fought each other for blood. Sanji is not interested in what Zoro so doggedly guards, Sanji does not ask for a promise, does not want her place because Sanji could have his own.
Oh, Zoro realizes, all this time.
"I didn't know," he admits, and suddenly the sense of loss is creeping up on him, inevitable like the high tide. "You've only ever been something different."
"Isn't it obvious?" Sanji laughs, and his smile is brilliant even under the dark wash of regret, and Zoro finds himself staring. "So then tell me," Sanji says, slow drawl, "about me."
The rum is a burn in his throat, almost acidic in his empty stomach, as Zoro asks, "what do you want to know?"
Sanji exists within the context of blood and sea spray and smoke, elements that are completely foreign to her, and there is no possible overlap, he and she so distinctly polar, opposite ends of what might pass for emotion, and Zoro knows this, of course, this basic truth, so why was there ever the threat, why was he—why is he—
Naptime, but instead Zoro is watching Sanji twirl the cigarette between his fingers as he sits on the railing in the resplendent afternoon sun.
"Will you quit playing around with it and just smoke it already?"
Sanji shakes his head. "Last one," he says. "Got to make it count. It's poetic that way, you know?"
When Zoro offers, "I'll buy you another goddamn pack," Sanji only laughs and says, "you're a dumbass." Zoro clicks his tongue in annoyance, rolls his eyes.
"Oh." Sanji snaps his fingers, sits up a little straighter. "Before I forget."
He opens his mouth and Zoro can see a single gold coin under his tongue. He takes it out, holds it up between them, where it glints. "Thanks for this," he says, and smiles.
Zoro casts about for something to say. "It was from Nami," he mumbles at last. "I didn't have any at the time."
Sanji flips the coin in the air, catches it and slips it into his breast pocket. He is still smiling, and Zoro cannot understand why. "Thanks," Sanji says again, "for remembering," and Zoro nods.
"Is it enough?"
"It is enough."
The galley late at night is silent as a graveyard, and as dark. Zoro sits on one side of the dining table and Sanji sits on the other, across from him. Outside, there is the creak of the ship, the sway of the sea, moonlight and stars and snow, but between them, in here, there is nothing but the exhalation of Zoro's breath.
Zoro does not remember how many days have passed. Sanji is looking somewhere in the distance, absently tapping his bottom lip with his fingers, and Zoro is watching him, always watching now, but it is dark, and the moonlight does not fall in a way that illuminates anything.
Sanji tosses into the silence: "I can't keep up."
Zoro crosses his arms; the sheaths of his swords tap softly against the chair leg. He means it when he says, "I can carry you too." Of this, he is confident. Dreams, after all, are never a burden; nakama, after all, are always held close, and Sanji is nakama, in the end.
Sanji is pale, statuesque. "I don't have a white katana to give you. I don't have anything to give you."
There is a quiet resignation in Sanji's voice that Zoro does not expect, and it inexplicably makes him want to punch the wall and rage until the ship is in shambles, Sanji at the epicenter. But Zoro only grits his teeth and waits, and when Sanji turns to look at him, the whites of his eyes are startling in the shadows, and Zoro feels a painful tightening in his chest, at the very core of this madness.
"I don't need anything from you," Zoro grounds out, in vain, and he cannot believe that he is losing again, again.
Sanji makes a humming sound, then says, "I need to go," but he is trying to say something else. The cigarette between his fingers is still unlit. "Zoro," he starts, but the words he means to say are stillborn. He bows his head, suddenly, like a child, and when he whispers with an honesty that is both fierce and broken, "I don't want to leave," Zoro is traitorously relieved that he cannot see his face because Zoro knows it will haunt him.
And Zoro wants to say, "so don't, so stay," and Zoro wants to get up and scream at him, but he bites his tongue and doesn't move, knows better, but still, every instinct in his body is roaring at him to take Sanji and slam him to the floor, press him down and hold. He wants to run him through with Wadou, pin him to the wood of the ship they had shared, don't you dare go anywhere, bastard, I got you, stay, stay, stay.
He doesn't, and Sanji won't, and he struggles to come to terms with what that will mean. The impossibly wide, heart-stopping chasm just over the precipice of a goodbye.
"You'll find All Blue, won't you?"
"What do you think," Zoro scoffs. "As if anyone else could, but us."
"Yeah. Thanks." Sanji pauses, wry smile. "Zoro," Sanji says again, his own familiar name dropped like a pebble into a still pond, and Zoro's fists clench tight. "Zoro, listen."
"No," Zoro growls. Sanji's head is still bowed, and Sanji's shoulders are so narrow, like hers were, and Zoro wants to lunge across the table and keep him with sheer force and will.
He is going mad, but he knows this is a conversation that was never meant for them, nor necessary. The words they reserve for each other have always been few, bare bones to be fleshed out by the simple of act of existence, breaths released in ragged unison.
Zoro knows, he has never been so obsessed with someone in his life, never been so pissed off, angry, unnerved. Zoro knows, Sanji feels the same.
And it's unhealthy, it's insane, nothing short of cosmic collision, dangerous magnetism, gravitation without explanation. Electricity and motion and reflex, instinct that is animal. Bared teeth, and hatred so deep it must be something else. It must be something else.
So Zoro sighs, "I'll never get it." Weird, huh? What could it be, he wonders. No, what does it matter other than they feel, and have fought and clawed and soldiered their way to grudging, exhausted acceptance, have won the right to be static sometimes, to not try to tear each other apart every moment. Who cares what it means, just that it simply is.
Sanji looks up. His smile is something that Zoro needs to memorize, sear into his brain and heart and soul. Sanji grins at him, earnest. "Me neither," he says. "What the fuck, right?" and then he laughs, he laughs.
"Why are you here, cook?"
Sanji beams at him. "You poured some rum for me, didn't you?" and Zoro has to admit with a blush, yes, he did, that night, right onto the wood of Sunny's still blood-dark deck. It seemed only proper, fitting, old rites.
"You know, it's like the scattering of graveyard dirt," Sanji says, "so that I can walk here, where you walk. At sea, you make do. It all means the same."
When Zoro only stares, Sanji laughs again, waves his hand in dismissal. "It's the Grand Line, marimo. It's the sea. Shit happens."
With that, he places the cigarette between his lips, takes his lighter from his pocket and sparks it to life, a lightning-quick flare that momentarily chases the shadows from his face and leaves spots in Zoro's vision. Sanji breathes in, the end of the cigarette glowing a crumbling ash-red as he fills his lungs with—what was it, yes, poetry.
He sits back, and he finally looks right, image flawless and complete—content, even, and Zoro supposes, that's all right then. "Well, good luck, shithead," Sanji says and he smiles again for an instant that lasts as long as a heartbeat.
And then Sanji is not there and Sanji is not anywhere anymore, except rotting on the ocean floor and they will never be able to find him again. Zoro blinks at nothing, tries to swallow the sudden lump in his throat and fails. He feels like he needs to say something to the empty air, to the presence and smoke that are fast becoming only a memory and imagination.
He can think of nothing.
He forces himself to his feet, walks over to the seat where Sanji had not-been. He puts a hand on the back, lets it stay there for a second, two, three. "Rest," he says, and that is enough, needs to be. The slow beating of his heart is a long and aching mockery.
But Sanji will not resent him for that, will instead be glad for it, the persistent pulse-beat of life and dreams, and they will find All Blue, eventually and surely, surely, and there, Zoro will pour out another libation, straight into its mythic waters.
Until then, until then, rest.