No one remembers now but those two, and you know how they are. So I will tell you instead. This is how it went:
At the edge of the Florian Triangle—they assumed it was the edge, assumed that the Triangle had real parameters, that it obeyed at least some rules of nature and logic despite this being the Grand Line—there was an old man in a little boat.
Zoro hears the ocean obliterate the soft hush of the dojo, crash through the clicking lullaby of cicadas, and he thinks it's over. The Sunny must have come to take them home, the crew waving and calling from her decks, smiling. Chopper will be crying, maybe; Usopp will be pretending he isn't. Luffy will want to hear all about everything, will pull and shove and whine at him until captain gets his way, but Zoro really just wants to take a long, well-deserved nap. A man is allowed that much luxury, isn't he?
But he sees the cook sprawled in the hallway, a heap of black-clad limbs and awkward angles. Sees the cook's head whip to the side suddenly, his eyes going wide, white. Zoro frowns. The cook's hand braced against the wall, the topography of his bones straining beneath his skin—no, that's not relief.
Then comes an ominous creaking Zoro can feel deep in his gut, and he looks down to see the wooden floors of the dojo splintering, the planks surging upwards to offer their fingers of jagged wood.
The dojo walls are dissolving in bursts of sea spray. He whirls around, salt thick on his tongue, just in time to see Koshiro and his younger self flicker out of existence. And then he's falling backwards, the floor suddenly rain-slick beneath his feet—there's the flapping of canvas sails in the wind, frantic voices somewhere beyond the curtain of rain.
He falls for much longer than is comprehensible, whirling about until he can no longer tell up from down. When his back finally collides with something solid, it all goes—
Sanji remembers this scene. He can almost taste the old leather of Zeff's boot in his mouth, between his teeth. Sea salt too, from the waves sweeping the deck. The rain had tasted mild despite its driven frenzy. He remembers. It was almost sweet.
There's a moment of hard sunshine and a light sea breeze, familiar and inviting, before the world stutters and twists, inverts itself in a sickening lurch.
Then Zoro sputters. Or he feels like he should.
Rain is coming down in relentless sheets again, falling from a sky angry and black, but the drops are not pelting him as they should; instead, he feels nothing, no cold, no wetness on his skin, and it's such a disconnect that it takes him a moment to place himself again. A jagged strike of lightning suddenly floods his vision with white, and for one brief second he can see the violent, churning sea on all sides, the crash of waves and thunder loud enough to make him flinch.
He can just make out the cook standing with his back to him, suit still perfectly dry and pressed despite the winds and rain whipping about. Then the cook moves, bolting forward into the dark, and Zoro doesn't think, only follows instinctively.
"Oi!" Zoro shouts after him, but it's no use; he can barely hear himself over the storm. He follows the cook to the very edge of the island, where it's a sheer drop down to the water. He looks around him again when the next bolt of lightning strikes and he sees the island is hardly bigger the Thousand Sunny. Nothing but desolate land and rocks. No sign of life but the two of them, and they hardly count. The thunder is a rattle in his throat, makes his hands go numb.
Then he sees it, a gigantic, white-tipped wave on the horizon coming towards them fast, growing big enough to dwarf the island completely. The cook sees it too, is watching it approach, his posture tight with anticipation, or maybe dread. Zoro stands next to him, because might as well meet this madness head on, carelessly confident that the two of them together could take on the sea.
The moment of impact comes and passes and he doesn't feel it. The wave is still surging over them, and though it looks like he's submerged, he feels currents of air instead of ocean—surprisingly gentle despite the roaring in his ears, detached, like an afterthought against his skin, through his hair. Gigantic pieces of wreckage are swirling past at enormous speeds; he doesn't even have time to recoil when the remains of what used to be a foremast go right through his head.
Then the water is receding as rapidly as it came, as if someone on the horizon were drinking it all in one huge swallow, like it were rum instead of brine. The heavy, lightning-charged clouds furling away like sails, the sun wheeling across the sky in fast-forward. When Zoro looks down again, he sees that the ground is already dry and cracked and the sea is a vast, blue sheen. It's like a different world entirely, though he feels the same—out of place. How long had he been standing there gaping at the sky?
He realizes the cook is not next to him anymore.
There. He turns to find the cook propped up against a large boulder. Except—no, that can't be the cook, because this is a small child, wearing white not black, with hair the same blond though it's matted and tangled in a way the cook would never allow. Sitting next to him is a man, but that's not the cook either. This man has a different build, is broader in the shoulders, wider in the jaw, and taller, older. It takes Zoro a moment to recognize him as the one who had kicked the cook through their table at the Baratie the first time they met. Except this man doesn't have a wooden leg; this man is whole, albeit haggard and worn.
So this is how it's going to be.
"Yo," Zoro calls, one hand raised in greeting.
No response, but then again he wasn't expecting one. He sweeps his gaze around the island—the rock, really—once more but the cook is nowhere to be found. He tells himself not to be scared, and it's easy because he's never scared. Tells himself not to worry, and that's easy too, because the cook's proven he can take care of himself, that he knows how to handle things.
"Guess I'm stuck with you guys for now," he says, trying for nonchalance.
He thinks he hears a seagull, but it's just his imagination. Everything is quiet now, dead-still.
There was an old man in a little boat, and as far as men and boats went, the two were unremarkable.
Luffy entertained for a while the possibility of the old man being a sea monkey in disguise, because that would be interesting and exciting. He always thought sea monkeys would make good pets, despite their tsunami-inducing tendencies, and this one came with its own boat. He was sure even Nami would agree it was a good bargain.
But this man wasn't a sea monkey, which Chopper, or anyone else on the crew who was not Luffy, could have told you.
What they probably couldn't have told you though, except perhaps for Robin if she was looking close enough, was that this man was a god.
God did exist. Gods. Many of them, in fact, even if Zoro didn't believe in them or need them. Not all of them were from outer space, like the one you've encountered, and not all of them live in the sky above the clouds. Some of them answered prayers, but most didn't bother. They were not so fascinating, truthfully, when compared to the other marvels one might find in the Grand Line. But they did exist, here and there, in the nooks and crannies of the world, and in all kinds of forms.
So, yes. This man was a god. Don't be so surprised.
The cook is nowhere to be found, so instead Zoro watches Sanji (because the kid is Sanji, has not yet grown up to be the insufferable bastard he calls "idiot" and "asshole" and "cook"). Sanji takes his rations and sits facing west, where the setting sun is a deep orange disc sinking into the horizon. The connection is not lost on Zoro; it's the same scene, even with an expanse of ocean between here and Shimotsuki. Maybe this is how all tragedies start. If he concentrates, he can conjure up a strain of distant cicada song. Music for waiting.
He doesn't have to wait long, because suddenly Sanji is sobbing, and he sounds so young and vulnerable that Zoro feels like he's trespassing on something secret. The cook has never, ever sounded like that, in all the time that Zoro's known him, but this Sanji is a child, and that's what children do—they cry. In times such as this, they cry for what they know, for what's familiar and comforting yet far away.
He wonders if it says something about them, that while other children cry for their mothers, the two of them cry for things that can easily crush them—for a rival, for the sea.
He senses a flare of something dark and dangerous from the other side of the island. Feels like despair. He wills himself there in an instant and he sees the cook standing behind Zeff, fists clenched at his sides—a worrying sign if ever there were one. Zeff is holding a large, jagged rock above his head, and at first glance Zoro thinks he's frozen in time, but then he sees the almost imperceptible movements, like Zeff is a picture that won't stop flickering. Zoro looks out to the ocean and notices that the waves are the same way, flickering like a shaky image, imperfectly still.
"Cook," Zoro says quietly, drawing close.
No answer. The cook is too focused on rewinding this half-second over and over, trying to keep the inevitable at bay. Zoro sets his jaw, grabs the cook by his collar and jerks him away from Zeff. The cook's feet make no sound dragging across the barren ground.
And even as Zoro shakes him, the cook says nothing, and Zoro realizes that he is holding his breath, lips sealed shut, chest rigid like a wall, ribs locked.
"You know we're not going to get anywhere like this." Zoro tries to keep his voice calm and even. Tries not to shout; it would be too jarring in this stuttering hush.
The cook shakes his head, doesn't look at Zoro, doesn't breathe. Head bowed, fists pressed against Zoro's shoulders, half to push him away, half to steady himself.
"Cook," Zoro says. "We don't have all day."
"There's no—" And the cook's voice cracks, like a fissure opening up in the earth, like the Red Line splitting in two. "There's no food in his bag. He gave all of it to me."
There's a brief rushing sound as one second, two, slip by. The cook inhales sharply, horrified, and immediately clamps his mouth shut again, hunches his shoulders. Zoro glances behind them and sees that the rock in Zeff's hands is now hovering just inches above his leg.
And suddenly Zoro realizes what Zeff is going to do, how both he and Sanji survived their time on the rock. There's a brief jolt of shock, but that's immediately smoothed over by a solemn, bitter acceptance because Zoro understands. The cook must understand, too.
Because Zoro knows neither of them would hesitate to destroy themselves, rip their own bodies apart piece by piece if it meant life for another, or for a dream. No one would be able to stop them, even if anyone dared. So he knows they can't stop Zeff, and he knows he would do the same in Zeff's place. He knows the cook would do the same. It isn't a boast, it's just simple fact, like the history that Robin deciphers and the storms that Nami predicts. Like Luffy becoming the Pirate King, like Usopp being brave, like Chopper and Franky being as human as any of them.
But when it's someone else's sacrifice for their sake, then that's something like blasphemy, the antithesis of everything they strive for (reminds them invincibility is tenuous like a ship in the Calm Belt), impossible to swallow because it's like acid burning down your throat.
That's why they don't get along, the cook and Zeff, the cook and himself, because they occupy the same small places meant only for one. They are too similar, love too much in the same way—aggressively, clumsily, like a challenge, chin raised in defiance, I dare you to push me away, I dare you to doubt me. They're too close, breathing the same thin air. They have too much to give, and give, and give, but no need of any of it from each other. Besides, you don't cut yourself open for monsters; you fight them, even the ones you call nakama. You fight and you stay close. You don't get along.
But on the other side of the island, there is only a boy, not a monster, not yet, and Zeff's sacrifice is for him. You cut yourself open for the innocent.
"Don't watch, then." Zoro puts himself squarely between the cook and Zeff. He reaches up, turns the cook's face up to him, palm over the erratic pulse in the cook's neck, thumbs pressing hard into the cook's cheekbones. "But he's going to do it."
"He has a dream. Same as mine. He deserves—he deserved—"
"So do you."
Here, now, the cook is Sanji again, looking young and miserable, but he's vicious too, and yes, monstrous, thirsting for his own blood if it means he will succeed in this. Sanji glares at him as he tries to staunch the flow of time like blood from a wound, and Zoro thinks Sanji might shake himself all to pieces with how hard he's trembling.
"Don't," Sanji grounds out between his teeth, and his voice sounds thin and strained and fierce. "Leave me alone."
"No," Zoro says. Doesn't mention how Sanji's nails are digging into his arms, drawing first blood. "I can stand here forever if I need to."
He thinks Sanji's taken him up on the challenge, because Sanji would, the stupid bastard, and they do stand there for a long, long time, Sanji snarling at him, face flushed red from the exertion of holding the world still. Stubborn.
But Zoro is expecting that. Zoro knows he couldn't ask someone as neurotically and infuriatingly selfless as Sanji to choose himself over another, even if "himself" is a small, terrified child alone and hungry. Sanji has no taste for mercy or compassion when it's turned inward, picky in a way he never is with food. Zoro knows. So Zoro is prepared to choose for him.
And it's easy, to choose Sanji.
"I'm just returning the favor, you know," Zoro says, and Sanji narrows his eyes at him, irises sharp and blue and hard, lips a thin, uncompromising line. Zoro just shrugs, fingers still splayed over the nape of Sanji's neck, Sanji's pulse pounding like war drums under his palm.
Sanji opens his mouth, probably to growl an insult or maybe an eloquent fuck off, but Zoro interrupts him by knocking their heads together, hard enough to rattle his brain in his skull. Sanji's eyes go all blurry and unfocused, his jaw going slack, and he sways just a bit on his feet. Zoro almost feels smug as Sanji inhales reflexively, short and faltering—but then from behind Zoro, there is a wet thud, dull crunch. A low, strangled cry, almost a whine, but Zeff wouldn't allow himself such an indulgence.
Zoro swallows with difficultly, letting the sound of the waves rush back in to fill the pockets of dead space, moving to make sure Sanji can't see Zeff behind him. Returning the favor, he wills Sanji to understand. Sanji is staring at him now, expression caught between horror and disbelief, colored with betrayal. His hands slowly relax so that they are no longer fists, and that's warning enough. Zoro waits grimly for the fallout.
It comes in the form of a single kick to his solar plexus, pinpoint accurate, and Zoro can actually feel it messing him up inside, which means Sanji has rocketed straight to homicidal rage. And suddenly Zoro is furious, even as he fights the urge to wheeze like an old man. How dare the cook be angry with him? How could anyone have the audacity to be so fucking stupid? You think I'd stand by and let you torture yourself over this? I'll put you out of your fucking misery myself.
Sanji—no, the cook—spits out the blood that's welled up in his mouth from where he had bit down on his tongue. He starts to say something, mouth a bright, explicit red, but Zoro cuts him off.
"No, you listen to me, you ungrateful son of a—"
He's ready to snap the cook in two with his bare hands, knows the cook is ready to do the same, but the next hit never comes. Instead, the cook doubles over and retches, painful, choking heaves. Blood spots the ground, dark. The cook clutches at his chest. Acid burning.
The anger leaves him in a cold rush and Zoro lowers his arms, has to turn his head away to the dimming horizon.
"I just wanted to—"
"Couldn't watch him do it. I know he does, but it's different, when you're faced with it. When you know it's happening as it happens, and you're right there, and you can't—"
"I get it. Remember?"
"It's over now. Leave it."
But it doesn't get easier after that.
He discovers he can't bend time to his will anymore, can't cycle through the days and nights like he expected, hoped. But surely the test was to allow Zeff's sacrifice, to accept it, understand all that it meant, be thankful for it, give himself up to the gratitude, let it blister his soul, and then, finally, forgive himself. It took him ten years to do it last time, but he could do it again. Without Zoro head-butting him, thank you very much.
Surely they could fast-forward to the end now. The healing comes afterwards; there's nothing else to see here on this fucking rock. It's not a rare or remarkable thing, after all, for a boy to starve.
He closes his eyes and takes a deep drag on his cigarette. Imagines time as a heavy rope, frayed and salt-crusted, attached to an achieved future-past he's already lived and is trying again to reach. Imagines himself pulling, feet firmly planted, weight thrown back, but the rope doesn't budge no matter how much he strains, the days and months heavy and coarse in his hands. He hefts the rope, considers its mass—that's eighty-five days right there, all twisted together, and it feels impossibly long, enough to wrap the circumference of the world. That's more than two thousand hours, more than a hundred thousand minutes, more than—
He hears Zoro call for him, and he opens his eyes to see Zoro pointing at his feet. He looks down and almost falls over himself in his panic.
His feet have sunk into the ground without him noticing, concentrated as he was on trying to pull time forward. When he tries to move, he only sinks deeper. Like quicksand, he thinks and then terror seizes him and wipes his mind of everything but old nightmares of being trapped inside earth forever and no, no, he would kill himself first, he would—
"Stop it," Zoro grumbles, grabs him and hauls him up and out effortlessly. Sets him on his feet again, above ground. "Stop flailing, you idiot. You're fine."
He's not fine. He's not. He is. He breathes. Fine. Fine.
"Can't do it," he croaks. "We're stuck." Bad choice of words. He pushes down the panic threatening to rise again. "I mean, we're here. Going to be here for a while."
Zoro gives him a look that implies he is probably not understanding the gravity of the situation. Or maybe Zoro does, but he knows they're going to be ok anyway. And they will be, but. It's a long time to wait.
"Sorry," Sanji offers. "Sorry." And then he goes away.
Zoro stays on the island, even if the cook won't and can't bring himself to. Zoro sees him out there sometimes, walking on the water, his cigarette smoke an off-white smudge against the sky. The cook doesn't come back until after the sun has set, and he stays only to spend the night with Zeff, to keep him company in the darkest hours. Then he's gone again, come dawn.
"What's out there?" Zoro had asked him after his third return.
It's a different kind of test, this one. It's endurance, and already Zoro is exhausted.
He's exhausted and he's not even doing anything, can't do anything. But fatigue begins to creep up on him anyway as he watches nine-year-old Sanji day after excruciating day. His head and arms and legs feel like they're made of rusted metal. Still, it's better than waving his hands futilely through the world like he's so much nothing. That hurts, in a twisting kind of way, so he tries to just keep still, sit on his hands, wait it out.
He's not very good at doing nothing. Sometimes, he can't help himself.
Like on the third day, when Sanji spent the better half of the afternoon and more strength than he should have dragging over a splintered crow's nest, propping it up to serve as a makeshift shelter against the unforgiving sun and oncoming rain. Zoro had tried to lift the damned thing himself, take it off Sanji's bony, narrow shoulders, growling with frustration and trepidation, but he might as well have been dust for all the good he did.
He lasted longer on the fifth day, though it was harder. He watched, tight-lipped, as a ship passed by in another storm. Watched Sanji yell until his throat was raw and the sodden woodpile refuse to catch fire. He watched Sanji collapse in the rain, slamming his fists into the hard, wet earth. That's what finally did it, the sight of Sanji battering his hands so thoughtlessly. He rose and hunted after the ship, tried to pull it back by its anchor line. He went on board and cursed the sailors over the rumble-crash of thunder. Tried to possess the captain but that failed too, and in a snap he was back on the island with Sanji, whose small form had fallen alarmingly still.
On the twenty-fifth day, when Sanji stared down at his last piece of bread, something dangerously close to pity knotted in Zoro's chest. The bread was moldy all over, disgusting and hardly edible. He wanted to slap it out of Sanji's hands, couldn't bear to see Sanji regard that pathetic morsel like it was precious treasure—like it was a piece of All Blue within his trembling grasp. But when Sanji did drop it, right into the ocean, the sound of utter despair he made stabbed and twisted into Zoro like guilt and then Zoro hated himself.
That day, Sanji stayed perilously close to the edge for a long time, staring into the sunlit water, and Zoro stood by, terrified, waiting to fail to stop him.
("Where'd you go when that wave hit?" he had asked the cook some days—weeks?—earlier. "The first day we were here."
"I jumped in. Couldn't stay. Not here."
Zoro had almost punched him then.)
After the twenty-fifth day, Zoro was ready to rip the sky down. He didn't want there to be any more days after that one.
But there were. There are. There are so many more. And he is watching Sanji starve, fingers pressed to his thin wrist to count the beats of his pulse, waiting.
Zoro needs to keep sane, somehow. He can't meditate because he has to bear witness, has to pay attention and acknowledge what's happening here, especially when the rest of the world isn't. So he takes to talking to Sanji, telling him all the ways he'll become the biggest pain in the ass that Zoro's ever met, trying to fill Sanji's days with something other than emptiness and his own lonely heartbeat. But since Zoro is honest, he will admit that his words only reassure himself because Sanji can't hear them. Sanji can't know what Zoro knows, that he'll get off this godforsaken rock and run full-tilt into Luffy one day and set off to sail the Grand Line in search of All Blue. That he'll grow up to save lives and kingdoms and dreams.
"Something like a hero, I guess," Zoro says grudgingly. "With a hilarious wanted poster. Wait 'til you see it."
And most importantly, that Sanji can be happy again, that this nightmare will end, as all nightmares must.
"You believe me, right?" he asks Sanji, who gives no sign of having heard him, who was already small and is getting smaller, feeding on nothing but hope that crumbles like sand in his mouth.
Even now, Zeff sits straight-backed and formidable, though his leg is a ruined mess and the shadows on his face, before the sun rises, are deep and stark. The pieces of his once-proud ship still rise and fall with the waves below, but there are fewer of them now, and Zeff has gotten better at ignoring them. Only a few times does Sanji see Zeff bring a hand to his stomach, and when he does, Sanji does the same, presses down on his own belly experimentally, tenderly, as if he can't believe his own flesh is still there.
He's not hungry, he tells himself. He's not hungry and he doesn't need to eat. He doesn't feel his stomach devouring itself, the dizziness or the sluggishness or the slow burn in his gut. He should, but he doesn't. And it doesn't hurt to move. When he looks in the water, his eyes are not sunken and his cheeks are not hollow. He still looks like himself. He is not cold.
But the same desperation is there, and it gnaws at him like hunger, makes him anxious and restless. He paces over the water, nine strides and back, nine strides and back. How many days has it been? Has he been keeping count correctly? Maybe it's actually the fiftieth instead of fortieth. Maybe this will be over quicker than he thought. Maybe—oh god, has it really been so long since he's eaten? His body must be lying to him, his reflection must be lying to him. He must be hallucinating. He needs to eat, he has to be starving, there is no way he's not and—
Oh god, Zoro.
Zoro turns around and the cook is there, looking wild-eyed and hunted. He gets to his feet, warily, and waits for the cook to make a move.
The past few days have not been good. The young Sanji spent most of his waking hours muttering to hallucinations under the slanting rays of the sun, eyes glassy and lips chapped. Sometimes Zoro thinks Sanji is talking to him, only to realize that Sanji is staring straight through him at another phantom, one even less real. Sometimes Sanji smiles, mind half-gone, and that's the worst of it all.
"Zoro," the cook says, taking a step forward.
"What? What's wrong with you?"
"I—" The cook pauses and looks confused for a second before purposefully closing the distance. He asks, "Are you hungry?"
It's a question the cook's asked him countless times before, usually in a bored drawl, sometimes screamed irritably at the tail-end of a fight as they are both stalking away from each other, and once in a while called up to him in the crow's nest during night watch. It's not a question that should take Zoro by surprise, but this time it does because the cook's never asked it in this tone before, nervous, voice slightly higher than normal.
"No, I'm not," he says carefully.
The cook stares at him. "You're not?"
"No." He shrugs, gauging the cook's reaction. "Didn't think to be hungry."
And that's true. The only real memory of starvation he has is of the time he was captured by Morgan, awaiting the return of his swords and yes, his next meal. When he counted the days, he was counting down towards (what he perceived to be) a certainty, that he would be freed and would eat again after a month, as promised. So no, he hadn't thought to be hungry, only anticipatory, especially here and now, where he doesn't actually need to eat at all.
"Stop being stupid," says the cook, whose own memory, Zoro realizes now, is of uncertainty and of very real, debilitating hunger, of having to count up instead of down, tallying the days since his rations ran out, with no way of knowing when he'll eat again and if he could wait that long. Each passing day a guarded triumph and a crushing disappointment.
"You should eat when you can. Sorry. Sorry. Hold on, I'll make something."
And the cook turns, as if he actually intends to walk into his kitchen and fire up the stove, start pulling things from a fully-stocked fridge. He gets as far as two steps before he stops, shoulders tensing.
Zoro doesn't know how to defuse the situation, so he tries again, very quietly, "Cook."
"You're hungry." The cook doesn't turn around, his voice tight. "I just—sorry—let me—we should have—"
Zoro steps around him so that they are facing each other again. "I'm not hungry," he repeats. "I don't need to eat now. You don't either."
"Of course you need to eat, Zoro." The cook does not look at him, eyes fixed instead on some spot in the distance. "Just give me a second to think, I'm sure—"
"When we get back, you can make something and we'll eat. With the rest of the crew. But for now, we're fine."
"We're not fine. It's been weeks. Hasn't it? Maybe there's some—"
"No." He puts a hand out to stop the cook from moving away. "There isn't anything. You know that."
At this, the cook's expression hardens and his eyes focus on Zoro. He looks almost pained, but Zoro doesn't care. For days he's had to watch Sanji desperately turn over rocks and dig in the ground until his nails cracked and his hands bled, always coming up empty handed, too exhausted afterwards to even cry. He doesn't want to watch the cook do it now after his younger self.
"Sorry," the cook says, low and hoarse. "Sorry."
"Shut up," Zoro snaps. "We're fine. Trust me, all right?" he insists.
"You're not hungry." Slowly, almost disbelievingly.
"You're not just saying that, Zoro."
"I'm not hungry. Are you?"
The cook doesn't answer right away, looking confused again, holding a hand briefly to his stomach. "No," he says finally.
Zoro nods. "What'd I tell you? We're fine. You should listen to me more. Have another cigarette. Hell, give me one too."
The cook blinks and then gives him a wry, tired smile. Better. A good sign.
Zoro wonders how much longer they have to go.
On the seventieth day, Sanji goes to Zeff with a knife.
Zoro dogs after him and finds the cook already there, watching his younger self stumble close, his eyes critical and merciless. The cook does not look away.
Now, the thump of Zeff's back hitting the ground is almost no sound at all. Zoro watches as realization after horrifying realization washes over Sanji until he is struggling to keep his head above everything—and he is so very small.
Zeff's voice and Sanji's voice, light and soft like sea foam caught in the wind. Insubstantial. Sanji is still a child, not a monster, not yet, but he'll grow. He has to. He's promising, right now, listen. They keep their promises. Zoro finds comfort in that.
"Almost over," the cook says to him over the huddled forms of his past. This time Zoro follows him when he leaves.
You've heard the stories, about the disappearances. Ships have gone missing in the Florian Triangle for centuries: pirate ships and Marine ships and huge bulk carriers gone astray from Water 7 (less of those now, with the Sea Train in service). Hundreds of them over the years, never to be seen or heard from again. It's been happening long before that joker Gekko Moria and his shadow-stealing gang—but I'm getting ahead of myself. You don't know who that is yet, do you?
But you know now who the old man is, though his true form is something infinitely larger, darker, with eyes that glint red through the white mists of his home. The best guess that the Strawhats had, however, was "sea monkey in disguise, definitely." Or maybe just an old man. There were ordinary things on the Grand Line too, though not many of them, admittedly.
But you've heard the stories. You should remember, for your own sake, that all stories are true. (Even—or especially—the ones told by long-nosed sharpshooters. They all come true in time.)
It takes him a while to find the cook, because the cook is lying below the surface of the water. Just lying there, serene, like some creepy specimen in a giant blue-green glass case. Zoro stands over him, arms crossed.
"What are you doing?"
The cook opens his eyes to look at him. "Oh, marimo," he says, as if he were lying in his bunk on the Sunny instead of in the ocean. Which would actually be just as weird, because the cook doesn't have much downtime on the Sunny, and certainly not enough for an afternoon nap like this.
The currents carry away the cook's cigarette smoke before it can break the surface—the smoke swims along like a misshapen ghost fish. The cook shifts with the waves.
"Am not," the cook dismisses. He reaches a hand up, through the surface of the water, and Zoro grabs it and pulls him up. "It's nice under there."
"Yeah?" Zoro unsheathes his katana.
"Stops me from wanting to tear my hair out."
Zoro nods, once. He understands, he supposes. He knows that neither of them has slept for the entire time they've been here. This limbo is enough to drive anyone a little insane. He sighs, puts Wadou between his teeth and beckons.
The cook grins at him. "Unfinished business, eh?"
He grew up on old mariners' songs, sailors' legends, tales of sunken treasures and shipwrecks and mermaids, myths of shimmering, all-encompassing blue—but you can't survive on stories alone.
For all his years at sea, he knows he's still got the devil's luck in his blood, devil's fire in his bones. That's something not even salt can cleanse him of, something not even seawater can douse. It's how he's still alive against such staggering odds. It's how Luffy found him, floating around East Blue. And it's why he'll definitely, definitely find All Blue.
No, it's why All Blue exists at all, that mythical impossible ocean, because it exists for him, because it's possible for him. Him, with his devil's luck and devil's fire, and no less a child of the sea for all that. If for no other reason, All Blue exists for him. That's not presumptuous to say, is it?
During the course of their fight, Sanji's pretty sure the sun's set and risen a few times. He hasn't really been paying attention, caught up instead in the natural rhythm of their violence, unleashed again after being pent up for so long. So maybe they have been fighting for days. He wouldn't be surprised.
Zoro's hair is singed on the left side of his head, and Sanji is bleeding from a cut above his right eye. They're both covered in sweat and blood and dark, ugly bruises. They're panting, spent and exhausted. Satisfied too, that they can at least still damage each other if nothing else. Sanji stumbles a little and his foot sinks into the water, up to his ankle. He looks down and laughs, out of breath but genuinely pleased.
Then Zoro shoves him and he falls in completely, no splash, no flood in his lungs, just a cool feeling, soothing, like a balm. He has to twist away to avoid being kicked in the face when Zoro sits down on the surface, katana sheathed again, feet dangling in the water.
"Someone needs to take a picture of this. Where's Usopp when you need him."
Sanji grins his agreement.
On the rock behind them, dreams are being shared between two broken down souls with a long way to go before they mend. He was one of them, used to be skeletal and frail. Afraid, of course, but even then, he had not been meek. Bones like dry twigs, yes, but all the better to catch fire and blaze in open defiance; skin like thin parchment, on which he could spell out faith and have it seep through to his core; curves of his cheekbones like twin scimitars, his tongue sharp like a knife.
He sees now that the way he cried over Zeff was the same way Zoro cried over Kuina. Simultaneously outraged and hurt, but the despair had to be pushed aside to make room for something else—a promise, gratitude, both binding. Means they have to be strong enough to dream for two and not falter along the way. Means they have to know tenacity, know how to cut steel and burn without ever turning to ash, and how to bleed and break and rebuild taller.
And they do know. They've learned. Sanji's proud of them.
"There's a ship coming," Zoro says. It's the eighty-fifth day.
Sanji comes up to rest his elbows on the water's surface. "I know. Ready to go home, marimo?"
When the god spoke, they could hear him perfectly, even though he was very far below and did not seem to raise his voice at all. He told them his name, but it was too full of sibilants and it slithered out of their memories as soon as they heard it.
He said he had a test. He said he would not allow them to go further without passing this test. He said they had no choice.
Franky laughed. Asked, what's to stop them from just coup de bursting their way through? He was proud of his ship, of me, and rightfully so, but you don't mess with a god on his home turf.
Because suddenly, he was on board, cup of tea in hand, like he had been there all along.
Consider it a toll, if you must, said the god, who looked taller now, less feeble.
Still, Nami bristled. Why should they pay him anything, she demanded, always brave in the face of financial peril, and who was he again, because they had forgotten his name.
Not money, he clarified. He had no use for money. But he was hungry. And if they couldn't pass his test, what hope did they think they had facing what lay beyond? Surely they knew there were dangers waiting for them even greater than old men in little boats. He smiled. It was unpleasant.
So who will it be, the god asked, eyes rheumy and grey, though if you looked carefully you could see a sharpness behind them, like glacier ice that had caught some unfathomable light. If they failed, he would eat them, like he had eaten all the ships and crews who had failed before them.
What, said Usopp. Does no one else have a problem with those terms, he asked, but everyone ignored him.
Three voices rang out at once. I trust you can guess whose.
But devil fruit users were out of the question, because this god drew his power from the sea and her cloaking mists, and he wanted a fair game. Tastier that way. No, he wouldn't take a devil fruit user, especially not one that tasted of rubber.
(Guys, Usopp tried again. Really, could they all show a little more alarm here?)
So Zoro held back a raging Luffy and volunteered himself again, and then Sanji said he was definitely going to get lost and fall on his face so stop trying to act cool, and then the god said, very well.
The two of you, together.
It would be entertaining, he thought.
And then the god waved a hand and Zoro and Sanji disappeared into the fog. There was screaming and yelling for a while, but then the god said quiet and everyone was quiet.
What happened in between that and the moment Zoro and Sanji came back, dropped onto the deck, unconscious but in one piece—that you already know. They passed, of course.
Satisfactory, the god conceded bitterly.
In the end, the god sent us on our way. No one asked any questions; it's as if they were already forgetting the encounter, even as the god waved us a resentful goodbye. A god's magic can do that.
He let me keep my memories, though I suspect it's because he forgot about me. Gods get careless sometimes. Maybe it's old age. Or maybe they don't come across many Klabautermann, or maybe they don't care. I'm not offended.
He was definitely disappointed to see us go. I don't think he comes across many ships made of Adam wood.
I know Zoro and Sanji remember everything, even if they don't acknowledge it, at least not in the way normal people do. They are even more vicious towards each other now, even louder and meaner, because they do know better despite what everyone thinks. They know how much further they can still push. They hit harder because they know the other won't break, know that they have both endured so much more. It would be an insult to hold back. That's the kind of language they speak.
And it was good that we came across the god, because after that test, they were better prepared for what awaited them at Thriller Bark. You'll see.
Just remember you shouldn't worry about them too much. There are not many monsters out there scarier than the ones on my crew.
Standing before Kuma, Zoro is in his place and Sanji understands it as a promise. Zoro will do this because he's given his word, and because he is his own reckless self.
Standing before Kuma, Sanji offers his own life and Zoro understands it as gratitude. Sanji will always pay you back in full, on top of the everything he already gives unasked.
Zoro says, it's my turn to sacrifice.
Sanji says, I promise you too.
So, standing before Kuma, they come to an agreement. Zoro promises to survive, and Sanji will pay him back for every drop of blood he loses.
Zoro slams the hilt of Wadou into Sanji's side. Sanji grips Zoro's arm hard enough to leave bruises.
And they both mean, I understand.
I tried with the Zoro/Sanji. I really, really tried.
The old man that the crew encounters here is the same "mysterious entity" that Lola and her crew encounter. I say it is a god/god-like because I imagine a fearful cult of worship surrounding it-people would make offerings to appease it, kind of like praying for safe passage through the fog. That sort of thing.
I am also going on the assumption that Zoro and Sanji don't know the details of each other's pasts, since no one else was around when Zoro joined Luffy, and Zoro was effectively passed out for the majority of the Baratie arc. Good times!