The first one showed up under his pillow.
It was late, everyone was wiped out from yet another run-in with the Navy and he just wanted to get some sleep. However, as soon as he put his head down, he could feel a hard lump under his head. Grumbling, a hand dumbly fumbled under the pillow until his fingers met glass and his brows somehow knit further. Pulling the whatever-it-was out, he blinked at it in the moonlight as Luffy and Usopp snored away nearby. Squinting, he wasn't sure what he was looking at exactly. It looked like a ball of glass…no, more like a light bulb. It was filled with water, the neck had a cork in it, and sloshing around merrily on a bed of white sand was a moss ball. The swordsman was momentarily dumbfounded—not that it was uncommon. Long moments ticked by as the gears slowly began to turn and glared death upon the offending bit of algae. That shitty love-cook! But he was too damn tired to deal that shit, so he shoved it into his pocket and rearranged himself in his hammock.
The second one showed up in the pantry with the sake.
It had been months and he'd almost forgotten about the whole affair when lo and behold, there was another damn bulb waiting for him next to the bottle of sake he'd been planning on pilfering. Not that the bulb was going to stop him, but it was enough to give him pause and grit his teeth. Apparently that asshole hadn't learned his lesson last time. Grumbling, he snatched up both bottle and bulb and slunk out of the galley to find somewhere to drink in peace. Maybe it wasn't too late to turn back and dump the cook right back on that restaurant-ship with the crazy old peg-leg man.
The third and fourth ones had found their way into his boots and he had made damn sure to give the cook a piece of his mind after almost stepping into them.
The fifth one showed up on a barrel near his swords.
The "game" at this point was getting old and he was getting sick of the damn things! It wasn't even a funny joke in the first place…and where the hell was he getting these?! Did every port sell them…and more importantly why?! But the thoughts shriveled up after a moment and he squinted at it closer. Like a few of the other bulbs, it was made to resemble where it had been made and he could clearly make out a crude clay model of one of the Drum Mountains that the marimo was bumped up against. Had that idiot really found time to go shopping for one of the stupid baubles after nearly dying in an avalanche and then what that witch did to his back?
The sixth one nearly fell on his head when he was coming out of the bathroom.
He would shit his own swords if he doubted for a second that Vivi had hand in this one. Why were they wasting precious water on such a useless trinket, anyway?
The eighth one was flying around the room on little wings and Zoro wasmore than done with everything to do with Skypiea
The ninth one was from Water 7, and Zoro had long since given up wondering when and where they were purchased. This one was as big as his fist and had been unceremoniously shoved into one of his socks in a pile of his clothes. It had been a mad dash to get everything off the ship, yet somehow the stupid little thing had survived. Zoro scowled at it and sighed: the smell of ash still lingered in the air.
The tenth one took its time, but showed itself one afternoon in his weight room, sitting on a windowsill catching some of the sun. Another one from Water 7, he guessed, but smaller than the previous. He fought the urge to smile a bit at the small return to some sense of "normal" after losing Merry.
The tenth could have easily been the last had he been a lesser man after the run-in with Kuma. But lying on the floor as everyone celebrated and sang, Zoro cracked his eyes open briefly and saw the eleventh one: a glass skull bauble with a black—and dead-looking—marimo in it. He would snort if he had the energy, but let himself slip back to sleep instead.
The twelfth would have been from the Sabaody Archipelago, he assumed, but that was two years ago, practically in another lifetime.
Walking up the gangplank onto the Sunny's deck felt like coming home, despite the underlying weirdness of it. But familiarity returned and he soon found the way to his room. Things were a bit dusty, sure, but nothing out of place…as if they hadn't been gone at all. Setting his bag down by the door, he took it all in with a deep inhale, letting it go as a small smile played on his lips. Now he just had to wait for the others.
It wasn't until he was crossing the room that he noticed something on the windowsill: number twelve came complete with the lingering smell of cigarette smoke that for once in his life he couldn't find himself annoyed with.
It had been years since they were reunited and set sail once more as a crew with their ridiculous, big-hearted captain. Trials and tribulations could scarcely describe what they went through between then and now. And the "now" of things involved a certain swordsman and the man who stood between him and his dream.
Sanji remembered the last time the two had fought and he would be a liar if he said he wasn't concerned. Not to say that Zoro hadn't improved vastly, of course, even the cook knew that. But Mihawk had surely not been sitting around waiting all this time and not keeping his skills honed to a razor-sharp edge.
If he was chain smoking as the crew played witness, no one noticed—or at least had the decency not to bring it up. Gripping the rail of the ship, he cast his gaze down on the two men standing across from one another, their swords drawn; Mihawk had readily taken Yoru out for this particular opponent.
"You have kept me waiting quite some time, Roronoa Zoro!"
"Weren't you the one who said 'however long it may take'?!"
"Ha! So you remembered…good! Now, let us see if you are truly ready to surpass this sword!"
With no further preamble, the two greatest swordsmen in the world leapt at each other. There was absolute silence from those gathered, the ring of their swords clattering against one another the only sound. Gut-wrenching minutes dragged by as near-misses elicited gasps and flinches; Sanji was surprised Chopper could even stand it at all. A nick here, a gash there…it was like watching a set of kitchen knives dumped into a blender and turned on. Despite having watched many fights involving the swordsman, he couldn't remember a time before this that he felt his stomach knotted up so tightly. Everyone was on edge, as they all knew that this was the end-all be-all fight for Zoro. There was no losing this time: it was win…or die.
His hands ached from how hard he was gripping the rail, glancing down briefly to note that his knuckles—and Usopp's beside his—had gone bone-white. They had survived through some of the worst odds over the years, but this was almost worse than each of those days put together. Flashes of the past haunted the minds of the three members of the crew who had been there that day, and Sanji grit his teeth around his fifth—sixth?—cigarette as he tried to banish them. They were just memories, he told himself, this was how many years later? Zoro wasn't the same idiot anymore and he certainly wouldn't have come this far only to fail now.
"O-oi! Finish it up, already!" he called out, shocking a few of the others as he broke the near-silence. "Some of us have better things to do!"
And damn if Zoro didn't glance back with a vicious scowl for the briefest of moments before launching into another heated assault, spurred on by the off-handed encouragement. Seeing that he was faring better, the others began to pipe up and the cook was struck by a moment of wonder that Luffy hadn't been yammering and yelling the whole time…or been the first to call out.
The fight played out like a sampling of "Zoro's Greatest Hits", the swordsman able to not only hold his own against Mihawk, but to also begin tipping the scales in his favor. Simple techniques soon lead into stronger and more complicated moves, both men in top form and showing no signs of backing down. Several minutes in, Sanji spotted the air around his crewmate shimmer oddly, as if there was a mirage, and knew what was coming: Asura.
It had been ages since he'd seen the swordsman use the technique, but it still sent a chill down his spine. It was creepy…and the world really didn't need more than one Zoro, that was for sure. But unlike the original Asura, this one evolved from the initial appearance of the extra heads, limbs and swords…he had learned to separate the doppelgangers from his body completely and Mihawk found himself dealing with three whole opponents, each with three swords for a total of nine. Where dodging one set had been almost child's play to the world's greatest, having the additional two to deal with was clearly becoming a challenge. Maybe this would be what won it for Zoro.
What felt like hours passed before they went for their final strikes and Sanji struggled to swallow the lump in his throat, time seeming to slow to a crawl. He could see everything in vivid detail…the arc of the blades like deadly crescents, the looks of determination stained by exhaustion. It was just like before, but this time Zoro's chest wasn't the only one to be cleaved. Mihawk staggered backward as blood sprayed out from the jagged wound: it was nearly identical to the mark he had left on the younger swordsman all those years ago. He glanced up at his opponent, who stood with blades still at the ready despite the torrent of blood gushing down his bare chest, the gash forming an 'X' across the old scar.
Silence. Stillness. And then, at last, Mihawk fell to his knees as Yoru tumbled from his shaking hands: Zoro had won. It took a few moments for it to sink in before the crew erupted with cheers and whooping,—short-lived excitement that was snuffed out when Zoro dropped to the ground as well. Luffy was first over the railing, followed mere moments by Sanji and Chopper. Neither man was dead, but that could have easily changed if they were left to bleed much longer. The captain, of course, retrieved Zoro and left Sanji to gather up Mihawk as Chopper shouted instructions and lead them to his clinic on the ship.
Hours rolled into days and Mihawk was the first to awaken. Chopper gave him a clear bill of health and the elder swordsman inquired about Zoro's condition with sharp eyes glancing toward the closed door. The doctor informed him that Zoro was still sleeping, having lost more blood than he thought survivable—Mihawk laughed at this—and had required extensive stitches in quite a few places.
Inside the younger swordsman's room, the air was thick with the smell of antiseptic and cigarette smoke. While they took turns keeping an eye on Zoro while he slept fitfully, Sanji had become his chief guardian. He spent his time either sitting in the chair beside the bed and cursing at Zoro, or pacing a groove in the floorboards while he smoked. It was on the fifth day when his path brought him to a creaky board near the foot of the bed. Perplexed, he tested it with the tip of his shoe, rapping at it and listening carefully…it sounded hollow.
Having nothing better to do with his time, Sanji knelt down and pried at the board with his fingers, surprised to find that it flipped open on a crudely-added hinge. Inside the small alcove beneath it, he found a box. Making sure no one was coming in and that Zoro was still unconscious, he picked it up and brought it over to the table…sure it was invading the swordsman's privacy, but what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him. Carefully he took the lid off the box and glanced inside, eyes going wide at the discovery.
Expecting a stash of sake or maybe illicit magazines, he could not have anticipated the contents: the marimo bulbs. Somehow they had survived, and most of them were even still alive…Sanji couldn't guess how, considering they must not have gotten light in the past two years. Maybe they had taken on some of their owner's stupid, super-human ability to cling to life when most others would be dead. Shaking his head, he smiled a bit and began to pluck them out of the box one at a time, setting each in the windowsill.
It wasn't even a joke anymore, really. The cook had long since stopped snickering when he saw Zoro had found the latest bulb, buying them more out of habit than anything. It was just…a thing. But it was a 'thing' he assumed that annoyed the swordsman and figured that the bulbs had been thrown away whenever they were found like so many unwanted Easter eggs. Yet after all these years, he had every last one of them…even the handful from before they had the Thousand Sunny.
Blinking, he went back over the bulbs and located the fist-sized one from Water 7. That one…he knew that one had been left in a sock, piled in with all the rest of Zoro's clothes on Merry. So that meant that despite the chaos and urgency to gather their belongings—whatever was most important and could not be replaced—Zoro had made a conscious effort to keep his collection of marimo bulbs.
The box was returned to its hiding spot and with one last check to be certain the swordsman was asleep, Sanji departed just as Chopper was coming to do his daily check-up.
"H-how is he?" the young doctor asked, peering around Sanji's legs into the room.
"Still out, but I think he actually slept properly last night," he replied, reaching to pat the top of Chopper's head. "You're taking great care of him, I'm sure he'll be up soon."
"Are you going out?"
"Yeah, I need to pick up a few things in town. Groceries, mostly. Would you like me to bring you back some cotton candy?"
"Ahhhh! Yes, please!"
The cook smiled with a nod and strode out into the hallway to leave Chopper to his work.
Zoro felt horrible. When he first began to come around, he winced at the pain and soreness even Chopper's medicine hadn't totally vanquished. Muscles ached, ribs were bruised, cuts stung under bandages and countless stitches itched maddeningly. But flashes of memory floated around in his fuzzy mind and he knew that every last ounce of pain was worth it: he had won. But at the moment, it would be a major victory to even sit up, so he settled for a smaller one in cracking his eye open.
Late afternoon light greeted him and he squinted against it, even that bit of light almost too much after days of darkness. Sensing someone nearby, he glanced to the side and was mildly surprised to find Sanji dozing in the chair beside his bed.
"Oi," he managed to croak dryly, satisfied when the noise startled the cook nearly out of his seat.
Sanji looked over, wondering if he had imagined the sound, but sure enough the swordsman's eye was open and he was looking at him with the vaguest hint of a smirk.
"About time you woke up, you lazy shit," he muttered, standing up to re-position the chair so he could face Zoro while crossing his arms over the back and propped his chin on them. "You know you can't claim the title if you're dead."
" 'mnot…dead," Zoro grumbled sourly, making a weak attempt at sitting up.
"No, you're not," Sanji agreed and put a hand out to push the swordsman's shoulder back down. "But you will be if you try that again and open up Chopper's stitches."
" 'mfine," he protested with a snort, glowering at the cook.
"Sure you are, who wouldn't be after getting gutted like a fish? You're a mess."
"Oh, he's just fine. He's been up and about for days, unlike you."
This only made Zoro more determined to get up, but was pushed back again with an impatient sigh.
"Lemme up," he growled petulantly.
Instead of replying, the cook retracted his hand and picked up something from a box waiting on the table. While trying to determine what Sanji was doing, Zoro took a brief look at the window and felt his stomach flip: the marimo bulbs. Someone had found them…no, he knew that it had been Sanji. Who else? The swordsman's face felt hot and he was scrambling to think of some sort of snide remark or denial when something was held up right before his eye, forcing his thoughts to pause.
Held between the cook's pointer finger and thumb was a glass bulb filled with clear water, white sand with flecks of several shades of blue, and a marimo. But this one was unique: the bulb itself was shaped like a fish and was perched on a carved driftwood base. In the middle were three minute replicas of his own swords and the base boasted a gold plaque that read: World's Shittiest Marimo.
"This one's from All Blue," Sanji explained with a slight smile. "Had it made by a glass-blower that lives in one of the ports there. Cost a lot, so you better take care of it…and that means not shoving it under the floor."
Zoro looked at it for a long moment, letting his mind wrap around this latest bauble. It was the first one that the cook had actually given to him and not simply hidden somewhere for him to find later. This one was deliberately a gift and after reading the inscription on the plaque again and realizing that some poor soul was paid to write it, Zoro gave a dry bark of a laugh and actually smiled.
"Yeah…yeah, okay," he agreed, letting his eye close. "Thanks."
Sanji nodded, setting it carefully on the table before crossing his arms over the back of the chair again and rested his head on them. It wasn't long before he drifted off to sleep, not having slept very well himself the past few days while the swordsman was unconscious. It was then that Zoro opened his eye again, having pretended for the sake of the idiot sitting next to him: he could tell that Sanji had been restless, though would never admit it. Rolling his eye, he sluggishly reached out a hand to rest on the cook's arm, self-admittedly glad for the company and the stupid gift.
"World's Shittiest Cook," he mumbled to himself with a smirk before letting sleep actually take him.