When the swordsman didn't come down for breakfast, it was probably because he was still asleep.
When the swordsman didn't come down for lunch, it was probably because he was busy training.
When the swordsman didn't come down for dinner, the cook glanced up at the crow's nest to see if the lights were even on.
Seeing that they weren't, he took it upon himself to set up a bento of leftovers and scale the mast the room was perched atop. For one, he made a point of making sure no one-not even idiot marimos-went hungry on the ship. However, it was more than that this time. It had been the night before when the Marines had chased them off an island and things had been going rather smoothly until several Pacifistas were called in.
Two years and a handful of months had passed since the incident at the archipelago and everyone was significantly stronger; it was to the point that each member of the Monster Trio could each take one down on their own. That did not stop the near-instant gut reaction to seeing them, however. The sound of their lasers charging was enough to set his stomach roiling. Sanji was sure it was different for each of them, but personally he had felt his heart begin to race and had to resist the very real instinct to run away as quickly as possible. His mind was a fog, memories of their fateful encounter with Kuma causing him to stop in his tracks.
Pushing through that feeling was difficult, but necessary. Swallowing the fear and the dread, he charged forward while telling himself-over and over-that it was just like any other enemy they had faced and would be defeated just the same. With all his training, it proved true and he took a measure of relieved pleasure to see the cyborg abomination broken and ablaze after he was through with it. Victory though it was, he could still feel his hands shaking a bit even as he busied them with lighting a fresh cigarette, in desperate need to take the edge off.
The cook didn't recall if he had seen Zoro or not in the men's quarters that following morning, but upon reflection he didn't believe he'd been there. That, of course, meant that the idiot had squirreled himself away up in the crow's nest with his ridiculous weights and hadn't come back down.
Forgoing any formalities such as knocking, he shoved the hatch open and let himself in. It wasn't locked, so really, the swordsman shouldn't expect privacy. Glancing around in the gloom, it took Sanji's eyes a moment to adjust before he spotted Zoro sitting in the center of the room. Okay, a little bit creepy.
"Oi, moss head, are the lights broken?" he called, closing the hatch with a foot after he'd stood up.
Nothing. The silence weighed heavily on the cook and he cleared his throat awkwardly, having expected a nasty retort, an insult…something. Setting the bento down on a table, Sanji put his hands in his pockets and studied the swordsman. He was sitting with his back to the cook, hands resting on his knees and his three swords resting across his lap. Was he asleep? Crossing the room, he stopped just behind Zoro's back with a snort.
"Hey, talking to you," Sanji tried again, giving the swordsman's back a nudge with his foot.
As if he had been struck by electricity, Zoro was up on his feet with Wado drawn before the cook could even blink. Brows furrowed, he scowled at his nakama. Fine, waking him up suddenly was rude, but so was skipping meals and pulling a sword on your crewmates. He eyed the blade suspiciously for a moment before narrowing his eyes at the swordsman.
"Cut the crap," he advised with an indicative nod toward Wado. "Brought you food."
Zoro seemed to almost stare through the cook before lowering his arm just a bit, as if just realizing that it wasn't an enemy setting upon him but his nakama.
"Bullshit," Sanji snorted. "You haven't eaten anything today."
The swordsman's stare shifted and he finally focused in on the cook properly, scowling with a noise akin to a growl. His hand shifted on Wado's hilt, fingers restless. Sanji could sense the nervous energy building and tensed slightly, having grown more than accustomed to the lead-up to one of their fights.
"Get lost," Zoro grunted. "I said I'm not hungry."
"And I'm calling bullshit," Sanji persisted. "You barely touched anything at dinner last night, either. You sick or something?"
"Look, just go see Chopper about it," the cook sighed, figuring he'd found the problem. "It's not helping anyone for you to sit around in the dark moping over some stupid bellyache."
Steel sang as Zoro drew Shusui.
"Get. Lost," he repeated himself darkly.
Leaning back a bit, Sanji rolled his neck until it gave a satisfying pop.
"Make me," the cook countered.
"Have it your way."
Without another word, the swordsman charged, leaving Kitetsu abandoned in the center of the room; even if he hated the cook's guts, he knew that the sword weirded him out. Stupid, superstitious bullshit, but it didn't matter: he could kick his ass without it. Eye glittering in the shadows, he would have been a demon to any enemy…but to Sanji, he was just a pain in the ass. Lashing out with one sword, it crashed into a hard leather shoe as the cook tried to kick it from his grip.
"The hell is your problem this time!?" Sanji swore, leaping back as the other katana flashed out at him.
"You!" Zoro barked, perusing him.
They moved around the room in a deadly dance, a blur of blades and legs lost in shadow, illuminated by the scarce moonlight filtering in through the windows. Sanji had to be sure he watched his footing, knowing the idiot left his weights scattered about the floor and he certainly didn't want to trip over the forgotten katana; he hated the damn thing, but knew it was important to the swordsman.
"Oi, don't blame your piss-fit on me!" the cook snarled, his foot connecting solidly with Zoro's side.
Zoro grunted at the impact and swung his arm wide, the butt of Wado's hilt crashing right into Sanji's jaw. Cursing violently and staggering backward as his vision swam to black for a second, the cook reached a hand up to test the injury, making sure the asshole hadn't knocked anything loose.
"I told you to get lost, it's not my damn fault you didn't listen!"
"I didn't listen because you're a shitty liar!"
Distracted just long enough, the cook abruptly found the front of his jacket gripped tight by the swordsman's hands-the swords having been sheathed in a blink-and thrown to the floor with a loud BANG that stole the air from his lungs. Glaring up into Zoro's face, he was just about to curse him with the first intake of breath when he stopped, words slipping his mind entirely.
Pale. That's what struck him first. Maybe it was just the poor lighting, but he swore that the swordman's skin was paler than it ought to have been. Panting from the fight, his eye was wide, nearly feral as he pinned the cook against the boards. God help them if anything broke, he hated hearing Franky yell about the precious ship…not to mention the stiff fines Nami-san-justifiably, of course!-placed on them for the cost of repairs.
Grip firm, Zoro stayed right where he was kneeling over the cook; if his hands shook slightly, it was just because of how tightly he was holding the jacket, nothing more. It had taken hours to get himself under control after the fight and then this idiot shows up and sets him off! The swordsman growled and lifted Sanji up just far enough to shove him back down again with firm THUD. He could feel a ridiculously flexible leg shift and then the heel of Sanji's shoe bucked up into his gut, eliciting a wince but he remained right where he was.
Why couldn't the asshole just leave him the hell alone for once? He hadn't said so, but had assumed that shutting himself up in the crow's nest all day would be enough of a sign that he didn't want to be disturbed. Time and meditation was all he needed, not food and annoyance. But if that's what Sanji wanted to provide, then he would just have to deal with the consequences.
"You...stupid…shitty…cook!" he hissed, each word emphasized by another slam into the floor and each was met with another kick to his stomach.
One hand yanked free and if not for great self-restraint, the fist that had been intended for Sanji's face would have connected. Instead, it hovered in the air right above the cook's nose, knuckles white. Abruptly, Zoro let go with his other hand, leaving Sanji to fall back on the floor as he stood to stride past him. But he only made it a foot or two before deft hands shot out and grabbed his ankle, momentum carrying him forward right onto his face with an undignified yelp of surprise.
"Let go!" he snapped, his free foot unceremoniously pushing backward against Sanji's face.
"Not a chance, marimo, not until you tell me what the hell your real problem is!"
"I already told you!"
Growling, Zoro yanked his ankle free of the cook's grasp and began to push himself back up. Far faster, however, Sanji was up and one hard-soled shoe came crashing down on his back to pin him.
"Try again, dumbass," Sanji snorted, digging into his pockets for his pack of cigarettes and lighter.
For a long moment there was silence and the cook knit his brows, peering down at Zoro. Usually he would struggle and throw him off-Sanji was fast, but the swordsman was all muscle-but he was just…laying there. While he was applying significant pressure to emphasize his gesture, it certainly hadn't been enough to actually hurt. Wondering if he had stepped on a hidden injury from the night before, he could feel through his leg that Zoro had gone very rigid, breathing shakily.
"Kizaru," the swordsman hissed through his teeth.
"KIZARU!" Zoro barked the name again and Sanji was startled to hear an edge of panic in the swordsman's voice.
The cook didn't understand. They hadn't run into the Navy Admiral recently, thank god, so why had Zoro brought him up? Just generic guys until the Pacificstas showed up. Had he missed something? Searching for answers, Sanji lowered his gaze and…and it wasn't his leg he saw anymore.
Inhaling sharply, memories flickered rapidly before his eyes, a shadow of past dread gripping his chest as he could see it now. Where a black shoe was presently, there had once been a white one, pinning the swordsman to the ground while the other leg raised up, glowing bright. Luffy's voice screaming, their vain attempts to get Zoro away. In the end they had stood there powerless, watching in horror… and had it not been for Rayleigh-
Sanji swore and yanked his foot away as if it had been burned, losing his balance in his haste and falling sharply onto his rear. Wincing, he would remain right where he was, palms pressed firmly against the floorboards.
"Shit…I, uh," he floundered, not sure what else to say.
"Forget it," Zoro grumbled, though he clearly sounded relieved.
Swearing again, the cook ran a shaking hand over his face and sighed, exhaling a plume of smoke. Slowly tucking his legs together, he sat up properly, watching the swordsman remain face-down on the floor. For a long time they remained in that heavy silence, sorting themselves out as the moon continued its trek across the sky. Eventually, Sanji spoke up.
"So, this is about back then?" he phrased it as gently as he could.
"They…still bother you," Sanji concluded as the realization finally occurred to him. "The Pacifistas."
"The noise they make, that stupid mouth laser," Zoro admitted dryly, finally giving in to the persistent nagging. "Freezes me up. Not scared of them, just…"
Trailing off, he wasn't sure how to accurately explain how it felt. He scarcely wanted to think about it in the first place…the way his heart would race, his whole body going tense and a hesitance rooted deep inside that told him to run. Rolling over onto his back, he saw that the cook was nodding in understanding, sullen face wreathed by smoke.
"It's a brief surge of doubt, fear, dread" he mumbled, eyes distant. "Just long enough to wonder if you're strong enough to keep…it…from happening again."
"How did you..?"
"Didn't think it got to you like that," Sanji sighed, seeming to return to himself. "So used to that big bad bravado act, I guess I forgot you're human, too."
Zoro narrowed his eye, about to make a scathing retort before the cook raised a hand to stop him.
"All I'm saying," he continued. "Is that I just figured it hadn't gotten under your thick skin. It's actually a pretty scary thought. Everyone else-"
Pausing, Sanji took a moment to really reflect on their behavior throughout the day using his new lens of clarity.
"We're all still broken inside, marimo, it isn't just you," he explained. "Everyone is dealing with it in their own way. Luffy, he sits out on Sunny's head and just watches the horizon. Nami-san pours herself over her navigational charts. Usopp lays beside Chopper in the grass and tells him stories to cheer him up. Robin-chan has her books, Franky has Sunny's maintenance. Brook plays his violin to rouse everyone's spirits and I…well, I cook."
Glancing away to the window, he could feel Zoro's gaze studying him and it made him slightly uneasy. A minute ago they'd been at each others throats and now they were on the floor…talking. About their feelings. Since when did that happen? Shaking his head, he shrugged at the weirdness.
"You come up here and train," Sanji concluded at last. "You work through the thoughts, the memories, the fears…you collect the parts of you that feel torn apart and don't come back to the crew until everything's in order because you know the others depend on you to be a pillar of strength to lean on."
Zoro sat there, speechless, finding nothing in the cook's conclusions he was able to deny. Hands pushed down on the floor and he hefted himself upright with a thoughtful expression. It was a slight comfort knowing he wasn't alone feeling the way he did, but the knowledge came at the price of also realizing the others had been hurt just as deeply-or even deeper.
"That's why you were annoyed about me not eating," he finally reasoned, nodding at Sanji. "Cooking's your thing. Meals are when we all get together, right? So when I didn't show…"
"Yeah. It's hard to face everyone when you still feel like that. I know. But it helps," the cook offered, glancing back from the window finally. "You can see them, the real deal. Not the memories, not the nightmares. You can hear their voices and it gives you solid ground to stand on again. It's an anchor. I'm not telling you how to handle yourself or what to do when you feel like that, but at least keep it in mind, yeah?"
It was unusual to sit as they were, talking about a subject no one seemed eager to even address. They had simply jumped right back into things, resuming where they had left off two years ago as if it had only been the originally-planned two days. But Zoro felt as if a weight had been lifted from his chest, one he hadn't fully realized he'd been carrying all along.
"Alright," he agreed, closing his eye.
Sanji nodded, gathering himself up from the floor to cross the room, stopping at the table briefly.
"I'll leave this here, but you'd better show up for breakfast, marimo," he instructed, trying to fall back into the banter he was used to.
"Shut up, cook, I'll do as I please," Zoro snorted, no real fire in the retort.
With nothing more to say, Sanji departed.
After particularly hairy encounters-especially ones involving Pacifistas-Zoro became accustomed to the crow's nest having a second occupant. Sometimes he would come down for meals and spend time with the crew, but other times it was just too much to handle . On the days he didn't show up, the hatch would open sometime during the night and the cook would appear. Not saying a word, he would perch himself in one of the window seats to smoke, leaving a bento on the table for the swordsman. Sometimes they did talk, sometimes they even sparred, but more often than not they simply sat in darkness and silence…and that was okay. He wouldn't admit it outright, but the limited company was calming.
Besides, he had a feeling it wasn't just him who took comfort from the ritual.