Chapter 34: The Culprit
Zoro heard muffled shouts outside the infirmary. Dropping his son's hand gently on the bed, he stood up and opened the door. When he looked outside, that was when he saw the commotion and the frantic expression on Vallo's face.
He was shouting at Nami, his hands gripping tightly on her shoulders as he shook her desperately. "You told me you'd find her!" he cried as tears accumulated on his emerald eyes. "How come she's not here on the ship?!"
"Vallo-san, calm down," the navigator explained as Franky and Usopp lingered close behind him, offering assistance if ever things got out of hand. "I've searched the entire ship for her but I couldn't find her anywhere. Believe me. I'm just as worried as you are."
Breathing harshly, Vallo withdrew his hands from her and instead found their way to his hair, fingers tugging hopelessly on brown locks as his eyes shut tightly. "Oh my god. Sora. No. My daughter. She can't… she can't…"
"I believe in her. She's a strong girl," Nami said with furrowed eyebrows. "If ever the enemies had captured her, then the crew would do anything to save her."
A choked sob escaped from Vallo's lips and his knees collapsed on the lawn, head bowing down on the grass as his fists clenched tightly beside his head. "Please," he begged, "please find my daughter."
Nami's chest ached. The sight of a father pleading desperately for her daughter's life to be saved cut deeply through her heart. For a moment, she saw a flash of Bellemere's face in her memory. She knew that she would undoubtedly do the same for her and Nojiko. Even if the woman had a high sense of pride, she would lower her head like this just to save her and her sister's lives.
With the back of her eyes burning with unshed tears, Nami knelt down in front of Vallo and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Please raise your head," she said. "I promise we'll find her no matter what."
Lifting up his head, Vallo looked at her with despairing, tear-filled eyes. "Thank you," he said hoarsely. "Please. Please find her."
The sun was already peeking over the horizon when everything died down. Everyone on the Sunny felt so tired. It had been one hell of a night and all they wanted right now was to tuck in their beds and rest.
After they'd found out that not only Sanji and Sora were missing but also the submarine ship of the Heart Pirates, the Strawhats had finally given in to their exhaustion and just passed out on the lawn. Chopper didn't have the heart to wake them up even though he knew that they might catch a cold. Everyone needed to rest for yesterday's events had drained them to the bone.
"You can go to sleep," Zoro said to Chopper. "I'll keep watch."
"Aren't you tired?" the little doctor asked.
"No," he lied. Hell, he was fucking tired in every aspect but he had to stay awake for everyone. Furthermore, he knew that even if he closed his eye and tried to sleep, the mere idea of his son passed out on the infirmary bed and of the cook gallivanting around an enemy vessel was enough reason to keep him from slumber.
"Okay," Chopper uttered as he rubbed his eyes sleepily with his hooves. "Wake me up when something happens to Rina and Kaitarou."
"Hm," Zoro hummed and he watched his nakama walked out of the sickbay to sleep in the men's bunkroom.
Dr. Ranport told him that he would talk to his son in their room, and after the door closed behind him, silence filled in the infirmary and Zoro found himself resigning on the chair beside Kaitarou's bed.
After massaging his eyebrows with his fingers, the swordsman sighed and stared at his son. He was getting a lot better: the pink tint on his cheeks was back and he already rolled to his side once. It counted as a good thing as the little kid seemed to look like he was just having a deep sleep.
"That shitty cook," he muttered. He remembered seeing the cook flinch when their son collapsed on the lawn earlier. Even if he wouldn't tell, Zoro knew that Sanji was doing this for Kaitarou and for the crew. He was a selfless bastard, so it was for certain that the cook would try to stop this mess all by himself.
But Zoro wouldn't have that. Gone were the times when they didn't give a damn to each other's business, when Zoro didn't give a fuck about him and when he would cut his own tongue rather than admit that he cared for him.
Right now, however, he could scream to the world how much he loved the cook, how much he meant to him and how much he was willing to sacrifice just to have him back safely inside his arms.
He never knew that he could love someone like this – or that he was even capable of loving and being loved back. He'd always felt so alone ever since he was a child, with only his ambition keeping him alive, and that feeling itself was the one which made him a stoic and stiff person. It was a self-defense mechanism that was why he meditated and trained a lot – not only for his dream but also to keep his mind off things.
Because if he let that loneliness slip through his walls, then he might find himself crumbling down one day.
But when Sanji stepped into his life, everything changed in a blink of an eye. He didn't know how it happened. It just did. He managed to fill in that dark void in his heart and he cradled Zoro like no one had ever done before.
His eye glanced down on his calloused hand. The memory of the cook's thin and slender fingers intertwined with his, their warmth and the shallow cuts on them from hard labor in the kitchen permeated his mind.
As the emotion snugged inside his chest, Zoro felt that strong yearning to hold the cook close. After he'd gotten a taste of Sanji's love, he found himself addicted to him: to his scent, touch, kiss, everything. He was like a drug which kept Zoro craving for more.
The slight creak of the bed cushion broke the swordsman's train of thoughts. His eye landed on the woman who was lying on the opposite bed. The back of her hand was on her eyes, rubbing at them to cast the haziness away. And when she rolled to her side and propped an elbow beneath her, her dark eyes locked with the swordsman's and her lips instantly parted upon his presence.
"Zo–" Rina paused. She distinctly remembered how the man snapped at her for calling his name, how much he hated hearing it fall from her mouth. Thus, backpedalling on her words, the woman struggled to a sitting position, hands resting protectively on her womb, and said, "Pirate-san."
Zoro noticed the hesitation in her voice and that wave of emotion on her face which made her eyes downcast. Her fingers fiddled on the blanket for a moment, seemingly lost in thought, before she said, "Can I… talk to you? It's important."
The swordsman wasn't in the least interested with whatever she was going to say, but seeing her distraughtly struggle with something, eating and consuming her up, he thought of giving her a chance.
Sighing, Zoro stood from his seat, arranging the blanket on his son neatly before walking beside the woman's bed. Rina's eyes were on the little kid and Zoro saw the look of gentleness displayed on her face. "You're a great father," she said softly.
"Just tell me what you want to say," Zoro said and folded his arms over his chest, waiting.
The woman's gaze fell on her lap once again. After a few seconds, she uttered, "I have a confession to make."
Zoro's eyebrow raised a fraction. But before he could ask her what it was, she spoke, "I was really from the brothel that you went to in Spring Island and we really did sleep together. I drank a bit too much but the truth is… I remembered you." She glanced at him. "I knew you were the infamous 'Pirate Hunter' from the Strawhat Pirates. Everyone in the world knows who you are. Your wanted posters were posted around the island so there was no way I couldn't have recognized you."
Zoro blinked at her. "Wait," he said and his eyebrows furrowed in confusion, "what are you trying to say?"
"The person who ordered me to do these things… he has a Devil Fruit power. He'd put a glamour in my mind, to replace my memories with fabricated ones and to conceal the whole truth from you."
Rina grasped the fabric of the bed covers. "The story about my lover's debt, it was true. But he didn't leave me. He was taken away." She closed her eyes, feeling an ache inside her chest as she reminisced the heart-wrenching memory. "His captor told me that he wouldn't release him until I've paid my lover's debt. In exchange for his freedom, he offered me a condition: to sleep with you. I thought that everything would be fine after that, but he captured me and locked me up in a cell when he learned that I'm conceiving a child."
Looking up to Zoro, she confessed, "I was three weeks pregnant with my lover when I slept with you, Pirate-san. So there's no way that this child inside my womb is yours."
She saw the swordsman's eye widen, his jaw slackening in shock and his arms falling down to his sides. "He made another condition," she further added, "he said that I had to claim that you were the father to my child, to split you up with this man named 'Sanji.' He was after your partner and I didn't even know why. All he said to me was if I don't succeed in separating you both, then he will kill my lover, as well as me and my unborn child."
She shook her head and said quietly, "I couldn't let that happen, Pirate-san."
Tears escaped Rina's eyes and she buried her face on her palms, wishing that they could somehow stop the pain and take away the terrible situation she was in. "I'm so sorry," she cried. "I never meant to lie to you. I would never meddle in someone else's relationship, and your crew has been so nice to me. I feel so ashamed."
She choked out a sob. "He wants to kill me now that he has Sanji-san. You have to save him. I'm of no use to him anymore and I don't know if my lover's still alive after this but please, please help me save him."
Zoro didn't know what to say. He just stood there, watching the lady cry mournfully on her palms and hearing her utter the word "please" repeatedly. When the reality of her words finally dawned on him, it was as if the heavy burden upon his shoulders had been lifted. He released a sigh and closed his eye briefly, collecting himself from the tremendous relief that could make a normal person fall down on his knees.
It wasn't his child. Fuck. It wasn't his. Kaitarou was his only son and he could be with Sanji forever. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
However grateful he was, he couldn't bring himself to smile in front of the suffering woman. Even if he was a stubborn bastard and a no-good talker, he had enough self-awareness about this kind of situation. "I'll talk to the crew about it later this morning," he said.
When her cries gradually died down, she wiped the tears off her face and looked at him. "I still have to tell you one last thing, Pirate-san."
"What is it?"
He watched the emotion play on her face; there was hesitation, shame and something that was definitely sharper and heavier – guilt. Biting her lip briefly, she said, "It's about Sora-chan."
The moment he stepped inside the ship, Sanji clearly felt the familiar aura radiating beneath his feet, located deep within the lower levels of the vessel. The shape, the color – it was all too familiar that he couldn't have mistaken it for anyone else's.
Eyebrows twitching in anger, Sanji lunged for the Candyman walking in front of him. He threw a kick to his side, but the man was able to block it with his cane. "You shitheads," he growled, "what the fuck did you do to Sora-chan?!"
Candyman laughed. "I expect no less from you, Blackleg." He shoved Sanji's foot away, making him jump a few feet away from him. "I will let you see her. But you have to talk to my boss first."
Sanji was reluctant to oblige. He had reckoned foul plays to occur when he decided to see the culprit of this mess, but he hadn't expected that someone close to him would get tangled up again with his business.
Shit. He needed a smoke.
He fished for a stick inside his pocket, lighting it up with his lighter, before inhaling the first drag of smoke. It had always been his favorite, that first rush of nicotine inside his lungs which intoxicated him with every burn.
He blew a steady stream in front of him. Letting the cigarette dangle between his lips, he shoved his hands inside his pockets and cocked his head to the side. "All right, Candy Guy," he said, "it's a deal."
It wasn't a total disaster – like what Zoro had earlier predicted – but there had definitely been shouts, accusing words and woeful cries. The infirmary was silent, as Vallo calmed down inside his father's arms.
Chopper, in his human form, was standing in front of Rina's bed. He had prevented Vallo from lunging at her, saying that she was his patient and that the lady was pregnant.
Kaitarou was awake and sitting on his bed, arms encircling Zoro's waist and face burying on his chest. The swordsman kept patting his head gently, sometimes whispering comforting words to his ear about his Papa: that he would definitely come back, that he just went away to do something, and that he wouldn't leave him because Sanji loved him.
Seeing the little kid's arms wrapped around him like this, trusting him, clinging to him for support, Zoro knew that his son had already forgiven him.
"Are you hungry?" the swordsman asked.
Kaitarou shook his head, face still buried on his father's chest, and said, "I want Papa's food."
Zoro felt the corner of his mouth twitch up and he pressed a kiss on his son's head. "Me too," he said, "you'll eat his food again soon."
The kid nodded and tightened his arms around his father.
"Vallo-san," Robin called as she approached the grieving man, "do you have Sora's vivre card with you?"
Vallo swallowed the lump inside his throat before answering, "Yes."
"Can I see it?" she asked.
Wiping the tears from his cheeks, he fished out a necklace from his pants pocket and opened the locket to reveal a small piece of paper carefully folded and tucked inside. "This is hers."
He handed the paper to the archeologist and she unfolded Sora's vivre card, watching as it trembled on her palm and slowly crawled toward a certain direction – east. "Sora's alive," she declared. "If she's dead, then her vivre won't even exist right now."
"What?" Vallo asked in confusion. "How are you so sure?"
"The vivre card is known as 'the paper of life,'" Robin explained. "It is made up of a part of a person's fingernail and reflects the owner's life force. If the life force of that person is diminishing, then this paper will start to burn. And if that person recovers, it will grow back to its original size."
"That's true," Luffy agreed as he sat on Chopper's chair, arms folded on top of the backrest. "Ace's vivre card burnt when he died."
Silence dawned inside the room. The crew knew how much pain their captain had gone through because of his brother's death. It wasn't that it was a taboo topic on the Sunny, but all of them refrained from talking about Ace's death in front of Luffy.
Even though they knew they couldn't take away the pain in their captain's heart, they still hoped that time and their presence would help heal that deep wound inside him.
"Well, this is a good sign, Vallo-san," Robin said, shifting the topic back to Sora as she had perceived the change in the atmosphere. "She's alive and we can definitely track her down."
Relief flushed down the man's system and he supported his head with his hand, eyes shutting tightly as his heart banged loudly against his ribcage. "Thank you," he uttered breathily.
"It wasn't much, but…" Rina began and she suddenly felt small. She had no right to speak, or to even exist on this ship, and there was no way that she could redeem herself from the terrible things she'd done to them, but still, summoning up her last bit of courage, she pulled out the small den den mushi from the pocket of her dress and laid it out in front of her.
Swallowing, she said, "You can talk to the boss through this."
Sanji's forefinger was thrumming on his arm.
He was seated on the couch, right leg crossed over the other, as his arms were folded above his chest. With his eyes closed, he let the smoke rise from the cigarette tucked between his lips, never bothering to have a drag or to puff on it. He just sat there – patiently waiting for the arrival of the Candy Bastard's so-called boss.
Sanji felt so exhausted. He hadn't slept a wink and now that he was nestled on a fucking comfortable couch – much to his dismay – he could slowly feel the fatigue creeping on every fiber of his body. He should stand up. He couldn't let his guard down while he was in this hellish place.
But before he could bring himself to it, he felt a presence stepping into the ship. "He's here," he heard the Candyman say. As the aura approached him, closer and closer, he could feel a weird sense of familiarity from it. He could see the shape and the color of the aura, but he wasn't quite sure about the identity of its owner. Because, fuck, that aura shouldn't even be here.
However, even though how much he denied it, that familiarity felt like a pulse drumming in his wrist, steady and rhythmical, like a mantra which he had heard over the years. And when the footsteps stopped just behind the door of the room he was in, Sanji opened his eyes and rolled his gaze to the side.
Candyman gripped the handle and turned it down. Sanji felt his breath hitch when the door opened.
Dark hair. Tan skin. Bushy eyebrows.
His haki wasn't fooling him after all.
The cigarette fell from his lips, the ash blemishing his neat button down shirt, and rolled down on the wooden floor beside his feet. The man wasn't in his usually grubby shirt and worn out trousers; instead, he was wearing a marvelous black tuxedo with the golden chain of a pocket watch hanging from his belt loop.
His dark hair wasn't ragged, but styled and combed in a way which reminded Sanji of the high class people whom he'd met before in the Baratie.
Sanji's eyes were still wide when he approached him. He couldn't say a single word when the man sank his knee on the cushion between his parted thighs, left hand boldly reaching for the backrest of the couch and right hand tipping the blond's chin up to look at him straight in the eyes.
"It's good to see you again, Sanji," the man said with a smile.
"Wha–wha–?" Sanji couldn't bring himself to speak. He felt his heart bang loudly inside his chest and his muscles paralyze under the terrible revelation.
No. It couldn't be. He couldn't be the culprit behind this fucking mess. Sanji had known him. He'd trusted him. He couldn't be that fucking boss the Candyman bastard was talking about! There must be a mistake. There had to be.
The man slowly leaned down beside his face, his breath tickling Sanji's ear as he spoke, "I've missed you."
He lustfully licked a taste of Sanji's cheek and the blond jolted at that lecherous act. He shoved him away as hard as he could, the back of his hand wiping distastefully on the wetness on his cheek and he flashed him a glare which could only be interpreted as anger, disgust… and betrayal.
"You fucking traitor," he growled at him.
The man laughed and plopped himself on the opposite couch, right leg resting on top of his left thigh and arm comfortably stretching along the backrest. An arrogant smirk curved the corners of his mouth. "I'm not a traitor, Sanji."
The man took the wine being offered to him by the Candyman and he took a sip on the glass, his gaze never leaving the blond as the bitter liquid went down his throat. "I've loved you first, you know."
He swirled the glass gently and licked the remains of the liquor on his lips. "I'm just collecting what's mine," Dan purred as he stared at Sanji with dark, lust-filled eyes.