The cook was fine. Chopper had said so. The fresh sea air and a good day's rest got Sanji back on his feet, back in the kitchen, and everything back to normal, more or less.
If he was perhaps even a little more attentive to Nami and Robin, it might have just been that absence had made the hearts in his eyes that much the fonder. And certainly Usopp had no reason to complain about his favorite snacks appearing on the menu, specially prepared, for all that the cook tossed them to him with his usual obnoxious indifference. None of the crew asked why Chopper had Sanji come to the men's cabin every evening while the rest of them were busy with kitchen cleanup. The doctor insisted on changing the bandages daily, to the cook's protest; the wounds were healing well, with little scarring, but Chopper was obstinate.
Chopper knew some of it; Sanji trusted doctor-patient confidentiality that far, though Zoro wasn't sure how much the cook had actually explained, and how much Chopper had put together on his own. For that matter he wasn't sure how much Sanji even remembered. Zoro vaguely doubted that he remembered it properly himself; it was hard, watching Sanji now as he swooned over the women or expertly wielded his knives and pots, to think of him only a couple days before, the chill draft on that balcony, how close he had been...
But the breeze now was tropical, and his cheeks had soon lost those pinched hollows. And if Sanji took a bottle with him up to the crow's nest the first night he had look-out, well, that sort of company Zoro often brought himself. You never knew how cold a night might get on the Grand Line. True, Sanji's tastes usually ran to a flask of wine or his special stash of brandy, not the cheap rum, and usually he didn't down so much so fast that he ended up puking most of dinner overboard. But it was late enough by then that almost everyone was asleep anyway. Robin helped him to the couch in the men's cabin, and Zoro took his watch, and if breakfast was late the next morning, no one dared complain to the red-eyed and short-tempered cook in the galley. And after that their rations weren't diminished by more than the accustomed glass of wine with dinner.
There were a few times when Zoro realized that Sanji was watching him--he wasn't the only one; he caught the cook so examining all of them, usually in moments too busy for it to be obvious. A weird, intent look, like he was half-doubting his own vision, never for more than a second or two, and then he would shake his head and get back to whatever he was doing. Zoro didn't think the others had noticed, or if they did they didn't question it. The respect between everyone was such that they didn't need all the answers to trust one another. Even when, gathering for dinner, they found Sanji staring at the flickering blue flames of the gas burner, his expression blank, so far away that he didn't blink even when Nami called his name.
But Luffy just elbowed him aside--to make a grab for the pork in the stir-fry, and Sanji whacked him soundly with his spoon and told him to wait for it to finish cooking, and dinner was as noisy as ever. The next morning found Luffy in the mess--which wasn't out of the ordinary; after the figurehead the kitchen was probably his favorite place on the ship, but Sanji was there with him, and it was remarkably calm despite the intrusion on the cook's territory. Maybe Sanji had stewed up enough taffy to wire his captain's jaw shut, or maybe he had just kicked Luffy into a wall hard enough to keep him quiet. At any rate, come evening, most of that distance was gone from Sanji's eyes, and the few times Zoro glanced at him, the cook was too busy dancing giddy attendance on Nami and Robin to notice.
Later, while Chopper saw to Sanji's bandages and Luffy and Usopp made a sopping mess of doing dishes, Zoro sought Nami out at her desk, without preamble asked, "Hey, that bird that brings your newspaper. It takes messages, right?"
Nami nodded. "For a fee."
"To East Blue?"
"Good, can you have it pick up this tomorrow?"
"Oooh, what's that?" Nami eyed the envelope in his hand, a wicked smile curling her lips. "Are you holding out on us, Zoro? Is there a girlfriend pining for you back home?"
Nami mocked a pouting look. "Aw, there goes the rumor mill. So how are you going to pay for this? Express service to East Blue costs."
"I'll owe you."
"Triple for interest, as usual."
Zoro shrugged, nodded.
Her eyes widened a bit. "So if it's not a love letter," she asked, swiping the envelope with a thief's fast fingers, "then what is so--" Then she stopped, studying his blotchy ink scrawl on the sealed parchment. When she looked back to him, it was a long, searching regard, the playful mischief in her face long gone. "To the Baratie? Zoro--"
"Just get it sent," Zoro said.
Nami didn't answer, unconsciously folding one corner of the envelope between her thumb and index finger. Finally she said, "I'll waive the cost, for a favor."
"For what?" Zoro asked suspiciously.
"Tell me what happened on that island."
She would keep her word. But his debt was big enough anyway that forgetting this fee wouldn't hardly matter. "You know, you could just ask the cook. Hell with pride, he wouldn't be able to say no."
"I know," Nami said. "That's why I haven't."
"It doesn't matter now," Zoro said. "We left. It's over and he surv--he's fine." He flicked one finger against the envelope in her hand. "I'll owe you. If an answer comes, give it to him, okay?" He walked away before she could charge for that, too.
Nami didn't ask again, and everything continued as usual. Life onboard a ship necessitates routine, compensation for the unpredictability of the sea itself, and Zoro was content to return to theirs, with one exception. He was finding it necessary to avoid Sanji. Which was routine in itself, but usually it was because napping was difficult when the cook was noisily fawning on the girls or pounding the guys, and if Zoro pointed this out, Sanji would invariably take umbrage, and sleeping through the cook's kicks was even more difficult.
But Sanji was not attacking now, at least not with his feet, and his ready insults were peculiarly absent. Instead he was more subtle, demanding that Zoro come peel potatoes, for instance, or ambling up to the stern while he was exercising--but not interfering, just leaning against the rail and smoking in silence, like he was waiting. Patiently, even.
Finally Zoro was forced to conclude that the cook wanted to talk with him, alone. Like he wasn't all the way out of that damn temple, where there had been no one else, not Nami or Usopp or anyone who actually would understand, and obviously this was the last thing Sanji would want to do, were he thinking clearly. So Zoro politely chose to ignore his temporary insanity by sticking around the others, and not listening when Sanji asked for help in the kitchen, and when all else failed, going to sleep. And only wondering a little when the cook didn't kick him awake again.
It was nearly a week after leaving Satva when Zoro awoke for no reason whatsoever, inexplicably before dawn, the sky outside the portholes the same dim, quiet gray as the sea. He rolled over on the rug, saw his crewmates still sound and contentedly asleep--except for Sanji, of whom there was no sign but an empty hammock, swinging with the rocking of the waves.
But Robin had had second watch. Grumbling, Zoro picked himself up, stretched and went to the mess, pawing the sleep from his eyes. Sanji was going through the refrigerator, list in one hand and smoke spiraling up from the cigarette in his mouth.
"Awfully damn early for a supply check," Zoro remarked.
That got no comment. "You don't have to worry about Luffy sneaking a pre-breakfast snack," Zoro told him. "He's still snoring."
Sanji's back stiffened under his jacket; then he glanced back over his shoulder. "They're all asleep?"
"Him and Usopp and Chopper, yeah."
"They're all okay?"
"Huh?" Zoro couldn't see the cook's expression, hidden under his hair, but his voice was strained. "We're alone on the middle of calm seas, why wouldn't they be?" He didn't need to see Sanji's eye to feel the focus on him, that strange, intent study.
"Robin-chan's on watch," the cook murmured, to himself it sounded like, "and Nami-san's in bed..."
"You been peeping on the girl's bedroom again? Bet they'd love to hear that."
"I wasn't peeping," Sanji said, though with scarcely a flicker of his usual heat.
"What do you call it, then? Spying?"
"It's not like that, you stupid swordsman," and that irritated snap was a little more like it should be.
"Oh, you mean it's more like...uh, what's that word--voyeurism?"
Sanji straightened, turned on his heel to face Zoro directly, lip curled back and his teeth clamped around the cigarette. "If you want to know," he grated, "just ask."
"I don't want to know anything," Zoro said, and he should have just gone back to bed, or out to exercise since he was already up, but instead he stayed in the kitchen doorway long enough to add, "You know, if you just paid Nami, she wouldn't mind--"
Sanji's snarl was inarticulate, but the kick he launched at Zoro's head was perfectly comprehensible. He blocked with his forearm, and Sanji spun, sweeping his other leg around in a low blow that Zoro only just dodged, and this made sense, like the past week hadn't, was finally something he had no reason to avoid. With the ship asleep there was no one to get in the way or interrupt them, and no other distractions, too early for the cook to start breakfast, only open sea and calm skies on the horizon. Sanji's shin cracked against the sheath he brought up to guard, and then his shoe thumped against Zoro's ribs, and those were the only sounds that mattered; Sanji wasn't even snarling curses, all focus on the fight.
Until Zoro ducked and swung up his arm to catch the blond across the neck, knocking him down on his back, but instead of immediately somersaulting to his feet again he gasped at the impact, and Zoro froze. Last night Chopper had stripped off the bandages; only the deepest scores would scar, but they still must be tender. "Sorry," he muttered; it had only been a week, after all, and the dark patches under Sanji's eyes were visible in the new morning light, not fading because he hadn't been sleeping, for whatever damn reasons. "I didn't--" He automatically held out his hand, and Sanji reached up to take it.
Then he also froze, and Zoro saw confusion flash across his face, at the same moment he realized himself what he was doing. He started to pull back.
The only warning he had was Sanji's lips twisting in a sudden sharp smirk; then the cook grabbed his hand in a fiercely tight grip, and threw himself backwards as he kicked up. Zoro choked as the shoe slammed into his stomach, and he went flying, hitting the table with a crack hard enough that stars completely blotted out his vision.
By the time he blinked them back and sat up amid the shards of wood, Sanji had settled himself cross-legged on the floor, was lighting up another cigarette. "Usopp's gonna raise hell about fixing that," he remarked, flicking ash at the broken table. "You should be more careful."
"It was your damn fault!" Zoro rubbed the back of his head and instantly regretted it. At least there wasn't any blood.
Sanji eyed him speculatively. "No concussion, right? Don't need to piss off Chopper, too."
"Yeah, yeah." The ache was no more serious than his other bruises. "I'm fine." A little out of breath, but Sanji was more so, taking short puffs on the cigarette.
"Who's not strong enough?" he said between them. "Knocked you flat on your seaweed-green ass."
Zoro grunted a noncommittal acknowledgement, then asked, "You remember that?"
"Remember? Why the hell do you think--never mind. Yeah. I remember everything, from first death until I was on that rock, looking at the waterfall. All of it."
"Even..." Zoro found the words strangely slow to come. "The stuff that didn't happen?"
Sanji exhaled a long breath of smoke, contemplated the burning tip of the cigarette in his fingers. "You know," he said quietly, "when you're dreaming, something can seem totally, absolutely real? And then, after you wake up, you remember the dream, you remember believing what you saw, but you can't understand how you possibly could have, because it's so absurd?"
"Uh..." Zoro frowned. "I guess. Yeah."
"It's not like that at all." Sanji shifted, crooking his legs to cross his arms loosely over his knees. "When I'm asleep--hell, when I'm awake. I'll think of it, and it's real. Even when I know it isn't. I don't know, maybe hallucinations are always like that. The only way I'm really sure..." His gaze went to Zoro, then switched away. Gritting his teeth, he crushed the cigarette out on the floor in a violent motion, drew his legs under him and stood. "Forget it."
Zoro pushed to his feet as well. "Wait, you don't--"
"You don't want to hear it, you don't care, forget it." Sanji threw the cigarette into the sink, took out a new one and lit it, tossing the match after the discarded butt. Then he caught the cigarette between his teeth as he crouched to retrieve his supply list where it had fallen. "Go back to bed, Zoro. Breakfast won't be for an hour. Plenty of time to sleep."
"You know, I used to wonder once if you actually knew my name," Sanji muttered, irrelevantly. He smoothed the crumpled paper between his fingers, opened the icebox.
Zoro shut it again, flattened his palm against the metal door to hold it closed. Sanji tugged once at the handle, then turned his head to glare at him. "It's too early for this shit, you damn swordsman."
"Yeah," Zoro agreed. "You must've finished the inventory a while ago, there's not that much in there. And you always know how much we have anyway."
"Never hurts to check. Especially with Luffy onboard."
Zoro didn't move out of the way. Sanji let his hand fall away from the handle, took a step back. He was breathing hard still, and not from the exertion of their fight, Zoro didn't think. "What do you want to hear? All of it? How weak I am, really? You want everything, you want me to tell you how real it still is--I'll be looking right at them...Nami-san, or Chopper...any of them, and part of me is asking, is this the dream? Then at night, when I dream, it happens all over again. Just a dream, but when I first wake up, if you're--if they're not there...
"It's getting better, I'll get over it, but at first--you want me to tell you how at first, I wasn't even strong enough to believe in reality. This is how weak I am, the only thing I actually was certain was real was--"
"You aren't weak," Zoro said, more angrily than he intended, and he wasn't sure why. "I never said that."
"You thought I wasn't strong enough."
"That doesn't mean you're weak."
"Then what the hell does--"
"That there's something stronger than you doesn't mean you're weak, idiot," Zoro growled. "I might not have been strong enough, either. If it had been me."
Whatever Sanji was about to reply stuck in his throat, so that he only stared at Zoro in silence. Zoro stared steadily back. Who knew honesty could be such a sharp blade? "Besides," he said, "you were strong enough. All the way to the end, there. You were right after all, you didn't need me."
Sanji took a long drag on his cigarette, turned away to blow out the smoke. Still looking away, he said, "Go on. Ask."
"How the hell should I know? But I keep seeing it in your eyes. Some question. It's what I've been trying to ask you about."
I don't know what the hell you're talking about, Zoro began to say, but didn't, because he realized he knew after all; he had been wondering it all along. Still, it was difficult to word it, and he wouldn't have bothered, but for the challenge in Sanji's face. "At the end, there. The last one, at the waterfall. You said--you still believed her lie, then, about what had happened to everyone. I told you it wasn't true, but you didn't believe me."
"Then why did you dive in? I was shouting at you, but if you didn't believe me, then why didn't you just..." He couldn't have gotten up to the stone ridge in time; he remembered the grimness of the high priest's expression, and for an instant he felt a freezing draft that had nothing to do with the kitchen's warmth. Jaw clenched against that chill, he asked, "So why? What'd you remember? All Blue?"
"I'd have thought that myself, maybe." Sanji took the cigarette from his mouth, studied the orange embers at the tip as if there were some unknown truth inscribed in that fire. "It should have been, maybe. Except...it's not like that. Not anymore. All Blue's still out there, I know it is. And I'm going to find it. Before, once, there was nothing that could've taken that from me. But..." He glanced to Zoro. "Your dream. Strongest swordsman, never losing again, all that. Could they have taken that from you? I know how you fight. Cut off your legs and you'd crawl; cut off your damn hands and you'd still be able to swing the sword in your teeth, right?"
"But could it be taken from you?" If there had been any of the customary sarcasm in his tone Zoro wouldn't have listened, but there wasn't, and he did. "Not by Mihawk or anyone else winning, not by you losing your swords, or your skill. But if you lost--if it wasn't any fight you lost, if it wasn't your strength but what makes you strong...any swordfight you still could win, but that was gone..."
"I wouldn't lose," Zoro said, flatly. "I won't. Not until I've done what I have to. And not that. I didn't this time; I won't any other." He watched Sanji, watched his face, but when the blond met his gaze, he couldn't read what he saw there.
"You'd have been strong enough," Sanji said. "If it had been you."
"Maybe," Zoro replied. "I don't know." He continued, thoughtfully, "You know, the high priest told me from the start that it wasn't something that's survived alone. But that wouldn't have been a problem, would it. You'd have done the same for me."
Truth again, and he saw with satisfaction that Sanji had yet to come up with a proper parry for that attack. The cigarette almost slipped from the cook's fingers; then he caught it, knocked off the ash and returned it to his mouth. "Well, I sure as hell would refuse to peel grapes for you, anyway."
He glanced at the porthole, where the sky was lightening, glanced at the supply list in his hand and then stuffed it in his pocket with a shrug. "If I don't get breakfast started soon, someone'll have to explain to Luffy why there's nothing to eat when he does get up. So, are you going to get out of the way, or do I have to kick your ass again?"
Zoro stepped away from the icebox, yawned and scratched his scalp. "Yeah, yeah, whatever. Too damn early for fighting." The back of his head was still sore to the touch, though he wasn't about to admit that. Damn cook. "Wake me up when it's done."
In the doorway he stopped, turned back. Sanji was balancing onions and eggs on top of sausage and half a wheel of cheese, cigarette clamped in his teeth as he shut the icebox door with one foot. "Sanji."
The cook looked back around.
"So why did you dive?"
Not the usual irritated insult in Sanji's eyes; not the nightmares, either. Zoro thought he wasn't going to answer, and then he spoke around the cigarette, "Because," and Zoro recognized his tone then. "If it had been real," Sanji said quietly, "if they really all were gone...how could I betray the only nakama I had left?"
As a new attack, Zoro was as unaccustomed to taking it as giving it. Who could guess something so simple could hit so hard? And sooner or later they would both find defenses against this sort of blow. But for now Zoro only nodded, and let Sanji, just this once, have the win.
I've said it before, but my great thanks to everyone who's left reviews, from one line to a comment for every chapter. I honestly wasn't sure, when I began posting, if anyone else would like to read something with only two of the crew, not even on the ship, especially when they weren't going to get it on. It was great to find out otherwise, and I'm tickled pink that yaoi fans have been enjoying it as much as the non-yaoiers. Hope it didn't frustrate you too much!
This story, like so many of my other fic, is dedicated to my imouto - both of you. Couldn't have done it without you. All my love.
Until next time!
This story, like so many of my other fic, is dedicated to my imouto - both of you. Couldn't have done it without you. All my love.
Until next time!