A LITTLE BIT MORE
He wasn't hungry, and so he didn't eat. By the time the stars lit up in the sky, his stomach began to make gurgling sounds, and he knew it had been a bad decision. But Sanji had resolved to stay in that tent as long as it took, and so that was where he remained, drifting in and out of anxious little catnaps, propped up and curled just next to Zoro's sleeping body.
By what must have been midnight, at least, the breath Sanji heard sounded smoother, less abrasive than before. Zoro even smelled better after whatever Armerind had done to him; he detected the aroma of something sharp and pleasantly grassy under the more pervasive scent of eucalyptus and aloe. He had heard once, that both of those natural plants were integral to survivalist medicine, but never had he cared enough to see such things in practice. For a great time he would wonder on what magic Armerind had done, while letting his thoughts drift lazily on a long-winded stream of consciousness.
It would have been easy to retreat to the other tent, curl up between Nami and Luffy, bury his face in her red hair and cop a feel if he weren't such a gentleman. But strange, less base desires compelled him to stick around. Loyalty and some wayward sense of duty; not just love, but the same thing that convinced him, without even an inkling yet of what Zoro was all about, to trust that he would do the same in a similar situation.
So where did the line of nakama end, and lust begin? He had been wondering since the day of their first kiss, trying not to linger too much on such impertinent hows and whys. But, possibly to stave off loneliness, he kept himself in that contemplative little spot, in that contemplative little position next to Zoro, and kept his silent ruminations to himself, where they belonged.
Hours passed and time refused to move. Sanji kept his eyes open as well as he could, fluttering with strobe glances through his eyelashes before he finally fell asleep completely, soundly, resting his head gently against the padded bandage on Zoro's shoulder.
And in his dreams, Zoro was telling him a story. Armerind's story.
Sanji's reality, Armerind's memories, Zoro's once and future fear. All the pieces he hadn't quite fit together in the puzzle of the day now joined in the night. He wanted to touch the Zoro in his dreams, wanted to tell him not to put on such a stoic, awful face. But then he realized that he wasn't there at all. Not with Zoro. Not in this dream's reality. Not anymore.
"He died trying to protect me," this was Zoro's voice in his dream, and it was the same voice that Sanji had heard, oh-so-many-times. The same voice he had pondered over and let himself be angry for. If it made sense in his subconscious, his lucid self paused to wonder, would it still make sense when he awoke?
It was Zoro who had been trying to protect him, all this time. In the ship's galley, the day after their kiss. In the battle with the Marines that seemed so long ago. In Armerind's cottage just yesterday morning. Armerind's truth, Andi's history, Zoro had never heard, but it was the same thing that he always feared. Perhaps it was an ingrained warrior's instinct, then, because to hear him tell it, this was not an up-and-coming stimulus response. Zoro ran away from anything but a challenge, anything but that which could be easily defeated and overcome. Or at least he tried to.
Protecting things was not in his nature, at least not on a level that became so personal as to involve his heart and not just his might. Those things, he ran from.
Or at least he tried to. Some things just wouldn't let him do that.
It felt good to know it, even if it was just his subconscious mind weaving gossamer half-truths, and nothing that had been confirmed nor denied. It felt good to have a justification, and a basis on which to gauge himself. A reason to say 'thank you.' A badge of nobility to kiss on Zoro's heart.
He was dead in this dream. Long gone, killed by his own love. But even in that dream of death, he smiled on Armerind's words, and didn't regret a moment of the time he'd spent on the Going Merry, on Betoni Island, trying to keep Zoro from running away.
When a nudge and a shifting beneath him greeted his waking mind, he found his eyes half-obscured by unspent tears as he groaned and slowly opened them. Zoro's voice was only speaking in annoyed grunts and murmurs, reacting to whatever leftover pain and wooziness might be gripping him now in the morning hours. But Sanji's heart still lifted to hear it. It finally meant he was still alive, no matter what assurances he had had before.
Sanji opened his eyes halfway, a rose up a bit to watch Zoro lift one hand, place it against his forehead, and say, "I didn't die?"
Those words, however much he cringed at the very thought, made Sanji want to cry all over again. It must have been Zoro's tone; that genuine surprise, and a slight twinge of regret. The sort of tone he wanted to hug him for at the same time he beat it out of him. "No. You didn't."
A pause. Zoro's breath was sketchy. His eyes were only daring to open the slightest they could.
He wondered what he would say next. Something about Armerind, something about the duel? A question about who had tended to his wounds, or who had carried him down the hillside? Some snide remark about Sanji's baby-soft expression as he stared in relief? None of those things, in fact.
"Did we miss the sunrise?"
This time, there were no instincts of machismo or resistance that could hold back the wellspring of tears from leaking out of Sanji's eyes. He leaned forward, careful not to let his exuberance jostle the dressings all over Zoro's body, and kissed him as hard as he could, a day and forever of worry and wonder flowing from between his lips.
And after that, Zoro became Zoro again. Slowly but surely, silent but surly. Sanji did his best, and at that point it wasn't as difficult as he had feared, to swallow back his romanticism and don his own mask of indifference and derision.
He didn't ask who had tended to his wounds; it seemed, in the back of his mind, that he knew. And Sanji wouldn't be the one to tell him. Armerind had chosen not to show his face again after that, and there was a strangeness about the way they both honored that embargo of communication. By mid-morning Sanji stood up from his half-eaten, early lunch, and announced that he was walking back to the ship to requisition some supplies.
"Hm." Zoro acknowledged him disinterestedly, tipping back his bowl with one hand, eating as ravenously as one would expect from such a dire convalescent.
"The others might not be better until tomorrow. We'll need to be ready with food and water for them."
"Do you want another set of clothes, while I'm there?" It seemed logical. He was currently wearing shreds, more or less.
Zoro glanced up at him dubiously. "I think that goes without saying."
"Just making sure you were listening." Sanji muttered, waving his hand dismissively as he turned around and began to walk off. He glanced back over his shoulder, and took a moment to examine Zoro, wondering how the other persona had faded so quickly. He's preparing, Sanji rationalized with a sigh, no use trying to make a snap change once the rest wake up. He smiled to himself, and relished the fact that their secret was such a massive one. Even if the others - Nami with her quick intuition and Luffy and Usopp with their sometimes keen observations – noticed anything, they still wouldn't know the depth of what was going on. Not by a long shot.
It was a tedious walk back to the Going Merry. Sanji trudged, hands in pockets, through the underbrush along the path, and tried his best not to think too much about whether the Zoro back at camp was the same Zoro who would ask to watch sunrises and kiss him to an orgasm. He knew the brief isolation had done wonders for softening the swordsman's impassive demeanor, but there was still the pang of premature melancholy in thinking those moments might be few and far between.
There would be other things to distract him once they were back at sea, of course. Perils and adventure, obligation to his other nakama, Nami and her increasingly scant bikinis. Even if the moments never happened again, Sanji knew that he would not be duty-bound to sit and mope about it. A deep breath of relief began within, and rose slowly to his lips. He sucked in the heavy jungle air and smiled as he exhaled. Comfort was his, whether romantic fulfillment or sincerity never would be.
He stepped over a moss-eaten log and listened to the sound of the soft, moist foliage beneath his feet. He could see the clearing in the distance, not quite completely overgrown, facing the river that cut the small island in half. Beyond that, he knew, was the Going Merry.
"Is he well?" Armerind's voice suddenly invaded his quiet contemplation, and he looked up with only a bit of the shock that was his first instinct.
Armerind was crouching in the limbs above him, moving with Sanji as he walked, quiet and agile as one of the tree monkeys that he had learned to ignore over the last few days.
"Quite. Thank you." His gratitude was gruff and short, but it was gratitude nonetheless, and that seemed good enough for Armerind. Sanji didn't bother to look up and verify if he smiled at it.
"That's good. Have your nakama awoken?"
"Not yet," Sanji kept walking, and Armerind kept following him through the trees, "I'm going to fetch some more food for when they do. And some clothes."
"Good." Armerind stopped moving, and after a few paces Sanji stopped as well. Unnerved by the islander's pause, he looked back, and saw no one. Nothing but the leaves rustling in the wind. Nothing but the brilliant greens and subtle yellows of the jungle trees.
A side of him wondered it Armerind had ever been there at all.
"There," Sanji said, enjoying the first drag on what was quite possibly the most refreshing cigarette he had ever smoked in his life, "now I feel like my old self again."
"Hm," Zoro mostly ignored him, glanced down at himself, and touched a spot on his haramaki. Just above his abdomen. Right where Armerind's sword had run him through. The most disturbing wounds were covered, but Sanji couldn't blame Zoro for lingering on them, "I hope they don't notice."
"I'm still surprised that you agreed to my plan."
"Well, you're right. It's best that they don't know," Zoro walked over to where Sanji was sitting, and fell into the sand nearby. Since that morning they'd been keeping an anxious distance; not a kiss, not a touch, not a stray glance that suggested there was anything to distract their thoughts beyond the assurance of everyone's well-being, "especially Luffy. He'd make a big deal about it, and it's no big deal at all."
Sanji had to feel a warm sense of camaraderie at the half-smile that always decorated Zoro's face when he talked so candidly about their captain. Sanji knew the debt he owed to Luffy. In fact, he felt the weight of that debt himself. For Zoro, for his old friends, and for his own survival.
"Yeah, you're right. Not a big deal," he smirked, and leaned back against a tree trunk. The shade kept him relatively cool, despite what had certainly turned out to be a sunburn over most of his body. He traced characters in the sand, wondering how he would explain away any apron-shaped tan lines to the women he was bound to be sleeping with at their next port of call. He didn't really like sex with the lights out, but it might turn out to be necessity, for the next couple of weeks at least.
Not wanting to linger, he only shot a glance Zoro's way, and wondered if everything had been some long, beautiful dream. Since Armerind had left their tent, or maybe since Zoro had opened his eyes that morning, Sanji hadn't felt the same tightness in his chest or indecision in the pit of his stomach. This was the same he had always felt, in fact. Calm. Secure. A little annoyed by Zoro's curtness. But there were no romantic underpinnings to burden his thoughts, no coarse desires or hands that wanted to wander when they weren't invited.
He wouldn't have turned down any such invitations, of course. But he felt confident enough now to know that they would come when they were meant to come. Never before, and never too late. It was never too late. After such a scare as last night's, he would wait on Zoro as long as he had to.
Besides, Armerind's words were still buzzing like permanent feedback in his mind. Though his misgivings remained, and his insecurities chose the most inopportune times to assault his emotions, he'd die before he ever stood in the way of Zoro's ambition.
After all, Zoro's ambition wasn't his to help or hinder. But Zoro's heart, he thought with a triumphant little smile, had the capacity to be all his in the very end. He just needed a little patience.
"Oi, what are you smiling at?" Zoro suddenly groused, and leaned over to inspect Sanji's unconscious sand-scribblings. With a slight sigh of humiliation, Sanji noticed that he had doodled quite possibly the most inappropriate thing he could have at that moment.
"Oh, boobs. Very mature." Zoro sighed, and Sanji quickly brushed the sand with his sleeve, destroying the thoughtless work of art.
"Hey, you have your interests, I have mine."
Zoro didn't respond, and only slumped to the ground, leaning against Sanji's knees. Sanji expected another impromptu nap coming on from the swordsman. He rolled his eyes, anticipating the boredom that would follow. When he felt Zoro breathing into a comfortable position, he suddenly slid his legs away, and let him fall. "My legs are not a pillow."
Zoro rubbed his head and sneered. "You've got that right. Maybe boobs are good for something."
Though momentarily distracted by the very pleasant thought of falling asleep between a pair of lush C-cups, Sanji found the quickness to kick a spray of sand at Zoro's head. The swordsman leapt into an upright position and rubbed his head vigorously, growling in indignation as Sanji snickered to himself. He puffed on his cigarette and held it aside, ready to add insult to the injury. But in that moment Zoro wheeled on him and reached out, grabbing the front of his shirt and pulling him over into a headlock.
Crying out at the violation of his personal space, not to mention the loss of the last few moments of his recovery smoke, Sanji struggled valiantly, kicking and snarling as Zoro rolled him forward in the sand.
And so it continued; not quite a fight, but not quite harmless wrestling. A few blows were exchanged, just light enough to keep from bruising, but just hard enough to remind one of how formidable the other was. By the time they pummeled their way to the shoreline, just shy of the tiny waves that lapped the sand, they were huffing and puffing, disheveled in all places, and staring at each other with matching smiles of accomplishment.
Sanji, straddling Zoro from above, shoved his shoulders back into the sand. "I win," he pronounced firmly, and gasped a postscript, "bastard."
"No," Zoro glanced to the side slyly, and then reached up to bunch Sanji's shirt in his hands. He pulled him down hard, and Sanji knew better than to resist because he knew exactly what strategy his opponent meant to employ. Both their lips tasted of sand and saltwater as the mashed together, and somehow out of that they achieved a more pleasant kiss. Breaking it, letting go of Sanji's now-wrinkled fabric, Zoro smirked, "I win."
"You're right, you win," Sanji leaned back, and mirrored his smugness as he chafed his groin against Zoro's harshly. Zoro was only surprised for a moment, "and you know what that means."
"Get off of me," Zoro's face betrayed his words, "that hurts my stomach."
"Liar," Sanji rasped, still grinning, his smile growing larger as his midsection began to follow suit, "you're not in anything that could be considered pain."
"Ah, so you want me to throw you off of me, huh?"
Sanji's eyebrows shot up in intrigue. He clamped his thighs around Zoro's hips firmly. The swordsman's face actually winced, not prepared for the strength of those particular muscles when it mattered. "I'd like to see you try."
Somehow this still wasn't the same as before. This was better. Less hurried, less frantic. Sanji didn't feel the overwhelming need to squeeze everything into one perfect moment. Though he wanted to spend another afternoon naked on the beach, Zoro's very presence seemed more of a turn-on when he thought a little longer. The way he was eyeing Sanji, brow furrowed, glare so sharp and hard it could cut diamond, still had an edge of something soft to it. Maybe that was the twinge of nakama. Or maybe it was that little bit more. He wouldn't worry about it right now.
He couldn't, in fact, because just as Zoro opened his mouth to say something, they were interrupted. Luffy's voice was shrill, sonic, and insistent, announcing to the entire island of Betoni, "I'M SOOOOO HUNGRY!!!!!"
Five legs of mutton later, Luffy actually paused to speak. "We slept for two days? Sugeeeeee!"
"I wonder what it was that we ate," Nami seemed more concerned, and Sanji feared with every second that she was on to their deceit. But she never seemed to glance over at Zoro, and seemed far more interested in the effects the unconsciousness had wrought upon her stomach, "I didn't feel strange when I fell asleep."
Usopp laughed hardily, "You were so drunk I'm surprised you felt anything by the time you fell asleep!"
Nami's eyes flared in his direction. "I was not drunk! I was just…tipsy. But I was in perfect control of my actions!"
"You kissed me." Luffy said between massive bites of meat.
Everyone stared at Nami, who seemed just as shocked by the news. A moment of silence passed.
"Nami-san?" Sanji whimpered, as if his heart were breaking. Nami waved in his direction and laughed, flipping her hair over one shoulder playfully.
"Sanji-kun, can't I show my exuberant love for my captain occasionally?"
"On the lips!" Luffy grinned brightly and pointed at his mouth, "she also asked me to—"
"LUFFY!" Nami yelled, and silenced him with a firm slap to the back of the head. His hat floated to the sand as he fell face-first into a plate of steamed vegetables and rice.
Sanji noted with no lack of interest that Zoro was eating more of that particular dish than usual.
"Besides, Sanji-kun, you probably had all sorts of fun while the rest of us were passed out." Nami's eyelids grew heavy and she shot Sanji her most sinister, beautiful glance. Both he and Zoro snapped to attention, and stared in silent speechlessness at the ship's navigator, who was currently pointing the crew on a straight course for mass hysteria.
"What's that?" Luffy tore off the last bit of meat that hung to the bone in his hand, and wagged it warningly in Sanji and Zoro's direction, "did you guys go boar-hunting and cliff-diving? No fair, no fair! That's mean, not to include me!"
"You were passed out!" Sanji barked, as if the accusations were even true.
"Frankly, Nami, one more day alone with this asshole and I would've gone insane." Zoro muttered gruffly.
"Same here, baka." Sanji replied. They both looked in opposite directions and seethed quietly.
"I'll take that as Zoro's way of saying he's glad to see us up and about," Nami smirked, and leaned over to snatch a baguette from Luffy's side of the makeshift picnic spread. Sanji's eyes drifted with her, and he took a longer-than-usual glance at her cleavage.
Nami noticed, and served him with a brief chastising scowl before she raised her voice to say, "So how is it, having sex with Sanji, Zoro?"
Zoro spewed his rum as Usopp dropped the meat in his hands and gave an inhuman little shriek. Luffy went on eating, unfazed, and a little perplexed by the pandemonium. Sanji just blanched, feeling the color drain from even his sunburned skin as he stared at Nami, cigarette limp between his lips, helpless in front of her conniving smile.
"Who do you think you are?!" Zoro screamed at her, brandishing a fist as if Nami would be threatened in the least.
"Nami, that's not even funny!" Usopp's face was one of utter terror.
"Oi, Zoro, what IS it like?" Still chewing contentedly, Luffy was more or less oblivious.
"It's none of your business!" Zoro shrieked back, his voice growing higher in register and more frantic in tone as he rushed to defend himself. Sanji would have giggled, had he not been so shocked that their private affair was poised to be front-page news on the Going Merry. The wide-eyed expression and scarlet red blush on Zoro's face were just too hilarious to forget.
"So it is true? YOU'RE HAVING SEX WITH SANJI?" Usopp's nasal yell announced it one more time, and suddenly Sanji wanted to disappear into his suit jacket, and not show his face again until everything had blown over.
"So what's it like?" Luffy asked again.
"SHUT UP!" Zoro and Usopp both railed on him. Luffy was unfazed.
"Don't you judge me, long-nose!" Zoro pointed firmly at Usopp.
"I'm not judging you! But Sanji? SANJI?" Usopp flailed wildly, even going so far as to point at Sanji for the full effect. Sanji momentarily considered biting his finger off, "Sanji likes girls!"
At this, Luffy's laughter was loud enough to break the argument down. As everyone turned to him with still-wild eyes, Luffy wiped his mouth and grinned. "You guys are so funny!"
It seemed a non-sequitur, only not really. Sanji glanced around, as Luffy continued to laugh, and was watching Nami when she joined him, unable to stifle her giggles anymore.
Then Sanji remembered the flabbergasted look on Zoro's face, and felt his lips twitch up at the corners. He felt a pocket of air that might have been laughter forcing itself to the back of his throat. It finally found its way out, and indeed it was a laugh, though muted and muffled by the cigarette in his mouth.
"Oi, Sanji." Zoro began, and Sanji would have expected him to follow up with something typically Zoro like 'are you going to take this?' or 'do we have to stand for such treatment?' But he didn't continue, stunned as Sanji turned to him, his face alight with cheerful, uncontrollable laughter.
It was the first time any of them had laughed, long and hard, in days. Especially Sanji. For those brief moments it felt better than sex, more enlivening than orgasm. He stretched his arms out, grabbed both Zoro and Usopp about the shoulders, and pulled them close, their stubbornly stoic expressions only stirring more laughter in his throat.
"…I mean," Luffy finally gasped for air, slapping his thigh, trying to explain himself. Finally he caught his breath, and threw his arms out wide, still giggling, "Sanji will have sex with ANYTHING!"
It was only because it was Luffy that Sanji only laughed harder, unable to take it as an insult no matter how it had been delivered, and what the circumstances of the moment had been. At this, Usopp joined in, and Zoro, as usual, was the only one left scowling in contempt of the moment. By the time tears were streaming down their cheeks, Luffy and Nami were leaning into each other to hold themselves up, and Sanji was clutching his sides in wonderful pain, Zoro actually muttered, "I guess there are times when you guys don't completely annoy me."
Taking the surrounding din as a cover, Sanji quickly poked his nose against Zoro's sideburns, chiming his earrings with his breath as he whispered, chuckling, "I love you, too."
The Going Merry sliced through the ocean waves, heading due West toward Loguetown. The course so far from Betoni Island had been a very smooth one, despite a few frightening moments as they had navigated their way out of the river itself. Sleep came easily, and Sanji couldn't have been happier to feel the familiar lull of the sea coaxing him into slumber.
It was a full ten hours later, but it felt like a scant five minutes, when he felt a firm shake jostle him awake. His eyes lurched open and he tensed in readiness for anything; the worst. But a familiar scent overtook his senses as Zoro's hand covered his mouth gently, and the swordsman appeared next to him, a finger to his lips, a subtly strict expression on his face.
He gestured for Sanji to follow, and Sanji did.
The colors of the sky were already beginning to lift, but the dark indigo above them still twinkled with a million stars as they made their way to the deck. Silently, without looking back to make sure he was still following, Zoro walked to the stern and leaned casually against the railing, staring eastward.
"This is a better view anyway." Zoro murmured.
Sanji rubbed his eyes, still not fully awake.
After a few moments, Zoro glanced over at him, and, pulling a frustrated face, grabbed him by the arm. As Sanji protested softly, he found the swordsman's arms wrapping around him, his body warming him from behind, and a sharp, angular chin resting easily on his shoulder as the forced embrace turned to a languid, lazy one. Sanji leaned back into Zoro's body and sighed.
"Hey, I just wanted to say—" he began, just as the first ray of light began to peek out over the endless horizon.
Zoro's fingers fluttered over his lips and stopped him. "Shhh." He hushed him firmly, "don't you say a damn thing to ruin this."
Squinting into the rising sun, Sanji smiled. "Okay, then."