This was nice, Sanji thought as he stood in the middle of a closing circle of Marines. Fighting was a good outlet for frustration, and lately there had been too much of the latter and not enough of the former: now that he had his hands free, so to speak, he intended to milk the fight for all it was worth.
The only thing on which he ever seemed to agree with Zoro was how fast they could get rid of that sort of small fry, but he had already prepared breakfast and was in no hurry at the moment. So Sanji moved at a leisurely pace, infinitely slower than his top speed. He dealt with the Marines one by one, paying special attention to each of them instead of using any of the techniques meant to deal with a large group. It was nice being able to take his time for once.
The distant cries of "Gomu Gomu no silly-attack-of-the-week" and "Drop your sword and turn around slowly, Roronoaaaaaaaargh" were almost as enjoyable as the feeling of his feet connecting indiscriminately against flesh, wood or steel, he noticed with mild surprise. It wasn't that he wasn't strong enough to take care of a confrontation when the two other main fighters were down, of course. He could have sunk the three Marine ships without breaking a sweat and still found the time to go pick flowers for Nami-swan and Robin-chwan before the rest of the crew was awake. Nevertheless, at some point he'd grown used to having people by his side, who could handle themselves as well as he could. Their presence made the fight... comfortable, maybe.
He lost himself in the fight, trying to see how slow he could get while still being in total control of the situation, or how fast he could throw three people overboard with separate kicks.
After what seemed like only a few seconds, he dodged a clumsy Marine-issue katana and found himself looking straight at Luffy. His captain was perched on the railing of the ship, apparently in the middle of a rather one-sided conversation with Zoro. A quick glance around told Sanji that the two other ships were sinking fast, and he was the last one who still even had to deal with terrified privates.
Maybe he'd been wrong in his assumption that the two of them would need the catharsis as much as he did.
"Sanjiiiii! Hurry up, I want to go back and have breakfast already!"
Sanji sighed a little, and dodged the attack of yet another moron waving a stick around. He didn't feel like hurrying up, so instead of assuming a real battle stance he danced a few steps away from the last attackers, removed his jacket and tie and tossed them in Luffy's general direction. "You go ahead. Everything that's for breakfast is on the table, so you can start without me, but remember to leave some for everyone."
From the corner of his eye he saw Luffy reach out to grab his clothes in mid-air and nod vehemently, then get up and grab Zoro by the waist for the short Gomu Gomu trip back. For a moment, Sanji considered reminding him that the fridge was out of bounds, but Luffy had selective hearing when it came to food, and before the cook could decide if it was worth it he was the only pirate left on the ship. Oh well. It was a small mercy anyway, and they could still replenish their supplies even if Luffy emptied the galley in his hunger.
He turned around and gave the bewildered survivors a large grin.
One thing that could be said for Marines was that unlike the average pirate, their sense of justice generally prevented them from running away even when the fight was lost. It made them acceptable training dummies, if nothing else.
Afterwards the swim back to Merry took a bit more time than Sanji had anticipated: he'd somewhat miscalculated the distance, and not functioning at full power was more tiring than going all out, so he swam lazily, enjoying the cold water on his skin. His clothes were soaked and his shoes heavy, but everything he was wearing had taken much worse than a little seawater and it was past time for him to do his laundry anyway.
As he'd escaped unscathed from the fight (barely a warm up, really, even the captain who had supposedly been a famous bounty hunter in his spare time), Zoro had expected to go back to his training as soon as he was done with breakfast.
Judging by Chopper's expression, he wasn't going to be that lucky. Both he and Usopp were extremely disappointed that they hadn't been able to witness the changing, and while Usopp could do nothing but mourn about his lack of luck, the doctor seemed to have decided that it was absolutely necessary that he did a full check-up on Luffy and Zoro.
Luffy seemed to think it was funny. Zoro, feeling like this was nothing but an excuse to use them as test subjects, tried to protest. He really did, but Chopper's patented puppy look made him feel oddly guilty for his thoughts, and he gave up.
Which was why captain and first mate were now standing in their underwear in the galley, waiting for a full inspection of their physical condition. At the moment Chopper was pulling various bits of Luffy's skin to check up on their elasticity (which was rather pointless since he'd kept his powers even as a kid, but Chopper was nothing if not thorough) as Zoro fidgeted without quite knowing why. He wasn't modest by nature, and it wasn't like they hadn't all seen one another naked a dozen times. Yet deep down a small voice was telling him that Sanji probably wouldn't appreciate partial nudity in his kitchen, and he really didn't want to anger the cook--
What the hell? Zoro didn't care about what the cook thought, that was the core of their interaction or something. Maybe there was something wrong with him.
He tried to dismiss the thought by looking around to see something he could train with until Chopper finished examining Luffy. Ah, there. A nice heavy pan would be perfect to increase his finger strength, and the idea of using kitchenware as training material was somewhat appealing. Served the bastard right for messing with Zoro's mind.
He was inching closer to the pan, slowly so that Chopper wouldn't notice and scold him or something, when Luffy pulled away from the doctor.
"Zoro? Your turn."
Damn. Did he really have to go through this? He was feeling quite alright, thank you... but Chopper wouldn't leave him alone until he surrendered, so he stepped up and stood straight, hoping against hope that this wouldn't take too long.
Chopper was busy examining the long scar on Zoro's chest when the door of the galley opened on a very wet Sanji. Something in Zoro tried to send a signal that this was good news, but he stepped on it with all his mental weight and glared extra hard to compensate.
The cook rolled his eyes at him and left the room without a word. Zoro ignored the anxious disappointment in the pit of his stomach.
After what seemed like an eternity, the young doctor finally declared, as expected, that Zoro was in perfect health. Sighing in relief, Zoro put his clothes back on and made to exit the galley.
No such luck.
"Now, about your memories..." Chopper started.
When he was finally free to go, Zoro decided that he should give Chopper's suggestion a shot. He wasn't usually prone to self-introspection, but he was willing to try anything that could help him get rid of the disturbing feeling that he'd known and liked Sanji for ever.
He jumped off the ship and went to the edge of the beach to sit under a tree, far enough not to hear the noise coming from Merry but still in sight, just in case something happened.
Chopper had instructed them to spend some time trying to sort out their memories by chronological order to make sure that nothing was amiss, so he closed his eyes and remembered.
He was five and running up a hill to be in time for dinner, and stumbled on a stone. His knees were so scratched that the had to be bandaged, but he never cried.
Then he was five and a half (the six months were important) and eating ants on a dare. They didn't taste as bad as he'd expected, and he ate a few more when no one was looking.
Then he was six, waking up to the sound of waves in a room he didn't know-- He frowned. No, that had come later.
He was six and stared in awe as the enemies were kicked overboard or sent sprawling against hard wood by an amazingly fast-- No.
He was six and sitting in the galley of Going Merry with a mug in front of him and the occasional splash of a dish eased in the water a bit too brutally, and he was as safe as he would ever--
Zoro took a deep breath. Maybe he shouldn't try so hard. Nothing interesting had happened in his sixth year of life anyway, it was no use trying to remember details. Anyway, what really mattered was the order in which things had happened to him, not the age he'd been.
He closed his eyes again and remember standing confidently on top of the hill before he went to take his first dojo plate.
The master was nice but underestimated him, making Zoro fight against a girl. Zoro smirked and proved that he wasn't as overconfident by using as many weapons as he could.
Pain. Shame. But at least he had a place to stay at now, something to do.
Then it was Kuina and Kuina again, looking down at him after every victory, that taunting smile on her lips as she told him he was weak and would never manage to beat her.
Until she finally admitted he would, but for the wrong reasons. The promise under the stars, that even he understood to mean nothing more than 'I will beat you someday' and 'I will always be a step ahead of you'. At least until the next day, and the fearful look on the boys' faces as they told him what had happened. Death tasted bitter, and suddenly the promise had a whole different meaning.
Sensei kept telling him that the slowest way was often the surest, but Zoro never believed that. Days of training blurred together until he felt ready, and with one last prayer left the dojo in search of the one man who could help him keep his promise.
The next months were cold and hunger and disappointment upon disappointment, until he found that all those morons flaunting their lame bounty posters had their use, too. He still got disappointed every time he entered a town and found no clue as to where the hawk-eyed man was, and still went cold and hungry sometimes, but it wasn't so bad.
Then he met Johnny and Yosaku and for a while things were more animated, more fun. Running from town to town. Standing back and smirking as they tried to fight the prey of the week, until he decided they couldn't take him and finished the job in their stead. Long evenings spent drinking in the bar, and that one time when they'd somehow convinced him to follow the bar girl who'd been watching him all night to her room. Not really a dear memory, but one nonetheless, because according to Johnny and Yosaku that made him a Man.
Then he separated from them because he felt he was wasting too much time waiting for them, and there was more cold and hunger, until he stumbled in that restaurant and had to interfere because he'd always hated people who picked on those who were weaker for entertainment.
Threats and a bargain. I'll show them. Then worse hunger than he'd ever known before, and thirst and aching muscles, all combining into a rapidly descending spiral towards madness. And then...
A silly hat and eyes full of a determination Zoro had never seen in anyone else, his behaviour in that Marine stronghold so casual that it had to be fake, but it wasn't. Finding out that having someone fighting by his side wasn't that bad after all. Being with Luffy was an entirely different sort of madness, one that Zoro had found he didn't dislike.
It was only at that point that Zoro noticed how tense his body had become with the recollection of the previous events, and how just remembering the day he'd decided that pledging his loyalty on his own terms was better than death relaxed him. He would have happily taken a nap at that point, because it was rather nice to remember good events once in a while, but forced himself to keep going.
He easily reached the point when he'd fallen unconscious after an attack from behind, then had to concentrate. That was when he'd woken up, disoriented and confused in Merry. That was when he'd seen Sanji take care of the other pirates, and been so impressed. It wasn't really surprising, when he thought about it. After all, he could accept, however grudgingly, that the bastard was strong. It was normal that it made an impression on him at such a young age.
Still, it annoyed Zoro that he'd remembered so little of life as a Straw Hat pirate that he'd... clung to the cook like that, and for so long. But that was in the past and didn't matter half as much as the fact that despite the meditation, his memories of Sanji now seemed older than those of Kuina unless he forced himself to remember that they weren't, and he wondered what he could do to put that right ag--
"Oi, shithead, you ever been told that doing the dishes was excellent coordination training?"
The command didn't bother to go through Zoro's brain. The next second he was up, on guard, the Sandai Kitetsu pointing at the cook and his left hand reaching for Yubashiri.
Sanji blinked at the swordsman's reaction. Usually it took a bit more provocation than that to get Zoro to draw his sticks on him, and the glare he was throwing was usually reserved for their most serious fights...
But hey, Sanji was not a man to back down from a challenge.
"Someone's jumpy," he commented with a nasty smirk, not moving except to suck on his cigarette insolently. I don't feel threatened by you was a message Zoro seemed to get much faster than... others.
He felt a sort of grim satisfaction when the sole of his shoe connected with the crossed swords for the first time in way too long. This was how things should be. He'd been feeling a bit edgy even after the earlier fight (possibly that had to do with the shock of finding Zoro more than half-naked in his kitchen, though), and no number of Marines could compare to this. These fights were familiar and nasty and exhilarating, and there was no other stake to them than pride.
It was also the best way to put the past month behind them, and Zoro had to feel that too because his strokes were sharper, faster, harsher than usual, and in one or two occasions Sanji really felt like he was fighting for his life, and he had to use some of his best moves and this, not Marines or swimming, this was the work-out he'd needed.
But there was never enough time. Someone always had to interrupt when it got good, dammit, and this time it was Luffy, whose cry of "I NEED LUUUUUUUUUUUUUUNCH!" echoed through the whole island and forced Sanji to stop and hurry back to the ship, because with all of that he'd forgotten that the dishes needed to be done and he hadn't even started on lunch and damn, he hated having to hurry like that.
Zoro felt marginally better after that, and when he dragged himself to lunch after being called three times there wasn't a shred of discomfiture in him when the cook snapped that since he never did anything to help he could at least be polite enough to be on time at meals. Now only the shame of having forgotten Kuina remained, and that meant training, training, and more training. It was in no way an expiation, but it got him a bit closer to his goal, and he couldn't think of anything better to do.
But of course, Nami had a different idea. Why was it, he wondered as he tried to tune her out and failed, that all of his crewmates had decided to not leave him alone today?
"...and I thought you might want to see them," she was saying, and even though she was behind him he could tell there was that horrible self-satisfied smirk on her face. That boded ill. He didn't know what she was talking about, but it was probably safer for him to check it out, so he let go of the weights -carefully, he didn't want Usopp to get on his case as well- and turned to her.
The first picture she showed him was one of Luffy, who was so himself that it really didn't matter that he'd been ten years younger at the time. His features were a bit rounder maybe, his clothes different, and he wasn't wearing his hat, but his posture as he sat on the figurehead staring at the horizon was terribly familiar.
Zoro knew better than to think it would be the same for him, and indeed, it wasn't. Over thirty days, the witch had made him dress in a selection of the most ridiculous clothes she'd thought of. And if she had one talent, he contemplated as he was forced to be reminded of outfit after shameful outfit, it was imagination in her nastiness.
He was just deciding that this was a big conspiracy to make his life miserable and that he wouldn't fall for it when she showed him the last picture.
Which had been taken in the males' quarters at night, and showed Zoro shamelessly snuggling up to the cook with a content look on his face. This couldn't be allowed to go on, he decided on the spot, and asked to see the others again.
Nami made the mistake of handing him all the pictures at once. He took them with both hands with a relieved sigh, and tore them apart in one swift move. Then again, and again, and again, until there was nothing but fragments of coloured paper in his hands. Then he went to the railing and threw them overboard, just to be sure.
Nami didn't even twitch as he did it, and it was only when he turned back from the railing that he noticed the small smile on her face.
"Those were copies of very valuable pictures, Zoro. Fifty-nine of them, five hundred bellies each, so you've just robbed me of twenty-four thousand and five hundred bellies," she told him sweetly. Zoro stared at her in horror. How could he have believed for a moment that she'd be naive enough to let him have the only copies?
"Also," she went on, "since you destroyed them on purpose, I won't be as nice to you as I usually am, so the interest will be toichi. On the usual 300, of course."
"DAMMIT, WOMAN, ARE YOU A PIRATE OR A YAKUZA?"
"DON'T YOU DARE INSULT NAMI-SAN, YOU UNGRATEFUL BASTARD!"
Oh great, just what this conversation needed.
"Don't get involved, shithead," he barked at the irate cook. "This isn't your business."
"Anyone who threatens a lady in my presence is my business, shitty seaweed," Sanji shot back, looking oddly threatening despite the pink apron and wooden spoon. "And we all know you're feeling incredibly stupid, so don't take it out on us. Dickhead."
"What the fuck do YOU know?" he snarled, angry beyond words. How the hell could the moron understand what it meant to him that he'd forgotten, wasted so much time, made such a fool of himself?
Sanji raised an eyebrow at him but didn't answer, and just headed back to his kitchen. Zoro would have congratulated himself on winning the argument, if not for the strange expression he'd seen on the cook's face as he left.
The impression that this wasn't over nagged at him until dinner. It was a nice dinner though, with none of the foods Zoro particularly disliked, and to Luffy's delight the cook had prepared a chocolate fondue for dessert, with fruits and sponge cake to dip in it. Zoro was almost relaxing when Usopp nudged him in the ribs.
"Oi, Zoro, stop hogging the raspberries."
Zoro managed not to freeze for more than half a second, and he did give Usopp the bowl of raspberries that had been sitting next to his elbow since... well, since Sanji had put it there. For a moment he wondered if there had been a message there, but he dismissed the thought as soon as it came. The earlier meditation was just making him think too much.
Still, it kept bothering him all through his evening training. It raised the point that the least the cook knew was what Zoro had told him. And he'd told him a fucking lot, young and careless that he'd been.
And, yeah, to the shithead's credit, he'd done his best, in the circumstances. Zoro had to admit that Sanji had helped, in a way, even if he didn't know much of Zoro's past history.
No one did but Zoro himself, and he was forced to face the fact that he had forgotten. Not through any will of his own, of course. But no matter how hard he tried to convince himself that it wouldn't happen again, who was to say that there wasn't another Devil Fruit out there that made people forget about their past and goals? It was possible that he'd forget again, and he couldn't allow that to happen. He just couldn't let the memory of her fade away again. One time could be written off as an accident (even though it was still his fault for being too careless and not fast enough), but what would a second time mean?
Fuck, he needed a drink.
One very nice thing about Luffy's permanent hunger was that he made doing the dishes a lot easier. All the plates were almost clean before Sanji even put them in the sink, and it only took a minute or so to wipe out what little chocolate remained in the pan. It left a lot of room for thoughts, such as 'what the fuck were you trying to prove with that dessert'?
Of course it was easy to tell himself that it was a coincidence, and it would have been if he hadn't gone through the trouble of going back to town to buy all the ingredients for it when there were so many other things he could have prepared.
So maybe he'd been trying to tell the moron something. It was nothing but an extension of their usual relationship, really. Look, I know more about you than you wanted me to. I'm the one with the advantage. Sanji snorted. Now he was the one acting like a kid.
For some reason he didn't feel like leaving the kitchen just yet, so he started on delicate pastries for the morning, as he'd done so often in the past month while Zoro drank his milk in silence. Maybe that was why he barely twitched when the door opened on the very seaweed-head that Sanji was trying so hard not to think about.
This time though, the swordsman headed straight to the wine rack, and Sanji made the conscious decision not to protest the theft of his alcohol (unless it was this bottle, or that one) because after all, Zoro hadn't touched the stock for a month, and there was still time to buy some more here anyway.
Having picked his bottle (thankfully not either of the ones Sanji had been ready to protect), Zoro went to the spot he'd sat at almost every night for the past thirty days, and started drinking silently.
It was probably only out of the fast habit they'd created during these last weeks, and would hopefully fade soon enough, but for once the swordsman's presence didn't make Sanji uncomfortable or tense at all. So the cook chose to focus on his preparations instead of confronting him.
"I didn't kill her," Zoro suddenly volunteered. Sanji blinked. Starting a serious conversation when there was no need to was a breach of the code. Especially on this topic, which the man had always kept tight within. Sanji kept kneading his dough and didn't say anything, but most of his attention turned towards the slumped figure behind him. He wasn't Luffy. He couldn't just shrug off his own curiosity.
"The girl," Zoro explained after it was clear that Sanji wasn't going to participate any more than strictly necessary. "Kuina. It was an accident. She slipped in the stairs. I wasn't even there."
And it would have been all, except that it wasn't. Accidents happened. No matter how dear the girl could have been to Zoro, it wasn't enough to warrant the scared, lost look Sanji had seen on the kid's face after his dreams, or the way he had clung to Sanji every night. Or even the fact that Zoro was here and telling him about it. Sanji let go of the dough for the moment and turned around, raising his eyebrow expectantly at Zoro. Get to the point or get out of my kitchen.
The shitty swordsman glared at him for a moment, and Sanji tensed as he saw a hand reach for the white handle at his side.
"I made her fight me with her katana," Zoro said, looking intently at Sanji as he clenched the Wadou Ichimonji in his hand. "She never used it. And then she went to get her whetstone. And she slipped." He took a long sip out of the bottle after that, clearly indicating that the story was over.
Sanji wasn't quite sure how to react to this confession. It didn't really connect to anything Zoro-related, except for his favourite katana. It didn't explain his drive to become the absolute best, or his thickheaded determination. All it told Sanji was that, really: there had been a girl, and she'd died, and Zoro felt guilty for it.
But of course, "it's not your fault" wouldn't cut it. However much they had, urgh, bonded when Zoro was... not really himself, it didn't mean that the dynamics between them had changed so much that the seaweed-head would look to Sanji for his absolution. And even if he'd wanted to, Sanji couldn't have given it anyway. The way the story was told, it really wasn't Zoro's fault, unless he'd spread oil on the stairs and purposely put her sword in such a state that she'd had no other choice but to sharpen it. Which Sanji could only assume he hadn't.
It wasn't Zoro's fault, just like Zeff's missing leg wasn't Sanji's fault because he'd never asked for it. It had been the old man's decision all the way. Sanji had chosen to be grateful for the sacrifice made, but strictly speaking he wasn't responsible. He'd always known he could have walked away from the Baratie anytime, and the shitty old man would have had no moral high ground to stop him.
Yeah, right. Sanji knew as well as anyone that all logic failed when it came to gut-wrenching guilt. It's not your fault meant nothing, no matter how hard you tried to convince yourself or how often you were told. Anyway, Sanji's compassion was reserved for ladies.
"You made a girl fight you with real swords?" he snarled instead. "You dumb oaf." That moron, who Sanji grudgingly acknowledged was better with his swords than most men could ever dream to be, challenging a woman to a fight? What had he been thinking? Zoro looked back up at him like he was trying to size him up, to decide if whatever he had to say was worth the potential fight. Sanji glared, regretting that he hadn't used the last month to kick some manners and respect of the ladies inside the brat. You never knew. Maybe it would have worked.
"Two thousand and one fights," Zoro finally said, looking so straight at him that it seemed like he was looking through him. "Two thousand and one defeats. Remember that, cook. Women are only weak and frail and whatever because they don't try to be strong."
He got up then, and Sanji turned back to his dough, knowing the conversation was over. Without a fight, which was a rare occurrence. The door to the galley opened, and then, almost carelessly but with a hint of a threat, Zoro said "I never told Luffy", and was gone.
Sanji closed his eyes and sighed. The clear message was you keep your mouth shut about this. Probably Zoro didn't even know why he'd told him. Sanji certainly didn't know. And while he knew he should have felt somewhat good that the moron had lowered his defences enough to tell him something that seemed so important to him, all he really wanted to do was kick him in his seaweed head for implying that Sanji was a stupid gossip.
It was a relief that this, at least, hadn't changed.
Note:Toichi is an interest system that charges ten percent every ten day. It takes ten times that, that is a hundred days, for the debt to double. Within a year, it has been multiplied by eight.