It's finally here: the dubiously titled Love Cook, a longer discussion of whose creation is available on my bio if you're that terribly interested. Current chapter count stands at six written, nine planned. However, to give you an idea: the first written chapter, posted here, is Chapter I. The last is Chapter XX. How can I cover twenty chapters with seven (one as yet unwritten)? There's room for expansion, since reviews tend to inspire me, and I always wish I had more room. Now I have it. This whole thing, it should be noted, is an experiment in writing technique (not technique for what I write, exactly, but how I organize the writing... oh, never mind, it doesn't make sense anyway). The first step, procrastination, has been exercised for a very long time. So, now we move on to step two, if you're still bothering to read the author's notes.


Chapter One

In which nothing productive happens

It was hard to say on this ocean, where days were never quite the right length and sometimes a sunrise turned into a sunset; where the seasons could change twice in the span of a day, and the newspapers were occasionally fifty years out of date when they were delivered, but Sanji was certain that it was, or soon would be, or just had been, Nami's birthday. As chef of the Going Merry and self-proclaimed lover of women - and Nami-san in particular - he felt it right that he prepare a birthday feast worthy of her.

It wouldn't be the sort of makeshift feast he prepared whenever Luffy called for one - be it because they'd come upon a new island or seen a cool monster or the captain was just feeling particularly hungry. There had been a bustling market on the last island, and he had bought special ingredients for just this purpose. Truly, this was going to be a marvelous feast, as lavish and wonderful as his - admittedly great - skills could prepare.

Or it would be, if he could ever get around to preparing it.

"Oi, shitty marimo! Get the hell out of my kitchen!" The swordsman managed to dodge most of the force of the kick that the irate cook sent towards his head. Damn, that shitty swordsman's finally learning what to expect. Really, the only surprise should be that it had taken Zoro this long to figure out that raiding the pantry would earn him a kick to the head.

"I'm hungry," was the grunted response, accompanied by a fist flying towards Sanji's jaw. "Damn cook, you're supposed to feed us." Sanji considered pulling out a frying pan to hit the other man with. In all likelihood, Zoro would use a sword to block it, and he didn't have a frying pan to waste on that. It was damn hard to find good ones on the Grand Line.

Instead, he contented himself with kicking Zoro in the backside as the man rooted through one of the lower cupboards. "You can wait, shithead. I'm making a feast for Nami-san's birthday."

"So what?" Zoro said, his words muffled by the cupboard he had his head in.

"So Nami-san…"

"That damn woman. It's all about what she wants," Zoro groused, extracting himself from the cupboard with a package of crackers in one hand. "And she's too good to say 'thank you' after you do something for her. Instead, she has to turn it around so that you owe her even more."

Sanji didn't really care what Nami-san had done to the idiot this time; she probably had the right of it anyway. "Maybe if you just paid her back…" A baleful stare dared him to finish the thought out loud.

"Yeah? How? She's charging triple interest, plus withholding my portion of whatever we get until I pay her back."

"So?"

"So how am I supposed to pay her back if she won't give me my damn money? Shitty cook," he added. "I need a drink."

Sanji briefly considered denying him one, until he caught a good look at the other man's eyes. Here was a man that really, really needed a strong drink. Wordlessly, Sanji handed over a bottle of rum, wincing a little as Zoro bit the cork out and spat it across the kitchen. It didn't matter how desperately the other man might need a stiff drink, there was no call to be making a mess of Sanji's kitchen.

There was more to this than hunger or a ridiculous debt. If Zoro wanted a snack, he'd come and take one, exchange a few insults and blows, and retreat back to the deck or the crow's-nest to enjoy it. If he needed a drink, he'd take the bottle down below deck to some dark corner where he'd try to drink himself senseless without anyone - except Sanji - the wiser. Under no circumstances did he sit in a corner of the kitchen with his katana propped around him and glare at Sanji while trying to pretend to ignore him.

"Yeah?" the stupid marimo demanded, meeting Sanji's slightly puzzled glance. "Get on with it, if you think it'll make her happy."

Definitely something going on. Huh.

.oOo.

"Hey Sanji…"

"What?" Sanji spun to glare at the intruder. It was bad enough having the shitty marimo sitting in the corner, alternately trying to drink himself stupid with too little alcohol and glaring at Sanji; he would swear the man was sulking. Now he had to have others actively interrupt his work as well?

"Er… have you seen…" Usopp began hesitantly. "Oh, Zoro! Can you help me?" The glare the swordsman sent the gunner was truly murderous. Definitely sulking. If Sanji hadn't known the two were nakama, he would have sworn it was a look of pure hate.

"Go to hell."

"Eheh, Zoro," Usopp laughed nervously, "I really need your help."

"Go to hell." The glare had been transferred to the rum bottle, as though it were the poor glass bottle's fault it was empty. Turning back to his stove, Sanji grabbed a bottle from an overhead cupboard and tossed it over his shoulder. Even without looking, he knew Zoro caught it. He also knew the other man hadn't been looking at him. "Dumbass cook," he heard by way of thanks.

"Shitty marimo."

"Puh-lease, Zoro?" came Usopp's whine.

"Go to hell!" The empty rum bottle narrowly missed Usopp's head before it smashed into the galley wall.

"Stop making a mess of my kitchen, shithead!" A slamming door was his only answer. "Get the hell out of my kitchen, long nose."

Usopp wasn't even listening to him. "What do you think is wrong with him?"

"Why would I care about the shitty marimo?"

"But we're nakama! We have to care about each other."

Sanji slammed a bowl down onto the counter with more force than strictly necessary and started cracking eggs into it as though each was a certain green-haired head. "You're such a woman." He didn't mean it at all in the nice way. "Get out of my kitchen."

"But Sanji…" Again, that irritating whine.

"If you need help, go ask Chopper. I'm busy."

Usopp's attention seemed to be back on his earlier topic. "Zoro's been really tense lately. Do you think something might have happened?"

What a stupid question. They had all nearly died in Alabasta. Their dear nakama Vivi-chan had been replaced on the Going Merry, if not in their hearts, by Robin-chan. The bounty on the captain's head had been raised, and a hefty one placed on Zoro's. It made Sanji worry that he might gain one for himself soon. A worry for another time. He wasn't sure he'd be as pleased at having one as Zoro and Luffy had been. It had the potential to make his shopping trips - and his flirting - awkward.

Zoro had been getting steadily worse since they left Alabasta, to the point where he had just sat in the kitchen while drinking. Sanji had noticed it but, unlike Usopp seemed to be, he wasn't in the mood to discuss it. "It doesn't matter."

"It does too. He's our nakama," Usopp insisted.

"If that's what it is," Sanji snapped, whisking away vigorously, "why hasn't anyone else said anything?"

"Because…" Usopp started, only to be cut off by the cook's annoyed answer to his own question.

"Because it doesn't matter, you idiot. It doesn't matter because we're nakama." His foot connected solidly with the side of Usopp's head. "Get the hell out of my kitchen."

What the hell is wrong with him? Sanji wondered as the gunner made his piteous way out of the kitchen.

.oOo.

The sound of the door opening was so quiet Sanji almost missed it. Not Luffy, then; the captain had yet to come bother him this afternoon. What amazing restraint by the aho-captain.

"Ne, Sanji-kun?"

"Hai, Nami-san?" Any lesser cook would have forgotten the simmering pans on the stovetop at the arrival of their idol, but Sanji was well practiced at simultaneously adoring Nami-san and cooking delectable foods for her.

"Oh, you're busy."

"Not at all, my dear." Nami-san had stopped blushing at his extravagant praise some time ago. She had also stopped hitting him for it. Sanji wasn't sure it was a good thing. "What do you need?"

"I just want a snack before dinner, if that's alright?"

"Of course, Nami-san. Anything for you. But you must leave room for your dinner," he admonished, nearly breaking his personal code to never contradict Nami-san.

There was a silence from the other end of the room. Did I offend her? Nami-san, don't think I meant you would get fat. You would never be fat! Only, I want you to enjoy your feast, but I also want it to be a surprise. I'm so sorry, Nami-san!

"Ne, Sanji-kun." Her voice was very quiet, overlaid with worry and doubt. It's even worse than I thought! He heard her sit down. "Luffy…"

Sanji nearly proved that a person can literally melt with relief. Nami-san didn't think he'd implied she was fat. Yet there was uncertainty in her voice, which was perhaps worse. Something was bothering his beloved Nami-san, and he would do anything in his power to make it right.

"You worry about Luffy, don't you?" he said as gently as he could, placing a cup of tea on the table beside her.

"No. Yes. Not like that. I mean, I know I shouldn't, because he's so strong and he's only mostly an idiot, and my worrying doesn't help anything, but all the same… do you think it's weird, Sanji-kun?"

Sanji would have liked to have said that nothing Nami-san did could be weird, or that what was weird was that she worried about Luffy and not himself, but he knew she wasn't looking for a flippant answer. "I suppose it's a part of caring for your nakama," he offered cautiously. He didn't add that it wasn't always just that: he himself worried a great deal more about Nami-san than he did about most of the rest of the crew.

Nami sighed as she stared into her cup of tea. "I worry about Zoro too," she confessed quietly. "I know he's strong too, but somehow it seems he's got more to take care of than he can handle. I mean, he's always the one that has to save Luffy. Or me," she added so quietly that Sanji wondered if she'd meant to say it aloud. Then she continued more loudly, "It just seems that he can't take care of everyone like he tries to, so the one he doesn't take care of is himself."

Sanji wanted to say something like 'damn that shitty marimo for making you worry, Nami-san.' "There's nothing wrong with caring for your nakama," he said gently instead. She didn't seem to hear him.

"And now he has a bounty on his head. And he's happy about it!"

"Nami, he's a pirate."

Her eyes were wide and dark, filled with something he couldn't identify and she was trying desperately to repress. "What about you, Sanji-kun? Do you want a price on your head?" That gave him pause. How does she know that's been on my mind?

"I… I guess I'm a different sort of pirate, Nami-san."

Nami-san gave a weak sort of laugh. "What'll you do when you get one, Sanji-kun? What about when I get one?"

She'd hid it better than Zoro, Sanji mused, but something had happened in Alabasta or since then that had changed Nami-san. It wasn't a big change, but she was no longer the woman that Chopper had called a demon for her apparent unconcern over her nakama.

"I guess I'll deal with that when it happens." It didn't seem like enough of an answer. "I won't avoid one, not if I have to give up my dream or my nakama to do it." He'd meant to say it mildly, but the words contained a vehemence he hadn't planned for them to have.

Nami-san's smile had a brightness that made him sure it was forced, but her words held a sincerity that tugged his heart. "Thank you, Sanji-kun." His heart beat faster to hear his idol use that tone for him, and he gave her his brightest smile. Her own increased a little in return, growing more sincere. "I'll just grab some crackers, Sanji-kun. I'm sure you're really busy."

"Not at all, Nami-san. It's no trouble."

She laughed. "You always say that," she accused him as she knelt to rummage through a cupboard. She was back to the bright and care-free Nami-san he loved, and if he could still see an edge of sadness to her where she hadn't hidden it well enough, it didn't seem to hurt her as much.

Besides which, there was the delightful view of her gorgeous rear to enjoy as she dug through the cupboard.

"Where did all the crackers go?"

"Shitty marimo!" The shithead must have taken the last of the crackers that Nami-san wanted for her snack.

"Dammit Zoro!" Nami stormed out of the kitchen, sadness and worry forgotten in her anger at having her snack stolen. "Just wait until I find that…" Sanji was a bit shocked at the crudeness of the name that came from Nami-san's sweet lips.

He hoped she would beat up the shitty marimo quickly so that she could be happy in time to enjoy her birthday feast.

.oOo.

Nami-san hadn't yet tried reindeer meat. It was a hard-to-find delicacy unattainable anywhere but the remote regions of North Blue and the occasional part of the Grand Line. The last island had had a selection the likes of which Sanji hadn't seen since he was a young boy, when the greatest market for reindeer meat was only a half day's sail away.

He hadn't gotten any.

He knew Nami-san would enjoy it, would appreciate the subtle flavors and exotic tastes of properly prepared reindeer meat.

But when your ship's doctor, the one who fixes and dresses your wounds at the point when you're very close to being just a large set of steaks yourself, is a reindeer, there's something intrinsically wrong about dicing and seasoning a dead reindeer. Disrespectful, if you will. He hadn't even got venison, the next best thing. He'd settled for antelope from West Blue. Even Chopper couldn't expect them to give up eating meat, not with this crew.

Speak of the devil - or the squeaky voiced runt, as the case may be - and he shall appear. "Hey, Sanji…"

Sanji tried to repress a sigh, and failed. Today looked to be one of those days when he couldn't go an hour without being interrupted by someone. On this of all days, when he was trying to prepare a surprise feast for Nami-san that he didn't want anyone to know about. Well, the shitty marimo-head knew, but he didn't count.

"What do you need Chopper?" At least Chopper knew better to disturb him unless it was important.

"I need to borrow some herbs. I… I think Zoro's sick!" He wasn't in hysterics yet, thankfully. For a doctor, Chopper seemed to have a surprising amount of trouble keeping his head when people around him were sick or injured. Once he remembered himself he was completely competent and professional, but the whiney theatrics before that point were annoying.

"Shithead's fine."

Chopper squeaked unhappily. "No, no. He's really red, and he won't wake up, and his pulse and breathing are way below what they should be. I found him down in the hold - I think he collapsed!"

"Shithead's fine."

Now the agitation took hold fully. "He needs a doctor. He's really sick. What should I do? Sanji, I don't know what to do."

"Calm down. Shithead's fine." Sanji crouched down and pointed his kebab skewer at the reindeer's blue nose. "He's not sick. If he has a problem, it's nothing you can help him with. He'll be up and about for dinner." It would be easier to be kind and reassuring if he hadn't gone through this so often. At least there wasn't anyone around trying to kill them while Chopper ran about losing his head.

Faced with the threatening skewer and reassuring words, Chopper stopped waving his arms about and opened his eyes fully. "I'm sorry, Sanji. It's just that he's been acting weird ever since Alabasta, and I think it's getting worse. Usopp's really worried."

And you worship that idiot, don't you? Sanji found himself thinking uncharitably.

"I thought it might be some new disease. Nami's been acting a bit funny too, sometimes. Don't you think? Maybe it's contagious."

"Women are like that." He couldn't always defend Nami-san against her enemies, even if she had needed it. But as a gentleman, he wouldn't allow others to speculate or talk about Nami-san behind her back.

"Oh, okay."

"Don't worry about them, Chopper. They can take care of themselves."

The little reindeer gave a resigned squeak. "That's what worries me."

Yeah. Me too.

.oOo.

"Hey Sanji…"

A pot in the face shut the speaker up before Sanji fully realized he had thrown it.

"Oweee, Sanjiiii, that hurt," Luffy whined around the pot.

"Give me pack my pot, dumbass." Luffy pulled it off his face and handed it to the cook, his grin as bright as always.

"Why'd'ja do that, Sanji? It's the first time I've asked for a snack this afternoon." Sanji didn't have to look to know there would be an exaggerated pout on the boy's face. Because, despite it all, despite a hundren million beli bounty on his head and nearly dying at least a dozen times and everything they'd faced on the Grand Line, Luffy was still a boy. This simple truth surprised Sanji every time it occurred to him.

"I'm busy right now."

"But you're always busy, Sanjiiii, and I'm hungryyyy."

"It's Nami-san's birthday, baka, and…" If he hadn't been so frustrated at being constantly interrupted, it would never have slipped out.

"It's Nami's birthday? Then we gotta have a feast!"

"That's why I'm busy, dumbass."

A pause. "Oh." Then, "Will there be meat?"

"Lots. But only if you stop bothering me and let me cook."

"Oh." Wait for it… "So, no snack?"

"No snack."

Then came the sort of pause you got when Luffy was thinking really hard about something. "Really lots of meat?" Sometimes Sanji wondered at himself, at his willingness to follow this boy to the end of the world.

"Enough even for you."

"Okay!"

That should have been the end of it. The promise of more meat later, even at the expense of right now - as long as it was enough meat later, of course - should have sent Luffy scampering back to his favorite perch on the Merry's figurehead, chattering happily about the feast that was to come. I hope Nami-san's surprise isn't ruined by the idiot.

"Hey Sanji…"

"No snack."

"Why's Zoro so grumpy lately?" Why does everyone want to talk about that shitty swordsman today?

"Who knows with that idiot marimo?"

"Maybe it's 'cause Nami hit him." With anyone else, they would have planned this speech just so they could share this piece of news without seeming like a gossip. But Luffy wasn't anyone else, and with his wide eyes and slightly wrinkled forehead - a uniquely Luffy expression, which might not have been physically possible for anyone else - it was obvious that this had truly just occurred to him.

Sanji rolled his eyes. "Nami-san always hits him. He deserves it." That shithead, upsetting Nami-san.

"But this time she meant it!"

And there it was: the reason Sanji would follow this boy to the end of the world. There was no denying that Luffy was an idiot, and yet… and yet with his stupid simplicity, that absolute lack of guile that meant he fell for even the simplest tricks and stupidest lies, he could see right to the heart of a matter and understand it on a level that Sanji hadn't thought was possible. Armies crumbled in the face of Luffy's idiot logic and utter conviction.

"And then she punched Usopp too, but I think she just wanted to hit Zoro again." Damn that shitty marimo. The thought came more from habit that actual irritation at the swordsman.

There was more to this than stolen crackers, Sanji was sure. So why couldn't he see it? There was something there, deep under the surface, and both Zoro and Nami had buried it so deeply that Sanji couldn't even begin to see the shape of it. But maybe, just maybe…

He overcame his instinctive desire to protect and defend Nami-san in everything, to take her side in all disputes, enough to ask, "Why would she hit him?"

"She shouldn't! She cares about him. They're nakama!"

Sanji tossed his captain an apple, feeling like he was giving a dog a treat for performing a trick. Only he never felt guilty about feeding dogs, so why did he feel so rotten now? "Don't worry about it, Luffy. It'll work out."

"Thank-ya Sanji!" the boy called happily as he bounded out of the kitchen, his cheeks bulging as he gobbled the fruit.

Huh. Trust that idiot not to get it. Sanji had no illusions about being able to see people's motives. He tended to blindly accept that his nakama cared for each other and would do everything in the world to protect and help each other; he didn't need to know their specific rationales to know that. But before Luffy's idiot savant eyes, everything was laid bare, even if the dumbass couldn't understand what he saw. Yeah, you could always trust Luffy to see to the heart of the matter.

"Dumbass." He wasn't sure who he meant.


Yes, but what's it all about? So you know, the first two chapters are very light on plot - they're more for setting up the character dynamics. The main conflict, if you will, is introduced in the third chapter. However, overall the story is not very plot driven: that is, there is one, but it's more about how the characters deal with it, and not the next amazing plot twist. Just in case you're confused.