Fifteen Minutes -- Originally Posted 02/04/2005
Notes: Takes place between manga chapters 318 and 321. Sanji and Zoro are nursing injuries from the fight with Aokiji. Let it be noted that this is not at all the way that frostbite should be treated -- but apparently according to Odachi frostbite should be treated with hot water and massage. Just don't try this at home, kids.

Find more Zoro/Sanji fic from Scuttlebutt Inc. at scuttlebutt_inc[dot]livejournal[dot]com.

Steam was already starting to curl over the edge of the bath tub as Zoro unwrapped the bandages from his arm. The injury was still just a little bit tender, not quite like any sort of blow he'd suffered before. It was only the fact that they'd been so swift in administering treatment that Aokiji's freezing attack hadn't called for something more severe -- like amputation, according to Chopper. The swordsman still shuddered inside at the thought. As it was, the injury was healing after a few days, only a bit tender and swollen in the affected area. Chopper had ordered daily hot baths for the four crew members who'd been attacked, as well as massage to the affected area several times a day for improved circulation.

It hadn't gone over well when Zoro had scoffed, claiming that training would improve his circulation just fine.

Since then, he'd been forbidden to lift with his injured arm without Chopper's supervision, lest he push himself too far so soon after the fight.

It was hardly the doctor's caution that was he biggest of his concerns or annoyances, however. He had much more annoying things to worry about than Chopper babysitting him.

It had been decided (or rather demanded) that it was too taxing on the Going Merry's plumbing system, as fine as it was, to demand of the ship four full baths a day. Particularly ones as hot as were called for. And much to his frustration and the cook's, it was decided that three baths a day would be allowed between the patients, one each for their captain and resident archeologist who were in far poorer condition and were carefully tended under Chopper and Nami's gentle hands... and one for Zoro and Sanji, for a minimum of fifteen minutes, according to the egg timer which had been placed outside the bathroom door.

Sanji had protested strongly at first to this arrangement, arguing that someone needed to look after Robin-chan while she bathed, just in case she were to faint in the bath or need some other sort of assistance. But his argument was cut short by Nami's offer to help the other woman and what could Sanji do but praise their lovely navigator's kind heart? He might have still refused to bathe with Zoro, and was quite ready to, but in truth, he wasn't to keen on the idea of having to hobble around the ship on one good leg if the other didn't heal properly. Damned fruit-eaters.

Clad in a towel, slung low about his waist, Sanji paused at the bath door, picking up the egg timer and setting its point to fifteen minutes. Then, with one toe he pushed open the door, stepping into the near-opaque wall of steam that had risen in the room.

It was a very stubborn sort of air, nearly as thick as the wet heat that filled the bathroom, clinging to the tile walls and floor, murking the mirror white. It was perhaps only a mutual and unspoken agreement between the two men that kept them from throttling each other for those fifteen minutes each day. The sort of agreement that could only take place between two individuals who knew the true value of their bodies, particularly when faced with the possibility of irreparable damage to their most important weapons.

Zoro could hear the tiniest trace of a limp in the cook's step as he approached. The swordsman himself was already divested of his clothes, back to the door and legs in the water. The still-reddened flesh of his arm exposed, he let himself slide from the edge, into the steaming tub, clenching his jaw tightly to hold back the hiss that threatened to escape between his teeth. The water was hot enough to make his skin prickle, particularly at the flesh of his arm as he eased it beneath the surface.

Sanji kept the towel around his waist until the last possible moment, as he stood by the side of the tub, not-looking at Zoro. Then, he too stepped gingerly into the water, letting the flare of heat clutch at his stomach for a moment before the sensation dissipated across his skin and he could sink the rest of the way into the water, knees bending up against his chest as he went, toes determined to avoid touching the swordsman's. He wondered how many minutes were left on that egg-timer.

It was only from the very corner of his eye that Zoro acknowledged the other man's existence, heavy silence hanging between them. It was a long moment before he even moved but then the shift of water echoed in the otherwise quiet bathroom as he sank down further, fully submerging his arm and moving his good one to begin to rub slowly at the tender flesh and muscle.

"You're still limping," Zoro observed, voice flat, speaking more to the wall than Sanji. The nature of the statement was ambiguous, perhaps a jab at Sanji's stamina that he wasn't healing fast enough or simply pointing out the cook's disadvantage to get under his skin.

Sanji sneered and ran a wet hand through his steam-damp hair. "Your weights are getting dusty," he snapped back, taking the comment as an attack on his strength. He didn't waste more than a moment glancing at the other man though before he was stretching his injured leg out to rest his heel on the edge of the tub near Zoro's head. Space was cramped and he ignored the close proximity in favor of carrying out Chopper's healing instructions. Toes curled in the warm air as pale fingers felt out the injured place on his thigh still submerged under the water.

Zoro's response was a vague snort, sparing his own brief glance at the foot that dripped beside him. He thought to himself, not for the first time, that for a man who tried to and most often did (though Zoro would never admit it out loud) carry and present himself so smoothly... the cook had some damn hairy legs. "At least I've got some muscle to spare," the swordsman shot back, though his voice was just as dry as before. "I'm surprised you didn't just shatter, being nothing but bone."

Sanji frowned, digging his thumbs a little harder into the abused flesh at his thigh. "If I recall, you jumped in that water just as quick as I did. That bastard was strong and you felt it too."

"I'm not an idiot," Zoro said, struggling not to grit his teeth as annoyance tightened his own grip. His brow was furrowed as he worked at his own flesh. "I know when to take precautions." His gaze lazily shifted, falling unintentionally on Sanji's working fingers. He watched from the corner of his eye, the cook's fingers squeezing at his pale flesh beneath the surface of the water. "You're not doing it right," he told him.

"What?" Sanji's chin jerked up and he regarded the other man with a narrowed glare.

"I said you're doing it wrong," Zoro said, meeting that glare evenly. "No wonder you're not healing right." There was, of course, no trace of concern in Zoro's voice. Whether or not Sanji healed at all was hardly of any concern to him. It was just another opportunity to point out the cook's ineptitude. "I would have thought with all your bread-kneading, you could get that right."

Sanji gave a quiet snarl and gave off massaging his leg to kick at the side of Zoro's head. Instead of the satisfying and vaguely hollow-sounding thunk of foot-against-skull, however, the arch of Sanji's foot only slapped into Zoro's wet palm as the swordsman easily caught the half-hearted attack. "What do you know, anyway?" he sneered.

"More than you about being injured," Zoro replied, grip sliding around Sanji's ankle and grasping there firmly. Whether the statement was a slip of the tongue, admitting that he was not unfamiliar with injury or a claim of some sort of confidence was unclear. It was also, a moment later, unimportant as he gave a sharp tug to Sanji's ankle, causing him to slip down along the porcelain, closer to Zoro. Without preamble or so much as bothering to ask, beneath the water, Zoro's free hand was quite suddenly on Sanji's thigh, palm wide and heavy and fingers spread over the tender flesh. He pressed from his palm, giving the tense muscle a light squeeze. "You use your fingers too much. You're supposed to be massaging, not poking, aho."

"Ow!" Sanji jerked back, pushing at Zoro's hands. "That hurts, you moron!" he snapped, eyes wide, doing a fairly bad job of looking unsurprised.

Zoro glared at him, allowing his hand to be pushed away but refusing to relinquish his hold on the cook's ankle, pulled up awkwardly beside his head. His hand hovered at the cook's knee. "No wonder you're still limping around. Stupid cook! Just let me."

Sanji's chin thrust out stubbornly, but he didn't immediately refuse the second offer. He just couldn't figure out, staring across the bath at the other man, what his motives were. What new insult could Zoro get from this? What blackmail-worthy regret might he get out of letting the swordsman rub his bruises? After a long silence, Sanji finally let his toes relax in Zoro's grip and he frowned. "Just don't press so damned hard. I'm not a lump of bread dough."

A quiet grunt was the closest Zoro would give to assent and he released Sanji's ankle, letting it fall back to rest on the side of the tub. When his hand returned to the other man's thigh, it was decidedly more gentle. Surprisingly gentle even, for all the callous on his palm and painted across his features. His palm on Sanji's pale flesh was firm but soft enough to ease him in to the sensation of the tender skin being put under heavier pressure. He kept his eyes on his hand, on his work to avoid Sanji's gaze. "And you bitch at me for not taking care of myself," he muttered under his breath.

Sanji breathed quietly, staring down at Zoro as he worked, as though the man would launch some unprovoked attack were he to divert his gaze for even a moment. "I make it a habit to avoid the need for medical treatment. Unlike you," he answered, voice breathy in the humid air.

"And I know," Zoro said quietly, slowly applying more pressure to the swollen ring that circled Sanji's thigh, "when to take an injury seriously." Fingers held together rubbed slow but firm circles down and then back up before switching back to his palm. When he spoke again, it was with a more raised voice. "Besides, it'd be embarrassing for us if you ended up a peg-leg. Everyone'd think you were copying your old man."

"Ha!" Sanji snorted, an almost-laugh, but catching himself before he admitted amusement in something the swordsman had said. But that was all, he didn't say anything else for the moment, just watched as Zoro worked the tender flesh of his thigh and he scowled a little inwardly to realize that whatever the man was doing did indeed feel better than what he'd done on his own.

Wordlessly, Zoro propped Sanji's ankle on his shoulder, forcing his leg to bend and contorting him into vaguely awkward positions so that he could reach the back side of his thigh. Both hands were put to work now, heels of his palms rubbing into the muscle which had started to relax under his touch. It was satisfying in its own way: Sanji's cooperation meant that he was better at it than the cook and his allowance for it to continue was interpreted as an admittance of this. There were few things as satisfying as forcing Sanji to admit that he was right.

However, despite the fact that Zoro really was good at what it was he was doing, as his palms worked their way down the back of Sanji's thigh, as his calloused fingers brushed across the bruised skin, the cook began to feel just the slightest bit self-aware of how far into his personal space he was letting the other man get. When the two weren't actively fighting, the cook generally preferred to keep the swordsman at a good distance. However, rather than admit to any sort of discomfort, Sanji stubbornly squared his jaw and let the man continue.

A brief silence passed, Zoro's hands almost absently rubbing at Sanji's skin beneath the water, eyes focused on some unspecified point on the tile wall across the room. "Do you think we'll run into him again?" the swordsman wondered quietly aloud. It seemed a somewhat out of character musing -- or rather, perhaps simply out of character that he should spare a second thought about it at all. He found himself unable to help it though; there was something simply unsettling about the power that the seemingly non-threatening man wielded. And it seemed only inevitable that they might encounter it again, considering his apparent affiliation with Nico, whatever it was.

Sanji flexed his toes and gave an idle shrug. "Least we'll know what to expect if he does show up again." Not that it'll do us any good, he added quietly to himself. Not if he could so easily take down both Robin-chan and Luffy so easily. "Can you believe all those horrible things he said about Robin-chan?" the cook scoffed and shifted, stretching his leg out, straightening his knee, toes barely grazing past Zoro's ear. "And I even thought he might be a gentlemen at first."

"Nn," Zoro grunted noncomittally, a frown tugging the corners of his mouth. He'd always had his reservations about Robin -- even moreso than he normally had toward women in general. He leaned back slightly. Oddly enough, with Sanji's heel resting on his shoulder, it was more comfortable than the bath normally was, with them both curled into their own corner. He dared to allow his own legs to stretch slightly alongside Sanji's body. "She's our nakama," he admitted, perhaps somewhat begrudgingly. "But we should still be cautious."

Sanji managed to keep his bristling to a minimum. Perhaps it was the relaxing warmth of the water. "Luffy trusts her," he pointed out, a frown tugging down the corners of his mouth. He shifted sideways almost unconsciously, allowing Zoro the room to stretch his legs.

"Luffy trusts half-green meat," Zoro pointed out in return. He snorted very quietly, giving a tiny shake of his head. It wasn't that he didn't trust Luffy's judge of character -- it just seemed like this might be a different sort of situation. He had to admit, at least to himself, that as much as Nico rubbed him the wrong way, how distrustful of her he had always been, somehow along the way she had become nakama, even to him. Even so, he wasn't particularly keen either on the idea of her leading them blindly into a situation that could spell disaster.

Such as just a few days prior, winding them up with the injuries that now had them stuck in the bath tub together.

But Nico was perhaps the last thing he wanted to be thinking about. And closing his eyes in an indication of disregard, Zoro tilted his head back slightly. His hands had unconsciously wandered lower, outside the ring of swollen and injured tissue and were rubbing absently at the muscle nearer to Sanji's knee. "Just don't let yourself be so blinded by heartache and lust that you forget to watch your back," he warned somewhat condescendingly. But in spite of his airy tone, there was perhaps a trace of sincerity in the statement.

"Che," Sanji protested vaguely, torn for a moment between defending the woman's honor and insisting that he wasn't stupid enough to let danger sneak up on him. "Just because you run away from anything resembling a female doesn't mean that I'd give any enemy the opportunity to take a swipe at my back." His voice carried a mild irritation, but he didn't pull his leg away from Zoro's massaging hands. If anything, he seemed to pretend almost not to notice that the man's hands were still on his skin.

"I do not run away," Zoro protested immediately, automatically and hotly. It was only after the words had escaped him that he gave himself brief pause. Well, perhaps he'd run away a few times. But that woman was different -- Sanji would never even begin to understand that. Since his fingers had traveled away from the damaged area, it didn't hurt quite so much when his grip tightened in annoyance, thumbs digging in harder just above Sanji's knee. He was quick to throw out another protest, lest Sanji notice his pause. His lip curled in a sneer. "And I seem to recall that at least a few times, it hasn't mattered to you what side a woman is on as long as she's got a nice chest."

"What you don't seem to understand," Sanji snapped back immediately, "is that a woman deserves to be treated with respect, whether she's a pirate, a marine or otherwise!" The cook crossed his arms with a pointed nod.

Zoro's hands had ceased their movement, simply gripping lightly Sanji's leg while his dead-pan gaze was leveled at the other man incredulously. "I take it back. Just keep at it -- I'll have a good hard laugh when a woman gets the better of you." The briefest pause. "More than Nami does every day, that is."

Without even a breath to consider his response, Sanji found his cupped hand skimming across the surface of the bath, lifting a sizable wave of water and sending it splashing into the face of the man sitting across from him. It was perhaps only Sanji's respect for his own hands that kept him from hitting the swordsman outright.

Zoro sputtered -- clearly that wasn't the reaction he'd been expecting. A kick to the head or a heel in his stomach perhaps, but the simple splash had caught him off guard. An angry scowl twisted his face and with only a moment's hesitation on his own part, he gave Sanji's leg a sharp tug that sent him slipping and dunking him under the water.

Sanji gasped, getting a mouthful of water as he slipped under, legs kicking upward blindly as he fought to regain his sense of up and down. When he managed to claw his way back to sitting, head cresting the water's surface with an angry coughing sputter, Sanji wasted no time in launching himself at Zoro with an unintelligible yell, grabbing at the swordsman's damp hair with both hands, pushing, pulling him face first into the frothing bath water.

Zoro managed to avoid the wild flailing of Sanji's feet as he struggled to regain his equilibrium, a devil's grin curling his mouth. However, when the cook burst out again and dragged him down, a startled shout escaped his lips just before he hit the water's surface. He thrashed against Sanji's hands shoving him into the porcelain bottom of the tub, managing to twist around and wrench an arm around Sanji's waist. A gasping resurface for air and a twist of shoulders and the fight deteriorated into the tangle of limbs and bath water splashing everywhere as the two men struggled to dunk each other, pulling at hair and grabbing at whatever they could get their hands on.

This carried on for several minutes until Sanji finally had Zoro face down in the tub, straddling the swordsman's back and holding his head under the water. In his struggle, Zoro managed to simultaneously jar his injured arm and smash Sanji's leg between his body and the side of the tub, resulting in simultaneous curses on their lips.

Sanji slipped backwards down Zoro's legs swearing loudly and creatively as the swordsman tossed his head up out of the water with a gasp. "Fucking hell!" Sanji rasped, reaching to clutch at the flesh just above his injury, not quite ready to put his hands directly on the angrily throbbing skin.

Tensing and clenching his teeth, breath hissing between them as he panted to catch it, Zoro regarded Sanji with one open eye, the other winced shut. A moment passed and he wiped the water out of his eyes, swallowing back the pain. "You a cripple yet, cook?" he demanded, the closest thing to an inquiry about Sanji's health that might be pried from Zoro's lips.

Taking a deep breath Sanji forced out a raspy laugh as he fully extricated himself from the other man's legs, letting Zoro sit up again. "Not hardly," he finally answered. "You?"

Zoro answered with his own harsh bark that somewhat resembled a laugh. "It'll take a lot more than a row in the bath for you to take me down," he said with a sort of smirk, the bitter sort of one reserved for rivalrous spats with the chef. Still breathing just a little heavily, he sank back, setting his injured arm on the side of the tub far more gingerly than any action normally witnessed in the swordsman.

Sanji answered this with a quiet and surprisingly good-natured chuckle as he too settled again, in the now-much-lower bath water, drawing a knee up to rest his chin on. "If you hadn't crushed my leg, I so would have taken you down."

Zoro snorted, disgust curling his lip. "The hell you would have," Zoro said incredulously. "You may be a slippery water snake, but don't give yourself that much credit." As he leaned back into the corner of the tub, silence again stretched between them. Condensing and splashed water dripped quietly. "Oi... cook," Zoro finally said, the animosity slipping out of his voice when he spoke up again.

Sanji looked over at Zoro behind wet, blond bangs, swiping at the water that dripped from his nose and doing his best to rub his sparse chin hairs dry. "Hmm?" he asked, eyebrow raised in curiosity.

Zoro hesitated for another long moment, regarding the other with his stony gaze. The thought had crossed his mind that things around here would probably be less interesting without Sanji around. Hell, even without Sanji to fight. Maybe that's why the thought of the cook being permanently injured was so vaguely disturbing to him. That being evenly matched was what kept their daily fights interesting, that somehow in his own way, Sanji kept him on his toes. That this was expected from day to day, that he was somehow used to it. That the idea of not having it somehow seemed strange. Seemed unsettling.

The timer went off, chiming cheerfully from the other side of the door.

"Nothing," Zoro said, shaking his head slightly. He scrubbed a hand at his choppy hair and hauled himself to his feet, reaching for the towel to wrap around his waist. "Nevermind."

Maybe tomorrow.