A fanfiction by Velkyn Karma
Summary: Sanji knew how difficult it was to survive the hell that was starvation. What he hadn't expected was that he'd need to get his nakama through it, too. Features Zoro and Sanji; Nakamaship, NO PAIRINGS.
Note: Takes place after the Strawhat separation on Sabaody. Note that this fic is AU (Alternate Universe) due to events occurring differently after the separation. Hawkeye Mihawk does not reside on Kuraiana Island in this fic, and is not even in this fic at all, period.
Warnings: This fic is rated T (mostly for swearing and some dark themes). The whole overall fic is a bit dark but usually stays within the T range. THERE ARE TWO EXCEPTIONS. This first chapter is borderline-M due to some graphic descriptions, and there's a second borderline chapter later on. If you're squeamish, you might want to skim.
Disclaimer: I do not own, or pretend to own, One Piece or any of its subsequent characters, plots or other ideas. That right belongs solely to Eiichiro Oda. The only thing that belongs to me here is the concept for the story.
"If you can't run, you crawl. And if you can't crawl, you find someone to carry you."
"And you're sure this is the place," Sanji repeated with a frown, breathing out another blast of nicotine in a rush.
"Yup," Luffy answered. "This is the place."
"I can feel it. I'm sure."
Sanji sighed, and stared over the railing at the dismal looking island. It was dark, foggy, and looked like something out of a horror story. And it reminded the cook rather uncomfortably of Thriller Bark, though he knew logically that it couldn't be. Nami-san said that according to her maps, the place was called Kuraigana Island, but that locals at the nearby islands reported it abandoned for years. Nobody would approach it, and nobody could give them an updated report on its status.
Not that Sanji could blame them, really. The island was swathed in fog, and didn't look to have any discernible ports. They had reached the island at mid-day, and Nami-san had taken the Thousand Sunny all around the entire island, a process that took until nearly dusk. They'd found a rocky outcropping to drop anchor next to in the end that served as a make-shift dock, but it had taken skilled sailing and tight coordination in order to even manage it.
Sanji still wasn't entirely sure why they were here, other than that Luffy insisted, and Luffy got what Luffy wanted. He was the captain, after all. But it wasn't like him to leave nakama behind, either, and they had only assembled half their crew since then. He, Luffy, and Nami-san were there, of course, as were Usopp and Brook, but Robin-chan, Zoro, Chopper and Franky had yet to return.
And they wouldn't be returning any time soon, with Luffy's abrupt and stunning decision. The vivre cards that had been handed out to each of them directed them all to the Sabaody Archipelago, and it was there that he, Nami-san, Usopp, and Brook had arrived at. It was there, too, that their four missing members would head to, following the instructions of the cards. But Luffy had unexpectedly ordered Nami-san and the others to leave port, and without so much as a heading for direction. He had merely pointed and said, "We head that way," and accepted no arguments (and there were many, from all of them). Nami-san had barely had time to obtain an Eternal Pose to get back to the archipelago before Luffy shooed them out, seeming almost...anxious.
It had unnerved Sanji enough to make him finally ask just what the hell was going on, and the answer was unexpected. "Zoro's in trouble."
Sanji had only stared, stunned, and slowly repeated him. "Zoro's in trouble?"
"Yeah. Zoro's in trouble. He's not here, and he's not coming. So we need to find him."
"Come on, Luffy," Sanji had said in exasperation. "This is the marimo we're talking about. He thought north was up for hell's sake. He probably just managed to go in the exact opposite direction that the card told him to."
But Luffy had only shaken his head, all the more determined. "No. He's in trouble. I can feel it. He can't come, and he needs us, so we're going to go save him. Robin and Chopper and Franky will understand, they'd want us to save our nakama too."
And he repeated it every time anybody asked ever since. Which was why, two weeks later, the Thousand Sunny was now floating off shore of this creepy island, somehow miraculously directed here on nothing more than a crazy whim from their captain. Sanji sighed, and wondered just how the hell he'd gotten on this crew to begin with.
Luffy was now bounding over to Nami-san, insisting that they go explore right away. He seemed cheerful, despite his insistence that they were rescuing a nakama. Sanji supposed he could understand that in a way. As far as Luffy was concerned, the fact that they were even here meant Zoro was safe now, before they'd even found him.
"Now?" Nami-san was asking, bewildered. "Luffy, it's getting dark, and that island...we don't even know what's on it!"
"Then it'll be an adventure," Luffy said excitedly. "It's a mystery island after all!"
"Luffy. Take this seriously. If Zoro is really in trouble like you said, then something here had to attack him. And you want us to go out, in the dark, without any warning, to explore?"
"Yes!" Luffy answered, nodding excitedly.
There would be no dissuading him, Sanji knew, and so he and Nami-san exchanged looks and finally sighed. After some debate, it was decided that Usopp (caught with a sudden case of I-Can't-Step-On-The-Creepy-Island-Or-I'll-Die Disease) would remain behind with the Sunny, while Sanji, Nami-san, Luffy and Brook explored it and searched for their missing nakama.
They hadn't expected much on the fog-shrouded, deserted island, which was why all of them (save Luffy) were stunned to find a well-made gravelly path not too far from where they had docked their ship. It seemed to lead down to the natural dock on the island, which meant whoever had built it was familiar with sailing. They agreed to follow it.
After an hour of careful trekking they saw no sign of anything living, other than a few animals. They did stumble across an unusual sight, however; the gravel path cut straight through broken-down stone ruins, which looked for all the world like they had been hit with some sort of natural disaster. Square blocks of stone littered the area, and there were piles of stones where foundations for stone houses had clearly existed once upon a time.
They searched through the whole broken-down village, but found no sign of the marimo anywhere. There were a few places where the stone looked more recently worn than others, shattered in ways that did not mesh with the destruction that had clearly hit the rest of the place. If Sanji had to guess, he'd say a battle had taken place here, but it was hard to tell. Footprints couldn't be left in stone, and the gravel had been raked clean, obliterating any traces of combat a long time ago.
The man-made path seemed to continue right over the ruins, however, and Nami-san commented that it had probably been made after whatever had destroyed this village took place. Sanji agreed with her (she was brilliant after all), and the four of them continued up the path towards wherever it led.
The path ended abruptly at a massive iron-wrought gate, topped with spikes and guarded by decorative gargoyles on stone posts. It was like something out of a cheesy horror story, Sanji thought with exasperation...as was the massive, but slightly broken down castle within the gate. All they'd need now was a flash of lightning and an appropriately spooky voice to fit the rest of the cliches.
Of course, scary or silly, there was one thing that they could all count on. Sanji exchanged looks with Nami-san, and waited expectantly for the exclamation and subsequent order to come.
"So cool!" Luffy yelled delightedly half a second later, right on time. "What an awesome mystery castle! Let's go inside and see more of it!"
Sanji sighed, lit a cigarette, and obediently slipped through the wide bars after the other three. If the marimo was fooling around in there, he sure as hell was going to give the man a good kick in the teeth for being such an annoyance.
They hadn't had much luck, exploring the castle. Luffy and Brook had gone one way, while he stayed with Nami-san (naturally, to protect her) and headed opposite. So far all they had found were a number of dark corridors and broken-down walls and doors. Nami-san had discovered a pair of torches, which Sanji had lit with his lighter so that they could see, but that was about it for 'miraculous' finds.
Still, Luffy insisted that the idiot marimo had to be in here somewhere, just before they'd split up. And he'd been oddly firm on that point, stating it with the quiet calm that usually indicated some form of strange wisdom in their captain. Truth be told it chilled Sanji a little to hear it, and so they kept up the search, stumbling over broken boards and stone and peaking into each doorway, hoping to catch a glimpse of their (probably snoozing) swordsman.
Their first major discovery came almost forty-five minutes later, when Nami-san discovered a door that was locked unusually well. "Too solid for this broken-down place," she'd stated, tapping the thick wooden boards that made up the door. "Something's fishy about it. Let's explore. Maybe there's treasure!"
Sanji was more than willing to break the offending door down—it was strong, but not strong enough to withstand his Red Leg martial arts, and he had it in splinters within seconds. Behind it was a flight of stairs leading downward. Unlike the rest of the creepy mansion, these stairs weren't covered in an inch-thick layer of dust, but rather had a number of footprints and an unusual furrow in the middle of the stairs. Nami-san pointed these out, and Sanji nodded in understanding. Someone had been through here, more recently than anywhere else, and had probably dragged something down after them.
Sanji could clearly see Nami-san's thoughts filling with images of huge sacks of gold and jewels, to judge by the beri in her eyes. Well, she deserved it, certainly! They followed the trail in the dust down the stairs, torches held high, and Sanji vowed to carry however much she needed him to out of the darkness when they found it. And he'd make sure none of the others got it, too; it would be Nami-san's well-earned gold, and nobody else's.
But it wasn't gold that they found, when they reached the foot of the staircase. There was a hallway, dark and dank, and the torches cast ominous shadows along the left-hand wall. The smell was terrible; musty, with hints of sickness, rot, filth, and old blood. He wrinkled his nose against it immediately and coughed involuntarily. Nami-san did much the same.
"I don't think there'd be any treasure down here," Sanji said doubtfully, frowning. He didn't like this place, suddenly. Something about it, maybe the smell, sent chills down his spine and made him unexplainably anxious. Something wasn't right here, and he needed to get Nami-san out as fast as he could.
Nami-san nodded in agreement, covering her nose with her free hand. She turned to leave, holding the torch in her other hand high, but froze suddenly as its shadows flickered over the right wall, revealing what they hadn't noticed before in the gloom.
There wasn't a wall on their right. Instead a series of thick iron bars, with an iron door fastened into the center, blocked off a small square area of space approximately eight feet by eight feet. It was a cell. A stone wall separated it from a second cell next to the first, and a third was beyond that, halfway vanished into the gloom.
Instinct was screaming at Sanji now, and he stepped forward, gesturing to Nami-san. "We should leave," he said urgently. "There's something not right about this place."
"I...maybe," she agreed, frowning. "But something...something feels weird here. Give me just five minutes, I want to peek into the cells."
Sanji was doubtful, and could have told her they wouldn't find anything of interest. Certainly not the treasure she wanted, but probably a number of unpleasant things, judging from the smell. And a lot of spiders. Spiders were common in dungeons, weren't they? But he couldn't leave her by herself, so he nodded grimly and kept close to her side, sweeping the torch around repeatedly to search for danger.
The first cell was empty, as was the second, beyond piles of unrecognizable things that neither of them had any desire to examine more closely. Nami-san tested each of the doors with a quick shake. One hung awkwardly on its padlock, for its hinges were broken. But both were firmly locked, which seemed to puzzle her.
"These are in really good repair, other than that broken door," she explained to the cook, at his confused look. "I don't understand why somebody would bother to keep these in such good condition, if there isn't even anything in them."
"Maybe there was," Sanji answered dubiously, eyeing the dark stains and unrecognizable lumps in the otherwise empty cells. Nami shrugged, and continued on.
Moving broadened their circle of light, and they discovered that there were five cells in total. They approached the third, raised their torches high, and peered in...only to recoil in disgust.
This cell was occupied, and what was worse, they recognized its inhabitant. It was Perona, the girl with those negative ghosts that had caused so much trouble back on Thriller Bark. Last they had seen her she was creepily perky, with a gothic lolita style, bubblegum-pink hair, and obsession with cute animals and zombies. But even so Sanji wouldn't have wished this on anyone, and especially not a woman. The girl was clearly dead, curled up in the center of the cell and covered in so much grime and blood it was nearly impossible to discern her original hair color, or the color of her clothes. Her hands were bound tightly behind her with cuffs that Sanji quickly recognized as seastone infused, which would explain how she was kept there to begin with. The smell of rot came most strongly from her cell, and Sanji realized she'd probably been dead for days.
"It's that girl," Nami-san said, covering her mouth with her hands. Then, almost before Sanji had realized it, she'd shoved her torch into his free hand, spun, and was promptly violently ill on the floor.
Sanji couldn't blame her. The sight was disturbing, and he was barely keeping his own dinner down, and that only due to sheer force of will. It would be rather unmanly to throw up in front of Nami-san, after all. Still, he couldn't keep himself from staring at the girl with morbid fascination, trying to figure out exactly why she had died.
It hit him suddenly, like a sack of bricks. There were probably a number of minor factors—the place smelt of illness, so she could have contracted something, and it was quite cold down here, so anybody was liable to catch a fever. But he knew, in the pit of his stomach, that those weren't the main causes. It was difficult to see underneath all the filth that coated her body, but Perona's skin was shriveled tight against her skeleton, her body a bony mass that nearly rivaled Brook's. She'd starved to death.
Unbidden, memories from years ago came flooding back to him, memories of sitting on that god-forsaken rock waiting for somebody to come and save him because he couldn't even save himself. He remembered staring at his hands then, the only part of him he could still really see after a while. They'd been skeletal, frighteningly so, reminding him all too keenly of his dependence on the food that he didn't have, of how his own body was attacking itself, feeding on itself, because it couldn't find that nourishment anywhere else. Remembered the one time he'd looked in the water's reflection when he took a drink from the basin, seeing his own face, nearly skeletal itself. That had scared him to death, given him nightmares for days. He closed his eyes every time after when he drank.
His mind snapped back to the present, and with a nearly impossible wrench he managed to pull his gaze from the dead body. Nami-san was watching him with concern, still wiping her mouth on one sleeve. When their eyes met, she held out her hand for her torch and said with a frown, "Are you okay?"
"Fine, Nami-san," he said, though his voice was shakier than he would have liked. And then, with more forced cheer than usual, he added, "Thank you for being so concerned about me!"
Nami-san grimaced. "Let's just...move on," she said, and Sanji was concerned to find her own voice was wavering as well. "I have a really bad feeling about this." And she continued down the hall towards the final two cells.
"Nami-san, maybe we should just leave," Sanji suggested, giving the dead body one last glance before following her.
"I'd love to," she said, her voice dark. "Whatever did that to a Devil Fruit user could be back. But I...I don't know. I have a feeling...it's probably a stupid hunch, but..."
"No ideas of yours are stupid, Nami-san!" Sanji cooed for her despite himself.
She smirked at him, but it was devoid of cheer. "...I remember seeing Kuma attack her. He asked where she'd like to go on vacation. And he asked Zoro the same thing, but Zoro never answered...and we're here for him..." She trailed off, looking suddenly anxious, and thrust her torch at the fourth cell. Sanji held his breath.
It was empty. Sanji breathed out, and heard Nami-san sigh audibly as well in relief. Only one more to go. They trotted a little more quickly to the final cell, determined to finish their check and get out of there as fast as possible. Both held out their torches simultaneously, and Sanji abruptly felt like he'd been kicked in the stomach.
Zoro was laying in the middle of that cell, but it wasn't the same Zoro he had seen on that day that Kuma separated them all; wasn't the same Zoro he and Nami were used to. Like Perona, he too was curled tightly in the middle of the floor, his arms wrenched so sharply back behind him and so tightly cuffed that his shoulders stuck out at painfully odd angles. He was still wearing shredded remains of the striped shirt he'd worn when they'd last seen him, and his pants were shredded as well, but his boots and haramaki were nowhere to be seen. Vicious scars, the same scars that Sanji had seen on him after he'd taken on Luffy's suffering in Thriller Bark, the same ones that had reopened against Kuma, crisscrossed over Zoro's body beneath the rotted-away bits of bandages. They looked like they had healed poorly. Sanji could recognize that even despite the layers of grime and dust that covered their swordsman as well—he, like Perona, was positively filthy. His hair was longer and matted, while his face had the thick stubble of days worth of obvious neglect. Not that you could really tell, or even see what color it was, under all the filth.
But worst of all was that Zoro had suffered the same fate Sanji feared the most for himself, or any of his nakama. The thick muscles that the swordsman had spent hours on both the Merry and the Sunny building up were gone, just gone, leaving behind only skeletal, stretched-thin remains. There was nothing left to even suggest that the once-powerful man had had enough physical strength to lift a building and hurl it at an opponent, to cut through steel, to survive taking the hurts of both himself and his captain and still remain standing.
This wasn't the same Zoro they knew. It was him, but it wasn't him at the same time. Sanji felt a horrible twist in his stomach and recoiled slightly at the sight of it, sending his torch flickering.
"Oh, no," Nami-san whispered under her breath. Her eyes were wide, and a little watery, not that Sanji could blame her. Now he really did feel like being sick himself, and probably wouldn't have cared by this point if Nami-san watched or not. His stomach was beginning to roil, but at that moment there was a hint of movement from with in the cell, and the next second Sanji saw a soft reflective glitter as his torchlight flickered off one of Zoro's half-opened eyes.
Sanji's jaw dropped, stunned, and Nami gasped as she too spotted it.
"I don't believe it," she whispered, now glancing at Sanji to exchange stunned looks, and he could only nod in silent agreement, not even sure what to say. Zoro was still alive.
Nami had shoved her torch into Sanji's hands in seconds and withdrew a pin from her orange hair, bending to get a look at the lock. "Hold the light here," she instructed quickly, urgently, and Sanji did as he was bid immediately, for once not just because she'd ordered him to. The faster they got in, the faster they could get Zoro the hell out of there, and the faster Sanji could get something in his stomach. Zoro might not have died of starvation yet, but he was pretty fucking close at this juncture, and unless they did something fast...
Zoro groaned softly as the light was moved, and his eyes slid shut again tiredly. His breathing, barely noticeable as it was, turned into pained rasps, and he seemed to be trying to bury his face in the thick, foully-coated stone. Sanji realized that the torchlight was probably hurting his eyes, especially if he was kept down here in the pitch darkness for who only knew how long. He shifted carefully to try and block as much of the light as he could with his shoulder, while still giving Nami-san enough light to work by. Normally he wouldn't mind tormenting the marimo, but this was hardly a normal situation, and Sanji knew just how dangerous their swordsman's condition was. From personal experience, no less. He shuddered.
"There," Nami-san said, and with an audible click the cell's door swung open. She snatched her torch back quickly and the two ducked inside, wedging the door with a broken piece of stone to keep it wide. Then they were both at the swordsman's side, crouching as best as they could to avoid the filth and decay scattered all along the brick floor.
Zoro had actually flinched—no, that wasn't right, Sanji decided; twitched was better, Zoro never flinched—he'd twitched when they creaked the cell's door open, and cracked his eyes open again, only to squeeze them shut at the approach of the light. Sanji had found that in and of itself unusual, but worse still was the swordsman's reaction when they crouched near him. Zoro slit his eyes open, barely, drew back his lips to expose his teeth—and growled at them.
Nami-san exchanged startled looks with Sanji, who shrugged in confusion himself. "Maybe he can't see us? The light looks like it's hurting his eyes."
"Maybe." She frowned and tried to shield her torchlight with one hand while examining their swordsman's shackles. "I think I can get these off, but you'll have to hold this again for me...and I'll have to do it slowly, I don't want to hurt him..."
She shivered slightly as they both realized the true meaning of that statement. Never before had Nami-san truly been in danger of hurting Zoro. Even when unconscious or wounded after a heavy battle, Zoro still remained obstinately enduring, impossible to really hurt. But now he was...fragile, Sanji realized with a twist of disgust and horror, a word he had never expected to apply to their swordsman, ever. But it was true all the same. In Zoro's current state, if they weren't careful, they could easily break him beyond saving.
"You'll be fine, Nami-san," Sanji said encouragingly, and he meant it. He'd been the victim of more than one of her annoyed punches on the ship (well deserved, of course). But he knew she could be incredibly gentle and dexterous when she needed to be, and cared for her nakama as much as any of the others.
But when Sanji reached over Zoro's prone body to take her torch from her, the swordsman growled again, a rasping, dry sound that sounded oddly feral. Like he wasn't even human anymore. Like he was some kind of beast. Sanji paled, and was thankful for the darkness, so that Nami-san couldn't see it.
He recalled, with the sudden vividness only strong, terrible memories could produce, what those last days of hunger had been like. How he had become so hungry he was willing to attack a fully grown, murderous pirate well known for killing with his Red Leg martial arts just for the chance at a scrap of food. How he'd barely known who he was by then, how he'd forgotten his dreams, his hopes, his fears, his joys, and pulled back into himself, to the very basics of living, to the very edge of humanity. He was hungry. He was thirsty. He was in pain. He slept a lot, but he was still tired. Something about a ship; he didn't really know by then.
Hunger made humans feral. Pain made humans feral. Survival made humans feral. Zoro had survived, barely, but he definitely wasn't the Zoro they knew right now. And, Sanji realized grimly, suddenly, he probably didn't even recognize either of them anymore, because he probably didn't recognize himself anymore, only his current situation.
"Marimo," Sanji said, very quietly, very softly, like he would to an angry, wounded animal in a trap, not a person. "Calm down. It's me and Nami-san."
Zoro quieted for a moment, but it seemed more out of confusion, not calm. The soft, non-threatening tone seemed to puzzle him, but as soon as Sanji reached forward to take Nami-san's torch again Zoro was snarling anew, noises that quickly turned into dry, hacking coughs.
"What's going on?" Nami-san asked in confusion. She looked like she wanted to be sick again, and probably didn't understand why their nakama wasn't reacting to their presence with his usual reserved personality. Or hell, even relief.
"Not sure." Sanji frowned slightly. There was more to this than just hunger; Zoro was specifically reacting whenever Sanji raised his hand, rather as if—
—as if he was expecting to be attacked. Oh, shit.
"Zoro," Sanji said, more clearly now, and shifted slightly so that the swordsman could see him easier instead of weakly trying to crane his neck behind him. "Calm down. It's us. Sanji and Nami." He omitted her usual '-san' intentionally; Zoro was more familiar with just her name anyway, and he had to see if he could reach the man, convince him they weren't trying to kill him or...whatever. He didn't really want to think about that right now. Later, when they got out of here.
Zoro met his eyes, squinting painfully against the torchlight even when Sanji did his best to hide it behind his back. There wasn't any recognition in them. Instead, Sanji saw wariness, exhaustion, and...he couldn't believe it. Was Zoro actually afraid of him? That didn't make sense, even if he didn't recognize Sanji; Zoro wasn't afraid of anyone, even when he should be.
"Son of a bitch," Sanji swore. He didn't like what he was seeing. Zoro's breathing grew heavier, more pained rasps that Sanji recognized as a wary sort of panic now, and the swordsman snapped his teeth as though threatening to bite, the only weapon he had left. But Sanji recognized that defensive show for what it was too: fake, and useless.
"I'm not an enemy," Sanji said, very slowly and very clearly. Zoro didn't recognize him; pointless to try and force him to for now. They had to get him out of here before he got worse or injured himself accidentally while trying to defend himself. "We're taking you away from here. Okay? Just calm down."
Nami met his eyes over Zoro's curled body and frowned, mouthing the words what's going on? Sanji gave a quick gesture, hoping she picked up the I'll explain later for what it was, and waited impatiently. Zoro's panicked breathing was slowly righting itself as well as it could in this terrible atmosphere, calming down ever so slightly, but his eyes remained locked on Sanji's like a trapped rat might watch a hungry cat.
Shit. Whoever had locked their swordsman in here, they were going to pay for whatever they did to the Strawhats' nakama. Tenfold.
Sanji waited five minutes, then slowly held out his hand for Nami's torch, watching for Zoro's reaction. The swordsman gave a weak hiss, but what little exertion he had already given seemed to have exhausted him, and the sound seemed more to somehow prove that he could still fight back if he had to...which both he and Sanji knew was a lie, the cook was sure. Still, he made sure to move carefully, to establish that he was not about to attack the man, and Zoro didn't fight further.
Sanji nodded to Nami, and she bent down to examine the shackles once more. They were thick, and incredibly long, binding Zoro's arms not just at the wrists but nearly up to his elbows in thick, crisscrossing chains that cut into his already thin skin and muscle badly. These were the reason for his arms being wrenched back so unnaturally, and Nami-san set to work carefully, picking at the lock slowly so as not to jar their swordsman around too much and cause him unnecessary pain.
It took her almost ten minutes to get into the lock, which was apparently well crafted to judge by her whispered swears. The entire time, Sanji kept glancing out into the gloom of the cells' hallway, expecting somebody to come creeping back any moment and discover them releasing one of his prisoners. Sanji would kick his ass, or at least attempt to, but if whoever it was was strong enough to imprison their swordsman and leave him for dead, the cook couldn't help but wonder how much use he'd be. The sooner they got the hell out of here, the better.
Worse still was the way Zoro watched him. He still had that wary, hunted, broken look, like he expected Sanji to tear him apart at any moment. Sanji didn't like the thought of seeing that look on any of his friends' faces, but it was almost worse seeing it on Zoro. The man was supposed to be able to take care of himself, after all, not become so...hopelessly weak. He wasn't supposed to need Sanji's protection, or Nami's, or anyone else's, dammit...it was his fucking job to protect!
But he wasn't protecting now. He wasn't even dealing with his own injuries well. Every time Nami-san jarred his arms even slightly Zoro would gasp or groan in pain, or try to curl up tighter on himself. This frequently made the whole process even worse, as he would pull away from Nami-san, which would in turn pull at his wrenched arms, and start the process all over again. Sanji would have tried to hold him still to make things easier on all of them, but both his hands were occupied with the torches. For the first time, he found himself wishing he had Robin-chan's Devil Fruit. It would probably come in handy right about how.
But at last Nami managed to get the cuffs off, and slid Zoro's arms carefully free from them. The skin underneath was raw and bleeding, bitten by the tough metal, and covered in grime as well.
"This is terrible," she whispered softly. "We'll need to wash these as soon as we get back or they're going to get infected. Well...even more infected," she amended, biting her lip.
Zoro still hadn't moved his arms, so Nami lifted his left—the arm closer to the ceiling—up gently and rotated it forward. Zoro gasped and bucked suddenly, knocking Nami backwards into the dirty wall as he writhed. Sanji swore loudly, leaned forward, and awkwardly tried to pin the swordsman with one knee, holding the torches high so he didn't burn either of them. Nami recovered after a moment and moved forward to help, holding the swordsman down with both her free hands until the pained fit had passed. It was a depressing testimony to how much power Zoro had lost that Nami was able to manage it with only a little exertion of her own strength.
When he was finally done, Nami grimaced quietly and whispered, "Sorry, Zoro. I didn't mean to...hurt you or anything..." She shuddered again at the awkwardness of the statement, and carefully placed her hand on the swordsman's side. Sanji could see from the rise and fall of her delicate fingers how rapidly the injured man was breathing, and frowned to himself. At this rate, Zoro was going to kill himself entirely by accident before they could even get him out of there. He could have broken something in that little thrashing fit, and in his current state even a broken arm or a rib could be fatal, draining him of more energy and nutrients for the recovery that he flat-out couldn't afford to lose.
They waited again for the swordsman to calm and for his breathing to slow. Then Nami brought her hand up to Zoro's shoulder, ignoring the pained, warning growl the swordsman gave her, and tentatively felt at it. After a moment she began massaging the skin and what little muscle remained there while slowly rotating the arm forward. Zoro moaned and still managed to writhe slightly in obvious discomfort, but Nami was careful this time, and the procedure seemed to work. After a moment they rolled Zoro onto his back and repeated the process with the other arm, though Nami reported with a frown that something was definitely wrong with it.
"We need to get him out of here," she said grimly, suddenly determined. "If he stays down here too much longer it's going to kill him."
"You're right," Sanji agreed, his voice equally grim. He was still staring down at the swordsman, though thankfully Zoro was no longer staring back. He'd passed out at some point, somewhere between rolling him onto his back and loosening his other shoulder. That was only one of many problems, anyway; Zoro might not be staring back any more, but his deteriorated muscles, infected scars, and poor breathing still hadn't gone away.
"If I carry the torches, do you think you could carry him, Sanji-kun?" Nami-san asked. "He's still a bit big for me, even...even now..." She bit her lip at the implication and grimaced.
"Of course, Nami-san," he said immediately. "I wouldn't have let you carry him anyway." Which was true. Zoro was filthy, bloodied, sickly, and probably just as much a danger to them as to himself at this point. There was no way Nami-san would be forced to carry that.
But it wasn't just that, either. Zoro was starving; there was no other way to put it. Even if he hadn't been here, even if there was nothing Sanji could possibly have done to stop it, he still felt like this was partly his fault. Maybe if he hadn't spent so much time arguing with Luffy they'd have made it here faster. Maybe if he'd started searching as soon as he wound up on that okama island he could have found the others, even Zoro, sooner. Maybe, maybe, maybe—there were a hundred thousand maybes, but the extent of it came out to he was a complete failure as a cook, and because of his failure one of his nakama was literally starving to death. So it was his burden to bear, and his job to set everything right.
Sanji grit his teeth in determination. He was desperate for a smoke by now to set his anxiety at ease and calm himself, but he had a feeling the cigarette smoke would probably be pretty bad for Zoro, who already wasn't breathing properly. He'd just have to grin and bear it. Or grimace, as it were.
Nami-san ground out one of the torches—they wouldn't need both now, since Sanji would have his hands full anyway. She helped Sanji sit the inert swordsman up with one hand; Zoro was terrifyingly silent in unconsciousness, and for one fearful moment they'd thought he'd died. But he was still breathing, and with Nami-san's help Sanji managed to get him into a piggyback, with Zoro's thin arms draping down over his own shoulders. He was frighteningly light. Sanji had gotten pretty used to that heft when literally kicking the marimo's ass back on their ships, and Zoro had always been pretty heavy from all that muscle mass. He was a fraction of that weight now, skin, bone, filth, and little else.
Sanji had taken off his suit-jacket before carrying the swordsman's dead weight, and Nami-san spread it over Zoro's thin shoulders now, still frowning. Even if it hadn't been Nami-san doing it, he still wouldn't have argued. It wouldn't provide much protection against the elements, and he'd probably never get the damn thing clean again, but he could always buy another one. Nakama were irreplaceable.
"Let's get out of here," Nami-san said, turning for the stairway that led into the castle proper, and Sanji couldn't possibly think of anything else he'd rather be doing at that very moment.
Note that I did a lot of research for this fanfic, and so a lot of the stuff you'll come across is accurate and a little grizzly. In particular, I used the Minnesota Starvation Experiment as a major reference, which is where a lot of the stuff in this fic is going to come from.
As per usual, this fic is finished, so expect regular updates. Whoooo.
If you choose to leave a review, please give it some substance! I enjoy both con-crit and non-critical responses, as long as they are thoughtful. :)