Part seventeen of a fanfiction by Velkyn Karma

Note: Can you believe we're really at the end, guys? It's been one hell of a ride! I wasn't expecting nearly this much feedback, but as I write this fic has over 270 reviews, over 70 faves, and nearly 14,000 hits. All I can say is thank you guys so much for all your support of this story, and hopefully you all enjoyed it as much as I loved writing it :) Well, onward!

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.

"Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity."


Life on the Thousand Sunny after that was different, but quickly making its way back to the Straw Hat Pirate's definition of 'normal.'

They remained at Sabaody for a few more days, until they figured out exactly what their new plan was. Sanji told Luffy that it would be at least a year before Zoro could be considered back to normal physically, and cautioned that it would be too dangerous to head to the New World just yet. After all, there was still the very real possibility that Zoro could get badly hurt, or even killed. He suggested trying a few of the other routes on the Grand Line in the meantime, and Luffy took to the suggestion instantly with great enthusiasm, just like Sanji knew he would. There was plenty to see on the Grand Line after all, and they'd only encountered a miniscule fraction of it. The possibility of new adventures was too tantalizing for their captain to resist.

So they began backtracking, exploring new islands, meeting new people, fighting new enemies. And while they traveled, all of them—but especially Sanji and Chopper—kept an eye on their swordsman's health, pushing in any way they could for a recovery, and protecting him in any way possible from the all too real dangers they encountered, just like he always had for them.

The first month or two were the most terrifying, Sanji had to admit. Zoro was at his most vulnerable then, and even if they hadn't traveled to the New World the first half of the Grand Line was still a breeding ground for potentially deadly threats, ones Zoro would be unable to protect himself from if he was put into a dangerous position. During those months they kept him on the ship. And though he was never completely confined to the infirmary (at Sanji's insistence) they never risked bringing him onto the islands they landed on unless they were deserted.

Even so, there had still been more than a few close calls. On several occasions their ship had been attacked by marines, bounty hunters, or other groups of malevolent pirates. They were usually repelled with relative ease, while Zoro was (often forcibly) hidden below deck for his own safety. But there had been a few mishaps, when enemy men had gotten too close for comfort, nearly spotting their emaciated swordsman. One marine even had, coming so close to killing Zoro it was terrifying. Sanji had been afraid then, because he'd seen the man slip into the infirmary during the unexpected attack and knew he was too far away to do anything about it. Robin-chan had dispatched the man with ease, and used her many hands to toss the body overboard before Luffy could catch sight of the kill. Sanji hated the thought of leaving the work to poor Robin-chan, but understood her logic; Zoro couldn't be allowed to die, and nobody could be allowed to leave with knowledge of his condition. Ever.

And then there were other problems that stemmed from the crew itself, though these were more unintentional in nature. Since Chopper had returned, he'd naturally taken over Zoro's care and recovery, but Sanji kept a close eye on the proceedings. He had an vested interest in the swordsman's recovery, after all, not to mention he was still the only one who fully knew what had happened to Zoro. It meant that a few well-intentioned actions on the part of their doctor would actually hurt Zoro more, in the long run, even if the reindeer never knew it.

Like drugging his food. That argument had been an especially nasty one, more so because Sanji never really yelled at Chopper before. Sanji took care of Zoro's meals, with the doctor's approval, and Chopper had insisted on trying to slip a few different medications into those meals for the swordsman's benefit. Sanji could see the logic in it; Zoro was not terribly fond of medication and did not take it easily. Not to mention Chopper had caught on to the fact that Zoro experienced vivid nightmares, but predictably refused to take any sleeping pills or draughts, even if they promised a dreamless rest. Chopper thought it prudent that he get his rest anyway, even with medical aid, as the lack of a sound sleep would only hinder his recovery.

It was all very logical. Sanji understood that logic completely. He still vehemently refused to drug Zoro's meals. And though he couldn't provide a truthful reason as to it, he could come up with half a dozen other excuses as to why he wouldn't do it anyway. That argument had forced Sanji to start taste-testing anything intended for Zoro just before he brought it to the swordsman, too, and often in front of Chopper. Even if the reindeer had the initiative to try and slip something in anyway, he was sure the doctor wouldn't let Sanji eat drugged food meant for an unhealthy body. It was always safe. Sanji never told Zoro about the arguments, but did take to badgering Zoro into taking the medications when Chopper's pleading fell upon deaf ears, usually citing their deal as the reason to do so. He also kept an eye on Zoro every time he was brought outside on the deck to take a nap, and noted the swordsman slept much more comfortably when he was surrounded by the bustle of the crew. He never saw a hint of a nightmare then.

And there were problems with the rest of the crew, too. They visited Zoro often while he was stuck in the infirmary, or sometimes in a rare moment when he was on deck but not sound asleep. Sanji could tell Zoro was doing his damnedest to live up to his part of the deal, and not shove the rest of the crew away—especially the more enthusiastic members, like their captain, or Usopp and Chopper—but he could also tell it was difficult for the swordsman to manage. Zoro did his best to act normally around them, but it was obvious that he all too frequently heard himself listing each and every one of his friends' weaknesses, when they came over to chat or show him something. Visits would often start off on a normal note, but taper off as Zoro fell into a memory-and-depression-induced apathetic mood. The crew seemed to recognize it, and most of them never bothered him for too long, only hanging around for ten or fifteen minutes to share an amusing story or tell their swordsman about the latest adventure on the last island. Occasionally Sanji would take it upon his shoulders to kick a few of the less perceptive crew members out of the infirmary, or call them away from the swordsman for 'help' with something if he happened to be on deck, and completely ignored the confused and grateful looks Zoro shot his way. Marimo was trying to live up to the spirit of the deal, at least, which was fine enough for Sanji for now.

But despite all the mishaps and close calls, the fact of the matter was that Zoro was getting better. Under Sanji's and Chopper's supervision, he gained weight slowly but surely, started looking less and less skeletal and more and more human again. Sanji regulated his portions carefully, gradually increasing how much Zoro was allowed at his meals, which in turn needed to occur less frequently. After a month they were able to start switching him to solid foods, though carefully. After a few more weeks, he could handle most kinds of food, though still in much smaller and more carefully regulated portions than he had months ago.

The best had been about two months into the recovery. Chopper finally announced that, while Zoro still had a long way to go, he no longer had to be confined to the infirmary and would be allowed to move around on his own, provided he was very careful and didn't strain himself. The crew let out an enthusiastic cheer at the news, and Luffy declared a feast was in order, which Sanji was more than happy to deliver. He'd slaved over the stove for most of the afternoon to create a feast fit for kings, and although Zoro himself still couldn't handle a meal of feast proportions, Sanji carefully prepared him an acceptable sized dinner consisting of his favorite foods. Alcohol was still expressly forbidden until Zoro's weight had more or less been recovered, but Sanji whipped up a drink that was at least reasonably similar in taste to a good wine, if not in content. And Nami-san (kind and loving that she was!) insisted that the rest of them wouldn't be drinking anything alcoholic either, just to avoid the temptation.

The feast was like all previous Straw Hat feasts; loud, rambunctious, full of fooling around and eating and singing and general insanity. It was the first time any of them saw Zoro even smirk since they'd rescued him. It was also the first time he willingly interacted with any of them for more than half an hour without suddenly becoming emotionless and trying to slink off to a quiet corner of the ship. He stayed with them for the whole night, and while Sanji (carefully monitoring, even though he was pretending he wasn't) caught a few brief glimpses of regret or guilt on the swordsman's face as he watched the rest of their nakama, they were just as quickly erased by the antics of captain and crew. Not even those dark and horrific memories could stand up to the weight of a full-scale Straw Hat party.

It was reassuring to the Straw Hats too, because one other addition had been made: three katana, carefully bound and resting firmly at their swordsman's hip. Upon release from the infirmary, Zoro had predictably made his first demand the return of his swords. Nami-san had locked them in the Sunny's safe back when they'd first found Zoro, knowing how precious they were and refusing put them anywhere they could be lost. And later, with Zoro's unpredictable personality and general instability, they'd all agreed it was probably not the safest decision to hand him three instruments of killing. Nami-san was still hesitant about returning the swords at first, but Sanji, confident in Zoro's promise to keep his end of their deal, assured her it would be fine. Zoro reclaimed the weapons with a sense of determination, and it was like watching a part of the man's soul being given back to him when he tied on his sword belt and haramaki and strapped each of those swords to his side again.

He'd spent most of the afternoon up until the feast sitting on the deck in the sun, examining the blades with fastidious care, disassembling them to check each and every component, cleaning and oiling them with the assured nature of a master. It was a bit depressing to watch, as Zoro's hands shook with the effort of lifting each blade, and he had to stop frequently for rest breaks, especially with the black-bladed sword. It made his obvious mastery distorted, just the tiniest bit warped, but just enough to be notably wrong. But Zoro powered through, continued with his careful examination of each sword, and by the time the feast began the three familiar weapons sat comfortably at his hip, well cared for and reunited with their master. And though it was obvious Zoro wouldn't be using them any time soon, lacking the strength to do so, a new level of inner power had grown in Zoro that wasn't there hours before.

After that feast, and that notable marking stone in Zoro's recovery, things began to shift once again. They were still careful with Zoro when it came to combat, keeping him safely away from the battles they knew he couldn't handle yet and the stress they knew he couldn't take. But being able to move about the ship added to Zoro's level of independence, and it seemed to help his recovery considerably. His apathetic mood swings, while still far too common for their tastes, took more time to trigger and did not last as long as they used to.

He had also developed a few new habits on the ship, though this did not come as any surprise to Sanji, especially since most of them revolved around food in some shape or form. Though Zoro had managed to regain some measure of control over his eating habits, and no longer lost his reason when it came to his meals, he still reacted as though every meal would be his last for a while. Sanji did his best to not be too offended. He knew Zoro wasn't doing it intentionally, and that the swordsman knew by now food would never be withheld from him on the Sunny, but it still grated at his pride as a cook.

And there was a new habit (that Sanji decided he should have been able to predict, in retrospect) that they discovered the first night Zoro rejoined the group meals in the kitchen. Sanji had prepared dinner for everyone as usual, and a separate dinner for Zoro, who was still on a different meal plan than the others for the time being. Despite the difference in food the meal had gone relatively smoothly—if a Straw Hat dinner could ever be called smooth, Sanji thought wryly—until the incident happened. Luffy, as always, made a grab for a part of somebody else's dinner when he'd devoured his own within the span of mere minutes. Sanji valiantly defended Robin-chan's and Nami-san's plates, and not even Luffy would steal from Zoro considering the situation, so the rubber arm banked and stretched for Usopp's plate instead. But Luffy overshot as always, and it brought his fingers perilously close to Zoro's half-finished meal.

The reaction happened before any of them could so much as blink in surprise. Zoro's grip on his fork switched to something vaguely reminiscent of how he held his katana, his entire upper body seemed to hunch possessively over his plate, and he let out a low, almost inhuman snarl that had caused everyone, even Luffy, to freeze in place. Sanji recognized that sound all too well, remembered very clearly hearing it when they had first found Zoro in that unforgivable bastard's cell months ago. Judging from Nami-san's look of startled recognition she knew it, too.

It only lasted a few moments, and Sanji immediately diverted attention in the only way he could possibly think of: cursing Luffy a blue streak, and putting his foot through his captain's face, ranting about leaving Usopp's food alone, damn it. Luffy yelped loudly and complained that he was still hungry, and Usopp hastily joined in on the argument, forcing the conversation away from that unusual incident. In the aftermath, Sanji glanced back at Zoro briefly; the swordsman had looked just as surprised with himself as Nami-san had a few moments before.

Sanji was more careful with table placements after that, putting Zoro next to or even in between the girls, just so he could keep an eye on Zoro's plate as well without actually looking like he gave a shit.

There were other, less violent habits as well. Zoro often finished his meals first, or close to it, and would spend an inordinate amount of time watching everyone else on the crew eat. It even happened during the day, when Sanji passed out individual snacks or offered special drinks to his darling Nami-san and Robin-chan; he could all too often feel Zoro's eyes on his back then, even from across the deck. Zoro never tried to steal anything from the others as far as Sanji could figure (and Sanji would never let him get away with it anyway, as it wouldn't be good for his health). It was just a habit, probably one he wasn't even aware of, and would likely have for a long, long time.

Stranger still was Zoro's newest napping spot. He took to his old favorite napping places on deck just like he always had, and would stretch out for hours at a time in the sun to rest. But increasingly more often—and especially during his apathetic mood swings—Zoro would slink into the galley and stretch out on the couch, or sit down at the table and rest his head on folded arms. He did so regardless of whether or not Sanji was actually cooking in the kitchen at the time, and the first few times it had happened Sanji kept a watchful eye on him, expecting Zoro to try and steal something when he thought no one was looking. He was past the stage where refeeding would really be a problem, but he could still make himself sick if he ate too much of the wrong thing.

But Zoro never tried to break into the fridge or find something else in the cabinets, and after a while Sanji realized it was probably just reassuring for him to be near a source of food; to know it did exist, even if he wasn't actually eating then and there. He could understand that. He never kicked Zoro out if the galley if he was cooking, and usually just remained silent, letting the swordsman take his nap in relative peace apart from the sounds of clanging pans and food preparation. Sometimes, when Sanji was present, Zoro was snooping for a snack, and occasionally, if he looked pretty terrible at the time—and quite often during those emotionless, dead moments—Sanji would let him have one. On exceedingly rare occasions Zoro would actually watch Sanji prepare lunch or dinner, usually when the meals were more complex; and once he had even asked, in his usual round about, not-actually-caring manner, what exactly the cook was doing at each stage of the preparation. That had been more than a little bewildering, but he'd answered, and Zoro never asked again (so clearly he had aspirations to be a chef).

There were other symptoms, too; hints of the things that had happened to Zoro, that weren't always related to the food. The way he would sometimes stare at different crew mates, quietly observing them on deck, were always unusual, and Sanji could tell it disturbed and confused the rest of the Straw Hats more than a little. And when it was quiet, especially at night, their swordsman became hypersensitive to noise, becoming rather twitchy. The smallest of unidentified noises would immediately send his hand flashing to the white sword's hilt, even if he couldn't use it.

The worst, though, were the nightmares. Zoro had moved back into the men's quarters when he was finally released from the infirmary, which Sanji had figured would be good for him. Zoro had, until then, always slept better out on the deck when surrounded by his crew mates; not being confined, alone, to the infirmary was sure to help with that as well. But he'd been proven wrong soon enough. It hadn't even been a full week before Zoro woke screaming, thrashing frantically in his bunk. Everyone in the men's cabin had started awake at that, climbing out of bed anxiously to see what was wrong. Sanji had hastily shoved past them and half dragged, half carried the still-trembling, not-entire-aware swordsman away from his bunk and towards the door, knowing only that he needed to get them out of there before Zoro started muttering again and gave away his own damn secret. The others had called after him in confusion, but he told Luffy firmly to order the others to go back to bed, and their captain, knowing full well that Sanji's promise was still in affect, agreed.

Sanji had continued the practice after that, waking Zoro up before he really started panicking if he could, silencing him when he woke screaming, and always getting him out of the room before he inadvertently gave away his own story. He usually dragged marimo up to his galley; as during the day, the room had a bizarre calming effect on their swordsman. Sanji still wasn't sure if it was just the reassurance of food, or simply the familiarity of it, but regardless of the reason it worked. He'd give Zoro a drink (still non-alcoholic, on the doctor's orders) and smoke half a dozen cigarettes while he waited. Sometimes Zoro would talk, and Sanji would listen while pretending he wasn't. Sometimes Zoro kept his thoughts to himself until he finally either passed out at the table or submitted to Sanji shoving him back towards the bunks, and that worked just as well for Sanji, too. Though he sure as hell wished Zoro could pick a better time for his psychological panic to present itself. Two-thirty in the morning was not Sanji's favorite time to be awake, especially when he'd run a late ship watch until midnight.

And still, despite all of it, Zoro stubbornly continued to recover physically. Three and a half months of careful feeding treatment passed, and by the end of it Zoro looked like a person again. Not like he had before; he was still quite skinny, and lacked the thick muscles he'd been well known for. But he no longer looked skeletal, and had regained enough weight that the next stage of his training could begin: muscle building.

He'd had to start off remarkably slow. It was almost depressing, watching him use the tiny little weights that were usually reserved for the weaker members of their crew, when they were all used to seeing him swinging around one or two tons of weights before. And even worse was that even those tiny weights tired him. They could all see the strain it put on him at first, getting back into a regular workout schedule after months of inactivity and unhealthy conditions.

But he threw himself back into it vigorously all the same, and if he was embarrassed or disgusted by being reduced from his several-ton weights to measly five and ten pounders he barely showed it. He was working at a much weaker level than he was used to, but this was something he knew, something incredibly familiar and even relaxing to him, gave him something to focus on. It was another step towards independence for him, and Sanji could clearly see it was having a positive affect on not only his physical being, but his mentality as well. The apathetic moments of avoidance that the crew was all too familiar with now decreased markedly the more Zoro threw himself into his exercise programs, and Sanji noticed, too, that the nightmares were starting to occur less often.

They'd all had to reprimand him more than once, of course. It was Zoro after all, who had always overworked himself to begin with when it came to his weight training. Now his training schedule, once determined by only himself, was carefully monitored by both Chopper and Sanji, with enthusiastic help from pretty much every other member of the crew. He was only allowed to train three days a week, and was required to rest fully the day after every training session. Those sessions were always monitored, just to make sure he didn't overwork himself, add another set of reps without permission, or otherwise try to do something that would potentially set him back as far as his health went. Zoro was stubborn about breaking the rules; the others were vicious about enforcing them.

Sanji would say one thing for Zoro, though: he always had been remarkably fast at improving. And even with the restrictions placed on his training, Zoro progressed rapidly once he was let back at the weights. Within a month he had already raised the poundage considerably—with Chopper's approval, even. And with another week or two, he was back to swinging one of his prized katana, running the white one that was so obviously important to him through katas on the lawn in the mornings and evenings. He couldn't handle all three yet—it still took him both hands to use the white katana, and Sanji highly doubted Zoro's neck and jaw strength was up to par enough to handle attacking with a sword clenched in his teeth. But it was a notable improvement, enough for the whole crew to notice, and for Luffy to declare another feast because 'Zoro was getting his dream back, now, and that's important!'

Of course, it also meant Zoro wanted in on the battles now, which was more than a little nerve-wracking for all of them. Zoro might be regaining strength, but he was nowhere near his usual level of proficiency, and it would only take one good shot to kill him despite all their hard work. Zoro was stubborn, though, and Sanji could understand him in a way. After being kept away from battle for so long, he'd probably be chomping at the bit too, desperate to prove he still had the ability to hold his own in a fight. And for Zoro, fighting wasn't just something that was occasionally necessary, like it was for Sanji; it was the very core of his being. It would be like keeping Sanji away from his kitchen for months and then barely giving him the opportunity to prove he still remembered how to cook.

He understood, but even so, they took it slow. They no longer forced Zoro to stay below decks when there were unexpected raids on their ship, or when they visited an island that could potentially hold friends and enemies both. But Zoro was usually asked (or more like threatened, courtesy of Nami-san's entirely righteous debt increases) to stay in the least dangerous section of the battle, usually at the rear. He wasn't allowed to leap into the thick of things like Luffy and Sanji, or even take care of the still action-oriented defenses, where Robin-chan, Franky, Chopper and Brook could usually most often be found. This wasn't to say he didn't try it anyway, but Nami-san and Usopp were usually in the back lines with him, and forcibly kept him from charging ahead like a maniac into battle, where he would inevitably do something stupid and cause himself to lose a limb. Or die. He still saw plenty of action there as it was, and was usually able to help Nami-san and Usopp with clean-up, taking down the one or two marines or bounty hunters that managed to slip past the main defenses and board the ship. The exertion always cost him at first, but as time past he slowly started getting better at managing his strength and energy in battle once again, and they started worrying a little less about whether or not he could handle himself in a fight.

More months passed. Zoro trained himself mercilessly under the watchful eyes of the ship's doctor and cook, and managed to gain the use of a second sword, dual-wielding two of his katana both in practice and in battle. He managed to save Usopp when the sniper was in a particularly tight spot, taking down two marines at once, and gained the right to push forward a little further into the main defenses of future battles. He started picking fights with Sanji more often; not just verbal spats, which they had engaged in up until then, but straight-up spars, which was more than a little awkward for the cook. Sanji had to restrain himself considerably to make sure he didn't put Zoro right back in the infirmary, and more often than not he floored the swordsman anyway due to an unfair advantage that made neither of them terribly happy. But the fact that he was picking fights at all meant he was recovering still further, not just in body but in mind.

And there were other hints of it too, dotted here and there subtly but nonetheless obvious to the cook, and quite a few other crew members as well. Zoro's apathetic bouts were becoming more and more a rarity. He interacted with the crew willingly far more often now, not just because he was bound to in the terms of the deal, but because he genuinely wanted to. Zoro never smiled much to begin with, even before the crew had been separated, but he smirked or grinned more often now at the crew's antics, especially those of his captain and the younger members. The nightmares were scarcer, easier to wake Zoro from, and required far less time for him to recover (which Sanji's exhausted body frequently thanked whatever gods were out there for). And if Zoro still had a few unusual new habits that refused to break—like retaining the galley as a favorite napping spot, or spotting and staring at food more than was necessary, or refusing to touch any food that hadn't been prepared by Sanji until the cook himself approved it—it was a far cry from the mess that Zoro had been mere months ago, and perfectly acceptable in the long run. Those things, Sanji knew, would take years to get over completely. More importantly, Zoro was starting to act like himself again, like he had before that unforgivable bastard had gotten a hold of him.

Perhaps the most significant indication that Zoro was really coming back to his old self occurred about ten months into his recovery treatment—ironically, right around the anniversary of when the whole crew had been separated, and thus when Zoro had first been captured. Zoro still wasn't quite at the same level of strength that he had been before the Alchemist had captured him, but he had proven himself time and time again in the past few months of battles. And though he still wasn't allowed to join the offensive team that he had used to be a part of with Luffy and Sanji, he held his own with some regularity in the defensive lines.

That was normally. The marine crew they had fought that day was vicious and expertly trained, and their numbers were overwhelming. The Straw Hats had plenty of practice, and everyone had been growing stronger in combat, not just Zoro. But there were still too many of the bastards to safely take on. Chopper especially had been in danger; he'd gotten himself cut off from the rest of the crew and surrounded by angry sword-wielding soldiers.

They had probably considered it a win. What they probably hadn't considered—or even known—was that Zoro was the next closest crew member, that it was Chopper they had cut off from him, and that they'd succeeded in pissing off the world's future greatest swordsman.

That was the first time Zoro used Santoryu again. He'd been training hard to regain the ability to use three swords, but the added burst of adrenaline and the sudden need to protect the youngest crew member was apparently just the extra incentive needed to fully recover his sword style. To the delighted shock of the entire crew, Zoro placed the white sword between his teeth like he always had, drew the other two, and proceeded to plow straight through the hordes of marine soldiers to get to Chopper's side.

It had ended with over a dozen dangerous slashing wounds covering his body, and one especially life-threatening impale-wound where the opposing first mate had actually managed to stab Zoro through his stomach. But the marines, not expecting such a vicious display of swordplay, and more than a little stunned by a man wielding three swords, panicked. In the sudden confusion it was easy enough for Luffy and Sanji to rout them and send them scampering for their ships. They'd retreated, and the victory had basically gone to Zoro. As soon as their swordsman saw the enemies running, he'd passed out at Chopper's feet, bleeding from over a dozen vicious wounds.

But after the initial panic, rushing Zoro yet again to the infirmary, and several of them screeching at their unconscious swordsman about the sheer stupidity of what he'd just done, many of them actually started laughing. Zoro would be fine, Chopper insisted tiredly after a few hours' work, and it had been a very Zoro thing to do, plowing headlong into a situation without thinking and earning himself half a dozen new scars in the process. And he'd used Santoryu again. He'd used all three swords again. It was like hearing that a friend had come back from the dead. Zoro was back. Zoro, their Zoro, the Zoro of the Straw Hat Pirates, was really and truly coming back.

Luffy had insisted on yet another party to celebrate (Sanji was sure he was just looking for excuses for a lot of food, now). And when Zoro finally woke up a day later, after each and every crew member had had the chance to berate him for his completely moronic actions (or exclaim at how cool he'd been, in Luffy's case), they had it, celebrating the return of all three of Zoro's swords and his even further elevation of strength. There had been a number of gifts for the swordsman too, presents that everybody had been holding onto quietly, waiting for the moment of Santoryu's return to signal when the gifts were meant to be given.

Luffy and Chopper had found a new black bandanna at one of the previous ports they'd stopped at, which they gleefully presented to the swordsman. Chopper had even been allowed to tie it around Zoro's arm, which had excited the reindeer all over again. Zoro had feigned nonchalance, but Sanji caught him smirking in amusement at the little doctor all the same.

And Usopp presented Zoro with a small box that he explained was a present from himself, Franky, and Nami-san. Inside were three new earrings, similarly designed to Zoro's old three. When they had rescued Zoro all those months ago, he hadn't been wearing them, and they'd presumably been removed by the Alchemist along with most of his other gear. They had searched the bag of gold Luffy and Brook had found back then, but never located the originals again. Everyone had agreed that Zoro looked just plain weird without them, though, especially when he started acting like his old self again. Franky and Usopp had devised a way to create new ones, and Nami-san had (quite generously) donated some of the gold to melt down and reshape. They were mostly the same, simple and to the point like the old ones had been, though Usopp had made one tiny, almost-unnoticeable change: engraving the characters for 'strength,' 'discipline' and 'loyalty' into the gold, one word for each earring.

Zoro had rolled his eyes at the engravings, and hesitated for a fraction of a second over the third, loyalty. He wouldn't ever know it, but when Usopp had been asking around for opinions on what to place on the earrings, Sanji had hinted at that one, instead of the other words the sniper had been considering (like 'scary' or possibly 'insane'). Just as a not-so-subtle reminder that the deal was coming to a close, and Zoro had a decision to make soon.

He was curious what kind of reaction Zoro would have to the gift, but after his momentary hesitation Zoro accepted all three with a nod. Robin-chan was wonderfully kind enough to help the marimo re-pierce his left ear (apparently they closed up if left unattended for a while, and it had been at least a year in Zoro's case). By the end of the night Zoro merely looked like a slightly skinnier version of his former self, with haramaki and swords at his hip, bandana tied around his left arm, and the three earrings dangling in place.

From then on, the crew had to actively search to find traces of the mental wreck Zoro had been. By now, they were all so used to his odd food habits that they hardly qualified as 'new' or 'unusual,' and the fact that Zoro regularly snoozed in the galley only meant that it was yet another inconvenient napping point where he'd become a near regular furniture fixture. It was all harmless, for the most part, and they never thought anything of it. He had stopped regarding the other crew members with traces of guilt for some time now, and as always did his level best to protect each and every one of them in battle when he could. His training was becoming more vigorous, and harder and harder to control on the part of Chopper or Sanji, but it also wasn't really endangering him anymore to push himself. He was rapidly catching up to Sanji, who found himself pulling his kicks less and less when their heated sparring over some stupid thing the marimo did began again. He still had the occasional nightmare, but on this crew, with all the things everyone had gone through, that was hardly uncommon to begin with; and he rarely needed Sanji's not-exactly-listening help to deal with them anymore.

The twelfth month was rapidly approaching now, and nearly a year after Zoro's rescue and recovery began, Luffy was starting to get edgy about approaching the New World once again. He spoke of it constantly, and with a unanimous consent the crew agreed on their next destination. Nami-san dusted off the eternal pose to Sabaody Archipelago, and the Thousand Sunny began the trip back towards their original goal, sailed once again ever closer to One Piece.

There was one final thing that needed to be taken care of, as well, before they reached the Archipelago and the New World. With the deadline for the deal rapidly drawing closer, Sanji had one final piece of work that needed attending to, something highly important that he'd been thinking about for months now. He spoke quietly to Nami-san about it, and though she'd been appalled at his request at first she eventually agreed, and even offered to help him. Especially when he asked her how to pick locks.

They arrived at Kuraiana Island about two weeks before the anniversary of the Alchemist's defeat. It was, ironically enough, almost the exact same time they'd arrived at the same island one year before, to make their horrific discovery in the dungeons. They hadn't told Zoro where they were going, and Sanji had asked Luffy for only a brief detour; he promised wouldn't hold them for more than two days. Luffy had sensed the enormity of his request and agreed solemnly. He had even managed to keep it a secret from Zoro, much to their surprise.

They arrived at night, thanks to Nami-san's skilled maneuvering, long after Zoro had gone to sleep. That was fortunate. Though he had essentially recovered, if he knew what Sanji was up to he'd inevitably insist on accompanying the cook, and Sanji didn't think he could handle this part. He didn't really want to bring Nami-san either, but Nami-san had been there the first time, so he supposed she knew what she was getting into, and she did have the right to it. Robin-chan and Chopper accompanied them as well, both having some degree of expertise with what they were about to do, and Chopper carried a few supplies and two folded blankets carefully on his back in Walk Point.

The island was just as dreary and grim as it had been a year ago. The four of them took the Mini Merry to the harbor lane that they had traversed up a year ago, made for the castle that had once been the Alchemist's base without hesitation. Without the unforgivable bastard there, they knew full well there was nothing threatening left on this island. And though they had only been there once, both Sanji and Nami-san remembered the way like it was yesterday. They lit the torches they had brought with them and made unerringly for the dungeons.

The wooden door Sanji had kicked down a year ago was still a splintered mess, and the wood was long since beginning to rot. The stench in the dungeon itself was even more foul than Sanji remembered, and Chopper, with his extra sensitive nose, whimpered bitterly at the smell. But he stayed with them gamely as Nami-san picked the lock to the third cell and swung the metal door open.

Perona had been dead for over a year, and the decay had been considerable. There was nothing left but filthy bones and the tattered remnants of spunky red clothing and a bent crown, but they treated the remains respectfully all the same. Chopper and Robin-chan examined the bones carefully and came up with the same assessment Sanji had made a year ago: that she had likely died of starvation and some degree of physical trauma.

They did the best they could with what was left. Nami-san picked the seastone cuffs and carefully removed them from the bony wrists, tossing the offending objects into the corner with an angry growl. Sanji and Chopper spread the blankets they'd brought out carefully on the filthy ground, and Robin-chan showed them how to carefully collect the bones without disturbing or breaking them, drawing on her archeological skills. They wrapped everything, bones, clothing, and crown, in the blankets, then bore the remains out of the castle and as far from its looming presence as they could. When they were far enough away, they looked for a decent spot for a final resting place. Perona had ultimately been a pirate. They buried her in a secluded, protected place near the water, created a marker for her as best they could, paid their respects, and left.

In the morning, Zoro had dragged Sanji to the farthest corner of the ship he could possibly find, and snarled at him, with traces of that dead, empty look that had long since abandoned him, "Why are we here?"

To which Sanji had replied simply, "Buried her last night. I can show you the grave if you want," and left it at that. And Zoro had wanted it, so Sanji led him quietly to the barely marked grave, shoved a bottle of alcohol that Zoro was finally allowed to drink into the swordsman's hands, and left him there for a little privacy. He came back four hours later to find that Zoro had thankfully not wandered off, that the bottle was empty, that the stone looked like it had been splashed with more than a little liquor, and that the dead, empty expression that had been on Zoro's face when he left him there was gone, replaced by the stoic, not-quite-angry look he nearly always wore.

"Thanks," Zoro had muttered quietly, when Sanji led him back to the ship. Sanji merely shrugged, and they fell silent. The next day, the Thousand Sunny departed the island, and none of the crew members ever looked back.

The day that Chopper declared Zoro officially healed, almost exactly one month after the second Kuraiana Island incident—and about thirteen months after his initial rescue—was a day of much rejoicing and celebration.

Zoro would probably always be a little skinnier than he originally had been, after such severe malnutrition that had nearly taken his life, and he had at least a dozen ugly scars from wounds too long untreated and infected covering his arms and his chest. Both of the physical alterations served to forever remind the rest of the crew of exactly what had happened. But once again, Roronoa Zoro possessed the thick, powerful muscles that had given him such brute strength and deadly skill with his swords. He had actively retaken his place amongst the top three fighters only days before, helping to quell an especially nasty enemy attack under the principle that a good defense was a positively vicious offense, felling exactly one more opponent than Sanji (though, if Sanji wanted to be honest, he really hadn't been trying as hard as he could have that day...) He was physically nearly as fit as he always had been, and acted almost exactly the same as he had before, something that fully cheered each and every member of the crew.

They'd had an enthusiastic celebration for the official announcement of Zoro's recovery, and Sanji had once again made a feast fit for kings. And though he habitually kept an eye on just how much Zoro ate like he always had for the past year, Zoro's appetite never once went out of line. He really was getting better at controlling himself.

Zoro had added to the celebration by unceremoniously hurling eyebrow insults at the cook until Sanji finally could not take it anymore, and threw himself at the swordsman with no-holds-barred fury. He should have realized he was being baited, but he hardly cared. Zoro met him with swords drawn, and they fought furiously for a good ten minutes before Nami-san (rightly) intervened, stating angrily that they had better knock it off before they tore the island and half the ship apart. Both of them nursed considerable lumps on their heads throughout the rest of the party, well into the night.

It was only later, as the embers from the cheerful bonfire on the deserted island they had picked started to die down and half the crew had passed out from too much excitement, too much alcohol, or both, that Zoro quietly pulled Sanji off to one side, crossed his arms firmly, and spoke. "So. We had a draw."

Sanji couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at that. "So?"

"So, that was part of the deal. A victory for me, or a draw, after I'm declared better by Chopper. To the whole crew."

Sanji's eye narrowed now. He remembered the deal well; he'd been thinking about it for quite some time now, the closer and closer they drew to the final time limit. It sounded like now would be the moment of truth. Had he made the right decision? Had he been right to bet on Zoro's recovery changing his mind, that his stubbornness wouldn't get the better of him?

He didn't want to be responsible for helping the swordsman leave, not if he could help it. But he'd made a deal, and Zoro had kept up his part of the bargain faithfully. So he nodded quietly and said, "Fine, then. You met the conditions. So. You still want to leave?"

Zoro eyed him levelly, watched him for a long time. Sanji could practically hear the gears spinning in his head. Then he said, slowly, "What I did a year ago...was unforgivable."

"It also wasn't your fault," Sanji snapped back automatically.

He expected the same arguments Zoro had given him when they'd first rescued him; that it hadn't mattered, that he'd still done it anyway. But unexpectedly, Zoro nodded and said with a quiet sort of confidence, "You're right."

Sanji blinked in surprise. It wasn't often Zoro ever admitted that he was wrong, much less that Sanji had been correct.

Zoro seemed to find his reaction amusing, and smirked for the barest of seconds before his face returned to a more serious expression. "You're right," he repeated, and his voice, too, was more serious. "I've had over a year to think about it. It's...weird. Where I'm standing now, all your arguments from then make sense. But then they were...hazy. I heard them, but they didn't get through. Foggy." Sanji could only nod in understanding. Limited as the marimo's vocabulary was, he actually knew what the swordsman was driving at.

"But I've replayed everything in my mind a lot, lately. What I did...it's still unforgivable. I still almost got you all killed, because my strength was inadequate." He gave a ruined smirk, and then said slowly, "But it is...understandable. No matter how I think about it, I don't think I could have done anything more to fight back or resist. I did all I could do. I can at least be...satisfied...knowing that."

Sanji raised an eyebrow at that. Confusing and paradoxical; how typical of the marimo. "Gonna tell'em what happened?"

Zoro snorted, and for half a second there was the tiniest trace of the same anxiety, the same fear, that Sanji had seen on his face months ago, when he was afraid Luffy would discover his secret. "No," he said softly, so softly Sanji almost didn't hear it. "And I never will."

"They'll figure it out eventually," Sanji told him flatly. "I'm pretty sure Robin-chan knows. And Nami-san and Brook are definitely suspicious, after the things they saw and heard."

"They're only suspicions," Zoro said flatly, "and none of them will tell." Which was probably true, Sanji thought; each of them knew how to be discreet, and Robin-chan and Brook had already proven they could do it by keeping Thriller Bark a secret for so long.

Sanji didn't press the point. Instead he shrugged, and repeated instead, "Understandable, but unforgivable. You know they'd all forgive you, right?"

"I know." The ruined smirk was back. "It's myself I have the problem with."

Sanji didn't quite know what to say to that, so he lit a cigarette instead. After a moment he came to the most important question, the one Zoro hadn't quite answered yet. "Are you staying?"

There was silence for a very, very long time, and Zoro almost idly watched the wisps of smoke trail up through the air and vanish into nothing as he thought. Then he said very slowly, "Yeah. I will."

Sanji couldn't help it. Despite the fact that he should by all rights be kicking the swordsman into the middle of next week for making him worry for a whole fucking year he instead found himself bursting into a grin around the cigarette. "Great. 'Cause I've been thinking about it for over a year, and really, I don't know what the hell I could tell Luffy that would keep him from going after you anyway."

Zoro rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like "idiot love-cook," but before Sanji could launch an indignant kick in his general direction Zoro said a little louder, and looking a little uncomfortable, "Uh, thanks. By the way."

Sanji raised an eyebrow, and looked so baffled that Zoro apparently found the need to explain. "For, uh...y'know. The whole year. You did a lot...'n I guess I was kinda an ass about most of it...so, uh. Yeah. Thanks."

Sanji snorted at him. "A lot more than you can ever imagine, marimo," he said dryly, "but I don't let my nakama go down without fighting, even if they are stupid shit swordsmen. You'd better pay it back in spades the next time I get myself up to my eyeballs in trouble, though."

Zoro smirked back at him, but when he spoke he sounded quite serious. "Don't worry about that," he said calmly. " 'long as I'm still on this crew, none of you'll be getting eyeball-deep in any sort of trouble as long as I have something to say about it. And that includes you and your stupid curly eyebrow."

The resulting second spar of the night was enough to wake most of the Straw Hats that had passed out, until Nami-san angrily clocked each of them on the head again and told them in no uncertain terms that if they continued making noise, they were going to pay for it. Severely. But that was alright with Sanji (who naturally felt that Nami-san was most in the right, and cursed marimo repeatedly for being so inconsiderate).

Because, after all, despite the fight he'd gotten the confirmation he needed. That Zoro was not completely alright, but was on the right track; had accepted that what had happened only made him human, that he'd done the best he could in an impossible situation. He might, one day, even come to forgive himself. And until then, he would still be there on the ship where he belonged, alongside nakama that genuinely wished for his well-being, that he genuinely wanted to protect.

Zoro wasn't totally okay, but he was getting there, and he was strong again, no longer an empty husk in both mind and body that he had been. And as far as Sanji was concerned, it was a success; he'd dragged a nakama back from the edge of oblivion and gotten him to stand on his own two feet again.

Smirking quietly to himself, Sanji relaxed into the blissful comforts of sleep, and dreamed of the New World.

There are a number of starvation recovery symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms used here. So yes...Zoro's reaction is again grounded in research. Whooo.

Okay. So Karma has a mild obsession with Zoro's earrings. *cough, cough* No srsly though...it'd probably stop if I KNEW WHY HE HAD THEM TO BEGIN WITH...

I got one question about the Alchemist from Agrine la Hire, which was: "Is there any one of his concoctions that he is allergic to?"

The answer is, yes and no. The Alchemist actually tests all of his potions and elixirs extensively on other subjects, but he always tests the finalized product on himself, regardless of what kind of elixir it is. This goes for all of them (including that nasty Fireblood potion that caused some trouble a ways back). He does it to both understand the potency and level of effectiveness in all his creations, but also to see how his interactions with them are as well. It's possible he was allergic to one or two of his concoctions in the early stages! He does not, however, carry anything he can't interact with personally with him when he goes on missions.

And that, folks, is a wrap. I do have some other OP ideas festering in my brain, so be sure to check back, or mention in your review that you'd like a PM when I update the next big fic.

This will be the only time that I actually request reviews. Because the fic is now over, I'd really like to hear what you all have to say about it! That includes you lovely readers who have faved this fic but otherwise kept quiet; let me know what you think!

Once again, many thanks for everyone's support :)