Sorry this has taken so long… I fail at updating*hangs head in shame* Thank you to the people who tried to spur me on & Thanks to those of you putting up with my tardiness and are here to read the next chapter. *sends much love & respect*

"What the hell?" He snarled under his breath, moving and finding himself being mirrored. As he attacked he was in turn attacked the same way.

Sanji watched as Zoro's focus seemed to be shaken. How could someone mirror the swordsman's moves after only experiencing them for a few moments? Judging by the look the leader Luffy had called Mihawk was giving…he had been expecting this. He circled as he watched, none of Zoro's movements were brash or wasteful; every move he made counted… or would have if his opponent hadn't seemed ready for them.

Zoro had broken a sweat, something unusual considering ninety percent of his recent battles had ended in single blows. The grip on his swords tightened as he rapidly changed stance, swords out wide as he twisted, blades angled at the tower of muscle in front of him. Each blow was parried, Sanji could almost feel the force behind the strikes, if any normal opponent had been subjected to that kind of ferocious attack the fox was sure the fight would have been over in a haze of blood. This wasn't to be so as Zoro was then subjected to the same attack, though his response was more tailored to the attack there was barely any difference between the two swordsmen.

Luffy was frowning, beginning to pace as Zoro's expression became more grim. He could see the clenched teeth and the now laboured breathing. The most either of the fighters were doing was opening shallow nicks on their opponent, nothing more. He glared at Mihawk as he heard him chuckle softly.

Zoro also heard the chuckle as he was forced back by another of his own attacks. His eyes widened as he staggered back, the man in front of him changing his stance to one he recognised all too well. It wasn't his own… but it was Mihawk's.

"Shit." He grunted as he brought both blades up to protect himself, the blow dealt making his swords reverberate with the force of it. His swords were forced into the ground to his right. He was completely open to attack as he tried to wrench them free. Shaken he struggled with his swords, as the last time that particular attack had been sent his way flashed through his mind, the lengthy scar searing with pain at the memory. He felt the man move before he saw him; attacked with his signature rush he felt the bite of a blade at the top of his arm, twisting his body to make it a glancing blow. Swords finally free he slashed at the muscular man's exposed side dealing a glancing blow of his own.

Zoro flexed his arm to make sure the injury wasn't anything serious. It stung but it wasn't limiting to his range of movement. He was on the back foot as the man bore down on him his attacks swinging between Zoro's and Mihawk's, making him highly unpredictable.

Sanji continued to prowl back and forth as he watched the fight, even his limited knowledge of sword fights told him that a drawn out fight was what neither party would be comfortable with. The longer it dragged on the more tired each of them was becoming. It was going to be a case of whoever tired first would lose. He could see the sheen of sweat coating Zoro's visible skin, with his heightened fox senses he could also hear the rapid pounding of the swordsman's heart and every rasping breath. Licking his dry lips he clenched his hands together tightly in the wide sleeves of his yukata. It wouldn't be good for Luffy if Zoro lost… He wondered why the swordsman was so willing to risk himself for this young man.

Swords clashed over and over, bodies began to ache and small wounds soon built up. Zoro had managed to open up a decent sized wound on his opponent's right thigh but it wasn't deep enough to make him bleed out. Zoro's torso and arms were littered with shallow cuts from narrowly avoiding attacks he knew all too well. He knew he had to go all-out soon, before he got too tired. His problem was if he did it too early on his attacker still had enough strength left to counter he'd be a goner.

The atmosphere was becoming tenser as people watched. Sanji could feel people willing Zoro on so he felt their dismay when a strike had Zoro falling back hissing and cursing. Blood coursed down his left arm, a new wound opened below the earlier one, this one deep enough to make Zoro's arm almost useless. His sword felt heavy and made him strain painfully, there had to be serious muscle damage. Grimacing he tried to keep his distance, turning his right side to his enemy in an attempt to take less blows to his left.

Beginning to look triumphant the larger man concentrated his attacks on making Zoro use his left arm. It was now or never, if he left it any longer the blood loss would make him too lightheaded to think straight. Gritting his teeth against the pain he brought both swords up to shoulder level and drove forwards, taking another glancing blow to his side as he pushed thoughts of defence away, thinking only of the victory no matter what it cost. At the last minute he ducked low and angled the swords upward. He was too far into the attack now to do anything else, so when his opponent's sword flashed upward all he could do was lean back and hope for the best.

Blood rained down.

Sanji was splashed with the warm, coppery smelling liquid and raised his delicate fingers to the right of his face. When he looked at the pair he thought the blood must have been from the larger man. The larger man now impaled on Zoro's swords from beneath his rib cage to beneath his shoulder blades. Zoro was on one knee panting hard, head lowered, hands clenched around his swords with a white knuckle grip

The problem with having such sharp senses was that the sounds he didn't want to hear were unavoidable. He could hear the dripping of blood and the gurgling choked sound of the big man's last dying breaths. When Zoro eventually started to move he could hear the sickening sound of Zoro's swords being pulled from the man's body. He looked up to see Zoro stagger backwards, his head still lowered as he spoke in a breathless growl.

"Use your own techniques…" He panted, "Or you end up being….just a cheap imitation."

The tips of the swordsman's blades were pressed into the ground as he tried to support himself, not wanting to collapse in front of the enemy even though his whole body was beginning to tremble. He hid it was best he could.

Something was badly wrong and he knew it, he couldn't open his left eye for all the blood coursing down that side of his face. When the large man finally fell from his feet with a heavy thud Zoro felt his consciousness falter. He had to take a sudden step back in an attempt to steady himself, it shouldn't have been enough, he knew that, he was ready to fall… yet he stayed on his feet, feeling supported.

Sanji moved quickly, putting a hand out to stop Zoro overbalancing.

"You…" Zoro whispered as he slowly lifted his head.

"Yes me… just stay quiet, you're already beyond the point of passing out." Sanji's hand was resting in the centre of the broad back. He let some of his consciousness seep into Zoro's. There was a reason that the swordsman was fighting so hard not to pass out and though Sanji was yet to find out why, he decided to help.

When the green head was raised the fox spirit could see the damage done and he had to quickly prevent any of his thoughts passing on to Zoro.

Breathing harder by the second Zoro shivered slightly when he felt as though someone had stepped into his body.

What are you doing in my head fox?

Keeping you on your feet, and I'm not in your head, just a little of my consciousness is to help keep you awake.

I just… need to stay on my feet until he gives… his word he won't touch Luffy.


Then you can keep your consciousness…to yourself you creepy fox.

Stubborn bastard.

Though everything sounded muffled in his strung out state Zoro listened carefully to what was said between Luffy and Mihawk.

"You gave your word Takanami…An alliance with us or shame. They are your only choices now. Your man was defeated." Luffy stepped forward between Zoro and Mihawk and stood firm.

"He had help." Mihawk stated pointing at the swordsman. His gaze was however focussed on Sanji.

"That's shit… and you know it." Zoro hissed as he made himself step forward.

"It is shit." Said a smoky disembodied voice that had the whole group looking around until Sanji seemed to shimmer into view behind Zoro.

"You know its shit because you've been able to see me since all of this started. I haven't moved from that circle until now – after the fight had finished." Sanji glared at the enemy leader.

"Everybody here knows I'd never have help. You, him… everyone here." Zoro panted as he gestured to Mihawk, Luffy and the people surrounding them. "Honour your agreement like any swordsman worth his blades would."

The whole group were watching the fox spirit as he simply stood with Zoro glaring at Mihawk, his tails twitching impatiently and ears flattened back.

There was a tense pause as one set of piercing amber eyes bore into Zoro's dark gaze, then the kitsune's almost glowing blue gaze. With an irritated huff Mihawk finally nodded.

"Fine… This time. It seems that the spirit world still isn't ready for your stubborn soul." Mihawk said looking to Zoro. "We will be your ally, but only in the sense that we will not challenge you while you battle your new enemy. I have no desire to fight your battle. It makes more sense for us to stay here and let both you and your enemy cut down on numbers… then we can claim overall victory in the end."

"Makes sense." Luffy stated with a shrug. He moved forward and eyes locked on Mihawk's he bowed very slightly. If the older man did not bow in return it meant that the agreement was not honoured...

Looking at the younger man for a moment he finally smirked and returned the bow, just about matching the level Luffy bowed to.

"You're an interesting man. One who attracts other interesting comrades… I'll be keeping my eye on you."

With that said the older man turned and motioned for people to carry his fallen warrior away and headed back to their village.

Sanji could feel the samurai's consciousness failing. It was as if the moment he knew Luffy was safe he was able to let go a little.

How bad is it?

Even Zoro's thoughts were muffled now, just about coherent.

I don't know yet, you're covered in too much blood… messy bastard.

You're a really…bad…liar…

Sanji staggered slightly as he had to catch Zoro properly, also pulling back from the swordsman's consciousness before it took him with it.

Zoro's swords clattered to the ground as he went limp in the fox spirit's arms. The group turned to look at the pair. Some seemed suspicious, others were worried.

"Is he ok?" Luffy asked as he reached the Kitsune's side.

"He has numerous wounds, none are critical… He's lost quite a lot of blood, but this is caused more by exhaustion than anything else… I think he will lose that eye though." Sanji said quietly.

Luffy nodded and started to get his men organised quickly. Sanji took a better hold of Zoro, ready to carry him when he found himself flanked by other warriors. He raised a brow but made no comment. It was clear these people didn't trust him.

Their leader turned to the group and paused for a moment. To the fox spirit it was almost as if the young man was assessing him.

"Zoro is safe as he is." He said sounding sure.

It looked like two of the men were going to argue but one more look from Luffy had them moving on.

"I can get him back to your camp quicker if you'll let me." Sanji offered, "I know you have no reason to trust me…"

"Zoro trusted you. You had his back. That is good enough to me. The quicker he gets back to camp the quicker he gets treated. Take him to Keimi; she's the one with…"

"I know who she is." Sanji nodded, "I've been in your camp for a few days now." The fox admitted. He shifted Zoro so that he would be able to move more freely.

Waiting until the spirit started to move Luffy called after him.

"Maybe you should think about staying with us…"

Fox ears twitched, brows raised and blue eyes widened. That was the first time he'd been invited to stay somewhere… usually he had to spend a stupid amount of time convincing them he wasn't a prankster or a malicious spirit.

Holding Zoro securely Sanji vaulted into a tree with almost no effort at all. He'd soon passed the young man's group in a blur of white, blue and blonde, moving from tree to tree, barely even disturbing the leaves.

He wondered if Luffy knew what kind of people he'd surrounded himself with. At night when he wasn't tormenting the swordsman or sitting high in a tree smoking he'd listened. Listened to late night conversations, to dreams and to sleep mumbled thoughts. Everyone was completely loyal to the young man. Sanji wasn't even sure if Luffy was aware of just how much he influenced these people's lives.

The blonde's thoughts were interrupted as Zoro stirred. He'd only been out for a short time.

"S'going on?" He mumbled, hissing when he tried to move his left arm.

"I'm taking you back to camp; Keimi's going to take care of your wounds."

"Oh great… more help from the fox." Zoro tried to open his eyes, still nothing on his left side…

"Stop moving or I'll drop you… Ungrateful pig…"

"When Zoro managed to glance at his surroundings his right hand tightened in Sanji's yukata making the blonde smirk.

"Why can't you just walk? … Like a normal person." Zoro grumbled realising he'd better keep still or risk a drop to the forest floor.

"Because, just in case you hadn't noticed, I'm not a normal person." He chuckled at the scowl he received. "Plus you're bleeding on my yukata and this is quicker than walking."

"Didn't ask you to carry me." Zoro said sourly. He was embarrassed he'd needed help before… now he was being carried too?

"I could have let you fall on your ass." Sanji pointed out as he seemed to crouch lower for the next leap to a tree much further away, seeming to almost run through the air.

"Why didn't you?" Zoro asked as he tried to figure out how bad each of his injuries were. His eye was what concerned him most.

"Don't know." Sanji admitted. "Felt right at the time."

Zoro grunted at the answer.

"Have I been blinded?" Zoro asked wanting to get the answer now rather than wait for someone to be nice about it later.

Sanji looked down at the swordsman's serious expression.

"I can't be certain." Looking more closely at the injury Sanji decided to be honest. "I think you'll be lucky if you don't lose it."

The swordsman was silent for a moment.

"…Ok…" he said with a faint nod. "Guess I'll get used to it. Do me a favour fox… make sure Keimi sews me up neatly… I've got enough jagged scars."

The fox raised a brow at the accepting attitude, then he snorted at the final comment.

"No amount of straight sewing is going to improve that face."

"Yeah, yeah… shitty fox. I'm gonna sleep for a while. Try not to fall over your tails." Zoro muttered sounding exhausted.

"Bastard. A bit of peace and quiet from you would be great."

There was no response from the swordsman. He'd passed out again before Sanji had finished speaking.

It wasn't much longer before Sanji was handing Zoro over to a surprised and worried Keimi. Though she clearly had questions about the fox spirit and what had happened to Zoro she kept them to herself as she led them into a room that had been cleared out and was full of various dressings and medicines.

"You seem very prepared." Sanji commented as he lay Zoro down for the young woman.

"We have to be where Luffy-chin and Zoro are concerned. They usually come back needing at least half of what we prepare between them." Keimi settled on her knees beside the swordsman, her sleeves tied back out of her way.

"I hate it when they need stitches." She grimaced as she cut away Zoro's yukata rather than trying to move him. As the layers of material were removed the samurais blood smeared skin was revealed. "Where do I start this time..?" Keimi seemed to be squeamish and was becoming flustered.

"I can help if you like?" Sanji said calmly, rolling up his sleeves. "I don't like to see a pretty lady struggle."

"Could you?" She asked hopefully. "I never know what to work on first. He's such a mess…" She held her face and shook her head.

"The two worst wounds are the lower one on his left arm and his eye." Sanji carefully investigated both mentioned injuries. "There is a tear in the muscle here." He indicated the upper part of the slash on Zoro's arm. The fox then examined the eye.

"Will he be able to see?" Keimi asked as she watched Sanji. When he shook his head her shoulders slumped.

"No… Best thing we can do is to stitch it closed. We'll need to make sure it's clean otherwise it will get infected… an infection that close to the brain would kill him."

Keimi paled. "I'll work on his arm."

Sanji nodded and set to cleaning the wound. There was complete silence as they worked. At first things went smoothly until Zoro started to shift. He wasn't conscious enough to be reasoned with.

"Keimi-Chan, can you hold his head still?"

As the woman moved to help Zoro lashed out with his injured arm. Though he missed both of them, the movement started to undo the young lady's hard work.

"Never mind… you keep his arm in place for now… I'll do this another way."

Sanji laid a bloody hand over Zoro's forehead. The fox spirits eyes glowed softly then dulled for a moment and he became completely still concentration creasing his brow. A moment later Zoro's struggling stopped. Sanji took a slow breath and his eyes regained the almost eerie brightness.

"W… What did you do?" Keimi asked in a hushed voice.

"Settled his mind. Stopped him fighting his way back to consciousness. Stubborn swordsman… needs to learn his limits." Sanji muttered the last part as he continued the delicate procedure of sewing Zoro's eye closed.

"You can do that?" Keimi said in awe. "I thought fox spirits only caused trouble…"

"You're not the only one to think that." Sanji said before using his nails to cut the excess thread with ease. "It can be a real pain in the ass when all you're trying to do is help and people think you're going to make them look foolish." Rather than stop Sanji then set to working on other smaller wounds.

Keimi blushed furiously, "I'm sorry… that was very rude of me to say. I… well I've just never met a fox spirit and I only have…"

"Stories told when you were young to judge from." Sanji finished her sentence and smiled warmly at the attractive blush that dusted her cheeks. "It's ok… it's not like I haven't been around long enough to be used to it." He couldn't help the quiet chuckle when he saw her count his tails. He fanned them out so that she could see them all.

"Seven hundred." He said to answer her question before it was asked. "Almost eight hundred… which means another tail to consider when trying to walk through dense forest."

Keimi giggled before she looked back down to continue sewing Zoro's wounds closed.

"Is Luffy ok?" She asked after a few more minutes of silence.

"Yes. He's fine. The only one who came to any harm was this one." He pointed at Zoro. "He chose to step in and fight one on one rather than have the whole group fight."

Keimi shook her head. "He takes far too much onto his own shoulders… but then… so does Luffy." She sighed. "I often wonder how long they can keep going like they do. It's almost frightening."

Sanji nodded slowly. "There will be a bigger battle ahead though… once Luffy marches on the traitor." He looked up at the young woman and wondered how often she had been this worried. "Humans battle too often… but in this case I believe that this battle needs to take place. There is an unsettling presence far too willing to take blood somewhere to the north of this place. The one that took Luffy's brother… he needs to be stopped." Of that Sanji was certain.

"I gathered as much… Luffy never battles needlessly… and Ace deserves to be avenged." She said quietly, still working diligently. "Luffy wanted to move off on his return. Do you think Zoro will be well enough?"

"I'm sure someone can carry him if need be… He's going to be out for a while; he was completely exhausted before the fight. Stubborn ass has only had a few snatched moments of sleep over the last few days. "

"I'll make sure he's carried." Keimi nodded as she cut the last thread. She then cleaned up any last smears of blood and bandaged the swordsman up quickly. It was clear she'd had to do this numerous times. "Chopper would have done a better job but he was delayed in joining us thanks to some of the men being poisoned and needing more care after the last fight."

Seeing her doubting herself Sanji leaned in and took a look at her handiwork.

"You've done a good job. Don't worry the stubborn moss head isn't going to fall apart or anything."

Keimi's expression lightened a little on hearing the spirit's appraisal.

"Promise you'll keep an eye on him?" she asked, "Luffy would be truly lost if he didn't have Zoro to support him… especially now…"

Sanji had been about to leave the swordsman in Keimi's care when he heard the quiet request.

"Ah… I don't think he needs me to baby him Keimi-Chan." He said, ears drooping slightly. "I'm sure he'd rather have someone like you look after him…"

"Please Kitsune-Sama?" She said bowing low, "You would be able to calm him before he causes and damage… I would have to wait for him to be fully conscious. He might have injured himself more by then."

Sanji's shoulders dropped along with his ears and tails. The young lady was right.

"Ok Keimi-Chan, for you, I'll do it." He said resigning himself to it only to be bowled over by a grateful hug that left him reeling for a moment. When she untangled herself and stood up to leave Sanji straightened himself out.

"Kitsune-Sama…" She mumbled, sounding worried again. "Make sure he pulls through… Luffy relies on him heavily, though Zoro would never accept that. He'll need him to fight and Zoro will, regardless of his state. Please do what you can. It will be more than Luffy that will lose everything if the battle isn't won…"

Sanji didn't have chance to reply since the young woman hurried away. He sat in thoughtful silence, eventually able to hear the men coming back. Zoro was going to need time to heal properly. He'd just lost the sight in one eye… to fight well he would need to adjust to that. The question was would he have time? If he didn't… would he survive? Sanji could feel it in his soul that this battle would shape the future of Japan and so many innocent people's lives. Luffy was going to be the key to a future of less bloodshed and more freedom…

If Luffy broke... if he couldn't win… Japan would be sentenced to the reign of a man without remorse or compassion. Sanji had seen the result of such leadership early on in his fox years… he never wanted to experience that again.

All of this would be a lot less stressful if Inari-Sama would just tell me which of these people it is I'm supposed to be here for…

Well there's another chapter. Hope you enjoyed it and thank you for reading. As always R/R is always appreciated, it's good to know I can make some people happy with my writing.

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