I am so sorry for taking this long to update. Time has never passed so quickly to me, most likely because I was kind of busy this summer. I can't promise this won't ever happen again, but I'll try my best not to find myself in such a predicament again – which might not be easy, since I'm going to be even busier starting from October. :(
I tend to forget about this whenever I write these author's notes, but I'm really grateful to every single person who ever favorited, followed or reviewed my stuff. Thanks to you all! I especially love reviews, and I do my best to answer them all, albeit with a little delay when RL gets busy. Don't hesitate to drop me a message. I don't bite!
Also, FYI, I'm still very active on Tumblr - you can find the link on my profile page.
Many thanks to Aevium, who once again agreed to beta this beast – which clearly needed it – and did such a wonderful job I don't even know how to repay her properly. If you have suggestions, I'll gladly hear them.
Anyway, here's the long-awaited chapter.
"IDIOTS!" Chopper squeals in frustration, the short whiskers around his blue nose twitching ever-so-slightly, which would be comical and overwhelmingly cute even to Zoro if his reindeer nakama wasn't so obviously worried and angry. "Especially you, Sanji! You know how important it is to take good care of your body. And I know – I know you're perfectly aware that it's not just about food. You need to sleep as well."
The cook, lying on the couch in the boys' cabin, shifts in his sleepy daze, groaning weakly in response. He's been dozing off during the whole trip back to the ship, and he doesn't look as bad as he did when he passed out. His shaky breathing is also steadier, though he's still much too pale, as far as Zoro's concerned. Either way, if that didn't do it for Sanji's recovery, he thinks that the uncomfortable nap – spent tossed over the swordsman's shoulder – helped in making him feel a bit better. Which is a good thing. Definitely good.
It does nothing to ease the swordsman's guilty conscience on the whole fiasco, though. He feels very responsible for Sanji's current state of exhaustion. Rightfully so, he thinks.
The little doctor frowns, and turns towards Zoro, who almost recoils after seeing the glint of anger and sadness in his usually gentle eyes.
"And you!" He says in a slightly lower voice, so Sanji can get the rest he needs without being disturbed. "What took you so long? You two were gone for hours! You should have come back as soon as he collapsed!"
Another muffled groan from the far side of the room interrupts his angry lecture. They both turn to Sanji, shifting tiredly on the couch, and catch his words, mumbled through a somewhat weak bout of laughter that almost sounds like exhausted coughing.
"Marimo got lost," he snorts weakly, which has Zoro narrowing his eyes at him in irritation.
"Shut up and sleep!" Chopper shouts at the cook in a clearly exasperated tone.
He sighs, obviously frustrated. Shaking his head and sighing, he grabs the hem of Zoro's shirt, urging him to leave the room. He closes the hatch behind them once they're out on deck, and sighs once more.
"He needs to stay put and sleep a lot for a couple days," he mutters, more to himself than to anyone else, even though Zoro's right beside him.
The fact is they're alone on the ship, aside from Sanji, quietly resting below deck. The others were apparently dragged along by Luffy, who didn't feel like waiting for him and Zoro to come back before exploring the island. Fortunately, Chopper decided to stay and watch the ship. Zoro wonders if it's really been just luck, though. From the way Chopper's been berating them both from the moment they came back, he's starting to think his nakama knows more of what's happened between them than he lets on.
"I wonder why he's been unable to sleep like that," the doctor adds after a while, as if on cue. "His insomnia has never been that bad. Fortunately, it's just exhaustion. Nothing a little sleep can't cure."
At Chopper's words, Zoro feels a tension he never even noticed was there leave him. Sanji will be fine. He wasn't really worried, but hearing it from their doctor is the best proof that everything will be all right, even if he knows mending things between them will be difficult. Letting out a deep sigh, he closes his eyes and rests his weight on the mast, the warm wood on his back. Actually, he's feeling a little light-headed. Probably because the last time he had something to eat was days ago. And he never got to hunt his lunch, after all. Because of the shit-cook. That idiot.
Chopper is right, he thinks. He's an idiot, and so am I.
When he opens his eyes, Chopper's looking at him peculiarly.
"Zoro?" He asks worriedly.
"Hmm?" He replies noncommittally.
"How are you feeling?" The doctor asks softly.
Zoro almost chuckles at his question. He's certainly not feeling right, not after the past few days of confusion and hunger, not to mention the guilt he's feeling right now. But he's not going to involve Chopper in his personal shit, and he's certainly not going to tell him that he hasn't been eating much lately, especially not after witnessing his wrath towards Sanji's insomnia.
"Yeah. I'm fine," he replies in a faint groan he hopes sounds nonchalant enough.
But Chopper doesn't move, looking at him pointedly, his eyes wide and somewhat sad. Zoro suddenly has the feeling that his nakama doesn't believe him at all.
He noticed, he realizes. They probably all did.
And it's not really surprising, since he hasn't showed up for meals in days, which earned him quite a few odd looks from his crew-mates. It's not like he intended to lie to Chopper, who knows that Zoro never dwells on his physical discomfort, anyway. However bad it can get.
It's good to feel needed.
As Sanji's raspy voice resonates in his mind, his words bright and clear like tropical waters, Zoro suddenly decides he doesn't want to burden Chopper any more than he already has. Even if it's embarrassing as hell. He closes his eyes again, and swallows thickly before speaking.
"I'm... I'm a bit hungry, though," he mutters softly, his voice a mere whisper.
Which doesn't prevent Chopper to startle at his words. His eyes widen in surprise at this small acknowledgment of weakness, so unlike him, and seconds later, the biggest tears Zoro's ever seen in his eyes – even in his emotionally sensitive crew-mate's eyes, start rolling along his blue nose. Chopper suddenly latches at his leg and starts wailing – though he's much less loud than usual, probably not wanting to disturb Sanji, who's sleeping right under their feet.
"I'm not flattered or touched that you trust me so much, asshole!" The reindeer cries through the tears and snot staining his fur, his words muffled by Zoro's trousers.
Zoro doesn't care about the snot, not really, but he's a little puzzled by Chopper's intense reaction. After a moment, though, he realizes it's not that surprising. Chopper's a perceptive kid, and if Sanji was right about this "feeling needed" shit, his reaction does make sense, in a way.
Maybe his semi-confession was worth the trouble and embarrassment, after all.
Still crying and sputtering nonsense about "idiots lacking self-preservation instincts", Chopper drags him into the galley. Once there, the doctor switches to Heavy Point and starts feverishly opening cupboards left and right, while Zoro rests his swords against the wall and sits at the table.
Moments later, bread and honey are placed in front of him, as well as a spoon and a knife. Zoro's not too fond of sweet stuff, but he's not going to complain about it now. He's hungry, and he doesn't want to hurt Chopper's good-willed feelings.
"I'm no good in the kitchen," Chopper starts while sitting in front of him, sniffling pitifully every once in a while but otherwise overcoming his earlier crying fit, "but Sanji's out cold and honey's good. Nutritious and stuff."
He grabs the knife and starts cutting thick slices of bread, but as Zoro suspected, he's not doing a very good job. Probably because the knife's not supposed to be used like this, he guesses, despite the fact he knows nothing about the specific use for the various utensils Sanji insisted on bringing aboard. That one's got no teeth, so it's not hard to see. Before Chopper can butcher that innocent loaf of bread further, he puts his hand over the reindeer's smaller hoof.
"I'll do it."
He starts cutting, doing a much better job than his crew-mate, who begins lathering every single slice with a thick layer of honey.
They eat in relative silence. Despite the fact Zoro isn't big on sweet things, he finds himself wanting more after his first slice, and starts pouring honey directly from the pot since Chopper's currently using the spoon, too lazy to get one for himself.
Once done eating, he glances up at his friend, and lets out deep chuckles at the sight. There's nearly as much honey on Chopper – and the table – as in their stomachs.
"There's honey on your face," he tells the puzzled reindeer, nodding at his blue nose.
Chopper giggles merrily at that.
"You've got some in your hair, you know!" He replies, delighted to see Zoro frowning and feeling his short hair, smearing all the more honey there by doing so.
Chopper sighs, a lot more contentedly than before, to Zoro's relief, and glances at the table. They ruined the bread, and the honey pot is almost empty.
"We should clean up, I guess. Sanji will kick our asses for making a mess of his kitchen." He sighs. "I should check up on him, just in case. If he's awake or worse, smoking, I'll kill him," he adds a bit somberly.
This atmosphere felt so much lighter than it had ever been in the previous week that Zoro almost forgot about his fucked up situation with Sanji. Something clenches uncomfortably in his gut at the mention of the cook's name, but despite this, he realizes he feels better. Still guilty, still somewhat disappointed at his own shortcomings, but better. Chopper, as well as the hearty snack they just had, are probably to thank for that.
"I'll clean up," he offers. "You check on the shit-cook."
The reindeer looks up at Zoro, his face somewhat thoughtful, and nods. He hops off the chair, and heads for the room's door. Before leaving, though, he turns back to look at Zoro once again.
"You know..." The little reindeer starts, looking concerned and unsure of how to word his thoughts.
Zoro doesn't dare press him, because he's got the feeling that what Chopper is going to tell him is important, somehow, and he knows how easily his friend can give into his lack of self-confidence.
But Chopper shakes his head, and exits the room without a word, leaving Zoro wondering what he meant to say.
Later that day, when Zoro wakes up to an eerily silent ship, his back against the warm planks of the wooden deck, he has a hard time remembering where he is. He's just had yet another dream, though he can't really remember what happened there. All he can say is that it was a pleasant dream, and he's also pretty sure that Sanji was prominently featured all along. It seems to be important, for some reason, and he really wants to remember. Blinking against the night's cloudless sky, sprinkled with a thousand stars, and ultimately closing his eyes again in hopes it'd help, he grasps at the remnants of his dream. However, the fleeting images disappear, like sand seeping through clenched fingers, leaving him with a faint feeling of loss.
He represses a sleepy groan.
He listens to the soft noise of the waves lapping at the wooden hull for a while, his sleep-foggy thoughts slowly getting sharper. He can remember that he fell asleep on Merry's deck, after that eventful day, willing to recharge before his watch.
Opening his eyes again, he peers into the night sky, into the nearly full moon, pale yet bright, and sighs.
After cleaning the kitchen table to the best of his abilities, he decided to train a bit. And since Chopper was using the bathroom, he'd shower after him. He felt better after the copious snack they had together, more energized than he had been in days, but after that stressful row with Sanji, he needed to relieve his anxiety. Training was the best way he knew, aside from drinking booze, but for some reason, he didn't feel like ransacking Sanji's stash right now. He felt guilty enough as it was.
He trained until the others came back, a few hours later, Luffy shouting for meat and Nami hitting him on the head with a delicate though unforgiving and rather well-aimed fist, shouting that it was almost lunch time. Sanji was still sleeping then, and when he was asked where the cook was, Chopper told them he hadn't felt well earlier, and was napping. Which was essentially the truth, though he didn't say anything about Zoro's involvement in the matter. The latter was grateful to their doctor for keeping whatever he knew about their situation – even if it wasn't much – a secret.
He listened to his friends while finishing his final set of lifts. From what he gathered, Nami had heard from a sailor on the last island they stopped at that the log pose would take at least a couple more days to set. It really wasn't that much of a bother, since they'd spotted remains of a sunken ship not too far from the shore, hidden behind cape that stood on the east of where they dropped anchor at. Not so surprisingly, Nami wanted to salvage it, just in case some riches lay underwater. Of course, Luffy wanted to go with her – and so did Robin, who wanted to see if she could find anything of interest in the wreckage. Usopp, Sanji and himself would have to go too, because Luffy and Robin couldn't swim, and there was no way Nami was going to do all the work.
Of course, Chopper was quick to intervene, saying Sanji needed to rest until the following day at least. Which had Luffy whine in desperation, because if Sanji had to sleep, there was no way he was making lunch.
Fortunately, Robin soon said she could fix something easy, like sandwiches. Later, as he was eating his share – and trying to protect it from Luffy's grabby hands – Zoro was secretly glad that Nami hadn't offered to do it. Not just because she'd probably charge an inordinate amount for each bite, but also because he could still remember his early days in the crew, when it was just her, Luffy and himself, and later, Usopp as well. After a while, even Luffy had declared he'd rather cook himself than have Nami do it, even though he'd eat anything – and his cooking was truly terrible. Actually worse than Zoro's, who admittedly had no idea how to treat food, other than applying some kind of heat to it.
He was kind of glad they'd found a cook soon after that, despite the fact the guy was an idiot at first glance. Sanji's cooking wasn't bad at all, definitely better than anything their other crew-members could do, though Zoro was never picky. To him, food was either edible, or it wasn't, and that was it. He never doubted the fact that the cook had trained his taste-buds for a long time, to be able to tell the difference between good and excellent food. He himself didn't have such a skill – and he didn't care, because it was irrelevant, and ultimately useless to him – though he'd never admit such a thing in front of Sanji, of course.
After lunch, he had a quick shower – sticky didn't even begin to describe how he felt – and decided that a nap would be a good idea, because he had watch that night.
Obviously, this hasn't gone too well. Judging by the silence currently surrounding him, everyone has gone to bed a while ago. He slept through dinner – if the slight cramping of his stomach is any indication. Which sucks, because he's now very hungry – and he's quite fed up with feeling hungry, all things considered – but also because someone had to take his place on watch. And if there's something Zoro dislikes profoundly, it's feeling indebted to someone for irrelevant things like that.
He really hopes it's not Nami who agreed to replace him on watch. But at the same time, he really doubts she'd go to such lengths just to raise his debt. The sea-witch loves her beauty sleep, despite the fact she proved she could skip a fair bit of it if there was something in it for her...
When he realizes where that train of thought is taking him, he purposefully decides to stop in his tracks.
It's not like the cook would let her when he could gladly do it, anyway.
Well, to be perfectly honest, to Zoro, this thought isn't much better than the ones about Nami, especially after the cook suffered from a dire lack of sleep partly because of him. But curiously, he doesn't mind thinking about him as much as he does when it comes to her. Still, he groans faintly, exasperated at his own ability to discard such irrelevant matters. He used to be able to do it more easily, before his life got fucked up in all kind of ways.
Either way, it's now too late to whine about missing dinner or his watch – and Zoro doesn't whine about anything, ever. He decides it won't make a difference if he takes his time waking up properly.
Letting out a faint sigh, he lets his mind wander back towards the earlier events – his clash with Sanji in particular. He wonders if the cook is still sleeping, or if he felt well enough to make dinner. He sighs. He was kind of looking forward to eating Sanji's cooking again, after fasting for a whole week.
He still doesn't know how to face the cook, but he decides that he can't run away from him anymore. If he thought it'd be easier for the both of them to avoid each other, then Sanji obviously feels differently. It seems like he values their blossoming friendship more than Zoro thought he ever would. And when he thinks about it, it was the cook who'd initiated the changes by trying to be nicer to him. Sanji gave them a chance to start anew, and he guesses he should give him the credit he deserves. He feels like he owes it to the cook to make a little effort in that direction. He only hopes that, after all they went through, their bond isn't irrevocably gone. That it can be mended.
Because he'd like it if they could still be friends, very much so. In the end, he doesn't think they could go back to what they had before, simple rivalry and light-hearted antagonism. Not after getting so close to each other, and not after possibly ruining it all. He doesn't know if he could bear it if the cook started really hating him either. Even if he could, he doesn't want that.
Sanji's not as much of an asshole as he used to think. Zoro would be lying if he pretended that he was never touched by the small, thoughtful gestures Sanji displayed towards him since he decided to give him a chance. Also, he tried to cheer him up when he felt down, which only serves to prove he cares about Zoro's well-being. Worries about him, even if he doesn't really like to show it – which only makes his displays of concern all the more significant. Finally, he was obviously hurt when he thought Zoro didn't believe he cared, which he realizes he still has to apologize for.
In the end, he guesses he likes Sanji well enough, when he's not making a fool out of himself from a nearby pair of boobs, or endlessly nagging him about something stupid he did, or didn't do. Zoro has to admit that he likes the companionship, whenever they succeed in having an actual conversation without trying to rip each other's throat out. Curiously, he also likes when Sanji decides to prepare food just for him, like that quiet moment they spent in the galley some time ago. He even likes it a lot. He remembers how warm it made him feel, in all kinds of ways. Can feelings be tasted, when eating food prepared by someone who cares? Zoro can't really tell, but he's pretty sure the cook would answer positively if he ever asked him that question. He wouldn't be surprised if Sanji was talented enough to make food taste differently, if he really put his heart into it.
And yet, despite this new, strange fondness for the cook he's discovered within himself along the way, Zoro feels troubled.
The fact is that he's been thinking about the cook a lot lately. Not just since that night when they went out to drink and shit happened, but even before then. Ever since the dreams started, actually. He never acknowledged it before – unwilling to let his mind go to places where it shouldn't be – but he always made it a point to be perfectly honest with himself. Pretending he's not obsessed with what happened between them recently would be useless, at this point.
And it got worse. Nowadays, Sanji's pretty much all he can think of. He can't help it, and that thought is almost frightening. Somehow, Sanji makes him feel confused about things that he wouldn't have looked twice at before. He could attribute it to the fact that they were getting close, maybe too close for comfort. Closer than he's used to, anyway. It makes him feel uneasy.
He never questioned his relationships with his other crew-mates, or other bounty hunters – like Johnny and Yosaku, or even Kuina. Nor did he question what he had with Nami, not really. After he was able to accept it for what it was, he never questioned it again. And actually, maybe he should have done so, considering the way it ended. But he never did.
And now, Zoro's finding that he can't really tell what he feels for Sanji anymore. He never cared that much about anyone, aside from Kuina – but it was natural from the start, very different from what he's experiencing now. It feels like he's entering a foreign, possibly risky territory, and it troubles him greatly.
He's not used to feeling like this.
How should he explain why his heart tends to race when Sanji comes too close? Or why he reacted the way he did when they had that stupid argument in the galley? He can't understand. As far as he's concerned, these are all signs of physical attraction. But he can't even get his head around that one, for many reasons.
He can admit that, before today, he not-so-unconsciously thought that, maybe, he was only feeling horny. He got used to having sex regularly at some point, and perhaps he simply missed it. Sex with Nami had been good, but now that it's gone, his body feels deprived. His bout of self-indulgence, while on watch in the crow's nest about a week ago, only served to prove it further.
But for one thing, he's certainly not physically attracted to the cook, not in the least. At most, he might admit that he's a little fascinated with Sanji's eyes, or maybe that he has a nice face. But he's also a guy, looking nothing like people he usually finds himself attracted to – girls exclusively, until now.
Overall, Sanji might be pleasant to look at, but it has nothing to do with what happened, or what he currently feels.
He can't ignore the fact that, mere seconds before his stupid body decided to act on his own back in the galley, he had felt a pull. He'd be lying if he tried to pretend that his heart hadn't started to race from being so close to Sanji, their faces mere inches from each other. Closer than they had ever been, aside from the time spent in a dark alley, on an island they left behind mere weeks ago.
Another thing he finds rather terrifying – and again, that's something he's not exactly used to – is that if he hadn't fucked up and freaked out when shit happened that night, he would have kissed Sanji again. He doesn't know why, but he was clearly about to do so. Instinctive reaction, he supposes, since they'd already done it once. He'd normally push away anyone with the nerve to get in his face like that, but... Kissing has been part of his routine for a while, until Nami decided to end it.
He wishes he could blame this unexpected drive to kiss Sanji on that, but he knows he can't. Because he now finds that it wasn't really unwanted – not if the dreams he's been having lately are a projection of unconscious desires, which is incredibly disturbing to him. He can't help but wonder if it's astonishing, or just plain horrifying. He's rarely felt astonished in his life, and even less horrified.
He frowns, unwilling to acknowledge that just yet. He's not ready, and he doesn't know if he'll ever be.
Now that he thinks about it, the cook had definitely felt something was about to happen, too. Zoro only needs to close his eyes to remember how tense the guy's body felt against his thighs, where Sanji's weight rested lightly. For a moment, before he screwed up, the cook had looked confused. Almost frightened.
Zoro doesn't know if he should be glad that his body decided to betray him at that precise moment, breaking the momentum between them. In the worst way possible. Honestly, what would be worse : having to justify his actions after trying to kiss a guy – who happens to be his crew-mate and nakama and friend – and the resulting rejection and overall freaking out? Or instead, finding himself in this screwed up situation, not knowing how to face the guy – a very straight guy – who might now reasonably think that Zoro has the hots for him?
But Zoro doesn't think he's attracted to Sanji, not like that. Even if he was, he'd ignore it, because it would make things much too complicated. He doesn't want a repeat of what happened with Nami. As if the cook would ever be interested in another dude, Zoro tells himself, smiling maybe just somewhat bitterly. Not gonna happen.
Nevertheless, admitting that there is indeed a pull whenever he thinks of the cook – and his blue eyes – don't even go there – means that he should revise his whole outlook on life. Not because the other's a guy, but also because he's the shit-cook. Despite the fact their relationship had become a little more than what it was before, he can't see why he should want even more. And why the cook? Why not Luffy, since they always got along so well? He tries imagining being attracted to his captain in such a way, or actually, any other of his male crew-mates, and almost starts laughing out loud. The idea itself is ridiculous, just as much as being attracted to their cook is.
Somehow, that silly thought makes him feel slightly better.
He briskly sits up and stretches. He's not sleepy anymore, so he guesses he should relieve whoever agreed to be on watch while he was napping.
He gets up, grabs his swords, leaning against the nearby railing, and heads for the mast, soon climbing along the rope ladder. Its soft squeaking in the quiet night must have roused whoever is up there, because a couple of steps before reaching the crow's nest, a head suddenly pops up from behind the wooden railing. He can't really see the person's features, back-lit by the full moon's soft glow, but the sudden whiff of smoke that hits him doesn't really leave room for any guessing.
Leaning on the railing, the cook casually waves at him.
"Yo," he greets him, his tone neutral.
Zoro nearly stops his climbing for a split-second, tensing just a bit, before going on, not bothering with a reply. Sanji moves aside so he can step inside the crow's nest, getting back to what was most likely his position before Zoro's intrusion – sitting against the railing, his legs stretched out against the wooden floor.
"Slept well?" The cook inquires, his voice light and possibly unconcerned.
"Hmm," Zoro noncommittally replies.
He didn't expect to find himself face to face with the cook, not so soon. He doesn't feel ready for that, but he also thinks that if he doesn't now, he most likely never will. Besides, he's not a coward, and it's more than time enough that they stop avoiding each other, if only to avoid a repeat of their fiasco from earlier. He's not going to run away anymore.
Besides, didn't the idiot cook need to rest a lot?
"Why aren't you sleeping?" He asks Sanji, frowning a bit as he sits down from the opposite side of him, placing his swords in his lap.
To Zoro's surprise, the cook smirks good-naturedly at that, and takes a long drag on his cigarette before replying.
"Are you worried about me?" He exhales the smoke, which swirls and twirls against the night sky. "That's cute."
At that, slightly embarrassed and a little annoyed, Zoro grunts almost silently, but doesn't retort. He's not here to bicker with the guy, whatever taunts are thrown at him. Besides, the other seems to be in somewhat of a good mood, since, after all, he's actually talking to him – not shouting or spurting insults, or even shooting hostile glares in his general direction. Zoro's certainly not going to ruin it by starting an argument.
They keep silent for a moment, before Sanji starts again.
"I couldn't sleep any more than I already did," he sighs. "Chopper said it was ok for me to be up if I wasn't sleepy anymore, but that I'd probably tire more easily in the next few days. Until I caught up on sleep, anyway. I had to promise I'd go to bed as soon as it happened, even if I had to wake him up to take my place on watch." He chuckles. "Or yours, actually, since you were originally supposed to be here."
"Well, I'm here now," Zoro replies, trying to be nice, but his tone a little more on the stern side than he intended. "You can leave. If you want." He tentatively adds after a moment, trying to be considerate, and admittedly not doing a very good job.
Sanji snuffs out his cigarette on the sole of his shoe, before flicking the stub towards the ocean.
"No thanks. I'm not sleepy at all." He glances at Zoro briefly, before turning back to the sea. "Besides, you've missed dinner. I can fix you something, if you want."
"I'm fine," Zoro mumbles, though his traitor of a stomach, growling conspicuously as the words exit his mouth, seems to think otherwise.
"Hah," Sanji sneers, his eyes a bit colder and possibly sad when he glances at Zoro again. "Right. Not hungry at all, you shitty swordsman."
He stands up and stretches, before abruptly leaving the crow's nest without another word.
When the cook disappears from his view, Zoro slowly exhales, his body relaxing against the wooden planks in his back. He doesn't really know what to make of the conversation they just had, and he hopes he didn't offend him again by not admitting he was hungry. But at least, they can talk to each other without threats of bodily harm being thrown. It's progress, and he's feeling more relieved than he thought he would. It gives him hope that, maybe, their relationship can be mended, after all. If he makes an effort to be nicer and doesn't screw it up again, that is.
He loses himself in thoughts, silently gazing at the star-filled sky. He doesn't really expect the cook to come back, which might be why he almost jumps when Sanji suddenly reappears over the railing of the crow's nest. There's a plate filled with some kind of spicy-smelling dish on his head, glasses in his hand and a bottle tucked under his arm.
Sanji hops into the crow's nest and puts the bottle and glasses on the floor, before placing the plate at Zoro's feet.
"Here's your dinner, marimo. You can have booze later," he says, sitting down next to him and uncorking the bottle with a deft flick of his wrist before pouring himself a glass. "Cheers."
Zoro doesn't react at first, staring at the plate, rendered speechless by the sudden reappearance, but also by the obvious peace offering. He has trouble believing his eyes. More than anything else, he can't understand how quick the cook is to forget about how much of an asshole Zoro was to him, on multiple occasions.
"You don't have to stay," Zoro slowly says after a while. "I can handle watch."
"Well, yeah, but what if I want to stay?" Sanji replies, his tone light but his eyes sharp.
Feeling that he's walking on unsteady grounds, Zoro doesn't try to deter him further, and shrugs silently.
"Come on, moss-head," Sanji scoffs amiably after a moment, sipping on what looks like wine. "That gumbo's not going to eat itself."
And for once, after his empty stomach recalls himself to the world's attention by growling loudly, Zoro can only agree. He grabs the plate and digs in heartily. It's good, of course, like everything Sanji makes. The rice is cooked to perfection, firm and not mushy at all, and the dish itself has just the right balance of spices. In fact, seeing that the cook wants to create peace between them – not to mention keep him company – Zoro decides he might, for once, voice his appreciation. Be nice, and all that.
"Thanks," he mumbles through a mouthful. "It's good."
"Don't speak with your mouth full," Sanji replies, though his casual tone holds no disgust or irritation. "And yeah, you're welcome."
As Sanji takes another sip from his glass, Zoro can't help but worry, maybe just a tiny bit, that it's a bit too soon for him to be having that wine yet.
"You..." He starts, hesitating. "Is it ok for you to be drinking alcohol?" He asks.
Which has Sanji chuckling around his cigarette.
"Look who's talking. Well, I don't plan on drinking myself stupid this time, if that's what you're worried about."
He lifts his glass, making the wine shimmer in the bright moonlight.
"See? I didn't even drink that much yet. Besides, it's not that strong." He pauses thoughtfully. "I know I looked kind of sick earlier, but I'm no weakling, you know. I just needed to sleep more."
That last part has Zoro's appetite plummet from renewed guilt, but he decides he's going to empty his plate, anyway. He doesn't want to offend the cook by wasting food, as well as Chopper, to whom he implicitly promised to eat properly from here on out.
But Sanji puts his glass on the floor to grab the empty one, and fills it with wine before handing it to Zoro.
"Here, try it."
Once again nonplussed by the fact the cook is being so unusually nice to him, Zoro absentmindedly brings the glass to his mouth. Strangely, it tastes good, despite the fact all wines usually taste like fruity piss to him. It's not too strong either, but surprisingly tasty, and spicy enough to compliment the gumbo without being completely overshadowed.
"Don't drown it in one go. It's supposed to be sipped while eating the dish. Tastes better that way."
Zoro can understand why. Somehow, the drink makes the gumbo's spices stand out. He complies, though that doesn't really take any effort on his part. Trust the cook to know better when it comes to food.
They fall silent, Sanji lighting up and occasionally drinking from his glass, and Zoro going on eating until his plate is empty. He wipes his mouth against his wrist, and drowns the last of his wine. He feels better with a full stomach. Also, that beverage Sanji whipped out is starting to grow on him. Of course, it doesn't compare to real booze – a little too light for him – but it's not that bad.
Not to mention, the fact that he and Sanji seem to be on cordial terms again does wonders to his anxiety.
"You know," Sanji starts suddenly, "I got scolded by Chopper. He didn't leave me alone until I promised I'd make sure to feed you properly. I intend to do just that of course. After all, it's my job."
Zoro tenses ever-so-slightly in embarrassment. It's not like he needs anyone taking care of him. But more than anything else, it's the concern the cook is showing towards him that he finds difficult to bear. He's used to Chopper being worried about his health, especially since he's often wounded in battle – though to Zoro, it's nothing, mere scratches most of the time. Yet, despite the fact it's not the first time it's happened, he's not used to Sanji worrying about him. He knows he'll have to, somehow, if he wants them to make up and resume their tentative friendship.
"Huh," he huffs, a faint smirk on his lips. "Do I need to make sure you sleep properly?"
Sanji pauses at his words, looking slightly staggered, before chuckling.
"Well," he replies, "that's your specialty, right? Sleeping." And he starts laughing again, a bit louder.
Not really knowing if the cook is laughing at him, Zoro frowns. Well. He guesses it is funny, in a way. But truthfully, he's a bit disturbed at how casually Sanji is able to speak and laugh around him, after what happened these past few days. Before he can help it, he opens his mouth.
"Why..." He hesitates, not knowing if bringing that topic to Sanji's attention right now is really a good idea.
Sanji calms down a bit and looks at him. His smile makes something flutter lightly in Zoro's chest.
"Yeah?" Sanji says, somewhat encouragingly.
Zoro swallows thickly, and closes his eyes before going on, very conscious of the fact he might be fanning the flames.
"Why aren't you mad at me?" He finally asks.
He waits for an answer, but when it doesn't come, he reopens his eyes.
Sanji is staring in the distance, and Zoro has the feeling he's purposefully avoiding to look in his direction. He also notes he's not smiling anymore.
After a while, the cook lets out a deep sigh, and turns back to him.
"I'm still mad at you, a little bit. But I decided that it doesn't matter. Because, you know what's really funny? I'm mostly mad at myself." He pauses to light a new cigarette, but resumes soon after exhaling smoke. "I mean, you're an idiot, but I knew that already. I knew what to expect, and yet, I went and snapped at you like that. Which makes me as much of an idiot as you are, I guess."
Zoro takes his time to take all of this in. It hurts a bit to know that the cook's still mad at him, but he didn't expect to be forgiven so easily. Because, that's what the cook meant, right? That he's forgiving him.
It makes him feel warm when Sanji's like this, even though he didn't have real booze yet. He doesn't know how to handle the feelings it rouses in him. It's a bit too new, too foreign to him. All he knows is that he won't slap that stretched hand away, not when Sanji seems to be willing to meet him halfway.
He breathes in deeply. What he's about to say is unheard of as of yet, coming from him, and he hopes he won't have to repeat himself.
"I'm sorry," he finally says.
"Huh?" Sanji seems a bit taken aback by his sudden apology.
Looks like he's gonna have to say it again, after all. But he finds that, when it's been said once, it's not really difficult to do it again.
"Well, yeah, I'm sorry." He pauses, trying to gather his thoughts. "For... being an idiot. You know." He breathes in deeply again, and scratches the back of his head in embarrassment, looking away. "If you haven't noticed, I'm kind of bad at this friendship thing."
When he looks up, Sanji is eying him rather peculiarly.
"Friendship, huh..." The cook finally says slowly, dragging leisurely on his nearly extinct cigarette, then shaking his head. "Don't be. I'm equally bad at it. When it comes to you, at least. And anyway, I'm to blame, too." He throws the stub into the sea and chuckles. "Which makes us both hopeless idiots when it comes to each other. But I like that, you know? In the end, you might be an idiot, but you're my idiot," he finishes in a challenging voice, grinning at Zoro.
Zoro's not sure what kind of challenge is issued here, but he's certainly not going to turn it down. Besides, he can't help but genuinely snicker at this silly idea.
"And you're mine, right?"
Sanji looks nonplussed for a split second, then starts laughing loudly.
"Hahaha..." He sputters, between bouts of seemingly inextinguishable laughter. "Yeah, I am... maybe."
Surprisingly, Zoro feels somewhat proud of himself, making Sanji laugh like that from something silly that he said. The cook's eyes are sparkling in the moonlight with unrestrained glee, shining through his bangs, his hair slightly tussled from this uncontrollable laughing bout. This sight is so pleasant to Zoro, all of a sudden, that he can only try not to smile dumbly, his heart racing, unable to tear his eyes from the cook's captivating laughing face.
Sanji's laughter gradually recedes, until it dies out in the quiet night, and they remain silent for a couple minutes after that. Slumped against the wooden board in their back, Sanji suddenly clears his throat.
"You know, I wonder if Vivi's departure didn't tip some kind of delicate balance in this crew," he says, his voice low and somewhat serious, before he let out a short sigh. "It was kind of difficult for me. Leaving her behind, I mean."
At this sudden change of topic and tone, Zoro's interest in the conversation sparks up. For some reason, something in his tone, maybe, it feels like the cook's about to tell him something significant.
"Oh?" He says, hoping to sound encouraging.
"Yeah," Sanji answers, sitting a little more upright. "I mean, we're all nakama, and I get along with everyone. But you guys are morons most of the time, and Robin's a little distant – well, she's hasn't been with us for very long either, so I can't really blame her. And Nami... Sometimes, she's not exactly nice to me, you know?" He sighs again. "Vivi was always nice, and it felt a bit lonely after she left. I miss her."
Zoro remains silent. What's the cook trying to tell him here? Does he... like Vivi, or something? At this thought, he feels something clench rather painfully in his chest. He doesn't think he really wants to know what it means.
Sanji doesn't seem disturbed by the lack of response and, after fumbling in his jacket for another cigarette and lighting up, he goes on.
"Actually," he starts, turning his head a bit to look at him, "that's why..."
He trails off, glancing away from Zoro, seemingly lost in his thoughts.
"Why...?" Zoro prompts.
"...Why I thought you and I could use a change of pace, I mean." Sanji replies slowly. "You guys are all idiots, each in your own way, but I've always felt like we were friends. Except for you. You're not exactly approachable, you know."
He turns back towards Zoro to look at him intently, which has his heart pace up again in the most uncontrollable way.
"I wondered why, when I first joined this crew, and I didn't understand because I'm the exact opposite. It made me feel a bit lonely, and even unwanted on several occasions." His lips twist in a small smile, and he tears his eyes away. "That's why we started arguing all the time, actually. Not that you're to blame for that, because that's just the way you are. Just like I am who I am. And I can never leave people like you alone, it seems." He sighs, taking a last drag on his cigarette before stubbing it out. "I simply didn't know what else to do to get a reaction out of you."
Once more, Zoro doesn't know what to say. It's true that they're both very different, he can't argue with that. But to his own astonishment, he feels strangely touched by the fact the cook put so much thought in the underlying currents of their previously nonexistent relationship, before it even started getting anywhere. Touched by his words, and the earnestness behind them. It makes him feel like he's just been offered a truth he's been seeking for a long, long time. A truth which now looks so close he can almost touch it. What the cook's offering is too much for him to handle, or so it seems.
"I'm..." He hesitantly starts, decided not to let the cook bear all the blame for their awkward beginnings. "I never really helped things, did I?"
Sanji chuckles softly before replying.
"No, you didn't. But it doesn't matter. And as I said, I can't blame you, because I'm no better. I handled you in the worst way possible, right from the start. Shitty temper and all that." He pauses, covering his mouth with his hand, muffling a yawn. "But in the end, I actually wonder if it wasn't better that way. Because I still got to see another side of your personality, something that you hide behind that stoic front of yours. I understand how your mind works a little better, now, because of that. It was all worth it."
He looks at Zoro and smiles in a way that looks heartfelt, and also content, maybe. Not the kind of emotions the cook usually directs at him, but whatever. To Zoro, somehow, that smile is more dazzling than the sun, despite the fact the cook looks tired, his eyes surrounded by dark circles.
"You're not that bad, marimo," Sanji finally says, before another yawn renders him silent once more.
Zoro looks away. He doesn't know what to do with what the cook just confessed. No more than he knows what to make of the strange feeling in his chest whenever Sanji smiles at him like that. Once again, his heart is acting up, and once again, he feels warm. Too warm. Sanji's smile is almost too dazzling to him. It lightens up the whole night.
It feels like falling.
Shaking his head almost imperceptibly, he clears his throat.
"Tired?" Zoro asks, almost ready to drag the cook to the men's quarters if he refuses to go to bed.
"Yeah," Sanji says, not even trying to deny it. "But I think I'll sleep here, if you don't mind. I even brought a blanket with me," he adds, grabbing said blanket, which was resting in a corner of the crow's nest until now. "I intended to spend the night here anyway."
"Whatever," Zoro replies.
He doesn't really care, as long as the cook gets all the sleep he needs, though he feels a little surprised at this strange request.
Sanji wraps himself in the blanket he brought and leans back against the railing. As he closes his eyes and falls silent, Zoro can't help but suddenly wonder : all the wistful sighs and sad eyes and overall gloom the cook displayed in the past months... That wasn't because of him, right? That wasn't because he seemed distant and unfriendly? Because he made him feel unneeded, unwanted?
There's no way he's going to question the cook about that though. Not so soon, and maybe not ever. Still, there's something else he'd like to know, though curiously, he never really meant to ask, because he thought it wasn't his business. But that was before he started accepting that he cares about what the cook feels – he does, somehow, and right now, he feels a bit confused, probably because of what Sanji said about Vivi. He really wants to know.
"Hey?" He asks in a low voice, and unwilling to wake him up if he's already asleep.
"Hmm?" Sanji replies somewhat sleepily.
Still awake, then. Inhaling deeply, Zoro opens his mouth.
"You..." He starts tentatively, unsure of how he should word his question. "I thought you liked Nami," he finally says.
Sanji smiles, but doesn't open his eyes.
"Nah," Zoro replies softly. "Not anymore."
Sanji lets out a short, tired laugh.
"For you to admit that much..."
He trails off, and Zoro almost believes he finally fell asleep.
"Well, yeah, I like her very much," he soon starts again. "More than anything, I admire her courage and determination. How she tried to save her village, when she was only a little girl, that was really brave. But I'm not in love with her, if that's what you mean." He pauses, before going on, the faint smirk on his lips rapidly fading. "She's more like a sister to me. A beautiful little sister I have to protect from perverts and brutes like you."
"Huh, really..." Zoro smirks as well, the irony of the situation not escaping him. "With the way things turned out in the end, she didn't need protection. Not from me."
"Hmm," Sanji mumbles, obviously surrendering to sleepiness. "Maybe I should protect you instead."
With that, they fall silent. Soon enough, Sanji's breathing evens out. Letting out a sigh, Zoro slowly shakes his head, before tilting it back to look at the stars.
It's gonna be ok, he repeatedly tells himself. Sanji forgave him, and Zoro now realizes that, even if he screws up again, they'll be able to mend things. Sanji made it clear to him that they were friends, that he cared about him, despite his flaws and shortcomings. It means a lot to Zoro, for some reason, even though he never really cared about such things before. Not when it came to his poor social skills, anyway. But this is different, and all things considered, quite new to him.
They can make this work. This thought brings him relief like he's never experienced before.
Leaning against the wooden planks in his back, he closes his eyes and listens. Everything is very quiet around the ship. Nothing like the confusing jumble of emotions happening within him. For some reason, he feels somewhat euphoric, if his steady, slow yet strong, deafening heartbeat is any indication. Almost serene, yet deeply unsettled. It feels a bit like excitement with just a dab of fear, similar to what he feels right before a fight.
He shifts faintly, opening his eyes and slightly turning his head to glance in Sanji's direction. He's breathing quietly, and looks peaceful in his sleep, more than Zoro's seen him in days. He feels comforted by that sight. Looking at the sleeping cook, he now realizes he missed this – these quiet moments of companionship.
Having them back makes him feel more complete than he's ever had, somehow.
Somehow within the night, he falls into a contemplative mood, basking in the realization that the cook was right from the start. Feeling needed is definitely good. It feels good to him, anyway. If Chopper and Sanji's reactions weren't enough, what he's feeling right now only serves to prove it.
Which makes them not so different, in the end. They are, of course, but they can relate, somehow. And it's okay, because they seem to compliment each other well, making up for each other's shortcomings. Different, with common grounds. Rivals, but equals. Perfectly balanced.
Sanji's a great friend, he finally admits to himself. Nice and supportive, demanding, but also forgiving. Admirable in all kinds of ways. Their friendship, his unrestrained acceptance, as well as the way he reached out to him when Zoro didn't even seem to care – they all feel good to him. So good it makes him feel warm, makes his heart flutter in the most pleasant way.
Which doesn't make things easier for him, not one bit. He could be wondering if getting closer to Sanji was such a good idea, because in the end, it only serves to make him feel confused. But at this point, he doesn't even give a damn anymore. Right now, he wouldn't want it any other way. Their friendship is precious to him, he realizes, perks and flaws included. So precious and important, necessary and vital it feels almost too overwhelming for him to handle.
When Sanji shifts in his sleep a couple hours later, and his head ends up resting on Zoro's shoulder, the latter doesn't even try to move away, despite his uneasiness and much too fast heartbeat. He closes his eyes and breathes in deep, his whole being filling with some foreign feeling that he can't seem to name just yet. Sanji's weight and warmth against him feel just right, comforting, and he ponders that maybe that too is a perk of friendship.
Later, in the morning, Sanji finally wakes up with a start, his air tussled and his eyes puffy with sleep. Zoro tenses ever-so-slightly, waiting for a reaction at the fact he spent most of the night sleeping on his shoulder, but Sanji doesn't seem to notice. Or maybe he doesn't even care. Which is a good thing, because Zoro doesn't exactly want him to know that he spent that same time watching him sleep and listening to his even, quiet breathing.
"What time is it?" He asks, his voice thick with sleep.
Scratching his temple sleepily, Sanji fumbles in his jacket to retrieve a cigarette. He lights up silently, and turns around, leaning on the railing. He looks at the horizon, where the sun's about to rise.
"Are you hungry?" He asks when Zoro doesn't reply. "I'll make breakfast soon. I just want to watch this," he adds, nodding towards the East.
But Zoro couldn't care less about sunrises. Not when he's got Sanji kneeling right beside him, hair swaying lazily in the faint breeze, pale skin shimmering in the rising daylight, and eyes bluer than the muted morning sky. Making him feel all kind of things he doesn't know what to make of. When he came to feel that way about Sanji, he doesn't know. He can't remember, though he supposes it's been a while, and he didn't even realize. But after this night, and all that happened before then, he can finally acknowledge it.
"Don't you think it's beautiful?" Sanji asks again, turning towards him, a faint smile on his lips, apparently not caring whether Zoro's going to reply or not.
You're the one who's beautiful, Zoro wants to answer. But of course, he doesn't.
He's too busy trying to decipher the strange feeling that's taken a hold of him while he wasn't looking.