So, here's the long-awaited 16th chapter of Unripe. Big thanks to everyone who decided to stick with me. I can't believe it's been a year since I last updated this fic – and I'm pretty sure you can't believe that I'm finally updating, right? I'm really sorry about that. I got distracted (you can check my Tumblr for more info on "distractions"). I have no excuse. Please, forgive me.
I'd like to thank Aevium for, well, pretty much everything. Trust me when I say that this fic wouldn't exist if she didn't exist.
I don't own Zoro, but I'm certainly not sharing. Because he's mine. (I have beautiful dreams, don't you think? I didn't hear you say "delusions". Nope. Nopenopenope.)
"I'm gonna start on breakfast," the cook says, his voice sounding a little less sleepy.
He stands up in the crow's nest, stretching his arms over his head and making his back pop, then turns back towards Zoro.
"Your shift ends soon."
It's not a question, and Zoro, feeling a little unsettled under Sanji's blue, steady gaze, averts his eyes and grunts in response.
"Join me if you want, when it's over. I'll make you an early breakfast."
Zoro almost shakes his head and chuckles at that. It's not the first time the cook's willfully offered to make food just for him. But it still feels strange, when the cook is being unusually nice to him. Especially now, as he's just barely reached the point of realizing that his feelings towards that idiotic, annoyingly wonderful man aren't strictly of the friendship kind. Not strictly at all.
Apparently, it must still show on his face, because the cook starts frowning, and his thin, well-defined lips twist in what Zoro, despite his reluctance to use such words, can't describe in any other term than a "pout".
"What?" He asks, sounding a little irritated. "I know the drill, marimo. If I leave you alone, you'll just find the closest spot to take a nap and skip breakfast. I promised Chopper that I'd make sure you ate properly, remember?"
This time, Zoro doesn't care to prevent himself from smirking.
"Don't get your panties in a bunch. I'll be there."
Sanji huffs, a little annoyed, but seems somewhat content with that for now. He briskly gets out from the crow's nest and starts climbing down slowly, before reaching the deck and heading for the galley's door. Zoro, absolutely not trying to be as inconspicuous as possible because he doesn't want to be caught in the act, casually leans over the railing and watches him go. Sanji soon disappears from his view, hidden by wooden walls and doors, but still very present to Zoro's mind.
He sits back and sighs, leaning tiredly against the planks in his back, though he's not that tired. The air around him feels crisp, as does everything else. He feels acutely aware of his surroundings. The sun's reflection on the sea looks unusually sharp to him, the small specks of light so bright they almost hurt his eyes. He averts them to look at the wooden floor instead, but he doesn't see any of it.
When was the last time he felt so alive? He's only ever felt like this while training, especially when pushing his limits. While fighting, too, like with Mr. One. It felt invigorating, intensely frustrating, almost thrilling – even though he'd thought he was about to die.
But what he's feeling right now is different. As far as he's concerned, he's not dying anytime soon. And yet, strangely, it somehow feels like he is in danger. His instincts about these things are strong, and he's pretty confident in them. He usually feels it when someone has ill intent towards him, though that's generally not the kind of vibe he gets from Sanji nowadays. But he can't pretend that there's nothing to feel there. It's a strange thing he can't quite place that seems to electrify the air around the cook, that reverberates through Zoro and makes something within him respond, makes him want to come closer. That's the pull he's felt lately, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes not, but he now realizes that it's more or less always there – and it's been there for a long time now. Maybe he's always felt like that, though he never realized before. Maybe that's why they never really got along right from the start. Maybe that's why, for the longest time, he couldn't help but taunt the other man into petty fights over the silliest things – because he's always felt a little bit on edge whenever the cook was around.
On the other hand, he's pretty certain by now that this whole situation is pushing some of limits for him – limits he wasn't aware he had before now.
Because Sanji's a man, and he – he never thought he would – well... He's never felt like this because of a man before. Never thought he would, one day. He only ever felt that specific kind of attraction – or whatever it is – because of girls. Until today, that is, and it's not like it had happened that often either. To be perfectly honest, he's never felt this strongly for a girl. Or for anyone. Not for any of his crew-mates, not even his captain, whom he likes and respects so much. Not even Kuina. He did feel very strongly for her, but it was different. It wasn't the same.
Now that he thinks about it, his relationship with her started in a very similar way to the one he has with the cook : he didn't exactly like her at first, and mostly felt like she was his rival ; like he had to prove himself to her, in a way. He can certainly say that Sanji's been his rival right from the start, and that he didn't like him much in the beginning. But has he ever felt that he had to prove himself to the cook? He realizes with a start that, indeed, he has. And that he knew it from the start, but never noticed until now, because he never gave it much thought – never had a reason to do so. Nevertheless, how he could be so blind to something so important, he can't even begin to understand.
It's true that they didn't get along at all in the beginning, but as he told the cook earlier that night, he never helped it either. That idiot might have started it by calling him crazy when they'd first met, but after Zoro spouted big words and was ultimately defeated by Mihawk in the same day... He did feel like he had to prove Sanji wrong, to prove that he was better than that. Better than the cook, at first, though he soon realized that his temperamental crew-mate could hold his own just as well as he did. It all soon turned into somewhat of a playful competition between them, a competition whose origins they ended up forgetting about, and that none of them could win, because that was just who they were. Trying to one-up the other was how they communicated with each other, and it used to suit Zoro just fine.
It never prevented Zoro from respecting Sanji for his ability – as a cook or as a brilliant fighter, in his own personal way. And he knew the cook respected his own fighting abilities just as much.
He'd always thought that the status quo was satisfying for both of them.
And now, he realizes that he was wrong about that. If he has to follow his instincts and trust everything that's happened lately between them, he has to acknowledge that the cook wanted it all to change. And he made sure that things did change.
And that's also why things were different, with Kuina. His relationship with her never really had time to change much. It might have started out similar to the one he has with the cook now – the status quo they had together had seemed to satisfy them both just fine at first. But then, it hadn't anymore. When it had been time for change, they'd made a promise. A promise to work together towards their mutual goal.
And then, she'd died. When she was gone, Zoro had found himself alone on the path to being the best swordsman in the world. Their relationship never had time to evolve, to turn into something else – something more.
Sanji's right here, he thinks. He's in the galley, waiting for him to join him for breakfast. He's there, and their relationship has managed to change because the cook has, somehow. And now, Zoro realizes he's changed, too. And he doesn't really know what to make of it, or what to do about it. He feels like, at this point, there should be something significant between them, something binding and yet liberating at the same time, like the promise he made to Kuina as a child. But since goals aren't something they share – because his goals and Sanji's are so different – Zoro doesn't think a promise would do here, or anything else, for that matter.
His train of thought is interrupted right then when he hears footsteps on the deck. Moments later, he's helping Chopper into the crow's nest. Curiously, his nakama doesn't look very surprised to find him here instead of Sanji. For a moment, the reindeer seems to hesitate, looking like he wants to say something, but ends up staying silent. Zoro leaves him to his shift, and starts heading for the galley, where Sanji is waiting.
When he gets there, the cook is turned towards the counter, cracking eggs in a big frying pan. Which doesn't prevent him from noticing Zoro's presence in the room.
"Sit down, marimo," he says nonchalantly, glancing briefly in his direction. "Chopper was just here for hot chocolate, so I started on your breakfast. I knew you wouldn't be long."
Zoro doesn't think the cook is expecting an answer. So, he complies silently, leans back in his chair and muffles a yawn. He doesn't feel that sleepy, thanks to his long afternoon nap, but he didn't have the opportunity to sleep during his watch, which he usually does. It's not necessarily a bad thing, and Zoro wouldn't exchange the enlightening night he had for all the naps in the world. He's looking forward to Sanji's food, though. His deliberate fasting wasn't that taxing on him, but he's still feeling a little more tired than he usually would after a whole night on watch. He also plans on training a bit afterward, and replenishing his energy levels sounds like a good idea.
He turns his eyes towards Sanji, who's now scrambling those eggs to what will probably end up being perfection. From where he's sitting, he can see the side of his face. The cook seems to be focusing intensely on such a simple task – these are only scrambled eggs, after all, though Zoro would be unable to make them even if his life depended on it. Sanji's eyebrow is slightly creased, and he's biting his lower lip in a way that Zoro can't describe as anything other than enticing ; he doesn't even try to deny his word choice anymore.
The cook's slender arms move briskly, making his whole body flutter in tiny, controlled motions. He looks so much like home and comfort at this moment – so right – that Zoro has to close his eyes for a couple seconds, and breathe in deeply.
When he opens his eyes again a moment later, they fall on Sanji's blond mop of hair, faintly shining gold in the morning sun that filters through the small porthole near the stove. Several times in the course of the night, he's felt like brushing his fingers into the soft-looking locks, while Sanji was asleep, but he never dared. He doesn't think the cook would like such unnecessary contact, especially not when he's defenseless – sort of – and unaware of his surroundings, trustingly using Zoro's shoulder as a pillow. Though, Zoro thinks, he certainly wouldn't like it much more when he's awake and very much able to stop unwanted physical contact from happening.
There's something delicate in the fine lines of the Sanji's back muscles, barely visible under the thin but loose-fitting shirt he's wearing, as he moves around, adding some bacon into a second frying pan and pouring the scrambled eggs, now done, in a nearby plate. Sanji's shoulder aren't as muscular as his own, but they still are, even though they're not as wide. Zoro used to think that the cook was too skinny to be a good fighter, at first, only to discover that he was, indeed, very strong if on the slim side. Mostly his upper body, all lean muscles, hidden by his usual suits. The cook's legs might be lean as well, but Zoro has seen the damage they could deal – even experienced it personally. He doesn't doubt that the muscles there are just as hard as his own, due to years and years of training.
He finally realizes he's staring, and averts his eyes, suppressing the emotion that suddenly threatens to surge through him. He can't deal with that on top of everything else right now. Not just yet. Maybe never. But in the depths of his mind, he knows he will have to deal with it later, to acknowledge it. Or smother it in booze, sweat and possibly blood, if the occasion presents itself – marines or a rival crew, preferably. Fighting Sanji right now – with all the resulting physical contact – would kind of defeat the point. Which is a pity, because a good fight between them has always been the best way to take his mind off things. Whatever.
All he knows right now is that, eventually, he'll have to make something out of this situation. It's not like whatever it is that Sanji makes him feel is going anywhere, because Sanji's here to stay. And to be perfectly honest, Zoro wouldn't want it any other way.
Later that day, he starts rummaging through the dirty pile of laundry in the boys' quarter, looking for a t-shirt that doesn't smell like it went through a sewer pipe. He just showered after a long, fulfilling training session, and a clean t-shirt sounded like a good idea, at first. Except he doesn't seem to have one available right now. Maybe he should do some laundry later, instead of waiting for Sanji to freak out about the smell in the room and nag until they all work at it. He's pretty sure that would count as being nice to Sanji, which is something he definitely wanted to try. Yeah, he decides, laundry sounds like a good idea.
Despite the fact the only source of light is the trap door in the ceiling, he finally manages to spot one of his t-shirts. It looks mostly white, so it should do. He grabs it, revealing a piece of blue fabric underneath. Same shade as the cook's eyes, actually, which has him stop and throw it a second glance, as he is in the process of putting his own shirt on.
After a short moment, he slowly resumes slipping the t-shirt over his chest and tucks it into his haramaki, his eyes never leaving the small spot of blue in the middle of the laundry pile. He gazes at it curiously for a bit, his mind elsewhere. Wasn't Nami wearing that shirt at some point? It feels like it happened ages ago, though it's barely been a few weeks. A little more than a month, at most. Curious, he inconspicuously puts his hand on top of the pile, grazing the blue material with his fingertips. Compared to the surrounding pieces of clothing, most of them being old and comfortably worn, it feels very soft to the touch.
Zoro knows nothing about fabrics or shirt-making, but if he had to guess – knowing the cook and his prissy habits when it comes to outfits – it seems to be high quality material. When they talked about it, Sanji seemed somewhat surprised – and stupidly delighted – that Nami wore his shirts at night. He didn't seem to know whether there was a specific reason or not for that. Maybe she just chose to use them as nightwear because the materials of Sanji's shirt are usually good quality, and thus, soft on the skin? This one certainly is.
Once again not thinking about what he's doing, he grabs the shirt and unfolds it. It's certainly much cleaner than his own stuff when he usually throws it in the dirty laundry pile. Sanji's such a clean freak, especially when it comes to body hygiene. When a whiff of cologne and cigarette smoke trails past his nose, he has to admit that, with such a bad habit – smoking, that is, though cologne isn't exactly his cup of tea either – it's only natural to wash clothes often. After all, Sanji wouldn't like to smell like an ashtray. Especially not when he's apparently so sensitive to other smells, like the sweaty one from the laundry pile – that idiot.
Still not thinking at all, he crumples the shirt in his hands and brings it to his nose. Indeed, it smells strongly of cold tobacco – kind of gross. And there's that strong fragrance that Sanji wears daily, some mix of leaves, or maybe even grass, and... lime? Something tangy. Also, that faint sweaty smell that's probably Sanji's own. And underneath all that, Zoro can smell a hint of something floral and fresh. After closer inspection, he finds that this last smell is more concentrated around the back of the shirt's collar. Sanji's shampoo, maybe? Now that he thinks about it, he could smell a similar scent last night, when Sanji was sleeping on his shoulder.
He's not too fond of the cologne or tobacco, but the shampoo smells nice. He breathes it in deeply once. With all those smells mixed like this, and with the addition of Sanji's own smell, it's not nearly half-bad.
A sudden clank from the outside breaks him out of his daze with a start. Blinking listlessly, he looks at the shirt in his hands and nearly cringes.
What the hell am I doing?
Throwing it back on the pile of dirty clothing, he rushes out of the room.
He's standing on the deck near the railing, facing the dark water. The day is pleasantly warm, with a lazy draft of air that makes the heat tolerable enough. Perfect weather for a comfortable nap. He inhales deeply, feeling relaxed. The air smells like sea salt and iodine.
Something in the water catches his eye. There's a faint glimmering beneath the surface – a shiny fish, perhaps, its scales reflecting the bright sunshine. Or maybe something bigger? The glimmer gradually becomes stronger, the light soon too bright to look at and the water bubbling lazily around it.
The water level suddenly rises, and he closes his eyes. He feels like he's falling for a moment, but the sensation escapes him before he can fully identify it. The contrast should be brutal, because the air outside was warm, despite the wind rushing through his hair, against his ears. But curiously, the water isn't cold. It's lukewarm, actually, and it feels more like he's floating in some kind of imperceptible void. He can't even feel the brush of water against his skin, which feels strangely senseless, or the deck under his feet, though he knows with a kind of certainty that only exists in dreams that he's still standing there.
When he opens his eyes, they don't sting, as the water didn't hold any salt at all. It doesn't feel bad, though. He's not afraid of drowning, because he can breathe the water like air. It feels safe.
He looks around and surveys his surroundings. Indeed, he's still standing on the ship's deck, through he's surrounded by the sea – water is everywhere, crystal-clear, well-lit, with sunlight pouring from above. If he looks down, he can see all the way down to the bottom, where colorful little fishes are roaming, among soft looking patches of seaweed, their scales glimmering in the dainty chiaroscuro, as they brush against the sandy ground.
It's just as if the ship was resting on the sea floor.
Something catches his attention from under the ship's hull, as he registers a movement there, and he leans forward to have a better look. That's the faint glimmering from earlier, but it's too dark there to see properly from his position. He decides to leave the deck and dive.
Curiously, it doesn't feel like swimming at all. It feels more like he's flying, or even floating from a point to another, without the need for useless motions of arms or legs.
He gets closer to the faint light, and despite the darkness, he can see someone there, lying on the sea floor. When his eyes get used to the dim light, he finally recognizes blond hair and blue eyes. The cook isn't looking at him. He suddenly knows with acute certainty that the light he saw earlier was the sunlight's reflection on his hair, in his eyes, despite the fact that there's scarcely any light reaching under the ship.
He's starting to get closer, but Sanji suddenly turns his head to look at him. At that exact same moment, there's a sudden rush of water that propels him backwards. It seems like there's an undercurrent coming from under the ship, forcing him to battle his way there. He opens his mouth to call out to the cook, but it fills with seawater. He can't breathe anymore. Hurriedly, because he knows he won't be able to hold on for long, he kicks at the water strongly and finally manages to come closer to Sanji, who's reaching out to him. He stretches his own arm towards the cook and grabs his hand.
As soon as their hands touch, the rushing water slows down, and he finds that he can breathe again. He wants to pull at Sanji's arm, to help him disentangle from the seaweed and sand and water and bring him into the light, to the ship, to the surface. But Sanji takes hold of his other hand and prevents him from doing so.
They stay like that for a while, Sanji lying on the sea floor and Zoro hovering above him in the water, hands joined. They look at each other like they have all the time in the world, like they're not at the bottom of the sea, like they couldn't suffocate at any point because of the obvious lack of air. Zoro doesn't mind. But Sanji slowly pulls at his hands, bringing him closer, until Zoro lands on top of him, fingers and knees digging in the sand below. The cook's hands are on his hips and the light from above is playing on his hair and skin. He looks almost otherworldly, and Zoro wants to kiss every inch of his face and hair – to bind him, to prevent him from dissolving into water – but he doesn't. That's not how to express feelings of affection, of reverence even. That's not how Zoro does such things. If he ever does at all.
He's suddenly pressed into the sandy ground, and the cook lies over him, their positions reversed. He knows he should protest and push him away, but his arms are around Sanji's thinner frame, They're joined at the lips, their breaths mingling in the water, bodies pressed flushed against each other oh so pleasurable – right – and he doesn't want all these sensations to stop, so he holds Sanji closer – he wants more – more – so much more –
His arms suddenly cut through empty water.
Sanji's gone. He looks around, only to find that he's alone down there. He opens his mouth to call – where are you? – but it fills with seawater. His stretched hand, tries to reach the surface, but his feeble, desperate attempt is crushed under the tremendous weight of a million liters of water above him. He chokes, and everything slowly turns black.
He wakes up gasping for air, eyes looking straight ahead without really seeing anything. Everything is too dark. The remnants of his dream are still too fresh in his mind.
It takes him a short while to place his surroundings – wooden floor and walls, a dark ceiling, loud snoring – the boys' cabin. He breathes in deeply, and sighs, before sitting up and scratching the back of his head a bit drowsily. His eyes dart to his right, where Sanji's peacefully lying on the rug, not far from him. He wants to reach out to touch him, to make sure he's really there and not about to vanish, but ultimately decides against it. He doesn't want to deal with a grouchy cook right now, so it's better not to risk waking him up. Instead, he settles for looking from afar.
The cook is facing him in his sleep tonight, which is unusual. There's not much light in the room, but Zoro can still make out his relaxed features, so different from the expressive faces he makes during daylight, whether adoring or angry. His eyes are closed, and his jaw is slightly slack, letting him breath quietly through parted lips. Zoro absentmindedly brings a couple fingers to his own mouth, barely brushing them on the skin of his lips.
The touch of Sanji's lips there felt so real in the dream.
He suddenly turns away, pressing his palms on his eyes as if to rub the sleep away from them. What the hell is he doing? Seriously, what's wrong with him? Is he a moron or what? He should not be watching Sanji while he's asleep. Especially not his lips. Especially not after such a dream, the sensations still too vivid in his mind, against his skin. And despite the fact he dreamed of kissing Sanji – and more, though it was, fortunately, a bit hazy – he's certainly not freaking out, dammit.
That's not what I want, he thinks. That can't be what I want.
Then why is he dreaming about such things? Aren't dreams supposed to be clues sent by one's subconscious, hints of fears or desires?
If that's the case, what should he think of such a dream?
More importantly, is that really what he wants from Sanji?
How is he supposed to live with that knowledge from now on, knowing he'll never ever get close to getting it?
He lifts his head from his hands and looks to the side, jaw clenched and eyebrows twisted in a deep frown. Sanji's still sleeping peacefully, unaware of the battle taking place not two feet away from him. What would Sanji think if he knew what kind of dreams Zoro's been having at night? He would probably hate him, Zoro thinks. But that clueless idiot doesn't seem to know, obviously, since he's still treating Zoro as a friend. For now, anyway. Stupid cook wouldn't know better until it him right in the face, anyway. Surely. Probably.
Zoro isn't completely sure yet about what he really feels for the cook – aside from that exasperating mix of aggravation and admiration. That hasn't changed, because despite everything, the cook's still an annoying bastard, sometimes. There's also respect there, for his skills and abilities. For his very human disposition, his generosity and compassion towards his friends. He also knows that he feels a sharp desire to be around him as often as possible, because he likes the company. Everything else is a blurred, uncharted territory.
But even though Zoro realizes that he can be kind of dense on occasion, he's not one to lie to himself or deny the truth when it's so blatantly under his nose. And apparently, there's physical attraction in the mix as well, if his dreams are to be trusted.
And yet, despite the fact there's little room for doubt about that, he's not sure he'll ever be ready to venture there.
But if there's one thing he knows, it's that Sanji must never find out about his feelings. It would destroy whatever is currently between them – friendship, as the cook said, though Zoro knows that it's more than just that because they're nakama. And still, he does feel that it's also different from what he knows exists between him and the other members of this crew.
Maybe it's just him though. Probably is.
Either way, whatever it is, Sanji doesn't need to know.
"Chopper," he quietly calls from the galley's door, catching the doctor in the midst of preparing some kind of substance made of leaves crushed so fine they look like powder, and something that looks like melted butter.
The reindeer startles a bit, but doesn't seem overly scared by the sudden intrusion.
"Oh, Zoro. I didn't hear you coming." He hops down the chair he was sitting on, and heads towards the door, rubbing his hands to shake off of powdery residues. "Do you need help with something?"
"No, I..." Zoro starts, clearing his throat to give himself time to find the right words, ones that won't sound suspicious. "I want to ask you something. We can talk while you're doing your stuff," he adds, not wanting to look like he's suggesting that their conversation should stay between them.
"Oh," Chopper says. "Okay."
He goes back to the galley's table and resumes working on his preparation, grinding the powered leaves into the liquid substance, until it starts looking more and more like a paste.
Zoro doesn't answer right away, frowning deeply instead, just for a moment. But he has to ask, so he breathes in and starts.
"I've been having dreams," he says slowly. "They're not bad or unpleasant," he quickly adds when Chopper briskly looks up from his mixing bowl, "just a little weird. Whatever. Not a problem."
That's a lie, obviously, but it's not like Zoro will enlighten him about the content of said dreams, as he thinks the little doctor is expecting.
Chopper looks at him for a while with a somewhat blank look on his face.
"But?" He prompts gently.
Zoro crosses his arms and frowns, thinking of how to word his request.
Don't linger - right to the point.
"It's just that I feel less rested when waking up, after having them. It's annoying," he slowly answers, arms crossed and eyebrows frowning. "Is there a way to avoid having dreams?"
Chopper looks thoughtful, scratching absentmindedly his head under his hat, smudging some of the green paste there.
"When did you start having those dreams?" He asks.
"A couple months ago, or something," Zoro says in a dull tone.
"Did something happen at the time?" Chopper adds.
"I don't remember. Probably not," Zoro answers, doing his best to look like all this questioning doesn't make him feel a little uncomfortable.
Chopper scratches his chin, adding more green stains to his fur.
"And what are those dreams about?"
Zoro tries his best not to cringe, and finally decides that a vague answer will raise less suspicions than none at all.
"Random stuff," he says noncommittally. "Usually the ship, the sea, or the crew being weird. Doing weird stuff. Strange places, sometimes. That kind of nonsense."
"So they started out of the blue, and they don't make sense?" Chopper asks, pouring the last of the green paste in a small pot, which he seals with a wide cork.
Grabbing a nearby rag, Chopper starts cleaning the pot's sides, which have some green spots from his hooves, before going to the sink where he washes them carefully. Once done, he starts using the rag to clean the table and his tools.
"Sleeping medicine isn't strong enough to get rid of dreams," he starts. "For that, you'd need anesthetics, but nothing would wake you up if you took them. Plus they're so strong that it'd mess with your metabolism, so I'm not giving that to you."
He gives the table a last rub, and discards the rag into the sink, before flooding it with clean water.
"You know, Zoro," and the latter can see that his nakama is frowning, "people dream for a reason. I know a little about psychology, but I'm a doctor. I heal bodies, not minds." He looks up to the swordsman. "If you want to get rid of them, maybe the best way is talking about them to someone. It seems to trouble you, despite what you told me, so I won't press, but..."
If Zoro's not leaving at that point, it's only because it'd make him look even more suspicious. Besides, he's not a coward, and Chopper did say he wouldn't force him to tell. He should've remembered that the kid is clever before asking.
But Chopper's obviously not done yet.
"You know you can talk to me? If you want," he finally adds a little flatly.
And Zoro doesn't have the heart to tell him off.
"Yeah. Thanks," he says, a faint smile on his lips, before playfully pushing the hat on his friend's head down so it covers his eyes.
Chopper starts squealing and pulling at his hat, which now seems stuck on his head. As he leaves for another nap, he can hear Chopper's not-so-angry voice through the door.
"I'm not happy about you thanking me, asshole!"
"All right, all right," the cook says, his tone betraying his irritation.
Nevertheless, he maintains a charming smile as he bows gracefully before Nami and Robin.
"My sweet ladies, if you'll excuse me," he says suavely. "I have an idiot captain to feed."
Nami ignores him with poise, while Robin elegantly chuckles, delicately hiding her smile behind her hand. Seemingly satisfied with these reactions, Sanji heads for the galley to retrieve more food for their bottomless pit of a captain, a serene quality in his step.
"Hey, Sanji? Can you get me more of that pickled mackerel?"
Sanji pauses, looking at Usopp with a composed look on his face.
"Right. We have to keep you fat and juicy for emergency food shortages."
Usopp raises an eyebrow, worrying his lower lip for a second, before he starts looking at his mashed-potatoes-filled plate with a dramatically dejected look on his face. Eventually, he picks up his spoon and vengefully sticks it in his food.
"Whatever," he says, doing his best to sound bold despite his full mouth, bumping his fist holding the spoon on his chest in a comically proud fashion. "I'd rather eat your delicious food and die a heroic death to save my beloved comrades, anyway."
And with that last retort, he proceeds to polish off his plate.
That last line has Sanji chuckling lightly. He seems to be in a good mood tonight. He even smiles when Chopper attaches himself onto one of his legs, a shocked look on his face.
"I thought I was the emergency food supply on this boat!" The reindeer shouts in dismay, before frowning, seemingly realizing that there's something wrong with that statement. "SANJI! You can't eat Usopp!"
Even from afar, with his face turned away from the storm lanterns' light, the teasing smirk the cook's face is plainly visible.
"You're right, we can't. Not before we eat you, that is," he says playfully. "I'll get you something special, since we have to keep you fat and juicy too."
He finally leaves the deck at a nonchalant pace, accompanied by Chopper's panicked squeals.
Silently watching him disappear through the galley's door from the other side of the deck, Zoro gulps down on his umpteenth bottle of beer once the cook is finally gone. Indeed, the cook really seems to be in a good mood. He didn't even groan about Luffy's demands for a feast earlier that day, and has been somewhat agreeable to everyone since then, including the guys. It doesn't exactly make things easier for Zoro. Sanji's been smiling a lot tonight, smiles that weren't generally directed at him. But whatever. Zoro finds that he likes Sanji's smiles, even if they're for someone else. He wouldn't mind if the cook could smile all the time. He wouldn't mind being the cause of such smiles once in a while either.
It's not like he's deluded about that though. Most of Sanji's smiles are usually directed at the girls – any girls, not just the permanent female residents on board. Not that he'd like the cook to act around him like he does with girls – it'd be just plain dumb, and annoying as hell to boot. He knows that Sanji will probably never smile at him like that, and is determined not to think about it. Or about how such a bright smile would make him feel so stupidly happy he'd probably die of embarrassment.
He's certainly not sulking, because Roronoa Zoro doesn't sulk, dammit.
It's been an hour since the feast started. Sanji's been bringing dishes upon dishes of delicious food non-stop from the galley since then. And since then, Zoro's been watching from afar, toying with his food – he's not very hungry, for some reason, though he did his best to eat enough, because he doesn't want to offend Chopper and Sanji at the same time.
And he's been noticing tons of small things about the cook.
Speak of the devil.
Sanji comes back from the galley, a dish resting on each of his dexterous hands, as well as an enormous platter precariously perched on his head, filled with a huge pile of meat. How can such a skinny guy manage to keep his balance in that position, standing on a single leg, with his hands full – not to mention the monstrous thing on his head and the cigarette in his mouth – all the while keeping a greedy Luffy away with his other foot? Not to mention, how is he still able to lean down in front of Chopper, handing him a plate filled with pastries?
Sanji smiles affectionately as the little reindeer squeals with delight at the treat, and Zoro's heart skips yet another beat – not the first one since the night started.
There's that comfortable atmosphere around Sanji whenever he interacts with Usopp, he thinks, as the cook manages to hand the other guy a bowl which probably contains the aforementioned pickled mackerel. These two are on friendly terms, he's always known it, but tonight, as he focused on watching the cook, he saw things he never noticed before. Like the way Sanji likes to tease their cowardly sniper, who curiously never hesitates to cockily tease back, despite the threat of the cook's short temper. Usopp's definitely not scared of Sanji – most of the time, that is.
Sanji then kicks Luffy in the head, taking advantage of the momentary respite to take hold of the giant platter with both hands. He places it on the ground, only to finally let Luffy have his way with that meat. Brushing at his sleeve with a delicate hand to remove dust that only exists to him, he throws a glance at their captain, who's busy with the task of inhaling as much food as possible in the shortest amount of time, and – there it is. Sometimes, when Sanji watches Luffy eat, even though their captain doesn't seem to have time to appreciate the taste of whatever he's inhaling, the cook's face softens just so. Zoro might have missed it, before, because he wasn't really looking.
But that was before.
The cook turns towards the girls, asking if there's anything he can do for them. Or maybe anything they'd like him to bring from the galley? Robin smiles and answers that everything is perfect, thank you, Cook-san, that dish is delicious, and resumes eating. Nami seems to be upset for some reason. Maybe she's aggravated by the other guys' antics. It wouldn't be unusual or surprising. Zoro himself is often annoyed by their behavior. The cook is no exception, especially when he's being a moron around girls.
… But now that he thinks about it, Zoro has to admit that tonight, something feels a bit off. It's not like Sanji hasn't favored the girls during the evening, serving them first and fussing over everything, as usual. But somehow, tonight, his behavior towards his female crew-mates seems kind of different. A little subdued, less effusive than usual, maybe. The change is subtle, but Zoro noticed nevertheless. Perhaps because he's acutely aware of whatever Sanji's doing these days, for some reason that he'd rather not think about right now.
That subtle change makes things even more difficult for him though. He likes Sanji well enough – in a way that he's well aware he shouldn't – when the cook's not being an idiot, but when he seems to refrain like that, somehow, it's even worse. It's like Sanji, knowing how annoying he finds his womanizing antics, only does that for his benefit. Which he knows isn't possible at all, because why would Sanji do that? It's not like he noticed something was off about Zoro... Or at least, the latter doesn't think so. Sanji's still treating him as a friend, after all.
Nevertheless, it makes it difficult for Zoro to suppress any hope he might feel about this stupid situation. He can't afford to be hopeful in the least. He shouldn't even think about it all.
Lost in his thoughts, he doesn't hear what Nami tells Robin, her voice muffled, though he doesn't miss the look the latter discreetly throws him at that moment. It makes him focus his gaze again, sharply, only to realize Sanji's looking at him as well.
Shit, he thinks. He just got caught staring.
But Sanji just averts his eyes, a lopsided smile on his lips that makes something flutter somewhat painfully in Zoro's chest, and briskly disappears into the galley again.
Zoro refrains a sighs, and doesn't relax yet. What kind of look did he have on his face while he was looking at Sanji? He quickly gulps down the remainder of his beer, which is lukewarm by now. Not that he minds, because booze is booze, he thinks while absentmindedly looking at the floor. He's got more important issues on his mind these days. Will Sanji start questioning his motives? Confront him, maybe? He really hopes not.
He does not jump when a bigger bottle suddenly blocks the view. Trying not to show his surprise, however faint it might be, he looks up, only to find the cook's standing right in front of him. And he certainly does not gulp nervously when the latter opens his mouth and starts speaking.
"What's wrong with you, marimo? You've barely uttered a single word all evening," the cook says, his tone challenging. "Are you brooding or what?"
Zoro vengefully grabs at the bottle in front of him and starts grumbling.
"I'm not brooding, shit-cook. I just want to be alone right now," he replies, his eyes falling on the bottle's label.
Which leaves him somewhat speechless. This bottle is the same kind as the ones Sanji let him have, a while ago. The high quality sake. The one they got from that island with first-rate breweries, the one that cost an arm. Probably the last bottle they have left, because they didn't buy that many of these to begin with, thanks to Nami's unshakeable grip on the funds.
"Care to share a few drinks?" The cook asks.
Zoro shrugs, and doesn't reply. But as Sanji casually sits next to him on the wooden floor, Zoro can't help from wondering out loud.
"Does the sea-witch know that you're letting me have this?"
"She has a name, she's not a witch, and sake's made for drinking, asshole," Sanji answers, not sounding as annoyed as Zoro thought he would. "Preferably with friends. Now or later, it's not like we're keeping it forever, anyway. Not with an alcoholic like you on board."
Zoro looks up to Sanji's face, and sees that the cook is smirking challengingly. He looks away, trying not to let him see how troubled that makes him feel.
He deftly uncorks the bottle with his bare hand, and thoughtfully offers it to Sanji first.
"I didn't know you had it in you to behave like a proper human being, shit-head," Sanji says, nevertheless accepting the bottle with a faint smile.
He takes a few sips, and hands the bottle to Zoro, smacking his lips thoughtfully.
"Sake's really not my thing, but I have to admit, that shit isn't half-bad," he says, lighting a cigarette.
Zoro grunts in response, drowning a significant amount of said sake and trying very hard to keep his thoughts straight.
They stay silent for a while, heedlessly watching their rambunctious crew-mates. Zoro cautiously sneaks a glance at him from behind the bottle's neck. The cook's looking straight ahead, seemingly lost in his thoughts. He looks relaxed though, and there's none of this melancholic bullshit about him tonight. Zoro doesn't know if it's because they finally made up, but it certainly makes him feel good about himself and the world. Or would, if he wasn't also feeling that pull, more intense, more persistent than before. It feels almost like falling, or like in those dreams where you want to scream and find out that you can't. It feels like it weighs a ton.
After a while, Sanji's eyes flicker in his direction, and catch him staring. Zoro's heart jumps in his chest, but before he can quickly avert his eyes and try pretending he wasn't looking, the cook looks away without a word. A moment later, he breaks the relative silence.
"Did you notice," Sanji starts, "how Luffy's ears twitch when he chews?"
Zoro didn't expect such a random question. He frowns, feeling a bit lost.
"Yeah." Sanji nods in Luffy's direction. "Look at him right now."
Zoro follows Sanji's gaze, and his eyes fall on Luffy, his mouth full to the brim with meat – so much that his cheeks are stretched around his face. And indeed, his ears are twitching rather comically as he's chewing.
"Oh," Zoro says in a flat tone, "that's right."
"Damn right!" Sanji says, a wide, affectionate grin on his lips as he looks at their captain. "With those inflated cheeks, he looks like a goddamn rodent."
Zoro lets out a few chuckles, before drawing the bottle to his lips again. On his left, Sanji has fallen silent again. Zoro barely notices, until after a while, he can feel the cook's insistent eyes on him. He tilts his head to look at Sanji while he drinks. The cook's staring at him with a dumbfounded look on his face.
"What?" Zoro says sharply, feeling his gut tighten.
Sanji doesn't answer right away, but finally opens his mouth.
"I made you laugh," he says slowly. "I actually, genuinely made you laugh, because of something I said."
"So what?" Zoro answers in an unimpressed tone.
"I think – I think it's the first time," Sanji answers, averting his eyes.
And then, he smiles. Something surges in Zoro's chest, and he can feel his throat tightening under the weight of an intense emotion. It's one of those smiles that has Sanji's eyes crinkle ever-so-slightly around the corners, even thought he looks unusually nervous and bashful – exactly the kind of smile he wanted to cause, earlier that evening. That smile seems to lighten the whole night, to set the dark sky ablaze, like a meteor shower. He never realized before today, but Sanji has dimples in his cheeks when he smiles like that – how come he never noticed? And is that a faint blush on the cook's cheeks? He can't be sure, because it's too dark to really tell.
"Right," he says, managing to avoid sounding like he's having trouble swallowing, looking away and deliberately concentrating on the bottle in his hand.
Despite the comforting burn of the strong alcohol in his throat, Zoro once again feels like he's falling. Or drowning, maybe.
Definitely drowning, he decides when the sake goes the wrong way and he starts to choke. He can hear Sanji chuckling from the side.
"Oh, come on, marimo. Don't ruin the evening by dying," Sanji says, moving to get the bottle from Zoro's hand, before it spill everywhere. "But don't worry : I'll make sure that your tombstone reads 'choked on his spit'."
Zoro's unable to respond to that taunt for now, which isn't actually a bad thing, because he's at a loss of words. What should he say, as Sanji sits a bit closer so that he can pound on his back when the coughing doesn't recede right away – so close that his knee brushes against Zoro's thigh? What can he say, when it finally starts dying down a moment later, and Sanji looks at him with that subtly lopsided grin on his lips, his hand lingering in Zoro's back, lying flat between his shoulder blades, so light he can barely feel it?
When he finally manages to catch his breath, Sanji's hand disappears. He glances at the cook, who's drinking more of that expensive sake. When he's done, still grinning, he places his hand on Zoro's shoulder and leans towards him.
"I knew that sake was wasted on you," he taunts while handing him the bottle.
His breath smells of strong liquor, and from this close, Zoro can see his cheeks are definitely a little redder than usual. Just the alcohol, then. He refrains a sigh and grabs the bottle, before taking long gulps that comfort his now slightly sore throat, just as they comfort his troubled mind.
Sanji seems satisfied, and lets his hand slowly slide down his arm, until he brushes against Zoro's wrist, making his heart race. Sanji's fingers are warm against his skin, as they slowly graze his knuckles, along his fingers, lying flat on the wooden floor. So light he can barely feel the touch, scarcely lingering there more than reasonable, for a second or two, at most. Nothing worth freaking out over. A mere coincidence. And the cook is obviously tipsy.
Sanji finally stands up when their captain's shouts for dessert, and heads for the galley, accompanied by Chopper's excited squeals and Usopp's loud approval. When he's gone, Zoro lets out the breath he never realized he was holding.