The Panaceam Report
A fanfiction by Velkyn Karma
Summary: Enemies might come and go, but information lasts forever. A one-shot sequel to Mindshattered. Nakamaship; no pairings.
Note: As stated, a one-shot sequel to Mindshattered, so this fic will make no sense whatsoever if you haven't read that first. Written because quite frankly I wanted to mess with Zoro more :P Okay, okay. Written because I wanted to explore a few things that I really couldn't in the Mindshattered setting. Also, a lot of people wanted me to bring the Alchemist back...although I think I did it a little differently than most people expected.
Warnings: Rated T for language and a little violence. Also to some gruesome references from Mindshattered. Obviously, spoiler warnings abound for the previous fanfiction as well. Also obviously, AU due to Mindshattered's setting.
Disclaimer: I do not own, or pretend to own, One Piece or any of its subsequent characters, plots or other ideas. That right belongs solely to Eiichiro Oda. The only thing that belongs to me here is the concept for the story.
"Loyalty isn't standing by someone when he's right...that's good judgement. Loyalty is standing by someone when he's wrong."
It had been almost six months since the Straw Hat Pirates had entered the New World, and nearly every moment of it had been spent in adventure and excitement. New islands, new friends, new enemies, new battles, new skills, and new knowledge came at them hard and fast, but for all that and all the difficulties Sanji wouldn't trade that time for anything. He and his fellow crew members had seen a lot, learned a lot, and experienced a lot, and there was still so much more to go in the world.
Still, for all the excitement, there were still moments dull as ditch water, and not everything in the new world was as dangerous or difficult as some of the stories had claimed. While some of the marines they had since encountered had been sheer terrors, others were laughably inept for the second half of the Grand Line, barely stronger than their counterparts on the other side of the Red Line.
They were fighting one such ship full of woefully undertrained marines now. Sanji was barely putting any effort into decimating the onslaught of government cannon-fodder. So he was genuinely surprised when, as he kicked downward with a call of "Épaule!" the man he was currently fighting widened his eyes in recognition and dodged aside, just in time.
Sanji was caught more than a little off balance by that (almost literally), and the man tried to use the opportunity to slash out at him with his cutlass. Sanji was equal to that, and with one of his more recently developed skills managed to twist in midair and change the force of his first attack into a second one, catching the man in the ribs. The marine went down with a sharp crack from his side and a much louder scream of pain, and Sanji landed easily, perfectly balanced once more.
It was a puzzling encounter, but one Sanji would normally have shrugged off. After all, Épaule was one of his oldest attacks, and he'd been on the Grand Line for over two years now as a Straw Hat Pirate. It stood to reason that somebody would have seen it somewhere.
Except, Sanji didn't like trusting anything to mere coincidence, and that dodge had felt far too familiar, too knowing. The marine hadn't dodged because he'd seen the attack; he'd dodged because he'd heard it, like he'd studied and knew what to look for.
And to Sanji's astonishment, that first marine hadn't been the only one. As he waded his way through the marines on the ship, lashing out with his Black Leg style at every single man that got in his way or threatened his crew mates, he noticed an increased tendency to dodge or recognize his attacks as soon as he called them out. It wasn't really a hindrance, not in the long run. Actually it was more of an annoyance, as Sanji could still overpower them with brute force and skill, not unlike the marimo (he shook his head in exasperation at even thinking of comparing his own graceful style to the shit-swordsman's heavy-handed one), or predict their dodging predictions and beat their heads in anyway. But as Sanji pushed further, he began to notice something else, another distinct pattern amongst those he fought: even when he announced his attacks, not a single one of them dodged any of the moves that he had developed since the day he arrived at Kamabakka Kingdom.
That sent a cold chill up the cook's spine. The moment he made that realization, he began to feel more uneasy than annoyed about these marines' unusual ability to get out of the way before they took a beating.
Sanji's attacks became more insistent after that, and he lashed out quick and hard to bring down these marines as fast as possible. He experimented several more times, willingly calling out his older attacks first before switching to the new ones, and as before the marines seemed to recognize most of his moves from the first half of the Grand Line while being woefully unfamiliar with his more recent upgrades. That made Sanji even more concerned than before. He realized they had to finish the battle fast so he could figure out just what the hell was going on, even though he already had the uncomfortable feeling that he already knew the answer to that question...
The marines went down quickly once he really unloaded on them, and in the ensuing silence he could hear Luffy complaining about how boring a fight that had been, and see Franky making his usual victory pose and shouting about how especially 'super' they were this week. On the second marine ship across the way he could see Robin-chan, Zoro, Chopper, Brook, and Usopp finishing up the last of their own enemies, apparently unconcerned, and Sanji sighed inwardly in relief. None of them had noticed anything off with their own fights. Perhaps he was just overreacting—
But then, like music from heaven, Nami-san spoke up from the other end of the ship. And it was utterly unfair, like just another ironic twist in his already ironically twisted series of misfortunes, that it was Nami-san of all people that had to pick up on the same thing he had. "Did anyone else find that more annoying than usual? Those stupid marines kept using insulated armor to block all my thunder attacks! I had to improvise with some of the wind-boosting items I picked up on Weatheria."
"And yet Nami-san is so amazingly skilled she still managed to beat all those shitty marines without any trouble at all!" Sanji said with his usual jovial tone. But inwardly he was groaning, his suspicions further confirmed. This couldn't be what he thought it was. They had barely gotten over that hurdle, and it had been too close—
"I didn't notice anything," Luffy said, blinking in confusion, and then he pouted with obvious disappointment. "You mean the fight could've been more interesting? Aw, no fair! Why do you get all the fun guys, Nami?"
Sanji kicked his captain in the head with a growl. "Don't say things like that, especially about a lady, shithead! Do you want Nami-san to be injured by these unsightly brutes?" He was glad he'd long since learned to multitask; even as he reprimanded his captain further, his thoughts were going a mile a minute, trying to sort out the implications of what Luffy had said. Luffy hadn't noticed anything different with the marines...but really, why would that matter? Luffy was always inventing new attacks anyway. Half his fighting style was spur-of-the-moment. And even if the marines had known about some of his more frequently used fighting moves, the other half of Luffy's style was pure brute force. It wasn't like they could have resisted anyway, short of being coated head to toe in seastone.
Nami-san rolled her eyes as Sanji (rightly) defended her honor and crouched down next to the closest still-conscious marine. Grabbing him by the collar, she dragged him up, shook him once or twice to get his attention, and said point blank, "Hey, you! Since we won, how about you tell me how you knew to block my Swing Arm with rubber?"
The man looked dazed and didn't respond right away. Nami-san grew more insistent (perfectly rightfully once again), and said dangerously, "Well? Are you going to tell me, or do I have to give you to one of the boys here?"
"Wh...what would it matter, anyway?" the marine managed to cough after a moment. "It didn't work...it didn't help...don't know why we bothered—"
Nami-san shook her head in exasperation, but when she raised her voice it was almost sing-song. "Oh, Sanji-kun? Do you think you could convince this man to answer my perfectly legitimate question?"
"Of course, Nami-san!" Sanji said immediately. Part of him was delighted that she even asked him, but most of him was just as frantic to get the information, especially when he was reasonably sure he already knew what the answer was. He wished he could convince the others to leave and let him take care of this himself, but knew in the pit of his stomach that it would never happen, and had a very, very bad feeling that things were about to get complicated. Extremely complicated.
But at least part one was easy. Sanji had barely taken a step towards the wounded marine before the man yelped in panic. Perhaps he recognized Sanji from all the stories the Straw Hats were spreading by now, or maybe he was just afraid after witnessing the cook violently kicking his own captain in the head several times. Whatever the reason, the man shrieked in fear and yelled, "No, wait! It's the Panaceam Report, I knew how to block your attack because of the Panaceam Report!"
Sanji felt his heart ice over and plunge into his stomach. Nami-san and the others wouldn't recognize that name, but Sanji knew it well, all too well, from previous experience almost twenty months ago. Unbidden a face floated forward from his memory; a well-dressed blond man with a bowler hat and a completely emotionless personality, and a hoarse, rasping voice quoting his introduction: My name is Magnus Panaceam, but the code name assigned to me on my hunter's license is the Alchemist.
Sanji was desperate to shut the man up now; no matter what he said next, things were going to be uncovered that were better left buried in the past, things that he had sworn—against his will, but still sworn—to keep secret and safe from the rest of the Straw Hat Pirates for a lifetime. But there was no way to quiet him or drag him off without arousing further suspicion. And Nami-san, not even noticing the cook's sudden tenseness, was already ordering calmly, "Explain!"
"Th-there's a man," the marine rasped in pain, "that used to w-work for the military. He was v-very good at researching pirates and figuring o-out their w-weaknesses. Mr. P-Panaceam was his n-name. He mysteriously disap-peared recently...we d-don't know what happened to him. B-but when we went to investigate his h-house, we f-found his notes. A-all his notes, on all the p-pirates he'd ever st-studied. Headquarters comp-piled that research for all the still l-living p-pirates and sent c-copies to all st-stations in the New World." The man's head fell back, and he was gasping hard by the end, clearly terrified.
Sanji felt sick now, because his worst suspicions were confirmed, and it was a vicious, unrelenting ghost coming back to haunt him again. Magnus Panaceam. The Alchemist. They'd defeated him almost two years ago, but even now the man's ruthlessness refused to leave them alone. His twisted research had nearly killed them all, would have if Sanji had not done something so completely unexpected the shitty bastard couldn't have prepared for it. But even with the man defeated, it seemed the information he'd gathered hadn't gone with him. With a twist of guilt, Sanji cursed himself for not exploring that castle more thoroughly when they'd gone back to it half a year ago to recover Perona's bones. Of course the bastard would have written everything he'd dragged out of Zoro down. The task would have been difficult enough as it was without risking losing it all and having to start again—
A new realization hit him like one of Usopp's lead stars to the gut: Zoro. Oh, God. Zoro could not know about this. He couldn't be allowed to figure it out. The swordsman had been pretty much recovered for well over six months now, and it was only with the heaviest of scrutiny that any of them—even Sanji, the only one to know the full story—could see traces of the wreck that Panaceam had turned Zoro into all those months ago. But the traces were still there, even if slight, the foundation still worked into the swordsman in a way that Sanji knew would never completely go away, like an old wound that refused to scar over no matter how much you tried to ignore it and leave it alone. Hell, he knew, based on the discussion he'd had with the man half a year ago, that Zoro still hadn't forgiven himself for talking to the Alchemist about his crew's weaknesses, even if it had been done against his will, even under torture. Sanji had barely convinced him to stay with the Straw Hats in the beginning, only managing it by a very desperate last-minute challenge. Even then he'd only been able to do it because with Panaceam down he'd managed to convince the idiot marimo that his mistakes, and the information he'd given away, was no longer a threat to his crew.
But if Zoro knew about this report, that wouldn't be the truth, not anymore. And even if each and every member of the crew had gotten so strong by now that the Panaceam Report was outdated and only half useful, not covering any of their techniques after the moment they were separated on Sabaody, the fact of the matter was it would still remind Zoro of his so-called betrayal of the group all over again.
And even if he was more in his right mind now than he had been twenty months ago, with his head no longer clouded by starvation and depression, that still wouldn't sit well with him. He'd be reminded of his failure all over again—and, even worse, this time he was strong enough to leave of his own accord now, if he decided to take that route.
This was bad. This was very bad.
With a jolt of horror Sanji realized that Nami-san had inquired further while he'd been thinking, demanding to see this report for herself, curiosity and annoyance clearly on her face. "I-in the captain's cabin," the marine gasped in answer. "He has a pe-personal copy and taught us everyth-thing..."
Disaster was coming, and Sanji worked frantically to avert it somehow without raising suspicions. Thankfully, this was something he could disperse while not appearing terribly unusual. With an excitable cry that was unknowingly (to the rest of the crew) fueled by his own desperation, he leaped forward and said charmingly, "Nami-swaaaaaan! Allow me to search for you, so that you can rest after all your hard work in combat!" It would kill him to lie to her, but maybe he could give her a revised copy of the report, after he'd swiped it and scanned its contents to hide anything incriminating—
But to his complete and utter shock, the navigator shook her head. "That's okay, Sanji-kun," she said, and throwing him an amused wink she added, "We'll just have you stay out here and keep an eye on the marines while I go search."
The marine she'd been questioning moaned in obvious fear on the wooden planks of the deck, and in any other situation Sanji would have found the tactic on Nami's part clever and amusing (like she always was), but now he was just dumbfounded. "Of course," he said immediately out of habit, "I'll keep the bastards in line easily, and all for you!"
She laughed and turned to trot into the captain's quarters to search for the report that she probably considered little more than annoying at the moment; she couldn't know what was buried in it, or how it would inevitably make her crew mates look. Even without reading it Sanji could—he'd spoken to the man personally when they fought, was furious at how easily the bastard had made it sound like Zoro had willingly betrayed them all—and he knew it would hurt her, would hurt them all, to read that thing. But he couldn't stop her, couldn't disobey her, couldn't even lay a hand on her just to tug her back, not even now.
Luffy and Franky were looking interested as well, discussing—if anything Luffy did could be called discussing—what they might find in this 'mystery report,' as Luffy had dubbed it, and guessing with increasingly wild and highly inaccurate tales as to where the marines might have figured things out about them. And hell, Sanji realized suddenly, he couldn't let Luffy find out either, not this way! Sanji had been all for telling Luffy what had happened to Zoro months ago, when they'd first found him; but Zoro had been absolutely insistent that the captain of all people could not know about his 'betrayal.' Sanji was sure Luffy would understand, even now—but only if it was explained properly, and not discovered through an incriminating document that would no doubt make it look like Zoro had volunteered the vital weak points for the rest of his nakama.
Luffy was acceptable of many things, but never something like that. To their captain, people that betrayed their nakama were utterly and absolutely reprehensible, never to be forgiven.
And then, as if to make matters even worse, Luffy raised his hands and cheerfully greeted the rest of the Straw Hat Pirates as they finally crossed over from the second enemy ship and came to greet them. Brook, Chopper, and Usopp were discussing amongst themselves animatedly as they trotted over, with Zoro and Robin-chan following along quietly behind, looking bored and amused respectively, and damn it all, this could not come at a worse time.
Move them, Sanji thought frantically. Distract them. Something. Anything! You have to control this situation before it gets out of hand! He made his first attempt with the first thing that came to mind, and said with all the casualness he could fake, "It's almost lunchtime, Luffy. Why don't we head back over to the Sunny and I'll make us an extra big lunch to celebrate another victory."
"With lots of meat?" Luffy asked hopefully, already drooling at the prospect, and Sanji inwardly sighed in relief that he'd managed to hook his captain. With Luffy on his side he could distract the others long enough to draw attention away from that report, if he played it right.
"Yeah, sure, lots of meat, as long as you're good and don't bug me while I'm making it," he said, feigning like he was humoring his idiotic captain, just like he usually did in other similar situations. Nobody caught on. Success.
But then Nami-san came back out of the captain's quarters with a triumphant grin on her face, waving what looked like a thick sheaf of papers bound together by tight string in one hand. Sanji couldn't bring himself to curse her—highly improper to even think such things about a lady—but at that moment he really, really wished her timing could have been better. "Found it!" she said, looking pleased with herself. "He tried to hide it in a false drawer in his desk, but that's one of the oldest tricks in the book. They must think this thing is really important if they go through so much trouble to protect it."
"What thing?" Chopper asked curiously, and the newcomers were eyeing the sheaf of papers in her hands curiously.
"A mystery report!" Luffy took it upon himself to explain. "It's got all our attacks and stuff in it! Franky thinks they used hidden cameras and robot-stuff to figure it all out, but I think—"
Sanji tuned his idiot of a captain out and, as subtly as he could manage, glanced at Zoro out of his peripheral. The swordsman's expression was difficult to place, and to the uninformed he probably still looked bored, but Sanji could swear he saw the faintest traces of a frown at the corner of the marimo's mouth. Sanji barely kept his own grimace of frustration from his face. For all his insults to the contrary, the cook knew Zoro wasn't stupid; he was probably already forming the same suspicions that Sanji had finally confirmed in his mind.
"—was kind of surprised," Chopper was saying now, as Sanji tuned back into the conversation. "They recognized my Heavy Point, but that's not on my poster, so it caught me a little off guard at first. I wonder if that's in there too."
"Let's find out!" Nami-san said decisively, flipping through the sheaf of papers as she searched through the names. Everyone but Robin-chan, Zoro, and Sanji leaned forward excitedly, and it seemed lunch was forgotten. The cook wracked his brain frantically. There had to be something he could do to stop them, anything he could do to distract them from reading—
Well. There was one thing.
Whirling on Zoro suddenly, Sanji spun out with a furious roundhouse kick aimed straight for the swordsman's chest and roared angrily, "Damn it, marimo! Don't glare at wonderful Nami-san like she's wasting your damned time when all you do is laze about like a useless piece of shit!"
Zoro looked genuinely startled at the attack, which was an entirely likely state of affairs, seeing as Sanji had made up his slight to Nami-san on the spot; the swordsman hadn't even been looking at her. But with everyone else focused on the navigator no one would have taken notice of that particular inaccuracy, and it still sounded like something Sanji would do, because he had done it before. And for all his confusion Zoro reacted quickly, as he always did, blocking the kick with a hastily drawn sword and lashing out with a second in a counterattack.
It had the intended effect. Everyone looked up in surprise as the fight began, and the Panaceam Report was temporarily forgotten in lieu of the newest spat between their swordsman and cook. Luffy began cheering the two of them on as always, Franky muttered that for once at least it wasn't his ship that they were already in the process of breaking, and Nami-san shrieked at them to stop being idiots and quit beating each other up already.
It was a stalling tactic, for sure, but Sanji didn't know what he'd be able to do once the fight inevitably ground to a halt. He briefly toyed with the idea of actually letting himself get so beat up Chopper would have to stop the report discovery in a blind panic as he tended to one of his nakama, and the others hovered by worriedly (the thought of Nami-san and Robin-chan waiting at his bedside briefly made him smile), but he dropped the idea fairly quickly. The marimo might be an arrogant, useless pain in the ass that bulled his way through most fights without an ounce of grace, but he had enough skill and control that he'd never intentionally put Sanji in the infirmary that badly. And besides, Sanji did not relish the thought of the marimo beating him even if he did throw the match. Try the opposite, knocking the swordsman down for the fight? Same problem, though. For all their bickering, Sanji would feel pretty bad if he injured the marimo so badly to cause a distraction that he was bedridden, and that was only if he could manage it anyway; they were pretty even in a fight.
And then he realized, with another jolt of horror, that his distraction had already run out. As he hurtled past the group do deliver a furious series of rapid-fire kicks the the swordsman, he heard Nami-san's voice say, "Oh, here you are, Luffy! Looks like we've got a whole section of this report to ourselves, and you're first. Let's see how much they know about you." Luffy cheered, and Sanji felt his blood run cold.
Stupid, he yelled at himself. Stupid, stupid stupid! Of course they wouldn't stay distracted forever, our fights are so commonplace now it's nothing new at all! There was nothing he could do to stop them now, and Luffy would be a difficulty in and of itself, but Zoro...
Get him off the ship, came the last-ditch effort to smooth the situation over. Kick him over to the Sunny, or in the water, or...something, anything, as long as he doesn't hear!
So he threw himself at the swordsman again, and that was when he discovered the perils of dividing his attention in the middle of a heated battle with the marimo—because with his thoughts focused on what Nami-san was saying he never even noticed Zoro shifting his stance until the last minute. The cook was sent careening with a startled yelp and hit the broken mast of the marine ship hard, though not hard enough to leave any lasting damage. He sat against it a moment, dazed, and staggered to his feet just in time to hear what Nami-san was reading out loud to the rest of the crew.
"—econd powerup, which allows the expansion of dense rubber bones for maximum damage. Slow, easy to dodge, but it is imperative to not be hit by attacks in this form. Counterattack possibilities: evasive maneuvers are highly suggested until the subject has finished using this series of attacks. Afterwards, the subject reverts to a smaller, childlike form relatively limited in power; it is highly suggested the attacker takes advantage of this form while possible. Additionally it has been suggested that the subject grows considerably weaker if hungry, and that if angered his attacks increase dramatically in damage, but common sense and logic decreases proportionally. Combatants are encouraged to engage when hungry, or if possible and with the estimated numbers of skilled troops (see footnote below) to bait the subject into a trap by triggering this anger. Input from Roronoa Zoro, confirmed Straw Hat member, confirms these additional weaknesses as exploitable..."
Nami-san's voice trailed off suddenly, shifting from sounding amused and exasperated to wavering and surprised. Almost as one their eyes raised to Zoro, and with an inward curse Sanji turned to face him as well.
Zoro's normally tanned skin had gone white as a ghost, and his eyes, usually so unconcerned or flat out bored looking, were wide as he stared back at his crew members. The swordsman had gone completely rigid, hands still on the hilt of his white sword where he'd been sheathing it when Nami-san had started reading. But as they continued to watch him, unblinking, he very, very slowly removed his hands from the weapon, dropping them just as slowly to his sides, unthreatening.
He said nothing, and they continued to stare at him, and he back at them; he looked like an animal that wanted to bolt. Sanji hadn't seen him like that since the first few days after they'd rescued him from the Alchemist's castle, and he'd been delirious then. The expression was just wrong on Zoro's face.
But, glancing at the rest of his crew, Sanji had to admit with an inward groan and a curse that the reaction was not at all surprising. The whole rest of the crew was staring at their swordsman with mixed expressions of shock, fear, and betrayal, with the sole exception of Robin-chan (Sanji was not surprised by that at all. Robin-chan was brilliant, and had essentially figured out everything that happened months ago already. This discovery would hardly come as a shock to her). But the rest of those faces—the way Chopper trembled slightly as he watched Zoro with watery eyes, the way Usopp's knees shook, the way Brook's bony jaw dropped, the way Franky looked like he'd been punched in the gut so hard even his metal plating had crumpled—each and every one of those hurt, stunned expressions had to be like a knife twisting in the swordsman's heart.
And Luffy. Oh, God. Luffy. The captain's eyes were shadowed by his straw hat, and the bandit mask it seemed to cast made his wide-eyed, far too solemn glare all the more terrifying. He'd been sitting when Nami-san read that passage out loud, but slowly he stood, never once blinking or tearing his eyes from Zoro's. His whole body was tensed, like a coil ready to spring...or like rubber stretched to its limit, right before it snapped.
Slowly, very slowly, with a voice that was so low and smooth and lacked so much emotion it was almost more frightening than one of Luffy's rages, the captain asked, "You told the marines about me, Zoro?"
If possible the swordsman went even paler, but when he answered his voice was as firm as it had always been, even if there was a bit more of a raspy edge to it than usual. "Yes."
Only it wasn't that simple, and Sanji wanted to kick his head in for making it sound that way, and kick some sense into his captain too and explain the whole damned story. But Zoro wouldn't stand for interference now, and his shitty code of honor wouldn't let him go about making excuses for himself, even if they were perfectly true and entirely reasonable.
Luffy's eyes narrowed slightly. Beside him, still crouched on the ground, Nami-san shuddered slightly and lifted the sheaf of papers in her hands, flipping through them once more. She no longer read anything out loud, but Sanji could see she was skimming rapidly, and with another uncomfortable flip in his stomach he realized she was probably reading everybody else's entries.
His suspicions were confirmed a moment later. "It's all here," she whispered softly, but in the dead silence of the rest of the crew that whisper carried. "All of our old attacks and weaknesses, and countermeasures are listed for each of them. They all have confirmations by Zoro. And—" she hesitated once, flipped through the sheaf again, and then said slowly, "—and he doesn't have an entry in here at all."
Of course he wouldn't, Sanji realized with a groan. The Alchemist had already captured him at the time. Why interrogate a man about his own combat abilities when he was safely starved and tortured to the point of never using them again? But it only looked worse for Zoro, from the perspective of the Straw Hats; like he'd sold them out in exchange for his own anonymity, keeping santoryuu safely protected from the marines.
Hell. This was getting worse by the minute.
Zoro didn't flinch at all as Nami-san made the announcement, and his eyes never left his captain's. But he did flinch slightly when Luffy's expression suddenly went from blank and solemn to furious, lips peeling back into one of his hateful grimaces normally reserved for people who messed with his hat, or...or people who messed with his nakama. Oh shit.
Sanji tried to push himself forward into the conversation, opening his mouth to speak, but before he could get so much as a word out Luffy cut him off, his voice trembling with barely contained fury. "You told the marines how to hurt my nakama, Zoro?" he snarled, and the others shuddered around him, watching the swordsman with even more confusion and betrayal in their faces than before. "You told them everything?"
Explain it! Sanji urged Zoro mentally, but even as he did so he knew it wouldn't happen. Luffy had made an accusation, simple though it might be, and Zoro would faithfully and truthfully answer his captain even if doing so would also condemn him. "Yes," Zoro answered simply. His body was starting to slump now, heavy, defeated, but he stood still, and his voice was still strong, because Zoro didn't back down from challenges and this was barely any different. "I did."
An explosion of furious rage sounded from the captain, and the next second Luffy's rubber fist had cannoned into Zoro's head, snapping his neck back and sending him flying back into the scattered bodies of marines and the rubble of the broken ship. Even with all the fury fueling Luffy's punch, Sanji figured Zoro could have dodged it; but he hadn't even tried, instead accepting the blow head on.
A second rubbery punch followed as Zoro began to stagger to his feet, this time catching him in the stomach. He let out a whuff of pain as the breath was expelled from his body and crashed to the ground again in a clatter of sheathes, and once again he didn't try to fight back, or defend himself.
And now this was getting ridiculous. Sanji threw himself forward as Luffy, fury on his face, drew back his fist for yet a third attack. Maybe part of it was justified, and maybe Zoro figured he deserved it on some level, but the majority of this was just a stupid misunderstanding that was beginning to piss the cook off. "Luffy, wait—"
"Cook!" Zoro snarled, the first time he'd raised his voice aggressively since the encounter started, and Sanji was so surprised that he skidded to a stop before he could manage to intervene. Unhindered, Luffy's third attack shot forward with an enraged scream of "How dare you!" and smashed solidly into Zoro's stomach once again. The swordsman crashed to the deck for the third time, and this time he didn't attempt to get up again, just lay curled on the boards where he'd been knocked to passively, swords untouched.
Luffy was leaping forward now, eyes narrowed angrily, but Sanji had recovered his wits by then. His mind buzzed at the irony of him being the only one on the whole damned crew to actively defend Zoro of all people. But his body moved instinctively despite the thoughts running at a million miles an hour in his head, and he slid to a stop between his captain and the still curled swordsman several feet behind him.
Luffy crashed to a stop, still looking furious, but it was with a voice of somewhat measured calm that he spoke as he said, "Sanji. Get out of the way."
"No," Sanji said firmly. "Luffy, listen—"
"Get out of the way, Sanji," Luffy said again, more insistently. "Captain's orders."
"No," Sanji repeated just as firmly, and brought his heel smashing down on the deck in what might have been considered a petulant stomp if it didn't scatter splinters and crack wood. "Luffy, listen. That's not the whole damned story!"
"I don't care," Luffy growled. "He told the marines everything about my nakama—"
'Damn it, curly-brow," Zoro growled, panting, from behind him. "Just get out of the fucking way, you know as well as I do I deserve it—"
"Shut up!" Sanji yelled over the both of them, and both of them, with some measure of surprise, fell silent. The cook could feel everybody's eyes on him now, watching anxiously, confusedly, and he said as loudly and as quickly as he could before he could be interrupted again, "Magnus Panaceam is the given name of the man we know as the Alchemist!"
That brought gasps of surprise from almost everyone in the crew as they were given the crucial link that they were all missing. Sanji had never told them the Alchemist's name, only his given code-name that the marines had assigned to him. Up until that moment they couldn't possibly have connected the Panaceam Report with the same man they all hated so much for what he'd done to Zoro. Eyes widened with sickened horror as they began to put two and two together, and Nami-san, clever as she was, even raised her hand to her mouth with a horrified whisper on her face and gasped, "Oh, God. Sanji-kun, when you said he'd done his research on us all that time ago, you didn't mean..." And she stared down at the report still sitting in her lap with a look of disgust.
But Luffy did not look convinced—his rage was still all but palpable—and from behind him Sanji heard the marimo hiss, "Get the fuck out of the way, shit-cook! I told you I've had this coming. The captain is the one that decides how to deal with it, and I'm still a part of the crew thanks to your meddling. Move."
Luffy nodded in grim agreement. "Move," he repeated.
Sanji felt unexpected anger with his captain flare up in his mind, and clenched his fists. "Damn it, Luffy!" he snarled, "Don't you fucking get it? Zoro didn't say anything willingly. Panaceam—the Alchemist—was the one that got it all out of him. Remember how we found him, Luffy? Remember the shit we went through just to keep him alive, and you're going to ruin that now? Pay attention, damn it!"
"I am," Luffy said quietly. "I know. I knew from the moment Nami started reading that thing that it was the same guy." And at Sanji's start of surprise, he added, "I know because he knows everything that I learned up until we were separated at Sabaody, but nothing after. And I made sure to get stronger so I could protect my nakama after. I know exactly how strong I was then."
Of course he would, Sanji thought grimly...but that wasn't making this make any more sense! "Then for once in your damned life think about what you're doing before you attack," Sanji hissed, and kept his feet planted firmly, refusing to move even though his captain's glare all but screamed at him to obey.
"I know exactly what I'm doing," Luffy said, and to his surprise Sanji had the strangest feeling that he did know. Luffy's fist was raising again, and the captain glared through his shadowy bandit mask as he said, "I know exactly what's going on now. I know exactly what it means to be strong enough to care for your nakama always, but Zoro doesn't understand that at all, and that's not okay!"
"He's right," Zoro rasped, panting, from behind him, and Sanji allowed himself a fraction of a second to glance over his shoulder. Zoro looked like crap, and not just because Luffy had hit him a few times, or because of the recent battle; he looked defeated in a completely different way, like that knife twisting into his heart was cutting still deeper. This shitty little event was undoing all the hard work Sanji had done to make their swordsman recover not just in body, but in mind, in spirit. The cook realized it had to be the worst accusation in the world for Zoro, to be told by his very captain that he was all but worthless, a breaker of promises that had nearly killed his nakama because of a simple lack of strength. "Just...just get out of the way, cook. He's the captain. Whatever he does, I deserve it. Probably deserve more."
"No! Argh, marimo, you idiot, we talked about this—" he cut off as he heard Luffy moving behind him, glanced back and rocked to the side hastily to put himself in between the captain and swordsman again before Luffy could strike out with another angry fist. "Remember what I told you Luffy, back when I first talked to him," he appealed, because Luffy looked more furious than ever. "I told you he didn't do anything wrong, and you believed me. I wasn't lying, damn it. Knock it off already!"
Luffy froze for a moment at the reminder, and Sanji was hopeful; it looked like that had gotten through to the enraged captain. But then resolution seemed to settle in the captain's face, and Sanji yelped in surprise as Luffy's rubber pistol attack struck him a glancing blow and smashed more forcefully into Zoro behind him.
Sanji crashed to the ground on his side, shocked. He could hear the other Straw Hats yelling in confusion and surprise, and hear them scrambling forward to interfere, but their footsteps halted at what was presumably a gesture from Luffy. Sanji shook his head to clear the stars from his vision and looked up to see Luffy staring down at him with an angry frown.
"You knew too," the captain said with a low growl. "That's not okay either, Sanji, but I have to take care of Zoro first."
"I...what?" Sanji spluttered, and kicked himself to his feet as Luffy stepped past him, still moving for Zoro. With that anger on the captain's face Sanji was actually starting to get genuinely scared that Zoro's life was in danger. And with the swordsman still crouching passively on his knees, not making even the slightest movement to fight back, it was an all too real possibility now.
"What the hell is your problem, Luffy?" he tried one last time, darting forward the last few paces to try and get in between Luffy and Zoro again, to prevent something truly bad from happening. "I understand why you might be angry, but this is ridiculous! Zoro was being tortured, for fuck's sake. Yeah, he talked, but the Alchemist had to drain every damned drop out of him, and he fought to die rather than talk about us—"
"That's not why I'm mad," Luffy interrupted smoothly. Sanji's jaw dropped as he cut off, and when his captain turned to face him, his expression was one of simmering rage, but also, stunning understanding.
"I know Zoro would never tell anybody how to hurt any of my nakama because he wanted to," Luffy said, his voice firm, and now Zoro was staring up at him tiredly too, looking just as confused. "I don't care if they know our attacks or weaknesses or anything else like that because of him. We're alive, and we're stronger now. I'm stronger now. I won't let that hurt any one of us." Zoro flinched as if struck, and Sanji couldn't blame him. Even if Luffy never intended it as such, the accusation that he was too weak to do the protecting, that Luffy had to clean up his mess, still felt heavily present.
"And I know Zoro was as strong as he could be for that," Luffy added, with surprisingly pinpoint accuracy, "Because I know Zoro keeps his promises, and he promised to protect my crew—" another flinch from Zoro, "—and he kept trying to, and he still does, and that hasn't ever stopped."
Everyone was watching the captain with surprise now, uncomprehending. Even Zoro looked confused. He had probably assumed the captain was attacking him for his self-perceived betrayal, for being weak enough to give away the information about the crew that had nearly gotten them all killed, could still be a hindrance now. But Luffy had just waved away the most obvious concerns, and now none of them knew what to say, or to think.
And then the captain answered all their questions. "I'm mad," Luffy said insistently, "because of all the injuries Zoro had when he found him, that one had to be the worst of all. Telling about us had to be the deepest and bloodiest injury Zoro ever got, and I've seen all Zoro's fights. Those kinds of injuries never go away," the captain growled, voice low, and Sanji recognized all too uncomfortably the solemn, serious tone he always got when he came too close to speaking about Ace. "But nakama...nakama make them better. Nakama make those wounds hurt less and make you be stronger again." His eyes widened in rage, and he howled, "But Zoro never, ever told us, and he never, ever let us help him. How can I be a good captain, and how can we be good nakama, if one of our crew is hurt and we never even know to try to help!"
Zoro's eyes went wide a second before another furious rubber fist smashed into his chest and he was sent sprawling, and this time Sanji was sure it wasn't so much because of a refusal to fight, but being genuinely caught off guard, that had let the hit connect. He pushed himself to his hands and knees a second later, only to catch the brunt of another rubbery hit, snapping him right back down to the broken wooden planks of the marine ship.
And now Luffy was ranting furiously as he unleashed punch after punch at his unofficial first mate, and his first-ever crew mate. "How long has it been now, Zoro? How long have you been injured and not told anyone? How long have you been beating yourself up over this? I'm your captain, damn it! It's my job to protect you! And everyone here are your nakama—it's their job to protect you too! We helped you all this time and you never bothered to tell us you were still hurt? That's not okay, Zoro! Not ever!"
And what am I, chopped liver? Sanji thought, disgruntled—he'd been there through all of it after all, knew the whole damned story from beginning to end, and had been the one to subtly encourage the Straw Hats' efforts in helping the marimo recover physically and mentally. But after a moment he realized Luffy was really right after all. Zoro hadn't even wanted to accept Sanji's help, or tell him what had happened in the Alchemist's dungeon, either. Sanji had been forced to threaten, swindle, and guilt Zoro into revealing his story, and later to make a half-assed deal with him just to keep him on the ship long enough for him to start to recover. If Sanji hadn't been so forward, Zoro would be even worse-off than he was now, if he hadn't already died from his own guilty attempts to put himself off-ship or reconcile for the betrayal he alone took so seriously.
And the others...they'd taken Sanji's suggestions during the recovery, but it wasn't the same as knowing. Sanji had made sure the swordsman spent plenty of time around his crew mates to get used to them again, to see them perfectly safe and sound and happy to have him back and ecstatic that he was recovering, to keep the guilt at bay if it could be held back at all. And his crew mates had done that unwittingly, but it wasn't the same as knowing the self-made scar on the swordsman's heart was there, opening again and again whenever he was reminded of what could have happened; of understanding that frustration, that pain, that shame, and knowingly doing whatever they could to help combat it.
And Sanji...Sanji felt a bit like an idiot, when he realized he hadn't seen that either. Back then he'd been justifiably worried, that the crew's pity and worry would be worse for the swordsman's recovery; as long as they never found out, nobody would suffer over it. But looking back on it now, Sanji realized just how foolish an outlook they had been. He realized he'd never thought of what the crew would think, how bad they might feel, if they knew their swordsman had carried such a burden with him for so long and never once told them.
This wasn't like Thriller Bark. It wasn't something that had to be concealed for the safety and well-being of their captain. Luffy was, surprisingly, bewilderingly, perfectly correct: as the captain, as the crew, they were bound to protect and help the swordsman just as much as he protected and helped them. His refusal to share what was, in his mind, his shameful betrayal of his crew had denied them that, allowed that wound of shame to fester still further without adequate treatment, allowed the cycle to continue. Even a whole year after it had happened, even well free of his starvation-induced depression, Zoro had still felt that guilt. Sanji wondered now, a bit guilty himself, if it would have been any different if the crew had known.
As if he'd heard those thoughts Luffy's barrage of attacks on the swordsman came to a halt, and he turned to Sanji, angry expression still in place. "You should have told me," the captain accused, very seriously.
Sanji sighed, and said truthfully enough, "I wanted to, remember? He made me promise not to." Which was true enough, at the beginning. As soon as he'd dragged the story out of Zoro he'd wanted to tell everyone. The only reason he hadn't was because Zoro had trusted him and made him promise, and he couldn't betray that, not so soon after learning something so horrific. And afterwards had come the deal, when Sanji had struggled to keep Zoro on the ship and recovering in any way possible. He'd played the game subtly after that, being sneakier in his attempts to keep the swordsman on the ship and prove he belonged there, and in all of that, in all of those promises and tricks and maneuvers, it seemed he'd forgotten the point as well.
Luffy frowned, but slowly nodded after a moment, and turned his gaze back to Zoro. Sanji realized he'd been let off the hook, and only realized after that that he'd been holding his breath.
Then Zoro moved. Slowly, he dragged himself up once more onto his hands and knees before Luffy. He was panting hard, although Sanji had a feeling it was more or less because of the confrontation itself than the attacks. After a moment he sat back and looked up at his captain, and Sanji was reminded oddly of the moment when Zoro had asked Kuma to take his head, instead of Luffy's; he was sitting the same way, defiant, but still knowing his place as the weaker one in the match.
"Sorry, Captain," he said after a very long moment of silence, as everyone else shifted closer to see and hear. "I can see how weak I must look now."
"You aren't," Luffy shot back immediately.
"That doesn't matter. Everyone is safe. Everyone is stronger. So are you."
"Luffy," Zoro said, very seriously, "It's because of my incompetence, my weakness, that everyone almost died on Sabaody that second time. Both times, really." Sanji grit his teeth. He'd had the same argument with Zoro months ago, back when the swordsman kept trying to insist that he had to leave, but he didn't like the way it sounded now. Back then Zoro had been weak, tired, clearly affected by his hunger and his depression; now he was strong, in his right mind, his arguments serious and to the point, and that didn't sit well with the cook. "I thought with the Alchemist...gone...things would be fine again. That I could earn back my right to be on the crew, even if I was the only one who knew I had to earn that right back. But with something like that out there..." he gestured with a quick tilt of his head to the report still clutched in Nami-san's fingers, and finished quietly, "I can see that all I'm doing is making things worse, again. Yes, I betrayed you all once. I was too weak to not talk when that sick bastard questioned me. And it looks like that weakness isn't going to stop hurting you guys."
He grit his teeth, and then to the surprise of everyone present, bowed his head before them. "So I'm sorry. You probably all hate me now that you figured it out and saw how much I told him about you. And probably more because I was too much of a coward to tell you, after. I guess I haven't stopped being weak since the first day he got an answer out of me. I don't have the right to make excuses or try to explain myself. So...you guys can decide from here what you want to do with me. Whatever punishment you think is acceptable for a traitor like me...I'll accept it."
"Punishment?" several crew members said at the same time. They sounded confused, appalled, and surprised by Zoro's little speech, unsure what to make of it. Hell, Sanji had heard pretty much all of this before and he still didn't know what to make of it.
But then without warning the crew was rushing around Luffy—still standing impassive, watching his swordsman—and leapt at their fellow crew mate. "I don't want to punish you!" Chopper squealed, sounding horrified. "I heard all about the Alchemist, and...and if you were brave enough to stand up to him for us...and get hurt and starved for us..." His voice cut off with a muffled whine as he managed to wiggle his way into the stunned swordsman's lap and bury his face in Zoro's shirt.
"I saw the condition you were in when we first found you," Nami-san added very seriously. "Sanji-kun and I were the ones to find you. You were...I don't think I've been so scared in my life. I can't even begin to imagine what you went through to protect us." Her eyes narrowed. "And after all that, you want us to punish you more? Because you went through things no one should have to endure? I ought to fine you just for thinking that, you idiot!"
"And you stayed afterwards to keep protecting everyone too, sword-bro!" Franky added, one meaty arm held up in front of his face in a poor attempt to hide the fact that he was sobbing like crazy. "Even after suffering like that...even hurting like that and never telling us...waah, sword-bro is super strong!"
"That's not even why I—" Zoro began to counter, looking startled and frustrated, but Sanji took the opportunity to kick him in the ribs (gently, to not disturb Chopper) to keep him from mentioning their deal. Especially since it would've been an excuse anyway. After all, Zoro had been dead-set on protecting the crew even back then in the depths of his shame. The only thing Sanji had done was redirect how he did that protecting.
"I, for one," Robin said calmly, as Zoro gagged from the unexpected kick, "am more than a little insulted that Swordsman-san felt the need to conceal such a wound from us at all. Perhaps he thought we were not strong enough to help him with that internal malady, after he was strong enough to endure everything for us?" Oooh, Robin-chan was deviously clever, flipping it around like that.
"No, that's not what I—" Zoro tried again, and spluttered as Usopp and Brook tackled him from behind, wrapping him in a very thick, sobbing hug.
"We're sorry, Zoro!" Usopp cried. "We never realized you were hurting so bad!"
"I don't view Zoro-san as a traitor at all," Brook added, his hug so tight now Sanji was pretty sure it had to be painful (and extremely bony) for even the marimo. "Except perhaps in that he never told us after so that we could help him back! That is what real nakama do, is it not?"
"What the hell is wrong with you guys?" Zoro finally managed to gag from underneath the rapidly growing pile of hugs, pats, and general well-wishing. "Don't you know what I did to you all? Do you understand what I did? I fought as hard as I could to keep from betraying you, yes, but in the end I still told him everything I knew, and you guys should be dead if not for sheer dumb luck."
"Zoro," Luffy said quietly. Almost instantly everyone fell silent, staring up at the captain who had, until now, just stood there silently, watching, observing with his oddly solemn gaze. Zoro met his eyes, and Luffy said softly, "None of that matters. The fact that you tried means you didn't betray anyone. The fact that you kept trying to protect my crew after all that means you still have a place here. But I can't accept that you wouldn't let your nakama help you after all this time...that you've been hurting somewhere all this time, and thought you had to do it yourself." Luffy's eyes narrowed as he met Zoro's, and he said firmly, "If you ever do that again, I won't ever forgive you."
Zoro watched him for a moment before saying slowly, "I understand, Captain. I'm sorry for worrying you." He hesitated, and then added, "I'm sorry to the rest of you, too." And although he didn't say it, he did give Sanji a look that clearly said sorry for putting you through all of this shit as well. Sanji snorted at him, but said nothing.
"Good." And suddenly Luffy's wide grin was back as he hurled himself at Zoro as well, wrapping the swordsman in a rubbery hug as he said, "And don't worry—as the captain I say Zoro's not a traitor, not ever! And that's the truth, so there's no need to be all worried anymore, okay?"
Zoro hesitated for a fraction of a second, and Sanji inwardly tensed. Not even after a year of recovery had Zoro been able to forgive himself, when the whole mess had first happened. He'd claimed it was understandable that he'd eventually cracked, but not forgivable. Now that Luffy was all but demanding he forgive himself, would it really happen? Much as he hated worrying over the swordsman's well-being, Sanji had to admit it would be much better for him if he could just accept that the damned mistake had not ever been his fault to begin with and move on. Hearing that from his crew might be the best way to do it after all.
The other were already chiming in their own thoughts on the matter— "I don't think it's even possible for Zoro to be a traitor!" "Anybody who says so is getting a ten percent raise in their debt for lying!" "Sword-bro is super brave and loyal, and traitors can't be, so he's definitely not one!"—and slowly, very slowly, Zoro's stony expression began to slip away, replaced by a slow grin. It was weak, but it was there, tinged with an exhausted sort of relief that only came from the feeling of a prolonged weight finally being lifted from one's shoulders.
"Okay," he accepted, quietly. "If the captain says so, who am I to argue?"
An enthusiastic cheer went up from the crew, and Zoro was smothered in several more enthusiastic hugs, protesting loudly—but not pitching anybody off, which Sanji was pretty sure was a sure-fire sign that he didn't hate it as much as he was claiming to. Stupid marimo.
Then Luffy was energetically demanding the promised meat lunch—Sanji groaned, but really shouldn't have been surprised; Luffy's memory was shitty but not when it came to food. The others were finally leaving the marine ship to return to the Sunny and their original course, and everyone cheered again when Franky enthusiastically set fire to the hated Panaceam Report with his Fresh Fire, sending the ashes scattering into the ocean water below. Even with a document like that out there, Sanji knew they'd be fine—all they had to do was get stronger and stronger and stronger, outdistance the hated man's research and the marines until nobody could keep up with them. Which was exactly what the Pirate King's crew had to do, anyway, so it wasn't like it was out of their way, or an especially disappointing prospect.
When he was crossing over to the Sunny Zoro caught up with him. "No need to look so smug, curly-brow," the swordsman scowled, although Sanji knew by now that the entire thing was a front. The man was still far too obviously relieved by the strange turn of events, with that crushing weight of self-perceived betrayal finally lifted from his shoulders, to really be angry.
Sanji lit a cigarette as he leapt from one deck to another, and nonchalantly said, "I don't know what on earth you're talking about, marimo."
"What you told Luffy was the truth," Zoro said with another (fake) glare. "You did want to tell them all from the beginning. I still remember you trying to convince me of that among other things."
Sanji couldn't help but smirk at him. "And I was right, wasn't I," he said lazily. "They didn't blame you at all, now did they. Maybe you should finally man up and admit I'm smarter than you are, shit swordsman."
Zoro gave him a far more genuine glare this time, but said after a moment, "Thanks though."
Sanji blinked at that one. He hadn't expected a thank you after all that. "What? What for?"
Zoro shrugged. "Kept your promise anyway. Even if it was—apparently—the stupidest promise I've ever made anybody make." He glanced ahead at their captain, now dancing impatiently outside the galley, as if disappointed to discover there wasn't meat already on the table yet. The swordsman gave their captain a soft look, almost fond, before adding, "Kept it right up until the end too, didn't you—that's what the fight was for, right?"
Sanji shrugged. "I was kind of out of options. But I gave you my damned word, marimo, and you're not the only one on this crew insistent on keeping their word."
"Yeah, well...thanks for that," Zoro said. "Oh, and one more thing." And before Sanji could so much as protest, he'd deftly lifted one of his swords from their sheathes and cracked Sanji solidly in the chest with the flat of the blade, sending the cook staggering back with a grunt as the wind was knocked out of him.
"That's for the lie that started it," the swordsman said cooly. "Don't go telling falsehoods about me, love-cook. It's rude."
Sanji's jaw dropped, and ignoring the captain's whining cries for meat, he hurled himself forward and kicked the swordsman in the head.
There. That feels a little more complete now. Okay, so I tormented Zoro a little more, but I also made him better at the end, too :P
For some reason even though this fic is AU and has no relation whatsoever to the current timeskip events, I envisioned this entire thing with Zoro wearing his cool new green coat. But...nobody else changed in my head. Lol.
If you enjoyed this little Mindshattered flashback, be sure to check out my livejournal too (listed in my profile here) which also has an extra scene from the original fic that didn't quite make the cut :)