Recently my buddy Cae drew some super gorgeous art for this fic! Go give it a look-see, I promise it's worth your time. The link is in my profile.
Also, did y'all know I've been writing this fic for over a year now? That's ridiculous. I just wanted to say thank you for sticking with this for so long, and for the lovely reviews/follows/favs! It really means a lot.
Chapter 16: Burn Bridges
There had definitely been times in his life where Zoro was as tired as he was in this moment, but they weren't coming to mind. The situation report blurred in front of his eyes as the sound of Tashigi and Smoker arguing faded into the background of his consciousness, and he felt himself wavering. Falling asleep while sitting up was becoming an incredibly real possibility.
"Zoro!" Tashigi said, for what could possibly have been the third time in the past few seconds. "Wake up!"
"You can go home now."
He said nothing as he got unsteadily to his feet. Tashigi grabbed his elbow in a bid to keep him from falling straight back into his chair, but failed. She sighed in exasperation. "Do you want me to help you home?"
"No need," said a voice from the doorway. Zoro didn't look up, but he didn't exactly need to - the sound of those dress shoes clacking across the floor was familiar, as was their carefully polished surface that came into view moments later. Zoro forced himself to raise his head, and there Sanji stood before him, holding a paper bag and a thermos. "I came to bring you breakfast, but I guess you're ready to go home, huh?"
"Come on, then," Sanji said, shifting the thermos under his arm so that he could pull Zoro up from the chair with one sudden surge of strength. Zoro swayed on his feet, though he steadied soon enough, and then started toward the door. After a moment, Sanji followed, but paused in the doorway to look at Smoker, a critical, angered look on his face that Zoro hadn't managed to spot before then. "Perhaps you should think a little more about working them so hard," he said.
Smoker grimaced as he chewed at his cigar. "Crime doesn't sleep."
"Neither do I when I have to sit up worrying about whether or not Zoro's gotten into something, and I'm sure Bellemere feels just the same about her," Sanji said, tilting his head toward Tashigi, whose cheeks were a tinge flushed. "And Ace probably worries for you, too. So just keep that in mind."
With that said, he seemed to be finished, and Smoker certainly had no reply. Sanji let out an irritable sigh and guided Zoro from the room, through the station, out onto the street, and toward the nearest stairs down into the subway. The ride home was quiet, uncrowded, and Zoro felt safe in resting his head against Sanji's shoulder, quickly drifting to sleep.
Of course he was awoken after far too short of a time, and then he had to coordinate himself enough to follow Sanji along the sidewalk, but they were home soon. There, the first order of business was to get some breakfast into his system, and as Zoro sleepily forked eggs into his mouth, Sanji kept him company by taking up the barstool next to him.
"So. Wanna tell me what that was all about?" he asked after a few minutes, when Zoro had slowed down on the shoveling of food into his mouth.
"You heard the phone call," said Zoro.
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean I know what you got up to after you left."
Zoro rolled his stiff shoulders back. This wasn't something he wanted to talk about; he'd been sitting at his desk for the past twelve hours, and what he desired most in the world at this moment was to fall into bed and sleep it off. A shower could wait, and in fact, breakfast could have waited, but Sanji had been very insistent upon it. Most of all, right now Zoro didn't want to have a discussion about how one of Sanji's fellow employees had been kidnapped, and he much prefered that it didn't come up until after it was all taken care of. "We did a lot of paperwork, talked to some witnesses, and compiled some evidence," he said carefully.
"Alright, let me rephrase this," said Sanji, and his voice was suddenly dangerous. "Do you want to tell me why I was awoken with a phone call at five in the morning from the Baratie's manager, wanting to know if I'd heard from Keimi? And furthermore, do you want to tell me why he called back a couple minutes after that, letting me know that one of her roommates saw her getting taken away?"
Zoro cleared his throat. "Nah, I pass."
"Too fucking bad!" Sanji yelled, so sudden in the stillness that Zoro was ashamed to admit he jumped. "I know her, so it's not like I'm being nosy about some random person, and you don't fucking get to pull this shitty silent act about my friends!"
With a sigh, Zoro nodded. "Alright. But can I please get some sleep first? I'm gonna black out at this rate."
Sanji softened in increments, the anger draining from his face. For the first time, Zoro noticed how incredibly disheveled and worried Sanji looked, which caused him to feel a little less scornful toward all the yelling. "Yeah. Maybe we both should," he said with a nod. And so they did.
It was late afternoon when they arose again. Zoro was used to it, but Sanji seemed incredibly disoriented, taking longer than an hour to really understand that they were in the same day, and that if he had coffee now, he'd be up all night.
With all of that confusion, Zoro was hoping that Sanji wouldn't remember about Keimi, but luck wasn't on his side - in fact, it was the first thing Sanji brought up when he was feeling more awake. He flopped down on the couch, kicking his feet up into Zoro's lap, and asked, "Okay, so what's happening?"
Zoro sighed, but decided it was best to just get it over with. "We talked to one of the roommates. He said she went down to take the trash out and then he heard a commotion. When he looked out there to see what was going on, she was being dragged away by some guys."
"Well why didn't her roommates help her?"
"Jesus, Sanji. Did you want him to jump out of the window and hopefully kill the guys by landing on them?"
Sanji grumbled, fingers picking distractedly at a hole in Zoro's sleep pants. "It might have helped."
"We're doing everything we can," Zoro said patiently.
"She's important to me as more than an employee, Zoro. You have to promise me that you're going to get her back," Sanji said, sounding distressed even as he tried to hide it under reason.
"Yeah. We're gonna get her back. I swear it."
That didn't seem to relax Sanji at all, but he nodded all the same. "Okay. Okay. Good. Who's working on it right now?"
"The rest of the station is on it, I'm sure their noses are to the grindstone."
That answer was yet again not enough for Sanji if the deepening of his frown was anything to go by. Zoro had to wonder if it was because he didn't trust the others to keep Zoro's promise, and felt strangely touched by the idea that Sanji put that much belief in him even as he felt irritated on the behalf of the other officers.
"When do you go back?" Sanji asked after a moment.
Zoro checked the clock with a sigh. "Five hours from now. Nine o'clock."
Sanji nodded again. "Okay. I'm gonna... I'll make you some snacks to keep you going through the night, and some more tea..." And with that, he wandered away into the kitchen, scrunching his hands through his hair fitfully.
Their remaining hours were spent with an invisible, barely-there fracture between them. It was obvious that Sanji was too worried to think of anything but Keimi, and Zoro didn't know what to say to make that anxiety go away. He knew that his only option was to get her back.
There was an unfamiliar face sitting at Zoro's desk - a pretty, clever face surrounded by masses of bubblegum pink hair. She was wearing a froofy dress and twirling a pair of sunglasses between her fingers, and while she waited for Zoro to get into the room, an eerily pleased smile warped her lips.
"Who are you and who the hell let you take my desk?" he asked warily.
"This is Perona," said Tashigi, brushing past him into the office. "Er. Remember the whole incident with the Shadowcutter? She's the one who took care of it. The FBI agent I was telling you about."
"I'm here to help out with the kidnappings, since you all aren't doing as well as we'd hoped," Perona said, and she had a high, girlish voice that seemed to fit her face perfectly, but wasn't at all what he'd expected.
"Right," said Zoro. "Because we haven't handled these things in the past."
"I don't know. Have you? Because as I've heard it told, Silvers Rayleigh came back on his own. How does it feel to be so incompetent that the kidnapping victim you're supposed to be rescuing got so fed up with waiting that he came back on his own?" Perona asked, with an honest to god giggle. She covered her mouth delicately, and when her hand came back down, her laughter had become a wicked smirk. "So yes, I'm here to handle it."
"Whatever. Get out of my chair."
Perona took her sweet time getting up, and brushed a chunk of long pink hair over her shoulder as she did so. "Let's get down to business, then. I want her back within the next twenty-"
But before she could finish her sentence, the phone rang on Zoro's desk. Since Tashigi was the closest, she cleared her throat and picked it up, tucking it between her ear and shoulder. "NYPD, this is Detective Yamaoroshi, how can I help you?"
There was quiet as the person on the other end spoke, and Tashigi's eyebrows creased together. "He's not in right now, can I get someone else for you?"
Yet again, quiet, and then Tashigi's mouth dropped open soundlessly. She gestured frantically at the phone, mouthing 'kidnapper.'
Zoro straightened up, and Perona strode over to Tashigi, leaning closer to the phone so that she could hear.
"Yes, I'm second in command here," Tashigi continued. "Yes. What are your conditions?"
Perona scratched down what she was hearing onto a piece of paper that was probably important to Zoro, but he found himself unable to be annoyed. There were other things to do - namely setting up a trace, which turned out to be unnecessary in the end, because apparently these were the kinds of fools who didn't even know how to hide their footsteps. He had to wonder how the hell they'd gotten the drop on Keimi in the first place.
It was a Ridgewood phone number, and Zoro rolled his eyes, pointing at the computer screen as Tashigi turned her gaze to him. "Found 'em," he whispered, and she smiled, continuing to listen to whatever the person on the other end was saying.
When they had finished, she cleared her throat. "That's all fine, but hear this. Next time you decide to kidnap someone and hold her for ransom while demanding that we lay off the investigation on whoever it is you're working for, you might at least want to hide your number from appearing on caller ID." She circled around the desk, bending down to look at the address on the screen, then sent it on to the precinct covering Ridgewood. "Fair warning, the station closest to you is already dispatching. In fact, they'll be there any minute now. If I were you, I'd start running. Because when I get there, you'll be getting another earful."
It was such a tame threat, Zoro had to cover his mouth to keep from letting the laughter out. He noticed that Perona did the same, and had to admit that he felt a little fondness for her at that.
"Yes. Thank you for your time," Tashigi said, and hung up, looking smug.
"Let's hit the road, then," Perona said.
The place they pulled up to some time later was an all-too-cliche abandoned warehouse, though at the moment, it was crawling with officers and EMTs. Perona and Tashigi didn't take long to join the fray, though Zoro was a bit more reluctant to do so and chose instead to make his way into the building.
It was empty, as he'd expected, but he clomped up and down the stairs several times, opening doors and traversing the length of each floor. By the time he reached the top, he'd gathered a posse of straggling officers who had offered their assistance. But there was no one that they could find, and when Zoro headed back downstairs, Perona and Tashigi had finished up and were waiting on him.
"She's fine," Perona said. "Lucky for you."
As if it was his fault in the first place. He gave her a disbelieving look, but thought better of starting something with her. "Where is she now?"
"Still with the EMTs. They think she's shocked," Tashigi said.
Zoro nodded, and headed toward the flashing lights of the ambulance, squeezing between cop cars and lingering officers. When he spotted her, she was being tended to by a couple of busybody medics, but she raised her hand in a wave when she saw him.
"Zoro!" she called.
"Hey," he said, pushing an EMT out of the way none too gently. The guy glared at him, but didn't fight it, and Zoro took the place he'd vacated. "You okay?"
"Yeah. They didn't hurt me or anything. I was just... scared."
He nodded. "I bet it's scary."
"It was really awful. They just... got the drop on me. I guess because I was listening to music on my phone the whole time, and wasn't paying enough attention." She let out a sniffle, and Zoro very firmly didn't look - perhaps it was because of his many years dealing with Kuina, who became very slap happy when she thought Zoro was seeing her at too emotional a level, but he was always cautious about looking at people when they were close to tears.
"That's not your fault though," he said. "You didn't let yourself get kidnapped. They did it to you."
She lifted a small hand out of the blanket wrapped around herself, and wiped her face quickly. "I'm okay though. I'm good."
"Sanji's worried about you."
"I'm fine," she repeated. "Everything's alright now."
"I believe you. Are you gonna be okay to go home tonight?"
"Yeah. Hatchan and Pappug are gonna come pick me up and then we're going back home."
"Good. I'm assuming Tashigi already got your statement?"
"She did. She's very sweet."
Zoro nodded awkwardly, not really knowing how to comment on that. "Uh huh. Well. I'm gonna sit with you until your roommates get here, and then we're going to head back to the station and look through what we've got. If I need anything else, would you be alright to talk about it?"
"Of course," she said. "Thank you."
And when her other hand snuck out of the blanket and gripped his arm tightly, he let her. This was something he could do; he wasn't good at words, but he could be there, and he could be solid.
Together, they waited quietly until her two roommates showed up. Zoro knew Hatchan on sight - a burly, older black guy that used to get into trouble a fair amount, but he owned a little takoyaki place that Zoro ate at occasionally, and he was a good enough sort. The short, scrawny Native kid with ginger hair that stood next to him was a stranger, though. Still, they took her into their fold, both of them carefully checking her over for any injuries, and after a few minutes of this ritual, they finally piled into a taxi and left.
Zoro stood and stretched his arms up, letting out a loud yawn. As he made his way back to Tashigi and Perona, the ambulances and police cars began filtering away, and soon, the tiny parking lot was practically empty. Not in the mood to stick around, the three of them climbed into the squad car, and as Tashigi started the engine, Zoro glanced back at the warehouse, feeling unease coil through his gut.
They'd never know it, but it was good that they left when they did. Because despite their efforts, searching high and low and being unable to find anyone, there was a person who could find those hiding. And when he found them, his worthless hirelings who had failed him yet again, he showed no mercy. They were dead before Zoro, Tashigi, and Perona had gotten four blocks away.
Sanji was asleep when Zoro got home, curled up on the bed without having even climbed beneath the sheets. He was dressed in his clothes from the previous evening - a pair of track pants and one of Zoro's ratty black t-shirts. Zoro smiled at him, reaching forward to brush a few strands of hair away from Sanji's closed eyes, then sat down on the edge of the bed to take his shoes off. A glance at the clock showed that it was early in the morning, but despite his mind feeling tired, his body seemed to be wide awake.
As if to taunt him, Sanji remained asleep. After a couple seconds of debate on whether or not to awaken him, Zoro leaned over and shook him a couple times until his eyes fluttered open.
"We got her back safe," Zoro said. "She went back home with Hatchan and Pappug."
"Good," Sanji sighed sleepily. "Did you catch the bastards who did it?"
"There was no one," Zoro said. "But there's a lot of evidence. They're probably figuring it out right now."
"Mm. Good." And with that, Sanji drifted right back to sleep, his tired drawl trailing off as he started breathing heavily again.
Zoro pressed a kiss to his cheek, feeling partially exasperated, but mostly glad that Sanji wouldn't have to worry anymore. He backed away from the bed and headed downstairs.
It didn't take long at all for his phone to start trilling once he'd gotten himself relaxed. His first thought was that it was work calling to let him know of yet another disaster, and he considered letting it ring through to voicemail, but in the end, duty won over irritation.
And anyway, the voice he heard on the other end didn't belong to anybody at work - it was Johnny.
"You never called back, bro!" he complained. "We're gonna be there at the end of the week."
"That gonna be a problem?"
"You're being kinda quiet. What's up?"
"I'm tired," said Zoro. "And in the middle of eating breakfast."
"My bad, I'll make it quick then. We'll be there on Friday at ten in the morning. Can you pick us up from the airport?"
"Sure," Zoro said, making a note on the pad of post-its sitting nearby. He paused, the niggling feeling that he had something to say tugging at the back of his mind, but since it didn't make itself known in any decent amount of time, he sighed and gave up. "See you then."
"Yeah, bro. Looking forward to seeing you again!"
"You too," said Zoro. "Bye." He hung up and put the phone down, finished off his sandwich, and thumped upstairs to finally climb into bed beside Sanji, settling himself around the warmth of him.
Instead of going to work at his regular time on Friday, Zoro had plans to pick Johnny and Yosaku up at ten, drop them at home, then head into work for a few hours, and finally come back home to Sanji. This, after all, was their routine now: every Friday, unless something truly important was going on for either of them, Sanji would come over to Zoro's house, and they'd spend the weekend together. Zoro had to admit that it was comfortable, and he was glad to not have to spend all of his time in Sanji's rather sterile apartment, while still getting to be with him.
And with his mind so full of Sanji as he stood waiting in the airport, he finally realized exactly what it was he'd forgotten to tell Johnny and Yosaku. Sanji. All of his effort was suddenly concentrated on not slamming his head against the nearest hard surface.
"Broooo!" came the battle cry of Johnny and Yosaku, and the next thing Zoro knew, he was engulfed in two sets of strong arms, dragged off the ground with the force of them.
"Hey," he wheezed as they squeezed even tighter. "Put me down, idiots."
They dropped him back to the floor, wide smiles on their faces, and even as Zoro dwelled upon their inevitable reactions, he found himself smiling just as widely.
"C'mon," he said, turning toward the exit. "I gotta get over to work before too long."
They caught up on either side of him, bags banging against him, and made their way through the crowds of people in the airport. Their chatter was about the usual things - work, bands, their cats, people that Zoro used to know back in Maryland - and it lulled him into a sense of ease as they loaded up a taxi and rode back to Zoro's house.
But once he'd set them up in one of the third floor bedrooms that was mostly used for storage, he knew he had to bring it up. Clearing his throat, he quirked his mouth to the side, then grumbled with irritation. "Eat whatever you want in the fridge, use anything you need in the shower, watch as much pay-per-view porn as you like, I don't care what you do today. But... listen. Whatever or... whoever you see tonight, promise me you won't act like jackasses."
"Yeah, definitely," Yosaku said. "Any friend of our bro's is a friend of ours!"
Zoro let out a grim laugh and headed for the door. "I'm going to hold you to that."
It couldn't be that bad, really, could it? It was a long time ago now; Zoro had been able to move past it, and he had bore the worst of that situation. Anyway, they'd be able to see how happy Sanji made him now. He told himself these things as he rode the subway to work, and was in a cautiously optimistic mood as he walked into his office.
Perona was sat at his desk, just as she had been for several previous days, and he felt his mood drop instantly just from seeing her face.
"Hey," she said, smiling at him. There was something about it that seemed teasing rather than friendly, and it had a habit of putting him on the defensive. "So we got a call from the family of one of our kidnapping suspects. He hasn't been home in the past week; that makes the fourth and last one. Once again, they've all been wiped out. Deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole."
"Don't you have anywhere else to be?" Zoro asked. "Your job's gotta be pretty important, after all."
"Yeah," she said, grin twitching up just enough to make him want to snarl at her. "But it's so much more fun to bother you."
"I bet," he said, dropping his keys and phone on the desk. "Great. So once again, we're without suspects, and nowhere to go to stop this."
"This is getting ridiculous," said Tashigi as she walked into the office, eating out of a styrofoam container between words. "There has to be a way to stop this. Have you heard from Shakky yet?"
"Uh, no. Was I supposed to?"
"Remember? She said she was going to talk to the Snake Princess and see if she could get us in."
"Oh. I'll call her this afternoon," Zoro said.
"Thanks." Tashigi smiled at him, and from her, it was comforting and grateful rather than unsettling. Almost enough to make him feel better about wasting his life waiting for a solution to present itself.
Despite regaining and maintaining his optimism throughout the day, it drained away when he got home that evening. The house was suspiciously silent. He dropped his keys on the side table and trailed into the living room, where a stalemate seemed to be taking place between Johnny, Yosaku, and Sanji.
"Getting acquainted, I see," he said.
Sanji's gaze snapped over to Zoro's, an angry frown marring his lips. "You didn't tell them," he accused.
"What the fuck is he doing here?" Yosaku asked. He jabbed his index finger in Sanji's direction with an unnecessary amount of force, and Sanji looked like he was a step away from kicking it clean off his hand.
"I already told you what I'm doing here, idiot."
"And I told you I don't fucking believe it. There's no way he'd be fool enough to take your lying ass back after you broke his heart!" Yosaku yelled.
Johnny sighed noisily. "Both of you stop yelling. I'm sure there's some kind of reason for this. Maybe Zoro just doesn't realize he's Sanji? Amnesia? Temporary insanity?"
"I know who he is," Zoro said. "He's Sanji Black. Childhood enemy extraordinaire. I'm aware."
"Also, we've been dating for six months with no problems," Sanji deadpanned, the glare still on his face. "I think he's had enough time to decide whether or not it was a good decision."
Yosaku fell back into the couch and threw his hands up in disbelief. "Why? Why, Zoro?!"
"Because I like him," Zoro said simply.
Sanji beamed up at him, looking something besides cornered for the first time since Zoro walked in the door. "Hey. I like you too."
Zoro smiled dopily back, to which Yosaku made an outraged noise. "I can't believe this!"
"Shut up, or you aren't getting any dinner tonight," Sanji said, and the twin whines of submission that Johnny and Yosaku let out were enough to assure Zoro that he could leave them under Sanji's watch for a little while longer.
Still, he hurried through his shower. There was something that made him nervous about leaving Sanji alone with the two people who best knew how he had felt for Sanji all those years ago. And Sanji's current presence in his life felt incriminating enough without them commenting on it. He didn't know how to show them that he really loved Sanji without letting Sanji see it, and at the same time, he wasn't sure why he thought he had to prove anything to them.
After leaving the bathroom, he sat quietly on the bed, towel wrapped around his waist as he stared silently and unseeingly in front of himself. It was only the sound of his phone ringing that drew him out of his revery, and he barely bothered to check the caller ID before picking up.
The scream of his name caused him to recoil in shock. "... Luffy. What do you want?"
"Next Friday's my championship fight! You're gonna come, aren't you?"
"Yeah," Zoro said. "If you can get tickets to us by then."
"Mn, I'll talk to Nami about it. But no matter what, you better be there!"
"Geez, fine, we'll be there."
"Right! Good. Bye then!" There was a tinny screech as Luffy slammed the phone down, and Zoro winced, then sighed.
Talking to Luffy on the phone was always strange and disjointed, and this call had been no different, but it left him feeling a little bit better than he had - or at least a bit more distracted from all the things that were piling up on top of him.
After putting on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt, he padded down the stairs and into the kitchen. Sanji was at the counter, chopping up tomatoes and onions, and Zoro crossed the room only to come to a hesitant stop behind him. He was aware of the lack of noise from the living room and of the presence of people who weren't them in the house, but in the end he wrapped his arms around Sanji's waist, resting his lips against the bony point of one shoulder.
"Sorry about whatever that was," he said.
"I expected it, I guess," said Sanji, peeling off leaves from a head of lettuce. "It's fine. Not like you're going to stop dating me because of them, right?"
"Nah," Zoro said. "I don't need their approval."
"I know," Sanji sighed. It almost seemed like there was some sadness in it, but Zoro wasn't going to assume that. Most likely, it was irritation. "Go check on the burgers, will you?"
"Sure," Zoro said. He stepped away from Sanji's tensed form, wishing suddenly that he'd been more considerate, that he'd cleared this up with Johnny and Yosaku beforehand. They were his friends, but Sanji was... He was Sanji, the one who'd gotten away but come back. He was Zoro's equal, the one that Zoro thought about more often than he thought about booze and sleep. And he was someone that Zoro didn't think he could bear to lose even one more time. He wanted Sanji to be happy, didn't want to see him sad and cornered by anyone, let alone by people who Zoro counted as friends.
Distractedly, he slipped out onto the back stoop. The stray cat was sitting on the railing, its bright eyes lazily tracking Zoro as he moved the short distance to the grill. He stared back at it, lifted a hand warily, and when the cat remained in place, gingerly stroked over fur that was gritty with dirt. After a few seconds, its eyes fell shut and a persistent hum rumbled through its chest.
He smiled, petting it a few moments longer before he checked the burgers, though he had no idea what he was supposed to be looking for in them. At the very least, he could tell they weren't burning, and that was good enough for him.
When the door opened behind him, Zoro supposed he'd been lingering too long. He turned, ready to see Sanji, but paused upon finding Johnny instead.
"Hey," said Johnny.
"Hey," Zoro replied cautiously.
"I'm not here to yell at you or question your decisions or anything."
"I just... it's not like before, is it? Because I don't want you to go through that again."
"It's not like before," Zoro confirmed. "He's changed. We've both changed."
"Are you in love with him?" Johnny asked.
"Yes." And it was a simple confirmation, but it was the first time he'd spoken it aloud, and a combination of fear and happiness crept through his chest. He knew he'd loved Sanji for a very long time, and he'd been in love with him once, many years in the past. But that hadn't really come back when they met again. This love was something formed anew, replacing the broken, cracked shell of his old love for Sanji. The new love was pleasing, comforting. Genuine. "I'm in love with him."
"Is he in love with you?"
"I'm not sure."
Johnny shrugged, and his mouth quirked to the side in a depreciative smile. "Well, what can you do? As long as he treats you well, then I'm happy. I'll try to keep Yosaku from shitting himself over all this."
The door opened again, and this time it was Sanji who stepped out, already lighting a cigarette. He glanced distrustfully toward Johnny before taking the spatula from Zoro and flipping the burgers. Even when that was done and he'd put the spatula back on the side of the grill, he stood hunched and reluctant to turn around, puffing on his cigarette like it was his lifeline.
"I don't forgive you, you know," said Johnny. "But it's good to see you again."
"You too," said Sanji guardedly as he turned around.
"And thanks for taking care of our bro for us."
"It's no problem."
Johnny nodded and reached out a hand, and though it took Sanji a few moments as he stared at it, he finally accepted the handshake. The smile on his face was restrained, but he appeared to be relieved, and when they headed back inside with a plate full of hamburgers, there were no small, barbed words between them.
Of course, that didn't account for Yosaku, who was still a nuisance filled with dissatisfaction. For a while, dinner was fairly awkward, at least until Zoro got out the booze, and then he seemed to completely forget about his desire to be rude to Sanji.
That night, everyone went to bed equal parts tipsy and full, and when Sanji and Zoro were finally alone in his bedroom, it was easy to pull each other close.
"I'm not sure it was a good idea letting them come up here," Zoro sighed.
Sanji smiled against his neck, then moved his mouth up to tug lightly at one of Zoro's earrings with his teeth. "It's not so bad. You know I can kick their asses if they get any worse."
Zoro laughed as his fingers worked to unbutton Sanji's shirt. He pushed it off of narrow shoulders and onto the floor, and Sanji tugged Zoro's shirt up and off of him. The rhythm as they undressed each other was unhurried, and silently, they got into bed together. There were kisses passed back and forth, and when the natural line of progression ended at sex, they didn't back away for their guests' sake, but were quiet and careful, breath held for more than the sound of feet on the stairs.
Sanji was out of bed before Zoro the next morning, and Zoro was perfectly fine with that. It meant he didn't have to listen to Sanji nagging him to get up, but soon, he remembered that they had guests who weren't exactly on the best of terms with Sanji, so he hopped out from under the covers in a hurry, nearly tripping down the stairs in his haste.
The shock he felt upon seeing that Johnny and Sanji were perfectly peaceful together in the kitchen might have showed on his face. He approached with care, all the while alternating between watching Sanji flip pancakes and Johnny mixing whipped cream in a bowl. They treated him to two practically identical grins as he slumped onto a barstool, and Sanji passed him a mug of tea, flashing him a fond, more private smile before turning back to the sizzling pan.
Zoro took his time sipping at it, admittedly confused at seeing just how well the two of them were getting along, even taking into consideration their tentative truce. With all the chatter between them, one would have thought that Zoro was the odd one out.
"It'll be ready in a few minutes," said Sanji a while later. "If you want to go wake Yosaku up."
"Mm." Zoro forced himself off the stool and back upstairs to the spare room, where Yosaku was sprawled half out of his futon, face mashed into the rug.
Zoro nudged him in the side with one foot, and slowly, Yosaku turned onto his back. "Mnhgwhat?"
Yosaku sat up, scratching the stubble on his head, and let out a long groan as he forced himself to stand. Knowing Yosaku's usual dress habits, Zoro was overwhelmingly grateful that he'd even bothered to wear a pair of boxers to sleep, and he only got gladder when Yosaku layered on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt.
But then he turned to leave the room, and Zoro knew he had to nip this attitude in the bud. "Hold on."
"Stop being an asshole to Sanji. I'm not gonna deal with you disrespecting him when you're staying under my roof."
Yosaku frowned. "He's got you whipped," he said, unimpressed, and walked out of the room.
Zoro didn't follow after him immediately. He leaned against the wall, scrubbing a hand through his hair in annoyance. Yosaku probably thought it was for Zoro's own good, but Zoro was already so fed up with this stubborn behavior that it'd take a miracle for either of them to make it through the end of the week alive.
Nevertheless, they managed to get through the majority of Saturday without incident. Most of the day was spent at the park, Johnny and Yosaku playing a game of frisbee while Sanji and Zoro sat on a blanket making fun of them. There was a picnic for lunch, and they nibbled on it throughout the afternoon, then went to an Italian place for dinner, which Johnny and Yosaku paid for in thanks for letting them stay over (though Yosaku did try to skip out on paying Sanji's portion of the bill). At the very end of the night, they stopped by a bar and had a couple drinks, then headed back to Zoro's, and settled in for the night.
Zoro was getting comfortable with the assumption that Yosaku had actually listened to him after all, and that these little reluctances were simply playful jabs. Making it through Saturday, and then most of Sunday, it felt like he'd made it home free, and as they sat down at the dining room table to eat dinner, he was in high spirits. So of course that would be just when his assumption decided to come around and bite him in the ass.
"How many pieces of tilapia?" Sanji was asking Yosaku.
"I'll get it myself."
"Okay," Sanji said. "Do you want green beans?"
"I can get it."
"Right." Sanji rolled his eyes and gestured to the spread of food on the table as he took his seat. "Have at it."
"Can I get a new spoon, actually? I don't want your germs in my food. Oh, wait. Too late."
Johnny shot him a sharp look, but he didn't back down.
"Fairly sure I told you to stop fucking with him," Zoro said.
"Kinda hard to stop doing that when he won't stop fucking with me."
"He's done nothing to you the whole weekend," Johnny said. "Really, he's been far better to you than he should have been."
"Yeah, well, he should have stayed home," said Yosaku.
"You're acting like a fucking brat," Zoro said, truly and completely fed up. "You weren't involved in anything that was between us before this. You just think acting all pissed at him makes you look good to me, when in reality, it's making you look like a fucking asshole who can't let shit go."
"Well excuse me for standing up to him since you so obviously won't, because you're whipped!"
Throughout all of this, Sanji had been uncharacteristically quiet, watching them with a mild look on his face. But now he spoke up. "Look, I honestly don't give a shit if you want to act like an asshole to me when Zoro's not around," he said, very calmly but very firmly. "I understand that what I did was wrong, and you're free to hate me for it. I'll be the first to admit that it was a terrible thing, but I regret it every single day. And your constant hostility while he's in the room is about the shittiest thing you can do to him, because he decided to take a chance on me despite that. He decided that I was worth it, and you acting like your opinion is more important than his happiness is not helpful or supportive to him. Anyway, there's only two opinions that matter in this relationship, neither of which are yours, so please grow up and stop acting like some petulant child who can't accept that they're not right."
Yosaku seemed to be speechless, but Sanji just stared silently back at him, visible eyebrow raised as he waited for it to sink it.
"Well," said Johnny, breaking the silence. "If that doesn't do it, I don't think anything will."
And the best part was that it really seemed to do the trick, because when Sanji went to have his post-dinner cigarette, instead of the entirely too conspicuous trade-off of the back stoop, Yosaku went out with him. Zoro kept an eye out, expecting to hear them fighting, but it never happened, and fifteen minutes later, they came in, laughing at something together. For the first time all weekend, Sanji's shoulders were completely relaxed and Yosaku had stopped giving him that cruel look.
Kuina wanted to meet Zoro for lunch the next day, which he was happy to oblige, not least of all because the station had been quiet and boring for the majority of the morning.
But she was late. He had already been seated for several minutes by the time she showed up, time which he had filled by texting Sanji.
"Sorry, my class ran over so I was late getting cleaned up," she said as she slid into the booth with him. "Have you ordered already?"
"I just got us drinks."
"You didn't get beer, did you? I'm feeling a little queasy."
"Okay. Good. So what's up?" she asked, unfolding her menu and beginning to scan through it.
"Johnny and Yosaku are visiting," he said.
"Cool, cool. How's that going?"
"Well, Yosaku kept starting shit with Sanji over the weekend, but I guess it's been alright other than that."
They were interrupted by the waiter coming back to get their orders (hot pot for Kuina, cơm tấm for Zoro), and then Zoro took a sip of water before continuing. "Uh, you remember how, after I came back from visiting Sanji before he moved, I told you I kissed him and he was mad at me for it? That... wasn't really the whole of it."
"I kinda knew something had gone down," she said, shrugging. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, though."
"It, uh. I... We kinda... had a thing going. I told him I loved him and he didn't feel the same way, and I guess Yosaku was still mad about it."
"What, he's mad because Sanji didn't love you back?" she asked dubiously. "That's kinda lame of him."
"Well, it's probably not so much over the fact that he didn't love me back as the way he handled it?" Zoro said, as if questioning himself.
"Oh. Sanji didn't take it well, I guess that makes sense. So he must've said some pretty bad things to you?" Kuina asked. Concern had overtaken her face, but Zoro didn't want it.
"You know how he was with the macho act back then, but it wasn't anything I couldn't handle. He's grown out of it."
"Ah, so it's just Yosaku who hasn't."
He shrugged his shoulders, not really wanting to badmouth one of his best friends, but also not wanting her to get the idea that he was on Yosaku's side rather than Sanji's. As he tried to come up with an appropriate response, the waiter approached again and placed their meals down in front of them. When he stepped away, Zoro spoke. "Anyway, I think they settled it, so I'm not so bothered about it anymore."
"That's good. How long are they staying?"
"Maybe we can all get together sometime before then. It'd be nice to see them again."
Zoro snorted. Kuina had been Johnny and Yosaku's main tormentor during childhood, always besting them during practice and lording it over them, which she had done to Zoro too, but with less gloating and bragging. She'd made them cry a fair few times, and he had no doubts that she could still do it. "Yeah, I'll see," he said.
And finally, conversation was set aside in favor of food. He enjoyed meals with Kuina, because she understood the importance of eating over talking. Or perhaps that was just the sibling bond that kept them close enough with each other that they really didn't need to keep up with small talk.
When they'd finished and paid the bill, stepping out onto the sidewalk, Kuina pulled Zoro down into a strong hug. "You're okay, right?" she asked. "No more dreams or anything?"
"... Not lately," he said.
"Okay. I don't want to have to get Sanji to call me every time you wake up from a nightmare."
His body must have stiffened, because she pulled back a little and looked up at him, eyes staring hard into his. "You have told him, haven't you?"
He said nothing, and her eyebrows creased, mouth turning down. "Don't tell him," he pleaded.
"Are you ever going to tell him?"
"I will when I feel like I can."
She pursed her lips, and he prepared to be scolded by her, but she just shrugged helplessly in the end. "Okay, fine. It's your business anyway."
"Yeah, yeah. I'll call you later in the week, okay? Take care of yourself. Don't let Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee get you into too much trouble."
He nodded, waving at her as she turned and walked away, and he headed off in the opposite direction.
It was strange, but he always seemed to feel much more calm after seeing her in the flesh, and that carried over throughout his day. Even when he had to meet Nami in Manhattan to get the tickets for Luffy's final match, he didn't feel all that bothered about the inconvenience. It all faded into the background, and he felt lucky that something could even manage that these days.
Wednesday came all too soon, and because Zoro felt bad about spending more time angry with one or both of them than he'd wanted to, he took Johnny and Yosaku to the Baratie for lunch before they had to catch their flight back to Maryland. The restaurant was crowded as always when they entered, but Keimi smiled at him and pointed them back to the usual booth, and within minutes Nojiko had taken their drink orders.
After that, it didn't take long for Sanji to come out of the kitchen, stripping out of his chef's jacket and scooting into the booth beside Zoro. When he greeted the table at large, there was tiredness in his voice. Zoro's fingertips touched the warm, strong thigh that was closest to him under the cover of the table, squeezing tension from the muscles.
"If you're out here, does that mean you're not going to cook for us one more time?" Yosaku asked. "But that was the best part of being here."
"Sorry. The old man might cook for you though."
"What's good?" Johnny asked as he squinted at the menu.
"Everything," said Zoro.
"Any actual suggestions?"
"The beef brisket is good," Sanji said. "As are the burgers and the steak, but those are all obvious choices. I'd suggest the roasted pheasant or the spicy shrimp pasta."
Yosaku hummed softly and folded his menu up, placing it back on the table. "Shrimp sounds good. Haven't had any decent seafood in a while."
Sanji rolled his eyes. "At least you live where most seafood is bound to be decent. I miss crab cakes."
"You guys should come back to Maryland sometime. Make all the crab cakes you want," said Yosaku.
Johnny narrowed his eyes accusingly. "You only say that because you want him to cook for you."
Yosaku looked bashful, but not a single bit apologetic. "He's a good cook."
"That he is," said Nojiko as she came back to take their orders. "Too bad he's not making lunch for me today."
"I told you I would!" Sanji said. His thigh tensed under Zoro's touch, as if he were about to stand, but Zoro pressed him back down.
"Nah, it's alright," she replied with a smile. "You deserve the break. What can I get for y'all?"
They took their turns ordering; in the end, they went for variations on pasta and pheasant, except for Zoro, who stuck with his time-honored tradition of steak. Nojiko didn't even tease, but wrote it with a flourish and left with a smile.
"So, back home today?" Sanji asked, turning once more to Johnny and Yosaku.
"Yeah. We wish we could have stayed longer but Yosaku doesn't like leaving the cats alone for too long," Johnny said.
"Yeah. They're pretty good at taking care of themselves, but trips longer than a week make him feel bad," he continued. Yosaku scowled and crossed his arms, muttering about how he was clearly the better cat-dad between the two of them.
"Why don't you just get somebody to catsit?" Zoro asked, only mildly interested in the conversation that was taking place.
"Yeah, like we're gonna let anybody from that town watch our house. Half of them would steal all the stuff and the rest would report it as illegal contraband."
"Yes, because it's not like the centerpiece of your living room is a bong. Oh, wait, it is," said Zoro.
"Gonna arrest us?" Johnny asked with a grin.
Zoro shook his head. "I don't care what you do. It's not like I have any authority in Maryland anyway."
"What if we came and took care of your cats for you sometime?" Sanji interrupted.
Zoro whipped his head to the side, wondering what the hell Sanji was up to. Taking a week in Maryland to catsit didn't sound like any kind of fun, and he was surprised that Sanji would suggest it. By this point though, it was plain and obvious that Sanji had a soft spot for cats, what with the stray he was always petting and feeding whenever he was over at Zoro's.
"Aw, would you do that, bro? That'd be so awesome!" said Yosaku.
"Yeah, I wouldn't mind doing it if Zoro's okay with it."
Zoro raised an eyebrow, attempting to start a communication with Sanji via intense staring, but he got nowhere with it. "I guess. If that's what you want."
"You guys are the best!" Johnny said. "Aw man, that'll be awesome. We'll have to figure something out. Give us your number, Sanji."
Sanji bit his lip, trying to hold back the smile that was slowly overtaking his face. "Okay," he said, and entered it into the phone that was passed to him before handing it back.
Between all the talking, it took them close to an hour to finish lunch once it came. It was good though, both to see everyone getting along again, and to get to spend time with Johnny and Yosaku without them overly focused on Sanji.
When at last they were done, Sanji was engulfed in a hug by Johnny and Yosaku, and they rocked him back and forth between them. Despite his annoyed protests, he looked pleased when they pulled away from him, and when it came time to say goodbye, he even promised to keep in touch.
Then, as Johnny and Yosaku headed outside to hail a cab, Zoro leaned in to press a couple kisses to Sanji's lips. "See you on Friday?" he asked.
"Yeah. I'll talk to you tonight."
"Okay." Zoro turned and was about to walk away when Sanji called out for him one more time.
"Hey, I like you!"
"I like you too," said Zoro, and he pressed out of the crowded restaurant onto the street, where Johnny and Yosaku were loading up their luggage.
Soon they were all securely inside, headed to the airport. There was a reverent silence in the car that even those two fools knew better than to interrupt, one in which Zoro realized that they had to do this kind of thing more often. It wasn't right that he only saw them once a year if he was lucky, and now that the whole Sanji ordeal was cleared up, he even found himself looking forward to the prospect.
It felt like they arrived before he could even blink, and Zoro's legs were heavy as he got out to help them. The goodbye they shared on the sidewalk was nowhere even close to the one he and Sanji had shared all those months ago, but Johnny and Yosaku were definitely trying to match it for emotion, crying all over him about not wanting to go.
"I'll call you soon, okay?" he said, patting each of them on the back.
"Bro! We don't wanna leave!"
"Go home and take care of your cats, they probably miss you."
They continued to sob on him, and only let go when they absolutely had to. He left, feeling strangely unbalanced.
The energy in Madison Square Garden on Friday night was like a fire, bursting up, catching on anything it laid its embers upon. People were shouting, screaming, waving their banners as frantically as they could. The noise as Luffy and Hannyabal were brought out was deafening, and it crescendoed, echoing long after they were stood in their opposite corners.
But by the time the referee drew them in, there was silence. Every single person in the room seemed to hold their breath, Zoro and Sanji among them.
Luffy's face looked so determined, even from this distance. Zoro knew how much training went into this, knew how much blood, sweat, and tears had led to this moment in Luffy's life. He had to admit that he wanted to be far more involved in helping Luffy get there, but it was satisfying enough to even see him standing where he was, ready to win.
It wasn't just satisfying for Luffy when he went in, swinging that first punch. It was satisfying for Zoro and Sanji, for Franky and Robin, for Nami, for Chopper, Brook, and Usopp. The idea that they were about to watch Luffy take the next step on his way to becoming the world's best boxer was as humbling and gratifying as almost anything any of them had ever encountered.
And that first swing of the fist was beautiful. It whistled through the air, landing solidly in Hannyabal's gut, driving the air out of him. He didn't go down, but it was close, and that was exactly how the whole first round went - the two of them in tight to each other, determined and hardened, neither of them allowing themselves to be pushed down an inch.
It was a tense round, as was the second. Hannyabal was a large, lumbering man, with a sharply protruding browbone that shaded his small eyes. But despite his size, he balanced his power incredibly well, and was very capable of withstanding Luffy's blows. His stance was the strangest thing Zoro had ever seen, moving like a pendulum rather than a spring, his arms moving in such a way that he was almost always guarding himself and forcing Luffy back at the same time.
It definitely looked to be Luffy's hardest fight yet. Zoro could understand why Hannyabal was the reigning champion, but he also had the utmost faith that Luffy was going to blow it out of the park. If anybody was capable of a miracle here, it was him.
Not until the fourth round did Luffy actually manage to knock Hannyabal down. Even though he was back up before the count had ended, Luffy looked ready to end it, only Hannyabal was back, and more serious than ever. His guard was tighter, his form more solid. And Luffy knocked him down again, and still he got back up, but didn't send a punch.
So it seemed to keep happening, even as the fourth round ended, then the fifth. Luffy never wavered though. He seemed to get more and more annoyed, of course, but not once did he seem to lose faith in himself or his ability.
When the bell rang to signal the end of the sixth round, he went back to his corner, just like he had for the five previous, and he drank from his water bottle and let Saul towel him off quickly, and all the while, his face stayed set in a mask of battle. And when the bell rang to signal the beginning of the seventh round, he stood, back straight and strong, and walked forward to meet Hannyabal.
It was at this time that a large shadow fell over Sanji and Zoro, and the sound of footsteps could be heard even through the din of yells. Zoro turned his head to look, and found himself confused at what he was seeing.
Throughout the course of the fight, he had not bothered to look for any of the regulars in the stands around them, not "Hammock" standing far above them, nor the gargantuan, dark-haired man sitting directly behind them. And now that giant of a man was walking down the steps toward the center of the arena, where the ring lay. Security rushed forward to move him back, but he couldn't be stopped, not as he came to the bottom of the stairs, nor as he pulled himself up into the ring. Even Luffy stood speechless as the man drew back one massive, meaty fist, and slammed it right into Hannyabal's chest.
When he went down, he did not get back up. The entire building was silent in shock, so when the man spoke, everyone heard each syllable perfectly.
No one reacted. It seemed like every mouth was dropped in confusion.
"You can't hit him, but you won't let yourself get knocked out either. Pitiful," he continued, gazing down at the unconscious Hannyabal laying still by his feet.
The referee finally seemed to come back to life, and he rushed forward, trying to push the man out of the ring to no effect.
"It's pitiful, don't you agree, Monkey D. Luffy?" the man said, addressing Luffy now.
Luffy, whose teeth had slowly clenched themselves, whose fists had balled up at his sides, whose stance hadn't dropped a single inch, looked as if someone had put dinner in front of him only to snatch it away. "What's pitiful?"
"He only defends, never strikes. That's pitiful."
"You took my belt."
"I don't need your belt. I'm already a champion."
"And I already know who you are, Marshall D. Teach," Luffy said.
Teach smiled slowly, revealing a mouth that had only half as many teeth as it should've had. "Good. Then I want you to do me a favor." He paused for a few moments, then continued upon realizing that Luffy had no plans to say anything. "Up your weight class. Become a heavyweight and defeat me."
Luffy gritted his teeth harder and shook his head. "This was my belt!"
"You said you'd become the best, didn't you? Prove it to me." And with that, he left the ring and walked up the stairs with no interference from anyone, pushing through the double doors and out into the lobby.
The crowd erupted in chaos and anger, but Zoro's eyes were glued to Luffy. He still looked like he wanted to punch the hell out of somebody, and at the same moment, there was an even greater determination overtaking him.
"Calm down! Calm down!" a voice screamed through the speakers. "We'll make a decision now!"
The crowd quieted only a little as the referee and the judges conferred, and when they pulled apart, decision made, it went entirely silent.
"The victor is Monkey D. Luffy, for delivering twelve knockdowns and taking none!" the announcer called out.
Zoro's row screamed and cheered of happiness, but Zoro and Sanji stayed silent, because they were the only ones who saw that there was genuine anger in Luffy's eyes. He didn't look happy that he was now the reigning middleweight champion. In fact, he looked downright furious that he hadn't gotten to finish the fight honestly. And both of them understood that fact.
The crowd continued to go wild, chanting about their champion.
And there Luffy stood. A lone, miserable man, defeated despite his victory.