The marimo was still unconscious.

Of course he fucking was, it hadn't even been a whole day since that shitty Kuma bastard practically destroyed him.

Fuck.

Sanji could handle blood. He got roughed up quite a few times, and he was more than used to seeing the stupid ass swordsman standing in a puddle of his own goddamn blood. Collectively, the crew had probably lost enough pints of blood to potentially pump back into that idiot's body and have him half filled again.

He could handle blood. It was fine.

But… fuck. When he'd woken up, he hadn't even had time for confusion and disorientation; he jerked up, immediately seeking out that fucking green hair, but it was all a blur of bandages and red scrapes and rubble. He felt like he was going to be sick because – shit. He had been so ready to die back there. He'd dragged himself up onto his aching legs, felt his heart hammering in his chest, and remembered the damn old geezer as he walked towards what felt like death row. He recalled apologising in his head to Zeff and the rest of the guys back at the Baratie for not proving their shitty asses wrong, for not being able to cook them something from the All Blue. He'd lamented that he'd never been able to kiss Nami or hug Robin. He'd fucking grieved over the fact that he'd never see Luffy realise his dream, and that Sanji wouldn't be right beside him when he did.

He was nowhere near ready to die, but he'd been willing. He'd stood in front of the shitty swordsman, ashamed that he was shaking from pain when that guy was probably even worse off at that point, and he was willing to fucking die for him. When had he ever… ever started to give a damn about the guy? Enough to sacrifice his own life for his? He consoled himself, knowing he would have done it for any one of the crew, and that it was ultimately for Luffy.

But… even knowing that… it had been that damn marimo.

The same one who was unconscious right now, practically drowning in bandages. He looked a hell of a lot better than when Sanji had found him slathered in his own blood. He'd been… Okay, he'd been fucking scared, all right? Even that damn swordsman had never been that injured, and – shit, he had been utterly still, arms folded and gaze steely as if he could fight against that insurmountable pain. Sanji, in that moment, had never felt weaker. He'd been trembling before, and here Zoro was – just standing, blood dripping from every orifice of his body, saying nothing fucking happened.

"Damn it," he hissed out loud, but it was nearly inaudible with the sound of everyone's cheering in the background. He flicked his lighter repeatedly, but his hands were trembling and it wouldn't work. He clamped the cigarette between his teeth, practically grinding them together, and then flung the lighter aside, burying his face in his arms as he drew his knees up to his chest.

Just – just who the hell did that bastard think he was? How dare he knock Sanji unconscious and just take on the full brunt of that Kuma's ridiculous powers?

But as much as Sanji kept cursing at the damn marimo in his head, all he could think about, underneath it all, was how useless he'd been. Knocked out by one fucking hit from Zoro, of all people! He – he should have fought it, should have hung on long enough to knock him out instead, so that he could be the one to…

"Sanji?"

He twitched perceptibly, jerking his gaze up to meet the concerned eyes of Chopper. He tried to mask his reaction by fumbling for his lighter, laughing half-heartedly. "Ah, shit. I guess I dropped it. Must've drunk too much, huh?" he mumbled, inwardly cursing at himself for sounding so strained. Forcing his hands to steady, he again tried to light his cigarette, gritting his teeth again when he just couldn't fucking do it. Damn it. Damn it, damn it

Chopper's little hooves covered his hands and Sanji stared at them, unwilling to meet his gaze at the moment. He probably looked pathetic, wracking with tremors, unable to even light a goddamn cigarette. His neck kept prickling like everyone was looking at him, judging him for not being able to help Zoro. He knew it wasn't true, though, because nobody but Brooke saw what happened. He was just being paranoid and self-centred. What kind of person was he, worrying about people's opinions of him when he was sitting beside someone who was half dead?

"Sanji, you have to calm down," said Chopper softly, sounding a little more like an authoritative doctor than a scared little kid now. It was probably Sanji himself who looked like a frightened child right now, huh? "You look like you're going to have a panic attack." Chopper seemed conflicted for a moment, eyeing Sanji's cigarette, and then he sighed, grabbing the lighter and igniting it. Sanji instinctively inhaled, feeling somewhat relieved by the smoke filling his lungs. He watched tendrils of it fly away, and the soft movement soothed his heart a little. He risked glancing up, but averted his gaze again when he saw the disapproval in Chopper's eyes. Shit, he was probably disappointed in him. He wanted to say sorry, but somehow the word wouldn't leave his lips. It always felt like it got stuck in his throat, choked down by pride and embarrassment.

"Thanks," he said instead, and it sounded so… weak.

"I wish you wouldn't smoke so much, Sanji," Chopper said, shuffling over to inspect Zoro. "But you looked like you were going to have a nervous breakdown. I know smoking calms you, but…"

Ah, that's what it was. Damn it, of course it was; nobody knew about what happened. He shouldn't be so edgy. It probably seemed suspicious. But… he felt kind of ashamed of hiding what had happened. He had meant it when he spoke to those guys before: Luffy would probably blame himself for that damn marimo's stupid self-sacrifice. He knew that to be true. But – but it was also partly because… because he didn't want the crew to hate him for not doing more. He didn't want to seem so weak as to be unable to protect his nakama from getting so hurt.

Chopper looked up from Zoro's bandaged chest, frowning at Sanji's bowed head. Sanji knew what happened, it was obvious, but it was even more evident that he didn't want to tell anybody. He was obviously hiding something – or maybe a few things – and it was eating away at him. He seemed guilty, for some reason, but Chopper couldn't understand why; Sanji hadn't been the one to hurt Zoro, it had been that terrifyingly huge Kuma. But just moments ago, Sanji had been shaking like a leaf, eyes wide, fists clenched, and he seemed… petrified.

But all of Sanji's physical wounds were treated, and Chopper wasn't sure how to help him with what appeared to be severe anxiety. He wasn't sure exactly what was wrong, and he didn't want to give Sanji any medication when he didn't know what was happening. More than that, he didn't know how to talk to Sanji about this at all. Still, he had to try…

"Zoro's fine," he said, but Sanji didn't react. "These will probably take a few weeks – possibly a couple of months – to heal, but he's no longer in immediate danger. As long as he doesn't train too much as soon as he wakes up…" he mumbled. Someone would have to keep an eye on that. Shaking his head, he glanced at Sanji again, who was still silent and motionless.

Frowning worriedly, Chopper hobbled over to him, sitting beside Sanji and trying to peek under his long bangs.

"Sanji?"

Sanji glanced at him then, eyes lowered somewhat, and smiled so sadly it made Chopper's heart hurt. Sanji patted his head as if to console him, and said, "It'll be fine, Chopper."

He really wished he could believe him.

x

Sanji ended up staying beside Zoro all night, keeping vigil.

He was exhausted. His eyes stung and his body ached all over, but it was nothing compared to the damn swordsman, so he could handle it. His head occasionally fell forward, but he always jolted awake. Every noise made his hair stand on end and his skin prickle, but it was always the wind filtering in through the desecrated building and debris, or the rest of those bastards snoring.

Except for Nami-san and Robin-chan, of course. They slept elegantly; they weren't all drool and snores like the rest of the brutes here.

… But Zoro, too, remained silent. It unnerved Sanji, left an uneasy coil tight in his gut. He sort of wanted the bastard to snore obnoxiously, ooze snot bubbles and make unattractive expressions while he slept. It was gross, but… it was normal. Sanji was… he was used to it. Seeing Zoro lie there, unmoving and silent as the grave… unnerved him.

A little.

A loud clang made him jerk upright, leaping into a fighting stance with his leg raised and fists clenched, heart beating wildly. He glanced rapidly around the room, searching for – for something, someone, like that Kuma bastard. God, he'd kick his ass if he dared show his ugly face here again—

And then he noticed a ladle by Usopp's foot that he'd kicked in his sleep, and felt his heart slow down. He stared for a moment, almost wishing there was an intruder whose ass he could kick. At least he wouldn't be this high strung, then.

He crumpled to the ground, legs caving in under him, and he felt so goddamn weak. His leg still had electric jolts of white hot pain coursing through it from kicking Kuma, and the other hits he took… well, he wasn't made of rubber. Then again, he thought, glancing at Zoro, neither is he.

His arm drifted over to his side, and he lifted his hoodie away to reveal a mottled purple bruise on his side, already yellowing around the edges. It didn't look as bag as his ankle at the moment, but it was still… sort of embarrassing that Zoro had gave him this huge mark when he hadn't even been trying to hurt him. It made him wonder if Zoro ever took him seriously during their fights, and just made him even more aware of the gap between them. Sanji liked to believe he and Zoro were on par, the strongest on the crew after Luffy – but then shit like this happened, and he became even more aware of how he was falling behind. It was like he was sprinting to catch up with them, when they were strolling at a leisurely pace and somehow remaining miles and miles ahead of him…

How could he protect anyone in this state?

He buried his face in his arms again, curling in on himself and clenching his eyes shut. Damn it… He had to stop thinking about this so much. It wasn't doing him any good, was it? He couldn't afford to get depressed over something like this. He had to do something about it. Wallowing wouldn't get him anywhere; Zeff, the damn old geezer, would've beaten some sense into him by now.

I have to get stronger, he thought, and repeated it like a mantra in his head. I have to get stronger…

x

He must have fallen asleep, because when he lifted his head it was light, and everyone was running around like decapitated sea kings. He felt like he hadn't slept at all; his neck hurt like hell and his back ached, but that's what he got for sleeping like he had. Groaning, he heaved himself up, wincing a little at a twinge in his side. He fumbled for his lighter and a cigarette, taking a drag to calm his nerves. Somehow, it didn't work as well as it usually did.

He turned to take a sly glance at the shitty swordsman, just to make sure he was still alive, only to stagger back in shock when there was nobody there. Eyes widening, he gritted his teeth and shouted, "Damn it! What sort of dumbass gets lost when they're unconscious?"

Glancing around rapidly, he swore again and dashed madly about the room, scanning the area for a green head. All he could see were the oblivious bastards they'd saved laughing and rejoicing. How is this a time to be so happy? He thought bitterly. He shouldn't begrudge them their happiness; they could all look at the sunshine after so many years of shrouded darkness. It was selfish of him to be angry about that, but – but damn it, where the fuck was that shitty—

Usopp and Franky were bumbling along outside, carrying buckets and wood, laughing like nothing was amiss. Growling under his breath, Sanji propelled forwards and skidded past them, glaring furiously. They stopped laughing abruptly, looking bewildered and somewhat concerned.

"You okay, Curly Cook?" asked Franky.

Sanji only spared him a hasty scowl; there was no time to kick his ass now. "Where the hell is that shitty marimo?" he demanded.

Usopp blinked. "Uh… Zoro's with Chopper."

Sanji's heart slowed a little and he sighed, slumping against the tree behind him.

"Were you worried?" Usopp asked, grinning toothily. Sanji glowered darkly at him, not in the mood for teasing. Not that he ever was, and definitely not over the fucking swordsman.

"Not particularly," he muttered, removing his cigarette and blowing some smoke towards Usopp, who recoiled. He waved the smoke away jerkily with his hands, frowning. "I just didn't want the idiot to get lost. It'd be a pain looking for him."

Franky and Usopp looked at each other, looking somewhat exasperated, as if they knew something Sanji didn't. It pissed him off. He nearly bit his cigarette in half.

"Whatever. I'll be going back to the ship first then," he said, turning and raising a hand in a casual farewell gesture. He could hear Franky and Usopp murmuring between themselves as he walked away and cursed their lack of manners. Could they be any less subtle?

He slowed his pace when he was out of sight of the others, drifting away with his thoughts and letting his feet guide him anywhere like he was on autopilot. It felt as though time was flying by unnervingly quickly. They hadn't really stopped since Water 7, and that hadn't exactly turned out to be the soothing break he'd hoped. It was a beautiful place; he'd been childishly excited about sailing through the canals and admiring the exotic food for sale on the streets. Then everything had gone to shit, they did their jobs, and promptly fucked off out of there. Then all of this happened and Zoro was injured almost beyond recognition and they were already preparing to leave and face god knows what.

Facing that Kuma bastard… It had really hit home that he wasn't strong enough. None of them could fight that guy in their current states, but… it made him feel kind of hollow when he remembered how ineffective his kick had been. He'd charged and hit him at full power, and – and it hurt. He fucking writhed in pain in front of Zoro, for fuck sake.

After that, he was kind of uneasy about progressing. He wanted to sail on, of course; he loved the sea and he loved the thrill of the fights and adventures, not to mention all the beautiful ladies that wandered on their path. But he knew their enemies were just going to get tougher, and Sanji could barely keep up as it was. All he was good for right now was cooking, and although he knew he was damn good at it, he also knew it wasn't something that could save them. That was why he'd been willing to die in Zo – in Luffy's place. Sanji wasn't a necessary part of the crew; he was dispensable. It'd be easy to get a new cook. Granted, probably nowhere near as good, but still.

He was drawn from his thoughts to find that he'd strayed toward the sea. He gazed out at its wide expanse, breathing deeply. His shoulders relaxed as he watched the azure waves lapping at the edge of Thriller Bark, so relieved to see the cerulean sky and feel the warm sunshine on his skin. That disgusting purple fog was still visible in the distance, but they were no longer immersed in darkness, breathing in the stench of rotting zombie flesh.

Belatedly, he wondered if Nami was okay. That damn Absalom, whatever the shit he was, had kidnapped her and almost married her without her consent. Seeing it had made Sanji feel nauseous. He'd been furious to know someone treated a lady that way, especially Nami-san, his beautiful nakama. But… he'd also felt kind of disturbed, wondering if she ever saw Sanji in that way, trying to remember if he'd ever acted that way. He'd never force her to do anything – he would die before that. He definitely objectified her sometimes though, yet…

Yet the jealousy hadn't registered until later.

It was unnerving, to say the least. He'd been pissed and protective instantaneously, had fought valiantly to defend Nami-san, but only much later, after he saved Zoro, after he got bandaged up, did he notice Nami-san laughing with that Lola woman. Guilt flooded over him in a wave and he rebuked himself harshly for forgetting to make sure she was all right. He hadn't dared to pursue the reasons why he'd forgotten since then though. He didn't want to entertain the possibilities of why his focus had been entirely on the shitty swordsman instead of a beautiful woman…

"Shit," he breathed. "What the hell is wrong with me?" he asked, but received no answer save for the ocean's quiet waves. He took a drag of his cigarette and flicked it, then startling as he felt it burn his fingertips. "Shit!" He dropped it hastily, stomping it out, and then gazed at his slightly blackened finger. Well, that… had never happened before. Had he been that distracted?

Damn it. He wasn't the one who'd been assaulted, he wasn't the one who had to fight the shitty zombie giant, and he wasn't the one who risked his life to save his crew. He had no right to be this distraught. Fucking hell.

I should get back to the ship, he thought to himself, forcing the other thoughts in his head on the backburner. So, stuffing his hands in his pockets, he recited recipes to himself to keep his thoughts in safer tides, but that goddamn marimo continued to linger in the back of his mind.

It's only because he almost died. Anyone would be… uneasy. He stopped when he left the forest again, noticing Brooke and Zoro sitting before a large, intricate grave. Franky and Usopp must have made it, he surmised, recalling their buckets of nails and chunks of wood, and found himself smiling, just a bit, at their kindness. Since everyone's done their best, I guess I should reward them at dinner, he thought, tearing his gaze away from them – telling himself his eyes had only lingered on Zoro to ensure the idiot wasn't bleeding through his profuse amount of bandages – he forcefully headed towards the ship.

Maybe I'll make onigiri with salted salmon… It'll build up everyone's strength, and it's a light snack so Nami-san and Robin-chan can eat as much as they want. Not that they have to worry, they'll always look lovely. Ah, I can use the salt I collected from Water 7… I wonder how that old man's doing…

x

Sanji had been chopping the same spring onion for fifteen minutes now, Chopper noted as he gazed through the window to the kitchen.

Frowning, he hopped of the crate he'd been balancing on, and wandered over to the others. They all seemed to be coping all right, and Zoro's wounds showed no signs of infection. He was napping right now, and Chopper was privately thankful for the respite. Zoro was terrifying when you told him to stop training…

Nami seemed slightly unnerved whenever someone touched her, but thankfully most people seemed to realise that and back off a little. Even Luffy, who must have been more perceptible than he let on, because he recurrently bounded over to Nami to ask her to join in with the fishing or show him what she was drawing. Somehow, she ended up sitting on the edge of the ship with the guys, pressed up against Luffy's side and rolling her eyes every five minutes at their antics.

None of them seemed to want to leave the sun just yet, either.

But aside from all of that, they seemed to be okay.

It was just… Sanji. He'd been seeking solace a lot, lurking in the shadowed confines of the kitchen. He emerged sporadically to ask Robin and Nami if they wanted anything, then begrudgingly asking the rest of them. After the third time, he noticed that Sanji kept glancing at Zoro whenever he left the kitchen, and then Chopper began to understand.

Sanji was worried. That much was obvious – he had kept vigil over Zoro that whole night. He must have tried to stay awake the whole time too, because when Chopper awoke Sanji was in the same spot, slumped over with his head against Zoro's arm. Surprisingly, when Zoro had woken up, he hadn't shoved Sanji off; he just eased himself up and carefully slid his arm away.

Chopper really, really wanted to know what had happened when the rest of them had been unconscious.

Especially now, when Sanji had bags under his eyes and seemed to be living in slow motion, couldn't hold a lighter steady, couldn't stop checking on everyone. At first, Chopper thought Sanji had just been experiencing some sort of temporary shell shock since he'd been the one to find Zoro so appallingly wounded. But while Sanji gave the illusion of being compose, his hands still weren't steady and his eyes were wide.

Chopper sighed ruefully and jumped up in a lawn chair beside Robin, hanging his head slightly. She blinked and lowered the book to her lap, scrutinising him. "Are you worried, Chopper?" she asked softly, as blunt as ever.

He nodded jerkily. "Mmhm," he replied, pressing his hooves together.

Robin tilted her head. "Zoro seems to be fine," she offered, marking the page in her book.

"I know, that's good," Chopper said, still frowning concernedly. "But…" He looked up at Robin and lowered his voice to say, "Sanji doesn't seem to be coping well."

She blinked again, and then looked towards the kitchen. "Ah, yes…" she said, "He does seem to be isolating himself, doesn't he?"

"You've noticed?" Chopper piped up, scooting forwards towards her.

She nodded, her gaze calculating. "Yes, but I didn't know if it was something I should have brought up." She looked back at Chopper and smiled apologetically upon seeing the hopeful look in his eyes. "I'm sorry, Chopper, but I don't know why he's acting this way."

He slumped in his seat again. "I just wish they could tell us what happened…" he mumbled. "We're nakama! We deserve to know!"

Robin chuckled delicately. "Ah, maybe," she said. "But we all have some things we'd like to keep to ourselves, don't we?" she added diplomatically.

Chopper frowned in confusion. Why was she so cryptic? It wasn't very helpful… "I guess…" he mumbled reluctantly. "But I wanna know… I'm worried about Sanji!"

"Sanji is strong," Robin said, picking up her book again. "Please try not to worry too much. Perhaps he just needs time to think on his own."

Chopper wasn't so sure, but she was already staring intently at her book and everyone else was preoccupied. They wouldn't take it seriously either, anyway…

"Nami-san, Robin-chan, dinner is served!" Sanji called from the doorway, beaming at them both. But now that Chopper was looking for any indications that something was wrong, it was obvious that his smile was forced, and he could still see the weariness in Sanji's eyes. He was leaning against the side of the door, too. Was he still in pain? "And the rest of you idiots can come eat too."

"Yes!" cried Luffy, grinning toothily, stretching his arms and leaping up to where Sanji was stood.

"Oi, you don't get to start until Nami-san and Robin-chan," Sanji began routinely, but he looked more agitated than truly irked.

Everything proceeded normally, but it still felt off. Sanji hadn't eaten anything, hadn't fawned over the women, hadn't knocked Luffy upside the head for demanding more. Instead, he kept shifting from foot to foot, and crossing and uncrossing his arms. Chopper had stopped watching him long enough to eat his food, only looking up again when Sanji's chair suddenly scraped back and he stood abruptly.

"Sanji-kun? Are you all right?" asked Nami. Ah! Maybe she'd notice something now too!

"Ah…" Sanji glanced at her as if he'd forgotten anyone was in the room, and then offered her a small grin. "Perfectly fine, Nami-san. Don't worry," he said quickly, and then grabbed a plate off the counter, dumping his own in front of Luffy who immediately began wolfing it down. "That damn marimo hasn't eaten yet, right? I guess I'll go serve it to him with a kick in the face for being such a lazy bastard…"

It didn't seem out of the ordinary to the others, who all accepted it with grunts, too preoccupied with their food to notice anything amiss. But if Zoro didn't come to dinner in the past, Sanji had always wrapped up his food and left it on the counter for him to get later himself. If Zoro was on watch duty and Sanji was in a good mood, he'd sometimes leave it at the bottom of the crow's nest for Zoro to find it when his watch finished. He never did that if he thought anyone would notice, though, but Chopper's pretty sure everyone knows about it. He doesn't get why Sanji seems so secretive and embarrassed about it whenever he does it though, always casting nervous looks around the ship and then turning slightly red and scowling at the floor each time.

Sanji must've been pretty worried about Zoro to do this…

x

It was embarrassing.

When everyone sat down to eat, he'd waited a few minutes, thinking Zoro would saunter in slightly late and then just grab his food and stuff his face like the uncouth brute he was. But fifteen minutes into the meal, he hadn't shown up, and he briefly wondered if he might've passed out or started bleeding again. Chopper didn't seem too worried though, and logically Sanji knew he was just sleeping and had to get as much rest as possible, so it was fucking embarrassing that he kept thinking about it.

But – shit! He still felt sick, thinking about everyone's injuries, remembering their shadows being stolen, and Nami-san nearly being taken away from them, not being strong enough to protect fucking anyone, moving onto the next goddamn island where he'd probably not be able to face up to whoever else wants to fuck with them, and Zoro fucking covered in blood.

He was thinking about so many things all at once that it made him dizzy. Maybe he really was sick. He had to be, to be this worried.

It was too fucking embarrassing, too. He'd sat there for fuck knows how long, counting the minutes go by, not being able to eat his food because he kept thinking about the shitty swordsman not eating. Zeff would've worried about an injured person not eating too, he thought, hoping to console himself with that.

Growling, he pushed away from the door and stormed over to the deck to find Zoro. He glared daggers at Zoro, who was snoring without a care in the world. "You scowl even in your sleep," Sanji muttered, kneeling down in front of him and depositing the plate beside Zoro. "That's not cute at all, idiot."

Despite himself, his eyes involuntarily glanced down at Zoro's heavily bandaged chest and he felt absolutely fucking pissed all over again that Zoro had gone in by himself and nearly gotten himself killed, that he knocked Sanji out and took all the goddamn credit and destroyed Sanji's pride, that he was sleeping here like nothing was wrong and he wasn't covered in gauze, that Sanji was so fucking useless.

He gritted his teeth together, heart hammering riotously in his chest, and he could hear his blood coursing in his ears until it turned into a shrill ringing sound. He wanted to kick something so badly, wanted to – wanted to fight and fight and fight until he couldn't move.

But he couldn't. He couldn't spar with Zoro since he'd gone and gotten himself hurt, and there were no enemies here and he wasn't sure if he was glad for that or not.

He did have to get stronger though, he thought, and looked up at the crow's nest where Zoro had left his ridiculous weights.

No time like the present, he thought bitterly and, risking one more glance at Zoro to ensure he was still deeply asleep, he headed up to the crow's nest.

I have to get stronger.