Almost a week had passed, days come and gone and, with it, so did Ace's distrust. Zoro still wasn't allowed his swords which were locked up somewhere in the house that only Ace knew about and it frustrated the green haired man, but he understood why the other had done it- he had people to protect. Despite that though, Ace had rather warmed to the three of them. He'd began to talk to them more directly, he gave them jobs and other small tasks to do and joked around with them a lot more. Zoro's bruises had began to fade and Sanji's cuts were healing. Chopper was reunited with them both after spending days in the small stable out back fretting over his two humans. Zoro had asked if Chopper would be okay out there with the toxic rainfalls but Franky had assured him that his ventilation system ran through all four of the small buildings and was 'suuuuuuper' effective. Overall, their lives seemed to become more relaxed. Zoro and Sanji were always aware of anyone coming at any time that would try to take the ex-slave back but, more or less, let their troubles leave them for a while. Zoro slept better than he ever had done before and Sanji tried to pretend that he didn't wake up most nights to scream into the pillow as ghosts of old pains wracked through him.
Leaning against the doorframe of the stable, Zoro wiped his hands down his jeans leaving oily black streaks that smudged deep into the material. Black grease ran up his wrists and blotched the skin of his cheeks and he was sweating lightly. He kicked the lid to the toolbox shut with his foot, a dull ache running through his still sore knee but it was bearable. Turning his head to the right, he could make out the city of Alabaster off in the slight distance, tall buildings jutting up from stumpy squat ones. He could vaguely see the wall, tall and proud, that ran around the whole complex of buildings. He watched the heatwaves blurring it in and out of focus before he spoke, "You okay in there, Chopper?"
A low grunt came from behind and the sound of hooves clapped in a short rhythmic sequence before Zoro felt the familiar weight and sensation of scruffy hair on his skin as the deer placed his head on his shoulder. The green haired man chuckled and brought his hand up to scratch at Chopper's chin but was nudged away when the deer caught a whiff of his oil stained skin and wrinkled his blue nose in disgust. Zoro tsked softly and rolled his eyes before grabbing at the other roughly around his thick neck. Chopper was taken by surprise but found himself too late to do anything as Zoro began fussing at his ears, rubbing at them with his hands. The deer sighed contentedly and nuzzled his snout into the man's chest, "Damn Chopper, you need a bath..." Zoro mumbled, laughing when the deer threw him a sour look, "Hey, come on, I'm sure Ace won't mind. At least you won't be stinking out his stable anymore, I'm not sure how that Sand Dragon has been able to breathe with you in there-"
The wind was knocked out of the man's lungs and he coughed a laugh, Chopper having whacked him in the side with an antler, "Okay, okay, I was kidding... Jeez, but you do need a bath though."
Chopper snorted unhappily as Zoro stepped around him and into the stable where he took a coil of rope from the wall and patted the sleepy Sand Dragon on the head. He then came out, tied one end around the reindeer's neck, and held the other wrapped a few times around his fist, "Come on," He instructed, tugging the makeshift rein lightly and leading him away from the stable to one side of the house where he knew by now would be a tap that stood up from the ground on a long, thin pipe. It was rusted and old, but the handle still turned albeit stiffly and clean water, courtesy of Franky, came gushing out.
Still holding the rope, Zoro hunkered down to grab the large and battered bucket that stood alongside the tap, upside down. He turned it the right way up and shoved it under the flow to fill it. A force knocked him in the back and he fell forward slightly, tumbling under the water.
He gasped, the coldness of it a stark contrast to the heat of the air around him, and it sprayed into his mouth making him splutter. It ran down his cheeks and into his eyes and he stumbled back, letting go of the rope to wipe away at his face. He coughed, "Chopper!"
"What're you trying to do?"
Zoro blinked dumbly a few times, water clogging his lashes, and looked up. Sanji was standing at a small distance away, the worn rope that led to the frisky reindeer held loosely in one hand as though he had just gathered it up off the floor. The blond's face was curious but there was a small upward tilt at each corner of his mouth which made Zoro scowl childishly.
"I'm trying to give him a bath, what does it look like?" He snapped, noticing as Sanji's hand tensed around the rope in a small restrained flinch. Immediately the green haired man's face softened- he hadn't thought Sanji would take the words like that. As soon as it happened though, it swiftly left, and suddenly the blond was smirking lightly.
"I'd say it looks like he's giving you the bath instead," He snickered and pulled the rope a little, Chopper more than happy to clop on over and give him an enthusiastic lick up the side of his face. He moved his head out of the way of the intruding tongue and scratched the animal fondly around his horns. The reindeer lapped up the attention and Sanji held the rope out to the sopping wet Marimo, "Want me to help?"
"You sure?" The green haired man said, "Because Chopper doesn't take too well to baths." He gestured at his sopping wet self as evidence, scowling when the reindeer made a noise that sounded like a snicker.
"He'll be fine. I'll hold him and you can put the water or whatever on him. Anyway, he did good by giving you a bath, you needed one," Sanji said, taking the rope back into himself and wrapping it around his fist a few times.
Zoro snorted, "You don't smell much better yourself."
Sanji blinked at the insult then laughed, "Yeah, well at least I don't have moss growing on my head."
"What did you say?" Zoro challenged, trying to control the volume of his voice. Sanji still flinched at it but it was less obvious this time and he managed to laugh.
"That's what I'm calling you, mosshead." The blond tilted his head to watch the reindeer whom was viewing the two humans with something akin to a small smile on his face, "We gonna bath him or not?"
Chopper had put up a valiant fight against the two. He'd dragged Sanji under the tap flow, tried to trip Zoro multiple times and ended up ripping a hole in Sanji's shirt. Eventually Luffy had come along and joined in the what he had classed as 'fun' and was currently latched firmly onto Chopper's back in nothing but his underwear scrubbing the deer's neck with a block of soap he'd nabbed from the kitchen area of the main house. Ace had come to see what was going on but soon disappeared with an unsurprised look on his face when he caught the sight of his brother threatening to kick Chopper's ass if he didn't put him down and stop eating his shirt.
Soon enough Chopper was clean and waggled his ears to shake the pesky suds from them. Zoro was rinsing him down and Luffy was leaned against the pipe of the tap with a goofy grin and still in his sopping wet boxers. Sanji was sat next to him with a tired smile and was stripping off his wet and torn shirt, he threw it in a pile next to him with a wet slap, "Better..." He murmured to no one but himself.
Luffy looked up, "Oi, Sanji, you're looking better!" He exclaimed. The blond stalled, staring at the dark haired teen.
Luffy smiled, "You look better. When we found you, you were really skinny- skinnier than me!" He laughed, "But you've put on weight again."
Zoro's head popped up from around Chopper's side and followed the blond's eyes down his body. It was true, Sanji was no longer the bag of skin and bones he'd first met. His ribs were still a little too visible but no where near as awful and the sharp juts of his hip bones had softened. His collarbones were more fleshed out and the only thing ruining the healthier picture was the scarred number burned into him from God knows how long ago and the browning and now unbandaged scabs around his neck. Sanji suddenly looked up with a smile and caught Zoro's gaze.
Zoro swallowed, a sense of nervousness ebbing in his stomach at the realisation that perhaps he'd been looking a little too long at the other's body. He felt an unfamiliar heat across his cheeks and nose and something in his chest clenched, sending a jolt through his blood. His hands slowed their working on Chopper's coat.
"Hear that, mosshead? I look better," Sanji said, using the new name he'd bestowed as he smiled and Zoro couldn't help but smile back. This was what he'd wanted since the moment Sanji had woken up in that cave with him- smiles, laughter and friendship. He'd lost that vision for a while after he'd found that there were deeper wounds than just the physical on the man. And today he'd seen it, the laughter and the smiles. The honest to God, genuine smiles that fit just right on that face that had been screwed up in suffering for the longest time. Zoro couldn't help but admire it everytime the corners of the blond's lips curled upward and notice something new each time; the slight dimples that had returned now his cheeks were fuller, the crooked angle of his lips and the little crinkles at the corners of his now brighter eyes.
"Yeah, much better." Zoro replied, trying to find some remedy internally for the way his chest tightened when Sanji held eye contact for a few moments longer. Chopper hummed as though in thought.
"Hey guys, dinner's ready!" Franky's voice drifted over and all three men and one reindeer turned their heads to see the him waving at them from the porch of the main house. Luffy leapt to his feet with a cry.
"DINNER!" He bolted off, his wet boxers clinging to the tops of his thighs but slipping down his hips comically. Sanji got to his feet, his right hand absent mindedly palming at the scars on his collarbone before leaning down to grab his shirt.
"You coming?" He asked.
"I'll catch up, Chopper needs the suds off him first."
"Okay, I'll tell Ace..." He said, walking off. He'd got no more than a few steps before looking back, "Oi, Zoro?"
"Thanks for rescuing me, I'm glad it was you who found me..."
Zoro blinked, chest tightening and stomach churning sloppily as Sanji stopped talking releasing a quiet between them that Zoro thought wildly for a moment would consume him whole. He cleared his throat, "You're welcome?" He didn't mean for it to sound like a question but Sanji seemed pleased with that response.
Sanji nodded slightly, "I... better go get dinner and tell Ace you'll be late..."
The blond lingered briefly before leaving, Zoro staring after him until he'd let himself inside the house and disappeared from sight. He almost jumped as Chopper's blue nose nudged into him and the reindeer whined with a questioning look that flickered between the now closed door and the human before him. Zoro shrugged, "It's nothing, Chopper..." He picked the bucket up and tipped the contents over the reindeer's back, rinsing out a cluster of soap bubbles. The tightening feeling in his chest subsided but the churning in his stomach remained restless.
A feminine voice, as smooth as silk, as soft as velvet and as deadly as a panther wormed it's way into his hearing, "Do you understand the orders?"
"You will bring Sanji to me and leave the others unharmed."
"As you wish, miss."
"Do not use unnecessary force, talk to him. Tell him that he has to come to me."
The raven haired lady smiled, her fingertips tapping the cover of the leather bound and frayed book she held, "Thank you, if you bring him I'll see about taking that collar off. That shall be your reward."
"Wh-what? But wouldn't that make me-"
"Make you free? Why yes, of course... I thought freedom is what you wanted after all?"
"If you're free then you can go and see your brothers again, can't you? I'll wipe you off the records and pull the strings. I can assure you that no one will ever come looking for you... Unless of course you try to come after me when I set you free..." She chuckled softly, "Because then you'll find yourself back at that place or worse."
"O-okay, miss. But, if you set me free then Sir Crocodi-"
"Already taken care of..." She cooed, waving a hand towards a shelf with a neatly polished and very familiar hook on it, "I was paid handsomely for that one. He'd made many enemies and took precautions, I made him slip up. People pay well for that to happen and revenge for some things is awfully soothing to one's soul, don't you think?"
"You're excused now, Mr. Sabo. Please do take care in bringing Sanji, I'd hate to slip you up too..."
"Yes, of course," Sabo said, bowing slightly, "Thank you, Miss Nico."
"A pleasure doing business with you." Nico Robin purred.
AN: I'm sorry for the lack of updates but this is now no longer on hiatus ^^ I promise all will be explained : )