Thank you for reading all the way through to the final chapter, and for all of your comments and support! Also a quick reminder to check out my OP college AU collaboration with okama-kenpo, which we'll be releasing under FF account dickyang. The first chapter will be posted in the next couple of weeks, and she'll be releasing some wonderful new fanart soon~~
One month later
Sanji glanced at the dour-faced young man who had been sitting at a table in the corner since the restaurant had opened. Really, calling him a man was a bit generous—he was just a brat, probably as young as the cook had been when he had first started his pirate life all those years ago.
So far, the young man had ordered nothing but water. He nervously crouched at the table, wild eyes continually searching the restaurant's patrons. Although a few people had given him a disdainful glance, he hadn't really caused any trouble, so Sanji didn't see any need to interfere.
The cook had a strong inkling of what he was there for, anyway; it was a bit too obvious, from the two sheathed swords propped up against the empty chair next to him. Just before Sanji slipped back in the kitchen, he gave a pointed look to Zoro, who was sitting at a table near the kitchen door, calmly sipping his sake—his usual place, these days.
But like usual, he wasn't wearing the signature outfit that identified him as the swordsman Isshin; he was just Zoro the pirate who had once been known as a member of the Worst Generation, even if his body was a little worse for the wear.
They locked eyes, and Zoro nodded, smirking slightly. "I'm heading home for a little bit. That kid'll probably be about done by the time I get back, right?"
Sanji mouth fell slightly open, but then he realized he shouldn't have been surprised that the swordsman guessed what he was about to do. It was a little annoying, just how well he knew Sanji, really. But maybe a little nice, too. He smiled and nodded affirmatively at Zoro. "Ah, he should be."
"Don't feed him too well," Zoro called out after him, as the chef slipped through the kitchen doorway.
"What, you think you might lose if I give him an advantage?"
A disdainful grunt was all he received in reply.
As Zoro nonchalantly walked past the fidgety young man—whose eyes still unceasingly scanned his surroundings—Sanji asked Planchet to plate a simple dish for him to bring to his anxious patron.
When the chef set it down in front of him, the young man glared at him with a sour expression.
"I didn't order this."
"It's on the house. We accidentally plated an extra serving, so I thought you may want it," Sanji replied nonchalantly.
The young man looked at it hungrily, his brow furrowing.
"Ah, if you don't, I can take it away," Sanji continued, reaching out for the plate again.
"That's okay," he said quickly, snatching a fork as he yanked the plate closer to him. "If you're just gonna throw it out anyway, I may as well eat it."
Sanji tried his best to hold back a chuckle; ah, these stupid, arrogant young boys who couldn't say what they meant. It was a little nostalgic, actually.
"So what brings you here, anyway?" Sanji asked, although he already strongly suspected the answer.
"Someone told me the world's strongest swordsman comes here a lot."
"Oh, do you have some business with him or something?"
Momentarily forgetting the forkful of food he was preparing to shove into his watering mouth, the boy looked up at Sanji, an unrestrained zeal in his eyes. "I'm going to fight him," he declared.
"That's quite an aspiration for someone your age."
"Don't look down on me," he scowled. "I've been training to wield a sword since I could walk. I've beat tons and tons of strong opponents while I've been looking for him. I've never felt more ready."
"Hmm, well, I suppose this isn't a terrible place to wait for him."
"That's what I heard," the young man nodded, finally eating a bite. His eyes grew wide. "It's good," he murmured, suddenly disinterested in the conversation as he wolfishly shoveled more food in his mouth.
Sanji smiled in satisfaction as he walked away. He felt inexplicably fond of this pompous young kid; but then, he did remind him a lot of the stubborn nineteen-year-old marimo that used to be the bane of his existence.
A short while after the last table of customers filtered out, save for the young swordsman, a familiar silhouette appeared in the doorway.
"Ah, kid," Sanji called out, nodding in the direction of the entrance.
"I think your date with destiny has arrived."
Two years later
Sanji peeked into the bedroom, resting his hand against the door frame as he leaned in. "Oi, I'm leaving now," he called out, his eyes scanning the room until they rested on Zoro.
He was surprised to see that Zoro was slipping on the long, black cloak was part of his Isshin garb. The trademark tacky feathered headdress was haphazardly thrown on top of the bed.
Sanji smirked as he watched the swordsman dress. With his single hand, Zoro adeptly fastened the cloak around his shoulders, and then grabbed his black glove from the pocket, biting down on the edge with his teeth as he yanked it over his hand.
"It's been awhile since you've put that on," Sanji remarked smugly.
"Ah, they slowed down a lot, haven't that?" Zoro replied, as he pulled his black mask over his head, tendrils of gray and green hair disappearing underneath. "Even when they've come, it's been a bunch of unskilled brats lately. Not even a challenge."
"Yeah, it seems like your fights have been over pretty quickly."
"This guy seems different, though," Zoro replied, unsuccessfully trying to suppress the hint of excitement in his voice.
"Oh? Where'd you see him?"
"He was near the restaurant when I went out earlier."
"You spoke to him?"
Zoro shook his head negatively as he picked up the headdress. "No need. There aren't many reasons why someone would hang out there so early in the morning. And he was definitely a swordsman." He grinned as he put on the headdress. "He felt strong."
Sanji sighed, shaking his head as he stared at the hopeless man in front of him; he was always itching for a good fight. But to be fair, there weren't many people who could keep up with him anymore.
Stepping into the bedroom, the cook reached upward and straightened out the headdress, which Zoro had put on at a comical angle. "You look like an idiot, grinning with this tacky lopsided thing."
"Oi, what are you doing?"
"Trying to make you look less stupid." Sanji bit his lip as he carefully aligned the headdress with Zoro's jawline, frowning slightly. "Regretfully, this is all I can do for you in this stupid outfit."
"Oi," Zoro repeated, a bit defensively. But then he just grinned again; it was a slightly goofy, unfettered grin that Sanji had grown used to seeing so much over the past couple of years. And it was contagious, too. Before he could stop himself, Sanji was smiling back—that was, until Zoro grabbed him and yanked him forward by front of his shirt, dragging him into a kiss.
Sanji closed his eyes, instinctively letting his body fall slack as the swordsman pulled him toward his chest. The cook wrapped his arms around Zoro's shoulders as he felt the swordsman's single arm wrap protectively around his back.
As their mouths crushed together, the Zoro's needy tongue desperately meeting with his own, the chef was already beginning to feel an excited rush in the lower part of his body. He paused for a moment, gently nipped at Zoro's lip, his chin brushing the fabric of Isshin's mask. Feathers danced at the top of his head as their bodies grinded together.
But then, a faintly unpleasant smell filled his nostrils.
Abruptly Sanji pulled away, crinkling his nose. He stood on his toes, stretching his body as he hesitantly sniffed at the top of the headdress.
"Oi, this thing stinks, Zoro," he said, gently shoving him back. "How can you stand to have that on your head?"
The swordsman titled his head thoughtfully. "I guess I didn't really notice." He reached out to grab Sanji and pull him toward him again, but Sanji evaded his hand.
"No way, not while you're wearing that shitty thing. Besides, I wouldn't want to leave you too exhausted."
"Hah? What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're an old man now, you know. What if I drained away all your stamina before your fight?" Sanji smirked, playfully flicking a couple of the headdress feathers upward. "Look, even your eyebrows are turning gray."
"Tch, well look at yourself," Zoro scoffed, putting his hand on top of Sanji's head, ruffling his hair. "I don't think you have a blonde hair left on you, on top or down below." He released Sanji's head and started to reach downward, to emphasize his point. Sanji abruptly reached out and snatched his wrist, stopping him.
"Alright, enough. There'll be plenty of time for that tonight."
"Tch, you better mean that," Zoro frowned.
"Yeah, when don't I?"
"Alright, tonight then."
Sanji smiled to himself as he walked away; for some reason, he hoped the day would fly by.
A short while later
When Sanji first caught a glimpse of the tall, husky man loitering near Trois Bleu, he couldn't help but smile. No wonder that idiot muscle-head was excited to fight him; he had an enormous sword strapped to his back, nearly as big as gigantic cross-shaped one that Dracule Mihawk was famous for, and he was big and brawny. He had clearly been in countless fights, evidenced by the multitude of scars covered his exposed arms and face.
Since Zoro was likely only a short distance behind him, the bulky man probably would not be waiting long. Sanji reached the back door to Trois Bleu, and after one last glance in the burly man's direction, he slipped inside without giving the matter much more thought. After all, this had happened an innumerable number of times already, so there was nothing to worry about.
Zoro was stronger than he had ever been—not that Sanji would admit that to him directly.
A short while later, Sanji stepped out back to throw out a bag of trash. He couldn't help but pause for a moment to drink in the peaceful day outside. He inhaled deeply, enjoying the refreshing breath of air, and he closed his ears and soaked in the warmth of the sun. It almost seemed unnaturally peaceful.
But it was early, and the Trois Bleu was a little bit off the beaten path. With no other businesses or houses nearby, and with it being too early for most of his staff to have arrived—save for Mouston, who was already in the kitchen—there was no reason for it to be anything else but quiet.
Even the temperate breeze barely made a sound, although he could feel it languidly flowing past him, gently ruffling his hair.
A seagull gently cawed overhead, breaking the moment of silence. He opened his eyes, glancing upward, squinting in the sunlight, the lines etched around his eyes deepening considerably as he tried to make out the details of the flock swirling overhead.
Then, he noticed someone in the periphery of his vision. He turned his head, and realized it was the same man he had seen earlier; the burly man with the large sword strapped across his back.
Except now, his beige clothing was tinged with a darker color. As he drew a bit nearer, and the cook got a better look at him, he started to feel faintly queasy—the color was, undoubtedly, a deep red.
The burly swordsman strolled past him, keeping a distance of about twenty or thirty paces between them. He didn't bother to glance in Sanji's direction—but even if he didn't turn his body, the chef was able to confirm what he was looking at. He started to breath a little harder.
The crimson red was, without a doubt, blood... splashed along the front of his shirt, up his arm, splattered across his face, covering his hands.
Sanji's knees nearly buckled from the twinge of pain in his chest—only one thought encompassed his mind.
"Oi, you—" Sanji started to call out, but his voice caught in his throat.
However, the sound he managed to make was enough to grab the attention of the blood-soaked man. He turned toward Sanji, locking eyes with him, and the queasiness in the cook's stomach turned to hardened knots.
"What d'you want?" he asked gruffly. His eyes were small and beady—and to Sanji, they felt dark and soulless. A shudder ran up his spine.
"That man... Wh-where is..." he started to say hesitantly, not really sure how to phrase his question—maybe because he was utterly terrified of the answer.
The man with the sword grinned, and it was malicious and sinister and kind of made him feel like he was going to throw up. "Ah, you mean where's the 'strongest swordsman'?"
Sanji nodded apprehensively; he didn't like the way he'd pronounced those words. Didn't like anything about him, really.
The grin widened and the chef felt even more nauseous. The man glanced back in the direction he had just come from. "Well, I can tell ya this. The strongest swordsman certainly isn't the weakling I just left over that a' way."
The burly man may have said something more, but the blood roaring in Sanji's ears was too loud for him to make out anything else. His mouth agape, lower lip quivering, he turned toward the direction the other man had been facing.
And then, he took off at a run. He couldn't remember the last time he had run so desperately, so urgently, like his very life was on the line.
He also couldn't remember the last time he felt such a crippling fear—this debilitating dread that made him feel like he was going to collapse, to fall down on his knees and maybe vomit or pass out or something equally drastic. But he couldn't do that right now. He had to hurry, had to find him. There was no time to waste.
Fortunately, Sanji knew right where to look—thanks to Zoro and his dumb habits. There was an area at the edge of the water where Zoro always preferred to take these kinds of fights, so they wouldn't disturb anyone, and likewise where they wouldn't be disturbed in return.
At first, he could only make out a patch of red and black somewhere in the distance, but as he drew closer, he could take in every horrifying detail.
The pool of blood around him, seeping into the stony roadway, extended much farther than it should have. Sanji's expression hardened, as an ache resonated through his chest cavity that nearly made him collapse.
This wasn't the first time he had seen the swordsman covered in blood like this. But the last time, he had been half his age... And even then, it had damn nearly killed him.
When he reached the swordsman's side, he dropped onto his knees, ignoring the shooting pain in his kneecaps as he landed a bit too hard, apathetic to the cooling blood that seeped in through the fabric of his trousers. He reached toward Zoro, unable to hold back his anguish.
Zoro was breathing; but they were shallow, jagged, uneven breaths that made his chest shudder with the effort. Although it was hard to see how bad the wounds were beyond the black fabric and the blood, Sanji could see dark crimson hemorrhaging from his chest. He wouldn't be surprised if his lung was punctured.
There were fucking feathers everywhere, and the headdress was barely in tact. Furiously, Sanji pulled it off of his head, followed by the black mask, leaning closer to him.
As soon as he removed the fabric, he gasped as he realized there was a deep gash along the side of Zoro's neck, across his jugular and throat. Now that he looked a bit more closely, he could tell that it must have been where most of the blood was coming from.
"Shit, shit, Zoro, no," he suddenly became aware that he was repeating a mix of the same words, over and over, as he took in the fallen swordsman's condition. "I have to get you a doctor," he cried out, starting to pull himself to his feet.
With those words, an eye flickered opened, and a shaking hand raised upward and grabbed him by the wrist. The calloused hand was weak, barely able to grasp onto him. Trembling, Sanji sank lower to the ground, clutching at the slightly cold hand.
Zoro looked at him, a look of tremendous sadness in his single eye. Sanji felt his throat might have been closing up.
And then, Zoro opened his mouth, a trickle of blood streaming from the corner. His lips moved, but nothing but a strangled gurgle came out.
A flicker of horror crossed his eye. The lips started to move more desperately, but still, no sound came out. Sanji felt the weak hand try to clutch as his more tightly, as the swordsman's eye darted toward him.
Sanji let out a strangled sound as well; he thought it may have been a sob, but it didn't fucking matter, nothing mattered but the man in front of him.
The man who was so desperately trying to tell him his last words, and couldn't even speak.
In the bright sunlight, Sanji could see Zoro's eye was growing hazier by the moment. And as it grew unfocused, the cook found himself taking in everything around him in a crystal clear sharpness. The sob in his throat died as the realization hit him.
This was going to be the final moment. He couldn't let anything distract him, not even for a second. Not his tears. Not the shredding feeling inside of his chest cavity.
The swordsman's brow furrowed in anguish, as he still tried to force the sounds and the syllables from his mouth.
Sanji leaned forward, gently shushing him and he carefully pressed his mouth against Zoro's. The taste of blood filled his mouth, but he didn't care, it didn't matter. Keeping one hand interlaced with the swordsman's, he brought his other hand up to the side of Zoro's face, letting his fingers softly run through his hair and trace the contours of his face. This was it and he couldn't miss a single thing.
Zoro couldn't speak, but the way his mouth trembled against Sanji's, and the way the increasingly languid tongue tried its best to desperately swirl around his own perhaps said more than the inarticulate swordsman himself ever could have. Sanji knew his message and it made him feel like his heart was going to collapse.
The cook felt tears spring up in his eyes. The swordsman's movements were gradually slowing, and the ragged breaths were becoming more and more shallow.
And then finally, their lips parted, and Sanji leaned downward, pressing his cheek against Zoro's, and he wrapped his arm behind Zoro's head so he could pull him closer to him.
His breathing continued to grow slower and slower, and increasing pained, until the swordsman finally drew in a thunderously ragged breath, his body shuddering beneath Sanji.
And then, he stopped moving.
Sanji didn't know how long they stayed like that, but whether it was seconds or hours, it didn't matter. Nothing mattered.
Nothing was ever going to matter again.