The man is but a small silhouette in the surrounding white haze, sagging under the weight of the heavy burden on his back. Walking relentlessly in the depths of the forest, amidst a thick undergrowth, he's trying his best not to trip, because he knows he wouldn't be able to stand up again. He can't even see where he's going, ultimately reduced to aimlessly wandering in the blizzard. But he knows they'll both die if he gives up. So, he keeps walking, desperately hoping they'll find some kind of shelter soon. He doesn't know how long he'll be able to go on like this.
For the past few hours, it's been snowing. It doesn't seem like it's gonna stop anytime soon.
As far as he can see, the whole world is white. The tall pines are swaying in the strong wind, and their branches bend under the snow piling unevenly everywhere in sight, needles adorned with white frost.
The undergrowth is somewhat dense, but is a poor protection against the storm. His hair, laced with frost despite the fur-lined collar of the thick coat he's wrapped in, looks almost gray in the dimming light. His lips are turning blue, and he keeps wriggling his stiff fingers, hooked under the other man's thighs, to keep them just a tad warmer. He can't let them get damaged by the cold. As a chef, his fingers are his life.
Despite the spare coat he was clever enough to bring for him, he knows his companion, slumped on his back like a dead weight, fares no better. Worse, actually, since he's not moving at all. He's been out cold long before he found him, and he's worried for him, though he'd never admit him in front of anybody but himself.
"Don't you dare dying on me, bastard," he mutters with difficulty, his teeth clattering.
He's been blindly wandering in that shitty forest for some time now, hoping to find shelter from the cold for the night. They needs a warm place, and they needs it quick. The man on his back was already displaying alarming signs of hypothermia when he discovered him, napping like an idiot under a considerable pile of snow, and he's no light weight. He himself is starting to lose the last of his usual strength.
As soon as he formulates these thoughts, he almost collides with an ominous shadow that seems to be looming over them. He curses, and for a moment, he nearly discards it as yet another tree he didn't see coming through the thick falling snow. But a second, aggravated look reveals wooden planks instead, and he would start crying in relief if he was a lesser man. But he's not like that. Instead, he cautiously walks around the dark shape, past a frosted window. No light inside. The place seems to be empty. He goes on until he finally finds himself in front of what can't be anything else than a door. Mustering his last strength, he raises a leg, and tiredly yet vigorously knocks a couple times.
He slowly lets his burden slide from his back, and manages to prop the other man against the nearby wall. He feverishly prods around the spot where he supposes the knob is.
There it is.
He finally opens the door, rendered hard to handle by apparent months of disuse. But whatever faint daylight that's still left, in this storm, isn't enough to make out the inside. It's too dark.
"Anyone there?" He asks, his voice husky from the cold.
He plunges a hand inside his coat and fumbles for a while, cursing at his numb fingers. He takes out a lighter, and in its faint light, he can finally see the inside of what's decidedly more of a scanty shack than anything else. It's obviously been unused for a while given the faint layer of dust he can see on the nearest piece of furniture – a mere plank fastened to the wall and serving as a shelf of sorts. But there's a bed, a fireplace and a more than sufficient stack of wood in the nearby corner. And it's shelter, albeit a shitty one. It'll have to do.
He turns back to his companion, whose face is obscured by his coat's hood, and slowly drags him in, before closing the door behind them.
"Come on, shit-head. Let's get you warm."
And it's indeed warmer in there, but clearly not enough.
He starts with lighting up a candle he saw on the floor near the inelegant, rudimentary fireplace. Once he can make out his surroundings, he starts ridding the other man of his wet coat, also taking off his boots. He then carefully sets him on the bed, wrapped in the fur blanket he found there.
Turning around, he grabs the candle and starts rummaging around the shelves he spotted earlier. He's quick to find tinder there, and moves to light a fire. He curses, frustrated by his uncooperative, still cold and stiff fingers. But he's starting to get just a tad better, though he's still freezing. They really need that fire. For the other, it might be a matter of life or death.
It's slow, too slow, he thinks as he finally watches the flames lazily come to life. He wouldn't admit it in normal circumstances, but he's worried about his companion. Fortunately, he can remember a bit of what their doctor said on the ways to treat hypothermia. But he can't do much without a real fire.
Keeping an eye on the fire to ensure it won't go out while it's still weak, he removes his own coat and puts it with his friend's to warm on a stool by the fireplace. He then sits down on the wooden floor, removes his shoes and double layer of socks to check for signs of frostbite. He sighs in unfeigned relief. His feet look ok, and he already know it's only a matter of time before sensation returns to his cold extremities. After all, even though they spent a long time outside, he's been walking non stop. But the man on the bed was out cold – in more than one way – long before he found him, and he knows he should now check on him. Hands are as important to a chef as they are to a swordsman. Even if the latter is most likely ambidextrous and fights with a third sword in his mouth.
He goes to sit next to his companion, and peers at the man's face. He's looks quiet, his usually frowning eyebrows somewhat relaxed in the coma-like sleep he's currently in. He looks peaceful, but his skin is a peculiar color, giving his usual tan a somewhat grayish tint. He slips a hand under the blanket and rests it on the man's chest, near the heart. The other's body is dreadfully cold and stiff, he's not even shivering, and his numb fingers are unable to feel a hypothetical pulse. If it weren't for the slow heaving of his chest, one could think he's already dead. He swallows nervously, and clenching his teeth, lowers his head to the other's chest. Holding his breath, he listens – and there is it, faint, much too slow, but steady.
Well, he's no doctor, and truth be told, he can't tell if his companion is out of immediate danger, or not. All he knows is that he'll do whatever it takes to keep this man alive.
He slowly releases the air in his lungs in a frustrated sigh that hurts like an anxious sob.
"Don't give up, asshole," he whispers, as if speaking louder would disturb his comatose friend.
The man's hands are cold and slightly gray as well, though he can't really see their color in the dim light of the shack, but there doesn't seem to be permanent damage, as far as he can tell. Then, carefully, his hands steady and his fingers deft despite his own shivering in the slowly warming room, he gets the other man out of his socks, only to find his toes are an alarming shade of blue. He absentmindedly let his hand glide up on the other's skin, over his left ankle, along his calf and past the badly stitched scar, whose matching twin he knows adorns the opposite leg, until his fingers reach the bunched up trousers' leg. All cold. But there nothing he can do about that. He remembers their doctor saying that cold blood from the limbs reaching core organs could potentially cause even lower body temperature, and, in the worst case, make the heart to stop.
He shivers, despite the slowly rising temperature. He's done everything he could for his friend for now. He should take care of himself, because he's pretty sure he's currently in a state of mild hypothermia, though not nearly as bad as the man on the bed.
After adding a couple bigger logs to the now crackling fire, he snuffs the candle out – seems like it's the only one here, no need to waste it – and sits in front of the fireplace. Slowly but surely, the temperature around them rises. And he gets steadily warmer. Fortunately, the shack they're currently in seems to be well insulated. There's no draft in here, despite the strong wind he can hear outside.
When his fingers and toes start tingling, he knows there won't be permanent damage, and lets out another relieved sigh. After a while, he can even muster the strength to get up, fumble around the shelves a bit more, and make some warm, nutritious drink with the powdered milk and honey he found there. Disgusting, but there's nothing else here, aside from some kind of cereal energy bars he suspects are long past the consumption date, given the general run-down state of the place. They're lucky that honey doesn't waste, and bad milk, ever powdered, generally stinks terribly. What he found smelled harmless. As for water, he has to open the door to get some snow in a bucket he found, which means a small loss of warmth, but it's worth that small drawback. He'll need that water later on, when his friend is well enough to have warm drinks as well.
He stays there, silent, for a while, staring at the gleaming fire, occasionally glancing towards the bed. He's slowly nursing his second cup, served in a dented tin tankard found on the shelves as well, when a faint rattling noise resonates behind him, in a rapid staccato. He turns towards the bed, and notices the other man is shifting ever-so-slightly. He swiftly stand up and sits beside him.
"Zoro?" He asks softly.
But the swordsman doesn't reply. It seems like he's not exactly awake yet, but clearly out of his comatose sleep, if the clattering teeth are any indication. He's also frowning, probably because he's feeling like shit, which is encouraging. At least, it's a reaction. The healthier man hopes he'll be able to tell him how he feels, so he can help him more efficiently.
He knows he shouldn't rouse or stress the man too much while he's still cold, so, very much unlike the way he usually wakes him up, he gently brushes a now warmer hand on the other's cool forehead, whispering in a purposefully comforting tone.
"Zoro, you have to talk to me."
The man feebly shifts a bit more, before blinking, obviously trying to fight the cold and exhaustion. He finally manages to part his trembling lips, even thought they're still sporting that worrying grayish color.
"S-s-sa-n –" He starts, apparently unable to form a proper syllable.
But he has to stop when his teeth start clattering with renewed strength. Frowning harder, he obviously tries to let out one of his usual noncommittal, irritation-prompted grunts, but a faint sigh escapes through his painfully clenching teeth instead, more akin to a silent whine.
"Ok, ok, don't push yourself," Sanji says, intertwining his long fingers in Zoro's hair to keep him still – dammit, even his fucking scalp is cold – in what he hopes is a comforting way. "Don't try to suppress the shivering. It helps you get warmer. That's what Chopper said."
He could tell the damn swordsman that he's an idiot for even trying, or for napping out in the cold, which is why he was sent to fetch him when he failed to reappear after snow started falling in the first place, and thus, ended in this shitty situation. But he doesn't. That dumb-ass might get irritated, and he's in no state to get too excited right now. Also, the fact he tried to call him by his actual name – not "cook" or "curlycue", preceded by some less than amiable epithet, or yet another expletive – prompts him to be, despite the fact it's completely unnatural to him to be acting that way around the guy, twice as gentle.
He must be really out of it, Sanji thinks.
"How do you feel? Are you hurt anywhere?" He ask softly.
After swallowing with obvious difficulty, and despite the intense shivering, Zoro convulsively shakes his head and opens fluttering eyes to look at Sanji.
"J-j-jus' c-c-cold," he finally manages to mumble, before closing his eyes again.
Sanji's hand pauses its ministrations, before leaving the man's hair.
"Ok," he answers slowly. "Ok..."
It's clear as crystal to him that Zoro needs more heat. The room is warmer by now, but with the outside cold, it's not enough. Body contact's what works best, Chopper said. He sighs, but won't think twice about what he's about to do. It's not like he has a choice, anyway. His nakama needs him. And besides, he still feels too cold for comfort, despite the fire's proximity and hot drinks.
He starts by unwrapping Zoro from the blanket, soon replaced by their now dry and comfortably preheated coats, and puts it back on top of the warm bundle. Then, with a last look at the fire, just to make sure it won't die anytime soon, he carefully motions himself to slides inside the covers next to Zoro. He gently wraps his arms around himself and settles down, close, but careful not to disturb the other man.
"Shit. Your feet are freezing," he curses through his breath at the startling contact, when his leg brushes accidentally against the other's cold limb.
But Zoro's unconscious again, though he's still shivering – which Sanji dearly hope is a good sign –and doesn't answer.
He spends the next minutes lying on his side, watching Zoro. He's starting to feel very tired now, after that long walk in the snow, but finds himself unable to sleep. The swordsman's shaking heavily, and Sanji knows that his condition might still worsen, even if he now seems a little better than when they first got here. He knows he won't dare falling asleep, because he doesn't trust himself to wake up if something happens. He really, really doesn't want to wake up to a dead swordsman. Even if the man's a nuisance, most of the time, he'd never forgive himself if he died while in his care. And even if he does get better, he might start hallucinating before then. It wouldn't do any good to them both if he suddenly started freaking out and Sanji was deep asleep. So, he prepares himself to stand watch, despite his exhaustion.
Zoro's still his nakama, in the end, and Sanji would never let him down.
He scouts a tad closer when a particularly violent bout of shivering takes hold of the usually unshakeable swordsman, and after a split second of hesitation, raises a hand and rests it on the other's chest. He's still much too cold, but he can feel his heartbeat through his warmed up fingertips now, and it's a comforting sensation.
Silence stretches with the night, in the small shack, as Zoro keeps trembling, occasionally mumbling somewhat incoherent words in his half-asleep state, while Sanji watches over him.
This situation feels so weird to him. So surreal. Zoro's generally strong enough to care for himself, which never fails to make Sanji feel weaker than he really is. Despite his own skill and strength, he knows that he's nowhere near as strong as the man currently shaking beside him, and will probably never be. He reckons that anyone would feel weak compared to that guy. Compared to Zoro's, Sanji's abilities never seem to be good enough.
Even injured or tired after a fight, Zoro's never seemed weak to him. He never thought he'd ever see him like this, looking so small in the midst of coats and blankets, his ironclad control over his body escaping him like the warmth he'd lost in the snow, with every convulsive trembling of limbs, every clattering of teeth. The more Sanji looks at him, the more he looks... almost vulnerable, paler than usual and shaking like a leaf. Almost frail, though Sanji knows Zoro's anything but frail.
Maybe that's why it feels so strange to him, to worry about that bastard, for once.
Because, despite his obvious skill with swords and monstrous strength, despite his infallible resolve, there's nothing Zoro can do against the cold. Sanji can remember that one time when he went for a dive on that winter island where they found Chopper. And then wandered for a while in the snowy weather, not even wearing a stupid shirt. Sanji wasn't there, but Usopp told him – trust the long-nosed guy to spill the beans as soon as the occasion presents itself. Sanji teased Zoro about that for weeks afterward, but he now feels a bit guilty for doing so. He himself hates when anyone disrespects food or teases anyone's hunge, after suffering for weeks on that rock as a child. If he had known they'd find themselves in this situation, he wouldn't have been a jerk about it. He would have let it slide. But what's done is done, and there's no going back. In the end, despite his strength and control over himself, Zoro couldn't fight the cold, back then. It's not something he can train himself out of, despite all his efforts. All he can do is wait and get better.
And all Sanji can do is wait with him, and hope.
But what feels even stranger to him are the foreign feelings this situation seems to unveil from deep within his core being.
Truth be told, he's always admired Zoro's dedication, strong will, steely control over himself and inhumane physical strength. He's always felt irritated at his stubbornness and impassive front, too – nothing ever seems to rouse that idiot.
But he never hated the man, though they'd never exactly gotten along either. And he certainly never worried about him in the slightest. Not because he didn't care, though. After all, they're nakama. If Sanji never worried about Zoro, even though he knows that idiot has a poor sense of self-preservation, gets badly injured all the time and never listens to Chopper when it comes to recovery, it's because he believed he was able to take care of himself well enough to survive. He trusted his ability to come back alive, at the end of the day, despite dangerous fights and opponents. They might argue about the smallest things all the fucking time, but he trusted his strength and skill.
No, he certainly doesn't hate that bastard. Often feels irritated at him because the man's an ape, yes, but never hated him. He's nakama. He's a friend, despite everything.
"L'amour vache, en fait*," Sanji mumbles, awkwardly chuckling at his peculiar choice of words soon after they leave his mouth.
Surely, love is a bit of a strong word here, though when his nakama are concerned, there's definitely love involved. They're a makeshift family, after all, probably more tight-knit than most blood-bound ones.
But what he feels right now is perplexing, to say the least. It's a complex mix of admiration for the man's strengths, respect for his noble aspirations, despite his bad manners, all this drowned in a puzzling, foreign protective, affectionate urge towards the guy, of the kind he's only ever felt for women. It's not like he's never felt protective towards another man before. His other crew-mates, for starters. Especially Chopper, though the latter is still a kid, but also Usopp, whom Sanji's quite fond of – the long-nosed guy is probably his best friend on board – and even Luffy, every once in a while, when the kid's not trying to steal food. But he's never felt like that towards Zoro. And in the end, these feelings are more akin to what he feels for his female crew-mates, in a way. A weird way, because Zoro's no woman. He's got no refinement, no boobs, and Sanji doesn't find him beautiful or – no fucking way – sexy. That mere thought has him softly chuckle under his breath. And he certainly doesn't need Sanji's protection or help. Usually, that is.
He never thought he'd ever feel so genuinely protective towards the ruthless swordsman. There's no other way to describe what he's feeling right now, and it troubles him more than he'd like to admit.
He doesn't question the nature of these complex feelings, though. He knows it comes from seeing that strong man unusually vulnerable. It'll probably be gone in the morning, when Zoro recovers. It doesn't matter.
He goes on watching, fighting sleepiness stubbornly. Zoro keeps shaking relentlessly, unable to really fall asleep because of that, but he's so exhausted he's not completely awake either, hovering on the verge of consciousness instead. After what feels like a couple hours, though, it seems to Sanji that he's getting a bit better. His chest and forehead still feel lukewarm to his touch, and if the shaking hasn't receded yet, his skin is definitely warmer than before against Sanji's fingers.
He lifts the blanket and coats back a bit so as to check on Zoro's hand and feet again. He gently takes the man's left hand between his own. Definitely warmer as well, though he still can't really make out his fingers' color in the dim light. He then leans over the other's chest to check on the right one. It's a bit colder, but it's only to be expected. It didn't benefit from Sanji's renewed body warmth. Maybe he should try to lie on Zoro's other side for a bit.
Letting go of the blankets, he slowly steps over his crew-mate, careful not to move him around, and settles on the other side of the bed. Lying on his side, he then proceeds to resume his attentive watch, when Zoro's body suddenly tenses, giving way to a feeble bout of coughing.
"Shit," he mutters through clenched teeth, his heart racing with a surge of concern.
He knew this could happen, but he really expected that they'd avoid Zoro catching a cold – if not worse – on top of everything else. He hoped that his nakama would be strong enough not to fall sick. He muffles his concern, though, because as far as he knows, it's a bit early for him to display such symptoms. He closes his eyes. Maybe it's completely unrelated. Maybe he's only coughing because of the shivering – choke on his own spit in the throes of it or something. Sanji can't tell. All he knows is that getting worked up like that is bad for him, even though there's nothing he can do about it – Zoro's most likely coughing because he needs to. Preventing him from doing so might make things even worse.
So, he anxiously waits for the fit to pass. And when it does, he can't help but brush a slightly wavering hand on his friend's shoulder, in what he hopes is a comforting fashion.
"Don't die on me, moss-head," he mumbles, his voice tight.
He wouldn't say such things if he thought Zoro could hear him, but there's no way, not when he's like this. However, when he glances at Zoro's face, his breath suddenly catches in his throat. Because Zoro's looking at him, obviously awake.
Shit. I hope he didn't catch that.
"Hey," he says softly.
Zoro blinks and grunts, then starts shifting under the heavy covers. But Sanji knows it's no good, not so soon, when he's still colder than should be healthy. He puts a light hand on the other's chest, trying to appease his unrest with soothing strokes. He realizes Zoro's not shivering anymore, and he doesn't know if it's a good or bad thing, at this point.
"Don't move yet," he says in a low, soft voice. "Whatever you need, tell me. I'll help."
Zoro closes his eyes at that, and a deep frown appears on his face. He breathes in deeply, and slowly exhales – stupid dipshit still trying to reign his body reactions in, Sanji thinks for a moment – but subsequently lets out what surprisingly sounds like an exhausted sigh, before opening his mouth.
"… thirsty," he finally says, his voice a raspy whisper.
"Ok," Sanji says, already getting out of bed and gathering whatever he needs to make a warm drink, similar to the ones he had earlier. "Don't move, I'll get something."
It doesn't take him long to make the lukewarm beverage – because he knows anything hotter could do more harm than good. But when he sits down on the bed to give it to Zoro, he finds him subjected to yet another bout of intense shivering. He's still fully awake, though, and Sanji reckons he's well enough to drink.
He carefully puts the tankard on the wooden floor, and lightly touches Zoro's shoulder.
"You shouldn't overexert yourself right now, so I'm gonna help you."
The swordsman doesn't reply, grunting noncommittally instead. No objection, then. It's not like that shit-head has a choice, anyway. He slides an arm under the man's shoulders, and lifts him a bit, before realizing the impracticality of this position. This won't do, obviously. He carefully motions himself behind Zoro, his weight resting on his own chest, and his arm around the latter's to keep him upright. Zoro feels a bit tense against him, but doesn't try to resist, probably too exhausted and cold to do so.
He picks the cup from the floor, and raises it towards the man's mouth.
"Drink slowly," he instructs, slowly tilting the cup so Zoro can drink.
They both fall silent as he complies, not having the energy to protest at the somewhat patronizing tone, which he would never fail to do, under normal circumstances. After a while, he feels Zoro suddenly tense, as the latter briskly turns his head away from the cup and starts coughing, some of the beverage trickling from the corner of his mouth. Sanji puts the tankard away, bracing his arm against the man's chest to prevent him from sliding down, and waits for him to calm down. When he finally does, exhausted, he lets his head fall back on Sanji's shoulder, who relaxes his hold on the man.
"Enough? Or do you want more?" Sanji asks.
Zoro drowsily shakes his head.
"How are you feeling?"
After being quiet for a short while, Zoro finally clears his throat and replies.
He shivers again, as if to contradict his own assertion. Sanji would laugh at this display of stubbornness, if he wasn't so worried. Nevertheless, Zoro feels warmer by the minute against Sanji's chest, and it's a comforting sensation.
"Come on, moss-head," he presses. "Are you still cold?"
Zoro shakes his head again, frowning deeply.
"I..." He starts, interrupted by shivers that seem a tad less intense, to Sanji's relief. "It's burning."
If his feet are burning, it means there's no permanent damage. It also means Zoro's getting better for real this time, no doubt about it. His relief is so intense that he can feel his body shaking nervously, which makes him feel a bit silly. But he doesn't think the man sitting up against him can feel that, since he's shivering as well. It doesn't matter. Slightly embarrassed, but knowing it couldn't get much worse, whatever he does, he uses both arms to hug him from behind, and buries his nose in the swordsman's hair.
"Dammit," he mutters, before adding, his voice unnaturally soft : "You're an idiot, you know that? I hate you."
He probably let on more of his distress and concern than he intended to, perhaps because of his overall exhaustion, but he doesn't care. Because, even though Zoro doesn't reply with words, he can soon feel his large, trembling hand cover his own.
Sanji can't really remember what happened afterward. Exhaustion finally got the better of him, and he fell asleep soon after that strange moment of somewhat reluctant bonding between them.
When he wakes up, he first has trouble remembering where he is, until memories from the night slowly flood his drowsy mind. He feels uncomfortably warm, and his left arm is asleep. He opens his eyes, squinting against the sun, spilling from the shack's dirty window onto the bed. But he doesn't close them, his attention soon diverted towards the sleeping swordsman in his arm, to his utter astonishment.
Zoro is currently snoring softly, his face in the crook of Sanji's neck and an arm around his waist. He also draped a leg over Sanji's during the night.
He can't remember when they ended in such an embarrassing position. He would usually feel uneasy at their current level of entanglement. They're to close for his own comfort, and he'd most likely kick the other awake. But he's still half asleep, and after the previous night's event, he feels more relieved than anything else. Besides, he's also embracing the other guy, so he can't really blame him. Right now, he doesn't care. Zoro's body feels warm against his own, which is a small victory in itself. Moreover, his quiet snoring is nowhere nearly as loud as when he's caught a cold – Sanji knows that from experience. The only time it happened since he joined the crew, Sanji was brutally awakened by what he first thought was a raging thunderstorm inside the boys' cabin, only to realize later that it was only Zoro's stuffy nose. A small smiles creeps on his lips at the silly memories.
Everything's gonna be fine.
He absentmindedly tightens his hold around the other guy's chest and buries his nose in his hair. Zoro retaliates by instinctively snuggling closer in his sleep. He acts almost like an affectionate kid, when he's asleep, Sanji muses. He reckons that the idiot marimo is almost tolerable when he's not being his usual boorish self.
He draws back and silently peers at his companion's face. His face is peaceful, his brow relaxed, a somewhat unusual view, though not foreign to Sanji. He's watched the guy sleep often enough and know that, even though it never happens while he's awake, he generally stops frowning as soon as he truly falls asleep – which happens less often than observer could think after a mere glance. His breathing halts for a second, when he realizes he just admitted to watching Zoro sleep, regularly enough to know what his sleeping face looks like. He discard the thought with a silent, still somewhat sleepy snort.
He muses that Zoro's face is quite handsome when he's not frowning like he's got a stick up his ass. Even though he's currently drooling on Sanji's shoulder, a thin wet line trailing from his slightly parted lips. Yeah, Sanji should definitely kick that dumbass for staining his shirt like that. But he's too drowsy still, and too relieved that his friend is ok to do so, right now. Bickering can wait.
Besides, Sanji has other things in mind. He needs to get out of bed. Aside from a full bladder that needs to be attended, their crew-mates are waiting for them to return, and they're probably worried.
Better get going, then.
He none-too-gently untangles himself from Zoro's limbs and pushes the blanket and coats aside before sitting up and proceeding to put his clothes on. In his back, he can feel Zoro starting to stir on the bed. Good. They can probably leave in a short while, if that idiot is awake.
As Zoro sits up, drowsily scratching his leg, he retrieves his coat from the bed. They don't speak, but now that Zoro's awake, he can feel a lingering tension, slowly rising between them, some quiet yet unnerving feeling that they left some things unresolved, despite fact the worst is now over.
He opens the door and steps out in what he now realizes, in broad daylight, is a clearing amidst the tall pine trees. After taking care of his aching bladder, he reaches into his coat to retrieve a cigarette, and promptly lights up. It's still cold outside, but nowhere nearly as bad as the previous day. The blue sky is devoid of clouds, and if the sun isn't exactly bright, it's unmistakably there. From its position in the sky, it's not even that late. They could get back in time for him to start on breakfast.
He turns back towards the inside of the shack, only to find Zoro fastening his shoelaces.
"We'd better get going. If we hurry, we might reach the ship before Luffy wakes up."
Sanji winces ever-so-slightly. He really doesn't want to burden his beloved female crew-mates with the task of feeding their captain and his bottomless stomach.
Zoro doesn't answer, but goes on getting dressed, silently complying while Sanji briefly checks the fire, making sure it's out before leaving the place.
"Ready?" He asks when he's done.
He sighs when Zoro grunts his answer. It looks like things are back to what they were before the night's events. And he's pretty sure they won't talk about it. Well, it's not like he expected things to be different between them afterward. Not really. Maybe it's better that way. More comfortable for both of them.
"Let's go, then."
He exits the room and waits for Zoro to follow him, ready to close the door behind them. But the swordsman, instead of doing so, stops in his tracks right in front of him, an unusual faltering in his stance. Sanji glances up at his face, but Zoro's not looking a him, his eyes intent on the inside of the shack. On the bed, actually, which has Sanji's heart beat just a tad faster, his mind overwhelmed with memories of the night.
The other opens his mouth, just to close it again moments later. He looks like he's about to say something, and finds it incredibly hard. Or embarrassing. Sanji looks at his face intently, but doesn't dare asking. Something tells him that he'd ruin the moment if he opened his big, clumsy mouth right now.
"I..." Zoro starts, ultimately trailing off and opting for a different wording. "About last night..."
And Sanji can barely believe his own eyes, but the future greatest swordsman in the world is kind of red on the face and neck – which he catches a glimpse of from under Zoro's coat, before the latter decides to focus on fastening its numerous buttons, purposefully avoiding Sanji's gaze.
He blinks in disbelief, refraining from taunting the big, obviously embarrassed guy in front of him, before opening his mouth.
"Yes?" He presses, his tone soft and his voice, a mere whisper, unwilling to scare the man away.
Zoro's done buttoning up his coat, yet he still doesn't dare meeting Sanji's eyes. He raises a slightly wavering hand to scratch the back of his head, clearly uncomfortable about what he's about to say. He looks like he's fumbling with words, with emotions he has trouble comprehending entirely. Finally, he parts his lips once last time.
"… Thanks," he says, his usually gravelly voice muffled in his embarrassment. "For caring."
For caring. Not "for taking care of me", and Sanji, aware that Zoro's a man of a few words, catches the difference in meaning. At these words, he suddenly feels very warm in the face. And it feels equally warm in his chest, which he doesn't quite know what to make of. He's really embarrassed, all of a sudden, but also puzzled by the unexpected affectionate urge to ruffle the other guy's hair. He doesn't give in to it, but the feeling's definitely there.
"You're welcome, moss-ball," he answers, promptly closing the door and walking away from the shack, making sure Zoro's not wandering off in the opposite direction. "Let's go."
He doesn't know if things will change, in the end, he muses as they walk towards the ship, towards their waiting nakama. Maybe they already have. Even if they go on arguing about the smallest things, even if Zoro still aggravates him most of the time after this, he knows that his feelings, at least, have changed. And he also knows that, even if it mostly disappear now that Zoro's well and out of danger, there will be a residual protective drive left in him, long after it should be gone. He doesn't think he'll be able to forget the feeling of Zoro's wide frame shivering helplessly against his anytime soon. Or of his warm embrace, for that matter.
It's not that bad, he reckons, and maybe it's just the way things should be.