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Taste Challenge

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Sanji tapped the spoon against his lips as he analyzed the mouthful of flavors. Lavender, honeysuckle, warm wax and sunshine. Excellent. The spice-merchant had touted his honey as the ‘best in the Grand Line’; the kind of gross exaggeration any salesman worth his salt would try, but it was good enough for 400 belli. Sanji gave the pot he’d purchased a satisfied look. Pirates could keep their treasure. This was Sanji’s gold...

The galley door opened behind him. Sanji turned with a pleased grin, which crashed and died into a grimace when he saw who’d walked into his kitchen. Anybody else would have been dragged over to the counter to share the honey’s flavor, especially if it were Nami-san or Robin-chan, but the cabbage-head was the one guy aboard who wouldn’t be able to appreciate it.

"What are you doing, you dumbass cook?"

"Tasting the honey," Sanji said slowly and kindly, the way he’d answer a five year old with painfully obvious questions. Zoro’s eyes narrowed.

They’d been strafing each other for three days now, ever since that bloody Groggy Match had forced them to cooperate. It was one thing to have Zoro fighting somewhere else on the same battlefield, causing insane amounts of damage to the bad guys while leaving Sanji to fight his own opponents undistracted. They’d gotten used to that. But actually teaming up and helping each other was a novel experience, and their combined lethality had been...unnerving. The verbal onslaught of the past three days was just their way of showing the world and each other that nothing had changed between them, even if they had managed to fit their fighting styles together like clockwork for a few seconds. At some level where this all made sense - possibly a level earmarked by the Y chromosome - Sanji knew they’d keep it up for a few days, and then they’d go back to their usual gamut of interaction: ‘indifferent’, 'competing', ‘drunkenly cordial’ and ‘get the fuck out of my way, marimo-head'.

"Do you drool into all our food? 'Cause I'm losing my appetite here."

"I don't drool-" Sanji wondered if he actually had real sparks of aggravation flying from his head, because it sure felt like it. "I’m checking the quality of my ingredients, I'd never be able to cook if I- but I’m not going to bother explaining this to a guy with the sense of taste of a head cold."

The thought he'd had when Zoro walked into his kitchen a minute ago drummed in Sanji's mind. The one guy aboard who wouldn't be able to appreciate it...

"I don't go for all that frilly gourmet stuff." Zoro had that highly unimpressed look on his face that just begged to be kicked. "That's your domain, pansy love-cook. I-"

"Shut up a minute and try this."

Zoro's angular eyebrows crooked in surprise. Sanji had tossed his spoon in the sink, grabbed another one and dipped out some of the honey.

"What-"

"Just taste it."

That earned him the kind of hard stare that froze large dinosaurs in their tracks. Sanji returned it watt for watt. Trust the knucklehead to make this harder than it had to be.

"Try it, or all your meals are vegetarian from here on out."

Zoro opened his mouth to call Sanji on that dangerous bluff, and got a spoonful of honey in the chops for his pains. He took the spoon with ill grace, finished the honey and shrugged.

"It's sweet. It’d be okay on bread, but like this-"

"Hold on, hold on." Sanji snatched a clean spoon from the drawer. His other hand reached blind and caught a bottle from the cupboard. He had the cap off, a dollop poured and the bottle back in place less than a second later.

If Zoro was impressed by this display of speed and dexterity, he showed sod-all traces of it. The spoon’s contents got the kind of look usually reserved for rat poison. He started to say something- intercepted Sanji's hand this time by grabbing him by the wrist, hard, before Sanji could stuff the spoon into the mouth the bastard had obligingly opened.

Their gazes crossed like blades over the spoon. Finally, Zoro took it in his other hand and put it in his mouth rather than argue.

"It's oil." He sounded disgruntled, but the lines around his mouth had smoothed out. The taste had intrigued him. Yeah, it had been stupid to start him on honey, what a waste of a shot.

"It's not 'oil'," Sanji corrected absently. "It's the darkest, richest, smoothest sesame oil in the East Blue. 2500 belli a bottle."

"For oil?" said the ignorant lug in a 'pull the other one, it's got katanas on it' tone of voice.

"Hold on." Sanji was rooting around in the fridge. "Grab another spoon."

"What?"

"Sorry, I forgot you're useless in the kitchen, as well as anywhere else you're not required to hurt things. Here." Sanji fetched the spoon himself and unscrewed the jar's cap.

"Why are you doing this?" Zoro sounded completely suspicious by now.

"It's a challenge."

That was speaking Roronoa’s language. Sanji was awarded a look of grudging interest.

"We played this on the Baratie with the new cooks. I make you taste five ingredients - you don't have to tell me how you like them, I have to guess - and then I have one try to prepare something that'll-" blow your mind, were the words that almost slipped off Sanji's tongue, but that just didn't sound right- "that you'll like."

"You could have done that right away by giving me some grog. That's what I came in for," Zoro muttered.

"Shut up and try this."

Zoro gave the yellow blob a dubious look, but took the spoon because he was constitutionally incapable of resisting challenges, something Sanji had counted on.

The semi-sweet lemon chutney was Sanji’s secret weapon against both scurvy and bland taste. It made their ship independent of a fresh supply of citrus fruits, though the Grand Line had so far proved pretty easy for provisioning, apart from meat. The tart chutney was a highly secret recipe that Zeff had taught him. Which is to say, after a grueling day-long cooking session during which the fourteen-year old Sanji had helped prepare a pirate’s banquet, Zeff had rewarded his exhausted apprentice by ‘accidentally’ leaving the ingredients of his famous chutney out, and Sanji, after much trial and error, had reproduced it. Zeff had confirmed his success in their usual way, by kicking Sanji through a table for stealing his recipe. It had been a great day.

Zoro’s eyebrows twitched.

"I don’t like sweet things," he grumbled. Sanji barely heard him, just noted the way Zoro was running his tongue on the inside of his mouth, chasing the aftertaste. The cook had known that’d go down well. It wasn’t that Zoro didn’t like sweet things; he just needed some tang to go with the sweetness. For Zoro to like something, it couldn’t surrender unconditionally; it had to fight back.

Sanji was grinning like a barracuda; not an expression he'd show the ladies, but good enough for blades-for-brains. He already had a good idea what he was going to make the bastard eat for the final challenge, but he still had two ingredients to go. Next out of the fridge was a small pepper, firecracker-red and considerably hotter. Just for the hell of it.

"Trying to scare me, pervert cook?" Zoro took it from Sanji and bit right into it. A mild flush colored his cheeks, but his eyes barely watered. Figured, the guy had an iron stomach and a mouth desensitized by a steady diet of fish bones and bad gin. Bastard, thought Sanji mechanically, already reaching for the next item in the crisper.

Zoro eyed the green stick Sanji held out. "I don’t like celery."

"I know," Sanji said with a vicious grin, so of course Zoro had to eat it. The cook took a second to enjoy the look on Zoro’s face, then moved on to the finale.

Zoro didn't have time to further bitch about the booze he still wasn't getting. Sanji’s hands operated with the speed and accuracy of the swordsman’s blades. He cut off a bite-sized piece of the smoked and honey-cured salmon he'd prepared last week. It was well preserved by now, the flavors rich. He added a caress of the sesame oil, a shake of pimento sauce, a counterpoint of sake and wrapped it in a sprig of lemongrass growing in the herb pot near the porthole.

He stabbed a fork through the fish and jabbed it like a poniard at his test subject. Zoro took it in the spirit it was given, taking the fork, sticking the food into his mouth and chewing once in a 'I'll be dead and buried before I lose to you' kind of way.

Then his face twitched and his eyes widened. He tried to hide it, but if there was one thing a cook could recognize, it was the look of someone who’d enjoyed what had been put in their mouth.

Sanji afforded himself a victory cigarette and turned to put the caps back on the ingredients before returning them to their slots in the cupboards, which protected them from the ship's roll. He didn't need Zoro's exclamations or praise. The game was played by Sanji against Sanji; Zoro was just the mark of his success. Sanji had won. He'd nailed it in five basic ingredients and one minute of preparation for the finished product. Even Zeff couldn’t have done better. Take that, you crappy old geezer.

There was a 'humph' from Zoro, a sign that he wasn’t all that impressed. It had come ten seconds too late to be all that convincing, but Sanji was too princely a man to gloat. Then he turned back to find Zoro with the tines of the fork still in his mouth, like a kid with a lollipop, and decided that a bit of gloating was quite admissible under the circumstances.

"Don't give me that sad look, marimo; if you mop the kitchen floor for me, I'll make you more."

Zoro jerked the fork from his mouth and levelled a number three glare at the chef, the kind that normally came from beneath a bandana. "I didn't say I liked it. That much."

"A gorilla would have liked that, shithead. A corpse would have liked that." Sanji took a sensual drag of his cigarette. "Come on, admit it."

"I just want something to drink. To get the taste out of my mouth."

"Here." Sanji stretched a long leg, stopping Zoro's progress to the side of the room with the liquid supplies. He hooked a foot under the neck of one of the bottles and whisked it out, making Zoro lean in quick and grab for it. Sanji smirked. "Better than the stuff you usually swill. It'll complement the taste."

"Huh-uh. Open a bottle of that fancy wine of yours while you're at it," Zoro suggested. "Use your eyebrows."

Sanji grinned wolfishly and ground out the cigarette. "Get out of here, you bloody ingrate. I've got dinner to prepare."

Zoro stalked away with the booze. Sanji reached for the ingredients of tonight's casserole, but his mind was clocking over.

...Sanji didn't wonder why he made the plan. It didn't matter why; ‘why’ was probably covered by one-upping the bloody swordsman, and maybe there were other reasons - stranger reasons - but that was the only one that really counted, right?

By the time he closed the oven doors, he had himself a new challenge. The cabbage-head would be eating out of his hand within the fortnight and liking it, or Sanji was no chef.

 

---

 

He started simply. Zoro outclassed him in brute force by a smidgeon and in pig-headedness by quite a lot, but Sanji could think circles around him, and he knew the pea-brain’s psychology.

They were called Ocean Tarts in the trade: salty ship's biscuits - and since they were Sanji's, there were crunchy and tasty even after months in oiled paper - with a dollop of the lemon chutney on top. Any good cook could make exquisite food in a fully staffed and furnished kitchen. It took a truly talented sea-chef to make something nutritious, tasty and safe in the small galley of a rocking ship with ingredients that might not have been replenished for weeks, even months.

The tarts were positioned strategically close to the wine rack. They looked like the ship's biscuits that anyone in the crew would help themselves to, and they were small enough to tempt yet not elaborate enough to be wary of. Also, they weren't meat, so Luffy might actually leave some if he happened upon them first. The zing and hidden sweetness of the chutney, heightened by the salty simplicity of the biscuits, made them an easy winner.

At the hour Zoro usually finished his daily training and raided the kitchen, Sanji took a teapot with some of the tarts and went to join the ladies where they’d sheltered from the rain. They were both in their room, Nami-san studying charts and Robin-chan reading a book.

"Like a drop of sunshine," Robin-chan murmured as she admired the gloss of chutney on the biscuit. "Thank you, cook-san."

Sanji’s noisy ecstasy lasted until his return to the kitchen, where it turned into devious triumph. He’d left a dozen tarts behind, and now half of them were missing. Hm, but only half. He’d left them alone in the kitchen long enough for a guy with a really big mouth such as Zoro; why hadn’t the swordsman finished them off? A challenge...

Still, he had to stay on plan. Accordingly, he leaned out of the galley and shouted to no one in particular: "Hey, you bastards, stop filching food from the kitchen!"

Which turned out to be a minor strategic error.

"Food?! You have food in there?! Sanji, I want some!"

He let Luffy have the rest of the tarts and a few ham-rolls for the sake of his sanity, and planned step two.

The next day, there were more tarts left alone in the kitchen at about the time Zoro stopped his daily calisthenics from hell and went looking for some booze, possibly to numb the pain. More Ocean Tarts, but this time they were topped with liquor-preserved cherries, adding to the merry color of the lemon chutney. The ladies liked them even more (Sanji kicked himself for not having thought of this right off the bat; maybe he should be doing some training and improving himself).

When he got back to the galley, all the extra tarts were gone. Chopper and Usopp were playing chess on the foredeck, watching their course. Luffy was in the crow’s nest. There could be only one person responsible.

Victory was sweet. But this was just the beginning. Time to up the ante.

The next day, the trap was baited with something a bit more daring. The pie’s crust was as golden as a pile of doubloons, hiding a treasure of unsweetened berry preserve layered with a small amount of honey, nuts and melted butter. Sanji strategically cut out three pieces, one of which he left in the pie plate, just begging to be grabbed and sampled.

The other two pieces were smothered in cream and sugar and presented to Robin-chan and Nami-san. He watched them eat it, enthralled - leaving the dessert alone in the galley for the required amount of time, the pie smell filling the kitchen (but fortunately downwind from Luffy and Usopp).

When he got back, the pie platter was empty, even the juice spills swiped up. Sanji picked up the platter and expertly twirled it on his fingertip.

"'Don’t like sweet things' my ass, cabbage-brain."

He sent the platter clattering into the sink and charged outside.

Zoro had settled down for his post-training nap. Sanji walked right up to him.

"Hey," he said loudly.

Zoro slept on.

"HEY!"

Zoro didn’t move, but the snores were replaced with a short "What?"

"You ate my pie, bastard."

Zoro cracked one eye open to look up at Sanji. He measured the cook in silence for half a minute. Sanji waited, all righteous indignation, some of it even unfeigned. His other shipmates would have quailed and blamed each other, but the advantage of this being Zoro was that he was not about to deny anything.

"Yeah, I did. I was hungry. As the ship’s cook, you’re not supposed to let that happen. That is your job, right? There’s gotta be some reason why we keep you onboard."

"Yeah, I'm the cook, that's my job, and you know, I always wondered what the hell you do around-"

"I’m trying to sleep, here."

"Just don’t eat the special treats I prepare for Nami-san and Robin-chan," Sanji growled. "If you're hungry, I'll put together a platter of something suitably edible, or possibly a trough. Don't nick the good stuff if you're unable to appreciate it."

"Whatever."

Sanji stalked off, trying to keep the cunning smirk off his features (Chopper, coming around the larboard side, took one look at his face and dived for cover, so maybe Sanji had to work on that some more). The line had been drawn. Not that that would stop Zoro, who made it a rule to ignore lines as a matter of course, but the line was there nonetheless. One day soon, it would cost Zoro a toll in pride to cross it. He'd be forced to admit that he filched Sanji’s food not just because he was hungry, but because he enjoyed it. A lot. He’d have to admit it to himself, and he’d have to admit it to Sanji. And then...after that it was a bit vague, but Sanji knew that he’d have won, and he’d get Zoro to bark for treats. Yeah, that would happen, right after all the oceans froze over and the sun came down to ice-skate. Still, victory would be Sanji’s, and they’d both know it.

---

It took longer than a fortnight. There were days a chef just couldn’t catch a break. The Going Merry was assaulted by a vanguard of Marines, which was pretty standard, and then caught in a pincer attack by some pirate hunters for a change. The tropical storms weren’t too much of a problem, but the sheeting ice and blizzard that followed were a bit more challenging. Pirates attacked them, the weather shifted from summer to winter in a matter of minutes, the rain of frogs provided some interesting eating, though Sanji couldn’t convince all his crewmates to try...Life as usual on the Grand Line.

When he actually had the time, Sanji continued to implement his plan. He whipped up recipes he'd not used since the Baratie. The ladies loved the little treats, and while those delightful persons enjoyed them, the oaf crept into the kitchen and polished off the leftovers. Sanji let it slide a few times, but more often than not he'd charge out onto the deck and tear the bastard a new one. Zoro was about as easy to chastise as a shark with an attitude, so the slanging matches sometimes gave way to a minor scuffle; quick blows, Zoro barehanded, parries, shoves- it was half practice, for when the Marines and the bounty hunters left them alone for too many days. Zoro seemed to be enjoying those, which wasn’t part of the plan, might even be detrimental to it, but Sanji was getting too much entertainment from trying to kick the pea-brain overboard to care that much.

Sanji had rather lost count of how many days it had been since the challenge had started. He grated a fine drift of pepper onto the small meat pasties buried in golden crust, and then frowned at the clock. It was only two in the afternoon, but today's timetable was shot all to hell. They'd been attacked late last night by a bunch of pirates. Presumably pirates...Most buccaneers fought under a flag or bore a symbol of their brotherhood. These guys had all been wearing hula skirts, for reasons Sanji's sanity preferred not to contemplate. Most of them didn't have the legs for it, either. It had been a relief to pitch them all into the drink and put a hole in their ship. The Straw Hats had staggered back to their hammocks very late thanks to those losers. Zoro hadn't gone to bed at all, keeping watch for pursuers and lifting one of the Merry's cannons to while away the time.

Chances were, he'd curtail his training and make his way to the galley half a day earlier than usual, to get a jump on his nap. The pastries were ready now, just in case. Sanji decided to go for a smoke and check out the lughead's progress, and see when he might be expected to raid the kitchen.

Zoro had put the cannon back, as well as the weight, and was doing pressups with a long flat box of something stupidly heavy roped onto his shoulders. Usopp was sitting on the box, hand on the rope to hold on. He was testing a gyroscope for one of his weapons, and telling anyone who would listen (only Chopper; Zoro didn't look interested) about his days as a weight-lifting champion. A normal day aboard the Going Merry, then. Sweat licked Zoro's body, despite the crispness of the fall season they were sailing through. Muscles moved like waves flowing. He was gasping, a short, hard rasp, and he had that hard grin on his face, the one Sanji had dubbed the 'I'm hurting myself and liking it' look. Sanji judged Zoro would be done in half an hour or so. That would be the time to take an early afternoon tea to the ladies and leave the kitchen unguarded.

He finished his cigarette, returned to the galley at a leisurely pace, swung open the door and ran right into Luffy who was on his way out, licking his chops with a satisfied air.

Sanji made a strangled sound. "You- you- what- eating-"

"Oh Sanji! We’re running low on meat again," Luffy said, in the manner of one being helpful and full of foresight. The fact that he was responsible for the lack of protein on board didn’t seem to figure into the matter.

Sanji made hoarse growling sounds. There was the smell of smoked ham joint wafting from his captain. "How did you get into the fridge?!"

"Oh, if I flatten my hand like this," Luffy said, illustrating by bringing up his fingers and elongating them like pasta dough being pulled, "I can wedge it under the padlock and wiggle the chain off the handles."

Sanji glared at him, but the way Luffy had said that, as if he really didn't have a clue the padlock was put in place exclusively to keep him out, was somewhat disarming. Then he caught a glimpse of the kitchen over his captain's shoulder. "You- you didn’t eat the pastries?"

Luffy glanced back in surprise, then he looked straight at Sanji and said simply: "No, you made those for Zoro."

Sanji had his second cardiac incident in as many minutes. "Wh-what?!"

Luffy picked his teeth; he was acting like it was obvious. Sanji felt a cold trickle run down his spine. Luffy was dumb beyond definition sometimes, but his strangely pure gaze had ways of seeing the world that occasionally made more sense than mere logic would allow.

"Um...I don’t actually...he filches things...it’s not like..." Sanji couldn’t actually lie to his captain. Not to Luffy.

Luffy lifted a finger, a vaguely inquisitive look on his features. "Hey, I was wondering..."

Yeah, Sanji was sure Luffy was wondering about a lot of things, starting with why the hell was the cook making some really good food for Zoro on a near-daily basis- and right this minute, Sanji didn’t know if he could really explain it. He knew he had a plan, and at the end, he was going to show Zoro up somehow-

"When’s supper?"

Sanji once more recalibrated his thoughts to Luffy-Level. Luffy didn’t ask questions like that. He didn’t care why people did things, as long as his gut instincts told him they had a good reason.

"Supper? You just ate my refrigerator, blockhead."

"Don’t be stupid, I didn’t eat the fridge. Metal doesn’t taste good. I only ate the pork joints and the ham. There wasn’t that much left, which is why I said we’re running low and I’m hungry."

Sanji closed his eyes, feeling a vein twitch in his forehead. "Get. Out."

"If Zoro doesn’t want those little bakeries there, can I have-"

"Get out!"

"I’ll come back when he’s finished. Tell him to leave me some, okay?"

"Ngn."

---

Three days later, they made landfall in a port that actually welcomed pirates instead of trying to turn them in for a reward, and Sanji was able to stock up on provisions. Staples, fresh produce, spices, cigarettes, and enough meat to feed a bananadile for a month. Sanji trudged back to the Going Merry, wondering how long this lot would last him. A week? Two? Unless he found a way of really securing the fridge...

He shifted the bag of rice so it rested better on his shoulder. "You could help me carry some of this."

He could have browbeaten Chopper or Usopp into helping, even Luffy if he could keep his captain’s attention focused all the way to the pier, but the asshat who'd joined him on the way back to the ship was made of sterner stuff. Zoro walked right on, hands in his pockets. "Yeah, you're right, I could."

"It'd be weight training."

"Not heavy enough."

Sanji got a better grasp on the box that was digging into his ribs. "You never know until you try."

"Just how dumb do you think I am?"

"By the time I finish answering that, we’ll be back on the Merry."

"...You got a way of asking for favors."

"You got a way of walking right into insults. Makes it hard to resist."

Zoro was silent for a minute, then he shrugged off the rucksack he was carrying. "Since you’re hauling all the rest back to the ship, take this too. It's digging into my spine."

Sanji stared at the bulging bag - which looked quite heavy - dangling by a strap from Zoro’s finger. "Why the hell should I carry your shit, you-"

"Nah, it's not my stuff, it's Nami's."

"Give me that, you bastard!" Sanji put down the rice and slabs of pork and grabbed the precious bag before the barbarian did something typical, like drop it. "Why did she give it to you?! She knows I’d carry the world on my shoulders for-"

It was the heavy clink the bag made; it was Zoro’s nasty grin as he stepped back; it was instinct. Sanji gave Zoro a hard look, and shifted the bags he was still carrying until he could wrench open the rucksack’s top. There was a lot of stuff inside, starting with a jar of steel polish and an iron disk that looked like part of a weight set. There was a definite lack of frilly underwear, scents, elegant clothes or anything remotely delicate and feminine.

Sanji dropped the bag and kicked it with deadly strength and accuracy at the grinning ape. The missile slammed into Zoro's outstretched palm before it could bowl him over. His feet scored the earth over a couple of inches as he absorbed the impact, but other than that he could have been catching a beach ball. He swung the bag over his shoulder and strolled off, free hand still in his pocket, ignoring the boggled-eyed stares of the bystanders. He had a hard-edged smile on his mug. That'd probably been the most fun he'd had all day.

Laugh it up, chucklehead, Sanji thought, knowing full well he had a paper bag full of comeuppance under his arm, in the form of fresh eggs, purest cane sugar, cream and butter the cow was proud of and, the best find of all, a pricey chunk of chocolate so rich and bitter it qualified as black magic.

Tomorrow, Roronoa Zoro was going down.

---

Sanji was running late. He'd spent all morning trying to foolproof the fridge’s padlocks as much as possible - the old one and the shiny new one that Nami-san, his angel of mercy, had financed when he'd shown her the grocery bills for the past two months. He'd been so busy, he'd lost track of time.

He put the finishing touches to the cake, leaving it rough around the edges with great artistry and deliberation since his designated victi- patron for this dessert would automatically disregard anything too frilly. He didn't have the time now, but he'd cut off two pieces before he vanished from the galley and hide them. He'd decorate them later with cut candied fruit, flowers and casting sugar, to make up for the cake's hidden chocolaty bitterness, and present them to the ladies for dessert this evening.

Sanji scowled at the clock and applied the last touch of the ganache icing with three flicks of the flat knife. He licked the blade as he stepped back to give the cake a critical look, and then his eyes glazed over.

He'd not tasted the ganache while he made it, because a true cook knew what he was getting when mixing ingredients, like a painter knew precisely what type of blue he'll get when mixing two shades. But on rare occasions, reality could surpass expectations.

Damn, Sanji thought, a whimper escaping around the knife, I knew I was good, but I didn't think I was this good.

And that was when it hit him...

...Sanji’s hands tightened dangerously on the handle. The kitchen dimmed around him, a pit opening at his feet...

He'd created a masterpiece; stolen a small slice of heaven from the gods. And instead of thinking of Nami-san or Robin-chan, he'd been wondering how that big lug of a swordsman was going to react.

That was just wrong. No, you had to invent a new word for this degree of wrongness, several in fact. Catastrophically Out Of Whack might get near it.

Sanji blinked. A hand was waving in front of his face, prudently.

"Oi, did you manage to poison yourself, you bloody cook?"

Sanji realized he was in the kitchen, the knife tip still in his mouth, and the culprit, the one responsible for all this fiasco, was right next to him.

Zoro had a bottle in his hand, which meant that he’d actually been in the galley for maybe a minute before wandering over from the wine rack to the counter to see what was up with the cook. He gave Sanji an odd look, but then his eyes went from the chef’s stance to the cake. That would not have happened a couple of weeks ago, when it would have been dismissed as some 'goddamned sickening sweet shit', back before Sanji had introduced him to finer foods. Tempted him, an inner voice whispered, rich and dark as the chocolate icing...seduced Zoro into appreciating a certain diversity in his...tastes. Sanji groaned internally. The innuendo was getting out of hand.

"That looks..." Zoro paused, as if looking for a word which couldn't be misconstrued as a compliment but that wasn't dishonest or liable to get him kicked out of the kitchen. "...edible," he finally concluded.

He’d unbent so far already...how was he going to react to something that had been designed to be as tempting - that horrid, dysfunctional part of Sanji's mind whispered ‘alluring' - as possible? More to the point, how was he going to react when he finally figured out Sanji had made it for him?

Sanji's self-preservation told him to grab the platter, pile-drive the cake into Zoro's face, dump the icing into the sea and find the darkest corner of the Going Merry where he could drink an entire bottle of that fine brandy he'd been hoarding until it killed the brain cells that were clearly malfunctioning. But if Sanji's self-preservation had been anywhere near as strong as his pride as a chef, he'd never be on this damned boat looking for the All Blue in the first place, and he'd have to be deep in Davy's Locker before he wasted food like that.

He forced himself out of his state of mild panic and took a mental step back. This had all started during that taste challenge. Zoro had wandered into the kitchen while Sanji was sampling the honey- why had he gone to such lengths after that? The truth was, the original reason of humiliating the marimo in some way now looked much, much thinner than the icing on that cake he'd worked on for hours. He kept hearing Luffy say, in that straightforward way of his, ‘No, you made those for Zoro.’

This wasn't just one-upmanship. It wasn't a challenge, it wasn’t a stupid game. Sanji looked inside and found a horribly tangled knot that had been the original reason he'd started all this. There were motivations there he did not want to look at too closely. But there was one reason that made sense, all the way down the Grand Line and the dangers they'd faced together. The kind of reason worth fighting for.

"Sit."

Zoro's eyebrows shot up at the steel in that tone. "Huh?"

"Now."

Zoro went to sit down slowly, hands braced on the galley table and chair pushed back in case he needed to dodge a kick. Sanji cut off a large slice of the cake, dumped it on one of their metal galley plates and put it down on the table without any ceremony. He grabbed a fork from the drawer and tossed that down too.

"Eat."

"Sanji..."

Zoro was staring at the cake as if it had insulted his swordsmanship, but his voice was oddly quiet. "I rag you because you're a dumbass, but I have never said you weren't a good cook."

"I know."

Zoro's gaze flickered from his plate up to Sanji and quickly back again. "I'd even say that...you're not a bad cook at all. Not that I’ve got much standards to go on, there."

"Wow, two statements in a row that I can agree with and something that almost sounded like a compliment. Careful, don't hurt yourself." The sarcasm was a reflex. Sanji was waiting.

"So what the hell is this about?" Zoro asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

"What's it look like, numbnuts? It's cake, and I want you to eat it."

"Why? You don't have to prove anything."

Sanji pinched the bridge of his nose, longing for a cigarette, but when he spoke his voice was as quiet as it was determined.

"There's nothing for me to prove, because if there's one thing I know, it's that I’m a cook. A damned good one. It’s my job to feed people. I've fed merchants and pirates, thieves and murderers, the innocent and the damned. I've fed the starving and people I knew would try to kill me, and I even gave Momoo the Sea-Cow a good shot, so I'm damn well going to feed you, Roronoa Zoro."

"You've been feeding me ever since you came aboard. I've not been this well fed since I was twelve." It almost sounded like he was blaming Sanji for something.

Sanji shook his head. "I've been putting nutrients into your body - and the way you treat your body, you daft fucker, you need them, but that's not feeding you. Feeding someone is giving 'em a taste of a small joy in life."

Zoro's eyes hardened. Maybe he liked to pretend that apart from boozing, sleeping, training and trying to kill Mihawk, he had no other joys in life. The cook had met enough pirates to know that sometimes, that’s all there was to a guy who lived by the sword. But he’d seen Zoro whoop as their ship blasted off into the sky; he’d watched the swordsman put himself between his friends and danger, watched him laugh with them afterwards...a guy didn’t laugh like that if there wasn’t more to him than three blades and a death wish.

"So that's what I'm going to do, you pain in the ass, because you might be a monumental prick, but you're a guy who needs- who needs to be fed, and you're sitting at my table- and you're my nakama, you moronic bastard, so you're going to eat that fucking cake or I'm going to insert it down your throat and make sure it sticks there. Enjoy."

Sanji turned around and walked out. For an instant that hovered forever, it was all going wrong- but then there was a bemused snort behind him and a drawled "Was that a wish or a bloody order, dartboard-brow?"

The sound of a fork clinking against a metal plate followed Sanji out the door. He waited just long enough to hear a startled sound of surprise and - yeah, that marimo-head could try to hide it, but that was definitely the sound of someone enjoying the best cake in his life. Deep inside, Sanji had the strangest feeling...like he'd dodged a bullet, or maybe like he hadn't dodged a bullet only to find it didn’t hurt after all...He shook himself free of the weird mood, closed the door, snagged his pack of smokes and lit up.

He took a drag and then glanced down at the cigarette in surprise. What brand was this? It tasted fantastic. He went to the starboard railing and watched a school of (tasty-looking) sparkling fish leaping from the water, following the Merry. Sanji hunted down and got rid of the crazy smile that was trying to take over his face. The sea smelt even better than the cigarette, crisp, briny-rich; so strong he could feel it on his tongue. It tasted like adventure and victory and having nakama at your back.

Sanji let the wind tease the smoke from his lips, and decided the fish of the All Blue would taste a bit like that.