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Learning to Listen

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"Here," Sanji handed him a tray full of food and drinks as he sat down across from him.

"Thanks," Zoro set the tray down in front of him and happily dug in.

As Sanji lit a cigarette, Zoro glanced around at the rest of the party. The people of Cocoyashi sure knew how to throw one, especially after years of subjugation. There was plenty of food and drink to go around, which is all he cared about, but also dancing and entertainment of all sorts. Earlier he saw Usopp standing on a chair or twelve leading the villagers in some elaborate song of his own creation.

Zoro eyed Sanji from across the way. He hadn't been impressed with him back at the sea restaurant, but Luffy had apparently seen something in him, at least enough to force him to join the crew. Sanji wouldn't have been Zoro's choice, but Luffy had been right about Nami, so chances were that he had a good sense about Sanji. Besides he had been a good asset in the fight against the Fishmen, so he'd probably work out fine. Either way, it'll be nice to have a chef on board.

"How are you feeling?" Sanji asked suddenly, drawing a line down his chest in a mimic of Zoro's own cut, "Now that you're all stitched up."

Zoro took a swig from his mug before answering, "Better."

"I'm sure, now that you aren't bleeding all over the place," Sanji said, and they lapsed back into a comfortable silence. Zoro ate some of the food while Sanji fidgeted with his sleeve, before eventually asking, "Uh, can I ask you kind of a personal question?"

Zoro swallowed as he nodded, "Go ahead." They were going to be sailing together, after all. Things like personal space and boundaries didn't exist on a ship.

Sanji flicked the ash off his cigarette, "What do you think about soulmates?"

Zoro took a bite of chicken as he contemplated his answer, "I mean, I know they exist, but I find the whole thing, kind of, you know," he waved the chicken leg in the air, "pointless."

Sanji frowned, "What do you mean?"

He shrugged and continued, "I used to have one, but they died when I was little."

Sanji's frown deepened and he took another drag of his cigarette, "What happened, if you don't mind me asking?"

Zoro picked at the food on the tray, "When I was little, I used to get these cuts and bruises all the time. Not from anything I ever did, I mean, I did have my fair share of scrapes, but these were different. Eventually I realized they came from my soulmate," he shook his head, "How pathetic is that? Someone had the other half of my soul and they couldn't even keep it safe."

"I'll bet," Sanji looked away, "You seem like the kind of asshole who would think like that."

Zoro rolled his eyes, Kuina had always told him as much, "Anyway, one day out of nowhere, I got really hungry, more hungry than I'd ever been before or since, and no matter how much I ate I was still hungry." Sanji crossed his arms and gripped his forearms tightly as Zoro continued, "The doctor said that the hunger wasn't mine, it was my soulmate's, that they were off starving somewhere and I was getting the echoes. She sat me down and talked me through a bunch of soulmate stuff, mostly what to expect when half your soul dies on you," he shrugged, "So I figured my soulmate died."

Silence fell between them, not nearly as comfortable as before.

"Did you feel it?" Sanji asked, fingers buried into the sleeves his suit jacket, "When your soulmate died? It's supposed to an excruciating experience."

"No," he admitted, "But eventually the hunger ended and I stopped getting echoes, so I'm pretty sure that's what happened."

"I see," Sanji took another drag from his cigarette, "Who knows then? Maybe they're still out there but they've learned to keep themselves out of trouble."

"Maybe," Zoro shrugged as he took another sip from his mug, "I kinda hope not. I'm not sure how I'd feel about that, having my life tied to someone who gets their ass beaten so easily."

"Yeah, that would be the worst," Sanji put out his cigarette and placed the butt in his pocket as he stood up, "I just wanted to know since we'd be sailing together and all. Anyway, the night is young, and there are plenty of girls in this town just ripe for the flirting."

Zoro scoffed as he took another sip of his drink, "Good fucking luck," but Sanji was already gone.

Sanji had shown up late, long after all the Baroque Works agents had been taken care of and everyone freed from their wax prisons, with nothing but a goofy smile, an Eternal Pose to Alabasta, and a jacket for Nami. Typical.

As Sanji grabbed a rice cracker from Luffy and sat down on the log, Zoro noticed that his shoes were covered in blood. He wasn't worried per say, but if the dumb cook was hurt and hiding it that would be trouble for the rest of them.

He sat down next to him, "What happened to your feet?"

Sanji looked down and blinked as if he'd just noticed, "Oh, don't worry about that. It's not mine."

"I'm not worried," Zoro huffed, "Also not what I asked."

"What you thought I got that," he nodded towards Vivi and the Eternal Pose, "for free?"

"There was a fight?" If Sanji also got attacked by Baroque Works wherever he was hiding, just how many agents were on this island?

"I took care of them," he lit a cigarette and took a drag, "Don't worry."

"Still not worried," he frowned and glanced back down at Sanji's feet, "But that's an awful lot of blood for a quick skirmish."

Sanji rolled his eyes, "Yeah, well, some of us also don't use fancy weapons when we're hunting. Some of it's probably dinosaur blood," he pointed his cigarette at Zoro, "Speaking of, remember, we're still in a hunting contest. You owe me a dinosaur."

"Oh, I got you one. Wait 'til you see it, it's huge. Much bigger than anything you could bag," he took one more look at Sanji's feet. The blood was on top of his shoe near his ankles, not really where he'd expect blood to be after Sanji had kicked something's skull in. Then again, Zoro wasn't a martial artist. How would he know how Sanji was supposed to kick something?

"I'll believe it when I see it," Sanji exhaled a stream of smoke and gestured at Zoro's feet, "Before that, maybe you want to do something about those?'

Zoro looked down at his own ankles. The cuts he had given himself were still flowing freely, the blood gathering at the rim of his boots and dripping inside. It was a bit uncomfortable, and more than a little sore but, "I'm fine."

"Sure you are," Sanji rolled his eyes, "What the hell happened?"

"Got stuck in the wax, tried to cut my feet of to escape, only got about halfway," he shrugged, "You know how it is."

"Yeah, those are going to need stitches," he stood up, finishing off his cigarette, "C'mon, let's go clean you up. On the way I'll show you the giant lizard I caught. Much bigger than whatever you grabbed."

"Dream on, Cook," Zoro smirked as he stood up and followed him, "My rhino is huge. It'll make your lizard look like an ant."

They continued bickering all the way back to the ship.

Once they were back out at sea, Zoro slogged into the kitchen, aiming for the alcohol stores.

"Oh no," Sanji said, with a forceful kick that pushed him to the table, "You're not bleeding all over my damn kitchen. Sit right there until I stitch you up."

"What, you're gonna stitch me up now?"Zoro asked with a raised eyebrow, "You don't have to. I can do it myself later."

In response, Sanji placed a bowl of boiling water, a towel, bandages, a needle and string, and a bottle of gin on the table, "The general idea is to close the wound before you bleed out, so tough shit. We're doing this now."

"Then have at it," he grabbed the gin off the table and put his feet on the bench between them.

Sanji sat down on the bench and picked up the towel out of the hot water basin. He wrung out and wiped the blood off of Zoro's ankles. When he was done, he grabbed the bottle of gin from Zoro, poured some of it on the towel before handing it back, and wiped down Zoro's ankles again. It stung a little, but not so much that it hurt.

With all the cleaning done, Sanji set the towel aside and pulled out his lighter. He flicked a flame into existence, picked up the needle, and held it to the flame, "You ready?"

Zoro put his right foot in Sanji's lap, "Go for it."

The first stitch hurt, a lot, a searing hot rod pulling skin back together does that, but as it went and he drank more of the gin he got used to the painful tugs on his sensitive skin. He looked down at the floor where Sanji's feet were planted and noticed that the blood from earlier was gone, "You cleaned off your shoes already?"

Sanji paused in his work and followed Zoro's gaze, "Yeah," he said as he went right back to it, "Some of us don't want to track blood everywhere we step."

He wondered when, between preparing the dinosaur meat, setting sail, and setting up this little operation, Sanji had the time to clean off his shoes. But he was always a neat freak when it came to contaminates in his kitchen; even if he didn't have the time, he would have made some somehow.

After a few minutes of silence, Sanji cut the string and grabbed the bandages, "The right's done," he said as he bandaged up the wound, "That wasn't so bad, was it?"

Zoro wiggled his toes and moved his ankle as much as he could in the bandages, "I guess not."

Sanji cleaned off his ankle and prepared the needle again as Zoro placed his left foot in Sanji's lap. He took a long sip of the gin and leaned back against the bench as Sanji began his work once more.

"Thanks," Zoro said. Sanji paused as Zoro continued, "You know, for doing this."

Sanji squeezed his ankle a little tighter before he picked up right where he left off saying, "No problem."

Zoro felt a kind of peace settle over the room, and he relaxed as much as he could as Sanji continued healing him.

Zoro sat down in the snow with a hiss. His back had been bothering him since the avalanche earlier that day. While stretching it out with the fight in the village helped, climbing the mountain must have aggravated it again, as it was hurting worse than it had all day.

"Is everything alright, Mr. Bushido?" Vivi asked.

He nodded, "Yeah, my back's just acting up for some reason. It's weird since I didn't anything to hurt it. All I've done today is go on a frozen water swim, exercise, fight a bit, and climb a mountain."

"And the avalanche," Usopp reminded him from where he was building a snowman, "Don't forget the avalanche."

"You must have strained it in the avalanche," Vivi said as she pulled off a mitten and walked around to his back.

"I guess," Zoro said as she knelt in the snow and felt the muscles on his back, "But it's weird. The snow did move me a bit, but I didn't land on my back or hit it against anything on my way down."

"Nothing feels strained, but it's hard to tell through the coat," she pressed down on his lower back, "Does that hurt it more?"

Zoro shook his head, and she pressed down harder, "Better or worse?"

"It's not changing anything," he leaned back a bit as she pulled away, "It's getting better though. It was hurting a lot more before."

"It could be a soulmate echo," she said as she stood up, "If it's getting better, maybe they got help."

"Yeah," Nami said as she poked at Sanji's unconscious form, "Wonder if that's what happened."

"Nah, that can't be it," Zoro said, "I'm pretty sure my soulmate's dead."

Nami rolled her eyes as Usopp concentrated on sculpting the snow in front of him. Vivi gasped, hands clasping over her mouth, "Mr. Bushido, I'm so sorry to hear that!"

"It's fine," he shrugged, "I was just a kid when it happened, so it's not like I knew them."

"But it must still hurt, right?" she asked as she pointed at her heart, "Right here?"

He raised an eyebrow, "No? Really, I didn't even feel it."

"Oh," Vivi lowered her hands and frowned, "It's just, when your soulmate dies, you feel it right by your heart for the rest of your life. At least, that's what my father said happened to him when my mother died."

"Huh," he glanced down at his chest and raised a hand over his heart. Aside from the dull throb in his back, he didn't feel any pain, especially not what Vivi was describing. So that bastard had survived, after all these years.

"That's common knowledge, you know," he looked up and met Nami's eyes. She was frowning, gaze steady as her gloved hand stroked Sanji's hair, "Once they die that pain lives with you forever."

"Yeah," Usopp said as he put the last touches on his snowman, "That's kinda the whole point of a soulmate, isn't it? You feel each other's pains throughout life, and when half of your soul dies, you feel it for the rest of your life."

Luffy laughed from atop the snowball he was rolling around on, "Zoro's so dumb."

Zoro glared at him, "I don't want to hear that from you!"

Before anyone could lob another insult at him, the reindeer burst back out of the castle pulling a sleigh behind him, and they were off running.

The fight in Alabasta left them all exhausted, literally collapsed on the street at one point. Eventually they managed to drag their weary bodies away from the alley and into the wing of the castle Vivi let them stay in.

Once they were settled in, Chopper wasted no time in checking them all over and treating the worst of their wounds. After he finished with Luffy, he determined Zoro was the next person most in need of attention, probably because he was still covered in his own blood, and got to work.

"I don't see why I have to go next," Zoro said, taking off his shirt to let Chopper get at all the cuts Mr. One left on his chest, "Usopp's wrapped head to toe in bandages, Sanji's also covered in blood, and Nami's been complaining about her leg for hours."

"I already treated Usopp, that's why he's covered in bandages," Chopper explained, "Nami's leg wound can wait while your injuries need to be treated right now, and the blood all over Sanji is-" Sanji gave Chopper a look from across the room. Chopper met his eyes for a fraction of a second before he broke eye contact and muttered, "Not his."

Zoro smirked over at Sanji. After all the times Sanji had called him out for walking around with other people's blood on him here he was doing just that, but Sanji refused to meet his eyes, probably because of his hypocritical shame.

"Can you tell which injuries are yours and which ones are soulmate echoes?" Chopper asked as he applied some sort of salve to Zoro's cuts, "I don't want to treat something I don't have to."

The rest of the crew fell silent, not so subtly waiting for his answer. Zoro rolled his eyes. Ever since he had found out that his soulmate was still alive somewhere, they'd been ridiculously invested in their general welfare, but what were the odds that they had gotten hurt the same day he threw himself into the middle of a civil war?

"It's hard to tell what's an echo and what's not when my entire body is throbbing in pain," he answered.

The rest of the crew groaned. Sanji grabbed his cigarettes and lighter and went out on the balcony as Nami said, "So the great Roronoa Zoro can't even keep track of his own injuries?"

He ground his teeth, "It's hard to keep track in the middle of a fight! You wouldn't understand."

"Of course I can," she said with a smirk, "I was in a harrowing battle too you know, but I was still aware enough to know which injuries were mine and which were Vivi's the whole time."

Vivi blushed and looked away. Nami reached out and grabbed her hand with a soft smile, "You were able to keep track of my injuries too, right?" Vivi nodded, and Nami leaned over and kissed her cheek.

Not to be outdone by Nami, Zoro thought back on his fight with Mr. One and the subsequent fights through the streets of Alubarna, trying to recall each blow he took, where he took it, how much damage it should have caused, and if anything was hurting more than it should. Eventually he came up with, "My ribs are a little bruised? I don't think anyone hit me there hard enough to cause bruising."

Chopper nodded, muttering something about idiots and hiding injuries, and got to work bandaging up Zoro's torso.

"Well," Usopp said as he glanced out the window to the balcony, "It's a start."

Zoro had no idea what he was talking about, but he grunted in agreement.

Zoro grunted staggered back, clutching his stomach. It suddenly felt like someone had punched him in the stomach with a cannonball. He had no idea why, but he knew who to blame.

"Is something wrong, Mr. Swordsman?" Robin said, stopping as well.

They were exploring the giant Skypiean forest that the crab had dropped them off in the middle of, Upper Yard he heard the locals called it. It was known to be a dangerous place, God's home turf, and they had to be on their toes at all times, not be distracted by soulmates.

"It's nothing," he said as he straightened up, only to wince has he was hit by a sharp pain to his back, as if he was thrown against something.

"Is it a soulmate echo?" Nami asked as she scurried over the tree root, "Are they okay?"

"Why do you care so much?"

Robin raised an eyebrow in confusion. Nami shot her a look before turning back to Zoro, "Is it so wrong to be concerned for your friend's soulmate?" Zoro shrugged, so she continued, "What's wrong, are they in a fight?"

"Yeah, I guess," he shrugged as another blow throbbed through his body, but one he could easily ignore, "Someone's kicking their ass."

Nami bit her lip and walked on ahead. Zoro and Robin followed her lead.

"You don't know who your soulmate is?" Robin asked after a few moments of silence.

"No," Zoro said as he scratched his head, "I guess if we're destined to meet or whatever, then we'll meet eventually."

"Indeed," Robin said with a small smile, "Do you think your soulmate ever worries about you?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're a pirate and a swordsman. You get into fights almost daily and sustain heavy injuries. Surely your soulmate must be worried about what you get yourself into?"

Zoro never thought of it that way. He recalled every slash and cut, every broken bone and bruised muscle he got since he left the dojo. It was a lot. His soulmate probably thought he was some kind of masochist, "I'm sure they're used to it by now."

Nami snorted, "I'll bet."

They walked in silence for a few more moments before Nami turned to ask, "Are you even curious who your soulmate is?"

"Not really," Zoro shrugged, "I don't really care about the whole soulmate thing, and it'll be hard to just run into them, since we're sailing all the time."

"Hm," she turned back around, "Damn, I feel bad now."

"Don't. Like I said, I don't care."

"Not for you, for your soulmate."

Zoro raised an eyebrow at her, "What do you mean?"

"It's nothing," she waved, "Forget about it."

That left Zoro even more confused. Robin's giggling didn't help either.

"Whatever," he said as he marched ahead of them.

"Zoro, that's the way we came from," Nami pointed out.

He ground he teeth in frustration and let Nami lead them through the forest.

Zoro rested his hand against a nearby tree as he tried not to scream. He had just been walking through the forest, trying to find either his lost crewmates or the City of Gold, when suddenly every nerve in his body felt like it was on fire. He'd been hurt before, he'd been hurt so many times in so many ways, but nothing quite like this, the pain dancing through each nerve in his body. Everything from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet was in searing pain. He had no idea where it came from and worse, there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Slowly, tenderly, he pushed himself into a sitting position, resigning himself to waiting it out, forced to hope that at some point it would end.

Eventually, much slower than he would have liked, the pain faded away. Instead of a searing burn, he was left with tiny jolts here and there, jumping around until they faded as well, and he was left with a general soreness throughout his entire body. Uncomfortable, but he could deal with it.

He sighed and stared up at the canopy above him. It'd never happened to him before, but he's pretty sure his soulmate just got their dumb ass struck by lightning.

He touched his chest right above his heart. Now that the pain had faded, he didn't feel anything there, certainly nothing as agonizing and chronic as the others had described, so they weren't dead yet.

This was ridiculous. As if the beating they took yesterday wasn't enough, now he was dealing with getting struck by lightning. He envied people without soulmates like Luffy and Usopp, who could live their lives without being tethered to someone else.

When he was little, he was frustrated and angry to learn that the cuts and bruises that almost constantly appeared on his skin were someone else's fault, that half of his soul was in the hands of someone so weak. Then that godforsaken hunger came, and when the doctor told him his soulmate might die, he was happy that he would be done with this shit. But no, his soulmate had lived, was still out there doing whatever the fuck with their half of Zoro's soul.

That wasn't fair. They didn't ask for this any more than Zoro did. They were out there living their life doing what they thought was best, and he couldn't begrudge them that, especially since he's been getting himself sliced open fairly regularly since he left his dojo.

Still, he was aiming for the very top, the title of the Greatest Swordsman in the World. That would take all of his skill, willpower, and focus to obtain. He couldn't afford to be blindsided or weighed down by someone else's mistakes like this.

But it wasn't like this was going to go away, so all he could do was learn to work around this. His soulmate's echoes had gone quiet for almost a decade. They'd only started up again recently, after joining this crew and having everyone remind him he still had a soulmate. If he had ignored them away before, he could always try and do it again, but what if Sanji was right and they had just managed to keep out of trouble until now?

He could try to find them. If they were by his side, he would always know where they were and what they were doing. At the very least, he'd be instantly aware of their injuries and it wouldn't be such a shock to his system. At most, he could protect them.

Then again, that would mean they'd be on this crew, getting into all the dangerous shit he was. Considering they're dumb enough to go wandering around in a thunderstorm or whatever, they'd probably end up dead before long.

Maybe it would be better, not having to deal with their shit anymore. Maybe the constant pain from having them gone would be worse.

Either way, Zoro wasn't going to tempt fate one way or the other by trying to find them. It's like he told Robin, if they were meant to meet, then they'd meet.

When the pain faded away completely, he stood up and continued on his way.

Zoro sat back to back with Sanji on the Straw Hat side of the Groggy Ring field, supporting each other even though they were both really sore from the running and the fighting and would just rather pass out. They had won their match and were now waiting until their Doctor could rejoin their crew and patch them back up again.

"Hey," Luffy appeared beside them, all grins and barley contained energy, "How're you feeling?"

Zoro lifted his head to glare at him, and he felt Sanji do the same, "Sore. Tired," he said.

"When's Chopper coming back?" Sanji asked.

"Soon," Luffy assured them, "The Foxy Pirates need to set up for the ceremony, or something," his eyes darted back and forth between them, "So, you guys feeling any soulmate echoes…?"

Zoro saw Nami smack her forehead, heard Usopp groan and Robin giggle, and felt Sanji shake his head as he responded, "There's aches and pains all over, Captain. It's hard to tell one from the other."

"Assuming there's even an other," Zoro added, "My soulmate could be anywhere doing anything. Who's to say they're not spending their afternoon relaxing?"

Luffy frowned, but Usopp put his hand on his shoulder, "It's fine. C'mon, let's see if they're ready to give Chopper back," he said as he led Luffy away. Nami and Robin followed, but stayed close enough in case Sanji or Zoro needed anything.

Something about that conversation bugged Zoro, so he asked, "Do you have a soulmate that you haven't told me about, Cook?"

He felt Sanji stiffen for a few moments, then heard the click of a lighter and smelt the scent of tobacco in the air, "Yeah, but I figured you wouldn't care."

"I don't," he said, and he didn't, at least when it came to soulmates, but it was Sanji, so for whatever reason he did, "I was just wondering, since you've never mentioned them."

Sanji chuckled as he exhaled more smoke, "Yeah, well, it's not exactly something I like to talk about."

Zoro frowned, "You? Mr. In-Love-With-Love and Happily Ever Afters? You don't want to talk about the person you're destined to spend forever with?"

He exhaled more smoke, "It's not, a story with a happy ending. Honestly it's barely a story, and whatever story is there is doomed for tragedy."

"Do you know who it is, then?"

"Yeah," he sighed, "And that makes it worse."

Zoro thought about his own soulmate and wondered if knowing who it was would make the whole thing better or worse, "How so?"

"Because I love them," he said as he took another drag from his cigarette, "And they'll never love me back."

That didn't seem right. Soulmates were supposed to care for each other indefinitely; that was the whole point of sharing a soul, at least as far as Zoro had been told, "You don't know that."

Sanji's shoulders shifted as he chuckled humorlessly, "Yeah, I do."

"Have you tried talking to them without being a complete moron?"

Sanji laughed, "Yes, I've talked to them. It doesn't matter," he leaned his head against Zoro's, "When I was a kid, I had this fairy-tale fantasy about meeting them. We would fall madly and love and I'd sweep them off their feet and we'd live happily ever after," he sighed, exhaling more smoke, "But real life isn't like that, and I guess I'm still struggling to let go of the dream. Some things just weren't meant to be, Marimo."

Zoro wanted to protest, wanted to tell him that some things were worth fighting for, if you really wanted them, but whatever happened between Sanji and his soulmate was between Sanji and his soulmate, and it wasn't his place as an outsider to butt in, "I'm sorry to hear that," he said instead.

"That's alright," he took a drag from his cigarette, "I like what we do have. It may not be everything I want, but what we have is good."

Zoro felt Sanji's back move against his own as he leaned further into him. For a moment he felt a deep and wistful longing in his chest. If Sanji was his soulmate, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Sure, he was an annoying pain most of the time, but they just proved that they were a fantastic team, and he knew Sanji could take care of himself, so he wouldn't be as bothered by the echoes. Maybe if he was Sanji's soulmate he'd be able to give Sanji what he wanted. He'd never wanted to before, especially not for his own soulmate, but for Sanji he would.

Not that it made a difference. Zoro may not have known exactly who his soulmate was, but he knew they were weak and fragile, and Sanji was anything but. Still, now that he was thinking about it, the what-ifs kept buzzing through his head.

All he said aloud to Sanji was, "I guess."

They fell into an uneasy silence as the Foxy Pirates announced the next crew-snatching ceremony.

Zoro looked down at where Kaku at dropped his key. A quick glance at his face showed that he was unconscious and would be for a while. He picked up the key and stared at it, tracing over the number 5 with his thumb. If Sanji had succeeded too, all they needed was to get the keys to Robin.

Thinking about the cook must have had the power to summon him, because just then Sanji came screeching to a halt into the room, shouting, "Did you get the key, Marimo?"

"Yeah," he tossed the key at him. Sanji caught it and put it in his breast pocket. Zoro glanced out through the cut up tower at the bridge below, "We need to hurry if we're going to get to Robin in time."

"Don't worry," Sanji nodded towards the stairs, "We've got our secret weapon on the roof."

As they made their way up the stairs, the upper part of the tower started to slip again, "You really did a number on this tower," Sanji said.

Zoro shrugged, "It was the giraffe."

"Don't come any further," Usopp shouted from the top of the stairs, "It's not stable up here. If you've got the keys give them to me and wait down there."

Sanji dug the keys out of his pocket and tossed them up to him, "We're counting on you, Nose King."

"It's Sniper- whatever. Robin's on the bridge, so I need to get going. Watch from down there," he said as he scampered the rest of the way to the roof.

Zoro and Sanji went back down to the room and waited near the slash in the wall.

"How are you holding up?" Sanji asked, "I see you've managed to keep most of your blood inside your body this time."

"Shut up," Zoro said as he took a mental check of the wounds he received from Kaku. Most of it he was pretty sure was his, but a few things, bruised ribs, a few small stabs in the chest, a sore back that felt like someone dropped him down a few flights a stairs, and for some reason his foot was hot, that he didn't remember getting. He chalked those up to his soulmate getting into some kind of ridiculous and ill-timed trouble, "Some soulmate echoes that are a bother, but I'm fine. What about you? Did you break a rib again?"

Sanji frowned as he felt his sides, "No, I don't think they're broken."

He lit a cigarette as they lapsed into silence.

"Do your soulmate echoes ever flare up in the middle of a fight?" Zoro asked.

Sanji exhaled smoke as he answered, "Sometimes, but they don't really bother me. My soulmate's always in a fight, so I've gotten used to it," he glanced over at Zoro, "What about yours?"

"I don't even notice my own injures when I'm fighting unless they're debilitating."

Sanji laughed, "Typical."

"I don't really notice the soulmate echoes until after a fight," Zoro scratched the back of his head, "That's a relief, since the rest of the time it's just a burden."

Sanji frowned and looked out at the bridge, "Huh."

"What?" Zoro scoffed, "You don't think it's a burden?"

He took a long drag from his cigarette before responding, "No. I like knowing what they're up to, and if they're in trouble and need my help."

"How can you even help, dumbass, you're at sea most of the time."

"There's other ways of helping other than physically being there," he said.

It wasn't really an answer, but Zoro let it slide, "But you're feeling their pain, that's annoying."

"It's just pain," he shrugged, "It's not like its damage."

"Still, being forced to carry the weight of someone else's pain, you don't find that a nuisance when you're just trying to do your own thing?"

"Not really, I find it comforting, knowing that there's someone else out there feeling the same," he smirked and gripped the edge of the building tight, "But I guess my soulmate isn't as much of a fuck-up as yours is."

Zoro scoffed, "I guess not."

Explosions rang out from the bridge, effectively ending the conversation as they monitored Robin's fate.

Zoro wasn't expecting to wake up again, and it took him a few moments to recall why, the whole thing coming back to him in bits and flashes. He remembered Kuma, and making the deal with him, then Sanji standing in front of him, and him knocking Sanji out. He remembered pain, so much pain, more pain than he had ever felt before, and he felt a twinge of regret for putting his soulmate through that, but if Luffy was still alive then it was worth it. He thought Sanji might have been there in the end, after everything was said and done, to drag him back to the crew, but he could have imagined that.

Chopper insisted on giving him a thorough examination back on the Sunny. He answered all the medical questions honestly and to the best of his ability, but for the questions about what had happened he gave the same answer he gave Sanji.

"Well, you'll recover," Chopper said once he finished reapplying the bandages, "It'll take a while, but as long as you actually rest and leave the bandages on, you should be able to start your regular training regimen again in about a month or so."

"A month?" he couldn't sit around for a month doing nothing! If this incident showed him anything, it was how much more he needed to train.

"Yeah, and don't you dare think about doing anything strenuous until I give the say so," he glared at him, "Doctor's orders."


Chopper gave him one last glare before cleaning up his medical equipment.

Zoro glanced down at his chest. Chopper had applied some kind of salve on all his various cuts and bruises and his torso had bandages crisscrossing every which way. The unbandage spots were few and far between, but there was one particularly nasty bruise on his side that the doctor failed to treat.

"You missed a spot," Zoro said as he poked at the bruise.

Chopper looked up from what he was doing and glanced over, "Oh, that's not yours. Don't worry about it."

Of course, he's over here dying and his soulmate has to go and get knocked around too. Typical, but wait, "How do you know it's a soulmate echo?"

Chopper froze, "I-I'm a doctor! I can tell a real bruise from an echo, easily!"

That made sense. Zoro poked at it again and didn't feel any additional pain normally associated with poking bruises. What the hell had his soulmate been up to to get smacked in the side like that?

As he studied the bruise, he noticed it looked familiar.

Zoro knew his swords as well as he knew his own body, he wouldn't be much of a swordsman if he didn't. They were an extension of him in every sense. Granted, he'd only had Shusui for like two days, most of which he's spent unconscious, but they'd spent long enough together for him to at least have the basics down. Things like the weight and balance, the length of the blade, the feel of the grip, the shape of the hilt.

That same hilt was now imprinted on his side.

How could his soulmate have run into Shusui? This bruise was much too recent for them to have gotten it from Ryuma, either as a person or a zombie, and the only opponents he'd fought with her so far were Oars, who was a zombie and dead, and Kuma, who was pretty much a robot.

And Sanji, who he'd slammed Shusui's hilt into when he knocked him out.

What the fuck?

"Hey, Chopper?" he carefully asked, not taking his eyes off the bruise for a second, not even blinking in case it vanished on him, "Do you know who my soulmate is?"

Chopper froze again, halfway through putting some medicine back into his bag, and slowly turned his head to face Zoro, "Nooo, whaaat? Why would I know that? How could I possibly know something like that?" He forced out a laugh.

So he did know. Zoro tore his eyes away from the bruise to stare right into Chopper's eyes, "Is my soulmate Sanji?"

Chopper's eyes went wide and a little wet as he looked away, "Yes."

Zoro closed his eyes and exhaled as he rested a hand on the bruise. It was Sanji, all this time it was Sanji, "How long have you known?"

"Pretty much since I joined the crew," Chopper scratched his hoof against the table, "I treat both of your injuries, so it was something I was bound to realize eventually," he looked back up at Zoro, "I'm sorry, I wanted to tell you from the beginning, but Sanji made me promise not to and-"

Zoro's eyes shot open at that, "Wait, Sanji told you not to? Sanji already knows?"

"Well, yeah," Chopper frowned.

"How long has he known?"

"Uh, I don't know? Since before I joined the crew," he shrugged, "Sanji said he wanted you to figure it out on your own, so he told us not to-"

"Us?" Zoro glared as he tightened his grip on the bruise, "There's an us? Who else knows?"

Chopper's eyes darted around the room before they landed on Zoro, "Uh, everyone on the crew. At least I think Franky knows, and I'm pretty sure Brook does too, though I'm not sure how he figured it out?"

"Brook knows?" Brook's known them for all of two days and he figured it out before him? "Did everyone but me know?"

"Yeah," he clutched his bag, "Pretty much."

"Even Luffy?"

"Especially Luffy."

Zoro stared at the wall. He had always prided himself on his keen observation skills and warrior instinct, but he had been sailing with his soulmate for months and didn't even realize it. He really did have a ways to go.

But first things first, "Where's Sanji now?"

Chopper blinked, "On the island still, I think. Last I saw he was cleaning up from the party."

Zoro took off as fast as his still healing body would let him.

He eventually found Sanji sitting by the coast behind the graveyard. His back was facing Zoro, and he didn't look up as he approached, only took a long drag from his cigarette.

"If you've come to threaten me into silence, don't bother," he exhaled and the smoke drifted above his head, "I won't tell anyone what happened."

"I know you won't," he took a moment to stare at Sanji's back, at how the sunset reflected across his golden hair, the soft fabric of his hoodie, the way the smoke from his cigarette framed his head, how his shoulders were a steady line, and just let it sink in that this was his soulmate, that Sanji was his soulmate.

"We're soulmates," he said after a long silence.

Sanji's back stiffened, but he quickly relaxed and closed his eyes as he took another drag. When he released the smoke, he replied, "Yeah."

Zoro waited for him to say more, Sanji always had more to say to him, but he said nothing, "That's it?"

Sanji put his cigarette out in the dirt next to him and leaned back on his hands, "Who told you?"

"Chopper," Zoro said as he took a seat next to him, letting his feet dangle off the edge of the cliff over the ocean, "But I'd already figured it out."

Sanji hummed in acknowledgment and kept staring at the outer wall.

For once in his life, Zoro found the silence maddening, "How long have you known?"

"Since the beginning," he traced a line across his chest, mimicking the scar on Zoro's, "I saw you get this, remember? I felt it when it happened," he shrugged, "It wasn't hard to put two and two together and come up with four."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"What, right then?" he smirked, "I figured you had more important things to worry about, like not dying."

"Later then, smartass," Zoro leaned forward to look at his face, "You've known since we first met, but you never told me. Why?"

Sanji frowned, "You made it clear that you didn't care about soulmates. Hell, you didn't even like your soulmate, so what was I supposed to do? Admit that the person you've hated your whole life was me?" He shook his head, "You'd figure it out eventually, and I decided to just deal with the fall-out then."

Zoro scoffed, "I don't hate my soulmate."

"You said you'd prefer it if I was dead."

"No I didn't," Sanji shot him an unimpressed look before looking back out at the ocean, "Well, maybe I did, but I didn't realize I was talking about you."

"No, you were talking about that kid who got beaten up on a near daily basis," his fingers dug into the dirt, "Who tried to defend himself but failed every time, who couldn't even give a tenth as good as he got," he grit his teeth and turned to face Zoro, fire and rage in his eyes, "You were talking about the kid who was stupid and reckless enough to get himself stuck on a fucking rock in the middle of the ocean with no food and no way off for months. You didn't give two shits about him."

Zoro stared back, "I care about you now."

"You care about me now," Sanji scoffed and turned away, "Don't think having a soulmate and feeling their echoes is a burden anymore?"

"Not if it's you."

"It's been me the whole time!" he snapped and glared at him. Zoro stared back, for once not sure what to say in the face of Sanji's anger. Eventually Sanji looked away, sighed, and stood up, "Whatever, its fine. We don't have to be in love or anything, we can keep going on as we have been. Nothing will change between us."

He turned and walked away. Zoro scrambled to his feet and said, "You told me once you loved your soulmate," Sanji paused, Zoro continued, "Is that still true?"

Sanji sighed, "Yeah."

Zoro's heart beat a little faster, "Then why? Why can't things change?"

"Because you still don't love me back."

"What if I do?"

He lit a cigarette, "You don't."

"You don't know that."

"Yes I do," he turned to face him, "When you took on Luffy's pain, did you even stop to think about how that would affect me? Not as your friend or crewmate, but as your soulmate?"

"I didn't even know you were my soulmate until like two hours ago."

"That's not the point. Did you spare your soulmate even a thought before you took on Luffy's pain?"

Zoro looked away.

Sanji scoffed, "That's what I thought."

"Why are you so mad?" Zoro asked, "I don't understand."

"Why am I mad?" Sanji clenched his fists, "Oh, I don't know. Maybe because I'd been waiting my entire life for my soulmate, through all the cuts and bruises and pains, endured them knowing that out there, there was someone who felt them too. And when finally, finally I meet them, I find out that they didn't give a flying fuck about me all this time, that they considered me just another burden they had to bear. I think I'm entitled to feel a little bit of rage after all that, don't you?"

Zoro couldn't change the past, couldn't go back in time and heal Sanji's wounds or make his younger self care about them. All he could do was to do his best by Sanji from here on out, "What do you want from me?"

Sanji's shoulders slumped. He took a long drag from his cigarette and slowly exhaled before replying, "I don't want anything from you."

Zoro stood there frozen, unable to move or call out to him, as Sanji walked away.

Zoro knew he needed to talk to Sanji alone again at some point, but he figured that it would happen naturally on its own. They sailed together after all; an opportunity was bound to present itself. Besides, if Sanji wanted space, and with the way he'd been avoiding him it seemed like Sanji wanted space, Zoro was more than happy to let him have it. They were still soulmates, still an intricate and irreversible part of each other's lives. When Sanji was ready to talk again, Zoro would be ready to talk.

Then the fiasco at Sabaody happened, and suddenly Zoro was on a faraway island, separate from his crew for the foreseeable future.

At least he knew Sanji was still alive. And if Sanji was alive, then the others were alive too, and if they were still alive, they'd find him eventually. All he had to do was put up with Perona's whining and wait it out.

He got the news in the worse possible way. The newspaper told him that not only did Ace die, right in front of Luffy, but that Luffy was the only Straw Hat in Marineford when it happened, that he was alone. They had all been separated, and shit, getting back to them just got a whole lot harder.

Then came the realization that this was Mihawk's goddamn castle, Luffy's request to meet up again in two years, and Mihawk agreeing to train him during that time.

So it would be two years before he could talk to Sanji about the whole soulmates thing again, but it's not Zoro's fault. Zoro's trying to do good by Sanji, it's just hard when the last time they were alone together he got all pissy and stormed off and now they had to spend a few years apart.


Maybe the time away would do them both some good.

Wherever Sanji was, he was doing a lot of running, if the echoes of cramps Zoro sporadically got in his legs meant anything. Hopefully he was just training, and not in any real danger. Not that Zoro was in a position to help him one way or the other.

He was resting his legs after one of these cramps in Mihawk's fifth sitting room when Perona found him, "So here's where you're hiding."

"Not hiding," he said as he rubbed at his leg, "Resting."

"What happened?" she asked as she sat on the couch next to him, "Did you get hurt?"

"Nah, not me. My soulmate has a leg cramp," he said, putting his feet in her lap.

"Oh wow, I didn't think like you had a soulmate."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I mean you seem more like the lone wolf type," she said, knocking his feet away, "Didn't really think you had one person tied to you for the rest of forever, kind of thing."

"I mean, he's part of my crew, you saw him at Thriller Bark," he said, with a frown, "You remember, Sanji?"

She shook her head, "The only one I really remember is Usopp. Which one was Sanji?"

"The blond."

"Oh, yeah him," she played with a lock of her hair, "He was cute. Made a terrible zombie, though. Not my type, but whatever. He's you're soulmate, then?"

"Yeah," Zoro grimaced, "Except I'm pretty sure he hates me right now."

"Why's that? What did you do?"

"Why do you think it was something I did?"

She rolled her eyes, "What did you do?"

"Nothing!" he pouted and crossed his arms across his chest, "I may have told him that I would prefer it if he was dead and that he was burden, but I didn't know I was talking about him at the time!"

Perona rubbed her eyes, "Okay, what the hell? You're going to have to explain that with like, all the details."

So he told her, explained everything from the very beginning when he first started getting soulmate echoes right up to his realization that his soulmate was Sanji the whole time and their subsequent separation.

When he was done, she shook her head and stared at him, "You really are a fucking idiot."

Zoro frowned, "I know it took me a while to realize it was him, but-"

"That's really the least of your fuck-ups here."

He glared, "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Of course you don't," she rubbed her temples and looked up at him, "When you were a kid, you said his bruises appeared on like, a regular basis, right?"

"Yeah, for the most part. It looked like he was constantly getting his ass kicked."

"And you didn't find anything strange about that?"

His brow furrowed as he glanced over at her, "I told you I didn't like it."

"You said you didn't like that he was that weak."

He shrugged, "So what?"

"Did you ever stop to think about who was giving him those bruises?"

Zoro opened his mouth to give a response, but none came.

"You never even wondered? Not even a little?"

"Shut up," he crossed his arms over his chest and glared at her, "I grew up in a dojo. We all had our fair share of cuts and bruises."

"But you knew most kids didn't, right?" she leaned against the armrest and glared right back, "I know you're dumb, but even you must have had enough sense to realize that that's not a typical childhood."

Zoro looked at the wall, "Yeah."

"Where would a child most likely live?"

He shrugged, "With their family, I guess."

She gave him a sarcastic applause, "Very good. Now, where do you think Sanji most likely lived while he was getting these regular beatings, at a dojo or with his family?"

He tightened his grip on his arms, "With his family."

"So, who do you think was giving him the bruises? Who was he in contact with on a regular enough basis for him to be hurt brutally and constantly like that?"

Zoro remained silent as the realization hit him. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

"Are you starting to get it yet? Your soulmate was abused by the people who were supposed to care for and love him, and when you felt the result of it, you chose to disregard him just like they did."

"I didn't know!" Zoro roared, "I didn't know it was him!"

"That's not the point!" she snapped back, "No one is born into this world knowing who their soulmate is! Soulmate echoes exist so you feel empathy for what the other half of your soul is going through. Instead you felt him get beaten, try to escape, and almost die by starving, and decided to just ignore him! Maybe he thought his soulmate would somehow be different from everyone else in his life, and instead he finds out his soulmate, the person tied to him by fate, doesn't give a shit either! How heartbreaking is that?"

"I can't change any of that! I can't go back and make myself care," he snarled and looked away, "I know I fucked up, big time, but I can't change the past. All I can do is make sure I do right by him now, but he won't even tell me how!"

"Dummy," she rolled her eyes, "He wants what every hurt kid wants, his pain acknowledged," she stood up, brushing the wrinkles out of her dress as she shot him on last, withering glare, "Start there. If you're lucky, maybe he'll forgive you for the rest."

He frowned at her retreating back and mulled over everything she said.

His leg cramped again, and he absently rubbed at it.

"It'll be okay, Sanji," he said, "I'm here."

Two years went by quicker than Zoro expected, and before he knew it he was back at Sabaody. No one else was here yet, probably gotten lost on the way, typical, so he was left with some time to kill and an archipelago to explore.

He met up with Franky on the Sunny when he arrived, and ran into Nami in the shopping district when she did. The reunions were touching and heightened his anticipation of the journeys to come, but there was one person's arrival he was anxiously waiting for.

He arrived seventh.

Sanji had sought Zoro out, so that was a good sign. But now that they were together he was acting closed off, pacing around the markets, looking at food, not really paying attention to Zoro, and he didn't know what to make of that. Was he still mad? If only there was some way to find out.

"Are you still mad?" Zoro asked.

Sanji stopped and looked at him, "Mad about what?"

"The whole soulmates thing," Zoro drummed his fingers on the hilt of his sword, "Are you still mad?"

"I was never mad about that," he took a deep breath, inhaling from his cigarette, and exhaled the smoke, "I am, content. Or I guess, accepting of the situation. I accept that you don't really give a shit about me-"

"I give lots of shits about you."

"-And that's fine," he shrugged, continuing on like he didn't even hear him, "We don't need to be in love. I've accepted that this may not be the perfect fairytale I've always wanted, but it is what it is. We are going to be a part of each other's lives, so the best thing for everyone is to just accept it and move on."

"Hey wait," he grabbed Sanji's hand before it could dart back into his pocket, "Did you hear what I said? I give a shit about you."

"Yeah, as your friend and your crewmate, and that's fine if that's all our relationship is," he tugged his hand and Zoro let go, "I'm not asking you for anything more."

"Well maybe I want more," he crossed his arms and glared at Sanji, "In all this accepting, are you even considering my feelings?"

His eyebrow twitched and a vein on his forehead all but popped, "I've been doing nothing but considering your shitty feelings ever since this whole thing started, which is extremely difficult considering what a fucking emotionless sack of plant feed you are!"

Zoro was trying to play it cool, but Sanji had this way of getting right under his skin like nobody else, and now he was pissed, "Maybe if you weren't so busy assuming what I felt you could actually listen to what I'm saying!"

"You haven't listened to me for twenty-one years why the fuck should I care about what you have to say?"

"Because I'm listening now!"

Sanji rolled his eyes and shoved his hands in his pockets, "Whatever."

"I am!" Sanji turned and walked away, Zoro followed, "These past two years, you've been doing a lot of running."

"Oh, brilliant deduction," he cackled, "How did you figure that out?"

He knew he was being sarcastic, but gave an honest answer anyway, "Leg cramps, which was weird, because your legs never cramp, so I guess you were running constantly, or almost constantly. They stopped after the first few months, so you got used to the running. Or you stopped, but you're not the kind of guy to stop," he paused, recollecting all the various echoes he'd gotten from Sanji over the past two years, "I don't think you were in any real danger because never got seriously hurt, at least nowhere near as bad as when you were with us."

Sanji's eyes narrowed, "The danger was real."

"You'd get bruises sometimes, defensive wounds," he frowned as he kept pace with Sanji, "Typical sparring injuries. You broke your ankle twice, once during the first year and again half way through the second. The first time it took about a month to heal, but the second only took a few days," he smiled at Sanji, "Maybe something you ate? You're sharing these new recipes with the crew, yeah?"

Sanji's cheeks went red and he turned away, "Shut up."

Silence fell between them. Zoro let it for a few moments before he took a deep breath and said, "I'm sorry."

Sanji stopped and stared at him, "What?"

"I'm sorry," he turned to face him, "About before. About not caring. I was too caught up in my own shit to realize that you needed me."

He gripped his cigarette and looked down, hiding his eyes behind his hair, "The fuck could you have done? You didn't even know where I was."

"You needed someone to acknowledge that what you were going through was fucked up, and I couldn't even do that for you. And I'm sorry, because what you went through was fucked up."

He exhaled smoke towards the ground, "Are you talking about the starving part or…?" he trailed off and waved his hand in the air.

"All of it," he took a step forward and placed his hands on Sanji's shoulders, "You deserved a better hand than you were dealt. I'm sorry I dismissed your pain before, but there's nothing I can do to change what happened. All I can do now is try to be better for you, and I will."

Sanji dropped his cigarette on the ground and stubbed it out with his toe. As Zoro let go of him, he leaned forward and rested his head on Zoro's shoulder, "You're so dumb."

"Yeah," Zoro agreed as wrapped his arm around Sanji's shoulders gently, "I'm an idiot. But I'm your idiot."

Sanji leaned back and cradled his face, running his thumb over the scar sealing his eye shut, "Is it gone?"

"Yeah," he brought his hand up to rest against Sanji's, "Were you worried?"

"No," Sanji lied. Slowly he brought his hand away and took Zoro's instead. Staring at their interlocked hands, he said, "I'm not, used to getting everything I want."

"We're on the crew of the future Pirate King," he let their hands drop, still together, not taking his eyes away from Sanji's, "Get used to it."

Sanji smiled, a small smile, but it was there and it was genuine and Zoro couldn't help but smile in return, "Yeah," he tugged their hands forward, "C'mon, let's finish shopping before Luffy shows up and we have to run for our lives."

Zoro squeezed his hand as they walked through the market together.