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By Any Other Name

Chapter Text

Growing up, Zoro remembered hearing talk occasionally of pirates; Koshiro disapproved of it in the dojo, as he felt it generally rather improper and very much a distraction for the young swords-masters he was training, but in this world of small islands and narrow bands of land scattered among a broad and deep sea, with the Great Pirate Age well underway, it was hard to escape it. Whether it was admiring gossip from ambitious boys to whom the thought of a wild life on the sea appealed, or whether it was quieter, more disapproving talk, names of pirates who'd been caught, turned in for their bounties, and promptly imprisoned or executed -- one way or another, those names came out. And so many of them were outlandish! At first, Zoro had wondered (as kids did) if there was something about having an extra-weird name that made people go out and become pirates, but he wasn't about to ask Koshiro, who clearly thought him rather too wild to begin with. He doubted his sensei would tell him much of anything, for fear it would only encourage him.

Kuina, naturally, was a better source of information.

"They give themselves those names because of their soulmates," she told him, nodding firmly with all the authority of a child who knows an answer she has no business knowing. "Your soulmate has part of your name somewhere on their body. If the Navy wanted to catch a pirate named Yamada, they could try to catch the pirate himself, or they could catch a person with Yamada written on their body somewhere, and then demand Yamada give himself up. After all, having your soulmate die kills the other half of your heart. He'd have to give himself up, or try to free his soulmate from the trap. But if he calls himself The Beast of the East or something, then the person with Yamada written on them is safe."

"I don't have anyone's name written on me," he said with a frown, and she scowled, clearly not appreciating his response -- thinking of himself instead of the more interesting notion of a pirate having someone they wanted so dearly to protect!

"Duh, of course you don't, you're like seven."

"I'm nine, shut up!"

"Whatever! You don't get a name till you're older. Like fourteen. Then it'll just appear one day, and you'll have to try and find that person." She said it as though she had some personal knowledge of the entire matter; Zoro suspected she'd only heard rumors, but this was more than he'd heard, so he might as well listen, even if she was being a know-it-all.

"Why?"

The look she gave him was flatly incredulous. "Why? Because they're your soulmate. The other half of you. Most people want to find their soulmates, because being around them makes you happier."

He chewed that over, looking dissatisfied. "That's stupid. Why should some random person make me happier? What if I don't like them?"

"Ugh. Only you would ask that. You don't like anybody." She rolled her eyes at him.

"My soul's only in me," he said stubbornly. "I bet I never get a name on me anywhere. Maybe I'm my own soulmate. Then I don't need anyone else and I can just focus on becoming the greatest swordsman in the world."

They changed the subject soon after that, going back to the more familiar grounds of swords and swordsmanship. Zoro was content to let the topic of soulmates (what a weird concept) stay there, because he really, really didn't care. There wasn't a name on him, he was pretty sure there wasn't ever going to be a name on him, and his soul was his very own, thank you!

After Kuina died, he wondered for years if she was his soulmate. The anguish he'd felt when she died never seemed to properly fade as he'd heard it should; it was a burning little knot of pain deep in his belly that stabbed at him, reminding him of her absence, circling him back to self-blame (he'd demanded their fight, demanded steel -- if he hadn't, she wouldn't have needed the sharpening stone, wouldn't have fallen while going to get it, all his fault, his fault) and nagging at him whenever he had a still moment. Wasn't that what she'd said, back on that day, for her fictional Yamada the pirate? Having your soulmate die kills the other half of your heart.

But a month before his fourteenth birthday, he woke up to an odd, sensitive-but-not-sore feeling low on his stomach, only to find a set of small, elegant characters sweeping their way a few fingerwidths below his navel. He stared at the letters, frowning and squinting until he had the beginnings of a headache, and then growled to himself and pushed them out of his mind.

The name wasn't Kuina's, and he couldn't have said whether he was disappointed or not. It wasn't a name that meant anything to him, and he wasn't going to be a pirate (or, he told himself, be a pirate's soulmate), so he put it out of his mind. He had other things to worry about, other concerns that were actually relevant to his plans for life. He had his goal, and nothing less than singlemindedness would do for it.

Whoever this Vinsmoke was, they would just have to wait until he was the greatest swordsman in the world, he told himself. Only after he'd achieved that goal would he be willing to look for anyone -- anything -- else.

Chapter Text

Getting to know her new crew was a process -- one that Robin had to admit she was enjoying far more than she normally did. Finding her fit in a new group was not a new or unusual process for her, but this time felt different.

No pirate crew was quite like any other crew, in her experience; while they all fell into certain patterns, certain practicalities, the mere fact of being the sorts of people to buck not only society but the law itself meant that most pirates weren't all that good at things like "fitting in" and "conforming to expectations." Counterbalancing that was a tendency for the hard life of piracy to grind people down in similar ways. Disrespect for the law, but a keen interest in staying alive; a deep respect for all the ways the sea could easily kill them, understanding that it was a far greater and more terrible enemy than they could ever tame; a certain practical aim for those necessities of life on the seas, the history of the compromises to ideology that any pirate had to make over their careers.

Most crews shared some common interest (beyond piracy itself) that bound them into a more cohesive unit, and smart captains (meaning captains who made it to the Grand Line in the first place, and who survived to tell the tale of it) recruited with an eye toward that cohesion, looking for recruits that would fit into the flow rather than disrupt it. As a practical necessity of the piratical lifestyle, you were traveling with a large group of people confined together in a relatively small area, and even the most rough-and-tumble sorts didn't want to have their shipboard life be nothing but conflict. Choosing a common interest to build the crew around was a strategy for emphasizing that fit and flow, and one whose popularity spoke to its effectiveness.

The Strawhats, as far as she could tell, were more like a family, in that they largely entertained themselves through squabbling and pushing each other around, a behavior she would have called bullying if it hadn't been so heartily leavened with an affection that was entirely genuine and heartfelt. Before she'd even revealed herself to them, just quietly listening through the cabin door, she'd discovered that the captain, far from being the patriarch of the family (which would have been refreshingly normal), was more like the youngest brother, indulged but granted only a small weight in decision-making. Not the sort of thing most men with the determination to call themselves captain would accept!

(Having interacted with Luffy, though, this wasn't a surprise. She would have been far more startled to find him filling that traditional patriarch's role.)

She'd done her homework while she was in Alabasta, and come prepared to bribe them into accepting her; it proved to be easier than she expected, with a little sack of gems and a charming smile for the navigator, and otherwise just a willingness to be playful with the "younger brothers" of the crew. That got her foot in the door, as did not revealing herself until they were out of sight of land (which made it much harder for them to simply tell her to go to hell), and from there, she set about proving herself. That, at least, could follow the script she'd long since learned, even if it needed occasional improvisation. She had to prove her value, prove that their crew could operate better and do more with her than without. Gems could buy her the navigator's favor, playfulness that of the captain and the doctor, and the cook was quite evidently on her side from the beginning. The first mate was made of sterner stuff, and it was to him that she had to prove herself.

It was, she decided, Strawhat luck that the first opportunity to do so dropped onto their heads -- quite literally -- not long thereafter, and so began the career of Nico Robin of the Strawhat Pirates.

---

"Hey."

Robin glanced up from her book at Zoro. The missing eye was something she was still somewhat getting used to -- it made him look older, seemed to close the near-decade gap in their ages, but she couldn't help but wonder what it meant for his swordsmanship. A lack of depth perception, a narrowed field of view, those were things that a professional warrior generally couldn't afford, and professional warrior was an identity that he held even more deeply than that of Strawhat. Contrasting the logical, inevitable drawbacks of having only one eye, the way he held himself spoke volumes to her. Roronoa Zoro was an unpretentious man, loath to put up facades he couldn't make good on; she doubted that could have changed in two years, not deeply enough to fool her. If he radiated an aura of calm, dangerous competence, it was because he was calmly, dangerously competent.

Although she couldn't hope for trouble, she knew it would inevitably find them as they headed into the New World; with that in mind, she looked forward to seeing how he'd improved. How all of them had, really, but Zoro she was overwhelmingly curious about.

"What is it, Swordsman-san?" She marked her place in the book at set it down.

He glanced away briefly, folding his arms, and then back to her. "You're the person to talk to when it comes to researching stuff. If I wanted to look up a name, where should I start?"

"Oh?" Now this was an interesting development. "I'm happy to help, of course." Not that just a name was much to go on, but that was what scholars were for. Thoughts spun in the back of her mind, possibilities of interpretation. Someone he had heard about during the last two years? Her initial thought was some famous swordsman, a stepping-stone on the way to Zoro's openly professed goal.

But there were other possibilities, too.

"Let's go to the library," she suggested, standing from her lawn chair and gathering up the small stack of books that had been at her elbow. She wasn't about to leave them lying around, not when who-knew-what could happen at any moment. Leaving Sabaody had been exciting, and lull periods between exciting circumstances were all too brief, especially aboard the Sunny. "We can take a look at what's there, and if there's nothing at the moment, then perhaps Fishman Island will have some resources. Just what is this name you're curious about, hm?"

He waited until they were in the library to answer her -- alone, unsurprisingly, and she looked around the familiar space with a sigh of contentment. It was so good to be back! Not that the library was all hers, of course; they all had their interests, and everyone but Luffy had some books stored away, according to their varied interests and tastes. But it was a space she loved to occupy, and the truth was that the bulk of the shelves were filled with her volumes.

"The name I'm curious about is Vinsmoke," he said, frowning as he looked around the shelves of varied books as though the volumes themselves were getting on his nerves somehow. "Not sure where to begin."

Now that was interesting. "I've heard the name," she said thoughtfully. "But... hm. Offhand, I can't place where, exactly. Do you know anything about them that could help us get started? Having some context will make it a lot easier to research."

"Not a damn thing." He snorted, shaking his head. She waited, hoping for elaboration, and after a moment of silence, he admitted grudgingly, "I've got nothing beyond the name. Don't know who they are, what they're good at. I don't have a damned clue."

That didn't narrow down very much when it came to the question Zoro wanted an answer for, but by contrast, it answered quite a lot for her curiosity. His tone held a faint air of frustration, but not very much, considering -- if she had to guess, he was frustrated more by the simple lack of direction than he was over any real emotional investment in the answer. Which was its own sort of interesting, in the context of what this most likely meant his question was about.

Idly, almost unconsciously, her fingers brushed along her side, the name that curved along her ribs just to the side of her heart.

"That's a wide field to start searching, then," she commented, but before he could protest, she added, "but don't worry. I enjoy this sort of thing, you know. I might not have an answer for you immediately, but if it's out there to be found, I'll find it."

He opened his mouth to answer her, and she decided to give in to temptation. "After all, I'm just as curious what sort of person you have for a soulmate, Swordsman-san." The words were offered up with a sweet innocence that he would know was absolutely feigned.

Oh, that shade of pink in his cheeks was so satisfying. A woman had to find her entertainment where she could, after all.

"I didn't say that," he growled, not meeting her gaze. "Just curious, that's all."

She hummed her agreement, now looking away from him and heading over toward one of the shelves. Where to start, where to start... well, if it was his soulmate, it had to be someone contemporary. That put most of the history volumes a step lower in her search priority.

"I mean," he added to her back, clearly uncomfortable with the air of satisfaction she exuded, "I don't actually care that much. But it's better to know, right?"

Of course you don't, she thought, but said aloud, "We're the crew of the future Pirate King, and you're nearly as infamous as he is. It's a reasonable concern, if you're thinking about the future."

"I'm not concerned," he snapped back, "and anyway, you're one to talk about infamy, Nico Robin. What poor sucker is wearing your name, huh?"

She knew full well what "poor sucker" had a delicate Nico soulmark. "That's neither here nor there, of course. I can't promise you a timeline, but I'll find what there is to know."

"Don't worry too much about it." He seemed rather insistent on not caring -- which, in context, was simply amusing. Who would be so stubborn in their disinterest in a soulmate, when asking for a not-insignificant amount of work to find them? "I'm just curious, that's all. If something more important comes up, well, it's no big deal."

I wonder if this Vinsmoke would say the same about the name they wear? she wondered, but did not say aloud. After all, that was an entirely different question, and one that Zoro probably had no interest in answering. "We'll see what there is," was all she said.

Chapter Text

Sanji hummed to himself as he cleared away the dessert dishes, the rest of the crew gradually filtering out of the galley and off to their various tasks or amusements. Fishman Island had been a delightful diversion, and he was glad to have gotten his little difficulty under control in enough time to enjoy at least the end of their visit there, if not the bulk of it. As unashamed as he was of his interest in beautiful women (of all species!), nearly bleeding to death was a trifle embarrassing...!

Ah, but that was done with, and he had regained his proper focus and his strength. Now they were on to their next adventure, and he was well and fully prepared to face the New World together with the rest of his crewmates. Back where he belonged, doing what he ought to be doing, fitting back into his place in the wider world with a seamlessness that was more comforting than he could easily articulate. It was almost as though the past two years had been nothing more than a dream (a nightmare)...

"So, Swordsman-san," he heard Robin's voice behind him, and glanced over his shoulder to see her still at the table, facing into the galley; the first mate was there too, slouched in a seat with his back toward Sanji. The two of them were the only members of the crew remaining in the galley besides Sanji himself. "That research you asked me about. I was able to find some information while we were on Fishman Island, before we left."

He heard Zoro answer, some indistinct grumble that sounded less than fully invested in the results of Robin's research -- shame on him for asking her to do something, and not properly respecting her effort!

Robin continued speaking, her voice a soothing background to his thoughts; her conversation wasn’t with him, though, so he didn’t make any particular effort to listen in. Sanji set the plates beside the sink and began to run water for washing up, reflecting idly on the possibility of creating a washing-up roster. There were certain things he would insist on taking care of himself, of course, like the knives that were washed, dried, and hung on their magnetic keeper before dinner was even served, but it might not be a bad thing to have an actual task roster when it came to helping with the simpler bits of-

"-the Vinsmoke family, all things considered," Robin said behind him, and Sanji's train of thought promptly leaped off its tracks and hurled itself into an abyss.

Vinsmoke. What the hell? Since when was she doing any research on them? Why would Robin even care…?

"Well? You said you found something." Zoro's tone was nearly impatient, saved from it only by being too bored.

"Mm-hm, indeed. Tell me, have you ever heard of the floating kingdom of Germa?" Like Zoro, she sounded tremendously casual. Sanji could not find it within himself to resent Robin, nor to be angry with her -- but oh, he did not want this to be happening!

But it was -- because Zoro had asked her to. Zoro, who had a very damned good reason to be interested, if one he hadn’t seemed to care about before now.

Then again, would Sanji have any reason to know if Zoro was interested in finding his soulmate? It wasn’t like the swordsman would be asking him. Robin was a natural first choice to go to when searching for information on an unknown name, because she was the knowledgeable one, she was the experienced researcher. She would find the answers.

Even if they were answers better left unfound.

He found himself doing nothing more than numbly listening in on the conversation, feeling disaster rolling toward him. Mechanically, his hands continued the washing process, something so routine and familiar that he could keep it up even as his conscious mind reeled blankly.

"The what? Hah, no. The hell's a floating kingdom -- a sky island of some kind?"

"Nothing so exotic. The Vinsmoke family used to rule nearly all of North Blue, but they were driven from their lands. Now, their kingdom is a fleet of ships that roam the seas. It's almost poetic," she mused over those last words, trailing off suggestively -- designed, it seemed, to encourage Zoro to ask questions.

Maybe if the idiot showed enough boredom, she'd give up. But no, there was that familiar loutish tone. "Poetic, whatever. Just tell me more about them."

"With their floating kingdom, they still claim to be royalty," she went on, "but you could just as easily call them mercenaries, since that’s most of what they get up to these days. In the North Blue, their name is still synonymous with legendary brutality. That was what made the research so interesting. It seems like half the fiction coming out of North Blue has a villain named Vinsmoke something or other, and I had to spend a fair amount of time searching for facts rather than fancy. If the seas weren't so separated, you might have had an awkward time of it, with that name on you."

Was it somewhere it should have been visible on the swordsman? Sanji had tried his damnedest not to look for it, but they had sailed together for a fair while, and the ship's quarters were close. He would have sworn it was well hidden...

"Yeah, well, I'm not stupid enough to flaunt something like a soulmark." There it was, that answer. At least Moss-for-brains had at least one good idea in his head! Now if only he'd taken it a step further and decided he didn't care about the thing at all, Sanji's life would have been just that closer to perfect.

"That's wise of you. With us in the New World, now, we're that much closer to the North Blue, and having them get wind of someone with a Vinsmoke soulmark is probably not in our best interest." She sounded so calm about the whole thing! Sanji would have sworn that his heart was pounding loud enough for both of them to hear. But no, they were carrying on like he wasn't even there, wasn't even a part of it.

Why did they have to have this conversation in here, anyway? Robin's gaze was fixed on Zoro's face with a curious intensity, as though searching for something. As far as the oaf was concerned, he was hearing about something that was entirely hypothetical to his life. Robin, though -- if she'd done the kind of research she was talking about, Sanji had to imagine she knew something. She was a brilliant woman, thorough, and on top of it, observant.

"Whatever. It’s not like I’m about to start flashing it around just because I’m curious. If it's a problem, we'll deal with it. I'm not going to run off with some villain, if you're worried about that." He sounded only slightly more thrilled with this conversation than Sanji was -- then again, it would be hard for him to be less thrilled. Sanji was discovering a new circle of his personal hell. This was a part of his life that was supposed to be over, closed, done with, gone! The name Vinsmoke didn't belong on the Sunny, the sound seeming to cling to the walls like an oily stain. It didn’t belong in the mouths of his comrades -- and he couldn’t decide whether it was worse to hear Robin, his dear Robin-chuan, saying it, because of course that filthy name didn’t belong anywhere near her, or worse to hear Zoro saying it because the idiot was the one whose name was branded into Sanji’s skin. The one wearing that foul name himself, cursed with even an indirect link to that hell.

"You certainly don't seem like the type to care about sweeping a princess off her feet," Robin agreed serenely. "Or a prince off his, for that matter. Not that I would suggest you try with any of them. By all accounts, they're quite deadly -- nearly inhuman, in fact."

Of course, that was the kind of thing that might actually interest Zoro; Sanji cringed internally, a memory of ugly bruises and uglier laughter echoing around the inside of his skull. Inhuman, that was right, they were all supposed to be stronger, faster, more than mere mortals...

Robin was still speaking, carrying on like nothing was wrong, hideous words falling from her lovely mouth. "There are three princes and a princess, all of them about your age. If all your mark says is 'Vinsmoke,' I suppose it could be any of them." Because it can't mean the fifth Vinsmoke child, the failure, dead in childhood and mourned with fitting extravagance while a little boy who'd been robbed of his identity sobbed in a cell. An old rage rose in Sanji's throat, the memory of the painful weight of metal on his head, his vision narrowed to a tunnel, and he discovered his hands were shaking so badly he nearly dropped the plate he was washing. He rinsed it carefully and set it to the side, and just clenched his trembling fists against the edge of the sink, fighting down bile and tears. This was supposed to be over! Vinsmoke Sanji was dead!

"Huh." At least Zoro didn’t sound terribly motivated to get out there and find them. If fate was even slightly merciful (ha, if), then perhaps Zoro would decide that he didn’t want to find out anymore and would consider the matter closed.

Damn it, he really should have been preparing himself for this. Everyone wanted to know about their soulmate eventually, didn't they? He should have known that he wasn’t lucky enough to never hear or think about the name Vinsmoke again. But Zoro could have found out somewhere else, could have learned and set it aside without having the whole ugly family history dragged out where Sanji could hear and remember his pain. "Well, thanks for doing that digging, Robin. At least I know, now."

"It was my pleasure. If you want to find out more, later on, I did manage to pick up a book that seems to be more fact than fiction."

Sanji listened to Zoro tromp his way out of the galley; notably, he did not hear two sets of footsteps. As long as Robin was there, he had to keep moving as though he hadn't reacted, as though his clenched fists were only a sign of him taking a break from washing. He reached for another dirty plate, willing his hands not to shake, and would have sworn he could feel her gaze burning a hole between his shoulderblades.

---

He couldn't sleep. Long after everyone else was in their beds (bar Franky, currently taking his watch at the helm), Sanji gave up with a sigh and headed to the aft deck with his cigarettes and a lighter, not even bothering to grab a robe or jacket against the cool, damp night air at sea. The cold felt refreshing, grounded him in the current reality of the Sunny at night, helped keep him far away from the ugly memories that were now well and truly pulled out of their prison to dance around before his eyes. If he had to be awake to deal with them, at least no one else needed to be disturbed.

He leaned against the rail and lit up, forcing himself to focus the entirety of his attention on the here and now, the sensations of his body. The wood of the deck under his bare feet, the boards kept lovingly smooth, so smooth he had no need to fear even the smallest splinter. The softness of his pyjamas, body-warm against the cold, old cotton washed and worn and washed again until it had an almost suede-like texture. The rail under his forearms, as lovingly smoothed as the deck, the physical reality of the Sunny holding and protecting them all, their home and the symbol of their freedom all at once. The cigarette between his lips, the familiar acridity of the smoke as he drew it into his lungs, the gentle touch of nicotine-enforced relaxation soothing away some of the stress that kept rebuilding itself every time he thought about that little conversation between Robin and Zoro.

It's been two years and some, why does he suddenly-

Deep breath. No. No thinking about that, not yet. He forced his attention back to the present moment, back to the cool breeze that teased through his hair, the roll of the Sunny on the waves -- gentle, now, the sea calm, a feeling of peace all about them that only made his inner turmoil worse. This was his home, this was his place, breathing the sea air on the deck of the Thousand Sunny, cooking for the crew that was his chosen family, using the skills that his real father had imparted to him, skills that nurtured and protected rather than...

No, there he went, sliding away into thoughts of what was instead of what is.

If Zoro was asking questions, that meant that he was going to have to think about this at some point -- think about what would come, at the very least. As much as Sanji mocked him for being stupid -- and in some areas he certainly was, no doubt about that -- he wasn't a complete imbecile. Assuming he would never work it out was only setting himself up to be caught flat-footed when it happened.

It wasn't like the notion of being the swordsman's soulmate was entirely repugnant. They squabbled and pushed at each other nearly every time they talked, but that was thoroughly mutual and even fun. It kept them both sharp. When it really mattered, when things got serious, they made a good team. He thought about the Pacifista on Sabaody, during the scramble to get off the archipelago and underway to Fishman Island. They'd struck at the same time, harmonizing their attacks without even having to say a word of planning to create that coordination. (And then, naturally, immediately started arguing about it.) If that was all there was to being soulmates, he'd take it in a heartbeat.

But, of course, that was far from all there was, and that was where the problems started.

In a kinder world, the reckless galley kid Zeff saved would have been a nobody from birth, would have had a name he could have admitted to his shipmates, even if he made the same choice as most smart pirates and didn't sail under it. He'd have had some pretty girl for a soulmate, someone who would be charmed by his culinary efforts, who would touch him gently and tell him that he made her life brighter and happier. Maybe he wouldn't even be a pirate at all, just him and his pretty soulmate searching for the All Blue together, following that dream as they sailed in their own contented little idyll.

Sometimes he imagined what it would be like to be that kid, instead of who he was. That person, that other Black Leg, whose life was so much simpler and more straightforward, who didn't have to worry about things like whether his dumbass male soulmate had wandered off in a crowd again. Who didn't wake up in a cold sweat from nightmares that could easily be summed up as everything since that time was false, and you're trapped forever. The other Black Leg, who received as much love as he gave.

His cigarette had burned down to the butt, and he flicked it overboard with a sigh, immediately lighting another. This was that kind of a night.

The Other Black Leg, his favorite fantasy, was just that. A little bit of escapism for him to indulge in, while the truth was what it was. He'd been thrown away as a failure, made a new home for himself with Zeff, been thrown out of that (not that he was complaining, not too much -- Zeff had been right, he'd needed the kick in the ass to get out there on the sea), and now spent his effort feeding two beautiful ladies and a noisy pack of ingrates, the latter of which included his soulmate.

He rubbed the arch of one foot against the opposite leg, soothing a phantom itch that had more to do with the characters imprinted there than any real signal of his nerves. When the name Roronoa had first blossomed there, he'd felt it something like a sin, to be walking on his soulmate's name every day. Of course, he'd been operating under the very natural assumption that the name belonged to some pretty lady at the time, some other Roronoa who deserved to be sung from the heavens rather than tromped about on.

Then he'd actually met the dumbass, and... well, and hadn't known it until Mihawk showed up. That was a pisser, wasn't it? Two days the King of Moss had been hanging around the Baratie, and it wasn't until he decided on having a showdown with one of the Shichibukai that Sanji had learned that this suicidal dipshit held the other half of his soul. It really set the tone for the whole thing, didn't it? For a while after that, he'd felt perfectly justified in walking all over that Roronoa, had even stomped a little extra on that foot whenever he was pissed off with Zoro -- not an uncommon event.

But they'd been through so much shit that at some point along the line, he'd mostly stopped thinking of it as being fate's way to let him covertly insult his soulmate -- no, it had started to seem fitting. After all, Sanji's feet were his weapons, and Zoro was a warrior. What better place to wear his name?

Not that he planned for Zoro to ever appreciate it. Your soulmate wore a name you were born with, and if Zoro didn't have any reaction to the name Sanji, then long before the little chat in the kitchen, Sanji had realized that the inevitable logic said that the name on Zoro's skin was one he could never -- would never -- claim for his.

Besides. It only took one look at Zoro, or maybe three words of conversation with him, to know that he wasn't the type to give two shits about having a soulmate. If Sanji had ever tried to claim that label, it wouldn't have done anything more than push Zoro away from him, out of those easy moments of alignment they found when the chips were down and battle called. Every time he'd wavered in his conviction, every time he'd thought about bringing up the topic with Zoro, no matter how indirectly or carefully, the only response he'd been able to imagine was a rejection. The fuck is that supposed to mean? possibly, or Stop babbling nonsense, shit-cook. Roronoa Zoro wasn't the kind of person who'd tolerate someone else holding half his soul. So why bother even opening that door? Why bother digging out all the messy, painful old history? Vinsmoke Sanji was dead, and there was no point in reclaiming that name only to have Zoro tell him to go to hell for it.

Sanji'd had plenty of rejection in his life to date. No reason to go seeking out more of it.

But now Zoro was digging, asking the questions he shouldn't ask, looking for answers that could only threaten the easy, if unorthodox, harmony of the crew. What was Sanji supposed to do with that? He had to shut it down somehow, had to close that door. Maybe if he talked to Robin...? It would mean admitting it to her, and the mere thought made his gut clench unhappily, but she'd been researching Vinsmoke, and surely that meant she had at least a guess. If he could enlist her help in heading off Zoro's inquiries...

He'd be asking her to lie for him, to take part in planting cracks in the crew's foundation. No, he couldn't do that -- ask for a compromise of her honor in order to cover his own ass? Even considering it would be worth a beatdown from Zeff. A man didn't ask a lady to do his dirty work. No, one way or another, Sanji was going to have to handle this himself.

The trouble was, he had no clue how -- and he needed to figure it out, the sooner the better.

Chapter Text

Robin wasn't stupid. She might be crazy -- but that would put her in very good company, since no one on this ship could really be called sane, and it had yet to even slow them down. Crazy was a perfectly respectable thing for a member of the Strawhat Pirates to be. She did, however, endeavor to at the very least rank high on the list of crazy Strawhats who were also thoughtful and logical, who could be handed two and two and reliably end up with four.

(That was not a difficult contest.)

Putting various esoteric versions of two and two together was, after all, quite a large portion of what her vocation was -- and therefore, what she was very good at. Zoro had known what he was doing when he chose to enlist her help, out of everyone, in his search for information on his soulmark. You went to Usopp or Franky to have something built. You went to Chopper if you were sick. You went to Robin if you needed to do research.

She'd told Zoro as much as he'd evidently wanted to know -- which was convenient, because it had all been information she was prepared to share with him. While she hadn't lied about the signal-to-noise ratio involved in researching a dynasty as heavily fictionalized as these Vinsmoke evidently were, there'd been quite a bit more that she'd managed to filter out and discern -- and it had become obvious, all too clearly, that Zoro wasn't the only one of their crew that was likely to have a stake in her reading material. In her own mind, she was careful to define what she knew for certain (and not everything was certain just because it came out of a book, either) from the things she intuited and guessed, the things that were probably, most likely, potentially true from the things that were a matter of record, and she'd made certain to give Zoro only information that was, as far as she could discern, simply factual -- and what was more, she'd avoided giving him any of the twos and twos she'd collected, on the off chance that he'd put together four for himself.

There was someone else she needed to have that conversation with first, and that was why she was in the Sunny's galley so early in the morning, sitting at the table and reading while she waited for Sanji to make his appearance. The sun was still far from the horizon, only a vague smear of grey telling her that dawn was even close; she wanted to be sure she got the chance to talk to him in genuine privacy, without any of the rest of the crew barging in. It didn't take a genius to know that this was likely to be a touchy conversation, one that was almost certain to get a notable reaction out of their rather high-strung cook, and Sanji wouldn't need Luffy or (worse) Zoro there to act as fuel on the fire.

She glanced up from her book when the door opened to admit said cook, neatly dressed and combed but covering a yawn as he came in -- a yawn that froze when he saw her there.

"Ah, Robin-chuan! You're up early!" In the blink of an eye, he perked from half-asleep into something like his usual flirtatious self, offering her a smile that she noticed was a little wan around the edges, even if only in comparison with his normal full-bore enthusiasm for female company. "Did you have a special request for breakfast this morning? I'm happy to whip up anything you could desire!"

"Just a little chat, Cook-san, that's all," she said, keeping her tone light and casual -- but that smile went from wan to sickly, and hesitance entered his eyes.

"A-ah. Well, if you don't mind me getting started while we talk...?" If she hadn't been watching him carefully, she'd have missed that sickly moment, as he determinedly went all business, grabbing for an apron and heading into the galley proper to start the meal, schooling his expression into something approximating his usual enthusiasm for his work. She wondered idly how much effort it cost him to do that; Sanji didn't exactly have what one would consider much of a poker face.

"Not at all. I wouldn't want breakfast to be delayed." She offered him a smile, trying to alleviate some of that dread that had flashed across his face, knowing that it wasn't likely to do a bit of good -- not after last night. She'd come at the whole business strategically, after all, including the part where she'd watched Sanji's body language every moment she'd been talking with Zoro. Having the conversation where she had, with Sanji in earshot, had been a deliberate choice on her part -- making sure that Zoro got the information he wanted, yes, but for Sanji's sake, making sure that he knew how much Zoro knew.

This, though? This wasn't her conveying information -- she'd managed that last night. Now, it was about gentle nudges toward action.

"Well then, let's talk." Oh yes, he was rattled -- he wouldn't normally ever be so blunt with her, outside of perhaps the heat of battle itself. He seemed grateful for the excuse of making breakfast preparations -- something for his hands to do, she guessed, and something for him to look at so that he didn't have to meet her gaze.

"You heard my conversation with our first mate last night," she said, her tone gentle with the memory of just how tense he'd gone the moment Vinsmoke passed her lips.

That same tension was back again, although she noted that his hands didn't stop moving, fetching out a thick package of bacon and beginning to dice it, wielding the wickedly sharp kitchen blade with ease. "I did."

"It made for some interesting reading, I have to admit." She wasn't trying to draw it out, but rather, dipping a toe slowly into the water, gauging its depth and temperature before plunging in. "Didn't you say you were originally from the North Blue, Sanji?" A trace -- only a trace -- of emphasis on his name, where she more often used titles. That specific name, the same as the Vinsmoke prince she'd read of, proclaimed dead and loudly mourned in public more than a decade ago...

"I was born there," he admitted with a sigh, and she was glad to discover that he wasn't making any attempt to lie to her about it. If he'd been speaking to someone besides her, would he have attempted a bold-faced denial of what he'd said on Jaya? Luffy would probably fall for it, as would Chopper, but Sanji was an honorable sort, underneath it all. "I really don't remember much of it, though. I grew up in the East Blue, at Baratie."

"Ah yes. Raised by a former pirate, right? Was he the one who brought you over the Red Line? That's supposed to be a difficult crossing outside the Grand Line, especially for those who don't have the Government's sanction."

"Red-Leg Zeff, and no; the old man was from East Blue originally, and I met him there." Sanji frowned at the food he was chopping, using perhaps a little more force than was really necessary; he'd finished with the bacon and moved on to peppers, which didn't seem like they needed to be nearly so harshly treated. "I was a galley kid on a passenger liner before I met him. Totally legal, totally above-board."

He didn't actually say he'd crossed on that liner. She watched him steadily as he spoke, knowing that even though he was very carefully not looking at her, he'd be aware of her gaze. She'd noticed that about him, right from the beginning -- unless well and truly distracted (take a guess with what) he was keenly aware of his surroundings, no matter how focused he appeared on what was directly in front of him. In fact, even when performing his intense distraction, she wondered how much he was actually paying attention to everything else. That kind of wariness was something she recognized all too well, having had to develop a similar awareness herself. Always had to be ready, to know the moment things started to go wrong...

But then again, by his own account he'd essentially grown up in a commercial kitchen, and she had a decent idea that those were close and hazardous places at the best of times, probably downright dangerous even on land for anyone who lacked a certain degree of situational awareness. Adding in the motion of an oceangoing vessel would only make it more so. He'd have to have good awareness of the space around him. Perhaps it was no more than that.

Perhaps.

Silence stretched out between them; she was calm, Sanji tense as he set a large pan on the stove with rather more force than necessary.

"If you're going to ask if I remember the Vinsmoke prince's funeral," he said abruptly into the silence, "the answer is that I was not there. North Blue's a big place," a breath, "if I was even still there by then, and not already in East."

"Mm, no, that's a very good point," she agreed serenely. "Things like that sound like they ought to be momentous, especially given how prominent the Vinsmoke royalty still are, long after their lands were lost. But so many islands are very isolated."

"And galley kids don't exactly have a lot of time to read the paper," he added, the lines of tension along the backs of his hands easing a little. Did he think she was off the scent so easily? "It's a hell of a busy job."

"I'm sure." She tilted her head, watching him thoughtfully. Perhaps it was unkind, to let him make these excuses that sounded so right and logical, but were so obviously belied by his body language. She normally took a certain amount of pleasure in creating small moments of discomfort, but that was when she was teasing her crewmates, not when she was digging fingers into what were obviously old wounds.

Before she could speak again, he dropped a pat of butter into the pan and looked directly at her. "Robin-chan," and now there was no flirtatious accent on the honorific whatsoever, "whatever you want to ask me, please just ask it."

Well, why not? She spoke, blunt and direct, making no attempt to soften the question. "Are you Vinsmoke Sanji?"

There was a pregnant pause, although the question was certainly not a surprise. In the quiet, the butter began to sizzle.

"No."

He turned away from her, reaching for the spice rack, tilting his head so that his hair curtained forward, hiding himself yet further. Robin let the silence stretch between them, her mood serene and unruffled, her body language still and relaxed as though they were talking about nothing more momentous than the sunrise. Sanji hadn't lied to her; that much was perfectly clear. There was always more than one truth to any situation, and there were few things in this world she thought more trustworthy than his sense of honor. If he said he wasn't Vinsmoke Sanji, then he wasn't Vinsmoke Sanji. That was the name of a boy dead and mourned more than a decade ago, not the man standing in front of her. Vinsmoke Sanji was dead.

Of course, so was Cutty Flam.

It was several minutes before Sanji spoke again, he turned back toward her with a firmed jaw, having clearly made some decision while hiding from her behind that curtain of blond hair.

"Robin-chan," still not flirting, still more serious than she thought she ever remembered seeing him; even with enemies in sight, he was usually more relaxed, more cheerful. "It's better if he doesn't pursue this. I know you saw, in whatever history you were reading. There's a reason for all that fiction you had to dig through to get to the facts." His voice was low, nearly uninflected -- he sounded, she thought, defeated, and she couldn't deny a small pang of guilt for being the one to bring it on him. She could not have done differently than she had -- not without doing wrong by one or the other of her crewmates -- but all the same, it felt deeply wrong to see him like this. Sanji should be smiling, should be flirting, should be his normal cheerful, outward-turned self. Like this, he seemed smaller -- younger, too, when she looked into his eyes. Behind the young man lurked echoes of a frightened child.

She didn't respond right away, studying him, trying to read all the layers of the Sanji she hadn't seen before -- so after a pause, he went on. "I'm not asking you to lie to him. I'd never do that. But... if it comes up..."

"You should talk to him." It was rare for Robin to feel the near-decade difference in their ages, but right now, the gap between twenty-one and thirty seemed enormous, with that vulnerability half out of hiding behind Sanji's blue eyes.

"And say what? I can't." He shook his head sharply, as though to banish the mere thought of speaking up. "He went to you for information. Just... just make sure he knows not to dig too deep."

"If you don't want him to pursue it, then make sure he knows there isn't anything to pursue in seeking out that family." A pause, and her gaze on him re-sharpened. "Is there?"

He looked away again, pink staining his cheeks. Ah, that fair skin, so ready to betray. "No, there isn't." Ah-ha. There it was.

"He's looking for information about his soulmate. Do you expect me to tell him he shouldn't want to find them?"

It was fascinating to her that Sanji was so hesitant on the matter of bringing up that connection. For all he was deeply hungry for appreciation and affection, the thought of a soulbond -- which could be expected to bring precisely that -- clearly evoked far more reticence in him. But, interestingly, no temper, she noted. Perhaps it was merely the sobriety of the rest of the conversation, but she doubted it.

"Can you think of anyone who wants a soulmate less than him? Robin-chan, please. I'm not asking you to lie to him. Just... just discourage him." Her resistance seemed to evoke some measure of desperation in Sanji; his words were pleading, and he looked at her beseechingly.

"You're selling him short, you know." She held up a hand as he started to protest. "But, very well. Not because I want to help hide anything from him, but because this Germa sounds like very bad news, and some hornets' nests are better left alone."

"That's too damned true."

"I still think you should talk to him. That's the only thing that's going to resolve this properly. But that's your decision to make. Give it some thought." She stood, then, and offered him the kind of smile Franky had told her more than once was downright frightening in its sheer innocence. "I'll let you get back to breakfast, Cook-san. Thank you for talking with me."

His uncharacteristic, subdued silence followed her out of the galley, and she found herself hoping that she'd at least managed to nudge him in the right direction. Things like this were all too prone to boil over messily if left to their own devices for too long -- and in the New World, the last thing they needed was conflict between crewmates.

Chapter Text

"Ship, starboard astern!"

Interrupted mid-snore, Zoro cracked his eye open and made a mental note to see what it would take to persuade Franky to disconnect the loudspeaker. Did Usopp really need to get that excited every time he saw sails on the horizon?

"Guys! It's the Marines!"

Oh. Okay, maybe that was a reason to get wound up. Not that it excused the previous five times in the last two days that Usopp had caught sight of sails and gotten everyone excited for a fight, only to have the owners of said sails draw no closer than a spot of white on the horizon. He hadn't even been on watch for one of those! This was why they needed to get in fights more often; things had been quiet since they'd surfaced in the New World. Go too long without anything happening, and the band of idiots who called themselves Strawhat Pirates started making their own problems.

He pushed himself up and sauntered to the stern rail, staring out to sea with a frown. "I don't see..."

"Zoro, that's port," Nami sighed, snagging his wrist and dragging him over to the other side.

He tugged his wrist out of her grasp with a grumble and frowned at the sail in the distance. Yeah, that was definitely worth a little excitement from Usopp -- it was a damned big ship, and as far off as it currently was, it was gaining on them fast. Good; they needed to blow off steam, and he was looking forward to a little showing off.

"They've spotted us," Usopp called warningly. "They're laying out extra sail and coming onto an intercept course."

"Well, Captain?" Franky was grinning too, standing at the helm. "Are we gonna run, or are we gonna have some SUPER fun?"

Luffy, standing on the rail, laughed. "If they wanna fight, let's fight! We don't need to run away from just one ship!"

"You got it! Should I come about to give 'em a little taste of the Gaon?"

"Nah! We don't wanna sink their ship, there's probably tons of food on it!"

"Not to mention treasure," Nami added brightly. "After all, think of all those sailors they have to pay."

"If we were Marines maybe we'd get paid too," Zoro grumbled at no one in particular.

The Strawhats took their positions as the Marine ship drew within cannon range, and Zoro glanced sidelong at Sanji, standing near him at the rail. Two years they'd been separated, and their fighting styles undergoing massive changes all that time. Would he still get to see...

Ah, there it was. That moment when Cook became Fighter, a shift that was perfectly subtle but a pleasure to watch. The silliness, the flirting, the trivialities all tucked themselves away, and a new persona emerged. His ridiculous brow furrowed briefly, then smoothed; his stance, normally somewhat narrow and oriented forward as he leaned over his cooking or lavished attention on the girls, widened and dropped back, weight shifting in preparation to deliver his lethal kicks; his shoulders loosened and squared, arms tucked at his sides but without tension. In a moment, between breaths, the cook who fussed over his crewmates and flirted with every woman he met became the fierce martial artist, the nurturing put aside in favor of razor-honed deadliness. It was like watching a sword perfectly drawn from its sheath.

That moment, that transition, fascinated Zoro. Himself, he was what he was all the time; whether he was ready to fight or napping in the grass, he didn't figure he really changed all that much. He kept it simple. Curly over there, it was like 'simple' was a dirty word, he made everything so complicated -- but he made it work. Slid back and forth between being the guy who'd feed his worst enemy and the guy whose body was its own perfect weapon, without seeming to even think about the transition. He was one, then he was the other, just like that.

Funny, how Sanji about to fight looked so much more relaxed than Sanji just cooking, although that second one was what he'd rather be doing most of the time.

The first round of cannonfire roared, bright muzzle flashes giving him a neat sequence of fire to follow, and then the fight was joined. Without needing to say anything in planning or coordination, Zoro, Sanji, and Luffy moved forward to intercept, each taking a swathe of the incoming volley. Haki told Zoro, more clearly than muzzle flashes or mere sight ever could, exactly where and how the cannonballs were coming toward his stretch of their defensive line, and it took a single smooth, perfect cut, curving along the line of their approach, to disrupt the shells' momentum and drop them harmlessly into the ocean. A warmup, nothing more, the first stretch of muscles.

To his side, he could sense Luffy -- not forming an uncontrolled balloon to bounce 'his' cannonballs away at odd angles, but something more focused, more like the precise shape of a slingshot to rocket them right back where they came from. And Sanji...

Zoro wasn't close enough to feel it, but again, the haki that let him sense the battlefield and feel it around him said that the cannonballs returning along their trajectories courtesy of the cook's flaming feet were themselves not quite glowing, but radiating a dull, angry heat, far more than the original burst of gunpowder gave them. The whole trick with the fire had always been interesting, in that passionate all-in that was how the cook seemed to live his life, but appreciably heating up already-hot iron (without actually searing his feet off) was a new trick.

More flashes, more thunder of cannons. This time, a greater volley; as they drew closer, the Marine ship had shifted to present broadside to the Sunny, bringing more of its guns into play and making a grand display of them. To a normal pirate crew, perhaps that would be an intimidating sight. But when had they ever been normal?

Luffy laughed bright and loud over the roar of cannons; Sanji had already leaped up, a vision of fierce fire as the leading edge of the volley came at him. Zoro let out a breath, felt himself centered in the space that was his to defend, and as the balls streaked toward him, he rose to meet them. It wasn't a battle, it was a dance in which the cannonballs seemed to move with him, into his sweeping cuts, an ordered and inevitable process in which every piece obeyed the forces that placed it and every movement acted in complete harmony, in a universal whole. The target was here and his cut fell here, stretched to here, a perfection that happened faster than thought.

Seeing that not a single cannonball had struck the Sunny or even close to it, the Marines clearly discarded the notion of any further volleys; there was an indistinct shout of orders from their ship, and their course changed, closing with the Sunny for boarding. It wasn't a bad idea, all in all -- if they were still committed to the fight, they might as well bring it onto a level where they could actually strike at their enemy.

Not that it was going to do them any good.

"Come on!" Luffy shouted, and resigned instinct gave Zoro just enough warning to brace himself before his captain grabbed him around the waist and rocketed toward the Marine ship. Some things apparently did not change. But it closed the distance, and did so before the Marines could start their own boarding operation, bringing the fight neatly to them and away from the Sunny itself.

On the deck, Zoro was a demon unleashed; he surged forward in the ranks of Marines, swords singing their deadly song. This wasn't an incompetent crew -- sailing the New World, they couldn't be. They came at him in multiples, spacing themselves to force him to cover the largest area possible while keeping out of each other's way. Numerical advantage was certainly on their side and they knew how to use it. That didn't mean it was going to save them. He was just that much better, and there was no way around it. The weapons he carried were parts of him, were parts of the deadly whole that was Roronoa Zoro, Pirate Hunter, first mate of the Thousand Sunny, right hand to the man who would be Pirate King.

Two Marines came at him from the sides, one attacking openly with a battle cry from his right, while the other silently came from his wide left, obviously operating under the assumption that Zoro would be less likely to notice him on that side, would be distracted by the louder attack. A nice thought, not bad strategizing. Too bad it wouldn't work. Zoro simply stepped into the first attack, turning to present himself side-on as he flicked the Marine's blade aside with a simple twitch and carried forward into a deep slash. The other, thinking himself on Zoro's blind side (thinking Zoro had a blind side) brought his blade up in a rising strike that showed good form, but left him little defense as Kitetsu licked out to sever his upper arm, He fell back, blood spraying, and Zoro turned a step further to deal with the opportunist who'd thought to come in behind him and make a bid to hamstring him.

The deck shook with an explosion from below, and smoke belched out of a couple foredeck hatches; the crowd on deck thinned as some of the sailors ran to deal with the flames. Fine with Zoro; one way or another, they were out of the fight. A new figure lurched into his sphere of action -- not making an attack, but reeling back. screaming and clutching at the side of his face, hair on fire. Zoro put him out of his misery with a simple cut, and moved forward, continuing his swathe through the Marines still in the fight.

His next target stared at him for a bare second, then quickly brought his blade into a defensive hold while scrambling to back away from Zoro's predatory grin. Smart kid. Too bad he wasn't smart enough to check behind him; he managed to back himself directly into the path of a flaming kick as Sanji whirled through his own dance of battle.

Zoro laughed -- not at the Marine, not at any of the Marines who had tried to measure themselves against the Strawhats and failed. He just laughed, glee and exhilaration at the roaring of battle in his blood, at the feeling of fighting beside his comrades again, the sense of rightness, completeness, that came from having his crew at his side. Robin was everywhere -- literally, hands and arms popping up across the whole length of the deck, quick opportunistic grabs and tugs that wreaked havoc among even the most disciplined of the Marines. Brook settled himself with his violin on the bowsprit, a wild clashing melody pouring from the instrument that felt like it was about to turn Zoro's ears inside out, and seemed to be doing just that to any Marines who got too close. Luffy was doing what Luffy did best, elastic limbs snapping strikes across the deck as he laughed like a madman. Nami's little black clouds seemed to be clustering around him, taking advantage of his immunity to lightning. And Sanji -- Sanji whirled a deadly hail of flaming kicks across the deck, just outside of the area Zoro had claimed for his own, his movements seeming to flicker and dance just as his flames did. As he leaped out, he twisted, and a burning foot caught another Marine across the side of the face; this time there was no scream, merely the sharp, clear snap of the hapless sailor's neck. Zoro himself felt like he'd just awakened from a long sleep -- the whole time he'd spent on Kuraigana Island, he'd focused and trained hard, and at the time had felt like he was going full bore, but now he felt the difference. The world around him was brighter, clearer, crisper; his blood seemed to sing in his veins, his movements sharp and precise in a way that seemed at the same time new and yet deeply familiar. He was performing at peak, and felt like he could keep going without a moment of rest.

Sanji lashed another scorched Marine in his direction, and he repaid the favor; the two of them together were a grinder, claiming nearly the entire aft deck for their own, dominating it utterly. Dimly, Zoro was conscious of the rest of the battle going well for the Strawhats; he had no concerns for the rest of the crew, and could concentrate wholly on his own battle, on the sheer pleasure of doing what he did best. And on the satisfaction of having a crewmate beside him, both a support and an unstated challenge to do his best, to show Sanji just how far he'd come over the past two years.

Finally, a dim shout went up -- Zoro didn't catch the words, but the intent was clear, and even if it hadn't been, Luffy's louder shout a moment later called for his full attention. "Stop! We're done!" Amidships, the battered captain of the Marines was kneeling, his saber offered up to Luffy in surrender.

Joining Luffy, Zoro got a good look at the hapless captain for the first time and realized with surprise that the guy was probably not much older than Luffy. He looked exhausted, but fury smoldered in his eyes, thwarted ambition fanned by the humiliation of giving up his sword to a pirate. To be in command this young, he had to have been from some important family, a political posting rather than one gained through skill. That kind of idiocy was what you got when the good of the ship was overshadowered by politics, Zoro thought in disgust. The Marines he'd fought had deserved a better captain, one who wouldn't throw them away by taking on a notorious pirate crew singlehandedly. This little hotshot had probably thought to make an immediate name of himself by bagging Strawhat Luffy, and look what it had gotten him.

Luffy, grinning brightly, shook his head. "Nah, nah, I don't want your sword -- gimme your food!"

The captain blinked up at him, cheated ambition briefly giving way to confusion. "Our... food? Were you out of supplies?"

"No, but more's always better! I bet you've got a ton of good stuff!"

"Hey." That was the cook, calmly lighting a fresh cigarette as he stepped up to Luffy's side and smacked him on the head. "Don't take all of it. We have to leave them with enough provisions to get back to port."

"Oww, Sanji!"

The ambitious, foolhardy young gloryhound of a captain stared from beneath his stained cap at Sanji as the cook casually ordered a couple of the surrendered sailors to accompany him below as porters. Zoro didn't have a great angle on the captain's face, but he thought there was something calculating in that expression.

---

That had been fun. With the Marine ship long left behind them, stripped of most of its food and all of its valuables, the atmosphere on the Sunny was cheerfully satiated. Sanji had outdone himself on dinner, and now they were all drifting off to their own pursuits. Zoro sat crosslegged in the grass, tending to his swords one at a time, and letting his mind drift as he did.

Fighting beside his crewmates felt right, felt like the entire world was as it should be. Funny, for someone who'd never planned on becoming a pirate, how he'd taken to it so strongly, taken on his belief not only in Luffy's strength and Luffy's goal but also his responsibility for their crew, his position as first mate, the importance of their wholeness, their smooth function. How quickly it had started to feel like home, like the proper place he belonged in the wide world. Becoming the world's greatest swordsman was a goal, one he pushed himself toward achieving, but "first mate of the Strawhat Pirates" was a belonging, was a space for him to occupy where his swordsmanship, his focus, his strength was put to use. He didn't build his strength for the sake of building his strength when he was with them; he did it so that he could do what needed to be done, support his captain and his crew as they ought to be supported.

He was needed here; without him, there would be a critical gap in the crew, an emptiness that would cripple them. And when he was here, where he belonged, it was what let him shine best and brightest. He'd felt that in the battle today, just as he'd felt it fighting Hody in the waters off Fishman Island. When his strength was needed, when it was being put to a cause, he was stronger, he was faster, he was more than what he could be by himself. And more than just becoming better, it meant that what he did mattered. Luffy didn't throw them needlessly into fights that didn't need to be fought -- even today, it had been the Marines who attacked, and Luffy had accepted their captain's surrender the moment it was offered. Strength with a purpose, instead of for its own sake. That separated them from any of the pirates he'd turned in during his career as a hunter; the targets he'd taken and turned in for their bounties had been doing nothing more than stir trouble. This was why it didn't trouble him to have made the change from pirate hunter to pirate; he trusted Luffy's leadership, when matters came right down to the hard places.

Mihawk had talked about something like that, how there was your own strength, and how that could take you far, but then there was your strength as it fitted into the context of those around you. That context was just as important, and Zoro in his place on the Strawhat crew was Zoro in his context, in his place -- standing among them, stronger together than alone.

That had been especially true today, with Sanji, and within the confines of his own head, where the cook wouldn't overhear and make smart remarks, he let himself admit it. They made an amazing team. He'd sooner bite off his own tongue than say it to the man's face, but he enjoyed fighting beside Sanji, the two of them pushing each other to do better, to move faster, to strike harder and more precisely. They brought out the best in each other.

Over the last two years, he'd wondered how it would be to fight beside Sanji again -- and in his darkest, weakest moments, when everything had felt hopeless and the countless miles between them seemed an infinity, he'd wondered if he even would. The whole time, he was pushing himself so hard, putting every fragment of his energy into training -- quietly trying to keep himself from thinking too much about his situation or about his crewmates. They were scattered to who-knew-where across the world and there was nothing he could reasonably do to help them, other than get stronger and prepare for their reunion. Knowing that they'd all been split apart, that not a single one was left at Luffy's side to stand with him at Marineford, he'd felt more helpless than he could have ever imagined possible, and that sense of helplessness had done its insidious best to creep into every thought he had about the members of his crew (his people, his family) during those two long, dark years. To creep, most of all, into his thoughts about Sanji, because it was only when the cook was no longer beside him that he truly and properly realized how much he wanted him there.

In those quiet moments, when exhaustion, isolation, and pain all ganged up to attack his spirit, he'd found himself picturing Sanji on some sunny island, with a cute girl or two on his arm -- blissfully happy, of course. If that was where he'd found himself, would he really be drawn back to Sabaody when their two years were up? The moment that doubt crept in, Zoro'd tried to quash it, because of course Sanji would come back, of course he was committed to the crew. They all were. They'd all risked their lives over and over in joint pursuit of Luffy's dream, and to doubt that was a profound insult to everything Sanji was. But it wouldn't stay quashed. It kept coming back, a quiet whisper of what if that echoed in the back of his mind, taunted him whenever he tried to count down the days until their reunion and winced at the number he got. That mocked him as much for the sheer act of entertaining his doubts, even as it taunted him by raising those doubts to begin with. What if he doesn't come back? What if Kuma just smacked him straight off to the All Blue and he doesn't need us anymore? What if he's found some cute girl who's spending these two years wrapping him around her little finger? What if? What if?

Those moments, those thoughts, had been faithless, had been nothing but his own moments of weakness, and when he'd seen the familiar dark-suited figure standing on the shore at Sabaody, rolling his eyes while the fisherman fretted, he'd felt the spectre of those long, dark nights shatter like a popped bubble. Sanji was just as much a part of them as he was, and nothing could change that. He was back where he belonged, as they all were, and nothing could break them apart.

He'd thought about trying to say something like that during those calm times when the crew of the Sunny amused themselves onboard the ship. Had tried to imagine having an honest enough conversation with the cook, outside of the heat of battle, to say something like I missed you, or I'm glad you're here. Those thoughts always got discarded, because how the hell was he supposed to say anything that genuine? They didn't talk like that. Those things were the prologue to a whole laundry list of things he'd never say to Sanji, which heavily featured sentiments that would get him anything from sneered at, outright mocked, right through to taking a Diable Jambe to the face if he tried to bring it up. It didn't matter how good of battle partners they were, admitting to quiet dirty fantasies about just how flexible Sanji could be, or wondering whether the sparse moustache he was trying to grow would tickle if Zoro kissed him -- nah, that sure as hell wasn't going to get him anywhere. Sanji liked women, only women, clear as damned crystal, and that was the long and short of it.

So. Battle partner it was, crewmate, friend in that weird way that they were friends (or at least, Zoro considered Sanji his friend; he hoped the reverse was true as well, but the nature of their interactions didn't exactly let him ask) -- and no more than that.

Besides. Wasn't that what a soulmate was for? Now that he'd finally decided to go looking for his, maybe Zoro could get his mind off thoughts of the unattainable and onto the merely challenging.

After all, that was something else Mihawk had talked about, in the same lecture as he'd talked about fitting your strength into the context of your surroundings.

On your own, you might be strong enough to defeat me someday, he'd said, sounding as though it made utterly no difference to him whether it happened or not. But as long as you go it alone, you'll never reach your full potential. For that, you need your soulmate -- and they, whoever they are, need you just as much. When half your soul is unknown to you, you'll always be held back.

Zoro had scoffed at that, of course, just as he'd scoffed any time someone tried to get him even the least interested in the possibility of his soulmate. He had the Vinsmoke mark, true enough, but he'd never heard the name anywhere but inside his own head, in the rare times he'd thought it, and the notion that he might be somehow incomplete on his own was downright offensive. There was only one greatest swordsman, after all -- was he supposed to share the title?

Not according to Mihawk, no. It wasn't that direct. His soulmate wouldn't necessarily make him a better swordsman directly -- but finding his soulmate, acknowledging them and being acknowledged by them, building on the foundation that fate had laid by marking them, would make him a better person, bring him into greater harmony that would then, in turn, propel him to greater heights of his art. That was why it was entirely possible for him to become the greatest swordsman without said soulmate -- without finding that harmony -- but it would be far harder, and he would always be hampered, always be held back. Would always be incomplete.

So he'd asked Robin to help him search. If it was how he became the best -- not just the best in the world, but the best version of himself that he could be -- then he'd find them, and if he was lucky, maybe he'd even like them. But her results hadn't exactly been encouraging, and that troubled him. Mercenaries didn't trouble him much, when you got right down to it -- not like a pirate had much room to judge -- but these Vinsmoke sounded like bad news. Ex-autocrats, remembered as brutal and evil by the people they'd once ruled? He couldn't imagine one of those holding the other half of his soul -- and more to the point, couldn't imagine finding someone like that and accepting them as a part of him. He was a pirate, true, and had his own fearsome reputation, but he wasn't evil, wasn't a monster to those who didn't deserve to have a monster on their ass.

And, he thought abruptly, his calm movements in polishing Kitetsu slowing to near a crawl, at the end of the day, if his soulmate wouldn't join the crew, he couldn't accept them, because the Strawhats came first. All those (stupid, wrong, faithless, damned insulting) fears he'd contended with during those two years apart -- those applied just as much to him. He couldn't leave the crew because he found a lover, couldn't turn his back on his nakama for one other person (or, frankly, for any other reason). If they would join the crew -- which meant not just being willing to, but also being accepted as a part, being welcomed by people with their own strong senses of right -- then everything was fine. If they wouldn't, or if the Strawhats couldn't accept them, then he was just going to have to do without. And he would, no question about it. He didn't need a soulmate to become the greatest swordsman, and he didn't need anyone in his life who would challenge the importance of standing at Luffy's right hand. Plain and simple.

Chapter Text

There was no one for whom a summons to Mariejois was a matter to be taken lightly. All monarchs went there for the Reverie along with their immediate families -- but the Reverie was not yet set to begin, and to be directly called was deeply concerning. This was not done to deliver good news, nor to merely provide affirmation that the king so called was doing well in his governance and could rest easy. No, it was a sign of imminent danger of one sort or another -- and not, generally, the sort that an impressive military presence or the most cutting-edge technology in the world could offset.

With that said, there was also no refusing the summons, and so Vinsmoke Judge issued instructions to his children -- not that they weren't perfectly capable of continuing the operation of Germa 66 during what was likely to be a short absence, but rather, in the event that his absence was extended, they would have an operating direction, a medium-term set of processes in place that would carry them through any period of questioning or uncertainty. And in the longer term...

... In the longer term, if it came to it, Germa's succession was in place and could be activated in the event that significant evidence pointed to his death. While Judge had little fear that this summons was an immediate prelude to such, he was not so foolish or arrogant as to believe it could not happen.

And with that done, the affairs of the floating kingdom set on a clear course, he departed for the Red Line, to see just what the Five Elders wanted with the king of Germa.

He deeply disliked his visits to Mariejois, no matter the reason for them; at previous Reveries, he had held onto every iota of pride he could summon, had met every monarch there with the full dignity that had accrued to his line when they had ruled the North Blue, but had known that to many, his very presence among them rang hollow. A fleet of ships was not properly a kingdom, and in the eyes of landed monarchs, Vinsmoke Judge had no place among them, was no king. A force to be reckoned with, yes -- no one could deny the military might he commanded, nor the technological advances that let one soldier of Germa 66 outclass any ten that any other king could field -- but not royal. The Reverie was a mark of kingship, was the acknowledgment of the World Government for his status and prestige, and yet it was also the quadrennial reminder that he was only a king by the barest of definitions, that even the poorest, most ragged, weakest of the other attendees claimed something that he did not. The Reverie left him in the displeasing situation of refusing utterly to even consider not attending, but spending the duration waiting for it to be over so that he could leave.

Red Port, at the foot of the Red Line, was busy preparing for the next Reverie -- the port was full of merchant ships, all as heavily armed as any Marine galleons but painted in the riotous colors of a thousand shipping concerns. The royal families themselves would not linger in the port, no, but they could not all bring their full escorts into Mariejois, and so the crews of their ships and the guards that brought them safely to the Reverie would crowd the inns and taverns that filled the lower town, spending the coin of fifty realms as their lords debated matters of state. Tourists, too, would come as they could, hoping to catch a glimpse of exotic figures and claim a brush with royalty. In order to bring in all the supplies needed, the swell of shipping began weeks before the Reverie itself, and continued until it was nearly over.

Judge's mouth flexed downward as he contemplated that he had come for this summons, would put up with whatever the Five Elders wanted him for, would leave as soon as he possibly could -- and then in what would feel like barely any time at all, he'd turn around and return for the Reverie, inflicting this place on himself all over again. There was little he would want less -- but it was still a best-case scenario, because it assumed that whatever this summons meant, it was small and easily dealt with. That was a bitter thought. It could be something so much worse than a trip to the capital.

As he ascended from the port to Mariejois proper, he stared at the town that shrank below him, silent and brooding as the liveried captain at his side stood in silence. His chosen escort was a single officer, a deliberate gesture meant both to visibly show his respect for the peace of the capital and to proclaim his own sense of safety, his trust in his own strength. Some kings might be useless lumps of hereditary entitlement, but there was no such thing as weakness in a Vinsmoke. Judge had no reason to fear any attack -- not because he was confident he would not be attacked (there was never any reason to be confident in such a thing) but because he believed in his own abiliity to deal with it.

He was escorted through the halls of Pangaea Castle in silence, his expression sculpted into an impassivity that might have been carved out of granite. The more strongly he felt his dislike of this place, the less he could afford to let it show, and while Judge had been called many unflattering things in his life, he would not be accused of lacking the dignity that went with his station. It did seem, however, that the grand building was far emptier than it ought to be. His frame of reference was the Reverie, when it hummed with activity and life, but even taking that into account, the stillness, the halls and passageways devoid of even servants... it was ominous. Just what was going on here, that the place should be emptied out? Was it the occasion of his visit, something to do with the Five Elders' summons, or was he merely here as a side matter? Neither possibility particularly pleased him.

The chamber in which the Five Elders waited for him was as pristine as every other part of Pangaea that he'd seen, giving lie to the noted absence of visible servants. There had to be an army of them to tend to a pile like this. It was a note of distraction that Judge quietly nurtured in the back of his mind, a reminder that this sort of overbearing elegance was as much a carefully constructed and maintained appearance as everything else of true power in the world. The substance of power without the facade of refinement was brutal and ugly, was too likely to provoke those against whom the power was wielded. Overawe them with the appearance of refinement, however, and they meekly accepted the power as only natural. He was himself a man of power, of nobility, born to rule -- but the intent of Pangaea Castle and of Mariejois was to cow those who in turn cowed others. Vinsmoke Judge had to go through the motions, to show the deference expected -- but he would not forget that this stone was merely stone, even set among the clouds; this air was merely air, as prone to dust as any other; these men were men, the same flesh and blood as any other. He played his part and kept his seat at the table of the Reverie, and would continue to play the role expected... but he understood the real power underneath, and was crafting a better breed of humanity than these elders could ever achieve.

"Vinsmoke Judge," the youngest said as Judge made the expected obeisance.

"I have come." An expected response, a dignified one, the rituals of kingship upheld in this place of ceremony. "As called."

"Indeed." No words of welcome or greeting, of course. "Well for you that you were prompt. Reports of a... disturbing nature have surfaced."

As if these men could be disturbed by anything short of outright rebellion. Judge merely waited, letting the opportunity to ask the obvious question pass by. He wan't here to be led or baited.

There was a beat of silence as he did not ask the question they clearly wanted him to. So another took up the thread of speech, the old man in the white kimono leaning forward and staring into Judge's eyes. "We thought this matter settled two years ago. You, in fact, agreed that it was. Now, it seems that confidence was misplaced."

Two years ago. A low, quiet anger began to curdle in his gut. He hadn't been here two years ago -- but he had collaborated briefly with the Marines, when they'd informed him they'd tentatively identified the failure among lowlifes hanging around Sabaody, and he'd proven them wrong with the barest level of investigation. That the Five Elders were aware enough of the matter to say they had thought it resolved...

"We were willing to let the matter slide when the Strawhat Pirates were defeated," the Elder continued. "But they have reappeared, and now, we have this." He held out a sheet of paper, which Judge took.

It was not a bounty poster, but a simple photograph -- although one that certainly could grace a bounty poster, easily enough. Although the shot was -- to put it generously -- candid, there was no mistaking the aristocratic line of that face, and particularly not the brow that was a mark of the Vinsmoke family line. The disappointment that was his third son, his failure. Judge felt his lip start to curl, forced himself to calm, forced his fingers not to crumple the picture. "What of it?"

"He's a member of the Strawhat Pirates," the youngest of the Elders said, letting a faint grimace of distaste show. "As in Strawhat Luffy, who leveled Marineford two years ago. The crew has been reassembled, already made it to the New World, and this man is among them -- don't even try to deny that he's your blood, Judge, the breeding's all too plain."

"A member of the Germa royal family, consorting with pirates," another said. "More than consorting, sailing as one -- and these pirates, of all people. It isn't a good look, when you are about to take part in the Reverie."

"He is no member of my family," Judge retorted, just barely holding a rein on his temper. "I washed my hands of that failure years ago. I understand that he is referred to as Black Leg, these days, with no family name given." As he'd ordered; he would grant the boy that much. He'd obeyed the terms of his release.

"A pretty fiction," the elder sneered. "Most pirates with half a brain don't sail under their proper names."

"More to the point," another elder said, steepling his fingers, "It is... concerning to us, that your family has such a direct tie to the destabilizing force that is the Strawhat crew. It leaves us to question your commitment to the World Government, and your place at the Reverie, Vinsmoke Judge."

Later, Judge knew, he would have to release this rage building in his gut. Blood would spill, bones would crush. If simple fury alone could inflict the damage equal to its feeling, the entire castle would burst into flames with the force of his sudden furious hatred of his failure. Obeyed the terms of his release, but even so, he was bringing humiliation to the Vinsmoke line, and to Judge personally. If Sanji appeared before him this instant, nothing could stop him from rending the boy into mincemeat with his bare hands. But by force of will -- by force of the constant fight, every second he stood in Mariejois, to maintain his royalty, to prove that he was rightly acknowledged a king -- he held it all inside, and his hand holding the photograh did not even tremble despite the blazing rage in his veins.

"He will be dealt with," he said, forcing the words to emerge smoothly, forcing himself not to grit them out. "Before the Reverie, you will see where Vinsmoke stands -- as we always have, with the World Government."

Chapter Text

Not long after the encounter with the Marine ship, the Thousand Sunny sailed into a summer sea, and heavy misery dropped down on the crew. The wind dropped to nearly nothing, leaving the air thick, still, and humid enough that breathing felt only a half-step removed from drowning, and the Sunny crawled forward. Going up on deck was hot, staying below was hotter; there seemed to be no escape at all.

Too much of this, and tempers were going to start flaring. Nami, sensing the possibility and knowing full well that if push came to shove, the first temper to break had a decent chance to be hers (because no, she wasn't going to raise a wind to carry them through here faster, messing around with air patterns this pregnant with heat-energy and humidity was a good way to trigger the storm from hell, thanks ever so much), declared that she was going to work on her maps while the light was good and shut herself in the library. Which, come to think of it, may have been a mistake -- the windows let the heat in, but didn’t let it out, meaning that it was even hotter than outside. But it was at least blessedly quiet.

There was one interruption in the first hour, and it was a welcome one -- Sanji, with an iced drink and a hand towel he'd dampened and tucked in the refrigerator. Incorrigible flirt and occasional pervert he might be, but she had to admit that he balanced it out with a rare level of thoughtfulness. Even his usual energetic flirting was subdued in deference to the weather; it was just too damn hot to fuss so much, and what he showed her instead was a calmer, though no less attentive front, setting the drink with its coaster at her elbow and arranging the hand towel in a drape over her shoulders that brought instant relief.

As the second hour of work wore into the third, the drink long since finished and the damp towel gone warm, there was another knock at the door; it was not the cook's light, rapid tap, and her eyebrows rose to see that it was Zoro who entered. From what she'd seen, the swordsman had been spending the entire time since they first entered this zone napping, as though he could sleep through the entire thing and simply skip the experience.

He looked around the library, airless and stifling as it currently was, and grimaced. "It’s nasty in here. Wouldn’t it be easier to work out on the deck?”

"Maybe, but it’s quieter in here,” she pointed out. "If I have to listen to everyone whine and beg me to fix the weather, I’ll end up stuffing every draft I make down someone’s throat.”

He thought that over for a moment, then nodded, choosing a spot on the bench not far from her work desk and slouching into it. "I promise I won’t ask you for that.”

"You know better,” she pointed out wryly. "I can sympathize with how bad this heat is for Chopper, but triggering a cyclone won’t help anything.”

"Hell no.” He shook his head. "Chopper made enough pathetic faces for the cook to take pity on him. Apparently we’re running through all the chilled stuff fast enough that there’s room for him to nap in the refrigerator, so long as he stays small.”

She couldn’t help a giggle at that image. "You know, at this point, I’m tempted to join him.”

"Not like Dartboard’ll say no to you if you ask. He’d fall all over himself making room, even.”

Do I detect a note of jealousy? she wondered, but did not say aloud. If there was anything she didn’t need in this heat, it was Zoro getting flustered and defensive. Instead, she said, "So what brought you in here, anyway? I mean, obviously the pleasure of my sparkling company, but besides that…”

He rolled his eye. "Talking to the wrong man for that.” And he hesitated -- startling her. Since when did Zoro hesitate over anything? "Actually, I wanted to talk to you a bit. About Vivi.”

Now that, she hadn’t expected -- not that the topic of their long-detached, once and always crew member, her deeply-missed soulmate, was taboo, but it wasn’t like they talked about her regularly. And Zoro wasn’t the type to tend much toward that kind of emotional topic. Yes, Vivi was a part of them, and dearly missed by everyone who had been there to know her as a crewmate, but Alabasta was far away.

"Of course,” she said. "What about her?” She set her pen down, flexing fingers that were threatening a cramp.

"You haven’t gotten a letter from her in a while, have you?”

Zoro would know full well that Nami hadn’t gotten a letter from Vivi since they’d reunited at Sabaody. Not that it was a surprise -- News Coos were notoriously hard-headed about carrying personal correspondence, and Vivi’s letters were always an event on the Sunny, thick packets stuffed with letters not only for Nami, but for the crew as a whole as well. This sounded like the entry point for a deeper conversation, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t answer.

"Not since we all met up again, no, but we wrote a few times during the last two years. She's doing well. Misses all of us, and the open sea."

"Hn." He glanced out the window and shifted -- but this time, she thought, there was some actual discomfort hiding in his expression. Why should talking about Vivi make him uncomfortable?

"I should write to her again," Nami said thoughtfully. "Let her know that we all got together and past the Red Line successfully. She'll be pleased." The prospect of haggling with a News Coo over carrying a letter all the way to Alabasta tired her out just to consider in this energy-sapping heat, but she knew that Vivi treasured their rare letters as much as she did; when your soulmate was on the other side of the world, you took whatever you could get.

"Writing letters... is that enough to keep your soulmate connection intact?" Zoro asked, sitting up just a little from his slouch -- and she thought, Aha. That was what this was all about -- not Vivi herself, precisely, but about soulmates. Had Zoro found his, during those two years apart? Was that why he was seeking out the one person aboard who openly (to the crew, at least) acknowledged her soulmate?

"It's not nearly as good as being together," she admitted, "but it helps nourish the connection, so that the effects stay stronger. Our soulbond is intact as long as we both want it. Even if we couldn't write at all -- wherever she is, she's thinking about me, and I'm thinking about her, and that's what it really takes. It can't be broken unless one of us dies or repudiates it. And if it's stretched..." She shifted, a motion that was not quite a shrug. "It's stretched. She couldn't come with us and I couldn't stay with her. We can deal with the distance better than either of us could have dealt with running away from where we're needed."

That seemed to interest him -- not that he was terribly overt about it, but at least he looked somewhat less bored than usual. "What does it feel like?"

You're really curious, aren't you? she thought, but didn't say aloud. If Zoro felt like he was being called out on his curiosity over soulmates, when he normally seemed apathetic bordering on actively disinterested in anything hinting at a personal relationship, he'd probably clam up, and now she wanted to know what was behind it! "Well, I always know where she is, and about how far away. This far... we're nearly as far away from each other as it's possible to get. I can barely feel her at all, just this tiny little consciousness that she's still out there, and still loves me." Unconsciously, one hand rose to press over her heart.

He shifted, frowning slightly, and she tilted her head, waiting for him to decide on whatever it was he wanted to ask next. "And that's... because you two started out together? You were able to recognize it while she was sailing with us, and that's why you can feel her now?"

"Not quite." She laughed softly. "We didn't figure it out until near the end, just a little before we left Alabasta."

"What? How? You two were..." He frowned, trying to track that.

"Thick as thieves? Joined at the hip? Making out every chance we got?" She laughed at the fond memories. "Yes. That part came first. But... Zoro, my birth name isn't Nami. Whatever I was named before Nojiko and Bellemere found me, I've never known that name. So Vivi's soulmark didn't mean anything to me, and mine... well, there are a lot of girls out there named Vivi. It's a very common name. We didn't figure it out until the effects of the soulbond started to show, and we realized that it was pointing us at each other. I didn't think they were actually supposed to do that, if you hadn't acknowledged the bond yet. Maybe we were just lucky."

"Some luck," he commented. "You're on opposite sides of the world now."

"Well, yes. But it won't be forever, and we're both willing to wait."

He went quiet for another minute, brows furrowing, and then said, "So, those soulbond effects..."

"Right. Remember how messy things were near the end? I knew exactly where she was, the entire time. Blindfold me and spin me around, I could have still pointed directly to her. And it felt..." She paused, searching for words. "It felt right, being beside her. Like the world was brighter, everything was more hopeful. I might be sad, or tired, or scared, but if she was there, I knew those feelings were only temporary."

"Sounds like something the cook would say," Zoro grumbled, but she thought there was something a little wistful in his voice when he said it.

"Oh, I'm sure. Romantics like him love soulmate bonds," she agreed -- although it occurred to her she'd never heard Sanji breathe a word about soulmates, whether his own or waxing lyrical more generally. Odd. "Just ask Brook. Probably half the songs he knows are about soulmates in some way, and the only reason it isn't more than half is the rest are sea shanties about getting drunk and killing people."

"Yeah, well, I don't put a lot of faith in songs. This soulmate stuff..." He shook his head.

She eyed him. "Have you found your soulmate?"

"What?" He shook his head. "No, no. Just... had it pointed out to me I probably ought to at least think about finding them, whoever they are. But unless they're willing to join the crew, what's the point?"

"So you're asking the person whose soulmate didn't, not permanently."

"You're the local expert," he pointed out. "If you were going to tell me that it's not worth it, it just sucks, then I'd give it up and just say that I'm going to go it alone, and to hell with whatever potential they’re supposed to unlock or -- or whatever."

Well, if that was how it was described to him, no wonder he was interested now. "How could I say that? Vivi... she is part of us, just at a remove."

"And it's worth it." This time, it wasn't a question -- he was repeating what she'd said.

"Hell yes.” There was absolutely no question, for her, that finding her soulmate had been worthwhile, even with the pain of separation. "It's not like I like being so far away from her, but knowing she's there, that I’ve found my other half -- I wouldn’t trade it for anything. She makes my life better just by existing."

"Huh."

It was the kind of sentiment she didn’t entirely expect to ring true for him -- and quite honestly, it was more romantic than she liked to get -- but it was nevertheless true. Hardhead, unromantic, opportunist she might be, but where her soulbond was concerned, Nami was still deeply in love.

"I can’t tell you about your soulmate,” she said. "Or about how they’ll affect your life. But… I think that these things tend to work out in particular ways. After all, how was a thief from the East Blue ever going to meet a princess from the Grand Line?”

"Right. So you figure it’ll happen, one way or another. And then I’ll have to figure out what to do from there.”

"Mm-hm.” She considered the prospect for a moment. "For what it’s worth, I can’t imagine you having a soulmate who doesn’t end up with us.” Perhaps more than any of them, Zoro was fully, fiercely dedicated to Luffy, to Luffy’s dream, to the Strawhats as a whole. Wouldn’t the other half of his soul drag this soulmate just as strongly to the crew?

But that was apparently the wrong thing to say. Zoro’s expression shuttered, single eye going hard. "I hope you’re right,” he said, but he didn’t sound even remotely hopeful.

"You… don’t think so?” She frowned, tilting her head. "I thought you didn’t know who your soulmate was?”

"I have a family name,” he admitted. "And from the sound of it… they’re not the kind of people we take on.”

There was a lot to unpack in that sentence. A family name narrowed things down far more than a given name did, and that it was a name Zoro knew, without knowing who his soulmate was, that implied a whole lot of things...

“Oh.” She shifted, not openly admitting to her speculation.

"Yeah, oh.” No, he was definitely not happy about this, his tone grim. “One way or another, I’ll figure it out.”

Chapter Text

They finally made it to better weather, cruising through a line of fierce storms that thrashed and screamed at the border of what Zoro privately dubbed “the hell soup sea.” Nami had offered some fancy explanation for why the storms had hovered there unmoving, something about temperature gradients and stored energy, but he’d tuned her out. It was all well and good for their navigator to know just why and how the storms did what they did, but all he’d cared about had been getting through them and to the blessedly cooler weather on the other side. A small island awaited them there: Thunderhead Island -- fitting name, with the permanent line of storms looming on the horizon -- boasted a port city that welcomed anyone with money to spend, no matter what flag they sailed under, and apparently nothing outside the city but farms. It would be four days for the Log Pose to reset; plenty of time to restock the perishables and chilled foods they’d run through in the summer sea, as well as to get some time ashore amusing themselves.

The sun was only lately risen as the Sunny tied up at the dock and Nami descended to haggle with the harbormaster over docking fees. On deck, Sanji and Chopper reviewed supplies lists for the kitchen and infirmary, while Franky and Usopp did the same for their workshop materials. Zoro knew he was fine; his supplies were his own, and he knew exactly what he was running low of.

“Well, that’s done,” Nami said aloud as she rejoined them, looking satisfied; back on the dock, the harbormaster grumbled about miserly pirates as he headed back to his station. “He didn’t even try to ask for our ship or captain. They know how to work with pirates around here.”

“Right! Let’s draw for ship’s watch,” Franky said. “One lucky person among us gets no watch at all, the rest of us get a day or a night. Who’s it going to be?”

They drew, and Zoro wasn’t displeased to see that his straw had a number 1 in Nami’s neat script at the bottom. “First watch to me,” he said, flipping it between his fingers. It meant he would get off watch as the sun set, perfect time to go see what the nightlife in port was like. If they knew how to deal with pirates at the docks, surely they knew how to cater to them in city as well. Good taverns, cheap booze…

“And I’ve got second,” Franky said, waggling his own. “I’ll make sure to find you a good tavern, bro.”

Sanji, lucky bastard, got the straw labeled 0, meaning no watch for him -- not that it lasted long. “Robin-chuan, I’m happy to trade with you,” he offered, holding it out to her in trade for her number 4, the second night -- she merely smiled at him and shook her head. “No? Nami-swan, then?”

“Hey, if Robin doesn’t want it, I’m happy to trade with you, Sanji!” Nami said brightly, snatching the number 0 straw out of Sanji’s hand and giving him her number 5 instead. “No watch for me!”

“Always gets her way in the end,” Zoro grumbled to Usopp, who nodded in heartfelt agreement. “There was no way Nami wasn’t going to end up getting out of her watch.”

“Zoro,” Nami singsonged toward him, eyes narrow. “Are you implying that I intended to skip out?”

“I didn’t imply a damn thing,” he growled right back at her. “I said it.”

“Now now!” Brook put in. “There’s nothing wrong with accepting Sanji-san’s offer. It’s very gentlemanly.”

The bickering might have descended further, but the prospect of shore leave was more tantalizing. The rest of the crew headed into town, and Zoro brought down a set of his weights from the crow’s nest. Couldn’t nap on watch, no, but exercising on watch was perfectly fine, and it was a good chance to get that done before he went off duty and checked out the city.

Throughout the day, Sanji made several stops back at the Sunny, each time returning with his arms loaded with supplies. “I have to admit,” he said on one of his stops, emerging from the galley to stand by Zoro, “I do miss those floating bubbles from Sabaody. They made stocking up a lot easier.”

“It’s about the only thing to miss from that place,” Zoro grumbled in return. “If you’re gonna stand there and smoke, ero-cook, stand downwind.”

“Tch.” Instead, Sanji sauntered down to the dock. “Want me to grab you anything, Marimo? A little fertilizer, maybe?”

“Grab yourself a brain, that’d do me a favor.”

“If I wanted to do you a favor, I’d water you. Maybe wash some of the stink off.” Sanji tucked one hand in his pocket, the other waving casually as he strolled off. “See you later, swamp-for-brains.”

“Choke and die,” Zoro grumbled in response -- but he couldn’t help the smallest smile, since Sanji wasn’t there to see it. Life wouldn’t be the same without the cook there for the bickering. Perona hadn’t been nearly good enough as a substitute while they were separated.

Sunset seemed to come early, thanks to the permanent storms on the western horizon. Zoro didn’t begrudge Franky waiting until it was about the time of true sunset to return -- the night would be long enough as it was. The big man was humming to himself as he strode up the dock, a large crate slung up on one shoulder. “Hey, hey, Zoro!”

“There you are.” Zoro was halfway back down the mast from putting his weights back in the crow’s nest. “How’s the city?”

“Hospitable.” Franky’s grin spoke volumes. “I found a super tavern over on the west side of town, a couple blocks back from the shore. Good booze, cute girls, all the important stuff. The live entertainment’s no patch on Brook, of course, but not half bad all the same.”

“I’ll have to check it out. Seen any of the others around?”

“Robin found a bookshop near the edge of the port district. She’s having the time of her life. Usopp… last I saw, he was trying to telling his tales in one of the other taverns. Haven’t seen the others.”

There hadn’t been any shouting or explosions that Zoro had noticed, which he was willing to take as a sign that the others had stayed more or less out of trouble. Good enough for him. “Dock’s been quiet. You’ll have more to fear from boredom than anything else.”

Franky laughed. “Yeah, yeah. Go have your fun. The tavern I told you about is called The Bent Hook. Can’t miss it.”

Two hours later, Zoro determined that Franky was either insane or full of shit, because he’d been all over the port district, and no such tavern had materialized. Not that there weren’t plenty of others, of course, and he was probably going to wind up choosing one of those, since this Bent Hook place stubbornly resisted being found. It was long past full dark by now, and the streets were filled with a disreputable mix of sailors, roughnecks, low-lifes, and more than a few gaudily-dressed ‘entertainers of the night’ -- not all of them ladies, either. Open-minded place, this. Zoro hadn’t seen any of his crewmates, although he had a general sense that the cook was probably not far off. Of course not -- the port district doubled as red-light. Where else would the pervert cook find himself?

A clump of drunken idiots passed him by, leaning on each other and belting out an unfamiliar shanty in several different keys apiece. Zoro stepped to the side to keep some distance from them, not interested in getting close enough to tangle, and watched as they lurched on their way. Up ahead, a woman in a decidedly brief dress lingered near the entrance to an alleyway. First thought would pin her as another streetwalker, especially with how much leg and chest she was flaunting, but Zoro didn’t think so. She wasn’t made up like one, to start with, and the way she held herself was entirely wrong. He couldn’t see much at all of her face -- she had her hair combed down like she was trying to hide behind it -- but she looked to his eye like she was a predator on the hunt. A bounty hunter? A flicker of readiness worked itself into his muscles, the possibility of a fight…

But whoever she was looking for, it wasn’t Roronoa Zoro; she turned down the alleyway and disappeared from view. He shrugged to himself, decided he felt bad for whatever poor sucker she was hunting for, and continued on his way. He was still a couple yards shy of the alley when he heard a familiar voice.

“What are you doing here?”

His first thought was that Sanji had detected him around the corner. Observation Haki would let him do that, and it had to be Zoro the cook was talking to, because--

Because that was the way that woman had gone, and Sanji didn’t speak to women like that, tense and terse and sharp. Even when he was facing down a woman who wanted to hurt him, he still poured on the charm. So it didn’t make any sense that he’d be speaking to that woman in the pink dress in such a way. But no, it was her voice that responded, as Zoro flattened himself against the wall just shy of the alley mouth, out of view but listening intently. He had to know what was going on here.

“I was looking for you.” The read he’d gotten on her body language was carried through in her voice; intent, calm in the way a warrior before battle was calm -- prepared, intensely focused.

“For me?” Sanji’s tone, by contrast, was flat, utterly alien to what Zoro knew of the cook. “And just what does the princess of Germa want with a pirate?”

Zoro froze. Germa. He knew that name. That was the kingdom Robin had told him of, the floating kingdom ruled by-

“You mean,” the woman’s voice smoothed its way into Zoro’s thoughts, “what does Vinsmoke Reiju want with her little brother?”

A roaring seemed to fill Zoro’s ears as he stared into the middle distance. Her brother. Vinsmoke Reiju and her little brother. Sanji is…

“Vinsmoke Reiju,” Sanji said, still in that flat, uncharacteristic tone, “has three little brothers. None of them are here.”

“You can’t deny who you are,” she said, her voice low enough that Zoro had to strain to hear.

“Vinsmoke Sanji is dead,” the cook snapped. “You were there, Reiju, and you know I’ve kept my promise.”

Her answer faded into a murmur as Zoro’s mind reverberated with that name. Vinsmoke… Sanji. Vinsmoke Sanji. The soulmark hidden under layers of clothes seemed suddenly to burn on his skin, a perfect tracery of the characters he’d only recently taken an interest in. Vinsmoke. He’s one of them. That family.

He thought about Robin, sitting with him at the galley table and telling him that his soulmark named the despots of the North Blue, two centuries deposed but still a name linked to violence and agony, wholesale slaughter for the highest bidder. Thought about the cook, how he poured his all into feeding the crew, how he blossomed whenever they complimented his cooking. How he noticed their particular tastes and wants without ever needing to ask, and always served meals tailored to whatever they wanted most, while covering it all with a foul mouth that did nothing to hide the attentiveness or care.

Thought again about Robin telling him about that family -- in the galley, with the cook attending to his chores behind Zoro the entire time, radiating tension and unease. At the time, Zoro had vaguely recalled that Sanji had made an offhand reference to being from North Blue, and figured that was the root of it -- Robin talking about the conquerors of Sanji’s home waters. But no. She’d been talking about his family.

Zoro’s soulmate’s family.

He thought about how it had felt to fight beside Sanji on the Marine ship, the two of them acting in perfect concert without needing to say a word to coordinate. How he’d felt the entire world to be clear and right around him, felt himself settled right into the place where he belonged. How he’d felt himself performing so much better than he ever had on Kuraigana those two years, felt an energy and verve that had been missing the whole time he’d been separated from his crew. (How he’d thought it had only been the crew as a whole he’d been missing, not any specific one of their number.)

Thought about the departure from Sabaody -- again, he and Sanji had coordinated their attacks without having to say a word, even though they had only just met up again after those two years of developing their skills independently of each other.

Thought about those two years, how he had felt himself to be so isolated from his crew, from his nakama, and how it had always been when he thought of Sanji that he most keenly felt the separation, as though it were a physical sensation of all the miles of ocean between them. How it had been Sanji, only Sanji, that he’d feared losing in his darkest and most uncertain moments.

Even before those two years apart, the signs were there. Sanji had been the one to find him after the episode with Kuma; he had taken pains to get somewhere the others wouldn’t easily get to him, just in case. Sanji had found him anyway.

Sanji had tried to stop him from doing it, too -- had offered to take his place, had tried to push him back. All the way back at the Baratie, had tried to talk him down from facing Mihawk, even. Had tried to convince him to back down and live.

Had Sanji known this entire time? Did he have Roronoa written somewhere on his damned body, and the whole time, didn’t breathe a word of it, didn’t ask, didn’t say anything -- just flirted with all the women he met while conscious that his soulmate was right there sailing beside him?

“-go to hell,” Sanji’s voice had suddenly gotten very loud. “I am not leaving my crew!”

Zoro was ripped out of his trance. Leave? Sanji, leave them? What?

“You don’t have a choice,” the woman -- Vinsmoke Reiju, fuck -- said. “We’re all hunting for you. Ichiji and Niji were pulled out of a contract. That’s how serious this is. How important you are.”

“And you found me first. Lucky you.”

She sighed. “I know you, Sanji, and I doubt you’ve changed that much over the years. You care about others, and you don’t want to let them be hurt when you could take it on yourself. Father has no interest in your captain or your crew. If you come with me now, there will be no reason for any of us to lay a hand on them. But if you make us fight to claim you -- we will.” The last two words, calm and sad, were no less than a threat.

“So you’re holding the rest of the crew hostage against me.” Sanji sounded -- tired, abruptly. As though he could see his own looming acquiescence. A fire kindled itself in Zoro’s gut.

“I am.” She was so blunt, so matter-of-fact about it. “The others wouldn’t even think to do this. They’d just attack. But if there’s a chance to resolve this easily, I think you’d rather take that.”

“Easily.” A hollow laugh, humorless and ugly. “You mean, if I just give up and let you take me.”

“If it protects your crew, wouldn’t you?”

To hell with this. The fire in Zoro’s gut was a raging inferno, and he’d heard more than enough -- not only of this Reiju’s blackmail, but of Sanji’s uncertainty. He was going to have a long talk with the cook later, but for right now, he needed to address this idiotic notion that Sanji might leave the crew -- might choose to leave the crew. (Might choose to leave him.)

He stepped around the corner, one hand on Shusui’s hilt in mute threat. “That’s for us to deal with. The answer’s no.”

Two single eyes in two aristocratic faces half-hidden by curtains of hair -- with, damn it, two perfectly swirly eyebrows, what the fuck, was that a family trait? -- stared at him in shock. Zoro took the opportunity to plant himself firmly beside Sanji, free hand grasping the cook’s arm just to make his point evident. “Nice of you to think of the rest of us,” his tone said quite clearly, nice blackmail job, “but Strawhats take care of our own. We’re not trading away one of our nakama just to avoid a fight.”

“Zoro…” Sanji breathed out.

“Shut it, shit-cook,” he growled, not taking his gaze off Reiju.

Who made no motion toward aggression despite the mute threat of his hand on the sword; she merely watched the two of them, something shuttered and sad in her expression slowly easing enough to allow a thin smile that might have been called wistful to escape. “I’m glad my brother has such good crewmates,” she said quietly.

Beside him, under his hand, Zoro felt Sanji shift, and could almost hear the words the cook didn’t say. I’m not your brother anymore.

“I don’t think you honestly give a shit,” Zoro answered, eye narrowing. “I don’t know how princesses operate,” and he layered the word with scorn, “but your little proposal is declined. Get the hell away from-” my soulmate, he nearly said, that realization still reverberating around inside his head, “-my crew.”

“For what it’s worth, Roronoa Zoro,” she said, “I’m sorry for what this is going to mean. I truly am.” And before he could answer, there was a sound like a dull and distant Impact Dial firing off as she leaped upward, vanishing into the night faster than anyone had any right to, leaving Zoro and Sanji alone.

There was a long moment of silence as Zoro tried to sort through all the things that wanted to be first out of his mouth. Before he could settle on any of them, Sanji turned on him.

“What the fuck was that, Marimo? Do you have any idea what kind of shit we’re in now?”

“What do you mean, what the fuck was that? You weren’t going to-”

“I was.” The words were blunt and hard. “You’ve just fucking declared war. Shit. If she goes running back and tells them-” Sanji inhaled a shuddering breath, and then abruptly turned toward the mouth of the alley, setting a sharp pace; Zoro, still holding onto his arm, elected to keep up instead of dropping the contact. “We have to get out of here, now and damn the Log Pose. We need to get back to the ship, get Franky to help round up the others, and get the fuck out of here before she brings down the rest of them…”

“Slow down,” Zoro growled. “What the fuck are you babbling about?”

“I’m talking about the fucking underworld army that has apparently just been fucking mobilized for the sole purpose of kicking the shit out of our entire crew until I agree to go with them,” Sanji snapped, fire in his tone. “Weren’t you eavesdropping on our whole little talk back there?”

Zoro wasn’t about to admit that he’d spent part of the time too poleaxed by the realization that Sanji was his soulmate to listen in. “I know what I heard. You’re not running off on us just because some- some wad of bubblegum shows up and makes a few vague threats!”

“Vague threats? Is that what you think that was? Does we will hunt you down and kill everyone sound vague to you, Marimo? Shaky on the details, are you?”

“As if they could.” Zoro wasn’t sure why the threat seemed to rattle Sanji so very badly. “They’re welcome to try.”

“There you go not understanding again.” Sanji huffed an angry breath as Zoro started to turn, then hauled him in the opposite direction. “That’s not the way to the harbor, dumbass!” A pause. “These aren’t a bunch of empty-headed Marines with their thumbs up their asses. This is serious.”

I’m serious. Why the fuck are you so convinced that we’re just going to get whipped if we go up against them?”

“Because I know better.” Sanji exhaled hard, looking away from Zoro, and studying him in the light of the streetlamps as they passed, Zoro suddenly realized that the cook was only superficially angry. Underneath? He was terrified. “I know what she’s -- what they’re all capable of.”

“And you should know what we’re capable of, too.”

“Exactly.”

It didn’t take them long to get back to the harbor and the Sunny -- not at the speed they were going -- and the moment they stepped aboard, Franky was right there. “Okay, what kind of shit are we in now?”

“Deep and abiding,” Sanji answered tightly before Zoro could jump in. “Marimo, you stay with the ship. Franky, you come with me. We need to round up the rest of the crew. Everyone should meet back here.”

“Gotcha.” Franky nodded. “I know I just relieved you not that long ago, Zoro, but I know where a couple of the others were, so it’s better if you’re the one who stays on watch, yeah?”

“Fine,” Zoro grumbled. “Whatever.” The notion of Sanji ditching him here and then running back into the darkness irked him -- with his new realization, and the prospect that Reiju might not have been dissuaded, might be waiting for Sanji to go off by himself to make another grab for him… He took a moment to utterly disregard Franky’s presence, stepping deep into Sanji’s personal space and staring him in the eye. “You had better fucking come back with the others, you hear me, cook?” His voice was low. “You’re not running off by yourself like that, do you understand me?”

Sanji was silent for a long moment, and then, quietly, “I hear you. Don’t worry. I’ll come back.”

“Good.” He stepped back. “Go get them. This should be interesting.”

“That’s a word for it.” Sanji tossed his head. “Come on, big guy, let’s get moving.” And just like that, he and Franky were off into the town in search of the rest of their crew.

Zoro leaned against the rail, hands knotting themselves into fists. If this hadn’t just gone all to hell...

Chapter Text

“-So there it is,” Sanji finished miserably, not even bothering to force his clenched fingers out of his hair. “The whole long, shitty story. As long as I’m here, we’re all in their crosshairs.”

He stared down at his feet, unable to meet the gazes of the crew gathered around him -- unable to look them in the eye, knowing that he was putting them all at risk, knowing that the only honorable thing would have been to accept Reiju’s proposal. It would have protected the people who mattered most to him, trading his one life to grant them all the freedom to move forward unhindered. He loved his nakama more than he could possibly say; wouldn’t it demonstrate that love best to make sure his ugly personal history didn’t hold them back?

Those nakama were all clustered around him in the Sunny’s mess, Sanji’s back against the mast as though the durable Adam Wood could replace the strength that seemed to have drained out of his limbs. They’d been surprisingly quiet as he spoke, letting him get the full story out with minimal interruptions, although he’d heard more than a few murmurs at certain parts of his tale. The truth of his birth, his family’s cruelty, the funeral, the condition under which he’d been granted his freedom -- and now this, the World Government’s ultimatum that placed the Strawhat Pirates directly in the sights of Germa 66. All because of him, because a son of Vinsmoke sailed under Luffy’s flag. What he’d never wanted to be, never asked to be, had tried his very damned best not to be. But what he wanted, what he asked for, what he tried for, that didn’t matter.

(That never mattered.)

They’d called him dead, they’d discarded him, disowned him, severed every tie they could -- and he’d done the same, accepting his father-no-longer’s condition as not so much a penalty (although it had hurt, still hurt) as a liberation. But what it truly proved to be was a lie. Forgetting the name, forging a new identity, had not guaranteed his freedom -- no, Reiju had come back and forced it on him, and it seemed the entire World Government was doing the same. No matter what, the world was determined to call him Vinsmoke.

Determined -- right down to the matter of Zoro’s soulmark. Right down to the matter of Zoro being the one to overhear Reiju’s offer, to hear incontrovertibly the name that Sanji had tried so hard to keep from everyone. The swordsman was a smoldering presence beside him, radiating waves of anger like heat from a bed of coals -- little light, almost nothing to see, but Sanji would swear his skin was blistering from the sheer emotional weight of that rage so close to him. When it broke, when that anger was let loose, he wasn’t sure it wouldn’t burn him entirely to ash.

“Silly Sanji,” Luffy declared, interrupting his thoughts and draping an arm over Sanji’s shoulders like a rubbery stole. “Of course they’re after us. That’s what the World Government does. They can’t have my awesome cook!”

There was something like a sigh from the rest of the crew -- inaudible, but a release of tension nonetheless. Sanji knew Robin understood the exact meaning of his name, and he hadn’t missed Brook’s reaction to hearing it either, nor Usopp’s disquieted murmurs as he’d detailed exactly what they were in for. But Luffy’s response was their answer, their direction. As long as their captain was confident (and when wasn’t he?) they knew what they were doing.

“Right,” Franky agreed. “What kind of pirates would we be if we weren’t out here putting one in their eye? Of course they’re going to call up their big guns, now that they know we’re back in action and made it to the New World. They’re probably quaking in their fancy shoes right about now, thinking about Strawhat Luffy and his super nakama running loose! So they find whatever they can to try and take us down.”

“That’s right,” Robin agreed. “I know this feels very personal for you, Cook-san -- it has to -- but from what you said, it sounds like your family is being manipulated here, just like you are. This is about the World Government and about us as a crew, in the end.”

Nami nodded, taking up the thread of the encouragement. “Right! And anyway, even if you tried to give yourself up-”

“Which you shouldn’t!” Luffy interrupted. “That’s dumb!”

Even if,” Nami repeated, rolling her eyes at Luffy, “remember Enie’s Lobby? We’d just come get you back anyway. So it wouldn’t do any good!”

“I wonder if we could get the Marines to come wreck everything at the end again,” Franky muttered, a speculative look in his eye. “Just to make our opinion on the whole thing really clear...”

Sanji shook his head. “You’re all crazy,” he murmured, feeling a lump in his throat that could be either a sob or a hysterical laugh. “I tell you how much danger we’re in, and you’re all laughing…”

“Well, duh! That’s what we do! Since when are we scared of a fight?” Of course Luffy wasn’t scared. He didn’t know how to be.

“So,” Nami said practically. “We should make some plans for how we’re going to deal with this. Sanji, I know why you want to get out of here right away, but leaving before the log pose resets is really risky. Right now, with it partway through the resetting process, I'm not sure that even the other two destinations are reliable. But I’ve got a few thoughts for how we can be careful in the meantime…”

And just like that, they were settling down into planning for the next three days in port -- accepting the new danger, accepting that the price of having Sanji in their crew was falling into the sights of an underworld army. As though it were nothing more than what they were doing all along, as though it was a trade they didn’t even have to think about making. He listened to the discussion with half an ear, perfectly happy to go along with anything Nami suggested, and tried to stop himself from feeling as though the entire ship and ocean had simply rolled over under his feet.

Zoro still hadn’t said a word. Still stood there, beside Sanji, smoldering away with that anger that felt as potent and heavy as any threat Germa 66 could bring to bear. It couldn’t last forever, but Sanji dreaded what would come when the smoldering gave way to open flame.

---

Planning done -- and Sanji having promised that as long as they remained on the island, he wouldn’t go anywhere by himself, in case Reiju decided to take matters more firmly into her own hands -- the group started to break up, Franky to return to his assigned watch and the rest of them to bed down on the Sunny, taking refuge on their ship rather than the luxury of a hotel on land. But a hard grip on Sanji’s shoulder stopped him from following the others toward the men’s quarters.

Zoro. Ah, here it was.

“We need to talk.” The words were a growl, and Zoro’s glare on him felt like the sear of a cooking torch.

He owed the swordsman that much, at least -- but Sanji felt exhausted, limp, weighed down with the weary resignation he’d settled into by this point in the unending day. “Can’t it wait until morning?” His day had started as early as always, and it was now nearly midnight.

“No. Who knows what the fuck else will have happened by then? We’re doing this now.”

He stared back at Zoro, contemplated making a fight of it, but gave up on the exercise. Zoro was furious, and a furious Zoro meant a Zoro who didn’t even feel his own exhaustion, let alone acknowledge others’. “... Fine.”

“Up there.” A gesture toward the crow’s nest, impatient and sharp.

Sanji wasn’t about to argue; this wasn’t going to be a pretty discussion, and he’d rather have it where there was no chance of someone wandering in for a glass of water or a midnight snack.

Zoro made a deliberate point of making him go first, following him up as though blocking him from trying to -- what, turn tail and escape? It wasn’t as though that would solve this, and if push really came to shove, Sanji could skywalk. But the gesture still spoke loud and clear, and it rankled. Distrust. Zoro was really that angry that Sanji had been intending to give himself up in order to spare the crew.

In the crow’s nest, Sanji crossed to stare out the windows toward the lights of the port, dimly seen through the reflection on the windows. And in the reflection, he could watch Zoro as well -- and Zoro could see his face just as clearly. Through the medium of the darkened window, they stared at each other in silence for long moments, until Zoro finally broke the silence. “So. Were you ever going to tell me?”

Sanji hated the demand behind those words, the veiled accusation. Fine. If Zoro was going to be a prick about it... “I wasn’t really planning on it, no.”

Clearly, it wasn’t the answer Zoro was waiting for. His scowl deepened, and Sanji watched in the reflection as Zoro’s hands clenched as though he wanted to throw a punch. Had it actually hurt him to hear it? That Sanji hadn’t intended to push him on something it seemed unimaginable that he’d want to begin with?

“Why?”

“Why the fuck would I? It’s not like you give a shit about my old family history, after all.” It’s not like you really give a shit about me, Marimo. It was an unfair accusation, given the circumstances, but Sanji felt like being a little unfair right then. Unfair right back at the universe that was so damn unfair to him.

“You heard me talking with Robin!” Zoro snapped in return. “You knew I was searching!”

“Right, so what was I supposed to say? ‘Here’s my two-faced sister, I bet you’ll get on great’?” It was an evasion, a pretense -- a refuge, even if only for a moment. Pretending for just a moment longer that he didn’t have Zoro’s name on him, that he would have been no more than a guidepost pointing Zoro elsewhere...

Footsteps behind him, and Zoro’s hand clenched on his shoulder hard enough to bruise, pulling him around and slamming his back against the wall of the crow’s nest. “Don’t fuck with me, cook!” That hard gaze locked on Sanji’s, hypnotic as a snake, holding him in place as firmly as Zoro’s clenched hand did. Lower, but no less fierce, Zoro added, “Not now. Not about this. I’m not interested in your bullshit.”

“Then don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to,” Sanji spat back. He knew this was stupid, knew the truth was there and even Zoro, apathetic on human emotions and particularly disinterested in Sanji’s, could see it. Knew there was no point in what he was doing other than to prolong the argument, but he couldn’t let himself just give in and admit it all.

Zoro growled. “Look me in the fucking eye, Vinsmoke, and try to-”

That was as far as he got, because without conscious thought, Sanji’s knee jerked up between them -- a tight fit, but the cook was skinny and very limber -- and he was thrown back, nearly across the crow’s nest. It wasn’t a true kick, not in those close quarters -- more of a hard shove, the length of Sanji’s shin measuring across Zoro’s torso before he lashed out, but enough to get him to back the fuck off.

“Do not,” Sanji snarled, and now there was true anger in him, a bright flare of rage igniting off the evening’s fatalistic despair, “ever use that fucking name toward me, Roronoa. That’s not who I am!”

Zoro stared at him for a long moment, expression stony -- but he nodded. “... No, it isn’t.”

The agreement smothered the hot flare of Sanji’s anger, a lid over flaming oil, and he leaned back, folding his arms. “So you see.” If Zoro understood that, then maybe…

“No, I fucking well don’t.” Ah, too soon for that hope. “You know how this works, asshole. It doesn’t matter if you own a name or not. It’s still there. It still counts.” Zoro closed the distance between them again, stalking forward like every step offended him. “Don’t talk to me about your shitty family. This isn’t about them. This is about you. And why you didn’t say a fucking word to me all this time.”

Sanji folded his arms, fingers clenching, his gut a tight clench that he thought had to be something akin to seasickness. The motion of ships had never bothered him -- he’d grown up with it, was far more accustomed to it than he was to the stillness of land -- but his life was lurching and tossing around him, and leaving him just as sick as a storm left green sailors. Zoro had put the pieces together, all right. “Before a week ago, why would I think you’d even give a shit?” Why even bother continuing to deny it? Zoro knew, but...

“Why are you so quick to assume I don’t?”

Stupid question. “Because you’re an asshole,” Sanji shot back immediately. “Specifically, you’re an asshole to me. I don’t see any future in trying to say ‘Hey, do you have a sister out there somewhere? Cause if not, you’re stuck with me.’ You’d throw me the fuck overboard if I tried.”

“If you said it like that, you’d goddamn right I would.” Zoro had not risen nearly as far to the bait as Sanji had hoped. It would have been far easier he could get the swordsman to flare up and draw on him. “Maybe if you tried not being a dumbass for a whole five minutes.”

“That’s rich talk, coming from you.”

“No, I’m serious.” Zoro stepped forward -- not quite as close into his personal space this time, but far closer than Sanji really wanted him right now. “Listen, cook. Sanji.” The use of his name shivered something down Sanji’s spine, something unnamable -- something he didn’t want to think about right now, something else on top of everything else that was crashing down on him, overloading him with too much uncertainty, too much sudden upheaval, too much dizzying change in his life.

Suddenly, deeply, all he wanted was to be in the galley -- not even cooking, not this late at night, but to just be in his familiar space, his territory, surrounded by the comfort of the place that was the most intimately and profoundly his home, of everywhere on the Sunny.

Zoro went on -- no longer heated, no longer rankled, but flat and sober, the way he spoke on the rare occasions that he fully stepped into and owned his role as first mate. “We argue all the fucking time. It’s normal. But you know how to pack it in when you have to. You’re being a shithead right now, and you usually aren’t when the going gets serious. Why?”

He was right. Sanji hadn’t technically been denying it, but he’d been doing the next best thing, twisting everything into the most trivial and superficial bickering. Avoiding the conversation, avoiding the honesty that Zoro was asking of him. Trying to misdirect the conversation, as though if Zoro got angry enough, he’d actually forget that Sanji had just been revealed as his soulmate, and things would go back to normal.

But that was foolish, wasn’t it? His family had come back into his life, was now hunting their entire crew. Everything he’d made of himself over the past thirteen years was in danger. Whatever happened -- even if they managed to resolve this, even if Germa 66 was suddenly called off the hunt, if he saw a never curled eyebrow anywhere but in a damned mirror ever again, his name had been revealed, and his soulmate was standing in front of him demanding acknowledgement.

His soulmate. The other half of his soul, the one who could complete him, the one person in all the world that storybooks and romantic tales said should understand him best, should love him no matter what.

Romantic tales and storybooks didn’t mean a damn thing when it came to Roronoa Zoro.

Silence had fallen between them, heavy, expectant; Zoro was waiting for him to answer, waiting for Sanji to grow the fuck up and stop acting like a petulant child. To act like someone worthy of him. something whispered in the back of Sanji’s mind.

He closed his eyes and summoned up every scrap of courage he had. How he was supposed to get through this, he didn’t know. It wasn’t like a fight, where he could pit his strength against an enemy’s and whoever won, won -- the price of failure here would not be blood loss and broken bones, easy enough to accept as the natural consequence of not being good enough. No. This time, the cost of being insufficient, of being too weak, would be--

-- Would be the loss of Zoro’s esteem, would be proving himself unworthy of holding the other half of Zoro’s soul.

If he wasn’t honest now, if he didn’t force himself to fight back the need to build his defensive shell of words, of biting trivialities, he would accomplish that fast enough. Zoro was a lot of things -- a lot of fucking irritating things -- but when he was serious, he went all in on seriousness. Sanji had to do the same.

“Because,” he said quietly, eyes still closed, arms pressing tight on his own chest. “Neither of us asked for this, and I’d rather argue with you all night than talk about that.”

Silence fell again, Zoro absorbing his words, and Sanji finally dared to open his eyes and look at him, to see…

Zoro’s expression was shuttered, unreadable; Sanji couldn’t even be sure if he was pissed, and that never seemed to be something the swordsman went half in on. “Are you saying you don’t want this?” His tone was clipped, flat -- tightly controlled.

Sanji looked away, instinct stinging him. “I don’t like men.” The words were quick and reflexive, a well-trodden refrain. Almost as soon as they fell from his lips, he cursed himself. How did he forget his resolution so quickly? The quality in the air, he fancied he could feel it taking on a bitter hurt. Was that Zoro, feeling that way? “... Or,” he added, throat tight, forcing out the honesty Zoro was asking him for, “that’s how it’s supposed to be. What I try to be.” He stared out the window again, unable to look at Zoro. If his words were going to bare the truths he tried so hard to bury, he could at least let himself hide in other ways.

Zoro’s indrawn breath told him that he’d understood. “Are you saying-?”

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Sanji asked the window quietly, speaking now not so much to Zoro as to fate itself. “No matter how hard I try, it’s never quite enough. I failed pretty damn thoroughly as a Vinsmoke, right from the start. I held up my end of that shitty bargain, but apparently I’m bringing disrepute on that fucking name without even trying, and so my freedom gets revoked. But letting down the old geezer, failing to be the man he raised me to be -- that’s what makes me sick. It shouldn’t be that hard of a standard to meet, should just be what’s natural, but here’s fate laughing its damn ass off at me yet again, calling bullshit on anything I try to be.”

Silence answered him; he wasn’t even trying to look at Zoro, staring past the reflections on the window to the lights of the port, wondering if Reiju was still waiting out there somewhere, expecting him to wiggle free of his crew and go to her. It might even be tempting, but their solidarity around him tonight told him that he couldn’t do it; even if it put them in danger, it was a thousand times more important that he not let them down. He’d let down Judge, failing to be what he was born and bred to be; he’d struggled to uphold the standards Zeff taught, but his soulmark -- and the aching desire that went with it, to earn Zoro’s respect and trust, to be worthy of sharing his soul, to earn the intimacy that went with the mark -- betrayed the standard of what a man should be. Now it was his crew, his nakama, and the thought of wrapping up his failures with letting them all down was too much to bear.

He heard footsteps behind him, instinct telling him that Zoro was stepping close, into his personal space; he tensed, waiting for -- for he didn’t know what, couldn’t predict what Zoro was about to do. Couldn’t think far enough outside his own head, in that moment, to build an expectation of what came next. But Zoro merely stood beside him, not touching, staring out at the window just as Sanji was.

The silence lingered between them, Zoro saying nothing in answer to Sanji’s tumbled confession; he almost started to wonder if Zoro had really understood the whole thing, or if it had gotten lost somehow, before the swordsman spoke.

“You’re right. Until recently, I didn’t give a shit about soulmates. This name on me meant nothing.” As Sanji had thought. Where was Zoro going with this? Was he right to assume it was better not to say anything?

“But… shit, I’ve wanted you almost from the start.”

Sanji’s head whipped around, staring at Zoro -- who made no move, continued staring out at the port town, profile occasionally lit by the flashes of lighting from the ever-present storms on the horizon. “You… what?”

“Yeah. Since- since fucking Arlong Park, if you wanna count. That’s when you showed me who you are. But you’ve made it damn clear all along where your tastes lie. I didn’t see any reason to say anything about it. We can’t all have what we want in life, right? Sailing with you, fighting beside you, that’s good enough. Then I get told that I need to look for my soulmate, that I should actually care about this name I’ve never seen or heard anywhere but on my hide. And so I try, and I find out that they’re apparently fucking monsters.” A huff, and then, “... No offense.”

Sanji snorted, grateful for the moment of levity. “None taken. I told you -- that’s not me. They are fucking monsters.”

“Right. So -- I have to deal with that. Have to decide what I’m going to do if the other half of my soul belongs to someone like that. ‘Cause listen. It’s believable. I made a name for myself making small-time pirates piss themselves in fear. If I tried to say that Pirate Hunter Zoro couldn’t possibly have a mercenary for a soulmate? Shit, it wouldn’t even be a surprise. But now I find out that it’s you? The only person I’ve ever actually wanted like that, my nakama, the guy I trust to have my back without question? It’s the best damn thing I could possibly ask for.”

Those words reverberated off the inside of Sanji’s skull, echoed through his entire body. The best damn thing I could possibly ask for… It was too much to take in, too much to properly contemplate. Zoro, uncaring; Zoro, unemotional; Zoro, whose name he’d felt cursed to carry, knowing that even if he ever managed to let down his own internal barriers far enough to accept a man as his soulmate, this man in particular wouldn’t even give the faintest fraction of a shit about fate or shared souls or anything of the sort -- this Zoro, standing here, admitting in that low, even tone that having Sanji as a soulmate exceeded his greatest hopes?

That unstable feeling was back, as though the Sunny were in the middle of a hurricane instead of safely tied up at a dock. As though nothing was stable under his feet. But now, instead of making him sick, there was a quiet, uncertain, fluttering hope in his chest.

Now Zoro turned toward him, saw Sanji looking wide-eyed at him. Their gazes met, eye to eye. “I can’t tell you what’d disappoint your old man or not,” Zoro went on, “I don’t know, and it’s none of my business what’s between the two of you. But cook -- you’ve got more sense of honor than any ten men on this sea, courage to match it, and more kindness than a hundred. If he’s everything you say he is -- is he really gonna look down on you despite all that? Because by my lights, that’s a pretty damn shallow thing to be pissed about.”

It was too much to get into now; Sanji didn’t have the wherewithal, didn’t have the words or the coherence, to try to explain. And Zoro had said, it wasn’t really his business. He didn’t need to hear any justifications. What he had on his side was simple reality. Without making Sanji admit it, without making him say it, Zoro had drawn out that acknowledgment from him, so that they stood on the same page, each of them standing here and knowing, This is my soulmate, my other half. There were no words for it. He stared into Zoro’s eye, his own wide with the intensity of sheer heartfelt emotion that had surged through him, carried on those words. That praise, fuck, how could that come from the same person who called him a shitty pervert and mocked him for…

Zoro’s voice again cut off his thoughts. “But.” And there was coldness, suddenly -- not in Zoro’s tone, but somehow in the air between them, a sense of withdrawing that made Sanji want to weep for the pain of it. “If you really don’t want this -- then I’ll respect that. This isn’t what you hoped or asked for. Even the decision to tell me your name, that was taken from you too.” Zoro stepped back from him now, away from the window, taking himself entirely out of anything that might be called Sanji’s personal space. “If this isn’t what you want, then I’ll never say another word about it, and we’ll carry on like we always have. No guilt. No what ifs. We’ll be friends, brothers in arms, nakama in the crew of the Pirate King, and nothing more than that. This choice, you get to make.” Zoro broke their locked gazes -- looked away, disengaged entirely. He was, Sanji realized, letting go.

From someone else, it might have been manipulative -- might have carried the overtone of martyrdom, of ostentatious self-sacrifice. But from Zoro? It was nothing less than entirely honest. The swordsman had his faults, many of which Sanji had catalogued at length and volume as they sailed together, but he didn’t play those games. If he said they would carry on as they had been, as friends and nakama, then Sanji knew he would do nothing less than that, would strive to act as though this conversation had never happened, as though their soulmarks didn’t exist. When he sacrificed himself for others, he didn’t do it to be seen or recognized -- he did it because it was right. He did this, now, because he believed that it was Sanji’s right to make this decision, when so many decisions had been taken away from him. He’d said his own piece, laid his feelings bare -- and the sense of unreality still reverberated in Sanji’s heart, the whisper of disbelief that repeated since Arlong Park? over and over -- and now he was placing himself in Sanji’s hand, to be accepted or denied.

And Sanji could. It wasn’t that there was no pressure -- oh no, the pressure was tremendous, squeezing him from all sides as though a giant had him in a merciless fist -- but rather that Sanji felt the freedom keenly. If he said yes, if he said no, if he said he had to think about it and just left the crow’s nest -- any choices were open to him and Zoro would abide by his decision, no matter how much it would hurt him to do it. He could say no.

And because he could, because he knew down to his core that he could and the only one making him suffer for doing it would be himself -- because of that, the answer was obvious.

He stepped forward, closing that distance between them -- taking that initiative, making his choice -- and prayed silently that Zeff would forgive him. I guess I’ll never quite be the man you tried to make me, old geezer.

“You’re right,” he said, his voice low, stopping just shy of touching Zoro. “This isn’t anything I asked for, and it’s sure as hell nothing I expected. But what I want...”

His hands slid around Zoro’s waist, and he completed his motion, drawing Zoro against him, leaning into him and resting his forehead against his soulmate’s. “I want this.” A whisper, now, their lips inches apart. “I want you.”

There was a moment of tense disbelief, as though Zoro needed to be sure that the touch of Sanji’s arms, Sanji’s body, wasn’t a fever-dream of hope, and then tight arms crashed around Sanji and Zoro’s mouth was on his, kissing him with a hungry, furious elation that couldn’t be denied. In the rib-creaking embrace and the biting press of Zoro’s kiss, Sanji tasted with sudden insight the fear that Zoro had held silently when he gave the decision into Sanji’s hands. The very real possibility that he’d have what he wanted snatched away from him, just as it had seemed within reach, that Sanji would hear everything he said and reject him anyway. The knowledge that he would hold himself to his word, no matter how much it hurt.

And he held tight to his soulmate, kissing him with equal fervor, telling him without words that there was no need for that fear or the resolution to deny himself. This wasn’t the end of any of it -- wasn’t the end of their danger, wasn’t the end of Sanji’s own qualms about what it meant to be a man, wasn’t the end of their bickering or not-always-play fighting. But it was a start to something new -- to their acknowledgment of each other, to their acceptance of this bond between them -- this bond that said that no matter what, at the end of the day, their essential selves could not be separated by any outside force, no matter how great. Any attack, they would meet head-on, together. Any danger, they would face down, and be the stronger for it. Both of them, together.

Soulmates.

Chapter Text

Early in the morning, four days and four nights after their arrival in Thunderhead’s port, Zoro leaned on the quarterdeck rail and watched the little dot of an island and its cloak of storms fall away astern, sinking toward the horizon as the sun rose, and muttered to himself, Good goddamn riddance. Still, he recognized that the thought was meaningless. It wasn’t as though the danger of Sanji’s family had been localized to that island; setting out to sea didn’t make them any less likely to appear, didn’t make the Sunny any safer. But he wasn’t immune to the attraction of leaving the place where the enemy had found them, and there was a comfort to the wide vista at sea, where any approach was easy to spot. In port, you could be ambushed all too easily.

The crew were already up and about, despite the early hour. While no one said it aloud, they were all grateful to be on their way, an intangible sense of relief emanating from nearly all of them. Luffy, of course, was his usual irrepressible self. He had not seemed to feel the danger in port nearly so much as he’d chafed at Zoro and Nami’s joint decree that no one on the crew was to go anywhere alone, and whenever they had no business in the port they should be on the Sunny. Safety in numbers, and less opportunity for anyone to be grabbed as a hostage.

(Pity anyone who tried to use Luffy as a hostage, but while their captain was strong, he wasn’t terribly alert to attacks by stealth. They judged it better not to make an exception for him.)

So the captain sat on his favorite throne, savoring the freedom of the sea, and carrying on some half-shouted conversation with Nami, who had the helm as they sailed into the morning. It didn’t sound like anything heated, so Zoro didn’t bother trying to listen in. Probably it was nothing important, at least for now. The point was that he was there in his seat and she was there with a steady hand on the wheel, two important pieces of the crew firmly in their proper places.

Usopp and Franky had made good use of the enforced time aboard in port. The sniper’s “branch office” -- a dumb name for a garden, if you asked Zoro, but no one had -- was doubled in size, and he bent over it in the early-morning sun, murmuring to the new cuttings he’d planted to expand his arsenal. Brook had seated himself nearby as well, rambling on about some theory he’d heard that plants grew better if you played music for them, and Usopp had welcomed the opportunity to test that theory. So that was Brook and Usopp up on the poop deck, talking to plants and playing music for them. Whatever, Zoro wasn’t going to knock it if it worked, and if nothing else, it didn’t seem like it could exactly do any harm.

Franky was down below, tinkering with some of the equipment in the energy room. He’d mentioned at breakfast that he wanted to make sure everything was shipshape back there, no sugary cola residue gunking up the pipes, ready to fire fast and hard when called upon. Zoro hadn’t heard any banging around coming from below, which suggested that Franky was just cleaning, not doing any impromptu rebuilding. Good enough, and in his quiet mental inventory of the crew, he checked Franky off as in place and doing what he should.

Chopper was on the main deck, reading over a new book Robin had found for him on Thunderhead -- some medical thing, Zoro didn’t know, but it made the little guy happy, and it meant more medical knowledge for the next time they inevitably got in some fight or other. Whether from the threatened attack by Sanji’s family, or just the next fight that came to them in the process of realizing Luffy’s dream, it would be put to good use sooner or later.

Robin, for her part, was on watch up in the crow’s nest. While there was no reason to think she was anything less than diligent about watching the horizon, Zoro had also seen the occasional disembodied eye open from the wood of the ship. Like him, she was checking on the crew, counting them all in their place, making sure they were all safe. Of them all, he had a feeling that she was in her own quiet way nearly as unsettled as Sanji over this entire business -- and no wonder, considering the echoes that it awoke. They’d made it out of Enie’s Lobby safely back then, but there was no denying that there had been something of a miracle to it, and Robin wasn’t the type to count on a miracle happening twice.

(Neither was Zoro. He wasn’t going to expect a miracle to carry them through safely. It would be their strength and cunning that did it.)

In his index of the crew, that left just one -- one who was coming up behind him, betrayed not so much by the sound of his footsteps as by the quiet awareness Zoro had started to notice in these last couple days. In his mental map of his surroundings, the larger understanding of the rhythm and pulse of the universe that he’d begun to truly see while training with Mihawk, Sanji seemed to exist as a fixed point, wherever he was, with the rest of the world shifting around him. Sounded weird, felt even weirder, but it was right in a way that Zoro couldn’t have easily defined if pressed. He hadn’t been, of course, so he didn’t bother trying. Just felt it, enjoyed feeling it, accepted it as a new part of himself and his ability to see the larger context of the space in which all things existed.

A moment after he recognized Sanji’s presence, the cook joined Zoro at the rail, exhaling smoke that whipped away in the morning breeze. For a time, neither of them spoke, just stood quietly beside each other, watching the island fade away and the sunlight glint off the Sunny’s wake as it cleared the ship’s shadow. There wasn’t anything that needed to be said, at least not for right now, and Zoro thought that Sanji might be feeling out the edges of this still-new connection the same as he was. Like Nami had said she’d felt with Vivi, he’d been able to feel the hints of it before he’d thought that his soulmate would be Sanji -- even before he’d cared about having a soulmate at all -- but that acknowledgment made a world of difference, opened up an entirely new depth to the connection they could have. He’d noticed it in the crow’s nest when he’d forced the truth out; as Sanji’s mood rose and fell, it had felt like the temperature, the very quality of the air around them had done the same.

After a while, with the sun rising higher and the shadows of the Sunny’s sails moving across the deck, Sanji shifted, turning his back to the dark smudge on the horizon, facing toward the bow and bracing his hands back against the rail. “If you’re done photosynthesizing,” he started, his tone striving for a throwback to two weeks ago, when things were far less complicated -- and that was as far as Zoro let him get, because he wanted the throwback as much as Sanji did, an opportunity for something ordinary and comfortable in the midst of tension, upheaval, a newness that was welcome but far too fragile.

So as soon as Sanji got the word out, he placed a hand squarely on the cook’s chest and shoved in a half-serious attempt to push him over the rail.

It didn’t work, of course, but working wasn’t the point -- the point was Sanji’s bark of “Asshole!” and the polished dress shoe swinging at his head. Zoro stepped out of the way of the kick, smirking.

“Too slow, hypno-brow. Come on, I know it’s early, but you have to keep up.” The taunt earned him a snarl and another kick. This one he caught on Kitetsu’s flat, the cursed sword nearly leaping into his hand with its eagerness to be used, even in a simple spar. Or maybe that was just Zoro’s own eagerness, a grin he didn’t even bother to restrain pulling at the edges of his lips as he blocked two more kicks, then answered with a few choice attacks of his own, each of which bit nothing but air.

Keep up, he says, like he can even touch me,” Sanji shot back, his visible eye glittering with a mix of indignation and enjoyment as he danced out of the way of each attack, light on his feet. “Pick it up, marimo! Or are you just flailing around in your sleep right now?”

Usopp paused in his weeding to peer worriedly over the rail at them, but Brook’s music didn’t so much as falter as the impromptu scuffle ranged forward toward the stair to the main deck They weren’t threatening to kill each other, and neither cut nor kick was set even to come close to dealing actual damage. Why worry? This was the order of thing on the Thousand Sunny, as normal and expected as the motion of the sun and stars.

This hadn’t changed, Zoro thought to himself -- but in a way, actually, it had, because now the overtone of frustration that had once filled these sort of scuffles was replaced by a new, more settled feeling that still left plenty of room for growled mock-insults and hits pulled only enough to bruise instead of break. Whether the former tension had been due to the unacknowledged soulmate bond, or whether the new feeling was merely a symptom of their changed relationship, he couldn’t have said, but damn, he liked it, and a part of him looked forward to the next time they went into battle side-by-side, ready to savor how sharp and deadly they could be in concert.

Even like this, scuffling, they were better; this felt more like a spar, impromptu but purposeful, and it crossed his mind as he ducked away from a barrage of kicks that would have given him a bad, bad day if they’d connected -- it might not be a bad thing to make this a planned event. Your soulmate made you stronger, and the two of them could turn that into direct action as well as the more mystical strengthening of whole souls and acceptance of their bond. Maybe he’d propose it to the cook after they stopped trying to smash each other’s faces in. But priorities were priorities!

---

Zoro was absolutely not stalking the galley.

Dinner was long since over, and the last faint gleam of sunset was fading into nothingness as the Sunny cruised through the dark sea. The swordsman had claimed one of his preferred spots, out to forward on the quarterdeck, leaning against the wall and half-dozing. He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, lingering in suspicious proximity to the galley door, and was most certainly not waiting for the sounds of Sanji chatting with Chopper to die down, nor waiting for the reindeer to either head into his own space to work or emerge on deck. This was simply a comfortable spot.

At least, if anyone tried to ask him about it, that would be his firm stance. He was where he was because he wanted to be there, with a nice view of the stars slowly moving in and out of sight behind the Sunny’s rigging. The fact that he could hear the conversation inside the galley, Sanji and Chopper engaged in an animated discussion about… herbs? Yeah, herbs, one of those areas that crossed between the medicinal and the culinary. They both had a keen interest, therefore they could talk for ages about them, how this plant or that plant, leaves or roots or whatever, could do this as a tea or that in a stew, this as a concentrated extract in oil or that when fresh and crushed to release the juice. The fact that he could hear the edge of their conversation, not enough to eavesdrop but enough to hear the cadences that said they would be going for a while (and thus, as well, the point when the conversation began to wrap up), that was only an additional facet, a simple fact of the location, and certainly not any kind of a factor in his choice of location.

Sanji and Chopper, having that conversation, were in their own way attending to their duties and ship’s cook and doctor. The nutrition of the crew was of utmost importance to them both, and the crossover between the medical and the nutritional meant that their jobs overlapped in useful ways that they needed to communicate about. Zoro, as first mate, could not interfere in that process, not when there was nothing more vital to the wellbeing of the Sunny and its crew occurring at this moment.

But right now, Zoro -- not Zoro the first mate, but Zoro the man, the person -- just wanted to get Sanji alone. Wanted to get his soulmate alone. After such a long time convinced that nothing was ever going to happen, that longing after the cook was a useless exercise, the sudden change in affairs had left him a little hungry, a little -- not needy, never needy, but desiring. Right, that was it. Sanji reciprocated his feelings, even in a conflicted, uncertain way, and Zoro was confident that uncertainty and conflict would fade with time and attention. And after so long telling himself it was useless, that he would never get to touch, never get to have what he wanted from the man, now to have even occasional permission to touch, to reach into Sanji’s personal space and be welcomed…

Yeah. Good stuff. But Sanji was adamant that it only happen when they were alone, where none of the others could see, and Zoro was willing to go along with that. This new thing between them still felt fragile, easily shattered from too hard a blow. The only member of the crew who knew the state of affairs for certain was Robin, who could be trusted to be discreet -- and that was how Zoro wanted it to stay, because that was how Sanji wanted it to stay, and it was hard enough to get the stupid cook to relax a little when they were properly alone and unobserved. At the merest possibility of being interrupted, he’d freeze right up and push Zoro away. The prospect of the rest of these idiots trampling all over Sanji’s cautious, almost shy acceptance of Zoro’s presence -- no, that was not to be borne. So Zoro waited outside while Sanji and Chopper compared their notes and discussed the health of the crew.

Finally -- finally -- Chopper was saying his goodnight and leaving the galley, humming to himself as he trotted toward the men’s quarters. Zoro didn’t give the cook any time to make a clever escape, either; as soon as Chopper made it to the main deck, he slipped into the galley.

There was Sanji, leaning over a notepad and humming to himself as he scribbled something down; Zoro paused there for a moment, just looking at him. Blond hair like gold in the warm light, the lean frame bent in a carelessly elegant pose. Sanji had to know he was there, but he didn’t immediately react; that was fine by Zoro, who had no need to be greeted with a dervish of kisses and overdone affection. He enjoyed getting a chance to simply observe, drinking in the sight of his soulmate.

As befit someone who played with knives and fire in the constantly moving environment of a ship at sea, Sanji’s coordination and control of his body were impeccable. Zoro enjoyed the way he held himself, the way he moved. And now, he got to look, didn’t have to hide it out of a sour conviction that getting caught staring would only end with cursing, kicks, and probably some snide commentary about his tastes. No, definitely none of that. The past few days had let him start to see a different side to this man who was his soulmate.

But looking could only satisfy him for so long. Not when he was allowed -- sometimes, anyway -- to touch as well. He sauntered into the galley proper, leaning on the counter beside Sanji and studying the list over his shoulder. A meal plan… of course, the cook’s work never truly done, not on this ship (with this captain). But maybe he could liven it up. He reached out, trailing a single finger down Sanji’s spine. No sign of startlement from the cook, of course; he knew exactly what Zoro was doing. No startlement, but the tiniest shift, a little lift of his shoulders as Zoro’s finger traveled between his shoulderblades, the smallest sign of what Zoro took for encouragement, shifting from that small touch to a flat palm in the small of Sanji’s back. He got to touch… got to enjoy touching, feeling lean strength under his hand. Someone as skinny as Sanji didn’t look like he should be a powerhouse, but that just made it more entertaining when his enemies realized just how wrong their assumptions were. He knew -- he could feel the power that deceptively skinny frame held, as though Sanji’s status as one of the crew’s monsters was fuelled not by muscle but by pure passion.

“Bored, are you?” the cook commented, his voice low.

Zoro merely shrugged in answer. “Not anymore.”

Slender fingers laid down the pen, and Sanji turned toward him, a carefully bland expression on his face. Looking at him from this close, with no distractions or interruptions, Zoro could see a faint darkness under his eyes, a hollow colorlessness starting to build in his complexion. Since when had that shown up? It was only the edge of it now, only a very beginning, but he didn’t like it.

Sanji must have sensed his concern; he frowned, the corners of his mouth pinching downward. “What?”

“Nothing.” Zoro wasn’t a mother hen. If Sanji was starting to get sick, or wasn’t feeling well, then he should be dutiful enough about staying at full strength to talk to Chopper. Maybe that had even come up at some point in their conversation earlier; he’d only caught snatches of it, not the whole thing. “You look tired.”

“Feeding a pack of idiots takes a lot of energy.” Sanji’s answer came with a shrug, a carelessness that Zoro distrusted. Sanji might not be a liar, but he could be endlessly creative with the truth. “I’m fine.”

Don’t push. It won’t earn you any favors, he thought, but the notion didn’t seem right; Sanji’s wellbeing was important too, just as important as everyone else’s. “Are you?”

There was a long silence, ended with a sigh. “As fine as I can be, under the circumstances.”

What circumstances? You have your soulmate, we’re building a real bond… But the threat of Sanji’s family weighing over them -- over him -- was enough to balance that out, and Zoro couldn’t exactly argue with Sanji’s feelings on that topic, so he didn’t say anything. No remonstrance at Sanji being more worried than pleased with the multiple turns his life had recently taken, and no false assurance that everything would be all right. As much as Zoro was confident in the crew, he also wasn’t fool enough to think them invulnerable, or to think that Sanji’s family wouldn’t be really damn good at stirring shit up. In the end, they had yet to meet an obstacle they hadn’t overcome -- not as a crew, at least. But that didn’t mean that no such obstacle existed.

Instead, Zoro just slid his arm around Sanji, pulling him close; after a moment of resistance, Sanji leaned into him, letting out a quiet breath. This was good; this was their new bond, growing with the mutual acknowledgement and acceptance, the mutual desire for the connection building it into something robust and vital.

“Whatever happens,” Zoro said, “we’ll deal with it. Together, as a crew.” That was different from it’ll be okay. Zoro wasn’t promising an outcome -- only the resolve with which they faced every obstacle in their path. It might not have been as reassuring, but it was far more honest, and he thought it eased the worry in Sanji’s frame, in the air around them, better than unsubstantiated promises could have.

Silence answered him, for just long enough that he started to wonder if Sanji didn’t intend to say anything at all in reply, just let that slight ease stand as good enough -- but then long fingers laced with his. “As a crew,” Sanji agreed, “and… as soulmates.” It was the first time he’d actually said it aloud, and Zoro hid a grin that was wider and probably dopier than intended, pressing his face into blond hair instead.

“Yeah,” he agreed, mumbling the words into Sanji’s scalp. “As soulmates.”

---

A week out from Thunderhead Island, the Sunny sailed into a dense fogbank that seemed to have materialized overnight, and their navigator promptly started tearing her hair out.

“It’s completely unnatural!” she all-but-wailed when asked about her haggard appearance -- far more than a simple night watch could account for -- over breakfast the first morning of the fog. “It just shouldn’t be here at all! The climate in this area’s all wrong for it, last night was too warm, the sea’s too warm... I don’t know where it’s coming from!”

It was a heavy fog, a curtain walling in the ship and a small patch of sea around it. Nami estimated their visibility at a dismal twenty yards in any direction; that estimate showed no signs of budging as the day wore on (or they supposed it did; the sun was utterly hidden, leaving them with the feeling that time might not even be really passing) and any self-respecting natural fog ought to have burned off. The only difference anyone could notice was that the wall of grey became slightly whiter, though no less opaque, as time passed.

“The wind is coming perpendicular to us,” Robin offered. “That means that we should be able to pass through it, right? If it’s pushed aside from our course of travel.”

“If it were a normal fog,” Nami said darkly. “I don’t trust anything about this one. It feels too wrong.”

“Is… is this like a New World Florian Triangle?” Usopp asked, glancing around as though expecting to see ghosts looming out of the blank nothingness that surrounded them. “Haunted?”

“I don’t know!” Nami was clearly resisting the urge to throw something at him. “I don’t know, and that’s the problem, because fog just isn’t that hard normally! It’s simple stuff!”

Zoro listened to the exchange in silence. He wasn’t the weather person on this ship, didn’t know anything about it, didn’t worry about it. But Nami’s obvious stress was a different matter. “What are our options?” he asked, frowning, hoping to cut to the chase instead of letting Nami panic as she tried to answer questions that were ultimately pointless. “What can we do, other than move forward?”

“... We move forward,” she admitted. “As long as the Log Pose gives us a direction, we go off that. But our watches need to be extremely vigilant, because we won’t have much warning of anything coming up.”

“Then we’ll be vigilant,” Zoro said. “We do what we can, and deal with the rest as it happens.”

He watched Sanji climb to the crow’s nest for the next watch; the telescope was useless in the fog, so only those of them with command of Observational Haki had any ability to detect what lay outside of the small bubble the Sunny seemed to float through. It meant that putting anyone other than Luffy, Sanji, or Zoro himself on watch was a pointless exercise, and would mean a heavy burden on the three of them (and some disruption to the meal schedule as well) if the fog wore on.

Which it didn’t. Zoro was dozing on the deck, not quite properly asleep, a few hours into the cook’s watch, when a wave of abrupt, unexpected terror slammed into him -- terror that could only have come from his soulmate. His eye snapped open as the loudspeaker crackled, and Sanji’s voice snapped out to everyone aboard, cracking in stress.

Franky! Give us a Coup de Burst! We need to get out of here now!”

Chapter Text

Up in the crow’s nest, surrounded by the fog that pressed in on the Sunny like a shroud, Sanji didn’t even bother with the telescope; it was useless like this anyway. Instead, he settled himself into the comfortable stillness of focused Observational Haki, feeling the space around himself, around the ship, with a greater keenness than mere eyes could ever accomplish.

But it was strange. Even Haki felt oppressed by the mysterious weather; it was as though a heavy curtain was dropped around them, weighing down his senses and exhausting him. Not that he could sense any obstruction -- that presumed there was a thing there to be sensed and press against. Rather, they seemed utterly alone, and so very small amid a fog that could have swallowed up the entire world. No islands, no other ships, no currents -- as though nothing existed but the Sunny and the fog and the too-still, too-warm sea.

He shook his head sharply. It was his imagination, and hadn’t he learned well enough that too active an imagination was an enemy of good Haki? If you let yourself slide away into fantasy, your senses became unreliable, seeing and hearing things that weren’t there, and it was no less true for Haki. To use it properly, you had to discipline yourself, to recognize what was real and what was not. The fog was real, was present, but water vapor in the air could not remove the reality of the world. In order to be useful to his comrades, he needed to stay alert and focused for what really existed.

Silence. From up here, he couldn’t hear the lapping of wavelets against the Sunny’s hull normally, although he was aware of them as he was aware of everything around them; the water was calm, the wind slowly subsiding as the day went on. He hadn’t even noticed a bird in the sky for the last hour.

His calm, focused stillness was shattered in a moment as something -- no, several somethings, large and blocky and inexorably pressing inward in complete disregard of the wind and current -- entered his sphere of awareness, a ring of them approaching from all sides under cover of the dense fog. Not ships, for all their size -- living creatures sailing the water, with the smaller energies of humans among them, and a lump of ice froze in his gut as he recognized exactly what it was surrounding the Sunny, blockading them in every direction.

Germa had found them.

He scrabbled for the handset, heart pounding, and felt more than heard his voice crack as he thumbed it to life with a shout.

“Coup de Burst, straight forward! Get us out of here, now!

As soon as he’d said it, he dropped the handset and dove for the hatch. Even if they got out of the cordon successfully, there was going to be a fight, and he didn’t intend to be stuck up here for it!

Pleasingly fast, within moments, there was a rumble that rose straight up through the mast, and he rooted himself in the rigging, hands and feet braced strongly to keep him in place, heart pounding in his throat as the ring of snail-ships loomed into visibility out of the fog -- and Haki told him of another ring of them closing in outside the first, a second layer, and fuck, just how much of the kingdom had been mobilized? How many waves of soldiers were going to bury the Sunny, which suddenly felt so very small around him?

It doesn’t matter, he told himself. We’re the Strawhat Pirates. We’ll be fine.

And the Coup de Burst fired, and the Sunny flung itself into the sky, clearing the barge closing in dead ahead of them, soaring toward freedom. It wasn’t enough, wouldn’t be anything more than an escape, but getting out of the cordon would be a start, would put them on standing to get out of the ambush and take this fight on something like their own--

Haki carried to his ears the understanding, not quite a sound, of shouting from the barge below--

And a stunning blow caught the Sunny’s bow, as though a giant had risen up from the barge and slapped them out of the course of their flight. Resilient Adam Wood groaned in a deep, fearful voice, and Sanji didn’t need Haki to hear the cries of his crewmates, all clinging as best they could to the ship that was now tumbling back toward the ocean, far short of freedom, slapped out of the sky like nothing, like an insect, with the burst still firing but now driving them downward, away from their escape. They could only hope they would hit the water instead of a barge, could only hope they wouldn’t be capsized entirely, could only cling and hope and pray because there was no steering like this, no stabilization…

In the rigging, holding tight, he stared in horror as Chopper’s grip slipped, hybrid hoof-hands scrabbling as he tried to resist being flung free of the ship -- and failed, tiny form flying free.

“Chopper!” Nami shrieked, making a last-ditch lunge to try and rescue him -- and loosening her own hold in the bargain, fingers slipping free as the name mutated into a pure shriek of alarm.

“Stay there!” Sanji barked to Zoro, seeing their swordsman brace himself to dive after their two crewmates. “I’ve got them!” The calculation, the strategy, appeared in his mind in a moment, before he even had time to wonder about it; of them, he was best suited to get back on the ship burdened with rescues, without aid, and that would be necessary because the Sunny was about to become a battlefield.

And that said, he kicked himself out of the rigging, turning his freefall into a heart-stopping dive toward the ocean and his fallen crewmates. The waves were too far away, and yet, racing closer far too fast…

He plunged into the water and immediately pushed all the energy he could spare into Haki, searching for them, narrowing his sense of the world into his mission to rescue the two of them. For this moment, that was all he could do, all the scope he could have.

Nami was conscious, treading water with movements that were sluggish, half-stunned, but clearly coordinated. Her head was clear of the surface. Good enough. Sanji longed to rescue her first, to give proper precedence to a lady, but she could swim. Chopper couldn’t. So as the energy of his dive waned, he kicked downward without hesitation, sensing the tiny, quickly-sinking figure at the edge of his awareness. Had to get to him!

Down, down into the blackness of the sea, dark water pressing around him as he plunged deeper. What was happening back on the Sunny? He couldn’t afford to think of it, couldn’t afford to divide himself. Get to Chopper; that was the only thing he could let himself think for now.

His lungs were aching, and unpleasant memories of Arlong Park were trying to raise their heads, by the time he caught up to Chopper, grasping the small, limp figure to him and starting the climb back to the surface with panic screaming through the forefront of his mind. The dive took too long -- what was going on up there? How much energy could he afford to keep pouring into observation, when he would need to get to the surface and fight for not just his life, but the lives of his nakama?

Reluctantly, he pulled it in, confined himself to the slow ascent -- remembering all too well the lesson of Arlong Park, the danger of rising too quickly from a dive, but knowing as well that Chopper’s life -- all their lives -- hung in the balance. It felt like an eternity, and his chest felt half-crushed by the time they broke the surface, not far from Nami’s bright head bobbing with the waves. Chopper hadn’t so much as twitched the whole time -- only the weakness of a devils-fruit eater in water, or worse?

In a small mercy, the Sunny had landed upright, and seemed to still be floating; whatever had slapped them out of the sky hadn’t stove in her hull, although Sanji could not see the damage from where he was. But he didn’t have time to look too hard for it; even at this low angle, he could see the battle raging on the deck, floods of uniformed Germa troopers and the flashes of bright color that were his fucking godsbedamned family converging on his home and his nakama. Two snails loomed over the Sunny, hemming her in, and their beloved ship looked so small, so helpless, beside the looming creatures.

Chopper was limp weight cradled in one arm, upright against his side like a toddler, fortunately small; Nami could participate in her own rescue, winding her arms around his neck and holding on as he wrapped an arm around her waist and surged out of the water. This was (part of) why he’d forestalled their first mate: with the ability to skywalk, he needed no help getting back aboard with his passengers, nor was he constrained to use the ladder to the main deck.

He approached the Sunny from the stern, keeping as much to visual cover as he could. There was rage and fury building in him, that old habitual fear awakened at the sight of Germa uniforms now feeding into his anger. He would not fear his family, he would not quail before them. He would destroy them, would obliterate anyone who threatened his beloved nakama. His people, the true family he’d chosen for himself, fed and nourished and fought beside, rescued and supported and admired. His people, not these ugly strangers in their bright clothes and wicked intent.

Under cover of the mikan trees, he laid Chopper down and set Nami on her feet; Robin was there as well, crouched to carefully hide herself from view, arms folded in the graceful pose of her power. One bright blue eye opened as Nami dropped to her knees and began to compress Chopper’s chest, pressing until water spouted from his mouth and he began to cough softly. As Chopper coughed, there wa a bright crack like a bolt of lighting from the other side of the trees, and Robin flinched out of her pose with a muffled gasp of pain.

She looked to Sanji, and there was a grim determination in her eyes. “It’s not good out there.”

He nodded, equally sober. “Nami-swan, please take care of Chopper,” he said simply. “And both of you, stay safe.” Time to fight.

He stepped out of cover of the trees and stared at the battle that raged across the Sunny’s decks.

Franky braced himself in the center of a wide ring of charred wood, fending off the crackling blue blur that was Niji; as Sanji watched, Niji slammed a hard kick to Franky’s lacquered metal shoulder. There was another loud crack, far harsher than Nami’s summoned storms, and the cyborg’s body jerked painfully, smoke rising from his joints and electricity discharging around him.

Usopp was lying on the aft deck, not far from the trees -- directly under the mizzen top, where his sniper perch was. His right arm was gruesomely twisted, shattered -- Kabuto lay beside him, just out of reach of those now-useless fingers. Yonji stood over him, laughing his ugly laugh.

The mid-deck shook with a small explosion, and he watched Brook stumble back from it; the skeleton’s clothing was smoldering, but his guitar still seemed to work; the music that poured from it made Sanji’s skin crawl, but it did not appear to trouble Ichiji to nearly the same degree.

Zoro and Reiju were a blur of green and pink and flashing steel; he had the utmost confidence in their swordsman, in his soulmate, but something twisting in his gut warned him that all was not well.

And on the fo’c’sle, at the helm, the giant bulk of his hated father lunged toward his beloved captain, a whirling spear seeking to end Luffy’s dream, because he dared to take Sanji along with him. As he watched, Luffy’s arm bulged into a massive strike -- but Judge merely laughed and snapped out a single word, and obedient soldiers rushed in, flinging themselves between the strike and their uncaring king, spending their lives to protect a man who did not, could not, deserve to have so much as the life of a fly given in exchange for his. Luffy howled in outrage -- such a thing was pure anathema to him, as deeply offensive to his sensibilities as it was to Sanji’s.

Rage built in his heart. No, more than built. He was rage, an inferno in the shape of a man, nothing more than a pure, burning revulsion against everything that spread across the deck in his sight. It could not be borne -- none of this! His nakama, injured, fighting for their lives, all because this brute who called himself king bowed to the faraway smug old men who claimed to rule the world.

Flames roared to life around him, a burning pyre of his fury; the seawater that saturated his clothes and hair puffed away in steam, leaving a rime of salt on his skin that he could not feel. No, there was nothing for him but this rage, and the flames that fed on it.

Yonji was closest to him, and standing over the helpless, prone figure of Usopp. He crossed the distance to his youngest brother in a heartbeat, without even thinking of it, and slammed into him, a kick aimed directly for that smug smirking face, loaded with the protective fury of the man who safeguarded his crewmates and all the anguish of the little boy who couldn’t even protect himself.

Once upon a time, a strike from Sanji wasn’t even enough to make his brother flinch. Once upon a time, Sanji had been weak and frail, mere flesh and blood in contrast with his superior siblings. Once upon a time, he’d been easy prey.

No more.

Love was a hurricane, anger a tornado. Old hurt and fear, buried and hidden but never, ever forgotten -- a tsunami. Sanji, the sum of all of these, carrying them all in his heart and under his skin, was a firestorm.

Yonji flew back, nearly colliding with Niji before he recovered himself, the jets built into his raid suit stabilizing him in midair over the quarterdeck. On his face, despite the exoskeleton that had been well developed by the time Sanji left, an ugly red burn was already beginning to blister -- but even through the wound, he grinned that cruel grin that hadn’t changed one iota.

“Look who it is. The star of the show has finally arrived.”

The Observation that was still wrapped around Sanji like the Submerge’s radar nudged him to step aside blue lightning flared in a shrieking arc -- a wide ring of danger as Niji enveloped Franky in a nimbus of electricity, the cyborg snapping rigid and convulsing.

And then Yonji lunged for him, and he couldn’t think about the rest of the battlefield, couldn’t spend mental energy on anything but the blur of vile, too-vivid green in front of him, trusting to his nakama to fight with everything they had against the enemy that would split them apart.

Thirteen years ago, Yonji had been the one who enjoyed hurting him the most, who seemed to derive the most pleasure from his fear and his tears -- as much as any of them could be said to feel anything, he’d felt that glee. Back then, he’d been a child; stronger than he had any right to be, faster, more agile and more durable, but a child all the same. Now, as an adult, he was a warrior, and his strength and durability had multiplied.

So had Sanji’s.

That first kick, the first hard, burning blow Sanji landed, had served to warn Yonji that he wasn’t fighting the same weakling from their childhood days. The new Sanji was strong and fast, and more importantly, he was furious, burning with the kind of rage that he’d never shown as a child and which Yonji was not prepared to (able to; created to) comprehend. Yonji fought under orders from his father, and with some dull, long-held irritation that his weakest brother had escaped him, escaped the torments that Yonji had inflicted. And now, he had an additional impetus, the sting of his burned face, the sheer gall of the weakling, the failure managing to actually strike him! But even that was no more than the dull sense of pride that was as close as a properly bred child of Vinsmoke Judge came to having an emotional drive -- and Sanji could see it in his eyes, behind the taunting, behind the dull prickle of something that in a whole person might have been anger, but in Yonji was only irritation. Could see below all of it, at the core, Yonji faced him with incomprehension. The thought of being so furious, so ready to protect others, driven by a rage born of love -- he couldn’t understand it, couldn’t even comprehend that it was, that it existed at all.

His nakama were suffering, and that was all the drive Sanji needed. He threw himself at Yonji with a roar, lashing at him, pressing the attack in every moment as their battle raged forward -- a barrage of kicks driving Yonji over the rail, down to the quarterdeck and still forward, down to the grass of the main deck. His nakama were suffering, and Sanji wasn’t even bothering to call attacks, wasn’t bothering with words, howling his protective rage to the sea and sky as he fought, eyes wide and teeth bared in a ferocity that was nearly feral, only a hairsbreadth from pure madness.

Yonji wove against him, struck back with blows that were far stronger than any human ought to be -- but Sanji had weathered such things before, and where he had once crumpled in the face of such treatment, now he absorbed it thoughtlessly, his thin frame seeming not to even notice the blows that came through. Such notice would have required him to think of something, anything other than his comrades -- to think of himself, right now, and that he could not do.

Yonji’s ugly mouth moved, some meaningless sound trying to penetrate Sanji’s rage. Trying to taunt him, probably -- Yonji had always seemed to enjoy that, heaping rancid words on cruel treatment, but what he didn’t understand was that Sanji of the here and now, this Sanji blazing brightly as he fought for his loved ones, no longer cared. Hurtful words poured on him didn’t matter anymore, because he wasn’t fighting for himself, wasn’t struggling for anything like recognition or praise. He was fighting for those he loved, fighting to protect, and there were no words out of that mouth or any other that could do anything to either inflame or soothe his passions -- he was already burning like a star, had already given himself over purely to the rage that drove him. No taunt could strike harder than the explosion that flung Brook across the main deck, very nearly over the rail -- no mockery could wound Sanji even a little, set against the arcing lightning surging through Franky’s cyborg body, burning out wiring and heat-warping metal. Taunts and mockery, rage and shame, were not his enemies in this battle -- they were his allies, were his strength. Sanji was alien to his brothers, was a man who drew power from a passion they could not comprehend, and who lived and breathed it now, wore it like the flames that enveloped him.

A barrage of kicks drove at Yonji’s body, battering him backward -- but in the midst of the barrage, a lucky grab caught Sanji’s ankle in his hand, although his glove immediately began to smolder, and he flung his brother toward the mast, enhanced strength clamping his grip tight in the moment before he released. Dully, through the haze of anger, Sanji thought he might have heard a bone crack. But it was of no concern right now; he rode the wave of his anger and the adrenaline that underlaid it, and a little thing like pain couldn’t touch him.

He twisted in midair, lithe as a cat, and kicked off the mast, teeth bared in a snarl as he flung himself back at Yonji. In that moment, Sanji airborne, Yonji turning to face him, a half-dozen slender arms sprouted from the deck, winding themselves around Yonji’s legs and holding him tight in place -- just in time for Sanji’s kick to snap up under his chin with a sound more like a gunshot than any kick, even one of his.

Thank you, Robin-chuan! He didn’t call it out, didn’t want to draw any attention to her hiding place among the trees, but felt a small warm glow of gratitude wend its way through the rage in his heart. He could thank her properly after this was over.

Yonji dropped to the deck -- dead? Probably not, these brothers of his were damned cockroaches when it came to taking damage, but he was at least stunned, and for the moment that was good enough. Sanji had more to do.

He spared another glance toward Zoro; the dervish of green and pink carried on, but there was red mingled into it now, both combatants bleeding. Zoro lunged forward, swords seeking out Reiju, and in a moment of stillness between lunge and recovery Sanji saw that a shallow wound on Zoro’s arm was surrounded already by a web of dark veins.

Fuck.

That was where he belonged, his heart screamed -- beside his soulmate, joining their strength together, where they would be unstoppable. But Zoro’s was not the only battle raging on the Sunny, and others of their nakama needed Sanji’s help more than Zoro did.

He can take care of himself; he’s strong. Won’t thank me for jumping in the middle of his fight.

It didn’t feel convincing, but there wasn’t much he could do about that. No time to stall, no time to have a moral crisis. He had to act, and in the heat of a battle, he knew he could trust Zoro.

Brook was hard-pressed against Ichiji, and Sanji spared half a thought to consider bitterly the irony that the Soul King would go up against someone as soulless as a Vinsmoke; no wonder he was having trouble. As lightweight as he was, the skeleton was easily flung about by the explosions Ichiji directed -- even as Sanji watched, Brook nearly went over the rail again, and more slender arms sprouted from the Adam Wood in time to catch him, to bring him back to the deck. Robin fighting in the way only she could -- all over the battle, the little touches that made all the difference.

Ichiji needed more than a touch, though. Time to even those odds a bit.

Speed was of the essence now, and he flung himself forward with a roar, managing to embed a furious ”Ichiji!” into the middle of it -- to draw that attention to himself, away from his crewmate, centering the firstborn bastard’s eyes on him so that he could properly redress all the blood (and other things) spilled on the Sunny today.

Ichiji, in that spare instant that Sanji bore down on him, didn’t even bother to smirk; he spoke tonelessly, a simple word.

“Wall.”

And Sanji howled in moral outrage and frustration as a rank of blank-eyed soldiers closed in front of him, absorbed the force of the blows meant for his fucking brother, fell in silence with heads cracked open like so many rotten melons -- the stink of blood and brains boiling under the fire of his rage, and to no purpose, because these uniformed nobodies weren’t the commanders, weren’t fucking Ichiji standing there uncaring, throwing away lives by a bare word.

The end of his cry was lost in the roar of another detonation, Sanji’s attack swept backward by the rippling shockwave, and he dimly heard Franky shout something behind him -- but could make no sense of it, not with his blood pounding in his ears, renewed fury burning a hole in his heart.

He was going to kill them -- was going to kill them all, every last smirking stranger who called him their blood, their failure, their discard. Every piece of North Blue garbage that dared invade his home and raise hands against the people he loved. They were all going to die.

His feet hit the deck, a protest from his cracked ankle going unheeded as he pushed into a darting series of attacks, reaching, striving, pushing every fiber of himself into a deadly dance that could not be allowed to slow for even the barest instant. Keep it fast enough, and Ichiji could not summon his fucking wall of human flesh and lives -- fast enough, and Ichiji could not fling his explosions in Sanji’s path, in his face, and blow him off his feet -- fast enough, and Ichiji would have to focus on him, could not turn his eyes toward the bony swordsman sliding up behind him, instrument discarded in favor of his thin, straight sword. Fast enough, hard enough, hot enough, and Sanji would force Ichiji to turn every iota of attention on him, on the rain of blows he brought crashing home.

In a state like this, there were only a few things that could break through to him, that could register in his consciousness. His soulmate. The women on board. His captain.

Nami’s shriek of “Luffy!” split the air, and his head whipped around -- in time to see Luffy vanish from sight, flung overboard by a powerful blow, arms stretching out in the attempt to grasp at anything that could anchor him away from the inimical ocean -- and failing, clutching only at thin air.

“Luffy!”

He started to break away from Ichiji, to race to his captain’s aid -- of course he did, he had to, nothing was more important than Luffy’s dream, than protecting him so that he could achieve it, and if it meant turning his back on Ichiji he would do it without a second thought -- but a wall of grey and gold confronted him, filling his vision, cutting him off, just before a hard blow flung him backward, back toward his soulless demon of a brother.

Judge, he realized dimly as he hit the deck, rolling to a stop and trying to breathe before pulling himself upright. Judge, no longer occupied with their captain, was coming after him -- because it was him they wanted, not any of the others. They weren’t here to drown Luffy or shatter Usopp or poison Zoro, they were here only for him.

Zoro, standing in the alley with one hand hard on Sanji’s upper arm, the other ready to draw, staring Reiju in the eye. “The answer’s no. Strawhats take care of our own.”

No, he wasn’t going to give in. It didn’t matter if he had to kick the asses of his entire shitty family himself, he wouldn’t let his crewmates down, wouldn’t simply give up.

He pushed off the deck with a shout of anger, flinging himself at Judge, the flames of his anger searing higher and brighter. There was no giving up, there was no surrender! Germa might be here for him, but he wasn’t fighting for himself; he was fighting for his crew, for his nakama, and that gave him all the strength he could need.

Dimly, as though from a great distance, he heard Nami’s voice again. “It’s okay, Zoro! I’ve got him!” and the splash of a controlled dive -- good, Luffy was taken care of, he could focus on the fight before him. Could focus on obliterating the monsters who dared to lift a hand against his crew with him as their excuse.

Red and grey seemed to whirl in his vision as he fought -- explosions flung him across the deck, Judge’s massive spear darted out time and again, seeking his blood and flinging bursts of painful energy at him when Haki thwarted it, and his flames roared and hungered, a battle of heat and light, his fury and Judge’s cold anger and Ichiji’s expressionless focus all mixing in a horrid, nightmarish concoction -- but now, now he wasn’t just a victim, wasn’t the weakling who could be easily tossed down and trampled. Each time Ichiji’s blasts flung him, he recovered himself to lunge right back into battle, putting his skywalking to the most intense test he’d ever attempted -- each time Judge’s spear licked for him, point-perfect Haki stopped it, prevented it from so much as scratching his skin.

“Not such a failure now, am I?” he snarled in that looming face -- without triumph, without disdain, with nothing but the most focused determination he’d ever felt in his life, crystallized not through a lack of emotion but through a plenitude of it, anger the fuel in his veins that banished pain, banished weariness, hardened his bones and his blood, armored him against fear or despair.

Judge said nothing in answer, his face set in hard lines; he merely lunged forward again, incongruously fast for such a big man, and lashed a jet-powered kick at Sanji -- Sanji, who needed no jets, no enhancements, no fucking raid suit to fight at his utmost, to give his all in this battle.

A wave of pink and red caught his eye, lurching into the space his battle occupied -- the space he had to be aware of. Reiju, face grey, a hand clutching at a deep, spurting wound in her side, stumbled backward from Zoro, and in that first moment of realization, Sanji didn’t know what to do -- felt himself drop out of the singlemindedness of his purpose. Reiju, who of anyone in his childhood had shown even the smallest marks of kindness, who had set him free… but who was also here, participating in this attack. Who had asked him to voluntarily abandon his crew. Reiju, who was a woman and therefore should not be forced into this fight -- but Reiju, who was a child of Vinsmoke and therefore raised, designed to do battle…

… Reiju, who had the hard exoskeleton and the superhuman resilience that all his siblings did, but who nonetheless should have taken much more than a deep but not fatal wound from a full-blown strike of Zoro’s.

Beyond Reiju was Zoro, and he had not pressed his attack, despite her evident weakness in the moment. The blackness Sanji had noted before, inky veins surrounding a wound to the arm, had spread; half of Zoro’s face was covered in the ugly marks, and his left arm hung at his side, still gripping his sword with utmost determination but weakened, without vitality.

No! Zoro!

Sanji could not afford to freeze up -- could not afford to let his concentration slip for even so much as the barest instant, not when his own fight pressed him so severely -- but he felt his rage dampen in the face of fear for his soulmate. Torn out of his own anger, out of his focus, his observation failed him. Zoro looked up -- toward him, oriented instantly, and their eyes met for a bare second, Zoro’s frustration and Sanji’s concern --

Zoro’s eye widened, and Sanji started to turn, sensing too late the danger --

A hard blow struck his temple, snapping his head to the side in a moment of fiery, blazing pain before darkness reached up to drag him under -- a darkness as ugly as the stain spreading over Zoro’s skin.

Zoro!

Chapter Text

Zoro’s first conscious impression was one of confusion. Something didn’t feel right -- he didn’t feel right. The world didn’t feel right.

Where was he?

Before he opened his eye, while he was still vaguely resisting the insistent drag of full consciousness, he felt as though he might be on Kuraigana again -- somehow, although it made no sense. Something just felt like that island, like that time.

But no -- consciousness would not be denied, and as he rose toward it, more impressions filtered in. He was lying on a bed instead of a hammock or a convenient spot on deck, lacking the confined feeling of his normal berth on the Sunny -- but he could feel motion, the gentle rocking of a ship, notable only in his confused state. He could smell the sea air, not the earthiness of the island overlaid with ripe scents of decay. There was too much sun on the other side of his firmly closed eye.

It still wasn’t right, and he needed only a little more alertness to feel it. Why Kuraigana had come so quickly to his mind --

Distance.

He opened his eye and stared at the ceiling of Chopper’s infirmary, and found the weight of loss pressing on his chest unbearable, crushing, stifling the breath in his lungs.

Sanji -- his soulmate -- was gone. He’d been taken.

Those assholes who didn’t deserve to put their name on him -- they’d invaded the Sunny and snatched Sanji away from all of them, away from his place in the world. Away from Zoro.

And Zoro had just stood there and let it happen.

(That wasn’t, strictly speaking, true; he’d fought hard, had flung himself at that bitch Reiju, had fought with all the skill and viciousness he could summon, but it hadn’t been enough, and therefore counted for nothing.)

Unbidden, unwanted, the image summoned itself in his mind’s eye -- Sanji, hesitating for an instant too long, staring at him, and the vicious kick slamming into him, snapping his head to the side with a crack that echoed straight to Zoro’s gut, an earthquake of nausea that he knew wasn’t from the poison. Fuck, a blow like that… had it broken his neck?

He could feel Sanji. He was alive. He reminded himself of that, reached out to touch that sense of presence again, so far away but still undeniably there.

So far away, so small. It was like Kuraigana all over again -- and yet not, because this time, he knew that Sanji was in his enemies’ hands, knew that he was in the gravest danger of them all.

Knew that Sanji was his soulmate, knew exactly why he was pulled so taut, pulled half out of himself.

They’d gotten spoiled, he thought bitterly, over the short time they’d had since the revelation on Thunderhead Island. Soulmates, and sailing on the same ship, staying shipboard even in port, never farther from each other than the height of the Sunny’s mast. Four days in port and a week at sea, and he’d so quickly gotten used to it, gotten used to feeling Sanji wherever he was on the ship, quietly reveling in the sudden reversal of his fortunes, from a quiet acceptance that the cook would never want him in that way, never reciprocate his interest, that if he even said anything it would do nothing but drive them permanently apart -- from that to soulmates, Sanji obviously uncertain and deeply shy, but letting Zoro into his personal space -- letting Zoro kiss him, if he knew they were alone, if they were in private.

And now this.

“Zoro!” Chopper’s voice cut through his thoughts. “You’re awake!”

He opened his eye again and lifted his head, grunting in annoyance at the effort it took. Fuck, he hated being laid up.

The reindeer carried a tray with a glass and a faintly-steaming bowl on it -- from the smell, soup of some kind -- which he set aside for the moment. “How do you feel?”

Like shit, that was how. “Tired.” Chopper wanted to know how he felt medically, not… not the rest of it, he was sure. It wasn’t like there was anything he could do anyway, not until they caught up to those bastards and showed them what it meant to cross the Strawhat Pirates.

“You’ve been under for four days,” Chopper said soberly, “but… let’s see, let me check your vitals.” He puttered around Zoro, listening to his heart, checking his pulse, asking him to breathe deeply, all the usual things that Zoro suffered only because he had to -- and because it was harder to say no to Chopper than it was to put up with it.

“We’re following them, right?” he asked as he obediently followed the random motions of Chopper’s forehoof with his eye -- not sure why that was a medical test, but whatever.

“Um.” Chopper hesitated, and Zoro forgot about the test.

“We had better fucking be!” It was hard not to make a grab for the little guy; the urge to shake him until something more logical, something more right fell out was abrupt and overwhelming. “What the- how could we be doing anything else? They fucking took him!

“I know, I know!” Chopper waved, trying ineffectively to placate Zoro, or at least to avert his anger. “Zoro, we’re not in any condition to fight! Usopp’s arm is broken, badly so, and Franky’s still half shorted out, and Luffy almost drowned, and…”

“And you almost drowned too,” Zoro shot back, louder than he’d intended -- but he didn’t find that he really cared enough to moderate his tone, “and didn’t, because the fucking cook saved your life. How the fuck are you not howling to go after him too?”

I am!” Chopper slammed both front hooves against Zoro’s chest in a thump that should have been much more painful than it was. There was so little room in Zoro for physical pain right now, like this. “Zoro! You’re not the only one who’s worried about him!”

Those words were the last Zoro could take. “Apparently I fucking am!” he snarled, and he shoved himself angrily out of bed, pushing Chopper aside. Heedless of the shouted protests following him, he stormed out of the infirmary, taking no effort to test his body after the enforced rest. His vision swam and his head spun, but he didn’t care, because it didn’t matter how disoriented he was. There was only one direction that mattered -- not up, not down, not north or south. There was toward Sanji, and anything else was away from Sanji and therefore the wrong way.

Through the mess, with its lingering smell of cigarette smoke and the silent emptiness of the galley -- Sanji’s place, Sanji’s pride and joy -- he stormed, out into the sunlight on the main deck, and he could feel nothing but revulsion at it. It didn’t deserve to be a beautiful day, didn’t deserve to have bright sun and warm weather when the world was so inherently wrong.

“Zoro!” Usopp exclaimed from where he knelt on the quarterdeck, one arm in a cast and sling but the other busy sanding away a gouge in the decking; Zoro ignored him.

“Swordsman-san!” There was Robin, and Zoro ignored her too, stalking toward the bow and the helm. If none of the rest of them were going to do it…!

Nami turned from the helm to look at him as he strode up to her, and he took the opportunity to seize the wheel, jerking it off their current course -- accompanied by her yelp of alarm.

“Zoro! What are you-?”

“You’re taking us in the wrong direction,” he snarled. “The cook is this way.”

“What are you talking about?” She grabbed for the wheel again, and he pushed her away.

“What don’t you understand? We’re going the wrong way. We’re going to get our fucking nakama back, not run away from him! So bring the fucking ship about!”

“You can’t possibly know that! Zoro, you get lost within the same building, how can you say you know where he is? And we can’t just go off course, we need to-”

“We need to get our fucking nakama back!” Zoro’s voice was scaling up toward a bellow. “He’s my goddamn soulmate! You should understand -- you’d do this for Vivi!”

“Swordsman-san, this isn’t-”

Oh, Robin didn’t need to be joining in on this conversation. He turned on her. “You! You, of all people, should be ready to go after him!”

She stiffened, standing at the top of the stair that led to the fo’c’sle deck, but in her wooden gaze he could see that she understood, that the barb had struck true. Robin, whom Sanji had gone after -- alone, without support, invading the sea train and trusting the others to follow. She had no right to be talking to him about delay! How could she be willing to wait?

Zoro opened his mouth to press the point, to keep digging until she saw how it should be, but before the words came --

“Zoro.” That was Luffy’s voice, and it fell like a boulder into sudden silence.

This was not Luffy the idiot, Luffy their beloved moron, the bottomless pit who said whatever nonsense came first into his thoughts and had to be carefully managed by the rest of the crew. No, this was Luffy the captain, Luffy who would be Pirate King, Luffy dead serious with the deliberate, controlled touch of Conqueror’s Haki underlying the single, echoing use of Zoro’s name. This was the Luffy who would not be contradicted, would not be gainsaid, would not be stopped. The Luffy they saw only in moments, only when the situation was truly desperate, only when they needed his unswerving determination.

Luffy stood facing the tableau of Nami and Zoro fighting for the wheel, his back against the figurehead’s mane -- his hat pushed down to shade his eyes, but head tilted up so that Zoro could just see the glint of his fixed gaze, wide-eyed and faintly feral. The look Luffy got whenever someone trespassed against his crew.

Zoro paused -- did not release the wheel, did not back down, but met Luffy's gaze with his own, heart pounding in his throat with the need to go, the inexorable pressure of his soul split in two, the vibrating misery that filled his lungs and gut and heart with an unswerving, singleminded purpose to protect that one person who was his other half. The touch of Haki had been a warning, had been enough to get his attention, but if they made it a true contest, he felt that there was no willpower that could override this soul-pain, this soul-purpose. In this moment, with Sanji's pain a weight in his chest, the command of Luffy's Haki buffeted him but found no purchase.

Had it been any other captain who commanded him this way, who tried to force him back, he would not have even entertained for a moment the possibility of acquiescence. Give him a lifeboat, fuck, give him a raft and a stick to paddle with, and he'd go after Sanji alone. But this wasn't anybody else. Wasn't even the same Luffy he'd been willing to beat the stupid out of at Whisky Peak. This was a new Luffy for the New World, a Luffy whose dark eyes held more depth than he'd seen before their two years apart. A Luffy, he suddenly realized, who understood -- who knew what it was to lose his people.

There was nothing in this moment that would get Zoro to obey, not when every second of delay was another second of Sanji enduring whatever hell those bastards were putting him through. But the dark understanding in Luffy's eyes -- the sudden insight that this was intolerable to their captain as well, that losing Sanji was an unacceptable answer to Luffy -- gave Zoro the a space to listen.

"Captain." His voice was clipped. Sanji's need dragged at him. Every second of delay was a profound personal insult. But for everything that Luffy was, Zoro would hear him out.

“Zoro,” Luffy said again, but softer this time, without force -- with acknowledgment of Zoro’s non-capitulation. “We’re gonna get him back. He’s ours. But we have to do it right.” The last word scraped out of Luffy’s throat, a memory of pain that Zoro hadn’t seen but understood all the same. A memory of loss that echoed sympathetically to the ache in his chest.

Slowly, Zoro released the wheel and stepped back, letting Nami readjust their course. “He’s suffering. We can’t wait. If you want to take the time to meet up with allies, let me take the Submerge and go ahead.”

“Bro, you can’t.” What the fuck, why was Franky joining in the little scene here? The whole crew, gathering around him to tell him how impossible it was to go save their fucking nakama? He turned to look at the cyborg with a growl.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t.” Well, that was better than the rest of them, at least. “I mean you can’t. That shot when they knocked us out of the sky fucked up the entire dock system and banged the Submerge around inside its housing. It’s super not seaworthy right now. All you’d do is get yourself crushed the moment you tried to dive.”

My life doesn’t matter, he thought, but getting crushed by a faulty ship wasn’t going to save his soulmate. That wasn’t an enemy he could cut his way through if only he was strong enough, fast enough, good enough. Bitterness dragged in his throat, and he thought again about asking for that raft and a stick to row out on his own.

If Luffy said they would, they would -- and while he might ache to do it now, without delay, he knew better than to keep fighting.

“That’s better. Go back with Chopper,” Luffy ordered, still every inch the captain. “Let him take care of you. When it’s time to fight, be ready.”

---

Back in the infirmary, Chopper ordered Zoro to sit, then planted the forgotten tray in front of him. “Eat,” he commanded, summoning professional authority into his tiny body and piping voice. “Drink. You need to replenish yourself.”

Zoro stared down at the broth and wrinkled his nose. It was yellowish and clear, without any vegetables or meat in it, not even noodles -- not much to regain his strength on.

“You can have something more filling later,” Chopper added. “This is the first food you’ve had in four days. Eat slowly.”

With the first spoonful, Zoro realized just how spoiled they’d all been. Sanji would have made something light and savory, perfectly flavorful without being overwhelming, something that would have made him feel stronger and more alert with every bite. This broth was plain, somehow too salty and yet bland at the same time, unappetizing, tasteless. It might have been boiled seawater for all the good he felt from it. Another sign of how wrong the world had gone without Sanji where he belonged.

“I’m sorry.” Chopper could evidently see his thoughts on the meal written across his face. “It isn’t… it isn’t as good as usual. There was some bouillon in the pantry, and Nami said that’s good for making soup…”

“It’s fine.” Zoro’s answer was toneless; he shook his head and kept eating mechanically. “It’s not supposed to be a feast. It’s for getting better.”

“That’s right. The sooner you’re back to full…” The sooner they’d go take Sanji back.

He ate in silence for a few minutes, forcing himself to take each bite -- each one a reminder of the gaping absence on the Sunny, a reminder that Sanji was far away, sending him back to that distant, stretched-out sense of him, and the dull, distant misery that echoed down the soulbond.

“... I’m feeling okay, physically,” he said after a period. “You did a good job against that poison, Chopper.” It wasn’t an apology for earlier, but it was something close. A peace offering. He was still furious, but it wasn't Chopper's fault.

He expected the reindeer to go into his usual denial-and-deflection routine, but this time, it was nowhere to be seen. “I didn’t really do anything,” Chopper admitted instead, hanging his head. “I couldn’t get a fix on the poison to make an antidote. It broke down on its own and flushed itself out of your bloodstream. I don’t know how.”

“On its own?” That didn’t sound right. Zoro looked down at his arm -- where the cut had been stitched and was now well on the way to being fully healed.

“Exactly. Things like that… especially anything that leaves your skin or veins showing up black like that, that’s usually a really bad sign. But this stuff…” Chopper trailed off, shifting uncomfortably. No one liked admitting they hadn’t been able to do anything. “It invaded your bloodstream and spread wildly, but then stabilized and just started to break down yesterday. Since then, all your functions have been going steadily back to normal, like nothing happened. I don’t understand it at all.”

The poor kid looked miserable. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “The point is, I’m fine now, right?” As fine as he could be, given that half his soul was far across the ocean in enemy hands. Shit, what were they even doing to him? “I can get back to training and be ready to fight.”

---

Released from the infirmary -- properly released, this time, after Chopper was satisfied that he was keeping down the soup and water he’d been fed -- with severe instructions that he was not to start working out for at least a day (which he planned firmly to ignore), Zoro headed out. This time, he went aft, staring out at the sea behind them from the stern rail, not yet ready to face his crewmates again. He was too angry -- with them, with himself, with everything. There would be no assuaging that anger, not until they had Sanji back, but he needed to work it down, needed to get his head on straight so that he could go and take Sanji back and make those bastards pay for everything that they’d done to the crew, everything they’d done to the Sunny, and most of all, everything they had done and were doing to Sanji.

Had done, because he wasn’t forgetting for a moment the story Sanji had poured out to them all after the encounter with Reiju. Sure, the cook had survived it, but beating up on a little kid because he couldn’t fight back was the act of a fucking coward -- and beating up on someone like Sanji, who had that strength inside him, just needed to be taught how to use it instead of abused for not showing it all on his own -- that burned him up. Weaklings picked on people who couldn’t fight back.

Were doing, because he knew they were. He could feel it, shuddering along that connection that stretched across the miles of open ocean. Sanji was in hell, and it was because of those people, because they couldn’t just take him away from the crew, they had to fucking torture him on top of it. Whatever they were doing, Zoro would make them pay for every drop of blood spilled, every moment of suffering, every inch of the pain they inflicted turned back on them a thousandfold.

His hands clenched on the rail, the yearning to be there and save him and stop it all shaking him with a force that would not be denied.

Footsteps sounded behind him -- Robin, coming to join him. She wasn’t high on the list of people he wanted to see right then -- the only person high on that list was Sanji -- but he didn’t say anything. Maybe she’d realize he wanted to be left alone.

Hah. Fat chance.

“You weren’t wrong, out there,” she said quietly, leaning against the rail beside him. “I won’t say I’m as unhappy about this as you are. The soulmate bond… that is something special, all its own. But as a crewmate, I want him back, and I'm very aware of the debt I owe him. Being unable to protect him…” She trailed off, sighed. “They were ready for us. Knew who we were, and what we could do. Even the Coup de Burst -- they were prepared for that. This was a well-planned assault. We have to be equally ready to take them on when we go for him.”

He scowled. “That’s not making me feel better.”

“I doubt anything could.” Damn her, she was right about that. “We’ve called for allies. Our captain knows some people -- the same people who helped him at Marineford, he said, and would be willing to help him again.”

No wonder Luffy had been so grave, so ready with that sober voice and the soft threat of Haki. Zoro had seen the changes writ in Luffy’s seriousness in this face, and to have called up the people who were at his side during it would only push Luffy deeper into the memories of that time.

They weren’t going to let this end the same way.

“I know a few people too,” Robin added. “The prospect of taking on a despotic and corrupt royal family, while helping Monkey D. Luffy… they’ve already agreed to come and help us.”

Ah yes, Robin the Revolutionary. He could imagine that the friends she’d made there might be interested in an attempt to take down such a repugnant member dynasty of the World Government. An interesting prospect, but it wasn’t enough to break through his shell of hard pain, and he simply grunted.

“If there’s anyone you know of to call…” she added, trailing off with the suggestion of a question.

He considered it, then shook his head. Johnny and Yosaku would come if he asked them, but they weren’t nearly strong enough to handle the Grand Line, let alone the New World -- if they could even make it this far, they’d be little help against the Vinsmokes. Mihawk wasn’t an ally, had agreed to train him out of what Zoro suspected to be mostly boredom -- he couldn’t imagine asking the man for help.

But all the same, the notion of calling allies was -- he had to concede, intellectually, in some microscopic space of his mind that wasn’t occupied with Sanji, Sanji, Sanji -- a good one. Franky’s crew had been an enormous help at Enie’s Lobby, even when in the end, it had been the Strawhats taking care of their own. If the Revolutionaries and Luffy’s friends could get them even that far…

“Mm.” She didn’t seem surprised that he didn’t have anyone to call. “Even so, we’ll be better prepared when we go to take him back.”

Now he turned to look at her, and she faced him with her own hard determination glimmering in her eyes. “We will get him back,” she promised, and he could hear the frustration in her voice, the helplessness at having Sanji taken and being unable to do anything about it. There it was, real and intense, choking her like it choked him, and paradoxically, it eased his heart that tiny fraction of a degree. They would get him back; when the entire crew stood united, nothing could stop them.

---

The smell of food roused him from the half-trance he’d fallen into, the repetition of exercises and the burn of muscles doing some (but not enough, never enough) to mute the recriminations in his head and the anger in his heart. If he could force his body hard enough, make himself strong enough, he’d be that much closer to getting the cook back…

But. Here was food; here was Nami with a covered tray, red-gold head poking up through the hatch to the crow’s nest.

(Sanji would have bitched, he thought to himself before he could help it, about having to bring his lunch to him instead of having him join the rest of the crew to eat. That it was Nami here instead, uncomplaining, was another iteration of the wrongness that plagued the Sunny now.)

“Just set it there,” he told her, nodding toward the bench nearest the hatch. “I’ll eat in a bit.”

She didn’t, though; instead, she came up fully through the hatch, setting the food down but then sitting beside it, watching him.

Her gaze rankled. “What?” It came out as a snap, and he couldn’t bring himself to care.

“He really is your soulmate.” She said it quietly, gently -- not a question, not after he’d thrown it in her face at the helm, but a gentle probe. He could see it in her eyes, the understanding, the empathy.

He didn’t want it. He didn’t want to talk about this. Especially didn’t want to talk about this with her. “So?”

She fidgeted, looked away. “... I’m sorry.”

It took him a moment to find a good answer. There were a lot of things she could be sorry for, some of which were arguably her fault. No, more honestly: the fault of every member of the crew collectively, the blame not on Nami or Franky or Brook or any of them, but on the Strawhat Pirates who failed to protect one of their own. That covered some things. Other things, she had no fault in. Nothing he could think of laid directly on her shoulders in specific.

(Zoro shouldered his share of the blame as a part of the crew, and accepted a double helping because he was Zoro, the first mate; Zoro, the swordsman; Zoro, the soulmate. Zoro who was the reason Sanji fell.)

“I don’t care about sorry,” he finally grunted. Sorry wouldn’t bring Sanji back, wouldn’t speed their allies on the way here or guarantee success in the rescue. It was just a word.

She didn’t look immediately convinced, though -- teeth dug into her lip for a moment, and then she said, half in protest, “If I’d been quicker… if I’d managed to catch Chopper, so Sanji-kun didn’t have to dive after us… it might have-”

“I said,” Zoro cut her off, said louder, “I don’t care about sorry. It doesn’t change what happened. We’re going to get him back. If you need to say sorry, say it to him.”

He understood why Nami was saying it now. Of all of them, Nami understood what it meant to have a soulmate far away, and to have a soulmate in danger. But it didn’t change the facts -- didn’t change that there was no point in saying it to him. That he didn’t want to hear it, because it only raised again the specter of his own shortcomings in the face of Germa’s assault. The echoing crack of the jet-powered kick taking Sanji in the side of the dead, that might have carried with it the sound of the cook’s neck snapping (shit, don’t think about that!) -- the way his eyes had widened, looking at Zoro, seeing Zoro’s gradual weakening…

He looked sharply away from Nami, gritted his teeth and hefted his weights again. Sorry didn’t matter, his regrets didn’t matter -- the only thing that mattered was the rescue.

Hang on, he tried to tell that connection deep in his chest, that sense of Sanji that reverberated with a distant, indistinct pain. We’re coming for you.

Chapter Text

When Sanji awoke, it was to the familiarity of entrapping weight on his head. He lay on a hard cot -- familiar -- and the smells that filled his nose and mouth were of damp stone and mildew, a faint fetidity of rats and unwashed bodies. Familiar, familiar, familiar -- so familiar that he was eight years old again, an unloved and discarded child. He deserved nothing, not even a name or a face, nothing to show the narrow confines of the world bordered by stone walls and metal bars.

He was a child awakened from an aching dream, home and family, loved ones, people who wanted him, who embraced him eagerly and called him theirs. A dream of his own discovered strength, nurtured in him by a man he never called father but adored as one. A dream of people who needed him, people who thrived because of him, who ate food made by his own hands and loved him for it, who sang his praises as he fed them. A dream of people who loved him. A dream of a soulmate, someone who reached out to touch and hold him, not because Sanji needed it or sought it out, but because he wanted it, because he felt happy and fulfilled with Sanji in his arms.

It wouldn’t be the first time his subconscious mind had taunted him like this, filling him with images of the sort of life that a failure could never know.

But he shifted on his cot as wakefulness rose in him, and moving set off waves of pain, a ripple of protest that ran the full length of his body. Bruised bones, pulped flesh, burned skin, a familiar surge of post-battle pains that he had accepted and pushed through many times in the past. He was halfway through cataloguing each injury with an adult warrior’s sense of acceptance and calculation, recognizing each wound he’d taken and putting it in its place, before reality properly set in. This was not the mindset of an eight-year-old -- not the eight-year-old he’d been, not the sad discarded nothing-son of Vinsmoke Judge.

He was more than that. He was Black-Leg Sanji, the Fighting Cook, who had earned the gruff pride of a tough but caring father. He was Black-Leg Sanji of the Strawhat Pirates, a man with a bounty of his own and a list of deeds that more than validated the price the government had put on his head -- a man with strength and speed, skill and power, who wouldn’t be so easily abused. Black-Leg Sanji of the Strawhat Pirates, a man with nakama who wouldn’t let one of their own be taken from them. And among those nakama, he had his soulmate, who could not be kept from him against his will.

He was Black-Leg Sanji of the Strawhat Pirates, soulmate of Roronoa Zoro, and that meant he could not be discarded, could not be forgotten, could not be left in a dungeon to moulder away. This was the utmost antidote for fear and despair. He could reach inside himself and touch that connection and know that he was known, he was wanted, he was loved.

He was back in the dungeon of his childhood, though -- back in the damned mask that had never stopped haunting his nightmares. Black-Leg Sanji, soulmate of Pirate Hunter Roronoa Zoro, serving on the crew of the man who would be Pirate King -- that was not enough to protect him from the might of Germa 66, from the might of the people who had never meant him well. There was no reassurance in that, and as he gathered the memories of his life (true, these memories, no dream) about himself, he found that dismay kept forcing its way in, creeping around the edges of his mind, refusing to be fully silenced. He was strong and fast, skilled and dangerous -- but he had been taken. His soulmate was just as much so, and had fallen in battle, wounded and poisoned, defeated. He was still alive. Sanji could feel that. But defeated, still, and there was dismay and fear sitting there in the middle of that memory.

No. He would not give in to despair so soon, would not surrender to the resumption of childhood nightmares. He would be free of this place again. His nakama would come for him.

He reached up carefully, holding the rest of himself as still as he could, but even the movement of one arm set of waves of sharp, angry pain through his abused body. Fuck, he’d been taken down hard -- the only way he could have been, to have wound up back here. His questing fingers found the cold metal that encased his head, bulky and heavy as his darkest nightmares remembered. It was not the same mask he’d worn as a child, no, he was an adult now, it couldn’t be, and more than that, it was different. It closed more tightly about his vision, nothing more than narrow individual slits for his eyes that let him see a sliver of the world in front of himself. Something soft and heavy padded the inside of the mask around his ears, and it hooked tightly under his jaw, leaving little room for him to open his mouth. When he touched it, tried to shift it a little, a rippling, tugging discomfort across his scalp made him hiss. Was it glued onto him?

He didn’t know, and didn’t know how to find out. Didn’t know if he wanted to find out, really. However it was attached to him, he did not have what he needed to break free of it. Once his nakama got to him, though, they’d be able to -- of that, he was certain. Franky was a genius with constructing and deconstructing anything, and Usopp was nearly as good. He’d be all right.

He just had to wait for his nakama to come for him.

They would come for him, after all. Zoro had said that, one hand heavy and warm on Sanji’s arm. Strawhats take care of our own. And he could feel Zoro, and that meant Zoro could feel him. They couldn’t be kept apart.

But he’d been taken -- he had fallen, and they hadn’t been able to hold onto him after he’d gone down. He didn’t, couldn’t know how the battle had gone after that. Couldn’t know if his precious crewmates were safe. Dread joined his dismay, whispering darkly in his mind. Usopp unmoving on the deck, broken and twisted. Zoro barely able to hold his sword, his arm black with poison. Luffy going overboard, the sight of one outstretched arm snapping back out of sight.

Nausea churned in his gut, and he reached for that distant feeling of his soulmate. Zoro was still alive. Of that he could be certain; the other half of his soul still nestled in Zoro’s chest, and he could feel the wholeness in his own chest that said that Zoro’s soul hadn’t left him.

But he was so far away…

That realization, the feeling of unbridgeable distance between them, set off a new wave of panic, a reminder that he was alone, far from help, back in the clutches of the family that had carelessly tormented him for so long. Twenty-one years old, an accomplished pirate and a fearsome fighter, but here he was again, in the dungeon, robbed of his name, his face, his everything…

He shifted, instinctively wanting to curl in on himself, and couldn’t stop the agonized groan that ripped itself from his throat. Fuck, he hurt, every inch of him battered and broken. His neck stabbed at him fiercely, infuriated by the weight of the mask dragging at tendons and bones already affronted; the side of his head ached, tender to the point of feeling near jellied; bands of iron pain locked around both calves, heavy and red-hot, potent simmering embers instead of his familiar bright flames, dull and angry with crushed muscle and cracked bone; his right ankle had to be broken, felt little more than a messy pulp. These, he identified after a moment’s greyed-out mindlessness in the grip of pain, were the worst of it, were the things that left him not a warrior here, but a casualty, not strong but weak, not tough but terrifyingly vulnerable. His neck couldn’t be broken, not if he was still moving, but shit, it almost felt like it anyway, and what did he know about neck injuries, he wasn’t Chopper, didn’t have their sweet little doctor here to look him over and tell him he would be fine so long as he didn’t move around too much, as long as he didn’t antagonize Zoro enough to start a fight, shit, no, he was alone, locked away and helpless, fuck, shit he was starting to lose the plot, panic choking him…

The bond. That was there. That was real. That was solid and reliable, a steady unbending presence like Zoro himself, and Sanji wrapped his consciousness around that little thread of warmth and constancy that was his connection to his soulmate. The distance between them sent shudders up his spine, but the connection was there and no matter how far the distance, he knew nothing would stop his nakama from coming for him. No matter how long it took. He just had to survive until then.

---

At some point -- he wasn’t sure when -- he must have fallen asleep; when he awoke again, he was ragingly thirsty, his throat and eyes gritty and tight, head throbbing, stomach tight with nausea. The weight of the mask pressing down on him was an aching drag, but when he tried to move, the worst of his pain seemed to have receded a little. Enough, at least, that he could manage to sit up (or perhaps better to say, could force himself to sit up, gritting his teeth and setting determination against pain) and swing his legs down to let his feet touch the floor of his cell.

Cold!

He flinched away from it, then groaned as the reflexive contraction of muscles made all his pains throb, burn, stab the worse. For a moment, he reeled in the agony, but then set his jaw and forced himself to focus again. He could do this. He was strong.

He looked down at his feet -- bare, legs clad in thin pale trousers. His ankles were circled with bands of some odd, dark metal -- too thin for proper shackles, and as far as he could see utterly featureless, no chain between them and nowhere to attach any.

The shackles distracted him for a moment, but the implication of his bare feet soaked into his head. His soulmark was on his right foot, and if his feet were bare, that would mean his family had seen…

It was gone.

He stared dully at the unmarked skin of his foot, nothing but smooth paleness marred with smudges of dirt, blank where he’d carried the simple, bold Roronoa for the last eight years, and felt his mind empty itself of words. His soulbond wasn’t gone -- no, he could feel it still there, still stretched with distance and quiescent in a way that he didn’t understand, couldn’t decipher, couldn’t think through in his current state of wounded, dismayed captivity. But it was there, and real and solid and existent, and soulmarks weren’t the bond itself anyway, were only a pointer to help you find your way. Even if your soulmate died or repudiated you, that wouldn’t affect the mark on your skin, and if your mark was damaged, it didn’t affect your bond. But was this damage? It was just… gone, as though it had never been. So… how…?

He still had his soulbond. Maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe… maybe something about the distance made it fade out (but it hadn’t on Momoiro…) or maybe the intensity of the flames he’d summoned to fight his family had done something (but he wasn’t burned, and it had never acted like this before…)

The loss of the mark felt like yet another aching wound on his soul, another alienation from his nakama and from the life he’d built for himself. Yet another bar in the cell, yet more weight on the mask, another stone in the walls that closed in around him, joining in with the mask on his head and the nightmarish familiarity of everything he could see, hear, feel to argue that his life outside the cell was nothing more than a dream. A deeper and deeper trap, an isolation simultaneously echoing and claustrophobic, the distance between them that of the wide-open ocean but his captivity the confinement that sat heavy on his head, restricted his hearing and vision to near nothing, closed him away in a prison of a broken, useless body inside walls of stone layered inside living flesh encased in an impenetrable shell, surrounded by dozens upon dozens of the same, with the abyssal ocean beneath and an oppressively empty sky above…

Focus! He couldn’t lose himself. Couldn’t let himself drift into terrified immobility. His soulmate was alive, and he could hold onto that thread of their bond, strong enough to cut through the layers of imprisonment, still there and just as strong despite the disappearance of the mark. As long as it stayed firm, his path to freedom was untouchable, and he could not lose his grasp on reality, could not forget his name. He was Black-Leg Sanji of the Strawhat Pirates, and he did not belong in this cage.

He forced himself to look up from the contemplation of his feet, to survey the cell as best he could with his restricted vision, to think in practical terms about his situation. There wasn’t much to it. A stone cell, with the cot he sat on and a simple toilet in the corner. One side was mostly open to a stone corridor, blocked with the wrist-thick bars he remembered from his childhood, and a small door with similar bars set into it. Reiju had been able to bend those bars as a child; even as an adult, even as a seasoned fighter, one of the monsters of the Strawhat crew, he couldn’t claim that kind of strength. Maybe if he were able to work up a good kick or two… but for the moment, the pain in his legs warned him against such an attempt.

The thought of strength to bend steel inevitably led to Zoro, to the massive weights he slung around like they weighed no more than Sanji’s saucepans; he’d probably be able to bend those bars with no trouble, Sanji thought with a wrench of homesickness that closed his throat with painful intensity. What he wouldn’t give to see that musclebound brute there, ripping the bars from the wall or drawing his swords to slash them to pieces. Fuck, what he wouldn’t give to see his soulmate there, there with him, even if they were imprisoned together, simply to know that he wasn’t alone, wasn’t abandoned here under stone and flesh and shell and water, layers and layers of entombment…

Shut up. Focus. Be a man, not a scared, panicky little boy. You can deal with this. You must deal with this.

Near the bars, lying on the floor, there was a small lump of -- something, and in the quest to focus, to think through surviving his captivity, he needed to figure out what it was. He pushed himself to his feet with a sharp hiss of pain. Fuck and hell, his ankle immediately buckled under his weight, stabbing him with bright shards of nauseating agony. He remembered Yonji’s hand clamping down hard on it, the pain of bones grinding together, subsumed in the moment by the adrenaline rush of of pure fury, but that didn’t prevent bones from breaking…

Whatever. What was a little pain? He could make it support him if he just manned the fuck up, and that was all that mattered for the moment. With no doctor here, no medical kit, not even anything in the cell he could jury-rig into a splint, there was no point in whining about it or wondering what exactly was wrong under his skin. Bones could heal. Everything else came later. There was more sharp, insistent pain in his legs, enough that he wasn’t going to be kicking much of anything soon, at least not if he didn’t want to shatter himself entirely, but he could deal with pain, would deal with pain. He didn’t remember taking the kind of injuries that would have left him in this shape, but he could easily imagine Judge looking down at his prone form and bringing one massive boot down to crush his bones when he was unconscious and unable to defend himself, unable to bring up Armament to protect his body. That would be just like him.

Well, he wouldn’t give his shitty non-father the pleasure of keeping him back. Beating him down, breaking his legs in order to make sure he stayed quiet… what a coward.

He staggered toward the little mound, reached for it -- saw that his wrists were encircled by similar bands as his ankles: thin dark metal with no seam or hinge -- and discovered it to be a small, soft-sided canteen, barely larger than his fist. The mouth of the canteen was narrow and elongated, rather like the neck of a bottle, and a little exploration determined that his mask had a similar opening for his mouth, sized just a little larger than the canteen’s neck. There was no jaw-hinge apparatus as before. The intention was clear: there would be no obliging guard this time, no prepared meals brought to him to eat with fork and knife as before. This canteen, or something like it, would be how he would take his nourishment this time.

Clutching it, he hobbled back to the cot -- for lack of any other furniture in the room, it was something to sit on and take the weight off his wounded legs. No reason to linger by the bars; it wasn’t as though anyone would be coming to see him, and even if they were, it wouldn’t be anyone whose attention he particularly wanted. (Old memories of his brothers standing at the bars and taunting him tried to rise up, and he pushed them back. Surely as adults they had better things to do with their time than taunting their failure of a younger brother, who didn’t even deserve the name...)

Enough of that. He uncapped the canteen and fitted its neck through the mouth of his mask -- and nearly choked on the first sip of the contents. A greasy, gritty liquid with an unpleasant sour flavor and strong, sweaty notes of fermentation, it was nothing he’d willingly feed anyone, even his worst enemy -- but then, he always did have more principles than his shitty family. He should be grateful that they were feeding him at all, he knew, and hated that he knew it.

But that did raise a good question. He’d woken up to this, but how often would more be coming? The canteen was barely the size of a single slender meal, and he wouldn’t bet on them feeding him enough to thrive on. Perhaps it would be better not to knock the whole thing back at once. Better to keep a little in reserve, just in case. And it wasn’t like it was a struggle not to drink it all -- the taste and texture of the stuff saw to that. In fact, as hungry and dehydrated as he was, he could just as easily have put it down after the first swallow. (If they did mean to starve him, that wouldn’t last; no illusions there.)

He made himself keep going, screwing up a face behind the mask with each disgusting mouthful, until he had polished off about half the canteen, then set it just under the cot, out of the way but easy at hand. His head was pounding, his gut twisted, and he would kill for a cigarette, or even just a glass of water to wash the taste out of his mouth. But wishes did nothing; they hadn’t freed him from this cell before, and wouldn’t now. A fragment of an old rhyme drifted through his mind, a dusty memory of a book from his last stay in a stone-lined cell. Wishes are the fishes that break the dreamer’s fast, but wish-meat isn’t fish-meat so the dreamer’s hunger lasts.

Curious of his larger surroundings -- needing to be practical, to keep his mind sharp for as long as he could -- he let his eyes fall closed and stretched out awareness through Haki. There were a few small auras -- rats, he thought, remembering fondly the little creatures who’d been the early recipients of his culinary experimentation. Call them vermin if you wanted, and he agreed they didn’t belong on a well-run ship or in any kitchen at all, but they’d been good little friends to him back in the day.

Beyond the rats, he could feel the presence of humans elsewhere on the barge. Germa soldiers and support workers, a couple other prisoners held in the dungeon and near the lab, and the larger aura of the snail itself, the living barge -- and wider, others around it, all of them detached to move independently as they sailed. No help to be had from any of these.

One brave rat crept toward the bed, and he half-smiled, pulling out the canteen and pouring a little of the contents into a dip in the stone floor, a natural little bowl for his little friend.

“It isn’t much,” he murmured toward the daring creature, who approached the offering warily, sniffing it with what he imagined was an air of dubiousness before starting to lap at the little puddle, “but I can always share.”

Twenty-one years old and he’d come full circle, feeding rats in the dungeon. This was who he was, who he had always been. He stared down at the narrow view in front of him, his own hands and the little rat whose whiskers quivered at the unexpected, odorous feast, and wondered if the last thirteen years really hadn’t been in some way a lie. A little vacation, a step away, like the short visits with his mother or Reiju’s moments of secretive kindness -- real, yes, but not reality, not his actual life. Respites in the battle for sheer simple survival. Now the moments of kindness were over, his mother’s ashes were cold in her grave, and he was back in a cell, back to feeding rats, broken and weak and helpless. Just like his fantasy of The Other Black Leg, those brief joys were nothing more than an escape, and as illusory, because in the end, he could not be free of who and what he really was…

---

This was his third canteen. They came on a regular schedule, but spaced out, and hunger dragged at him almost constantly, assuaged only a little in the immediate aftermath of his foul-tasting meals. It was not The Hunger, not starvation, but all the same, his belly was never full, and it added to the crawling desperation that only concentrated willpower could overrule. With it had come a deep, wet, racking cough that shook his entire body, left him aching and dizzy. Every time a spell came on him, leaden bands seemed to latch around his chest, squeezing his lungs to nothingness, the convulsive jolts of each cough setting off sympathetic sparks of pain from the breaks and bruises that showed stubbornly few signs of truly healing.

He was still trying to hold a reserve, saving back a small portion of each and adding them to the first canteen he’d gotten, against the day that the food stopped coming entirely. He also fed the rats in his cell, sharing out his food -- they needed so little, and the action fed his soul, a far better sustenance than the mouthful or two of food sacrificed to do so. They had half-tamed themselves almost immediately, coming to his hand and letting him stroke them as they lapped at the malodorous meal.

He counted each canteen as a day -- anything to give himself some sense of order, some sense of time, some attachment to a larger world beyond the damp stone of the cell, to a cycle of sunrises and sunsets he couldn’t see -- anything to keep the creeping, never-distant despair at bay. He didn’t know when his nakama would be coming -- couldn’t feel Zoro drawing any closer, couldn’t feel Zoro doing anything more than simply existing at the other end of the soulbond, and maybe it was just the distance, maybe it was only the way that the farther they got from each other, the less distinct the bond became, but but the continuing quiescence of the bond seemed utterly at odds with the man he knew, utterly at odds with the determination Zoro had shown at the mere possibility that they might be separated. Shouldn’t he be driving the others hard toward Sanji, coming for him?

Every day, despair crept in closer, tightened its grip on Sanji’s heart. Every day, he felt a little more fear.

This was the third feeding, the third “day” of captivity, and Sanji couldn’t know how long he’d been out before he awakened to the first canteen, but there was no profit in asking that question, and he couldn’t let the unanswerables choke him or he would simply give up and die here, alone, unheeded, abandoned…

No. The third day of captivity, and he would not fall to pieces so quickly. He picked up the canteen and limped back to his cot, grimacing over the taste as always but pouring a portion into the reserve he was keeping, then another small portion for the rats that had already clustered around him to await their breakfast. Finally, he allowed himself his meal, drinking about half of what was left. The other half would be for a little later, trying to maintain at least two separate meals to a “day.” A routine, something that made him feel like a civilized person, not another rat with the others.

Once he was done with his meal, he laid the canteen down on his pillow and stood again, gritting his teeth at the renewed pain but forcing himself to move. He’d never had wounds so slow to heal, continually dragging at him like this -- of course not; he’d never gone untended so long, never been left without the barest modicum of care, even when he’d been the battered little failure, the disappointment, he’d still been a prince -- but he could stand for brief periods and move about without greying out from pain, and he counted that as progress. Even if he had a sneaking feeling, which came curled together with the ever-hovering despair, that it was far less to do with any improvement in his physical condition and more a matter of simply becoming accustomed to pain. Humans could adapt to anything, and it wasn’t as though being trapped in a cell or coping with the aftermath of getting the shit beaten out of him were new experiences.

It didn’t matter. He would survive. His nakama would come for him, as they’d promised. He could only wait, and he would wait, and they would come for him. Any day, he’d start feeling Zoro draw closer, the bond would tell him they were coming, any day now it would begin…

The steady rocking of the barge shifted, and he paused in his pacing to reach out. Eyes and ears told him nothing, as always, but he had Haki, and he used it now, stretching his awareness of his surroundings upward toward the ground-level deck, the bustle of activity that was --

Ah yes. Docking. He remembered that from childhood, too, the way the soldier-sailors would bring the barges in, neat and exact, each fitting with precision into the next, and the next, and the next. They must have arrived at whatever passed for home, then; the snails traveled better decoupled, each taking the waves as it would. A deep rumble echoed through the dungeon; his ears couldn’t hear it, were muffled to deafness, but he could feel it in his chest as the docking mechanism clicked into place and the superstructures merged themselves into the larger form of the Vinsmoke family castle. The royal palace of Germa formed in a bone-shaking grind of stone on stone from mechanical interlocks that dated back to their earliest loss of territory, nearly three full centuries before.

There was no change to the dungeon itself, of course. That remained separate, a dozen or more distinct structures each embedded within its carrier snail and kept fully separate from the rest, keeping all prisoners as separate from each other as possible. There was no such thing as a prison break, no matter how many prisoners filled their dungeons. There would be no way for him to take his fate back from the hands that now held it so ungently. Hopelessness rose like bile in his throat and he choked it back. He had to keep faith. His nakama would come, and they would find him. They would.

A pair of presences detached themselves from the bustle on deck and began to descend into his section of the dungeon. The aura that was perception through Haki told him that they were no more than ordinary soldiers; did his family think him so weak he could not overpower two of them? What an insult. He laid his canteen down as he had the others and stood facing the cell door, watching it now with ordinary vision now (as much as the mask allowed him: nearly nothing) as well as with the keener perception of Haki. As soon as the door was unlocked, he could charge them, attack, fight back against his captivity. It would be ultimately fruitless -- he could not get away, not when Germa barges carried no such thing as lifeboats or tenders, not when there was no avenue to leave the floating kingdom and where these soldiers were only two, there were scores more where they came from -- but fruitlessness didn’t matter. It would be a sign of his defiance, a sign of his unwillingness to be a simple, docile captive. I’m not the child I used to be. You don’t hold me helpless at your power.

The guards paused at the door, but before they unlocked it, one of them pointed some sort of device at him -- a weapon? Haki did not warn him to dodge, did not tell him of any blow coming at him -- and simply, undramatically pressed a button.

In answer, the thin bands around his wrists and ankles -- which had seemed rather useless to him, having nowhere to attach a chain or shackle, no marks of their function -- emitted a loud buzzing noise, then with a wrenching motion sprang together as though pulled by an invisible cord. His stance was ripped into nothingness in a moment, new pains rippling up his legs as muscles protested the sudden change and barely-healed injuries reasserted themselves. With his wrists suddenly locked together as if bound, he could not flail for balance; it was all he could do not to fall to the hard stone, with no way to break his impact, and his body swayed and bent as he fought to remain upright, his muscles screaming, teeth gritted to keep his voice from following suit.

Unbalanced, bound hand and foot, he certainly couldn’t think about rushing the guards; by the time he could turn any attention away from the struggle to remain on his feet, the larger of the two of them was in the cell and approaching him. Sanji glared at him (pointless, with the mask hiding his features) and tried to twist away from the strike he saw coming, unable to do more in his current state. It wasn’t enough; the guard drove a hard fist like a hammer into his gut, bending him double, and caught him up before he fell to the floor, slinging him over one meaty shoulder like a sack of rice. Winded, gasping for air through the small mouth of the mask, and with all his previous barely-healed injuries now complaining anew, he had little recourse or ability to resist as the big guy carried him out of the cell -- not that he didn’t try, but fuck, he could barely flop. A hooked fish struggling helplessly in the open air had more fight in it than he did right now, and the recognition of that helplessness lit anger in his gut, but it was a useless anger, a guttering flame nearly smothered with pain and the struggle to breathe. He was Black-Leg Sanji, damn it! He should have more fight in him than this! A mere underling should be easy work -- how many of this soldier’s fellows had gone down under his burning fury in the attack on the Sunny? But that was there and this was here, and against his will, he was carried out of the cell.

Out of the dungeon entirely, as it turned out, and into the lab. The smells of damp stone and mildew gave way to astringent chemicals, the darkness of the dungeons to a harsh bright light that hurt his eyes even despite the mask restricting how much brightness he got. It was still enough to hurt.

The soldier, trailed by his smaller companion, deposited him in a large, empty room, dumping him on the ground in an aching heap. For a moment, Sanji remained still, taking stock of his surroundings. The floor was an even, seamless off-white, made from some substance he couldn’t immediately identify. Hard, a little rough under his bound hands, but unyielding to the dig of a fingernail. He couldn’t see the walls or ceiling well, but they appeared to be similar; there was only one door, the one his captor had brought him through, and which was once again closed. Tiny life-presences dotted the walls of the chamber at varying heights; surveillance mushi, he guessed, and this was a combat test chamber. Judge’s children had not (in his memory) been tested in surroundings like this -- but then, they’d been the royal children, princess and princes of the blood. Now, he was no such thing.

There was another low buzz, and the force holding his wrists and ankles together vanished, leaving him to push himself warily to his feet. If he was in here, that meant…

Ah, yes. More presences approaching in his Haki-view, another set of soldiers flanking an oddly flat and colorless figure all on their way to join him in this room. That leader-figure, strange as he was in the aura-view of Haki, was no larger than the rest, but shimmered greater in presence, the oddity doing nothing to disguise the threat.

He was on his feet and facing the door, his stance this time narrow out of wariness against another activation of the shackles, when Yonji entered with a unit of uniformed soldiers behind him.

Sanji forced himself not to react, to remain impassive. He’d beaten Yonji soundly during the battle on the Sunny, but three days of untreated wounds, tiny rations of fermented mush, and nicotine withdrawal had taken their toll; he knew all too well that he was far from his peak of strength, and this fight -- because it would be a fight; there was no other reason for Yonji to be here, kitted out in his raid suit and with an array of soldiers behind him -- was going to be brutal, ugly, and very, very painful.

“Feels just like old times, doesn’t it?” Yonji purred. “Nostalgic, that’s the word. We even found you a nice yellow shirt to really take you back.” Sanji hadn’t been able to get a proper look at what he was wearing, and he wouldn’t give Yonji the satisfaction of looking now; he was simply glad he hadn’t gone to the effort to examine his clothing before, hadn’t had to weather the shock of seeing himself branded with that color, that number, that marked him as nothing more than one of a set, the weak link in a chain, nothing in and of himself but defined entirely by the presence of his brothers on either side of him. Not that it mattered, in the long run -- the mask on his head and the lack of shoes on his feet, the shackles on his wrists and ankles, those mattered far more than any mere clothing, any symbolism -- but assuming Yonji wasn’t just throwing words out there, that was one more sign that he was meant to suffer, and suffer deeply.

He didn’t answer, merely shifted his stance a little, grounding himself, placing his weight back and centered. The only power he had here lay in what he chose to do, and not to do. So he would choose.

“Feeling quiet, are you?” Yonji’s words rode on a laugh, and it suddenly struck Sanji that he could hear his brother, when all other sounds were blocked out and muffled to the point of silence. How? If he was going to suffer from being blinded and deafened to the world, why couldn’t he at least find comfort in being immune to his brother’s taunts?

Because that would involve some sort of benefit to me, he thought grimly. It was some tech, of course, some Germa innovation that for the moment existed entirely to piss him off further. Just great.

“Well, if you’re not gonna talk, that’s all fine by me. You never did have much to say anyway, just crying and pleading. ‘Don’t hurt me, Yonji! Don’t hit me! I’m sorry! Save me, Father!’” The mockery, a taunting falsetto, struck home in Sanji’s gut, reawakening those old memories and bringing them to terrible life. Even if he succeeded in his intention not to respond, he could not harden himself from feeling the verbal blows.

Now Yonji launched himself forward, and Sanji stepped out of the way, turning as Yonji passed by him, remaining ready but avoiding the strike. Had to conserve his depleted energy; with nothing but bare feet, he was going to have to use Armament for every kick, to avoid simply breaking himself on Yonji’s hardened skin and raid suit armor, and that would drain him to the dregs all too quickly.

“Still not so brave, are you?” Haki couldn’t show him Yonji’s smirk, but Sanji didn’t need it to; he could feel it, hear it in that mercilessly unmuffled voice. He had seen it in his nightmares for the last thirteen years. There was no forgetting that expression. “Such a shame, all your crewmates throwing themselves away to protect such a coward. That sniper of yours, he might’ve made something of himself someday. Real potential there -- too bad I heard his neck snap when he hit the deck. Guess your captain’s gonna be in the market for a sharpshooter -- but ah, that crew’ll be in the market for a captain, too. I hear those devil-fruit types don’t swim so good.”

No. Nausea churned in Sanji’s gut. He’s lying. He has to be. Luffy isn’t- Luffy couldn’t be gone, couldn’t have fucking drowned, a fucking whimper of a death -- no, intolerable, impossible, not him, not Luffy. The doubts that had assaulted him in the cell rose up to choke him again, this time all the stronger for Yonji’s words, and all the denial screaming in his mind and heart felt too much like an affirmation. This couldn’t be (could all too easily be) the end of the Strawhat Pirates, couldn’t be (could be) the end of Luffy’s dream -- for his sake, for the foul-mouthed cook Luffy had demanded join him. The guilt of bringing Germa crashing down on Luffy and ending his dream would be too much, too heavy -- would crush Sanji where he stood. To be the cause of Luffy’s death…

Nami had dived after Luffy. She’d have gotten him back.

It had to be a lie. Had to be.

(She doesn’t have Haki, a traitorous voice whispered in his mind. She couldn’t have tracked him way I did Chopper. It could be true…)

(If Luffy had died, then he could die a thousand times over and the guilt would not be a whit repaid.)

He moved now, lashed forward -- knowing that it would not be nearly enough, knowing that this fight would be fundamentally unequal, and leaping into it anyway, lashing out with a Haki-armored foot in a dead aim for that ugly mouth, wanting nothing more than to break Yonji’s jaw, to break the flow of those ugly damned words that hurt worse than any beating possibly could.

Yonji brought his arms up to block the strike, but stumbled a few paces even so; there was satisfaction in that, at least. Weakened, hungry, with his body and his resolve battered, Sanji could still fend for himself far better than he once had. It was something. He still said nothing, deliberately so; if they were going to put him in a mask, he would damn well exploit it where he could. Yonji would have no expressions to guide him, no answers from Sanji. He would not give him the satisfaction of seeing his mockery (and please, let it be only mockery, only lies meant to wound!) hit home; it would go unanswered. Maybe he’d even believe it unheard.

A quick exchange of blows; Sanji found himself pouring more concentration into remaining upright, into trying to preserve his impassive mien, than into genuinely trying to win the fight. What benefit to him if he won? It would not give him freedom. Finally, he staggered back, a hard punch to his already-tender stomach leaving him wheezing behind the mask, gritting his teeth in an effort to dampen the sound of it, to not give that clue to his pain.

“Not so tough now, are you?” Yonji wiped away blood from a split lip and sneered. Sanji had managed to leave a mark, again, even if only a small one. Little triumphs he wished his child-self could see. “But there’s no one to be tough for, anyway. We all know what you are, here, and the shipmates you’ve fooled into taking you on -- well, half of them are dead by now, and I’m sure the rest have scattered.” His expression shifted, turning yet uglier, an animalistic leer, “It’s too bad Father wouldn’t let us take the redhead, too. What a fine piece of a-”

The crack of a blackened foot lashing across his face cut off the crudity. Whatever had happened to the crew (they’re okay, they have to be okay, he’s lying!), no one talked about Nami like that, not in front of Black-Leg Sanji! He would not tolerate it, would not accept it -- certainly not from Yonji’s hideous mouth. He pressed his attack, kicking again and again, and Yonji blocked, counterstruck, well-rested and well-fed where Sanji was neither, and there was no way this could last long, he could already feel his strength ebbing, but he wasn’t going to simply give way-

A jet-powered kick flung him most of the length of the testing chamber with the lightning-bright pop of breaking ribs, and he crouched in his landing, gasping for air, struggling to breathe instead of immediately pressing the attack, cursing himself for his weakness. He had to be better than this, stronger than this!

“Already fading without your crew around you.” Shut up. “Captain drowned, sniper dead -- oh yes, and our dear Reiju took care of your swordsman. That infamous Pirate Hunter really let himself go, joining a pirate crew. Can’t rely on anyone these days. But he’s taken care of now.”

What? No. He’s still alive. I can feel him. But Zoro had been so still, so silent, on the other end of their stretched bond...

“She got him good,” Yonji went on, stalking toward Sanji, a predator’s gliding motion, his weight perfectly balanced. Trained from childhood to be nothing more than a weapon in his father’s hand. “And Reiju, once she gets her claws in someone, it doesn’t matter how strong he is or how small the scratch, he’ll spend the rest of his short life wishing she’d simply cut his throat. You know she can recreate any poison she’s ever encountered? She collects ‘em. There’s one that dissolves your body from the inside, like a spider. Turns you to nothing more than red gooshy soup in a human-shaped bag. Or the one that dissolves your nervous system like acid. She says that one won’t let you pass out till it gets all the way to your brain stem. The whole time, you’re burning alive from the inside, and you’re awake and screaming for every second. I wonder which one she used on him -- I don’t suppose you happened to notice? Feed my curiosity, brother.

Sanji didn’t move -- couldn’t move. All he could do was turn himself inward, cling to that thin connection, that unmoving, unreactive sense that Zoro was still there. He’s lying. Now I know he’s lying. You’re not dead, not poisoned into agony, so that means the others are fine too, right? He couldn’t take any such thing for granted. All he could know, all he could be certain of, was that Zoro still lived. In what state, in what shape, and surrounded by how many remaining members of the crew… that, he could only guess, and his imagination was all too ready to paint lurid pictures across the inside of his mind, the image of a vastly-reduced crew of former Strawhats scattering, demoralized, lost without their bright guiding star of a captain…

“What’s this, defeated already? I guess there’s not much left to fight for, knowing you’ve got no crew to go back to. I hear that’s important to you pirates.” Yonji feigned a yawn, then sprang forward to strike again; this time, Sanji simply leaned out of the way, letting the blow catch only air beside his head. Didn’t bother looking up, when he could barely see anything with his eyes. Haki would tell him what he needed to know, and he was tired. Tired of Yonji’s taunts, tired of this pointless fight, just too damn tired to deal with it. Yonji was lying, had to be lying, because his soulmate wasn’t dead or dying, and if that was a lie, surely the rest of it was too, and that meant that all the noise was just to make him angry, to provoke him into fighting when it did no good.

It was, in short, a fucking game. Perhaps the whole thing was Yonji’s idea of entertainment, bringing him here where there was space to have a fight if one was to be had, but still confined and under observation, because there was to be no chance of him getting free, no chance of anything but the opportunity to take revenge for Sanji’s rampage across the Sunny. Well, he wouldn’t give him the fucking pleasure. Just crouch here in the forced focus of Observation and let Yonji attack empty space where he wasn’t, wouldn’t be. Anger could burn hot, usually did in his heart, but cold was as much a cook’s tool as heat, and this anger was best served chilled, an ice-cold rejection that condensed frost from the air and froze the tongue in its place. Masked, impassive, frozen silence was the best fuck you he could offer.

That and his soulbond were all he had.