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A Thousand Steps to Home

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It really was an accident. Sanji swears. He didn't do this to Zoro on purpose. But the damn marimo has no respect for women. And Sanji didn't know he was holding a magic, wish granting stone. So, when he yelled “I wish someone would would have taught you some manners as a kid, you shitty kelp head”, he hadn’t expected anything to happen. Certainly not Zoro to keel over and disappear inside his own clothing.

After a round of yells and one mini freak out on Chopper’s part, a tiny head pops out from within the green robe. Big black eyes blink up at them. Green hair long enough for a few bangs to hang in front of the watery eyes.

The mini-marimo looks around. His jaw trembles. “Mama?” his voice is quiet. A bare whisper of confusion and fear.

None of them move. Instead, they stare at the small boy. Unsure of what to do.

Finally, Robin creeps forward and squats down in front of the small boy.  He shrinks back. Won't look into her eyes as she smiles gently at him.

“Hello.” Her voice dances on the wind. A soft melody to soothe the fear. “I'm Robin.”

The boy’s lips move. His voice too quiet for Sanji to hear. Robin smiles gently. Holds a hand out for him to take.

“Hello, Zoro. It's nice to meet you.”

The mini-marimo cringes away from the hand. Hunkers down in his shoulders. Body tense to anticipate a hit.

Robin frowns at the response and lowers herself to sit on the ground in front of him. More at his eye level. “Do you know where you are?”

Zoro shakes his head.

“Well, that's alright. I'm sure we can figure it out together.”

A strong wind whips through the small cavern that holds the treasure. Zoro shivers. Pulls the robe up, around his naked shoulders. Robin moves to help him adjust, get warmer, and he winces again. Body frozen and tense. Ready to accept whatever punishment she’s chosen to deal out.

“Oi,” Luffy calls as Robin pulls the robe snug around Zoro’s body. “Sanji, change him back!”

Sanji blinks over at his captain. “Eh?”

“You said you wanted Zoro little.”

“I did not, you shitty captain!”

“Well, you still did this! Fix it!”

“I didn’t-"

“Boys.” Robin’s voice is firm as she stand. The small Zoro is curled in her arms. Trying to hide within his robe. Eyes wide as they move from Sanji to Luffy. “Cook-san. Perhaps, try another wish.”

Wish Zoro back to normal.

Sanji’s eyes land on the mini-marimo. Zoro shrinks away from the glare. Eyes watery, though tears refuse to fall.

“I wish the shitty marimo was back to normal.”

Nothing happens. Zoro remains little.

Luffy frowns and bounds over to look at the small bundle in Robin’s arm. Zoro seems torn on what to do. He inches back, away from Luffy, but then seems to realize the action brings him closer to Robin’s chest and leans back out again.

“You're supposed to get bigger,” Luffy tells his little first mate.

“Sorry,” Zoro whispers.

Luffy sighs. “Its fine. Robin will fix it. Right?” His gaze lifts to Robin.

“Hai. Of course Sencho. Cook-san, bring that stone with us.”

“Yosh!” Luffy shouts. “Let's go!”

Robin keeps a firm hold on Zoro as they trek back towards Sunny. Wide, black eyes stare at Brook and Chopper. Glimmers of confusion and fear. But his teeth sink into his bottom lip, as though to keep himself from saying anything.

After a moment, he glances up at Robin and leans close to her. Again, Sanji can’t hear what he asks, but her eyes are sad as she looks down at him.

“I'm not sure, Zoro. But we’ll try to help you find her, alright?”

Zoro shakes his head. Whispers to Robin again. Her frown deepens as a proud but broken smile crosses Zoro’s lips.

Robin’s arms tightly slightly. Pulls Zoro closer to her.

 

Robin and Nami leave Zoro with Sanji when they go into town to get the small boy clothes and information. Even Chopper’s clothes are too big on the deaged Zoro. The boy is tiny. Shockingly tiny. He looks about two. But according to Robin, he’s four. Sanji finds that difficult to believe.

Zoro sits on the chair, as directed, watching Sanji silently.

Franky’s down working on something in the shop. The sight of Brook scared Zoro so badly the young boy almost cried and the other three were in no way responsible enough to handle a child. They could barely handle themselves.

Sanji glances over his shoulder at the boy. Expects to see him sleeping. Or sneaking off. Like all children do. Instead, each time, he finds Zoro sitting, still and silent.

There's something unnerving about it all.

Sanji’s just about to put lunch in the oven, to sit for twenty minutes when there's a soft tug in his pant leg. Zoro stands next to him. Shoulders hunched around him. Lips move. Sanji knows he's speaking, but the tiny marimo’s voice is so quiet he can’t make out words. Only the soft rumble of noise.

“Speak up, marimo,” Sanji orders.

Regrets it. He knows he should speak softly. This boy is quiet. Obedient. Afraid. And there's a reason for that. Sanji knows there's a reason for it. And yet, he still snaps at the boy as though he's full grown. It's pure habit. His brain can’t separate Zoro’s name from the growling lump of sea algae.

Zoro jumps slightly at the rough tone. Mumbles what must have been an apology before he scuttles back to his chair and stares at the floor again.

Sanji sighs. Tries onto keep his annoyance to a minimum. Slamming things around in a temper tantrum won't do any good. Once lunch is in the oven and Sanji remembers how to make a neutral face, he approach Zoro. Slow and deliberate. Gaze still on the ground, Zoro sinks back in his chair. Doesn't life his chin as Sanji squats down in front of him.

“I'm sorry I was grumpy,” Sanji tells him. “I'm not angry. What did you need, Zoro?”

His little green head shakes from side to side. A dismissive refusal to acknowledge that he needed anything. But he fidgets in his seat. Desperate to move. To go somewhere.

“Zoro.” Sanji hated himself for it but he puts authority behind his tone. Kids like Zoro - like Sanji - often answer questions best when ordered to. Even if it's a terrible habit to keep them in.

Zoro’s shoulders hunch a little more. “Bathroom, please.” His voice a mumble. So soft and unassuming that Sanji almost misses it.

“Yosh. Come on.”

He expects Zoro to hold his arms out to be picked up, as most small children do. Especially when they don’t know where they're going. But Zoro slides out of his seat and waits patiently at Sanji’s side. Doesn't rush ahead. Doesn't move until Sanji does. Half a step behind him at all times.

Even when Sanji opens the kitchen door, he has to usher the small boy out, onto the deck. Zoro moves slowly. Steps hesitant. He winces under the sun, as though the bright heat is too much.

Usopp knocks into him. Sends both of them tumbling to the hard deck, far too engrossed in his game of tag to notice the small boy. Sanji winces as they hit the ground, Usopp landing partially on the small boy before he scrambles off.

“Shit,” Usopp cries. Rushes to turn around to look at Zoro as the mini marimo pushes himself to his feet again. “Shit, Zoro.”

Usopp’s voice is soft. Full of concern. But Zoro scrambles away from him quickly, his whispered apology floating in the air. Terror trembling through every inch of his body as he hides behind Sanji’s leg. Grips his pant leg in a white knuckled grip.

“Oi,” Sanji snaps, gaze locked firmly on the stuttering sniper. Against every logical part of his brain, Sanji puts protective hand atop Zoro’s head. Ignores the way the boy flinches. “Watch where you’re going, shit-head. You could have hurt him.”

Usopp glares back. “It’s not like I meant it.” His gaze turns to Zoro again, eyes softening. “I’m sorry, Zoro, I didn’t see you.”

Zoro buries his face in Sanji’s pant leg again. Lets out a soft mumble that sounded suspiciously like “not sorry. My fault.”

Sanji’s fingers stroke through Zoro’s soft hair. The boy winces again, but makes no protest to the movement.  “Come on, Little Marimo,” Sanji soothes softly. “The bathroom’s this way.”

Zoro nods against his leg but makes no move to pull away. Biting back a sigh, and throwing a quick glare at Usopp, Sanji dips down at pulls Zoro into his arms. Tension the small boy for a moment. His spine snapping straight, knees bending slightly - as though to catch his weight from a fall. But he relaxes once Sanji begins walking. He peeks back at Usopp, chin resting on Sanji’s shoulder. After a moment, Zoro turns again, buries his nose in Sanji’s collar bone.

This time, Sanji can’t hold in his sigh as he rubs Zoro’s back. “Oi, oi,” he whispers.

Soft tones, he knows. Children like Zoro respond best to soft tones. That’s why Sanji alway felt safest with his mother.

“What’s wrong, Little Marimo?”

Zoro doesn’t reply. Though, Sanji didn’t expect him to. He does, however, snuggle a bit closer to Sanji, which is unexpected.

 

Nami and Robin arrive some hours later, arms full of books and bags full of clothing. Zoro - who hasn't moved from Sanji’s lap since the Usopp incident - goes to Nami’s arms with only slight hesitation and no complaints. He trembles in her arms. Glances back at Sanji with questioning eyes.

What's she going to do to me? those eyes ask him.

“Nami-san,” Sanji calls before he can stop himself.

She stops and turns. Zoro’s wide eyes linger on him, silent but desperate pleas seeping from him.

“You and Robin-chan must be exhausted from you trip into town.” He stands and holds out his arms. Zoro lunges to him. Practically tumbles out of Nami’s arms in his haste to get to Sanji. “I'll get him settled into some new clothes. You two should relax. Lunch will be done soon.”

“Are you sure, Sanji-kun?” Nami’s brow furrows. “You deserve a break too. I'm sure Zoro was a terror.”

The mini marimo presses himself into Sanji’s chest with a small tremble. Sanji hefts Zoro up as he begins to slide down. Gives him a soft, reassuring squeeze.

“On the contrary, Nami-san. He was an angel.” He takes the bag of new clothes from her grip and looks down at Zoro’s head. “Come in, little marimo. Let's get you into something more comfortable.”

Zoro peeks up to give him nervous nod. Sanji gives him a soft, encouraging smile as he carries the boy toward the bunk room.

“Don’t look so scared,” Sanji tells him. “Nami-san has excellent taste. You'll be the most stylish marimo I know.”

The ghost of a smile flickers over Zoro’s lips, though he ducks his head into Sanji’s chest again before it can take full form.

Changing Zoro into a pair of black pants and a white shirt takes no effort. He puts up no protest and allows Sanji to manipulate his limbs as needed. Sanji praises him as he slips Zoro into the black boots the ladies had picked out for him. All he needed was a haramaki and three little swords and he’d be a spitting image of his nineteen-year-old self. A quick peek inside the second bag showed him a long green kimono. Sanji can’t help but smile as he moves onto Zoro’s left foot, sliding the boot onto his foot. Something to hopefully make him comfortable. To make the crew comfortable. Zoro looking a little more like Zoro.

“I can.” Zoro’s voice takes him by surprise. Still quiet, yet a little stronger than it has been all day.

Sanji freezes, fingers holding Zoro’s boot laces. “Oh?”

Zoro nods. A soft pride takes his face. “Mama says it's the only thing I do right.”

Sanji’s smile dims. “Well, I'm sure that's not true.”

“Is.” Zoro picks up the boot laces and begins to tie them. “I can get lost too.” For the first time, little Zoro gives him a proud smile. “Mama likes it when I get lost. I'm real good at it.”

“O-oh,” Sanji stutters. Not sure what else to say.

“All done.” Zoro presents his boots. An eager look on his face. “Did I do good?”

“Yeah.” Sanji clears his throat. “Yeah. You did great, Zoro.”

Zoro beams. “You think she'll think I did good too?”

“She?” Sanji echoes.

Zoro nods. “The redhead lady.” His excitement fades. Shoulders hunch around him. “She’s scary.”

“Nami-san?”

Zoro nods.

“Nami-san isn’t scary,” Sanji protests. His voice maybe a smidge too loud.

Zoro scoots lower in his seat, eyes wide. His lips press together. Sanji squeezed his eyes shut and silently cursed himself.

“Oi, I didn’t mean to get so loud, Zoro. You aren’t in any trouble, okay?”

“Wari.” They're back to that almost inaudible whisper.

“You don’t need to be sorry. You weren't trying to hurt feelings.”

“Wari.”

So, they aren't getting anywhere with this attempt at conversation. Time to switch tactics.

“Why do you think Nami-san is scary?”

“She’s not.”

“You said you thought she was.”

“She’s not.” Zoro’s voice trembles.

Sanji sighs and nods to himself. “Alright, little marimo. Let’s get up for lunch, alright?”

He holds out his arms but Zoro doesn’t lunge for him. Instead, he slips out of his chair and stands silently.

Sanji has a lot of work to do.

 

The table is loud and rowdy as ever. Not that Sanji expected any less. Luffy steals food. Usopp hollers. Chopper giggles. Brook sings. Nami yells. Franky hoots. Robin laughs. Sanji refrains from kicking any shipmates in the face. And Zoro cowers.

He winces with every shout. Stays low in his seat between Sanji and Luffy with his head ducked. He doesn't touch his full plate. Miraculously untouched by their captain’s grabby hands. The rest of the crew leave the little marimo alone, apart from a handful of strange glances.

“Zoro,” Nami finally says, voice firm. “Sanji-kun went to a lot of work to make us lunch. It's rude not to eat it.”

Zoro nods and picks up his fork, shoulders hunched around him. With a sigh, Sanji brushes a hand over Zoro’s hair. He flinches more violently this time. It stings Sanji’s heart a little bit. He thought maybe he was building a trust with the small boy. But, apparently, their conversation about Nami had ruined that.

A fork flies through the air. Aimed for Luffy after the captain took stole Usopp's biscuit. As always, the sniper's aim is dead on. But Luffy's arm snaps out of the way at the last second. The fork lands, tongs stuck into the wood, just half an inch from Zoro's hand.

The little marimo gasps in shock. Drops his own fork. Then, before anything else can be said, he jumps from his chair and dives to hide behind the island with a small whimper.

Silence reigns over the table for a moment before Usopp lets out a soft “o-oi”.

“Baka,” Sanji snarls at the sniper.

“I didn’t mean to!” Usopp protests.

Sanji ignores him and pushes away from the table as Luffy bounds over the cowering Zoro.

“Oi, oi,” Luffy says, voice surprisingly soft as Zoro scurries a little further back. “Zoro needs to come eat.”

Zoro shakes his head, mutters words that even Luffy must not be able to hear. The captain frowns.

“Zoro’s too quiet when he’s little,” the captain whines as he turns to Robin. “Turn him big again!”

“We're working on it, Luffy,” Nami tells him shortly.

“Get back to the table, you shitty captain,” Sanji orders, tugging in the back of Luffy's vest.

The captain frowns but seems to take Sanji's word for it and scampers back to his seat. Sanji squats down to the ground, eye level with the mini marimo.

“It's alright, Zoro,” he tells the young boy. “Usopp wasn’t trying to hit you.”

Watery black eyes peek up at him. Sanji offers him open arms, the same as he had with Nami. The boy hesitates for a minute. Weighs the pros and cons, Sanji's offer. Then, slowly, he moves into Sanji's arms again. Buries his nose in Sanji's collarbone and curls against him tightly.

“It's alright, little marimo,” Sanji tells him. “You're safe with me. Let's eat some lunch.”

He settles in his seat again and pulls Zoro's plate in front of him. Zoro keeps himself pressed to Sanji's chest, hidden from the quiet table.

“No more throwing silverware,” Sanji says firmly. “Or I'll kick your ass.”

 

Zoro sticks close to Sanji for the rest of the day. Sits in a chair while he cleans the kitchen. Stays a step behind him as he brings the ladies their drinks.

“Zoro,” Sanji sighs when he nearly trips over the young boy. It takes all of his strength not to snap at the suddenly cowering child in front of him. “Why don't you go play with Luffy?”

Black eyes move to the captain, playing tag with Usopp and Chopper. Then he shakes his head and grips onto Sanji's pant leg.

“You,” the little boy whispers.

Sanji wishes the damn kid wasn’t so cute. “Yosh, yosh,” he says, laying a hand atop Zoro's head. “You can stay with me. But you have to help.”

Zoro nods.

 

Nami warns of a storm at dinner. The night meal far less rowdy than lunch had been. Zoro remains on Sanji's lap for the duration. Only picks at his food when prompted by Sanji or Nami.

Dark clouds roll in as they wander to bed, eclipsing the moon. Sanji settles Zoro in his bunk before he returns to the deck for the first shift. Nami, as always, proves to be correct. The winds pick up. Waves slam Sunny around. Sanji is soaked on the walk from the Crow's Nest to the bunk after Usopp relieves him.

His bunk is warm and inviting. It welcomes him with open arms and of Sanji had his way he’d never leave it. Sleep teeters at the edge of Sanji's mind as he hunkers down in the warm blankets. Almost there. Almost.

Then, a thud. A gasp of surprise.

He forces his eyes open and squints around the darkness. A small figure pops up in the dark, unsteady on his feet as he tries to reaches up to his bunk again. The mini marimo can't reach. Still far too small to hope to curl up in a warm bed.

Biting back a sigh, Sanji forces himself up. Zoro topples over as another waves rocks the Sunny. Lands hard on his butt, silent as ever.

Sanji scoops up the shivering boy without hesitation. Zoro gasps softly and looks up at him, wide eyed.

“Just me, Little Marimo,” Sanji says as he carries Zoro back to his bunk. “The waves are rough tonight. You can sleep with me.”

Zoro makes no protest. He snuggles close when Sanji settles them into the bunk, curled close under the warm blankets.

“Sanji-san?”

Sanji's eyes snap open at his name, spoken in that soft, hesitant voice. A silent request to speak further. “Hai, Little Marimo.”

“I'm sorry.”

“For what?”

Silence fills the air for only a moment before Zoro admits, “dunno.”

“If you don't know what your apologizing for, why are you apologizing?’

“Mama likes it when I say sorry,” Zoro yawns. ‘Want you to like me too.”

Sanji's breath catches in his throat. His heart might actually break. The Zoro he knows is a full grown oaf. A man who couldn't care one way or another if anyone liked him. But this Zoro, this tiny child curled up at his side, wants only for someone to like him.

“I like you just fine without apologizes,” Sanji tells him softly.

Zoro's hand tightens around his shirt. “I-I want them to like me too.”

The crew, Sanji realizes.

“They like you,” he assures the small boy.

“They yell a lot.”

“Hai. They're always like that.”

“Nami-san too?”

Sanji blinks down at him. “Nami-san?”

It always seems to come back to Nami. Will she like that Zoro can tie his shoes? She's scary. Does she like Zoro? Does she always yell a lot?

Zoro hums his confirmation.

“Nami-san yells at Sencho a lot.” He pauses for a moment and runs a hand through Zoro's hair. “Is that why you think she’s scary?”

Zoro nods against him. “Mama yells a lot too,” he whispers, a shudder moving through his small body. “I tried to be good. I help her pick up and carry stuff and cook. But, I guess I do it wrong. I can’t do anything right.”

“That's not true,” Sanji tells him. “You helped me a lot today.”

“You think I did good?”

“Hai. You did amazing.”

Even in the darkness, Sanji can see Zoro beam.

“Sanji-san?”

“Hai, Little Marimo?”

“Do you think I can stay here with you? Does Luffy-san like me enough?”

“I think he likes you more than enough to let you stay, Zoro.”

Zoro snuggles a little closer. “I'm gonna be really good. I promise. I'll make Nami-san like me too.”

Sanji squeezes him, a soft reassuring notion. “She likes you just fine, Zoro. Get some sleep.”

 

“Six months!” Usopp screeches.

Zoro huddles into Sanji’s lap, displeased with the sniper’s loud voice. Sanji sets a hand on Zoro’s head. Smiles when the boy relaxes rather than flinches.

“Don't yell at Robin-chan, shithead,” Sanji orders firmly.

Robin presses on, unperturbed. “Hai. According to the books, the wish reverts in six months, unless Cook-san uses the stone to make it permanent.”

“So, it’s basically a test run of your wish,” Nami says.

Robin nods.

“Sanji can’t make it permanent,” Luffy says, waving his fork in a poor attempt to be threatening. “I want my swordsman back.”

“Hai, hai, Sencho.” Sanji hands Zoro his fork.

The little marimo takes it hesitantly. Glances around the table before he shovels the food into his mouth.

“Oi, oi,” Sanji whispers as the rest of the crew return to the subject at hand. He takes Zoro's arm, gently. “Don't eat so fast, Little Marimo. You'll make yourself sick.”

“It’ll disappear,” Zoro mumbles back.

“No one's to take your food, Zoro,” Sanji assures him. “Eat slower, alright?”

Zoro continues to eat faster than Sanji would like, but slower than he had been before. So, Sanji lets it slide.

 

“Zoro's taken quite the shine to you, Sanji-kun,” Nami observes as they watch Chopper push Zoro on Sunny’s swing.

The first time Chopper wandered over to them, Zoro curled against Sanji and peeked out at the reindeer with wide, fearful eyes. But, the more time  Chopper spent coming over the them, the calmer Zoro became.

After a week, their small doctor showed Zoro his different forms and Zoro willingly left Sanji's side for the first time since he’d become small.

“Hai,” Sanji agrees, setting her drink down and smiling at the giggling boy.

“I can’t believe that such a quiet, polite boy turns into Zoro ,” Nami sighs.

I can , Sanji thinks.

Children like Zoro will do anything to protect themselves.

 

“Sanji-san.” Zoro tugs nervously at his pant leg.

“Hai, Little Marimo?”

“Do I have to go into town with Nami-san?”

Sanji sighs and dries his hands. Even after three months, after warming up to most of the rest of the crew, Zoro still can’t seem to relax around Nami. He squats down in front of the small boy and places a hand on his head.

“Hai, Zoro. You need new clothes.”

“Can't you take me?” Fear swims in Zoro's eyes. “Or Luffy-san? Or Robin-san?”

They could. None of them are busy. But Nami asked to take Zoro. She wants the small boy to like her too. Something simple, a shopping trip and lunch, just the two of them, should help. But guilt still pours through Sanji.

“No, Zoro, I'm sorry. You have to go with Nami-san.” He ruffles Zoro's hair and smiles. “You're going to have lots of fun, Zoro. I promise.”

 

“Luffy! Sanji-kun!” Nami's shout carries through Sunny's board and reverberates in Sanji's bones.

Fear seizes his chest and he shoves Usopp out of the way to make it onto deck. Nami scrambles on board, face stained with tears.

“Nami-san?” He rushes towards her. Tries to keep himself calm in the sickening realization that Zoro isn’t with her.

“I lost Zoro,” she sobs. “I only turned my back for a second, Sanji-kun. I-”

Sanji flies over Sunny's railing and towards the town before she can finish. He can apologize for interrupting her later. Now, he has to find Zoro. Anything could happen to such a small child, unattended in the town.

Sanji feels sick at the thought.

He never should have let someone else take Zoro. He should have gone with him when the small bo asked.

 

The sun sinks low in the sky and Sanji's in the forest outside the village when Chopper gallops up, rambling about finding Zoro on the other side of the island.

“Chopper,” Sanji interrupts. “Where is Zoro now?”

Nothing else matters. Not where they found him. Not how he got there. As long as the crew have him, Sanji can breathe.

“Usopp's bringing him back to Sunny.”

Sanji breathes.

 

“What the hell is wrong with you? Baka!”

Nami-sun's shouts carry across the decks. Sanji quickens his strides. Zoro is already terrified of Nami. Screaming at him can only make it worse. He clambers on board. Zoro cowers before Nami while Usopp and Franky try to calm her down. Robin, Brook, and Luffy are nowhere in sight. Probably still off looking for their lost boy.

“All I told you to do was stay put,” Nami rants. “You only had to do one thing!”

Zoro doesn’t speak. Doesn’t look up at her. Just trembles. Fist tucked into his mouth.

“Nami-san.”

Her name hasn't even left Sanji's lips fully when her hand cracks across Zoro's cheek. The small boy hits Sunny's deck with a cry and he curls around himself with little more than a stifled sob.

“Nami!” Usopp shouts in protest.

“If you ever do that again!”

“Nami-san!” Sanji shoots forward. Places himself between her and Zoro and scoops the sobbing boy into his arm. “Shh, Zoro. I've got you. Shh.”

“I'm sorry,” Zoro sobs. Clings to him. “I'm sorry.”

Warm wet pressed through Sanji's shirt and he’s not sure exactly what Zoro’s apologizing for, but he knows that Zoro’s is absolutely terrified.

“Sanji-kun.” Nami bites his name out, still seething.

Sanji stands, Zoro tucked against his chest, face hidden in his collarbone and turns to level Nami with a glare. She blinks at him in surprise and takes half a step back.

The deck falls silent, a part from Zoro’s sobs.

“Usopp,” Sanji says, turning his gaze to the sniper. “Run into town and get Zoro some fresh clothes. We're going for a bath.”

He turns without another word.

“Sanji-kun!” Nami calls again. “I'm not done with him.”

“You are, Nami-san,” he replies without turning back around.

He turns on the tub water once they make it up to the bathroom and then settles on the floor to let Zoro calm down. Once the boy's grip loosens, he carefully strips off their soiled clothing.

“I'm sorry,” Zoro hiccups. “I'm sorry.”

“You're alright, Zoro,” Sanji soothes. Because if he’s apologizing for disappearing on Nami, that isn’t alright. But they can talk about that later. Now, an endless flow of tears falls down Zoro's cheeks. One cheek far brighter red than the other, the imprint of Nami's hand clear against his skin.

Zoro clings to him once again as Sanji turns on the shower spray and washes the dirt from them both. Leaves and twigs stick out against Zoro's mossy hair. If it wasn’t for the seriousness of the situation, Sanji may have laughed.

“There.” Sanji settles them in the warm bathwater as Zoro's tears begin to subside. “Let me see your cheek, Little Marimo.”

He'll definitely have a bruise tomorrow. Sanji’s gaze racks over the rest of Zoro's body. A large bruise forms on his small torso, over his ribs. Frowning, Sanji’s fingers brush over the small mark.

“What happen there, Zoro?”

Sniffling, Zoro rubs his eyes. “Fell down. Sorry.”

With a sigh, Sanji runs a hand through the sniffling boy's hair. “What were you apologizing for, Zoro?”

Because he needs to know. Needs to know if Zoro understands what he did wrong.

“I don’t know.” Zoro collapses into tears again. “I'm sorry.”

Sanji sighs and let's him cry himself calm again.

“Why did you leave Nami-san's side?”

“I want her to like me,” Zoro whispers.

Sanji furrows his brow. “I don’t understand.”

“Mama likes me best when I leave her alone.” More tears trace down Zoro's face. “Everybody likes me best when I leave them alone. Mama says.” He shudders. “Mama says if I got lost forever, she’d love me. I want - I wanted Nami-san to like me too! But they brought me back and now I'm not lost and now she ha-hates me.”

God, Sanji wishes this kid would stop breaking his fucking heart. “Nami-san doesn't hate you.” He hugs Zoro close again as the boy dissolves into fresh tears. “No one hates you, Zoro.”

“I wanna get lost,” Zoro sobs. “I wanna get lost.”

The tears continue for well over an hour. Luffy appears with clothes just as Zoro's starting to calm down. The captain sits at the edge of the tub as Zoro sniffled and places a hand on Zoro's head.

“Nami will never hit Zoro again,” Luffy says firmly.

His eyes burn with such passion, such anger that Sanji realizes that Luffy knows. Maybe Luffy has always known. It wouldn't surprise him  

“But, I want Zoro to promise me to never wander off like that again. We were scared. Really scared.”

Zoro peeks up at him, eyes watery and wide with confusion. “Why?” he asks, voice hoarse from sobbing.

“Because Zoro's nakama. We love him. And we always will. Okay?”

Tears spill down Zoro's cheeks. But he nods.

“Does Zoro promise to never wander off again? A promise is really important. You can never break it.”

“Will you send me away?” Zoro asks in a small voice.

“I promise to never send Zoro away.”

“I-I promise not to go anywhere alone.”

Luffy beams and ruffles Zoro's hair. “Yosh.”

The matter settles itself out with simplicity only Luffy can bring. Sanji dries them off and dresses Zoro in fresh clothes once the captain leaves.

“Zoro, when we go downstairs, you need to apologize for scaring Nami-san, alright?”

The young boy's eyes water dangerously. “Will you come me?”

Sanji nods. “Hai. And remember what Sencho said. No one is going to hit you.”

Zoro clings to Sanji's hand as they make their way back downstairs. With a quick glance at Sanji, Chopper trots over to them.

“Zoro,” the doctor asks softly. “Are you hurt anywhere?”

Zoro shakes his head. “No, Chopper-san.”

Sanji frowns down at him. “We're going to come see you in a few minutes, Chopper. We've got to stop in an see Nami-san. Do you know where she is?”

Chooper glances nervously between them. “Hai. She and Robin went into her charting room.”

“Yosh. Zoro and I will come meet you in the infirmary in  a few minutes.”

Chopper nods and disappears into the infirmary.

Sanji scoops Zoro into his arms.

“You shouldn't lie to the doctor, Little Marimo,” Sanji says. “We should tell him about that bruise of yours.”

“Doesn’t hurt,” Zoro mumbles.

“We're still going to have him look.”

Luffy smiles at them as he bounds past, pausing long enough to place his hat on Zoro's head. Zoro blinks up at him in surprise as he hops by, Usopp hot on his heels.

Sanji pauses outside the door to Nami's charting room and knocks. After a few seconds, feet shuffle across the floor and the door opens to reveal Robin. She smiles gently at them as Sanji steps into the room, Zoro curled against him.

“I'm going to step out for a moment,” Robin says. “Excuse me.”

Nami's eyes are rimmed red from crying but her eyes are dry of tears. Zoro presses himself close to Sanji as they cross the room and Sanji sits on the floor.

“Nami-san,” Sanji says softly. Tries to pretend he doesn't realize how miserable she looks. “Zoro wants to tell you something.”

One hand still clenched around Sanji's shirt, the small boy wobbles up to his feet. He trembles slightly as he looks up at Nami.

“I'm sorry,’ he whispers. “I didn’t want to scare you.”

Nami shifts and Zoro gives back for the protection of Sanji's lap. Tears swim in Nami's eyes again.

“I'm sorry I hit you.” Her voice wavers. “You just scared me so much. I won't do it again, Zoro. I promise.”

Zoro's tense body tells Sanji he doesn't believe her promise the way he believed Luffy's.

“You don’t teach children by hitting them, Nami-san,” Sanji tells her softly. “He wasn’t trying to scare you.”

“I know that,” she says, arms around herself in a hug. “But I told him to stay put.”

“He’s four, Nami-san. Whether you told him to stay put or not, you shouldn't take your eyes off of him.” Zoro peeks out at them from beneath Sanji's arms. “He should have stayed but you should have kept a closer eye on him. What if he hadn't wandered off? What if someone had snagged him while you weren't looking?”

She wipes her eyes. “I know. I'm so sorry, Zoro. I shouldn't have hit you.”

Zoro sits himself up a little. His nervous, dark eyes move up to Sanji for a moment before he swallows. “N-Nami-san?”

“Hai?”

“I want you to like me,” Zoro says. His voice barely a whisper. “What do I gotta do?”

Sanji swears he sees Nami's heart break into pieces. “Oh, Zoro. I do like you.”

“You do?”

“Of course, Zoro. You're my nakama.”

He blinks up at her for a moment before he shrinks back a little in Sanji's arms. “I don’t like it when you yell,” he whispers. “It's scary.”

Nami sniffles and nods. “Okay,” she says softly. “Okay. I'll try to stop yelling. Is there anything else i do to scare you?”

Zoro’s fingers move to his cheek.

Nami nods at the wordless explanation. “I will never do that again, Zoro. I promise.”

“Luffy-san says you can’t ever break a promise.”

“That's right.” Nami says. “Once you make a promise, you have to always keep it.”

 

Even after his talk with Nami, Zoro continues to cling close to Sanji. He goes with Luffy a few times, but overall, he stays in the cook’s space. After a few weeks, things fall closer into normal. Nami remains a sore spot. Zoro doesn't like to be alone with her and none of the crew push the issue.

Nightmares become a more regular thing than Sanji would like them to be. But Zoro falls back to sleep easily enough once Sanji pulls him into his own bed to cuddle. On the rare occasion that his nightmare keeps him awake longer than an hour, Luffy appears mysteriously to place his hat on Zoro's head and urge them up to the library. In the dim light of candles and Sanji reading one of the children's books Robin picked up, Zoro falls back to sleep, strawhat over his eyes.

It takes almost a month to make it back to where they were. Zoro will play with Chopper while Sanji cooks and read with Robin before bedtime.

A normal routine falls slowly back into place.

 

“You ready to go, Little Marimo?” Sanji asks, ruffling Zoro's hair.

The small boy stands at the edge of the ship, rocking on his toes. His eyes move across the deck, the girls sunbathing, Luffy, Usoop and Chopper running around Brook while he plays his violin and Franky tinkers away.

“Sanji-san?” Zoro glances up at him, uncertainty clear in his eyes. “Do-do you think Nami-san might wanna come too?”

Sanji blinks down at him in surprise. “You want Nami-san to come?”

“Hai. I think. I think I make her sad,” he admits in a sad voice. “I don’t mean to, Sanji-san. But, she’s still kind of scary.” He hunkers down in his shoulders. “But, I don't want her to be sad.”

Sanji gives Zoro a soft smile. “I'm sure she'd be happy to come with us, Zoro. I'll go ask her, alright?”

“Wait.” Zoro grabs his pant leg. “I can. I can ask her.”

Sanji blinks down at him. “Oh?”

“I think that'll make her happy.”

Smiling, Sanji ruffles his hair. “Alright, go on.”

Zoro cross the deck, slowly. Hesitantly. But he crosses the deck himself. Speaks to Nami without Sanji by his side.

The marimo's bravery starts to peek through.

 

“Sanji-san.”

It’s dark when Zoro tugs on Sanji's arm. Sanji forces his eyes open and squints down at the small boy.

“What's wrong, Little Marimo?” Sanji asks around a yawn. “Did you have a bad dream?”

“My tummy hurts.”

“Oh?” Sanji feels suddenly more awake. He sits himself up and pulls Zoro onto the bed with him. Zoro's skin warms him, more so than normal. “You do feel warm.”

Zoro snuggles a little closer to him. “You're warm.”

Sanji pulls the blankets up around them and tucks Zoro into the chest. “Try to get some sleep, Little Marimo. We'll see Chopper in the morning.”

Zoro snuggles closer.

 

Zoro's upset stomach and slight fever continue well into the day. Sanji tucks him into his bunk and leaves him to sleep under Chopper's suggestion. Zoro is surprisingly whiney about the whole thing. He clings to Sanji. Cries when Sanji tucks him in and tries to leave.

“My tummy hurts,” Zoro tells him and over again.

“Hai, Zoro. I know. I know,” Sanji sighs, detangling himself from Zoro's hands. “That's why you need to get some sleep. Lay back down.”

“No!” Zoro screeches. His voice reaches an unbelievably high pitch. “No! Stay!”

The small boy latches into him again. Curled against on Sanji's lap and clutches his suit coat. Sanji sighs, but allows the young boy to stay on his lap, unsure of what else to do. For the first time in six months, Zoro is throwing a temper tantrum. Perhaps it's because he’s finally accepted that he’s safe to do so.

“Yosh, yosh,” Sanji sighs. He shifts them under the blankets. “Let's go to sleep, Little Marimo.”

Zoro falls asleep rather quickly. Curled against Sanji with a still burning fever. Sanji waits an hour before he slips out of the bed and back upstairs.

“You were down there a long time, Sanji-kun,” Nami says as he reappears, brow creased in concern. “Is Zoro alright?”

“Nami-san is so sweet to worry about the little marimo.” Sanji smiles at her. “He just wanted some company while he fell asleep.”

The rest of the day goes relatively normally, though Sanji does find himself short an eager assistant for the day. Zoro sleeps soundly below deck and Chopper sneaks down to check on him several times before they settled down for lunch.

Allowing the young boy to sleep though lunch is Sanji's most difficult challenge yet. But Chopper insists Zoro needs sleep more than anything else, so he allows it.

“I think it's just a minor cold,” Chopper tells them as Sanji begins to clean up the table. “With some sleep he should be fi-”

“Ooooi!” Franky's shout carries. “Marines!”

The crew jump to their feet in unison. All talk of the sick boy below their feet vanishes as boots thunder onto their decks. A surprising excitement rushes through Sanji. It's been months since he’s had a good fight.

Sanji loves the Little Marimo, he does. Over the six months, he’s become so attached to the young boy that he knows he'll be lost without him. And yet, Sanji misses Zoro. Grown, annoying Zoro. Misses the smart mouth. The brutish behavior. Misses the fights.

Zoro's always been fun. Even if he is annoying. The marimo has been there to help him blow off steam. To distract the crew. To do so much.

This fight with the Marines is exactly what he needs.

They dive into the fray without hesitation or remorse. Bones crack. People scream and shout. Luffy’s laughter dances on the wind. These Marines aren't quite on their level, but there is an overwhelming number of them.

Sanji actually breaks a sweat.

“Sanji-kun!” Nami's cry from across the ship draws his attention. Her finger jabbing toward the door downstairs.

Sanji spins. Heart jumps into his throat as several Marines throw open the door to rush downstairs.

Zoro.

Little, baby Zoro sleeping with a fever downstairs.

Fire lights his leg as he slams it into the Marines in his way. He can’t let then get down there. If they realize who Zoro is, they'll either take him or kill him.

Sanji will die before he lets that happen.

Marines fly out of his way. Shout and scream. More leap to meet him in battle but Sanji ignores them. The others can take care of them on their own. The little marimo below can’t.

Something hard slams into Sanji’s side. His cigarette drops from his lips as he struggles to regain his footing. A giant Marine snickers. Bat in hand. A bruise forms on Sanji’s side. Ribs protect widely. But he can’t let this phase him. He has to protect Zoro.

The Marine swings at him. Sanji jumps out of the way, misses the bat but the Marine's hand wraps around Sanji's ankle and slams him back to the ground. Sunny's boards groan beneath him. Sanji's breath leaves his lungs. He’s left gasping for breathe.

The bat raises again. Aimed straight for his chest. Then, the bat is gone. The Marine's entire hand is gone. Blood swings on the air.

Zoro lowers his blade. Fully grown Zoro. Dressed in his kimono. Clutching all three swords.

“Tch,” the swordsman scoffs. “Did the kid make you soft, Shit Cook?”

Sanji's blood freezes. Shock and confusion fill him. Zoro. Full grown Zoro. Scar in his chest and eye. Zoro speaking to him in a deep growl. Full sentences.

Behind them, Luffy cheers wildly. The others join in the cheers.

Sanji can’t. He didn't even get to say goodbye.

 

Zoro dispatches most of the Marines in the blink of an eye. The swordsman stretches and groans. Complains about sore limbs.

Chopper insists on giving Zoro an immediate checkup. Zoro insists on some sake.

Sanji feels a headache coming on.

“Do you remember a lot, swordsman-san?” Robin asks as Zoro takes a long gulp of his drink, straight from the bottle.

Uncultured swine.

“Enough,” Zoro replies.

A short, firm answer that tells Sanji that Zoro remembers a lot but has no interest in talking about his younger self. The rest of the crew must realize it too because they begin to file out, one by one.

“You look healthy.” Chopper beams. “I was worried you’d be sick like little you was.”

Zoro gives the small doctor a weak smile and puts a hand on his head. “You must have fixed him.”

The small doctor dances out of the room. Luffy grins at his swordsman before he stands to follow the doctor.

“I'm glad Zoro's back. He’s too quiet when he’s little.”

Zoro smiles back at him. “Glad to be back, Sencho.”

Luffy vanishes. Leaves Sanji to smoke awkwardly against the counter while Zoro stares down at his sake bottle in silence.

“Thank you.”

The marimo's voice is surprisingly quiet. Almost hesitant. His dark eyes stare up at Sanji.

No malice. No competition. Just peace. Appreciation.

“For what?” Sanji treated him the same as he’d treat anyone in that position.

“You protected me from Nami.” Suddenly, Zoro looks young again. Uncomfortable. Unsure. Hunkers his shoulders around him in a familiar gesture. “Thank you.”

Sanji stares back at him for a long moment. Realization settles over him. Even as an adult, Nami makes Zoro uncertain. Uncomfortable.

Children like Zoro will do anything to protect themselves. Convincing himself he didn't like Nami, arguing with her at every turn was Zoro's way of protecting himself.

Sanji nods. “Hai. Of course.”

They both fall silent again. Sanji watches Zoro move the bottle from hand to hand. Questions run through his mind. Little Zoro had seemed upset to he away from his mother. Meaning he hadn't planned on waking up away from her. So, how the little marimo got separated from his mother weighs heavily on his mind.

And Zoro, grown Zoro, with his clear trust issues. With his gruff uncertainty, still tries to get lost at every turn. A subconscious want.

He wants the crew to love him.

“I got lost.” Zoro’s voice startles him from his thoughts. Dark eyes burn into him.

“Eh?”

“You're wondering how I ended up on my own,” Zoro says simply. “I got lost.”

Sanji's eyes drop.

“Oi, don’t do that,” Zoro orders. “I'm not some sniveling little kid, Cook. My mother wanted me to get lost, so I did. Not the end of the world.”

Isn’t it? Sanji doesn't ask. Mothers are supposed to love. Protect. They're supposed to make children feel invincible and safe. How could any mother not love their child?

“Besides,” Zoro says as he stands. “Don't get lost anymore.”

Yes, Sanji wants to say. Zoro gets lost all the time.

“You lot always seem to find me.” A smile sparkles in Zoro's eyes as he claps Sanji on the shoulder. “Last time I'm saying it, Shitty Cook. Thank you, Sanji-san.”

Zoro grabs his sake bottle, claps Sanji's shoulder, and then vanishes through the kitchen door. Despite himself, Sanji smiles. He's going to miss that little marimo.

But his grown one isn’t too bad.