Sanji closed his left eye: looked with his right at the dim lamplight spilling across the floor. Tracked his gaze up to the wooden wall, where the blurry warmth of the lamp’s light fell like a harvest moon among the shadows. He studied it for a while, then opened his left eye and shut his right. Took his gaze travelling further around the crow’s nest, to a window where the night sky and stars looked in.
“What the hell are you doing?” The question came from beside him, in a voice that wasn’t yet irritable but contained the possibility of irritability in the near future.
“Looking around.” Sanji continued perusing the room’s geography.
“It’s night time, shitty cook. A time for sleeping. If you want to stay awake, find another place to do it.”
“I’m comfortable here.” Sanji really was. He settled his shoulder more closely against the one touching his, enjoying the feel of the warm covers over himself, the soft mat below.
“Then stop whatever the hell it is you’re doing, and go to sleep. Or I’ll toss you out the hatch onto the deck.”
“You can try.” Sanji smiled, still experimenting with viewing the world first with one eye, then the other.
The blanket rustled, and the solid warmth of body beside him shifted. Then Zoro’s face came into view above his, as the swordsman propped himself up on one elbow to look down at his lover. A frown drew Zoro’s brows down. “The fuck - ! What are you doing?”
Sanji opened both eyes quickly, innocently wide. “Nothing.”
“Bullshit.” Zoro was scowling now. “Is that your idea of a joke? If so, you can definitely sleep elsewhere - ”
“No.” Sanji spoke quickly. “I’m not mocking you.” Zoro said nothing, still braced above him. Still frowning down at the cook. Sanji sighed. “Really. I’m not. Relax.” He reached out and laid a hand on the other’s arm: after a moment, felt the tension in the muscles ease. “Look, how about we agree not to start a fight right now. I don’t know about you, but I kind of feel like I’ve had enough exertion for one night. Pleasurable though it’s been.”
After holding his gaze for a moment longer, Zoro let himself lie back down. “After two years, you haven’t changed in one way, it seems. You’re still a weird fucker.”
“Oi, perverted marimo,” Sanji drawled. “Takes one to know one.”
“So what exactly were you doing, just then? Winking in slow motion?”
“I told you. Looking around.”
“With just one eye at a time? What a coincidence.” The dangerous tone was creeping back in.
Sanji turned onto his side, fixing his gaze – both eyes open – on his lover. Zoro’s jaw had a hard set to it. “Okay, moron. I’ll only say it one more time. I was not mocking you. In any way, shape or form.” He reached out, laying one hand where Zoro’s arms were folded across his chest. “You think I’d make fun of – of that?”
Zoro turned his head to look at him. The lamplight fell across his face: across his right eye, steadily regarding Sanji. Across the scar that ran down his closed left eyelid. “I don’t know. Why not?”
“I just – won’t.” Sanji gave a dismissive shake of his head. “To me, there’s nothing amusing about it.”
Zoro watched him a moment longer, before turning his head to gaze up at the ceiling. “Whatever.”
A silence stretched for a while. At last, Sanji spoke again. “Did he do it? Mihawk?”
“I’m not talking about this.”
Of course not. Sanji felt something flower in his chest then, that was as close to hatred as he ever hoped to feel for another human being.
Mihawk. That fucking bastard.
He hated the master swordsman for all kinds of reasons. Not least of which was for what he’d done to Zoro that first time their paths had crossed. Sanji had watched with disbelief from the Baratie, watched Mihawk taunting Zoro with that ridiculous little dagger… before burying it almost up to the hilt in him. Then, having played with his prey and had his fun, cutting Zoro down. Slashing him open from shoulder to hip with a wound that took months to heal. And longer still, the wound to Zoro’s pride.
And this is the sadist you went down on your knees and humbled yourself to. Begged him to train you. Spent two years with.
Another emotion was building up alongside the hatred. It felt like fury, but Sanji wasn’t exactly sure if it was wholly directed at Mihawk. “Was it worth it?”
Zoro’s brows drew down. His mouth tightened: for a moment Sanji thought he was going to ignore the question, maintain a stubborn silence. But after a pause, he spoke. “I’m stronger now than I was before. Faster. A better swordsman.”
And that, Sanji knew, was what mattered. To Zoro.
- The moment I decided that I would become the greatest swordsman, I'd already sacrificed my life.
Sanji gritted his teeth. He knew this, he knew it, yet even now he found it hard to tolerate. That for this goal, Zoro would sacrifice everything. Sanji had known it ever since that day he’d watched, disbelieving, as Zoro turned to face Mihawk; Ichimonji sheathed, the broken shards of his other two katana lying on the deck around him. Watched as Zoro spread his arms wide, a bloody smile on his face as he stood waiting for Mihawk to finish him. Inviting the bastard to cut him down.
He values his life so lightly. The most precious thing that he has, and he takes it for granted. “You know, we all came back stronger. Or hadn’t you noticed?”
Zoro smiled then. “Of course. What would have been the point of enduring those two years, if we didn’t gain something in return?”
“You lost something.” Sanji wasn’t going to let the subject drop. “And you’re a swordsman. How does having only one usable eye give you an advantage?”
Zoro’s smile grew cocky, one corner of his mouth hitching up. “You notice it slowing me down any?”
Sanji scowled. “No, damn it. But I don’t understand how. When I shut one eye and look around - ” he gestured with one hand at the surrounding room “ – I lose all my depth perception. Everything just looks flat: I can’t tell how near or how far objects are in relation to each other. So how the hell do you manage?”
Zoro shrugged. “It’s not a problem,” he answered enigmatically. At Sanji’s look from under lowered brows, the swordsman let out a long breath. “Why does this bother you so much?”
“Why the fuck doesn’t it bother you?” Sanji didn’t bother trying to keep a lid on his exasperation any longer. “You act as though you’re immortal: taking on all-comers, leaving half your life’s blood behind every time you fight. But you’re human. Stronger than most, okay: good at what you do, granted. But you’re only human. Not some devil fruit freak like Luffy. Don’t you see that?”
“I still don’t understand why you’re ranting about this - ”
“You could DIE, you moron!” Sanji’s yell pierced the air.
There was a long silence. After some moments, Sanji spoke again: his voice lower, but taught. “You could die. And I don’t give a fuck if that doesn’t bother you. It bothers me.”
Zoro took a measured breath in; let it out. “I don’t plan on dying any time soon. I’ve got something that I have to do, first.”
“Yeah, I know.” Sanji felt suddenly wearied by this conversation. “Greatest swordsman in the world. I’m not likely to forget.”
“And you’re wrong.” Zoro spoke quietly, but with deliberate clarity. “I don’t think that I’m immortal. I know that I can make mistakes, run out of luck, like anyone else. That’s why I train so much. That’s why I swallowed my pride and bowed down on my knees before Mihawk. That’s why I spent two years there, learning how I could grow stronger. Faster. Better. Because I don’t want to die, idiot cook. Who in their right mind wants to die?”
“From the way you act… it doesn’t exactly seem as though you value your life.”
“I value my life. And I live it, as fully as I can.”
“You said once… that when you decided to become the world’s greatest swordsman, at that point you gave up your life. That doesn’t sound like someone who places much value in going on living.”
“Oi, dumbass cook…” Zoro sounded impatient now. “Giving up your life to something and simply giving it up are two different things. The day I chose this path, I had to accept that I could lose my life in a fight. But that doesn’t mean that I want to. Or,” he continued in annoyingly confident tones, “that I’m going to.”
Sanji was simultaneously irritated and comforted by the familiarity of that. Some things hadn’t changed: such one-track arrogance was pure Zoro. “Good. Then at least try to refrain from losing any more body parts.”
Zoro grinned. “Did you have a particular part in mind?”
Sanji narrowed his eyes at that: rolled and brought his knee swiftly between the swordsman’s thighs, stopping short of impact but gratified to see Zoro flinch. “Fuckwit. Any parts. You’ve already got more scar tissue than skin.” He raised a hand, reaching out – and Zoro’s arm blurred up too, blocking the move. Sanji let out a slight sigh. “Relax.”
Zoro regarded him steadily, making no reply. After a few moments, Sanji moved his hand back. As he shifted it aside, Zoro lowered his arm. He watched the cook, his face wary.
Still positioned with his knee between Zoro’s legs, propped on one elbow, Sanji gave a wry smile. “What, I can’t touch you now?”
“If by ‘touch’ you mean ramming my kintama with your kneecap, then no: I’d rather you didn’t touch me.”
“That wasn’t what I had in mind.” Sanji lifted his hand again; as he did so, Zoro’s arm started to move too. “Oi, I’m not starting a fight. Just… lie still a moment, can’t you?”
“Because… Because…” Sanji’s mouth twisted. “O fuck it. Because I want to do this.” And he reached out and placed his hand on Zoro’s chest, fingertips spreading out along the wide scar that ran, that would always run, across the skin from hip to shoulder. He felt Zoro tense beneath him. Sanji kept his fingers on the other man’s skin, light as a breath: held the other’s gaze.
“What… are you doing?” Zoro’s voice was almost steady.
Sanji let his fingers trace down the scar, just a little: felt the chest beneath him hitch. “I’m touching you.”
“Why not?” Sanji drifted his fingertips a little lower; felt Zoro’s ribs give the slightest shiver again. “If you’re going to make your scars off-limits, that won’t leave much in the way of places I can go.”
“Fucker…” Zoro shivered once more, his jaw tensing.
Sanji let his fingers slide slowly up again, retracing the length of the scar. “This is a part of you. That’s why I want to touch it.”
“You’re warped in the head, shitty cook.” Zoro’s jaw was still tensed. “It’s a scar. That’s all.”
Sanji looked at his lover, lying beneath him. His hand still rested lightly on Zoro’s chest. Beneath it he could feel the steady rise and fall of the breath, entering and leaving the body. “It’s not just a scar. It means something more than that, to you. It’s a reminder. Of that day… When Mihawk beat you.”
Zoro frowned. “I don’t exactly have a choice about that. It’s not going to go away.”
“Would you want it to?” Sanji was curious.
“Scars don’t disappear, dumbass. What’s the point of talking about it?”
“I’m interested. If you had a choice: would you rather it faded away?”
“Are you kidding me?” Zoro half-turned his head away. “What do you think? That I enjoy wearing it like some – tattoo or something?”
“I didn’t think it bothered you at all,” said Sanji. “It’s not like you ever worry about covering it up.”
“Why should I cover it up? I’m not ashamed of how I got it. I fought him the best I could, but he was stronger. He could have killed me, but he didn’t.”
No. He just wounded you badly enough to make sure of two things. That you’d bear his mark for ever. And that you’d be left needing to settle the score. Sanji felt the anger rising in himself again: checked it, with an effort. “You’re right. You shouldn’t be ashamed of it.” He kept his hand where it was. Unwilling to move it away from where he could feel the strong beat of Zoro’s heart.
They both grew still: quietness held for a while. At last, Zoro let out a sigh. “Are you going to stay like that all night?”
Sanji immediately rolled to the side, sliding his knee free and coming to rest lying on his back. “If you want to sleep, then sleep. No-one’s stopping you. Hell, usually you’d be snoring loud enough to rattle the windows by now.”
There was a long silence then. Long enough that Sanji thought Zoro had taken him at his word. He turned away onto his side, his eyes finding the lamp they’d set on the floor of the crow’s nest a couple of hours earlier. They’d climbed up here after exchanging looks over supper, while the rest of the Straw Hats had eaten and talked and laughed and argued. Their nakama had been oblivious to Sanji and Zoro’s silently eloquent communication.
Or maybe not, thought Sanji, gazing at the yellow lamplight. Maybe they knew all too well what was going on. Now that he thought about it, everyone had cleared out of the galley pretty smartly once supper was over, with loud yawns and stated intentions to hit the sack or do some reading… Leaving the cook and the swordsman alone together. And it had been a pretty near thing, that they hadn’t just fallen on each other then and there. But both of them had felt the urge, however unspoken, to have more than just a meeting of bodies. After two years of separation, and the strangeness of being close yet knowing so little of what had happened to each other in those two years, of how much they might have changed.
Instinctively, they’d sought an out-of-the-way place. The crow’s nest, where no-one was likely to be coming until daylight. They’d brought up blankets and laid out a mat and then they had fallen on each other, for sure. It had been hard and urgent in all the right ways, and Sanji had felt as much need in Zoro as in himself. Because, damn it, it had been two years. It was what both of them needed. And afterwards, being able just to lie close together, with the lamplight flickering on the ceiling.
The lamp was faltering now, its wick burned low. Sanji knew he ought to extinguish it, which required him to get up: he felt no will to do so. But with Zoro silent and asleep beside him, no-one else was going to take care of it. Letting out a short breath, he started to sit up, pulling off the blanket.
A hand closed around his arm. “Where are you going?”
Sanji blinked with surprise. “The lamp… I was going to blow it out.”
“Leave it. It’ll go out soon, anyway.”
Sanji didn’t argue. He let himself lie flat again, on his back this time. He turned his head: Zoro was lying on his side now, looking at the cook; his face still visible in the failing lamplight. His open eye was dark, its gaze steady. Sanji let out a long breath.
“What?” Zoro’s voice was quiet. If it hadn’t been Zoro, Sanji would have thought, soft.
“Nothing.” He tried to push away everything except this: the moment. The stillness and the warmth. The being together, after so long.
“Then why the mourning face?” Zoro still held his gaze. “No-one died, ero-cook. I’m still right here. So are you.”
For how long?
Sanji drove the thought away. “I know.” Zoro’s hand still rested on his arm: he could feel the slow stroke of those strong, calloused fingers against his skin.
The swordsman regarded him for a moment longer. Then he sat up, pushing the blanket off them both.
“Hey!” Sanji felt aggrieved at the sudden change in mood. Not to mention the increase in draughtiness.
“Get up.” Zoro was already on his feet, stepping across the floor.
“What the hell - ” Sanji stood too, if only because Zoro had tossed the blanket far enough to the side that there was no reaching it from where they’d been lying. “What are you playing at, idiot marimo?” He reached for the blanket from the floor, turning to scowl at the swordsman – only to blink with surprise. Zoro had pulled on his pants and was now reaching to where his three katana lay, where he’d neatly propped them a couple of hours earlier. As Sanji watched, Zoro picked up Ichimonji in its sheath… Before turning to face the cook.
Feeling suddenly on edge – not to mention exposed - Sanji grabbed his own pants from the floor and hauled them on. “Oi… If you want me to sleep elsewhere, just tell me. I can take a hint.”
“Come at me.” Zoro let his sword arm lower, so that the tip of Ichimonji’s sheath barely touched the deck. “Fast.”
“I’m not in the mood for a sparring match.” Sanji frowned.
“Do it.” Zoro’s growl hadn’t changed in two years. It still promised trouble. But Sanji hadn’t been cowed by it two years ago; he certainly wasn’t going to be intimidated by it now.
“Whatever dumb point you’re trying to score, crap swordsman, it can wait till morning - ”
Zoro moved so fast he almost caught Sanji by surprise. Almost. The cook’s reflexes kicked in quicker than his brain and he blocked the sword’s swing with a kick that thwacked the sheathed blade aside. Zoro twisted and swung again, and again Sanji blocked him. It happened too swiftly to argue, to evade: there was just the flicker of movement in the dying lamplight and the impact of foot against laquered wood; the strange dance in the shadows.
Sanji felt the anger he’d been holding in surface, at last: and he unleashed it. He went from defensive to on the attack, feeling the force go into his kicks. Zoro began stepping back, giving ground across the wooden floor: then he half-turned away, leaving his left side open to assault. Sanji saw the chance and launched a kick that he reckoned would make the damn marimo’s teeth rattle in his jaw –
- at Zoro’s blind side, his head turned away, only the closed scarred eyelid visible -
In the smallest fraction of time imaginable, Sanji felt himself try to stop the kick. But it was already done.
And then his foot connected. Not with the swordsman’s skull. With the upraised sword in its sheath that Zoro threw up in a blur of movement so fast it was scarcely visible, blocking the blow. Still with his head turned away. And then Zoro staggered back a little, because Sanji had put a lot of fury into that kick… and the second thoughts had really come far too late to make a difference.
And then they were both standing still, breathing hard. Turning to face one another.
Sanji waited until he got his breathing steady before he spoke. “Just… what… the… fuck… was that about?”
Zoro was still holding Ichimonji in its sheath: he lifted it in front of his face, apparently checking the laquered wood for signs of damage from Sanji’s kick… before setting it down, leaning it beside his other two katana. Then he turned back to face Sanji. “Proving a point.”
“Aho…” Sanji felt the muscles in his jaw clench. “Why is it you always feel the need to prove a point by flexing your muscles, crap swordsman?”
“Seems to work better than trying to explain things to you with words, shitty cook.” Zoro shrugged.
Sanji glared at him a moment longer… Before turning away and grabbing up his jacket from the floor. From behind him, he heard Zoro speak again. “Oi… Are you leaving?”
There was just enough of an edge of uncertainty in Zoro’s voice that Sanji felt gratified. He kept his back turned while he unfolded his jacket, making his voice a growl as he replied. “What do you think?”
A silence greeted his answer. Sanji gave it a few seconds longer before he turned back to face Zoro. The swordsman wore a look on his face that could only be described as dismayed, though he managed to wipe it away quickly. Sanji lifted one corner of his mouth in a smile… before bringing the cigarette he’d taken from his jacket pocket up and putting it in his mouth. Lighting it, he let out a long sigh mingled with smoke. “I don’t know. I could use a good night’s sleep. Do you plan on starting any more nocturnal combats, or can we lie down like civilised human beings?”
After a pause, the corner of Zoro’s mouth twitched. “If you can quit chattering, we could both get some sleep.”
“Fine.” Sanji bent down and picked up the blanket, shook it out with exaggerated care and gestured at the mat. “After you.”
Zoro let his slow grin spread across his face, before moving across the floor, shedding his pants as he went. Sanji moved too, pinching out his cigarette and stripping off before lying down and bringing the blanket across them both. As he lay on his side he felt Zoro’s arm go round him and pull him close, their bodies aligning. Sanji slid his own hand up the swordsman’s arm to his shoulder; traced his fingers along the collarbone, following the curve of his neck. Found the three slender gold earrings in the lobe of his ear. Stirred them gently with one finger.
The lamplight flickered wildly, the wick in its death throes. Sanji let out a tchh of annoyance. “Damn thing...”
“Don’t worry. It’ll go out soon.”
The flickering of light and dark made shadows dance and leap. Then suddenly, with no drama, the light went out.
In the darkness, Sanji felt Zoro’s forehead press against his own. Felt lips brush his.
The distance between two objects. How near or how far away they are from one another. You view them from different perspectives, try to judge. But ultimately, even that is a trick of the light. Ultimately, there is only one way to be sure.
Reach out and touch. And then you’ll know.