Sunrise broke across frigid waters. Days spent sailing towards a winter island had shrouded the Sunny in an endless mist, and coated her hull in rime. Her galley and bunks remained well heated despite the harsh climate, and as morning light trickled in, Sanji's eyes fluttered open.
Frost had crept up the panes of the large bay windows during the night, and a fractured pattern of distorted sunlight danced across the slats of finely sanded Adam's wood high above---bathing the crow's nest in a resplendent glow. Sanji lay quietly for several minutes watching. Until the urge for a morning smoke had him sitting up and tossing the blankets aside.
A grumble had him glancing back.
Half asleep and drooling onto the mattress, Zoro lay sprawled beneath the heavy duvet with one hand absently scratching at an armpit. Charming, as always. Sanji just stared. Sometimes the swordsman was the pinnacle of boorish behaviour and Sanji had to wonder what on earth was wrong with himself that he kept coming to the crow’s nest every night.
Turning back to his clothes, Sanji dug through his jacket pockets until he located a cigarette and his lighter. He flicked the flint, and pressed the tip of the dart against the flame. Once a healthy cherry began to glow, Sanji tossed his lighter aside, and took a long, exquisite drag off his morning smoke.
Eyes falling shut happily.
Puffing quietly for a bit, Sanji’s eyes eventually snapped open once more when a bit of shuffling could be felt behind him. And a moment later an arm was thrown around his waist. Dropping his gaze down, Sanji noted the thick, tanned arm currently curled around him---marred with dozens of raised or faded scars from uncountable battles. A heat began to rise in Sanji’s cheeks at the sight.
That was why he kept coming up here.
Stupid, shitty swordsman.
Relieved that his back was to the swordsman and Zoro couldn’t see the blush staining his cheeks, Sanji turned his gaze up once more to stare at the sun spattered ceiling. Lips tightening when he realized his smoke rings had become heart shaped. Quickly stubbing out his cigarette, Sanji just prayed Zoro’s eye was still closed.
An excited cry from below announced the island was finally in sight.
Both men jerking at the noise, and Zoro grumbling into the small of Sanji’s back, “...finally.”
With a grunt of acknowledged relief, Sanji disentangled himself from Zoro’s arm and pushed himself to his feet. Wasting little time in grabbing his pants and beginning to get dressed. He’d already gotten all his clothes on and had gotten started on his tie by the time Zoro had crawled out from under the blankets and kicked his pants on while still laying on the ground.
Terrifying demon indeed.
"Oi, Mosshead." Finishing doing up his tie with a pompous flourish, Sanji tucked into his suit and then glanced at the swordsman. Given that they hadn’t had a chance to actually catch up since before Dressrosa, Sanji decided to extend an olive branch, “Wanna do something when we get to the island?”
"I don't know."
Doing things together wasn’t their thing, but Sanji was in a good mood.
"If you want me to be a pack mule for the supplies then just say so…" Grunting as he pulled on a boot, Zoro hapzardly began lacing it while adding with a vindictive mutter, "Don't fucking waterboard me with stupid whatabouts."
Good feeling gone.
“Fucking forget it.” Sanji sneered, “Your crap attitude would spoil the food.”
Nothing had been said once they reunited in Wano. Zoro had implicitly trusted in Luffy and his decisions, and even when Sanji had attempted to bring it up Zoro had shut him down with a dismissive hand---not wanting to hear about it. All of it left Sanji feeling like he was standing on uneven ground.
Everything with the swordsman felt jilted now.
Their routine hadn’t changed, and Zoro never refused his company, but Sanji couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. Especially after such a close call with Pudding. He’d nearly gotten married off to another crew! And coming back to find nothing had changed with Zoro shouldn’t have felt like rejection, but it did.
Storming out of the crow’s nest without a backwards glance to the jerkass swordsman, Sanji made his way to the galley to get breakfast started. He wasn’t going to think about this anymore. They had an island to explore, and a much deserved vacation from the never ending train of catastrophe the crew had been on recently---and Sanji wasn’t about to let some silly feelings get in the way of that.
Embarking onto the winter island with chaotic glee, Luffy led the way with Chopper and Usopp in tow cheering excitedly---Chopper was particularly enamoured with once more seeing snow. They frollicked, and started up a good natured snowball fight as the rest of the crew slowly followed after. Zoro was first, kept in sight so he wouldn’t wander off. Nami and Robin behind him chatting aimbly, and Brook and Sanji brought up the rear---the skeleton mentioning to Sanji how excited he was to visit a winter island that didn’t involve illicit laboratories and monsters. Franky and Jinbei opted to stay back with the ship to work on repairs.
As they continued down the well kept street from harbour to city, Brook piped up, “Is it really alright to leave the ship in such a visible location?”
“We should be fine.” All bundled up in her darling winter jacket and earflap beanie, Nami turned to glance back with them a gorgeous smile. Nami reassured Brook with a cheery wave to assuage his fears, “This kingdom operates outside of the World Government so they shouldn’t care that we’re pirates---as long as we don’t start any trouble.”
There was a collective glance in Luffy’s direction.
“Anyway, we might as well stock up and enjoy ourselves for the time being.” Nami continued, “The Log Pose only takes a few days to set.”
A murmur of agreement travelled through the crew.
Then they were rounding the last bend in the road, and the kingdom came into view. Nestled into the mountain side, there sat a magnificent castle which cradled a quaint city within protective walls of carved ice. Flawlessly sculpted turrets and brickwork gave the illusion of actual masonry. However, the celestial shimmering of the sun refracting through the ice gave the kingdom a far more magical feeling.
Collective, appreciative noises could be heard from the crew.
“Wooow.” Nami sang, “It’s so gorgeous!”
“Kinda like a fairy tale.” Robin smiled.
“I could be your Prince Charming!” Volunteering with a swiftly raised hand, Sanji was at Robin’s side in a flash with an extended hand, “Allow me, mademoiselle.”
With a laugh, Robin looped her arm around Sanji's and allowed him to escort her into the city. Sanji nearly passed out from happiness---already this day was looking up.
True to Nami’s word, the guards allowed them to pass through the gates with nothing more than a polite nod and a pleasant greeting. And soon they were met with the bustling activity of the small kingdom. Within the walls, the city became a much more intriguing amalgamation of wood and snow innovation.
Many of the houses, stores, and buildings were built of large logs and timber, but bore equally devoted craftsmanship as the walls to the city. Wood adorned in all manner of murals and hewn images. Some were grand with distinct sculpting, while others were more illusory and random in their artistic expression. Regardless of where you looked, the city was overflowing with passion and creativity.
Upon wandering further into the city, it became readily apparent that there was some sort of celebration in preparation. Houses were being covered in cheery strings of pinecones and golden charms, and gaudy decorations were being strung up all over the various businesses. Streets were a bustle with activity as stalls were set up, and trees were raised on each corner.
Locals were in a jovial mood.
Everyone in the crew looked about in awe--- even Luffy was on fairly good behaviour as he led the group with Chopper on his shoulders. Tearing his gaze away from a storefront packed with baubles, knickknacks, and assorted tree related regalia, Usopp muttered, “This town sure does like it’s trees, huh?”
“Trees hold a sacred meaning to many of the world’s mythologies.” Raising a delicate hand, Robin gestured politely to the decorated trees in front of a local business and smiled, “These people likely celebrate it as a sacred symbol of divinity.”
Usopp still sounded skeptical.
“Trees are the embodiment of death and revival. Cycles.” Robin explained further, pausing to watch as a few workers finished setting up a tree and began to decorate it with strings of gold and black. When they were once more out of earshot, she continued, “So they become symbols of immortality, fertility, and enlightenment. There’s a variety of manifestations; wishing trees, world trees, trees of creation and knowledge.”
"Ahhh~ Miss Robin is so smart." Clasping his hands and swaying towards the older woman, Sanji couldn’t help but sigh breathlessly. Everytime she got that knowledgeable glow and learned smile upon her gorgeous face, Sanji felt weak in the knees, "I could listen to you talk for hours, darling."
"As if you could keep quiet that long."
Like being drenched with a bucket of ice water, Zoro’s gruff mutterings managed to smother Sanji’s warm flutterings with a chilling intensity. At least the swordsman could always be counted on to ruin a moment. Rounding on the bastard, Sanji was livid to discover Zoro didn’t even have the decency to be looking at Sanji while ruining his day---a hand tucked into his haramaki, and the other scratching at his jaw as he yawned.
Sanji’s cigarette filter was crushed between his teeth.
“Oi!” Sanji snarled, “What was that, crap swordsman?!”
"You heard me."
"Like talking is a bad thing." Sanji growled, "At least I'm honest."
Brow pinching with irritation, Zoro glanced at him while grunting, "What's that have to do with anything?"
"If you weren't such a moron you might figure it out.” Flicking his destroyed cigarette in the swordsman’s face, Sanji got a small bit of satisfaction when it pinged off Zoro’s stupid forehead. He shouldn’t be surprised at Zoro’s attitude. It was Sanji’s fault for thinking anything would be different after everything in Wano, but at least arguing with the jerk made him feel a bit better. “But I doubt your moldy brain could put two and two together."
Drawing Kitetsu in a fluid motion, Zoro brandished it menacingly under Sanji's chin while threatening, "We can count it out while I stab you, how about that?"
"You'd have to hit me first, you directionless dummy."
They continued bickering as they followed the crew along the main avenue up to the town square where a large tree towered powerful and regal in the center. Evergreen and healthy despite the snow. A golden glow radiated off it's branches, and illuminated the square in a timid warmth---it was a captivating sight that caused all of the crew to stop to appreciate it.
Sanji got a decent look at it before Zoro shoved him.
Rounding on him in a flash, they started bickering once more but this time Zoro already had a sword drawn and Sanji was trying his best to set the swordsman’s robes on fire. Their fight a whirlwind of barely restrained energy to keep from causing too much damage to the area around them, but it did little good.
A few of the locals seemed concerned.
Nami called out, "Guys--"
Zoro managed to get a solid hit in and sent Sanji flying.
Back slamming into the massive tree, the wood groaned under the force of Sanji’s body striking it, and a matching grunt of pain slipped from the cook’s lips. Choking it down as he bared his teeth at the advancing swordsman. More than glad the swordsman was in a mood to fight today, because Sanji was fed up with Zoro’s indifference towards him.
If the swordsman wasn’t going to be affectionate then the least he could do was let Sanji kick his stupid, perfect teeth in.
A flurry of flames and blades engulf the two.
Distantly Sanji could hear some yelling, but he ignored it, and even when the tree they were fighting under began to take the brunt of their attacks he still didn’t pay it much mind. Acrid smoke from burning wood reached his nostrils, and a booming crash echoed around them, but Sanji was still far too set on kicking the swordsman’s head off to pay it much mind.
But then a horrified scream brought both men to pause.
Everyone in the town square had stopped what they were doing to stare on in horror at the two men currently standing amidst the remnants of their ceremonial tree. Scandalized faces and gasps of shock ringing out in the cold air. Zoro and Sanji froze in their scuffling to glance about in confusion while everyone stared on---only thing that broke the silence was the sound of Nami's hand hitting her forehead with a frustrated sigh.
A sharp clunk ominously rang out in the tiny courtroom as the shackles were slapped over Sanji’s wrists, chains jangling upon lifting his hands to inspect the craftsmanship. They weren’t SeaStone, but they were some sort of alloy. Decently strong, but nothing that was actually incapacitating; he could probably break the chain if things got nasty and they needed to flee.
Given that they were currently to be tried for destruction of sacred public property---it wasn’t looking good.
Glancing around the crowded courtroom, there were multiple local government officials and lawyers present, as was half the town crammed into the viewing area. Their crew was currently in the stands watching on in varying degrees of interest. Nami was fuming, Chopper and Usopp looked worried, Robin had a hand over her mouth to muffle a giggle, Brook picked his nose absently, and Luffy was cackling in his seat while pointing at his first mate and cook.
Once the guard finished throwing on Zoro’s cuffs in the same dramatic fashion, they were both ushered forward to stand on a railed off area so the whole courtroom could see them. A space that was normally for one person, was a little crowded with the two of them. Sanji stamped his heel as hard as he could onto Zoro's toes to get the swordsman to move over, and got a stifled grunt as his reward---followed shortly by an elbow to the ribs.
“Hnnggh.” Doubling over a little, Sanji wheezed while Zoro chuckled. “Bastard.”
A smug eye flicked to look down on Sanji.
Jumping up, Sanji wrapped the chain of his cuffs around Zoro’s neck and pulled tight just as the swordsman came to his senses and grabbed Sanji around the waist. Managing to get a few brutal punches into Sanji’s gut before guards came clamouring over to tear them apart once more---it was futile until everyone froze as a voice boomed over the commotion.
"WOULD YOU TWO STOP FIGHTING FOR FIVE MINUTES?!"
Everyone stared over at a fuming Nami - even Usopp was shying away from her in fear - as she stood braced threateningly over the banister while breathing fire in Zoro and Sanji’s direction. Sanji blinked once before realizing his folly. Immediately letting go of Zoro and standing politely away from the swordsman. Throwing up a lustrous salute, it was only mildly undercut by the jangle of the cuffs around his wrists.
"Of course, Nami dearest!"
All the guards looked wary, but slowly backed away from the two pirates and returned to their posts a few feet away. Zoro took a moment to straighten his robe. Rolling his eyes as Sanji continued to wave enthusiastically over at Nami and sneering, "Fucking simp."
"What was that?!"
Rounding on Zoro with a feral snarl, Sanji got right up in Zoro's face.
"You heard me." Zoro grunted, slamming his forehead against Sanji’s with a menacing look, “You wanna go?!”
"Please rise!" Once more everyone in the courtroom froze, but this time it was to turn their attention towards a bailiff standing near a side door, who then announced, “The Court is now in session, the Honourable Judge Evergreen presiding.”
Everyone in the courtroom stood, Sanji ceased his bickering to watch the arrival of the head official that made his way into the room. A tall man, he gave off an air of fairness and civility. His large green robes billowed around him as he strode to the bench and took a seat---rest of the courtroom sitting back down shortly after.
Up close Sanji was able to see just what an odd man this judge truly was.
Various tree themed accoutrement adorned his robes; tassels of pinecones, golden embroidery depicting branches and roots, and appliques of needle foliage. Gaudy amounts of tree regalia that was clearly a very big theme with these islanders. And his hair was styled to match---hair falling to his shoulders in a cascading, tree-like fashion, and his beard the same.
"In the case of The Isle of Arbor against the Straw Hat Pirates,” Judge Evergreen’s voice was a rich, soothing baritone, “we are here today to discuss the sentencing of the accused."
“Hold up!” Raising a hand, Nami interjected much to the disapproval of many in the court, but Sanji couldn’t help but think she looked adorable. All radiant and self-assured. She was so amazing when she took charge, “They’re not going to be given a trial?”
“To what end?” Evergreen snorted with a soft laugh, “There is no case---they are guilty. Today we establish the penalty for the crime committed.”
That wasn’t surprising, but Sanji liked the way Nami persisted.
“Now,” Clearing his throat with haughty little cough, the judge picked up the document he had before him and read aloud, “Either a fine of three hundred million Beri--”
Dropping back into her seat, Nami waved a dismissive hand and shook her head, “No way, jail it is.”
“Oi, devil woman!”
“Frugal Nami is exemplary as always!”
“Or.” Judge Evergreen blustered forward with an annoyed huff, “You can find us a replacement tree for the ceremony.”
Everyone collectively blinked at the simple demand.
“Just a tree?”
Setting the paper back down, Evergreen clasped his hands politely in front of himself and turned a calm expression to the two pirates currently on the stand, “It's a special pine that only grows in remote locations on our island. That ethereal glow it has is what makes it sacred to our village; and is essential to the health of our elderly and the fertility of our people.”
Once again, Nami interjected, “Why can’t you guys just get the tree?”
“It’s blizzard season, and we have snow tigers.” Judge Evergreen shook his head, “It’s not a task that we can safely accomplish.”
“Just a few tigers.” Cracking his knuckles on a cheeky grin, Zoro chuckled, “Easy.”
“And we’ve been through worse snowstorms.”
“It’s a death sentence.”
“They’ll take that.” Nami piped up.
Usopp smacked her arm, “Oi…”
Humming thoughtfully, Judge Evergreen stroked his oddly shaped beard and then turned to look down at Zoro and Sanji from his high position. He was clearly skeptical, but not unreasonable. Returning his hands neatly before himself, Evergreen politely inclined his head to Zoro and Sanji, "It’s your decision."
"I'll get you your tree."
“I’ll get you your tree.”
Was said in perfect unison.
Disgruntled at being talked over, both pirates turned an annoyed look on the other and Sanji barely refrained from headbutting the bastard for Nami’s sake. However, he was seriously rethinking that pledge when Zoro just scoffed dismissively and turned back to the judge.
“I can go.” Zoro called out, “No need for the pansy to slow me down.”
Sanji could feel a kindling anger in his chest.
“Speak for yourself, you green-haired bastard.” Grabbing Zoro’s shoulder and wheeling the cocky asshole around, Sanji jabbed a finger against the swordsman's chest and snarled, “As if I’m staying behind and letting you go looking for the tree, you permanently lost dunderhead. I’ll rot in jail before you even find the damned thing.”
Knocking Sanji’s hand aside, Zoro scoffed, “Well, I’m not sitting around waiting for you to save me.”
"I sure as shit am not doing this for your well being!"
"Oh, for the love of--" Bracing her hand against her forehead, Nami muttered the rest of her curse under her breath as Robin placed a reassuring hand to her back---still laughing to herself. Brook was now sleeping. And Luffy was leaning against the railing and watching the antics with an entertained grin.
"Excuse me sir, but I don't think that's a good idea." Usopp piped up with a glance at Zoro and Sanji who were back at each other's necks, “It’ll take twice as long if you send them together.”
“We highly advise against going out into the Wilds alone.” After politely addressing Usopp, Judge Evergreen returned to looking down at Zoro and Sanji with a remarkable amount of patience. “It would be negligent on my part to allow that.”
“Fine,” Shoving Zoro away, Sanji turned back to the judge, “not that I need his help.”
“Don’t slow me down, shitcook.”
Resting her head in both her hands, Nami bemoaned, “We’re doomed.”
“Very well. We’ll take you to get geared up for the expedition, and you can leave immediately.” With a polite hand gestured towards the guards, Judge Evergreen added with a pointed look, “If you do not return, then your crew will be forced to cover the damage fees.”
Head snapping up, Nami snarled, “Don’t you dare mess this up!”
With that, the guards came over and began to guide Zoro and Sanji from the room out the side door they had originally been brought through. They went without much fuss. Sanji would’ve preferred the alone time, but he had to laugh at the irony of the universe in managing to make his request come to fruition---he and Zoro would be getting that alone time he had asked for after all.
"Good luck!" Luffy called out on a laugh, waving cheerfully, “Hurry back to enjoy the festival.”
“Oi, oi.” Usopp shook his head, “There won’t be a festival if they don’t bring back a tree.”
“EH?!” Rounding on Zoro and Sanji with an intense glare, Luffy half-climbed over the railing to point at them dramatically, “Oi, you two! You better bring back a tree otherwise there’s not going to be a party--”
Nami slugged Luffy on the back of the head.
Usopp snapped, “Now you care?!”
“Fear not, my beloved tangerine!” Waving to Nami with hearts in his eyes and a song in his heart. "I'll be back before you even know it."
Zoro muttered something vile under his breath.
And with that they were led from the courtroom.
Trudging through the thigh deep snow, Sanji cursed himself out for his own stubborn temper. It was ridiculous of him to volunteer to get this done when he clearly should’ve just let Zoro do this alone and die out here. Then he could’ve just escaped prison and the crew could’ve just continued on without the dumb swordsman. It would serve him right to die lost and alone in a frozen wasteland.
Breathing out a long breath of hot air against his scarf, Sanji relished in the warm air that rose up to warm his exposed skin and momentarily melt the ice that had frozen his eyelashes shut. He squinted to get his bearings before quickly shutting his eyes once more. They had talked a bold game, but he’d never been somewhere so cold before that it hurt his damned eyes.
When he breathed in, a rush of cold air leached through his scarf and his eyelashes froze shut once more. Continuing that cycle of temporary blindness, they both trekked forwards across the endless plateau that stretched miles to the mountain region on the other side that was supposed to hold some of those sacred trees.
After a few hours, the timid snowfall began to worsen, and the wind picked up to blustery levels. As they were warned, a blizzard started to pick up, and after a few minutes they were walking blindly through a gale of snow and receding daylight.
"I hate you so much.” Sanji muttered into his scarf, petulantly, “This is all your fault."
"Keep whining,” Zoro grumbled, “that's what got us into this mess."
“You’ve been in a pissy mood all fucking day.” Zoro growled, “And you’re the one that started this whole thing in the marketplace.”
“You--” Sanji balked at the audacity.
They wouldn’t have even gotten into a fight if Zoro didn’t have to be such a tactless jerk, and Sanji could’ve even ignored his normally biting comments if maybe the swordsman showed a little gusto towards him. After the whole marriage debacle and Whole Cake Island incident Sanji thought for certain the swordsman would have something to say, but no.
It was like the bastard didn’t even care.
“Your memory is as shit as your attitude.” Stopping in his tracks, Sanji forced his eyes open despite the ice and glared at the swordsman that halted seconds later before turning to face him. Ignoring the icy sting, Sanji strode forward and got right up in the swordsman's face, “I was having a pleasant conversation with my dear Robin. You were the one that had to go and ruin it.”
Zoro remained stoically silent.
“Your.” Jabbing a finger into Zoro’s chest, Sanji spat, “Fault.”
An irritated scowl pinched Zoro’s face, and even with the ice building up on his eyebrows and lashes, it was still apparent he was returning Sanji’s glare just as hard. Slapping Sanji’s hand away, Zoro snarled, “Well you didn’t have to engage.”
“You clearly wanted attention.” Sanji sneered, “You could’ve just ignored me---you’re fucking good at it.”
Zoro’s frown hardened to cold steel, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
"Are you deaf?"
"No,” Drawling the word derisively, Zoro scoffed, “I just don't speak Bitch."
"Good to know you’re still a sexist pig."
"It’s better than being a rejected womanizer." A childish flick to the tip of Sanji’s cold nose, Zoro sneered, “How do the bottoms of Nami’s shoes taste?”
“Better than your dick, you sweaty hobo." Sanji snapped back, returning the flick with a sharp poke to Zoro’s forehead, "It's called soap. Look it up."
"First time I've heard you complain about this, shitcook.” Gloved hand latching onto Sanji’s wrist, Zoro held tight as the other lashed out to tangle in Sanji’s jacket and haul him close. When he spoke it was more antagonistic than playful, “Are you sure you don't like it?"
"Fuck you.” Spitting the curse, Sanji struggled for a moment in Zoro’s grip before giving up. He raised a leg. Already he could feel fire itching to explode off the limb in moments if the swordsman didn’t change his tune, and the fire in his chest was white hot as he began lying through seething teeth, “While you're at it, look up the definition of a pity-fuck, you mannerless slob."
"Suck my shoe-tasting dick, curlybrow!"
"God, clear the snow out of your ears; I said her shoes would taste better!" Sanji barked, "They're expensive leather! Your dick's just been stewing in three day old underwear!"
"And somehow you enjoy choking on it every ti--"
A thunderous growl broke through the howling din of snow and wind, both men freezing in their yelling to glance up at the massive beast currently towering over them. White and black stripes blending into the gale---red eyes piercing. They barely had a chance to look up before a moment later a massive paw was swiping down, smacking both of them aside effortless.
Sailing through the air and slamming to the ground several hundred yards away, Sanji pulled himself out of the snow with an infuriated snarl. He had been mad before, but now he was furious. At least something had helpfully volunteered to be his punching bag.
“Fucking shitty tiger!” Pushing himself up and getting a foot under him, Sanji directed his burning aggression onto the large beast. Teeth bared and fire already licking at his heels, Sanji launched himself forward in an explosive spray of snow as he roared, “C’mere!”
Given the cold, Sanji hadn’t been too sure about how his fire would hold up, but it seemed that not even a freezing blizzard could stifle his rage. In a flash he was back in front of the tiger, it’s eyes widening a fraction before a second later Sanji’s foot connected with its jaw and it was blasted into the frozen ground that fractured under the force of the strike.
Snow, dirt, and blood spraying everywhere.
Dropping back to the ground, Sanji continued to pant angrily as the debris slowly settled and the sizzling corpse of the tiger lay twisted and bloody on the crumbling earth. Snow was already starting to cover its body. Out of the corner of his eye, Sanji could see Zoro making his way over and hoped the bastard knew how close he was to having that directed at him.
Coming to stand next to Sanji, Zoro crossed his arms and stared down at the dead beast, “Feel better?”
This time Zoro didn't respond.
Remarkably though, Sanji did feel a lot better. He still felt cheated and annoyed, but the rage that had been building in him all day had tapered down to a timid pilot light in his chest. It still flickered with life, but he no longer had any fuel to feed it anymore---Zoro's indifference an expected norm of their relationship.
“C’mon, it’s getting dark; we need to find shelter." Turning away from the still smoking carcass of the tiger, Sanji pulled his scarves back into place to protect from the storm. He squinted through the endless storm encircling them and muttered, “We can continue our search in the morning.”
Zoro just grunted in agreement.
They trekked for another hour through the blistering storm, no longer caring about anything other than finding some form of shelter in the vast wasteland. As Sanji walked blindly forward, he was beginning to understand why the villagers considered this a death sentence. If they didn’t find somewhere to wait out the worst of this blizzard then they might actually be in danger of losing a limb or two.
“Oi, shitcook!” Zoro’s voice was barely discernible over the howling, "Does it look like there's a light?”
"Definitely go into the light." Keeping his head down and face buried in the safety of his scarves, Sanji jeered, "Don't wait up."
"Bite me.” Snarling at Sanji, Zoro stopped and Sanji shortly after. He turned a shoulder into the wind to help buffet some of the snow and glanced at the swordsman. With one arm raised protectively over his face, Zoro pointed far off on the horizon, “I meant over there."
Expecting nothing, Sanji raised his arms to brace against the worse of the weather and squinted out in the direction Zoro was pointing. He paused when there was actually light. Through the dense snow, just a few hundred yards off, there was something illuminating the dark tundra.
"Shit, there’s actually light.” It had a bright, warm glow to it, but no defining features. There wouldn't be a cabin out in the middle of this plateau, however there was no way it was an illusion. Looking down at his body, Sanji muttered, "I'm not dying too, right?"
"If I'm dead and you're here then that means we're already in hell."
“That checks out.”
Without another word, they unanimously turned and made towards the light. Through the snow and darkness it was hard to tell exactly what it was, but as they neared it became increasingly obvious that it wasn’t a building or anything man made. There was no fire, and no structure. Just a powerful glow that cut through the night and illuminated the snow around it.
At first Sanji thought his eyes might be playing tricks on him, especially with how he had to squint to see anything through the storm, but as they neared it became quite clear that at the center of the glow was a small field of grass - an oasis in a desert - surrounded by a raging snowstorm under a large dome of opaque golden light.
And right in the center sat a tree.
Tree didn’t quite fit though.
It had roots, a trunk, and a magnificent sprawling canopy that branched out to curl across the top of the glowing energy surrounding it---however there was something ancient, and powerful about it that made it look far more regal than just a tree.
Trunk and roots an ashen black that slowly faded into a warm charcoal before climbing up to branches of heavenly white. Leaves opalescent and shimmering. Large, gnarled roots twisted out and dug deep into the fertile earth around it, and its trunk rose up strong and ancient.
"It…” Zoro paused, “kinda looks like that other tree…"
"Yeah,” Sanji scoffed, “if you think a minnow kinda looks like a whale."
Zoro didn’t rise to the biting comment. Instead he reached up to hook two fingers in his scarf and pull it down enough for him to get a solid look around the area. Eventually muttering, "Think it's safe?"
"Does it matter? If we stay out here we're dead anyway."
A beat passed between them as they both turned to glance out into the pitch black landscape and the flurry of snow whipping past. Slowly Sanji's gaze returned to Zoro's and he found the swordsman already readily watching him for a sign. Despite their earlier argument, a respectful truce that always remained steadfast was still there.
With just a look it was decided.
Turning back to face the glowing energy twisting in front of them, Zoro reached out and brushed his gloved hand against the glowing surface. There was a beat. And nothing happened. Zoro gave a shrug and glanced at Sanji. Even with his face obscured by his gear and the flurry of snow, Sanji could still tell the swordsman was wordlessly asking for his ascension.
With a short nod they both stepped in.
There was a moment when Sanji moved within the perimeter of the weird looking tree that it felt like he was pressing against an invisible force field. He couldn't breath and his movements slowed. It felt like walking through molasses, and the harder he pushed forward, the more it felt like he was pushing himself out of his own skin.
A moment later his foot landed on the lush grass and time shifted back to what felt to him as normal, but his body still felt off. Gravity felt lighter, but a fatigue kept him grounded, and his breathing was nonexistent, but also remarkably laden, and his vision was obscured by a golden haze that hung in the air, but he'd also never opened his eyes with such clarity before. There was an unearthly juxtaposition to his existence in this place.
Tugging his scarf down to take a better look about the place, Sanji absently pulled off his gloves as well---only to still when he caught sight of them. His hands looked like his hands, but also not. They were definitely real, but had an opalescent quality to them that made them appear… unnatural.
When he glanced at Zoro, Sanji found the swordsman had just finished realizing much of what he had just experienced and was now looking at him too. It felt unnervingly raw. He was wearing a thick jacket but he'd never felt so bared---not even those nights in the crow’s nest left him feeling this exposed.
Sanji breathed out, "What the hell?"
Zoro just gave a look of agreement.
Both of them turned to the tree at the center of the field---the thing responsible for what was going on. It was even more magnificent up close. Sanji’s gaze tracked over it in awe. Higher and higher until he reached the canopy, and he found stretching out above it the entire cosmos.
A vast canvas of swirling galaxies in radiant purples and blues, supernovas in full bloom and nebulas of the most intense designs. All of it interwoven with billions upon billions of stars. It flexed and moved. Alive and ever changing with each passing second that Sanji stared up at it---the universe in its entirety.
There was something celestial about this place...
Turning behind them, he could see the snowstorm raging around their little sanctuary, but it wasn't just the tundra of the winter island. Occasionally he’d see the flicker of black sand beach with a dazzling purple sunset, or a bright glacial lake nestled in the afternoon sun of a mountain cirque, or a field of golden wheat twisting in the breeze like an ocean. At first Sanji thought he was seeing things, but soon realized they were clearly other worlds overlapping each other.
“Oi, Marimo, there’s something weird goin--” Jumping dramatically away from the swordsman, Sanji barely stifled an undignified yelp in time before yelling, “What the shit?!"
Unfazed by Sanji’s antics, Zoro stood calmly with a hand hovering above his suddenly opened left eye that had moments ago been shut by a nasty scar. Only now there was no scar. Zoro lightly fingered his cheek where the scar had been, while erratically blinking his fresh eye as though getting used to it. Sanji took a concerned step towards the suddenly two-eyed swordsman.
"What just happened?!”
Lowering his hand and glancing at Sanji, Zoro muttered, "I'm not sure."
A soft chime had both men snapping around to see something fall and disturb the grass near Zoro's feet. Followed shortly after by two more. This time Sanji caught the distinct gold that was unmistakable as the swordsman's trademark earrings.
Reaching his hand around to his ear, Zoro fingered the lobe for a moment before glancing at Sanji, "They're healed."
Keeping a nervous eye on the frighteningly calm swordsman, Sanji watched as Zoro dropped to a knee and scooped up his earrings out of the grass. Carefully folding them up in the black kerchief and tucking it into his pocket before rising to his feet and turning a curious look up at the tree in the center. Sanji shared in his glance at the tree, and began to wonder if they shouldn’t be here.
Perhaps this field was rewinding time...
Zoro spoke up softly, "Should we get out of here?"
"Maybe." Glancing down at his own hand, this time Sanji noticed that the scars on his thumb - and all the others he'd amassed over years in the kitchen - were gone as well. Scars that he had gotten as a child. They weren't de-ageing, but something else was happening to their bodies… Something very extraordinary was happening within this field. "Hold on."
Walking back to the edge of grass, Sanji pressed his hand against the barrier and was met with that same resistance that quickly gave way to allow him to push through. He was relieved to find they were still able to leave. Extending only his hand out into the blistering cold, he turned it over to find the three scars on his thumb had reappeared almost instantly. His hand once more looked like his.
Pulling his arm back inside the field and shaking out the cold sting that had already started to spread to his fingertips, he turned back to find the swordsman watching him with a curious brow. Already Sanji’s mind was whirring with the possibilities. Clearly there were some sort of healing properties happening, but that wasn’t quite right---he couldn’t place his finger on it.
"I think it's safe." Another glance at his hand confirmed the scars had once more healed, and the weird ethereal glow over his translucent skin returned. He looked at Zoro, "Everything within the field of the tree seems to be affected by it, so when we leave we'll probably go back to normal."
"Suck my chode, you third-rate swordsman.” Scoffing, Sanj made his way back over to Zoro and started to tug off his toque and multiple scarves so he could sass the man without obstruction. He dropped them to the ground and added, “It's my first time dealing with a shitty magical tree."
Rolling his eyes, Zoro gruffly shrugged and despite his reservations began pulling off all his winter gear. Sanji followed suit. Shedding his jacket and other effects, Sanji dropped them to the ground and fully took in the warmth bathing the entire area.
“Aside from the weird healing magic, this place is nice.” Sanji conceded, “It’ll be great to wait out the storm here.”
With a few gruff motions, Zoro got his boots unlaced and kicked them off to dry along with his robes and other damp clothing. Standing barefoot in just his pants and haramaki. And with that it became apparent that every scar Zoro had ever gotten truly had healed---his chest and ankles bare.
“Well look at you…” Sanji mused on a laugh, “You no longer look like one of Hogback’s zombies.”
Zoro flipped him off, and began to walk away.
"Oi, what're you doing?"
Without offering any explanation, Zoro continued forward until he stood at the base of the massive evergreen. It's honeyed glow illuminated the swordsmans curious face. Air was still, and yet his hair still moved as the energy flowing off the tree had its own current that waxed and waned like the tides.
Zoro reached out a hand.
"Don't touch it."
Huffing, Sanji dropped back to the grass and tucked his hands behind his head, pointedly ignoring the swordsman. It was going to be a long night waiting out this storm. And he’d prefer not to spend it arguing. Instead, he lit up a fresh cigarette and enjoyed the view above them.
It lasted all of two minutes.
"Hey, Cook." Zoro's voice was a gentle grumble, "C'mere."
Glaring up at the beautiful starscape he’d been admiring, Sanji barked, "Why?"
"Just do it."
“Ughh.” Throwing himself to his feet with an annoyed grumble, Sanji shoved his hands into his pockets and made his way over. Stubbing out and pocketing his cigarette. Muttering to himself, "Like a please would kill you."
Upon coming to a stop beside the swordsman at the base of the gargantuan tree, Sanji immediately understood what was catching Zoro’s attention. That breeze Sanji had noticed earlier wasn’t just a breeze. It came from the tree itself, and as it flowed in and out it became apparent that it was its breath.
Voicing Sanji’s thoughts, Zoro murmured, "It's breathing."
Continuing to look the tree over in awe, Sanji murmured, "Like haki?"
"Sort of…" Zoro turned his hand over and looked at his palm, examining it with a thoughtful gaze. He flexed it. Then let it fall to his side and looked back up at the canopy with a mutter, "I think it is haki."
"You saying it’s some kind of spiritual tree like Robin said?" Sanji scoffed, and grinned at the suddenly thoughtful swordsman. Normally Zoro didn’t put much stock into something so pious. In fact, the man regularly laughed in the face of god, both literally and metaphorically, “Thought you didn't believe in god?”
"I don't.” Zoro grunted, “I believe what I can see.”
“You think this tree is responsible for haki?” Sanji was enjoying teasing the man, “For our souls?”
"Only one way to know for sure."
Zoro reached out.
Hilarity dropping, Sanji grabbed Zoro's arm.
"What?” Mirthful eyes turned to Sanji, and Zoro smirked, “Worried about me?"
Releasing his grip on Zoro’s arm with a dramatic flick, Sanji spun his hand around to flip off the irritating swordsman, "Eat shit and die."
Zoro snorted and turned back to the tree.
Despite his harsh words, Sanji watched warily as Zoro once more reached out his hand and this time planted it against the trunk of the massive evergreen without any hesitation. At first, nothing seemed to have happened. But the longer they stood there, the more unnerving it was that Zoro still hadn’t moved or said anything---the swordsman was frighteningly motionless.
"Please tell me you fried your brain." Sanji jeered.
“Ha. Ha.” Sanji barked, “You’re hilarious; now cut it out.”
"Oi, Mosshead.” Fear had started to rush throughout Sanji’s body and he stepped forward to get a good look at the swordsman’s face as he reprimanded, “It's not funny, let go."
That’s when he saw his eyes.
They were completely glazed over, unblinking and serene, with a calm expression to match. Unnatural and terrifying. A panicked inhale caught in Sanji's throat and he reached out to grab the swordsman---his hand landed on Zoro's shoulder and time stopped.
Or maybe left altogether.
Ever since he'd stepped foot within the circle of this tree he'd been struggling with a loss of self permanence---his existence felt off kilter to where he perceived himself. And now, he felt as time itself melted away. His whole life flashing in front of his eyes, but not chronologically. It was every moment of his past, and all the events of a future he hadn't even gotten to live yet---all of it existing simultaneously before his eyes.
There was the moment of his birth as he was neatly bundled by a nurse and handed to his mother, her loving face gazing down at him. And there was his aged self leaning on the railing of a ship while enjoying his last smoke---sun setting a glorious gold on the horizon highlighting every line and wrinkle along his skin.
Germa, The Orbit, Baratie, Merry, Sunny, All Blue.
Luffy, Zoro, Nami, Usopp, Chopper, Robin, Franky, Brook. Jinbei.
And amidst the adventure, and the crew, and the Grand Line---there was a constant Sanji hadn’t been ready to accept as something more...
They were on the Sunny, amidship on the freshly cut grass as the sun sat perfect and alone against a canvas of periwinkle blue. Not a cloud in sight. A patch of doldrums had given the crew a moment of respite from the Grand Line’s unpredictable sailing, and everyone was gathered on deck in celebration---Sanji stood facing a remarkably clean Zoro.
Music and levity filled the din.
A charming grin was on the swordsman’s face, and genuine happiness sparkled in his eye as he reached out to grab Sanji commandingly and haul him into a kiss. Sweet and tender. His elated laughter breaking the kiss as Sanji was merely a spectator to his own body as his arms slid up to wrap around Zoro’s shoulders and he returned the kiss to multiple cheers from the crew.
A heaviness on his hand confirmed the existence of a golden ring that he’d never seen before, but somehow had already seen during the rest of his life. All of time condensing it’s significance. Chest swelling with happiness, Sanji couldn’t deny the reality of emotion despite the confusion his present self felt.
In a single moment Sanji knew that the ring was made using Zoro’s golden earrings, that Franky had made it, and that Zoro wore the matching one on his hand. Sanji knew every single moment he had ever touched the ring, looked at the ring, and even taken it off. And Sanji also now knew every time he’d ever seen Zoro’s. Every time that ring had been on a hand that had held his, or gripped a sword when they were bickering, or grazed across his skin with an intimate touch.
All of it, Sanji knew.
And he also knew the last time he’d see each ring.
Bright and bold on a cold, elderly hand just before the final cloth wrappings concealed the swordsman for his burial at sea, and Sanji’s last time falling asleep to the rocking of the ship and the sight of the gold band hanging from his old and weathered hand---never to wake up.
It was already too much, but it didn’t stop.
Onward time coalesced until he had seen everything. Every moment of his life with friends, with family, with Zoro until he felt like he was drowning under the weight of all that he now knew. Overlapping memories of such gravitas that he hardly had the emotional fortitude to handle them when they had happened let alone all of them at once.
A sharp pain yawned within him as he struggled to remember himself, his reality, his time.
Vast oceans. A sunset. Burning sails. Rich food. Cold iron bars. Ships in the clouds. Salty air. His mother’s arms. Ache of age. An underwater city. Warm laughter. Rain dusting his skin. Sharp, tobacco smoke. A hand holding his. Hopeless hunger. Breathtaking adventure. Suffocating loneliness. A crushing hug. Happiness.
He saw everything.
A lifetime lived entirely before his eyes, and perhaps not even a second had passed in what he deemed his world. Every single memory, moment, sensation, emotion, and fleeting thought compounded within him---his existence compacted into a singularity.
And just like that, it was over.
Hand slipping from Zoro’s shoulder, Sanji was slammed back into his body as it crumpled to the ground in exhaustion; he barely caught himself with a hand in time as he sat sprawled on the grass beneath the towering evergreen. His arm shook while keeping him upright. Gasping for breath, Sanji’s other hand came up to run shakily through his hair as he tried to process everything he had just learned---struggling to put the pieces in order.
Dampness on his face confirmed tears he couldn’t control running down his face.
Seeing everything all at once without the existence of time had made perfect sense, but now that he was back in his body and this reality, his brain was forced to play catch up. And it was a lot to catch up on. Putting it all in order, while also coming to terms with it was hard to do in the span of only a few minutes.
A piercing headache blinded him, and Sanji had never wanted a cigarette more in his life.
Crossing his legs and seating himself with a laborious groan, Sanji let his head hang as he blindly patted down his pockets to locate his cigarettes and a lighter. He kept his eyes shut to stave off the nausea. However, it only made it easier for him to relive all the memories---and that wasn’t much better at keeping the bile down.
Finally finding his smokes, Sanji shakily placed one between his lips and then struggled to strike the flint on his lighter with how terrible his hands were trembling. His thumb couldn’t handle the dexterous movement. Using the palm of his hand to hit the flint, he pressed the tip of his cigarette into the flame and took a desperate inhale. A little more grounded, Sanji finally raised his eyes to the swordsman that had played a hauntingly large role in most of his new memories.
Only a few feet away, Zoro could’ve been in another world for how distant he seemed. He too had fallen once his hand had left the surface of the tree and currently knelt with one hand braced like a post in the grass. There was that usual rigidness to the man, except for the minute quaking in his shoulders that gave him away.
Snapping his lighter shut with an irritated flick, Sanji hissed around his smoke, “I told you not to touch it.”
It seemed that no amount of lifetime lived, emotions bared, or love experienced could stop Sanji from being irritated at Zoro.
All Zoro so succinctly managed in response was a short grunt, “Uh-huh.”
A harsh groan wheezed out of the swordsman as he slowly pushed himself back to rest on his haunches and raise a hand to press against his head with a grimace. He rubbed absently at his temple. A moment later he was turning that sharp gaze on Sanji, and they both froze.
It was hard to look at the swordsman and not feel everything.
That frustrating awe of watching Zoro take a blade to the chest for his dream. That blinding fury at a katana pommel being driven into his side to fulfill Zoro's need to sacrifice himself for Luffy. That exhilarating ecstasy when Zoro had pushed him up against the galley wall for the first time and kissed him. That wrenching pain on Whole Cake thinking he had lost not just the crew, but Zoro as well. That glorious joy when the swordsman had proposed to him in the heat of battle. And that chasm of despair and loneliness in his chest at finally losing Zoro…
How could he not be overjoyed at seeing him young, and healthy, and alive?
Once more Sanji was having trouble separating himself from the memories that hadn’t happened yet, and the struggle between who he was and what he would become was blurring fast. He loved the stupid bastard. A lifetime he had spent saying those words, and judging from the look on Zoro’s face---he was remembering it as well.
A softness fell on the swordsman’s face.
Knowing that look all too well, Sanji quickly looked away as he fought to keep himself grounded in his own timeline and body. Frustrated by how happy that look instinctively made him. Mind betraying him as he grit his teeth on the filter of his cigarette before realizing his cheeks were still wet---quickly using the cuff of his shirt to hastily wipe away the proof.
It was frustratingly hard to come back down into this mortal body and single time stream after what could've been decades spent witnessing all of his life. He didn't think he could concentrate on anything right now least of all his silly emotions. There was still the traumatizing matter of witnessing his own birth and death to deal with---both things that he had intended to leave to mystery.
But everything was already laid out for them.
However, he didn’t see what happened while they were within this field. It was blank slate. And it left Sanji terrified. Once you knew everything, it left the unknown a startlingly scary thing.
Zoro reached out for him and Sanji recoiled.
"Nope, I'm leaving." Slapping Zoro's hand away, Sanji bolted to his feet and began striding purposefully back to where they'd left their jackets. He was so not talking about any of this. Just because he loved the man, did not mean he wanted to deal with any of this right now, "I'd rather freeze to death."
Fuck these shitty memories---he was the one in control of his own destiny.
“Don’t you cook me.” Sanji spun around with a brandished finger. Blush only creeping up higher on his cheeks at finding the swordsman watching him with a fond look of all things. He was on his feet, slowly walking towards Sanji with a confident stride, “You-- you--”
Zoro smirked expectantly.
“You--” Trying again with a little more bravado this time, Sanji managed to hold it for a few moments before deflating with a tired sigh. He glanced at the swordsman over before crossing his arms and muttering, "Can you close your eye; it's freaking me out."
"I'm not deflecting." Sanji sneered, "I just got used to it and now it's distracting."
Unspoken, Sanji refused to add that he now had decades of memories of the man with only one eye. And seeing him with two was unnerving.
“Why are you so upset?”
"Me?! Excuse me, but I must still have snow in my ears.” Sanji barked a cruel - if mildly hysterical - laugh, “because are you - the emotionally stunted turd extraordinaire - lecturing me on expressing myself?!"
“I know what’s bothering you.” Completely ignoring Sanji's crisis, Zoro took another step forward, “You tell me why you were in such a bad mood today.”
Embarrassment had Sanji gritting his teeth.
Closing his eyes against the memory he was reluctantly forced to relive, Sanji could picture it clear as day. At some unknown place on the Grand Line, they would be in the crow’s nest lounging comfortably together amongst several blankets. Zoro on his back with his hands clasped behind his head, idly listening while Sanji sat with his legs thrown over the swordsman's torso and read from a book.
'Anomalies of The Grand Line'
Reading softly as his voice comfortably filled the room, until he got to a page on a certain tree and it had him pausing. Staring at it as the distant memory of the strange tree hit deep, but he couldn't remember why. Eventually holding up the book to show the picture to Zoro, before softly admitting why he'd been so hostile that day---why they had gotten in that fight that destroyed the tree and sent them on that stupid quest.
Zoro was momentarily stunned before chuckling, calling Sanji stupid, and closing his eyes once more. Bidding him to continue reading...
“Yeah, I know.” Sanji snapped, and opened his eyes to glare at the present Zoro, “I saw it too.”
“It’s stupid, cook.”
“Yeah," Annoyed, Sanji huffed, "you say that too.”
All of what was bothering him today would one day be out in the open, and everything would be fine. Sanji would speak his truth, and Zoro would come clean about how'd felt for years. But it was hard to let go of the frustrations of the present even if he did know the truth now---he knew he was being unreasonable but...
“Just ‘cause I don’t say it doesn’t mean I don’t lov--”
Slapping a hand over the swordsman’s mouth and cutting him short before he had time to finish that horrifying sentence, Sanji glared daggers at him.
“I may have a ridiculous amount of memories of you saying that, but me, here and now, does not want to hear it.” Squeezing Zoro’s cheeks tighter to emphasize his point, Sanji glared, “It’s embarrassing.”
Zoro's scowl clearly stated how dumb he thought the cook was.
Batting Sanji's hand away, Zoro scoffed, “And all the other stuff isn’t?”
“That’s different.” Sanji muttered, desperately trying - and failing - not to think about every sappy thing that would happen between them in the future, “It’s different. They're just memories now, and this… I won’t-- I’m here right now, and this is what matters and… We’re not even going to remember any of this!”
"So--?!" Sanji balked, waving his hands about in a frustrating attempt to convey some of the panic he was feeling. It was baffling how unaffected the swordsman was by all of this, "How are you so calm about this?! About knowing everything-- About us?!"
Sanji wanted to pull his hair out.
How the hell was the crap swordsman handling enlightenment better than him?!
“We won’t remember.”
“You-- ARGH!” Letting out a frustrated yell, Sanji glared at the calm man. It wasn’t fair. After everything that they had lived through, seen, and experienced---by all rights the swordsman should understand why Sanji was pissed, "I had to live through burying you-- I’m going to have to live through burying you! Do you know how much that sucked-- Will suck?!”
Sanji let out a frustrated scream, talking about the future in the past tense was giving him a headache.
“Last thing I saw was you.” Zoro smiled, “It was nice.”
“Don’t-- You…" Sanji sputtered and then brandished a finger in warning, "Don't!"
"You… you don't get to be all romantic right now.” Sanji seethed, “That's my schtick. And-- and you can't just act like what's going to happen makes everything different now!!!"
"Why not?" Zoro shrugged and took a step towards Sanji, "We won't remember this, and we won't remember our lives---nothing has any consequence right now. And you know exactly how this plays out once we get back to the crew…"
Sanji knew Zoro was right…
After the blizzard passed, they would venture out into the bright morning light and leave this place behind. Their bodies would return to normal, and they would wander through the tundra to locate a tree---their memories of this place all but lost. Back at the village the festival would resume with a new tree, and a conversation by the fire would put all this into perspective.
Everything was going to work out...
There was no point conflating his future and present self when all of this would become a mystery. They would remember this place, but not what it did. And Sanji absently wondered if even though he wouldn't remember this conversation, if this was all playing out exactly as preordained.
Sighing, Sanji gave up.
Pulling out a fresh cigarette and lighting up, Sanji focused on the cherry for a few puffs before glancing up at Zoro who was still watching him with that look. That knowing, understanding, happy look that was so damned disconcerting, but also made so much sense given what he now knew. It should've been weird - this wasn't how they acted toward each other presently - but given their enlightenment it made sense.
It was still uncharacteristically sappy as shit.
"We get married."
It was still horribly embarrassing.
It was still… perfect.
Another step and Zoro was right in front of Sanji now, barefoot and glowing. His smile somehow brighter than the ethereal light around them. Decades of knowing the swordsman made it obvious he was gunning for a kiss, and Sanji idly wondered how much of Zoro's behaviour now was influenced by his memories---made him wonder how his own actions were changing...
Sanji decided to embrace it.
"So… World's Greatest Swordsman, huh?" Sanji took a long drag and breathed the smoke off to the side, "Weird knowing how that's gonna play out?"
"It's nothing I didn't already know."
Slugging the swordsman in the arm, Sanji scoffed on a laugh, "Cocky bastard."
“What about you?” Chuckling, Zoro reached up to flick a gentle finger along Sanji’s cheek in a fond display of affection. It should’ve been weird. However, Sanji was getting more used to it the longer he sat with his future memories, “All Blue?”
Fighting a smile at the memories associated with the words, Sanji fidgeted with his cigarette a bit before admitting with a reluctant laugh, “Better than I imagined it.”
They both smiled---it was exactly what he would say when they got there in the future.
"Why are you grinning so much?" A bit of a redundant question to ask, especially since once Sanji had started smiling he couldn’t stop either, but this was weird even for the swordsman, "You didn't even smile this much before you died."
"I dunno. After seeing everything---after dying…" Trailing off, Zoro sat with that memory for a long time before his eyes flickered back to Sanii. Again with that dopey smile, "This kinda feels like a second chance."
Sanji’s heart skipped, but then he paused.
"Oh fuck." Curse bubbling out on a laugh, Sanji wasn't sure why it was so funny. Zoro arched a brow. Reigning in his chuckles, Sanji snickered, "Shit, maybe we're dead."
Zoro smirked, "Thought we agreed neither of us are getting into heaven."
"You, definitely not." With a shrewd look, Sanji smiled and waved his cigarette about playfully. "Me? I don't know, I think I have a shot. I put up with you after all.”
A hand came out to rest on Sanji’s waist, thumb crooking securely along Sanji’s belt and the light touch caused Sanji’s heart to race anew. Zoro always had that effect on him. But with decades of memories flowing through him, it was hard not to let it hold so much more significance. With a soft jerk, Zoro tugged Sanji a little closer.
“You saying I’m in your heaven?”
“I didn’t say that.”
With a laugh, Sanji allowed himself to be pulled close as Zoro’s other hand slid up to gently cradle Sanji’s jaw and guide him into a timid kiss. Slow and deep. It was reminiscent of the thousands they would have throughout their lives, but also none of them even compared---it was eternal and sweet.
Eventually they pulled apart, but Zoro refused to let go.
“So.” Breathing out the word on an embarrassingly breathless exhale, Sanji coughed and tried to force some gruffness back into his voice, “what exactly are you supposed to do when you’ve already lived your life?”
Zoro shrugged, “Make new memories?”
Pausing, Zoro frowned, and then asked, "When you died, what was the last thing you wanted to do?"
A question he'd never thought he'd be asked, and a memory he certainly shouldn't even have, but Sanji knew the answer in a heartbeat. He remembered that day like it had just happened. On the All Blue, content with a life well lived, melancholy, but whole---and eating dinner that night alone with the thought that having someone to share a bottle of wine and snide comment would make the evening perfect.
Smiling, Sanji couldn't lie about something like that, "Bicker with you one more time over something stupid."
Snorting, Zoro didn't look all that surprised. He glanced around the ethereal field, and then back to Sanji, "Does this count?"
"Oh, for sure." Sanji barked a laugh, "You crap swordsman."
"World's Best Crap Swordsman." Zoro corrected.
It wasn't the first time he’d corrected Sanji on that.
Biting back a smile, Sanji really no longer cared about all this confusing time nonsense. He felt as comfortable in his elderly memories now as he did in his youthful ones, and Zoro was, unfortunately, right. This did feel like a second chance.
"What about you?"
Sanji arched brow.
Eyes sparkling playfully, Zoro’s arms tightened a fraction where he still held the cook close and he was almost bashful when he tongued at a canine. His smirk was pure heat. Sanji could already feel electricity crackling between them when Zoro alluded, "I mean…"
"And I'm the pervert." Sanji snorted.
"I was gonna say spar." An arched brow accompanied Zoro’s innocent statement. Zoro's grin was devilish, and the feigned ignorance was positively insulting, "Why? What were you thinking about?"
Leaning in, Zoro left his lips to hover inches above Sanji’s as he taunted, "Pervert."
"You set me up."
"You'd think after a lifetime you'd come to expect it."
“We have a few hours until dawn and the storm should let out…” Smirking, Zoro pulled Sanji in until he was flush against the swordsman. His bare chest radiating heat. Lips brushing against Sanji’s before murmuring, “Wanna pass the time?”
Sanji pressed his lips together, but knew he couldn’t lie.
“Yeah, shit, why not.”
With a new tree in place in the town square, the festival continued without any more complications and the crew was given permission to attend on the condition that Zoro and Sanji were on their best behaviour. For an added precaution, Nami allowed them to attend on threat of castration if anything went wrong. Aside from that however, the whole festival was wonderful.
Festive lights strung all about the town square drowned out the long night and gave the whole area a magical glow, but nothing more so than the tree they had managed to locate. Several feet taller than the old one, and a much more heavenly glow to it. People danced and sang around it’s base, fireworks intermittently igniting in the sky, and the joyous occasion was a wonder to behold.
From a comfortable spot by one of the many bonfires, Sanji nursed a cigarette and hot toddy as he watched the crew enjoy the festivities. Luffy was sampling any and all food he could get his hands on while Chopper was gorging himself on frozen maple taffy sticks. Zoro had parked himself near the liquor shack. Usopp was regaling some locals with a few of their adventures---largely true ones now. Franky and Robin were curled up near one of the other fires, and Brook had joined in to play with the local musicians. Jinbei was bundled up in a ridiculous amount of layers and sticking close to the fire. And Nami was off no doubt winning some money for the festival games. It was a charming sight to see, especially after how much of a non-stop whirlwind their lives had been since getting to the New World.
Celebrating on this small island harkened back to simpler times.
Taking a sip of his drink, Sanji basked in the warmth it spread throughout his body. Sighing out a happy breath. Spirals of delicate fog curled and wove their way from Sanji's lips, dissipating into the night sky, and everything about the evening was perfect...
But at his core something was still bothering him.
They had gotten the tree after spending a night wholed up away from the storm in the safety of the weird field, but every time Sanji tried to piece together that night something was off. His memory was as blank as Zoro’s. One moment they were caught in a hellish blizzard, standing on the edge of that field---sharing a nod before stepping inside.
A moment later they had been standing out in the middle of the tundra in the early morning light without a clue as to how they got there. Several hours of their memory missing. There hadn’t been anything wrong with them, and that odd tree and field had completely disappeared without a trace. Given they still had a tree to find they had let it go, but Sanji hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it and how he felt like he was forgetting something important.
And if that wasn’t enough---everything with the swordsman felt weird now.
Yesterday, he’d been fed up and annoyed by Zoro, but now he couldn’t deny that whatever had happened had assuaged his fears in some capacity. It didn’t make sense. Nothing had changed; Zoro was still an emotionally stunted, verbally distant turd extraordinaire that wouldn’t know a feeling if it came up and bit him in his ass…
Why did that sentiment feel familiar?
Taking a sip of toddy and following it with a pensive drag on his cigarette, Sanji hoped he wasn’t running out of creative material to call the shitty swordsman; that’d be tragic. And speaking of tragedy. As if summoned by crude mutterings, the swordsman in question emerged from the crowd with a tankard of hot spiced mead in hand and was making a beeline for Sanji’s little sanctuary.
Pointedly looking at the fire, Sanji ignored him.
Coming to stand next to Sanji, Zoro sipped at his drink unobtrusively for several minutes. And for a time Sanji thought that might be it. However, it wasn’t long before Zoro had finished his drink, the tankard was set aside, and Zoro was speaking, "What's wrong, cook?"
"Who says anything is wrong?" Fiddling with his cigarette, Sanji struggled with the feeling of unease that had been creeping up ever since Zoro’s approach. He didn't know why. His gut was in knots, but he ignored it in favour of a scowl, “I’m just enjoying the fire.”
"You're making that constipated face when you're overthinking something."
Curse the perceptive swordsman…
Setting his cup aside on a nearby railing, Sanji ruminated on how to answer the swordsman’s question as he put out his cigarette and started up another one. He could only imagine Zoro knew. Taking a drag on his fresh cigarette, Sanji blew out a stream of smoke off to the side and muttered, “What do you think?”
Zoro only grunted.
After several minutes of standing together watching the raging bonfire, Sanji had just begun to think Zoro had dropped the subject when Zoro spoke up. His voice was soft. A confused and… almost nervous tone lacing his words, "When we got back I found my earrings in my pocket…”
“I remembered something."
Sanji’s heart skipped.
"You did?” Slowly lowering his cigarette, Sanji rounded on the swordsman, “What?"
Zoro frowned, still watching the fire.
"It wasn't quite a memory…” Murmuring softly, Zoro dragged his gaze away from the fire to settle on Sanji with an intensity that had Sanji pinned to the spot. He’d never seen that look before---and yet it felt familiar. Unable to move, Sanji watched as the pinch in Zoro’s brow unknitted, and then he actually smiled, “more like… a realization."
Lashes of golden light flickered across Zoro's face from the dancing flames, casting the swordsman's face into stark relief, before falling once more into shadow. Sanji struggled to stay in the moment. That glow on Zoro's face tugging at something in Sanji's chest with frightening urgency.
Question breathed with a puff of frosty breath, Sanji couldn’t place why he knew where this was going even though he wouldn’t have believed it in a million years. It felt like he was requesting his own execution. This weird combination of fear, exhilaration, and unplaceable familiarity was driving him mad.
A smirk was Sanji’s only warning.
Leaning in faster than Sanji had time to react, Zoro pressed a quick kiss to the cook's rosy cheeks before pulling away with a playful look. Zoro grinned proud and smug. Slapping a hand over his cheek, Sanji sputtered indignantly as his face flooded with a telling blush that creeped all the way up to his frost pinched ears.
"I love you."
Sanji’s heart stopped.
That was the first time either of them had said anything remotely that sappy. And while Sanji was elated, a part of him was livid that he wasn’t the one to say it first. Having Zoro beat him to it felt like a kick in the teeth.
“I know it’s not something we do, but I figured I should say--"
Slapping a hand over the swordsman’s mouth to shut up that horrifying line of conversation, Sanji was only momentarily embarrassed before a memory sparked to life in Sanji with jarring immediacy, knocking the breath out of him and freezing him to the spot.
Just like Zoro had said, it wasn’t quite a memory.
There was no real shape or image to the recollection, just a feeling. It ached and tugged at his chest in the most pleasant way. And the longer he stared the more certain he was that it was happiness---but beyond that he couldn't recall a thing.
Slowly retracting his hand and pulling it in close, Sanji paused at the sight of the three scars prominently on his thumb and once again felt weird. That feeling of lost emotions. Of something he was supposed to remember. When Sanji finally looked up, he found Zoro watching him again with that look. Sanji wished he knew what it meant. If felt like he was supposed to. Letting his hand fall to his side, Sanji let his pride go with it, and spoke freely.
"I feel like I'm forgetting something important."
Zoro didn't react.
A moment later he asked, "Does it matter?"
"What the shit, you unromantic dope." Leave it to the crap swordsman to say something sweet, and then totally lame a second later. "Of course it matters."
“Because--" Starting off heated, Sanji immediately faltered once the question sunk in and he found his answers woefully lacking. He mouthed wordlessly. Wracking his brain for any sort of reason of why he felt cheated out of something he never even had---why it bothered him so much. "Because…"
Zoro arched a brow.
And Sanji knew.
Scowling and quickly looking away, Sanji glared at the fire while wrestling with the embarrassing realization. He’d been the one that wanted communication---conversation. And now that he was forced to be honest he hated it. They should just go back to punches and curse words…
But Sanji knew he didn’t want that.
Under his breath, Sanji admitted, “It was clearly something good.”
“Stop getting hung up on one moment, curly.” A smile was already on the swordsman’s face, and Sanji hated how it was like the man had already known what Sanji was going to say. He didn’t like when Zoro read him so perfectly. Or maybe he did, and that was the problem. “You got your whole future to make better ones.”
Snorting, Sanji shook his head, "When'd you get all wise?"
"Who knows?” Zoro lifted a shoulder in a shrug, “Maybe it was that tree?"
"A tree would be smarter than you."
Zoro leaned forward with a chuckle, his earrings chimed together happily, their gold ignited by the blooming fireworks in the sky so red and blue danced across their surface. Those earrings had become an enigma. A symbol of a memory neither of them would ever have, but proof that it was real---this was real.
Sanji tried and failed to hide a dopey smile.
Looking at Zoro, there was an elation in his chest at the prospect of the future. With the crew, their dreams, and with them. There was obviously no way for him to possibly know how their lives were going to work out, and even if they were going to be happy---but in that moment he was certain that they would.
Just a silly feeling, but one he trusted implicitly.
"Hey." Sanji grabbed the swordsman's attention with a hand and a fond word, "Marimo."
"Hm?" Zoro grunted, and then his brow arched curiously as he tracked the path of Sanji's hand with an astute gaze. All the way across his shoulder and then up to curl around Zoro's neck, only then did he look back at Sanji, "What?"
"Don't let me down."
An incredulous snort rocked Zoro's body, but he allowed himself to be pulled forward by Sanji's hand anyway. His crooked smile and warm gaze teasing, "With what?"
Chuckling, Sanji pulled him into a tender kiss, "Those better memories."