The tavern Zoro had found was a quiet cool relief from the sweltering heat and the endless noise emanating from the festival going on outside.
The beer was good, Zoro's pockets were full with Beri after he brought in some small time bounty earlier in the day and even after a meal and a night of drinking he should have enough for passage onto the next island.
His only problem was the barkeeper right now, already eyeing Zoro like she was about to kick him out. People were so touchy about a little blood on a coat and it wasn't like the place was overflowing with a well to do clientele that would take exception.
He slid a few Beri over before the woman had a chance to bother him and nursed his beer in blissful silence as she turned back to her glasses. The comings and goings only registered in passing, observing more unconscious habit than active effort these days. One man left, a group of half a dozen arrived, a couple scanned the place from the door before moving on, a couple stragglers joined the group from earlier. Nothing out of the ordinary.
He was on his third beer and getting a little annoyed with the group of men in the back getting louder by the second when someone far more interesting entered. Or rather that someone slipped by his radar and got so far as to be almost behind him until Zoro even noticed his presence.
He got a glimpse of the man when he sat down a few seats down at the bar. Blond hair half tied up in neat braids, the rest framing a fine featured face. Billowy white shirt with a vest over it. Pants that looked like they were tattooed on muscular legs.
All in all almost pretty for a man and if Zoro had time or patience for distractions he would admit that this sneaky stranger might be a worthwhile one.
"One tankard of your house brew I have heard so much about," he said in a voice deeper than Zoro would have expected although there was a strange flutter in it as he talked to the women, tone just short of meaningless flattery.
The woman behind the counter didn't seem to notice and perked up instantly, drawing a tankard and setting it down with a smile. "A man of taste, I see."
"Always happy to follow up on a recommendation," he said and took a sip, considering before giving a wide smile. "And for good reason, this is excellent!"
He took another few sips under the barkeep's indulgent smile and they talked about brewing techniques and flavors while Zoro turned back to his own drink. When he glanced over next the barkeep had gone back to her work and the blond was watching him with a smile, just a turn of the corner of his mouth, giving Zoro a blatant once over. Following up here would be a distraction, Zoro reminded himself.
"The same for him, please," the blond said and Zoro was presented with a tankard of his own. Maybr not the bad kind of distraction. He indicated the mug towards this stranger before taking a gulp.
A little sweet for Zoro's taste but with a hint of something… something. It wasn't bad at all, not to mention free. He drank until the tankard was empty and wiped his mouth. The blond was still sipping his drink leisurely, a cigarette now perched between long fingers.
Something about the sight was inviting, maybe promising a bit of uncomplicated fun that wouldn't interfere with Zoro's goal. So he got up and settled down again in the spot next to the stranger.
"Thanks. How'd I earn that?" Zoro asked and watched a lazy grin spread over the man's face as he leaned slightly into Zoro's space. Even his stupid curled eyebrow was kind of charming.
"You haven't yet. But I'm sure we can work somethin-" he started but then stopped himself at a small sound of distress behind him. He turned and Zoro followed his eyes. The loud group from earlier was quieter now, though it seemed only because they had the waitress in their clutches.
"Oh fuck's sake." The blond looked pissed as he swung to his feet. "Don't go anywhere," he said and crossed the room. Casual as anything.
No words, just one fluid movement. Left leg swinging out and down in a high arch and one of the men was struck to the ground.
The waitress shrieked, ducking out of the way. Zoro watched mesmerized as this stranger covered her while taking on the remaining men in the confined space, not so much as taking his hands out of his pockets to do it, hair flying wild with his movements.
A flash of metal behind him had Zoro on his feet. He blocked the knife with Wadou just before it could sink into the other man's shoulder, catching the sleeve of the billowy shirt by accident, slicing it open. Room for improvement on his precision and reaction time there.
Blue eyes were burning with rage but then Zoro and he were back to back, taking the rest of the men out in seconds.
Barely even a challenge.
"Hate fuckers like that," the blond said sneering at the unconscious men, before turning to the still shaking waitress with a soft tone of voice.
Not Zoro's wheelhouse so he searched the unconscious drunkards with the help of the barkeeper that had just emerged from the backroom instead. "Should've known these guys would be nothing but trouble," she muttered as she emptied their wallets onto the counter and took the knives to the back while Zoro dragged two of the drunkards outside into a neighbouring alley. The barkeep joined him and between the two of them it didn't take long to bring the trash out and Zoro went back inside, hoping for another drink.
Back inside curly brow was still talking to the girl, cooing at her now that she seemed to have settled a litte, his half empty drink abandoned until Zoro finished it.
Blondie went so far as to kiss the back of her hand with some more sickeningly sweet words that had Zoro wish for more booze. Thankfully he swung to his feet after that embarrassing display, approaching Zoro with a shit eating grin.
"Thanks for the assist," he said, sending Zoro's blood pressure sky high instantly. Asshole was nonchalantly patting himself down, pulling out another cigarette and a lighter. "Though you owe me a shirt now," he said, lighting up and hollowing his cheeks as he took a drag.
"Assist, huh? You'd be toast if I hadn't intervened. Cocky bastard," Zoro said and glared when the blond blew smoke in his face. He was grinning again. Pretty asshole.
"Do I really have to listen to that from a piece of lawn walking around with three swords?"
"Old man scowl."
They stared at each other. The corner of the blond's mouth was twitching, threatening to pull those pale lips into another smile.
Zoro could feel the same pull but his self-control was useful in moments like these.
The owner clearing her throat interrupted their standoff. "You two wanna take your flirting outside?" She asked, waving curly brow off as he fluttered over with a roll of Beri presented. "It's fine, you helped get the garbage out."
Zoro rolled his eyes at the man's embarrassing babbling of thanks and turned to leave now that his tab was all paid, only to find his arm caught in a solid grip, curly brow pulling him outside into the still stuffy evening air.
"What are you doing?" He asked, pulling at his arm to test the grip. Solid, but nothing he couldn't break out of with ease.
"You owe me a shirt, remember?" The blond said with a bright grin, pulling him past the alley they had dumped the unconscious bodies -or a different one?- and towards the festivities.
"I don't owe you shit," Zoro muttered under his breath and balked as he was pulled into the light and bustling activity of the summer festival. Stupid feet wouldn't cooperate in digging his heels in.
"You cut it, you buy me a new one," the blond said like Zoro hadn't saved his damn life.
Before Zoro could protest he was pulled along more forcefully, curly brow's voice taking on an excited edge. "Food stalls!"
Zoro didn't have time to wonder what the fuck was going on before they had stopped in front of a stall selling some kind of pancake filled with vegetables and eggs and topped with a kind of garlicy sauce, of which the blond promptly ordered one. "So good!" He exclaimed after taking a few bites, eyes lighting up with every thoughtful chew. "Want some too, mosshead?" He asked, breaking the topmost portion off and offering the rest to Zoro.
Zoro did not really wants some. But something about that smile made him take the offered food anyway and chow it down in a few bites. It was pretty good admittedly.
So were the meat and onion skewer a few stalls down and the fried octopus balls after that, all of which the blond shared with him, commenting on flavours and textures to the owners. Full of appreciation which left all of them smiling wide when the blond moved on.
Everything they tried was amazing and Zoro only passed on dessert, which was some sort of baked dough cone dipped in sugar and cinnamon, getting some kind of local hard liquor mixed with lemon juice instead.
"You into food, huh?" Zoro asked the blond as they moved towards the fountain where it was blissfully a little cooler and less blissfully couples were sitting huddled together with their feet in the water.
The blond ripped off another piece of his pastry and chewed with a happy expression before passing off the rest of the thing to some kids that were eyeing the treat curiously.
"Comes with the territory, I'm a chef of the high seas. One of the best, in fact," he said, as he washed his hands in the clear fountain water, hair falling around his face like a gold curtain, the thought forcing Zoro to take another gulp of his drink.
"That so?" Zoro tried to picture this pushy stranger in a kitchen. Chef of the high seas, huh...
"I could make you breakfast sometime and prove it." Zoro startled at the frankly brazen come on, or maybe at how seriously he was considering the offer. The blond just smiled at him with half lidded eyes before grabbing his arm again, dragging him along much too easily. Why Zoro didn't resist and instead just emptied and discarded his cup… who the fuck knows.
"Now for that shirt!" The blond said as he finally found a tailor's stall that was to his liking after passing a dozen of them. It had some of the same festival clothes on display that were all over the other shops but more casual looking shirts, pants and dresses too.
What followed was an excruciating half hour as Zoro was forced to watch the blond move from garish shirt to garish shirt, changing it up between loud colours, patterns that were insulting to the eye and the dramatic billowy cuts of the local garb, that had Zoro roll his eyes.
"Hope your taste in food is better than your taste in clothes," Zoro said, idly leafing through a few shirts and looking at the prices. Affordable at least. Even if he didn't intend to pay shit.
"Says the shit head wearing a belly warmer and patterning his coat with blood splatters," the blond said from behind the curtain that hid him while he changed, only a slender silhouette like this - that Zoro was not watching.
When he next emerged he wore one of the billowy ones again. This one a gentle blue and meant to be tied at the chest for modesty.
Except the blond didn't care about modesty, leaving it all untied and a good part of his defined chest as well as the top of his abs exposed.
Zoro was not staring, or indulging in a double take, or even pointedly looking away. No. Zoro was behaving perfectly normally, and not blushing at all and fuck the blond for fucking laughing at him.
"This one, huh? Perv." Fucking smug asshole.
"I didn't say anything!" Zoro grouched but he wasn't being listened to anymore.
The blond had already turned to the owner who seemed rather eager to have the picky bastard gone. "I'll take this one." He said and then looked expectantly at Zoro, who, fuck help him, actually forked over the money, although not without ramming his shoulder against the annoying blond in passing.
"Much better, don't you agree?" The man said, twirling happily and making the fabric billow around him with a swift turn as he walked away, a paper bag with his vest and ripped up shirt now hanging from his arm.
Zoro made a disinterested noise.
It didn't save him and instead he had his wrist grabbed again. "Let's see what else they have here..." The blond said and Zoro found himself once more being pulled towards the festival and weaved through the crowd expertly.
"What makes you think I'm coming with you?" He asked, but his legs kept steady pace with the blond and he knew himself that he wasn't so much as trying to get out of the gentle grip, not even when the wrist pulling morphed into loose hand holding.
"Got a better place to be?" The blond asked, grinning at him over his shoulder. Light and shadow played over the fine featured face in the shine of lantern and Zoro was suddenly lost for words.
"Didn't think so."
"Smug bastard," Zoro muttered under his breath but the small laugh he got was almost worth being dragged around.
They stumbled upon a few games at the town's central plaza, one of which was a strange looking set up of bars, and transparent walls, foot and handholds, erected over a stretch of water cutting through town. A climbing challenge.
The blond grinned at him and pressed his bag into Zoro's hand as he let go, taking the pleasant warmth of his hand with him. The thought fled his mind as he watched Curly Brows jump smoothly onto the swaying starting platform and then taking a running leap at the first obstacle, grabbing the first monkey bar to swing forward and slip through the following tube feet first. He caught himself on a foothold on the other side, rolling forward dynamically to catch the handholds on the wall opposite, climbing around and slipping through another, much smaller hole in a wall like he had no bones to contend with and then weaved around bars and platforms and through yet more tubes.
He beat the obstacle course to roaring applause, bowing dramatically and somersaulting off the end platform to accept the coin or whatever it was for mastering the damn thing.
Zoro had no illusion of beating that display in terms of time or elegance. "Braggart…" Zoro muttered at him and his stupid, pretty grin when he jogged over, smug as shit and presented his medal before dropping it into the paper bag. "I'll show you."
The perfect opportunity presented itself with an armwrestling competition, which Zoro dominated effortlessly, earning himself a cool glare as the blond refused to participate because of something about his hands.
Didn't matter anyway. Zoro had won and that felt good enough, even as he noted giggles and whispers from a group of girls, vying for his attention.
"First prize, congratulations, Sir!" The referee said and grinned at him wide, handing him a large plush sheep. Fucking town mascot. And the girls were eyeing it and him with obvious interest. Barking up the completely wrong tree, the lot of them.
"Cute," the blond said, sidling up to him and eyeing the soft abomination in Zoro's arms. "And makes you popular too," he added and waved at the girls with a dopey smile.
"You take it," Zoro said and pushed the offending object into the other man's arms who had the nerve to hug it to his chest and flutter his lashes at Zoro. Holding it like he intended to keep the damn thing instead of handing it off to one of the girls.
"You don't actually have to butter me up, y'know," he said, leading them away from the crowd a little toward a secluded area as he lit up a smoke, tucking the plush sheep in with his elbow as he blew rings into the air, smiling at Zoro.
"I already think you're pretty cute too, green hair and all."
"You're a fucking blabbermouth, anyone ever tell you that?"
"Sure, right before I made them eat their words." The bastard blew his smoke in Zoro's face again and only grinned when Zoro boxed him in against the brickwall, planting his arms firmly on either side of him.
"Very tough. Sure you're not all talk?" He asked.
"I could ask you the same thing," the blond said and dropped the butt of his smoke, stamping it out.
"Make me." His eyes were half lidded and he was peering at Zoro's lips, pale-lashes fluttering gently. Fuck, Zoro really wanted to kiss him. And if the bastard was this brazen in inviting him… what was the harm in a little distraction along his journey if it was this uncomplicated?
Unfortunately the small din of a pocket snail interrupted them, clouding the blonds face with annoyance. "Oh for fuck's sake," he said, digging the thing out of his vest in the bag and slipping under Zoro's arm to take the call, the sheep still squeezed under his arm and now being kneaded by one nervous hand.
"Fucking what, you old goat?" He barked into the snail, face impassive as he waited, then overcome with rage.
"Carne and Patty what?" He asked and then hung up, cutting off shouting on the other end.
"Can't fucking believe this shit!" He yelled, kicking a stone and sending it flying into the alley with enough force to knock over trash cans at the other end. Then turned to look at Zoro with a miserable pout.
"Gotta bail. Sorry, Mr Pirate Hunter. Thanks for the shirt," he said, breaking into a run.
Zoro was after him before he'd properly started moving. "Wait," he called, dodging passers-by in the warm glow of lanterns, desperately trying not to lose the trail of golden hair.
The air was a little cooler now and was turning colder still as they kept running towards the harbour and the breeze from the sea wiped away some of the humid heat.
Cutting a corner Zoro managed to catch up enough to grab the blond and stop him with an iron grip on his arm.
"How do you know who I am?" He asked, earning himself an eye roll.
"Green hair, three swords, three earrings. Your reputation precedes you, mosshead."
Okay, so maybe that had been dumb. But Zoro was kind of lost here. Didn't even understand why he ran after the blond. Or maybe he did. All that was reallynimportant was that he needed one thing. "What's your name?"
Curly brow laughed at him. "Now you think to ask?" He said but flinched at the not so distant sound of canonfire.
"I have to go," he said and kicked Zoro's ankle hard enough to dislodge himself but not so hard that Zoro couldn't run after him close enough to hear him swear under his breath.
"Swear to fuck I'm gonna end those chuckleheads," the blond muttered sounding so fucking pissed. Zoro probably shouldn't like it so much, but that ship had sailed. Now he just needed a fucking name, distraction be damned.
The blond was stopped by some marines right as he jumped down to the docks. "That's him!" One of them called, as they brandished their guns, which did fuck all to dissuade the blond charging straight at them. "Halt, Blackleg Sanji!"
And there was the name Zoro wanted, and the massive disturbance to his plan he should have seen coming.
Blackleg Sanji, second in command to Redleg Zeff's crew with a bounty of 177.000.000 Beri. Currently kicking marine ass with a paper bag dangling from his arm and a plush sheep clutched tight and expertly maneuvered out of the way of every assault.
And again his blond hair was flying wild shining pale in the moonlight. A shame that there was no decent bounty poster for him.
He dispatched the marines quickly, cursing under his breath as he scanned the harbour, no doubt making out the ship he'd been looking for.
His crew's pirate ship.
Just one more reason for Zoro to apprehend him, so he pulled his sword and went in for an attack, only to be avoided and on the receiving end of a burning glare.
He adjusted his stance and blocked a kick that was powerful enough to send him skidding backwards. The blond was looking at him with a ridiculous eyebrow pulled up, his leg still raised and the sheep still dangling from his hand, unscathed.
Bastard had tricked Zoro, knowing full well who he was and jerking him around all night. Looking smug as shit all the while, just like now.
And try as he might to be angry about it, it had been so nice that Zoro could hardly even be annoyed. He went in for another attack that was blocked by a steel reinforced shoe, dodging a kick coming his way in retaliation
Back and forth it went like this and fun as it was to be evenly matched for once, Zoro realised that he'd have to end this fucking shit soon or this cocky, arrogant, beautiful bastard was going to get away.
So on the next opportunity he dug his heels in and put his all into the next charge.
It went nowhere. Sanji dodged the attack deftly, but with a regretful sigh. Darting forward once, he pressed warm lips to Zoro's cheek. "To remember me by," he whispered, pulled back and punted the bag with his clothes into Zoro's face, leaving him completely disoriented. Sanji, used that moment and Zoro's shoulder to vault over him, run down the dock, jump and then make another step in the fucking air, propelling himself into the rigging of some ship, the full moon illuminating his lithe form against the ropework, the fucking sheep still in his hand. "It's been a pleasure, moss head!" He called over the wind and the waves before getting a hold of a rope and swinging onto another ship and then one more, further and further out, building momentum as he ran over decks and jumped off dinghies and bay rocks and air itself, until he skidded onto a ship that was about to clear the bay, flying the Redleg pirates' flag proudly.
The wind was favourable and soon the ship was but a speck in the distance.
And as Zoro stood on the dock, staring after the ship with the paper bag still in hand, he was consumed with only one thought.
He was gonna catch that pirate.