What's left of the little eggplant is a half-empty packet of cigarettes and a bloodied tie.
The kid with the green hair places the items on the table. Zeff vaguely remembered meeting him a long time ago, when the rowdy crew of pirates was much younger and his little eggplant was still—he doesn't really want to think about it, not yet, so he focuses on the way the kid takes the items out of his backpack and places them one by one on the table with gentleness he wouldn't have guessed the kid possessed.
It doesn't matter, anyways. The little eggplant is—
"You," he grunts, and the kid looks up. "What's your name, kid?"
The kid scoffs, a hint of amusement flashes through his expression—it's probably been a long time, Zeff figures, that anyone would look at the tall, imposing swordsman as a kid. "Zoro," he answers. "Roronoa Zoro."
There's only one question that Zeff wants to ask. "Did he find it?"
The sea, he doesn't need to say. The All Blue.
The kid—Zoro—closes his eyes, and nods. "Yes."
Yes. There it is—the answer to the question he's been trying to answer all his life. Yes, it exists. The sea his heart has always longed for, the dream he's spent sleepless nights thinking of—it exists.
Zeff never expected that he'd see his dream come true with a heavy heart.
"I can bring you there if you want to," Zoro continues, but trails off when Zeff raises a hand. Silencing. Defeated.
"You can leave," is all Zeff says, because it's all there is to say.
It doesn't matter, anyways. Sanji is dead.
The kid doesn't leave.
Zeff wakes up the next day to find Zoro training at the grounds where the Baratie is anchored at, sweaty and bare-chested. Zeff thinks, fleetingly, of what the little eggplant would've said to him—something along the lines with Zoro being a barbaric man, probably. Hurting the delicate eyes of the ladies. The thought sends a sharp pang to Zeff's chest that he isn't willing to analyze yet, so he decides to do something about the kid instead.
"I said you could leave," he calls out from the balcony of his room. His voice definitely reaches the land—Zeff might be old but he's nowhere near mute, if the frightened faces of the Baratie cook every time he shouts some instructions are any indication—but Zoro continues to swing his sword, faking obliviousness.
Another stubborn one, huh, he observes. Zeff can do stubborn. Zeff is more than familiar with stubborn, years of raising a certain foul-mouthed stubborn little eggplant under his belt.
Stubborn or not, the kid has to find food eventually, and he doesn't look like he has enough money to pay for the meals they serve at Baratie. Not that Zeff would actually make him starve, fuck, no—but he can pretend to, just long enough to drive the kid away.
He thinks of a bright cloudless day, years ago, the day the little eggplant left; of him pretending to throw away Sanji's soup to the floor in an admittedly amateur bluff to let him go. Allow him to chase his dreams. This Zoro kid must have one of his own, too—Zeff vaguely recalls his fight with the Shichibukai in front of Baratie.
Zeff catches the sight of Zoro's other swords laid against a nearby tree trunk, and sees a familiar, bloodied tie haphazardly wrapped around the hilt of the white one.
The burdens these kids choose to carry—
Zeff can't wait for Zoro to go hungry and leave.
It turns out the cooks have been giving the kid food. In hindsight, Zeff didn't know why he would expect them to be able to refuse the demands of a terrifying one-eyed swordsman with three swords. Not to mention this same swordsman was able to stand on a one-to-one fight with the little eggplant, if the rumors from the Grand Line were to be believed.
It does explain why the restaurant had to do three shopping runs for booze in a week.
"When I said you could leave," he starts as he takes a seat across the table the kid is sitting at, a corner table in Baratie that most patron wouldn't even be able to see unless they look for it, "I meant to say: leave."
Zoro looks up from the half-empty glass of booze he's been drinking, probably out of respect, and Zeff thinks in passing about commenting that the little eggplant could learn a thing or two from Zoro, before realizing that there is no one to make the comment to.
"Why didn't you leave?" Zeff decides to form it as a question instead, hoping the kid would get the hint.
Zoro's good eye watches him for a moment, and Zeff wonders how many times has he stared down Sanji like this. Zeff got the occasional letters from Sanji before—before all this mess, and while Sanji didn't exactly write a lot, he wrote enough about his crew members that Zeff picked up Zoro's name. The swordsman of the crew. A sparring partner. A rival.
And… something else, if Zeff looks hard enough in between the lines.
"There's something I need to ask of you," Zoro suddenly says, pulling Zeff out of his thoughts.
Zeff raises a curious eyebrow. "Well? Out with it, kid."
Zoro wears an expression that seems to say he'd rather swallow all three of his swords in one go than ask the following question, but he seems to gather up his resolve and grits out a, "I need you to teach me how to cook."
And that's… well.
Unexpected, to say the least.
"You? Cook?" Zeff can't help saying, tone dripping with disbelief. "Kid, I've seen you eat. You don't have a single shred of interest in cooking."
"Not exactly, no," Zoro agrees with surprising ease, "but I have a reason."
"A promise," he elaborates. "The cook—"
Sanji. Of course. Zeff should have known. He is immediately hit with a reminder of the tie, flaked red from Sanji's blood, wrapped around the hilt of the kid's white sword. Before he can stop himself, Zeff jerks his hand towards the sword, and asks, "why do you surround yourself with the dead?"
Zoro's face visibly pales. Zeff figures he's struck a chord, but he couldn't bring himself to care and plows on, "a chef provides food to the living; he feeds and nourishes. We don't deal with the dead."
The kid opens his mouth to retort before shutting it close again, swallowing what presumably was an indignant insult. He clearly looks frustrated, and Zeff doesn't miss the balled fists at his side, knuckles bending white. It occurs to Zeff that Sanji's tie might not have been the only thing of the dead that Zoro decided to carry with him.
"I just," Zoro chokes out, "I'm trying to honor them, old man—"
Zeff slams his hand on the table at that; he reaches across the table, pulls the kid by the collar—the kid letting Zeff pull him by the collar—and spits out, at the kid's face, "If you think he's worthy of honor, then why didn't you just protect him?!"
The words were like a hand, slapped across a face.
The room goes deathly still.
Zeff regrets his words as soon as they left his mouth. Zoro's jaw visibly tenses at the words, and when he replies, his voice sounds raw. "I would if I could. I—" Zoro says bitterly, and when he scoffs, it's devoid of humor. "He protected me. Took a blow meant for me. Gone before I could repay the favor."
Zeff can hear the quiet gasps from the cooks who have been eavesdropping around them, but he can't muster up the energy to shout at them to go back to work. He can't muster up the energy to do anything at all, in fact—he can feel, distantly, how his grip on Zoro's collar slacken, but his movements feel detached, like he's an outside observer, watching the whole scene unfolds instead of being part of it. He watches himself slowly back away from Zoro's table, turn, and walk away, but he doesn't remember actually deciding to do so.
"Old man," Zoro calls out to him, but it's subdued.
Zeff shakes his head. "Leave," he says, and doesn't wait to hear Zoro's reply.
Back in the day, during the first few months of recovery, Sanji would get nightmares. Zeff would hear a frightened scream from his room, and Sanji would pop his head into Zeff's room a few minutes later, eyes glassy with tears. He'd refuse to talk about it—a prideful, stubborn child even at the age of ten—but he'd climb into Zeff's bed before being asked and buried himself under the covers like he belonged there.
He would nudge Zeff's hand with his after a moment, a wordless request to hold his hand. Zeff didn't understand why, still doesn't understand why—my hands are rough, he would tell the little eggplant—they're like worn leather. But Sanji would continue to nudge Zeff's hands, almost forcefully, and his childish persistency tended to win eventually.
His hands were small, Zeff remembers. They were tiny, cradled in between Zeff's stubby fingers, but it felt like they were wrapping circles around him.
Zoro doesn't leave. Zeff is beginning to see a pattern.
"I knew you were blind in one eye, but I didn't know you were deaf too," Zeff says without preamble when he sees the kid the next day. It is, decidedly, a very Sanji-esque comment, and it managed to draw an amused snort from Zoro.
Silence settled between them as Zeff takes the seat across the table. It's not comfortable, but it's not uncomfortable, which is miles preferable to yesterday's tension.
Zoro places the booze he's been drinking on the table. "The cook once told me," he begins, and Zeff sees something soft in his eye as he thinks of Sanji, "his dream consisted of three parts. Finding the All Blue, which he did—" Zeff watches Zoro raise a finger, and it's still surreal, to see someone confirming the existence of the elusive sea so casually, and for Zeff not to even care about it, "—to tell the 'shitty old man' about it—" Zoro raises another finger and says the familiar nickname with a tiny smile, and Zeff feels it again, the pang in his chest, the pain that still scrapes him raw from the inside, "and lastly, to create a dish for us made from the fishes of the All Blue."
"He did the first one, and I did the second one," Zoro says, looking down to his hands now, "but he didn't get to do the last part, not before—everything happened."
And before Zeff can come up with a reply, Zoro pushes his chair back, stands up, and bows.
"Please, I beg of you," he says, head towards the ground, "let me finish what he couldn't. Allow me to make a dish for my crew just once," and his voice is sandpaper-rough when he says, "teach me how to cook."
Zeff remembers a blond kid, years ago, head bowed and eyes filled with tears.
"Who is he, to you, kid?" he asks, and the words came out as a whisper.
"He's our cook," Zoro says, and it's answer enough.
"Well, what are you standing around for," he told the little eggplant, "you don't learn how to cook at the dining table. Get your ass to the kitchen!"
Sanji snapped his head up at that. He smiled, and smiled, and something felt light in Zeff's chest.
He tells Zoro the same thing he told the little eggplant years ago. Word by word.
Zoro smiles, his first one ever since he arrived here, and Zeff thinks he really does remind him of Sanji.