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A few caveats. While technically set post-Arabasta, the only Grand Line spoilers are the names of new crewmates. This is a story about Sanji and Zoro, with little more than cameos from the rest of the crew. It's also gen - no pairings.
Indirectly inspired by a wonderful fanart here. The art is yaoi. The fic still isn't. I never claimed my subconscious was logical.
Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14
"Ah, hell," Zoro muttered, as he elbowed his way through the crowd. The people pressed around him were murmuring in anxious discontent, trying to peer over one another's shoulders and headdresses to whatever was in the center of the throng. Zoro didn't bother looking. He already knew what he was going to find. This was a peaceful island and they were the only pirate ship in the port, so it was pretty much inevitable that one of his crewmates had caused this.
Satva was an autumn island, currently at the end of its winter. For the past week of sailing there had been constant sleet which had kept them all crammed into the Going Merry's cabins, except for whichever unlucky soul had drawn watch. The wind had been against them the whole time, so the voyage had taken longer than expected as it were, and while they had been in no danger of exhausting their food supplies, the meat had run out some five days previous, so even Luffy had been in a bad mood. By the time they docked at Satva's major city, even Robin was showing signs of wear.
At the port they learned that the Log Pose would take sixty hours to reset, and no one had objected when Nami grabbed her rucksack, said, "I'll meet you back here in a couple days," and disappeared down the streets. Robin had agreed to watch the Going Merry, so Chopper and Usopp had left together for a shopping expedition, and Sanji had followed for his own supply restocking once he had made a list of necessary ingredients. Luffy had vanished to who knows where, and Zoro had decided to explore the rocky wilderness outside the city.
A couple days' mountain climbing in the cold fresh air was just what he needed to stretch his legs after those long days stuck in the cabin. He hadn't even been allowed sword practice, just because he had accidentally cut a few of Nami's bangs that she had apparently been trying to grow out. While the subsequent wrestling match with Sanji had been a little exercise, he needed to get back in shape.
However, the mountains, though visible throughout the city, proved harder to locate than he would have thought, thanks to the labyrinthine layout of the streets. The city was arranged around a central temple, a trio of gray granite towers jutting into the sky, and all roads led there sooner or later. Mostly sooner. The eighth time in an hour that Zoro found himself before the carved archway of the main temple entrances, rather than the city gates he had been seeking, he began to get annoyed. So when he ran into the crowd on the other side of the temple, he was already impatient, and not as polite as he might have been shoving through the knot of disturbed people.
He was expecting to find Usopp and Chopper, since the reindeer tended to attract notice and Usopp wasn't quick to deny any kind of attention; or possibly Luffy, who could locate trouble absolutely anywhere, and Zoro doubted even this peaceful city was exempt. This was definitely trouble of some kind, given the uneasy temper of the crowd, and he dropped one hand to the hilts of his swords, readying himself, should captain or crew require him.
The crowd hastily parted at that gesture, and Zoro was surprised to see, backed against the low temple wall, Sanji's dark suit and blond hair. The cook was smoking, casually, but that particular relaxed poise meant he was bracing himself for something, and there were three men standing before him, temple priests from their fancy robes and hats, and mad as hell from their dark expressions. Sanji's gaze flicked past those men to Zoro and narrowed in irritation.
Zoro shrugged, began to turn away. Sanji could take care of himself. Whatever hot water he had landed in, he was a cook; he knew enough to get out before he boiled. And there didn't seem to be any women involved, which would be the only sticking point—
At which point he happened to make out, over the general murmur of the crowd, a few distinct words, to whit, "priestess," "defilement", and "execution".
"Hell," Zoro growled again under his breath, and turned back. Everyone obligingly shied away, so his voice carried over their whispers. "Need a hand, cook?"
Sanji shook his head. "Nah, it's all good."
"It is not good at all," contradicted the tallest of the priests before him, a great, grizzled man with a black beard, peppered with gray.
"No," Sanji said, looking back to him and flicking ash off his cigarette. "I got that, you damn priest. I already told you, I'll come." He pushed off the wall, waved in Zoro's direction as he started for the temple entrance, flanked by the priests. "Later."
Zoro intercepted them before they crossed into the gardens beyond the stone walls. "What's this about?"
The tall priest opened his mouth, but Sanji cut him off. "None of your damn business."
Implacable gray eyes studied Zoro from under the fancy brocade cap. "This man is your comrade?"
"Something like that," Sanji said. "He doesn't have anything to do with this, though."
"The sin was yours alone," agreed the priest.
"Yeah," Zoro said, "I'm sure it was. But this guy's our ship's cook, and our captain will be put out if he loses his head. What was that about an execution?" He studied the men around him. That one priest was big enough to put up a fight, but the other two were skinny fellows, and none of them had any obvious weapons. The crowd had drawn back, not wanting to get involved, and while there were a few more figures watching from inside the walls, whose less fancy robes probably indicated acolytes, he didn't see anyone who could give him or Sanji a challenge. His first assessment had been correct; the cook could handle this on his own, and probably with one leg tied up. But he was here already, might as well make sure.
Especially since Sanji wasn't really looking like he was preparing for a battle. Zoro drew enough of one katana that a few centimeters of polished steel gleamed. "What'd he do, anyway?"
The tall priest's face went a few shades darker, his lips compressing behind the beard.
"Forget it, Zoro." Sanji dropped his cigarette, crushed it under his heel and thrust his hands into his pockets. "It's not what you think. Just get on with whatever the hell you were doing." He strode past his crewmate, lazily slouched, expression hidden behind his blond hair. The tall priest nodded to Zoro, politely enough, and followed him into the gardens, heading down the pebbled path toward the temple towers.
No one made any move to prevent Zoro from following, even with his sword in his hand, and that surprised him enough that he stopped anyway. The two other priests had taken position on either side of the gate, like guards, though their expressions were too mild to be imposing. When he thought about it, Zoro recalled seeing others dressed like them by the other temple entrances, cheerfully greeting those who came by.
"Hey," he said, and both the men looked to him, their eyes dropping to his swords, then darting up to his face with a little self-conscious start, like kids chastised for staring.
"Yes, sir?" one said.
"Er," Zoro said, not quite sure how one was supposed to fight such etiquette. "That guy your boss just took." The older priest must rank higher; his round cap had more ornate decorations. "What was his, uh, sin?"
Both priests flushed, with anger or embarrassment, Zoro couldn't tell. "He..." one began, and couldn't get any further, but his fellow bravely took up the torch.
"He defiled the priestess," he said, tightly, and that was anger, unmistakably. "The maiden of this temple. He, a man, and unconsecrated, no less, touched her foully, and moreover before the eyes of others."
"There were more than a few who saw it, sir."
"No, no, I believe you. Dammit." Zoro brought up one hand to rub his forehead. He didn't have a headache yet, but he just knew there would be one waiting for him behind his lids when he closed his eyes. "That stupid Love Cook. Did he just propose to her, or did he go straight for the kiss—never mind. I don't want to know. What else did he do?"
"What more could he have done?" spat the man.
Zoro lowered his hand, eyed him. "Don't have much of an imagination, do you. Or you don't know Sanji. But that's all? He smooched your maiden, and now you're planning to chop off his head?"
Both the priests drew themselves up, offended. "What kind of barbarians do you take us for here?"
"Hanging, then? Or drowning? Little extreme, at any rate, killing a man for—"
"We are not murderers."
"Then what was that stuff about an execution?"
The priests' solemn faces were a poor match to their festively bright blue and gold robes. "It is necessary for justice, for the priestess to remain pure after such defilement. But the ceremony of the Seven Deaths is to cleanse, not kill."
"Seven Deaths?" Zoro repeated, then, "Ceremony? It's not a real execution, just something symbolic?"
"Exactly," the priests nodded.
"So you're gonna make him do something stupid, to make up for doing something stupid?" Which was apparently a poor way to put it, since they both looked affronted again. Zoro shrugged an apology, asked, "And they went off to do this now?"
"To start it now. The ceremony is three days in length."
"Ah." He craned his neck past the green and red of the flowering garden hedges. The temple's doors were open, but the hallway within was shadowed, and Sanji and the priest had disappeared further inside. "Any problems with me just going in to check on something with him?"
"If you wish, sir."
"Okay." He started through the gate, paused. "Hey, that big priest of yours, he seemed pretty pissed about this—"
"High Priest Orwalsh is a great man," the priest on the right pontificated in that same offended tone, and the one on the left added, "If he seemed distraught, it is because the priestess, our temple maiden, is his only daughter. That he should suffer such a—"
"Yeah," Zoro sighed, "I was afraid it was something like that." He strode through the gate.
The people in the gardens watched him pass with polite curiosity, and then he climbed the few hewn steps and entered the temple. The stone foyer, out of the wind, was warm and quiet, lit by a few crackling braziers of orange flame. It opened onto a circular room with a domed ceiling, a round window at the high peak letting in the light from the gray cloudy sky. The center was occupied by a large fountain, pure, warbling water spilling from three high spouts into a wide marble basin. Around the circumference were nooks with statues, garishly painted wood and plaster figures of humans and beasts and things in between.
There were more people here, acolytes and many dressed like the regular folk on the streets, walking the circle and sometimes pausing before some statue or other, but the way they pointed and whispered was more like visitors to a museum than devout worshippers.
"They're our old gods," someone said, and Zoro found an acolyte beside him, a plump blonde woman with a smile as soft as the rest of her. "We keep them here to remember, while bowing to another faith."
"Oh," said Zoro. "Know someone who might be interested in that, but I'm looking for someone else now. Blond guy, black suit, came in here with your high priest?"
The smile faded. "The sinner."
"They should be beginning the ceremony. I'll take you." She led him down a bewildering twisting of halls and up steps, every climb and turn of which made him slightly more apprehensive. A quick getaway under these circumstances would be difficult, if not completely impossible. He had no idea where the exit was. On the other hand, he had yet to see anyone who could give him much of a fight, and there were windows here and there.
Finally, at the end of a short hall up a curving flight of stairs, she pulled aside a silk screen, gestured him through the entryway and turned away. He listened to her footsteps retreat down the stairs—they were altogether too scarily trusting, here—and entered the room. It was some thirty paces in diameter, with a ceiling almost as high as the chamber was wide, and a thick woven rug covered the stone floor. Windows along the walls led to a balcony overlooking the gardens and the city—this was in one of the towers, apparently, and they had climbed higher than he had guessed. The center of the room was dominated by a stone column big enough that five men with their arms outstretched might be able to ring it, carved with symbols and scenes and piercing up through the ceiling, with a cloth-covered bench running around it.
Sanji sat on the bench, slouching against the pillar with his hands still in his pockets. He glowered at Zoro. "I told you—"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I heard about this ceremony thing. Thought I'd check it out." Zoro walked over to drop down on the bench next to him, leaned back and folded his arms. "Wouldn't want to miss anything too humiliating."
Sanji snorted. "Afraid what they've told me doesn't sound that entertaining," he said in a bored voice.
"Really? With a name like Six Deaths?"
"And three days of it, too. You sure you don't want to skip it?"
"We might leave without you, if the weather's good." Zoro looked around. "There's no one here now."
"The priest bastard'll be back in a bit. He's getting on his special robes or something."
"There's no one guarding the door. Hell, you're not even tied up."
"I told them I wouldn't run."
"Well, if you promised." Zoro got up again. "I'll just tell Nami you were cheating on her with a priestess—"
"You can't tell Nami-san that!" Sanji shrieked, in a tone very far from bored.
"Really, Love Cook, you gotta have better taste in women. Or at least better timing. In front of a whole crowd of witnesses?"
"It wasn't like that!" Sanji cried, and Zoro jumped back just in time to dodge the shoe speeding toward his head, hastily brought up a sheath to block the second whirling kick.
"If you want to explain personally, we could just—"
A polite cough behind them stopped Sanji's next kick and Zoro's answering sally. He let the scabbard fall while Sanji hopped back onto his feet, straightened up and adjusted his tie. "Sorry," the cook said. "This guy was just leaving."
"I see," replied the high priest. His outfit didn't look any different, from what Zoro could see, but he was holding a flask of blue crystal, the liquid inside glinting. "You may stay, if you wish."
"He's got things to do," Sanji said hastily.
"Ah, not that much," Zoro replied, smirking. "I've got time for a death or two."
"You've heard of the ceremony?" asked the priest.
The high priest nodded. "Second death begins now."
"Second? Aren't you missing one?"
Sanji, looking smug, held up his index finger. "Already started number one."
The high priest extended the crystal flask to him. "Drink," he commanded. "As much as you wish, all if you desire."
Taking the flask, Sanji nodded, put it to his lips and tipped his head back. The liquid inside sloshed as he gulped it down. Zoro, watching him chug, inquired, "What's in that?"
"Water," said the high priest.
The man's gray eyes watched the dance of light in the liquid shining through the crystal. "Second death. Death of the spirit. It is the last water he will drink."
"For three days?"
Sanji paused to take a breath, gulped the rest of the water, then handed back the emptied flask. "You've got good water here. That fresh, has to be melt-off from the mountains, right?"
The tall man nodded. "Drawn from the fountain in the towers' center, which runs from the mountain's stream. It is the ice goddess's milk."
"So what's next?"
"Tonight," the priest told him.
Unease prickled the back of Zoro's neck. This wasn't nearly as harsh as its name suggested, but..."What was first death?"
"Death of the flesh." The priest's sonorous baritone reverberated off the granite walls. "He has eaten; he will eat no more."
"Fresh peaches," Sanji confided. "Delicious, too. It's true that hunger is the best seasoning, but expectation of appetite works pretty well. As a cook I'm envious." He settled back on the bench, crossed his hands behind his head. "Tell everyone I'll be a little late, will you, Zoro? Give Nami-san my apologies. I'll meet you all in three days." He frowned. "And if you could keep Luffy out of the icebox, that'd be even better, but I guess even you aren't that strong."
"Who's not strong enough?"
"Hell, I can barely manage that!"
"He may stay, if he wishes," the priest said. "In this ceremony the sinner may have an attendant."
Sanji snorted, then batted his lashes. "Oh, Zoro, attend me!"
"I'll attend your—" Zoro started to growl.
"Another friend, then?" inquired the priest. "You may ask us to contact someone; it's your right, if there's someone you would wish to come."
"I'll be fine."
"What does an attendant do?" Zoro asked.
"Cater to my every whim."
"You would not be present for the deaths. Only afterwards. There would be no formal rites; it isn't a duty, but a service of companionship. And if he survives, you can bring him back to your ship and crew."
The prickles resolved into a freezing chill down his back. "What do you mean, survives? This is supposed to be just ceremonial."
"It is." The priest did not blink. "But the ceremonies can be fatal."
"Three days, Zoro," Sanji said, so coolly he might have been breathing that chill himself. "Just tell them I'll be running a little late."
Zoro didn't look at him. "I'll attend him," he said. "Be his attendant. Whatever."
"Dammit, this has nothing to do with you!"
The priest ignored Sanji's shout, and when he flipped himself off the bench to throw a kick at Zoro's head, the swordsman blocked it without breaking his gaze from the older man's gray focus.
He wasn't sure what the priest saw in his own eyes, but when the man at last nodded, Zoro saw he relaxed as well, his shoulders falling a little from their stiff decorum. "Very well, I'll tell the others. You may go where you will, but it would be best if you stayed within the temple grounds. You may sleep here, and take meals with us; anything else you require, ask." He glanced at Sanji. "As you already agreed, you aren't to leave this room, unless we've come for you."
"I know," Sanji grated, glaring hot enough that Zoro could feel the burn of both eyes, even hidden under the blond hair.
The high priest said nothing more, ceremonious or otherwise; he simply turned and walked out the door, sliding it shut behind him. Even if there had been a latch, which there wasn't, Sanji could kick through that silk like tissue paper. But he only took a seat on the bench again.
"You're serious about this," Zoro said.
Sanji didn't deign to reply.
Shaking his head, Zoro slid aside the door, jogged to catch up with the high priest halfway down the stairs. "Hey," he said. "What'd you threaten him with, to get him to agree to this?"
"There was no threat."
Zoro drew his white katana. "I mean it, old man. What the hell—"
"There was only one other way." The priest didn't even glance at the sword, looking past the blade to meet Zoro's eyes. There was no fear in his own, but something else. Maybe sorrow. "It wasn't my choice, that my daughter would be the priestess. It was her decision...to make me proud, I suppose. But she must be a maiden, pure of any man's touch, until the moon goddess chooses her. And there can be but one priestess.
"If that priestess is tainted, if she cannot hear the goddess, then we are lost. But once a maiden is made a priestess, that cannot be unmade, even if she is corrupted. Once a priestess's life is gifted to the goddess, there's only one way for her to be renounced, so another can be anointed. As I'm high priest, the duty would be mine...but...she is my daughter..."
"Only one way..." Zoro frowned. "You mean...you'd have to kill her?"
"It's the only way. Unless she can be purified, by the death of he who corrupted her. When that man—"
"The sinner, you mean?"
"When that man," the priest repeated, "when he heard this, he agreed, even before we told him what the ceremony entailed. He promised us he wouldn't run, and I saw he was a man to be trusted. So we won't lock him in any room, or bind him with anything but his word. But for me, I am grateful you came. Even if he must be called a sinner, one god at least must favor him, to bring you here. The Seven Deaths cannot be survived by a man alone..."
Sanji had lit a cigarette when Zoro returned to the room, had tipped his head back against the pillar and was contemplating the ceiling. Zoro glanced up and saw an intricate tile mosaic, which he imagined had some deep spiritual significance if you were a lunatic priest. He took a seat on the floor opposite the blond, crouched with his back to the wall and watched him smoke. "So that doesn't count as food or drink?"
"Thank fuck." Sanji exhaled a long white plume. "You think I could bargain for cigs to pass as third death? Death by nicotine. I could do that."
"You do it great already." Zoro folded his arms over his chest. "You sure it's a good idea, smoking now? Won't it dry you out or something?"
Sanji rolled his eye. "A stupid priest asks you to stick around and you turn into a goddamn nursemaid. You wanna fluff a pillow for me, while you're at it? Maybe peel some grapes?"
"You are such a prick."
"That's all?" Sanji arched an eyebrow.
"Besides, you couldn't eat the grapes anyway."
"What a comeback." Melodramatically he pantomimed a stab to the heart. "Stick to swinging the pointy things, swordsmaster. You're just not up to witty repartee."
Zoro glared at him irritably, fingers playing on one katana's hilt. "Get up and I'll show you repartee."
"Nah." Shifting his cigarette to the other side of his mouth and blowing out smoke around it, Sanji tucked his arms behind his head. "Need to conserve my strength."
He smoked slowly, burning the butt down to a finger's width before stubbing it out on his metal case. Zoro watched him open it, hesitate and snap the case close again without taking out another cigarette, returning it to his breast pocket and putting his hands back behind his head instead.
"Hey," he asked the cook. "What is third death?"
Sanji shrugged, shoulders rising and falling under his dark jacket. "Don't know."
"They didn't tell you?"
"They told me a bit, just the general idea, nothing specific. Part of the psychology of the ceremony, you know, keep everyone in awe. The mystery of sacred rites and all that. I'll find out tonight." He sat up, a quick, restless motion, broad hands curling around the edge of the bench. "Zoro, just get out of here. You heard the priest. Attendant's not a formal position, they won't say anything if you walk out."
"They won't say anything whatever I do," Zoro remarked. "Pretty damn laid-back, around here."
"Except they seem serious about this ceremony."
"It's just ritual. They don't even have the guts for a real execution. This is gonna be a walk in the park. A picnic."
"Without food or water."
Sanji leaned back, casually flicked his hair out of his eye. Zoro wondered if he realized how obvious the effort he was putting into his relaxation was. "What's a religious ceremony without a fast? If you're really that worried, you could go hunt up Chopper to attend me."
"Who said anything about worried?" Zoro growled. "I'm just trying to figure out what you're going to do without the food. What good's a cook with nothing to cook?"
"As much good as a swordsman without his swords."
"Yeah, but they let me keep those. Which is the other reason. In case you decide you want to blow this place after all, they'll be as useful as Chopper."
"I'm not leaving," Sanji said, flatly.
Zoro studied his fixed features. The guy could act like such a flighty jerk that it was easy to forget how damn stubborn he could be. "That high priest Whosis told me about 'the only other way'. What they'd do to the priestess."
"They're serious. They'd really do it. And ceremonial death wouldn't cut it, either, it'd be the real deal for her."
"So for some spoiled pristine priestess...hope however you 'touched' her was worth it."
Sanji's gaze was distant, though not with the usual lovesick haze. "If I'd known..."
"Never mind," Zoro said. "I don't want to hear it." Listening to Sanji's praises of women counted among the top ten most boring conversation topics in the world. He much preferred going at it with the guy with his swords, but he could understand Sanji's point about conserving his energy. Probably a good idea. On the other hand, if Sanji was raving about women, he wouldn't notice if Zoro put his head down and grabbed forty winks. Hell, get him on that topic and he probably wouldn't notice this tower falling down around his ears...
"It's only three days."
Zoro looked over at his crewmate. "Eh?"
"Three days. What the hell do you think they can do to me, in just three days?"
"Dunno." Zoro shrugged. "Guess if I stick around I'll find out."
"You think I'm that weak?" There was a challenge in that languorous tone, an anger that he was used to confronting as physical attacks. As only a question it was harder to block.
"I think," Zoro said slowly, "that it can take less than a second for a man to die."
"Eighty-five days wasn't enough."
"Eighty-five days should've been enough to kill me, but I didn't die. Me or the damn old man. And I'm stronger now. Just three days, and I'm already on the second death. This'll be a picnic. Go away, Zoro. I don't need you." That wasn't his usual sniping; his expression, his voice, all were dead serious.
The blond head wasn't bowed, but it was still too damn close to begging. Zoro stood, levering himself to his feet with his swords. "I'm gonna go walk around this place, since they said I could."
"Get one of the priests to show you the exit. You'll never find it otherwise."
"I'll see you later," Zoro replied, and pushed aside the screen.
Word travels fast in a temple, judging by the way the various priests and acolytes and whatnot looked at him when Zoro walked by. He wasn't quite sure how to interpret those looks, which were different from either the guarded expressions of those who knew his reputation as pirate hunter, or the nerves of those who recognized his swordmastery from his blades and bearing. They didn't really look fearful, or angry with him. Curious, perhaps; a couple of the glances even looked impressed, by what, he had no idea. He hadn't shown any of his skill.
He wandered until he found himself outside, in the gardens surrounding the towers. Being in the city's center, as he recalled, the temple's grounds weren't that large, but the high hedges and winding paths were enough to lose all the people flocking to the temple. He found an isolated circle where few seemed to have walked, judging by the undisturbed, neatly raked gravel, and set to working out. There wasn't much around to allow for a vigorous routine, but he did a few hundred sets of push-ups and curls before taking out his swords and going through his first half dozen kata, double-time, then half-time, and holding himself back was as always as difficult as pushing for speed.
He finished with a triple downward slash, flipped the blades back into their sheaths and drew a deep breath, then heard the clapping behind him. Turning, he found three watching him wide-eyed. Two boys and a girl, perhaps just entering their teens, no caps on their red and brown curls and dressed in acolyte robes. They held rakes and trimming knives, but apparently swordplay was more interesting than their duties. He nodded to them, and they jumped, flustered, staring at his sheathed swords.
"What?" he asked, pulling one katana as example. "Haven't you ever seen a blade before?"
"Of—of course, sir," one of the boys said. "Just—the guard doesn't come often to the temple when they're on duty..."
"I have," the girl whispered, but the other boy—from the matching blue eyes and red hair, her brother—nudged her quiet.
"You're with him, aren't you?" the boy asked instead, boldly. "The sinner, you're his friend?"
"Kind of. We sail together," Zoro said. "We're crewmates."
This revelation brought more consternation to their faces, and a brief whispered conference that resulted in the brother asking, very cautiously, "Sir, there's stories...some people have been saying...you're pirates."
Zoro nodded. "Yeah, we are."
He couldn't help but grin a little as their eyes expanded to about the size of cocoanuts, gawking at him in terrified amazement. Sheathing the sword, he said, "Don't worry, though. We're not that kind of pirate."
"But—but you can't be!" It burst out of the girl. "Pirates can't come here, Lonlin—I mean, the priestess, she would've warned us, the goddess always tells her when there's danger, so we can—"
"That's why he did it, to stop the priestess!" the other boy cried, and then they all shut up, cramming their hands over their mouths as if they could stuff the words back inside.
Zoro sighed. "Look," he said. "Sanji—that sinner—he wasn't trying to hurt your priestess, or corrupt her, or anything like that. He's an idiot but he wouldn't do anything to hurt a woman. That's why he said he'd do this ceremony thing—you guys know about that, right?"
They nodded, still huge-eyed with their fists to their mouths. "Tonight—" the boy who wasn't related started to say around his, then stopped abruptly.
"We're not here to hurt anyone or steal anything," Zoro told them. "Our captain isn't into that kind of thing. We're just visiting; as soon as our Log Pose resets, we'll be off again, after Sanji's done with this thing. We didn't mean to have anything to do with your priestess or your goddess, it was just a mistake."
They looked at least partially convinced, their timidity decreasing from, say, Chopper's level to Usopp's. Before they could say anything, a low tolling sounded, three long, ringing gongs. The kids jumped up. "Supper!" "We gotta prepare the tables!"
"Are you coming, Mr. Pirate, sir?" the brother asked respectfully.
"Sure," Zoro said, and followed them down the path.
Dinner wasn't as tasty as anything served on the Going Merry, but the stew was thick and hearty and there was plenty of toasted brown bread, and even a dessert of spiced baked apples. It was a good deal quieter, too, despite the rows of people at the long tables, all in religious robes. He wasn't sure if the hush was normal, suspected it might not be, from the eyes he felt on him all through the meal. Everyone seemed preoccupied, and not just because of the presence of a stranger.
Zoro, even as he chewed and swallowed and served himself more, found he couldn't quite get out of his head the image of the damn cook, probably still sitting there, nothing to do but wait and stare at the ceiling. Of course it wasn't like he were Luffy; a skipped dinner or two wasn't going to bother him that much. But still, he wondered if the smells from the basement kitchen would rise as high as that tower room. Sanji, being Sanji, probably could tell every ingredient in the stew from the scent.
He knew better than to steal a crust from the table. Even if the priests didn't notice, Sanji wouldn't eat it anyway. Zoro knew that because he knew he wouldn't himself. Not if he had given his word.
Near the end of the meal, before the plates were cleared away, everyone stood at once, responding to some unknown signal. Zoro hastily swallowed the last bite of apples and rose as well, as he saw the high priest—who had sat in the middle of the tables with all the others, as if his fancier garb made no difference—climb to the raised platform at one end of the room.
He raised his arms, needlessly, because the quiet murmurs had died to nothing as he mounted the stage. "The ceremony of the Seven Deaths began this afternoon," he announced, plainly worded in his sonorous baritone. "I observed the first death, and the second death. Tonight is the third death. In an hour we all gather at the fountain."
Zoro caught the arm of the priest he had sat beside, a stout, middle-aged man. "This third death, what's it about?" he muttered.
The man blinked at him. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's not for me to say."
"The sinner can tell you," the high priest said, coming up behind him.
"He didn't know."
"Afterwards," the bearded priest explained. "I go to bring him now. Would you wish to return to the gardens, or your room?"
"I'm not allowed at the ceremony, right?" Zoro stretched his arms. "The room, then."
The high priest nodded and led him up into the halls. "We'd prefer you stay there for this ceremony. It will be in the main courtyard, and should you come we'd have to stop you. Or at least attempt to," he amended, looking at the trio of swords at Zoro's hip.
Zoro held up his hands. "Sanji's agreed to go along with this. I won't interfere. I'll stay in the room."
The sun had set and the room was shadowed in twilight's purple when the priest opened the screen. Sanji must have heard them coming; he was standing before the door, waiting. His eyes narrowed hatefully at Zoro's entrance, but he said nothing, just strode forward at the priest's gesture.
"Hey," Zoro said as they passed, "uh, good luck?"
Sanji's lip twitched. "Don't stay up on my account, attendant," he said, and then the silk screen slid closed again.
"Yeah, right," Zoro muttered. "Bastard." He stretched out on the narrow bench, rolled until he found a comfortable spot on the cloth cover, and pillowing his head on his arms, fell asleep. If there was a momentary reluctance, he put it out of his thoughts fast enough. The damn cook could take care of himself; he was just here for curiosity's sake.
Zoro awoke to footsteps, unfamiliar, and in the strange surroundings his instincts reacted before his conscious mind kicked in, so he was standing with two swords drawn by the time the intruder could take a third step. A alarmed squeak was the only response. The room was dark, but by the door stood a woman, illuminated by the wavering candle balanced on the bundle in her arms.
Recognizing the blonde acolyte who had guided him that afternoon, he sheathed his swords. "Sorry about that."
"I'm sorry to disturb you, sir," the woman said quickly. "Elder Orwalsh asked me to bring these here." She knelt to place on the floor a pile of white cotton cloth and a pewter pitcher and basin, then went around the room and used her candle to light the four lamps suspended from the ceiling. The golden light flickered warmly on the rich hues of the rug. Though there was no fireplace, the chamber was warm, despite the wind he could hear blowing outside the windows; the heat must rise from the rooms below.
"If there is anything you wish, sir," the acolyte began to ask, but Zoro shook his head.
"I'm fine. You know when this third death's going to be over?"
It might have just been a trick of the firelight, but her face seemed to pale, with an almost sickly cast. "Very shortly, I think," she said, and before he could ask anything more she had retreated out the door.
Zoro shrugged and stretched back out on the bench, but before he could drop off he heard footsteps in the hall outside. Slower pace than usual, but the hard soles against the stone floor sounded in distinct contrast to the slippered feet of the priests and acolytes. With a twinge of annoyance—he could use more sleep—Zoro sat up again, to watch the silk screen slide aside and Sanji enter.
He was dressed, but his jacket was draped over his arm and his untucked blue shirt was only secured by two buttons, the collar hanging open with no tie in sight. His strides were steady, but slightly too slow, taking a little too much effort to put one foot after the other, and he stopped only a few feet past the door, to regard Zoro with cross composure. "What the hell are you still doing here?"
"Done already?" Zoro inquired.
"Yeah. I told you, it's fine. Piece of cake." The cook's voice was scratchy, and his wan complexion wasn't an illusion of the light. Sweat beaded on his cheeks and chest, darkened his shirt. "You can go anytime."
"Yeah, I could." Zoro nodded toward the pitcher, basin, and cloth on the floor at his feet. "Someone just brought that. For you?"
"Don't you have some important training to do? Or napping?"
"I'll have time to do that here, looks like."
With slow and obvious effort Sanji brought up one hand, pinched the bridge of his nose. "If you were my friend," he said tightly, "you'd leave now. I'm asking you to."
"That's if I were your friend." Zoro frowned as he stood. "What the hell did they do to you?"
Sanji glared at him through the grid of his fingers. "I told you, no big deal."
"Except you're swaying where you stand."
"No I'm not."
"And you're getting blood on the rug." He pointed to the drips dotting the brightly colored weave.
"Dammit." Sanji lifted up his foot, grimaced at the scarlet rivulet running down the back of his shoe. Then, abruptly, and with a look of surprise that indicated he wasn't expecting it anymore than Zoro, he sat down on the floor, legs folding under him. Through gritted teeth he released a short breath, then said, calmly, "Would you mind bringing over those bandages?"
Zoro collected the cotton as well the basin and pitcher, while Sanji undid the couple buttons holding his shirt closed. He hissed as he moved, a grating sound in the back of his throat as he pulled off the shirt and bundled it up.
It was soaked through, dripping dark crimson over his hands. Sanji set it aside, folded over the blood, picked up the pitcher and poured into the basin. The liquid ran clear as water, but a sharp odor rose from it, strong enough that Zoro's nose wrinkled. Definitely not drinkable. Sanji dipped a rag into it, wrung it out and then curled up his arm to bring it to his back with a shudder.
Zoro got up and circled around him. Sanji twisted around, trying to hide his view, too late. The lamps were bright, unforgiving as they shone on the vicious red stripes crisscrossing his back from his neck to the waistline of his pants. Some were hardly scratches; a few drove deep enough that the flesh was flayed back. There were too many lashings to even guess the number, leaving not so much as an inch of untouched skin.
Zoro whistled low, in spite of himself. Sanji, hunching over braced on his outstretched arms and drawing breath in quick harsh pants, glared up at him, before dunking the cloth back in the basin. Scarlet swirled through the water, and then he reached around to the wounds high on his shoulders.
"Eighty-four," he said abruptly, and Zoro's gaze jumped from those injuries to his face, half-hidden behind his blond hair. Sanji's jaw was clenched, gaze focused on the carpet's intricate weave as he carefully patted his back. "Eighty-four priests, acolytes, monks, and whatever else they have here, in this temple. I counted." He twitched as the cotton brushed one of the deeper cuts, the cloth slipping from his paralyzed fingers to spatter pink stains on the rug.
Sanji cursed under his breath. Zoro crouched, picked up the rag and pulled it away when the blond tried to snatch it back, only to wince at the sudden motion. Fresh blood welled up along his back.
"Don't be an idiot," Zoro told him. "Not that I'd expect any better of you," he added obligatorily.
"Just lie down, will you?" He would have pushed him down but there wasn't any place to put his hand, not if he didn't want blood all over it.
With a grimace, Sanji sighed and lay down on his stomach, resting his chin on his crossed arms. Zoro rinsed the rag in the basin again, leaned over him to dab away the blood clotted around the longest stripe. Whatever was in the water must sting, from how Sanji's spine arched, but he didn't say anything.
Washing off the blood didn't help much; wherever he wiped it away he found more marked flesh, red and swollen where the skin wasn't broken. But the medicine slowed the bleeding, and most of the wounds were shallow. He worked slowly and carefully, cleaning all those myriad scores and covering them with fresh strips of cotton. "So, what," he asked finally, "they all got a swing at you? All eighty-four?"
"Third death. Death of mercy," Sanji said, a singsong lilt to his hoarse voice, as if he were reciting. "All of them, except the priestess; she wasn't there. As many hits as they wanted, I think it was, once the whip was in their hands. Tried counting who got how many in, but I lost track—" He caught his breath sharply at the touch of the cloth, inhaled shortly and resumed, "Most of them, it was only one, and a lot of them, barely felt it...but there were a few, don't think they liked me very much. Either because of the priestess, or...our reputation seems to have gotten around."
"Met some kids today who'd heard we were pirates," Zoro mentioned. He paused in his ministrations, hand posed over the wounds. "Those kids, they were acolytes, I think..."
"None of the young ones hit hard," Sanji said. He frowned, brow furrowed in anger as much as pain. "Dammit, they even made the girls do it...some of them were crying. Tried to tell them..." He shook his head, dropped it back onto his folded arms. "But when it was the high priest's turn, he only raised the whip once. And everyone after that only took one hit. So really...isn't as bad as it could've been." He coughed.
"Sounds like you could use a drink."
"Thanks so much for the reminder." His voice was even hoarser.
"Sorry." The basin was running red. Zoro brought it to balcony and emptied it down the drainage channel, refilled it with clean liquid from the pitcher and started to work on the lesser damage. There was enough cotton to bandage everything, and most of the wounds probably weren't deep enough to scar, as long as nothing got infected. He wondered if whatever was in the water was more for the medicinal purpose, or to keep it from being drunk.
"It'd have been better if they were enjoying it," Sanji said. His fingers, curled around his arms, dug in until the flesh whitened, though his rasping voice was steady. "But even the bastards who hit a lot, they were too damn serious about it." He coughed again, a dry hacking.
"Maybe you should keep quiet," Zoro said. "Your throat's sounding pretty raw."
Sanji turned his head enough to eye the swordsman through the fall of blond hair. "Guess you didn't hear it, up here."
"I didn't hear anything," Zoro said, truthfully.
"Wasn't much." Zoro could hear his teeth grind. "Just...the last few. When they hit what'd already been hit. Hurt."
"You think I was crying all along? Yeah, I must've been wailing like a baby, soon as they started tapping me. Bet you're pissed you slept through that."
"Asshole." He swabbed the grooves imprinted between his shoulderblades. A shudder ran down Sanji's back and Zoro stopped, soaked the cloth again and dribbled more water to loosen the dried blood. "I sure as hell would've screamed. Burst their damn eardrums."
Sanji's laugh was dry and rattling as his coughs. "What, and that'd be winning?"
"It wouldn't be losing."
"I'm not going to lose." Behind the blond hair Sanji glared. "Maybe I'm not a total psycho like you, but I'll be damned if some stupid ceremony is gonna kill me." He put his head down again, closed his eyes and relaxed a notch. His breathing was too fast for sleep, however, and his back still was rigid, tensed against the ministrations. Zoro doubted he would rest comfortably tonight anyway, with those injuries.
He emptied the basin again, filled it with the last in the pitcher and cleaned the final shallow scratches. Even after soaking in the water, the cloth was still stained, and he frowned at the rusty hue. "You did lose some blood here."
"If you're not gonna be drinking anything to get it back..."
"Shut up." Sanji didn't raise his head, words muffled by his arms. "I'm trying to pretend you're Nami-san and I can't do it when you won't close that fat mouth."
Zoro slapped a cotton bandage down, and Sanji jerked. "Sit up," Zoro told him. "Need to wrap this around to hold everything together." The cook complied, and he strung the cloth strips under his arms and across his chest, wrapping it tight enough that Sanji's breath caught. He bit his lip and said nothing, though by the time Zoro was done his pale complexion was that much closer to white and sweat had broken across his forehead. Cautiously he stretched, extended his arms and winced only a little.
"All I'm saying," said Zoro, "is that you better not get into any major fight, or you might end up flat on your face in the middle of it."
"Yeah, you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?" If Sanji's grin was small and tight, it was no less sarcastic for that.
Zoro ignored it. "You don't know if you'll have to fight," he reminded instead. "You don't know what the next deaths are."
"Thanks, yeah, I remember that, too." Moving with care, Sanji reached for his discarded shirt, wrinkled his nose at the brown bloodstains as he went through it and retrieved his cigarettes. Taking one out, with his other hand he dug into his pants pocket for matches, then settled himself back on the floor, long legs stretched out in front of him and leaning back on his arms as he smoked.
"We probably should get some sleep," Zoro said, as the cigarette burned down to ashes.
"Nothing stopping you."
Zoro got up from the floor, extinguished all but the lamp hanging over them. "There's room on the bench for both of us."
Sanji snorted. "How could you sleep without rolling off, with it curved like that?"
"It's not that bad." He lay down on it, adjusting his swords not to knock against his hip and curling his legs around to match the curve of the pillar the bench circled.
Sanji made no move to rise. "Not sleepy anyway."
"If it's really hurting—"
"You'll kiss it and make it better?" Sanji arched an obnoxious eyebrow in his direction. "When the hell did you become the mother I never had?"
"When you started whining like a two year old."
Sanji stubbed out the cigarette in the basin, blew out the last curl of smoke. "Asshole."
"No one's making you stay."
"This is your own damn fault."
"The door's right there."
"I know where it is."
A long moment passed, and then Sanji stood, too quickly, wavering for a second before he found his footing. He blew out the lamp, the sudden darkness blinding. When Zoro's vision adjusted, Sanji had sat down again, white bandages and white skin becoming a faint, ghostly shape in the starlight from the surrounding windows. He was lighting up again, the match's brief yellow flare soon vanished back into the dark, leaving the single coal burning at the end of the new cigarette.
"They take their ceremonies seriously, here," he remarked quietly.
"I noticed," Zoro said.
"I'm going through with this."
"Three down. Practically halfway there."
"Just shut up and go to sleep," Zoro suggested, and suiting actions to words, he closed his eyes and put his head down.
He was dozing off when he heard his crewmate's quiet voice. "...Zoro."
Sanji hesitated. "Never mind," he said finally. Then added, "But I'll tell you one thing."
Zoro yawned. "Uh-huh?"
"That high priest of theirs? He may be a big guy, but he hits like a girl."
"'Night," Zoro said.
Zoro awoke to a crick in his neck, and the sound of footsteps. The light in the windows was cool, the muted glow of pre-dawn washing out the stars.
Sanji was already awake, standing with his head cocked, listening to that approach. Sitting up, Zoro studied his angular frame, black slacks and white bandages in stark contrast with his pink skin. A little blood had seeped through the cotton along two lines, but otherwise the bandages looked clean, and he seemed steady on his feet. From his set stance, Zoro suspected he had been up for some time already. If he had ever slept.
He started to ask, but the footsteps had arrived, the bearded high priest accompanied by a younger man, also in priest robes, who Zoro recalled seeing at yesterday's dinner. That one stood silently by while the high priest said, "If you are ready, it's time."
"Awfully damn early, isn't it?" Zoro muttered, kneading his sore neck.
None of the others so much as glanced at him. "I'm ready," Sanji said, then held out his hands, added sardonically, "You want to make sure again?"
In the gray light Zoro could see the stripes on his wrists he had covered with his hands before, nowhere as vicious as the wreck of his back, but the abrasions from the binding were still rough and raw. The high priest lowered his head. "That won't be necessary for this."
Sanji nodded, then tossed something over his shoulder. Zoro caught the cigarette case. "Keep that safe," the cook requested, and followed the high priest.
"Hey," Zoro called, as their little party headed out. "How long will this one take?"
"It will be some time," the high priest said, and they were out the door.
Zoro waited until the last echo of their footsteps died, then stretched out again on the bench. But his neck was still bothering him, and his legs were starting to cramp from the awkward angle. Grumbling, he rolled over to face the pillar, but that was too claustrophobic. Rolling back, one sword hilt caught on the cloth cover, and he tumbled off the bench to the floor with a thud.
At least the damn cook hadn't been here for it. Zoro picked himself up, rubbing his hip where he had landed on the scabbards, contemplated the woven rug and decided to hell with it. He could nap later, catch up on the sleep he had missed with the early awakening; his stomach was rumbling now anyway, and there was true sunlight shining in the windows. The high priest hadn't said anything this time about keeping to his room, so he didn't hesitate to leave. No one in the halls, as he expected, damn screwy as this place was. Prisons without locks, prisoners without guards...only they weren't prisoners, he supposed. He at least felt more like a guest. And Sanji...
He wasn't going to think about the cook. Wherever the hell they had brought him. The stone corridors with their wooden trim all looked identical, but he took any stairs down that he found, nodding to the people he encountered, all of whom nodded back politely. In the central courtyard he ran across the blonde acolyte again. She was scrubbing the smooth stone rim of the fountain with a brush, and smiled up at him in a friendly way as he approached. "Good morning, sir."
"Yeah. Morning. Has breakfast been on yet?"
"We eat only the evening meal together. For the rest of the day one takes the food one wishes, when one wishes."
Would be nice if Sanji had that policy. It was damn annoying to have to dodge him if you wanted a bigger snack than a piece of fruit. The cook was far too possessive of ingredients; they belonged to the whole ship, didn't they? "Your cooks don't mind?"
"Whoever works in the kitchen that day may ask for help of whoever enters."
"Oh." Fair trade, he supposed. He looked around the courtyard. "Which way is the kitchen?"
"I'll show you." She started to climb up and automatically he extended his hand to help her, then hastily withdrew it.
"Sorry. Almost forgot. About being a guy."
She shook her head. "No, it's all right. There's no problem. I'm not the priestess." Her smile slipped as it had last night, supplanted by something uncomfortable. Guilt, maybe. He wondered if she had been one of the women Sanji had said were crying. He couldn't quite imagine those soft, plump fingers folded around the handle of a whip.
"So not all women get the special treatment?" he asked as she led him back into the halls.
"The priestess is sworn to the goddess of spring," the acolyte explained. "She who melts the ice for us to drink," and she gestured back toward where Zoro guessed the fountain was. "But she's a reticent goddess, who won't address her voice to any but the chosen purest. Eventually the moon goddess will chose the priestess, and she is not so...strict. But now the priestess must be an untouched maiden, or we have no way to hear the goddess."
"Great," Zoro muttered. Sanji sure could pick them. A whole temple full of eligible, or at any rate not untouchable, women, and he of course had to go for the one impossible catch.
They descended a steep flight of stairs to the dining hall, deserted but for a couple priests at the end of one table, carrying on a discussion over bowls of rice. "The kitchen is through there," she explained, pointing to an entryway. "I've eaten already, I should get back to my morning task. If there's anything you wish—"
"Actually," Zoro said, "don't know who to ask, but that room they've got us in? It could use a cot or a bed or something. That bench isn't much good for sleeping."
"I'll see about that."
"You're welcome," she said, and left him to collect food from more of these far too courteous people.
The garden was a better place for napping. Zoro found a convenient bench, and the various priests and visitors passing by didn't disturb him too much. But once the sun had fully risen it proved to be a bright, cloudless day, and while it was too cool to sleep in the shade, the light in his eyes was annoying. He exercised instead, locating a spot without an audience.
Time passed slowly, the sun sluggishly inching its way up into the blue sky. After a few hours, he made his way back to the temples, requesting directions along the way to find the tower room. 'Some time' was awfully unspecific, but when he asked for clarification the acolytes and priests only ducked their heads apologetically.
The blonde acolyte had been as good as her word. When he reached the chamber he found a sleeping couch, covered with a flat cushion as well as a few blankets and pillows. The curved wooden frame looked heavy, thick, square legs indenting the rug; must have been a job to get it up the stairs. It was backless, and long enough for him to stretch his length out on, though only a couple hand-spans wider than the bench, and not much softer.
He wasn't sleepy anyway. Going out to the balcony around the room, he paced its perimeter. The three towers of the temple were matched in height, all tall; this wasn't the highest room, and still the gardens below were reduced to a patchwork pattern of gray paths and green hedges, the people moving among them like slow-scurrying mice. One could distinguish acolytes from priests from regular citizens by the colors of their robes, but it was too high to recognize faces.
Past the gardens were the low walls surrounding the temple, and then spread the city, the houses with their domed roofs and the maze of narrow streets. The buildings grew scarcer as they rose up the abrupt slope of the mountains, gradually replaced by boulders and pines and patches of white snow.
He circled around to the balconies on the opposite side. The other two towers blocked some of his view, but couldn't hide the flat, blue-gray vastness of the sea beyond the city. Part of the harbor was visible, a copse of masts leafed in sails. He couldn't make out the Going Merry's Jolly Roger among the rest, but he knew it was there. Nami's couple days were only half up, and besides, they'd never set off without him or Sanji.
He caught himself missing the ship, the cramped, smelly confines of the main cabin and the constant creaking of the wooden hull on the water. He never had trouble finding a comfortable space to nap on the Going Merry. Zoro didn't much care whether he was on sea or land; he didn't get seasick, but neither did he miss the rocking of the waves, and while the water's unpredictability added an element of excitement to a fight, some attacks were more easily executed on solid ground. But after only two days he was sick of this island, with its mountains and the city and all those strangers scurrying below.
Leaning on the rail looking out toward the sea, he at last heard the whisper of the screen sliding aside. Returning inside, he found Sanji had stopped just past the doorway. The blond didn't look at Zoro, squinting instead at the windows. "It's still light?"
"It's not much past noon," Zoro told him.
"Huh. Thought it was longer than that." He advanced a few paces, blinked at the couch. "That's new?"
"Gonna break my neck, sleeping on that damn bench."
Zoro subjected him a long, searching look. The bandages were still clean, no new blood spotting the white, and the cook was steady on his feet, but he looked tired, shoulders slumped and his eyes behind the curtain of blond hair sunk into shadow. "Oh, look. That was nice," he remarked, possibly sarcastically.
Zoro looked. He had missed the blue pinstripe shirt, neatly folded and set on top of the blankets. Sanji shook it out, gave it a quick once-over and pulled it on, wincing only a little before carefully doing up the buttons. "They got all the blood out. I'm impressed," he said.
The bastard was doing it on purpose, Zoro was sure. "Okay, what happened, what'd they do this time?"
"Nothing." Sanji fumbled with the final button below the collar, finally forced it through and set about tucking in the shirt as he looked around the floor. "Don't see my tie, do you?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing at all."
"How come I don't believe that?"
"Because you're dumb?" Sanji sat down on the couch. "You got my cigarettes?"
Zoro reached into his pocket, felt the case's smooth metal under his fingers. "Maybe."
Sanji rolled his eyes. "Don't be an asshole. Seriously. It was nothing. Nothing whatsoever. Fourth death is the death of sense. They just put me in a box for a few hours—wasn't a torture chamber, not too hot, not too cold, enough air. Whole thing was filled with silk, soft as a goddamn womb. I could've slept like the dead, which I guess was the point. Absolutely nothing."
"Doesn't sound too bad." Zoro tossed him the case.
Sanji lifted one hand to snatch it from the air. "Hell, they even gave me something to drink."
"What about that no-water death?"
"Wasn't water. Just a few sips—not liquor, something bitter. Best damn thing I've ever drunk. I was getting a bit parched, there." He plucked out a cigarette, put it to his lips as he slipped the case into his breast pocket. Then shot Zoro a sharp look in answer to his frown. "No, it wasn't poison. Nothing like that. It's all ritual. Symbolism. Stone box shaped like a coffin, drop the lid down like you're burying someone in their grave. And then it's just darkness and silence. That's all."
"Yeah. Relaxing." Sanji took out a book of matches from the pocket of his pants and tore one off. "If it'd been you, they probably wouldn't have been able to wake you up for a week." He tried to strike the match on the book, scraped it too lightly to spark. "Nothing to disturb you at all, no light, no noise. You can't even move, all wrapped in that silk, and it's so soft, after a while you stop feeling it's there. Can't feel it. Even when you try."
His second try was too hard, and the cardboard bent. "You listen to just your breathing long enough, that goes away too, and then you're left trying to figure out if you actually are, when you can't hear it. Breathing." Adjusting his grip to the match's head, he struck it a third time. The match flared up in his fingers and he swore, dropped it with the book to the floor and stamped on it before the rug could burn.
Zoro bent over to pick up the book, lit a new match with one quick strike and held it up. Sanji put the tip of the cigarette into the tiny tongue of flame, let it catch and inhaled the smoke, his eyes falling half-closed in something like relief. "Thanks."
"If you weren't sleeping..."
"Couldn't. I tried. Sounds easy, but...maybe it was whatever was in that drink. I couldn't move but my mind kept running in circles, wouldn't stop." He took a drag, coughed on the smoke and stifled it with a fist to his mouth.
"So what were you thinking about?"
"Whatever. Recipes. Fighting. Beating you up." He smirked. "Nami-san and Robin-san skinny-dipping." His shrug was awkward, an uncoordinated heave of his shoulders under his shirt. "For a while. And then I don't remember."
"You did fall asleep."
"I was awake," Sanji said flatly. "Felt like a goddamn week. And I must've been thinking—you're alive, you're awake, your mind's doing something, right? I just can't remember. Nothing to remind me, in that darkness. Silence. I tried speaking and I couldn't hear my own voice. Maybe that drink locked up my vocal cords, or maybe they just had my ears closed somehow."
He drew on the cigarette as if he could devour the smoke, all but gulping it. "I thought about how bad I wanted a cig, I remember that. Wanted one even when I started thinking I was suffocating...tried to get them to let me out, but no one listened. And I couldn't tell if I actually was hitting anything. Guess I did, though," and he stared down at his hands, knotted into fists pressed into his knees. The knuckles were reddened, bruised. He opened one hand, studied the backs his spread fingers with a grimace. "Dammit, I don't believe I did that. Should've remembered to kick instead."
Zoro leaned over to examine the minor scrapes. "Doesn't look like you messed them up too badly."
"They don't hurt. Neither does my back, that much. I hardly even remembered it was hurt. They treated that, too, before they put me in the box. Any of those acolytes are better nurses than you'd ever make."
"I'm no medic. That's why we have Chopper."
"None of them were as good as him, no," Sanji allowed. Finishing the cigarette with another suppressed cough, he leaned back onto the cushions, a sigh escaping as he relaxed against the pillow.
"Hey." Zoro prodded his shoulder. "Don't get too comfortable, this is my couch."
"You can share."
"I don't share my bed with guys."
Sanji squinted up at him, annoyance flashing in his eye. Then, with deliberate, obnoxious languor, he stretched like a cat priming for a nap, sprawling out his legs and arms until he had effectively occupied every square centimeter of the narrow couch, shoving Zoro off the corner with one foot.
"Asshole," Zoro growled as he was pushed stumbling to his feet. "That's it, get off."
"Nah, I'm good here." Sanji settled back, then winced, picked himself up with his arms to flip onto his stomach. Clearly more comfortable without the pressure on his wounds, he hastily stretched out again before Zoro could reclaim his spot.
Zoro crossed his arms and glared. "I'll dump you off."
Sanji locked his arms around the cushion and gave him a long, lazy look. "Try."
"Didn't you spend all morning lounging around?"
"Not the same." Hooking one arm around a pillow, Sanji pulled it under his head and relaxed onto it. "This," and his hand tightened around the cover, wrinkling the fabric, "this is real."
"Real? That ceremony didn't sound false."
"Not the death." With his face sunk into the pillow his mutter was indistinct. "Everything else."
"What are you talking about?"
"Wasn't until the end. Near the end. I think." He didn't look at Zoro, eyes fixed on the fabric before his nose, close enough that the woven threads must have been only a blur. "I should've known, it happened before...back then, I thought I'd see a ship. The ship I was waiting for, coming to save us. I'd stare and stare and it would still be there, and then I'd blink and it would be gone. Because seeing something that wasn't there was better than seeing nothing at all. Like that all over again."
"You know you're not making sense."
Sanji chuckled, a scratchy stutter, not lifting his head from the pillow. "It didn't make sense, I knew that. But I couldn't help it, after a while. Being in there, and no way to be sure I actually was there at all, until I started to think maybe I wasn't. That I'd just imagined it. And then I thought that maybe I'd never left that damn rock, really, and this place was the dream. The Baratie, the Going Merry. All Blue, the Grand Line, One Piece...all of it, just something I'd made up to pass the time, and I was still on that rock, I was gonna be sitting there on that rock, waiting, forever.
"When they opened the box, for a second I thought I was waking up, and I didn't...it didn't make any difference, I thought I was just dreaming again, and it wasn't until...got back here, and you were here. Too damn annoying to have imagined. And this feels real." He breathed out, a long hissing exhalation. "I feel real."
"You are real," Zoro said. "And you're really on my couch. Where am I supposed to nap?"
"Bench's over there," Sanji mumbled. His eyes were closed and his grip on the cushions was relaxing as his breathing slowed into a steady rhythm.
Zoro waited in silence for a long moment, then asked, quietly, "Sanji?"
There was no reply. "Don't tell me you went and fell asleep on that couch."
Sanji murmured something indistinct, one hand twitching and then falling still as he snuggled his head deeper into the pillow.
Zoro sighed. "It's about damn time, idiot," he said, and went back out on the balcony to exercise.
Not much time had passed when Zoro's sword practice—he was testing single blade techniques, should the others be unavailable, and had almost worked out a one-sword variation of the demon slash—was interrupted by someone entering the room. "Dammit." Sheathing his katana, he climbed through the closest window from the balcony, asking, "It's only been an hour, don't you guys have better things to do than—"
He stopped. Instead of the expected high priest and minions, there was only a little girl, not even ten, round-faced and pink-cheeked, peeking out timidly from behind the sliding screen.
An acolyte, probably, come to gawk. "Hey," Zoro said.
She jumped, glanced at him and looked about to flee, but then her wide blue-gray eyes returned to Sanji, flopped on the couch, out like a light and snoring softly. "Is—is he—"
"Yeah, that's the sinner." Maybe she had been dared to come by another kid.
"I know." Apparently deciding he wasn't as scary as he looked, she sidled into the room, hands within the long sleeves clasped nervously before her. "Is he...is he hurting badly?"
Zoro sighed. "He's all right. He's just asleep now. Keep it down or you'll wake him." Though really, the way he was out, Sanji probably wouldn't stir to anything less than a cannon fired past his ear, or Nami asking for a favor.
She drew closer for a better look, tiptoeing cautiously, hands still hidden in her sleeves. Her robes he had first taken for an acolyte's, but while the deep blue was the same, the trim was silver, not gold, and all the folds of cloth were intricately embroidered in white silk, the same swirling patterns as the ceiling mosaic. Silver beads glittered along the hems and sleeves, and on the tiny white cap pinned to her brown locks. The beads jangled slightly and she tried to stop them with her arms, but that only set the rest of them ringing and she cringed, stood still so they all were quiet, staring at Sanji. "He—he looks really tired."
He did, Zoro had to agree. Somehow, asleep, the exhaustion and stress lining his brow were more obvious, and except for the slight vibration of his chest as he snored he was as motionless as a rock, not even twitching with dreams. "Yeah, well, he didn't get much sleep last night."
"They've been hurting him." Though she wasn't whispering, her voice was so timid he had to strain to hear it. "The ceremony, it hurts..."
"Death usually does. That's the point, I guess," Zoro said.
"I'm sorry." The little girl sniffled, and Zoro looked down at her, surprised. Tears were welling up in her round eyes, spilling down her cheeks and spotting the fancy robes. She put up her arms to catch them, covering her face with her sleeves and whimpering through them, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."
"Hey," Zoro said awkwardly, "it's not—you don't—" What were you supposed to do with a crying kid? Pat them on the head or something? He tried putting a hand on her shoulder, but she scrambled back, tripping over her robes and falling back onto the carpet.
"Sorry," Zoro said. He was a stranger, after all, and she was shy. "But look, you don't need to cry. He's not hurt that bad, and besides, you don't have anything to do with it—"
"No!" The girl curled into a ball, tucking her knees under her chin and wrapping her arms around them. She was still crying, shaking with soft sobs. Between them she gulped, "It was me—it's my fault—I'm sorry, it's all my fault!"
"It's not your fault," Zoro started to say, "this is all because of that—"
And then he got it, everything falling into place as sudden and sharp as a blow to the skull, and just as headache-inducing. "You're the priestess."
The little girl nodded miserably, her face hidden in her arms. "It was my fault, it was a mistake, I'm sorry..."
Zoro looked from the priestess to the insensate cook and back again. "You—he—you—oh, that son of a..." Catching himself in time, he shook his head, crouched next to the little girl, though keeping a careful distance between them. "Look," he said, "it's okay. This is some kind of misunderstanding, I bet it was just an accident. Right?"
She nodded again, her head still down. "I didn't—I didn't mean to..."
"Sanji didn't mean to, either, I'm sure. Maybe if you told your father—"
"But he did. I didn't mean to let him, I should've been faster, but he did, and now...he's..." She quivered with sobs, the beads chiming. "I tried to say he didn't, but they didn't believe me. They all saw. She saw," and the girl cried harder. "She knows. I can't hear her now. I went to the fountain and I drank, but the goddess, she w-won't speak to me anymore."
"But she will, if Sanji finishes this thing."
"Yes, but..." She shook her head, so violently her short straight hair whipped around, dislodging the round cap. "I don't want...he was so nice to me..."
"Yeah," Zoro said, "he would be—look, you have to stop crying. He really hates it when girls cry."
"B-but it's my—my fault—"
"Sanji chose to do this thing, your father told you that, right? He wanted to do it because he didn't want you to cry or be upset. And..." Could they really have been serious about the only other way? When she was this little? Maybe Sanji had misunderstood... "--And he's not hurt that bad. He's lived through a lot worse than this."
"He has?" She looked up at that, her eyes red and filled with more tears, but momentarily startled out of that wretched sobbing, at least.
"Yeah. Haven't you heard? We're pirates. We've been all sorts of places, fought all kinds of people. He's gotten beat up a lot before. But he's a strong guy, he always wins, even when he gets hurt, and he always gets better. Soon as this is over with he'll be fine. So you don't have to cry for him."
"But..." She snuffled, wiped her dripping nose with one sleeve. "But I don't want him hurt, I didn't want...I didn't want him to have to. I tried...this morning, I went down to the sea, and I drank, but the moon goddess won't talk to me yet, I'm too young. I wanted to try again, because if she would have me, then it wouldn't matter, he could go away with you. But the seawater made me sick, and my lady wouldn't let me drink anymore."
"It's okay," Zoro said. "Don't make yourself sick, he wouldn't like that either."
"Oh." She sniffled more. "But..."
"Are you supposed to be here?" Zoro asked her. "Without a guard or anything? Since you're so important?"
She ducked her head again, mumbled, "I told my lady I was going to the priestess room in this tower. If I get back soon she won't know. I'm not supposed to but I wanted...I wanted to see him. Father wouldn't tell me, but I know about the Seven Deaths, and I wanted to see him before..."
"Before the fifth death. Tonight. Father didn't allow me to be there before, but now I have to be." She wiped her eyes—that faucet of tears finally seemed to have shut off—and her voice became more certain, if stilted, as she recited, "The deaths before were the deaths of men. The final three are the deaths of the goddess, and I have to be there."
"Deaths of the goddess."
She put her hands over her mouth. "I can't—"
"I know, you can't tell me." Zoro got up. "One tonight, and the last two tomorrow, and then this is over, right? The ceremony's only three days. Any idea what time it'll be done?"
The priestess scrambled up as well, her robes flying. "It should be by evening?"
She dropped her head. "I—I don't know for sure. I've never seen it. We haven't granted the Seven Deaths since I became priestess."
Which couldn't have been all that long ago. "So what happened to the last priestess? She die?"
"No!" Her eyes were earnestly wide. "She had a baby, so the goddesses left her alone to be a mother. So we needed a priestess, and there weren't any other girls who wanted to...and I like it, I like the goddess, she's kinder than anyone says—but now I wish I wasn't. I wish I never had."
"If your goddess is so nice, why don't you just ask her to let him off the hook—never mind. She's not talking to you now. Right." From the way those big eyes were wavering, Zoro thought the tears might be starting again, quickly said, "It's okay. It's just one more day, right?"
It didn't cheer her much. "Yes, but..." and she bit her lip. "The last day's when death becomes real, that's what they all say. Everyone who's seen it before. Though in some legends, the man lives."
The sun must have gone behind the clouds; it felt like the room's temperature dropped ten degrees. "Hold on." He shouldn't have spoken so sharply; she jumped and quivered and he forced his voice level again, measured his words carefully. "Some legends? But people have seen this done before, when it's been for real—what's happened to the men those times?"
"They—they die," she gulped. "Always. By the end of the ceremony, it's too much, and they... It's not fair, he shouldn't—I don't want...but you said, you said he's strong."
"Yeah." Zoro looked her straight in the eyes. Easier to meet that innocent, unhappy gaze than look at the man asleep on the couch behind them. "He's strong. Don't worry about it, he'll be all right."
The little girl swallowed, stared up at him. "You'll make sure? You'll make sure he doesn't die?"
"I don't need to," Zoro said, and smiled. "I told you, he's strong. He doesn't need me. I promise. He's not gonna die."
She blinked, and then she smiled back bravely, straightening up to her full height, which was slightly higher than his waist. "Okay." She bowed to him, said very politely, "Thank you."
"Yeah, yeah." Zoro waved it off. "You should get back before you're in trouble."
"Yes!" Springing up, she rushed out the door, pausing in the corridor to glance back nervously. He gave her an encouraging nod, and she nodded back, whispered, "Goodbye," and then carefully closed the screen with both hands. The patter of her little slippers sounded down the hall.
Zoro looked down at Sanji. He hadn't stirred once the entire time, even his snoring lapsed into quiet. Silent as a corpse—and Zoro shook his head to dispel that thought. His chest was still rising and falling as he breathed; the guy needed rest as much as anything else, and that at least was allowed.
But he didn't go back out on the balcony right away, just stood in the chamber for a long moment, counting the seconds between each breath.
Sanji woke at the first tolling of the evening bell, sitting up with a start. Zoro, on the central bench, watched him blink disorientedly, shoving his hair out of his eye with one hand. The low bell rang again and he froze, relaxed as he recognized the sound.
He looked to the door first, saw no one and turned back to Zoro as he swung his legs down off the side of the couch. "Time for dinner?"
"Yeah." Zoro didn't move.
"You're not going?"
"I can grab something later, their kitchen's always open."
"Ah." Obviously not fully awake yet, Sanji processed that in silence, finally roused himself to stiffly stretch. "Well, that was a good nap." He shot Zoro a narrow-eyed smirk. "Thanks for the couch."
Zoro didn't reply, returning that taunting stare with a sober appraisal. The blond didn't look much better for the sleep. He was usually fair, but his face now was wan, except for the dark shadows around his eyes. Something gaunt about that aspect, though it was too soon for starvation to really show, and the cook was always on the skinny side anyway. But there was a pinched look to him, hunger and thirst hollowing his cheeks, and not quite suppressed pain etching faint lines across his brow, like hairline cracks in a smooth shell.
Sanji shifted restlessly under the scrutiny, breaking eye contact, and Zoro looked away, just as uncomfortable with the closeness of that observation. Clearing his throat, he said, "You had a visitor earlier. The priestess dropped by to see how you were doing."
"What?" Sanji's head jerked up again, eyes widening. "She—you saw her?"
"Kinda young for you, isn't she?" Zoro slammed his hands down on the bench, which was solid enough not to rattle, and the cook didn't flinch. "Dammit, why didn't you say something?"
"Why? It wouldn't have changed anything. Besides, you said you didn't want to know."
"So what happened? Really? Because you sure as hell didn't do anything actually indecent to that little girl."
"I did enough, apparently." He brought up his hand, to rub his temples, or maybe to shade his eyes from Zoro's glare. "I'm walking by the temple, and I see this girl trip—she's running into the temple and her robe snags on the gate, and she falls down, tears her sleeve half-off and lands hard, scrapes up her elbow. And there's those two priests standing guard, but the jerks don't even move, just stand there like lumps staring at a little girl lying on the ground, trying not to cry. So I think I'll teach them some manners by example and give her a hand up, make sure she wasn't really hurt.
"But she ripped her sleeve, so when I take her arm, it's her bare arm, and I'm not wearing gloves. And next thing you know the priests are shrieking, everyone on the street is staring, the girl's crying for real, and I have to wait for the high priest to come to explain just how badly I screwed up."
"It was enough." Sanji laughed, a short, humorless bark. "Boring, huh? Not nearly as good as you were imagining, sorry."
"All this, just for that? This is crazy." Zoro clenched his fist, drove it into his palm. He would have drawn his swords but there was nothing here to slash, no one but Sanji to fight and while the urge to beat sense into him was strong, stronger was the awareness of that drawn look, the slight trembling of his hands that he was trying to hide. "You didn't do anything—there's no reason for you to do this. No way these guys would actually kill a little girl, not for that—"
"No." Sanji's hand came down, his gaze fixing on Zoro. "They would. That bastard high priest..." He exhaled, a long sigh. "He'd do it. He'd do it and then he'd turn the knife on himself, I'd bet, but he'd still do it. He wouldn't have a choice."
"Like hell he doesn't—"
"They don't. It's what they believe." Sanji shook his head. "Not just faith, here, what they've got going with their goddesses. Didn't you notice this city has no standing army? We're in the middle of the Grand Line, most of the people on the seas are pirates, but they've got an open port, not a single cannon. I heard in the marketplace—it was why I was at the temple, I was curious. They haven't been sacked in a century. There's all kinds of stories about the pirates who do try to come here, sudden storms on dead calm seas, log poses mysteriously shattered, fevers breaking out in the crews. And the few that do get through, there's plenty of warning, by the time they arrive the whole city's ready for them."
"We didn't have much trouble getting here."
"No, and we're not the only pirates to come, either. Some ships stop by regularly, it sounds like, to buy and trade. Their goddesses are good judges of character. If we'd meant any harm it probably wouldn't have been so easy."
"If that goddess is such a good judge, then why'd she throw a tantrum over a guy holding her priestess's hand for a second?"
Sanji shrugged. "It's the rules."
"Damned unreasonable woman."
"A lady doesn't have to be reasonable."
"And neither do you? You're as crazy as them, putting up with this."
"It's not that big a deal. Maybe if I were a short-tempered impatient bastard like you, it's be hard, but for me..." He reached into his breast pocket, extracted a crooked cigarette and stuck it in his mouth while he felt around for his matches. "Besides, it was my mistake. The guards and the priestess, they both tried to tell me...I should've listened to her, but I thought she was just being brave about getting hurt." He lit the cigarette without too much effort, took a short drag and coughed behind his fist.
"It wasn't your fault," Zoro said, angrily, annoyed that he had to say so. This would be easier if it had been the cursed cook's fault. It would be damned hard to argue his innocence with the high priest and the other when everyone already knew he was innocent, and were going ahead with this lunacy anyway. "If their priestess is so damn important, she shouldn't have just been wandering around without guards. They could've at least hung a sign around her neck to warn chivalrous idiots to keep off—Sanji?"
Sanji had coughed again, and kept coughing, a violent fit that set his shoulders shaking. "Sanji!" Zoro said, but the blond couldn't answer, fighting for breath between that convulsive hacking. He curled over his stomach, trying to swallow it back and failing. Zoro grabbed his shoulders before he could fall off the couch, held him steady until the fit finally passed and Sanji sagged on the cushions, gasping, his head hanging down as he shuddered.
The cigarette was still in his hand, squeezed between his fingers, tip smoldering orange. Zoro snatched it, closed his fist over the butt to extinguish that burn, then reached into Sanji's shirt pocket and swiped the case before the blond could bat his hand away.
"Give those back," Sanji wheezed, grabbing for it.
Zoro pulled it out of reach, stuffed the case into his pocket. "No way."
"Goddamn it, they're mine—" He almost set himself coughing again, choked it back with a painful-sounding swallow.
"Look, I'm no doctor, but these are killing you now and you've got enough things trying to do that already."
"It's none of your business, you stupid son of a bitch." Sanji straightened himself up, drew a long breath that restored too little color to his pallid face, but his expression was calm, his voice level, if hoarse. "Give it up. You're a lousy mother, you'd make one ugly woman."
"I am not a—"
"Then quit acting like one." Sanji held out his hand. "Let me be a big boy and give me back my cigarettes. I'm fi—"
"Shut the fuck up," Zoro growled. "No you're not. If you were any paler you'd be see-through, and the way you've been rubbing your head you have one hell of a headache. And your hand's shaking."
Sanji blinked at his outstretched arm as if he hadn't noticed that last, yanked it back. "That's just—you think I can't take this? You think I'm a—"
"That priestess," Zoro said, and Sanji shut his mouth. "She said that except for stories, no one survives this thing." Sanji didn't reply, and Zoro remarked, "She kept apologizing. She was pretty upset. Crying about it."
"Shit." Sanji's jaw clenched tight enough that a muscle in his cheek ticked. "I told her—"
"You knew, didn't you, when you agreed. They mentioned that to you, how no one actually makes it through this."
"I promised her you would. Gave her my word, and yours." Zoro crossed his arms, looked down at him. "So what else did they tell you? The priestess was saying the ceremony tonight's different. Something about the goddess's deaths, instead of...whatever the others were. I can't remember what she called them."
"Deaths of men," Sanji said. "They told me that, but they didn't mention what it meant." He glanced at the windows, bathed scarlet by the sunset. "Guess I'll be finding out soon."
"Only three to go," Zoro said. "We'll—you'll be done tomorrow."
Sanji nodded again.
"Looking forward to getting it over with?"
Sanji stared, clearly wondering if he possibly could be serious, and Zoro smirked back at him until the blond rolled his eyes. "Oh, no," he replied, "this is great, I'd rather it were a week at least. It's practically a resort."
"And you could use some purification anyway."
"Bet you're wishing it were longer. Lots of practice space, free room, free food."
"Your cooking's better," Zoro said without thinking.
Honest surprise crossed Sanji's face, and then he twisted it into cool nonchalance. "Not that I would've expected you to be able to tell."
"Yeah, well." Zoro shrugged. "There aren't that many professional cooks on the Grand Line. People got better things to do. Which means it'd be a pain to have to find another one."
"Wouldn't want to put all of you out."
"Besides, Nami's so used to your drinks and things that she's bound to bitch without them. Moreso, I mean."
Sanji's mouth opened and stuck there; Zoro could see the conflict in his eyes, instinct to defend Nami-san warring with delight at the thought that she might miss his specialties. He compromised by closing his mouth and simply glaring at Zoro. It was, as they go, a shockingly mild display of Love Cook patheticness, but Zoro was content to see it. Sanji couldn't be hurting that much if he could still moon like a fool. Hell, if Zoro were Nami, Sanji probably wouldn't even notice he were hurting at all.
At least he wouldn't show it. He had no problems behaving like a total idiot around a woman, but showing weakness was another thing altogether. Not as if he were anyway. Whatever else one could say about the cook, Sanji wasn't weak. Zoro hadn't been lying to that little priestess. "It better not take too long tomorrow," he said. "Otherwise everyone'll get impatient, they might come looking for us."
"Maybe I should ask them to hurry it up," Sanji replied, wryly.
"Yeah, do that," Zoro said. "This place is getting boring anyway. And there's no reason to drag it out, it's not like you won't be able to handle whatever they throw at you."
That same confused surprise appeared again, lasted a moment longer as Sanji tried to improvise the proper parry. He finally settled on a simple, "Yeah." Leaning back casually, he remarked, "So, since we agree this is nothing big—give back my cigarettes?"
"Like hell," Zoro said easily.
Sanji shrugged. "Jerk."
The silence sat companionably for a few moments as the light outside faded, until Sanji cocked his head, sitting up on the couch. "Guess dinner's over."
Zoro listened closely, only just made out faint footsteps on distant stairs. His crewmate obviously had no trouble hearing that approach, however. Sanji's hands jerked up to his collar to fix his nonexistent tie, fell again when his fingers found nothing.
"Hey," Zoro said, went over and picked up his jacket where he had dropped it—just the night before?—and brought it back to the couch. "Here."
Sanji stood to take it, then stumbled, his face a pale blur in the darkening room. Zoro caught his arm, steadied him. For a moment he was supporting most of the cook's weight, and then Sanji straightened up, pulled away. "Just stood too quickly," he growled, as if he were answering a question Zoro hadn't thought to ask. "Just a little dizzy, I'm fi—" He cut himself off, ripped the coat from Zoro's offering hands and yanked it on with quick motions that didn't quite hide his stiffness, and his shoulders twitched as he moved too sharply.
"Watch it," Zoro warned, "if you open up those cuts you might get blood on your shirt again." To say nothing of losing more blood, which he clearly could not afford, but Sanji knew that as well as he did.
The blond buttoned the double-breasted jacket and smoothed the pinstripe shirt collar with a practiced gesture, adjusted the sleeve cuffs and gave the jacket a final tug to straighten the worst of the wrinkles. It all looked very close to natural, and when the screen slid aside and the high priest entered, his two priests behind him bearing bright lamps, Zoro saw some small amazement on the large man's bearded face. He didn't know Sanji; this neatly attired, collected man was not the abused victim he was expecting.
And if Sanji's steps wobbled a bit as he walked over, he still strode with enough confidence that none of the priests attempted to interfere. The two underlings moved to flank him, while the high priest looked back at Zoro, his expression, now that momentary disbelief had passed, unreadable.
Just to see the reaction in those slate gray eyes, Zoro raised his voice, said, "Say hi to the priestess for me."
"You got it," Sanji breezed back.
Hard to tell what the priest's mouth was doing under the beard, but the his dark brows were furrowed down. He said nothing, however, turning away with a graceful alacrity unexpected in a bulky man.
"Hey, cook," Zoro reminded as Sanji crossed the threshold, "I gave her my word, so you better not make me a liar."
"Don't worry." Sanji turned his head enough for Zoro to see the profile of his grin. "I don't break promises to girls."
And then they were gone.
By the time Zoro located the kitchens, the dining hall was empty, long benches stacked on tables and stone floor neatly swept. There were a few people left in the kitchen, all busy cleaning. The three kids at the sinks, their acolyte sleeves tied back as they washed dishes, he recognized as yesterday's cheerleaders. They were standing on stools to reach the water, and the two boys were splashing each other as they scrubbed and rinsed. The girl, studiously polishing dry whatever they managed to complete, shook her head with all the disparaging maturity of a young woman among her idiot male peers. It put him rather in mind of Nami, though this girl's hair was long and curly.
While he wouldn't trust himself cooking, and no one had asked him to help when he had come into the kitchens earlier in the day, dishes were one task Zoro could do confidently. Taking up another rag, he stepped up next to the red-haired girl and started drying the clay cups stacked along the counter.
She glanced over, almost dropped her plate. "M—Mr. Pirate?"
The boys quit their water fight mid-splash, gawking at him from under dripping bangs. Zoro held up a dry cup. "Where does this go?"
"You—" The dark-haired boy swallowed. "You can leave it on the counter."
So he did, picked up another one and swiped off the water while the kids gaped. "But he's a—" the dark-haired boy began, and then the redhead nudged his friend and hissed back, "Yeah, and they can do whatever they want!"
"I've eaten here," Zoro said. "One of the other acolytes said all of you take turns with the chores. So I'm taking my turn."
"But you don't have to—"
"Not much else to do around here, from what I've seen."
"But you—" The boy gestured at his swords. "You can swordfight!"
"And no one else here does, so there's no one I can fight."
"You could—" This time his friend's nudge was hard enough the boy fell off his stool, hopped back on and smacked the other boy with his sponge.
Before they could begin wrestling, one of the others in the kitchen, a balding priest, called over, "So the sink will wash the dishes for you, now?"
The boys went red, ducked in quick bows as they chorused, "Sorry!" and spun back around to return to their chore with great industry.
The priest's hazel eyes lingered on Zoro. "You needn't be obliged," he said quietly. "This isn't why you're here."
"There's no reason for me to be here," Zoro replied. "It's not like I'm actually doing anything. So I might as well help out."
"As you wish," said the man. "Though I've heard otherwise."
"What do you mean—" Zoro began to ask, but the man had returned to mopping the tiles around the stoves.
Zoro and the girl dried while the boys washed, silently now, though all three kids kept sneaking glances at his swords. "So," he asked finally, after the fourth peek in a minute, "you guys know the priestess?"
"Lonlin? Yeah." The boldest, the dark-haired boy, shrugged diffidently. "We play with her sometimes. She's little, but she's not afraid like some girls. Even if we can't wrestle her or anything like that. And we have lessons together. She's smart," he admitted grudgingly. "But she can't run very fast."
"She swims well, though," said the other boy. "And she helps with chores. Except dusting the lamps, she hates that. But she'll give me candy if I'll do it for her," and he grinned.
"And she talks to the goddess sometimes."
"Oh, she does that all the time. In the morning and in the evening, and the afternoons on special days. We have to go sometimes, it's pretty boring. Unless there's something cool, like pirates—" The dark-haired boy stopped, though his anxious glance was not at Zoro but at his two friends, neither of whom met his eyes. "Anyway," he went on after a couple seconds, "she'd usually be doing that now. At the fountain or in her room. Except tonight, I guess—" and he swallowed again, this time blinking nervously at Zoro.
"Just shut up," hissed the redheaded boy helpfully.
"She told me that she would be at the ceremony tonight," Zoro said.
The water gurgled as the dishes splashed into the suds, the boys dropping them to stare at him, while the girl simply froze, the rag in her hand poised over a plate. "You talked to the priestess?" the red-haired boy finally asked.
"She came up to the room. She wanted to see how my friend was doing." Zoro shrugged. "He was asleep anyway, and I didn't touch her, so it's okay."
They looked quite shocked, or maybe awed. "If her dad knew..." the redhead muttered.
"...she'd be in such big trouble," mumbled the other boy.
"Why?" The girl clapped down her present plate on top of the stack, hard enough that the whole pile rattled. "It wasn't dangerous."
"But..." Her brother glanced at Zoro. "He's—they're—"
"Everyone's been saying they're good guys, right? Because the sinner promised, and hasn't tried once to run away, and he's stayed, too, he's stayed with him all the time, hasn't everyone been saying that means they're good? And this afternoon, Inste and Glibrech and Lady Wuani, weren't they praying for him? Weren't they praying for the goddess to be merciful to him now, so they both don't hurt? So they're actually really good."
Her outburst seemed to have startled the boys silent, and she went mute too, ducked her head with embarrassment to hide her bright pink cheeks.
Zoro sighed. "I don't know if we're good guys," he said, "but we're not bad guys, anyway. At least we don't torture—" but they were just kids; this didn't really have anything to do with them. He shook his head. "Never mind. But I don't mean your priestess any harm."
"You're going, right? As soon as this is over? That's what you said yesterday."
"Right. Our ship will be waiting for us tomorrow, and we'll go." Both of them, walking out of this damn temple. Because if it were otherwise...
"You wouldn't have to go," the girl said, staring down at her slippers. "We wouldn't make you, afterwards."
"Yeah, well, you and your people have been really hospitable, but I don't think my friend will care to stick around. I sure as hell won't."
"Sorry," whispered the girl, her voice tremulous, and the boys mumbled unhappy echoes.
Not more of them. As long as they didn't actually start bawling... Zoro rubbed his neck. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Your priestess was, too. It's okay, he doesn't blame you. Idiot thinks it's his fault, because he didn't know your goddess's stup—her rules. He's not angry with any of you."
The dark-haired boy raised his head enough to sneak a peek at him. "What about you?"
Zoro didn't think he did more than look at the kid, but the boy ducked his head again as quickly as if he had been smacked. "I don't have anything to do with this," the swordsman said. "They won't even tell me about the ceremonies—you probably know more about them than I do."
But rather than pursue that and possibly get the kids in trouble, he changed the subject, "By the way, I missed dinner. Is there anything left over?"
"Oh! We'll get you food!" The girl hopped off the stool, the two boys quick to follow. While they rummaged in the icebox, a tall walk-in affair that Sanji might have envied, Zoro went over to the opposite counter. Bowls of fruit had been set out, for late-night snackers or early breakfasters, he supposed.
While they had slowly done dishes the others in the kitchen had finished their chores, and now the place was deserted but for an old woman tending the low fires. He glanced at the back of her gray head, saw it nodding, and turned back to the counter, and the bowl of small purple grapes which had caught his eye. Passing his hand over the bunch, he plucked a handful of the fruit, casually reached down and pushed them, one by one, into a fold in his haramaki.
He concealed a second cluster likewise, popped the last couple grapes into his mouth as the kids returned with a bowl of cold rice and pickled vegetables, and several pastries, which they had personally sampled, to tell from the glazed sugar mottling their lips. They let him eat while they did the last of the dishes, hurrying through the chore with low excited chattering and much soapy water sloshed on the floor. They finished when he did, and he stood as they scampered over and drew themselves up. "Mr. Pirate," the dark-haired boy stepped forth to ask, "we're going into the town now, do you want to come?"
"There's a bard at the inn outside the gate, he sings very well," the girl said timidly.
Zoro shook his head. "Sorry, they asked me not to leave, and I should get back to the room. Don't know when the ceremony tonight's going to be over."
"Oh." The three looked at one another, and the bold boy said at last, "We don't know either."
"I hope it's soon," the girl said softly, and then she shyly reached out to touch Zoro's hand, clasped her fingers around his for a second and let go. "I hope your friend's okay. Even if you are pirates. You're not like those pirates. So I pray you won't be hurt." She didn't wait for an answer; blushing furiously, she dashed out the door.
"Tani!" the dark-haired boy called, and shot after her.
Her brother stayed for a moment, looking at Zoro darkly; then the kid nodded. "She's right," he said. "You are good guys, I think."
"Who'd she mean, 'those pirates'?"
"The ones who killed our parents," the boy told him. "Five years ago, we were on a ship that was attacked. Our mother and our father—they threw us overboard with a barrel, before the pirates could...they all had guns, and these long knives. Bur Satva was too far away, we were swimming and swimming and we couldn't even see land. Then a ship came, with blue sails; the priestess—the old priestess—was told by the goddess where we were, so she came to save us. Now they let us live here, where it's safe.
"And I always thought, someday I'll become a warrior, I'll learn sword fighting, or guns, and I'll sail out and hunt down all the pirates in the Grand Line. But maybe I don't need to hunt all of them," he concluded. "Just the bad ones, like the ones the goddess protects us from." He squared his shoulders, looked up at Zoro. "I believe that you didn't mean Priestess Lonlin any harm. I hope your friend lives, sir." He followed his friends out the door.
Zoro listened to them pound up the stairs, their raised voices echoing against the stone. He touched his haramaki, made sure those few grapes were entirely hidden before walking out of the kitchen, though it turned out there was no one in the dining hall to see.
"Yeah," he said to that empty room. "So do I." And he went to find the stairs.
The trouble with the sun setting was that after it did, and twilight had deepened to true night, there was no real way to tell whether time was actually passing at all. Maybe if he could follow the stars—but it was a cloudy night, and Zoro had never been good at picking out constellations anyway. They all just looked like little dots of light to him.
After stashing the hidden grapes under a blanket on the bench, he went through a few katas. But there was something markedly unsatisfying about chopping empty air, and the cursed katana's bloodlust was so high this moonless night that it sliced his thumb when he returned the sword to its scabbard. He exercised instead, wishing for weights, lifted up the couch—the wooden frame was heavy, though not nearly enough—and did squats with it instead. Then handstands, alternating hands; he lost count somewhere around a thousand, kept doing them until cool fingers of sweat trailed down the back of his neck into his hair and his muscles were beginning to tremble with each measured extension.
When he heard the footsteps he dropped and rolled to his feet, shaking the fatigue out of his arms. More than one set, three, he thought, and guessed it was acolytes or priests coming to bring up something, like the bandages last night.
But it was Sanji when they entered, Sanji leaning on a priest almost his height, with an arm around the cook to support him, pulling him along at a stumbling pace, his shoes stubbing on the floor. They were respectfully trailed by an acolyte holding his black jacket, draped over both stiff arms like some special ceremonial garb, which he laid on the floor with all the appropriate deference.
Sanji's head hung down, blond hair hiding his face. He shrugged off the priest's assistance, but without it seemed momentarily to forget how to walk, finally stumbled a few paces back until he bumped into the wall and slid down it, palms pressed to the smooth stone.
The priest dipped low to him and to Zoro, and then he and the acolyte respectfully bowed out of the chamber, all in silence. If Sanji noticed their departure, he gave no sign, drawing up his knees and resting his forehead against them, his arms crossed over his head.
"Sanji?" Zoro squatted before him, visually examining what he could see of his crewmate in the lamplight. His shirt was still buttoned, neatly tucked into the pants, and Zoro noticed no telltale stains. His shoulders under the blue pinstripe were rigid, however, and his breath was coming in shallow pants. "Hey, uh, Sanji?"
"I didn't know." His voice was ragged, harshly torn from his throat. "Fifth death, death of blood. I didn't know. Those bastards. They...I didn't know." His shoulders hunched inward, the corded tendons on the back of his hands standing out in sharp relief as his fingers dug into his arms. "Those bastards."
"Who?" Zoro asked. Death of blood...but even looking closer he could see no obvious injury, for all the pain evident in every line of Sanji's curled-up frame. What the hell had they done? "Didn't know what—"
Sanji shook his head, twisting it back and forth, face still pressed to his knees. "I didn't...should've...bastards..." The words caught in his throat, sticking in a dry gasp that sent a shudder through his body. "They..."
"Who, Sanji?" Zoro demanded, wrapping one hand around the cursed katana's hilt. "You need to tell me if I'm gonna know who to kill."
"No." Sanji's head jerked up, his face white and drawn and his eyes reddened, glittering like glass shards. "It wasn't—no one here. None of them."
"That damn goddess—"
"She didn't do anything. No one did. Didn't touch me, didn't do anything, just showed me...I should've known already. I didn't..." He dropped his head again, took a few rapid breaths like he was suffocating on the very air and then forced himself to continue. "The pool, it's filled with the water of the goddess, not allowed to drink but I can look...and she showed me...it must've been days ago, weeks. I should've known already. Even in the Grand Line."
"Known what?" Zoro asked, grating his teeth with the effort of keeping his tone patient.
For too many irritatingly and unnaturally long seconds Sanji was silent, but for the short breaths dragged into his lungs, and then he muttered, "The Baratie. They...those bastards..."
Zoro wasn't sure he had understood that muffled mumble. "How's that—"
"The goddess," Sanji said, now enunciating with slow precision, a low, monotone recitation, "showed me what happened to the Baratie."
He folded his arms over his head again, as if he were trying to block his ears from some terrible inaudible noise. "First my parents, but I knew that already, even if I don't remember it that well. Though I never forgot my mother's face, how frightened she...but their gravestones look peaceful now, in the sunlight. And the ship I apprenticed on, under the water—I knew those cooks never got any markers, except the wreck on the sea floor. But that was a long time ago.
"But I didn't know...the Baratie...couldn't have been that many weeks ago...long after we were in the Grand Line...but I still should've known. Somehow.
"It's still floating, the fin's keeping it on the water, even with all those holes smashed in the walls...and no one to fix them, no one left at all. The kitchens, the tables, the quarters...they were fighting in every room, every step, the blood's everywhere. The blood, and the...they're...every one of them..." His hands were fists, the knuckles bleached fish-belly white, and he pressed them against his arms to stop their shaking. "No one left to close the doors, the gulls have gotten in, but there's enough left that I could still see who...all of them. All of them there, every single cook, not one of them made it. Even..."
"You saw it?" demanded Zoro. "You saw them get—"
"No." Sanji's shoulders twitched. "They didn't show me the past, not how it happened, just—now, what's there now. What's left."
Zoro rocked back from his crouch, sat down hard and stared dumbly at Sanji's bowed head, the blond hair with its dull sheen in the golden lamplight. "Who could have—"
"Bounty hunters." Sanji looked up just enough to eye Zoro over his folded arms. "Pirate hunters—maybe friends of yours? Who knows how many of 'em. They never recalled Zeff's bounty."
"How'd you know it was hunters, if you didn't see them?"
"They—because they...dead or alive, all the posters say, you know, so they only bothered to bring proof. Left his body, just took his wooden leg, and his..." Sanji swallowed, a painful scraping in his throat. "Took his head, like any good hunters. You probably did yourself, huh, when you were—"
"No," Zoro said. "Some dead, but I never..." It was standard practice for some bounty hunters, easier than hauling a whole corpse in to claim the reward, but those who had fought strongly enough that he had been forced to kill were worthy of more respect.
"We got hunters before," Sanji said, eyes fixed on some invisible point far past Zoro, "always fought them off, but this time...there must've been a goddamn fleet. Blasted the walls with cannons, shot up the whole restaurant, probably before they even boarded. Must've caught them unawares...probably in the morning. Nights without customers, we—they'd drink all night, and then you couldn't get any of the lazy assholes up, kick them in the heads and they still wouldn't open their eyes before noon. It was Carne's birthday a couple weeks ago, they'd have partied until dawn..."
He swallowed again. "If I had been there, maybe I might've...there must have been something I could have done. If I had been there, if I'd never... But I didn't even know. I didn't know. Those bastards... Patty, Carne, all the others who came after them...Owner Zeff. Every one of them, and I didn't even know it..."
"Sanji," Zoro said, but it must have been too quiet; Sanji didn't even look at him.
He wrapped his arms more tightly around his knees, as if he had to hold himself together or else fly apart. "If I'd only been there, if I've never left, I could've done something. I could've fought those bastards off."
"Don't be stupid," Zoro said, loudly enough that he finally got Sanji's attention, though the gaze that met his wasn't angry but disturbingly blank. "I know how all those damn cooks fight. If there were someone in East Blue who could actually take out the Baratie—"
"Even if I couldn't have helped, if it wasn't enough," Sanji whispered, "at least...I'd have been there with them, when..."
"You idiot," Zoro growled. "I said if—because there isn't anyone. There's no way. It couldn't have happened."
"I saw it." His whole body was trembling. "I saw it, I saw the bodies—"
"And how the hell do you know that was real? I was a pirate hunter once, like you said, and I know of most of the hunters in East Blue, and there's not a single damn one strong enough to dare to take on the Baratie—especially after what happened to Krieg. Even if that was with Luffy's help—after that, who would try it? The bounty on Zeff's head wouldn't be enough to make it worth anyone's while."
"Maybe—maybe they were after more than that—"
"What, then? Revenge? After what, ten years? And why take out the whole restaurant—why leave the ship floating, if that's what they were really after? It doesn't make sense."
"It's supposed to make sense?" Sanji surged upright so suddenly he almost bowled Zoro over, exploding out from that hunched ball to loom over the swordsman with his fists clenched and his stance set for attack. "What those bastards did—if you'd seen it—" He was shaking still, his eyes wild.
"But I didn't see it," Zoro said, "all I've got is your damn word, and I don't believe it."
He was ready for it, and Sanji's kick was much too slow anyway, hardly any power behind it at all and it threw him off-balance, enough that he had to catch himself on the wall. Zoro didn't bother blocking, just ducked out of the sweeping blow and flipped to his feet. "I'm supposed to believe the Baratie fell to some half-ass bounty hunters? That a couple cannons and guns took out all forty of those fighting cooks? Not as strong as you still means they're pretty damn strong. You just said that you'd fought off hunters before. Shit, that restaurant survived Luffy for a week! Who the hell could've—"
"I saw it," Sanji gasped, too hoarse to shout, his throat too dry. "They showed me—"
"How do you know what they showed you was real?"
"If you'd seen it—it was real. It was too damn real. I saw it!" From the wideness of his eyes, he was seeing it still, his gaze focused on some invisible vision beyond Zoro. "They're all..."
"You're really such a moron that you'll believe anything you see?"
He said it to make Sanji react, but he might as well be the invisible one here; far from attacking him again, Sanji hardly seemed to recall he was there at all. "If they hadn't shown me, I wouldn't even have known..."
"Dammit, listen to me!" Zoro slammed his fists into the stone wall on either side of Sanji's head, leaned in close enough that his crewmate couldn't look away, could only meet his glare with a mesmerized stare. "Whatever you saw," he said, pronouncing each word distinctly and with enough force to hammer them into that dazed blond head, "whatever they showed you, it wasn't real. If the Baratie was attacked, if Zeff's bounty was claimed—you'd know already. Even in the Grand Line. Nami gets that damn paper, there would've been something about it, if it really happened, and she'd have told you. It wasn't real, Sanji. Fifth death, whatever it's supposed to be, that fucking goddess showed you a lie. It wasn't real."
"It—" Sanji's voice trembled as bad as the rest of him. "It wasn't—real—"
"Unless she really killed them—but it's all supposed to be ceremonial, right, none of it's real, it's all just a fucking ritual. A vision or something. They showed you what you needed to see for this ceremony—what were they supposed to do? Show you what's really happening on the Baratie, everyone cooking food and pouring wine and yelling at the waiters—what kind of death would that be?"
"...the waiters?" Sanji sagged back against the wall, wiped one hand across his pale face. "There weren't...I didn't see any..."
"You didn't see anyone there but who you were expecting to see, did you?" Zoro demanded. "No customers, no waiters, no new cooks you didn't know—you said it was everyone. No one was off getting supplies or anything? No one got away, or fought on the attacker's own ship?"
"N-no." The shuddering exhalation drained him of the last of that angry strength; without the wall at his back he might have dropped in his tracks. Sinking to the floor again, he rocked his head back against the stone, elbows on his knees and hands dangling limply from the wrists. "I didn't... There's always someone out, quarters are too tight unless there's a few at sea, making a run. That wasn't..."
"It wasn't real, Sanji. It was a goddamn lie." Zoro crouched in front of him, made sure his crewmate had to look at him and not that imaginary carnage still showing in his mind's eye. "What would Zeff do to you, if he found out you actually believed some stupid bounty hunter took him down?"
That rasp could be a chuckle only by a generous interpretation, but Zoro was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially since Sanji made the effort to sit up, tried to assume some semblance of composure. "That damn old man...he'd kick me through this wall. He'd..." His face twisted and he turned away, so his hair falling over his eyes hid him from Zoro. "He's...not..."
"He's not dead."
"No. No, I guess...it doesn't make sense, does it. Just what they wanted me to see. But I believed it...damn it." He covered his mouth with one hand, breathed hard through that muzzle. "How could I...I didn't even think of it. Didn't...it was so real. Just what they wanted. Damn it, I am that stupid."
"Right," Zoro said, running his hand through his hair, raking furrows in the short green spikes. "You're stupid. And you're starving, and you're thirsty, and you lost enough blood that you probably shouldn't be able to stand at all."
Sanji turned his head back enough to give him a look through his long bangs. "Not dead yet."
"Yeah, yeah, you could kick my ass. I believe you, don't prove it, okay? Just stay put." Zoro got up, went to the bench and brought back the bundled blanket, lifting one corner to show Sanji the concealed treasure.
Sanji blinked at the little pile of fruit. "What's that?"
"Some cook," Zoro snorted, "can't even recognize food!"
"No." Sanji's eyes narrowed and he looked away.
"Come on," Zoro said, picking up a few of the grapes and pushing them toward him.
Zoro stared. "You're not that dumb. Look, there's no one here to see. They'll never know."
"You don't know that." Sanji dropped his head, shut his eyes. "Even if none of the priests are watching...there's the goddess."
"Don't tell me you believe that bullshit—"
"I can't chance it!" Sanji snapped. "If I don't do this now—I don't...even if they let me do it again, I don't know if I could..."
"Then forget it," growled Zoro. "We can just get the hell out of here."
"And they kill that little girl. You want that?"
"Damn it, no one has to know. You can just have a couple, practically won't count—"
He extended his hand toward Sanji again, but the cook didn't even glance at the grapes, just slapped his hand aside, with enough force that the fruit went flying, tiny purple globes bouncing over the rug. Then, quicker than Zoro could stop him, he had grabbed the bundle, flipped the blanket over to spill the rest of the bunch and cast them all aside.
The exertion cost him; his face was gray when he slumped back against the wall, out of breath. "No," he said as he panted. "I gave my word." Then his mouth quirked. "Besides, you didn't even peel them. What kind of attendant are you?"
Zoro glared, shook his head and got up to collect all the grapes, swept them into the blanket and took them out to the balcony to dump them over. Wouldn't want to explain their presence to the priests, when they next came by. Though hell, he could probably just say it was a midnight snack for him and they would buy it. Too damn gullible...trusting the chivalry of pirates. Completely insane.
When he returned inside, Sanji had gotten himself to the couch, was sitting on the nearer end, staring gravely down at his shoes as if debating whether it was worth the effort to take them off.
Zoro didn't contribute an opinion, just took a seat beside him. He didn't have to wait long before Sanji said, just a quiet rasp, "I am hungry."
"I thought I remembered what it was like, but I didn't. Not really." He folded his hands together, gazed down at the knot of his entwined fingers. "I am one stupid son of a bitch, aren't I."
"Hell, it's not like I didn't know that already." Zoro sighed. "Sanji, why didn't you say something before? Explain about the priestess, when this whole thing started?"
"What was there to tell? You knew everything that mattered. It was my fault. Like you said—you already knew I was stupid."
"Yeah. Well." Zoro looked up at the ceiling, high enough above that the lamps barely illuminated the mosaics. "Did you ever hear how I joined up with Luffy?"
Sanji shrugged. "Always guessed it was along the lines of, 'Hi, you're the pirate hunter Roronoa Zoro, you're good with a sword or three, now be part of my crew.' And then you said, 'No,' and he said, 'Yes,' and then you got in trouble, and all of us know how that ends."
Zoro was almost surprised to find himself smiling a little. "...pretty much, yeah. Except I was already in trouble when he found me. Only I didn't know it, I thought I had a deal, I didn't know that the damn marine's bastard son was gonna break his promise and screw me over."
"They're not going to do that here."
"So, what, you're saying I should screw them instead? Say to hell with the priestess and just turn tail—"
"I'm saying," Zoro said, "that I would have done the same damn thing. Even if it is stupid. There's some things that are more important."
Sanji went so still Zoro thought he might even have stopped breathing, had to fight the urge to smack him to get him to start again. "Oh," the blond finally responded. Then, with a bit more animation, he raised his right hand, five fingers spread. "Five down."
"Just two to go."
"Piece of cake," Sanji said.
"Why don't you get some sleep?" Zoro suggested, standing to give him room on the couch, and tried to pretend he wasn't disturbed—surprised, rather—when Sanji didn't give him so much as a dirty look, just nodded and lay down. He didn't close his eyes, however, staring forward at the far wall and seeing something in those formless shadows. Zoro could see his throat working, heard the sandpaper grating of his suppressed sigh.
"The Baratie's fine," said Zoro. "They're all okay, Zeff, Patty, Carne, all the others. It wasn't real."
"You can't know for sure."
"Doesn't mean I'm not right." Zoro put his hands in his pockets, felt the cigarette case he had almost forgotten about. "Look, tomorrow, after this is over—" second day almost gone, about time, the minutes had passed quicker when he had been tied to the post in that damn marine base—"when we get back to the ship, you can send a message to the restaurant. Shouldn't take too long to get an answer. Just to be sure. But I'm telling you now, everything'll be okay."
"If you say so," and Sanji said it with just enough irony that Zoro swallowed a relieved sigh of his own. The cook rolled over onto his other side, facing away from Zoro, bending one arm back under his head, the other curled against his chest.
He remained silent as Zoro crossed the room to extinguish the lamps, but when the swordsman looked back, he had coiled into a tighter ball, and it still wasn't enough to stop the quivering of his shoulders, visible even in just the starlight.
"N-nothing," Sanji muttered, with a catch that might have been a cough.
"I'm gonna go exercise on the balcony," announced Zoro. "It's too warm in here."
He was pushing aside the door, the wood scraping softly against the frame, when Sanji said, quietly, "Zoro?"
"Thanks. ...For the grapes." He sounded so weary he couldn't be completely awake, but he still managed a little sardonic edge. "Thought that counts, right?"
"Whatever," Zoro said, and left him to sleep.
The sun shining in his face woke Zoro. He jerked up with a start, his body stiff from sitting on the cold stone. Rubbing his arms to work circulation back into the muscles, numbed by the chill night, he climbed through the window back inside.
Sanji was gone.
Zoro didn't even remember falling asleep. It was only a little after sunrise, but yesterday they had come before dawn, and how the hell had he slept through it? The bastard could have at least said something, when they came—
—if he had been awake at all, when they took him—
He came across priests and acolytes as he descended the tower, but none were free to answer any questions. In fact most of them, upon spotting him, apparently recalled business elsewhere, for several so urgent that they had to run, tripping over their robes. Those few who didn't hurry off froze in their tracks like deer in a poacher's lantern at his approach, meeting his queries with dumb bewilderment.
One acolyte looked young enough, and nervous enough, that Zoro grabbed his skinny arm, gave him a shake to knock him out of that mute daze. "Hey," he said, "you know that Seven Deaths thing? Where's it going on?"
The boy swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing. "I—I don't—" His eyes dropped from Zoro's face, landed square on his swords and shot up again, white showing all the way around the hazel irises. "--Can't tell!" he squeaked. "I can't, please don't—"
Zoro let him go, a bit surprised to see the acolyte rub his arm as he shrank back. He hadn't been gripping that hard. He didn't think. "Sorry."
The acolyte shook his head. "No, no, I'm sorry—really, I just—"
"I won't interfere," Zoro said. "I swear."
"At least tell me how long this is going to take."
"I can't say, sir," quavered the kid. "I mean—"
"No one can," said a quiet alto behind them. Zoro looked back, saw the blonde acolyte.
Disregarding her petrified brethren, she held out a tray with two rice balls to Zoro. "Here, sir. I was assigned to the kitchen this morning, and noticed you hadn't found it yet for your breakfast."
Zoro ignored the offer. "What'd you mean, no one?"
"The deaths of the goddess are different for every man," she explained. The boy took advantage of her distraction to flee down the corridor; Zoro didn't bother trying to stop him, and the other acolyte didn't look like she was looking for an opening to follow suit. "More I can't say."
"But they aren't real anyway. What your damn goddess does is just part of the ceremony, it was just a trick—"
"The goddess is real," and a hint of real strength showed beneath the softness, steel under plush.
"I don't know what the hell she is," Zoro said. "Real, hoax, I don't care, but she showed my friend something that wasn't. A damn illusion."
"The moon goddess has granted me visions before," the blonde woman told him, "and they were all true, or became that way."
"If you say so, but this goddess lied to him, and I want to know what kind of bullshit she's putting him through now."
"As attendant, you're not permitted—"
"Then screw it, I'll quit being attendant. Where are they?"
"Only the attendant and the devout can approach the sinner, once he is the goddess's." Her eyes, watching him, softened in the morning sunlight. "But your friend is a good man, and strong. I saw how in the ceremonies before—"
"Yeah, you've all been watching, haven't you? Not much else to do for fun around here, huh," Zoro growled. "I'm not going to do anything, I gave my word. I just want see it for myself. Where'd you take him?"
"You aren't allowed—"
"I don't care."
"I can't tell you, sir."
Zoro closed his fingers into a fist; deliberately, emphatically, drew it back and drove it into the wall beside them. He heard the stone crack, waited for it to settle before asking, quietly, "Where."
She stared at the chips of granite flaking down, and the tray clattered at her feet, rice balls rolling off. She made no move to pick them up, watching him with the stillness of a mouse waiting for a hawk to dive. But she didn't answer, and for all the fear in her eyes, the resolution was greater. Almost as stubborn as the damn cook, this woman. He sighed. "Fine. Forget it."
As he turned and walked away, he could almost feel her gather herself, heard her inhale enough air to ask, "Where are you—"
"I'll find the place myself."
"Sir, you can't—" She took a couple steps toward him, but stopped in her tracks when he stopped.
"I promised I wouldn't mess with your ceremonies. Not that I'd just do nothing. You won't even tell me what the hell you're doing to him." Without looking back, he dropped his hand to his katana hilts. "Please don't get in my way."
What she whispered might have been a denial, or agreement, or one of those meaningless apologies he had heard too many of lately. It was too soft to make out over the tempo of his boots against the stone floor as he strode away. She didn't follow.
There were people as always in the main courtyard with the fountain, but no tell-tale gathering of priests, no sign of the high priest or the little priestess or Sanji. A cluster of robed townspeople scattered out of his way like startled pigeons as he cut across the circle, a couple narrowly missing falling into the fountain's basin. Did any of them know about the ceremony? Probably not enough—only the devout and the attendant could see him now, she had said.
The temple was too damn big. Three towers, and Sanji could be in any of them. Without an idea what they actually were doing, he didn't even know what to look for. A big room, a small one—were there any locked rooms in this place? He had hardly seen any doors at all, just open doorways and silk screens. Wouldn't need so much as a single sword to get through one of them.
Not that it mattered; Sanji wouldn't run even if he did break one down. They might as well have him in an iron cage. Zoro would prefer they did, for that matter; he knew how to handle that.
Sixth death; second death of the goddess, second to last of the ceremony. The little priestess would be there for it. Find her and he would find Sanji. What had the boy last night said? That the priestess spoke with the goddess all the time—usually, anyway, when the deified bitch wasn't sulking. And those conversations were at the fountain, or in her room. The priestess's private chambers—he doubted, however, that any of the people around the temple would be eager to tell him where that was. But she had come to their room yesterday, by lying about going to her own room. Probably the same tower, then. There were other passageways off the stairs to their room, and the flight continued up to higher levels.
After a not entirely intentional detour through the dining halls, the foyer of the main entrance, and a small atrium filled with vine-covered statues, Zoro located the spiraling stone steps which were becoming familiar. He climbed now only as high as the second floor, brushed past two priests who lost all inclination to block his way when he drew a couple centimeters of one katana, and shoved aside the screen with enough force that the frame jumped its tracks and crashed to the floor. But the room behind was nothing more than sleeping quarters, two rows of empty couches with neatly made bedding, arranged around the same central column that rose through their own chamber.
The next room above was the same, but there was a gap in the second row of couches, probably where their couch had been taken from. On the next flight, the corridor branching off the stairs curved around the tower, but pacing its circumference he eventually found himself back where he started, having encountered no turns or any entryway. He walked it a second time, running his hand along the inner stone wall, but it was smooth all the way around, the granite blocks so neatly placed he couldn't have wedged the tip of a blade between them.
Mounting the stairs once more, he found himself at their own chamber, still empty, no sign of his crewmate. He debated waiting; they had brought Sanji back here every time before—
—if there would be anything to bring back, this time. 'The last day's when death becomes real.'
He left before he put his fist through one of the windows, climbed more stairs. Above their chamber was another empty, entryless corridor, which he again circled twice and found no sign of anything along the walls but carved and painted symbols. He was wondering if he should look more closely when he heard something above him. Voices, perhaps.
He ran up the stone steps, only to find they ended abruptly, at a door, a true door of heavy oak, hinged to the stone frame with iron pegs. When he put his hand to it, it swung open, counterweights levering its mass aside.
There were no voices now that he could hear, just the whistling of wind. He climbed the ladder behind the door, pushed up a slanted wooden panel and found himself on the tower's roof. Tiered clay tiles rose above him in a broad cone, the peak twice as high as his head. There was no space here for any ceremony, but Zoro climbed out onto the closest rank of tiles, went around the pinnacle to look at the other two towers, their points level with this one. He could see nothing, however, all the glass windows reflecting back the opaque cloudy sky, a match to the gray stone of the towers. The wind blew between the trio of manmade peaks, carrying the scent of pines and the bite of cold from the snowy mountains beyond the city.
He returned to the ladder and had begun to descend when he heard a muffled thud. The door had slammed closed. Releasing the rungs, Zoro dropped to the floor and yanked at the handle. The door didn't budge. He tried pushing it instead, but somehow it was bolted shut, though when he listened he heard no footsteps, no sign of anyone there to have closed it.
"Hey!" he shouted anyway, banging his fist against the wood. "Let me out of here!"
No one answered. "I thought I wasn't a prisoner," Zoro yelled, hammering the thick boards. "Open this!"
He hadn't seen anyone on the final stairs, no one following him, that he had perceived, and it would be a rare man who could move so quietly he wouldn't have noticed. Maybe they wanted to keep him from that ceremony, but no one had done anything to trick him into coming up here.
No, you trapped yourself fine all on your own. Stupid, to let down his guard, just because they were all so damn polite. "Let me out!"
Still there was nothing. The door was thick and solid, not giving the slightest when he slammed his shoulder against it. No good kicking it; if Sanji were here, perhaps, instead of wherever the hell they had actually brought him...
Zoro pounded the wood again, listened to the heavy thud. He pulled his third katana, grimaced as he raised it. Swords weren't axes; this could damage that master blade. It was the lightest of his three, but he didn't trust the cursed sword to the task, and wouldn't so demean the white katana.
Space was limited, and he angled the blow carefully to get the maximum power. Locking his arms rigid to match the force of an axe's weight, he brought down the sword, chopping into the wood, only to have the steel blade clang against metal with a crash that set his head ringing. Iron bolts ran through the breadth and height of the door. No wonder it was so damn heavy. Without the room for a complete swing he couldn't slice the metal; in an hour or two he might hack through it, but he didn't have the time. Too damn weak.
He climbed back up the ladder, studied the situation more closely. The tower's stone walls were too sheer to make climbing feasible. If they hadn't trusted Sanji's word, wanted to keep him by force, this might have done it—up here on the roof, the open sky above. It had been sunny earlier, but clouds had rolled in off the autumn sea. With the sun hidden somewhere behind that gray expanse, the wind was chill enough to raise gooseflesh on his bare arms. He shouted into it, but there was no way to tell if anyone could hear him through the stone walls, and the towers were too widely spaced to give back an echo.
He debated his other options. Climbing would be difficult, but if he jumped, he might be able to catch one of the balconies on the way down. Or he could just knock off a few of the clay tiles and see if anyone noticed them crashing to the ground. If they landed on someone's head it would be a hard signal to miss, but he supposed it might not be taken well. Best to check first. Making sure the tiles under his feet were secure, Zoro carefully sidled down to the edge of the roof. There was no rail, only a low stone ridge that he set the toes of his boots against and leaned out to look down.
There were people below, more than he would have expected, blue and gold robes fluttering like leaves at the tower's base. They were milling around in an agitated way, scurrying back and forth. Maybe they were looking for him. "Hey!" he shouted down to them, "up here!" But they were too distant for him to be able to tell if he had been noticed. "Look up, idiots!" he bellowed. If it wasn't him they were searching for...
Zoro paused, holding his breath to listen. Another tentative knock sounded. "Uh, sir, are you on the roof?"
"Yes!" Idiot. He recognized the muffled voice as the acolyte he had accosted earlier. Scrambling up the tiles, he almost slipped, caught the trapdoor before he fell and threw it aside to drop down the ladder.
The kid on the other side of the door sounded confused. "But how did you bolt it from the inside?"
"I don't know, the wind shut it." Or something. Someone. Maybe. He didn't think this guy would have had the guts for it, anyway. "Can you open it? I won't get in the way of the damn ceremony, I swear—"
"I believe you, sir. Besides, you couldn't, since it's already—"
"Just open it!"
The bolts scraped and squealed, and Zoro jumped back as the door swung open, narrowly missing slamming him into the wall. The acolyte in the corridor beyond blinked at him nervously. "None of the ceremonies take place on the roof, sir, but your friend might be back in his chamber by now—"
Shoving past him, almost knocking the kid down, Zoro spiraled down the stairs, taking the steps four at a time, faster than he could fall. When he reached the corridor he covered its length in a few long strides, wrenched the screen aside.
The chamber was empty; the acolyte had been wrong, he thought, and then he looked outside.
Zoro made it onto the balcony without actually knowing if he had used the door or a window or just gone straight through the wall. Sanji was there already, the black lines of his suit in stark contrast to the clouds' dreary barren grays, and the wind whipping his hair into his closed eyes. His expression under the wild blond strands was empty, impassive, lips slightly parted, frozen in the instant before speech, as if he had forgotten what words he had intended. Zoro started to call his name, stopped with his own mouth open, not knowing if he dared do anything that might start time again.
The damn cook was on the balcony's edge, on the wrong side of the railing, with his heels only just on the ledge and his arms behind him, fingers hooked over the balustrade as he leaned out into that bleak sky.
The wind died, leaving a deafening stillness. "Sanji," Zoro finally ventured, but his throat was as dry as if he hadn't had a drink himself in two days. He licked his lips, tried again—calmly, don't want to startle him—"Sanji, what are you..."
Sanji opened his eyes, turned his head toward Zoro, a couple meters away and not daring to come nearer, at least until the blond got a more secure grip on that railing. It was still close enough to see the blank look in his eyes, recognition coming too slowly. When it did, they widened, and Zoro heard his breathing quicken. "Zoro," he said, "I—"
"Here, I'm right here," Zoro said hastily, but when he started to move forward Sanji threw up one hand to fend him off. Zoro froze; Sanji was leaning too far out to have a stable footing on the balcony, holding himself now with just four fingers curled loosely around the railing. "Sanji," Zoro said, not moving, calm, stay calm, don't snap, "it's okay, I'll stay put—Sanji, just lean back a little, before you—"
Sanji didn't move, suspended there with his hand outstretched as he blinked at his crewmate, slowly. "I was waiting. Have to tell you...you didn't see..."
"No, I didn't." Zoro slid one foot forward, just a small step, too slow and easy to even be noticed as he shifted his weight. "I wasn't there, I didn't see any of it. What happened?" Two more steps brought him to the railing, though Sanji was still out of reach. "What was sixth death?" He glanced down, to the grounds below, the gardens, the wide circle of pebbled path directly beneath.
It wasn't really that far down. Luffy had tossed him much farther on occasion. Admittedly those times he had landed in water, or on Luffy's rubber body, but he was fairly certain he could survive the fall, if he could manage to land on his feet. He would just have to make sure he threw himself off with enough velocity to catch Sanji before they hit. Should have a couple seconds at least...
"Sixth death." At that whisper Zoro's attention shot back to his crewmate's face. Sanji's lips were twisted into what might have been a grin, if his eyes hadn't been so empty. "There wasn't a sixth death. It got...interrupted." The wind picked up again, catching the tails of his black jacket and blowing his hair into his eyes.
"My fault. It was my fault." Sanji shoved the blond tangle out of his face with his free hand, his grip on the balustrade slipping a little. "That's what he said, and he was right."
"Sanji, just grab the damn railing!" Screw staying calm, or figuring out what the hell he was talking about—
Before Zoro could lunge for him, the blond looked back, and something in his eyes stopped the swordsman in his tracks. "No," Sanji said. "You don't understand." His throat worked, but with nothing to swallow he choked a little on the dryness. "Th-They're all..."
"We went through this already, it was just a—"
"Not the Baratie," Sanji said, and though the wind had calmed again, Zoro shivered all the same. "Not a vision. The goddess—she didn't have the chance to show me anything. Before the sixth death even started, they came. Like you said. They got impatient, waiting for us, so they came."
"What?" Zoro's own hand wrapped around the balustrade, tight enough to crack it, as if he might be in danger of falling off himself. "What are—"
"My fault, he said. They came looking for us. For me. They all came to save me, they thought I could be..." Sanji stared at Zoro, so focused he might bore a hole through his eyes, that grin that wasn't a grin at all stretching his mouth out of shape. His husky voice wavered, an atonal, emotionless singsong. "Nami-san came, Nami-san came to help me. We were in the temple, the hall below the fountain, with the water falling all around. The priest was chanting, and the priestess, and all I could think of was how much I wanted just one sip of that water.
"And then, before they could finish, before they were done with the preparations, Nami-san came, with Robin-chan, and everyone else behind them. They came to help me, and the priests were shouting, but they came—tried to stop them, the priests did, I did, and the priestess, she was crying. But the goddess isn't listening to her now, and the goddess—her ceremony, she wouldn't suffer intruders..." His tone was rising, gradually, like the wind before a stormfront. "My fault, all of them, they came for me, and I—no!" Zoro had moved toward him, and Sanji twisted back, swinging himself around to face the balcony, the toes of his shoes skidding on the ledge. Zoro froze again, and Sanji shook his head, a sharp rattle, as if he were casting off water. "You didn't—I have to tell you first, so you—"
"You can tell me inside, I'll listen, just give me your hand, Sanji—"
"You don't understand—it was me!" Sanji kicked one banister, and while the strike was nowhere near his usual power the stone fractured with a crack like a thunderbolt. "Me—all of them—" His voice was fracturing, too, breaking under a different blow. "You didn't see it, how—"
"What happened?" Zoro ground out. "What'd you see?"
"I saw—" His eye was wide enough that Zoro could see the entire gray void of the sky reflected in the hole of his pupil. "I saw the goddess. She was beautiful, so damn beautiful. She raised her arm, and I saw—those flames, my fault, and everything went blank, and when I could see again, he—they—all of them..."
He drew a breath, the air rattling in his chest like dry gravel. "They're dead, Zoro. Chopper, Usopp, Robin-chan. N-nami-san. Luffy. They're all dead, and it's my—"
"Bullshit," Zoro growled. "They aren't here, they never were, this is just another damn trick, another—"
"No vision. Nothing they showed me," Sanji said. "I wasn't looking into any damn pool this time. This wasn't the ceremony! The priests, they didn't know, they weren't expecting it any more than I was. When they broke through the door, Nami-san and Luffy and the others, the priests shouted at them to stay back—no one allowed at the ceremony, but the priests, and me, and the goddess—but they came anyway. For me. They came, and they—"
"They weren't here!" Zoro would have heard them come, if it were all of them—and it would have been, if they had decided to come looking for him and Sanji, if Luffy had decided it was time to leave, they all would have come. But he would have seen them, heard them.
The hall below the fountain, Sanji had said, somewhere underground like the kitchens, or even deeper, while he had been climbing the tower, and that thick granite could block all sound. And he didn't know when Sanji had actually been taken, or how long he had slept.
But he would have known, if they had really come, he would have had to know. These were their crewmates they were talking about. The whole temple would have known. Hell, the entire city would have heard. "It couldn't have really happened, Sanji, just get off the damn—"
"It couldn't have," Sanji said, and his voice cracked. "Couldn't have, but it did. They're dead—"
"They're dead and it's my fault."
"Stop it," Zoro demanded. "Even if it had—it didn't, they're not, but it wouldn't be your fault, you said yourself it was that bitch goddess—"
"Not just the goddess," Sanji said, his voiceless rasp too harsh to be a whisper. "Not all of them." He looked down, and Zoro followed his gaze to the balcony's ledge, his too precarious footing. His black shoes—their usual polish was smattered with rusty stains, and the cuffs of his pants were darkened, damp.
There was the faintest coppery taint in the air, that Zoro hadn't noticed before, but now it turned his stomach, for all that he was long accustomed to the smell of blood. "Sanji—your shoes—"
"Sanji of the Red Leg. Do you think anyone calls me that?" Sanji raised one foot enough to regard the bloody shoe. The other sole slipped a little on the stone, tipping him that much more perilously into empty space, though his grip on the railing didn't tighten. "Never really thought of it before, but I learned from the master, didn't I, someone should get the title, if he's not bearing it anymore..."
"Whose blood, Sanji? Yours—"
"Not mine. Not then." Sanji shook his head, even harder. "He was screaming at me, screaming it was my fault, and before the goddess touched them...he was right, it was my fault, but I couldn't think, I couldn't breathe. There was nothing, and when I could see again...both of them, at my feet, and the blood—all that water and I couldn't reach it, couldn't wash it off, they wouldn't let me—"
"It didn't happen," Zoro said, had been saying for some time, to tell by how familiarly his tongue shaped the syllables, though he didn't remember interrupting. "It didn't happen, it didn't happen—"
"Zoro." How the hell could Sanji sound like that, all of a sudden so damn calm, still hanging out over that drop while he asked, with ludicrously reasonable composure, "You've got your swords, right?"
"Huh?" Zoro stared at him. "Yeah, of course." Hard to miss, weren't they, the three scabbards at his hip as always.
"All right," Sanji said, and then he held out his hand, so matter-of-factly that Zoro took a second to get it.
Then he did, and shot forward to grab him, locked his fingers around the cook's wrist and hauled him in. Sanji shifted his other hand to vault over the railing, clumsily, and he stumbled on the balcony's tile as Zoro yanked him to the window, not gently, and shoved him into the chamber.
Only after Zoro had banged the window shut behind them, rattling the glass, did he release Sanji's arm. The blond took a few mostly even steps, put a hand to the wall to steady himself and said, with that same preternatural calm, "I didn't actually believe it myself, you know. I didn't think the goddess was real, until I saw her there."
"Sanji, whatever you think you saw—"
"She was only there for an instant, one second, then she was gone. But we all saw her. And Nami-san, Robin-chan, they weren't afraid. While Luffy and the others went for the priests, they headed for where she'd been. Then the goddess was there again, just long enough to see how beautiful she really was. She raised her arm," and Sanji's own arm lifted to parody that gesture, a languid sweep like a conductor calling forth a melody. "There were flames, blue flames. The goddess melts the ice, that's what they say, and blue's the hottest fire, the best for cooking. She was closest to Robin-chan—it was so fast, but it wasn't fast enough.
"Her face, Zoro, Robin-chan's face, for that one instant before she burned too fiercely to see anything at all—her eyes were even brighter blue than the fire. She didn't even try to cry out, she just looked at me. But Nami-s-san..."
He faltered, hands curling into fists, a desperate hold on something imperceptible. "Nami-san had long enough...to scream...and it was my name. I think it was my name. The fire—the priests held me, there were, I don't know, five or six of them, and they're not fighters here but I couldn't—too damn weak, I couldn't get free. She fell, she was trying...rolling on the ground, beating at herself, but the fire wasn't on her, it was inside, those flames bursting out of her skin, her blood might have been oil... The smell...and she was screaming, until her throat burned..."
A red line of blood seeped from Sanji's clenched fist over the crease of his palm, welled up and dropped to the carpet. Zoro couldn't move. It's not possible, he wanted to say, but they had both seen too many things. A devil fruit eater, feigning the trappings of a deity? Or something even less imaginable? Anything was possible. This was the Grand Line.
It wasn't real, even if the goddess might be. He couldn't figure out how to say that; his tongue might as well have been nailed to the roof of his mouth.
Sanji spoke like he had no choice, a desperate jabbering, one word tumbling after another in an avalanche, impossible to hold back once started. "Chopper, he tried. They were all shouting at him to stop—I think I was shouting, I couldn't hear myself, and they wouldn't let me go—but he still tried. He tried to help them, and the flames were so high—he cried, too, but he wouldn't quit. He tried to put the fire out, made himself big to blanket them with his body, tried to smother it. And then he was burning, too, all his fur, going up like a torch. A flambé," and a convulsive laugh tore from his chest. "All three of them, Robin-chan and Chopper and Nami-san—Nami-san's hair, it's always been lovelier than any fire, I always thought, that red-gold shine, not like that blue—"
"Sanji, snap the hell out of it!" Zoro commanded.
Sanji was babbling too fast to catch his breath, he was going to suffocate himself if he kept it up, and Zoro lifted his hand to slap some sense in him. But at the gesture his crewmate caught himself all at once, broke off his raving to block with enough force to wrench Zoro's arm back. The blond drew a sharp breath, met Zoro's eyes and said, nearly rationally, "No, you have to—need to let me tell you. If I stop I won't be able to do it, and you need to under—"
"I don't need to know anything. It was just some crazy nightmare, it wasn't real—"
Sanji rocked back a step, reached down and wiped his hand across one shoe, then drew himself upright again, showing his fingers to Zoro, the dried brown stains. "That blood's here, isn't it?" He rubbed his fingertips together. "I'm not seeing things? No dream, right?"
"That's..." It was blood, Zoro knew that rusty shade too well to be fooled, but wherever the hell it had come from—
"It happened so fast, there wasn't a chance for the others to do anything. Even Luffy." Sanji had found that eerie composure again, his voice flat and his face blank. Zoro decided he preferred the hysteria. Better madness than nothing at all. "He and Usopp, they had started to rush the priests, but then they just were staring. And I...if they'd come alone, if Nami-san hadn't come, if Robin-chan hadn't, or Chopper, they would have—if it had just been Luffy, he's fast enough, the goddess might not have... Something like that, I was shouting something like that. Then Luffy looked at me.
"He looked at me, and he was angry, you almost never see him that angry, but you can't forget it once you have. 'Your fault,' he said, 'It's your fault,' and then he said, 'I'll never forgive you,' and then he was charging at me, knocking the priests out of the way. They might have just been sticks of wood, he threw them aside and came for me and then I don't remember, everything went white, I don't remember anything. Just their screams, I could still hear them screaming, her screaming, Luffy—'I'll never forgive you,' and maybe he was crying. Maybe I was. I don't know.
"Then I was standing there, alone, and Luffy was lying at my feet, and Usopp—Usopp, he should have run away, shouldn't he have run from that? At least Usopp should have...but he was there, sprawled half on top of Luffy, like he'd tried to protect him. Their eyes were open, not looking at me, couldn't look at anything, but they weren't burned. There was just the blood, on them, on the floor. On me.
"The goddess didn't defend me, the priests...they didn't have to. He was right, he was right, my fault, but I wasn't thinking, I couldn't think. Not until later, I was here again, back in this damn room, and I knew you'd be coming. Had to wait, knew I had to tell you, Zoro, but... I didn't think I could, but I had to. You had to know. So now..."
He sucked in air, used that lungful to pull his back straight and lift his head, meeting Zoro's stare unflinching. Deliberately he raised his arms, spread them out, then tilted back his chin to bare his throat, his eyes still locked with Zoro's. "Your right," he said. "Take it."
"Like you told Mihawk," Sanji said. "Dishonorable for a swordsman to strike from behind."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Zoro choked.
"You've got three swords, don't you? You don't have to use the white one, I know that means some damn thing to you, don't need my blood on that one, but the others—"
"The hell would I—"
"What else do you want to know, Zoro?" The knifelike edge to Sanji's voice echoed off the stone ceiling, rang against the walls. "Do you want to hear the sound Chopper made, how high he cried out, until his tears boiled in that fire? Do you want me to tell you what was left, when the flames finally died? Burned down to bones, those charred heaps, you couldn't even tell they once were...couldn't recognize them, not even Nami-san, except her arm was stretched out toward me, and the fingers, black skeleton crumbling to just a charcoal outline on the stone..."
"Sanji, it didn't—"
"Do you want to know what Usopp's chest looked like, with the white ribs sticking up, cleanly snapped—how long, do you think, will lungs still try to breathe, how long before the heart pumps out all the blood, and his spine was broken, he couldn't move, couldn't do anything but lie there and slowly die. Or Luffy—Luffy, for him it was fast, it must have been fast, with the side of his head caved in like that, all the blood pouring into his hat and leaking through the straw. His eyes were open and they looked surprised, not in pain, not even angry, just shocked—"
"Stop it, Sanji." Zoro didn't mean to whisper but he wasn't sure if he actually could hear himself at all. "Stop it, please."
"What more do you need to hear, Zoro? What else do you want to know?" Sanji's voice was stretched too tight to quaver, thinned to the breaking point. "Why are your swords still sheathed? You forget how to use a blade—"
"Like hell," Zoro said, and heard his own voice shake. "It was just a trick, just a damn lie." Had to be—forget everything else, no way Sanji would be strong enough to take down Luffy, even in full health, much less this state. Especially if Luffy were angry.
—if Sanji had misunderstood, somehow, delirious as he was, if Luffy hadn't really been attacking, hadn't been expecting an attack from one of his trusted crewmates—if he had been overcome with the shock of seeing the others, right before his eyes—
Bullshit, all the goddess's fucking deception, and no way was he going to be her tool. The attendant wasn't supposed to be present for any of the deaths, but the rules must have changed, because this one wasn't over. Just part of a ritual, in reality his crewmates were gathered on the Going Merry by now, waiting for them, all his crewmates, alive and well, except the one here, but damned if he was going to let this death be anything more than ceremony.
His hands closed around the hilts of his katana, and Sanji exhaled, relief dimming the last life in his eyes, even as his shoulders stiffened in resolved expectation.
With a flick of his fingers, Zoro unclasped the scabbards from his belt, grabbed all three swords and flung them aside, not looking to where they cracked against the wall and clattered to the floor, the blades clinking in their wooden sheaths. "Like hell," he said again.
There was a long moment that he thought the air might have turned to stone around them; Sanji was paralyzed, still as if he were trapped in glass, and Zoro wasn't sure if he could move or breathe himself, didn't even try.
When Sanji did break free, it was only to draw a shallow breath. His pale lips barely moved, his voice distant. "I know you've never liked me," he said, "but I didn't know you hated me that much."
"Yeah." Zoro's own voice seemed to his ears as hollow and far away as the sound of the ocean inside a seashell. "Yeah, I hate you, you damn cook. You arrogant bastard, like you'd ever be strong enough to kill Luffy. Like you'd ever actually fight Usopp. Like you'd ever let Chopper burn; like you'd ever just stand by and do nothing while someone hurt Robin, or Nami, no matter how many goddamn men were trying to hold you back—you lying son of a bitch, you really expect me to believe any of that?"
"If you don't believe it," Sanji's thready rasp barely carried to him, "if you do...it's still true. Every one of them, all their dreams, everything we ever did...because of me, all because of me..."
He lurched, and Zoro thought he was about to fall, but then he was moving, much faster than Zoro would have expected him capable of, going for swords scattered by the wall. Or maybe the window again, the balcony beyond it. It didn't matter and Zoro didn't care. He checked Sanji's rush, throwing himself into the blond's path and wrestling him back.
Sanji fought. Not at all his usual coordinated, calculated assaults, but Zoro was unprepared for the manic strength in his wiry limbs. An elbow clipped his chin and he saw stars, and then Sanji had torn free, was whirling around in a wild kick that, even given his condition, could have taken his target's head off. Zoro dropped and rolled, instinctively diving for his swords laying by the wall.
—and goddamn it, it was unbelievable enough that Sanji was strong enough to fight back, but he sure as hell shouldn't have had the presence of mind for that kind of scheming. "You son of a bitch!" Zoro growled, and lunged up, slammed his shoulder into Sanji's chest hard enough to knock the wind out of him and then locked his arms around his crewmate's thin frame, closing his arms to his side.
Sanji struggled violently, flailing with all that madman's strength; Zoro just held on, swearing through clenched teeth when the toes of the cook's hard shoes smashed into his shins. But adrenaline and misery couldn't make up for the last couple days' deprivations, and seized this close, Sanji wouldn't have been able to get off any good kicks even if he had his usual power.
He was going to damage himself more if he kept it up. Zoro grimaced, then whacked Sanji on the back with his open hand. The blond stiffened, spine arching rigid through the jacket and bandages as an agonized whine escaped his throat.
"Sorry," Zoro muttered, desperately hoping he hadn't reopened any of those wounds. Blood loss was about the last thing he needed now; he would have too damn little energy reserves left after this.
"You bastard," Sanji hissed, "if you're too much a coward—"
Zoro didn't let go, didn't relax his grip. "Who's the fucking coward, trying to run away from what he says was his fault?" He tightened his arms, careful not to put too much pressure on his back. Sanji's blond hair was getting in his eyes and he shook it off as well as he could, said quietly in his ear, "It wasn't real, it didn't happen. You didn't do anything and they're all alive."
It sounded like it hurt Sanji just to breathe, the warm air shredding his parched throat. His shoulders under Zoro's arms were heaving as he gasped for breath. "If you don't have the courage to believe it, if you don't have the guts to—you weren't there—"
"Then wasn't it my fault, too?" Zoro asked. "I wasn't there, I didn't do anything to help them."
"If you...you weren't allowed either..." Sanji's shudder was hard enough to shake Zoro as well. He reeked of smoke, residue of all those cigarettes soaked into his suit and his skin, overwhelming the stench of sweat and blood. "If you'd been there, you also would've..."
"Sanji," Zoro cut him off, "what was sixth death?"
"I told you." Sanji tried futilely to pull away, squirming and clawing like a cat too tightly clutched. "There wasn't one, it didn't—"
"You said they started it," Zoro reminded, "chanting or whatever. What'd they tell you before that, before you saw Luffy and the others, what'd the priest say it was going to be?"
"The death..." and the ghost of that crazy laughter quavered in his voice. "Everything, death of everything, everything's dead."
"It couldn't have been everything," Zoro said, reasonably, "or what would they save for last? Come on, Sanji, what was sixth death?"
"Sixth death..." For a long minute Sanji only breathed, his chest moving against Zoro's. Finally he whispered, "Sixth death. Second death of the goddess. Death of hope."
Zoro froze, momentarily caught by the desolation of that loss.
Sanji drew himself up, not taking advantage of Zoro's paralysis to free himself but gathering what had to be the last of his will to say, steadily, "It's your right, as the only one left. It's your right, don't you owe them, don't you want revenge—"
"If it was real," Zoro said slowly, "if it was your fault, if they really are all dead—I sure as fuck am not going to kill the only nakama I have left."
Sanji only mouthed it, and then he folded, so suddenly it might have been a trick, all strength in his body giving way at once. Zoro shifted to catch him, support him, the blond deadweight slumped against him, lighter than he should be, even for the skinny cook. He was shivering, short spasms jolting him.
Zoro tipped his head forward, put his forehead to Sanji's. He was too hot, even in this warm room, feverish though his skin was dry. "...don't understand," he was muttering, barely giving enough breath for the words to be audible, and his teeth clenched around them. "You don't understand, they're...all...you should..."
"No," Zoro said, "they aren't, and I won't, and it wasn't your fault. You didn't do it, whatever it looked like. It wasn't your fault, Sanji."
"Even if it wasn't," Sanji gasped, "even if it wasn't me, they're still..."
Zoro took a couple steps back, Sanji stumbling with him, until the back of his knees bumped into the couch. He let himself drop, not letting go so they fell onto it together. Sanji curled around himself like an animal rolling into a defensive ball, burying his head in his arms, trying to hide himself. There wasn't enough water left in him for tears but his shudders stuck in his throat like sobs. "Couldn't...I wasn't strong enough..."
If it were possible for a man to will his own heart to stop, Zoro thought, this death would already be real. "It didn't happen, Sanji, it didn't happen. It was just a trick, you were seeing things, they're all still alive." It didn't do any good; even if Sanji would listen, he was beyond the point of understanding. But what else could he do? If Sanji could only fall asleep, let all of this go—if Zoro dared he would have just knocked him out, but he couldn't be sure Sanji would wake up again. He felt too damn fragile, like a blade struck too many times, until it would shatter under the lightest blow.
"You just have to get through this, and then you can see them all again, they're waiting for us. Nami's waiting for you, and Robin, you'll get to see them again. This will be over by tonight, there's only one left," and now he was the one babbling, but some of it was getting through, enough that Sanji turned his head a little, into Zoro's shoulder.
"They're..." he mumbled, "they're...I'm sorry, Nami-san, I'm sorry...everyone...I'm sorry..."
"Nothing to be sorry for," Zoro said, "not your fault, and it wasn't real anyway. You don't have to apologize, you just have to make it through this damn thing, that's all, just hang on, a little longer..." Eventually he ran out of words, and Sanji wasn't trying to say anything anymore.
Sanji was trembling, the chills so continuous he was almost vibrating, as though like crystal under a sustained note he were going to crack apart, and Zoro held him, as if he could keep those pieces together with the strength of his arms alone. Nothing more he could do, too damn little, but it would be enough. It was all he could do, so it had to be enough.
They didn't wait until after dinner this night. The sun was level with the windows and the bell had yet to toll when Zoro heard the footsteps, many pairs, slow as funeral bearers.
He wasn't sure when Sanji had slipped from that half-waking nightmare into restless slumber, hadn't moved for a long time after the rise and fall of his crewmate's chest had slowed and steadied, the blond head a heavy weight against his shoulder. It was too warm, that close, but the way Sanji shivered sporadically even asleep and in his jacket, he needed it. No strength in him left to burn for heat.
Aware that it wasn't over yet, Zoro eventually extricated himself, careful not to disturb his crewmate or knock him off the couch. Sanji's hands were fisted around his shirt and Zoro had to pry those long fingers free; they locked over the pillow instead, and Sanji mumbled something, but didn't rouse any further when Zoro dropped the couple blankets on top of him.
After collecting his swords from where he had thrown them, Zoro took a seat on the rug in front of the silk screen, crossed his legs and rested his chin on his fist and watched Sanji sleep. His repose was troubled for a while, as he rolled back and forth, twisting himself up in the blankets and muttering unintelligibly, before settling into a deeper sleep, so still he made Zoro uneasy. Past a certain point, a man cannot be awoken, but he didn't know how one could tell. Chopper would know for sure; without their doctor's knowledge Zoro could only guess, and while usually he trusted his instincts, there was already so damn much wrong here that he found himself atypically questioning his course. Twice he began to call Sanji awake, and stopped himself; he was standing to go examine him more closely when he heard the priests on the stairs.
With a glance over his shoulder to make sure his crewmate was still out, Zoro slid open the screen, stepped into the corridor and shut it again. By the time the first man mounted the final step, he had drawn his white katana.
The high priest stopped, raised his broad arms to halt his retinue behind him. His gray eyes met Zoro's across the short passage. "It's time," he said.
"For the last death."
The bearded man nodded.
"He might be surprised to hear that," Zoro said. "He didn't believe sixth death actually happened, before. He thought it was real."
The high priest said nothing, but the couple lesser priests on the stairs behind him dropped their heads, remorsefully.
Zoro hadn't realized how angry he truly was; the effort to keep his voice steady and low enough not to disturb his sleeping crewmate was almost too much. "You bastards, you and your damn ceremonies, you could've told him—"
"The deaths of the goddess are hers to mete out," said the high priest. "We know nothing of them, can tell nothing of what may happen."
"You could've at least reminded him that it wasn't real!"
"Real?" the high priest asked, his dark brows rising up to his cap. "The goddess is real; what the goddess does—"
"Is a fucking lie, and you know it. You were there, weren't you, watching. You damn well know none of them were really there—none of our crewmates were killed. She wouldn't, would she, your goddess, she's not into arbitrary murder—she likes the time to play with her victims, really gets into their pain. All these ceremonies—"
"It's not like that!" Even if he hadn't recognized that high soprano, he would have known it was the priestess from the way the priests on the stairs deferentially shied back. The high priest himself stepped aside to let her pass, though his beard did little to hide his dismayed expression. The little girl marched by him into the corridor, only to halt abruptly when she saw Zoro's drawn sword, her eyes going round. "The goddess—" she stammered, timidly, "the goddess isn't like that..."
She had been there this morning; Sanji had mentioned her, and she had said herself that the priestess must be there for the goddess's deaths. She had been watching with the rest of the audience, however many it had been. Zoro ignored her, looking over her head to her father. "How'd you do it?" he demanded. "How'd you make him see it, how'd you get him to believe it?"
He endured the high priest's study for a long moment before the man said, quietly, and without the weight of rhetoric that usually resounded in his baritone, "A man two days without water will see things that aren't there. And more, if it's what the goddess wishes."
"So it was just a hallucination?" Zoro frowned, thinking of Sanji's bloodstained shoes. Couldn't have been entirely a delusion; hallucinations don't bleed...
"More than that," the priest told him. "What happens is not a lie—it is true, as true to them as whatever we witnessed—"
"I don't care about truth," Zoro said, "but it wasn't real. It didn't actually happen. —most of it, anyway," and he looked past the high priest at the men crowded behind him. "So how many of you did he kill?"
"None," the high priest said. "All three will live, our healers assure us."
Zoro smiled, must have been grimly by the way the other priests shrank back. The little priestess ducked behind her father's robes. "Weren't expecting that much fight left in him, were you?"
"We were to blame," the priest accepted. He didn't twitch, even under the full force of Zoro's narrow-eyed glare. "There should have been more of us ready to restrain him. We knew he's a warrior, but we weren't prepared for that violence."
"You just expected him to do nothing, showing him something like that—"
"We didn't know would happen," the high priest spoke over him. "The deaths of man are the same for all, determined only by the sinner's endurance; but the deaths of the goddess are different for every man. Death of blood, death of the past, that can be guessed. But the death of the future, there's no way to tell. An artist might go blind, a father lose his children...we had no way of telling he would strike at us...or anyone. But we still should have been ready." He subjected Zoro to another examination, sharp gray eyes passing him up and down. "And you, you're uninjured? It's not unheard of for the attendant to be attacked...or worse."
Zoro snorted. "That damn cook couldn't take me out even when he's in top condition." If Sanji had attacked him for real, not just trying to goad him, if maybe Sanji had blamed him...if he had seriously had to defend himself... "If he'd tried, he'd have been in more trouble than me."
The high priest only nodded. "Neither is that unknown."
Zoro had lowered the sword, though not sheathed it; now his fist clenched around the hilt. "What do you mean?"
"My daughter told you, didn't she," and the priest down glanced at the girl, unable to help his forbidding countenance from softening a little, though it hardened to stone again when his gaze returned to Zoro. "The final ceremonies are rarely survived."
"Rarely," Zoro repeated, harshly. "You mean, never. Right?" The knot of anger in his belly tightened until he felt ill. "And you thought I might do your work for you, this time around. That I'd believe what he saw, you were hoping I'd kill—"
"No." The flicker of those gray eyes away might count as a flinch from this man. "I never feared such. You're a warrior, a pirate, and violence is your way, but what I have seen of you—even knowing what he would tell you, I didn't doubt that he would live for this ceremony."
"He didn't live for that," Zoro said flatly. "That was it. You're done with him."
"The sooner the seventh ceremony is completed, the sooner—"
"There's not going to be any seventh death," Zoro replied, and raised his sword. "You've all done your thing, the goddess had her chance at him. It's enough. This is over."
"Not yet," said the high priest. "I'm sorry. There's yet the final ceremony."
"I am sorry," the priest repeated, and then he bowed, so low he almost bent double. "Please let us pass. There's not much time before nightfall—"
"No," Zoro said. "He's done enough for you already; he won't make it through another one. Not now. He agreed to do this, I know. And what he let you do to him, what the goddess did, it doesn't have anything to do with me. But you're the one who asked me to be attendant. And the truth is—truth is, if you knew our captain, you'd know we can't afford to lose our cook."
He brought his sword up to his mouth, clamped his teeth around the rough wrap and smooth metal of the hilt while he drew the other two katana and raised them, deadly blades crossed before him. "You are not touching him."
The passage was narrow, stone walls close enough that extending his arms he might brush both sides with his fingertips. There wouldn't be room for anyone to slip past his swords, even if the whole temple charged at once. He set himself, blades tilted outward, the metal gleaming crimson through the red haze over his eyes. The cursed katana was singing up and down its steel length, almost shaking in his hand in time with the pounding of his heart. He'd sat and done nothing for too damn long.
But they didn't charge him, not all at once, or any of them. Only the high priest moved at all, and that was to advance with deliberate, unguarded steps, until he was just within the blades' range. He had no weapon, his hands empty as he raised them, fingers spread, palms out. "I am sorry," he said a third time. "There's no choice. Let us pass. Or stop me now."
"Papa!" wailed the priestess.
The bitter determination in those stone-gray eyes was enough to cool Zoro's rage, but ice could damage as much as fire, and the frozen knot in his gut was so tight it was hard to breathe around it. He stayed still, braced with the swords ready. If the high priest took one more step...
"Papa, please," the priestess sniffled.
"Lonlin, stay back," the high priest said sharply, his composure cracking a hair, though he didn't look back.
"But..." and she shuffled forward in her robes. Her eyes were wide and glistening with tears, welling up and catching in her lashes. "Do we have to, Papa? He's—he did all this already, and now, this time..."
"Have faith in the goddess," the high priest said.
"But she hurt him already. This morning," and she shivered, "he was hurting so much, I thought he'd...even when he was fighting Berski and the others, he wasn't trying to hurt them, really, he was just..."
"Lonlin," the high priest said, "there's no other way—"
"No," Zoro said. "There is."
Before the priest could move, he had flipped the cursed katana around, punched his fist curled around the hilt into the large man's jaw, knocking him to the floor. In the same motion, rather than pulling back, Zoro continued twisting into the blow, sweeping low the other katana as he rocked forward into a crouch. The blade stopped a finger's breadth from the little priestess's chest.
It took every ounce of restraint he possessed to keep that point steady, locking his muscles to unmovable rock. The priestess was just as motionless, but her eyes raised to his, and he was startled to see no new tears flowing, her little mouth set too firm for a pout.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the high priest pick himself up off the floor. "One other way, right?" Zoro asked him, or thought he did; it didn't quite sound like his own voice speaking. "You told me so when it started. Any ceremony for this? Or can I just do it?"
The priest's mouth was moving but nothing was coming out. "How about it?" Zoro demanded. "You can call this off. Or I'll end it the other way."
"You—you cannot. Please." The man clasped his hands, bowed his head over them as he knelt before Zoro. "Please, do not—"
Zoro's katana moved in his hand, and only his iron control kept his reflexes in check. The priestess had stepped forward, until the tip of the sword pressed to her chest, slanting down toward her heart, scraping against the beads and creasing the white and blue robes. Her arms at her side, she raised her chin to look up at him, all trembling bravery. "It's all right."
"Papa," she said, still staring up at Zoro, "I don't want to kill anybody. It would be my fault, and I don't want him to die. So this is all right."
Zoro drew back his sword slightly, so the blade's point was only brushing her robes. "Yeah," he said. "It'll be all right. Just let me take him back to our ship, we'll leave and we'll never come back to this island. Your goddess doesn't have to know—"
"We can't do that," the high priest said, quietly, remorsefully.
"Then what are you going to do?" Zoro growled. "You think I'm not serious? I'll do what I have to if you don't give me a choice. I'm a pirate, after all. Don't think I'll hesitate."
"None of us have a choice," the high priest murmured, and the priestess shook her head.
"She sees. She knows," the girl whispered. "So there's only this way." She closed her eyes, inhaled so her chest swelled toward the sword.
Zoro stared. The corridor wasn't nearly as warm as the room, but he could feel sweat trailing down his back. His fingers gripped the hilts so tightly they were cramping, as if each blade weighed more than a boulder. "How crazy are you? Just forget the damn goddess, that's all you have to do."
"To forget our gods would be to forsake all the people of Satva," the high priest told him. "The pirates of the Grand Line, the storms of this region—this city didn't exist before their protection. We owe the safety and prosperity of this island all to them."
"So that protection's worth a couple sacrifices. A little blood, for the good of everyone. And he isn't even one of you."
"No. He is not." How could the man sound so calm, with his daughter's life balanced on the point of Zoro's sword? Not angry, not even afraid, just sad, regret heavy in his tone. The priestess wasn't trying to get away—she couldn't have possibly been fast enough to escape, but her slippers might as well have been glued to the floor. And the high priest was doing nothing to save her, however useless the attempt might have been, just saying, quietly, "But he is your crewmate, and you will do what you must."
Zoro looked from his set expression, to the little priestess with her eyes squeezed shut. All three katana were drawn and ready and yet he felt exposed; that deadly sharp steel might as well have been painted wood, just blunt, useless stage props.
Losing, as he had sworn to Luffy he would never again, but he recognized the bitter taste of it in the back of his throat, almost gagged.
In less than a second, with hardly an effort at all, he could finish this; he could win with just one quick and simple stab. He was a pirate, a wanted man, and they had to guess how much blood was on his hands already. And yet she didn't move, and the priest just watched him, mute and passive, and neither of them answered when he cried, "What the hell is wrong with you!?"
Instead, an unexpected voice behind him said, "What the hell is wrong with you?" and before Zoro could turn, a hard shoe slammed into his stomach with enough force to drive the air from his lungs and knock him back a step.
He hadn't even heard the screen slide open, much less his crewmate wake up; his own fault, for not paying closer attention, and that kick hadn't been powerful enough to actually hurt. "Sanji, you—shit!"
Sanji's knees were buckling, his face bloodless white. Zoro dropped his swords and lunged, caught him before his head cracked against the stone wall behind him. "Idiot," he said, pulling the cook upright and looping an arm around his back to hold him there, "watch it!"
"You stupid swordsman," Sanji rasped, his breath short and his head down, so that Zoro could only see a circle of blond hair. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
The high priest had taken his daughter's shoulder, drawn her back and moved in front of her, watching them with his face as inscrutable as ever. "You know what I was doing," Zoro said.
Sanji forced up his head, shrugged off Zoro's arm and leaned his shoulder against the wall to support himself instead. One hand came up to absently rub his temples as he looked across the hall at the high priest. "Sorry," he said. "I'm sorry about that. Forget him. I'm ready now."
The large man nodded, advancing a step and extending a hand toward Sanji. "If you'll come—"
"He won't," Zoro said flatly, and pushed between them, crouching to retrieve his white katana as he moved.
"Get out of my way," Sanji snapped. "I'm going."
"We're going," Zoro told him, not glancing back. "We're getting the hell out of here." Hooking his boot under his second katana, he kicked it up into his hand and crossed the blades, the steel ringing. "Screw the goddess, screw the ceremony, screw this whole damn island—"
"No." And now Zoro did look at him, because he didn't recognize that tone, not anger and not pride, not anything he was used to hearing from Sanji. The cook had pulled himself upright, lifted his chin, only his hand splayed against the wall betraying his dizziness. "I'm going with them. Alone. Like I said I would." His gaze went straight past Zoro to meet the high priest's eyes. "I'm ready to get this over with."
He started forward, relying on the wall's stability while he concentrated on putting one foot after another, and Zoro wouldn't have needed any swords to stop that slow progress; he could have knocked Sanji over with one finger, but he didn't. Instead he took his crewmate's arm, muttering, "Idiot," and wondering which one of them he actually meant.
"You don't think I'm strong enough?" Sanji said, with sarcasm so thick it could smother, but though he stumbled even with Zoro's support, the resolution in his narrowed eyes was unwavering. He had made his choice, and once made, that decision, the decisions of any of his crewmates, were as indissoluble as Zoro's own.
No point to fight it, so he didn't. But Zoro was careful in his reply. "No. I don't. Why else would I need to save your ass?" And was rewarded by the anger that flared in Sanji's eyes, a little color flushing back into his face. His crewmate shoved him away, teetered and found his equilibrium, covering the last couple strides alone, and then the high priest steadied him with an impartial grip on his arm.
"Just forget it," Sanji said over his shoulder as he started down the stairs, the little priestess hurrying at his side, as if there were anything she might do to help him. "Just go. I told you before, this has nothing to do with you. It was my fault."
And now he did recognize that strange flat note in Sanji's voice, obscured by his misleading calm. Zoro pounded down the stairs, shoved in front of them and spread his arms to bar their way. The priests around them scrambled back with such alacrity that they tripped down several steps to avoid his swords, though their high priest didn't balk.
"Tell him," Zoro commanded, glaring up at the man. "That last ceremony, tell him it wasn't real."
Sanji flinched, looked away. "It didn't happen," Zoro growled. "They're all alive—tell him!"
"You son of a bitch—"
"Leave him alone, Zoro. It was the goddess. It was me. Not any of them." Sanji continued descending, sliding his hand down the stone, passing Zoro without a glance.
Zoro turned with him, sheathed his katana and dropped a hand on his shoulder to stop him. "Sanji, listen to me. This bastard told me himself, it was just a damn trick—"
"Or he was lying to you." Sanji's whole frame was wired so taut his shoulders trembled under his jacket. "You didn't see it. You don't understand. Let me go, Zoro." He pulled away.
"Sanji!" Zoro followed him down the stairs to the next landing, ignoring the priests falling back from them as if their touch might be poisonous. "Dammit, Sanji, it was just one of the ceremonies—if it wasn't, then what are you doing now? If they didn't finish the sixth, why is this one the last one—Sanji, listen—"
A sharp tug on his haramaki brought him to a halt. The little priestess had taken hold of his sash, her fingers curled into the folds of green fabric as she rocked back on her heels. Her small weight was hardly enough for him to notice, and the empty hall afforded her no purchase, no doorway for her to brace herself against, but she clung anyway. "Please, don't," she whispered. "He can't hear you, the goddess won't let him. He has to do this, so it will be over, and she won't hurt him anymore. He's strong, right? You p-promised he was strong..."
Sanji was far enough down the next flight that he was passing around the curve of the tower, out of sight. "You can't do this to him, there's got to be another way—"
"There is," she said, tremulously.
Zoro exhaled, feeling like all his strength was rushing out with the air, as if this girl's little hands really were enough to hold him here. "No," he said. "That doesn't count. It's not a choice." His ribs weren't even sore; the bastard cook had known he couldn't do it, or he would have really meant that kick.
"Then this is the only way." The high priest loomed before him. Silver gleamed in his hand—the cursed katana, but before Zoro could draw the other two, the man extended the sword toward him, hilt first. "Trust your friend," he said.
"It's your damn goddess I don't trust." Zoro closed his hand around the hilt. "So where are we going for this?"
"Not you," the high priest said. "As before, you cannot come—the goddess wouldn't allow the ceremony if you accompanied us, and if it isn't accomplished tonight, we would have to wait for the next sunset."
"Tomorrow?" Another twenty-four hours, and Zoro froze. Even if the crew didn't come looking for them by then—and how powerful was this damn goddess, really?—another day without water...
"There's little enough time left now," the high priest murmured. "There's no other way," and then he had moved, faster than a man his size should be able, quick enough that Zoro didn't have time to do more than bring up his sword. But the priest wasn't going for him, but the wall behind him.
He pressed his hand to the carved stone, gliding his fingers down the grooves of a narrow oval symbol, and there was a low grinding noise, rock scraping rock. Part of the wall slid away, a dark, rectangular gap in the hall's smooth curve. Zoro half-turned toward it, readying himself for whatever might emerge from that gloom.
What he wasn't prepared for was the priest's massive fist driving into his chin, a refund for his punch before and then some, which knocked him back, stumbling, into the hole.
He made out the outlines of a broad chamber around him, tiled floor under his feet and the ceiling lost in shadow overhead, and then the stone dropped down again over that portal, only just missing his toes. He had one glimpse of the little priestess's white, shocked face, and then he stood in pitch blackness.
Zoro couldn't tell if his eyes were open, the darkness so absolute it was like going blind. Suffocating, for all the air smelled fresh, not stale or musty like a dungeon should. But the weight of the walls around him was palpable, pressure like the black depths of the ocean. He put his hands to the carved granite, shoved hard but felt no give, and when he rammed one katana's hilt against it there was only a dull thud. Groping along the wall, he felt no outline of the door which had opened there seconds before.
Somewhere in the darkness behind him there was merry trickling, falling water, nothing more. He shouted, and the stone bounced his call back to him.
That damn priest—though Zoro was really to blame, letting his guard down that much. He rubbed his sore jaw. Hits like a girl, Sanji had said. Maybe if the girl was a Baroque Works agent. Or Nami, who had one hell of a fist on her.
The son of a bitch had another thing coming, if he thought Zoro would just sit here for the duration. If he couldn't figure out how to reopen the door he would just make a new one. Pressing one hand to the granite, he knocked the hilt against it again, this time feeling the minute vibration through the stone, cancelled by that mass almost before it began. But everything has a breaking point.
It had only been a minute or two. Still long enough that he might not be able to find them, and that could have been the point, delay him enough to get Sanji to the ceremony. And the bastard wasn't even fighting it. If he had resisted, given Zoro a chance to catch up—this wasn't about strength anymore, not about proving himself to these mad priests or anyone else; Sanji had to understand that.
He and Sanji had always been able to work together before, when they really had to, when it was the only way to win. But Sanji now was...
It felt like a betrayal, a blow to the gut much harder than that admonishing kick before. Losing, because only losing could be this painful. Seventh death, they were this close, and now the damn cook..."Bastard," Zoro grated, as if there were any way Sanji could hear him, and his throat was closed over, so he had to clear it even to hear himself. "You stupid idiot, you better..."
The stone resounded weirdly under his next tap; he spread his fingers over it, rapped the spot again. Weak point here, and he drew his swords, all three. In the darkness he measured his pace back carefully. One blow was all it would take, and vision wasn't crucial; in the midst of battle his strikes were too quick to follow with the eye anyway. He did hope this wasn't a load-bearing wall. Damn lot of good he could do buried under the tower if it fell.
Holding his swords parallel, he set his stance, preparing to converge the force of all three blades on that single point. But before he could bring them to bear, he was checked by a scraping sound behind him.
A glimmer broke the blackness. Turning, he saw a wavering flame behind lantern glass, barely outlining the engraving on the stone walls and shining on flowing water. That same central pillar as in the other chambers was a fountain here. The water spilling down the column followed grooves to spouts of polished stone, which poured it out in arcs, just ghostly shimmers in that dim light, falling into a wide pool ringing the pillar.
Even in the shadows, it was obviously quite a fancy set-up; this place was no dungeon. And between two of those falling streams extended an arm holding the lamp. It took a couple seconds for Zoro's eyes to adjust to make out the face behind it, but he was spotted without trouble. "Mr. Pirate? You are here!"
It was the dark-haired kid. The blur of his figure turned away to call out, "He's here!" and his voice echoed as if he had shouted into a tunnel. Then he was gesturing animatedly with both hands, the lamp swinging to cast crazy shadows on the walls. "Come here!"
Zoro wasted no time, sheathing his swords as he stepped into the fountain, the water splashing on his boots. It only came up to his ankles. Closer, he saw the boy was not actually in the fountain, but behind it, crouched in a narrow opening within the pillar itself. He sidled back on hands and knees, farther into the space, and beckoned Zoro to climb in.
It was a tight fit through the gap in the stone, but he made it, twisting his hips to get his swords through. The space within was cramped, but illuminated by a purer glow than just the lamp. A rumbling echoed around them, like constant, distant thunder, and the air was thick with moisture. Looking up, Zoro saw a long, narrow flue, strung with an array of pulleys and chains and buckets. At the very top a round portal opened to the gray sky.
The boy squatted on the cover of one of the broad wooden buckets. As soon as Zoro was settled on it as well, the kid flipped up a couple hooks, and with a stomach-churning lurch, the bucket dropped. Chains jangled as they plummeted, the stone walls flying past.
It took Zoro a couple seconds to realize they weren't quite falling, the suspending chains unspooling at a measured rate, though their combined weight made their descent faster than usual, to tell from the boy's wide eyes. He looked like he was enjoying himself, however, and when the bucket jerked to a stop he grinned as he hopped off.
His two friends were waiting at the bottom, their expressions envious in the glow of their lamp. Zoro climbed off, and the red-headed boy released the chain in his hands. The bucket dropped away with a splash, barely audible over the rushing water, louder here. They stood on a ledge beside an underground pool. The circle of light from the skylight high above shimmered on the dark water before them, the ripples scattering that glow over the roughly hewn granite walls. A waterfall gushing from a stone archway turned a creaking wooden waterwheel, in turn working gears and the clanking chains.
"Isn't it cool?" the dark-haired boy asked, his bright voice echoing. "Lonlin actually figured out how to get inside, last year—that was her room you were in. Well, it will be her room, when she becomes the moon goddess's, but her room now's got a fountain, too, and one day she asked where the water came from, and they showed her—"
"We're sort of not supposed to be here," the red-haired boy confided, though Zoro had already guessed that.
"You probably weren't supposed to let me out, either." He looked around. "Now, how do we get out of here?" Wooden rungs pegged into the stone behind the kids led up to a round portal, but before he could climb them the girl shook her head.
"No, you have to go that way." She pointed toward the waterfall and the archway. "That's where her cascade is, that's where they're taking him."
"Taking him? —My friend?"
The girl pushed her lamp into his hand. "There's a ledge to walk on, all the way," her brother explained. "It's early spring, so it's not flooded yet."
"But you have to go quickly," the girl said. "This is the shorter path, but they're riding."
Zoro peered into the shadows beyond the stone archway. He could make out little through the dusty mist of the waterfall, but the rushing of water sounded a long way down into that darkness. "How far is it?"
"It takes an hour or so to walk it," the dark-haired boy said. "But sunset's before that, so you'll have to run. Elder Orwalsh said you'd definitely make it, though—"
"Orwalsh?" Zoro repeated, spinning back toward the kids. "The high priest?"
"Dabirnak, you moron!" The red-headed kid smacked the other boy. "He told us not to tell him!"
The girl bowed her head. "Elder Orwalsh told us you'd be in the goddess's chamber. He asked us to get you, and show you the way to the cascade."
"And you're the idiot!" the dark-haired kid retorted, shoving his friend back. "You said he didn't know we came down here!"
"I said we had to keep it secret, I didn't say he didn't know. He's high priest!" Apparently deciding the argument wasn't worth his time, the red-haired boy forwent retaliation to look solemnly to Zoro. "Elder Orwalsh said you wouldn't trust him, but you might trust us. You have to, sir. That's the right way. But you have to go now, or you won't be in time."
Zoro studied the three of them for a moment, then nodded and started for the archway. High steps had been chopped in the stone; he took them two at a time, then raised the lamp to look down the dark tunnel, a conduit with a narrow path running along the left side, barely above the level of the water.
"Mr. Pirate," the girl called, and he turned back. "Inste told me to tell you," she said, "you must go straight, all the way to the end. There's some ducts that branch off, but you have to be careful to stay on the main channel, until you reach the other archway like this one."
"Got it." He looked down the steps at the three round faces turned up toward him, solemn and sincere in the lamplight. "Thanks," he said, and didn't wait for them to answer before he plunged into the tunnel.
The twinkle of the kids' lamp behind him soon was gone, and the booming of the waterfall didn't take much longer to fade, so the only sound was the gurgling of the stream through the tunnel and the pounding of his footsteps. The air was cool and damp, a fine mist against his face which thinned the light of the lamp in his hand to a ghostly glow. He kept his eyes on the foggy stone under his boots as he ran. Slick with water, it would be easy to slip and fall off that narrow ledge. He couldn't tell how deep the stream beside it was, but the water was moving fast, splashing against the channel walls and up onto the path.
After jogging for some minutes, he realized that the tunnel had started to slope up. Occasional steps were built into the stone, the water alongside coursing over small falls. He came across some of the ducts the girl had mentioned, low tunnels forking off from the main channel. None were high enough for him to enter without ducking, so he assumed he was still on the right track.
The farther he got, however, the less certain he became. If this hadn't all been a trick to begin with. No end to the passage in sight, and he wondered if he might be better off following one of the other conduits, find an exit to outside and get his bearings where he could see something besides dark water and stone.
—What bearings? demanded an internal voice that sounded far too much like an obnoxious cook. You don't even know where the hell you're supposed to be going.
"Shut up," Zoro muttered between measured pants. The impact of his boots on the rock echoed through the darkness, ticking by seconds as surely as a clock's pendulum. "This is all your damn fault anyway."
He better be in time.
He picked up the pace a little. The steps were easily bounded over, but he didn't see the fallen block, crumbled from the ceiling, until it was too late. He went sprawling, and the lamp flew out of his hand to splash into the water. It sank with a glug, the fire shining under the ripples for a moment before the water rushed behind the glass and extinguished it.
"Shit!" The curse resounded through the blackness around him. Zoro picked himself up off the floor, reached out and felt the wall. There was a sticky patch of blood on his elbow, but no bruises worth paying attention to. The darkness was harder to ignore, but if he kept within an arm's length of the wall he wouldn't fall off the ledge. Brushing his fingers against the stone, he continued on. Walking now, had no choice, but he canted his body forward, his strides long and fast. He swore when he stubbed his toes on the next step, hopped up it and kept going.
He hadn't gotten very far when he realized he could see, just barely, but enough to make out the vague shape of the walls around him. The faintest light reflected off the rippling water. Looking ahead, he saw a small gleam, only a pinhole in the dark, but it grew as he approached, until it was clearly the mouth of the tunnel. There was enough illumination filtering down that he could see the remaining steps, climbing up toward that opening. He ran up them, the air becoming cooler and brighter with every step, and the roar of the water louder, until he emerged, blinking, into the orange light of sunset, made pale by mist.
He had made it to the mountains after all. Took him two days but he was here, the air sharp with the scent of the dark pines. He was on the edge of a river which had worn a chasm into the rocky mountainside. A thick dam forked the waterway, so half flowed into that tunnel and the rest continued in a broad stream down the slope.
There would have been plenty of places to train here, he fleetingly observed, as he climbed along the steep river bank, ducking under drooping pine boughs and circling the boulders scattered through the gorge like a giant's dropped marbles. Zoro absently rubbed his bare arms as he hiked up. There was a little snow in patches on the ground, and cold wind blowing between the trees, though the rustle of those branches was drowned in a relentless, low thundering.
The source of that noise was revealed when he pushed through a clump of brambles and found himself looking up a cliff four times the height of the Going Merry's mast. At the crest of the rock face, water poured through a narrow gap, a crystal-clear curtain tumbling down past lichen-draped granite and hardy pine brush, to crash frothing into a pool from which the river flowed.
Cascade of the goddess, the girl had said. Zoro was on the crest of the far rim of that basin. The water below flowed fast, but smooth enough to see into the pool's depths, some five meters or more, the stone bottom worn flat as the carved and polished fountains in the temple. The mountain peaks hid the sun, but the clouds were brilliantly streaked with its long rays, shining roses and golds reflecting in the falling water.
Farther down the rim's slope were gathered the priests and acolytes, their vestments darkened and dulled by the ruddy light. Zoro ducked back into the brush before he could be spotted. He doubted anyone could hear him, at least, this close to the waterfall. But half the damn temple must be here, counting all those robes fluttering in the wind, some gathered at the water's edge, the rest trailing up a horn of stone jutting out over the pool.
At the tip of the horn, over the clear center of the pool, were three figures, haloed in the sun beams stretching between mountaintops. The high priest's bulk dwarfed the priestess, the white and silver trim of her robes stained golden in the sunset. And between them was a pallid shape in profile, insubstantial as a phantom in the waterfall's rising mist.
Sanji was stripped bare to the chest save for the bandages, his arms crossed for warmth but his back straight. The wind disheveled his hair and Zoro could see him shiver even from this distance, but his shoulders remained squared as he stared ahead at the dark trees on the opposite shore.
The high priest stepped before him. "Seventh death," he pronounced, and his baritone sounded over the waterfall's thunder, resonating through the gorge. Small wonder he was such an orator, if this was where he practiced. "We have come here, to the goddess's gift, to witness the final death of the sinner." His gray eyes raked over his assembled brethren, and then he turned toward the cascade. "With her breath she melts the ice; with these waters she gives us life. May she wash away his sin."
The high priest turned back, and this time his gaze passed over the watching priests, raising to the ridge above the river mouth where Zoro was watching. The priest only paused an instant, and he was too far away to be certain where his eyes were actually falling, but Zoro's skin prickled as he felt that concerted study. He didn't dare move. It occurred to him that his white shirt was hardly the best camouflage in this dark brush, and his hair was a few shades too light a green.
Then the high priest's gaze raised to the sky above, blazing with the final sunlight. "Seventh death," he proclaimed to the coral clouds. "The death of breath." He held up a silver cup, tilted it slightly so its polished metal gleamed in those slanting rays. "See the last breath of the sinner. May its loss purify."
He put the shining cup to Sanji's lips, tilted it up, and the blond head rocked back as he drank, without hesitation or protest. Then the priest took the cup away, raised it high again and turned it over. Nothing spilled, no drops catching that last light.
Sanji coughed, a choked and quiet rattle that Zoro shouldn't have been able to hear over the waterfall. The sun sank farther, so the three on the outcropping were cast in the same shade as the rest of the pool, and Zoro shouldn't have been able to so clearly see the blue shadows on his white and drawn face, his head still tipped back toward the sky.
The little priestess stepped forward, her arm also raised. In her hand fluttered a long white banner, beads glittering at the ends, the trailing silk curling and waving in the wind. "See—see the breath of the goddess," she called, her high voice clear and pure enough to sound over the roar of the cascade, after that first falter. "May it give life as she wills."
She opened her fist and the wind caught the cloth, swept it from her hand.
Too slowly Sanji reached for it, his arm outstretched. Weighted by the beads, it was drawn down, a long, rippling streamer, and Sanji staggered, fell to his knees on the edge of the precipice as the banner drifted, swirling, into the water below. His shoulders were heaving, a feverish flush spotting his cheeks. What the hell had been in that cup—
The high priest's robes billowed as the man stooped beside Sanji. His voice was lowered, but the words still carried to Zoro, and the unmistakable urgency in his baritone. "The goddess has claimed your death. Will you accept new life from her?"
Sanji's mouth moved, but if he was actually saying anything he was too far away for Zoro to make it out. The priestess's small hands were clasped before her, and he didn't need to hear her voice to read her lips. 'Please.'
But Sanji was pulling back, turning away from them or hunching in on himself, his hands clawing at the rough outcropping. He coughed again, and dark drops spattered the gray rock.
None of the other priests spoke a word, statues dressed in fluttering robes, every face turned up toward that jutting ledge. Waiting, noiselessly, the wind's hiss and the waterfall's thunder swallowing all other sound, until Zoro couldn't even hear himself breathe. And Sanji wasn't moving but for the shaking of his shoulders, wasn't doing anything as the current seized the white banner and pulled it under the water.
The breath of the goddess, and Zoro didn't understand any of this, but the priestess had tears in her eyes again, and the priest had said 'last breath', and Sanji wasn't doing a goddamn thing but kneeling there and dy—
"Dammit!" Zoro cried, smashing the underbrush out of his way with a sweep of his swords. "What are you waiting for, you idiot?" he shouted.
The priest looked toward him, and the priestess twisted around, tripping on her robes. Then, finally, Sanji's head came up, slowly turned back toward his crewmate. "Come on!" Zoro hollered, louder than the cascade's roar. "They're waiting for us, Nami and Luffy and everyone else—get this over with, so we can go home!"
Sanji stared, eyes wide.
Then he drew his legs under himself and stood, shakily but certainly. Two unsteady steps brought him to the edge of the outcropping. He looked down at the pool only for a second before he dove.
He hit the water like a knife stab, straight as an arrow, hardly a splash as he cleaved the waves. Sanji had been raised on the sea; usually he swam like a fish, and even now he managed a couple good strokes before the current caught him. He kicked against it for a moment, flailing, churning that clear flow to froth. Then he was sinking into the translucent shadows, the ripples smoothing to undulating dark and light.
A piercing cry shattered the air. "Now, Zoro!" the priestess screamed. "She says, now, he's—"
And then Zoro had dived, and the water closed over his head.
He was expecting it to be cold, but not like this, liquid ice against his skin. He had swum in freezing water before, but with the warmer air he was less prepared for that cold and it hit like a hammer, blasting the air from his lungs. How the hell had Sanji even—
Zoro forced open his eyes as he swam, peered through the blurry waves until he saw that pale shape, hanging lifeless in the water. Dragged under the swift flow, he wasn't moving, but for the currents stirring the shock of blond hair.
Distances were misleading in the fading light, and the current was strong; his lungs were burning when he finally got close enough to wrap his numb fingers around Sanji's wrist. He pulled his crewmate in, hooked one arm around his limp body and kicked them both to the surface.
Panting for breath, fighting to keep not only his head above the surface, it only half registered that there were other hands pulling him toward the shore along with his own strokes, helping him drag Sanji up out of the water. Then they were on the rim around the pool, sharp gravel digging into Zoro's knees and Sanji slumped across them, tangle of wet hair over his face and his lips blue in the fading light. He wasn't breathing.
"Dammit," Zoro gasped, having to cough water from his lungs to speak, "Don't you dare—" He seized the blond's shoulders—his skin was as bitter cold as the river—and gave him a hard shake. "You stupid cook, if I gotta give you mouth to mouth I am never, ever gonna forgive you—"
The murmuring of the priests around him was a wash of noise no more articulate than the waterfall's thunder, just more wind through the rocks and trees. Sanji's eyes were closed, the icy water beading on his lashes and running in rivulets down his pallid cheeks.
Wrapped around his arm was a swirl of translucent white, filmier than the bandages, soaked silk clinging to his skin and the stone beneath him. The silver beads glittered like ice along the banner's trim. His fist was locked around it, fingers frozen closed over the cloth, stiff as a corpse's.
"You got it," Zoro panted, his throat aching from the choking water. The breath of the goddess, the little priestess had said—but Sanji wasn't moving, no breath in his lungs, even if he had claimed the goddess's. Damn bitch, rescinding her word, but no way were they about to lose to her cheating game. "Wake up, Sanji, you're out of the water, it's almost over..." The water dripped from his hair into his eyes; must be something in it, or maybe just the cold, because they stung, and he had to wipe them to see.
The last day's when death becomes real...By the end of the ceremony, it's too much... He couldn't find a pulse, wasn't sure he was checking the right place, and his fingers were still numb from the water. He wasn't a doctor anyway, needed Chopper here, or Nami, at least, who knew something about this kind of thing—he hadn't been in the water that long, but Zoro didn't know what had been in that cup of the high priest. The blond head lolled back and forth limply as Zoro shook him. "Don't make me—damn it, Sanji, please, all you gotta do is breathe—"
And Sanji shuddered, coughed up a spurt of water and gasped a desperate breath, deep as a newborn's first.
One of the priests crouched beside them, pushing something at him—a blanket, and Zoro tore it from the man's hands, folded it around Sanji. He struggled weakly against it, like he was still trying to swim; Zoro held him still, chafed his arms through the wool to get some heat back into him. "Easy, easy, it's okay, you're out." Another blanket was draped over his own shoulders, its heavy warmth smothering; he hadn't noticed how biting the wind was against his damp skin.
The rattle of gravel heralded the high priest's descent in an undignified slide down the steep slope, the silver cup still in his hand. Zoro jerked up his head at his approach, glared and hunched to block his crewmate from those gray eyes. "Ceremony?" he snarled. "How the fuck is this a ceremony?!"
With one hand he yanked the banner from Sanji's convulsive grasp, ripping the silk and scattering beads, balled it up and threw the sodden mess to the high priest's feet. "There. He did it, he got it. That's what he had to do, right? Now give over the antidote for that damn poison."
"There was no poison," the high priest said, shaking his head.
"Don't do this, you bastard." He had left his swords in the brush when he had dove, but he wouldn't need them now anyway. Even the high priest took a step back when Zoro carefully laid Sanji down on the ground, bundling both blankets under him, and stood, his hands curling into fists. "This is over. Whatever you gave him to drink in that cup, you're going to fix it, before—"
"It is over," the high priest said. "It's already ended. The goddess has decided." He tossed Zoro the silver cup.
Zoro caught it, glanced at it, then looked again more closely. Squinted down through it at the rocky ground—there was no bottom, not a true cup at all, just a metal tube, polished and etched with symbols. Nothing could have been drunk from that hollow cylinder.
He looked back at the high priest. "But if it's like this, then what the hell did he—"
"The goddess took his breath; she claimed the sinner's life, and then the man had the strength to claim new life from her."
"But if it wasn't anything—he didn't need to take that dive, damn you, he wasn't actually—"
"No." The priest shook his head again. "If he had not claimed her breath, he'd have died in body as well as spirit—that there was no poison doesn't mean there was no danger. Once a man entirely believes he is dying, he will die. It was close...for a moment I feared he wouldn't have the courage. But he sought life in her water. The sinner is dead, but the man breathes now." The high priest smiled, white teeth shining in his dark beard, a startling sight. "He lives!"
Whatever Zoro might have said was interrupted by Sanji's cough as he tried to push himself up. Zoro threw the cup in the priest's general direction, not caring if it smashed into the man's nose or splashed into the pool, dropped to a crouch next to his crewmate and helped him sit up. Sanji's eyes were open but unfocused, roving from the sky to the trees to the waterfall before settling on Zoro's face. "Z-zoro—" His teeth were chattering—Zoro could feel him shivering under the blanket, but that was a damn sight better than not moving at all.
"Yeah," Zoro said, "it's okay, you're okay. It's over." He glanced over the blond head to the high priest, who had managed to catch the cup, was holding it in both hands as he nodded affirmation. "It's all over."
"She's—fine." She still stood on the outcropping over the pool, facing the waterfall with her arms spread, her long sleeves waving in the wind. In the twilight the glitter of the silver trim was dulled, but the blue of her robes was as richly dark as the deep ocean, and the white cap on her head glimmered like snow through the gray mist. "You did it, it's over. We can go now."
"Go?" Sanji closed his eyes, sagging back into the supporting circle of Zoro's arms. "Go where?"
"Back to the ship, of course, idiot," Zoro said. "We'll be on the Going Merry with everyone before you know it, we'll never have to see this damn island again—"
"With everyone..." The tearing sound in Sanji's throat was too excruciating to be a chuckle. "They won't be there...told you...they're all..."
"They're all fine, Sanji—like I said, they're waiting for us. What you saw, it wasn't real, dammit, you know it wasn't real! Why the hell did you jump in that pond, if you really think that happened, why didn't you just—"
"Because," Sanji murmured, "because...you...I couldn't..." And then he slumped, deadweight when Zoro caught him, but breathing, slow and steady, fallen somewhere between unconsciousness and ordinary, exhausted sleep.
When Zoro felt the touch on his shoulder, he somehow wasn't surprised to look up and see the blonde acolyte, though he hadn't noticed her here before. But the hand was too light to be the high priest's, and the rest of them were keeping a careful distance. She held his swords, crooked under her arm.
"Best get off the mountain, before he catches a chill," she said quietly, extending the blades to him.
That was the least of his problems. Though it was getting cold, with the sun set. "Yeah," Zoro said, and his voice was hoarse enough that his throat hurt. He took the swords, then gathered Sanji up in his arms—no use trying to wake him; he was out so far he wasn't even snoring, and it wasn't like he was that heavy—and pushed to his feet. "What's the fastest path down?"
The little priestess was descending from the stone outcropping; her father had gone to assist her. She might have been looking in their direction, and he was glad enough for the cover of the falling darkness. Before he could start walking, the blonde acolyte touched his arm again. "This way," she said.
"We're not going back to that damn temple," he told her.
"You want to return to your ship, right?" she asked. "This will be the quickest way." She led him down the stone ridge, along the river bank, picking the most level path through the rocky gorge with the ease of experience. Zoro kept up with her as well as he could, eying the dark ground over the burden of his crewmate and ignoring the sounds of anyone following.
A little before the dam where the river split into the tunnel, there were several animals tied to trees, black-coated creatures as tall as horses but with cleft hooves and curling horns. They had ridden up, he recalled the girl saying. A couple pairs of the beasts were harnessed to carts with rimless wheels of long spokes, the better to ride over the rocky terrain. The acolyte gestured Zoro into one of the carts, then untied the goats, gathered up the reins and climbed on in front, glancing back to ask, "Are you all right?"
Zoro made sure Sanji was settled in the chariot, tucked the blankets around him and leaned against the back. "Yeah. Go."
She nodded, clucked something to the beasts and clapped the reins. They broke into a fast trot, plunging down the slope, the cart rattling behind them.
After the initial jouncing start it wasn't as rough a ride as he would have expected; the wagon was wired with springs, and the beasts had a steady gait even over the rough ground. He glanced back once, saw various priests' robes between the trees, hard to make out in the dusk but it didn't seem like any of them were pursuing. Yet it was still difficult to shake the impression that they were escaping, fleeing down the mountainside from that goddess's damn test. It wasn't a feeling that sat well in his stomach, but he couldn't tell if it was the possible cowardice or simply rage which twisted his gut.
Sanji didn't stir, even when the cart skipped over a rock and launched into the air, landing with a tooth-jarring crash. His head was cushioned in Zoro's lap, and Zoro put an arm across his chest to keep him from flying from the cart. No more life than a rag doll in that limp body, jostled with every bump; even his shivers had stopped. But he was warm, wrapped in the blanket, and he was breathing. Zoro could feel the slight rise and fall of his chest.
They reached a road and the ride became smoother, but he kept holding on. That rhythm was steady but too shallow, too quiet to only listen for. Despite the fall of darkness their pace didn't slacken; looking ahead he could see lights farther down, the gleams of the city's lanterns twinkling between trees.
Over the ruckus of the wheels on the gravel he heard a voice, a low mumble which he only barely recognized as his own, saying something idiotic like it was going to be all right and they were almost there and other inane things, all the more pointless because it wasn't like anyone was listening. He wasn't even himself, and the acolyte didn't turn away from the reins, encouraging the beasts in their headlong dash.
The sloping road leveled, and then they were passing under the torches that marked the open city gate. To their left past the houses, the tall shapes of the towers stood against the greater blackness of the mountains; to their right was the sea, cold breeze with its thick salt scent rolling off the lapping dark waves. Sails shone in the moonlight, and the goats' hooves clattered on the wooden planks of the docks, over the sound of waves and the hustle of the docks, just closing down for the night.
They stopped short with a jerk that almost threw them from the cart. "There," the acolyte said.
He looked, and saw, farther down the pier, sticking out from behind a small sailboat, the sheep figurehead, and flapping above the sails, their Jolly Roger. "How'd you know—"
In the moonlight he heard the smile in her soft alto more than saw it. "There's only one pirate ship in the harbor."
Of course. He looked closer—the cabin was hidden by the sailboat, but there was no lamp lit in the crow's nest, and he recognized none of the voices calling over the water. The Going Merry was lifeless, and for a single moment icy fingers clenched around his heart—if it had been real—
His arm tightened around Sanji, who didn't move, his face colorless in the dusk. But still breathing. Just the goddess's delusion. Maybe none of them had gotten back yet, or they were out looking, or...
Then he saw motion, ducked to see under the boat's sail and made out a long-nosed silhouette leaning on the railing of the Going Merry's prow.
His relieved exhalation was so long and deep he saw stars. Inhaling again, he called, in what emerged as only a stuttered, "Hey." Clearing his throat, he tried once more, raising his voice to be heard over the water. "Hey, Usopp!"
The silhouette jumped up, peered around. "Zoro? That you?"
It had only been three days; he shouldn't be so ridiculously pleased to hear that familiar shout. "Over here," he called back, climbing out of the cart and picking up Sanji, blankets and all. "On the dock." The cook barely roused, his breath catching but his eyes remaining closed, even when Zoro muttered his name.
"Just a sec!" He heard Usopp's boots thud as he jumped down to the main deck, disappearing out of sight.
"You'll be all right, then?"
Zoro looked back at the blonde acolyte, who remained on the cart, reins tight in hand, though the beasts were standing docilely enough. "Yeah." He took a couple steps, turned back again. "Er," he said. "For the ride. And the other stuff. Thank you, uh..."
"Inste," she told him. "My name's Inste."
"You're welcome, Roronoa Zoro." For a moment longer she studied him, then turned away, and with a flick of the reins the cart clattered off into the night.
Zoro walked the short distance down the pier, past the sailboat to the Going Merry. The gangplank had been lowered, and Usopp was waiting on the deck, arms crossed admonishingly. "It's about time! We were gonna leave without you—" He stopped, grin failing as he stared at Zoro carrying Sanji's limp form onto the ship.
Zoro ignored that gawking. The breeze off the sea was cold and Sanji was shivering again, a little. "Get Chopper," he ordered, then amended, "Get everyone, they all have be here."
"Everyone?" Usopp gulped, freezing in his tracks. "Is it—that bad...?"
Zoro glanced at him. Usopp's eyes were locked on Sanji's motionless figure, his tanned face gone a little grey. "No," Zoro shook his head, "Sorry, it's okay. He's not that hurt. He just needs—just get everybody, got it?"
Usopp blinked, then nodded and took off, hollering everyone's names.
Ten minutes later they were all in the main cabin, Sanji laying on a makeshift bed and all his crewmates around it. Zoro pulled up a chair, planted himself on it and watched as Chopper examined the cook, poking and prodding and checking his pulse, murmuring under his breath.
Usopp, pacing at the foot of the cot, endured this for a few moments before bursting out, "So? What's the matter with him? Is he gonna be okay?"
Nami, seated on the side of the bed opposite the doctor, raised her gaze from Sanji to look over at Zoro. "What happened to him?" she asked, a good deal calmer than Usopp but even more insistent.
"He seems to be suffering from mild hypothermia, dehydration, and malnutrition," Chopper said.
"Yeah, that's about right," Zoro agreed. "Though he almost drowned a little while ago, so he got some water then." Nami wasn't the only one looking at him now; even Robin glanced over from the bench where she had seated herself, eyebrows raised under her black bangs. Only Luffy didn't look up, sitting cross-legged at the head of the bed and staring down at his cook's white face, his own expression just as still.
"What about the bandages?" Nami inquired quietly, fingering the cotton strips around his shoulder.
"He got hurt," Zoro said. "Is he going to wake up soon, Chopper?"
"He—that—" Chopper turned back to his patient, and his stutter resolved into determination. "He should. Usopp, Nami, get some of that sweet cider we bought and heat it up, and a bowl of rice, too—"
"I'll do it." Zoro stood up and started for the kitchen behind them. "You guys stay here, if he's going to be waking up."
Usopp looked at Nami and Robin, nodded and headed for the door. "Yeah, he'd like waking up to them. I'll get the cider—"
"'You stay, too," Zoro told him, giving him a shove back toward the bed. "The cider's in that little barrel outside?"
"Yeah." Usopp blinked at him. "Why do I—"
Zoro ignored him, went out and brought in the barrel, then poked around the kitchen for a pot. A slender arm opened one of the cabinet doors and handed a saucepan to him. He glanced back; Robin nodded at him from the bench, said, "I'll take care of the rice."
So he poured cider into the pan, put it over a low flame and returned to the others, where Chopper was completing his examination. "He's been worse off," the little doctor pronounced, though his expression acknowledged that this wasn't saying much.
"So he's gonna be okay, then, right?" Usopp demanded.
It was rare to hear Luffy's voice that quiet, that calm. Usopp went mute, and Zoro saw Nami's mouth snap shut before she said anything. All eyes went to their captain, who met none of them, his gaze not moving from Sanji's face. "Who did this, Zoro?" Luffy asked. No need for him to ask what, or why; everything that counted for him he could see for himself in Sanji's motionless countenance. And whatever he saw there was enough to make him angry, that dangerous gravity they all well knew.
Zoro sighed. He was unaccountably exhausted, as if he had been fighting battle after battle for the past few days, rather than just sitting around and exercising a little. "It doesn't matter," he said. "It's done. It won't happen again."
He put his hand on Luffy's shoulder. "Luffy." His captain didn't look up, face shaded by the straw hat, but by the slight incline of his head Zoro knew he was listening. "Don't be mad at Sanji, okay? When he wakes up. You can't get mad at him."
Now Luffy's head did raise, dark eyes puzzled. "Why'd I be mad at Sanji?"
"Don't yell at him or anything. He might think...just don't."
"Zoro...?" Nami and Usopp were giving him vastly suspicious looks, like he might be a shapechanger in disguise, and Chopper's fuzzy brow furrowed in puzzlement.
But Luffy only nodded, most of that seriousness dropping away like it had never been, leaving just that bright, blank grin. "Okay." He poked their doctor's hat. "Hey, when's he gonna wake up?"
Chopper twitched. "I don't know. Right now it looks like he's just asleep, but..."
"I'm sure he'll be fine, with you taking care of him," Nami said, giving the doctor a smile. The reindeer shivered once all over and rudely protested the compliment, even as he beamed.
"Sanji. Oi, Sanji," Luffy slapped his cheek, not too hard, but enough to raise color in the pale skin. "Wake up now."
Sanji groaned, flinched away. "Cut tha'out," he mumbled, batting ineffectively at the assaulting hand as if it were a fly. "Tryin' to sleep, Luffy—" and then his eyes flew open. He blinked rapidly a few times before focusing on his captain's face, a foot above his as Luffy leaned over to scrutinize him, his stilled hand resting against Sanji's cheek.
"Luffy?" Sanji whispered, so hoarse it was only a breath.
Luffy frowned. "Yeah. Where were you? You and Zoro were late."
Sanji blinked up at him dumbly, finally breathed, "--sorry—" He swallowed, forced a wheeze of voice into it, "I'm sorry—"
"S'okay," Luffy said.
"But you—where's—" He struggled up out of the blankets, only to have Chopper sit on his chest to keep him down.
"No," the doctor said, "I've got to check you out now you're awake. Are you hurt anywhere?"
"Just relax, Sanji-kun, and let Chopper take care of you," Nami said.
"Ch-chopper? Nami-san?" Sanji sat up so fast Chopper almost tumbled off, was caught by Usopp before he did. "Usopp?" The cook stared at both of them, then twisted around, murmuring, "Robin-chan—"
"Right here," Robin assured, raising one hand.
"Sanji-kun, what—" Nami began, putting her hand on his, fisted over the blanket. But at her touch he started, almost flinched, and Zoro watched her draw back in confusion.
At least they weren't gaping at him anymore. Though the dubious looks they were giving the cook were almost as difficult to ignore, even if Sanji seemed largely oblivious to them. Zoro went back over to the stove, took the pot off as the cider started to simmer and poured half into a mug, which he brought back and shoved at the cook. "Here. Drink. It's about damn time you did."
"Zoro?" Didn't make sense for Sanji to be giving him that look, too; he had never had any reason to think something had happened to Zoro. But the disbelief in that pale face was almost enough to make you question the reality of the wood under your feet. "Zoro, this..."
Zoro pushed the mug at him again. "Come on, aren't you thirsty, already?"
Sanji glanced down at the mug, uncomprehendingly, and then his hand shot out—but not to take the cider; instead his fingers wrapped around Zoro's wrist, gripping so tight they dug into his tendons, while his eyes searched Zoro's face. "You're here," he muttered, to himself, it seemed, "if you're here...this..."
"It's over, Sanji," Zoro said. "All seven, they're done. We're back on the ship now, and everyone's here." Sanji's gaze broke with his to flicker over their crewmates' faces, turning his head back to make sure Luffy and Robin were still there behind them. Zoro didn't blame him; he was beginning to wonder himself, the way they all seemed struck mute. Quiet wasn't a concept he typically associated with any of his crewmates, save Robin.
Then Sanji looked back to him, said, almost perplexed, "They're all...we're here. We're all here."
It wasn't quite a question, but Luffy answered it, his tone weirdly subdued, still cheerful but unnaturally calm. "Yeah. Everybody."
"What'd I tell you, stupid cook. This is real. Not any of that other stuff." Zoro carefully removed the grip from his wrist, folded Sanji's fingers around the mug instead. "Now drink the damn juice. Chopper, tell him it's good for him."
"It's good for you," Chopper said obediently, then recovered himself to admonish, "but don't drink it too fast, even if you're thirsty, try to sip it."
Sanji nodded, barely, raised the mug and took a small sip, then a longer one. "It's...good," he said, even sounding a little less hoarse. He took another swallow, almost a gulp. "But..." His gaze crossed over all of them again, studying each of their faces in turn, drinking them in with a thirst as great as the one audible in his parched throat.
"...But?" Usopp asked finally, tentatively.
"Sanji-kun?" Nami said. Zoro would have thought she at least would be used to the cook's stares, but evidently she could tell this wasn't the same. But it was the concern in her voice that did it; nothing else would have made Sanji sit up that straight, a faint glimmer of the love cook's customary gleam lighting in his eyes.
He sipped again, shut his eyes to swallow and opened them again. "It's...good juice, but it could really use some nutmeg. A few cloves, touch of brown sugar. And cinnamon, you even left out the cinnamon. Nami-san, please don't deign to taste it, I'll make you and Robin-chan real cider."
"That sounds great!" Luffy cried. "Make some for me, too!"
He punched Sanji on the arm, not as hard as he might have, but enough to jostle the mug. Usopp reached out to catch it before hot cider could slosh over Sanji or him; Sanji thanked him with a nod, took another draught and said "I'll make some for everyone. Show you how to do it right, swordsman."
"You're the cook. Why would I need to know, as long as you're here?"
Finishing the last of the cider, Sanji eyed him over the rim of the mug. Something in his eyes looked serious, but when he lowered the cup he was grinning a little, the old derisive smirk. "It'd probably be too complicated for you anyway. Four ingredients is one number higher than you can count, right?"
"You're the one who almost didn't make it to sev—" Zoro began, and stopped, unsure. Sanji might be sitting up, but his face was about two shades away from the color of paper, and though both his hands were wrapped around the empty mug they still trembled slightly.
"Here. If you're hungry," Robin said, stepping between them to smoothly take the mug from Sanji and replace it with a bowl of white rice.
"Thank you, Robin-chan!" Sanji said, smirk dissolving into a sparkling smile. "It's delicious!"
"You haven't even tasted it yet," Nami reminded him, but her own smile was only slightly teasing.
"I want some, too!" Luffy declared, and Robin obliged him, despite Usopp's protest that they had eaten dinner only an hour before. She brought Zoro a bowl as well, with pickled onions; he nearly refused, then realized he wasn't sure when he had last eaten himself. He vaguely recalled grabbing something in the temples kitchens, but had that been this morning, or last night... The rice was good, anyway, and after he finished sat down on the floor, leaning against the wall, and looked over the cabin.
Sanji had dozed off, curled up in the blankets, softly snoring. Seated by his cot, Nami and Robin were murmuring in conversation, their heads together, too low to be heard over Usopp and Luffy's argument about—food, he guessed; the suddenly empty rice pot might have something to do with that. Chopper tried to hush them, gesticulating meaningfully at Sanji, before giving up etiquette and growing big enough to bang both their heads to the floor. None of it disturbed the cook, sunk into a sounder and more restful sleep than he'd had in three days
Zoro dropped his chin to his chest, shut his eyes. Bare hardwood floor under him, unlike the cushioned bench in the temple, and the soothing sounds of the wind and waves outside were almost entirely drowned out by his crewmates' racket.
He was asleep in seconds.
Zoro woke early, but despite his efforts, it was past noon before they set sail, and by then it was too late. The ship caught up with them when they were barely out of the bay.
It was a schooner, not any larger than the Going Merry, but sleeker, swiftly modern, and it slid up through their wake like a porpoise. The main sail was a deep indigo, stitched with swirling white patterns. Robin's brow furrowed as she watched its approach. "That almost looks like a stylized variation of a script I'm familiar with, but I didn't think that cult had made it this far east."
"I don't see any cannons," Usopp pointed out. "D'you think they're going to attack?"
"Doubt it," Zoro said grimly. He might not be able to read those patterns, but he recognized them well enough, from too many hours staring at the temple ceilings. "Where's Sanji?"
"In the main cabin, with Chopper," Nami said. "Zoro, who are—"
"Ahoy!" Zoro didn't recognize the man hailing them from the deck of the other ship, but his blue robes left little doubt as to what he was.
Before he could say anything, Luffy, standing on the figurehead, waved back, hollering, "Hello! Are you going to attack us?"
"No, sir!" The schooner glided up alongside them. "We were hoping you'd join us in our feast!"
"Feast?" Four meters away, Zoro could see Luffy's eyes widen. The captain sprang to the deck, leaned over the railing to shout over, "Where?"
"Here!" and the man waved down at the ship, now sailed close enough that they could see over the rails onto the main deck. A table was spread there, piled high with platters of meat and fruit and bread.
There were dozens of people crowded around it, a brilliant, festive collection of blue and gold and white robes. As they came into view, the gathering all raised glasses to them, and cheered.
Usopp blinked, flipping up his goggles. "I still don't see any cannons," he offered over their noise.
It was quite an elaborate table for the ocean; a chance storm would smash all that china—but then, he supposed they'd have warning about that. "Come if you'd like!" called the priest on the upper deck. "Your crew's all invited!"
"What's their game?" Nami asked in an undertone. "More bounty hunters?"
"But they had three days to catch us already," Usopp muttered back. "Unless this has something to do with..."
They both glanced back to Zoro, questioningly, as if he might know anything more about these lunatics' intentions than they did.
"Those are religious vestments," Robin said. "This may be a ceremonial feast." She was also watching him like she was expecting some kind of answer.
He recognized some of those celebrating faces. Inste wasn't in sight, nor the kids, but there was the skinny acolyte boy who had gotten him out of the tower, and the old woman from the kitchen. And the high priest's bearded presence, off to the side, and the priestess, obvious, as small as she was, because of the bubble of space the others left around her.
"Zoro." Luffy had one sandal on the railing, posed to vault over it, but there he stopped, tore his eyes away from the steaming roasts to look back at the swordsman. "Should we eat with them?"
"You're asking now? You're already halfway overboard." Sanji climbed up on deck, Chopper at his heels muttering urgently.
Zoro glanced his crewmate, a quick, pointed assessment. Back in his usual suit, and there was some color back in his face, but shadows over his eyes still, and he leaned on the railing a little too heavily to be casual. Something was missing in that image, incomplete. But better. The asshole cook, not that pale mostly-dead thing Zoro had dragged from the water, and his sardonic drawl to Luffy was irritatingly, reassuringly familiar. "You heard Robin-chan, they're priests. They aren't going to poison us. Chopper's not going to let me cook lunch anyway, so just get over there and eat."
By all rights Luffy should be drooling enough to drown them all—the scents carried on the sea breeze were enough to make Zoro's own mouth water—but he didn't turn away yet, looked from Sanji back to Zoro, something odd and sharp in his eyes. "Should we?" he asked again.
The priests' cheering had died away when Sanji had come up to the railing, all eyes on him in that sudden, respectful silence. Sanji didn't look at the schooner at all, his gaze on the horizon instead.
Zoro's hand was curled around the white katana's hilt, though he didn't recall reaching for the sword. All he would have to say was that they were the ones. Not what, or why, or any of that; Luffy wouldn't listen anyway, wouldn't care. They could probably sink that elegant ship in under a minute, just the two of them.
He could feel his crewmates watching, tense and baffled, but Luffy was waiting with unnatural patience. Then Sanji's mouth moved—unvoiced, and he didn't look away from those distant waves, but his lips shaped the simple request. "Don't."
Zoro shrugged, let his hand drop from the katana. "You're the captain, aren't you? You decide."
"Then..." Luffy took a deep breath. "Let's eat!!" and he bounced over the railing to the schooner, diving for the table with a base hunger to match the most greedy plunderer.
Whatever misgivings Nami and the others might have had were lost in the usual mad rush to get a share of the bounty before their captain finished it off. The priests, pitifully ignorant of the terror they had invited upon themselves, could hardly do more than stare as the pirates descended on them.
Sanji was the last to board, clambering after Zoro down the ropes to the schooner's deck. Chopper and Nami made room for him at the table, the priests falling back with a deference like that offered the priestess. None seemed willing to meet his eyes, but that was scarcely conspicuous, in the chaos of Luffy's appetite.
Zoro didn't take a seat himself, just leaned against the ship's painted hull and watched, not trying to make sense of the conversations gradually growing around the table. First it was a quiet question from Robin and an equally quiet answer from a gray-haired priest, and then a curious inquiry about Chopper which Nami neatly deflected, and then the youthful acolyte made the mistake of asking Usopp where they came from, and after that it was just rising noise. The voices of the priests grated, but his crewmates' laughter was a comfortable cacophony. Sanji was even grinning—going easy on the rich food, per Chopper's strict instruction, but partaking fully of the conversation, even flirting with a couple of the women, as if just the day before they hadn't been watching him—
It didn't make sense to Zoro, and he might have started questioning his own sanity, except watching the cook, he could see that faint stiffness to his usually smooth motion, and moments when Sanji's expression would subtly shift, that crucial self-assurance slipping for an instant to leave him bereft. But he caught himself each time before anyone noticed, and the priests' sociable addresses were as if to a stranger—might as well be; none of them had actually talked to him before, as far as Zoro knew, except the high priest.
But the high priest wasn't at the table now, nor the priestess. Zoro frowned. There was no one watching the Going Merry—the ship was right there, roped to the schooner, and they would notice anything seriously amiss, but all the same...
With a glance back at his feasting crewmates, he climbed up to the quarterdeck, only to stop before boarding their ship. The priest who had been manning the wheel had tied it to join the feast, but, wise to the Grand Line's capricious currents, they hadn't left the ship unattended. The high priest was keeping watch, studying the sails and waves with the savvy of an experienced seaman.
He nodded to Zoro, as courteous as ever. "Thank you," he said, baritone muted, its resonance lost on the open sea. "For joining our feast."
"It wasn't my decision," Zoro said. "I'm not captain."
"All the same." His voice might lose some of its power here, but not the incisive focus of his gray eyes.
"Is that why you followed us out here? To make sure we didn't miss the party?"
"We came at the priestess's request. She wanted to see him."
"The priestess," he repeated. "Your daughter asked? Or the goddess?"
"I don't know," said the high priest. "I rarely do."
"You didn't have to bring—all of that," and Zoro jerked his head toward the main deck, the cheerful clamor.
"But it's traditional to break a fast with celebration. And we've never had the opportunity for this feast before."
He didn't want to talk to the man. He wanted to get off this ship now, wanted to sail away from this damn island—only he had to ask, and the bastard knew, was standing there waiting so politely for it. "He's really the first one. To make it."
"Yes. You are."
"How many?" Zoro demanded. "How many times have you—"
"This was my third," the high priest said. "Before this, it concerned the priestess who preceded Lonlin. The man was a native to this island, and his sin was not as...inadvertent. He was troubled as a youth, and what he became when older...and she was younger even than Lonlin at the time. It was nearly a day before she was found—he didn't survive third death. She was never the same, afterwards; she left this island shortly after the moon goddess renounced her.
"As for the first time—it was before I became high priest." The man looked out across the water, to the points of the island's dark peaks over the waves. "You were not the first pirates to come here, nor the first to make that mistake.
"A hurricane blew the ship into Satva's port, and the crew was given leave in the town. They were warned by their captain, who had come before. But there were a couple mates new to the ship, rowdy young men. And the priestess then—it was only a short while before she became the moon goddess's. She was growing up, but a child still, a playful child, and she often visited the taverns, had met pirates before. They ignored the warnings of their crewmates, danced with her, and she teased them, and it might have been nothing more than to teach her a lesson, that he kissed her.
"Their captain had warned them; he had no sympathy, and he knew he needed the goddess's approval, if he wished his ship to safely sail these waters. He ordered the men to the temple, the sinner, and his crewmate who had also danced with her to be attendant. They obeyed, at first, until the fourth death, and then they ran. But their ship had already sailed, and they were captured again and put in a chamber with locked doors.
"They weren't especially close, the sinner and his attendant—crewmates, they'd sailed together for a few months, and they hailed from the same island, but they'd always been rivals—they'd even been fighting over the right to dance with her. She wasn't so much younger than them, old enough you could see she was going to be beautiful. And she cried, when she came to bring the sinner to fifth death, not that her tears meant anything. He survived it, though—sixth death as well, though the attendant nearly didn't. He had known his friend valued his skill in carving—knifework, and he had killed men before, but it was the wood he loved working with most, and to believe his hands were lost...the attendant tried to tell him the truth, and his friend struck out at him, furiously, blindly.
"But they lived. It was the seventh—I didn't see it; I wasn't allowed to attend the ceremonies. They brought his body back from the mountains, gave him a funeral as they'd give one of their own. And—the attendant, he was never told how it happened, not by any of the priests, nor the priestess, though she and him spoke of many other things. Waiting for his ship, he learned more of the island, the city, the people the goddesses protect, until when the ship did finally come, he chose to stay. He became an acolyte himself, in time, and more.
"Eventually he learned the mysteries of the ceremony, and understood...he didn't drown, that sinner, his friend. There are not many who have it, who yet find reason to struggle and fight for life, when both past and future have died..."
The wind over the waves was cool and quiet and salt-thick, nothing like the fresh, freezing chill that blew through those mountains on the horizon. Zoro followed the high priest's gaze to their shadows. "I wasn't supposed to be there," he said. "That wasn't part of the ceremony."
"No," the high priest said.
"It could've screwed the whole thing up. Your damn goddess could've refused it."
"You were too far away to do anything—that's why the attendant is forbidden; no one can interfere with the sinner's death. He must be hers, and hers alone. But you could only watch from there. By the time you pulled him from the water, the ceremony had already ended."
"If he hadn't dived—"
"He would have died, as he believed himself to be. There was nothing you could have done for him, even if you had stood on that stone beside him. There was nothing the goddess could object to."
"Why," Zoro asked, "why'd you—"
"Because I've come to love this place," the high priest said, "these people, the peace of this island. And I love the goddesses, for allowing that peace, but I know them. You should understand, as a pirate yourself, as a sailor. I also loved the sea; even if I rarely sail her now, I still do, and always will. But the ocean is cruel and merciless as she is beautiful and giving; she brought us here, and he died here, and I'll always hate her, too."
The sun shone warm on Zoro's face; he stood still, facing that light, letting the creaking of the ship and the lapping of the waves reply with whatever answer was needed. Presently a burst of laughter sounded from the main deck, and the high priest said, "You should be with them. Your crewmates."
"They'll be almost done anyway." Or more likely finished some time ago. This ship's stores could only be so big. Zoro started for the stairs, hesitated. "Where is the priestess? I haven't seen her since we boarded."
"In the hold," the high priest said. "Once she had seen him for herself—she thought it best not to be present."
On the one hand he could appreciate the thought. The last thing they needed was a repeat of this whole damn catastrophe, if she accidentally bumped into another of his crewmates. On the other...he remembered the cook, shivering on that river bank, asking for her. "He'd like to see her. Probably. After every damn thing he did for her."
"I might tell her so," said the high priest, "but she may not believe me."
Zoro sighed, entertaining a brief but enjoyably vivid thought of drawing his swords and applying them indiscriminately on the man. Instead he only asked, "Where's the hold?"
The high priest pointed the way.
She was sitting on a barrel in the storeroom's cramped confines, arms around her legs and chin on her knees. An old woman sat on a chair beside her, a web of yarn and needles tangled around her gnarled fingers. When Zoro entered, the lady placidly lifted her head from her knitting, and the priestess scrambled to her feet—not to try to hide, but to bow, a deep curtsey.
"They're almost done with that feast," Zoro told her. "And then we're leaving, so you should get out there."
She shook her head hard. "I—I can't—"
"Come on," Zoro said impatiently. "It'll be all right. He's all right."
"I know." She ducked her head, twisted her fingers together. She was wearing gloves, he noticed, a white pair beaded in silver, and why the hell hadn't she had those on a couple days ago? "Like you promised."
"But if he'd not sure you're all right, he'll give me crap about it. So come on."
She asked her lady to stay, and obediently followed him up the ladder out to the deck. From the sugary residue in the empty bowls scattered across the tables, dessert had already come and gone. Luffy was laughing, Usopp and Chopper and several acolytes with him, and even Robin was smiling her quiet smile. But Sanji spotted Zoro and the girl beside him, and rose from the table—too fast, and he still was too pale, but he was the image of suave manners, standing respectfully at the priestess's entrance.
"He-hello," she whispered, looking as if she wished she were behind Zoro rather than in front of him. "Was—was it a good feast?"
Sanji nodded, said, "Very good."
"It was great!" Luffy confirmed, then asked, "Who's this?" bounding over the table to get a better look at her.
The priestess shied back, and Sanji grabbed Luffy by the collar of his red shirt and yanked him out of reach. "Don't scare her. If you guys are done stuffing your faces you can get back to the ship, leave these people alone—if you'd care to return, Nami-san, Robin-chan."
"We should, if we want to make time before nightfall," Nami agreed, but she was watching Sanji, thoughtfully, as she spoke.
"Thank you for sharing your banquet with us," Robin told the priests with grave courtesy, and Usopp, Luffy, and Chopper echoed the sentiments after Nami had reminded them of their manners with a boxing to the ears. The priests replied with appropriate civilities and leave-takings, and crowded with them up to the quarterdeck and the ladder back to the Going Merry.
Zoro stayed on the main deck, watching Sanji talk to the girl—a common sight, except the girl wasn't usually so young, and usually the cook didn't look so awkward, even as he tried to cover it with his typical cool demeanor. Rocked back in a casual slouch, hands in his pockets, but though he smiled reassuringly at the priestess, there was still something missing.
After a moment Zoro realized what it was. He dug a hand in his pocket, felt around for it. "Oi, cook."
"Hm?" Sanji looked over, and Zoro tossed him the cigarette case. The blond caught it in one hand, blinked at it, and a quicksilver grin crossed his face, more believable than any he had given the priests or the priestess. "Thanks."
Zoro shrugged. Sanji took out a cigarette and slipped the case into his breast pocket, crouched on one knee to look the priestess in the eye. Whatever he said was too quiet for Zoro to hear over the waves, but it made the girl shake her head again, put her hands to her cheeks like she might cry. Then Sanji straightened up. "Goodbye, Lonlin-chan," he said, and waited for the priestess's almost inaudible whispered response before he walked away. He strode past Zoro, jerked his head toward their ship. "Come on, Zoro. Don't want to keep Nami-san waiting."
Zoro looked up. The high priest had returned the wheel to one of the other priests and was at the quarterdeck railing, gazing down at them. He had left them alone with her, Zoro realized, both of them with his so-precious daughter. Lunatics, all of them.
He started after Sanji, only to be stopped by fingers curling around his wrist. "Wait, please, Zoro," she said softly, and he swung back around.
"That's the second time you've used my name," he began, "how come—"
And stopped. Not the little girl, but a young woman stood before him, her long dark hair tangled in the wind. A slender woman, in not acolyte robes but the blue and white of the priestess's, though the glitter in her hair was not a beaded cap but a fragile crown of spun silver threads.
It was so quiet he could hear the slow thump of his heartbeat. He could tear his arm away hard enough to break those thin fingers, but he didn't. Instead he just stared, and she silently gazed back. Brown eyes, not the priestess's blue, and her face looked so ordinary, a round plain face, not the terrible beauty he would have expected.
"You," he said finally.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Sorry? I should kill you. I'm sure as hell not going to forgive you."
She shook her head, a quick twisting gesture very like the priestess's. "I'm not asking for that. But I still wanted you to know that I am."
"You're telling the wrong one. You didn't do a damn thing to me."
"But he would forgive me even if I don't."
"He's an idiot." One might expect her hands to be warm, but her fingers were cool around his wrist—not like the ice she melted, but like a real woman's. "But you didn't get him, and you're not going near him again. Or I will kill you."
"I won't," she said. "That was never the reason. Not him. It's for the sake of the priestess, it always has been. Since I first began to speak to them—they must be young, young enough to learn to listen. But can you understand, giving a child that responsibility, can you imagine what kind of men might try to use her, what they might do to a child with that power? I could never let them, I couldn't bear that, not one of my own."
"You'd rather have her be killed?"
"They never have," she told him. "Not once have they chose that way. But I can only speak through the priestess, so there can be no exceptions, nothing to allow for interpretation of my word. My sister can be more lenient, but when the priestess is only a child... There's so much they might do to her. The rule must be absolute, if it's to guard the girl."
"If she's so important," Zoro said, "maybe you should pay more attention to her—when she was crying these last few days, it wasn't because of what he did."
"No," she said, and her voice wavered, for all her gaze was steady on him. "It wasn't. Even if I couldn't speak to her, I still heard her. Then, and now." Her grip tightened around his wrist. "Forgive her. Please. That much I do ask of you."
"I don't blame her," Zoro said. "You can tell her that. He doesn't, and neither do I. At least she tried."
"Thank you." She bowed her head to him, which would have struck Zoro as an impropriety, had he actually cared. "With that, and his life, she may even come to forgive me, eventually..."
"I don't give a damn about that."
"No," she said. "You have no reason. You owe nothing—neither of you. Ours is the entire debt."
"Forget it," Zoro said. "It wasn't for you; we don't want a damn thing from you." Then he growled, "But protect her. All of them. After all this you better."
"Yes," she said, lifting her head to meet his eyes. "I will." Ordinary-seeming brown eyes, but there was something in them that wasn't human, if they watched you long enough, piercing to the core. "And you, protect him, and all of them."
He glared, and she smiled slightly. "But I don't need to tell you that."
Her hand slipped from his wrist, and there was a rushing in his ears, like a sudden wind—the splash of waves, which he realized had gone silent, now returned. Over that noise Sanji's annoyed voice rang out, "Move it, swordsman!"
Zoro looked up. The cook was leaning over the Going Merry's bow, gesturing to him impatiently with his lit cigarette.
He looked back down at the little priestess beside him, her face tilted up toward him, her eyes wide and intent and disturbingly seeing. Her hand was still outstretched, having just released his arm—
Her bare hand, he saw, the glove pulled off, clutched in her other hand.
Reflexively he yanked back his arm, rocked back at step, much too late, of course. "Dammit," he hissed, staring around wildly—no priests on the deck, and from that angle Sanji couldn't have seen. But when he glanced up, the high priest was still at the quarterdeck railing, staring down at them.
And yet the man said nothing, didn't move, even when Zoro met his eyes, his expression tight and focused.
"Zoro-san," the priestess said, in that small voice that was hardly more than a whisper. When he looked back, she was smiling. "It's all right," she told him, "she says it's all right. She says..." and her head tilted, as if she were listening to a distant melody, "she says that because a mistake has been made before does not mean it will be again."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
The priestess shrugged, giggled, a silly little girl's noise. "I don't know! She says there's a lot of things she must tell me, that we're going to have to do. I'm going to have to be strong, now. But that's for later," and she sobered, matured ten years in that instant. "Now, you should go. You've got so much to do, and they're waiting for you."
"Yeah," he said. The high priest was still watching, was still doing nothing, but best not to push their luck. And it was about damn time they were away from here. Seven times too long.
"So long," he told the priestess. And then, because he could see that telltale glitter in her eyes, he said, "Don't worry. You'll be strong enough."
Her eyes opened so wide it dried the tears. "Thank you," she whispered, and then, "Goodbye," and she didn't say anything else as he mounted the steps and boarded the Going Merry. But as they sailed away, he looked back and saw her beside her father on the prow, stretched up on her toes and waving with both hands.
Sanji raised his arm in return. Zoro, standing next him on the stern, did not, even when the cook glared at him, but he kept watching. She continued waving until she was too far away to see, and finally the schooner with its blue sails and the island behind it slipped over the horizon and vanished back into the vast, uncharted waters of the Grand Line.
The cook was fine. Chopper had said so. The fresh sea air and a good day's rest got Sanji back on his feet, back in the kitchen, and everything back to normal, more or less.
If he was perhaps even a little more attentive to Nami and Robin, it might have just been that absence had made the hearts in his eyes that much the fonder. And certainly Usopp had no reason to complain about his favorite snacks appearing on the menu, specially prepared, for all that the cook tossed them to him with his usual obnoxious indifference. None of the crew asked why Chopper had Sanji come to the men's cabin every evening while the rest of them were busy with kitchen cleanup. The doctor insisted on changing the bandages daily, to the cook's protest; the wounds were healing well, with little scarring, but Chopper was obstinate.
Chopper knew some of it; Sanji trusted doctor-patient confidentiality that far, though Zoro wasn't sure how much the cook had actually explained, and how much Chopper had put together on his own. For that matter he wasn't sure how much Sanji even remembered. Zoro vaguely doubted that he remembered it properly himself; it was hard, watching Sanji now as he swooned over the women or expertly wielded his knives and pots, to think of him only a couple days before, the chill draft on that balcony, how close he had been...
But the breeze now was tropical, and his cheeks had soon lost those pinched hollows. And if Sanji took a bottle with him up to the crow's nest the first night he had look-out, well, that sort of company Zoro often brought himself. You never knew how cold a night might get on the Grand Line. True, Sanji's tastes usually ran to a flask of wine or his special stash of brandy, not the cheap rum, and usually he didn't down so much so fast that he ended up puking most of dinner overboard. But it was late enough by then that almost everyone was asleep anyway. Robin helped him to the couch in the men's cabin, and Zoro took his watch, and if breakfast was late the next morning, no one dared complain to the red-eyed and short-tempered cook in the galley. And after that their rations weren't diminished by more than the accustomed glass of wine with dinner.
There were a few times when Zoro realized that Sanji was watching him—he wasn't the only one; he caught the cook so examining all of them, usually in moments too busy for it to be obvious. A weird, intent look, like he was half-doubting his own vision, never for more than a second or two, and then he would shake his head and get back to whatever he was doing. Zoro didn't think the others had noticed, or if they did they didn't question it. The respect between everyone was such that they didn't need all the answers to trust one another. Even when, gathering for dinner, they found Sanji staring at the flickering blue flames of the gas burner, his expression blank, so far away that he didn't blink even when Nami called his name.
But Luffy just elbowed him aside—to make a grab for the pork in the stir-fry, and Sanji whacked him soundly with his spoon and told him to wait for it to finish cooking, and dinner was as noisy as ever. The next morning found Luffy in the mess—which wasn't out of the ordinary; after the figurehead the kitchen was probably his favorite place on the ship, but Sanji was there with him, and it was remarkably calm despite the intrusion on the cook's territory. Maybe Sanji had stewed up enough taffy to wire his captain's jaw shut, or maybe he had just kicked Luffy into a wall hard enough to keep him quiet. At any rate, come evening, most of that distance was gone from Sanji's eyes, and the few times Zoro glanced at him, the cook was too busy dancing giddy attendance on Nami and Robin to notice.
Later, while Chopper saw to Sanji's bandages and Luffy and Usopp made a sopping mess of doing dishes, Zoro sought Nami out at her desk, without preamble asked, "Hey, that bird that brings your newspaper. It takes messages, right?"
Nami nodded. "For a fee."
"To East Blue?"
"Good, can you have it pick up this tomorrow?"
"Oooh, what's that?" Nami eyed the envelope in his hand, a wicked smile curling her lips. "Are you holding out on us, Zoro? Is there a girlfriend pining for you back home?"
Nami mocked a pouting look. "Aw, there goes the rumor mill. So how are you going to pay for this? Express service to East Blue costs."
"I'll owe you."
"Triple for interest, as usual."
Zoro shrugged, nodded.
Her eyes widened a bit. "So if it's not a love letter," she asked, swiping the envelope with a thief's fast fingers, "then what is so—" Then she stopped, studying his blotchy ink scrawl on the sealed parchment. When she looked back to him, it was a long, searching regard, the playful mischief in her face long gone. "To the Baratie? Zoro—"
"Just get it sent," Zoro said.
Nami didn't answer, unconsciously folding one corner of the envelope between her thumb and index finger. Finally she said, "I'll waive the cost, for a favor."
"For what?" Zoro asked suspiciously.
"Tell me what happened on that island."
She would keep her word. But his debt was big enough anyway that forgetting this fee wouldn't hardly matter. "You know, you could just ask the cook. Hell with pride, he wouldn't be able to say no."
"I know," Nami said. "That's why I haven't."
"It doesn't matter now," Zoro said. "We left. It's over and he surv—he's fine." He flicked one finger against the envelope in her hand. "I'll owe you. If an answer comes, give it to him, okay?" He walked away before she could charge for that, too.
Nami didn't ask again, and everything continued as usual. Life onboard a ship necessitates routine, compensation for the unpredictability of the sea itself, and Zoro was content to return to theirs, with one exception. He was finding it necessary to avoid Sanji. Which was routine in itself, but usually it was because napping was difficult when the cook was noisily fawning on the girls or pounding the guys, and if Zoro pointed this out, Sanji would invariably take umbrage, and sleeping through the cook's kicks was even more difficult.
But Sanji was not attacking now, at least not with his feet, and his ready insults were peculiarly absent. Instead he was more subtle, demanding that Zoro come peel potatoes, for instance, or ambling up to the stern while he was exercising—but not interfering, just leaning against the rail and smoking in silence, like he was waiting. Patiently, even.
Finally Zoro was forced to conclude that the cook wanted to talk with him, alone. Like he wasn't all the way out of that damn temple, where there had been no one else, not Nami or Usopp or anyone who actually would understand, and obviously this was the last thing Sanji would want to do, were he thinking clearly. So Zoro politely chose to ignore his temporary insanity by sticking around the others, and not listening when Sanji asked for help in the kitchen, and when all else failed, going to sleep. And only wondering a little when the cook didn't kick him awake again.
It was nearly a week after leaving Satva when Zoro awoke for no reason whatsoever, inexplicably before dawn, the sky outside the portholes the same dim, quiet gray as the sea. He rolled over on the rug, saw his crewmates still sound and contentedly asleep—except for Sanji, of whom there was no sign but an empty hammock, swinging with the rocking of the waves.
But Robin had had second watch. Grumbling, Zoro picked himself up, stretched and went to the mess, pawing the sleep from his eyes. Sanji was going through the refrigerator, list in one hand and smoke spiraling up from the cigarette in his mouth.
"Awfully damn early for a supply check," Zoro remarked.
That got no comment. "You don't have to worry about Luffy sneaking a pre-breakfast snack," Zoro told him. "He's still snoring."
Sanji's back stiffened under his jacket; then he glanced back over his shoulder. "They're all asleep?"
"Him and Usopp and Chopper, yeah."
"They're all okay?"
"Huh?" Zoro couldn't see the cook's expression, hidden under his hair, but his voice was strained. "We're alone on the middle of calm seas, why wouldn't they be?" He didn't need to see Sanji's eye to feel the focus on him, that strange, intent study.
"Robin-chan's on watch," the cook murmured, to himself it sounded like, "and Nami-san's in bed..."
"You been peeping on the girl's bedroom again? Bet they'd love to hear that."
"I wasn't peeping," Sanji said, though with scarcely a flicker of his usual heat.
"What do you call it, then? Spying?"
"It's not like that, you stupid swordsman," and that irritated snap was a little more like it should be.
"Oh, you mean it's more like...uh, what's that word—voyeurism?"
Sanji straightened, turned on his heel to face Zoro directly, lip curled back and his teeth clamped around the cigarette. "If you want to know," he grated, "just ask."
"I don't want to know anything," Zoro said, and he should have just gone back to bed, or out to exercise since he was already up, but instead he stayed in the kitchen doorway long enough to add, "You know, if you just paid Nami, she wouldn't mind—"
Sanji's snarl was inarticulate, but the kick he launched at Zoro's head was perfectly comprehensible. He blocked with his forearm, and Sanji spun, sweeping his other leg around in a low blow that Zoro only just dodged, and this made sense, like the past week hadn't, was finally something he had no reason to avoid. With the ship asleep there was no one to get in the way or interrupt them, and no other distractions, too early for the cook to start breakfast, only open sea and calm skies on the horizon. Sanji's shin cracked against the sheath he brought up to guard, and then his shoe thumped against Zoro's ribs, and those were the only sounds that mattered; Sanji wasn't even snarling curses, all focus on the fight.
Until Zoro ducked and swung up his arm to catch the blond across the neck, knocking him down on his back, but instead of immediately somersaulting to his feet again he gasped at the impact, and Zoro froze. Last night Chopper had stripped off the bandages; only the deepest scores would scar, but they still must be tender. "Sorry," he muttered; it had only been a week, after all, and the dark patches under Sanji's eyes were visible in the new morning light, not fading because he hadn't been sleeping, for whatever damn reasons. "I didn't—" He automatically held out his hand, and Sanji reached up to take it.
Then he also froze, and Zoro saw confusion flash across his face, at the same moment he realized himself what he was doing. He started to pull back.
The only warning he had was Sanji's lips twisting in a sudden sharp smirk; then the cook grabbed his hand in a fiercely tight grip, and threw himself backwards as he kicked up. Zoro choked as the shoe slammed into his stomach, and he went flying, hitting the table with a crack hard enough that stars completely blotted out his vision.
By the time he blinked them back and sat up amid the shards of wood, Sanji had settled himself cross-legged on the floor, was lighting up another cigarette. "Usopp's gonna raise hell about fixing that," he remarked, flicking ash at the broken table. "You should be more careful."
"It was your damn fault!" Zoro rubbed the back of his head and instantly regretted it. At least there wasn't any blood.
Sanji eyed him speculatively. "No concussion, right? Don't need to piss off Chopper, too."
"Yeah, yeah." The ache was no more serious than his other bruises. "I'm fine." A little out of breath, but Sanji was more so, taking short puffs on the cigarette.
"Who's not strong enough?" he said between them. "Knocked you flat on your seaweed-green ass."
Zoro grunted a noncommittal acknowledgement, then asked, "You remember that?"
"Remember? Why the hell do you think—never mind. Yeah. I remember everything, from first death until I was on that rock, looking at the waterfall. All of it."
"Even..." Zoro found the words strangely slow to come. "The stuff that didn't happen?"
Sanji exhaled a long breath of smoke, contemplated the burning tip of the cigarette in his fingers. "You know," he said quietly, "when you're dreaming, something can seem totally, absolutely real? And then, after you wake up, you remember the dream, you remember believing what you saw, but you can't understand how you possibly could have, because it's so absurd?"
"Uh..." Zoro frowned. "I guess. Yeah."
"It's not like that at all." Sanji shifted, crooking his legs to cross his arms loosely over his knees. "When I'm asleep—hell, when I'm awake. I'll think of it, and it's real. Even when I know it isn't. I don't know, maybe hallucinations are always like that. The only way I'm really sure..." His gaze went to Zoro, then switched away. Gritting his teeth, he crushed the cigarette out on the floor in a violent motion, drew his legs under him and stood. "Forget it."
Zoro pushed to his feet as well. "Wait, you don't—"
"You don't want to hear it, you don't care, forget it." Sanji threw the cigarette into the sink, took out a new one and lit it, tossing the match after the discarded butt. Then he caught the cigarette between his teeth as he crouched to retrieve his supply list where it had fallen. "Go back to bed, Zoro. Breakfast won't be for an hour. Plenty of time to sleep."
"You know, I used to wonder once if you actually knew my name," Sanji muttered, irrelevantly. He smoothed the crumpled paper between his fingers, opened the icebox.
Zoro shut it again, flattened his palm against the metal door to hold it closed. Sanji tugged once at the handle, then turned his head to glare at him. "It's too early for this shit, you damn swordsman."
"Yeah," Zoro agreed. "You must've finished the inventory a while ago, there's not that much in there. And you always know how much we have anyway."
"Never hurts to check. Especially with Luffy onboard."
Zoro didn't move out of the way. Sanji let his hand fall away from the handle, took a step back. He was breathing hard still, and not from the exertion of their fight, Zoro didn't think. "What do you want to hear? All of it? How weak I am, really? You want everything, you want me to tell you how real it still is—I'll be looking right at them...Nami-san, or Chopper...any of them, and part of me is asking, is this the dream? Then at night, when I dream, it happens all over again. Just a dream, but when I first wake up, if you're—if they're not there...
"It's getting better, I'll get over it, but at first—you want me to tell you how at first, I wasn't even strong enough to believe in reality. This is how weak I am, the only thing I actually was certain was real was—"
"You aren't weak," Zoro said, more angrily than he intended, and he wasn't sure why. "I never said that."
"You thought I wasn't strong enough."
"That doesn't mean you're weak."
"Then what the hell does—"
"That there's something stronger than you doesn't mean you're weak, idiot," Zoro growled. "I might not have been strong enough, either. If it had been me."
Whatever Sanji was about to reply stuck in his throat, so that he only stared at Zoro in silence. Zoro stared steadily back. Who knew honesty could be such a sharp blade? "Besides," he said, "you were strong enough. All the way to the end, there. You were right after all, you didn't need me."
Sanji took a long drag on his cigarette, turned away to blow out the smoke. Still looking away, he said, "Go on. Ask."
"How the hell should I know? But I keep seeing it in your eyes. Some question. It's what I've been trying to ask you about."
I don't know what the hell you're talking about, Zoro began to say, but didn't, because he realized he knew after all; he had been wondering it all along. Still, it was difficult to word it, and he wouldn't have bothered, but for the challenge in Sanji's face. "At the end, there. The last one, at the waterfall. You said—you still believed her lie, then, about what had happened to everyone. I told you it wasn't true, but you didn't believe me."
"Then why did you dive in? I was shouting at you, but if you didn't believe me, then why didn't you just..." He couldn't have gotten up to the stone ridge in time; he remembered the grimness of the high priest's expression, and for an instant he felt a freezing draft that had nothing to do with the kitchen's warmth. Jaw clenched against that chill, he asked, "So why? What'd you remember? All Blue?"
"I'd have thought that myself, maybe." Sanji took the cigarette from his mouth, studied the orange embers at the tip as if there were some unknown truth inscribed in that fire. "It should have been, maybe. Except...it's not like that. Not anymore. All Blue's still out there, I know it is. And I'm going to find it. Before, once, there was nothing that could've taken that from me. But..." He glanced to Zoro. "Your dream. Strongest swordsman, never losing again, all that. Could they have taken that from you? I know how you fight. Cut off your legs and you'd crawl; cut off your damn hands and you'd still be able to swing the sword in your teeth, right?"
"But could it be taken from you?" If there had been any of the customary sarcasm in his tone Zoro wouldn't have listened, but there wasn't, and he did. "Not by Mihawk or anyone else winning, not by you losing your swords, or your skill. But if you lost—if it wasn't any fight you lost, if it wasn't your strength but what makes you strong...any swordfight you still could win, but that was gone..."
"I wouldn't lose," Zoro said, flatly. "I won't. Not until I've done what I have to. And not that. I didn't this time; I won't any other." He watched Sanji, watched his face, but when the blond met his gaze, he couldn't read what he saw there.
"You'd have been strong enough," Sanji said. "If it had been you."
"Maybe," Zoro replied. "I don't know." He continued, thoughtfully, "You know, the high priest told me from the start that it wasn't something that's survived alone. But that wouldn't have been a problem, would it. You'd have done the same for me."
Truth again, and he saw with satisfaction that Sanji had yet to come up with a proper parry for that attack. The cigarette almost slipped from the cook's fingers; then he caught it, knocked off the ash and returned it to his mouth. "Well, I sure as hell would refuse to peel grapes for you, anyway."
He glanced at the porthole, where the sky was lightening, glanced at the supply list in his hand and then stuffed it in his pocket with a shrug. "If I don't get breakfast started soon, someone'll have to explain to Luffy why there's nothing to eat when he does get up. So, are you going to get out of the way, or do I have to kick your ass again?"
Zoro stepped away from the icebox, yawned and scratched his scalp. "Yeah, yeah, whatever. Too damn early for fighting." The back of his head was still sore to the touch, though he wasn't about to admit that. Damn cook. "Wake me up when it's done."
In the doorway he stopped, turned back. Sanji was balancing onions and eggs on top of sausage and half a wheel of cheese, cigarette clamped in his teeth as he shut the icebox door with one foot. "Sanji."
The cook looked back around.
"So why did you dive?"
Not the usual irritated insult in Sanji's eyes; not the nightmares, either. Zoro thought he wasn't going to answer, and then he spoke around the cigarette, "Because," and Zoro recognized his tone then. "If it had been real," Sanji said quietly, "if they really all were gone...how could I betray the only nakama I had left?"
As a new attack, Zoro was as unaccustomed to taking it as giving it. Who could guess something so simple could hit so hard? And sooner or later they would both find defenses against this sort of blow. But for now Zoro only nodded, and let Sanji, just this once, have the win.
I've said it before, but my great thanks to everyone who's left feedback, from one line to a comment for every chapter. I honestly wasn't sure, when I began posting, if anyone else would like to read something with only two of the crew, not even on the ship, especially when they weren't going to get it on. It was great to find out otherwise, and I'm tickled pink that yaoi fans have enjoyed it as much as the non-yaoiers. Hope it didn't frustrate you too much!
This story, like so many of my other fic, is dedicated to my imouto - both of you. Couldn't have done it without you. All my love.
Until next time!
Love to know what you think!
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