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Since "Tiger Hunt" can be somewhat intense to write, I've been unwinding with this...er...thing. While not a sequel by any means, it is set some time after "Seven Deaths" and will have minor references to that story. Zoro & Sanji only, but no yaoi except what you bring yourself.
Warnings: Please do not read if you are bored by or have any objection to: pointless snarky repartee, inane h/c, possible OOC squishiness, or character torture solely for the sake of torturing characters. I'd feel guilty, but it's entirely Naye and Gnine's fault anyway. :P
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This was not a perfect world. In a perfect world, nothing would wake him from a dream of Nami, Robin, and Vivi in white t-shirts and pouring rain, just when it was starting to get interesting. Especially not when what woke him was the stupid swordsman's cursing. Most especially when even half-awake he felt a dull throbbing in his temples which would explode into a full-blown hangover the moment he opened his eyes. Screw Zoro; back to the dream.
"You're not getting away with this! I saw you blink, you damn cook! Stop snoring! This is all your fault!!"
"Shaddup!" Sanji snarled, and kicked out to where he guessed the swordsman was. Except the blow was cut short as something held his leg back, with a metallic clank that sounded suspiciously like...
Definitely not a perfect world. In a perfect world he would not open his eyes to find himself in a dark cell, chained hand and foot to a stone wall. And not with Zoro chained to the adjacent wall, the single beam of sunlight shining through the high, barred window illuminating his ferociously furious glare.
Confronted with this spectacle, Sanji asked the obvious question. "Whaddya mean, my fault?!" Zoro just glared. Sanji jerked his arms forward, found there was no give. The chains rattled brightly, like bells. "This is—is all your fault!"
"What?!" Zoro howled.
"Ow, dammit, don't yell," Sanji snapped, wincing at the skull-piercing outrage. His head felt just about ready to fall to pieces.
"How," Zoro said, in the low hiss of a deadly serpent, "is this at all my fault?"
"You were there. You tell me." Sanji waved pointedly, or attempted to; it would have been more convincing if he could move his hand more than a few centimeters. It also would have been more convincing if he had been able to recall more than a few vague flashes of the night before. Zoro had been in the tavern, he was fairly sure he remembered that. Yelling at him about...something. Maybe.
Either way he wasn't going to accept the blame. At least for Zoro. The swordsman could take care of himself, so it was his own damn fault if he got his ass chained to a wall. As for Sanji's own ass...
He tugged at the chains again. They were heavy, beaten iron links, and they didn't give at all. Twisting his head, he saw that the thick metal cuffs were secured by a simple hook mechanism, but he couldn't force his wrist back at a sharp enough angle for his fingers to reach it. With one leg braced against the stone, he kicked his other foot out hard, but the chain only snapped tight, the cuff biting into his ankle.
"It's reinforced steel, bolted into the stone," Zoro said. "You aren't going to break it, not restrained like that. I already tried."
In sheer brute strength the swordsman could beat him. Just barely. And emphasis on 'brute'. But if Zoro couldn't break free he probably couldn't either. "So where are we, anyway?" Sanji asked, looking around the room. Rough stone walls and the tiny barred window set in the heavy oak door lent the place a charming torture chamber atmosphere, accentuated by the various pointed implements hanging on the wall opposite them.
"You tell me," Zoro growled. "You were the one talking to her."
Oh yes, her. With the long hair and longer legs, and who gives a damn about the complaints of stupid swordsmen when a woman like that is buying the drinks? However many drinks that had been. He remembered the first...six, pretty clearly...
Damn nice legs, though. He glanced around the cell again. "She didn't say."
"What, she didn't mention she was planning to chain you up in a dungeon?" Zoro asked caustically. "No, of course she didn't, if she had she wouldn't have had to drug us, you'd have volunteered."
"She wasn't that kind of lady!" Sanji objected. "She probably was just out for a good time, and then they caught us later. Whoever they are. Don't blame a lady for not being able to hold your ale."
"Wasn't the ale, it was whatever the hell she slipped into it. My head's killing me."
"That's a hangover, dumbass."
"I don't get hangovers. And by the time I found the bar you weren't walking straight, but you hadn't had that much, I asked the bartender. She drugged us."
"Someone did. You don't have to blame her."
"Someone? Unless you know who the hell that was, she's the only—"
"Don't look at me, you're the one with the bounty." Sanji's hand twitched, was yanked back with a clink of the chains. He wanted a cigarette to settle his stomach and help that headache recede. No way to reach them, though, even if his case had been left in his pocket. "They're probably after you or Luffy, I was just an innocent bystander."
"This doesn't look like a marine base. And since when are you an innocent anything, you stupid love cook? She was going after you before I even arrived. Or you were going after her."
"Just because you can't get any women to look twice at that green hair—"
"Why the hell would I want a bitch who drugs me and chains me to a wall?!"
"How dare you! Damn seaweed-head! I'll—"
"You'll what? You're chained to a wall! What kind of idiot drinks whatever a woman gives him?"
"Wait a minute, how did you get drugged at all? If you realized I was—"
"I didn't," Zoro said, shortly. "Until after I'd accepted a pint. Or two."
He wanted a cigarette very badly. "What kind of idiot drinks whatever he's given when there isn't a beautiful lady!?"
"You gave me the drinks, you spiral bastard! I told you, this is all your fault!"
Sanji eyed Zoro thoughtfully as the swordsman strained against the chains. If he got a bit more pissed off he might just rip the bolts out of the wall. Of course if Sanji couldn't free himself as well he would be a sitting duck, but... "So we got caught because you're a dumbass alcoholic."
"And you're a pathetic love cook."
"Who can't even cut a few iron chains." Sanji blinked, realizing another cause of Zoro's bad temper. "Where are your swords, anyway?"
"In a safe place," a stranger's voice said.
Sanji belatedly noticed the wooden door had opened to admit three men in tacky suits. The woman was not among them.
Looking over the balding head of the fat man who had spoken, he told Zoro, "See, she's not part of this."
"Maybe she's the boss," Zoro shot back.
"If you mean your acquaintance of last night," the fat man remarked, "she's got nothing to do with this, except the few beri she got out of it."
"Of course, a whore like that," the man continued, "she's probably spent it all on booze already. But there'll always be more pirates around to buy her."
Sanji closed his eyes, admired the vivid red burning before his vision, opened them again. "Hey, Zoro," he said calmly, "this guy here who looks like dough that's risen too long? He's mine. Every bone in him that can be broken."
He saw the blow coming easily, but there was no way to duck it; the back of the fat man's hand caught him hard across the cheek, knocking his head against the stone.
"Are you sure any of them would break?" Zoro asked, over the ringing in his skull. "He looks like even his bones are soft."
"I'll find some that will." Sanji grinned tightly, tasting blood.
"I'm shaking in my boots, gentlemen," the fat man said, with a remarkably thin smile for his large lips. "But enough play. I have a job to do. You boys can make it easy, if you'd like."
"Now why'd we want to do that?"
The man's hand felt like uncooked dough, too, moist and soft as he wiped the trickle of blood off Sanji's chin. "I meant easy for you. I'm a professional; I'm getting paid by the hour. But if you'd like to get this over with, all you have to do is cooperate."
"What do you want?" Zoro growled.
"Just an answer. An honest answer. Where is your captain?"
"Our captain?" Sanji met Zoro's eyes over the man's head. Really, it was an idiotic question. Not like they hadn't just cruised into port the way they always did, with their mark emblazoned on the main sail for the entire island to see. If this was all he wanted...he could see Zoro's jaw was set stubbornly, because this was the kind of thing Zoro could be an idiot about, but Luffy would be cross with them if they denied him the chance of a good fight.
"Yes," the man said. "Where is Captain Beinkusu?"
"Umm," Sanji said, "I think you have us confused with—"
The back of the man's hand wasn't nearly as squishy, he had chance to observe, as it cracked against his face again. The rings on the padded fingers didn't help any.
"It's a simple question," the man said, calmly. "We know who you are, so don't try to deny anything. Just answer."
"See, that's the problem," Sanji said, "I don't think you do know—"
The hand raised again; Sanji refused to flinch, but instead the fat man gestured curtly, and one of the other men rammed his fist into Zoro's gut.
Zoro choked, glared daggers and wheezed, "What'd you do that for!?"
"Either of you could answer me," the fat man said. "So either of you will be punished for not answering.
"Thanks a lot, cook!"
"Me? You can answer as well as I can! Unless you know something you're not telling."
"I don't know a damn thing. Listen, dough-boy, I don't have a clue—"
That earned another fist to his abdomen, but Zoro was braced for it this time and just kept talking, "--who this Captain Beinkusu is, but we're not—"
The third man kicked him, but Zoro was ready for that too. "--any of his men, so we can't tell you where he is, because we don't—"
And then it was Sanji's turn, and while his stomach had taken much harder blows the stone wall behind him bruised his tailbone. "--Dammit!" Zoro snapped, "just let me finish talking, will you?! We don't know where he is!"
"I'm sorry to hear that." The fat man didn't look terribly sorry. He looked pleased, which was not an agreeable look on those flaccid features.
"Son of a bitch, I am gonna kill you," Zoro growled.
"Really, sir," the man began.
"Not you," Zoro snapped. "You are dead, you damn curly-eyebrowed heart-eyed tuxedoed excuse for a ship's cook—this is ALL YOUR FAULT!"
The worst part of being chained to a wall wasn't the way hanging cut off circulation, so your hands and feet tingled with pins and needles whenever you moved them—but you had to move them, or risk paralysis. Nor was it the dank stuffiness of the dungeon's rock walls, or the constant rattle of the chains reminding you where you were. No, the worst part was being chained to a wall only scant meters from your smug blond bastard of a crewmate, and being unable to do a damn thing about the expression on his face.
Though the getting beaten like a bad dog while unable to fight back sucked, too.
So he had walked into the tavern of his own free will. So he had willing accepted the stein Sanji had shoved at him, the cook grinning blearily—"They got the good stuff here," and he ought to have known better than to accept the drink. He wouldn't have been in that tavern at all, usually; there had been bars closer to the docks, with cheaper booze. But the damn cook liked the upscale places, for the quality of the food and drink and company—female, of course. And people looking for pirate captains Zoro had never heard of.
Only one of his crewmates, Zoro thought irritably, could have got them captured by morons so thick that they didn't even realize they had the wrong men.
Sanji had taken exception to being told such, however, and their shouting match—a poor substitute for fists and kicks, but it would have to do, in light of the circumstances—went on for several minutes before being interrupted by the fat man clapping his fleshy palms together.
"Gentlemen, as entertaining as these histrionics are—"
"Histrionics? Who's histrionicking?"
"You might be," Sanji had said, "I'm just being reasonable."
"--they'll do you no good. So, let's get down to business, shall we?" His glance between the two of them had put Zoro in mind of Luffy trying to decide between two equally large dishes of meat.
"So dead, cook."
"Hey, how do I know you didn't let yourself get caught? As some fucked-up training. You're the one who goes swimming in blizzards, after all."
"How do I know you didn't get me caught on purpose?"
"Why the hell would I do that?"
"So you'd have company? Or entertainment? How should I know, I'm not a pervert!"
"You're not a beautiful woman, either, so how could you possibly be entert—"
"So, who'll be first?"
Zoro looked at Sanji. Sanji looked at Zoro. Two crewmates, trapped together, no one to rely on but each other. As one they raised their bound hands as well as they were able, pointed a finger and cried, "HIM!"
Whereupon the overweight son of a bitch had looked them over again, a long, measuring glance, and then flipped a coin.
It was a psychological ploy, Zoro imagined. He had met sadists before; as a pirate hunter many of both his prey and his colleagues had had such tendencies. The vagaries of random chance, pitting them against each other in an unavoidable gamble...he'd met bastards before who enjoyed such mind games.
Though this wasn't a terribly effective one. It soon became apparent that they honestly had no idea who he was. At least he hoped they didn't; it would be embarrassing if, knowing who he was, they still expected such a half-assed beating to break him. They were trying not to do any permanent damage, obviously, but not even cracking a rib as they punched and kicked—pathetic. This wouldn't even count as endurance training. He'd gotten worse from Sanji just for looking at Robin too suspiciously, to say nothing of Luffy rocketing him. And then there was that one time he had pinched a tangerine, not realizing Nami was tending the grove...
He winced at the memory, and the bruiser currently going at him grinned. "Oh, knock it off," Zoro growled at him. "I didn't even notice that last one. Hey, cook, is it possible to be so stupid you don't know how to punch someone?"
"I dunno," Sanji said. "Even Luffy's got that down. But then if these guys actually had a monkey's intelligence they might understand that this isn't getting them anywhere, because we don't know a damn thing!"
Which was true enough, but there was something in the cook's voice that rang off. Zoro couldn't get a good look at him with the bruiser using him as a punching bag in the way. "Hey," he suggested, "why don't you take a break, let your buddy have another go? You're getting tired, and he kicks harder than you punch anyway."
"I'll show you my punch," the man snarled, and threw a right cross square at his chin.
The back of Zoro's head thumped against the stone. He grinned at the man. "That's the best form you've had yet."
"Stop it!" rapped the fat man. "Break his head and I'll break you."
"Oh, don't worry about it," Sanji said, "his head's much harder than the wall."
"Not that this guy's strong enough to crack an eggshell. You should try practicing on real fighters, instead of beating up schoolgirls—"
Ignoring his boss's sharp protest, the bruiser grabbed Zoro's shirt and drew back his fist. He didn't get a chance to throw that one, though; with his face shoved so close Zoro took the opportunity to bash his own skull against the man's forehead.
The other thug jumped back, swearing as his comrade was knocked to the floor, stunned. The fat man merely raised an eyebrow. "Not to say that he didn't deserve it, but really, now. Awfully energetic, aren't we?" He smiled. "Much more than I was given to expect. I must admit I like it."
Zoro blinked back the blood running down into his eyes. It stung a little, but he was used to it. He didn't see the thug's heavy boot slamming toward him until it was too late to brace for it, however, and lost a couple seconds when the kick smashed his head back against the stone.
As the stars cleared he heard the fat man's cross remonstration, and Sanji speaking over him, all sardonic leisure. "--feel sorry for you, fun as this is for me. You know who he really is? That's Roronoa Zoro."
The thug blinked slowly, processing that with his poor overworked brain. "You mean that pirate hunter guy?"
"None other. He's got a bounty bigger than all the beri you've ever seen, and you're pissing him off."
"Oh, great, cook, now you want them to hand me over to the marines? Why'd you have to tell them—"
"Don't be ridiculous," the fat man snapped. "He's Captain Beinkusu's first lieutenant, not a bountied pirate."
"He's Zoro," Sanji said. "Go find the wanted poster."
"No need, I've seen it. Playing on that superficial resemblance is clever, but no more than I'd expect from the likes of you."
"Superficial resemblance?" Zoro frowned. "I thought that was my good side, actually."
"Boss," the thug said, hesitantly, "he does kinda look a lot like that guy. Especially with the blood on his face and all. And we did take three swords off him—"
"It's a hoax. He likely carries them for show, to make it more convincing."
"Give them back and I'll show you how convincing they are."
"Boss, isn't Roronoa Zoro supposed to be sailing with that really strong pirate? The haystack pirate or something? Because my cousin's husband's uncle knew a guy in Mocktown who saw that guy fight, and he's stone-cold crazy. That's what he said. So if these guys are that guy's—"
"They aren't," the fat man said. "They're undercover marines pretending to be pirates. They're no more bountied brigands than you are."
"Bastard cook, you've been a marine all this time?"
"So what's your rank, Zoro, third-class private?"
"Don't tell me, that chef Zeff's secretly an admiral."
"That marine sergeant girl you always run from, she your commander?"
"You're the only one who'd follow her orders, love cook. Or is your commander Captain Beinkusu?"
"Never heard of him. You?"
"Nope. Think they'll believe it?"
"Doubt it. I've fried clams with more brains."
"Help your coworker there," the fat man told his thug, nodding to the other man, sitting up and groggily shaking his head. "We're going to give them a little time to think things over before we continue. Gentlemen, we'll be back in a bit." He smiled as he unlocked the door, his goons at his heels. "And I promise you won't find it nearly so dull."
The door slammed shut behind them with the appropriately ominous thud.
"Zoro?" Sanji asked after a moment, quietly.
"So dead," Zoro growled through gritted teeth.
"You've heard of an electric eel, of course."
"No," Zoro said flatly.
Sanji gazed in some fascination at the large tank they had wheeled into the room. It was filled to the brim with saltwater and squirming black shapes, slimy hides pressing against the glass and leaving slick trails the water was slow to wash away. "They're not supposed to be very good eating," he offered.
"Don't worry," the fat man smiled. "These boys aren't for dinner." He tapped his pudgy fingers against the glass, stirring the long forms into a slow roil. "They aren't quite the same anyway. These are blitzeneel. They're a species found only in a few places on the Grand Line. Cousins to the original electric eel, but over time they've had to develop stronger defenses to survive this dangerous sea.
"Electricity is a marvelous thing. We're only recently learning just how much we can do with it. I'm hardly a scientist, but I've made some discoveries myself. A lightning bolt can kill a man, but you'd be amazed how much can be...experienced, without any lasting damage."
He sounded so pleased with himself that Sanji thought it would be cruel to laugh at him. "I'm sure," he said politely, while imagining all the things Ener could have done to the man.
"Still not interested in answering the question?"
"Oh, we're very interested," Sanji said. "We still don't know the answer, though."
"You're wasting your breath, cook. We've already established they're morons."
"If at first you don't succeed—"
"Can you hurry it up with this electric thing? I'm getting tired of hearing him talk."
"Very well, then." The fat man nodded to one of his associates, who currently bore a large bruise on his forehead from Zoro's headbanging. It made the two thugs easier to tell apart, though Sanji doubted the man appreciated it. He was certainly eager to get to work, ripping open Sanji's jacket and shirt with great enthusiasm.
"Hey, watch it!" Sanji protested in dismay, as the buttons went flying. Another shirt ruined...and silk was expensive on the Grand Line, too. At least the jacket hadn't torn.
"What, now you're a pervert, too?" Zoro inquired, in that particular lethargically annoyed tone of which he was a master.
"I'm a professional," the fat man smoothly replied. He crouched before the cart, reached around the large metal drum set beneath the tank and then stood, holding up two metal-pronged wands attached to the drum by long black cords. "These are more effective on bare skin."
"Looks like a pervert's things to me," declared Zoro, studying the instruments narrow-eyed.
The fat man lifted the lid off the tank, reached into his pocket and took out a couple small, dark pellets. "The blitzeneel are very sensitive to any traces in the water that might be signs of danger. Such as a shark's blood." He tossed the pellets into the tank and slammed the lid down again, securing it with a couple metal clamps.
The effect was almost instantaneous. As the pellets dissolved in a dark red mist, the tank exploded into a frenzy, the snake-like bodies twisting and squirming in the frothing water. Light sparked, flashes so quick they might be imagined, and the metal drum at the tank's base began to emit a low, teeth-aching hum.
The fat man stooped to adjust a dial on the drum, then tapped the metal prongs together. They crackled and he smiled. "Now," he said to Sanji. "Let's start with something simple. What's the name of your comrade here?"
"I already told you. Roronoa Zoro."
"Please answer again." The fat man touched the prongs to his bare chest.
Sanji blinked. "Roronoa Zoro. Pirate Hunter Zoro, Santouryuu Zoro—"
Current hissed as the metal brushed his skin again. "His real name."
"Uh..." Sanji gave it some sincere thought. "'The lazy asshole in the ugly haramaki'?"
At the fat man's nod, one of the thugs twisted the dial on the tank a couple degrees. That concerned him less than Zoro's glare. The jolt at the prongs' touch wasn't appreciably louder, not nearly enough to distract him from Zoro's almost subsonic growl. Payback when they got out of here was going to be interesting. Zoro usually was pretty thick-skinned about insults, but usually he didn't have to just sit and endure them either. Sanji couldn't count on his crewmate letting any of it pass; revenge was a classic swordsmaster hobby, after all. "Why don't you just ask him? Maybe I don't know his real name, did you ever think of that?"
"I've worked for marines, " the fat man said. "I know how you operate. They wouldn't keep you entirely uninformed."
"Please," Sanji said patiently, "do we look like marines? Do we sound like marines? Do we in any way appear to be marines?"
"Your loyalty to your captain is admirable, but how much is he worth? Where is he now, while you suffer for him?"
"This is suffering?"
The dial was turned again at another gesture from the fat man. It belatedly occurred to Sanji that he might have taken a page from Usopp's book and faked a little agony.
On the other hand, Zoro was right there, watching. So no.
He definitely felt this one, but didn't think the involuntary twitch was obvious. "Wait, now I remember. It's Private Cactus-head. I'm sure of it."
"Can't you turn it a little higher?" Zoro asked. "I want to see all his hair stand up."
The fat man leaned in close. He was wearing a scent, a spicy masculine aroma, which didn't hide the ham salad and light white wine on his breath. Lunchtime, then. Sanji had been wondering. "Give me his name," the man said, "and I'll stop this with you now. He," and he nodded to Zoro, "might be a more interesting prospect, don't you agree?"
"Oh, absolutely." Sanji glanced at Zoro. "And I'd've given it already, if I knew what the hell you wanted me to say."
"Ah, but that would be telling." The man took a step back, angled his head toward Zoro. "What would you like for dinner?"
"Some of that ham salad would be—" Sanji began, but was cut off by the fat man raising the wands to his skin. He let them linger for a moment and Sanji's teeth gritted, locking his jaw against the juddering current.
"We won't have enough for both of you," the fat man told him.
"Ham salad sounds good to me," Zoro said. "Don't worry, cook, I'll let you know if it's better than yours."
"He's the one who blew your cover, did you realize that?" the fat man asked Sanji.
"I did what?"
Sanji frowned. "What do you mean?"
"We only had some basic details about the two of you. That you're two of Captain Beinkusu's best officers, that you were still working under the guise of pirates, that one of you was quite the ladies' man, and somewhat stronger than he looked; and his older partner was a powerful fighter—"
"Older? I've got months on him! And what do you mean, somewhat stronger?"
"Not much to go on, there," Zoro noted.
"No," agreed the fat man. "But there aren't many pirates coming through here. Because of the Marine base, of course."
"So you just decided, since we showed up—"
"And of all the pirates that come here, there aren't any others who, upon disembarking their ship, head directly for that very base. I wonder what was so important that you had to report it immediately? The present whereabouts of your captain, perhaps? So a rescue operation can be raised, before any of the pirates he's helped arrest and convict find him first?" He shook a chiding finger at Zoro. "You should have suspected someone was watching."
"What are you talking about?" Sanji demanded. "Zoro, you didn't go to any Marine base, did you? ...Zoro?"
Zoro had gone quiet, and not his characteristic taciturnity, either. This was a more subdued quiet. A patient quiet. A guilty quiet, even.
"Zoro. Tell me you didn't."
"I was looking for the tavern," Zoro mumbled.
"I don't believe this—Zoro, you were standing right there when I got directions to that tavern!"
"Well, they were confusing!"
"How can 'go straight down the main street for five blocks, the tavern is on the corner on your left' be confusing!?"
"Oh, five blocks."
"Forget that—even if you couldn't find the right place, what were you doing going inside the base? Are you blind as well as stupid? A marine base doesn't look anything like a tavern!"
"Yeah, but marines always know where the taverns are!"
"So you did talk to them! You damn swordsman, this is all YOUR fault!--ow!! Will you cut that out?" Sanji switched his glare from the chained-up dumbass to the jerk wielding the electricity.
"Of course," said the fat man, his calm distorted by a touch of anxiety. "But you have to give me something to work with." He leaned in closer again, carefully withholding the sparking prongs, and lowered his voice. "To be honest, I'd rather not continue this. Not with you."
"Then ask him."
"I would," said the fat man. "But—again, in all honesty—even if technically he outranks you, it's obvious who's the more capable and intelligent here. I doubt we would have ever seen you report anything—I wouldn't be surprised if you already had done so before we caught you. If it'd just been you, you would have been here and gone without us any the wiser.
"So you understand why my employers would rather have the answers direct from you, disagreeable as the process may be. I've been keeping the power low, but I can only do so much. But if you give me some sign that you're willing to cooperate..." He glanced at Zoro, a sidelong look, dropped his voice further to an almost inaudible whisper. "I assure you, whatever you choose to say won't pass beyond these walls. Outside, who's to know who spoke and who held their tongue? And your...less than competent comrade here will hear nothing.
"Just tell me his name now, and we'll take you away for further questioning. And a late lunch...my employer has a surprisingly excellent wine cellar, I can see you're a man who would appreciate it."
As performances went, it wasn't a bad job. It might have worked, if Sanji had actually been a marine, had actually been hurting, and if the fat man had weighed fifty less kilos and been a different sex.
Though even if he had known what the man wanted, Zoro was still there, still watching.
Sanji worked his mouth to bring up enough moisture to spit, directly in the man's beady blue eyes. Then he raised his voice. "Zoro? I take it back."
"Not your fault. His fault. This pasty uncooked sack of ham salad and shit here."
Zoro laughed, a short, sharp cackle. "He's already yours, cook. You claimed him, right?"
"I might not have enough spices to hide the rotten taste, though."
The fat man wiped his eye, rubbed his thumb off on Sanji's jacket. "I suppose it's too much to expect marines to be reasonable."
"Not marines, you moron. Pirates."
The man hadn't been lying about one thing, at least; he had been going easy on him. Sanji more than felt it this time. Catching his breath, he released it in one of the more extravagant curses Zeff had addressed to their worst patrons.
The fat man smiled, and touched the instruments to him again, and again. As the power crackled, Sanji gritted his teeth, and methodically began to list the man's family tree, starting with his great grandfather the diseased rat and working down to his conception following his mother's overly enthusiastic congress with a giant slug.
"Come on, cook, is that the best you can do?" Zoro asked. "You forgot all the wild hogs on his father's side. And his uncle the fruit bat."
"Fruit bat? What's so—insulting—about a bat?" In spite of his best efforts his voice was unsteady, his body still twitching in the aftermath of the electricity. He remembered this feeling, half of him tingling painfully and the other half too numb to be felt at all. Not anywhere near what it had been like when Ener had unleashed his power, but involuntary muscle spasms weren't that much a step up from the lightning's paralysis.
Not that there would be much he could do anyway, seeing as he was still chained to a wall. "Next time," he snarled in his crewmate's general direction, "find your own damn bar. And don't ask any marines for directions!"
"Next time don't just chug every drink you're handed!" Zoro shot back.
"Same goes for you!"
"You're absolutely sure you'd rather stay here?" the fat man inquired.
"Give it up. Who'd believe that shit about special treatment, after this? Besides, if that cheap vinegar on your breath is what you think fine wine is, then I'm probably better off here anyway."
The fat man's expression didn't change, exactly, but something in his eyes deepened. Satisfaction, maybe, the look of a cat that's found an unguarded bird nest. Waving his thug out of the way, he crouched before the tank, twisted the dial most of the way around again. As he stood he slammed his thick fist against the glass, and the eels, which had been settling, whipped back into frenetic motion. The hum of the drum crescendoed.
Sanji licked his lips, steeling himself. It didn't help much. His was vaguely aware that his head cracked against the stone wall behind him when his back arched; he saw stars, or maybe the sparks were visible. Then, like a wave passing over, it ended, leaving him trembling helplessly, as if he had been submerged in ice.
His vision was fuzzy, slow to clear when he blinked, and sounds were muffled. Zoro's voice was a scathing static rasp. "--tell you what the hell you want to know if you fry his brains?"
Difficult to tell if he were working his numb tongue properly. "What are they going to fry? That was nothing. Can't even match a shit god—"
It lasted longer this time, he was pretty sure. Eternity give or take a couple seconds is a tough call. His throat was raw; he really, really hoped he hadn't screamed. Squinting at Zoro's face, he had a sinking feeling that hope was fruitless. Or maybe just a moot point.
He preferred Ener. Losing to a god—even a wannabe deity—was far less embarrassing. Eels, for pity's sake. A cook brought down by seafood. Zeff would never let him hear the end of it. "So help me, swordsman, if you tell anyone—"
"Tell them what?" It was hard to read Zoro's expression through the dried blood on his face and his own blurred sight, but his crewmate's snarl was reassuringly unsympathetic. "That you went and got us—"
"What? This is your fault!"
"Such childishness," clucked the fat man, and completed his patronizing reprimand by more direct methods.
It took a bit for Sanji to tell it was over; the only way he could be sure was that his lungs were working again, enough for him to breathe. He kept his eyes closed, slumped back against the wall, half-hanging from his chained wrists. No point in zapping an unconscious man, was there? Besides, he wasn't entirely sure his legs would support him anyway.
He heard Zoro saying something, couldn't make out what it was, but he sounded pissed. Usually one only heard that particular tight snarl when there was a katana clenched in his teeth.
Well, it wasn't his fault the swordsman was swordsless. Zoro had gotten them both into this mess. And maybe he was a bit to blame, but Zoro had followed him to the tavern and Zoro had drunk that ale and Zoro wasn't the one getting humiliated by a sorry excuse for a sushi platter. Damn eels. What the hell did Zoro have to complain about? Compared to some of the training he did, this was practically a resort.
"Nice try," and the fat man's voice was close enough that he could hear all the satisfied words those thick lips shaped. "But it's too late to play dead."
It didn't even register as pain, just brilliance. He didn't think he was screaming again, but he couldn't hear anything but white noise to match that white light.
As it finally died he thought he heard Zoro's deep-voiced growl, promising, "I am going to kill you," but he had the strange impression that Zoro wasn't talking to him at all. And then that notion faded, along with absolutely everything else.
The fire was so close the heat was pressure against his skin, pushing him back. He fought against it, his lungs burning with the ash and his eyes tearing up from the brightness of those blue flames—sparks? No, fire, this was the fire, burning them, all of them, before his eyes. He was screaming his crewmates' names, but he couldn't hear himself over the roar of the blaze, and their cries, and then there was only silence, and smoke, and the stench of blood—
Sanji jerked awake with a shudder. At first he was paralyzed by the last vestiges of the nightmare, but when he tried to move, heave himself up, he found he was standing already, or upright, at least, but immobilized. His chest ached as he gasped for breath—not the ship, not the Going Merry, he couldn't go back there, there was nothing to go back to, because they all were—
"About time you woke up. Didn't you get enough sleep last night, cook?"
He turned his head and saw Zoro, studying him with severe irritation. Zoro in chains, and the distinctive metal clinking at his own hands and feet reminded him of the past day.
His arms were so numb it was agony to move them, the little he could, pulling them back as he shoved himself upright on his bound legs. Still, this pain, as well as those last unclear memories before he had lost consciousness, all was proof. This was real, and the dream was nothing more than that. A dream.
The cell was dark, and getting darker, the sky outside the window blue with twilight. He had been out for some time, though the shadows weren't yet deep enough that he couldn't see Zoro's face, set with dire impatience. 'This is your fault,' his glare reminded yet again, as good as words.
—"Your fault," Luffy had cried, "I'll never forgive you"--but that was just a dream, even if none of them were here. He had been on the Going Merry with them only yesterday. And it wasn't his fault that the two of them were here now, at least not any more than it was the damn swordsman's, and he should tell Zoro so, but he couldn't find the breath to say it, could barely breathe at all.
It had been electricity, not fire, just the sharp sting of lightning, and far less than he had endured before. Not the burning of those blue flames, which hadn't been real, had never been real, he knew, almost for certain, for all he could smell the char—
"Sanji." Zoro's calm voice cut through that phantom smoke, louder than all those nonexistent screams. "Sanji. It didn't happen."
It took effort to raise the proper sarcasm—an effort to speak at all, he felt suddenly unstrung, like an invisible chain that was the heaviest of all had been cut, but he managed it. "What, we're not really in a dungeon, we never got caught, this is just a bad dream?" Sanji mustered the pretense of a smirk. "Flat-out nightmare if you're here, I guess."
"We're the only ones here," Zoro said, almost impatiently, but there was a difference to it, a sharply insistent edge. "The rest of them, they're all okay. Probably getting pissed with us for holding them up."
It was easier to breathe, and his pounding heart was slowing, no longer deafening in his ears. He leaned back against the wall, taking what support he could to keep himself standing. Zoro was watching but for the moment he didn't really care. What good was it to pretend, when he was apparently glass-transparent anyway? "How'd you know?"
Zoro moved his shoulders in an awkwardly restrained shrug. "You were mumbling some damn thing in your sleep. You haven't done that for a while."
"Yeah, well...not every day I get lightning as a sleep aid." His back hurt, standing; he twisted against the chains, stretching as well as he was able.
Zoro watched him, not saying anything. Sanji waited, but his crewmate didn't ask. Didn't need to; they might never talk about it, but he knew Zoro hadn't forgotten any more than he had himself. No matter how much he might wish to...maybe if he had, he wouldn't be able to recognize that look in Zoro's eyes now.
It was more to drive away that barely noticeable concern than to actually start a fight that Sanji snapped, "You must be bored out of your green skull, just hanging there. Hope I was entertaining."
"Not hardly," Zoro growled back. "Put on a better show next time, cook. For the fat bastard."
"I'd rather be amusing even you than that stinking sadist."
"The more you squirm, the less he'd do."
"Obviously. But look who's talking." He nodded at the bloodstains dried down the side of Zoro's face. "It's no damn fun watching the shit get kicked out of you if I can't help do it."
"No. I guess not."
He didn't like how Zoro said that. Not fighting back; it was that flat tone that sounded preoccupied, but really meant that Zoro was contemplating killing someone messily.
There was a certain point, he had learned, beyond which he couldn't goad Zoro. The swordsman had an amusingly short temper when it came to the little things, always good for a fight about noise, or a disturbed nap, or what tasks Nami-san required. But if he was pushed past that, when his anger was well and truly roused, there was little Sanji could do that would get to him at all. One might as well try to change the course of a tidal wave with a canoe paddle.
Zoro hadn't reached that point yet, but he was getting there. Sanji could see it in the set furrow of his brow, in how slow he was to rise to the bait. It annoyed him immensely, that Zoro might take this seriously. As if he were so weak that fat bastard could actually hurt him. "Just because you let them take away your oh-so-precious swords doesn't mean—"
Definitely not there yet. Sanji smirked. "What kind of swordsman lets a little drink knock him out?"
"What kind of cook can't taste a drugged drink?"
"What kind of idiot pretend pirate can't even find a tavern?"
"What kind of stupid ladies' man doesn't even get the woman's name?"
"At least I didn't report to my commanding officers while I was being watched!"
"Well—at least I outrank you!"
Sanji paused. "Oh, you noticed that?"
Zoro started to laugh. It was hard and heartfelt and it echoed against the stone walls, and after a brief moment Sanji joined him. His chest ached even more after a couple breaths, but it was easier to ignore it.
"I'm older, too," Zoro reminded, grinning.
"But I'm smarter. Awfully observant, that fat bastard. Picked up right away who the real brains of the operation is."
"Watch it," Zoro said, "I could have you keel-hauled."
"Or court-martialed, more like. Don't you know anything? You're a lousy marine."
"Damn straight. And I've got the bounty to prove it."
"Just because some shit world government's willing to pay for your dumbass head—sixty million and you can't even break a few chains."
"You said already, this is good training."
"For stupid over-muscled swordsman, maybe. I'm a cook, dammit. The only eels I train with are the ones that go in soup or sushi."
He didn't think he had said it any differently, but Zoro shifted, the chains jangling as he straightened up—hard to see his face in the growing shadows, but the gleam of his eyes was turned toward Sanji. "You," he began, and the grin was gone from his voice, but whatever he was going to say was interrupted by the rattle of the lock on the other side of the door.
"It better not be octopi this time," Sanji muttered, "never did like octopus much," and the door creaked open.
Both thugs accompanied the fat man, but no tank on wheels. Zoro watched them enter with some curiosity. Presumably it was his turn again, and he wondered what uninspiring method they were planning. Hot pokers, or the rack? But the fat man didn't seem to be much of a traditionalist.
He hadn't cared the last one. Electricity was unpredictable, and though after Ener the worst storm couldn't impress, the cynical science of the fat man's tank was almost worse than those vicious lightning attacks. The way Sanji had shuddered, and then gone so still...
Zoro hadn't cared for it at all.
But it should be his turn now. The cook could be one hell of an annoyance, but Zoro was pretty sure he was pissing off the fat son of a bitch just as much. Still, Sanji managed to speak first. "What took you so long? Too busy gargling cheap wine to bother with your job?"
The fat man didn't immediately reply. He seemed distracted, which was to Zoro's advantage. It shouldn't be noticeable unless they looked closely, but he had spent most of the hours Sanji was out working at the chains, bracing his back against the wall and pulling against the cuffs. He had managed to loosen the bolts a little, how much he hadn't been able to tell, but the stone had cracked slightly.
If he could get himself free, it would be simple enough to release Sanji. Then the cook could kick down the door, and it would just be a matter of finding his swords and getting hell out of here. But it was difficult to get the necessary leverage to tug on the chains. If he only had a sword...
"I would have liked to give you a little more time to consider the situation," the fat man finally sighed. "But my employer's insisting. I've been authorized—no, instructed, to use more drastic methods of persuasion. More permanent." He looked between them pleadingly. "You must understand, I deplore this. There's no artistry or skill in such crude...well, little matter. If you're still unwilling..."
Sanji made a rude noise. "I'll explain with the smallest words I know, so you have a hope of getting it. We do not know anything. We are not whoever the hell you think we are. Nothing you do to us is going to change that, you stupid chunk of lard."
"So you might as well get on with it," Zoro added.
The fat man sighed once more. "Very well." He reached into his jacket and withdrew a long knife, the heavy, curved blade shining wickedly as he turned it under the lamplight. "Please realize this isn't a bluff. If you're willing to talk now, rather than lose—"
"Get on with it," Zoro growled again. "I won't need all my fingers to kill you anyway."
"Maybe not." The fat man inclined his head, examined Zoro with his small eyes. Then he turned and waved to the goons. "Not him. The blond one. Hold his arm."
"He's the swordsman, not me," Sanji said coolly, not flinching as a huge fist wrapped around his right wrist and pressed his arm flat to the wall. He shook his hair out of his eyes, leveled a challenging glare at the fat man. "I won't need any fingers to take your head off."
"Ah, well," the fat man said, running his thumb against the blunt side of the blade. "Your hand, then."
Zoro saw Sanji go rigid, as if another bolt of current had been shot through him. Then he relaxed again, and that reaction had been so swift and slight it might have been imagined. With luck it hadn't even been noticed by the others. "Why stop there?" the cook asked, insolently calm in the thug's looming shadow. "Take the whole arm. Hell, take a leg instead, I'm still not going to be able to tell you anything."
"Forget it," Zoro said, "the only thing weaker than their brains is their spines." He nodded to the other thug, the bruise on his forehead a black splotch in the lantern's yellow glow. "Scared to even come near me, huh? Don't blame you. Your head still smarting?"
"I'll show you—" the man began.
"Ignore him," the fat man ordered, before the thug had taken more than a step toward Zoro. "Come here and help. I don't want to do too much damage, and they really start thrashing about halfway through, when they realize it's actually happening." He tilted the knife so it matched the angle of his terrible smile. "And take off your jacket. We'll want something to muffle the screams."
"Tricky for me to talk, if I'm muzzled," Sanji pointed out, casually, but the lamplight picked out the sheen of sweat on his brow.
If it had been his foot, Zoro knew, he would see no fear in his crewmate's eyes, just the same fury that was boiling in his own blood. But Sanji's feet were only his weapons; his hands were his life, a cook's most precious and important tools.
"You'll be free to talk after," the fat man said. The son of a bitch didn't even know what he was threatening, didn't understand a damn thing, but was just clever enough to see the sliver of true desperation in Sanji's anger. "When you understand that I am quite serious."
"Oh, I believe you're serious. He's convincing, isn't he, Zoro?"
"Yeah, I believe it," Zoro said. Sanji was breathing too fast; his voice was still steady, but Zoro could hear the rapid staccato rush of his exhalations. His fist was clenched, the tight ball of his fingers forced back by the goon's meaty hand. "Especially now. He's in trouble," Zoro went on. "Sooner or later his employer'll realize he's an incompetent moron. Maybe then we'll really be interrogated."
It was difficult to read the expression on the fat man's profile. "Watch it, Zoro," Sanji said, with a hint of a sardonic chuckle, "you might piss him off."
"This wad of dough? Why'd I care? I've got him cowed. Chained to a wall and he still doesn't have the balls to go after me."
The fat man didn't look to Zoro, but he smiled. "Don't worry, I'll get back to you in due time. Or if you're trying to distract me from your associate, start saying what I want to hear. Better make it quick, however." He nodded to the second thug, who put one hand to Sanji's shoulder and shoved him back hard against the wall.
"This will get you nowhere," Sanji snapped, all irate impatience, but his gaze was fixed on the knife in the fat man's hand. "I don't know anything, I've told you already, I don't know Captain whoever, I'm not a marine, nothing you can do to me is going to change that—I'm a pirate, dammit!"
The first thug shifted his grip to engulf Sanji's fist, with his other hand forced the cuff further up Sanji's arm and rolled back his sleeve. Suddenly the blond bucked wildly, throwing off their holds and arching back against the chains in an effort to rip himself free. The fat man retreated a cautious step as his goons struggled to reestablish their grips. Sanji flailed against them, wrenching so sharply against the bonds that he might have torn himself bloody.
"Listen to him!" Zoro said, yanking at his own chains. "He doesn't know a damn thing—if you want to ask someone, ask me!"
The goons braced themselves, leaning with all their considerable mass to hold Sanji still, and even with the chains they only barely could keep him in place, until the fat man came forward again. The lamplight gleamed on the blade, and Sanji stiffened, stopping the fruitless struggle. His eyes were locked on that stripe of golden light, his visage pale and drawn with a hopelessness Zoro had seen there but once before, and refused to ever see again.
"Stop it," Zoro shouted, "stop this right the hell now!"
Sanji shuddered, then tore his eyes from the knife to raise them to the fat man's, still white-faced but the despair displaced by defiance. His jaw was set as the knife was raised over his wrist, no noise escaping but the short harsh rasp of his panting.
"Stop!" Zoro roared, and threw himself forward, straining with all his strength. The chains creaked, groaning as the rock ground against the metal.
"Uh, boss—" one of the thugs began, reaching with his free hand under his jacket, and then with a crack like a lightning bolt the stone gave way, crumbling as all four bolts broke free.
The blade was coming down, and Zoro lunged for it, all his focus on that sharpened steel. The fat man whirled, stepping back with surprising speed for his bulk, dropping the unbloodied knife. No fighter, definitely. A thug got in the way and Zoro tossed him aside one-handed, whipping the chain around his wrist against the man's cheek. He stumbled with a choked whine; Zoro ignored him, going for the fallen knife—not a sword but it would do—
"Zoro!" Sanji yelled, and Zoro looked over his shoulder to see the other thug had drawn, not a dagger, as he had assumed, but a pistol. Before he could throw himself out of the way, the man had pulled the trigger, and the deafening thunder of a gunshot echoed against the stone.
With a sword, Zoro could have blocked the bullet; with even the knife he might have diverted it. Barehanded, it tore through his arm and into his chest.
A sharp enough sword will cut so fast and deep that you won't realize you've been wounded until you see the blood. A bullet is harder to miss. The second shot from the other thug's gun caught him in the shoulder like a sledgehammer, knocking him back against the wall.
The fat man was screeching something to his men, furiously loud. Zoro ignored him, ignored Sanji, who was being even louder. The knife was still on the floor, only a couple meters away. Now splattered with a little blood, but probably just his own, so no matter. He pushed himself off the wall toward it, stretched out his arm to wrap his fingers around the hilt—wet with the blood, and it was heavier than any knife could be, but he dragged it up, and himself as well. He had made it to his knees when a kick in the back sent him sprawling again, the knife spinning from his hand.
Sanji was shouting "Zoro!" or else he was cursing; the way Sanji usually said his name made it difficult to tell. The stone floor was wet and slippery and tilting under him, so Zoro couldn't get his footing to stand. Then the thug's boot slammed into his chest, and the pain flashed so keenly he wasn't quite sure if he hit the floor or the wall or both before he blacked out.
Sanji heard the guns fire, one after another, saw the twin bursts of sulfur smoke, but he couldn't believe it, even when Zoro staggered back, even when he saw the crimson spray splatter over the stone. The idiot swordsman couldn't be so stupid as to get himself shot. Not when he had, entirely improbably, managed to break free. And certainly not twice, and certainly not as close to his heart as it looked, to tell from the red stains spreading over his white shirt.
"Zoro, you idiot!" he yelled, "Zoro, what the hell—Zoro!" There was red on the stone wall where he had slid down, and red pooling around his knees, and dammit even for Zoro that was a lot of blood. He didn't cry out when the thug kicked him, just a choked gag, and nothing at all at the second blow, slumping in an awkward, bloody heap against the wall. When the man kicked him a third time his limp body only absorbed the impact.
Someone was shouting, "Stop it!" in that same terribly enraged way Zoro had said it just a couple moments before, so ferociously threatening that the thug hesitated. It occurred to Sanji that it was his own voice, and that through gritted teeth he was explaining exactly what he would do to all three of these bastards, whether or not they stopped.
But it was the fat man's bark that got the thugs' attention. "What are you doing? Fools!" He shoved the big men away, clumsily crouched to put his fingers to Zoro's throat. Frowning, he pushed his bulk upright again, wiping his hand on his slacks.
Sanji stared, trying to read that thoughtful look. Zoro was too far away; he couldn't see if his crewmate's chest was still moving, no matter how he strained to make out some flicker of motion. His throat was dry, hoarse when he tried to speak. "Dammit, is he—if he—you sons of bitches, you're dead—"
That was a mistake, he realized too late, as the slow smile spread across those fleshy, pasty features. "And if he's still alive? What would that be worth to you?" The fat bastard crossed to Sanji, lightly put a hand to his chest. "His heart's still beating, but I can't say how much longer it will be, if he keeps bleeding like that."
Zoro coughed, a faint, choked sound. He blindly turned his head when Sanji called his name again, moved his hand a little, smearing the blood under him.
Sanji swallowed, tried to pretend that he wasn't shaking. If he was, it must be with rage. "What are you going to do?" he asked, mostly steadily, looking back at the fat man. "He can't answer any questions dead."
"But you told me yourself, neither of you can answer anyway. So why should I care?" The fat man looked around the cell, snapped his thick fingers at the goons and pointed to the opposite wall. "You, bring him to the shackles over there. Just binding his feet should be enough, in that condition." He glanced back at Sanji, then deliberately away. "Then wake him up, however you can. We might as well get what we can out of him. Some of the most honest words you'll hear are a dying man's last."
The thugs both grinned, picked up Zoro between them like a sack and roughly dragged him over to the iron shackles. Zoro coughed again, shuddering, blood in his mouth.
"Wait," said Sanji. The bruised thug didn't hesitate, just raised his hand and slapped Zoro's cheek hard enough to snap his head back.
"I said wait!" Sanji snarled. He realized his arms were aching with the effort of straining against the chains, and still they didn't budge an inch, for all he fought and pulled. Damn Zoro anyway, and the stupid swordsman's stupid monster strength. He smashed his heels against the wall, but couldn't extend his legs far enough for the kick to have any power.
The man's boot met Zoro's stomach with a sickening thud, and the swordsman groaned, and Sanji yelled, "Stop! I'll—that damn Captain Beinkusu—"
The fat man raised one hand, and the thugs paused as he asked, all calm manners, "Yes?"
"I..." Sanji's mind was blank, not white but dark crimson, but he quite clearly heard himself say, "If I tell you where to find Beinkusu, you'll stop. And bandage him up."
The fat man studied him for a moment, then gestured to one goon. "Go get the first aid supplies. Now." As the man exited, he turned back to Sanji. "Well?"
Zoro groaned again. Sanji allowed himself a quick glance at his crewmate. "Don't touch him again. I want your word. For all the shit it's worth."
"I swear I won't lay another finger on him, if you answer. Honestly. Where is Captain Beinkusu?"
"The captain." Sanji swallowed. "He. The captain..."
"Idiot," he heard Zoro mumble, quite clearly.
Well, screw him anyway. Not like he would expect gratitude from the damn swordsman.
At least he was still breathing. That went pretty far, in Sanji's book. As long as he kept doing it.
"Captain Beinkusu," Sanji said, "is...is..." and it really should have occurred to him sooner. Not like he could have counted on Zoro to have such inspiration. He licked his lips, looked the fat man directly in his piggy eyes. "You saw the ship we came in on, right? In the harbor now, with the straw-hat Jolly Roger on the sail?"
"No," Zoro groaned.
Sanji looked past the fat man. Zoro had dragged up his head, half-open eyes glittering in the lamplight. He met Sanji's gaze, and Sanji saw, beneath the haze of pain and irritation, unmistakably lucid comprehension. Then he dropped his head, panted, "You...can't," with all the expected anger. "Don't...tell him."
Sanji had to swallow back a grin, only let the anger show in his voice. "He's not worth our lives, dammit!"
"Don't," Zoro ordered, in a decent approximation of a commanding tone.
The fat man looked appropriately entertained. "Well?"
"Captain Beinkusu," Sanji said, spitting it out with, he hoped, the proper distress and regret, "is on that ship. The pirates are—allies."
"I see." The fat man nodded, looking him in the eyes with a faint smile as he said, "I'm counting on your honesty here, you know, and not just for the sake of you and your comrade here. My employer wants to be absolutely sure of success—he's bringing every man he has along on this mission. That's a force a good deal stronger than the marines garrisoned here." He touched one finger to the cuff around Sanji's wrist, a reminding tap. "If this is a trick, your brothers in arms will find the trap sprung on themselves. So don't be counting on any rescue."
"Every man he has?" Sanji repeated.
The fat man nodded. Sanji swallowed, tried to sound anxious and beaten and was a little annoyed by how easily it came to him. "No trick, I swear." He lowered his head, murmured, "Just go onboard that ship and find a man—a guy with a long nose. Tell him that you want to see the captain—tell him that you are friends of Don Krieg, and that you're making sure All Blue will never be found."
"It's a code phrase. They'll know what it means."
"You son of a bitch," Zoro gasped, with convincing verisimilitude. "Don't believe...you told them. ...I'll see you court-martialed..!" He was, Sanji had to admit, not half-bad at this. Though Sanji would have preferred the swordsman's mortally wounded act to be a little less believable, even if it did lend credence to his desperation. The guy probably would have bought it even without that growing crimson puddle. Where the hell were those bandages, anyway?
"One more thing," Sanji said, still meeting the man's eyes steadily. "If they happen ask about us, just tell them that we're looking forward to seeing Tony again."
"Tony. Don Krieg. All Blue." The fat man counted the names off on his fingers. Sanji nodded confirmation as the door opened and the goon entered, bearing a white box. The fat man waved him over to Zoro, warning, "Carefully, now." He smiled slyly at Sanji. "I did give my word."
'Careful' was a far cry from 'considerate', much less 'medically sound' treatment, but when the man was through Zoro wasn't dripping everywhere, at least. He wasn't conscious, either, sprawled on his side with his back against the wall, and they didn't take any effort to make him comfortable, just checked that the manacles were secure around his ankles and left him there. Before he closed the door, the fat man told Sanji, with that same wicked smirk, "Thank you."
Sanji waited until the door had thudded shut and the last faint echo of footsteps died away before dropping his head, his shoulders shaking with stressed and mostly muffled laughter.
"Zoro—Zoro, answer me right the hell now! Zoro!!"
It wasn't just that the damn cook wouldn't shut up; it was the particular rising pitch of his voice which made it impossible to sleep. Especially when it was his name, and now the cook was just repeating it—"Zoro, shit, Zoro! Zoro!"--even worse than an insult, the way he was saying it, like it was a damn command, like he was being called to heel.
Zoro dragged up his head, as far as it would go, brought up enough saliva to force a voice from his bone-dry throat. He still felt half-asleep, muzzy, his vision blurring when he tried to focus on his crewmate across the room. He needed rest, damn it. "Shut'p, y'stupid cook."
"Zoro!" Sanji said a final time, like the last interrupted knock on an opening door. "You're—awake?"
"Yeah." Damn it all. He was cold, too, which was just from the bloodloss, he knew from experience, but it wouldn't make returning to sleep any easier. "Whad'ya want?"
He couldn't see Sanji clearly in the lamplight, but he could hear him breathing, panting hard. What those bastards had done to him must be taking its toll. "I thought—you weren't—I couldn't—dammit, Zoro, don't you ever do that to me again!"
"Huh?" Was that supposed to make sense? Maybe it would if he could think straight. But he didn't remember doing anything to Sanji. Unless he'd been talking in his sleep or something, and really, the cook was too goddamn sensitive. "The hell can I do t'you, over there? I'm over here."
Definitely bloodloss. A touch of delirium that made the catch in the cook's gasps sound like a crazy giggle. "Of course. My mistake."
He was quiet for long enough that Zoro shut his eyes and dropped his head back down on the stone floor, but before he could get anywhere near sleep Sanji asked, "You don't hear anything, do you, Zoro?"
"I hear you. Too damn noisy." It wasn't that Sanji was loud; he was speaking quieter than usual, even. But that softness of tone was—annoying. Almost as annoying as the expression he could imagine on the cook's face, that same white, stark look he had cast at Zoro, right before he had started babbling about secret codes.
It had worked, though. He'd give Sanji that. And they had left the cook with both hands, too, which was good, because Zoro hadn't quite figured out how he was going to stop the bastards when he couldn't move. He definitely needed a nap if his body was going to be of any use. If his crewmate would just be quiet enough for him to...
"I don't hear anyone outside. No footsteps or voices." Sanji turned his head to the door, the barred window in the heavy oak. No shadows were passing by. "Every man he has," he quoted, and laughed again, a taut, breathless sound.
Zoro didn't like that laugh. It was too close to one he remembered far too well, though there had been no humor at all quivering in Sanji's throat then. He pried up his head again to squint at his crewmate. "You better not be losing it on me, cook."
"Me, losing it?" Sanji snapped. "Which is the one of us who got himself shot?"
He had a point. As it wasn't a very good point, however, Zoro ignored it. Grunting a non-answer, he put his head down again. With his eyes shut he could ignore how light-headed just looking up had made him.
"So," Sanji remarked, "how long do you think it'll be? I'm guessing about five minutes for Luffy to take out the bozos, but Usopp might have to find him first. And then they'll have to figure out where we are..."
"Nami'll get that out of them, easy." The woman could be scary when she wanted answers.
"Of course Nami-san could—if Luffy leaves anyone conscious." Which was an unlikely possibility, if Usopp managed to properly explain the situation to their captain. But Chopper could wake someone up enough to ask.
Chopper was going to be plenty pissed with him, Zoro knew. The reindeer wasn't nearly as frightening as their navigator, but there was something terribly humiliating about being scolded by a large teddy bear with antlers. Besides, it wasn't like he had been trying to get in the way of those bullets. He was just too damn used to defending with a sword. It was a weakness he really should work on, swordsmaster or not.
"Zoro?" Sanji was asking, again, and wasn't the man getting tired of saying his name by now? Especially in that particular way. Zoro mumbled something so he wouldn't have to hear it again, but the cook still wouldn't shut up. "You can't get out of those manacles, can you? They look pretty solid from here, but..."
Zoro gritted his teeth and forced his uncooperative body to curl enough that he could reach the cuffs around his ankles. Grabbing the chain in both fists, he pushed his feet against the wall, and, bracing himself, pulled until the chain broke.
At least that was the plan. In practice the last step required greater motion than his wounds would allow. As he blinked back the pulsating black spots before his eyes he heard the cook swearing at him, almost as colorfully as he had addressed the fat man before. Zoro struggled for the breath to respond, though just the act of inhaling was agony, and dammit, who knew getting shot could be so painful? He was now more appreciative of the various times Luffy had interceded between him and guns. This would be simpler if the bullets had bounced off him. "Being rubber...wouldn't be so bad."
"What are you talking about? Zoro, stay with me!"
"'m'not goin' anywhere." The manacles were seeing to that, obviously. Stupid cook.
"--if you can't, you can just tell me, you don't have to prove it," Sanji was saying. Zoro had the impression he had missed something, but as it was just the cook talking it likely wasn't important.
Now that he thought about it, being rubber would be very convenient. He could just stretch out his arm and release Sanji right now. Or muzzle him. "Maybe I should be looking for a devil fruit..."
"A devil fruit? What—oh. You mean, if Luffy were here, or if you were a rubber man...no. Bad idea. I fish him out enough, I'm not hauling your heavy ass out of the water, too. No matter how useful it'd be now. Are you bleeding more?"
Sanji flicked a finger at him, growled, "Those bloodstains. You didn't open the wounds again, straining yourself like a damn fool?"
Now that he considered it, the bandages did feel damper. "Maybe."
"Zoro, you—you idiot! Don't go—just—forget it." The cook's voice dropped from the agitated shriek to a resigned mutter. "Guess there's not much choice."
"Much choice?" Zoro looked up again at the decisive note in Sanji's tone. "About what? What're you doing, cook?"
Sanji returned a brief glare. "I'm not just going to stand here and watch you—watch you sleep." He turned his head to regard his right hand, the bonds slightly loosened from their threat before. Then, very deliberately, he extended his arm as far from the wall as he could manage with the chains, and slammed it back, jamming his hand against the stone. There was a faint, unmistakable click, and Sanji's face went an interesting shade of green.
"Cook, what the—"
Sanji wrenched his arm down, forcing his hand through the cuff. Reaching across himself, he opened the other manacle, then bent to release his feet. Then he leaned against the wall, cradling his injured hand in the other and swearing through clenched teeth.
Zoro attempted to force himself sitting, mostly failed. "What the hell are you doing, idiot? That's your hand!"
"Yeah." Sanji closed his eyes, put his right hand against the wall and braced himself with the left over it, forcing the dislocation back in place with another dull click. Exhaling shakily, he stretched out his fingers, waggling the thumb experimentally as he winced. "No problem, good as new."
Crossing the cell to kneel beside Zoro, he examined the shackles. "Dammit, they're locked. And I can't kick through iron. We're going to need the key for these, Zoro."
"You stupid?" Zoro asked, hypothetically. "Get out—go make sure Luffy's taken care of 'em."
Sanji didn't seem to be listening; he was frowning at the bloodstained bandages. "I'll look for your swords while I'm at it."
"Go, you can come back with everyone. Show 'em where I am."
"You'll have to wait, Zoro, try to get some rest."
"I have been trying—"
"The key's gotta be somewhere, I'll find it quick."
Sanji stood, wiped the sweat off his forehead, tucked the torn shirt into his pants and straightened his jacket with a tug. Going to the door, he studied the thick wood for a few seconds before smashing it open with a single kick.
"Be right back," he said, "just hang on," and he stepped into the hall, leaving Zoro, at last, in silence.
The halls were empty. Either the fat man had been telling the truth, and all of his employer's people were presently getting beaten to a pulp by Sanji's crewmates; or said employer was not nearly as powerful as he had implied. Though the size and affluence of this mansion would deny that. Oil lamps cast flickering light on paintings in gold frames and richly carpeted floors. Pushing aside heavy drapes, Sanji found himself looking out over moonlit rolling grounds, and the dark twinkle of the sea beyond. Not in the town, then, and the island was large enough that he couldn't guess how far they might be from the port and the Merry.
Nami would, of course, get the truth out of them, though his toes curled at the thought of her having to interact with such base men. And it might be a while before their crewmates arrived. He was quite sick of this place by now; it was high time they were out of here. All he needed was the key to the manacles—and Zoro's swords, because the idiot was likely to be stubborn about leaving without them.
Not having any idea where to look, he opened doors at random as he ran down the halls. His right hand throbbed with each footfall, and he flexed his fingers, feeling the ache of the stretched tendons. Hopefully they wouldn't take too long to heal. At least there didn't seem to be any real damage.
At least he still had two hands. He supposed he owed Zoro for that. Though the asshole should have found a better way to manage it, preferably one not involving bullets. It was maddening all the same, because the truth was, Sanji already owed Zoro. Even if the swordsman never gave any sign he recalled the debt at all, much less wanted it paid back, it wasn't something Sanji himself had forgotten. Or ever would, most likely.
And yes, it was mostly Zoro's fault that they were stuck here at all, but it was difficult to keep that in mind, now. There had been altogether too much blood, and the stupid swordsman had been too damn slow to respond, and that gray cast to his skin... Zoro could be a pain in the ass, but in a pinch you could count on him. Sanji didn't mind protecting any of his crewmates—it was his duty and his pleasure to make sure no one hurt a hair on Nami's or Robin's head, but if any of the others got themselves into a corner of course he helped. Zoro never needed it, however. He might get himself sliced to ribbons, but that was the way he fought, because he was an idiot; he was used to it. In battle Sanji didn't pay attention to Zoro at all, any more than Zoro paid attention to him.
Except that Zoro had followed him to the tavern, while there were other bars he probably could have found more easily. Sanji hadn't caught Zoro watching him, not for a while now; hadn't noticed any of those quick, scrutinizing glances since the week after...not that he would have said anything even if he had, because that would have been acknowledging that he had noticed. But he hadn't. Had almost convinced himself that Zoro actually might have forgotten...
But Zoro had still come to the tavern, and gotten himself captured, and then beaten up, and now, if Chopper didn't see to him soon—it was high time they were out of this damn place.
Sanji didn't bother opening the next door, just splintered it with a kick, surprising the man on the other side. He had found the kitchen, and one of the thugs was sneaking a flask of cooking wine, which he dropped. The pewter clanked dully on the floor, the dark purple spreading over the slate a perfect match to the bruise on the man's forehead.
He stared stupidly at Sanji. Sanji blinked, then whirled a roundhouse kick at his face. The man's nose made a satisfying crunch as he went down with choked groan, and stayed down.
Sanji stepped over the puddled wine, prodded him with one toe. The man made no effort to fight back; he appeared to be unconscious. He didn't appear to have any keys on him, but in the adjacent room, Sanji made the happy discovery of the three taken katanas. The fat man might boast about his meals, but apparently he had been relegated to the servants' quarters.
If there were any other servants, they must have fled at the noise of his entrance. Scooping up the swords, he returned to the kitchen and descended the narrow stairs alongside the pantry, stealing a couple pieces of fruit and rolls along the way. He was hoping the dungeon keys might be kept in the basement, but all he found was the wine cellar. A quick browse of the first row proved the hypothetical employer had better taste than he'd expected, and the fat man worse. He selected one bottle of fortified Miranfy—the swordsman wouldn't appreciate how good a year it was, but it would help get him back on his feet. Sanji wasn't going to carry him all the way back to the ship if he could help it.
At the bottom of the steps, he thought he heard a door slam. Sanji leapt up to the kitchen three stairs at a time, too late. The kitchen was empty, no sign of the apparently not so unconscious man but a few drops of blood and a boot print sketched in wine.
Cursing, Sanji dashed back down the halls, his soles skidding on the polished wooden floors. The man was likely more familiar with the layout of the mansion—he'd get there first; there would be only one place he would go, if he wasn't going to take on Sanji, and Sanji swore at himself. He called the swordsman stupid? He should have kicked the thug a couple more times, made sure he wouldn't get up anytime soon, or at all. The katanas under his arm dug into his side, wooden sheaths clacking against each other as he ran.
Finally he reached the stairs to the dungeon, stampeded down them with a grand lack of stealth and saw, waiting for him before the broken door, one of their other new friends. And if both thugs were here he would lay even odds their boss was as well.
Sanji didn't stop in his mad dash; he threw himself at the man, blocked his kick—pathetically slow, it was so damn embarrassing to be caught by these morons at all—and slammed his foot into the thug's stomach, sending him crashing back into the wall. The thump of his head against the stone guaranteed the man would stay down for a minute at least, and Sanji otherwise ignored him to shove inside the cell.
And stopped. There was the other thug, baring a grin that would have made a jack-o-lantern think twice, but Sanji couldn't take the opportunity to pound that smirk into the floor, because the fat man was here, too. He had hauled Zoro up by the collar, so blood was soaking through the bandages again in a spreading scarlet stain, and he had a pistol shoved under the swordsman's chin, his thick finger on the trigger.
It was difficult to speak with a pistol's muzzle thrust under your chin, digging into the flesh of your throat. Though looking at Sanji's expression, there wasn't a hell of a lot he could say anyway that would do any good.
Zoro still tried. "Get out of here, coo—" and then he gagged as the gun jammed harder into his esophagus. He couldn't move, between the pistol and the burning of his wounds; it was all up to his crewmate. And usually that would be enough, but right now...
"Please drop those swords," the fat man said, quite politely, calm as if he were ordering tea.
And Sanji did. Zoro winced as his katanas crashed on the hard stone floor. There was their chance, Sanji's chance, slipping away. Sanji's face was set with that pale, composed resolution, his eyes locked on Zoro, and maybe Zoro had been called suicidal before, but he had nothing on his idiot crewmate. A death wish, that's what it was, too damn eager to sacrifice himself for any stupid thing. Of all the cook's wildly annoying habits, this had to be the one Zoro hated most.
The fat man was reading Sanji like a book, you could hear it in his mostly restrained gloat, "Thank you, I'm glad to deal with a man so reasonable. Firing now would make for quite an unsightly mess, wouldn't it?"
"Don't—" Sanji made an aborted motion toward them, checked by the fat man's finger tensing on the trigger. The gun smelled of steel and the acrid powder and Sanji's eyes were dark with rage and yet he still wasn't attacking, even though he had sworn to take this fat bastard down himself.
"I won't," the man said, and smiled. "Unless of course you give me reason," and to hell with Sanji's vow, this son of a bitch was his, Zoro was going to rip that paunchy throat out with his teeth, if his swords weren't available. As soon as that gun came down—"Now," and the man nodded to his man, "why don't you see that our soccer star here doesn't get another chance to use those legs. What was it you said before, sir? Every bone in me that can be broken?"
The thug grinned, all teeth like a shark under his broken nose, swaggered to the cook and requested he sit down with a punch to the stomach. Sanji didn't so much as try to block. Nor did he fight back when the man planted one heavy boot on his leg, set the other one under his calf. He didn't even look at the thug; he was watching the fat bastard, his eyes on the trigger of the goddamn gun. If looks could kill his might have burned through the metal, but he was doing nothing, nothing whatsoever, and Zoro was absolutely going to kill them all, the damn cook included, most especially the cook, for being such a—
The thug stamped down, and there was a muffled crack that was sharp all the same. Sanji's back arched in a rigid curve, fists pressed hard to the stone. The last color fled his face, leaving it bleached and drawn as a skull, but for a dot of red on his lip, bit between his teeth.
"Make sure," the fat man ordered, and that shark's grin widened. Zoro's inarticulate growl was cut short by a thick knee ramming him hard in the belly, right in one of the damn bullet holes. He managed to hold onto consciousness, but couldn't move for a moment, hunched over his wounds. He heard another crack, and a strangled squeak that only might have been Sanji, only might have been from a man's throat at all.
When Zoro managed to force up his head, his crewmate lay on his side, curled around himself, shaking, with the fat man standing over him. Nudging Sanji's shoulder out of his way with one foot, the bastard bent and picked up a bottle from the floor—looked like a wine bottle, though why the hell the cook...
"You do have expensive tastes, don't you?" murmured the fat man, reading the label. "You know, I've never met a noncommissioned marine who knew a damn thing about fine wine. I wonder just who my honorable employer is attacking now, for real."
"Bastard," Zoro hissed, "we told you enough times before, if you'd just listened to us—"
"Oh, I did listen. My employer was quite insistent you were the right men, though. He didn't want to believe he might have lost his chance at that Beinkusu. And I had no real reason to argue—that isn't what he's paying me for, after all. Though," and he looked mildly frustrated, "I'm getting the impression I should have insisted on all my fees before he left." He sighed. "I suppose I should go see how his grand revenge is proceeding."
He looked down thoughtfully at Sanji. The cook's face was buried in one crooked arm, his legs sprawled at twisted angles. He was silent, but for the faint whine ending every short breath.
"Hmm," the fat man said. "If you did send them into a clever enough trap..." He snapped his pudgy fingers at the thug. "I'm going to go into town to check out the situation at the port. If I don't contact you within an hour—take care of them. We wouldn't want to be arrested, at least not while there's men who could testify against us. Even if they are pirates.
"But do try to make it look accidental." He smiled down at Sanji, prodded him again with the toe of his shoe. The cook only shuddered. "Like you had to stop an escape attempt, perhaps. Here." He handed the thug a ring of keys.
The larger man grinned back at him, readily obedient. "What do I do while I'm waiting, boss?"
"Whatever you like." The fat man shrugged. "Try not to kill them yet; depending on how things turn out, it's possible our employer will still want to talk with them. Though given their current condition, I'm sure he'd be understanding."
"You son of a bitch," Zoro said, pushing himself into a crouch and locking his elbows straight so his arms would support him, "forget about being arrested, you won't live to any trial—"
"Sticks and stones, my good man," said the fat bastard, and with a smiling wave he exited, casually kicking the katanas out of his way in passing. Zoro didn't give him the pleasure of responding to that insult, his hands curled into fists so tight that the pressure distracted him from the sharp pain of his wounds.
As his boss shut the door—with a good deal of difficulty, as Sanji's kick had bent the hinges badly—the thug looked over at Zoro, and grinned with such pure and pronounced malice it was amazing one face could contain it. Even a face that ugly.
Zoro ignored him. "Oi, cook. Sanji." He anxiously studied his crewmate, looking for some sign of awareness. Wasn't like Sanji to fold that fast; he might look like you could snap him in two with your bare hands, but anyone who tried was liable to find their head kicked round the wrong way on their neck. For him to have blacked out—his long legs were bent awkwardly before him; just broken bones, though, nothing Chopper couldn't fix..."You stupid idiot, how could you just let them—"
"Want me to ask 'im for you?" the thug said, smirking. "Maybe I'll use one of these." He picked up one katana and drew it, the metal blade whispering against the sheath. "Couple pokes should wake him right up."
Zoro couldn't see which sword the man had; his vision had gone solid bloody red. He lunged forward, staggered as he was caught by either the chains at his ankles or the pain in his chest, maybe both, but either way he choked out, "I'm going to kill you, all of you, you, your buddy outside, your boss—"
"I told you already, Zoro," Sanji said suddenly, short of breath but most definitely conscious, "that uncooked lump's mine."
In the instant Zoro blinked, the cook flipped up onto his hands and kicked up with both legs. There was a snap, and then a short sharp sound in Sanji's throat as his feet impacted the thug's chin, knocking his head back and sending him toppling over to crash to the floor beside Zoro. Zoro didn't bother checking if he were out; he grabbed the dropped katana and clouted him over the head with the hilt anyway. Then he looked to his crewmate by the door, ghost-white and swaying, with his gray lips pulled up in a grin.
"You can have this guy, though," Sanji added, and then he crumpled like a paper doll in a rainstorm.
Zoro rolled the thug's deadweight over, dug into his suit pocket and found the ring of keys. He jammed one after another into the manacles; the third one clicked in, and he wrenched off the cuffs and scrambled to his crewmate's side.
It must have just been shock; Sanji's breathing was even and his pulse steady. He groaned as Zoro took his hand from his throat, then came to all at once. Shoving Zoro away, he started to rise, only to seize up when he tried to move his legs, all his breath leaving in a sharp gasp.
"Easy," Zoro said, "it's just me—"
"I know it's you," Sanji snapped breathlessly. "Don't get blood on the suit, here!"
"Don't get blood on the suit?!"
"A good tailor's hard to come by on this damn Grand Line." Sanji sat up enough to adjust the jacket's collar, moving well enough, but for the clenched teeth and the sweat beading on his brow. "The buttons got ripped off, but the fabric's still good, as long as—hey, I said don't—"
"I'm not," Zoro said, who wasn't; he had wiped his hands on his pants. Very cautiously he felt along the cook's long legs, examining the damage.
"It's okay," Sanji said, tightly, through his gritted teeth. "They're clean breaks, Chopper'll have 'em fine in no time."
"Except you could've messed them up doing that," and Zoro nodded toward the unconscious thug.
Sanji shrugged jerkily. "Check the left," he said. "It might need to be reset."
Zoro pushed up the slacks and ran his hands down the break, feeling the unevenness of the bone under the flesh. "It hurts?"
"They both fucking hurt, idiot." The cook's breath was catching in his throat. "Can you do it?"
"It's going to hurt more," Zoro warned, bracing his hands on either side of the fracture. "You ready?"
Sanji didn't make a sound, but there was more blood on his lip when he was done. "Sorry," Zoro said. "It's set now. But you shouldn't move, we probably should splint 'em."
"With what?" Sanji's voice was raspy, but the color was slowly returning to his face.
"Um." Zoro looked around the cell, then sighed, reached across the floor for his black and his red katana and drew them from their sheaths.
"Forget it," Sanji said, watching Zoro lay the wooden scabbards along his shins.
"Give me your jacket, I'll need to tie them with something."
"Forget it," Sanji said again. "You've screwed up enough already, don't want to push my luck."
"Me, screwed up? Who's the one with the broken bones?"
Sanji shook his head, shrugged out of his jacket and in two sharp jerks ripped the sleeves off his shirt. "Since it's ruined anyway," he said, handing over the sleeves. "And who's the one with the bullet wounds, huh?"
"Better than getting my swords broken." Zoro tore the silk into several strips and began binding the sheaths to the cook's legs. "How are you supposed to fight now? Not to mention walk out of here?"
Sanji winced, driving his fists against the stone floor as Zoro knotted the ties. "You had any better ideas?" he panted in quick snatches of breath. "Get shot—a couple more times, maybe?"
"Not getting them broken at all would've been a good start. Damn cook, you didn't even try fighting back. If you'd just laid the guy out before he touched you—"
"Zoro, he had a gun to your head!"
"So? I could've handled it! They've shot me already anyway, right?"
Sanji closed his eyes, opened them again. "Your head, Zoro. Maybe you don't have much brains in there, but that means you need whatever you got."
His voice was unsteady, and not just with the strain of his injuries. "He wouldn't have pulled the trigger," Zoro said, slowly. "A bastard like that, he knew damn well if he did shoot that he wouldn't have had a chance to again before you'd be on him. It was a bluff."
"You don't know for sure."
"You should've risked it."
"Like fucking hell."
Zoro sighed. "Idiot." Sanji was glaring at him, more angrily than for any of his accusations of blame before. Like in addition to everything that he might have actually done wrong, it was also his fault the damn cook had the survival instincts of a depressed lemming. Zoro glared back. "Worry about yourself for once, will you? I'm getting sick of having to do it for you."
Which hadn't been exactly what he had intended to say, but it shut his crewmate up for a moment, at least. Finally Sanji sputtered, "Me!? I—"
Zoro didn't let him get any further. "Forget about it," he said. "Since Luffy and the others haven't found us yet, we should go find them."
Sanji stared at him for a moment longer, then shook his head. "Sure. Before that fat bastard gets back here."
"What, cook, I thought you'd claimed him."
The look his crewmate gave him was nowhere near as outraged as it should have been. Zoro especially didn't like the way it strayed over Zoro himself, pausing just a little too long on the bandages. There wasn't much new blood there, and he had been hurt worse plenty of times before. The damn bullets would barely leave scars, so why did the stupid cook have that peculiar flatness to his tone when he said, "Yeah, but there'll time for that later. Right now—"
Upon which he tried to stand, before Zoro could stop him. He made it almost to his knees, white face twisted with pain, before sagging back to the ground, bracing himself on trembling arms.
"Idiot," Zoro said again, putting a hand on Sanji's heaving shoulder. Just to hold him down, in case he had any other stupid ideas. "The adrenaline's worn off now. I told you, don't move, you don't want to mess up your legs any more. Just stay put." Gathering his own legs under him and bracing with his bared swords, Zoro climbed to his feet. The wall provided a convenient reference point to verify he was vertical, and his own bones were solid, unlike a certain stupid crewmate's. Moving his limbs did take more effort than usual, but putting one foot in front of the other he made it to his last katana dropped at the thug's side.
Hooking that sheath to his belt, he straightened up again—maybe a little too quickly, for everything went gray, like a sudden fog had wrapped around the lantern. Then Sanji was yelling at him, and the stone floor was hard and cold at his back, except for under his head. Which was, it turned out, because it was resting on Sanji's hand, which explained why the cook's voice was so loud.
"--pass out, you could've hit your damn head on the damn floor, what the hell, you needed a concussion, too, Zoro?"
Zoro blinked at him. "You—" He rolled to his side off of his crewmate, blinked at him again and noticed the distance they were from the door. "What the hell, you idiot? I told you, don't move!"
Sanji sat back, flicked his thumb impatiently at the fallen thug. "I was just checking to see if this guy had any matches on him. The assholes left my cigarettes but took the lighter."
"Too bad," Zoro said, leaning on his elbow as he levered himself up. "Why didn't you look for some when you were wandering around this place?"
Sanji was still glaring at him. "I had other things on my mind." Though Zoro found his crewmate's glare was like swimming in a winter sea; once you got used to it you didn't notice the cold at all. Or maybe he was just numb, or maybe it wasn't nearly as cold as it looked.
Sanji fingered Zoro's bandaged midsection, checking the tightness of the wraps. The swordsman batted his hand away. "Leave it alone, it's fine."
"Easy for you to say," Sanji grumbled, nonsensically, "you didn't see..."
"I got some rest, that's all I needed," Zoro said. He put his hands flat to the floor, pushed up until he was kneeling. His wounds protested the motion, but he ignored that stabbing pang and the hum in his ear. No time for that; besides, the bleeding had stopped, and he'd had far worse—
He didn't quite make it to standing, and all that kept him from falling face-first onto the stone again was Sanji's quick grab of his arm. The cook hauled him back, pushed him sitting again as he wryly remarked, "I don't think this is going to work."
"Maybe a little more rest." Zoro shook his head, as if he could dislodge the hornets that seemed to be buzzing angrily inside his skull. He couldn't even be mad at the cook, too infuriated by his own body's abject betrayal.
"Ah, almost forgot," Sanji said. He reached into his jacket, took out a roll of bread, slightly squashed, and a red pear. "Here. Sorry that fat bastard took the wine to wash it down."
Zoro accepted the food, then glanced at the cook. "You ate some too, right?"
"Just eat." When Zoro didn't, Sanji waved more emphatically. "Yeah, yeah, I stole a couple bites. Eat, already!"
With the way his stomach was knotted up, Zoro didn't think he was that hungry, until he bit into the fruit. A minute later everything was gone. "Thanks," he said, meaning it.
Sanji nodded, looking obscurely pleased in that particular way he did when anyone got fed. "You should have more liquids, too, but the dumb son of a bitch here doesn't have a hipflask, either." He indicated the thug. "But he's going to be out for a while, and so will his boss. There's time, even if Luffy and the others don't get here first. So you can rest now."
"Don't tell me to nap, I'm not a damn kid."
"Then don't act like one! Just—just lie down." Sanji pushed him, not very hard at all, but it was less painful to lie down than resist. "You were just saying you needed more rest," the cook pointed out.
Zoro would have argued, but laying still the buzzing in his head finally receded, and his crewmate was right. Little good he'd do either of them in this condition. "Sorry."
"For what?" Sanji asked. Weary, he sounded, just for that moment, in pain and exhausted and tired of hiding it. Zoro knew how he felt. It had been a long day.
"You know," he said. "For going to the marines and getting these idiots' attention and getting us caught. And everything."
"My fault, too," Sanji said. "You didn't make me go to that tavern or drink those drinks."
"Yeah, well, still. I'm sorry."
"Don't say that," Sanji said, crossly. "Not like that."
He wasn't in any mood to figure out what the cook was on about. "Like that—"
"Don't make it sound so goddamn final." His crewmate sighed, leaned back on his arms. "Should've been more careful. This never should have gotten this far. You, getting shot—"
"Like you're not hurt at all," Zoro muttered, but Sanji either didn't hear or ignored it.
"It is the worst feeling, isn't it. To just watch, to not be able to do anything. I'm sorry, too."
It occurred to Zoro that his crewmate might not even be talking about today anymore. "Forget it," he said. "You said it already—it's really their fault. These damn bastards. We just were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"I seem to be a lot," Sanji said.
"Yeah. Unlucky." That wasn't really a laugh, and that wasn't really a smile, and were either of them in better condition, Zoro would have bashed that look right off Sanji's face.
He didn't ask what was going through that blond head; he didn't really care. As long as it stopped. "Not as unlucky as those guys are, though, taking on Luffy and the others."
At least the cook's expression changed a little. "You almost gotta feel sorry for them."
"No, you don't."
"You're just pissed because you're not getting a crack at them yourself."
"Doubt fighting any of them would even count as aerobic exercise, much less training."
Zoro raised an eyebrow. "Don't tell me you're worried about Luffy."
"Why'd I be worried about that idiot? It's Nami-san and Robin-chan, of course. What if they were the only ones on the ship? And I'm not there—"
"Either of them could handle it fine. Better than you, now, with those legs of yours. You're gonna be useless for days."
"Useless?!" Sanji squawked.
"See if I serve you anything but dry rice ever again."
"I'll just get Luffy to steal me something," Zoro said. "Since you're not going to be guarding the refrigerator."
"Shut up," Sanji said. "Just go to sleep like a good brat."
The customary waspishness had finally supplanted that disquieting edge in his tone. "Better get a tall enough stool that you can reach the stove sitting down, " Zoro added, and shut his eyes, got as comfortable as possible on the stone.
He didn't think he had made more than a grunt, so it was probably his involuntary wince that Sanji caught. "You okay?"
"Chopper'll bandage you up better," Sanji said. "Soon as he gets here. Should be anytime, he'll come with Luffy, if they gave my message right. And once we get back to the ship you'll get some real food."
"Thought it wasn't going to be anything but dry rice."
"Chopper wouldn't let me get away with that. Yet, anyway," Sanji said smartly. After a moment he added, more quietly, "Besides, I owe you."
Zoro frowned. "For what?"
The reply, at least, was a real chuckle, even if it didn't really make sense. "Forget it," Sanji said, not explaining. "Just sleep. As soon as anyone turns up I'll wake you."
"You better," Zoro said, and waited for his crewmate's impatient agreement before allowing himself to drift off.
Sanji waited until he was sure Zoro was actually asleep before he tried moving. Wouldn't do for the swordsman to bust something else yelling at him. The idiot; Sanji knew his own limits well enough, better than Zoro was aware of his own, certainly. You couldn't just sleep off everything. Though getting some food in him had helped, and the way Zoro was snoring now, he might have been napping on the deck in the sun. However annoying that racket was, it was much better than his near-motionless silence before.
With his teeth clamped so no noise could escape—not that Zoro would hear anyway, sawing logs like that—Sanji sidled slowly backwards on his hands. Though he was careful not to jar his legs, even that cautious motion sharpened the throbbing ache to jagged pangs, and he hissed through his teeth. Hell of a lot worse than broken ribs, this was proving to be, as well as an incredible pain in the ass. And fighting-wise it left him virtually as useless as the damn swordsman had said. Not to mention Chopper was going to give him hell. If he thought Zoro had been carrying on...well, hopefully he wasn't getting the bones too out of alignment.
The thug was still out like a light, but to make sure he wouldn't cause any trouble if he did wake up, Sanji reached out and snagged the manacles. Pocketing the key, he clamped them around the goon's legs, the chain stretched taut and the cuffs barely circling the thick ankles. With pettily vindictive glee he ripped off the thug's jacket—the cheap stitches tore easily—and used it to bind his hands behind him.
Once the man was secured, Sanji searched him again. The holster under his jacket was empty; the fat man must have confiscated the pistol. Or else it had been the one put to Zoro's head, and Sanji glanced at his sleeping crewmate with a chill that had nothing to do with the draft from the window.
The man also had a dagger in a concealed ankle sheath, a stubby, blunt thing; Sanji wouldn't trust it to cut boiled chicken, but he took it anyway. Otherwise he was empty-handed. After a final tightening of the makeshift bonds, Sanji slid back across the floor, out of the thug's range, then slumped against the wall beside Zoro and concentrated on his own breathing until the pain subsided enough for his head to clear.
And then there was nothing to do but wait. Sanji listened hard, but heard nothing outside the cell. Inside there was only Zoro's snoring, such a familiar sound that he tuned it out without trying. He took out a cigarette, gazed up at the lantern flickering overhead for a long moment before deciding it was hopeless, and stuck the cigarette in his mouth unlit. It wasn't the same but it was something, at least. To take his mind off that annoyance, and the pain in his legs that throbbed with every beat of his pulse, he closed his eyes and began to plan tomorrow's dinner. Something extravagant, to make up for missing serving Nami-san and Robin-chan tonight. Tourtiere, perhaps; this town's market was likely big enough to have the spices he was missing...
The cigarette started to slip from his lips and he jerked up his head with a start, realizing he had almost nodded off.
Way to keep watch. Crossly Sanji sat up, groaned at the motion and then swallowed it short, looking at Zoro. His crewmate hadn't twitched, though, brow furrowed as always in that perpetual frown, like his dreams were never pleasant.
"Still asleep?" Sanji asked, in a mutter too low to disturb him. "Good. You need it." He took the cigarette from his mouth, rolled the narrow cylinder between his fingers. "Luffy'll be here anytime now," he remarked. "Don't know what's taking that idiot so long. They're probably having trouble finding this place." He glanced at Zoro again. "I suppose I should be grateful you're not the one looking, right?
"Even if you should be." The cigarette bent in half when he pressed it endwise between thumb and forefinger. Useless now, even with a light. "Your fault, that you got caught. You didn't have to follow me, idiot. You don't have to. I can take care of myself."
He bent the cigarette further, until the paper split, sprinkling tobacco dust on his slacks, rubbed the dried herbs between his fingers and inhaled the scent. "I'm fine. That was—how many islands ago? I don't even remember. It's over and I'm fine and it doesn't matter anyway. I owe you for that; you don't owe me anything.
"I know it's not just me, but I'm not Luffy or Nami-san or any of them—I don't need any damn guardian. You got that, Zoro? I'm gonna kick your ass for trying. Soon as Chopper says you're all better, I'll show you who needs protection. You didn't have to follow me, however bad my luck is, I can handle it. I'm strong enough on my own. I'm strong enough to protect all of them, and you, too. So you just take care of them, if I'm not there. And watch your own back. And don't worry about me, got it? Because I don't need it."
Sanji threw the crumbling halves of the cigarette into the far corner, looked up at the lantern again and then dropped his head as the glowing flame blinded his eyes. "I don't need anyone else getting hurt for me."
Swallowing, he stopped, held his breath. Distantly, through the door and the walls, he could hear the faintest vibration of approaching footsteps. Probably too quiet to be any of his crewmates. He raised his voice, reached to shake his crewmate's shoulder. "Zoro—"
"I hear." The swordsman's eyes were open; before Sanji touched him he sat up, moving slowly but not too strenuously.
"How long have you been awake?" Sanji demanded.
"Long enough," Zoro said, without elaborating. Instead he drew his white katana and extended it toward Sanji, hilt-first.
When he didn't immediately take it, the swordsman growled and grabbed his hand, wrapped his fingers around the hilt. "You've got all your blood, and it's not broken. Hide it behind you, hurry, before they get here."
Blinking, Sanji took hold of the sword—heavier than the sleekness of that silver blade would imply, but no more than he was expecting. Even his minimal weapon skills could feel how perfectly balanced the katana was. He slid the sword under his legs and leaned back against the wall.
Zoro had lain down again, shut his eyes, faking unconsciousness, lying on top of the white sheath so it was not obviously empty. His other two swords lay within reach at his side.
No sooner had Sanji closed his own eyes then he heard the fat man's raised voice sound through the door's barred window, echoing against the stone. "Get out of there, it's over. And it seems our illustrious employer is brighter than he lets on, this cell was rigged all along. Since he won't be returning anytime soon to deactivate the—"
The fat man's dialogue abruptly cut short, while a key clinked in the lock and the door squealed open.
"What the hell happened?" asked the thug nervously. "Hey!" He stamped over to his fallen comrade. "Did he get here before us, somehow?"
"Don't be ridiculous," the fat man snapped, "how could he have?" But he sounded almost as edgy.
Sanji cracked an eye to peek at the man's face, and had to force back a grin. He recognized that look, the wild-eyed disbelief of someone who has seen Luffy fight, with his crazy power and even crazier technique. Luffy had a way of bending reality like it was the same rubber as his body; once you had experienced that warping for yourself, its signs were easily recognized in others.
"But, boss, the way he took out all those guys—"
"I told you, that was a devil fruit power. These men have none."
"Then how'd they—"
"I don't intend to ask," the fat man said coldly. "Or to wait for the explosion to bring down this cell."
He turned to stand over Zoro, still motionless on the floor. Sanji was at the wrong angle to see what was in his hand, but there was no mistaking the distinctive metallic click of a pistol being cocked.
And Zoro just stayed lying there—had the idiot fallen asleep again? The fat man's arm was moving, coming up to fire the gun—
He was too far away for Sanji to reach him, but the thug was not. Sanji pulled the sword out from under his legs, and holding the hilt with both hands to guide the blade, he stabbed it into the man's ankle, just above his low boots.
It was as good a distraction as he could have wished; the goon shrieked like a seagull and fell. But the fat man didn't sound terribly distracted as he said, calmly, "So it was you." He was smiling as he turned. His thug was on the ground, clutching his leg and moaning, but the fat man's focus was on Sanji, the gun still in his hand, coming up to bear on him.
Tightly gripping the sword, Sanji prepared to lunge at the man, one hand braced against the floor to launch himself. He wasn't sure if he could make it, but there was no way he was going down—
Sanji had for that instant forgotten about Zoro, and so had the fat man, or else he hadn't considered him a threat. Either way, he was completely unprepared for the swordsman to slam into his knees, sending them both crashing to the floor. As the fat man fell the pistol went off, thundering painfully loudly, before flying out of his hands.
Sanji blinked as the bullet cracked into the stone wall beside his head, close enough that its velocity stirred his hair. Then he wrenched the sword up to put the blade against the man's fleshy throat. "Don't move," he suggested, his voice dull to his deafened ears.
The fat man, on his knees reaching for the pistol, froze, his damp face mottled red and white.
Behind him Zoro picked himself up off the floor, coughing, one hand pressed to his bandaged side as he gasped, "Sanji? The gun—"
"I'm fine," Sanji said. "He missed."
He watched Zoro's eyes flick to the bullet hole in the wall and return to Sanji, measuring the mere centimeters between, and the swordsman's jaw set. "Dammit, cook, why'd you blow it like that—"
"Blow it?" The sword was heavy to hold steady, especially sitting like he was. He shifted his grip before it slipped and got more blood on the blade. "Wasn't this the plan?"
"Not cutting it that close! I had things covered."
"Oh, excuse me, didn't know, I forgot to put on my mind-reading helmet. Besides, it worked—Zoro, behind you!"
The thug had staggered to his feet, blood dripping from his ankle over his boot. From his jacket he pulled a knife, a dagger matching his comrade's. As Sanji shouted, he plunged it down towards Zoro's back.
The swordsman didn't look back at the warning, just ducked and rolled out of the way. The thug raised the dagger, not over Zoro, but poised to throw it between Sanji's eyes. Busy aiming, he missed Zoro coming up again into a crouch, sweeping up his two other swords in the same motion. Before the knife could be thrown, Zoro caught it between his two blades and flipped it out of the thug's fist.
"Your boss is already promised to him," Zoro told the man, nodding toward Sanji. He planted his swords against the stone to lever himself to his feet. "So that leaves you for me."
The thug stared at him. "What are you gonna do," he began to ask, "bleed on—" and then Zoro attacked.
"I said, don't move," Sanji said, as the fat man tried to twist his head to look at the fight. He leaned forward, ignoring the twinge that shot through his legs, to better angle the katana's blade against the man's neck. "I'm not too good with swords, and this thing's sharp enough to slit your throat without me even trying." He glanced past the man for a moment. "Besides, there's nothing to see."
The thug fell to his knees beside his boss, groaned and then crashed face-first onto the floor, laid out on the stone limp as his comrade. The fat man's squinty eyes widened as far as they could, straining to make out Zoro behind him without moving his head, then rolling back to stare at Sanji. "What do you want?" he gasped. "If it's—anything, money, I have it, or my employer's name—"
Sanji smiled. "I already told you what I want from you."
"No—wait—you need me," the fat man said. He started to straighten up, froze again when Sanji pressed the sword closer, but it regained him some composure, so he met Sanji's eyes with a touch of his former smirk. "There's charges set in here, timed to go off any minute now, that will bring this cell's ceiling down around your ears. In the condition you're in, without my help, you'll be trapped here, or worse—"
"Hey, Zoro," Sanji asked. "You waiting for an easy escape route?"
Zoro was kneeling on the floor, braced by his swords and head dropped as he panted. "I'm waiting for you to shut that bastard up."
Sanji nodded, looked back at the fat man and allowed his grin to widen. "That's what I thought."
"Wai—no—please—!" The fat man gulped, his bobbing adam's apple scraping against the katana as he stared at Sanji, mouth gaping like a suffocating fish's. "Do you want to die? Are you mad? Wh-what kind of men are you?"
"We told you before," Sanji said, "we're pirates," and then he flipped the katana around and rammed the hilt into the fat man's temple. The man collapsed like a sack of wet cement.
Sanji lowered the sword to the floor, carefully, so the blade didn't clink against the stone. "Not even a broken bone," Zoro commented, shaking his head. "You shouldn't have hit him so hard. Now we'll be gone before he even wakes up, no chance for anything."
"Unless we're trapped here by a cave-in, like he said." Sanji shrugged. "Though he was probably just making that up."
A muffled boom sounded above them. Sanji cocked his head, coughing in the shower of dust that fell from the ceiling. "Or exaggerating it, at least..."
A second, louder boom shook the walls, and then a third. They both looked up as more mortar dust rained down from the stone blocks composing the ceiling.
"Dammit," Zoro swore, and staggered to his feet. As one of the blocks came loose and plummeted, he dove toward Sanji, the stone narrowly avoiding his skull to crack on the floor instead.
"Wait, what are you—" Sanji yelled, as Zoro dropped his swords to bodily grab him. Still holding the white katana, Sanji reached down and snatched up the other two swords as his crewmate threw him over his shoulder and charged for the door, dodging falling rock. Zoro kicked open the door, and they tumbled into the corridor outside the cell right before most of the rest of the roof came down.
Sanji coughed, brushed the settling dust from his hair. Zoro leaned against him, back to back, so Sanji could feel his chest heave as he gasped for breath. "You better not be getting blood on my jacket."
"You better not be...uh...getting blood on my swords."
Sanji looked down at the red spotting the white katana's shining silver. "I'll polish it for you later. Here." He set the three swords down on the floor, slid them back to their master's hand.
As he did he felt Zoro tense, and heard the clatter echoing down the staircase from above. The crack of something breaking, pounding footsteps. "Sounds like someone's come home."
"Yeah." The sword blades scraped against the floor as Zoro picked them up.
He was shaking with the effort. Sanji sighed, set his back to Zoro's and braced his arms to push both of them up. If there weren't too many of them—though if they had guns... "It might not be the master of the house," he said, "it might be marines. Or—"
"ZORO! SANJI! WHERE ARE YOU?!"
Sanji relaxed all at once, slumped back against Zoro and felt his crewmate do the same. He found he was smiling so hard his cheeks hurt. "About damn time."
"Took them long enough," Zoro agreed, and Sanji could hear the grin in his voice.
"What were you planning on doing, anyway?" Sanji inquired. "Neither of us can stand."
"We'd have managed."
Sanji snorted, feeling the labored rise and fall of Zoro's shoulders as he caught his breath. By his count the swordsman had about ten minutes' reserve strength until he completely collapsed. Maybe fifteen. Probably not enough for him to make it back to the ship, but with Luffy here that wasn't a problem.
Overhead he could hear the distinctive clopping of hooves on hardwood. "Good, Chopper did come."
Zoro's sigh was almost inaudible, and Sanji chuckled. "Oh, shut up," Zoro growled. "He's not gonna be sewing you up like a stuffed toy."
"What, you liked having open holes in you? Don't tell me the great swordsmaster is afraid of a doctor's needle."
"Are you going to be such a pain in the ass the whole time those legs heal?"
"Well, I'll have to keep my hand in somehow. He's probably not going to let me kick your ass for at least a week." Sanji tipped his head back against his crewmate's shoulder, half-closed his eyes. His legs were throbbing painfully, but Chopper would put them right. "Maybe Nami-san will buy me that icebox lock at last. Don't know how else I'm going to keep Luffy out of it." Footsteps were still pounding overhead. They could call out, but Luffy might decide to take the direct route down if he figured out exactly where they were, and Sanji wasn't sure the corridor's ceiling could handle the stress of a gomu gomu attack without collapsing. They'd find the stairs soon enough.
"Sanji," Zoro said, "Chopper's not going to let you try—if you really want that fat bastard's—"
"Actually, I was thinking on the way back, we should stop by that marine base. Let them know there's some guys in town looking for one of their captains." He waved toward the crooked door and the rubble piled behind the barred window. "Doesn't look like they'll be getting out of there anytime soon, and I'm betting everyone laid out at the docks will keep long enough for the marines to get there, if they're not arrested already."
"You think it lacks the personal touch?"
"I don't think they deserve anything better than getting clapped in marine irons," Zoro said, nodding his approval.
"There's nothing much to get revenge for." Sanji elbowed Zoro in the side, carefully avoiding the bandages. "Just a day's training, right?"
Upstairs a door opened, and their crewmates' voices became suddenly clearer. Sanji smiled to hear Nami calling their names, under Chopper and Luffy's continuing shouts. "Hey," he remarked. "Chopper doesn't really need to know how you got those bullet holes to fix them, does he."
Zoro was quiet for a moment, listening to the growing clatter on the stairs. "How your legs got broken isn't that important, either," he said finally. "And it could've been lightning as easily as eels, don't think that'd make a difference."
"No need to mention any visits to any marine bases, either."
"Or any women passing around drugged drinks." Zoro turned his head enough that Sanji could see his profile out of the corner of his eye, through his hair brushing his crewmate's cheek. "Just don't do it again, cook. Any of it."
"It's a deal," Sanji said, grinning.
"Though, if you do," Zoro added, but quietly, so quietly that when their captain rounded the corner of the passageway at a thunderous dash, Sanji almost didn't hear him finish, "you better be sure I'm there."
Then Luffy all but tripped over them, cheerfully hollering for Chopper, though the doctor was right at his heels, and demanding to know where they were, in spite of the obvious answer in front of him, and in that agreeable pandemonium Sanji had no chance to say anything at all.
Last chance to explain - "Captain Beinkusu" is simply a Japanese deformation of "Captain Banks", which is an obscure cop show reference hearkening back to my early fanficcing day, making this a very unlikely case of mistaken identity indeed. This wasn't meant to be an actual story, you see; it's more of an exercise that got a bit out of hand...still, hope you enjoyed the ride!
Love to know what you think!
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