i. his own
The mark is centered on the small of his back, just above his waistline.
This is, at least, what Kuina tells him after he lifts his shirt a little higher for her to inspect it, her fingers lightly tracing over the letters on his skin. He probably would have never known it was there, had she not spotted it when they’d gone to the nearby stream to wash up after training.
“Well?” Zoro asks, impatient. “What’s it say?”
There’s a short moment of silence, before Kuina bursts out laughing. The trees shake out a flock of frightened birds as she chortles, high and shrill.
“Hey!” He smacks her hand away from his back. “What’s so funny ‘bout it?”
Kuina just laughs harder, collapsing into the stream and soaking the legs of his pants. The trout by their feet flee downstream. Water droplets slide down her face as her mouth attempts to form words. Mainly, she just flails at his head and makes strangled wheezing noises.
“What?” Zoro demands indignantly. “Stop messing around. What’s it say?”
It takes another minute for Kuina to catch her breath. She rubs the tears away from her eyes and lets out a few more snickers, before saying, “Marimo.”
The world slows to a stop. “Huh?”
“It’s.” She swipes a hand over her face and starts cackling again. “It’s marimo!”
There’s the initial rush of disappointment. The best soulmarks were the ones that revealed a little bit of the future, pulled back the veil of time and gave hints of what was to come. Some of the boys back at the dojo had lines like how much is it, carpenter-san? or watch where you’re pointing that gun written on their arms. Zoro had been hoping for something more revealing, like wow, I can’t believe you’re the greatest swordsman! Something with a few more words to it, maybe.
Mostly though, he’s just confused. “Why the hell would it be marimo?”
“Well, I mean.” Kuina points at his hair and dissolves into helpless giggles.
Zoro blinks at the flash of red that temporarily blinds him. The jump from confusion to affronted rage is a short one. “There’s no way it says that! You’re lying!”
Much to his dismay, Kuina is not lying. When they get back to the dojo, she borrows a pen from Koshiro and carefully traces his soulmark onto a sheet of baking paper, which she presents to Zoro looking smug. The word is barely longer than his index finger, all lowercase and messy and kind of wonky around the edges, like somebody scribbled it out in a hurry.
Staring at it, he has a sudden glimpse of his future as a plant seller on some small remote island.
“Don’t look so down,” Kuina says when Zoro sighs dejectedly. “Maybe it’s a pet name. Darling Marimo,” she adds sweetly, batting her eyelashes at him.
Zoro has another fleeting glimpse of the future, this time of a girl with painted lips and absurdly long lashes, swooning into his arms and choking him with a cloud of sugary perfume. She purses her lips and horrified, he can do nothing but watch as her face gets closer to his, sharp nails pushing through his hair, the air sickly saccharine as she breathes, Oh Marimo —
The blood drains from his face. “No way!” he yells, shoving Kuina away. “I’d rather die!”
He keeps the paper, though.
He lands hard, air shoving out of his lungs and swords flying from his hands and skewering the dirt a few feet away. The moon glints off her blade on the downstroke and she drives it into the ground by his head for the killing blow.
“Two thousand,” Kuina pants, “and one.”
His head spins. His breathing comes in puffs. The blade of her sword is cool against his cheek. Not for the first time, he feels very small, like the world has expanded into something wide and vast and that he’s fallen between the grains of dirt digging into his shoulders.
Ambition is a funny thing. Koshiro is always telling him that he has a lot of it. Too much, sometimes.
“Is that a bad thing?” Zoro had asked the ceiling of the dojo once, after his seventieth match with Kuina. The ceiling seemed so high then, and he reached up and tried to touch the wooden slats.
Koshiro laughed. “Not at all, if it helps you get back on your feet.”
Now, lying face up in the field behind the dojo, the title of greatest swordsman feels about as reachable as the stars, cold and distant. He yanks at his hair with both hands until his fingers hurt from clenching, until the pain makes his vision go a little blurry.
Why can’t I beat her?
“You're lucky you're a boy.” Kuina’s voice is crumpled and frail, nothing like her at all. She curves above him like a dying sapling, knuckles white against the hilt of her sword. Her eyes glitter. With a dawning realization, Zoro realizes that she is crying.
A wave of annoyance sweeps over him. “The hell are you crying about?” he demands. “You beat me!”
She sits down beside him, shoes scuffing up the dirt. “When girls get older, they become weaker than boys,” Kuina explains softly, chin resting on her knees. “Pretty soon, you'll all be stronger than me.” Her shoulders quake and her hand slides to cover her face. A single tear runs down the side of her wrist and she cries, “I wanna become the greatest swordsman too!”
The stars seem to dip lower for her. Kuina has always had a better chance than him — better with her sword, better at kata, better in a fight, and Zoro is suddenly, unapologetically angry, irritation running through him like a lance.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Zoro snaps. “Someday I'll beat you because I worked hard, not because you got weaker. It's got nothing to do with being a boy or a girl!” He wants to grab her by the shoulders and shake her, shout at her, scream don’t you see how wrong you are, you could be the best but you’re not letting yourself - !
Kuina doesn’t respond, just grips the front of her shirt with a hand, pulling her collar down.
Zoro’s eyes widen. “Hey, what are you - ”
And then he stops, because there, just below her collarbone, are the telltale beginnings of a soulmark.
Kuina had never shown any interest towards a soulmate, unlike the boys at the dojo trading theories of their future girlfriends and wives late at night when they’re supposed to be sleeping, and Zoro suspects that her initial fascination with his was more because of the jab at his hair and less because of the soulmate part. He’d always assumed that she was one of those rare few born without a mark, born independent of that missing piece so many songs and stories were written about.
But the letters inscribed on her skin are unmistakable. He doesn’t understand why she’s showing this to him now.
“What if my soulmate thinks so?” Kuina whispers, answering his question. “What if they make me choose between them and my dream?”
“Cut their legs off,” Zoro snaps. “If they don't think you can be the greatest, just because of some lousy reason like being a girl, you're better off without them. You think I'm gonna let mine stop me?”
“No, but - ” Kuina tugs her collar lower, the first letters of her mark sliding out from under the worn cotton, and Zoro slaps his hand over it.
“I don't care about what it says!” he shouts. “It doesn't matter! You haven't even met them and you're already letting them tell you what to do. What about me? I'm the one who's here, not them!” He presses his fingers down over her’s painfully, bones creaking. The stars shake on their hinges.
“Promise me! Someday, one of us will become the greatest swordsman ever! We’ll fight each other for the title! To hell with anyone who stands in our way!”
The last word rings out into the night, dwindles until there is nothing but the sound of cicadas and his heavy breathing, and Kuina staring at him with watery eyes.
Finally, she lets go of her collar, uses the front of her shirt to wipe her face. “You’re such an idiot,” Kuina sniffles. She clasps her hand with his, her grip iron. “It’s a promise!”
But that never happens. They don’t fight for the title. They don’t set off looking for the greatest swordsman. Kuina doesn’t even make it out of the dojo. That night, Kuina misses a step on the stairs and snaps her neck.
The funeral is a quiet affair.
Koshiro is a tired and silent presence. The whole time, Zoro can hear the other boys whispering. How tragic, they keep saying. The human is a fragile thing, Koshiro says.
It’s silly, to be angry at someone for dying. The rain turns it into something quieter, soaks his clothes and his hair. He can’t stop thinking about her bleeding out all over the steps in the dojo, all the ambition and possibility spilling on the floorboards. She had made a promise just a few hours earlier, broken it before a day had even passed.
Kuina is dressed in a simple white dress that Zoro knows she would never be caught dead wearing, yet here she is, dead and wearing it. The neckband is cut lower than the high-collared shirts she usually wore; the beginning of her mark peeks out from under the fabric, and before he can stop himself, Zoro moves it the rest of the way.
i’ve been waiting for you my whole life
It’s something that everybody knows and nobody wants to talk about, the death of a person before they meet their other half. Zoro has a brief moment of pity for whoever Kuina’s soulmate would have been, before he remembers her words from the night before.
What if they make me choose?
There’s another side to it — there’s always another side, and he can see it now, her soulmark becoming shriveled and acrid in his mind.
“I’ve been waiting for you my whole life!” this person is saying to her, shouting at her. “You would choose between some dream you could never hope to achieve, than me?”
When Koshiro gives him Kuina’s sword, he takes it with shaking hands, his own soulmark burning into his back. He bows his head low, grits his teeth, and promises himself the same thing he promised to her, with an addendum.
Death himself wouldn’t be able to stop him, either.
Zoro is seventeen when he bids the dojo farewell.
He stops by Kuina’s grave first, like he has done every other day since her death, just to speak with her. Koshiro goes with him this time, a silent shadow behind him as he pats her headstone one last time, and gets on his way.
His second stop is a ramshackle shop just outside the village, which he comes across by accident after taking a wrong turn. The owner is a tottery old woman with crow’s feet, who mistakes him for a lost traveler and immediately sweeps him inside with a feeble arm. He leaves with some bread, a bottle of sake, and a green haramaki. It fits snug around his waist and covers his soulmark perfectly, even with his shirt off.
“You’re beneath my notice,” he says to his soulmate, to whoever is listening. The road out of Shimotsuki is a long and winding one, the road to the greatest swordsman even more so, and he can’t afford any distractions.
Zoro checks to make sure his swords are secure on his waist. The haramaki molds to fit the sheaths.
Now, to the top.
iii. johnny & yosaku
The first year on his own is uneventful. Zoro chases after rumors of a man with the eyes of a hawk and the strength to cut a dozen galleons in half, with nothing but his swords and Kuina’s ghost to keep him company. He loses his way once, twice, too many times, starts collecting bounties to pay for room and board. The faces on the wanted posters he takes from the back walls of taverns smear together like the days.
Johnny and Yosaku are a nice change of pace. They’re a hassle at first, with their nicknames and clinginess, but they grow on him like a fungus, or what Kuina would probably say, like moss. They’re a pair of excitable guys, naive and starry-eyed, no goals except waking up the next morning, trying that oden place by the inn, and then heading off to the next town.
“Got anyone waiting on you, bro?” Johnny asks, around the time Zoro’s starting to realize that his soulmate being a girl is about as likely as him pawning off his swords and starting a quiet life as a plant seller.
Zoro gives a cursory grunt, not really paying attention. The bar is unusually quiet for the night, the clinking of shot glasses and the bustling of the bartender making him sleepy. Then, the question sinks into him and he jerks in his stool, booze sloshing onto the counter. “Hah?”
“A soulmate, bro," Yosaku drawls from his other side, stretching out the vowels obnoxiously, and Zoro’s fingers freeze around the neck of his bottle. The skin on his back crawls.
Johnny’s mark is a neatly printed you any good with that sword? right over his pulse point, kept hidden under a black wristband. When they had just started bounty-hunting together, Zoro had offhandedly asked how he’d gotten into sword-fighting.
“Some things are just meant to be, bro,” Johnny had said. He slid his wristband off his arm and tapped his mark, the words stark against the pale stripe of skin. “The moment I saw this, I knew I had to learn the way of the sword.”
“You let them decide that for you?” Zoro had asked, skeptical, and Johnny threw his head back and laughed.
“They’re my soulmate,” Johnny said, like that was the only thing that mattered. “They can decide whatever they want.”
Yosaku had been much more reserved about his, and although Zoro could care less, Johnny constantly wheedled him about it, poking and prodding and trying to get him to show Zoro. After a few weeks of endless badgering, Yosaku finally gave in, lifting the blonde curls of his hair one day under the noon sun.
Instead of a phrase, there had been a strange, baby-blue splotch on his neck.
Colored marks are rare, non-word ones practically unheard of. Zoro had been speechless, too many questions on his tongue and none of them making their way out of his mouth.
“I think they’re mute,” Yosaku had explained. It was why he was always talking with his hands even though Johnny and Zoro had no idea what he meant, constantly mouthing words to himself with his fingertips on his lips.
Yosaku is one of the best lip readers Zoro knows, but not out of necessity. He’s practicing, preparing for his soulmate.
If Zoro had to pick one thing he didn’t like about Johnny and Yosaku, he wouldn’t choose their incessant nicknaming or their clinginess. He would choose their gullibility, their faith in those people they have never met, the ones who are supposed to make everything right just by existing.
Zoro is not Yosaku or Johnny. He doesn’t entertain could-bes and what-ifs. He has a place to be, things to do. A man to find.
“Bro?” Johnny asks when he takes too long to answer.
“Don’t have one,” he lies, tipping the bottle of booze into his mouth.
Luffy is the first person Zoro meets that doesn’t have a mark.
“I’m not looking for a soulmate,” Luffy tells him a few days after they’ve left Shells Town. He grins, his feet hang off the side of their shared dinghy, flip flops dangling in the air. “I’m looking for a crew!”
It’s a refreshing perspective, like Zoro’s view of the electric blue sky from where he’s leaned against the side of the boat, the clouds bobbing lazily like wayward ships. Salt plasters his hands and the bottoms of his boots. He hasn’t gone sailing in a while, the last time being when he chased down a stowaway thug with Johnny and Yosaku several months back.
“And you?” Luffy shuffles to the side and bumps knees with Zoro. “You got one of those soulmate-thingies?”
“Nah,” Zoro says. It’s a lie that is getting easier to tell.
“Cool!” Luffy says, though Zoro thinks his response would’ve been the same no matter what Zoro had answered. “I dunno what I would do with one of those.” He flops down dramatically, hands and feet outstretched like they’re being nailed to the floorboards. “I’m starving!”
Zoro’s stomach growls in agreement. It briefly occurs to him that they probably should have stocked up on supplies before leaving Shells Town. On the floor of the dinghy, Luffy shifts his hat out of his eyes, squinting up at the sky at something.
“Hey, a bird - !”
Trying to catch the bird ends in disaster, but based on Zoro’s first interaction with Luffy, he’s not sure why he was expecting anything else. While the bird brings several hitches into their journey — specifically, a wayward Luffy, several unwanted passengers on their dinghy, and a disjointed clown goblin and his crew — it also brings them Nami, a thief with a penchant for navigation and robbing Zoro of all his money. Barely days after that, they stumble across an assassination plot manned by a butler and his motley cat-themed pirate crew in what is supposed to be the quiet village of Syrup. Their defeat brings some improvements to the standard of living: Luffy recruits Usopp, their new sharpshooter with a voice that pitches high and reedy whenever he’s scared or lying, and they get a new ship.
With this kind of line-up, Zoro knows that they’re going to be the weirdest, most rag-tag pirate crew on the Grand Line.
Sanji comes to them smelling heavily of cigarette smoke and fish. In the three minutes that he waits on their table in the Baratie, he flirts with Nami, gets slammed through their table by the head chef, and delivers a very impressive ax kick squarely to Luffy’s head. The resolute expression on Luffy’s face as Sanji drags him away tells Zoro and the others that they’re about to get a new crewmate.
And then Mihawk arrives.
They cross swords. Zoro loses. He earns a new scar, makes a new promise.
These are the things that matter, the reasons why he set out with Luffy in the first place. Everything else — the restaurant, the cooks, Don Krieg and his men — they are just embellishments, mere details not worth remembering, and yet —
He remembers this: the wreck of Don Krieg’s ship shaky under his feet, shaky like his hand around the hilt of Kuina’s sword and the raggedness of his breath, dipping with every passing wave as the sea foam washes up the sides of the wood. The cut of Mihawk’s grin searing through him as his blood sprays into the air and all over the deck.
And a clear voice through the din of the cooks and Krieg’s men:
“Abandon your stupid dream!”
After his fight with Mihawk, several things happen:
- Nami fleeces them of the Merry and their treasure.
- Zoro, Usopp, Yosaku, and Johnny follow her to Arlong Park.
- Luffy beats the shit out of Arlong.
- Nami comes back to them.
Oh, and they get a cook.
Sanji is, well. Zoro doesn’t really know what to make of him. The overzealous way he handed out kicks to the customers and the other cooks back at the Baratie suggests someone bad-tempered, a fighter with a short fuse. The way Nami and other women reduce him to floppy limbs and melty gestures suggests a lecherous moron. The way Sanji pretends to drop containers of food in front of starving men and children in the back alleys of villages they visit, how he sometimes throws slabs of meat overboard for hungry seakings, suggests something else entirely.
They’ve scarcely set off from Cocoyashi when Luffy demands for a picnic. Zoro and Usopp carry out the table from the galley and Nami finds towels to lay on the deck. Sanji makes a mountain of dumplings, setting the platter between a bowl of fruit salad and a long tray of sandwiches. The weather is warm enough to make Nami strip down to a bikini. Luffy and Usopp relieve themselves of their shirts and Zoro does the same, leaving on his haramaki.
Usopp is smacking Luffy away from the dumplings for the fifth time when Sanji emerges from the galley carrying a pitcher of something sparkly and pink. He is wearing an open button-down, cargo shorts, and the brightest, most horrendous orange sandals Zoro has ever seen.
Of course, the first thing Sanji does is zero in on Nami, eyes popping out like they’re on springs. “Nami-swan, your beauty never fails to dazzle me! You are a queen among peasants, a pearl on this oyster of a sea!” He somehow executes a perfect pirouette without spilling anything from the pitcher. His twirling makes the flaps of his button-down flutter apart, revealing a spot of writing on his chest.
Luffy notices it too. “Hey Sanji, what’s that?”
Sanji pauses mid revolution, leg sticking out comically. “Oh, this?” He grins, cigarette jumping between his lips. “It’s my soulmark!”
Scrawled over his heart is his name — Sanji — in cluttered letters. Zoro squints at it from where he’s lying face-up on the deck; it looks like the writing that decorated the signs around the Isshin dojo, that Koshiro taught all the boys back in Shimotsuki.
“Maybe your soulmate’s a swordsman,” he says out loud.
“As if!” Sanji sniffs. He pours Nami a drink while glaring at Zoro. “My soulmate isn’t a brute! She’s well-educated.”
“So your name, huh?” Usopp asks. “Don’t think I’ve seen that before.”
“It’s romantic,” Sanji says, sighing dramatically. “She need not do anything but say my name, and I’d do anything for her!”
“Oi Sanji,” Zoro says. “Make me one of your frilly drinks.”
Sanji nearly upends the table to kick at him, which gives Luffy the opportunity to cram the entire platter of dumplings down his throat. Nami continues to sip at her own drink, unperturbed.
“Only beautiful ladies get to say my name!” Sanji yells.
“How’s dartbrow, then?” Zoro snarls. He dodges another kick and moves around the table, putting it between him and Sanji. Usopp whimpers from where he’s cowering on the ground.
“Get back here you bastard!”
“Come and get me then, shit-cook!”
Sanji rounds the table, seething. He lashes out with a leg. “Eat this, Marimo!”
The last word hits him like a punch to the gut, before Sanji actually kicks him in the gut and sends him crashing into the ground. The fruit salad jumps. Zoro goes sliding across the deck several feet before coming to a stop at the foremast.
The whole ship goes silent.
“O-oi,” Sanji says, startled. “You okay?”
Zoro is still reeling from the previous events. He feels like he’s just been thrown back into his body after two years of not being in it, more aware of the burning of his mark than he has ever been before. His chest is tight, his breath suspended in his lungs. He digs his nails into the deck to try and ground himself, Sanji’s mark still scorched on the inside of his eyelids. If he’d been more fortunate, the writing would have been different, but it’s unmistakably his —
He realizes that everyone is still quiet and watching him, waiting for an answer.
“Lucky shot,” he manages. Sanji gives him a weird look, but he turns away to fix the salad bowl.
Zoro doesn’t get up. He stares at Sanji’s back, boring holes into it.
It’s just his luck. He doesn’t even go looking for his soulmate, and he finds him anyway.
Usopp’s mark is a loopy hello curled around the shell of his ear.
They’d met his soulmate back in Syrup Village, a wealthy girl by the name of Kaya who had been the target of an assassination plot led by some pirate hasbeen and his crew. She’d given them the Merry as a thank you for stopping the attack.
It had been difficult not to spot her mark; she was wrapped head to toe in pale letters, every single one of Usopp’s tall tales covering her body. She completed Usopp, her many words accompanying his one. They were one of those soulmate fairy tales come to life.
“And you left her?” Sanji asked once, during one of Usopp’s stories.
“Not forever,” Usopp had said.
“I don’t think I could do that.”
“Swirly, if women actually liked you, you would never find the All Blue,” Zoro cut in, which prompted Sanji to try and kick him overboard.
After Sanji finds out about Kaya, he becomes a little insufferable, always teasing Usopp about how sweet it is that his soulmate had him at ‘hello’ .
“Yours is gonna have you at your name,” Usopp always retorts. “You’re not that much better than me.”
Zoro always got the feeling that Sanji secretly envied Usopp. It’s not hard to see that he’s a romantic, one of those sentimentalists that are convinced a stranger holds the key to something they so desperately need. He reminds Zoro a bit of Yosaku and Johnny.
It’s Zoro’s turn to do the dishes tonight, and he’s up to his elbows in suds. He and Sanji have agreed to suspend fighting from all dish-related activities; the first night Zoro had been on dish duty, there’d been a water fight that soaked the entire galley, and so many dishes had been broken that Nami threw a fit about the cost of replacing them.
The water is warm, and the darkness outside is making him drowsy. Zoro wipes another dish dry with a towel and stifles a yawn. He steals a glance at Sanji, who is rinsing a pan under the sink, the firelight turning his hair into threads of gold. A few strands shake out of place as Sanji scrubs at the pan, dangling in front of his only visible eye. Abruptly, Zoro has an almost violent urge to tuck them back in place.
He squashes it down as quickly as it appears.
Sanji catches him staring. He looks behind him, then back at Zoro. “What?”
Zoro panics and says the first thing that comes to mind. “Your face is stupid.”
“What did you say, Marimo?!”
“DON’T CALL ME THAT.”
Zoro doesn’t know how he and Nami became friends. They’re crewmates, of course; he respects her, and he thinks (hopes) that she respects him, but he never really foresaw them becoming nakama. They were just two people who happened to be on the same boat, both with wildly different ambitions and ways of life. Without Luffy, Zoro doubts they would’ve ever given each other a second glance if they crossed paths on the seas.
He learns to like her though, somewhere between Orange Town and the Baratie. Sometimes he’ll glare at shopkeepers from behind her so they’ll offer her cheaper prices, and she’ll show him the best places in town to buy sword oil and booze. They’ve cultivated a graceful friendship, where he can curse her out and she can clobber him and they can still have time to get drinks at a local tavern and swap stories.
Another reason Zoro likes their friendship is because it infuriates Sanji, which is always hilarious.
“I don’t understand why she would spend so much time with a brute like you,” Sanji fumes when Zoro and Nami get back to the ship after one of their bar nights. His cigarette puffs out several malformed, angry-looking hearts.
Nami laughs and slings an arm over Zoro’s shoulder. She tugs on his cheek painfully, something he does not appreciate in the slightest. “He’s not the worst.”
Sanji lets out of a roar of outrage and flings himself at Zoro to defend Nami’s honor. It’s remarkably easy to piss him off.
Then, there are the quieter moments of their relationship that they both could do better without.
Zoro finds Nami sitting by the tangerine trees one night, looking lonely and downcast. While he’s remarkably good at terrorizing salesmen and getting smashed, emotions are one of the few things that Zoro considers himself severely inept at. He briefly entertains leaving her alone, but he has to cross the deck to get to the crow’s nest for watch.
She barely looks up as he walks towards her, making sure the plodding of his boots announces his presence. He stops by her, and after an uncomfortably long silence, asks awkwardly, “What’s wrong?”
“You’re very bad at this,” Nami informs him, and he scowls.
“Fine, I’ll just leave then!” He sits down next to her anyway.
The silence that follows is less clumsy than before. Zoro watches the branches of the trees bob with the rocking of the ship, watches the clouds slowly unfurl to uncover the moon.
Watches Nami sigh and admit softly, “I envy you sometimes. You and Luffy.” She has the same expression Sanji wears occasionally when he washes the dishes or stares at the curve of Usopp’s ear.
Her jaw is stiff, like she’s steeling herself for something. She clenches and unclenches her fingers, and then lifts up the right side of her shirt.
Nestled against her lower ribs is a soulmark.
i came to say goodbye
The mark is in perfect cursive, bends and arches sharp against her skin.
Sanji would know what to say. Sanji was better at these kinds of things than Zoro was, he was the romantic, the sentimentalist, the idealist, the one who could say ‘Don’t worry, it’s not what you think’ and mean it. But Zoro is not Sanji, so when he’s done reading, he just nods and Nami lets her shirt fall over it again.
“Do you ever think that things won’t go your way?” she asks the night sky.
Faces pass through Zoro’s mind in quick succession. He thinks of Kuina, then Mihawk, and then Sanji. “Sometimes.”
“You don’t have to worry about it though, do you?”
All of a sudden, Zoro wants so desperately to tell Nami about the mark on his back. He wants to tell her about why he started hiding his mark and then why he kept hiding it, about why Kuina scared him and why Sanji scares him more. He wants to tell Nami a lot of things, but he won’t, can’t, because, because.
He doesn’t say anything. They sit in silence and let the minutes wash by, until Nami pats him on the shoulder and says, “That’s enough, thank you.”
They enter the Grand Line and immediately get sucked into an underhanded conspiracy led by none other than Baroque Works.
Zoro remembers Baroque Works. Just before he’d run into Johnny and Yosaku, a man with a tattoo of a seven on his face had tried to recruit him to the organization. He doesn’t really remember the details — something to do with toppling a kingdom or whatever — but he remembers not wanting anything to do with it. The guy didn’t take no for an answer though, so Zoro had killed him. End of story.
Except not, because at Whiskey Peak, they meet Vivi, the princess of Alabasta, also known as the kingdom Baroque Works had been, and still is trying to overthrow.
The prospect of adventure has Luffy enthralled, the prospect of getting paid has Nami’s eyes sparkling beri-green, and the prospect of having more than one girl on the ship has Sanji swooning into the next week, and so they set off to Alabasta, their own journey temporarily put on hold.
After Whiskey Peak is Little Garden, which does not live up to its name. The island is teeming with prehistoric creatures and plants so tall that they blot out the sun, and hiding among the giant ferns and the dinosaurs are four of Baroque Works’ agents, with big plans of their own.
Cutting off his legs is a decision that Zoro reaches in a panic. Usopp, Carue, and Luffy are allegedly dead, blown up by Mr. 5 and his partner, Ms. Valentine. Nami and Vivi are in the same boat as he is, waiting to be snuffed out by Mr. 3. Sanji is nowhere to be found. He’s too weak to cut through the candelabra, and the thought of doing nothing as his crewmates’ lungs fill with wax makes him feel sick all the way down to his bones.
So he hacks halfway through his legs.
It works out in the end. Nami and Vivi don’t get turned into wax statues. Luffy and Usopp come out of the fight charred and bruised, but alive. Sanji is the healthiest out of all of them, having missed the entire fight. They even manage to procure an eternal pose to Alabasta. There have been worse outcomes to battles.
Sanji finds him in the galley later, a bottle of sake in one hand and several towels in the other. Zoro doesn’t look up from where he’s trying to sew his ankle back together, teeth gnawing through his lip. His hands are slick with blood, and it’s hard to concentrate with the sting of the needle sliding in and out of his flesh.
Sanji stands over him silently until Zoro can’t ignore him anymore.
“What do you want.” Sanji raises an eyebrow and gives a pointed look at his bloody legs. He’s probably the last person Zoro wants to see right now, so he says a bit harshly, “Shouldn’t you be helping the girls?”
“The girls are fine,” Sanji snaps, surprising him. He sits down on the floor in front of Zoro, prying the needle from Zoro’s fingers and moving his foot so that it rests on the crook of his knee. Setting the towels and sake on the ground, he says, “Wipe your hands clean. And drink the booze.”
Too tired to argue, Zoro does what he’s told.
Sanji stitches quietly, occasionally using one of the towels to mop away the blood pooling on the floor. The alcohol dulls the pain around his ankles, muddles his senses nicely. He can hear Luffy and Usopp whooping on deck, Nami and Vivi talking amiably above them. Zoro lets himself nod off to the chatter, the needle passing in and out of his skin, the cigarette smoke clinging to Sanji’s clothes, the sun rays painting the wooden floor different colors.
“Value yourself more.”
Sanji looks just as surprised as Zoro feels, and the next stitch is rougher than the others, making him wince.
“Ah, sorry.” The following stitch is gentler. “I just meant — you can’t be the world’s greatest swordsman if you’re missing both your legs, right?”
“You couldn’t,” Zoro rasps, and Sanji laughs. The sound makes him blink. Sanji’s smile feels like pulling the windows wide open, his one visible eye bright blue like a cloudless day at sea. Zoro kind of wants to see what the other one looks like, though that might just be the blood loss getting to his head.
“Whatever you say, Marimo.” He finishes the last stitch and sets Zoro’s foot down. “Just don’t pull that shit again. I’ve got better things to do than sew you back up.”
Lucky for Sanji, he never has to, because at the next island, Luffy recruits Chopper, a talking reindeer that doubles as a doctor.
Zoro loves Chopper. Zoro loves Chopper very much, and Zoro will also die before he ever admits it.
On their first night away from Drum Island, after the party has died down, the whole crew sequesters themselves in the galley to escape the snow. Sanji makes everyone mugs of hot chocolate — extra bitter without marshmallows, for Zoro — as they all gather around their new crewmate.
Usopp is in the middle of a story about how he saved the entire population of Mirror Ball Island from a swarm of light-devouring moths, when Chopper spots his soulmark. Instantly, the reindeer pounces on it, fawning over it like he’s just found the cure to a previously incurable disease.
“So this is a soulmark,” Chopper marvels, prodding the side of Usopp’s ear with his hoof. “Dr. Kureha mentioned them once, but they never came up in any of my medical textbooks.”
“Well, they’re not really a medical thing,” Nami says. “Soulmarks are supposed to be the first meaningful words your soulmate says to you.”
“I thought they were the first words that make you fall in love with your soulmate,” says Usopp.
Sanji takes a sip of his hot chocolate, looking thoughtful. “I’ve heard it several ways. They could be the most important words your soulmate says to you, the first words they say to you, the first words that make you fall in love with them, or the first words that make you realize you’re in love with them. No one really knows for sure.”
“So cool!” Chopper squeals. He turns to Luffy. “Do all humans have a soulmark? Reindeers aren’t born with them, so I don’t have one. What’s yours look like?”
“Luffy doesn’t have one,” Zoro answers the same time Luffy says, “Why would I need a soulmate when I have you guys?”
“Neither does Marimo,” Sanji adds, and Zoro throws his empty mug at him. Sanji catches it with a hand and grumbles something about “green, uncouth heathens”, setting the mug safely down in the sink.
Chopper has started muttering about “tests” and “inconsistent anomalies” under his breath, but Luffy and Usopp distract him by pulling him onto the table into what looks like another interpretive dance, with Sanji’s chopsticks sticking out of their nostrils.
It’s getting late, and one by one, they filter out of the kitchen. Nami goes first, still recovering from her sickness, quickly followed by Sanji with another mug of something sweet and warm, and then Usopp drags a snoring Luffy below deck to the men’s room. Zoro starts to sit up to make his way back to the hammocks (and maybe steal some sake from the pantry) when something tugs him back down to his seat.
Chopper snuffles quietly from where he’s fallen asleep against Zoro, his head pillowed on Zoro’s lap, a hoof curled around his haramaki. Zoro waves a hand in front of his face and gets no reaction; the enthusiasm from the night must have worn him out. The pantry door tempts him, the hammocks below deck more so, but tonight, Zoro is a weak man, so he sighs and nudges Chopper closer. He pillows his head on his arms. If he also happens to smile into the surface of the dinner table as he dozes off, then that’s his business.
Hours later — or maybe it’s just minutes — someone comes back into the galley. They don’t notice Zoro at first, footsteps clomping loudly as they stomp the snow off their boots outside, before the door creaks open and all sounds cease, save for the howling of the wind.
Zoro blearily cracks an eye open. Across the room, Sanji’s hand slowly pushes the door closed. His cheeks are pink from the cold, the snow from outside still spangling his eyelashes. His hair looks like a wet stack of hay.
“What are you doing here?” Sanji hisses.
“Chopper,” Zoro says by way of explanation, though it comes out more like a garbled mess of vowels. He yawns into his arm, then says clearer, “Chopper.”
“Chopper?” Sanji repeats loudly, and Zoro scowls at him. He raises his head from the table and presses a finger to his mouth pointedly.
Sanji gets the message, fortunately, because Zoro might’ve had to kill him if he ended up waking the reindeer. He rounds the table to where Zoro is sitting, then freezes when Chopper murmurs something in his sleep and snuggles closer into his haramaki.
Sanji seems about as willing to move Chopper as Zoro is. “So you’re sleeping here, huh?” The expression on his face is unreadable.
“Yeah,” Zoro says.
“Okay,” says Sanji, a little awkwardly. “Well, I have watch, so.” He starts to inch out of the galley.
Zoro makes a grunt of assent and pillows his head back on his arms. The door to the galley opens and closes quietly as Sanji leaves. Just as he’s starting to slip back into unconsciousness, he hears the door open again, the tell-tale sound of Sanji’s dress shoes striding across the room. They stop beside him, and Zoro can smell cigarette smoke in the air. A second later, a blanket falls to cover him. Sanji tucks the folds around his shoulders and under his arms. He pauses for a moment, before mussing Zoro’s hair with a hand.
Zoro opens his eyes just in time to catch a glimpse of Sanji’s back disappearing through the galley door a final time. He gathers the blanket around Chopper and runs his fingers through his hair, face warming. He glances back at the closed door again, and then drifts off to sleep.
The second night Vivi sails with them, Sanji asks her about her mark during dinner, something that is quickly becoming the norm on the Merry. With Sanji there, everyone (save for Zoro) had become used to treating their soulmarks like their middle names, casually and without the furtiveness that regular people were accustomed to.
However, Vivi had shrunk away and looked cornered, stammering, “I’m sorry, but you must understand - as a royal, I can’t tell you.”
Sanji immediately tripped over himself, nearly tipping over a tray of scallops. “No need to apologize, Vivi-chan! That question was incredibly out of line.”
Zoro never finds out what Vivi’s soulmark says, though after Alabasta, he has his guesses.
All talk of soulmarks is quickly forgotten in favor of figuring out what to do about Crocodile and Baroque Works. The plan is to sail to Alabasta to stop the rebels and the royal army from colliding, and put an end to the bloodshed and the drought. Zoro comes up with a way to counteract Mr. 2’s devil fruit powers, and Nami draws out maps for all of them to use once they land. Usopp locks himself in the men’s quarters to work on some new weapons. Even Luffy is taking things seriously, for once. They all know how important this all is to Vivi, and they’re the most prepared they’ve ever been for a fight.
It still doesn’t do them any good.
As it stands, all Zoro can see are the clammy blue walls of Rain Dinners’ basement and the backs of Crocodile and Ms. All Sunday as they leave Zoro and the others to the rising seawater and the banana gators. The gunshot that had exploded from Crocodile’s transponder snail is still rattling in Zoro’s skull, and he has to bite the inside of his cheek not to imagine Sanji with a bullet hole between his eyes.
“That useless idiot!” he shouts. “He better not have gotten himself killed!”
Without Sanji and Chopper on the outside, their chances of getting out alive quickly decrease from slim to none. Vivi has disappeared to get help, but it’s starting to look like she won’t be back soon enough. The water is up to their thighs now. Luffy starts to wilt like a dying flower, the seawater sapping his powers. Behind Luffy, Smoker crosses his legs and settles against the back of the cage, as though resigned to his fate. Nami starts beating at the side of their cage in an ill attempt to break it down and Zoro grits his teeth in frustration, nails leaving crescent moon indents in his palms. If he were a better swordsman, he could shatter the cage, free everybody and lead them to safety —
“Bad manners kick course!”
One of the banana gators goes flying. The smell of cigarette smoke mingles with the salt in the air. Beside Zoro, Usopp and Luffy begin to cheer, rattling the bars of the cage.
He looks good. He’s taken off his desert robes in favor of dressing in a black vest over a soft-looking blue button-up and his usual dress pants, which make his legs look unnaturally long as he delivers another series of kicks to the other banana gators. His gaze is sharper with the glasses he is wearing, and when he looks over at Zoro and the others, Zoro can feel his intestines tying themselves into knots.
Somewhere in the hazy and muddled privacy of his thoughts, it occurs to Zoro that he’s fucked.
Zoro abandons this revelation in favor of yelling, “Stop wasting time and find the key!”
They break out of Rain Dinners. They successfully get Vivi past the Baroque Works agents and into Alaburna. Zoro learns how to cut through steel, something that will come in handy for the future, and the others survive their own battles with the agents as well, coming out worse for wear, but alive. The marines arrive, and together, they stop a bomb from going off in the square. Luffy sends Crocodile flying through the air.
The rains return to Alabasta.
They’re preparing to set off to the next island on the Grand Line when a spot of upturned dust on the sandy horizon catches Luffy’s eye.
“Vivi’s here! She came!” They all rush to the railing of the Merry as Carue bounds over the dunes to the shore. Usopp hurries to turn the ship around, but Vivi’s voice stops him in his tracks.
“I’ve come to say goodbye!”
Her words wash over the sea. Everyone quiets. Distantly, there is the sound of marine cannons firing. Eyes widening, they all watch as Nami grabs a fistful of her shirt with one hand, the other clinging white-knuckled to the railing.
“No way,” Usopp whispers. Chopper and Luffy are both still sculptures of shock.
“Does Vivi know?” Sanji demands, looking wildly around at everyone. Nobody answers. Harsher, he repeats, “Does Vivi know?”
“I can’t go with you,” Vivi continues to say. “I'd like to continue my adventures, but when it comes down to it, I love this kingdom too much! So I can’t go!”
“Oh, this is so bad,” Usopp says. Zoro realizes with increasing alarm that the shore is getting too far away, and the marines are closing in. Beside Nami, Sanji paces around frantically. He grabs Luffy and shakes him.
“You have to do something,” he snarls. “Luffy, that’s her soulmate, you have to - ”
“Sanji,” Nami says. It comes out weak and trembling. She gives them all a watery smile, soft and brimming at the edges with something tentative. “It’s okay. I found her.” And then she laughs, laughs and says louder, “I found her!”
“If we ever see each other again, will you still call me your shipmate?” Vivi asks from the shore. They stare across the long stretch of water separating her from the six of them, and there is a long pause and a shaky exhale, before, “Nami, will you still let me be yours?”
The resounding silence echoes across the dunes and the sea, reaches all the way up to the sky to where the birds are circling the ship.
“Vivi,” Nami whispers. “Of course.”
It’s like the strings holding everybody up are cut. They sag against the railing in relief, the rigidness in their bodies gone with those three words. Zoro has to snag onto the back of Usopp’s collar to keep him from crumpling onto the deck.
“Fuck,” Sanji says, which quite accurately sums up what Zoro is thinking.
Luffy snaps out of his frozen state. “Great! Nami, you’ve got to tell her. HEY VI - !”
“Idiot,” Nami cuts in. Her voice is stronger, even though her eyes are still shiny with tears. “The navy is watching. They’ll brand her a criminal if they find out she’s friends with us.”
Vivi’s last question still hangs in the air, so teeming with desperation that it’s almost tangible. They turn away from the shore to take their leave quietly. The wind unfurls the sails and begins to tug them out to the open ocean.
One by one, they raise their arms up to the heavens, painted X’s facing Vivi in a silent gesture of camaraderie.
Nami keeps her arm up as they exit the port, as the marines start firing at them, as they leave Alabasta, and she only lowers it when the ocean and the sky begin to meet where Alabasta once was on the horizon.
Robin materializes on the deck of the Merry one morning wearing Nami’s clothes, lounging in one of Usopp’s lawn chairs, reading one of Sanji’s books.
“I’m here to join your crew,” she says, which is absurd. What’s more absurd is that Luffy lets her.
“What are you doing?!” Nami screeches. “Why would you let her stay? She’s probably here for revenge!”
“She’s going to assassinate us!” Usopp wails. Chopper peeks out from where he’s cowering behind Zoro’s leg. Beside him, Sanji is swaying so hard it looks like he might be having a seizure, smoky hearts puffing out of his mouth in time with the prose he’s reciting.
“Don’t worry!” Luffy says, oblivious to the obvious dangers of letting an assassin from an enemy organization join their crew. “She’s not a bad person!”
Once Luffy makes a decision, there’s no going against it. Usopp makes another wailing noise from where he’s crumpled on the deck in defeat and Nami blinks rapidly like she’s trying to wake up from a bad dream, before putting her face into her hands and groaning. Sanji immediately springs over to Robin’s side, setting down a slice of quiche by her elbow.
Zoro pinches the bridge of his nose and pleads the sky for help. None comes.
Satisfied, Luffy scoops Chopper up with a hand and bounds away to go play a game on the ship. Everyone stares at the empty space where he was, then turns back to scrutinize Robin, who is still reading, unperturbed.
She turns a page and something on her arm catches Zoro’s eye. She notices him staring and smiles, the gesture not quite touching the rest of her face, and raises her arm to show off the inside of it.
Sanji’s heart eyes sputter out from where he’s pouring her a drink. “That’s a soulmark.”
“Yes,” Robin says evenly. The polite front from before is gone. Now, there is something else, something cold with serrated edges. “I have nowhere to go and nowhere to return to,” she continues. “I think this makes it pretty clear.”
She smiles again. And then returns to her book.
“Robin-chan, it doesn’t mean what you think.”
Zoro pauses inside the galley, hand stilling on the doorknob and the other gripped around a bottle of sake. Through the porthole, he can see familiar tendrils of smoke rising into the night sky, a few strands of blond hair fluttering in the wind. He considers just opening the door and continuing on his way to the men’s room, but he doesn’t want to interrupt whatever this is.
“Those words,” Sanji continues outside, “they’re taken out of context. These kinds of things aren’t nearly as straight-forward as you think. You’re a wonderful woman, Robin-chan. You’re beautiful and intelligent and one of a kind, and only an idiot wouldn’t want you. When you meet your soulmate, you’ll see.”
“You’re very kind, Cook-san,” is all Robin says, muffled by the wooden walls. They exchange a few more words, and then she bids Sanji goodnight, her footsteps receding as she heads back to the women’s bedroom.
Zoro waits a few seconds before exiting the galley. He closes the door, making sure to keep the sake bottle hidden behind his back. Beside him, Sanji smokes disquietly, his eye lackluster as he lights another cigarette, stowing the first one in his suit pocket.
The sight of it bothers him. “Don’t tell me you believe that shit,” Zoro sneers, trying to provoke him. Anything to wipe the troubled look off Sanji’s face.
Sanji doesn’t get angry, though, just says, “I’ll believe anything.” He stubs out his new cigarette on the wood, and then scowls and digs out a third. Zoro watches him light that one too, bringing it up to his mouth as he asks, “Am I an idiot for believing in the All Blue?”
Zoro stares at him. “What?”
“I said, do you think I’m an idiot for believing in the All Blue?”
“No! But that’s different - ”
“Why is it?” Sanji exhales a cloud of smoke out the side of his mouth and looks at him seriously. “I probably have the most laughable dream on this ship.”
Zoro bristles. “Don’t say that - ”
“Don’t tell me what I can or can’t say,” Sanji cuts in. “Don’t tell me what I can or can’t believe. Only one of us has a soulmark, Marimo, and it’s not you. Don’t talk about things you don’t understand.”
There’s a long silence, during which Sanji busies himself with blowing smoke rings over the side of the ship. He tilts his face up towards the sky and breathes one right over their heads, and Zoro watches it unfurl over the moon.
Something inside him deflates. “Sorry. You’re right.”
Sanji smirks. “When am I not?”
“Don’t push it, Curly.” He brushes a hand over Wado’s hilt, unsure. “You’re not stupid for believing in the All Blue. Or for believing in … that.” There isn’t a shorthand way to describe what Sanji believes in, the steadfast faith he has in his and other people’s soulmates. A little guilty, Zoro shrugs his haramaki higher on his back, leaning against the side of the galley. “I just - I don’t see how - ”
“You don’t need to.”
“No, I - ” He struggles to find the right words, struggles to make Sanji understand. The idea that some things are just meant to be like that, that some things have already been decided by an outside force, it’s.
Kuina’s covered face flashes through his mind. “I don’t believe in a higher power,” he tries.
Sanji laughs suddenly, making Zoro jump. The waves buffet the ship and it sways, knocking their shoulders together. Sanji hooks two fingers into his haramaki to keep from stumbling, the smoke softening the air between them.
“Marimo,” Sanji says, and Zoro frowns instinctively. “Zoro,” he says gentler. “Zoro, it’s just another person.”
And looking at him, with the molten end of the cigarette in his mouth lighting half his face a warm gold and the dark waves of the sea in his eye, the pink of his cheek from the wind and the cold, Zoro thinks no, it’s so much worse.
The rain rattles the sides of the Rocket Man violently, the sea train screaming against the waves as it shoots down the tracks towards Enies Lobby. The air is thick with apprehension, the Galley-La crew sitting cross-legged against the walls, Luffy and Nami crouched around the transponder snail on the ground.
“Oi Marimo-kun,” the snail says. “You worried about me?”
Of course he is. Of course, of course, of course.
He’s worried that Sanji’s going to get hurt. He’s worried that Sanji’s going to get himself killed. He’s worried about those CP9 fuckers that tossed him and Luffy around like rag dolls back at Iceburg’s, that made them bleed so easily, that he knows are on that train with Sanji, that if he told Sanji about them, it wouldn’t stop him, because Sanji’s just that kind of selfless bastard, and he’s worried that Sanji won’t know when to give up, that he’ll kill himself trying to get Robin back, and goddammit Zoro loves him too much for that —
“Of course not,” Zoro says. And then because he’s a masochist, he adds, “Don’t die, Cook.”
Sanji’s laugh is the last thing he hears, before the snail turns off.
They get Robin back.
They get Robin back and they get a new shipwright, Franky, who is loud and boisterous and overtly emotional. His blaring and over-the-top personality should clash with Robin’s quiet and reserved demeanor, but they get along surprisingly well, drawn close to each other by the events of Water 7 and Enies Lobby. Sometimes late at night, Zoro will see the two of them leaning over the railings of the Sunny talking in hushes, their heads bent low together and the steam of Robin’s coffee rising up past the crow’s nest like a smokestack beside Franky’s elbow. If Zoro were Sanji, he would say that opposites attract. But he isn’t, so he won’t.
One morning, Robin comes into the galley for breakfast and kisses Franky on the cheek while reaching for the coffee maker. There are no fireworks or fanfare. Luffy doesn’t bat an eye, just continues inhaling an entire rotisserie chicken. Usopp sullenly passes Nami a handful of beri under the table. Even Sanji looks happy, his huffing incredibly half-hearted and transparent.
“So are you guys soulmates?” Nami asks, spooning some scrambled eggs onto her plate.
Robin reaches over Zoro’s head and grabs the pitcher of cream off the table. “No, we’re not soulmates.” Usopp smugly takes his money back from Nami, who scowls and aggressively douses her french toast in syrup.
“How do you know?” asks Sanji.
Franky shrugs. “Can’t say I know one hundred percent, but it’s pretty doubtful. Does it matter?”
“I guess not,” Sanji says, looking unsure. “Where’s your soulmark?”
“Ah, that old thing,” Franky says. “It was torn off me when I got hit by the Puffing Tom.”
“Dude.” Usopp makes a face. “We’re eating.”
“Well what did it say?” Sanji asks, impatient.
Sanji raises an eyebrow incredulously. “You forgot? ”
“Yeah bro, I forgot,” Franky says defensively. He raises his shoulders, like what are you gonna do about it? Zoro frowns and smacks Luffy’s hand away from his bacon. Across the table, Nami narrows her eyes, ever the master at detecting falsehoods.
“Traumatic experiences can cause memory loss,” Chopper pipes up from behind a mountain of pancakes.
Franky nods sagely. “What the raccoon said.”
“I’m not a raccoon!”
“Besides,” Franky says, looking at Robin fondly as she takes the seat beside him, “it doesn’t matter now.”
The whole table erupts into awws and cooing. Sanji doesn’t seem too torn up about the answer, just shrugs and finishes setting down the last few dishes of food, before fetching himself a plate. The rest of breakfast is made of casual conversation about Robin and Franky’s newfound relationship, occasionally spliced with cussing whenever Luffy gets too close to biting somebody’s hands off. There is one memorable instance of Nami attempting to filch Franky of several thousand beri to pay for a hotel room for him and Robin, a ploy that is quickly shut down by the latter.
Zoro stays after everyone has filed out to wash the dishes.
After Alabasta, Zoro completely took over the dish roster. Now, helping with the dishes is solely his job, like Sanji with cooking, or Nami with navigating. It gives him something to do after eating, something less intense than working out or keeping Luffy out of trouble. Once, Usopp joked that Zoro was just as much the dishwasher of the ship as he was the swordsman. It took Luffy and Chopper three hours to convince him that Zoro wasn’t prowling the ship for his blood, and even longer to get him to come down from the crow’s nest.
Next to him, Sanji rolls up the sleeves of his dress shirt and dunks his hands in the water beside Zoro’s. The heat makes Sanji’s face damp, strands of hair clinging to his pinking skin. Sanji after meals is softer, more at peace, and while Zoro loves the fiery-tempered, confrontational Sanji that fights with him on deck and can take out a dozen men with a single sweep of his legs, there’s something about this mellower Sanji that has Zoro wanting more.
(Zoro may or may not have ulterior motives for doing the dishes.)
He watches Sanji from the corner of his eye for a few minutes, rinsing the plates and cups accordingly, before asking, “Does it bother you?”
Sanji doesn’t need clarification to know that he’s talking about Franky and Robin. “Not really.” Zoro raises an eyebrow and he amends, “A little. They each have their own soulmates out there already, waiting for them.” One of Sanji’s hands comes up to rest flat on the left side of his chest; Zoro doubts he knows he’s doing it on purpose.
He senses that there’s more. “But?”
“But,” Sanji says, smiling into the sink, “you can’t deny, those two make it work.”
Zoro knows he can’t keep his mark hidden forever. He is not Franky, who’s mark has left him long ago. He is not Vivi, who is thousands of miles away from the crew, all the way at the beginning of the Grand Line. He knows Sanji will find out, one way or another.
In the end, there is a rival pirate crew, just outside the Florian Triangle. They’re strong — that’s no surprise, they have to be strong if they’ve made it this far — and the sea is stormy, the wind howling over the sounds of battle. Cannonballs whistle through the air, skimming the mainsail. Luffy has rocketed off to the other ship to fight the captain, leaving the rest of the crew to defend the Sunny.
Zoro is in the middle of his own fight when Chopper goes overboard. He only looks away for a split second, distracted, but it’s enough time for the other crew’s swordsman to shove his sword all the way through Zoro’s stomach.
His boots slide against the deck, slick with seawater and blood. Pain flames in his gut, and he loses his grip on Kitetsu and Shusui. They go clattering to the ground. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Nami throw her clima-tact aside and dive into the water after Chopper.
The swordsman sneers, cocky. He doesn’t even look at Zoro when he goes to pull his sword back out, head turned around to survey the battle around them. Mistake.
“Make sure your enemy’s down before you celebrate,” Zoro grinds out, blood dripping from the sides of his mouth. He grits his teeth around Wado’s hilt and swings, taking off the guy’s head. It sails through the air and disappears under a wave. The body collapses, leaving the sword stuck in his gut. Zoro gets one good hand around the hilt before the world starts tilting.
He is unconscious before he hits the deck.
The first thing Zoro notices when he wakes up is that there is a heavy weight settled over his feet.
At first, he thinks he’s back in his bed in the men’s quarters, Chopper curled over his legs like he does sometimes when the waves get choppy and mean. Zoro shifts a bit and something twinges painfully. He tries to stretch, and the twinge explodes into gut-wrenching fire. He makes a low noise of pain, because fucking ow, and fully opens his eyes to the ceiling of the infirmary. The previous events filter slowly back into his head, before slamming in full force, and he groans again.
Then he sees Sanji, sitting on a chair at the foot of his bed, the upper half of his body collapsed over his legs. He’s dressed in a plain yellow t-shirt and shorts, both covered in crumbs and other food stains. He looks like he hasn’t showered in days. On the far side table, Zoro spots an entire platter of used cigarettes and a pack of King Ground next to Chopper’s textbooks.
And then he notices that his haramaki is gone.
A spike of panic lances through his heart. Zoro throws off the covers and realizes with horror that his entire midriff is covered in bandages. He feels his back, the blood draining from his face when he finds that his soulmark is uncovered. Which means Chopper and who knows else saw it when they were treating Zoro’s injuries, and knowing Chopper, he told the whole crew, which means —
As though hearing his thought process, Sanji stirs awake, roused by the movement of the blankets. He sits up and turns away from the bed, gaze sweeping right over Zoro as he stands up to get another cigarette from the pack on the desk. He gets about halfway there before he freezes. Does a double-take. Turns back to Zoro, who is staring at him disbelievingly.
They blink at each other.
Sanji speaks first. “Why didn't you tell me?” His hair is still flat on one side, from where he fell asleep on the bed.
“There was nothing to tell,” Zoro says neutrally.
“What do you mean, nothing to tell? ” Sanji demands. “You're my fucking soulmate. I deserved to know.”
Zoro doesn’t really know what to say. He gathers the blankets higher around his waist so they cover his mark.
Sanji misinterprets his silence as something else. Quieter, he asks, “Is it me?”
“No!” Zoro interrupts, horrified. “No, you’re - ” Wonderful, kind, generous. I love you. “You’re fine.”
Zoro kind of wants to pull his hair out. “Cook,” he starts, “you like girls. You’d do anything for them. You said it yourself, you only want women to call you by your name. And I'm - not that.”
“Zoro,” Sanji says, like it’s being torn out of him. He sits down on the bed by Zoro. “I do like girls. But I also like you.”
Zoro must look incredulous, because Sanji turns his head and makes Zoro look at him. “I don’t love you,” he says.
“I know that,” Zoro snaps, irritated, and Sanji grabs his chin.
“Shut up, let me finish.” Sanji takes a breath and looks down. Mutters something to himself. “I don’t love you, but I could.”
“The hell makes you say that?”
Zoro shoves him away. Bitterness crawls up his throat, chokes him. He hasn’t felt this way since Kuina died. “Look. I fell in love with you, and you just happened to be my soulmate. I didn’t fall in love with you because you’re my soulmate. I’m not like you, Cook, I can’t accept that things happen because someone else decided they would.” He hands clench around his bandages, and he feels trapped in them; he wants to tear them off.
Sanji stares at him. “You’re in love with me?”
“Was that the only thing you heard?” Zoro asks waspishly. “Just because you think - ”
“I don’t,” Sanji interrupts. “That’s the thing, Zoro, I don’t think. I know.” He pulls Zoro’s hand away from where it’s been picking at his bandages. “I know, the way Luffy knows he’ll become king of the pirates, the way you know you’ll become the greatest swordsman.” Sanji presses his forehead against Zoro’s, his own hand coming up to cradle the side of Zoro’s face. “The way I know I’ll find the All Blue,” he says softly.
“You’re not supposed to try and fall in love,” Zoro protests weakly, and Sanji smiles.
“Don’t be stupid,” he says. “This will be the easiest thing I’ve ever done.”
Luffy recruits a skeleton.
Every sane person on the ship (everyone minus Luffy) is, quite rightly, against the decision. Zoro can feel a headache coming on, but there's not enough time to debate the merits of having a skeleton crewmate, because the Sunny gets swallowed by some shadow-stealing asshole’s ship. Luffy, Zoro, and Sanji fall prey to Gecko Moria’s devil fruit powers, and the crew storms his castle of zombies and ghosts. They get their shadows back. Zoro gets a new sword. Nami finds a bunch of treasure and solidifies an alliance with Lola and the Rolling Pirates. Luffy gets another defeated warlord under his belt. Everything ends up working out quite nicely.
Zoro wakes up pissed. If the look on Sanji’s face is anything to go by, he feels the exact same way.
“What happened to ‘value yourself more’?” Zoro demands before Sanji can get a word in.
“This coming from the guy who got blown into a bloody pulp,” Sanji snaps. “I can’t believe you pulled that bullshit again.”
“This coming from you.” Zoro sits up, bandages pulling tight around his arms. “Did you seriously think Luffy would settle for any other cook?”
“Luffy needs the greatest swordsman more than a cook.”
“That’s not true!” Zoro yells. “You’re not worth less than me!”
“Then I suppose you’re worth less than me,” Sanji seethes. “Is that why you knocked me out and offered your head?”
“Fuck you,” Zoro snarls. “I did it because I knew how much I was worth, and you didn’t. Kuma would never have taken your offer if you were worth what you thought you were.”
The answer he gets is the door slamming closed as Sanji storms away. Zoro breathes noisily through his nose, annoyed. He counts backwards from one hundred, then tosses the blanket aside. He’s too angry to go back to sleep, so he puts on his boots, grabbing the swords by his bed and leaving the room.
He’s in the middle of closing the door — a difficult feat, what with the hinges being old and rusty like the entire mansion itself — when Brook says from across the hall, “You two must really love each other.”
Zoro startles and drops his hand away from the knob. “How much of that did you hear?” he asks suspiciously.
“Oh, all of it,” Brook informs him. “You were both very loud. It took my ears no effort at all. Even though I don’t have any ears! Yohohohoho!” At Zoro’s unimpressed look, he adds, “I was the only one present in the corridor, so you don’t have to worry about Luffy-san or the others finding out about,” he holds a bony hand up to his mouth, “the you-know-what with you-know-who.”
So, Sanji must have told him. “Good.” Zoro turns and starts to make his way to the ship, but Brook comes bounding towards him. He shortens his steps so the skeleton can catch up.
“I’m sure everything will work out between you and Sanji-san.”
Zoro grunts in assent and wills him to shut up, but Brook continues, “The others told me you two were soulmates.”
“It’s complicated,” Zoro allows himself to say. And then, because he desperately wants to change the subject, he does what Sanji would do in the situation: he asks, “Do you have a soulmark?”
“Oh dear! That’s quite a personal question.” Zoro shrugs as Brook recollects himself. “I did, but it was so long ago, and I lost it with my flesh.”
“Ah.” Zoro suspected as much. “Were you able to find your soulmate?” The moment the last word leaves his mouth, Zoro wants to snatch the entire sentence back. If Sanji were here, he would kick Zoro for being an insensitive twit.
Brook doesn’t seem to mind though, just hums thoughtfully. “No, I wasn’t. But it’s okay!” he tags on hastily at the look on Zoro’s face. “It’s been a long time, Zoro-san. She’s probably dead, but I like to think that she lived a happy life.”
“I’m sorry,” Zoro says.
“It’s quite alright, Zoro-san.” Brook makes a large sweeping gesture, like he’s brandishing a weapon, or maybe wiping a table clean. “Right now, my only love is the sea! Yohohohoho!”
They walk in silence for a few more minutes, with nothing but the echoes of their footsteps to accompany them, before Brook clears his throat.
“If you don’t mind me asking, Zoro-san, where are we heading?”
“Oh dear, we’ve been walking the wrong way this whole time.”
Sanji finds him picking at his bandages in the galley. The rest of the crew is in Moria’s mansion throwing another feast with the other pirates and vagabonds on the island; the walls of the ship dampen the sounds of their songs and cheers. Zoro had nipped by the party for some food and alcohol before absconding to the Sunny for a nap.
“Hey,” Sanji says hoarsely. He closes the door behind him and pads slowly to the middle of the room. “What are you doing here?”
Zoro raises his head from the table, weary and worn out. He hears the question long before he understands it, and it takes longer to rack his head for an answer. “Booze.”
“Oh. Do you want me to get - ” Zoro knocks a knuckle against the bottle of cheap wine he stole from the mansion and Sanji falls quiet. When he speaks again, his voice is firmer. “Zoro, I wanted to talk to you about something.”
Zoro’s stomach drops. He sits up straighter, suddenly more alert. “Yeah?”
There’s a rustling noise as Sanji opens one of the drawers, shuffling around through the contents. He pulls out a thin leather notebook, worn by age and wear, and walks it back to where Zoro is sitting, setting it on the table in front of him.
“Open it,” Sanji says.
Anxiously, Zoro flips the cover over. The first few pages of the book are indecipherable, Sanji’s penciled chicken-scratch smudged beyond comprehensibility. There are some sketches in the margins here and there, several of fish and a couple of strange fruits or vegetables Zoro has never seen before. He flips past a few pages that are completely covered in water stains, before he reaches one that has Luffy’s name scrawled at the top. Below are lines of notes, mostly pertaining to food likes (all meats) and dislikes (cherry pie and blue cheese).
Zoro looks up at Sanji, confused, but Sanji motions for him to keep going. So he does, skimming through the entries, unsure of what he’s looking for. The fourth entry, after Usopp’s, makes him freeze.
Across from him, Sanji flicks his lighter on, then off again, illuminating the letters on the page. “Recognize it?”
At the top of the page is Zoro’s soulmark. Sanji has written marimo instead of Zoro’s name, the letters lowercase and messy and wonky around the edges just like his mark. And Zoro already knows that Sanji is his soulmate, has known since the beginning, but seeing it laid out on the table for dissection makes it feel so much more real.
He closes the notebook and pushes it towards Sanji, who takes it.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” Sanji says, moving the book aside. “But I’m not sorry for being angry, and I’m not sorry for doing what I did with that shitty warlord.”
“It’s not what you did that bothers me,” Zoro says. “It’s why you did it.” He takes a swig from the bottle by his elbow and sighs. “Cook, you’re not less important than me. You're not less important than anybody on this ship. If you’re gonna sacrifice yourself for Luffy, for the Pirate King, then at least know what you’re worth.”
“Are you telling me to try again,” Sanji jokes, and Zoro shakes his head.
“What I mean is, we need you here. I need you here.” He looks at his hands and tries to stave off the warmth on his face. “So don’t go throwing your life away.”
“Okay,” Sanji says softly. He slides into the seat beside Zoro and pulls Zoro’s hands off the table, cradling them in his own. “Just as long as you agree to keep self-sacrificial acts to a minimum.” Sliding forward in his chair, Sanji braces his legs on either side of Zoro, pulling him in close. “I don’t want to lose you,” he whispers. “I just got you.”
“You’ve had me for a while,” Zoro says quietly into his hair.
“No, you don’t understand. You’re it for me.” Zoro stiffens without wanting to and he can feel Sanji frown against his neck. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Zoro lies, and Sanji frowns deeper.
“Hey,” Sanji says, “if we’re going to do this, we have to talk.”
“Fine.” Zoro pushes him off gently. He leaves his hands on Sanji’s knees. “Cook, I.” He looks away from Sanji, trying to find the right words. “I don’t want the universe deciding things for me.” Sanji doesn’t say anything, and Zoro takes a breath.
“You’re born with a word on your skin, and you let it decide what you do, and who you are. You believe in this person, your soulmate, someone you’ve never met before, and you put your life, and your heart, and your faith in their hands to do what they want with. The universe tells you to do that, and you’re okay with it, with listening to the universe, but I’m not, I’m — ” Zoro pulls at his hair with one of his hands. “I don’t want you to love me just because of a word,” he admits. “I want you to love me because of me.”
“Zoro,” Sanji says, sounding wrecked. He untangles Zoro’s fingers from his hair and cradles his face with his hands. “Zoro, I love you because you’re a self-sacrificial bastard, because you drink more than I swear and you sleep too much and you get lost all the goddamn time. I love you in a fight, because you always get back up, and you always make me get back up, and I love you when we’re not fighting, because I love the way you look when you’re doing the dishes or when you let Chopper nap with you, and yes, I love you because we’re soulmates too, but Zoro, that’s because the universe saw us and thought we’d be good for each other, and we are.”
“You don’t believe in soulmates, but you can’t tell me that Robin and Franky weren’t meant for each other,” Sanji continues as Zoro stares at him with wide eyes. “The universe is a big place, Zoro. You’ve let it decide that you’re going to be the greatest swordsman, that I’ll find the All Blue, that Luffy will be king of the pirates. These are things we decided will happen. This, us, is just another one of these things, not because of the words on our skin, but because of who we are.”
“You’re such a bastard,” Zoro manages, and Sanji kisses him.
Sanji cups his jaw as Zoro kisses back, tasting cigarette smoke and cheap wine. His fingers make their way into Sanji’s hair, his other hand sliding down to grip his elbow. They kiss for what seem like hours, until they are both dizzy and gasping for air into the small space between their heads.
“I lied earlier,” Zoro says, breathing hard. “I wasn’t here for booze. The kitchen just reminded me of you.”
“Asshole,” Sanji says roughly. He tilts his head and kisses Zoro again, chaste-like and tender, catches his lips softly again, and again, and again.
“Sanji,” Zoro says between kisses. Sanji dips his fingers into his haramaki and pulls him impossibly closer, kissing him so sweetly Zoro almost melts off his chair. “Sanji.”
“You don’t say my name often enough,” Sanji murmurs against his mouth, thumb moving reverently over his cheek.
They stay like that in the kitchen, heads held close, until their arms are sore from holding onto each other, until the golden light on the floorboards is replaced by the shine of the moon and the stars.
Later finds them crammed in Zoro’s bunk, Sanji tracing the letters on his back with a hand. It’s late, and the others have yet to return to the Sunny. In the distance, Zoro can still hear whooping and the sound of shoes dancing on tables. He thinks he can hear a violin too, singing low and bittersweet.
“Scars on the back are a swordsman’s shame,” Sanji says suddenly, his finger stilling on Zoro’s back.
Blearily, Zoro cracks open an eye, sleepy and comfortable. “Hm?”
“Nothing. Just remembering.” Sanji shifts and lays down beside Zoro, pulling the blanket over their heads. It twists Zoro’s ankle awkwardly, making him swear, and Sanji laughs at him.
Tomorrow, Sanji will make crepes, and Zoro will come to breakfast late and kiss him good morning, and Usopp and Nami will exchange money under the table as Franky weeps into his orange juice. Brook will play them a romantic song on his violin and Sanji will try and kick him overboard, and then Luffy will devour everything and order them to set sail, and they’ll head off to the next island, to more dangerous waters, to the rest of the world.
In the space of the tiny, shitty bunk, Sanji successfully untangles the blanket, laying it flat over both of them. Zoro rolls over and kisses his neck, his chin, his ear. He presses their foreheads together and kisses his nose, and when Sanji snickers, Zoro kisses his smile too.
“Marimo,” Sanji says.
“Sanji,” Zoro replies.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” Sanji says happily, and Zoro hauls him in close, breathless, content, and in love.