It was Robin's idea, to begin with, which meant Zoro was only about sixty percent sure it wasn't done specifically to piss him off.
(For the record, if the plan had been Nami's, it would have been 100% certain, hands down, no further questions.)
"It'll be simple," she'd insisted. "You scope the place, poke around, and see if you can find anything worth taking. You pass on as much information to us as you can, and whenever we're ready, we'll hit it and sail out before they have a chance to do anything about it."
Personally, Zoro was pretty sure trying to rob a kingdom was stupid, unless they were looking for something specific. He suspected one of the girls had a prize in mind - some high value artifact for Robin, or some incredibly expensive gem for Nami. Neither of them had said a word, though, and Usopp had given practically no input other than emphatically denying any chance of his own involvement, and Luffy didn't give a shit what they were doing until the log pose was ready and they could move on.
That left Zoro, unfortunately, standing now in uncomfortable armor that would only slow him down, taking his place as a new guard for the castle of the Germa kingdom.
"Infiltration" was a generous term for what he'd done, given that very little stealth and very much stupidity were behind it, but the castle's garbage security was a bonus for them, so he wasn't complaining.
What he was complaining about was that he'd only been in place as a guard for a day, and some idiot had already entrusted this random new guard with guarding the kitchen - something Zoro saw little point in doing anyway - and sent him on his way, and he was now hopelessly fucking lost.
His sense of direction was admittedly shit, but he found that in this case, it was totally forgivable that he couldn't find his way around a full on castle that he'd never been in before. There were more rooms on one hall than he could even fathom possible uses for, and there were dozens of halls, all uncomfortably similar - possibly identical, if he were able to compare them side-by-side, but mostly all he could manage to keep track of was which ugly paintings he had passed by and which ones were definitely new.
The latter was becoming so rare, though, that Zoro suspected that paintings were duplicated, because the castle was a fairly straight layout, so there was no way he'd circled back around to where he started… Was there? He swore he'd passed the portrait of the ugly old couple with the abundance of small dogs already, and it seemed like too much of an eyesore to be willingly placed on two walls.
Luck, it seemed, was ready to take pity on Zoro, because while he stood glaring at the menacing eyes of a painted toy poodle, a door opened down the hall, and someone came stumbling out.
Literally stumbling - Zoro watched the man stagger away from the door as it slammed shut behind him, reaching the opposing wall and slumping against it, hands coming up to practically claw at his own face.
"...Are you okay?" Zoro ventured, tentative.
Wide, grey-blue eyes snapped to him from between bony fingers, before they relaxed and lowered, revealing a pale and angular face.
Zoro couldn't help but notice the man's visible eyebrow had a strange growth pattern, the end of it growing wonky and in several directions, creating a swirling effect.
"Are you here for me?" The man asked. His voice sounded strained, yet resigned, as though he hated that outcome but was unsurprised by its arrival.
"Uh, no," Zoro said. "I was headed to the kitchen, actually, but I, ah…"
Admitting to being lost was not a good idea, he figured. Luckily, the man seemed to come to his own conclusion.
"Escorting me, then?" The man straightened. "I won't wander off. This is the only time I get to be where I want. I'm not going to waste it."
"...Alright," Zoro said, awkwardly. He had no idea what the man was talking about, but he wasn't about to admit that, instead just starting to follow when he began walking away, taking his unassuming guide as a very lucky gift from the universe.
His guide began touching his face again a few steps down the hall, rubbing the tips of his fingers into different sections of skin, like the feeling was new to him. He looked…
Well, Zoro wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth, so what did it matter?
"Did my mother send you?" The man asked, suddenly.
"...No," Zoro said, hesitantly. "Unless she's a guard. Is she?"
The man stopped. Slowly, in clear disbelief, he turned to Zoro.
"You...don't know who I am, do you?" The man asked.
"Not the faintest," Zoro admitted. "I'm new."
To his surprise, the man beamed in response. "My name is Sanji," he introduced. "I...I work in the kitchen."
He said it slightly hesitant, and Zoro got the feeling there was more to it than that, but he really couldn't give much of a shit as long as it didn't involve things he could direct Nami to pilfer later. "I'm Zoro," he introduced in return, for lack of better response.
"Hello, Zoro," Sanji greeted. "If you weren't sent for me, why were you down this hall, anyway?"
"Lost," Zoro admitted.
"Oh," Sanji said. "You said you were new. The castle is mostly a straight line. Not hard to learn. A few days and you should be fine."
Menacing poodle eyes lingered in Zoro's mind's eye. He highly doubted it - he was remarkably good at getting turned around, straight lines or otherwise.
Still, he didn’t argue it. Instead, he asked, “Do you usually get guards escorting you around?”
“...I don’t know,” Sanji said. Before Zoro could express confusion, he continued, “This is my first day being allowed-...Well. It’s my first day working in the kitchen properly.”
“And you know your way around already?” Zoro asked, disbelieving.
“I’ve worked in the kitchen before, unofficially,” Sanji said. “I-...I have other jobs I have to do. They’ve just finally agreed to let me take on a cooking position as well.”
“Pay better or something?” Zoro asked.
Sanji shrugged. “I just like cooking. And otherwise, she wouldn’t-....”
He stopped again.
Zoro was getting a lot more questions than answers, but Sanji was clearly determined to talk around whatever his ‘other jobs’ were and why exactly he’d wanted an extra one, and it was none of Zoro’s business, anyway.
“Well, if you know the place,” Zoro said, “Anything cool I should know about? There’s got to be something interesting hidden around here, right? That’s a normal castle thing.”
Sanji snorted. “You’re wasting your breath,” he said. “If there is, they don’t tell me about it.”
Well, it was worth a shot.
Sanji stopped, suddenly, and Zoro almost ran into him before he noticed. Stopping, he followed Sanji’s eyes to ornate double doors.
“This is the kitchen,” Sanji told him. “Why were you headed here?”
Zoro shrugged. “I’m guarding it, apparently.”
Sanji frowned, then looked to the doors. “They don’t trust me,” he muttered, speaking to himself.
Zoro’s brows knitted together in confusion. “What?”
“Nothing,” Sanji said. “Take your place, then. I’m going to head in.”
Zoro, for lack of anything better to do, moved to the side, finding a place beside the doors to stand until someone told him otherwise.
Sanji, he noticed, did not move.
“You going in?”
“Eventually,” Sanji said. “You may not know who I am, but they do.”
“Not popular, huh?” Zoro asked.
“Not at all,” Sanji agreed. He took a deep breath, then, and without another word, pushed through the doors.
The faint sound of bustling about behind him completely ceased, giving Zoro the impression that everything had ground to a halt with Sanji’s entry.
Damn, he thought. They must really hate him.
He wondered vaguely what he’d done. If he’d done anything - they might just be weirded out by that skin-tapping thing he was doing earlier. He’d seen people ostracized for less.
Curious, he tipped his head back, listening for what little he could hear.
Voices started, one of them sounding vaguely like Sanji’s, though the heavy castle doors muffled the words. They were both rising in pitch, though, and in volume, one sounding frantic and the other, furious.
He barely had a second to recover, stumbling back several steps, when the door behind him was suddenly wrenched open.
“Guard!” a man demanded, appearing in the doorway, glaring at him. “You brought Sanji here?”
“...Yes?” Zoro replied.
“He’s allowed to be here?”
Zoro really only had Sanji’s word to go on, but fuck it. He wasn’t a real guard, anyway. “Yeah.”
The man seemed to relax a fraction, shoulders dropping a bit. “They’re really letting him work in here properly?”
Zoro squinted at him. “That’s what he said, isn’t it?”
“I just didn’t believe…” The man started, a hand coming up to rub at his face. “I didn’t think they’d ever…”
The man wasn’t looking at Zoro, which was good, because he was pretty sure his face was unimpressed. What the fuck was everyone’s problem with Sanji? Did he stumble into some war criminal?
“Well,” the chef said, dropping his hand. “That’s good, then. Queen won’t eat unless it’s Sanji’s, anyway.”
And then, oblivious to having dropped a bombshell of new information on Zoro, the chef strolled back into the kitchen, door shutting soundly behind him.
Sanji was a good chef, then. A great one, who cooked for the Queen .
Still, despite skill and renown, he was disliked.
Oh, god, had he stumbled into some royal affair, or some shit?
That was a whole pile of shit he didn’t want to touch. He just needed to find something worth stealing and get the hell out before anyone caught onto the fact he’d stuck his nose in it.
Sanji watched Zeff re-enter the room warily. The guard knew nothing about Sanji, really, so there was no telling if his answers would support him-
-But Zeff came back into the kitchen beaming. “That crotchety old bastard!” he crooned. “I knew he’d give in eventually. King or beggar, your wife is your wife. Poor Queen Sora hasn’t taken a meal in two days.”
A pang shot through Sanji. “She hasn’t?”
Zeff eyed him. “No,” he confirmed. “She hasn’t. That’s probably the only reason you’re here - when she says she won’t eat something you didn’t cook, she means it, this time, and he knows it. It’s give you this or let her starve.”
Sanji’s stomach turned over. “But she-...” He shook his head. “I’m only going to be allowed in here once a day. What about her other meals?”
“We’ll have to find some recipes that hold,” Zeff said. “I’m sure we can convince her to eat something you prepared in advance if I’m just the one heating it. Her goal was most likely just getting you out of that mask.”
Sanji’s fingers found his face again, pressing the bare skin. It felt so strange to be free of it again, after so long. Even more freeing than that, however, was the knowledge that it had been long enough since he walked the castle unmasked that the guards had forgotten his face. The kitchen staff knew him because Zeff knew him, having perpetually hovered over the kitchen for years, but even looking around, he could see staff members leaning over to ask neighbors in hushed whispers what was going on.
His father’s goal had been achieved: no one remembered his face. He was just another member of the staff, as far as anyone knew. There was no reason for anyone to learn that he was also the ‘sickly’ third prince, isolated most of the time, only dragged out on occasion for the humiliation of being forced through whatever impossible exercises his brothers had come up with.
He could be someone else for a while.
Just for a little while, he could be free.