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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. 

Chapter Text

“...Zoro?”

Zoro jerked awake, hand reaching for his sword - or, well, the uniform’s sword, as it was decided (not by him) that his own swords were far too iconic to enter the palace. 

He barely got it an inch out of its sheath before the person beside him was stumbling backward, putting a good distance between them. Following the movement, Zoro paused when his eyes landed on Sanji, watching him warily from a few feet back. 

“Oh,” he said, abandoning drawing the sword, instead straightening to look at Sanji curiously. “It’s just you.”

“Were you...asleep?” Sanji asked, incredulous. 

“Of course not,” Zoro lied. 

Sanji watched him with clear suspicion, but didn’t argue.

The kitchen doors opened again, and the chef appeared through them again, looking to Zoro. 

“You, guard,” he barked. “They put you here to make sure Sanji didn’t wander off, yeah? Escort him to the medical building.”

To the side, Sanji drew up, looking affronted. “I can make it on my own!”

“Don’t worry about your superiors,” the chef continued, seemingly completely ignoring Sanji. “If they’re annoyed you left, they can deal with me. Make sure he gets to the Queen in one piece.”

The kitchen door swung shut, closing them both out.

Sanji let out a frustrated huff. “Old bastard,” he muttered. “I can make it.”

Zoro took another look at Sanji. He’d hunched in on himself, hands coming up to grip at straps over his shoulders, holding a case against his back, presumably containing the queen’s food. 

“Is it far?” he asked, curious. 

Sanji looked up at him, then away again. “A little,” he admitted, clearly reluctant. 

Zoro stretched, pushing up off the wall. “We should get moving, then,” he said. 

Sanji straightened, looking Zoro in the eyes at last, a fire sparking in them. “I don’t need help,” he insisted. “I can do it. It hasn’t been that long since I went. I remember the way.”

Zoro raised his hands. “I’m not arguing,” he said. “But I have to do something, and following you is a lot more entertaining than standing here.” 

“You mean sleeping against the wall?” 

“I wasn’t sleeping,” Zoro lied again. “Let’s just go, give the Queen her food. What’d you make her, anyway?”

Sanji squinted at him, but then slowly moved, starting to walk, Zoro following behind him. “Just a bento,” he said. “Light stuff. They said she hasn’t eaten, so I didn’t want to make her sick…”

Sanji’s shoulders curled down again as he walked, pulling the straps of the carrying case tighter.

He’s like two different people, Zoro thought, watching him. One second he’s snappy and fighting me, and the next, he does this. He retreats. 

They reached the front doors of the castle, guards turning confused looks on Sanji, before seeing Zoro and seemingly deciding the presence of a guard was good enough for them to ignore their passing.

Once through the doors and safely out of earshot, Zoro couldn’t help but comment, “So, the castle’s security is shit.”

Sanji looked over his shoulder at Zoro, swirled eyebrow arching up. “What?” 

“They didn’t give two shits what we were doing,” Zoro said. “Seems stupid to give you a guard and then not even keep track of where you go with him.” 

Sanji snorted, turning forward again. “You’re new,” he said. “They’re not being neglectful. It’s confidence. The Germa 66 can be mobilized in an instant, and comb the island just as efficiently. They don’t care where we’re going, because if they want me back, they can get me. There’s not a damn thing we can do about it.”

Speak for yourself, Zoro thought, but decided it was probably best to let it go. 

Instead, he tipped his head and asked, “How does a chore boy end up the Queen’s personal chef, anyway?”

Zoro saw the tension seize Sanji’s shoulders. “Long story,” he said, simply. 

“Alright,” Zoro said, catching the dismissal for what it was. Sanji didn’t feel like sharing, that was fine. It probably had something to do with why people didn’t like him, and he couldn’t imagine that was a fun story to share with strangers. 

"What about you?" Sanji asked, catching Zoro off guard. "What made you join the guards? You're not from Germa natively, are you?"

"Nah," Zoro admitted. "I'm from- uh...well. Pretty fucking far. Anyway, I owe about three lifetimes' worth of berries to an evil sea witch, so I'll take what they feel like paying me. I can fight just fine. Better than the rest, I'd bet, if they'd let me have my own fucking swords."

"Swords?" Sanji echoed. "You dual wield?" 

"Triple."

Sanji shot him a glance over his shoulder. "How do you hold three swords?"

"Put the third in my teeth."

Sanji laughed, the sound escaping in a startled way, seeming to surprise the cook as it came out. 

Don't tell me this kid never laughs, Zoro thought. 

Out loud, though, he said, "I'm not joking. Get me another couple of swords and I'll show you."

"I can't get you one sword," Sanji told him. "And I damn sure won't try if you're going to use them to break your jaw."

"I won't break anything," Zoro protested. "I haven't even chipped a tooth in years." 

Sanji shot him a disbelieving look, but his shoulders were shaking with a soft silent laughter, and his mouth was stuck in a bewildered grin. 

There we go, Zoro thought. Shame he's laughing at me , though. 

Looking ahead again, Zoro thought he could see a building starting to loom in the distance, and asked, "So this place. A medical facility, that guy said?"

The laughter died instantly, Sanji sobering and turning ahead again. 

Whoops. 

"Yeah," Sanji confirmed. "Isolated medical ward."

"And the Queen is there?"

Sanji's shoulders curled in again. "Yes."

"What's wrong with her?" 

Sanji shot him a furious look. "She's sick," he snarled. "And she's been sick, and she'll stay sick, and they keep her out here because they're hoping we'll forget about her. That answer your question?"

Big fucking 'whoops.'

"Yeah," Zoro said, haltingly. "Sorry. Just trying to get a feel for things. I know jack shit about this place."

Sanji softened a little, though he still looked angry, it was more in a maudlin way again. "Few people do," Sanji told him. "About this, anyway. They don't talk about her much, outside of the royal family and a few close staff."

Zoro wanted to ask how Sanji had found out about it, then, but he had a strong feeling that this was a topic he was better off dropping. 

A shame, because if it wasn't so clearly a hot button issue for Sanji, Zoro could get some information about the sickness the Queen had to pass on to Chopper. Maybe they'd luck out and cure the Queen, and get some great treasure as a reward, and then be free to get the fuck off the island. 

Not a snowball's chance in hell of that, but he could dream. 

"I'm not meeting the queen, am I?" Zoro asked. 

"No," Sanji said flatly. "You'll wait with Eponi." 

"Eponi?"

"She's the attendant," Sanji said. "She takes care of m-...of the Queen."

"An attendant?" Zoro repeated. "Gives the nurses less work, I guess."

"There aren't any nurses."

Zoro blinked, looking at Sanji, taken aback. "She's sick, and in a hospital, but she doesn't have a nurse?" 

Bad move. Sanji hunched in even further, his shoulders starting to shake the slightest bit. When he spoke again, his voice was ice. 

"They're not making her better," he said, quiet and full of a bitter rage. "They're waiting for her to die."

Zoro frowned. "...This kingdom's kind of fucked up, huh?"

Sanji snorted, relaxing a little. "You have no idea."

They finished the last stretch of their walk without speaking, until they finally arrived at the medical ward, Sanji perking up considerably the closer they got. 

They were greeted a few steps into the main hall by a woman rushing into the room, pausing as her eyes landed on Sanji. 

"Oh, they did," she breathed, clapping her hands together. "It's been months, Sanji, she was so worried - we only found out what was happening a week ago, when your sister let it slip." 

Sanji seemed startled by that. "Reiju told you?" He shook his head. "That's- she told me she wasn't on my side." 

"That's-...!" The woman started, before stopping, finally looking to the side. "Oh. He's sent a guard for you, as well?"

"Zeff did," Sanji corrected. "This is Zoro. He's new to the castle. He doesn't know much about Germa aside from the basics, and he hasn't met the royal family, but kindly escorted me to bring the queen her meal."

Sanji spoke with odd stress in places and a heavily significant tone that gave Zoro the impression he was telling the woman something more than what Zoro could hear, but he wasn't going to waste time trying to figure it out. The woman seemed to get it, though, letting out a soft 'ah.'

"I'm Eponi," she introduced to Zoro. To Sanji, then, she said, "She's in her room as always. Go right on in."

Sanji looked to Zoro, nodded to himself, and then turned, heading off down the hall, leaving the swordsman to hover awkwardly in the entrance hall, praying the queen ate quickly. 





"Mom?"

Sora sat up in bed eagerly, beaming. "Sanji!" she greeted. "My sweet boy, come here, come sit with me."

Sanji quickly moved to obey, setting his pack onto the ground beside her bed and sitting on the edge of it, as he usually did. At once, her hands found his face, gently cupping his cheeks. 

"Reiju said they'd put you in a mask ," Sora said, voice strained. "Some awful metal thing that hides your whole face."

"It's so no one recognizes me," Sanji said, resting his hand over hers on his cheek. "It works, too - the guard who brought me out here doesn't even know who I am. I'm just a kitchen boy to him."

"Oh, Sanji," she breathed, tears in her eyes. "You are so much more than what they tell you you are. You know that, right? You are my sweetest boy, my darling son...The way they treat you…"

"I'm fine, mom," Sanji assured her, gripping her hand and giving it a comforting squeeze. "The mask at least keeps the others from bothering me much, so my life is actually a little easier. And it's nice not to be recognized."

"But a guard brought you here?" Sora asked. "They wouldn't let you leave the castle?"

"No, no," Sanji assured her quickly. "Zeff sent him." 

Sora relaxed a fraction. "Oh," she said. "He is so kind - sometimes I wish-... Well. It's good you have him."

"He's annoyed with me right now," Sanji admitted. "They gave me a spot in the kitchen, once a day, and the rest of his crew isn't really happy about it, so it was a bunch of drama the old man had to deal with…" Sanji straightened, then, seizing both his mother's hands. "But about that! You can't go refusing meals. You have to eat, keep your strength up."

Sora shook her head, eyes teary again. "I won't budge on this," she said. "We have gone back and forth over your freedom for nineteen years, Sanji. They have told me time and again they'd treat you better and then they only make it worse for you. If the scrap of my life that's left is my only tool to bargain with your father, I will use it, without regret."

"Mom," Sanji said, softly. "I'm not-..."

"Don't," Sora said. "Don't you dare say you aren't worth it, Sanji." She straightened up in bed, smiling brightly. "Besides! Your cooking is always the highlight of my day. I'm excited to see what you bring me!"

"Right!" Sanji said, and got up, retrieving the bento from its carrier and presenting it to his mother with a flourish. 

"Ooh!" She cooed happily, taking it and breaking apart the single use chopsticks eagerly. "Thank you so much. It looks delicious." She took her first bite. "Mmm. Tastes wonderful as ever. You're so talented, Sanji." 

Sanji flushed. "Thank you," he murmured in response. "I'm glad you like it."

"So!" Sora said, as she munched away on her bento. "Zeff is looking out for you?" 

"Well, through Zoro," Sanji said. Realizing that lacked context, he clarified, "That's the guard. The one who came with me?"

"I see," Sora said. "And he doesn't know you're a prince?"

"No idea," Sanji confirmed. "It's crazy. I don't even know how he got into the guard - he doesn't know a single thing about Germa." He shook his head. "And he's ridiculous, too. He was telling me on the way over that he can sword fight with three swords, because he holds one in his mouth." 

Sora giggled. "A fun picture," she said. "You should get him to show you. I'd like to hear how it goes."

"I told him I wouldn't help him break his teeth," Sanji told her. "But he insists he won't, so maybe I'll see it. He mentioned having his own swords, too, that he can't use as a guard...I wonder where he keeps them. Surely not in the guard barracks." He thought for a moment..then blinked, shaking his head. "Sorry. I don't mean to waste your time trying to figure out a guard's habits-..."

"It's not a waste," Sora said brightly. "You are smiling so sweetly right now...It's a rare sight. Talk about things that make you happy, and I'll be happy too." 

Sanji gave her a small, sad smile. "I love you, mom," he told her.

"And I love you," Sora replied, reaching out to set her hand over Sanji's. 

Sanji turned his hand over, catching his mother's, holding it tight. 

The phantom weight of an iron mask pressed on his cheeks, and he knew soon it would not be just his imagination. Soon it would be real again, for however long it was before they gave in and removed it again for this temporary reprieve, if they even bothered to allow it again. 

For now, though, he would savor the moment: freedom, love, and joy, things he only ever found here.  

Chapter Text

How long does it take to eat a fucking bento?

Apparently a good while. Which, to be fair, might be totally reasonable, considering Zoro had no idea what was wrong with the queen or how debilitating her illness was. 

Didn’t make it less of a pain in the ass to wait, though, especially with the lady in charge of the place standing silently beside him, watching him like she expected him to attack or something. 

He shifted his weight, folding his arms across his chest, and tried to find something in the entryway to look at besides Eponi. 

Finally, though, he snapped, looking at her. “What?” he demanded. “I’m literally just standing here, waiting. You don’t have to look so scared of me.”

Eponi straightened a bit. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t mean-..! I was only worried you might try to interrupt. Sanji’s visits are very important to her majesty.”

“So I gather,” Zoro muttered. “Why’s she so into him?” 

Eponi made a slightly offended sound, but didn’t answer for a good moment. When Zoro turned a raised eyebrow to her, she offered quietly, “Her majesty...feels a responsibility for the situation Sanji has found himself in. She feels that without her actions…” Eponi shook her head. “Please don’t tell Sanji this. He feels everything so strongly, and is so quick to blame himself. If he thought he was causing her grief, he wouldn’t forgive himself.” 

Zoro frowned. The more he learned about this guy…

He shook his head, and told her, “Well, he loves her, that’s for certain. He talked about her a little on the way over. She clearly means a lot to him.” Then, taking the chance while he had it, he asked, “Hey, can I ask what she’s sick with?” 

Eponi looked away. She stayed silent for a long time, and Zoro was about to apologize and drop it when she finally said, “She endured heavy damage to her internal organs, many years ago. Though the damage is halted, its effects are slowly killing her.” 

Zoro tipped his head. “Thanks,” he told her. “Sorry for asking.” 

“It’s normal to be curious,” Eponi replied. “Especially if you’re new to the kingdom. We must seem very odd to you.” 

Zoro shrugged. “You met my friends, ‘odd’ doesn’t really exist anymore, to be honest.” 

‘Normal’ was pretty much trashed, too. Luffy’s whole crew of ragtag idiots each had their own unique flavor of fucking weird, and there were six of them. 

Still. They were family.

The sound of a door had them both straightening up, and a moment later, Sanji emerged again, digging in his pack.

“She ate,” he informed Eponi. “Light foods, so she shouldn’t get sick, hopefully. I prepared a couple other meals-...” He produced a few food containers, which he passed to Eponi before shouldering the pack. “There are papers inside with their heating instructions, so you can finish them for her, but they’ll still be from me. I only get out once a day, so I’ll have to prepare meals in advance like that, until she’s willing to eat food from here again.”

Eponi blinked at him. “She won’t,” she said. 

Sanji frowned at her. “She’s got to,” he said, stubbornly. “They’re not going to let me out forever. We both know that. She can’t starve herself for me.” 

“She has before.”

Sanji looked pained. “Not like this,” he argued. “Please, Miss Eponi, keep an eye on her. If you have to-...” He winced, before telling her, very softly, “If you have to, talk to my sister. She’s the only one who can get her to do anything.”

“Your sister won’t convince her not to love you,” Eponi said gently. 

Sanji looked away. “Goodbye for now, Miss Eponi. I’ll see you tomorrow, if they let me.” 

“Good evening, Sanji,” Eponi returned.

Sanji gave a tiny nod of acknowledgement and then, without looking at anyone else, headed straight for the door and out it. 

“Uh,” Zoro said, faltering in his absence. “Um, bye?”

She raised a hand in a small wave, which he returned, and then ducked out after Sanji, catching up to him where he stood just off the bottom of the medical ward’s front steps. 

“Do you smoke?”

Zoro paused, unsure what to think of the random question. “Uh. No. Why?”

“One of the old kitchen crew guys smoked,” Sanji said. “He’d lend me cigarettes, sometimes. I think he just preferred it when I shut up, but I wasn’t offended. I appreciated it, actually.”

“Aren’t chefs supposed to…” Zoro waved a hand vaguely. “Not do stuff to their mouths?”

“That’s what Zeff said,” Sanji replied. “It didn’t end up mattering, anyway. I haven’t had a cigarette in months. I’m dying for one, now, but I’ve only got a little while until…”

He brought his hand up, fingertips pressing against his jawline. 

“Until?” Zoro prompted. 

Sanji didn’t answer.

After a few moments of standing in silence, Sanji moved again, starting to walk at a sedated pace toward the castle, Zoro quickly falling into step beside him. 

“You’re not from here, you said,” Sanji said. “So you came to the island from somewhere else, which means you took a ship.”

“Yeah,” Zoro said, though he wasn’t sure where Sanji was going with it. “A friend of mine has a ship, and I hitched a ride along.” 

“What kind of ship is it?” 

Zoro blinked. “Uh,” he said. “...A big one? I don’t know shit about ships.”

“I know a little,” Sanji said. “Zeff’s told me about his ship, before. A caravel class ship, apparently. Common for pirates.” 

“That chef guy used to sail?”

“I just said - He was a pirate.”

Zoro stared at Sanji, incredulous. “How the fuck does a pirate end up a royal chef?” 

To be fair, one could have also asked how a pirate ended up a royal guard, but considering the answer to that was essentially just ‘sea hags,’ he didn’t count it. 

“His ship was caught attacking a vessel they thought was a cruise ship,” Sanji told him. “Except it was bait, sent out by the king, loaded with Germa 66 soldiers. The whole crew was either killed or captured. When they were brought in, the king told Zeff he could either watch his men be executed, one by one, until they were all dead, or sign on as staff and swear loyalty, and he’d let them all go.” 

“Holy shit,” Zoro said. “Is it that hard to find a chef?”

Sanji laughed. “They were after him, specifically,” he said. “The bait ship was just for him. They paid men to ‘accidentally’ let its plans slip to Zeff’s crew while they were docked. Zeff used to own a restaurant, years ago, before the navy shut it down and drove him back to the sea. He was something of an urban legend, after that.” 

“And the king just...what? Wanted a shiny thing?” Zoro asked, contemptuous.

“It was for the queen,” Sanji replied, voice a bit softer with the admission. “That was when she’d first started trying to bargain me a place in the kitchen...My-...The king thought that if the food was good enough, she’d eat it without complaint. It kind of worked- they’d bring her meals over, and she’d ask Zeff how I was doing, because I was always breaking into the kitchen. As long as he told her I was fine, she didn’t complain.”

“But that changed,” Zoro assumed.

“It wasn’t practical,” Sanji said. “Eventually, they tried to get her to go back to eating infirmary-made meals, with just an occasional visit, once a week or so. Except she wouldn’t agree to it - she insisted that if she could only be visited so often, it was by me, not Zeff. So we did that, for a while.”

“And then you got in trouble,” Zoro said.

Sanji tensed, looking wide-eyed at Zoro.

“I’m not stupid,” Zoro informed him. “You guys have been talking like you just got out of jail. I figure you did something, pissed a lot of people off with it, and now you’re dealing with the fallout.”

Sanji watched him warily. “And? Does it bother you? Do you want to know what I did?”

Zoro shrugged. “Not really,” he said, though he was slightly curious. “None of my business. My best friend gets arrested all the time.” Or, he would, if he’d stop beating up the people trying to arrest him, anyway. 

“I could have done anything,” Sanji said. “I could have killed a person. You don’t care at all?”

“Are you gonna kill me?” 

Sanji frowned. “No!” he said. “I wouldn’t ever do that.”

“You’re damn right,” Zoro said. “One sword or three, I can kick your ass, curly. I’m not scared of you, so why the fuck should I care? Doesn’t involve me.”

Sanji stared. “That’s so...simplistic,” he said. “Are you this indifferent to everything? Does nothing bother you?” 

“Yeah,” Zoro said. “It bothers me that that damn harpy racks up my debt every time I breathe. Other than that, not really.” 

Sanji frowned.

After a second, in a total non-sequitur, he said, “You shouldn’t talk about women like that.”

Zoro barked out a laugh.

“I mean it!” Sanji snapped at him. “It’s rude! Women deserve respect, and kindness. They’re not like men. They’re-...kinder. Gentle. That should be respected.” 

“You’ve never met Nami,” Zoro said. “She’s not ‘gentle’ at all. No need to get a white knight complex about her - she’d kick your ass for trying, probably.” 

“You’re biased because you’re indebted to her,” Sanji declared firmly. “I’m sure she’s a wonderful lady to people who haven’t wronged her.”

“Wronged her?” Zoro exclaimed. “I haven’t done a damn thing! The debt was bullshit in the first place. I gave her back the money the same day, it’s just her stupid ‘interest’ crap that got me.” 

“You shouldn’t agree to the terms of a loan you can’t pay back,” Sanji told him.

“I just told you, I did pay her back!” Zoro threw his hands into the air. “You’re as bad as she is!”

“As I said, I’m confident Nami-san is a good person, so I will take it as a compliment,” Sanji insisted.

“You’re delusional,” Zoro informed him. 

“I’m sure I’m not,” Sanji said. “You did still consider her a friend, right?”

Zoro huffed. “She’s crew,” he said. “Crew’s family. She’s still a bitch.”

Sanji stopped in the road, turning toward Zoro and kicking out, the swordsman having to quickly scramble back to avoid it. “Stop that!” he scolded. 

"Hey!" Zoro said. "Alright, alright, I'll give you that one. It was harsh. I'm just pissed at her right now because I'm stuck in a fucking castle, guarding kitchens and shit for the foreseeable future."

"You mean sleeping in front of kitchens?"

"Fuck you, eyebrows," Zoro told him. 

Sanji just laughed in response. 

Chapter Text

Somehow, they managed to make it back to the castle's front gates without killing each other. 

Probably because Sanji quickly lost the half-joking will to fight along the way as they grew closer, dreading what was to come. The mask would be returned, he knew, with the next time it was removed left up in the air, subject to negotiations he would not be a part of. It came down to whether the king believed Sanji's failures outweighed the marginal love he supposedly did still carry for his wife. 

For all Sanji had said about them, that they were waiting on her death, it was obvious that they were trying to delay it, if nothing else. Almost like a punishment - like she deserved her death for producing such a pathetic excuse for a son, but it would be better to let her properly stew in it, first. 

"There you are!" 

Sanji startled, looking up as they reached the gates, Zeff stomping up to meet them. 

"You two took your damn time," he said. "You, guard, you're done for the day. You , on the other hand, are with me."

"To go back?" Sanji asked. At Zeff's look, he shook his head, looking to Zoro. 

"You good?" Zoro asked, watching him with an alien expression of open concern. 

"I'll be fine," Sanji assured him. "Thanks for the escort, I suppose. Be nicer to your friend."

"Eat me," Zoro returned. 

"Sanji," Zeff barked. 

"Okay, I'm coming!" Sanji shook his head. "Goodbye, Zoro."

"Later."

Hopefully, Sanji thought, reluctantly following Zeff, allowing himself to be led back to his imprisonment. 

Hopefully. 




Guards had barracks in the castle they worked at, typically, as far as Zoro knew, but he neither knew nor cared how Germa housed its soldiers. He, personally, as a fake guard and a very real pirate, was spending his nights among friends, back on the Going Merry. 

The problem with this, though, was those friends. 

"Zoro's back!" He heard Usopp cry as he made his way back onto the ship. 

"Zoro!" Luffy screeched, launching out of nowhere to barrel Zoro over, grinning at him wildly. "Did you change? You're not dressed like the town guards were. They all wore dumb goggles and stuff."

"Yeah," Zoro said. "That's the military. Germa 66, they call it. They're apparently hardcore, but they haven't impressed me with what I've seen so far. Nobody gave two shits what was going on, even when I was right in front of them. Some dude gave me a job by myself without even asking what my name was. Security is garbage."

"Oh, good," Robin said, appearing out of nowhere, quickly followed by Chopper, then Nami and Usopp, so the whole crew was gathered. "That makes our job much easier."

"Did you find something cool?" Luffy asked. "I wanna take something cool. Like a statue. We should get a statue. Nami, can we-..?"

"No," Nami said, immediately. "But do share, Zoro. What all did you learn?"

"Not a lot of anything," he admitted. "Spent most of the day guarding the Queen's personal chef. Did you know she's apparently majorly sick? They've got her isolated in a little building way off from the rest of the castle. I tried to ask what was wrong with her, but everyone was real touchy about it." 

"You just barged in asking about the health of the queen?" Nami shook her head. "You're hopeless. I should have pretended to be a servant."

"There's still time," Zoro told her. "Feel free to step in. Sanji'll be fucking thrilled."

"Sanji?" Luffy echoed, latching onto the significant tone to Zoro's voice in an instant. "Who is Sanji?"

"The guy I was guarding," Zoro explained. "He's apparently in some kind of trouble, so he's on lockdown, or something. I didn't ask."

"And why would he care about Nami?" Usopp asked. 

"Because he's batshit crazy, that's why," Zoro answered. "He asked me why I worked there, so I bullshitted that it was because of my 'debt'-..."

"Good improv," Nami complimented. 

"And talked shit about her while I did it-..."

"I take it back."

"And he got majorly offended," Zoro finished. "One of those white knight savior complex kinda guys, I guess. He must not deal with many girls besides the queen, because he had some pretty dumb ideas about you guys being naturally kind by default, just because you were girls."

"Naive, and a tad sexist, if in an inverted way," Robin commented. "But you said he's the personal chef of the queen? Perhaps its conditioning. Utmost respect is his expected behavior, so it's what he projects."

"Well, I'm still gonna kick his ass if he does it again."

"Please don't fight the castle staff until after we've secured a payload," Nami said. 

"And an escape route," Robin added. "The log pose needs to be ready before we move on the castle, so that we can head straight off the island afterward. No moves until then, no detours afterward. Agreed?" 

"Hey, Zoro," Luffy said, draping himself over Zoro. "You hung out with a chef all day...did he make you food? I'm hungry...we need a cook next, for sure."

"Seconded," Nami said. 

"I'm good with that," Zoro said. "But no, he didn't. Now I wish he had, though - personal chef to the queen has gotta be good at it, right?" 

“Weird, though…” Robin said. As the others turned confused looks on her, she elaborated, “This ‘lockdown,’ I mean. They let someone cook for the queen that they don’t even trust?” 

“I don’t figure they’re worried about him doing anything,” Zoro said. “I talked to him for barely an hour, total, and I know he loves the queen. He was ready to fight over her the second I said anything. Whatever they think he’s gonna do if they let him run free, it isn’t hurt the queen.” He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s mutual, too. They said the queen was starving herself, refusing to eat until he cooked for her. Apparently, it’s been that way for years - the queen making deals to let him come visit her, and them trying to find ways to keep him away.” 

A spark lit in Nami’s eye, the telltale sign that she’d sniffed out a potential profit. “So we know that there is a person in the castle who the queen would risk her own life for,” she said, hand coming to her chin as she openly plotted. “And this person happens to have already been trusted into Zoro’s care. So if it were to occur that something happened with this person-..”

“No,” Zoro said, sternly. “First off, hostage situations aren’t really our thing. Second, the queen is dying. She doesn’t have anything to give except her life, as far as I can tell. Your profit isn’t coming from her.”

Nami pouted at him, though it quickly dropped, her sparked interest outweighing any disappointment from Zoro’s refusal to cooperate. “Still, you should find out more about this guy,” she said. “He’s clearly important to somebody.” 

“I probably won’t even see him again,” Zoro told her. “So don’t hold your breath.”

“I dunno, Zoro!” Luffy said, cheerily. “It sounded like you guys are friends, now!” 

Zoro winced.

He didn’t know much at all about Sanji, but he had a feeling the other boy was light on friends. 




A fundamental rule for survival in the iron mask was, very simply, do not cry. 

There was the obvious reasoning, that the sneering and contempt only worsened the more he showed weakness, but the main point was simply practical. Tears had nowhere to go, beneath the mask, and wet metal was even more of an irritant against his skin than the mask itself. A proper cry was even worse - he was unable to wipe his face at all, and so the messier it got, the more he’d simply have to live with, until meal time came and the thing was blissfully unlocked. 

He reminded himself of all of this frantically in his head as his chest clenched, the weight around his head pressing heavy on him. 

“Take the clothes,” the soldier locking his mask told one of the other two in the room, gesturing to the kitchen uniform Sanji had changed out of. “Bag them. There’s to be no connection shown - exchanges into and out of restriction are to be kept top secret.” 

Sanji’s hands fisted in the bottom of the long shirt he’d had to don again, bearing his number designation across the chest. They were driving a hard wedge in between Sanji in the mask and him out of it - Sanji as a prince was to be written off, no longer known as a person at all, but simply the vague memory of a number skipped in the royal family’s count. The three soldiers chosen for his exchange guard were top soldiers from his sister’s unit, sworn to utmost secrecy, and no one else was to know that Sanji was being allowed to roam free - or, more accurately, to know that Sanji was a safe and healthy person, rather than the weak and plagued boy his family passed him off as. 

You don’t know how long it’ll be locked, he reminded himself. Do not cry. Wet iron hurts where it rubs your skin, and it doesn’t help anything. Especially not if-...

He heard the door behind him open. 

All three soldiers in the room snapped to attention at once, which had Sanji’s stomach turning - it was a royal, for certain, and four of his five options were very, very bad for him. 

“Princess!” The guard beside him greeted, making Sanji slump a bit in relief. 

“He’s secured?” he heard his sister ask. 

“Yes, ma’am!” 

“Good,” she said. “Leave. I’ll take him from here.” 

“Yes, ma’am!”

The soldiers moved quickly, taking Sanji’s clothes and vacating the room in seconds, too well trained by his sister to do anything less. 

“Sanji,” Reiju said, coming around him, into his field of view. “You saw mom?”

Sanji met her eyes, his own stinging. It hurts, he told himself. Don’t do it. It hurts. 

Reiju tipped her head, expression sympathetic. “That mask is barbaric,” she said. "I don't know what he thinks he's accomplishing. Saying your sick just has people wanting you quarantined with mom, not running around in a-.."

Sanji broke. 

Tears spilled over despite his best efforts to bite them back, his teeth gritting together, his hands bunching up the fabric of his shirt, his shoulders curling and shaking harshly as he struggled against his own reaction. He couldn't give in to it, he couldn't, it hurt, it hurt, it hurt-

"Sanji!"

"I'm sorry," Sanji sobbed. "I couldn't talk her out of it, Reiju, she's still fighting - I'll do my best, but if they don't let me, if I mess it up-..."

"She'll be okay," Reiju told him. "I'll take care of her, Sanji. All you have to do is bear with it, okay? Don't give them a reason to test her patience. We're close to a negotiation - if you do what they ask, we might be able to get you out of it for good." She gave him a small, strained smile. "You've met your goal, though, haven't you? You're a chef, officially. You're halfway there."

Sanji wrung his hands. "I- I asked someone, today," he admitted, quietly. "I asked about ships." 

Reiju frowned immediately. "That's not playing along, Sanji. If they catch you-..."

"He didn't know who I was," Sanji assured her. "The mask works, he didn't recognize me at all. And I didn't ask anything too suspicious, either, just how he'd come to the island, what kind of ship. He said it was his friend's boat - a port near here must be taking civilian ships. If I could get to it-...!"

"Stop!" Reiju commanded. “Sanji, mom is betting her life on being able to secure your safety. If you ruin it by getting caught trying to leave, I will never forgive you.” 

Sanji bit down on the inside of his mouth to stop his response. He was being reckless, pushing it too far - Reiju was, at the end of the day, adamant about remaining ultimately neutral in the back-and-forth of their family over Sanji’s freedoms. 

He couldn’t help the desperation, though, the part of him screaming out for an ally, anyone he could tell the half-baked plans brewing in his head. The only person he could think that would help was Zeff, but he couldn’t act far outside his pardon without risking his life, and Sanji would not put the man in danger. Not the only one who had shown him compassion, the man who had welcomed his presence in the kitchens, who had taught him countless tricks, who had guided him in secret to be stronger, smarter, faster-...

Not that it would do much good. He could get past guards, he was sure. Proper soldiers would be a fight, but he knew Zeff’s tricks were strong enough, it was just a question of how strong he was when he acted. 

Against his brothers, though…

Against them, he didn’t stand a chance.

He had to get out without them knowing...and if Reiju wasn’t an ally, he needed to watch himself. She could very quickly be the downfall of his escape. 

The thought was painful, for multiple reasons, but the strongest was the realization that one part of his plan was not actually feasible.

If he couldn’t win Reiju’s support, there would be no way for him to arrange anything other than a clean run for it, no detours. 

If he wanted to make it, he wasn’t going to be able to linger near the castle. He wouldn’t be able to double back - he’d need to get as much distance between him and the castle as possible, as quickly as he was able.

Without Reiju, if he ran, he couldn’t take his mother with him.

 

Chapter Text

Slipping back into the castle quietly didn't end up being an issue for Zoro, because as soon as he showed up, he noticed a gathering of guards around one corner of the castle grounds. Rounding it, he saw an open training field, targets and dummies scattered about. 

Training exercise? No- someone was already there. 

In front of one of the targets, three men stood, all large and looming with various bright colored hair and, oddly enough, numbered outfits - bearing a 1, 2, and 4, respectively. 

Where's three? He wondered. 

One of the men, number 4, said something to the other two, and then lazily pulled forth a sword. He extended a hand in front of him, and Zoro watched as something shot out from it, crossing the field and sinking into the head of a training dummy. A flick of 4's wrist, and the dummy was yanked from the ground and toward where they were standing, until it was within proximity for the man to lazily flick his sword upward and carve it open down the front, dropping it to the ground with stuffing spilling out, looking horribly macabre even for being a training dummy. 

"Brutal," Zoro breathed. 

A guard beside him turned, raising an eyebrow at him. "You new?" At Zoro's nod, he grinned. "This is nothing. The princes are just having fun, right now. You wanna see their real strength, wait until he comes out."

The crowd around him erupted into excited murmuring. 

"Oh, fuck yeah," the guard said. "You're lucky, new guy. That's him now."

Zoro looked out to the princes again. A fourth figure was approaching. 

Zoro's first thought was that he had located the missing 3, as it was printed across the loose tunic-like shirt the newcomer was wearing, a stark contrast to the militant uniforms of the other three. 

His second thought was what the actual fuck, because despite being the least combat-ready looking of the four, skinnier and shorter and dressed haphazardly, he was the only one in a helmet. 

"It's been a while since he came out," the guard beside him informed Zoro cheerfully. "I heard that the queen is taking meals from the kitchen again - they must have been contagious for a while. They're both plagued, see."

Not a helmet, then - a mask. This prince was sick, and they had him locked away in iron because of it. 

"What kind of sickness needs a mask like that?" Zoro asked. 

"Beats me," the guard replied, casual enough that it was clear he didn't actually care, adding to the callus feel of his explanations. "He got sick around the same time the princes got military assignments, though, see, so most people - and this is just a rumor, you didn't hear it from me - most think that he disabled himself on purpose, so that he wouldn't be assigned a unit. He's the weakest royal by far, always has been."

Weakest? But hadn't he said the 'real power'- 

A thrilled noise rose up from the crowd around him, and Zoro jerked his eyes up to the field in time to watched the third prince skid sideways across the ground, a good fifty feet from the princes. 

They kicked him, Zoro realized. They'd kicked their sick brother across the field. 

As he watched, the masked prince braced himself on the ground, pushing up on shaking arms, dragging himself to stand again. Pressing a hand to his side, he straightened, and took slow, deliberate steps, walking right back to the others, standing himself before them again. 

The second prince circled him a moment, grinning wickedly, before launching at his back, hitting him hard, waiting for him to collapse from it, before picking him up and throwing him across the field. 

He hit the ground so hard the grass tore up underneath him. Zoro's hand went to his sword. 

"Relax," the guard beside him said. "We train after them, not with them."

That wasn't-...

"He's sick, isn't he?" Zoro demanded. "Why are they beating the shit out of him if he's sick ?"

"I told you," the guard said, sounding annoyed. "He's not actually sick. He's just a coward."

"That's just a rumor, though, right?" Zoro said. "So you're okay with him getting pummeled because he might've been afraid to be in the military?" 

The guard rolled his eyes, then sneered at him. "If you want to tell them to stop, by all means, go ahead. You'll be dead in seconds. The princes are beasts - they're miles above a normal human. You don't stand a chance." 

Zoro grit his teeth. In honesty, he was willing to take his chances, fairly confident in his own status as a monster, but he needed to act carefully. This kingdom was rotten to the core, but Nami wouldn't let it go if he lost her any money, and it would be much easier to do any violent restructuring of the monarchy on their way out, when he had Luffy's unmatched strength to back him up and an escape route already picked out. 

Still…

He looked up, watching as the first prince punched the third in the stomach, bringing his elbow down hard on the back of the metal mask when he hunched forward, the third prince hitting the ground as his knees buckled under the strike. 

I'm gonna burn this fucking castle to the ground. 

As he watched, stomach rolling, the third prince moved again, climbing unsteadily to his feet. 

"Why does he keep getting back up?" Zoro asked. "If he's such a coward, why wouldn't he stay down?"

"It gets worse when he stays down," the guard said. "Right now, they're 'training.' If he tries to bow out, they teach him a lesson." 

Zoro reeled back, disgusted, and turned on his heel, marching back toward the castle. 

I've gotta tell Luffy, he thought to himself. There was no way his captain wouldn't feel the same way he did, infuriated and disgusted and so, so angry. 

Luffy, though, was captain, and therefore could overrule the others' heist plans to just fucking kill the royal family and be done with it. 

He was curious, though, in a morbid way, what was wrong with the third son. If he had the same sickness as his mother, why wasn't he isolated as well? What purpose did the mask serve? Had he really aggravated it on his own?

Zoro highly doubted the last one. A military command would have surely been preferable to the abuse he was suffering now.

...and, he was lost again. 

Zoro stopped in the middle of the hall, looking one way, then another. 

He had no idea where the fuck he was. 

"Damn this castle," he said out loud. "Damn it and its confusing hallways and its ugly fucking paintings."

"The halls are a straight line."

Zoro very deliberately did not jump, looking to see who had come up behind him. 

It was the chef from the day before- not Sanji, but the old man. Up close, Zoro could see the traces of 'pirate' in the man - hair kept out of the way, scars, a stern face, a prosthetic leg. 

"They're all the same," Zoro defended. "How are you supposed to know where you are if everywhere looks the same?"

"You pay attention," Zeff said. "Which you clearly weren't doing. Where are you headed, kid?"

Zoro faltered, hesitantly admitting, "Nowhere in particular. All the guards are outside watching the princes beat the shit out of each other, and I just needed to get away from that before I pissed myself off."

Zeff squinted at him. "They're 'training,' right now?"

"Uh...yeah."

"Dammit," Zeff muttered, dragging a hand down his face. "I knew we were pushing it, yesterday. It'll only get worse if he-..."

He cut off, looking at Zoro. 

"You don't want to be out there?" He asked. "Watch the spectacle?" 

"You mean a sick kid getting the shit kicked out of him?" Zoro asked. "Pass."

"Hm," Zeff hummed, chin tipping up a bit, expression somewhere just shy of approval. "Few even believe he is sick."

"Yeah, well," Zoro said, "they said he has what his mom has, right? If he did it to himself, that would mean she did, too."

"And if she did?"

Zoro faltered, staring at him. "What?"

"The queen," Zeff said. "If she did cause her own illness, what would your opinion be?" 

Zoro shifted, scowling. "None of my business," he said. At Zeff's silent prompt of a state, he sighed, adding, "But, if she did, I'd say she must have had a damn good reason, to hurt herself that bad. You don't put yourself in that situation for no reason. The prince, either- military command couldn't have been the only thing he was avoiding, if he backed himself into this corner."

"Hn." That almost-approval came back again. 

Then, he looked down the hall, one way after the other, before telling Zoro casually, "There's nothing in this castle worth taking. You can tell your crew they're wasting their time."

Zoro stiffened. "What?"

"I was a pirate, kid," Zeff said, eyeing him in clear amusement. "Long enough to know Pirate Hunter Zoro. Recently enough to hear about his change in profession." 

Zoro watched him warily. "And?" He prompted. "You gonna say anything about it?"

"Nah," Zeff said. "You wanna steal from the Vinsmoke family, you go right ahead. I mean it, though - this castle's not a hoard of shiny things. The kingdom of Germa deals in science, experimental research, that kind of stuff. You can maybe sell some of the files you find on the black market, but good luck finding a buyer - some of their research is downright evil. The king's never hesitated to approve, or even request, a human trial. Before the queen got pregnant the first time, he ordered a round of extreme tests on pregnant women and their children, trying to perfect the genetic mutations he wanted for his own kids."

Zoro's stomach turned over, rage boiling in him. 

They were gonna kill the king, for sure. He would fight anyone on the crew who so much as implied otherwise. 

Zeff tipped his head, then, asking, "Your crew. The 'Straw Hats.' You have a cook on that ship of yours?" 

Zoro cracked a grin. "Looking to get back on the ocean, old man?"

"Nah," Zeff said. "As long as Queen Sora still lives, I'm honor-bound to look after her. No, I'm asking for Sanji."

"Sanji?" Zoro echoed, eyebrows knitting together in confusion. "He wants to be a pirate?"

"I don't give a shit what he wants," Zeff said. "He needs out of Germa."

Zoro frowned. "Why? What's wrong, that he can't stay here? Isn't the Queen his responsibility, too?"

"She would rather die than hold him here," Zeff said. "It's not safe for him. You've seen their sense of morality for yourself, you know what kind of people they are. If Sanji stays, they will kill him, one way or another."

Zoro shook his head. "I can mention it to Luffy," he said. "But if Sanji doesn't want to go, I'm not kidnapping him." 

Luffy might, but that was beside the point. His captain had a weird, all-encompassing empathy, in his own way, and probably wouldn't sit still very long knowing half the stuff Zoro had learned about Germa, but Zoro didn't want to rip someone from their home against their will. 

"Especially," Zoro said, "since I really can't see him going anywhere while the queen's still here. I've only known him a day and I can tell he'd die before he let something happen to her, either."

"That's a moot point," Zeff said. "The simple, brutal fact of it is, Queen Sora's life would be a lot easier if Sanji wasn't here."

A pained noise sounded from behind them. Zeff froze, wide eyes locked over Zoro's shoulder, and the swordsman's stomach dropped, already knowing what he'd see before he even turned around. 

Sanji's kitchen uniform was distressed, there was an ugly bruise forming along his jaw, and he walked with a hand pressed to his side. More distressing than all these mysterious wounds, however, was the openly gutted expression on his face. 

"Sanji," Zeff said. "You-..."

Sanji hunched in on himself, not looking at either of them, and shoved past Zoro, stalking quickly off down the hall. 

"Sanji!" Zeff called after him. 

Sanji ran. 

Chapter Text

"Fuck," Zeff muttered. 

"That was a fucked up thing to say," Zoro told him. 

"I didn't intend it to be as harsh as it sounded," Zeff said. "It's just-...Queen Sora is only ever in danger because of her efforts to protect Sanji. If he is safe, then she will be at peace, whatever happens." 

"It's not his fault if she loves him, though," Zoro argued. "And he doesn't deserve someone he cares about telling him that it's him that's holding her back."

"That's not what I said," Zeff started to defend. 

"You said her life would be easier without him," Zoro said. "You just told him that he is a nuisance keeping her from getting better. The guy already has about half a fucking thimble's self esteem, and you're gonna throw that at him?" He shook his head. "Fuck it. Whatever. I'll go talk to him, alright?"

"That's a good idea," Zeff said. "You just met him, but he seems pretty taken with you."

Zoro gave a noncommittal hum….and didn't move. 

"Well?" Zeff prompted. 

Zoro turned to him, reluctantly admitting, "I still don't know where the kitchen is."





Every part of Sanji ached. 

Training sessions were something he'd almost convinced himself weren't that bad, each and every time he went a few good days without one, only to remember how awful they were when he was nursing the wounds in post. 

Still, he'd been happy, when the mask was unlocked and he was allowed to slip into the blissful peace of being a regular kitchen employee. 

Up until he'd found Zoro and Zeff, gone to investigate, and discovered what they were talking about. 

Sanji wasn't stupid. He knew, objectively, that it was him who kept his mother in danger. Without him to baby, Sora wouldn't be so alienated from the rest of the family - they might even care for her, genuinely putting in effort to save her. 

But to hear it - to hear it from Zeff, of all people, one of the only people who treated him as human, the person who’d cared for him when no one else did, when no one else could - 

His eyes stung, and his face ached - phantom pains of being pressed against the metal of the mask, he supposed, too used to the consequences of weakness to feel comfortable showing it. 

You've cried so much the past couple days, he told himself. You're not usually such a crybaby. 

That was a lie. He'd always had trouble holding in responses to any strong emotion, whether it was pain of sorrow or love or anger - of course he had been crying, with the rollercoaster of his emotions over the past twenty four hours or so. 

And that brought to mind the day before, and brought him back to the other part of what he'd seen that hurt him: Zeff had been talking to Zoro, the guard from the day before. Warning him. 

He treated me like a person, Sanji thought. Was that such a crime? Could it not be excused for a single day? 

Clearly not. 

It had been so nice, though - to exist as his own person, separate from expectations or legacies, not disappointing anyone because no one expected anything from him. 

As though summoned by the thought, a voice down the hall called out, "There you are! 'Castle's a straight line' my ass. Can't find shit in here."

Sanji huffed, the humor of the complaint enough to allow him to blink away the prickling of his eyes, turning to look at Zoro. "It is a straight line," Sanji told him. "And you were only one hall away."

Zoro blinked, then narrowed his eyes. "That geezer’s directions were awful.”

Knowing Zeff, he’d probably simply pointed and said ‘That way.’ Which, when you were one hall away, should have been very clear. 

“How do you even get out of the barracks?” Sanji asked, incredulous. “You have no sense of direction at all.” 

Zoro shrugged. “I don’t sleep in the barracks.” 

Sanji blinked. “You...don’t?”

“Nah,” Zoro said. “I’m sure I’m supposed to, but I’d rather make the trek out to the docks and stay on my friend’s ship.” 

Sanji straightened, alert. “Your friend is still here?”

“Yeah,” Zoro said. “That’s - the conversation you heard-...”

Sanji stiffened, looking away. “It’s okay,” he said, voice quiet. “It’s true. I don’t like hearing it, but I know-...”

“No,” Zoro interrupted. “Bullshit.” 

Sanji looked back to him, startled. “What?”

“I’ve never met the Queen,” Zoro said, “but you don’t starve yourself out of obligation. She wants you around, enough that I’m betting she loves you as much as you love her. And if she is anything like my nakama, she’d be pissed someone was using her as leverage for you.” 

Sanji frowned. “She...would, I know, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t-...”

“So what?” Zoro cut in again. “Our whole crew would avoid a lot of headache if we gagged Luffy every time we made landfall. Doesn’t mean we’re gonna. He’s a pain in the ass, but he’s our pain in the ass, and we’ll take the good with the bad. That’s just what you do.” Zoro waved vaguely toward a hall behind them - not the one they’d actually come from, but the one he’d clearly thought they had. “That old man was just trying to convince me that it wouldn’t kill anyone to get you out of here.” 

Sanji blinked. “To...what?”

“He was asking for a spot for you,” Zoro said. “I’m not here forever - eventually, I’m getting back on the ship, and heading out again. He asked me if I’d take you with me.” 

Sanji’s heart seized. “He…” Sanji looked down the hall, toward where they’d left Zeff, then back again. “He was trying to get me out?” 

“Yeah,” Zoro said. 

Sanji’s lips pressed into a thin line, before he asked, “And...what did you say?”

“It’d be up to Luffy, not me,” Zoro said. Sanji’s disappointment must have shown on his face, because the guard quickly rushed to add, “But, he’s easy. I told him I met a cook and he was already foaming at the mouth. You wanted to board the ship, I doubt he’d stop you. There’s...one issue, though.” 

Sanji’s heart, for a moment soaring with new hope, dropped like lead. “What is it?”

“Have you heard the name ‘Straw Hat Luffy’ before?”

Sanji shook his head. “I don’t usually know much outside what’s going on in the castle.” 

“Well, he’s famous,” Zoro said. “But...in a bad way. He’s a pirate. We all are, actually.”

Sanji stared. 

“You...are a pirate?”

“Yeah.”

Sanji shook his head, disbelieving. “But you’re a castle guard?” 

“Scoping the place,” Zoro said, easily. “Nami’s convinced there’s something shiny to be stolen, and Robin nominated me as the eyes. Though, after talking to the old dude, I’m willing to bet she’s after some of this ‘research’ they’re up to, herself.”  

“You’re robbing the castle,” Sanji said. “And you’re just gonna...tell me this?”

Zoro shrugged. “You gonna stop me?”

Sanji faltered. 

“Yeah, no,” Zoro said, lips pulling up at one corner. “You’re not. Even if you wanted to, I can take you. But, I’m willing to bet, whatever they’re doing to you when you aren’t in the kitchen, it’s bad enough you don’t care much what I get away with.”  

Sanji clenched his hands into fists at his sides, his habit of bunching up the fabric of his numbered shirt itching at his fingers, but the kitchen uniform wasn’t long enough, and he hadn’t donned an apron yet. “You just met me,” he said. “You’re willing to take a stranger onto your ship?”

Zoro rolled his eyes. “I’m gonna be here for a few days, minimum, ” he said. “Plenty of time to get to know each other. But, honestly, you’re the opinion that matters, here. Even if we didn’t like you, Luffy wouldn’t hesitate to get someone out of this hellhole, if only to find them a place somewhere else. Again, though, he’s easy, so-...”

“But you,” Sanji insisted, taking a step closer. “How do you know you won’t hate me? You’re willing to take on faith that the way I’m treated isn’t my fault?” 

Zoro shook his head. “You’re missing the point,” he said.

“What is the point?” Sanji demanded, growing frustrated. “You know nothing about me. What is this for you? Do you just want the satisfaction of taking as much from this kingdom as possible? Because, I hate to break it to you, but they won’t miss me. They’ll be glad I’m gone. Spite is not a good motive to subject yourself to me.”

“Subject myself?” Zoro echoed. “Do you hear yourself? You’re a fucking person, Sanji. You’re annoying as fuck about girls, sure, but that’s- that’s literally the one problem I’ve had with you. I’d die for Luffy and I spent the first hour I knew him telling him I was gonna kill him when I got free.”

Sanji blinked, shoulders dropping a fraction as he was caught off guard. “...Free?”

“I’d been arrested,” Zoro said, waving a hand dismissively. “Doesn’t matter. Point was, he got me out anyway, and I’ve been with him since. I’m just offering you the chance to do the same.” 

“And you don’t care at all what my crime was?” Sanji asked. 

“Nah.”

“I could be dangerous,” Sanji said.

Zoro laughed. 

“I could!” Sanji insisted. “I could have hurt someone. I could have killed someone. You don’t even want to ask ?” 

Zoro snorted. “I saw how this kingdom handles their prince,” he said. Not seeming to notice Sanji going board-stiff, he continued, “If they’re willing to pummel the shit out of a kid for being sick, kill them all you want to. They probably fucking deserved it.” 

“You…” Sanji stared, unwilling to believe it. “You believe-...You really think I-....” He shook his head. “You think he’s sick, honestly? You don’t blame him?”

Zoro’s eyebrows knitted together in an incredulous look. “ Blame him?”  Zoro shook his head. “They called him a coward, but the thing was- even if he did hurt himself, every single time they hit him, he got back up. Every time he was hurt, he came back. That’s not a coward. Military folks turn tail and run all the time - I’ve fought plenty of them. But that kid? He’s definitely brave. He never ran. Not once.”

“He would,” Sanji said, voice strained. “He would, in a heartbeat. He would run. If he could get away-...”

“Well, he can hitch a ride, too, I guess,”  Zoro said, perfectly indifferent. 

Sanji’s eyes widened. The burning built, and he lost his control over it, feeling it spill over. 

“Hey, hey!” Zoro cried, holding his hands up, hovering them awkwardly by Sanji’s shoulders. “Don’t- Crying isn’t something I know how to deal with, okay? God, you have a bleeding heart, don’t you? We gonna kidnap the whole fucking kingdom? Next we’ll be piling all the servants onto a ship. Start our own goddamn pirate crew, full of Germa rejects. Fuck this country.”

Sanji laughed, slightly hysterical, covering his mouth. 

This isn’t real, he thought, shaking slightly into his own tears. I’ve dreamt this. 

Any moment, he would open his eyes, his vision framed by iron, weight on his cheeks. He would find himself in his room, locked away. He’d sneak free to his hidden ‘kitchen’ he’d made as a kid, and bake something, feeding it to rats because they had to eat, too, and no one else would. 

Hands settled on his shoulders.

When was the last time someone had touched him? Other than his mother?

Zoro’s touch was nothing like Sora’s - her hands were delicate and frail, her touch light. Zoro’s hands were heavy, pressing firmly into his shoulders, grounding him solidly in a way he hadn’t known he needed.  

“You really gotta get this out of your system, though,” Zoro said. “Luffy’s not good with crying, either, and- I love him, but he’s kind of an asshole about it. Cry in front of him and he’ll probably make it worse.”

Sanji hunched into a sob.

“Like I’m doing,” Zoro muttered. “I’m really gonna have to- ugh. Fuck it.”

The hands on his shoulders shifted, fingers curling, and Sanji felt himself be yanked forward roughly.

He stumbled, tripping forward into Zoro’s chest, freezing there.

An arm wound awkwardly around his back, the other still on his shoulder, holding him in a very uncomfortable approximation of a hug. 

Sanji had never felt better in his life.  

Chapter Text

Zoro was not, by any means, a hugger. 

He didn’t like touching people in general, honestly, and avoided it where possible. 

The time in Luffy’s crew, though, had desensitised him significantly to random touching, as his captain was fond of simply latching onto people on a whim and remaining there until another, stronger whim took him elsewhere. 

Zoro knew for a fact that the only reason he was allowed to even sleep without Luffy sprawling across his chest is that he tended to sleep on the floor, and Luffy always wasted the time to crawl up in the top hammock even though in about an hour he’d have dropped down into the one below it to lay on Usopp instead. 

Luffy wasn’t a hugger, he was a full on leech, subjecting everyone to forcible cuddling. 

So, while Zoro didn’t necessarily seek out touch, he did recognize that sometimes, it was necessary. 

And if anybody needed a hug, it was Sanji. 

He locked up under the touch like he was being attacked, staying perfectly still for a good thirty seconds or so before, to Zoro’s relief, he relaxed into it, the heavy tension in his body fading as  he collapsed into the hold, grabbing onto Zoro. He didn’t wrap his arms around Zoro, just bunched up his shirt in his hands, only to immediately release it, laying his hands flat against Zoro’s chest. 

Giving an out, Zoro thought. He doesn’t want to try and keep me here if I wanna go.

Normally an appreciated sentiment, in this case, it pissed Zoro off. Whatever Sanji had done, and whatever they’d done in response, it had fucked the kid up, massively. He acted like his every breath was an inconvenience, and that Zoro was some kind of charitable soul for not thinking he was a waste of space.

Chopper’s gonna love this one. He’s always trying to break out psychology shit on me, and compared to this guy, I’m bread-and-butter normal. 

The other thing he noticed, which he tried not to notice, because he was trying to be nice: Sanji’s hair was fucking gross.

He didn’t smell bad, or anything - not that Zoro was standing there smelling him, because it was weird enough as it was - but his hair brushed his chin for a split second, greasy and almost matted, before Sanji’s head arced hard to one side, hovering over his shoulder instead of touching him. 

That gave Zoro the impression that Sanji had also noticed that his hair was gross, which made him wonder why that was a thing. Maybe he’d just missed a bath, or whatever they had him doing had made him sweaty and nasty and he’d only just had time to wash off the worst of it. 

Again, he wasn’t thinking too hard on it. Sanji had a very clear laundry list of issues, and unless the opportunity arose for Zoro to throw him in a tub and wash his fucking hair, there was no use holding him accountable for it. 

There was the faintest noise in the distance, and before Zoro could even wonder what it was, Sanji wrenched himself free of Zoro, stepping a good few feet backward, stiffening up there and looking behind the swordsman as the sound turned to distinct footsteps and, a moment later, an emerging Zeff. 

“Sorry, kid,” he said, gruffly. “That wasn’t the way I meant that.”

“Zoro told me,” Sanji said. “It’s-...It’s whatever. It doesn’t bother me.” 

“Yeah, sure,” Zeff said, rolling his eyes. “You ready to cook, or you wanna keep standing there like I don’t know you two were a lot closer before I came up?”

That sounded a lot more suggestive than Zoro was happy about, and Sanji’s burning face suggested he’d caught that, too.

“Shut up, you old geezer,” Sanji muttered, moving for the kitchen door, pausing just in front of it to look back at Zoro. “How many people are on your ship, Zoro?”

Zoro blinked, a bit confused, but answered, “Ah...Robin, Nami, Usopp, Chopper, Luffy, and me. So...six.”

“Robin and Nami are both ladies?” Sanji asked.

Zoro squinted at him. “Are you gonna be weird about that?”

“It’s not weird to respect women!” Sanji snapped. Then, abruptly changing directions, he asked, “Luffy is your captain, right?”

“He is,” Zoro said. “Why?”

“Nothing!” Sanji said, simply, turning around and pushing through the kitchen doors without another word…

...Only to pop back out the door a second later, asking Zoro, “What’s your favorite food?”





Sanji stood in the kitchen, looking over his careful setup, mind full of the notes Zoro had been able to offer. 

Mom will eat anything, he thought, so I’ll make two of each. One for her, one for them. 

He reached for the first set of ingredients. 

Luffy likes meat, huh? He recalled. Perhaps skewers with different types of meat for him. Fruit salad for Miss Nami, sandwiches and tea cakes for Miss Robin, fish for Usopp, some sort of sweet bread dish for Chopper, and then it was all down to fillers to finish off the bentos. 

And then…

Sea king meat onigiri, Sanji thought, though a high-quality meat like that was definitely beyond the supplies they would want him to use. He’d deal with it if they noticed and took issue. Claiming it was for the Queen might have been enough, but they were so quick to take issue with Sanji doing anything-...

But he’d deal with it. 

I won’t be anyone’s burden, he thought, fiercely determined. I’m not holding anyone back. 





Zoro was not fucking lost.

He wasn’t. In order to be lost, he had to be going somewhere in the first place, and he wasn’t. He was just looking around.

He was definitely not supposed to be where he was, though. All the castle halls tended to be empty, but this one was eerily so, and there were bulky locks on each of the doors.

At the end of the hall, there was a large metal door, a screen beside it for some kind of key input. 

Touch based, I guess, he thought, looking at it. He didn’t think it was too smart to go sticking his own hand on it, so instead, he looked to the door itself, squinting at the seam of it.

Sealed air-tight, with some kind of thick synthetic fiber in between sheets of pure steel. 

“You’re holding something good, huh?” Zoro murmured, looking at it. “Alright…”

He pulled free his sword, and prodded the seal with the tip of it.

It didn’t so much as scratch.

“Yeah, didn’t think so,” Zoro said, sheathing the sword. He’d need to bring his own if he wanted to get through it. 

Still, a vault door? That was the first promising thing he’d seen in the whole fucking kingdom. If they were hiding anything valuable, it had to be in there. 

My swords can get through the door, for sure, he thought. He’d bring Wado Ichimonji, to be sure - even the steel door didn’t stand a chance against that blade. 

He stepped back, trying to get one last good look at the door, only to freeze, mid-step, as he bumped into the point of another blade. 

“You’re not permitted in this area, guardsman,” a woman’s voice said. The point pressed into his skin. “You could be executed for stepping foot in this hall.” 

Zoro tipped his head, hand still resting on the hilt of his borrowed guardsman sword. It was no meito, but he was a good enough swordsman, he could make it work. 

“Got lost,” he said, casually. “This place is a maze.”

“It’s a straight line,” the woman replied, flatly. “As long as you stay in the areas you’re permitted to go.” 

Slowly, taking his chances, Zoro turned, looking over his shoulder to see the person threatening him.

She had long, sweeping pink hair spilling over her face, and roughly dental floss worth of clothing, except for the wing-like purple cape draped over her shoulders.

“Who are you?” he asked.

The woman faltered, eyes wide, face somewhere between shocked and offended.

Then, suddenly, it pinched, looking furious. “You’re not a guard,” she said.

Whoops. 

“Who are you, intruder?” she demanded, her knife digging into his back. “A thief? Who sent you?”

“Nobody,” Zoro said. “I was looking for someone. They’re not here, so I’ll go.”

“Who?”

Zoro snorted. “So you can kill them? Pass.” He looked to her, prompting, “You never answered me. Who are you?”

“I’m the firstborn child of the Vinsmoke family,” she said. “Princess Poison Pink.” 

“A princess, huh?” Zoro thought of the princes, in the yard. “You beat on your brother, too?”

The princess’ eyes widened slightly. “...What?”

“The princes,” Zoro said. “I saw them before, beating the shit out of your little brother. Called him a coward for not joining the military, or something. You weren’t there. Did you sleep in?”

The woman tipped her chin up, fury in her face, and she tossed the knife away. Zoro had barely managed to turn around, sword halfway out of its sheath, when she shot forward, hand grabbing him harshly by the throat, barreling him over, throwing him to the ground and pinning him there. 

“My brother is none of your business,” she growled.

The angle made it awkward, and he could barely breathe under the pressure on his throat - Pink seemed to be impossibly strong - but he got his sword free, yanking it upward, moving to cut her arm where she held him down.

The blade glanced harmlessly off her, and a wild spark came into her eyes. 

“A normal sword can’t get through the raid suit,” she told him. “Let alone my exoskeleton. You’re dead, thief.” 

Zoro grit his teeth, racking his brain for a way out.

She had a hot-button temper, he’d seen, and she’d reacted strongly at the mention of her family-...

“You know it, don’t you?” Zoro asked, through ragged breathing. “You know your whole kingdom is fucked.”

She let out an enraged noise, and dragged Zoro up off the ground, before slamming him back down, so hard he felt the tile under him crack.

“The Germa kingdom is stronger than anything,” Pink growled.

“And it’s full of monsters,” Zoro spat back. “You lock your prince in a fucking iron trap, you lock your own mother away-...”

Pink moved, getting to her feet, dragging Zoro up with her, and then moved, throwing him forward, sending him crashing sideways into a wall. It dented under his weight, and he hit the ground hard, feeling pain blooming across his whole body. 

“My mother ,” she said, “and my brother , are plagued. They have to be isolated.” 

“Does he have to be beaten into the ground?” Zoro asked, dragging himself up on shaking arms. “Does she have to starve herself to get a visitor?”

Pink paused, expression becoming unreadable. “How do you know about that?”

“You don’t make it a secret when you hate someone,” Zoro said. “It took me one day in this place to see what kind of people you are here. The queen, the prince, even staff - you treat them like-...”

“Sanji.”

Zoro paused, feeling the blood drain from his face, at Pink’s tone, knowing and foreboding, like she’d just come to the realization. “Who?” 

“If you’re pretending you don’t know him, tell your eyes,” she said. “I can see it in them that I'm right. You’re the ‘guard’ that escorted Sanji to the medical ward the other day.” She tipped her chin up. “Mother claimed Sanji was happy, when he arrived. That he talked about you like a friend.”

“Sanji’s not a bad guy,” Zoro said. “Whatever the fuck makes you lot think he is.”

“You won’t help him this way,” she snapped. “You’re a nobody. If you’re caught, they’ll crush you like a bug, and they’ll make his life even worse.”

Zoro blinked at her, slowly, managing to sit up, collapsing back against the dented wall behind him. “‘If’ I get caught?” he echoed. 

The woman turned from him, stepping to the side, scooping her knife up off the ground. She turned it over in her hands, before stepping up, crossing the distance, getting right in front of Zoro.

He pressed back against the wall, but he didn’t have anywhere to go, and her strength was so immense - without his swords, there was nothing he could do but grit his teeth and wait for it.

She reached out, levelling the knife with his face, and jutting forward hard.

Zoro snapped his eyes shut, feeling a sharp pain spread through his face, centered around his-...

His cheek?

He cracked his eyes back open as Pink pulled her knife away from the harsh cut it had dug into the side of his face, setting her fingers against the flat of the blade and smearing the blood across it. 

“Get out,” she said. 

“...What?”

“You’re here for Sanji, aren’t you?” she asked, looking down at him. “I can explain away the damage here easily enough, but that won’t help you if you’re caught here again. For his sake...get out. Take him, and leave. Don’t look back. Don’t let him look back.”

“You care about him,” Zoro realized, disbelieving. 

She tipped her head up again, sneering down at him. “My mother’s going to die for him,” she said. “I’m not on his side...but I’m not on theirs, either. Get him out. I won’t cover for you twice.”

Zoro hesitated, but then moved, climbing unsteadily to his feet. 

“Give me a day,” he said. “I’ll tell him now, and my crew tonight. We’ll take him tomorrow.”

“So long as he goes,” Pink said, and turned on her heel, jutting a hand out toward the end of it. “Leave. Before anyone else sees you took this little walk.” 

Zoro didn’t need to be told twice. Two steps forward, though, he paused, looking back. “Why…?”

She looked at him, fire in her eyes. “What?”

Zoro pressed his lips into a firm line. “Nevermind,” he said, turning away. “I’m just glad someone gives a shit.”

“Funny,” Pink said, as he walked away. “I was going to say the same.”