Once their tiny snail ship is out onto the open ocean and Sanji digs into the picnic basket Ichiji retrieved, there’s a first-aid kit inside. Suspiciously well-stocked, much better equipped to deal with the kind of injury Zoro just took than the one Sanji keeps - kept - under his sink and usually brought out to the field, even if the casing looks the same. For a moment when Sanji opens it, Zoro can smell the rich perfume Reiju wears, but that could just as easily be a lingering touch from another day, or his imagination entirely.
He doesn’t ask what Sanji thinks, uneasy at the thought of bringing the blond’s sister up so soon, and Sanji helps Zoro take care of his wounds in silence. Sanji’s hands shake as he wraps a clean bandage over Zoro’s ruined eye, and Zoro doesn’t know how to even begin to say it was worth it, that he’s not sorry, that he is sorry for taking Sanji away so abruptly, that he would do the exact same thing again without a second thought. Honestly, Zoro thinks the cook already understands. Hopes he does.
The day or two they spend at sea has the horrible quality of feeling like instants and eons simultaneously, as Zoro’s eye aches and Sanji shivers, as they eat the packed sandwiches and barely speak. Zoro doesn’t have the energy to do much else. Too much to say, and nothing at all; no use speculating until they can see where Reiju has sent them.
A change in the motion of the snail ship has Zoro fumbling for the exit, trying to get a glimpse at whatever they’re approaching. At first he’s sure something has gone more wrong with his vision than merely losing an eye, because everything he can see is pink. When Sanji pokes his head out and they nearly send the snail ship listing into the shallow waves, however, the cook confirms the same sight.
“Is it...heart-shaped?” Sanji asks.
Zoro nods, immediately realizes that was a mistake due to the pain in his skull, and scowls at the island. “Weird-looking place.”
“I’m sure it’s not so bad,” Sanji says, sounding just as bemused as Zoro, if more optimistic. “Probably nice people, on a heart-shaped island.”
As much as Zoro would like to share that optimism, he’s learned that there’s trouble on every island, and the more unique they look, the worse it is. “Sure.”
They don’t have to wonder for long. Barely moments after they stumble out of the snail ship, a loud, colorful crowd bustles down from the hills, emerging from a forest that is improbably dense with flowers. In the lead is a figure with wild purple hair, exaggerated makeup, and an outfit Zoro doesn’t want to look at too closely.
A familiar figure. It may only have been one grainy newspaper photograph, but Zoro will never forget reading that story, and the faces of the people involved with helping Luffy are burned into his mind.
“Welcome to Kambakka Kingdom, candies!” Emporio Ivankov shouts, backed up by excited clamouring from the crowd behind him.
The explanation takes a while. Luckily, Ivankov seems to recognize Zoro as easily as Zoro recognized him, and Zoro has to give Reiju credit; she definitely sent them somewhere he and Sanji can get willing help.
If anything, these people are too friendly. Zoro is reminded of nothing so much as circling wolves, the way Ivankov’s followers stare at them while he expounds upon the ideology of this place. Zoro stares back, hoping the bandage around his head makes him look more threatening, rather than less. He’s not in the mood to play nice, no matter how enthusiastic these people are.
At least Sanji doesn’t seem put off. The cook just looks curious, and a little excited, especially when Ivankov mentions their special okama kenpo and secret recipes. Zoro is starting to think this will work out, until Ivankov starts talking about their dress code and a couple of his people rush forward with their arms full of pastel ruffles.
That’s too much. After all the shit they just went through, after all the shit Sanji has endured for his entire life, Zoro is not going to stand around and let these weirdos strip them right here on this grotesquely pink beach.
“I won’t let you force him,” Zoro growls, pulling a sword and getting between Sanji and this… weird, giant-headed crossdresser. It’s just a dress, not a big deal, or it shouldn’t be, but Zoro can’t stand the idea of anyone else forcing Sanji into things he doesn’t want to do.
The others boo and complain, but Ivankov eyes Zoro and Sanji with a stern gaze, peering between their bloodied clothes and the juvenile snail ship bearing Germa’s angular emblem. Zoro knows better than to believe everything he reads in the newspaper, but if even a small percentage of it is true, this guy is someone to take seriously.
“HEE-HAW! Why, you shouldn’t stare so fiercely, candy-boy, or I’ll swoon,” the weirdo brays, collapsing dramatically on the sand. He leaps up a moment later, and the rest of the Kambakka Kindgdom’s citizens cheer. “Or not! We’re not in the business of telling people who to be, Roronoa Zoro. But you may be surprised, hah!”
“It’s about being yourself, this place?” Sanji interrupts. “I’m not sure if this is me, but… I haven’t thought to wonder before. I’ll try it out.”
“It’s just clothes,” Zoro mutters, now that it’s obvious he can’t back out. What he’s wearing is ruined anyway, and if Sanji doesn’t mind then Zoro is fine with it.
Despite all that, it only takes a day or two for Ivankov to drag Zoro off and reveal that they do, in fact, have a stash of more masculine clothes hidden away in storage. Apparently, Zoro slashing up his frilly skirts every time he so much as draws his swords is getting on Iva’s nerves.
“If you had an ounce of grace, candy-boy,” Ivankov mutters, casting a dirty look over his shoulder as he flings dusty shirts out of the closet.
“Look, I’m going to become the world’s best swordsman, I don’t have to be the pinnacle of fashion while I fight -”
“Even Mihawk has a sense of style,” Ivankov retorts. “It’s about panache, boy! Gives all the little upstarts something to chase, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you be disappointed to meet the best and he’s just a grubby nobody from nowhere? My heart wouldn’t be able to handle the disappointment!”
With this, Iva collapses across a pile of discarded clothes, a silk scarf of much finer make than the rest fluttering down to drape across his face with suspiciously perfect flair. Sanji, who has been taking far too much glee from watching all this, picks his way across the small space, smoothing out a few crumpled shirts as he does.
“He’s got a point, marimo,” the blond points out, lifting a simple black suit jacket off the floor. “Even something like this, if you can’t get the hang of these.”
Plucking at his own skirts, Sanji gives him a saccharine smile. The pink dress slides off one shoulder, and Zoro tears his eye away. “Too restrictive,” he mutters, dismissing the offer. “I’d just tear the shoulders out.”
“OR NOT!” Ivankov shouts, getting up with a petulant flounce once it’s clear that no one is paying attention to him. Seeing the jacket in Sanji’s hands, he gives the cook a speculative once-over. “You know, candy-boy, with your legs, you would cut a stunning figure in a proper suit.”
“You think?” Sanji muses, eyes far away.
“Not so sweet a picture as now,” Ivankov pouts, trying to pinch Sanji’s cheek as the blond sways out of reach, “but it’s worth investigating.”
“I just want a pair of pants,” Zoro mutters.
In the end, Zoro is permitted to wear a plain shirt and pants while he trains, and isn’t around to offend anyone else’s sensibilities. Sanji just snickers at him and makes a point of doing a particularly impressive flip in a full dress whenever Zoro complains, but the cook gets a few additions to his island wardrobe as well. Zoro has to admit that slim black suit pants are at least as tantalizing on the blond as a flash of collarbone beneath ruffled chiffon.
Besides the clothes, Ivankov lends them a house. Cottage, really; Zoro can’t call it anything else, with its thatched roof and flower garden, and lace curtains behind pink shutters with hearts cut into them. He feels almost as uncomfortable in this house as he does in the massive skirts - there are doilies on all the tables, for fuck’s sake - but the cook loves it.
Of course he does. There’s a kitchen. Not as professional as the one back in Sanji’s cell, but it has a little window set over the sink, sunlight streaming through in lacy patterns, and Zoro catches the cook standing stock-still and just staring out of it more than once. Sanji plants herbs in the window-boxes and places the first recipe scroll he wins on the shelf beside the window, making the place his own.
After a week or two of this, a delivery bird drops a package for Sanji on their front step. It contains three books - the well-worn volume about All Blue that Sanji showed Zoro back in his cell, Chef Zeff’s logbook, and a brand-new compilation of recipes from all across the North Blue. The spine of that one cracks when Sanji opens it, and a slip of paper flutters out.
It simply reads be safe, no signature, but the sender is obvious. The cook’s hands shake as he looks at it, and Zoro takes it upon himself to gather up the books and usher Sanji inside.
“Do you want to stay here?” Be safe. This isn’t a bad place, and Sanji seems to like it. He fits, sitting on this stupid tufted sofa in a pretty sundress, ribbons in his hair, herbs sprouting in the window boxes. New suits hanging in their closet, kicks getting stronger every day.
Sanji startles, taking the books from Zoro and running his hands over the familiar covers. “No. Why are you asking me that?”
“I mean, you seem happy,” Zoro shrugs.
“I want to come with you. See the world, find All Blue, cook every kind of cuisine I can,” Sanji reminds him, narrowing his eyes.
Zoro is surprised by how much of a relief that is to hear. They haven’t had much time alone, no chance to talk about how Sanji is feeling, away from Germa at last.
“I’m not going to settle down on the first island I see,” Sanji continues, “and I know you aren’t gonna put down roots here, no matter how much you look like a plant.”
“Of course not,” Zoro says, unable to keep the grin off his face. That’s all the reassurance he needs. As if either of them would want to live in one place forever.
“Now that I’m out of there I’m going to see it all.” Sanji throws his arms across the back of the couch, scowling at Zoro. “You better not try to leave me behind, shitty swordsman.”
“No way,” Zoro promises. He won’t even joke about it. Both of them are gonna rejoin Luffy in Sabaody, and nothing will stop Zoro from making that happen.
The cook darts in for a quick kiss, jumping up as Zoro gapes at him. “That’s what I thought. Now get off your ass, and help me decide what to make for dinner,” he says, waving the new North Blue cookbook in front of Zoro’s dumbfounded face.
If they’ve barely had time to talk, they definitely haven’t had time to kiss, let alone anything else. Between Ivankov’s utter disregard for personal boundaries and all the rest of them, there’s always someone around, shoving Sanji or Zoro into ever more elaborate dresses or challenging them to increasingly difficult fights. Sure, Zoro would pass on the dress nonsense, but the fights are great, even if none of these people are swordsmen.
This morning it’s Zoro’s turn, and Sanji is sitting on a wicker swing bench in their garden, painting his fingernails while a woman named Annabelle tried to tear Zoro’s head clean off. She has the biceps to do it, too, Zoro reflects, testing a few new moves. He wins, eventually, fending off the kiss Annabelle tries to give him as a reward. Sanji is the only person Zoro is interested in kissing, and none of these people will leave them alone!
“Careful, bastard, my nails are still drying,” Sanji complains, when Zoro collapses onto the bench, sending it swinging wildly.
Zoro ruined his own nail polish within minutes after one of the okama made him try it, but the paint suits Sanji’s long fingers and carefully tended nails. Swooping in, Zoro kisses the cook on the cheek. Sanji makes a face, holding his hands out carefully in front of him, and boots Zoro off the swing.
The moments they do get to spend together are great. Without the stress and fear of Germa 66 hanging over them, Zoro is seeing Sanji come into himself faster and faster every day, and he falls a little more in love with every show of confidence.
Kissing the cook’s ankle instead, Zoro has to marvel at the strength Sanji can put into a kick, even wearing silly, thin-soled sandals like these. The shoes Reiju gave him are stored in their closet; apparently, they don’t match any of Sanji’s current clothes. Zoro doesn’t see why that matters, but he’s kind of glad the cook isn’t wearing them right now.
“I think I know where another recipe is,” Sanji says, letting Zoro run his hand up and down his calf. “Gonna head out that way after lunch.”
Zoro gives a hum of acknowledgment. Sounds like he’ll spend the afternoon trying to find an undisturbed place to do katas, again.
Sanji is improving by literal leaps and bounds. The first time Zoro sees the cook step into the air like he’s doing nothing more interesting than climbing the stairs, he can’t suppress a bitter pang of envy. Sure, Zoro has gotten stronger too since the disaster at Sabaody, but for a moment it feels trivial in the face of Sanji’s success.
He has it under control by the time Sanji touches down, grinning from ear to ear. It’s easy to be enthusiastic - Sky Walk is an amazing skill, and Zoro wants Sanji to keep that look of pride on his face forever. Still, he starts getting up earlier and sleeping less, trying to cram a few more hours of training into every day.
What he’s done is important, and Zoro doesn’t regret it. Regret is a waste of time, and Zoro would choose to save Sanji from that shithole family of his a thousand times over. Even so, the truth remains that Luffy will need Zoro to be unbeatable, and he’s got a long way to go, with not much time left.
He must not have disguised his emotions quite well enough, because Ivankov gets him alone a few days later, with an unusually serious look on his enormous face.
“You need a better place to sharpen your claws, candy-boy,” he comments, tapping his long nails pensively against his arm. “A wildcat like you needs more space to roam.”
Zoro sets down the heart-shaped boulders he’s been using as improvised weights, and frowns. “What’s your point?”
“I’ve met your captain,” Ivankov points out, “and Mugi-boy deserves a swordsman who can take care of everything else while he focuses on the things he needs to do. It’s all well and good to say you’ll be the best someday, but words are easy. You need training that can match your ambition, and you won’t find it here, HEE-HAW!”
“I know,” Zoro grits out.
“Well, if you don’t do anything about it, you’ll be no use to Mugi-boy at all!” Ivankov makes that braying laugh again, and Zoro resists the urge to strangle him. “Or not! Lucky for you, candy, I know someone who could help you reach your full potential.”
A wink that chills Zoro’s spine, and Ivankov smirks at him, clearly waiting for Zoro to ask.
“Who,” he demands, as flatly as possible.
“HEE-HAW! I won’t spoil the surprise!” Ivankov cackles. “I’ll take you there, but we’re leaving tomorrow. Understand, Roronoa Zoro?”
Gripping his swords, Zoro nods. There isn’t a choice, but he’s not looking forward to breaking the news to the cook.
“Ivankov knows somewhere I can really train,” Zoro says, later that evening while Sanji putters about in the kitchen. “A great swordsman.”
The cook pauses, idly stirring something as he turns to Zoro. “Not here, I take it.”
Shaking his head, Zoro figures there’s no point beating around the bush. “A different island.”
“And you have to go alone, I bet,” the cook says, turning off the stove.
“Yeah.” Swallowing hard, Zoro tries to justify it to himself. He promised he wouldn’t abandon Sanji ever again, but this is - this is a safe place. Sanji is safe from the Vinsmokes, and he’ll continue to learn and grow stronger here with Ivankov’s people.
Sanji watches him for a long moment, expression indecipherable. Or maybe it’s just that Zoro can’t figure it out past the buzzing in his head.
“I understand,” the cook finally says, biting his lip as his brows furrow with determination. “You can’t achieve your dream here. It makes sense. This is a great place for me; I’m learning exactly what I need, but you need something else.”
“Ivankov wants to leave in the morning,” Zoro responds, unable to find the words to express how grateful he is that Sanji gets it. The cook is strong enough to stand on his own. It’s only a year until the date Luffy set, and this way they’ll both be the best they can be.
Sanji nods, beginning to tug at his hair, and Zoro reaches for him before he can think, pulling the cook into a hug. It’s familiar now, to hold Sanji like this, but Zoro knows he’ll never get enough of it.
“You better work hard,” Sanji mutters, muffled against Zoro’s neck. “I’ll be way stronger than you by then if you take even a moment off, shitty swordsman. I’ll kick your ass.”
“I’ll look forward to seeing you try,” Zoro says, brushing his lips against Sanji’s ear.
Sanji makes a soft sound into his shoulder, body going loose in Zoro’s arms. He’s not sure how long they stand there, but the sun sets into the sea, swallowing their little kitchen in gloom before the cook draws himself back up.
Zoro is sorry to let go, but he can’t argue with the pressure of Sanji’s hands as he pushes away, plastering a smile over his face. “Wish I’d had a little warning, marimo. Could’ve made something really amazing, but you’ll have to settle for what I already have prepared for your going-away dinner.”
“As if that would ever be settling,” Zoro says, getting a genuine smile in return as he settles against the counter. He’s certainly not going to spend a second out of Sanji’s presence, not with the limited time they have left.
The cook seems to have the same idea, not complaining at all about Zoro getting in the way as he serves the meal, or as they clean up afterwards. Curling up together in bed that night, Zoro almost feels like sleep is a waste, but at least he gets to hold the cook for a few more hours.
“You’ll be fine,” Zoro says, holding Sanji by the shoulders in the early morning sunlight. The cook nods, clearly as aware as Zoro that he’s not asking for Sanji’s benefit. It’s not that Zoro doubts him at this point, but after everything he’s been through, leaving Sanji behind feels like tearing off a limb. Or like losing his eye again.
“Get going, marimo,” Sanji says, forced cheer steadying the quaver in his voice. “Sooner you leave, sooner we’ll see each other again.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Zoro croaks, and coughs to clear his throat.
Sanji shrugs. There’s a bruise on his jaw from his latest bout against one of the okama, but he smiles wide anyway, nudging Zoro’s shin with his foot. “Don’t draw this out. I’m not gonna cry in front of all these people.”
It’s a crowd, what seems like the entire population of Momoiro Island standing on the shore waving handkerchiefs while Ivankov postures on the deck of the ship they’ll be taking away from here. His grating voice is getting more and more piercing, impatience growing to levels Zoro can’t ignore.
Zoro brushes his fingers through Sanji’s gleaming hair, and leans in to kiss him. The crowd on the shore shrieks, but Zoro tunes them out, memorizing Sanji’s soft lips and perfect warmth as if there was any chance he could forget them in the first place.
When he steps back Sanji is blushing furiously, and the cook throws an embarrassed look at the crowd, but then he grabs Zoro by the collar and yanks him back in for another kiss, arms thrown around his neck.
“Love you,” Sanji whispers in his ear as he pulls away, flicking a finger along Zoro’s earring to make them chime. “Don’t ever doubt it, shitty swordsman.”
Zoro can only nod, touching his own lips as Sanji darts down the dock and through the crowd. Finally, he cedes to Ivankov’s pestering and boards the ship, refusing to look back as the pink island disappears behind them.
The island they end up at is as different as it could possibly be. Dark and gloomy, wreathed in fog that conceals the shore until the ship nearly runs aground, with damp stone ruins rising from the mist where the thick forest allows even a shred of visibility.
Zoro would disembark anywhere to get away from Ivankov’s relentless teasing, by this point. He doesn’t even ask if this is the right place, jumping overboard as soon as he can see the shore.
Stumbling over a heavily eroded hole in the shoreline that looks like a giant paw print, of all things, Zoro turns to peer back at the ship. It’s difficult to make out from here, but he can still see Ivankov’s purple hair like a beacon in the gloom.
“How am I supposed to find this guy?” Zoro calls. “You told them I’m coming, right?”
“Of course not, candy-boy” Ivankov cackles, voice echoing over the quiescent sea. “I’m not on speaking terms with Government dogs like the Seven Warlords of the Sea. Good luck!”
Zoro waits for an “or not!” gag, but Ivankov’s ship vanishes into the gloom, leaving the silence broken only by the sound of a branch snapping in the dark forest. Seems like he’s on his own.
That suits Zoro just fine. With a grin, he ties his bandanna around his head, draws a sword, and goes to find out just who lives on this depressing island.