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Limerence

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Zoro finishes his beer, slams the stein onto the table, and looks around the bar.  The people he’s talking to are boring; there’s only so much gratitude and vapid praise he can stand, even if it’s netting him free drinks.  This island was having trouble with sea kings and now they’re not, it’s hardly worth all this chatter. One raucous barbecue later they’ve cleaned up the beach and moved the celebration inside.

The island is a nice place, with a large town and friendly population.  The bar, like the rest of the buildings, is wood and plaster on a stone foundation with exposed rafters and many-paned windows in neat diamond patterns.  The beer is excellent and much more varied than the food, which is hearty and satisfying but simple, especially after watching the love-cook do his thing all afternoon.

Luffy has no complaints of course.  The captain is presiding over a long table at the center of the room, shoveling steak into his mouth despite having eaten most of a sea king all on his own earlier.  There’s Usopp telling his lies beside Luffy, with Chopper listening starry-eyed, and Nami running some kind of dice game in the corner. Brook has thrown himself in with a group of musicians in the corner, and Franky is… not dancing, but he’s definitely enthused about the music.  Robin is nowhere to be seen, but Zoro has realized this isn’t her kind of scene. Maybe he’ll go find her; the woman is uncanny but at least she’s quiet company.

That leaves one, and the cook is perched at the bar with some local woman.  He’s been plying her with drinks all evening, laughing and flirting in that stupid way of his, sitting too close and touching her hands whenever Zoro glances that way.  Zoro has seen it all before, although usually it doesn’t take this long for the woman in question to shake off their ero-cook.

In fact, Zoro realizes, doing a double-take as he begins to dismiss the familiar scene, this woman doesn’t seem to want to get away from Sanji’s attention.  She doesn’t look put off or uncomfortable; on the contrary, she’s leaning into the cook’s space even more than he is to hers, brushing her legs against his every time she re-crosses them, too often to be meaningless.  There’s a blush on the cook’s cheeks and even from here Zoro can see his gaze fall to her cleavage, jerking back to her face every few flustered seconds.

Zoro grins.  The idiot never gets lucky, and ruining his chance sounds like the most fun Zoro’s had all day.  Getting up from his table, Zoro ambles across the room.  

“-a beautiful town, but hardly worthy of a princess such as yourself!” the cook is saying, and Zoro rolls his eyes.  One in a million women must be into that, but Zoro can’t see why.

“Would you like to see more?” the woman asks.  “I could give you a tour on the way back to mine, I live on the other side of town.”

Damn.  Maybe Zoro should have started paying attention earlier.  That’s a done deal if he’s ever heard one.  

“As much as it pains me to turn down an opportunity to spend time alone with you, my dear, I shouldn’t stray far from my crew,” Sanji replies, with oblivious cheer and an exaggerated, ingratiating smile.

Is he joking?  The love-cook spends all of his free time - and plenty of time he should be spending on other things - trying to weasel his way into womens’ good graces, and now that he has he’s turning her down?

“I’m sure they’ll be fine without you,” the woman coaxes.  She crosses her arms beneath her breasts, tilting her head at the cook with a coy pout.  “I’d like to personally thank you for saving our island.”

“Just the chance to talk with you like this is more than I deserve!” the idiot chirps.  Zoro gapes at them, entirely forgetting why he came over here.

“We could do more than talk,” the woman says, and runs a hand up the cook’s arm.  Something in Zoro pings with alarm. Not the ready-to-fight kind, more the way he feels when someone insults Chopper.  It’s a weird protective instinct, and not one he’s ever imagined associating with their idiot cook.

“I couldn’t dream of it,” Sanji says, leaning back slightly and pulling his arm away to gesture at her empty glass.  “Would you care for another drink, my lady?”

She looks confused, and frustrated.  Sanji looks uncomfortable, under his intolerable fawning.  Zoro still can’t believe what he’s hearing.

“Really?” the woman asks, now with a hint of irritation in her sultry tone.  “You don’t want to come home with me?”

There’s no way the idiot is misinterpreting that, and it’s obvious he doesn’t know what to say.  Zoro can practically hear Sanji’s internal dialogue, though he’s not sure what’s fighting against the cook’s stupid need to do anything a woman suggests.  Everything Zoro has observed about the man up to this point screams that he should be running out the door with her.

He’s not.  He’s stammering and fluttering with his hands, turning redder and redder as the woman’s expression gets more annoyed.

Zoro stomps up to the bar, shouldering in right next to the cook and smacking against him, nearly knocking him into the woman’s lap.  She jerks back and Sanji turns, already dropping the flustered smiles to snarl at him.

“Watch it, shit-swordsman!”

“Another beer,” Zoro orders, before turning to smirk at the cook.  “What, curly?”

“Pay attention to where you’re putting your stupid muscles, marimo!  You could have bumped the lady!”

“Whatever, you’re both fine,” Zoro says, watching the wrath building in the cook’s stiff frame.  “Get over it.”

Sanji glares, all his attention on Zoro instead of the woman trying to coax him into bed.  “Do I have to teach you some manners?”

“Want to take this outside, ero-cook?” Zoro taunts.  The bartender passes him a fresh beer and Zoro chugs it, shooting the cook that particular grin that always leads to a fight.

Sure enough Sanji stands, rolling his shoulders, and Zoro backs toward the door.  He cracks his knuckles and runs for the beach, with the cook shrieking behind him.

 

~o~O~o~

 

By the time they’re done fighting Zoro’s muscles are sore from blocking the cook’s kicks, and he’s ruined another one of Sanji’s jackets.  The moon is bright above them as they lay a few paces apart on the sand, panting.

“So what was that about?” Zoro asks.

“What was what about, marimo?  It’s hardly shocking that you need to be taught how to act around a lady.”

“Yeah, yeah.  I meant you and that woman.”

“Of course I was showering her with all the attention she deserved, what do you take me for-”

“But not all the attention she wanted,” Zoro cuts in.  “Isn’t that, like, the worst sin in your book, not giving a woman what she wants?”

Sanji doesn’t reply, and when Zoro props himself up to look over the cook is flushed red, staring up at the moon.  “What do you know, marimo,” he finally mutters.

“You were finally gonna get lucky, that’s what,” Zoro says.  “All that humiliating flirting you do finally worked, and you got cold feet.”

“Just because you’re the type of brute who would see that as the end goal doesn’t mean I do,” Sanji retorts.  “I treat women the way that I do because I enjoy interacting with them, not because I want something so crass.”

Zoro lets the first half of that go, no matter how wildly wrong it is, because the rest is so startling.  It doesn’t sound like the sort of banal chivalry the cook usually spouts. “You weren’t trying to get into her bed?”

“Of course not!”  Sanji says, indignation driving him up.  He shifts to glare at Zoro, still red-faced.  

“It’s just a game to you?” Zoro tests.  He can’t work it out, why the idiot acts that way if he’s not trying to bed the women he chases.

“No!” Sanji gasps.  “Women deserve all the praise in the world, if I can make one smile-”

“But what do you get out of it?” 

“Why do you think I have to get something out of it?”  A clear dodge, and Zoro is too interested in the answer to let it go.

“You were all over her, touching her hands and stuff.  Is that all, you just get off on the flirting and pawing at women?”  

Sanji glares harder, pulling out a cigarette.

“You sure got an eyeful of her chest,” Zoro needles.  If he’s vulgar enough the love-cook will have to yell at him, and he’s no good at hiding anything when he’s pissed.  “Gonna think about that alone later?”

“It’s not like that,” Sanji snaps.  “You don’t understand anything, shithead.”

“Clue me in,” Zoro taunts.  “We all know you’re a pervert, so-”

“I’m not interested in sex!” Sanji hisses.  “I don’t even - never mind. You won’t get it.  Stay out of my personal shit, asshole.”

The cook flips himself up and stalks off down the beach.  Zoro lets him go.  

 

~o~O~o~

 

He watches the cook after that, though.  The idiot is right - Zoro doesn’t get it.  This is the way men act when they want to get laid.  Or, well, it’s a way only men who want to get laid would act; Zoro has never seen it actually work, and he’s never seen anyone act quite like the cook.  Whatever, the ero-cook’s stupid behavior can only be interpreted as a come-on.

Zoro watches him flirt with a woman in the market as they shop, holding her hand and standing well into her personal space.  He watches the idiot blatantly stare at a barmaid when they stop for lunch, and interrupts Sanji’s blithering stream of compliments when he gets distracted on the way back to the ship.  The love-cook wants something from these interactions, but Zoro can’t figure out what.

Sanji hums happily as they walk up the pier, ignoring Zoro and blowing the smoke from his cigarette out in hearts.  Instead of mocking him, Zoro tries to connect something, anything from all those fruitless conversations to the cook’s good mood.  All Zoro saw was the idiot falling over himself every few feet, getting shot down and humiliated over and over.

There was one girl who smiled.  She let Sanji kiss her hand, turning her face away to giggle bashfully, and gave him a flower as her friends dragged her off.  Zoro was more interested in the creative names they were calling the cook at the time, but now he notices that the flower is tucked into Sanji’s lapel.

Is that it?  Was that one moment of reciprocation worth all the rest of the day, all the energy the ero-cook spent fluttering around every woman they saw?  The idiot puts his all into every attempt, way too much effort for no return.

Putting the supplies away doesn’t take long, and then they’re at loose ends for another day and a half, until the log pose sets.  Sanji will want to go through the market again tomorrow before they leave, to make sure they got the freshest ingredients. Zoro is a little surprised that he knows that, but the thought feels right when it floats through his head.

“Get out, it’s time for me to make snacks for the ladies,” Sanji says, shutting the galley door in Zoro’s face.

The cook’s food is better than anything they’ll get on the island, so Nami and Robin do reappear early in the afternoon.  Sanji pops out of the galley as soon as they set foot on the ship, taking their shopping bags and offering an endless stream of favors.

“I’ll be working on my maps,” Nami dismisses him.

“I’ll take my tea in the library,” Robin says.

“Of course, my angels!” the love-cook replies, not fazed in the slightest.

It’s always been clear that Sanji doesn’t stand a chance with either of them.  Zoro used to wonder why the idiot kept up his act with that fact so obvious, but now he’s not so sure.  Maybe the cook is already getting whatever it is he needs from the girls. 

“What are you staring at, shit-swordsman?” Sanji demands, exiting the library with a newly-emptied tray under his arm.

“An idiot,” Zoro says, because it’s too easy, but follows the retort with a question before the cook can pick a fight over it.  “So is your whole shtick really just flattering women? That’s the whole goal?”

“Yes?  We’ve met, yeah?  All women deserve-”

“Oh, shut up,” Zoro interrupts.  “We all know what you think about women.  I’m asking about you.”

That seems to stump the cook.  He stares at Zoro suspiciously, tapping the toe of one shoe against the deck, like he might still just kick him.  “If you’re trying to make fun of me you can fuck right off,” he finally says.

“I’m not,” Zoro grumbles.  “I just don’t get you.”

“Told you you wouldn’t,” Sanji retorts.  “Look, marimo. There’s more to relationships than sex.”

That doesn’t clear anything up.  “You’re not gonna have a relationship with some girl you meet in a bar.”

“This is a waste of my time.” Sanji scowls at him, tapping his foot again, but stomps away without saying more about it.

 

~o~O~o~

 

There’s no one on the crew to ask about relationships.  Zoro’s not even sure why he cares; what does it matter what the ero-cook has flitting through his mind?  But it’s important to Zoro to understand his nakama, and this whole thing has really blown the foundation of what he thought he knew about the cook.

“What’s important in a relationship?” Zoro asks, leaning up against Usopp’s workbench.  The guy at least had something with that girl back home, right?

Usopp gives him a look that clearly asks what the hell he’s on.  “Uh… liking the other person, I guess?”

“That’s obvious,” Zoro grumbles.

Pushing up his goggles, Usopp recognizes that it was a serious question.  “Why are you asking?”

“There’s more to it than just liking someone,” Zoro says.  Sanji will kill him if he explains why he’s curious, and that’s a fact.

Usopp just blinks at him.  “Trust, maybe?”

“I like you,” Zoro says.  “And I trust you. We’re nakama, but that’s not the kind of relationship I’m talking about.”

They both wrinkle their noses at the idea.  Usopp makes a face and straightens up. “Right.  That’s true, so extremely true.” He pauses, a look of vague horror on his face, and Zoro wishes he hadn’t used that example.  “Now, the Great Captain Usopp has guided many a lovelorn soul in his day, but-”

“There’s no lovelorn soul,” Zoro growls.  Maybe the cook, but only in a general sense.

“Often the lady doth protest too much, as they say,” Usopp says, peering at him, “but okay.  Seriously though, what’s up? I mean, it’s not that complicated, is it? Relationships are built on love, right?”

Zoro is stumped.  That’s too broad; he might as well ask Usopp what love is, and that won’t even answer the real question.  Something in between love in that grand sense and the trust they all share as crewmates.  

“Intimacy, perhaps?” Robin’s voice chimes in.  Usopp startles and falls off his stool, and Zoro gives himself a crick in his neck whipping around to look at the door.

Robin smiles at them, graciously ignoring their shock.  “People in a romantic relationship share a depth of understanding that others do not,” she adds.  “A special closeness.”

In the back of his head, Zoro can hear a voice that sounds a lot like Sanji praising the woman’s wisdom and keen emotional sensitivity, or some similar bullshit.  

“That sounds right,” Usopp says doubtfully.

“Of course, such relationships usually include physical intimacy beyond that of nakama,” Robin says, watching them closely.  Zoro wonders what she sees.

More importantly, that puts him back at square one.  “I know about sex,” he snaps. Usopp chokes. “That’s not it either.”

“Oh?”  Robin asks.  “What are you looking for exactly, swordsman-san?”

“It’s…” Zoro stops in frustration.  He doesn’t know how to explain his question.  What does he know? The cook doesn’t want to fuck any of the girls he flirts with.  He still desperately tries to pick up women everywhere they go, but why? Just for the attention?  That doesn’t seem right; the cook as good as said that complimenting women is more important than getting anything for it.  Still, he wants something, whatever this elusive relationship thing is.

“It’s naive to assume that all physical intimacy is sexual,” Robin muses.  “There are other things you might do with someone who is more than a close friend, aren’t there?”

Usopp looks lost.  Zoro is right there with him.

“The trappings of romance separate friendship from love,” Robin continues.  “Wouldn’t you agree, swordsman-san? Sharing an intimate moment with a loved one.”

Zoro nods.  That actually fits.  He’d been watching the cook’s frivolous idiocy as means to an end, but maybe the stupid fawning is the point?  It’s… some kind of intimacy? Or a step toward it? He still doesn’t feel like he’s quite there, but it’s close.  This love stuff has never made any sense to him.

“Yeah, thanks,” he says.

“Any time,” Robin replies, and swans away down the hall.

Usopp eyes him warily.  “You’re still not gonna explain what that’s all about, are you.”

Zoro shakes his head and goes above deck.  Usopp’s workshop smells weird.

 

~o~O~o~

 

He’s beginning to feel like a creep, watching the cook all the time.  Sanji bristles every time they make eye contact at dinner. Zoro isn’t sure if it’s just general defensiveness from their recent conversations, or if the cook has realized Zoro is staring.  Robin definitely has - there’s no mistaking that raised eyebrow and deliberate glance.

Zoro would really like to figure the cook out before Robin figures him out, not least because he’s not really sure why he cares so much.  It would just be embarrassing for Robin to know before he does himself, but that calculating look means the clock is ticking.  She’ll intervene if she thinks he’s doing something wrong, and that could mean anything.

It’s Zoro’s turn to help with dishes.  It seems to be his turn a lot; Zoro doesn’t know how Nami draws up the schedule.  Whatever, it’s another chance to talk to the cook.

That’s a different thought.  Usually dishwashing is a good opportunity to bait Sanji into a fight, not try to get along with him.  Not that Zoro would exactly say he’s trying to get along with the cook, but he’s not going to learn anything new by taunting him the way he usually would.

The cook keeps giving him wary looks as they clear the table, and finally sighs.  “Usopp said you were asking weird questions.”

“Usopp has a big mouth,” Zoro mutters.  

“He didn’t say that much.  Just that you were asking him about love.  He thinks you’ve got a crush, marimo.”

“That’s stupid.  I don’t care about that kind of stuff.”

“I know,” Sanji says, an odd twist to his expression.  “Told him as much, too, so you’re welcome. Now stop fishing around about me, before somebody connects the dots.”

“Don’t worry, ero-cook, the only thing less believable that what you’ve told me about your skirt-chasing is the idea that I’m trying so hard to figure you out,” Zoro grumbles.  The rest of the crew thinks that Sanji is easy and Zoro doesn’t give a shit about him, it’s that simple. Zoro would like to go back to that straightforward worldview himself.

For some reason that gets Sanji’s back up.  “Then just leave it alone!”

“What?  You must know what you look like.”

“You all know I come back to the ship every night we’re in port.” Sanji glares at him, hands white-knuckled and still on the plate he’s holding.

“Yeah, because we all think you get turned down every time,” Zoro retorts.

“Less than you think,” Sanji hisses.  “Is it really easier to believe that literally no one would take me to bed than to believe I’m not interested in going that far?”

Zoro considers that.  “I guess not,” he says.  The cook is attractive, after all; shiny blond hair, nice skin, dresses well in his stupid fancy suits all the time.  His eyes are a stunning color and the way he smiles for women can be charming, although Zoro prefers his indignant faces.  It’s just… he’s Sanji .

“It’s just that you’re you,” Zoro concludes.

The cook blanches and drops the plate into the sink with a splash.  Zoro has half a second to realize he’s put his foot in it again before Sanji drives his own foot into his chest, and kicks Zoro straight through the door.  Straight through and into the harbor, and Franky won’t let him back onto the ship until he fishes the galley door back out too.

“Stay out of my sight, shithead!” Sanji yells from the kitchen.

Franky raises an eyebrow at him.  “What’d you do now, Zoro-bro? Our curly-cook seems genuinely pissed at you this time.”

“He’s usually pissed at me,” Zoro grumbles.

“Nah,” Franky shrugs.  “Normally it’s just playing, you know?  You guys have so much SUPER energy, you’ve got to do something with it.  Cook-bro looks ready to crush your ribs for real today.”

“Thanks for the insight.”  Zoro wrings out his haramaki and huffs.

“Any time!  I just wanna look out for my little bros, you know!  I’ll build you some new ribs if you need them, YOW!” Franky pauses, and points one very large finger at Zoro.  “Just stop blasting pieces off the Sunny, yeah?”

Zoro waves Franky off and does his best not to draw Sanji’s ire for the rest of the evening.  He doesn’t want new ribs; the ones he has are perfectly good.

 

~o~O~o~

 

Morning rolls around and Nami assigns Zoro to help Sanji shop again, unmoved by either of their complaining.

“Nami-swan, I don’t need this useless moss tagging around after me-”

“I’ve got better things to do than-”

“Make sure you don’t forget anything,” Nami interrupts, with a saccharine smile and death in her eyes.

“Of course, Nami-swan!”

“Witch,” Zoro mutters under his breath, and follows Sanji off the ship.

The cook ignores him as they walk into town.  The docks are a little ways away, along a winding road between hills or a rugged footpath across them.  They take the more direct path and the silence is uncomfortable without their usual bickering, not that Sanji pays much attention to Zoro when they’re out together.  Usually he’s distracted by something - someone - else and making noise about that. Out here there’s nothing but wind in the brush along the path and seabirds calling overhead.

Instead Sanji is glaring bitterly through the fringe of his hair and chain-smoking, flicking his lighter and refusing to look directly at Zoro.  He really is more upset than normal.

“Why are your feathers all ruffled?” Zoro asks, rather than apologize.

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe because you can’t fathom anyone wanting to be with me due to my inherent me-ness,” the cook spits.

“I didn’t mean it like that.”  Not in a cruel way. Zoro rolls his eye.  Just like the cook to get all fussy.

“And how else could you possibly mean it?” Sanji prods.

With a vague gesture up and down the cook, Zoro tries to dismiss the issue.  “You’re just so… like that. It’s not a big deal.”

Sanji hisses like a teakettle, or maybe a snake.  He forces his hands deeper into his pockets and glares at Zoro, teeth clenched around his cigarette.  “You hate me that much.”

“No,” Zoro frowns, “You’re just always so over the top with the flirting and the attention-seeking.  Attention-giving. Whatever you do. I don’t get why you try so hard. It’s exhausting to watch.”

“Is it so bad that I want to be close to someone?” the cook demands.

Zoro thinks about it.  That’s pretty normal, really; it’s more the cook’s process that bothers him now.  The way that the idiot pours his whole heart into every interaction just because he wants… whatever it is he wants, that isn’t even sex.  The amount of affection seems so much less difficult than that, like something Sanji shouldn’t have to practically beg for.

“There’s no time for anything more meaningful,” the cook continues, jerkily stamping his cigarette out on the path.  “So if I can get a lady to smile, hold hands a little, it feels like - feels like something. Enough.”

Sanji looks so ashamed about it, like Zoro is catching him out.  That’s stupid. Zoro is beginning to get that this isn’t so different from Luffy hunting down a new source of meat and adventure everywhere they stop, or Nami shopping for clothes and coming back refreshed and cheerful, or the way Zoro himself will sometimes slip out of a bar with a friendly stranger.  Getting what they need while they can, to keep balanced between islands. Maybe he doesn’t understand what the love-cook needs, but Zoro can see that he struggles to get it.

“You shouldn’t have to grovel for that,” Zoro decides.  It seems so simple, but Sanji gapes at him like he’s speaking another language.

Decision made, Zoro steps a little closer and offers his arm, the way he’s seen this idiot do a thousand times.

Jerking back faster than he does in a fight, Sanji starts shrieking at him.  “Are you mocking me? You’ve been after me for days about this and now that I’ve opened up about it you’re-”

“I’m not mocking you,” Zoro growls.  Stupid, this whole thing. He rolls his eyes and snatches the cook’s arm, pulling him back.  “Come here. Relax. Stop fluttering around and falling over yourself for five seconds-”

“What are you thinking!” Sanji yells.  Lucky they’re not into town yet; this would cause the kind of scene that drives Nami up a wall.

“Look, I still don’t really get it-”

“Obviously!”

“-but Robin said something about intimacy earlier-”

“You bothered Robin-chan about this?!  What did you tell her, you-”

“-and that’s the difference between nakama and whatever you want, right?  This whole closeness thing, that’s what you need on top of the trust and liking each other or whatever.”

The love-cook stops screaming at him, but he looks deeply horrified.  “I don’t like you,” he points out.

“Yes, you do.”  Zoro cannot roll his eyes any harder.  “We’re nakama. We fight because we like each other.”

“That’s messed up,” Sanji mutters, which is as good as an agreement no matter how mad the love-cook is.

“I like you,” Zoro says pointedly.  He wouldn’t be nakama with someone he didn’t like.  “Love, I don’t know about, but closeness I can do.”

The cook stares at him, arm limp in Zoro’s grasp, and his expression shifts away from horror.  Instead of the acceptance or something Zoro is expecting, though, the cook’s face goes indignant and insulted and then slides into a look Zoro would call sad, as if the curly-browed idiot would ever show Zoro a face like that.  Tearing his arm out of Zoro’s hand, he turns away.

“I don’t want pity from you,” Sanji says, in such a detached tone that Zoro can’t see how to respond.  “Oh, poor Sanji, wants to be in love but can’t follow through, maybe if I give him a hug he’ll feel better.  I’m not a child, Zoro, I don’t want you to pretend for me.”

“Cook, I’m not-”

“Stop!” Sanji says, voice still cold and toneless.  “Don’t bring this up again.”

Zoro is getting used to the sight of Sanji walking away.  This feels worse than ever before, though.

 

~o~O~o~

 

Well, that blew up in his face.  Zoro doesn’t know why, but he’s sure not fool enough to try asking the cook about it now.  Sanji will cool off in a day or two, he always does; the cook’s temper burns hot and fast but his moods change like lightning.  Soon enough Zoro will get an opportunity to talk to him.

He goes up to the crow’s nest after letting Franky know that the cook will need help bringing stuff back from the market.  Franky gives him a meaningful look, probably remembering their fight yesterday, but he’s an agreeable guy, and heads out to find Sanji.  Zoro climbs up the ladder, intending to train until he doesn’t feel so weird about this morning.

There’s a book placed neatly in the center of his weights.  Zoro frowns, wondering if someone left it up here during their watch, but there’s a note on the cover with just his name in Robin’s handwriting.

He takes the note off and the book’s title is On Love .  There’s some long second title in tiny font that he doesn’t read, starting to toss the book off onto one of the benches instead.

There’s another slip of paper sticking out between the pages.  Sighing, Zoro keeps the book in his hands. Robin wouldn’t have left it up here with his name on it for no reason, no matter how stupid the title is.  He can at least look at the section she marked.

Opening the book, he looks at the first couple of pages.  The table of contents has a lot of words he doesn’t know, and a lot of phrases talking about love and romance and attraction.  He skips to the page Robin tabbed for him.

Limerence , the section is titled .   Skimming over it gives Zoro an uneasy feeling.  Long term infatuation… something about intense romantic attraction… an overpowering desire for reciprocation… not necessarily sexual.  He doesn’t read the whole page, but those phrases stand out. It doesn’t all sound like the cook - there’s a bit about being shy around the object of affection, and something else about fear and avoiding rejection.  That idiot is never shy, and certainly doesn’t show fear, but the choice still makes Zoro wary of how much Robin has figured out.

Some fancy word in a book isn’t going to help him deal with the cook.  Whether Robin is trying to help him or just warning him that she knows - and knows what , Zoro can’t say, not when he doesn’t really know what’s going on himself - he’s not going to get anywhere by reading any more of this.

Putting the confusing topics of love and romance out of his mind, Zoro does what he came up here to do and trains.  By the time he can hear his nakama making a ruckus down on the deck, he’s feeling much calmer.

Luffy whines for meat, Sanji announces dinner, and Zoro hurries down to the galley.  After skipping lunch, he’s hungry. Normally he’d get something to eat while supply shopping with the cook, and missing out on that is disappointing in more than a physical hunger kind of way.

That realization is surprising.  Those outings usually end in blows, like most extended interactions with the cook, but here Zoro is, feeling like he’s missed out on something.  Whatever, Sanji is back and dinner is ready, and if he doesn’t get to the table Luffy will eat it all without blinking.

Sanji snarls at him when he walks in, a harsher-than-usual rebuke for being late.  Zoro is taken aback by the intensity of the cook’s resentment, but he’s out of the man’s attention soon enough.  Throughout the meal Sanji snipes at Zoro with biting ferocity, but can’t seem to look at him for more than a moment at a time.

“What the hell,” Nami mutters, side-eyeing Zoro after Sanji slams a plate down in from of him.  Usopp and Chopper look scared, exchanging nervous looks behind the cook’s back.

“Mind your own business,” Zoro hisses at her.  Nami gives him an unimpressed frown, but doesn’t pry.

He and the cook always ramp each other up, and this is no exception.  Sanji’s bitter anger makes Zoro frustrated so he pushes back at the cook, who gets sharper and crueler and hotter and of course Zoro won’t back down, so by the end of the meal the tension is like a dark cloud in the room and their nakama are practically running out the door.

“We’re leaving first thing in the morning,” Nami says as she leaves, pointing Zoro to the sink of dirty dishes with no-nonsense determination.  Sort yourselves out before then, she doesn’t say, but Zoro can read it in her expression more than clearly enough.

Zoro’s not fool enough to bring up their previous conversations with the cook in this mood, but neither is he enough of a coward to leave without saying anything.  Maybe staying is the fool’s choice and it’s Nami he’s afraid of, but there’s no one but himself to know the difference. Whatever the case may be, Zoro stays to help with the dishes, watching Sanji’s hands jerk through the familiar motions.

“You’re acting pathetic,” Zoro finally says.

“Pathetic?!” Sanji snarls.  “You’re lucky I haven’t put my foot through your empty head yet, shit-swordsman, so keep it to yourself for once!”

“You’re scaring everyone with your little tantrum,” Zoro presses.  “This how you act when people try to do something nice for you?”

“I don’t want you to do anything nice for me,” Sanji says, slamming a final dish into the drying rack.  “I don’t want anything from you at all.”

The cook won’t look at him, frowning into the soapy sink with tense shoulders.  Zoro lets out a frustrated sigh. “Look, everyone knows…” 

Knows what?  It’s all wrong, the assumptions they’ve made about the cook.  More than that, he’s not sure Robin was ever fooled, and if she wasn’t then Nami probably knew Sanji was fronting too.

“Everyone knows we don’t get along,” Sanji finishes, while Zoro’s thoughts spin in fruitless circles.  “I’ll say it one more time. Stop trying to get into my head. I’m fine. I don’t need your clumsy scrutiny, I don’t need to be helped or fixed or whatever it is you think you’re doing.”

Fine isn’t good enough.  Now that Zoro’s seen it he doesn’t want to leave the cook the way he is, struggling to get the attention he craves.  He’s not really sure why he cares so much, except that it seems so passive, so unlike the rest of the cook’s aggressive certainty.  It’s the kind of weak acceptance that Luffy periodically beats out of them. There’s no excuse for letting desires slide on this ship.

“Why is this such a big deal?”  Zoro asks. He doesn’t understand, he doesn’t get it, nothing the cook has explained makes any sense.  None of it explains all the defensive rage, and the idiot won’t even take the obvious solution Zoro offered him.

Sanji gapes at him, open-mouthed, face going red with fury that seems to be choking him, too much to get out at once.

“I mean, why didn’t you want me to know, why are you so snarled up about me knowing?” Zoro clarifies.

“Didn’t I tell you I don’t want your pity?  And never to bring this up again?”

“Why do you keep thinking I’ll pity you?” Zoro asks in exasperation.  “I wouldn’t bother with you if you were someone to be pitied. I don’t pity my nakama.  I respect you, cook, even though you’re being a whiny little shit.”

Zoro can practically see Sanji swallow against the rage, clenching his white-knuckled hands around the edge of the counter.  “Let me tell you something else everyone knows,” he breathes, a stiffly controlled exhale between gritted teeth. “It’s like you said before.  I’ll never have a real relationship with someone I meet while we travel. What everyone knows, is that if you’re flirting with strangers in a seedy bar, you’re not there for the game itself.  You’re there to take someone home, take them to bed.”

“Well, yeah,” Zoro says, bemused.

“Not me,” Sanji says pointedly.  “I flirt with beautiful ladies, and that’s all I want.  I want to stay in the bar and chat, or walk around the town admiring the sights, to sit close and hold hands and make the lady smile.  And while I know you can’t believe it, sometimes that works. Women like it, like me .”

Zoro winces.  He really shouldn’t have made that particular comment; the cook is still hurt over it, and it’s not like Zoro thinks being Sanji is bad.  For Sanji at least.

“So I’m having a lovely evening!” the cook continues, gesturing in sharp, frustrated movements.  “You saw it yourself. A chance to enjoy a lady’s company, a moment of connection. But she knows the same things as everyone else, she’s there for the same reasons, and there I am, in a dockside bar, flirting with a stranger, so I must be the same, right?”

It’s obvious where this is going.  Zoro did see it himself, and now the memory gives him a dark feeling in his gut.  Restless and spikey, certainly not pity but it’s not anger either.

“At least I can only disappoint a lady once, the way we speed through islands,” the cook says bitterly.  “It always ends the same. She’s upset and I’m humiliated, a childish fool for wasting her time.”

This is bad stuff.  Zoro freezes, looking at the cook’s expectant scowl, and doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do.  Or say? Is he supposed to defend the cook against these nameless women? That’s stupid, Sanji doesn’t need Zoro to tell him he’s not the things they say he is.  Zoro’s not cut out to deal with all this emotional bullshit. Why does the cook have to be so damn complicated?  

Something flickers across Sanji’s expression, that unfamiliar emotion Zoro has seen on his face too many times over the last few days.  He can recognize the disappointment, though, as the cook turns away again. Apparently he's messed up.

Sanji sighs, all the fierce tension pouring off of him at once.  “The dishes are done,” he says in a quiet voice, still not looking at Zoro.  “You can go.”

Bright flaming rage Zoro can handle.  Even the cold rejection from earlier is easy to navigate, to shatter.  This dull chill makes his skin crawl. Zoro wipes his hands and leaves, ignoring the turbulence roiling through his chest.

 

~o~O~o~

 

When he gets outside Usopp is up on the deck, not doing anything in particular.  For Luffy, say, or even Nami or Zoro himself, this would not be unusual, but Usopp is always busy fussing around with something.  Now he’s not even fishing, just wandering around near the railing overlooking the main deck. Whatever. Zoro has enough to think about without Usopp’s neurosis.

Standing near the rail for a while, Zoro tries to let the breeze blowing inland off the ocean calm him.  He’s too restless to meditate and won’t be able to train well like this either; it’s the wrong kind of energy, unbalanced and stiff.  Maybe it will be better once they’re out to sea again.

The sea breeze isn’t helping.  Zoro can still hear the sounds of other ships in the harbor - none of them are too near, but the smallest sounds carry over open water and each one breaks his fragile calm.  Disgruntled, Zoro decides to just sleep it off.

Usopp intercepts him as he heads for his bunk, wringing his hands and looking around surreptitiously.  “Can… can we talk?” the sharpshooter squeaks, meeting Zoro’s gaze for half a second before skittering away again.

Zoro grunts, and stops walking.  Usopp shifts his feet, taking half a step one way then another.  “Um,” he stammers. “Somewhere else?”

“What do you want, Usopp?”

“Nothing!  Or, I just want to ask… come on, can’t we go inside or something?  It’s nothing bad, I promise!”

“That guarantees it’s something bad,” Zoro retorts, but waves Usopp on.  This will be a distraction from his problems with the cook, at least.

They end up in a storeroom, one of the ones they don’t keep food in so it’s arranged according to Franky and Usopp’s inscrutable specifications.  The effect makes Zoro worry that something is going to fall on him any second, but at least the ship isn’t moving much.

“Okay, what?” Zoro demands.  

Usopp swallows hard, eyes flicking between Zoro and the door, but ends up puffing himself up with his arms crossed over his chest and looks Zoro in the eyes.  “It’s just… you’ve been asking all these questions about love, and Sanji’s been acting more paranoid than usual, especially around you, and....”

“What’s your point, Usopp?” Zoro sighs.  He’ll listen, because Usopp is clearly trying to be brave here, but he won’t wait forever.

“Just remember he’s really romantic!” Usopp blurts out.  “If you’re only messing around with him… I mean… we all know what he’s like!  Sanji acts like he’s such a ladies’ man, but…”

The sniper clams up, looking like he’s about to combust from embarrassment.  His outburst leaves Zoro reeling. How much has Usopp, of all people, figured out?

“We all know how much of a hopeless romantic the love-cook is,” Zoro growls.  “Emphasis on hopeless. What does that have to do with anything?”

“He’s totally a virgin!” Usopp says, and nearly bites off his own tongue before powering through.  “And it’s… you’re not, so just… it’s probably important to him! Don’t… just don’t do anything that’ll mess him up, okay?”

“I’ve always figured you’re all virgins,” Zoro mutters.  He’s relieved actually. Usopp has missed the mark, but he’s close enough that Zoro can still get some advice without giving up the cook’s privacy.

Usopp makes an indignant squawking noise.  “I’ll have you know that the Great Captain Usopp is definitely experienced in-”

Zoro stares him down.  Usopp has zero game and Zoro is sure the coward would have a heart attack on the spot if anyone so much as made eyes in his direction.

“Anyway,” Zoro says, “I’m not messing around with the cook.  So you don’t have to defend his virginal honor.” 

“Then what’s going on!” Usopp nearly wails.

“I’m just trying to get closer to him,” Zoro says, and that does not make it sound like he has no designs on the cook’s presumed virginity.  “Not like that! It’s like we talked about before, the stupid extra thing that’s more than nakama.”

“You’re… trying to romance Sanji?” Usopp squints at him, like a new and bizarre bug.

“No!” Zoro scowls.  “I don’t do romance.”

“Obviously,” Usopp mutters.  

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re making a real hash of it,” Usopp says, regaining some confidence and shooting Zoro a weak scowl.  “If you want to date Sanji, you have to at least try to understand him.”

Zoro splutters, choking back the instinctive denial that he wants anything to do with the cook.  He does want some poorly-defined something , and he’s already told Usopp as much.  If their master coward wants to call it romantic, Zoro can work with that. 

Doesn’t Zoro know Sanji best of all?  The love-cook is more honest with Zoro than anyone else.  With ladies Sanji is always acting out his fantasy of the perfect gentleman, all compliments and pretentious chivalry.  With other men he does that suave and unaffected slouch, poised and polished, or he really pushes that better-than-you thing and has to be the toughest.  Well, he’s like that with Zoro too but that’s just their rivalry, the cook’s not putting up a front when he and Zoro fight. Sanji doesn’t hold anything back with him, or so Zoro had thought before the last few days.  

“I understand the cook!”  Damn curly-brow better not have any more secrets.

“That makes one of us,” Usopp sighs.  “I’m just telling you, if you want something more with Sanji and you don’t want to be, y’know, murdered and thrown overboard in the dead of night, you’re gonna have to stop pissing him off all the time.  Whatever you’ve been doing the last few days, that’s wrong and bad and you’re gonna give him an aneurism if he doesn’t kill you first.”

“What, you want I should bring him flowers and recite poetry?” Zoro growls.

Usopp stares at him.  “You’re gonna die. Sanji’s going to kill you, and I’m practically an accomplice for encouraging this, what are you thinking, what am I thinking-”

“See?” Zoro interrupts.  “If I treat him differently, he gets all pissy.  If I treat him the same nothing changes, and I piss him off the normal amount.  It’s no use faking any of that romantic shit anyway, the cook will know I’m not into it.”

“Then you have to… figure out how to show him you care, I guess,” Usopp says.

If he really knows the cook better than anyone else, he should be able to do this.  He should be able to do it better than any of the random women Sanji tries to get his fix from, that’s for sure.  

“I’m trying.”  Zoro glances toward the galley, where the lights are still on and a shadow shifting across the glass suggests that Sanji is still moping around inside.  “Keep this to yourself, long-nose. I’m not gonna hurt him, so you don’t need to butt in.”

“Well, good luck wooing Sanji then!” Usopp says, looking much more cheerful.  “Wow, that’s weird. You’d better hurry up though, it’s impossible to keep secrets around here.  Not that I’m gonna tell anyone, no way! But you know how it is.”

“Don’t I ever,” Zoro sighs.  Usopp will spill it to someone within days if not hours, Robin already knows too much, Nami can smell a secret a league off.  Luffy has an uncanny instinct for knowing when something is wrong with his crew and Sanji is ready to kill Zoro, so he’ll get involved at the most inconvenient moment.  All Zoro wants is a drink, but once again he’s not about to risk the galley to get one.

 

~o~O~o~

 

The cook has a watch tonight.  Zoro weighs the risks of waking everyone with a fight against the dangers of not resolving this despite Nami’s clear demand, and decides to try talking to Sanji again.

Sanji tries to kick him in the head the moment he opens the hatch to the crow’s nest.  Zoro scrambles in, rolls out of range, and blurts out the first thing he can think of to distract the man.

“I’ve never tried to be romantic with anyone,” he says, trying to get upright before Sanji can stomp him through the floor.  “Never wanted to. So I don’t know what you want, not really, but c’mon, cook, I want to try.”  

The damn cook still lands a kick to his shoulder, throwing Zoro against the far wall, but he seems satisfied after that, standing still in the center of the room.

“Fuck,” Zoro coughs.  

“That’s a change from earlier,” Sanji says, cautiously watching Zoro stumble to his feet.  He goes through the motions of lighting a cigarette, barely seeming to know he’s doing it, and what is that look in his eyes?  Zoro ought to know it, he’s sure of it.

“What are you talking about?”

“What are you talking about?” Sanji counters.  “Wanting to try… something romantic.”

Zoro blinks.  He did say that, didn’t he?  The first thing that came to mind, but now that he has a second to think about it, it’s true enough.  Opening his mouth to say that he’ll try it because romance is part of that thing Sanji needs, Zoro remembers all the ways the cook has reacted badly so far, and stops.  “You’re not going to flip out again, are you?”

“Not if you start explaining yourself,” Sanji threatens.  “And make it good, marimo.”

“Why is this so hard,” Zoro mutters, casting around for the right words.  “Okay, first off, I’m not trying to insult you or mock you or whatever else, so cut me some slack, will you?  Fancy words aren’t my thing.”

Sanji nods, still carefully quiet as he watches Zoro from across the room.  “Spit it out, I guess.”

“I don’t want to watch you humiliating yourself any more,” Zoro begins.  He’s feeling out the words as he says them, still not really sure where he’s going with this, or what will set the cook off.  “It’s… even the other night, I didn’t think about why at the time, but I had to get in there and interrupt you with that woman.”

“Right, because you’re a rude asshole and wanted to put a spoke in my wheel,” Sanji comments.

“Well, yeah, at first.”  Zoro rolls his eye. “But you were totally uncomfortable, it was obvious when I got close.  I wanted…”

He can’t say he wanted to protect the cook, even if it’s sort of true.  Sanji doesn’t need protecting and won’t accept it. “Nobody mistreats my nakama,” Zoro settles for saying.  “She wasn’t worth your time, love-cook.”

“That’s different from saying you want to start something with me,” Sanji says softly.  He’s finally settled down, isn’t standing ready to kick Zoro in the face at any second. His expression is a little clearer, too, and oh, Zoro can finally read that look.  It’s hope.

That gets him right in the chest.  All through these terrible conversations, the cook has been… what, waiting for Zoro to say the right thing?  Hoping that he’ll understand? There’s no way the idiot love-cook has feelings for Zoro, wanted this from him, is there?

That’s a crazy idea.  Whatever it is, though, Zoro refuses to mess this up again.  “I want to be there for you. I don’t know how to be romantic, but you’re important to me, and I want to get you the things that you need.”

Sanji still looks frustrated by that answer, the damn fussy idiot.  “Would you say this to anyone on the crew? If the others were lonely, would you offer them… whatever you’re offering me?”

“No,” Zoro says slowly, rolling the idea around in his head.  The others are different. “Maybe Luffy. But he’d never starve himself this way, shit-cook.”

“Starve, huh,” Sanji mutters.  “What do you know about it, marimo?  Whatever, I believe that you’re serious.”

Zoro takes a relieved breath.

“Just let me ask you this,” Sanji presses.  “You wanted to know what I get out of how I interact with women.  Well, what do you get out of this? I’m not gonna... I told you I don’t…”

“I don’t want to have sex with you,” Zoro blurts out, after several long seconds of wondering what Sanji is getting at.  The cook scowls. “I mean, you’re hot and I would, I guess, if I didn’t know you and I was looking for that, but I know you don’t, and it doesn’t matter to me.”

“You think I’m attractive?” Sanji asks curiously.

“I’m only missing one eye, I’m not blind,” Zoro says.  It’s as simple as that, but the cook still looks away, shuffling his feet against the floorboards. 

“As long as you understand…” the cook finally sighs.  “You didn’t answer the question, marimo.”

“I don’t know yet,” Zoro answers, as plainly as he can.  That’s not a bad thing. Maybe it will settle the dark feeling spiking through him.  “I don’t think it’s about getting anything.”

He asked the cook that in the context of sex, after all.  Sex isn’t on the table between them; whatever this is, it’s about other kinds of intimacy.  It’s new territory for Zoro, who has never bothered trying to be more than physically intimate with anyone.  Even having friends was rare before Luffy came along.

Sanji frowns at him, but it’s a good-thoughtful frown and not an angry-violent frown.  “You’re really not messing with me.”

“No,” Zoro says, shaking his head impatiently.  For some reason Robin’s book flashes through his mind, the bit about fearing rejection.  But that only counts if Sanji has feelings for him, right? The cook has nothing to lose by giving this a go.

“Okay,” Sanji says, and that look of hope is absolutely shining in his eyes.  Well, the one Zoro can see, wide and blue enough to make him catch his breath.  “We can try this.”

After all, people work up to those kinds of feelings when they start something, right?  It’s okay to begin with nakamaship and respect and prickly dark protectiveness and build up to intimacy and romance, isn’t it?  Like training. Maybe he should talk to Robin again.

 

~o~O~o~

 

The cook kicked Zoro out after their conversation, but gently; Zoro knows that Sanji sometimes uses his watch to catch up on meal planning and refining recipes and whatever else he’s always fussing around with, so he’s not upset to go.  Just as well he can get some sleep.

Morning dawns feeling as fresh as sunlight after a storm.  Zoro may not be one for poetry but he can’t deny the clean sense of relief.  The cook still picks a fight with him after they set sail but it’s a normal one, bickering over something petty until they both tire of racing around the deck yelling at each other.

Even while he’s frowning over the damage to the lawn, Franky claps Zoro on the back in congratulations.  “Glad you worked that out with Cook-bro!”

Nami gives him a satisfied nod in passing and doesn’t chew them out too badly for the ruckus.  Usopp grins like an excited child whenever Sanji is within arm’s reach of Zoro at lunch, and squirms in his seat whenever they look at each other.  Brook seems to have cottoned on, and plays a sweet romantic melody out on deck after the meal.

Zoro doesn’t mind.  If he’s being honest with himself, and he tries never to be anything but, he’s feeling a bit giddy himself.  It takes more concentration than usual to do his weight-training and not twist around to watch the cook as he scurries around the deck doing his chores.

Eventually he takes a break and a nap, and when Zoro wakes up it’s mid-afternoon and the cook is fluttering around with snacks.  Zoro closes his eye again, waiting until he can hear Sanji’s footsteps coming near.

Dropping down to sit on his heels beside Zoro, Sanji grins at him with the sort of bright, unrestrained cheer Zoro is rarely privileged to see.

“Watering time, marimo,” Sanji says, offering the last drink on his tray.

It’s a fancy one, with colorful layers and curls of fruit on top, a sprig of green decorating the side and even one of the twisted paper straws that only the girls ever get.  Zoro looks between the love-cook and the glass, before sneaking a glance at Nami and Robin across the ship. Sure enough they already have drinks.  

Sanji begins to scowl at him, so Zoro takes the glass and the plate of snacks beside it.  At least these are normal, plated in the carefully un-careful way Sanji usually serves food to Luffy and the others.

“I get to do this now,” Sanji says, pointing to the fancy drink and setting his tray aside.  He brushes Zoro’s knee as he brings his arm back, and doesn’t pull his hand away. He’s still balancing on the balls of his feet, peering at Zoro with a defiant turn to his mouth, but that painful hope is blazing in his eyes.

“Thanks.”  Zoro takes a sip.  It feels weird to get an extra-special drink, and to sit here with Sanji’s hand on his knee, but not bad.  He’s always liked having the cook’s attention when they fight, whether each other or together, and this isn’t so different.  He wants to see that unguarded smile again.

Sanji eyes him sidelong, awkwardly quiet, so Zoro reaches over to ruffle his hair.  Squawking, the cook sits down properly so he can knee Zoro in the side.

“This is good,” Zoro tells him.  He’s not sure if he means the drink, or Sanji’s proximity, or the whole fresh promise of the morning itself.  The idiot love-cook doesn’t respond, but he does settle a little closer and get out a cigarette.

“You don’t mind?” he eventually asks.

“You smoke around me all the time.”

“I mean,” Sanji waves vaguely at Zoro’s mostly-empty drink, at the bare breath of space between their knees.  “You’re pretty solitary. It’s hard to see why you would want this kind of closeness, or be okay with it, really.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Zoro says, slouching a little more until their shoulders touch.  “If you’re gonna go through the trouble of making me special stuff, I can take time out of my day to sit around with you.  It’s kinda nice.”

Sanji makes a disgruntled noise and turns to frown at him, but when he settles back he ends up closer than before, with an arm resting on Zoro’s raised knee.  Zoro finishes his snack, looks out at the ocean, and considers another nap. This is comfortable, especially because they’ve already worked through all their extra energy for the day. 

“I have a question,” Zoro says, after a few long minutes of watching the waves while Sanji smokes.  Beside him, the cook makes a low sound of acknowledgement. “What is it with women, then? Why do you lose you head and bleed out on the deck like a pervert if you’re not interested in sex?”

“Watch it, marimo,” Sanji growls, looking askance at him.  “It’s not complicated. Women are beautiful, perfect angels and-”

Zoro claps a hand over the cook’s stupid mouth.  “Without that.”

Sanji bites him.  Zoro yanks his hand back and figures that’s a draw, since the cook doesn’t storm off.  They can settle the score later.

“I still like to look,” Sanji explains.  “And I would, I mean-” he pauses, reddening, taking a breath of smoke.  “I’d enjoy touching. I like kissing, up to a point. Soft curves, perfume, silky hair, all that.”

Figuring he’d better stop the dreamy-eyed idiot before he gives himself a nosebleed, Zoro cuts him off.  “Is all that gonna be a dealbreaker?”  Zoro is not any of those things.

“No,” Sanji says, blushing deeper.  “It’s not really about the physical stuff, for me.”

“No?” Zoro prompts.  It’s a surprising answer, with the cook’s flushed cheeks.  Obviously Sanji experiences attraction, to take a phrase from Robin’s book, even if it doesn’t translate to physical lust.  He seems to feel desire more deeply than Zoro does, really. Zoro kind of figured that attraction only applied to Sanji’s love of all things feminine, but maybe the idiot has a broader range of interests than he thought.

“I prefer women, for what it’s worth,” Sanji mutters.  “You know why. Women are sweet, and gentle, and easier to talk to.  I can compliment them without getting attacked, and it’s so easy when everything about them is so wonderful.  Women are-”

“Without getting attacked?” Zoro repeats blankly.

“Imagine me going up to men on the street like that,” Sanji snaps.  “There’s no point to it. Men don’t want to hear it. There’s hardly anything worth complimenting about men anyway, but I used to try on occasion.  Usually I’d get punched.”

“I promise not to punch you,” Zoro says, rather than digging into that mess.  “More than usual, at least.”

“We’ll see.”  Sanji glowers at him, then settles against Zoro’s side with a sigh.  “Flirting is different too, even if I can tell the guy is interested.  It goes so much faster, I always got dragged out of the bar or felt up before I could even start enjoying the moment.  So I don’t bother with men. Why should I, when there are so many perfect ladies.”

Zoro shrugs.  He doesn’t know what to do with this information.  Maybe he doesn’t have to do anything. None of this applies to him, after all, because he’s not going to rebuff Sanji’s affections or try to force the cook into his bed.  “Guess you don’t have to worry about that any more.”

“Guess I don’t,” Sanji repeats softly.  Zoro can only meet his eyes for a moment before the intensity of the emotion there is too much for him.  Even though it seems good he’s not sure what it means.

 

~o~O~o~

 

Zoro brings Robin her book back the next morning, when the cook is sure to be busy.  It’s a time when Robin is usually alone, and now that they’re back at sea everyone has resumed their most predictable habits.

“Am I doing it wrong if I don’t know what I feel?” Zoro asks, rather than beating around the subject.  Robin still sets down her teacup with perfect poise, as if he’d sent a letter ahead of time announcing his arrival and intended topics of conversation.

“Are you experimenting, or do you have serious intentions?” She fires back.

Groaning, Zoro throws himself into her spare armchair.  It’s too much to expect that Robin might give him a straight answer.  “I’m serious. I just don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Every relationship is different,” Robin says, “but you’re a confident man.  I’m certain you will figure it out.”

There’s that underlying or else , like Nami and Franky and even Usopp.  Make up with Sanji, don’t hurt him, don’t mess around.  One of these days Zoro is gonna have to tease the cook about everyone looking after his heart.

“I didn’t realize I was asking for a relationship,” Zoro admits.  It’s one thing to offer the cook his attention in a spur-of-the-moment retort, and quite another to realize he’s taken the weight of all Sanji’s little romantic hopes.  The last few days have gone so fast.

“You say you’re serious,” Robin muses, “so you don’t regret it, do you, Swordsman-san?”

“No.”  He can answer that cleanly.  It’s everything else that’s a mess.   

“Then what do you want?”

“I want to do this right.”

Robin picks up her tea, watching Zoro over the rim.  “I believe that’s a good place to start. Tell me, do you know what’s important to you in a relationship?”

Another no.  “I’ve never thought about it.”

“Perhaps you should do that,” Robin suggests.  “It may be that what you need is inherent in what you’ve started.”

“I’d rather understand what he needs,” Zoro grumbles.

“Cook-san?” Robin says with a smile, and Zoro winces.  He was hoping that wouldn’t come out in the open, out loud.  “It’s hardly a secret. Our cook needs love, as simple as that.  He takes what he can get, because he can’t figure out how to win the attention he truly wants.  Try not to overwhelm him.”

“Eh, of course he wasn’t gonna get what he wanted, the way he carries on with total strangers,” Zoro says.  This part he gets, the lack.  

“Not quite the source I meant,” Robin counters, with serenity that absolutely denies further explanation.  

“It doesn’t matter where the cook’s not getting what he needs from,” Zoro decides, putting that mystery aside as best he can with Robin’s uncanny smile clinging to him like oil.  “I’m taking care of that now. I just need to figure out how.”

Robin taps her fingernails against her table, leaning forward slightly.  “As your friend, and as Cook-san’s, I want to warn your against rushing into this without thinking it through.  If you get too deep and then realize you cannot meet his needs, or that being with him does not suit yours, you stand to damage something very rare, Zoro.  Don’t think you have to finish this simply because you have started it.”

Shifting uneasily, Zoro has to admit that she’s right.  Even though he wants to say that of course he can do this, that he’ll make things right for Sanji, he knows there’s a lot at risk.  The cook might well never trust him again if Zoro hurts him with these secrets. “Thanks for the advice.”

“I do believe that you and Cook-san are well suited to each other,” Robin says, already picking up her book as Zoro gets up to leave.  “Volatile, certainly, but that just makes your relationship more interesting. Take care.”

How helpful that really was, Zoro isn’t sure.  He still doesn’t know what to do, even if Robin straightened out a few of the larger questions.  At least he recognizes his own intentions now. Despite the risks Zoro does want to see this through.

Well, maybe he can take advice on what the cook needs from what the idiot does.  A lot of that will probably get Zoro killed if he tries to mimic it - and he won’t even try to copy Sanji’s terrible flirting - but there must be something.

Zoro thinks about all the trivial romantic moments the cook tries to share with strangers.  Soft touches, fleeting kisses, gentle words. None of it really sticks out to him as desirable, so he tries to focus on something at random.  A quick, domestic kiss, maybe. Sanji has said he likes kisses.

Imagining it is strange.  Zoro pictures the cook in his kitchen, as familiar a setting as he can call to mind, and tries to imagine himself walking in, coming up to the cook’s side without getting yelled at.  The image is already hard to hold on to, and when Zoro tries to add the idea of himself leaning in to the cook, maybe gently grabbing Sanji’s hip to hold him still, it only gets worse.  Zoro can barely picture himself following through with the motion, brushing a kiss against Sanji’s cheek. He just isn’t like that, hasn’t tried it, doesn’t know what it would be like to do something so sweet and frivolous.

Almost ready to give the idea up, Zoro wonders how Sanji would react.  Somehow this is much easier to picture - the way the cook’s cheeks will flush, the light in his eyes, a barely repressed grin.  This scenario flows readily, as Zoro imagines the cook’s expression changing into the bright, unfettered smile Zoro is so fond of, once Sanji realizes there’s nothing to hide.

The thought stops Zoro in his tracks.  That’s why he’s doing this, not because he cares about fanciful romantic gestures, but because Sanji does, and Zoro wants to make Sanji happy.  He wants that moment where Sanji will smile at him because Zoro is giving him the affection he needs, not so much the act itself. 

He’s so wrapped up in the realization that he doesn’t notice Luffy until the captain has knocked him off his feet.  Crashing across the deck, Zoro leaves a deep scrape in the lawn and cracks his head against the mast.

“Zoro was supposed to catch me,” Luffy complains, from his landing spot an arm’s reach away.

“Maybe you should have said something first,” Zoro growls.

“Eh,” Luffy shrugs.  “That was fun too.”

Across the deck, Chopper gives them a worried look as he carries a box out of storage.  Zoro waves him off. As much as their little doctor would like to bandage every bruise, with Luffy the way he is they’d run out of supplies before sundown.

When Zoro turns back to their captain, Luffy is still lying on the grass picking at his teeth, but his eyes are focused on Zoro.  With a sigh, Zoro realizes he’s in for another one of those conversations.

“I’m going to do my best,” he grumbles.

“Zoro always does,” Luffy agrees.  

“I’ll practice until I get it right, I’m not afraid of failure.”

Luffy nods, squirms around in the grass, settles his hat on his chest.  He doesn’t break eye contact.

“I won’t let anything hurt this crew.”  Not insensitive strangers, not the cook’s contradictory defensiveness, not the chance of the whole thing blowing up in his face.  Whatever happens he and Sanji will still be nakama, Zoro is certain of that. He won’t accept anything less.

“Then what’s the problem?” Luffy asks.

“Why do you think there’s a problem?”

Luffy just laughs at him.  “There isn’t! Zoro is so funny.  Sanji too. Why are you fighting about stuff you both want?”

“You’re as bad as Robin,” Zoro sighs.  “It’s not that simple.”

“Sure it is,” Luffy says, abruptly serious again.  “You’re nakama. You trust each other. There’s nothing to be scared of, so just don’t be.”

Groaning, Zoro rubs a hand over his face.  “I’m not scared of the cook.”

“Sanji says no a lot,” Luffy says, and doesn’t Zoro know it.  “But he always gives me what I want, even if he says he won’t.”

“You’re just special,” Zoro mutters.  “Of course the cook can’t say no to you.”

“Zoro is special too,” Luffy argues.  “All my nakama are special. But Zoro is special to Sanji.”

“If you say so.”  Luffy is right, Zoro supposes, but it feels strange and new to admit.

“I’m sick of no,” Luffy continues.  “Don’t make him say it any more. And people say no to Sanji all the time, too.  Don’t do that either.”

“I’m sick of watching that,” Zoro says.  Isn’t that why he started this, because he’s sick of watching people turn the cook down?

“And don’t ask Sanji for things he can’t say no to,” Luffy says, all dark eyes and determination.  “Because Zoro is special to Sanji, and Sanji will want to say yes.”

“I won’t,” Zoro promises, and he wonders if Luffy had noticed that scene at the bar.  If maybe he’s seen it before; Luffy sees so much more than he lets on, so maybe he noticed how things go for the cook long before Zoro did.  It’s impossible to know, and Zoro won’t ask.

“Good!  Now let’s go fishing, I’m so bored, how long do you think it will be until we reach the next island, we need more ADVENTURE-”

 

~o~O~o~

 

Around mid-afternoon, Zoro wanders into the galley.  Sanji opens his mouth with the usual flash of irritation, but realization passes through his expression and he stops, turning back to whatever he’s doing with only a mildly suspicious glance Zoro’s way instead.

“What do you want, marimo?” he asks, barely sounding antagonistic at all.  He does look busy though, crossing from a pile of vegetables on the counter to his cutting board to a huge pot on the stove and back, over and over with speed and precision that Zoro can only admire.

“Can I get some water?”  He can wait until the cook isn’t moving around so much to try this casual affection thing.

Sanji passes him a glass with another narrow-eyed look, but his concentration is clearly elsewhere.  Usually this is when it’s fun - and easy - to rile the cook up. Zoro doesn’t want to do that today, so he takes a seat where he can watch Sanji and sips his water.

There’s never a lull in the cook’s activity.  He bustles from one task to the next, throwing glances at Zoro here and there, but there’s barely a pause, let alone a moment where Zoro could go over there and kiss him.  

Nami comes in and leaves with a snack.  Chopper scurries through on the way to his infirmary and gets a hot chocolate.  Usopp peers in with a question about vinegar that Zoro doesn’t really understand and vanishes after a threat about the consequences of raiding the stores.  Sanji chops and grates and sautees, checks on his stores in between stirring that big pot, and keeps checking over his shoulder for Zoro, a little more wild-eyed each time.

Eventually Zoro finishes his water and tries to creep around the cook to refill his glass.  Sanji’s movements have gotten jerkier and faster since he’s been in here; Zoro wonders if something is wrong with the soup, or whatever is in the pot.  Regardless he’s not gonna interrupt the cook for another glass of water, of all things, not when he’s just trying to bide his time and stay out of the way while Sanji works.

Of course this is the moment Sanji needs to get something out of a cupboard, spinning around and nearly knocking into Zoro.  

“What are you still doing in here?” Sanji demands, slamming a hand against the cabinet door right above Zoro’s shoulder.

“I can’t get a drink of water now?” Zoro snarls back.  It’s instinctive, and Zoro can’t regret getting into Sanji’s face even though he came in for something different.

“You got one!  Now you’re just driving me crazy!”

“It’s me stressing you out?” Zoro blinks, startled out of the burgeoning fight.

“Of course it is!  What are you doing, sitting around in here while I’m trying to work?  I can’t concentrate like this!”

Relaxing against the cupboard, Zoro tilts his head to look at the cook.  “I’m waiting for you to be less busy, but you keep rushing around like something’s on fire.”

“But why?” Sanji asks, not looking placated in the least.

“I was gonna give you a kiss,” Zoro says, feeling his cheeks heat.  That startles the cook and he backs off, bumping into the opposite counter.  “I thought - since you like that kind of stuff - I thought you’d like it. Forget about it, I’ll get out of your hair.”

“You’ve been lurking around because you want to kiss me?”

“Not exactly,” Zoro mutters, glancing away from the wide-eyed bemusement on Sanji’s face.  

“Then what?”

“I was trying to do something romantic for you,” Zoro admits.  “Never mind, it’s stupid, this is a bad time. I’ll get it right next time-”

“Now is fine,” Sanji interrupts breathlessly.

Zoro almost backs down.  There’s that hope again, so bright Zoro can hardly stand it.  He closes the space between them and wonders if he should change his original plan, if he should double down and kiss the cook on the lips now that the casual spontaneity is gone from the moment.  That doesn’t feel right, so he just steps in close, lays a hand lightly on the small of Sanji’s back, and places a careful kiss on his cheek.

It takes barely a second, then Zoro draws back to get a look at Sanji’s face.  The cook blushes, lifting a hand to his cheek and pressing his lips tightly together for a moment before closing his eyes and grinning.

Zoro feels as satisfied as he does after training, and his heart is beating nearly as fast.  Maybe he’s not too bad at this after all.

“No one does things like that for me,” Sanji says, throwing his arms around Zoro.  They thump into the counter, but it barely registers in Zoro’s mind. He’s too busy appreciating this hug.

“Wow,” Zoro mumbles into the cook’s hair, after a long moment of holding him close.  “I’ve been missing out.”

“What?”  Sanji peers at him, putting a little space between them.

“You give really good hugs,” Zoro says.  He’d kind of like Sanji to come back, actually.

Instead the cook turns bright red and whirls away to fuss over his pot.  “Shut up. Get out, marimo, you’ve been distracting me from dinner for long enough already.”

Zoro snickers at him, but goes.  He’s feeling too good to want to be contrary.

 

~o~O~o~

 

No matter how successful the kiss in the kitchen turned out to be, Zoro isn’t one to rest on his laurels.  Now that he has a clear idea of what he wants, and knows how to line that up with what Sanji needs, he’s got practicing to do.  They both do. The cook wasn’t comfortable having Zoro hanging around, and Zoro may not know much about love and romance, but he’s sure being comfortable around the other person is key.

They’ll never be all cozy all the time.  Both of them are argumentative by nature and they’re stuck together all the time, so of course they’re going to fight.  Zoro is still confident that they can do better. Yesterday was weird because it was new, so they’re just going to have to do more.

This is where his certainty ends.  For one, he’s not sure why the cook was so surprised to have him around.  Maybe if he can clear that up, everything else will be easier.

Now is as good a time as any.  The cook has just finished doling out mid-morning snacks, and now he’s leaning at the rail, staring out over the ocean and lazily smoking a cigarette.  Zoro sets down his weights and wanders over.

“You smell,” Sanji complains.

Zoro scowls.  Maybe he should get a little combat training in before this emotional stretching after all.  “Well, I’m not gonna stand downwind of you right now.” 

The cook grins, sharp and mean, and puffs a ring of smoke in Zoro’s direction.  The wind off the waves carries it away before Zoro gets so much as a whiff of Sanji’s favorite cigarettes, but the gesture is enough.  “Oh?”

Puffing himself up, Zoro leans into the cook’s space.  “Yeah, I’ve got training to finish, unlike certain love-cooks who have time to laze around daydreaming over the ocean.”

Not his best effort, given that he obviously left his training to come over here and talk to the cook, but good enough, since he’s interrupting one of Sanji’s rare free moments with a comment like that.  The cook snarls, drops the smouldering cigarette overboard, and tries to sweep Zoro’s feet out from under him.

Dodging that opening gambit is easy, but the cook always surprises Zoro with his ability to reach his top speed right away, and it’s harder to avoid the follow-up kick to his shins.  They crash around the deck for a while, not quite violently enough for Nami to yell at them, until Zoro misjudges a block and the force of Sanji’s blow bowls him over the upper railing.

He lands on the deck with a solid thump, and the cook jumps down next to him with light precision.  For a moment Sanji looks like he’ll try to kick Zoro once more for good measure, but then the cook flops onto the grass, laughing with that genuine smile Zoro has realized is so precious.

“You suck,” Zoro grumbles, swiping halfheartedly at him.  Sanji just sways out of reach, bright laughter mellowing into a lopsided grin.

“I got you good that time, are you losing your edge, marimo?”

That doesn’t deserve a response, so Zoro leans back into the grass and watches the clouds go by overhead until Sanji stops snickering at him.  Eventually the cook quiets down, and when Zoro looks over at him, he’s gazing out over the ocean again with a more steady look of satisfaction.

“I figured out what I want out of this,” Zoro tells him.  “Or part of it, at least.”

“What?” Sanji asks, wariness overcoming the calm pleasure on his face.

“That smile,” Zoro says, hoping this will convince the idiot that Zoro wants to be with him.  “I want to make you smile like that.”

The cook just stares at him, cigarette hanging forgotten in his long fingers.  “What smile?”

“It’s how you look when you talk about All Blue,” Zoro says.  “I mean, maybe that sounds crazy, I know I’m not that big a deal to you, but sometimes when you’re just having fun you smile that way, like you’ve forgotten to pretend to be cool for a minute.”

“I am cool,” Sanji points out.  Zoro shrugs and presses on, before the cook can take offense about that and start another fight instead.

“I’ve always liked how you’re honest with me,” Zoro tries to explain.  “The way we fight, how you don’t hold back. I thought - I know you don’t hide what you’re thinking from me.  I didn’t understand all this, but that’s on me. It was my fault for not really seeing you.”

“I’m not sure that’s true,” Sanji mutters.  “I definitely didn’t want you to know.”

“Whatever,” Zoro shrugs.  “What I mean is, how we are is real.  Maybe you don’t tell me everything and maybe we show how we feel by driving each other crazy, but that works, right?  We both get it.”

“No, I definitely don’t get you,” the cook grumbles. 

“But that’s why I want you to smile,” Zoro continues.  “You only smile like that when you mean it, so if I can get you to do it around me I’ll know you’re really happy.  I know you wouldn’t fake it.”

“You want to make me happy?” Sanji breathes, tilting his head curiously.

“Why is that so hard to believe?”  It’s Zoro’s turn to grumble, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I’ve thought about how this would go,” the cook says, quiet as a confession.  “I’ve never expected… being given affection that way. My idea of romance is pretty one-sided.”

“But all that stuff about wanting a relationship…?”

“I’ve always wanted someone to be affectionate with.  Someone who would enjoy all the ways I can show my love.  It didn’t occur to me that they would want to show me attention in return.  No one has ever wanted to make me happy.”

“Damn,” Zoro says, startled.  “That’s pretty pathetic, even for you.  You really thought you’d be the only one initiating romantic stuff if you got a girl?”

Sanji shoots him a cagey frown.  “Not exactly,” he hedges, fiddling with his lighter.  “I meant I’ve thought about what the shape of a relationship with you would be like.”

Unexpected, but given how much time the love-cook seems to spend thinking about this stuff, Zoro can’t say it seems all that strange.  “Thinking about me as what, the last person you’d want to try something with?”

“You know it,” Sanji says, with an odd grin.  “Who would bother being romantic with you, shitty marimo.  No chance of reciprocation.”

“You’re just saying that to make me prove you wrong,” Zoro complains.

“You’ve already proved me wrong.”  The cook shakes his head, tone wry and disbelieving.  “Don’t go disappointing me now.”

“I won’t,” Zoro declares.  There’s still something off about the cook’s expression, but Zoro figures it’s just the weirdness of the conversation.  

 

~o~O~o~

 

The cook goes off to make lunch, and Zoro takes a nap rather than try pushing the whole together-ness thing any more this morning.  Overworking a muscle can be even worse than not training at all.

He wakes up a split second before Luffy lands on his chest, cheering about food.  Chasing his captain into the galley gets him yelled at by both Nami and Sanji, and Franky has to block Luffy from barrelling straight onto the table

“This is delicious, Cook-san,” Robin says, taking a delicate bite of her lunch.

“I live for your appreciation, Robin-chwan~!” the idiot swoons, setting a small plate beside Zoro in nearly the same motion.  Some extra wasabi paste and a few other tidbits, just the right addition to the shared dishes to cook has laid out on the table.  Glancing around, Zoro can see that Sanji has plated things specially for the girls like he does, but everyone else has been left to fend for himself.

He pulls the small plate closer, out of Luffy’s sight, and catches Usopp watching with a sappy smile on his face.  A glare sets the sharpshooter back to minding his own business, but… the cook wasn’t especially subtle. It’s not like there’s anything to hide.

In fact, Sanji has a bit of a dopey look on his own face for most of the meal, whenever no one is calling for his attention.  Nothing big, just a few degrees of extra curve at the corners of his lips, a more relaxed softness to his eyes. There’s a fragment of hesitance when he looks at Zoro, and a steady deliberance when Sanji throws him a plate or a glass with his usual brusque nonchalance, like he’s trying too hard to do things normally.

“You two seem to be getting along,” Nami comments, during one such interaction.  Robin takes a sip of tea, but not before Zoro sees her smile. Luffy is openly grinning across the table, and Franky looks like he’s on the verge of sentimental tears.

“It’s not like we actually hate each other,” Zoro grumbles.  

“Duh.”  Nami rolls her eyes.  “Whatever, I don’t need to know.”

“There’s nothing to know,” Zoro retorts, automatically defensive even though Nami seems content.  There’s no predicting her; she’s almost as bad as the cook.

“Of course not,” Robin murmurs.

“Ah, the shy innocence of new beginnings,” Brook says, wiping at his empty eye sockets.  “Why, it reminds me of-”

Zoro glares at him.  If the skeleton tries to describe either Zoro or Sanji as shy or innocent, however indirectly, Zoro will send him to Chopper to get his head checked.

“What kind of beginnings?” Chopper chirps.  “Is there a new island?”

“Adventure?!”  Luffy gasps.

“You were just on watch, idiot, did you see an island?” Nami demands.  According to her charts, they’re still a day off from anything, as she explained to them all - and Luffy in particular - only that morning at breakfast.

“No,” Luffy sulks, “but there might be one!”

None of them can argue with that.  The Grand Line is just that way.

“I hope there’s candy,” Chopper says wistfully, and the conversation devolves into the favorite topic of speculating on their next adventures.  Nami tries to open a betting pool, but no one will bite.

Zoro volunteers to help clean up after the meal, waving Usopp off of dish duty.  Nami smirks at him, shoving Franky out the door as he sniffles about his beloved little bros.  Chopper peers between Zoro and the cook with suspicious eyes, muttering about blood tests and safety.  Nothing to worry about there, not that Zoro wants to get into it with their little doctor.

“Wow,” Usopp says, sounding as sentimental as Franky.  His eyes are looking suspiciously damp. “Who would’ve guessed, I thought you’d be murdered for sure.”

“Get out,” Zoro growls.

“What’s up with him?” Sanji asks, but doesn’t seem too concerned with the answer as he clears the table.

“Tell you later,” Zoro says, and they get the galley put back together.  It doesn’t take long, the two of them working seamlessly without their usual bickering.  Sanji looks surprised when he checks the time, the last few dishes drying beside the sink.

“Huh.  Thanks for the help, marimo.”

“Drink?” Zoro asks hopefully.

The cook rolls his eyes, but pulls a bottle out of one of the cupboards that Zoro isn’t allowed to open.  “Since there’s time, why don’t we take this to the aquarium bar?”

Zoro nods.  Wherever that bottle goes, he’ll go.

Sanji grabs cups and leads the way below deck.  The aquarium is a special kind of quiet, as always; the usual ocean sounds and ambient noise of the ship drowned out by the water in the aquarium itself.  They curl up on the sofa and Sanji pours drinks, the two of them watching the fish swim past in silence for a few slow minutes.

Even though Zoro is used to quiet moments, to meditation and silence and peace without words, this feels new and important.  It’s getting easier to just be together, as Sanji lights a cigarette and Zoro helps himself to another drink.

“So, what was Usopp’s deal?” Sanji asks.  He doesn’t look too anxious about it, eyes following the path of a small shark Luffy threw in the aquarium the other day as it glides smoothly along the glass.

“He thought you would kill me if I tried to get with you,” Zoro explains.  “I’ve sure shown him.”

Sanji laughs, a bright, clear sound that echoes in the quiet room.  “Did you go to him for advice or something? Usopp, really?”

“He cornered me on deck to threaten me,” Zoro complains.  He’s definitely not going to admit to asking Usopp for advice now, after that reaction.

This explanation does not stop Sanji’s laughter.  The cook snorts, smoke going everywhere as he mistimes a breath.  “Are you messing with me?”

“No!  Practically everyone has gotten on me about it.  They all think I’m gonna fuck this up.”

“You’re doing pretty well so far,” Sanji says softly.

“Seriously, you should hear the way everyone’s up in arms for you,” Zoro grumbles, ignoring his own blush at the cook’s comment.  “Luffy told me not to pressure you into bed, Usopp lectured me about being sensitive of your virginity, Robin warned me not to hurt you by being too casual, Nami was gonna hurt me if we didn’t make up.  Franky was all concerned about us too.”

“Brook tried to console me over the physical parts of a relationship earlier,” Sanji mutters, sounding a little shocked at the memory.  “Something about the heart being what matters and not the flesh, but it’s hard to tell when he’s making jokes about not having either.”

“Have you talked to him about not wanting physical stuff?”  For some reason the thought of the cook having a deeply personal conversation like that with Brook irritates Zoro.  That’s ridiculous - the cook can talk to whoever he wants, and Brook is nakama, as close as anyone to both of them - but nothing about this has been particularly rational.

“I had no idea he knew,” Sanji says, still looking bemused.

“Are you just not interested in sex, or are you like, replused by the idea?” Zoro asks, more satisfied than he has any right to be by that answer.  He wants to be the person the cook chooses to talk about this stuff with.

Sanji wrinkles his nose.  At least he’s not acting like Zoro is trying to trick him anymore, the way he had during some of their earlier conversations.

“The way men, in particular, talk about it…” the cook begins, trailing off with a look like he’s tasted something bad.  “I don’t know. Sometimes I think I could enjoy the closeness. I like making people happy, and that’s the whole point, right?  That it feels good. But people are so…”

“People are gross about it,” Zoro agrees.  

The cook nods, a blush spreading across his cheeks.  Zoro’s heart trips in his chest. Sanji will kill him if the word cute passes his lips but damn, that expression is something else.  The cook could give Chopper a run for his money.

“I’ve never been comfortable enough with anyone to try it,” Sanji says.  “I don’t have the desire, so the physical aspect isn’t worth the awkwardness.”

“Huh,” Zoro says.  Sanji looks at him suspiciously.  

It’s not like Zoro was going anywhere with that question, but apparently he’s gonna set the cook off again by not following up on it.  “I was just asking, love-cook. Like I said before, I’m not gonna try anything with you,” he adds.

“I believe you,” Sanji mutters.  “You better not, is all. Or maybe… well, I trust you, so I know you won’t try anything I’m not okay with.”

“That stuff doesn’t matter much to me,” Zoro says carefully.  He’s pretty sure he’s said this before too, but it won’t kill him to repeat it.  “It’s not a part of this, between us.”

“People talk about sex like it’s the highest form of intimacy,” the cook sighs.  “I don’t think that’s true, or at least it’s not true for me, but I don’t want to - to miss out on that.  I don’t want the physical connection, but it always feels like you can’t have a real emotional bond without it.”

“That’s stupid,” Zoro says automatically.  Sanji jerks upright, beginning to frown, but Zoro is thinking of the assortment of strangers he’s slept with, all mostly forgotten as the sea stretches between them.  “It’s just physical. Talking to you like this, that’s more intimate. I can’t imagine having this kind of conversation with anyone else.”

The cook makes a confounded sound, and tucks his face down against Zoro’s shoulder, grumbling.  Not before Zoro catches sight of his wide eyes and pink cheeks, though, so he figures he made his point.

“Relax,” Zoro mutters.  No doubt the cook will need a minute to pull himself together, instead of showing Zoro a face like that.  He hauls the idiot’s legs over his lap and gets an arm more comfortably around Sanji’s shoulders. Slowly, the embarrassed tension drains out of the cook, until he’s possessively draped against Zoro instead of hiding from him.

“Hey cook,” Zoro says after a while.  “What are you gonna make out of that one?”

Sanji has to look up to see what he’s talking about, which is only half of Zoro’s motivation for asking the question.  There are always weird fish in the aquarium, and the love-cook makes them all taste amazing, but this one is extra bizarre.  It’s been scuttling along the bottom in short bursts, mostly beneath the sand like a mole or something instead of a fish.

“It’s a flatfish,” the cook says, peering into the water.  He straightens a little, but doesn’t move his legs off Zoro’s lap.  “I think it’s an East Blue species, but I didn’t get a good look when Franky threw it in there.  Whatever, it’ll be good fried.”

For all the dismissive tone, Sanji is craning his neck to get a better view, even though the fish is nearly invisible under the sand.  Zoro hides a smirk against the top of the cook’s head.

“How about that one?”

Turns out the cook knows every fish in the aquarium, and gets huffy when Zoro singles out the pretty ones for eating.  As if he cares which fish are rare or decorative or whatever.  

Sanji cares.  The cook knows where every fish is from - once that flatfish thing moves again, he can name not only its species but its favorite foods and environmental conditions too - and the best way to cook it, waxing nearly poetic about spices and marinades.  He gets dreamy-eyed and wistful over some of the fancy ones, and it turns out that Luffy’s shark got to stay because the cook has never seen its like before.

“It’s not in any of my books,” Sanji says, as they watch it cruise past the glass again.

“I bet we’ll find tons of fish you’ve never heard of.”  Zoro is more interested in the cook’s reaction, himself.  That pure enthusiasm.

“When we find All Blue,” the cook whispers.

Zoro nods against Sanji’s hair and wraps his free hand around one of the cook’s ankles, gently stroking over the bones there.  He likes this, having the cook’s trust. It gives him an entirely new appreciation of Sanji’s strength, being able to touch him when he isn’t bringing any of that power to bear.

The cook goes quiet for another minute, and Zoro slowly traces out the muscles in his calf.  Thin, pale skin and bone, and the cook is so slender, but this, touching him softly, is more jarring than watching Sanji crush skulls under his polished shoes.  Eventually Zoro looks back to the cook, expecting to see him watching the fish again, but Sanji is staring at Zoro instead, with a tight frown on his face.

“What are you thinking?” the cook asks.

“That I’m lucky,” Zoro replies, carefully honest.  “To get this side of you.”

“Damn right,” Sanji mutters, but that troubled expression doesn’t change.  “Fuck.”

Leaning back a little, Zoro gives the cook some space, but doesn’t take his hands off him.  There’s a faint tremble building in Sanji’s body. “What’s gotten into you?”

“I’ve been so wrong this whole time,” the cook growls, swinging his legs out of Zoro’s hold and sitting up away from him.  “I don’t know what to do with - with this, with you like this. Shit.”

“Cook-”  As usual, the idiot is half a conversation away from what Zoro understands, and Sanji isn’t giving him a chance to clarify and catch up.

“I have to go,” the cook declares.  “I have to make dinner, I don’t have time for this.”

Zoro flops back against the couch and listens to the door slam.  He’d thought the evening was going so well.

 

~o~O~o~

 

Sanji avoids him through dinner, and when Nami announces that they should reach the next island tomorrow, it throws everyone into so much activity that there’s no chance to catch a moment to clear things up.  That’s okay, Zoro decides. The idiot love-cook can’t avoid him for long.

Still, it’s annoying, not least because Robin and Nami definitely notice.  Luffy and the rest are too excited about the next island, but the girls eye Zoro and Sanji with those specific looks of piercing clarity.

Robin even comes up to bother Zoro during his watch that night.  She doesn’t say anything, just watches him for a moment before sitting on one of the bench seats and opening a book she brought with her.

“I have no idea what he’s thinking,” Zoro complains, finishing his training set and setting the weights aside.  There’s no point dissembling with Robin.

“What happened?” she asks, without looking at him.

“Nothing,” Zoro grumbles.  He drops down next to her. “I thought it was nice.  We were just watching the fish and talking about stuff, and the idiot cook got all weird.”

It feels like maybe things were too nice.  Zoro won’t tell Robin that, because then he will have to talk about watching the cook’s glowing expression as he named every fish in the aquarium, the flood of contentment Zoro felt sitting with Sanji’s body against his, the value of trust and the vulnerability of being so close without violence.  Robin will see it in him anyway, all of those delicate secrets.

“It’s all very new,” she says, eyeing him over the top of her book.  “I did caution you against overwhelming our dear cook.”

“He’s not that fragile,” Zoro retorts, remembering the way the bones of the cook’s ankle felt under his hand, and the embarrassed blush the idiot tried to hide.  That’s between the two of them.

“No, but all this has weighed heavily on him,” Robin counters.  “Issues of attraction have a way of becoming more than the sum of their parts.”

“Shouldn’t it be easier now?” Zoro asks, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice.  “We’ve had some really good conversations. He seemed happy, and then he just clammed up again and ran out.”

“Some good things can be harder to talk about than bad ones,” Robin says, giving him that look again.  “It can be especially difficult to admit things that have been private for a long time.”

“I can’t do anything about stuff he won’t talk about,” Zoro grumbles.

“Oh, I’m sure Cook-san won’t keep it to himself for much longer,” Robin responds.  “You can be patient, can’t you, Swordsman-san?”

Zoro has been very patient, compared to how he usually is with the cook.  What’s a little more. “Yeah.”

Robin nods, and goes back to her book.  “I believe the wait will be worthwhile.”

What else the cook wants to say but can’t, Zoro has no idea.  He’s confident by now that they can figure it out, so the question doesn’t keep him up once his watch is over.

 

~o~O~o~

 

They sight land right after lunch the next day.  The cook has been normal again, picking an inconsequential fight with Zoro after breakfast and bringing him a fancy drink after that.  There’s no sign of his reservations from yesterday, and Zoro doesn’t feel like bringing it up.

“Come shopping with me, marimo,” Sanji demands when they dock.

“Don’t I always?” Zoro asks.  The cook kicks at his shin, Zoro dodges out of the way, and they bicker the whole way to the market.

It’s a pleasant spring island with a friendly little town, and only a few local merchant ships sharing the harbor with the Thousand Sunny.  Zoro is relieved that they seem to have landed somewhere without a looming emergency for once. Taking care of this thing with Sanji is important, and he wants to give the cook his full attention.

The love-cook likes to check out the whole town before starting his shopping, and with the weather so nice, it feels natural to stroll through the market district more lazily than usual.  Apple blossoms float on the breeze, and fluttering ribbons hang across the streets. It all creates a gentle atmosphere, and Zoro enjoys the relaxed pace.

Of course the idiot twirls around complimenting every woman they see, but Sanji returns to Zoro’s side regularly, instead of prancing off after some girl.  He might be imagining it, but Zoro feels like the cook’s demands for him to keep up are less biting than normal. When they hit the market proper, Sanji loops an arm through Zoro’s, muttering something about keeping close even though there isn’t much of a crowd.

“Try this,” the cook orders, pressing some local fruit up to Zoro’s mouth, watching with intent eyes for his reaction.  It’s delicious, and Sanji already has a thousand ideas for dishes to make with it, relaying them to Zoro with that contagious grin.

“We should have supper there,” the cook decides, pointing out a bustling cafe, leaning closer to Zoro to speak into his ear over the noise of the market.  He’s having easily as much fun guessing what the cuisine will be like as he will eating it later, Zoro is sure.

“We’ll want to stop here last,” the cook tells him, pulling Zoro out of the flow of traffic, gesturing at a produce stand from the lee of a fountain.  “Better to keep the fish on ice.”

The whole thing shouldn’t feel so special, but Zoro’s about ready to burst, unsure what to do with the contentment filling up his chest.  It’s hard to look at Sanji, flushed with anticipation over the shopping. They do this on every island, but it feels extraordinary all of a sudden.

“Marimo?” the cook asks, tilting his head so his hair flutters, catching the sunlight.  Zoro doesn’t stop to think about it, drawing the cook a little closer and laying a hand on Sanji’s jaw to kiss him.

The action startles him as much as Sanji, Zoro is certain.  They spring apart and Zoro all but falls in the fountain, only Sanji’s grip on his arm keeping him dry.

“Sorry!” Zoro says, even though he’s not sure if he is.  He’s allowed to kiss the cook now, right?  He’s just not sure why he needed to so badly.

“It’s fine,” Sanji says, raising his free hand to his lips and turning away a little, only to look back at Zoro out of the corner of his eye.  He’s blushing again. “It’s... good.”

“But we’re in the middle of something,” Zoro mutters, glancing around the square.  No one is looking at them. Pretty town like this, people probably kiss by the fountain all the time.  “And the way you ran off last night, I shouldn’t… I don’t want to overdo it.”

Sanji turns back to face him with a complicated snarl of emotions on his face.  Zoro would like to think he’s getting better at figuring the cook out, but he can’t pick out much more than dissatisfaction and a peculiar sort of pain.

“I’ve wanted this for so long,” the cook says, voice rising in a frustrated hiss.  “And I’m fucking it up!”

Zoro would like to say something reassuring, but Sanji isn’t wrong.  Zoro doesn’t know what’s going on, and he won’t be able to figure it out if the cook won’t talk to him.

“And you!” Sanji continues, turning on Zoro with familiar anger.  “You’re not supposed to be all-” an agitated gesture that tells Zoro nothing, but the cook is choking on the words “- like that!  I thought I knew, I was prepared for-”

Casting around for a distraction, anything to break the cook’s momentum before they wreck the town, Zoro’s gaze lands on a hill rising beyond the town.  A pink puff crowns the top, looking like nothing more than Chopper’s beloved cotton candy.

“Race you to that tree,” he interrupts.

The cook shuts up.  “What?”

“Race you,” Zoro repeats, with an impatient gesture at the hill.  “Unless you’re scared to lose?”

“Never,” Sanji growls, and that’s that.  

It’s a small town, a short run out into the countryside; easy enough for Zoro to follow the cook up and out, instead of getting turned around.  The cook is fast - in a simple contest of speed like this, Zoro can’t match Sanji, who sky-walks the last stretch of the hill and stands smirking at the top of it, wreathed in pink petals.  Skidding to a stop beside him, Zoro can’t regret it. The cook is a bit red from the exertion, expression cleared of anything but smug satisfaction, and even though Zoro wants to wipe that grin off his face he’s glad to see it too.

“Okay, shit-cook,” Zoro says, after giving himself a moment to catch his breath.  “Feeling better? Talk to me, you idiot.”

Sanji grimaces and fiddles with his cigarettes, before shoving his hands into his pockets and staring up into the flower-laden branches above them.  Zoro waits. He can be patient.

“I’ve wanted this for so long,” Sanji finally repeats, “and I never told you.”

Zoro frowns.  “Well, I mean, everyone knew -”

“Not that I want a relationship, or to fall in love, or all that!” Sanji snaps.  “I always wanted it with you, marimo! I wanted you, the whole time, and I could never say it.”

The words bounce around in Zoro’s head, making absolutely no sense.  Finally they collide with the pages of Robin’s book - desire for reciprocation, fear of rejection - and Zoro almost feels like he understands.  “Isn’t this good, then?”

“You don’t have anything to say about the fact that I’ve been pining over you for years?” the cook demands.

“Not really,” Zoro shrugs.  “It doesn’t matter now, does it?”

“Of course it matters!  I hid it from you, even once you said you want to be with me!  I had the whole thing worked out in my head and I was too afraid to be open with you about it until you caught me out!”

“It still doesn’t matter,” Zoro insists.  “I mean, unless me not knowing is the problem?  But you’ve already said that you never wanted me to figure any of this stuff out, so…”

Sanji stares at him, wild-eyed against the soft backdrop of petals.  “Shitty marimo, of course I didn’t want you to know. That’s not the problem,” he finally mutters.  “I thought I knew what being with you would be like, and decided I would only be hurt by it. That’s the problem.”

“You thought I would hurt you?” Zoro asks, feeling kind of hurt himself at the idea.

“Not exactly,” Sanji sighs.  “But I thought you’d turn me down, that you’d say I’m too frivolous to bother with.  I thought that even if you said yes, it wouldn’t be what I want, that you wouldn’t want to be romantic or affectionate with me.  That you’d leave when I told you I’m not - that I don’t want sex.”

“You don’t get to decide what I would or wouldn’t do for you, cook,” Zoro says, disgruntled.  Shouldn’t they be over this stuff? “Give me a little credit, I’m trying my best over here.”

“I know,” Sanji says, and why is his expression more desperate instead of less?  The cook still sounds like he’s barely holding it together, and Zoro doesn’t know why .

“Come here,” Zoro demands, dropping down at the roots of the tree.  A little cloud of petals swirls at the movement, and Zoro slaps at the ground next to him until the idiot love-cook settles down beside him.  “Keep talking.”

“I always hoped you would understand,” Sanji explains.  “I wanted that so badly. But you’re so fucking dense, marimo, and - well, I guess you did get it, finally.”

“You don’t get to sit there insulting me just because I told you to talk,” Zoro says.  Sanji snorts, some of the frustration easing out of his expression.

“You’re a massive idiot,” the cook says pointedly.  “And you’re too good. I don’t know what to do, when you’re so sweet with me.”

Zoro can feel his face heating, all the way to the tips of his ears.  “Cook!”

“So I’ve been scared.  Because I never guessed that this could work so well, that you would be so stupidly good about what I need.  I never thought I would get what I wanted, and now that I have you, it’s already better than I ever imagined, and I’m too on edge waiting for the other shoe to drop to appreciate you.”

Zoro wants to shake him, creating all this stress for himself in the hare-brained privacy of his own head.  He settles for brushing a few petals out of Sanji’s hair, getting a glimpse of both blue eyes for a second as he does.  Clear vulnerability all the way through, and Zoro doesn’t know how to say that he gets it, that he values this truthfulness and understands how hard it is. 

“What could I possibly do with a sweet, attentive marimo?” the cook continues, sounding much more lighthearted, now that he’s getting it all off his chest.  “It’s been so easy to be affectionate with you. It doesn’t seem real.”

“I’m not going to change my mind,” Zoro promises.

“I know that’s not how you are,” Sanji says.  “Neither of us do things by halves. That’s why it’s difficult to admit all this.”

“You’re so dramatic,” Zoro huffs, reaching out to pull Sanji closer.  The cook slides under his arm easily, their faces a breath apart. “What’s your point?”

“My point,” Sanji says, jabbing a finger into Zoro’s chest with a blush high on his cheeks, “Is that I’m in love with you, and I was prepared to keep that secret until one of us died, but it turns out you’re a big, dumb softie after all.”

“Am not,” Zoro protests, but that impossibly bright contentment is filling up his chest again, and he knows Sanji can see it on his face.  Love is a huge thing, even if Zoro still doesn’t understand it.

“You are,” Sanji repeats, elbowing around until he’s all but sitting in Zoro’s lap.  “And I love you, and it’s so good I can hardly stand it.”

Zoro wraps his arms around the cook and tucks his face into Sanji’s neck.  A few apple blossoms fall to the ground and the cook reaches back, ruffling Zoro’s hair.  They’ll have to get the shopping done tomorrow, at this rate, but Zoro doesn’t think Sanji will mind.  This is more important.