Chapter 1: It's Just The Little Things
Sanji gave Zoro a smirk. “I realise after our conversation that getting you to appreciate Valentine’s Day might be a lost cause, but I’m prepared to make an exception this time around. As it happens though, in about a month’s time it will be my birthday, and woe betide you if you fuck up on that one.”
Zoro grinned too. “Thanks for the warning. Want to tell me what kind of gesture you’re expecting for that?” After a moment’s pause, he added hopefully, “Does it involve lewd sexual acts?”
Sanji tapped one finger on his lips, thoughtfully. “I’ll let you know. Bondage may be involved. And possibly you wearing your kendo outfit.”
They both took a moment to consider that image.
It's just the little things, the incidentals, it’s like
You wouldn't even notice when you really turn me on
It's the little sparks that fly and then land like dynamite
- Alisha’s Attic
From outside on the windy February street the café looked like a haven of warmth, windows slightly fogged and glowing yellow against the early Saturday evening darkness. Sanji put one hand on the door and pushed it open, stepping through into the buzz of chatter and scent of coffee. He paused just inside to unwind his scarf from round his neck, then looked around the busy space. Didn’t have far to search before he spotted Zoro sitting at a table by the wall, far back in the crowded room.
Sometimes that green hair is useful. Not like it’s easy to lose him. Which is probably an advantage, given his navigational skills.
He went up to the counter to get a cappuchino, before walking to the back of the café and sliding into the seat opposite Zoro with a smile. “Hey.”
Zoro looked up from his phone on which he’d evidently just been checking for messages, a smile coming onto his own face. “... Hi.”
“Sorry I’m a little later than I said I’d be. Had a lot of stuff to do after I got off work.” Sanji placed a bag heavy with paperwork on the chair beside him.
“Late?” Zoro quirked up one eyebrow. “I haven’t been here that long myself.” He slid his phone into his pocket. “Got held up at the gym, didn’t get away when I should’ve. They’ve been dicking about with our computer system, installing new software or some shit like that. Took me forever to log in and update some client records, when it should’ve just taken a half hour... Fucking technology, I hate it.”
“Mm-hm.” Sanji took a sip of his coffee. “Nice to see you, too.”
“Eh... Right.” Zoro folded his arms on the table and gave the chef a slightly wry grin. “Rewind. So, how was your day?”
“Better than yours, it sounds like.” Sanji let his own arms rest on the table too. “No crappy dramas in the kitchen for once. So I got away on time at the end of my shift, which meant I was able to check out the details with the leasing company for that vacant street unit I saw the other week.”
“Yeah?” Zoro looked interested. “How’d that go?”
“Okay, up to a point. It was a sandwich bar before, so it’s fitted out with most of the basic catering stuff I need: I wouldn’t have to lay out too much capital on equipment. And I found out what kind of contract I’d have to sign up to, and what I’d have to put down in the way of a deposit and up-front rental payment.”
“Sounds ideal. So have you told the leasing company you want it?”
Sanji looked at him. “Here’s the bad. They want way more than I can afford. Not just the monthly rent, which is about what I expected: but on top of that they want a deposit up front equivalent to six months’ rent.”
A small frown drew Zoro’s brows together. “Huh... But it sounds like this unit’s just what you want. Good location; right size; fitted out more or less the way you need it.”
“Yeah. There’s just the small but annoyingly vital detail of my not actually having the money to put down for it.”
“But you don’t want to miss the chance of getting it, right?”
“Obviously.” Sanji said dryly.
“What about the bank?”
“Impressive creative work of fiction though my business plan is, to borrow the amount I’m going to need it turns out I need something more convincing. Like actual collateral. And I have jack-shit.” Sanji let out a heavy sigh. “The only people who seem to be able to borrow money are people who already have money. It’s really fucking annoying. They’re not the ones who need it.”
“Yeah, well... Banks aren’t on big on philanthropy, as I understand it.” Zoro made a wry face.
“Says the guy who’s trying to start his own business.”
“Trying, and running into a big fucking brick wall.” Sanji glanced at the bag on the chair beside him. “Mostly made of paperwork.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Go on a trip.” At Zoro’s questioning look, Sanji continued. “I have to bite the bullet and go see my old man. If I want to get a bank loan to do all this, it looks like the only way I can get it is to ask Zeff to be my guarantor. Frankly I’d rather sell a kidney: but I’ve realised that to make this happen there’s actually nothing I’m not prepared to do. So colour me desperate.”
Zoro nodded slowly, but commented, “Speaking as an outsider... I wouldn’t say that asking family for help to set up your own business qualifies as desperate.”
“Yeah, keep telling me that.” Sanji found his fingers drumming on the table, and stilled them. “I already owe that shitty old bastard way too much. To ask him for this is so far out of my comfort zone, I’m going through three packs of cigarettes a day.”
Zoro picked up his mug of coffee and swallowed a mouthful. “Being out of your comfort zone can be a good thing.”
“Really not needing motivational one-liners right now,” Sanji responded. “I’m doing this. I’m just not looking forward to it.”
One corner of Zoro’s mouth lifted up. “Maybe a little distraction would help. How about if I came with you?”
“Huh?” Sanji stared at him.
“I’ve got some time-off-in-lieu owed, from working those extra days over New Year.” Zoro shrugged. “I could come with you when you go to see your old man. If you want.”
The chef regarded him for a long moment. “Eh... Are you serious?”
“Sure. Why not?”
Sanji blinked. “I guess... No reason why not. But it’s just...” He gave his head a half-shake.
“What?” Zoro gave him a quizzical look.
“This isn’t going to be a pleasure trip. I don’t know how Zeff’s gonna react to me asking him for help, but that old fart never makes anything easy. So things might get kind of... fraught.”
“You’re asking him for help with getting a bank loan, not confessing to acts of terrorism against the state. I don’t think he’s going to disinherit you.”
“You don’t know Zeff. He’s the most contrary, shitty fucker that ever stomped over God’s green earth.”
“I wondered where you got it from.” Zoro’s grin stretched ear to ear.
Sanji lined up under the table and delivered a kick that connected smartly with Zoro’s left shin, producing a gratifying wince and indrawn breath from the other man. “Asshole.”
“That how you’re planning to smooth things over with your old man? By kicking him in the shins?” Zoro quickly recovered his annoying grin. “Because that’ll really convince him that you’re a mature, responsible adult capable of making big financial commitments.”
“I can handle my old man, shithead. I’m used to him. I’m just trying to give you fair warning.”
Zoro made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “So he’s a bit of a character. Big deal.”
“That’s an understatement of epic proportions. As you will realise if you meet him.” Sanji regarded the swordsman levelly. “Do you really want to do this?”
“I wouldn’t have offered otherwise.”
The chef propped his chin on one hand, still regarding him. “Well... Okay, then.”
A few moments of quiet stretched between them. At last a smile quirked up one corner of Sanji’s mouth. “Can you get some time off for the weekend after next?”
“Yeah, probably. I don’t think anyone else at the gym is planning holiday leave at the moment; not that I know about, anyway.”
“If I can get the Saturday off work too, we could catch the train down Saturday morning, it only takes a few hours.” Sanji considered this plan. “Hopefully the hotel won’t give me any grief about taking time off. But screw them if they do: I’ve showed up and worked my ass off through all my shifts since I started there. They owe me.”
“It’s not like you need to work there much longer, anyway.”
“Yeah... But I do need that income till I’ve got Bite Me ready to run. Even with this street unit being mostly fitted out, there’s still a bunch of stuff I’ll need to spend money on. Some kitchen equipment; all the disposable catering packaging; provisions; printed up menus, flyers promoting the business...” Sanji sighed. “Plus getting a sign for the front of the unit. I checked out costs for all that design stuff today too, and it was way more than I’d expected.”
“Couldn’t you just do that yourself? Use some kind of graphics software or something?”
Sanji grimaced. “I can create shit-hot recipes and make food on a plate look like it came from heaven... But graphic design is not where my skills lie. If I do anything it’ll just come out looking like crap.”
Zoro thought for a moment. “How about asking Usopp?”
Sanji blinked. “Huh?”
“Usopp.” Zoro gestured expansively with one hand. “You said you liked his artwork. I bet if you gave him some kind of brief, y’know, what you wanted it to look like, he could put something together. And he wouldn’t want paying as much as some trendoid graphic designer sitting in an downtown office.”
Sanji pondered the suggestion. And decided it was genius. “You really think he’d want to take it on?”
“Don’t see why not. It gets him someplace to show his talents. He might get other work off the back of it.”
“Well... Okay. Yeah. It’s a good idea. Give me his phone number and I’ll call him, talk it over.”
“He could probably do some work for your website too, if you want. How’s that coming along?”
“Nami got the domain okay, she’s been doing the set-up. I went through the design layout with her the other week, we’ve agreed on how it’s going to work. Nothing complicated: info about Bite Me, some sample menus, contact details and stuff like that. Plus the home page is going to have a food blog that I update every week, to keep the website’s SEO ratings up.”
Zoro chuckled. “SEO ratings? You almost sound like you know what you’re talking about, shit cook.”
“Believe me, I could give a lecture about websites and marketing, the amount of information Nami’s been cramming into my brain.”
“You actually understand any of it?”
“Fuck you. It’s not beyond my capabilities to learn. And I need to tackle this stuff, so I don’t wind up asking Nami all the time to figure it out for me.”
“You think she’d mind that?”
“It’s not about whether she would mind or not. She’s already giving me a lot of help: I’m really grateful for that. But I don’t want to take up her time and energy. She’s got her own business to run.”
“I guess.” Zoro nodded.
Sanji picked up his cup and took a sip; let his gaze wander around the café. “Hmm... It’s getting kind of crowded. You want to eat something here, or shall we head out?”
“I’m good to go.” Zoro drained his own cup, setting back down on the table. “You want to come back to my place?”
A wry look came onto Sanji’s face. “Can I preface my answer to that with a question? Specifically, what foodstuffs have you got lying in ambush in your refrigerator?”
Zoro laughed. “Hell if I know. I didn’t mention to Luffy that I was meeting you after work, so there’s no reason he’d have gone hyper in the grocery store again.”
“Reassuring, if only marginally. Is there likely to be any actual food at your place? As in, something I can fix a decent meal out of for us both? Or do we need to go via a store to pick up some ingredients?”
“Fuck that. You just spent a week at work cooking for people. We can just get some take-out.”
“You want to know what I think of take-out food?”
“I really don’t.” Zoro stood up, picking his jacket up from the back of his chair. “C’mon, let’s go.”
* * * * *
After a lengthy wrangle about the relative merits of Chinese, Indian and pizza – a debate which Sanji ruthlessly contested and won – they headed back to Zoro’s apartment, via a decent Indian restaurant to pick up some food.
Turning his key in the lock and nudging the door open, Zoro could hear the sounds of TV as they stepped into the hallway. Toeing off his boots, he nodded towards the rest of the apartment. “Sounds like Luffy’s home.”
Sanji hung up his coat, turning to face him. “Oh. Think we got enough food?”
Zoro grunted. “This is our food. He gets what’s left over.”
Sanji gave a half-smile, half-frown. “There’s probably enough for three.”
“This is Luffy we’re talking about.”
“We’re not sitting eating food in front of your friend without offering him some. We can share.” Sanji picked up the bag of take-out food decisively. “You just get three plates and some cutlery from the kitchen.”
When they entered the main room, Luffy’s tousled head appeared over the top of the back of the couch. “Eh, Zoro!” He saw the chef as well. “And Sanji! Cool!”
“Hey, Luffy.” Sanji raised a hand in greeting, before moving to sit down in the sagging armchair next to the couch. “How you doing?”
“Really great. I won a big fight today, totally kicked the other guy’s ass.” Luffy chuckled.
Sanji raised an eyebrow. “Fight?”
Luffy grinned. “In Going Merry. I wiped the floor with Don Krieg. He’s a really bad loser.” His gaze rested on the bag of take-out that Sanji had placed on the table. “What’s that?”
“Supper. Want some?” Sanji had little doubt what the younger man’s answer would be.
“Mm, yeah!” Luffy’s grin widened a little more. “Did you make it?”
“Not this time. We got take-out. You like Indian food?”
“Yep.” Luffy sat up straighter on the couch. “I love it.”
Zoro reappeared from the kitchen, setting down plates and forks and three bottles of beer on the low table in front of them before sitting next to Luffy on the couch. “Here y’go.”
“Thanks!” Luffy made to pounce on one of the take-out cartons, but was interrupted by a thwack on the wrist from Zoro. “Ow!”
“Wait your turn, asshole. Guests first.” Zoro nodded at Sanji. “Dish yourself up some food, before Mighty Mouth here gets started.”
Sanji did so, before sliding the containers of take-out closer to Zoro. “Smells good.”
Zoro grunted in agreement, scooping food onto his plate before passing the containers on to Luffy. “Haven’t gotten food from that place before.”
“It got good reviews. I haven’t gotten round to eating there yet, so it’s nice to try some of their menu.”
“We ushually ge’ Indian fro’ the one jusht up the block.” Luffy spoke through a mouth already crammed full. “Ishh cheap.”
“You get what you pay for.” Sanji said this dismissively. “It’s worth paying a little extra, to get good food.”
Zoro glanced at the television, now emitting sounds of destruction in the background. “What the hell is on TV?”
“Aweshome film, sh’about a giant butterfly trashing a city.” Luffy managed to swallow his mouthful. “Like, the army attacks it and stuff but they just can’t stop it.”
Zoro looked at the TV screen again. “You mean, Mothra ?” He let out a laugh. “Hah... I remember watching that when I was a kid. That’s a fucking classic.”
Sanji also looked at the TV, where now appearing on the screen was what looked like a plush moth puppet, flapping giant multicoloured wings over a cardboard model of downtown Tokyo and intimidating evidently easily-terrorised onlookers. “Was it the no-expense-spared production values that impressed you?”
Zoro gave him a sidelong look. “Don’t badmouth classic Japanese kaijū cinema, smartass. Mothra’s right up there with Godzilla in the pantheon of all-time greats.”
Sanji raised an eyebrow. “You have the weirdest taste in films of any adult I’ve ever met. Monster movies and samurai epics...”
“So what kind of stuff do you like, Mr Film Critic?”
“Lots of different things.”
“European films, world cinema... And a lot of home-grown films, too. As long as a film’s got good dialogue and character development, or something a little out of the ordinary. Y’know, a different take on life.”
“Action movies not your thing, then.”
“Depends how hot the lead actors are. And how much clothing gets ripped off them in the course of the plot unfolding.” Sanji smirked. “A little onscreen eye candy every now and then isn’t a bad thing.”
Zoro snorted, and turned his attention to his food. Beside him he was aware of Luffy alternately devouring his own plateful, and letting out slightly indistinct sounds of appreciation for what he was eating or watching.
After a few minutes Zoro reached for his beer and took a swig, before glancing at his friend. “Hey. You likely to see Usopp this weekend?”
Luffy shrugged. “Not in meatspace.”
Zoro gave him a level look over the top of his beer bottle. “Again: in actual English?”
Luffy blinked at him. “Um. No plans to get together in real life. He was online in Going Merry with me earlier.”
Zoro nodded. “Okay. If you talk to him, let him know Sanji might have some work for him. As in actual paid work using his art.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket, bringing up Usopp’s contact details before messaging them to the chef’s number. Sanji glanced up at the sound of his phone picking up the message; Zoro nodded at him. “Usopp’s phone and email. You can get in touch with him whenever... Anytime except too early in the mornings, you should be able to reach him.”
“Thanks.” Sanji took his own phone out and checked the details, before stowing it away again. “I’ll probably call him sometime during the week.”
“Are you putting together a game?” Luffy looked interested. “A cooking game? Like, you’ve got to capture and kill a whole load of wild animals, then find a way of cooking them?”
Sanji raised an eyebrow. “People would play an online game about cooking?”
Luffy looked thoughtful. “I would.”
“Shocker,” Zoro commented.
“What would be the point?” Sanji sat back in the armchair, resting his plate in his lap. “Cooking and enjoying food is mostly about smell, about taste, about texture. Virtual reality can’t do any of that.”
“Maybe in a few years it will,” Luffy enthused. “They’ve got VR headsets now that make you feel like you’re really in the game space. Tech gadgets that make you feel things on your skin, like wind blowing, or touching objects. I’ll bet it won’t be long before we can smell and taste games, too.”
“Ugh.” Sanji frowned. “Speaking personally, that’s a future I could skip. Give me real life any day.”
“Yeah, ‘cause real life is always such a laugh riot,” Zoro said dryly. “When the world’s as fucked up as it is, no big surprise so many people want to plug in to an alternate reality.”
“Only problem being, it’s not reality.” Sanji said this dismissively. “It’s a bunch of number-generated pixels on a screen.”
“Yeah, well... Each to their own, I guess.”
“I’m not knocking it. I get that for millions of folks it’s a fun way to pass the time.” Sanji glanced over at Luffy, giving him a slightly apologetic smile. “And for some people to make a living.”
Luffy grinned. “S’okay. I do real stuff too. That’s way more fun.” His plate was now empty and he dumped it on the table, before lying back on the couch and folding his arms behind his head. “Went and helped out at that Food Not Bombs thing downtown a couple of days ago. It was cool.”
Zoro grunted. “What was going on?”
“We made loads of food and set up a stall on the street giving out free meals to everyone.”
“Hear that, cook? Maybe you ought to be worried about the competition.”
Sanji smiled. “I suspect we’re targeting a different customer base.”
“The food was just for people that needed it. Y’know, like the homeless.” Luffy looked momentarily sober. “There was so many of them. Some of them were just kids.”
Zoro paused in eating; memories stirred deep down, threatening to surface. To keep them under, he spoke again. “Yeah, well... At least you gave them all a square meal.”
“Yeah.” Luffy brightened slightly. “It made ‘em pretty happy, even though there was no meat. It’s weird, we weren’t allowed to cook anything but vegetables and stuff like that. If it had been up to me I would’ve made them some burgers.”
“I’ve think I’ve heard of those guys.” Sanji nodded. “They do that stuff not just here: in other places too. Europe, Africa, Asia... All over the world.”
“Yeah, one of the guys there said he’d been to Mexico. And Columbia. It sounded great.” Luffy sighed. “I’d like to go to Brazil.”
Zoro looked at him. “Why Brazil?”
“They have lots of cows there. They make a lot of beef.” Luffy pronounced this confidently. “And Rio carnival looks like a lot of fun.”
“Yeah, maybe. You ever watch the movie City Of God ?”
“It’s about the favelas in Rio... Check it out. It’s not all carnival fun down there.”
Sanji looked over from his armchair. “So you do occasionally watch films that don’t involve swords or special effects monsters.”
Zoro gave him a look. “Yeah. What of it?”
“Maybe we could go see a film sometime soon. Remedy your woeful lack of cultural input. There’s an independent cinema in the centre of town, shows a lot of good European movies.”
“Forget it. I’m not sitting through some subtitled film with lots of long meaningful conversations between people smoking in cafés.”
“I can pick something that will appeal even to your primitive tastes. You must like Luc Besson’s films, right? Or how about Jean-Pierre Jeunet?” At Zoro’s blank look, Sanji supplied more information. “Léon? Or Delicatessen? Micmacs?”
Some of the film names vaguely registered, but Zoro shook his head. Sanji smiled. “We ought to remedy that.” A slightly conscious look came onto his face. “Are you working on Tuesday evening?”
“Yeah. I’m teaching a late class at the gym, then I’ve got a couple of personal training sessions booked in with clients.”
“Oh. Okay.” Sanji dropped his gaze. “Forget it, then. Maybe some other time.” And he returned his attention to finishing his supper.
Zoro got the feeling he’d missed some small but vital cue, but there was no more response forthcoming from the chef. They ate in silence, accompanied by the TV’s backdrop of the dramatic resolution of Mothra winning the day and making a triumphant exit from Tokyo.
Once the film ended, Sanji rose from the armchair and began gathering up their plates and take-out debris. Zoro watched him for a half minute, then asked, “What’re you doing, cook?”
“Clearing away.” Sanji stacked plates and containers and picked them up one-handed with long-practiced ease.
“Don’t worry about it. It can wait till morning.”
“Yeah, because nothing makes a better air freshener than discarded take-out containers.” Sanji moved towards the kitchen. “It’ll only take a minute.”
Zoro was about to reply that no-one there gave a shit, but the chef was already gone.
Sprawled at the other end of the sofa, Luffy yawned. “I’m sleepy now.”
“So go to bed.” Zoro picked up his beer bottle, only to find there was barely a mouthful left.
“Did you bring dessert home too?”
“I want ice cream.” Luffy fanned his tongue. “That curry was hot.”
“There’s more beer in the fridge.”
“Mehh...” Luffy wrinkled his nose. “I want Chunky Monkey.”
Sanji reappeared from the kitchen and leaned his folded arms on the back of the couch, shaking his head. “You guys are worse than frat boys. That kitchen needs a flamethrower.”
Luffy grinned hopefully up at him. “Hey, Sanji... Can you make ice cream?”
“Theoretically, yes. Right now? No.” Sanji looked at Zoro. “Is it okay to go crash out? It’s been a really long week.”
Zoro nodded, standing up. “Sure.”
“You guys are going to bed already?” Luffy looked aghast. “It’s not even late.”
“Maybe not for those of us whose day didn’t start at six a.m.,” Sanji pointed out. “I’m beat. See you in the morning.”
“Okay...” Luffy slid lower onto the couch, looking sulky at the turn of events. Then his expression brightened slightly. “You’re staying for breakfast, right?”
Sanji let out a short laugh, before heading for the doorway that led to the rest of the apartment. “G‘night, Luffy.”
Zoro followed after him, pausing only to pick up a cushion and drop it on Luffy’s face as he passed. “Dumbass.”
Luffy grabbed the cushion and pitched it back, with the quick reflexes and surprising accuracy he seemed to be able to pull off without thinking. “I’m gonna drink all your beer.”
“Knock yourself out. I know where you keep your emergency money stash, I can buy some more.” Zoro caught the cushion one-handed and tossed it aside.
“Thanks for the warning.” Sticking out his tongue, Luffy folded his arms. “Now I know, I’ll hide it somewhere different.”
Smiling, Zoro moved to the doorway. “Good luck with that.”
When he reached his bedroom it was empty, which made him pause for a second; then a footstep sounded behind him and he turned to see Sanji. The chef came in, shutting the door behind him. “Just needed to use the bathroom.”
Zoro nodded, moving over to his desk and plugging in his phone to charge. “Okay.” A thought occurred to him, and he picked up his phone again. “What weekend was it again you said you wanted to go see your old man?”
“The one after next. Two weeks from now.”
“Uh huh.” Zoro brought up the calendar on his phone and scrolled to the right date: typed in Visit S dad. While he had the calendar on view, he suddenly wondered about the chef’s apparently casual enquiry about whether he was free next Tuesday. Scrolling back through the days, he let them blur past; then stopped with his thumb resting on the screen. Tuesday 14 February.
Zoro found a grin coming onto his face. He laid his phone down on the desk, before heading over to the bed where Sanji was already sitting with his feet up, leaning back against the wall. As Zoro sat down on the bed next to him, the chef looked at him curiously. “What’s so funny?”
“Just realised something.” Zoro smirked at him. “Why you wanted to get together on Tuesday evening.”
A slight tinge of colour climbed into Sanji’s face. But his expression went deadpan. “All I suggested was us going to see a film.”
“On Valentine’s Day?” Zoro grinned wider. “Were you planning on us seeing some rom com chick flick?”
“As if, craphead.” Sanji recovered his poise a little. “Anyway, what’s wrong with the idea of going on a date on Valentine’s?”
“Nothing: except we’d be tripping over wall-to-wall flowers and hearts and all that cutesy pink cupids shit that covers every fucking surface, that day of the year.”
Sanji pulled his cigarettes out of his pocket. “What are you, the Scrooge of Valentine’s Day? People like celebrating being in love.”
“Yeah, and florists and card shops really like it too. All those people celebrating that togetherness through buying stuff. It’s one big marketing ploy.”
“Jesus, are you always so cynical?” Sanji took out a cigarette. “Can I smoke in here?”
Zoro was about to say no, then realised if he did Sanji was probably going to walk out the door. “...Yeah. Just don’t burn holes in the quilt.”
Sanji gave him a scathing look. “No problem. If I need to stub it out I’ll use your cold, hard heart.”
Zoro placed one hand theatrically on his chest. “Aghh. Harsh words, cook.”
“Craphead.” Sanji lit up and inhaled, before blowing smoke away. “I can’t believe you’re such a hard-ass.”
“I can’t believe you’re such a sap. You really buy into all that commercialised romance crap?”
“No. But it’s not about the stuff people give each other. It’s about the feelings that make them do it.”
“Like those aren’t real unless you prove it with a bunch of dead flowers and some lame card covered in pink hearts?”
“Some people consider that a nice romantic gesture.” Sanji blew out another long stream of smoke, narrowing his eyes. “Of course, now we’ve had this frank exchange of views I’m inclined to tell you to shove any romantic gestures you may be planning up your ass.”
Zoro gave him a sidelong smile, before reaching out and laying one hand on Sanji’s thigh. “How about this for a romantic gesture?”
“Yeah, right, I’m overwhelmed.” Sanji rolled his eyes.
“You want overwhelming? Should’ve said so before, love cook.” Zoro moved quickly, before the other man had a chance to react: pushing the chef sideways so that he collapsed against the bed and swinging himself over so that he was propped on hands and knees above the other man. “Better?”
“Crap - !” Sanji flailed inelegantly, the hand with his cigarette in it waving in the air while his other hand braced against Zoro’s chest. “You want to make me drop this thing in the bedclothes? When I said your kitchen needed a flamethrower, I wasn’t serious – I didn’t plan on setting your apartment on fire.”
“Glad to hear it.” Zoro smiled down at him. “I could do without having to find a new place to live, shitty though this apartment block is.”
Sanji managed to insinuate his other arm between them and bring the cigarette to his mouth. Taking a deep drag, he blew the smoke up into the swordsman’s eyes. Zoro blinked; and instantly felt a knee come up and shove firmly into his stomach, pushing him off. He rolled sideways and came up onto one elbow, to find Sanji also lying propped on his side, facing him. The chef took another pull on his cigarette, before saying, “I don’t plan on ending my evening being lectured by firefighters on the dangers of smoking in bed.”
Zoro watched smoke from the tip of the chef’s cigarette spiral upwards. “I guess... we could still meet up late Tuesday night, after I get off work. Go for a meal or a drink or something.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Sanji made an incredulous expression. “Do you know how hard it is to walk in and get a table in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day? Everywhere will be booked solid.”
“Okay, curly brow. Just trying to be helpful.” Zoro let himself lay on his back, folding his arms behind his head.
“Forget it. It doesn’t matter. We’ll see each other at the weekend.”
“Yeah. But I get the feeling you’re gonna be sulking if I don’t do something on the day.” Zoro turned his head, giving the chef a smirk. “Should I get flowers delivered to you at work?”
Sanji appeared to almost choke on his cigarette. “Flowers? Fuck, no!”
“Well, give me some guidance here. Now I’ve agreed to go meet your old man, is sending flowers and a Valentine’s card what I ought to be doing?”
“No, you asshat,” Sanji growled. “And if you don’t shut the hell up about this whole thing, you’ll be getting a bouquet from me. Of poison ivy.”
Zoro was quiet for a minute or so. When he spoke again, the mocking note was gone from his tone. “Just to give you fair warning, that whole romantic gesture thing... Never been much good at it.”
“Uh huh.” Sanji gave him a sidelong look. “I’ll try to bear that in mind.”
“I’m just not into all that fancy sentimental shit.” Absurdly Zoro felt himself beginning to blush, and stopped before he dug himself in any deeper.
Sanji turned his head to regard him this time. His gaze was steady; eyes travelling over Zoro’s face. A slight smile played across his lips, turning up the corners of his mouth. “I’ll make allowances.”
Zoro didn’t know what to reply to that. So instead he leaned in and kissed the chef on the mouth, bringing up his hand to cup the back of the other man’s head. Feeling the soft slide of Sanji’s hair through his fingers; the warmth and responsiveness of the mouth against his own. Tasting cigarette smoke and Sanji, feeling the chef’s hand also come up and curl firmly around his side, holding them together, prolonging the kiss. Slow and searching and good, so good.
When it ended Zoro lifted his head away and gave Sanji a small smile. “That help any?”
Sanji smiled back. “It definitely compensates.”
Zoro leaned in again and kissed him once more, letting his hand roam down the chef’s side this time: tightening on his hip and pulling him in a little. Sanji made a sound of enjoyment; then a moment later, drew back. “Mhh... Wait a sec.”
Sanji gestured with his cigarette. “Let me put this out.”
“About time.” Zoro sat back, watching the chef retrieve his empty beer bottle from the floor, then stub out his cigarette carefully and drop it in.
Sanji replaced the bottle onto the floor, before giving him a look. “You said it was okay to smoke in here.”
“Yeah. It is.” Zoro shrugged. “Just, you taste better without the nicotine.”
“Tough.” Sanji sat back on the bed, his shoulder resting against the swordsman’s. “If I have to tolerate your lack of romance, you’ll just have to deal with my secondary smoke.”
“Fair enough.” Resting one hand on the chef’s thigh, Zoro began to circle his thumb slowly there.
Sanji breathed in slowly, letting it happen. Then said quietly, “In the spirit of mutual warnings, though, moss-head. Don’t think this means you can smooch your way out of every situation. Sometimes words are important. Little things are important. Romantic gestures; whatever.”
Still circling gently against the firm muscle underneath the chef’s pants leg, Zoro had to refocus slightly. “Mm... Yeah?”
“Remember what I said the other week? When we were in that Japanese restaurant, after your tournament?”
Zoro cast his mind back. “What in particular? You said a bunch of stuff then.”
Sanji tchh-ed with mild annoyance. “About etiquette and customs: the little things we do and say. Being one of the things that holds life together.”
“Mmh... Yeah.” Zoro did remember. “But, I don’t really get it.”
“Why people think that stuff is important.”
Sanji looked at him. “Seriously?” His brow furrowed a little. “That kind of surprises me.”
Sanji shrugged. “Well, for starters, you come from a Japanese background.” Zoro raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t Japanese culture kind of big on customs, doing things in a certain way: all that stuff?”
Zoro considered for a moment. “I guess. But it wasn’t exactly a big feature when I was growing up. The only Japanese customs my uncle followed were the ones that related to drinking.”
“What about all your kendo rituals?”
“Not so much,” Sanji insisted. “It’s part of what makes kendo distinctive: and trying to make sure things go right. Giving people guidelines to follow; ways of relating to each other.”
“Generally in kendo you do most of your relating to the other guy at the end of your shinai,” Zoro commented.
“But if you didn’t have all that other stuff, all those rules and rituals, the actual combat would be a lot less fun to watch. Not to mention, potentially lethal.”
Zoro considered the chef’s suggestion: decided he had a point. “Maybe.”
“So, that’s what I’m saying. Things which seem small, gestures or customs or whatever: they matter. They smooth off the rough edges in life. They help people get along.”
Conceding this seemed reasonable. “Okay.”
Sanji nodded, apparently satisfied. “Good. Then I’m up for the challenge of re-educating you.”
“Or civilising you. Whatever.” Sanji gave him a smirk. “Starting with the importance of celebrating culturally-recognised events of special significance. I realise after our conversation that getting you to appreciate Valentine’s Day might be a lost cause, but I’m prepared to make an exception this time around. As it happens though, in about a month’s time it will be my birthday, and woe betide you if you fuck up on that one.”
Zoro grinned too. “Thanks for the warning. Want to tell me what kind of gesture you’re expecting for that?” After a moment’s pause, he added hopefully, “Does it involve lewd sexual acts?”
Sanji tapped one finger on his lips, thoughtfully. “I’ll let you know. Bondage may be involved. And possibly you wearing your kendo outfit.”
They both took a moment to consider that image.
When Sanji spoke again, his voice was more sober. “Joking aside... This stuff does matter. To me, anyway. Celebrating the good things. ‘Cause there’ve been too many times when life has been, frankly, total crap. So celebrating the good stuff is important. Like times when I can be with my friends, be happy, see the people I care about being happy. And birthdays: they matter, too. It’s marking a point in your life... Where you’ve got to, where you’re going.” His gaze rested on Zoro’s. “And I am really looking forward to celebrating, this year. How my life is turning out. And I’m looking forward to celebrating it with you.”
Zoro felt that. And felt a reflex urge, to draw back from what Sanji was sharing. At the same time as he felt himself respond to it, like a desert plant to rain.
He tried to cover all this with levity. “Okay... But personally, I still think lewd sexual acts are the way to go.”
Sanji narrowed his eyes, before punching him lightly on the leg with a loose fist. “You are a total fucking pervert.”
“You were the one that mentioned bondage. Not to mention, outfits.”
“I’m the birthday boy. I get to choose.” Sanji settled against his shoulder more comfortably. “And that’s not all I want.”
Zoro raised an eyebrow. “Fuck. There’s more?”
“A cake. From La Bohème.” Sanji said this confidently. “It’s the best patisserie in town. They do a gâteau moka aux amandes that is like being kissed by caffeinated angels.”
Zoro groaned. “Cake? You want a fucking birthday cake?”
“What are you, five years old? You want balloons and party streamers as well?”
“I want a cake, with candles. It’s not an unusual request, for someone’s birthday. What, you’re some kind of cake atheist as well as being down on Valentine’s?”
“I don’t like sweet stuff.”
“It’s just birthday cake, and you have to eat it if you’re at my party. It’s traditional. You can wash it down with beer, you’ll hardly even notice it.”
“Listen, moss-head. This is non-negotiable. Cake from La Bohème, with candles. If you want to earn extra brownie points, you could leap out of it naked singing Happy Birthday.”
“Actually, scratch that last request. I don’t want the exquisite flavour of a cake from La Bohème polluted by algal bloom.”
“C’mon, just enter into the spirit. Birthdays equal cake, plus loud partying and crass festivity.” Sanji paused. “What, is cake on birthdays just not a Japanese thing?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Birthdays weren’t exactly a major event when I was growing up.” That sounded kind of pathetic, and Zoro wished he hadn’t said it as soon as the words were out.
Sanji regarded him, slightly puzzled. “How come?”
Fuck it. “My uncle wasn’t too good at remembering stuff like that. If he did, it was usually a few weeks after the fact.” Zoro tried to lighten it up with a wry smile. “He did buy me a beer when I turned fourteen. Or at least, he shared a six-pack with me. Which even at the time I thought was better than some lame-ass cake, anyway.”
“Are you serious?” Sanji frowned at him.
Zoro shrugged, fending this off. “No need to go all Movie Of The Week. It wasn’t a big deal. You don’t miss what you never had.”
There was a short silence, while Sanji regarded him. Then said, in deliberate tones, “When is your birthday?”
“Just answer the fucking question, moss-head.”
“Okay.” Sanji nodded, as if agreeing to something. “Then this year, you can celebrate your birthday properly. With an actual cake, which I will make.”
“Are you hard of hearing, shit cook? I told you: I don’t like cake.”
“I don’t care. You’re getting one.” Sanji nodded decisively: evidently the subject was closed.
Once again, Zoro got that unsettling feeling. Of something he simultaneously wanted to run from, and fall deep into. “You don’t have to do that.”
“I know.” Sanji sounded unphased.
They were quiet then, for a while. At last Zoro felt a touch on his hand, where it rested on Sanji’s thigh: the chef’s fingers sliding between his own, interlinking. The bed creaking slightly as Sanji shifted sideways a little, letting his shoulder rest against the swordsman’s. A quiet sigh, then Sanji spoke again. “Eh... I really am tired.”
Zoro let his own head rest sideways too, just touching the other man’s. “I guess you’ve had a busy week.”
“Mmm,” Sanji agreed. “And it feels like I’ve got a way to go yet.”
“You’ll get there,” Zoro affirmed.
“How do you know?”
“Because you don’t strike me as being the type to give up easily.”
“Is that a nice way of saying I’m a contrary shitty fucker?”
Zoro chuckled. “If you like.”
Sanji lifted his head and gave him a kiss. “That’s weirdly encouraging.”
“Good.” Zoro returned the kiss. Let his hand move just a little, lightly stroke against the other man’s thigh. “You want to just get some sleep?”
Sanji’s mouth curved up in a smile. “I’m not that tired.”
Sorry it's taken me so long to post the next arc in the Wild Combination series, I just really wanted to finish writing this fic before I started posting it. Plus I'm now studying as well as working so homework, reading assignments, blah etc... Anyway, here it is. You get the first chapter on Valentine's Day: consider it my gift to you lovely fic readers. <3 :)
Facts & trivia that might be of interest (or maybe not, but you're getting them anyway):
Mothra is indeed a classic of Japanese kaijū cinema, I'm with Zoro on this one. What's not to love about a giant eco-warrior moth trashing stupid humanity. Frankly, the world right now needs Mothra.
Food Not Bombs is a real thing, they feed a lot of people who would otherwise go hungry. You can check them out at http://foodnotbombs.net/
patisserie = a bakery that sells fancy cakes and pastries
gâteau moka aux amandes = a fancy cake flavoured with coffee and decorated with almonds
Chapter 2: I Think I'm Falling
“Nghh... What part of ‘Get off’ did you not understand?” Sanji gripped Zoro’s ribs, lifting one knee to block the swordsman from pinning him down. “If this is your attempt at foreplay for round two, five seconds from now you’re gonna be sleeping on the floor.”
“Round two wasn’t what I had in mind, but I’m up for it if you are.” Zoro grinned down at him.
“Not right now, thanks.”
“A little more distraction might take your mind off whatever’s bothering you.”
“Right this moment, you’re bothering me.”
Zoro leaned his head down and kissed him lengthily on the mouth. Felt Sanji resist for a moment; then go with it. Lifting his head away again, Zoro smiled. “Sure about that?”
I think I'm falling in love too fast
It's got me hoping for the future
And worrying about the past
- Joni Mitchell
Sanji’s apartment block door clunked shut behind him. He checked his mailbox: a couple of catering supplier catalogues, and what looked like the unit rental details the leasing company had promised to send him. He took the post, re-locked his mailbox, then took the stairs two at a time up to his floor.
Dumping his bag on the floor and the post on his desk, he headed through to the kitchen and made himself some coffee, before returning to the main room and switching on his laptop. He’d gotten away from work later than usual that day, a last-minute mess-up with a group lunch booking in the hotel restaurant that meant everyone in the kitchen wound up putting in overtime. Unpaid, of course.
He lit up a cigarette before opening up his emails: there were a whole slew of new messages to read and respond to, as ever. And website queries that Nami had flagged, which he’d promised to look at and get back to her about before midweek. A couple of quotes from catering supplies companies, for him to peruse and compare prices and likely quality of goods he was going to need: disposable food containers and cups, packaging. All of it important and time-consuming and not particularly enthralling.
And I need to get going on the publicity and design stuff, too.
Sanji took a pull on his cigarette, then let out a slow stream of smoke. Remembering Zoro’s suggestion of contacting Usopp, to see if the artist would be up for doing the work.
Well... No time like the present.
Picking up his phone Sanji opened his contacts: scrolled down to Usopp’s name and hit CALL. The number rang a few times, then was picked up.
“Yo?” Usopp’s voice met him, with the slightly cautious upward inflection of someone receiving a call from an unknown number.
“Hi, Usopp: it’s Sanji.”
“Oh... Hi, Sanji,” Usopp responded cheerfully. Didn’t recognise your number. S’up?”
“Something I wanted to ask you... You busy, or you okay to talk for a few minutes?”
“Nothing going on but the rent. My time is yours. Lemme just turn down my tunes.” There was a brief pause, during which Sanji heard some background music fade a little; then Usopp came back on the line. “Okay, now you and Wu-Tang Clan are no longer competing with each other. What can I do for you?”
“I’ve got some design work that I need doing for my new business and Zoro suggested I run it by you, see if you’d maybe be interested in doing the job: he gave me your number.” Sanji tapped one finger on his desk. “Obviously I’d pay you for doing the work... if it was something you’d be up for. No worries if you’re too busy or whatever, though.”
“Design work? Like what?” Usopp sounded interested.
“Well, I’m going to need a sign for my premises and graphics for menus; promotional flyers... And stuff on my website. I’m not sure exactly, but I’d like it all to tie in together, have the same look.”
“Okay, yeah... Sounds totally do-able,” Usopp responded cheerfully. “I’d be up for that.”
Sanji felt an immediate lift in spirits, but felt obliged to include a cautionary note. “That would be great. But just to be up front, before you say yes – I’m working from kind of a limited budget. What kind of hourly rate do you normally charge for doing this stuff?”
“That would be the Special Deep-Discount Primo Rate For Friends And Family,” Usopp replied authoritatively. “Otherwise known as ‘Just Pay Me What You Can Afford’. No problem, man. I’ll do it.”
“Seriously, though – I don’t want to rip you off. You’re a professional artist, I want to pay you properly for your work.”
“I’m flattered, touched, and slightly worried that you’re overestimating my abilities.” Usopp sounded like he was grinning.
“I’ve seen your art, remember?” Sanji found himself smiling too. His gaze drifted upwards from his laptop screen: to Usopp’s drawing of Zoro kneeling in meditation, which he’d put up on the wall above his desk. “You’re good. And that means you ought to value your work accordingly.”
“Ahhh, balm to my love-starved artist’s soul,” Usopp groaned pleasantly. “Keep talking me up like that and I might do the job for free.” There was a slight pause, then he continued in more practical tones, “Or for a very modest fee. Which is totally negotiable. Uh.” He let out a short self-mocking laugh. “Eh, I suck at this money stuff. But if you really want me to do this, I’m up for it. Sounds like an interesting job. And it gets my work out there, so where’s the bad?”
“Glad you think so.” Sanji was encouraged by Usopp’s can-do attitude. “Okay then... We can figure out a reasonable price once we’ve looked at what’s involved. Does that sound fair?”
“Deal. You got anything roughed out at all? Stuff you want me to look at?”
“Not yet. Just some ideas, nothing on paper. Is that a problem?”
“Nah... I can work with whatever. If you talk me through what you’re thinking, I can sketch some stuff, then run it by you: see if you like it. How’d that be?”
“Ideal.” Sanji felt a sense of relief. “Listen, it’d be easier to talk it through face to face, rather than over the phone, or by email. I’m usually off work by half three... Are you free sometime next week? We can meet up in town somewhere, and I’ll tell you what I’ve got in mind so far. We could get a coffee, or some food: I’ll buy.”
“You know the way to a starving artist’s heart. I’m in.”
“Great. Anywhere in particular you want to meet?”
“You know Café Chameleon? It’s not far from the city college, north side. I’ve got an afternoon art class there Wednesday; we could meet up at the café after. Say, four o’clock?”
“Yeah, that’s fine. I don’t know the place but I can Google it. Four o’clock, Wednesday.”
“Cool. Meantime, if you get a moment to scribble down any ideas, that’d be useful.”
Sanji pulled a wry face. “Usopp, anything I scribble down will look like a toddler crayoned it. If you knew how bad my artistic abilities were, you wouldn’t ask.”
“It doesn’t have to be Rembrandt, dude.” Usopp chuckled on the other end of the phone. “Just get a few ideas out of your head and onto paper. Rough is fine.”
“I’m pretty sure that extremely rough is what you’ll get. I’ll do my best. Okay: see you next Wednesday.”
“Sweet. See you then, Sanji.”
Sanji cut the call and placed his phone back in his pocket. Found himself smiling.
It’s starting to come together.
Maybe it was mainly the influence of Usopp’s cheerful willingness to help, but somehow in the space of a single phone call it felt like something had shifted. As if the universe was aligning itself more in his favour.
I’m pretty fucking lucky, really. A bunch of people are helping me do this.
He mentally tallied them off. Nami. Usopp. Zeff. (Well, that wasn’t a given yet, but Sanji skimmed quickly over that thought.)
That was the biggest one to think about. Because really, none of this would even be happening if it hadn’t been for that New Year’s Eve conversation between himself and Zoro. Without the swordsman’s input, right now Sanji would probably still be toiling at one crappy temp catering job after another. And pretty much deciding, on a daily basis, that his life sucked.
It was a weird thought. Sanji folded his arms across his chest, frowning slightly. Not much liking the notion that he had been so fundamentally directionless that it had taken someone else to shake him up enough to change things for the better.
Maybe don’t over-analyse it.
A small cautionary voice sounded in his head, and he paid attention to it. Because he knew he had a habit of getting caught in the wheels of his own head, and most times that didn’t end well. He’d been in a crappy headspace at New Year; and Zoro had crashed into his life; and on the whole, things were monumentally better. He was working towards setting up his own business, which was gonna be cool. He could quit temping, which would be a joyful day when it finally happened. And he was dating someone totally hot and the sex was awesome. And he and Zoro just seemed to fit right, in every way that mattered. Despite the fact that they were very different. And who knew how long it would last but right now he was enjoying it, and it seemed like Zoro was too. So: it was all good.
And Sanji very carefully didn’t pursue the thought that arose way back in his head: that the connection he had with Zoro already felt both strong and unsettling. Only two months in, what they had seemed like it was developing into something significant. Beyond anything he’d foreseen.
And the reason he didn’t pursue these thoughts was because starting up his own business was a big and unnerving enough development in his life. He didn’t have the mental or emotional energy to freak out about anything else right now.
His gaze fell on his desk: on the paperwork that needed doing, on the emails that needed answering.
Do the job that’s in front of you. One thing at a time.
One upside of having a lot of work-related issues to sort out was that it didn’t leave a whole lot of time for sweating the other life stuff. Which was a good thing. Right?
Sanji took a deep breath. Then reached towards his laptop and clicked on the keyboard, opening the first unanswered email in his inbox.
* * * * *
There was nothing in the world except the feel of Zoro’s hands gripping his shinai; the floor, solid beneath his bare feet; the poised stillness of his opponent, facing him. The even pull in, release out, of his breath. Readiness, for whatever came next.
The other kendōka moved. Zoro saw it: the man’s weight shift, only slightly, the ball of his foot flexing on the dojo floor. The wrists and arms start to lift. And he was moving too, to where he needed to be to meet the attack: meeting the strike down aimed at his right kote and sweeping it away, following through with his own counter-attack. Both of their feet slamming against the floor as the bamboo of their shinai met with a sharp crack. And then Zoro was stepping in, not giving the other kendōka time to recover, driving him backwards and striking downwards again with his shinai, through the gap in the other kendōka’s guard under the elbow and hearing it connect cleanly with the chest protector. At the same time letting out a shout. “Do!”
There was a pause, before both of them returned to chudan no kamae, defensive position: tips of shinai just touching. They dropped down into the crouch of sonkyo; brought their shinai back to their left hips; stood and backed off five steps, before bowing to each other.
“Domo arigato gozaimashita.” Their voices rang out in unison.
After a beat, the other kendōka blew out a breath. “Shit... Give me a break, bro!”
Zoro grinned underneath his men, knowing the other man was close enough to see it through the face grille. “You lift your elbow too high every fucking time, Johnny. Learn, or lose.”
“Okay, okay, I get it. Smartass.” The other man sounded only mildly pissed off.
“Want to try again?”
“Hell no. We’ve been going at it forever. Let’s call it a night.” Johnny gestured sideways with one thumb, towards the clock on the dojo wall. “There’s only a little while left, anyway.”
His prediction was accurate: scarcely a minute passed before Takahashi’s voice rose clearly above the sounds of those still sparring. “Sei-retsu!”
After lining up and doing the closing mokusō and bows, both men gathered up their bogu and headed for the locker room.
Johnny scrubbed his fingers through his hair, which like Zoro’s was darkened with sweat. “Ehh... Good workout, bro. Thanks.”
“Any time.” Zoro ran his eye along the length of his shinai; inspected the cords that held it together; checked the bamboo staves for any signs of splinters or cracks.
“But that’s the last fucking time you get me with that do strike. Next week I’m gonna nail your ass.”
“Yeah, sure. That’s what you said last time.” Zoro gave him a sidelong smirk. “Dream on.”
“Someone’s got to stop you ploughing your way through this entire dojo. On behalf of all the shattered egos you’ve left in your wake, I’m telling you: this has gotta stop. And I’m the man stepping up to do it.” Johnny gestured at himself. “It’s my goal: stop Zoro Roronoa, or die trying.”
“What kind of flowers do you want at your funeral?” Zoro put down his kote and men, before opening his locker.
Johnny gave him the finger, grinning. “Fucker.”
The Kogaku-Kan dojo wasn’t big, but still had good facilities: a large practice space, well-lit by large high windows as well as overhead fluorescents; clean changing rooms with lockers and showers. Zoro had checked out a couple of dojos when he’d first arrived at the city, and Kogaku-Kan had felt right for all kinds of reasons. Not least for the leadership of Takahashi-sensei, whose dedication to making his kendo students the very best kendōka they could be reminded Zoro of Koshiro.
They were drying off and getting dressed after showering when Johnny spoke up again, pulling a t-shirt on over his head. “Hey, you know the HKKA Open Kendo Championships start next weekend? I can get them on cable, some of the guys are coming over to watch it with a few beers Saturday evening – Yosaku too. You want to join the party? Should be worth seeing.”
Zoro shook his head. “Sounds good... But I’m not around that weekend. I’m going away with Sanji for a couple of days.”
“Oh, yeah?” Johnny sat down to put on his shoes. “Another time, then. Where are the two of you going?”
“We’re visiting his old man. He lives south of here, we’re catching the train down Saturday morning.”
Johnny regarded him, a sly smile pulling up one corner of his mouth. “Meeting his parents? Eh, then that means it’s getting serious, right?”
“Parent, singular.” Zoro slid his shinai into its case. “And it’s no big deal.”
“You think so?” Johnny was grinning now. “Reality check, bro: you’re gonna meet your boyfriend’s dad. That is always a big deal. You gonna wear a suit?”
“No.” Zoro gave his friend a level look.
“Could backfire on you. A suit always scores kudos in the parental approval stakes.”
“It’s not me who needs his old man’s approval. Sanji wants him to sign off as a guarantor on a bank loan for his business: I just said I’d go with him.”
“Uh huh.” Johnny nodded, still grinning. “Well, good luck. I hope Sanji’s dad blesses your union. Don’t forget to call him ‘sir’.”
“Yeah, right.” Zoro fastened his kendo bag shut, with a slight shake of his head.
Parting ways with Johnny outside the dojo, Zoro checked his phone. There was a text from Sanji, that had evidently been sent sometime earlier that evening: he opened it.
‘U want to come over tonight after u finish kendo?’
Zoro hesitated for a moment, his thumb poised to text back a reply: then changed his mind and hit Call instead. Sanji’s number rang three times, before the chef picked up. “Hey.”
“Just got out of the dojo, and read your text. You feel like company?”
“Yeah, that’s why I messaged you. Unless you’d rather get an early night?”
“No, I’m good to come over. Everything okay?”
“Fine. Just finishing off some paperwork and answering emails... That shit’s never-ending. I could use some distraction.”
Zoro smiled. “Happy to oblige.”
“Good.” From the sound of Sanji’s voice, he was smiling too. “Okay: see you in a while, then.”
“Yeah. I should be there in a half hour or so.”
“Don’t get on the wrong bus.” The chef cut the call, denying Zoro the opportunity to retort to his parting jibe. Replacing his phone in his pocket, Zoro settled his kendo bag more comfortably on his shoulder and began to walk.
It wasn’t until he was sitting on the bus and watching the night city streets roll by, that Zoro found Johnny’s words replaying in his mind.
- Meeting his parents? Eh, then that means it’s getting serious, right?
Zoro didn’t know, exactly, what it meant. But what he did know was that being with Sanji felt like a whole new level of real. More real, more everything, than any relationship he’d been in before. He was used to physical connection: meeting the needs of his own body and someone else’s... But the rest of it, he’d kept at a distance. Kept himself unattached. Which had worked up to now. Pretty much.
He also wasn’t sure why he’d offered to go with the chef to visit his father. Except that evidently, it was a big deal for Sanji. And Zoro wanted things to work out for him with this new business idea, because clearly that would make Sanji happy. And Zoro was beginning to realise that he kind of liked seeing Sanji happy. Almost as much as he liked arguing with and provoking him.
It was a new thing, for him: being able to make someone else happy. There hadn’t been too many people in his life that he could make happy; largely because there had never been that many people in Zoro’s life who gave a fuck whether he was around or not. Kuina, and Koshiro. Then Luffy, Ace, and Usopp. And now, Sanji.
It was a different way of being, which he was adjusting to. After losing Kuina, he’d got good at living without those kinds of connections. Self sufficient: crafting an existence where not really being part of other people’s emotional landscape worked for him. By moving away from the city where Koshiro had his dojo. By building a wall with booze and drugs. By only fucking strangers and never staying over more than one night. It was a life where Zoro controlled his boundaries, and it worked okay. Till Luffy pushed through those boundaries one day by the simple method of not even noticing they were there.
Gazing out of the window into the darkness and blur of lights, Zoro wondered if this thing with Sanji would ever have happened, if Luffy becoming his friend hadn’t happened first. Which was a pointless thing to wonder about, because Luffy had happened. Zoro didn’t generally give much thinking time to what-if scenarios, because dealing with what actually happened in life took enough energy.
And now he was going with the chef on a visit to his father. Which was some kind of step along the way. The way to where, Zoro didn’t know. But he wasn’t in the habit of backing off from things, and he didn’t plan to start now.
What the hell. See what happens.
When he reached Sanji’s apartment block at the other end of his journey, Zoro triggered the entry buzzer, standing on the step up from the street. The intercom clicked, before the chef’s voice asked, “Yeah?”
“C’mon up.” The building door lock hummed as it released, allowing Zoro to push his way inside. He climbed the stairs and headed for Sanji’s apartment, where he knocked on the door. It opened, revealing Sanji looking unusually rumpled: his shirt hanging outside his trousers, and hair tousled and damp at the ends. “...Hi. Come in.” His tone was distracted.
Zoro stepped inside, pausing to kiss the chef as he dropped his kendo bag onto the floor. “Try to contain your excitement, cook.”
Sanji returned the kiss, and gave a wry smile. “Sorry. Only just finished doing all my paperwork, so I grabbed a shower. I’d just got out when you buzzed.” His hands moved behind himself, starting tuck in his shirt.
Zoro smiled too. He reached out and took hold of the chef’s forearms, holding onto them. “Leave it. Dishevelled looks good on you.”
Sanji let out a snort, his gaze meeting Zoro’s. Then his arms relaxed, his hands returning and settling on Zoro’s hips. Tugging the swordsman a little closer. “You have depraved tastes.”
“Not a whole lot of point you tucking in your shirt, when it’s gonna be coming off pretty soon.”
Sanji raised an eyebrow. “Wow. The master of foreplay strikes again.” He let his finger and thumb pinch Zoro’s side: then slid his hands away, before turning and heading towards the main room. “You eaten dinner, or do you want something? I made minestrone, there’s plenty left.”
Zoro grinned, before toeing off his boots and following after. “Yeah, sounds good.”
“Okay. I’ll just go heat it up.” Sanji gestured at the couch, as he headed towards the kitchen. “Make yourself at home.”
Zoro sat down, folding his arms behind his head and letting his gaze roam around the room. The lamp on Sanji’s desk was on, its light falling on piles of paperwork, a stack of reference books, and an open laptop: evidently the chef hadn’t had time to clear away after finishing his work. The light fell on something else, too: a drawing that was fixed to the wall above the desk. Its familiarity caught Zoro’s eye and he sat forward, a slight frown drawing his brows together. He stood up and walked over to take a closer look.
It was himself, kneeling in seiza, doing mokusō at the dojo. He recognised Usopp’s work; remembered the artist coming along to the Kogaku-Kan dojo a few months back to do some sketching there. Usopp had showed him the drawings afterwards and he’d been impressed, by the way the other had captured the vitality of kendo in a few flowing lines. But finding this particular drawing on Sanji’s wall was unexpected, to say the least.
“You want a beer with this?” Sanji’s raised voice reached him, calling from the kitchen.
“Uh, yeah! That’d be great.” Zoro glanced behind to the kitchen doorway as he replied; then returned his gaze to the drawing. Not really sure what he was feeling. But finding a small smile growing on his face.
The sounds of activity in the kitchen subsided, and Zoro quickly turned away from the desk and returned to the couch, getting settled on it again just as Sanji reappeared with a steaming bowl, plate of bread, and a bottle of beer, which he set on the low table in front of the couch. “Here... Bon appétit.”
“Looks great.” The soup smelled great, too: savoury wafts of broth and herbs reached Zoro’s nose, the bowl of food colourful with beans and vegetables and some kind of grated cheese and green leaves scattered over the surface. “Thanks.”
Sanji sat beside him on the couch, picking up a glass of wine that already stood on the table and taking a sip. “You’re welcome.”
Zoro tried a spoonful of soup, and smiled again. Took a chunk of crusty bread from the plate and dipped it in. “I didn’t expect you to feed me. I already grabbed a sandwich on the way to the dojo.”
Sanji made a dismissive noise. “That’s not a proper meal, after a day doing physical work like yours.”
“It does the job.” Zoro swallowed another spoonful of the extremely tasty soup. “But this is a hell of a lot better.”
One corner of the chef’s mouth lifted. “Thank you for the positive review.”
“You already eaten?”
“Mm, before I showered. Didn’t get time to eat lunch today, it was batshit crazy in the kitchen. And I had a bunch of stuff to do once I got home.”
Zoro nodded towards the desk. “Looks like it.”
“Uh huh.” Sanji took another sip of wine, letting out a slight sigh. “Every time I check my emails, there are ten more things I need to respond to.”
“Did you tell the leasing company that you want to rent that unit?”
“Yeah.” The chef propped his wine glass on his thigh, a small frown coming onto his face. “And they told me they can’t hold it for me indefinitely unless I put down a deposit.”
“Have you got enough money to do that?”
“Nope. Not till I get the bank loan.”
There was a pause. Zoro thought for a moment. “How much are you short?”
“More than I can scrape together on what I’m earning right now.”
Slowly, the swordsman spoke again. “I’ve got a bit of cash. Not much, but if it helps - ”
“No.” Sanji answered quietly but firmly. Turned his head to give Zoro a steady look. “Thank you. But I’m not borrowing money off you. You’re not earning any more than I am.”
Zoro shrugged. “I can get by. And it’s only temporary, right? You can pay me back when you get your bank loan.”
“I’m not borrowing money from you,” Sanji repeated. A stubborn set came into his jaw. “I appreciate the offer, but this is my responsibility. I told the leasing company that I should be able to make the downpayment within two weeks. They agreed not to lease it to anyone else before then.”
“Yeah?” Zoro considered this. “Well... That’s not so bad.”
Sanji ran his thumb up and down the stem of his wine glass. Gave a small nod. “Yeah.” But the slight frown was still there.
Zoro elected to say nothing more about money. He finished his bowl of soup, polishing it with the last crust of bread. Taking a swig of beer to wash it all down, he sat back on the couch with a sigh. “Ehh... That was really good. What was that stuff dumped all over the top of the soup?”
Sanji smiled, then. “Basil. And Parmigiano-Reggiano.”
“Cheese. Italian. Like Parmesan,” Sanji translated, turning his head to look levelly at him. “You culinary ignoramus.”
Zoro grunted. “Whatever. Tasted all right, anyway.” He took another swallow of beer.
Sanji lifted his wine glass and drank, finishing the last mouthful. Then set the empty glass down on the table. Settled back against the couch, running the fingers of one hand through his now almost-dry hair, pushing his fringe up off his forehead. Let out a long, slow breath.
Zoro heard it, and looked sideways. “You okay?”
Sanji nodded. “Just... been a long day.” He turned his head against the back of the couch, meeting Zoro’s gaze. “You want another beer?” His eyes held the swordsman’s. Looking dark blue in the low light.
The swordsman felt it. That kick of heat in his gut, that had nothing to do with the soup. “Not right now.” He lifted his bottle to his lips, and drained it. Leaned forward to set it on the table. And felt as he sat back again the chef’s hand close on his thigh; the other man shifting sideways, bringing his face closer, seeking out Zoro’s mouth with his own. A kiss which quickly deepened, Sanji pushing him back slightly, his other arm sliding up on the back of the couch and curling round Zoro’s shoulders.
It was good to feel the chef’s desire, his grip through Zoro’s shirt and jeans. The insistent working of the other man’s mouth against his own, bearing him back against the couch. Zoro brought his own hand up and cupped the back of Sanji’s head, holding him closer still. Enjoying the way this was growing hard and urgent, the clench of Sanji’s fingers on the muscle of his thigh sending a spike of pleasure up into his groin. Enjoying the feeling of being wanted.
Then Sanji broke the kiss, pulling his head back a little; and they regarded each other for a moment. Both breathing harder than they had been a minute ago.
“Bedroom.” Sanji’s tone made it clear this wasn’t a suggestion. He rose from the couch, his hand snagging Zoro’s and pulling the swordsman up with him. Which Zoro was happy to go along with.
They moved quickly along the passage and into Sanji’s bedroom, stepping to the edge of the bed where Sanji paused only to deliver another forceful kiss on the swordsman’s mouth before fastening his hands on Zoro’s shirt and pulling it upwards over his head. Then doing the same with his own, for once ignoring details like buttons, dropping it onto the floor before winding his arms around Zoro and pulling him close, mouth fastening on his neck. Teeth and tongue working against the skin so that Zoro shivered, his own hands gripping Sanji’s waist.
Then Sanji pulled back. Dropped one hand to the top of Zoro’s jeans, curling his fingers just inside and tugging, moving them both towards the bed. His other hand unfastening his own belt.
Yes yes yes.
Zoro slid his jeans off, mirroring the chef; and then they half-fell against the bed. Mouths fastening on each other again. Limbs winding round: pressing close, skin against skin. Both hard and already moving, sliding together, breathing forcefully.
Sanji’s fingers dug into Zoro’s shoulders: then the chef was rolling them, using the strength of his legs to flip them so he was uppermost. Still kissing Zoro hard; then starting to move his head, lips travelling down the swordsman’s neck, to his shoulder. Onto his chest. Finding his nipple and latching on, teasing with the tip of his tongue and finally giving it a small bite so that Zoro let out a groan. The sound seemed to encourage the chef: he curled his tongue one last time round the sensitised flesh, then moved his head sideways across his chest, tasting the swordsman’s skin all the way.
Zoro felt his hands clench on the covers as Sanji’s tongue lit him up like a brushfire. Everything moving fast. One of the chef’s hands sliding downwards, closing around his cock. Stroking it, firmly. The two of them rocking together.
There had been an urgency in Sanji’s movements, but now they were skin on skin that altered. Urgency became determined focus. The clench of his fingers on Zoro’s erection, rubbing smoothly and deliberately. The chef’s own hardened cock nudging firmly against Zoro’s stomach, with each slow circle of his hips.
Zoro lifted his arms wrapped them around Sanji’s back, drawing the other man closer so that they were chest to chest. He let one hand go lower to curl around the chef’s hip, then move to grip his ass. Fingers digging into the firm muscle there, pulling them closer still to increase the friction between them. Sanji’s hand no longer had room to move easily and with a slight wriggle the chef pulled it out, but settled instead for sliding one leg between Zoro’s thighs and grinding against him hard.
For a while they moved against each other, spiking arousal higher; breath catching, slow exhales stretching out into groans. Their hands wandering, stroking against skin; fingers clenching around a wrist, holding on. Sanji’s fingernails trailing down Zoro’s shoulder, digging into the swordsman’s back.
At last Sanji lifted his head, finding Zoro’s mouth again with his own. Tongues slick against each other. And then the chef shifted, tracking his mouth along Zoro’s jaw, up to his ear. Closing his teeth just enough on the soft flesh of the swordman’s earlobe, tugging at his earrings until it stung. Then breathing warm into his ear. “I really want... to fuck you.”
Zoro made a low sound in his throat. Which essentially meant Go right ahead. And was evidently understood by the chef, if his smile against Zoro’s neck was anything to go by.
Pausing only to give Zoro’s shoulder a brief kiss, Sanji raised up on his knees, reaching to the nightstand to get the necessary. Before returning to Zoro with renewed fervour, kissing and nipping at his skin and sliding his hands over the swordsman’s body. Curling his hand around Zoro’s cock and caressing the head with his thumb; brushing one lube-slick finger against his ass, then sliding it slowly inside. Working with careful precision, continuing to stroke the swordsman’s cock. After a while, adding another finger. Still slow, careful; waiting to feel Zoro relax, before curling his fingers until the swordsman’s breath hitched as the chef brushed right there. Repeating the movement, watching Zoro’s face. And again.
They were both breathing hard now. Zoro tightened one hand on Sanji’s shoulder. “...I’m good.”
Sanji gave the other man’s cock one last caress, and slid his fingers out. Before bringing himself up over the swordsman and bending down to kiss him. Then letting his lips work down to Zoro’s ear again. Where he murmured a quiet command. “Turn over.”
Zoro felt heat flush under his skin. Drew in a breath. Sanji moved, lifting himself away: and Zoro rolled sideways, coming to rest on his stomach. He propped himself up a little on his elbows, his erect cock pressing against the bed. He heard the soft rip of Sanji opening the condom wrapper, the click of the cap on the lube. Then weight shifting behind him, the bed dipping. The slow touch of Sanji’s knees, pressing his thighs apart: then the warmth of the chef drawing in close. Lying along Zoro’s back, lips tracing slowly up his spine, an inch at a time.
Then the soft insistent press of Sanji’s cock, pushing against him. Teasing against his ass. Sliding down to brush against his balls. Back upwards, resting against his entrance. Zoro shut his eyes and breathed in, let the breath release; and the chef eased into him.
Lips brushed against his back again. Sanji’s hands rested on the bed, either side of Zoro’s ribs. They slid inwards, fingertips stroking lightly against him. Then the chef pressed in with his hips, going deeper.
“Hhn...” It felt tight, heat and tension and almost-pain that ebbed as soon as Zoro breathed into it again. Felt himself relax. Heard Sanji breathe out too, before the chef began to move. Pulling out a little then thrusting back. Deliberately slowly. But nothing tentative in the press of his hips: deepening, adding a little more force with each stroke. Shifting his angle until suddenly it found that place again and Zoro’s hands fisted in the bedclothes, his mouth falling open.
Sanji’s tongue drew a wet trail up the back of his neck. Lips kissed, then worked their way to his ear. Teeth bit gently, tugging; then another wet press of tongue. And the chef’s hips continued to move, a little harder, a little more urgent.
Zoro’s cock ground against the bed as each thrust went home, the not-quite-enough friction combining with the feel of Sanji fucking him, to bring him close to letting go. He bent his head forward, feeling sweat pooling in the hollow of his back. The heat of the chef’s breath on his neck.
“Nnhh...” Sanji let out a ragged sound, close to his ear. “You are so... fucking hot...” Pushed himself up a little more on his braced arms, before changing his angle. Snapping those powerful hips, so that almost every thrust hit that sweet spot.
Zoro felt heat gathering in his stomach. Could feel that Sanji was almost there, his rhythm growing faster, rocking the two of them against the bed. And then the chef jolted, letting out a gasp: his head pressing forward to rest against Zoro’s neck. Pressing his hips hard, grinding in. Then shivering and falling forward until his body lay along the swordman’s back.
Zoro listened to the sound of Sanji’s breathing: then he arched his back slightly, shifting beneath the chef just a little. At once Sanji’s arms tightened at his sides. “...Mhm.” Lips kissed the side of his neck. Then a hand slid under him, finding and curling round his cock. Began to stroke it firmly, while continuing to kiss him, to move inside him.
Zoro had been close to the edge: it took only a few seconds before he tipped over, coming hard with a groan and shuddering through the aftershocks until everything blurred out for a while.
He came back up slowly, to a warm weight lying along his back and an arm wrapped around his waist. A kiss pressing behind his ear. Then Sanji’s voice, quiet. “...You okay?”
“Mhm.” Zoro grunted. Not feeling equal to conversation just yet.
The arm around his side tightened. Fingers stroked against his ribs. “Is that a yes?”
“...M’fine.” Zoro shifted, rolling under the circling arm until he was lying on his back. Found the chef propped up on one elbow, regarding him. Looking still flushed; his hair tousled. Eyes resting on Zoro’s face, assessing what he saw there.
Zoro smiled then. Lifted one heavy-feeling hand and rested it against the side of Sanji’s head, just for a moment. Let his thumb brush gently along the other man’s jaw. And saw the chef’s eyes relax.
When they’d cleaned up and were lying under the covers in the light of the bedside lamp, there was a lull. Lying there in pleasant heaviness, Zoro could feel himself edging towards sleep; but he became aware that the same wasn’t true for the chef.
Zoro felt the bed shift, as Sanji turned from his side onto his back. A moment later he heard the chef let out a low breath. When he turned his head to look at the other man, Sanji was gazing up at the ceiling with a slight frown pulling his brows together.
Zoro reached out and laid his hand lightly against the top of the chef’s head, his fingers brushing against the rough silk of his hair. “Oi... Still thinking about stuff?”
Sanji made an indeterminate sound, neither agreeing or disagreeing. The frown stayed.
Zoro frowned too. Threaded his fingers deeper into the chef’s hair and ruffled it. “What’s with that face?”
Sanji grimaced slightly, giving his head a twitch to pull free. “Quit it.”
“Quit what?” Zoro pushed his fingers back into the chef’s hair, stirring it insistently.
“Rrrghh...” Sanji reached up himself and closed his own fingers round Zoro’s wrist, pulling the swordsman’s hand free. “Get off.”
“Make me.” Zoro rolled up onto one elbow, letting Sanji keep possession of his wrist but bringing his body over the chef’s. Reinforcing his position by sliding one leg over and planting his free hand on the bed just above Sanji’s shoulder.
“Nghh... What part of ‘Get off’ did you not understand?” Sanji gripped Zoro’s ribs, lifting one knee to block the swordsman from pinning him down. “If this is your attempt at foreplay for round two, five seconds from now you’re gonna be sleeping on the floor.”
“Round two wasn’t what I had in mind, but I’m up for it if you are.” Zoro grinned down at him.
“Not right now, thanks.”
“A little more distraction might take your mind off whatever’s bothering you.”
“Right this moment, you’re bothering me.”
Zoro leaned his head down and kissed him lengthily on the mouth. Felt Sanji resist for a moment; then go with it. Lifting his head away again, Zoro smiled. “Sure about that?”
“Mhm-hm.” Sanji returned his gaze with a slightly less irritable one. His hand on the swordsman’s ribs had relaxed, fingers curling now round Zoro’s side. “I’m beat.”
“So relax and go to sleep.” Zoro bent his head down again and delivered another kiss, lightly this time. “This is a bed. No-one’s stopping you.”
Sanji sighed again. “Tell that to my brain.”
Zoro regarded him for a moment. Considered pursuing the distraction angle, but decided against it. A slight frown still furrowed the chef’s brow, and there was tension in the body beneath his. That same vibe of being somewhat wired, that the chef had been giving off since Zoro had first got to his apartment.
Zoro rolled back onto his side, where he propped himself on his elbow and gazed at the other man. “Well, figuring out how your brain works is probably beyond me... But I can give it a shot.”
Sanji flashed him a baffled glance. “Huh?”
“Spit it out, shit cook. What’s going on in your brain, that’s keeping both of us from getting some sleep?”
Sanji’s frown deepened... Then he gave a slight shake of his head. “Nothing that talking about will fix.”
“Yeah, well: if it’s a choice between that and having you toss and turn half the night, let’s give it a try.” Zoro considered for a moment, then hazarded a guess. “Is this about going to see your old man next weekend?”
Sanji’s face got a set look to it. “No.”
Bingo. Zoro smiled. “You still worrying about how you’re going to ask him about the whole bank loan thing?”
Sanji let out a sound somewhere between a huff and a growl, turning away onto his side so that his back faced the swordsman. “Not gonna talk about this.”
“I don’t see why you think it’s going to be such a big deal. It’s like I said before: asking family for help with stuff like this doesn’t rate as out of the ordinary. Plenty of people do it.”
“Thank you for your input. I feel better now. Go the fuck to sleep. It’s not like you usually have any problems doing that.” Sanji sounded like he was speaking through gritted teeth.
This time Zoro frowned. Deliberately he lifted his arm and reached over the other man, sliding it round the chef’s ribs and moving himself closer until his chest pressed against Sanji’s back. Settling his hand on the other man’s stomach, he felt the tension that sat in the muscles there. He tightened his arm just a little, holding the chef. “Quit being such a fucking brat and talk to me.”
“Nnghh...” Sanji still sounded pissed, but suffered himself to be held. “Why are you such a stubborn asshole?”
“There’s a lot of that going round, this precise moment.” Zoro slid his hand to Sanji’s waist and pinched his finger and thumb tightly there, making the other man jump. “Talk, shitty cook.”
Sanji’s own hand came down swiftly and prised the swordsman’s fingers away, before the chef twisted under the other man’s arm, coming to lie on his back once more. Eyes finding Zoro’s, holding them for a long moment... Before they shut, and Sanji let out a long sigh. “Shit.” His voice sounded tired. “Okay.”
Zoro waited. Waited some more. Carefully let his hand rest back on the chef’s waist again. Sanji’s eyes immediately flew open – but Zoro kept his hand still. Just let his thumb stroke slowly back and forth against the slope of Sanji’s stomach.
After a minute or so, some of the tension went out of the chef’s expression. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet. “I know other people ask their families for help with money. It’s not that I think that’s a bad thing. It’s that asking for Zeff for this, means that I’ll owe him. And I don’t just mean that I’ll owe him the money: although that’s a big enough deal in itself, and I seriously hope my business pays its way so the only way he’d be involved as a guarantor would be on paper.” He paused; took a breath. “I mean that I’ll owe him for helping me to do this. Because it looks like I can’t do it without his help. And I already owe him so much... I told myself I would never ask him for anything else. He’s already done enough for me.”
Zoro considered this. “From what I hear, that kind of goes with the whole being-a-parent territory. Being there for your kids when they need you. Even when you’re grown up, or whatever... I mean, he’s your old man. Stands to reason he’d want to help you out.”
Sanji stared up at the ceiling. “He wasn’t always my old man. I didn’t start out being his kid.”
Zoro found his hand stilling on his lover’s stomach.
Where are you going with this?
He spoke. Carefully. “You think that makes a difference?”
“I don’t know. All I know is, he took me in. Gave me a home. Gave me a future, when the future I had was looking pretty fucking bleak. And gave up a shitload himself to do it.” Sanji’s voice sounded heavy now. “That’s what I mean, when I said I already owe him enough.”
Zoro let his thumb start stroking again against the warm skin. “I don’t think it works like that. Like there’s some kind of limit on what family can give you, people who care about you. And you were just a kid, when he adopted you. He was an adult, he chose to do it.”
Sanji turned his head on the pillow. Regarded him for a long moment. “D’I ever show you a photo of him?”
Zoro gave a half shrug. “No.”
Pushing himself up on one elbow, Zoro’s hand sliding free, Sanji sat up on the bed. Swung his legs free of the covers and got up, padding barefoot to where his pants lay on the floor. Retrieved his phone and got back into bed, pulling up his pillow and sitting with his shoulders resting against it and the wall.
Zoro sat up too, pulling the covers over their legs; watching the light of Sanji’s phone as he switched it on play across the chef’s face. Wondering what it was he was supposed to see, in Sanji’s family photos.
Sanji opened up his photo album, began scrolling through it. “I’ve got a picture on here, someone took it of the two of us when I graduated my college catering courses. Somewhere... Yeah.” He brought an image full up on the screen, then handed the phone to Zoro. “That’s it.”
The phone’s screen wasn’t at a good angle and Zoro tilted it up to see the image better. A photo evidently taken outdoors at a graduation celebration, students in gowns and mortar boards glimpsed in the background. And in the foreground a younger Sanji similarly attired, sleeves rolled up, cigarette inevitably in his mouth, smiling at the camera with an older man whose arm rested around his shoulders. A older man whose big broad-shouldered frame looked constrained in the suit he was wearing; whose dark eyes bore a fierce pride matched by the grin beneath a luxuriant moustache. And whose right leg ended in a prosthetic, clearly visible below the cuff of his trousers.
There was a longish silence. Zoro still gazed at the photo, not sure what he was supposed to say. Then looked up at Sanji. “Good photo of you both.”
Sanji returned his gaze. “Thanks.”
Zoro let the phone rest down on the bed. “You never said before... that your old man only had one leg.”
“Well, it’s not the kind of thing that’s easy just to casually mention.” Sanji gave a brief, mirthless smile. “And to be exact, he’s got one and half legs. The right one’s only missing below the knee.”
“Uh huh.” That wasn’t the detail that mattered in this conversation, Zoro was pretty sure. “How’d he lose it? Was he in the military or something?” From the powerfully sturdy look of the moustached man in the photo, that seemed a possibility.
“No.” Sanji shook his head. “He lost it when he met me.”
There was a brief silence. Sanji took the phone from Zoro’s hand; looked at the photo himself for a moment, then switched the phone off. Laid it aside. “That’s what I meant. When I said I already owe him too much.”
“Back up.” Zoro looked at him, trying to read his face. “You just left out a whole major plot-line of what happened, between your last statement and what you said before it. You want to fill in the blanks?”
Sanji looked away. “It’s kind of a long story.”
Zoro studied his profile. Seeing the tension in the chef’s jaw. And said, quietly. “I don’t see either of us getting much sleep if you leave it like this. So let’s have it.”
Sanji let out a long breath. “...Crap.”
Zoro waited a moment. Then he reached out with one arm: wrapped it around the other man’s shoulders, drawing Sanji towards him until they rested against each other. Said nothing else. Just kept his arm there until he felt some of that tension in the chef bleed away.
When Sanji spoke, his voice sounded tight. “I told you I grew up in France, right?”
“Yeah. I remember,” Zoro answered quietly.
“Zeff found me there, when I was about eight years old. Adopted me, which involved a shitload of paperwork and negotiating with the French social services... And believe me, if there’s something the French are better at than cooking, it’s goddamn bureaucracy.”
Zoro was puzzled by the word found. “What was Zeff doing in France?”
“Working as a chef on some upmarket cruise ship which took rich assholes on trips to tropical bits of the world that France stole and still hadn’t given back.” Sanji shrugged. “His description, not mine.”
“How come you were on a cruise ship?”
“I wasn’t.” A frown pulled Sanji’s brows together. “I was living in Marseille with a crappy foster family, along with two other fucked-up foster kids. Both of whom were older than me. It was not a happy set-up.”
There was no easy way to ask the next question. So Zoro just did it. “How come you ended up being fostered in the first place?”
“The usual reason. A lack of actual parents,” Sanji replied succinctly. “I lost my mother when I was a little kid. And having a father was never part of the scenario. So the authorities stepped in, put me in a care home, then into foster care. Which I guess was better than other things that could’ve happened.” Another frown passed over Sanji’s face like a cloud shadow. “Not a whole fuck of a lot better... But the crap thing about being a kid is, you have zero power to affect what happens to you.”
That was something Zoro had no argument with. “Guess not.” And silently wondered exactly how Sanji had lost his mother. But that didn’t seem like an avenue this story was going down, right now.
Sanji took a steadying breath. “Anyway. I was living with this foster family, and not liking it, and making it pretty fucking clear to all involved that I wasn’t liking it. Which as you can imagine didn’t make for a fun atmosphere. So I waited till my foster ‘dad’ left his wallet in his jacket one weekend; swiped it, and went en cavale.” At Zoro’s questioning lift of his eyebrows, Sanji clarified. “I ran away. Headed for the docks, with the plan to stow away on a ship heading someplace warm and sunny, with palm trees.” He smiled wryly. “No exact destination in mind: I just remember palm trees being a key requirement.”
“You planned on stowing away and travelling overseas, when you were eight years old?” Zoro remembered how challenging it had felt fending for himself on the streets when he’d been fifteen. The thought of Sanji trying to do it at eight years old was almost unimaginable.
“Well, y’know: I was just a little kid. I didn’t exactly think the whole thing through. My idea of what it’d be like was mostly based on a bunch of old Tintin books... I just figured I’d be able to hop on a boat, have some adventures, go someplace hot with a beach.” Sanji gave him a wry smile. “Mostly, I wanted to get as far from my shitty foster home as possible. The details didn’t seem that important.”
Zoro tightened his arm around the other man’s shoulders, just for a moment.
Sanji accepted the gesture with another smile. An actual smile, this time. “What was that for?”
“Felt like it. Let’s hear the rest.”
Sanji settled against him. “I actually made it into the docks. Fuck knows how: I guess no-one noticed a little kid wandering about. Of course, when I got down there I realised sneaking onto a boat wasn’t going to be so easy. The passenger ships had security gates where you had to show your passport, tickets, all that. So I figured maybe it’d be easier to slip onto a cargo ship. I managed to get into one of the cargo dock areas and started to nose about the shipping containers there, see if I could open the door on one, sneak on board a ship that way.”
“Holy shit... Did you have any idea how dangerous that was?”
“Not a fucking clue: eight years old, remember.” Sanji made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “Anyway. I was dicking about with the lock on one of these containers, totally unsuccessfully trying to open the thing, when someone started yelling. Stuff along the lines of, Hey kid, what the fuck are you doing there? So I took off running, not really looking where I was going... Then out of nowhere this huge guy grabbed hold of my arm and just threw me sideways. I went flying off my feet: must’ve landed yards away, and when I hit the dirt everything went kind of fuzzy. Because I got all the wind knocked out of me, apart from anything else. The next thing I know, I was being picked up by a dock worker who didn’t let go even when I started kicking him in the shins.”
Zoro felt the tension growing in Sanji’s body against his; let his thumb stroke slowly back and forth against the chef’s shoulder.
Sanji released a long breath, before continuing. “I thought it was him who’d sent me flying. He started cursing me, yelling that the docks weren’t a fucking playground for dumb little brats, and how this mess was all my fault. Which is when I realised.” Sanji paused: narrowed his eyes, as if seeing the memory. “A few yards away. I suddenly saw people, men, gathered around a container. One that hadn’t been there before. They’d been lowering it down with a crane onto the docks, and I must have run right towards it. I would have run under it if that huge guy hadn’t yanked me out of the way. Only he got caught under it instead: he was lying there on the ground. And his leg... just ended, at the container. And there was a fuck of a lot of blood, and he was groaning. That was Zeff.” Sanji shut his eyes briefly: then opened them, to gaze across the room. “Then the guy holding me hauled me away. The cops turned up; and I got taken back to my foster home. Where I got read the riot act and told I was an ungrateful little shit who’d caused everyone a lot of trouble.” He made a wry face. “Which wasn’t a completely inaccurate assessment.”
“Fuck... That’s a hell of a story.” Zoro could well imagine what kind of repercussions Sanji might have had to endure. “What happened afterwards?”
“I was pretty much under house arrest by my foster parents for a few months. Which was all kinds of fun, as you can imagine.” Sanji shrugged. “I only got to leave the house to go to school, escorted by them; brought back home after school and sent to the bedroom I shared with my foster brothers; and zero recreational privileges. No playing outside, no tv, in bed by eight o’clock. And pretty much nobody was talking to me. It was fucking dire.”
“Sounds pretty harsh. They didn’t knock you about or anything?”
“No, they wouldn’t have got away with doing anything physical. That was one of the few upsides of being in foster care: social services would’ve picked up on anything like that. But I can remember being so fucking miserable that at one point I actually wished that container had been dropped on me.”
“So what happened?”
“Zeff happened.” A small smile turned up the corners of Sanji’s mouth. “He turned up four months later, totally out of the blue. On crutches with his new prosthetic leg. My foster parents were freaked at first: I think they thought he was gonna want to sue them or something. Because he was American, and they’d heard Americans were big on the suing thing. So when he told them he just wanted to talk to me, they were kind of relieved. Which is why they let him, I think.” He gave a wry smile. “They fetched me out of my room and there we were, me and Zeff: sitting looking at each other. Him scowling, and me shitting my pants. Expecting a whole new round of being told I was a shitty worthless brat. Except, all he said, in fluent French, was, ‘Tell me, kid. Why were you hanging about down at the docks?’ I was so surprised, I just blurted out the truth: that I was trying to get onto a boat. So Zeff asked me, why? And all I could think of to say was, ‘I want to go out to sea, as far as I can get.’ Which was true enough.”
“What’d he say to that?”
“He laughed. Then said, ‘There’s easier ways to catch a boat, pipsqueak.’ ”
Zoro smiled at this. “So you didn’t get bawled out again, huh.”
“No. Which was totally weird. I kept expecting that at some point he was going to get down to it, give me hell about what had happened. While we were talking I kept taking sneaky looks at what was left of his leg, at the artificial one attached to his stump... I mean, I was a kid: that’s what kids do, right? Because it was right there in front of me, kind of fascinating and horrible and cool all at once. And then one time I’d been sneaking a good long stare at it, I looked up and he was watching me. And he didn’t look angry, or say anything. Just gazed back at me without saying a fucking word. Which is when it hit me like a ton of bricks. That for the rest of his life, Zeff was going to be walking on crutches, with a false leg: because of me.”
Zoro turned his head a little, so that he could see Sanji’s face. The chef had a distant expression, as if he was lost in his past. Zoro knew that feeling well enough himself. He wanted to bring Sanji back; but it felt like there was more story to tell. “It was an accident. Shit happens.”
Sanji let out a short sigh. “Yeah, right; thanks. Very fucking Zen.”
“Did Zeff blame you, for what happened?”
“No. Or if he did, he never said anything to me about it. But that doesn’t change anything.”
“You’d rather he hadn’t pushed you out of the way? That you’d been under that container when it came down?”
“Fuck. No. Of course not.” Sanji frowned.
Zoro gave a small smile. “Good.”
There were a few moments of quiet. Then Sanji spoke again, picking up his narrative. “Anyway... My foster parents did some energetic apologising on behalf of their crappy foster brat, me by this point being rendered pretty much mute with shame. Zeff just nodded, then got up on his crutches to go. But just as he was about to leave, he turned back and leaned over till his face was level with mine. Before growling, ‘We have unfinished business, you and me.’ Then he left.”
Zoro raised an eyebrow. “He was threatening you?”
“That’s what it sounded like. I nearly pissed myself... For a couple of weeks afterwards, I actually had nightmares about him stumping into my bedroom in the middle of the night with a cleaver, coming to chop my leg off in revenge.” Sanji shook his head. “But as it turned out, it wasn’t a threat, it was a promise. Because a month later my foster parents told me that Zeff wanted to adopt me. To which I first thought, What the fuck?! And about half a second later, Anywhere’s better than here. It took a while to sort out the paperwork, and Zeff visited pretty regularly after that, so we started getting to know each other. Truth be told I thought he was a crazy fucking old geezer, and I don’t suppose he was much impressed by me either. But it somehow worked. He wasn’t phased by me being a handful, and I kind of liked the fact that he didn’t take any shit. Plus he cooked the best food I’d ever tasted. Within two months I was transferred to his care, under supervision; then six months after that, I legally became his adopted kid.”
“Hmm.” Zoro nodded. “And then you came to the States.”
“Yeah, another few months down the line. Zeff wanted the hell out of France. ‘Can’t throw a rock here without hitting another goddamn chef,’ is how he put it. So we packed our bags and headed across the Atlantic. Zeff managed to set up his restaurant after chefing at other places for a year; I went through the whole fighting-at-school thing... But eventually things settled down.”
There was another pause. At last, Sanji turned his head: looked at the swordsman with a small smile. “So. That’s the sordid tale of how I wound up with Zeff as my old man. He lost half a leg, and gained a brat. Not exactly a fair exchange.”
Zoro met his gaze. “Sounds to me like he turned a bad situation into a good one. For both of you.”
“Well, I benefited: sure.” Sanji gave a slight shake of his head. “But Zeff... It wasn’t just losing his leg. He couldn’t work for months: and then when he was able to go back to being a chef, being disabled made it more difficult to get jobs. He never bitched about it, but I know it was hard. I think that’s why he decided to set up his own place, in the end. He had a big chunk of savings: he’d worked a good few years on those cruise liners and hadn’t had to spend much, living aboard ship. So he used that money to set up the Baratie.”
“And now you want to set up your own place, too. So that’s another reason he’ll want to help you with that: he’s been in that position himself.”
“No-one helped Zeff do that. He built up the Baratie with his own blood and sweat.”
“What is this, some kind of contest?” Zoro raised an eyebrow. “You need a bank loan to get your business up and running. For that you need a guarantor: and your old man is in a position to do that for you. Quit all the fucking soul searching and just ask him. The worst he can do is say no.”
Sanji’s eyes narrowed. “See, this is why I didn’t want to talk about all of this.”
“Because you know I’m right?”
“No, because you have no concept of just how much that shitty old geezer likes to make things difficult.”
“More difficult than having to find some other way of getting the money you need, to secure the lease on that unit you want?”
The chef gritted his teeth. And reluctantly said, after a second or two, “No.”
“Okay then.” Zoro grinned. “Find a way to convince him.”
Sanji slumped, letting out a groan. He slid down away from Zoro’s arm, lying flat on his back and pulling his pillow over his face. “I seriously would rather sell one of my kidneys. Is that legal?”
“Not in this country,” Zoro responded definitely.
Lifting one corner of the pillow up, Sanji regarded him. “Fuck. How about through the internet?”
“You’ve got a business plan, right? Show that to him. He runs his own business, he’ll take you seriously if you show him you’ve thought the whole thing through.”
“Have you read the work of fiction that is my business plan?” Sanji dropped the pillow back over his face again. “Shit. I wish I could just fast forward to the point where I’m cooking food and selling it.”
“Well, when you do get there it’ll all feel worth it,” Zoro suggested.
Sanji lifted the pillow away again. “Promise?”
Smiling, the swordsman leaned down and kissed the frowning face below him. “Well, the chances are pretty good, yeah.”
“Mmhh...” Sanji looked very slightly cheered at the thought, or possibly the kiss. “Well. Okay. As long as you promise me something else.”
“That when you finally experience just how monumentally annoying the shitty old geezer is to be around, you won’t complain. Or punch him.”
“You want me to promise not to punch your old man?”
“Given past observations of how you handle provocation, I think it’s not an unreasonable request.”
Zoro narrowed his eyes. “You’ve seen me get into one fight.”
“Yeah. With six people simultaneously.”
“Pfff...” Zoro gave a half shake of his head. “They were asking for it.”
“As will my old man. Repeatedly.”
“Do you actually want me to come with you?”
The chef’s eyes met his, quickly. “Yeah. I actually do.”
“Then I’ll come. And I’ll try to restrain my homicidal tendencies.” Zoro said this last part slightly sarcastically.
Sanji’s gaze searched his face for a few more seconds... Before the chef nodded. “Okay.”
Zoro regarded him. “Glad we’ve got that cleared up. Can we can go to sleep now?”
Sanji let out a snort. “You were the one insisted on talking.”
“Uh huh.” Zoro reached sideways and clicked off the lamp, before sliding down under the covers. He could just see the chef in the near-darkness: shifted slightly towards him and found his mouth with his own, exchanging a kiss. Felt the other man’s arm drift across and lay around his waist, fingers curling lightly against his ribs. Heard a single word quietly murmured.
Zoro said nothing in reply, but let his own arm rest on top of the one holding his waist. Shut his eyes and slid into sleep.
There are a few kendo terms in this chapter (most of which are already in the notes for I Like Your Friends):
Chudan no kamae = the basic defensive starting position where two kendōka stand facing each other with the tips of their bamboo shinai touching.
"Domo arigato gozaimashita" = a polite way of saying "Thank you very much" (kendo etiquette).
"Sei-retsu" = "Line up", i.e. kendōka should stop sparring and form up in an orderly line.
...And the smut in this chapter has bumped up the rating (like you didn't see that one coming). The fic writer's life is a tough one. Heh. *stuffs tissue up nostrils*
Chapter 3: Begin It
After a longish pause, Zoro’s voice reached him again, from the phone resting against his ear. “You still with me, cook... Or have you fallen asleep?”
“That’s your talent.” Sanji shut his eyes. Which, in truth, felt heavy enough that sleep was an attractive prospect.
“Not right at this moment.”
“Sorry. I was just kind of wound up after reading Zeff's email... Ah, fuck it.” Sanji sighed heavily. “Late night phone calls: never a good idea.”
“That depends.” Zoro surprisingly broke into a low chuckle. “Are you in bed?”
“Well, yeah...” Sanji’s eyes opened again, wide. “Oh. You total fucking pervert.”
“Phone sex not your thing?”
Feeling a smile come to his own face, Sanji imagined Zoro lying in his own bed. “I didn’t say that. What are you wearing?”
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute –
What you can do, or dream you can, begin it,
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
- John Anster
(inspired by the works of Goethe)
The following Wednesday Sanji made sure he got away from work on time, racing through clean-up and changing out of his whites before heading out of the hotel and onto the street. It was only a short bus ride to the part of town where the college was located: he got off at a stop that seemed nearest to the café Usopp had suggested they meet at, lighting a cigarette as soon as he got onto the sidewalk.
He hadn’t been walking more than ten minutes before the frontage of Café Chameleon came into view between a liquor store and a discount mobile phone outlet, its windows busy with a collage of flyers and posters for local bands and music club nights. A chameleon painted tribal-style in red, yellow and green occupied the sign above the window, the café’s name hand-lettered across it.
Sanji dropped his cigarette and trod on it, pushed the door open and headed inside. The café was evidently popular with students, judging by the look of the customers. He crossed to the counter at one side of the room, where a tall fine-featured African-American youth was finishing writing on a chalkboard titled Today’s Specials. The young man registered his arrival and laid his piece of chalk aside, brushing dust from his fingertips: Sanji gave him a smile. “Hi... Can I get an espresso?”
“No problem.” The man’s voice was rich and low, with an accent that Sanji couldn’t place exactly. “Would you like anything else with that?”
“In a while, yeah; I’m meeting someone, we’ll order food when he gets here. Have you got a menu we can look at?”
The man picked up a laminated card from the counter and slid it over. “Today’s specials are on the board, as well.”
“Thanks.” Sanji waited for his coffee, then took it over to a table near the window. Idly he ran his gaze over some of the music flyers there. Dub The Earth plus Jah Collective, Reggae Fusion beats 8 Till Late. Tropical Soundclash Dance Nite: Afrofunk Experience & Mighty Mendez!!
It wasn’t long before the café door opened again, admitting Usopp. Swathed in a thick coat, multicoloured woolly hat and a scarf of serpentine proportions, he spotted Sanji straight away and headed over to him with a grin. “Hey, you found it okay! Cool.” He dumped his bulky backpack onto the chair opposite Sanji, propped a large portfolio against the neighbouring table, and began unwinding yards of scarf. “Wow, it’s cold out there. How are you, man?”
“Good, thanks.” Sanji smiled as Usopp gradually emerged from his insulating layers, taking the hand that the other man extended towards him with a friendly shake. “How about you?”
“Tingling with creative anticipation to get to work on your project,” Usopp proclaimed, piling his discarded outer clothing on the back of his chair.
“Great. You want to eat first, or get the business side of things done?”
“I am a creative genius and can eat and work simultaneously,” Usopp stated. “Plus, they take forever to cook your food here. It’s good, but they don’t exactly hit light speed serving you, if y’know what I mean. Let’s order, then we can make a start. You like soup?”
“Well; yeah.” Sanji glanced towards the counter. “I was gonna check out the Specials board...”
“I can entirely recommend the Pepper Soup, with a side of Cajun fries,” Usopp said authoritatively. “If you like spicy.”
“Sounds good.” Sanji smiled.
“Leave it to me.” Usopp raised a confident finger. “Two Usopp Winter Warmer Menu Specials coming right up.”
“Great. And I’m paying for this, right?” Sanji took out a twenty and held it out.
“Whatever you say. You’re the boss.” Usopp took the cash with a cheerful salute.
Sanji watched the lanky artist approach the counter: greet the man behind it with another enthusiastic handshake and hello; make their order, then wend his way back to their table, clutching his own mug of coffee and the chef’s change. “Okay, done. Now just the tantalisingly exciting wait for our food to arrive.” Usopp sat down and took a gulp of his coffee, then sucked air over his tongue. “Mmoww... Whoa. That hits the spot.”
“You know the guy at the counter?”
“Kulmiye? Just to talk with, y’know. I come here sometimes, when I’m in the neighbourhood. It’s a cool place; they have good live music nights, most weekends.”
“Kulmiye? What is that, an Ethiopian name?”
“Somali.” Usopp sipped his coffee more carefully. “He plays and sings, as well as working behind the counter. You oughta come down one weekend, check it out.”
“Yeah... Maybe I will, when I’ve got a free evening.” Sanji liked the sound of it. “Might not be for a while, though. I’m pretty busy right now.”
“Uh huh. Setting up your new business.” Usopp nodded. “I’ll bet you’ve got a ton of things to sort out.”
“You are not kidding.” Sanji grimaced. “I’m looking forward to the point when I can just do it. Getting set up is turning out to be a hell of a lot more complicated than I ever imagined. You wouldn’t believe the fucking paperwork involved in trying to start a business selling food to people. If I didn’t really want to do this, I’d have given up by now.”
“I feel your pain.” Usopp nodded solemnly. “And if I knew shit about that kind of stuff I would be offering you sage advice at this point. But as I don’t, I can only wish you good luck. How are you funding the whole thing?”
“Bank loan. Hypothetically.” Sanji gave a half shake of his head. “That’s a work in progress. Don’t ask me for any details, please.”
“Understood. At the risk of sounding repetitive, good luck with that.” Usopp nodded sympathetically.
“So, let’s assume little details like money are forthcoming: tell me about it. The whole business idea; what you want to do.”
“You want all my fevered imaginings, or the thirty-second summary?”
“Fevered imaginings, definitely.” Usopp said this decisively. “The wilder the better.”
After two hours, generous bowlfuls of spicy soup, much talking and a lot of furious scribbling in an oversized notebook by Usopp later, they had agreed on a way forward. Sanji found working with the artist unexpectedly easy. Usopp seemed to have an almost telepathic ability to understand from his tentative descriptions what kind of thing he wanted... And an even more impressive talent for translating that into possible artwork. As Usopp’s pen flew across the page, rough-sketching out their ideas, for the first time Sanji saw Bite Me taking actual physical reality. His hopes coming into being.
At last, Usopp made a final few notes on a page; parked his pen behind his ear, and closed the notebook. “Eh... Great. I think that’s all I need. You want me to Dropbox a first draft of the designs to you when I’ve worked them up? I should be able to get them done by the end of next week.”
“That would be fantastic. Are you sure you’re okay with the money?”
“Absolutely.” Usopp nodded.
“It’s a hell of a lot less than I’d be paying anyone else... Which I feel crap about.”
Usopp spread one hand over his heart. “It is my absolute pleasure to support a fellow creative genius. The money is fine. And if it so happens that I’m passing by your flourishing eatery on occasion and you felt moved to offer me the occasional freebie, I could live with that.”
Sanji laughed. “You got it. Consider your meal ticket booked.”
The artist beamed. “Awesome.”
Sanji gathered up the various scrawled notes and pieces of paper he’d brought with him to facilitate the design process, before sliding them away into his shoulder bag. “Seriously, though: I appreciate this big time. Thank you so much.”
“Ahh, no problem. Like I said, it’s an interesting challenge. I just hope I can give you what you want.”
“Having seen your other artwork already, I’m pretty sure I’ll like the end result. Your stuff is great.”
Usopp gave a half-embarrassed grin. “Modesty obliges me to say, You’re too kind. But my inner child is leaping up and down and yelling, Yay, a fan!” He picked up his notebook and put it into his backpack. “It’s always great to get feedback. S’the only downside about working at art for a living, it’s kinda lonesome sometimes. Too much slaving away alone at home over a graphics package into the small hours. Sometimes I go a little stir crazy. That’s part of the reason I take a college class when I can... Not just to get better technique, but being able to hang out with other artists, y’know?”
Sanji nodded. “I get that. What class were you at today?”
“Life drawing. Which is always a trip. We’ve got a great tutor, she really makes us push our limits, try out different things. And the college gets some interesting life models, a real variety of body types.”
“You only do the one class?”
“Right now, yeah. That’s what I can afford.” Usopp gestured with one hand. “But, that’s okay. I keep busy. Working on new designs and updates for Going Merry, knocking out flyers for local bands, doing a bit of website work... S’all good. And if I want to goof off for a day or three and go paint a piece somewhere, I can do that. I’ve even done sidewalk art, y’know, for money. You can do okay at that if you pick a good spot, and the cops don’t move you on.”
It sounded like an eclectic mix; but an interesting one. Sanji propped one elbow on the table. “You always lived here, in this city?”
“Born and bred.” Usopp nodded. “You?”
“No... I moved here a few years back. I like it here, though.”
“You move here to work? Or did you go to college here?”
“Work. I used to chef at L'Escargot Blanc.” At Usopp’s questioning look, Sanji gave a half-shake of his head. “An upmarket restaurant, other end of town.”
“You don’t work there any more?”
“A world of no.” Sanji winced slightly. “We didn’t part on good terms. Ever since I left there, I’ve been doing temping, crappy catering work... Which is why I decided to set up my own business. I was losing the will to live, working one dead-end cooking gig after another.”
“Yeah, temping sucks,” Usopp sympathised. “I worked in a call centre when I was short of cash, for a while... Till I got fired for talking too much to customers.”
“I’m still doing it for the time being. I need the money. But the day I walk away from it can’t come soon enough.”
“All power to you, man.” Usopp saluted him with a lifted coffee mug. “Life is short. Carpe diem: kill the fish.”
Sanji leaned back in his chair, letting out a sigh. “Yeah. I just hope all this works out. I keep having serious doubts. Usually around one o’clock in the morning.”
“Visualise yourself in your shiny new business premises, serving queues of eager customers lured in by the delectable smell of your cooking and the visual feast of my artwork.”
“I’ll give that a try.”
“Seriously, dude: after eating that breakfast you cooked for us a few weekends back, I’m willing to bet that any catering business you set up is gonna be a hit. And Zoro doesn’t exactly wax lyrical about anything unrelated to kendo; but the way he talks about your cooking, it makes me want to sleep with you.”
Sanji found this an unexpected notion. “Zoro talks about my cooking?”
“Amongst other things.” Usopp grinned.
What other things, Sanji wasn’t sure he was prepared to hear about in a public space. “Uh... okay.”
“All of it good,” Usopp assured him. “Zoro is my friend, so I feel qualified to say that the guy is the king of the stoic monosyllable; but those of us who know him well detect distinct signs of blossoming of actual human emotions of the positive sort. For which I feel moved to say, about fucking time.”
Sanji didn’t entirely know how to respond to this. “Well... Good.”
“Yeah. It really is.” Usopp nodded emphatically. “Zoro takes life way too seriously. It’s about time he had something to feel good about, apart from obsessing over reaching the heights of kendo. And as a lover not a fighter, I absolutely approve. Which I realise is an intrusion on your privacy, but hey: we’re all indecently interested in the budding romance between you two. Except Luffy... He’s definitely more interested in how much food he can persuade you to cook for him.” He regarded the chef with a sheepish grin. “This concludes Usopp’s Public Service Announcement. Feel free to tell me to mind my own goddamn business. And be assured that my insatiable nosiness about other people’s love lives is absolutely a result of the tragic absence of any current action on that score in my own.”
Sanji found himself unable to stop an answering smile coming to his own face. “Duly noted.”
“I have a worrying sense that you may now be wondering if asking me to do this design work for you was a huge mistake.” Usopp suddenly assumed a serious expression. “In which case, ignore my extremely unprofessional ramblings. I’ll get the job done.”
“I wasn’t worried about that... And as for me and Zoro... Thanks for the feedback.” Sanji felt a slight self-consciousness, but liked hearing what Usopp had said. Liked too that the other man cared enough about Zoro to have said it.
“Ehh, well...” Usopp replied, looking somewhat self-conscious himself.
There were a few moments of silence, until Sanji shifted them onto slightly easier ground. “How did you and Zoro get to be friends in the first place?”
Usopp grinned. “Luffy.”
Sanji somehow wasn’t surprised. The skinny artist gave a nod. “I was at a party, trying to pitch some serious woo to this Amazon goddess, and Luffy kept interrupting me to tell me all about his latest adventures with Ace’s crew; and finally the Amazon goddess escaped, and I was forced to give Luffy my undivided attention. At which point he dragged me into the middle of a drinking contest with him, his brother and this worryingly muscular guy with a scary frown and an even scarier ability to sink alcohol. I was like, Oh shit, what have I got myself into... But Luffy has this way of making really crazy ideas seem like the logical thing to do. At the time.” Usopp closed one eye in thoughtful memory. “Anyway. I woke up on a strange couch the next day, minus my shirt and with an overwhelming desire to avoid anything alcoholic for the rest of my life. Luffy was snoring on the floor nearby, and Ace was puking in the bathroom. The only one of us in better shape than the night before was the guy with the frown. That was Zoro.”
“I can believe it.” Sanji smiled wryly, remembering New Year’s Eve.
“I remember thinking it was unfairness of epic proportions, that someone could get so wasted – I mean, he got tanked, we all did – and not feel like the walking dead the next morning. Like, who was this fearsome freak of nature?” Usopp shook his head. “But Luffy eventually woke up and started telling jokes, and Zoro actually laughed... And that’s when I saw a different side of him. What Luffy saw, I guess. That behind that scary frown, there was a whole ‘nother person.”
Sanji nodded slowly, remembering again his initial encounter with Zoro on New Year’s Eve. How the swordsman had given off that dangerous vibe, that hard edge. Then later on that night, after they’d been talking: when Zoro had smiled, how it had transformed his face. “...Yeah.”
Usopp looked at him. “I know it might seem kind of crazy, those two being friends and roomies. Luffy’s the go-to guy for random impulses, while Zoro’s got this whole focus-on-the goal vibe... But they are really solid.”
“Mm. I picked up on that,” Sanji noted.
“I guess they do have some things in common,” Usopp mused. “Like, both of them are pretty unstoppable when they’re set on doing something. And they’re tough as fuck: I mean, Luffy may not look like a contender, but he’s pretty strong. And they both care about stuff, get involved in all kinds of lost causes. Which is cool.”
“Does Luffy do any actual work?” Sanji was curious about this. “Other than gaming?”
Usopp grinned. “Yeah, from time to time he does things. Whatever takes his fancy. Casual work; labouring, construction, stuff like that. Jobs he does for a while and then he gets bored and just doesn’t show up the next day.” His grin spread wider. “He worked as a strippergram once.”
“Really?” Sanji laughed. “That must’ve been memorable.”
“No kidding... I don’t think he got the whole stripping-is-about-looking-sexy thing, at all. He just thought it would be fun to dress up in costumes and go to parties. Ace got him that gig, but I’m pretty sure even he didn’t realise how monumentally clueless Luffy would be.”
“I’ve yet to meet his brother. What’s Ace like?”
“He’s a nice guy. Really into performance stuff: he does this awesome fireshow, acro and fire juggling, you ought to catch it sometime.”
“That’s an unusual way to make a living.”
“Well, that’s something he and Luffy have in common: they’re both a little out there.” Usopp lifted his eyebrows slightly. “But Ace is a bit more grounded. I guess he has to be, being the big brother.”
“I’ll look forward to meeting him. Did they grow up here as well?”
“No... Think they were raised Midwest somewhere. Their grandfather brought them up, after their folks got killed in an auto accident.” Usopp paused. “Well, I say he brought ‘em up... Ace told me that as soon as they were old enough, their granddad actually packed them off to military school.”
Sanji blinked. “You’re fucking kidding me. Luffy went to military school?”
Usopp nodded. “Yup. Him and Ace both. For a little while, anyway.”
“He’s not exactly an advertisement for military discipline.”
“Yeah. I think it didn’t take.” Usopp grinned. “Or with Ace, neither.”
Sanji considered this for a moment. “Huh... That is something I’d never have figured out about Luffy. Not in a million years.”
“Welcome to the rollercoaster ride that is being Luffy’s friend.” Usopp nodded, still grinning. “It’s a trip, but hold on to your hat.”
They talked for a little while after that, about art and music and the local scene, while outside the afternoon faded into the darkness of evening. It was easy talking with Usopp, but when Sanji eventually checked the time on his phone he saw he needed to head for home. “Shit, it’s almost seven o’clock. I better make a move... I’ll probably have a bunch of emails to deal with before I get ready for work tomorrow. But it’s been great hanging out with you.”
“Likewise, dude.” Usopp shook his hand. “I’ll get those draft designs to you soonest.”
“Thanks. It’s really good to get going on this. Makes the whole thing seem more real.”
“Keep telling yourself that, when you have those doubts at one in the A.M.,” Usopp advised him cheerfully.
“I will. See you soon, Usopp.”
Returning to the quiet of his apartment felt like something of a comedown after the lively warmth of the café and buzz of discussing ideas with Usopp. Sanji flicked on the lights; made himself a coffee and settled down at his desk, switching on his laptop.
There were several new emails relating to Bite Me, including one from the bank. He opened that one first: a brief message with attached documents, forms he would need to get a guarantor to fill in and sign in order to process his loan application.
He opened the documents up and switched on his wireless printer. Watched the sheets of paper whirr out, page after page of boxes and questions demanding financial information, proof of income, details of assets.
Zeff is going to fucking love me presenting him with these.
Doggedly he printed off two copies of everything, before sliding them into a manila envelope and adding them to the folder sitting on the edge of his desk with BANK STUFF written on it, ready to be put in the bag he was taking for the weekend.
The next email was from Nami, confirming that she’d finished the basic set-up on his website, and asking him if he’d made any progress with finding a designer. That at least was easier to answer, and Sanji typed in an affirmative, adding a brief description of Usopp and his own good feelings about securing the artist’s services.
Then there were a dozen replies from various suppliers, food wholesalers and kitchen hardware outlets, sending him prices and information he’d requested. Or not, in some cases. He worked through them methodically, entering the figures on a spreadsheet he’d started to help work out the best use of his limited budget.
It was late before he’d finished the last of these. He was about to close his emails down when he noticed a new message had landed in his Inbox, even as he was moving the mouse to click on SIGN OUT.
from: Crap Geezer <email@example.com>
to: Little Eggplant <firstname.lastname@example.org>
subject: This weekend
Sanji looked at the heading, and sighed. His mouse still hovered over the signing out button – then he resolutely moved it onto the email and clicked it open. Started to read.
‘Ok, kid. Have received your business plan and read it. It’s a real page-turner. Thanks for sending the financials too, I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately but they did the trick.’
Sanji scowled at the screen.
‘Your plan paints the big picture in nice cheerful colours but seems somewhat lacking in finer detail. We can talk about that when you get here. I’ve organised the Baratie to tick over without me on Sunday, hopefully those dimwits in my kitchen won’t burn the place down. Should give us enough time to work things out.’
Sanji found his hands curling into tight fists as they rested on the desk. Made himself keep reading.
‘It’s fine to bring your boyfriend with you. You say he works in a gym: if he’s on the Paleo Diet or any weird shit like that you better warn him to bring his own food, I’m not fixing anything fancy out of nuts and roots or whatever the hell the latest fad is. I look forward to meeting him. Even with a weird name like ‘Zoro’.
Not gonna ramble on any more, grabbed a few minutes out of dinner service at Baratie to email this, so we can catch up when you get here. It’s good to see you getting your act together at long last, brat. Not before time.
See you at the weekend,
- Zeff ’
Sanji slowly clicked off the email; then on SIGN OUT . Shut down his browser, before closing his laptop. Then carefully propped his elbows on the desk and bent his head down, resting his face in his hands. “Rrrghh...”
After a minute or so, he straightened up again. Got up from his desk, switching off the lamp there; walked through to the kitchen and deposited his coffee cup in the sink, then headed for the bathroom.
The warm water of the shower sluiced some of the tension away. Afterwards he towelled his hair dry and cleaned his teeth; then made his way to the bedroom, diverting en route to retrieve his phone. He checked his alarm clock was set for five A.M., before getting into bed. Wriggled partially under the covers, before scrolling to Zoro’s number in his contacts. Hesitated only for a moment, before hitting CALL.
The number rang several times before being picked up. “...Hey, cook.”
“Hi... Sorry for ringing this late.”
“No problem.” There was a sound of something rustling. Presumably bedclothes: the swordsman was, like Sanji, probably already in bed. “You okay?”
“Is that ‘Yeah’ as in ‘No’?”
“I’m all right.” Sanji let out a breath. “I just got an email from my old man about the weekend.”
“Uh huh.” Zoro’s response sounded unworried.
“He’s taking the day off work on Sunday, so he and I can talk through my business plan. Focus on the finer details.” Sanji found his hand clenching on his phone.
“Well... I guess he wants to know all about it. As he’s going to be signing his name to some of the paperwork.”
“There’s a pretty big fucking question mark over that, at this point.”
“That’s what he said?”
“No, but he wasn’t impressed by my business plan. I can tell.”
“Maybe you’re reading too much into an email.”
“And he thinks your name is weird.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. Zoro’s reply, when it came, was in carefully neutral tones. “Wow. I am really looking forward to meeting him.”
“There’s still time to back out.”
“I’ve booked the time off work.”
“Let’s just go away for the weekend and stay in a motel somewhere. We can order in room service.”
“Tempting, but nope. Just get this done. Soon as you’ve got this guarantor thing sorted you can go ahead and get your bank loan, and then sign off on the lease for your premises.”
“I know. I’m doing it.” Sanji stared up at the ceiling.
After a longish pause, Zoro’s voice sounded in his ear again. “You still with me, cook... Or have you fallen asleep?”
“That’s your talent.” Sanji shut his eyes. Which, in truth, felt heavy enough that sleep was an attractive prospect.
“Not right at this moment.”
“Sorry. I was just kind of wound up after reading his email... Ah, fuck it.” Sanji sighed heavily. “Late night phone calls: never a good idea.”
“That depends.” Zoro surprisingly broke into a low chuckle. “Are you in bed?”
“Well, yeah...” Sanji’s eyes opened again, wide. “Oh. You total fucking pervert.”
“Phone sex not your thing?”
Feeling a smile come to his own face, Sanji imagined Zoro lying in his own bed. “I didn’t say that. What are you wearing?”
“Nothing. I’m in bed, cook.”
“Yeah well; knowing the temperature of your apartment, most normal people would be wearing thermals.”
“You are such a wuss.”
“Because I actually enjoy being warm? Hmm, yeah: I can see how that would reflect poorly on my masculinity. Oh no, wait a moment: fuck you, dumbass.”
“Yeah? Like, how? Gonna need more details for this to work.”
“Conjure up your own sexual fantasies. I’ve got to get up for work in less than six hours, I need to get some sleep.”
“Should’ve thought of that before you phoned me.”
Sanji smiled up at the ceiling. “Maybe. Oh, I forgot to mention, one good thing: I had a really productive meeting with Usopp this afternoon.”
“Okay, phone sex is definitely off the agenda. I just got a total soft-on.”
“Sorry to harsh your buzz. Can you please focus?”
“It’s night time, shit cook. I was focussing on the inside of my eyelids until you rang me.”
“I’m trying to thank you, moss-head. Drop the attitude.”
“What am I being thanked for, again?”
“Your idea of asking Usopp to help me with the design work. He’s going to do it, and for a price I can afford. And I think he’s going to do a great job.”
“He’s a really nice guy, too.”
“Yeah, Usopp’s cool.”
“He was telling me about how you and he met.”
“Mm?” Zoro sounded slightly cautious.
“At a party during a drinking contest. Unsurprisingly.”
“Yeah? He’s got a good memory.”
“And he talked a bit about Luffy, too. About him and his brother going to military school. That I would never have guessed.”
“That’s Luffy for you... Full of surprises.”
Sanji let his eyes gently close again. Feeling sleep finally starting to catch up with him. “Yeah. So... How was your day?”
“Busy. Still a lot of newbies wanting introductory personal trainer sessions, which means I have to start at seven A.M. because they always want to fit them in before they head off to work. Then I was teaching classes this evening till eight.”
“Sounds like a long day. Do you get any time in between classes to do any fitness stuff yourself?”
“Yeah, sometimes. We pretty much get free run of the place if we’ve got a slot free. Mostly I just do weights and cardio.”
“You ever go running?”
“Uh huh... When I get the time for it. Mostly on my days off, while work’s this busy.”
“Maybe we could go running together sometime. I kind of got out of the habit over the winter... But I’ve been out a few times recently, it felt good.”
“Sure, I’m up for that.”
“Okay. Let’s do that sometime soon.” Sanji felt a yawn working its way out: tried to smother it, unsuccessfully. “Whuhhh...ahh. Mm, sorry.”
“Maybe we both ought to get some sleep.”
“Absolutely.” Another yawn overwhelmed him, and Sanji rubbed one hand over his face. “Uh. So, you’re okay to meet me at the station, Saturday at nine?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there. By the central stairway, right?”
“Mm-hm. Don’t be late. If we miss our train it’ll cost extra to change our tickets.”
“Don’t worry, cook. I can read a watch.”
“Yeah, but you can’t read a map. Are you catching a bus to the station?”
“Go to fucking sleep.”
“Right.” Sanji found himself smiling at the swordsman’s only mildly irritable tone. “And sweet dreams to you too.”
“See you Saturday. And quit worrying. Things’ll work out.”
“Yeah.” Sanji decided that going along with this thought was actually the best option. Especially in the middle of the night. “I’ll see you then.”
“G’night.” Zoro’s voice reached him; the phone close against ear. Almost as if the other man was there.
“G’night.” Sanji answered quietly, before pressing his thumb against his phone to end the call. Opened his eyes just long enough to lean over and place his phone on the nightstand, clicking off the light; before huddling down under the quilt and embracing sleep.
Chapter 4: Where It's At
“Hmm.” Zeff’s grunt was neither a rebuttal nor agreement. “You still smoking all those damn cigarettes?”
“Yeah. And I don’t plan on quitting any time soon, so we can skip that conversation.”
“Tchh.” Zeff gave a short shake of his head. “You’ll never be a good chef if you fill your mouth up with tar from those stinking things.”
“Let’s agree to disagree on that one, crap geezer.” Sanji felt the muscles in his shoulders starting to tighten: made himself release the tension, with an effort. “Don’t start in on me the minute I walk through the door, you old fart. I haven’t seen you in over a year.”
“And whose fault’s that?”
I'm bugged at my old man
And he doesn't even know where it's at
- The Beach Boys
When Saturday morning came around Zoro made sure he got up early, to catch the bus that would take him to the station in plenty of time to meet Sanji at the hour they’d arranged. It wasn’t a problem – he often had to get up earlier for work – but he packed his bag the night before, so that all he had to do on the day was shower and eat breakfast before heading out.
Luffy was unexpectedly up too, sitting on the couch spooning multicoloured cereal into his mouth from an almost overflowing bowl. He looked bleary-eyed, and blinked at Zoro when the swordsman walked in. “...Nnhh.”
“Morning to you too.” Zoro sat down with his mug of coffee and a banana, not being a fan of anything cereal-related. “What time did you hit the sack?”
Luffy considered for a moment, then shook his head. “Dunno... Three?”
“Idiot.” Zoro peeled his banana and bit off a mouthful. “No wonder you’re spaced-out.”
“Was busy,” Luffy explained. “Got into a really good combat scenario on Going Merry, no way was I gonna go offline before it was done.”
“Uh huh. You ever think you might be spending too much time playing that lame-ass game?”
“Nope.” Luffy grinned unrepentantly.
“When’s the last time you did some actual work? Like, a day job that resulted in you getting paid at the end of it?”
Considering for a moment, Luffy paused with his spoon halfway to his mouth. “Eh... Three weeks ago? Giving out those flyers for that new fried chicken eatery downtown.”
Zoro snorted. “That lasted all of a week.”
“It got boring. Though wearing the chicken costume was cool.” Luffy popped the heaped spoonful of cereal into his mouth. “Are you working this weekend? Ace told me there’s a party happening tonight.”
Zoro finished his banana, and picked up his mug of coffee: took a large swallow. “I’m not around. I told you the other day, remember? I’m going to visit Sanji’s old man with him, we’ll be gone till Monday sometime.”
“Oh?” Luffy scratched his head. “I forgot. You’ll miss the party.”
“There’ll be other parties.” Zoro took another mouthful of coffee. “Speaking of which... It’s gonna be Sanji’s birthday next week. We’re gonna celebrate it with a night out, and he asked me to invite you. Usopp’s invited too.”
“Sanji’s having a birthday party? That’s cool!” Luffy brightened up. “When is it?”
“Next Saturday. Don’t know where yet, his friend Nami’s arranging it all... She said she was gonna call me and let me know the details.”
“Ahh, that’s great! Can Ace come?”
“Don’t see why not. Tell him when you see him. Marco too, if he’s around. I don’t s’pose Sanji’ll mind a few more people coming along.”
“Is there gonna be birthday cake?”
“Yeah.” Zoro remembered Sanji’s insistence on that point, and smiled. “From some fancy French bakery. Nami’s organised that as well.”
Luffy chased up the last of his cereal with his spoon; then picked up the bowl and upended it over his face, draining the remains of the milk that remained. Smacking his lips, he put the bowl on the table. “Yum.”
“Sure you didn’t miss a bit?” Zoro regarded his friend amusedly.
“No... I don’t think so.” Luffy inspected his empty bowl with a slight frown.
Zoro gave a half-shake of his head, before lifting his coffee mug and draining it. Then checked his watch. “I gotta go.” He stood and took his empty mug and banana peel through to the kitchen, before returning to the other room. Luffy had slid slightly more horizontal on the couch now, looking as though he might lapse back into sleep. “See you sometime Monday.”
Luffy twisted his head to look up at him. “Say hi to Sanji from me. And have a good trip.”
“Yeah. It’s definitely gonna be an interesting one.” Zoro bent down and picked up his bag. “Don’t forget to tell Ace about Sanji’s birthday shindig next weekend.”
“I won’t!” Luffy folded his arms behind his head.
“And stay out of trouble.”
Widening his eyes, Luffy let out a scornful noise. “Ehhh... That’d be no fun.”
Zoro caught the bus without any trouble and was at the railway station with plenty of time to spare. It took him a few minutes to locate the staircase they’d agreed to meet at – the centre of the station proving harder to track down than it ought to have been – and when he approached it the chef was already standing there, phone in hand. He looked up as Zoro approached, looking relieved. “I was just going to call you.”
“I’m not late.” Zoro looked pointedly at the station clock: it read five minutes to nine.
Sanji nodded, slightly distractedly. “Okay. Shall we head to the platform? I think the train’s due any minute.”
“It’s not due to leave till quarter past,” Zoro reminded him. “And: hi.”
Sanji visibly checked himself, and managed to smile at him. “Sorry. Hi.” Leaned forward and kissed the swordsman, his hand resting on his shoulder.
Zoro returned the kiss, his own hand coming up to rest on the chef’s waist. As they drew apart Sanji gave him another apologetic smile. “Just kind of preoccupied, thinking about how this is likely to play out.”
“Uh huh.” Zoro hitched the strap of his bag more comfortably over his shoulder. “You gonna be this antsy all weekend?”
Sanji’s eyes narrowed. “If you want me to shoot for irritable, I can easily crank it up a notch.”
“Don’t bother.” Zoro gestured with his thumb towards the station departures board. “Which platform are we aiming for?”
“Eleven. You can follow me.”
They made it to their platform with plenty of time to spare: boarded the train and found seats. Zoro took out a bottle of water and a book to read from his bag. Sitting down opposite the chef he watched him put his phone, a folder of paperwork, and an A4 notepad and pen on the table between them. Sanji took what looked like a printed spreadsheet out of the folder and picked up his phone, frowning slightly at the screen as he keyed something in. Zoro regarded him for about a minute, then said mildly, “Want me to go sit somewhere else?”
Sanji looked up. “Uh?”
Zoro gestured at the paperwork. “You look like you’re dug in for the duration.”
The chef also looked down at the printed paper beneath his hand; then back to Zoro. “Just double-checking some of my financials. I want to make sure I’m prepared for whatever that crappy old geezer throws at me.”
“Right.” Zoro gave the paperwork a look. “You don’t figure you might be over-thinking this?”
Sanji met his gaze. “I’m not giving him any excuse for telling me I’ve gone into this half-assed. If he wants finer details, I’m going to show him fine fucking details.”
“I don’t think he’s going to want more details than you already put together for the bank. You did a business plan, right? Which he’s already seen.”
“And he’s already picking holes in,” Sanji answered with a set jaw.
“Just because he wants to know more about your business idea, doesn’t mean he thinks it won’t work.”
“Maybe. I just want to be ready for whatever objections he’s going to sling at me. I know him: he always thinks he knows best. He’s been a chef since the Jurassic Age, he’s got way more experience and knowledge of the industry, he’s always known more about it than me and he always will, yada yada yada...” Sanji drummed the fingers of one hand on the table. “Basically, he will have about a hundred things to say about how I could do this differently. Better. Because that is how Zeff is.”
Zoro regarded him levelly for a moment... Then shrugged. “Well, if that’s how it is, then it doesn’t really matter how much preparation you do, does it? If it comes down to you having to convince your old man that you’re a competent professional adult... That’s something he’s either going to buy, or he isn’t.”
“Is this you being encouraging, or just you being annoyingly fucking Zen again?”
“This is me trying to make the point that maybe this isn’t about the finer details of your business plan. Maybe it’s more about how you and your old man relate to each other.”
“Sorry, did you just use the phrase ‘relate to each other’?” Sanji raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to tell me next that I need to connect with my inner child?”
“No, I’m pretty sure you’ve got that covered.” Zoro couldn’t stop himself smirking at the chef.
“Relate to this.” Sanji gave him the finger.
Still grinning, Zoro leaned back in his seat. “Definitely got it covered.”
The chef gave him a look from under lowered brows... Then also let himself sit back, letting out a sigh. “You know, this is kind of a stressful trip. It would be nice if you could help, by not being such a pain in the ass.”
“You said you wanted distracting. Remember?”
“There’s a fine line between distraction and provocation, craphead. Evidently too fine for your mossy brain to differentiate between.”
Zoro grunted. “Whatever. I’ll quit trying to be helpful.”
Sanji raised one eyebrow, then turned his gaze back to his spreadsheet and notepad. The swordsman watched him for a while... Then picked up his book, opened it and settled down to read.
The train was a fast one, stopping only at major stations; as the journey progressed, the seats around them filled up with other passengers. The chef appeared to be engrossed in his preparations to do battle with Zeff: occasionally scribbling notes on his pad, a slight frown of concentration coming and going on his face.
Zoro alternately read his book and gazed out of the window, watching countryside and urban areas sweep by. Travelling to kendo tournaments by rail was a frequent enough occurrence for him that this journey felt routine: as the familiar rhythms of the train blended with the blur of passing scenery, he found himself lulled into relaxation.
A nudge of a foot against his own brought him back to full awareness: he lifted his head from where it had come to rest against the window frame. “...Mwuh..?”
“Your ability to sleep is awe-inspiring.” The chef was grinning at him across the table.
Zoro blinked. “I wasn’t asleep.”
“The hell you weren’t. You were snoring.”
“Bullshit.” Zoro looked down at his book in his lap, which he could’ve sworn he’d had open in front of him only a minute ago. “I was just reading.”
“Through your eyelids? That’s impressive.” Sanji tapped the watch on his wrist. “You’ve been asleep at least an hour.”
Zoro wasn’t going to admit to that, although it would explain why his neck felt stiff. “Time s’it?”
“Coming up to midday. I was going to get a coffee: you want me to bring one back for you too?”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Zoro rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, letting out a slight yawn. “Shit... Nearly lunchtime? Maybe bring back some food, too. They must have sandwiches or something.”
Sanji let out a snort. “I’m not eating the kind of crap they serve in train café cars. I’ll get coffee.”
Zoro looked at him. “I don’t care if it’s not five star food, cook: I’m hungry.”
“Don’t worry. I brought lunch for both of us.” Sanji stood up. “Back in five.” And with that he sauntered away down the aisle.
When the chef returned he was carrying two cups of coffee and a wad of paper napkins. “Caffeine that’s hot, which is probably the best you can say about it.” He set both cups on the table, before sitting down and taking his bag off the seat next to him and opening one of its pockets. “Here.” He took out a paper sandwich bag that was neatly folded around the food inside, and held it out. “Roasted vegetables and chicken okay?”
“Sounds great.” Zoro took the bag and unfolded the top, looking inside. A couple of generous rounds of what looked like bread with more seeds in it than was strictly necessary, well stuffed with filling, greeted him. He fished them out, nodding at Sanji. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Sanji had taken out his own package, and was unwrapping his sandwiches too. “There’s fruit too. You like apples or tangerines?”
Zoro smiled. “Either.” He took a bite of one of his sandwiches: the salty-sweet flavour of roasted peppers and other vegetables mixed with tender chicken that had obviously been seasoned with something with a slight kick. Even the stupid amounts of lettuce that the chef had somehow felt obligated to shove in the sandwich as well, didn’t take away from the fact that it tasted really damn good.
His eye fell on the table. Evidently at some point Sanji had finished his number-crunching: the paperwork had been cleared away. “You figure out everything you needed to, before you talk stuff over with your old man?”
“Mhmm.” Sanji gave a brief nod; finished chewing his own mouthful, and swallowed. “Much as I’m going to.”
“I bet it won’t be as a big a deal as you think.”
“Who knows Zeff better, moss-head? You or me?”
“I just don’t think he’s likely to put obstacles in the way of you doing this, if you convince him it’s something you really want, and that you’re going to work hard at it. Why would he?”
The chef made a wry face. “Because he never does a damn thing that other people expect him to.”
“It’s not like it’s actually gonna cost him any money. He’d only be your guarantor on paper.”
“If everything goes to plan.” Sanji frowned slightly. “Crap, I can’t believe I just said that out loud. Jinx much? Let’s talk about something else.”
Zoro raised an eyebrow, not being much given to superstition. “Okay.” He thought for a moment. “Then tell me about Zeff’s restaurant.”
“The Baratie?” Sanji’s face cleared a little. “What do you want to know?”
“What kind of a place is it? You said he set up on his own, using his savings. That mean he runs a small set-up?”
“When he started out it was just him and three other kitchen staff, a couple of waiters... But when it took off, he hired more people. Must be thirty staff working there now, at least six chefs not including him: they can serve maybe sixty, seventy covers a night. And it’s a popular place, it’s always booked up at weekends.”
“Thirty staff?” Zoro was surprised. “He must be shelling out the dough to employ that many people.”
Sanji smiled wryly. “Depends who you employ.”
Setting down his sandwich, Sanji folded his arms on the table. “If Zeff was recruiting established chefs, people with shining resumés, then yeah: he’d be laying out half his profits on paying them. But he doesn’t. Nobody in the Baratie has even set foot in a catering college, as far as I know.”
“Then who does work there?” Zoro was baffled.
Sanji grinned. “A bunch of crooks.”
Zoro regarded him narrowly. “Meaning..?”
“Exactly what it sounds like.” Sanji nodded. “Zeff only hires ex-offenders. There isn’t a single person working in the Baratie who hasn’t done time. And nearly all of them couldn’t cook for shit when he took them on: they get trained up while they’re working there. After a couple of years they’re usually competent chefs, and they can find jobs in any professional kitchen if they want to move on. But a lot of them wind up staying.”
“Your old man only hires people who’ve done a stretch inside?” Zoro raised an eyebrow. “He must like living dangerously.”
Sanji picked up his sandwich again. “Believe me when I say, the most dangerous thing in Zeff’s kitchen is always going to be him.”
“Doesn’t he ever have any trouble?”
“Sometimes.” Sanji appeared to consider for a moment. “I remember when I was about twelve I was down there one evening, it was around the time I started helping out after school. Two commis chefs got into an argument about something, it started getting a little crazy. Big guys, standing toe-to-toe, yelling in each other’s face. Then one of them picked up a knife. Big mistake. Half a second later he was flat on his back on the floor, with a prosthetic foot-shaped bruise on his stomach, and Zeff standing over him. The whole kitchen went quiet, you could’ve heard a pin drop. And Zeff just growled out, ‘The only reason anyone picks up a knife in this kitchen is to make food. Get that through your thick skull right now, or go clear your locker.’ ”
“Zeff didn’t fire the guy?”
“No. And he never gave any more trouble, either. He’s still working there.”
Zoro was impressed. “Your old man gets more interesting by the minute.”
“Yeah well... Soak it up. His charm is more elusive when you actually meet him in person.” Sanji gave him a sardonic smile.
“He gives ex-offenders a chance to work: kind of inclines me to think he can’t be all bad.”
“It certainly made for an interesting adolescence, working in a kitchen with a bunch of ex-drug dealers and gang-bangers.” The chef rested his elbow on the table and propped his chin on one hand. “Happy days.”
“I guess your old man wouldn’t have let you hang out with them if he thought it wasn’t safe.”
“Guess so. It was an education too, listening to those guys’ stories. Not to mention, I gained a whole new vocabulary of swear-words. Which was useful, because most of the ones I already knew were French.”
Zoro pictured a much younger Sanji in the mix of a busy restaurant kitchen. Starting to learn his trade alongside mercurial ex-cons, soaking up the sights and sounds and influences of Zeff’s rough and ready social enterprise. “Sounds like it might’ve been kind of fun.”
“It was, when I wasn’t getting yelled at by Zeff for doing something wrong, which was most of the time. Learning to cook at the Baratie was like hanging out with a tribe of older cousins, those guys pretty much looked out for me... Until I got older. Then I got the same shit as they gave each other.”
Zoro smiled wryly.
I’ll bet you gave as good as you got.
Sanji took a bite of his sandwich; chewed and swallowed, his gaze drifting to the window. After a moment he said, “It’s gonna be weird seeing them all again.”
“You haven’t been back for a visit?”
“Not for a while.” Sanji still gazed out of the window. “Me and Zeff get on better long distance.”
Zoro made no comment on this. After a pause, he simply remarked. “Good sandwich. Thanks.”
A small smile came onto Sanji’s face. “You’re welcome.”
Half an hour after they finished eating lunch the train arrived at their stop. As soon as they got outside the station building, Sanji halted on the sidewalk: took out a cigarette and his lighter; sparked a flame and lit up, drawing in a deep lungful of smoke. “Ahh... That’s better.”
Zoro gave him an amused look. “Nicotine withdrawal kicking in?”
“Not any more.” Sanji gave him an answering smirk, before taking another drag.
“We need to catch a bus?” The swordsman looked along the street.
“No need. We can walk to the Baratie from here.” Sanji lightly flicked ash from the tip of his cigarette, before giving a slight nod with his head. “Let’s get going, it ought to be the end of lunchtime service about now. We can just show our faces and say hi, then head on to the apartment.”
They walked down streets busy with weekend shoppers for a while, before Sanji turned down a quieter side street that ended at an entrance to a park. Wide tarmac paths stretched out ahead, lined with trees; as they headed onwards along one of them, Sanji and Zoro passed a play area where children of all ages scrambling on the brightly-painted equipment and running about. Parents stood at the edges, chatting and watching their offspring.
Sanji paused for a moment, gazing at the play area. Zoro came to stand next to him, looking too. “This one of your old hangouts?”
The chef’s mouth lifted at one corner, but he let out a dismissive breath. “Nah. I thought playgrounds were kids’ stuff.”
In his head Zoro re-ran their conversation from the other week, when Sanji had related his story of how he and Zeff had moved to this country. When Sanji had been somewhere between eight and nine years old.
Too old to play, at nine years old?
Zoro couldn’t really remember what he’d been into himself, when he’d been that age. Nor had playgrounds ever really featured much in his own childhood landscape, other than as places where older kids hung out and smoked, and targeted anyone younger and smaller than themselves as either the butt of their jokes, or as potential extortion victims.
This playground didn’t look much like the ones from his own youth. An absence of graffiti and broken glass, for starters. And an abundance of nicely-dressed parents, viewing their children with encouraging smiles. It looked cosy, and safe. Although the sounds were the same, kids being kids wherever you grew up: shrieks and yelling and the thudding of running feet, children carrying out their own small-scale adventures and petty turf wars for the possession of a particular swing.
Sanji let a blue-grey stream of smoke escape from his mouth and disperse on the breeze, eyes narrowing in the low February sunlight. Before turning and giving Zoro a quick smile. “Not much further. Coming through the park like this cuts the corner off...” And he set off again at a brisk walk.
The ground began to slope downhill, the path winding between an avenue of bare winter trees. Smooth grey trunks swept upwards to a tracery of branches against the clear blue sky: shadows stretched in long dark bars across the grass. Zoro hitched the strap of his bag more comfortably on his shoulder, and lifted his gaze to look ahead. In the distance the edge of the park was visible, some kind of evergreen hedge marking its boundary. There was a gateway leading to open space beyond, through which he caught a shifting glint of something bright and moving.
They reached the gateway and walked through. A broad street ran parallel to the park’s boundary, metal railings lining the sidewalk on the far side. And beyond that, a wide river. Pausing to wait for passing traffic, Sanji led them across the road and along the sidewalk on the other side for a few hundred yards. Before coming to a halt and pointing towards the river. “There she blows. The Baratie.”
Zoro followed the other man’s outstretched finger to see an old ironwork bridge, its graceful wide spans supported on massive stone pillars. Just downstream on their side of the river was a long stone-flagged mooring, running along the bank. There was a single boat hitched up there: a vintage paddle steamer with white paintwork gleaming in the afternoon sun. Two glossy black smoke-stacks graced its bow end, joined together by a scrolled metalwork arch bearing the sign The Baratie in gold lettering.
The swordsman blinked. “You never mentioned it was on a boat.”
“You never asked.” Sanji grinned. “You got a phobia about water?”
Zoro shot him a narrow look. “Only if some asshole tries to add it to my drink.”
Chuckling, the chef set off along the sidewalk again, beckoning him with a wave of one hand. “C’mon.”
A flight of stone steps led down the river bank to the mooring, where a sturdy metal walkway gave onto the Baratie’s deck. As the chef and swordsman came aboard they passed a few departing customers, chatting happily amongst themselves. Sanji led the way along the gangway, stopping at a side door and pushing it open with a smile at the swordsman. “After you.”
Zoro stepped inside and found himself standing at one end of a long dining room, bright with daylight flooding in through the windows that ran along both sides. A few diners still lingered over dessert or coffee, the quiet hum of conversation and clink of cutlery mixing with a low background of unobtrusive music. At his left was a polished wooden bar counter, where a smartly-dressed bartender was fixing some kind of drinks on a tray.
Zoro eyed the glasses, then looked again at the bartender. The guy was immaculately turned out in white shirt, waistcoat and bow tie... But clearly visible on his neck and hands were a covering of tattoos. And he was seriously built: the kind of muscle you only got from dedicated working out. Like when you had nothing else to do except sit in a prison cell, maybe.
“Welcome to the Baratie, sir.” A voice brought his attention back to his immediate vicinity. Where another smartly-dressed staff member had materialised. Also presenting the incongruous look of an immaculate suit which barely contained his broad shoulders. “I’m afraid we’re coming to the end of our lunch service, but we have one reservation available for this evening if you would like to book a table.”
“Uh, that’s okay.” Zoro was somewhat thrown by the combination of fine dining and waiting staff who looked like bouncers from the rougher kind of nightclubs. “I’m not staying.”
The maître d’ received this answer with a slight frown, evidently wondering what the hell Zoro was doing wandering in there if he didn’t plan on eating.
“It’s okay, Santos, he’s with me.” Sanji stepped forward, grinning. “How’s it hangin’?”
“Whoa - Sanji!” The maître d’s eyes widened, then he gave an answering grin. “What the fuck, man! It’s been an age, where you been hidin’ yourself?”
“Round and about.” Sanji took the hand Santos held out, exchanging a handshake. “Business good?”
“Hoppin’. Chef keeps us all on our toes, as ever.” Santos gave a quick nod of his head towards the diners. “Never have an empty table in here, weekends. We’re gonna have to take on more waiting staff if this keeps up.”
“Like that’ll happen.” Sanji snorted. “You know what the old geezer always said...”
They both spoke in unison. “ ‘If I gotta spend money, I’ll spend it on the food. You guys can just move your asses faster between tables.’ ”
Sanji smiled grimly. “Heh. Some things never change.”
“No shit.” Santos nodded in agreement, then his gaze moved back to Zoro. Sanji saw the look, and gestured at the swordsman. “Santos, this is my friend, Zoro.”
“Please to meetcha.” Santos shook Zoro’s hand with a fierce grip, before looking back to the chef. “You come to visit with your old man? He said he wasn’t gonna be around tomorrow, we were all trying to figure out what the deal was. Chef don’t ever take a break, unless something’s going down.”
“Yeah. A visit.” Sanji didn’t elaborate further.
“That’s cool. You guys must have a bunch of stuff to catch up on, you haven’t been back here in a while. Like what, a year or two?”
“Sounds about right.”
“Chef’ll be glad to see ya, I’ll bet. Want me to tell him you’re here?”
“No, that’s okay... I’ll go out back. He’s in the kitchen, right?”
“Where else?” Santos grinned.
“Right.” Sanji looked at Zoro. “You okay to wait here? I’ll just go tell him we’ve arrived, it won’t take a minute. Then we can head on home.”
“Sure.” Zoro understood Sanji wanting to have his first contact with his father without an audience.
“Take a seat at the bar, Weejay can fix you a drink.” Santos gestured towards the tattooed bartender. “On the house.”
“Thanks.” Zoro gave him a smile. Sanji set his bag down, before heading to the doorway at the end of the bar that led through to the restaurant’s kitchen.
As soon as Sanji stepped through the swinging doors, he was surrounded by a familiar din, a haze of steam and competing fragrances of savoury and spicy and sweet intermingled. People in chefs’ whites were bent over chopping boards, working at counters, standing at stoves stirring pans over carefully adjusted burners. Standing carefully out of the way of the swinging doors, Sanji took just a moment to soak it all in.
Feels like I never left.
A chef nearby looked up from his pâtisserie creation, scowling at the sight of an interloper in the kitchen... Then did a double-take. His craggy features, bracketed by a familiar black goatee and moustache, curled into a sardonic grin. “Well, look what the fucking cat dragged in! What are you doing back here, you pain in the ass?”
“Come to check up on you crapheads, make sure you’re not ruining the old man’s business.” Sanji grinned mockingly back. “You got a problem with that, Patti?”
“Business is great, couldn’t be better. It took an upturn once we got rid of deadweight like you cluttering up the kitchen.” Patti bared his teeth at the younger chef.
“Good to see you too. Is Zeff around?”
“Yeah, he just went into the walk-in to check on supplies for this evening.”
“Thanks.” Sanji nodded, before threading his way through the busy kitchen.
The Baratie walk-in cooler was small and immaculately set out, stainless steel shelves gleaming. Crates and boxes of fresh vegetables and fruit were neatly stacked, bunches of herbs jostled with trays of salad leaves, while on the spotless floor stood huge pans of water already containing peeled potatoes and carrots prepped for the evening’s dinner service. And standing at the far end, his back to the door, was the bulky figure of Zeff.
As Sanji came to a halt just inside the walk-in, the older man grunted without turning round. “Can’t you shitty idiots finish lunch service without me telling you what to do? Whatever it is can goddamn wait, I’m in the middle of taking inventory.”
“Okay, so I wasn’t expecting the fatted calf, but that’s kind of harsh.”
Zeff’s shoulders stiffened: then the old chef turned around. His eyes found Sanji and narrowed a little. Then a small smile twitched up his moustache. “Hah. If it’s free lunch you wanted, you should’ve gotten here earlier.”
Sanji smiled too. “I ate already.”
Zeff folded his arms. Nodded, as if unsurprised. “Fine. You just get into town?”
“Yeah, we caught the nine o’clock train. Thought I’d come say hi, before going on to home.”
“Where’s your friend?”
Sanji gestured behind him with one thumb. “Waiting at the bar.”
“Uh huh.” Zeff nodded slowly again. Scrutinised his adoptive son for a few moments. “So, little eggplant... How the hell are you? It’s been a while since I last clapped eyes on you.”
Sanji felt an uneasy mixture of comfort at Zeff’s gruff parental concern, and guilt at his own inability to make the train journey in the last eighteen months. “I’m good.”
“You look like you’ve dropped a little weight.”
“Not really.” Sanji shrugged dismissively. “Like I said, I’m good.”
“Hmm.” Zeff’s grunt was neither a rebuttal nor agreement. “You still smoking all those damn cigarettes?”
“Yeah. And I don’t plan on quitting any time soon, so we can skip that conversation.”
“Tchh.” Zeff gave a short shake of his head. “You’ll never be a good chef if you fill your mouth up with tar from those stinking things.”
“Let’s agree to disagree on that one, crap geezer.” Sanji felt the muscles in his shoulders starting to tighten: made himself release the tension, with an effort. “Don’t start in on me the minute I walk through the door, you old fart. I haven’t seen you in over a year.”
“And whose fault’s that?”
The tension came back. “I’ve had a lot of stuff going on.”
“Including being fired.”
“Amongst other things.” Sanji looked away from his adoptive father, directing his gaze to where the pans of peeled potatoes sat on the floor. The pale smooth shapes of the potatoes in the clear water were uncomplicated. Soothing. He remembered the feel of the worn but sharp peeler in his smaller twelve-year-old hands, as he sat on a stool and prepared vegetables in the Baratie kitchen. Over and over, filling pans with them every day. A simple thing that he still had to learn how to do right, under Zeff’s watchful eye. “But right now I do have a job. Working as a swing cook in a big hotel.”
“Filling in, in other words.”
“Working my ass off,” Sanji retorted. He brought his gaze back to Zeff. “I haven’t been sitting around on my butt feeling sorry for myself.”
“Good.” Zeff pulled out a crate of mushrooms from a shelf, inspected its contents, then slid the crate back. “Keeping busy will keep you out of mischief.”
Sanji let out a long, slow breath. “I’ll bear that in mind.”
Zeff slid out another crate, of peppers this time: picked one up and inspected it minutely, before replacing it. “And you’re sure as hell gonna be busy if you plan on going ahead with this idea of setting up your own place.”
“It won’t be like working in someone else’s kitchen. You’ll be responsible for keeping everything going smoothly. Which it won’t, because fuck-ups come along with monotonous regularity. So you’ll have to deal with that, when it happens. Think on your feet. Keep on top of everything.”
“Pay the bills, order the supplies, make the food, promote your wares, do the accounts, fill in your tax return... The whole shebang, brat. That’s a whole shitload of plates you’ll have to keep spinning in the air.”
“Okay, fine. Running my own business, equals many things to do. I get it.”
Zeff turned from the shelves and regarded him. “I wonder if you do, little eggplant.”
Sanji held his gaze. “Well, I ought to. I learned from someone who thinks he’s a fucking expert.”
There was a short silence. Then Zeff let out a chuckle. “You haven’t changed. Still a shitty little smartass.” He reached out and wrapped one solid arm round Sanji’s shoulders, giving him a firm squeeze and a shake. “It’s good to see you, brat.”
Sanji found himself smiling. His own arm lifting to rest on the old chef’s back, just for a moment. “Likewise.”
Zeff released him, turning away and stumping to the walk-in door. “C’mon, you can introduce me to this boyfriend of yours. And he can explain to me how a grown man thinks he can get away with calling himself Zoro.”
Sanji followed in his wake. Oh yeah. This is gonna go great.
Seated on a stool at the bar, Zoro passed the time waiting for Sanji to reappear by working his way through a cold beer and observing the Baratie’s clientele. That this was a high-end eatery was evident from the way the customers were dressed; and from the snowy white linen tablecloths, the rows of gleaming cutlery, and the attentive waiting staff. That the food was good was evidenced by the expressions of the people eating it and the speed with which it was being consumed. Zoro took another swallow of beer and wondered how much it cost to eat in a place like this. Plenty, he suspected. Which hopefully ought to mean that Zeff would be in a financial position to help Sanji out with being the guarantor for his business loan.
The bartender – Weejay, Zoro remembered – drifted down the bar and nodded at Zoro’s almost empty glass. “Get you another one of those?”
“Thanks.” Zoro was happy to sit there as long as it took, if free beer was part of the package.
The bartender set a new bottle down at his elbow, then nodded towards the kitchen. “You known Sanji long?”
“Couple of months.” Zoro replied absently.
“You work in the restaurant trade?”
“No.” Zoro picked up the second beer.
The bartender nodded. “Didn’t figure on seeing Sanji for a while, since he upped and left for the big city lights. We heard he was chefing in some big swanky place, till he got canned.”
Zoro was pretty sure Sanji wouldn’t want Zeff’s staff sticking their noses into his business. He decided a change of subject was in order. “You worked here long?”
“Eight years.” Weejay nodded. “Started out waiting tables, but Zeff put me on the bar after I’d been here a while. I like this better: waiting tables blows. It’s okay when you’re a young kid and you got the energy to run about all day. Me, I like mixing drinks.”
“You must’ve known Sanji when he was younger, working here.” In spite of himself, Zoro found himself wanting to know more.
“Yeah. He was a pain in the ass.” Weejay laughed. “Thought he was hot shit in the kitchen, always trying new stuff out and getting underfoot. The guys in there used to curse a blue streak. His old man kept him in line, though. When he finally went off to catering college we all breathed a sigh of relief, thought we’d got shot of him for a while... But the little asshole kept coming in at weekends and telling the chefs they were doing it wrong, that it wasn’t how they were showing him to do stuff at school. So the guys told him to keep his fancy college ideas to himself or they’d part his hair with a cleaver.”
Zoro smiled. “How’d that work out?”
“When the yelling got too loud, Zeff’d just bang a few heads together. Starting with Sanji. It always blew over.” Weejay shrugged. “Same old. You want to work in this place, you gotta take some shit. Most of the guys here aren’t exactly shy about cutting loose if you get in their face, if you get my drift.”
“Sounds like a lively place to work,” Zoro remarked sardonically.
“Ehh, s’okay. Been in worse places.” Weejay cut him a look. “And y’know what they say: if you can’t take the heat, stay the fuck out of the kitchen.”
Zoro gave a wry smile at this, and swallowed another mouthful of beer. Which wasn’t half bad: despite the label on the bottle being unknown to him. Some trendy micro brewery designer stuff, he was willing to bet. The swanky customers who ate in this restaurant wouldn’t be swilling down Bud Light with their fancy cuisine.
The swinging doors at the end of the bar opened, and Zoro glanced over. Sanji was just emerging, but in front of him and bearing down on the bar was a tall thickset man in chef’s whites who Zoro would have recognised from Sanji’s graduation photo by the luxuriant moustache... If it hadn’t also been for the more obvious fact that the man’s right leg ended just below the knee in a prosthetic.
He stood up as Zeff approached. Zeff’s eyes fixed on him keenly as the older chef came to a halt: Zoro felt their appraisal rake over him, before Zeff said in a gravelly voice, “You must be Zoro.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir.” Zoro had remembered Johnny’s tip, and thought it was worth trying. This weekend being all about charming the old guy so he’d be Sanji’s backer, after all.
Zeff’s moustache twitched. “Never did care much for ‘sir’. You can call me Zeff.”
“Zoro your given name, or something you came up with?”
“It’s really my name.” Zoro made a small smile come onto his face: after Sanji’s comment the other night, he was prepared for this. “Zoro Roronoa.”
The old chef’s gaze rested on him, then lifted a little. Specifically, fixing on Zoro’s hair. The swordsman saw Zeff’s brows draw together a little. “Hm.” The old chef gave a grunt, before glancing at the bar. Taking in the two beer bottles and almost empty glass there. “I see Weejay’s keeping you supplied.”
“Yeah: thanks.” Zoro smiled again. Hoping that this would lighten things up.
“That one goes down well with the customers.” Zeff gestured with his thumb at the bottles. “Torpedo Extra IPA. Good with duck or lamb.”
Not knowing exactly what to reply to this, Zoro just nodded. The old chef regarded him. “Got kind of a kick to it, though. You want to go easy on it.”
Zoro, who had been about to pick up his glass and finish the last couple of mouthfuls, found his hand stalling halfway up. He wound up rubbing the back of his head, instead. “Sure.”
Sanji edged into the conversation, unexpectedly coming to his rescue. “Hey, old man: you refitted the bar since I was here last? Looks different.”
Zeff grunted, turning his gaze onto his son. “New counter. Salvaged mahogany, found it in Sobotka’s yard last summer.”
“Looks good.” Sanji let his gaze run around the dining room. “The old place is all looking pretty good.”
“It ought to, the amount I spend on running repairs,” grunted Zeff.
Sanji looked back at Zoro. “Zeff fitted this whole place out from scratch. Bought an old rear paddle wheel boat at auction, converted it into a restaurant from his own designs. Had it up and running within three months.”
“That’s pretty impressive.” Zoro looked around the dining room too, taking in the way the vintage interior had been subtly blended with modern fixtures and fittings, without taking away the old boat’s character. “It must’ve taken a hell of a lot of work.”
“It did. But anything worth a damn takes work.” Zeff ran one thick finger along the polished mahogany of the bar. “That’s something kids these days don’t understand. Like half the guys I get working here: they think whatever they want, they ought to get. That’s how half of them wound up in prison. Wanting the good life, without wanting to work for it.”
Zoro glanced along the bar, but Weejay was out of earshot down the other end, talking to one of the waiters as he arranged drinks on a tray. Zeff noticed his glance, and smiled grimly. “Don’t worry, they already know what I think of them. And I know what they think of me.” He snorted. “Bunch of troublemakers. But a few of ‘em are shaping up to be halfway decent chefs. If they don’t poison a customer first.”
“It’s cool that you’re giving them an opportunity to work. It’s tough finding a job when you’ve got a criminal record.”
Zeff’s gaze settled on Zoro. “Speaking from personal experience?”
“No,” Zoro replied definitely. “I’ve never been in jail. But if you’ve got that kind of... history, I guess people judge you. Maybe, think you could be trouble.”
“These guys are trouble.” Zeff shrugged. “But they know the deal about working here. They play by my rules, or they take a hike.”
“You ever had to toss someone out?”
“Oh yeah,” both Zeff and Sanji responded simultaneously. They exchanged looks, and the older chef grunted, “Who asked you, brat?”
“Well, you’re not the only one who’s had to deal with situations going down in here.”
“Any situations you ever got involved in, you were usually the instigator.”
“Like hell! What about the time that cholo started busting up the kitchen? I dealt with that.”
“You kicked him overboard, you damn idiot.”
“Stopped him wrecking the kitchen, didn’t I?”
Zoro watched father and son facing off with each other. And thought he was starting to get an sense of where some of Sanji’s combativeness might have come from. “I guess you probably can’t use the usual employee grievance procedures with guys like that.”
Zeff looked back to him. “You got that right. Sometimes the only thing these guys understand is who acts the toughest.”
Zoro nodded. “I used to work with kids like that. Not ex-cons: younger, high schoolers mostly. Or they would’ve been high schoolers, if they’d actually gone to school. You had to be tough around them. If you weren’t they would’ve eaten you alive.”
“Sanji said you worked in a gym.” Zeff folded his arms.
“I do now. This was before, a while back. It was a temporary job, only lasted as long as the funding.”
“The job you’re doing now: it got better prospects? Benefits?”
“It’s okay.” Zoro shrugged. “The pay isn’t that great, but I can work overtime whenever I want.”
“So what’s your plan for finding something better?”
Zoro felt his eyes narrow slightly. The job he had was regular work, he had access to gym equipment and space, and he could pay the bills. That was as good as it got, in his experience. “I’m not looking for anything else right now.”
Zeff let out a noise that might have been a disapproving grunt. “Sounds like you could set your sights a little higher. If you bothered to work at it.”
Zoro ran out of polite conversation right there. He found his gaze switching to where Sanji stood at Zeff’s side. The younger chef raised one eyebrow, then glanced at his father. “You ever think of becoming a motivational speaker, crap geezer? Or maybe setting up your own YouTube channel? You could call it, ‘Chef Zeff’s School For Success’.”
“Why the hell would I want to mess with the internet? That’s how your generation wastes most of their life.” Zeff turned his focus back onto his son.
“Don’t be intimidated by all this newfangled technology, they run computer classes for senior citizens these days. I hear they’re not too challenging, they break it down into simple steps.” Sanji smirked.
“Wipe that grin off your face, you little smartass. I’ve forgotten more about cooking than you’ll ever know. Stuff you can’t learn from a computer.”
“All the more reason you should go digital, share it with the wider world before senility really sets in. Hey, maybe you could do a TED talk.”
“Goddamn it.” Zeff folded his arms across his chest. “I got a restaurant to run, and a kitchen to turn around for dinner service. It’s been great catching up, brat, but you can make yourself scarce now. Catch you later on tonight.”
“Okay.” Sanji picked up his bag from the floor, still grinning. “Thanks for the fatherly advice, as ever. See you back home.” He looked at Zoro. “You good to go?”
Zoro nodded; picked up his beer glass and drained it. When he set it down, he found Zeff watching him. “Thanks for the drinks.”
Zeff grunted. “Right.” He turned away, with a parting comment to Sanji. “I might not be back till after midnight. Don’t feel like you kids have to wait up.” And with that he stumped away to the kitchen.
Sanji watched him go, then gave a half-shake of his head. Looked at Zoro. “C’mon. Let’s get out of here.”
The sun was still shining when they climbed back up the steps from the mooring to the street above, but a cold wind had picked up. By unconscious agreement both men picked up the pace, walking briskly to keep warm. A few minutes passed before Sanji spoke.
“So. Now you’ve met the old man.” He said this lightly, but gave Zoro a sidelong look that conveyed a world of Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Zoro considered what would constitute a safe reply. And went with, “Yeah.”
Sanji eyed him. “Are you wishing you hadn’t come?”
“That depends. Do we pass a liquor store on the way to your place?”
“No. But there’ll be wine at home.”
“How many bottles?”
“You’re not getting shitfaced in front of my old man. That would not end well.”
“Who said anything about getting shitfaced? I’m just gonna need some anaesthetic if this is how he’s going to be the whole weekend.”
Sanji let out a small sigh. And took out his cigarettes. “I told you he was an awkward old fucker.”
“Don’t take it personally.”
“Kind of hard not to, when he made it pretty clear he thinks I’m a slacker.”
“Every single date I ever brought home from college, he treated them the exact same way. He just likes pushing people, seeing how far he can wind them up.”
“Great. How’s he with people pushing him back?”
“Look, I warned you he was going to be difficult. And you promised me you could handle it.”
“I promised you I wouldn’t punch him. I didn’t say anything about taking all the shit he feels like slinging at me, without standing up for myself.”
“If you bite, he’ll just enjoy it more.” Sanji shrugged, lighting up.
“Want to bet?”
“Zoro, I need for this weekend to go smoothly. I do not need you and my old man at each other’s throats the entire time we’re here.”
Zoro narrowed his eyes. “Were you actually in the room back there, when he was talking shit at me, and I was being the soul of politeness? You want to negotiate peace talks, start with him.”
“I have zero influence, now or ever, over what Zeff does, says or thinks.” Sanji said this sincerely. “Zeff is an infuriating, opinionated, mouthy old geezer who will say whatever the fuck he wants to. And we have to play nice with him for two days. That’s it.”
Zoro looked out across the river. At the sun glinting off the cold grey water. “Right.”
“Look on the bright side: you only have to tolerate him for a weekend. I have to put up with him on an ongoing basis.”
There was a pause. Then Zoro felt Sanji’s hand push between his elbow and his side, the chef linking arms with him. Keeping walking. Cigarette smoke blew past them on the wind, disappearing. “Thanks... for coming here with me.”
Zoro felt the warmth of the other man’s arm, pressing against his own. “Maybe it would’ve been easier for you if I hadn’t.”
“No, I don’t think so. Zeff’s just a contrary old bastard.” Sanji lifted his cigarette and took a hard pull on it, narrowing his eyes. “Always has been, always will be.”
They reached the apartment after half an hour of walking. It was a top-storey walk-up, three floors above the street. As Sanji inserted the key and opened the door, he declaimed, “Welcome to my humble origins,” with a slightly self-mocking smile.
Following the chef inside, Zoro stepped into a large square room with windows on three sides, filling the space with late afternoon light. Bookcases lined a couple of walls; a large desk in what looked like dark oak dominated one corner, its surface piled high with paperwork. A couple of elderly armchairs and a couch bracketed a low table which had a few books scattered on it, bookmarks inserted between their pages.
“Make yourself at home.” Sanji was already heading for a doorway on the far side of the room, having dumped his bag on one of the armchairs. “I’m gonna make some coffee... Want some?”
“Yeah. That’d be good.” Zoro also set down his bag, before wandering over to each of the windows and looking out. The third-floor apartment had a great view: from one window you could see clear to the river. He turned away and turned his gaze back to the room itself, running his eyes along the walls. On the walls that weren’t occupied by bookcases there were framed pictures that looked like originals. One painting of a schooner sailing on a stormy sea under full canvas, waves breaking over its bows. Another of a harbour full of fishing boats. A third, a modern screenprint, of a coral reef teeming with multicoloured fish and sea life that Zoro couldn’t even recognise, much less name.
“You checking out the old man’s gallery?” Sanji spoke from close by. The swordsman turned round, to see the chef standing by the couch. Sanji set down two mugs on the table, before sitting down. “I always liked that picture the best.”
Zoro looked at the coral painting again. “I’m guessing he likes the sea.”
“Yeah. He never said, but I know he missed working on the boats. Not the clientele: he always said they were a bunch of rich whiners... But getting to travel by sea to all kinds of amazing places. He saw some pretty cool things.”
Zoro took one last look at the painting, then headed to the couch. Sat down next to the chef. “That why you like the sea?”
Sanji’s mouth lifted up at one corner. “Maybe. Or maybe I always liked it. Who doesn’t like the sea?”
Zoro picked up his coffee and took a sip, feeling its strong warmth hitting the spot. “People who get seasick?”
Sanji made a dismissive noise. “If you’re on a boat long enough, you get over that.”
The chef regarded him, holding his own coffee in both hands resting on his lap. “You ever been out on a boat? At sea, I mean?”
Zoro smiled. “Never even seen the sea.”
“Never - ?” Sanji blinked: did a double-take at him. “You’re shitting me. You’ve never seen the sea?”
“On TV, or in movies, sure.” Zoro shrugged. “Just not in real life.”
“The opportunity never came up.” Zoro took another swig of coffee.
“Wow.” At the swordsman’s sidelong glance, Sanji made a gesture with one hand. “Y’know, ‘cos the sea is... really worth seeing.”
“I’ll get round to it at some point.” Zoro didn’t think it was a big deal.
“Yeah. You should.” Sanji stroked his thumb back and forth along the rim of his coffee mug, looking thoughtful.
They sat drinking their coffee for a while, not doing a lot else. Faint sounds of traffic filtered up from the street below; sunshine stretched in a long yellow slice across the floor.
Zoro emptied his mug, and set it on the table. Let out a yawn: the hours of train travel and the two beers catching up with him, despite the caffeine. “So... What’s the plan now?”
“Just hang out, I guess. I’ll fix us some dinner, in a while.”
“We need to go buy some groceries?”
“No. Zeff always keeps his kitchen well stocked.” Sanji smiled. “I checked just in case, but the refrigerator’s loaded. What do you feel like eating?”
Zoro yawned again. “Anything.”
“You like kedgeree? I saw some smoked haddock in the freezer.”
“Fish and rice and eggs, cooked with spices.” Sanji stood up. “You want to wash up or anything? I’ll show you where the bathroom is. And we can dump our stuff in my old room.”
Zoro stood up too. “Fine, yeah.”
Sanji gestured at a doorway as they walked down a passage that led off the main room. “That’s the kitchen.” His thumb jerked to another doorway on the opposite side. “Bathroom.” Then he stopped, standing between two further doors. “Zeff’s room. And this is my old room.” He pushed the doorway on the right open, stepping inside.
Zoro followed him in, taking his bag off his shoulder and dropping it onto the floor before looking around. Pale grey-blue walls, another bookshelf, a small desk and chair, and a bed neatly made up.
Sanji set his own bag down on the desk, before sitting down the edge of the bed and letting out a sigh. “Man. There’s always something slightly weird about coming back to your old bedroom.”
Zoro wandered over to the window and looked out. “Like how?”
“You know. Everything’s nearly the same way you left it, but you’ve moved on...” Sanji trailed off. When he spoke again, he sounded slightly self-conscious. “I forgot. Not something you ever had much chance to experience.”
Zoro shrugged, turning around. “Not so much.” He moved away from the window and came over to the bed, sitting down next to the chef. “I get it, though.”
Sanji leaned back on his elbows, looking around the room. “Looks like the old geezer’s had a clear-out of a lot of my old stuff from in here. Thank fuck for that.”
Zoro smiled. “Stuff you didn’t want me to see?”
“Oh yeah.” Sanji smiled grimly. “Trust me when I say, there are photos of me taken in earlier times that I would pay good money to have destroyed.”
“Sounds interesting.” Zoro shifted a little sideways, until his hip nudged up against the chef’s. “Want to elaborate?”
“Just the usual totally gross kid and teen pics.” Sanji pulled a face, reaching into his pocket and took out his cigarettes. “I hated having my picture taken.”
The chef looked at him. Then lifted one thumb and briefly sketched along one of his own eyebrows. “When you spend most of your childhood being called a freak, it kind of makes you camera shy.”
Zoro frowned slightly. Then lifted his own hand and placed one finger on the chef’s forehead, tracing along the eyebrow too. Slowly.
Sanji stilled under the touch. When the swordsman let his hand fall, the chef’s eyes were gazing at him. Neither man said anything. Then Zoro leaned forward and kissed him: felt the chef kiss him back.
When they parted lips, a quiet beat fell between them. At last Sanji said, “Anyway... I’m glad Zeff’s cleared the decks in here. Last thing I want right now is to be confronted by the relics of my teenage angst.”
“Such as?” Zoro raised an eyebrow.
“Photos of me with exes, for instance.” Sanji grinned at him. “Evidence of all my former conquests.”
Zoro snorted. “Conquests, plural? And here’s me thinking you were probably a wallflower.”
“Wallflower, hell. This bed’s seen plenty of action, believe me.”
“Spare me the details.” Zoro smirked. “Or should I say, spare me the elaborate fantasies.”
“Oh, you think I’m bullshitting?” Sanji’s face blossomed into a salacious grin. “I got my first blow job on this bed.”
“Play your cards right and your next one could happen here too.”
The chef eyed him. “Promises, promises.”
Zoro leaned over and kissed him again, using his weight to bear the chef down until they were horizontal on the bed. He felt the other man’s hands curl around his ribs, gripping his sides: legs shift until they were pressed close together.
After a little while they broke the kiss, and Sanji murmured, “I ought to go and get that fish out the freezer to defrost.”
Zoro let out a low chuckle. “You have got weird priorities.”
“Down, boy.” Sanji poked the swordsman in the ribs with one finger, before rolling away from him and sitting up. “C’mon, let’s settle in and get unpacked. You want more coffee?”
“Nope.” Zoro propped himself on one elbow. “Zeff got any beer stashed in the kitchen?”
Sanji got up off the bed. “It’s three o’clock in the afternoon.”
The chef rolled his eyes. “I’ll open some wine with dinner. You can hold out till then.”
The afternoon ebbed away into evening. After setting his fish to defrost, Sanji sat at the desk in his room and got out his laptop and business folder. Reading through everything one final time before facing Zeff on the morrow.
On the bed behind him Zoro lay on his back with one arm folded behind his head, reading. And as the evening came on, napping: his even snores making a backbeat that was soothing rather than irritating as Sanji checked and re-checked his figures, elbow propped on his desk.
At last the chef closed the laptop and folder; leaned back in his chair and stretched both arms up and out, letting out a large yawn. His shoulders ached and he circled them gingerly, pulling a face: then pushed his chair back and stood up. Glancing at the still-sleeping swordsman on the bed, he moved to the door and went out, quietly closing it behind him.
Zoro woke when a nudge in his ribs startled him out of a dreamless sleep. He opened his eyes quickly, to see Sanji looking down at him. “Up and at ’em.”
Zoro blinked, before propping himself up on his elbows. “...Uh?”
“Supper’s ready. If you’re hungry.”
“Mhm.” Zoro sat up, swinging his legs off the bed and setting his feet on the floor. “S’it late?”
“Little after seven.”
Standing up, Zoro let out a yawn. “Huh. I must’ve slept a while.”
“Yeah. But I thought there was no point waking you till the food was ready.” Sanji led the way out of the bedroom.
As they reached the main room, savoury wafts reached Zoro’s nostrils and he felt his stomach respond. “Smells good.”
“Should taste good, too. We’re eating in the kitchen.”
“Okay.” Zoro followed the chef into that room, where a wooden table bore cutlery and glasses for two. An opened wine bottle stood next to a glass jug of water, beside a large bowl of what looked like some kind of salad.
“Pour the wine, will you?” Sanji was already moving to the stove, taking the lid off a casserole dish.
Zoro did so before sitting down. He picked up his glass of wine and tried a mouthful, his mouth twisting slightly.
“Is that face because the wine’s corked, or are you still not properly awake yet?” Sanji set two plates of golden-coloured rice loaded with chunks of fish and egg on the table, before sitting down and taking a sip from his own wine glass. “Hmm. Tastes okay to me. It’s a good Californian vineyard, they make a nice sauvignon blanc.”
Shrugging, Zoro reached for his fork. “That means exactly zip to me, cook. It’s fine: I’ve just never been a big wine drinker.”
Sanji tried a taste of his food and nodded, before picking up the dish of salad. “Whatever. Want some kachumber?”
“Tomatoes, red onion, cucumber with some lemon juice and cilantro,” Sanji explained patiently. “It’s kind of zingy. Goes well with the kedgeree.”
“Pass it over.” Zoro had little doubt that anything the chef produced would taste good.
They ate for a while in silence. After a little while Sanji topped up their wine glasses; as he set the bottle down again, he commented, “Feels nostalgic cooking a meal in this kitchen again.”
Looking at him, Zoro gestured at his almost-empty plate with his fork. “Tastes really good. Thanks.” The chef gave a small nod and smile to acknowledge this. “You haven’t been back to visit for while?”
“Yeah. Over eighteen months.” Sanji propped his elbows on the table, before picking up his glass and taking a sip of wine. “Which I feel kind of crap about.”
“Why haven’t I visited for a while? Or why do I feel crap about it?”
Sanji tipped his glass slowly one way then the other, watching the pale wine slide around inside it. “I guess... Zeff and I usually get on better long distance. But turning up to see him because I need his help feels sort of selfish.”
“You don’t think he’s pleased to see you?”
“Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know.” Sanji took another drink of wine.
“How was he when you first said hello, at the restaurant?”
“His usual ornery self. He managed to rag on me about smoking, getting fired and how I have no idea what running a business entails, all within the first five minutes. Pretty much what I expected.”
“It wasn’t a touching father-son reunion, huh.”
“We did exchange a manly hug. Briefly.” Sanji smiled, before resuming eating. “But that’s okay. We’ve never been into all that touchy-feely stuff.”
“So what’s your plan for tomorrow?”
The chef grimaced slightly. “Well, he’s decided to take the entire day off work. So I guess the two of us sit down here and go through all the paperwork together. And I convince him to sign on the dotted line. That’s the abbreviated version.”
“You figured out how you’re going to convince him, if you need to?”
“I thought I might try shameless begging. Or possibly violence, if me sucking up to him doesn’t work.”
Zoro grinned. “I’d like to see that.”
“No fucking way.” Sanji gave him a severe look. “You will be extremely elsewhere while this whole conversation is happening. The last thing I need is an onlooker.”
“I can’t hide in your room all day.”
“No-one’s asking you to. Go out and explore the many charms of this quaint old town, with its extensive riverside views and vibrant shopping malls. I’ll give you a local map and a sack lunch, you can wander happily and get lost to your heart’s content.” Sanji smirked at him. “When it’s safe to return, I’ll text you.”
“You want me to make myself scarce?”
“In a nutshell.”
Zoro raised one eyebrow, before draining his wine glass. “Feeling the love here.”
“Look, I have no fucking idea how long it’ll take me to sell my business idea to Zeff. And I’m pretty damn sure he is going to make it as difficult as possible, which means the two of us will probably be yelling into each other’s faces within the first half hour. Which is not a problem: I’m used to it, I can handle him. But I don’t want any bystanders witnessing the whole crapfest.”
“Okay, cook. As long as I don’t come back here to find a homicide.” Zoro didn’t really mind having to make himself scarce. After his first encounter with Zeff that afternoon at the Baratie, he wasn’t feeling hugely enthusiastic about the thought of being around him for an entire day. “There any more of this rice stuff?”
“Yeah.” Sanji rose and fetched the casserole from the stove, dishing up what was left onto their plates. Zoro refilled their wine glasses while he was doing it. “Hopefully if all goes well, we’ll be done by mid-afternoon. Unless Zeff decides to be really fucking awkward.”
“Yeah, what are the chances,” Zoro commented drily.
After supper was over, they stacked the dishwasher – which like everything else in the kitchen was state-of-the-art – and decamped to the main room. Zoro was heartened to see Sanji bring a fresh bottle of wine with them. He settled with a sigh on the couch, watching the chef studying a shelf of DVDs beside the television. His back to the swordsman, Sanji asked, “You feel like watching something?”
“If you want.” Zoro somehow doubted Sanji’s old man had a thrilling film library.
Sanji selected a DVD from the shelf and put it in the player, before walking over with the remote and dropping down onto the couch with a sigh. The TV screen lit up with a title, against an ocean scene with a dolphin leaping over a silhouetted swimmer: Le Grand Bleu. At the bottom of the screen, subtitles proclaimed The Big Blue. Zoro regarded the TV, then reached for the new bottle of wine. “You’re want to watch some French movie about swimming with dolphins?”
“It’s a classic, fuckwit. Plus it’s one of my favourites.” Sanji held up his own wine glass for a refill: Zoro poured it. “It’s about two free-divers who are rivals, they’re always trying to best each other by diving to more and more dangerous depths. Pushing their limits beyond what anyone else has ever done before.”
“And they do this, because..?”
“Because they love the sea. And for the challenge of it. And because they’re rivals.” Sanji gave him a sidelong look. “You want me to give you a scene-by-scene breakdown, or shall we just watch the movie?”
“I get to pick the movie we watch after this one.”
Sanji settled more comfortably into the couch. “Look, moss-head: I just want to chill out and be distracted for a few hours, not think about tomorrow. That okay with you?”
“You want distracting? I’m always up for that.” Zoro slid one arm along the top of the couch, laying it over the chef’s shoulders.
“I want to watch the movie.” Sanji rested his head back against the other man’s arm. “But you make a nice comfy cushion, thanks for that.”
Zoro grunted. “Okay. But don’t blame me if I fall asleep.”
“Do you have some kind of sleep disorder? I’ve listened to you snoring twice today already.” Sanji lifted his foot and prodded his toe against the other man’s shin. “You must spend more time asleep than you do awake.”
“I work a lot of hours in the week, and I train most evenings too. So when I get a day off, I like to sleep.” The swordsman gave a slight shrug.
“Don’t you ever feel like you’re missing out on stuff?”
Zoro turned his head and regarded the chef steadily for a moment before replying. “A few hours ago your old man told me I could work harder if I bothered to. Are you about to give me a pep talk as well?”
Sanji sighed, before pressing the pause button on the TV remote. And then turned sideways on the couch so he was facing the other man. “No. I know that you work hard, at your job and at kendo. Not to mention, what you do with your life is your own business.” His eyes held Zoro’s, dark blue in the low light. Searching the swordsman’s gaze. “Don’t let what Zeff said bug you. Like I said, he likes to yank people’s chains, see how they’ll react. He does it to me often enough. That’s part of why we have a mostly long-distance relationship. And as for what I said... It doesn’t mean anything, okay? You like to sleep. I like to smoke. We’ll work around it.”
After a moment, a smile came onto Zoro’s face. “Fair enough.”
“So we can just watch the film?” Sanji raised an enquiring eyebrow.
The swordsman let out a short huff of laughter. “Yeah. You can fill me in on any bits I sleep through.”
Smiling too, Sanji propped his feet up on the low table in front of them, legs stretching out alongside Zoro’s. He leaned sideways, settling comfortably against the other man’s warmth, before pressing the remote and restarting the film.
The dull thud of the apartment door closing woke both men, or at least partially. Zoro cracked open his eyes and blinked at an unfamiliar view, of a lamp and a bookshelf he was pretty sure didn’t normally live in his bedroom. Then a warm weight on his chest stirred and made a blurry kind of a sound, and he turned his gaze in that direction and winced at the ache in his neck.
Sanji was lying against him, the chef also blinking with a slightly dazed look as he roused from sleep. They had slid together at some point, so that now they were both more or less lying along the couch, Sanji’s head resting on his chest.
“...Uhh..?” Sanji half sat-up, before lifting one hand to his neck and wincing in a way that suggested that he too had dozed off in a less-than-optimal position. “Ow. Fuck.”
Heavy footfalls made both of them look around: Zeff appeared in the doorway that led from the apartment’s entrance, carrying a briefcase stuffed with paperwork. He regarded them with a slightly raised eyebrow, before moving to drop his briefcase on the desk between the bookcases. “Something wrong with your room, or do you two enjoy sleeping on a couch?”
“No.” Sanji rapidly pushed himself more upright, pushing his long fringe out of his eyes. “We were just watching a movie... Must’ve fallen asleep.”
Zeff grunted. “I told you not to wait up.” He turned away from his desk: his eye fell on the empty bottle of wine, and the two glasses. “We’ve got a lot to talk about tomorrow, need to make an early start. If I were you I’d get a good night’s sleep.”
“Sure. Right.” Sanji nodded, looking up at his adoptive father. “Was... business good tonight, at the Baratie?”
“Pretty good.” Zeff moved to the low table and picked up one of the books that lay there, opening it at the place with a bookmark and scanning the page briefly before moving away. Pausing at the door that led to the rest of the apartment he sniffed the air, before glancing back at Sanji. “You use that smoked haddock out the freezer?”
“Any kedgeree left for breakfast?”
“No, we ate it all.”
Zeff grunted. “Figures. It’s great to have you back eating me out of house and home, brat. See you both in the morning.” And with that he was gone.
Sanji let himself sit back with a long outbreath. “Qu’est-ce qu’on bien chez soi...” Then he looked at Zoro with a wry smile. “Eh... Let’s go to bed.”
Neither of them spoke much as they used the bathroom and undressed, before getting into Sanji’s bed and pulling up the coverlet. Sanji held his phone, keying in something. “I’m going to set my alarm for seven, okay?”
The chef laid his phone down on the nightstand and switched off the lamp, before sliding under the covers. Zoro rolled onto his side, lifting his arm and laying it over his lover’s waist. The movement brought his mouth and nose close to where Sanji’s head lay on the pillow, soft strands of hair brushing his nose. Zoro breathed in, smelling a faint ghost of cologne; cigarette smoke; the spices the chef had used cooking their dinner. A mix that was familiar now, that was Sanji. Like the slow lift and fall of the chef’s lean ribs under his fingers. Territory that he was beginning to navigate in the dark, finding his way through.
“Hmhh.” Sanji’s voice was quiet and drowsy in the darkness. “That tickles.”
“Yeah?” Zoro let his fingers stroke slowly against the chef’s waist.
“Nghh...” Sanji stirred slightly. “Wanna sleep. S’late.”
Zoro smiled in the dark. Bringing his mouth close to the chef’s ear, he murmured, “Do you have some kind of sleep disorder?”
“Rrhh... No. Just an idiot who is trying to disorder my sleep.” The chef’s elbow nudged sideways into Zoro’s ribs. “Shut the fuck up, moss-head.”
Still smiling, Zoro tightened his arm slightly around the other man... Before relaxing and closing his eyes.
“Qu’est-ce qu’on bien chez soi...” = "Home Sweet Home" (ironically)
Ahh, parent-child relationships. That rich seam of never-ending conflict that does so much to shape us all into such diverse and interesting people...
This chapter is dedicated to everyone who has ever had to deal with a difficult parent. Or meet their partner's difficult parent. Which is approximately the entire human race, I'm guessing.
Chapter 5: I'm No Good
Zoro sat down at the kitchen table and took a sip from his mug of coffee. Watched Zeff working for a few moments, contemplating the evening ahead. It seemed like things had gone well, judging by Sanji’s celebratory mood. So, great.
Except. There was an off-note. Something unsettled, an edge to the atmosphere in the room. And given that there were only two of them in there, that suggested that whatever was wrong, was wrong between him and Sanji’s old man.
Some folks may say / That I'm no good
That I wouldn't settle down / If I could
(Got my loving arms to keep you warm / In the kitchen cooking up a storm
If uncle tells me stay away from you / That is something I could never do)
- Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell
The alarm on Sanji’s phone went off at seven a.m., but it was the movement of the chef getting out of bed that woke Zoro the following morning. He opened his eyes to see Sanji pulling on his jeans and a t-shirt, then pick up his washbag and reach for the bedroom door. Pushing himself upright, Zoro let out a yawn. “Ha-uhh... S’it time to get up?”
“No hurry. I’m gonna shower, then start fixing breakfast. You want coffee?”
“Yeah, but I’ll get up for it.” Zoro yawned again.
“Okay. See you in the kitchen, then.”
Left alone, Zoro lay back down under the covers with his arms folded under his head and let his gaze wander around Sanji’s room. There wasn’t a lot of evidence of the years Sanji had spent living here. He recalled what the chef had said yesterday, about his old man clearing away photographs and mementos. The walls had a clean look, as if maybe they’d been repainted not long ago. He could see the bookshelf from where he was lying, just close enough read some of the titles on the spines. White Heat, Marco Pierre White. Le Petit Prince, Antoine Saint-Exupéry. The Old Man And The Sea, Ernest Hemingway. What looked like reference books and novels and past childhood favourites, arranged in no particular order.
Zoro had come late to learning to appreciate books. It had taken a long time to overcome the reluctance that a shoddy school experience had left him with for reading. The change had happened gradually; but it had begun when Koshiro had started to loan him books. Once Zoro had been learning kendo for a while, he had wanted to get more of a handle on why stuff like the mental and spiritual discipline was such a big deal. Why it made a difference. Because it became evident, pretty early on, that it did make a difference: he saw it with Koshiro, and with other top-level kendōka. And Zoro wanted to get that good too. More than anything.
So Zoro had asked Koshiro how he could learn more about it and his sensei had smiled. Then the next week when Zoro was packing his bōgu away, Koshiro had walked up to him and placed a book on the bench at the edge of the dojo, before walking away. Zoro had picked the book up: its cover bore the title Fudōchi Shin Myōroku in both Japanese kanji and English, with the name Takuan Sōhō underneath. The Unfettered Mind.
Zoro had taken the book home and started to read it. Then had gone back to the dojo the following week more confused than before. After practice had ended, he’d sought Koshiro out and said, “Sensei: that book you lent me. I don’t get it. What’s ‘the immovable wisdom of all Buddhas’ got to do with me getting to be a better kendo fighter?”
Koshiro had just smiled again. “Keep on reading.”
And Zoro had. Reluctantly, and trying not to think about how much failing to understand this book reminded him of all the times he’d failed to understand almost everything at school. Of how much he hated feeling stupid, and how much easier it would be to simply give Koshiro the book back unfinished and lie and say he’d read it.
But something unfamiliar happened. As he read each page, over and over, the book slowly began to make sense. Or parts of it did: passages that leaped into clarity, as if they were resonating with something he’d felt but hadn’t known how to put into words.
'When you first notice the sword that is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword at just that position, your own movements will be undone and you will be cut down by your opponent... But if you see the sword that moves to strike you and your mind is not detained by it and you meet the rhythm of the advancing sword; if you do not think of striking your opponent and no thoughts or judgements remain; if the instant you see the swinging sword your mind is not the least bit held back and you move straight in... Then the sword that was going to cut you down becomes your own, and will become the sword that cuts down your opponent.'
Zoro thought that made sense. Kind of.
'The mind is not detained by the hand that brandishes the sword. Completely oblivious to the hand that wields the sword, one strikes and cuts his opponent down. He does not put his mind in his adversary. The opponent is Emptiness. I am Emptiness. The hand that holds the sword, the sword itself, is Emptiness. Understand this, but do not let your mind be taken by Emptiness... Completely forget about the mind and you will do all things well.'
That passage gave him a lot more trouble. He had read it over, several times. Then finally approached Koshiro. “Sensei, uh... I don’t get it. That stuff he says, about being emptiness, but not letting your mind be taken by emptiness. And then he says, forget about your mind altogether. Does he mean stop thinking about anything? Don’t use your mind at all? How does that work?”
His sensei had regarded him. “Here at the dojo, you sit in mokuso. You practice attaining mushin no shin. Mind without mind.”
“Yeah. But I still don’t know what it means.”
Koshiro had smiled then. And had simply said, “Keep practicing,” before walking away.
Lying in Sanji’s bed now gazing up at the ceiling, Zoro found himself smiling too, at this memory.
Koshiro never stopped trying to teach me. Even when I was as dumb as a bag of rocks, to start with.
It had been a completely new experience, to have someone expect him to learn. To believe he could understand something complicated. To have faith in him, that he’d eventually figure it out.
And he had, eventually. Parts of it, anyway. It was ongoing, the learning: and he’d already worked out that this was all part of it, the fact that you didn’t figure out everything in one go. The stuff about mushin no shin, the Zen koans, the moments when you grasped something and felt like you’d moved forward... Only to realise it was a journey that continued indefinitely.
But he’d understood enough of it so far to make himself a better kendōka. Which was why he’d started reading the books in the first place. So there was no downside.
Another yawn escaped him, and he unfolded one arm in a long stretch. Then rubbed his fingers through his hair, trying to stir his brain awake. Looked over at the closed bedroom door and remembered that Sanji had said he was going to make coffee.
A shower felt like a good idea, too.
Zoro got out of bed and pulled on his jeans: picked up the towel he’d left on the back of the chair the night before, grabbed his shower gel and razor, and headed for the bathroom.
The powerful stream of hot water went a long way towards waking him up: shaving did the rest. By the time he’d finished he was hungry and ready for coffee. Draping his towel round his neck and giving the bathroom a quick once-over to make sure he’d left it reasonably tidy, Zoro unlocked the bathroom door and stepped through into the hallway beyond. Where he almost collided with Zeff walking past.
Zoro had quick reflexes and managed to stop before actually slamming into the old chef: but it was a close thing. He pulled back a little and their gazes met, Zeff not looking especially thrilled at his son’s house guest almost totalling him in the hallway. Which Zoro could understand. But he ought to at least make an attempt at being friendly, so he gave Zeff an apologetic smile. “Uh, good morning.”
“Morning,” Zeff grunted. Then his gaze dropped to Zoro’s chest. And a frown pulled his bushy brows together.
Zoro had already been extremely conscious of the fact that he was standing in front of his boyfriend’s father barefoot and clad only his jeans, with hair that he hadn’t yet properly towelled dry dripping down his neck. But when Zeff frowned, Zoro knew what that was about.
He ought to be used to people reacting to it, because he’d had enough people eyeballing the scar over the years; but mostly those had been people whom Zoro hadn’t cared a damn about. And even now, that familiar inner part of himself registered Zeff’s frown and responded, You think I give a fuck about what you think of me, you surly old bastard?
Except. That wasn’t true; because Zeff was Sanji’s old man, and Zoro had kind of hoped to make a good impression. To put the old fart into a friendly mood for considering Sanji’s business proposal, if nothing else. But judging by the look the old chef was giving him now, Zoro’s stock had just plummeted from unambitious slacker to homicidal gang-banger.
They stood there for a couple of seconds where neither of them said anything. Then Zeff looked him in the eye. “You finished in the bathroom?”
“Uh, yeah.” Zoro stepped aside. The old chef moved past him, closing the bathroom door with a quiet clunk.
Turning away himself, Zoro headed to get dressed. Frowning himself now.
When he went through to the kitchen, Sanji was sitting at the table drinking coffee. He glanced up at the swordsman when he entered. “Bacon and eggs for breakfast?”
“Yeah. Sounds good.” Zoro moved to where a cafetière stood on a counter next to a couple of mugs, and poured himself a coffee. Returning to the table he sat down himself. “I just saw Zeff.”
“Yeah, I figured he’d be up too. Being a chef makes you used to getting up early.” Sanji stood up and moved to the stove, where a frying pan waited ready. “How’d you want your eggs? Fried? Scrambled?”
“Fried.” Zoro watched Sanji start to get to work. The way the chef moved around the kitchen, with the automatic ease of someone who was totally at home in the space.
“After breakfast, I’ll make you some sandwiches for lunch. What do you want in them?”
“Forget it. I can grab a burger somewhere.”
Sanji turned at the stove and gave him an extremely unimpressed look. Zoro shrugged. “Look, shit cook, I don’t need you to fix me a fancy bentō to take with me. I buy burgers all the time. I like burgers.”
“Suit yourself.” Sanji turned back to the stove.
“And don’t worry, I’ll make myself scarce. As soon as I’ve eaten breakfast I’ll leave you and Zeff to chew the fat.”
“Good.” Sanji appeared to be concentrating on his frying pan. “How many eggs do you want, one or two?”
“Two’s great.” Zoro took a mouthful of coffee.
They had eaten breakfast and were just starting a second round of coffee when Zeff finally appeared. “Morning.” He glanced towards the stove. “You left anything for me?”
Sanji got up. “There’s bacon keeping warm in the oven. You want scrambled eggs, right?”
“Sit down, brat. I know you think I’m in my dotage, but I can still cook goddamn eggs,” Zeff replied.
Sanji’s brows hiked up a little and he sat back down, throwing a look at Zoro. “Fine. There’s coffee too, fresh brewed.”
Zeff grunted. “Thanks, little eggplant.”
Zoro met Sanji’s gaze and gave him a grin, mouthing the words Little eggplant at him: Sanji silently gave him the finger, his lips tightening into a line.
Zeff poured himself a coffee, then turned back towards the table, looking at his son. “You want a refill too?”
“I’m good, thanks.” Sanji shook his head.
Zeff looked at Zoro. “How about you, turf top? More coffee?”
Zoro felt his fingers tighten on his mug, before meeting the older chef’s gaze. “...Yeah. Thanks.” He held out his cup and Zeff poured it full, before turning back to the stove.
A foot poked at his shin under the table: Zoro looked up, to see Sanji grinning slyly. The chef made sure the swordsman was watching, before silently but unmistakably repeating the phrase Turf top at him. Zoro narrowed his eyes, before firing back a silent but equally-clear Asshole in response.
The rest of breakfast passed without incident, Zoro electing to finish up as quickly as possible and get the hell out of there before Zeff came up with any more annoying epithets.
Sanji caught up with him as he was coming out of the bedroom, having picked up his phone and wallet. “You heading out?”
“Yeah.” Zoro checked what cash he had in his wallet. “There an ATM anywhere near here?”
“Go up the street till you see the 7/11, there’s one on the corner opposite.” Sanji handed him a small folded map. “Here. The number 88 bus stops just up the road, it runs right into the centre of town. If you get confused remember you can always ask a policeman, they’re very good with lost children.”
“Fuck you, curly-brow.” Zoro leaned in and kissed him hard on the mouth. “Don’t bludgeon your old man until after you’ve got his signature on the paperwork.”
“I’ll bear it in mind.” Sanji closed his hand on the front of Zoro’s shirt, tugging the swordsman closer and returning the kiss. “See you later.”
Zeff was sitting at the kitchen table when Sanji went back through. The older chef looked up at him briefly. “Your boyfriend gone out?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think there was much point him hanging around here while we’re discussing business.”
Zeff nodded. “So. Where do you want to start?”
Sanji took a deep breath and sat down at the table, before laying his folder of paperwork on it between them. “Okay. I’ve got my business plan here, including the projected financials for the first eighteen months; and the details of the terms of my loan. The bank gave me a bunch of stuff for us to read through: it seems pretty straightforward, but I guess we should go through it together, make sure we’re both on the same page about what it entails...”
“ ‘On the same page’ ?” snorted Zeff. “What kind of horseshit yuppie double-speak is that, brat? Do us both a favour and talk plain English. The reason you’re here is because you need a guarantor for your bank loan, right?”
Sanji looked at his adoptive father. There was a beat of silence between them. Then the younger chef sat back, folding his arms across his chest. “Yes.”
Zeff also folded his arms, mirroring his son. “And you need this loan so you can rent your premises. Without which you can’t get this whole thing up and running.”
“That’s right. The leasing company want a big deposit up front. More than I can afford.”
“Hhn.” The older man let out a short grunt. “You considered looking for a cheaper place?
Sanji kept his voice even when he answered. “I’ve been looking at premises all over the city. The unit I’ve found is the best one I’ve seen: it’s a good location, and the space is partly fitted out already. It feels like the right one to go for. And the rent is the going rate for this kind of space, I’m not going to find a better deal.”
“You think starting your business with a bank loan hanging over you is a good idea?”
“It’s not ideal, but I’m not exactly overburdened with options. Why, you think staging a bank heist instead would be a better plan?” Sanji sniped, his temper finally unravelling.
Zeff snorted. “Don’t come the smartass with me, brat. You want to discuss this like adults, then act like one.”
“I am acting like one. But the other person involved in this conversation isn’t treating me like one.” Sanji gave his father a stormy look, before tugging his cigarettes out of his pocket and reaching for his lighter.
“You can forget about lighting up one of those goddamn things while we’re talking this through,” Zeff said immediately. “I’m not sitting here inhaling your secondhand smoke.”
Sanji slowly slid the packet back into his pocket. Took a deep breath, placing his hands flat on the table. “Okay. Fine.” His gaze met his father’s. “So just exactly what is it you want to know about my business plan? You want me to explain how I worked out the financials?”
“I’ve seen your business plan and I don’t need help understanding it. How long do you think I’ve been running my own place, damn eggplant? I do my own accounts, I know how to read a spreadsheet.”
“Great. Then from your highly-experienced position of superior know-how, what exactly is it about my plan that you don’t like?”
Zeff raised an eyebrow, before giving a slight shake of his head. “I didn’t say I didn’t like it.”
“Could’ve fooled me.”
“I think it’s got promise. Picking a traditional world street foods menu to go with is smart thinking, there’s a lot of dishes that are easy to fix with low-cost ingredients. Plus this whole global cuisine fad doesn’t show any signs of dying out soon, so why not tap into it.”
“What I’m not crazy about is the idea of you starting out in debt to the bank before you’ve cooked your first meal.”
“I’m not exactly overjoyed about it,” Sanji responded. “But unless I win the fucking lottery, this is my only option to get up and running.”
“It’s not your only option for work.” Zeff regarded him steadily. “You’ve got a job already, or so you tell me: chefing in a hotel. You could stick at that for a while, work your way back up to a decent position in a good kitchen. Like you were doing eighteen months ago.”
Sanji felt all the energy start to drain out of him, his body becoming heavy. “That’s... I’m not going to do that.”
“You know why.” Sanji held his father’s gaze, feeling anger rising. “Because I tried that. And I fucked up.”
“So what happens if you fuck this up?” Zeff’s eyes were hard.
Sanji clenched his jaw. “I don’t plan on fucking this up, shitty geezer.”
“In the catering business, stuff goes to hell in a handbasket with predictable regularity. What’ll you do when it does?”
“Work around it. Figure something out. I’m not a quitter, and I’m also not a total moron. About a zillion people start up their own businesses every year, I figure I’ve got as much chance as the rest of them of making a go of it.”
“And more than a third of them go belly-up within the first eighteen months. What makes you think you can be in the other two thirds?”
Sanji placed his folded arms on the table and fixed Zeff with a level stare. “Because I’m a shit-hot chef and my food is fucking awesome.”
There was a pause, while both of them held each other’s gaze. At last, Zeff’s moustache twitched. “Heh. You always were a cocky little brat.”
Sanji shrugged. “Yeah, wonder where the hell I got that from.”
“Watch it, eggplant. I haven’t agreed to be your backer yet.”
Letting out a sigh, Sanji propped his head on one hand. “Okay. What do you want? Some oath of filial devotion? Me to beg you for it? Name it, it’s yours.”
“You want this that badly, huh?”
“Yeah. I really do.” Sanji rested one hand on the file of paperwork lying between them. “I’ve had to jump through a shit ton of hoops already. And at last it’s looking like I can do this, I can make it happen. But not without this.” He gave the file a slight shove. “Reality check. To make stuff happen in this world, you need money. Which I don’t have: not enough to pay the unit deposit up front. Hence the bank loan. Which I cannot get, unless you are willing to be my guarantor. I totally get that it’s something I shouldn’t be asking, but I have no other way of doing this. So I am asking.”
Zeff regarded him, a slight frown pulling his bushy brows together. “You always did have a way of snarling things into one hell of a knot, string bean. You think you shouldn’t be asking me for this?”
“Well, yeah. I knew you’d think the whole thing was a crazy idea. Plus, I shouldn’t be asking you for help: I moved out a long time ago. I ought to be paying my own way by now.”
“You plan on defaulting on this loan?”
“Then there shouldn’t be a problem.” Zeff reached for the file of paperwork and flipped it open. “Let’s take a look at the goddamn fine print. What are the terms of the loan repayment?”
Sanji opened his mouth, then shut it. Opened it again. “...Uh?”
Zeff, spreading documents across the table, glanced up and fixed him with a steady look. “I can see you really want this, brat. And it sounds like you’re gonna take your best shot at it. So I’m not going to get in your way. You say you’re gonna do this, then fine: let’s read through the damn paperwork so we both know exactly what we’re letting ourselves in for, then let’s get it signed off. I’m not getting any younger and you’re not getting any wiser.”
Sanji breathed in, slowly. “You’ll... be my guarantor?”
“Yeah. I’ll be your damn guarantor. C’mon, let’s plough through this stuff. Then you can tell me all about how you plan to find some customers so you can start showing them what a shit-hot chef you are.”
The midday sunshine was bright but the wind was still cold: it looked like spring but felt like winter. After wandering the streets for a while Zoro had holed up in a downtown café and was now sitting in a seat by a window, finishing a burger with a side order of fries and gazing out idly at passers-by.
His phone ringtone sounded and he fished it out of his pocket, expecting to see Sanji’s number coming up: instead an unknown mobile number showed on the screen. Frowning slightly, Zoro took the call. “Hello?”
“Zoro? It’s Nami.”
“Uh, hi.” Zoro didn’t even know she had his number. Presumably Sanji must have given it to her.
“Can you talk? Are you with Sanji?”
“Yeah, and no. Why?”
“This is about his birthday gathering. Why aren’t you with him? I thought you guys were visiting his dad this weekend.”
“We are. But I left the two of them alone for a while, so they could do some father-son bonding.” Zoro popped a couple of fries into his mouth. “Sanji needs to sweet-talk his old man into signing up as his loan guarantor, so I cleared out to give them some space.”
“Smart move.” Nami sounded like she was smiling. “I’ve never met Zeff: and from the things Sanji’s told me, I’m not sure I want to. He sounds like a pain in the ass.”
“That about covers it,” Zoro affirmed.
“You think he’s going to cooperate, and help Sanji out?”
“Before this weekend I would’ve said yeah, why wouldn’t he. Having actually met the guy, who the fuck knows. I’m waiting for Sanji to call me and let me know how it’s gone.”
There was a sigh down the phone line. “Shit... Sanji really needs this. Will you tell him to call me? Let me know how things worked out?”
“Good.” Nami’s voice resumed efficient tones. “Right, next order of business... Planning Sanji’s birthday. I’ve organised the venue, the Rip-Off Bar: it’s one of Sanji’s favourites. I spoke to them on the phone and booked us a booth, so even if it’s busy we’ll have a place to sit.”
“Sounds okay. I invited a couple of friends to come along too.”
“Who?” Nami demanded.
“My roommate, Luffy; and our friend Usopp. And Luffy’s brother Ace might come too, with his boyfriend.”
“That’s quite a crowd.” Nami sounded unimpressed. “Has Sanji met any of these guys?”
“He’s met Luffy and Usopp: he told me to invite them.”
“Well, I guess if you’ve already invited them...” Nami huffed down the line. “Whatever. Okay: on the evening, I’ll go straight to the Rip-Off with Sanji. You need to go via La Bohème to pick up the cake, bring it to the bar.”
“You want me to pick up the cake?” Zoro wasn’t impressed by this.
“Yes. A gâteau moka like Sanji wanted, I ordered it this week. It’ll be ready to collect on the evening: you need to make sure you get La Bohème before seven-thirty, that’s when they close. Bring it to the back entrance of the bar, I’ve told the staff there to expect it. Then you can join us inside, and once we’ve all had a few drinks... I’ll give the bar staff the nod, and they’ll bring out the cake.”
It sounded like this birthday celebration was getting complicated. “Why all the cloak and dagger stuff? Sanji knows he’s getting the damn cake, he asked for it.”
“Because this is his birthday. On people’s birthdays, you surprise people with nice things. Like cake. And cards. And gifts.” Nami sounded irritated. “Have you bought him a gift?”
“What is it?”
“A pet manatee.” Zoro’s fries were getting cold, and he wasn’t especially motivated to stay with this conversation.
“You better not have got him something lame.”
“You got any more demands, or can I get back to eating my lunch?”
“Fine, we’re done. Just don’t forget to collect the cake next Saturday evening.”
“Pick up cake. Check.”
“And tell Sanji to call me.”
“I’ll pass that on.”
“If you’re planning on inviting any more random people to Sanji’s birthday party: don’t.”
“My friends aren’t random.”
“I bet. See you Saturday.” Nami spoke drily. “Bye.” And she ended the call.
The kitchen was quiet, the only sound the scratch of Zeff’s fountain pen as he printed and signed his name on pages of bank paperwork.
Sanji watched his father’s hand moving deliberately across each page, leaving the magic signature behind in firm black ink. He felt a loosening of tension that almost made him light-headed.
It’s going to happen. Bite Me is really going to happen.
Zeff’s agreement to be his guarantor was the last piece of the puzzle. Now all he had to do was take the signed forms to the bank, get his loan, go to the leasing company and complete the contract for leasing the unit, and start moving in. And then, start cooking.
He almost couldn’t believe this was real. Excitement was bubbling up in his chest... Plus a little residual tension, sure: because although this was truly what he wanted to do, there was a hell of a lot of money involved and the pressure would be on for him to make his business a success. And all that talk from Zeff about so many businesses failing not long after set-up wasn’t exactly encouraging.
But that’s not going to happen to me. He told himself that firmly, not allowing any other thoughts to take up headspace. I’m going to do this, and it’s gonna be great.
Zeff moved a sheet of paper to one side, and began signing his name on the one underneath it. The bank certainly liked its paperwork. Sanji watched the older chef’s hand move steadily across the paper, the strong fingers gripping the silver pen.
Sanji had bought that fountain pen for Zeff as a Christmas present the year he’d started working at L’Escargot Blanc. Zeff had never been big on excessive praise, but he’d been pleased when Sanji had landed that job. Which had made it all the harder for Sanji when he’d had to confess to getting fired.
- You’ve got a job already, or so you tell me: chefing in a hotel. You could stick at that for a while, work your way back up to a decent position in a good kitchen.
His father had said his piece. And Sanji had said his. And now Zeff was going to help him do what he really wanted to do.
Sanji watched Zeff firmly write one last signature. And for the first time he noticed the backs of the old man’s hands were gnarled, although they moved as surely as they ever had.
I really should visit more often.
Finishing his last signature with a score of his pen, Zeff pushed the pile of completed paperwork away, recapping his pen and sliding it into his pocket. “There. You got any more for me to autograph?”
“That’s everything.” Sanji gathered up the paperwork and carefully slid it away into his folder. “I’ll get it all in to the bank day after tomorrow. They said they would be sending us both copies of the final loan agreement, so you should get that sometime next week.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Zeff commented drily.
Sanji looked at him. “I haven’t actually said this yet. This means a hell of a lot to me, to be able to do this. Thank you for helping me make it happen.”
“You haven’t done it yet, string bean. Lot of work still to do before you can start celebrating.”
“I know. But this - ” Sanji gestured at the folder, “ – means I can get going. I couldn’t have done it without your help.”
Zeff grunted, getting up from the table and moving towards the kettle. “Just make sure you give it your best shot.”
Sanji watched his father fill the kettle with water: put it on to boil. There was a minute or so of quiet, while the small sounds of water starting to heat were the only noise in the room. Zeff set two mugs on the counter; spooned coffee grounds into the cafetière.
“So, this boyfriend of yours.” Zeff’s voice was neutral: he stood with his back to his son, watching steam begin to wisp from the kettle’s spout. “How’d the two of you meet?”
Sanji decided to go with mostly truthful. “I was working in a bar in a club on New Year’s Eve. Zoro was one of the customers.”
“Certainly seems like he’s fond of a drink.” Zeff’s reply wasn’t encouraging.
“He had two beers at the Baratie, crap geezer. And we shared a couple of bottles of wine back here last night.” Sanji rolled his eyes, although the effect was wasted with Zeff facing the other way. “That’s not exactly excessive.”
Zeff grunted. “You met any of his family?”
“He hasn’t got any.” Sanji wondered where this was going. “His folks are dead. His uncle brought him up, but isn’t around any more either.”
“So he’s a loner.”
“No. He has friends. Whom I’ve met. And who are nice people.”
There was a brief pause, while the small sounds of the kettle coming to the boil crept between them. Then the old chef spoke again. “So he works in a gym and does kendo in his spare time.”
“Yeah. Is that an actual question, or are you just making conversation?”
“Don’t be a smartass with me, brat. I got an eyeful of your boyfriend when he wandered out the bathroom this morning with no shirt on. How’d he get that scar?”
Sanji blinked. And parried with a question of his own. “What business is that of yours?”
Zeff turned around to face him. “Well, unless they’ve started using real swords in kendo instead of bamboo ones, he didn’t get it that way. Which makes me wonder what kind of thing he was into, that got him carved up like that. And you ought to wonder about it too, eggplant.”
“I don’t give a fuck.” Sanji stated this truculently. Which didn’t quite compensate for the fact that it was not one hundred per cent true. “Maybe he got it fighting zombie hordes. Or wrestling a grizzly.”
“Maybe he got it hanging with the kind of lowlifes that mean serious trouble,” Zeff responded. “The kind of trouble you don’t leave behind easily.”
“Zoro isn’t involved with any kind of trouble.” Sanji held his adoptive father's gaze. “He works hard. He competes in kendo, and he’s really fucking good at it. He had it tough when he was younger, maybe he made some mistakes then: who hasn’t? But he’s turned his life around.”
“He finish high school?”
“Jesus, you shitty old geezer: get off his case! Have any of the guys you employ at the Baratie got their diplomas? You don’t give them a hard time about their lack of academic prowess.”
“They’re not dating my son.” Zeff fixed him with a look.
Sanji laughed. “What, you’re vetting my dates now? When the fuck did that start happening?”
“The last time you brought someone home to meet me, you were still at college. And that was only because you didn’t have many other choices of places to bring them so you could get laid in an actual bed.” Zeff raised an eyebrow.
“You are unbelievable.” Sanji propped his head on one hand. “I’m an adult. I can make my own choices about who I share my life with, without getting your approval.”
“Sure you can, brat. I’m not debating that. I’m just telling you to go into this with your eyes open.”
“They are open. What, you think I’m some naive idiot?”
“I think you’re following what most young guys your age follow: where your dick leads you.” Zeff snorted dismissively.
“Holy crap. Thank you for that gem of paternal insight.” Sanji leaned back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest.
“Don’t pout, brat. It wasn’t intended as an insult. I was your age once, incredible though it might seem to you. I remember what it was like.”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“Doubt all you damn well want, doesn’t make it any less true. At your age your most active organ isn’t your brain. But all I’m saying is, at least try to use it occasionally.”
“I don’t get why you think me being with Zoro means I’m not doing that. What have you got against him?”
“Nothing that would stand up in court. He’s easy on the eye, better than some of the specimens you brought home when you were still living here. He’s got a steady job. That hair makes him look like an asshole, but show me someone your age who doesn’t go for style over substance.”
“Then why are you giving me the third degree?”
“I’m your old man. It’s my job.” Zeff gave him a flinty grin that twisted up the ends of his moustache.
Sanji let out a heavy breath. “I’m touched. What else shall we talk about?”
“Meaning, mind my own damn business?”
“Pretty much.” Sanji gave his father a deliberate smile. “When I feel like I need fatherly advice on the topic of matters of the heart, you’ll be the first to know.”
Zeff snorted, and picked up the kettle. “Yeah, yeah. I won’t hold my breath.”
While Zeff was making the coffee, Sanji decided to check the time on his phone. Surprisingly, it was late afternoon: the day had slid away, with him and Zeff talking things through. He slid his thumb over the screen, then started typing in a message to Zoro.
‘Hey we’re done here. Zeff signed off on the paperwork! \ (^o^) / You want to head back so we can celebrate? ’
There was a pause of a minute or so, then a text landed in reply.
‘FKN A. I’ll be back soonest.’
Then another minute later, ‘Enough alcohol in the apartment to celebrate or should I buy extra?’
Sanji grinned at his phone, and typed a reply. ‘Fuck the alcohol get your ass back here.’
‘Better have something other than wine stashed there shit cook.’
‘Wine for a kick-off but I know where Zeff hides his whiskey.’
‘Things are looking up. Heading for the bus now.’
When Zoro reached the apartment, the door opened to reveal Sanji with a smile from ear to ear. “It’s done. The ink is dry on the paperwork. By this time next week, Bite Me is going to have actual premises. You are looking at the future of street food fusion cuisine.”
Zoro curled one hand around the back of the chef’s head and pulled him in for a kiss, before saying, “I have no fucking idea what that means, but I’m guessing it’s all good.”
“Oh yeah,” Sanji grinned. “I’m really gonna do this!”
Zoro smiled, enjoying the chef’s elation. “Great. How are we celebrating tonight?”
“Zeff’s gonna cook us dinner.”
Raising an eyebrow, Zoro let his hand settle on the chef’s hip. “Okay, not exactly the answer I was looking for.”
Sanji’s eyes met his, and the chef chuckled. “Oh. Right.” His fingers crept slowly along the swordsman’s arm. “You had something else in mind?”
Zoro tightened his hand on Sanji’s hip and drew the other man closer to him, bringing them close together. “How soundproof are your bedroom walls?”
“Not very.” Sanji slid his arm around Zoro’s back, bringing them closer still. He bent his head forward, starting to explore the swordsman’s neck with his mouth. “But that doesn’t have to be a problem.”
Zoro smiled too, enjoying the feel of the other man's lips and tongue working over his skin. “Any chance we could skip dinner and move straight on to the other stuff?”
“Hmm... Nope.” Sanji gave the swordsman’s neck a gentle bite, then straightened up. “Zeff’s making us chicken tagine. I wouldn’t admit this to the crap geezer’s face, but he cooks it better than I do. You’re gonna love it.”
“Great.” Zoro tried to feel enthusiastic about the thought of sustaining conversation with Zeff throughout dinner. “And he came through for you with the whole bank loan thing.”
“Yeah!” Sanji grinned again. “Fuck, at one point I really thought he wasn’t gonna go for it. But we talked it out... And he signed on the dotted line. I can take the paperwork in to the bank beginning of this week, I should have the money by Wednesday, get the unit lease by end of the week. And then it’s game on.”
Zoro smiled again, caught up in the chef’s elation. “Told you it’d all work out.”
“Yeah. You did.” Sanji’s eyes rested on him. Zoro felt the chef’s hand stroke slowly against the small of his back.
There was a moment of quiet between them, there in the hallway. Then Zeff’s voice reached them, an almost-shout from the kitchen. “Hey, little eggplant! You’ll need to pick up some Castelvetrano olives as well as preserved lemons from Francesca’s. Get a move on, or you won’t catch them before they close.”
“Heading out now!” Sanji called back. Then gave Zoro an apologetic look. “Gotta go on a supply run to the deli. I’ll be back in a half hour tops. Figure you can handle my old man till then?”
Zoro gave a slight shrug. “No problem.”
Sanji lifted his coat off a peg by the door. “Okay.” He donned the coat, pulled open the apartment door, and wrapped his scarf around his neck. “Right. I’m out of here.”
After the door had closed behind the chef, Zoro hung up his own jacket before wandering into the apartment. In the passageway that led off the main room he glanced towards Sanji’s bedroom, considering whether to go hole up in there... But thought better of it. He had to eat dinner with Zeff, so he might as well go and be sociable.
When he entered the kitchen it was quiet: only the rhythmic tap-tap-tap of Zeff’s knife against a wooden chopping board, a soft slicing sound as the sharp steel cut through a red onion the older man was preparing. Zeff’s back was towards Zoro as he came in, but the chef spoke straight away. “Hope you had a good time seeing the sights. You want coffee, there’s some over there fresh brewed.”
“Thanks.” Zoro moved to the counter, and poured himself a cupful. “You want one too?”
Zeff grunted. “Not while I’m cooking.” His knife moved smoothly and swiftly, the onion falling into red and white slivers under the blade.
Zoro sat down at the kitchen table and took a sip from his mug of coffee. Watched Zeff working for a few moments, contemplating the evening ahead. It seemed like things had gone well, judging by Sanji’s celebratory mood. So, great.
Except. There was an off-note. Something unsettled, an edge to the atmosphere in the room. And given that there were only two of them in there, that suggested that whatever was wrong, was wrong between him and Sanji’s old man. Which was annoying, because as far as Zoro was concerned he’d made an effort to play nice with the cranky old fuck. But it didn’t seem to be getting him anywhere.
“So. You and the little eggplant.” Zeff spoke suddenly, his voice matter-of-fact: the big man not even looking up from the onions he was slicing. “You planning to stick around for the long haul?”
Zoro blinked at the question, his mug halfway to his mouth. Then set it down on the table. After watching the other man’s back for a few seconds, he answered, “That’s not just up to me.”
“Obviously. But you’re the one I’m asking, turf top.”
Jaw tightening, Zoro made sure his voice sounded unruffled when he spoke. “I like Sanji. A lot.”
“I should damn well hope so, if you’re nailing him.”
“And I want to be with him.”
“You are with him. Question I asked was, how long for?”
Zoro took a deep breath. “You think I’m just looking for some casual hookup?”
Zeff laid down his knife and turned around, fixing the swordsman with a steady gaze. “What I think is, my son more than likes you. And I think that if all you can do is like him, if he’s just some convenient fuck-buddy, you better make your lame-ass excuses and back out of this before it gets messy. What do you think?”
Anger flared up in Zoro’s chest. “I think you’re making assumptions about something you know jack shit about.”
“Then enlighten me, smartass.” Zeff said this sardonically, folding his arms. “Tell me what this thing with my son means to you.”
“It means enough that I came out here and spent the weekend visiting with his borderline sociopath father,” Zoro rejoined. “And that I’m not kicking your ass right now.”
“Oh, you want a piece of me, big guy? Bring it on.” Zeff spread his arms wide. “Give it your best shot.”
Zoro gazed at him for a full five seconds, his hands closing into fists on the table top... Then let out a breath. “No.”
“Why not? You’re itching to punch this mouthy old fuckhead. Big kendo warrior, you must be hot stuff in the fighting stakes. So show me what you’ve got.”
Zoro slowly folded his own arms. After a pause, his face now carefully expressionless, he made his reply. “Blow me.”
There was a long silence, while the two held each other’s gaze. Then at last Zeff let out a grunt. “That’s your answer?”
“What Sanji and I do together is none of your goddamn business. I don’t have to prove anything to you. And if at some distant point in the future we ever decided to tie the knot, we sure as shit wouldn’t wait on you giving us your blessing, you cantankerous old bastard.” Zoro was totally done with being diplomatic.
Zeff’s face went stony for a moment. And then, unbelievably, a grim smile twisted up the ends of that extravagant moustache. “Heh. That’s more like it.” He turned away, back to his chopping board, and picked up his knife again. Resumed slicing onions. “You’re all right, turf top.”
Blindsided by this change in mood, Zoro gave his head a short shake. “What?”
“Underneath all that tough-guy façade. There’s an actual human being, who gives a shit. That’s all I wanted to know.”
“You...” Zoro couldn’t think of a word to follow that wasn’t an expletive, so he stopped talking.
“Any fool can act tough.” Zeff’s voice was almost a growl. “I’ve been knocking around this planet a few years, and I’ve met plenty of hard cases. Employed a bunch of ‘em. Tough guys. Men who could handle themselves. People who’ve been in bad places, who’ve survived every kind of shit life threw at them; and believe me when I say that I know what the worst shit is that bitch can sling.” Zeff stopped chopping and turned back to face Zoro. Still holding his kitchen knife. “I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at reading people, a prehistoric old fart like me gets a lot of practice. And when I look at you, I see a tough guy. A survivor. But there’s two kinds of survivors in this world, boy.” The dark eyes bored into Zoro’s. “The ones who get strong, inside. Or the ones who go dead, inside. And the way you jumped down my throat a moment ago kind of inclines me to think you’re not the latter. Because the way you tell ‘em apart, is by seeing who gives a shit.”
Zoro found his voice again. “Glad I’ve got your seal of approval.”
Zeff snorted. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, turf top. You and me aren’t friends yet, not by a long chalk.” He regarded the swordsman steadily. “You don’t come back from bad places without it leaving a mark. Without it showing, to people who know how to see it. And I see it, with you.” His gaze held the swordsman: dark, unblinking. “You think you’ve left all that behind you. You've got a steady job, you’re winning your kendo tournaments, all’s well with the world. But you can’t throw away your past. Try, and it’ll come back and bite you on the ass every time. The trick is not to forget it. That way you won’t find yourself walking back into the same place.”
It was difficult not to blink under that insistent gaze, but Zoro held his eyes steadily on the old man. “Thanks for the free advice.”
“It’s not advice, turf top. It’s a warning.” Zeff lifted his knife, the steel reflecting the kitchen light in a cold silver gleam. “Keep an eye on that place. And keep on giving a shit. Because if I ever find out you’ve taken the smile off my son’s face I will come after you; and I will fillet you.” He lifted the knife’s point. “Are we clear?”
Zoro’s eyes tracked down to the knife... Then back to the old chef’s face. “Yeah. We’re clear.”
Zeff studied his face for a few seconds. Then he lowered his knife and turned back to his chopping board. “Fine.” He picked up another onion and placed it on the board: began to slice it, steadily and rhythmically.
Zoro sat there for almost a full minute, watching the older man. At those powerful hands deftly moving the large knife; the lightning flicker of silver against the scarred wood.
- Believe me when I say, the most dangerous thing in Zeff’s kitchen is always going to be him.
Right now, Zoro didn’t doubt Sanji’s words. But it appeared that having had his say, the old chef considered their discussion to be over. After a few more moments passed with nothing but the rhythmic thud of the knife’s blade against the board, Zoro considered whether he should stand up and make an exit – but then Zeff’s voice reached him again.
“Hey, turf top.”
Zoro looked up. The old chef still had his back to him, but he was gesturing towards the refrigerator with his knife. “Get me the parsley out, and wash it in the sink.”
When Sanji returned to the apartment, the scent of frying onions and garlic greeted him. He shed his coat and walked through to the kitchen with the bag of ingredients he’d bought at the deli. The sight that met him there made him pause on the threshold: Zoro standing next to Zeff at the kitchen counter with a scowl of concentration on his face, while the old chef issued him with typically pithy instructions. “Chop it smaller than that. Hold the knife by the blade as well as the handle. It won’t bite.”
Sanji moved into the kitchen, setting the bag of ingredients down on the table. “Got everything you needed. You need a hand, or is one sous chef enough?”
Zoro looked around at him and his face wore the clearest message of Thank fuck that Sanji had seen on another human being. Beside the swordsman Zeff grunted. “I can manage. Just teaching turf top here how to chop parsley.”
Sanji opened the fridge and got out the bottle of wine he’d put in there earlier. “Yeah? Good idea. Developing good knife skills might improve your kendo.”
This time the look he got from Zoro promised infinite payback. “You think?”
Sanji crossed to the counter to take the corkscrew out of a drawer, before looking critically down at the chopping board in front of the swordsman. “Hmm... Needs to be finer than that.”
“What I told him,” commented Zeff, moving away to pick up the supplies Sanji had brought.
Zoro’s mouth tightened a little, the knuckles of the hand gripping the knife tightening too. Sanji nudged him slightly in the side. “Glass of wine? We can go relax in the other room, leave the head chef to it.”
Laying the knife down on the chopping board, Zoro let out a breath. “Yeah. Sure.”
Zeff moved past them, dumping cilantro in a colander in the sink and running cold water over it. “Yeah, you two can make yourselves scarce. I can fix this dish quicker if I’m not tripping over both of you in here.”
Once they were sitting on the couch in the other room Sanji took a sip of his glass of wine, then watched as Zoro drained half of his in one go. The chef raised an eyebrow. “Holy crap. I was only gone half an hour, and I come back to find you bonding over the parsley. Way to go with trying to make a good impression.”
Zoro appeared to consider for a moment. Then answered enigmatically, “I think making a good impression is a ways off yet.”
Sanji regarded him. “Yeah?”
Zoro took another swig of wine. “Your old man... You talked about him dealing with rough stuff in the kitchen at the Baratie, when things kicked off.”
“So he can hold his own in a fight, I’m guessing.”
“He can wipe the floor with most people. Me included.” Sanji frowned slightly. “Why’re you asking?”
“Just curious.” Zoro drained his glass.
Sanji narrowed his eyes. “So what were the two of you talking about?”
Zoro’s mouth quirked briefly. “Knife skills.” He reached forward and poured himself another drink.
The next morning all three men were up early, Zeff claiming that he would need a head start to sort out the chaos created by his absence from the Baratie the day before. Sanji and Zoro were catching the eight o’clock train, which meant leaving the apartment not long after seven. Their trajectories coincided only briefly: as the two younger men were donning their coats and getting ready to head out, Zeff appeared in the doorway that led from the main room with coffee mug in hand. “You catching the bus to the station?”
“Yeah, we better.” Sanji wound his scarf around his neck. “Shouldn’t be much traffic yet though, we’ll be okay.”
Zeff grunted. “Keep me posted about how this thing of yours develops.”
“I will.” Sanji shouldered his bag; then looked at his adoptive father, standing in the doorway of their home. And felt something rise up inside, that wasn’t sadness or nostalgia or anything he could name. It made him want to offer more than just their usual brief farewell.
Without giving himself time to overthink it, Sanji took the two steps forward it needed to close the gap between him and Zeff, and circled the old man’s shoulders with a hug. “Thanks, crap geezer. For everything.”
He felt one arm come up around him in response, a hand rest briefly on his back. And Zeff’s gruff response close to his ear. “Okay. Just make a go of it, little eggplant.”
They stepped apart. And Zeff’s dark eyes were on his, looking oddly bright. But all the old chef said was, “Don’t miss your train.”
The journey back home was a quiet one. Sanji didn’t realise quite how much he’d been running on adrenaline until he was sitting on the train, watching the landscape scroll by, and felt his shoulders relax downwards as if a weight had rolled off them.
His gaze drifted across the table, to where Zoro sat reading. The swordsman looked at ease too: looking at him, Sanji was suddenly filled with a wave of gratitude. To Zeff, for being his guarantor and helping him to make Bite Me come into being. And to Zoro, for the things he'd said all those weeks ago, on New Year's Eve. For putting up with Zeff; for coming with him. For just being here.
I’m getting used to you being here.
The thought registered in his mind, then sank to some deeper place. And out of the window the landscape skimmed past; the view ahead opening up only moments before it blurred alongside and was gone, history. Going from here to there, over and over.
Sanji let his head rest back against his seat. Eyes following the blur of the world unfolding; not needing to see everything clearly, just trusting the journey. Knowing only what was enough: that he was in motion. Somewhere between here and there.
Chapter 6: We Should
Everyone moved up, making room for the pair to sit down in the booth. Ace slid close on to the seat beside Zoro, propping one arm behind the swordsman’s shoulders. “Mm... Nice ‘n’ cosy.”
“You smell like an arsonist’s jockstrap,” Zoro commented.
“For that you can buy me a drink, you fucking lout. We came straight here from the gig: didn’t have time to freshen up afterwards.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Zoro extricated some money and slid it across the table to Marco. “Get some more drinks for the rest of us while you’re at it.”
We should both go to bed
Till we make each other sore
We should both stay in bed
Till we make each other roar
It was quarter past seven on Saturday, the evening of Sanji’s birthday party, and Zoro was running late.
He had finished work as soon as he could, allowing time to shower and change and then a good half hour to walk to the bakery that Nami had texted him the address for. According to the sat nav on his phone, it should only have taken him twenty minutes to reach the place from the gym, and he had left work at six-thirty. But he was still walking, there was no sign of any fancy French bakery, and it was now – he took a quick look at the time on his phone – twenty past seven.
Zoro swore softly and glowered at his phone screen, standing still for a moment to orientate himself. The annoying flashing little red dot that apparently was him was flickering on a street, and the stationary blue dot that signified his goal looked to be behind him. Which meant he’d already walked past it.
Swivelling on the spot, Zoro set off back down the street, retracing his route: keeping one eye on the sat nav but glancing around to see if he could spot anything that looked like the place he was aiming for. Whilst trying not to think about how he was going to deal with Nami if he didn’t find the bakery and pick up the damn cake before the shop closed.
He’d only been walking for a couple of minutes when, thankfully, a sign loomed up that spelled in elaborate curly letters the end of his quest: La Bohème. Sliding his phone into his pocket with a grunt of relief, he pushed open the polished wooden door and stepped inside.
A sugary smell and slightly steamy warmth met him. A glass-fronted counter ran along one side of the space, while filling the rest of the room were a few tables, which had upturned chairs stacked on them. In between the tables a young woman paused in lifting up a chair to look at him. “I’m sorry, sir: we’re closing in five minutes.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve come to collect an order.” Zoro glanced towards the counter. “A birthday cake. Uh... A mocha... something...” He couldn’t remember what the hell it was called.
The young woman’s face looked blank for a minute, then she smiled helpfully. “Oh, you mean the gâteau moka aux amandes ?”
“Uh huh.” What she’d said sounded right, anyway.
“It’s ready, I’ll just fetch it from the kitchen.” She laid aside her broom and headed through a doorway at the back of the shop; reappearing a minute later carefully carrying a white box, which she set on the counter. “You’re lucky you caught me. Another couple of minutes and I’d have locked up the shop.”
“Had a little trouble finding you,” Zoro answered succinctly, opening the lid of the box to take a quick look inside. A confection that looked more like a fancy cushion than a cake greeted him: swirls of coffee-coloured frosting and drifts of flaked almonds competed for space on the cake’s top, leaving just enough of a gap for the words Happy Birthday Sanji piped on in what looked like dark chocolate.
“Looks good enough to eat, huh?” commented the woman cheerfully. “It’ll be a great birthday surprise for your friend.”
“Hope so,” replied Zoro, closing the box’s lid.
He was about to pick it up when the woman said politely, “So, that’s twenty-four dollars fifty. Would you like a carrier for it?”
Nami hasn’t paid for it yet? Figures.
Fishing out his wallet, Zoro dug out two tens and a five. “Here...”
“Thank you.” The woman smiled, before handing him his change and then carefully lifting the cake box into a large carrier bag. “Make sure you keep it upright – it’d be a shame for the cake to have an accident before your friend sees it!”
“And wish your friend a happy birthday from all of us here at La Bohème. I hope you have a great evening.”
Back out on the sidewalk, Zoro took a minute to send Nami a text.
‘Got the cake. Be there soon.’
There was the briefest delay, before her answer winged back at him.
‘ur only just getting it NOW? wt r u doing??’
‘nvr mind just get here aqap’
Zoro didn’t bother to text a reply. Instead he opened his sat nav again and typed in the address of the Rip Off Bar: studied the screen for a few moments with a slight frown, then set off down the street.
This time he reached the destination without having to retrace his steps, and was standing outside the bar before eight o’clock. A sign with The Rip Off in purple neon letters lit up the window, through which customers could be seen at tables. Zoro regarded the bar name for a moment.
Hope that’s not a forecast.
Mindful of Nami’s instructions to drop the cake round the back entrance, he looked along the street: a couple of yards away there was the entrance to an alleyway. He headed into it, walking a few paces off the main street to stop in front of what looked like a fire door. After hesitating a moment, Zoro knocked on it a couple of times. Waited: then when there was zero response knocked again, this time with his fist.
Still nothing. Letting out an irritated breath, Zoro set down the carrier with the cake in it cautiously on the ground, before hauling out his phone and texting Nami again.
‘Hey I’m out back of the bar with the damn cake, u want to get someone to let me in?’
No reply answered his text. Zoro was just considering going in the front of the bar, Nami’s scheming be damned – when the fire door clunked and then creaked open, revealing a vexed-looking Nami herself. “Why didn’t you just knock on the door?”
“I did. No-one was answering.”
Nami gave an impatient shake of her head. “We better be quick: I told Sanji I was going to the ladies room. Where’s the cake?”
Zoro silently picked up the carrier and handed it to her. Nami glanced at the cake box inside. “Did you check it at La Bohème, make sure it was okay?”
“It said Happy Birthday Sanji on top. Anything else I should’ve been looking for?”
Nami made an impatient noise. “Did it look like they’d done a good job on it?”
“It was cake-shaped.” The swordsman met her gaze steadily. “Looked okay to me.”
Letting out a small sigh, Nami started to turn away. “I’ll go take this to the bar staff, get them set up to bring it through in a little while. You better wait a few minutes before you come in the front, give me time to get back to the table so it doesn’t look suspicious.”
“Whatever.” Zoro didn’t plan on hanging about in the chilly night street, when he could be inside drinking his first beer.
Nami pulled the fire door closed, leaving him alone in the alleyway. He gave it a couple of minutes before retracing his steps to the Rip Off’s front entrance. The door gave smoothly as he pushed it and stepped into warmth and an early evening atmosphere of voices and background music. The Rip Off was bigger than it looked from the front, tables and booths filling most of the space, and a large semicircular wooden bar on one side where a few customers were sat on stools.
From a booth about halfway back Nami’s head and shoulders appeared as she leaned out, looking in Zoro’s direction. He headed towards her and stopped at the booth: sitting opposite her was Sanji, who looked quickly up and broke into a smile. “Hey, you made it. You come straight from work?”
“Yeah... Had a late class today.” Zoro took in the sight of the chef: Sanji was wearing a black suit jacket over an open-collared turquoise shirt and black pants, and the outfit looked pretty damn good on him. And somehow familiar. As the chef smiled up at him, Zoro gestured with his thumb towards the bar. “I’m gonna get a beer. Either of you want a drink?”
Sanji nodded at an empty wine glass on the table. “Yeah, I could go for a refill. I’m on Malbec.”
Zoro picked up the glass, before looking at Nami. She gave him a wide smile. “Tequila Sunrise, thanks.”
When he got back to the table Sanji slid along the booth seat, making room for the swordsman. “Great...” The chef picked up his wine glass and Nami did the same with her cocktail; smiling at her and at Zoro, Sanji toasted the air. “Santé.”
Their three glass rims chinked together. Nami said, “Happy birthday, hon. This coming year is going to be an awesome one for you: I just know it.”
Sanji laughed, taking a sip of his wine. “I’d settle for good. But I’ll take awesome if it happens.”
“New business, new boyfriend...” Nami checked these off on her fingers, with a smirk at Zoro. “So far it’s looking promising.”
Sanji looked sidelong at Zoro too, still smiling. “Yeah.” His hand moved over the swordsman’s where it rested on the seat, fingers sliding between the other man’s: tightening to give a slow squeeze. Zoro felt the touch pull all his focus to that point of warmth. He turned his head to meet the chef’s gaze. The blue there open and dark, like sky at high altitude just before it shades to black space.
“Happy birthday, cook.” He said it to anchor himself. And tightened his own grip on the chef’s hand for the same reason. Because he’d only just got there and already he wanted to stand up and tug on the hand holding his, move them both out of the bar and someplace else, Sanji’s apartment or his own or anywhere he could push the chef up against a wall and start unfurling him from that suit, get his mouth on that pale skin and make it flush and shiver –
“Hey, moss head?” Sanji’s voice cut through his reverie. “You listening?”
“Uh?” Zoro blinked. Sanji was still looking at him, but now his smile looked amused.
“Tchh... Nami asked you a question.”
The swordsman looked across the table at the redhead. Whose sly smile suggested she had some idea of what had been distracting his attention. “I was just asking: what time do these friends of yours plan on turning up?”
Zoro got all of his attention back into the here and now. “I told them any time after eight-thirty.”
“Hmm.” Nami tapped one finger on the table. “They likely to be late?”
Zoro shrugged, aware that any situation involving Luffy meeting a schedule was unlikely to go according to plan. “Usopp probably won’t be.”
Sanji leaned one arm on the table. “Hey, that reminds me – Usopp sent me his designs yesterday, he’s already finished the layouts for the stall sign and the flyers. That guy works fast.” He pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket. “Here, take a look. They’re great.”
Nami took the phone from him and scrolled through the images on its screen, her eyes scanning each one thoroughly. She gave a slow nod. “These are really good. Are you going to use some of them on the website, too?”
“Yeah, he’s already offered to do that for me.” Sanji received the phone back from her and passed it to Zoro, who also took a look at the artist’s work. “That’s one big task taken care of... And with minimum hassle and for a price I can afford.”
Zoro was familiar with Usopp’s graffiti pieces, and the colourful designs for Bite Me had a similar look: bold lettering, with a globe of the world spinning in one corner and flinging off various items of food from it. “Looks eye-catching enough. How long will it take to get the stuff produced?”
“I’ve already sent the artwork to the printers for the flyers and menus. And Usopp said he could work on the website next week, he thought it’d only take him a couple of days. The stall sign I don’t know... I’ve got a couple of costings from sign makers, I just need to check who can turn it around the quickest.”
“What date are you aiming to launch?” Nami took a sip from her drink.
“April 3rd. I figure that’s the earliest I can get everything fixed up, buy in all the supplies I need, and get my publicity out there.”
“A month away.” Nami propped her chin on one hand. “Wow... Just think: in a month’s time, you’ll be cooking in your own place!”
“I still can’t quite believe it.” Sanji grinned at her. “But next week I’ll be handing in my notice at the hotel. So yeah: it’s really gonna happen.”
Nami smiled back at him. “You made it happen.”
“Well, me and a few other people. You, for starters. And Zoro.” Sanji looked round at the swordsman. “And don’t forget Zeff. He’s the one bankrolling me.”
“Yeah, well – so he should.” Nami raised one eyebrow. “And if he hadn’t, I would’ve gone to talk to him myself.”
Zoro let out a slight snort at the mental picture of an encounter between Nami and Zeff. “Yeah, that would’ve been worth seeing.”
Nami narrowed her eyes slightly. “From what I hear, the two of you didn’t exactly hit it off... Turf top.”
Zoro glanced at Sanji, who spread his hands in a shrug. “It was too good a nickname not to share.”
“Asshole.” Zoro picked up his beer and chugged a mouthful.
Nami’s foot stomped his, under the table. “Mind your manners! Don’t insult the birthday boy.”
Zoro shifted out of range. “His actual birthday was three days ago.”
“We’re celebrating it today,” Nami pointed out.
“Excellent point,” Sanji interjected. “The statute of limitations on my birthday privileges has yet to expire.” At Zoro’s raised eyebrow, the chef continued, “Which I intend to take full advantage of.”
“Yeah?” Zoro wondered how that might play out, later on.
Nami’s phone chimed: she picked up and regarded the screen with a slight frown. “Damn... I have to take this call. Work stuff. I’ll be back in a sec, okay?” With that she rose and walked away to the rear of the bar, lifting the phone to her ear and starting to speak as she went.
Sanji watched her go, with a small smile. “She always does that.”
“Takes business calls when she ought to be taking a break. She works too damn hard.”
“Seems like she enjoys what she does.”
“Yeah. But all work and no play, y’know...” Sanji gave a small sigh. “Sometimes I wish she’d slow down a little. Take more time to relax.”
From the limited amount of time he’d spent around Nami so far, Zoro already had a pretty strong sense that she was a person for whom the word driven could fairly aptly be used. The redhead seemed to take life by the throat and shake it to produce results. “She’s here tonight, with you.”
“Mhm-hm.” Sanji’s gaze came back to the swordsman. “And so are you.” His eyes ran over the other man, taking him in. “You look good.”
“You too.” Zoro smiled. Leaned in and found the chef’s mouth with his own, taking the opportunity to kiss him and breathe in the familiar warm hit of tobacco, cologne, spice. “Smell good, too.”
“And weirdly, you smell of coconut.” Sanji drew back, raising an eyebrow. “How come?”
“The free shower gel the gym has in the showers. It reeks of the damn stuff.” Zoro leaned back too, but let one arm rest around the chef’s shoulders. “I ran out of my own, had to use that.”
“Ha.” Sanji skimmed one thumb lightly along Zoro’s jaw. “At least you did shower.”
The swordsman let one forefinger graze across the front of the chef’s shirt, sliding it into the gap between two buttons and tugging slightly. “Didn’t know there was a dress code for tonight.”
“There isn’t.” Sanji dropped his own hand to the neck of Zoro’s black v-neck sweater and reciprocated, tracing along the other man’s collarbone. “I just felt like wearing something good.”
Zoro let his forefinger slide in a little further, seeking the skin beneath the blue shirt. The material felt soft and warm; underneath it, the chef was warmer still. “I recognise this shirt.”
“New Year’s Eve.” Sanji spoke quietly, one fingertip circling over the ridge and dip of Zoro’s clavicle. “It’s what I wore to work in that club.”
“Yeah.” Zoro had it now. A memory of Sanji standing at the bar, pouring drinks.
“It’s weird to think that was three months ago.”
“Just feels like a lot’s happened since then.” Sanji’s gaze flicked up to his. “On every level.”
“Yeah.” It was a nothing answer. And the chef was giving him the opportunity to say more, for them both to say more.
It made Zoro go still. The feel of Sanji’s shoulders under his arm; the light touch of the chef’s fingertip resting against Zoro’s chest. The open blue sky of Sanji’s eyes.
I fucking want you. I look at you and I want you, right now.
Zoro wanted to say it. To say more.
I want to be in you. I want you in me.
It was too much. Like some crazy teenage crush, the feel and the sight and the smell of the chef lighting up his senses, stringing him out on the edge of needy: and Zoro didn’t do needy. However much he needed to have Sanji’s body under his hands, his mouth, his own body, right fucking now.
I want you like I’ve never wanted anyone before.
It was true. And Zoro knew enough about truth not to deny it. To himself.
Sanji was watching him, a smile that was half-curious on his face. “And it looks like a lot’s happening in there...” His hand lifted: one finger touched gently, just once, against Zoro’s temple. “Want to let me in on it?”
Zoro smiled too. And avoided answering with words: leaned closer to the other man instead and kissed him again on the mouth. Held the kiss and deepened it, the arm he had laid across the chef’s shoulders pulling him closer. Substituting touch for language.
When they finally drew apart, Sanji let out a soft huff of laughter. There was a faint flush across his cheeks which had nothing to do with the wine. “I wonder how early we could make our excuses this evening and get out of here.”
A warm glow flowered in Zoro’s chest. And lower down, too. “How about now?”
“Dumbass.” Sanji’s fist smacked lightly against his thigh. “You have the instincts of a bonobo.”
“You’re the birthday boy. You can do what you want.”
“Your friends’ll be here soon.”
“I can call them and tell them there’s been a change of plan.”
“Emphatically no.” Sanji sat back, with a slight sigh. “Nami’s been planning this for weeks. And I want to celebrate. So we’ll party for a few hours. And then... You and me can go back to my place... and celebrate some more.”
“Okay.” Zoro judged this was the best deal on offer.
A footstep by the table made them both look up. Nami slid into her seat, letting out an irritable groan. “Oh my god, people are so lame.”
“Any particular reason for saying that, or is it just a general observation?” Sanji enquired.
“These clients have changed their planned itinerary not once but three times. The last time, just eight weeks ago. Every time I had to rework their schedule, rebook accommodation, organise new excursions. And tonight, three days before they’re due to catch a plane to Bali, they decide to call me to ask if there’s any chance they can change the beach hotel they’re staying at. Because some dillweed friend of theirs told them at a dinner party last night there’s a better one a mile further up the coast.” She picked up her drink and took a swallow. “Like it matters which particular hundred yards of tropical paradise you park your over-privileged ass in. Some people ought to get themselves a life.”
“So what did you say?”
“I pointed out extremely calmly that cancelling their accommodation now would mean they’d still wind up paying for it, plus the cost of the new hotel, plus a hefty administration fee for me having to fix it all up. And I suggested that maybe their friend might not be as good a judge of tourist facilities as someone like me who makes a fucking living doing it.”
“So you convinced them.”
“Damn straight.” Nami swallowed another gulp of tequila and orange juice. “It’s just possible that I may not get any repeat business from them. To which I say: screw you, assholes. I have better things to do on a Saturday night than spend three hours making international phone calls to Bali on some yuppie prima donna’s whim.”
Sanji placed his hand over hers where it lay on the table and patted it soothingly. “Absolutely.”
Zoro lifted his beer and took a mouthful, smiling. The chef had evidently got pacifying his friend down to a fine art.
Good luck to him.
The sound of the bar door closing reached them. And about half a second later, a familiar voice. “Hey, Zoro!”
The swordsman just had time to set down his beer, before Luffy’s arm snaked over the top of their booth and wrapped round his neck. “Gotcha. Happy birthday, Sanji!” Luffy’s other arm snared the chef, dragging them together and up towards Luffy’s all-enveloping hug.
“Nngh. Thanks, Luffy.” Sanji suffered the neck-crushing embrace, one hand lifting up to restrain the younger man’s enthusiasm.
Usopp appeared at the booth too, prodding Luffy on the shoulder. “I think Sanji would like to be breathing about now, dude.”
Luffy gave the chef and the swordsman one last powerful squeeze, before releasing his hold. Then climbed up and over the seat back to wedge himself in the space between the two men. “This is a cool place. Have they got chicken wings?”
Usopp gave the others an apologetic shrug, and wry smile. “We came via a burger joint. I tried to fill him up before we got here, but hey.” His gaze fell on Nami, and he visibly brightened. “Hi... I’m Usopp, artist extraordinaire. And you are a vision of gorgeousness whom I’m hoping Sanji is about to introduce me to.”
Sanji obliged. “Usopp, this is my friend Nami. Nami: meet Usopp, the guy who did those amazing designs we were looking at earlier.”
Usopp extended a hand with a hopeful look: Nami took it with a nod. “Hi, Usopp. Nice to meet you.”
“And I’m Luffy,” announced Luffy, grinning across the table.
“Yeah, I worked that out.” Nami said this levelly.
Usopp held up one hand. “Okay, I’m heading to the bar. Who wants a drink?”
When Usopp had returned with a trayful of drinks and sat down next to Nami, he gave them all a happy smile, before lifting his own beer up in Sanji’s direction. “Many happy returns and the like. And thanks for inviting us along to your birthday celebration.”
“It’s good to have you here.” Sanji chinked his wine glass against the other man’s drink. “I’m glad you could both make it.”
“Ace not coming?” Zoro asked.
“Yeah, he’s coming.” Luffy wiped a moustache of beer foam off his upper lip with the back of his hand. “Him and Marco, but they had a fire gig. Ace said they’d drop by after.”
“Fire gig?” queried Nami, frowning slightly.
“Luffy’s brother does a fire show,” Zoro told her. “Y’know, performance stuff with fire juggling and shit like that.”
“He gets regular work doing that?”
“Yeah. Clubs, private parties, music gigs... He and Marco are out performing most weekends.”
“Their show is awesome.” Luffy leaned across the table. “They do this thing where they’re both swinging fire staffs, like they’re fighting, and then Ace gets on Marco’s shoulders and kind of spins his staff round like this - ”
“Ahh - ” Sanji fielded his wine glass just in time to save it from Luffy’s boundless gesture. “I think we get the picture.”
“It’s pretty cool.” Luffy hauled his phone out of his jacket pocket. “I got a clip on here of him I filmed at this party we went to on New Year’s Eve...”
They all craned in to see the blurry video on Luffy’s phone screen, of someone on a stage filmed at an angle that made it look like a sinking ship, moving flickering fire poi in complicated patterns. The view was sporadically blocked by silhouetted heads, and kept going out of focus. When the clip ended, there was a momentary pause. Then Usopp cleared his throat. “I guess you had to be there for the full effect.”
Luffy accepted this without argument. “He tried to teach me how to do it. It’s harder than it looks.”
Zoro let his head rest back against the booth. “No fucking way are you learning to fire juggle.”
“Because I don’t want to come home from work one day and find our apartment a smoking pile of ash, that’s why.”
“I wouldn’t do it indoors, Zoro,” Luffy pointed out, as if to the hard of understanding.
“No. Fucking. Way.” Zoro lifted his head and fixed him with a look. “I can’t believe Ace would let you try it. On second thought, I would. He’s almost as big a lunatic as you are.”
“He and Marco make good money, though.” Usopp put this in. “He told me a while back that they can make three hundred and fifty bucks apiece for doing their show.”
“Holy crap.” Sanji blinked. “I’m in the wrong fucking line of work.”
“Performers always get paid well. If they can do something like that, some kind of skill that’s in demand.” Nami rested her chin on her hands. “Market forces.”
“And it doesn’t hurt that he and Marco both look totally buff,” Usopp commented. “I’ve seen women hurt each other to get within touching distance.”
Nami laughed. “Okay, now I definitely want to check out their fire show.”
“It would be my absolute pleasure to be your escort.” Usopp looked hopeful. “Luffy: when are Ace and Marco next doing a show?”
“Ask them when they get here.” Luffy shrugged.
“Right. Okay.” Usopp nodded.
Nami rested one elbow casually on Usopp’s shoulder, favouring him with a predatory grin. “Are you always this obliging towards women you’ve only just met?”
“Only towards the stunningly beautiful ones.” Usopp met her gaze with one of his own that attempted casual suaveness, but managed only to convey wishful thinking.
“Uh huh.” Nami raised an eyebrow, before picking up her drink.
As the level of alcohol in their glasses fell, the level of noise at their booth rose. Nami and Usopp got into a web tech conversation unintelligible to anyone else, pulling out their phones to show and compare site artwork and layouts. Luffy listened to Sanji’s descriptions of his planned menus for Bite Me with wide-eyed enthusiasm, frequently interrupting him to ask what exactly the dishes were. Zoro shared some stories of that week’s most annoying customers at the gym, which got them all onto the topic of Worst-job-I-ever-did and competing to see who’d had the shittiest boss.
Sanji was having such a great time that he scarcely noticed the evening slipping by. Laughing with his friends: sipping the mellow fruity red Malbec and feeling a buzz settling in behind his cheekbones. He’d eaten at home before meeting up with Nami, but he was into his fourth glass of wine and starting to feel it. But they were all getting kind of lit up and it was Saturday night so what the hell did it matter.
It’s my birthday: why the fuck not get a little juiced.
His gaze travelled round the table. At Nami gesturing eloquently as she related the tale of a year-long purgatorial stint as a waitress while she was putting herself through night school; at Usopp hanging on her every word, laughing. At Luffy also laughing, so hard he choked on his beer. At Zoro reaching out and smacking one hand flat between his friend’s shoulder blades, grinning at him.
Sanji felt a smile spread across his own face. He couldn’t help it. He wanted to fix this moment in his memory.
For a moment his eyes rested on Zoro. The swordsman’s face was lit up by that grin at Luffy: looking at him, Sanji felt his world open up. Like he had more room to be.
Zoro’s arm moved back, lying along along the top of the booth behind Luffy. His hand just touched the chef’s and Sanji let his fingers reach out. Threaded them through the swordsman’s, like he had done earlier.
Zoro turned his head, meeting his gaze. And gave the chef a slow, dark-eyed smile.
“Oh hey, they made it! Cool!” Luffy stood up at their table suddenly, causing everyone to make a grab for their drinks. “Yo, Ace! Over here!”
Two figures approached the booth, the first one coming to a halt with one elbow leaning on the seat back. “Hey, kid bro. Usopp, Zoro, how you doin’?” A tousle-haired brunette with freckles and a smile that looked like it could lure angels into a life of sin, cuffed Luffy lightly on the head and exchanged handshakes with the other two... Before turning dark brown eyes onto the chef. “And you must be Sanji.” That sweetly sinful smile grew a little wider. “A very happy birthday to you.”
“I’m Ace. And this is Marco.” Ace gestured at a slightly older man standing a little behind him: tall and slim, with a head shaved up the sides and a bleached forelock falling down over thin, arched eyebrows. “Sorry we’re late to the party. We were setting fire to stuff for kicks.”
Everyone moved up, making room for the pair to sit down in the booth. Ace slid close on to the seat beside Zoro, propping one arm behind the swordsman’s shoulders. “Mm... Nice ‘n’ cosy.”
“You smell like an arsonist’s jockstrap,” Zoro commented.
“For that you can buy me a drink, you fucking lout. We came straight here from the gig: didn’t have time to freshen up afterwards.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Zoro extricated some money and slid it across the table to Marco. “Get some more drinks for the rest of us while you’re at it.”
Marco stood up with a smile; Ace hooked the tip of one finger into the waistband of his jeans. “Get me a Heisenberg Blue Ice. A double.”
Everyone chipped in with the rest of their orders. Nami also stood up as Marco set off. “Hi, I’m Nami, and I really have to pee. Be back in a sec.” She disappeared towards the rear of the bar.
“Gotta love a redhead,” murmured Ace, watching her go... Then leaned across the table and nudged Usopp. “Down, boy.”
Usopp returned his attention to front and centre. “Fuck. Was I staring?”
“You have to get over this habit of falling instantly for every female you come into contact with.” Ace sat back, grinning at him. “Women do not love the stalker approach.”
“What’s stalker about giving a good-looking woman compliments?”
“Give it up, man. You try too hard, it freaks them out. You should just chill and be yourself.”
“When I do that I become fucking invisible.” Usopp sighed.
“Yeah well... Better that than getting a restraining order slapped on you.”
Sanji decided a little intervention on Usopp’s part might be called for. “Most women like compliments. It’s a nice gesture.”
Ace turned his gaze on the chef. “Yeah, but Usopp’s problem is he doesn’t know when to quit. He nices them so much they think he’s a loser.” He turned back to the artist, shaking a finger at him. “Which you’re not. You’re actually a halfway cool guy, if you’d just chill the fuck out and let them realise that.”
“I’m a gaming nerd who draws stuff for a meagre living. Babes do not find that sexy.”
“I don’t know why not. I find you sexy.” Ace regarded him with a suggestive smile.
“Oh fuck.” Usopp shut his eyes. “This is not helping.”
“Relax, coz.” Ace laughed. “I’m not about to ravish you on the tabletop.”
Marco reappeared at the table, setting down a tray of drinks before sliding in next to his boyfriend. “Are you fucking with Usopp again?”
“Trying to.” Ace picked up his vodka and took a sip. “Ahh, that’s better. Been wanting to get the taste of kerosene out of my mouth for the last half hour.”
“I gave it my best shot,” Marco remarked, smiling as he tried his own drink.
“You tasted of kerosene too.”
Sanji tried and failed to imagine why anyone would willingly put kerosene in their mouth. “Is this part of your act?”
“Fire breathing.” Ace took another sip of vodka. “You can do it with other stuff... But kerosene is what looks the most impressive. Gotta wow the onlookers.”
“Isn’t it dangerous?”
“Only if you want it to be.” Ace gave him a suggestive smile. “Like most things in life.”
Zoro gave him a sidelong look. “Set yourself on fire lately?”
Ace raised one eyebrow. “The fuck would we do that. We’re a professional act.”
“He forgot to shake off his wicks tonight.” Marco contributed. “Got a hella flame when he lit up, nearly took out his eyebrows.”
“Oh fuck you.” Ace turned on his boyfriend. “The audience loved it.”
“Ace Portgas, the Human Torch.” Marco’s mouth hiked up at one corner. “Maybe we could work that into the act.”
Zoro grunted. “You guys are nuts.”
“So you basically get up on stage and throw fire around?” Sanji asked.
“Fire juggling, fire staff, fire poi, fire breathing... If we can make it burn, we use it in the act.” Ace reached into his jacket pocket and extracted a business card, flipping it across the table. “We do stage work, ground-based stuff, street entertainment... Whatever the client wants, pretty much.”
Sanji picked up the card and looked at it. Across the bottom ran the legend FIREFIST & PHOENIX, with a contact number: the rest of the card was a photograph of Ace and Marco standing back to back in darkness, each holding a flaming torch which they’d swept down to form an arc of fire. And both were bare from the waist up, sculpted torsos gleaming slightly in the light of the flames.
“Good photograph.” Sanji felt like he had to say something. Mainly because he’d spent just a little too long gazing at it.
“Keep it.” When the chef looked up, Ace gave him a wink. “That’s my number on the card.”
Sanji wasn’t sure what to reply. And fortunately was saved the trouble when a noise coming from the direction of the bar made them all look around.
To the slightly ragged sounds of Happy Birthday being sung, a cake was heading towards their booth, borne by a slightly sheepishly smiling young guy from the Rip Off bar staff. A few candles glowed on its top, flames wavering: Nami was escorting the cake’s progress, beaming widely.
The guy set the cake on the table with a visible look of relief, stepping back as everyone round the table joined in to finish the chorus of Happy Birthday. As the singing ended a general cheer went up, other people in the Rip Off joining in too on the basis that anyone’s birthday was fair game for celebration by proxy.
Sanji drew a breath and blew the candles out: there was another cheer. Nami slung her arms round his shoulders and hugged him, kissing his cheek. “Happy birthday, hon.”
Sanji kissed her back, then gazed at the cake as Nami sat down. “Wow... This is great. My favourite.”
“It’s from La Bohème.” Nami was watching him, still beaming.
“I can tell.” Sanji gave the gâteau moka an appreciative look over. “It’s perfect.”
“What flavour is it?” demanded Luffy, leaning forward and extending one finger towards the frosting. Zoro’s fist moved even quicker, smacking into the younger man’s wrist and knocking it away.
“It’s a gâteau moka aux amandes.” Sanji looked at Luffy’s bemused expression, and clarified. “Coffee and almond.”
“Sounds yum,” said Luffy hopefully.
Across the table Nami held out a large knife, which the bar staff had delivered to their booth along with some plates. “So cut the cake and dish it out, birthday boy. Don’t keep us waiting.”
Sanji cut seven slices and slid them deftly onto plates, passing them round. For a few seconds there was a distinct abatement of noise in their booth, as everyone tried the gâteau.
Usopp was the first to break the silence. “Is this just cake? Or are there illegal mind-altering substances in the frosting?”
Nami let out a long hum of appreciation. “Oh my god. Sanji, you have to have birthdays more often.”
“This is the best thing I’ve had in my mouth for a long time.” Ace took a second bite.
“That so?” Beside him Marco raised an elegant eyebrow.
Ace looked at him, one corner of his mouth lifting. “Okay... Second best.”
“Shooo good...” Luffy’s happy groan was somewhat muffled by cake.
Sanji looked at Zoro. Who had taken a bite of his cake and was regarding it and everyone else at the table with slight bemusement.
The chef leaned one elbow on the table, catching the swordsman’s eye. “You like it?”
“It’s okay.” Zoro took another bite, and shrugged.
Sanji rolled his eyes. “Don’t overexcite yourself.”
“As long as you like it, shit cook, that’s all the matters: isn’t it? It’s your birthday cake.”
“I don’t like it. I love it.” Sanji took another forkful of his own slice of gateau and ate it slowly, savouring the rich sweet flavours and melting texture. “Mmmm... Remember what I told you while back? About stimulating your taste buds?” A small frown on Zoro’s face suggested he didn’t. “That it’s possible to have an orgasm just from tasting something really good?”
Beside them Ace let out a low chuckle, and a slight flush of colour rose to Zoro’s cheeks.
Sanji leaned back against the seat, enjoying the swordsman’s discomfiture. “Maybe I’ll have a second piece.”
“Me too!” Luffy’s plate was held out in both hands, before anyone else could move.
In the end, everyone except Zoro and Marco went for seconds. Only a small portion of the gâteau moka remained, which was efficiently whisked away and parcelled up by the bar staff, ready for Sanji to take home.
It was getting late: the customers in the Rip Off were starting to thin out, people heading off to clubs or homewards. The group of friends in the booth were coming down from their sugar high, and when Sanji glanced at the time on his phone he saw it was close to midnight.
At some point they had rearranged themselves around the table: Luffy had returned from a trip to the bar and inserted himself between Nami and Usopp, waxing lyrical on the subject of Going Merry; Ace was sketching out some new idea for the fire show in spilled beer on the table top, watched by Marco with an amused smile. Which meant that Sanji and Zoro were now sat together at one end of the seat in the booth.
Picking up his wine glass and tilting it slightly in his cupped fingers, Sanji watched the dark red Malbec swirl around inside. Lifted it to his lips and took a sip, letting the rich flavours unroll on his tongue.
Berries. Cocoa. Soft-sweet tobacco finish.
That gastronomic part of his brain never switched off. Anything he tasted, any food or drink, always connected to something. Words, descriptions. Culinary pairings, menu choices.
A warm weight slid onto his knee, under the table. Zoro’s hand, fingers stroking slowly against his thigh. Sanji turned his head and smiled at the swordsman. “Hm... Okay?”
“Yeah.” Zoro returned his smile. “How ‘bout you, cook? Having a good time?”
“Great.” Sanji meant it.
Zoro studied him for a moment. “How much wine have you had?”
“A few glasses.” Sanji couldn’t remember if this was his fifth or sixth. “Why?”
“You look kinda blitzed.”
Sanji smirked. “I can hold my wine, moss head. Anyways: it’s my birthday night out.”
“Uh huh.” Zoro’s fingers slid a little higher up his thigh. “Still got some celebrating to do, after we leave here.”
Feeling the swordsman’s hand stroking upwards, Sanji felt heat join with the wine to produce a flush that set light to his face. Bringing his own hand down over Zoro’s, he clenched his fingers. “All things come to those who wait.”
Nami’s raised voice reached them from across the table, making both men look up. “Okay, everyone! It’s time to toast the birthday boy. Pick up your drinks.”
Around the table everyone lifted their glasses, more or less in synchrony: Nami nodded, and stood up. “Okay. We’re all gathered here to celebrate two things with Sanji, the sweetest guy and the best friend in the world. Number one, his birthday. And number two, in a month from now Sanji will be opening his new business, Bite Me, which with his awesome cooking is gonna be a runaway success! Sanji: we wish that the coming year is a wonderful one for you - and that Bite Me kicks the ass of every other eatery out there in this city. Go get ‘em, hon.”
Glasses chinked together above the centre of the table, accompanied by a general chorus of approval.
Delivering a kiss to Sanji’s cheek and sitting down again, Nami delved behind her and produced a gift-wrapped parcel, which she placed on the table in front of him. “Many happy returns, sweetie.”
Sanji smiled at her. “I wasn’t expecting gifts.”
Nami let out a sigh. “What else are birthdays for? Open it, you idiot.”
The chef picked up the parcel: it felt soft in his hands. Tearing open the wrapping paper, he found himself lifting out a silky-soft dark blue scarf with a herringbone weave, that felt warm and luxurious under his fingers.
“It’s cashmere,” Nami informed him. “I thought it was just right for you.”
Sanji picked up the scarf and looped it lightly around his neck. It felt totally wonderful: smooth against his skin. “It’s perfect. And the colour is beautiful. Thank you, chèri: I love it.” He leaned across the table and kissed her cheek, giving her a hug.
Usopp cleared his throat slightly. “Okay, that makes my gift look kinda lame.” He gave Sanji a sheepish grin, and pushed a small wrapped parcel across the table.
“No-one had to bring gifts. I was just happy you all came out tonight to celebrate with me.” Sanji gave a half-shake of his head, starting to unwrap the artist’s offering. “This is really generous.” His fingers unfurled the wrapping paper, and a USB flash drive fell into his hand. He looked at it, then up at Usopp.
“So... I thought, you’re going to be working on your own in your new place, cooking and stuff. And I end up working on my own at home a lot with my art, y’know... And what helps me work is having some good music to listen to. So I did you a bunch of playlists. I thought maybe you could have them on while you’re working, or maybe put out a little mood music for your customers...” Usopp looked hesitant. “I mean, I know it’s a cheapskate kinda gift.”
Sanji laughed. “Are you kidding? It’s great. Thanks, Usopp. I’ll look forward to listening to them.”
Luffy sat forward then, plonking a squashed package that was mostly tape onto the table. “Mine next!”
Sanji picked it up. “Holy crap... It’s like Christmas.”
“Sorry, Marco and me totally flaked on the gift thing,” announced Ace, eyeing Luffy’s parcel. “But if you ever want me to give you a private fire show, you only have to ask.”
Ripping his way through Luffy’s tape layers, Sanji gave Ace a quick grin. “I’ll remember that.” The paper and tape finally gave way, revealing a folded black t-shirt. Sanji picked it up by the shoulders and lifted it up: the front bore a picture of a chef’s hat with a crossed knife and cleaver Jolly Roger style, with the words DON’T MESS WITH THE CHEF underneath. “...Heh.”
Luffy tugged at one edge of the t-shirt. “Hope it’ll fit okay. You like it?”
“I approve of the sentiment.” Sanji grinned at the younger man, before laying the t-shirt down on the table again.
Beside him, Zoro shifted slightly. Then lifted one hand, holding out an envelope and a yet another small wrapped gift. “Happy birthday, cook.”
As Sanji received them, the small object felt slightly heavier than its size suggested. He raised an eyebrow. “Hmm, intriguing.” He slid one finger under the envelope’s flap and carefully tore it open. Inside, instead of the birthday card he was expecting, was a piece of paper folded around couple of tickets: he slid them out and looked at them. Two cinema tickets dated for a few weeks from now, at the city’s independent cinema venue. And on the flyer: OCEAN FILM FESTIVAL WORLD TOUR, with a photograph of a manta ray in silhouette against the surface of a turquoise sea.
Sanji looked at them. Then up at Zoro, who was watching him. “An Ocean Film Festival? I never even heard of this before.”
“Me either.” Zoro’s eyes dropped to the flyer. “But it sounded like it might be your kind of thing.”
Sanji’s gaze lowered too, scanning the film titles and summaries that made up the evening. Kayaking the Aleutians... Voyage through Indonesia... Ocean Stories... Surfer Girl... One Voice: The song of the humpback whales...
He looked back up at the swordsman. “It sounds like an amazing evening. Good call.”
Zoro’s eyes lightened slightly: perhaps the swordsman had been unsure of how his gift would be received. “You’ve been working pretty hard, the past few weeks. I just thought maybe you might want to take a night off, relax at the movies or whatever.”
Sanji held up the two tickets. “You planning on coming with me?”
“You could take someone else if you want.”
For an answer, Sanji smiled at him. Then sat back and picked up the small gift he had yet to open. The paper round the curiously heavy object unwrapped under his fingers, falling away... And a Zippo-type cigarette lighter fell into his hand.
Sanji turned it over, looking at it as it caught the light. It was a smooth matte black, with a design etched silver into the metal: a scaled fish curled amongst reeds, with a swirl of water and bubbles spiralling up behind it. The art was simple yet graceful, the image flowing boldly over the dark surface.
His fingers turned the lighter over again, stroking against the metal. Deftly he flicked it open; ignited the flame; snapped it shut. Then he looked at Zoro. “This is a lovely piece of work.”
The swordsman looked down at the lighter. “I guess you’ve already got one.”
“Well, yeah.” Sanji ran a fingertip over the delicately drawn fish again. “But not like this. It looks... kind of Japanese.”
Zoro nodded. “You know what the fish is?”
Sanji examined it. “No. Should I?”
“It’s a koi carp. In Japanese culture they symbolise good luck and perseverance. Also courage and prosperity.”
“Yeah?” Sanji lifted the lighter up and regarded the silvery fish. “I like the sound of that.”
Zoro nodded. “They say that koi will swim upstream, even up waterfalls. They’re not deterred by any challenges. That’s why they symbolise determination and success.”
“A good luck charm, eh.” Across the table, Luffy had propped his chin on one hand. “Cool.”
“Pretty good idea, with Sanji starting his new business and all,” Usopp also enthused.
Sanji closed his hand around the lighter. “Thank you. It’s great. And so are the cinema tickets.” He leaned sideways and put one arm around Zoro’s shoulders, pulling him in for a kiss. When he drew back everyone round the table was grinning at them both.
“Nice.” Nami nodded at Zoro, giving him an approving look.
Ace let out a slight sigh, then nudged Marco in the ribs. “Take note. That’s what good boyfriends do on birthdays.”
Marco took hold of a lock of Ace’s hair between finger and thumb, and gave it a tweak. “You weren’t complaining at the time about what we did do for your birthday.”
“Well yeah, sure: no complaints about what happened. But if you’d showered me with gifts as well that would’ve won you bonus points.”
“Okay. Next year I’ll let you keep the handcuffs,” Marco offered.
“Fur lined?” Ace looked hopeful.
Across the table Usopp sat up straight and put both hands palm down on the table. “Okay! TMI, you guys! Can we talk about something else?”
“I don’t know,” Nami mused, looking at Ace and Marco while she took a sip from her drink. “I could stand to hear a little more.”
“Why would you want handcuffs?” Luffy regarded his older brother, a curious look on his face.
There was a collective brief silence, while everyone else round the table considered the option of explaining this to Luffy. And abandoned the idea.
Ace picked up his glass and drained it, before setting it down empty and giving his brother a wryly fond look. “You are such an innocent. I think I must have somehow got the kink tendencies for both of us.”
“Amen,” commented Marco, smiling as he finished his own drink.
Sanji smiled too, before standing up. “Heh. Gotta go...” He gestured towards the rear of the bar.
It was quiet in the men’s room after the lively bar. Sanji came out of the stall and washed his hands. Closing his eyes for a moment he felt just a small giddy swirl, the world turning ever so slightly around him. He opened his eyes quickly and gazed at himself in the mirror, one hand resting steadyingly on the sink edge.
His reflection was a little flushed. Running the sink tap Sanji cupped some water in his hands and brought it up to his face, enjoying the coolness against his skin.
Definitely had enough wine.
When he walked back to their table, Nami had her jacket on. He stood beside the booth. “You going?”
“Mm hm. Need to get my beauty sleep, it’s been a busy week.” She also stood up, then regarded him. “And you look like you should probably be calling it a night too.”
“Yeah. I was just thinking of calling a cab. You want me to call one for you as well?”
“Already done.” She grinned at him. “It’s been a great night out, hon. Happy birthday.”
Sanji hugged her, his head close up against hers. “Thank you, chèri. For everything.”
She laughed, hugging him back. “For a cake and a scarf? It’s the very least I could do for the birthday boy.”
“You know that I love you, right?”
“Oh my god, you are so drunk.” Nami gave him one final squeeze, before letting go and stepping back. She wore a typically mocking smile, but her brown eyes held his for a moment. “Zoro, take him home, will you? Before he starts making an exhibition of himself.”
They all made it outside onto the sidewalk together, in a loose straggling group. Nami’s cab arrived almost straight away and she left, waving at them through the rear window.
“Well, the night is still young,” announced Ace cheerfully, to no-one in particular. “Clubbing, anyone?”
“Oh yeah!” Luffy perked up. “Can we go to the Mirrorball?”
“I’m nearly tapped out,” said Usopp.
“No problem. We got paid cash tonight, we can cover your tab between us.” Ace hooked an arm around the artist’s neck, and gave him a friendly shake. “Sanji, Zoro – you wanna come with?”
The swordsman glanced at Sanji, who shook his head. “Thanks but no thanks, guys. Think we’re gonna call it a night, head back to my place.”
“Yeah, big surprise.” Ace grinned at them. “You two have been fucking each other with your eyes for the last hour.”
Zoro let out a snort. “Have a great time at the Mirrorball.”
“I can tell when I’m not wanted.” Ace tipped his head at the others. “C’mon. Let’s go strut our funky stuff, and leave these two to keep Sanji’s neighbours awake half the night.”
“Shithead.” Zoro said this mildly.
“Harsh,” Ace responded, as they started walking away. “Nice to meet you, Sanji. Remember you’ve got my number. If you give me a call I can tell you all kinds of sordid things about Zoro’s shady past.”
“I’ll bear it in mind,” Sanji answered. “Nice to meet you too, Ace – and Marco. And thanks for coming along tonight, all of you.”
There was a chorus of farewells, then the group of men turned and began heading away. Walking away backwards, still facing the chef and swordsman, Ace raised his voice and called out, “Eh, Zoro - don’t forget: Sanji’s the birthday boy. Tonight you have to give him whatever he wants!” Then with a wave he turned and followed the others down the street.
Zoro exhaled slowly. “He is such an asshole.”
“Really? I thought what he just said made perfect sense.” Sanji smirked, pulling out his cigarettes. “Think our cab will take long to get here?”
Zoro looked sidelong at him. “Nami’s got here pretty quick.”
Sanji flicked open his new lighter and applied the flame to the end of his cigarette, before clicking it shut. “Good.” He held the lighter up to the streetlight, turning it slightly to look at it before replacing it in his pocket. “I can already feel my lucky fish working for me.”
“Yeah?” Zoro smiled. “How so?”
Sanji took his cigarette out of his mouth for a moment and blew a long stream of smoke upwards. Then turned his head, favouring the swordsman with an anticipatory gaze. “Whatever I want. Hmm...”
The cab did arrive quickly, as it turned out. And it was only a fifteen-minute ride back to the chef’s apartment. Sitting close enough on the cab seat that their shoulders touched, a slight press of weight and warmth.
When they got out Zoro followed Sanji to the apartment block door, then up the stairs inside. Watching the way the chef moved: just a little unsteady turning on his heel at the bend of the stairs. A faint flush of colour across his cheekbones.
You sank a good few glasses of that fancy French wine tonight.
The chef wasn’t much drunk. But his usual grace had changed: into something looser, less controlled. Which for the last some while had been feeding something inside Zoro, that had been there from the moment he first saw Sanji sitting in the Rip Off bar.
The chef fumbled his key slightly in his apartment door lock. “Fuck... Ah, got it.”
They stepped inside and closed the door behind them. Walking straight through to the main room, Sanji set down on the low table the carrier he’d brought from the bar with the leftover cake. He started to shuck off his jacket, walking to the far wall and reaching up to click on the light.
And Zoro stepped up close behind him and took hold of one shoulder, turning the chef around and pushing him back against the wall. Finding Sanji’s mouth with his own, one hand braced against the wall by the chef’s head, letting his body lean against the other man’s to pin him there.
“Mmh...” The low sound Sanji made was followed shortly after by the chef’s hand rising to grip the back of Zoro’s head, tugging the swordsman harder against him.
They kept kissing till their lips felt bruised, the taste of red wine and cigarettes meeting Zoro’s mouth. The chef’s other hand, the hand that wasn’t cupped around the back of the swordsman’s head, moved to the small of his back and pulled him closer. Zoro smiled and shifted his weight further forward, hips pressing against the other man’s: caught the chef’s lower lip between his teeth and gave it a soft bite.
“Mnh - ” Sanji let out a hard breath.
Running his tongue gently over the place he’d just nipped, Zoro lifted his head away just enough to see the chef’s face. “So, tell me, cook. Just what is it that you do want?”
Sanji eyes met his, focus coming into the deep blue. “...You’re doing okay so far.”
“Yeah?” Zoro bent his head and fastened his mouth on the chef again, this time gently biting at the pale skin of Sanji’s neck just above where it disappeared into the collar of his shirt. Then put on pressure with his tongue, slowly tracking upwards along the line of the other man’s jaw. “How ‘bout this?”
Sanji shivered slightly. “That’s... good.”
“Just good?” Zoro bit softly at the chef’s neck again, let his mouth work its way downwards. “Gonna make you feel better than just good.”
His hand dropped from the wall, coming between them: found the top button of Sanji’s shirt and slid a finger underneath it, pulling it free. Travelled down to the next. Let his mouth follow where his hand was going, drawing his tongue along the chef’s collarbone, tasting salt-sweet warmth and hearing Sanji’s breath hitch, feeling it.
The shirt was unbuttoned all the way now. Zoro pushed one hand underneath it, sliding his palm against Sanji’s stomach, then slowly up over his ribs. Let his gaze lift to the other man’s face, giving him a slow smile of intent. “You look good in this shirt.”
“...Yeah?” The breath that followed the chef’s response revealed that he was focussed on the slide of the swordsman’s hand up over his skin. Which was what Zoro was aiming for.
“I’ll leave it on you.” Zoro’s fingers found Sanji’s nipple and dragged roughly over it, stirring the sensitive flesh to life. “For now.”
The look the chef gave him suggested he wasn’t totally into this idea. Then his head tipped back, catching a breath as Zoro closed finger and thumb. “...Nghhh...”
Bringing his mouth against Sanji’s skin again, Zoro let himself drift downwards. Tongue and lips navigating every inch of the way. The rise and fall of the chef’s ribs. The hollow of his solar plexus. The curved planes of his stomach, falling into the V of his hips that let down into the waistband of his pants.
He was on his knees now. He felt Sanji tense, just a little. Zoro tilted his head back, just enough to look up at the eyes gazing down at him. Pupils blown, lips parted. That wine flush across the cheekbones, rosy stain across the skin.
Zoro said nothing. Just let one hand slide down and rest on the front of Sanji’s pants. Put on the pressure, just a little... And heard the chef let out a slow hissing breath between his teeth.
This what you want?
Hooking one finger under the waistband of Sanji’s pants, keeping his eyes on the chef, Zoro tugged... And felt the button slide free. He took hold of the zipper and slowly drew it down, before slipping both thumbs over the top of the pants and slowly pulling downwards.
Black material slid down, uncovering the top of the chef’s thighs. Sanji breathed out, a long shallow exhalation.
Zoro looked at the tented boxer briefs in front of him, and let his hand slide up to the chef’s hip. Before murmuring, “Still good?”
Sanji’s head tipped downwards. Eyes narrowing, just a little. Breath coming slightly faster now, between parted lips. Saying nothing with his mouth: but speaking with his gaze.
Zoro let one hand slide to the other man’s hip, fingers curling around the blunt angles and latching on. Thumb just sketching down the curve. Bent his head forward just enough to rest his mouth against the swelling cloth, breathe warm against it: felt it shift and push back.
“...Hhnn...” Sanji’s hips lifted, just a little. Zoro tightened his hand where it rested on one of them, pushing the chef firmly back against the wall. Then slid his other thumb up, hooking it over the waistband of Sanji’s boxer briefs: slowly drew it down, tugging the material to the chef’s thighs.
Sanji made a sound in his throat as his erection was freed. His hands were pressed flat against the wall beside his hips, as if he was trying to keep them still.
Zoro bent his head down and let his tongue draw in a long pass from the base of the chef’s cock to its tip. Heard the other man let out a hard breath. Repeated the movement, then parted his lips and took the head of Sanji’s cock into his mouth.
A tremor ran through the chef’s hips. Zoro let his mouth take Sanji in deeper, running his tongue flat against the underside of the other man’s cock. Savouring his taste, his warmth, the firm press of the flesh under his tongue. Keeping his hand gripping tightly on the other man’s hip; keeping his mouth moving, spreading wet heat along Sanji’s length. Then when things were slick enough bringing his hand up too, gripping the shaft of his lover’s cock and stroking it slowly back and forth, working his mouth against the sensitive head. Teasing the underside with his tongue: flicking it against the slit so that Sanji hissed out, one hand fastening again on the back of the swordsman’s head and gripping there.
Gonna give you what you want.
Zoro felt his own arousal, a pulse of heat at his groin. But kept his focus on what he was doing: listening to each breath, each sound coming from above him. Ran his tongue slowly around the head of Sanji’s cock, then slid it down the shaft again. Let his hand drop to the chef’s balls, rolling them in their sack; then brought his mouth there too.
Zoro found himself humming an answering sound, loving the way the chef was unravelling. The fingers tightening in his hair. The muscles of the stomach just above his head jerking a little with each breath.
He drew his tongue in a long line from balls back to the head of Sanji’s cock, his hand sliding back onto the shaft and beginning to stroke again. Licked slowly at the tip, looking upwards.
Sanji’s eyes were shut: but they flickered open, his head tipping forward. Zoro held his gaze – then took the chef’s length right into his mouth.
“...Ahhnn!” A jolt ran through Sanji’s body, hand clutching onto the back of Zoro’s head. Followed by a hard breath. “Oh, fuck...yes...”
Zoro dropped the hand still stroking at the base of the chef’s cock down to curl around his balls, gently caress. Keeping his mouth close around the length, back up to the tip. Working his tongue against the underside, teasing lightly against the skin: swirling it back up over the head. Everything warm and wet and becoming wetter, the taste of the other man’s arousal spilling into his mouth.
“...Hhahhh... Z... Zoro...” Sanji’s voice reached him, an unsteady caution.
Zoro hummed deep in his throat, affirming what was happening. Tightening his hand where it still held the chef’s hip, pinning him back against the wall. Holding him exactly where he needed to be. And kept his tongue moving, his fingers sliding back up to curl round the shaft of Sanji’s cock and tighten there: stroking up and down in rhythm with the working of his mouth.
The fingers in his hair clenched, making a small catch of pain. And then with a hard shudder Sanji was cumming, arching forward over the swordsman as a cry broke from him.
Zoro kept going until the other man was done. Gradually slowing his hand and his mouth; feeling small shocks rock Sanji’s hips, each one pulling in a breath. Relishing how it felt, to have the chef shivering under his touch, boneless and sagging against him.
“...Nhhnn...” Slowly Sanji’s hand relaxed, fingers uncurling from Zoro’s hair. Sliding gently around to the side of his head, thumb resting against the swordsman’s cheek.
Letting his mouth slowly leave the warm flesh of his lover’s cock, Zoro let out a breath... Then rose from his knees, keeping one hand on the other man’s hip. Looked into Sanji’s flushed, sex-dazed face and smiled... Before leaning in and kissing him on the mouth, deep. Felt the other man respond, opening to it. And Zoro enjoyed it, almost as much as he’d enjoyed feeling the chef cum moments earlier.
When they drew apart a little Sanji looked less dazed, though his face was still flushed. “Mhmm...” He let out a long sigh, then smiled.
“Happy birthday.” Zoro smiled too.
“Fucking hell...” Sanji brought one arm up and draped it over Zoro’s shoulder. “I can’t feel my hands.”
“That a problem?”
“Really not.” Sanji let out a slight groan. “Damn, you’re good.”
Zoro grinned. “That you or the wine talking?”
“The wine didn’t just get the best fucking blow job of its life.” Sanji let his head rest back against the wall. “Holy shit.”
The swordsman nuzzled his mouth against the other man’s neck, planting a light kiss there. “Can I get that in writing?”
“Depends if I ever get any sensation back in my extremities.” Sanji smiled again, one shoulder twitching as Zoro’s mouth grazed over him. “Eh... That tickles. Quit it.”
“Make me.” Zoro applied a little more pressure with his lips.
“Ow. No fair, taking advantage of me when I’m in this state.” Sanji’s hand tightened on the back of Zoro’s shirt and tugged him backwards. “Fuck... My pants are falling down.”
“So give me a second to sort myself out, okay?” The chef reached down and tugged up his boxer briefs and pants.
“Party pooper.” Zoro took advantage of the other man’s still-open shirt to slide one hand inside it, stroking his fingers round and finding the small of his back. Placed the other hand back against the wall and leaned against his lover, pinning him there with a kiss. And bringing his own lower body up close.
“Hah...” Sanji’s smile moved against his mouth. “Someone’s eager.”
“Someone is,” Zoro agreed, letting his hips press harder against the chef.
“Can we maybe take this onto a bed for the next round?” Sanji was still smiling. “That was really hot... But what I have in mind involves you being horizontal.”
“Whatever you want, cook. Remember?” Zoro bit down softly on the other man’s neck.
“Uhh... I could get to like this.” Sanji drew a breath in slowly. “How long can we spin my birthday out for?”
“Neither of us has work tomorrow.”
Instead of saying anything else, Sanji pushed Zoro back just a little... Before turning sideways, one hand finding the swordsman’s and tugging him in his wake.
They reached Sanji’s bedroom, getting a couple of steps from the bed before Zoro put on the brakes and pulled against the hand holding his, drawing the chef back against him. Sanji’s hands went to the bottom of Zoro’s sweater and tugged it upwards, stripping it off. The swordsman felt the cool air against his skin and as soon as his arms were free reached out and got hold of the blue shirt, sliding it off Sanji’s shoulders. And then they were pressing together, chest and belly and hip. His hand going up to curl around the chef’s neck, burying his fingers deep in the rough silk of his hair and their mouths finding each other and latching on.
The need he’d had in his gut all night lit up, like a fire getting backdraft. Fed by the feel of the other man’s hands on his skin, the taste of him, the way their hips ground together. Wanting it harder, more, closer.
Sanji’s arms slid up around his shoulders, hands going to the base of Zoro’s skull and pulling his head down, kissing him deep. Zoro let his own hands fall to the chef’s waist: then down to his ass, fingers sinking into the hard curve of the muscle there, tightening.
And Sanji flexed and Zoro lifted upwards at the same moment, the chef’s legs curling round the swordsman’s hips and arms resting on his shoulders so that Zoro was supporting his weight. Feeling that the chef was hard again, erection nudging against his stomach; feeling his own hard-on confined within his jeans.
Two steps and they reached the bed, Zoro placing one knee up on it and lowering them both down in a slightly ungraceful tumble, but fuck it: he wasn’t bothered any more with finesse.
Let’s see what you want now.
Sanji’s hands reached up to Zoro’s belt and the swordsman held still for a moment, propped on his hands: waited for belt and button and zipper to be released and then slid everything off, before returning the favour. And then stretched along the chef’s body, sliding one arm up alongside his head and finding Sanji’s hand with the other and pinning it to the bed before bending his head down and kissing him. Rolling his hips against the other man’s to get some good pressure going, savouring the sensation of their two aroused cocks rubbing together.
Sanji’s hand tightened on his, fingers curling. Zoro pressed down harder with his hips, then lifted his head just a little, their mouths separating. “Okay... We’re horizontal. Wanna tell me what you had in mind?”
Sanji made a sound in his throat. “Give me a moment... Lying down made all the wine go to my head.” His eyes shut. “Eh... Is this bed spinning?”
“Nice try.” Zoro wasn’t going to be sidetracked: he moved slightly, sliding his hips against the other man. “Fucking concentrate, you lightweight.”
The chef’s eyes flicked open: he gave the swordsman a dangerous smile. “Lightweight? You’re gonna pay for that one.”
Zoro smiled down at him, just as dangerously. “Yeah?”
Sanji’s smile stayed. And the chef‘s back flexed, his hips thrusting upwards slowly. Just once. His gaze staying on the swordsman’s to see the effect it had.
“...Whatever I want, hmm?” Sanji’s free hand lifted and the tip of his finger found Zoro’s side: began tracing slowly up his ribs. “Well. First I think... I’m going to see how eager I can get you.” The finger brushed feather-light over the flesh of Zoro’s nipple. “Then I’m gonna ride you till the whites of your eyes are showing.”
Zoro felt his own smile widen. Before bending his head down and finding the chef’s mouth with his own again. Savouring the warm liquid slide of their kiss, each of them tasting the other, lips brushing together. Hard then soft.
The bed gave a little as Sanji shifted underneath him, hands bracing on Zoro’s sides and pushing the swordsman gently sideways, rolling them both until their positions were reversed: Zoro settling onto his back on top of the covers. Above him now Sanji propped himself on one hand and one elbow, sliding his knee between Zoro’s thighs and easing them apart. The swordsman went with it, spreading his legs so that the chef could lie between them, feeling Sanji adjust his position until their cocks touched: rubbed together.
The chef breathed out slowly, then flexed his hips and legs, producing that delicious slow friction again. And again. His eyes gazing down at Zoro, that rosy wine shadow still flushed across his cheeks. His lips just parted: letting each loaded breath leave and enter.
Zoro brought his own hands up to the other man’s sides, fingertips resting on his ribs. Feeling sinew and bone and muscle flex with each breath in, expanding outwards. Warm skin smooth under his hands. The control and strength held in each movement of Sanji’s body: the slow roll of his hips; the deliberate press and grind that brought slightly more pressure with each thrust.
Just as Zoro had been control before, holding the chef against the wall in the other room, Sanji was taking control now. The swordsman tightened his hands where they gripped the chef’s body. He wanted to guide the other man, move him faster, pull him closer. The ache and the heat was growing in his centre: increasing with every rocking movement. He lifted one leg, hooking it around one of the chef’s and using it to bring the other man more firmly against him.
Sanji pushed himself up slightly, straightening one arm. Smiled slyly down at the swordsman. “Trying to hurry things along?”
Zoro didn’t have a problem with the chef setting the pace. Although it was getting harder to hold back. “Long as you keep moving like that, I’m okay with it.”
Sanji let out a soft Hah of laughter. “Right.” His hips flexed, pressing down again; producing an indrawn breath from the swordsman. “Doing this... and watching your face... is kinda enjoyable.”
Zoro gazed back up at the chef, focussing on those eyes, that mocking smile. Instead of on the growing heat in his belly and urge to move faster, to reach down and close his hand around both their lengths and stroke hard until they came. His fingers flexed on Sanji’s ribs, moving back and forth against the warm skin. Talking was becoming less easy. “...Good.”
The smile on the chef’s face grew a little, revealing that he was aware of Zoro’s increasing arousal... and liking it.
When Sanji bent his head down and they joined mouth to mouth again, tongues reaching and exploring, Zoro was able to wind his arm around the other man’s waist and bring them as close as he wanted. Bodies still moving, pulsing against each other. Talking stopped being important: instead they communicated by touch. Paying close attention to how the other moved at the pressure of lips or fingers. How the body responded to a caress, pressure sliding over skin.
Zoro let Sanji set the pace, keep control, following him just a breath behind. Focussing on his own breath coming in and out, when the sensations building in his own body started to feel too much to rein in.
At last the chef pushed himself up and sideways then rolled on one elbow, reaching for the nightstand.
Zoro turned onto his side too, watching his lover get lube and a condom. Propping his head on one hand, elbow resting on the bed, he gave the chef a slow smile.
Sanji regarded him, letting out a breath. Then curled one arm up behind his head, shifting his body slightly and bending one leg at the knee. Eyes resting on the swordsman. “...Suck me again.”
Zoro said nothing. Just moved, lifting himself a little and reaching out. Taking hold of Sanji’s knee and sliding his hand down the lean muscle of the chef’s thigh, bending his head forward and taking Sanji’s cock into his mouth. Going down on him swift and almost-rough, dragging his tongue over the heated flesh and hearing and feeling the chef shiver. Bringing his free hand up too, circling the other man’s cock and firmly stroking up and down.
“Nnhh...” Sanji’s hips flexed, pushing up at him. Zoro went with the movement, yielding to it... Then pushed back, sliding hand and mouth down the length of Sanji’s cock. Enjoying the sound this produced from the other man. His own cock twitched.
Zoro let his hand drift from Sanji’s thigh to the bed: found the lube, and uncapped it. Slicked up his fingers, without pausing at the other things he was doing. Let the tip of his tongue work around the head of his lover’s cock, then tease at the underside. Before trailing his slick forefinger in a slow line down Sanji’s perineum and rimming him lightly with it.
The chef drew in a breath, poised in Zoro’s hands. Then released it with a groan as the swordsman slid his finger inside.
Concentrating on the responses of the other man’s body, Zoro kept up his attentions with his mouth, his hands. Feeling how Sanji’s tight heat gradually relaxed, how he let go a little more, still more. The sounds he made in his throat as Zoro readied him. Yielding and taking: shuddering slightly as the swordsman found that sweet spot and played it, working his lover higher.
Fingers rested on Zoro’s head, threading through his hair: pushed back slightly, making him lift his head.
“Enough...” Sanji’s eyes were dark, pupils expanded to eclipse blue irises.
The hand on Zoro’s head dropped to his shoulder, pushing again. Zoro went with it, letting go and rolling onto his back, head and shoulders resting against the pillows. Watching as Sanji moved too, lifting one leg over to straddle him: ripping open the condom packet swiftly, before rolling the condom onto Zoro’s cock.
The pressure of Sanji’s hand around him felt so good that Zoro let out a low sound in his throat. The chef smiled... then reached for the lube. Rubbed some between his fingers, before reaching out and closing his hand on Zoro’s cock. Glided his grip, slow and firm, taking his time.
Zoro swallowed, his eyes closing briefly. When he opened them again, Sanji was watching him. Rising steadily onto his knees, the chef used his hand to guide Zoro against himself; breathed in; then out, slowly letting himself lower.
Zoro felt himself go into tight slick heat. All sensation flowing down to that place where he was moving into the other man, feeling Sanji ease down onto him. The chef’s hands coming to rest against his chest.
When Sanji was fully seated there was a pause, a moment where they were both still, unconsciously breathing in slow unison. Then the chef shifted away, lifting his hips just enough. Before bringing himself back down against the swordsman, pulling a soft Unhh from both of them. Then repeating the movement. Again. His body finding a rhythm that grew stronger each time, more forceful with each roll of his hips.
Zoro lifted his knees slightly, giving himself more leverage: waited for the next shift of Sanji’s body and then thrust upwards, joining with the chef’s rhythm to push harder against him, deeper into him. Sanji let out a Hahh and his fingers curled where they rested on the swordsman’s chest, but his next movement met Zoro’s and answered it.
Somehow they kept it slow, although their breathing was unsteady. Zoro kept his eyes on Sanji’s face, watching every rise and shiver pass over it. Like wind dancing over the surface of water. Feeling himself move within the other man: feeling what that was doing to him. Listening to the half-caught pull in of Sanji’s breath.
Feel it, love cook.
Sanji shifted his weight, leaning back: braced his hands against Zoro’s thighs, feet hooking loosely under the swordsman’s legs. Using this to move with more force. Lips parted a little, the flush darkening across his cheeks. His gaze holding his lover’s.
Zoro let his hands lift and hold onto Sanji’s hips. Half guiding, half adding to each thrust of the chef’s body against his own. Feeling their pace starting to pick up, just enough.
Sanji let out a breath between his teeth. Then breathed, “Fucking yes... Want to feel you move.”
“...Mhm.” The low sound of agreement Zoro made travelled through his body. The unsteady breathless words the chef had uttered went to all the right places: he wanted to hear him again. “Tell me what you want.” Zoro let his hips thrust up against the other man, with a little more force. “Tell me how you want to be fucked.”
Sanji groaned slightly. “Like... that.” His own hips met the thrust. “Fuck, yeah... Zoro...o...”
Hearing his own name like that, sliding into a liquid groan, lit up places in Zoro that cut him loose. Span him out into a space where he was adrift, anchored only by the feel of Sanji’s body on his.
I want you.
Everything he’d felt earlier that evening, looking at Sanji in the bar, was suddenly there again.
I want you like I’ve never wanted anyone before.
And because he trusted it, he let himself open up to it. All the way.
Above him Sanji let out another sound, in his throat. And rose up, before leaning forward and bracing one hand on the head of the bed. The dark gold of his fringe damp now with sweat, his breathing speeding up again with the rhythm of his hips as he rode the swordsman.
Zoro let one arm fall back to curl around his head, fingers clenching on the pillow. Feeling his own breath catch as the other man drove against him. He braced his feet against the bed and rocked his hips up, thrusting into the tight heat and hearing Sanji’s breath catch in turn.
He was getting more than close: and so was the chef, judging by the way the other man was moving. Zoro slid his hand to Sanji’s hip, then closed it around the chef’s cock. Sanji’s eyes fluttered closed for a moment, then opened and gazed down at the swordsman. Watching him.
Zoro let his thumb slide up over the head of Sanji’s cock. Drew it in small circles against the pre-cum there, spreading the wetness over the skin.
Sanji groaned. Then smiled. And Zoro felt the chef clench around him, and almost lost it right there.
“Fuck...” A jolt ran through him and he had to bite hard on his lip to hold back.
Sanji bent his arm just enough to bend down and kiss him forcefully on the mouth, before lifting away again. “No... Not yet...”
Zoro looked up at the face above his and tried to focus on it: not on the sensations that were taking him to the edge. Felt his control slipping away with each breath in. Each rocking movement of Sanji’s hips.
The rhythm changed, growing faster again. Sanji made a sound in the back of his throat, the bed head creaking as he rose and fell. And after a few more rolls of his hips the chef’s other hand closed around Zoro’s, making it move faster against his cock. His eyes found the swordsman’s, holding them as he brought himself down, riding that place that made the breath shake from his parted lips. “Uhn... Fuck... Yeah...”
Watching his lover, feeling him start to shiver and fall, Zoro moved his hand back and forth along the other man’s length and thrust up hard. Felt everything tighten and then heard Sanji cry out, the chef’s head arching back as he climaxed and warm cum pulsed out over Zoro’s moving fingers.
The cry cut through the last sliver of control he had and Zoro came too, driving up into the body still moving above his. Heat rushing through him, feeling Sanji’s heat around him, the sound of both of their voices shaken free. Losing everything except that long moment of dissolution, wanting to move again and again into it. Hold them both there until it was enough.
And then they were both shuddering and breathing hard, sweat running down their sides and sticking them to the sheets. And Sanji sagged forward, his hand slipping from the head of the bed; bending down until his forehead rested warm and slick against Zoro’s. Their breathing slowing gradually from a ragged stutter to a slower rhythm.
An aftershock cut through Zoro, jolting him and making Sanji twitch and let out a wordless sound. He felt the chef’s hand close on his shoulder: give a squeeze. Lips brushed against his, then worked their way from his mouth to his jaw. Ghosted over his ear, then words on a warm breath.
Zoro let his hand drift over warm skin. Curled it around the chef’s waist and tugged gently, pulling the other man closer against him. Felt him shiver slightly, hips flexing; and let himself enjoy the body shifting against his own.
“Uhhn...” Sanji made a ragged sound. Then nipped gently at the swordsman’s neck, grazing the skin with teeth and tongue. “I think... I’ve sobered up now.”
“Yeah?” Zoro turned his head, capturing the chef’s mouth and prolonging a kiss until they both had to catch a breath. Enjoying the feel of the body against his own; the warm hit of wellbeing that was filling him from head to toe. And enjoying the look on Sanji’s face when they broke the kiss: like the chef was blissed out and trying to hide it and totally failing.
“Mmhh...” Sanji pushed himself slightly more upright. Then bent his head down and kissed the swordsman again. “Happy birthday to me.”
Zoro let out a soft huff of laughter, his hand stroking against the chef’s side. “Yeah.”
Another kiss pressed his lips apart. And quiet and low came Sanji’s laugh too.
They kept the bedside lamp on for a while. Lying on his side Sanji was drifting, floating on a fading cloud of wine and a lasting glow of happiness. He shifted slightly: felt Zoro’s arm lift and wrap around him from behind, settling over his chest. He let out a long sigh of contentment.
This is going to be a good year.
His own hand came up to find Zoro’s: interlinked fingers, and felt the warm strong grip curl around his own.
Moments from the evening floated through his mind as he edged towards sleep. Nami smiling as he unwrapped her scarf, the softness of the blue cashmere under his fingers. The sweet coffee taste of the cake in his mouth. Luffy and Usopp laughing together. Ace giving Marco a sidelong smile, one eyebrow hiking upwards. The warm pressure of Zoro’s hand on his thigh.
The feel of the wall against his back as he felt the swordsman’s mouth taking him in. Straddling Zoro on the bed, moving against him again and again, feeling Zoro inside him.
Lips brushed against the back of his neck. Then Zoro’s low murmur came. “...You asleep?”
Sanji squeezed the fingers between his. And murmured back, just as softly. “Mm yeah... Almost.”
“Y’wanna put out the light...”
For an answer, Sanji reached out with his other hand: found the lamp switch, and clicked it off. Darkness fell against his already closed eyelids. He felt the body curled against his back shift slightly, the arm wrapped around him pull him in closer.
He could feel sleep coming, but he didn’t want to let it pull him down. He wanted to stay right here, right now. In this moment where everything was completely, totally right.
I could get used to this.
A while ago when I used to work a bit at circus stuff, amongst other things I used to fire juggle and fire breathe: and yeah, you really do get better effects if you use kerosene (or paraffin, as we call it in Blighty). I don't recommend swallowing it though. And don't try it at home, kids.
If you decide to learn how to fire juggle safely then it is true that you can earn decent money at it. Annoyingly, I used to earn more from doing a couple of days of circus performance stuff than I now earn in a week as a teacher. It's a crazy mixed-up world we live in, eh.
Chapter 7: Just Come In
Zoro gave him a sidelong grin. “My schedule was insane today. I only got a couple of ten-minute breaks, so I skipped lunch. You feel like grabbing some dinner somewhere?”
Sanji groaned slightly. “Actually, this evening what I most feel like is getting horizontal.”
“Okay, sure.” Zoro’s grin, if anything, grew wider. “Your place or mine?”
Blowing out a stream of smoke, the chef gave him a look. “I meant a restful evening, craphead.”
Eggs and sausage, another side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chile in a bowl with burgers and fries
Now what kind of pie?
À la mode if you will
Just come in and join the crowd
Had some time to kill, yeah
- Tom Waits
Sanji checked the clock on the wall for the twentieth time. Before looking out of the open hatch of Bite Me at a street that was, so far, conspicuously empty of potential customers. And sighed.
It was now almost eleven o’clock. He had started early, prepping his ingredients and getting set up. In fact, he’d arrived at the stall way earlier than he needed to for this opening morning. Partly because he wasn’t sure exactly how long it would take him to get through his prep, but mostly because the tension fizzing in his stomach wasn’t pacified by cigarettes or coffee. Doing something occupied his brain enough that he stopped worrying about the nine million things he might have forgotten to organise for Bite Me’s launch.
On the plus side, he was used to working under pressure in a kitchen. And so far everything had gone smoothly; but being the only person standing there at ground zero, responsible for everything turning out right, was a whole new level of chain-smoking anxiety. Except he couldn’t actually smoke in the stall, of course: food hygiene regs.
How did I not realise when I was planning this that I wasn’t going to be able to smoke?
It was tolerable, of course. He was used to going without cigarettes for a few hours, working in kitchens: grabbing a smoke in his break. And right now, with this stunning absence of customers, there was no reason why he couldn’t walk out of the stall onto the street and light up a cigarette. Except he felt like he ought to be in here. Waiting in readiness. As if that was sending the universe some magic gesture of faith: Look, here I am: poised to feed the masses. Make them show up.
Footsteps sounded down the street, and Sanji looked out. A couple walking along together, talking animatedly.
Yes! Thank you, universe!
He directed a friendly smile in their direction as they drew level, mentally projecting hungry thoughts at them. They kept walking, absorbed in their conversation: not giving Bite Me even a glance.
Letting out a sigh, Sanji relaxed. Or slumped back into a state of anticipation, anyway.
His eye fell on the mini-speakers and MP3 player standing on a shelf at the back of the food stall.
Maybe some music?
He switched the player on, scrolled through the selection of music. He’d put Usopp’s playlists on there: after hesitating a moment he picked a folder at random and hit play. The funky strains of Ozomatli’s Cut Chemist Suite filled the interior of the stall, and he smiled.
Somehow the music took the edge off. Now he was no longer just waiting for something to start: the soundtrack in the background brought a little life into the space. A little of Usopp, too.
The artist’s designs had translated well onto the stall’s frontage and menus. When the graphics company had delivered and put up Bite Me ’s sign, Sanji had been gratified to see they’d kept the energy of Usopp’s artwork in the finished piece. It transformed the stall from just another sales unit to something that stood out: colourful and vibrant, bound to catch the eye of potential customers.
Or that was the theory, anyway. Sanji looked around at the various foods and ingredients in his compact prep and cooking space, and tried not to think about what could be re-used tomorrow.
At half past eleven he made his first sale. He was rearranging take-out packaging on a shelf and humming along to the music, when suddenly there were two women smiling at him from the other side of the counter. “Hi! Are you open for business?”
Sanji almost dropped a stack of cartons onto the floor in his eagerness to do something related to food sales. “Absolutely! Good morning, lovely ladies. What can I get you?”
“I just want something to drink,” said one of the women, eyeing the menu with a slight frown.
Her friend rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m getting some food – I’m starving. Didn’t have time to grab breakfast before work.” She gave Sanji a grin, before nudging her friend in the ribs. “C’mon, get some food too, you can skip dinner if you’re obsessing about food sins today.”
“Have you got anything low GI?” the second woman asked Sanji dubiously.
The chef smiled at her, thanking his lucky stars that he’d done his homework on the infinite range of dietary preferences that were trending right now. “How about a fresh super-fruit macédoine? Strawberry, cantaloupe, orange and blueberries with a squeeze of lime juice. And a green tea would go great with that.”
The woman looked mildly impressed. “Oh. Okay, yeah. Sounds good.”
Her friend laughed. “Sounds healthy. Not for me!” She tapped her lip with one finger, regarding the menu... Then looked up at Sanji. “Hey, you got churros on here! Like, real churros ?”
“Made in front of your very eyes. With a dark chocolate dipping sauce.”
“Oh bliss.” The woman sighed. “Then make it a very large order of churros, and enough chocolate to fix everything that’s wrong with the world.”
“Coming right up.” Sanji smiled, and got to work.
It didn’t take long to produce both sets of food, the enticing smells of fresh fruit and rich chocolate filling the small space of the stall kitchen. When Sanji handed the orders over, both women regarded them with appreciation.
“Oh wow, that looks so pretty,” exclaimed the first, at her fruit macédoine. It was basically fruit salad in a cup, but Sanji had gone to town on the presentation: thinly slivering the fruits and arranging them in a spiral of colours, topping the whole thing with a tiny sprig of fresh mint.
“Mmm...” Her friend had plunged one of the perfectly crisp and piping hot churros into the chocolate sauce that accompanied them, and was savouring her first bite. Her eyes rolled up slightly as she hummed with enjoyment... Then she looked at Sanji and grinned. “Hey, this is kinda sudden and all: but you want to get married?”
Sanji laughed. “Right now?”
“Whenever. I get off work at six.” She took another mouthful of chocolate-loaded churro and rolled her eyes. “Just promise me you’ll cook for me every day and it should be a marriage made in heaven.”
“I’ll be right here tomorrow and every week day afterwards,” Sanji offered. “So it will be my absolute pleasure to cater to whatever your heart desires.”
It was the woman’s turn to laugh. “Careful. I have big appetites.”
Sanji gestured grandly at his stall. “A chef knows no boundaries. Bring it on.”
The other woman paused in sipping her steaming cup of green tea, to check the time on her mobile. “Ah – it’s ten to twelve! We’re gonna get it if we clock in late today.”
“We better run.” Her friend hitched the strap of her purse more securely onto her shoulder, before taking a firm grip on her food. She gave Bite Me a look over, then nodded at Sanji. “You weren’t open last week, were you? We saw someone new had taken this place over.”
“First day today.” Sanji nodded. “In fact, you’re my first customers.”
“Yeah?” She grinned. “Cool. Well, your food is a hell of a lot better than the stuff the guy who ran the sandwich place here used to serve.”
“Glad to hear that.” Sanji wasn’t sure if the fact that the previous eatery that had occupied this spot had been a bad one would help his sales, or harm them.
“It’s nice. Kinda different.” She gestured at the sign. “I like your sign, that’s what made us come over and check you out... And after tasting this - ” she gestured again, with a chocolate-dipped churro “ – I am so coming back here for more.”
“That’s great. Where do you work?”
“Macy’s. Just down the block.”
Sanji picked up a few flyers and held them out. “Would you like to take a few of these, give them to your co-workers?”
She took them with a smile. “Does that get me a discount next time?”
“How about an extra-large serving of chocolate?”
“Deal.” She stepped away. “See you again. What’s your name?”
“Sanji, huh? Hope your first day goes great!”
“Thanks. Have a great day yourself, ladies!”
She waved, then followed after her friend who was now walking away down the street.
Sanji leaned his folded arms on the counter and watched them go, smiling.
My first sale. That went pretty good.
It wasn’t exactly world-changing in terms of money made, but he didn’t care. He had done it. Cooked and served his food, to actual paying customers. Who had liked it. A lot. And who were, hopefully, going to spread the word amongst other staff at the big department stall where they worked... Which might bring in more customers.
At midday the street grew busier, as people appeared to take their lunch break – or smoke break – in the open air. It was still cool enough in early April that no-one was sitting down on the benches spaced along the sidewalk, but pale sunshine managed to break through the clouds for long enough that it looked warmer than it was.
A couple more customers came over to the stall, drawn in like the two women had been by the sign and the sight of something new in their work neighbourhood. Sanji served them both lunch – a pulled pork sandwich, and falafel and salad in a pitta – and then had a few minutes to watch the world go by.
He remembered that he was expecting a delivery later on: one of his suppliers had annoyingly run out of a couple items, and had promised to make up the order as soon as they got them back in stock this afternoon. They had also promised to text him to confirm a delivery time.
Taking his phone out of his jacket which was hanging up well out of the way of the food prep areas, he opened his messages. Gratifyingly, the supplier’s text was there: less gratifyingly, they now said they weren’t going to be able to deliver until the end of this week.
Sanji scowled. And found the words Zeff had said to him repeating themselves in his mind.
- You’ll be responsible for keeping everything going smoothly. Which it won’t, because fuck-ups come along with monotonous regularity. So you’ll have to deal with that, when it happens.
This was all part of it. It couldn’t be expected that his first week would run entirely smoothly. A screwed-up delivery: annoying, but nothing he couldn’t handle. At least it was non-essential items, stuff he could manage without for a few days... And at the worst, buy elsewhere if the supply problem persisted.
It was still annoying, though. Sanji thought for a moment... Then typed a reply to the supplier.
‘Thanks for the update: now expecting delivery by Friday AM latest. With discount for inconvenience. Let’s say, 10% off. Sanji Black’
He sent the text with a grim smile. Returning to his messages, he saw a recently-arrived one from Nami.
‘Hey hows it going? :) xxx ‘
He typed in a reply. ‘Ok so far, 4 customers who liked the food'.
After a short pause, another text landed. ‘Well duh!! only 4? wtf is wrong with people in this city??’
Sanji smiled at the screen, before answering. ‘Guess it’ll take a while for word to get round there’s a new chef in town.’
Her answer when it came was typically Nami. ‘Not if i have anything 2 do with it. c u soon xx’
No further texts landed, and Sanji slid his phone back in his jacket pocket. Before returning to look out onto the street with all its potentially hungry customers, to practice the fine art of looking welcoming without projecting too much desperation.
Sanji had just served one other customer – a well-groomed young guy in a suit who had spent most of the time talking to someone business-related on his mobile while waiting impatiently for a smoothie – and was wiping down his work surface, when the sound of someone approaching made him look up.
Make that several someones. A group of people heading for Bite Me, talking and laughing together: mostly young, maybe student age. And then two figures at the front resolved into focus and Sanji found himself grinning. The tall skinny form of Usopp, wrapped in a full-length coat topped with his usual multicoloured scarf; and marching along determinedly beside him, her flame-orange hair spilling from under a purple cloche hat, was Nami.
As the small crowd of people arrived at Bite Me ’s counter, Usopp gave Sanji a cheery wave. “Yo, dude! I bring hungry people with semi-disposable incomes, whose culinary experience has hitherto been limited to the grim fare of our college canteen. Blow their minds, man.”
Sanji smiled at the artist. “Hey, good to see you.”
“Likewise.” Usopp leaned one elbow on the counter, grinning, and nudged one of his fellow students. “Load up, guys. I’m telling you, Sanji is gonna redefine your universe.”
Sanji looked to where Nami also stood at the counter. “Did you do this?”
She shrugged, one corner of her mouth lifting. “Usopp was already planning to swing by. I just encouraged him to bring a few friends.”
“Mille fois merci, chèri.” Sanji nodded at her. “You didn’t have to take off from work.”
“Oh, please. I’m doing my accounts today, ugh. Anything that gives me an excuse to take a break.” She winked at him. “Plus you said there was a crêpe with my name on it.”
After a few minutes of lively speculation and deliberation over Bite Me ’s menu, the students made their orders and Sanji got busy cooking and serving. It was a few minutes before everyone had their food: he noted that both Usopp and Nami waited in the background, letting others get served first. When Sanji finally placed their orders on the counter – a spicy empanada for Usopp, and a sizzling banana and chocolate crêpe for Nami – he announced in a voice just loud enough for them and no-one else to hear: “On the house.”
“Like fuck,” Nami retorted bluntly.
“What she said, man.” Usopp shook his head.
Sanji frowned at them. “I owe you both. You guys have done a shitload to help me get this place up and running, so this first meal’s on me.”
Nami picked up her food and shoved a ten dollar bill onto the counter, returning a severe gaze at the chef. “Bullshit. This is your first day in business: you do not give away freebies today. It’s symbolic.”
“Of all the money you are gonna make from hereon in.” She took a delicate bite of her crêpe and hummed with satisfaction, before pointing at the money on the counter. “Pick it up, you idiot.”
Nami glared at him over her crêpe. “I can hurt you. Pick up the damn money.”
Usopp snickered, before gesturing airily at his college friends. “These guys are picking up my tab, anyhow. They asked me what I wanted to celebrate my birthday: so I said, some of your cooking.”
“Your birthday’s today?” Sanji felt even more determined not to take any money off his friends.
“Last weekend.” Usopp waved this away with a grin. “Don’t worry, dude: I wasn’t expecting a cake. You paid me actual cash to do the artwork for this place, that's all the present I need."
“Crap...” Sanji picked up the money on the counter and held it firmly out towards Nami. “Take this back.”
“No,” she responded simply, her jaw taking on a stubborn jut.
There was a long moment’s contest of wills, their gazes locked... And then Sanji reluctantly turned and rang up the sale, before plonking Nami’s change back down. “This is under protest.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Nami licked a smear of chocolate off her finger.
“Hey, you want to slip me the odd meal gratis some other time, that’s cool,” Usopp suggested cheerfully. “Just, today’s kind of special for you; yeah?”
“Yeah... I guess so.” Sanji shrugged, with a smile. “Thanks, guys. I really appreciate you doing this for me.”
Usopp gestured at the other students, who were tucking into their own food with every evidence of extreme enjoyment. “Are you kidding? This is totally self-interest. I’ll forever be known as the guy who hangs out with the cool chef. News like that gets around.”
“Good. The more the merrier.”
Nami looked at him. “Were you hoping it’d be busier?”
“Maybe. I guess it’s my first day... I didn’t really know what to expect. The first hour was pretty dead, I was contemplating wandering out onto the street and accosting people with pastries.”
“No freebies.” Nami shook her finger admonishingly.
“Right... But maybe I should’ve done some kind of promotional thing, though. Like a discount with a Bite Me flyer on your second purchase, something like that.”
“You can still do that, if you need to. Just see how this first week goes.” She took another bite of her crêpe. “My guess is, once word gets around about Bite Me, you won’t need to do much deep-discounting.”
“Hope you’re right.”
“Trust me. I know about this kind of stuff.” She smirked at him. “When it comes to the killer world of business, I am never wrong.”
The group hung out at the stall to finish their lunch: a couple of the students got into a conversation with Sanji about travelling, sharing their plans to work after college for a development project overseas. Their liveliness seemed to attract attention from passers-by, and a few times Sanji had to break off conversation to serve more customers.
At last Nami consulted her phone, and sighed. “I hate to go, but those goddamn accounts aren’t gonna balance themselves. Back to the salt mines.” She leaned across the counter and planted a kiss on Sanji’s cheek. “Have a good afternoon. And call me Friday night, let me know how your week’s gone.”
“I will.” Sanji nodded.
“Thanks, dude.” Usopp grinned, giving him a thumbs-up. “I’ll swing by again with some more hungry mouths to be filled, next time I’ve got a class at college.”
“Bring as many as you like.” Sanji nodded towards his stack of flyers. “You got some of those, right?”
Usopp patted his coat pocket. “Soon to be appearing on every place I can legitimately stick one.”
“Great. See you soon!” Sanji waved as everyone walked off down the street, before letting out a cheerful sigh.
So far, so good.
The rest of the afternoon passed with an occasional straggle of customers, leaving Sanji plenty of time for the next day’s prep... And for cleaning down surfaces and equipment towards late afternoon, winding down to the end of serving time.
As he grated cheese into a large plastic container, he mentally took stock of how his first day had gone. A few dozen customers, mostly during the couple of hours around lunchtime; all of whom had reacted favourably to his menu. Some had said they’d definitely be back again; pretty much everyone had accepted a flyer or two to share with colleagues or friends. One woman had noticed the flyer included catering for events in the list of information, and had asked Sanji if he could supply food for her daughter’s birthday party next month: he’d taken some details and promised to email her sample menus and costings by the weekend.
He still had some food left unserved, but most of it was raw ingredients or things that would still be okay tomorrow. When planning his menus Sanji had thought carefully about wastage: the chef’s bête noire. He didn’t just dislike wasting food, he hated it with a passion. Rather than have to prep too much different perishable stuff, he’d worked out his bill of fare so that it was based around a limited weekly choice. He would change the menus over the month, so customers could try different things... But on a daily basis, he was offering a small range of dishes. That was the secret to running a good eatery: cook fewer things well, rather than trying to offer too many choices and then being forced to skimp on quality. Hopefully once he’d been running for a few weeks he’d also have a better idea about which things were sure-fire sellers with the customer base round here.
He was already thinking about other things he could add to his menu. Street foods were a different challenge to most of the cooking he’d done previously. They had to look appetising and taste good, but be simple and relatively quick to prepare... Or at least quick to fix while a customer was waiting, if he’d done the initial prep beforehand. And cost was a factor: a lot of street foods from exotic places tasted amazing, but they needed ingredients that would be prohibitively expensive to buy here.
Sanji made a mental note to spend some more time investigating some of the city’s produce markets, especially the Asian ones. He wanted to do some experimenting with Indian and Vietnamese dishes.
And I’ll bet Karim would help me out with some ideas.
He already had falafel and hummus in salad-stuffed pittas on his menu, which had been a good move: quick easy vegetarian options. And the empanadas had also sold well. Things people could hold easily in their hand, a quick hit of carbohydrates that tasted good. Which was what a lot of popular street food reliably delivered when you got down to it... Dishes based around bread, pastry, potatoes, rice; with some kind of strong-flavoured addition to give the food a kick. Carbs plus spices, fresh herbs, salty ingredients, tangy sauce. Things that simultaneously soothed the brain by giving it a healthy rise in blood sugar, and pushed the buttons in its pleasure centres with a combination of good flavours and textures.
Being a chef was something that was part psychology, part chemistry... and all about creativity. Sanji knew he was a good cook: not least because he knew other people who were good cooks, and he’d learned a lot from them. But being a good cook wasn’t enough. He wanted to be better. And all the time, he was working at it. Figuring out how to make what he cooked more intense, more subtle; more mouth-watering to look at. More captivating with every mouthful.
A memory came to him, from his childhood. Of sitting on a stool in the Baratie kitchen, watching a scowling Patti drawing a cocktail stick through the dark chocolate icing he’d just piped onto the top of a tray of mille feuille pastries, feathering the darker lines into delicate swirls against the white icing background. And hearing the pastry chef swear under his breath: pick up the last pastry he’d done, and set it aside. Sanji had wondered – and asked - why.
- What’s wrong with that one?
- It’s no good.
Patti had said this with a glower of extreme resentment at the offending mille feuille. Which had looked pretty much as good as the others. The lines of chocolate weren’t quite as even towards one edge, but Sanji doubted that most of the customers they got in the Baratie would notice.
- But it looks okay.
And Patti had given him an impatient look.
- Okay isn’t good enough, you dumb brat. It has to be perfect.
- No point doing anything less, if you wanna be a chef in this place.
Zeff set high standards in the kitchen: for his staff, and for himself. And for Sanji, when he’d started helping out in there. Being the boss’s kid meant he got cut exactly zero slack if something he prepped or cooked was substandard: many of the lessons Sanji had learned at the Baratie had been reinforced with a torrent of loud cursing from his old man, so he didn’t tend to make the same mistake twice. Which he’d resented at the time... But now, with a few years’ distance, he was grateful. Because what he’d learned, alongside culinary skills and an ability to work relatively unaffected by the stream of abuse that was pretty common treatment in many professional kitchens, was to aim for perfection every time.
Sanji loved to cook. And part of the reason for that was knowing that the sky was the limit. Even if every dish he made today turned out right; tomorrow was a new day and there were new taste combinations to try, new dishes to create, new people to try out his food on. New ways of being better. And that would never change.
Smiling, he snapped closed the lid on the box of cheese he’d finished grating, and placed the box in the refrigerator. Then ran his eye down the laminated checklist he had taped up on the back wall, before cranking the music volume on the MP3 player up a notch and turning to the next thing on his prep list.
By half-past five Sanji had got everything done. Running his gaze one last time over surfaces and storage to check he hadn’t left anything amiss, he turned off the fluorescent light and stepped out of the stall. The front serving hatch was already closed with a padlocked metal shutter: once the side door was locked, it too was covered by a metal roller shutter that was slightly stiff in its tracks and took a determined effort to haul down. Sanji wrestled it into place with a slight grunt, using his foot to encourage it the last couple of inches to ground level, before padlocking that shutter into place too. Then he straightened up; settled his bag onto his shoulder; and took out his cigarettes and lighter.
That first inhale of glorious nicotine-bearing smoke was almost worth having waited an entire day for. Sanji snapped his lighter shut and let out a contented, smoky sigh. His gaze drifted down to the lighter in his hand: the silver fish against the black. His thumb moved over it, slowly.
A deep voice that he knew. Sanji looked round and there was Zoro, standing in the street with his hands in his jacket pockets. Watching him, with a smile.
Sanji replaced the lighter in his pocket, before stepping away from Bite Me. “Hey... What are you doing here?”
“I finished work early today. Thought I’d come meet you.” The swordsman nodded towards the stall. “How’d your first day go?”
“Okay.” Sanji smiled too. “Actually: good.”
“Yeah? You get many customers?”
“Not big numbers... But enough.” Sanji shrugged. “Nami and Usopp dropped by at lunchtime, bringing a bunch of people with them. That helped.”
Zoro nodded. “I guess maybe it’ll take a while for people to get to know you’re here.”
“Uh huh.” They started walking along the street. “I’ve got a few ideas about that. Plus I offloaded a bunch of flyers to people today.”
“I stuck a pile of them on the front desk at the gym. Looked like some had been taken by the time I left.”
“That’s really great... Thanks. Are they okay with you doing that at work?”
Zoro shrugged. “I checked it out with the receptionist on the front desk. She said other people have left stuff there, no problem.”
“So I might get some hungry people dropping by after their workouts. Excellent.” Sanji grinned.
“Speaking of which...” Zoro gave him a sidelong grin in return. “My schedule was insane today. I only got a couple of ten-minute breaks, so I skipped lunch. You feel like grabbing some dinner somewhere?”
Sanji groaned slightly. “Actually, this evening what I most feel like is getting horizontal.”
“Okay, sure.” Zoro’s grin, if anything, grew wider. “Your place or mine?”
Blowing out a stream of smoke, the chef gave him a look. “I meant a restful evening, craphead.”
“No problem. We can pick up some take-out on the way, kick back and relax.”
“Whatever.” Sanji let out a long sigh. “Uhh... My feet are killing me. I didn’t sit down once today. You up for giving me a foot massage?”
“Yeah,” Zoro agreed readily. “For starters.”
“Pervert moss-head.” Sanji felt a nice warm glow spark up internally at this. “Okay, then. Let’s go back to my place, I don’t need Luffy begging me to cook him breakfast tomorrow. I’ve been feeding people all day.”
“I thought that was kind of the point.”
“Yeah, but right now I’m ready for a break.”
“Fair enough. You want to get Indian or Chinese take-out?”
“As long as someone else cooks it, I truly don’t give a fuck. And understand exactly how long a day this has been, for me to say that.”
Zoro laughed. “Point taken, shit cook. But you got through it. And your first day in business went okay, right?”
“Absolutely. I cooked food, served multiple customers, and got actual money in exchange. Oh, and you should probably know: someone proposed marriage to me.”
“No shit. Was this before or after you fed them?”
“After. And they said they’d be back.”
“Did you tell them that you have a really hot boyfriend who gives killer foot massages?”
“It didn’t come up.” Sanji smirked at the swordsman.
“I bet.” Zoro said this dryly. “This person who proposed marriage, would they by any chance be some cute chick?”
“Of you flirting with customers to boost your sales? Like fuck.”
“So it’s okay if I go on doing it?”
“Knock yourself out, shit cook.”
Sanji chuckled. “Just checking.”
The cigarette felt good in his mouth. He was tired and his head was buzzing with things that had come up today: ideas to follow up on, things to ask Nami about promotional stuff, possible new items to work into his menus. But right now he was walking down the street with Zoro and they were going to get take-out food and kick back and talk and relax... And later on they would be all over each other, because the sex was still mind-blowing and even after a long tiring day he wasn’t going to pass up on that opportunity. And because it was so fucking good. All of it.
The conversation he’d had with Nami on his birthday celebration evening came into Sanji’s head.
- This coming year is going to be an awesome one for you: I just know it.
- I’d settle for good. But I’ll take awesome if it happens.
Bite Me had got through its first day. Zoro was walking beside him. The early evening traffic was starting to build, its headlights and hum breaking up the gathering twilight.
To Sanji, it felt like spring was just around the corner. Potential unfurling, sending out its shoots.
He let a stream of smoke escape, rising up into the darkening sky. And asked, “You said a killer foot massage, right?”
Zoro gave him a sidelong smile. “Depends on what I get in return.”
“What, I’m supposed to bribe you with sexual favours?”
“You see any downside in that scenario?”
“Craphead.” Sanji said this without rancour. “You know, you’re talking to a guy who just got a marriage proposal on his first day at work.”
“Yeah, I bet that chick gets around pretty good with her white stick and seeing-eye dog.”
“Is us meeting up after work gonna be a regular thing? Because if so, next time let’s make it at your work so I can pound your face into a gym mat again.”
Zoro laughed. “Like that’d happen.”
“Happened last time.” Sanji let a smug grin come onto his face.
“You got lucky.”
“You think? Afraid to try again?”
Zoro stopped on the sidewalk. “We can head over to the gym right now, you want to prove a point.”
“Uh-uh.” Sanji shook his head at the swordsman. “Other plans. Take-out. Killer foot massage. Relaxing evening.”
After a moment, Zoro grinned too. “Okay. I can wait to kick your ass.”
“Dream on.” Sanji blew out a long stream of smoke. “But yeah: any time you want a re-match, I’m up for it.”
“How about the weekend after next? I could probably swing us a practice space on a Sunday afternoon, the place is always quiet then.”
They exchanged challenging looks. Then started walking along the street again.
“So. How was your day?” Sanji asked, in non-controversial tones.
“Weird.” At the chef’s questioningly raised eyebrow, Zoro elaborated. “One of my clients tried to give me her phone number and told me she was in an open relationship. Which, she helpfully explained, means she sleeps with other people.”
“Yikes. How’d you handle that?”
“Told her that I’m gay. And that my boyfriend’s a chef with a bad temper and good knife skills.”
Sanji raised an eyebrow. “Subtle.”
“Subtle wasn’t gonna work. Believe me.”
“You often get clients coming on to you?”
“You often get marriage proposals?”
“Touché.” Sanji smiled. “How’d she take it?”
“She didn’t bat an eyelid. Asked me if we were into threesomes.”
This time Sanji laughed out loud. “Kudos for persistence. Is she a regular client?”
“As of tomorrow, no. I transferred her sessions to one of the other personal trainers. Who happens to be a single straight guy who I know for a fact does not scruple to score action at work.”
“Is that even ethical?”
“Who the fuck cares. She wants some bootie on the side, that’s her business. I just work as a gym instructor: I’m not a fucking escort service.”
“Your co-worker you pass her on to know the score?”
“He’ll figure it out pretty quick.”
“Holy crap. What a day.” Sanji shook his head. “Let’s just get some food and go home.”
“Okay by me.”
“Then a killer foot massage. Like you promised.”
Sanji extended his hand between them as they walked. After a moment, the swordsman took it. Sanji let a small smile come onto his face. “It was kinda cool seeing you waiting for me after I finished work... Thanks.”
The swordsman’s mouth quirked up at the corner. His fingers tightened around the chef’s just for a moment. “No big. Glad your first day went okay.”
“Yeah. Me too.” Sanji said just this, and nothing more.
Their hands held each other for a moment longer; then slipped apart. Before they walked on, through the city’s evening landscape.
As they walked, Sanji kept his other hand in his pocket: his fingers feeling without seeing the smooth edges of his lighter. His fingertips sketching over the fine etched lines, tracing what he couldn’t see. A spiral of bubbles, rising through reeds. A silver fish; swimming upstream through the dark.
Mille fois merci, chèri = Thanks a million, sweetheart.
(And if you've never eaten freshly-made churros con chocolate caliente, do so without delay.)
Last chapter in this arc of A Wild Combination series is short and sweet: Bite Me is finally open, all Sanji's hard work and angst has finally borne fruit. And our OTP are in a good place. Lucky carp is doing its fishy magic, seemingly.
The next arc in AWC is writing itself in my head but it'll take a while to get posted 'cos I have many homework assignments currently stacked beside my desk, not to mention still working several self employed jobs. But if you readers are still liking this fic, I'll still keep writing it. But (Spoiler Alert): I plan to take the story in a somewhat darker direction, because that's where it's gone in my head. I have a dark head sometimes. It must be indulged occasionally. Sorry, folks. *Makes with a totally unrepentant grin*