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Here there be monsters

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 It starts, as so many people’s stories do, with his family.

 

Sanji’s family is hell.

 

‘Nuff said.

 

~0~

 

But really, they are shit.

 

Sanji has manifold issues. He has issues with strength and power, and what they can do. He has issues with masculinity, and what makes a ‘real man.’ He has issues with the dark, and trust, and opening himself up to people without reservation. He has a habit of hitting his head or yanking on his hair when he’s stressed, like he’s trying to pull something off, like he’s closed in and claustrophobic and needs to breathe .

 

Sanji has issues with food.

 

That one, for all the dickbaggery of his family, Sanji can’t really pin on them.

 

~0~

 

Sanji nearly starves to death marooned on a rocky plateau in the middle of Get-Fucked-Ocean for 85 days. His companion resorts to autocannibalism in order to vouchsafe even that much of a chance for Sanji’s survival.

 

They both nearly die, anyway.

 

And then neither of them do.

 

~0~

 

Sanji knows words like ‘weakling’ and ‘useless’ and ‘failure’ like other kids know lullabies. Hell, those words had been his lullabies. As had vicious beatings.

 

When Zeff whaps him over the head with his peg leg and says his pig swill is a hundred years too early to be graced with the name ‘soup’, Sanji should feel like a black hole of despair and repressed memories is trying to swallow him whole. Instead, Sanji surges right back at the old man, something in him pushed to do better, be better, prove this shitty geezer wrong. It’s something to do with Zeff himself; about the way he says things, the words he uses, like ‘idiot’ instead of ‘weakling’ and ‘tasteless’ instead of ‘useless’ that makes Sanji feel as if he could try again. This is just a temporary setback. He will learn .

 

Sanji feels challenged and inspired and infuriated by those words. Never afraid. Never beaten.

 

Zeff says ‘Eggplant’ instead of ‘failure’ and Sanji could swear he hears his mother laugh.

 

~0~

 

Sanji thinks of himself as relatively well-adjusted. He has demons, but he’s restrained them. He has hang-ups but they’re under control. He still has issues with strength for all he’s outpaced every fighter in the restaurant, reached levels of agility and stamina his shitty family never had thought possible. He still has insecurities that he has managed to keep buried under a veneer of much-deserved suavity and confidence. His problems with food are assuaged somewhat by being the best fucking cook in any ocean, bar none, don’t bother asking the shitty geezer because he wouldn’t admit it anyway even though it’s true.

 

Then one day a boy made of rubber crashes through the roof of the Baratie. Within 24 hours Sanji’s entire world threatens to go up in flames as a delusional idiot, an armada and a fucking Shichibukai show up at the front door of his hard-won home.

 

It’s less about Gin, who awkwardly mirrors Sanji’s own supplanted dreams and ideals for the greater good of serving their captain. It’s less about Don Krieg, who is every garbage strongman stereotype rolled into an ugly mug. It isn’t even really about the Shichibukai, which, seriously. What the fuck?

 

No, the most devastating and frankly triggering encounter is with the delusional idiot.

 

And no, Sanji isn’t talking about Luffy.

 

~0~

 

Luffy has a swordsman in his crew. He has three swords and a dumb look on his face and his hair is an atypical shade of mossy green. Turns out Sanji’s even heard of the guy. He’s made a name for himself in East Blue hunting pirates.

 

Now he is a pirate. Weird.

 

He makes a bigger name for himself by challenging aforementioned Shichibukai to a duel, who just happens to be Hawk Eyes Mihawk, AKA the World’s Greatest Swordsman. Sanji speaks fifteen words to the guy, informing him that his dream is stupid and he is stupid and he should just give up or he’ll get dead sooner rather than later.

 

The swordsman uses ten words to inform Sanji that he is a coward and a weakling and has no business trash talking the big boys.

 

Then he goes out to the duel and gets his shit wrecked .

 

Sanji sees the blood, sees the broken sword fragments glinting like diamonds, hears people screaming off to the side. He sees a body pulled out of the water and another body slingshot itself back across the water, Luffy hollering like a banshee and a crazed look his eyes.

 

What he doesn’t see is the swordsman die.

 

Instead one last sword, still miraculously intact, raises up in the air and a man who should be dead, who should have lost an arm, who should at least be unconscious, makes a ludicrous vow that he will be invincible from that moment on.

 

Everyone seems to think this is heroic. Even Zeff, the most terminally bored, impossible-to-impress salty bastard to ever draw breath, is smirking. Like he gets it . Like he thinks this demonstration is admirable. Like he respects the swordsman.

 

All Sanji sees, when he looks at Roronoa Zoro, are his brothers.

 

~0~

 

The Vinsmoke family desires power. They seek domination and subjugation in all things. They mow down their opponents, they collect their reward and they turn their sights on the next targets. The Vinsmokes are unstoppable killing machines. They are inhumanly strong sociopaths incapable of normal emotions and their ambitions are steeped in other people’s blood. They do not mourn. They do not regret. They do not show mercy.

 

Sanji thinks Zoro would fit right in.

 

~0~

 

Zoro vows to never lose again until he defeats Mihawk. Zoro desires power for the sake of power. He wants Mihawk’s title just to say he has it. His dream is to strive for his own betterment, his own success and he will cut down all his competitors until he has achieved it. There’s not a thing about that to be respected or revered.

 

And yet Zoro has a dream. A dream he goes after unflinchingly. Even if Sanji thinks that dream makes Zoro a monster, at least he isn’t a coward. At least he hasn’t simply given up.

 

Sanji watches Zoro fall into the ocean. He watches him be pulled back out of the ocean. He watches the man promise his captain the inconceivable. Sanji watches the man’s dream crumble before his eyes and in the next breath, watches as the swordsman reforges it anew with a willpower that is as indomitable as it is suicidal.

 

The trigger, the thing that almost sends Sanji into a tailspin of emotional anguish and cognitive dissonance, is that Sanji is impressed, too .

 

He doesn’t want to be. The thought makes him want to puke. Zoro’s dream is inherently selfish and violent and necessitates a multitude of dead bodies to realize. Zoro has to sharpen his swords -- sword, now -- on those weaker than him. He is driven to perfection and strength and bloodlust. No doubt Judge would have loved a chance to replace Zoro with his disappointment of a son.

 

Luffy just laughs and agrees to Zoro’s new, insane oath. Zeff subtly nods in approval to himself. Mihawk announces to everyone present that he spared Zoro’s life on purpose because he can see his potential. He throws down a gauntlet that has every other seasoned pirate shitting their pants, when he dares Zoro to surpass him one day. He sounds as if he knows they will meet again.

 

Sanji is impressed but he hates that because Zoro is so much like his family, and he hates them . Sanji gave up on his dream of finding All Blue in order to stay with Zeff and the Baratie, but Zoro won’t tolerate distractions. Zoro lives his life with a reckless sense of purpose that a small, shameful, broken part of Sanji envies.

 

Sanji wants to live his life like that. Never thought he’d have a chance to live his life like that. When Zoro falls into the ocean, Sanji is both justified and oddly...sad. For all he wants the swordsman to fail, expects it, it’s a cold and bitter sort of victory when it actually happens.

 

But living his life like Zoro lives his would mean Sanji is treading too close to the Vinsmoke ideology. Sanji would rather feed himself to a Sea King than ever set foot on that dismal road again.

 

Normally he’d just shrug off this existentialism and throw himself into his cooking and think back with a double-edged blade of whimsy and disdain on the weird day he met a Rubber-Man and a Monster who were dead set on doing the impossible. Normally, Sanji wouldn’t fret this hard because everyone moves on from the Baratie eventually and no way is he letting these pirate-shits sink his home.

 

Normally, he would never see any of these morons ever again.

 

Luffy thrashes Don Krieg and then fails to laugh at Sanji’s ridiculous dream to find All Blue. So Sanji joins the Straw Hat Crew. He feels exhilarated. He feels strong. He feels like he’ll miss Zeff and never admit to it.

 

He feels like Zoro is going to be a problem after all.

 

~0~

 

Zoro doesn’t give a fuck about Nami.

 

Oh there’s plenty for Sanji to fight about, when it comes to Zoro, plenty of philosophical differences to keep them arguing and snapping at each other for hours, days, years at a time. Sanji is far from anti-violence, he in fact enjoys fighting for all it was the bane of his earliest years. Now that he’s good at it, he can see the appeal.

 

That might be a little childish of him.

 

Point is, it’s not the fighting or the competitive spirit that makes Sanji cringe. It isn’t even really the blood, even though there’s something so final and savage about cutting someone open. Even if Sanji’s style of fighting tends to break skin and shatter bones, it’s an honest sort of violence. Sanji only deals out what he himself can take and his tools are limited to what his body is capable of. Using a weapon seems like cheating.

 

He doesn’t feel that way about the sharpshooter, Usopp, who can only be a sharpshooter by using some sort of projectile weapon, or even Luffy even though he is also cheating in a way because he’s eaten a Devil Fruit and therefore has a modified body.

 

Nami-swan is perfect and radiant and if she wants to use a staff to defend her virtue and her island that is acceptable and good and right.

 

That is actually the problem.

 

Nami is lovely and smart and powerful and has suffered incalculably at the hands of these shitty fishman pirates and Zoro doesn’t give a damn about any of that. He argued for leaving her behind. He suggested to his captain that they find a new navigator. He slept through her whole tragic life-story, as related by her nearly-almost-as-radiant-and-perfect older sister, and wasn’t moved by Nami’s bravery in the slightest.

 

Zoro only fought for her because Luffy told him to. He would have abandoned Nami without a second thought, otherwise.

 

Shades of Ichiji, right there. Sanji’s eldest brother was unfeeling and cold in a very similar way. It makes Sanji want to crush that stupid marimo’s head into pâté.

 

Zoro threatens to use his swords on Nami. Sanji puts a stop to that garbage real quick. They almost come to blows. Yosaku calms them both down, saying they need to focus on the real threat. Sanji knows this is just postponed. He’s on Zoro’s radar now, and they are going to be disagreeing about a number of things for as long as they are subjected to each other’s company. Which will be constantly. Sanji tells himself he’s only along for the ride to find All Blue, save a beautiful woman and maybe to protect these idiots from what he can see and they apparently are overlooking: Roronoa Zoro is a monster, and he would cut down any one of them unflinchingly if they stood in the way of his dream.

 

Luffy tells Zoro they are fighting the Arlong Pirates to get Nami back. Zoro agrees, reluctantly, because Luffy is the captain. That he listens to someone like Luffy at all is a little surprising.

 

If he finds it just as surprising that Zoro fights quite as hard as he does, even though he has recently been bisected by a Shichibukai, Sanji keeps that to himself. After all, Zoro swore he would never lose again. It’s all about his pride, and nothing else.

 

Zoro doesn’t care about the crew.

 

~0~

 

Zoro takes down an entire village of bounty hunters by himself.

 

It is hauntingly similar to the legacy of Germa 66 and the swathe of calamity they have left throughout North Blue.

 

The rest of the crew fail to see why this is a danger sign of things to come. Not Sanji.

 

Sanji can spot a murderer at ten paces. He shares genetic material with a whole family of them. It’s in the eyes. Judge’s, Ichiji’s, Niji’s, Yonji’s, Zoro’s. (His).

 

It’s not something Sanji thinks about often. He can’t ever truly forget.

 

~0~

 

Sanji never sees a shred of humanity in Zoro. Not once, all through Little Garden and Drum Island right up until they reach Alabasta.

 

Vivi-chan is riding on Chopper’s back and Sanji has just launched them several stories up the Clocktower in Alubarna Square and he’s watching in horror, they all are, as two Baroque Works cronies appear at the last goddamn second, guarding the bomb. He watches as Zoro falls out his own window, holds up his swords -- fucking swords again this bushido-asshole, is he trying to slice open Chopper’s hooves? -- and holds their nakama balanced on the blades. And holds them.

 

And holds them.

 

He’s already losing altitude, how is he going to get them high enough, what the fuck is he waiting for?

 

Sanji sees the guns just before Baroque Works fires them.

 

Then Zoro sends Chopper and Vivi-chan flying, just barely clearing sudden death as they rocket upwards through the air.

 

The bullets impact each other before they hit Zoro.

 

The bullets fucking explode .

 

Sanji hits the ground and rolls and jerks his eyes immediately upwards. Usopp is wailing in fright, Nami looks ashen and panicked and Sanji realizes, abruptly, I think I just saw the swordsman die .

 

He expects to feel relieved. Maybe vindicated. At the very least apathetic.

 

Instead he feels … almost disappointed. Really?

 

Really.

 

This is how the supposed next World’s-Greatest-Swordsman goes down? Blown up by some mid-rank grunts while doing nothing more impressive than shuttling two nakama from point A to B? (Timing it just right that they were out of the line of fire and getting shot in their place.)

 

It’s hard to imagine that it was a deliberate choice. Zoro hasn’t shown one iota of interest in anyone’s welfare, outside of maybe Luffy, but Luffy’s the captain and Zoro is the first mate so that almost makes sense.

 

Zoro hits the ground hard right beside Sanji, and Sanji is surprised to find that the marimo idiot is not only not-dead, he’s awake. Sanji is so surprised that he blinks at Zoro agog for a moment and blurts out, “Oh, you’re still alive.”

 

Zoro replies to that inane comment by asking, “Did they make it up there?”

 

Asshole is bleeding from just about every square inch of his body, he has burns on his arms and face and his chest looks like sashimi. He got shot with exploding bullets . There’s a perfectly proportionate dent in the stone pavement from the impact of his body meeting the earth at high velocity.

 

And his first question is about their nakama.

 

Sanji thinks this is surreal. He thinks this is out of character. He thinks this is bizarre and unprecedented.

 

(Later, when the crisis is over and he has a chance to think, Sanji will realize that Usopp and Nami hadn’t seemed surprised.)

 

~0~

 

Zoro doesn’t give a shit about Robin. To be fair, he doesn’t seem to give a shit about Usopp, either. Sanji can’t even boil himself to a proper rage over it anymore. Oh, marimo still pisses him off. No question. That’s probably the only thing that can distract Sanji from the heavenly vision of Nami-swan and Robin-chwan sunbathing on the deck. It’s almost like a hair-trigger: one second he’ll be all heart-eyes and “Mellorine!” and then the next second Zoro will say something stupid sotto voce , and Sanji will find himself teleported across the ship trying to kick a hole through the idiot’s head.

 

Like he barely knows he’s going to do it before he’s already doing it.

 

It isn’t Sanji’s fault. Zoro is a dumb moron who says dumb, moronic things and only learns anything when it’s literally pummeled into his brain. He’s the summation of every Vinsmoke masculinity benchmark that Sanji could never measure up to. And Sanji has just enough of a chip on his shoulder to still want to prove them all wrong.

 

Even if none of them will ever know.

 

So he and Zoro fight about everything, and they compete over everything and once in a very rare blue moon Zoro will have some first-mate type insight and Sanji will actually agree and it never fails to leave a slimy taste in his mouth.

 

In Water 7, Sanji follows after Robin alone because he is the White Knight of Love and also he doesn’t have time to find the others. Not like Zoro would have cared to risk his neck for her, anyway. Not unless Luffy made it an order.

 

Zoro doesn’t have an original thought in his skull (Yonji) and can’t summon an atom of compassion for anyone (Ichiji). He hollers down a den den mushi that Sanji is a fucking idiot (weakling, failure) and is going to get his ass kicked (Niji).

 

Sanji tells him to shut the hell up and breaks the den den mushi receiver.

 

(Zoro tells Sanji to come back to the crew.)

 

(Reiju only ever told him to run away.)

 

~0~

 

Sanji doesn’t talk about Thriller Bark.

 

~0~

 

No, seriously.

 

Sanji does not talk about Thriller Bark. He walked out in the middle of preparing dinner one night when Franky wouldn’t quit asking about “who that Kuma guy was?”

 

To be fair, no one else really talks about it either.

 

There’s an unacknowledged gag order; after their second toast to Brooke joining the crew, nobody brings it up if they can avoid it. Thriller Bark wasn’t the unanimous victory the Straw Hats were used to. The question mark hovering over Kuma’s sudden departure and the crew’s continued survival and Zoro’s … no one really knows what happened there and if Zoro isn’t talking, no one is asking.

 

Luffy asks two idiots from the Lola Pirates about it and gets shut down. He doesn’t ask again. Even though it’s pretty obvious that Sanji is the one who silences them.

 

Sanji has his guesses. Sure, he’d been unconscious for a good chunk of it but he makes the Lola Pirates fill in the blanks before letting them blab it to Luffy and everyone else. Sanji has great foresight, it turns out. The tale those two idiots have to tell is just as infuriating as Sanji had expected.

 

He missed the chance to hear Zoro scream like a baby. This would feel like more of  loss if Sanji wasn’t distracted by the throbbing in his side and the fury creeping through his veins.

 

That asshole. That selfish, egotistical, stubborn fucking prick ! How dare he lay Sanji out as if he’s just an upstart brat, some whiny child, a weakling (failure failure failure)? Who the fuck does that marimo bastard think he is?

 

Sanji would kick his ass all the way back to Skypeia, but the shitty swordsman is still sporting bandages and sleeping most of the day.

 

So he can’t do that.

 

Anyway, Chopper would murder him if he tried.

 

And that is just fucking wrong because that’s the only sort of conversation Sanji and Zoro have: swords and kicks and violence. Just like every spare moment spent with his brothers, ending in blood and black eyes and busted teeth. Only this time, Sanji’s strong enough to go toe-to-toe.

 

(He will look back later -- much later, almost too late -- and remember those fights. And how he and Zoro never made each other bleed).

 

Sanji throws himself into cooking and Mellorine-ing and ignoring Zoro with the power of a thousand suns. He doesn’t know how to talk to the marimo, doesn’t know what he would say if he could and looking at him makes Sanji want to burn shit down.

 

It’s better all around, this way.

 

They had never been ones for talking.

 

~0~

 

Zoro, because he is a rotten bastard who loves fucking with Sanji’s expectations, makes them talk about it.

 

He comes down from the crow’s nest after his watch and corners Sanji where he’s having his first-thing-in-the-morning cigarette on the aft deck.

 

“You’re a fucking idiot and you need to get over yourself.”

 

It’s still too early and Sanji is too caught off guard to fire back at all the things hypocritical about that sentence. Zoro doesn’t even pause to gloat over this before barrelling ahead.

 

“I get you’re sulky and pissed off because of your fragile ego, but if you’re waiting for an apology you are gonna be damn disappointed, because I ain’t sorry. And I don’t give a shit if you’re mad I stole your thunder, or whatever. You’re the cook of the Straw Hat Pirates and you are the only cook, period, who could keep our bottomless pit of a captain fed. But you’re so up your own ass about looking cool and being a martyr, you almost threw all that away and left us to fend off starvation. You’re pissed I got one up on you? You’re embarrassed I knocked you out with one hit? Too fucking bad.”

 

Sanji spins around to glare at Zoro, his thoughts more collected and ready to lay this asshole out for his fucking gall --

 

-- Zoro beats him to the punch again.

 

“A cook is more important on a ship at sea than a swordsman. That’s a fact. I ain’t sorry, ‘cuz I’ll do it again if I have to. You can resent me for the rest of our lives if you want. Won’t change anything, though, so you might as well not waste the effort, Idiot-Cook.”

 

Then Zoro walks away.

 

Because he’s a dick .

 

Sanji thinks he might be having a stroke, and he thinks he might be furious beyond the telling of it, and he might also be feeling a bunch of other uncomfortable things that Sanji doesn’t have names for. One thing, however, becomes evident.

 

Zoro calls him “Cook.” All the time. It’s pretty much the only thing he calls Sanji. The one thing Sanji always wanted to be, from his earliest days of leaving out food for the palace rats, secreting away cookbooks and hiding from his brothers, making a lunch for his -- for his mom --

 

Sanji has always taken food seriously. He takes his nakama seriously.

 

Maybe it’s about time he takes himself seriously, too.

 

(He refuses to admit Zoro gave him a pep talk.)

 

~0~

 

( He admits Zoro gave him a pep talk after Zoro fucking disappears before everyone’s eyes and Sanji winds up alone on an island full of okama.

 

He admits it, but only to himself.)

 

~0~

 

For two years Sanji is too distracted to think of his shitty family or the shitty swordsman and their shitty feud. Sanji focuses inwards for once, narrows down on what he wants, where he wants his strength to grow, the kind of man -- and cook -- he wants to be, instead of how he appears to others.

 

Also, running from okama.

 

It turns out to be very good training.

 

~0~

 

Sanji still doesn’t think about his family after reuniting with the crew. He doesn’t even think about them when he and Zoro start chomping at the bit again as if not a day has gone by. Not even Zoro’s narrow-eyed-glare-minus-one --  which should be prime for flashbacks of the stupid Vinsmoke hairline always obscuring half their vision -- manages to elicit anything of the sort.

 

(Rather, Sanji feels a twinge of not-concern over Zoro’s altered depth perception.)

 

(Considering the dumbass marimo slices a galleon in half while under water , Sanji figures Zoro’s skill hasn’t been impaired much.)

 

~0~

 

Sanji continues not-thinking about his family right up until they explode back into his life.

 

Maybe it’s because of all the time apart. Maybe it’s Sanji’s softened memories distorting the truth. Maybe it’s because he left a crotchety old ex-pirate in East Blue and has a crew he can’t bear to lose.

 

Regardless of why, the Vinsmokes hurt worse than they used to.

 

Sanji knows he could kick their asses. All of them. Even Judge -- and wouldn’t that just stick in the old son of a bitch’s craw? He could grind all of them into a fine puree without breaking a sweat, he could show them, this is a golden opportunity to prove how much stronger he’s gotten -- how he’s achieved what they all thought was beyond him.

 

Then Judge uses a human shield to block Sanji’s attacks. Then Reiju sneaks explosive bracelets over his wrists -- his hands , his most precious treasures that Zeff taught him how to use, told him to protect. Then Niji beats a woman bloody just because he wants to, because he can and he knows it would hurt Sanji.

 

The Vinsmokes are monsters breeding clones, breeding actual lives that have false memories and loyalty in their DNA, their only reason for existing to be canon fodder. Just cogs in the great war machine that made the Germa 66 the mightiest military power in this or any sea.

 

It is the most horrifying thing Sanji has ever seen.

 

And then his brothers beat the living hell out of him. It just wouldn’t be a Vinsmoke family reunion without his blood on the floor.

 

~0~

 

Sanji logs it away, he takes note and digests: the way his strong, mighty family shackled him. Tied him down so he couldn’t fight back. It’s clear now that they’ll never accept him for being strong. He doesn’t think that’s why he cared all this time, he doesn’t think that’s why he always had to fight Zoro, why he always needed to one up the swordsman because Zoro was just like his family and if Sanji could beat Zoro he could beat them ( be them ). He never wanted to be a part of this twisted fucked up family (except he did, he did , it was fucked up and twisted and gross and wrong but they were his blood as much as he hated them ( himself ) and part of him always wanted them to care ) so he doesn’t know why he should give a damn now.

 

Why that should open up a fresh chasm in his chest, along with all the other clefts and trenches and open wounds just barely scabbing over.

 

They never wanted him to be strong.They never wanted a fair fight. Because if they fought fair, they would lose. If Sanji was strong, he would be a threat to the Vinsmokes.

 

(Incidentally, the Vinsmokes are correct. On both counts.)

 

~0~

 

Reiju patches Sanji up as she always used to, right after she’d finished laughing at his bruises with the others. Reiju takes care of Sanji sporadically, when the coast is clear, when it’s safe or convenient for her. He understands she’s just looking out for herself. Sanji empathizes.

 

He’s more than familiar with how Judge treats the children who disappoint him.

 

She helped him escape all those years ago. He’ll be grateful for that until the day he dies. But that doesn’t mean he’ll ever trust her. She played her part in his personal hell for years, willingly or not, before it got desperate enough for her to intervene. That’s not something he can easily overlook.

 

Reiju doesn’t earn herself points now by hanging around after his face is under wraps. He might hate her less than the rest, but she’s far from a comfort to him. She inquires about his crew and Sanji finds her suddenly intolerable. She remarks, offhanded, that once upon a time Judge had thought about recruiting a certain swordsman from East Blue because “his cruelty with a blade” fit in so well with the Vinsmokes’ bloody ambition.

 

Sanji almost demolishes his room because he can’t hit her .

 

The next few minutes pass in a red haze for Sanji, although he has a distinct memory of bellowing at his sister: “That idiot marimo is nothing like Judge and if your dad doesn’t keep his filthy hands to himself I’ll snap them off and dice them into paella and make him fucking choke on it .”

 

Reiju doesn’t even have the decency to look surprised, so that leaves Sanji alone in his stupor as he contemplates the irony of his entire existence up to that millisecond. He has the hysterical idea that Zoro has somehow done this to him on purpose, like one of Usopp’s dumb pranks gone on for too long. As if he deliberately cultivated a false persona only to rip the blindfold off Sanji at the most devastating moment possible.

 

Obviously there’s no way the swordsman is cunning enough to pull off such a long con. Obvious.

 

Sanji is fucking blaming him anyway.

 

Because it’s only now, faced with the brain-melting reality of how vile and disgusting and evil Sanji’s family is, does he realize there was real weight to his words.

 

Zoro isn’t anything like these people.

 

Marines and pirates alike have always waxed horrific about the Demon Pirate Hunter, about his killing aura, about what a monster he is. Clearly, those idiots have never met a real monster. Sanji has. Sanji’s related to them (is one, is one).

 

Maybe Zoro could have ended up like the Vinsmokes, once upon a time in a parallel universe where he never met Luffy. But then, Sanji doubts that that Zoro would ever have gotten strong enough to face off against Mihawk, to become a legend in his own right, to even catch the eye of someone like Judge.

 

While bleeding out in a dinghy still tied up to the Baratie, with two broken swords and a gash across his torso that would leave a scar for the rest of his life, Zoro made a vow to Luffy that he would never lose again.

 

What Zoro actually promised was that he would become the World’s Greatest Swordsman, because that’s what the future Pirate King needed in his crew. He said, “I’m sorry I made you worry about me.”

 

He said, “If I don’t become an invincible swordsman, you’ll worry about me, right?”

 

Zoro doesn’t want Luffy to worry. Zoro doesn’t want to be a weakness for Luffy. He doesn’t want to distract Luffy. One part of that is becoming stronger than any enemy he might face. Another part is becoming strong enough to protect everyone else. The captain can function as the captain because the firstmate takes care of the crew. Zoro wants to be strong so he can take care of the rest of them. So that they can all get stronger together. So that Luffy can continue to lead them.

 

So the rest of them can achieve their dreams, too.

 

The deal he made with Kuma now takes on a sudden, breathless clarity. Kuma only wanted Luffy’s head, and the rest of the crew could live. Zoro traded places with Luffy so the rest of the crew could keep dreaming. Zoro knocked Sanji out when he tried to trade places again, because a crew needs a cook to survive.

 

(What does it say about Sanji that he had tried to trade places with Zoro at all? Maybe he always knew this about the swordsman, in the buried part of his brain where the objective, rational thoughts lie.)

 

(Other things lie there too. Like memories. All the memories, not just the ones that feed Sanji’s reactionary narrative.)

 

(Zoro carried Nami on his back all through Alubarna after she got hurt.)

 

(Zoro washed Chopper’s back in the bath house of Vivi’s palace.)

 

(Zoro harangued Chopper for blubbering after he was drafted into the Foxxy Pirates. Nami was furious with him, because he was being too harsh. Chopper was inspired, because Zoro didn’t treat him like he was fragile, or a kid. Zoro treated Chopper like he was an equal nakama.)

 

(Zoro went stone-faced and grim when they burned Merry.)

 

(Zoro refused to let anyone, even Luffy, bring Usopp back into the crew after Sanji overheard him planning his return. Zoro overrode the captain and forbade Usopp’s return until he apologized. Zoro hated the fact that he had to do it.)

 

(Zoro grinned like an idiot after Usopp finally swallowed his pride and said he was sorry.)

 

(Zoro lightheartedly teased a young Marine named Coby who claimed Luffy and Zoro were his friends.)

 

(Zoro laughed and clapped and chanted along with the crew at every party, every celebration, at every new nakama joining.) (Except one.)

 

(Zoro stood in the middle of the ruins, dusty stones and sparse scrubby grass dyed a visceral crimson in jagged arcs for ten feet in every direction. Sanji felt an alchemical reaction in his chest that often coincided with Zoro: dread and relief chasing each other in dizzying, sickening circles, interrupted by sharp spikes of indignation, irritation, admiration, disdain, fury and most of the time, confusion.)

 

(One reason Sanji is so regularly pissed at the swordsman: being around him is exhausting. It’s an easy shorthand for all the other garbage he makes Sanji feel.)

 

Sanji knows now, or always did, that Zoro takes the crew seriously. That Zoro believes in this crew like only a knight serving his kingdom, or a religious devotee could. Zoro would pretty much do anything for the crew. Because they are nakama, and nakama is family.

 

Thinking back on the deals made with Kuma, Sanji now knows he’d do anything for Zoro .

 

That is a distinctly weird thing to only realize two goddamn years after the fact. He also isn’t sure when that became true, because until thirty seconds ago Sanji had been pretty fucking positive he’d hated that marimo bastard at least up through the cluster-fuck of Thriller Bark.

 

This is why Sanji avoids the objective, rational part of his brain. Weird shit lives down there.

 

Reiju smiles a Sphynx smile at him and says she’s relieved he’s sailing with such good nakama. Sanji chain smokes the rest of his pack and ignores her, while her dumb eyes ( mom’s eyes ) twinkle knowingly at him.

 

~0~

 

(Sanji will eventually pull his head all the way out of his ass and realize that this crew is the most important thing he ever has or ever will be a part of and that he’d rather die than leave them, goddamn the consequences. Luffy’s done the impossible before, Sanji will recall, and so it’s good odds that he’ll find some way to get them out of this cluster fuck Sanji landed them in while also vouchsafing Zeff and the Baratie. Stranger things have happened.

 

Sanji will reunite with the rest of the crew, wherever they all ended up, and dive headfirst into the war with Kaidoh as an unspoken way to make up for bailing on all of them. He’ll make everyone a personalized feast in the hopes they will understand his regret -- he knows they’ll forgive him, because they are nakama and nakama is forever -- because this is a gaffe Sanji won’t soon live down. His other speciality, besides cooking and being a badass, is hating himself and he’ll be doing a lot of that for a while. If Zeff had been around for any of this he would undoubtedly have kicked Sanji’s shitty Eggplant ass from here to East Blue and back.

 

Sanji will sweat buckets when he sees Zoro again. He’ll never tell Zoro all the shit he had thought about the swordsman in the early days, he’ll never explain why he hated him, or when he changed his mind.

 

Zoro will never dress him down for what an idiot he was. He’ll take one look at Sanji and know the cook feels like a heel, and Sanji will take one look at Zoro and know every point of the swordsman’s unspoken lecture. They are disturbingly similar at times, and interacting with Zoro is a lot like slipping into a old, familiar jacket: unevenly worn and frayed at the seams, but somehow always a perfect fit.

 

He’ll never really explain and Zoro will never ask, because Zoro does care about his crewmates but he’s never cared about their backstories. Nakama is nakama is nakama. He slept through Nami’s tragic history, he left Robin to her own devices in Water 7, he didn’t give a damn about Usopp’s insecurities or his excuses. Once they all swallowed their pride, asking for help or admitting they were wrong, Zoro was all in without hesitation.

 

Zoro will never ask about the Vinsmokes. He’ll never ask Sanji what they had on him, how they managed to strong arm him for so long, why Sanji was so deathly afraid of them that he abandoned the crew to head them off. He’ll never ask what they did to Sanji, and Sanji will never bring it up.

 

Zoro will give him a long pointed look, his one good eye boring into Sanji’s one visible eye and Sanji will sweat buckets but he will stand there like a man who knows he has fucked up and he’ll stare right back at the swordsman.

 

Zoro will blink when his assessment is done, and say, “You get lost, Idiot-Cook?”

 

Sanji will feel like his chest is about to cave in, like he can’t get a full breath, like he might actually cry and his throat will choke up like weeds in a river, swallowing all the words of gratitude and apology flooding to get out. Sanji won’t say a single one of the many, many things that will be on his mind in that moment. Instead, he’ll light a cigarette and say, “Shitty marimo bastard, you’re the one who gets lost everywhere.”

 

Then Zoro will pull out a sword and Sanji will flip into a handstand and they will talk it out in the sort of conversation they are best at having, with kicks and blades and cursing and always underneath a current of respect.


There be monsters in the New World, but here there is just nakama. Here, Sanji is finally home.)