Zoro and Sanji were alone in the men’s onsen at Orochi Castle, a rarity since their success in Wano Country and the subsequent Fire Festival. Every time Zoro turned around, the Straw Hats had another crew member who wanted to get to know him better. The newest one was a man who had a woman’s body, which was different, but whatever. Zoro wasn’t interested in Yamato. His interest lay solely with the leggy blond cook who had implored Zoro to kill him if he was no longer himself. Zoro had agreed immediately, of course, because Zoro would deny Sanji nothing if asked. But now that the battles have been won and they were finally alone, Zoro wanted to know the reasoning.

“Tell me why I’m supposed to kill you,” Zoro said without preamble. They hadn’t talked about anything important in what felt like forever, not since Sanji had run off to marry some girl he didn’t know. Zoro hadn’t gone with the group to retrieve Sanji, as it had been Sanji’s choice to leave and Zoro’s broken heart had stubbornly prevented him from helping. He didn’t know what had happened, and he’d be lying to himself if he claimed not to care. He did care, greatly, which pissed him off. Sanji had wrapped his powerful legs around Zoro’s heart years ago and refused to let go. If Zoro didn’t love Sanji so much, he’d hate it.

Sanji picked up the pack of cigarettes and lighter sitting on the rocks behind him, and lit a cigarette. Steam rose from the hot spring, making him seem ethereal under the full moonlight. Leafy trees arched around the stone pool, shading them with privacy. Zoro had already been in the water when Sanji had arrived, and after a brief, verbal fight that was more routine than heat, Sanji had joined him. Zoro still had lingering aches from his injuries, and wondered if Sanji ached similarly. He had no clue if Sanji even had been injured during the raid. Normally, he would’ve found out the moment he’d regained consciousness, but there was a distance between them. It caused a different kind of ache to settle in Zoro’s chest.

Across from Zoro, Sanji dropped his head back against the rock and exhaled a plume of smoke toward the night sky. “Did anyone tell you about my family? The Vinsmokes, not Zeff.”

“I heard a thing or two,” Zoro said, shifting on his smoothed rock seat. His legs were outstretched in front of him, and if he tried, he could probably touch Sanji’s feet. “A family of assassins, or warlords, or something.”

Sanji made a derisive sound. “Or something.”

“What do they have to do with my promise to kill you?”

“Everything.” Sanji lifted his head to look at Zoro, and the expression on his face was one Zoro had never seen. It was a mixture of hatred and anger and resignation and self-loathing rolled into one. It made Zoro want to draw his swords and destroy the cause.

Instead, Zoro folded his arms, his jaw tight. “Tell me.”

And Sanji did. From his father being the King of the Germa kingdom, to the Vinsmokes role in the underworld mercenary business, to his father’s desires to create the perfect warrior children through experimentation. He detailed what he knew about his father’s fanatical surgery on his mother and his mother’s attempted defiance, which led to Sanji being born different than his three brothers. He told Zoro about his childhood before he’d escaped. He explained why he went to Whole Cake Island, to protect Zeff and the others on the Baratie, and confessed to almost marrying Pudding in order to save the family who’d abused him mercilessly as a child.

The longer Sanji spoke, the more Zoro wanted to wrap Sanji in his arms and never let go. But Sanji wasn’t done, and so Zoro stayed still and listened to Sanji explain about the Raid Suit awakening his dormant augmented abilities and his deep terror that he would end up like his brothers, a cold and emotionless monster. He’d elicited Zoro’s promise to end his life if that happened.

Sanji stamped out his last cigarette as he finished speaking. He’d smoked the entire pack during his monologue. Silence settled over them like an uncomfortable shroud. The hot spring’s heat pinked their skins and dampened foreheads with sweat. Sanji gave Zoro a strained, crooked smile. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”

“You’re cheating.”

Sanji drew back in surprise. “What?”

“Science-enhanced strength and durability. Excessive speed. Accelerated healing. That’s cheating.” Zoro scoffed, knowing what it would do. “You have no real skill.”

“I do, too, have skill!” Sanji surged to his feet. The water sluiced from his bare chest. The sight made Zoro tingle. “Say that again, moss for brains!”

Zoro smirked. “Skill-less love-cook.”

Sanji attacked with a shout of protest. Zoro barely managed to get to his feet in time to block with his forearms. Zoro laughed and fought back with his fists instead of his nearby swords, which only incensed Sanji more. Water splashed everywhere, tsunami-ing over the rocky edge of the pool. The towels around their waists floated off with a wave surge. Insults flew as fast as their fighting. The leaves in the trees shook at the disturbance of the peacefulness within the onsen.

Zoro lowered his defenses first, which Sanji took for victory, but Zoro meant it as something else. He snagged one of the cheering hands Sanji had thrown in the air and tugged Sanji close. Zoro entwined their fingers, palm to palm, and with his other hand, brushed Sanji’s wet hair away from his face. Zoro knew Sanji hated when Zoro did that, because he thought he looked ridiculous with opposite curling eyebrows. He did look ridiculous, but he was Zoro’s ridiculous, and Zoro needed to see both of Sanji’s eyes.

“You won’t turn into a monster,” Zoro told him.

The vulnerability in Sanji’s exposed gaze nearly did Zoro in. “But what if I do?”

“I won’t let you.” Chest to bare chest, Zoro could feel each of Sanji’s breaths. “I love you too much to allow it.”

Sanji’s breath stuttered, and his fingers tightened around Zoro’s. “You mean it?”

“Of course I mean it. I said it, didn’t I?” Zoro cupped Sanji’s cheek. “But if you ever run off again to get married without telling me why, I will gut you.”

A startled laugh escaped from Sanji, and Zoro caught it with a kiss. Zoro’s heart tripped when their mouths met for the first time in ages, and his own breath stuttered. Sanji’s arm slid around his waist, pulling him closer still. “Love you,” Sanji murmured against Zoro’s lips, and the broken piece of him caused by Sanji’s running off became whole again.

The onsen enveloped them in rare privacy, allowing them to rekindle the flame of their relationship. It had been too long since they’d done this, and the intimacy made Zoro’s body sing. It was both nothing and everything like fighting. Movement and counter-movement. Striving effort and exertion. Heart racing, pulse pounding, straining toward a satisfying end. And when climax finally came, it was worth every second it took to reach it.

Afterward, nestled together in the curve of the rocks, with Sanji quietly complaining about his lack of cigarettes, Zoro leaned his head back and looked up at the starry sky. Life felt right again, as if before he was play-acting that things were okay. He rested his calloused hand on Sanji’s bare thigh beneath the water. He didn’t know what the future would bring, but as long as he was in it, Sanji would never become the monster that he feared.

And if he did, Zoro loved him enough to kill him.