Zoro leapt nimbly onto the port-side rail and danced over the swings of the Cockeyed Canary pirates' swords. Jumping into the air, he executed a flip, his arms crossed in front of him, a katana clenched in each hand. He drew his arms apart as he landed on the deck behind the enemy, slicing through the backs of six pirates at once.
He spun on his heel and cut a swath through the battling pirates. Yellow feathers stained deep red floated around them as one Canary after another was felled. Death sang with the clink of steel. Five bodies flew through the air from the stern, kicked by a thick-soled shoe. The collided with the pirates Zoro was fighting, sending them all crashing to the deck, several impaling themselves on their own swords.
Zoro scowled in the direction they'd came from. Trust Sanji to take away his fun.
A bullet ricocheted against a steel patch nailed to the bright yellow Cockeyed Canary figurehead. Zoro dove out of the way, rolled back to his feet, and looked up. Several Canaries balanced on the horizontal yard, while a few more had made it to the crow's nest, each sporting a long rifle or a crossbow. Narrowing his eyes, he barreled forward towards the rigging, slicing through anyone who got in his way.
Luffy's shouts echoed in the air, coming from the Marines' ship. When the thick, early morning fog had lifted with the sunrise, the Going Merry had been caught unawares hemmed in between the Marines and the Cockeyed Canaries. The two other ships dwarfed the caravel. Ropes with steel claws at the end held the Going Merry captive on either side. The fighting between the Marines and the Canaries had begun on the Going Merry's decks, but Luffy had flung them all back to their ships. The Straw-Hat crew had divided: Luffy and Robin took on the Marines, Zoro and Sanji went after the pirates, while Nami, Usopp, and Chopper worked to free the Going Merry.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Zoro had said when the fog had first lifted. He stood beside Sanji on the deck, staring at the two ships that had appeared seemingly from nowhere. His hand tightened on the hilt of Wadou, as an uneasy itch crawled down his spine. "Watch your back."
Sanji made a sound of derision, hands tucked casually in his pockets. "It's more like I should be watching yours."
Zoro saw a Canary perched on the top of the cabin below, notching a stake in a crossbow. Out of the corner of his eye, Zoro saw another Canary with a rifle hanging from the starboard-side rigging, taking aim at Sanji from an advantageous spot above the battling pirates. Another quick glance down showed the crossbow was now also aimed at Sanji.
"Shit. Sanji, look out!" Zoro yelled in warning, but the roars of battle drowned out his voice.
Annoyed, and maybe a little concerned, Zoro's gaze darted between the two Canaries. The distance between them and Zoro's position made it impossible for him to strike both down before either got off a shot. His best bet would be to fell the one in the rigging before he pulled the trigger and then smack the stake out of the air before it reached its target.
With a determined jump, Zoro slid down the broad mainsail at the edge of the yard. The Canary with the rifle looked up right as Zoro reached him and fear widened his eyes. Zoro's blade flashed in the sun. The Canary cried out in death and fell backwards, but his foot was tangled in the rigging. His corpse dangled like a fish caught in a net and the rifle fell from his unfeeling hands into the sea.
The canvas grew hot under Zoro's seat as he slid faster down its curve. He hit the foredeck at a run, drawing a second katana as he dashed up the steps towards the stern. Blood drenched the edges of his swords as he plowed through the Canaries still fighting. He noted that their numbers were dwindling, but winning the battle wouldn't make a difference if he lost one of his own.
Cuts and scrapes marred Sanji's face and bare forearms beneath his rolled up sleeves. His blue shirt was splattered with dark splotches of blood. He frog-leapt over a falling Canary, twisting his body into spinning kick. Five pirates were caught in the impact, knocking them down like a row of pins. His back was to the cabin and the sharpened stake whizzing through the air.
Zoro put on a burst of speed, shouting "Duck!" Sanji still didn't hear him, the warning vanishing under a screech of dry wood scraping together. The ship shuddered, making Zoro misstep over a fallen body, as he was about to cleave the stake in two. The edge of his katana nicked the projectile, but did not stop it. It would hit Sanji right between the shoulderblades.
Zoro didn't hesitate, he didn't even think. He threw himself forward, into its path. The sharpened stake slammed into his chest, piercing through cloth, skin and muscle. He staggered upon impact, knocking into Sanji.
"What are you doing, marimo head?" Sanji growled. His shoulders bumped against Zoro's as he kicked.
"Need you to watch my back, remember?" The words tasted like blood on Zoro's lips.
Agony bloomed white hot around the thick wood stabbing into his pectoral and radiated down his limbs. He felt as if he were breathing water.
"Tch. Just don't get in my way."
Zoro's sword rose instinctively when a Canary tried to press an advantage, even though his arm felt heavier than his weights. Steel blades kissed. Black spots swam in Zoro's vision as he cast his gaze over the remaining pirates on his side of the deck. Blood burbled in his throat. He had to finish them off quickly, before his strength ebbed.
The Canary on the cabin was lining up another shot, standing confidently on the edge of the roof. Zoro blinked the sweat out of his eyes, flicked his wrist, and sent his opponent's sword sailing end-over-end. It sliced into the crossbowman, cutting him down neatly. The swordman in front of him collapsed dead with a jab of Zoro's katana.
"I'm going back to help Nami," Sanji called, his voice sounding as muffled as the clink of Zoro's katana against another opponent's sword. Zoro nodded, indicating he'd heard, but then it became too hard for him to lift his head again. His body moved mechanically, taking down his foes without input from his brain. Blood dribbled from his slack lips, adding to the deep red stains on his shirt.
The edges of his vision faded and objects became fuzzy. He struck down another Canary and waited for his arm to rise again. It didn't. Around him, all he could see were blurry bodies of the dead littering the deck. What little strength was holding him upright vanished abruptly and he crashed to his knees. Yubashiri and Wadou clattered on the stained deck on either side of him. The sluggish sound of his heartbeat was now the only thing he could hear, growing fainter with every pulse.
He was going to die. It didn't scare him, though, like it had in the past. He had no regrets in blocking the stake, not even being unable to fulfill his promise to Kuina. Some things are more important than your dreams.
Zoro smiled faintly as the deck came crashing upwards and the stake pierced through him. He felt an instant of blinding pain that whited-out his blurry vision.
Then, there was nothing.
Zoro was extremely surprised when he pried-open his heavy eyelids and saw the deck head above him. Disoriented, he blinked slowly. Numbness weighed his body. He heard what sounded like rain pattering against the cabins and deck of the Going Merry. Then, he heard a snore.
His head rolled slowly on a pillow as he turned towards the sound. Sanji was asleep in a chair beside him, using his arm as a pillow. The bright blonde of Sanji's hair glinted in the lantern light. His curled eyebrow twitched as he dreamed and drool glistened on the bare curve of Zoro's bicep. The scent of cigarettes caressed Zoro's nose.
He stared dumbfounded at Sanji before the click of hooves drew his gaze upward. Chopper's eyes bulged and he clapped forehooves to his cheeks. "Zoro! You're conscious!"
Zoro tried to respond, but his mouth felt as if it were stuffed with cotton. Chopper scurried about the galley, where the hospital cot was set up, bottles clinking until one was pressed gently against his lower lip. "Drink slowly," Chopper said.
The liquid tasted like rotten strawberries and was thick on his tongue. He swallowed once before he coughed and sprayed Chopper in the face with what Zoro assumed was medicine rather than poison. Chopper moved the bottle a moment, seemingly uncaring about the mess. When Zoro's coughing subsided, he put the bottle once again against Zoro's lower lip. "You have to finish all of this."
Zoro managed to get it down with only two more coughing fits. Sanji didn't stir at all. "What happened?" he asked in a thick whisper, his jaw seeming to creak when he moved it.
"Don't you remember? You were pierced by a stake." Chopper wiped his fur with a damp rag, wrung it clean in a shallow bowl of water, and gently washed Zoro's face. Tears filled Chopper's eyes and his lower lip trembled. "I almost couldnt heal you."
"Seems you did, though." Zoro thought his mouth twitched into a smile, but the numbness made it hard telling. "I don't feel any pain."
"That's the medicine working," Chopper said, sniffing. He checked the bandages wrapped around Zoro's chest. "It'll keep you from moving and help you heal as fast as possible."
"Oi, Sanji! I'm hungry." Zoro saw Luffy's body slingshot up the steps from the cabin below into the galley. A huge grin spread across Luffy's face when he spotted Zoro. "Zoro! You're up!"
"Shh!" Chopper scolded. "Sanji's sleeping."
Luffy ignored Chopper and yelled down the stairs. "Everyone! Zoro's finally awake!"
By their responses, Zoro guessed he'd been out a long time. Usopp, Nami and Robin came upstairs immediately. Usopp and Nami crowded around the cot with Luffy, talking over one another as they greeted Zoro with relief. Robin stood a slight distance apart by his feet. Chopper shushed them again, but he needn't have bothered because Sanji still didn't stir.
"He hasn't been sleeping much," Nami said, sounding almost fond as she looked at Sanji. "He's been worried."
"We've all been worried," Robin said with a smile. "It is good to see you awake again, Mr. Swordsman."
"I've taken the job of protecting the ship for you, Zoro." Usopp thumped his fist against his chest, perched on the side of the cot next to Nami. "I, Captain Usopp, proud warrior of the sea, have battled giant sea monsters and fierce Marines-"
"Ha-ha-ha! The giant sea king ate the Marine ship whole!" Luffy said, sprawling across Zoro's calves. "It was soooo cool!"
Chopper climbed on the cot on the other side of Sanji, his eyes bulging. "A giant sea king ate a Marine ship! Aaahhh!"
"Weren't you present when it happened, Chopper?" Robin said.
"Then, there was a whole village that attacked us upon our arrival," Usopp continued, as if he hadn't been interrupted. "With their glowing red eyes, glistening fangs, and claws, I faced them with only my courage as a weapon-"
"They were normal vendors who wanted our business," Nami whispered to Zoro, giggling.
Zoro felt like he was suddenly granted what he wanted most in the world, as Usopp went on with Chopper cringing in horror and Luffy getting excited like it would happen in the future. Robin shared an amused glance with Nami and made a chair with her Devil Fruit powers to sit closer to the cot. Not even Sanji drooling on his arm spoiled the moment.
This was what being nakama meant.
"-Standing boldly on the edge of the cliffs, the surf pounding against the rocks below, I made my stand against a thousand armed men-"
Chopper's jaw dropped. "A thousand! Aaahh! Weren't you scared?!"
"Hey, Nami, how much money do you think we could get off a thousand men?" Luffy said, feet kicking idly in the air.
Nami's eyes turned to Beli signs and she clasped her hands to her chest. "A thousand men "
"I think that would depend on the type of people, Captain-san," Robin said. "A thousand poor men would have nothing, whereas a thousand kings would have the greatest wealth."
Sanji snorted suddenly, barely heard beneath the din of voices. Zoro turned his head just as Sanji opened his eyes. Sanji stared almost in shock for a long, long moment, like he'd never expected Zoro to wake up again. Then, he sat up in his chair and, somehow, kicked Zoro in the head. "Don't ever do that again!"
"Sanji!" Chopper yelled, as Luffy laughed loudly.
"He just woke up, don't send him back into a coma!" Nami exclaimed.
"Sorry, Nami-swaan." Sanji was all heart-eyes for her, but when they returned to Zoro, they were as hard as steel. "Even though this idiot deserves it."
"You were the one about to be impaled in the back!" Zoro said, frustrated to find that he couldn't move to retaliate.
"Did I ever tell you about the time I was run through with a dozen spears, but still managed to escape the clutches of my captors?" Usopp began again. "I was five years old at the time-"
"Five years old! Ahhh! That's so young!"
"Saaannnjiiii, I'm hungry!"
"All right. I suppose I can whip up an evening snack." Sanji rose and Zoro felt his hand squeezed briefly before Sanji walked over to the icebox. "Nami-swan, Robin-chan, would you care for anything?"
A corner of Zoro's mouth curved smugly. He could get weeks of material out of saving Sanji's skinny hide. Closing his eyes, he listened to his nakamas' chatter, felt their warmth at his side, and was lulled into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.