Sometimes they lost.
It didn't happen as often as before, but it still happened. When it did, they retreated to the ship, the inn, or the house where they were staying to mend, to mentally review where things went wrong, and to figure out how the next confrontation would be different.
Zoro held his right arm clasped tightly against his middle, over the heavily blood-soaked haramaki. Blood spurted from the inner corner of his elbow every time he moved. The left side of his jaw had swelled where he'd been hit by what had felt like a battering ram. He was glad he hadn't lost any teeth.
He spotted a cargo wagon piled with crates and boxes, with a pair of donkeys harnessed to the front, parked near an orange-strewn alley. He recognized the stamped label on one of the crates belonging to a ship berthed near the Thousand Sunny in the harbor. If he were lucky, it was a delivery. Gingerly, he dragged himself onto the back and looked for a place to hide amongst the cargo. It was packed rather tightly, but one of the crates near the tail looked big enough to fit two people.
Planning to dump the contents behind the trash in the alley, Zoro lifted the unsecured lid and came face to foot with Sanji. The sole of Sanji's shoe brushed the bruised edge of Zoro's jaw before he could back off. "Oi, watch it, cook!"
"Oh. It's you." Sitting inside the dim interior of the crate, Sanji's ashen face peered up at him. He folded his leg back down. "You look uglier than normal."
Zoro didn't see any visible wounds on Sanji, but the tightness around his eyes and lips, and the fact that he'd stowed away in a crate, meant Sanji was hurting badly. "Scoot over."
Sanji slid to one side, tossing a few more oranges into the alley. Zoro pulled his swords from his belt loop and climbed carefully into the crate. The lid lowered as he sat in the made space, facing Sanji. He rested his swords between his upraised knees.
A lighter clinked and a small flame illuminated the dark interior. Sanji ran his gaze over Zoro and clucked his tongue. "Idiot marimo." The flame went out, and Zoro heard the rasp of a tie being undone. A moment later, the tie snaked around Zoro's right elbow where it had been spurting blood. The lighter clinked again, and Sanji looked at the makeshift bandage, one end of the tie in his mouth. Apparently satisfied, he dropped the tie from between his lips and let the flame go out.
A cigarette appeared next in the flame's small light, and Zoro lifted one of his swords to prop the lid ajar. He'd lower it when he heard someone coming. The lifted lid also allowed for faint light to pierce the interior, giving Zoro the opportunity to study Sanji more closely. He didn't like the gray tone to Sanji's skin. "You okay?"
Sanji sat leaning forward, resting his right arm on his upraised knees, cigarette between his fingers. "I'll live." He closed his eyes, his lashes dark against his pallor.
Zoro refrained from asking any further questions about Sanji's health, as he knew Sanji wouldn't answer them. Instead, Zoro closed his eyes as well, keeping his pain in check. As long as he didn't move, it didn't hurt as badly. Besides, if Sanji could remain stoic in whatever shape he was in, Zoro could, too.
They sat in silence. The acrid scent of cigarette smoke filled the crate. Zoro went over in his mind the fight he'd lost, spotting his mistakes, looking for weaknesses in his opponent that he'd missed. He debated whether he was the right Straw Hat to fight the guy; a swordsman fought best against a fellow swordsman and not, say, an acrobat.
Zoro heard footsteps on the stone street outside and lowered the lid. He opened his eyes and saw the tracer glow of Sanji putting out the cigarette against the side of the crate. The wagon shifted minutely as whomever it had been climbed onboard. Zoro tensed, prepared to fight if they were discovered. He felt Sanji coil beside him.
The wagon began moving. Zoro relaxed and promptly tensed again at the rough ride. He couldn't quite suppress the hiss of pain. Sanji placed his hand on Zoro's knee. Zoro grunted at the small comfort.
The ride seemed to take hours. Every bump on the road made the gash in his stomach scream. Sanji's hand tightened on Zoro's knee at intervals, and Zoro knew Sanji was negatively feeling the ride, too.
When the wagon finally stopped, Zoro could hear the sound of water lapping against the breakwall. They'd reached the harbor. Zoro waited for their crate to be moved, preparing once again to fight if necessary, but neither happened. Cautiously, he rose, lifting the lid with the top of his bandana-covered head, peeking outside. Sanji's hand fell from his knee. The wagon was parked at the bottom of a gangplank, but no one seemed to be in a hurry to unload. The harbor was mostly empty; a few sailors and delivery persons going about their business. Zoro could see the Sunny tied up a short way down the pier.
Zoro stood fully, allowing the crate lid to fall aside. Carefully, he stepped out of the box, grinding his teeth against the pain in his middle. He climbed off the back of the wagon and slid his swords into place at his side. He turned back and saw Sanji using another crate to sit on, in order to clear the rim of their hiding spot. He hopped down from the wagon, grabbing Zoro's shoulder immediately as he swayed on one foot.
The cloudy sky didn't hide the fact that Sanji's dark blue suit sported heavy splotches of black, on the back of his suit coat and around his lower left leg. His left arm hung limply at his side. His nostrils flared as he breathed heavily, obviously trying to suppress his pain.
Zoro slid his good arm around Sanji's back, earning him an unexpected whimper. He cut a glance at Sanji, who'd closed his eyes tightly and pressed his mouth into a thin line. His ashen pallor seemed worse than earlier. "Stupid cook," Zoro said, with more worry than razzing, as they began to shuffle-hop toward the Sunny. "How were you planning on getting to the ship?"
"I would've managed." Sanji's response was barely audible and filled with pain, but Zoro had no doubt Sanji would've done it. Sanji had gotten himself into the crate, after all.
Zoro wondered who Sanji had fought. This rat-avoided island had plenty of candidates. Whomever it was had done a good job of hurting Sanji. Zoro felt a surge of protective anger and the desire to hunt the guy or gal down and end them. Sanji wouldn't appreciate it, though, just as Zoro wouldn't appreciate it if Sanji ended the guy who'd handed Zoro's ass to him. Although, the idea of a vengeful Sanji did make Zoro a little excited.
"Don't pass the ship."
"I'm not going to pass the ship." Zoro's gaze shot up from his inner contemplations to find they were a step away from passing the gangplank to the Sunny. He adjusted course, and they made it onto the ship, up the side steps, and into the infirmary.
"Chopper?" Zoro called, but the ship had appeared deserted when they'd come onboard. He helped Sanji to sit on the edge of the infirmary cot and stuck his head back out the door. "Chopper? Anyone?"
"They're all ashore," Sanji said, lighting a new cigarette.
"Guess we'll have to do this ourselves, then." It wasn't the first time Zoro'd had to patch himself up, and it would be only temporary until Chopper returned. He propped his swords near the door, pulled his bandana from his head, tossed it on Chopper's desk, and dug the hooked needle and catgut out of the cabinet of supplies. He threaded the needle as he walked over to Sanji. Zoro still couldn't see what was wrong with the suit in the way, but he'd be of no help if he didn't get his middle stitched up. "Hold this."
Sanji put the half-smoked cigarette in his mouth and took the threaded needle from Zoro with his right hand. His left hand sat uselessly on the bed beside him, and his left foot was outstretched. He watched Zoro with pain-laced, narrowed eyes as Zoro pushed the blood-soaked haramaki down. His gaze widened, horrified. "Zoro, I can see your organs."
Zoro caught the folds of split skin and shoved his intestines back inside before they spilt onto the floor. The clean slice ran all the way across his stomach beneath the ribs and above his navel. His skin was slippery with blood. The injury hurt like hell, but he was still upright and functional. He started to reach for the needle, but Sanji jerked it away.
"You hold yourself together. I'll stitch," Sanji ordered. Zoro shrugged and stepped closer to Sanji. One-handed, Sanji began sewing closed the gut slice, the cigarette bobbing in his mouth as he muttered, "Stupid swordsman, getting yourself cut up."
"Hn." Zoro couldn't exactly disagree with Sanji. "Bet mine is worse that yours."
Sanji snorted smoke, and used the tip of the cigarette to burn a length of catgut off when he reached the end. He motioned toward Zoro's right elbow. "What about there?"
Zoro unknotted the tie around his elbow. The blood had congealed, and he could flex and bend his arm without it spurting again. "It'll be fine." He took the time to fetch clean bandages and wrap them around his middle and his elbow. There wasn't much to be done about his bruised jaw except ice it, and that could wait. "Your turn."
Sanji closed his eyes and took another inhale on his cigarette, obviously gearing himself up. He began to push his suit coat off his left arm. Zoro went to help, and Sanji snarled a few choice, pained words when Zoro jostled him a bit too much. Zoro could see why. Sanji's left clavicle was broken, tenting his blood-spotted, sky blue shirt near his shoulder.
Zoro slid the suit coat off Sanji's right arm and tossed it on the floor. He unbuttoned Sanji's shirt without a by-your-leave, gently pulling it off the injured arm before removing it from the other arm. Zoro was about to toss it negligently onto the floor as well when he noticed the shirt's back was in tatters and soaked heavily in blood. Frowning, Zoro leaned around Sanji to look at his back. He inhaled sharply. "Sanji..."
Sanji's back had been rended by a pitch fork or a rake, or something with claws, leaving jagged tears from shoulder blades to waist. Zoro could see the bones of Sanji's ribs and the metal along his spine where Kureha patched him up ages ago. Zoro gripped the shirt still in his hands tightly, knuckles showing white. He would kill whomever did this to Sanji.
Sanji took the cigarette from between his lips and blew the smoke into Zoro's face, which he knew Zoro hated. "You going to stare all day, marimo?"
Zoro scowled at him, threw the shirt on the floor, and fetched the entire spool of catgut. Sanji was going to need a lot more of it than Zoro.
Sanji hissed occasionally, and Zoro caught a stray whimper that escaped, but otherwise Sanji remained quiet and still, save for smoking down his cigarette to the butt. Zoro stitched each tear closed, creating a pattern of cross-marks on Sanji's back. Sanji must've put his suit coat on to act as a bandage, like Zoro's haramaki, though it hadn't worked as well to prevent blood loss. When Zoro finished, he carefully wrapped Sanji's torso in bandages, and fashioned a sling to support Sanji's arm. Chopper would have to set it when he returned.
Zoro held out an ashtray for Sanji when finished, looking Sanji over. "Did I get everything?"
Sanji shook his head and pointed to his left leg. Zoro set the butt-filled ashtray aside, crouched, and carefully pushed up Sanji's pant leg. Sanji's calf bone poked out at him through torn skin. He looked up at Sanji. "You win."
"Heh." A fleeting smile joined the short laugh, and it made Zoro feel much better about Sanji's overall condition.
Zoro retrieved Chopper's rolling chair and used it as a prop for Sanji's leg. Zoro could probably set it straight, but since Sanji's clavicle was broken as well, waiting was the better option. Zoro filled an ice bag before taking a seat next to Sanji, on his good side. Sanji lit another cigarette and leaned against Zoro, using Zoro's shoulder as a prop. Zoro moved the ashtray within Sanji's reach.
"Guess we won't be going down to the hold anytime soon," Zoro said, rotating his jaw as he iced it.
"Oh, I don't know about that."
Zoro cut a glance at Sanji, who gave him a crooked smirk, and now Zoro had one more area that ached. He laughed, and pressed a kiss to Sanji's ear. "Crazy love cook."
Sanji blew a heart-shaped smoke ring in response.
Zoro rested his hand on Sanji's thigh, leaned against Sanji in return, and closed his eyes. He heard Sanji murmur, "Gonna have to kill the guy who hurt you." Zoro's lips twitched into a smile.
Sometimes they lost. But even bloodied and bruised, as long as Sanji was beside Zoro in the end, it didn't matter as much.