CHAPTER SIXTEEN

.

.

.

.

.

.

.


In his sleep, he is bombarded by emotions and aches past felt – frustration, betrayal, desperation, hopelessness—

He is a slab of stone, and every emotion and every sensation hammers a dent into him, forging him into a shape that is tangible and real. They're held together by the brazing pain that has followed him like Death's shadow. The pain in his head, the pain in his abdomen, the pain in his neck, the pain in his soul—

Consciousness is fire, and he enters it with neither a scream nor cry. The flames whip around him greedily, melting him into his rightful mold.

He's not completed, not yet. But with more time and effort, he will be.

He's nearly there


Remnants of sleep are still attached to his eyelashes later in the afternoon.

His body feels tight and incredibly sore, and his head feels like it has been stuffed with wool. But he's grown accustomed to his body betraying him whenever he is conscious. He doesn't dwell on it for long.

Nami and the little black blur are already in the room. The bandages on his head are being removed as the black blur applies that weird smelling ointment onto his head again. Nami fills the silence by telling him about Plume Island and the hospitality of the butcher, whose home they currently reside in.

She's deep in the throes of describing how the locals were finally coming around to the bug woman's eccentrics, now that she'd actually managed to cure someone of the blasted parasite, when there's a short knock on the door, interrupting her mid-sentence.

The door opens, the person on the other end already speaking. "Nami-san, we're go— oh. What is this, another shitty surgery?"

Zoro crinkles his nose. Another black blur presents itself to him; faceless, shapeless, and completely unknown. It stands by the door casually, or so he assumes. It's holding a plate of food close to its middle. Unlike the shapeless blur that's currently prodding at his head, this new one is tall and lanky, and emits a cloud of white smoke from its top.

Nami sits back, giving the shadow a small wave. She is not alarmed by its presence, and so neither is Zoro. He's well aware now that he's part of a pirate crew, and that many of his crewmates are scattered around the island, idling around as they wait for him to recover his memories. This tall shape must be one of them, one that is comfortable enough to approach him, knowing Zoro in return will not recognize him.

"Just redressing the wound." The small black blur says, not stopping in its motions. "Is that lunch?"

". . . Yeah," the tall shape says, sounding distracted. It stands by the door awkwardly before asking, "You hungry?"

The question is directed to him, Zoro realizes. He can sense everyone's eyes on him, waiting for the answer they know is coming but dread hearing.

The smell of the food makes its way towards him. Cooked sausage, he recognizes immediately, and some steamed potatoes, too. Any other day he would be fond of a dish like that, but now all it seems to do is make his stomach churn uncomfortably.

He shakes his head. "No," he says at last, his voice still a bit scratchy from his bruised neck.

He hears disappointed twin exhales from Nami and the smaller black blurb. They do that, every now and then, whenever he says something he assumes is normal and unremarkable. I'm still missing memories, Zoro thinks. Other than just memories of people. Zoro purses his lips to keep himself from frowning. It doesn't feel like anything is missing, but obviously there are things I'm supposed to know that I don't. God, this is annoying.

He can't tell what expression the tall black shape is holding, but its forthcoming grunt is anything but pleased. "Fine. Later, then."

More smoke pours from its figure, and it sets the plate on the nightstand. Directing its its attention to Nami, it clears its throat and says, "Anyway, just came in to let you know Franky and I are heading up to Moya-san's. Shitty cyborg finally decided he has enough materials to rebuild her house. Will probably take all day for him to put it back together, maybe longer since Moya-san keeps mentioning a second floor and balcony. Usopp is sticking around. Ring us through the Baby Den-Den Mushi if you need anything."

Now, Zoro does frown. What the hell is this guy going on about? Nearly half of what this person just said made absolutely no sense to him. He recognized Moya's name, and the business with the house made sense considering he distinctly remembers it being blown to bits. However, the other names spoken only elicited sharp twinges of pain, not memories.

It all seems to make sense to Nami; she smiles gratefully and says, "Thanks, Sanji-kun. We should be fine."

The tall black shape leaves just as abruptly as it came, but the cloud of smoke remains. Zoro glowers at it until it disperses into the air. The smell lingers around much longer.

There's an awkward silence that loiters after its departure. Nami coughs lightly. She asks, very gingerly, "You . . . still don't recognize him, huh?"

"No," Zoro says honestly, expecting the question. "It's just . . ." He makes a strange gesture with his hand, not sure what exactly he's trying to convey. ". . . Blank." Which is not entirely true, but he's not ready to divulge the nonsense his injured mind is conveying to anyone. That would just open a can of worms he is too tired to get into.

He hears the snip of scissors, and a ribbon of bandages flutter to the bed.

"Alright, I'm done," Chopper says, wiping his hooves with a wet clothe. "Now, don't touch your head, Zoro. The medicine will help it heal, but agitating it might cause infection, and that's the last thing we need. I didn't make the bandages too tight, so do— . . . uh . . . um, is s-something wrong?"

Zoro is staring.

Then he blinks.

Then he frowns.

Then he says, very slowly, ". . . Chopper?"

". . . Um, y-yes?"

Zoro doesn't say anything, not yet, because he assumes his mind is playing more ridiculous games with him. But then he blinks again, harder this time, eyelids squeezed shut so tightly that he sees red and orange blurs behind them.

And then, they open, and . . .

Yes . . . it's Chopper.

That's Chopper.

Just as plain as Nami is here, so is Chopper.

What the hell? He thinks absurdly.

He is blinking rapidly, now, trying incredibly hard to make sense of it all. He probably looks like he's having some sort of stroke to Nami and Chopper, but—What the hell? Chopper wasn't here before! How is he here now? Before, there was just—

He stills. Before . . . it was a black scribble of nonsense?

There was nothing before. A shapeless shadow that pulsed like a polluted heart. A black silhouette that blocked his mind from seeing who it truly was, unequivocally nothing—

But— fuck, no, it was Chopper!

He thinks back on it so deeply that his jaw begins to ache. It was Chopper the whole time. It was Chopper on his bedside, changing his bandages, telling him about the procedure, asking him not to touch his head. Chopper, that they met on that snow island, their crew's doctor, his nakama

In the stunned, pregnant hush that Zoro inadvertently created, Chopper eventually puts two and two together. He gasps sharply. "Y-You remember me!"

Nami jolts. "Wait, what? Really?" She looks between the two of them. "Just like that?"

Zoro puts a hand to his head, absolutely stunned. "I . . . shit, that's freaky as hell." He feels breathless. "You were here the whole time . . . but it's like . . . you weren't. Shit."

But a huge smile is already breaking through Chopper's face. Tears are swarming in his eyes. "You remember me!" He says again, cheerfully.

Then, there's a hiccup, and Chopper's smile wobbles and his face crumbles, tears freely falling. He throws himself onto Zoro, now crying, "You remember me, you remember me, you remember m-me," into his chest, the words quickly dissolving into watery babbles.

"Yeah . . ." Zoro nods, winded by his own revelation.

How . . . could I have forgotten Chopper?

Nami is quick to barrage him with questions to try and make sense of it all. "Hold on, hold on. This is great and all, but how did this happen? Did you feel something before you remembered him? Does your head hurt? Was there a flash or something? Anything, like a sign, that your memory is coming back? Do you remember Sanji-kun now? The others?"

But Zoro just shakes his head numbly, unable to articulate anything else. He feels like a lone light in a mass, dark hallway was just lit. When he thinks back on the memories that were previously shrouded in darkness, he sees Chopper there now, along with Nami. Of course. Chopper didn't go anywhere, he was there the whole time. I was just blind.

He sees Chopper, all those days ago, looking over his head after the first Marine attack, skeptical that his memory loss of Nami had anything to do with heat exhaustion. "No hits in the head?" Chopper had asked him. "Or cuts, bruises? Did you eat or drink anything strange? You're not just playing a mean joke on Nami, are you?"

Zoro remembers the days afterwards, when Chopper would cling by his side, watching over him wearily, trying to identify some explanation for his strange behavior. Zoro would forget his ailment every few hours, and Chopper would be there, pulling him into the sick room, patiently telling him, "You have memory loss, Zoro. Have you already forgotten?"

Over and over again it would repeat, and no matter how frustrated and hostile Zoro got, Chopper would always be there, patient and understanding. And then I forgot him, Zoro thinks harrowingly. And Chopper was kept away from me, in case I would think he was a stranger and attack him . . . shit . . .

Zoro swallows, looking down at the quivering reindeer hugging his stomach.

"Chopper . . ." The name trots out of his mouth with ease. He puts a hand on the reindeer's head gingerly. A deep sigh afterwards, and he murmurs, ". . . Sorry."

Chopper pulls away, wiping his face. "W-What? W-Why? For what?"

"I . . ." Now that he thinks about it, he doesn't know why. The word had just slipped out, as if it wanted to be said.

However, as he looks at the little doctor's eyes, so inquisitive and lined with stress and tension, he knows why. There's a list of regrets he's holding onto, but he summarizes it all with, "I was . . . a pretty terrible patient to deal with, huh."

The tears start rolling down again. Chopper is vigorously shaking his head. "I don't care about that, Zoro. I didn't care. I just wanted you better, I didn't care about anything else."

Zoro believes him. He's smiling, saying with meaning, "You were a really great doctor, though. Through and through, you put up with my shit and never gave up on me. So, thanks for that."

"You . . ." Chopper blushes madly, and shoves his face back into Zoro's shirt, covering his flustered face. "Y-You asshole!" Comes the muffled insult, yet Zoro can distinctly hear the smile. "As if I care about your compliments! They d-d-d-don't make me feel any better at all. Bastard! A-Asshole. "

Zoro pats his head, letting the reindeer bawl his eyes out. Nami is grinning, trying to hide her own tears. "Morons."


Within the darkness of his sleeping mind, he feels a pull.

And it pulls—


It's the middle of the night when he next wakes up.

He was dreaming something nonsensical, and when he opens his eye he cannot remember a thing. It must have been a pleasant dream, though; he feels refreshed and clear headed for the first time in a long time.

He blinks but the darkness doesn't dissipate. The room is pitch black, and void of anyone. Chopper and Nami must be asleep somewhere in this house, Zoro thinks, giving his surroundings a half-measured glance. Wonder how many rooms this butcher guy's house has, to fit so many people. . .

He takes in a deep inhale of the night air. It feels so strange, to have Nami and Chopper back in his life. The feeling of remembering them is polarizing; it feels like he hasn't seen them in years, but that also they've been by his side the entire time.

Conversations that had been echoing in his mind like ghosts whispering behind closed doors are slowly making sense. Those voices finally belong to faces, and those conversations are painstakingly being backed by context. He's so close to complete clarity. . .

An exhale leaves him. His body deflates. He flexes his toes and fingers, waking them all from their respective slumbers. He refuses to allow sleep to return to him. I'm sick of sleeping. I'm sick of being cooped up like some invalid—

And then Zoro decides promptly, it's time for a walk.

He pushes himself upright and swerves his legs over the bed, planting his feet on the wooden floor. He feels himself shake from that exertion alone and he is disgusted. Winded just from that, he thinks with a heavy scowl. All that sleep has reduced me to mush!

He's flowing with heated determination now, intent on proving to his pathetic body that it can, and it will, do more than this. With a swallow, he pushes himself up and stands.

His legs whine to him as if they've never carried this much weight before. Zoro is absolutely undeterred. Looking around, he tries to determine the best way to get out of this room without running into someone that would make a fuss. No way in hell Chopper would let me get out of this bed without his approval. Gotta make sure he doesn't see me . . .

His eyes find a window. His mouth curves thoughtfully, as he realizes that the window is just the right size to account for someone of his proportions. I guess that could work. Zoro walks over to the window, opens the latch, and wedges his way outside. It's a struggle, and anything but graceful, but eventually he manages to escape his confinement.

The night sky is pitch black and littered with dull stars. The moon is nothing but a thin half-circle, nearly lost behind the long lines of clouds that have settled themselves overhead. Plume Island, Zoro thinks, looking ahead and at the sleeping village. He sees houses that are dark and empty, blinds closed and lights out, representative of quint citizens that only see nighttime as the indicator for sleep. How boring.

Zoro shoves his hands into his pockets and strolls on, his bare feet touching the cold cobblestones. His bones creak like doors on rusty hinges, but eventually after a few steps he gets into the rhythm of it. He walks, his gait slow and steady. He revels in it, this freedom of being able to command his body how he sees fit. It feels right. It feels like something that had been snatched away from has finally been returned.

He walks down the road until he reaches what looks like an outdoor marketplace in the form of a circle. I've been here before, he remembers. Although, when he'd last seen it was daytime and the marketplace was bustling with both local customers and food vendors. Now it is empty and deserted, the food stands standing bare and hollow without commodities nor masters.

I wasn't alone, either . . . he thinks, rather painfully. When I was here, I was with someone . . . who . . . he tries to conjure an image of this person along with the memory, but all he sees is a gash of darkness where a person should be. Then, his mind flashes with abrupt pain, and he abandons further efforts at recollection. It'll come back to me, eventually. Just like how Chopper came back.

A soft gust of wind breezes by noiselessly. He reaches the center of the marketplace, where a decorative fountain with stone-carved dolphins is placed. They aren't sprouting water from their stoned mouths like they did before, however. They, too, are void of life.

Zoro approaches the fountain with a weary sigh, his body begging him to sit down and stop its unnecessary labor. His head is beginning to ache dully, and there's a horrible taste in his mouth. Not this again, he thinks annoyingly, remembering this familiar sensation of discomfort. I thought I was supposed to be cured of this crap already. He would much rather ignore all that in favor of continuing his meaningless stroll, but these sensations are powerful and unsettling. He, begrudgingly, chooses to comply.

He stifles a grunt as he sits down on the fountain's edge, his relieved body singing its praises.

On the other side of the fountain, he hears a yelp.

"Z-Zoro!"

Zoro's head snaps in the direction of the unfamiliar voice.

He sees a dark shadow craning its body to look at him from behind the stone dolphin. It's also sitting on the fountain's edge. Another mysterious, dark blob. It's unidentifiable body and color mixes all too well with the dark environment they are situated in. Just how Chopper used to look . . .

"I m-mean," the dark shape coughs awkwardly, then clears its throat, "Hi, hey. Uh, hello! W-What's up?"

This . . . thing (shape, ghost, shadow? Hell, he doesn't know what to call them) isn't the same as the one that walked into his room with food, Zoro realizes. He's not sure how he knows— ah, perhaps because it lacks the cloud of smoke over its body? No, it's more than that. This shape is peculiar. There seems to be something long protruding from its top.

How many people did Nami say were part of our crew, Zoro wonders briefly. Eight? Nine? Guess it's only a matter of time before I start running into them.

The dark shape edges closer to him, as nervous as a startled cat. It seems uncomfortable in the silence. "Sorry," it apologizes, unprompted. "I'm just surprised. I didn't expect you to be outside. And walking. Does Chopper know you're outside? And walking?"

Zoro looks at the shape, letting his deadpan expression answer the obvious question.

A nervous chuckle. "R-Right, obviously. Oh, crap. You probably have no idea who I am. Sorry, I should have asked if you knew who I am, since I know who you are, and it must be weird that I know you when you don't know who I—"

Zoro interrupts it before the nervous babbling spirals into complete nonsense. "I don't know who you are," he says. Then, after a beat, he adds, "I know that you're someone I've forgotten, though."

"Oh!" the person manages, taking a moment to digest that. "Huh. OK . . . how does that work, exactly?"

Zoro shrugs. "Everyone I've forgotten looks the same." He doesn't elaborate further.

The black blob that has replaced a person he's forgotten nods slowly, pretending to comprehend. "Ah, I guess that's . . . something? Nami and Chopper already told me you've remembered them, and that you're remembering things as you get better. And you do look better— health-wise, I mean. Which is great! We were kind of skeptical about whether eating the bug would fix you— not me, though. I had full confidence in you. Uh . . . You do remember all that stuff, r-right?"

Zoro grunts. A cloud lazes by overhead, and the thinned moon's weak light shines through. Even with that brief light, the black shape's shadow is indistinguishable.

Zoro looks at it curiously. "Why are you out here?"

"Me?" It asks, surprised, as if it had never considered the question. "I'm . . . I don't know? I guess I just needed some . . . air. I couldn't really sleep. Haven't been able to, recently."

Zoro nods. He can sympathize. Guess I'm not the only person sick of being cooped up with their thoughts. He looks down at the fountain and the still water it houses. There are a few tossed coins sitting at the water's bottom, their color hidden by the night sky.

Then the shape adds in quickly, "That, and also because someone needed to keep watch in case the Marines come! Yeah, yeah. I'm look out for tonight. Gotta protect the crew, in case those jerks try and pull a fast one on us, you know?"

Zoro looks back at the direction he came house is a lengthy walk away from this spot, way too far away to protect if the Marines were to hypothetically come. But, Zoro lets the lie slide. "Of course."

Staring at his reflection, he listens with short attention as the unknown figure continues to speak into the midnight air, "Yeah! We're a bit short-staffed at the moment. Only me, Nami, Chopper, and, uh, two others are here now. Everyone else is back on the ship, waiting for us to come back. We want to make sure you're in tip top shape before we leave. Plus, we need to fix up Moya's house. The Marines completely destroyed it. Not sure if you remember, but they had a bazooka. Blew up half the place clean off! We figured it's the least we could do, considering it's kind of our fault the Marines blew it up in the first place. Heh."

Oh, I definitely remember that fiasco, Zoro thinks with little humor. He doesn't think he's ever experienced something nearly as stressful. He remembers being held down by strangers while Moya carved a hole into his head. The pain was absolutely unparalleled, but the wild emotions he was barraged with was otherworldly.

I was so angry . . . he remembers feeling. And confused, and in so much pain. And scared? Why? Who were those people in the room? Someone was yelling at me the entire time . . .

He moves past those thoughts, knowing the inconvenience they bring from remaining unresolved. After that . . . right, the Marines came in guns blazing. The rest of the memory is clear to house was blown apart, and he was knocked off his feet. One lucky Marine managed to corner him, and then he was being strangled, and then . . . a swarm of bees came to his rescue? That was definitely the bug woman's doing.

He wonders if having a house fall on top of him would leave any scratches, and then he realizes he hadn't had a proper look at himself in ages. Leaning over, Zoro stares at his reflection created by the fountain's lifeless water.

He sees himself, the water leaving him desaturated and wobbly. There's a white bandage wrapped around his ruffled, green hair. A few cuts and bruises lace his face, and below all that is a gruesome bruise that rings around his neck. The water does him little kindness with his appearance, emphasizing the shadows of his face and the bags under his eyes. His skin looks hollow and ghastly, his eyes dull and tired. Even the lines of his face look overtly accentuated.

But . . . that's him.

That's me, he thinks, bewildered that such a thought would ever sound so comforting.

The person next to him has no qualm continuing to speak without participation, "—completely unhinged, believe me. And she looks exactly like a witch. The crazy ones that eat kids and give out poisoned apples, you know? No wonder this town decided to mark the whole forest as forbidden. Though, they should have at least put a sign outside or something. Ah, but there was a sign apparently . . . well, they should have put a bigger sign. With lights and bright paint! Maybe then we wouldn't have gone in there in the first place, and then this whole mess wouldn't have even happened!"

Zoro brings a hand up, watching as his reflection does the same. The scar over his eye is ever present. He recalls forgetting it— he recalls forgetting his two years of gruesome training with Mihawk. It's shocking to think that he went about his life with a huge part of himself carved out. Two years of growth, gone. Zoro nearly shudders remembering it. I was nothing but a greenhorn before that. Immature and naïve, with too much displaced overconfidence.

"—fault, even if everyone tells me otherwise. It's just hard." The tone shifts suddenly, and when Zoro listens, he can hear self-pity tailing behind the words. Something about this conversation sounds familiar, but he can't quite put his finger on it. "I can't stop thinking what would have happened if things had gone differently. If I didn't push you to come with me to the forest in the beginning. Or worse, if Moya wasn't able to save you in time."

Besides his reflection is a murky black shape, changing in size as its true body continues to speak.

Zoro blinks.

The reflection besides him changes, and suddenly it looks just like Usopp.

Ah.

Zoro smiles.

There he is.

"—And honestly, I would have done it myself if they'd given me the chance! But Moya was craving the spotlight, and I didn't want to take away the old lady's once chance of glory, you know. I felt bad. I pitied her. So, I let her do it, but I was ready to jump in if she so much as—"

"Usopp." Zoro says. "You can't lie about something I was there for. It doesn't work like that, dumbass."

"Hey, now. I'll have you kno—" Usopp cuts himself off, his mouth frozen mid word. His eyes widen, and Zoro can see the gears turning in his head. Always an expressive person, Usopp's face goes through seven different expressions before it finally lands on realization.

"Wait, did you—"

But before the astounded question can be asked, Zoro halfheartedly pushes Usopp over the short edge of the fountain.

"Wah!" Usopp manages to yelp as he falls backwards and into the shallow water with a thud and a splash. He flails in the water just a like a fish would in land, sputtering madly. "W-W-What the hell! Zoro! What was that for? It's fr-fr-freakin' cold!"

"That," Zoro tells him simply, "is a push."

"Yeah, I can see that, now don't do it again!" Soaked, Usopp picks himself up, glaring at Zoro. "Did you remember how to push people all of a sudden, too? Geez, Chopper gets hugs and kisses and tearful reunions and what do I get? Bullying, that's what! Unbelievable!" He glares at Zoro like a drenched cat.

Zoro rolls his eyes at the theatrics. "Listen, Usopp—"

"Unbelievable!" Usopp says again, more shrilly.

Zoro sighs wearily. He pinches the bridge of his nose and says, "Listen. Yeah, I remember you. But I also just remembered all that nonsense you've been spewing all week, and how much it pissed me off."

Usopp pauses in squeezing the water out of his hair. "Huh? What are you talking about?"

Zoro crosses his arms. "Your stupid theory that this whole memory loss thing has anything to do with you. Jackass, you didn't push me into coming into the forest. You asked, and I came. Like I always do, because I chose to. The stupid bug crawling into my head has nothing to do with you, so stop thinking it does already."

And he remembers that day so clearly, now—

They were on a ship. They docked on a port in Plume Island. Nami and Chopper were on the ship, and Usopp, too. Other people as well, but they're shrouded in mystery. They started to separate, some disembarking to explore the island, others deciding to stay with the ship.

Zoro wanted to leave, but Nami disapproved vehemently—"Hell no! You're staying right here! It took us days just to find you the last time you decided to wander on your own! No way we're going through that all over again, so you just stay put and get lost on the ship instead."

Then, they argued. They argued loudly. During the height of it— "I can wander wherever the hell I want, witch! And don't you dare throw that stupid debt in my face—" Usopp's head popped in. He cringed at the sudden, heated attention directed at him, and managed to timidly ask if Zoro would want to come with him into the forest to catch some bugs. He had phrased it as a question to Nami as well, probably hoping the offer would appease both of them. Zoro doesn't give a shit about bugs, but agreed, possibly just to spite Nami. But truthfully, he did always enjoy Usopp's company when they explored an island.

". . . Okay, fine, maybe pushed isn't the right word here." Usopp bites his lip, looking away. "But, semantics aside, if I hadn't asked, then none of—"

Zoro cuts him off smoothly. "Sure, right. And if Nami didn't navigate the ship to this island, it wouldn't have happened. If we didn't come to the New World, if I didn't become a pirate, if I was never born—get it, or should I keep going? This isn't your fault, dumbass. It's just bad luck. That's all."

Water drips from Usopp's hair in light, tap, tap, taps. The sharpshooter is staring at Zoro in wonder. ". . . You . . . really don't blame me?"

The fact that the question is asked with so much surprise makes Zoro's face soften. His shoulders sag, recognizing the pain in Usopp's eyes as nothing short of bone crushing guilt. He's been carrying all this weight the whole time, and I couldn't even tell him this from the beginning because I kept forgetting it.

"Never even thought to," he says with earnest.

Usopp's face collapses slowly in long overdue relief. Before Zoro can prepare himself for it, tears begin welling up in Usopp's eyes, and Zoro knows exactly where this is heading. "Oh, hell no. Don't you start, too—"

"Oh, Zoro!" Usopp sobs, throwing his arms over Zoro's shoulders. "I'm s-s-s-s-so happy you rem-mem-mem-mem-ember me! D-Don't you ever scare me like that again! Oh, god, I thought I was out of your brain for good! My heart can't take this kind of stress, Zoro! Zooorooo!"

Usopp's obscene wails can definitely be heard throughout the island, and he does not hold back on the theatrics. Zoro immediately regrets pushing him into the water; the sharpshooter's cold, wet clothes uncomfortably cling onto his own.

"Z-Z-Z—Z-Z—Z-oro!" Usopp blubbers messily. "I've missed you so mu-mu-mu-much!"

"Yeah, yeah. Don't get soft on me now, Usopp." Zoro says, not unkindly. He lets the contact linger a second longer than he'd usually allow before pushing the sharpshooter away from him. "Get off already. You're cold as hell."

"Because you pushed me into the water!" Usopp is quick to counter. He wipes away the wet mess on his face and says smartly, "Which, by the way, you did not have to do. You do know you can make a point without violence? It's possible, Zoro!"

Zoro rolls his eyes. "Whatever." He pauses, giving Usopp a considerate look. "You good?"

"Yeah," Usopp nods, wiping his eyes. He sighs deeply, as if he's been holding in that one singular breathe for days. "Yeah, I'm good . . . thanks."

Not a lie, Zoro thinks with a smile. "Great. Now, help me back to the house. Chopper's gonna have a seizure if he finds me missing."


In his dream, he is cold, and at the bottom of a bottomless sea.

Darkness holds him in the palms of its hands like a captured butterfly. His arms and legs are suspended in the chilled water, floating powerlessly from the heavy pressure.

Above him is a twinkle of light, the surface of the ocean winking down at him mischievously. There's a pull, somewhere between his ribs and collarbone, that tries to lure him to the surface. It pulls, but he's not moving. It steals his breath, but nothing more.

When he starts to wonder how he is able to breathe under water, he chokes and drowns into wakefulness, and starts all over again.


"Where are my swords?"

The thought hits him suddenly, without precaution.

The words tumble out of his mouth in the middle of Nami's rant before he's able to even consider the question internally. And he's shocked at himself for never considering the question until now, because the gaping hole in his chest is incredibly hard to miss all of a sudden.

Nami's furious scolding regarding his unauthorized stroll outside doesn't stop from the interruption, and instead she raises her voice and plows on, "—in the shape, in the SHAPE, that you're in, Zoro? Do you have any idea what would have happened if Usopp didn't bring you back? Forget remembering him, I'm more surprised you chose now to start remembering that you have no sense of self-preservation! Ugh. Do you even have anything to say for yourself?"

She inhales, catching her breath.

The birds outside speak for him, filling the tight silence Nami leaves in her wake with blissfully ignorant songs. Zoro's hand is resting on the bed, beside his hip, where it had been since he woke up, where it clenched into a fist instinctively and only gripped air.

Nami is glaring at him. "Well?"

Zoro raises a brow. "Where are my—"

She looks like she would very much like to throw something at him. "They're right there, where they have been this entire time. God, did you even hear a word I said?"

He follows to where she points. On the ground, leaning on the bed are Kitetsu and Shuusui. His heart picks up at the sight of them; the red and black scabbards seemingly abandoned in that lonesome spot, like discarded pieces of his soul. How could I have missed them?

He is quick to grab them, and touch alone gives him a view into their conditions. They feel mistreated and battered, like they were in the hands of someone irresponsible long before his own. They are covered in muck and filth, and when he pulls the Kitetsu from its sheath, the blade is dull.

Zoro sighs heavily, stroking the steel with a thumb. Sorry, he tells it, the burden of irresponsibly heavy on his shoulders. I treated you guys like shit, huh?

Nami is tapping her foot impatiently. "Zoro!"

He snaps Kitetsu back into its sheath, the sound unbelievably comforting. "Of course I heard you, witch. The whole freakin' island heard you." He sets both swords over his lap softly, keeping his hands over them to feel the hum of their spirits.

He frowns deeply. "There's one missing."

Even without having to look, he can sense an important piece of himself missing from the set. There're only two swords here, but he knows there should be three . . . but he doesn't know what this third sword is, only that it's missing.

Nami sits back, tuckered out from her lecture. She scratches her neck. "Right, the white one. Don't worry, it's not missing. Luffy has it."

At hearing the strange name, Zoro's head gives a sharp twinge. The sound is like nails against concrete, scratching mercilessly. His brain has yet to recognize these foreign names, and just the effort to place them makes his head crack open.

Nami winces apologetically. "Sorry, sorry. Forgot hearing the names is still an issue."

Zoro clicks his tongue, rubbing his head distractedly. "Why does he have it?"

Here, Nami looks uncomfortable. She doesn't meet his eyes when she answers, "I really don't know, to be honest. He was holding on to all three swords after . . . well, after you kind of freaked out about forgetting the two years after Sabaody. I think it was to make sure you don't attack one of us when you forgot anyone else. But, again, I really don't know. He went to talk to you privately, and when you both came back out, your swords were in his hands."

Like a match being thrown onto a pile of wood soaked in oil, shame burns in the pit of Zoro's stomach.

He remembers that altercation and the emotions that accompany it— the desperate confusion, the hopeless frustration, the despairing denial. There were so many people there, too. In his mind, he sees Nami's frightful face, Chopper's teary eyes, Usopp's frantic peacemaking, and half a dozen various shadows surrounding him ominously.

He raises his glance to Nami, his attention caught on the hand that covers her neck.

He doesn't need to see underneath it to know that she's bearing an injury that was caused by his own hands. Fuck, that's right . . . she was the first person I forgot. Shame bubbles into suffocating guilt, rising to his throat and strangling him. I forgot her first, and immediately thought she had something to do with it.

He forces himself to meet Nami's eyes. He gestures towards her neck. "Sorry." He says at last. "About . . . that."

Nami blinks. "This?" She strokes the cut with a finger, the pink of the scab softly peeking out. "It's nothing, seriously. It's barely a graze, and already healed." She's forcing a playful tone to her voice, the words streaming out like it was rehearsed. "Plus, you've already apologized a million times already, even though you kept forgetting it. And I forgave you a million times already, so don't worry."

He remembers all the apologies. Most weren't genuine, and many were begrudgingly and forced. He remembers the first night after they sailed away from Plume Island, how he was appalled that Nami would stay on the ship overnight. Someone had said, "Oh, is Zoro still playing that joke on Nami?"

And he had gnashed his teeth in frustration from not being taken seriously, while Nami said through her own gritted one, "This isn't something to laugh about!"

"Oh, so it's not a funny joke." The other person said, understanding. "Hey, Zoro. Nami doesn't think the joke is funny, so maybe you should cut it out and say you're sorry."

"This isn't a freaking joke, either!"

And then later, when Zoro had denied Nami's place in the crew once more, and tears had stung her eyes, someone had said, "Why are you still saying that stuff? We already told you that the memory loss took away Nami from you. Oh well, if you forgot Nami again then we'll just have you guys meet all over again!"

"None of that matters if he's just going to forget me again! I can't keep doing this!"

"But it's not like he's doing it on purpose. Plus, Zoro said he was sorry about it, so he's definitely sorry about it again. Right, Zoro?"

But none of those apologies were from him . . . nor to Nami.

"Still," he says, wondering if he looks as pathetic as he feels. "I am sorry."

Her expression softens. She lets her hand fall to her lap, exposing the injury. She's right; it's barely a graze and already is healing to nothing but a pale outline. Yet, it's still an injury from him

"It's alright." She says, voice empathetically soft. "Really, Zoro. It's okay. And anyway, I already inadvertently paid you back, so we're practically even."

Zoro quirks a brow. Nami's eyes dart to his middle, and he places a hand on his stomach where the healed injury from days ago lays.

Oh, that's right—

The memories come flooding back.

"You GUYS!" Chopper had yelled suddenly all those days ago. "—beat a guy in arm wrestling and won all his money but it turned out it was a Marine and now he's mad and coming to attack us with his troops!"

The tense interrogation in the galley was broken up, and they all scattered to their positions. They started to retreat, but the Marines had caught up to them. Fighting broke out, and a few soldiers boarded the ship. They were persistent, yes, but nothing he couldn't handle. A soldier with twin swords was bold enough to go head to head with Zoro, and so he humored him.

In the midst of parrying the barrage of swipes, his eyes spotted Nami. She had a staff in her hand, dealing out her own blows and holding her own amidst the chaos. Zoro was still wary of her. He couldn't dissipate the suspicion in his gut that emerged when he first saw her. He tried to focus on his own fight, but his eyes kept darting towards her.

But then Nami ventured too close to Usopp, and Zoro tensed, a million absurd thoughts running through his mind simultaneously, —she's using the fight as a distraction to take us out; she's working with Marines, she was the one that led them here; she's toying with us, trying blend in and earn our trust. She's going to attack, she's going to attack, she's going—

Then lighting erupted from her staff and Zoro startled violently. That moment of distraction was enough for the Marine to land a hit. Shallow and superficial, it was still a hit. Zoro cursed, at himself and the circumstance, and easily dodged the next swipe, letting it hit the mast behind him, and the battle continued. When he finally managed to steal a glance, Usopp and all the others were fine, and Nami was watching him with a curious expression.

"It was pretty obvious I threw you off your game there," Nami murmurs softly. A beat passes, and she shakes her head. "So, if you can forgive me for that, then I can forgive you for this, and we'll call it even. Deal?"

What I did doesn't even compare to that, he thinks. But nonetheless, Zoro snorts softly, shaking his head. "Deal."

He feels a mighty weight lift from his chest. He realizes he truly missed Nami, a loss he wasn't aware of until now. In his mind, he had to endure this hellish journey without her, instead forced to endure it with what his mind perceived as a piss-poor copy of her.

Thinking aloud, he says, "Can't believe that whole time I thought you were some sort of evil mastermind, plotting to take us all out."

"What, you think I'm not?" Nami winks, her Cheshire grin reaching her ears.

He considers that, but only briefly. "Nah. You're evil, that's for sure."

"You got that right! To be fair, though, in the beginning, everyone had wild theories about what was going on, and me being evil isn't the worst one. Let's see . . . Lu— I mean, someone thought you were playing an elaborate joke, Chopper thought you had some special kind of heat stroke that burned a hole in your brain, and Usopp thought you were a clone replaced by the Marines to spy on us. And then at one point you thought we were impostors trying to trick you."

Zoro cringes. "Yeah, I think I was grasping at straws at that point."

Nami laughs, the lines of worry completely evaporated from her face, replaced by brightness and color. Zoro feels his own features beginning to soften. The tension in his shoulder that kept him from breathing correctly begin to bleed away.

Almost there, a voice in his head tells him.

There's a quick knock on the door, and Zoro is swept away from the odd thought before he can wonder what it meant.

When it opens, Usopp's nose enters the room before his body does. "Zoro!" he exclaims happily. "Well, well, well. Look who's finally awake!"

Usopp bounds over to his bed like an excited puppy. His demeanor is entirely different than the previous night; there's a light skip in his step, and his face is beaming in earnest, none of that forced bravado lining his face anymore.

Then, when he's standing over Zoro, he clicks his tongue and pouts. "Oi, oi, oi," each word is punctuated with a poke to his Zoro's arm. "Why is it that you only nap when I'm sitting by your bedside, praying to the Gods for your speedy recovery, yet awake and chatty when I leave? You're too cruel, Zoro-kun."

Zoro fights off the poking fingers, "I can nap whenever I want."

Usopp huffs. "Just because you remembered how to sleep again doesn't mean you have to do it all the time."

"His shitty body is just making up for all those days it spent awake," someone else says. The scent of smoke swirls into the room. Behind Usopp enters another person, a dark shape wrapped in gray. "You should be more surprised that the idiot even managed to wake up."

Ah, this guy again, Zoro thinks. The unknown person moves towards Nami's seat, quick to refill her half full glass of water.

While Usopp continues to moan and complain by his bedside, Zoro listens in to Nami's and the stranger's conversation curiously— ". . . all done. Franky should be heading back later today, and then we can leave this shitty island. Ah, Nami-san, do you want anything to eat in the meantime?"

"I still have so many stories to tell you," Usopp is saying to him, shaking his arm to grab his attention. "And you need to be awake to listen to them. We need to make sure you remember everything correctly, especially my brave and heroic acts! So weird how you suddenly can't remember them, huh!"

Nami shakes her head to the offer of food. "I think we should stay a bit longer, at least until Zoro's fully recovered. He still looks a bit peaky—"

"I'm fine," Zoro interrupts with a scowl, waving off Usopp's indignant, "Don't ignore me when you're awake, either!"

"You are not," Nami snaps instinctively. She turns her head so quickly her hair wraps around her neck. "And last night's little stroll proved it. Don't think I'm just going to let that slide! Usopp told me how winded you were just from walking, Zoro. You're not in any condition to be going anywhere."

Zoro glares at the sharpshooter. Usopp yelps and hides under the bed, muttering, "A-Ah, actually, g-go ahead and ignore me . . ."

Zoro growls. "This is stupid. My legs aren't broken. I can go wherever the hell I want."

"Don't be a baby. You want to take it up with Chopper?" Nami asks pointedly. "I can have him sedate you, you know. He's been itching for an excuse to do it."

Zoro decides maybe he doesn't miss her as much as he thought.

"Don't argue with Nami-san." The cloud of smoke grunts. He seems to have finished his visit here, and turns to leave with the pitcher of water.

A thought strikes Zoro at the sight of the beverage. "Oi." Zoro calls after him. The person stops, and even Usopp and Nami perk up and fall silent, interest piqued.

Zoro asks, "Got anything stronger to drink?" He pauses. "Any rum?"

Nami radiates disapproval. "Are you serious? Absolutely no way are you allowed to drink alcohol! I'm not even a doctor and I know that! Sanji-kun, just ignore him."

But the question wasn't directed at her. The shadow of smoke stops at the door. There's a lengthy pause where the answer is contemplated. Usopp and Nami openly gape at the lack of immediate denial.

Zoro waits patiently. Finally, a sigh of defeat, and to Zoro he says, ". . . fine."

"Sanji-kun!"

"A little won't hurt." He says with a placating shrug. Then, to Zoro with a pointed glare, "A little. I won't have Chopper on my ass, too."

When he leaves, he can feel Nami's glare burning holes through him, but Zoro is unfazed. He deserves this vice after all the shit he's gone through. I definitely deserve more than just a little, he thinks assuredly. I'll get him to give me the whole bottle. When Nami isn't here.

Usopp finally crawls out from under the bed. The shock on his face lingers into his voice. "Man, it's so weird seeing you two talk to each other like . . . normal people. It's like you're each talking to a different person or something. So freaky."

Nami begrudgingly agrees, sitting back in her seat with a huff. "It's hard to believe you still don't remember him, of all people. He's been coming in and out of this room a lot, too."

"Who, the dumbass cook? Nah, I remember him."

Usopp and Nami don't react, not at first.

They are frozen in their respective places, like time had stopped only for the two of them. Then, slowly and at the same time, they both turn to look at him,

Nami speaks first, her tone chillingly flat. "What."

Usopp is gawking openly. "You . . . you do!? W-Wha—? But you just— since when?"

Zoro frowns, considering the question. "I dunno. Like a second after he walked in, I guess?"

Twin pairs dumbfounded eyes blink back at him.

Nami purses her lips. He can see her hands twitching into fists, as if she's trying to suppress the feral urge to wrap them around his neck and finish what that last Marine started. Through clenched teeth she asks stiffly, and very slowly, "Then why didn't you say anything?"

A shrug. "Why would I? It's fun seeing him be all nice to me. He gets me whatever I want, for once in his goddamn life."

That was certainly not the answer either was expecting. Usopp cheeks are blown up like balloons, desperate to keep his laugh in. In contrast, Nami very clearly does not accept any aspect of Zoro's answer.

"Zoro, that is—"

"—YOU SHITTY PIECE OF FUCKING SHIT—!"

The bedroom door slams open so harshly the reverberation makes the walls shake, and in a whirlwind of yellow and black, Sanji bursts back inside roaring and throwing things in Zoro's direction with every word he shrieks out.

"ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME, YOU GODDAMN, SHIT EATING PIECE OF—!"

Zoro easily dodges an empty pitcher, a box of matches, and a shoe from the comfort of his bed. All the while Nami hurriedly jumps to stand between him and the infuriated cook, who continues to shout without pause for breath, "—BENDING OVER BACKWARDS HELPING YOUR INVALID ASS, AND THIS IS THE THANKS I GET—"

"Sanji-kun, calm down," Nami says, long-sufferingly, trying to stop his arms from wildly waving about.

Usopp, on the other hand, collapses onto the ground laughing his ass off. "HA HA HA—!" He screeches, in what Zoro imagines a hyena would sound like if it were incredibly caffeinated.

The cook is far from his calm, his face flushed in either infuriation or humiliation, or both. "—SHOULD HAVE LET THAT DAMNED BUG EAT YOUR PATHETIC EXCUSE FOR A BRAIN, AFTER ALL THE SHIT I HAD TO PUT UP WITH!"

"Oi, oi," Zoro scowls, rubbing the side of his head. "You've got some crappy bedside manners there, cook. Don't you know I'm injured? Show some compassion."

The veins on Sanji's face look like they're about to burst. "I'LL SHOW YOU BEDSIDE MANNERS AFTER I SHOVE THAT BED UP YOUR—"

"Sanji-kun, calm down— Usopp, shut up!" Their navigator's patience has reached its limit. "And you—that wasn't funny at all, Zoro!"

Usopp is clutching his stomach, body curled in on itself as he wheezes. "HA HA, I c-can't breathe, ha—" He gasps in between breathless laughs. "Somebody call Chopper—pfffft, ha ha! Ow, ow! I'm dying, oh god, I'm dying, ha, ha."

Sanji bristles at the very idea of calming down. He points an accusatory finger at Zoro, demanding, "HOW CAN I WHEN—"

But Nami slaps a hand over his mouth, intent on hearing none of it. "Shush!" She kicks the curled up ball that is Usopp, snapping, "You too! God, I swear you're all just a bunch of five-year olds in the bodies of grown morons! Zoro, was that really necessary? There was a million other ways of letting us know you remembered Sanji-kun—"

To which the cook quickly reiterates for her, "Remembered that you're an annoying shitty, useless bastard that—!"

She covers his mouth with both hands now. "—Remembered Sanji-kun without being a jerk about it."

Zoro doubts that. Sanji fumes, waves of heat radiating from the top of his head. Usopp's laughs have become breathless wheezes.

Nami glares at all three of them. Then, she surrenders with a long-suffering sigh, ". . . But, I guess the important thing is you remembered him. Chopper will be happy to hear how quickly you remembered him after remembering Usopp."

The cook breaks free, snapping, "And it's only for Chopper that I don't kick your head in and put you back into that brain-dead state, you stupid, shitty marimo."

Zoro snorts sardonically. "Please. Even brain-dead, you wouldn't stand a chance against me, stupid swirly-brow."

"Ha! Says the guy who got his ass handed to him by a bug!" Sanji sneers. "Tell me, who was harder to lose to, the bug or Mihawk?"

Zoro bristles at that. "Screw you, asshole! I ate that bug so I fucking won that fight!"

The cook looks smug now, turning around to wave away Zoro's insults. "Keep telling yourself that. Enjoy life of sobriety, Marimo, because you're never getting a drop of alcohol from me!"

But Zoro isn't done. When Sanji grabs the doorknob, intent on leaving with the false assumption that he won the argument, Zoro's brow smooths over and he turns thoughtful.

"Oi, Cook."

Sanji pauses at the door. "What?"

Zoro doesn't answer right away, so Sanji whirls around to glare at him properly. Their eyes meet, and there's a shift in the air. Sanji nearly stumbles at the shared glance, but it's so indiscernible that Usopp and Nami don't notice it.

But Zoro does.

Because along with the memory of who Sanji is comes the memories of Zoro being acutely cognizant of the cook's strange behavior over the past week. This goddamn idiot, Zoro thinks, not unkindly. Stupid, sentimental fool.

Guilt is a funny and peculiar thing. Whereas Usopp crumbles under its weight with visible remorse, Sanji lashes out with all his might to block it out. Usopp needed to hear that the weight of responsibility was not his to bear. The sharpshooter is the type of person that needs the validation.

Not Sanji, though. As much as it pains Zoro to admit, they are alike in some respects. They are men that communicate best through action. Telling the cook that, "I get it, if I saw someone try to chop off the witch's head, I'd be pissed, too. I don't blame you for being such a dick"— would not have its intended effect. He couldn't say that, nor say, "Just because there was nothing you could do doesn't mean you were useless," –or, "I know you did whatever you could, so stop moping about it," –or, "I don't blame you for anything, shithead!"

So instead, what Zoro does say is—

"I'm fucking starving. Make me something to eat, would ya?"

Because, when it's all taken into consideration, when it's all said and done, that's what really destroyed Sanji. Not that he was blind with petty anger, drowning in a sense of ineptness.

No.

Sanji is a man of action, and feeding his nakama was the purest action he could initiate. It was how he truly communicated. Each dish served was a show of emotion; love, annoyance, appeasement, patience, compassion. With food, he can say a greeting, or break up a fight, or quiet a room, or grab attention, or express his devotion.

With food, he can ask for forgiveness without saying a word.

But, ironically, by the time he'd mustered the courage to do so, he was too late; Zoro had completely and abruptly lost his sense of hunger.

The insect in Zoro's brain had swallowed that memory whole. Food was meaningless to him. His succumbed mind portrayed it as an enemy, something he did not need and surely did not want. Sanji was robbed of his attempt at helping Zoro in his own way. Like some sort of twisted divine punishment, he was forced to watch as the swordsman involuntarily starved himself to death, unable to do anything.

To Sanji, Zoro losing that memory was more painful than losing the memory of the cook himself.

But, it's over now. Now, his stomach churns painfully in animalistic hunger. Now, more than anything in the world, Zoro is craving a dish from the stupid cook.

And so, Zoro asks for food.

Something flickers in the cook's eyes. Outwardly, his jaw tightens, and the cigarette between his mouth twitches. But inwardly, Zoro knows that the cook understands.

Nothing else needs to be said, because Zoro has presented him with the opportunity to break-free from the guilt and self-loathing.

And Sanji understands that. He turns around before his face betrays the remainder of his emotions.

". . . Ungrateful asshole," comes the mutter, but there isn't a trace of animosity in those words. Zoro can hear the small smile, and even when Sanji walks away, he can practically see the rigidness of his shoulders give way for a slump of content.

Zoro smiles, ignoring the puzzled glances Nami and Usopp share with each other. He brings a hand to his mouth and calls after Sanji, "And don't forget the rum!"

"Fuck off!"

Zoro barks a laugh.


(3/4)