printfogey: (usopp well)
[personal profile] printfogey
For [personal profile] tonko. One year late. I AM VERY SORRY ABOUT THAT... but hey, but now it is your birthday again! I hope you will like it. ♥♥♥

Betaed by the terrific [personal profile] thewordweaves. Any remaining errors are my fault and responsibility alone. Nitpicks and other suggestions for improvement are very welcome!

Title: Caught in the Rain
Characters/Pairing: Sanji/Usopp
Rating: PG-13 I KINDA REALLY WANTED IT TO GO HIGHER BUT... in the end this is how it turned out.
Word Count: Around 7,000
Spoilers/setting: This is set post-timeskip but fairly vague. No spoilers beyond Fishman Island. In terms of characterisation, I do take post-timeskip in account to a certain extent, but the bulk of it is based on pre-timeskip, as I feel their characters were more consistent and well-rounded then.
Summary: During an excursion to a new island, the rain forces Usopp and Sanji to stay in place and try to make a fire. Sanji has to deal with feelings he's suppressed for a long time.

Disclaimer: The characters of One Piece belong to their creator Eiichiro Oda. They are used here without permission. This fanfic is not intended and may not be used for profit in any way. Please do not repost this elsewhere without the writer's approval.

[Note: Apologies for culinary implausibility in terms of cooking time for a campfire stew. Perhaps Sanji is just that good.]


*

Usopp peered down at the small pile of herbs they'd found so far, the two of them, and at the five sample leaves that Chopper had handed over to him before they set out. The jute sack he and Sanji had brought, along with their backpacks, was still almost empty. And they had only been able to find two of the five types of herbs their shipdoctor crewmate had asked for.

"This sucks," said Usopp with a sigh, dragging his hands through his wet hair. "I was hoping we could fill the sack quickly for Chopper's sake, then settle down to do some fishing in some lake or bay. But I'm not doing any fishing in this weather." He put the pile back into the sack and took a step forward, one hand stretched out from beyond the shelter of the rocky outcrop above them. There were still raindrops from a few minutes ago on his back and shoulders, Sanji noted. Seconds later, Usopp brought his hand back in. "Man, it's still coming down hard."

"You needed to check?" said Sanji, throwing away the stub of his last cigarette and digging out another from his pocket. "Pretty obvious from the shitty noise."

Usopp shrugged morosely. "Yeah, well..." he mumbled. "We really ought to have started to look for firewood much earlier. Nami did say it was probably going to rain."

Sanji struck a match against the side of the rock, then lit his cigarette with it. "Well, that's easy to say now." He put his hands deep in his pockets. They both turned to look mournfully down at the small heap of twigs and branches that they'd just gathered, trying to find the driest pieces they could underneath wide leaves close to the forest floor or near the trunk of trees. Sanji had kicked the big ones up into smaller pieces, since they had no axe. But while these might be the least drenched parts of the surrounding forest to be found, they were still quite obviously far too wet to burn. The two pirates could get a spark going, all right – they both carried matches and tinder in their packs – but that spark wouldn't get far before dying.

"I guess there's no help for it," said Sanji, hoisting the jute sack over his shoulder. "Chopper needs those herbs, and it's not like the others will get less rain wherever they went off to. They'll have the same problem we do. We'll just have to start picking again and look forward to getting warm and dry when we get back."

The day hadn't started out like this. In the morning, it had been bright and sunny with hardly a cloud in the sky. They'd arrived at this island the day before this one, and had at first had a few skirmishes with a pack of bounty hunters and various shitty hotheads, but after that the islanders seemed to have warmed up to them. And then the people of the island's one town had told them this place was chock full of medicinal plants, including two species that were incredibly rare otherwise. There were dried ones for sale in the shops, but Nami-baby, with her sound economical mind, was all for getting them for free. She'd consulted with Chopper and the two of them presented their plan to the rest of the crew at breakfast: split up into small groups and go out into the wild forest heart of the island, in order to gather as many of Chopper's five most wanted plans that they could.

Luffy and everyone had agreed this seemed like a fine course to follow. The log poses needed one more day to load anyway, and excursions were fun. You'd explore a new place and get to do some good while having a chance for training, hunting, fishing, meeting new people or animals; perhaps also getting to see some interesting ruins or to practise a new song.

They split up in groups of two and three and were to meet up again on the ship at sunset. Nami and Robin had walked off together before Sanji had the chance to join them; Brook took on the duty of Zoro-watching, and Chopper went with Luffy and Franky. So there had just been Sanji and Usopp left. Usopp had declared his skills at medicinal herb gathering to be without parallel and had also brought his fishing gear along, hopefully. But on the first hour's walk they saw few of the desired plants, and just as they'd come upon a more promising area, the rain had started.

They'd managed to find the rocky outcrop making a roof for them by the hillside, an area about four meters wide and two-three meters across that was fairly dry. Thankfully it wasn't very windy at all, so the rain fell mostly straight down.

Usopp was looking once more at the sodden pile of wood, thoughtfully. Then he looked at Sanji, considering; his glance travelling from his feet and upwards slowly. Sanji felt stupidly self-conscious.

"What?" he snapped. Usopp was the one walking around bare-chested, not him. If anyone should be scrutinising from top to toe, it was Sanji. Not that he would.

"That's it!" exclaimed Usopp, smacking his fist into his palm and then pointing dramatically at Sanji. "I totally forgot we already have a source of heat among us! Just do that burning leg thing of yours around the wood, Sanji, then it's bound to dry out instantly and we can get a fire going. Right?" He patted his crewmate's shoulder and gave him a beaming smile.

Sanji almost dropped his cigarette from disbelief. "What the - It doesn't work like that, idiot! Besides, that's for fighting, not for drying up some lousy sticks!"

"Are you sure it won't work? Have you ever tried?" Usopp raised his eyebrows and poked him in the chest. Sanji swatted him away, disturbed and irritated. He wished Nami were here.

"Of course I haven't tried! Diable Jambe is for beating up shitty bastards and protecting fair maidens with, not stupid mundane stuff like this!" He crossed his arms and drew up his shoulders, staring out at the forest again. It was only a little past noon, but you wouldn't know it from looking at the sky, with its dark clouds like ink paintings. Still no sign of letting up. "Don't be such a baby. We can manage without any shitty fire." But he made no move to leave the shelter yet.

Usopp looked back out at the rain too, his hands resting on his hips. "If we got a fire going, we could go out and gather herbs for a while and then come back and warm up by the fire so we can go on and pick more," he said in a patient, reasonable tone that got on Sanji's nerves. "And you could cook something too, that would get us even warmer."

"'Course we could," said Sanji sulkily. He had in fact spotted plenty of edible plants around here, he had cooking gear, salt and a few other things in his backpack, and in a pinch he bet he could hunt down something, too. "But I'm telling you, it doesn't work like that. The shitty branches might explode, but they're not going to just dry out."

"It's still worth a try!" Usopp insisted, a spark of challenge now in his round dark- brown eyes, standing perhaps a little too close. Sanji exhaled smoke and took a step away from him, hands in pockets.

"'S no use," he muttered. "Not in the right mood for it, anyway."

Usopp sighed theatrically and made a gods-give-me-patience gesture towards their rocky ceiling high above. "Wish Nami was here," he muttered. "Or Zoro."

"How so?" said Sanji testily, hugging his wet sleeves. True, the air was definitely turning colder. A fire would be nice, sure, but - but he'd feel so damn silly trying out Usopp's suggestion.

Usopp drooped a little, his hands in his pockets and a stray strand of hair curling down from under his hat and over his face. "'Cause then you'd have no trouble getting heated up, would you? With Nami around, I mean. Or if Zoro was here for you to get mad at, he's better at that than I am." He kicked a pebble by his feet into the undergrowth.

To his considerable annoyance, Sanji felt his face grow hotter. He didn't quite know why. Usopp wasn't wrong, exactly. It was easy to get himself worked up needlessly over some small thing Zoro had said: they were both used to taking out their frustrations that way. Zoro could always be counted on to respond in the exactly right infuriating way, bless the shithead.

And, uh. It was also true that with Nami on the premises he'd likely find it easier to get a Diable Jambe aflame. Hell, even without her present he could probably get close just using fantasies of her, come to think of it, or other esteemed ladies. Except... except that with Usopp right there so close with raindrops on his bare skin and scowling unhappily and expecting stuff from Sanji, it... it just seemed like his Nami-oriented fantasies might take a wrong turn and end up modified and, um, expanded.

Damn it, it didn't use to be this way... or at least, it used to be much easier to ignore and shove aside those kinds of thoughts. Back in the safe old days when Usopp had been scrawny and weedy and so much more obviously in need of protection. Oh, he was still much weaker than Sanji, of course, but he'd apparently survived two years on an island full of predators, and had the muscles to show for it. He was nineteen now, not seventeen, he hadn't come straight from a small backwater island in East Blue to the Grand Line. He knew a bit of the world, had more confidence. Didn't help that those muscles were pretty nice to look at, too.

Sanji thought he'd always been pretty good at encouraging Usopp to grow stronger and braver, and had felt legitimately proud to see it happening. He still was, dammit. But – but still. It had been easier to check himself back then, when Usopp had looked way younger and more vulnerable. To make sure not to give in to temptation. He'd have felt too much like a heel if he didn't.

"Shit, you're really getting on my nerves, Longnose, you know that?" He breathed in smoke again, then threw away his cigarette into the rain. "Fine! I'll give it one shitty try, just so you can stop whining. But it's not going to work."

Usopp made a small noise of delight and approval, then wisely kept quiet. He stepped back to the edge of the shelter, giving Sanji room to move.

"If you ever tell the mosshead about this I'll kick your face in," warned Sanji, not looking at Usopp. Cheeks even warmer now, he focused on his frustration and his anger, mostly with himself – he was supposed to just be pleased with Usopp's progress, dammit, not have these pesky and uncomradely extra feelings – and started to spin his right leg in a slow circle, balancing on the left leg.

He knew he hadn't handled his own two years of separation as well as he could have wished, although fate had also dealt him a horrible hand there. But he was supposed to be fine now! Since returning to civilisation and reuniting with the others, he'd thankfully been able to bathe in the presence of the two jewels of his crew, wonderful Nami and amazing Robin, as well as meeting other beautiful, invigorating flowers of womanhood. He'd fairly drunk them in – their scents, their voices, the way they moved, everything about them – and had felt himself restored to health and balance. His nerves weren't a messed-up tangle anymore, his constitution was sturdier; he wasn't keeping himself so tightly hemmed in anymore.

He spun faster; his leg was getting warm now.

Yes, things had been fine, hadn't they? He'd thought he'd be able to relax, now. True, he'd still silently wished his feelings in that one direction had been more clear-cut and well-defined and proper, not this unwanted ambiguous mess. But he'd assumed he'd be able to deal with that, even so. It hadn't been any problem. Not really.

He spun even faster.

Worst of all, the shitty source and target for those feelings was just standing there blithely now, in complete ignorance and disinterest, just goading Sanji on to make a fool of himself– !

There was a sharp crack in the air. A flame shot out from Sanji's right leg, engulfing the top layer of the pile of broken sticks and branches. As he'd expected, it didn't take, but sizzled out right away, smoke lifting from it.

"Don't give up! Keep going!" urged Usopp, leaning forward with his hands balled up into fists as he gazed at the Diable Jambe excitedly.

"I know that!" snapped Sanji, who'd already picked up his pace again. "Back off or you'll get burnt." His leg was red-hot by now. He still felt goddamn silly.

Moments later, one of the sticks exploded, bursting into bits that rained over them. Sanji felt grimly validated and shot Usopp a smug "toldja so" look, but still kept up his furious spinning. He'd show that damn Longnose he could do this, even without Nami-baby around to fuel him.

A few minutes more, and then he had to pause, drawing in his fire but still feeling the heat in his leg as he lowered it and put weight on it again. Usopp gingerly walked closer, holding his box of tinder.

"Okay... okay, let's see," he mumbled, staring intensely at the pile. "Ah! There!" One of the branches, a big sturdy one, still burned on its own. It was a bright, lively flame. Usopp hastily surrounded it with tinder, then with kindling and bigger pieces. He stood protectively over it, holding out his hands to shield the flame from sudden gusts of wind. "We did it!" he cried out.

Sanji snorted, heart still pounding. "You mean I did it," he said gruffly. "Anyway, I need to cool off," he added abruptly. Grabbing the jute sack, he quickly stepped out into the rain and started to walk away. It seemed touch and go whether Usopp would clasp his shoulder or something like that in celebration, and he didn't need that right now.

*

The rain had let up a bit by now, though it still fell steadily with no sign of stopping. Sanji's pulse began to calm as he walked deeper into the green forest. He looked around, searching both for Chopper's herbs and for edible stuff he could make a late lunch from.

Before long he'd found a bush which had one of the requested species (he couldn't remember their names) and started to harvest leaves from it. The work helped calm him down further: he could breathe deeply, listening to the rain and the now-distant crackling fire. He'd always liked the smell of summer rain. Here, the fresh air was mingled with sweet and spicy smells from the surrounding plants and the fertile soil. It felt free, full of possibilities.

Too many of them, maybe... But it was nice. Sanji felt more and more relaxed, and imagined how happy Chopper would be to see the result of his gathering. He even started humming a little, ignoring the raindrops dripping down inside his collar. While gathering, he also snagged some thyme, a number of really nice edible weeds and even wild garlic, too. This truly was an excellent island, just like the townspeople had bragged.

But when he found himself sneezing and started to shiver, he put the sack on his shoulder and headed back to the campfire. On the way back he stopped to kick a fallen tree branch into pieces and then brought them along for more firewood.

*

Usopp was sitting crosslegged by the fire, looking lost in some reverie, and didn't look up until Sanji was right beside him. Then he started, smiled somewhat uncertainly, and got up. "Hiya," he said, stretching.

Sanji was about to ask "You all warmed up now?", but then he feared that might seem overly solicitous, and so he just nodded, crouching down by the fire to check on its progress. He took out a new cigarette and lit it on the flames, puffing thoughtfully. This fire would probably burn fine for at least fifteen more minutes, he judged, but it would need more feeding after that. And they were already running out of the dry firewood.

He got up again, arranged the pieces from the fallen branch into an orderly pile, put out the cigarette and started to spin. Now he had to be careful, so that the centrifugal air current from his spinning wouldn't put out the burning campfire: he stood as far away from the fire as he could without getting rained on.

It was harder to get angry now, though. Usopp no longer stood right next to him riling him up. He'd already grabbed the sack and vanished into the rainy greenness; he hadn't even bothered to look behind him as he left. Sanji only barely heard the rustling from his movements out there, now, with the rain and the crackling fire muffling it. He did still feel somewhat foolish, but there was nobody watching him – and now he knew the technique would work, too. And his anger over that thing he didn't want to think about was weaker. The whole thing bothered and disturbed him, but picking at it would turn it worse. Best leave it alone. If he could.

Instead he summoned up a trusted old fantasy in order to heat up quickly, one involving, Nami, Robin, and other lovely young ladies in a hot spring, with lots of steam and giggling and come-help-me-wash-my-back-Sanji. That worked well enough until Usopp turned up in it too (shampoo in hair, shoulders all lathery with soap, grinning unselfconsciously as he asked Sanji to join him)... Cheeks flushed in an instant, Sanji at first wanted to shut down the fantasy, mentally backing out, but then stuck with it just a little longer for practical reasons. Just long enough for a bright flame to form around his leg again. And then of course he still had to keep spinning some more, until more pieces of firewood had their water boiled out of them, some exploding again. Panting slightly, he bent down to pick them up, returning to the dwindling campfire and feeding it carefully until it burned bright and high once more.

He got up, dusted off his trousers and looked down at the fire pensively for a few moments.
It's wrong. I'm not like that.

And for once, another voice from somewhere in his mind mumbled, But why not? What would be the harm?

Shut up, you. It's still wrong. At least for me. Frowning unhappily, he felt his shoulders tense up as he stepped out into the rain again, very briefly, returning with a bunch of thin branches. Not for burning, this time, but to rig up a structure that would give support to a pot hung above the fire. If it hadn't been so damn wet he'd have trusted the rocks underneath to get hot enough to cook on, later on, but now he feared that would take too long, and might require even more Diable Jambes. He'd rather avoid that, if he could.

His first attempt collapsed. Swearing, he lit himself a new cigarette and started over. If he'd asked back on the ship, he was sure Franky could have made him some kind of clever collapsible thing for this, one that would easily fit into a backpack. But that wasn't the point.

He heard rustling among the trees and undergrowth, then footsteps coming closer. He didn't look up as he sensed Usopp's presence approach, the steps trudging up slowly, then stopping. A soft thud. Likely the sack of herbs hitting the ground.

"I could do that if you like." Usopp sounded tentative, uncertain.

"I know," said Sanji. "You'd be faster, too." No shame in admitting that. "But this is the kind of thing a cook has to know how to do. If I don't do this every now and then, I'll forget how." He finished whittling the ends of the four support sticks so they'd be on the same level, then tied them together again, leaning against each other, and carefully stood them on the ground. He pushed them down into moss and thin soil, moving a few rocks around to make sure they wouldn't slide. Then he put the remaining stick above the support, pushing it down a bit so he could be sure the structure would take the added weight of the pot later. This time, nothing fell over.

"Shitty thing seems to hold now," he said with satisfaction. He peered at the fire again, nodded, stubbed his cigarette on the ground and got up. Only now did Usopp step up to the fire. He leaned forward, holding out his hands over the flames. On his other side, there was something hanging across his bag. Sanji craned his neck to see, curious.

"Neat!" said Usopp now. "Man, I'm hungry. Hey, look!" He held up the thing he'd been carrying. It was a dead bird of some kind, fairly similar to a pheasant. Not all that large, but it looked like there was some good eating on it all the same.

"Heeey. Good work!" Sanji grinned with appreciation, still feeling a bit stiff and awkward but really hoping it didn't show. He tossed his burned-out cigarette into the rain and hoisted the jute sack of his shoulder. "Then you can have the shitty honour of plucking and drawing it while I finish filling this up."

Usopp made a face and sighed mightily, but didn't really seem that taken aback. Of course, he must have done that kind of thing many times by now, living almost alone in the wilderness for two years.

"And stop feeding the fire unless you have to," added Sanji. "Needs to start cooling down a bit now, so I can start cooking when I come back." Then he walked out into the rain. Annoyingly, his face felt hot again for no reason. Just for talking? That was crazy.

*

The sky was a lighter gray now, the rain yet slower than before. On the other hand, the ground was even muddier. Sanji had to walk with some care, so he wouldn't slip and fall and get his trousers dirty. His face still felt warm, despite the cool air.

When he knew for sure he must be out of even Usopp's keen sight, the same small, insistent voice from somewhere inside his mind returned, with its repeated But why not, but why not? And What would be the harm?

I told you! replied what he thought of as the "main" part of him. I'm not like that. It's not right. And it would just spoil things to even try.

It might not. And these days, you can't say he's too young anymore. Or too weak. He can handle himself now. Shit, he doesn't even really need you. So why not?

The sack was filling up faster – his eyes had gotten better at spotting Chopper's five herbs. But he picked them fairly mechanically, tearing leaves and grabbing grass and weeds along with the good plants. Now and then he glared at the rain. If only the shitty weather had been fair, then he was pretty sure he wouldn't be in this state by now. They wouldn't be cooped up in a tiny space, there'd be no need to make a fire, he wouldn't feel so trapped and obvious... Shut up, shitty pervert,he growled mentally. Just go away. I'm not like that. I just get confused sometimes, that's all, and that's your fault. If I could throw this part of me away I would.

He sighed. No, he really didn't want to feel this way. All hot and bewildered and embarrassed and angry, like he was walking on needles, on unsteady, shifting ground that might turn out to be shitty clouds that could break up any second. He didn't want to avoid looking at his crewmate properly, for fear he'd stare at him too long, too openly; he didn't want to feel all fake and wrong any more.

Just go away. Make everything like how it used to be... No, he had to amend that, because while he knew there had been a time when he'd had no thoughts in that direction, he could no longer remember when it had changed. Make it the way it was supposed to be.

In a small glade, there was a clutch of dark green at the foot of a large rock. Bending down, he realised it was probably the most elusive herb of the five, the saw-toothed one he'd hardly found any of before. He picked the big ones carefully, genuinely happy.

And it was right at that moment, as he put them into the sack, that something rose up in him that felt deeper and stronger and truer than all the errant gazes, the guilty fantasies, the fervent though well-hidden body-yearnings... but it was also stronger and truer than the angry denial and shame over those things. Even, he realised with alarm, than the drive to shield and protect.

Dizzy and shaken, he filled up the last of the sack with roots and edible leaves. By accident he startled a rabbit and ran to catch up with it in four long steps, killing it instantly with one kick. It was probably too much for just the two of them, but he could bring it back to Sunny later. Every last bit helped when it came to feeding Luffy.

(But I'm not falling, he thought. Even if the ground is crumbling, I can walk in the sky now. There's no way I'd fall.)

Finally, the sack was full. He had to turn back.

*

"I filled up the shitty sack," he said roughly. "Oi, move over, I need to warm up."

Usopp looked up, glancing at him and the jute sack. He grabbed the bird and moved to give Sanji the warmest place by the fire. "Oh, that's great," he said, sweeping away a pile of feathers. "Chopper will be happy. And now we can both stay put and keep warm until it stops raining."

"Mmh," grunted Sanji non-committally. He took his canteen from his backpack, pouring drinking water into the pot, distantly wondering if he should have put it outside the shelter to gather rain water earlier. He hung the pot over the fire on the stick he'd readied before, then glanced at Usopp's work. The bird was plucked, now, but the sniper had only gotten started on the cleaning, with just two incisions made so far. Sanji motioned for Usopp to give him the knife and let him take over.

Usopp did so with apparent relief, sitting back with his hands behind his head and looking out into the forest and the darkened sky above it. "...Or maybe it will just keep going," he added. "But at least we don't have to get moving for hours at least. Dibs on the first hot bath back on the Sunny." He leaned over and pulled his bag towards him without getting up, taking out small bundles that were probably ammunition of some kind and starting to fiddle with them.

Sanji worked quickly and in silence to disembowel the pheasantlike thing. He took care to only throw away what could not be eaten safely. The bigger parts he'd roast directly on the top stick over the fire, the rest he'd stew in the pot together with the edible leaves and roots he'd gathered, plus some dried spices from his pack. He figured he could cook them both at the same time; the bird wasn't that big. Afterwards, he wiped off the blood from the cutting board with help from the rain, then turned it over and started to chop up leaves on it.

"Um. Are you – are you feeling all right?"

"What?" snapped Sanji guiltily. "I'm just making lunch!"

"No, I mean..." Usopp looked hesitant now. "You didn't even tell me to wait for Nami and Robin to bathe first."

Sanji stared into the fire, feeding it with a wet branch. By now, the campfire needed no prompting to boil away the water from the firewood. The water in the pot was heating up; he put the bird meat in, together with roots and salt, a pinch of flour, and the first spices.

"It's just a shitty bath," he muttered. "Any man worth his salt would know he should wait for the ladies to go first. That shouldn't even have to be said."

He felt Usopp's look on his face and was glad the fire kept it legitimately warm. "Uh. I was only teasing." Usopp sounded suspicious by now. "And maybe it doesn't, but you always do say it anyway. Usually." Then he added something under his breath that might have been "anyway you just want to peep on them" but Sanji had the option to ignore that, so he did. Instead he busied himself with wiping the roasting stick – the spit, rather – clean, before carefully spearing the rest of the bird on it without upsetting the stew pot.

Usopp put the ammo bundles back into his bag. He shuddered, hugged himself, pulled his hat down and moved back closer to the fire, his thigh and shoulder almost grazing Sanji's. They couldn't sit on opposite sides, as there wasn't enough room in the tiny shelter.

And that was –

Too much, too much, too much like what Sanji had felt in him just now, out in the rain, too strong to be denied, too sudden to defend against.

All I want is to sit close to you like this. Together by a warm fire. So close that I can touch you, you can touch me. And we won't turn it into a joke, won't pull away, won't walk out. Or maybe we don't touch, but we stay like this, without fearing it. That's all–

"Sanji? You're trembling."

"Uh. J-just cold." His pockets were out of cigarettes, and his shitty legs felt unsteady, the backpack where there were more of them lay so far away, a whole two metres. Instead of getting up, he sank down, from crouching to a crosslegged pose. His hands worked without having to think, turning the bird on the spit, adding chopped up leaves and more spices to the stew.

"M-maybe I'm coming down with something," he managed after a moment. He had to say something, didn't he?

"Yeah. Maybe." A wariness in Usopp's voice. Then he shifted into a crosslegged position as well, moving a bit away again to have more room. He leaned forward over the fire, rubbing his hands. Sanji didn't dare look at his expression. Too close.

He stirred the stew too fervently, desperate for something to do. "You don't... I..." the words suddenly tumbled out of him, and he tried to backtrack. "No, no, I mean..."

"Huh? What?" Shit, Usopp sounded downright scared now. He'd tensed, sitting straight up; Sanji still wasn't looking right at him, but he could sense him staring.

"It... it's wrong," he mumbled, then made a hasty dismissive gesture. "No, never mind. It's just wrong."

Usopp swallowed audibly. Then he reached out and seized the stirring spoon. He wasn't touching Sanji's hand, only almost, but Sanji still flinched, letting go of the spoon instantly.

"I... Okay, I don't get what's going on." Usopp's arm was trembling, Sanji saw, much like he was. "But – but something's eating you, and you don't seem to be fine at all. And if you can't tell it to me then I think we should get back to find the others and maybe you can talk to some of them instead."

Sanji shook his head, unable to find the right words, but clearly he couldn't just keep silent. Or Usopp would keep getting it wrong like this.

"You," he started, then paused. He gathered breath and went on, hoarsely, "You got stronger. I'm glad you got stronger." Then he stopped again. And you don't need me so much anymore.

There was another pause. Then Usopp said in a low voice, "Sometimes I think I was stronger when we first got reunited again than I am now."

Huh? Sanji glanced at him in surprise. Usopp was looking down on his hands, a sad little smile on his lips, twiddling his fingers. "It's like I always compare myself against the rest of you. And I'll let you guys do more than you should. Stuff that I should do. 'Cause you're there and then I can do that."

Sanji crossed his arms and huffed. "I've seen some of the stuff you can do these days," he said roughly. "Heard about more, from various people. I don't believe that." And yet he did. He could picture all too easily how they were holding Usopp back without wanting to.

"...Okay," said Usopp in a low voice. He made a vague circling movement, then leaned away to grab another piece of firewood, break it into half and put it in the fire. "But...but if you think I got stronger and you're glad for it, why are you acting so weird?" His voice had risen now, but was more unbalanced too, not far from wobbling. "Like. Like you'd rather have anyone but me here now?"

Oh dammit, here it came. Sanji realised he'd waited for an accusation like that for a good while now. Maybe since the first Diable Jambe.

His mind groped madly for respectable lies and misleading half-truths to use, but all that stumbled out through his thick throat was, "Be- because I realised something." He didn't even have it in him to be embarrassed about the stutter: he was that far gone. "I don't – I don't have to protect you as much as I used to." Heart pounding, hands clammy. (Roast still not quite done.) This wasn't what he'd wanted, either, was it? but he was stuck in this moment now like on a rushing sea train, and couldn't get off until it had arrived –

"Your hand's cold." Sanji froze at the quiet statement. Usopp reached out, taking his left hand, the one nearest him, and holding it between both of his. "Can I warm it for you?" he asked.

"..." Sanji opened his mouth, closed it. Nodded mutely.

Usopp was redder now. He stared down at the hand he was holding. His own hands really were a lot warmer. Strong, too, and firm; Usopp himself might tremble now and then, but his hands stayed steady as if ready to shoot something. Weird, how that worked.

Sanji breathed more raggedly. He felt almost as if he was going to cry and desperately didn't want to. "I'm sorry." That was a relief, saying that. "I'm sorry. I am."

"Stop it." Fear in his voice. "Stop scaring me like this, Sanji. It's not funny."

Sanji swallowed and closed his eyes, nodding. He willed himself to breathe slower, and give up some of his tension. At least his left hand felt better, and much warmer.

Opening his eyes again, he took back the stirring spoon with his right hand and stirred the stew, tasting it, then added more salt from his pouch beside him.

Usopp let go of his left hand. "Give me your other hand," he suggested. "It must be cold too." To be able to hold Sanji's right hand he had to move even closer, his thigh touching Sanji's now, and also had to move his face towards Sanji. Sanji mirrored the movement and held out his cold right hand. And now he looked as Usopp, really looked at him, and the voice in his mind that had been so sure these last few minutes that this was nothing but a good buddy's concern on Usopp's part now grew quiet. Because maybe that was true, as true as Sanji had always assumed (he never looks at boys that I've seen, he likes girls but he doesn't need to shout about it so people won't think he could like boys too, unlike me; he's got that sweet girl back home he used to go on about, the one that gave us Merry...) ...but maybe, just maybe, it wasn't.

His right hand felt warmed up, too. Usopp let go of it. He looked up, meeting Sanji's eyes. He was pale by now, but his eyes had a spark of scared, brave determination that was so him it made Sanji ache to see it.

"Maybe it's not wrong," he whispered. "Maybe it's fine."

Not quite knowing what he did, Sanji raised one hand, let one finger twirl an errant strand of Usopp's hair that had escaped his ponytail under his hat. But it is, he tried to say. For me it's wrong, can't you see? But he knew he wouldn't be able to explain any more. He'd stopped being sure about it. In fact, he wondered if he hadn't stopped being sure a long time ago.

He stopped abruptly, brought up short by his cook's nose. "Shit!" The bird had almost gotten burnt. He quickly tugged it off the spit using spare leaves as mittens, then moved the pot to the middle of the spit above the campfire. "It'll all be ready to eat soon," he said. The roasted bird would need a few minutes to cool. By then, the stew should be ready.

"Man. Now I lost my nerve," murmured Usopp; but his stomach was growling.

"Know what?" said Sanji, stirring the pot once more. "Just now, I almost thought you'd kiss me." His voice was light, but not mocking. He was hanging in the air, forgetting how to move...

A pause. Then, barely audible, "...I wanted to."

Pause again. Sanji didn't glance this time. He leaned forward over the pot, sniffed, nodded to himself, stood up to get two clay bowls and one cigarette from his backpack (legs just a mite unsteady), took out some spare non-herb leaves from the sack, large ones. Then he returned, sat down again and lit the cigarette on the fire.

"Me, too," he said quietly.

Usopp drew in breath sharply, but Sanji held up one hand and leaned forward, tasting the stew with his stirring spoon. "It's ready," he said. "Better eat now or it will get cold." He put stew in the bowls and handed one to Usopp, then handed him parts of roasted pheasant-ish bird wrapped in the big leaves. "Can't let it go to waste."

They both ate so fast, their tongues burned.

After a few silent, intensely chewing minutes, Usopp swallowed down one more mouthful, wiped his mouth and said, "This is great, but you know, it will still be great even if it gets cold. We could save the rest for later."

"...Something to that," Sanji agreed hoarsely, pushing his food to the side. Usopp did the same, his right hand brushing against Sanji's briefly on the way back – probably by accident, as they both started at the touch.

"Y-your shirt looks wet." Usopp was looking at Sanji's sleeve, reaching out to touch the fabric, rubbing it between thumb and forefinger. "You should take it off." It was only the hitch in his voice that might make a listener suspect he had anything less than comradely intentions.

Sanji realised that his old assumption that Usopp was unlikely to push things himself had been a miscalculation. But then, it had never occurred to him that there could be a worrywart kind of seduction.

"You have a point," he murmured, moving to start unbuttoning; but Usopp's hands were already there, now hovering in hesitation. Sanji lowered his own hands, nodding expansively. Showing he gave permission. Usopp's blush spread from his cheeks to his nose and to the rest of this face, then down to his neck, and his shoulders.

He inched closer, and Sanji's shirt buttons came undone, first slowly – one, two – then faster as Usopp's movements got more sure. Three, four, five... Sanji leaned back with a sigh of pleasure. He'd hung suspended in air for so long, but you couldn't Sky Walk forever. Now he felt himself floating gently downwards, hoping the ground would be there to catch him.

He wrested off his jacket, straightened up a little, in his turn undoing Usopp's suspenders. Then he leaned in very close, one arm on Usopp's back, the other reaching up to tug off his hat. He started to undo his ponytail. "It's true," he whispered. "You're a lot drier than me." The smells of dinner and the musky smell of rain had been added to Usopp's normal smell of weird plants and gunpowder; an unusual but not at all unpleasant mixture. He kissed Usopp; at an angle because of the nose, and not for very long (it wasn't like he had much practice to go on); but it was definitely a kiss on the mouth, not something that could be explained away.

A joint effort in getting Sanji's shirt off him. Then more short kisses, both trying it out.

"See?" whispered Usopp. "There is too an a– mmff – an advantage to dressing like this."

"Well, it's– " Sanji's hands moved over Usopp's back, getting muffled sounds of appreciation in response, while Usopp started to kiss Sanji elsewhere; chin, neck, collarbone – "it's – oh, mmm – n-nice to look at too." He'd have liked to say something far more suave and flirty, but they were all tangled up in hands and legs and mouths and chests, it was impossible to keep track of things to say at the same time. "Where's my jacket?"

"Huh?"

"Oh, there it is." Reaching for it, Sanji caught a sleeve and tugged it back. Then he put it on the ground next to the fire, put another branch in with the subdued flames; and pulled Usopp down with him to lie on top of it. "Now..." His voice cracked; he swallowed and licked his lips. "Now we can get warm."

And he was touching ground, he was gathered in, finding anchor. Enveloped at last by the crackling fire, the scents of the forest, two fine strong arms, and the sound of the rain.

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