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Title: Don't Take The Fall Alone (Part Two)
Rating: PG-13
Pairing: Zoro/Sanji/Usopp a.k.a the Red Shirt Trio
For summary, disclaimer etc see Part One.


**

The night passed and the next morning came by without much of anything happening, at first. And then a storm broke out.

It came so quickly that even Nami barely had the time to see it. “All hands on deck!” she roared, and they all jumped from various floors, rooms and corners all over the boat, running for their orders, quickly dispersed. Usopp, who’d been fishing with Luffy and Brook, now scurried with everyone bolting doors and hatches, tying down anything loose that couldn’t just be thrown inside, turning the sails for the best possible angle when the storm would hit - and within minutes, just barely prepared, Sunny hit the storm head-on, the huge waves tossing her about as easily as if she’d been a tiny rowboat, all the sails flapping like mad, the ship tipping low and water breaking through over the railing. They’d all been through storms like this before by now, but that didn’t make it easy exactly, not in Usopp’s opinion. There was a huge rip in the mainsail and Franky had to climb up and sew a makeshift repair right there in the midst of the storm, Robin being ready to catch him if he fell.

And as good as Sunny was built, there was no ship on this world that could be entirely free from leaks, and even Adam’s wood would creak under this kind of pressure, while some of the lesser wood - like one of the barrels containing fresh water - broke from it. Usopp ran with the others back and forth, making quick fix repairs, carrying rope and tools, doing his best to look out for new dangers, though the storm made it hard to see. Right in the middle of it all a trio of seakings suddenly turned up and picked this moment to attack them. Luffy and Zoro and Sanji made short work of them, but it was still an extra fright, slowing them down and being bad for Usopp’s poor heart as well. The hours dragged on, until he was more exhausted than terrified.

Finally, it all died down, turning into a steady breeze that should only be to the good - in the right direction, too, Nami asserted. The skies were still overcast, but now the air felt peaceful, and the need for emergency work was over. The crew drifted off back to various corners of the ship for rest, recreation, or non-emergency duties.

Usopp realised he was still on his feet and not quite as super-tired as he’d thought at first. He looked around the ship thoughtfully. Then he made a decision and went for the crow’s nest.

Zoro was there, but asleep or looking like it at least, sitting crosslegged and leaning against the foremast, hands behind his head. That was good, Usopp liked to see him rest more. He made himself comfortable and looked out through the window at the sea, feeling just a little nervous underneath the relief and exhaustion.

His eyes perked up to hear someone approaching on the ladder. Moments later, Sanji’s head looked out through the hatch in the floor. “Huh. You’re here, too,” said Sanji, not unkindly.

“Yeah. I figured someone should be lookout, you know? Just in case, maybe those seakings have friends, or something,” babbled Usopp, then nodded in Zoro’s direction. “And he’s asleep, anyway.”

Sanji smiled wryly. “I kinda had the same thought.” He paused halfway up through the hatch, but didn’t turn around to walk back down. He’d changed into one of his few tight T-shirts that Usopp had always thought fit him rather well.

“Oh, come on!” said Usopp. “You can stay for a while, too. At least a little bit. Look at the sun shining down through the clouds over there! You see it much better from up here.”

“...All right, fine.” Sanji climbed up the last of the way, closed the hatch and walked over to the window. “Shitty air turned better, too,” he observed.

Usopp nodded. “But there’s still a bit of low pressure left.” The oppressive feeling had mostly left the air with the storm, but not entirely.

Both of them turned to look at Zoro. “I’m not sure he’s really asleep,” Usopp felt compelled to whisper. “Maybe he’s meditating.”

“Mm.” Sanji looked at Zoro steadily for a few long seconds, then shrugged and turned back to Usopp. He too sat down on the bench circling the room. A silence stretched out.

“Sorry about yesterday,” said Sanji.

“What? Oh. Er.” Usopp shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s fine,” he mumbled.

“Nah, I shouldn’t have blown up like that. No shitty use to it.” Sanji blew out smoke and looked out to sea, the muscles of his shoulderblades very visible in his tight T-shirt. Sanji’s head moved in a small gesture, a little resigned, a little ... Usopp couldn’t quite parse it. Good-natured? Self-mocking? But whatever it was, it was very Sanji. He suddenly felt intensely wistful, and felt a need to keep his arms close to his body so they wouldn’t do something stupid.

He glanced at Zoro again. Even if he wasn’t truly asleep, at least he was resting, for now.

“You know,” Usopp heard himself say, his voice a little hoarse, “I didn’t even notice anything was off at first. Chopper’s been scolding him, but he always does, and Zoro never listens ... But the way you’ve been acting. That’s been different.”

Sanji put out the butt of his cigarette on the floor, then took out a new one and lit it. “Man, and here I thought I’d been discreet like hell.” He sighed, scratching the back of his head. “Look, Usopp. If you really do want to know more about the Mosshead situation ...”

“I don’t!” replied Usopp immediately. “I don’t need to know, I told him that already!”

“Well, that’s good, because I’m not going to tell you. Not all of it.” Sanji held his cigarette high, looking straight at Usopp. The sound of the wind and the waves far below were louder in the small pause.

“Anyway,” the cook continued, drawing in smoke deeply and slowly breathing out, “there’s not much to say. When it comes right down to it, he’s just a shitty bastard who takes on way too much on himself.” He added, in a lower voice, “He really could have died there ...”

Without opening his eyes, Zoro said, “If I can’t even protect my captain, what good am I?”

Sanji looked at Usopp and nodded towards Zoro as if to say, ’See?’

Usopp opened his mouth, but the words died on his tongue. He closed it again and swallowed, feeling dizzy and oddly ashamed. His fingers felt hot – and dry now, too dry – and now the air up here in the crow’s nest felt even more stuffy and oppressive than in the becalmed weather outside.

He tried again, and now the words came, but without having thought them over, tumbling out quickly, voice a little too thin and shrill. “I guess – I guess if you’re not very strong, then it’s your duty to at least allow yourself to be rescued and protected by someone who’s offering ... no matter how many times ... it’s ungrateful not to ... Isn’t it?” He didn’t know how to go on, and couldn’t look directly at either of them. From the corner of his eye he could see that Zoro had sat up straight again and was looking in his direction. Usopp stared at the small unlit lantern hanging on a hook on the mast, an everyday thought making him wonder if it would be time to light it soon, since the sky was darkening.

“Usopp ...” said Sanji.

“But you know,” Usopp burst out, “it’s hard to be grateful all the time! Yes, I know!” He turned his head towards Sanji, but only met Sanji’s patient eyes for a second. “I know I need to keep in mind what I can do, I know that! There are things only I can do! Sure! But you guys ...” He stopped, breathing out heavily, trying to find the right way to say this, then gave up and just let go. “ ...You guys can be really frustrating, okay? You’re – so strong –” he put his hand up high above his head as if to indicate a height – and, well, Luffy is one thing, Luffy is just Luffy and that’s different, but you two are almost as strong and you’re just as brave and ... and it just scares me, okay?” His voice broke at the end. Cheeks warm now, Usopp half wished he was at the other end of the ship, but if he didn’t say this now, when would he? In a hoarser voice, he went on, “I get scared that someday you’ll try so hard to protect the rest of us you’re not going to be around anymore.”

Silence. He stared down at his hands, at the floor underneath, let a finger follow the grain of the Adam wood of the nearest board.

“None of us know what will happen in the future,” said Sanji eventually, voice held low. “But–”

“You don’t have to be grateful,” Zoro broke in. “It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be annoyed, either, like that idiot cook gets when someone’s stealing his thunder.”

“Hey!”

“Shut up. Anyway, that’s just ...” Zoro trailed off for a moment. Usopp glanced at him. The swordsman was watching the sky and the seas through the nearest window with a faraway look on his face.

“ ...Look, it just doesn’t matter that much what we think or what we feel when it comes to that type of thing.” Now he turned and met Usopp’s and then Sanji’s look calmly. “The important thing is just to stay alive, and keep going.”

Usopp opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, closed it again, then finally looked over at Sanji beseechingly, gesturing helplessly at Zoro. Sanji breathed out a short laugh, burying his chin in his hand and making a kind of apologetic shrug.

“I know, I know,” he said. “In his defence – and I can’t believe I’m the one saying it – he really didn’t have that much choice, back there. Well, he could have listened to me instead,” he muttered under his breath.

Usopp looked at Sanji for a moment longer, but when nothing more was forthcoming, he breathed out slowly, a sense of relief seeping through him, even if it was still weird to hear that kind of thing about staying alive and keep going from Zoro, of all people. “Just remember that goes for you, too,” he muttered in the swordsman’s direction. “Don’t think I won’t hold you to that.”

He got up on unsteady legs. “Yeah. Um. Guess I should get going,” he said, taking a step towards the hatch in the floor, but only one step. If not now, when? “Anyway,” he mumbled, quickly before he could stop himself, “I just think the two of you should kiss.”

Dead silence.

Then two different “What?” at the same time, a strained, choked one from Sanji and a louder from Zoro.

“That’s just crazy - what the hell, why would you think that?” exclaimed Zoro.

“So that was what you were trying to hint at earlier,” said Sanji. “Where did you ... Why do you want to ...”

“And why him of all people? The most annoying one possible?” Zoro broke in.

“Well,” Usopp tried, “it’s just - look, you guys ... I just, it just seems like you’d enjoy it-”

“Why? What do you mean by that?” said Zoro sharply. “Got better taste than that-” He was up on his feet now.

“Wrong, Longnose.” Sanji stood up too, maintaining a clear distance to Zoro. “I’m a manly man who loves the ladies!!”

“All right, fine, so maybe I’ve been reading you wrong, and you’ve never thought of it before-” Usopp took a step back against the combined glares of the other two, while trying to also keep close to his escape route, the hatch - “but, but – even if it’s like that, why not try and consider it now?”

They both just stared at him. “Huh?” said Sanji, his voice squeaking.

“So – hear me out!” Usopp held up a hand to stop them from interrupting him. He closed his eyes for a moment, already feeling sweaty. Why had he thought the air was getting better? Right now it felt more oppressive than ever. “It might not be so bad, okay?” He looked up again, meeting Sanji’s baffled eyes for a moment. “Sanji! So, he’s a bit of an idiot, I know”– he pointed at Zoro, “but he’s pretty hot, right? I mean, for a guy? And, well, you wouldn’t have to hold back with him and he sure needs someone to help him relax, I think you could help with that.” His cheeks were really burning by now, and his legs were practically spaghetti, but he pressed on because it was too late not to.

Now he looked straight at Zoro – was Zoro blushing? Well, this was an embarrassing subject, but maybe he was just red in the face from anger – “And Zoro–” he waved in Sanji’s direction – “I know Sanji’s a girl-crazy blockhead but he’s really good-looking and flexible as hell, and, and, well, don’t you think it would be more fun to reduce tension in that way instead of just through fighting? At least for variety!!” he added, a little helplessly. He wiped his face.

Sanji and Zoro took a further step away from each other. Zoro looked kind of troubled. Sanji opened his mouth.

“Wait, wait! Not yet, don’t say anything, let me finish first!” Usopp waved wildly, inching closer to the hatch. “See, the thing is ...” His mouth was dry. He licked his lips and cleared his throat. “Okay. So. I just figured, right now you two have been going around the ship looking grim and gloomy and having secrets and not being happy at all. I can tell. So, if you’ve got to have secrets together, why not pick something that makes you happy instead? If it’s like that, I wouldn’t mind!” That wasn’t really true, that last bit. But it sounded good, and sometimes that was as close as you could get. Man, he was trembling. Not in the best of state to climb down the rigging in a hurry, but it couldn’t be helped ... in a moment he knew he’d be done here. “So. So, I just think things will be happier that way,” he added.

“You do.” That was Sanji, in a very flat voice.

“Ye-yeah! And I bet the others would feel the same way! It would mean better vibes for the whole ship.” He drew himself up, crossing his arms. “In – in the name of crew harmony, you ought to at the very least consider it!” As opposed to him, Usopp, who should try to avoid considering the mental picture of Sanji and Zoro together right now, he realised. His face felt hot all over and his mind full of perverted images. A cold shower seemed like an excellent idea. (Somewhere in his chest there were also some sulky melancholy I-feel-excluded parts which he was resolutely ignoring.)

“But he only likes girls.” Zoro’s voice in the wide silence sounded very open but a little strange, not quite like himself: Zoro himself looked surprised and then embarrassed afterwards.

Usopp didn't know how to answer. He'd already made his plea the best he could.

Sanji picked up a cigarette that had fallen to the floor and re-lit it. His movements were not quite calm, and his cheeks were very pink. “All right,” he said gruffly. “That’s very, um. Thoughtful of you, I’ll say that. But there’s a shitty angle you keep forgetting in all this.”

“What do you mean?” asked Zoro. But Usopp wasn’t sticking around to find out. His resources had run dry, he had no more arguments, and he didn’t feel like getting yelled at or kicked in the head. He’d already started to climb the ladder down again when Sanji replied.

“I mean that – Hey, stop him!” There was a weird tone in his voice. More urgent than angry, even ... desperate? Usopp kept going down the ladder, hit the yardarm, and then hastily started to climb down the rigging. The lawn deck was way too far away from up here.

He didn’t hear what Zoro replied, but he’d only been climbing a couple of steps on the port side of the rigging when a movement and a creaking sound alerted him. Looking up, he saw Sanji’s slim shape swing itself through the hatch and then jump down to the yardarm without even bothering with the ladder. Man, some people.

“I have stuff to do!” he shouted upwards, furiously climbing and managing to put a tiny distance between them: Sanji stood on the yardarm for a moment and seemed to decide what to do. Meanwhile, Zoro had appeared and was climbing down the ladder too.

“Hey! Longnose, you can’t just drop stuff like that and then run away!” shouted Sanji.

Why on earth not? thought Usopp. I’m good at it.

He focused on moving down as quickly as possible, but Sanji was moving down fast now too, easily catching up. The rigging swayed and squeaked, the faint breeze not helping much.

“Quit it, Sanji!” Usopp knew he sounded like a panicked kid at this point, but he couldn’t think of anything better. He half expected Sanji to kick him in the head – sure, he’d fall down, but he’d live; he’d taken much worse knocks than that. Usopp actually felt more afraid of whatever Sanji was going to say, and he wasn’t even sure why that was.

“All right, calm down!” Sanji was almost at level with him now, and made one hand free to put it up placatingly. “I’m not going to kick you!”

Usopp glared up at him. “What’s the big hurry?”

“He’s got a point,” shouted Zoro from above them. He was also approaching down the same side of the rigging. Good thing the ropes were so sturdy.

“You shut up,” Sanji shouted back. Now he was at level with Usopp, and kept pace with him climbing down as quickly as the swaying rigging allowed. He continued towards Usopp, “I’m not going to talk your head off either, unlike what you just tried up there. Look, there’s just one thing–” It was the way he swallowed and looked off to the side that made Usopp pause, finally. “I mean–uh–”

He leaned forward, somehow able to balance with his hands free; he put one hand over Usopp’s hand holding onto the rigging, the other reaching up behind Usopp’s head, and then he kissed him. First just a brief peck on Usopp’s lips, then he took a deeper breath and kissed him more firmly, and longer. A gust of wind blew in from starboard, and the sail billowed around them, while the rigging swayed madly underneath.

“Wh-what??” gaped Usopp, tottering, completely off-balance. Sanji evidently tried to steady him but he didn’t seem to be too stable either, overreaching himself and all but falling backwards. Usopp had a sudden mental picture of the two of them tumbling over towards the deck, too distracted to fall right and breaking their necks. He’d almost entirely lost his footing now –

A strong hand grabbed his upper arm and held him tight, pressing him in towards the railing. He glanced up. Zoro had caught up with them and was bent down, holding himself up with one hand only plus one foot crooked into the rigging, balancing easily despite the weight of his swords. “Great job with that ambush, cook,” the swordsman said sarcastically, changing his grip to the top of Usopp’s overall instead but with one foot giving him support, as well. “Excellent place for it too. Moron.”

Usopp’s racing pulse drowned out whatever Sanji was muttering in reply. His thoughts had ground to a halt. For a long moment, the three of them seemed to hang there as if frozen in time: Zoro grabbing him so he wouldn’t fall, Sanji, half-teetering himself but still grasping Usopp’s hand on the rope, the rigging creaking and swaying as Usopp tried to scramble to firmer footing.

“ ...What?” he squawked again once his feet had found better purchase. “Sanji??”

Sanji had regained his own balance and now removed his hand from Usopp’s, starting to climb down. His face was very pink. “I told you it was just this one thing,” he said roughly.

“I think the dumbass is trying to say that he likes you,” said Zoro dryly.

“M-Me??” But what about Zoro? He felt like his brain was melting. This was not in his script! He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. It was like he’d lost all the air he needed to speak with.

“Don’t bug me, Mosshead,” Sanji piped up from below. “So do you, I bet.”

Wait, what?? But now Zoro was warning him, “Letting you go now,” and Usopp nodded, grabbing hold of the rigging with his other hand too. He braced for the swaying as Zoro shifted his balance, then started to climb down again, a good deal slower than before, mind still in utter disorder. Finally he reached the deck and had grass underneath his feet.

**

In a hard fight, when Zoro had to struggle for his life and often find a new way to survive and then win the battle, he was used to taking each hit he couldn't block or dodge as it came, toughing it out until the new insight came, the strategy leaping into the light of day in the nick of time.

It wasn’t like that, now. Sitting up in the crow’s nest with the other two, listening and talking to them, he’d felt as if he was now moving towards where he needed to be, the new kind of rhythm and balance he had to find, but slowly, with care, like a broad, calm river ... And then Usopp had upset all that by that completely unexpected attempt at intervention. Match-making, even. It had been so weird, listening to his arguments and growing both more mortified and more hot under the collar, yet all the while knowing it was wrong, it was askew, it left out something very essential ... like Sanji had pointed out, an angle that was missing. And Usopp couldn’t see it at all.

Sanji getting in a panic at Usopp’s leaving was stupid, no doubt about it. They were on a ship. Where could he go? They could always catch up with him later.

But ... tomorrow, or this night even, there could be a new storm, an enemy ship, land, more seakings; any kind of danger and battles, and there could be trouble, kidnappings and getting caught up in other people’s business, making plans, fighting hard and celebrating. You never knew what would happen. And maybe they’d just keep postponing having any kind of talk about this, doing anything about it. And they’d just be stuck in the same damn spot for who knew how long. Yes, the cook was dumb about it, but Zoro could understand the impulse. Needing to act right now, before it would be too late.

He finished the climb down the rigging after the other two, leaping down onto the grass of the lawn deck. The wind was really picking up in the sails. His hands felt warm, his palms itching. Something was growing inside him, like a wave that had rolled many sea miles before it came to be as big as it should be.

Set things right. Find the rhythm again. He raised his head and turned to look at the other two. Surely he could do it.

**

Finally down on deck again, Usopp walked on unsteady legs to the nearest wall, reaching out an arm for support. He was now right next to the steps leading up to the helm deck. The steps were tempting him to sit down and catch his breath, but he felt somehow that he should be on his feet right now, maybe for an easier escape if need be.

His hair seemed to go every which way, the bandana all but undone, and his pulse was still racing. Sanji likes me? It didn’t seem real. He was half inclined to believe it was just a prank. Or temporary insanity on Sanji’s part. Or a hallucination, on his.

Sanji cleared his throat. Usopp jumped and glanced quickly at him, calming down slightly when he saw Sanji’s face was a deep pink: it felt good to not be the only one affected. Sanji’s hair was messy, too, and his shirt rumpled. Usopp had a stray thought that he’d like to make grassy stains appear on that shirt and felt his own blush return at full force.

“That ... was probably not the best place for that, yeah,” Sanji acknowledged. “Sorry.”

“You’re telling me!” Usopp burst out. “I thought I’d get a heart attack and fall down and die!!” He undid his bandanna entirely, mostly to have something to do with his hands, dragging them through his hair over and over.

Sanji made an apologetic gesture. “I just couldn’t keep listening to you and let you think ...” he muttered, then trailed off, moodily lighting another cigarette. Zoro, meanwhile, had walked over to the foremast and put his swords there, propped up neatly against the bench around the mast.

Usopp took a deep breath. “Look,” he said. “There’s just – I just need to get one thing clear, first.” He looked at Sanji and then Zoro, then belatedly thought to look around him, too, but no other crewmates were in sight. He knew a bunch were asleep, and Franky was probably at the helm ... Robin could be at large, but, well, with Robin you just had to accept the chance that she could find out any of your secrets anyway.

Even so, he took a step closer to the other two, lowering his voice as he went on: “Just tell me this - do you guys like each other, or not?”

He waited.

Sanji and Zoro shared a quick glance, then both looked away again. Finally, Sanji sighed and held up a hand. “Fine. There are times when the shithead is somewhat tolerable. Yeah, okay. He’s got his moments,” he conceded.

“Ha! I knew it!” Usopp exclaimed, pumping his fist into the air.

“And you too,” added Sanji, cheeks still pink. “Don’t look so damn pleased, it’s not like I’m happy about it. You’re both shitty guys and you smell.”

“I don’t smell as much as he does!” protested Usopp.

“Eh, who cares?” said Zoro, crossing his arms over his chest and clearly at peace with his smelliness.

“Um. What about you, Zoro?” asked Usopp nervously.

Zoro worked out a kink in his neck, closing his eyes for a moment. “Mm... He’s a pain in the ass and I guess I must have shit taste, because ... you weren’t wrong before. About that part of it.” Usopp brightened at this vindication. Yes! He had been right, dammit! Not just once, but twice.

“You just forgot something else,” added Zoro, voice dropping low as he closed the gap between them.

Usopp widened his eyes and almost took a step back, but then willed himself to stand still. His heart beat very fast; he kept watching Zoro, fascinated, practically mesmerised. The swordsman looked unusually careful as he put both his hands on each side of Usopp’s face, the height difference meaning he looked down, slightly. Moving his fingers in slow circles at Usopp’s temples, then down along the jawline, he breathed in and out; he seemed to slow himself down, but it seemed more consciously contained than languid. (In this way, he was very different from the Zoro of certain daydreams and nightly fantasies, who had always seemed in a passionate hurry.) Up this close, Usopp found he didn’t mind the smelliness at all. Zoro smelled of iron and sweat and the sea, but there was also some kind of spicy underscent in it.

Zoro’s hands moved to Usopp’s shoulderblades, then underneath the straps of his overalls, exploring but not yet undoing them. Then slowly, so very slowly, his breathing as controlled as his hands, he put his lips on Usopp’s left cheek, his right cheek, only barely touching them; he brought one finger up to slowly stroke him on the chin, and then down at his collarbone. Usopp reached out and hesitantly put his own hands on Zoro’s sides, moving and pressing in, feeling the muscles underneath his back. He closed his eyes as Zoro let out a low but gratifying kind of rumble, like that (Usopp imagined) of a great cat purring. Then finally Zoro put his lips on his – but to Usopp’s dismay, it was only for a short time, and very lightly at that.

He heard the sound of a smack and opened his eyes. Sanji was now right next to them, glaring at Zoro.

"Oi, get on with it!" he exclaimed. Are you going to take the whole shitty week?"

Zoro didn't turn his head but sent a green glare in return in Sanji’s direction. "I know what I'm doing, cook," he said in a near-growl.

"Um. I think he's got a point," said Usopp quickly. He moved his hands to Zoro's shoulders, got up on his toes to reduce the height difference, and leaned in for a brave if somewhat sloppy Captain Usopp kiss. Zoro tasted much like he smelled, of training and swords and a little bit of the crab sandwich Sanji had made a few hours ago; he made a muffled sound of surprise but then breathed out and hummed in a pleased tone.

Usopp broke it off and heard a low laugh from Sanji. “Good job! That’ll teach him. Let me just cut in a bit ...” He tugged one of Usopp’s hands away from Zoro, and Usopp let go altogether and took half a step back, curious where this was going. Zoro blinked, then assumed an impassive expression.

Then Sanji took him by the hand and said, “All right then,” starting to lead them across the deck, gesturing for Usopp to follow. A little unsure, but intrigued, Usopp caught up and took Zoro’s other hand. Zoro gave a sceptical snort but allowed himself to be led for the moment.

It was weird to hold hands like this – boy-girl couples did that, and girls who were friends, but grown men didn’t, right? Usopp had figured it was a little too girly, or too childish. But this – this was rather nice, he thought.

It turned out to only be a short walk: Sanji stopped right by the wall opposite, in the long shade of one of the trees and next to the portside steps leading towards the stern. The spot on lawn deck that was the most obscured from view of the rest of the ship, Usopp realised. Now, as the sun was close to setting, they wouldn’t be that easily seen, at least not in detail.

“Hey,” said Zoro, giving Sanji a very unamused look at the short distance. Sanji grinned at him and leaned closer.

“That’s still long enough for you to go the wrong way and vanish,” he said. He pushed Zoro against the wall; Usopp swallowed tightly and unconsciously clenched his hands. The scene seemed almost straight from one of his fantasies, except not quite as frenzied. Zoro was very clearly co-operating, but it was Sanji who took the lead right now, one hand on Zoro’s right shoulder, the other going under his haramaki and then his shirt, kissing him on the side of his neck, one leg going in between Zoro’s and starting to move.

His movements were long and flowing, looking way better than they’d been in Usopp’s head; the whole thing struck Usopp as suddenly, intensely beautiful.

Is this normal, now? he wondered. Should it be normal? Or should it stay something strange and dreamlike, something set aside from the everyday world? In a way, it seemed easier to say and do things you never thought you’d be able to, if you kept pretending it wasn’t truly real ...

Sanji and Zoro had mostly been speaking the way they always did to each other, just now, only applied it to a very new situation. But Usopp wasn’t sure he could do that.

He let slip a small moan of sheer appreciation as Zoro pushed back and tugged at Sanji’s t-shirt, nudging it upwards. Man, those two looked good together. They were so well-matched; they fit so well, right now, with the case he’d tried his best to make up in the crow’s nest. He felt a twinge of ... something. Not quite jealousy.

But now I can join in, he thought with a sense of wonder and something like the feeling you got when setting out on an adventure but hadn’t been terrified yet. They even want me to. I can touch them.

Yet, he hovered a little longer, enjoying the view, feeling himself growing hard. Waiting for a good cue, as it were.

“Erm,” complained Sanji. “You’re being lazy again, Mosshead.”

Zoro had indeed gone back to that slow pace from earlier, and his breathing seemed to match, too. “Told you,” he mumbled, then caught Usopp’s look and included him, too. “I know what I’m doing. Going somewhere with this.”

“Huh. You don’t say.” Sanji stepped back a tiny bit, letting Zoro have some space. He exchanged a puzzled glance with Usopp, who interpreted it as ‘what are we to do with this shitty algae weirdo?’ and felt oddly glad over it in a way he couldn’t explain. Maybe just because it was both such a normal kind of Sanji look and still entirely new, in this situation.

He wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his hand - geez, he’d hardly done anything yet, why was he so worked up? - and bit his lip as he looked intently at Zoro. He also took half a step closer, putting himself as near to him as Sanji was.

Zoro sighed a little, and closed his arms over his now-bare chest, his shirt discarded on the grass. He still wore the haramaki. “Look,” he said calmly, drawing a hand through his hair, “I don’t think my wounds are as bad as all that, no matter what you guys and Chopper are thinking. But all right. I haven’t really found my form again these past few days. Felt weird and all. Something missing.”

Usopp felt a chill run down his back. He couldn’t stop looking at the great scar across Zoro’s chest, the one left by Mihawk; his eyes sought the smaller, fresher scars, much less visible as they had been sewn up professionally, but still so many of them this up close.

Zoro went on, “Still dumb of you two to get worried over it, but ...” He shrugged. “So. Back up there just now” – he pointed with his thumb at the crow’s nest – “I started to feel like I almost had it, and then seeing you two in the rigging ...” He trailed off for a moment with a distant look, then shrugged again. “And it felt right.”

Usopp frowned, trying to understand. It wasn’t that easy to try to see things from Zoro’s point of view. “I’m not sure I get it,” he said, scratching the tip of his nose in thought, “but doesn’t that just mean we can help you relax? Because, in that case ...” he gave a small, tentative smile, “that was supposed to be the whole point, wasn’t it?” He reached out one hand, and lightly trailed his fingers along a few faint scars on Zoro’s right shoulder and upper arm.

Zoro breathed out, slowly, in a low sigh of appreciation that gave Usopp a much more pleasant kind of shiver. Then he nodded.

Sanji, meanwhile, had picked up the two discarded shirts from the grass, putting them on one of his lower arms like a waiter carrying napkins. “So you mean you need to move at a snail’s pace to find your new rhythm, or some shit like that?” He dug out a cigarette and lit it. “ ... All right, fine. At least now you’ve explained it.”

Then he looked over at Usopp and grinned. “Hey, Longnose, you should match,” he said. He reached over and undid the nearest strap on Usopp’s overalls.

Zoro mirrored his move without a word, undoing the other one; Usopp blinked, then flipped the straps off entirely, letting the top of his overall fall down over his sash. He felt self-conscious about his scrawniness, at least compared to those two; but right now, he’d feel more self-conscious about staying covered when they weren’t.

He put one arm over Zoro’s shoulder, leaning his head against Zoro’s for a moment, sighing a little, and Zoro leaned back. Usopp felt mushy, but in a good way. Then he took Sanji’s hand.

He wanted to tell Zoro: don’t be too hard on Sanji for wanting a faster pace. Don’t you know it’s because you almost died? Thriller Bark had been terrible that way, not just with Zoro but with so much danger for everyone. And there were so many extremely strong people and completely unexpected threats out there ...

So you wanted to grab hold of what happiness you could find for as long as you could hold it. And quickly.

He licked his lips, not yet quite able to say that in so many words. “Let’s ... let’s go,” he said, voice breaking a little. “The aquarium-and-bar should be empty now .... No, wait.” It was the prettiest room on the ship, but it had big windows with no curtains, and even though night had almost come and nobody might see them, it would still make him nervous. “My workshop,” he suggested instead. His legs felt far too weak right now for another climb up to the crow’s nest.

Besides, the workshop also held that bottle of very special oil hidden in the back of one shelf. Franky had tossed it to him in an unexpected and somewhat embarrassing big-brotherly moment. “For when you want to have some fun. It’s way more SUPER than anything you can find in shops!” he’d said, and Usopp had accepted it with a puzzled look for a moment before the belli dropped and he’d flushed like mad. He could already attest the stuff had proved to work very well for solo purposes - and he had a strong feeling the time had come to, um, expand its usage.

Zoro now cast him an assessing look, then nodded. “Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “Let’s.” Sanji only hummed and nodded, his steps wide as they started to move.

Usopp looked at Sanji walking beside him – that windswept hair, unusually bare chest, singular eyebrow; that lithe frame and easy stance, a great warrior but a cook above all; that confident turn of the head, his cigarette ... He blinked for a moment; did the dusk betray his eyes, or were those smoke-rings heartshaped? No, that was probably wrong ... He looked at that face which would so often tried to hide its concern – Sanji would call him, Usopp, a big worrywart, but Usopp knew Sanji far outdid him in his ability to notice everyone’s problems and take them on. You’ve earned a big reward, that’s for sure ...

And he looked at Zoro, the earrings and the hedgehog hair, the neat curve of his neck, his pretty shoulders; those scars and muscles and the way he was so unselfconscious about any of it, accepting his wounds neither to brag nor to complain ... He already looked less tense to Usopp’s eyes, a hint of softness in his expression and his movements. But I want to see if I can help smooth you out even more.

He wondered, as they reached the Usopp Factory de Luxe, Zoro pulling the door open, What do they see, when they look at me? It had to be something he couldn’t see himself, for all his great imagination.

He lit the paraffin lantern hanging on a hook on the wall. It spread its warm light across the room.

Sanji stubbed out his cigarette. Zoro closed the door and latched it. And Usopp took a deep breath, tugged off his shoes, undid the sash around his waist – but slowly, very slowly – and let it fall to the floor. It had hardly even touched the floorboards when the other two were there, all around him.

-End-

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