With the crew's preparations for their impending departure well underway, the following days are hectic but productive, the Straw Hats' enthusiasm and excitement mounting as they draw closer to the moment the Sunny will finally return to open water.
Iceburg, upon being informed of their plans, assures his house guests that there's no hurry and they're welcome to stay as long as necessary, but the mayor can't disguise his expression of relief the moment Luffy cheerfully declines the offer, and when he insists on covering the cost of the aquarium's new glass and their remaining balance at the tailor's shop, Zoro can't help wondering how much of the unexpected generosity is simply eagerness to see them gone as quickly and smoothly as possible. While Iceburg's been incredibly sympathetic to their situation, the man's patience must have limits, and he's undoubtedly having his ear bent by his weary and extremely frustrated staff, for whom their prolonged stay's been causing endless complications.
Partly my fault, Zoro contemplates as he hastily folds the last of his shirts and shoves them into the trunk at the foot of the bed. I've scared the shit out of more than one of 'em in the past few months. And they had to replace that shower faucet, and patch the hole- okay, HOLES- in the wall, and replace that one door and the lamp and those couple trees in the courtyard and- Tallying the amount of destruction he's caused since the crew's arrival, he winces. Alright, so maybe it's mostly my fault.
There's other factors too, of course, such as the necessity of washing, drying and folding the laundry of nine adults, as well as a baby who's capable of producing at least a dozen wet or soiled cloth diapers every day- and who, until recently, had also awakened wailing every two to three hours around the clock, loudly enough to make himself heard through walls and floors alike. Not to mention the chore of feeding all those additional people, which would be a hassle WITHOUT Sanji regularly terrorizing the kitchen to assure each and every meal meets his high standards. And tidying the library that Chopper, Robin and Nami had almost immediately commandeered as their base of operations in the absence of the Sunny's infirmary and library.
Yeah, pretty safe to say we've been a major pain in the ass.
The swordsman moves to close the trunk lid- and winces as it slams shut instead, having escaped his tenuous grasp. He glares at his traitorous right hand, flexing the sweat-dampened thumb, fore- and truncated middle finger before rubbing them dry against his trousers. His grip's getting stronger, sure enough, thanks to both his doctor and his partner badgering him relentlessly about using the therapy ball daily, but even the lightest sheen of perspiration's still liable to send objects either dropping to the floor or flying across the room as though his remaining digits have been smeared with butter.
"Watch out, Hawkeyes, here I come," he mutters in disgust. "Son-of-a-bitch's gonna LAUGH himself to death, I challenge him then end up flinging one of my fucking katana in the complete opposite direction just trying to draw the damn thing."
He knows Luffy would certainly scold him for this negative self-diatribe, were the captain in the room to hear his pessimistic words, but it's difficult not to feel discouraged.
Shake it off, he reminds himself, reaching out to snag his coat from the newly installed hook beside the door as he passes it on his way out, but instead of shrugging into the garment as he initially intended, he pauses with it dangling from his hand, debating.
If he pulls it on over his t-shirt and trousers, he'll probably be sweltering by mid-afternoon. But the idea of resuming his previous habit of going bare-chested beneath it makes him more than a little apprehensive. Partly because he's become so incredibly self-conscious about being anything but, well, fully armored against wandering eyes, lascivious or not. Also, he realizes, because he doesn't want the damn thing touching his exposed skin.
Don't be stupid; it's just a coat- and not even the same coat. That one's GONE.
Zoro doesn't know what possessed him to commission a coat nearly identical to his old one. Some misguided attempt at reclaiming his old self? Some futile hope of turning back the clock to the time when he was a more confident, more carefree, less damaged person?
Whatever his reasoning, he'd been sure enough of himself that he'd flipped off Sanji when the cook had snidely asked him if he didn't want a different style or at least a different color, something that didn't clash so horribly with his hair. Now, however, he's not so sure he made the right decision.
It's not the same though. It's NOT. It's a completely different shade of green and SHE never touched-
The shivering starts somewhere in his midsection and radiates outwards into his limbs until he's forced to grip the door frame on either side with trembling hands, coat dropping to the floor to lay in a rumpled heap across his boots. His heart lurches in his chest, thumping faster. His throat convulses, the hallway lamps dissolving into impossibly bright smears as his brain begins to insist his lungs aren't getting enough oxygen.
He knows better - according to the Straw Hats' doctor, during panic attacks he only FEELS like he's drowning, when in reality his respiratory system's functioning just fine - but it's damn hard to remember when he's shaking uncontrollably, droplets of sweat beading on his face and neck and beneath his clothing as his body flushes hot all over.
STOP IT. Breathe, dumbass, BREATHE.
Clinging to the door frame, Zoro inhales sharply through his nose, holds his breath for a count of four or maybe five and then exhales out his mouth, fighting to ignore the tightness in his chest. Nothing.
Too fast. Do it right or it's not gonna work. Four, seven, eight.
He presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth, tip brushing the backsides of his teeth, and tries again.
This time his racing heart actually slows a beat or two before speeding up again, so he keeps at it. Inhale, hold, exhale. Four, seven, eight. Inhale, hold, exhale. Four, seven, eight.
It takes several more cycles of the deep breathing exercise than the mere three that Chopper claimed should be effective, but eventually Zoro's pulse slows to normal and his lungs stop screaming. He's still unsteady, quivering and now fairly dripping with perspiration, but that suffocating sense of impending dread is finally gone, leaving nothing but brute exhaustion and stinging embarrassment in its wake.
Moving slowly to avoid collapsing on his face, strained muscles protesting, he stoops to gather his coat from the floor and shake it out, relieved no one witnessed his moment of weakness.
Just tie the blasted thing around your waist if you start getting too warm. You've only done that a million times before and you should've thought of it BEFORE you started freaking out and risked making a fucking spectacle of yourself.
It's not that he truly believes any of his nakama- even the shitty cook- would belittle or think less of him. He simply wants to retain whatever little dignity's left to him.
Considering this, the timing of his recovery's more fortuitous than he anticipated, because as he's wearily shrugging into the garment, there's clanging and sudden voices audible overhead as someone lifts the lawn deck hatch farther down the corridor, and a few seconds later, Franky comes striding towards him, sunglasses pushed high on his forehead.
"Haramaki-bro! Ready to head out?"
After a moment of bemused hesitation, Zoro raises his left hand to lightly bump the massive fist that's just been extended in his direction, puzzled by the gesture but willing to humor his beaming nakama. "Sencho send you looking for me?"
"Nah, but he did say I should letcha know t' take your time if I saw you on my way to the engine room, so I figured I'd stick my head in, see if you were home. Gotta check the barrels one last time, and then-" Unclenching his fingers, the shipwright makes a swaying motion with his open hand, representing the ocean into which they'll be sailing. "-we're gone! Left the hatch open since I'm goin' right back up, so don't worry 'bout closin' it."
"See you topside!"
They part ways, Franky turning back down the hallway towards the ship's stern and Zoro making a final adjustment to the pair of katana strapped at his side before following as far as the capstan.
He's glad he won't need to fight with the hatch, clinging to the ladder with his good hand while fumbling at the handle with his bad one - a tedious maneuver he hopes will grow easier over time - but he's also relieved at the casual way in which Franky addressed the matter. Especially after his trouble with the trunk lid and the ensuing panic attack.
At least Franky didn't see me losing my shit, or he would've been a lot less blasé about trotting off and leaving me alone, he thinks wryly. It's likely, given the strength of the attack, the cyborg would've started bellowing his head off for Chopper or at the very least insisted on escorting him to the infirmary.
He supposes the fit of anxiety shouldn't surprise him. Not after he'd surrendered to that confusing maelstrom of desire the other evening and initiated sex- or whatever you wanted to call it, since no actual penetration had been involved- with Luffy.
Zoro still remembers startling awake later that same night, in the hour or two before dawn, when the surrounding world was as black as the pitch used to seal the Sunny's hull, roused from disquieting dreams that began fading to vague echoes the moment he regained consciousness, details trickling away like sand falling through his fingers when he groped for their disintegrating remnants.
The swordsman had been far too groggy to pinpoint what disturbed him, and he'd come very close to simply sliding back into sleep- until his brain had registered the drafty expanse between his pectorals and thighs. Drowsiness forgotten, he'd come instantly alert, what his senses registered catapulting him into terror as he took stock of the situation: shirt bunched up almost to his armpits, haramaki and pants floating somewhere around his knees. When his abdominal muscles had tightened in shock, there'd been the unmistakable tug of dried fluid clinging to the exposed skin of his groin and lower belly, and he'd not only immediately guessed what THAT was, he'd SMELLED it.
Coherent thought drowning in the endless, mindless repetition of "no no no no, not again, please, no," his fear so potent, he'd stopped breathing. Held his breath, in fact, so he could listen for the sharp telltale click of approaching heels, heartbeat thundering in his ears as he'd lain wide-eyed and paralyzed, hoping- praying, even- that if he was quiet enough, then maybe, just maybe, SHE wouldn't be able to find him again in such utter darkness.
Every nerve in his body had been alive and screaming, prepared for fight or flight, and when a sudden short, sharp cry had erupted somewhere to his right, his entire body had jerked involuntarily and he'd produced a strangled gasp in spite of his resolve to remain silent. With the realization he'd almost certainly given away his presence, a nauseating wave of vertigo had sweep over him, producing the sensation that his prone body was spiraling downwards into nothingness, and he'd come very close to fainting.
His bare skin had been crawling, anticipating contact with the unseen hands he was convinced were reaching towards him, but despite his dread and certainty, nothing had happened. No one lunged from the dark to assault him, and after nearly a minute passed, ticking away in agonizingly slow seconds, he'd started to suspect that perhaps no one was going to, that maybe his imagination was simply running wild.
When the sound that'd frightened him so badly repeated itself moments later, he'd flinched again but he'd also been unspeakably relieved, because once he'd no longer been hopelessly mired in his own hysteria, he'd immediately recognized it. It'd been a baby's cry- his son's cry- and not a cry protesting an empty stomach or wet diaper, but one of those brief but startlingly loud squawks that meant Ace was sound asleep and reacting to a dream of his own.
Must've been a bad one, he'd thought, 'cause he sure sounds pissed. What the hell do babies even have nightmares about anyway? The formula running out? God, I wish that was the worst I had to worry about in my dreams…
Zoro's lungs hadn't been just cramping, they'd been shrieking for mercy, so he'd taken first one breath and then another, until the tightness in his chest began to ease and the dizziness in his head passed. Working his haramaki and the waistband of his jogging pants back up his thighs, then tugging his shirt hem back where it belonged, he'd forced himself to make a logical analysis of what his senses were telling him so he could begin mentally assembling pieces of the puzzle in hopes of seeing the bigger picture.
Knowing his body was no longer exposed had made it a lot easier to think.
The springy, comfortable surface beneath him was definitely a bed, but not the one in the Galley La headquarters. Not with that familiar swaying motion and the faint sounds of water lapping against timber. He'd been in a bed, alright, but it'd been one on the Sunny, and judging by the size, not one of the box hammocks either. I'm in MY bed. Mine and Luffy's. Where we- oh. Remembering, he'd felt heat flare across his face. Oh, right.
Extending a hand, the first mate had cautiously patted his way across the mattress and encountered bare skin not his own, explored the warm curves with his fingertips- and nearly swallowed his tongue when he'd realized he'd been groping his captain's naked buttocks.
He'd pulled his hand back as Luffy uttered a somnolent groan and promptly rolled towards him, sliding an arm around his torso and nestling against his side.
Zoro had resisted the automatic urge to shove away the invasive limb and scramble free, and he'd succeeded, although the inner struggle had left his heart thumping chaotically in his chest. Which was ridiculous, he'd chided himself, considering how enthusiastically he'd been rubbing himself all over the same younger man just a couple hours earlier, but-
He doesn't seem to have any control over his body's negative reactions to being touched unexpectedly these days. That moment of panic always seems to hit him whether it's rational or not. If he's lucky, the moment's fleeting, but if he's not-
Annoyed with himself, he'd eased his left arm between Luffy's head and the pillow beneath it, moving slowly to avoid jostling and waking him, and he'd been rewarded by the rubber man making a happy little humming noise and snuggling closer, giving his middle a light squeeze before slipping deeper into sleep.
The bed absurdly comfortable, the limb draped across his waist no longer disconcerting but a steady reassurance, a safety net anchoring him to reality, before he'd realized what was happening, his heart rate had decelerated and the tension in his spine had begun to seep away, exhaustion stealing over him once more. As his eyelids drifted shut and his body gradually relaxed, he'd found it difficult to believe he'd been on the edge of a full-blown panic attack just a few minutes before, but he'd been simply too physically and emotionally weary to retain that kind of fear, especially once he'd known where he was and who'd been laying beside him.
It IS getting easier, he tells himself. Not always- and sometimes it's not just bad but really bad, like when I first woke up that night and in the doorway just now, but…
Despite the panic attacks, despite nearly jumping out of his skin sometimes at being unexpectedly touched, he's learning how to let go and relax again. He's known this since the morning after, when he'd opened his eye to discover-
-sunlight's spilling through the curtainless porthole window and casting a bright swath across the sheet draped over his waist and covering his legs. Squinting against the brightness, he raises his left hand to block it but otherwise doesn't move until his vision adjusts and he's able to let his gaze drift around the small room.
He's alone; the other side of the bed's vacant and the nearby crib's likewise empty, although there's a large pitcher and a carelessly folded towel on his nightstand that he doesn't remember being there the night before, so Luffy must've stopped back at some point during the morning.
Sencho let me sleep in…
Grateful for the reprieve and not quite ready to drag himself out of bed, Zoro shifts from his back to his left side, drawing his knees up so he's curled in a lazy fetal position and letting his right hand stray across the sheets to where his captain slept last night.
The faint indentation in the mattress feels cool to the touch, no longer warm with retained body heat. There's no telling how long he's been dozing since the younger pirate left.
I must've been out cold though if Ace didn't wake me up, he muses. The baby tends to rise not just early but loudly, volume increasing steadily until someone retrieves him. I doubt Luffy was in any hurry to get up either, so the kid was probably yelling his head off too.
Zoro's fingertips, still roaming aimlessly along the sheets, unexpectedly encounter the edge of a rough spot in the fabric, and he pauses, heat suffusing his face as he realizes what he's touching. One night, and the damn sheets already need washed again. And, as he further examines the damage: Shit, that must've been one hell of a wet spot. That first time, I think he really-
His mind flashes back to his captain, spent and slick and pulsing in the moist tunnel of his fist, and he swallows hard, face burning all the way to the tips of his ears as he remembers being overwhelmed with desperate need at the sight. I- I don't know what came over me. I just- I needed to get off- and I needed HIM.
He inhales sharply, and it's his undoing, because even after only one evening, the sheets smell like his captain… they smell like Luffy and they smell like sex with Luffy, those scents raising that same surge of dangerous longing, and all at once Zoro realizes he's achingly, almost painfully hard.
Not doing this- I'm not doing it, I'm NOT, he thinks dizzily as he reaches out to pull Luffy's pillow to his chest, burying his nose and slightly parted lips against it to breathe in his absent lover's scent while his free hand squirms down the front of his jogging pants. I'm not gonna- not gonna fucking jerk myself off like th- oh, oh god, I'm-
Touching himself with sexual intent- actually masturbating- after stubbornly fighting his body's natural urges for so long is more than a little unnerving but also a relief, as though an old, badly healed wound's finally been lanced and drained of poison. The world hadn't ended last night when he'd taken himself and Luffy in one hand, and it's not ending now as he struggles to remaster his own flesh and reclaim the sense of self that's been stolen from him.
Eye shut, mouth hanging slightly ajar, he's envisioning Luffy's fingers curled around him, stroking, Luffy gently nuzzling and kissing his neck and shoulder, Luffy murmuring encouragement beside his ear, urging him mercilessly towards the precipice of climax, when there's a loud BANG-BANG-BANG on the bedroom door, shortly followed by the faintest creak of hinges and the raised voice of the rubber man himself.
"Oi, Zoro, wake up! I got a surprise for- oh…"
Head snapping upright, Zoro comes very close to simply throwing himself over the opposite side of the bed onto the floor in his sudden panic but somehow suppresses the urge. He freezes instead, arm hooked in a vice grip around the pillow clutched to his chest and hand buried motionless in his pants.
Luffy's gone similarly still in the doorway. "I, uh, just wanted to letcha know your- your sword's done and Brook said he'd go pick it up later today if you-" He clears his throat, cheeks pink. "Should- should I just come back later… or… umm…"
At the unspoken implications - "or can I stay, and do you maybe want some help" - Zoro's grip on himself tightens so suddenly, he voices an audible "ow" and lets go, whereupon his erection promptly starts wilting. He might've been imagining his captain in bed with him only seconds before, but the abruptness of being caught not just aroused but actively playing with himself is too disconcerting.
It's pathetic, really, considering how many times he and Luffy have walked in on each other before, and how many times those times have turned into mutual appreciation of the circumstances, but-
"Nah, I'm-" His voice cracks and he coughs, cursing. "Pretty sure I'm done."
Realizing what's happened, Luffy grimaces. "Sorry. I thought you'd wanna know. About your sword."
Awkward silence ensues as Zoro, badly frazzled, tries to find a response. He sits up slowly, discovers he's still holding his partner's pillow and quickly returns it to where it belongs- which turns out to be a mistake, because now he's got no idea what the hell to do with his hands.
Fidgeting in the doorway, Luffy seems at a similar loss, crossing his arms, then un-crossing them to shove both hands into the pockets of his shorts, only to yank them back out and hook his thumbs in his waistband, fingers tapping nervously against the denim.
For just a second or two, Zoro's sorely tempted to make a pocket pool quip - something like "why you over there playin' with yours when mine's right over here" - but he refrains, afraid the younger pirate might take him seriously, and the inane urge passes. It's the sort of habitual joke he'd have made without hesitation in the past, but- not now. Impel Down's still weighing on him too heavily to make such an offer, even in jest. And even if he WASN'T joking, well, he doubts his body would cooperate now, not with how badly his captain's knocking and the door's sudden opening have rattled his nerves. It's too soon. Maybe later. But not now.
"Ace?" He asks instead as he swings his legs off the bed to plant his feet on the carpet, self-consciously tugging the hem of his shirt lower.
"Oh, he's in the kitchen. Nami wanted to see if he'd eat some mushed up fruit 'n stuff since she figures giving him some regular food's gonna be cheaper than if we keep using all formula 'n anyway Chopper said he's old enough to-" Luffy halts, expression suddenly stricken with chagrin. "Uh…"
"Chopper knows. About us. What happened last night, I mean." At Zoro's incredulous frown, he starts waving his hands. "No, no, no, I didn't, like, just go TELL him! Or anybody else. He just- well, he smelled you. Us. On me. So even if you're gonna go right to the bathhouse, first you might wanna-" He indicates the pitcher and towel on the nightstand.
"Oh," the swordsman replies inanely, aware he's probably approaching the hue and brilliance of a tomato. "Okay. Did he- say anything?"
"Not really? He did ask if everything was okay. If we were-" Luffy pauses, gaze dropping to the floor as worry once again creases his brow. When he looks up again, there's desperation in his eyes. "Zoro, we're- we ARE okay, right? I mean, I think we're okay, at least I thought so last night, but now I just-"
Embarrassment forgotten, Zoro rises and takes the few steps needed to cross the room, reaching out to cup his captain's cheek as he leans in to kiss him. While it's nowhere near as ardent as the passion-starved lip-locking from last night, it's full of emotion none-the-less. More like that first kiss, the impulsive but sweet one he'd given Luffy before he'd been overtaken by his long-suppressed desire.
Luffy's hand rises to cover his, and he can feel it trembling and understands that his lover's just as uncertain and nervous about how to proceed.
"Yeah, Sencho," he says softly, voice pitched so it's understood he's uttering the title as a term of affection and not as recognition of authority. "We're okay."
"Good," Luffy sighs, giving his hand a quick little squeeze and sagging against him in blatant relief. "I thought so, but- Zoro fell asleep so fast, we didn't really talk that much 'n then I was thinking about it all morning after I got up 'n-"
Zoro silences this anxious blather with another firm kiss. "Oi. I think we- I- got kinda carried away last night, but we're okay, and we'll stay okay, long as we take it slow. If you don't mind being patient with me while I- y'know- figure this out."
"We," the younger pirate admonishing him in a tone that's gentle yet firm, leaving absolutely no room for argument. Reminding him that, no matter what hurdles await them on the road ahead, they're in this together. "While WE figure it out."
"Yeah, alright- while WE figure it o-" He sputters helpless laughter when his agreement's immediately smothered by his captain's mouth, Luffy initiating the kiss this time with happy enthusiasm. "O-Okay, okay! Now leggo so I can clean up and go shower, huh? I wanna see what Ace thinks of this 'mushed up stuff' you guys're giving him- and how many knots that damn cook's twisted himself into trying not to freak out about Nami takin' over his kitchen."
Recalling the chaos they'd discovered, Zoro finds himself snickering as he scales the ladder above the capstan, although the smile slips from his lips as he nears the open hatch, with its bright circle of breathtakingly blue sky above.
Luffy had gotten unsurprisingly- understandably- sidetracked by his concerns about the future of their relationship and therefore only brushed the surface of his conversation with the Straw Hat's crew's doctor that first morning, but-
As he hauls himself gracelessly onto the lawn deck, Zoro casts his gaze warily about, seeking the reindeer's diminutive form. Thankfully he's nowhere in sight.
The swordsman's immediate sense of satisfaction at this absence is accompanied by the strong sting of guilt, but he can't help feeling relieved.
Chopper is a concerned primary physician, devoted to aiding his patient's recovery and maintaining his health.
Chopper, since becoming aware of his patient's tentative foray into renewed sexual activity, wants to talk to his patient about condoms and adequate lubrication and regular- possibly even monthly- exams to "assure the integrity of the rectal wall hasn't been and won't be compromised during anal intercourse."
Chopper is a fucking nuisance.
Zoro's immeasurably sorry the second this thought crosses his mind, of course, but- the sentiment is true, if rather unkind.
Zoro does NOT want to discuss safe sex.
Zoro not only does not want to discuss safe sex, he doesn't want to discuss ANY kind of sex, and he ESPECIALLY does not want someone's fingers, gloved or otherwise, rummaging around in his ass.
He'd said as much, loudly and heatedly, when Chopper had confronted him shortly after his trip to the bathhouse that morning, and although the doctor had reluctantly agreed to drop the subject - albeit temporarily and largely at the insistence of Luffy, who'd come running at the sound of his first mate's furious, raised voice - the reasonable words have merely been replaced with concerned, speculative glances.
Made nearly as uncomfortable by the well-meaning but distressing weight of eyes following him as by the professionally-phrased yet still incredibly invasive questions about his struggling sex life, Zoro's spent the last few days avoiding their smallest crew mate altogether whenever possible.
He supposes he WILL eventually have to talk to Chopper about such things unless he and Luffy plan on being celibate for the rest of their lives- or at least restricting their activities in certain regards- but for now, there's no real need. For now, they're both a lot more interested in determining- in relearning- how to be comfortably intimate with each other sans the added stress of intercourse.
It's not something that required much discourse in their previous history, when they could flop down together on the aquarium benches or grope each other in the bathhouse or just straight-up tumble into bed- or rather, somebody's bunk- with equal ease and little thought, but circumstances have changed. Offering feedback to one another and participating in two-way verbal communication's become a far more critical aspect of their daily interactions, particularly during their private moments.
Zoro's considering all of this as he steps off the grass onto Adam wood planks of the stairs leading to the helm, pulse rate increasing as he quickens his pace to jog upwards with his left hand trailing along the rail beside him, both physically steadying and mentally grounding himself with the sensation of the smoothly polished grain beneath his fingertips.
As he suspected, Luffy's standing at one end of the curved bench near the ship's wheel, their wide-eyed son cradled in one arm against his chest and clinging to his shirt as he points to the horizon awaiting the crew, excitedly describing the places they've been and people they've met, all of which they'll soon be encountering again on their way back to the New World.
The prospect of returning to such a dangerous place with a baby in tow is daunting, but they've little choice; the longer they remain in Paradise, near the same waters where their presence was last noted by the Navy, the greater their likelihood of running afoul of Marine forces.
It's a damn miracle those assholes haven't found us already. Probably only thanks to Iceburg playing dumb, putting off that visit from Smoker he warned us about a couple weeks ago, but stalling's not gonna work forever. It never was, and the sooner we're outta here, the better.
Reminding himself that their departure's imminent, just as soon as Franky emerges from the engine room, Zoro forces the most distracting of his worries to the back of his mind so he can listen to what his captain's telling Ace, words accompanied by animated gestures.
"-and when we get to Fishman Island, you'll get to meet Keimi! I know she definitely wants to see you, 'cause I told her about you when I asked her to find Surume for me. And I told YOU all about HIM, remember? The big octopus guy who helped us break through the giant door? So we could get you 'n-" Luffy looks back over his shoulder to where his first mate's standing quietly at the railing, motioning for him to join them. "Oi, Zoro, c'mere 'n tell the rest of it with me!"
Taking a deep breath, Zoro complies, moving close enough to run his fingers through Ace's dark hair and plant a kiss on the baby's upturned forehead before concluding the story. "The kracken helped them take you 'n me back from- from the people who stole us." He raises his gaze to meet Luffy's. "You hear me on the stairs?"
The captain grins in response, giving a slight shake of his head.
"Then-" Zoro squints, suspicious. "The Kenbunshoku. It works?"
Luffy's beaming. "Robin's in the women's quarters 'n Usopp's in the men's, Sanji's in the kitchen with-" He pauses, mouth contorting as he concentrates harder. "Chopper aaand… oh, that's Brook. Which means NAMI'S the one in the aquarium bar."
"And Franky's in the engine room, right?"
"Ladder to the lawn deck," the rubber man corrects, delighted.
"That's pretty amazing."
"Yeah, and you know what it means?" The amusement on Luffy's face fades, then vanishes, leaving his expression serious, his eyes filled with seriousness and no small hint of regret. "I'm always gonna be able to find Zoro. As long as I can sense him, as long as I'm close enough, I'll- I'll know it's him and I'll be able to-"
"Sencho… oi…" Lifting the baby from his distraught lover's arms so he can nudge his way into them, allow those now-trembling limbs to enfold both himself and Ace, hug them almost suffocatingly close.
"Oi," he says again softly, leaning his cheek against Luffy's temple, hesitating only a second or two before nuzzling it affectionately because they're alone, there's no one watching- and even if there was, he decides abruptly, he wouldn't care. In this moment, he's at peace, undisturbed in the tight grasp of the arms sheltering him and the child nestled against his chest.
I could stay like this forever.
But he can hear Franky behind them, below on the lawn deck, shouting that everything's set, and he knows they need to get going. Which means, as much as he doesn't want to, he needs to move.
"Sencho, you're gonna squash us."
"Ah, sorry, Zoro." Luffy slowly relaxes his hold and leans back. His lashes are wet, caught in clumpy spikes with unshed tears, and Zoro suddenly wants to kiss him very badly.
He follows his instincts and does so, mindful of the five-month-old caught between them.
When he reluctantly breaks away, he notes Luffy's now smiling. The sight fills his chest with fierce love, and it's evident on his own face when he shifts Ace to free a hand, taking one of Luffy's and lacing their fingers together, giving a brief squeeze before altering his grip and reaching out, guiding their joined appendages to the ship's wheel, curling his captain's fingers around it. Steady for once despite the fact he's using the bad one, his right, its scarred tissue and callous-roughened palm resting comfortably atop the back of Luffy's hand, Luffy's palm resting on the helm beneath them both.
Their son perplexed with their actions but gurgling happily regardless, pleased with their presence together, waving one of his own tiny hands in the direction of theirs. Towards the wheel. Towards the horizon.
Luffy turns his head to fix Zoro with joyous incredulity, and the swordsman laughs aloud.
"I think he's telling us he's ready too."
This badly-needed atmosphere of tranquility lasts a few merciful days, past the waters of the Florian Triangle and even throughout most of their stay at the Sabaody Archipelago, where Silvers Rayleigh and Shakky gladly shelter the crew as they wait for the Sunny's coating to be completed. An expensive process but also an unavoidable one, necessary for safely descending to Fishman Island, not to mention re-entering the New World itself- and possibly only affordable thanks to Iceburg's parting generosity.
Zoro has no recollection of his last voyage past the Red Line. He'd been in and out of consciousness for some time following his and the cook's disastrous stand against Akainu and Kizaru; the horror of seeing Sanji broken and tossed aside like a discarded toy and the shock of being not just brutally overpowered himself but taken captive, abducted, combined with the overwhelming fatigue of pregnancy and the unwelcome recent news that his body might not be strong enough to continue sustaining the baby developing inside him- well, it'd simply been too much.
Thinking back, he supposes the admirals' presence must have meant he'd been hustled straight through Mariejois itself, but he'd barely noticed, too exhausted, too sick, and- he's not too proud to admit it- too frightened to register their passage.
He's not afraid now, just tired and extremely grateful that Rayleigh's recommended the Straw Hats remain out of sight until their ship's ready. Not that anyone was inclined to argue with the older man, given Sabaody's potential to be a great deal more dangerous than Water Seven. The archipelago's crawling with Marines, as well as bounty hunters, slavers and Celestial Dragons visiting the human auctioning house.
Even Luffy, who normally detests being prevented from exploring, doesn't questioned his mentor's judgement. In fact, the captain's been exhibiting more signs of stress than his first mate and the rest of their crew combined, courtesy of several vivid dreams that've stirred memories of the first visit to their current location. The visit during which he lost not only Zoro but every last one of his nakama. Bartholomew Kuma's interference had eventually proved a blessing in disguise, but he hadn't known it at the time; he'd simply been reduced to panic and tears, left wondering if the most important people in his life were even still alive.
The nightmares make him overly concerned with everyone's welfare, but he becomes almost desperately affectionate towards Zoro, needing to constantly reassure himself by touch that his swordsman's still by his side. Mostly in the middle of the night, when he's far too groggy to trust his own senses.
Because limited space requires everyone to share sleeping quarters, there's no real privacy to speak of, but the green-haired pirate doesn't protest his lover's desire for frequent physical contact, and no one else complains either, not even on the occasions they rise to use the bathroom and find the two men curled tightly around each other on the sofa bed they're sharing beside their son's makeshift bassinet, murmuring quietly to one another and sometimes exchanging discrete caresses and kisses until they drift back to sleep.
The first time he realizes someone else is awake, Zoro's mortified at being caught, but before he can fully extricate himself from Luffy's clinging grasp, Usopp hisses a soft apology and waves at them to continue before carefully picking his way through the minefield of sleeping bodies crowding the floor.
When the sniper returns from relieving himself, he heads straight back to his tangle of blankets without a second glance towards the bed, and upon witnessing this display of such nonchalance, it dawns on Zoro that not only have most of the crew been fully aware of what's happening and quietly approved of it- or at least not minded- they've probably kept silent to avoid embarrassing him.
Sure enough, when he's caught by Sanji a few hours later, shortly before the break of dawn, when he's drowsily running his fingers through Luffy's tousled hair and trying to coax him back to sleep with soft kisses, the cook snorts and drops a snide remark about how they'll regret it in the morning if they "spend all night making out instead of doing the sensible thing like everybody else and actually, y'know, sleeping."
This comment causes Zoro's face to flush straight to the tips of his ears, but he bites his tongue because the rubber man clinging to his torso is finally beginning to doze off again. And to his surprise, Sanji doesn't continue needling him, but only quietly warns him to "make sure you get some rest too, Mosshead" before wandering off to the kitchen.
The first mate's a little less self-conscious after that, taking less care to hide his actions, but to his extreme annoyance, Chopper begins shooting increasingly anxious glances in his direction during the day, almost as if the doctor's afraid that-
What the hell's he think we're gonna do, start fucking on the sofa right in front of everybody?
The implication infuriates him, because there's been nothing even remotely lascivious about his late-night exchanges with Luffy, so for Chopper to interpret a few kisses and some cuddling as mere preludes to sex is just-
It's innocent concern for his well-being, no doubt, but it sours his mood, spoils the calm and comfort he's found in his lover's embrace, and when the Sunny's proclaimed safely coated, he's impatient to resume occupation of his own quarters, where he'll no longer be subject to constant scrutiny.
Instead of peace, however, he finds heaviness accumulating in his chest and stomach as the ship descends. A growing sense of disquiet tinged with disorientation and dysphoria that builds and builds until, once again, he breaks.
"-I KNOW he said he was gonna practice on the lawn deck, but he's not there, he's gonna right here be in the kitchen like I told-" Luffy stops in the dining hall doorway so abruptly that Sanji and Chopper, following too close behind, collide with his back.
"What the hell?" Sanji demands, pushing past the captain to take a closer look at the pots and pans and other cooking implements strewn across the floor, and the open cabinets from which they've fallen or been carelessly tossed. "Marimo, what the FUCK did you-"
An empty bottle comes rattling across the tiles, coming to rest against the cook's shoe. He picks it up, cursing, examines the label, and then curses again, louder.
Torn between curiosity and concern, Luffy joins him at the entrance to the work-space behind the counter, Chopper at his heels.
Their first mate's sitting on the floor, slouched against the fridge, with several other bottles laying around him and another clutched in his fist, all clearly as empty as the first. He gives the one he's brandishing a tap against the nearest cabinet door hard enough for cracks to spiderweb through the glass. "Oi, cook, y'got any more of-" He squints at the bottle's label and tries to sound out the brand name a few times before giving up. "-wh'ever the fuck this stuff is…"
"It's rice wine," Sanji replies in a perilously calm voice. "FOR COOKING. And no, I don't, because it looks like you DRANK ALL OF IT."
"Obviously not terrible enough to stop you from getting PISS-ASS DRUNK."
"Not drunk 'nough," Zoro mumbles back.
Luffy's simply staring, trying to recall if he's ever seen his swordsman genuinely drunk before, but Chopper's wringing his hooves. "Z-Zoro, I TOLD you, alcohol's a depressant! You shouldn't be drinking while you're taking the medication I-"
"I CAN'T DO THIS SOBER!" He roars at them, and slams the cracked bottle against his own thigh- then jumps, startled, as it breaks in his hand, leaving him staring in dumbfounded astonishment at the jagged neck left in his grasp.
All three of his crew mates immediately freeze, fearful of what might happen next, but he just tosses it aside in disgust.
Reminding himself to breathe, Luffy eases slowly over to Zoro's end of the kitchen, stepping around the mess on the floor and, when his presence prompts no objections, slides down to sit beside to him and begins carefully retrieving the shards.
"I can' do this," the first mate says again, leaning his head back against the fridge door.
"Do what?" Conversationally, now plucking pieces of glass off his lover's pants and dropping them into what's remaining of the bottle's bottom. Grateful none of them have appear to have pierced the fabric.
"This whole-" Zoro raises his hand and waves it ambiguously in the air around his head. "'s too dark 'n it's-" He shudders. "Can' see the wa'er but you can-" Turning a horror-filled eye towards the rubber man, who's paused to listen. "Can' see it but you FEEL it ou'side. 'N it's HEAVY."
Luffy frowns, trying to understand. Obviously there's a connection here, but he's not quite seeing what-
"'s like being THERE-"
And then he comprehends his swordsman's distress, because there's only one "THERE" that would fill Zoro's voice with such loathing, and yes, he's been "THERE" too and he's felt it himself. The weight of the entire Calm Belt, pressing against the walls of Impel Down and heaviest at the bottom, on-
"Level Six. It's like being on Level Six, isn't it?" He asks quietly, and when Zoro makes a guttural hiccuping sound in the back of his throat, he knows he's right. "We're not on Level Six, I promise."
"I- I know, but…"
Luffy takes his hand, squeezing it firmly to focus his attention, then relaxing his grip in case he wants to pull away. "Zoro's head knows the difference, but his body doesn't, right?" He shoots a questioning glance at Chopper, hoping he's making sense, and he's relieved to see the reindeer's nodding.
Most of the anger's drained from Sanji's face, although he still looks troubled. "I get why Mosshead's upset, but isn't this the kind of shit he should be writing about in that log book Nami gave him, so he DOESN'T end up deciding to raid my cabinets for liquor?"
"'M not keeping a goddamn DIARY," Zoro grumbles. "It's a dumb idea, 'n I don' wanna."
"It was Robin's idea," Sanji growls, bristling. "And that book was a GIFT. The least you can do's show your appreciation by USING IT!" He's taken a step forward, hands balled into fists.
"What're y'gonna do if I don'? Chain me to the fucking desk in the library?" Abrupt fury darkening his complexion, Zoro bares his teeth. "Shove Nami's clime- climac-" He snarls, infuriated by his alcohol-deadened tongue. "-that stupid blue stick thing up my ass?"
"Or maybe y'just wanna use your dick instead," the swordsman spits. "-since I guess GETTING FUCKED is all I'm good for!" Yanking his hand from the captain's grasp, he jabs a wavering finger in Chopper's direction, rage lending him inopportune articulation. "Bring him along 'n he can make sure you use enough lube before he takes a turn!"
Luffy closes his eyes, despair like physical pain in his chest.
"… sh-shit, Marimo," Sanji eventually sputters into the stunned silence that follows. He can feel Chopper trembling against his leg, on the verge of tears. He takes a deep, slow breath. "The only- the ONLY reason I'm not gonna kick your ass is 'cause you're obviously so wasted, you haven't got two brain cells to bang together so you can think twice about what the hell you're saying. But you need to get the fuck out of my kitchen. Right. Now."
Zoro tries to rise- most likely to wade into a fight rather than make a timely exit- and promptly loses his balance, crashing sideways into the cabinets and sending more cookware flying. Before he can make another attempt, he's scooped up in Luffy's trembling arms.
"C'mon, let's- let's get Zoro to bed, so he can sleep this off."
His first mate doesn't struggle or demand to be put down. Instead, he makes a faltering declaration about first visiting the infirmary to retrieve some of those condoms their doctor's so fond of recommending, and then his face pales and he passes out, body going limp and head flopping back.
Jaw clenched, Luffy shifts him to reduce the strain on his neck, starts to carry him towards the door- and hesitates when his foot strikes a frying pan laying upside down on the tiles.
"Don't worry about it," Sanji tells him quietly. "Just get him out of here. I'll take care of cleaning this up. Chopper'll help me."
Tears glistening in his eyes, the reindeer nods.
"We'll make sure someone can watch Ace if Robin needs a break. Now go."
The captain bites his lower lip and obeys, cradling Zoro securely against his chest as the cook holds open the dining hall door to let him slip out.
It's kind of like carrying his son, only Zoro's a lot heavier. And - Luffy's nose wrinkles in dismay - he reeks like the bottles he's emptied.
He doesn't meet anyone else on the way to their quarters, and he's shamefully relieved, because it saves him from explaining what's going on and why he's surrounded by the heavy odor of fermented rice.
His swordsman groans in protest at being flopped unceremoniously into rumpled sheets, but he doesn't wake, so Luffy pulls off his boots and sheds his own footwear so he can climb into bed and sit cross-legged on the mattress with Zoro's head and shoulders in his lap.
Hours later, when he's stroking the older pirate's cheek and playing idly with his earrings, in serious danger of nodding off himself, he feels a sudden tension beneath his fingers and knows his lover's just regained consciousness.
"Oi," he calls softly. "How's Zoro feeling?"
There's a long pause as Zoro registers his surroundings, and then he pushes upright- and wobbles, hand going to his forehead. "H-How did I get here? I was- I was in the-"
"In the kitchen, yeah, on the floor."
"On the-? You found me on the floor?"
"Me 'n Sanji 'n Chopper. Do you remember what you were doing?"
"I-" Zoro frowns, sinking back into his lap. "I know I wanted a drink."
"Uh huh. Zoro drank all Sanji's cooking wine," Luffy informs him carefully, fingers returning to his face and resuming their soothing motions. "-and then he ripped the kitchen apart looking for more."
"Oh," his swordsman replies, having the grace to look ashamed. "… shit." That single eye's searching his expression, recognizing there's something more. "What else did I do? What aren't you saying? Did I- did I hurt somebody?"
"You made Sanji mad, and… well, I think you might've made Chopper cry, but- it wasn't so much what Zoro did as what he said…"
"… goddamn it," Zoro murmurs. "Do- do I wanna know what I said, or… "
"Probably not." To be honest, he doesn't want to repeat it anyway. "But Sanji said something I think Zoro SHOULD hear again, 'cause I think it's a good idea."
"… and what's that?"
"You should start using the book Nami gave you. Writing stuff down, whether it's good dreams or bad dreams or whatever."
"Sencho, I told you, I don't-"
"I'm not-" He swallows, forcing a note of authority into his voice, even though he doesn't like what he's about to do. "I'm not asking. I'm telling you, you're gonna do it."
Zoro gives a mystified little bark of laughter and stares up at him. "Are you ORDERING me to write in that damn book?"
He's expecting an argument- a lot of complaining at the very least- so he's surprised when his first mate considers this decree with thoughtful deliberation and then nods. "Fine, I'll do it. But nobody looks in the thing but me. Not even you, unless I tell you it's okay." A flicker of uneasiness crosses the older man's face. "I didn't mean to- I was hoping a drink or two would get me buzzed enough to just- I don't know- not need to think for a couple hours. Relax for a little while. But after I started, being buzzed wasn't helping at all, so I thought-"
"If you kept drinking, you'd eventually stop feeling like you couldn't breathe."
"From what you're saying though, it didn't work. Instead I blacked out. That's… I don't think that's happened to me before. Ever. It's fucking scary."
"Zoro was a little scary. I thought he might-" He breaks off, unable to describe the flash of fear he'd felt watching his swordsman brandish that broken bottle.
But Zoro's studying his face closely enough to hazard a guess. "… I made you worry." Reaching up to trail fingertips across his cheek, lightly tracing the small scar beneath his left eye. "I'm sorry. No more drinking while I'm taking that stuff, I promise. And I'll make sure I listen to Chopper if he says there's anything else I shouldn't do."
"Okay. Good. I think you should talk to him too, though, about-" Luffy can't help faltering, his face reddening. "… the sex stuff. I guess he's just trying to help, but-"
"-it's a little too-"
"Yeah. He, um- he keeps staring at me like I'm gonna tear Zoro's clothes off, 'n-"
"I've been thinking he's looking at me like I'm gonna rip them off myself. Maybe we oughta talk to him together."
"Probably." The captain makes a face. "I don't like getting glared at every time I kiss you 'cause he thinks I'm gonna do somethin' dirty! Sometimes I just wanna kiss you or cuddle a lot, that's all! 'Cause I like doing it!"
"I know, 'n-" It's Zoro's turn to flush. "… I like it too." He sighs then, color fading. "Alright, Sencho. I'll start using the book. We'll go see Chopper, get that shit straightened out. I'm assuming I also owe him an apology. Swirly-brow too, I guess."
"And no more booze, at least 'til Chopper says it's okay again."
"Yeah, that too. Not like it'll be the first time I've gone teetotaler, eh?"
Luffy raises his hand to lay it over his swordsman's, which has been continuing to aimlessly caress his cheek and jaw throughout their conversation. "Thank you." He turns his head to press a kiss into its palm. "Things're gonna get better. I know it."
Luffy and Zoro's discussion with Chopper achieves the desired affect. Once the doctor's confronted with their joint resolve to handle matters in their own time, and once he realizes the careful degree to which they've been pacing themselves, he settles down considerably. Heartfelt apologies are offered on behalf of both parties, and there are no more anxious stares following their occasional public displays of affection.
When the first mate makes a similar effort to mend bridges with Sanji, however, the cook waves him off, claiming he can't remember what was even said- if anything- in the first place. Although, he states, the shitty Marimo's certainly welcome to wash and dry the dishes for the next week's worth of meals, in exchange for turning the goddamn kitchen upside-down.
Zoro hates washing dishes with a passion and doesn't want to think about how much trouble his right hand's going to give him in accomplishing this particular chore, but he agrees anyway. Something tells him it's easy penance for- well, whatever reprehensible things he'd said in his drunken stupor, and in any case, his humility earns him a round of appreciative smooches from his captain, until Sanji snaps a towel at the two of them in exasperation and tells them to take it elsewhere.
Life carries on this manner for quite some time, month after month passing in stretches of fairly decent days interrupted by clusters of those which aren't quite so pleasant. Both sorts are punctuated with extremes - some incredibly good days as well as some exceptionally terrible ones - but for the most part, the good outweigh the bad.
The log book stored in Zoro's trunk becomes dog-earred, its tattered, ink-smeared cover setting it well apart from their navigator's immaculate volumes.
Nearly a quarter of the book's first pages are missing. Those that do remain are barely legible, a mess of angrily scrawled text with words frequently scratched or blotted out. But at some point, this changes. Gradually, the frequency of such entries decreases, until most of the pages are whole save for a periodic scrap torn away here and there. The tone of the text changes as well, switching from mostly helpless venting to a record of important events and other memories too precious or just plain interesting to allow to fade with time, entries like:
Ace, first word: "Dada" - beats the hell out of me which one of us he meant, Sencho & I were both there when he said it
An article torn from a newspaper and pasted into the log book, featuring a photograph of Nefeltari Vivi cradling a tiny swaddled baby and smiling brilliantly while her consort Kohza stands beside her, beaming.
Ace, first steps! Remind Franky, STAIRCASES GATES NEED BETTER LOCKS
Storage section across the hall framed off & walls going up tomorrow, Ace getting his own room
Letter from Iceburg this morning, word is Aokiji quit the Marines a couple months back & that bastard Akainu's now in charge- too bad they didn't just kill each other in that fight
Ace, 3rd birthday - Shit Cook made 3 cakes
A hastily scribbled note about a broken condom written in an extremely shaky hand, the date circled in case the incident amounts to something, although it doesn't.
Ace, lost first tooth - Chopper gave me old glass meds jar to keep the thing, weird but okay, he says lots of people save them
And many, many more. Four years worth of entries, in fact, concluding with a line that reads:
Nami says Raftel, tomorrow or maybe the day after.
During the early evening, two days later:
Jubilant despite the lines of exhaustion creasing their soot-smeared faces, the Straw Hats bid farewell to the equally weary forces of Trafalgar Law and Eustass Kid before all three pirate crews retreat to their respective ships to tend their wounds, stow their weapons and make ready their departure. Unlike his fellow captains, Monkey D. Luffy doesn't lead the way but rather walks among his nakama, bearing aloft on his shoulders a wide-eyed four-year-old who's leaning forward over his head to jabber at him and the first mate walking beside them so rapidly his words keep tumbling over themselves. "-and then- and then- and then-!"
"Slow down, kiddo," Zoro chuckles tiredly, in relatively good spirits although he's not only limping but also bleeding heavily from nearly a half-dozen cuts, one or two of them probably serious enough to warrant stitches. "You still gotta breathe now 'n then, y'know."
"But DADDY, did you SEE how-" And there Ace goes again, babbling excitedly, fingers knotted in his dark-haired father's hair as he persists in describing in animated detail everything he's witnessed since they disembarked on Raftel, both before and after the arrival of numerous Marine vessels had forced the three rival pirate crews to quickly put on hold their individual disputes in favor of banding together to avoid being wiped out entirely.
His parents listen indulgently, exchanging bemused glances with each other and the rest of the crew- until he mentions the "big volcano man" whereupon their strides falter and their smiles fade.
"Oi, c'mere you," Sanji interrupts, casually plucking the child from Luffy's shoulders while the rubber man's still groping for an appropriate response. "I never got chance to make lunch earlier, and I bet you're starving. Let's get you cleaned up, then head to the kitchen and I'll find you something to eat, alright?" When his suggestion's met with an enthusiastic nod, the cook turns to the others with Ace in his arms. "Anyone else interested?"
Making tired noises of agreement, they gather their remaining energy and follow him across the lawn deck towards the stern, leaving their captain and first mate contemplating one another in concerned silence.
When they finally speak, it's in unison. "Is Zoro okay?" "You alright, Sencho?"
"You're the one who's bleeding," Luffy scolds, fingering the torn fabric at his swordsman's shoulder and grimacing when the material resists peeling free from where it's adhered to the wounded flesh under it.
"Yeah, but I didn't kill my opponent." Zoro says softly. "Not the one that cut me up, anyway."
"I know. I didn't see everything 'cause there was too much going on, but…"
"Then you know I-" The green-haired pirate's voice catches. "You know I lost." He inhales deeply, his brow furrowing as he takes both of Luffy's hands in his and stoops, legs folding beneath him as he moves to go to one knee. "Kaizokuo, I-"
"NO," Luffy protests immediately, breaking free before he's able to complete the bow and hauling him back to his feet. "No. I don't want any of my nakama doing that, but especially not you. Not Zoro, not ever."
Allowing himself to be pulled upright, Zoro sways slightly, regaining his balance with effort. "I won't lose again."
"It's okay, you don't need to explain-"
"No, Sencho, listen. I won't. Lose again." The corner of his mouth twitches, and he offers the younger man a weary smile. "I wasn't the only one who walked away from that fight bleeding."
Luffy's eyes widen. "You cut Hawkeyes?"
"Only once, and then I tripped over some asshole Marine who tried to hamstring me from the ground while I was distracted by Mihawk and I wrenched my fucking knee dodging him, but- yeah. Before that, though… we were pretty evenly matched." He catches his lower lip between his teeth, contemplating his lover's expression of growing excitement. "If I challenge him one-on-one, I can do it. I can beat him."
"I TOLD you." Luffy lifts his maimed right hand to kiss it, and frowns when he realizes it's trembling in his grasp. "Oi, Zoro, you're shaking…"
"Nerves. Leftover adrenaline, maybe, I don't know."
"C'mere, sit down."
He reluctantly obeys, allowing himself to be shepherded across the deck to the tree swing and nudged into it, a sigh of relief escaping him as the strain's taken off his injured leg.
"Should I go get Chopper?"
"Nah, let him take care of the others first. I can wait. You oughta go, though, have him put something on those burns."
"If Zoro's waiting, then I'm waiting too." Luffy moves closer to straddle his thigh on the side he hasn't been favoring, casting a wary eye towards the branch above until certain it'll support their combined weight as he settles into his swordsman's lap and drapes both arms around his neck. "Tell me if I get too heavy, okay?"
"Mmm." Tightening his grip on the ropes and adjusting the angle of his body to avoid toppling off the swing's seat, Zoro leans his face forward so their foreheads are brushing. He closes his good eye, silently willing away the faint tremors still traveling up and down his forearms and through his shoulders. "When that damn magma started coming down, I was sure-" He swallows. "I thought-"
"We're all okay," the rubber man murmurs. "Ace, me, everybody else, we're fine."
"If it hadn't been for Usopp and Robin-"
"I know." The arms around him tighten, clinging, as a shiver passes through Luffy's body. "It scared me too."
"You ran off right away, yelling, and I tried to follow you, but-"
"I couldn't let Akainu hurt anybody again. I had to-" There's pained bewilderment in the captain's voice now. "I never-"
Zoro seizes him with one hand, cupping his jaw and kissing him roughly. "Don't you dare start questioning what you did." This is what he'd feared since discovering the former admiral's broken, lifeless body on the battlefield with Luffy sprawled half-conscious beneath it. "You protected everybody." Another firm kiss, fueled by his determination to chase away his lover's self-doubt. "We're all still here, Sencho- you didn't lose anyone." Melding their mouths again with ferocity, his fingers sliding into dark sweat- and blood-dampened locks.
After a tense moment, the other man responds with equal fervor, accepting the comfort that's being offered and returning it gladly.
This, this is why I need to beat Mihawk, Zoro thinks as they find solace in one another's arms. This is why I need to be the best. Because even though he took out that bastard, Luffy's not a killer. But I am; my hands are already stained, and I'll gladly bloody them as much as I need to, to keep his clean. To keep him and Ace and our crew safe.
He bites Luffy's lower lip, gently, drawing it between his own lips, tugging, and Luffy makes a low, desperate noise, fingers knotting in his coat, lower body pressing more tightly against him.
They're both breathing hard when they eventually surface for air.
"Bed?" The captain suggests hopefully, knowing their absence won't surprise or greatly inconvenience anyone- with the exception of Chopper, who's liable to hunt down and strangle them for not letting him tend to their wounds sooner. They've done this following significant battles before after all, disappearing for an hour or two to shed their clothes and remaining adrenaline and reassure each other that they're still among the living.
Zoro shakes his head. "I don't think I can handle being cooped up right now." He snorts loudly at Luffy's crestfallen expression. "I'm not saying no, dumbass, I'm just saying not inside."
He dodges the kiss that's immediately launched in his direction, nearly losing his balance and narrowly avoiding spilling them both to the ground in his haste to grab the hands trying to sneak beneath his sash. "O-Oi! Not just right out in the open either, you-! Besides, our son sits on this swing!"
Not that what Ace doesn't know will hurt him, at least in this case, but the prospect of semi-aerial sex isn't tempting enough to risk being caught mid-coitus by their unsuspecting nakama. Zoro may be more comfortable with public displays of affection these days, but that- well, that's taking it a bit too far.
"Then whe-?" Luffy's question ends in a yelp of surprise as he's seized around the waist and half-carried, half-dragged behind the tree itself, into the secluded space under the staircase and unceremoniously tumbled into the grass. "Oh." He laughs out loud, delighted, when his swordsman's coat flutters down over his head a moment before its owner drops stiffly to the ground between his feet. "Is Zoro sure he's up to this?"
"I am if you are," Zoro fires back, already in the process of wrestling off his shorts. "And from what I can see, you more than definitely are." After tugging them free and discarding them to one side, he divests his partner of his shirt as well, leaving him laying bare-skinned in the grass save for his sandals.
"I dunno how much energy I got though," Luffy admits. "I used the gears and my haki a lot today…"
"That's okay." His fingertips are seeking out the bruises and small burns and shallow cuts scattered across Luffy's body, tracing them delicately, ascertaining that the damage is merely superficial. "I can take over from here, if you think you're too tired to move." He lowers his head to slide his tongue across one of several scratches marring the younger pirate's lower abdominals.
"Ah-! Zoro, I'm DIRTY."
"I don't care." Burying his face against the juncture between groin and left thigh, lips and tongue and teeth exploring the sensitive skin there until Luffy's squirming beneath him in frustrated excitement, arousal jumping every time his mouth strays dangerously close.
"Z-Zoro-?" Not an order but a plea. A whimper, in fact, emerging from the throat of the Pirate King himself, and there, in the dappled, swaying shadows cast by the afternoon sun slanting through breeze-ruffled leaves, mesmerized by his partner's eager noises and yielding flesh, Zoro forgets to be afraid.
For a little while, nothing else exists, and nothing else matters. Nothing except Luffy, firm and pulsing and slightly salty in his mouth, hips shuddering and rocking involuntarily in his grasp, and he pours into his actions all the adoration and awe that had inspired his attempt to bow earlier, turning this moment into a near act of worship, and when Luffy finally spasms beneath him, crying out, face flushed, toes curling, splayed fingers digging deep into the grass, it's a sight he considers well worth Chopper's ire and the cook's snide remarks about his managing to get lost on the ship itself when he eventually rejoins the others.
Especially since he's accompanied by his captain, who's clamoring impatiently for food - announcing to everyone within earshot that his stomach's painfully empty and he's likely to die from starvation if somebody doesn't feed him soon - but otherwise happy and relaxed beside him, because that- THAT is what's most important.
Zoro's already been making shorter, less frequent journal entries now that he's no longer suffering nightmares and panic attacks on such a regular basis, but his word count drops even more drastically following the events on Raftel, and the decline certainly isn't because there's less to report. These days, Nami's log reports are filling a staggering number of additional pages.
Wherever the news of Luffy's ascendancy has spread, the presence of the now-famous Sunny and the rubber man's own face - more recognizable than ever, thanks to the latest batch of wanted posters - guarantee him being accosted by people determined to meet the new ruler of the seas for a variety of reasons; most hope to gain personal prestige by speaking to the Pirate King, but many want to form alliances or strike bargains or beg favors, others want to join him, and a few simply want to kill him and steal his sovereignty and the secrets of One Piece.
The Straw Hats turn the majority away without too much trouble, but in some cases they're forced to take more extreme measures, namely whenever someone refuses to accept "thanks for your interest, but no" or "sorry, can't help you" for an answer- a not uncommon occurrence, given Luffy's always extremely blunt when declaring he's not interested in making deals or adding anyone to his crew, at least for now.
Zoro's established himself as the person to call upon for the removal of disgruntled supplicants. His physique and scars alone tend to make any troublemakers with a shred of common sense reconsider their odds and retreat grumbling rather than continue threatening the captain, and he's got no qualms forcibly ejecting those not bright enough to back down on their own.
To be honest, he's not particularly worried about protecting Luffy himself, who's more than capable of flattening prospective enemies on his own. His primary concern is Ace. Keeping their child out of sight- and hopefully, therefore, out of their enemies' minds- became more difficult the moment his awkward toddling graduated to jumping and climbing and flat-out sprinting across the ship's decks. The boy's scared the daylights out of the swordsman more times than he can count; Zoro's repeatedly caught himself thanking deities in which he doesn't believe for whatever destined Luffy to encounter the type of Akuma no Mi he did, because he's POSITIVE his lover's stretchy arms have been the ONLY thing saving their offspring from certain doom on a distressing number of occasions.
At least his fears for Ace's safety in regards to one particular threat have proved trivial following the decisive battle that guaranteed Luffy's ascendancy; although they're of great interest to the common folk and to other pirates, the Straw Hats have been left largely untroubled by the Marines, who sustained high casualties and desertion following the loss of their leader. Left in disarray, they've been more concerned with recovering their ranks than pursuing pirates. One day that's sure to change, but for now, the crew's free to enjoy their victory and sail where they please.
Everybody kept asking, what's the plan, what's next? Zoro writes in one of his rare, lengthier journal entries. And somehow I ended up being elected to get an answer out of Luffy- maybe they figured he'd be more likely to answer me because we're sleeping together? Like they thought I could mention it during pillow talk- or whatever else you call that thing when you're done banging each other and it's too late to do anything else but crash for the night, only you're not sleepy yet, so you end up lounging around naked talking about dumb shit for a while. I don't know. They'd be right, though, because that WAS when I brought it up. But ANYWAY- he suggested going back to East Blue for a while. It's less crazy there, and he figures Nami and Usopp and the cook could visit family, plus he wants to introduce me to Dadan. The whole thing's got this really weird 'take my fiancé home to meet my foster mother' vibe to it, but I'm probably overthinking shit, and besides, if it makes him happy, whatever.
The captain also reasons the crew's more likely to accomplish their other goals if they continue sailing. Looping back around to re-enter the Grand Line from East Blue will allow them to visit Laboon- something Brook's been looking forward for quite some time- not to mention update Nami's maps. And of course All Blue's still waiting out there somewhere too. And who knows how many islands they've yet to explore, and-
I'm not surprised. I knew from the beginning that he'd NEVER be the kind of pirate who leaves the sea to settle down on some island after making his fortune, even if he didn't have such a ridiculous bounty on his head. Foosha Village might've been where Luffy was born and raised, but he thinks of the Sunny as home, and I guess that makes it mine and Ace's too.
This earlier entry's annotated with another, shorter paragraph added later that day, reading:
Sencho called an all-crew meeting this afternoon to talk about going to East Blue, and it was pretty unanimous. Looks like we're headed back to where we started.
The swordsman's glad for his nakama, who are looking forward to seeing family and friends or- in the case of those who've never left the Grand Line- ready to venture into new territories. Chopper in particular is excited about the opportunity to study East Blue's plants and wildlife firsthand, and after the meeting's conclusion, he, Usopp, Nami and Sanji had immediately begun discussing new herbs, fruits and vegetables they might acquire for the garden plot below the main mast.
As for Zoro himself-
While he wouldn't mind catching up with Johnny and Yosaku, who were probably the closest thing he had to real friends or a family of his own before Luffy found him tied to that post in the Shells Town Marine base, he has mixed feelings about their destination.
He's admittedly curious to see where his captain grew up, and he's got no problem tagging along to Syrup Village, the Baratie, or Cocoyasi Village. But every time he thinks about returning to Shimotsuki Village to pay his respects at the Isshin Dojo, the prospect of facing Koshiro fills him with dread, because the man's immediately going to notice he's not carrying a certain white-handled katana. And then he's going to ask why Wado's missing, and Zoro knows he won't be able to lie, not about this.
No, he's not ready for that confrontation yet, and he supposes he won't be ready for a long time. Not until he can look at the shattered blade resting in his storage trunk without guilt and remorse striking him like fists driving into his chest and stomach. Four years haven't dulled the sting, so who knows how many more need to pass before he's able to forgive himself, let alone ask forgiveness from Kuina's father for failing to honor her memory.
Their destination decided and course plotted, the Straw Hats set their sights on amassing the supplies they'll need to return to East Blue.
To their surprise, they're approached by a few of the crews who've been loitering about and following them at a safe distance in hopes of the Pirate King changing his mind and accepting new crew members. When the other captains hesitantly express their interest in accompanying the Sunny, Luffy's too mystified to answer in the negative and tells them he doesn't care WHERE they go so long as they remain allies. Seeing the immediate expressions of delight on their faces, Zoro utters a slightly contemptuous snort before turning to ask his perplexed lover if he realizes he's essentially just authorized the germination of his own fleet. The others are equally amused, save for Nami, whose only concern is whether or not they're going to be monetarily responsible for the other crews.
The first mate shrugs. "They show they're willing to scratch our backs, help defend our ship 'n shit, maybe we can occasionally scratch theirs."
He's wary of the newcomers, but they're eager to please and, better yet, they're remaining on their respective vessels. Welcoming them aboard for authorized visits and feasts and the like, that's fine, but he's dead set against strangers having constant potential access to the pantry or infirmary or sleeping quarters. Or his son. And on that note, he reminds himself to pull Luffy aside later and discuss with him how they're going to handle teaching Ace what's appropriate behavior and what's not in regards to his interactions with adults. Their son's curious about their new allies, and while his overwhelming friendliness towards everyone he meets is charming, the thought of anyone taking advantage of that trust and TOUCHING him-
He watches the child's interactions with everyone but the core crew like an armed sentinel ready to draw sword at the slightest provocation, and his attentiveness doesn't go unnoticed. Their guests are extremely well-mannered when dealing with Ace, treating him with nearly the same respect they accord his dark-haired father despite Luffy's obvious disdain for such formality.
As for Zoro himself, they're cautious and they're polite and they clearly have no idea what to make of seeing the notorious Pirate Hunter escorting a small boy about the Sunny's lawn deck or exchanging discrete displays of affection with the Pirate King himself. He can see the confusion in their faces, the mental calculations as they compare the stories they've heard about a ravening demon wielding three katana to what they're now witnessing. The sideways glances and shrugs they exchange as they decide that perhaps the rumors were mistaken and he's nowhere near as fearsome as they believed, but just an average swordsman who's somehow caught and kept the attention of the pirate who made himself king.
It's insulting, and he's sure Luffy would take offense on his behalf if the whispers were brought to his attention, but Zoro deems it too trivial an issue to raise not to mention too bothersome to correct.
And their attitudes rapidly change anyway, the next time a member of the Straw Hat crew becomes the target of a brutal attack, during a routine supply trip on a nondescript island that's amazed to suddenly find itself included as a location of interest in the history books.
As the dust settles:
Those golden eyes continue staring up at him, unblinking and no less piercing now that their owner's been bested. "Aren't you going to finish it?"
Zoro snorts. "Are you really that eager to die?" Sheathing his katana, he extends his left hand, and after a moment or two of hesitation, his opponent accepts it and allows himself to be pulled to his feet. "Anyway, no, this is good enough for me. And besides, my son's watching, and that isn't something he needs to see."
He can hear Ace behind him, jubilant, jumping up and down beside Luffy, who's making just as much noise himself. The rest of the crew, most of the fleet, and a few passersby who recognized the duel's participants and immediately stopped to watch are cheering as well, although they're not making NEARLY the same racket.
"It's good, guys," the first mate calls, and his overjoyed offspring and captain promptly rush him. Ace throwing both arms around his middle, squealing "Daddy! Daddy, you won!" and Luffy- Luffy nearly knocking him straight off his feet, bursting with excitement and pride, and in the moment before the rubber man kisses him, dipping him- actually freaking dipping him- backwards in the process, he's rewarded by the look of pure, transparent shock on Dracule Mihawk's face, and then the Straw Hat's first mate is laughing uproariously into his partner's eager mouth because he'd somehow completely forgotten that his mentor didn't know about Ace, who'd been elsewhere under the protection of his nakama during their previous duel on the chaotic battlefield at Raftel.
Exhilarated, giddy with his victory, he seizes Luffy and kisses him back with enthusiasm, lifting him straight off his sandal-clad feet in a crushing embrace as the adrenaline still surging in his blood washes away any trace of bashfulness, ignoring the renewed shouts and laughter from those watching. He's thinking not of the title he's won or the celebration that's sure to follow, but of later, of the familiar privacy of the quarters awaiting them and the delayed release of the welcome, anticipatory tension now suffusing his body.
There's a certain, indisputable irony in this moment, because while Roronoa Zoro may finally be the undefeated champion, the World's Greatest as he's dreamed for so long, he's thinking of nothing but surrender: the one he'll make tonight, gladly and in a very different sort of way, to the Pirate King. To HIS king.
Turns out he was hanging around, waiting for us- or rather, for me, the first mate writes the next day, sometime during the early morning when the sun's risen just high enough above the horizon to fill the room with a soft glow via the porthole window. He's sitting with his shoulders and back against the headboard, legs crossed beneath him, journal balanced on his left thigh, and Luffy- who's snoring away spread-eagle on top of the covers- laying beside him. He didn't stay very long after the fight, which makes sense- he's even more of a loner than I used to be- but we're
He pauses, frowning. Friendly isn't exactly the right word to describe his odd relationship with Mihawk.
civil enough with each other that he didn't just stalk off after he realized I really wasn't going to kill him. I mean, seriously though, I spent two goddamn years living with the guy, TRAINING with him. He's gloomy as fuck except for when he's being a smart-ass, but otherwise he's not so bad? Okay, yeah, so every once in a while he wipes out an entire pirate fleet for fun, but it's always idiots looking for trouble. And besides, I knew Perona would find some way to haunt me forever if I
The quill's tip skids across the page, leaving a thin trail of ink through the words he's just written as his captain abruptly rolls towards him, arms sliding around his middle and face mashing into his side.
Luffy mumbles something rendered incomprehensible by grogginess, lips brushing his bare skin and making him twitch, swatting the rubber man lightly on the head with the cover of the open journal.
"Quit it, that tickles."
The limbs wrapped around him tighten, their owner uttering a "nnn" of protest and nuzzling harder against his rib cage.
Amused as much as annoyed, Zoro pokes the quill's feathered tip into Luffy's exposed armpit and wiggles it, prompting a muffled shriek and kicking feet. He winces, glad the ink pot's on his night stand and not the mattress itself, otherwise they'd both be wearing its contents. "C'mon, leggo."
He sighs, flipping the journal closed before tossing it into the open night table drawer and dropping the quill in beside it. He'll have to finish his entry later; now that Luffy's stirring, albeit reluctantly, it's only a matter of minutes before their son invades the room, insisting it's bright enough outside to qualify as morning, and aren't they PLEASE going to get up because he's hungry and bored and doesn't wanna climb the ladder to the lawn deck by himself because the dock system's too scary. Nevermind the fact he's NOT SUPPOSED TO climb the ladder by himself yet OR wander around the capstan, engine or storage rooms unless there's an adult with him.
The logic of five-year-olds, Zoro groans to himself in muted exasperation, and stretches his arms over his head, yawning and wondering how long it'll be before he regrets using this time to write instead of sleeping longer while he had the chance.
He feels Luffy tense- and immediately drops his arms before a set of rubber fingers can sneak their way into one of his armpits in retaliation. There's a muffled "aww" and he snorts, cuffing his captain's ear affectionately. "Nice try."
"Not fair. You're too quick," Luffy teases. He flops backwards, completing a luxurious stretch and gaping yawn of his own before returning to curl lazily around his swordsman's crossed legs and feet like an over-sized house cat, his fingertips seeking the faded scars circling the older pirate's ankles, slowly tracing them. "What was Zoro writing about?" His lips curl in a playful smirk. "Last night?"
"Last time I checked, I was keeping a journal, not scribbling some gay-ass romance novel," Zoro scolds, although he makes no attempt to hide the grin surfacing on his own face.
"Nami would wanna try'n sell it, if you were," Luffy snickers, then rolls onto his back so his head's nestled in his first mate's lap and he's peering at him upside-down. "Since Zoro's famous 'n all now." He grins wider. "…romance novel, huh?"
"Figure of speech, okay? I figured it'd sound better than saying 'writing porn' even if that's what three-quarters of that sort of book ends up being."
"We do a lot more than just SEX, though, right? I mean, I share food with Zoro sometimes, AND I hold hands with him whenever we take walks 'n snuggle with him whenever he lets me. Really, if you think about it, I'm pretty good at that romantic stuff!"
"Tch. You also steal the covers, you fart in your sleep loud enough to wake the dead, and you've got horrible morning breath. Romantic? You gotta be kidding me; you're about as romantic as an old grungy sock."
Disgruntled, the captain opens his mouth to protest- and then snaps it shut, crossing his arms over his bare chest as his expression once again turns smug. "Then why don't you just kick me out 'n make me go back upstairs with the other guys?" Knowing quite well that'll never happen, not when this room's been their joint private quarters for years now. "Why're you still sharing the bed with me every night, huh?"
"Beats the hell outta me. God knows, I'd probably get more sleep if I DID boot your ass."
"Well, you sure weren't interested in sleep last night. In fact, y-"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I remember." Zoro's smiling despite the involuntary flush darkening his cheeks, fingers tangling in his lover's dark hair as he leans down to brush their lips together in an upside-down kiss, his voice going soft and husky. "Encore, encore…"
"So-" Luffy murmurs after their mouths meet then reluctantly part a second time, a gleam of mischief visible in his half-closed eyes. "So… was Zoro joking just now, about how many times he wanted to go LAST NIGHT, or, uh, does he wanna…"
Although the first mate HAD been simply referring to his own absurd enthusiasm last night, he's about to admit he certainly wouldn't mind some variety of repeat performance this morning, when a faint rattling noise catches his attention and he straightens, muffling a snort of amusement. "Shit. Give you a rain check for later, Sencho? I'm pretty sure we're about to have company."
"Damn," Luffy groans, raising his head to look, although he's also soon struggling not to laugh at the sight of their son peeking cautiously around the edge of the door he's just opened.
"… Daddy? Are you awake?"
"Yeah, kiddo, both of us are," Zoro calls back.
Taking this as an invitation, Ace bounds into the room - leaving the door standing wide open behind him, OF COURSE - and scrambles onto the bed, happily hurling himself at his hapless parents with a careless abandon that results in him knocking skulls with Zoro and driving a knee squarely into Luffy's unprotected stomach.
"Sorry, Daddy!" Ace chirps. "Good morning!"
Resisting the urge to clutch his aching forehead, Zoro throws an arm around the five-year-old and drags him off Luffy's head and torso, uncovering the captain's wincing face. "Will you quit- jumping all over the place like a goddamn monkey?"
"But I AM a monkey," the child protests. "I'm a Ro-no-er-Monkey! Everybody says so!"
"Shishishi, you can't argue with him, Zoro," Luffy laughs, grinning as he sits up, gingerly rubbing his midsection.
"Ro-ro-no-uh." Zoro tells their son with exaggerated patience for what feels like the millionth time. "Roronoa-Monkey."
"Ro-no-no-er-Monkey." Wriggling impatiently in his grasp, incapable of remaining still for more than a moment or two.
"Close enough," he sighs, letting go, and watches as Ace immediately flings himself flat on the mattress and begins to roll around, legs flailing dangerously in the air. "How the HELL have you got this much energy this early in the damn morning?"
"If it's morning, are you getting up?"
"Do we have to?"
"DAH-ddy!" Ace pops upright. "There's 'spose to be pancakes for breks-fist this morning!"
"Oh goody," Zoro states morosely, but- little to his surprise- Luffy's already bouncing out of bed towards the open door, one arm whipping back to yank his hat off the headboard's post so he can clap it firmly on his head.
"Pancakes? C'mon, Ace, let's go!"
"You forgetting something?"
"Nah, I don't think so. Wha-"
Ace points, giggling hysterically behind the hand covering his mouth, and his black-haired father looks down at himself, blinking.
"Oh. Ohhh, yeah, I guess I shouldn't go to the dining hall like this, huh?"
His son shakes his head, giggling harder.
"Not unless you wanna piss off the cook and scare half the crew," Zoro tells him dryly, sliding out of bed and rummaging through the laundry strewn across the bedroom floor until he unearths a wrinkled pair of shorts and flings them in his captain's direction. "-and get your bare ass BANNED from the dining hall 'til lunch."
Luffy catches the wad of clothing before it can hit him in the face, shakes the shorts' legs right-side out again and hops into them, looking horrified. "I'd STARVE!"
"I AM starving," Ace insists, catching his arm and dragging him into the hallway while he's still struggling to fasten his fly without pinching himself.
"It's been HOURS since I ate anything!" Luffy agrees, and together, they hurl matching indignant, exasperated glares at the green-haired man they've left standing beside the bed, masking a yawn with his damaged hand.
"Daddy, come ON!" "Zoro!"
"I'm comin', I'm comin'! Jeez!" The swordsman casts another despairing look around the room, searching in vain for a t-shirt that might have another day's wear left in it before needing washed, but he eventually gives up, reasoning he'll be decent enough in the sweat pants he pulled on shortly before falling asleep beside Luffy just a few hours ago.
Although sleeping nude still bothers him more often than not, he's no longer bothered quite so much by the thought of roaming about the Sunny bare-chested, at least when the ship's under sail with only his fellow crew members aboard. When they're docked or entertaining guests, it's another matter entirely, but for now-
Seizing his katana from where they're propped against the trunk at the foot of the bed, he hurries after his lover and their child, catching up with them just as they reach the capstan.
Luffy scales the ladder first, tackling the hatch, with Ace directly below and nearly climbing over him in his eagerness to reach the lawn deck, while Zoro follows at a more sedate pace, watching warily in case the five-year-old's grip on the rungs fails. It's not likely, given the boy climbs like- well- a monkey, but he can't help worrying. Namely because he can't help thinking of Kuina, of how a single slip or misstep one would normally take for granted could spell disaster.
Being a parent's more stressful than he could have ever anticipated.
Once his son's safely through the hatchway, however, he's able to relax again and- once he's clambered out himself and kicked the hatch door closed again- watch with indulgent fondness as the two most important people in his life go racing towards the stern, galvanized further by the enticing aroma of frying eggs and bacon. Knowing Luffy will let Ace overtake him once they reach the staircase, scampering up the steps with the rubber man close behind.
"GO AHEAD," he shouts when they hesitate on the balcony outside the dining hall to glance down at him. "I'LL BE THERE IN JUST A SECOND."
Waving, they quickly vanish inside, leaving him alone on the lawn with the warmth of the rising sun and the cry of an airborne gull repeating somewhere far overhead.
He doesn't mind. The dining hall will be crowded, the kitchen noisy with the clatter of pans and trays and plates and the cook snapping at anyone impatient- and brave- enough to steal a serving before the table's set, and he'd like to enjoy this moment of quiet solitude before he's promptly enlisted to keep his captain and son out of trouble and finds himself threatened with a hot spatula when his best efforts inevitably fail.
Reaching the base of the stairs, he pauses to gaze briefly towards the horizon- and finds himself turning aside, laying both hands on the railing as he stops to watch the small waves breaking along the hull, churning up small patches of foam.
Five- no, six years. Has it really been nearly six years since he stood beside this same railing, acutely aware of the nausea churning in his gut and struggling to process what had happened- what had been happening inside him? He can scarcely believe this. It feels more like a million years. It feels like yesterday.
Without him consciously realizing what it's doing, Zoro's right hand drops from the railing to touch his abdomen. It's flat beneath his palm and fingertips, save for the thick pads of muscle, the same as it'd been that day almost six years ago when he'd been trying to convince himself he was dreaming.
But he hadn't been. Not then, and he's certainly not dreaming now. One look at the truncated digits currently resting against his stomach will prove it, as will the long, thin seam of scar tissue spanning his lower belly if he pushes the waistband of his pants down far enough to expose it. Or a brief glance at the handles of the swords strapped to his hip.
It's dizzyingly surreal, measuring a memory of himself against the person he's become.
But regardless of what he's lost, he can't deny how much he's gained. Six years ago, he hadn't anticipated any of it. Now, as he takes one last look at the sea before turning his attention back towards the dining hall door waiting above, he wonders, with all that's been lost, all that's been gained… how much more's awaiting him?
There's only one way to find out.
Raising his right hand to grasp the staircase railing in a firm grip despite his missing fingers, Roronoa Zoro takes a deep breath and slowly exhales, lifting first one foot, then the other, climbing the steps slowly at first but with increasing speed and confidence as he goes to join his waiting family and friends.