It might be coincidence, or it might not, but Usopp never would have thought that he'd have a sort of thing for skinny blondes with killer smiles.
There's Kaya back home, whom he's known since childhood, and who is delicate and fair and enchanting, a lovely lady whom Usopp would regale with stories spun and woven especially for her delight, and whose hand Usopp would kiss like a gallant knight-errant, and who would smile at him, bright like she couldn't help it, like no one else did.
They lived in a claustrophobically small town where everyone knew everyone else and everyone knew Usopp as a liar and troublemaker, shook their heads at him when he walked by, shoulder-bag heavy with school books and his mom's prescriptions and empty spray-paint cans that rattled with each step. On his school's handball court, he had spray-painted in neon letters taller than he was: we're still here.
No one but Kaya had understood, but it didn't matter because the one person it was meant for would never see it. Later the same day, he had hotwired and stolen a motorcycle, because his dad had left on one and he knew his mom still listened for the sound. He'd crashed it into a stop sign, scraped both his knees and elbows and chin.
And when they had suspended him for three months as a result, that was fine. They didn't understand and Usopp hoped that they never had to understand, what it was like to keep someone alive on hope and faith alone. They didn't know how hard Usopp tried, why he did all that he did, and how he couldn't stop even after he had finally lost.
After his mom died, after his dad never came back, Kaya was the only one left who'd listen to him, even if he never did stop lying.
He had meant it, though, when he said he'd never forget her. Meant it too, when he said she was wonderful.
And then he had left, because it was finally time to.
In the city, he meets a boy named Luffy, who introduces him to his friends, Zoro and Nami. All three of them are terrifying and insane and unstoppable, and Usopp can hardly catch his breath around them. Nami is brilliant and calculating, with the cutting smile of a seasoned loanshark who knows you're lying through your teeth. Zoro looks like he could win a game of chicken against Death itself. And Luffy is Luffy.
None of them are originally from the city, so they all end up in Usopp's Brooklyn apartment (it used to belong to Kaya's family, but no one's lived there for years, so now it's Usopp's). The apartment has a little kitchen nook, one bathroom, a balcony, and a large open space that doubles as living room and bedroom for the three of them. The building's old, and plastered to the front door is a yellowed advertisement so faded that the only word still discernable is "Merry," and underneath is some sort of smiling cartoon animal. He adores it.
(Every time he comes home, key turning in the lock, Usopp would beam, "Hello, Merry, I'm back," because it's been years since anyone's greeted him at the door with a smile.)
One by one, they'd scrounged up the money to buy air mattresses for each of them, and a dingy old couch they bought off a neighbor who was moving out, and a behemoth of a television they salvaged from the curb that only worked after they propped it up on some of Nami's books and when Zoro hit it just right. They eat a lot of pizza and Chinese take-out. They have a skylight and large windows that let in sun and moonlight, and when Zoro can't get the TV to work, they crowd onto the balcony instead and drink beers and squint across the river to try to name the landmarks of a city that is still foreign to them.
All in all, they're the happiest they'd ever been in their lives. Usopp thinks, in another life, in a grander world, they'd each be dreaming big, impossible dreams and defying death just to bring themselves one step closer, having adventures like the ones in Usopp's tall tales, only they'd be real, because his friends are unstoppable.
But here, in this world, in this life, they're just kids, and they're happy with their apartment on the fourth floor with no elevator and sleeping three feet away from each other every night, playing rock-paper-scissors to see who has to go down the block to get the pizza this time because delivery means having to tip, and they commute to and from school on crowded rush-hour trains, and run off to work after classes.
Nami restores old maps at a local museum (though Usopp strongly suspects she also moonlights as an underground bookie) and Zoro teaches kendo at the community center five blocks from their apartment. Usopp works on commission at a nearby mechanic's, and Luffy—no one's quite sure what Luffy does, but once in a while, he comes home with a roll of grubby bills and the goofiest grin on his face and everyone's too happy to be able to afford something other than pizza or Chinese that no one even cares where he got the money from. It's Luffy after all. Inexplicable.
Other than that, they don't make much. Nami sends most of her money home to her sister, and once, when they asked what it was for, she had touched her shoulder and said nothing. Zoro blows most of his paycheck right away on booze and sword polish for his white katana, and Usopp on materials for his chemistry set. All of Luffy's money goes towards food and useless things like light-up yo-yos and glow-in-the-dark stars, whatever catches his eye—usually anything shiny. (Their ceiling is littered with glow-in-the-dark galaxies and glossy, crippled origami cranes that Luffy had clumsily folded one afternoon.)
And when they finally save up enough to invest in a computer and high-speed internet, and when Nami starts playing the stock market, it's like life couldn't get any better.
Luffy comes home one day after being gone for a week, and he brings Sanji home with him instead of the usual wad of cash. And Sanji stands in the doorway of their apartment looking bruised and bloody, unapologetically smoking a cigarette. "Hey," he says, cool as anything despite looking like hell. And then he smiles at them, blood in his teeth.
So, it might be coincidence. Or it might be that Usopp really does have a thing for skinny blondes with killer smiles. First Kaya, sweet, charming,harmless Kaya who doesn't look like she had just brutally murdered someone and buried the corpse—and now, a complete one-eighty with this cocksure bastard with the caustic smile dripping blood all over their threshold, whom Usopp can't look at without thinking oh god and having to mentally slap himself.
"This is Sanji," Luffy says, a child's grin on his face, and Usopp knows that he is doomed.
Sanji's like them, only much, much better dressed, which confuses the hell out of Usopp, because if Sanji's like them, why the hell does he need pressed slacks and ironed shirts and perfectly shined shoes? Even the buttons on his suit jacket are polished, each on their own probably worth more than Usopp's entire collection of threadbare t-shirts.
For work, apparently, because Sanji is the (reluctant) maitre d' of some unconventional French restaurant called the Baratie on the Upper East Side. Sanji's lived in the city nearly all his life, though he will later tell them that he was born in one of those northern countries way up near the top of the world—he doesn't know which and doesn't have anyone to ask.
(Once, he asks Sanji if the winters up there were colder than the winters here, and Sanji answers, "the fuck should I know?" and Usopp really should have seen that coming.)
Luffy insists, but Sanji doesn't move in with them right away because he has a place up in Hell's Kitchen with a grumpy old man named Zeff who owns the Baratie. But when Zeff retires to southern France to live out the rest of his years blissfully free of the city's pollution and traffic and diseased pigeons, Sanji can't help but go a little stir-crazy in his empty apartment—though his ultimate excuse for finally moving in is that bills are infinitely more manageable when split five ways. They all help him move on a rainy Saturday, taking up an entire row of seats on the L with stuffed cardboard boxes on their laps. It takes only one trip; Sanji doesn't own much.
Their place was already crowded before Sanji, but Sanji himself doesn't take up that much room, and he is an absolutely unbelievable cook, which is more than reason enough to put up with his bitching and penchant for obscenities. Their small, unused kitchen is finally dusted off and put to proper use, and their refrigerator becomes more than just a repository for alcohol. Empty pizza and Styrofoam take-out boxes disappear from their lives, and breakfast becomes the only reason they even bother to wake up on Monday mornings. They save up enough to buy a secondhand table, just big enough for the five of them, if they don't mind their knees and elbows knocking together.
Sanji is as devoted to Luffy as the rest of them are, Luffy being the one who got him out of trouble with a gang led by some lowlife named Krieg. Luffy's saved all of them at some point in some way, and he's the adhesive that keeps them sticking together in a huge, jumbled, happy heap.
Sanji and Zoro don't get along in the way that brothers don't get along; they hurl insults at each other like greetings and tussle and have shouting matches over who pisses the other off more, but at the end of the day, Zoro will sit out on the balcony with a beer and Sanji will smoke a cigarette or forty and they'll play cards in the setting sun.
Sanji worships Nami and the ground she walks upon. Usopp can't quite get over how Sanji turns into a puddle of gooey adoration every time she enters the room. He waits on her hand and foot, does her share of the chores and more. Usopp grumbles to Nami about how wrong it all is, but she only smiles and tells him not to be jealous, it's unbecoming.
Nami and Usopp are the only two still going to school, Nami studying finance and Usopp studying chemical engineering. Zoro has no interest in university, and Sanji's learned everything he needs to know from Zeff and a dubious high school career, and Luffy doesn't go because Zoro and Sanji don't go. But Sanji's up early enough to make coffee for Nami before she leaves for school and before he leaves for his new job as head chef at the Baratie, and it always seems that there's enough left over in the pot for Usopp too, lucky, if he wants. And Usopp always does, and Sanji gives it to him in his chipped yellow mug, a dash of cream and enough sugar to rot the teeth, just the way Usopp likes it.
Yes, life after Sanji is definitely even better, and if it weren't for Usopp's highly confused hormones, it might even be perfect.
Because, damnit, it wasn't fair. In the mornings, Usopp would wake up to see Sanji stretching out on the balcony, and he would suddenly feel very, very uncomfortable. And on frenzied Sunday evenings, when he and Nami are desperately racing to finish their homework before Monday rolls around, Sanji would bake macadamia nut and white chocolate chip cookies, and he'd lean over Usopp's shoulder to peer at his chemistry homework and he would smell like chocolate and tobacco and Usopp would tremble just a little and get the next problem set entirely wrong. And during dinnertime, Sanji would sit across from him, and their knees would bump and their fingers would touch whenever they reached for something at the same time, and once, Usopp had panicked, had seized the salt shaker and clutched it to his chest with wide eyes, and Sanji had raised an eyebrow and said, "all right, fucking hell, you can have it first."
But worst of all is when, one night, Sanji shakes Usopp awake and asks to borrow a sweater, because he is too cold to fall asleep, and Zoro is a fucking monster gorilla whose clothes would drown him, and Luffy doesn't seem to own anything with sleeves. So Usopp rummages for one, finds a dark blue hoodie with a jagged white stripe across the chest, like the crest of a wave, and it fits perfectly. Usopp lets Sanji keep it, which is stupid, because now every time Sanji wears it, Usopp would feel really, really weird in a fuzzy way, and he imagines how it probably smells like cigarettes now, and like Sanji.
Then, two and a half months after Sanji moves in with them, Luffy comes home, hammers a hook into one wall, another into the wall adjacent to it, and hangs a hammock in the corner of their living room slash bedroom. Satisfied, he declares the hammock his new bed, and magnanimously gives Sanji his air mattress, meaning that Sanji no longer has to sleep on the couch, his spindly legs dangling over the armrest, his spindly arms dangling to the floor, blankets sliding off in the middle of the night. It also means that Sanji would now be sleeping three feet away from Usopp every single night for the foreseeable future.
"What's wrong, Longnose?" Sanji shuffles past Usopp in his pinstriped pajama pants and a plain tee that shows more than the usual hint of collarbone. He yawns. "You look like you're contemplating messy suicide."
Out of the corner of his eye, Usopp watches Sanji cocoon himself in blankets and he feels himself go a little mad. "Nothing," he lies, proud that he's not stammering at least, or staring. "Exam tomorrow, that's all."
Sanji makes a humming sound. "You'll do fine, dumbass."
"Of course," and Usopp almost manages to sound confident. "This is the Ascended Master Usopp you're talking to here."
"Right," Sanji snorts. "Forgot."
Everyone else is already in bed, so Usopp gets up to turn off the lights, and when he gets under the covers, he wishes he did have an exam tomorrow, and every day, so at least he'd have something to distract himself from the back of Sanji's blonde head and skinny neck, and this thing that is transforming into something bigger, with jaws that bite.
Something ironic: even though Sanji is so appalling with technology that none of them would let him touch the communal computer or the broadband modem (that was a mistake that resulted in an internet blackout for three days once), the only way that their clunker of a TV got a clear picture and the only way their slightly-busted, highly-volatile DVD player would synchronize with the TV was when Sanji, and only Sanji, was sitting next to it, specifically to the left.
No one can figure out why this is so, but it's amusing and the electricity makes Sanji's hair curl up at the ends and most importantly, it works, so every time they watch TV, they make Sanji sit in that exact spot, and Sanji would have to hunch forward, head propped up on his palm, to see the screen.
Tonight, they are watching an old French movie, something Nami had picked out because Vivi recommended it. Sanji reads the title out loud for them, and when Zoro snickers, Sanji chucks the DVD case at him, and they are about to throw down when Nami clicks her tongue and points Sanji to his proper seat. Sanji takes it obediently, with a profession of eternal love, and Usopp can't help but roll his eyes.
They put the disc in, and it plays perfectly. Sanji's already seen the movie, so he leans his back against the TV and flips through a cookbook. Luffy soon gets bored with having to read subtitles and the lack of pirates and goes off to his hammock to play his DS. Zoro falls asleep sitting up, and only Nami's left watching the movie, because Usopp's more interested in watching Sanji instead.
It's easier to stare when Sanji's not paying attention, like in the mornings when Sanji is stretching, or when Sanji is cooking or when Sanji is cursing into the phone at Zeff on the other side of the world. And like now, when Sanji's reading recipes, squinting at the text and scribbling notes in the margins. He's not wearing The Hoodie tonight, and Usopp's a little disappointed.
But then something interesting must have happened in the movie, because Sanji turns to look at the screen, and catches Usopp staring.
Usopp blinks once, twice, again and again in rapid-fire succession. "Nothing," he squeaks, heart thumping, blush rising, and he forces his eyes to the screen. He hears Nami heave a long-suffering sigh and he prays she keeps her fat mouth shut.
So there's a boy at Usopp and Nami's school, a child prodigy or something of the sort. He's a pre-med student, and Usopp had met him in Organic Chemistry. He's fifteen with brown hair and the biggest brown eyes Usopp's ever seen. His name's Tony, middle name Tony, last name Chopper. Tony Tony Chopper.
It's a freaking awesome name. Obviously, no one calls him Tony with a last name like Chopper; that would be a waste.
"Your name's Chopper? Too cool," Luffy breathes, when Usopp brings the kid home to meet his family.
"S-Shut up!" Chopper squeals. "That doesn't make me happy at all, stupidhead!"
Chopper quickly becomes a part of their circle, immediately loses his initial fear of Zoro and Sanji after he watched Usopp draw on Zoro's face with a sharpie while Zoro was napping, and after Sanji had handed him some hot chocolate in a new pink mug.
"That's really bad for you," Usopp hears Chopper say one day. He's talking to Sanji, who's smoking out on the balcony.
Sanji looks down at the cigarette in his hand, at the overflowing ashtray that Zoro had messily and counterproductively crazy-glued onto the railing for him one day. He sighs. "What do you want, Chopper?"
"You should stop." Chopper looks dangerously close to tears. "Or smoke less. A lot less."
Usopp knows that Sanji does smoke less, now that he's only allowed to smoke when he's outside, after Nami had complained about her hair smelling like ash.
"It's all right, Chopper." Sanji stubs out his cigarette, the last one for the night. "Because I'm actually super-human, you know. Genetically engineered to be fucking indestructible."
Chopper's eyes light up in the same way they do when Usopp's recounting one of his illusions of grandeur, the one that features him defeating legions of rabid zombies armed with nothing but a paper-bag-mask and a slingshot. "Really?"
"You bet, kid."
"That's so cool, Sanji! I didn't know that! I need to run some tests on you, then! You'll need to come in for an MRI and some x-rays, and—oh, can I take a blood sample? Two samples? Could you pee in a cup for me? In the name of science, of course. Oh, Sanji, please? This is so exciting, I can't wait to tell—"
Chopper is deterred for only half a second before brightening again. "But you'll donate your body to science after you die, right? Right? Oh, you have to. And then I could—"
"I'm not dying any time soon, shithead!"
Usopp's listening from just inside the door, crouched next to the outlet where all their phone chargers are tangled together in an unravelable mess. He's still trying to find his when Sanji tactfully changes the subject, asks Chopper how he's doing in school, congratulates him on his perfect lab report. Chopper does his weird wriggling dance, giggles, "I'm not flattered at all, asshole!"
Chopper's language has been steadily deteriorating since meeting Sanji, and Usopp despairs. Chopper must have a really distorted sense of what it means to be a man, with Zoro and Sanji and Usopp to model himself after. Not to mention Luffy.
Soon after Zoro leaves to take Chopper home, Sanji coughs into his sleeve, and Usopp asks, "how do you breathe?"
"How do you breathe?" Sanji retorts. "Air is vile."
Usopp's about to make a sensible argument but decides against it. "You should have asked Chopper about all those headaches you've been getting."
"It's because I have to put up with you assholes day in and day out, now get the fuck off my back, would you?" Sanji sets about reheating some leftovers for Luffy, who barges in through the door ten minutes later to find exactly what he wants on the dinner table. Usopp sits to the right of Luffy and punches numbers into his graphing calculator for Calc homework, and Sanji sits to the left and squints down at Zeff's old recipe cards, chewing absently on a pen in place of the usual cigarette. He bites down too hard, suddenly, and the pen explodes, staining his fingers and teeth blue.
Luffy pounces immediately. He spends the next fifteen minutes forcibly brushing Sanji's teeth while Usopp sits on top of Sanji to hold him down. Their jaws and sides hurt, and Usopp's cheeks are flushed, from laughing so hard.
Nami gets a good amount of incriminating photos and blackmail material that night. When Zoro comes home, he laughs his approval at the polaroids, and then he and a blue-mouthed Sanji face off in yet another death match. They end up breaking the bathroom mirror and Nami kicks the both of them out for the night.
"What?" Sanji blinks up at Kureha, Chopper's guardian who looks like she was alive when the Big Bang happened.
"You need glasses, kid. That's why your head hurts. And maybe you'd see better with both eyes, dumbass. Ever think of that? Now get the hell out of my office."
Chopper escorts them to the front door of the clinic, wearing a white lab coat two sizes too big. "See you guys later!" he chirps. "Listen to the Doctorine, Sanji! And stop smoking!"
Sanji scowls and stalks down the street, already lighting a fresh cigarette out of spite, and Usopp scrambles after him.
"I don't need fucking glasses. I can see just fine," Sanji growls when Usopp catches up. "That witch doesn't know what she's talking about."
"You do squint a lot when you're reading. You probably just need reading glasses." Usopp's voice is neutral, but the look that Sanji gives him is one of palpable menace.
"Fuck you, I do not squint!"
"Oh." Usopp hesitates. "Actually, you do."
Sanji makes an exasperated noise and crosses the street despite the little red man in the traffic light telling him not to walk, and he flips off the driver who almost runs him over. In the end, Usopp manages to drag Sanji to an optics shop, a firm grip on Sanji's thin arm, and Sanji grudgingly chooses a pair of plain, black frames that keeps sliding down his narrow nose.
"Happy?" Sanji grumbles as he glares through his new lenses at Usopp, tapping the rims with a finger.
"Uh." Usopp swallows hard, tries not to blush. God. He'd dug his own grave this time. "Yeah. Looks good." At least he didn't get the red pair. Thank god he didn't get the red pair—although Usopp can't help but feel it a devastating loss as well.
So now Sanji wears them whenever he's reading, and he stops popping aspirin like they're candies, and he keeps pushing them back up the bridge of his nose, and Usopp has to try that much harder to concentrate on anything else.
At least Sanji bitches at them less when his head doesn't hurt. He and Zoro are almost civil now.
But Sanji comes home one day after getting into a street fight with some asswipe who tried to steal a lady's handbag, and he shows Usopp his broken glasses, lenses that cracked in his breast pocket when the punk had tackled him. Usopp sighs with fake exasperation when Sanji says, "what, don't worry, it's fine, I broke his nose," like unbroken noses were the issue here, and Usopp goes with him back to the same shop, and this time, because he's a glutton for punishment, he suggests the red ones.
So it starts with a crush, and Usopp's pretty much resigned that that's all it'll ever amount to, because Sanji doesn't look twice at guys like him, doesn't look twice at guys, period.
And Sanji himself looks like someone Usopp could never have, because Sanji looks like he just stepped off the runway for a Hugo Boss or Ermenegildo Zegna campaign, perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect shining shoes. But at the same time, Sanji has a posture like a thug's, stalks around like someone Usopp wouldn't want to come across in a dark alley, and Sanji has a jarring way of speech that betrays his upbringing on inner city streets before he was taken in by a parental figure who delivered kicks and insults instead of goodnight kisses. Sanji's hands are never, ever made into fists, but Usopp's seen the way they hold knives, and that's about a thousand times more frightening. The way Sanji lights a cigarette could make the tobacco companies billions.
By all rights, Usopp should be scared out of his wits of Sanji, but he isn't, because although Sanji is a trash-talking, nose-breaking, spinal-cord-rupturing, kneecap-busting, impeccably dressed hooligan who looks near legendary in Boss black, he's also Sanji, who has a ridiculously curly eyebrow, who sometimes smells like homemade brownies on top of cigarette smoke, who becomes utterly useless every time a pretty girl looks his way, who laughs at Zoro's lame jokes because, surprisingly, the two idiots share the same sense of humor.
Who gets up extra early to prepare that evening's dinner when he knows he's going to come home late from work, who brushes his teeth at night with his eyes closed because he's exhausted, who goes out of his way to maintain an appropriate, paranoid distance from their shared computer, who doesn't remember to hide his smile when he gets a letter from Zeff in the mail.
And who loves them all, he loves them, each and every one, without reserve, and he would give them everything, if they only ask.
But then one morning, Sanji sits down on the edge of Usopp's mattress, and Usopp stares at him silently until Sanji shoves at his shoulder and says, in his usual gruff manner, "don't be an idiot, all right, Longnose?"
And, Usopp realizes, he is scared out of his wits of Sanji, even if Sanji is Sanji. He's terrified. "W-What—"
"All right, Usopp?"
"… Okay." Usopp can only nod, a feeling of dread settling in his stomach, his hands fisting tightly in his sheets. Sanji is still frowning at him, so Usopp knows it's not over. He tries again. "Yeah, sure, of course. I won't."
"You can tell me," Sanji says simply, "anything."
"No," Usopp answers right away, without quite knowing what he means himself but he knows he's right. "No. I couldn't."
"Usopp," Sanji says.
Sanji pokes Usopp's nose, bends it back gently. "Usopp," Sanji says again, patient like he never is, and Usopp doesn't understand.
Usopp shakes his head and desperately laments the fact that there's no one else home, Nami visiting her sister out of state and Luffy and Zoro having just left to take Chopper out for a day at the Bronx Zoo. He's trapped with Sanji on his bed, with no Nami to call him away, no Zoro to instigate a fight, no Luffy to whine for food. Just Usopp, who can't stop quaking, and who can't find a lie to save himself.
And realizing all this and with Sanji still looking at him like he expects something, and then knowing what Sanji expects, knowing that Sanji knows, and the sun slanting in from the windows to fall on Sanji's back—Usopp starts to cry.
"I'm sorry," he gasps between sudden, wracking sobs, and god, he's actually sobbing, and he hasn't cried this hard since that day his mom had closed her eyes against the setting sun. "I won't—you know. I'm sorry. I won't do anything, I'll stop, so you don't have to, you don't have to—oh,please."
And at that moment, he knows he's ruined everything. Sanji is going to leave because things won't be the same anymore after this, and their home is wrecked without Sanji, and Usopp realizes this and he cries harder, wants so, so desperately for Sanji to stay.
He doesn't know when Sanji had put an arm around him, or when he had started sobbing into the front of Sanji's shirt, but now he notices the acrid smell of smoke and a hint of this morning's coffee, and how solid Sanji is, all muscle and bone and a beating heart beneath Usopp's cheek, so close.
"Don't leave. I'm sorry," he sobs, one last time, and then Sanji kisses the top of his head.
They go shopping at the farmer's market and Sanji lets Usopp have an apple from the two dozen they bought for the Luffy-sized pie Sanji is going to bake that evening. The L's not too crowded on the way home, and they're making Zoro carry all the groceries.
"Shit cook," Zoro fumes from behind an armful of bags. "I'm not your pack mule."
Sanji pats Zoro's back encouragingly. "Consider it training, mosshead."
Usopp's really, really happy today, because he got all the classes he wanted for next semester, including Elementary French for his foreign language requirement, and he managed to get Wednesdays off, which are Sanji's days off from work too.
Sanji takes a deep drag on his cigarette, flicks the butt into the gutter as Usopp whispers hello to Merry and unlocks the door. They troop up four flights of stairs, Zoro muttering a steady stream of curses behind them. Luffy's already home and demanding food; Nami's still out shopping with Vivi, who's coming over for dinner that night.
Sanji gets to work right away, rolling up his sleeves and donning his ridiculous pink panda apron—he's going all out tonight. Vivi doesn't visit often, something to do with her being royalty and security clearances and all that stuff. Luffy attracts all sorts, punks like them and princesses like Vivi. They're grateful.
Vivi comes over with her boyfriend Kohza, and her bodyguards Chaka and Pell, and they pick Chopper up from Kureha's along the way, and they sit wherever a flat surface can be found, and they drink and eat and laugh late into the night until Chopper falls asleep in Luffy's hammock. And when Usopp finds himself alone on the balcony with Sanji in a haze of smoke, and when Sanji grins at him, Usopp thinks, life is pretty sweet.
It's only two in the afternoon and they are already absolutely smashed.
Really, it's not their fault. It's a Wednesday, which means no one is home but just the two of them, and when you leave two boys alone in an apartment stocked with alcohol of various proofs, and when there is no television and one of them is banned from the computer, there is really only one logical outcome.
That, and Sanji is a fucking lightweight. After a while, Usopp really, really wants to know what he keeps giggling about, so he has to work double-time with the whiskey for his mind to catch up with Sanji's, which is currently lounging around in the gutter.
"Ah, shit," Sanji wheezes painfully. "Stop that."
"Stop what?" Usopp manages to gasp out in a fit of giggles.
"That—stop looking like that."
"Like what? This—it's my face."
Somehow, Sanji finds this completely hilarious and starts to shriek with unrestrained, echo-off-the-walls laughter. Usopp watches him for a few seconds and then decides, what the hell, and joins in, both of them laughing until they feel so lightheaded they can hardly sit up straight. Sanji slumps over onto his side, breathless, and Usopp mirrors him so that they are face-to-face, close enough to smell the alcohol on each other's breath.
"Hey," Sanji says in a stage whisper, the biggest, stupidest grin on his face. "Why don't you ever bring that girl of yours to visit?"
Usopp rolls his eyes but he smiles back. "Because. She's got class. Got to keep her away from monsters like you guys."
"Ha!" Sanji snorts. "Monsters."
"Monsters," Usopp agrees. Then he adds, "You can't have her! She's mine!"
This time, it's Sanji's turn to roll his eyes, and Usopp continues, a little bit giddy, "I'm going to marry her one day."
He half expects Sanji to laugh again, but Sanji doesn't, only looks him straight in the eye and smiles like he's really, really happy, which makes Usopp's breath catch and his heart beat against his ribcage like a crazed thing.
"Don't be jealous." Usopp tries to sound suave, but it's ruined by the inexplicable return of hysteric giggles.
Sanji just snorts again. "So totally jealous." And then, because he's really fucking smashed, he slurs, "Who'm I gonna marry then."
"Zoro," comes Usopp's ready answer. And then Usopp can't help it, he laughs and laughs and laughs until he is crying, hands clutching his sides, his forehead bumping against Sanji's. "Oh god," he manages to wheeze, eyes squeezed shut, everything spinning and spinning.
"Fuck," Sanji grouses, and Usopp can almost feel the rumble of Sanji's voice in his own chest. "How come you get the lovely lady and I have to settle for that brute."
"You can housetrain him." When Usopp opens his eyes, he sees that Sanji's cheeks are flushed and Sanji has a look on his face that is caught between confusion, anger and amusement.
"Housetrain Zoro," Sanji repeats slowly, face breaking into a grin again. "Shit, that's fucking golden."
And they laugh some more, and Usopp kisses Sanji, who tastes like tobacco and whiskey and everything Usopp's never known before, and Usopp has to admit to himself, always an honest drunk, I could never keep up with you two anyway.
Robin and Franky make the strangest couple that Usopp has ever seen, but they're both good people, even though Franky had punched him in the face the first time they met because Usopp thought a blue-haired punk was trying to break into their apartment and had recklessly tackled Franky to the ground. But Robin and Franky are both heartrendingly amazing and they're part of Luffy's family now too, which means that Usopp loves them unconditionally.
Soon after they meet Robin and Franky, after Luffy dismantles yet another world, saves yet another life in the way that he does—there is a fire. The rest of them come back to find Nami crying into Luffy's shoulder on the sidewalk. The plumes of smoke they saw from blocks away, and now they can feel the heat of the flames on their skin.
They've made a lot of enemies, hanging around Luffy. This time they're pretty sure it's that sleaze Spandam and his gang, the most recent on their growing list of The Wrong People. "Looks like his style," Zoro notes. "Yeah," Sanji agrees. They don't look away.
Merry is burning.
For the past year, Usopp had lovingly oiled squeaky hinges, had meticulously mended each creaking step and floorboard, changed the dead light bulbs in the hallways, set glue traps for the mice and roaches. In their apartment, he had painted the walls, unclogged the sink, and filled in the cracks that let the cold in at night, and for the past year, a smiling face had welcomed him home.
And now Usopp is standing outside all of that, crying harder than Nami, shuddering with Sanji's hand on one shoulder, Zoro's hand on the other, as he fights desperately for breath. He thinks of the origami cranes on the ceiling that Luffy had so clumsily folded, and he almost chokes.
He goes back home after this—not home, but back to where Kaya is. And he tells her what happened and she can only cry to see that he's back, to see that he's okay. He spends a week with her, in his old town where there is nothing to do but beg Kaya for her forgiveness. Her smile is sadder than the one he's used to, and Usopp feels like his knees will never be able to hold his weight again.
Her hand on his shoulder, where Sanji's hand had been, and Usopp, Usopp cannot breathe for the guilt in his throat.
But then—"Usopp," she says. "Usopp, I love you." And the way she says it is not sad, it is not a condemnation, and Usopp's cheeks are already wet. "But Merry," he tries to say, and she only reaches out to hold his hand. But Sanji, he wants to say, but can't.
After Usopp sobs his eyes out, after she holds him tight for the time it takes his world to stop shaking, they spend the rest of the days catching up and holding hands. She's studying to be a doctor, like Chopper, and he tells her about his new friends, about everyone, and if he sits up a little straighter when he talks about Sanji—Kaya's smile is knowing. And this time, he doesn't have to lie about anything because his friends, oh, they defy even fiction. She kisses his cheek when he leaves, and he kisses hers, and her last smile is the one he likes best.
Her eyes are a shade lighter than Sanji's, Sanji's eyes that are hooded and dark, but when Usopp says, "I love you too," he means it.
When he comes back to the city, they're all there to pick him up from Grand Central. They each give him a bone-crushing hug, even Robin, who is smiling the same unguarded smile she wore when Luffy had said to her, "And that's the end of that!"
Franky had found a new place for them, a super apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. It's nice. It's more than nice, more than any of them could ever hope to afford, but Franky doesn't ask for anything, has connections with his "old firm," Galley-La.
They're moving up in the world. Franky had decked the apartment out with a state of the art kitchen for Sanji, a weight room for Zoro, beautiful mahogany bookshelves and writing desk for Nami. Usopp even has his own little workshop, a place especially for him to tinker and make things explode in a safe, contained environment, where the only eyebrows he'd singe are his own.
The boys share one huge room, and Nami gets her own. They have two bathrooms now, and real beds, not just mattresses on the floor, and a dining room with a table big enough for all of them plus their new extended family.
After Franky gives Usopp the tour, Sanji taps his shoulder, and when Usopp turns around, he sees Sanji standing there with his hands behind his back, not quite meeting Usopp's eyes.
"What?" Usopp asks, excited and nervous and jittery.
And then Sanji holds out something old and yellowed and sooty, and he says, "Thought you might want this," and Usopp has to clamp his jaw shut to keep from crying again. It's the poster—it's Merry, and Usopp takes it reverently into his hands, tries desperately, desperately not to let the cracks in him show.
He smoothes it out and hangs it up on their new front door, right under their new apartment number (a gleaming 1000), and when he steps back to show Sanji with a face-splitting grin, Sanji shoves his hands into his pockets and grins back, open and sincere. Usopp hugs him and doesn't let go for a long time, and Sanji murmurs into his hair, "You're really fucking embarrassing."
And then Luffy joins in, and then Franky crushes all of them in his arms, weeping profusely about bromance, and then there are so many elbows being shoved into awkward places that Usopp winces and laughs and holds tighter.
"Welcome home, Usopp!" Luffy shouts in his ear.
This is more than he could ever dare ask for.