By AstroKender
Warnings: We're down to just angst, a bit 'o' language, and entire forests full of sap.
Notes: Wow, For some reason I never thought this fic would actually end. I hope everyone enjoys the ending. I really want to thank everyone who has taken the time to review this --especially you people who keep coming back chapter after chapter leaving your praise-- I really wouldn't have been able to finish this fic so quickly without your wonderful comments and encouragement. This last chapter is dedicated to those faithful readers (you know who you are) and with it the promise that this shall not be the End. A sidefic is already in the works, meant to explain a little of what was left out in this chapter, in the addition to finally shoving in some liberal doses of shonen ai (I've been going crazy here!) Thanks again for reading folks, I hope I continue to not disappoint.
Feedback: there is an annoying button at the bottom of the screen that, like Uragi, is just begging to be punched...
Disclaimers: One Piece belongs to Eichiro Oda, 4kids and various other affiliates. I don't own em, I don't make money off em, I just play with them.

Chapter 20

Zoro regained consciousness long before he found the strength to open his eyes. Every muscle in his body felt as though it was weighed down with lead. He felt numb, with his thoughts trailing along sluggishly as he fought to determine the whos, wheres and whys that always followed an awakening from the unnatural sleep of unconsciousness. He could feel himself rocking slightly, tilting to the left before shifting back and rolling to the right.

He must be on the Going Merry and, by the feel of it, they had already set sail from Black Feather. Zoro forced a deep lung-full of air into his chest and let it out, slowly. Bracing himself for reasons he couldn't quite understand, Zoro opened his eyes.

The first sight Zoro saw upon awakening was of one certain redheaded navigator, sitting on a low divan near to where he lay. Nami was staring down at him from over top her newspaper, her expression shocked. Apparently, his waking had not been expected. Damn, why didn't they just roll him up in a shroud and toss him off the ship? Nami, brown eyes still wide with amazement, opened her mouth to speak. Eye twitching, Zoro hastily slammed his eyes shut, deciding that consciousness wasn't worth it. Who wanted to be lucid before that face?

Nami's voice filtered into his ears like the far away buzzing of bees. Zoro didn't understand the context of the speech, but from the tone it was clear she probably wasn't talking to him. Good. Maybe he could get a little more sleep. And hopefully, by the next time he woke up, the harpy would have moved on.

Feeling a series of pokes and prods, Zoro winced. Damn, that hurt! The warm numbness that had encompassed him drifted away, revealing the stark reality of pain that was likened to jumping off the Going Merry's crow's nest and in the frigid saltwater of the Grand Line. Oh. And then letting the wooden caravel run him over for good measure. Man, he must have really worked himself over good this time. His body felt like one giant bruise. Even his hair hurt.

'What in the world happened?' Zoro wondered irritably. While pain was nothing new to the swordsman, for some reason he was having trouble remembering what exactly he had done to get him into his current situation. His memories were hazy and as out of reach as the possibility of returning to the blissful darkness of sleep. With a heavy sigh --that made him wince and instantly regret the motion-- Zoro reopened his eyes.

A fuzzy image of a face swam into focus. A spot of blue appeared -like one got staring to long at the sun—and floated before him in a sea of brown. It took a full minute before Zoro's mind registered that it was the face itself, not his vision, that was fuzzy and that the blue speck before him was none other than Chopper's nose. Zoro stared the little reindeer directly in the eyes, at a loss for how to start any proper sort of dialogue.

Turn's out, that didn't matter.

Chopper squealed at him in what Zoro presumed was delight, though the swordsman had to wince at the proximity to his ears, which were, before that, the only parts of his body that didn't hurt.

"You're right!" Chopper was shouting excitedly. "He's awake! He's really awake!"

Zoro was seriously beginning to regret that fact. And he was also wondering why --if people were so excited to see him-- they were treating him as if he wasn't even in the room.

After a couple more hasty pokes at the scattered swaths of bandages enveloping him the reindeer finally addressed him, shooting out a rapid fire of questioning that Zoro couldn't even begin to keep up with, much less answer. Seeing his patient's confusion, Chopper mercifully stepped back. Zoro held his breath, wondering with no small bit of dread what new tort--tests the diminutive doctor had in store for him. To his complete surprise the reindeer simply burst into tears.

What the hell?

Nami quickly leaned down and wrapped her arms around their furry companion, consoling Chopper for whatever reason he needed consoling. Hard ass Nami, who only had anything sweet to say when she wanted something, was whispering soothing sounding words into the doctor's top hat enclosed ears. Choppers wailing quickly died down into sniffles.

"I'm so happy…." Chopper was saying. "I thought, I thought…"

"Shhhh." Zoro heard Nami coo. "You did great, Tony. You're a wonderful doctor; we knew you would help him pull through. I'm proud of you, we all are."

Was it Zoro's imagination, or did Nami's eyes have a bit of moisture clinging to the corners? Had she actually been worried about him? The lumbering swordsman who was about as useful as a hundred and seventy eight centimeter paperweight? Before he knew it, the green-haired man found his face stinging from the force of his own slap. Chopper and Nami quickly turned to stare at him in shock and Zoro's hand wearily scrubbed across his face.

"I could have sworn this was a nightmare…" he muttered sourly, with a voice that --to his embarrassment-- cracked and broke at every second syllable.

"Chopper, why don't you go up to the kitchen and have Sanji make some soup for Zoro." Nami suggested lightly. "You'll probably want to tell the others the good news as well, right?."

Chopper nodded frantically and quickly skittered out of the room as fast as his stunted little legs could carry him. When he had left, Nami turned a judging eye towards Zoro. Zoro stared back suspiciously as he imagined the well-oiled gears turning in the navigator's head.

"How do you feel?" That certainly wasn't the question he was expecting. Hell, Zoro really didn't know what to expect at this point, but yet more evidence of concern from the cunning redhead was last on his list. Perhaps she was really one of Usopp's aliens….

"I'm fine." Zoro insisted stubbornly as he discreetly searched for green antennae.

"Ah." There was a slight pause. "That's good."

A strained silence ensued.

"Do you remember what happened?" Nami asked after a long and awkward moment. Her dark eyes watched his facial expressions like a hawk.

"Partly." Zoro grumbled halfheartedly. "A lot of it's still fuzzy, like a dream."

"Sanji carried you and Luffy to the ship after the warehouse exploded." Nami told him. "We didn't think you would make it." She admitted reluctantly, her voice low and unsure.

"Luffy?" Zoro pushed himself upright, ignoring the aches and twinges of pain that told him that wasn't the best of ideas. The sudden pounding of his head echoed that statement. He felt for all the world like he gotten The Grandline's Largest Hangover. But he had to know if Luffy was hurt…

Nami jumped up from her seat and tried to push the larger man back down. She would have had more success moving a mountain. "Hey, you just woke up, don't strain yourself!" She ordered hastily. "Luffy's fine! He was pretty banged up at first, but he's had plenty of time to recover."

Zoro processed her statement with some confusion, giving in and sinking half-heartedly back into the overstuffed mattress. Gazing critically at his own wounds, Zoro noticed a definite change from the way they had looked last he checked. The smaller cuts were pretty much healed and many of his larger wounds already had their stitches removed. Only in the areas where he had been shot were did the wounds still feet raw and irritated beneath the bandages. Zoro blinked. Sure, he was a fast healer, but this….

"How long was I out?"

Nami looked down at the floorboards and her expression became shadowed. "Nearly two weeks. We've already made port in the next island after Black Feather. We set sail from there just this morning and now we're finally on our way to Alabasta."

Zoro's head shot up. "I was out that long?" he exclaimed, stunned. "Did the antidote not work?" Well, of course it worked, his mind supplied him, or else you wouldn't even be here. But, still…

"Chopper's antidote worked fine. There was just some…complications."

Zoro's eyebrows rose but the look on Nami's face clearly told him that she didn't want to talk about it. And for once, Zoro decided not to push her. Glancing around idly, the swordsman spotted his clothes on a small stool next to the bed where he sat. Slightly curious, Zoro took a quick peek beneath his sheets.

Well, he was still naked. That hadn't changed. Zoro snorted. Flinging the covers off himself, Zoro hurriedly—if not very steadily—slipped on his pants. He didn't plan on staying in this bed one minute more than he had to. He had lain around enough. Shit, he'd have to double his workout routine just to make up for his two weeks of sloth. Muttering to himself, the swordsman prepared to get out of this dimly lit room and back into the fresh air of the sea.

Zoro's strength suddenly gave out, and he found himself half-reclining on the bed with his legs dangling over the edge, looking for all the world like the picture of relaxation. Trying not to show how out of breath he was, Zoro glared at his remaining clothes. The shirt, he decided, could wait, as he didn't relish the idea of anything constantly brushing against his wounds anyway. And his boots weren't really necessary onboard the ship, he told himself, trying to scavenge the shreds of his pride

To his surprise, Nami hadn't jeered at him, nor exploded angrily about her delicate feminine sensibilities. Indeed, the redhead seemed to not have even blinked; her eyes staring blankly somewhere over the swordsman's left shoulder. Zoro frowned darkly. He had had quite enough of everyone acting all batty around him.

"What the hell is going on?" he demanded.

Nami's attention turned back to the swordsman with a start. Lowering her eyes, she apologized distractedly. Zoro growled.

"Is everyone going to act like this?"

A twitch appeared on Nami's face, signifying a minute return to her normal self. "You almost died." She spoke slowly, as if to control her anger.

"So?" Zoro didn't see what the big deal was. "It's not like it hasn't happened before."

"Don't you stop and think how that makes everyone feel?" Nami shouted, jerking up angrily. "Do you even care about the hell you put us through? We're a damn team, Zoro! So why do you insist on doing everything on your own?"

"Look, you guys wouldn't have stood a chance against Uragi…" Zoro growled out, his eyes dark. Nami was practically fuming.

"Oh, really? I dimly recall us running him off why you were busy bleeding to death from a half dozen freaking bullet wounds! We may not be monsters of strength like you and Luffy but we aren't helpless either!"

"I was trying to protect you!" Zoro shouted, exasperated. Sure, he wasn't expecting any thanks, but this….

"Protect yourself!" Nami screamed. "Vivi wouldn't eat for days after you got dragged back to the ship! Usopp wouldn't talk! Chopper's been crying every day! Sanji actually burned the soup! They were all that damn worried about you!"

Zoro stared blankly at her, not knowing what to say. Studying the swordsman's silent form, Nami suddenly deflated, her anger vanishing with a sigh.

"Even I couldn't concentrate," Nami rubbed at her forehead as if remembering a painful migraine. "I got us turned around twice in the same day. And Luffy…" Nami's tone was softer now. "Luffy wouldn't stop believing in you. He sat in this chair every day and talked to you, without a care in the world. Even though you were barely breathing! He kept asking you to wake up so you two could play…" Nami's lower lip trembled.

Zoro stared down at his lap evasively. He never was good with crying. The swordsman sighed. He supposed he never really bothered to think of the rest of the crew's reactions to his own injuries. He had just figure that they knew he was strong enough to work past them. Well, most of the time.

Floundering in a sea of failing self-expression, Zoro searched himself for some way to explain his often-suicidal seeming actions. The green-haired man didn't think he was all that complicated of a person. Surely he could make at least one of his friends understand his motivations.

"I live for my ambition." Zoro muttered finally, the words being pulled out of his mouth like a rotten tooth. "I will become the strongest swordsman in the world, because I made a promise."

Nami absorbed his words silently.

"But, as I started sailing with everyone, I began to realize…. There are some things more important than my own ambition. Helping Vivi save her people, for instance. That's way more important than my just being the strongest. But, to protect those things; my friends' important things, my important things…." Zoro trailed off awkwardly. He ran a callused hand through his short-cropped hair, embarrassed that he had said that much.

Glancing as his companion's face, he saw that Nami only seemed half convinced.

Before him sat a girl who knew about sacrifice; she had learned it from an early age. Her mother had died protecting her and her sister. She herself had sacrificed her own freedom in order to free her village. She had nearly died from a deadly illness just because of the tears and worry from a certain blue-haired princess. But Zoro knew he would have done the same.

Nami hated the idea of sacrifice but at the same time, she thought nothing of sacrificing herself in the defense of others, when they are helpless to do so. Zoro understood. Even though they fought like cats and dogs, the two of them were not all that different, Zoro admitted grudgingly. Maybe that is why he said what he said next.

"Look. I made another promise. This one to Luffy. I ain't gonna die. He won't let me, because I promised. No one's got to worry about me. So stop your damn blubbering already."

Nami stared at Zoro incredulously. This man actually thought a mere promise could keep Death away? Really, she was sailing with a bunch of idiots!

But, looking at the resolution in the swordsman's eyes, she found herself starting to believe him. If anyone could achieve such a thing, it would be this guy. Slowly, the navigator summoned up a wavering smile.

"So…" Zoro cleared his throat idly as he scratched at an imaginary itch on his nose. "Where the hell are my swords?"

Nami rolled her eyes. It seems as though that had been as comforting as Roronoa Zoro got. Nami's smile widened ruefully as she pointed to the foot of the bed. Men. They really were a bunch of testosterone fueled, emotional invalids.

Zoro stared at his katanas, his eyes instantly zooming in upon Wadou. The white-sheathed sword gleamed at him as if welcoming him home. Zoro found himself touching the hilt reassuringly.

"I was afraid they hadn't survived the explosion." He murmured, his fingers trailing along the braided hilt.

The navigator smirked. "You can thank Sanji for them later. He wouldn't let us leave until he had dove into that swamp and found all three of them. Said you'd be impossible to live with if we didn't find them. It took him well into the afternoon and he ended up getting a bit of a cold afterwards, but…."

Zoro grunted, for some reason not surprised by the blonde's actions. "Well. I guess I owe that bastard one, then." His words were unusually soft considering their subject matter.

An eerie chuckle filled the room and Zoro felt a sudden chill race up his spin as the temperature of the room seemed to drop several degrees. Turning a wide-eyed stare towards his companion, Zoro was alarmed to see shadows coalescing around her diminutive form. Nami smiled craftily at him, her eyes mere pinpricks that seemed burned into Zoro's very soul.

"Speaking of owing people…" Nami purred as her smile turned sharp. An abacus was suddenly pulled out of nowhere and seemed to emit an unholy glow. "If I calculated correctly, I'd say you owe me about…"

Beads shifted position with lightning speed. Zoro listen to their faint clacking with a growing sense of dread.

"Five million Beli." Nami ended with relish, as if she could practically taste the enormous figure.

"What?" Zoro's eyes nearly bulged out of his sockets.

"I rounded up." Nami stated brightly as she flashed an innocent set of pearly whites.

"I—You—Gah!" It seemed as though Zoro's tongue had frozen to the roof of his mouth. "Why the hell do I owe you that much for?" Zoro exploded, suddenly feel as if he would pass out, so oppressed did he feel against the redhead's surging demonic aura.

"Be thankful I didn't have Sanji's job." The abacus disappeared from view and Nami pushed herself to her feet. Patting the swordsman's green head as she passed, the redhead headed for the door. "Just call it 'blood money'." She murmured evilly. "And we'll leave it at that."

Zoro sputtered angrily, about to tell the blasted woman where she could go, when a soft voice called out from behind the room's entrance.

"Mr. Sanji, what are you doing up against the door like that? Is something wrong?"

Raising a delicate eyebrow, Nami quickly yanked the door open and a certain blonde chef nearly fell into the room. Catching his balance, Sanji pivoted gracefully around, skillfully keeping himself from spilling one drop of the soup he carried. The cook coughed lightly, trying to look for all the world like he hadn't been listening in on their conversation. Nonplused, Vivi followed him into the room with hesitant steps.

"Ah, Miss Nami." Sanji murmured suavely, flicking a wayward strand of hair behind his ear. "I have taken the liberty of preparing a treat for you. It's waiting up in the kitchen for your delicate lips to grace it with a taste."

Vivi stood silently in the blonde's shadow, trying discreetly to peer around and check on their injured companion's condition. The princess caught a quick glance at Zoro's profile, before Sanji's body –which seemed to be predominantly made up of sharp angles stuffed into a tailored suit-- blocked her vision once more.

Nami sent a quick reassuring smile to Vivi before switching her attention properly back to Sanji's posturing. "Thank you Sanji dear," she smiled encouragingly. "But I doubt it'll be there for long with those bumble-heads up on deck."

Sanji waved her concern away easily as he sat the bowl of broth on a table a fair distance away from its intended recipient. "Luffy's glued to his spot on the ram's head and Usopp is prattling on to Chopper about how he 'personally saved the day even though he was close to death'." The blonde rolled his eyes in a long-suffering gesture.

Nami nodded sympathetically before clearing her throat delicately as she shifted her eyes pointedly over to where Zoro still sat. Like magic, Sanji's whole demeanor seemed to stiffen and he turned swiftly towards Vivi. "I'd be happy to make something for you as well, Princess." He cooed, pointedly ignoring the silent figure in the corner.

Vivi met Nami's eyes over the cook's shoulder and smiled awkwardly. "Maybe later, Mr. Sanji. For now I think you should see to Mr. Bushido's needs. It has been quite a while since he last ate, isn't that right?"

Zoro, who had watched this drama for quite long enough, finally spoke up. "Mr. Prissy doesn't need to trouble himself on my account." He bit out, slipping into his well-worn role as the blonde's official antagonist. "I think I can manage to feed myself."

The swordsman watched as Sanji's face darkened into a bizarre purplish-red color. But, surprisingly, Sanji would not rise up to the bait. Still not looking over at Zoro, the blonde inclined his head towards the girls respectively. "You heard the cabbage head. Now, if you excuse me, I think your dessert might need guarding after all." Shoulders stiff, Sanji headed for the door.

"Hey, cook!" Zoro called out. Sanji paused, but did not answer.

Zoro studied Sanji's back thoughtfully, suddenly mindful of what Nami had --and hadn't told him. Something must have made the blonde suddenly decide to change the boundaries of their roughshod friendship. The distance between the two seemed noticeably wider than before. Zoro mouth pulled into a frown, but then just as quickly transformed into a barely repressed smirk.

After all, who say Zoro had to abide by these newly imposed walls?

"Thanks." He said simply. The words didn't come out in a grumble, or even reluctantly. It was just an earnest expression of gratitude.

Surprised, Sanji actually turned around. He stared at the swordsman for a long moment, a million thoughts racing behind his eyes. Zoro watched carefully as those freshly built invisible walls cracked. A slight, almost invisible smile curved across Sanji's lip.

"Eat your soup, bastard." Sanji muttered and Zoro watched in satisfaction as the wall crumbled.

Sanji gracefully fled the room. Nami started to follow him, but paused.

"Don't take it wrong if he avoids you for awhile." Nami looked like she wanted to say more but left her statement at that. Zoro pretended to look indifferent.

"Are you kidding?" he scoffed. "I'll think I won the lottery."

Nami's look told him she easily saw through that lie. Patting Vivi on the arm, the redhead had one foot out the door before stopping again. This time, a crafty smirk skittered over her lips.

"Oh. And I forgot to tell you." Nami stated sweetly. "The room's an additional four thousand a night. If I were you, I wouldn't get too comfortable."

Looking around once more, Zoro realized that he wasn't in Chopper's operating room, nor was he in the men's quarters. In fact, this looked suspiciously like…

Zoro jumped off of the bed as if had turned into a layer of hot coals. He should have known better. There was only one bed on this ship. The slightly citrus scented quilts and feather down pillows were not items that were lavished on men, who normally made do with a hammock and a scratch scrap of blanket. Who's stupid idea had this been? He felt as though he was covered in…girl germs. Zoro shuddered. Unbidden, figures began floating through his head.

Four thousand Beli a night. Times by thirteen or so. Add five million…


That woman really was going to hell.

Zoro finished his soup quickly, brooding (standing--not touching anything he didn't have to) in the corner as his ears were filled with the buzz of pleasant conversion from Vivi. The broth warmed his body and quickly killed the gnawing pain of hunger that had settled, unnoticed, in his chest. It hadn't tasted bad either, damn Love Cook.

Eager to remove himself from this den of evil, Zoro dropped the bowl onto the table and buckled his swords to his belt. Feeling awkward, Zoro hastily excused himself from the Alabasta princess.

"Luffy's up on deck." The blue-haired girl smiled kindly.

Zoro froze, suddenly reluctant to face the rubber-boy. These past few days --err…two weeks past-- were filled with events that could have caused a lot of friction between captain and first mate. He had done and said a lot of hurtful things. Did Luffy really understand why?

If Sanji reacted like he had upon Zoro's waking, then how would Luffy? Zoro's chest tightened at the thought. All seemed fine and dandy back when he had last been conscious, but now that Luffy has had the time to think things over—assuming he had thought about it at all—would his feelings have changed?

Zoro felt unnaturally hesitant and briefly wondered if it was worth a couple extra thousand Beli to hide out here for a little while longer. There is something to be said for dens of evil.

"Mr. Bushido?" a soft voice interrupted his thoughts.

Zoro looked down into calm blue eyes and felt his anxiety ease a bit.

"He's been waiting for you."

And for Zoro, that one sentence was enough.

He nodded once to Vivi and was about to leave when he spotted a scrap of fabric nearly hidden by the folds of his discarded shirt. Zoro reached down and pulled out his bandanna, staring at the black material, now free of any trace of blood. But Zoro remembered vividly the dark splotches that had covered the headpiece, as it had rested over the sweat-soaked locks of his captain.

Zoro's bare feet quickly crossed the heavily carpeted floor, taking him with long strides into the hall located in the heart of the ship. Rotating crisply into a right turn, Zoro's legs climbed the solid wooden stairs two at a time, as he moved towards the blindingly bright light of day. Bursting through the open hatch, the sun beat down upon Roronoa Zoro for the first time in half a month.

Zoro steps halted then —and only briefly-- as he squinted and blinked and willed his eyes to adjust to the change in luminance.

Heart hammering in his chest, Zoro moved on, up the deck, past the mast, towards the fore of the ship. Towards the red vest he could have spotted a kilometer away. Towards the only man had chosen to follow. The only man who's every command he would obey. Zoro's steps slowed as he approached that man: his captain.

Luffy sat cross-legged atop the ram's head, his shoulders slumped slightly forward in response to the harshly blowing wind. A deep frown was etched across the rubber-boy's face, making him seem much older than Zoro himself. Luffy stared intently out to sea, as if searching for answers to some monumental question.

Zoro had stopped a meter or two away from the boy, not wanting to disturb such obviously intense thoughts. His earring tinkled together like wind chimes, too loud in his own ears. Even then, Zoro figured his approach wouldn't be noticed, due to the rush of wind and the natural stealth of his own unclad steps. But the dark-haired boy before him suddenly straightened, like a deer that had suddenly caught the scent of a predator. Zoro's throat tightened reflexively.

Luffy's face turned around towards him, his expression blank. It was impossible to read that face for any hint of his captain's thoughts. Even Luffy's normally expressive eye reflected nothing but Zoro's own distorted figure.

Zoro stared deeply into those dark eyes and thought about all of the things that he wanted to say. All the apologies and explanations and promises that he wanted to make. Hell, if he could open up to someone like Nami, surely he could talk to his best friend, right? Bracing himself, Zoro opened his mouth.

"Yo." The word was accompanied by a half-hearted wave. Zoro winced at his own actions. That sure was prolific, he mentally cursed himself.

Luffy's mouth suddenly stretched into a wide smile. That smile that had drawn Zoro to Luffy's side at their first encounter, like a moth drawn to a flame. Regardless of the threat he had made if his captain were to make him forget his ambition, before him sat the one person in whose name he would take on Hell itself.

"Yo." Luffy said simply, interrupting his first mate's train of thought.

Ripping Zoro from his deep thoughts was like pulling him back from the edge of a precipice; the experience left him gasping. Zoro stared numbly at his captain. The rubber-boy's eyes sparkled with life as he tilted his head back in laughter, which caused the straw hat to fly off his head and into the air. Zoro's hand reached up swiftly and caught the headpiece before it could travel off the ship.

With a mock frown, Zoro stalked over to the other boy and stuffed the wayward hat back on top his head. Luffy stuck his tongue out petulantly before breaking into chuckles once more. Zoro struggled to keep his expression firm without much success. As always, his companion's good moods were contagious. Luffy's childlike laughter grew stronger and, unable to help himself, Zoro found himself joining in. The swordsman's hastily prepared speech fluttered out of his head with the spray of the ocean and the strong breeze…and the light from a beaming smile.

Maybe it was for the best. Maybe the two didn't even need words after all. Maybe, just being there, together, was enough.