BAH! I'm getting major block for this story….I know where I want it to conclude, and I know what I want to happen, but it's not coming out well (I already have the ending written….I only need transitioning now)….so if you're bored with this chapter, I don't blame you! Plus, it's short. :P

Mace-ing the children nextdoor,

---Ken

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CHAPTER 11: BITTERSWEET

Luffy stood in the lobby of an opulent hotel, stone arches and pillars extending to the vast ceiling above him. Lit candelabras stood black and tall around the perimeter of the open room, the flames of the candles reflecting off of the many mirrored surfaces. Everything sparkled. All wood was polished dark cherry. It was hardly the most proper location for one notably antsy, bouncing on his heels and occasionally digging the toe of his sandal into the clean floor.

The lobby desk attendant was busy with a phone in one hand, pretending to listen intently to the one on the other end, his eyes on the captain standing suspiciously in the middle of the room, his sandals scuffing the floor marble impatiently. It would have to be polished again.

'He's stood there for thirty minutes….'

Zolo and Nami appeared in the doorway, the large oak doors held open by the swordsman, navigator following with two shopping bags in hand.

"There you are!" Luffy ran to his comrades, all smiles. "Usopp said he found you, but---"

"Yeah yeah, leave it to you guys to be hunting around, then spreading rumors," Zolo huffed, rolling his eyes. "I was only talking with Nami, and then she just had to have some clothes..." Luffy nodded in agreement, a smirk playing at his lips.

Nami grinned nervously. "Well, we have rooms then, right?"

"Courtesy of Sanji. His girlfriend wanted a place to stay, so he reserved four rooms for all of us. They have a room, you have one, Zolo and I can share, and Usopp and Chopper have the last."

"Let's see 'em then."

The group kept to themselves as Luffy led them to his room.

"I'll have to find Sanji for your key, Nami, but for now, this is what you can expect."

"Holy shit…" Zolo strode across the carpeted expanse and admired the bed that obviously hadn't been jumped into yet ("Oh yeah, the messy one is mine, heh heh…" Luffy said). He ran his fingers across the varnished, cherry wood bed post, his reflection showing up faint in the dark shining surface, as Nami searched her face for blemishes in an ornate wall mirror. Luffy laughed; he had already been acquainted with the room.

"Nice, eh?"

"That idiot probably spent a shitload of money to get these."

"No doubt it was Mercella's fancy…" Nami laughed. She threw herself onto the bed, smiling into the comforter.

"Hey, this is my room, you know. Maybe I wanted to be the first to break the softness." Zolo sat down heavily next to her.

"Oh shush. You don't care." Laying on her back, she swung her legs back and forth over the side of the bed. Zolo winced as uncomfortable thoughts entered his mind.

'Ascetic behavior, Zolo, you need to indulge in more ascetic behavior…no more of this fun, touchy-feely stuff…' He wouldn't have minded sharing a bed with her, but would never tell her that. He didn't even like telling himself. '…I won't let that be me. This splitting up stuff has really gotten to me…'

"So, Luffy, where's the chef?" Zolo asked gruffly, trying to stifle a distracting yawn.

"I think he went to go swimming with Mercella."

"The witch---er---dainty princess swims? You sure she won't melt?"

Nami giggled, grabbing onto Zolo's shoulder as she pulled herself up. "They won't be out all night. She doesn't seem like the type to engage in late night activities, even conversation."

"Make that any sensible intelligent conversation."

"And sense when did you have any intelligent speech come from that mouth of yours?" Nami asked, smirking.

Rolling his eyes, Zolo laid back against his bed. Luffy looked confused.

"Why? Do you need them for something?"

Nami shook her head. "I just had something to talk about with Sanji, that's all. Nothing too big." She felt guilty as Luffy smiled and nodded, heading off into the bathroom ("There are jets in the bathtub!"). She should want the whole crew there to talk with their chef, not just her and Zolo. She didn't even want Zolo to be with her; she had a problem she wanted to address singularly. But leaving any of them out seemed wrong. They should all want to express concern over him. Or was that just…

'I'm just concerned with him as a friend…nothing more…'

A quick forceful knock rapped on the door. Zolo sat up and looked at Nami.

"You get it," she said quickly. "It's your room."

"Then why are you in it?" he snapped. "It's probably Usopp or Chopper, coming to bug me."

"You know, not always is someone out to irritate you, Zolo…" Nami hesitantly turned the handle and opened the door slowly, standing slightly behind the door, half-way out of sight.

"Did the Marimo come ba---Nami?" Sanji asked, taken aback. He stood outside the door in swim shorts and sandals, a towel draped about his shoulders. "What are you doing in here?"

"We didn't want to bother you for the keys yet, so we were all just waiting in here." She opened the door entirely and allowed him access, feeling unnerved. "I don't know where Usopp and Chopper are though."

Sanji looked at her sternly and nodded once. "Yeah, I was just at the pool. Mercella wanted a quick swim."

"Oh really?" She pretended to sound more interested in the location of action than in the consequences: his hair was still damp, disobedient strands poking out at odd angles as they dried out of form; where had he gotten those swim shorts? She tried not to stare him over, but found it painfully difficult. "It seems that way."

"Who is it?" Zolo called from around the corner of the room. "Better be room service."

"Don't you be ordering anything extra, you idiot," Sanji barked. "This room itself was expensive enough. Be thankful. I wouldn't have done this if Mercella didn't have good taste."

Zolo came into view. "Well, lookey here. Half naked chef in my room. Don't you belong in someone else's room that way? Or rather, less that way?"

Nami rolled her eyes, Sanji sneering malevolently. "Aren't you incredibly funny. Downright hilarious, Zolo."

"Why thank you. Although, I find you more humorous, cook." He stood akimbo, smiling sarcastically.

"Nami, here's your room key. You have the entire space to yourself. Do you know where it is?" He opened his hand and revealed a slender key card, holding it out to her.

"Not exactly…"

"Come, I'll show you. Have a pleasant night, Roronoa."

"Don't you call me that, you bastard," Zolo seethed. "You have no reason to call me that."

Sanji smirked over his shoulder, closing the door after Nami stepped through. He made sure not to glance at her, only lead her down the hallway. He stopped in front of Room 672, the gold numbers nailed carefully above the door.

"I hope it's comfortable enough for you, Nami." He placed the key into her hand, noticing the vacant look in her eyes. "Are you alright alone?"

"Yes, that's fine. You know that."

"If you need anything else, just phone room service. I'll pay for your expenses." Damn it. There went the promise of 'no chivalry'. He'd told himself not to give in to her just because she was a female. He had…what did he have? Who did have? Mercella?

'Damn it, Nami….'

She stared up at him with dark, focused eyes, startling him. "I need to talk to you."

"Wha-what? About what?"

"I need to talk to you about you."

"I'm hardly a subject worth wasting words over…"

"You didn't seem to be worthless at lunch." She glared at him, holding his gaze in hers effortlessly.

"I…this isn't important. And I left Mercella at the pool."

"Since when does that---that---since when do these things matter more than talking with your crew members?" she said, her voice rising as she clenched her fists at her sides. Sanji snarled, himself realizing that the guttural noise was a bit too much. Nami took a step back.

"You wanna know 'since when'? I'll tell you since---" He stopped, glancing behind him.

"Sanji, Mercella's causing a scene at the pool," Usopp moaned. "You'd better hurry before she clobbers Chopper. He was trying to make her satisfied with a casual massage but---"

"See?" Sanji yelled at Nami, flinging his arm behind him. "I have this to deal with now."

Nami didn't try to hide her surprise as she watched him stomp down the hall, barreling around the corner, out of sight, Usopp following. She sneered.

"What an ass…I shouldn't have tried to start anything…"

"Point is, you did, and now you need to follow through." Zolo leaned casually against the wall behind her. Nami swung around, startled.

"How'd you…? Where'd you---?"

"This place is a giant circle. So, what now?"

Nami shook her head incredulously, slowly, allowing her arms to fall to her sides. "What do you mean, 'what now'? Zolo, he's not going to listen to anything, to anyone. He wouldn't even look me in the eyes. I had to force him to. Let him go and baby his stupid girlfriend, be miserable on his own, screw any woman he meets. I shouldn't be caring anyway. I don't care about how that stupid, low, idiot of a cook lives his life. Idiot…that's all he ever was, that's all he ever meant to me. " She shoved the key card into the door slot.

"If that's all you have to say, then you've changed for the worse too." Zolo grabbed her hand, squeezing the card from her fingers. "I won't have this reunion be a waste because you two have a rift between each other. This wasn't how it was supposed to be."

It took a few moments for Nami to realize she'd pulled her arm back and planted a full-force slap against Zolo's face. The impulse came from nowhere, the swordsman staring at her in disbelief as he slowly felt the warm spot on his cheek with his fingertips.

"You…I…"

"Don't blame this on me."

"I wasn't." He frowned.

"This is because Sanji's an asshole."

"Why do you think so? Just let him be, right? I guess I should maybe let you be then? Let you wallow in your internal sorrows?"

She let a couple of long harbored tears escape her eyes. She grimaced, trying to keep from crying.

"Don't say anything. I'm---I'm sorry." She bit her bottom lip, eyes closing painfully, her knuckles white as she clenched her fists. "I'll admit it. I'll just admit it! I'm afraid. I'm damn afraid of confronting him. I want to, b-b-but I'm trying to avoid it! I want to convince myself he's a lost cause! That there's no hope! No hope, Zolo! Why should I want to change him, force him to follow what I want him to?"

He caught her as she fell forward onto him, her small fists beating against his chest. He gazed at her thoughtfully, admiring her ability to hold back other tears. He knew there were plenty, but she didn't let anymore fall.

"Maybe you have changed. You're too passive."

"I'm not passive; I'm letting him continue in what he believes to be right." She pushed herself off of him, sighing heavily.

"But maybe, we don't always see things correctly because we've lost sight of what's important, or we've been abandoned---"

"HE ABANDONED ME. He left me without saying a word! NOTHING! He just leaves! And goes off and gets married, and has girlfriends, and lives the high life while leaving everything behind, as if it didn't happen! He never said goodbye…" She rubbed her forehead, becoming increasingly vexed. "…never said goodbye."

Zolo smiled. He hardly found love and attraction 'adorable', but it was painfully obvious to him that Nami was struggling with both, reminding him of a certain someone with three swords often attached to the hip.

"I just think he needs a strong, moral woman."

"When I find one, I'll tell them where to find the stupid idiot." She looked at the door to her room, sucking on her teeth.

"Well, I've found one, so I'll tell her for you." He rested his right hand on her shoulder. "He's at the pool, currently."

Nami laughed. "Strong and moral: I don't know if I fit the bill anymore."

"Maybe the bill doesn't fit you."

"What's that supposed to mean?" He shrugged. She smiled, pushing his hand off her shoulder gently. "Zolo?"

"Hmm?"

"Will you walk with me to my boat, at the pier? I left my luggage in it."

"Need a swimsuit?"

"I need someone to tell me when to quit."

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Swimming pool time! 8D And Sanji fighting action comes next chapter. End is approaching. R&R.