AUTHOR'S NOTES: Many thanks to my most esteemed and helpful beta Tonko (who writes here under that name, and whose stuff is well worth reading). Without her help and encouragement, this fic might never have been finished. Any remaining mistakes in spelling, grammar, style, plot, facts or characterisation are entirely my own fault, though. On that note, constructive criticism is very welcome, as well as other comments of course!

SPOILER WARNING: This fic is set after Thriller Bark and before the current manga arc. Spoilers up to and including chapter 489.

DISCLAIMER: The characters of One Piece belong to Eiichiro Oda, their creator, and to Shueisha Publications. They are used here without permission. This fanfic is intended for entertainment purposes only.

Holding The Air

A One Piece fanfic by Elin B

After Thriller Bark he needed to sleep a lot, even more so than he usually did. When he didn't sleep, he mostly trained – also harder than usual. Both those things were entirely expected and familiar.

But for some reason, he also seemed to spend a lot of time in a state of partial sleep, drifting in and out of consciousness instead of being either fully aware or completely asleep. He wasn't sure what to think about that. It didn't seem as clear-cut and efficient as he preferred things to be. On the other hand maybe this was just part of the healing process – he'd never been that close to death before, so it made sense this could be new.

He noticed that sometimes when you were only half awake things seemed to happen that never occurred at other times. Maybe they didn't really happen and you only thought they did. Or maybe those things were actually there all the time but couldn't be seen normally.

xxxxx

"You're jealous, aren't you."

The words were phrased like a question but not pronounced like one, nor did they sound confrontational or even sly. They were said by a voice that was close, calm and warm and, for that first dizzy moment of being pulled from deep sleep, not quite as familiar as it ought to be.

Opening his eyes with a start, Zoro found that the sun had nearly set and long shadows were stretching over this corner of the deck. Still only half-awake, it seemed to him for a moment as if the old ship in his dream mingled with the new ship around him, making a kind of strange Merry-Sunny hybrid. He looked up and realised it was Usopp who had spoken, sounding quite unlike himself where he stood by the railing close by. The light behind his head made it hard to see his features, and Zoro had to wonder if maybe Chopper was right after all about needing to take it easier because of the wounds. Because it seemed like they could still cause hallucinations.

"What did you say?" he grunted, turning his face away and squinting in the waning light as he looked out over the deck at nothing in particular. His voice was hoarse from having slept for hours. He rubbed his eyes, then straightened up and uncrossed his arms, letting them lie more loosely in his lap instead. Now it was all Sunny again around him.

But he didn't glare up at Usopp, because that might scare him into silence, and part of Zoro did want to hear whatever came next, even if it was just a hallucination. (Maybe even especially if it was just a hallucination. That would be safer.) Part of him didn't want that, not so much, but he was keeping himself in check.

"I said, you're jealous." Not even an "I think" or a "maybe" to soften the statement. This still didn't really sound like Usopp – far too confident and calm, even patient. Maybe…Zoro glanced up quickly, in the corner of his eye. No, he'd seen it right the first time: the mask wasn't on.

Usopp shifted position while leaning back against the railing, more visible now as the light fell differently on him. "Thought about it for awhile now but couldn't believe it was true," he continued. "It just seemed so unlikely. And kinda stupid. And not like you. But it's true, isn't it?" He sounded a bit more like himself now, though still not nervous in the slightest.

"Doubt it," said Zoro warily. "Why would I be jealous?" He frowned as he kept looking straight ahead, trying to sound just like normal. But the moment still seemed unreal, hallucinatory, like something just hanging in the air by itself, without connections to how things were supposed to be. "You're not making much sense," he added, when Usopp didn't reply immediately.

The light from the setting sun was mild and fuzzy, the lingering warmth in the wooden planks quite pleasant in the corner where he was sitting. Off to one side lay a pile of wood and iron bars, which Franky had dumped there hours earlier for some mysterious future purpose. The pile made a waist-high barrier, dividing this part of the deck from the rest and providing a faint semblance of privacy, though not from either the crow's nest or the observation room, if anyone was there.

Zoro wondered vaguely where everyone else might be. Not part of the hallucination apparently – except for the strings of violin music he now heard drifting down from above in what sounded like a lullaby.

"I'm not?" said Usopp. "Huh." He hummed softly along with the melody. Then he sank down to squat on his haunches next to Zoro, and though he was still an arm's length away the swordsman still had to control himself from flinching, which was unsettling in and of itself.

"He depends on you more than anyone, you know," said Usopp quietly."If anything happened to you – or if you ever left – there's no way he could bear it. Ever."

Zoro's eyes fixed themselves on a small unimportant spot in the planking some meters away from where he was sitting.

"And I don't think…" Usopp finally sounded a bit wavering and hesitant, which was both reassuring and for some reason disappointing, "…I don't think anyone would mind, if you'd – if you two would – "

"Shut up." Zoro's voice was hoarse again. His face muscles felt tight and hard. "That's not it. It's not like that."

"Right." Usopp sounded decidedly sceptical, gaze disbelieving as he glanced at Zoro.

"It's not," insisted Zoro. He clasped his hands and kept staring at the same small spot in the wood. In a low, controlled voice, he went on:

"I'm not going to say he's 'like a little brother'. 'Cause that wouldn't really be true. Unless you say 'like a little brother who's your boss and captain and who you'll follow to the ends of the earth and who's kind of an idiot and more important than, than anything. So. There."

He turned his hands over, then scratched the side of his nose.

Usopp put his arms behind his head and turned his gaze upwards, towards the sky and the sails. "Dammit, Zoro," he said wonderingly, "you always force us to play guessing games just to try to figure out what you're thinking. Just 'cause you never want to show or say anything."

"What?!" Zoro whipped around to glare in outraged disbelief. What kind of thing was that to say, after he'd opened up like that, saying much more than he'd wanted… "I already…what the hell do you want me to say, anyway?!"

"And you're too much in love with death, too," said Usopp easily.

Zoro snorted dismissively. "Am not," he said. "Anyway, that's my business."

"You are," Usopp insisted. "And sometimes I wonder…" His voice turned more thoughtful: "…I wonder, if the rest of us – except Robin I guess – could be more serious more often, maybe then you would laugh more. Would smile more. Like a see-saw, y'know?" He gestured the movement of a see-saw that first leaned all to one side and then swung into equilibrium. "But I don't like to think like that," he continued. "It's not really fun."

No, it wasn't, and Zoro didn't like for him to think that way either. They were fine like they were, in his opinion – and if they ever did want to change it shouldn't be for that reason. But that didn't seem necessary to say. He'd already said too much, anyway.

The violin melody changed into something less of a comforting lullaby, more like something melancholy and yearning.

"I could do it, though," Usopp said quietly. "The other thing I mean." He was looking down at his hands, which were opening and closing. "If he wanted me to. You know I could."

Zoro nodded curtly.

"You could," he said neutrally.

"I might even…I might even take the first step." He turned to look at Zoro again. "But that doesn't mean – that wouldn't mean there'd be any reason for you to get jealous. You should know that too."

And then he leaned over and kissed Zoro. But only on the forehead.

xxxxx

It was very quiet: the music seemed to have stopped for now. The netting was croaking in the wind. Somewhere below them Usopp heard crewlike voices talking, but they were too low to make out properly. The Sunny's walls were pretty good at muffling sounds.

"What are they doing?" mumbled Zoro, sitting very still, not turning his head either away from Usopp or towards him.

"Playing cards in the galley," said Usopp, feeling a bit surprised over how normal his voice sounded. In the circumstances, that didn't seem normal. "At least they were when I left." He carefully did not add, Sanji promised to keep them busy.

There were a few more moments of silence.

"This is just a hallucination, isn't it?" muttered Zoro finally.

"Maybe. Or maybe – " he leaned over and kissed Zoro briefly on the mouth – "maybe it's just a very cool lie."

"Chopper–" Zoro cleared his throat, he'd sounded hoarse again "–Chopper's probably been spiking my food with some weird-ass drug during lunch. Making me see things."

"'See things'?" mumbled Usopp, kissing him on the neck. "You're not looking at anything."

Zoro quickly opened his eyes. "You know what I mean," he growled.

Usopp shrugged "Guess so." He put one arm around his crewmate and pulled him closer, then kissed him again on the mouth, a little longer now. You couldn't really say that Zoro was responding, but he wasn't quite not responding either; wasn't an unwelcoming wooden statue. His lips were soft, and his breathing and tiny body movements had changed subtly into something that felt both waiting and accommodating.

"But I'm not going to ask you anything more, you know," Usopp continued quietly.

For instance, he thought, I'm not going to ask you what really happened there in Thriller Bark towards the end, how you came to be so much more hurt than the rest of us and how Luffy was all fine when we woke up. Sanji knows something but he won't talk, and you're not gonna tell either.

After all, there were things Usopp didn't want to be asked either. So it was only fair.

Now Zoro was giving him a look that came somewhere between a glare and long-suffering patience. But it still wasn't flinching or pulling away, nor warning him off.

"You know Brook can probably see us pretty well from the crow's nest." His voice was even and mostly sounded calm. But the fingertips on his left hand were trembling.

"He's supposed to be looking for ships," mumbled Usopp, hands wandering and legs shifting to a comfortable position that wouldn't jostle Zoro's swords. "And land. Besides, Brook can be bribed."

"And there's nothing to see, anyway," he added after a moment or two, as Zoro's hands started to turn less passive in their turn. "Right?"

Zoro actually smiled a bit, then. "Right."

Not long after that, he muttered, "Oi. How 'm I supposed to see anyway, with your nose in my eye?"

Usopp considerately moved a tiny bit, then nibbled at Zoro's left earlobe. "Thank you," he murmured.

"For what?" mumbled Zoro.

For holding off, thought Usopp. For letting me do this. For not making your pride either turn me away or take over too much. For being much nicer than I could reasonably have the right to expect.

Maybe even for underestimating me, if the reason you won't push me away is because you're scared that will hurt me. If so I don't care: I'll take advantage of your strength as a weakness. And force you to not stand apart and step aside.

Well. If I can.

"For hallucinating," he whispered softly into Zoro's ear.

Zoro didn't say anything in reply to that, not directly. Maybe, Usopp thought, he figured it wasn't much good saying anything when it wasn't quite real.

"If anything ever happens," Zoro mumbled eventually, "you need to hold onto him."

Fingers stained with gunpowder ran through short green hair. "I told you, you need to stop thinking like that."

"This isn't a game, you know." This time Zoro's voice was low but firm.

"I know."

Zoro's grip became the merest bit stronger at that, holding him just slightly more closely.

xxxxx

Maybe he was kissing back, but only by a little, not much. Zoro was vaguely aware that the shadow of the main mast had moved, and he could feel the warmth of the deck underneath slowly drifting off into the twilight air. The smell of tangerines and the salty air were also becoming subtly different, more like nightly smells. He noticed only now that the music from above seemed to have shifted into something different, more tightly rhythmical; maybe a storytelling ballad of sorts.

Something in the back of Zoro's mind was trying to make itself heard, but not loudly enough. It was all right to ignore it. The sky was turning a deeper, darker blue, and the last slanting sunrays gave a reddish tint to the flowers in Robin's garden. Everything felt fuzzy and elusive and he didn't understand why he should feel as if he wanted to grab all these unimportant details of the moment and capture them, pinning them down until they gave up and made sense.

This close Usopp smelled not just of gunpowder and sweat and teenaged boy but something else as well that was hard to put your finger on (maybe Chopper would know). The dull aches all over Zoro's body were becoming a bit more insistent again. But that was just part of it too, all part of this crowded smudged-together quietly troubling reassuring peacefully trembling not-to-be-questioned, not-really-there hallucinatory moment.

"Hey…" he murmured, "how would you go about bribing Brook, anyway?"

Usopp put a finger to Zoro's lips. "Shh. That's a secret."

Zoro breathed in just a little more heavily and shifted, leaning in even closer. But not very long after that, it was Usopp who pulled away slightly, his head tilted back as he sniffed the air tentatively.

"Smell that?" he said, a smile growing wide across his face.

Zoro frowned, then sniffed too. "Smells like hot chocolate," he said. The smell was wafting up from the galley below them. "And freshly baked pastries," he added a few moments later.

So that was that. They didn't have to say anything; Zoro stretched his arms and got up to his feet only slightly slower than Usopp. Obviously they'd have to go down there now, or else the cook would no doubt pop up here soon enough. And while Sanji might actually be trusted not to blab to the others, Zoro didn't want to give him the chance of smirking at them. He was already half expecting Brook to lean out his skull any second now and holler down "Ahoy there, lovebirds!" or something equally dumb and embarrassing.

They climbed down from the upper deck with the dusk growing darker around them, as the sun had finally set. The light from the half-opened galley door spilled out onto deck, looking bright and steady and ordinary.

Pastries. And hot chocolate. Huh. Well, he supposed you could wake up to a lot worse things than that.

He paused for half a second before following cheerful strides in clunky boots across the threshold. What was it he'd been thinking, only just now –

It could have been, 'Maybe I could stand to hallucinate more often.'

Or maybe, 'We can look after him together.'

That too.