Reclining easily against the worn, comfortable cushions of the couch, sipping sparingly at his bottle of sake and staring out the windows at the scenic view provided by the grey-brick wall of the abandoned tenement across the street from the Merry Sun Apartments, and with a gentle, slightly foreign tranquility engulfing the entire room, Zoro could admit, at least to himself, that he was happy. The apartment was empty, quiet, for once not echoing cries of surprise or mirth, but calm, sweet and peaceful. And especially in the aftermath of all the fucked up trauma that had been bombarding their lives of late, the reprieve was even more noticeable and deeply appreciated. Chopper was no longer righteously pissed at the swordsman and threatening to sedate the man into a permanent coma, and Luffy had given up the solemn introspection in favor of a louder and, admittedly, more annoying pastime of telling inane knock-knock jokes to his new friend, Burpgurglehampizzasteak, who was in fact the purple elephant he'd gotten at the arcade a few days ago.
Normal? Unfortunately so.
However the most relieving difference was, of course, with the shit-cook. Zoro counted it a success of epic proportions when he'd managed to wake up three days in a row without finding a pathetic ball of blonde on the couch, drinking himself into blind, depressed stupors over things in life he couldn't change. Instead, the idiot's abrasive swearing and obnoxious trillings over anything with boobs once again pervaded the formerly stagnant and somber atmosphere in the apartment; the delicious aromas of his grade-A cooking beginning to chase away the scents of stale liquor and regret. But where the change was most obvious was in the cook's eyes. The dull, opaque haze that Zoro had gotten accustomed to glaring at in abject irritation and disgust were back to the bright, blue, gleaming fury of the perpetually pissed off, ornery, short-tempered jackass Zoro had first met and came to grudgingly respect. And he was surprised, honestly, that after all that had happened, and for how infuriated and exhausted Zoro had been as a result of trying to hold this idiot's crumbling life together; through all that, his level of respect for Sanji hadn't diminished in the slightest. It probably should have. It would make sense if it had. Zoro'd lost respect for people over things a lot more damaging than pissing and moaning 'cuz daddy never said he loved you before he kicked it. Really, by the precedent already set in Zoro's life, he should have packed his stuff and left eons ago, what with all the bullshit he put up with from these damn people.
But, he stayed. He stayed because he cared. And it had been a long ass time since he'd allowed himself to feel that, but since it happened to sneak up on him out of the blue, he figured he wasn't totally to blame. He was also shocked at how little it seemed to bother him, upon relfection, that in the course of a few months, he'd managed to turn back on every principle he'd ever adhered to in life. A bit unsettling, really, and if he were a little less relaxed he might even be somewhat pissed with himself, but it was such a calming day, free from the angst and dread that had nearly become a staple of daily activity in this apartment, that Zoro didn't feel inclined to dwell on things from the past, or things he had no say in. It was the way it was, and he'd leave it at that.
He was happy, after all. And it'd been even longer since the last time he ever truly felt that.
It was nice, he decided, with another sip off his sake, sinking lower into the couch and maneuvering to a more comfortable position. It was nice to feel this calm. It was nice that, for once, he felt confident that he could lower his guard, and not get fucked over because of it. Took a load off his mind, that was for sure. He could rest easy, knowing nothing was sneaking around the corner, waiting to attack the moment he was unaware; secure in the knowledge that he wasn't being hunted.
Safe, he realized, was the word for all this soothing ease. He felt safe here.
And Zoro had never felt that before in his life.
He didn't know when he'd fallen asleep. He probably wouldn't even call it sleep, more like a muddled, half-dozing sort of state brought on by comfort and quiet and booze. But regardless of when he'd slipped into this daze, or even what the appropriate term for it would be, its effects were soundly and suddenly broken by the tentative knocking at the door that only now registered to his somewhat slackened senses. No telling how long it'd been going on for, but the sound was much too polite for it to have been an excessive amount of time.
Grumbling only slightly as he stood from the softness and the appeal of the living room couch, the swordsman quickly ran through all possibilities of who the hell it could be – ruling out all his roommates, with the exception of Luffy, 'cuz he tended to lose his key a lot. But then he remembered the door was unlocked anyway, and any one of those fools he lived with would have already tried the door by now. So it was definitely a caller, and not a regular one by how timid the knocking sounded. There was a chance it was Usopp, since he was pretty skittish by nature, but if he was looking for Luffy he'd probably be a bit more boisterous, given whatever the circumstances were regarding the reason for his trip. And whoever it was most probably knew that Sanji and Chopper were gone, so the only candidates this visitor was likely to be looking for were Luffy or Zoro. And since the only person who really needed to see Zoro for anything was that goddamn witch, Nami, and considering he had yet to start work, so therefore hadn't gotten a paycheck yet, Zoro's bets were on the caller coming to speak with Luffy.
All this he managed to deduce by the time he'd walked across the apartment and reached out for the handle, sliding the door swiftly along its track while simultaneously saying, "If you're looking for Luffy, he's out at the - "
"Oh! Hello!" a bright yet uncertain voice piped up just then, and Zoro's dry dismissal died on his lips when he realized the caller at the door was quite possibly the last person he'd ever have figured into the equation.
"….Hey, Vivi," he said, blinking slightly at the young, blue-haired girl, feeling confused and a bit off-balanced. "How are you doing?"
She didn't seem all that confident, either, suggested by her blue doe-eyes darting around nervously and the way her pale fingers lightly tugged at themselves.
"Oh, I'm fine!" the heiress replied cheerily.
Zoro gauged her for a second, weighing the situation in his mind; he didn't know much about Vivi, didn't know what she did in a day, or how busy she was, but he knew she wasn't really one to just drop by a friend's apartment at random, with no real intent behind it. That was one thing he'd noticed about the younger girl right from their first meeting: despite her whimsical appearance, she was a very down-to-earth and purposeful person. And she never did things "just because." Which meant there was a reason she was here. But she seemed reluctant to come clean. It was also odd for her to be here for something when Sanji wasn't around; he was the one she tended to interact with the most out of all the apartment's inhabitants. And it wasn't like she didn't know Sanji worked nine-to-ten six days a week
So what the hell is her M.O?
Well, Zoro was well-rested and in a good mood. He could play this game for a while, at least.
"So, what brings you here?" he asked, trying to keep all traces of suspicion out of his features; let her think she had the wool over his eyes. "You know, Sanji doesn't get off work for another four hours."
"Oh really?" she asked, feigning surprise, and very badly, at that.
"Yeah," Zoro went on, leaning against the door frame, his face still a mask of naive ignorance. "And Chopper's got classes until late, of course."
"Ah yes, he would, wouldn't he?" Vivi had the audacity to look vaguely thoughtful over this information, as though it were anything more complicated than a straight fact.
Damn, she really is not good at this, the green-haired man marveled slightly.
"And Luffy's out, too. Don't really know where he is, but he's got his biological clock timed to when Sanji gets back to make dinner, so he'll be a while coming, too."
"Yes, I see…"
She stared up at him, eyes trying very hard for innocence, and still managing to look ridiculously shifty. Clearly she was hiding something. And either she was the most transparent person on the face of the planet, or – and the swordsman thought this the more likely, and more interesting case – Vivi was hiding something that she didn't actually want to hide. She just didn't want to be responsible for bringing whatever "it" was into center stage.
Zoro's eyes narrowed marginally. Okay. He was done playing now.
"Give it up, Vivi. You don't have a devious bone in your body."
Those hesitant eyes blinked up at him, her confusion about as poorly acted as her last performance.
"What…what do you mean?" she asked, smooth brow furrowed theatrically.
Zoro sighed a bit. So, she's not going down without some token resistance, I see.
"Vivi, I just told you that the entire apartment is empty of all my roommates, and that not a damn one of them will be back for hours, and you've made no move to leave. There's obviously a reason why you're here."
Her eyes widened to large, worried orbs, her whole body tensed and poised for retreat. "I-if I'm intruding, I'll leave! I didn't mean to impose on you, or anything, honest! I just - "
"My God, you're worse than Chopper!" Zoro exclaimed, rubbing at his face roughly, because really, this wasn't that hard. "I'm not mad, Vivi. But you're lying. You're not fine, you know you need to talk to someone, but you don't want to, so you're talking yourself in circles. And I'm tired of playing along, already."
Vivi bit her lip then, eyes finally showing a trace of whatever pain she was struggling with at the moment. Her gaze shifted to the ground, and Zoro began to notice that was a trend with most of the people he spoke to frankly. Whatever. He'd deal with that anomaly later. First, he had to clear this hurdle.
Sighing again, trying to tone down some of the intensity, because she was clearly anxious and upset about something, Zoro opened the door wider and stepped aside. "Well, come in. I'll get you something to drink, at least."
"Th-thank you, Zoro. I r-really appreciate this, I don't know how I can repay you…" Vivi spoke to her shoes.
The swordsman grabbed her chin just then and raised it so she looked at his almost reprimanding expression dead-on. "If you want to pay me back, don't let your eyes drop even a centimeter below mine, got it? I hate talking to the crowns of people's heads."
She nodded, the corner of her lip quirking just the slightest. "Okay Zoro. I promise."
"All right. That's better."
He flashed her a quick grin before leading her into the apartment, closing the door behind her and heading off to the kitchen to get her drink. "Go ahead and sit down," he called over his shoulder as he grabbed a glass and filled it with cool water from the sink – he'd bust out the tea pot if she got really teary-eyed – and wandered back into the living room to see she'd taken up his former seat on the couch.
"Here," he said, holding out the drink, which she took gratefully and began sipping at daintily, because she was just one of those chicks who did everything daintily, even hock a loogie. For his part, Zoro simply moved his bottle of sake further down the coffee table and perched himself on the edge, facing his distressed nakama. "Although, really, I dunno why you're here right now. Woulda made more sense to wait a few hours until Curlicue got home, if you ask me."
"I'm … I'm not here to talk to Sanji," she murmured, looking into her glass as though it were a crystal ball.
"Oi, eyes, remember?" Zoro said firmly. "And what do you mean, you're not here to see the cook? Who are you here for, then?"
Her eyes met his, a bit scared and uncomfortable, but not because of him.
"I came because I wanted to talk to you."
Zoro blinked. And again. Three times' a charm …
Nope, it still didn't make sense. There was a faint buzzing in the back of his head, like stunned gnats were bashing around the inside of his skull, looking for a way out, and a strange sense of foredobing crept up on him.
This was … definitely a first for him. He never thought he would actually witness someone lose their mind, and the process was surprisingly more composed than he thought it would be, seeing as Vivi only looked a little jumpy and not bat-shit crazed, which is how they always show it in the movies. Zoro was pretty sure she was insane, hard to imagine any other cause for such a psychotic statement …
… But just in case she wasn't completely nuts …
"… You want to talk to me?" he asked, very slowly, so Vivi was totally aware of what she'd just said.
She nodded, her eyes slowly losing that timid air, and instead just looking sad, yet unequivocally sane. "Yes. I do."
His face contorted into a look of sheer bewilderment and "what-the-fuck."
The swordsman didn't mean to sound so incredulous, but this was seriously bizarre for him, and it took just about every iota of will-power he had to wrap his mind around what the young, blue-haired girl was asking.
"Because," she started, tone taking on a sort of careful, business-like quality, slim hands smoothing the fabric of her skirt across her legs just for something to do, " … given the nature of my … problem … I thought you would be the best person to discuss it with. You would take me seriously. Sanji, I think, would be a bit too … distracted … to be very effective as a source for advice."
That statement didn't ring very true to Zoro's ears for more than one reason, and he found himself a bit defensive and oddly disappointed in Vivi, figuring she would have been a lot more astute than that. There was also a squirming sense of horror in his gut, but he'd get to that in a second.
Before that, though, he leveled her a very firm, no-nonsense look and held up his index and middle fingers for her to see.
"Two things, okay?"
Vivi bit her lip at his stern tone, eyes going wide as she nodded obediently.
"First off," Zoro started, counting off the longer of the two digits, "don't sell the cook short. Yes, he's a complete and utter dumb-fuck, and he waits on you girls with an obsessive devotion that is clearly unhealthy. But," he stressed heavily, looking her dead in the eye, "that guy would bend himself in a pretzel for you in a heartbeat. He'd do anything for you, and if he saw you truly in trouble, I'd lay money down that he'll drop the 'simpering-servant' schtick and help you in all earnest. And I'm not a betting man. Got it?"
Vivi sighed and nodded again, looking a little ashamed. "Yes. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I'm sure Sanji would take it seriously as well."
"Good. Now, the second thing," and here his was a bit sharper, and very nearly mocking, that horror undulating like a particularly lively eel, "what the hell would ever possess you to come to me for advice? About anything? Unless you're looking for a night in jail, I wouldn't listen to a goddamn thing I say."
She frowned at that, her eyes suddenly focusing on his with a tad more confidence, and a touch of her own disappointment, as she said, "You're a much nicer person than you seem to think you are, Zoro."
He simply rolled his eyes and shrugged. "Well, whatever. You're the one all twisted in a knot over something. Spill it."
Whatever assuredness the girl had managed to conjure up a moment ago vanished pretty damn quickly, and she went back to tugging on her fingers and worrying her lip. Her eyes danced around, and it was pretty obvious she was petrified, so Zoro didn't bother enforcing the eye-contact rule, because she seemed upset enough, and didn't need to fear his volatile wrath if she so dared to look away from him.
Poor kid, he mused sympathetically. What was with these unlucky people and their utterly shitty lives? It'd probably be more annoying to deal with if they all weren't so legitimately fucked-up.
"Vivi?" he asked softer, his hand coming out to wrap lightly around her thin wrist, remembering from the last time he'd watched her fall apart that she seemed to respond to a physical connection of some sort. "Hey, it'll be fine. Just tell me what's wrong."
She nodded again, breathing deep and taking a degree of comfort from his lax touch, like he figured she would. Another breath for good measure.
"Well, um …" she started haltingly, running her tongue anxiously over her bottom lip. "I … well, I'm … I'm in love …"
Oh, Zoro's brain was so broken. There wasn't an alternate universe in the craziest corner of any person's imagination where this seemed like a plausible scenario.
Vivi. Was asking Zoro. For advice. About romance. There … this was …
… What the fuck, honestly?
Roll with it, Zoro, he chanted to himself. Just go with it. This could work out. You never know. It could work out.
Even though he could already smell the smoke from when this entire conversation crashed and burned violently. Oh well. He'd deal with that when it happened. Vivi needed him right now.
"…Kay…" he started, coughed awkwardly, struggled not to shift, tried again, "Now, don't take this the wrong way, kid, but when you fall in love, isn't it usually … y'know, a good thing?"
A rueful grin twisted Vivi's pale mouth, and it was a really weird look for her, didn't quite match the "Care Bear" quality of her eyes, and Zoro decided he didn't like it.
"Normally, yes, falling in love is a reason to celebrate. But not with this current situation."
"What is this current situation?"
"I'm - " she broke off, face scrunched in a look of mounting desperation, like she was expecting the world to explode any second, before she could even get the dreaded secret out.
Zoro gripped her wrist with a just a hair more force, trying to get her to focus and convince her that they weren't about to go up in flames just because she was having some romantic crisis. Her gaze found her lap, free hand coming up to squeeze at his fingers slightly as she forced herself to calm down. Her mouth trembled slightly as she spoke.
"I'm … I'm in love with a woman."
Zoro's eyes widened considerably as he stared at the top of her head which was bowed in mortification and shame.
He really couldn't think of much else to say.
"But I'm not a lesbian."
Right, because that made perfect sense. Perfectly.
Except it didn't.
Now, Zoro may not be overly well-versed in women's matters, or matters of the heart, as it so happened, but what little he knew tended to define "lesbians" as being "females who are attracted sexually to other females." Vivi was female. So was this chick she was in love with. How the hell was that, and "being a lesbian" not the same thing? How exactly were these separate matters? And what in the name of all things holy and good had made her think Zoro was qualified to advise her on this set of circumstances?
His silence seemed to worry her, since the young girl very reluctantly dragged her gaze up to meet the green-haired man's, a deep, irrational fear very evident in her face; fear of judgment, of disgust, of confusion and resentment and spite.
All he did was offer her a small, blameless smile.
"Well, I can see why you didn't want Sanji catching wind of this."
And, despite how utterly dejected and borderline terrified she'd been since the moment she sat down on the couch, Vivi still managed to laugh for him: a light, feathery, almost weak-sounding laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.
"And how are you not a lesbian, exactly? Doesn't this sort of qualify?"
"Well, usually yes," Vivi admitted, her demeanor slowly melting into a more secure calm. Apparently that was the worst of her confession, and once that mountain had been cleared without resulting in a complete nuclear fall-out, she could breathe easier. "But it is sort of different. See, I'm only attracted to this one woman. It's not as though I feel attracted to all females, just this one. In fact, I fell in love with her personality and … well, her, before I ever found myself physically attracted to her."
Zoro's eyebrows rose in mild surprise. "Huh. First time I've ever heard something like this, to be honest. But you fell for her personality first, eh? Must be a pretty amazing dame, for you to jump ship like that."
A fond smile curled the delicate corners of Vivi's mouth as she watched the floor dreamily, as though the hardwood was actually some window she could look through and see the girl of her dreams delicately dusting the living room, or something.
"She is rather amazing. I think, anyway. I know some may disagree, including herself. She's strong and funny and determined, and every now and then she can be a bit selfish and over-the-top, but she truly does have a compassionate heart, and a tendency to believe the worst about herself." The blue-haired girl looked up just then, eyes sparkling with amusement as she said, "Really, she reminds me a lot of you, Zoro."
Now, how the hell was he supposed to take that kind of comment? Really it just raised more questions to his mind, but he wondered whether he should bother bringing it up. It wasn't important, or even all that relevant to her situation, but he couldn't help the fact that his was completely blowed over by all this information.
Some of his confusion must have translated onto his face, because Vivi frowned just the slightest, and asked, "Did I say something wrong?"
He shook his head slightly, trying to get everything in there to settle. It didn't work. He wasn't surprised. "I'm just wondering about some things."
"Like what things?"
"Like … and this is gonna sound weird, but don't take this to heart, seriously, uh … if you're not usually attracted to other women, and this particular one reminds you of me, then, hypothetically, wouldn't it make more sense for you to be … interested in me?"
Zoro tried not to sound like a fool, but he probably failed on that count, seeing as how he'd managed to succeed in feeling very, very foolish.
But Vivi didn't seem insulted or angry or anything else he'd been expecting as a reaction to him and his general dumbness in the realm of romance. She just grinned further, face tinting slightly pink as she averted her gaze again.
"Well … honestly, I asked myself the same thing just yesterday, when I finally realized I was truly in love with this woman. I wondered why I hadn't fallen for you, when your character is so close to hers and since, until now, I've always been attracted to males. And you are attractive, so it wasn't that at all; in fact, I think when I first met you, I might have crushed on you a little - "
Holy shit, I'm sorry I asked! I really don't need this sort of awkward in my life!
" – but that's all it ever was," she said, shrugging. "Just a crush to try and cover up what I knew I felt all along. And trust me, even now, I wish I could fall for you. I feel like it'd be a lot less of a hassle than all this nonsense."
"Why is this a hassle?" he asked, frowning himself. "I mean, since this is the first chick you've ever been interested in, I can see why it'd be hard for you to wrap your head around. Beyond that, what the hell else could be wrong about this situation?"
That nasty, rueful grin settled back in, and the embarrassed-yet-cheerful light that had only minutes ago lit up those blue eyes was gone, replaced now with an ironic sense of hopelessness. Zoro really didn't like that look on such an otherwise upbeat person. What the hell could honestly be so bad that it caused Vivi's eternal well of sunshine and optimism to dry up?
That pretty well explained it. Was a lot simpler than he thought it would be, but given the circumstances, the simplest of wrinkles in the fabric could mean the difference between happiness or despair for the pale young girl. It must be rough, knowing the person you love will never love you back; knowing you can't even tell them how you feel, or you'll ruin any chance of being around them at all, even as friends. No wonder Vivi had been so distressed; it was a lot to have to deal with. Even thinking about it gave Zoro a headache, and he wasn't even the one –
" – Wait," the swordsman abruptly spoke up, interrupting his own thoughts. He gave Vivi a slow, shrewd look just then, suspicions and curiosity resurging all over again. "Do I know this girl?"
Her eyes went wide, shocked almost, and her body seized up slightly, looking frightened and utterly cornered. Clearly, this had not been something she'd intended for him to figure out.
And sure, that sucked, but if she wanted his advice – and how fucked up did that sound? – wouldn't it be a lot easier for him to advise her if he actually knew who the hell they were talking about when they said, "this woman?" That made sense, right? Zoro wasn't all that sure, he wasn't used to doing this sort of thing, but if there was one thing he could fall back on in life, it was that he operated solely on logic. If it didn't make sense, it was probably not a good idea. And now he found himself with a situation that, to him at least, didn't make any sense at all. A woman who had never had any lesbian tendencies in her life now finds herself head-over-heels in love with another woman. No, that didn't seem to fit into how Zoro thought the world worked, but the proof of the matter was sitting right in front of him, and there truly was no denying that Vivi was deeply in love with this person. If she was willing to risk this sort of embarrassment and judgement over confessing it to someone, it was obviously very, very true. So, despite how little he knew about women, despite how little he'd ever cared about romance, despite how infrequently he'd been approached for advice of any kind, and despite how much this didn't seem logical in any way, Zoro was gonna try once more to muscle through this.
He just hoped he didn't fuck it up.
"Vivi," he began with a sigh, "if I know the person, I can help you better. Just tell me who it is."
The young girl seemed to fold up on herself, tight-lipped and even more unwilling to divulge this information than she had been about being in love with a member of the same sex. Maybe she thought it would be too personal, maybe she feared ruining the group dynamic.
Zoro didn't particularly care. He knew the answer anyway, whether she said it or not. Really, it wasn't that hard to figure out.
"It's Nami, isn't it?"
Vivi started to tremble slightly, eyes bright with unshed tears, as if this, for whatever reason, was what would finally bring the disgust into the swordsman's tone. She nodded just barely, eyes nailed to the floor and looking like a scared, lost child. Remembering then that he still held her wrist lightly, Zoro began rubbing soft, comforting circles into her skin. The fingers of her free hand clutched at his again, squeezing hard as she fought to keep composure in check.
"It's okay, kid. It's not as bad as all that."
"Yes it is!" she wailed, louder than she'd dared to be at any time during this conversation, sad and broken and dismayed. "Oh God, what am I supposed to do, Zoro? What do I do? What can I do? God, I've ruined everything!"
And with that last heart-rending cry, she dissolved into convulsive sobs.
Zoro was vaguely horrified. He also felt an odd, stabby-sort of pain in his chest at seeing his friend fall apart this badly. A large part of him wanted to reach his hand through time and space and magically drag Nami into the apartment, so he could berate her selfish, bitchy ass for making such a generally sweet and happy girl this bitter and destroyed.
And he figured he was definitely losing his edge. Goddamn Vivi and Chopper for making him go soft. He was actually getting good at this whole "consoling" thing. Well…perhaps good wasn't really the word; "less sucky" might be more apt, considering he still felt like an awkward, ignorant lump whenever he did it, but being painfully aware of his own massive shortcomings didn't stop him from kneeling on the hard wood floor and slowly, uncertainly, wrapping his arms around the weeping girl.
Well, there goes my persona as a hardass, he thought wryly, tentatively patting the back of Vivi's head as yet another one of his T-shirts was soaked in tears. Really, he'd never met a group of people that cried this much in his life. And he was feeling less and less freaked out by that.
Yes, Zoro was screwed. He'd succumbed to the weakness of caring about people and feeling bad for them, and worrying about them, and sympathizing with them, which was really the worst of the lot.
Fuck. My life, he despaired, but only for a second, until a particularly harsh shudder wracked the small body in his arms, and his attention was pulled away from his defeatist musings.
"Vivi," he started, trying to sound as understanding as possible, because even though it seemed pretty hard to imagine, he was convinced he could still somehow make this all worse, "things aren't ruined. Seriously. It's not as bad as all that."
"H-how do you know?" she cried, voice muffled into his chest.
"Cuz I know Nami. That miser was cooking us breakfast all last week, and the bitch wouldn't quit whining and complaining at me over every damn thing she could think of. It was awful, really. But I know she cares about you. A lot. When she's not throwing a damn fit, she's always talking about you. I dunno if that's anywhere in the same realm as love, but I'm at least pretty sure that she wouldn't abandon you if you decided to tell her how you feel." He paused, then added as an afterthought, "Which you should."
A strange sound half-way between a gasp and a choked-off sob. "I can't tell her! What will she say? What would she think? She'd probably never speak to me again."
Her thin fists twisted Zoro's shirt in merciless bunches, wrinkling and possibly tearing it. He wasn't much concerned.
She sounded so fucking desperate.
"I've messed everything up! How are we going to live together anymore? How are we going to be friends? How is anything going to be the same again?"
And it was the truth, goddamn however hard it was for her to hear it. She came to him, this is what she should expect. And she flinched, powerfully, jerking a bit against the circle of his arms, but she didn't pull away and she wasn't weeping anymore.
"Things won't be the same," he said simply. "Everything is different now, and you know that. The way you feel puts a new dynamic on things, and that ain't gonna change just because you wish it would. You can pretend all you want that you don't feel like you do, but you'll only be lying to yourself. And when the hell did that ever help anyone?"
Vivi mumbled wordlessly into his shoulder, sniffling and hiccupping in attentive despair.
He sighed, fingers tracing random patterns against her scalp, gently mussing her long blue hair.
"So tell her. What have you got to lose?"
She sniffed. "Everything?"
"Isn't it worth that much, too?"
The young girl pulled away just then, peering up at Zoro with glossy, red-rimmed eyes and sopping wet face, paler than she looked when she walked through the door, yet decidedly less burdened. And Vivi looked at him then, looked him straight in the eye, not because he told her to, but because she seemed to think that whatever courage she was lacking was somehow to be found in the green-haired swordsman. And he held her gaze, unflinchingly, as honestly as he'd ever looked at anyone, and after a moment or two, she must have found what she was looking for. She smiled, small and delicate and very, very fragile.
But there wasn't a trace of bitterness to be found in it.
Zoro approved of this smile.
"Thank you," Vivi murmured, just barely above a whisper.
He grinned back at her and simply shrugged.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and held on for a long, long time.
He'd lost track of the rest of the afternoon, his mind sort of checking out during the immense stretch of time Vivi'd spent clinging to him. She'd pulled away eventually, and Zoro decided in light of all the crying and such that tea would probably be a good idea, so he put a pot on – the one and only thing he was capable of doing successfully in the kitchen – and they talked randomly, pointlessly, and without direction as they waited for the tea to be ready. And once they both had warm mugs steaming soothingly in their hands, they continued talking. Zoro doubted he'd ever talked quite as much in his entire life before that moment, the only exception being the night of Zeff's funeral, when he'd recounted his entire life's story to a drunk and oblivious Sanji, but that hardly seemed like it counted. And true, Vivi was doing most of the talking, with the swordsman making quiet noises of affirmation and a few brief words of commentary, but it was still technically a conversation, and it lasted a lot longer than Zoro'd ever managed before. He didn't know if he should be proud of himself, or horrified.
Seriously…seriously losing my edge…
It didn't seem too important at the moment, though, so he figured he'd put off thinking about it until after Vivi went home. Which it looked very much like she never would. Zoro didn't totally blame her, what with the huge ball of fucked-up in the form of a retarded, selfish, clueless roommate awaiting her upon her return, but Zoro wanted her to actually tell Nami how she felt, and he didn't want to give her an excuse to curtail that responsibility by getting home at the crack of fucking dawn. But he didn't really know how to convey the message, "GET THE FUCK OUT" without offending her, and subtlety had never been one of the swordsman's strong points. The sun had set near a half hour ago, it was getting late, and he didn't have a damn clue how to get Vivi to leave.
As it so happened, salvation came in the last possible form Zoro'd ever expected.
The door to the apartment sailed open just then, revealing Sanji, home from a long day on his feet in the hot, busy kitchen of the Baratie, where he still worked as Assistant Head Chef, despite being written out of the Old Man's will. Zoro didn't understand this at all, and he'd meant to ask about it, but Sanji'd been doing so well the last couple of days that he wasn't too keen on bringing up anything that might set the cook back in his recovery.
Zoro finally got the blonde acting normal again. He didn't want to fuck with it.
Said blonde looked up just as he walked into the apartment, shaking his sweat-dried and unkempt hair out of his face for a brief second before the curtain over his left eye fell back into place, and locked gazes the swordsman. Zoro, for his part, had expected to be more or less ignored by the scrawny cook – he tended to be pretty exhausted and frustrated and distracted after work, and never did talk much to anyone unless they made their presence known in an obvious way – and was therefore fairly surprised when he found himself on the receiving end of a Death Glare to End All Death Glares.
What the fuck is Curlicue's problem? Zoro thought, slightly bewildered and glaring right back without missing a beat. Haven't even said two words to the fucker, how the hell could I have already pissed him o—
"Sanji!" a bright, surprised-sounding voice piped up just then, and Zoro started, blinking rapidly as his eyes shifted from the eternally enraged cook to the young, blue-haired girl now twisted around in her seat to look at aforementioned enraged cook, who still stood, glowering and speechless, in the open doorway.
It was at this moment in time that Zoro actually remembered who Vivi was, namely: one of Sanji's beloved ladies. And she'd been here, with Zoro, alone for God knew how long, and the swordsman figured this kind of scenario was high on the list of things Sanji would have no qualms kicking his ass for. Right up there with mocking his eyebrow, messing with his kitchen, and breathing too loudly.
But the only (and Zoro meant only) benefit of the idiot's complete and unfaltering devotion to his ladies was that, at least for the moment, he was too preoccupied tending to Vivi's every conceivable need to take any further notice of the swordsman.
Thank fuck for small favors.
So instead of riling off and threatening death and food poisoning forever, Sanji opted to slap on a dopey smile and twirl at dizzying speeds over to where the blue-haired girl sat, kneeling on the floor at her side and swooping up her thin hand with a flourish, pressing a chaste and gentlemanly kiss to the pale skin there, trilling in his nerve-grating, high-pitched tone reserved only for the girls. Zoro failed to see how this was a priveledge for them, as it damn near drove him to fits of insanity.
"My lovely Vivi, it is so good to see you! I do hope this brute hasn't harmed or offended you in any way!"
She just laughed charmingly, patting his wrist. "It's good to see you too, Sanji. Seems like it's been such a long while. And Zoro's just fine, don't worry; we were merely talking for a bit."
The cook's blue eyes seemed to tick, complex calculations running behind his irises as he took rapid stock of the situation. Then he aimed a very intense, very warning glare at Zoro – what he was being warned against was a little lost on the green-haired man, since anything Vivi had to fear from him, Sanji was more likely to do, anyway – only to have his mask of pleasant chivalry snap back into place not a millisecond later, as he turned to coo at the young girl.
"Of course, my angel! Whatever you say. Now that I'm here, though, is there anything I can do for you? A drink, perhaps? We'll be eating dinner soon, and you're wlecom to join."
She gave him a small but genuine smile, as she said, "Ordinarilly I would love to, Sanji, but it's late, and I really should be going. Nami's probably wondering what happened to me."
"Ah yes! It would be dreadful if the wonderful Nami were vexed! You should hurry home to her at once!" Sanji said, beaming hugely at her.
"I will," Vivi laughed lightly. "And I'll tell her you said hi. Good night, Sanji."
"Good night, my goddess!" he warbled, pressing another kiss to her pale fingers. Then his demeanor shifted a full one-eighty as he rounded on the swordsman, fixing him with a seething stare. "Walk her to the door, idiot!" he growled, then flashed a parting smile at the young girl and spun on his heel, marching over to his kitchen and flicking on the overhead lights.
Zoro wondered briefly if Sanji had Split-Personality Disorder. Then he decided he didn't care, because caring about that fucker had only brought him a world of trouble, anyway.
Shrugging off his aggravated train of thought, he looked up to see Vivi watching him curiously. He merely shook his head at her in defeat and said, "Come on."
Zoro marched over to the door in a matter of a few strides, sliding it open as Vivi trailed behind him, about an ounce of hesitancy in her step. A small part of him felt sorta bad about practically kicking her out of the apartment and throwing her into a severely messed up situation back home. But the majority of him was pretty well convinced that however bad things got, they'd only get worse the longer Vivi stewed about it and never did anything. So he wasn't guilty.
Only kind of concerned.
Which wasn't all that much better, in Zoro's book.
Vivi stepped up to his side, laying a hand on his arm and speaking in a low voice so Sanji wouldn't hear, "Thank you again, Zoro. I really appreciate it."
"Are you gonna tell her?" he asked without preamble, looking down into her slightly startled expression.
"Um…well…" she looked away, biting her lip. "I know I should…I know I should do it soon…"
"Yes, you should."
"I…" blue eyes met his again, trembling and scared. She heaved a sigh. "I'll do it. Tonight."
He frowned. "Really?"
"Can I…come over tomorrow, and…tell you how it went?"
The swordsman nodded. "Sure. I'd like to know. But come by after four."
"Why?" she asked.
"I don't get off work 'til about three-thirty."
At that her eyes widened, looking suddenly glossy and slightly teared-over, lower lip quivering a bit, and Zoro didn't know what the hell her problem was, now.
"You," she started, blinking in disbelief, "You wasted your last day of vacation on me?"
"No," he said automatically. It hadn't been a waste. He hadn't had any plans that day, anyhow, so how could he waste it?
"But you - you!" she started, too flustered and blushing and waving arms slightly to make a valid point. "You! You…you spent the whole day! Just listening to me prattling on about all this….and you never even complained! And you probably had plans! Wanted to do things before going to work, and you - "
" – I didn't have plans, Vivi, I was just gonna - "
" – wasted your last day of vacation babysitting me! That's not fair! That's not fair to you!"
Zoro huffed, thinking how unsettling it was that Vivi reacted to shocking news almost exactly how Chopper would.
I do not need two bundles of hopeless fluff in my life. The kid is plenty. Seriously.
Rolling his eyes, he said, "Will blaming you make you leave sooner so you'll have that damn talk already?"
Vivi blinked, mouth opening and closing a few times as her jarred mind tried to comprehend everything. "So you're not mad?"
"Do I look mad?"
"Maybe a little irritated. Is that my fault?"
"If I say yes, will you leave?"
She frowned, her forehead creasing pitifully and seeming hurt. "You want me to leave?"
The swordsman groaned, rubbing his face firmly with rough hands and reminding himself that strangling people is wrong.
"I want you to stop avoiding the issue. I want you to go, so you'll talk to Nami. Move on with life. Maybe even be happy." He lowered his arms, leveling her a frank look. "And you can't do that if you don't leave. Now. So go."
Vivi stared at him a moment, face expressionless, until her mounting worry made her look away, eyes on the floor, and she started fidgeting again. Then she squeezed her eyes shut, forcing a deep breath in, deep breath out, and she seemed a bit more in control after that.
"Okay," she murmured. "I will. I promise."
Zoro grinned. "Glad to hear it."
The young girl met his gaze after that, and managed a little smile of her own.
"Thank you again. You're really wonderful, Zoro."
And then she moved forward, arched up on tip-toes, kissed his cheek lightly, and was out the door before he could fully process what the hell had just transpired.
Zoro blinked, staring into the empty, darkened space of the landing just outside the apartment, and wondered if this entire day had just been a dream, and he was still in fact asleep on the couch in the living room, bottle of sake tipping precariously in his lax grip. He sort of hoped he was. Because then he wouldn't have to answer any questions about when he'd become such a fucking weak-ass sap, and how these goddamn friends of his had somehow gotten him wrapped around their collective fingers, and how it was that, even when he knew it was happening, he still did nothing to prevent it. He didn't want these sorts of connections. At least he hadn't a few months ago. And Zoro didn't even know when all this mess had started, or when he'd suddenly changed his mind and decided that all the tough, shitty lessons he'd learned from his past were now completely fucking irrelevant. Because they weren't, at least he thought they weren't, but then again he also thought he'd decided earlier that morning that he wasn't gonna bother thinking about this shit anyway, because he cared now, and he was happy, and safe, and it all seemed fine when he was simply musing on it hypothetically, but actually being faced with these massive changes to his outlook on things in real-life interactions…it really fucking threw him off. More than he expected.
And he figured it was the gratitude. He couldn't get used to people actually…wanting to be around him and being thankful for the opportunity. Couldn't fathom why they would, honestly. He tended to dislike most people, often on an arbitrary basis, and as a result, most people tended to avoid him. But these assholes…they practically forced themselves on him, and since he lived with three of them, and had grown pretty fond of having a roof over his head, the swordsman didn't really have a whole lot of say in the matter. And since he'd started almost enjoying their company, he didn't see much point in losing any sleep over why they even liked him in the first place, or why he was suddenly okay with all this.
Until right about now.
Now, Zoro did wonder about those answers. Now, he did wonder about the why and how. Now, even though he cared, and was happy, and safe, he was also confused as all fucking hell, and he was pretty sure he'd never be all that okay with the companionship, and the liking, and the gratitude. It was never going to make sense to him, and he would always prefer if it were never mentioned.
But right at that second - as he stood there in the darkened doorway leading out onto the stairwell, a mass of gnats buzzing around in his skull once again and feeling tired and generally stunned – Zoro decided what he would really prefer was to finish off his bottle of sake, eat some food, and get to bed early, if possible without any bitching from Sanji or loud demands from Luffy to play the new, inane game he'd made up twenty mintues before walking through the door.
Chopper was okay, though. He could do whatever he damn well pleased, it never bothered the swordsman.
Well, and the green-haired man sighed slightly, letting his shoulders relax by degrees, at least all that weirdness is over. Even though the show of gratitude at the end was a bit…much.
He gave a mental shrug, sliding the door closed again and rubbing at the back of his neck, turning towards the couch once more, and the bottle of booze waiting for him on the coffee table.
At least shit-cook didn't catch it. Idiot would fly off the fucking hand –
Zoro paused, sighed, hand gripping his neck now in barely restrained agitation, and this day had been way longer than he'd planned on. He should have expected it. He really should have seen it coming.
Not like Curlicue was any better at subtlety than Zoro was.
So with a resigned huff, the swordsman opened his eyes, and was fairly unsurprised to see the blonde chef standing just beside the arm of the couch, glaring at him.
"What, cook?" Zoro asked, taking the approach he usually used when dealing with Smoker: the faster he let them get on with their pissy rant, the sooner he could ignore them and go about his life.
Sanji's eyes narrowed further, calculating and unforgiving. Then he drew a deep breath, no doubt readying a hugely-long tirade on women and their innocence, or something just as retarded…
"Is she finally gonna tell Nami?"
The room went so utterly silent, the pirate flag's wafting in the evening breeze out on the fire escape was still audible over the sound of Zoro's brain imploding. He'd never before in his life been in danger of swallowing his own tongue until that very moment.
Screw his eyes shut. Wrench them open. Blink a few times to focus.
Stare at Sanji like he's a fucking alien.
He might actually be brain-dead.
This theory was very nearly proven correct, when he noticed the odd-looking grimace the cook wore, and realized that blonde fucker was trying not to grin. Smugly.
"You knew?" It was the only plausible thing to say, at the moment. Zoro was just proud of himself for saying words.
Sanji just scoffed, rolling his eyes, because clearly Zoro was a goddamned moron, and the cook was, of course, a fucking genius, since he pretty much stalked those chicks.
"I've known these girls a lot longer than you have, marimo," he said, this time really playing up that infuriating smirk. "It was kinda obvious."
Zoro frowned. "Do the others know?"
At that Sanji frowned as well, lower lip jutting out at an odd angle as his mind no doubt scanned through their roster of friends.
"Robin does, I'll bet. Maybe Kaya too. I think Franky knows, but I'd rather not discuss that - " Zoro grunted his approval; he rarely wanted to discuss how the big-armed engineer knew things, either – "I cannot presume to distinguish what the lovely Nami is or isn't aware of. And I think the others are just idiots." Sanji nodded then, signaling the end to his diagnosis.
The swordsman nodded back, regarding the cook with an ounce of expectancy, because he couldn't be sure if that was the actual conversation Sanji had intended to have, or if it was merely a diversionary tactic. Not that the blonde was ever that crafty, but…Zoro found it hard to believe the skinny bastard wouldn't somehow drill him for scoring a kiss off one of his darling girls.
Despite the fact that she was currently batting for the other team.
But no. The cook merely shifted a bit, that disgustingly self-pleased air dissipating into nothingness about as quickly as it'd shown up. His hands in his pockets, blue gaze suddenly engrossed in the floor, toe knocking against the leg of the couch and looking generally uncertain yet completely determined to make some point or other. About what, Zoro didn't have the foggiest, and while he kind of wished the blonde wouldn't bother – because, as today had pretty well proved, the harder things are to say, the less anyone wants to hear them – he knew the idiot was gonna plow forward anyway.
Fucker was stubborn, there was no denying it.
Sanji drew another slow, preparing breath, the kind that seemed designed to throw the swordsman off kilter. Zoro steeled himself for…anything. Rant. Inevitability. Apocalypse.
"You talked to her, right? You convinced her to tell Nami about it?"
A lone, blue eye chanced a quick glance from under the fringe of hair that had slid back a little more than usual, further shielding expressions.
Cook was so uncomfortable it was almost funny.
"Yeah…" Zoro said, unsure where this was going and not even trying to pretend otherwise.
Sanji nodded again, watching the floor some more, his mindless tapping finally abated, but the smog of awkward he was exuding seemed to grow to smothering levels. Zoro cocked an eyebrow, wondering if there was a purpose for this discussion, and if they were going to get to it anytime soon. The kids were probably gonna be home before too long, and fuck if anything ever got done once Luffy remembered he had a captive audience back at the apartment.
The silence was getting deafening.
"That was…good," Sanji said, nodding to himself, and yet scowling at the same time, as though he approved of his statement but had no idea what was actually coming out of his mouth.
Zoro blinked. "Okay."
Coincidentally, he had no idea what was coming out of Curlicue's mouth, either.
"I mean…it was a good thing to do. Really. She might actually be happy, now."
Sanji looked up again. They just sort of stared at each other. They weren't screaming, they weren't bickering, they weren't bandying vicious insults back and forth. When it came right down to it, they had no idea how to act civilly with each other. It was such a pathetic situation, Zoro might have laughed at it, if his skin wasn't so busy trying to literally crawl off his body like a million, frightened centipedes.
By his tense pose and desperate look of a deer about to bolt back into the woods, Sanji probably felt similarly.
It was unbelievable how much they sucked at this.
And Zoro decided he'd quite had enough for one night. Or a lifetime.
"Well, I'm headed for bed." The fact that it was six o'clock did not, amusingly enough, make this a strange claim, and shit-cook didn't even bat an eye at the announcement. Zoro had a pretty clockwork practice of taking regular naps throughout the day, usually needing to be reawakened for meals. Sanji of course mocked him mercilessly, but it had stopped being odd about two weeks into the swordsman living there.
Sanji just opted to nod mutely – again – and continue staring at the floor, as though the wood grain was gonna somehow morph itself into a point-by-point overview of exactly what the blonde needed to say.
Zoro rolled his eyes, deciding he knew what was most likely to come next, and he didn't want to hear it. It wasn't necessary, it wasn't wanted, and he'd already determined he would never get used to it.
He didn't handle gratitude well. So he wanted nothing to do with it.
So without waiting for any kind of follow-up from the cook, Zoro turned on his heel and headed towards his shared room, hoping to make it all the way past the threshold before some God-forsaken epiphany befell the tongue-tied moron, and he suddenly remembered how to say the words "thank" and "you" in the same sentence, right next to each other. Almost there, now. Just a few more steps. He could totally make it. He was gonna make it. He was gonna walk right into that room. He was gonna close that door. He was gonna climb onto his shitty cot, purchased with Sanji's shitty money, and fall into a nice, dreamless sleep, and wake up for dinner, and all of this was gonna be behind him. Never to be thought of or mentioned again. Just like it was supposed to be.
The sudden sound of footsteps behind him, a curious sloshing noise, and the familiar raspy voice saying, "Zoro."
And Zoro stopped.
Because, above all else, Sanji's ability to make him do dumb things tended to trump most of the swordsman's higher thought processes and survival instincts.
The cook'll be the death of me, one day, Zoro mused, squeezing his eyes shut and sighing, since he really only had himself to blame; I can feel it.
He turned around anyway, reluctant, already knowing what the bane of his existence was going to say, and hoping if the procedure was sped along, it'd be slightly less unbearable.
That…was not what Zoro had expected.
He expected even less the half-empty bottle of sake – forgotten on the coffee table until that very moment – that was currently being offered to him by a pale hand wrapped around the neck. Zoro looked up at the owner of said hand, gauging, wondering what this was supposed to mean, and if it was what he thought it was.
Sanji just shrugged, grinning at him slightly without a trace of snark.
He reached out and wrapped his larger hand around the body of the glass jug, and for a brief minute, they were both holding it, joined at some bizarrely definite point, and grinning at each other like it was some really funny inside joke, even though neither of them had any idea what was going on.
All Zoro knew, as Sanji let go, shoving his hands in his pockets and meandering back over towards the kitchen, was that this was, and always would be, the only acceptable form of gratitude.
I could get used to this.