Author's Notes: Here's a fic which has been long in coming. Warning for wangsty parts. It's been betaed by the splendid Tonko; of course, any remaining errors are my responsibility alone. Nitpicks and other kinds of feedback are very welcome! The second part will be posted shortly, maybe even as soon as tomorrow.
Spoilers/setting: Set after Thriller Bark and before Sabaody.
DISCLAIMER: Disclaimer: The characters and situations of One Piece are owned by their creator Eiichiro Oda and by Shueisha, Inc. A few of them are used here without permission for entertainment purposes only. This fanfic may not be used for profit in any way and should not be reposted or recorded elsewhere without the writer's approval.
Opening the Box
What do you do when you run out of words, and the ones you've already used don't seem to make any difference? When you know you simply have to keep trying, it's way too important not to, and it's your fault in the first place, anyway – yet whatever you say or do seems bound to be the wrong thing?
The cook struck a match and lit a cigarette, slouching at the end of the table and looking out the window of the galley with a dull expression. The kitchen was empty, everyone gone after supper had finished half an hour or so ago. It was getting dark outside.
Thoughts whirled in his head and wouldn't stop, going round and round in furious circles: stuff he'd heard and said; stuff he might have said instead and maybe should have; what he could do and say now to help make it better. But when he tried out possible words and phrases in his head, they just seemed to smack into a wall of solid black rock, one which wouldn't crack no matter how hard he kicked it. Like they had before, so far.
He let out a groan, rubbing his forehead for a few minutes as if trying to form ideas out of mind-dough, not that it helped any. But he couldn't just let this go, couldn't go to bed and pretend nothing had happened. So he supposed he'd have to make himself get up from this chair and knock on the door on the workshop below deck and try one more time. Even if he'd end up only doing more harm.
Sanji didn't figure himself for the prying type. Sure, he might say a few well-chosen words if he thought they were needed, and he might step in to break up a serious argument. He also thought he was a fairly good listener, if need be.
But if someone didn't feel like talking he wouldn't insist, not about things that were serious (teasing was another matter, of course). He'd allow his friends their boundaries, didn't want to step on anyone's pride. After all, it was no more than what he wanted them to do for him, when he was feeling embarrassed or downcast about something. It was just a matter of respect.
And if he happened to harbour a growing sense of unease about one of his crewmates right now, it wasn't even as if he could explain why. Usopp hadn't seemed more down than usual during these past few days since the battles of Thriller Bark. In fact, if anything he'd seemed more cheerful, confident and boastful than Sanji had seen him for what felt like ages. The week before Thriller Bark, after leaving Water 7, there had been a sense of hesitancy about him, a fragility still there despite his palpable relief and happiness to be back. Trying too hard, straining to be happy and goofy like always – or so it had seemed to Sanji then, at least.
In any case, now Sanji couldn't sense that at all, not after their victory over that nightmarish place. Usopp seemed all back to his fun-loving self, only with a hefty new dose of toughness in him, and a solidity that hadn't quite been there before. So it seemed pretty dumb of Sanji to be worried now, instead of last week.
Was it just because he didn't like to think about where part of this new confidence came from…?
He could still clearly recall the hollow, hopeless feeling of terrible soul-crushing worthlessness that the negative ghosts had inflicted in him. Sanji still didn't quite understand how they really worked, those creatures of the (admittedly cute) Miss Perona, Moria's minion: he understood what they did to people's psyches, but not how they were able to. Nor did he understand what it might mean to be immune to them – "already negative", Usopp had claimed he was, but that couldn't mean the sniper felt like that all the time, could it? That seemed impossible. Usopp wasn't like that.
Sure, he was quick to panic and maybe even to despair, in the less serious sense. That was obvious enough. But he was quick to laugh, too, and made friends easily even with people who had scared him shitless minutes earlier. And whenever things didn't seem too dangerous, he would equal Luffy in cheer and enthusiasm about whatever their next goal might be.
Still, the thought that Usopp was thoroughly familiar even with a toned-down version of what Sanji had felt when the ghosts attacked him – familiar enough to build up immunity to the real thing – was deeply unsettling. Sanji didn't like it one lousy bit.
Even so, he'd probably have been content to say nothing and simply hope for the best… if it hadn't been for that stupid shitty mosshead damn well throwing his life away to that shitty Shichibukai Kuma, and coming out more dead than alive from it. And Sanji couldn't talk about Zoro's sacrifice – Brook knew about it too, and that was a relief, but Brook was too new to discuss that sort of thing with. He hadn't sailed with Zoro long enough yet.
So maybe the words that Sanji wasn't allowed to say eventually made him say other words, ones that might be unwise, but not forbidden. Not impossible.
He wasn't afraid that Usopp would leave them again. That wasn't it, not at all. Somehow he knew down to his very bones that wouldn't happen. At least not until after Luffy had become Pirate King and Usopp went back to see that girl on his home island he kept talking about, and if so, well… then it would be different. Besides, he'd probably get leave from Luffy to do that, Sanji figured.
But even if he stayed right among them he could still move further away. Could build up a wall between himself and the others again. Maybe not wanting too, not consciously, but still allowing the stones to pile up. That wouldn't be good at all. Also, Sanji couldn't help but wonder if that might not affect the outcome of some future battle, one in which being negative would not be an advantage.
Besides, for purely selfish reasons he didn't want that to happen. He wanted Usopp around being his ordinary goofy, lying self, making Sanji laugh or mildly pissing him off in a friendly way. It was just one of the things that needed to be there in order for Sanji to feel fine, like knowing there was food in the pantry or seeing Nami smile or just knowing all his crewmates were there and were their normal selves, even when those selves were annoying. Soppy of him, maybe, but that was how things had came to be these days and he had to admit it to himself, if not to anybody else.
It was late in the afternoon on an ordinary, rather windy day. There'd been a bit of a kerfuffle earlier when they ran into a trio of Seakings of the eelish sort. Their skin was even more slippery than the norm, in a disgusting mucuslike way, which made them harder to fight than usual. Both Sanji and Luffy had been initially puzzled. Sanji had just figured out the right way to attack them – or so he thought anyway – when Brook and Chopper had put their idea of a combination attack in motion. That turned out all right, and he felt proud of them, but… well, maybe it was stupid of him but he couldn't help feeling somewhat disappointed.
Non-fish supplies were ebbing out too fast again, he noticed. Damn. And while supper had seemed to come along nicely at first, now the shitty stove was acting up on him, and he couldn't figure out what the hell its problem was.
"Hey," he grumbled over his shoulder to Usopp, just entering the galley, "did you do anything to this shitty thing?"
Usopp looked puzzled. "Huh? No-ooo. I didn't!"
"Did you see Luffy or anyone else doing anything?" Sanji continued.
Usopp shrugged. "Nope. Get Franky to take a look if you're worried." He plopped himself down by the table heavily, looking fairly tired.
Sanji glanced at him briefly, then turned back, glaring down at the store. "Huh," he muttered. "It's not supposed to act up like that. It's brand new."
"Well, Merry's stove was brand new too at first and you still had trouble with it sometimes, didn't you?" Usopp pointed out.
"MhmIguess," mumbled Sanji, opening up the firewood door to try again to see if he could see anything that was amiss. Just like three minutes ago, everything looked okay.
There was a pause for a while. Sanji left the stove alone for now and went over to the sink, letting the hot water run. Then he glanced back again. Usopp had opened his bag and was going through its contents, sorting things into small piles according to some system Sanji couldn't guess at.
"Hey," said Sanji in a softer tone. "You should do that more often. We should."
"Huh?" Usopp looked up. "Do what?"
Sanji started to scrub one of the larger kettles. "Talk about Merry more," he explained.
"Hey, I do talk about her!" protested Usopp. "I don't want her to be forgotten. It's the rest of you that don't seem to want to. 'Cept for Franky and Robin. They don't mind."
Sanji shrugged and kept scrubbing, hoping he looked casual enough to hide his sudden, small fear that he'd said something wrong. "Okay. My mistake."
They were quiet for a while, a slightly less companionable silence than moments ago.
So, Sanji thought to himself. Do I start talking seriously to him now, like I've been thinking I should? Or do I keep silent because maybe that's the smart thing after all?
His right foot started tapping the floor impatiently, all by itself. Even if keeping his trap shut might be wiser, it annoyed him to be chickening out that way.
"Hey," Usopp said suddenly, perking up, "Brook was kinda fun today, wasn't he? When Luffy hit that second eely Seaking, I mean. The red one. He'd never seen him use that attack before!" He chuckled heartily; Sanji made himself smile tightly in reply. "And did you see his face when I shot the fangs out of the green one's mouth?" Usopp continued. "Haha! I don't think they had snipers like that back in his old crew, do you?" He grinned widely and rather smugly. "Now, that was an audience!"
Sanji let out a soft, unforced chuckle, feeling his spirits rise. "Yeah, yeah," he drawled. "Hey, cut the rest of us some slack, will you? Can't expect us to be impressed by small shit like that, not after seeing that crap you did from the Tower of Justice." He was washing the outside of the kettle with wide, easy strokes now, tension slowly easing from his back and shoulders. "Hitting Marines hundreds of meters away without even grazing Robin-honey in their midst… and in a hard wind too." Finished with the kettle, he straightened up and lit a new cigarette, then looked behind him again. "That was crazy enough to sound like one of your lies, you know. If I told Brook about it he might not even believe it, and I guess I couldn't blame him."
Usopp was picking with something at the table, looking pleased and a little proud but not as proud as Sanji would have thought – and not triumphant, as he'd been back then when it happened. "Yeah, well…" He shrugged, then mumbled all but inaudibly, "That wasn't really me, though."
Sanji started, then frowned, wondering if he'd heard that correctly. "What?"
Usopp looked like he just realised what he said. He grinned nervously and put a hand behind his head, "I mean, I mean it wasn't me, it was Sogeking! Yeah! That was all I meant! Anyway…" he fumbled as he picked up a small round object from the pile on the table, "…anyway, d'you know I've completely forgotten what the heck this is and why I'm carrying it? It's not something you're missing, is it?"
Sanji ignored the question, not even bothering to glance at the obvious distraction. He hadn't stopped staring at Usopp. "What's that supposed to mean? It's the same thing."
Usopp's smile began to look rather plastered on. "Don't… don't say that, Sanji," he said in a strained voice, turning the small thing round and round. "Well, okay, I didn't really think you missed it, just checking. Hey, it could even have been something that belonged to the stove, only I guess it's too big for that, and you'd probably know if something this big wasn't there, wouldn't you? I mean, I mean it's funny, this thing looks like some kind of ammunition but it feels way too light for that…" he babbled. Then he glanced quickly at Sanji. "Will you stop looking at me like that? It's giving me the creeps."
"Fine," said Sanji quietly. He turned back to the sink quite slowly, and continued with slow, soft, deliberate movements as he put the cigarette out, finished up the last of the washing, put everything in order and lit another cigarette. Then he turned around again and leaned back against the counter, arms crossed over his chest.
"All right," he began, "I don't know what the hell you think you're on about with this, but in any case it's a bloody lie. That was you all right, and if you hadn't been there on the roof right then we'd have lost her. Forever. No point in denying that."
Usopp shook his head, looking like he wanted to be elsewhere but couldn't find the cue to leave. "No… no, it's not. It wasn't me." He paused, picking at the small piles on his table nervously, then went on in a small voice, "It can't have been, because – it wasn't me. Because you don't – because you don't really need me, and… never mind."
Sanji inhaled deeply and blew out a couple of smoke rings, before he replied with studied calm, "What? Could you go on with that last part? Why couldn't it have been you?"
Usopp was looking down at the table now, the pretence of sorting through his things abandoned. "Because…" he mumbled. "…because you're not – No." He shook his head. "No, no, no. Forget it." He slumped, hiding his face in his hands.
Sanji looked at him sharply. "Come on!" he exhorted. "You can't stop there! You need to talk about this! It's okay, I promise I'll listen!" Usopp just kept shaking his head. "Usopp," Sanji tried again, talking slower and with more emphasis. "Come on. You know it."
Usopp drew in a long, shuddering breath, then suddenly burst out, "Goddammit, Sanji, stop it! Stop it! Don't be a jerk! I'm trying not to talk about this kinda stuff! I'm trying not to think about it!" He drew himself upright and turned his head to glare angrily at Sanji. "I'm really trying!"
Oh shit. This was not going well. But it was too late to back out, wasn't it? Only way was to charge forward. Sanji looked away for a moment or two, getting control over his face and voice before he spoke again. "Okay," he said gruffly. "Well, maybe that's good, most of the time. But y'know, maybe sometimes you do need to talk about that kind of shit even so." He took a chair and sat down on it, but he didn't pull closer to the table, not crowding his crewmate. "I won't tell any of the others, promise," he added. "It'll be okay no matter what you say."
Usopp stared at him, looking like he might be wavering. "Um. Er… well, then…" Then he abruptly shook his head, "No!" he burst out. "You're just doing the same thing you're always doing, Sanji!"
Sanji puffed at his cigarette and gave him a wary look. "Huh?"
"You always worry about me, trying to make sure I'm okay without hurting my pride too much! It's always like that, it's never the other way around! Because god forbid someone as tough and cool and, and collected and suave as five-star chef Black Leg Sanji could ever feel down and broken-hearted and need to be saved or just talk to someone!" Usopp drew for breath, then went on in a slightly calmer tone, "And maybe that's just how it has to be. I can't be you and you can't be me. But… but that doesn't mean I have to like it, goddammit!"
A long silence followed.
That, he would realise later, could have been Sanji's cue to stop, his excuse. It would have been stiff and awkward, but he could have shrugged tightly with wounded pride and grumbled, "Well then, if that's the way you feel about it…" And then he'd have looked away with a scowl, and Usopp could have left.
They'd have been on edge around each other for a while after that, but that would have passed, at least if they both made their best to pretend so. And they probably would have, too.
If Sanji had made that choice.
Instead, he said in a rather cold tone, "Oh, so I'm the bad guy now, am I?" trying to keep the shock and anger he felt out of his face and his voice.
"Yes!" snapped Usopp. There was a pause, then he muttered, "No. You're being nice again. But you're kinda being a jerk about it."
Sanji lit a cigarette, his anger receding again. "There's no way we could have made it without you, you know," he said, voice held low, fingers hardly trembling at all.
"That's not true," mumbled Usopp hoarsely.
Sanji fixed him again with an intent look. "Why are you saying bullshit like that now?"
Usopp closed his eyes, swallowed and whispered, "It's not. If it were, you wouldn't have… you wouldn't all have been prepared to leave without me, okay?" He swallowed again, then opened his eyes to look down at the table blankly. "And you were. 'Cause you don't really need me. It would have – it would have been fine if I hadn't apologised. For you. You'd have been fine."
Sanji stared at him. "…Is that what you think?"
"It's true," said Usopp quickly. "And, and… I thought…" Trembling now, he drew another deep and shuddering breath. "Well, it doesn't really matter," he said in a shaky voice. "O-only, I guess I kinda thought for a while you did. Need me. 'Cause I was of some help over there. And you're not – you're not complete jerks. So. So that wasn't me." His voice rose, becoming more strained. "It was Sogeking who was helpful. Not me. Okay?" he ended, in a tone that was almost wild.
Then his chair scraped the floor as he quickly moved it around, turning his back towards Sanji. Shoulders heaving, he took long, deep breaths.
Sanji sat frozen to the spot, still staring. For what felt like a very long moment, the two of them just remained that way, hardly moving at all.
Finally, Sanji swallowed. "So that's it," he mumbled, still incredulous. "You think we're jerks. You really think we're jerks."
"No, no…" Usopp shook his head at this, still sitting turned away from Sanji. He wasn't speaking very loudly.
"Yes, you do," said Sanji slowly. "But you don't want to think like that, and you still want to be with us." He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply from his cigarette, then opened his eyes again. "So instead, you deny what really happened and make yourself look weaker than you are." His voice felt off to his ears, not quite part of himself.
Usopp just kept shaking his head and making small sounds of denial.
Sanji stubbed out his cigarette, then cleared his throat. "I don't like knowing we escaped from that ghost princess just because you go around thinking like this," he said. "And it's not true. We do need you."
"No. Not really." Usopp sounded calmer now. He shifted position, turning back towards Sanji again, but kept his gaze on the wall in front of him. Then he crossed his arms over his chest and spoke again, quietly, "I know you were all happy when I came back. That was nice. But you would have been fine without me. I'm just… ornamentation."
"Like hell you are." Sanji didn't move an inch, just kept staring at him fixedly.
"Not always. Not always, I know, but…" He rubbed his forehead with his knuckles wearily. "Sanji, you don't understand, you're so strong you can't understand. But it's better for me to know these things instead of going around assuming… it's just better. It kinda… it kinda hurts too much when you assume things and then find out they're not true, okay?"
Sanji stared at the floor, feeling sick.
For a moment or two he wondered what might happen, if he were to stroll over to Zoro and, after kicking him awake, remark, "Hey, looks like our Longnose is slowly losing his marbles on account of us."
One thing he knew for sure, Zoro wouldn't show any regret about the demanding-an-apology thing. He'd still be certain he'd done the right thing, and that would be that. Probably he'd give Sanji a boy-are-you-stupid look, then tell him that Usopp was way stronger than that. Or he might wonder – and rightly so – why the hell Sanji wasn't dealing with it himself instead of coming whining to him about it.
Worse, Zoro might even mutter, "Fine, I'll deal with it," and lumber off with some half-baked plan that would eventually result in him getting hacked up into ground beef again. Because that was how the big idiot did things, wasn't it? Never mind that there wasn't any physical enemy present – somehow he'd just manage to find a way, even so. Shitty moron.
Sanji clenched his fist, drew in a breath and said, slowly, "Listen. It's not about being needed or not, it's not about strength or skills…" He looked up, trying and failing to catch his crewmate's eyes. "It would have been the same for any one of us, don't you see?" Usopp shook his head mutely at this, but Sanji soldiered on. "Well, it would," he insisted. "It wasn't about need, it was about trusting, you know? We all need to trust each other with our lives, and then we need to know nobody's going to leave on a whim again…"
"I get that." Usopp's voice was low and toneless, looking down at the floor. "I know. You don't have to say it."
Sanji looked at him helplessly. "You don't look like you get it. You don't look like you believe me."
Usopp muttered, "It's not that I don't understand… I know I was wrong, and I… said some bad stuff back then… and it was dumb of me to just try to pretend nothing happened… But I still don't think you'd have done it that way if you really needed me here. You'd have, I dunno, sent me some hints or something." He shrugged miserably, then mumbled something inaudible.
Sanji leaned forward, then found he was still too far away, so he moved the chair closer until his head was just a couple of decimeters away from Usopp's. "What was that?" he whispered, not letting up.
"And it wasn't a whim," muttered Usopp, only slightly more audibly. "And, and, okay, fine, I get it, but then you shouldn't…" He swallowed and went on much faster, "…Then you shouldn't say it was me there then and not Sogeking. Because it doesn't count, what happened over there; it didn't make me more trustworthy, so it just makes more sense it wasn't me."
He fingered the mysterious round object that wasn't ammunition from before, turning it over and over. "So I didn't join forces with you there on the sea train and later," he continued. "It wasn't me. It was just Sogeking, and he wasn't expecting or hoping to get anything from it, like – like being welcomed back or anything, because he was never part of the crew in the first place."
Sanji took deep breaths, slowly sank back into his chair, inhaling and exhaling at a measured pace. "I see," he said slowly. "He's just a hero, huh? And he didn't owe any debt to Robin-honey either, so it wasn't like he was there because of that."
Usopp made another awkward shrug, then mumbled, "I used to check you guys out now and then, you know. Sev- several times a day. I was hoping for a hint, for some kind of sign… but you all seemed so damn happy I lost my nerve every time."
Sanji frowned, raising his eyebrow as he puffed on his cigarette. He couldn't remember being particularly happy during that time. Sure, there'd been moments of excitement, yes, especially when he'd been shopping for supplies in the town's markets, knowing they'd soon have a great new ship to put them on. Also a lot of relief due to everyone being safe for the time being. But he remembered a lot of anxiety, too, in part because of Usopp and in part because any moment the Marines might turn up before the new ship was ready.
And he certainly remembered how Luffy had stayed inside their temporary building for days, refusing to budge just so someone would always be there if Usopp were to come by. Would it do any good to mention that now? Maybe not. He suspected it would sound too much like an accusation. And that was something the negative ghosts had been very good at, he recalled, making you accuse yourself…
"You must be a pretty bad spy, then," was all he muttered.
There was another long, tense silence.
"Anyway, that's bullshit, what you said," he went on gruffly. "You're not ornamentation. You're our sniper, and our fake captain, and we definitely need you. Hell, you bknow/b that, shit-for-brains!" he burst out, some desperation mixed in with the anger. "I shouldn't have to tell you! Yeah, I don't like the negative ghosts thing but it's still a fact that without you there, we'd all had been done for back at Thriller Bark. And Oz would have squeezed me to death if you hadn't shot one of your whaddyacall'em, "Big Balls of Fire Stars" or something…"
"Firebird Stars," mumbled Usopp.
"Right! And – and back when we were all surrounded at Enies Lobby, you were the one who first heard Merry, too! You were the first to realise we had to jump into the sea to escape. If you hadn't been there we wouldn't have got it until it had been too late, they'd have killed Luffy there on the spot, and probably all of us too except for Robin-honey…" He paused, out of breath, then continued only slightly calmer, "And she'd have been tortured horribly while they used her knowledge and then killed in the end, too – but you iknow/I that, I don't have to tell you! That creepy shit bastard CP9 boss just about told us so outright."
"Maybe," whispered Usopp. "Maybe so. But Merry's gone now. That won't happen again." There was a distant look on his face now, as if he was hardly there at all. As if nothing Sanji could say could possibly make any difference.
Sanji put his thumbs in his pockets and turned around, walked back to the stove and gave it one good swift kick. He nodded to himself as he heard a clicking sound and a low hiss from it, then poured cooking oil into the pan. There. iNow/i it would work, probably.
Standing by the cooking pan, he snarled to himself, groused inaudibly, stubbed out his old cigarette and lit up a new one. Then, he turned around abruptly, unable to keep it in any more.
"So you say we don't need you, and then I point out that without you we'd be idead/i – that's not enough for you?!" he erupted, then walked back to the table and leaned forward, face only inches from Usopp's. "How can you get more needed than that, for fuck's sake? What the hell do you want me to tell you?"
"I don't want you to tell me anything!" Usopp shouted back. His voice cracked, going shrill but also hoarse. "You're the one who keeps asking stupid questions! I just want you to leave me alone, dammit!"
"Well, at least you're fucking looking at me now!" yelled Sanji, then stopped as he saw Usopp freeze, staring off in one direction, towards the door. "Oh, what the hell now?" muttered Sanji, turning his head as well.
"Heeeey?" Luffy was standing in the door with a puzzled frown, looking from one to the other. "There's no supper? …Hey, what's wrong with you guys? Why are you shouting like that?" He shoved his hands in his pockets.
Luffy didn't show concern and worry like most people did, Sanji knew. When he wasn't simply angry at the one he considered responsible for someone's distress, he tended to look just like this, quiet and serious with eyes wider and darker than normal, as if trying to take everything in.
Usopp glared bitterly at Sanji, who was actually taken aback by the fierceness of it, but quickly rallied with defensive anger.
"Because this idiot keeps saying stupid things!" he shouted, pointing at Usopp with his hand trembling from the emotions. Part of him knew he was being immature, and maybe he was even breaking his promise from earlier not to say anything to the others. But he was mad, dammit!
Usopp pointed back at Sanji. "Because this jerk keeps bothering me with stupid questions!" he shouted just as loudly.
Then he stormed out of there, giving Luffy a wide berth as he passed him and slammed the door shut behind him. There were sounds of quickly descending footsteps down the stairs to the lawn deck.
(To be continued)