The Quiet Truth
Zoro didn't dream much as a general rule, not that he could remember. Some dreams he actively forgot, or tried, pushing them in the recesses of his memory, banishing the grainy images when they caught him unexpectedly under the skin in waking hours.
Some dreams were all right. Just the lucid energy of fighting, the thrum of swords. It used to be him alone against a thousand opponents, the hard fast thrill that he wasn't going to die but come to the inch of that doorway. It had bit in his throat like a blade and his mouth always tasted like steel afterwards. He'd never gotten to the end of those.
Lately, though, those kinds of dreams had become colored with meaning, colored with nakama. Luffy by his side, or maybe a little ahead, red vest like a meaningless target as he pummeled enemies to dust. Nami somewhere behind, filling the air with the whining snap of electricity. Usopp's voice as it rose and trembled and lied, but nevertheless sent fireballs careening through the battlefield, sending targets flying with pinpoint accuracy. Chopper in two places, usually, both plowing through enemies with huge furry arms and clinging to Zoro's leg, alternately panicking and yelling at him about bandages, hemorrhaging, concussions and to just lay down all ready and stop being so stubborn or he's going to get sat on.
Sometimes Vivi was there, zipping through the flashing swords on Caroo, her Peacock Slashers humming through the air. Usually it was soundless, but sometimes he could faintly hear her screaming 'everyone, listen! Please!' and he knew if he could just lay enough of them low it would be quiet enough to hear, but there would be no one alive to listen.
Sometimes Nico Robin, and while her hands caught enemies, they sometimes caught nakama, too, before he could cut them away. He'd seen Luffy skewered more than once, unable to dodge because of the hands that wrapped him in place. Those dreams were the only ones that Sanji was actively in, screaming with the rest of them as they watched their captain die bloodless on the sand.
Otherwise, the cook was always somewhere off t his right, out of sight, but not quite out of hearing, the sounds of his hits fitting the rhythm of the battle. Though when that sound is gone, he worries. When that sound is gone he knows the tide of battle is going to turn against them. Quiet brings the hands and Vivi's plaintive cries and it is always followed by the screaming. Though he hadn't yet watched Luffy die, always managing to bully himself awake.
As he was now, staring at the dark ceiling, feeling the swaying of the ship. He closed his eyes and passed a hand over his face, scrubbing away the remnants of the nightmare. The vision was gone but the feel of it lingered. The tightness of his chest, the wavering heat, the smell of blood thick in the air.
He rubbed a hand through his hair and sat up, blinking in the dimness until he could see his nakama over and around him. Chopper had made his way to Usopp's hammock, probably due to a skittering nightmare of his own and the longnose was curled protectively around him, drooling into his fur. Sanji with a skinny arm resting over his eyes. Luffy flopped over everywhere, fingers twitching as if reaching for the hat which had fallen to the deck sometime in the night. Zoro stood and picked the hat up, putting it back in its rightful place on Luffy's chest. Luffy snorted and twisted his head to the side, his arm slowly rose to palm the curve of the hat, holding it close.
"Don't lose it so carelessly, idiot," Zoro murmured. Luffy made a noise and murmured something that could have been an apology but could easily have been something about food. He resisted the urge to rest a hand on Luffy's stomach—but that would just serve to prove to himself the holes weren't there—and he knew they weren't. So he just ruffled his captain's hair and took his swords and went up into the night.
Chilly air swept down as he opened the hatch. A sign that they weren't in Alabasta's weather system any more and he closed it quickly but quietly. No land in sight at all now. Just empty sea and glimmering stars. It reminded him of that night when he'd woken on the little rowboat he'd bought when first starting out and realized he was alone. Home, difficult enough to find on land, was now impossible by sea. A cold sea and blistering stars and three swords, two overpriced slices of metal and Wado, practically nameless then, sleeping— He hadn't been afraid. He had never been afraid of anything. But he'd felt so small and the dream he'd promised so far away, almost unreachable.
Now Wado was awake, not actively like Kitetsu which always wanted to bite, but the kind of patient waiting to cut nothing, to cut anything. He felt like a man on a ship, his ship, their ship, getting bigger in a world that was getting smaller by the day. But he also felt like a man with lives in his hands and on his shoulders. They were counting on him to be strong. To keep the way clear.
He heard her coming before she spoke.
"Perfect night for brooding, ne, Swordsman-san."
He turned to look at her. She was leaning on the railing just outside the galley, steam curled off the mug she was holding and dissipated into the cold night air. She was on watch tonight, he remembered. She was taunting him, though, so he ignored it, watching her, trying to guess her game. She had to have one. To her credit, she'd never said she didn't have one—as if she was giving them a hint about something down the line. She watched him watching her, expression closed until she smiled. A mask. Covering something.
"This would be a perfect opportunity to do me in, you know." A hand came from his waist and tapped Wado's hilt. The sword didn't so much as stir. She was teasing him, but it was a warning to. Look what I can do. You don't have a chance. Testing the waters.
"I wonder what stops you," she said lightly. "Could it be I'm actually growing on you? Or are you just bound so tightly to your captain's wishes?"
Zoro snorted. If he wasn't, he wouldn't be here. He'd still be puttering around in the East Blue. A small frog in a big pond. Anyway, that wasn't a question worth answering either. She knew the answer just as well as he did. The only thing that stopped him was that she hadn't done anything yet. But the moment she did- The moment that changed— She shifted, straightening, holding the mug and crossing an arm over her stomach. Irritated. Defensive. He hadn't struck so she had no idea yet how to guard.
"Well, Mr. Strong and silent. If you have a problem with it, you should take it up with your captain. I didn't ask him to save me."
"Maybe he thought you were worth saving."
Her eyes widened and then hardened and she lifted the cup to her face to drink, tilting her head forward so that her bangs hid her expression. But it was too late. He'd seen it and she knew he had. When she looked up again, there was no mask but an expression hard as diamond, flat as a blade. The moment when a cornered creature bites.
But bites came out of fear. And she was afraid. Of something far deeper than Zoro knew. For far longer than Zoro could guess. If she did bite, it would be the end. She couldn't let him live and he couldn't allow her to kill him. She knew that, too and was almost trembling with indecision. He gathered his katana in one hand, and her hands wrapped around his throat, a lot of them, cold strong fingers pressing against his windpipe. He ignored them and sat against the mast, propping his swords up behind him and lacing his fingers behind his head. He kept his feet stretched out, though, one leg resting near the hatch to let her know under no uncertain circumstances what he would do for them. Otherwise he closed his eyes and let her be with herself.
After a moment the pressure of the fingers lifted and cool soft petals brushed over his skin here and there. He cracked open an eye and watched her. Her profile was to him as she watched the sea, one arm holding the other while she lightly balanced the cup on the railing.
"You don't really believe that, do you," she said.
She glanced at him, harsh and cutting, annoyed as if she thought he was lying.
"If Luffy thinks you're worth saving than you are," he said.
"And of course you trust his judgment in everything."
"He knows what he knows," Zoro said, closing his eye again. She was quiet. She trusted Luffy, too. If she hadn't, she wouldn't be here. If she hadn't, he would be fending off her attack right now. She was quiet. The waves lapped against the side of the ship. It was so still he could hear Luffy snoring from down below. Pretty soon Usopp or Sanji would stir and hurl a pillow at him.
A moment later there was a muffled curse. The thwop of a pillow. Luffy snorting in his sleep and then:
"Oi, oi! Don't eat it, shitbrain!"
Robin laughed softly and even he had to smirk. What kind of idiot were they following? From below decks there was a quiet grunting and then a ragged sigh.
"Fine, take it, but don't eat it," Sanji said and Zoro knew he was stuffing the pillow under Luffy's head as if Luffy needed it— but that's just the kind of man Sanji was. There was the snick of a match and he shifted his leg aside as he heard movement on the ladder. The hatch opened and he could feel the curly brow staring at him.
"Can't you sleep in a bed, dumbass marimo?"
Zoro didn't bother to react.
"If you catch frostbite and die I'm going to laugh and then use you to preserve meats." A finger jabbed him in the calf and he was debating reacting to a foot to the cook's head.
"So Swordsman-san is useful even after death, isn't he?" Robin said with a soft laugh. "Though perhaps he'd be better as a table."
"Ah, Robin-chan! You're awake! Did you need anything?"
"No, I'm fine, Cook-san, but thank you. I was just about to finish my watch."
"Well it's my turn next so please allow me to spare you those few hours for your beauty sleep. Not that Robin-chwan really needs beauty sleep because she's already one of the most beautiful women in the world!"
Oh, please. Sanji was laying it on so thick even Zoro could choke on it. Crazy woman obsessed love cook.
"Mm. I think I'll take you up on that. Thank you."
"Anything for you! And please don't trouble yourself to return the cup to the galley in the morning. I would be most honored to collect it myself."
He just wanted an in to their room. It was a tactic that was transparent as hell, though he probably knew that. Zoro couldn't fault him for trying even though he could be annoyed at it.
"Mm. We'll see," Robin said, and it was obvious she was teasing. "Well then, goodnight, Cook-san."
"Sleep well, Robin-chwan!"
He heard Robin walking across deck and a door closing. Sanji breathed at him for a few seconds than went back down the ladder. Once he was gone, Zoro felt a cool hand on his shoulder. He wasn't sure what it meant exactly, but he tilted his head a little so that his earrings brushed against it. Almost immediately the hand disappeared.
The ladder creaked again, the hatch was closed and Zoro felt the weight of a blanket tossed over him even though it wasn't that cold. Then, as if to counteract that, Sanji stepped on his shoulder and used him to propel himself up the ladder of the mast. Bastard. Not that it hurt at all.
Quiet returned for a moment but high above Sanji began humming some sort of sea shanty. Below Luffy began snoring again and there was a soft thud as Chopper fell out of the hammock. From the girls' room he heard a quiet murmur of voices before it went still again.
Right now. In this moment. Everything was okay.
So Zoro shifted his weight and went to sleep.