Summary: Zoro reflects on choices made and realizes that he needs something more from his captain. Love, loneliness and discoveries beneath the sea.
Theme: #60 bright (for 64damn_prompts)
Warnings/Spoilers: No warnings. Spoilers up to and including Fishman Island arc.
Acknowledgments: Most excellent beta by loveandallthat! Blame remaining goofs on me.
Drink Days of Gold Together
"So, Luffy. Wanna have sex?"
The Captain of the Strawhat pirates barely stopped shoveling deep-sea delicacies into his mouth long enough to answer. When he sensed Zoro still beside him, his aura growing darker by the minute, Luffy hurried to swallow and continued: "I'm eating! We're leaving in two days and there's still so much food I haven't tried yet!"
Issue settled in his mind, Luffy stretched through the large dining hall and snatched himself another piece of sauteed meat.
While Zoro still looked a bit grumpy, it didn't seem worse than usual and after a while he picked up his sake bottle and drank deeply. He drummed his fingers on the bottle for a while, before glancing back at Luffy. Seeing that his captain's face was smeared with sauce and he'd managed to get some fish bones stuck in his hair, Zoro rolled his eye at the display. Finally, he emptied the bottle and turned to face Luffy directly.
"Why do I even... Look, I didn't mean right now, idiot."
"Oh." Luffy took a few moments to gnaw out the marrow of a particularly juice bone, before he nodded. "Okay, sure."
"Mhm, just lemme finish dinner. Ohh, lobster cakes!"
Looking slightly taken aback at the quick decision, Zoro fumbled along the table until he found more liquor. Luffy threw himself back into eating with full enthusiasm while Zoro stayed next to him and finished off the sake with slightly wild-eyed determination. As the evening wore on and Luffy even took the time to throw him a few smiles between eating, his shoulders relaxed and the beginnings of a smile spread on his face.
After their exciting arrival to Fishman Island, the Strawhat pirates had spent four peaceful days recuparating in luxury. Though nothing beat the first extravagant banquet, every evening had contained enough undersea delicacies to sate even Luffy.
During these days, the pirates had been offered private rooms in Ryûgû Palace and been shown one amazing sight after the other. Despite being grateful for King Neptune's generosity, the Strawhat crew somehow found themselves cosying up in groups every evening, following Luffy's whims as to which room they would pick for the night.
Zoro couldn't speak for the others, but he was fairly sure that their reasoning was similar to his own. The need to keep an eye on newly regathered friends was strong after two long years of missing their annoying noises and unique quirks. Even while Brook grumbled as Luffy stumbled on his leg (bone) while shambling away to grab himself a midnight snack, or Usopp and Sanji pelted Franky with pillows for the metallic rattle of his snores, they stayed together. All of them preferred it this way, even it it meant that some of the crew had to to sleep on the floor rather than enjoy the soft beds the staff had prepared for them.
While Zoro was used to bedding down on the ground (leaning against King Neptune's coral walls downright comfy compared to some places he'd slept) he didn't actively prefer the floor to a bed. On the second night, he had therefore given his own room a try. With a vague idea that he ought to take advantage of a proper mattress, free from ghosts and surprise attacks in the name of training, before it was back to bunk beds, Zoro left the raucous crew.
Ryûgû palace was a marvel, nature and architecture mixing in impossible ways to create a dream world and each guestroom had unique decorations gathered from the depths. To the swordsman of the Strawhat Pirates had been given a room with memories of warriors from earlier ages.
In the window stood crimson statue, an armless youth in armor that had made Nami's eyes alight with greed when she spotted it during their tour of the palace. According to their guide, it drew its vibrant color from the thousand souls gone aground in the treacherous waters of the New World.
At that time, Zoro had been more interested in the weapon hung above the bed: an ancient, chipped sword. It was, they were told, kept to remember a swordsman who served the King of the Sea with honor and courage far beyond his duty.
Now, backlit by the last rays of the setting sun, the statue seemed to glow with inner fire, its empty eyes almost flickering with life. Even Zoro, generally acknowledged to not be the most poetic of souls, was caught by the play of light.
Blood and fire; like the murals depicting sea-battles and the golden decor gathered from sunken galleons, the statue was a constant reminder of what lay beyond the idyll of Fishman Island. The most dangerous of all the seas: the New World. There, Mihawk had told him, the weak did not even have time to utter a prayer before they were swallowed by the hungry depths. A sea where the waves were tinged the color of blood and lost souls drifted in cold streams, their broken dreams keeping them from the final rest.
There, beyond storms and treacherous waters, waited the fulfillment of all their dreams.
With a soft click, the door slid shut beyond Zoro. As soon as it closed, the air in the room stilled utterly. Surrounded by water in most directions, coupled with the sealing effect of the bubbles created by the corals, hardly any sound carried between rooms in Ryûgû palace.
For a moment, Zoro was disconcerted by the lack of sound. Never mind the constant noise of the Strawhats, here was not even the steady rhythm of waves against the ship. No creaking planks, no rope and canvas straining against the wind, none of the sounds of the living sea. Within an hour of his return to the Sunny, Zoro had grown used to their presence and had dismissed the noise from his conscious mind. During the eventful days on the island, he had not felt their lack, until now. Without a wind to stir the air, the room felt more stifling than when they had crowded in here during the tour. With no shifting deck beneath his feet, the rich hues flowed together, became a gilded cage and the weight of the fathoms above bore down on him. In this silent room, an undersea grave to old dreams, there were no annoying snores, no bickering or laughter and no warmth.
Not thinking twice, Zoro turned around and returned to the room Luffy had picked for the evening. He entered silently and slumped down by the doorpost. A short nod to acknowledge his captain's happy wave before he leaned against smooth coral, his hand relaxing against the handles of his swords.
The room was full of noise; familiar, wonderfully annoying noise. There was Sanji's disturbing little groans when he dreamed of mermaids, Franky's rumbling snores and Brook's hummed lullabies. From outside, he heard a familiar tread and pushed the door open with a foot. Nami yawned and gave them a sloppy wave on her way to the bathroom. Luffy's cheerful 'Good night!' and the grumbling it caused from Usopp followed Zoro into peaceful dreams.
The next morning, a suspicious amount of giggling escaped from the girls' room until Chopper turned up with a massive amount of bows decorating his glossy coat. Though Zoro joined the others in politely ignoring the sight (at least until they were trapped out on the sea and someone felt bored enough to tease the reindeer for ever agreeing to wear lilac bows on his horns), he found it comforting that even cool Robin and practical Nami were being a bit extra clingy right now.
If the Strawhat crew could sleep surrounded by colorful treasures each night, their days were no less vivid. They'd all talked and laughed; oh, how they had laughed during that first banquet and their joy only grew as the days grew on and the next adventure came closer.
It was this gentle laughter, more than anything else, which seeped into Zoro, hurting and warming him simultaneously. The laughter of his friends opened a thousand invisible cracks, wounds he'd been carrying so long that he'd stopped noticing them ages ago. While he couldn't pinpoint where they came from, he suspected they might be the last remains of the pain from Thriller Bark, which had finally shattered him beneath swaying Yarukiman trees and torn him from his companions for too long.
Or simpy the compounded stress of training beneath empty yellow eyes for two years.
No, it wouldn't surprise Zoro in the least if his newfound need for company grew out of the gloomy days and painful nights on Kuraigana. Nights when he had lain wounded and exhausted, wondering if his soul would wither away even as his physical strength grew, until he was left as empty as one of the girl's falsely laughing ghosts. He'd have paid that price willingly, of course; weighing Roronoa Zoro's soul against the bright memory of his captain's laughter and the crew's songs, there was no question of which to choose.
Yet, it was the one price Mihawk had never demanded. And he had asked for everything else: the humiliation of coming up against your own uncrossable boundaries, the pain of breaking through them again and again. And, most bitter of all, the taste of defeat when each new achievement turned hollow, his opponent still gazing down at him from the height of a soaring hawk, so very far away.
At those times, the darkness around him had been blessing and curse alike. On the bad days, when only worn pride made him hold up the stoic facade around Perona, her gleeful laughter false echoes from better, sunnier times, then the silence of the black woods were a relief. When he lost his temper, when Mihawk's voice became tinged with contempt and he admonished Zoro for his childish lack of control, the shadows cooled him off. Once the Humandrills learned to avoid him, the dark island refused to present targets for Zoro's to take out his frustrations on. Instead, he found his rages turn inward, slowly solidifying into a white-hot fire of determination.
Instead of railing against his own weakness, crushing stones and punishing his body until he couldn't stand up, he found it possible to step back from his fury. Because even when Mihawk mocked, he offered valuable advice. Though it remained a struggle, Zoro found himself increasingly able to look back at each bitter loss and pinpoint the moment where the balance tipped in his opponents favor. Now and then, he could almost sense the other road, the one where his swords had set the pace.
Beneath that gray sky, Zoro had been driven deep inside himself, found strength and endurance he had only dreamed of in more carefree days. And if the price was that he, the solitary Pirate Hunter, now knew exactly what the sunlit world was worth? If he could no longer feel entirely satisfied with only his own company, if the silence that used to comfort him became only the gaping lack of cherished presences? For his dreams, it was a price he was willing to pay.
After all, he had already paid dearly, and not just in the scars and aches he expected as a boy.
The Roronoa Zoro who had tempered his self in preparation for the New World would've had nothing but pity for the naive young man who wandered away from his home some four years ago. Then, he'd carried one dream, two inferior blades and the conviction that he could defeat any foe.
The blades had been broken long ago. The security of easy victory was taken from him again and again. Though he still clung to his dream, the darkness of Kuraigana had shown Zoro that he needed something more than a longing for strength, if his opponent wasn't to cut him apart and defeat his very soul.
Three lights had kept him striving: the familiar white of his sword, the bloodied red of his distant goal and, shining ever brighter inside of him, the sunny yellow of a battered old straw hat. In the seemingly endless gloom,which he only realized just how much he despised when Perona led him out onto the blue sea, they'd kept him from faltering.
And while he would never have showed it to anyone, that mild sunlight – the knowledge that the same sun warmed and comforted his crewmates – managed to cut deeper than any physical swords.
There, during the journey to Sabaody he'd spent nights staring at the starlit sky while gentle waves rocked their boat. Looking up at eternity, Zoro had felt complete peace. The sun would rise soon, warm and familiar over a blue sea. His arms were stronger than ever, his swords were sharp and he had come out of the darkness with the security that, though he might be defeated and driven back, nothing could break his spirit. The beauty of the sea around him, the friends that were waiting and the adventures they would experience – it was the taste of happiness and it made him drunker than all the sake in the world.
For a few short days, he'd basked in the same sense of confidence he'd felt when seventeen, so untested and arrogant. As if the Grand Line reflected his good mood, their small ship had enjoyed favorable winds and when Sabaody's impressive mangrove trees rose around them, Zoro could almost imagine that nothing would ever hurt them again.
Finally, when Zoro's anticipation had already caused his relaxed mood to change into slightly restless anticipation, his captain appeared. Luffy's laughter rang out amid battle and chaos, his smile glorious as ever. Untouchable joy, undefeated spirit... A perfect moment.
If Zoro hadn't known that even the brightest flame could be put out.
The wonder of Sabaody's trees dimmed. The sunlight which he had been soaking up since he left the dank island remained, but it could no longer drive all shadows from his mind. Even their mad dive into the sea and the fantastic sights that met them paled in comparisonto Luffy's laughter.
His captain had grown in spades, that much was obvious at one glance. Though Luffy carried new scars on his body and deep shadows hidden behind the strength of his soul, his self-confidence was as remarkable as ever. To Zoro, his inner light seemed much richer than two years ago.
Seeing him like that again, so alive and happy – Zoro's entire being hungered for him, the force of his desire comparable only to his lust for battle.
It was beyond frustrating. Wonderful, yes, but frustrating. On the one hand he felt, like all of them, almost giddy at meeting again. They were all eager for the next adventure and his swords hungered for new challenges. At the same time, so much came back to him upon seeing Luffy again: the weight of his responsibilities, the burden of his failures and a silent, poisonous fear, cold like Kuraigana's starless night.
Every fire could be put out.
When Luffy spoke, when he saw him fight and laugh, the world turned so vibrant that it almost stung and his blades seemed to sing in his hands. His captain's voice was a balm against the darkness in Zoro, but increasingly, he sensed that it wasn't enough. Inside, there was a growing longing for something more: to touch Luffy, ensure that he was truly there. To breathe in his scent until it filled him completely, to listen to his heartbeat, keep him close and never quite let go again.
Yet part of him feared that further closeness would cause him to crack open, that the old wound would finally finish cleaving his heart in two. When Luffy beamed at him, when their hands brushed over a piece of fish, he knew it was far too late. Darkness hadn't crushed him, but this joy cut too deep to ever fully heal again.
Though there was a storm inside of Zoro, nobody seemed notice it. Not too surprising; he'd had an amazing teacher in concealing his true thoughts. There had been the chaos of their escape and battle, the marvels of the sea... Now, though, when they were catching their breath, Zoro felt as if the hair-fine cracks grew with every moment of warmt, stabbing with joy until all of him would wither apart.
What peace and stability he found came from the rest of the crew. The Strawhats were reaching for each other, all eager to connect anew. Together again, but now they knew the risks of the journey and it made them even more determined to live each moment to its fullest.
Franky had time work on his ship again, was happy to discuss improvements with the brother of his old master. His voice boomed as he asked Zoro wanted any changes to the gym and the world righted itself around that loud presence. Brook's joy at playing his most famous hits to a brand new audience was infectious and Zoro found himself humming the silly, cheerful tunes at the oddest moments. If he faltered, if his confusion grew too heavy, he felt a skeletal shadow at his side, sharing the support of one who knew even deeper darkness and was determined to fight it with brightness every step of the way. There was Usopp, who came up to him with a grin worthy of the captain himself and joined him in lifting weights. He kept up with Zoro's pace for almost an hour, his familiar chatter a comfort and a remainder that even if they faltered, they couldn't be completely torn apart. And the cook, of course, someone to scream at and fight with. They had loud and pointless fights, reminding them that they were safe and could be just that – stupid, loud and thoughtless. Without swords or danger, without the nihilistic cruelty always present in yellow eyes.
Slowly, they got to know Jimbei as well. The Fishman visited them often to speak and listen, his presence hinting at solid power and a stable soul. Zoro learned to recognize his gait and breathing, taught himself to relax around the man and knew that when the time came, Jimbei would find room on the Thousand Sunny's little world.
Around them, the kingdom was rebuilt. Between them, dormant ties where renewed and strengthened. While Luffy healed and the sea-folk celebrated, Zoro spent an embarrassing amount of time following the young pirate with his gaze, wanting what he could not quite put a name to.
It wasn't until they'd already spent several days on Fishman Island that accidental words set him on the right track.
He'd been trying to meditate, but really only managing to hide a too sappy smile while watching the younger crew being silly with mermaids from the cafe.
"I don't understand why he doesn't just ask them," Franky said beside him. They were sitting in one of the private rooms of the cafe, relaxing and enjoying Madame Shirley's coffee.
"Hmm?" Robin looked up from a scroll she had borrowed from the palace library. "I didn't quite catch that."
"I mean, look at them!"
Robin and Zoro looked in the direction their shipwright gestured, where Sanji was being his usual fawning self over the mermaids. While he no longer bled life-threatening amounts, his eyes were still full of hearts when he ogled the women. One could almost see the waves of desire emanating from him as the mermaids giggled and ruffled his hair, sometimes going so far as hugging "the funny little man".
"Now, I know there are girls you have to be all delicate with or they'll be frightfully offended. But far as I see it, these super sisters can take a polite question in the spirit it's given! Don't know that they'd say yes, but he's not even asking, just..."
"Noodling," Zoro muttered. Damn silly cook.
"Yep, good one Zoro-bro! I don't get it! Man's clearly got a thing for mermaids, but has he popped a friendly 'wanna fuck' yet? Naw! We'll leave before he works up the guts to actually ask!"
While Zoro choked on his coffeeRobin's smile widened and she put her scroll away. She tapped her cheek with a finger while she observed Sanji's antics. "I think, for our cook the chase and distant worship is half the pleasure. Besides, how can he single out one from out of all these beauties?"
"Feh." Franky shook his head and pushed up his sunglasses. "Too much fluttering around can't be good for a red-blooded man, not even cook-bro."
"Ah, but not everyone is as proud of their pervert badge as you, Mr. Shipwright."
"Hey, who're you to talk about perverts, sis? I know where those hands have been, eh!"
Part of Zoro noted that, though he crossed his legs protectively, Franky's stance remained relaxed and Robin's answering chuckle was an obvious signal of how fond their teasing really was.
The other, major part of him was busy internally flailing in shock at the possibilities that had just opened up to him.
touch that warmth, hold him close and finally ensure his hungry hands that the captain was there, hale and healthy, know him beyond words and battles.
prove that the darkness hadn't swallowed them, share their warmth when sea winds blew too cold, when the challenges become heavy enough to break even the strongest back, rest; just rest together and hold each other safe.
Not even noticing that his half-eaten cake fell and stained his coat, Zoro rose and walked out of the cafe. He mumbled something to Madame Shirley; mouth providing an excuses without input from his brain, feet taking him away on a rambling walk that would sooner or later lead him to an area where he could train. It was too much right now, all the soft hues and brilliant colors, his captain's smile and even the closeness of the crew which he had been craving so for two empty years.
Just a few hours with his swords. Just a bit more silence, if there were no dark woods. Until his lungs hurt and his muscles burned with acid, then he'd find himself again. Zoro had always learned physically, beating knowledge into himself, training and meditating until the lessons of the day were carved into his body in a map only he could read (but oh, there was an idea, to show it one other person, to let him in...) and this revelation? It was too big for him, wasn't a thought his mind could encompass.
Once he'd fought through it, once the swords had carved open a clear path, once he could understand... Then they could meet. Talk. Then Zoro could put words to the storm inside and ask his questions. Try to accept whatever answer Luffy gave him.
"Well, I'll be..." Franky lifted up his sunglasses and gave Zoro's retreating shape a long, thoughtful look. Nobody had ever accused the shipwright of being the most observant of men, but it was hard to overlook it when the swordsman pretty much inhaled his coffee at Franky's little rant. That Zoro then locked his remaining eye on their playing captain for a solid minute, without even bothering to lower his cup or wipe the liquid off his chin... Well, Franky had always had a good head for maths and far as he could see, this added up to one answer only.
He turned to Robin. She too was looking at the swordsman, though the way she held her scroll made it look as if she was reading to the casual observer.
"Did you know about this?" he asked, absently sweeping away Zoro's pastry before anyone sat down on the mushy remains.
"Not as such." She cocked her head and shrugged, deceptively slim shoulders rippling with barely-seen muscle. "But does it honestly surprise you?"
At that, Franky threw his head back and laughed loud enough for even Sanji to look away from the mermaids for a short moment.
"Robin-sis, nothing surprises me about the Strawhats anymore!"
"We're the best!"
Cheering, Luffy and Chopper joined them at the table, bringing more cake and hot chocolate and the afternoon passed in laughter and jokes.
A subdued Zoro joined them all later that evening. His hair was still wet from a swim and he seemed relaxed in the tired but sated way Franky had come to recognize as being two steps from falling asleep after intense training. Though he didn't speak much, content to collapse into bed and allow Chopper to use him as a pillow, Franky noticed how his breath only deepened into sleep once Luffy settled on his other side.
Ah, young love! Being the tough, manly cyborg that he was, soppy emotion wasn't really his thing, though he could appreciate the moment when two souls found each other – on a purely intellectual level, of course.
"Uh, Franky, why are you sobbing?"
"'m not crying! Bud id's so damn sweed!"