Title: Sparring
(Words:) 2,385
Rating: PG
Warnings: Minor violence via sparring...that's it, I think.
Prompt: By peskyerrandboy. The exact wording of the original prompt has since been deleted, but they basically requested some Zoro and Brook nakamaship, based around their common interest in swords...either fighting, or training.
Notes: Obviously, set post-Thriller Bark...think that's it!
Disclaimer(s): I do not own, or pretend to own, One Piece or any of its subsequent characters, plots or other ideas. That right belongs solely to Eiichiro Oda.

A week after the Thriller Bark incident, Brook was still reeling from his newfound life and crew. It was amazing to think he was a part of such an enormously strong and wonderfully caring little family, and now that he'd had a chance to be a part of them he didn't regret joining for a second. He respected each and every member and wanted desperately to help them achieve their dreams, just as they were going to help him reunite with Laboon. That meant he had to get stronger—so strong they could rely on him for anything.

At first he just tried to train on his own, but that proved to be useless. Even though he'd spent years training alone on his own dead ship, that clearly hadn't been enough to let him best Ryuma, and now he had to get even stronger than that. And he was desperate to be useful, to not hold the Straw Hats back with his own weakness. He knew he was a competent swordsman in his own right, but he had to be more than that in order to earn his keep on this crew.

So he turned to the only other person on the ship who could help him overcome that, go above and beyond what he already was: Zoro, the only other swordsman, and the only other member who could understand Brook's dilemma in full.

To be truthful, Brook was almost embarrassed to have to ask for Zoro's help. After all, he'd witnessed Zoro's duel with Ryuma, after his own horrifically failed attempt, and the distance between them had been shocking. Zoro might be almost seventy years his junior, but he was unquestionably already a master of the art of the blade, handled his katana with such simultaneous grace and power it was almost beautiful to watch. Brook didn't think the rest of the Straw Hats really understood just how skilled Zoro was, but as a swordsman he himself had just enough skill to see it, and to understand he was never, ever going to catch up to Zoro's current level of skill with the blade. It was almost a shame, to have to annoy such an artist with such a meager request.

But Zoro didn't seem to mind, when Brook tentatively asked to do a little sparring. He just shrugged and told Brook to meet him on deck the next day for some practice. So Brook did, fully prepared for a major sparring session that was almost certainly going to leave bruises (though he didn't have any skin to bruise, yohohoho!)

But the first day Zoro didn't really spar with him, not exactly. "Attack me," Zoro ordered. "Go for the kill—don't worry about hurting me, and don't use the flat of the sword."

Brook frowned as best as he could with his mostly immobile face. "I could seriously injure you, Zoro-san," he said worriedly. "I certainly don't want to be responsible for the death of a nakama."

"You won't hit me," Zoro said calmly, as he drew a single blade—Shuusui, ironically, the same one Brook had struggled against for years to try and reclaim his shadow. "I need to see your style and intensity head on, without you holding back."

"But you witnessed my fencing style against Ryuma, did you not?" Brook asked, puzzled.

Zoro shrugged. "I saw how he used it, not you. There's a difference. Now stop wasting my time and attack already."

Brook was still concerned for his sparring partner's safety, but he did as told, beginning with the sharp thrust technique of Gavotte Bond en Avant. Zoro batted it aside almost instantly, and for a moment Brook winced, expecting retaliation. But Zoro didn't fight back at all, merely waited for the next attack, gaze intense as he watched the blade.

Studying, Brook realized suddenly. He's studying my style as I use it more seriously, learning how it works through observation. He wouldn't argue with a master swordsman such as Zoro. Reasonably sure now that Zoro could handle himself without risking death, Brook began to apply his attacks more forcefully, more aggressively, utilizing the rapid thrusts, slashes, aerial maneuvers, and quick draws that his fencing style emphasized.

For all his attempts he never once came even close to hitting Zoro. Each and every time the swordsman batted the reaching blade aside easily with Shuusui, looking utterly unconcerned for his own safety while still intently studying each and every attack. He missed nothing, even though he wore that bored, scowling expression on his face. Almost, Brook might have been insulted at what was essentially a slap in the face, but he knew Zoro didn't actually mean anything by it, unlike Ryuma had. It was just a fact that Brook could never touch him, that he didn't even have to worry, and that was all.

They kept at it for hours, and Zoro never fought back once. By the end of it, even without lungs, Brook was panting hard from the efforts of trying to break through Zoro's single-sword defense. The skeleton couldn't help but be a little awed. If this was what Zoro was like with only one sword, he was almost afraid to imagine how terrifying an opponent he was with three.

"That's enough for today," Zoro said suddenly, and calmly sheathed his katana. He didn't even look winded. "You go rest or something. Come back tomorrow and I'll have something worked out."

"Worked out?" Brook asked, still breathing heavily, although he gratefully sheathed his cane sword and sat down on the lawn.

"To make you stronger," Zoro said with a shrug. "That's what you want, right?"

"Yes, of course, Zoro-san. I'll be here tomorrow at the same time as before!"

"Great," Zoro said, and walked away to do his actual training with heavy weights and strict katas.

Brook puzzled over Zoro's intentions for most of the day, and wondered how the swordsman planned to make his own swordsmanship better. He hadn't a clue, but he trusted Zoro completely when it came to things like this, and obediently showed up the next day for his next sparring lesson.

"Same thing as before," Zoro instructed, once again drawing Shuusui. "Go for the kill. No flat."

Brook nodded, and very much aware that Zoro could handle it now after yesterday, lunged forward immediately with a fast thrusting move, intended to pierce Zoro's heart.

As with yesterday, Zoro almost immediately batted the move aside. Unlike yesterday, however, he twisted Shuusui suddenly and brought the flat of his katana around to smack into Brook's ribs on the left side, causing the skeleton to yelp and stumble sideways, desperately attempting to recover his balance. "That move's strong, but only if it hits," Zoro warned, voice strict. "If you miss it puts you dangerously off balance. If I didn't kill you with a blade to the ribs, you're definitely open to attack now." He demonstrated by calmly thrusting Shuusui's point through Brook's ribcage once again, a symbolic gesture more than a literal one, stabbing at Brook's non-existent heart as he stumbled.

"I—of course, Zoro-san!" Brook stammered immediately. "I've never actually missed anyone with it before—"

"Doesn't matter," Zoro countered. "You'd better have an answer to everything, even a miss. Make it better. Attack me again."

Brook grit his teeth in determination and did so. This time he attempted something different: his disarming technique, Prelude: Au Fer, which he doubted would break Shuusui but might tangle up the swordsman at least. This, too, failed pretty miserably. While Brook closed range between them stunningly fast, Zoro was still faster, and slashed out with Shuusui on Brook's right, once again cracking him painfully in the ribcage.

"Stop announcing yourself," Zoro ordered, as Brook crashed to the ground. "The way you shift your weight before you attack, it's obvious you're going for my sword and not me. Gives me plenty of time to predict what you're going to do, and that leaves your right side open for a fraction of a second. Might not sound like much, but strong people will still see it and use it. Attack me again."

Brook scowled, now starting to get frustrated. Zoro might be a master, but it was still humiliating to have his sword style picked apart so effortlessly like this! He hurled himself to his feet and threw himself at Zoro in a series of powerful slashes, yelling loudly. Zoro frowned at the display, looking displeased, and promptly fought back with powerful slashes of his own—ones that promptly flung Brook halfway across the deck as they countered and overthrew the skeleton's own moves.

"You're a lightweight, Brook," Zoro ordered sharply. "Without muscle, don't think you can use brute force to overcome somebody. Especially me. Play to your strengths instead—that's speed."

Humbled, Brook cringed slightly and nodded in apology. "Of course," he responded. "I seem to have lost my head there for a moment, Zoro-san. It won't happen again."

"Great," Zoro said. "Attack me again."

On and on it went, once again for hours. Brook attacked and attacked, and Zoro deflected each and every move, retaliated by specifically targeting the weak points of the style. It was still humiliating to have his fencing style flayed and picked apart like this, like it was nothing. But at the same time every point Zoro made was valid, and every weakness he deliberately exploited was a chance to get stronger, if he could manage to get rid of them. Difficult as Zoro's training was, Brook was glad nevertheless that he'd asked for a little technical help.

And, Brook realized, he was learning a few things about Zoro as well—not just his skills as a swordsman, but about the person. Zoro never complimented him on anything he did right, not once, just pointed out all the flaws and weaknesses of his fencing style, and in the beginning that was quite discouraging to the skeleton. But after a while he started to realize that, although Zoro didn't voice it, he did show his approval in other ways. There was the almost imperceptible nod as Brook utilized the speed only a skeleton could possess with his rapid-fire thrusting techniques, the genuinely satisfied glitter in his eyes when Brook employed his aerial skills and acrobatic abilities to dodge some of Zoro's counters, or the almost playful tap of katana on cane-sword as they finished a pass, as if to say, well played. Zoro never once said anything less than critical with words, but his actions said otherwise, and Brook found himself strangely encouraged after all.

Not that Zoro's skills were anything less than impressive, either. He never complimented, but he did give suggestions to fix some of the weaknesses and flaws in Brook's style, helped to rework it into something even stronger. He even adapted the fencing style to demonstrate, and Brook was amazed at how fast he was able to pick it up, replicate it, even fight in it against Brook to make a particular point when it was necessary. Brook was reminded again and again that this man, who only just barely qualified as a man, was so naturally gifted with a blade it was almost frightening. Brook had no doubt at all now that he would be the greatest swordsman in the world one day—with that level of skill and dedication, it was inevitable.

By the end of that day Brook's old bones were a mess of spiderweb cracks and chips, and he was going to need quite a bit of milk to recuperate. But he'd learned a lot, and had already taken the first steps to shore up his defenses and make his offenses even more efficient and deadly. Zoro told him to take a day off to recover, and come back again if he wanted more sparring practice. Now that Brook had come to him for help, the swordsman was determined to see his part in it through to the end, and he would do it for sure.

So Brook came back again, and for another day after that, and another after that. Zoro sparred with him each time, determinedly ruthless with his criticisms and applications of the flat of the blade to unprotected bones. But as the days went by both happened less and less often, as Brook fought hard to improve and naturally incorporate Zoro's suggestions into his fighting style. Brook was a fast learner, and it became obvious after two weeks of sparring practice with Zoro, when he could finally hold his own reasonably well against the swordsman—although admittedly only when Zoro used one sword.

He would never be as good as Zoro when it came to swordsmanship, Brook realized eventually. That was simply an impossibility; he just didn't have Zoro's skill or dedication to the art of the blade, or that natural talent and strength that made swords all but his soul. But, Brook decided, he could certainly see his own improvement after their sparring sessions, and was very glad he'd decided to ask Zoro for help. He was stronger now, for sure—enough to hold his own on the Straw Hat crew, enough to help protect everyone else's dreams and lives like they would for him (although, he was already dead, yohohoho!)

And perhaps Zoro enjoyed it too, Brook hoped. The skeleton could never be a suitable opponent for somebody aiming for the title of world's greatest, but they did have a newly strengthened bond now as swordsmen that nobody else on the crew could possibly have, and that had to count for something. Perhaps Zoro enjoyed employing his own skill and strength for something other than his own dream, or for strictly combat. It didn't seem like he'd ever had the opportunity to make somebody else stronger before, and although he never ever said anything Brook almost thought the swordsman was proud of him for improving so quickly, for dedicating himself to this new training as best as he could.

Yes, Brook decided, this was definitely a good arrangement for the both of them. They were arriving at Sabaody Archipelago tomorrow, from the sounds of it, but when they went back to voyaging on the open seas they would certainly have to continue their spars.

And then the timeskip happened, lol.

I remember this one was quite fun to write. Brook can always use more love :)