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Traditions and Change

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It all started with the rum. Or he thought that was how it started, anyway.

It had been his birthday, and as birthdays went, it had been a good one. Usopp had gotten him rum, like he’d asked for, and Nami had taken an entire 100 beli off his debt, which was a little like taking a splash of water from the sea. (He’d never been comfortable owing anything to anyone, but he was getting dangerously close to accepting that there would always be oceans of mysterious debt floating over his head. He hardly thought about it anymore.)

His birthday was just another day for him, but it did happen to be a day when the others were marginally better at leaving him alone than usual, so he’d spent the sunny hours training on the deck, lifting his weights to the rhythm of the rock and sway of the boat under his feet. After dark he settled himself against the railing, content to while away the remaining hours drinking his rum to the same steady ocean’s rhythm that had accompanied his daytime exercises. He was usually careful about how much he drank, but there was a lot of rum—apparently Usopp had wanted him to have a very happy birthday—and the pleasant haze over everything told him that he was getting pretty close to drunk by the time his benefactor joined him where he sat.

Hey, said Usopp, Happy Birthday.

Hey, he said, yeah.

Maybe a little drunk. It was quiet, which on the open seas meant there was no sound but the waves again, the night wind in the sails, the groan of timber as they sailed on. It was hard to tell where he stopped and Usopp began, or where the two humans joined the endless night sky.

Zoro, you know that’s my hand, don’t you?

Yeah? So what?

One of them laughed, he wasn’t sure which, but there wasn’t enough behind the soft chuckle to last more than a few seconds.

Zoro, you… had a good day, right?

Yeah, thanks for the rum.

You asked for it.

You answered it.

What?

I’m not drunk.

Right. Zoro, you… there wasn’t anything else you wanted?

What?

The door to the galley swung open without warning, flooding light over them. In that instant like sudden lightning Zoro saw where Usopp sat, how one arm tucked neatly around bent knees, how the other braced the floorboards between them, palm flat, fingers spread like roots to soak up strength from the solid wood below. Then Sanji rapped sharply on the doorframe.

“Hey, you two! Nami-san says that it’s going to rain soon. You’d better get yourselves inside.”

Zoro raised his cup to Sanji, then downed it in a swig. The cook sighed, gave a mock salute, and went back into the kitchen, swinging the door closed behind him. The darkness settled again.

“I asked you what you wanted for your birthday,” Usopp continued, as though nothing had happened, “and you said rum.”

“And that’s what you gave me. Lots of it.”

“Just… I was wondering if there wasn’t, you know. Something more.”

Zoro, with all his finely honed instincts, sensed trouble. “Usopp…”

“It’s just that there are a couple of things that really matter to you, and they’ve made up your life for a really long time. And it’s a little hard to find a place to squeeze in with the swords and the keg and the… just the rigid pattern of things.”

Something needed to be said here, but Zoro had never been as good with words, so he simply reached for Usopp instead, pulled him close until he had his mug in one hand and held Usopp to his chest with the other.

“See?” he said, tilting the mug to Usopp’s lips. “Room for one more.”

They drank quietly together until the rain came, and that was the end of that.

So maybe that wasn’t how it started after all.

 

Maybe it all started with the snow.

It was a month and a half later, and Zoro hadn’t touched alcohol of any sort in the meantime. Of course there hadn’t been that many opportunities, exactly, but one had to sacrifice what one was able, right? Usopp wasn’t all that impressed, and Zoro was starting to wonder if he had misunderstood. They were sitting together on the deck again, Zoro’s arm draped over Usopp’s shoulders, Usopp’s elbow resting on Zoro’s knee. Zoro was contemplating the head of curly hair leaning against his chest when something white fell on it and disappeared.

“Usopp, you’ve got something—” Zoro began.

Usopp looked up, which meant the next one fell in his eye.

“Usopp, in your eye—!” His voice took on a hint of panic at the thought of airborne attackers too small to cut, but his hand still fell automatically to the swords at his side. To be fair, he had been starting to drift off when the snowflakes arrived, and he’d been asleep the night before when Nami announced that the next stop was a winter island.

For a good five seconds, Usopp managed to keep a straight face, before he sat up, looked at Zoro again, and burst out laughing. Confused—and not a little hurt that his instinct to protect was apparently hysterical—Zoro pointed at the man now rolling on the ground with glee, readying a few stern words against this attack of hilarity. Like a perfectly delivered punch line, the next snowflake landed right on the length of his index finger, a fluttering cold kiss that melted away in an instant.

“Oh,” Zoro said finally, lowering his finger. Not a muscle twitched, though he swore he could hear his face turning red. He leaned back, shaded his eyes. “I’m going back to sleep,” he announced gruffly.

“You should have seen your face!” Usopp continued to snicker. Luffy and Chopper were starting to take interest now, which was the last thing Zoro needed. “I wanted to tell you the story about the evil Christmas spirits but I didn’t even need to, you already… your expression was so… was so…” And thus the amazing Zoro had finally done the impossible and rendered Usopp speechless: not through any skill or intimidation, but by making him laugh to tears.

Maybe that wasn’t how it all started either.

No, now that he thought about it, it started with what happened minutes, maybe even seconds after. Usopp looked up, laughter gone, and stretched out a hand to touch the softly falling snow. “What date is it?” he asked, suddenly astonished by something.

“Date?” asked Chopper.

“It’s… it’s almost Christmas!” Usopp jumped up. “Christmas!! You know what that means!”

“Christmas!” Chopper agreed, “Parties! Lights! Presents!”

“Christmas!” Luffy joined in. “…Meat!”

“Luffy, you always have meat,” Zoro thought to point out, but by then the three of them were gone, swept off into a ridiculous little Christmas dance in their own triangle of holiday cheer.

“We need a tree!” Usopp stopped dancing to declare. “Zoro and I will get it, we can buy decorations at the next island!” It was actually less a declaration than a sudden thought and a hopeful glance, which Zoro met with a scowl. He hated Christmas decorations.

He opened his mouth to tell all present how bad an idea that was, but for a moment nothing came out. He was suddenly very aware of the railing at his back, a flash memory of sitting in the exact same spot on the night of his birthday. True to Nami's word, it had soon started raining. By the time they’d finished their drink, they’d been soaked through completely, but neither made a move to get up.

“So… shouldn’t we be heading back in now?” asked Usopp.

“Maybe if I hold the cup up, it’ll refill itself,” Zoro suggested idly.

“That’s rainwater. It’s not going to taste the same.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

A pause. “Could still taste good, though.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

 

And then they were docked. The snow flurries were so thick that the anchor cut an actual, visible path as Zoro dropped it over the side. It was odd, but they’d seen all sorts of islands in their time—jungles and plains, rural and uninhabited—but when it was Christmas, the island they found just happened to sport a bustling metropolis in the midst of celebrating the holiday too. As Zoro allowed himself to be dragged ashore, he had to wonder if it was the sheer will and sugarplum dreams of his crewmates that had somehow called into existence the town he could see gleaming in the distance, snowy-roofed and holly-bedecked as though it had come straight out of a snow globe.

But somehow he had agreed to decorate with Usopp, and if there was one thing he could say about himself, it was that he always kept his word.

Usopp was narrating the story of Christmases long ago as he walked, and Zoro let the familiar voice wash over him, a pleasant blanket of warmth that seemed to lessen the sting of the wind. Maybe this wasn’t so bad after all, he thought to himself, watching Usopp’s face light up more brightly than the town around them. He’d experienced a couple of Christmases himself in the past, first at the dojo, then with Johnny and Yosaku, but they weren’t exactly full of holiday cheer. He was hardly a fan of the snowy celebration, and he had enough sense to realize that if he opened his mouth he’d just ruin Usopp’s good mood.

The next store they came to was enormous. As soon as they entered, they were plunged into a maze of tinsel, ornaments, and holiday wreaths. Something made Zoro pause in his steps, and he stopped Usopp’s narrative with an urgent hand on his shoulder.

“What did you just say?” Zoro demanded.

“Oh. You were listening. Well, it’s… it’s nothing really. She was just really tired,” Usopp explained, not meeting Zoro’s eyes. “It didn’t seem right to make a big fuss over some holiday when she was so sick.”

Zoro’s brain quietly replayed Usopp’s narrative. “But the tree is the most important part,” he said slowly, piecing together what he had heard. “You told me. Every single year, you’ve always had one.”

“Well, except that time we decided to try a cactus instead,” Usopp shrugged awkwardly. “That didn’t turn out so well, let me tell you.”

“But then after your mother… you haven’t had one since?”

“We’re having one this year,” Usopp said firmly, looked up with a smile. “Thanks for coming with me, Zoro. I can tell you really didn’t want to.”

A low growl filled the air. Zoro was surprised to find that it had come from his own throat. “I’ll show you,” he said, to no one in particular, “I’ll show you I do too have room for change in my life!”

“What are you talking about?” Usopp asked, but it was too late: Zoro wasn’t listening anymore. He unwound the black bandana from his arm and, with slow, deliberate movements, knotted it over his head. Once, twice, he clenched and released his fists. Inhaled. Touched his swords for strength. Exhaled. And promptly dove for the nearest display of decorations.

“You think nothing is important in my life but training and booze?” he demanded of an ornament shaped like a gingerbread man. He glowered at it for a moment before hooking it to his ear, so it dangled with the three gold drops. He moved on.

“You think I’m going to let my stubbornness stand in the way of everyone’s celebrations??” he slid the end of a chain of Christmas lights between his teeth and began to wind the rest of it around his neck and torso, arms moving so fast they generated a tornado that could nearly be an attack in itself. Fortunately years of training allowed him to speak through the obstruction in his mouth.

“You think I wouldn’t give up all of my dignity, all of my pride, if it would make Usopp happy for one—” a round, red ornament hooked in his waistband, “—damn—” a wreath slung furiously over his shoulders, “—moment???” Finally he plucked up a huge star and jammed it down on his head, so hard that he nearly saw stars himself… though by this point he wasn’t feeling any pain. He grabbed the other end of the strand of lights where it was dangling over his stomach, found the plug, and thrust it firmly in Usopp’s direction.

“Usopp!” he demanded, “PLUG ME IN!”

Usopp’s face remained stunned for a moment. Slowly, his mouth worked open, closed again. “Zoro,” he said quietly. And then he was howling with laughter again, clutching his stomach as though he’d been kicked in the gut. Zoro realized suddenly that the entire store had gathered in their aisle to watch the commotion. Mustering as much dignity as he could, he marched stiffly over to the nearest socket and plugged himself in.

The tiny bulbs ran bright, flickering lights over his face, marking a familiar pattern of heat and cool for hot bulbs and cool wiring.

“Zoro,” Usopp was trying to wipe the tears from his leaking eyes long enough to actually see. “Zoro, you look ridiculous!”

Zoro crossed his arms, doing his best to menace. Several ornaments tinkled and fell from their positions, bouncing on the floor around his boots. His teeth were still clenched around the strand of miniature light bulbs. “Isn’t this what you were asking for?”

“I said I wanted you to help me decorate the tree!” Usopp chortled, “Not yourself!”

“That’s not…” Zoro shifted uneasily. “That’s not the same thing?”

“I don’t believe this,” Usopp gasped, “Where’s Luffy? Where’s Chopper? Where’s everyone? You really need to see yourself!”

“I thought this was what you wanted.” Zoro took the giant star off his head. “Johnny and Yosaku were always trying to decorate me. Every Christmas actually, at least someone’s tried to put ornaments in my hair. I thought that was just part of the tradition.”

“It must be because you’re such a jolly person,” Usopp giggled.

“Well if you’re going to make fun,” Zoro snarled, snatching an ornament from its position on his collar.

Usopp quickly took it from him. He paused to inspect his own reflection in it, before hooking it on his nose. He beamed at Zoro proudly. “My hair is curly, so I’ll be able to hang a lot more ornaments. Plus I bet I can get at least four on my nose!”

“Yeah? Well I can get a whole row on my waistband,” Zoro countered, and grabbed a handful of little Santas.

For a moment, the store was quiet with the sounds of two pirates concentrating on getting the most snowmen to fit on various parts of their clothing. Then: “Zoro!! I think this one’s stuck!”

“Next year,” Zoro decided, “we’re decorating Chopper.”