During their many, varied adventures on the Grand Line, Usopp’s found himself staring quite a lot at Sanji’s back.
That’s because, on the Merry first and then on the Sunny, Sanji spends a lot of time in the kitchen, stirring something on the stove or planning meals at the counter, or down in the storehouse moving boxes around and checking supplies and anti-Luffy traps, or out on deck hanging laundry or just smoking over the railing (he doesn’t get much sun otherwise), and when Sanji sleeps, he sleeps facing the door, the rest of the crew behind him, and Usopp always catches his back, doesn’t ask him to turn around, because Sanji is always busy and when he’s not busy, he’s asleep, and it doesn’t matter anyway, whether Sanji’s facing him or not, because Sanji’s back is as familiar as the smell of his tobacco and it’s as reassuring as the red glow of his cigarette in the dark, late at night when he’s on watch. Reliable and a constant.
Because when things take a turn for the worse, it always seems to be Sanji standing between him and the pointy ends of a hundred—no, a thousand!—swords or the gleaming barrel of a gun or twenty.
(And when Sanji inevitably ends it all with an impossible sweep of long legs, Usopp’s never fully direct in his gratitude, but that’s because the Great Captain Usopp doesn’t need to be rescued by lesser mortals, and thus the events that just transpired couldn’t have actually transpired in the way that they did, probably he was the one who rescued Sanji, that must be it, and Sanji flicks a cigarette butt at him and grumbles about how much he pisses him off, should’ve just left you to die you annoying bastard.)
And he’s learned that Sanji never stands quite straight, not even in a fight, his height always compromised by a carefully measured slouch, hands deep in his pockets as if he’s folding in on himself, and the span of his shoulders wretchedly narrow.
It’s even worse sometimes, when, in the midst of a battle, Usopp would glance across the field from his hiding place behind a boulder or from up a tree and see Sanji backed up against Zoro, because the two always seem to find each other, somehow, and Sanji’s still sucking on a cigarette, the exhale of smoke like a drawl, and Zoro’s eyes are calm and his aura demonic, making him seem larger and even more terrible, and Sanji’s shoulders, against Zoro’s proud, unscarred back, seem narrower.
And Usopp knows, that without the architectural black of his suit jacket seeped through with blood, Sanji’s shoulders are narrower than even that.
(And if this realization makes him leap back into the fray, and if his fingers are pulling the strings of Kabuto taut before his mind can even register the recklessness of the situation, then it really is rather inexplicable.)
But when Sanji’s standing between him and a veritable army of battle-hardened Marines, Usopp knows very well the conviction in that slouch, and he knows that Sanji’s not… Sanji’s not fragile, and if he ever voiced anything of the sort, he’d find himself so deeply embedded in the wood of Sunny’s mast that he might as well become one with the ship. So he doesn’t say anything.
Doesn’t stop him from frowning sometimes, though, when Zoro and Sanji are fighting over something stupid, like whether or not Zoro could perform photosynthesis or how just looking at Sanji in his black three-piece suit under this sun is enough to make Zoro want to throw him overboard, and Zoro’s swords send sharp edges of air rippling across the deck, strong enough to knock over Usopp’s chemistry kit and he’s sitting all the way on the other side, and already the chemicals are turning the grass on the lawn brown, but Sanji’s the one who took the brunt of it, and his back is to Usopp, of course, and he’s all right, of course, one leg raised to block the cross of Zoro’s swords with his heel, and his hands are in his pockets and his slouch is one of dead-set anger, and Usopp can imagine his sneer to be one of open challenge, because Sanji’s reckless like that even against Zoro, especially against Zoro, and then Zoro bares his teeth around the hilt of Wadou and Usopp doesn’t like that, doesn’t like the way Zoro is looking at—
Sanji pushes hard and Zoro jumps back and they clash again and Usopp’s frown deepens. “H-Hey,” he calls out uneasily across the deck. He wants them to stop before it gets out of hand, which it inevitably does, always. “Come on, you two, that’s not really necessary, is it? Cut it out.”
And when they turn to him, twin expressions of irritation on their faces, and when they shout in unison, “Stay out of this, Longnose!” Usopp feels a little hurt.
It takes a really, really long time to figure out that—why didn’t he see it before—there must be something between Zoro and Sanji. There had to be; two men don’t go at each other like that, so insistently, so consistently, without some sort of explanation beyond “he pisses me off” and Usopp can believe that they are both just the right degree of emotionally messed-up to think that trying to kill each other on a daily basis constituted an acceptable display of—of what? Usopp blanches, can’t seem to, or won’t, find the word. He watches them slice and kick at each other, and tries to figure out how something like that could seem so natural.
They argue, all the time, growling in each other’s faces, standing toe to toe. They face each other a lot, Zoro and Sanji, and not just when they fight, Usopp suspects with a feeling that he can describe as sinking, but doesn’t know why. And when Usopp wakes up in the middle of the night and looks around the room, he finds Zoro’s hammock empty too even though it’s Sanji’s watch.
Sanji can hold his own against Zoro, Usopp knows, but Usopp’s also seen Zoro grab Sanji’s collar with one hand and toss him overboard like he weighed nothing at all, and before Usopp could yell, “What are you doing!” he hears Sanji break the surface of the water below, can hear him shout, “you fucking shitty marimo!”, can hear him swearing the whole way as he climbs back onto the ship, “I’m going to kill you shitty swordsman just you wait shithead moss-for-brains jackass I’m going to fillet you with your own swords asshole fucking bastard I can’t believe you threw me overboard fuck I’m going to kill you there’s water in my shoes shit.” And Zoro stands there, and waits, and looks immensely pleased with himself. Usopp frowns and goes somewhere else so he doesn’t have to watch.
The whole thing is dangerous, like Zoro. Like Sanji.
Sometimes the fights get out of hand. They damage the ship a lot, and themselves. Franky’s not too happy about having to make repairs all the time and Chopper’s not too happy when they have to come to him for stitches and he shrieks at them to stop, nakama aren’t supposed to fight like this, and they only shrug a little as Chopper jabs them with needles and antiseptic. From where Usopp’s standing at the door of the infirmary, he can see the two of them sitting side by side on the same bed, not touching but not far enough for Usopp to feel comfortable, and when Chopper starts to cry, Zoro puts a hand on his head and promises awkwardly to be more careful next time, and Sanji huffs an admission, “we don’t actually want to kill each other.” Chopper snaps at him to get that cigarette out of his mouth, then, and things are ok.
They both get stitches, Zoro’s as many as Sanji’s, and when they get up to leave, Usopp sees that Sanji has a black eye to match Zoro’s broken nose, and when Sanji smiles at Usopp anyway, like he’s in a fucking good mood, Usopp finds that the whole thing hurts quite a lot.
And sometimes the fights get really out of hand. And then Zoro and Sanji don’t talk for days, don’t even argue, and Usopp knows that something more happened than just Sanji stepping on Zoro while he was sleeping on the lawn, or Zoro drinking all the cooking wine because they were out of rum, because those are normal occurrences by now and they don’t account for the strange hunch of Sanji’s shoulders as he smokes over the railing and the way Sanji scowls with his chin on his palm.
When Usopp wakes up in the middle of the night, it’s Sanji’s watch and Zoro’s sleeping in his hammock. Usopp only has to contemplate for half a second before he’s scrabbling out of bed and out the door. Out on deck, he looks up. The crow’s nest is dark.
The night is miserably cold, but Sanji wouldn’t be in the crow’s nest anyway, where it would be warm on nights such as this, like Franky had intended when he built the thing, because the crow’s nest doubles as Zoro’s weight room during the day, and Sanji—Sanji is like that. But Usopp can make out a tiny pinprick of red up high and Usopp finds him on the roof of the crow’s nest, out in the wind and dark and cold. Few stars tonight.
And when Sanji turns to looks at him, he doesn’t look surprised, probably because Usopp had made an awful lot of noise getting up here, having had to balance himself precariously on one of the window sills and had almost toppled over to his demise before managing to pull himself up onto the roof, but Sanji doesn’t look disappointed either, and for that, Usopp feels a strange, rushing relief. Sanji’s movements are slower and stiffer, and Usopp remembers that his ribs are cracked from the last fight with Zoro four days ago, but Usopp is confident that Sanji gave Zoro as good as he got, and he feels a little proud of this, though he doesn’t know why.
“What’s up, Longnose?” Sanji asks as he pours him a mug of hot cocoa from the thermos. “You all right?”
“Nothing. And yes. Mostly.” He warms his fingers around the mug, tries to will away the adrenaline still pumping through his veins from his near-fall. “And I should be asking you that. I came to check up on you. The Great Captain Usopp looks after his own, you know. And he sees you've been looking—” Here, Usopp flounders.
Sanji inhales deeply, the end of his cigarette smoldering red. “That so?” he says, and he opens his mouth just enough so that the white, curling smoke escapes in snaking tendrils.
“Of course,” Usopp almost snaps, angry that there is any doubt in Sanji's voice, but as he watches Sanji, whose lips are parted just enough, just so, he feels himself deflate. Sanji’s hands are buried deep in his pockets, long legs stretched out before him. Usopp tries again. “So, you know. Here I am. Captain Usopp,” he continues lamely. “With eight thousand—no, eight million loyal followers at my beck and call, so you’re in luck, Sanji-kun. You have only to say the word, and I’ll unleash all eight million of them on your woes and they’ll banish them. For good. For you. And they’d do it gladly, for you. You should count yourself lucky to have such a powerful, selfless friend like me!”
The exhale of smoke is slow and languorous. Sanji leans his head back and Usopp can see that his neck is pale and thin, and his heart thuds with an emotion he can’t quite place. It’s quiet for a long time.
“Well, shit,” Sanji says, finally. “I’m a lucky son of a bitch.” And Usopp can’t see his face, but he can see the line of Sanji’s jaw and it’s not supposed to be clenched that way, definitely definitely not.
But Sanji shakes his head and turns to give Usopp a grin that’s as real as Usopp’s legions of followers. It’s wrong on Sanji’s face, and Usopp doesn’t like it. It’s jarringly off. Sanji’s so disdainful all the time, so rough and gruff and mean, and even now there’s not a trace of vulnerability anywhere, not in his eye, not in his too-narrow shoulders or the awkward crook of his elbows, but Usopp still thinks he looks sad. He looks sad, and Usopp knows why.
Usopp knows why, and Usopp knows suddenly, he knows deep down in his gut, that he could never (would never) make Sanji look like that. Like that. He couldn’t. And Sanji would never have to push himself out into the cold like this just to avoid the thought of him. And Sanji would never have to stare out over the water that way, scowling with his chin on his palm, because Usopp wouldn’t allow any of that. He’s already promising, swearing to himself that he wouldn’t, because it was Sanji, nakama and more, and he would never.
“Sanji,” he insists, growing panicked, frantic, and now he knows why, and now he understands himself. “You know that—”
“It’s late, Usopp. Chopper’s going to go Heavy Point on my ass if I let you catch cold.”
His mouth clamps shut. He swallows. “Ok,” Usopp breathes. He leaves, he has to, because he’s not the one, he's not the one, but he holds his promises tight.
But what that means, what that could mean, it doesn’t matter beyond that night, because the next day, Zoro drags something huge and slimy and dead-looking into Sanji’s kitchen, and Usopp can hear Sanji demand, “and what the fuck is that?” and can hear Zoro mutter, a bit embarrassed, “dinner. I caught it.” And when Zoro is kicked out of the kitchen two impossibly long minutes later, Sanji shouting after him to stop fucking bleeding all over his fucking floor, Zoro has a smirk on his face, and Usopp knows as well.
And if it ever hurts more than just so, then Usopp can try to remember that day he left the crew, and how angry Sanji had been, how vehemently upset, and he can try to remember the day he came back, and how Sanji had cheered and smiled the smile that Usopp liked best because it was for him, everything forgiven. Remember the tens of hundreds of times that Sanji’s shoved Usopp behind him in battle, the enemy lines bearing down on them.
And Sanji, coiled tension in his spine, would pounce, no weapon to hide behind, no devil fruit power, just muscle and bone and fire.
And he’d fix his eyes on Sanji’s back, Kabuto quivering in his hand, and he can’t forget that night when Sanji was just Sanji, when Usopp had realized everything and had almost choked on his own sincerity and on something else besides, something that felt weird and foreign, something that had taken root over time, sparking to life whenever he saw Sanji cooking in the kitchen before anyone else was up, at the counter planning their banquets and feasts while the rest of them were out in the sun, in the storeroom arranging crates and barrels that looked ready to crash down on him at the next wave, on deck for a rare smoke break with freshly washed laundry drying on the clothesline, squaring off against Zoro who could pick him up and throw him with such upsetting ease, and when he sees Sanji take a hit, sees the way he bends double in pain, and when he remembers that not-smile in the dark, silently Usopp would promise and promise, over and over again, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, you know that, not to you, with you I’d be honest, do you know what that means, I'd be honest, so. So.