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Under Coloured Lanterns

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The night was getting old and well into its small hours, and the party seemed to have finally wound down. There was no music, singing or dancing anymore, the lanterns had mostly burned out, the food and rum was pretty much gone, and almost all of the party attendees – a label which one might easily think encompassed the entire population of Water 7 – had gone home or fallen asleep somewhere. The canals and waterways were full of small bull-carried boats that drifted gently, laden with sleeping passengers, and the doorways of the city saw their share of inebriated, overfed, and generally overpartied citizens. A feast to remember, all right.

From the end of one long table a drunken voice could be heard, grumbling and grousing.
“…But… but why do women have to be so touchy, anyway?” it said. “I mean, if that girl really liked me, like she seemed to at first, then why couldn’t she try to cover up a bit? It’s just a question of respect, right?”

His neighbour seemed to consider this, then shook his head. “No. ‘S’ just weird. It’s nice to see women’s legs and stuff. Why make them cover up if they don’t want to?”

Paulie waved this aside. “Aah, what do you know. You’re just corrupted by this modern decadent era like so many others.” He sighed heavily. “So few to stand up for decency and standards in our age.”

Usopp shrugged and leaned over to grab some leftover pastries. He was sitting next to the shipwright underneath a couple of still-glowing paper lanterns, with a nearby petroleum lamp illuminating the table as well. There was a barrel of rum on the ground nearby; several bottles of wine were on the table, and there was even some food that hadn’t been eaten yet. That last bit was pretty incredible, he thought. Maybe the result of some extra Galley-La-directed gifts from the adoring populace.

Only minutes ago – feeling quite full, pleasantly tipsy, and in a sleepily optimistic “everything’s-going-to-work-out” mood – he had been trying to make his way unsteadily to his temporary sleeping quarters through the gigantic party area. He’d already put the mask and cape away – changing behind a shed somewhere – because he didn’t want to go to bed wearing the mask and also because he wanted to feel the night air on his face. However, the buildings seemed to have mysteriously moved sometime during the party; there were people lying on the ground everywhere, and then his path was blocked by one of the giants’ feet (it was too dark to see which one of them it was). He’d stood there yawning and almost decided just to curl up on the spot next to that warm giant leg, but right then a familiar voice had hailed him from a nearby table. Apparently the Galley-La foreman and rigging expert had run out of drinking companions but wasn’t ready to call it quits yet, and Usopp had found himself persuaded into sitting down for just a little longer.

He’d seen quite a bit of the Galley-La folk during these last couple of days, and for most of that time Paulie had looked tired but pretty cheerful, and quite eager to get back to work. But occasionally there had been a faint cloud over his face, and he seemed a bit under the weather right now as well, though he’d smiled as he lifted his tankard high in greeting. No telling if his slump was due to gambling debts, immodest women or something else.

There was a brief pause after Paulie had grumbled a little more about whoever that girl was who’d preferred dumping him to covering up from head to toe. Then he looked up at Usopp with a frown, saying, “Hey, what the hell are you doing over here, anyway? Why haven’t you gone back to your mates yet?”

“I’m working on it, okay?” muttered Usopp, pouring himself some wine. “Gotta find the right moment to do it. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Hokay,” said Paulie with a shrug, lighting a cigar. “Don’t wait too long, though, for once the ship is built those guys are probably gonna have to hightail out of here real soon. The Marines aren’t going to sit quiet forever.”

Usopp craned his head and looked off into the distance. “Hey, isn’t that one of your creditors over there?” he exclaimed.

“Whah?” Paulie dove under the table with lightning-quick reflexes. “Okay, you didn’t see me!!” he whispered frantically. He didn’t put out his cigar, though, Usopp noted. If there really had been a pack of Paulie-hunters approaching, they would only have had to zoom in on the tell-tale smoke winding up from beneath the table.

Usopp waited maybe a minute or so, then said, “It’s okay, they went looking somewhere else. All clear.”

Paulie sighed with relief as he got up, refilled his tankard from the barrel on the ground, and sat down again. “Bloody leeches,” he muttered. “You’d think they’d leave off on a night like this, at least.”

“Awful people,” said Usopp with fake sympathy, raising his wine glass and glancing up at the sky. “Hey, that’s a nice full moon, don’t you think?” he remarked, meaning it. The moon looked mild and benevolent, gazing down on them with soft, honeyed light.

Paulie only grunted something.

“Looks adventurous,” Usopp observed, giving the celestial body an approving smile.

“Eh. Looks a bloody waste to me. There aren’t any decent ladies around to watch it with,” growled Paulie, though with little bite. “Not that she isn’t a pretty nice lady herself,” he grudgingly admitted a moment later.

“Moon’s not a lady,” objected Usopp, “at least not in the stories I know. The sun’s the lady and the moon’s her guy.”

“That seems inside-out to me,” said Paulie, but shrugged good-naturedly. “Well… it’s just stories, anyway.”

Usopp frowned: that didn’t sound right to him. “So what? Stories aren’t… they’re not ‘just’… they’re important.” He waved vaguely, groping for the right words to express his point. “If there weren’t any stories, nothing would make sense.”

Paulie shrugged. “I figure they’re kinda useless, but they can still be nice,” he said bluntly, chugging down some ale. “I guess they’re pretty much like the moon, really.”

 

*

 

A few more drinks and half-hearted nibbles at leftovers later, Paulie was more talkative again.

“…All I’m saying is… all I’m saying is, okay, I get it, these guys used to be in the same work team long ago and then they had a falling out for years and now they’ve finally made up again. That’s great, really. I mean it. It’s just that…” Paulie chomped on his cigar uneasily, “…it’s just that, well, if he’s going to spend all his time hanging out with that… cyborg thug – okay, fine, I know Franky is kind of a hero but he’s also a thug, nobody can deny that – well… you know Mr. Iceburg isn’t just the owner of the entire Galley-La, he’s also the bleeding mayor… I mean, some people an’ I’m not sayin’ I’m one of them but some people might say it looks like he’s neglecting his responsibilities, know what I mean?”

Usopp shrugged. “Maybe, but so what? Don’t old Ice-Guy deserve to skip out on some of that now and then?”

Paulie scowled. “Hey, show some respect when you talk ‘bout the ol’ man. You don’t know him that well.”

“So what?” Usopp said again. “I’m a pirate, it’s how I talk.”

“Though you’re a lot more polite when you’ve got the mask on, for some reason,” Paulie observed thoughtfully.

Usopp ignored this and went on, “You don’t talk all that politely yourself, you know. I wouldn’t be surprised to see you in a street gang too.”

Paulie jerked his head up angrily. “That’s right, just THROW a man’s past in his face, why don’t you!” he exclaimed. He grabbed Usopp’s wrist and started shaking his index finger right in his face.

“Huh? Hey, what are you –”

“But that’s just what makes the ol’ man such a great guy, okay?” Paulie burst out emphatically. “He don’t care where you’re from or who you are or what else you’ve done in your life! As long as you do your damn work, and do it with pride!!”

“Hey, leggo of me! Crazy rope-guy…”

Paulie raised a fist into the air. “An’ that’s why the Galley-La is the BEST DAMN COMPANY in the world!” he declared so loudly that he half-woke up some of the closest sleepers, causing them to throw stuff at him before going back to sleep with angry mutters. “And the best bloody place to work at, too!” Paulie went on, not even noticing the protests and projectiles. He let go of Usopp’s wrist and put an arm around his shoulder instead, as he started to sing what sounded like a work song. The text was extolling the virtues of shipwrights over other kinds of people (like marines, merchants and pirates), but it was a good, simple tune, so Usopp clapped his hands and warbled the melody right along with him.

Song over, Usopp applauded and whistled. “That’s a good one, rope-guy,” he said approvingly. “Very boastful.”

Paulie just grinned and puffed on his cigar, looking quite pleased with himself.

“Okay, I’ve got one!” announced Usopp cheerfully. “This is a drinking song I’ve learned from Sanji, so it’s got a lot of shitty words in it!”

Paulie laughed. “All right! You’re on!!”

 

*

Time flew.

“You smoke too many of those, you know,” Usopp remarked with a frown.

“And you talk too much. Shut up, pirate.”

“Just like Sanji with his bloody cigarettes,” said Usopp, quite undeterred. “Except cigars stink even worse.” He wagged a finger at Paulie; “Nobody’s gonna want to kiss you when you smell like that, you know.”

Paulie blushed and looked affronted. “What the hey! I don’t need to hear kissing advice from some goddamn snot-nosed kid.”

“Wait a minute, I’ll show you what I mean,” said Usopp impulsively. “Just take that away…” He took Paulie’s cigar from between his teeth and put it carefully to the side on a plate, still glowing.

“Hey! What do you think you’re - ” Paulie started to say.

Usopp leaned over and kissed him, very briefly. “There.” He sat back and nodded. “Yeah, thought so – way too much tobacco smell.”

Paulie blinked, quickly put back the cigar and inhaled deeply. “Huh. That was a lousy kiss,” he mumbled.

Usopp shrugged, too drunk to be fazed by that. “Whaddya expect? You’re a guy. That was just an example.”

“But look at that,” Paulie continued, grabbing Usopp’s nose. “It actually bends.”

“Of course it does,” said Usopp, mildly offended that Paulie might think otherwise. He reached up to free his nose from the shipwright’s curious grip.

“So you can kiss people,” Paulie remarked, blowing out a smoke ring. “I figured you’d poke someone’s eyes out with that.”

“Of course I can kiss people! Why, thousands of girls and women all over East Blue and half the Grand Line can tessi-tessi-testify to that…” Usopp nodded repeatedly, then yawned and drank some water for once.

Paulie yawned as well, rubbing his eyes. “Well, I was just surprised is all. Kaku’s doesn’t bend like that.”

Usopp frowned. “Don’t compare me to that stupid giraffe guy!”

“…But I guess that comes from secretly being a super-strong Government assassin and having trained your whole body so much you can’t even relax it when you want to,” said Paulie darkly, staring into the night and chewing his cigar.

“Evil ship-destroying Government agent…” muttered Usopp. “An’ I don’ like not knowing if they mean me or him when someone says ‘longnose’… It oughta be me, damnit.” Noting the wine bottle was empty, he got up to get some more rum instead.

Paulie looked sulky, so Usopp patted him amicably on the shoulder as he returned with the rum.
“Hey, don’t look so put out for that kiss or anything,” he said. “It don’t matter. Doing stuff with guys don’t count.”

“I wasn’t…” Paulie began, then stopped and said, “Don’t count? Howja figure?”

“’Cause you can’t get married to them, an’ you can’t make a guy pregnant. So it don’t count.” Usopp nodded several times over to emphasise this.

“Huh… Yeah, guess that makes sense… In a perverted way,” mumbled Paulie, one sceptical eyebrow raised as he got out a new cigar from his breast pocket. “Anyway, you smell of, of, what’s the thingummy, stuff you put in cannons – I mean gunpowder, yeah.”

“So what? Gunpowder’s a good manly smell!”

“So’s cigars!”

“Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah…” Usopp shook his head repeatedly, then wagged his finger again. “…It’s a, it’s, whatchamacallit, a world of diff’rence.” He sighed in a melodramatic fashion. “I guess I’ll have to show you again.”

He kissed Paulie again, somewhat longer this time around – after all, Paulie didn’t push him away, and might as well prove the point thoroughly, yeah? In the spirit of fair-minded enquiry, he essayed a bit of quick tongue-tasting as well, then quickly sat back. “See, gunpowder’s better, right?”

Paulie blushed again. “How would I know?” he grumbled. “I can’t compare, I’ve never kissed anyone that smokes cigars myself. Honestly, you taste kinda sooty to me.”

“Baah, y’don’t know what you’re talking about.” Usopp waved this away in a wide, dismissive gesture.

Paulie lit his cigar glumly. “Come to think of it, maybe that bastard’s nose actually could bend too if he wanted, and it was just a good excuse to pretend it wouldn’t.”

There was a brief pause while Paulie puffed in silence and Usopp was wondering exactly how his head was going to feel in the morning and how come he wasn’t falling asleep yet, until the shipwright’s last words finally sank in.

“Hey, wait a minute. You’re saying you’ve been trying to kiss that square-nosed jerk?”

Paulie’s face went a really bright red. “So – so what if I have! It’s no business of yours!”

Usopp made a face. “Eewww. That’s gross.”

“Damn Strawhat pirates shouldn’t talk, your crew is all made up of perverts anyway! And you said it yourself, guys don’t count!”

“That’s not what I meant! I MEANT, because he’s a goddamn jerk!”

“Hey, before he turned out to be an undercover gov’ment assassin he was actually a really decent guy! ‘Least I thought so! Anyway, ‘s not as gross as kissing some brainless rubber brat.”

“Don’t talk about Luffy like that!” shouted Usopp and half stood up, waving a fist with one foot planted on the chair.

“What, you wanna fight?!” snapped Paulie.

“Why not? Bring it on, carpenter guy!”

“Any time, lousy pirate..!”

They both took a swing at each other, missed and fell off their chairs. They weren’t drunk enough yet to prefer to stay on the ground, though: both slowly made their way back up to a seated position.

“Meat, now, meat is a good smell,” said Usopp pensively, munching on a slice of salmon. “Meat ‘n’ oranges.”

“Yeah?” said Paulie, also looking thoughtful. “Chewing-gum ‘n’ machine oil ‘n’ sawdust…that’s a nice smell, too.”

“Steel is all right…and if you’d only take up some cooking that tobacco of yours wouldn’t smell half as bad…”

Paulie growled, “That little bastard Kaku used to smell of resin and turp-turpentine, and too much soap... a good carpenterish kind of smell, if you see what I mean, just a mite too goody-goody
maybe… still, nice enough… Certainly didn’t smell like a goddamn assassin.”

Usopp was lost in thought. “…Robin smells like flowers… Back on the sea-train she smelled of flowers and fear. That was scary, Robin smelling like that…”

“An’ bloody Lucci… well, he never smelled much of anything at all that I could catch, except very faintly of pigeon and normal carpenter stuff. Just like he never talked at all either. Smells just wouldn’t stick to him, really… Well, sometimes I thought I could catch a whiff of something musky… maybe that was his devil fruit coming through.”

“Chopper smells of reindeer, I guess, although I don’t really know any other reindeers…”

“If we’re playing this game, Lulu smells of too much pomade, and Tyleston… I don’t know WHAT the hell he smells of, but I can tell it from anyone else. Something with onions, I think. Anyway, when you work with people for some time, you get to know them real well like that.” Paulie paused, while taking another swig from his pitcher. “Hey, does Strawhat smell of rubber?”

Usopp drained his tankard to the bottom. “No.”

 

*

And the night dragged on.

“Ah, lissen t’me,” sighed Paulie eventually. “I’m just a petty bashtard. The whole damn town’s in love with th’guy an’ vishe vershuh. So his ol’ buddy shou’n’t be such a big deal. Right?” He drank some more beer, then went on, “The boss tol’ me t’day not to say anything, but he’s gonna go s’prise Franky by helping out on the ship tomorrow. Y’know. The guys from Tom’s work team together again. I guess…guess it is kinda nice when you think about it. An’ I been thinkin’… been thinkin’… an’ now I’ve decided we’re gonna s’prise the boss by comin’ along too, me ‘n’ Lulu ‘n’ Tyleston.”

He smiled a little crookedly, a little wistfully, and, perhaps, not altogether unfetchingly.

“I’ve been wantin’ to work on some of that Adam wood anyway,” he mumbled, as if needing to justify himself further. An’ besides, it’s great if we can do somethin’ for you guys, too.”

Usopp just grunted something. He didn’t entirely understand why, after everything that the three top Galley-La guys had done in Enies Lobby, Paulie still acted like he owed the Strawhats something. Those guys hadn’t had anybody of their own to save, and yet they had fought so hard.

“…Long as Lulu can make us all some o’ those ‘mazin’ pig-me – pick-me-ups of his – that’s hangover tonics, y’ know – I figure we should be good to go to work…I think the ol’ man is gonna like that, us showin’ up. Well, I hope so, anyway.” Paulie ruminated some more, then said a bit abruptly, “I wonder why he won’t get married?”

“Who? Lulu or Ice-guy?” asked Usopp.

Paulie looked annoyed. “I meant Mr. Iceburg,” he said, with exaggerated drunk articulation.

“Hum…’Cause he don’ want to?” offered Usopp.

“I bet he could have anyone he wanted to, y’know.”

“Maybe he likes Franky better,” suggested Usopp. Paulie flinched. Usopp made a drunken attempt at a sly look and added, “Maybe he likes you better.”

This made Paulie start and blush furiously; then he hunched his shoulders and muttered, “Stop jokin’ around.”

Usopp started to giggle. “Stoooop joking arounnnnd!” He nudged the shipwright with his elbow. “Maybe you’re really Mr. 2 jus’ pretending’ to be Paulie, eh?” He laughed loudly while Paulie stared at him with blank incomprehension.

“What the hell are you talking about?” growled Paulie.

“Ahaha… oh, right, you don’t know who that is. Haha, it’s still funny.” Usopp chortled a little more, then leaned across the table and took the last scrapes of the big steak that they had finished together.

Paulie poked Usopp on the forehead. “You’ve REALLY got to get back to your mates, kid,” he said seriously. “You guys are such loons you all deserve one another.”

“Ah, min’ your own biznish. You shipwrights are the crazy ones, anyway.”

“Hmph.” Paulie stood up and reached to pick up something on a plate a bit further down the table. He munched down whatever it was very quickly, then sat down again, wiping his mouth. “Okay, how’s this?”

He started to kiss the surprised sniper.

“Gaah!” protested the latter. “At leasht put the damn cigar away, y’ idiot!!”

“Oh… sorry.” Paulie put the cigar aside carefully, looking a bit sheepish. “All right!…” Nodding determinedly, he kissed Usopp again.

“…Yeah. Okay,” mumbled the pirate after a while. “You just ate an orange right now, didn’t you? Um. Yeah, that’s better. More, uh, mixed up.” He sat back, trembling slightly. “Yeah. Better.” There was a brief pause, then he raised his voice to add, “A BIT better.”

“Thought so,” said Paulie, looking pleased with himself as he gulped down some water and re-lit the cigar. Then he nudged Usopp with his elbow; “So, if guys don’t count, how many girls have you really kissed, huh?”

“How many? Uh… lemme think… three hundred an’ sheventy-four? Maybe?”

Paulie laughed. “Yeah, an’ how many of those kisses involved a tongue or two?” he said good-naturedly.

“Tongue? Er…” Usopp blinked nervously, then squirmed on his seat. “…Two hundred ‘n’ forty-one?” He drank some more rum and muttered, “Whatever. Something like that. There’s only one girl I want to kiss, anyway.”

“Oh? And who’s that?” said Paulie, looking interested now. “One of those two shameless women in your crew?”

Usopp waved vaguely. “Nah, crewmates don’t count.”

Paulie swallowed his rum the wrong way and started to cough wildly. “…What kind of rule is that?” he spluttered. “Damn pervert pirates…”

“Huh?”

“Uh… never mind. So who is it?”

“Just someone I know from back home,” mumbled Usopp.

“Oho. Childhood sweetheart, mebbe?” Usopp shrugged and blushed brightly. “And she’s promised to wait for you, or something?” asked Paulie, looking quite kind and big-brotherly all of a sudden.

Usopp shook his head. “No… but I think she will. And one day – ” his voice got a bit louder and steadier – “after I’ve become a brave pirate of the sea I’m going back there t’see everyone again and then, well, maybe then we’ll…” He blushed deeply again, then muttered, “Anyway, ‘s’ none of your biznish, Rope-guy.”

“Huh.” Paulie sat back, puffing heavily on his cigar. “Thass gotta be nice, havin’ someone like that to come back to,” he offered thoughtfully.

“Mm… well… uh…” Usopp was staring down at the table, still blushing scarlet and drawing indistinct figures in the grease.

“O’course, once you finally get back there she might have married someone else.”

“HEY!” Usopp gave him the glare of death, making Paulie put up his hands placatingly.

“Just kidding!” he said. “I’m sure she won’t, okay?”

They drank in silence for a while.

“Aah… One day!” said Paulie, gazing off into the night air wistfully. “One day, I’ll find the right woman for me! She’ll be beautiful – but modestly dressed! She will understand the values of craftsmanship, yeah, and she’ll have her own personal fortune. And she’ll be patient ‘n’ forgiving ‘n’ unnerstandin’, an’ have a good sense of humour…”

“What’s she gonna get out of it?” muttered Usopp.

“Shaddup. And she will have absolutely no interest in loud blue-haired dismantler thugs with too little clothes…”

“What’s wrong with blue hair? I know a girl with blue hair, she’s real nice…Hey, come to think of it, Ice-guy himself has blue hair, too!”

“Shut up! It’s not the same shade! They’re way different!”

“…Y’know, if I ever tried to tell Nami or Robin what to wear, I’d get clobbered. An’ why not? They don’t care what I wear, why should I care what they wear?”

“Because you’re not of the same sex! And they’re walking around flaunting their flesh right where their male crewmates are supposed to work! You should care, damnit! But I guess I can’t eckshpec’ a pirate to know anything ‘bout honest work…”

“Hey, that’s rich coming from someone who tried to keep our money for himself when we first met you!”

“Huh? Oh… right.” Paulie had the good grace to look a bit embarrassed. “Well, uh – I was gonna pay you back, honest! I just needed to get those loan-sharks of my back right then!”

Usopp rolled his eyes. “Right. Of course you were. Here you’re goin’ on ‘bout Franky, an’ you’re just the same yourself!”

“I never claimed t’be perfect!” protested Paulie. “I was jus’ talkin’ ‘bout the woman I love! Well, goin’ to love. One fine day. When I find her.”

Usopp shrugged, then raised his tankard. “All right, then!” he proclaimed. “To the day Paulie meets his one true love!”

“To when Usopp becomes a brave warrior of the sea!”

“Damn straight!”

They drank up together.

After that, they sang another song.

 

*

“I know it’s stupid,” said Paulie glumly, at some point. “I know it’s pathetic as hell, but I can’t help it. I still kinda miss those bastards. Except, well, not really, ‘cause if I ever saw them again I’d punch ‘em in the face. Or, well, I’d try to, anyway. It’s more that I miss the people I thought they were, if you get me...”

“One lousy hint, that’s all I want…” muttered Usopp, equally glum and not really listening to Paulie.

“I mean, okay, Lucci never said anything or showed much of his feelings, really… but he was a damn reliable worker and fighter even so, for all that time. And I even kinda got used to that stupid pigeon. I actually liked hanging out with the guy, if you can believe it. Had some kinda dumb idea I knew what he was about.”

“One lousy goddamn hint that maybe they’d be glad to see me back, is that really so much to ask?”

“And as for Kaku… he was just so damn decent, practically all the time… Old man’s talk and goody-goodiness and all… he just seemed so trusty and, well, nice. And hell of a carpenter, too. I don’t care how fast or strong or sneaky he is, I still say he’s wasted in the murder business. At least compared to the kind of shipwright he could have been.” Paulie took a deep swig from a beer bottle. “Goddammit.”

“…Stupid jerks…”

“You’ve got that right,” nodded Paulie. “Damn but they had me fooled, good and proper.”

Usopp looked up. “Huh? Did you say something?”

Paulie gnashed his teeth, then shouted, “Will you listen when people bare their hearts to you?!”

“I could say the same thing to you!” Usopp yelled back.

Paulie raised an index finger, looking irked. “I- I- I…” he started, but then seemed to have run out of words. Maybe he’d used them all up during the night, thought Usopp. They’d been talking for quite a bit, hadn’t they? It was a bit hard to keep track of time by now.

“What? Whaddya want?” Usopp bunched his hands into fists.

Paulie lowered his voice. “I just need to try this again, sorry.” He held Usopp by the shoulders and kissed him again. “Huh. Still bends.” Then he broke off the kiss, but didn’t let go of Usopp’s shoulders yet.

“OF COURSE IT DOES!” shouted Usopp in exasperation, smacking Paulie on the head with his tankard. “I haven’t turned into that giraffe freak in the last half hour, you carpenter blockhead!” He leaned forward and kissed Paulie on the cheek, then the neck. “See? That’sh better, less tobacco taste,” he muttered, more to himself.

“Stop that, pervert pirate!” said Paulie, pushing him back with a blush.

“Hey, you’re th’one who started it this time!” Usopp pointed out. “Pervert carpenter,” he added after a moment’s reflection.

Paulie blinked a bit, then grabbed at his head, groaning a bit. “Okay, what’re we doin’?” he mumbled fairly reasonably.

Usopp furrowed his brows, trying to make his not-very-present wits come to a conclusion. “Dunno… ’s’ a party,” he managed finally, as if that explained it all. He slumped forward, resting his head on his arms. “Think ‘m…Think ‘m gonna need some a’those pick-me-ups t’morrow…” he moaned. “Tell Lulu…make me one too, huh? C’mon! Be a pal!” he spoke up louder, nudging Paulie with the elbow.

“Hey, stop that! Stupid longnosed flirt,” muttered Paulie, who was unsuccessfully trying to lit his cigar once again with some very unsteady fingers.

“’M not a flirt,” muttered Usopp, who’d decided his head felt just right where it was, thank you, and resolved not to move it from there for, like, ever. “’M a pirate.” He glanced at the still-mostly-upright Paulie and his struggles with his cigar, noting that his cheeks still looked a bit red, but maybe that was just the alcohol. “An’ you’re clumsy,” he remarked. “I could do that any time. I’m whaddyacallit, deck-dess-…good with my hands.”

“Ah, shaddup,” said Paulie, but without much bite. He sighed deeply and put the cigar back to one side. “Don’t think you’ve escaped, you know,” he grumbled, glaring at it. “I’ll get back to you later.”

“’M’ not a flirt,” mumbled Usopp again, lower this time and maybe not quite convinced himself. Come to think of it, it had perhaps not been entirely necessary and logical to start kissing pugnacious rope-wielding shipwrights and say stuff like “guys don’t count” and then not flinch when they kissed you back. People could get the wrong impression from things like that, he vaguely acknowledged. Good thing no-one else seemed to have been awake to see it.

It was just that – it was just that there was something so adorably prickly-yet-nice about Paulie – or at least there was right now, this night – that you just couldn’t resist, you just felt you had to reach out and poke him a bit. Nami would have understood, thought Usopp fuzzily.

He hoped that Paulie would find that special someone one day who would love him a lot and tease him a lot, because the guy deserved it.

It was quiet for a long while. The moon had disappeared behind a roof somewhere. When Paulie finally spoke again, he was mumbling so softly that Usopp’s sleepy, befuzzled head didn’t quite catch it. So he turned his head without raising it from the table and glanced up at the shipwright, who was leaning on his knuckles and looking out into the night with serious, tired eyes.

“…Din’t know…” he said. “Din’t know what that would feel like. Losing someone like that… y’ know… finding out they weren’t… weren’t…” He leaned over to his left, freeing his right hand to pick at the unlit cigar in a lacklustre fashion. “Like the groun’s gone. Like there’s no groun’ there anymore.”

“Mhm,” said Usopp quietly.

“Nothin’ you can count on, nothin’ to hol’ onto…just falling…”

“Yeah.”

“An’ then you find out that…that there is somethin’ there after all. That somehow you can still try. Still fight even when it’s too much. Even if you don’t have much chance of making it. ‘Cause you just gotta.”

Usopp changed arms, leaning his chin the other way, noting absent-mindedly that the sky seemed a tiny bit lighter now. “You gotta,” he mumbled. “To the last drop o’ blood. Even if you know it won’t do you much good.. Even if you probb’ly won’t make it… You still gotta do it.”

“Just hoping you can do some good, somewhere,” said Paulie bleakly, staring straight ahead.

He picked up one glass, took a look into it, then made a face. “Don’t think I wanna drink no more,” he mumbled. “Feel sick.” He pushed the glass away, then leaned his head down on the table too.

“Wake me up when there’s breakfas’” he mumbled drowsily. “But firs’ tell Lulu to… to…”

“…Make pick-me-ups, yeah,” supplied Usopp, yawning mightily. “It’ll be dawn soon, y’know,” he remarked intelligently, eyelids almost falling forward.

But Paulie was already snoring softly. Usopp frowned in confusion because there was something he’d been thinking right now about some problem when it came to sleeping. Now, what was it…he shivered suddenly… oh yeah, that was it. His head felt hot and most of his body did too, yet part of his arms and legs were pretty cold.

Secrecy be damned, that needed to be taken care of. He groped for his bag and after the third try managed to open it and get out his cape. (Even in his drunken state, he was careful to leave the mask where it was and not scuff it up any further.) Half the cape he spread over Paulie – sure, the shipwright had his jacket on, but he was a smoker, and they tended to get colder than others, didn’t they? Their hands and feet did, at least, he was pretty sure. Then he got ready to settle down under the other half of the cape, but before he could sit down Paulie stirred just a bit and muttered something incoherent.

Usopp blinked with very heavy eyelids, and was going to remark that he didn’t really have any time to try to make out what Paulie might be saying in his sleep, if that was what he was doing, but it came out as something more like a grunting kind of bleat. So he just shook his head and sat down, pulling the cape over himself and leaning against Paulie’s shoulder to rest his head on something else than a table. It was quite comfortable. Paulie seemed to murmur something again, right then, in a hoarse and very close voice. Usopp had just about enough consciousness to wonder if the shipwright thought he was someone else or was addressing someone in his dream. Then he finally dozed off.

*

He woke up well into the morning, when there was far too much sunlight and chirpy birdsong and busy people rushing about making noises around him.

But nobody had touched the tall glass of a sparkling, mostly peach-coloured liquid in front of him. Possibly because of the small folded note in front of it with the Galley-La’s symbol, possibly because of the way the drink seemed to swirl with different colours, slowly shifting from one to another all on its own. Usopp gave it a deeply suspicious glance, not willing to touch it just yet. He reached for the piece of paper first, unfolding it slowly.

Inside, the note said, ’Drink the whole of this at once. If you think your head is going to explode, that’s good, it means it’s working. I promise it really does do the trick. And hey, if you want to, go down and look at the building site in Shipyard One. They tell me we could need somebody to paint the flag. Seeya. P.’