This one was alone, all silent, all empty. Sadness sharp in every moment, empty void of aloneness, with nothing else, nothing else.
Then this one was not alone.
New ones came near, new, unique, each and all filled with bright and dark and strong and weak.
Dull meanings through the air, the new ones sent--spoke--sounds for hearing, but this one could not make the meanings clear, could not make sounds to send to the new ones, to ask, to call, cry, beg.
So this one touched those ones... reached and pushed when they would not open.
Saw inside. Saw sadnesses and losses, saw dark befores and bright afters, saw sharp places from befores, that in the afters were not sharp. Saw the meanings in the sounds they spoke, saw the shapes of other ones.
This one did not understand, anymore. Before, it could have, but the memory now was shredded and ragged, only enough left to make this one realize that it did not understand.
This one instead sought the places where the new ones and this one were not different, found the strongest of all sadnesses, the deepest losses.
The new ones dimmed when this one touched them, the bright and dark and strong and weak in the new ones dimmed... they fell... they stopped, as this one pushed the sadness, the aloneness, out, all the happy afters staying behind, still and stopped.
This one pushed the sadness out, out, and away where this one could not now touch, could not reach, not find, not look, not see, hear, feel.
Out and away. Where those other ones might find. Out and away, to ask, to call, to cry.
This one felt something sharper than sadness, vaster than aloneness.
This one felt hope.
Usopp opened his eyes and froze still as a stone.
This was not where he'd fallen asleep.
These trees weren't the trees from the forest outside town. He knew those ones, every single one. He'd climbed them, hid behind them, watched for pirates from them, waved to Mama from them.
Mama... Usopp closed his eyes against the strange trees, not caring at all about them as grief came up in his chest like he was turning to lead, making him feel thick and heavy and ready to tear apart into pieces.
He pushed the back of his wrists against his eyes and gritted his teeth. If any of the other kids heard him, again...
He thought of Dad and swallowed hard, breathed hard a few times before he felt the heavy feeling of grief go away a little bit. Not all the way, it was just there, just behind, waiting to come back. But he pushed it away for now, and opened his eyes.
And pressed himself back against whatever was behind him—hard, cold; stone?—because it was even more obvious now that this wasn't home.
These trees were huge,. Their trunks looked so big that Usopp didn't think five grown-ups holding hands would reach all the way around. Big vines climbed up some of them, huge flowers blooming white in the gloomy light, the only bright things he could see. Maybe they were what was making the air smell a little bit sweet.
Usopp bit his lip and looked upward, and up higher and higher. The trees looked like they touched the sky and the tops were so thick and tangled together there was almost no sky to see at all. Their branches only started way, way up, much higher than the roof of the Inn at the town square, and it had three floors.
He imagined an inn so tall it reached up to those tree tops, with so many cooks and waiters that it served a restaurant built in the branches, and people rode ropes on pulleys to get up and down from a whole city in the trees....
But there wasn't anything like that here, just distant branches, and green light where the sun glowed through all the leaves.
A movement caught his eye, a slow swoop in his direction, and he shoved his hand into his back pocket and grabbed his slingshot, shooting a marble at the swoop and scrambling backwards at the same time. With a quick dull tearing sound, the marble punched through what he realized was a huge leaf and disappeared into the undergrowth beyond.
Usopp reached for the leaf. His hand was shaking and so he grabbed the leaf extra-fast so he didn't have to see that. He held it up, finding that it hung down almost half his height, a hole torn near the edge of one side from his shot.
He looked up to the treetops, where it had fallen from. Nothing grew this big. Where was he?
Clutching the leaf, he went back to where he'd woken up, and sat down again.
"Mama, Dad," he said, biting his lip again, feeling heavy and too hot, "I'm lost."
Zoro sat bolt upright, reaching, reaching, until his hand found Wadou's sheath and closed tight. He clutched it to him, gasping, and waiting for the bad dream to go away completely. Kuina was dead, she was dead and it was up to him now, and she'd call him weak if she could see that he kept being so preoccupied, instead of getting real sleep so he could train properly.
The panic from the nightmare faded slowly, and even with eyes closed and trying for the meditation he knew how to do, he knew, why wouldn't it come anymore? Even with that, for what felt like forever his mind was filled with the useless desperation from his dream, running to try and stop what had already happened.
Finally, after much too long, he was calm again, and he opened his eyes.
And then a new rush of alertness filled him up, and he jumped to his feet, sliding Wadou free and ready to grab one of the others if anything happened.
This wasn't the dojo.
This wasn't his futon, there were no rice-paper doors or other sleeping students around him... this was a forest.
Dark, huge trees in all directions, undergrowth of damp-smelling leaf litter, ferns, and mossy, rotting logs, shadowy dim light over all of it...
This made no sense at all, how could he be here? Confusion flooded around him, rising quickly, about to cover his head, like that time he'd gone swimming with everyone, and the pond's bottom had dropped away between one step and the next.
He snarled silently and focused himself, making himself look, listen, and wait, perfectly still.
He heard the sounds of a forest. Distant rustling and unfamiliar bird calls. Smelled damp earth and greenery, dusty decay from the dried leaves and sweetness from the big flowers on the climbing vines.
Taking a slow, controlled breath, and thinking with the same control, he let himself think, without fear; where am I?
Robin woke slowly, aching everywhere, inside and out. She didn't want to wake up yet, didn't want to think about what to do now. That last place, the woman who'd called the marines after promising Robin could stay... Robin had left her bag behind, in her rush to run away. She had nothing, again, she'd have to beg for money and work, or steal again. Doing that had made her feel sick at first, but it was getting easier.
She missed the library, and she missed books, and being warm. Now she always felt like she was doing everything with heavy stones weighing her down. Being afraid was making her tired, and being tired was making her more afraid. And she had to keep going, she had to learn...
She sniffled and wrapped her arms around her middle, hugging tight, grabbing on to the only thing she had: herself. She had her mind, and her powers. She stretched her mouth into a grin, remembering the sound of a strange laugh, and the booming voice of a very strange giant.
She could do it. As long as she had herself. No one else.
There was an itch on her cheek, and she lifted one hand to scratch. The rustle of dry leaves surprised her and she forced her eyes open.
And went silent and still as ice.
She had run, and run, and hidden, and when she'd given in and slept, she'd been very far away from that woman's house and the marines on the hunt for her. But it had still been inside the city.
This was forest, everything she could see and hear. Not just a clump of trees on someone's property or a park. She knew what those felt like, was always aware of the limits of her hiding places; she knew what air sounded like when it could move, how the distant bustle of people carried.
There was none of that here. The air was calm, the only voices those of the trees and some few, far-off birds.
Robin sat up, staring around her, eyes starting to hurt because they wanted to go even wider. They stung, suddenly, and her vision swam. She felt lighter than she had in so long... There was no one here to chase her, to offer deceiving promises, to hold out a hand intended to lead her to capture.
No one, anywhere in the world, knew where she was.
She was alone.
Luffy thumped down the massive barrel he'd been hauling, and gave Nami a pleading look. "Pleeeease?"
"Yes, yes, fine, go," she waved him away. They'd confirmed that the water source marked on the ratty old map was indeed fresh and clean, they had water for the night, they could get more for Sunny's tanks tomorrow. Right now Luffy was itching to try and catch the various small, bright fish in the cove tide pools, and she was content to let him. It was early afternoon, so there was no rush.
They'd been driven significantly off their original course by a hard, three-day storm. Sunny had held up almost perfectly—only the fittings that weren't made of Adam wood and some of the rigging had suffered minor damage. When the skies had cleared, there was land in near view with trees on it, and Nami and Franky had decided it was worth a stop. The log pose had been reset by the landing, so there were six days for Luffy to catch his little fish.
"Yeaaah!" Luffy whooped. "Sanji! You promised! Let's go!"
"A refresher for you, Nami my sweet." Sanji presented her with a large mug. There was a little umbrella decorating it, and a slice of one of the last pineapples from their market run on the last island. It wasn't the tall glass she knew he'd rather serve her with, but Sanji had refused to let those off Sunny after Luffy and Usopp had "borrowed" them a while back for trapping some kind of glowing caterpillars.
"Thank you, Sanji," she smiled. He grinned giddily, then spun neatly to snatch up a net, an inflatable tube, and a large glass jar, and attend to his increasingly loudly calling captain. She watched them run off, Sanji racing to get the floatie around their captain before he chased something interesting into deeper water.
At least this old camp was still half-standing. Someone else had been blown off course here some time ago. Well above the high-tide line, where the sand turned to dirt and the forest surrounded them on three sides, keeping the wind at bay, there was an old lean-to, made of driftwood and what she guessed were fallen branches from the massive trees of this island's dense, ancient-looking forest, and Franky had taken approximately seven seconds to nudge each bit back into place and tack a few nails into it for them to use it as a storage platform, and then add a roof, table, and bench besides.
Chopper was not too far off, just at the forest's edge, scooping up armfuls of some plant that he'd almost gone overboard to get, when they'd dropped anchor on Sunny and he'd spotted the flowers from the rigging. Nami smiled as he almost tripped over himself, struggling with his armload, before it occurred to him to switch to Heavy Point.
She rummaged through the pile of their things to retrieve the supplies ledger, and sat down at the table to make a proper list of what they might be able to look around for on this island. The most important thing, fresh water, had been kindly pointed out by the previous camp inhabitants, but the forest may have a few things worth hunting down.
The trees here were huge—very old, she was sure. Franky had whistled through his teeth upon seeing them, his expression appreciative and respectful. "Not too many forests on Water Seven, ya know," he'd remarked, "And I haven't seen trees like these ones in forever... this is just..."
"Super?" Usopp had finished for him, and Franky had clapped him on the back, making him stagger a bit.
"Yep," he'd agreed, smiling broadly out at the trees. "And we'll just have to pick out a few to take with us. Tell ya what, Longnose-bro, I'll show ya how to cut one down without takin' all its neighbors with it."
He was back on Sunny, getting together ropes and pulleys and things, and Nami was sure that tomorrow he'd have Usopp up a tree or two, while Usopp quivered and screeched and claimed he'd contracted "can't climb insanely tall trees" disease.
He'd had "can't go into the scary forest" disease not six hours ago, though, she thought with amusement, but after the trees on Skypeia, these ones weren't that bad, and he'd ultimately agreed to accompany Robin.
It had helped when Robin had reminded him that he had the best hand at drawing among them, and his skill would be most appreciated if they found anything to catalogue. The mark on the old map had been ambiguous at best—all the detail was around the coastline—but, barring anything else to do for six days, Robin had been quite intent on starting to look for it. Sanji had packed them lunch, then barked at Zoro to go with them.
Zoro had glared mulishly back for a few seconds. Sanji had raised a foot in warning, and with a huff, Zoro had risen from his napping position.
Usopp had looked fractionally more reassured, Robin, amused. Zoro had glared at Sanji, snatched the third lunch package, and off they'd gone.
"Chopper swears that the birds said there are no large predators here, you know," Nami had remarked, after the three had disappeared past the first trees.
"Zoro was asleep when he said that, Nami-san," Sanji had said with an unrepentant shrug, "and Robin may need someone who can move a good amount of weight, if they find anything worth investigating."
Now, Nami leaned on her hand a moment and looked again towards where Luffy was flailing around with the net, his floatie jammed securely around his waist, while Sanji, suit hung up earlier in favour of green swim trunks, followed him with a large glass jar and an indulgently long-suffering expression.
Brook was just running out to meet them, now that all the rigging had been secured, his usual suit also discarded in favour of his own swim trunks, recently purchased. They were a bordering on offensively bright pink-and-yellow flower print, stretched over his fleshless hipbones, which was just plain surreal, because Brook had nothing to hide, anymore, anyway. And there was a skull joke in there, Nami was sure, but she just laughed to herself and got down to the numbers in front of her.
It was nice to have a quiet, uneventful island stop, from time to time, even if they'd had to be blown off course to find it.
Zoro moved quietly, carrying Wadou sheathed in one hand, the other two swords hanging across his back. He'd had to take off his dojo belt and slice it into two strips to do it, and he found it really awkward this way. Well, he'd get tall enough to wear them properly eventually. Until then, he would just have to carry them like this.
He hadn't seen a path of any kind yet. He had, to his aggravation, managed to circle back to where he'd started once already, the mark he'd made in the tree's tough bark fresh and unmistakable.
Well, this tree had two of the big vines around it, and that was new, so this was, at least, somewhere different than he'd been before.
A faint sound made him stand still. He put a hand on Wadou's hilt and crouched slightly, turning to pinpoint just where it had come from. He circled around as he got closer, and his grip on Wadou didn't relax, even when he started to feel sure it was a person, a kid, making noises like he was trying not to cry. He knew what that sounded like. Some of the other boys who lived at the dojo did that at night.
But he wasn't going to let down his guard.
He crept around a huge boulder. It and the littler rocks and twisting tree roots around it were covered in soft moss, and he barely had to try to be quiet. Stepping slowly, he edged forward, until he could peer around the side, between the rough stone and the thick-ridged bark of a massive tree trunk.
There was a kid there, maybe as old as him or a bit younger. Brown skin, long nose, tightly curled black hair under a faded yellow bandanna, he was hunched with his knees to his chest, with a huge, torn leaf clutched in one hand and a slingshot in the other. His eyes were closed tight, and his shoulders were shaking.
The sight of him made Zoro stare, and he felt faint, sudden relief, like a worry he didn't know he'd had was gone. It didn't make any sense to feel that way, though. He'd never seen this kid before. Who could forget a nose like that?
He stared too long, leaned too far. The moss under his front foot ripped free from the stone beneath it and he overbalanced. He grabbed for the tree, and his hand smacked against the trunk.
The kid made a strangled screechy sound, his arms flailing out. Then, while Zoro was still straightening, the kid managed to shove one hand into a pocket and then load and shoot his slingshot. Something whizzed past Zoro's cheek with a faint sting, and at that, Zoro pulled Wadou free while his feet were still adjusting to steadier ground. By the time he had his footing, he had the tip of the blade pointing at the other kid's chest. Not too close—this kid didn't look or feel like much of a fighter, even if he was pretty fast. He'd missed at close range, so either he couldn't aim at all, or he was too scared to do it well. Either way, Zoro wasn't afraid of him.
The kid was back on his elbows, his arms shaking from the awkward position against the uneven ground, and he was breathing loud and scared, and if he'd been on the verge of tears before, Zoro was pushing him over.
"Who're you?" Zoro demanded, and tightened his jaw against guilt as tears slid out over the kid's cheeks. He didn't want to hurt him, not even a little, he realized, despite having been grazed by his shot. He lowered Wadou.
"Wh-who're—who're you?" the kid retorted, still panting and shaking, but now the fear was fading.
"Roronoa Zoro," he answered flatly, and watched the kid's eyes dart up and down from Zoro's hair to his shoes, his face going from panicked to just nervous.
"Y-you better not attack me, better not, I'm a—I'm a pirate!" the kid said, sounding suddenly sure of that. "'I'm the Great Captain Usopp! An' I've got eight thousand men on my ship." That part was less sure, and Zoro didn't need to even guess that it was a lie.
"You do not," he told him.
"Do SO!" Usopp insisted.
"Do not!" Zoro growled.
"I do! Eight thousand. We went on adventures on the Grand Line. We went to the great Desert Kingdom to rescue it from the giant crocodile that drank all the water, and we went up to Heaven and swam in the clouds, and—"
"Alright already!" Zoro groaned. This kid was a bigger liar than Eiki at the dojo. A better one, though. At least these lies were interesting. "So, do your eight thousand men know where we are?"
Usopp's face turned a little happy at that, but then he sighed. "Well, um. I'm kinda not with them now. I dunno where we are. I thought maybe you did."
Zoro shifted uncomfortably. "I don't." He wasn't gonna say anything more than that, definitely not.
"Well... then..." Usopp looked around, taking a step in a couple of directions, staring upward. He counted on his fingers, then examined the bark of one tree really closely. He stood back finally, and... shrugged. "I dunno where to go."
"Then don't look around like you do!" Zoro exclaimed, annoyed.
"If this was the forest at home, I could take you anywhere on the island," Usopp said. Zoro didn't say anything back, because he'd ended up in the rice paddies one day when Sensei had sent him into town on an errand. "I could show you the docks and the spot in the forest where lightning made some trees burn, and the big cliffs on both sides, and at my house we could have..."
He trailed off then and Zoro started to feel embarrassed for him, because his face was making those grimaces that meant he was probably going to start to cry.
But he didn't. "Never mind," was all he said, voice kind of hollow and thick at the same time.
Zoro shifted from one foot to the other. The silence felt heavy and he didn't like it. "Well, we can't just stay here," he decided. "Let's go." He started off. Not too fast, though. He didn't want to lose his new... well, friend, he guessed.
"Wha? Wait!!" Usopp shrieked as Zoro moved away, and Zoro heard him crashing along in a great hurry to catch up.
"Walk quietly, dummy." He glared at Usopp. "What if there's bears or something in here?"
"Bears..." Usopp's voice dwindled, and he came up very close behind Zoro, stopping just before clinging to him. "Bears and tigers and... and gorillas. The gorilla king will catch us in a net and hang us over top of a fire to smoke us!" Usopp's voice was filled with vivid horror, and Zoro had a sudden and unpleasant image of them both all dried up and leathery, like smoked pork.
"You're crazy," Zoro muttered. "Stop imagining worse things!"
"D-don't worry," Usopp said shakily, "I escaped the great gorilla king KooBoo when I was three—they have a very secret and important weakness. They're afraid of farts."
"Afraid of—" Zoro came to a halt, bit down on the laugh that jumped up inside him and almost slipped out. Usopp bumped into him, and he turned slowly around to stare.
"Farts," Usopp nodded. "See, they weren't smart and they hung me up next to a table with every kinda food, and I always need to fart after I have—"
"Stop," Zoro cut him off. "Stop," he said again. He could feel the corners of his mouth twitching. Usopp smiled at him hopefully.
"Farts?" he repeated, and Zoro tried to scowl. He really, really tried. Then Usopp puffed out his cheeks and pressed down on them with both hands, making that very sound.
That did it. More laughs jumped up, and there were too many. He couldn't stop the smile anymore. Usopp laughed, and Zoro did too.
Usopp's giggling made him want to keep laughing, and the sound made the whole forest seem less overwhelming. But, he pulled himself together firmly, they were still in this forest. "We really have to be quiet," he reminded Usopp.
Usopp took a last couple of grinning breaths, and then put on something like a serious face. Zoro nodded, and started forward again.
"Um." Usopp grabbed his arm. "That's back to where we were before."
Zoro turned on his heel. "Right."
He started forward, again, with Usopp right behind him.
He still didn't know where this was, but he felt a little bit better now.
They walked for a very long time. The dim light coming through the treetops became even dimmer, and the air got cooler. Usopp followed Zoro closely, not wanting to fall even a few feet behind.
When Zoro had come around the rock, Usopp had first been so surprised he couldn't believe he hadn't jumped right out of his skin (what if he had? Would he still have his hair? His nose? How would he eat without a stomach?).
"Skull joke..." he said to himself.
"Huh?" Zoro looked over his shoulder.
"What'd you say?"
"Nothing," Usopp didn't know what Zoro was talking about. Zoro gave him a strange look, then shrugged and kept going.
Usopp kept his eyes on Zoro's back. Zoro wasn't like any of the kids at home. Well, he was small, like any of them, but he could use a sword. A real one. The two he was carrying on his back (and who needed three swords anyway?) didn't look special, but that white one sure did. Zoro held on to it with his hands instead of tying it to the other ones. Sure, Usopp had a slingshot, and he was really good with it, but this was just...
And it was funny, even though Zoro had pulled out that sword in the white sheath, Usopp wasn't mad at him at all. Well, he'd shot a marble at him, after all, so maybe it wouldn't be fair if he was mad.
But... when he'd let go of the slingshot elastic, he'd finally looked at what he was shooting at properly. A kid with green hair and a serious, almost angry face, and if Usopp had bumped into him at home, he would've run, and fast. But after a second, after he'd looked at him for real, he hadn't been afraid of Zoro's serious face.
Usopp didn't know if he'd say Zoro was... nice... but, still; he'd made him laugh with a story. Doing that had made him feel a lot better. This forest was still huge, but the green, the quiet, didn't seem so overwhelming like before. Now that he was with Zoro—and oops, he had to skip over a big root and run a little, because Zoro was walking a bit faster now—he almost wanted to stop and look around. This place was so big, and with all these stones and big old logs, there were probably bugs and salamanders and toads everywhere.
He tried to keep up and look at stuff at the same time, so he saw the purple smudge just by luck. He stopped and squinted, and then it moved, and there was a flash of paler skin, and it was gone. Had someone been watching them? Shivers came up his back, and he grabbed at Zoro. "Hey, there's someone," he hissed. Zoro moved around between him and where he'd been looking, peering at the thick ferns and tangle of dead branches.
"I don't—it moved—look!" More purple, easy to spot when almost everything else was mostly green or brown. And then it was gone again and they could hear fast footsteps.
"Hey you!! Wait!" Zoro shouted. "C'mon!" he said over his shoulder, and then he started running. Usopp felt his eyes get huge, but then he had to run after him, or get left behind. And, somehow, he wasn't sure Zoro would be able to find him again.
They ran, and it was hard, with rocks and roots everywhere, and trees in the way, but it was hard for whoever was in front of them, too. Usopp got a real look when he skidded around a big rock. A girl was running away from them. She had a purple dress on, and blue-black hair that went to her shoulders.
Zoro was just in front of him. "Kui—" he started to call something, but then he choked it off, shaking his head. "Hey!" he yelled instead.
"Wait up!!" Usopp called out too. "Do you know where we are?"
They were catching up, Usopp realized, but he wasn't sure what he was supposed to do if they actually got close.
Then something caught his ankles, and he fell flat on his front. A protesting grunt next to him told him that Zoro had also fallen. He tried to get up, but his ankles were still stuck. He twisted to look, and didn't believe his eyes.
Hands. There were hands there. Holding onto him. Growing out of the ground, and holding on to his ankles, and Zoro's too.
"Zo... Zoro..." Usopp stammered, but Zoro was looking forward, so Usopp did also.
He pushed himself up a bit on his hands, and saw the girl standing still in front of them, both arms out a little from her sides, fists clenched. Her face looked like a mask, or something, he wasn't sure at all what she could be thinking.
But he felt like he had with Zoro. He should have been trying to run away—he knew he should be! This girl had real powers!—but even though he was still shaking and those hands were really strange, he wasn't scared all the way down.
"Hi...?" Usopp offered, hesitantly. He looked over at Zoro, and was suddenly worried and confused. Zoro's expression wasn't serious now, it was... sad. No, more than that, Usopp realized, because it was the same thing that was inside him, waiting, and it came close to the surface again now, like Zoro's sadness was calling it.
But then the expression went away, and the serious face was back, and Usopp made himself look at the girl again. She was still there, and Usopp thought that now she looked kind of unsure. Zoro wasn't saying anything, so Usopp did.
"We're lost," Usopp told her, trying to make his voice steady. "Do you know where this is?"
She looked at him directly, and Usopp bit his lip.
"No," she said finally, soft and solemn. Usopp felt the grip on his ankles let go, and looked back just fast enough to see the hands disappear. Just like that! They poofed into cherry blossom petals and went away.
"Wow, that's amazing," he said, staring a little bit longer at where the hands had been. When he turned back to her, she was looking at him like he'd said something that made no sense. He sat up and frowned uncertainly. "Well, that was you right? I mean, I really hope it was because if there's magical hands growing out of the ground, that wouldn't be so—" he closed his mouth with a snap as she raised her hands, bending her elbows to hold her fists up at her shoulders.. and then another pair of arms came from her elbows, and another one, and then they poofed away like the hands on his ankles had, and she stared at him like she was waiting for him to say something mean.
He knew that face, 'cause he'd had that feeling before. People said things to him, about Dad, and he hated that.
But there was nothing mean to say to her. He just smiled. If it was her making the hands, then it was okay. "Wow," he said again, and got up, slowly, patting his knees to make the dirt and bits of dead leaves fall off. They stung now, he had probably scraped them. "And it looks like cherry blossom petals, or something? It's pretty. At home there's only a couple of cherry trees, because it's not really warm enough. But I went to an island once, where there were cherry trees as big as mountains, so when they have flowers they make so many petals it's like it's snowing."
He stopped talking before his mouth ran away, like Mama would say. She would say if he wanted to make friends that he had to let other people talk too. But the girl didn't talk again, so he added, "I'm Usopp. What's your name?"
That made her look really surprised, like she'd expected them to somehow know who she was, even though they'd never met her before.
"Robin," she said, and her voice was quiet, and sort of sad, and Usopp thought that was probably her normal self, in the same way that Zoro kept looking serious. "I don't know where this is." Then she looked at Zoro, waiting.
"Roronoa Zoro," he said, and Usopp looked over to see him getting up and brushing dirt and leaves off the front of his own clothes. Then he bowed, polite, and Usopp felt stupid for forgetting. Robin looked surprised again.
They stood for a little while, all staring at each other. Zoro's hands moved on the white sword, and he kept looking at Robin, short glances that Usopp didn't understand. Robin's hands stayed in fists down at her sides while she watched them, and Usopp took off his bandanna and then put it on again.
Finally, he kicked at the ground, scuffing the toe of his boot through some damp leaves. "So, um. Now what d'we do?"
Nami watched the bright little fish in the jar for a few more minutes before calling Luffy over. "You have to take him to the aquarium, Luffy, if you want to keep him, or put him back in the water." She didn't want the pretty thing to suffocate.
The weight of the air changed as Luffy's sandals slapped their way across the sand to the table to get the jar. "Hmm, rain's coming," she said.
"Uh-oh," Luffy looked up, and she followed his gaze to the big clouds closing in fast overhead. The wind was picking up already, the air cooling a bit. This was going to be another big one, Nami knew, but it wasn't any real danger near land, and it wouldn't last for long. It had come on this quickly, and was still moving at that speed. It would last overnight, yes, and perhaps till midday tomorrow.
Unfortunately, that meant that camping out here wouldn't be an option after all, not for tonight.
"The idiots and Robin aren't back yet?" Sanji said, frowning as he picked up the plate he'd brought her some cupcakes and sliced fruit on earlier.
"Whoa!" Chopper ran by chasing a scrap of paper he'd been scratching notes on. The rising breeze whipped it even further away from him briefly before he snatched it out of the air. He came back and looked at both of them, frowning in concern. "They're gonna get pretty wet. Maybe I should prepare some cold medicine, just in case."
"Let's get this packed away first." She closed the ledger and stood. "We don't have to bring it all back to Sunny, but let's stow it in the lean-to so it doesn't blow away." Franky's work would stay exactly where he'd built it.
And there the man himself was, jogging back towards them from the forest's edge with a massive stack of wood planks on his back. Clearly he'd found a good tree while he was out in the woods all this time. Between the clouds and the hour, though, it wouldn't be light much longer, so it was just as well he was back.
The first fat drops started falling as they climbed back up the rope ladder onto Sunny. Chopper hopped up to hang off the rail for a moment, staring back out at the forest. Thunder rumbled, not very far off. "I hope they get back before it gets too bad."
"It's just a little rain, they won't melt," Nami reassured him.
Thunder cracked overhead, the sound so near it felt like the world itself had snapped apart. Usopp screeched and cowered against Zoro, who had gone perfectly still. The rain was so heavy that it made a dull roar overhead where it hit the leaves and a harsher sound around them on the forest floor. It came down as hard as if there was nothing between them and the sky, hard enough to sting, and they were all soaked through. It was difficult to see anything because water kept getting in his eyes, and even when it didn't, everything more than a few feet away was blurred out by sheets of rain.
"Here!" Zoro shouted over the noise. A hand closed around Usopp's wrist and he was pulled, hard. He stumbled, and Zoro shoved him forward. Usopp fell on his hands and knees on dry dirt.
The sound of rain went quieter, partly muffled, like someone had thrown a blanket over it, and even though he was wet and freezing, he felt better.
He was pushed and shoved some more as Zoro and Robin joined him, and he scrambled as far back as he could until he found a sandy wall with lots of fuzzy roots. Oh, they had to be under a tree, just like one of his forts at the west edge of the woods at home. That one had a thick mat of big roots holding up a roof of dirt, but it had grown in a funny way and the earth underneath had worn away, making sort of a nook.
This one was a lot like that: a roof of roots that the rain didn't get through, but it was deeper than the one at home, almost a cave, instead of just a ledge overhead. Usopp scrambled back as far as he could, and he ended up sitting between Robin and Zoro, their backs against sandy earth, and staring outward to the forest.
"It's getting really dark," Usopp realized. The rain made things darker because of clouds, but now it was definitely hard to see.
"Yeah," Zoro said and he didn't sound happy.
"We could make a fire here," Robin said, looking up at the roof of their hole. It sloped a little upward. Smoke would just go outside, she was right.
"Do either of you have stuff to make a fire with?" Zoro asked. Robin shook her head, and looked down.
Usopp pulled his knees up, hugged himself and shivered.
Zoro hugged the white sword close to his chest, and shifted so his side pushed against Usopp. Both their clothes were wet all the way through, and it wasn't very comfortable, but it was warmer.
After a while, he felt Robin leaning on his other side.
He couldn't see much anymore, just shapes of things. Night was coming, it was already dark down here now.
He thought that he should be scared. It was almost nighttime, He was lost in a huge forest, and he didn't know anything about how to go home.
Well, he was scared, kinda. If he looked towards the outside of their shelter place, it was dark, like the kitchen at night when he wanted a snack. But he could feel the other two right next to him, just like he felt Mama when she would find him out of bed, and he would hug her.
Thunder crashed outside, and Usopp flinched, feeling the sadness he'd been pushing away all day move forward, and there was no stopping it now.
He tightened his arms around his knees, and hid his face down on them, even though it was so dark now that the others wouldn't be able to see that he was crying. Maybe the rain was loud enough that they wouldn't hear him either.
But at least, he realized, he wasn't afraid they'd make fun of him if they did.
Robin stared out into the wet blackness of night. The boy next to her, little Longnose, seemed to have fallen asleep, after crying quietly for a long time.
She felt an ache inside her, something she hadn't felt in a while, not since after... after Ohara.
But it really was there; she was sorry, and she didn't want him to be sad. She wished she could make him feel better, even though she didn't know what he was crying about.
Maybe the same kinds things she had cried about, at first. Mother. Saul. Professor Clover and all her teachers.
The other boy was still awake; his breathing wasn't slow enough for him to be asleep yet.
She didn't understand them, and this bothered her, because she always wanted to understand. She didn't understand why they'd chased her, if they didn't know she was worth money. She didn't understand how little Longnose had said her flower arms were pretty, or how little Swordsman hadn't said... anything, not even reacted. He didn't seem to care. They didn't say "monster" or even look like they were thinking it.
When she'd tripped them, she'd turned around to look at them even though she knew she had to keep on running, pinning them down as long as she could until she got too far away to hold on.
But she'd turned around. And looked. And stopped. They didn't make her feel afraid, once she'd looked at them, and she didn't understand it. Little Longnose was very nervous, and very funny, and very nice. Little Swordsman was none of those things, but he seemed solid as one of the giant trees around them now, following some goal far ahead as unwaveringly as those trees reached for the light. She couldn't find any distrust for him, even if the first time he'd looked at her he had seemed to be seeing someone else.
She had to leave them. Soon.
She couldn't stay with them, that was all she knew for sure. If she did, something bad would happen, she knew it. It always did, it was the way the world did things.
If she left, nothing that hurt her would have the chance to hurt them.
This one knew. A bond, from sameness, when the small ones stilled enough, in the out and away.
The small ones, asleep. Asleep and sad, asleep and lost. But not alone; less sharp, less hollow than for aloneness.
This one felt the link, felt the way to pull, to pull the small ones back, back to this one's place, back together with this one again.
This one could.
But not now.
This one knew that the small ones would become not-lost. The other ones would come. The afters in the small ones showed it, strongly, sharp and true.
Then the small ones would be not-lost.
Then... this one might become not-lost, too.
"Should we perhaps go and look for them?" Brook asked Nami, as she came out from her and Robin's room in the morning. He'd had the last watch. "There hasn't been a sign of them at all." His eye sockets seemed very concerned, and Nami still wasn't sure how he did that, but nonetheless, she agreed with him. She wouldn't say she was worried, quite, but one never knew.
It was still raining now, though the heavy downpour had given way to a softer rainfall, steady and just slightly warmer than the storm. It wouldn't last more than a few hours longer, Nami was sure, but the sooner they started the better.
"Saaaaaaanjiiiiiiiiii, foooooooooooood!" came the rising bellow from the boys' cabin, until Luffy launched himself out onto the lawn deck, grabbed a railing and flung himself up and over to get into the galley. Once inside, they heard his surprise. "Hey, where's Usopp and Zoro? And Robin? Are they still in the woods?!"
Nami and Brook exchanged glances and headed for the galley.
Chopper looked back over his shoulder as they moved into the trees, and Nami looked at him sympathetically. He was in his reindeer shape, ignoring the rain like a wild animal would, but his worry was still apparent. He'd been torn about whether or not to stay on the ship with Brook in case their misplaced crewmates returned there, but had decided that he might be more needed if they found them in trouble than if they were able to get back on their own.
And, even with the rain making it unlikely, Chopper was the only one who could track them by scent.
Nami hoped it wouldn't matter in any case, and that Robin had really just found something very interesting. But... she sighed silently and adjusted her raincoat. She doubted it.
"Zorooooooo!" Luffy called, both arms swinging as he led them in the direction she'd told him to go. "Usooooopp! Robin!! Guys!! Where'd you go?!" His raincoat wasn't doing that much good, flapping open and unbuttoned and with the hood already back and probably half-full of the thick drizzle that was still making it through the trees, but at least he was wearing one at all.
Sanji was next to her, a dark frown on his face as he muttered imprecations about Zoro. Any threat from his low-toned curses was undercut somewhat by the fact that he was wearing a bright yellow rain slicker, but the worry behind them was still perfectly clear.
Franky was at the rear, wearing nothing more than usual, aside from a slight frown betraying his own concern.
They walked a long while. To Luffy's credit, he managed not to go off in pursuit of any large insects. Not far, anyway.
Chopper kept apologizing that he couldn't smell anything helpful, even though Nami had told him the first time that she had no idea what route Robin might have chosen. The trees were far enough apart and the undergrowth sparse enough that even without a beaten path, it wasn't hard to move.
They weren't far off from the general vicinity that Nami thought the mark on the map indicated, when Franky called out. "Hey bros and sis, there's a mark on this tree here—fresh too. And I wasn't over at this area at all yesterday."
He was right. There was a sharply cut slice out of the bark, low to the ground.
"Was there fighting?" Nami asked, her gaze jumping from tree to ground to tree, looking for any more telltale signs. There was nothing.
Chopper trotted over to the mark, his muzzle rising and dipping as he investigated. "Yes!!" he squealed, and then he turned to Nami hurriedly, "I mean, no, no fighting, I think, there's no blood smell, but Zoro was here! Definitely! And if I start from here, even with the rain..." He backed up a few feet from the tree, head down and searching. He stepped in one direction hesitantly, then adjusted his bearings. "I got it! This way for sure!" He tossed his head and stamped his forehooves, since he couldn't clap as a reindeer. "I've got it now, even though..." He tilted his head. "It's funny, doesn't smell exactly normal... not sick though... must be the dilution..." The last bits were spoken mostly to himself, then he started forward. "Yeah, it's this way!"
That was not in the direction of Robin's original goal—rather, it was on an angle that headed back in the general direction of the ship. "Just Zoro, Chopper?" Nami asked, frowning. Chopper nodded.
"So you and Sanji go look that way and we'll go look for Robin's mystery place," Luffy said with a firm nod. Nami hesitated a moment, but ultimately it was as good an idea as any. If Zoro was headed back to Sunny—unlikely as it was that he'd actually get there—they still had to find the others.
"Back this way, Luffy," she pointed, and he went. She followed, just barely overhearing Sanji's warnings to Franky about her safety. Rolling her eyes, she jogged a bit to catch up with her captain.
The sound of Luffy's calls faded behind them as Sanji kept easily up with Chopper's stop-and-go progress following Zoro's trail.
If that colossal dimwit of a seaweed-headed steel-for-brains swordsman had let anything happen to Robin, he'd... he'd use his haramaki as a gravy strainer.
Sanji stomped down his unease for the tenth time and thought of a few more choice uncomfortable consequences for Zoro instead. The idiot was probably just lost. That was all.
Where Robin and Usopp were, in that case, though...
But Usopp was probably fine. A forest was excellent cover for a sniper.
And Robin was fearless, and skilled and—
"Sanji!" Chopper exclaimed urgently, and Sanji snapped out of his spiral of worry to pay attention to the one thing that could actually tell him which way to go. "Usopp was here too!" Chopper turned in a quick circle, and snuffled around the base of a large boulder. "Just Zoro before this, but now I can smell both. Now... now this way!" he started off more confidently than before, then skidded to a stop, and looked at Sanji uncertainly. "Um. Should we go back to get the others?"
Sanji shook his head. "We don't know if there's time. Let's go."
Chopper took a steadying breath. Sanji nodded encouragingly, and then they were moving again.
The swerving path they followed went another three-quarters of an hour, and then the trail crossed and joined another—Robin's.
Worry was turning into cautious, if urgent, hope that Robin may have just found something else to look at. Maybe.
Even if it made no sense at all that their scents had been separated so far apart and then joined together. Chopper insisted the trail was getting warmer, that they were not following it in reverse. How could they have gotten scattered over such a wide area, and with no trails before then?
Sanji looked around himself, up at the huge tree trunks, wrapped in flowering climbing vines, down at the mossy ground. This vast forest felt still, and quiet. It may well be dangerous, but there was nothing actually malevolent about it for Sanji to pin his unease on, just the fact of his missing nakama. It was almost annoying. The place was just... empty.
"Sanji!" The hiss carried back through the undergrowth, and Sanji blinked back to the pursuit at hand. Chopper was ten or so yards ahead now, standing in front of a huge tangle of roots and he looked... there wasn't a word for his expression. He looked beyond shocked.
Sanji opened his mouth to swear and started to run forward when Chopper popped into his small, usual shape and held one hoof over his mouth for silence, beckoning Sanji, but slowly. His expression was still one of utter confusion, and Sanji, concern skyrocketing, came forward as fast as he could while moving quietly.
Chopper was staring forward fixedly, and it wasn't until Sanji got closer that he realized there was an alcove worn away under part of the gnarled root system supporting one of the great trees.
It was a rather deep one, and Sanji couldn't guess, at first, what Chopper could see there that would astonish him so completely.
He stepped over a fallen log and drew near enough that he spotted a pair of small booted feet, like a child's. Sanji felt his eyebrows climb.
Moving silently forward the last few steps, he realized there was another pair of small feet under there. And then... another.
And when he came around to finally stand next to Chopper...
He understood Chopper's reaction utterly.
Huddled at the back wall of the shallow, earthy cave were three sleeping... children.
Seven or eight years old. And they... they were...
On the left was a stocky, green-haired boy in a worn-looking blue dojo uniform, cradling a white-sheathed sword. Two other swords were propped on the sandy wall beside him, and he was leaning against another little boy with a very long nose.
The long-nosed little boy's head rested on the green-haired boy's shoulder, black, curly hair tucked under a half-undone bandanna. He had a slingshot tucked into the sash tied around his waist.
And facing away from them both, but nonetheless pushed snugly back against the long-nosed boy's other side, was a little girl with dark blue hair and a purple dress, her knees held tight to her chest and her face hidden on them.
"Sanji..." Chopper whispered. "Do you... see...?"
Sanji grunted a quiet, wordless affirmative.
"I don't..." Chopper trailed off again. Sanji agreed completely.
The little girl moved. Sanji and Chopper both fell still and silent as she slowly raised her head, blinking sleepy, sad eyes open.
Then she saw them, and her head whipped around to stare, stark fear wiping all the drowsiness away as she went alert in an instant, her small body flinching and going tense.
Her flinch jerked the long-nosed boy into wakefulness, and he took one look at them and gasped loudly, sitting straight and trying to press himself into the back wall of their shelter.
The green-haired boy grunted and blinked awake and as the little girl crossed both arms over her chest, he was on his feet in front of the long-nosed boy, sword coming out of the white sheath in defiant defense.
Arms sprouted from the ground, snagging at Sanji's pants' legs and Chopper's ankles, and Robin—for there was no way, with that power, that it was anyone else—bolted.
"Robin!?!" came a jarringly familiar but far too high-pitched wail from the long-nosed boy.
Usopp. No other possibility in the world. Sanji was attuned to that sound, knew the difference between Usopp's noises of jumpy shock and of true desperation. This was the latter, and the automatic urgency it triggered in him was punched through with offended, guilty dismay that he was the cause of it.
Sanji felt the grips on his pants legs vanish—she'd already gone too far to keep holding them, and he was torn whether or not to bolt in pursuit when he felt the tip of a blade poke at his stomach, and he snapped his stare down at the green-haired boy in automatic aggravation. Zoro. It... was, it simply was, Sanji knew that face. Years older, and years surer, hardened by training, but this was that face.
And the expression on that face, and the one on Usopp's, made him stay put.
For all the glaring from the green eyes behind the white sword, there was trembling uncertainty at the edges as Sanji met his gaze. All sense of threat leached steadily away. The sword lowered slightly, then raised again, and confusion washed over Zoro's entire bearing.
Breathing fast and high-pitched behind him, Usopp was the same, exhausted shaking making his hands tremble visibly as they closed around his slingshot like it was a talisman.
Sanji dropped slowly to one knee, the part of his mind frantic to pursue Robin held in necessary restraint by the need to start first with this... situation... here.
The tip of the katana hovered in front of his face, but Sanji looked past it. The initial reaction notwithstanding, it was like Zoro was keeping it pointed purely for show, now. The confusion in his face flickered with something that wasn't recognition, but that nonetheless made him start to lower the blade, slowly, inch by inch.
"Zoro?" Sanji couldn't help but ask, unable to banish the incredulity from his voice. Zoro twitched at the use of his name, hand tightening on the sword, but it stayed down. Sanji looked past him to Usopp, who was teary with confusion that was identical to Zoro's but obviously shaking him much more deeply. "Usopp?" Sanji said, tone gentler.
"Do you know who we are?" Chopper's tentative voice asked from Sanji's side, and Sanji almost jumped. He hadn't forgotten Chopper was there, exactly, but the sight before him had grabbed absolutely all his attention.
"No..." Zoro growled, uncertainty plain in his tone, and testiness just behind it. Zoro hated being uncertain, after all.
"I want my mama," Usopp's voice was tiny, and his breath hitched. Zoro looked around at him for a second, then glared harder at Sanji. Sanji had to stop himself from glaring right back. Knee-jerk defensiveness at the automatic accusation was a jarring feeling right now.
"How d'you know our names, if we don't know yours?" Zoro bit out, an angry puppy compared to how Sanji knew the wolf of his adult self to be.
"I..." Sanji glanced at Chopper, who gave him a helpless look. "How come you don't know us anymore?" he returned, voice challenging, and Zoro blinked, taken aback.
"I'm... supposed to?" he said, and he sounded wary, but not actually that doubtful, to Sanji's surprise and relief.
"Yes, you are," Chopper piped up, belated but firm. "We're your friends. This is Sanji, and I'm Chopper. We came to look for you because you got... well, lost," he finished, after a brief moment of consideration.
Sanji watched Zoro mouth the names to himself. Usopp, sniffling, swallowed and sat forward a little, wiping his face with one arm. Sanji, despite himself, felt a surge of altogether unmanly sympathy for him. "Usopp," he said, and Usopp fixed wide, wet eyes on him. Sanji couldn't speak for a second, because Usopp, the one he knew, as ridiculous as his fears sometimes were, had never looked so wide-open and vulnerable.
Zoro looked, for the most part, like a smaller version of his rude, surly self. Usopp simply looked... young. Little. Of all of them, Sanji had learned after joining Luffy, Usopp had been the one with a life closest to normal, before becoming one of the Strawhats.
If that life was all he remembered now, how must this seem to him?
"I'm the... the Great... Captain Usopp," Usopp said, halting but insistent. "My dad's a pirate." That came out like Usopp was defying Sanji to say anything about it, no matter how much bigger he was than Usopp. "I'm gonna be a brave warrior of the sea."
You're right, Sanji thought, a brightly-coloured mask flashing in his mind's eye. even if that warrior lies and pretends he's not you. "Is that so," was all he managed.
"I have eight thousand followers, at home, and we defeated a dragon yesterday," Usopp went on, and Sanji, to his mild horror, had to fight off a relieved smile at those words.
"We were here yesterday," Zoro looked around to say to Usopp, and Usopp made a sulky face at him.
With that final defusing of the initial tension, Usopp seemed just barely sure enough now to finally get up and come to stand beside Zoro. His gaze turned uncertain again, but quizzical rather than afraid. His feet fidgeted nervously on the leaf litter as his gaze moved sidelong at first, and then directly to Chopper. Chopper offered an almost equally-nervous, but friendly, smile and Usopp frowned slightly in hesitant consideration.
"Are... you a... reindeer?" he asked.
Sanji looked at Chopper, who was now all wide-eyed and grinning that someone had identified his species correctly, instead of saying bear, or tanuki, or raccoon, yet again.
"Yes!!" Chopper squealed, and hopped a little. "And I don't even care that you could tell, you stupid moron!" He rocked back and forth on his hooves in obvious pleasure, and Usopp and Zoro exchanged a look that, for all their apparent youth, was extremely familiar.
"Cool," Usopp declared, studying Chopper for a few moments. Then he gasped, remembering. "Hey, now, um, we hafta get Robin," Usopp said, looking at Sanji and Chopper in turn. "She's really nice, I promise, but she gets scared when people see her. She ran away from us too at first," he added, as if to reassure them that it wasn't anything personal.
Sanji nodded, his need to find her shoving itself back to the fore. "I know," he said, worry over her making his urgency turn sharp. Not for her safety as much so how she must feel now. Enies Lobby hadn't been very long ago, and she had run then, too, and what a horror that had been. He stood up. "Let's go—" he started, before cutting himself off and looking down at the two miniature versions of his nakama.
Familiar, yes, mind-boggling, that too, but most of all now... plainly small, weary after spending a night out in a storm, and even if Zoro's sword-handling was still very skilled, even so... regressed... neither he nor Usopp would not have the stamina they normally did to keep up.
They should return them to the ship, where it was safe—but he couldn't leave without Robin—and he couldn't send Chopper back with them and follow her alone—and he wasn't going to send Chopper on alone...
The tall blond man and the little fuzzy person didn't chase her, Robin could hardly believe it. Maybe they hadn't been after her. It was strange to think that, but when she'd seen them, they hadn't really looked so bad... so then, she thought, they had come to find her friends. That was okay. That was good—they would be safe, with people who loved them enough to look for them, because she would leave them alone, and get far away.
She ran into the rain, tears making her eyes sting and her nose run, and she clenched her teeth, angry at herself. She didn't cry now, she didn't ever cry now. It was a waste of time, because all her loved people were dead forever and it would never help them. The only thing she could ever do for them was to stay alive and learn things.
Stumbling over an unseen clump of moss, she fell forward onto her hands before scrambling upright and onwards.
Last night, even with the big storm, had been a nice one. Sleeping next to safe people had made her feel good, for just a little while, but she knew she had to stop doing it, because now it was hurting her. She missed them.
She tripped again and fell flat on her face, the impact hard enough to make her sob out loud once. She clenched her fists against the damp leaves on the ground and bit the inside of her cheek until the crying feeling went back down and she could breath again around the lump in her throat.
Then she got up and ran some more, until her side felt like it would tear apart and the humid, rainy air felt too thick to breath. Then she walked until she could run again.
She ran through some ferns and bushes, branches slapping her arms that she raised in front of her face and showering her with big, cold water drops, and then she was in an open place, where the trees were a little farther apart from each other than everywhere else.
And she didn't know how long it was after she'd fled from the ones who'd found her and the boys, but suddenly there were new people.
A pretty lady with orange hair and an orange raincoat was holding a paper, and staring at her. A huge man with huge arms and no pants on was behind the orange-haired lady, big fingers lifting some sunglasses up off a metal nose to look at her. A skinny man wearing an open blue raincoat over a red vest and blue shorts had one hand on the straw hat on his head, and was looking at her curiously with really sharp eyes.
Something about them all made her think they were friends with the blond man and the little fuzzy person.
But then, "Robin?" said the man with the straw hat. The other two stared at him like they were shocked, and Robin felt her stomach drop with exhausted fear. He knew her name, so he would want to take her. She took a breath, tried to ignore the tight stitch in her side, and turned to run away again, lifting one hand to push rain out of her eyes.
She didn't have any voice to cry out when a hand on a stretched-out arm shot past her and grabbed her firmly around the middle. She was yanked back, and dully thought, Gum-Gum fruit. Paramecia type.
Thudding back against a firm chest, she was held there for a second before the rubber man turned her around, one hand under each of her armpits, holding her out before him. She panted painfully. She didn't know what to do now, couldn't think anymore. She made some more arms to push against his grip but it didn't do any good. She could feel how strong he was; he was holding her up like she was as light as air, and his hands felt as strong as steel. Worn out, she let her extra arms fade.
"Robin?" the strawhat man said again, his head tilted a little. He frowned at her. "Why'd you run away? Is there something strong in here after all? Chopper said that the birds said there was nothing, not even giant boars or anything, so that's why Sanji says we have to catch some fish while we're here, but if there's something really big here, maybe we can eat it?" He looked over his shoulder hopefully, and she didn't understand.
The thickness in her throat, from the running and the air and the confusion got worse, and even with her wet clothes and the cold rain, her face felt hot and the stinging came back to her eyes. Dangling in the strawhat man's grip, she shook her head at him, at herself, at everything.
The feeling was stronger this time, the same one she'd had with Zoro and Usopp, and she still didn't understand it. Even though it made no sense, she wasn't really afraid of this man. Or of the lady with the orange hair, or the huge man with the metal nose and no pants.
"Are you okay, Robin?" The rubber man was looking at her with a different frown now. "We missed you a lot when you didn't come back to Sunny, you know, so we had to come and make sure nothing bad happened to you."
The way he was talking... she could hardly believe it. He meant it, and somehow she knew that, in the same way she knew the old language, knew the names of all the people lost on Ohara, knew that the whole world was after her.
It didn't make any sense, not at all. Saul had said there were people, somewhere, for her, but she had realized that he was wrong, she'd learned that quickly. Even the nice ones became mean when the bad ones came after her.
The confusion, and the cold, and the rain, and their eyes on her like that, all worried... the fat lump in her throat made her choke, and she couldn't keep breathing normally. Her vision got watery and she couldn't hold it all in anymore. She squeezed her eyes shut, hard, but it didn't help.
She heard the strawhat man make an unhappy sound. The hands holding her brought her close to him, shifted to hold her there, and she could feel the wet, rubber cloth of the raincoat against her arm, and the dry, worn-out cloth of his vest against her face. She turned into it a bit, and one of the strong hands that had held her was patting her back.
"Robin's tired, guys," he said in a whisper over her head that wasn't really quiet at all.
There were replies, but she stopped listening for a while, giving in to relief like letting go of barbed wire to fall onto a giant, soft bed, trying to get her bearings in the big floundering vastness of the feeling.
She was vaguely aware of the arms holding her shifting again as the strawhat man sat down on something. The edge of the raincoat was tugged free from against her shoulder, and then she was resettled on his lap with a warm weight draping over her back, keeping the rain off.
It took a while, but finally she just felt heavy and tired. There wasn't room for anything else. No more tears or choked-off throat. She rubbed at her face, and looked up.
The orange-haired lady was next to the strawhat man, worry on her face, but she smiled when Robin looked at her. Robin didn't smile back, couldn't, but she did like it. Past her, the huge man was standing up, sunglasses pushed up on his forehead and watching with an even more worried expression—even his hair seemed to be part of it, but that was probably just the rain.
"Ro-robin?" The orange-haired lady said it like a question, but then closed her eyes for a second and took a little breath. She said, "Robin, your hands are scratched, we have to clean them up."
Robin lifted her hands, turned the palms up to look at them. There were grimy scrapes on them, from when she'd fallen, blood and dirt mixed together, and suddenly they hurt, a lot.
"It's okay," the strawhat man reassured her, "Chopper usually does that stuff now, but Nami did it all the time before that. She's good at it."
Robin nodded, then, and the orange-haired lady smiled again. She came around in front with a canteen, and gestured for Robin to hold her hands out.
She stood up from the strawhat man's lap so the water wouldn't run all over him. When it was poured over her hands, it was cool, and stung on her scrapes, but the orange-haired lady's fingers were light as she rubbed the dirt away.
Robin didn't think she could run away now. And... she didn't want to. But she didn't know...
"Thank you, ma'am," she said, being quiet and polite. "Please may I ask, who are you?"
The orange-haired lady looked up at her abruptly, and the man with no pants took a loud breath. The two of them looked at each other for a second, and Robin felt a surge of tearing worry, but the strawhat man leaned down to grin at her while the other two were still frowning.
"I'm Monkey D. Luffy, and I'm gonna be king of the pirates! That's Nami, she's my navigator, and that's Franky, he's my shipwright! And you're Robin, and you're my archaeologist." He nodded decisively. "You're littler than yesterday, but we'll fix it. Hey, do you know where Usopp and Zoro are?"
Nami knelt on the forest floor, her backpack open and the first aid kit as well. The little girl... Robin... sat on a stone in front of her, a blanket from Luffy's bag wrapped around her small shape. She hadn't flinched when Nami had poured water from her canteen over her palms, washing the grime away to leave clean, seeping scrapes.
And now Robin continued to be still, eyes wide and taking in everything while Nami wrapped her hands in light bandages.
The rain had drifted away from them now, Nami knew, though the leaves overhead continued to shower intermittent raindrops down as the breeze moved the leaves. The air was humid, still, the smells of the wet forest were strong: damp earth and fallen logs, and the fresher pungent smell of green growth strengthened after the downpour.
Luffy had shucked his raincoat for good, stuffing it into his backpack. Nami planned to do likewise soon enough, now overwarm under the layer of sealed cloth. She wished the air would let wet things dry faster, but she wasn't about to make Robin change out of her damp, dirty dress out here. The blanket would do until they got back to Sunny. Franky, of course, didn't really have enough on to worry about.
He was worried about other things, though, or rather one particular thing. He had, at first, hovered, shifted the stone for Robin to sit on, asked her if it was satisfactory (it was), offered to build a little shelter (that was confusedly and politely declined), fumbled the first aid kit while trying to help by holding it open, and now hung reluctantly back after a pointed look from Nami. He was leaning against a tree some yards away, ostensibly to keep watch, or so he'd claimed after Nami had shooed him away.
Nami thought he was just having trouble hiding his shock. She was certainly not over hers, but she had years of experience keeping her emotions in check, and Franky's emotions were never in check.
It wasn't hard to see who this was, once disbelief was suspended, as it had had to have been so many times before on the Grand Line. Not to mention the undeniable demonstration of powers, earlier. There could only ever be one of any Devil Fruit user living. This child was their archaeologist.
This child was... exhausted, tear-stained, wet and dirty from running through the woods, but she was Robin. Her emotions were plainer on her face than adult Robin's ever were, but the eyes, the intelligence...
And the look of someone trapped. Not here and now—Robin was almost relaxed, sitting before Nami, shoulders and head drooping slightly, and there was none of the panic that she'd showed when Luffy had caught her up. But the alertness hadn't fully gone, the constant, automatic watch of her surroundings... Nami felt the echo of painful recognition at that.
She taped down the end of the second bandage, and then gathered up the first aid supplies and stowed them again in her bag. A neatly wrapped bundle of food was in there too, and she pulled it out and untied it. Simple, compared to what Sanji might have made another day, but as well-prepared as ever. Nami offered one of the neatly-formed rice balls to Robin, who took it carefully.
"Oooh, Nami, gimme!"
Nami planted a hand on her captain's face as he launched himself at her bag. "It's not my fault you ate yours three minutes after we got into the forest. You wait."
"So mean," Luffy whined, flopping down abjectly. Nami heard a little sound from Robin, and looked over to see her smiling, just a little, as she chewed. Luffy rolled onto his back and arched enough to be looking at Robin upside down. "Good, huh? Sanji is the best cook. But it's the real best when he cooks meat, though. Okay!" he jumped up. "Time to go get them so we can go back to Sunny and have lunch."
Robin had told them that she'd been with Zoro and Usopp, "the other kids,"—Nami and Franky had exchanged another look of not-quite-total-this-time disbelief—and that a blond man and short furry person had surprised her into running.
At the least, Nami had reflected, everyone was now accounted for, even if some of then hadn't exactly been returned in the same condition in which they'd left.
Now, Robin stood up, finishing the last of her rice ball. "They were that way, before," she said, her voice soft, and she pointed in the direction she'd run from. Nami didn't know if Robin had taken a straight route or not, but Chopper's nose would follow that route, and they would find each other.
"So we gonna leave that map for later, then, Nami-sis?" Franky was walking back now, looking a little more composed. Nami frowned, and nodded.
"If whatever they found causes this... ah, effect" she glanced down at Robin, "I think going there right away may be more risk than we need at the moment."
"I'm on board with that," Franky said, and blew out a breath. "I was a pretty super kid, ya know," he said in a low voice, then seemed to chuckle despite himself, "but not as much as now." He peered down at Robin, just a shade longer than natural, but almost back to his usual self, and held out a hand. "Well, little lady, you've been running for a while. If we're gonna be goin' all that way again, wanna ride instead?"
Robin considered this, serious eyes traveling up Franky's arm to his face. She stepped forward and touched his hand lightly with her fingers, then rested her bandaged hand in his comparatively huge one. "Yes, please," she said, gaze dropping a moment, before meeting his eyes properly.
Franky smiled, and Nami saw his whole face soften. "And alrighty, up we go," he said, and scooped her carefully up to tuck her in the crook of his elbow, where she wouldn't need to hold on.
They went slowly after that, even so, doing their best to follow the trail of Robin's headlong rush, while Luffy called out for Sanji, Chopper, Zoro and Usopp in turn.
When they finally got an elated reply from Chopper to one of Luffy's shouts, they picked up the pace, and very soon spotted movement ahead of them that finally came into view.
Sanji's face lit up when they neared one another. "Nami-swan!" he exclaimed happily, and relief was all over his face when he realized who was riding on Franky's arm.
And Nami and Franky came to an abrupt halt, because even though Robin's quiet description had made it clear that the Zoro and Usopp she'd met had also been... affected... as she had, to see it was another matter altogether.
Sanji, raincoat off and tied to his backpack, was carrying Usopp awkwardly on his hip—with his apparent age not too far under eight, he was no toddler—but his grip was secure, and Sanji was ignoring the damp and dirty clothes like he didn't care they were getting his shirt and slacks dirty too. Nami saw him grimace suddenly as they all drew close to each other, though, and his free hand rose to pry at Usopp's arms around his neck, which she could easily guess had just tightened in reaction to so many people approaching.
"They're our nakama," she heard him tell Usopp, a smile in his voice.
With Sanji to hold onto, Usopp stared at them with perfectly characteristic wide-eyed and nervous curiosity. Then he smiled, and raised one hand to wave. "Hi, Robin!" he called, in something like a loud stage whisper.
Robin didn't return the smile, but she did raise a hand in reply, and that seemed to satisfy him.
Zoro, his jarringly young face in set in a dogged expression, his mouth in a flat line, was by Chopper. Not riding, not being carried, and that wasn't a surprise at all, though he was breathing hard enough for it to show, and he did have one hand tight around a fistful of the thick fur over Chopper's reindeer shoulders. The other hand was carrying Wadou Ichimonji, and there were two more swords tied to his back. His gaze raked over them all, settled on Robin on Franky's arm first, then looked at each of them in turn. Luffy was last, and there Zoro's gaze stuck, and he straightened as much as he could with his small chest heaving as hard as it was.
Was he recognizing something? Was that possible? Nami couldn't begin to guess.
Luffy bounded forward, unhindered by the difficulty most of the rest of them were having with the whole situation. "You guys found them, that's great! Hey Zoro!" He stopped in front of his now-diminutive swordsman and dropped to squat on his heels to look at him straight on. "You too, just like Robin, huh?" Luffy looked up at Usopp, who was peering at him, looking strangely fascinated. "So you all forgot about us a little bit? But we're still nakama."
He made introductions all over again, offhandedly, and Nami, who'd been trying to figure out if he'd actually really realized what was wrong or not, now knew that he certainly did. He just wasn't worried about it, not the same way the rest of them were, anyway. Instead of being shocked, he was concerning himself with getting everyone back to the ship for now.
Fair enough, she allowed reluctantly, there was no reason to panic... none of them were hurt, not exactly. Amnesia would have been bad, but she wasn't sure what to call it when the person in question was also the age beyond which the memories were lost.
Something had happened here, but as to what...
"This is one big mystery forest," Luffy was commenting to a raptly attentive Usopp. "Nothing great to eat, but it sure does weird things to people." He put both hands behind his head and looked upward, turning in a circle. "Well, it's not doing anything now. We should go back to the ship and have food, and maybe a nap, huh?"
The rest of them, at least those who were still their original heights, exchanged ambivalent glances.
"I want to make sure they're okay," Chopper finally agreed. That as much as anything was a good enough final argument, and Nami pointed their reunited group back towards the cove.
They didn't take their time, keeping a brisk pace, and so it wasn't long before Chopper called out. "Um... everyone?"
When Nami turned to look, she saw that he and Zoro had lagged significantly behind. Chopper had come to a halt, with Zoro bent almost double, still holding one-handed onto him.
"Oi, little cabbage-head," Sanji called, and Zoro looked up to glower at him. "Just take a ride, will you?"
"No one needs to carry me, dumb eyebrow!" Zoro barked back, and his high child's voice was harsh with the effort of his breathing.
"Nah," Luffy said, going back towards him and Chopper. Zoro looked at him, pride struggling to stay foremost on his face. "Everybody needs it sometimes." Luffy didn't wait for a reply, just grabbed Zoro off the ground, surprising a yelp out of him, and turned straight away to start again towards the beach and Sunny.
Luffy shrugged awkwardly out of his backpack as he went, and threw it to Franky, who caught it in his free hand. Zoro was maneuvered from under Luffy's arm to being slung behind Luffy, piggy-back style. He grabbed tightly at Luffy with one hand, and at the white sword with the other, clutching it against himself, knuckles almost as pale as the sheath for a few seconds. As Luffy jogged past Nami to lead the way again, she could see Zoro's face flushing dark with embarrassment. But it stopped short of shame, she thought.
Chopper increased his pace as well, until he was next to Nami. Free of the need to tow Zoro, he popped into his usual small shape. "I don't even know what I can look for," he said nervously. "And they don't really look sick anyway. I don't know what it could be, at all! There's a disease in my books where people get old very fast, but not this."
Nami looked back into the deep, quiet empty forest. As they moved back towards the shoreline, it felt like it was closing on itself again, the near-silence settling again. It didn't feel threatening, and instinct, on the Grand Line, was important. And yet... something was back there. Just because something wasn't evil didn't mean it wasn't dangerous. People didn't just happen to misplace years of their lives.
"We'll find out," Nami said.
They'd forgotten about Brook, Nami realized too late.
Or rather, not as such, because they knew perfectly well he was there. But they were accustomed to him, and had forgotten just who didn't know him anymore. By the time they'd neared the jutting spit of rock that had made a convenient natural pier, they'd been intent on getting back on board, and little else.
When Brook's afro-crowned skull popped up over the rail as Luffy was getting ready to yank himself up and on deck, they remembered.
Usopp screamed "skeleton!" and kicked away from Sanji to thud backwards onto the rock. He scrambled to his feet in a panic and ran straight back towards the beach.
Zoro yelled, let go of Luffy, and sailed a good forty feet out into the sea, launched by Luffy's rubbery momentum as he catapulted upward.
Brook covered his teeth in dismay.
"Eh?!" Luffy exclaimed, and then sailed up and over the side while trying to crane his neck, and crashed on the deck.
Chopper blinked, then changed back to reindeer form and bounded after Usopp.
Sanji glanced once after Chopper, swore, and dove off the spit in the direction of where Zoro was splashing clumsily in deep water, keeping himself afloat but getting turned around by the choppy waves. One caught him in the face and he vanished for a moment, only to reappear facing out to sea.
Sanji surfaced from his long dive not too far from the struggling shape, and made a steady beeline for him. Nami felt somewhat shaky with relief.
When she looked back at Sunny, she realized that at least Robin had stayed put, for Franky was pulling himself up the rope ladder. Robin was staring up at Brook with open amazement, but it was very plainly not so impossible to take in at first glance as it was for the other two.
Well, it was Robin. Still, though, Nami was amazed when Franky made it to the deck, and Robin returned Brook's flourishing bow with a nod, and some quiet words that Nami couldn't make out, but that made Brook laugh.
She turned to look in the direction that Usopp had run, and saw that Chopper had caught him, and had made him sit down. He was talking to Usopp with arms moving wildly, and Nami caught some familiar motions from Usopp's own retellings of their Thriller Bark ordeal. Well. That would help, she hoped.
Out on the water, she saw Sanji's blond head reach Zoro just as he went under again. Sanji hauled him up by the back of his shirt, and starting kicking back towards the rock spit.
Reassured, Nami turned to start going up the rope ladder herself.
She was nearly up when Sanji reached the rock, sodden, annoyed-looking, and holding a sputtering, furious Zoro at arm's length as he hauled them both out of the water, negotiating the barnacle-encrusted irregular slope with a couple of jumps. Zoro coughed the whole time, then finally spat out some water, and, "PUT ME DOWN YOU STUPID EYEBROW I NEED MY SWORD!!" he roared in a single breath, and Sanji stopped short as Zoro started another coughing fit. Zoro's hands were indeed empty now, only the swords slung across his back remained.
"Shit. Franky! Catch!" Sanji shouted. He held Zoro out before him, planted a foot against his back, and launched him onto the ship. Franky set Robin carefully down just in time to get an armful of dripping, spitting-mad Zoro, and Sanji turned on his heel to dive neatly into the water again. "My sword!" Zoro yelled hoarsly, fighting uselessly against Franky's grip.
"Mr. Sanji is searching for it now, Mr. Zoro," Brook said, as Nami made it to the top of the ladder. "Please be patient."
Zoro turned a glare on Brook, then back out to sea, and Nami was treated to a double take straight back to Brook. Zoro had forgotten his original shock in his panic about the sword, it seemed, but some of it was back now.
It made him stop thrashing against Franky, though, and then Luffy came up on the other side to slouch over the deck railing and grin up at Zoro. "Hahaha, that's Brook! Isn't he cool? He's our musician! And he has a sword too, you know."
Brook bowed his head politely. Zoro looked too stunned to respond at all. With another nod, Brook moved away to stand by Nami.
"Am I to understand, Miss Nami, that something very strange has befallen our comrades?" he asked quietly, his hollow sockets moving concernedly from Robin to Zoro and back again.
"That pretty much sums it up, Brook," Nami agreed tiredly. She looked at Robin, who was walking slowly over the lawn deck, part of the blanket trailing behind her, towards the swing tree. Robin reached out to touch the swing for a moment, giving it enough push to move it just a little more than the natural rocking of the ship always did.
She realized they were watching, then, and pulled her hand back inside the blanket, turning to head for the low crates of the herb garden Chopper and Sanji had started instead. Nami felt a deep pang of sympathy.
Loud splashing and some cursing below announced Sanji's return from his underwater search some minutes later, and then he was up the ladder to hold out Wadou to Zoro, who snatched it back immediately after Franky put him down. "You're welcome, shitty brat," Sanji said, not sparing any sarcasm. Zoro ignored him and dropped to his knees. He drew the sword a few inches to inspect it.
Sanji muttered something to himself, sighed, and then took a step closer to tap Zoro lightly in the ribs with his shoe.
"Get up, idiot, I'll show you where all your sword crap is and you can clean them all properly."
Zoro looked up. He was still frowning, but the anger had gone and it was far too much like Zoro's usual annoyed-because-it-was-Sanji expression for a moment, before grudging gratitude replaced it.
"Are we all here now? For sure?" Nami heard Chopper's voice, and it got louder as he reached the railing, in his human shape, carrying Usopp with one arm as he got over the side. He set him down on the deck, then looked down in surprise when Usopp grabbed his hand and clung to it. Usopp didn't quite hide behind Chopper, but he had his lower lip caught between his teeth as he watched Brook.
Zoro stood up now, looked at Usopp and then glanced around to find Robin, who was crouched in front of the herb boxes. Franky was on one knee next to her, gesturing like he was explaining how the lawn worked on the deck.
Everyone apparently accounted for, Zoro turned when Sanji jerked his head for Zoro to follow, and they went to the men's cabin.
"I do believe you have all returned," Brook said, glancing briefly around the deck with admirably restrained perplexity. "Hello, Mr Usopp," and his fixed grin seemed brighter as he looked down at him. "You're a sight for sore eyes, I daresay. Even though I have no eyes with which to see! Yohoho!" Brook held up his hands in an exaggerated shrug.
Usopp had shrunk a little farther back when Brook had looked at him, but now he giggled. "Well, but, so how do you see, then?" he asked, letting go of Chopper's hand to take a little step forward and squint up at Brook's skull.
"Ah, well that, my friend..." Brook folded himself up to sit cross-legged in front of Usopp. Luffy dropped to sit next to them and listen as well. Usopp jumped a bit, but his attention soon returned to the skeleton.
Chopper shrank down and staggered over towards Nami as Brook held Usopp's attention. "Telling stories is hard work," he said, disbelievingly. "I don't know how he does it all the time."
"At least he's here now, instead of halfway back to where you two found him," Nami said, resisting the urge to rub her temples, and shook her head slightly, watching Brook. "I can't believe I didn't think of Brook beforehand," she sighed.
"It's okay," Chopper reassured her, patting her leg with one hoof, and she wished momentarily that he was still large so she could lean against him for a minute or sixty. "We all forgot," he went on. "Seeing them like that is really weird."
That was an understatement by several orders of magnitude. "Do you think they look... alright? Aside from the obvious?" Nami asked, and Chopper tilted his head.
"They all have superficial abrasions on them, I guess from running around so much out there, and they all need a bath," he wrinkled his nose, "and dry clothes and food and water and rest. But I can't see anything really obvious that would mean they were sick. Just... you know."
Another few seconds of standing still was all she took before she headed up to her and Robin's room to see if they had anything at all that Robin could change into.
Sanji cast about the men's cabin for a few seconds. He knew Zoro had sword-cleaning supplies down here. There were some up in the weight room too, but Sanji was not about to test this miniature version of his crewmate on the rigging, nor did he plan to try carrying him again.
Maybe his locker? They normally didn't go into each other's belongings, but Sanji pulled the door open, and tried to quash the irrational guilt at invading Zoro's privacy with a silent apology.
Not that there was much to apologize about, really. A pile of folded black bandannas, a stack of white shirts, a few brighter ones, cargo shorts, pants, three of those ridiculous haramakis, a couple of pairs of boots, knitting needles jammed into a ball of green wool—what?! Never mind, he told himself firmly. More important matters were at hand, and he could tease the swordsman when they got him back to normal. When, he repeated.
Ah, there, that looked promising. Sanji lifted one side of a neatly-wrapped sailcloth bundle on one of the top shelves, and yes indeed, he'd seen those tools before. He took it and closed the door firmly.
Little Zoro was standing near the couch, dripping seawater all over the floor—not that Sanji wasn't—and staring at the wanted posters on the wall.
"Hey, cabbage. You're gonna get the furniture wet," Sanji told him, and was rewarded with one of those unnerving yet reassuring annoyed glowers.
"Speak for yourself, stupid eyebrow."
He came over to stand by Zoro, who had turned to stare again at the posters.
"The captain," he said, pointing at Luffy's.
"The giant," Zoro pointed, "the reindeer, the..." he trailed off when he pointed at Sogeking's poster, frowning. He glanced over his shoulder to the door that led out to the deck, then turned back.
"And that..." he didn't point this time, but Sanji could follow his eyeline perfectly well. "That's my name."
"Yeah," Sanji said, and studied Zoro's face. He looked... thoughtful for a second, not particularly bothered by the age difference between himself and the poster. And then he looked stricken.
"Am I the best?" he asked Sanji, looking up at him in sudden, desperate concern. No mulishness now, no annoyance, just abrupt and dire need to know. "Am I? Tell me!" His hands were tight on the white sword.
"You haven't lost since... the day I met you," Sanji said, taken aback. He'd known Zoro was, well, Zoro, but he'd never really imagined him being quite so, well, Zoro even at this age. "You promised the captain," Sanji said. That day on the Baratie had not faded in his memory. "And you've never broken it."
He had no intention of being so specific as to include the couple of occasions that weren't sword fights in that assessment. There was only one thing that the Zoro Sanji knew was so fixated on, and there was no need to get complicated about anything else.
"I promised," Zoro's head whipped around to stare at Luffy's poster. "I promised." And those last words were spoken through gritted teeth, and then he ducked his head. Sanji could hear Zoro's breathing get louder as he fought something back.
Sanji felt stomach-tighteningly awkward, felt himself frown with the intense discomfort of facing his nakama this way. He didn't know kids, suspected Zoro as a kid had hardly been like any other kid in any case, except here he was, crying, or near enough, and Sanji had no idea what it was about, or what to do about it.
"Hey," he tried, and the word came out almost harsh. Sanji gritted his teeth at himself, but the overture only provoked a huff of rejection anyway... one that had the edges of a sob. Sanji made a face and remained silent. Unable to stay still, though, he put out one hand to touch the back of Zoro's head, the gesture dragged out of him by pure instinct, or something like it, because Sanji didn't know what he was doing, but he couldn't do nothing.
Zoro stayed still, didn't toss him off or move away. All Sanji could feel was the wet hair under his palm and the shaking that accompanied Zoro's effort to hold in his grief.
It wasn't long before Zoro sniffed deeply, rubbed his arm over his face, and glared up at Sanji. Making no comment whatsoever about the tear tracks down Zoro's cheeks, he simply held out the bundle. "These are yours."
He held in a massive sigh of relief as Zoro snatched the bundle, thumped to the floor to unwrap it, and set the swords carefully down. Well, the crying was over, and thank all deities who might be listening for that.
He was also relieved that both Zoro and Usopp had eaten at least a couple of rice balls back in the forest, before Chopper had led them after Robin's trail, or he'd have a hard time being patient enough to let Zoro do this before making him eat something. As it was, he was still unhappy about waiting, but now he could allow himself enough time to cook for everyone at once.
The wet clothing, well, a few minutes more wouldn't hurt. He certainly didn't think Zoro cared one way or the other right now.
Sanji peeled off his shirt and dropped it on the laundry pile. There was a dry towel hanging off his bunk, and he scrubbed his hair roughly with it as he stripped the rest away.
After he'd changed into something presentable, he looked back at Zoro, who was handling his sword maintenance almost as expertly as Sanji was used to seeing him do.
He was really much too little to wear any of his own normal clothes... he'd swim in his own shirts. Ridiculous broad marimo shoulders... Sanji's mouth twisted slightly in self-mocking reluctance, and he pulled open his own locker, and, after a considering moment, Chopper's as well.
Nami came in as he was pulling out prospective clothing items. She halted and stared at Zoro for a moment, before shaking her head firmly and joining Sanji. He closed his own locker door surreptitiously before she got too near, but smiled at her. "What brings you here, Nami-dear?"
"Oh, nothing we have upstairs will fit or cover a kid, practically all of it's cut down to there," Nami waved a vague V-shape over her chest and Sanji rather enjoyed that and all the clothing items it reminded him of, but he appreciated how the items in question might not be of immediate use. "So I need something else," Nami said, voice a partial sigh. Sanji revised his initial meal plan to include a nice relaxing soup course, and a fine tea afterwards. It had been a very long day.
"What've you got down here?" Nami asked shortly, and took the things he'd been holding in one arm to look through them quickly. "This should work," she pulled a tee-shirt and shorts out. "Thank you, Sanji," she said as she left again, sounding hurried.
"At your service, Nami-baby!" He called after her, happy to have been some help.
After the door closed, Sanji heard Zoro mutter, "you're an idiot, eyebrow."
Sanji looked at him, ready to glare and say something back in kind, but Zoro was staring at the door with a deep frown and wet eyes. Wadou was held in his hands with great care.
"Girls don't like it when you're stupid to them," he added, then returned to the task at hand.
Robin closed her eyes and hugged the big towel around herself as she sat down on a stool in front of the mirror in the little room attached to the big bathing room. Miss Nami had said sorry for not drawing the whole bath in there, but Robin knew the boys needed washing too, and she didn't mind. The shower spray had felt good, and she was all warm now.
The scrapes on her hands had stung a bit when she'd washed them with soap, but even those felt better. Everything felt better.
"And here..." Miss Nami's voice came from beside her. A smaller towel draped over Robin's head, and her hair was rubbed firmly to dry some of the water away. "There we go."
Robin opened her eyes when the towel was removed, and smiled a little bit at Miss Nami, who gave her a big one back. That felt warm, too.
"Do you want me to brush your hair, or do you want to do it?" Miss Nami asked, and Robin kept it in for a second at first, because she still wasn't used to it, but everything was making her feel good right now, and Miss Nami's voice sounded really nice, so she thought it would okay to say it... she looked down for a second, at the bunched-up place in the towel where she was holding it underneath.
"You, please," she said, and then felt embarrassed, because it was a stupid thing, really, she wasn't a baby and she could do it herself. She took a breath to say she'd changed her mind, but then Miss Nami was standing behind her, and looking at her in the mirror with soft eyes.
"I'll try not to pull the knots, okay?" Miss Nami said, and rearranged the folds of the towel around Robin's neck to make room.
After a few strokes of the brush in her hair, Robin closed her eyes again. Auntie had never done this for her. She hadn't let Robin sit wrapped up in a towel and she hadn't used a bristly brush that tugged a lot of hairs at once, making it feel nice. She'd used a comb, the few times she'd taken it upon herself to make Robin presentable for guests instead of telling her to leave, and had pulled hard at the tangles. Miss Nami did pull some knots, but then she'd stop and work gently around them till they were undone.
By the time Miss Nami was finished, Robin was almost dry inside the towel, and there was something clean to wear.
"Now, let's see what we have here," Miss Nami said, holding out the small pile of neatly folded items of clothing she'd had with her when she'd brought Robin up to the bath after the fuzzy doctor had said she was fine.
"None of your stuff really works for you at the moment," Miss Nami was saying as Robin peered at the pile, "so we'll have to make do for now."
Miss Nami held up a big teeshirt, dark blue with 'Gentlecook' on the front. "Hmm." Miss Nami was looking at it skeptically, but Robin liked the colour. Dark blue was nice. She reached out to touch it. It wasn't thin, but it was kind of soft, like it had been worn a lot. It would be comfortable.
"Yes," Robin nodded, "it's good." She shifted and slid down off the stool.
"Towel, then," Miss Nami said, and Robin let go with one hand so it slid off her shoulders, and held it out. Nami tossed it at the hamper, and gave her the teeshirt. It was loose and roomy when Robin put it on, and the sleeves came down to her elbows. The hem went down to just above her knees. She looked down and smoothed the front.
"And these," Nami shook out a pair of white shorts. Robin took them, and wondered, then realized.
"Doctor's?" The little doctor was the only one of all the crew the same height as them. Part of the time, anyway. And they were still too big, but she tied the waist string tight.
"It'll do, for now, anyway," Miss Nami said, still looking skeptical.
Robin looked up at her and smiled a little. The clothes were clean and comfortable and smelled like they had been hung up to dry in fresh air. "It's good," she said again.
Usopp was getting itchy where his wet clothes rubbed against him, but this sort-of-but-not-really-dead musician skeleton-with-an-afro was so cool, he said he could play the violin AND the piano, and--and!--there was a sword inside his cane.
He let Usopp see it, too, or some of it anyway, pulling the slim blade from the purple cane-sheath, while Usopp sat on his hands as promised. Zoro had to see this.
"And what about—" Usopp started to ask another question when the door Sanji had taken Zoro into opened up again.
"Oi, oi, Brook," Sanji called out. Brook turned to look at Sanji. "Little nose needs a bath, and this cabbage too, before dinner."
"It's not little!" Usopp exclaimed, then blinked, because usually he was defending himself against the opposite kind of thing. "I got it from my mama—" and then he clamped his mouth shut on the usual addition to any defense of his nose, before he choked out loud on the sudden heavy feeling of sadness covering him all over.
He kept forgetting about it for a little while, but then when it came back it was horrible, like getting covered all over in sludge.
They were all looking at him, too, and he usually liked that, but right now he didn't.
The rubbery captain guy distracted them.
"Sanjiiiiii," he said, "You have to made food now."
"Yeah, well I'm not letting YOU watch them—"
"I'm not a kid, no one has to watch me!"
"Cabbage, if you have to say that, you're still a kid."
"Sanji, I'm hungry!"
"Yohoho, such a mess. I'll do it, Mr Sanji." Brook interrupted everyone, and Sanji gave him a strange look.
"Oh, dear me, what a thought," Brook waved a hand at the idea. "I'd burn the food and blister myself all over, most likely—if I had skin to blister! No, no, I will accompany Mr Usopp and Mr Zoro to the bath."
"Yeah!! Great, now Sanji can cook!" the captain jumped up and reeeeaaaaached out with a long stretchy arm to grab onto a railing on the other end of the lawn. "Foooooood!"
"Luffy!! You stay out of the pantry!" Sanji threw the pile of clothes in his arms at Brook and ran after Luffy.
Brook caught the clothes and stood up.
Usopp stared after the captain and the cook, watching Luffy try to get around Sanji through the door. "Brook?" he asked.
"Yes, Mr Usopp?"
"He's really the captain." Usopp couldn't make it a question, because something inside just knew that it was true for real. But... even so... really?
Zoro seemed like he was thinking the same thing, and Usopp looked at him. They both shrugged.
"He most definitely is," Brook nodded. Then he reached out a bony finger and tapped Usopp on the head. "Now, let us see if Mr Chopper is ready to have a look at you, and then it's bathtime."
"I don't need anyone to watch me," Zoro muttered as Brook beckoned him as well.
"Well, I might at the very least show you the way, hm?" Brook said. Usopp covered a laugh with both hands, and Zoro gave a disgruntled nod.
Brook lived most frequently in the immediate present. Now that the nightmare of the fog was truly lifted and Thriller Bark was behind him, he did his very utmost to keep his heart and mind focused on today, on his new nakama with all the things they had to offer. Lost crewmates and empty, rotting ships were best left in the past, for the most part.
But never had he expected the present to offer the singularly surreal sight of two of his crewmates transformed to children and having a water fight in the bath room.
(Not that Usopp didn't engage in such activities at his correct age, Brook knew, aided and abetted most often by Luffy and Chopper... and possibly Brook himself.
Zoro, though... not nearly so much, to put it quite mildly.)
Chopper had pronounced both Usopp and Zoro fit for their apparent age, aside from scraped knees and scratches on their arms and legs from wandering around the forest, and after Brook had seen Nami accompany Robin towards the galley, he'd led his two charges to the bathing room.
They'd been extracted from their damp and dirty clothes without much trouble, though Zoro had grumbled some more about supervision as Brook had gingerly dropped the wet things in the hamper, and set the clean ones safely aside, along with his own. His bones didn't need a bath quite so urgently, but he had suspected the water might splash somewhat.
That was an understatement. Usopp's glee over handling the shower spray, was, in hindsight, something he really should have anticipated in advance.
Now he shook water from his hair, and tried to hide his amusement to convey some impression of mature sternness instead. "Mr Usopp, you really must stop that, or the tanks will empty right out!" Usopp aimed at his ribs. "Yohohohohoh, Mr Usopp, that tickles terribly!"
Usopp grinned impishly from behind the sprayer, soap in his hair and mischief in his eyes. "Can't stop!" he said, and turned it on Zoro again, who held up one of the wooden buckets as a shield. "There are giant invisible sand monsters! They could be anywhere! And water is their only weakness!"
Zoro lowered the bucket slightly, eyes gleaming. He wasn't quite smiling, but Brook held a strong suspicion he was having fun anyway. "Gimme that!" Zoro commanded, and lunged for the sprayer. Usopp screeched a laugh and skipped backwards on the tile.
His heel slipped on the wet surface, his arms went up, and he thudded onto his back. Brook dove forward in a clatter of bones against ceramic, getting a hand under Usopp's head only just before it hit the floor.
"Mr Usopp!! Do please be careful!" Brook exclaimed, and rattled from skull to toes with a shudder.
Usopp's eyes were wide as Brook tugged the sprayer from his tight grip, and he coughed and gasped a couple of times, slightly winded. "Whoa," he managed finally, and focused on Brook. "Sorry," he said in a small voice.
"No harm, I do believe, no harm," Brook said, faint with relief. Maybe he would have just had a bump on the head, and maybe the protectiveness was overzealous (not a trait anyone would say Brook lacked on a normal day, either), for he knew very well that the crewmates he was familiar with could fight on through terrible odds. A tiled floor was no threat.
But these two were not those crewmates, not at the moment. He would not even think of taking chances, not with young Mr Usopp or Mr Zoro.
Who was looking on, openly horrified. Brook was surprised at the degree of the reaction, seeing Zoro back up and sit down heavily on one of the stools.
Brook steadied himself as well, helped Usopp sit up. "Wet tiles can be very slippery," he observed shakily. His heart had jumped into his throat, although, as ever, he had neither. But Usopp was quite alright, only chastened by the accident, and he nodded obediently at Brook's words.
"Well, I think I'm clean now," he added, somewhat meekly.
"Then let us rinse!" Brook announced, eager all of a sudden to get out of what now seemed like a potential deathtrap for these young children, "and see what Mr Sanji has prepared for us!"
Usopp nodded, smiling at that. Zoro was already turned away, filling a bucket at one of the taps to dump over himself.
As the two of them rinsed properly, then dried, and Brook handed out the clothing that Sanji had tossed at him to a chattering Usopp and a silent Zoro, Brook could still see the slip and fall in his mind's eye, and sighed silently through his teeth. Children were as scary as anything else on the Grand Line.
Supper, or the very-late-afternoon-meal-that-couldn't-wait-until-suppertime, was weird.
It might have been weirder, except that Luffy and Brook managed to make as much noise as ever. But cutting through their din were Usopp's piping questions and Robin's softer ones. And whenever Sanji turned around to serve something, he saw all three of the children (children!) dressed in oversized clothing and looking both incredibly familiar and acutely out of place.
Robin had Sanji's own tee-shirt on, almost a dress on her small frame—Chopper's shorts only showed about an inch below the hem—and it gave him the strangest fond feeling, seeing her eat carefully with the sleeves bunching around her elbows and the collar only just short of falling off one shoulder.
She was sitting next to Nami, who was at one end of the table, with Franky on her other side, and seemed comfortable between them, though she had looked up at Sanji with wide eyes when he'd set her first plate carefully down in front of her. "Thank you," she'd said, quiet and polite, and Sanji would have thought she had turned suddenly shy if he couldn't see her watching everything around her with intent interest. It was only when she spoke that she seemed to shrink a little, as if unsure about the response she would get.
Usopp was on Franky's other side, hair unconfined and bouncing when he moved his head. He was wearing one of his own shirts—Sanji had found it mixed in with his because Zoro sucked at sorting laundry—the green one with a black skull-and-crossbones on the front. It fit him about as well as the one Robin was wearing fit her, but he didn't seem to care. He'd rolled up the sleeves, making his small arms look even thinner against the bunched cloth, and had on the dark blue pair of Chopper's shorts that Sanji had pilfered.
A second ago, he'd been waving his utensils in the air in emphatic accompaniment to a story. Luffy, at the head of the table opposite Nami, had listened with eyes as wide and grin as big as for any other story Usopp might've told on a normal day. Now, though, Usopp was the one staring, rapt, as Luffy shoveled food into his mouth like it was going out of style.
"Don't try it, kiddo," Franky leaned down to tell him, "he's got a rubber stomach too. You eat that much, you'll explode, and even I can't put you back together then."
"Noooo," Usopp laughed, and replied conspiratorily, "You could fix anything that broke! Sanji told me you even fixed yourself! Even if the ship broke in a million pieces, you could fix it." He grabbed his mug and drank determinedly.
Sanji had to look away from Franky's expression then, and was glad no one else had heard that remark.
"People and... people aren't so easy to fix as other stuff," Sanji heard Franky tell Usopp after a too-long pause, voice cautionary but commendably devoid of any other reaction.
The mug was put down with a thud, and Usopp didn't let go right away, his shoulders and face tensing, mouth stretching in a brief frown before he, too, pushed something aside. "I know," was all he said in a small voice, but unlike Franky, the sudden sadness in his tone was audible to those who could hear it.
Sanji pretended he hadn't, for now at least, and leaned in to put the fresh platter of beef and vegetables on the table. He may have given Usopp's shoulder a squeeze as he withdrew. Maybe. Franky's big hand rubbed once over his small back as well.
Then Luffy burped, and Usopp sat up straight and giggled, and Sanji felt some relief that, whatever it had been, Usopp was distracted from it, at least for now, and the chatter continued, except from one direction.
Zoro was across from Franky, sitting between Brook and Chopper. He cut a strange little figure in one of Sanji's white polo shirts, the collar too high around his chin, and black shorts underneath. The oversized things made him look rumpled and gave Sanji the urge to ruffle his hair, if he didn't think his hand would get bitten or something equally annoying. Zoro was almost silent, unlike the other two, and at first Sanji just took it for granted as one of the strange familiarities of his miniaturized nakama; Zoro wasn't exactly a great conversationalist on a normal day either.
Sanji was leaning against the counter to eat a little bit himself when he noticed Zoro's expression falter and shift into something not far from where he'd been in the sleeping quarters. He kept his eyes on his plate, for the most part, but Sanji caught a quick look toward Usopp that preceded another brief tremble of his chin. Anger followed, a flash that suppressed the rest, at least until the next time it pushed forward.
And he hadn't eaten much, come to think of it. Certainly Sanji had not expected him to put food away like usual, but Zoro had taken only small portions from the platters in the middle of the table—he'd refused to let anyone serve him—and was eating methodically, like he knew he had to, rather than with actual hunger. He hadn't yet cleaned his plate, and hadn't taken seconds.
Sanji came forward. "Food okay, cabbage?" he asked, voice low and neutral. He was not trying to provoke him, not about this.
"Huh?" Zoro looked up at him distractedly, then down again. "Yeah," he said, with no attitude at all, and like the fact was obvious.
"Good," Sanji stood up straight. He exchanged a look of mild worry with Chopper.
A burp sounded from Usopp's direction, and Luffy hooted with laughter, and clapped.
"Mr Usopp, I believe I can do better," Brook announced, and let loose a ripping belch that had Nami flinging her (fortunately empty) mug across the table at him as Usopp clutched his stomach and laughed so hard he had to lean against Franky, who gave Brook a thumbs-up.
Brook offered a dignified apology as Nami barked at him and Franky for providing a bad example, and Luffy guffawed almost as hard as Usopp.
"The more things change," Sanji muttered, and went to retrieve the mug that Nami had flung—entirely justifiably, of course—from where it had rolled into a corner.
It was after dinner that something finally really broke.
Luffy was on (very closely supervised) dishwashing duty with Nami, after Sanji had carefully conserved the leftover vegetables—there was no leftover meat—in the refrigerator, and everyone else spilled out on deck again. Brook was leading Robin around to the back, having volunteered to show her the library room and the flower beds on the galley-roof deck, since Nami was on Luffy-dish-duty.
Chopper hopped up to hang off the railing in front of the galley door and Sanji leaned next to him, intending to discuss whether Zoro's low appetite meant anything, and if Chopper thought he should be fed something in particular, but he was distracted by a black-haired ball of energy, and was unable not to watch, feeling himself smile at the sight.
Usopp was bouncing and tripping around Franky, all energetic after having heard the word "cannon" uttered at the table. He pulled insistently with both hands at one of Franky's massive ones, and then Franky swept him up to hold him out so they were face to face. "Li'l bro, you can look if you promise not to touch, got me?"
"I got you!" Usopp nodded so hard his hair flopped over his face for a moment. Franky put him down and jerked his thumb in the direction of the foredeck. Usopp fairly shone with anticipation, then stopped. "Oh, wait, wait," He turned in a circle to look around, and then, "Zoro!" he sang out loudly, the volume not at all required, except to share his enthusiasm as he hop-skipped over to Zoro from Franky's side, oversized shirt flapping. "Zoro! Hey, did you know Franky said there's workshops down below, and its where he makes things, and he makes cannons too, and he said he'd shoot one for me! Cannons!!" He grabbed Zoro's arm. "He said I could look at the one up on the front deck if I didn't touch, wanna—"
Zoro yanked his arm free and looked away. Usopp cut off his enthusiastic babble in consternation, and Sanji stared. Franky and Chopper were likewise surprised.
"Hey?" Usopp tried again. "Don't you wanna see the cannon?" He reached out a second time. On contact, Zoro rounded on him with a furious snarl.
"Leave me alone!!" he barked, "Leave me alone! Go away! I don't wanna see your stupid face anymore!" He lunged and shoved, sending Usopp to the deck. He landed with a skidding thud that had enough momentum to send him sliding ten feet back and sideways up against Franky's legs.
"Whoa, hey!" Franky exclaimed at Zoro, and dropped down to sit Usopp up again.
"What the hell?!" Sanji snapped, bounding forward to kneel next to Franky, while Usopp sat up slowly, one hand rubbing the back of his head, and utterly lost confusion covering his face.
Sanji heard Brook and Robin's footsteps hurrying back towards them. "Zoro..." Robin said, and Brook gasped.
Zoro, too, looked lost, and confused, and angry. He looked at Robin, seemed to flinch slightly, and then turned and ran down to the lawn deck.
After a second of stunned staring after Zoro's small, retreating shape, Sanji ignored him for the moment. "Hey," he asked Usopp, "does it hurt?" Chopper trotted around to Usopp's other side, peering closely at his eyes first, and then gently prying the hand over the back of his head away.
Usopp didn't answer, his face contorting with a frown that became a grimace as his eyes swam. The answer was clearly 'yes', though not in the sense Sanji had initially meant.
"Ahhh! Mr Sanji!" Brook's voice caught his attention immediately with the urgency in it, and Sanji looked up at him, then followed the worried gaze of his eye sockets to the rigging, where a small figure was struggling determinedly upward.
"Shitty cabbage-head," Sanji growled. He gave Usopp a last look-over before reluctantly leaving him to jump to the lawn deck and begin his own climb up the rigging. "You have got to be kidding me!" he shouted towards Zoro, where he was still moving upward. Zoro didn't slow down or respond. In fact, he moved faster, and thank god Sunny was moored at the moment, because if the ship had been tilting and swaying out at sea right now, Sanji might have had a heart attack.
They were two thirds of the way up when Sanji finally caught him, speedy little shit, coming up beside him as he was still moving and staring fixedly and angrily upward. Sanji grabbed his arm, not giving any slack when Zoro jerked and yanked against his grip. Normally, there would have been no contest between Sanji's hands and Zoro's arms, but now Sanji barely had to try.
Sanji looked down, then upward, and then glared at Zoro, and kept going up, hauling him alongside as he went. He locked one arm around his middle when they reached the yardarm, and swung over to the ladder to climb up into the lookout. He stomped the trapdoor shut with one foot, and then dumped Zoro on the floor.
Zoro turned over onto his back, pushed himself partway up, then stopped, staring fixedly forward, teeth clenched and face tight with mingled seething anger and confusion. Sanji glared down at him, torn between the urge to deal out some disciplinary kicks akin to the ones he'd gotten from Zeff, years ago, and trying to figure out what the fuck was wrong.
He dropped to one knee and Zoro, with a visible effort, forced his head up, though was unable to meet Sanji's eyes. "What. The fuck. Was that." Sanji said slowly and clearly. "You could have hurt him."
"He—I—" Zoro bit out. "Didn't mean to," his voice was strained tight and brittle. "I didn't. But," he gulped, "didn't wanna... see it anymore."
"See what?" Sanji snapped.
"If he—if he got—happens for no reason—she DIED!" Zoro choked out, and breathed in a heavy, furious sob. Sanji took a breath himself, most of his initial indignant fury fading, and sat down properly on the floor. Zoro was shaking his head, eyes unfocused. "She just fell and she—and in the bath, he slipped and—"
Zoro's face paled then, and his body jerked, and Sanji knew that look—too many idiots had come to the Baratie only to suffer seasickness for him not to recognize sudden and urgent nausea—and Sanji lunged for the wastebasket against the wall, grabbing Zoro and setting him on his knees just in time for him to be noisily sick.
He coughed a few times afterwards, and Sanji went to pull a clean towel from the rack to hold out for him when he was ready. Zoro wiped his face and sat back, shaking slightly, looking nothing more than miserable now.
"I'm sorry," Sanji said quietly, having felt an icy shiver of horror at imagining little Usopp's head meeting hard tile, and that without the pre-existing grief this young Zoro was carrying so near the surface. Zoro's breath hitched at his words.
"She said she'd be the best swordsman," he said the words like he wasn't listening to himself. "And when we fought she would always win, but now she's dead," he squeezed his eyes shut a moment, "so there's just me. We promised we would, so I'm gonna do it." He lifted one small hand to grip at nothing against his chest, and Sanji thought of the white-sheathed sword so carefully cleaned and safely stowed far below in the men's cabin.
"Look at those," he said after a moment, and Zoro focused enough to follow Sanji's arm as it indicated the massive weights stored up here, weights that only an Adam-wood mast could possibly support. "Those are yours," he said quietly, and heard it come out stern as well. "You train, all the time. You met the one you have to beat a while ago, and you're training to defeat him someday. Your swords don't lose to other swords." Sanji added, reiterating the assurance he'd given in the cabin.
Zoro got unsteadily to his feet and walked to the nearest one, a barbell with weights on the end nearly half his current height—one of the less impressive ones. He bent, closed a hand on the bar. His fingers tightened, and he tugged a little. He stared at it grimly, crouched, and put his other hand on the bar as well, and yanked with a closed-mouth grunt. To Sanji's astonishment, he shifted it an inch or so across the metal carpet, before letting go to fall on his rear, panting.
"Exactly," Sanji said, and Zoro looked over. "You're strong," Sanji said. "He's very fast, but you're stronger than him. If you're angry, you can't just—"
"I didn't mean to do that," Zoro interrupted, almost inaudibly. "I just..." He swallowed, and looked a little sick again. "I didn't see when she fell, anyway. Doesn't make a difference. Still gone." he took a shuddering breath, then clenched his jaw and shook his head. "She'd hit me and say I was stupid," Zoro muttered, leaving the barbell to go kneel on the bench that circled the walls and look outward. He put a hand on the glass. "She made me mad, all the time."
Sanji thought of Zeff, who was very much alive, or at least he'd better be, the shitty old man—Sanji's throat tightened at the alternative—and figured that he knew what Zoro meant, in a way, at least. And in another way. He pushed off from the floor and went to sit next to where Zoro knelt. "You fuckin' piss me off to no end, too, marimo," he sighed.
Zoro looked over at him and stared for a long moment. Then he frowned slightly, and seemed to be sizing Sanji up. Finally, "Do we fight?" he asked, and Sanji shrugged.
"I'm no swordsman, cabbage, I'm a cook, and I fight with my feet," he said, lifting one leg briefly, and Zoro seemed relieved to hear that Sanji was not after the same prize he was. "But yeah, we fight, for practice... and not for practice, sometimes," he said reflectively, "'cause we also argue all the time, about almost anything. Your shitty weights all over the lawn, your shitty legs in the way when you sleep anywhere you damn well please."
"The stupid way you act to girls," Zoro shot back, and there was pale amusement glinting in his eye at Sanji's warning glower.
"Shitty cabbage," Sanji grunted.
"If Kuina met you, she woulda thought it was stupid too," Zoro added, looking outward again, grief mingling with amusement, but not taking over. He turned and slid into a sitting position, and for a moment there was pressure against Sanji's arm. Then Zoro pushed himself off the bench. "Gotta go see him," he said, tense but firm.
"Yeah. Yeah, I think so," Sanji agreed readily. "Let's get down there."
When they came down the ladder, Zoro was hanging reluctantly off Sanji's back—it had been that or under his arm again—and as Sanji swung down to descend the rigging, Luffy's hands shot up past him to the yardarm, gripped, and the the rest of him followed. He perched there, and Sanji felt Zoro's arms tighten around his neck.
Luffy was frowning, and though at first glance it didn't look much different from his usual perplexed face, Sanji knew he wouldn't want this expression directed at himself. Luffy reached out with one hand and bonked Zoro on the head with a loose fist. "You're a kid right now, so I have to say this. BAD," he stated, leaning forward to peer closely at the little swordsman, who, Sanji could feel, was clinging closely to his back. "Okay?" Luffy asked, straightforward, simple, but there was a real sharpness in it that Sanji knew meant he was being very serious.
"Yes." Zoro's voice was small, but steady.
"Good." Luffy nodded firmly. Then he grinned and tipped backwards off the spar and dropped back on deck.
Sanji followed, more slowly. Near the bottom of the rigging, he reached back for Zoro to grip his wrist and swing down as he landed.
Usopp was at the opposite side staring out along the coast of the island, both arms up on the railing. Franky was sitting next to him, but facing inwards, and he touched Usopp's shoulder as Sanji's feet hit the lawn.
Usopp looked at Franky, and then, when Franky pointed, looked over his shoulder. He spotted Zoro and whipped around to stare forward again, hunching over his arms.
Zoro stood where Sanji had put him down, until Sanji nudged him in the back with one knee. Then he took a breath and walked forward.
Franky stood up and moved away from the railing. Usopp hunched even more as he did, but didn't look around again.
Zoro passed Franky on his way forward but didn't look at him. Franky watched him go by, and then kept on until he stood by Sanji.
"Kiddo didn't even wanna see the cannon, after that," Franky said unhappily. "And what was up with li'l Zoro-bro?"
"They're sad," Luffy commented, coming up to Sanji's other side. Sanji and Franky both looked at him in surprise. Luffy regarded them steadily. "Zoro and Robin and Usopp. They're all worn out from it, too. Can't be sad every second, it's too hard, but right now it's underneath all the time." He shrugged. "But now we're all together, so it's okay for them to be sad whenever they want." He looked over at the railing, where Zoro had just come to stand near Usopp, and nodded, satisfied, before heading off towards the figurehead.
"I kinda thought..." Franky said. "They are, aren't they, they're...."
"Sad," Sanji finished. Luffy was... right. Shocking, and not so much, really. As usual.
He watched Zoro look at Usopp and say something, too low to make out from across the deck. Usopp turned his face away at first, but Zoro said something else, and Sanji remembered, suddenly, the weight that apology had for him. One of those important things that simply had to be done correctly. Even at this age, he seemed to have that inside him.
Usopp finally looked at Zoro, still frowning, and spoke. Zoro fidgeted slightly, then nodded. The frown faded slowly and Usopp moved back a little from the railing, only resting his hands on it now. He rocked on his heels slightly, said something with a tentative expression, and Zoro nodded again, this time more firmly.
Usopp let go of the railing, grabbed Zoro's hand, and pulled him back towards Franky.
"Can we see the cannon now?" he asked. He wasn't smiling yet, but his interest, at least, had been restored. He didn't let go of Zoro, who seemed to be suffering the grip willingly. The fully characteristic glower Zoro had for Sanji when Sanji smiled at the two of them was reassuring.
"Sure thing, li'l bros," Franky smiled too, and Sanji saw the relief in it, and not a little enthusiasm. "Super! C'mon!" he rubbed his hands together and set off, Usopp still towing Zoro along.
Sanji watched them go, and let a breath he'd had no idea he was holding, and felt suddenly very tired. There'd been no seakings or marines or hostile pirates today, nothing more than a long hike in the woods. Still, though. He suddenly felt like he understood Zeff much better.
He pulled a cigarette out and lit it, leaning against the rigging where it met the railing for a while and listening to the half-intelligible sounds of Franky showing off his handiwork to Usopp and Zoro.
When he was done smoking he scaled the rigging again, cleaning the evidence of Zoro's distress up before anyone else found it.
Zoro's small hand print was on the window. On a whim, Sanji left that where it was.
"Sanji," Nami called him from the direction of the galley when he was on his way down once more. "Come here, please."
"Of course, Nami-dear!" he was immediately attentive, and jogged towards her. He restrained further effusive reaction at the sight of her expression, and hurried a little more instead.
She turned into the galley as he came near, and there was Chopper at the table, equally serious.
He close the door behind himself, and moved to the cupboards automatically. "Tea?" he asked, "coffee?"
"Is there that juice, still?" Chopper asked.
"Tea, thanks," Nami replied.
Sanji put the kettle on, then found the last of the carrot-apple juice for Chopper.
"I've looked at that map backwards and forwards and there's nothing to explain this," Nami said rubbing tiredly at her forehead. "The thing that did... that" she waved a hand in the general direction of outside, "might be what Robin wanted to see, or something else completely. There's no way to know."
Sanji turned around with the kettle and a cup on a tray, picked up Chopper's mug and joined them at the table.
"Well, it's a starting point," he said.
"Yes, but," Chopper frowned, and turned his mug in his hooves, "we may not have time to waste. They seem fine now, but we don't know what the long-term effects of this are. We don't know if it'll happen again—what if more of us find whatever they found and also become kids?!" his eyes widened in sudden fear. "I don't wanna forget you guys!"
"And who knows what would happen to Brook," Sanji realized suddenly, not entirely sure he wanted to think about a child-sized skeleton, or what effects it might have on someone with Brook's power to be returned to a living body instead.
"And what if they can't change back," Nami said abruptly, the words tense and her voice controlled. Sanji blinked. Chopper gasped.
"Well—We'll just—We'll take care of them," Sanji said, because what other option was there?
Even at the vague nascent idea of it, though, potential danger seemed to increase exponentially from every direction, with the crew one third less powerful than only a day ago. A sense of impending weight loomed, the pressure of suddenly being responsible for someone not fully able to do that for themselves.
Or at least, Sanji thought, Robin's desperate flight still in his mind's eye, shouldn't have to be able to.
Oddly, the prospect didn't bother him as he might have expected. Perhaps all that was simply hopeful intentions, but they were his nakama and that didn't end because of some shitty accident altering their memories.
"It's not safe out here," Chopper said, but he wasn't disagreeing.
"Bad things happen everywhere," Nami said, expression shuttered, and neither of them could disagree with that. "There's no reason to think they'd be better off away from us."
And, moral arguments aside, there was no safe, easy way off the Grand Line, not for pirates.
Taking guardianship of three people—they would manage, if they had to. That was all.
What was disturbing about the idea was facing the prospective permanent loss of massive parts of their friends' personalities. Growing up—again? But differently?
That bothered him, deeply. He could see in all three of them the seeds of what he'd met much later. But those would not grow the same way twice.
Was that a selfish reaction? The legendary fountain of youth was a myth for a reason. Why should they not have a chance for longer lives?
But these weren't... those lives. And whatever had granted this youth to them, had, as Luffy had noticed, wiped away their later years just enough to leave each of them at the point of some great grief.
"'Course we take care of 'em," came a voice from the door, and all three of then turned to see Luffy, having entered the galley quietly for once, probably trying to steal from the fridge. "Just like normal, except now I guess with bedtimes and stuff? And green food," he made a face, "and they can't drink beer or sake or anything. Makino never let me have any of that until I was sixteen." He did indeed head for the fridge.
Sanji got up by rote to stop rubbery hands from prying at the refrigerator lock, and shoved Luffy back towards the table with one foot. He opened the lock himself and rummaged around for a Luffy-appropriate snack.
"We're gonna go back to they mystery forest again," Luffy said, flopping into one of the chairs. "I mean, they're missing their stuff, anyway. Zoro's only got one of his swords, and Usopp doesn't have his big slingshot. And Robin left her cool backpack with all the pockets and archaeologist thingies."
"Zoro has—oh," Nami said in surprise, and Sanji realized it too. He'd had his attention on the white sword all this time, but the other two—they'd been identical, hadn't they? Just two black-sheathed blades. Not the ones that Zoro had acquired in their travels.
He set a pan over the stove, frowning.
"They were wearing all little-kid clothes when we found them," Chopper added in realization. "That doesn't make sense! Shoes too! And... the.. whatever it is... the effect, it's not even consistent," Chopper stood up in his chair in emphasis. "Robin's older than them by—well, she's older than them," he caught himself, and Sanji looked around and gave him a smile for being so considerate about a lady's age. Chopper made a face at him around a return smile, before turning serious again. "What I mean is, they're all very close in age, now, much closer than they are normally."
"Shorter, too," Luffy observed wisely. Sanji suppressed the eye-roll that threatened as he thunked a plate of bacon in front of him. Luffy grinned, lifted the plate to slide the contents into his mouth, and then added, while chewing. "Well, an'way, we foun' 'em an'," he swallowed, "they're home now. They'll be okay here." He sighed in satisfaction and leaned back, stretching his arms with a yawn. "So next we'll find their stuff, and I bet it's near the mystery place, too."
"That does seem likely," Nami agreed, and she looked a very little bit more relaxed than she had since they'd gotten back. That was a relief, though Sanji was still somewhat concerned by the tension in her face.
"If we find their things, I can find their scents," Chopper sat back down, looking glad to have a specific goal ahead of him.
"We'll look tomorrow," Luffy said. He stood up, decision made, and wandered back towards the door. He swiveled on his heel when he was almost out and grinned. "Hey Nami, you wanna come see my fish in the tank?"
"Sure, Luffy," Nami said, smiling. It looked a little forced, but still genuine. Sanji thought she could use the distraction. He'd offer her something to drink, later.
"Aaaaah! I have to do the laundry!" Chopper exclaimed. "It's my turn! Later, Sanji!"
Sanji waved at Chopper as he trotted out the door, and started to tidy up. Then he paused and returned to the refrigerator. Zoro would need to eat something, now that he'd keep it down.
The books... the books were all around.
It was a tiny library, not like Ohara's—nothing would ever be like Ohara—but there were books lining the walls, and she breathed in, smelling bindings of cloth and board and leather, and inks and paper.
She'd passed through here briefly with Miss Nami, but it had been unlit, and though she'd noticed the books, Nami had urged her on, promising more time to look later.
And, now she could. She'd seen Mr Sanji bringing Zoro down from the lookout, seen Mr Captain talk to him. She didn't have to worry about the boys anymore, and she'd let Brook lead her back here.
"Yohoho, I thought this might be a good place to see," Mr Brook said, and she looked up at him, wanting to share her elation, and his teeth parted slightly in reaction. "Miss Robin, you are positively glowing at this moment. What a sight."
She smiled at him, grinning wider as he rested his bony fingers on her head for a moment. Then his hand moved to her back and gave her a pat that turned into a gentle push towards the shelves. "Do you mind music while you read?" he asked.
"No," she shook her head, already heading for the books. There were all kinds, hard-bound, paper-covered, spines in a variety of colours, and she walked around the room to read some of the titles, while Brook's violin played something quiet and contented.
There were all kinds of different subjects:
Modern Navigation Notation; A Reference
Legendary Tales, Volume 3: Stories From All Blue
Oxidizer and Fuel Ratios For Long-Range Use
Thermochemical Calculation Primer
Medicinal Herbs of North Blue and Their Uses
Sword Care Quarterly
West Blue Journal of Archaeology Annual #53: Volumes 214-217
At that one she stopped, staring, and a chill ran over her. "Mr Brook," she asked, "whose book is this?" The music paused as he came over, folding his long body to lean down and read the spine.
"Well, Miss Robin," he paused, head tilted a moment, and then seemed to decide something. "That's yours."
"I've never seen it," she said slowly, and felt unsteady in a way that had nothing to do with standing on board a ship. She reached for the book, pulled it down. The cover design, the embossed lettering of the title, the texture of the bindings, it was all perfectly familiar, yes.
But not this one, this one hadn't been published yet. The final quarterly issue to be collected in it had been set for publication eight months after... after. And then the Annual would only have been issued three months after that.
The Annual was made by the big university on Lucent Island, by the Historical Studies department of Lucent College, the same department that had issued her exam, and that had let Professor Clover act as her sponsor.
This Annual wasn't published yet. And yet, this book was not only here, it was old. Worn and visibly marked in places, its corners were no longer sharp, and it smelled like aged paper dust.
"Ah, well, you see," Brook started, but Robin shook her head and looked up.
"This is a pirate ship," she said, "we're on the Grand Line." Brook inclined his head once. Robin had seen the flag, seen the log pose on Miss Nami's wrist, just like in illustrations she'd looked at. "And I'm really... on the crew, aren't I?"
"Nakama," Brook said softly.
Mr Captain, Mr Monkey D Luffy, the rubber man, had called her his own archaeologist. He had a D, like Saul. His laugh made her feel like Saul had, too.
"I'm supposed to be older, all three of us are, and something happened to us." She studied Brook, this strange man, a walking skeleton, surely a fruit user, though she had no idea which. Including Doctor, that made three.
And four, if she counted herself. Too many monsters together for it to be anywhere less far away and dangerous than the Grand Line.
"Yes," Brook agreed simply.
With that Robin set the book on the bench that circled below the shelves, feeling ever more unsettled, but she had to see. She opened the cover, turned a page, found the publication date.
Understanding that she'd lost time somehow was one thing.
Seeing something real, an actual object with a date, made her feel cold and weak.
She looked at Brook.
"How many years ago was that?" She put her finger under the number on the page that still meant 'next year' to her.
Brook sat down beside where she'd put the book, regarded what she was pointing out to him.
"My dear... that was twenty years ago."
Robin frowned at first, that was all she could do, because that—two decades—it was...
She'd studied old things, things centuries old and millennia old or even older, and twenty years was nothing at all.
It was only more than twice the amount of years she'd lived.
But history... people forgot, and that's why old things needed to be searched for and studied, and...
"Who remembers Ohara?" she asked, feeling cold and hot at once, ice and fire, like when the marine had sent her off, Saul frozen and the Tree burning behind her.
Brook waited a few moments before answering. "From what I know of the maps of today," he finally said, "though this would be a question better set to the lovely Miss Nami, Ohara is no longer present on any official sources. The World Government seems to have done its best to erase it from the world."
And that was worse than death, it was oblivion. Robin felt choking grief clutch at her as she stared down at the book in front of her. Without records, things were lost, forever. Knowledge and lives and memories as good as never having existed.
"But," Brook said, and she looked up, "you remember." Robin hiccuped and sniffed, and Brook raised a finger. "And I remember. I cannot say, and this I regret, that I ever visited there, but when I was alive," he touched his face, fingers clicking against the sharp ridges of his cheekbones, "I knew of it. Some forty years before that," he tapped the page next to her hand, "a friend of mine wanted to go there. We were young, and I never saw him after my seventeenth year, but that was his dream, once upon a time."
Robin hung her head, shook it slowly. She slammed the cover of the book shut, and climbed onto the bench, hugging the book to her chest and pulling her knees up in front of it. It dug hard corners into her through the big shirt, and she held it tighter, pushing it harder. She put her forehead down, squeezed her eyes tightly shut. She couldn't smile now, no matter how hard she tried. Saul's smile wouldn't come.
"Things endure," Brook said quietly. "When people remember. Ah, yes, memory can be a powerful thing." There was silence for a little while, and then Brook's bony fingers touched her arm. "Open it up again, Robin," he urged. He squeezed her shoulder when she shook her head without looking up. At last she sniffed and gulped, then slowly shifted to sit cross-legged, and put the book on her lap.
She opened it again, turned the pages again, saw the College seal and the date again, saw the title page, and then the table of contents.
The usual fare, there. Robin remembered that paper on the ancient settlements around the Red Caldera. she'd read it when it had been sent to Professor Clover for peer review. She dragged her wrist across her upper lip and swallowed, kept reading. More articles, a few more distantly familiar authors.
Then... right between The Distribution Patterns of Pre-New-Rise Lucentian Abalone Coinage in West Blue and Rank and Body Decoration Among the Lower Class of Veilstone Archipelago there was another title, one she'd seen many times, one she'd been allowed to help with a little bit of research for. A New Reconstruction of East Blue-West Blue Trade Routes Through the Kerrolas Dynasty Period.
Authored by Professor Clover Rawn, at the Ohara Tree of Knowledge.
It was... it was a minor work. Not one of his main interests, a side study done in the spare moments from the other things he'd been researching at the time. She hadn't even known he was going to publish it.
But it was here, in this book, still. All these twenty impossible years after. His work, at least this little bit, remained. The upcoming quarterly would... no, she thought with a big thud of strange grieving happiness in her chest, it had gone out with this in it, the Annual had collected it, and the data about its author, and then published it...
"You discovered this in a shop at the last port. You were most pleased," Brook was saying as she stared at the page.
Maybe the World Government had come after the College too, ordered work from Ohara stricken from the records. But books, once they got printed, could travel. Could be bought on one island and sail to another. Could change hands as presents, could get lost and then found by strangers, could be collected as a hobby, and then sold to dealers.
Her blurry vision worsened again, and a wet spot suddenly appeared on the page. She turned her face away and rubbed her arm over her eyes, sniffing, and sniffing again. When she lowered her arm, a handkerchief was being held out before her in bleached-white fingertips, and she took it.
"There now," Brook's voice was kind, and even if he was almost all hard bumps and corners, Robin thought he was as soft as Miss Nami was, and warm as Mr Franky. Just, not on the outside.
She inched closer to his side. His hand curled around her shoulder, stopping her for a moment, and he reached for a pillow farther down the bench. "I suspect this will be more comfortable than my old bones," he said, propping it against himself.
Robin leaned against the pillow, settled in so she could prop the book on her knees. She felt Brook's arm settle behind her above the pillow, and turned to the first page of Professor Clover's paper. Tears still threatened, and sometimes escaped, but it was too wonderful to see the Professor's familiar words. She couldn't just mourn, no matter how sad she was. Brook said it had been twenty years, so reading his words now was also a triumph.
As she read, Brook began to hum. His violin was silent in his lap, but his voice was music on its own, and didn't sound jarring in the small library. It fit, an accompaniment to the quiet act of reading. And the music was Brook's warmth, like Miss Nami's smile or Mr Franky's steady arm carrying her.
Brook's wordless song followed her as she traced the words she was reading with her eyes and her fingers at once, taking each word slowly and carefully, well aware of how many there were until the end.
She didn't want it to end.
Brook hadn't heard a page turn in some time, and Robin's slow breathing made him realize what had happened before he even looked down. She was asleep against the pillow, the book open on her lap to the article she'd begun, but not, it appeared, quite finished.
"Yohoho," Brook laughed quietly, half at himself, half out of sheer contentment with the peaceful manner in which Robin had fallen asleep. "Of course you were tired, Miss Robin. What a strange day it's been."
Nami didn't watch the fish so much as she watched Luffy. He had his face mashed against the aquarium glass, staring into the depths of the tank. His little fish had been released into it, and Nami was frankly surprised it hadn't been swallowed by one of the larger inhabitants of Sanji's living larder.
But no, it was alive and well, and keeping to the gravel and sand that covered the huge tank's bottom, having somehow avoided the threats nearer the surface. It had taken refuge between a couple of largish stones and a waving frond of seaweed that had been planted nearby.
"Hahahaha, there's a shrimp that went close, but it chased it away!" Luffy's laughter, so uncomplicated and childlike, normally made her smile.
This evening it didn't, though she felt the indulgent good humour inside her even so. Along with that, however, came the memory of Usopp's giggling at the table. It had been a sweet sound, and at the time, despite her ire at Brook's terrible manners, she'd found it almost shockingly adorable. And then immediately afterwards had come more tightening of the winding tension that had gripped her since they'd returned to the ship. It hadn't dissipated even with all the ensuing mirth at the table.
There were plenty of acerbic jokes to make about Luffy potentially having found his intellectual equals among their altered nakama—excluding Robin, Nami amended—but Nami had no energy to try thinking them up, even to herself.
Luffy laughed like a child, but he wasn't one. He had fully-grown integrity, fought like a monster, and had a unique but very real wisdom, usually hidden, somewhere behind those wide eyes.
Usopp was a child. Zoro was too. And for all her intelligence, over-watchfulness and serious demeanour, so was Robin.
She looked at Zoro's sulky, pugnacious face and saw a kid that hadn't yet learned the self-control to stop himself from hurting his friends when he was angry.
She looked at the Usopp's jumpy, nervous energy and his constant chatter, and saw a needy, high-strung little boy.
And she looked at Robin, and wanted to do anything humanly possible to banish the signs she saw in that little girl that reminded her of herself.
Three people who, yesterday, she could have trusted with her life, had been rendered effectively helpless, at least compared to the dangers to be faced out here on the Grand Line.
Luffy saw the problem, and decided it would be solved, and seemed content with that. Franky and Sanji seemed to have shifted without a second thought into surprisingly attentive babysitters. Brook seemed openly enamoured with the children, the same exact way he'd seemed with the rest of them at first. Chopper was thoroughly distracted by their immediate health, and his own clinical fascination.
Was something wrong with her? Why was it that first and foremost, all she felt now was grinding worry and stress enough to make her stomach ache?
They were all safe on the ship. Tomorrow they would return to the woods, try to solve this or at least discover the cause. Luffy had decided this—there was a direction ahead of her, and yet she couldn't help but feel like she had to be alert, each and every second, like no matter what she did, it wouldn't be complete enough to cover every contingency.
This despite the presence and equal effort of all the others, despite the care that she knew they would all devote to watching over their suddenly-altered crewmates.
It was like navigating by a map with pitfalls marked in every direction and no scale to measure their distance. A slip and fall in the bathing room, a tumble over the side, seaking attacks, poisonous plants, waves over the deck that could carry anything overboard that wasn't tied down or strong enough to hold on... and all the pirates and marines and bounty hunters ready to try and take them down, children aboard or not.
Not to mention the vast myriad of, by comparison, normal things Nami could remember doing when she was a child, even before Arlong, that she would never in her right mind want any kid to try.
Nami thought of Bellemere suddenly, missed her with a new, biting sharpness that she'd never felt before.
I don't remember enough, Bellemere, she thought with something approaching desperation. How did you do it?
"Hey Nami," Luffy said, distracting her from her tense clench of worry. He wasn't watching the aquarium anymore, but now sat sideways, facing her, leaning against the back of the bench. "I'm kinda scared."
She blinked. He didn't look it, at all, and he delivered the words almost offhandedly. "You are?" Luffy, who laughed in the face of death.
"Yeah." He shifted to face forward, and pushed himself closer to her, leaning back and staring upward. "It's a weird scared, it's not like when I'm fighting or falling or in the water." He looked at her, grimacing. "I guess it's how Ace felt," he said, and then guffawed. "He used to get SO MAD and tell me I'd scared him, when I did stupid stuff. It was really funny. And Makino and Shanks would get like that sometimes too." He sighed. "I want all you guys to be safe all the time even though I know we can't," he looked at her and grimaced, then shrugged, "but now they're little, it feels different. I can look after them, but they can't look after me back because they're small, and there's so much normal stuff they can't do."
By normal, Luffy probably meant fighting a ship full of marines or pirates or taking out a seaking in three seconds flat. Well, that was accurate enough in their cases. He was exactly right, though, and it amazed her, perhaps unreasonably so, that the two of them shared the same concerns.
Nami reached out to squeeze his shoulder, as if to comfort, but in truth mainly wanting to feel the warm strength of her captain under her hand.
He leaned over towards her, landing heavily against her side, and she slid her arm around his neck in a hug. "I know what you mean," she said against his hair, fighting the never-completely-faded urge to hide any weakness from the outside world, but giving in this much, just for now.
"Yeah," he said. "I know. It's a bit better now, though."
She had to agree with him.
There was a light tapping on the door some minutes later. "Yes?" Nami called.
"Miss Nami, I require some minor assistance, if you please?" Brook's voice was very low.
She detached from Luffy with promptly-quashed reluctance, and rose to open the door, wondering why Brook hadn't simply come in.
It seemed he had his arms full. His violin and bow were tucked under one, and Robin filled the remaining available space, fast asleep. Most of her was cushioned from his bony arms by one of the large library pillows. She had a book held to her chest, even in her sleep.
Nami heard Luffy rise and come up behind her, and glanced around to see him looking at Robin with wide eyes.
"I preferred not to enter your room without telling you," Brook said quietly.
"She's so cute," Luffy whispered loudly, bumping Nami's shoulder with his own, and she felt a little helpless, fond envy at his ability to elbow his worries aside when there was something better to feel instead. "Are kids always that cute when they're sleeping?" his eyes were shining.
"Shh," Nami cautioned him, and he nodded emphatically, putting a hand over his mouth. Brook backed up a step and she went out, beckoning him to follow. Luffy didn't come after them, but when she glanced back, he was watching them go with a huge smile.
Zoro ate slowly. He'd gotten really hungry while listening to the Franky guy go on and on about the cannon while Usopp watched. He didn't really get the big deal—he liked swords. Cannons were good for shooting stuff that was far away and as long as they worked, that was all that mattered as far as he cared.
But he'd stayed, because Usopp wanted him to, and because he wanted to stay with Usopp until the ugly feeling of guilt from shoving him and the shame from apologizing went away. The cannon made Usopp happy, Zoro being there also made him happy, and that was all that was important right then.
He'd never wanted to hurt him, it was the opposite—he just didn't want to keep seeing him fall, in his head. He hadn't had time to try and meditate after the bath, and during the meal he hadn't been able to think of anything else, and it had just gotten so...
The same problem Kuina always made him have, getting angry so badly he couldn't think.
But being angry hadn't worked. Getting away hadn't worked. Staying near was still hard, too, except that watching Usopp smile and laugh while Franky talked had made him feel better, a little bit at a time.
Then the eyebrow-cook had come by, and asked if they wanted a snack. Zoro knew why, and Sanji had looked at him when he asked, too. He'd been ready to say no, because it was embarrassing, even if Sanji wasn't saying anything out loud, but Usopp had wanted one, so Zoro had kept quiet and followed, relieved to be able to eat after all.
The "snack" had looked like enough for a whole nother meal to him, a big plate of cheese and fruit and crackers, and big mugs of something thick Sanji called a "smoothie".
"No meat," Sanji had laughed, kind of to himself. "Luffy won't come in to steal it all. Eat up."
And he was. Just not too fast, so Usopp wouldn't notice anything. Usopp was sucking his smoothie thing through a straw, and talking to Sanji, who had sat down across from them. Zoro didn't understand why the guy wanted to sit and watch them eat. Weirdo. But now he was smiling at Usopp while Usopp talked, and Zoro was pretty sure that, besides cannons, Usopp's other favourite thing was talking. So he guessed Sanji might as well stay.
And then the captain-guy had walked in. Sanji had looked over at him for a second, before turning back to keep smiling at Usopp.
Despite what Sanji had said, Luffy did swipe some of the food from the plate, popping some wedges of cheese into his mouth. But he didn't swallow the whole thing, instead he just thumped into the chair next to Sanji and watched Zoro.
Usopp was the one talking. Zoro didn't know why Luffy wanted to sit there and stare at him instead. He was eating right now, and that was all.
Luffy didn't look like he was still mad about before, so that couldn't be it.
But Zoro felt like squirming, under Luffy's gaze.
The guy was the captain, even though he acted like he was a kid most of the time. And he was strong, Zoro knew that. When Luffy had grabbed him and carried him before, he'd been able to feel some of it. And the number on the captain's poster had been more than twice the one with Zoro's name on it.
When Zoro had seen him back in the woods, something had made him want to stand up straight, make sure Luffy could see him looking as strong as he could.
And then later, when Sanji had carried him down from the crow's nest after he ran, and Luffy had come up, Zoro had wanted to hide all over again. All the hurt he'd tried to explain to Sanji had faded into the background and he'd just felt so awfully ashamed, more than he ever had, for anything he could remember. The feeling that he'd disappointed this man had cut inside him right to his heart.
And Luffy hadn't hardly said anything. Just popped Zoro lightly with his fist and looked at him with very sharp eyes. He hadn't seemed like a kid then, at all.
Maybe like a sword. Like Luffy was sheathed most of the time, and he only showed the serious part when it was a serious situation.
Luffy leaned forward over the table, reaching one skinny arm out to put his hand on Zoro's head, rubbing through his hair a little bit before leaning back again. Then he smiled, and Zoro, after a second, gave him a small smile back. Luffy's smile changed a bit then, getting goofier than Zoro had seen so far, his eyes kinda soft-looking.
Usopp's voice trailed off and he yawned loudly instead.
"Yeah, almost bedtime, and almost first watch time. It's mine today!" Luffy announced, and stood up.
"Me too," Zoro said, unable to keep it in. He sat up very straight, putting his hands flat on the tabletop and trying to appear very much awake. Sanji and Luffy both looked surprised. "I mean, please, I want to do it too." He could help. He wanted to. He had to do something to show the captain he wasn't just angry, and that he could be calm and careful too.
Luffy looked at him, grinned, opened his mouth to say something, then stopped himself and thought for a second. "Wait, are you sure you're not tired, though? 'Cause he is, and Robin was, and I guess it's sort of late, if you're little."
Luffy pointed as he spoke, and Zoro looked over next to him. Usopp was asleep, cheek mushed up on his arm, and nose bent a little bit on the table. He still had a piece of apple in one hand, and Sanji tugged it free and ate it himself as Zoro watched.
"I'm not tired!" Zoro stood up, and maybe he was... exaggerating, because he was a little tired. A little. But he wanted to do it. Had to prove himself.
"Okay," Luffy said, and headed for the door. "Let's go."
With a last look at Usopp, Zoro slid off his chair and went to Luffy's side. Then he only barely held in a squawk as he was lifted up a lot like he'd been in the forest, except this time Luffy lifted him up in front instead of putting him on his back.
"Hold on tight!" Luffy said, and threw one of his hands up to the ladder under the lookout. "Don't let go this time!" he added, and Zoro grabbed for all he was worth as he felt Luffy's feet leave the ground.
They were yanked up so fast that Zoro was sure they were going to crash, but Luffy landed neatly. Zoro had both arms around Luffy's neck, though, and his legs latched around his waist—he wasn't going to let go until they were inside the lookout.
"That was a good one," Luffy laughed as he climbed the ladder. "I had to try a few times till I got it right. Franky was really mad when I broke the ladder once."
Luffy pushed them up through the trapdoor with enough of a shove that he landed on his feet inside, kicking the door shut again. Zoro let go partway, and Luffy grabbed him under the armpits and swung him down, taking two strides as he did so that Zoro landed on the bench.
"Watch is usually boring, if we're not moving, but I always like looking at Sunny," Luffy leaned forward, planted his hands on the back of the bench and peered outside.
It wasn't far into the evening yet. The sun was down but the sky wasn't dark yet, and the colours of the ship were still bright. It was still easy to see a lot of the ship from here, too. The sails were all tied up and Zoro could look down at the grassy deck, and those other trees on a higher-up deck, and the round thing at the back of the ship that matched the lookout they were in now.
Zoro's gaze was drawn to the shadowy presence of the giant trees on the shore. Even a good few hundred yards away, they looked huge. It didn't scare him, though. It was empty, and all it gave him was an impression of vast and endless aloneness.
He didn't like that, and turned his eyes back to the ship instead. It wasn't alone or empty. This ship had all these people who lived on it, or in it, and he had a sudden sense that the ship would go where they did, as far as they did, even... even that it wanted to.
"He's a good ship," Luffy said firmly. "All our nakama are good."
Zoro looked up at him. If this was a good ship with good people on it, it was because the one who'd found them was good too. He knew that was as true as anything else he'd ever known, from the sting of Kuina's practice swords on his skin to the feel of her hand in his when they'd promised.
Sanji had told him that he'd also promised Luffy.
Zoro thought Kuina would've liked that.
He thought she would've liked Luffy too. Zoro had a feeling that Luffy wouldn't ever tell anyone they couldn't have their dream because of something stupid like being a girl.
"Hey, Zoro," Luffy's voice made Zoro look up to see him frowning. He reached down, his big fingers warm on Zoro's face as he touched his cheeks, brushing something off.
Zoro touched his face himself, felt wetness there, and then the grief all caught up with him again.
Not angry now, and coming on slow, but still just as big and impossible to get away from. Huge and heavy all around, thick in his throat and his chest and warm in his face.
If this "now" wasn't the "now" he could remember, if it was farther away, like he'd gotten lost through years, instead of just by walking...
He'd seen the picture on the poster with his name. He looked as old there as Sanji was.
Kuina had been gone for... a very long time.
People had told him, they'd said that, when someone died, it got easier over time, but knowing that years and years had gone by wasn't making anything about it easier.
And Sanji had said... "You know the one you have to beat." Which meant he hadn't done it yet. Would she be mad that he was taking so long to be the best?
"Sorry," he whispered, without thinking.
Luffy's hand rubbed through Zoro's hair once. "It's okay," he said, voice quiet and gentle. That was all he said, and Zoro took a deep breath, feeling it shudder through his whole body.
And the tears came, quietly, without stopping, and he wasn't angry, he wasn't ashamed, he was just sad.
Luffy didn't say anything else, he just sat down on the bench, cross-legged and facing the back of it. His chin was on his hands while he looked out the windows at the ship and the dark water and dark island around it.
Zoro knelt beside him, and looked out with this man that was his captain, in a life he couldn't remember now, or even imagine. One where he was bigger and stronger, where he beat any swordsman he fought, and had earned a poster with a big number on it, second only to this man here...
And this man here, the strongest of everyone, didn't even care if he was crying.
Luffy's hand landed on Zoro's head again, rubbing roughly down his back and up and over, heavy and warm, and Zoro changed his mind.
His captain did care. He just didn't mind.
Franky was in the men's cabin, checking the bunks once again for any too-sharp bits or anything a kid might hurt himself on. He'd put some rounded worked-metal caps on the outside corners, just to be safe, and just maybe he was overdoing it, because they weren't toddlers or anything, not the kind of kids you had to secure your home against, but he couldn't help it.
They just looked so damned little.
And why the heck did they have to run around in bare feet anyway? Okay, so the shoes they'd had on before were all dirty, and he'd scoured the decks to look for loose nails or splinters—which he didn't find, because the deck planks had been planed superbly, every inch of them, thank you very much, and installed with the utmost care—but honestly. They could step on... on any old thing!
That his own feet were bare didn't figure into it at all, no, it really didn't. The bottoms of his feet were nice and hard now, callused and scarred up from doing exactly what he didn't want these little ones to do. Not that there was any scrap iron lying around here to play with, but that was beside the point.
The bunks looked fine now, but he stared at them suspiciously for another few moments before taking a last circuit of the room, making sure, for the tenth time, that the doors in the double hull that gave access to the lower cannons were locked.
"Safe!" he declared to the empty room, flexing one arm in emphasis.
The door opened, and he looked around. Sanji came in, and Franky felt himself smile so hard it hurt.
Maybe it wasn't really polite to be grinning that way, but these mini-nakama were so cute.
Usopp was asleep in Sanji's arms, and dead to the world, it looked like, arms hanging down limp and his head on Sanji's shoulder. Sanji had one hand open on his back, and an expression that was pretty close to how looking at Usopp was making Franky feel.
"He fell asleep right on the table," Sanji said in a low voice, but he was smiling too. "Stopped talking for a second, and that was it."
"He's had a heck of a day," Franky commented, "I guess they all did." He looked behind Sanji, but he shut the door behind him. "Where'd li'l Zoro-bro get to?"
"He wanted to take watch with Luffy," Sanji said, shaking his head slightly. Franky wasn't surprised to hear it. Some time with the captain couldn't hurt the little guy. After the outburst at Usopp, Zoro had manned up pretty well, if you could call it that when an eight-year-old was doing it. He'd been real sorry and had stayed next to Usopp the whole time Franky had talked about the cannon.
It hadn't been hard to tell that Zoro was bored as all get-out by the whole thing, though he had gotten a little more interested when Franky had shot it. 'Course, who could resist a big boom, really?
Usopp had set the aim, under very close supervision, and, to Franky's astonishment, the cannonball had hit a large boulder two hundred yards down the shoreline, making it vanish below the water's surface. Afterwards, Franky had tossed Usopp into the air and caught him again, making him shriek with glee. That had been some truly super aiming, and the laughter had been damn good to hear after seeing him so unhappy.
Zoro had stared as hard as any of them when the rock had exploded, and when Franky put Usopp down again, Zoro returned Usopp's giddy expression with an actual smile, and listened to the tale of a cannon-shooter's tournament that Usopp informed them he'd been the winner of at the age of four.
Seemed like whatever had been eating Zoro had receded some, and Usopp's grief, whatever it was about, or whoever it was about, had seemed entirely absent. Franky wasn't about to believe that was the case, not really—the kid was a liar, he covered things up—but like Luffy had said, being sad all the time was damned hard to do. Let the kid have a little fun, Franky had thought, and he'd know this place was safe for him to let it out when he had to.
He was certainly feeling safe enough to sleep, finally. Sanji carried Usopp over to one of the lower bunks and laid him down. The sheets were all new, clean ones. Chopper had come in while Franky was starting his inspecting, a furry whirlwind of fresh-smelling linens and blankets, changing all the beds with his usual clinical efficiency. Two of the bottom bunks had extra blankets folded over their bottom ends, and Franky followed Sanji, picking up the one on Usopp's usual bunk and shaking it open, spreading it over the one that Sanji pulled over Usopp's sleeping sprawl.
"Longnose-bro ain't even close to bigger than me on a normal day, but does he have to look so damn small?" Franky commented somewhat plaintively as he knelt down and delicately tucked the top of the blanket over Usopp's shoulders.
The kid looked even littler now than when he was awake. At least then he was full of energy and noise. Seeing him like this made Franky want to build a fort around the whole ship, just in case.
"I know," Sanji said, and sighed. He was crouched on the other side of the bunk, just watching Usopp sleep. He lifted a thumb to his mouth and chewed on the nail.
"You're not smoking," Franky realized.
Sanji blinked, and yanked his thumb away from his mouth, inspecting the nail with a grimace. "Yeah, well, Chopper told me I shouldn't do it near them." He shrugged. "Whatever."
Franky grinned, and resisted the urge to reach over and ruffle his cook-bro's hair. All of 'em were amazed at the three of their nakama turned all little, but he didn't think most of them realized just how young most of them looked to him a lot of the time.
Sanji was, what, not even twenty? Great kid, though.
"You ever think of being a dad?" Franky asked, and Sanji startled so hard that Franky though he'd have swallowed his cigarette, if he'd had one.
He gave Franky a baleful look for a second, cheeks a little red, then shrugged. "Kinda, maybe. Not soon." He looked down at Usopp. "Might not have a choice, though." He looked unhappy, but it was mostly sympathetic regret on his face, not apprehension or resentment. Franky figured he knew what Sanji was thinking. Cute as Usopp and the other two were, all little and whatnot, their lives had pretty well been stolen from them.
And even with all the bad shit that had gone down—certain events of which Franky remembered far too well, and which had this young, trusting Usopp's smiles filling him with intermittent but nasty guilt—even with all that, there was all the great stuff they'd done that was lost too.
This Usopp didn't even remember the valiant little ship he'd fought so damned hard for, or how she'd come through for them all, in the end. That was just plain wrong.
Chopper had told Franky what Luffy had said while some of 'em had talked in the galley earlier. Something out in those woods had done this, and they'd go look for it. There was no reason to think it couldn't change them back, no reason to give up on that yet.
"We'll see about that," Franky reassured Sanji, and did reach out this time, just to slap his shoulder gently.
Sanji nodded, heaved a long, quiet sigh, then stood. "I really need a smoke," he said, and took a step towards the door. He paused, and turned back, bending down to look between the bunks at Franky. "Are you gonna stay...?"
"Yeah, I'll keep an eye," Franky waved him off, and watched what he could see of Sanji's skinny shape leave the cabin.
Be a good dad, that one, Franky was pretty sure.
But, he thought, looking down at Usopp in the bunk, for Sanji's sake, and the others, and these three little ones, hopefully that wouldn't have to be proven just yet.
It wasn't more than a third of the time through the evening watch when Luffy's voice sounded through the speaker. "Calling Sanji. Calling Sanji for second watch. Sanji? Sanji!" Luffy's laughingly officious voice returned quickly to its usual casually expectant summons. Sanji looked up from where he was watering the herb boxes, and Luffy grinned at him from the lookout window.
It wasn't second watch yet, by any means. The moon was still low, a third full and making the waves gleam dully in its cool light.
However, Zoro didn't know that right now, and Sanji smiled to himself at Luffy's decision. The little cabbage was probably still awake, but barely, and there was no reason to force him to fall asleep on watch and hurt his currently wobbly pride. Sanji would relieve them, and Zoro could pass out now that the watch was "over."
Luffy waved at him from the lookout window, and yes, Sanji could see Zoro at his elbow for a second, before a huge yawn made him swivel away from view.
Sanji raised one hand in response, and emptied the last drops from the watering can.
And then, up the rigging, yet again.
He came up into the lookout and paused. Zoro was slouched groggily in Luffy's arms, too tired now, it seemed, to be indignant even in passing about someone carrying him. Even knowing that it was quite likely only Luffy who could hold him so blithely, Sanji felt a very similar fond, fuzzy warmth at the sight that he'd experienced while carrying Usopp to bed.
He didn't bother to shake the reaction off this time either—what would be the use? Either he'd be experiencing it for a long time to come, or hardly any more time at all, and in either case, he didn't see any reason to deny it, not to himself anyway. And besides, from the expression on Luffy's face, he had some idea what Sanji was feeling.
"Hey Sanji!" Luffy greeted. "We're all done now."
Sanji climbed the rest of the way up and jerked a thumb down at the ladder for them to go on. "Get outta here," he said, affecting dismissive efficiency. "My turn."
Zoro sighed, surely inadvertently, since he looked barely conscious now. Sanji bit down on a laugh at the completely giddy affection in Luffy's eyes as he let go of Zoro with one arm to point enthusiastically at him and grin hugely over his shoulder. So cute he mouthed, with admirable restraint, though it was certainly easy to add a few silent exclamation marks after the words.
Luffy crouched at the trapdoor, fastened one hand to the edge, and dropped smoothly down and through, his arm stretching slowly until he hit the grass. When he let go, Sanji winced slightly at the snap-back sound that carried all the way up to the lookout, but it didn't seem to jolt Zoro much. Well, he could sleep through anything normally, Sanji probably needn't bother worrying. Luffy headed off towards the men's cabin, his hand coming again to rest on Zoro's back.
Sanji watched them until they were inside, then settled in to scan the dark beyond the ship's lanterns.
This one had waited and felt, felt the softness wrap the small ones, make pain less, make the jagged sharp soothed.
Now the small ones all had become asleep again, this one sensed, gone quiet within, smooth with resting and dreaming.
The small ones were eased and sheltered. Grief remained, sadness clung, dark places lurked, but less.
The small ones were not-lost. Not lost. The other ones had come, made them... made them with. The small ones with the other ones. Like in the afters this one had split away from the small ones.
The small ones were not the same as how this one had made them, anymore. Now they had light that pushed into the crush of grief, driving dark back, making it shrink, making it weak where the other ones had come to make the hurt less.
The small ones hurt less and they were... not alone.
This one felt a steady rising burn, fine threads of hope sliding deeper through the dark, winding tight, strong... agony! And now this one wanted, wanted, WANTED.
And making pain caused this one pain, but waiting was more pain, was worse, it was empty darkness, but for burning hope, and this one wanted not-lost, not-dark, wanted with.
And this one found the link where it had touched the small ones, found the sameness that joined them still knotted tight and knew the way to pull.
And this one PULLED.
Nami sat bolt upright in her bed at the sound of Chopper shrieking for help. The noise pierced through the fog of sleep and she threw off the covers and snatched up her Climatact on the way out the already-open door, all by reflex.
She was out on deck, becoming aware of the cold night air on her face before she was fully awake, and it took another moment for her to realize what she was looking at.
Chopper was in his large shape, he had Robin under one arm—and Nami spun to look; yes, that bed was empty—and he had Usopp by the back of his shirt. Zoro was at the railing, trying to climb over, his movements strangely clumsy, and as Nami ran down to the lawn deck, Chopper was shoving one foot between Zoro and the railing. Usopp looked like he was trying to follow Zoro's lead, straining against the confinement of his shirt, and Robin was reaching out as if for the same purpose.
Then, one of the doors to the boys' cabin slammed open—the other was swinging freely already—and she heard Sanji swear, off to one side, and then Luffy and Brook's confused exclamations on the other, and Franky's faint mutter about having ought to have put up gates.
The night came into sharp relief the next instant, adrenaline hauling her into full wakefulness, and she ran for Chopper.
"They're trying to get off the ship!" Chopper shrieked. "They're not listening!" He didn't actually seem to be having physical trouble with restraining them, but his panic was still entirely justified.
Brook was first to his side, fast as lightning to interpose himself between Zoro and the rail, to push both him and Usopp firmly back and away, while the two still moved doggedly against his hands.
Nami ran to pull Robin from under Chopper's arm, and Robin didn't so much as react, just squirmed, struggling slowly but completely unresponsively to Nami's grip around her middle.
She wasn't fighting the hold; she was moving like she didn't realize she was being held.
"Find me," Nami heard suddenly, words barely spoken, whispers on the inhale and the exhale, as Robin tried to move towards the side of the ship. "Find me. Find me. Find me."
It was ongoing, and disturbing, and when Nami looked up from Robin's steadily struggling body, she could see Usopp's mouth moving as a wide-eyed Sanji dragged him back from the side of the ship with hands under his arms. Usopp ignored him, ignored all of them, just as Robin was, his bare feet scraping against the grass as he kept trying to move forward, his hands reached and reached again, small fingers closing around nothing.
Robin was reaching, too, arms pale against the night-dark ship, hands stretching towards the woods.
"Zoro!" Luffy's voice was loud in the night air, holding Zoro up in front of him, glaring in furious, confused worry as Zoro craned his neck to stare blankly out towards the forest. "You're here!" Luffy shouted, his voice cracking in aggravated incomprehension. "We did find you!"
Nami felt Robin shudder, and then, from all three of them, at once, came rising wails that pierced the night like glass in the skin.
Chopper was darting from child to child, eyes huge and at an utter loss. He flinched hard at the sound, as Nami did. Sanji swore, and Luffy gasped.
The sound ceased, mercifully, after a few seconds. "Find me," they said all at once, the whispers now voiced, but the words were monotone, in unnerving contrast to the anguish in their cries.
All three of them were reaching for the island, the woods, for whatever lay in the dark there, all three ignored whoever held them, ignored Chopper's frantic peering into their faces, prodding their bellies and limbs, feeling their bare skin as if this could be some kind of fever.
"Find me, find me, find me," they said, nothing else, just that, over and over.
"They're not—they're not aware!" Chopper moaned, "no response to stimuli. Sleepwalking? Mobile catatonia? What is it?" He mashed his hat brim over his face for a second and shook himself. "What is it?!"
"Why are they all saying the same thing?" Sanji's bewildered question was shouted over another set of ragged-edged, hair-raising cries from the children. "All at the same time?!"
"I don't think they are the ones truly speaking!" Brook was staring out to the woods, but then he turned back to them, his pale skull all too supernatural at a time like this, arresting in the dark, and sad as anything Nami had ever seen. Brook's uncanny ability to project emotion from an near-expressionless mask of bone was working full force, and there was stark pain radiating from that tight jaw and deep-shadowed sockets. "I believe that someone else is lost," he said, and she wondered what it was like to remember fifty years of emptiness.
Luffy, too, was staring at him, gaze darting from Brook to Zoro and back again in narrow-eyed consideration.
"Find me, find me, find me," the children droned.
Nami couldn't let it go on any longer. "Where?" she asked, hating the audible desperation in her voice.
The children's words choked off suddenly, all together, and Robin went still in Nami's arms.
"Hey?" Sanji's low, querying exclamation told her Usopp had done likewise. A glance over revealed Zoro standing still and upright as Luffy put him gently back on his feet and crouched in front of him. None of them were trying to get away, now.
Nami set Robin on her feet as well, keeping her hands on the night-chilled skin of her arms, unwilling to let her go completely. She turned her so they were face to face.
Robin's expression was... vacant, eyes huge and fixed, face wet with tears but no expression at all behind them.
Had they understood the question?
Had... something else understood?
"Find me," they said, low and dull and all at once. And repeated it, and repeated it.
"Find who?!" Luffy asked, sounding exasperated and just short of frantic. "You're right here!"
The repetition ceased again.
This time, though, there came a different response. "Small ones... not lost," they said. "This one... lost."
Something was hearing them, but it wasn't the children.
Something was hearing them, and it was answering. A pins-and-needles chill ran up Nami's spine at the thought.
But, Nami realized as she struggled to squash her fear, it very likely was the answer, to her question and to the de-aging mystery as well. Nami didn't believe in coincidences like this, not when blank-stared, child Robin was looking at her and speaking in that voice.
"'This one'... is someone else?" Sanji sounded incredulous.
New tears slid over Robin's cheeks. She turned slowly, and Nami let her, until she was facing the forest.
"Lost," they said. "Find me. Find me, find me, find me..." the repeated murmuring drone began again.
And then it stopped, cut off like a snuffed light. And, like some strange internal conversation heard aloud:
"Hurts," from Usopp only.
"Sorry, sorry," from Zoro.
And Robin said, "Find me?" The first inflection in any of the weird speech so far, a plaintive question that made Nami's eyes suddenly prickle with tears.
"Yes," it was Brook, emphatic and brittle-sounding. "Yes! We will find you!"
There was silence then, no one spoke a word. Wind brought the distant rustle of leaves to them from the island, made the tied-up sail flap slightly. Waves lapped at the hull. The night-sounds went on, and on, and they all waited.
Finally, "meaning is... truth?" all three children spoke together again.
"Yes!!" Luffy said in immediate reply, voice ringing out hard and clear and resolute. Nami looked up at him, saw him turn a stern stare to the forest. "You're gonna make 'em big again!" he added, and that was not a question.
The pause was much shorter this time. "Truth," they said.
"Good," Luffy answered. "Now let 'em sleep!!" he snapped. "They're still only little! Stupid mystery forest messing up kids' bedtimes," he muttered.
Nami was looking only at Robin now, waiting with her breath held as Robin stood, wet-faced and blank-eyed and not looking at anything at all. Could it really be as easy at that?
Then Robin stumbled and sat, awareness flooding back into her face—stark confused terror—and she curled in on herself instantly, knees to chest and arms wrapped up over her ears.
Not easy, no.
Past Robin, Nami saw Usopp collapse onto his rear as well, but he only took one hitching breath before stumbling up again and flinging himself against Sanji, who caught him with wide eyes and an instant engulfing grip.
Zoro went still, gasped, and his hands came up like he was starting to reach, before twitching as with a spasm, and he stood like he was locked in place, visible shivers running over him.
"Zoro," Luffy said, "hey." And Zoro gasped again, and then he too moved jerkily towards comfort, and Luffy pulled him close, grabbing him the rest of the way and holding tightly with one arm, the other rubbing roughly over his head and his back.
Franky was crouched by Robin, one massive hand hovering over her, expression uncertain.
"Robin," Nami said, and the only acknowledgement was a pause in her quick, almost-silent breathing. Franky shook his head with an unhappy frown, then set his jaw and touched her, his hand settling over her back at last. She didn't flinch, didn't pull away, and her breathing became harsher. The gulp of a sob interrupted it for a momentarily, and at that, Franky scooped her off the grass, cradling her curled-up shape with the utmost care, and settled her in Nami's lap.
She uncurled there, just a little, enough to raise her head and cover her eyes with her hands instead. Nami held her close, unsure at first, but relieved when Robin finally seemed to give in, burrowing against Nami's chest and clutching at one of the arms holding her.
Chopper was standing and staring at all of them in turn, in evident distress and at a complete loss. Brook came to stand by his side, and Chopper clutched at his bony leg for some comfort of his own.
Robin gripped at the arms that held her, hiding her face against Miss Nami's chest, gasping and clinging as tight as she could, now that she could. The dream, the huge, yawning endless pit of silence and solitude and never, ever getting away... that was fading, but only to leave her in her own deep hole, the one where she was alone because she had to be, had to leave anyone she liked before they betrayed her, and where no one would ever pull her out.
And she'd forgotten, until she'd heard Miss Nami's voice and Mr Franky had picked her up. Then she remembered, found the place inside her that knew, that she could hold onto and climb out again, because these people would hold her and help her find books and pull her out whenever she fell into a hole.
The memory of the dream stuck in spots, a filmy covering over all the memories inside her that were so very similar to that cold, forever-empty place, but she wouldn't let it stay, not now. She'd lived in that hole and she knew it very well. She closed her eyes tight and looked at those spots, at Ohara burning, at the nights sleeping in abandoned places and the times that people who helped her, betrayed her, and the times she ran and ran and ran.
Those times were real. The black empty wasn't. And she made herself remember the real things to make the last parts of the dream fade back where it had nothing to hold onto anymore.
Miss Nami was real too, and warm and holding her, and even Robin's real bad memories couldn't stand up to that. Robin was so tired, but she knew it was safe, so she let herself sleep again.
Zoro kept his eyes open, staring at a spot on the wooden railing as he grabbed tight onto Luffy and tried to make the spot he was looking at block everything out. Closing his eyes was too dark to do it, he didn't think he could push dark away with other dark. He needed the technique to match the opponent and win.
The spot he was staring at, a tiny indent where a nail in the planks had been painted over, was all he tried to see, tried to make the dream hurry up and go away, leave and get lost forever and never come back. Luffy was warm, hard muscle under his arms, the strongest kind of anchor he could ever want to hold onto right now, so strong that Zoro knew his fear was stupid, if only he could convince the rest of himself of that too.
Usopp was crying off on one side, a distracting noise that made Zoro hold on harder, push harder at the shaking and the shivering and make himself steady. He was strong, and he could do this, because bad dreams were only bad dreams, no matter what, even if they made you walk outside and made your insides wobble and freeze after you woke up.
And then sleep crept up instead, and he knew he'd beaten the dark dream, because sleep would make him strong again. He closed his eyes, at last, without fear; Luffy was holding onto him, so what could there be to fear, anyway?
Usopp held tight, tighter than he'd ever held on to anything that he could ever remember, and pressed his forehead hard against Sanji's neck, trying to push the last of the nightmare out of himself.
It was fading already, going away like dreams always did, and this was one of the times he was glad of it. The memory of that feeling had to go away forever, that feeling like he was the only one, anywhere, and no one could hear him or find him, and he couldn't feel anything except for knowing that.
More than anything, he wanted Mama now, wanted her to be hugging him instead. He liked Sanji so much, but...
"Mama," he sobbed. He wanted to hug her and smell the soap she always used and feel her hair and hear her voice in his ear but he couldn't now, and he wouldn't ever again, never ever ever.
But the dream was going away. He didn't have Mama, but he wasn't alone, he wasn't, because Sanji was here smelling like cooking and warm blankets and cigarettes and he was holding Usopp so tight it hurt a little, but Usopp didn't even care, because it meant he could feel it.
This wasn't the silent forever-blackness of being lost from the dream, it wasn't even the quietness of his house, which was small but felt too big and too empty without Mama in it. It was strong arms around him, even if it was impossible for them to be the ones he really wanted. These ones still hugged him really well and made him feel like it was okay now, and that the dark stuff was going away and not coming back.
He held on tight, memories of Mama mixing up with how Sanji felt, and Sanji was saying stuff to him but he didn't really hear it, because he was crying, and remembering. Sanji's words got muddled up with the ones Usopp wanted from Mama, but his voice came through anyway, just the sound. Usopp wished he was hearing Mama and her songs instead, but this still helped, even if he almost didn't want it to, even if it was really, really different.
When he cried so long that he felt himself falling asleep again, he didn't want to let go, even then, because what if he got lost again? But he was so tired, the sleep wouldn't stay away, coming close around him like a blanket.
The horrible dream was gone now, the realness of it had seeped away like water through sand, so he stopped trying to push the sleep back, and let it, and Sanji, carry him instead.
Sanji almost didn't breathe for a long time after Usopp went boneless with sleep in his arms. He just held onto him, maybe more for his own benefit at this point. He adjusted his grip a little, and looked around at the others. Nami had her lap and arms full of Robin, who was curled against her and sleeping as well.
A low thump sounded, and Sanji looked the other way to see Luffy, just having sat back on his rear, and shifting Zoro in his arms with determined carefulness.
"All of them just...?" He started, then looked at Chopper, who gave him a beleaguered shrug.
"Whatever... controlled them must have tired them out," Nami said, her voice unusually uncertain, but Sanji most certainly understood the reaction.
"Should we go back now, guys?" Franky stood up to go stand by Brook and Chopper, and peer out at the dark woods.
"No," Luffy said firmly. "They're gonna sleep more, and tomorrow we're gonna have breakfast, and then we'll go."
"Perhaps it is reasonably safe to trust the... entity's... patience, now that we appear to have communicated with it," Brook ventured, sounding grave and a little hollow.
"It sure let go of 'em pretty fast when you said we'd find it," Franky noted, turning back around and looking at Luffy. "I can't say as I trust it exactly, but maybe it's just because it doesn't seem... all there?" He tapped the side of his head, and shrugged.
"Extended isolation might cause such things," Brook commented, somewhat stiffly, and Franky frowned at him, and put a hand on his back. Farther down, Chopper hugged his leg again.
Sanji wanted to get off the ship now, get a pile of lanterns and go straight into that forest. It hadn't rained since last night, surely Chopper could find their trails again, and they could get all the way back to that spot on the map, right fucking now, damn it all—Usopp shifted in his arms, and sighed a little, and Sanji got a hold of himself.
Luffy probably had it right, and there were so many things wrong with traveling through woods in the dark with three wrung-out kids in tow and heading for some unknown psychic monster that he wanted to kick himself for thinking it.
He settled for getting carefully to his feet. Carrying Usopp this time didn't produce warm and fuzzy feelings. More like incandescent protective fury. His neck and shoulder were still damp from being cried all over, for fuck's sake, and his sympathy for whatever creature Brook had realized was doing this to them was a little iffy, at least right now.
"Maybe a watch in the men's cabin, huh, guys?" Franky suggested, "and Nami-sis, it ain't the best arrangement, really, but maybe you two wanna come bed down in there, for the rest of the night? Better keep all the kiddos in one room?" He raised a slightly uncertain eyebrow, but Nami only nodded.
Despite everything, Sanji did manage to feel a little guilty giddiness that Nami would sleep that close by. Ah, but then he'd best return Usopp to his bed, and prepare both ladies somewhere appropriate to lie down.
Everyone's voices stayed low as they worked out a double-watch rotation. Sanji changed the third lower bunk for Robin to sleep in, and when he opened his mouth to claim a watch—he'd had one already but he could do another—Franky shook his head at Sanji and jerked his thumb at the bunk over Usopp's. The look in his eye was jarringly like one of Zeff's, for a second, and as everyone settled into their respective beds or posts, Sanji climbed back into his bunk feeling oddly like he was one of the kids as well.
Nami fussed a little longer over Robin's bunk before retiring to the couch—she'd let him remake up the bunk for Robin without a word, but had snatched the sheets to set up the couch for herself. She had looked very tired, and Sanji stopped himself from arguing further that he could prepare another bunk, unwilling to annoy her by insisting.
Luffy was right, sleep and food before heading out would help everyone.
Despite that, despite hearing Nami's breathing even out and seeing the shadowy shapes of Luffy and Brook both asleep with variously bony or rubbery limbs spilling over their bunk sides... Sanji lay awake for some time, never slipping past a doze before he twitched awake again, as if the mess of recent events was only just now getting under his skin. He'd certainly fallen asleep easy enough the first time tonight.
Too enamoured with the state of his nakama, maybe, even when contemplating sudden, unplanned something-like-parenthood, maybe too put at ease by those warm-and-fuzzy feelings that he shouldn't even be letting himself have, not now, instead of thinking ahead as he ought to be, about how to get them back to normal. THAT was important, first and above all, or else it was like giving his nakama, as he'd known them, up for dead.
And now all that was chasing itself around in his head, crowded thoughts joined by still-vivid memories of the waking nightmare or whatever the fuck it was that the kids had just been through.
Even if it was some other thing out there, it had used their voices, and he wasn't going to forget the dull monotone or that awful screaming....
Franky's voice carried low through the darkened room, making him lurch back to the dim quiet again. "Cook-bro, relax, willya? Gotta make us all breakfast pretty soon, so rest up. Save it for tomorrow."
Sanji wasn't quite clear on how that helped, but maybe the sentiment simply had more weight coming from somewhere other than his own restive mind. At any rate, he closed his eyes a final time, and finally drifted off.
Usopp woke up because someone was snoring. He didn't want to. He was comfortable, and the covers were nice and heavy but not too hot, and he wanted to sleep more.
But someone was snoring.
Usopp was pushing his head under the pillow when he finally woke up enough to remember.
He pulled his head out, blinked his eyes open, grabbing the pillow to hold onto and rest his chin on it while he looked around.
He was in a hanging bed, there was another one next to him—empty—and even though the room was dim he could see the other beds, one above him and more beside him, he could count six all together, most with messy sheets, except for the one on the other end, where Robin was asleep... why? Oh... yeah.
Something had woken them up. It was hard to remember exactly, it was all fuzzy. A bad dream, or something, and he'd been scared a little bit, but that had gone away pretty fast... He guessed they'd put all the kids in the same room after.
Anyway, Robin wasn't the one snoring, that was for sure.
It came from the bunk beside and above him, where someone was still in it, asleep, and snoring really, really loud. One arm and one leg were hanging over the side, skinny and swinging a little bit like all the beds were... because this was a ship on the water, a real ship, and not a trading barge or a cargo ship, but a real pirate ship.
"Pirates are coming," Usopp breathed to himself. "Pirates are coming, Mama. Dad's coming home." And that was a lie now like it always was, and saying the words made his eyes get prickly.
But... but pirates. The amazingness of it wouldn't quite let him cry, not now, making tears slide back inside over a big bubble of 'wow'. "Pirates are here," he said quietly, and that wasn't even pretend.
He'd seen the flag yesterday when they'd come near the ship, before he'd accidentally got scared by Brook, the skull and crossbones with a straw hat, the jolly roger that meant this amazing ship had a pirate crew, and the people... the people were pirates, as crazy as in stories, even more crazy—Brook was a skeleton and Franky had metal parts inside him, and Chopper was a reindeer and Luffy was rubber... And there were cannons and the ship had a lion's head and...
And Usopp belonged here too.
Chopper and Sanji had said they were all nakama, that something had happened, and that Usopp had forgotten them. That Zoro and Robin had the same thing happen to them.
And Usopp knew that was true. It wasn't a stupid "because we said so" kind of knowing, it wasn't just because they said it and they were adults. It was the real thing, even if he couldn't explain it with words. And he knew some pretty good words. Knowing it just... went along with the way he felt safe with them, and Zoro, and Robin.
He was supposed to be here, except not how he was now, because (and he tucked all his stories away for a second) he was too little to be on a ship yet.
Plus... they didn't have any clothes in his size. Like Mama said, sometimes you had to think of the 'practical aspects' too.
So, probably, something really cool had happened, something like the most amazing story ever, and he was shrunk, he was little, he'd forgotten the stuff in between what he thought was "now" and what was really "now".
And that meant... Usopp was a pirate too. He was (normally, of course, when he wasn't accidentally shrunk by some kind of beam or maybe an enchanted mushroom—those things were gross and dangerous!—or a magical pool of water) big and strong and he could fight really well and shoot super far and...
He grinned, hugging the pillow tight to him as he thought about that. Just like Dad. He was a brave warrior of the sea. He wondered if he had a cape. Capes were cool.
Letting go of the pillow, he sat up, trying to be totally quiet, so he didn't wake up Luffy or Robin. The skinny arm and leg hanging out from the bunk belonged to Luffy, Usopp was totally sure, because Sanji's hands weren't that rough, and Franky's were HUGE and Brook's were all bones and Chopper's were furry sometimes and had hooves other times.
Everyone here was different from each other, Usopp thought, and raised one hand to tug at his nose. He really liked that. Even if they didn't all have crazy powers or weird things that changed them, they were all different.
Sanji didn't have powers, unless you counted his funny eyebrow that might do cool stuff. Or maybe his cooking (which was, Usopp thought, totally an awesome thing even if it wasn't being rubber or a skeleton). Nami didn't have powers but... well, maybe she did, actually. She sure seemed to be able to make everyone listen to her, especially Sanji (but being a girl wasn't a power... was it?).
Robin did have powers, but Zoro didn't. He was sure strong, though. And so even if Usopp didn't have powers, he thought that was probably okay. They still wanted him to be here.
He stood up, one foot at a time on the floor—on the deck, he corrected himself—holding carefully to the wooden side of the bunk. At the bottom of the bed were his normal clothes, all clean and dry and folded, and he liked the shirt he'd worn yesterday after his bath, the green one he was still wearing now, but it really was way too big, so he got dressed properly, quiet as a mouse, and then, because he couldn't resist anymore, he climbed up the ladder to the empty bunk that hung over where he'd slept, and turned around on the top rung to look at the next one over, where Luffy was flopped and snoring.
Whenever Usopp looked at people, he felt a certain way; different ways for different people. Some people were strangers, and he didn't feel much of anything, and some were.... Mama called them 'acquaintances', like not friends but not strangers, and they made him smile and say hi politely, or go quick-quick in the other direction, depending. Some were friends, which made him excited and ready to play, some were enemies who made him mad or afraid.
Some were relatives, like Mama's sisters and his cousins on the next island, that were kind of like more than acquaintances but not really friends. And some were family...
Just two, Usopp would have said before; Mama and Dad.
Even if Dad was far away, thinking of him made Usopp feel a certain way, a solid feeling, really strong, that he could always hold onto and that didn't change. And then there was a the stuff all around it that that was special just for Dad and all the things that Dad was, a pirate and a great shooter and someone who laughed a lot but who meant business if he got mad. It made Usopp fill up with pride when he thought of him, and it hurt too, because he was far away.
And Mama... Mama also gave him the solid, strong feeling. Even now, even still, even though it made him cry. And like Dad there were all the things around it that were specially Mama. Her voice and her hands, the way she sounded... had sounded, when he was bad or when he did something that made her laugh. The thinner layer on top, where she was pale and weak and her hands felt fragile and thin and her voice was too quiet...
Thinking of her too much hurt like getting his chest ripped apart and his face punched. Even though she'd got sick and it wasn't even an accident or anything all-of-a-sudden, it had still felt like he'd break open when it happened. He kept trying not to get pulled that far down anymore, tried just to keep the good things on top to hold him up. That was harder than hitting a moving target when the wind was blowing like a storm, but he was getting better at it.
Usopp sniffed quietly and wiped his nose on his wrist, looking at Luffy sleep.
Luffy, like Nami and Sanji and Zoro and everyone else... they all gave him the solid feeling inside, just as strong and just as real as Mama and Dad, and that was so strange because there were so many of them... all around him there were people he felt safe with, deep down, and he'd never had so many people like that before.
It didn't change Mama being gone. But it was still... good.
Luffy stretched in his sleep, and Usopp held his breath, afraid he'd done something to wake him up. But Luffy just rolled over partway so he was on his side and really close to falling out of the bed. He didn't, though, just made a snorty, snuffly noise, and then went back to his regular snores, his face mashed halfway on his pillow.
Usopp smiled a little, then even wider, and then he held both hands over his mouth so he didn't laugh out loud at how funny his captain looked. Everything about him was kind of funny, from his stretchy powers to his table manners to how he slept.
He seemed like a silly guy. But Usopp remembered how he'd looked yesterday when he'd come out of the kitchen, hands all soapy from the dishes, after Zoro had gotten mad. Luffy had been serious right then, and not silly at all. Serious Luffy had made Usopp feel worried and kind of achy, like someone had pushed hard on an old bruise on his heart.
Now, though, Luffy was just asleep, and kind of drooling. Definitely silly.
Usopp turned, then, and went back down the ladder as carefully as he had gone up. He pulled the sheets on his bed so they were a bit straighter, and then he crept quietly to the door. He almost tripped when he saw that Nami was also sleeping in here, over on one of the couches, but he caught himself and went even more carefully. He was good at this, he'd had to be quiet a lot when Mama slept.
The door opened without making noise, and Usopp went outside into the cool air, and was dazzled for a second by the sun right in his face.
He raised his hands to rub his eyes while he got used to the brightness, and took a breath of the morning air, smelling the salt of the sea and the fresher smell of the grass from the deck.
When he put his hands down and just blinked, he could see that someone else was out here too.
Zoro was out on the lawn, and he was practicing.
When Usopp practiced shooting stuff, he lined up a row of targets and knocked them over, or just hit a painted mark a bunch of times in a row.
Zoro wasn't trying to hit anything. He just had his white sword out, and he was doing... motions. Exercises. Something. Usopp didn't know the right word, exactly, but he was pretty sure it wasn't just plain 'practice'. Zoro was taking steps over the grass and holding the sword like he was going to fight, except in really slow motion. One step and he moved the sword a bit, another step and he moved it a bit more. Then he turned and swung with perfect control. He wasn't just waving the sword—it moved and stopped exactly where he wanted it to, just like when Usopp pulled back his slingshot elastic to the just-right distance to hit what he wanted to hit.
The expression on Zoro's face was perfectly calm. Usopp wasn't sure he was seeing anything except what he was doing—Usopp got that feeling sometimes when he was aiming. But Zoro had it on with every step he took.
Usopp stepped forward as quietly out here as he'd been inside, moving from the door over to stand close against the stairs that came down around the mast from where the girls' room was. He didn't want to distract him.
As he walked forward below the banister, he heard a voice and stood still.
"Stop," Brook said, and he walked into Usopp's view with his sword cane in hand. Zoro blinked and went from his gliding movements to holding perfectly still. "Adjust," Brook said, firm and calm and Usopp heard his father's voice in his ear, felt his hands on his shoulders, just for a second. "Here," Brook touched the cane against Zoro's foot, "and here," he touched his elbow.
Usopp could barely tell that Zoro changed anything, but Brook nodded, his afro bobbing slightly with the motion, and he took a step away, his back to Usopp.
"Looking good, li'l Zoro-bro!" Usopp heard clapping from where he couldn't see—Franky had to be sitting on the bench around the mast's bottom.
"My word, Mr Franky, you are incredibly distracting!!" Brook brandished his cane in Franky's general direction without looking over.
"My bad," Franky called out, sounding like he thought it was funny, but he still stayed quiet afterwards.
"Continue," Brook said, sounding firm again. Zoro's face turned back to calm, and he kept going.
Now, let go! Usopp heard in his mind, Dad's voice low and quiet and right next to him, and he remembered the feeling of Dad's hands just having let go of him, the spots on his arms where Dad had been helping him get in position still feeling the warmth of his strong fingers. And Usopp had let go, opened his thumb and forefinger so the elastics snapped forward and the marble flew straight on, smashing right into the old glass bottle and through, fifty feet away.
Usopp! That was amazing! Mama had clapped and laughed, and Dad had grabbed him from behind and hugged him, standing up to swing him around and make him shout and laugh.
No more. Not any more. He couldn't show off for Mama again. No more lies about pirates, no more stories, no more lining up targets where she could see from her bedroom window to shoot down one after the other.
And even if this ship was where he was supposed be, and even if he was supposed to be big and strong and just like Dad, she would never even see it. He couldn't show her or tell her. He couldn't even lie about it just to make her smile.
She had been sick. And she'd died. She was dead.
Usopp turned so his back was against the hard wood of the stairs, slid down a little because his knees got suddenly wobbly.
He bit the insides of his cheeks, not wanting to make any noise. They were right there, so close, and happy. He didn't want to show them this. They would be sad if they saw it, he knew that. It wasn't because he was afraid of them seeing it—he'd been so mad and worried and sad while Mama was sick and he knew totally for sure that she wouldn't have been angry or anything if she'd seen, but that didn't mean he'd wanted her to see. He'd done his best not to show it. It hadn't worked all the time, but he'd tried.
And he'd try now too. They didn't need to see that he was sad. If they did, they'd try to help, make him talk about it, make it all pour out in the open where it hurt even more. He was a big kid, he was the son of a pirate—he was a pirate!! He could make sure they only saw the outside that he wanted them to see.
The door for one of the toilets was right next to him, under the stairs, and he opened it, shaking a bit with trying to be quiet, and went inside, shutting it behind him, and leaning against it. He slid all the way down this time, until he was sitting on the floor. He pulled his knees up, rested his arms on them, and jammed his mouth against the inside of his elbow.
Then he could cry, and he did.
And when he was done, he waited until his face didn't feel hot, until his breathing was almost normal, and the big hurt was resting deep down inside again.
He closed his eyes and thought on purpose of all the things that he liked.
Spiders. Paints. Fishing. Candy.
Auntie Freema who wasn't his real auntie but who was always really nice to him and Mama, and brought cake and homemade soup and sometimes fresh strawberries.
Marbles. Pachinko balls. Pirate ships.
Franky's big cannon. Sanji's funny eyebrow and his strong arms and his food. Robin's pretty flower-arms. Zoro laughing at his stories.
There were lots of good things and he got past 'the fort under the big rock on the west beach' to 'Luffy's laugh', and finally thought he'd be okay if he went outside. Because there were lots of real things to be happy about and pretend things to tell stories about.
He sniffed one last time to make sure he sounded normal, then carefully went back out onto the deck again.
"Excellent, excellent! Yohohohoh, am I not a wonderful teacher?" Brook was saying, and as Usopp came around the railing he saw Zoro looking up at Brook with something that was almost a smile. His eyes looked like they were laughing, though, and when he spotted Usopp he did smile.
"Are you practicing?" Usopp asked, smiling as big as he could. "Show me too!" he ran around the bottom of the stairs, and yep, there was Franky on the bench. Usopp hopped on to sit next to him.
"Good morning, li'l bro!" Franky grinned at him, and put his huge hand on Usopp's hair to ruffle it.
"Hey!" Usopp laughed, then ducked away after a second, shoving his fingers into his hair to get any tangles out before leaning back on his hands to watch.
"He says he never uses single-sword forms, however he remains truly exceptional for his age," Brook mentioned to Franky as he walked back to stand at the bench near them. "He's exceptional for fifteen or twenty years past his age, I daresay, it's astonishing."
Usopp just sat, let the sun warm him up, and watched Zoro.
Chopper came out from the galley soon after, sat next to him and asked him some questions about how he'd slept. Usopp told him how he did sort of remember a bad dream, but that was all. Chopper seemed to find that interesting, for some reason, but looked relieved, too.
Robin and Nami came out at the same time soon afterwards, and Chopper went to talk to Robin. Usopp shrugged and decided he was still checking on them because they had all been made little by the beam or the magic pool or whatever it was. Maybe when that happened it was like eating spicy food before bed, and you didn't sleep well.
When Zoro finished his sword practice, Usopp ran over to ask what the other two swords were for, anyway, if he was so good with only one.
Zoro told him he'd asked Brook to show him his technique, which was for one sword, and then only just got started explaining something about three-sword style when a yell came out from the boys' room.
"Okay!! Breakfast time!!" And Luffy slammed the door open, and then Sanji called them all from the galley, and now it was time to eat.
Usopp went with everyone to sit down, the kitchen smells making his stomach growl—bread dipped in beaten eggs and fried in a pan, and bacon (lots and lots of bacon) and fruit and cheese and maple-tree syrup and jam...
Franky put two slices of the fried bread on his plate, and gave Usopp the syrup to pour for himself. He did it slowly, making patterns that all melted together in a pool of sweetness. When he put the little jug down again, he looked up to see Sanji watching him. Sanji seemed serious, like he might be getting worried in the exact way Usopp didn't want him to be.
Sanji had been there last night, Usopp thought suddenly, trying to decide if that was a memory, or just him thinking it might be true. But he did remember strong arms hugging him. Someone had made him feel better after the bad dream. So maybe Sanji just wondered if he was okay, like Chopper had asked him outside.
Usopp shoved the always-there hurting place down again, just to make sure it stayed away, and smiled for Sanji, gathering up all the good feelings from the sunny morning and watching Zoro and the breakfast smells to make it a real true smile.
After a second, Sanji smiled back.
Yeah. That was how it should be. Everything was okay.
The woods were beautiful today.
The day had dawned utterly clear, and though Nami knew never to trust the Grand Line completely from one moment to the next, she thought the clouds were well and truly blown over, at least for a day or two.
The trees let a diffuse brightness down through their distant canopy, the green-tinged light gentle on the eyes and still illuminating everything, all the way down to the forest floor. The immense trees, the various species growing with ridged brown trunks or smooth grey, all huge, and many of them edged with bright moss, or embraced by thick climbing vines that were in turn decked with large white flowers.
Shafts of pure sunlight did touch the ground here and there, finding elusive spots where leaves didn't make a full roof over their heads, and so there were the odd patches of shifting, dappled light, or small pools of sun-warmth, that made tiny blue ground-cover flowers bright as jewels around the thick tree roots, or made a stand of the huge, red-tipped ferns somehow glowingly majestic simply because they were standing tall under the sun.
The birds called to each other high overhead, and nearer to where they walked, things darted or fluttered by every so often.
The walk was long, and by no means easy, and the children alternated willingly enough between being carried and walking. Zoro, unsurprisingly, managed to wait until the other two had been carried at least twice before caving in, and even then he didn't ask, only capitulated because Luffy stood in front of him and held out his hand.
Under their own steam, they had bursts of energy, Usopp and Zoro frequently darting around and through the group playing tag, and Robin, though more sedate, did join in once or twice when Usopp tapped her on the arm and declared she was "it". Luffy seemed content that they pace themselves to allow it, and Nami didn't argue.
Brook sang intermittently as they walked. Usopp, usually when he was riding piggy-back on Sanji and not trying to turn over rocks or small logs to see what was living underneath, offered suggestions. They were mostly children's songs that he and Brook and Franky chanted lustily out into the bright forest, half the time out-sung, volume-wise, by their captain.
Robin was content to remain mostly quiet, though, walking beside Brook or Nami, or letting Franky carry her, but she was smiling almost constantly, and for that alone, Nami was glad of the extra time they were taking.
She hadn't, on her own, come up with just how to tell the children what was planned, but Luffy had forestalled any need to work that out by simply sitting down after breakfast and telling them straight out that they were going back to the woods today to get them back to normal.
Usopp had looked excited and a little scared. Zoro had looked matter-of-fact. Robin had looked... thoughtful, and then she'd nodded, strikingly like her normal self making a decision after weighing the available facts.
She hadn't known how they'd react, but she hadn't let herself expect it would be that simple.
That they'd all see it as something good was perhaps something Nami ought to have anticipated. Of course little Usopp would want to be a full-grown pirate. Of course Zoro would want to get back all the skill that had been stolen from him.
And... even though Nami thought of it more as Robin being put through the ordeal of her life a second time around, all that fleeing and fear and the path that had led her to Crocodile... all those were the past for Robin. If she looked eight years old now, she wasn't. All that wasn't going to happen 'again'.
And all the learning she'd done and knowledge she'd gained, those too would be restored.
Well. So they all hoped. Thinking of it as a sure thing was dangerous, even now, even in this bright and airy setting.
Of all of them, Zoro seemed to feel some of that apprehension as well between bouts of chasing Usopp around. He was walking just now, next to Sanji, looking determined and serious.
He lacked the grim presence his normal self had gained over the time she'd sailed with him. He was quite serious, even like this, but his emotions still were much closer to the surface than she was used to. She thought she'd seen him smile more in the short hours since they'd found the three children yesterday than in the last... very long while.
His implacable confidence was reassuring, most of the time, the sheer power he radiated when they ended up in a fight was a wall to place her back against.
But would it hurt, she wondered, if he were to smile a little more, like he had at first.
He still did laugh sometimes, when drunk, she reflected. Perhaps some leniency on his drinking tab on her part would help...
"Zoro!" Usopp was being carried just now, and was holding on to Sanji's shoulders with one hand, hanging half off and at a convenient angle to lean his head back to look upside down at Zoro. "Lookit that rock, it looks like a giant hairy butt!" He was pointing at a mossy boulder that was shaped, well, pretty much as he'd described it.
"Oh wow, it really does!" Luffy exclaimed front in front of them, and cackled with glee.
Zoro trotted around Sanji to get closer to it, and Nami felt an irrationally warm and distinctly fuzzy feeling as Zoro looked up at Usopp with a grin of agreement.
"Imagine the farts a butt that big would make!" Usopp whooped, and Luffy went off in riots of laughter at that, Brook following suit, and even Zoro laughed out loud at that for a few seconds, a surprisingly high, happy sound.
Nami had to laugh too. There were too many factors conspiring against her for her to resist. Then she sighed silently and rolled her eyes as the boys in front offered up steadily more disgusting scatological humour. But she was happy enough to let it pass without comment for now.
She felt... able to enjoy the moment, at least, despite the lowbrow nature of the hilarity.
Looking over her shoulder, she met Franky's gaze, and he grinned at her. He wasn't joining in the one-upmanship of gross-out going on in front, but Nami suspected that was only because he had Robin sitting on his arm. She was smiling now as well, wide and open, her shoulders shaking with laughter too quiet to hear over the rest of the ruckus.
Nami watched her laugh, saw the constant alertness fall almost completely away for a moment as Robin relaxed with mirth. She remembered what that felt like, and how long it had taken for it to go away the rest of the time.
All Nami had wanted yesterday was a solution to this—this accident, and now, with one in sight...
Robin's smile and Zoro's laughter and Usopp's giggling jokes filled her up with an affection that was made achingly sharp by the awareness that it would (it might, might, she had to repeat to herself, they didn't know) all be over, very soon. Her nakama were not small children.
By the map's admittedly rough distance reckoning, they were getting near, Nami was sure. After she said as much, everyone's pace slowed somewhat as they cast more alert eyes at the surrounding woods.
Nothing was obviously different about this part of the forest, compared to all they'd walked through over the past few hours, so Nami sought out anything that might not be so obvious.
Unsurprisingly, even now, it was Robin who noticed something first.
"Hey, hold up!" Franky called out, and when Nami turned, she saw him setting Robin down on a thick, ropy tree root that bulged upward a little, putting her eyeline near around where Nami's was. Robin leaned forward, bracing one hand against the tree's thickly-ridged brown back, and using the other to rub away some of the moss edging the bark's lines and crevices.
"See?" her quiet voice carried as everyone else had fallen silent. "There's a pathfinding mark. It's old, but it's there. It's giving us directions; where to go and how far."
She turned around and her eyes widened slightly. Everyone had gathered close around the trunk while she was looking at it.
"Awesome!" Luffy declared, and leaned forward to peer at the mark that Nami would never have noticed before. He traced it with one finger. Robin had exposed a modified arrow, and other age-altered lines that had to mean some number of distance units. Archaeological shorthand, perhaps. "So which way?"
Robin leaned out, looking past the tree. "136 degrees off log point," she said. That was at an angle only a little off Nami's original heading. "For a half-mile," she said. "There will be other ones on the way, though. If whoever did this used the right rules," she added.
Usopp was on his own feet again, up on tiptoes trying to see better. "Half-mile," he repeated, and Nami saw one of his hands rise to find Sanji's, and slide into it. Sanji's hand tightened in return right away. "Then what happens?"
"You get big again, and remember all the stuff you forgot," Luffy said, grinning at the mark.
"How?" Zoro asked. He looked like he was trying to appear impassive, but Nami was quite sure that was uncertainty and maybe even apprehension in his eyes, and his arms were crossed over his chest a bit too tightly, his shoulders hunched a bit too much, for him to project the calm his elder self would have.
Behind him, Brook stood, the fingertips of one hand tapping against the sharp angle of his jawbone. "Indeed, how?" he repeated, and Zoro glanced upward, looking faintly relieved that someone seemed to share his worry.
"Dunno," Luffy said. "That's still a mystery. We'll all see at once. C'mon!" He turned on his heel and held out his hand. After a second, Zoro grabbed his wrist, getting swung up in a now-familiar move to ride on Luffy's back. "Let's go!"
Nami hurried forward to make sure Luffy stayed pointed the right way, and managed to grab his elbow to steer him just as he took his first brisk stride. It seemed that now that the mystery was almost upon them, he wanted to pick up the pace.
As she'd passed them, Sanji had crouched down for Usopp to climb on. Usopp's arms now gripped tight, and Sanji looked strangely impassive, like he was trying to control his features. He wasn't doing very well, and she could see the flickers of frown coming through. As he started moving after Luffy, his jaw tightened, and he adjusted his elbows under Usopp's knees to hitch him a little higher.
She fell in behind him, with Chopper, Franky and Robin bringing up the rear, and wondered how much time they had left, like this.
She wasn't sure if she wanted it to be less, or more.
The forest brightened noticeably as they approached what Sanji first thought was just a clearing up ahead.
As they navigated around the last few large trees, they came to a screen of scrubby bushes. That in turn gave way to tall grass when they pushed through, and then...
It was a clearing, but only clear of the great trees. The bright sunlight and almost painfully blue sky, after all that mellow green, made Sanji blink as he stared.
Boulders rested here and there, as they did in the forest, though here they stood free of clutching roots and vines. They looked like they'd been scattered, like dropped marbles, over a roughly circular clearing about a hundred yards across, with low bushes and grasses covering the ground between them. They were old, though, lichen-encrusted and weather-worn, and whatever had put them there had occurred ages ago.
And the stones were marked.
These weren't at all like the marks on the trees Robin had pointed out as they went, these were deep, stark grooves of crude symbols. None of the complexity of the neat guide marks, but still each mark was distinct, like a letter or a kanji, even if they seemed to be neither.
Sanji turned around to look at Robin, and held in the question he'd been going to ask, because her face...
Her eyes were huge, and her mouth was open in awe and excitement, and she was staring at one stone, then another, like she'd just been presented with the most amazing gift.
Usopp, though, was not so inhibited. "Robin, d'you know what all that stuff is?"
"No," she said, "I don't." And she sounded thrilled. "Those symbols look a bit like the... or some do, but the old letters and runes don't have angles like those, and these have marks like accents—oh!" She interrupted herself softly when Franky handed her a notepad and pen that he'd fished out of his bag. Robin set to writing immediately.
"I guess she really thinks it's cool," he said, and Sanji felt him shifting to stare curiously at the boulders.
"She does," Sanji agreed. "As much as you think... telling stories or shooting your slingshot is cool."
"Oh." Usopp nodded slightly, understanding.
"Hup! Here we go!" Luffy jumped to stand on one of the stones and looked out from his improved vantage point. "There's a really big rock over there. And a house, or something." He pointed. "That way!" Luffy declared, hopping back down.
The 'house, or something' turned out to be a structure not unlike the lean-to they'd found back near the shore, only larger, making it look more like a rough hut than a temporary shelter. Or at one time it had been—most of the roof was fallen in now, and one of the walls had collapsed. Grass and bushes were growing inside the structure itself; the meadow that the stones were in was reclaiming the area.
The hut was next to the 'really big rock', and Luffy hadn't been exaggerating. The massive jutting stone was a jagged point that looked like it was poking out of the ground, rather than resting upon it, and it slanted upward at an angle acute enough that the leeward side would be protected quite well from overhead rain, and it was there that the collapsing hut had indeed been built.
"Hello!!" Luffy called out. "Hey! Isn't anyone here?!"
There was no response but the light sound of the breeze over the meadow. They kept approaching, and Sanji stayed alert, but there was nothing he could sense that indicated danger. Not yet at least.
But the thing, the thing from last night, that had to be here. The lost thing, the thing that had done this to Usopp and Zoro and Robin.
They drew near enough to the ruined hut for Luffy to poke his head through the empty doorframe, for Nami to step over the remains of the collapsed wall, and for Franky to look thoughtfully at the construction. "Not bad," he commented. "Held up pretty well, considering."
"Nothing in here," Nami reported, peering around the inside. "Some rotted blankets, a rusted pot.. No footlocker or anything of interest." She put together her Climatact and shifted some of the fallen-in roof planks to be sure, then shrugged.
"Guys? There's a cave!" Chopper's voice carried back from the direction of the huge stone's base. Brook was with him, and they were both peering downwards.
The cave opening itself seemed like nothing more than a fissure in the stone. And it was clear now that the rock mass did extend below ground. The tunnel-like opening had stone walls, not earth.
"That looks dark," Usopp said uncertainly, shifting against Sanji's back. "I don't... I don't feel well. I don't think I should go down there. I bet there are lots of... things that'll make me sick, like giant fleas and poison-spitting centipedes."
Zoro had got himself down off of Luffy but didn't look particularly eager to go down either, hands tight on the white sword's sheath. Robin, perhaps not surprisingly, only looked curious at first, but her expression grew gradually more worried as she caught on to the tension settling over them all.
The pleasant mood of the walk over here now faded quickly. Usopp's nerves and Zoro's reticence were pulling forward memories of the night before, at least for Sanji, and he didn't doubt the pall over everyone else was for the same reason. Even Luffy looked solemn.
"Some of us'll gonna go check it out first anyway," Luffy finally said. "Might be dumb and boring like the house. But we gotta find your guys' stuff."
He took a few steps inside, turned. He looked at Chopper, and at Sanji, and tilted his head. At that, Franky rummaged in his bag, and produced a lantern. He struck a match to light it and handed it to Chopper. Chopper took another second to steel himself before hurrying forward to stand next to Luffy.
It was much harder for Sanji to reach up and tug at Usopp's arms to get him to let go.
Usopp did let go, though, after a moment, and slid down to land on his feet behind Sanji. His hands closed around the back of Sanji's suit jacket for a second, then released it. Sanji reached back to squeeze his shoulder. "We'll be right back," he said, and smiled. Usopp frowned up at him, shook his head just the slightest bit.
"No," he said softly, "like this." He closed his eyes for a second, let out a little breath, and then grinned upward with a bright, real smile that held no trace of the deeply unsettled worry that had been there moments before, and if Sanji didn't know better, he would've thought something stupendous had just happened.
The smile was so real it made him smile back properly out of sheer reflex, and Usopp seemed relieved at that, which made Sanji feel somewhat better as well, even as he was unnerved in turn by... whatever Usopp had done, there, to pull that expression out of nowhere.
But, first things first.
He moved to follow Luffy, who waved nonchalantly behind him as they started down into the tunnel. "Be back in a minute!"
"I'm coming too!" erupted suddenly from Zoro, and Sanji wasn't even surprised.
He looked around to see him at the edge of tunnel, just coming in. He glared at the silhouetted figure. He was going to have to go tie him up or something, he just knew it. "Cabbage, you—"
"No you're not!" Luffy talked over him. Sanji snapped his mouth shut, and Zoro halted like he'd hit a wall. "Just wait." He tossed a grin over his shoulder, and kept going. Zoro stayed where he was, to Sanji's relief.
The tunnel was uneven on all sides, the width changing periodically and the floor humping up and dropping so that it was hard to tell how far down they were going. The walls were dry, though the air felt slightly damper as they went inward. The tunnel curved and swerved, but there were no branching points, at least, not until they got to the bottom.
They came around a sharp corner and suddenly the tunnel ceiling vaulted some distance higher and the lantern light spilled out over an open area the size of Sunny's galley. The floor was as uneven here as the tunnel, and the light cast black shadows with edges sharp enough to cut.
The walls of the room had dark openings to other chambers or tunnels, Sanji couldn't tell which, the light was swallowed short of describing their dimensions.
Next to him, Luffy grunted, and shuddered slightly. "Uh," he said, blinking slowly at Sanji and Chopper when they stared at him. "S'cold."
Sanji looked around, held his breath to listen. The air was cool, not cold, and he could hear nothing at all. There was no breeze, no air movement, nothing that—
dark silent empty pleading desperate yawning pain nothing nowhere
—the cave floor was gritty under his hands but he could barely feel it under the sharp, frozen afterimage that still layered over every particle of his being, like his senses had turned off to the outside and he was deserted, abandoned, alone, to simply exist, like that, with no end...
It faded, ebbing slowly until he could feel his heartbeat again, feel the air he was gasping and hear the sounds.
"What... what..." he rasped, and felt, vaguely, hands on him, and he grabbed an arm, lean and warm and strong, and definitely there, and he let himself be sat upright, but he didn't let go. Didn't let go.
"Sanji, look at me. Sanji." A high voice was calling his name. Wider hands, a gentle hold. Fingers on his chin, lifting his head. He dragged his eyes open as the daze of mental pain faded and he started to remember names other than his own.
"Chopper," he said, and nodded, shivering. "I'm fine, I'm fine." He took another breath, shook himself, looked at Luffy, who was crouched by him now with his arms resting over his knees and a concerned expression.
"Was it cold?" he asked, looking not at all surprised that what had been a mere shudder to him had knocked Sanji off his feet. "I thought it felt weird."
Sanji blinked. Those were both understatements by several orders of magnitude. "Yeah. Shit..." He pushed both hands back through his hair and sighed.
The thing here, the thing that had done whatever it had done to their nakama, the thing that had fucked with them again last night and scared the shit out of everyone else... Sanji couldn't even hate it anymore. Not after that. There had been no hostility in that mess to justify intentional harm, no malevolence, just its own agony.
He remembered: the island, the starvation, the knife in his shaking hands. Desperate measures.
Luffy had shrugged it off like a stray draft. Sanji shook his head slightly at himself, wondering if that made Luffy's mind that much stronger than his, or just simply that much denser.
He started to stand—
—and Sanji gasped, half aware of being on his back, of seeing Chopper leaning over him—
—flashes in the mind's eye, impressions of a shape with a piece missing, of dark gulfs and unending—
—three shapes, new, bright, touched by the first broken shape, gone dim—
—three shapes, three missing pieces—
—three shapes, no missing pieces—
—mind's eye flickering, thick blurring, fading—
sudden acute desperation
—"SANJI!!" Luffy's bellow was edged with fury, and Sanji gasped and rolled over, dislodging some weight on his chest and struggling with the urge to vomit. He forced it down, and then his next gasp made him wince.
"What happened?" he wheezed, starting to push himself up again. He felt Chopper's big hands on his shoulders but resisted the hesitant pressure trying to make him lie down.
"You DIED for a second," Luffy was in his face when he was sitting again, glaring sternly. "Don't do that!"
"I—huh?!" He tried to breath slower, because it twinged every time he did.
"Your heart stopped," Chopper said faintly. He was still hovering, his change to his human shape adding a good portion of possibly intentional looming to the act. "For a few seconds. I did a few compressions on you," he added, his hands reaching abortively for Sanji again, "I think your ribs..."
"I'm good for now," Sanji waved him off, and took another experimental breath, slower and deep as he could. Cracked, at most. He could tell, these days, when he had broken ribs, and these weren't. In any case, this pain was completely irrelevant, not least in the wake of what he'd just felt.
"Let me wrap them at least?" Chopper pleaded.
Sanji gave in. He knew the drill by now, Chopper could do this in practically seconds anyway. And he didn't mind sitting a little while longer, truth be told to no one at all. He focused on Luffy instead.
"The thing... the..." Sanji pulled his jacket off and then waved one hand at the cave around them. "Lost thing. It's here, it touched me, something like that, it..." he paused, at a loss to describe it.
"Yeah, I got cold too, kinda on the inside, but I didn't like how it felt, so I made it go away," Luffy said. "And then it didn't come back."
"I don't think it meant to... do this," Sanji said, unbuttoning his shirt and glancing down at Chopper as light hooves started to inspect his bare chest. The thing had... hurt. Fucking hurt in his heart, his mind, so badly that this physical pain that Chopper was so worried about was almost laughable. But it hadn't pushed or threatened, Sanji thought... it was like the thing had fallen onto him, desperate for help, and simply bled its agony all over him. That Sanji had almost drowned in it had not felt like its intent.
It had bounced off something in Luffy, it seemed and landed on him instead. It had tried to tell him things, all those images, but didn't know how to hold back.
If the sheer scope of the loneliness meant anything, it wasn't like it had been able to practice a delicate touch. Sanji shed his shirt, then raised his arms obediently as Chopper began wrapping his chest. "It was just... alone. Couldn't," he searched for the right description, "couldn't filter itself. And it said... I saw..." He thought a moment longer. What he'd seen... what else could it mean? "It knows we came to fix them."
Last night it had used the kids to communicate. This time it hadn't. And Sanji was plenty grateful to die for a second if it had spared them this. He was also beyond relieved that it had chosen him next, instead of Chopper.
Chopper tied off the bandage, and Sanji rose to his feet, only the slightest bit gingerly, and shrugged back into his shirt and jacket. Chopper retrieved the lantern that he'd set off to the side, and they moved forward to the center of the room, no one sure yet which of the other areas to visit first.
Once there, Chopper spotted carved marks in the floor. They were obvious enough when lit up, but they'd been hidden in the shadows until Chopper was standing nearly on top of them. The marks were set up like each one indicated an adjacent room, and as Sanji looked from one of them up towards the dark chamber it seemed to point to, he felt a wash of breathtaking cold, and his vision faded around the edges for an instant. But only that, and nothing more.
The thing was... learning. Sanji grudgingly appreciated that.
Experimentally, he backed up, moved towards one of the other symbols. Nothing. Another. Nothing. Back to the first.
Another muscle-locking drift of frigid sensation. Less impinging on his sight than before. But still, a message. "This one," he said, "Let's try this one."
The opening into the room narrowed just enough to become a short corridor, and it was so constricted they had to go single file. Luffy took the lantern and went first.
"Hey, it looks like a table or something in the middle, with stuff on it—shiny stuff! Bet Nami'll—"
Luffy stopped short, and dropped the lantern.
It clattered to the cave floor and went out, the oil presumably dousing the wick. Chopper gasped, and Sanji swore. "Don't move!" he said quickly. "What the fuck, Luffy?"
"Guys... they..." he said. His voice shook, and Sanji's stomach felt as though it had dropped through the floor, at that tone. Chopper made a muffled fearful noise. Sanji reached out for him, down and down, and there, big hat, sturdy antlers.
"It's me," he said as he touched him, and then reached forward for Luffy, meeting a solid, trembling shape. He shoved Chopper against Luffy until he clung, dug matches from his pocket and struck one at last. In the tiny glow, he made out Chopper clutching Luffy's leg and Luffy's not-quite-still frozen pose. He didn't look at his face, not sure he wanted to see, and instead cast around for the lantern. He spotted the reflection of the glass, much nearer than dim gleams of more distant objects, just as the match burned down to his fingers. He hissed and dropped it, striking another and grabbing for the fortunately sturdy piece of equipment.
The flame took, and the room brightened, and Sanji looked around to see what it was that could have made his captain that shocked.
And... it was this. It was what was in this room.
They were here.
All three of them.
Three collapsed shapes, half-lit in the uneven lantern light along with the scattered remains of what might have been a treasure hoard at one time, and Sanji felt his insides freeze in a way that had nothing to do with some ghost-thing touching him.
Usopp, his Kabuto staff a few feet away, was slumped against the table-like mass of stone in the room's center, his bag next to him.
Zoro was flat on his back in a sprawl, Wadou unsheathed and still held in one hand.
Robin was against the far wall, arms limp at her sides.
Still, and silent, and Sanji stared and thought the air had gone from the room.
Chopper wailed and ran forward, too fast for Sanji to snatch him back.
He reached Usopp first, put both hooves against his chest. "He's... cold," Chopper sobbed, "he's not—there's no— he's cold." He dropped his arms, and turned with a stagger towards Zoro, and Sanji wanted him to stop, didn't want to hear anything more, couldn't understand what this was.
They were here, all three of them, normal and as he knew them, but...
They were up above, all three, younger and smaller and... and alive. Alive, not...
What was this? What had happened here? "How—how can they—how is this—"
pain surging, pain dragging a little away
—he fell again. "Sanji!!" he heard Luffy bellow—
—vision washed out, but he could breathe, agony didn't quite overwhelm—
sense of before: had been shock and howling raging need for contact
—three shapes, bright and shifting, touched, dimming—
inadvertent, desperate confusion
—pieces pulled free, shapes frozen, not yet dark—
—three shapes, pieces restored, bright again—
sense of now: truth, pleading, certainty
—his vision cleared, and he was breathing fine, if quickly, and Chopper was staring down at him, his face-fur matted with tears and snot, Luffy above him staring down with an expression crossed between panic and fury. Sanji sat up with an effort, and grabbed Chopper to hug him tight. "I'm fine, I swear," he breathed. "It's fine. The thing, the shitty ghost, it just," he swallowed, "it did it again, that's all." He panted for a few seconds, clutching Chopper tightly for his own benefit as much as Chopper's. "But I think it's getting better at it."
"Your... your heart sounds are good," Chopper sniffled into his chest.
"What did it say," Luffy said, voice very tight, and Sanji looked up at him. He'd hardly moved from where he'd stopped the first time, and was now looking again at the room before them.
Sanji closed his eyes. He didn't want to look at what was in here, no matter what the ghost thing had told him. "Those aren't... They're not dead."
Chopper gasped, a sharp, muffled sound.
"Explain it," Luffy snapped.
"The thing, it did this, it did all of it... it took something out of them, it made... made the..." he couldn't even finish that sentence out loud, he was still trying to grasp that his nakama were in two places at once, in some impossible way. There was no other way to look at it than that, either. He was absolutely not going to entertain the concept that the three kids were in any way not real. "They're part of them... taken out."
Chopper wriggled free of Sanji's arms, Sanji letting go only belatedly, still half-lost in what the thing had shown him, struggling to separate the fresh flood of echoed pain from his own bewilderment. He stared almost unwillingly as Chopper moved back towards Usopp a second time, creeping close much more slowly, until, again, he reached out. This time, he took it slowly, touching him carefully, attentively. Sanji saw him swallow once, straighten a little, as his clinical reflexes came back to the fore.
"I think it's... it's true," he said softly, like he didn't believe it. Sanji barely did, but hearing Chopper say it was still a strange relief. "He's cold but he's... he's too cold. He's colder than the ambient temperature. And... there's no smell." He turned back to them, eyes huge. "They don't smell at all. Of anything. It's like they're not here, or they're... inert. I'm sorry," he sniffed, "I didn't—"
"It's okay, Chopper," Sanji interrupted him before he could finish his apology. "It's okay." He couldn't be blamed for ignoring one sense when all others told him something else. The sight alone... knowing the truth didn't make the memory of how he'd first felt any better.
"So they're okay," Luffy said, and took a deep breath and turned a smile on Sanji that Sanji was unable to return.
"Okay's a strong—"
"They're okay," Luffy repeated firmly. "So they're in two pieces, but we've got all the pieces. Just like a puzzle, right? We'll put 'em back together and we get the whole thing." He nodded. "Yeah."
"We can't be sure..." Sanji trailed off, because maybe if anyone should be sure, it was him, having been informed as firsthand as possible. He took a slightly too-deep breath and the pain in his ribs, negligible as it was right now, made itself known through the lingering fog of the ghost's misery. There was no denying that, at least.
"But why did it do this at all?" Chopper asked. He was moving, still slowly and gingerly, to Zoro, and he performed the same checks as on Usopp, nodding to himself.
"I think it..." Sanji though about what he'd been shown. Dimming shapes, not dark. In the absence of words it seem the thing had transmitted meaning nonetheless. "I think it knocked them out, when they found it. Tried too hard, or something." Luffy had managed to push it back when it touched him. Zoro would have done likewise, surely. But the thing had left Luffy alone after one touch. Sanji suspected the thing had forced the issue, here.
"It killed you when it tried that," Chopper froze and stared at Sanji. "If we wake them up, will they all be having heart attacks?"
"I don't... think so..." and Sanji trailed off at that awful idea. The ghost-thing implied all three would be restored, but... "Maybe they passed out too fast, maybe it didn't have enough time to mess with them, maybe it just grabbed on, instead of trying to communicate." Sanji wished he was doing more than just hoping. He wished he knew if this non-verbal, tortured, unlikely-to-be-sane-at-all thing could even distinguish between merely 'not-dead' and 'the way they were before.'
It had used the children to speak, though, and nothing like this had happened to them. Because...? Because it had... created them? Could use them? And it had understood speech then, and produced it. But not now, it seemed. Sanji hadn't been possessed, he'd had the information, such as it was, dumped into him, but hadn't pulled anything out. He was still all here, still awake, not a stilled statue with a miniature part of him running around.
The thing had broken a piece off each of their nakama. Had left the pieces outside, where they'd be found.
But that seemed perfectly obvious to him; because it was alone.
Sanji knew starvation, and one hunger was very like another. People needed people. Even Robin, though they'd had to storm a fortress to convince her, even dumbass marimo swordsmen who spent all day lying around like they didn't give a shit... Usopp thrived on attention. And whatever was here...
The rock at sea. The gnawing, grinding hunger. The knife. Desperate measures.
"I think it was alone for a long time before they came down here," he said quietly. "It just... didn't know what the hell to do when three people walked in."
"But what could possibly do this?" Chopper said, waving his arms at the three frozen shapes around him. "Devil Fruit?"
"Hell if I know," Sanji shook his head. "Maybe Robin does. Did. Would... Will? Damn." He made a face. Brook was a skeleton, but that was because of a Devil Fruit, he hadn't been one to start with. Or maybe ghost-things didn't need powers to do weird shit like this on their own. This one was an entirely different entity than the cute ghost-girl's negative ghosts, back on Thriller Bark.
"Well, we found the mystery!" Luffy declared, "And," he added, "all their stuff is here, too!" That seemed to please him immensely.
Sanji looked upward, as if he could see through the stone overhead to where everyone was waiting.
Did they haul the kids down here, through the dark, to see... themselves, like this? Did they... did they try to bring these back up? A sharp chill ran through him at the thought of carrying them in this state.
"Let's go get 'em!" Luffy said, and waved happily at the three still shapes, as if saying a temporary goodbye, before he started for the tunnel. Sanji stood up, grabbing the lantern before Luffy got outside the pool of light.
"Luffy, you want them to see this?" He wasn't sure if he was arguing against it or not. It struck him as vastly strange either way, but then nothing about this entire situation wasn't. Would they find it as unnerving as he did? So much of his own reaction was residual horror from thinking them dead, at first, that he had absolutely no idea.
"Huh? Of course! Didn't you wanna know how you were gonna look when you grew up? It'll be awesome."
The tap-tap of Chopper's hooves sounded behind Sanji, and then he was close enough that they could all move out.
"Fine," Sanji said, "But we have to check the area first. If there's some shitty giant bat or something down here, I'd rather know about it now."
"I've never tasted giant bat before," Luffy mused.
The other ones were here. This one felt them move, felt the noises of their meanings it could not take from the air, knew the purpose in them even so; the other ones, come to restore the small ones from the split this one had made.
This one trembled through all its awareness, at their presence, their nearness. It would be so easy, like the first time, to reach, and feel what was inside the complex bright-dark of each one.
But the first time had happened with no comprehension, and this one had forced, had almost crushed the one it touched, so now this one held itself tightly, did not touch again, except to echo its meanings, and only that.
Hope was warmer; wasn't cutting now, but was heavy and this one could push WANT and NEED and HELP away with the strength of it. Could let hope grow, and become more.
This one understood, now, understood some. When this one had pulled on the small ones in desperation, used them to make words, this one had taken meanings from inside them, too. Meanings that they had heard from the other ones. Meanings of questioning, for where, of mercy, for seeking, of distress, for hurting.
This one hadn't touched those three again. Hurting was what this one wanted to stop.
But this other one, a bright-flashing one, robust but with open feelings ... it could be touched, not like the radiant but immovable strength-wall this one had tried first, or the center-bright but delicate spark of the third, that this one skirted away from harming.
This one could touch the open bright-flashing one without forcing an invasion nor overwhelming at first touch. It was different than when this one had first reached for the three.
Or so this one thought. The first judgment was true; this one did not need to force. But the second judgement...
This one had needed to share meanings only, needed to, for itself and the others. Tried to touch gently.
But couldn't pull. Had to push, even now, to show the meanings. And from behind the meanings spilled too much more.
The bright-flashing one had dimmed from the shock, solid body tumbling down. But the mind had stayed aware to feel what this one needed to share. Strong. So this one pushed, showed, for much more time than it had done for the first three.
Until something stopped inside, halted more sudden and final than how the first three had dimmed, and the brightness flickered, guttered, was buried, and this one had fled from it in horror at knowing it was the cause.
This one did not want to make more hurt, yet it had, and cold stillness crept out through it while it waited, dark thoughts of new emptiness unfolding over and over.
Time stretched long and thin and strangling.
And then the bright-flashing one became unstopped. And moved again, and could share the meanings this one had given.
This one's hope, turned icy and brittle, warmed again.
This one followed and then led. Showed them the place they must bring to make the split pieces whole again. Showed that the still pieces only waited.
They had come. They were here.
They could put back what this one had made out of the first three.
And... they could make it so that this one was not lost.
When the three of them came back out from the tunnel, Franky couldn't even begin to imagine what had happened down there. Cook-bro's stride was off just a bit, arms held slightly apart from his torso like he'd gotten his ribs smacked a little, and he looked shaken. Chopper had a similar expression, only more so, like he was just short of clinging to the nearest friendly person. And all that, while Luffy... looked elated.
Zoro, who had been parked by the tunnel entrance since they'd gone down, now dogged Luffy's steps, getting a big smile and a hand in his hair for his trouble.
"It's all down there, guys, everything will get fixed again!" Luffy swept his grin across the group, then looked at each of the kids in turn, the expression turning a little softer and yet impatient at once. "Your stuff's all there, and—guess what?" He bounced down into a comfortable squat, more at eye level with the shorter ones among them.
"What?" Usopp asked. His fidgety demeanor, since the three had gone down, was turning visibly to excitement in the face of his captain's glee. He dropped the stick he'd been using to draw in the bare dirt, and stood up. He did step around, rather than on, the broadly-drawn outline of the rather improbable fort he'd been illustrating for Nami, but hop-skipped the last couple of paces towards Luffy. Zoro stayed next to Luffy, though Franky saw him look at both Sanji and Chopper with a slight frown.
"Is there anything interesting down below?" Robin asked, looking up from her notepad. She'd been making careful copies of the markings on the boulders nearest this central rock, Brook at her heels as she'd made a circuit of the area, both to watch over her and to lift her up for a better view when one was too high. Now she was sitting cross-legged and had been annotating her sketches.
"Yeah," Luffy nodded, still grinning. "We're definitely all going down!"
Franky glanced at Sanji and Chopper. Sanji looked a little too pale, but he met Franky's eyes with an absent nod, only sparing that much attention to reply. His attention now was fixed on the kids, it looked like.
Chopper, for his part, made an effort to school his features when Franky looked at him, taking a breath and squaring his small shoulders. He gave a nod that Franky though was supposed to be reassuring.
Why would he need reassuring?
"So? What'd you find?" Usopp asked.
Luffy looked again at each kid. "I found you guys." He wiggled his eyebrows, and laughed a little at the kids' expressions.
"Huh?" Usopp said. Zoro and Robin exchanged glances of shared skepticism.
"You guys are all down there, too," Luffy said, as if that clarified things in some way.
"What the hell?" Franky couldn't stop himself.
"I'm afraid I don't quite take your meaning, Mr Luffy," Brook added, rising to his feet from a rock near Robin.
"Make sense, Luffy," Nami told him.
"The mystery thing that did this to you," Luffy poked Usopp on the tip of his nose, "took you apart. There's big you and little you. Big you's turned off or something. But it's down there, so you just have to go get it, and you'll be big and get all your memories back."
Usopp seemed wowed, amazement all over his face that was buoyed even further by excitement. Zoro looked stunned, so much so that he startled when Usopp jumped and cheered. Robin looked fascinated, craning her neck to stare in the direction of the tunnel entrance.
Franky tried to imagine what Luffy could possibly mean by 'turned off,' and suspected it had a hell of a lot to do with why Cook-bro and Reindeer-bro look like they'd seen something pretty damned awful.
"We just need some more lanterns, and we'll go down," Luffy was saying. "And Nami, guess what? There's some gold-looking stuff down there!"
It was a measure of how strange all of them were finding this that Nami only said. "Oh, that's great, Luffy." She went to speak to Sanji as Robin, after shaking free of her stare at the tunnel entrance, started slipping questions in among the ones Usopp started barraging Luffy with while Zoro crossed his arms and listened to it all.
So Franky got all the other collapsible lanterns out of his bag (Usopp-originals, they were, and handy ones at that), and Brook lit them while Franky took a moment to make a couple of rigs that could hold two at a time. The more light the better, far as he was concerned.
"I confess, Mr Franky, I find this entire situation terribly peculiar," Brook told him quietly.
"Skeleton-bro, you are most definitely not the only one," Franky replied, cross-bracing one of the poles and sanding down some of the rough edges before moving on to the next. "The sooner everyone's back to normal, the better."
"Hm," Brook acquiesced to the sentiment, but added, "however, it has certainly been an experience, seeing them as they are now. Such youth, even compared to their usual selves."
Franky agreed with that, too. These kids were his nakama, only not, and they were cute as hell, and it was something else having a little guy all whooping and nuts over a cannon and raring to learn all about it. So he'd miss 'em even though they'd be back to normal, themselves again, instead of these selves here now, which were still them, except not properly. Which was all just plain odd and his brain wasn't designed for that particular kinda strange philosophical stuff. Probably no one's was, he reflected, looking at Sanji and Nami's uniquely pained expressions.
"Things have just been way too weird this week," he muttered.
The inside of the tunnel was pretty cool, actually. With everyone else there, Usopp almost didn't have to be nervous—he was only a little scared, so he held onto Sanji's hand and it helped—Franky had fixed it so that there were tons of lanterns making it all bright, and he could see the minerals in the walls, tiny sparkles and some veins of different colours.
"Metamorphic rock," Robin told him, after he pointed at the squiggly-lined layers in one place, and after that she told him all about what rocks did when they were in the ground for a long time, which was really, really awesome.
And then they were in a really big room. Sanji's hand got tighter on his for a second, and Usopp looked up. His expression looked stiff, like he wanted to be frowning but was stopping himself. Maybe Sanji didn't like being underground. No wonder he'd looked not-so-great when he'd come out. Usopp squeezed his hand back. It was okay, it was just a cave. There was lots of light and nothing scary. Sanji didn't have to be scared. Captain Usopp would make sure nothing got them.
They came to a wide-open room, and it took Usopp a second to notice that he really wasn't scared at all, now.
Sometime while they'd come through the tunnel, the nervousness had gone away, just faded, like smoke in the air. It wasn't just because everyone was here with him, or because there was light, either... he sort of felt like he'd been here before. He looked around the room, trying to remember why he... remembered. Almost remembered.
It reminded him of when he'd seen Zoro and Robin for the first time. He hadn't known them, except he'd known they were safe.
He'd never been here, but it felt like he was supposed to be.
He wanted to go inside now. Not how he'd been curious when Luffy had told them what was down here—and that was so amazing it would have been enough anyway—but he wanted to go inside the same way that he wanted to take a deep breath when he'd been holding one for a while. Yeah, that's what it was like, just without it being panicky and suffocating. Like jumping into the swimming pond at the other end of town from his house, landing in the deep end and being able to see the surface and know he'd get there in a second, everything was fine, and it was coming closer and closer and—
He blinked and saw Sanji in front of him, felt his hands holding onto his shoulders almost tight enough to hurt. Now Sanji was frowning, but looked relieved too.
"What?" he asked, and Sanji let out a breath.
"You all—" Sanji shook his head, then started again. "I thought it was—You started to daydream or... something." Usopp glanced around, seeing Brook with his hand on Zoro's shoulder while Luffy stared at him, and Robin blinking up at Nami and Franky while Chopper was holding his backpack in his hands like he was about to get something out of it.
"It's okay," Usopp told him, because it was. They just had to go farther in, that was all. "I'm fine," he said, and he didn't have to pretend at all to make his expression calm this time. "Let's go! I wanna see."
They went down a tunnel that made Franky say a few bad words because it was hard for him to go through—Brook was also too tall, but he was skinny and could lean a bit—and then they were in another room.
Sanji made a quiet sound, like he'd gotten hurt before and someone had pushed on the spot. Nami gasped and Usopp could hear Chopper talking to her, fast and too quiet to hear the words. Franky said a swear word, and Brook's low "oh..." sounded hollow.
They all seemed shocked by it, but Usopp would have run forward if Sanji hadn't still been holding his hand.
Because... there he was—that was him, he was over there. Him. Usopp. Big and grown-up. And Zoro over there, and Robin—wow, Robin looked tall—over there... all of them, like a mirror that showed the future.
—don't have to be so rude! We might meet again out on the sea—
Usopp took a step forward, as far as he could get without having to pull too much against Sanji. He didn't want Sanji to get scared if he let go.
His other self had brown cargo shorts with all kinds of great pockets, and a big plaid button-down shirt that was open over a regular t-shirt that had "Galley-La" written on it. He had a big bag that made Usopp grin with excitement. There were things in there, he just knew, awesome things, pieces of stuff to make and pachinko balls, and... and dials... What were those? But that was his bag. Because that was him.
His nose was even bigger than Usopp's was now, and his hands were too. Usopp looked at his own free hand for a second, spreading his fingers. They looked stubby compared to his bigger self's. Those ones looked like they could draw better, and shoot better, and take all kinds of things apart.
—it's called the Perfect ClimaTact!—
And next to him was the best slingshot Usopp had ever seen. "Kabuto." he grinned.
"What?" Sanji asked him, and Usopp turned around to look at him. Sanji looked like he'd been kicked in the stomach.
"Huh?" Usopp was confused. Sanji didn't answer, so Usopp just kept holding his hand, and looked back around at—at himself, again.
His other self looked asleep, kinda leaning on the stone bench-thing in the middle of the room. No. Not asleep. He wasn't moving, even to breathe. He looked like a costume that got left somewhere, with no one inside to make it go.
Maybe this should be scary. He got scared a lot, he knew what kinds of things made him that way, and this was too weird for it not to be frightening. But he wasn't scared, there was just that almost-to-the-surface feeling. Like if he reached it, he'd—
—Sky Island scary, Sky Island scary—
—let me be your nakama again—
—I'm already negative!!—
Zoro almost dropped Wadou when he saw the other one there on the floor in... in his hand. That man's. Himself. Why were there two swords?
Oh, but... there weren't two. He could see, from here, the sheath and its wear, marks and fine scratches that he knew perfectly well his sword did not have. If he went closer, looked at the hilt bindings under that much bigger hand, he was completely sure he'd be able to see how they'd been redone.
Like that taller, broader body was the rest of Zoro, that Wadou was the rest of the one he was holding, all the experiences and battles that this one hadn't seen yet.
Yet... no, that wasn't right. They had seen those battles. They'd been through them, because there was the proof. He was big now, it had just been taken away from him for a while.
He heard Usopp say something off to the side, and Sanji reply, but he wasn't listening. He moved forward, feeling Luffy's hand slide off his shoulder, and walked towards... himself.
Flat on his back, laid out like Kuina had done to him often enough, except so much larger. His real self had Wadou tightly in hand, but now Zoro could see the other two still at his bigger self's waist. Two more that, he was sure, were well-wrought and weren't cheap nameless blades but real, fine weapons, worthy of fighting next to Wadou, just like that bigger body was worthy of fighting next to Luffy.
—just need to stay alive for one month—
Zoro felt suddenly confined, like his own skin was too tight, like there was supposed to be more of him but there wasn't room—
—a single step back, I'll have broken my promise—
—that is the power to cut through steel—
—my ambition ain't worth shit if I can't keep my captain alive—
Robin followed Miss Nami down the tunnel without hesitating. She very much wanted to see what was in there, the feeling made her want to push and shove, get there faster, discover whatever it was as desperately as she'd ever opened the library's newest volumes, to understand as eagerly as she'd ever translated a passage of the old language. There was knowledge there. She had to get to it. She'd do anything.
What she saw was something she vaguely thought should have shocked her at first sight, but it didn't.
Miss Nami gasped in a shaky way and Mr Franky's curse sounded choked, but all Robin thought was, it's here. I'm here.
The rest of her had been sitting silent in the dark awaiting her all this time, and there wasn't anything frightening about it, no, the just opposite of that, and she felt herself smile, wide, wider, so wide it hurt, because that was her there against that wall. So tall and grown-up
—why do you fight? All of you who carry the name of D—
She had lived. She had survived and she had remembered, found books and found these people and—
—I've never thought of... sailing and landing ashore as adventures before—
—thank you all, for treating me so kindly—
—take me with you to the sea!—
It happened while Nami was listening to Chopper's hurried explanation.
As much as she first thought that she'd been distracted somehow, she knew later that her stare had been fixed on the kids, all of whom were being visibly drawn to the inert bodies, the first sight of which had made her entire body freeze for a second. No forewarning could have prevented the gut-twisting shock of that stillness.
Nor could any have prevented the shock of what came next.
One moment they were there, and then the next they simply weren't.
Three children gone, without warning, or signal, or sound.
Chopper stopped speaking midword.
Nami felt as though she'd been had her breath stolen from her. Her skin seemed to cease feeling anything, it felt like she couldn't move.
Robin—Robin had been beside her, just there, and then a mere two steps ahead and now she... wasn't. They were gone, they were just... gone.
Sanji made a sound of shocked protest, and after a second of him staring wildly around, she saw him bring up the hand that Usopp had been holding and look at it, and the stricken expression on his face was like a slap to her initial numb surprise.
Even Luffy was standing still, eyes huge. He stared at where Zoro had been, his forehead slowly knitting in a perplexed frown like the one he got whenever something unexpected hurt him.
"They've—" Brook started to exclaim. He sounded far away to Nami's ears.
"Hey?!" Franky's voice interrupted, sounding indignant in his surprise.
Nami found it in herself to breathe, to swallow, clinging to rational thought like a lifeline. If they'd gone, then—
Luffy's face suddenly and simply lit up, much too fast for Nami to do anything at all in turn; she couldn't climb out of this sinkhole of abrupt grief so easily. Luffy, though, swiveled on his heel, took one long step, and squatted down by the sprawled figure of his swordsman, looked up over at his sniper, and at his archeologist.
She looked too.
This was why they'd come here. She struggled to keep that in the front of her thoughts. This was why the children were gone.
She could see the slow, slight rise and fall of their breathing, now, where there had been no movement before. And indeed, some fundamental unease fell away.
They were alive.
Beside Nami, Chopper inhaled, and then gasped, and sprang forward. "They're BACK!" he cried, "Can you tell? Their scents? They're here again!!" he ran in short circle before trotting over towards Usopp, almost tripping in his haste. "Unconscious?" he asked no one in particular. "Coma?" he added, suddenly worried. "Usopp!" He patted Usopp's face, felt his pulse, and put a stethoscope to his chest, all in rapid succession, then paused, and jabbed him in the sternum. He dragged the point of his hoof down, and was reward with a grunt of protest. "Response to painful stimuli, okay!" He leaned in closer. Usopp's eyelids were twitching now. "They're just really, really asleep!" he squealed, sounding utterly overcome with tearful joy, and dashed off towards Robin.
Nami swallowed again.
Usopp started to rouse fully, raised a hand to rub his eyes, the other to press against his recently-abused chest. Franky went to him as he lifted his head and blinked squintily at his surroundings, and yawned hugely.
"Hey Longnose-bro, how you doing?" Franky was hovering again, as if this was still the much younger Usopp.
"Er... huh?" Usopp peered up at him, tilted his head. "Bit of—" he yawned again, "bit of a headache." He stared with a little more focus at Franky, and then around at the rest of them in surprise. "Huh, I can't remember. What happened? What're you guys all down in here for?" His eyes widened as he spotted the other two. "What happened?!" he repeated, voice rising an octave. He clutched at his bag, eyes fixed on Zoro's still-slumbering form.
"Robin!" Chopper sang out, thrilled, and she, unlike Usopp, was just being lightly shaken, until she woke with a gentle start. Brook was already waiting next to her and so Chopper moved on to Zoro as Robin raised a hand to her temple to rub briefly.
Nami wondered vaguely why she couldn't stir herself to go over there herself, or even speak at all. She felt removed from what she was looking at, still trying to catch up.
If that had been the young Robin, she would have been over there in an instant. But it wasn't.
Chopper didn't quite reach Zoro before Luffy, after watching the other two awaken, simply leaned down, put a hand on Zoro's chest, and said, "Zoro." His tone was clear and expectant. "Wake up!"
A low querying grunt, and Zoro opened his eyes and sat up in a smooth movement, only to look around himself in consternation as the sleep cleared from his face. He stared at everyone, then finally just at Luffy, who was crouched beside him and now grinning fit to burst.
That everyone was present and accounted for prevented any real wariness in his tone, but the surprise was evident. "What the hell?"
"You guys are all back!!" Luffy crowed, and grinned at the entire room. When his eyes crossed Nami's she managed a nod in return, starting to feel herself coming slowly back under her own command. She exerted herself to control her face.
"Uh, seems to me more like you guys all came to visit us," Usopp pointed out. He stood up slowly, winced, and leaned on Kabuto. "Okay, ow. How long was I sitting there?"
"You don't remember," Sanji said, and it was near toneless, nor was it a question. He still had his hand up, and it tightened, closing around the space that a much smaller hand had only just vacated.
Usopp gave him a baffled look.
"This is the ruin I was looking for," Robin said, sounding thoughtful, and eyed the room around her as she rose to her feet with Brook's helping arm. "And it does indeed contain a few things of minor note," she elaborated, presumably for the benefit of everyone who hadn't been here until today, "though the main items of interest are the stones above ground." She nodded, looking pleased. "This cache is a rather interesting design, though. I enjoy the ambiance."
"Creepy...!" Usopp singsonged in a stage whisper, and gave Robin a glower that she returned with a happy smile.
"You've all been down here for almost three days!" Chopper said, and trotted around them all, brandishing his stethoscope. "You're all awake now, but I really wanna make sure you're okay! So, sit!"
With a visible blanch at the little doctor's explanation, Usopp backed up to park himself on the table of stone he'd been slumped against. Robin walked forward with more care, and leaned against the other end of it, taking care to shift one of the dusty, filigreed bowls that was overturned on its surface.
Zoro's eyes had widened at Chopper's "three days", and he looked down at Wadou, still in his hand, as if trying to remember. Then he looked around a final time and sheathed the sword, seeming faintly unsettled.
He hadn't moved at all from where he sat, so Chopper went to him first, and seemed oblivious to the bemused and fond tolerance that spread on Zoro's face as Chopper listened to various places on his chest and back, looked into his eyes, and generally scrambled all over him for an exhaustive health checkup.
Nami felt rooted to the spot, and unable to sort out just what she was feeling. She held the reins of it now, but it still pulled every which way.
There was a vast empty space suddenly vacated, all that grinding worry of the small children being out here was gone, the residual memory of the feeling just a faint shadow now.
But it hurt, around the edges, so much, more than she could possibly have guessed. ragged and harsh, like something had been torn out forcibly. The relief of her nakama standing and talking and looking perfectly, miraculously healthy didn't even touch that place, and she couldn't fathom how the entire situation had flipped so fully over in barely a minute.
She could only stare. Even the glints of gold and silver metal here and there on the floor, scattered coinage and jewellery and... it didn't signify, for the moment.
Robin had been right there, and then she hadn't been.
But she was right here now, holding a teacup that Brook was filling for her from his thermos, smiling up at him and nodding with polite thanks when it was full. She was taking this strangeness in stride. Like always.
Gripping her emotional unrest firmly, Nami wrapped up the hurting mess, packed it down and away. It wasn't as easy as it once had been to hide strong emotion, but she managed.
"My word, Miss Robin, you simply will not believe what has happened," Brook said as he put away his thermos.
"Three days? I knew it," Usopp was muttering. "No one around here ever listens to the Great Captain Usopp's warnings about dangerous places." Franky huffed a laugh, and Usopp thumped Kabuto against the cave floor in indignant emphasis. "I'll have you know, sir, that my eight thousand followers obey my every command without question, especially when they're about avoiding clearly questionable archeological sites." He leaned over to stare pointedly at Robin, who nodded graciously, and Nami couldn't deny the thread of familiar amusement that slid in at that exchange.
"I need a fucking smoke," Sanji said, sounding strangled, his words erupting into the pause after Usopp's statement and hanging in the air so that everyone stared at him. He took a long breath, snatched a lantern off one of the poles and stalked out of the room.
Zoro looked over at Chopper after he'd gone. "Hey, you checked him out at all? Looks like he got some cracked ribs or something?"
"What!?" Usopp exclaimed. "What happened to you guys while we were down here?!"
Brook wondered if it was this wonderful crew's excessive exposure to Mr Usopp's tall tales that made all three of them wear such disbelieving looks as Chopper finally started to describe recent events in full. Or perhaps Chopper's halting explanation, interrupted by clarifications from Nami or random anecdotal observations from Luffy, was, understandably, just that unbelievable.
Nearly everyone looked quite normal again, for which Brook was most grateful. The strangeness that had caused this entire extraordinary few days had held no real assurance of restoring the three to their former selves. Brook did not mean to impugn a promise made, certainly not, but a deranged mind could not be viewed as fully reliable, for all its noble intentions.
However, this lost, confused being had held on. The promise had been kept. The brief glimpse of three of his nakama as such young children was something he could now, in hindsight, treat with full gratitude. It had been a strange, special glimpse of them, a unique event. There seemed, as yet, nothing to regret about the experience.
Or not for him, at least.
Mr Sanji, before his abrupt retreat to the surface, had appeared cut to his very core, and Miss Nami not much less affected, though she'd mastered herself quite well, now.
But Sanji, it seemed, didn't find the positive end to the situation nearly enough to overcome the sudden vanishing of their erstwhile child nakama.
Brook did his best to empathize. But maybe it was a function of all his years spent with nothing but memories, ones he'd held onto like life itself... he had no worry about forgetting what had just passed. He was far too happy with his nakama's restoration to feel grief that their more fragile incarnations had been made whole within them again.
"You're..." Usopp was looking from Chopper to Nami to Luffy, "...really not making this up." He eyed the room, the cave walls, and picked up one of the broken bowls, inspecting it suspiciously.
"Nope," Luffy shook his head firmly. "You were only this tall," he held his hand out to demonstrate, "and everything. You burped pretty good," he added, with a slightly nostalgic grin.
"I do just fine now, thanks," Usopp protested, looking as though some of his pride was truly wounded. "I have medals, I'll have to show them to you sometime." It may have been a measure of his consternation, Brook thought, that he didn't elaborate any further on that.
Robin laughed quietly, and Brook looked down at her, yet again pleased as his bones could be that they were all safe. Then he remembered something, and reached into his suit jacket's pocket. "I'm not sure what survey you might already have made of the boulders above us, however..." he drew out the pad of paper young Robin had been industriously making notes on, and handed it to her.
She took it, eyes visibly widening as she saw the work of her own younger hand. "I..." she didn't complete the thought right away, and turned the page over to examine the next one. "I didn't truly disbelieve our good doctor, you know, but this makes it suddenly far more... real." She turned another page, and nodded at what she saw there, then looked up all of a sudden, gaze turned inward. "Brook," she said quietly.
"This one, you..." she placed a finger on one of the shapes on the page, and then looked at him with an expression of perplexed concentration, "you lifted me so I could see it properly."
Brook parted his teeth in a slight grin. "Well, I admit that I can't be sure if it was that particular symbol, do forgive me. But yes." He glanced over at Usopp, who was grinning at Zoro as Franky described him having shown actual detectable interest in cannon functions. "So you do recall," he said quietly.
"Just that, for the moment, and quite faintly," Robin said. "As if it had happened a very long time ago."
"I see." He regarded the other two again, wondering what may come back for them. It hadn't all been pleasant, as fond as he was of his nakama in any form. But perhaps it boded some comfort for Sanji, depending what else resurfaced. He saw Usopp's grin fall away as he turned to look towards the way out, where Sanji had gone. Maybe comfort needn't wait quite that long.
For what remained here in this dark place, Brook was next concerned with discovering what was left of the entity that had caused this. What there could be to find.
It had kept its promise. Now they must endeavour keep theirs.
Sanji rocked slightly on his feet, heels to toes and back and forth, and he lit himself a cigarette, took a drag and then stared at it while it burned. The faint line of smoke rose languidly, disappearing in the bright daylight here above ground, and annoyed him with its calm, unconcerned rise, as did the balmy heat and the meadow-scented air.
He itched suddenly, felt restless and angry, and where the fuck was Zoro now, when Sanji could stand to kick something solid through a nearby wall.
Zoro was down there, wasn't he? Healthy as a fucking horse, big and broad and fully grown, not baby-faced and far too easy to infuriate. That one was gone, thank you, gone like the original go-round that Sanji'd never met, young-Zoro, vanished into the past now. Like shy, wide-eyed Robin who'd looked at her meals like they were unexpected gifts and made Nami's eyes show something new and made Franky's exuberant manner go astonishingly delicate.
Gone, like a small warm hand in his that just stopped being there. The sudden lack of pressure from those strong little fingers had been a physical sensation in its own right, like his hand could feel the void where the contact had been, where a little kid with a big mouth had held onto him.
Sanji felt his face grow warm, and gritted his teeth.
"Sanji...?" Now that voice sounded as strange to his ears—too deep, too steady—as it did familiar, and that was simply wrong. He looked around to see Usopp, who gave him an awkward grimace of a smile upon seeing his expression.
Usopp came forward, and Sanji didn't meet his eyes, gaze fixed down and to the side, until he growled and flung his hand out. "Don't step on that!" he snapped, and Usopp hopped back an awkward half-step, yanking his heavy boot away before it landed on the lines of a drawing in the patch of dirt there.
"What's..?" Usopp didn't finish, just stared downward. Sanji folded his arms and didn't look. At all. Except from the corner of his eye.
Usopp was standing up straight, not a mark that Sanji could detect on him, nor any weakness in the way he stood. The physical effects of waking up had been shaken off already. He was fine.
The heat washed over Sanji's face again, chased by guilt for acting like an asshole when he should be happy. They'd gotten everyone back.
"Sorry," Usopp said, looking at him, head tilted. He sounded intent, and perplexed, and worried. He wasn't hiding anything now, wasn't feigning anything to avoid the subject.
"No. It's fine. I'm fine," Sanji muttered.
"I don't know who you think you're fooling, over here," Usopp answered, the worry just as strong, but with a faint cajoling tone beneath it.
"Not you." Sanji flicked the ash off the end of his cigarette, and bent down to carefully stub it out against a large nearby rock before he wasted it any more, then sat on the rock. He let himself look at the drawing of the fort that was on the ground between them, thinking of the discomfort the kid had made vanish under a wide, real-looking smile. The wounds and anguish Usopp had put a mask and cape and crazy persona over. The way he'd shrugged off those negative-ghosts like Luffy shrugged off blunt force trauma..
Usopp crouched down then, slowly, like he was moving around some skittish animal, and traced one forefinger over the lines in the dirt without touching them. "This was me," he said, and the disbelief still tinged his voice, right along with the recognition. "One of mine."
"Yeah," Sanji answered, and was horrified to feel the scrape of that hoarse word as he said it.
"What..." Usopp started, trailed off, then picked up the skinny stick the kid had used and drew a new line in the dirt. "What happened to... him? Me?"
"Just fucking disappeared," Sanji ground out. "Into thin fucking air. Ate, cried, slept, drew a fucking picture and then... gone."
"I'm sorry," Usopp said again, quietly, and Sanji watched him complete the drawing. He swallowed hard, seeing the firm, sure lines finish the design begun by a much less controlled hand.
One part, returned to the rest, made a whole.
"Nah," Sanji said, and Usopp kindly ignored the thickness in his voice. "We got you back."
Usopp looked down at the drawing he'd just completed. A strange feeling of deja vu was present. The sloppy lines, the familiar elements of the picture—that tree, that big rock. He'd drawn this fort many times as a kid, many different ways, making grand plans for a playground of a castle, with rope ladders and bridges, trapezes and slides and a roost for his giant eagle or a pit for his giant snake.
Sanji had stopped him before he'd trodden on the design, but not before he'd trodden on something else, he realized now. He shifted slightly, because his bootprint half-covered a much smaller one that had been in almost the same spot.
So strange, enough to make his head nearly spin if he thought too hard about it. He didn't disbelieve Chopper—hadn't after the initial few minutes, at least, but that wasn't the same thing as really believing, or understanding.
He heard Sanji cough a couple of times, as if clearing his throat, and he looked up as Sanji stood. The perspective made him blink for a moment. The angle... it felt like an old memory this time, it was familiar. And when he stood up, it felt momentarily unusual to be able to look at him straight on.
"We have to go back down," Sanji said. "There's something down there waiting for us."
Nervousness tickled Usopp's insides. "The—the ghost," he replied. Chopper had described as best he could what had happened to them, using words like "entity" and "being" but really all Usopp could think of was that he wanted his garlic necklace again.
"Yeah." Sanji paused as they reached the tunnel entrance, and Usopp stopped next to him. Sanji gave him an unreadable look, staring for a little while, looking not so much lost in thought but stuck in it, before he looked down at one of his hands, fisted it closed and stuck it in his pocket. "Let's go."
All too soon, Nami found herself wondering if anything really had happened, these past few days, or if they'd all just imagined it, because searching through the remaining tunnels managed to devolve into their usual farce of organization quite promptly.
Chopper mentioned that they'd checked the place in a somewhat cursory manner and that each tunnel ended in a closed-off room. This meant there was little immediate danger of losing anyone in a cave-maze. That turned out to be quite convenient.
Because Luffy ran off with one of the lantern poles down the tunnel right next to the one they'd come out of just as Robin suggested another and started down that. Brook followed Robin, and Zoro went after Luffy. Franky picked the passageway with the largest entrance, which turned out to be quite short, because his exclamation about a weapons cache was loud and clear enough to make Usopp perk up out of any remaining wariness and follow him eagerly down there.
Shaking her head, Nami wondered if she should wait for something violent to begin, or if she should follow Usopp and Franky to see if those weapons were worth anything.
Next to her, Sanji was uncharacteristically subdued. He was staring towards the back of the long central cave without seeming to really see it. By his feet, Chopper was looking up at him with sympathetic eyes.
It was rare for Sanji to let silence last this long when the two of them were in the same vicinity.
"Sanji," she said, and he looked at her. No hearts or stars in his eyes just now, only an inward-directed frown, and a pained set to his mouth. The grip she had on her own emotions held fast, but melancholy reared up in her a moment to echo Sanji's. "I miss them too," she offered quietly.
Chopper made an unhappy sound, and leaned against Sanji's legs.
Sanji took a long breath, sighed heavily, then straightened his shoulders. "Usopp finished his picture," he said, seemingly apropos of nothing, and it took her a moment to understand what in the world he could mean.
"He did?" she said softly. Memory was such a strange thing sometimes. Maybe...
"We didn't lose them," Sanji said firmly, and she had a feeling he was speaking to himself as well. "We got them back."
And that wasn't Zoro's easier laughter or Robin's contentment at having her hair brushed or Usopp peppering Franky with a thousand questions a second...
But somewhere, inside them, maybe it was.
Sanji shivered suddenly and looked ahead, towards the shadowy back of the central area.
"Sanji?" Chopper questioned, suddenly concerned.
"It's fine, it's fine," Sanji told him. "Just..." he moved forward.
The back of the cavern wasn't much different from the rest. Smooth but uneven walls, except for—"There's oh, hmm, dust?" Chopper said, scenting the air. And when they drew close enough, they could see. The wall here had a sort of fold in it, an undulation that hadn't cast a strong shadow when viewed from almost anywhere but its side, and there was another opening here.
Not a tunnel, more like a doorway, into a room about the size of Sunny's library.
And it wasn't completely dissimilar in what it contained, either.
There were books here: neatly piled, strewn, tumbled open, stacked high as Nami's waist.
There was furniture as well, a couple of stools, a roughly-made desk with ink bottles on it, stacked-plank shelving, almost all surfaces supporting books, thick with dust in here that hadn't settled elsewhere. Paper dust, from all these volumes. There were no titles visible on most of the covers.
There were remains. At the desk, leaning as if having fallen asleep, was a raggedly-clothed skeleton, the bare, brown skull pillowed on crossed arms.
"Found you," Sanji said quietly.
Chopper picked up a book from the floor near his feet, and opened it, sneezing once at the cloud of dust he raised. "Oh," he said. He looked up at them, and lifted the book for them to see the pages, covered in tidy, inked longhand.
Every other book that was open had text in the same hand. Nami carefully lifted one volume from the stack near her and opened it too. Same writing. These had not been printed, but filled by hand. One nearby volume that did have a title, "New Nautical Almanac", had writing between the printed lines.
"Guys," she said, keeping her voice as low as Sanji's, in deference to the one in the room with them, "these are journals."
Chopper declared the remains that of a man probably well past middle age, and wrapped them as carefully as Robin and Brook and Nami handled the books. Burial here felt wrong to them all, after the lengths they'd all been through to find this place.
Sanji did not feel another cold touch, in all that time, not as they moved the body away from the desk, not as they stacked the old books in crates to carry above ground, not as they took bones and books, and left the clearing and its mysterious rocks behind them for the last time.
Robin discovered, as they packed, that the journal-writer been called Byerly Deuv, single survivor of a wreck driven here in a storm, with nothing but crated merchandise destined for sale elsewhere to keep him company. The earliest journal date she was able locate was nearly seventy years ago. The latest she'd seen so far, before they stopped being entered at all, was ten years after that. And, according to her, he seemed to have tried to write down everything he knew.
He'd put himself down in writing. Sanji was very sure it was that, and not the dried-out bones, that they had been intended to find.
Byerly Deuv didn't exist in those dusty remains. He wasn't there. But anyone who cared to meet him could read his own words. As the last crate was raised up onto Sunny's deck, Sanji felt a sudden sadness.
That ghost-thing that had touched him... there had been no name in it. No hint of all this, of a mind that could fill so many books, not a sign of it mustering anything on its own higher than raw emotion. Not ever a word from that mess. Even the stolen words, spoken through the children, would never have hinted at this wealth.
The ghost that had touched him had lost all of that.
And yet, Sanji thought, watching Zoro take the crate that Robin's hands carried up to Sunny's railing, then follow Usopp's pointed directions to set it down at the right place on deck. And yet...
It was all here.
They could give the remains a burial at sea, but he wouldn't really be gone.
There was not enough room in Sunny's library for all the books, but they could hardly be read all at once, and it didn't bother Robin a bit to go down to the hold and retrieve three or four volumes at a time. Franky had built special, lined crates for them, next to the one containing the carefully-packed gold-filigree dishes, and the other one filled with antique weaponry. That last one had been opened a couple of times, too, some of the contents appropriated by Usopp and Franky, to take apart in the name of research.
The books were fascinating, even when they often transitioned from what Robin was most interested in—archaeological observations about that mysterious clearing—to autobiographical anecdotes, or to general rambling. The ink changed colour and consistency over time as the writer had run out of the limited supplies he'd landed with and fashioned his own.
Brook had helped for the entire hours-long process of ordering all the volumes, his bony fingers handling the old, fragile volumes with enough care to reassure any archaeologist. And he'd set each volume down with a gentle pat, as if to reassure the author they'd be safe. "It seems quite a trove, Miss Robin," he'd remarked.
And she knew he understood why. All this work predated the destruction of Ohara. For that alone, and still more for a few incidental references to a "brilliant young masters student named Clover", it was worth its weight in gold.
There turned out to be something in them for more than Robin alone. There were navigational references that Nami copied down with great satisfaction. There was a mentioned-in-passing gunpowder mixture that was missing the proportions, but got Usopp experimenting, trying to work out the exact recipe. There was a fine drawing of a complex mechanical structure in the margins that made Franky's eyes widen...
That cache had truly held treasures.
And Byerly Deuv had given them some that were not easily seen, Robin thought.
That realization came to her after a late-night bath, just two days after they'd left the island. She pulled a brush through wet hair, and it caught on a tangle. The minor but smarting pain startled her, but not as much as what she suddenly recalled. The memory that came to mind was not her aunt's harsh handling, but rather of sitting wrapping in a towel while someone—but that would never have, couldn't have—ah, but that smile in her mind's eye, that orange hair...
Like the memory of Brook lifting her to see the stone markings up close, it felt like it was old. Not something that had happened only a week before.
She knew—all three of them did—the broad strokes of what had happened while they'd been in that cave. But for Robin, asking further about it... learning secondhand about her own actions was strange, as if her mind meant to keep those accounts resolutely on the far side of the believability threshold.
But memories trickled in, regardless. They clashed with what that Robin knew was her true childhood. Her faint impression of Sanji, a child's thrilled assessment of him as vastly tall, handsome, strong and kind, serving her a meal; the feeling of utter security while being carried on an immense arm; the one so far crystal-clear memory, that of waking up in a large, fine bed and knowing there was nothing to fear, at all...
A strange, strange comfort to be granted. But, she couldn't deny, welcome.
Once finished in the bathroom, she came down into the library to find Nami at work annotating a nearly-completed chart. Robin sat on the bench around the wall, and watched her do it, between brief glances at the current journal volume she was studying. Nami was engrossed, and after an absent greeting when Robin sat down, she kept working for nearly an hour, intent and unconcerned by Robin's presence, before leaning back and removing her glasses.
"Phew," she sighed quietly, and rolled her shoulders. She glanced around with some surprise upon realizing Robin was still there. "Robin," she said, rubbing at one eye and stifling a yawn. "Still up?" Robin had had the till-dawn watch the night before.
"For a little while."
"Good bath?" Franky had been tinkering with—he called it "upgrading"—the plumbing today. But the water was working again now.
"Yes," Robin nodded once, and smiled. Perhaps her mild fatigue played into it, but she didn't restrain the mix of indulgence, fondness and gratitude that she was feeling at the moment.
"What?" Nami asked, her voice turning the slightest bit softer. She sounded self-conscious and young every so often, when she spoke to Robin, as though she was suddenly feeling the decade between their ages.
"I remembered something," Robin said, pausing in momentary thought to bring forth what she'd recalled once again, "about our time on the island. You brushed my hair for me."
"Oh." Nami's eyes widened, seem to turn shiny in the library's lamplight, and she looked to the side a moment. "Well, I—"
"Thank you," Robin interrupted softly, now the one to feel the self-consciousness of acknowledging an age difference.
Nami took a breath, let it out, and nodded.
"Good night," Robin said, still quiet, and stood. Nami just nodded slightly once again, and so Robin left her to her charts.
Just as she was closing the library door behind her she heard Nami's voice, slightly wistful, but happy. "Night, Robin."
Zoro lifted and lowered the weights a final time, settling them on the lookout's metal carpet and keeping the sound of impact minimal. Luffy was asleep on the bench nearby.
He'd come up ostensibly to keep Zoro company while he worked out, but sleep had overcome him instead—he had some justification, though; their earlier collision with the flying walrus migratory path had kept Luffy bouncing the be-tusked, flappy-winged, blubbery creatures away from Sunny for well over an hour, since the things weighed a couple of tons at the least, and Chopper insisted they were endangered and not to be killed for dinner.
Zoro was of the opinion that anything able to survive on the Grand Line should not be allowed to have itself labeled "endangered", but it wasn't like they needed the meat, and anyway, with Chopper looking all... Chopper about it, he'd kept his opinion to himself.
So now Luffy was up here and flopped on the bench. Slowly sliding off, more like, and Zoro rolled his eyes a little, and went over to stop him before he fell to the floor and woke up.
Being up here with him kept tickling at Zoro's mind. Being up here at all did, really, it had made his workout somewhat distracted for the past couple of days. He hadn't lost count, or anything, but hadn't been able to completely sink into the half-trance he often enjoyed with exercise.
He kept... remembering stuff, when he started to get anywhere near it.
And it might not have bothered him, if he could only remember any of it properly. It was just snatches. A memory of being thrown and caught; of an impossibly young-faced Usopp grinning at him; of the snapped word "cabbage!", whatever that could possibly mean; of being dragged by the hand—by someone's hand that was as small as his—and being incredibly relieved about it.
As he reached Luffy and caught him as he tipped, shoving him back onto the bench proper, something came to him that wasn't just a fragment.
Grief, old and familiar now, but not then, and tears on his face, and Luffy's heavy hand on his head. They'd been right here, and...
Zoro stood up straight and stared down at his captain on the bench, asleep and snoring open-mouthed.
They were a little ways over from where they'd been in his memory—he remembered the view angle, remembered the way it had felt to look at Sunny from up here. Zoro snorted. He'd seen Sunny for the first time twice. And one of those times had indeed been the first... but not the one that felt like it had happened a long, long time ago.
He leaned forward to look out the window from this slightly different angle, then squinted a little at a smudge on the glass, and focused his eyes on that instead of the lantern-lit deck below them. Seemed like no one had been up here on window-washing chore duty yet.
Not just a smudge, he realized. The just-visible mark of a handprint. A very small handprint.
His own, he realized, as a flicker of remembered sensation, of cool glass under his palm, came to mind. That wasn't from his memory of tears and Luffy's hand, but a different one that didn't seem ready to show itself further yet.
Lifting his hand now, he put it on the glass as well. Much bigger. Stronger. And that strength now controlled to cut steel or cut nothing. He took his hand away, and the traces of sweat on his palm from the workout left a new print beside the old one.
Usopp took out all his watercolours, then put them away again. He rummaged around for his pastels and chalks, but when he found them, he just looked at them, and put them down. He got so far as opening the charcoals and picking one out, before sitting and just looking at the sketchbook. Finally he re-wrapped the elastic around the charcoal box and put it away again.
He finally just grabbed a pencil, a sharpener, and an eraser, and stared at the white page.
The little twinges and corner-of-the-eye recollections from those weird days on the island felt like they might ease up just a little if he could pin them down in some way. It hardly made sense, really—if he couldn't remember them, what exactly would he be able to draw?
But he felt like he wanted to draw, so that was that. Like his mom had told auntie Freema once, "if he doesn't have some paper, that boy will redecorate a wall!" and Franky probably wouldn't be too pleased if he relieved his creative itch by painting the hull.
There were a few small things he could remember well enough to sketch out, so he put a few on the page. Maybe more would jog loose.
Zoro—young Zoro—was an easy one. Though, to be honest, once he was done he wasn't sure if that was all recollection, or a little bit embellished by his own imagination, because Zoro appeared on the page with a smile on his round-cheeked face. No matter, it made Usopp grin to look at anyway, and he'd drawn regular Zoro in a full-on Doskoi Panda suit once before, complete with the panda-eared hat, so making him smile was hardly extreme.
Franky and the cannon appeared next. That was one of the clearer memories, and a funny one, the cannon he was perfectly familiar with seeming huge and mysterious and supremely destructive.
Luffy carrying Zoro under his arm. Robin at the table in an oversized tee-shirt. Chopper in his burly human shape, from a low perspective Usopp never normally used.
Then a treehouse village, and then a giant cherry tree with a city around its roots. Those, he was reasonably sure, were not real, or someone would've mentioned them.
Most of it turned out pretty well, he thought to himself, chewing thoughtfully at the side of his thumbnail.
He couldn't get down some of the other stuff, the stuff that was feelings or sensations more than anything else. A memory of being carried, of riding piggy-back. Of terribly aching hurt getting washed over by forgiveness.
Of a sharp grief that only rarely reared up these days, and even then it was blunted by time. But for a long while, it had just consumed everything.
"Heh, Mama," Usopp said. "This is another one you wouldn't believe." He smiled a little, then grinned properly and tapped his pencil against his nose. "But it's true, you know."
Now there was a subject he hadn't tried in a long while. He'd drawn her before she'd gotten very sick, but with a child's skill. After she'd died, years after, he'd tried it again, found the few snapshots of her, or the two of them, or the ones of her and Dad.
He'd gotten better at it. And he was very thankful for that.
He was paying no attention at all to anything but his pencil against the paper, when Sanji's exclamation from the door startled him.
Usopp turned halfway over from where he was lying belly-down across his workshop surface to give Sanji an apologetic look for all the art supplies and deconstructed antique shotgun pieces on the floor, between his loose notes on that new gunpowder formula and the not-so-coiled giant coil of twine that was evolving gradually into a giant knot.
But Sanji, although he was bearing a tray with a sandwich and mug, didn't seem to be irked by the potential for tripping (as if Sanji would ever trip, anyway). He was looking at the wall, instead.
As Usopp had filled the pages in his sketchbook, he'd pulled them out and pinned them to the corkboard wall so he could see them all at once.
"Brook said..." Sanji started, scanning the pages, transfixed, "but that's... you do remember something?"
"Kinda. Bits," Usopp said, and pushed himself into a cross-legged sitting position. He scratched his head. "Like a lot of the stuff you told me, I don't remember, but then little random things." He pointed at one of Sanji holding out a mug with a straw sticking out of it. "That doesn't even look out of the ordinary, but I remember it."
"You guys had a snack," Sanji said, sounding slightly vague as he continued to look over the wall of pictures. "So... none have you in them," he remarked.
"Well, they're as seen through the eyes of the, uh, miniature Captain Usopp." He looked down at the page he was working on, half-done, and sketched himself in too. Why not? "Well, here you go then." He held up the book, and Sanji's eyes widened.
"My mom," Usopp said, and grinned. "Doesn't the nose give it away?" He'd been drawing her at work, something he remembered all too little of now—after she'd died, people seeking glasses or telescopes or anything else a lens-grinder made had needed to ferry over to Custard Village instead. He'd added details that seemed right enough, and, for Sanji, he'd added himself, on the other side of her worktable, reaching for one of the stacks of polishing cloths.
"Yeah... yeah, I guess so," Sanji said, and tugged the sketchbook until Usopp let go, handing down the tray in exchange. Usopp didn't mind—it looked like a great sandwich. And it was, of course. He ate it without speaking between bites, because Sanji was wearing that particular pensive expression he got sometimes when that whole kids thing came up. Not every time—he and all of them (except Zoro) had gotten a very excellent laugh when Zoro had sat up straight at dinner yesterday and glared at Sanji.
"What the fuck?" he'd snapped, seemingly apropos of nothing. "Cabbage?!"
But then when Usopp had come up this morning wearing his green shirt with the black Jolly Roger on it, Sanji had gotten like this, sort of like he was distracted by something in his own mind.
"You miss her?" Sanji said, and then looked as though he thought he shouldn't have. He glanced away for a moment, then handed down the sketchbook again.
Usopp swallowed the last bite of sandwich, and set the book down next to him, still folded open to his sketch of Mama and himself. "Well, yeah," he said, shrugging a bit. "She was great," he said, and nodded slowly, a little to himself. "But she died when I was pretty young. She was sick."
"I'm sorry," Sanji said, and Usopp shrugged again, then stared at his empty plate for a second.
"It's fine. It was a long time ago," he added, looking up and smiling. Sanji's eyes widened just briefly, like he'd realized something, but he just nodded.
Sanji collected the plate and the tray, and, with a last, slow glance at the pictures on the wall, left Usopp to his drawing, but not before leaning down to press his hand against Usopp's shoulder. In sympathy, Usopp guessed, and he reached up and squeezed it in return, feeling awkward in kind of a good way. Hard to be a warrior of the sea when having moments like these, but he found he didn't care so much just now.
After Sanji had returned up the stairs towards the galley, Usopp took up his sketchbook again, traced lightly over a few of the lines he'd already made to remind his hand what it was doing.
Usopp wanted to be a brave warrior of the sea, like Dad, who was still off doing that very thing with that guy who'd given Luffy his hat.
But, he thought, spinning the pencil in his hand, regarding Mama's hands at work on the table in the picture... He'd gotten half of himself from her, too.
This one knew, felt, when the others went There, when the touch came, when this one became found. Itself, all its meanings, all its gone-away understandings... all were There.
This one did not remember the meanings that were in There. This one had been alone, and nothing more, on and on until it had forgotten. But There was the center. And There where this one could become found.
And, after dark and silence and nothing that had stretched so far that they seemed to spread into all before and all afters... this one was found.
The other ones went There and touched the meanings this one had made, before. Touched and held, and...
The meanings were taken from There, and so this one went too.
Taken up and away, where meanings were meant to be. Not alone in the dark under, but out and away to a place that moved.
The forever-cold ended, as this one followed its meanings and the others. The not-understanding stopped hurting, The others could understand for this one now. No pain anymore, to make the meanings known.
This one was... less... now. The cold was gone, the pain was gone. Grief and rage and need and all things that had driven this one were ended.
Threads of itself loosening. Not enough meanings of self, like this, to hold together.
The last meaning this one knew was gratitude. And it touched that certain other one, a final time, unafraid.
It was over.
Sanji inhaled sharply, and then looked vaguely around himself, pausing in his apple-peeling for a moment.
"Sanji?" Chopper asked. He was at the table, making a shopping list of medicinal supplies for next landfall. He'd grilled Sanji about the ghost's touch after they'd left that island, and kept an eye on him almost as much as on Zoro, Robin and Usopp.
Sanji shook his head at Chopper's concern. "That... it was warm," he said. "It didn't hurt."