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Where The Heart Is

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They knew they had hit East Blue when the waves smoothed out beneath them and the winds gentled to a soft tug on their sails. There was a familiar quality to the air, one that was said to mark East Blue natives no matter how far they traveled: a sharp, distinctive tang that clung to their skin and hair long after they had left home. If nothing else, that scent had clung to his heart all these years—if he had been born with a nose longer than average solely for this instant, solely to breathe in that East Blue air one second, one heartbeat sooner than the others, then he would happily declare that it had been worth it.

Years and battles and oceans later, Usopp was home.

On the outside, he might have seemed to go about the ship’s activities as usual, but in his mind, he was already back in the village of his birth. The dirt paths that he’d run across every morning—he could still feel each step beneath his soles, familiar as the contours of his own skin. Past his house, the corners and corridors impressed permanently in his mind and lingering with memories of his mother’s voice, his mother’s touch. Past the village pub, with its needless MESHI sign attracting the same patrons day after day, its crooked window that wouldn’t shut wafting out the perpetual aroma of stir-fry and mayonnaise. Up to Kaya’s mansion, through the tight, prickly crawl between the shrubs. Would Kaya still listen to his stories from her window? Would she laugh in all the right spots? No more lies, he thought to himself, not anymore. The stories he told would be ten times more outrageous than the ones he used to, and they would be real every one, down to the last button gleaming on the uniform of the last enemy Marine.

His crew knew when they had an absentee on their hands. The girls smiled indulgently and tried not to give him tasks that required too much attention. The boys took advantage of his abstraction to prank him and steal his food (or maybe that was just Luffy), but he didn’t care—he was floating somewhere in the clouds, and the view was beautiful.

They let him go ahead with the Mini Merry while they followed at a larger vessel’s more sedate pace. Usopp had become a brave warrior in his own right, as he had promised, but privately he couldn’t help but worry that he might be overlooked in the shadow of the giants that he called crew. So he was glad to have this time alone to catch up with Kaya, with everyone, before things got hectic as they always did around the Straw Hat Pirates.

He docked at the same place Nami had tied her boat when the crew had been three people and a large sack of gold. The steep slope that they had fortified with their lives lay before him, the same as it had ever been. As he climbed up, Usopp even came across one of his old caltrops lying in the bushes. It was rusted through, but still quite sharp, so it was a good thing he’d found it before a child at play.

The forest had grown out again after the weirdo hypnotist had cut it apart. Usopp thought he remembered the desperate route he’d taken on Zoro’s back, but there was no sign that two bodies had ever crashed through this way, no lingering remnants of gunpowder where he’d finally shot Jango down. He couldn’t even find the tree with its sliced-off branch, the one that had proved to him that these monsters and he could be something like crew after all—but that was proof he no longer needed.

His house was just past the thinning trees. He knew from Kaya’s letters that she’d been keeping an eye on it, but he almost couldn’t believe how pristine it looked, like he’d stepped out of it just that morning and was returning after a long day. He deliberated at the doorway, but the old path lay before him, and his toes twitched to run in his boots, so he indulged. With a promise to return, he ran, choosing not to yell something about pirates, though for once it would hardly be a lie. Up to the crest of the hill as he’d gone so many mornings, where the sun broke itself for the dawn, forward until beneath him lay the village proper—

It was in ruins.

The shock barely registered at first. His legs seemed to realize before he did, and they slowed him to a stagger as he tried vainly to take it all in. The town was on fire, covered in smoke as far as the eye could see. The snatches of roof and wall he could make out in the acrid billows were smeared with soot and grime. Somehow, he stumbled upon the familiar pub; it smelled only of char now, its wooden sign lying forlornly on the ground by its door. It was hard to pick the sign up with fingers that felt all of a sudden boneless, but he dusted off ashes from the simple letters: M-E-S, and half of an H.

How could this have happened? He’d just heard from Kaya a few days ago—she’d sounded so pleased that they were coming. If they’d come just a little faster, gotten here a few days sooner, could they have stopped all this?

“Ev… everyone,” he whispered hoarsely, turning in place. The next stretch of path called him on with new urgency, so he dropped the sign and bolted for the mansion, calling for the villagers by names he’d never forgotten, for the former Usopp Pirate Crew, who should’ve defended the village even if they’d split up, for Kaya, for anyone who was still alive…

If he hadn’t quite believed what he’d seen in the village, then the sight waiting for him at the end of the road proved everything. The mansion was a tragic picture, majestic iron-wrought gates hanging from their hinges, glass from smashed-in windows lying scattered about the grounds. The garden that Kaya had taken so much pride in was stripped bare, her old watering can lying empty on its side.

“Kaya,” he called again, desperately scanning the area for any sign of life, “no…”

Strangely, the north wing of the mansion remained largely unmarred. That was where Kaya’s room had been. Usopp hurried over, something painful threatening to blossom in his chest. He had always been a coward, but he was more afraid to hope at this instant than he had ever been afraid of anything in his life. As he walked up to the familiar tree, brushed a hand over its trunk worn smooth, there came a soft gasp from behind him. Usopp spun around, Kabuto at the ready, quick fingers already fitting a pellet to its slingshot, only to come face to face with Kaya.

She was still beautiful, of course, even with her hair in disarray, dark soot covering her cheeks and lashes. She stood in the doorway of her ruined house and gazed at him with disbelieving eyes. “Usopp…” she murmured. “Is it really you?”

“Kaya!” Relief burst out of him in two short syllables. “Kaya, are you hurt? Where is everyone? What… what happened here?”

“Usopp, it’s… it’s terrible!” Kaya’s voice hitched, and she looked away. Slowly, familiar faces were filing out from the mansion behind her. He could make out Piman, Ninjin, and Tamanegi amidst the crowd, each as tall as his shoulder, even hunched over in grief.

“Everyone,” Usopp cried, looking between the tattered and beaten forms, “how could this have happened? Who did this to you?”

“It’s terrible, Usopp,” Kaya repeated, shaking her head. “Terrible.” Slowly, the other villagers picked up the whisper.

“It was terrible,” agreed old Meeka from the convenience store, who used to chase him down with her broomstick every morning. She was clutching it now for dear life. “A pirate attack, so vicious. If only you’d been here to warn us, huh?” she added, and rattled off a coughing laugh.

As if her words had broken the dam, everyone started speaking at once. Pirates had landed that morning, ransacked the village, taken everything they wanted and destroyed everything else. It had all happened so fast, and there’d been no time to do anything but run.

The story left Usopp breathless, unsure if he was closer to tears or rage. But he had to be strong for his village; the only thing that was important now was their well-being. One by one, the villagers fell silent, watching the stoic way he handled his anguish with something like awe.

Kaya took a hesitant step forward, reaching out for him. “Um, Usopp? Everything we said just now…” she began, but Usopp cut her off with a low, pained sound. There was a hardness to his voice that he didn’t think Kaya’d ever heard before, a lasting inheritance from Zoro perhaps, as his fingers tightened around Kabuto’s hilt.

“Don’t worry, Kaya, everyone. I’ll get those pirates back for you, make sure no one ever dares to come here and hurt you again. And after that, we’ll help you rebuild this town, me and my crew. You just wait, everything’s going to be fine.”

“S-so cool, Captain Usopp,” Tamanegi whispered, and was shushed to silence by Piman’s elbow to his ribs, though it looked like the other boys agreed.

Kaya smiled around the trails of soot on her face, put a hand to her eye like she thought she might find a tear. “You’ve grown so much, Usopp,” she whispered quietly, and the expression she gave him was proud and warm.

“I’ll make this right,” he promised again.

“I know,” Kaya said, “and I’m so grateful. But Usopp, there’s something you have to know. You see, everything that I said…”

It was the signal. “Everything that we said,” chorused the boys, and all the villagers, and Meeka with her broom. The same grin was slowly spreading across all of their faces, and with slow horror, Usopp realized that it was one he had seen before, on his own expression, in his own shadow after a morning run, as he dripped sweat into the dirt.

“No way,” he denied, mouth dropping open, but apparently it was—

“…IT WAS ALL A LIE!!!”

The town erupted into laughter as Usopp, for the first time in his life, found himself stunned completely speechless.

“How was that, Captain?” asked Ninjin excitedly. “Pretty good, huh?”

“Welcome home!” said Tamanegi, as Piman added, “Any other kind of welcome wouldn’t be right, would it? Not for the great Captain Usopp!”

Someone doused the flames, and as the smoke died down to give him a clear view of the village, he realized that all the buildings were intact, victim to nothing but gray paint and a layer of ashes.

“But… but the mansion,” Usopp protested, gesturing around him.

“After everything that happened with Kurahadol, we moved our home across to the other hill,” Kaya explained between tiny, refined giggles. Usopp followed the direction of her gesture, and could barely make out a little brick on the horizon that might have been a beautiful mansion set in a luscious garden. “We left the old house here, though, and when you told us you were coming back, we thought we’d surprise you the way you used to surprise us. We haven’t forgotten you, Usopp, not at all.”

In the aftershock of his adrenaline, Usopp felt light and giddy. The village was fine. Kaya was fine. They didn’t understand what a terrible thing this was to do to someone who’d spent his last few years on the Grand Line, where things like this happened, and you could never be sure you’d be able to protect your loved ones no matter how strong you thought you were. But maybe it was good they didn’t understand, that they could joke about tragedy so easily, and maybe he would tell them lies for stories after all, because they didn’t need to know how much danger he really faced out there, every day. It would only make them worry.

For a long while, Usopp was quiet, as he studied everyone fondly, remembering the little details that he’d left behind with the familiar coastline and his mother’s house. They were starting to look nervous, like they were worried that the jokester might be angry at finally having fallen into a joke of his own, so he let the smile come to his face, broad and fond and genuine.

“I can’t believe you’re all safe,” he said weakly, shaking his head. “I really can’t believe it.”

“After Kurahadol left, no one’s dared to attack us. He must have spread the word of the fierce Captain Usopp that he’d faced here,” Kaya explained, producing a lace handkerchief, which she dabbed at her face. “And those other brave crew of yours too,” she tacked on as an afterthought. “Are they here as well?”

“Yeah, they’re not far behind, maybe a few hours.” Usopp took the handkerchief from her gently, and wiped a spot from her chin that she’d missed. An idea was slowly coming to him, and he had to concentrate to keep his hand steady as he broke into laughter himself.

“Hey, we still have some more paint left, right?” he asked of the villagers he’d been away from for years and yet never left at all. “What about that smoke, can we put it back on?”

This was the home of the great Captain Usopp, after all. You couldn’t get away with just a normal welcome here.