"Non auro, sed ferro, recuperanda est patria"
(Not gold, but iron, redeems the native land)
- Marcus Furius Camillus
Nami doesn't even notice it at first. She's got better things to worry about, like how fast and how far she can run before the tightness in her chest gets the best of her, or the worth of that strange but precious weight rattling against her hip. The bullet had barely grazed her shoulder, after all, and she's more afraid of the consequences of potential failure than any number of shots this crackpot jeweler could fire.
She grips at the satchel with bruised knuckles, the clang of its contents roiling in slow motion against the quick hiss of the wind and the roar of the poor sucker chasing after her with his clunky old pistol. She clings to it, knowing the truth of it to be her salvation more than any siphons from her veins could do. Her legs cramp and jerk as she runs, sweat stinging in her eyes and beading between her lips.
She manages to lose him 'round the bend of an alley close to the border between Gosa and Cocoyashi, tearing open the bag on her first foot crossing the way, in the enclave behind Nene's Sweet Shoppe. The jeweler's hollering still rings out in her ears but she knows by now that she's too far gone for him to catch. Red gathers on the cobblestone beneath her in dots and dashes―the wound is deeper than she'd thought―and at first in that moment she can fathom nothing else; only the sacrifices and the terrors. Only the giving up.
But that's when she sees it. Really sees it. The bag half-spilled against the pavement: the spark of diamonds and the tangles of pearls, whole fistfulls of precious gems in all colors, and...oh.
Her breath catches in her throat at the unmistakable sunlight-glint, buried underneath the rest of her loot. She reaches out a hand to trace over the small, ornate brooch tangled between two copper-ruby bangles. There's an unsightly rust-colored stain on the edge of the clasp, but it doesn't even reach her through the euphoria.
There's blood―but also, there's gold.
She enters through the outer gates of Arlong Park in a sure step, her pride cradled in her unwounded arm. The sun isn't high enough to be much of a bother, yet, but it's still too far past dawn to risk a direct entrance into the main yard. Ducking around to the side of the secondary fencing, she circles around the back of the tower with the same featherlight footing that dared her to undertake this challenge in the first place. The uneven ebb of twilight casts enough shade for her to slip past the drowsy crewmembers, and for a few brief moments Nami thinks she's actually managed to beat out the final stretch undetected.
Unfortunately, Lady Luck has never much favored thieves.
"Well I'll be damned, the little bitch really pulled it off." Someone barks out a laugh from behind her. "C'mere, girl. Lemme see yer haul!" Startled, she spins just in time for the two broad-shouldered fishmen to step close enough to drench her in their shadows. One of them crouches down to look her in the eye, left hand prodding insistently at her satchel. Feet rooted in the dirt below, she keeps a firm grip on the bag's edge even as he prys it open and shifts curiously through its contents.
"Impressed by a few diamonds, Take?" The other one quips, like she isn't standing right there. "That's nothing. I've seen whores worth more'n that."
Nami glares at him. It's not much, but it isn't nothing. "Where's Arlong?" She asks them, but it comes out in someone else's voice. The green one with the curly hair—Shioyaki, she remembers—cocks his brow at her, but doesn't respond.
"Aw, c'mon now. You just got back! Take a seat, relax." His partner leers, folding upwards to his full height. "Cap'n don't gotta know."
"Leave me alone." She snaps back, acutely aware of the way his eyes trail over her skin, the jut of her collarbone and the roundness of her shoulders. They won't listen, of course; she's not stupid. But she's eight, and she's scared, and with only her wits about her there's little else she can do.
"Oh-ho! The little cunt thinks she's too good for us, is that it?"
"I guess she's only Arlong's whore. Boss ain't like to share his things." Shioyaki snorts. They both burst out laughing, and she feels herself flush with anger. They can't do this, they can't treat her like she's nothing. Because—because she's not nothing. They took her in (took her prisoner) for a reason.
And she won't let them cheapen her victory.
"Three hundred." He tells her.
"Huh?" Nami looks up from her feet, tugging at the bandage she'd pulled across her wounded arm. Arlong, in some small show of mercy, had tossed her a whole roll of the stuff from when she'd first presented him with the jewelry upon her arrival. You're too smart to let yourself take a hit like that, kid, he'd said. But that's—
"I'll put down three hundred beli." He clarifies, reclining back in his seat. "…And that's being generous."
That's not fair, she doesn't say, because her stomach is lodged in the pit of her throat and she's too much of a coward to swallow it down. Three hundred might as well be Nothing with a capital N, and she can tell by the look on his face that he knows exactly what he's doing, short-changing her like this. Thinking he can make her play the fool.
"Well then, that just leaves ninety nine million an' seven hundred to go, eh?" Arlong grins, and she is once again blindsided by the sheer number of teeth he keeps in his mouth (staring her down like so many eyes themselves).
This is the value of her dignity at play, though, and she won't give him an inch of her anger or her injury to gloat on. Still, is her life so cheap that it lends nothing to the worth of gold? That's what she wants to ask him, in so many words. But his canines are still showing, and she's not stupid, so she keeps her silence instead.
"Tell me, Nami. How long has it been since you joined us?"
Oh. He wants her to talk, now. "Two months." She tells him, like she hasn't been counting through the hours. And I want to go home.
(But this is―)
"Two months." He parrots back, reclining in his seat. "But you've only now begun to work off your debt to me. Why is that, Nami?"
Your debt, he says. But Nami doesn't owe him shit.
"I don't know," She responds stiffly, tensing with the recollection. "…because you said I couldn't leave, before. That I had to earn your trust." A pause. "I don't know." She repeats, and feels stupider than before.
(She's not stupid, though. She knows that much, at least.)
To his credit, it looks like Arlong's actually considering her answer with some skepticism. She doesn't think much of it; he's probably still paranoid about where her loyalties lie. I don't know, the room echoes. True as it may be, he doesn't buy it for a second.
Unsettled by the pervasive stillness, she chances to make her exit before he thinks to respond in kind—
—But Lady Luck is just as cruel to the honest, it seems.
He grabs her by the strap of her dress before she can reach the door. She half-expects him to throw out some cheap radio drama one-liner like "Leaving so soon?", or maybe just to kill her where she stands, but he doesn't. He doesn't do anything at all, and the disquiet continues.
"I have to…please…" Nami tries to shake him off, but he is stronger than her (and she, weaker than him). His palm is slimy-cold on her bare shoulder; outside the sun burrows into a fat cloud—pyrocumulous; something is burning in Gosa to the west—and she can feel it when she lets go, slips into the safety of her memory where his fear-mongering can't find her.
– havetomeasurethewaterlikethissoit'snot –
– don'tdrowntheseedseventhirstythingscandrownyouknow –
– bepatientitcan'tgrowwhenyou'rewatchingitonlyhappenswhenyousleep –
Oh, but she hates the way he says her name. It feels like he's spitting on Bell-mére's grave.
"If you like staring at clouds so much, I've got some books upstairs that might be of interest." He's all mock-kindness and derision, closing his grip in a sieve around her forearm. "Come with me; I'll show you."
It's a trap, she knows, but she won't fight him.
(She wants to live.)
"Pay attention." He tells her, leaning over the edge of the desk. "This map here's been buried in our archives for years now, but neither of our navigation specialists have been able to make heads or tails of it. Rumor says it's a—"
She's been dozing off into her pot of ink, fingers slipping around the base of the quill, and it's only a sudden pain at the back of her head that shakes her from the fugue. She curses out loud; Arlong comes away from her shoulder with a big fistful of her hair in his hand, and when she looks up at him with watery eyes he just gestures impatiently back to the logbook pressed open in front of her.
The damn thing is quite literally falling apart at the seams, the pages in-between filled with the indecipherable cartographic observations of some long dead mariner. He wants her to parse it, to map it out into something readable with a clear beginning and a bountiful X at the end. But she's no magician or miracle worker, and the thing's so messy and seaworn that she can barely make out a clear path at all.
He slips his other hand back into her hair, tugging sharply, and hisses in her ear: "Stay awake, brat. You prove yourself useless and I won't think twice about offing every single fucking freeloader in this shithole town."
She might have said something in return, but Nami's not much in the habit of listening to herself talk nowadays—just bows her head and cuts the ink with the quill's edge. Black slashes on paper, gathering from dots and dashes into planes of land, flagging a stab in the dark for every crudely-drawn marker she can't untangle.
His nails cut into her neck. It's senseless violence (she's not even disobeying) but it's easier to ignore than to contest. Nami wonders why he's still here in the first place; surely watching her work can't be half as interesting as whatever it is that pirates do in their free time. She figures that it's got something to do with letting her leave the compound unsupervised for the first time, making sure she doesn't mistake his generosity for freedom. It seems petty, when she looks at it that way, but she knows better than to question him. If he needs to lord over her a little to assuage his own ego, then so be it.
But next time, she vows. Next time, he'll have no hand in her winnings until the time is right. She thinks of the dry, empty soil below the mikan grove, and of the pawn shop two towns over that carries big sums and doesn't ask questions. I will wait, she thinks. I will wait until his back is turned, and he will keep to his pride and leave this place and Cocoyashi will be free and I will be free.
Next time. Next time.
"Stop slacking." He snaps. The hand on her neck (in her hair) squeezes at her skull, pressure forcing her head higher like a poorly-strung marionette. "I'm not a patient man, Nami. You know the repercussions of failure. If you break, your life is of no worth to me."
There it is again. That word. She's not even shaking from the threat, but in her numbness she puts a name to his meaning, and remembers that there are things far worse than death that wait for her now. "I understand, Arlong." Her mouth is making shapes and words but she's still not the one who's talking. Nothing belongs to her anymore, not even the sound of her own voice. "'M sorry."
Abruptly, he pulls his hand away so that her head, now cut from its strings, slams against the table with a thunk. She bites her tongue, shakes off the dizziness, and keeps sketching. It feels like her arm is going to fall off. She can feel him watching her back, waiting for her to fuck up, for an excuse to take his anger out on her again. She won't let him, though. There are two options here: perfection, or something else. And Nami's not stupid—she knows the choice that she'll make.
It's the only way, but…
But. Next time.
There are only so many sacrifices a girl can make.
He wasn't actually lying about the books. There were a lot of them, and Nami had taken as many as she could carry and then some. But after all those hours spent locked in that heatbox of a room with neither food nor water, and still no hope of either one 'til morning, she is far too exhausted for study.
"Oi!" She hears a familiar voice from over her shoulder. "Oi, Nami!"
He's beside her in an instant, jovial as always, and it takes a herculean effort not to level him with a scowl. "Hello, Hatchan."
"Just Hachi, remember?" He reminds her. It's like he thinks they're friends or something. "Need some help with those?" He asks, eyeing the large stack of books balanced precariously in her arms.
Huffing indignantly, Nami hoists the tower up against her shoulder. "No, thank you." She makes haste to turn away, hoping to avoid further conversation, but momentum gets the best of her and she's sprawled out on the floor in six seconds flat. She blinks through the pain, and the cracks in the ceiling seem to crumple above her.
"Whoa!" Hatchan dips as if to catch her, only it's a few beats too late and mostly just makes him look stupid. He crouches down beside her, plain-faced with worry, but his looming shadow makes her heart stop beating a little bit. She holds her breath, or maybe she just forgets how to breath.
"Be more careful next time, jeez. There're way too many of these things for just one tiny set of hands to carry." He picks up the scattered books with two pairs of arms and an infuriating ease, extending another towards her. Observing her face with a furrowed brow, he presses, "Are you feeling okay?"
His prodding makes her lungs kick back into motion, and the air tastes disgusting. "'M fine." She mumbles, pointedly refusing the hand he offers as she staggers to her feet. "Thanks."
"Are you sure? You seem kinda, uh…"
"I said, I'm fine." She bites. Then, feeling guilty for snapping, she adds: "I'm just a little tired."
"Oh." He frowns. "Okay."
The two walk in silence for a while, Hatchan trailing a few feet behind and humming quietly to himself. Her head throbs from where she'd cracked it against the desk, her bruised wrists feel like they're hauling iron chains behind them, and she can barely keep upright with all the vertigo whirling in her veins.
"So..." He pipes up again, apparently not catching onto her bad mood, "Did Arlong give you these?"
She nods mutely, willing him to follow her lead and shut up.
Predictably, he doesn't take the hint. "Oh! Well, that was pretty nice of him. See, he's not a bad guy, really." Hatchan lowers his voice a little, shifting the heaviest tome into his lower arms. "He's just a little…intense, sometimes. But not bad, y'know?"
"I know." Nami hears herself say.
Hatchan nods emphatically at her lackluster response. "I've known him for a really long time. He was a little less of a jerk way back when―between you and me, I feel like this whole Conomi takeover stint is going a little too far, but…Arlong knows what he's doing, I guess. 'S why he's the captain."
Why he thinks it's okay to be having this discussion with her, she'll never understand. But humoring him is better than facing up to whatever consequences might arise from the alternative, so she plays along.
"We actually used to be a part of another crew together," He points to the tattoo on his forehead "only it was way bigger, and our captain was, well. Whatever. A lot of stuff happened, and it was pretty rough on all of us, but I kinda think he's still blaming the wrong people for what went down…" He trails off, shaking his head. "I mean, for a human, you seem really nice!"
I don't care. Leave me alone.
"Anyway, it's a long story. I probably shouldn't be talking to you 'bout this stuff at all, come to think of it. Arlong would…well, don't worry about it. I won't tell if you won't, 'kay?" He smiles down at her.
And Nami smiles back, matching his expression like she's on the inside of whatever joke he just tried to sell her. Hatchan means well, really, but that's the problem. Somehow it's even worse than the outright malice of his crewmates; he doesn't realize he's the enemy. Hell, he doesn't even realize they're at war.
She wants to hit him, wants to scream and cry and tear his godforsaken kindness to shreds until everything makes sense again, until he gives her life back, her village back, her mother back from the dead. Instead, she is silent and still at his side as he stacks the books on her desk in neat little piles and grins at her like he's just done her a favor. He even wishes her a good evening on his way out.
Nami wonders what he would think, if someone told him the truth.
She's not so sure she wants to know the answer.
The sun's barely set, Nami observes passively. It's weird, like she started off the morning with all the time in the world and spilled it with her blood somewhere along the way and—well, the rest of those hours were an ugly memory before she even felt them die.
It's been a long day, she thinks, not really meaning it. It's the kind of thought that people only think because they're supposed to, a catchphrase queued into the ache in her bones and weight on her back. Worthless, like all words are.
At the edge of the window, the last of the sunlight bursts and settles in dust. Like clockwork, the dark becomes her second skin, and she settles for it because it hides her true colors, and with the mirror blackened she no longer has to look herself in the eye. It's a bitter way to open the night, but she drills at it, burrowing for any means of stretching the span between this moment and the day to come. And sure enough, her last waking thought is almost a dread of morning, but she is brutal and quick and she quashes it before it can anchor—
It's the only way. It's the only way.
—for fear is a luxury that she can no longer afford.