theremedy: (Vivi)
[personal profile] theremedy
Chapter Eighteen


Present:

Goodness knows...

Vivi clutched the handles the basket in her lap as the driver pulled up to the concrete awning of the care center. A soft snow had begun to fall, adding to the gray and white of the morning. The flakes had lost their magic now, piling on dirty mounds of snow that had been kicked up by the plow. What wasn’t falling onto the brown and white of its fellows melted into the ugly black of the asphalt, only a few white smudges cresting valiantly here and there before eventually succumbing to the reality.
Karoo shifted in the basket, a spear of his claw poking through the bottom and against her leg, a small sharp sunburst of pain. He shifted again, seeming to make a ‘kweh’ of apology and she shook her head, though the lid closed as it was, the duck could not see it. Instead she lifted the basket to her chest and hugged it as she stared at the glass entrance doors of the facility, a weary construction paper Santa Claus with an arm lifted in an eternal wave, taped to the glass. It was because one of the patients had a family with two small children, Conis had told her once. It cheered the place up. The center needed all the cheer it could get.

The driver got out, letting in a cold swirl of air and Vivi settled the basket back on her lap, lowering her eyes, composing herself, praying that none of the others would show up this day that shouldn’t. By the time the driver got to her door and opened it, Vivi had a smile for him. She couldn’t help it in his case. He was friendly the two days he’d driven her and—well she frankly wondered if he was somehow related to Usopp.

“Ma’am,” he said, holding out a white-gloved hand to help her out.

“Thank you,” she said, taking that hand, though he had come close to the curb and there was nothing to step over. He released her courteously as soon as she straightened. “Two hours, yes?” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, touching his hat, stark black against his orange red hair. “Try not to get too sad in there, you hear? Keep your chin up.”

“Yes, thank you. I’ll try,” Vivi said with a warmer smile. It was a kind sentiment, if bordering on the edge of cruel but he had too simple an expression to mean it. Perhaps he was just a good natured man. Or maybe he was just new. In either case, she shook her head and turned toward the entrance, the faux fur lining of her collar brushing warm against her neck. She straightened her shoulders, nodded, and walked in. Conis was behind the desk again. The young girl always seemed to be there despite the growing shadows under her eyes. She seemed distressed but smiled brightly when Vivi came in. It was the smile of someone holding it all in and Vivi well knew it but she wouldn’t worry about it now. She couldn’t.

“Good morning, Miss Vivi,” Conis said, pushing the clipboard over. “Did you bring your breakfast today?”

“Mm.” Vivi pulled the clipboard closer to herself, scanning the names. Sanji had checked in last night… but checked out as well. Good. And there was no one else to worry about, at least not yet. She signed her name with a flourish and handed the clipboard back. “That’s alright isn’t it?”

“Of course,” Conis said. “Would you like me to bring you anything? Cups, paper plates?”

“No thank you I have everything I need.”

Conis nodded with a smile and turned back to her computer. Vivi let out a slow breath as she went down the long hall. As she passed a room with the door crocked half open she saw a frail old man, gently patting the hand of a frailer old woman who lay in the bed. Vivi turned her head away from that tragic scene to the brightly colored letters on Luffy’s door.

She pushed in and closed the door softly behind her, leaning against it as she always did to just—look at him. He looked more like a doll. A wax figure. His hands resting at his sides where they have been placed. Smooth now, but she remembered when they were calloused and strong. When his arms were strong. When his face was full and his grin was fierce and his voice echoed through the room, filling the room thrilling her heart and giving her the courage to keep on going. She remembered him scratched and broken but happy. So happy. And now…

She swallowed and pushed from the door.

That boy was dead. That fire had died. The furnace had cooled to embers. She had heard, though that people in comas could still hear. Could still feel. Maybe it was true and maybe it wasn’t. But if there was any part of him left that was slowly slipping away, Vivi wouldn’t dare him be lonely when she was there.

“Good morning, Luffy,” she said quietly, leaning down to press a kiss to his forehead. “I brought you a friend today.” She opened the basket and tilted it so Karoo could get out easily. It wasn’t his first time seeing Luffy like this but still as he came to stand on the bed, his head bowed and his feathers ruffled, one wing moving to cover his eyes as if to hide tears. Vivi turned away to set the basket to the side and moved to open the curtains, to gray light and dirty snow.

“Well it’s a cheerful day. The sky is blue and the snow is white. Oh, some kids are building a snowman out there.” She smiled faintly, crossing her fingers over her belly. “You should see it, Luffy. It’s absolutely wonderful. They’re having a snowball fight…” A gust of wind shook fine granules of snow off the heavy pine tree. A truck powered by, belching black smoke into the smudged air. “It’s beautiful.”

She dropped her gaze and looked instead at the garland on the window, held up with ugly staples. The tree still in its box. A room half finished. She looked at the pictures, too, habitually and there were a few that stirred fond nostalgia but most of them were a world without her. Lived without her. She didn’t resent it. How could she? She’d made her choice and didn’t regret it but…at the same time… Well no use dwelling on it now.

Vivi sat beside Luffy’s bedside, watching absently as Karoo navigated upward carefully, mindful of his sharp claws, to ruffle his beak in Luffy’s hair before settling down on the pillow.

“Good duck,” she murmured.

“Kweh,” he said, with a half salute of a wing and Vivi smiled. Time always passed so slowly here, though and soon she was restless, fidgety. It was shameful, really. She should be as attentive as Sanji or even watch movies with him as Nami sometimes did. But Vivi had never been much of a movie person and TV news always served to make her anxious at the blatant disregard to the truth. With a reluctant sigh chewed her bottom lip and took out her cell phone, checking her e-mail. One from Koza with a simple message about meeting with the Peruvian Water Conservation Bureau along with a picture of him in front of a pristine river.

Vivi smiled and then rubbed lightly at her forehead. Somehow or another they would have to move the headquarters down there, splitting the company between the two countries with as little job loss as possible. It was tricky business and would certainly eat into their charitable fund but Koza believed that they owed it to Peru and their people still remaining, to help stimulate the economy as much as they could. Vivi agreed but the process was such a headache. Thank heaven for Igaram who had taken most of it on his shoulders, working closely with Father. While their baby would be born here so that he or she would have dual citizenship, should the need arise and then off they both would go to join Koza and work from there. At least Terracotta would be pleased to help raise another generation of Alabastan royalty, as they would always be in her eyes, the dear old woman.

There was a knock at the door and Vivi startled as it began to open. There was no time to cover Karoo, who, in any case, had fallen asleep. Perhaps Conis could see past— But it wasn’t the blond young woman who entered, but a pink haired young man in a policeman’s dress uniform who looked at her sheepishly before closing the door behind him.

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Coby,” she said, tucking her phone away. “What’s the occasion?”

“Huh? What? Oh…” he rubbed the back of his head and smiled. “I’m getting some kind of medal later on in the day. Figured I’d dress for it now since I won’t have time before I get off the plane.”

“Thank you for coming all this way, then…”

“I was in the area…” He shook his head and took off his hat, running it between his hands. He was…distracted. Vivi let him have a moment, watching him stare at Luffy. She wondered how Coby remembered him. What was missing. What memories spun through his mind as he watched Luffy lying there.

“Wow…” Coby sat, gripping his knees. “It’s so weird to see him like this. He doesn’t look like the same person at all. Doesn’t even feel like it.”

“Feel like it?” Vivi asked. He raised his head, pink tinging his cheeks to match his hair.

“Well, you know some people give off a vibe.” He rubbed his neck again. “It sounds pretty new agey, I guess. It’s not really serious. But…he’s just…like he’s…you know…” Coby gestured vaguely.

“Calm?” Vivi said.

“Waiting,” Coby said. A chill went up Vivi’s spine at that. Those… Those were dangerous words. She couldn’t allow them to linger. To take root. She refused. She moved to take Luffy’s soft hand in hers, reminding herself to be gentle.

“I’m afraid he’s not waiting, but dying. There is no happily ever after.” She smiled faintly and squeezed Luffy’s hand, faintly hoping for a flutter of a reaction, for him to squeeze back, for him to shift and open his eyes and wonder how many meals he’d missed. But he lay there like he always did. Like he had been doing.

“Yeah I know it’s pretty impossible,” Coby said. “I’m sorry, Miss Nefertari, I’ve been functioning on three hours of sleep so I’m kind of loopy.”

“Of course,” Vivi said. She let go of Luffy’s hand and tucked it back against his side. “Now, Mr. Coby…are you certain of what it is I’ve called you for?”

His face closed a bit and then opened and he sighed, dropping his head and clutching his knees before raising himself again and folding his arms.

“You told me that Nico Robin may be hunting for a Devil’s Seed.”

“Yes.”

“Of course you know if it’s true and she finds one, I’m legally obligated to confiscate it.”

“I’m aware.”

“And arrest her on the spot for trafficking of hazardous materials.”

That part she had not heard. Vivi looked into Coby’s face. He seemed so young to be an officer, but he was dedicated and, moreover, a close friend of Luffy’s in a certain way. She wasn’t entirely sure how it managed to work out between the two of them, but…

“Right on the spot,” Vivi said. Coby nodded.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You couldn’t…wait until after Christmas?” But even as she spoke she knew he couldn’t.

“The law is the law, Miss Nefertari. It’s possible they’d let her out on bail but she’s been wanted for a very long time. I don’t think they’d let her get the chance to escape.”

“Yes…yes of course…” Vivi sat back and chewed on her inner lip. She didn’t… Of course her and Robin had their…disagreements. It was only natural given what had transpired. She was a good woman, if cold and mysterious and irritating and largely inappropriate— Vivi didn’t want her arrested. Knew that someone— like her would—have a very difficult time indeed— and she was Luffy’s nakama. His trusted friend. Acting out of the deepest love for him.

“Out of curiosity…” Coby said, hesitated, then plowed on. “No offense, I know your record is clean but his…isn’t exactly and it’s—well he’s kind of proud of that. So— why is this so important?”

“Why indeed,” Vivi murmured to buy herself some time. She had already made the decision to call him here, but it wasn’t too late, was it? She could say she was just suspicious. That she had heard rumors and just wanted to make sure that the woman was clean so that she would be there at Luffy’s bedside when it counted. She could turn Coby away, and she could see in his face that he was somewhat warring with the idea. Serving justice, not hurting his friend. She could leave Robin to her methods and hope all worked for the better. The way that required many strings to be pulled,trust to be given, to hope beyond all hope that this dangerous, volatile substance was the remedy which they all had craved every day for five years. That was the easy way.

The hard way meant that to spare Luffy the possibility of excruciating pain, or madness…or even if it worked. Even if it did and he awoke and everything was fine and he recovered… She reached out and stroked her fingers through his hair. He would never live a normal life. They had wanted that. They all had for him. That he should go to school as others did. Get a job that he might like. Live a life in the sunshine away from the brutality of the fights. To be happy as other people were, free of the threats of imprisonment or losing his life to a loser out for revenge. He would never have been the King of the World that way, if such a thing even existed, but he would have been King of their World. Their shining beacon. Their light. Their hope.

But a product of the Devil’s Seed was never at peace. Could never be. They did not belong to the world. What had once been a plant only for the most dire need, or relegated to those who would throw their lives in the line of fire to save those they guarded, it had been twisted, bastardized, used for sport, fair game for the government. No longer human and therefore no longer afforded the same rights and dignities. Chaka and Pell were only so free because they had diplomatic immunity but even that was a very thin line. Luffy would never lead a normal life that way. It was impossible. He would die young. He would die on the run. Violently. At least this way he could die in peace surrounded by those who loved him.

If it meant that Vivi was the bad guy in the end, so be it. If it meant that everyone hated her. That she was driven away… She would accept that fate with grace. She would even work to free Robin if it came to it. To pour her personal funds into getting the woman freed, though she doubted the outcome would be positive. She could start up a campaign for the rights of those so afflicted. She would do everything in her power to make sure that Robin would be treated as a mere criminal and not as a scientific study.

“Miss Nefertari” Coby said.

“She wants to use it on him,” Vivi said, looking up at Coby again. “Her intentions are pure. She believes it may bring him out of his coma, but it’s reckless and dangerous and I won’t allow it to happen.” She looked into Luffy’s face . As much as it pained her to do so. As much as he was different now than he used to be… He was still someone to be treasured. “He’s done too much good for too many,” she finished softly.

“I agree…” Coby said. He watched Luffy a little while longer, his shoulders slumping. Vivi couldn’t help but feel sorry for him and the difficult position she was putting in. She understood. But…

“But I also…We’re not friends, but he’s my friend...and I..” Coby trailed off, shook his head and stood, checking his watch and pulling his hat back on. Vivi half stood, mouth opening. Did that mean he wasn’t going to?

“Never mind. Look, I’ll talk to Commander Garp,” Coby continued. “Tell him what you said.”

“And if he agrees?” she lowered herself to sit, folding her hands in her lap and trying to look unconcerned. Coby nodded.

“I’ll do what I can.” He clicked his heels in an almost salute and nodded.

“Thank you, Mr. Coby,” Vivi said, returning with a deeper nod that was just this side of a polite bow. “Have a safe flight. And congratulations.”

He gave her a faint smile, glanced at Luffy and left Vivi to her silent vigil. She sighed, chasing away the lingering self doubt yet again. The hard way was full of those. Doubts. Roads not taken and wondering if only… But —no. A leader made decisions and stuck by them no matter what. She folded one leg over the other and went back to her phone, shifting through the concepts of the spring fashion line as she tried to ignore the pale statue on the bed. It was no use. She couldn’t focus. She shifted to look out at the pale gray day, listening to him breathing, Karoo’s snores and the faint shuffle of nurses moving up and down the hall, pushing trays on quiet wheels. Why was there so much silence in this place? It seemed disrespectful somehow— wrapping the afflicted further in their own cocoon. She inexplicably thought of the old man quietly missing his silent wife? Sister? Friend? And had the urge to call Koza, though it would likely just annoy him if he was busy. Vivi sighed and played Angry Birds until it was time to go.

She heard the footsteps in the hall as she was reaching over to gently shake Karoo awake. Not the nurses quiet soled sneakers, but slower just the same. She blinked, wondering if it was a visitor for Luffy as she ruffled Karoo’s feathers and the duck shifted, blinking at her blearily—yellow bright against the dull black of Luffy’s hair. The footsteps came closer, stopping at the door and Vivi lifted her head, blinking in surprise and straightening as Sanji came in, tugging his tie loose with two fingers.

He spotted her and stopped mid-tug, as if he was just as surprised as she was— Then straightened and coughed, pulling the tie back into place. Vivi folded her hands in front of her and smiled, wishing he didn’t have to think to do that, but knowing it was a part of him that would never change.

“Sorry, Miss Vivi. I didn’t realize you were here.”

“It’s nothing, Mr. Sanji,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m glad to see you.” In a manner of speaking. She wasn’t surprised that he’d somehow skimmed over her signature on the sign-in sheet. He looked a wreck. Though his clothes and hair were impeccable as always, his skin had a grey tired cast, his visible eye bloodshot and smudged with a black shadow. He looked thinner, too, though it was difficult to tell if that was her imagination or not. Perhaps he was just tired. They all were.

“Always glad to see a beauty like you, Miss Vivi,” Sanji said with a faint smile. Karoo kweh’d in greeting and Vivi’s own smile grew warmer as she watched the chef take the time to scratch under the duck’s chin where he liked it most.

“Hey, Karoo,” he murmured. “Anyway, sorry to look like hell. It was a long shitty shift last night. Some jackass got us overbooked and the health inspector dropped in for a surprise visit.” Sanji flipped back the blankets covering Luffy’s legs. Bone thin despite the effort Sanji put into it. “I swear that asshole is just trying to take us down because he thinks we ran his nephew’s place out of business. Like it’s our fault he sold shitty food.”

No wonder he was so tired. Though she doubted it was the only reason.

“That sounds horrible,” she said. Sanji blinked at her as if just remembering she was in the room. A sheepish smile instantly crossed his face as he rubbed the back of his neck.

“It wasn’t bad. Sorry for rambling at you. Haven’t had enough shitty coffee, I guess.”

“It’s alright, I really don’t mind…” she trailed off as she watched him pull a cigarette from the pack and light it. “Mr. Sanji…”

“Hmm?” he blinked at her, then jolted. “Ah, fuck. Shit.” He took the cigarette from his mouth and licked his thumb and forefinger, pinching it out. Vivi winced. “Sorry about that. I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me today.” He shifted an unsteady hand through his hair. Vivi kept the faint sympathetic smile on her face, making sure her shoulders were relaxed, her posture nonjudgmental and passive. Concern welled tight cords in her throat and she wanted to sit Sanji down and hug him. But they were not like that and perhaps they couldn’t be. He being how he was— there was always going to be a distance. Moreover, he would only feel anxiety about worrying her. But—she did know one person who could help. One person who could help more than anyone; and it was about time things were set to right.

“Well I have to get going,” she said after she felt an appropriate time had passed. She held the basket open for Karoo and he reluctantly entered back into it, giving Luffy’s still form one last look. “Tell me, Mr. Sanji, do you work tonight?”

“Ah, no but I was planning to go in…”

“Meet me in front of the Guilded Lily instead? Say about 6:30?”

“It would be a shitty pleasure,” he said wit a faint smile, though the tension around his eyes spoke of his reluctance. Such a gentleman. Vivi hesitated a moment before standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek and then closed the basket and left, waiting until she was outside and her scarf tugged around her neck before she made the phone call.

“Yes, Mrs. Vivi?” came Cindry’s monotone.

“Cancel my six o’clock with Mr. Boreson.”

“He won’t be happy.”

“He’ll live.”

“Yes, Mrs. Vivi.”

“Thank you.” Vivi pressed end and slipped the phone into her pocket. Boreson was a fairly big client and wouldn’t take the cancellation well, but she would find some excuse or the other to placate him. And if she couldn’t? Oh well. One lost client certainly wasn’t going to hurt and sometimes friends had to come first.



“We’re coming up on Syrup Tree lane, Mrs. Nefertari,” her driver said. “Would you like me to pull into the drive?”

“No thank you, please just stop in front.” Though it was just a sedan and not a limo, Vivi didn’t feel right in blocking their driveway for what was a personal call to their son… foster son, she supposed Usopp would prefer. She’d never been here before but looking up at the blue white house she couldn’t help but feel it was quite homey in the idyllic American dream sort of way. Perhaps they even had a dog.

The car eased to a stop and the driver courteously acted as he had before, opening the door and helping her out by the side of the road. Vivi brushed her pony tail behind her and set her shoulders. She didn’t expect this fight to be an easy one but she was going to fight it with all the diplomacy she had in her.

“When would you like me to come back?” the driver said, folding his hands behind him. That was a good question. She didn’t know when she would be done. It could take a few minutes or a few hours. But Usopp had a car and even if he persisted in being stubborn, the only way he would be able to get rid of her was to drive her to her destination himself.

“I think I’m good for the day Mr…” Goodness, she should have known his name long before this! Her cheeks colored a bit.

“Kaku, ma’am. Just Kaku.” He smiled kindly and tilted his hat.

“Mr. Kaku,” she said, reminding herself to give him a discreet yet sizable tip when all was said and done.

“Shall I wait until you’re in the house?”

“No thank you. I’ll be fine.” She really didn’t want to give Usopp an excuse to send her packing, and there were a few cars in the driveway, one of them is Usopp’s mint bug so she was reasonably certain he was home…or at least someone was. Vivi started down the shoveled, yet still slick driveway, taking her time until she heard the car drive off. She took a deep breath and got up a good stride, taking the two steps up the concrete stoop and pressing the doorbell, listening to the deep sonorous chimes ring through the house. After a moment the door opened and a serious looking man stood framed in it, peering down his long nose at her.

“Yes?” he said, adjusting his glasses with the heel of his hand. “Can I help you?”

“Is Usopp home?”

“Around the corner to the right and down the hill in the basement,” the man said brusquely and shut the door in her face. Vivi pressed her lips together. Now, really! What a way to be rude! Not only to her but to Usopp since she was his guest for all practical purposes! But right now, that wasn’t an issue, she reminded herself. To the right, was it? She sighed as she looked at the slushy white snow that was covering the lawn. Even if she went out and walked around the road, it was evident there was no way she was going to avoid trekking through the snow. She was not wearing the right shoes for this— but at least sneakers were better than heels.

As it happened she slid only once near the bottom, flailing with one arm and reflexively putting a hand over her stomach with the other. She knew how to fall to protect the baby, oddly enough. It was a skill that remained with her. The basement screen door, or at least what she assumed it was, was grey and dirty near the bottom from the mixture of mud and snow, churned up in a little footpath to the road, though it was evident that no one had used that path yet today. Vivi opened the screen door and knocked on the wooden door, careful to avoid the peeling paint.

“Pizza’s here,” came Usopp’s muffled voice. Vivi clasped her hands in front of her, smiling as the door swung open. She caught a glimpse of Usopp in nothing but a sleeveless shirt and 8 ball boxers before the door slammed shut again.

Why— That— She was getting very tired of this!

“Usopp!” she called and the door creaked open again a slice, admitting only his nose.

“Yeah uh…hold on a second. Wait right there.” He shut the door again and Vivi folded her arms. Well, really! At least inside she heard a bit of a scuffle. Something clattering to the ground.

“Who was that?” Chopper asked.

“Vivi. Put some pants on and help me clean up this mess!” Usopp said.

“What?!” Chopper yelped, followed by another crash. Vivi blew her bangs out of her eyes and rubbed her hands together, then cupped them to blow warm air over her palms and against her nose which was starting to sting from the cold. It was starting to seep into her sneakers, too, and she was about two seconds from pushing her way inside. She didn’t, though and eventually the door opened to present a much more dressed Usopp in a University of Michigan sweatshirt and jeans. He looked better than Sanji but as he stepped out of the way to let her in, it was all she could do not to step back. The basement smelled very much of beer, stale pizza, and…unwashed boy. It was dim, having no windows, not even a light on; the only source of light coming from a battered old tv where two fighters were frozen in the midst of a battle.

“Hi, Vivi,” Chopper said, stuffing himself into a shirt and looking more like a yeti than ever as the ends of his mustache twitched. “Have a seat.”

“Thank you.” She blinked in the dimness, trying to find somewhere to sit. There was a futon with a disarray of blankets as well as an air mattress and a chair covered with pizza boxes. Chopper yelped and made almost a comical lunge for them, clearing them off the chair and leaving a few crumbs behind. Vivi gingerly brushed off the crumbs and sat as Usopp turned on the light, making her eyes sting a bit. Usopp sat on the edge of the futon, resting his forearms on his knees, shoulders hunched as he slid his fingers together. He glanced at her and then glanced away, a muscle in his cheek working. Chopper stood by the inside door, looking flighty as he clenched and unclenched his large fingers around the pizza boxes. There was silence except for the occasional gush of the heater. Finally Chopper said:

“I’m going to take these upstairs.” And vanished through the door. Vivi listened to the rustle and faint clinking as she saw him take a trashbag that was sitting by the door up the narrow dark stairs to the small line of light of the other door at the top. Usopp made a huffing sound and crossed over, shutting the door and leaning against it for a moment, poking at the brassy knob with a forefinger.

“Guess you’re here about Sanji, huh,” he said, giving the doorknob a flick with his finger before sitting down again.

“Well…yes…”

“Of course you are,” Usopp muttered. “It’s the only time people stop by.”

“Usopp…” Maybe she should have stopped by before this. She’d been so busy she hadn’t considered… Nevertheless she wouldn’t let him derail this conversation. Usopp held up his hands.

“No, no. I get it. Mr. Tragedy can’t take care of himself has to be protected since God help him if he had an actual emotion.”

“Usopp, that’s not fair.”

“You’re telling me,” Usopp said, picking up the controller and starting to play. Vivi listened to the fight music and tried to quell the surging irritation. He didn’t sound like Usopp at all. Or, at least not the one she knew. Granted she hadn’t spent too much one-on-one time with him, circumstances being as they were. But it wasn’t— it was hard on everyone. Everyone was just trying to cope, him included.

Vivi sucked in a quiet breath and went to sit next to him, gingerly picking up the other controller, though she had really no idea what she was doing. Usopp grunted a soft noise and went back to the title screen, pushing the versus option and Vivi scrolled through the fighters until she found a woman that seemed themed around a jackal. Now that was an interesting idea. Some high concept fall fashions built around edginess and Halloween? It could be done. She filed that thought away for later, playing the round and seeing what all the buttons did, aware Usopp was going easy on her and letting her feel her way through. Eventually he just leaned back on his hands and watched her, his armadillo themed fighter bobbing in an endless duck and weave animation, only moving to react when she scored a hit.

“It’s not…” he cleared his throat, swallowed. “It’s not like it’s going to get any easier, you know? He’s going to be a bitch about things. And when…you know…when…” he gestured. “It happens… It’s just going to get worse. Not that— I mean— It’s not that this sort of thing hasn’t happened to me before. I’m kind of an expert at it, you know. Coping. But why did he have to blow up at me like that? He knew what I meant. He knew I would never— and he gets a free pass just because he works all the time?” Usopp said, voice raw as he jerked his thumb toward the door. “Because he chose to stay? No one said he had to. He’s killing himself every day just to make it all work out and make everyone comfortable but he has to blow up at me and then can’t even call or come stop by and see how I’m doing? How is that fair?”

“It’s not…” Vivi said quietly, her own throat constricting at the pain in his voice that he struggled to conceal. She wished she knew him as well as she knew Nami. She wished she knew how to, if not fix his wound, to put a bandaid on it at least. But she didn’t, but would plow through anyway come what may. “It’s not fair that you are shut out and hurt…”

“I’m not hurt exactly,” Usopp muttered. “I mean I can handle this thing no problem.”

“Just because you can handle hurt doesn’t mean it isn’t painful,” Vivi said. Usopp made a dismissive gesture and leaned forward, his forearms on his knees.

“I’m fine… It’s just…”

“I’m not finished,” Vivi said quietly. “I understand. I do. There’s so much not fair here.” For a while… For her just in those few weeks she was with them, she thought she could have it all, she could taste the wild freedom that Luffy brought with him. The rampant beautiful chaos and she’d almost embraced it and flown away. But she couldn’t leave her responsibilities behind. How much more disappointing for Usopp who had been with him longer? For all that to be lost. Though it was their decision, in a sense, that had triggered the current state of affairs. In a twisted cold way it almost felt like justice. No good movie ended with the pirates winning or the criminals getting away. There were always jail houses or hangman’s nooses or cold reality. But what was done was done and she pressed on.

“But Sanji needs you there. With Mr. Roronoa gone…”

“Zoro’s gone?”

“Well he’s staying with Ni… Miss Robin, Nami said.”

“Robin’s here?” Usopp ran a hand through his hair, making it spring up in coils. “Man, I am out of the loop.”

“I think he’s lonely,” Vivi said before Usopp could run away with the conversation. “It’s not fair for you to have to make the first step…and yes the inevitable will happen…” She put down the controller and put a tentative hand on his shoulder which had gone tense. “Yes it will be hard. And maybe right now, Sanji only has the capacity to be who he is and no more. You can handle this, you said, you’re strong.” She squeezed his shoulder. “You can be the one to catch him.”

“And what if he doesn’t want me around?” Usopp muttered, picking at his nails. Vivi smiled faintly.

“I think you know him better than that,” she said, letting her hand drop. Usopp said nothing, but he didn’t have to. She already knew she’d succeeded.



The night was still and cold by the time 6:30 rolled around and Chopper, looking like a hunched over gorilla at the wheel of the bug, parked beside the curb. But there was something in the air that made the white lights decorating the window of the Guilded Lily seem invigorating, cheerful. Vivi sensed the rush of a change, seeming to come from the core of her and she rubbed her belly.
$
Sanji was waiting by the corner of the restaurant, in the pooled light of a street lamp, smoking and wearing a sprig of holly in his lapel that she could see from here. It was such a good effect that it was a pity it wouldn’t work like he intended.

“There are a million reasons why I don’t want to do this,” Usopp whimpered from the back seat and she felt him thump his head against the back of her seat.

“I know,” she said. “But you will.”

“Yeah, I will, I will. Gotta make the timing just right,” he muttered. The seat shifted a little and out of the corner of her eye she could see the barest hint of his profile resting on her seat, and the long prow of his nose which she flicked playfully.

“Oi,” he said and she giggled. After a while, he sighed and said: “Yosh.”

“Want us to wait for you?” Chopper asked as he opened the door, letting in a swirl of sharp cold air that send goose prickles up her neck. She hunched her coat further up, closing it over her belly.

“Nah, I’m good. See you at the house.” And he shut the door. Even then he waited by the car a moment, leaning against it, his hands in his pockets. Vivi bit her lip, hoping he would go, urging this to go well. Then he pushed away and started for Sanji. She pushed the window button, wincing at the whirring sound as it opened a crack. Usopp must have heard it because he shook his head, but didn’t stop walking.

“Yo, loser,” he said. Sanji straightened, his eye going wide in shock and then glowering at him before slipping back into something like tired anger, his body slouching and shifting into ‘oh it’s just a guy’ pose.

“I’m waiting for someone important, shithead,” Sanji said.

“Yeah, aren’t you always,” Usopp said, shifting back and jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “Vivi’s in the car.”

Sanji looked past him at her and Vivi wiggled her fingers at him, blew him a kiss. Sanji raised his fingers in a half wave, looking startled and started for her.

“You want me to go?” Usopp asked softly. “Because, man, I got plans tonight so it doesn’t bother me either way. People are waiting for me. Important people. The President of India is waiting my arrival right now.”

“The President of India,” Sanji said, a small smile quirking one corner of his mouth. “No shit.”

“No shit at all.”

Sanji looked at him, Usopp watched him back. Vivi crossed her fingers in her lap and she saw Chopper clench his hands against the wheel. Sanji met her eyes once more and closed his for a brief moment before pivoting and wrapping an arm around Usopp’s shoulders.

“How do you feel about disappointing that asshole and getting a drink instead?”

“Sounds good. I’ve never liked his curry anyway. I had to cook him the Usopp world famous curry once, a super secret recipe passed down from my great uncle and you know what he said to me?”

Vivi closed the window and watched them walk away through patches of light and dark. Chopper held out his hand, palm flat, and Vivi gave him five and then smiled at the young man.

“Would you care to go to Raymond’s?” she asked.

“Right away, princess!” Chopper said with a salute and Vivi giggled, feeling content for the first time in a long time.

“By the way,” Chopper said, pausing as he leaned out to check the traffic then carefully pulled out onto the road. “When are you due?”

“Early May.”

“Hoping for a boy or girl?”

“Oh, either one,” Vivi said, stroking her belly. Then realized and clapped a hand over her mouth.
“When did— How did you know?”

“I’m a med student, remember?” Chopper said with a grin. “And Doctorine used to specialize in prenatal care so she wanted me to do know it.”

“Oh… I see.” That…wasn’t so bad was it? “Have you told anyone?”

“No…” He glanced at her briefly as they slowed at a red light. “Is it a secret?”

“Yes, please…” Vivi said. “At least until after…after Christmas.”

“Yeah… Yeah okay, I got it,” Chopper said, shoulders slumping a bit. She didn’t blame him for the down shift in mood but she wouldn’t let him dwell on it if she could help it. Instead she rested a hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t worry. I have a feeling that things are starting to look up.”


Past:
I am small, and the world is big

A faint peppery rain has started to fall as the car hushes through the night. Vivi holds Karoo on her lap and tries not to shiver. Her leg aches whenever she moves it and she’s not sure if it’s due to blood loss or shock but she’s freezing. It wouldn’t do to to complain so she gently buries her fingers against Karoo’s downy side. She can still hear the ringing in her ears. Still smell the acrid smoke and feel the dull acidic taste of panic in the back of her throat. She’s been on the circuit for three years now but not even that prepared her for this. Neither is anyone else, it seems. Though she can’t see her companions well in the dark, there is no denying the nervous tension.

Nami, who is right beside her, sitting in the middle seat has her arms folded and hasn’t spoken beyond giving Mr. Roronoa preliminary directions as they head on the interstate, though Vivi has no idea where they are headed. They’ve just been driving in a straight line for over five hours, watching the roadsigns pass. Mr. Usopp is beside her, chafing his arms on occasion but mostly just resting his head on the window or fidgeting with something crinkly in the dark. Mr. Sanji has finished perhaps half a pack of cigarettes and she can see him in the front seat, idly rubbing his finger over the pack as if debating whether getting wet would be worth it. The only two who seem calm and unaffected are Mr. Roronoa who has been quiet since the beginning and driving where he is told, despite the fact that he must have suffered some injury in protecting them; and Luffy who is sitting in the floor well at Usopp’s feet. In fact he seems to be asleep, his hat pushed down over his head, arms tucked close to his chest. His legs are resting against hers and she hasn’t felt him move in hours.

She bites her lip and looks down at him, able to see him in glimpses of amber light as they cross near a city or a vehicle overtakes them from behind. She needs them and wishes she didn’t. It’s one thing to fight. It’s another to be…to have to have suffered through that. And now that the Unluckies know their faces—it will just be that much harder. That much more dangerous. It would help if she knew the reason for the explosion in the first place. Was it aimed at her? Someone else? Had it been a warning or a missed strike? It couldn’t be that Crocodile feared her intentions, she had barely started to make an impact! Or…perhaps he was afraid she knew something she shouldn’t— but what could that possibly be?

“Okay, enough,” Nami says, breaking into her thoughts. “We can’t just drive straight forever. We’re going to have to find a place stay for the night.” Even though she speaks with assurance, her voice is strained.

“Yes, of course,” Sanji says. “It looks like there’s a Holiday Inn—”

“Woah woah, just wait a second,” Usopp says, holding up his hands. “Doesn’t anyone remember we almost got blown up a few hours ago? I say we camp out.”

“In this rain?” Nami says, though her voice is faint as if she’s considering it. Vivi chews on her lower lip, tempted to volunteer to stay somewhere else. Lure Crocodile off the scent. If he really is after her… But if anything should happen to her, her people would stand no chance—so she takes a deep quiet breath and apologizes quietly as she’s sure she’ll be doing for…however long they’re together. Luffy says nothing but it doesn’t seem as if he’s asleep. They move away from the city lights but a car remains behind them, casting everything in harsh light. Roronoa slows to take the exit and the light grows, filling the car so Vivi has to blink.

“Hey wait, we haven’t come to a decision yet!” Usopp says. “I don’t know about you but I don’t wanna be—”

“We’re being followed,” Roronoa says, his voice low.

“You noticed that too, huh?” Sanji says.

“Of course I did.”

“What really?” Nami says, twisting to look back and then forward again. “You could have said something sooner if you knew!”

“Can this day get any crazier?” Usopp says, leaning forward and bumping Luffy in the cheek with his knee. “Sorry, Luffy, but oi, don’t slow down. We gotta speed up! Gotta lose them!”

“If we speed we’ll get the cops on us,” Nami says, leaning back and putting a hand to her chin as if thinking. Police were the last thing they need. They will ask too may questions; and if her own past in the arenas is uncovered before she can help Father, then she’ll only hurt him more. The more this goes on the more trapped she’s starting to feel. Almost suffocating.

“So we lose ‘em!” Usopp says.

“With this shithead driving we’d only end up losing ourselves,” Sanji says, jerking a thumb at Roronoa.

“Oi.”

“Anyway” There was a snick as he lights a cigarette. “We might as well see what the hell they want on our own terms without being surprised in the middle of the shitty night.”

“Are you crazy? Turn and face— There’s only three of us that can fight!” Usopp says. “Not counting me! We don’t even know what we’re up against! It could be a car full of guys with guns!”

“Do you have any idea what we might be up against?” Nami asks her. Vivi looks over her shoulder but can’t see much of the car beyond the glare of the headlights except that it is a car and not a van or a truck that could mean millions or billions.

“It could be the Unluckies. They normally go unarmed as far as we can tell,” Vivi says. “Though if they follow us to a hotel, Crocodile will also know where we are.” And who knows how many people could be hurt then?

“In that case we can definitely face them,” Usopp says. “Kick their ass before they get a chance.”

“Or it could be a pair of his hired assassins. They’re skilled individuals who can kill someone in the blink of an eye.”

“Zoro, floor it,” Usopp says.

“Can you tell if you got a good look at the car?” Nami asks. Vivi shakes her head.

“Even the Unluckies use a different driver.” And it may not be assassins at all. They could just be spies that worked with the Unluckies; or millions or billions members who took it upon themselves to try to get a leg up in the organization. But she can’t tell them that. Good news is always more dangerous than bad.

“Until we know we’re screwed either way,” Nami says, running her fingers through her hair. Vivi chews the inside of her lip, clenching her fingers into loose fists in a semi-conscious impulse to keep herself from biting her nails. This decision will fall to her as she knows it must. They can keep driving with the possibility of losing them, but if they relax their guard and only think they’ve stopped being followed, then who knew what disaster could happen? But if they stopped… If it was one of the assassin teams… They would all be slaughtered. Strong as Roronoa may be, he couldn’t stop a bullet.

What is the easy way and what is the hard way? What is the best way? Who can she afford to risk losing? Who can she afford to sacrifice? It feels like her entire world is balancing on the head of a pin and any movement will send it overbalancing and crashing to the ground— but she has to move! She is a princess and the leader of these people-! The one responsible-!

“I just wanna go to sleep,” Luffy says, his voice rising up out of the stillness as he pushes back his hat. “So let’s see who they are and kick their ass if we gotta and then find a hotel.”

“What if they have guns?! Can you think things through for once?” Usopp says.

“They’re gonna have guns whether we stop or not,” Luffy says. “Anyway I’m tired of sitting down here. Let’s go.”

“Got it, Captain,” Roronoa says and the title sparks something in Vivi. The way he says it with utter conviction as they pull over on the side of the road. It’s a reckless decision and needs so much more thought. Maybe she can figure it out if—

“Wait a second—” she says, holding out her hands as Luffy pushes open the door and crawls over Usopp to get out. “L-let’s think. This should be my decision and—”

“Nah,” Luffy says and shuts the door behind him. Roronoa and Mr. Sanji are getting out as well, though they are unarmed.

“I’m sorry,” Vivi says, clenching her hands on her lap, feeling Karoo’s worried stare. “This is so reckless, but please—” She looks at Nami. “You must know a way to stop them. It’s too dangerous.”

“Luffy’s made up his mind,” Nami says with a long sigh. “Not even the Queen of England could change his mind. Usopp what are you doing?”

The long nosed boy was moving to crouch in the well on the floor that Luffy had occupied.

“Ducking for cover.”

“Good idea,” Nami says, snapping her fingers. “I’ll clamber in the front seat, Vivi, so you can—”

“No…” Vivi says, then shakes her head, gently setting Karoo to the side. “I mean, no thank you. I’ll go.” She touches her sleeves absently, feeling her flails tucked safely in the arm releases before opening the door.

“You don’t have to,” Nami says, putting a hand on her arm. “Trust me, those guys can handle it.”

“They are fighting for my sake,” Vivi says, resting her hand briefly over Nami’s as she looks into the woman’s dark eyes. “I won’t let them fight alone.”

And then she steps out into the peppery rain, shutting off Karoo’s anxious ‘kweh’ as he closes the door behind her. Her shin aches, her calves cramping a little from not moving so long but she ignores them; taking in her surroundings as she paces to stand beside Roronoa’s who merely glances at her as he takes his katana out of the car. They are on a two lane road, lined with trees and mostly dark; devoid of street lamps. About half a mile down the road a dilapidated Shell Gas Station sits a little off the road, based in floodlights and a flickering sign. Good, they are still open. Fortunately any shots fired will be likely to alert the police or, in any case they will undoubtedly have a phone in case an ambulance needs to be called.

She shifts to the main concern, the dark car parked on the road maybe two car lengths away from them, lights on, windshield wipers slushing back and forth. The driver’s side door opens and she can see the slight shift in Roronoa’s stance. The drivers are usually not anyone to worry about. Usually. In this case it is an old man with a cowboy hat and glasses, eying them tiredly as he smokes a thin cigarette and opens an umbrella over the passenger side door. It opens and a narrow black gloved hand reaches to hold it, followed by the tall graceful form of a woman. Even though Vivi cannot see her face, she knows who it is.

Miss Sunday.

It can only be her.

Vivi’s fingers twitch to grab the flails but she keeps her hands merely at ready. There’s not point in causing an incident until one is brought. Vivi has only seen her once and even though she’s never seen the woman do anything, knows Miss Sunday is dangerous. She would not be working right under that man otherwise.

“Well, well,” Miss Sunday says. “This is quite a reception.”

“A reception of love!” Sanji yodels from the other side of the car and Vivi is a bit taken aback, but then Luffy steps forward, arms folded and the rain falling on his hair despite the hat that hangs at his back.

“Are you gonna shoot us or blow up another hotel?” Luffy says with a strange sort of fierceness that doesn’t quite belong in a question.

“Not at all,” Miss Sunday says, sounding light and amused in a way that makes Vivi’s blood boil. How dare she make light of it!

“Oh, okay,” Luffy says. “Goodnight.”

Can he really be so simple?! If she didn’t know any better she would have thought it was a joke!

“Please, Luffy, wait a moment!” Vivi says, coming up to his side. “You can’t trust this woman. She works at Crocodile’s right hand and is an expert at lies.”

“Oh. Are you lying?”

He really is this simple. Vivi feels the beginnings of a stress headache behind her eyes.

“It’s possible,” Miss Sunday says, perching on the hood of her car between the headlights. Backlit as she is, it’s nearly impossible to see more of her without squinting in the glare. “But if I wanted to shoot you, I would have already done so. As for the hotel…” She shrugs. “Don’t you think the one will suffice?”

“How dare you!” Vivi finds herself saying, feeling like she’s screaming, her voice raw. “How dare you treat people’s lives so lightly! Think of everyone that died!” She wants to attack the woman, cut her with the flails. It’s a horrible dark thought but to find a tragedy like that amusing! To make a joke!

“No one did,” Miss Sunday says. “Well, perhaps one or two who failed to kill you before you could meet up with your current…companions. But the Unluckies do what they must.”

“By risking the lives of countless innocents?!” She’s stepping forward now. It’s reckless but she feels she’s being eaten alive by it. “How can you condone someone so ruthless! Who has no regard for human life!”

“Perhaps I enjoy his taste in cigars?”

Vivi reaches for her sleeves, but stops herself, clutching them instead. She won’t be lured in by this woman!

“Shut up,” Luffy says, his voice stern. “Stop teasing her. What do you want?”

“To invite you to join the Baroque Works Stable,” Miss Sunday says.

“No way,” Luffy says, before Vivi can even start to say it’s a trap.

“Then to tell you to stay away. Stick to the minor circuits. Your princess is living on borrowed time.”

“I’m going to do what I want,” Luffy says.

“Will you?” Miss Sunday says, sounding amused. Vivi bites her lower lip, caught between telling Luffy not to engage this fight and to get into it herself. She is not living on borrowed time. A princess makes her own time— A lesson she learned hard and fast in that boarding school and probably the only thing she did learn of any value.

“I don’t think you’re strong enough.” Miss Sunday begins to walk toward them. Vivi reaches into her sleeves and hooks her fingers around the flails. Mr. Roronoa thumbs the guard to the white sword. Sanji rears back, hands in his pockets as if he’s unsure. Only Luffy stands as still as he has, as the rain slicks everyones hair into their eyes.

A clatter of movement somewhere behind.

“Fire star!” Usopp shouts and Vivi is just able to see something whip through the night before it explodes in a bright burst of fire against Miss Sunday’s jaw, sending her twisting to the side off balance. In that second Vivi sees her opportunity. Sunday a hostage. Leverage. She whips her flails from her sleeves.

“Peacock—!”

“Viente Fleur!” Miss Sunday cries.

A shot rings out, denting sparks against the trunk. Vivi yelps as something grabs her wounded leg and pulls, sending her crashing to the ground, landing face first in a puddle and coughing, spluttering as she wipes the dirt and grime from her nose.

“Luffy!” Sanji cries, in panic and shock.

“Stop!” Miss Sunday says.

Vivi blinks, squints in the light, and gasps, pressing her hands to her mouth. Arms have sprouted from Luffy’s body, wrapping around him, pinning his arms at his sides, pulling him back while keeping him anchored to the ground so that his spine arches. Two hands are tucked under his chin, pressing his neck back.

“Touch Banchi and see what I will do,” Miss Sunday says, her voice tight as she looks toward the other car. Vivi follows her line of sight to see Zoro with a sword drawn on Miss Sunday’s driver, the rain glinting off the blade. Roronoa lowers the sword.

“Toss it,” Miss Sunday says. “All of them.”

He does, tossing them to the grassy ditch on the side of the road. Her driver, Banchi presumably, raises the gun again, pointing it at Roronoa’s face. Vivi’s fingers twitch over the flail. Maybe she can… She tries to catch Sanji’s eye. If he can cause a distraction—or if she can then… but he isn’t looking at her, his gaze shifting from Luffy to Miss Sunday, his face pale.

“O…oi,” says Usopp, voice carrying just over the rain. “Let him go.”

“Do something,” Nami hisses from behind him.

“Do anything and I will snap his spine in half,” Miss Sunday says and Vivi’s throat goes dry as the hands tighten and pull. A strained sound comes from between Luffy’s clenched teeth and his hands jerk into fists. She can almost hear his spine creak.

“So what do you intend to do?” Vivi says, her voice harsh. She can’t fight but maybe she can talk with this monster until they can get the drop on her somehow. “You can’t hold us down forever.”

“I don’t intend to.” Miss Sunday says, getting to her feet, arms still crossed over her chest. “You are all children. Easy to defeat, easy to annoy, and you’re thinking of going up against someone with actual strength?” She sounds amused again and Vivi wants to slap the smile right off her, glowering as the woman backs away. A low growling noise distracts Vivi and she realizes with a start it’s coming from Luffy, arms straining, fists clenched, entire body trembling with pain or anger, she can’t tell.

“You’ll be crushed before you even make an impact.I’d give it up while you can,” Miss Sunday says. Then she flinches, her hands clawing a bit. “You don’t stand a chance. Why are you fighting so hard?” She seems to be speaking to Luffy who is growling even more.

And then in a sudden violent movement he wrenches his hands free of the ones pinning him, spreading his arms wide, his fists clenched hard.

“I AM THE MAN WHO IS GOING TO BE PIRATE KING OF THE WORLD!” his voice slams into the night. An almost physical force that makes Vivi’s ears buzz.

“AND I’M GOING TO KICK ANYONES ASS I WANT TO!” He takes one of the hands on his neck and yanks it free, the hand itself disappearing into petals. Vivi can only find herself staring at him; wondering again just who in the world he is.

Miss Sunday stares at him a long moment, seeming to watch as he tugs at another hand around his waist. Then she makes a soft breath of a laugh and the remaining hands holding him burst into petals.

“My apologies,” she says, sounding amused still, as if this was part of some game. Luffy frowns fiercely at her and pulls his hat on his head, folding his arms.

“Apology not accepted!”

“Well then I suppose it’s something I’ll just have to live with. Still, I’d skip the Oklahoma Tournament if I were you” Miss Sunday shrugs elegantly and nods at her driver who puts the gun in a holster at his side and slips in the car, the engine rumbling to life. Miss Sunday opens the passenger side door and leans her chin on it a moment, smiling at Luffy before finally pointing. “Also your undercarriage may be damaged.”

It’s a trap. All of it is. How stupid does she think they are. The car backs up and revs into drive and Vivi has to restrain herself from slashing their tires as they pass. She feels small and useless, despite the memory of Luffy’s voice ringing in her hears. There’s just something pathetic about standing in the rain after that. After everything. It feels like a failure. Like the mountain got just that much higher.

“What now?” Roronoa asks, taking his swords from the ditch and wiping the white one down almost lovingly with the cloth usually tied around his arm. Everyone looks to Luffy, something which Vivi was getting used to though she still can’t say why it feels natural to do so.

“I wanna go to the Oklahoma Tournament.”

“Of course you do,” Nsmi says with a sigh.

“Oi, it’s a trap,” Usopp says, whacking Luffy’s shoulder with the back of his hand. “Do you just wanna walk right into a trap?”

“This guy is gonna be dangerous to fight no matter what we do,” Luffy says, his exact expression hard to see in the dark. There is no mistaking the slump in Usopp’s shoulders or the fact that Nami has an arm crossed over her waist and is rubbing her temple with the other, before sighing and spreading her hands.

“Well it’s not as if it’s unexpected.”

“Yeah but the fact that this guy has common sense is still terrifying,” Usopp says, pulling at Luffy’s cheek.”

“Ow. Oi let go.”

How can they be so calm? Vivi is still shaking from it all, anger and anxiety stringing along her tendons. She clenches her teeth to keep them from chattering out of tension so they won’t mistake it for fear.

“In any case,” Sanji says, making a few attempts to light a cigarette before giving up. “Let’s get back in the shitty car before the gorgeous ladies freeze to death.” She can’t even say she’s not cold… but that’s irrelevant right now. Once she is calm perhaps she can talk to them. Get them to understand that they can’t just take that woman for granted. That since she knows them, the danger has only grown.

“No wait,” Nami says, putting a hand on the door as Sanji starts to open it for her. “I wonder… Usopp do we have a flashlight?”

“Well yeah…” the young man rubs the back of his head. “I’m pretty sure it’s still good. Why do you ask?”

“Check under the car. That woman mentioned something about the undercarriage right?”

“Yeah but wait a minute why me? What if it’s a bomb or something?! I’m not going under there. Are you crazy?!”

“I’ll go,” Vivi says, surprising herself at how clear her voice is despite her anger. It’s too hard though but she can’t seem to temper it. Either way all this her responsibility.

“You can let this shithead do it,” Sanji says, resting a hand on Usopp’s shoulder.

“Oi!”

“He’s damn good with cars and knows what shouldn’t be there. Anyway, if it is a bomb we’re all in deep shit.”

"Y-y-yeah b-but that do-doesn't mean we should try and tamper with it. Maybe we can walk? Yeah! It'll be great exercise."

"You're the only one who knows what to look for, shitty longnose." Sanji gives him a light push. "If it's a bomb, I'll pull you out."

"D-deal?"

"Of course. Now get going."

Vivi wants to protest but it seems that Usopp has agreed and Sanji makes some good points. Still she stands,arms crossed tightly across her chest, watching and blinking in the rain as Usopp crawls under the car, wincing as she sees the puddles he’s forced to lie in. She sees the light move under the car and Luffy crouches as if to get a look, too, while Zoro and Sanji look on curiously. Nami watches him for a moment, too, before spotting Vivi and making her way over, her smile dim in the faint light. Nami gently bumps her shoulder.

“Don’t worry so much, it’s probably nothing…” Nami says. Then hesitates and adds. “But we should probably get to a safe distance.”

“I heard that!” Usopp says, voice muffled slightly. Though it seems she was joking because she doesn’t move and neither does Vivi. After a few tense minutes, Usopp yelps and Vivi jumps, every muscle in her body seeming to tighten at once.

“Shit! Usopp! What is it?” Sanji says.

“Sorry, grit got in my eye.”

“Asshole!”

“I said I was sorry! You work under these condi…what’s this?” A little clanking around. “Get me the little prying thing that looks like an old timey can opener.”

“Why do you even have this shit,” Sanji says, peering into a bag and then sliding the implement over.

“Because I’m the expert here. Shut up. I’ve been dismantling bombs since I was—” there was a chink. “Three.”

Usopp scoots out from under the car and Vivi crowds in with the rest to see what he’s holding. Luffy’s somewhat in her way but before she can say anything, Nami pushes his head to the side to peer at it, too.

“May I?” Vivi asks, holding out her hand. Usopp gives it to her and then holds the flashlight as she squints at it.

“Looks like a shitty tracking device,” Sanji says.

“Hey but wait, I thought that lady was against us,” Usopp says. "Why'd she tell us about it?"

“Luffy won,” Roronoa says, his voice sudden and deep right by her shoulder, making her jump. “She acknowledged it.”

“That was barely a win,” Nami says. “She let him go.”

“You shouldn’t trust her so easily, Mr. Roronoa,” Vivi adds. “It could very easily be Miss Sunday is trying to lure us into a false sense of security.

“Don’t worry about it,” Luffy says, taking the tracking device and seeming to examine it before throwing it far into the woods where it smacks into a tree and then is lost in the underbrush. “Let’s go.”

—-

Vivi sits on the over-starched coverlet of Apple Blossom Motel with Karoo in her lap and feels weary. All the suitcases and bags have been dragged in and the rain is drumming impatiently outside. Everyone is drenched but Luffy and Usopp have busied themselves with poking Roronoa who seems like he’s trying to nap in the corner and making him twitch. Worst of all, Karoo who is a normally sober duck, seems as if he wishes to join. She lets the duck do as he will and suffer the consequences when Roronoa gets them all in a choking headlock—and tries to ignore Sanji quietly ogling her from the corner.

“Okay,” Nami says, standing with a clipboard, her voice bringing everyone to attention—or at least making them quiet. “We’re going to be here for a few days until we get oriented so here’s the shower roster. I’m not going to listen to any arguments.” She scans the room with a hard gaze through her glasses then pushes them up on her forehead and reads out the list.

“Vivi, Me, Sanji, Zoro, Usopp and Luffy.”

“Aww. I’ll just stand outside!” Luffy says while Usopp quietly gasps:

“Air. Air.”

“You’re not going to stand outside,” Nami says. “You’re going to shower like a normal human being. Sanji, you’re in charge to see that he gets one.”

“Of course, my angel~!”

Vivi still finds it hard to believe someone like him exists. It’s hard to believe most of them exist, actually.

“Vivi?” Nami says and Vivi blinks.

“What? Oh…” The shower. “Yes, of course.” Thunder booms outside making them all freeze for a moment and Sanji seems to flinch a little, but then the moment is past. Vivi smiles faintly at them and then makes her way to the small but clean bathroom. She turns on the shower, letting it run hot so the steam curls her hair. It reminds her of Rio de Janeiro, where she and Igaram had first fought side by side in the outdoor arena on the city’s outskirts, humidity curling her hair and streaking sweat down her face. It had been a hazy night then, a moon smudged by dark clouds. Igaram had gotten shot there while protecting her from a sore loser, and told her later not to worry about the new scar streaking across his shoulder. It’s for the people, he’d told her. But she’d known he’d meant: ‘for you’.

The muffled burst of the TV from outside the room brings her back to the small bathroom. There are others waiting. She should hurry and not take all the hot water in the process. She has her shirt off before she realizes that she has no other clothes but these. She doesn’t even have a hairbrush with her. All she has is herself and Karoo. The thought hits her low in the gut and her eyes blur for a moment before she winces them shut and takes a deep breath, pulling her shirt back over her head with a steely grip.

She takes one deep breath and then another while considering her options and then moves to the door, peeking out and spotting Nami sitting on the edge of the bed, watching TV, barefoot. She looks so relaxed here. Vivi doesn’t want to disturb her. Doesn’t want to lean on her any more than necessary… So she won’t. She’ll make do as she always has. Before she can close the door however, Nami spots her looking and comes over, her feet making soft shuffing sounds against the thin carpet.

“Problems?” Nami asks. Vivi quickly tries to think of an excuse but her mind goes completely blank, leaving her with her mouth half open like a fish.

“Is the cold water not working?” Nami says, tilting her head to the side. “Do you want me to get you a fresh change of— oh.”

“No…” Vivi holds up her hands. “Sorry. It’s really not a big deal. I thought—but…please don’t go to any trouble…”

“It’s no trouble. Please.” Nami flips a hand. “Go take your shower and relax a bit, will you?” she says and Vivi winces as the other girl pokes her in the forehead. “You’re going to get wrinkles if you frown so much.”

“Yes…thank you…” There’s nothing really more to say to that. Vivi rubs the spot Nami poked and hesitates only a moment more before stripping down and stepping under the hot water. It stings the cut on her leg and she bites her lower lip, the explosion seeming like it happened yesterday and just an hour ago all at once. There’s grit on her arms she hadn’t noticed, and in her hair and the heels of her hands are scraped up from falling on the asphalt or…perhaps trying to lift that slab of concrete off Igaram’s…off Igaram. Vivi closes her eyes and turns her face to the spray.

By the time she gets out of the shower, she is somewhat composed again. Not energized but at least beset with a weary sort of determination. She wraps a towel around herself and finger combs her damp hair until there is a light knock at the door and Nami steps in, letting in a swirl of cooler air that raises goosebumps on Vivi’s skin.

“I’ve got several options for you,” Nami says, shutting the door before draping said options unceremoniously over the empty towel rack. “Temporary since you’re going to need to go clothes shopping at some point.” Nami eyes her, gaze sharp as a knife. “I’m guessing you’re low on cash right now.”

“Unfortunately all I have is a trust fund for when I turn twenty-one.” Vivi looks down, feeling more like a burden than ever. “We have some winnings but—it’s with—was with Igaram.”

“Of course it was,” Nami says. “Well never mind. You’ll owe me later. Now, I have a dress or two that might be good for a nightgown… A short one… Your— My hips are narrower than yours so unless your shorts dry out pretty quick it’s not a good idea with all those guys around. A girl has no privacy in this kind of life. So to that end I requisitioned some shirts. Some of Usopp’s, two of Zoro’s and one of Sanji’s but if you’re going to wear his, brace yourself since he’ll be intolerable.”

It’s almost overwhelming to have to pick one. It’s…it’s very awkward, actually. She barely knows them and wearing something like that makes it kind of intimate, doesn’t it? Vivi rests a hand against her cheek and tries to decide who will be the least, odd about it. She can’t really tell. Nami watches her carefully and then huffs, flipping two of the shirts back over her arms.

“Stop worrying so much and hurry up. I want a shower sometime tonight.” She starts to leave then pauses and adds: “If it helps, Zoro is asleep.”

It does help, but she still feels a little awkward as she pulls the worn white shirt over her head. It’s not completely white, she realizes, but with faded grey stripes going across, like it’s been washed too much. The collar is even frayed a little from it but it smells…well…very masculine still with a hint of steel. Despite the guarantee of him being asleep, it still feels awkward and consequently so does she. But it is what it is, and so she squares her shoulders and goes out into the room.

The light has been turned off. The TV isn’t quite loud enough to cover the drum of the rain or the grumble of thunder. Roronoa is sleeping on the fold out couch. Sanji in the dimness on the other side of the room, biting at his shirt and whining until Nami snaps at him to shut up. Vivi offers him a faint apologetic smile and tugs the hem of the borrowed shirt down a little. Usopp is watching TV, curls lit by the glow and Luffy is lying on his stomach, legs in the narrow alley between the beds as he plays some sort of handheld game.

Vivi glances at the bed, then tugs the hem of the shirt and kneels beside Luffy, then winces and shifts, canting her legs to the side before resting her hands on her lap and watching him play. Karoo is on his other side, she notices, bathed in the faint blue-white, though looking half asleep as Luffy seems to be trying to fight some duck type creature that keeps clutching its head.

“What are you playing?”

“Poke mon.”

“PoKEAmon,” Usopp says.

“Yeah that. Wanna play?”

“No thank you.” She watches him play for a moment. He defeats the duck and then for some inexplicable reason, lets it go. It’s too dim to see his form well, even from the light of the TV but he looks so young sprawled out like this. She watches the almost too long black hairs move over the back of his tanned neck and can’t help but think how fragile he looks; from his hands that cradle the game to the bare dirty bottom of his feet. He had ice cream on his face when she first met him. A smudge right on his cheek. It’s what had brought her over to say hello. To tell him about it since he hadn’t seemed to notice and he’d just licked it away and thanked her, looking so easy and warm sitting there, chatting with the ice cream vendor, asking her about cool things she’d done. Vivi had been swept up by it before she realized she probably should have raised her guard.

And now he is here, caught in her selfish trap of a mission, but still relaxed. Even the growls of thunder which still makes the line of Usopp’s shoulder’s raise, seems to roll off Luffy’s back. He plays. Karoo sleeps, resting his bill on Luffy’s arm. She wishes she could ask him to be careful. To stay safe. But against a man as strong as Crocodile,none of that is an option. She reminds herself that she’s also seen how strong he is. His fights in the arena. The command that seemed to settle around his shoulders, what he had screamed to Nico Robin. The Pirate King of the World… Well sans the first part, it was quite an ambition. But is that enough to even touch Crocodile? It is. It must be. She wants to believe it. Vivi bites the inside of her lip and lightly curls her fingers under, resting her nails against her palms so she won’t bite them as well.

“Miss Vivi,” Sanji says and Vivi looks up and blinks as the man is holding out a steaming cup of tea.

“Thank you, Mr. Sanji,” she says and takes it. She really isn’t thirsty at all but the smell of this tea alone makes it tempting. It sort of reminds her of late night studying in the library. Nothing but a small fortress of books and a mug as the rest of the world played polo without her.

“It’s shitty chamomile,” he says, sitting on the corner edge of the bed, his long legs paced out on either side. “It’ll give you a good night’s rest.”

“You really didn’t have to go to the trouble,” Vivi says, turning the cup absently and taking it by the delicate handle, blowing on the steaming liquid.

“It’s nothing, princess,” Sanji says with a smile and the familiar title in an unfamiliar voice both warms and chills her.

“I’m surprised he didn’t build you the Taj Mahal,” Usopp says. Sanji kicks him in the shoulder with a socked foot, though it must have been lighter than it looked since the longnosed boy merely lists to the side.

“I’m slain!” Usopp says and Vivi smiles, breathing a laugh through her nose.

“Still, thank you for the effort.” She takes a sip and is surprised to find the flavor surprisingly delicate and not like store brought tea at all. How does he do it?

“My pleasure. And you shouldn’t worry so much.” The same black socked foot that had kicked Usopp, nudges Luffy on the shoulder. “This guy will take care of it… Provided he can get his head out of the game.” Though the look on Sanji’s face was fond even if he seemed to try and hide it with his hand and an unlit cigarette when Luffy beams up at him.

She wants to believe it. With all her heart she wants to. In this small cozy world of sleeping sounds and murmuring TV, the drum of rain outside and the shower a room away, of fond smiles and friendship—it’s all too easy to believe. And that’s the easy way. But the hard way is knowing that they are only small cell in a much larger world. Five people against several hundred or more. Five people against one of the pillars of the circuit itself. There is no way they can get through this without some sacrifice.

Still…right here, right now,she’s going to believe in the easy way. Just for right now. Just for tonight. She sips the delicate wonderful tea that warms her to the tips of her toes and watches Luffy play.
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The Remedy

March 2017

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