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


Present:
Say What You Need to Say

Another grey day. Vivi rested her hands on her lap as the blurry landscape passed, looking at the slate colored sky. It had been threatening all day to snow, but as Mr. Kaku had told her before she got into the car:

‘Might too cold for that, ma’am. It’ll be freezing rain and slush tonight so better not stay out too late.’

It’s almost too late now, three pm and the sun will set around five. Vivi stretched out her tired swollen legs and resisted the temptation to pull her hair free of pins and rest it back against the seat. Maintaining a professional appearance was important in her world, even in front of hired help, with the exception being personal maids, or people who had been part of the family for years. It would not do to relax completely in front of Mr. Kaku, no matter how pleasant he seemed. It all really added up to one thing. She wanted to go back to the hotel. Ensconce herself in the featherbed, or perhaps take a nice bath— eat definitely. She longed to open the packet of crackers in her purse but nothing said slacking off more than crumbs on the power suit.

“Well now, Mrs. Nefertari,” Mr. Kaku said from the front seat. “We’re nearing the intersection. Have you just about made up your mind?”

Vivi threaded her fingers together in her lap. The truth was she didn’t want to go. She’d been to the care facility nearly every day since she’d arrived and nothing really changed. The hotel room called to her. The warmth of it. The solitude. Even Nami made her tired these days. Not that Vivi blamed her. How could she? Not even that she didn’t feel the same as Nami most days but that was the tiring part. The inevitability. Nothing to do but wait with your hands tied. It was frustrating. On the other hand perhaps no one would come to visit him today and he would spend it all in silence.

“Ma’am?” Mr. Kaku said.

“I suppose I’ll go,” Vivi said. “For about an hour if that’s alright.”

“Suits me just fine,” Mr. Kaku said.

A few minutes later they were pulling into the parking lot and Vivi smiled as she spotted Sanji’s car. She could do with his company, especially since he must be feeling better now that he and Usopp had made up.

“I changed my mind, Mr. Kaku,” Vivi said, buttoning her jacket. “I’ll call you if I need you but I won’t wait too late.”

“Very good, ma’am.” He pulled to the covered walkway and she let him help her out of the car as usual. The air was still but sharp and bitter, stinging her nose and cheeks. Vivi didn’t mind and walked the short distance to the doors, pushing them aside and signing the fresh sign in sheet for—Well she didn’t really know his name and he wasn’t wearing a name tag so he must be new. She was about to ask for politenesses sake, but the sounds of a guitar being tuned pulled her attention. So she settled for a smile and a thank you before making her way down the hall.

Luffy’s door was opened and warm light spilled out into the hallway.

“This tree is going to be fukken awesome! Hand me that wrench!”

The shrill somewhat familiar voice stopped Vivi in her tracks.

“You shouldn’t use words like that. Gyna gyna gyna,” replied the old woman with her characteristic laugh. Vivi approached with considerably more caution, not wanting to intrude on anything, and peeked around the corner.

There was Chimney and her grandmother…parts of the tree scattered around them in a rough semi-circle around the girl who was putting it together while somehow seeing what she was doing through brass old fashioned looking goggles that seemed to double as sun glasses. Chopper was watching them, holding the box of tools in his large hands and watching with curiosity. Sanji stood by the bed, watching Usopp gingerly push at Luffy’s leg.

“You can do it harder than that,” Sanji said. “He’s not shitty glass.”

“Yeah but he’s not exactly…you know…fit,” Usopp said, scratching his nose and seeming nervous.

“Here, I’ll show you.”

“It looks like you’re doing fine to me, my long nosed friend,” said Mr. Brook, who held Usopp’s guitar in his long fingers.

“Like I want to hear that from a blind guy!” Usopp grumbled. Vivi hesitated there by the doorway. It wasn’t as if she was an outsider exactly, though she only knew Chimney and her Grandmother through Christmas visits. Brook only a little more due to the group’s whirlwind trip to Santo Damingo, some years ago now.. Honestly, Vivi had spent the most time with Nami. She knew she would be welcomed if she stepped forward but—still—sometimes when it was like this it was almost like stepping into another world or—or like those insipid birthday parties she was forced to attend at that horrible school where she barely knew anyone and was relegated to sitting in the corner, listening and smiling til her face hurt. Though of course it wasn’t like that and it wasn’t fair to put such a negative spin on it. For all that she didn’t know three of them hardly at all, she knew Sanji, Usopp and Chopper very well.

As she was pondering whether or not to make her presence known or just slip in, the large black Great Dane at Brook’s side made the decision for her, lifting his gigantic head, and pricking his ears forward.

“Oh,” Brook said, strumming three cords on the guitar that sounded for all the world like questioning surprise. “It seems we have a visitor.” All at once Vivi found herself under the stare of several gazes and she moved further into the doorway to give a half wave. Chimney’s alert shoulders relaxed almost immediately and she greeted Vivi with a:

“Yo!” While her Grandmother waved a bottle of what smelled like wine, face already flushed from it and said.

“Nice ta meet you again! Gyna gyna”

Chopper’s smile remained as bright as ever and he nodded to her, Usopp giving her a smile more with his eyes before turning back to what he was doing and Sanji was-

“Vivi-chwaaaan!”

—Well, Sanji. Vivi braced herself, unable to stop the smile as he whirled over to her in a pirouette, overdoing it perhaps a smudge, before bowing elegantly and offering her a flower she…wasn’t entirely sure where it came from to be honest.

“You brighten the room with your beauty. I am a slave to your love.”

“Lay it on any thicker and she’ll suffocate,” Usopp said and Vivi stifled a laugh.

“Shut it, shithead” Sanji said and turned to say something to her but Brook inserted himself in his way, making Vivi take half a step back.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Miss Vivi,” Brook said in his sonorous tones, the light slipping over his dark glasses as he bent in a bow from the waist. “Would you be so kind as to show me your panties? Even though I can’t see. Yoho—”

He was cut off as Sanji abruptly kicked him in the back and Vivi stepped to the side as nearly face planted on the floor, catching himself with one splayed hand.

“Stop asking that!” Sanji snapped. Brook immediately sprung to his feet with a grace belying the strands of white in his afro.

“Be careful! I’m a delicate old man, you know!” he snapped in the general direction of the door jamb.

“You’re a shitty perverted old man is what you are,” Sanji said, but nevertheless pulled at Brook’s elbow in a gesture of annoyance that kept him from colliding with said doorjamb as he resumed his seat.

“You guys are motherfukken awesome!” Chimney said with a grin while her Grandmother just laughed in her smoker’s cackle. “I missed you!”

“You really should be careful with his back,” Chopper said as Sanji ushered Vivi into the room and moved the bag that had been placed on it so she could sit.

“Ah, it’s alright, young Chopper,” Brook said, strumming a sad cord with nimble fingers. “Being a young pervert is backbreaking work.”

“You keep your pervert comments to yourself, you shitty musician,” Sanji muttered, pulling the wrapper off a lollipop and shoving it in his mouth. Brook played an innocent cord and Vivi smiled, crossing one leg over the other and feeling nearly bowled over by it all as she usually did. It was amusing and she couldn’t help but feel the snap in the air, a kind of synergy almost like static electricity that played over her skin. She felt as if, if she could just take a leap forward, she could contribute, throw herself into the storm of this tiny group but—

There was too much to tie her down. As there always was. And some cords were more binding than others. She rested a hand over the curve of her belly and simply watched. Hunger gnawed at her but she ignored it for the moment. Now that she was down she didn’t want to get back up again and it seemed rude to be the only one eating in this gathering.

After a while, though, she was lured into watching Mr. Brook. It was difficult not to pay attention to the music he was playing. Soft yet subtle and kind of reminded her of Spanish guitar music, only soft and underplayed.

“What’s is that, Mr. Brook?” she asked, softly so as not to disturb the playing.

“A variation of Cartas de Amor,” he said, his pronunciation perfect. “I call it, Cartas de Amistad.”

“Are you Spanish?” She knew he was from somewhere in Europe originally, but his accent was difficult to place and seemed to be British English with a long exposure American pronunciation.

“Perhaps a little. I do have a great great Grandfather who comes from Granada. But I am mostly Austrian with a touch of l’Algérie.”

“Algeria,” Sanji said absently.

“Just so,” Brook said. Vivi, who was fairly fluent in French, just smiled and nodded. “My accent is a courtesy of Billingsgate Conservatory near Dorchester. The finest of musical minds until the Red War.”

“How interesting.” And it was, though she felt awkward that was the only thing she could say. She had been born a few years after the Red War, and it had never quite touched her homeland. But for someone like Brook who had lived through it… She could only imagine how horrible it all must have been. Either way, Brook didn’t respond, but at least the music filled the space of what might have otherwise been an awkward silence.

“Well this guy has had about enough shitty exercise for one day.”

“And to think I missed it,” said Nami from the door and Vivi peered around Brook to smile at her, heart lifting to see her. Finally!

“Nami-swaan!” Sanji said, throwing himself into his usual theatrics at around the same time Chimney said:

“Big sis!”

“Chimney?!” Nami said, dodging nimbly around Sanji as if he wasn’t even there and sending him nearly careening into Zoro.

“Watch out, shithead!” Sanji snapped. Zoro said nothing. Nami for her part crossed the room and enveloped Chimney in a hug and then her Grandmother and the three started talking. Vivi caught snatches of the conversation about how they had met Brook at the train station in an amusing coincidence and something about a lost bag.

“Mr. Roronoa,” Vivi said with a nod, wanting to say he looked much improved but he didn’t. His face looked paler than she was used to seeing and there were dark circles under his eyes. He nodded to her and she was about to offer him her seat when he instead sat cross-legged on the floor, his back to the bed as he took the dog’s head in his hands.

“Hey, Laboon,” he murmured. And then supposedly to Brook: “How’s he been?”

“Just fine. We met that Duke just a few months ago and Laboon nearly peed on him. I was so startled my vision was completely black! On the other hand, it’s always that way.” He chuckled to himself and Zoro puffed what might have been a laugh through his nose but his face didn’t change. The music’s tone had shifted, Vivi noticed, something smoother and less eclectic. She caught Sanji, Chopper and Usopp sharing a three way look before Usopp shook his head, Chopper looked away and Sanji rolled the lollipop in his mouth before covering Luffy’s legs. Vivi tried to think of something to say. Heartwarming or—perhaps a suggestion that they should all go out to eat when she came into the room.

Nico Robin. Vivi’s fingers twitched on her lap but she kept them flat on her legs. Sanji whirled on her, as Sanji did, but this time Usopp came to greet her as well with a wide grin and Chopper made a happy startled noise in an octave that seemed too high for his heavy set frame and they stood with her, greeting her as if she hadn’t tried to murder them the first few times they met. But it had all been explained. It was in the past. Vivi was willing to put it in the past for the sake of her friends if nothing else.

The woman sat on the edge of the bed, full of dark stately grace and smiled at Brook, that smile fading a little when her gaze flicked to Vivi who…well may not have appeared overjoyed to see her but certainly wasn’t…outwardly disappointed.

“Mrs. Vivi,” Robin said.

“Miss Robin,” Vivi said.

“May I see your panties?” Brook asked.

“Damnit, Brook! Every shitty time!” Sanji snapped.

“That’s sexual harassment,” Robin said, folding one leg over the other.

“Don’t even start,” Nami called from across the room, though sounding more cheerful than Vivi had heard in days and Robin giggled. All thoughts of starting a conversation went out of her head as Vivi watched a hand blossom from the pillow and start to run through Luffy’s hair. Vivi repressed an involuntary shiver, remembering all too well how close those hands had come to killing him. Her conversation wasn’t entirely needed as Robin began talking to Brook about a book they had both read, with Usopp casually joining in the conversation —but as Vivi hadn’t read it…who had the time? She couldn’t add anything. Sanji was standing across the room, as he and Chopper listened in on the story Chimney was telling, using a small set of curse words as often as she could. Zoro was still on the floor, quiet and still except for occasionally petting the dog.

Vivi tried not to be jealous. It was like this every year until things stabilized and Vivi found her place again, somewhere to the right and behind, a part of the past recognized— though thankfully only to those she hadn’t spent it with. It would work out and she refused to ruin what good spirits they had. So she sat with her hands folded, smiling and nodding as if she was part of the conversation and resisting the urge to pull out her phone.

As they talked she found her gaze returning to Robin. She looked so peaceful among them, like she really belonged. Vivi chose to focus on that instead. How much they liked her and she them. The past was the past. Vivi had worked too hard over the past five years to keep it there. The present was likely to get just as ugly… but maybe… maybe it didn’t have to be that way. Perhaps even Robin could be reasoned with.

Though if Vivi just called her randomly, out of character, inviting her over, perhaps the woman would guess what she was after. Perhaps she wouldn’t even come. Or already set her mind against it. So maybe what Vivi needed to do was set up a sneak attack. Here was the perfect place. Robin couldn’t get away and, if Vivi was lucky, wouldn’t guess what was coming. Just how to get her alone…

“Coffee,” Vivi said as everything fell into place.”I would like some coffee…”
She found herself under the somewhat bewildered gazes of Usopp and Robin, her own cheeks flushing as she realized she interrupted Usopp midstream. Nevertheless, she pressed on.

“I hear Miss Robin’s is the best.” And she rose, glancing into the other woman’s eyes. “Would you care to accompany me?”

“I suppose…” Nico Robin said after letting Vivi suffer in silence a moment. Of course she did. That was how she played her game. …No perhaps she was just thrown for a loop. Yes, Vivi would choose to believe that. She gestured for Robin to go ahead of her and then followed her, giving Usopp an apologetic smile as she passed him.

The kitchenette/employee break room was small with blue tiled flooring. There were a few counters and a sink, crowding the refrigerator into one corner, a small table with two chairs and a little green futon couch that was rough around the edges. Robin perched herself on one of the chairs and looked at Vivi inquiringly, obviously not at all fooled by the false pretenses. That was fine. The important part was that she was here and so all Vivi had to do was to find a way to convince her without accusing her. She bustled about making coffee, keeping her hands busy while at the same time trying to think of what to say.

“It’s almost a shame that this will be our last Christmas here,” Vivi said fairly lightly though trying to sound wistful rather than blankly pleasant. “I’ve grown used to meeting everyone at this place,” Vivi continued, trying to hint that Luffy was unfortunately, unless by some miracle too impossible to be believed, going to…to pass on.

She rinsed the coffee pot once more until the last of the brown water cleared away and then refilled it, pouring it into the maker. Robin said nothing and Vivi had to rely on the faint reflection she could see in the white of the coffee maker to know the woman was even still there.

“I’ve set up a trust fund in his name. I’m not sure still who it will be for.” Those poorer kids with an outstanding dream and ambition perhaps. Or those that just needed a chance. After…the inevitable and the appropriate amount of time had passed, she would ask the others for input.

“I’m also considering putting together a bronze statue,” Vivi continued with a faint fond laugh as she pressed the ‘on’ switch. The coffee machine spluttered to life.

“Generous of you,” Robin said without inflection and Vivi resisted the urge to grip the counter. She couldn’t tell how that was meant to be received— or even if it was a move calculated to keep her in doubt… Vivi took a deep quiet breath and let it out. If she laid ill intentions on this woman, even if they were there, she’d see nothing but antagonism no matter what Robin said. Vivi was determined to give her a chance as Luffy had.

“It’s nothing at all in the grand scheme of things,” Vivi said, turning to lean against the counter, the faint movement making her head spin. She set her hands back against the rim of the counter to steady herself.

Robin said nothing.

“I just wish it were under better circumstances,” Vivi prodded. Still nothing, just watching with eyebrows raised. Vivi felt the cord of irritation draw tight under her ribcage. Why did this woman have to make it so hard by her very presence? Vivi took a moment to calm herself, listening to the super heated liquid pour into the coffee pot.

“But at least he’ll go peacefully,” Vivi said. Silence. Time to play her card, she supposed before she tried to break the counter with her hand pressure. “Which is probably the best way.”

“The best way?” another arch of her eyebrows and Vivi considered burying a peacock slasher through them.

“I mean better than dying in agony by someone taking a well meaning but utterly—” she stopped herself. “…an unfortunate risk that could end up hurting him more than helping.”

“I see.”

That was it? Just ‘I see’ and nothing more? She didn’t get the woman. She never had and she doubted she ever would. Her face was like a block of granite. Vivi turned away and watched the coffee, trying to gather her thoughts. She couldn’t be intimidated by what she thought was happening. How could she even know for sure what was on Robin’s mind? She couldn’t. Words were important. Negotiation was her strength. She fought the fresh wave of dizziness by closing her eyes and cut to the point.

“If I were a desperate woman…” Vivi said slowly. “I would be tempted to use something drastic to try to change the circumstances. Even though it might not work.”

“You’re aren’t, though, are you?” The scrape of a chair across the linoleum had Vivi raise her head and she stood, keeping her ground as the older woman moved beside her. Vivi kept one hand clenched into a fist at her side, prepared for anything. Robin didn’t seem to notice and instead took a chipped mug from the lined cabinet and filled it with the thin brown coffee.

“You have a family,” Robin continued. “A career. Much to hold on to.”

“That doesn’t mean I can accept it!” Vivi snapped, took a sharp breath. “It doesn’t mean I want to. I can’t help what I have but it’s just the same to me. Didn’t Luffy teach us to be strong? Can we really be so selfish to only work for our own happiness by risking his?!” She was near shouting and bit her lip, tasting copper. Robin stared at her, mug in one hand and coffee in the other, seeming mildly surprised. Vivi wanted to hit her but refrained as Robin blinked and looked away, setting the pot back in the coffee maker. She said nothing. Of course not. But her head was turned away. It seemed almost like a vulnerability. A chink in the armor of her determination. Vivi went for it, throwing the last card she had.

“When he thought he would die that time, he smiled, remember?” And it had sent chills through her just to see it. “He has never been afraid of death. Always accepted it. And so should we…”

“We don’t know if he smiled this time,” Robin murmured, but Vivi could see she had won. At least in some small way. She would press on but suddenly it was as if an elephant was sitting on her chest and she was so very tired. She…she needed to sit down…

“Vivi?” Robin said, her voice faint and far away. Vivi tried to open her eyes, felt herself falling and knew somewhere in the back of her mind that she was going to hit the floor. She didn’t. A confusing tangle of arms wrapped around her and it went dark.

---

She came to with pressure on her wrist. She was lying on something not very soft, her head pillowed on something that smelled like cigarettes. Vivi wrinkled her nose and turned her head away, resting a hand on her forehead. A soft “Vivi” made her open her eyes and she saw herself staring up at the worried pale faces of Nami, Usopp and Robin, while Chopper who was kneeling at her side and feeling her pulse gave her a unreadable look.

“What happened?” Vivi murmured.

“You fainted,” Chopper said, helping her sit up and handing her a glass of water. Vivi sipped at it gingerly then realized with a sting of guilt how she’d made them all worry.

“Well I’m fine now,” she said, struggling to sit up more to show them how fine she was. Why on earth was she so weary?

“Don’t be stupid,” Nami snapped, her hands balled into fists. “You scared us to death! Do you think we need this right now?!” Vivi nearly flinched back from that. Feeling her eyes sting and blinking rapidly.

“I’m…I’m sorry. I really am fine…”

“I call that luck! Can’t you at least take care of yourself?!”

“Hey, Nami…” Usopp murmured, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “Relax it isn’t her fault. My Mom fainted all the time when she was pregnant with me. I remember.”

“Pre—” Vivi pressed a hand to her stomach and looked at Chopper. “You told them?” she said to Chopper. He looked at her with serious eyes.

“I thought it was better to hear it from me first before I told the ambulance guys.”

“Ambulance? Oh… No no…” Vivi held up her free hand. “I don’t need that I’m fine I…” she trailed off as Nami shoved Usopp off, stalked up to her and whapped her a little too hard on the head.

“Stop saying that!” Nami said, her voice harsh but wavering. “You’re not fine. None of us are fine. But it’s okay…” Nami’s eyes were glassy and she blinked fiercely before kneeling by the couch and wrapping Vivi in a tight hug. Vivi swallowed the lump in her throat and Chopper took her glass so he could hug her friend back, apologizing mentally as she felt the hot tears fall on the back of her neck.

“Please don’t scare me like that again,” Nami said, sniffed. “I know you’re worried but we all are. We should worry and suffer together right?”

“Yes of course,” Vivi said, squeezing her tight, her own voice thick. “Of course…” After a moment she said: “Is an ambulance really necessary?”

“We really don’t want to take a chance on something like this,” Chopper said, standing and offering a faint uneasy smile. “I’m sure it’ll be alright.”

“Yes it will,” Vivi said, returning the smile and trying to seem confident, even as butterflies whispered at the walls of her stomach.



Nami remained with her the entire time, claiming herself as Vivi’s sister. Even through the ambulance ride which was mercifully without lights or sirens, though Vivi hadn’t been able to stop the pang of guilt as those who had gathered there to be with Luffy, as well as a recently arrived Miss Conis, had watched her go looking worried and concerned for her well being. She had tried so hard to be a non issue, to not cause any wrinkles, but it had all fallen apart in the end. Nami wouldn’t let her speak of it, though. Not even to apologize and eventually Vivi stopped trying.

After arriving at the hospital it was if the words were wicked right out of her mouth and the most she could do was hold Nami’s hand as she answered a battery of questions and had her blood taken. Then they decided to hook her up to an IV because she was dehydrated. It wasn’t as if Vivi had never been on one in her life, but seeing the needle go in, the bags hanging down— All she could see was the room at the home. Luffy lying there. Endlessly. The blood rushed from every part of her leaving her cold and shaking lightly, until Nami squeezed her hand, her fingers damp with sweat. Never again. Never this again. No matter what she had to do.

Time crawled by, the anxiety smoothing slightly, to something brittle that Vivi felt would break any moment. They talked little, even managing some false amusement at the bad photoshop in some crumpled old magazines, but even that fell away to silence. They couldn’t kid each other. Not after so long having known each other. Worry welled acidically in her throat as she knew it was in Nami’s and Vivi tried not to rest a hand on her stomach—but did anyway in the end. The baby had not started kicking yet, Vivi hadn’t thought anything of it but now she wished it would.

After what felt like hours, a lavender haired woman with the name Kobato stitched onto her lab coat came into the room, holding a clipboard and smiling faintly.

“Hello, I’m Doctor Kobato,” she said, reaching out her hand to shake. Vivi passed her own along the sheets clandestinely so her palms wouldn’t be damp when she took the woman’s soft hand and shook it with light professionalism.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Vivi said faintly, recognizing her own voice as light and hollow but faintly sincere as was a habit ingrained in her since childhood. “This is my sister Nami.”

“Good to meet you, too,” Kobato said with a nod, flipping through the clipboard. “It looks like your both fine,” the woman said and Vivi let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, feeling the weight lift from her shoulders. “As far as we can tell, the fainting was due to a combination of low blood sugar, dehydration and stress. Though you should probably consult your OBGYN asap. You can’t be too careful after all.”

“Yes, of course,” Vivi said, relaxing against the starched pillow. “I’m sure she’ll be able to fly in soon.”

Kobato gave her a look but pressed on.

“We’d like to keep you overnight for observation… But provided nothing comes up, we’re going to prescribe you some vitamins on top of a more regular diet, more liquids, preferably water and relaxation. A stressed mother equals a stressed baby.”

“I hadn’t considered that,” Vivi said with a frown. The baby seemed to be part of her, of course, but other at the same time. Tucked away in a little time capsule. A little panic room, safe from the monstrosities and sadness of the world.

“It’s alright,” Kobato said. “Just remember, everything you do, you do for two.” And she held up two fingers like a peace sign, smiling brightly. Vivi got the sense the woman was well meaning and trying to make her smile so Vivi obliged and pushed away the tired feeling that came with that statement. Of course. She should have known that. Should have realized it. But she couldn’t help but wonder when she would have that glorious fleeting moment of doing something just for one again. To have the freedom of the world.

Freedom hadn’t gone so well for them, had it?

Vivi pushed the thought aside and thanked the doctor again. The woman chatted with them a little longer and Vivi supplied the answers that were pleasant and easy and then, thankfully, she left.

“I’m exhausted,” Vivi said after the door shut, resting her hand against her forehead.

“That’s because you work too hard,” Nami said, plonking a hand on Vivi’s head but gently. The woman took a deep breath and let it out, then smiled. “After this you’ll be more careful, right?” There was kind of a knife edge to her smile and Vivi didn’t really blame her.

“I wouldn’t dare do otherwise,” Vivi said with a faint smile. Then there was a moment. Nami watched her, seemed on the verge of telling her something. Vivi thought wildly of telling her, too. Of her suspicions about Robin and the Devil’s Seed. How would it feel to not be alone in this? But she held back. It would be too easy to place the burden on someone else, but Vivi had started down the road alone and so she would finish it. Nami apparently decided to keep her news to herself as well. It was probably for the best. Nami stood and stretched.

“I’m going to get some M&Ms or something. Do you want anything?”

“The same, please,” Vivi said, keeping a faint smile on her face until Nami left the room and then she relaxed again, letting out a long breath. It would work out. She’d gotten through to Robin at least a little. No one had died and nothing unfortunate had happened. Not really. Maybe they still had a little luck after all.


Past:
Learning to Breathe on my Own

Vivi sorts through the worn, rough fabrics and sequined tops that make up the clothing choices of the Good Will. Nami is not too far away, doing the same thing, a rickety old plastic shopping cart between them. There's...nothing really that catches her interest-- though at least some of the outfits are fairly well made knock offs of designer pieces. She can even see a few remnants of Empire Fashions in here. It all makes her feel strange, grungy, slightly out of place. Here she is, standing in clothes she’s worn for two days now, the only thing perfectly clean is the bandage wound around her leg which still aches a bit. Perhaps she's still reeling a little from how abruptly everything has changed, but she can't feel a little--odd about all of this. A faint unease in the pit of her stomach.

Mostly, she supposes, it seems to stems from the fact that while she's donated to stores like these as a young girl, she faintly remembers even one or two ribbon cutting ceremonies!--actually buying from them feels a bit--strange. She can't help but think of how many must have worn these clothes before her. They surely must have many memories--as well as other things, though she's fairly sure they've all been washed.

On the other hand, she can't help but feel guilty for having such thoughts. She is shopping on Nami's dime, after all, and there is so little of it. Even less now that Vivi is another mouth to feed. They haven't managed to find anything about the Oklahoma Tournament that Nico Robin was talking about and Vivi would doubt its very existence--except that there hasn't been any mention of furniture sales either, which means no income, supposedly. It’s such a hard dusty life to live and Vivi’s still not sure why they all seem to have chosen this.

“Don’t look so gloomy,” Nami says. “Here what do you think?” And she holds up a white tank top with the remnants of a faint glitter halo, now hardly sparkling, the shining specks even seeming worn and tired.

“It’s wonderful,” Vivi says, not entirely sincere and Nami makes a face and puts it back. Vivi fights down the frustration and pushes her bangs from her eyes. Her public face obviously needs work.

“It really is,” Vivi continues, going to take the shirt back off the hangar but Nami stops her, her hand cool, the gold bracelet flashing in the light.

“If you don’t like it, you don’t like it,” she says, sensibly but with an undeniable edge. “Just because we have to shop cheap doesn’t mean you can’t look good. Anyway, this is just a holdover until we win a few arenas with meat in them.”

“Of course.” It’s not a way to talk about arenas. But how can they know really? They’re still up and comers, swimming through the small arenas where it was all just about winning and losing and not life and death. How will they react when dropped into the grown up arenas where people have been known to have died and frequently? The Red Bowl. Vivi remembers the look of the thing and represses a shiver, though it’s difficult not to in the sterile cold of the store.

In any case. She straightens her shoulders and plucks out a baby tee, screwing a smile on her face as she looks at it. It has Baby scrawled in Baseball Blue across the front and she wouldn’t be caught dead in it but… into the shopping cart it goes. Nami gives her a long look before taking it out and hanging it back up. Vivi can’t help but feel a sting at that. She turns away, feeling cowardly and sorts through a rack of too small clothes, not really looking at them.

“You must think I’m a terrible snob,” she murmurs after a time.

“A little, yeah,” Nami says, but she sounds calm about it, no acidity to her words at all and Vivi glances out of her out of surprise. Nami gives Vivi’s shoulder a push. “But among us pirates you’re practically a paragon of virtue.” She waves a finger. “And even a princess gets to have a flaw or two, right?”

There’s nothing she can say to that without coming off more snobby. But the acceptance of it makes her face heat for some reason and she feels both loved and lacking. A princess should be more. Should be everything. Flawless as marble. But…she supposes she’ll have to work up to that and right now is just not the time.

She moves to another rack, this one by a bunch of flashy western gear which seems appropriate to this state. This particular rack seems to mark the dividing line between the mundane and the ranchero. The shirts are a little bigger than she needs but only by a few sizes. They are worn and drab but serviceable and have no prints, strange or otherwise. She throws a few in the cart. Only for now, she reminds herself. And most of them she will eventually be using to fight in so who cares what color it is?

“This is perfect,” Nami says and Vivi turns to see her holding out a pale white short sleeved shirt with a faint overlay of ginko leaves.

“It’s cute!” Vivi says, surprised to find something like this here. It’s not chic nor anything that would be approved anywhere near any kind of public engagement, but it feels like something she used to sit around in when she was a little girl. She folds it up and puts it in the cart and after wards it’s as if a trigger has been flipped somewhere. She keeps finding things she likes, tucked here and there in old women’s blouses and cut to there tops.

Somewhere between stroking the arm of a worn suede jacket and inspecting the turquoise stones set in a leather belt, Vivi realizes she’s enjoying herself. She’s absorbed in the choices and the fabrics and discovering what she likes and doesn’t. Because—when she thinks on it, she’s never actually shopped for clothes before. Her wardrobe has always been picked out by Terracotta. Everything well suited and tailored to her exact size at the time.

The most she’d picked out was when she was very young and stole some of Koza’s shirts and shorts to go rampaging through the forest with them. There’s a certain kind of freedom to this and she indulges in the light feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“I’d love to get that shot,” Nami says, sounding wistful. It takes some effort for Vivi to look up at her, like trying to swim out of a deep, fascinating pool. But when she does, she finds the other woman smiling faintly at her, head canted a little to the side.

“What shot?” Vivi asks, glad she had the presence of mind to at least register what Nami had been saying. No cause to appear rude.

“Of you looking so relaxed. I don’t think I’ve seen you yet without a forehead wrinkle,” Nami says, sticking out her tongue in a little pink half moon. Vivi absently presses her fingers to her forehead and laughs a bit self consciously.

“I don’t… Oh you mean from worrying? I’m sorry.” It still surprises her that Nami watches her so closely. She bends her head to push through some denim skirts though it’s not really her style at all. “There’s so much to worry about.”

“Don’t be sorry. It’s just an observation,” Nami says lightly. “Anyway, I’m sure it’ll come again if you hang around these guys long enough.”

“They do seem a bit lackadaisical.”

She glances toward the double glass doors. Sanji is at the grocery store a few doors down, but Vivi can just see the others off to the side of the parking lot in a small field slated for development. Luffy and Usopp are flinging a blue Frisbee around. Karoo is in the middle, jumping up and trying to catch it, small yellow wings flailing. Roronoa is sleeping against the “Coming Soon” sign, his arms folded, a perhaps confused butterfly perched on the green of his hair. She could almost believe that nothing had happened, except for the new routine checking the undercarriage of the car for tracking devices. She’s not sure if such a loose attention to the seriousness of the situation is a good thing, but she doesn’t mind being extra vigilant for their sakes.

Something seems to catch Luffy’s attention, then and he stands straighter, absently plucking the Frisbee from the air as it spins for his shoulder. Vivi shifts over a little so she can see what he’s looking at. A red pickup is slowing down and pulling over onto the narrow shoulder. Vivi’s heart jerks but when she doesn’t see the muzzle of a gun or notice any tension in their shoulders, she manages to relax a little. Luffy is going over to the window as if he was called, Usopp slower and more cautiously at his shoulder.

“Is…that anyone you know?” Vivi says to catch Nami’s attention.

“Hmm?” Nami comes over to stand by Vivi and squints. Then sighs. “No. I keep telling Luffy to stop talking to strangers but it’s probably a lost cause.” She shakes her head. “Anyway, Usopp and Zoro are there so I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Roronoa’s protection she can understand but… she raises her eyebrows and says as delicately as she can:

“Usopp?”

“He’ll make sure Luffy doesn’t get us into anything too crazy.” Then after a beat, Nami adds: “Or try anyway,” she says in a reconciled tone. She pats Vivi’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s try on some tacky prom dresses and call it a day.”

Luffy is practically leaning into the window now, on his tiptoes so he could. Any more and he would fall in. Vivi frowns. If Nami thinks it’s alright, it probably is…and Luffy is capable of taking care of himself. She reluctantly turns and pushes the rickety shopping cart over to where Nami is standing by a circular rack filled with puffy, frothy dresses, looking like fat tropical birds. She’s not really interested in any of them, never having cared much for dresses to begin with. But it might be fun to try one one, or anyway there is no harm in it.

“You know, I’ve never been to prom,” Vivi says, picking out out a dress that’s sleek and strapless until the bottom where it looks like someone half heartedly stuck it in some diseased blue poodle. There is a flower shaped rhinestone in the center of the scooped bust, the black spots where the stones are missing adding to the depressing look.

“Neither have I,” Nami says. She holds a short orange dress against her that looks good in the color at least but is far too ruffled with lace that reminds her of a doily. “High school wasn’t really my thing.” Even though her words are casual, it hits Vivi that Nami is saying something about herself. Something important.

“Mine either,” Vivi says, faintly surprised at the connection that’s made when their eyes meet. She’d never thought about it much. Most people do go through high school. Most normal people. She’d skipped it to help her family, and who can say with Nami but Vivi feels it’s due to more than just a frivolous compulsion to join the dangerous world of the circuit. Neither of them will ever be considered normal.

Nami looks away and the moment passes. Vivi watches her swish from side to side in the mirror a moment before making a face and putting the dress back. Nami’s expression doesn’t change from mild amusement, but there’s something missing, too, like the gap toothed flower. This place, too. It’s wonderful, but there’s still a sense of being left behind. The sense for scrambling for leftovers, putting their lives on hold and futures at risk to get done what’s important. She doesn’t regret her choice and guesses Nami doesn’t either, but there’s no mistaking that sense of standing outside. That’s the price, she supposes, for doing what you have to.

She tries to think of something that will lift the mood, buying herself some time by looking for a more suitable dress. The bells above the door jangle violently and Vivi jerks up, fingers twitching for the peacock slashers which aren’t there, and relaxing as she sees Luffy bounding in with Usopp trailing close behind.

“Oi! Nami!” he bellows as he makes his way over to them, making the iron haired cashier give him an evil look.

“Don’t yell across the store!” Nami yells back. Vivi covers her mouth to hide her smile. He bowls his way over to him, sunwarmed and puppy like with a wide grin as he waves an acid orange colored paper over his head.

“I found something awesome to do!”

“Well actually the guys in the truck gave it to him,” Usopp says, scratching the back of his head. “And they looked pretty skeevy--”

“It’s really cool!”

“Not that I was worried because I dealt with skeevy guys before during my time on the police force…”

“It’s got bull riding and free food.”

“…and there was this one time where I faced down the entire Chicago Mafia armed with only a peashooter…”

“And even wild horses,” Luffy says, eyes sparkling as he continues to wave the paper around. Nami makes a grab for it a few times before finally smooshing his hat down on his head, presumably to get him to stay still and snatches the paper from his head.

“But I really don’t think we should get into it, because like I said, skeevy,” Usopp says, waving a hand.

“And also ten dollars a head,” Nami says, raising her eyebrows. “It sounds like a gigantic ripoff to me.”

“It’s only ten dollars,” Luffy says with a frown. “And it sounds cool. I wanna go…”

“It sounds small but think about it,” Nami says, rolling up the paper and lightly thwacking him on the head with it. “For all of us it’ll come to sixty dollars. That’s a night at a hotel room and going out to McDonalds.”

“Don’t say the M word in front of Sanji,” Usopp says, holding up his hands. “You really don’t want to €hear it.”

“I want to go,” Luffy says, pushing his hat off. “And look, there is prize money for stuff.”

“Yes, like bull riding and lassoing, not as guaranteed as an arena.”

“May I see that flier?” Vivi says as a thought occurs to her. Nami blinks and hands it over and Vivi unrolls it.

King’s Road Rodeo and Rave! It exclaims in bold font. 18-23yr only! Broncos and Beer! Lassos and Ladies! Come where the cool kids are! August 4th-5th

Followed by a listing of events and prize money. She rests her fingers against her cheek in thought. There’s so much off about it. It seems to be offering beer to everyone, though that can’t be right. And the word ‘cool kids’ seems to be pushing the envelope a bit, as if it’s trying to appeal to a much younger crowd. Which adds to the second odd part.

“You say you got this from the people in the pickup.” She glances up at them. “What did they look like.”

“Just some guys,” Luffy says with a shrug.

“It was kinda hard to see,” Usopp adds. “But they were wearing cowboy hats.”

That could mean something or nothing. It’s strange that they would just give this flier to some teenagers playing by the side of the road. Perhaps if it was just Roronoa or even Sanji, she’d be less suspicious of the whole affair, but there was nothing about Luffy or Usopp that looked close to eighteen.

“Do you know something, Vivi?” Nami asks, coming to peer over her shoulder.

“No… Well not exactly. Just that it looks like a Feeder Event.”

“Feeder Event?” Usopp echoes. “Is that bad?”

“Do we get fed? We definitely gotta go now!” Luffy says, pumping a fist in the air. Usopp whacks the back of his hand against Luffy’s chest.

“Oi, I told you it’s skeevy. Whatever food it is you probably don’t want to eat it.”

“I’d eat almost any food no matter what,” Luffy says with a face so serious, Vivi can’t help but be faintly amused by it. But also a little disturbed. He is truly something else.

“There may be food,” Vivi says. “But I doubt there will be anything wrong with it. A Feeder Event is usually sponsored by a stable, or sometimes a beginner’s arena. It’s a way to lure in future fighters, either by persuasion or coercion.”

“C-coercion?” Usopp says, swallowing. Vivi nods, understanding his trepidation.

“Mm. Usually through gambling debts accumulated through the events.”

“Well that doesn’t sound too bad—”

“And occasional kidnapping,” Vivi adds. “But that’s rare.”

“That’s horrible! Why are these things so horrible?! Can’t a guy just go to a rodeo?” Usopp says.

“Yeah, we’re going,” Luffy says, shoving his hands in his pockets and grinning broadly as he rocks back and forth on his heels. “I can’t wait to ride the buuull! I bet they have the best steaks there. Let’s go!” He’s so enthusiastic. She’s faintly amused by his insistence they go. Especially as Nami seems to hold the purse strings and so far she hasn’t said anything.

“Hold on a minute, Luffy,” Nami says, glancing over to Vivi. “Do you think it’s worth our time?”

“Well…” Vivi starts.

“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” Luffy says, thrusting his fists in the air.

“Shut up!” Nami snaps. “Stop being so damn noisy!”

But it’s alright, because Vivi has to think about it, really. It’s a risk, to be sure, but they may be able to find out things if they are careful and not tweak any of the wrong noses. Feeder Events can be quite volatile depending on the group behind it but she’s never even heard of King’s Road so perhaps it’s alright to take the risk. And Luffy would undoubtedly have fun there. Though she has to find some way to make this palatable to Nami as well.

“I vote no,” Usopp says. “It could be dangerous and I’ve had my fill of kidnapping.”

“Yeah but we’re already going up against the Gator guy who blew up a building,” Luffy says, folding his hands behind his head. “If we can’t take these guys on we can’t take him.”

It’s surprisingly astute and Vivi can’t help but stare at him. Somehow Luffy always manages to surprise her with what he does understand. Usopp slumps at this and Vivi feels sorry for him a little. It must be terrifying for him and though she’s grown have a certain fondness for the boy, she wishes he would back out. He won’t get anything but hurt the further they progress.

“What have our lives come to,” Usopp mutters and Vivi wants to pat his shoulders but instead tries a smile.

“It’ll be alright. We don’t have to go.”

“We’re going to go,” Luffy says stubbornly. “No matter what.”

“Y-yeah but Nami says it’s expensive so…” Usopp starts.

“It’ll be alright,” Luffy says. “Expensive doesn’t matter.”

“Expensive does matter, you idiot,” Nami says with a sigh, lightly knocking her fist against Luffy’s forehead. “But if you want to go so bad, we’ll go.”

“WAHOO!” Luffy’s yell is enough to buzz the window panes and makes her flinch since she’s only a few feet from him after all. She’s a little worried about Usopp’s reaction but can’t help but feel a spark of Luffy’s enthusiasm as he proclaims. “Let’s go tell Zoro!” And carelessly grabs Usopp by the nose as he plows his way out the door.

“Oi wait! Wait! That’s my nose! That’s my nose!” The door slams behind them with a jangling crash and Vivi winces again as the silence fills the place Luffy had been, seeming almost stunned by his absence. Nami blows her bangs from her face and gives Vivi a smile.

“Got all you need for now?” Nami asks and when Vivi blinks at her, gestures to the shopping cart.

“Oh… Yes, it’s fine. But… well is this really okay? I mean, it is sixty dollars and I have no problems with putting things back.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Nami says, grabbing the handle of the shopping cart and pushing it toward the register. “You need them and it’s not as if we can’t make more money. You should see what we rake in on car washes alone.”

“Still…” Vivi grows silent as they reach the register and the woman rings them up, giving them the stinkeye all the while. Vivi screws on a pleasant and faintly apologetic smile, though she feels no need to apologize for Luffy’s natural exuberance and decides the lady must not have seen that million dollar smile of his. Nami’s expression only flattens as if she doesn’t care much what the woman thinks. Vivi is faintly envious. She would like to give the flat eyed stare, too. But diplomacy has been stitched into every bone of her body, and while she’s become very adept at keeping her real feelings separate, she’d like to let them out sometimes too.

The bell jangles much more softly as they walk out into the mildly hot day. In the field, Luffy is talking to Roronoa about the rodeo, his arms spread and Vivi can hear his voice faintly on the wind. Why is he talking about steaks as big as his head? Where did he get that idea? Usopp is sitting on the grass, petting Karoo and looking gloomy.

“It really is expensive. And poor Usopp…” Vivi says with a sigh. She really wishes she could do something about the both of them.

“Yes, well. Luffy wants to do it…” Nami trails off as she pops open the trunk. It is full of suitcases. A bag for Roronoa’s swords. A cooler crammed in there as well. Empty for now. Little room for their recent purchase. There is even less room in the backseat to store it as someone has to sit on the floor with a blanket to avoid attention from the police. Vivi can’t help but feel as if she’s overcrowding them and she must be. She owes them so much for their help.

“Okay…” Nami says after a moment. “For now let’s just put them in the front seat. When we manage to stop somewhere I’ll just cram Luffy and Usopp’s clothes together and you can use one of theirs.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to kick either one of them out of a suitcase.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Nami waves a hand. “I bought them both so technically they’re mine.”

“Well then I can share…”

“And have your clothes smell like what? Car parts or unwashed boy? Anyway, they won’t care.”

“If you say so…” It’s just another thing she will have to pay them back for one day and she will. Twice over.

“Look,” Nami says, gesturing to the field. Vivi does. Usopp is on his feet and is talking with his legs braced wide, hands on his hips, chest out, head back. He says something and points imperiously to Luffy who just laughs while Roronoa just yawns and rubs the back of his head, heading out further into the field until Usopp grabs his arm and turns him bodily around. Honestly. How could he not see the car from this distance?

“Usopp should be the least of your worries,” Nami says, bumping Vivi’s shoulder with her own. “He’s going to have fun in the end, so you should, too, okay?”

Vivi nods, her mood lifting a little at the sight. She’s still dubious but it is just a Feeder Event. She’s sure everyone will be fine. What’s the worst that could happen?



Vivi pushes the cowboy hat up and folds her hands behind her and follows a few steps behind the others. It’s…well much more of a production on their end than she expected. Somehow or another, a night talking enthusiastically about the rodeo had turned into this. Cowboy hats for all, except for Usopp who already has one—but who also added cheap Halloween costume cow print chaps they found in the Good Will on their return trip. Usopp also contributed to team shirts, drawing a matching ‘pirate flag’ designs on black t-shirts for everyone. Vivi can’t say she understands the pirate part, and the skull and cross bones look …well…more silly than intimidating since they are all wearing a straw hat but… Vivi glances at Luffy, wearing a cowboy hat like the others but the straw hat hanging from a string around his neck is bumping against his shoulder blades. She wants to touch it but refrains.

She sort of wishes she had the ‘pirate flag’ shirt, too, but as Nami pointed out, sensibly that when Vivi returns to her normal life, which she has every intention of doing, the more she’s disassociated from them, the better. Instead, she has a white shirt with a black “x” painted over it. X marks the spot to treasure, as Luffy said, and Vivi’s cheeks still heat in pleasure at remembering it. Really, what can anyone say to such a statement?

She takes a deep breath and lifts her head, following the others down the tree lined road. They had parked about a mile away from the event, an extra precaution, even if they were in the middle of nowhere. As they near it and she can see the wooden top of the stadium, she can hear the throbbing twang of country music filling the air and smell the frying food. She can’t help but feel a little burst of anticipation. Maybe it’s because Luffy is visibly excited, trying to charge ahead with Usopp and Roronoa taking turns, grabbing his shirt and pulling him back, once to avoid being hit by a violently colorful Volkswagen that had been speeding down the road, kicking up dust.

“Excited, Miss Vivi?” Sanji says, dropping back to walk beside her as he smokes lightly.

“Mm, a little. Though a little less than others.” She smiles as Usopp finally just wraps an arm around Luffy’s shoulders to keep him from bolting across the road. “Maybe you should invest in a leash.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Sanji says with a laugh. “But I don’t think there’s a shitty leash made that could hold him.” He says this with a kind of long suffering pride and Vivi can’t help but giggle a little.

“Uwaah, Miss Vivi looks so cute when she laughs!” Sanji coos, wiggling his hips before placing a hand in the center of his chest, bowing his head a little. “Please allow me to make you laugh for the rest of your life,” he says, so seriously that she can’t stop herself from grinning and shaking her head.

“That’s easy,” Roronoa says. “Just look at her.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean, you mossheaded pissant?” Sanji says, eyes narrowing. “You got something to say about my face?”

“Nothing you don’t know already, Curly Brow,” Roronoa says, waving a hand.

“Why you—”

“Are you excited?” Vivi says, touching Sanji’s arm to try and stop an incident before it starts She knows it’s just how they are, but it’s better if they keep their eyes on other things as they start to round the curve. “For the rodeo, I mean,” Vivi says. Sanji gives Roronoa a final scowl and then sighs and hooks his thumbs in his front pockets of his…well fairly tight jeans, she has to say.

“I guess so. Not really my shitty thing. Most of the time when I’m looking at livestock it’s deciding if it’s good enough to eat.”

“You butcher your own meat?” Vivi says, surprised. She didn’t think anyone really did that kind of thing anymore outside of the most rural places and certainly not in this country. The blond shrugs.

“Used to when I was a kid. Not so much anymore unless you count gutting fish. Hard to find shitty pigs in Seattle.”

“You must have had a very interesting childhood…”

“It was alright.”

She doesn’t press, though she is rampantly curious. Who are these people that travel with Luffy? That miss school and butcher their own food? That seem so afraid and yet go forward anyway? The only one not a real mystery is Roronoa but she’s been around so many arena rats that he seems fairly normal—if a little goofier than most.

Not too long after, they are standing in the parking lot and Vivi pushes her hat up again to take in the atmosphere of the place. The parking lot is full of pickups and jeeps, with the occasional muscle car and more than a few old clunkers with rusted places…the obnoxious Volkswagen is there, too, and Vivi gives it a disapproving frown before looking past it.

Beyond the parking lot is a kind of main thoroughfare, the grass space in front of the rickety wooden stadium is littered with tables and food stands, as well as a few cordoned off areas, ringed by mostly young men. She wonders at them until she sees two boys step over the ropes and start to circle each other, fists raised while an older man looks on. Exhibition rings probably. Just off to the side and mostly hidden around the curve of the stadium, she can see the foot of a stage at a bit of a distance and some men performing on it. Almost everyone is in cowboy hats and quite a few of the men have spurs on their boots.

They make their way through the parked cars, mostly following Nami, and surprisingly Nami leads them in an angle away from the ticket booths to where there’s a sizable gap between the tables.

“Okay, you guys, stand there,” she says, digging a camera from Usopp’s book bag. “Zoro and Sanji at the back. Luffy in the middle.”

“And Karoo, too!” Luffy says, plucking the duck from Usopp and setting him on his own head. Karoo poses, throwing back his head in pride and the small sequined cowboy hat they found for him flashes in the light. Usopp moves to stand in front of Sanji, resting an elbow on Luffy’s shoulder and Vivi smiles at them. Even just posing they make a great team.

“What are you doing?” Nami says and Vivi blinks when she realizes the other woman is talking to her.

“Huh?”

“Get in there.”

“Oh…but my shirt doesn’t match...” She says, flushing a little. “Isn’t that going to throw the whole picture off?”

Nami rolls her eyes.

“I’m not taking a picture of the shirt, dummy. Go on.”

Vivi does, standing a bit awkwardly beside Luffy on the other side and puts on her public smile. Nami sets up the camera and comes to stand beside Vivi, putting her hands on Vivi’s shoulders.

“Okay, on three, everyone say meat,” Nami says.

“Meat?” Vivi echoes with a laugh

“Meat!” the boys chorus.

“Not yet!” Nami snaps and the camera clicks. “Damnit, now we’ll have to do another one.”

“Nami always gets mad on the first picture,” Luffy says, laughter in his voice.

“That’s because you guys are idiots,” Nami grumbles and Vivi tries to keep herself from smiling too much. It’s horrible that she should be so amused by Nami’s plight but she can’t help but be a little. Even if it is partly her fault, they are all idiots and it’s wonderful.

“Okay,” Nami says, coming back. “I’ve set it up to take three shots about two seconds apart, the last one-- last one—is the silly shot, alright? Ready?”

Vivi’s smile is more genuine this time and she even leans on Luffy’s shoulder a little as the camera clicks the second time. On the third time, however, everyone seems to move at once. Vivi is too preoccupied with turning to tickle Nami’s sides, making the orange haired woman squeal a laugh and try to push her away while Roronoa’s makes a surprised duck noise above them. Vivi looks up just in time to see Sanji removing his fingers from the corners of Roronoa’s mouth where he was making other man smile.

“That was vile,” Sanji says, shaking out his fingers. “Don’t you even brush your shitty teeth?”

“What the hell, shit cook?!” Roronoa snaps, a cord in the neck bulging.

“I was improving your damn ugly mug for the camera,” Sanji says with a light smirk. “Sadly it didn’t work. Forgive me, my phenaminal Nami.”

“Tch, you’re not worth my time, stupid brow.”

“Oh yeah?!” Sanji snaps, knocking his forehead into Zoro’s.

“Yeah!” Zoro snaps, shoving back. A kweh draws her attention and Vivi sees that Luffy is wandering off. Good messenger duck. Since Usopp seems to be preoccupied with the fight and Nami is disassembling her camera, Vivi tentatively reaches out and grabs the back of Luffy’s shirt, pulling him gently back to the group. Her first time! She can’t help but feel a little accomplished.

“There’s so much to see,” he whines, seeming to be vibrating softly.

“I know,” Vivi says with a smile. “But we have to wait until Nami pays for us to get in.”

“Alright you guys,” Nami says, and as Roronoa’s and Sanji’s argument gets louder: “You guys… You guys!” They don’t seem to hear her so she sighs, puts one hand on her hip and snaps her fingers. “Sanji, heel!”

“At your shitty service!” Sanji says, pulling away from Roronoa and snapping a salute. Luffy laughs at that and Vivi can’t help but giggle with him.

“Pathetic,” Roronoa mutters.

“Say what you like, shithead. It’s a man’s pride to be ordered around by a beautiful woman,” Sanji says, pointing at Roronoa with a cigarette.

“Anyway,” Nami says, cutting off whatever Roronoa was going to say in response. “Everyone gets five dollars each. That’s all we can spare. If you want more you’ll just have to win some competitions.”

Nami hands out the money and they start for the ticket gate. There’s a turnstile to get in and Vivi watches as Nami skillfully staggers her crew mates, her in front of Roronoa, Usopp between him and Sanji, Luffy behind Sanji and Vivi bringing up the rear. She doesn’t mind, though. She knows her job and successfully keeps Luffy from meandering away, by keeping her hands on his shoulders and pointing out the hawk that is coasting in lazy circles above the arena. It sort of reminds her of Pell and she feels her heart lurch.

Pell is already fighting, flying so far from home, trying to skim information from Crocodile’s network so that she will know just what she is up against. It’s so dangerous and it’s likely he’ll die if he’s caught. The sun seems to dim a little… There’s so much to do. So much still to do. This is just a small stop in the road, not even the real beginning of the journey. It’s going to get much harder from here on out and there’s no guarantee of success.

“It’s okay,” Luffy says and Vivi realizes she’s gripping his shoulders, leaving little half moon dents against the fabric with her nails. She drops her hands, an apology on her lips but he just looks back at her, smile shadowed by the cowboy hat. “We’ll get to the important stuff soon. Just have fun for now.”

Vivi nods and smiles, tilting her hat down as she pushes through the turnstile. She will do her best.



She will, and does, but it’s difficult. Vivi perches on the bar of what looks like an old fashioned hitching post, though whether it’s for use or just for aesthetics, she can’t tell. She’s been to a few food stands, though none of the food piqued her interest. She’d watched the musicians for a bit and for the most part tried not to look anyone in the eye… but in the end it had gotten to her. Some—well most of the people here are her age or older, though she can’t think of them of anything but kids no matter how close in age they are. There are a few adults here and there. Mostly men that definitely fit the twenty-three year old bracket and perhaps a bit older. There are also those younger. Not so long ago she saw a boy, thirteen or fourteen maybe, with a closed focused look and hard eyes. It’s difficult for her to enjoy anything when she thinks on the life awaiting that boy, or the others. A life in the circuit is hard, brutal. They will train, be hurt, changed for life and this place is where it all starts.

She takes a deep breath in a sigh, smelling frying fish and beer. It makes her stomach sour for some reason and she tucks one foot behind the other and tries not to think so hard. Instead, she picks out her…well her friends in the crowd. It’s not difficult to do with their black t-shirts and pirate flags.

There is Luffy at a fair distance, sitting another eating contest—having finished his own plates is now stealing from others at an alarming speed and Vivi can’t help but smile a little and shake her head in bewilderment at the same time. Where does he keep it all? Roronoa is camped at the furthest exhibition ring, a large crowd surrounding it as he takes down everyone that comes after him whether they weild a sword or a baseball bat. Nami is sitting on the fence, and though Vivi can’t hear her, she’s almost certain the other woman is hustling the crowd and looking happy to do so.

Usopp is wandering around, chatting with a few people, usually hanging around with Luffy or Sanji, but right now he seems to be popping every balloon in some dart throwing game, much to the distress of the person at the booth. Sanji is harder to spot unless he’s with Usopp. Despite his shirt, he blends in somehow. She’s seen him talking to the food vendors, following the few knots of women around, fairly trailing hearts as he goes, or participating in one of the exhibition matches. Karoo seems to divide his time between all of them.

It makes Vivi sad in a way. Even Karoo is more at home here than she is. True he is just a duck, even if he’s hyper-intelligent for his species. It’s just not her kind of fun. She leans back on her hands and stares at the blue sky, puffed with clouds. The hawk is wheeling again and Vivi squints to watch it through her eyelashes, trying to remember what it was like back home. The huge green trees and sloping vines, spotted here and there with scarlet macaws, the river that cut through the valley, dividing it nearly in half, wide and brown with silt, making the farming rich… The small city of Alubarna, the once capital, tucked into a mountainside, all whitewashed walls and multicolored roofs, looking like odd mushrooms from a distance. She can only remember bits and pieces of it all really. Hazy childhood memories since she hasn’t been there since she was ten or so. She tries to recapture the memories anyway. The sight, the sound, the sweet fullness of cherimoya fruit on her tongue…

“What do you mean you haven’t found it yet?” says an annoyed voice nearby, scattering her thoughts. She opens her eyes and then blinks, eyes widening as she sees what is unmistakably Buggy the Clown, towering over a man who must be his subordinate under the twisted shade of a stunted tree. Vivi tugs her cowboy hat down a little over her face, though she doubts he will recognize her as they’ve never met in person, or have even been in the same arena, as far as she knows.

What is he doing here?

“We’ve looked everywhere boss— er— Captain,” the subordinate says, cringing in his red and white striped shirt. “Are you sure it’s here?”

“Of course I’m sure. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t!” He leans down, his arms folded over his chest. “Now find it before I get mad.”

“Yessir!” the man squeaks before fairly tumbling off. Buggy straightens and she looks away so he won’t catch her looking, watching out of the corner of her eye as he sneezes, rubs his bright red nose muttering about pollen, and stomps off through the dappled shade. She turns her head and watches him go. He’s looking for something. But what? Whatever it is, it seems he doesn’t care about standing out, what with his flashy striped stockings and cloth belt. There’s not even a cowboy hat pushing down his short bristled pigtails.

She chews the inside of her lip, contemplating following, then decides against it. Though too big a player for this simple Feeder Event, he’s small enough that she’s only heard of him because of his one time connection to Bloody Roger. She and Igaram had prepared to face him once since they entered the circuit at much the same time, and there was news buzzing that Buggy was ready to make a big splash and shake up the world. But so far there’s barely been a ripple of him. Besides which, she thinks as she stretches and hops off the bar—thinking to join one of the others— There are an awful lot of men in striped shirts around and she doesn’t want to cause trouble if she can help it.

For the moment, though, it’s time to make herself useful by winning something. Vivi takes three steps before trouble finds her in the form of a little dog that she nearly trips over. He is a stern eyed thing, a wire haired terrier of some sort. He regards her with a stony eyed glance as if affronted she didn’t see him. The glint of tags hang from the leather worked collar around his neck and Vivi smiles, sinking to her knees and resting back on her heels.

“My apologies, sir,” she says teasingly, reaching out tentatively for the dog. When it doesn’t seem he’ll bite, she strokes his ears and gives him scratches under the chin, before lifting his tags with her fingertips. “Let’s see who you belong to.” He lifts his chin as if to aid in this. But there is no name on the tags, neither dog’s nor an owner. Just an address. Somewhere on Fable Street, which is nothing she’s ever heard of but perhaps Nami can find out. She’s about to gather the small dog in her arms when a young voice cries:

“Shushu!” The dog’s ears perk and his tail wags back and forth. Vivi looks up to see an equally stern faced little girl making her way through the forest of legs. She seems like a native girl, wearing a much too big red and gold woven shirt that reminds Vivi a little of old Alabastan designs.

“Is this your dog?” Vivi asks as the girl comes closer and halts, her small face unreadable though her toes clench in her yellow dirt smudged sandals. Vivi rests her arms against her legs to seem casual and friendly, not actively reaching for the dog. Perhaps the girl is shy.

“We were just getting acquainted. His name is Shushu?”

The girl nods.

“I’m Vivi.” She holds out a hand. The girl hesitates and then tentatively takes it. Her hand is a little sticky as if she’s been eating something, but Vivi doesn’t mind.

“Aisa,” the girl says. Hesitates, then adds. “Are you special?”

What an odd thing to say. But there is no guile in this girl. Anxiety, maybe, but Vivi doesn’t blame her. There are a lot of…well young people who are not the best role models around, many of which are getting drunk as the afternoon warms into evening. She must be very nervous out here on her own.

“No. I’m just a person. But I’m very good at finding people. Parents for instance.” She teases this out a little, hoping Aisa will take the bait. The girl frowns a little and abruptly picks up the dog, under the forepaws. Hanging down like that, his rump reaches her knees but he doesn’t seem to mind the rough treatment. His steady stern gaze never leaves Vivi’s face. The girl is also watching Vivi with dark eyes like she’s trying to decide something.

“My mama is the stable master,” Aisa says. “Will you walk me back?”

“Of course. But you’ll have to show me the way.”

“Okay,” the girl says. Shushu whines and the girl looks around and then in a surprisingly practiced move, shifts the dog to one arm and pulls the shirt over him, then holding him with her other arm as she slips that arm free of her shirt and cradles him with that one too. She looks like she’s suddenly grown a little lumpy pot belly.

“Shushu gets nervous,” Aisa says unconvincingly.

“I see.” Vivi stands and looks around herself, but no one seems to have noticed, but she keeps herself on alert, just in case. The girl leads on, keeping to the shadows. She moves at a quick pace, but a steady one, her little face smooth and unhurried, and it seems normal but she seems incredibly focused. Tense.

“Is this place used for rodeos often?” Vivi asks lightly, both to try and soothe Aisa, while at the same time trying to figure out this place. Had some arena or stable decided to take over this stadium for their own use, bullying the owners into participating against their will? It’s happened before. Too many times.

“Yeah, but this is a real rodeo. It’s a special one. Real rodeos have cowboys,” Aisa says, telling Vivi…not much at all really.

“It looks like there are a lot of cowboys here already.”

The girl screws her mouth up.

“They just wear stupid hats. My Papa didn’t need hats. He could take down an angry bull with just one whip of a bolo! Fwip!” and she threw an imaginary bolo with her hand, nearly dropping the dog in the process, but catches him again. From the tone she can’t help but assume her father is either dead or left the family. Either way, Vivi doesn’t press. Someone yells nearby and Vivi glances over but it’s just some redfaced boy swinging around a beer can.

“We have real rodeos on the off season,” Aisa continues. The ‘we’ is telling. And so is off season. The off season for what? Feeding Events? They usually do go in cycles, coinciding with school schedules, of course. The point of the matter is, the girl is not only used to this, she also doesn’t seem to mind it. Perhaps no one is twisting their arm. Or perhaps the adults are keeping the full brunt of the truth from her.

Either way, Vivi doesn’t know and reminds herself they can’t get involved. There is no time to take care of the problems of the world. Perhaps once Crocodile is exposed for the monster he is, people will sit up and take note of what’s going on underneath their noses. For right now, the most Vivi can offer is an escort.

The stables are large and old, but well cared for. It smells like horse and manure and reminds Vivi of the stables at the boarding school, one of her few positive experiences at the place. She had been relegated to the few school horses, much to the disdain of the other girls, but she hadn’t much cared.

“Well, then,” Vivi says. “I…”

“Wait,” Aisa says, crouching to let Shushu out. “This way.” And she grabs Vivi’s wrist to lead her further into the dimness of the stables. The fairly empty stables. A few horses wuffle and look at her and one whinnies from the back but otherwise it’s silent.

“Uncle Dalton!” Aisa calls as they go. “Uncle Dalton! Hey, Uncle Dal— Oh there you are.” She stops in front of a man crouched by an empty stall. He rises, and rises… He must be a good six foot five maybe, with broad shoulders and a serious face, a white scar running the length of it from his right temple to his jaw. Vivi feels a little intimidated, to be honest, but not afraid.

“Aisa…” the man says, heavy gaze moving from the girl to Vivi.

“Shushu found her,” Aisa says, which…is an odd way to put it. The dog sits by Vivi’s ankles and wuffs.

“And then she brought me back,” Aisa continues.

“I see…” Dalton says, a slow smile lifting one side of his face that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. Though there is nothing cold in his expression, just slow and focused. “Thank you for helping out. It’s a dangerous world out there.”

“Oh, it was nothing at all, please don’t mention it,” Vivi says, holding up her hands and wondering why those words seemed more like a warning than anything.

“It’d be going against tradition if we didn’t thank you somehow,” Aisa said, craning her head to look up at her uncle. “Right?”

“Right,” he says after a moment. “After the rodeo is over, maybe you’d like to come back for a tour.”

“Ah, well, I’m— with my friends,” Vivi says, smiling the diplomat’s smile. Pleasant and polite but giving nothing. Seemingly open but making no promises. “But let me go ask them.” And if they didn’t let her go then she would know something was up. Something untoward. Despite how it looked and how she felt, there were so many factors to the truth. Her heart gave a nervous twitch against her ribs.

“Alright,” Dalton said easily.

“But…” Aisa said, grabbing onto his massive arm with one small hand. He rests his hand on her hair.

“It’s for her to decide,” he says. “The hand lesson, remember?”

“Yeah…” Aisa mutters, scuffing a yellow sandal against the hay strewn floor. Dalton turns his attention back to Vivi.

“Until later, Miss?”

“We’ll see,” Vivi amends. And then out of habit: “It was nice to meet you both. Take care Aisa.” And with a final wave she walks in a measured pace out of the stables, feeling them watching her. What was that. What is going on in this place? She wishes she could ask Igaram for advice. She can try, she knows. She can send a message with Karoo and the duck will find him without fail— but then there’s always the great risk of interception or worse. So, for right now, she’s on her own.

…Or not, she realizes, as she spots Nami across the way, sitting at a nearby picnic table and counting money while Zoro snoozes with his cheek resting against the metal. Nami spots her and waves her over and Vivi can’t help but feel relief start to wind through her as she comes to sit beside her, preferring to sit on the table rather than the bench, not wanting her legs trapped at the moment.

“Having fun?” Nami asks.

“Yes, of course…” Vivi says distractedly as she looks for the other three. There’s Sanji, somehow having gotten himself involved behind a food stand, Luffy annnd Usopp right behind him. Good. She lets out a breath.

“Liar,” Nami says teasingly, swatting Vivi’s leg. “Worried as always… But this should be a load off your mind, look.” Vivi glances over and blinks. Nami is pulling at her collar, as if inviting Vivi to look down her shirt. It’s…it’s well a little forward but… Oh there is a large wad of money in her cleavage.

“Where did all that come from?” Vivi says, looking into Nami’s face as she tries to fan the heat from her own with the cowboy hat.

“Where do you think?” Nami says, lightly patting Zoro’s head. “Though Luffy and Usopp won some and Sanji promised he’d keep the tips. But even just as it is we’re about five hundred dollars in the black!” Nami smiles and hugs herself, twisting back and forth, though Vivi suspects she’s really hugging the money. “I love me some rodeo!”

Vivi feels a momentary surge of guilt that she’s not yet contributed, but pushes it away. She climbs down to sit beside Nami, though facing outward and leaning back against the table on her elbows, feigning casualness.

“I think there’s more going on here than it seems,” she says in a low voice.

“Well duh. It’s a Feeder Event,” Nami says with a smile. “I didn’t just enter the circuit yesterday.”

“Yes but more than usual…and…” She debates on whether to say something or not. She doesn’t wish to worry Nami over what may be nothing but… better to be well informed. “Buggy the Clown is here… He’s looking for something.”

“Well as long as whatever’s happening happens to someone else, we’re fine. And I know about Buggy. Cabaji has already lost to Zoro three times.”

“Think he’d actually try to put up a fight for once,” Zoro mutters.

“Well it seems we cleaned him out so you can stop fighting him,” Nami says. Zoro raises his head, and glowers at Nami, a look which is somewhat ruined the impression of the table running the length of his cheek.

“I didn’t fight him for you or your damn money.”

“Oh?” Nami tilts her head. “Then why did you fight him, Mr. Bushido? Some kind of swordsman’s honor?”

Zoro smirks, lifting a can of beer.

“To prove I was better.”

Nami rolls her eyes and even Vivi is blindsided a little by his cocky attitude…and is mildly impressed despite herself, but that isn’t the issue at hand so she tries to bring the conversation back to the topic at hand.

“Yes, but, well Buggy isn’t unknown and if he’s looking for something…”

“Don’t worry about Buggy,” Nami says. “Seriously. He won’t get in our way so long as we don’t get in his. Look, Vivi,” Nami rests a warm smooth hand on her arm. “We all know how dangerous this place is. We got into this life knowing it…well most of us,” she says, casting a glance back to where Usopp has hooked an arm around Luffy’s shoulders and was explaining something to the other boy’s obvious delight. “But trust me, between Zoro, Sanji and meat on the brain over there, we can handle whatever this place throws at us and then some.”

“Blindfolded,” Zoro mutters and Vivi believes them though she probably shouldn’t. But if there is no cause for concern, there is no cause for concern… And perhaps she can even ask Mr. Dalton if he knows anything about the Oklahoma Tournament. Though, Vivi reminds herself, if he is one of the ones behind setting up this Feeder Event or even participates willingly, he’s not a man to be trusted.

“Oii! Guys!” Luffy bellows, and Vivi sees that he has attained a Sanji along the way, and also a clipboard. “Look! Look!” he says with a wild grin, practically smacking Nami in the face with the thing. She’s spared only by her own fingers.

“Thanks, Luffy,” she says dryly. “Shove it a little harder next time.”

Vivi gives her a sympathetic smile and holds out her hands for Karoo who hops down from Usopp’s shoulder to waddle over to her and nest himself in her lap. He has all the signs of a very happy messenger duck and Vivi can’t be more pleased.

“Watch it, shithead!” Sanji snaps, popping Luffy in the head with a leg and nearly getting Usopp, too.

“Oi!” Usopp snaps. “Watch it! You could have cracked my head open!”

“Ah, you’ve got a thicker skull than that, shitty longnose,” Sanji says with something almost close to what could possibly be termed affection, and he flicks the end of said nose with a finger.

“One day I’m going to kick you in the head,” Usopp mutters, rubbing his nose. Vivi shakes her head.

“Rodeo signups?” Nami says. “Luffy this isn’t like circuits, you know. You’re not fighting a horse.”

“I know,” Luffy says, plopping on the table and stealing Zoro’s beer. Vivi’s hand twitches to take it from but but fortunately Zoro takes it back for himself, wrapping Luffy in a headlock to keep him from doing it again. “I wanna ride one of those things again. It’s fun.”

“Well…” Nami starts. “Wait, again?”

“Yeah! We went to a lot of rodeos when I was growing up. I rode the horses all the time.”

“Bull!” Usopp says.

“We kept getting kicked out for eating them,” Luffy says, picking his nose. It probably says something that Vivi doesn’t doubt a bit of it by now.

“Luffy, you’re not supposed to eat the bull, you’re supposed to ride it,” Nami says. “But if you want to sign up, sure, go ahead.”

“I know. Can I have a pen?” He takes the one that Usopp offers and scribbles out his name in big sloppy letters. “But we only went to rodeos when Ace was really mad and that’s a lot of hamburger.”

“I believe it,” Zoro says, tossing back the rest of his beer, then crushing the can against his head and belching. Luffy laughs and Vivi keeps her smile on because, well, that’s something to be expected at times like these.

“Do you mind not being such a goddamn Neanderthal?” Sanji grumbles. “There are ladies present.”

“The only lady I see bitching is you,” Zoro says, taking the clipboard and pen from Luffy and signing his own name. Sanji’s eye narrows to a slit and Vivi sighs inwardly. Nami passes Vivi her beer which is somewhat warmed, but Vivi drinks it anyway, spluttering only a little on the taste.

“You wanna say that again, shitty mosshead? I’ll kick your ass so hard you won’t even be able to sit on the damn toilet.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Zoro says standing.

“Ah, why don’t you compete with the rodeo instead?” Usopp says, holding up his hands. “Whoever can outlast the longest is the best asskicker… for today.” And then he strokes his chin, a smirk curling over his face. “Of course that would be me but you guys can compete for second place.”

“Shouldn’t be too damn hard,” Sanji growls, snatching the clipboard from Zoro and scrawling his name. “Just wear a shitty bag so the poor thing doesn’t drop dead from the sight of your face.”

“Why don’t you so it doesn’t fall over laughing from the sight of your stupid eyebrow?”

“My eyebrow is cultured, damnit!”

“You look like you’re walking around with a dartboard stapled to your head. And if it’s so damn cultured why can’t we see both of them?” Zoro reaches and Sanji leans back, scowling.

“Touch my hair and you’re a shitty dead man.”

Zoro grins and puts a hand on his sword. Vivi finishes the beer and sets it to the side. Men… Karoo gives a concerned kweh, and she pets him absently.

“That a promise?”

“Touch Sanji’s hair and you’ll owe me a hundred dollars,” Nami says blandly and then: “Usopp what are you doing?”

Usopp has the clipboard, Vivi notices and is penning his name in for something.

“Signing up,” he says innocently.

“Why the hell would I owe you anything for that guy’s damn hair?!” Zoro snaps.

“Because women don’t drop money on guys with bad haircuts,” Nami says, taking the clipboard. “You signed up for the bull, Usopp.”

“Woah, really? That’s so cool!” Luffy says, gripping the edge of the table and clapping his feet. “You didn’t sign up to eat it did you?”

“No!” Usopp swats a hand. “There’s not even a sign up for that! And anyway I just happen to be a champion bullrider.”

“Women drop money on me?” Sanji says somewhat in the background as swishes his hips back and forth. “I won’t let you down ladies of the arenas! Your prince will always be gorgeous.”

“Prince of Idiot Kingdom maybe,” Zoro says.

“Ahh?! Come again, shitface?!”

And the two start again. Vivi tunes them out and the resultant crash of steel against legs as she peers over Nami’s shoulder at the clipboard. Right away she can see the cause of Nami’s hesitation.

“It costs money to go for a chance at the bull,” Nami says. “A hundred bucks. You’re sure you want to do this?”

“Like I said, I’m an expert! I rode bulls all the time back at home. Started when I was five years old and haven’t stopped,” Usopp says, jerking a thumb at himself.

“Usopp is awesome!” Luffy crows. “I wanna see you do it! It’s gonna be amazing!”

“Oh yes, Usopp is stellar,” Nami says, handing the clipboard and pen to Vivi. “And you’re not going to back out of it, are you?”

“Not a single step.”

“Okay, I’ll pay the money,” Nami says. Then grabs Usopp’s shirt and jerks him forward, pressing them nose to nose. “But so help me, if I do, you’re getting on that bull or I’ll trample you myself.”

“Ha…hahaha n-nah I w-won’t b-back out at a-all! I’m a ch-champion!”

Vivi stares at the list. It’s a reckless thing to do. She could break her neck. She shouldn’t be so tempted to sign her name. She could lose everything. But maybe it was the music or the heat of the day, the beer passing through her veins or the sound of the fight just off to her left but she really really wants to take the risk. Luffy leans down.

“If you wanna do it, do it.”

“I could get hurt…” Vivi murmurs. Not that she minds for herself per se, but for her people, her mission, everything…

“Yeah, maybe,” Luffy says. “But it’ll be alright. We’ll help you.”

She shouldn’t. She absolutely should not but… but who knows when she may get a second chance? Vivi bites her lip and signs her name. A shadow falls over her and she looks up to find a man in a red and gold shirt similar to Aisa’s. He must work here, too, because he offers them a bland smile

“You guys all signed up?”

“Oh, yes I think so,” Vivi says, handing the clipboard to him.

“I see you’ve signed up for the bull?” The man says. “Well you can pay us back at the end of the night. No welching.” And he tips his hat and heads off into the crowd. The aluminum of the picnic table thrums as Luffy bounces his legs up and down.

“This is going to be so so awesome!” he says. “Ahh, I’m getting chills just thinking about it!”

“Me too,” Vivi says with a smile. It’s so dangerous but why not. Why not?

“Hey,” Usopp says. “Oi, oi, oi! Where did the clipboard go?!”

“The guy took it,” Luffy says casually. “But he said we can pay the money at the end.”

“It should be no problem for our champion, right?” Nami says, sitting back on the bench. Usopp drops to his knees in the grass.

“R-right.” And then he clutches at his chest. “Oh I’m an attack of can’t-ride-the-bull-or-I’m-going-to-die-disease.”

“Too bad. The cure is a hundred bucks,” Nami says dryly, passing Vivi another can of beer before popping open one herself. Vivi really shouldn’t have more but… she follows suit and takes a sip.

“I think I’d rather just die,” Usopp whimpers. Luffy laughs.

“You won’t die. If he gets too mad, just bite him.”

“That’s not how bull riding works!” Usopp roars, surging to his feet. Vivi smiles and shakes her head. Honestly. These two… These people…

“Well?” Nami says, nudging Vivi’s shoulder. “Having fun yet?”

“You know? I think I am.” She may regret it tomorrow but for right now, even if it’s just for a few hours tonight, she regrets nothing.


There is a buzz in the air. A cool breeze is curling down either side of the stadium walls, getting caught along the sides and ghosting through her sweat soaked bangs. The air smells of beer and horse and excitement and along the wooden stands, hundreds of people are roaring in approval as they watch—either from the big screen or down in the ring itself as the bronco bucks and kicks and snaps and twirls, trying to tear its rider free. It’s dangerous. So dangerous. And Vivi feels a little giddy watching it all. Perhaps a bit too much beer, though it was only the can and some that she’d had at the table. But she feels reckless and wild as she cheers with the rest of them, one shoe up on the metal fence. The horse bucks fiercely, sending the rider reeling out onto the stadium ground and staff members rush up to lead the furious kicking horse off.

“Contestant number thirteen!” the announcer says, his voice rocking through the whole stadium. “Three point ten seconds.”

Vivi claps politely at the results, watching the young man stagger up, limping only a little as he brushes the dirt from his chaps.

“I know I said to have fun,” Nami says from beside her. “But I still can’t believe you actually entered.”

“Isn’t it better than just worrying all the time?” Vivi retorts, sticking out her tongue, then lifting her head to a breeze though trying not to smell too deeply.

“I think it’s awesome!” Luffy says from where he’s sitting on the fence, grinning hugely. What it is it about that smile that’s so infectious?

“You shut up,” Nami says, but she’s smiling, too.

“Is he okay?” Usopp says from a few feet away, his face buried in his hands as they had been for most of the rounds.

“Nope, torn to shreds,” Sanji says in a deadpan.

“Not a piece left,” Zoro adds.

“He was lucky, though. Wasn’t a shitty bull,” Sanji says.

“Shut the hell up! You’re not helping, you bastards!” Usopp snaps and Vivi hides a giggle.

“Are you really going to make him ride a bull, Nami?” Vivi asks, watching as the orange haired woman seats herself beside Luffy on the fence. She loses her balance a moment, but Luffy catches the small of her back until she finds it again.

“I’m not going to make him do anything,” Nami says, tugging at the hem of her short denim skirt before crossing one leg over the other. “A hundred isn’t that much and he’ll make enough to pay me back eventually. Probably from his MC cut.” She waves a hand. “I won’t even charge him interest. So if he wants to chicken out, he can.”

“You’re quite the ruthless business woman,” Vivi says and Nami winks.

“You know it.”

“Contestant number fourteen! Get ready!”

That’s her. Vivi’s heart pounds in her chest and her blood sings. She gives Karoo a kiss on the head for good luck and then moves to the gate. The bronco is a sorrel stallion, with small fine ears and a short black mane. The dark haired woman who is attending the gate gives her a look as she mounts but says nothing. Vivi decides she doesn’t care about the look or whatever it means. The leather smell of the saddle floods her senses and the way it creaks under her as she mounts, there are no stirrups and she has to shift to find her center of balance as the horse skitters underneath her. It’s been so long since she’s been on a horse in any capacity and this one has more energy than any horse she’s ever been on. She can feel the muscles tense, the stallion dances in nervous anticipation and tosses his head. Vivi pats his neck.

“Ready?” The dark eyed woman says. Vivi shifts her weight again, slips her hand under the loop in the saddle. Sweat slides down her temple, the glare of the lights surrounding the stadium cut off a little by the edge of her hat. She can hear the roar of the onlookers but behind her and more clear than anything, the cheers of her friends, their voices overlapping, but she can understand everything they say.

“Good luck!” Nami.

“If that shitty horse tries anything I’ll bake it into a casserole!” Sanji. She smiles a little at that one.

“Be careful!” Usopp. She hears Zoro grunt, and takes that as a sign that at least he’s watching.

“Goo, Vivi!” Luffy crows. The horse dances and she nods to the dark eyed woman who gives her another look and then opens the gate.

The horse charges out and she’s nearly thrown off just at the burst of speed but the she clamps her legs around the barrel of his sides and holds on. Her heart seems to leave her chest as the horse leaves the ground, snapping back, her teeth clicking together when it hits the ground and tries to throw her off. It’s exhilarating and terrifying all at once.

She feels herself slipping and knows she doesn’t have much longer and so waits for the right time, the second all four hooves are on the ground before swinging a leg over and letting falling off, hitting the ground with a jarring breath stealing thud and rolling away from those flashing hooves as the wranglers lead the stallion off. Her heart is still jackhammering against her ribs even as she coughs on the dust of the stadium floor.

But she takes a moment to gather herself and stands, ignoring the twinge of pain down her shin as she picks up her cowboy hat which had fallen and tugs it back on, listening to the approval of the crowd around her. She can see the others waiting for her and waving by the fence, all of them smiling, even Zoro has a smirk and she waves to them, listening to the announcer call her time. Six seconds. It had felt like less than that but she’s not complaining.

“You were good!” Nami says as Vivi climbs over the railing, wincing a little. Sanji holds out a hand to help her to the ground and she takes it gratefully, leaning against the bars.

“I used to ride some when I was younger,” Vivi says. “But I think I’ve got rodeo out of my system.”

“That’s good.” Nami clicks her tongue. “You’re bleeding again. Here Usopp give me your bag.”

Vivi notices the blood slicking down her leg again and now that she does notice, it hurts, but it’s nothing more than a dull ache. Another number is called and the cowboy in question goes sauntering past, his spurs clicking. There are others lined up behind him and it suddenly hits Vivi that most of them are wearing striped shirts. There are so many of them. Ten at least. Who knows how many waiting in the stadium. Are they associated with Buggy? Even if they are, does it matter? As Nami said if they stay out of Buggy’s way he will stay out of theirs and— it is none of their concern really. But…

No it’s not her concern and she won’t make it her concern. She fixes a smile on her face, thanking Nami as the final knot of the bandage is tied, then watches Zoro move past as his number is called. He walks with the same easy confidence he does with everything— which seems strange really as he seems flummoxed on how to actually get on the horse, putting the wrong leg up and not seeming to notice until he’s facing backwards.

This sends Sanji, Usopp and Luffy into gales of laughter, Nami drags a hand over her face, while the poor man, red faced and spluttering tells them to shut up while he tries to get situated, nearly kicking the poor horse in the head. Vivi smiles but is distracted again by the striped shirt men who seem to be conversing. She purposefully turns away, though keeps them out of the corner of her eye.

Finally Zoro manages to get on the horse right and out of the gate but he doesn’t last for long. A few solid bucks of the piebald stallion send the man flying off but his grip is still strong on the loop and he’s fairly tugging the horse over as he runs to keep up. A few of the striped shirted men leave and Vivi realizes abruptly that Karoo is missing. He’ll be fine, of course. He’s a competent duck and knows how to stay out of trouble.

“Oh great,” Nami says. “Zoro, you moron.”

Vivi’s attention is drawn back to the stadium floor just in time to see Zoro hop the fence of the far side of the ring. Luffy laughs.

“Don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine.”

“I will worry about it,” Nami says. “You don’t worry about anything and that’s why we always get in trouble.”

“Don’t worry, my goddess,” Sanji says. “I’ll go look for him after I win.”

“Thanks, Sanji-kun,” Nami says, fanning herself with her hat. Vivi doesn’t blame her. The wind has gone and humidity has sunk in. Even now Vivi can see the low thick clouds creeping over the starts just beyond the glare of the lights.

Sanji’s ride is more successful, though he oddly doesn’t hold on with his hands, just grips the horse with his legs and doesn’t let go. Vivi tries to watch and manages to cheer at the right parts but the more she looks, the more of the striped shirt men seem to walk off and now there are only two left. Are they changing some sort of plan or implementing it? Are they heading toward the barn? Is Aisa in danger?

No— she can’t let it worry her so openly. Already Nami is watching her. She smiles under Nami’s gaze and pushes her bangs over her ear self consciously. Luffy cheers shrilly and Vivi realizes Sanji’s ride is finished and he’s made it to the buzzer. She applauds as well. Luffy turns back towards them and jolts to attention almost immediately.

“Oh hey! They’re bringing out the bull! Let’s go see it!”

“Let’s not…” Usopp says, but Luffy is off the fence and striding toward the narrow bull pen as if he hadn’t heard.

“Luffy, wait, don’t just go over there!” Nami calls after him, then starts trailing behind. “Luffy!”

But the dark haired boy doesn’t seem to hear. Usopp swallows and watches them go. He’s nervous about this. Understandably so. And it’s just how events like these get people in debt.

“Don’t worry, Usopp. You really don’t have to ride if you don’t want to. Nami won’t expect a repayment right away and if it needs to be done, I’ll foot the bill.” She winks at him. She’ll just add it to what she’ll owe Nami anyway. She should have kept an expense account, really, and reminds herself to jot one down as soon as she can. Usopp’s shoulders visibly relax.

“Thanks… Not that I was afraid or anything,” he says, waving a hand. “It’s just that sort of thing you have to work up to you know? It’s the advanced run… Oof course I’m naturally good at it so I don’t want to show up anyone whose had lots of practice.”

“Of course,” Vivi says. “Shall we go see?”

“Yeah, why not,” Usopp says, reaching for his bag.

“Oh I’ll get that,” Vivi says. “I want to look for something. You go on ahead.”

“Alright.” He waves to her and then hooks his thumbs in his cow print chaps and ambles over, toward the pen, saying loudly: “So this is my foe.”

Vivi shakes her head and tries not to think about how small he looks as she digs her peacock slashers out of his bookbag, hooking them to her belt behind her, just in case. Then she shoulders the bag, partly to hide the weapon as she goes to join her friends. A lanky man with a mohawk, wearing the red and yellow of… well an employee, she supposes, is standing beside the pen. His expression is impassive, the sunglasses he wears making it even more so. Luffy is practically in the pen itself, leg hooked over the top bar as he reaches down to pet the bull and Usopp is a bar below him, thrusting in a nervous hand between the bars to do the same. Nami is watching them, arms folded, hips cocked to the side.

“Honestly, I can’t take them anywhere,” she says. Vivi can’t imagine how the other woman can keep up with them but it’s almost soothing to watch them pet the beast.

“Luffy seems to have a way with animals,” Vivi says. The bull is still, enduring the pats with a kind of patience. It’s…almost too serene for an animal that will later, presumably, be throwing riders right and left. Furthermore there is no manure in the pen, fresh or otherwise. Vivi sets Usopp’s bag by Nami’s feet and goes to take a closer look. He is too clean all over. Not a brand on him. Not even a ring in his nose to control him. She doesn’t know much about bulls, true, but the more she looks at him the more something tugs at her.

“He’s tame, isn’t he?” she says, but the mohawked man merely shrugs. Vivi moves around the pen casually, following a hunch. And sees just what she expected to find, her heart squeezing. There is a livid white scar down the side of his face. From temple to jaw. She hooks her fingers around the bars and says softly:

“Dalton.”

The bull looks at her and then looks away, but it’s too late. The look is too quick and too human. He is a zoan. Aside from that jaguar man, this is the first she’s seen outside of Alabasta. A wild zoan. A created zoan. One of the lucky few who survived madness. Does he know her? Is that why—?

“Hey,” the mohawked man says, coming down. “What are you…”

The bull— Dalton, shifts his head and the mohawked man pauses.

“Kamakiri, come here for a second,” the dark eyed woman says from where she’s standing by the penned horses. The mohawked man at first doesn’t seem to want to leave, then he does. There is tension on the woman’s face. Vivi has to go to the barn. She knows this now. She has to see what’s going on. Now that she knows Dalton is a zoan, he is her responsibility and, by association, so is Aisa. Is that little girl a zoan, too? Is that why she was so nervous? Are they making children go through that horrible horrible process?

“Vivi?” Nami says and Vivi blinks at her, realizes she’s clutching the bar so hard, rust is flaking off on her fingers. Vivi unclenches her teeth and smiles, wiping her hands off on her shorts.

“Oh, it’s nothing. I’m fine. I just have to go to the bathroom.”

“You must have to go really bad,” Usopp says. Nami’s mouth screws to one side, obviously not buying it and Luffy is watching her with an unreadable expression. Even smudged by the shadow of the cowboy hat, his eyes are piercing.

“Yes, I’ve been wanting to watch Luffy ride but I think I should go instead.”

“Vivi…” Nami starts, and seems to want to say more but Luffy interrupts.

“It’s okay. Do what you want,” he says. “Need help?”

“Oi,” Usopp swats Luffy’s shoulder with the back of his hand. “I know you’re dumber than most but you don’t ask a girl that. Why would she need your help to do that kind of thing anyway?”

“I’ll be fine, thank you,” Vivi says, deciding to leave Usopp confused for now. She heads away, down the line of waiting participants. As she goes she hears Luffy saying:

“Can I get on?” as if someone else had stared crevices into her spine not a few seconds ago. Vivi shakes her head and tries not to think about it. There are no striped shirts in line now. Vivi waits until no one is watching before hanging a left and ducking into the stables.

It’s dim in here, only a few lights casting orangey pools on the ground. Most of the main lights overhead have been turned off. To her benefit, yes, but who elses? Vivi pulls the flails from her belt, holding them folded lightly in her hands and keeps to the shadows. She can’t help but feel a little vulnerable. Usually there was Igaram looking out for her. Acting as the watch or even doing the reconnaissance in her stead. But she can't ask Luffy or any of the others for more help. It is too much already.

She presses that from her mind and continues her journey, looking for any sign of the little girl. Despite her caution, she’s almost caught when a striped shirt walks by. She ducks into an empty stall just in time. He glances in the direction and she presses herself against the wall, holding her breath until he moves on. Once she does she lets it out silently, waiting for an opportune moment. A moment later, though, the confident clack of boots on the hardwood floor keeps her where she is.

“Bo—er Captain Buggy! We haven’t found anything yet! Commander Mohji is still looking but—”

Why am I surprised that you’re still incompetent? All this time and we’ve got nothing?!”

“Well not exactly nothing. Some people—uh—the new recruits we interviewed, said they saw the dog with a little girl. We tried to put the lean on the Brahma guy and a few others but they wouldn’t give it up. You know how it goes.”

“Who did you say has a big red nose?” Buggy says, voice low and sinister.

“I didn’t! I said that’s how it goes! That’s how it go—” The man is cut off with a thunking noise and Vivi winces as she hears him gurgle. What is wrong with that man?

“Looks like I’ll have to do things the hard way,” Buggy says, presumably to himself. She hears him walking away and waits until the steps have faded before peeking around the corner. The striped shirt is lying slumped on the ground. Vivi shakes her head and since the coast is clear, moves on. Buggy wants the dog? Why the dog? Well if he wants it, he’s obviously not afraid to hurt others to get it. She’s already seen how brutal he can be but if he’s served in any capacity under Bloody Roger, that’s only the beginning of his brutality. She must find Aisa. Get her out of here somehow. Her and the dog. And then return to Dalton and see what is going on. See how she can help.

But for right now, she searches, squinting in the darkness for anything she might find. And then it seems she’s found something. Behind this dirty haystack, mixed liberally with manure, is a small door, the seams of it nearly blending into the wood. Vivi sets her flails at her back once more, picking her way over and carefully wedging her fingers in the little door and wedging it open.

Something yellow bursts from the darkened doorway, right for her face. Vivi yelps, stepping back, her foot sliding on something slick keeping the yellow thing from hitting her on the face. It takes her a moment to recognize.

“Karoo?!” she says, remembering somehow to keep her voice down.

“Kweh?!”

“It’s you!” the girl says in a stage whisper. Vivi catches the duck as he flutters down and only has time to stare at the dim outline of the girl’s face.

“What was that?!” a man’s voice shouts.

“Come on!” Aisa says, and Vivi feels a small hand wrap around her wrist. She ducks, nearly bent double and hurries into the small doorway. It’s a tiny room, big enough only for her to crouch. Meant for hiding or so it seems because there’s nothing else in it. She sees the outline of Aisa closing the door before the room is cast in darkness. Something cold and wet presses against her leg and she claps a hand over her mouth to stifle a surprised noise, reaching down with the other to touch whatever it is and finds wiry fur. It must be the dog. There is the sound of running feet and shouting and someone walks close to where they are hiding, close enough that he cast shadows on the few cracks of light that sneak in, but then he is gone.

“Is your animal form fast?” Aisa says in hushed tones. “Can you get out of here?”

“I don’t have an animal form,” Vivi murmurs back. So that means Dalton is open about his abilities— at least to those that work here.

“It’s okay… We like animal people. And I know you are since Shushu can smell any animal person even if they try to hide.”

It must be some sort of mistake. Unless…

“Can Shushu smell Karoo— my duck— as well?”

The girl hesitates, giving Vivi her answer, but she waits for Aisa to explain.

“Yeah…it’s how we found him… But… He’s not really a small person is he?”

“No…” Now it’s Vivi’s turn to hesitate, wondering what exactly she should say and how much… “Karoo is… Karoo was born with the same thing that makes animal people.” And it was said that the royal line of Alabasta also carried the faintest strains of the devil’s seed from Calgara’s time. That it was genetic somehow. Perhaps this proved it.

“Oh…” Aisa says, sounding disappointed. “I thought Uncle Dalton had found some friends…”

Vivi wants to ask…but there is little time for it. She must figure out what to do. How to get Aisa out without involving the others. Perhaps if Buggy realizes the dog is out of his reach…or believes it isn’t here, he will leave this place and Vivi won’t have to involve Luffy or the others.

“What does Buggy want with Shushu?”

“I don’t know…but he was here all last summer trying to get him… Mama might know why…”

“I see…” Vivi may ask her eventually, but for right now… “First let’s get you and Shushu out of here.” At least out of the barn, away from the stadium. Perhaps they could make their way back to the car.

“You take Shushu,” Aisa says. “I want to stay and help Mama and Kamakiri and Uncle Dalton and everyone else.”

Vivi presses her lips together. She understands the sentiment. She truly does. But Aisa will cause more harm than good staying here. She’ll only end up a liability and may even get hurt. There is no time for this conversation. No time to make her understand. The easy way would just be to trick her, say they will return for those she cares about… The hard way will be trying to make her get it… Some things need time, as Father would say. Even if you don’t have it. Vivi closes her eyes briefly, thinks of the best way to say it, and nods…

“Your Mama…and the others… they all go to great lengths to protect Shushu, right?”

“Yeah…” the little girl says in a soft voice. The dog wuffles quietly in the dark and Vivi can faintly see the girl petting him.

“And right now, you’re the only one who can protect him. You’re like his bodyguard. Where he goes, you go.”

Even unto hell itself, as Igaram had told her once, trying to comfort her. It hadn’t. It had given her nightmares. She understands the sense in it even if she hates the idea.

“Do you understand?” Vivi says when Aisa remains quiet.

“Uh huh…”

“Good… and don’t worry, it’ll all work out…” she squeezes the girl’s arm comfortingly. It’s an empty promise for right now since Vivi can’t tell what might happen. But sometimes you just have to make those sorts of promises and hope…

They sit in silence a little longer, and when no one seems to be around, Vivi sends Karoo out first to check the way. She watches him in tense silence for a moment before he finally turns and gives them the wing up. Vivi squeezes Aisa’s arm again and they creep out of the hidden room. It’s tough to straighten all the way and her legs are a little cramped from having crouched for so long, but she fights off the feeling as she leads Aisa through the stables, heading for the side door that she came in. This is so easy. Vivi tries not to think, too easy, since there is no telling how many striped shirts will be outside. At least Karoo is the vanguard, checking the way at a fast waddling pace. They can make it! They can. The side door is just there. A beacon. The first step to freedom.

Gesturing for Aisa to stay behind her, Vivi slowly pushes the door open to fresh air, muggy but clean. Karoo goes out ahead, looking back and forth. Then the roar of the crowd changes, sounding surprised and two gunshots blister through the air, making her jolt. Oh no… oh no that can’t be good. Frustration wells up in her. Why can’t things just work out now and then?

“What’s going on?!” Aisa cries, tugging at her shirt. “What is it?” She’s too loud. Vivi wants to tell her to hush but Aisa is afraid and with good reason. Vivi pushes her frustration aside.

“Shh. Shh. We’ll see,” she says.

There is the squealing feed of a megaphone as Vivi is creeping around the door and she pauses as she hears and sees what she should have expected. The arena ringed by striped shirts and more she can see up in the stands. Buggy is standing in the center of the stadium floor, gun pointed at the bull. Mr. Dalton… Who is lying on the ground, blood pooling around him, his shoulder and ribs bloody. Luffy is there, too, because of course he is, picking himself up off the ground, fists and shoulders tight with rage.

“My name is Captain Buggy and I’ll be shutting down this little rodeo…” And then in a lower register that sends chills down Vivi’s spine. “And if you don’t give me what I came for, I’ll be shutting you down.”

In the ensuing silence, she can just hear Luffy’s voice.

“What the hell did you shoot him for, Big Nose? I’m going to kick your ass!”

“I’d like to see you try AND WHO THE HELL ARE YOU CALLING BIG NOSE?!” his shriek makes the megaphone squeal again. Vivi winces and wishes she could slap Luffy across the head. He needs to stop making it worse!

“You,” Luffy says after the noise has died away.

“That’s it. You’re dead,” Buggy says. “You people! Give me the dog or he’s dead, too.” Dalton stirs, Buggy shoots again and he goes crashing back down.

“STOP IT!” Luffy roars. Buggy laughs.

“I have the gun, brat. Don’t you know the one with the gun makes the rules?” and then quickly as Luffy starts forward. “Come one step closer and I’ll blow his face open.”

“Uncle Dalton!” Aisa cries and Vivi realizes the girl has snuck around the door as well. Some of the striped shirts start to turn and Vivi grabs the girl by the collar and drags her back into the stable. Aisa cries out and struggles against her, clawing at her arms to get free and Vivi grabs her shoulders, gently but firmly, trying to calm her down.

“Shh. Aisa, shh you can’t go out there. You have to stay where it’s safe.”

“But Uncle Dalton!” Aisa grabs at her arms, tears and snot streaming down her face. She grabs at Vivi’s arms with too small hands. “He’s hurt. They’re going to kill him like they did Papa.”

Her voice strikes Vivi in the chest. The desperate note. Everything about her is desperate but what can be done? What can Vivi do about it? She half wants to give Buggy the dog. To make him go away. But that will go against what Aisa has fought so hard to protect. Perhaps Mr. Dalton as well. She owes it to him to not let it happen.

“I’m running out of patiennce!” Buggy sing songs. Another shot. Aisa jerks as if she’s the one that’s been struck, craning her neck as if to see what’s going on. There has to be something Vivi can do. She just needs to think. Think. She looks around for something. Anything to inspire her or that she can use… and spots a feed sack near the door. If she can find something to put in it…

Then she knows. She glances at Karoo who is watching her as if, somehow, he’s come to the same conclusion. ‘Will you?’ she mouths to the duck, knowing that, somehow, some way, he’ll understand. Sweat pops out over his feathers and for a moment he looks terrified…but then he salutes with a trembling wing.

“K-kweh!”

Vivi bows her head in a grateful nod and then turns her attention back to Aisa.

“Listen to me, I’ll take care of this, okay?” she tells the girl. “Take Shushu and go hide until someone you trust comes and gets you. Do you understand?”

“Be his bo-bodyguard,” the girl says, wiping the snot away with her arm. Vivi wishes she had a handkerchief and checks her pockets just in case. She doesn’t find one but inadvertently touches one of the peacock slashers.

“Exactly. Keep him safe.” And so Aisa wouldn’t feel completely vulnerable… Vivi unhooks one of the slashers and hands it to her. “Keep yourself safe… and be careful. It’s sharp.

Aisa nods and beckons toward Shushu and the two run off into the gloom. Vivi takes a deep breath, but time is ticking by so she snatches up the sack and holds it open for Karoo to jump in before lifting it. Almost immediately he begins to struggle, making small choking sounds and Vivi panics, about to rip the bag open when she realizes it’s barking. Or…an attempt anyway. Good enough.

Shoulders back, head up, she heads toward the arena. Focused on the man standing at the center of it. Somewhere off to the side, she hears Usopp stage whisper her name, but ignores him. Ignores everything but that man. Her heart drumming in her ears so loud she’s sure the entire stadium can hear it.

She’s stopped only when she reaches the fence and a striped shirt grabs her arm.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he growls and Vivi’s heart tightens as she sees Buggy caress the trigger of the gun. She takes a deep breath, filling her lungs and speaks from her diaphragm.

“Stop!” Her voice is louder than she expects but not yelling. It drops into the air like a stone. “I have what you are looking for, Buggy the Clown,” she says. He squints at her, though jerks up the gun as Luffy tries to take another step.

“Who the hell are you?” Buggy says. Vivi tries to start forward but the striped shirt grabs her arm again. She turns the imperial glare on him, lifting her head and saying with her eyes that if he does not unhand her, he will not have a hand to do it with. He lets her go. Vivi climbs over the railing as gracefully as she can and approaches Buggy, lifting the bag where Karoo struggles all the more.

“That doesn’t matter. I have what you came for.”

“She has a weapon, Captain Buggy!” a man calls and Vivi fights to keep her expression calm. Buggy smirks.

“How stupid do you think I am?”

“I apologize,” Vivi says, knowing she must, softening the edges of her voice just a touch. She unhooks the remaining flail from the back of her belt and lets it drop to the ground. “As you can see I’m unarmed now.”

“Take it,” Buggy says. Vivi shifts as one of the men dart out to get it to keep him in her sight. The man’s smirk is not half as chilling as the one Buggy gives her, his makeup seeming vibrant in the light. Though rather than seem ridiculous, it only makes him feel larger than life. Like the evil clowns at carnival rides. She would have preferred if he were plastic. As she gets closer another voice stops her cold, sweat sliding down the back of her neck.

“Don’t…” it’s low and gasping, filled with pain, but unmistakably Dalton. “I don’t mind if I die…”

“A little closer,” Buggy says, jerking the gun. “Or he really will.” And Vivi obeys, feeling the man’s gaze on her, pleading and too human even though he is still very much a bull.

“Please…” Dalton says.

“Stop right there,” Buggy says. Vivi does. Karoo picks up the flailing and ‘barking’. “Now throw it.”

“Vivi, don’t!” Luffy says, his voice high and tight. “The bull guy said…”

“I know,” Vivi glances at him. “But sometimes we don’t get the luxury of that choice. Sometimes we just have to do what’s hard and trust that we will pull through somehow.” She doesn’t know if Luffy gets it. He seems to, giving her a long look before glancing away. Whether he does or not, at least he doesn’t go charging in.

“How charming,” Buggy says. “Protip: it won’t happen! Dahahaha! Now then…” He flexes his fingers. “My prize?”

Vivi apologizes silently to Karoo and throws the bag the distance. It lands with a thud in the dirt and Karoo goes still. She holds her breath as Buggy approaches it, still keeping his gun trained on Dalton. He seems to move in slow motion and Vivi can feel the eyes of everyone on them. She wants to look at Luffy. Give him some sort of hint. But that’s too much of a risk so she will just have to trust he’ll know when the time is right.

Buggy opens the bag and everything seems to happen at once. Karoo flies out, a quacking rage, pecking at the clown’s face and beating him with his wings, and Luffy bolts forward. Buggy curses violently and flings the duck into the railing but Luffy is there.

Vivi can see everything in vivid movement, Karoo smacking against the railing and falling over it, Luffy landing in front of Buggy, sandaled foot pivoting on the dirt, as he pulls his caged fist forward and slams it right into that big red nose.

Buggy is launched into the air, twists once and then falls hard onto the dirt about a foot away, the gun skittering out of his reach and disappearing somewhere under the railing.

“Boss Buggy!” his men cry in unison.

“It’s Captain, you bastards!” Buggy snaps, getting to his elbow. Vivi wants to get at Karoo. The poor duck is lying in a feathery heap just beyond the railing. But she’ll have to get past Buggy, too and he’s lumbering to his feet, wiping the blood from his nose.

“Who do you think you’re messing with anyway, you brat kid?” Buggy says, flexing his arms downward and his hands clenching into fists.

“A stupid clown,” Luffy says, folding his arms.

“Yes a stupid clown. Haha NO! I am going to build the strongest gang— crew! This world has ever seen! You are looking at the future King of the World!” He spreads his arms. “Am I right?”

Silence.

“I SAID: Am I right?!”

A collective sound of recognition goes through the striped shirts.

“Boss Buggy!” they start to chant, scattered, and then all at once. “Boss Buggy! Boss Buggy!”

“IT’S CAPTAIN!” Buggy bellows. And the men change almost immediately. Though this time with a frantic edge to their voice.

“Captain Buggy! Captain Buggy! Captain Buggy!”

“Well?” Buggy says with a leer. “Aren’t you impressed?!”

“No way. You’re an idiot,” Luffy says, picking his nose. Vivi sighs inwardly. Doesn’t he have any tact at all? “Shut up and fight me.”

“You want a fight?” Buggy lifts his hands, crossing them over his chest. “You’ll get one!” Vivi spots the tell tale glint between his fingers. Daggers! She throws herself against Luffy’s shoulder, sending them both sprawling to the dirt and half protecting Dalton as the daggers go sliding through the air in the spot that they’d been standing. Luffy’s cowboy hat lands a few feet away, a dagger straight through it.

“AAH! MY HAT! YOU BASTARD!” Luffy cries. How is he— Why is— That’s not a priority!

“Serves you right,” Buggy says. “Eat metal!” He throws another dagger and Luffy throws himself back, the edge of the dagger skimming just over his nose. Vivi uses the scant seconds to take Luffy’s straw hat from his back and put it on his head, trying to impress on him the seriousness of the moment by pressing down on his head and murmuring into his ear.

“I’ll get Mr. Dalton out of here.”

“Okay!” Luffy says. Buggy has another set of knives, his arm swinging down. Vivi flinches, putting herself solidly in front of Dalton— Luffy springs to his feet just in front of her, grabbing Buggy’s wrist before he can complete the downward stroke and twisting his arm sharply before throwing him over his shoulder and back into the dirt.

Vivi scrambles to her feet, twisting around to help Dalton who she faintly registers is human again as she helps him stand. His leg is wounded and he’s trailing crimson onto the dirt. He’s much too heavy for her to carry alone but she wraps an arm around his waist and tries to help him the best she can.

“Thank you,” he murmurs in a rough voice, laced with pain. “Aisa. Shushu.”

“They’re safe,” Vivi says back in a whisper. For now. Please she hoped it continued to be so.

“Don’t just stand there, you idiots!” Buggy shrieks. “Attack! Stop them!”

Striped shirts start to swarm into the arena. There are so many of them. Even more than she suspected. And some of the youth are joining them, their faces open and grinning. There are too many for her to fight!

“Leave me,” Dalton says.

“I won’t!” Two of the striped shirts come charging at her and Vivi reaches for her slasher only to realize she doesn’t have it. All she can do is slam against Dalton to push him out of the way as the men go charging past but there are more coming.

“Then hold on,” Dalton says… and before she can ask, she feels him shifting underneath her, arm bulging, body bending as the bull breaks free.

“No please, don’t! You’re hurt!” And for him to have to use this! For everyone to see! But she knows there is no choice. Even still she refuses to get on and burden him, watching him charge the men, tossing them aside with his horns. She pulls her hands into fists and charges alongside of him, trying to clear a path.

She clips one man in the jaw but he doesn’t seem to care, only smirks. Vivi flinches as his fist comes rocketing toward her face. There is a fwipping sound and bola comes spinning out of nowhere, snapping around his wrist, the weighted end cracking him in the face and sending him crashing to the ground. Vivi looks over her shoulder. There is the dark eyed woman on the sorrel, the mohawked man beside her on the piebald, shooting into the crowd.

“We’ll take care of Dalton, Princess!” the woman calls. “Worry about yourself!”

Vivi nods and gets out of the way as they come charging in, wooping. More guns are going off everywhere. She looks to Luffy. He’s fighting heavily. Bleeding from a dozen different cuts from the knives between Buggy’s fingers and the dagger set in the toe of his boot. She should go help him. But Karoo! That’s right! Karoo! She has to go find him! A familiar shriek comes nearby and she whips around to see Nami and Usopp being chased along the outside of the arena by a bunch of men armed with swords and one with a fizzing cartoonish bomb that nevertheless packs real danger.

“Do something!” Usopp calls over the chaos.

“You do something! You’re the man!” Nami shrieks back. Vivi should go… But Karoo. Luffy makes a gagging noise and VIvi turns to see that one of the knife boots seems to have connected to his side and he goes sprawling on the ground, gagging. Luffy!

“Well well,” says a voice behind her. “Look who’s alone.” She turns to see the Buggy’s Boys swordsman, Cabaji, balancing back and forth on the unicycle. There is a knot of striped shirts behind him, leering as they make their way through the cut fence. Cabaji unsheathes one of his glinting swords. “I came to claim a head and now I’ll get one.”

“You’re really looking to get beat, huh?” says a dark voice in the cluster of striped shirts. There is the sound of sheathing metal and they all stiffen and fall at once like an opening flower to reveal Zoro standing there, unscathed and smirking. “Fine by me. I’ll—”

“Oh no you don’t, you shithead!” Sanji snarls, popping out of nowhere and back kicking Zoro so that he has to block and defend it at the last second. Vivi feels a headache coming on, spurned by the rocking explosion of one of those stupid bombs going off. Do all their fights turn out like this?!

“What the hell are you doing?!” Zoro snaps.

“Look, Land of the Lost! I didn’t spend all my shitty time looking for you just so you can take all the cool lines. I’m the one that saves the ladies. Me! Not some overgrown excuse for fridge mold.”

“You wanna start something, Cook?!”

“I’ll start it and finish it!”

“I guess your head is mine after all,” Cabaji says and Vivi can’t even find it in herself to worry as he flips the blade. “Say your pray—”

“Get lost already asshole!” Sanji snaps, kicking Cabaji under the chin and sending him straight up so fast his unicycle takes a moment to fall over.

Alright. Okay. She turns in place, taking stock of what’s going on. Luffy is up again, staggering a little but so is Buggy. Nami and Usopp are fighting from the stands with a small cluster of cowboy hat wearing people. Dalton is nowhere to be seen but the dark eyed woman and the mohawked man have been pinned in one corner of the arena, a bigger man who seems to be an employee, helping them but he has already been battered. …and the stable is on fire.

Aisa!

“Mr. Sanji.” She grabs the cook’s arm and he stops mid kick to a striped shirt to glance at her. “Please find Karoo. He’s hurt. Somewhere that way.” She apologizes internally about making Karoo second on her priorities. He deserves more than that. But it is what it is right now.

“Anything for sweet Vivi!” Sanji says, finishing the kick to the center of the man’s chest and sending him hurtling backward.

“Mr. Roronoa, could you please follow me?” He nods and follows, though moves a little ahead when he seems to understand what she means, knocking people out of her path as she races toward the stable. It’s burning pretty well now and her heart lurches. Is Aisa still in there? Does she know?! She’s so concerned she almost forgets to point Zoro where she intends him to go, to help those few left save Dalton, if he is even still alive…

But she won’t think about that.

Zoro gone where he should, Vivi races toward the stable, launching herself over the railing and landing in a roll as her leg unexpectedly gives out on her. It’s bleeding again. And has been. It doesn’t matter. Panicked horses bolt out of the stable and she dodges out of their way before darting in, the baking heat of the fire hitting her like a hand across the face.

The underside of the roof is starting to burn and there is Aisa in the central aisle, crouched over the dog, slasher a few feet away and out of her short arms reach while the lion tamer Mohji stands over her, his hands on his hips and grinning. It’s the grin she can’t stand. The happiness at another person’s misery.

“I don’t care whether you’re alive or dead,” Mohji is saying. “Captain Buggy just wants the dog. Richie!” he calls over his shoulder and Vivi’s eyes widen as she sees the lion prowling up from behind him. She starts running, eyes on the slasher.

“Sic her,” Mohji says. Vivi picks up speed as the lion charges, throwing herself into a slide so that she can snatch the slasher from the ground and breaking into a roll just as the lion leaps.

“Neck Brace!” she cries out, flinging the slasher up to wrap around the lion’s neck. Blood spots under the blades as she leans back, using her whole weight, bracing her other hand around the edge of the nearest part of the flail to change the lion’s trajectory just enough so that he’s within a hair’s breadth of crashing into Aisa. The girl shrieks and tumbles out of the way.

“Aisa get out of here,” Vivi says. It’s dangerous outside as well but at least things are not on fire.

“You…” Mohji says, gritting his teeth. “What did you do to Richie?!”

“If you care for him, get out of here,” Vivi says, standing and gripping the flail, tightening it a little around the lion’s neck. The thing seems to whimper and she almost feels sorry for it.

“I’ll get you back for that!” he says, pulling a whip from his belt. Damn. Vivi bites her lip. If only she had the other slasher! He uncurls the whip, and Vivi braces, trying to decide which to do. Let the lion go, fight the whip.

“Oryaaaaa!” The high pitched shriek comes from behind her and Aisa charges forward, throwing herself bodily at Moji and plowing her head into his stomach. The lion tamer chokes, bent double and falls to the ground.

“Aisa!” Vivi says, surprised and afraid. “What are you doing?! Get out!”

“I’m not going to leave you alone in here!” Aisa says.

“Aisa, please!”

“No!”

There is a creak and Vivi glances up just in time to see a burning beam come hurtling down and taking a lot of the roof with it. Vivi throws herself against the girl, sending them both crashing to the ground. She clenches her teeth, making a strained sound as something heavy hits her back and again. And then something hits her on the back of her head and sends stars splintering through her eyes and when they are gone, everything is black.
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The Remedy

March 2017

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