theremedy: (Vivi)
[personal profile] theremedy
Present:
For Good

Vivi reclined on the rose and gold patterned duvet, the pillows soft against her back, protecting her from the ornate wood of the headboard. The mid-morning sun streamed in and over the keyboard of her laptop which she balanced on her legs, as she went through some memos that Aswa had compiled for her. Really, her mother-in-law worked much too hard and Vivi wished she wouldn’t. She honestly didn’t mind if the woman did only half of what she did for the company and Vivi could never tell whether it was because she loved her career or the people in it. Well, her and Toto’s anniversary was coming up wasn’t it? Vivi slid the bluetooth in her ear and speed dialed Terracotta’s number.

"Yes, dear?” the woman said after a single ring.

“Hello, Terracotta. Are you busy?” Vivi said.

“Of course not. I was just making the shopping list for next week. How is Miss Cindry working out for you?”

“Oh just fine.” Vivi smiled fondly. The shopping list was more of an extravaganza. Though there was only Father in the house just now, there were always at least three or four guests, not to mention personal staff and frequent dinner parties. “I just wanted to check, Toto and Aswa’s anniversary is soon, right?”

“Yes, Princess. Actually it’s next month on the twenty-third. Were you thinking of sending them somewhere?”

Vivi felt a flush creep across her cheeks and put her fingers to them.

“Am I really that transparent?”

Terracotta chuckled.

“I have known you since you were a baby, you know,” Terracotta said. “You have very few secrets from me, my dear. Tell me where and I’ll make the arrangements.”

“You really needn’t!” Vivi held up her hands, even though Terracotta couldn’t see them. “I know you have a lot on your plate so—”

“It’s nothing. Please, allow me. I’ve been arranging the travel plans for the Nefertari family since your mother was your age. I know just who to call and what to set up. Won’t take me but five minutes.” Vivi somehow doubted that it would only be five minutes, but she smiled fondly, letting out a soft silent breath. It was partly a matter of personal pride, she knew, and because of that…

“Well you know, Aswa has always talked about returning to her homeland in style…”

“Perfect. One Cleopatra Cruise coming up! Maybe I can convince someone at the consulate to allow us to use a litter…”

“Make sure she’s comfortable with it at least,” Vivi said with a laugh. “Aswa is fairly shy.”

“I know my Aswa. Don’t you worry, my dear. Terracotta won’t let you down.”

“Thank you,” Vivi said, telling herself that she would somehow plan a big trip for Terracotta and Igaram’s anniversary this summer without that woman finding out like she did every year. Vivi stretched, lacing her fingers together and stretching her arms out in front of her, palms out and then got back to work, checking her email. There was another e-mail from Miss Keimi, thanking Vivi profusely for the opportunity for her and her master to come and work as a side branch of Empire Fashions, but ultimately refusing a face to face meeting. It was a pity. Crimin Fashions had such potential, but they were limited by a rather small shop on Etsy and hampered further by shipping and material costs.

She flexed her fingers and tried to channel Luffy as she wrote Keimi that she understood and that a face to face wasn’t necessary but if the woman should change her mind, here are the details. Then she tackled a dozen more emails of varying degrees of frustration.

“Vivi Nefertari!”

The slamming door made her jump and she blinked, hands poised over the keyboard at Nami who was standing in what she’d slept in, but her hair nevertheless brushed and pulled back into a low ponytail. One hand was propped on her hip and the other carried a covered tray.

“Nami…?” Vivi said.

“Don’t you Nami me in that tone of voice.” Nami kicked the door closed with her foot and came closer, setting the tray on the bedside table before, flopping on the bed and scowling in Vivi’s face so close Vivi could smell her breath.

“That doesn’t look like resting,” Nami said.

“But I am resting,” Vivi said. “I’m practically lying down and— Nami…!” She protested as the woman pulled her laptop away.

“That’s not resting and you forgot this.” She reached over and put the tray on Vivi’s lap. “I’ll be right back.” Nami swung off the bed. Vivi lifted the cover off the tray and smiled. There was a bowl of oatmeal, filled with fruit with blueberries in a heart shaped design over the surface, with a cut strawberry heart in the very center. There was toast to the side, also heart shaped and a little hardboiled egg in which someone had taken the time to paint a very tiny Sanji with a heart in his eye proclaiming: ‘I <3 You, Vivi!’.

“I forgot this, did I?” Vivi said as Nami came back with her own tray and a plastic bottle of orange juice which she handed to Vivi. “Room service has become remarkably personal this morning.”

“Right?” Nami said. “There was a tray out there, you know, but everything had gone cold because someone wasn’t paying attention.”

“Oh… I’d completely forgotten…” Vivi said, feeling a blush staining her cheeks. Nami waved a spoon at her before uncovering her own tray which had more in the way of bacon and eggs but with a fruit salad with more heart shaped fruit and Sanji swooning at her from a napkin.

“I noticed.”

“I hope Mr. Sanji didn’t go to any trouble.”

“Of course he did.” Nami pinched her cheek hard. “But he would anyway because it makes him feel good. Honestly, after this long you’d think you’d have gotten used to the idea that people care about you.”

“Yes. Alright. I understand, I’m sorry,” Vivi said, mostly so that Nami would let go. Nami did and Vivi rubbed the sore spot a moment before deciding that Nami was right. It would certainly cheer him up to be able to do something…and she couldn’t push away such a thoughtful breakfast for later. She took a bite of the oatmeal and it was delicious as usual though a surprise every time. Just the right hint of cinnamon and it was even a little lumpy just how she liked it. She wasn’t even aware Sanji knew that.

“Did he come along with it? I’d like to thank him.”

“Nah, he sent it along with Usopp and the others,” Nami waved her hand. “He and Chopper are taking everyone on a Christmas Tree tour. We’re going to meet them at Raymond’s when they’re done… maybe around two or three I think.”

“I see you have my entire day planned out for me,” Vivi said, mildly amused.

“Damn right I do.”

“Well then, Master Scheduler. After I eat, let me just check some emails and we can go down to the massage parlor.”

“Parlor yes, emails no.”

Vivi sighed lightly. She understood Nami’s concern. Truly she did but…

“Just a few.”

“Vivi… When is the last time you had a vacation?” Nami asked, giving her a hard look. Vivi opened her mouth. “Without checking your e-mail?” the woman added and Vivi shut it again, cracked the egg, picture side up, and focused on peeling it, trying to preserve as much as the picture as she could.

“The world is not going to end just because you don’t check your email for one day, or even two,” Nami said, bumping against her shoulder.

“But the massage parlor doesn’t open until twelve…”

“That’s alright. Oh I know!” Nami snapped her fingers. “You can help me pick out some of the pictures for the Christmas Party.”

“Oh of course.” It was sort of a tradition now. Nami cornered them all one by one to pick out pictures and videos that would be displayed on the projector. It was hard and sometimes painful but— Vivi sometimes suspected that everyone put themselves through it so they could ingrain the past into their minds. Ingrain Luffy there. So they would never forget what it had been like and they could carry on another year.

“Good. I have most of it on our shared drive.” Nami put her own tray to the side and pulled Vivi’s laptop onto her lap. Vivi was about to offer to tell Nami the passwords but realized with some bemusement that Nami already seemed to have them. Well then.

“Should I be worried?” Vivi said, sipping at her orange juice with an innocent air.

“I’d say so. You used the same ones you did six years ago. You really need to change it up, Vivi.”

“I keep forgetting to get around to that.”

“So I noticed.” And then giving Vivi a side glance. “Eat.”

“I’m eating.” She set the eggshell aside and ate the boiled egg with a pinch of salt from the packet Sanji had provided. How he wasn’t inundated with female attention… well she could sort of understand why. She allowed herself, somewhat meanly, to wonder if he would even know what to do with said attention if he got it.

“There we go,” Nami said and right away, Vivi spotted the pictures she wanted.

“Oh Santo Domingo. We haven’t had any of those yet have we?”

“No I don’t think so. But we’re going to have to limit the bathing suit shots. You know I give Sanji the camera for two hours…”

“Surely there can’t be that many…” Vivi said. Nami gave her a look and opened a subfolder entitled SanjiCam and immediately pressed her lips together to keep from smiling too much. That was…women in bikinis were no strangers to Santo Domingo and Sanji seemed to have captured every one of them. And when had Vivi ever been in that pose?

“Who…who has seen these?”

“Oh don’t worry, this is the admin account. I keep those kinds of thing under lock and key. I think maybe at most Robin has because she finds it fun to get around my security. But it helps…” Nami added quickly as if she thought Vivi was concerned. “The only person who could get in here would really have to want to.”

“I see…” Vivi said, not particularly worried about Nico Robin seeing anything. She was a sensible woman if nothing else.

“Anyway, no, let’s leave these poor women to their anonymity. Let’s see…” There were so many pictures. Some of which Vivi hadn’t seen in years. There were some of her family, too. Father reclining on an innertube. Igaram and Teracotta walking side by side in the sunset. Pell and Chaka struggling to push each other in the pool. And…her and Koza at a cabana. His hand over hers in a rare display of public affection. She could still remember the warmth of it and the shock of the gesture. But then the heat which had curled from the center of her chest. She always forgot about that one until she saw it again.

“You guys make a cute couple,” Nami said as they gazed at the picture. Vivi drew her knees up and linked her arms around them.

“You think so? Sometimes we hardly seem to be in the same room together to justify that.”

“Does that bother you?” Nami asked, tilting her head.

“No. Not really.” And it didn’t. Their lives were too big for it to be just the two of them frequently. And too separate. Koza had his projects, Vivi had hers. It would probably change once the baby was born but for now she was content with how things were.

“Is there anyone special in your life?” Vivi asked and Nami gave her a wry smile, mouth twisting to one side.

“About ten of them…”

“No, I mean special special.”

“For right now they are as special special as I want.”

“I see.” It was expected, really. Nami had a lot to take care of. For all that she poked at Vivi for working too hard, she worked just as hard herself these days. Maybe harder than anyone was aware. But maybe that was why they got along so well.

In any case, she said no more about it, finishing her meal as they looked at more pictures. Some of which Vivi had seen many times before. Group shots were a favorite tradition and there were so many of those, but some more special than others. Vivi smiled as Nami selected the one of them outside Mr. Dalton’s Rodeo. No matter how that had ended up, they had been together and some of it had been fun. Not that she would go back to those days.

“Let’s do some videos, too,” Nami murmured, seemingly half to herself and opened a different file.

“Champion?” Vivi said, spotting a file name she hadn’t seen before. “What’s that?”

“Oh my god, you haven’t seen this yet?” Nami said. “Here, sit back. I have to show you.”
Vivi grinned as Nami set it to full screen, watching in anticipation. For the moment it was just somewhere outside in the dark, the crowd murmuring in the background. At some distance was the glimmering lights of a ferris wheel and a few other rides.

“Some kind of carnivale?” Vivi asked.

“The state fair in Puyallup,” Nami said. “This is the karaoke contest.”
Now that she said it, Vivi could see the black outlines of what could be a stage. Her grin only widened as Usopp’s voice filtered through the darkness, magnified by a microphone.


“Welcome to the last and best performance of the evening. Let me present to you, the Straw Hat Pirates. Dead-Eyes Brook…”

“Really with that name?” Nami in the video said in a hushed whisper.

“Shh,” someone beside her said. A spotlight flicked on, revealing the tall, lanky man, dressed in flashy clothes, playing a riff on an electric guitar that rippled through the air. He was quite the talented musician.

“Cyborg Frrrranky!”

“Ow!” Another spotlight flicked on and there was Mr. Franky behind a keyboard and wearing…well…sequined speedos under a Hawaiian shirt.



“Doesn’t that man ever wear pants?” Vivi asked.

“No one’s ever caught him at it,” Nami said dryly.



“Tony Tony ‘the yeti’--”

“Reindeer!”

“--Chopper.” Another light and there he was behind a drum set with a black vest, a spiked collar and his ever present pink hat. It looked a little ridiculous, honestly, but knowing everything that it meant—she couldn’t help but admire his conviction.



“I didn’t know he played drums,” Vivi said.

“Just for this thing. He practiced for weeks.” Nami smiled and leaned against Vivi’s shoulder. “They all did. Dorks.”

Vivi chuckled and the fondness in her voice.



“Lover of the ladies, Casanova of the Circuit, Blackleg Sanji!”

Another spotlight. Sanji was standing behind a microphone, wearing an open red shirt and black pants he must have poured himself into.

“Ladies…” He said, in his smooth voice, and seemed to be wiggling his visible eyebrow though it was hard to tell from this distance.

“Circuit champion, expert sniper, all around MC extraordinare, sub-captaaaain Usopp!” The spotlight flicked on and Usopp was clutching a microphone with his left hand, his right high in the air and finger gunning in an extended pose to which a few people clapped hesitantly. Though Usopp didn’t seem to notice the lack of fanfare.

“And finally,” Usopp said, shifting his weight. “You’ve heard about him, now see him in real life, the one, the only Future Pirate King of the World, Monkey! D! LUFFY?!” The last ended in a shriek and Vivi clapped a hand over her mouth as laughter rippled through the audience in the video. There was Luffy standing on stage in a monkey costume that left only his face exposed. He grinned widely at the audience.

“Eek eek!” he said. “Watch!” And he got on his hands and started handwalking across the stage. Nami from the video made an annoyed sound and Vivi heard the forehead slap, followed by a soft deep chuckle which took her a moment to place until she realized it was Robin.

“Luffy what the hell are you doing in that thing?!”

“The guy said I could. And look.” He turned and lifted the tail. “It has a red butt! Shishishi”

“Don’t just do whatever you want!” Usopp snapped. “Here, hurry up and take it off!”

“Waah! Wait stop!” Luffy cried as Usopp fairly tackled him, trying to tug the zipper down. “I can’t take it off!”

“Why not?” Usopp said.

“I’m naked,” Luffy said, pressing his lips together, and giving Usopp that big eyed blinky look. A collective sigh on stage except for Mr. Brook who twanged a note that sounded like an exclamation mark.

“A shocking development!” the tall man said. “Mr. Luffy, I assure you the nakedness wouldn’t bother me one bit. Ah! But I can’t see anyway. Blind jooke! Yohohoho.”

“Well it would bother the shit out of me,” Sanji said. “So don’t even think it, pea brained idiot. Why the hell are you naked?!”

“Cuz the guy said it got really hot,” Luffy said scratching his butt.Another laugh rippled through the audience and Luffy grinned at the attention and began to dance again.

“Let’s do a dance party!” he said.

“Not a shitty chance!” Sanji snapped. “I’ve practiced too long for my shitty debut!”



“Debut?” Vivi asked and Nami shrugged.


Between Sanji and Usopp they somehow wrestled Luffy off stage to do a costume change, Usopp throwing over his shoulder to keep the audience entertained. For a moment there was awkward silence. Vivi cringed inwardly. She hated to see them get embarrassed like that. Only Nami’s hand on her arm kept her from looking away.

“Well.” Brook played a complex set of chords on his guitar. “I see there are a lot of single ladies present. To you, I ask, may I see your—”

“Hands!” Chopper yelped, bolting upright and knocking over a drum. He scrambled to pick it up and hurried to the front of the stage. “We uh…wanna see your hands. Because it’s um…party time. Woop woop?” he said in a higher voice, pushing his hands into the air.

“Okay! Everyone do the Single Frranky dance!” Franky said, coming to stand beside Chopper.



“They’re not,” Vivi said, stifling a giggle. “Please tell me it’s not going to happen.”

“It always happens,” Nami said with a laugh.


“Ready? To the rright! Right! Right! Right! Feel the superrr burn in your pelvis! Ow!” He began to hip thrust right and then: “Left! Left! Left! Left!” Chopper and Brook joined him at this point and Vivi couldn’t stifle her laugh any more at the sight.

“Right! Left! Right! Left! Right! Left!”

Vivi managed to calm herself somewhat until Sanji, Usopp and Luffy came back on stage and joined the dance seemingly without thinking about it. It looked ridiculous. It looked wonderful. She almost wanted to join in.

“Rrrrooolll your arms annnd SUPERRRRR!” They all posed with their hands in the air and confetti popped from the foot of the stage, showering through the air. Vivi clapped and then laughed harder as Usopp bellowed.

This isn’t time for the finale!

Vivi waved for a tissue so she could wipe at her eyes and nose. No matter how long she knew them, it would still amaze her how this group managed to get anything done ever.
Finally though they seemed to get things together. There was a hush of silence and then Usopp began to sing as Franky and Brook began to play.

“I’ve paid my dues… Time after time. I’ve done my sentence, but committed no crime. And bad mistakes-I’ve made a few” The music ramped up dramatically and suddenly Vivi recognized the song.

“Oh!”

“I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face but I’ve come through!”

And then Usopp, Sanji and Luffy sang together:

“Weee are the champions, my friends…”

It wasn’t exactly synched and Luffy was loud and slightly off key but Vivi felt her face burning as something like excitement welled in her. Sanji took the second verse. His voice controlled by no less passionate as he cradled the microphone, as the song ramped up again, he leaned in, his face red from exertion as his rings flashed in the light. This time everyone on the stage seemed to be singing the chorus. Even Vivi wanted to, but kept a hand over her mouth to stop herself.

After the chorus came the repeat of it, but this time it was just Luffy singing, a little off key and blisteringly loud, even the speakers on the laptop buzzed as if they couldn’t quite handle it.

“Wee are the champions, my friennds! And we’ll keep on fiighting til the end! We are the champions we are the champions! No time for losing cuz we are the championnns! Of the worlllld!”

And then they launched into the chorus again, everyone singing together again, this time the crowd singing, too. Nami and Robin joined in at the end and Vivi could hear their voices clear and passionate, lighters raised into the air in front of them like little stars.
But even when the song ended, the Brook, Franky and Chopper kept on playing as Usopp yelled:

Who are the champions?!” and he held out the microphone to the crowd.

“We are!” And they clapped twice.

Who are the champions?!

“We are!” and this time Vivi joined them quietly, clapping her hands. Nami laughed.

Who are the champions?!

“WE ARE!!” Luffy bellowed, blasting over everyone with the help of the microphone, a huge grin on his face as he punched his fist into the air. The moment he did the stage went dark and fireworks exploded in the air above, snapping bright colors and pinwheels. Vivi clapped. A drop of wet landed on her hands and she realized tears were streaming down her face. Nami’s too. Vivi laughed, though she wasn’t sure why and Nami laughed as well, knuckling the tears away with her right hand.



“That…that was amazing,” Vivi said as the crowd cheered in the video.

“Wait… there’s just a little more,” Nami said, looping her arm around Vivi’s. Vivi smiled and hugged Nami’s arm tight against her, resting her other hand on the woman’s and squeezing their fingers together.


“Encore!” the crowd began to chant. “Encore! Encore!”

But the stage remained dark even though she could just faintly make out them shifting. The twang of a guitar string. A whispered: “Luffy!”

And then right next to the camera:

“Hey, come on!” Luffy said.

“Luffy, what are you doing?” Nami said in the video. “Luf— I can’t just leave the camera. Hey wait! Wait I said!” her voice going further as if she was struggling.

“Don’t worry, Nami,” Robin said, a laugh in her voice, fading as she followed them. “It’ll be looked after. I’ve set bear traps around it.”

“You better have,” Nami said and then, just faintly below the crowd at some distance Nami said:

“There you are.”

“…Yeah.” There was no mistaking Zoro’s voice, faint as it was.

“Come on!” Luffy said. “Come On!

After a moment, the lights of the stage flicked back on and there they all were, standing arranged beside and behind Luffy. Vivi rested her fingers against her cheek and watched them all fondly. The crowd cheered and Brook played the intro to the chorus again. They sang it twice more. The first time, just Luffy and his crew, even Zoro singing after he was elbowed by Sanji. And then finally everyone together as the fireworks went off above them. After the last “world” there was a roar of clapping and Luffy lifted both arms in the air, beaming hugely.



It was there the video stopped and the world was silent once more. It was…somewhat difficult to recover from it, really. She stared at the image of Luffy’s frozen face and wished— But the world didn’t run on wishes. She squeezed Nami’s hand again and reached over to at least minimize the video.

“We should play that at the end…” Nami said quietly, her gaze focused on the screen though Vivi doubted she was really watching.

“At the end of the party?” Vivi laughed lightly. “Everyone will be a mess!” It was…faintly funny but not really. Not if she thought about it too much and so she tried not to. Nami said nothing for a moment then straightened and smiled closing the laptop and hugging it against her legs.

“I heard there was this really great show on channel seven we should check out… as you finish your breakfast.”

“Excuse me,” Vivi said, not pointing out that seven was CNN which would certainly count as work if Vivi watched it and distressing besides. Instead she held up her tray. “I do believe this counts as finished.”

“Mostly finished.” Nami added her own fruit salad to Vivi’s tray and stuck out her tongue.

“Cheater,” Vivi said with a faint smile, shaking her head.

“Pirate!” Nami shot back cheerfully, climbing out of bed to grab the remote and stand in front of the tv, relentlessly flicking through channels. There was a Straw Hat emblem on the back of the shirt. Vivi took that motif for granted so much she was surprised she noticed it anymore, but there it was, cracked a little from so many washings but the grinning skull and yellow hat were there.

The sight of it disturbed her somehow and she looked away, nibbling on a strawberry and glancing at her laptop. Since Nami was distracted… She opened it, navigating away from the shared space, back to her email. No answering, just to see what was there. A message from her father and just below that, Mr. Coby…

Vivi stared at his name for a moment before shifting the laptop closer and opening the message from her father, blinking in surprise as he said he was coming down to see her. Tomorrow in fact, bringing Igaram and Terracotta with him, as well as Chaka no doubt. It was a little surprising… But perhaps not so much after all. They’d all heard about Vivi’s incident after all and—well they cared for Luffy, too. Father and Igaram certainly and this would be…the final opportunity. She opened the e-mail and told him to meet her at the care center after he arrived.

“Vivi?” Nami said. Vivi waved a hand.

“Just replying to Father.” As for Coby’s message… it wasn’t marked urgent and it could wait for now. She closed the laptop and set it aside and then leaned back and smiled at Nami who was watching her from in front of the TV. Some nameless soap opera was playing but that was fine. The point was the noise, not the plot.

“Care to join me?” Vivi said, patting the spot beside her. “I’ll keep you warm.” And she wiggled her eyebrows just to tease.

“Well who am I to deny a princess anything?” Nami said in an elaborate shrug, resuming her place on the bed and placing a hand on the center of her chest, bowing from the shoulders in a gesture reminiscent of Sanji.

“Mellorine, mellorine,” Vivi said and giggled with Nami. It wasn’t bad like this. If only it could stay this way. If only they could, lighthearted and happy. But, she wouldn’t dwell on it. There was still plenty of time to enjoy her company before the end. Even today they were going to Raymond’s in a few hours which was always something to look forward to. So she snuggled beside Nami and watched the soap opera, pushing the e-mail from her mind.



Vivi shuffled the cards and looked at her atrocious hand. Her luck had been absolutely hideous for a few rounds now and her pile of M&Ms used in place of money was dwindling, despite the fact that Sanji kept pushing some of his over when he thought no one was looking. Of course he did that to every lady at the little card table and, being the only man, it was a wonder he had any candy left at all. Really, this was a dominance battle between Nami and Robin and Vivi was glad to be on the fringes—though not quite as on the fringes as Mrs. Kokoro who was plugging her way straight through a bottle of whiskey.

“I fold,” Vivi said, setting her cards face down on the table and leaning back in the chair, looking around the room with a smile. Raymond’s had been closed for a party and so they’d all bundled back here until Usopp had the idea to have a party right here in Vivi’s room. She hadn’t minded the idea in the least and had been all set to order pizzas but of course Sanji wouldn’t hear of it and had taken over a section of the kitchen to cook a huge buffet in a matter of hours which the other men had taken turns carting and setting up. As a treat, because he didn’t do enough obviously, Sanji had made everyone their own customized hot chocolate, using the hotels more extravagant for the ladies and had somehow found one with a monogrammed V on it for her.

Most of the boys, and Chimney, and Karoo were on the gaming system, having some kind of fighting tournament. Right now it was Usopp vs Brook and Vivi pushed away from the table to watch the battle which, it seemed, was quite fierce.

“I’m gonna bring you down, just watch!” Usopp said. “No one defeats the great Usopp.”

“We shall see,” Brook said, chuckling darkly and then, she assumed, got hit because he lurched upright. “I am stabbed!”

“Punched,” Chopper said.

“A wicked uppercut!” Chimney said, miming it with her hands.

"Kweh!" Karoo agreed, thrusting his wings into the air.

“Never mind! I shall rally my forces and fight on! I can see victory! Ah, though I really can’t see at all! Yohohoho.”

“Yeah well, don’t see this! Ha!” Usopp said as his character went viciously for Brook’s who nimbly avoided it. Below, at Brook’s feet, she could see his dog, Laboon, watching attentively, occasionally tapping Brook’s right or left foot with a paw. Telling him which direction Usopp was, Vivi realized, covering a laugh and shaking her head.

“You’re quite good, Mr. Brook,” Vivi said, leaning her arms on the back of the couch.

“Love drives me on,” Brook said. “And a handy memory of the sequences that would be photographic only-well…” He sighed gustily. “By the way, may I see your--”

“NO,” Sanji bellowed from across the room. Vivi laughed softly. He would be much more a white knight if he wasn’t half the pervert himself. She watched for a while until Nami called:

“We’re dealing another hand.”

Vivi straightened and was about to join them when she caught a glimpse of Zoro out on the balcony, drinking. He hadn’t said more than a few words to anyone the entire time, and not too long ago, Sanji had come from a smoke on the balcony looking livid—though he wouldn’t say why.

“I’ll tap out for a little, I think,” Vivi said, glancing at the pile of coats draped on the chair and and picked up the first one, though it took a little thought to figure out who it belonged to.

“Usopp, may I borrow your coat?”

“Huh? Yeah sure.”

“K.O.!” the game announced and Usopp groaned while Brook laughed. Vivi smiled and slipped outside into the cold. It was a clear night though difficult to tell from the city lights and from here she could see the Space Needle lit up like a beacon. They should go there one day. Wondered if Luffy had ever been.

“It’s a beautiful view, isn’t it?” she said, wrapping the coat around herself as she sat in the opposite chair. Zoro grunted. A truly masculine means of communication. Vivi watched him drink, the light glinting over the bottle. How many had he had? It was difficult to tell. It was hard to see his face, shadowed like it was. Vivi folded her fingers in her lap and looked out over the city once more.

“It’s cold enough to make you sick if you stay too long,” she said, rubbing her hands together.

“I’m fine,” he said. She doubted that very much. Though what should she do? It was her business and it wasn’t. The process of grief was rough and difficult and she hadn’t experienced it enough in her life to really understand how others might deal with it. Mother had died so long ago and fortunately no one else. And certainly not like this. She rubbed her arms against the cold, which she felt even through the layered sleeves of Usopp’s jacket. She really had no right to say anything. Doubtless the others had tried—

-but Luffy had fought on. Even after losing so often. He fought as hard as he could until he couldn’t. And she was not going to give up either, not on his beloved nakama. Maybe she would fail in the attempt, but no one ever won a battle they’d never fought.

She sat and thought a moment, listening to the cars rush by below and the muffled sounds of the game through the glass behind them. Out here on the balcony it was like a place between two worlds. Between the warmth of friends and the cold beautiful city. Like the choice between going in and heading out.

As she watched Zoro’s face in the half light, she couldn’t help but wonder which he was trying to decide. It was strange. As attached as he’d been to Luffy when she’d first met them, and granted she hadn’t met up with them every year but— he showed up less and less to whatever they had planned at the time. Perhaps she didn’t know him as well as she’d thought—or perhaps he had changed. People did, she had found. Sometimes without much of a warning. But she couldn’t let her self tangent. She had to focus on the task at hand. Right or wrong she had chosen her course and now she must sail it.

“Mr. Roronoa…” No… “Zoro…” She flexed her fingers in her lap. “I know…that this is a difficult time for you…” Though even as she spoke she hesitated. Then pushed on. “But…I don’t think…isolating yourself like this will help.”

He grunted. She waited for more. There was nothing. Inside the room, Usopp cheered— a sound muted through the glass and Vivi did her best to keep her hands still and patient on her lap. She wished he would say something. That she could see his face clearly to even guess what he might be thinking. She couldn’t even tell if he agreed with her or not. So, she pressed further.

“He would want us to be together no matter what happened. That would make him happiest.”

“He would want us to be with him…” Zoro’s voice was quiet, barely above a murmur but they still felt like a cold wind had slapped her across the face. She was standing before she knew it, gripping the chair, wanting to surge forward and ask what he meant by that. She wanted to grab him by the lapels of his jacket and cry at him with hot angry tears that he had better not be thinking what she thought he was thinking. She she held herself back. Clamped down on the hot rush of emotion. Something inside her shifted uneasily and she pressed a hand lightly to her belly.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. ‘Kingdoms are won and lost in anger,’ her father had told her once. ‘Stop, breathe, and let it pass through you.’ If only it was so easy. There was so much to be angry at. They were at the situation they were now because the world was cruel and people were ruthless. The people who had hurt Luffy. Crocodile who had ransacked her poor struggling kingdom, nearly driving it into poverty and ruin along with her father’s name. Even deep ancestral anger that throbbed in her blood, thinking of the ransacking of her home, hundreds of years ago, because people wanted money. Land. Power. Further than that the whole world was suffering around them. The whole world was angry around them. Full of lost children. Gangs bubbling into violence. The truth of the world, whatever fool thing that was, still looming on the horizon, unknown and maybe even a myth! But still being reached for and fought over.

“You are not allowed to follow him,” she said, her voice sounding cold and haughty, as she surprised even herself, her tongue tasted like iron. “We will be by his side at the end, but you made an obligation to protect his family.” She had meant to say nakama, that almost magical word, but the other had slipped out instead. “Don’t think you can shirk it, even for his sake.”

It was like another person had spoken. It left her feeling shaken. Maybe this is what Laki had meant by the voice of the bell. Beautiful and clear but honest, harsh even, telling the truth and leaving reverberations even in the bones. He was watching her, seeming startled. She tried to come back to herself but she felt unmoored somehow. She would not apologize. She wouldn’t soften. She had meant it just as she said. She should soften. She should reach out to him. But somehow she couldn’t seem to move. He closed his eyes and looked back over the city, not breaking the spell so much as bringing her back. She was exhausted suddenly.

“I know,” he said, and somehow it helped. She breathed out. Her eyes stung. She blinked rapidly and went to reach for him, wanting to put a hand on his shoulder, form a connection, but the door slid open and there was Nami peering out at them.

“Brrr it’s freezing out here! Vivi, come inside already, Kokoro and Chimney are leaving.”
The moment was gone. The world returned. Probably for the best. And she was cold.

“Yes, alright.” Vivi offered Zoro a small smile she wasn’t even sure he noticed before heading back into the warmth. She shed Usopp’s coat, thanking him, and said her goodbyes to Kokoro and Chimney, dazed slightly and moving on instinct. She even tried to clear up some of the mess to busy her hands but Nami shooed her aggressively to the couch where she sat, gathered Karoo onto her lap, and watched Usopp pack up his gaming system, winding the cord around the controller.

She was tired. Her neck ached. She wanted Koza with a deep longing that surprised her. She wanted him to come up behind her, work her neck with his strong warm calloused fingers. Watch her with his quietness. She wanted to sit with him alone on the couch, the glass doors opened and watch the sun set out beyond the veranda and drinking sweet mellow wine. To just exist with him where nothing was falling apart. Where she could be however she wanted, due to a shared memory, shared experience and the fact that he’d seen her dirty kneed and booger flinging along with the rest of the pack they’d traveled with in days she can hardly remember now. The call of the birds. The sunlight on the water…

A cold wind made her shudder and she came back to reality, rubbing her arms. Usopp was just finishing carefully wedging the gaming system into a bag. Robin and Nami were chatting quietly, their voices low and just beyond her range of hearing unless she wanted to try. She saw that Chopper had returned from where Sanji had shanghai’d him into being a sort of busy boy and thought blearily that the cold wind had come from him when the rumble of Zoro’s deep voice surprised her.

“Are we leaving?”

The room went still. Vivi glanced in his direction along with everyone else. Even Brook canted his head toward the sound. For a moment it didn’t seem like anyone would say anything, but finally Usopp did.

“Uh… well, I guess so, unless you guys wanted to hang around a bit longer.” More silence. As if they’d all forgotten what words were. Once again, Usopp came to the rescue. “I mean, we could probably watch a movie or something if you guys…wanted to um…keep going for a bit.”

“Vivi?” Nami said. Vivi turned to blink at her, wondering why the woman was addressing her— and then understood.

“Oh, of course, a movie sounds wonderful,” she said, and must not have sounded entirely convincing, given Nami’s expression. Vivi tried to smile and then decided against it, sighing a little. “Please,” she said, managing to find a faint smile anyway. “Just one movie wouldn’t hurt.”

“That’s a great idea!” Chopper said. “Let’s get popcorn!”

“You just ate a ton, shitty punk,” Sanji said but fondly. “What are you turning into Luffy?”

“Oh, god no,” Nami said with a soft laugh. “Stop the transformation right there. We can’t afford tw… we can’t afford it.”

“I think popcorn sounds like a wonderful idea. I always enjoy it while watching a movie. Not that I can see it,” Brook said and Vivi wondered if he ever got tired of that joke.

“Sounds great to me,” Usopp said, taking out his system once more. “Let’s see what’s on Netflix.” And then as Nami sat beside Vivi in the middle. “Oi that’s my spot.”

“You snooze, you lose,” Nami said, slipping an arm around the back of the couch just behind Vivi’s shoulders. Vivi felt warm from her core.”

“What part of me looked like I was snoozing? Not that it matters, you know, because I have the hair trigger senses of a cat. No one can catch the great Usopp sleeping on the job. This one time I woke up just before a troupe of seventy ninja launched a surprise attack.”

“What, really?” Chopper said, his eyes shining with excitement.

“Of course really,” Usopp said, shaking his head with a smirk. “Would I lie?”

Zoro snorted and Robin came closer, gracefully pulling up a chair as she said:

“It’s not the ninja you wake up to that you have to worry about.”

“O…oi, don’t say such scary things. A-anyway, like I said I can hear ninja from miles away.” Vivi watched bemused as a hand blossomed from between Usopp’s shoulder blades. “Nothing can sneak up on miaee!” he ended in a squeak as the fingers pinched the back of his neck. Laughter ran like a soft river through the room and Vivi shook her head.

She let her head list against Nami’s shoulder as she watched Usopp fiddle with the console again, listening to the bursts of conversation around her. Coby’s e-mail, whatever it was, still waited for her and tomorrow she would go to that place again to wait for her father. She would rather meet him anywhere else now. But being there was important and so there should would be. But tomorrow. Today… tonight… was a movie in the warmth of a small family that she was only really on the fringes of. But that was alright. For now she could afford to relax a little.



Vivi covered her yawn with a hand. It wasn’t too early. The clock on the car radio read ten thirty, and yet she was tired despite having slept soundly through the movie last night, waking up only a little when Zoro carried her to the bed. Her face heated a little at the thought and she pressed her hand to her cheeks. It was a little embarrassing to be treated that way. Perhaps it was because she’d woken up at three for an hour or so, though hadn’t left the bed that Nami had decided to share with her. She’d watched the woman, fast asleep, caught in a square of moonlight and had felt an odd dreamy peace. It reminded her of the old days. She sighed and looked out the window as Mr. Kaku pulled into the care center’s parking lot. She was almost tired of seeing this old white building. The dull glass doors. The endlessly waving St. Nicholas. That dull ache in the center of her ribcage. The car stopped and she waited as Mr. Kaku held out a hand as always. She felt another small pang as she took it. Since Father was here, this was the last time she would use his services.

“Thank you,” she said, giving him a warm smile. “I mean that. Your service has been exemplary.” He was so professional but in a kind manner. She couldn’t help but appreciate it and would definitely have to compliment him to the driving service. He touched the brim of his hat.

“Just part of the job, ma’am. Was a pleasure serving you. You take care of yourself, now, you hear? Keep your chin up!”

“I will.” She gave him one last smile before starting toward the doors, smiling again as he held them open for her and nodding to him and pressing through to the sterile heat. Keep her chin up. Of course she did and she could. But at this point her chin had been up so often her neck was starting to hurt. She shook her head and signed in at the front desk while the new man watched her with a bland stare. She supposed she should ask his name but for the moment she was tired. Perhaps another day since, goodness knows, this wasn’t going to be her last trip here by a long shot.

She tightened her ponytail absently as she walked down the hall and noticed with some surprise that Luffy’s door was open, though the light was off. She walked far enough to see who it was in there with him and stilled. There was a man she didn’t know, dressed in a black jacket and jeans. No one she knew or could recognize. Granted she didn’t know all of Luffy’s friends but there seemed to be something suspicious about it all. He reached down and picked up Luffy’s wrist, galvanizing her into action.

“Excuse me, do I know you?” she said, coming into the room and turning on the light. The man turned to look back at her, his movements were quick but there was nothing guilty or startled about his lean face. He didn’t even let go of Luffy.

“I’m Tony-ya’s friend.”

“Tony-ya?” What?

“Chopper,” he said, shifting his grip Luffy’s wrist and staring at the clock on the far wall. It took her a moment to realize he was taking Luffy’s pulse. Why? Who was this man? She sat on the edge of the bed, trying to let him know without words that Luffy was under her protection should he try anything funny. He didn’t seem to notice her. After a moment he clicked his tongue and tucked Luffy’s hand back at his side before pulling a phone out of his pocket and tapping something on it one handed.

“What are you doing?” she finally asked, fighting back the faint surge of hope.

“I work for a research lab,” he said, picking up a small penlight from the bedside table and leaning forward. Viv was distracted by him lifting Luffy’s eyelids to shine the light on his eyes. God it had been so long since she’d seen them open in any capacity and she was struck by how much they made him seem alive. She’d forgotten how brown they were. Almost black. She took a deep quiet breath, filling her lungs and let it out, pushing the fresh wave of sorrow away.

“A research lab,” she said. “It must be an interesting one.” And she looked pointedly at his hands where life had been tattooed on the fingers of one hand and death on the other.

“We study coma patients.” He straightened and tapped more into his phone.

“And you’ve been studying Luffy?” she said, absently resting a hand on her belly.

“On and off.”

“I see…” It was unsettling somehow, to know that this man had been coming in and studying him as if…as if he…was just some object to further medical research. Important research probably. To help others. But he was more than just a patient. He was important. How could Chopper agree to such a thing? No… She closed her eyes, trying not to let her own personal bias override her sensibilities. Luffy would want this. To help others. Of course he would. And it wasn’t as if being examined actually hurt him in any way. Maybe he was beyond hurting. Another wave of grief washed through her and she swallowed it back.

Instead she focused on this man, slipping his phone back in his pocket and packing up his instruments into a black messenger back with a heart design in silver and, oddly, a cute polar bear face keychain.

“Later,” he said, walking out and Vivi watched him go before realizing she didn’t even know his name to confirm with Chopper later. But…then she supposed it didn’t matter really. She sat back and tried to resettle herself. She checked her own phone. Father would be here in about twenty minutes and had sent an email saying as much. She sent him a smiley face back, unable to think of anything more intelligent, then, struck with realization, sent a message to Chopper, telling him about the incident.
And then there was Coby’s message.

Vivi took a deep breath and opened it. Though all he said was that Garp had decided to come in on the twenty-third. She wasn’t… entirely sure what to do with the information now that she had it. It wasn’t as if she could warn Nami and the others because then they would wonder how she knew and she really didn’t want to open that particular can of worms. Best… just to it on it for now she supposed and let things come as they will. She was tired of thinking. It seemed she was tired of a lot of things lately.

After that there was nothing but the sterile silence. It drove her a little crazy, to hear nothing but her own breath rasping, quiet voices down the hall. No wonder people could sleep here forever. She sighed and pushed away the thought, determined to make some noise of her own. But what? She could speak to him, but there was nothing she wanted to say, could bring herself to say— so instead she flipped through the music list on her phone until inspiration struck.
A moment later she was watching the “Champion” video on the small screen of her phone. Somehow it seemed lonelier here, their voices unable to fill up the dimness. She scooted a little closer to Luffy and smiled down at him.

“Can you hear it? Do you remember?” She put the phone on the pillow beside him and she watched him. The curve of his sunken cheek, the the way his newly cut hair fell over his forehead, the faint rythmic breathing that lifted his hollow chest.

‘Who are the champions?’ tinny Usopp bellowed.

“We are,” Vivi murmured, threading her fingers through his bangs lightly.

‘Who are the champions?’

“We oh!” Vivi sat straight up, something had happened inside. A jolt. A tiny blunt pain punching upward against her ribs. What in the world? It happened again, a third time and she finally understood. Warmth rushed through her.

“Luffy!” She took his hand and pressed it to her belly. “Luffy can you feel it? The baby is kicking. Isn’t it wonderful?!”

He said nothing. He didn’t move. Didn’t stir. His hand was faintly warm and she could feel the sharp bones under her fingers. These hands… His hands… His fierce eyes… His yell which could still an entire arena. An entire city. Her child. Her bright one. Would grow up and never know…

Vivi closed her eyes…

…and let go.

The tears fell freely as she watched him, letting the sadness sweep through her as she threaded her fingers through his over her belly. She let herself mourn. She indulged in feeling sorry for herself, and regret in not being able to save him. She let the injustice of it all well up like a tired, angry bubble under her heart. It shouldn’t have happened to him. Why not one of those people who didn’t care about the world? That actively sought to destroy it or curtail the freedom of others? It should be them lying in this bed, not him. He belonged to them alive and happy and ferocious.

Soon enough the tears stopped, and she felt achy and hollow, her eyes bruised and puffy, her nose a bit sore from the tissue she’d borrowed. There was always a box here because Sanji knew. Of course he did. She she heaved her shoulders in a sigh, oddly feeling a strange sort of peace. Luffy looked peaceful, too. She could see why Coby had said he seemed to be waiting. It was a horribly sad thing to say.

Footsteps in the hall caught her attention and she looked up to see her Father filling the doorway, with Igaram behind him. She felt she should be formal and say Father, glide across the room, take his hands, kiss both his cheeks as was prescribed for the daughter of the still proud former king of Yuraj nee Alabasta. But she wiped at her eyes and held out a hand for him instead.

“Papa…”

His face relaxed a little, a smile breaking through the worry. He came toward the bed and took her hand, settling down beside her. Igaram reached to close the door and she smiled at him and nodded a deep greeting, pleased to see him. He smiled back, bowing before closing the door behind him, probably to stand guard though it wasn’t necessary.

“I hear you had a bit of an adventure here,” Father said, smiling, the lines around his eyes— and there were so many more now— deepening. There was white in his hair, too, and lining his beard. She smiled and indulged herself again, leaning against his shoulder, remembering sleeping against it so many times when she was a little girl.

“I’m fine now,” she said as he slipped a hand over her other shoulder, pulling her close. At his grunt and she breathed a laugh. “I’m better, then,” she said, sticking out her tongue.

“And I’m glad to hear it. You nearly scared your old father half to death! Not to mention Igaram.”

“I’m sorry.” She tilted her head to look up at him. “How did you keep him off the plane.”

“How did he keep me off the plane, you mean,” Father said with a twist of his mouth. “But as it turned out, there was some sort of passport crises and by the time we got it sorted, the crises seemed to be over. By that point, of course, we flew out anyway.”

“I’m sorry to have worried you,” she said, squeezing his hand. He smiled and pet her hair gently.

“Your mother always worried me, too.”

The unexpected compliment coupled with the fond look on his face made tears sting her eyes once more. She wiped at them with her fingers, laughing as she felt a little silly and then dabbed at them with the handkerchief Father offered, blinking until she could finally compose herself.

“I don’t know about you,” Father said after a moment. “But I’m a little hungry…”

“Mmm. We should go eat…” She was a little hungry, too, and she had to protect her little bright one. Vivi stood, settling Luffy’s hand beside him and smoothing her fingers down his arm. He slept on. Looking so different…and so much the same.

“We owe that boy a great deal,” Father said.

“I want to save him,” Vivi said, suddenly, fiercely. “I want to use the Devil’s Seed.”

“Vivi…” Father said and she could feel his startled look. She clenched her hands into fists.

“I want to. No matter the risk. Even if there’s a slim chance at hope. I want to defy the world and give it to him.” It felt good to say. Cathartic. As if she could wash all the pain and waiting away in that single hope. To believe in it with all her heart. And for a single moment, she did. Allowed herself to. Then she let out a long breath and came back to reality along with it.

“Feel better?” Father said, putting a hand on her shoulder. She smiled and absently straightened some wrinkles from the blanket.

“Yes and no…” She smiled and absently straightened some wrinkles from the blanket. “You know, someone said he feels like he’s waiting. I want to hope that that’s true, as well. That one day we’ll figure out how to say or do the right thing and he’ll open his eyes… Even after five years of nothing…” She shook her head. “And still I can’t tell if it’s the easy way or the hard way.”

“In these situations there is no easy way or hard way, it just is,” Father said and she looked into his kind warm smile, taking comfort from it even as he watched Luffy. “But I’ll tell you something— that boy seems to come out of nowhere when there is no hope left. He swoops in to save the day long after everyone has given up… So maybe….” But he didn’t finish it. And maybe even he couldn’t. Maybe, in reality, it was the easy way to let go and the hard way to keep pushing, keep hoping.

But she couldn’t anymore.

And that was okay.


Past Part:
You've Got the Weight of the World, My Dear

Vivi’s dreams are vivid and nonsensical. They blend into one another so she can’t make sense of anything, other than knowing with a deep anxiety somewhere in the back of her mind that she needs to wake up. Friends and family traipse across her vision, acting in some play she can’t understand. It’s alternately hot and then cold and her back and arm stretch and pull as if scorched by some desert sun. And she is in the desert, asking Karoo to get her water as she wades through the shin deep sand, seeing Yuraj—Alabasta— just in the distance of green forests and the sparkling blue lake. Luffy is there. She can hear his laugh. And she has to get closer, has to push through while the dark eyed woman watches her and Dalton lopes away, a lonely old bull. After hours and hours of pulling through, sweat dripping down her face, she is close. So close. She can see Koza in the distance. Young like she remembers him best and she calls out—

But her voice is carried away by the wind and blinding sand whipping from behind,choking her and devouring all of the green and blue, hiding Koza. That man laughs softly. She turns in rage to do something. To bury her fist alongside his nose but he is nowhere to be found. The desert is all around her. Alabasta is choked in dust and sand. She is alone. She has failed. She falls to her knees—

—and wakes.

To an unfamiliar room and an unfamiliar bed. She blinks the haze from her eyes, noticing her right arm is bandaged. A soft summer light touches the wall and a rug someone is weaving, yellow and red in an old Alabastan design. Vivi sits up, putting a hand, and feeling stale sweat as she takes in the room. It’s small. An attic room judging by the sloping roof. It is clean and well kept, and a window must be open at her back because she can feel a soft breeze. A noise by her elbow catches her attention and she notices a lump in the blankets. Peeling it away, she smiles and relaxes a little as she sees Karoo sleeping there, his bill tucked under a wing. She brushes a finger against his cheek, lightly so as not to wake him. This must be a safe place, wherever it is, or he would be standing guard.

Still—where is this? And what’s happened? She takes a moment to assess herself. If you have the time, it is the most important, as Igaram has told her. That way, there will be no unpleasant surprises if you must escape. And she feels— fine. Her back and shoulder are bothering her a little, stinging unpleasantly, and somewhat more disturbingly, she is in different clothes than what she remembers wearing. She stands, a little dizzy but it soon passes, and runs her tongue along the roof of her dry mouth as she goes to the open window, soft white curtains moving in the breeze.

This is a house set in a forest. There are trees. A long gravel drive to an old wooden gate and a sun dappled road just beyond. Leaning out of the window, and shifting her weight to her good arm, she can see a carport to her far left and what looks like the bumper of Zoro’s car next to a dented pickup. She hears the door open behind her and straightens, letting in the muted noise of the TV from somewhere below.

“So you’re finally awake,” Nami says and Vivi turns to see the young woman standing in the doorway, a tray propped on her hip. She’s smiling but her eyes seem hooded. Nevertheless, Vivi is relieved to see her.

“Yes…” Vivi passes a hand over her forehead as another wave of faint dizziness washes over her. “How long have I been asleep…?” she trails off as the voice from the TV below becomes clear.

“Thirteen dead and dozens more wounded as—”

But whatever else the announcer had been going to say is cut off as Nami slips into the room and kicks the door behind her with her foot. Vivi wants to ask her what it’s about and takes a breath to do so.

“Two days,” Nami says and Vivi blinks, not following.

“Pardon?”

“Two days. That’s how long you’ve been asleep. You had a pretty bad fever for a while. Laki said it was probably exhaustion” Nami comes around the bed and Vivi flinches a little as the woman pokes her a little too hard on the forehead. “You have to take better care of yourself.”

“Yes…” Vivi says, rubbing the spot. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m just glad you’re awake,” Nami says with a true smile this time and Vivi can’t help but smile back. She really is a caring person. But, two days… She goes to sit on the edge of the bed, hands between her knees as she watches Nami pull down the blinds and shut the curtains, casting the room into dimness. Granted they hadn’t been going anywhere, but even being out of commission that long seems like a waste of time.

“What happened?”

“First, take off your shirt so I can goop you up,” Nami says, unscrewing a jar of what smells like some medicinal cream. “We have to apply this to keep you from scarring.”

“Oh yes, of course.”

It’s somewhat embarrassing. It’s been a long time since those young summer days when she grew angry when Igaram wouldn’t let her swim with the boys. At least not just in a pair of shorts. True she shared a shower space with some of the girls from the boarding school, but that was all tucked away behind concrete stalls and thin plastic curtains. She remains still, glad for the dimness of the room as Nami unwinds the bandages, biting the inside of her lip a little as it pulls skin, and then pulls the blanket up to her chest when she is able— shivering and then sighing at the touch of the cold, soothing cream. She can hear Nami breathe on it before she applies, warming it, like mother used to do, Vivi remembers with a sudden soft fondness. She is almost lulled into a sense of peace by just the touch of caring hands, when Nami speaks again.

“As for what happened… It was pretty much chaos, you know?” she heaved a sigh. “I know that Zoro and one of the employees— Kamakiri maybe? Helped you guys out of the barn. But for the most part I was trying not to get killed. The most I saw was Luffy and Sanji stuffing unconscious Buggy Boys into that Volkswagen and then we heard the police and got out of there.”

“Oh, I see…” It’s understandable that Nami wouldn’t know much. After all, it had been chaos. Vivi could barely remember it all. “It’s too bad about the prize money,” she says, knowing that must bother Nami the most. After all, she can hardly ask with the stadium in such disarray. Mr. Dalton will probably need everything he can just to repair it and— Vivi is stopped mid-thought by Nami’s chuckle.

“Don’t worry about that. I still have what we already won. Give me your arm,” she says. Vivi does so and Nami begins to bandage up to her shoulder again. “And a little more besides,” Nami continues. Vivi blinks and tugs her shirt back on.

“A little more?”

Nami just smiles and winks, holding a finger up to her lips. Vivi returns the smile but she doesn’t think she understands. She decides not to worry about it as Nami crosses the room, opens the curtains and pulls up the blinds. She leans forward on the windowsill and takes a deep breath of the fresh breeze. Vivi can see her ribs move and spots two freckles on her tanned shoulder, and the faint blue inkings of a tattoo.

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Nami says, turning and smiling mischievously. “Want to see a dino park?” Vivi can only blink again, having unbidden images of the screaming t-rex she’d seen in Jurassic Park. She remembers at first being afraid of the gigantic thing, as was expected, but then feeling a certain fondness of it when she realized it was a mother despite the odds. It was such such a strange thought.

“Toss on some clothes and come down,” Nami says, patting Vivi’s shoulder as she goes by. “It’ll be fun. You’ll see.”

“Alright,” Vivi says, feeling a bit out of sorts. She spots her suitcase, well, the one she is borrowing from Usopp, at the foot of the bed. She gathers up a t-shirt and some jean shorts, realizing and moving to close the blinds again—when she notices a picture on the wall. It’s a child’s drawing, well framed so they must be proud of it… and the name Aisa has been printed carefully in the corner. The drawing itself is of some sort of island in the clouds, complete with crude palm trees and vines and what looks like a giant snake. In the foreground is a red headed stick figure of indeterminate gender, standing beside a large yellow and black triangle and waving. It takes her a moment to realize the triangle is a bell and the black seems like some sort of decoration or writing. It reminds her a little of an ancient Alabastan fairy tale that the Shandian priest used to tell. How very strange to see it here.

“Uwaah! The vivacious Vivi is awake?!” Mr. Sanji’s bellow from downstairs makes Vivi smile, pulling her attention from the picture. She closes the window and shuts the blinds so she can get changed and go down to meet her friends.



While upstairs it was breezy, down here in the gravel driveway it is hot and muggy. Crickets chirp in underbrush and something she’s not sure what goes ‘kee kee’. She sips from the water bottle that Mr. Sanji had given her and stays close to Nami’s side, trying not to let the dizziness overwhelm her. She must not be quite recovered. A man who apparently, if not owns the house, lives in it… Mr… Boodle? Is tinkering with the engine of a golf cart, supposedly their ride through this park…whatever it is, while Sanji stands beside him and peers down at it, hand on his hip. Shushu and Karoo are resting just in the shade of it, the dog panting in the shimmering heat.

It occurs to Vivi that she’s not quite sure where she is. Assumably Aisa lives here, perhaps the other employees of the rodeo as well. And Mr. Dalton? Perhaps. But she hasn’t seen anything of him. The house certainly is too big for one person. Two stories and white with blue trim. Set behind it something that looks like a shed turned workshop and then a fence which borders another part of the forest.

Above the treeline, she can definitely see what looks like a brachiosaurus head made of painted wood. There seems to be a t-rex head as well, though they lived in vastly different time periods. Perhaps a kind of march of time. Further than that…she squints a little… it seems two odd triangles forming a “v” shape. Tilting her head back makes her dizzy though and she looks down too fast, having to lightly grip Nami’s arm to steady herself.

“I’m tired,” Nami says. “Come sit with me.” And tugs at her sleeve. Vivi sits gratefully, fanning herself with her hand as Nami parks herself beside the driver’s seat. It’s hot. She’s usually not so affected by it but she feels a little weak. Nami gives her a look and Vivi drinks more water.

“Well that should fix it,” Mr. Boodle says. “If it doesn’t I don’t know what will. What do you think, young man?”

“Ain’t got a clue,” Sanji says, chewing on the end of an unlit cigarette. “Usopp might know and if we can find him out in the shitty wilderness.” And he waves a hand vaguely at the forest.”

“Well if it doesn’t crank, kick it. S’what my father used to say,” Mr. Boodle says. Vivi has a sudden recollection of one of Buggy’s Boys getting kicked under the chin and spiraling up in the air and has a sudden image of the engine doing the same. The giggle fit is sudden and unexpected and she nearly chokes on her water, getting some out her nose and hurriedly covering it. Nami bursts out laughing and Vivi flushes, embarrassed and then laughs with her.

“Ah, mellorines laughing summertime love!” Sanji croons, wiggling his hips and she looks up at him, his limp hair curling at the very ends from the humidity and the giggles start all over again. Mr. Boodle stares at them from over the hood.

“Did I miss something?” he says and Vivi can only put a hand to her mouth and try to contain herself. “Er…well give it a turn, Miss,” Mr. Boodle says, nodding at Nami. She clears her throat and turns the key in the ignition. The golf cart sputters a bit and starts to die until Mr. Boodle grips his cane with one hand, Sanji’s offered arm in the other and gives it a good whack. The engine sputters to a low rumble and Vivi applauds, Nami joining her.

“Well then.” Mr. Boodle claps his hands together. “We’re off.”

“Princess gets shotgun,” Nami says with a wink, slipping to the back. Vivi feels somewhat bad that Sanji can’t also ride but the other half of the seat is filled with picnic things and Nami’s camera bag. Still, she supposes, he doesn’t mind. Shushu hops up from floor to her lap, climbing imperiously over her to sit in the space between her and Mr. Boodle. Karoo is right behind him and she lifts the duck up on her lap, giving him good scratch and massage under the wings for being such a good guard.

“Kweh,” he says, clacking his bill as if asking for water and she gives him some from her water bottle, watching him slurp it down.

“H’ooh that’s interesting,” Sanji says, leaning in. “How does he do that without lips?”

“Karoo is a very talented duck,” Vivi says with some pride. Though the how is a mystery. Even as a child she used to give him all sorts of drinks to guess how he did it, though she did sort of regret giving him that burbon by mistake. Well—they had all regretted it for a while.

“Of course. Since he also has a very beautiful mistress,” Sanji says with a grin and she can’t help but smile at that.

“Mr. Sanji that makes absolutely no sense.”

“It’s absolutely true, mademoiselle,” he says with a half bow and Vivi firmly tells herself not to be charmed. At least… not too charmed.

“Well then, are we ready?” Mr. Boodle asks. Vivi is about to say yes, but Sanji straightens, lifting a hand.

“Hold up,” he says. Is something coming? Vivi twists to look over her shoulder, chewing on the inside of her lip as she listens hard for sounds of tires on the road or the twhup of a helicopter. There is non of that but she can see someone moving along the road, flashes of a navy blue shirt between the trees. She relaxes when she sees Zoro come to the roadside gate, eyes widening than narrowing as he pushes through. Vivi turns back around and fans herself again, taking another sip of water.

“Looks like a mossy tumbleweed has tumbled back home,” Sanji says. “Where the hell did you go?”

“Where you told me to go, dartboard,” Zoro grumbles. “Don’t know why I expected you to give straight directions.”

“The hell is that supposed to mean? I said toward the gate with the forest and the big shitty dinosaurs,” Sanji says, making a broad sweeping gesture. “Did you forget to look above the trees or did you find a relative?”

“Maybe your big damn yellow head was blocking my way,” Zoro says.

“Ahhh? You wanna repeat that?” Sanji says.

“We’re ready,” Nami says. “Drive on.”

“Well if you’re sure,” Mr. Boodle says.

“Should I say it slower, curly cook?” Zoro says.

“We’re sure,” Nami says and Vivi can’t help but feel somewhat relieved as they rumble toward the gate, the sound of the argument falling away. Vivi folds her hands over Karoo’s back as they rattle toward the gate, lifting her head at a cool breeze and feeling it feather through her bangs.

“Is this your home, Mr. Boodle,” she asks.

“Technically it’s Shushu’s,” he says, nodding toward the dog who looks at her with dark eyes, tail wagging once. “I’m just the guy who looks after Shushu.” He smiles though and the wrinkles deepen around his eyes. “Really, I’m just a permanent guest, though the owner was a good friend of mine— the place really belongs to Dalton.”

“Mr. Dalton?” Vivi says, surprised. Mr. Boodle takes a breath and then shakes his head.

“It’s a long story. We should start at the beginning.” They come to the gate and Mr. Boodle puts the golf cart in park. Vivi starts to get out almost the same time he does but is stopped as Sanji strides past with a muttered:

“I’ll get it.” Puffing on his cigarette with his hands jammed in his pockets. Vivi sighs. Must they always snipe at each other?

“By the way, Poodle,” Zoro says, leaning an arm on the top of the golf cart and peering down at them.

“Boodle,” says Mr. Boodle.

“What’s with the ghost town a few miles back? Another weird attraction?”

Mr. Boodle’s expression closes a bit and Vivi feels her heart sink, knowing somehow it isn’t anything of the sort.

“That was Little Garden,” he says, putting the golf cart in drive as Sanji opens the gate. “My old home town.” They trundle through onto a packed dirt path at an easy walking pace and Sanji and Zoro fall into step. Just to the right there is a wooden Iguanodon wearing sunglasses and holding up a sign that says Little Garden in palm leaf stenciled letters. Vivi blinks.

“Er…” she starts.

“Yes, I know,” Mr. Boodle says. Sighs. Takes his hands off the wheel to light a pipe and puffs at it a bit. “There’s supposed to be a whole spiel, but I lost the pamphlet so I’ll tell you what I can remember. The people who settled that town about a hundred and fifty years ago named it after an old Scandinavian folktale.

Once, there were two giants who came down the great tree onto the earth as we know it. They were great friends. Great hunters. Of course, that was the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.”

Vivi notes a small pack of Agilisaur, watching them from a clearing around a small nest, light slipping over their glass eyes.

“Can’t remember their names off the top of my head, but we’ll call them Elmo and Scuzzy.”

“Guess which one was Scuzzy,” Sanji mutters.

“I don’t want to hear it from you, Elmo,” Zoro says, scratching his ear with a pinkie and Vivi faintly wonders what would happen if she got a little spray bottle like you did with rowdy cats.

“Anyway, one day after a long day of hunting, Elmo and Scuzzy are sitting around, celebrating their kills and about to haul their kills back up the great tree when a girl…”

“In the time of the dinosaurs?” Nami asks.

“…Cave girl then.”

Vivi presses her lips together. Even if it’s inaccurate, it’s a story so she won’t ruin it.

“Was she cute?” Sanji asks.

“Little cave girl…” Boodle says, sounding slightly annoyed. “Asks which one is bigger. Rulers weren’t invented back then so Scuzzy and Elmo got into a little fight about whose was bigger…and then a bigger fight.”

Nami snorts and Vivi can’t help to agree with her.

“They fought this battle for a thousand years and fought so hard the blows of their weapons carved out this valley. Afterwards they annoyed some god or another or made a bet, well at any rate they died. But the valley itself became a haven for dinos long after most were gone from the earth.”

“Oh, like in the Land Before Time,” Sanji says. Vivi stares at him, not really getting the reference. There is a kind of silence and Sanji’s face goes red for some reason and he seems to study a half finished Hagryphus, resting against a tree.

“Anyway,” Mr. Boodle continues. “The locals of the town didn’t know it then, but this area is rich with fossils. And about twenty years ago, we had a pretty fine museum of local fossils…” Boodle stares straight ahead, hand on the steering wheel. “And then the Red War came.”

Another silence. The wind sifted like whispers through the leaves. Sanji lit a cigarette. Zoro rested an arm on his swords and Vivi felt her throat go dry and swallowed the last of her water. They came to a forked path and Mr. Boodle took a left where trees were thicker. To the right, a Spinosaurus lay on its side. Dying… No, sleeping, Vivi mentally corrected herself.

“I don’t remember what they were calling themselves. The Red Bones or Red Dice or something or the other, but the gang sat in our town for months before razing it near to the ground after a firefight with some other bastards from down south. Guess you kids don’t really know about this sort of thing but it was a pretty hard time. A lot of people fled or died. The fossil museum was lost. Library too. All our history gone just like that.” He snaps his fingers.

“The guy who built this place, though, he stuck around. Brought up the land when it was cheap and decided to make a fantasy Little Garden all on his own. He had some help now and then. Couldn’t get anyone to stay long. But took seven months just building that, mostly by himself. And he eased the golf cart to a stop. They were at the Brachiosaur. Vivi can see it’s great blue trunked legs so she has to get out of the cart, gripping the side to look up and up its long neck, its chin so high above it’s breathtaking. It has to be at least fifteen feet high, if not more. Sanji whistles.

“That’s some impressive shitty work. Mostly by himself?”

“Yep,” Boodle says. “Man was pretty crazy.”

“Children must have loved to come here,” Vivi says. She would have loved to. She can imagine herself and their little gang climbing all over trees and dinosaurs alike like a pack of monkeys. Maybe even playing king of the brachiosaur.

“What children came,” Mr. Boodle said. “I wasn’t around then, of course, but he’d brag about every school group or confused tourist who came by. Happened maybe once every few months. He was damned proud of it though.”

“And Mr. Dalton?” Vivi asks, resuming her seat and settling Karoo back on her lap. They don’t start the cart again right away. Nami has gotten her camera out and is taking pictures. Vivi listens to the clicking of the shutter and feels a faint tinge of anxiety as she always does around cameras. Though in this case, Nami is capturing a truly spectacular work of art, and not trying to pick out some unexpected flaw of Vivi’s.

Boodle seems reluctant to answer and fiddles with the cap of a plastic water bottle for a moment. She considers telling him he doesn’t have to say… But keeps her silence. Dalton is one of them. A Devil’s Seed user. He might be reluctant to speak with her but perhaps Boodle will say something he’d rather not have heard. She keeps her hands still and doesn’t clench them against her shorts, instead focusing on watching Zoro disappear down the path.

Does she really need to obtain the information this way? Is it the honest way? Is it the easy way?

“I don’t know his story, Miss,” Boodle says finally and she bites the inside of her lip, sensing there’s more to it. “I wasn’t here for it. But I do know that he’s been here for three years. He helped my friend build this place and kept him and Shushu company when there was no one else.” Boodle swallows down some water and Vivi looks away from him. She wonders who might be missing her right now. Who she might be abandoning.

Nami sits back in the cart and Boodle starts to drive again.He resumes talking and Vivi pays enough attention to nod at the right parts and ask ‘oh’ and ‘is that so?’ She has enough awareness to know that he’s speaking of enhancements they made together to the place and a terrible winter storm where they almost lost one of the giants.

But even as he speaks, her mind whirring. What could Mr. Dalton’s secret be? Does it matter? Could she help him if she knew it? Or could she only make things worse for him? Why is he here? How did he come across a Devil’s Seed and survive? Does he know the jaguar man that nearly mauled Kreig? Or are there more users out there? The golf cart stops again. Vivi looks up, and her heart sinks.

There is a square clearing off to the side, and on it a gravestone. A wooden triceratops, lovingly and well crafted,is resting its chin on the top of the gravestone, eyes closed. It should be ridiculous, but it looks solemn and bittersweet. Shushu hopes out of the golf cart and goes to rest at the head of the grave near the stone, careful not to disturb the fresh cut flowers that had been laid there. The last date on the stone is just this November and she imagines the red and orange leaves that must have scattered over fresh turned earth.

“And there he lies,” Mr. Boodle says, crossing his fingers together over the wheel. “It may be a small place. Not much of an attraction, with the few statues we have. Maybe it didn’t do all that he wanted, but in the end, a dream is still a dream, no matter how little.” Vivi wishes she knew what to say. Something that would lift his spirits. But she can only stare at the cold of the gravestone.

“I don’t know about that,” Sanji says, shoving his hands in his pockets and pivoting on his heel, looking up as if taking the whole scene. “It looks like a pretty big dream to me. So what if you don’t have a whole lot of shitty dinosaurs?” He blows out a stream of smoke and Vivi has to hide a smile as she hears the quiet click of a shutter behind her.

“In fact, with this kind of ambiance you could probably even theme a shitty restaurant around it. Maybe…” and he straightens and points the cigarette at them. “The Dino Diner?”

“You’re really some kind of idiot.” Zoro’s sudden voice even makes Vivi jump as he emerges from the trees on the other side, a leaf stuck in his hair.

“What was that?!” Sanji snaps, immediately going rigid. “And where the hell did you come from anyway, you shitty moss?”

“I got bored and decided to back to the house,” Zoro says, nodding to them and scratching his head, then discovering the leaf on it and flicking it away.

“It’s nowhere near the shitty house and you—”

“Huh a grave.” Zoro claps his hands and bows his head, like Vivi has seen some Buddhists do. Then he looks at them. “Are you guys going back to the house?”

“No, the lake…” Boodle says, seeming taken aback.

“Lake huh? Sounds good. I’ll come with you.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t get lost at the bottom of the shitty thing and accidentally drown yourself,” Sanji mutters.

“Ah? Speak up, Elmo.”

“How about I crack a hole in your skull so you can hear better, Scuzz for brains?”

They begin to fight again and Mr. Boodle, without much preamble, puts the golf cart into drive and they amble on. Vivi sighs. Honestly.

“Energy is wasted on the young,” Boodle says. Vivi can only agree even though she’s fairly certain she’s younger than they are. Three minutes later they arrive at the lake and the most impressive sight Vivi has seen yet. She gets out of the golf cart and stares up at the two wooden giants dominating the the skyline, great smiles on their faces their weapons, an ax and sword respectively crossed together to form the wooden triangles she had seen at the distance.

At their feet are large stones, proclaiming their names as Dorry and Broggy, and on one one of the stones is a painted statue of a wooden girl, looking charmingly Scandanavian as she smiles up at them. Her name is weathered away and Vivi can’t help but smile a little sadly at that. Perched on the giants’ head like strange birds are three very familiar figures. Usopp seems to spot them first, standing, flailing for balance, and then assuming a strong pose, hands on his hips.

“Hark!” he calls. “Intruders! Corporal Luffy! Corporal Aisa! Attention!”

“Aye, aye sir!” they call in more or less unison and scramble to their feet, snapping off salutes.

“Be careful! Aisa!” Mr. Boodle calls but strangely Vivi isn’t afraid for her. She’s in good company.

“Are the great snot cannon balls prepared?!” Usopp says.

“All ready!” Luffy says.

“And extra sticky!” Aisa says, balling one hand into a fist.

“Okay!” Usopp points down at them with a dramatic finger. “State your purpose or be stuck forever to the ground with our Cosmic Giant Nose Cannon!”

Vivi giggles and then gets an idea.

“Please!” she calls up to them, pressing her right fist to her heart. “I am Vivi, diplomat to Duke Karoo!”

“Kweh!” Karoo says in perfect timing. Vivi smiles and then goes to one knee, wincing a little at the pull on her shoulder.

“I am here to discuss terms of peace!”

“Well, gentlemen-” Usopp says.

“And lady,” Asia says.

“And lady! Ambassador Vivi is suing for peace. Shall we begin negotiations?!”

“Yes!” Luffy says, pumping his fist in the air.

“No!” Aisa says, mimicking his pose. “War! Let’s have war!” Vivi flinches inwardly at that, but reminds herself it’s just a game.

“Mm well we don’t have enough snot cannon balls for a war,” Usopp says.

“Yeah and she can give us a big feast!” Luffy says.

“The biggest I can afford,” Vivi intones solemnly.

“In that case, come on up!” Usopp calls. Vivi rises, wincing at her shoulder and watches Usopp scuffle a bit as if getting something. “Uh hold on!” After a moment a rope ladder drops, tied to the horn on the giant’s helmet. Vivi approaches it, Karoo with her, and attempts to climb, but despite the bandages her arm is still pretty rough and she’s not sure if she wants to traverse the distance. She looks up.

“I…I’m sorry. I’m not sure I—”

“Okay,” Luffy calls down. “Just hold on.” She wonders what he’s talking about when he grabs both sides of the ladder and pulls. Vivi yelps and grips the rough rope of the rung. Karoo doing the same at her feet.

“O-oi, be careful,” Usopp says, hands out. “If you drop her—”

“I’m not gonna drop her,” Luffy says. Vivi takes a deep breath, and lets it out, shifting her feet more securely against the rope.

“I’m alright. Don’t let me down, Mr. Luffy,” she says, teasingly. He gives her a wide sunny grin that she can’t help but match and continues pulling her up. And goodness, he’s strong. She doesn’t think she weighs too much, though she does have muscle, still he’s pulling her up as if she’s no more heavy than a pitcher of water. Vivi watches the landscape fall away. The direction she’s facing she can only see the wide blue lake and the treeline beyond it. Despite trusting his strength, she doesn’t dare twist to look back and Karoo kweh’s nervously, despite his ability to fly, silly thing.

When she reaches the curved dome of the giant’s helmet, Usopp reaches out, anchored to the horn by a rope around his waist, she notes, and, feeling much better, she takes his hands. He’s no slouch himself, she realizes as he helps her to where she can stand. It’s so high up. She turns carefully in place to take it all in. The lake, the trees, the t-rex and bracheosaur heads above the foliage, about eye level now, the thinning of trees by the road but everywhere else, forest.

“It’s pretty, huh?” Aisa says, and Vivi smiles down at her, noticing a gold charm of some kind of some sort around her neck that flashes in the light until she tucks it under her shirt. She’s dressed more like a kid today, and a kid that reminds Vivi of herself in a too big shirt and jeans torn from play. The biggest difference is the Chicago Bulls cap Aisa is wearing, twisted backwards. Vivi’s never been fond of sports, or baseball caps in general.

“Welcome aboard,” Usopp says, untying himself and sitting crosslegged on the helmet with Karoo perched on his shoulder. Vivi joins him carefully, Aisa at her side. Luffy jumps onto one of the horns and clings there with arms and legs. Vivi tries not to look at him too hard. As much as she knows how strong he is, they are very high up.

“Let the negotiations commence,” he says. “Corporal Aisa, the peace offering.”

“Okay!” She scrabbles in Usopp’s backpack a moment before pulling out a lumpy napkin that she hands to Vivi. Unwrapping them, Vivi finds sugar cookies.

“Hey! You said we were out of them!” Luffy snaps.

“You had enough, you bottomless pit!” Usopp snaps back. Then waves a hand as Luffy pouts adorably. Vivi is tempted to toss one to him but then he may try to catch it and could fall so she nibbles on the edge of the cookie. Usopp rubs his chin and Karoo mimics him so well that Vivi can’t help but giggle a little.

“Now—” he starts.

“Thanks a lot for helping,” Aisa said, interrupting him. She has her knees drawn up to her chin and is hugging them but smiling. Vivi shakes her head.

“You don’t need to thank me. Of course I would come help you. We’re friends, right?” she says, canting her head to the side. Aisa giggles and smiles widely.

“Yep!”

“Great,” Usopp says. “Spectacular. We’re all friends. Now—”

“By the way, Aisa,” Vivi says at more or less the same time, and mentally apologizes to Usopp as she decides to press on. “I saw that picture you drew. With the cloud and the trees.”

“Oh the sky island?”

“Yes,” Vivi says, surprised that Aisa would use that term. “It’s very good.”

“It’s from a legend that my mama told me and her mama told her,” Aisa says. What an interesting similarity.

“Legends are truly awesome,” Usopp says. “It reminds me of this one time I—”

“Legend?” Luffy says, hopping to the helmet and flopping down beside them, clapping his sandaled feet together. “Does it have treasure in it?”

“Yep! The biggest treasure of all!”

“Hmm, yes,” Usopp says. “Once I found a huge pile of gold right in—”

“Really? Tell me! I wanna know!” Luffy says with a grin.

“I’d like to hear as well,” Vivi says, again, mentally apologizing to Usopp who seems to deflate a bit. She will listen to one of his stories later on, perhaps, to make up for it. Aisa clears her throat, and pulls the necklace out of her shirt, clutching the charm in her hand.

“A long long time ago before there was culture in the world, we— um, my people, lived in the clouds with the gods. Clouds then were a lot different. They had jungles and mountains and rivers and cities and stuff—”

“Sounds so coool,” Luffy says, grinning.

“Yeah! It really was!” Aisa says, grinning back. “And everything was made of gold and jewels and really expensive stuff. Mama says there were even gold water slides because the gods could make anything.”

“That’s kind of a stretch,” Usopp mutters and Vivi lightly whacks him on the shoulder with the back of her hand. Enough is enough. He stills, rubbing the back of his neck, and Aisa doesn’t seem to notice as she goes on, tucking her hair behind her ear with her free hand.

“And we had it really great and were really peaceful. But then the Great Leader looked down and saw all the other people who were living hard on earth, trying to grow and hunt things. They didn’t know how to write or make music or anything like that. So the Great Leader felt sad for them and asked the Gods if they could go down and help out. The Gods said they could, but they couldn’t come back.”

How sad… Though Vivi…somehow knows this story. How can it be so similar?

“At first the Great Leader didn’t want to go if he couldn’t come back, but then he saw how sad everyone was and decided to go himself if he had to. But because everyone liked him, they decided to follow him down to the earth and make home there. The gods felt proud but really sad so…” Aisa trials off and chews on her lip, clutching her hand over the charm. Vivi shifts a little closer and offers her a cookie, sensing this part of the story is somehow close to her. Aisa shakes her head and Vivi folds it gently, waiting patiently for her to continue. Luffy is watching, too, with his peculiar intensity, and even Usopp seems alert to this change.

“It’s alright, Aisa,” Vivi says after a while. “You don’t—”

“No!” Aisa says. Then scrubs at her eyes with the back of her arm and straightens. “No.” She clenches her hand around the charm and then uncurls her fingers. In the palm of her small hand is a small gold bell and Vivi’s breath catches. “The gods didn’t want to leave us all the way, so they gave us a bell so we could talk to them. We used to ring it every time there was a birth or…or…or if someone died… but…” she tucks the bell charm back in her shirt and wraps her arms around her legs again. “…but then we got so many people that we just rang it for new years to show them that we were still here and still listening.”

That story… everything— Vivi can almost hear the bell ringing in her head from old childhood memories. There is no doubt to her now that everything she’s seen— the old Alabastan designs, the picture that Aisa drew, the story— Even her look, the round face, the bright eyes… the strong yet sweet temperament.

“You are…Shandian,” Vivi says to make absolutely sure. Aisa nods, seeming unsurprised. Perhaps…perhaps it is just because she is a child. Children often assume everyone knows things about them. Especially someone that could be regarded as an adult.

“I am… I am from Alabasta,” she says and Aisa nods again, her mouth in a little solemn line.

“I know,” she says. She knows? Is it because of Vivi’s own looks? Her hair is not too unusual around the city of Alubarna, true, though only through a strain of the royal family— but surely it wasn’t so uncommon elsewhere. She can’t know Vivi’s true nature, can she? But Aisa has been up here with Usopp and Luffy for quite a while, so perhaps one of them told her. Or perhaps even before.

“What’s a Shandian?” Usopp asks.

“Ah—”

Vivi starts, and then looks down at Aisa who is watching her expectantly. The answer is a— complex one fraught with politics and culture. The Shandians tended to claim that they were the helpers of the poor uncultured Alabastans, sent down from the clouds with the Great Leader to give them knowledge and art. Calgara, they claimed traditionally, was a direct descendant of this great leader and not, in fact, Alabastan at all. The truth…or at least, what was the sanctioned history of the Alabastan government, was that the Shandians were a priest sect, dovetailed from the main branch of the people when they moved into the mountains that ringed the valley in order to protect the kingdoms most sacred objects.

The real truth was unknown and unknowable, but at least when she was a girl, Alabastans proper thought Shandians were narrow minded and pretentious, and Shandains thought that Alabastan’s were uncultured and ungrateful. Father, in his last act as King had healed that rift —or at least had begun the process, encouraging the Shandians to bring the great golden bell— a heritage they all shared, to the capitol to ring in the New Year. The tensions didn’t end there to be sure. Though she knew— or well had heard— that many Shandians had since integrated with the Alabastan population as the whole and vice versa, though there were staunch conservatives on both sides who believed the peoples were and should be separate. Aisa’s charm seemed to indicate she was more on the conservative side, but Vivi did not wish to assume, nor offend, nor plant separatist ideas in the girl’s head if there had been none before, so she merely tucks her hair over her ear and smiles as best she can.

“Aisa, why don’t you explain?”

“We’re the people of Calgara,” Aisa says. “The Shandians of Alabasta.”

“Oh, Vivi’s people right?”

“Yes!” Vivi says brightly, clapping her hands together as she feels a rush of happiness. Shandians of Alabasta! She hadn’t heard that phrase before! What a wonderful compromise! To know that the next generation thought this way! To know that they had come that much closer to becoming a true united people as they surged forward, forging their way to come head to head with the rest of the world. And—

Wait, what did Usopp say?

“No!” She holds out a hand. “I mean, of course I am Alabastan, but Usopp, you mustn’t call me the princess!”

“I didn’t,” Usopp says blinking at her. “You did.”

Oh! Vivi claps a hand to her mouth. How could she have let that slip? She glances tentatively at Aisa who just smiles, though it doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

“I knew that.”

Oh… Vivi folds her hands in her lap, mind whirring as she wishes she knew how to translate that expression. Are the Shandians mad at Father as well? Did they fall for Crocodile’s lies? She wishes to ask, but perhaps that is not appropriate to ask a child. Even if she did know, she may not know accurately, and it would not do to try and convince her of Crocodile’s misdeeds if her parents believed otherwise. Even if she believed Vivi, it would only set them against one another. So instead she laces her fingers together around her legs and asks:

“What brought you and your family to this place?”

Aisa hunched her shoulders, her hand fisting over the charm so hard Vivi could see the white of her knuckles. Anxiety knotted in Vivi’s throat and she fought to keep it from showing.

“Papa…Papa was one of the guardians of the bell,” Aisa said and Vivi’s fingers twitched against her legs as she braced herself for the story to come. “They were gonna take the bell to the capitol like usual but some bad guys took it.”

“Yes, I remember,” Vivi says, heart sinking. She should have guessed as much, but that had been three years ago, a short while after Vivi had entered the circuit. Igaram had been furious about the news, though he wouldn’t tell her the full story— she honestly hadn’t needed to hear it. There had been so much going back then it was hard to stop and think—even at the disappearance of a national treasure. Still— to think they had chased the bell that long.

“And we all snuck over here to get it back but… but…Papa… and some of the others…” Aisa trailed off, shoulders hunched and Vivi put a gentle hand on her back, wishing she could do something to take the pain away. Usopp had looked down, fiddling with the end of a rope while Luffy sat with his hat down, the brim shadowing his eyes. What could he be thinking, she wondered.

Karoo clambers from Usopp’s shoulder, waddling closer and coming to nudge Aisa’s hand with his bill until she takes the duck on her lap to pet him and give him scratches. It seems to soothe her a little, some of the tension goes out of her back at least. Aisa lets out a shaky breath, sniffs and then goes on.

“I don’t know… I don’t know what happened. They made me stay at the hotel… But one day Mama said we had to come here. To help Uncle Dalton with the animal people until we could get the bell back. She said it was our sacred duty.”

“Yes, of course. Of course it is.” Zoans are sacred guardians to the Alabastans and of course the Shandians as well! How they must hurt to have something so sacred so misused. But it is no wonder that they would come help Dalton and, indeed, hold him in such high regard!

“How are you helping the—” No, she should say guardians of Calgara. If Aisa hadn’t used the old saying, neither should Vivi. “—the animal people,” she finishes lamely. Aisa looks at her, opening her mouth but Sanji calls from below:

“Vivi-chwan! Aisa-chwan! You other shitheads! Food is ready!”

Let’s eat!” Luffy roars, surging to his feet and making them all jump.

“You scared the hell out of me!” Usopp says. “I think I lost three years of my li— hey, oi oi! Where are you going?” he says as Luffy charges past him, scrambling to his own feet. “Hey wait, don’t go anywhere! You gotta lower Vivi!”

Vivi stands herself, very carefully, trying hard not to look down and making sure she is in a stable place before holding out a hand to help Aisa up. The girl looks at her a long moment, setting Karoo down before taking her hand and letting Vivi pull her to her feet. Aisa doesn’t let go right away and instead squeezes Vivi’s hand lightly.

“I like you a lot,” Aisa says in a low voice. “You helped me a lot and I know you’re good…”

“Thank you,” Vivi says, even as she knows that there is more coming and braces herself for it. Aisa looks up at her.

“Your Dad is probably good, too. Sometimes everyone does bad things but… he’s gotten really bad… so you should probably try to talk to him.”

She feels as if she’s gone numb. Been ducked in ice water. Even the tips of her fingers prickle and go cold. She knew the resentment of the people intellectually of course, but to hear it from Aisa’s mouth. A girl so young. A Shandian of Alabasta. That she would so easily be fed on the hate that that man had caused— the one that slandered her father who had done no wrong.

But she had to move. She couldn’t remain here. She must maintain the dignity of her position. She heard herself saying:

“I will.”

And then turning automatically as Usopp called her name, gripping the ladder as Luffy lowered her down, not even feeling the rope. She felt the rage grow cold in her throat and shook with it. How dare he. How dare that man so turn her own people against the one that loved them the most! She wants to hit him. To even lay her hands on either side of his throat and shake him. She shouldn’t hate him with such voracity. She knows this. Hate breeds hate and it is a bad example. But it is not a feeling she can stop.

“Vivi?” Nami asks and Vivi realizes she’s on the ground and yet still holding the ladder. She smiles because it is second nature to do so and removes her hand, her palm a little raw from where the rope had bit.

“I’m fine,” Vivi says automatically and then: “I think I’m going to take a walk.”

Nami only nods and Vivi turns away, moving toward and along the glimmering lake shore, but seeing none of it.


By the time Vivi is ready to return, she is weary from the walk, her arm and shoulder dry and aching, throat parched, feeling slightly feverish. But mostly tired. The rage has ebbed away, taking everything with it and she just wants to curl up in bed with a good book. A bed that is all her own and no one elses. She wants to eat orange candy in a tiny glass bowl and have nothing more to worry about than math homework or memorizing the long, tedious sheets of German vocabulary and grammar. She sighs and pushes her sweat damp hair from her eyes.

Boarding school seems like so far away now, and it’s strange, since she remembers feeling grown up when she chose to go there at eleven, to live in that place with virtual strangers and learn how to best serve her country. That is nothing like being a grown up. An adult. She realizes it now. An adult is alone—outside of the protection and guidance of teachers. An adult must face the world alone. Make the hard decisions. Face the truth that is bitter as ash without flinching. She wishes now she had appreciated her teachers more. Her situation more.

She comes to where the wooden giants stand guard over nothing and watches the others between the gap of their legs. It seems she’s missed most of it, though she has no doubt that there will be food left for her. Luffy, Usopp and Aisa are sunning themselves on the nearby grass, Luffy’s belly practically distended from eating so much. They all look content to be there, despite Aisa’s earlier coldness and distress on top of the giant’s head. Perhaps it is because Luffy is there. He does tend to have that effect on people. Zoro is resting with his back to the rock of the wooden, nameless, girl; and Nami is chatting amiably with Mr. Boodle while Shushu and Karoo resting between— seem to be conversing in whatever language animals posses. Sanji is nowhere to be seen.

A couple of the employees from the stadium… Shandians, too, they must be, Vivi realizes with a jolt, have their own blanket and are sitting around content and even seem happy. She can hear their rising voices, but they are too far away to understand. Mr. Dalton is among them and the difference is— quite marked.

They are all wearing jeans and t-shirts as this country was so fond of, but the Shandians are wearing touches of their heritage here and there. She can see it in Kamakiri’s large disc earrings, the gemoetric designs on…the larger man’s shirt. Every now and again, as one moves, she can see the glint of a thin gold chain against the duskyness of their necks, all wearing a charm no doubt. She rests a hand to the center of her chest absently. She used to wear one as a child on very special occasions. Perhaps she should have kept up the tradition.

Mr. Dalton, looks, frankly, quite normal. Moreso than they are. But apart. Where they are happy, he seems glum. While they chat with one another, he looks off in the middle distance and above at the towering figures. He’s even sitting somewhat apart, perched on a lawn chair instead of the grass. Like the shadow of a tombstone. The image comes unbidden to her mind and she swallows and pushes it away. Surely Mr. Dalton’s mood is because of his injuries. There is a crutch resting on the ground beside him and he may even be feverish himself. She’s recovered from enough similar injuries herself to know.

He is such a curious man. A zoan. Not of Alabasta, certainly, but as sane as Chaka or Pell. Where is he from? Are there more like him? And how did he come to be here? Now is the perfect time to ask him, she realizes, but even so, hesitates. There is so much already. If she asks, she will be obligated to help. How could she not? Especially when it was her heritage responsible for his situation. So—she must speak with him and help if she can. To do otherwise will be irresponsible. Besides which she also has to ask about the Oklahoma tournament. But—first thing was first.

Vivi sucks in a soft breath, bolstering herself, and starts across the grass, only to stop as spots spots the dark-eyed woman…Laki, resting against the giant’s leg. Even in the shadows as she is, the fondness in her expression as she looks out on her fellow Shandians is undeniable. Still she keeps herself apart from them. Almost as if she is waiting for something or someone. Laki spots her watching and the fond expression fades, her expression goes solemn for a moment until she smiles again (a practiced smile, Vivi notes) and puts her hands in her pockets, coming into the light.

“Have a nice walk, Princess?” Laki asks. Vivi is too taken aback by the sudden use of the title to do more than splutter.

“Y-yes it was perfectly fine. Thank you.” Her heart is jackhammering against her ribs. How did she— Oh yes, of course, Aisa. No… no Aisa had known before then so how—?

“Your friend makes very good food,” Laki says. “I was surprised. Where is he from?”

“Ah…thank you… I…” she really had no idea where Sanji might be from. She should ask and find out but… no, she was being distracted— because among other things… Vivi folds her hands in front of her and catches Laki’s eyes. “I’m not sure… But I think we need to talk.”

Laki looks away and for a moment Vivi isn’t sure if she’ll acquiesce, but finally her shoulders slump and she tucks a strand of hair over her ear.

“I guess we should.” She doesn’t seem to look forward to it, but honestly, neither is Vivi. Laki straightens and gestures to the forest. “Would you like to take a walk?”

“Ah…” She…doesn’t, as it happens. She would rather sit down. But if Laki preferred privacy to tell her story, a walk was no impossible task. Perhaps they could compromise and sit on the bank at a comfortable distance.

“Or we can take the cart,” Laki says. “It is a hot day.”

“Yes, I agree,” Vivi says, relieved. Whatever terrible things she will hear will be that much easier to deal with while sitting down and feeling a faint breeze on her face.

In order to get to the cart, parked on the very end of the packed dirt road, they have to pass the Shandians. They fall silent as Vivi draws near and she can feel their eyes on her. They say nothing, though, and she pretends not to notice. She can’t help but notice, however, when Dalton struggles to rise to his feet saying:

“I’ll come with you.”

“Dalton…” Laki murmurs and for a moment they share a look. There is a conversation there that Vivi can’t read, and perhaps isn’t meant to. So she continues forward and sits in the golf cart gratefully. She could use some water right now, but is content to go thirsty if she can only get some answers. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the larger man help Dalton to his feet while Kamakiri holds up the crutch for him to grab. They really are quite fond of one another it seems. Almost as if something beyond the Shandian duty to zoans binds them together.

Mr. Dalton situates himself in the back of the cart, the weight shifting with his presence and Laki takes the driver’s seat. She’s a tall woman and it’s difficult, but she never loses her sense of dignity or grace as she idles the engine gently until it turns over and then eases them down the road. There is silence. Laki’s face is closed and her eyes straight ahead. She seems calm but her willowy hands are clenched against the wheel.

“I’m sure you have some questions for Dalton,” Laki says in a smooth voice. “Perhaps you should ask him first.”

“Yes…” Vivi doesn’t know why Laki insists, but she has no objection to doing it either. Perhaps Laki just needs some time to prepare herself. She twists in the seat to look back at the man who regards her with dark eyes, his shoulders hunched as if bracing himself. She wants to ask about his…origin, she supposes, but no. She reminds herself. Before any of that, since it will be a long and difficult road…

“How can we enter the Oklahoma Tournament?”

He blinks, as if not expecting the question and even Laki looks at her. Well it is an important question after all, and she refuses to let it go by or forget.

“It’s uh— invite only, and you have to be part of a stable…”

“Oh, I see…” That could be problematic. Invites aside, an official stable could take up to a year to establish since they had to prove themselves and pay a certain sum, as well as wrestle through a veritable mountain of paperwork. She and Igaram had looked into doing this before but it had never seemed worth it until now. Still, she’ll note it and worry about it later.

She hesitates before asking the next question. It’s certainly far more personal and— well—even if Mr. Dalton is as sane as anyone, the process of becoming a zoan is far from easy. It’s deeply painful, as Pell had told her once. Like having your entire body ripped apart and sewn back together again. Becoming a zoan away from a tradition and culture which revered such people as the guardians they were… to have no other purpose but just exist…

…Still she must know.

“Mr. Dalton…” and then…it occurs to her that…perhaps… “…You aren’t from Alabasta, are you?” because she could be wrong and if she was assuming otherwise then…

“No…” he smiles, faintly. “I’m from a small town in British Columbia. You probably haven’t heard of it.”

“No… I’m not familiar.” That was… Canada wasn’t it? Yes. The western territories. He has come a long way from there. “I… well…” she folds her hands on her lap, twisting her thumbs against one another, but keeps her shoulders straight even as she bows her head. “First I wish to apologize.”

“Apologize? You did nothing wrong,” he says and Laki’s hands twitch over the wheel. Vivi pretends not to notice and instead fixes Dalton with a faint smile of her own.

“My people— my family— have been guarding the Devil’s Seeds for generations. It is because of us that… that you are…” she hesitates, trying to think of the best way to put this. “That… that you have…suffered-- have become…”

“A zoan?” The polite smile doesn’t leave his face, and though his expression seems distant, he doesn’t at least appear offended. She nods.

“That’s very kind,” he says. “But it’s not necessary. Unlike the other poor bastards out there, I volunteered.”

“Volunteered?” she echoes, even if she really wants to ask about the other more. Poor bastards? How many of them were there? She hasn’t seen… Other than that Jaguar man… But she wants to hear his story first so she tries not to fidget. She thinks she sees movement in the trees, a shadowy figure perhaps, but before she can make it out, Dalton speaks.

“I used to work as head of security for a certain pharmaceutical company. They’d always been good to me and when they asked for volunteers, I was the first to sign up…” His public smile became thin and bitter. “That was before they became corrupt.”

“How…long ago was this? When…you ah…became a zoan?” Vivi asks. She knows that’s not really the cue she should pick up on. Asking about the corruption would be more appropriate but if… if it’s within a certain time frame then perhaps she can use it as another piece of evidence against Crocodile.

“About six years ago.”

“Oh I see.” Not Crocodile’s doing then. Whose? It doesn’t matter. Not right now. She tells herself it doesn’t but already her mind is becoming poisoned with the curiosity of it. Another person to go after perhaps. She forces herself to ask instead:

“How did you end up here?”

That question made his smile disappear completely, and he looked out into the forest, face dappled with light and shade. They pass another dinosaur but Vivi didn’t have the presence of mind to identify it.

“After the…disaster…I discovered that the company had stopped any pretense of using volunteers.” He sighed heavily and pushed a hand through his hair. “No, that’s not fair, I suppose I’d always known it.”

“Dalton, there is no way you could have known…” Laki says and Vivi is faintly surprised to hear her speak up.

“You weren’t there… I had every opportunity—” he stops and shakes his head. Vivi has a feeling this is an old argument. Though she doesn’t particularly care whether he’d known or not. What did he mean? They stopped using volunteers so…who did they use? People off the streets? Unfortunate employees? Coerced or otherwise? She supposes the details don’t really matter in this situation, whatever the truth is, it’s horrible.

“Either way,” Dalton says. “I wanted to…see if there were others out there and I found them.” His face goes dark. “In arenas. In some private zoos owned by the wealthy. Scraping by at a sham of a life.” He shakes his head again. “Most of them wouldn’t even speak to me. Many of them couldn’t. All of them were broken in one way or another.”

Laki makes a disgusted noise and Vivi can’t help but agree with her. That— How could people treat them that way? How could they abuse the sacred flower of her people that way? Why were people like this? Why was the world like this? Vivi twists her fingers together, takes a deep breath, and lets it out through her nose, trying to calm herself. Getting angry will solve nothing.

“I wanted to get them out I— I wanted a new life for them.” He swallows, focused on the trees, these words obviously painful for him. “They could have been byproducts from that damn company— but even if they weren’t… no one should have to live like that.”

He goes silent, jaw working, the hand against his head clenched into a fist before he rubs his thumb against his temple, perhaps in an effort to calm down. She has a strange compulsion to touch his massive shoulder—perhaps offer comfort, but she’s not sure how it would be taken…or even if it would be accepted. …But…something was bothering her about this.

“Forgive me…” she says hesitantly. “It’s…not that I disbelieve you but… we— I have been on the circuit for a few years now and have only seen one zoan.”

“They go where the big money is,” Laki says, her voice stone. “The pro circuits usually. The big crowds. People will pay a lot to watch zoans fight… They’re a high commodity on the market which is why men like Buggy.” She spits the name. “Will do anything to get them.”

“I see…” Another horrible thing to learn. But it would explain why he had been after Shushu for so long. Vivi clenches her fingers together and tries to put it out of her mind for now. She will come back to that later.

“Please continue, Mr. Dalton. I apologize for interrupting,” she murmurs. He shakes his head.

“It’s nothing… there’s…not really much more to tell. I did a few raids here and there but alone—” he makes an empty gesture. “ And then three years ago I decided to make one last desperate dive by hitting the Tulsa Circuit and— failed.” He closes his eyes briefly. “I’m surprised I lived through it. But I did and somehow ended up here…” He opens his eyes again and looks out at the forest. They are going on the road Boodle passed on the drive down and Vivi can see the clawed feet of the tyrannosaur.

“Somehow that little dog found me before I bled out and…the owner rescued me…” he murmurs. Vivi remembers the headstone. The sad triceratops. What a good man and what a hard time for Dalton to have gone through.

“I told him everything—” He gives a self depreciating laugh. “Well I was an ox and then a man so I had to. But that guy…” Dalton shakes his head. “He was just as appalled. Said he would help me. That this place could be a sanctuary for other zoans. That we could help them here.”

What a good hearted man. Both of them. It would be a wonderful place of refuge. It’s quite beautiful and, it seems, away from civilization. Who would come look for them here? They could live their lives in peace. Though…having seen no zoans, Vivi supposes it didn’t work out.

“But you need backing for this sort of thing. Funding. I was still on my own until…” his shoulders slump a little. “Until a certain man approached me. He’d heard of what I was trying to do, he’d said. Thought it was admirable. Said he could help me so long as I help him. Run a feeder event for him, do the beginner tournaments to lure the young people in, and he’d rescue zoans for me.”


“And…did he?” Vivi asks, feeling a knot of apprehension. Dalton’s smile twists on one side which doesn’t do much to ease her mind.

“Yes. I run his events. Send young stupid kids into this hell of a life to save the few who have no lives and no opportunity. He sends them here, Laki and the others bring them to safe house on the border and his men there take them to freedom in… Takes them to freedom.” Dalton swallows again. “I regret it. I hate it. But I won’t stop.”

“We all do what we can,” Laki says softly. “You do more than most and better than me. Don’t be so hard on yourself…”

The man he is speaking of. This mysterious benefactor who seems like such a blessing but turns out to be a curse. Is he— Can he mean— Vivi doesn’t want to know but she needs to, even though it seems as if the water is just getting higher. Her heart is a dry, twisted thing, thudding in her throat.

“Was— This man… was…who was he?”

“Crocodile,” Laki says with even more hate than she’d said Buggy’s name. Vivi feels her stomach knot and she bites her lip. “The one who stole our beloved bell.”

“Crocodile did—?” she repeats shocked. Then is horrified. Then livid. She should have known he would have. She should have known he was behind it. Who else would it have been? Why the bell? What could he want with it? It was a sacred object of the Alabastan people with nothing to do with him! Her hands shake but she fights to suppress them from doing so.

“Of course he did! He tried to make it seem like the King did it but despite the fact that our king abandoned us, forgot us, is slowly letting that bastard seep our homeland dry because he’s too busy living it up like some Hollywood—”

“That’s not true!” Vivi blurts out. “It’s not! He cares for Alabasta! Crocodile is the one who is manipulating everything! My father loves Alabasta without question!”

“Oh? And where is he now?” Laki says. “Is he in this Alabasta that he loves so much?”

“He is sending money!” Vivi says, fighting to keep the rage from her voice. “He left so that Alabasta would be able to grow stronger under a new form of government! A modern one! In the meantime he is building a foundation for Alabasta’s future!”

“You sound like a propoganda poster,” Laki says and Vivi wants to slap her for that. But she reigns it in. No matter what Laki thinks, she is a citizen. She is a Shandain. No. A Shandian of Alabasta. The subjects have the right to feel any way they choose about their king. If they dislike him it is only because they view him as inefficient, and in that way he is, at least in the way of public communications; especially when that man is sitting in her country and ruining everything for his own personal gain.

“Laki, please…” Dalton says, and his plea mollifies Vivi somewhat as she fights for control, tasting copper on her tongue. Laki sighs. Resumes driving. Vivi wasn’t even aware they had stopped.

“If you say that Crocodile is manipulating the truth, I almost believe you,” she says, sounding tired. “Two years ago, after a long search, we found him, fought him, my husband, two of my brothers and my dear sister died in the attempt.”

“I’m sorry,” Vivi says, rage and sorrow mixing within her. It’s so hard. The water is only rising. She can hear her own pulse in her ears.

“He said that we could have the bell back. But only if we bought it back ourselves and he had the perfect way to do it.” She purses her lips and then: “We tried to— find other ways. To seek help in Alabasta. In Shandia. But we were gone too long and no one would believe us. He told us that if we continued to do that— and if we refused to do what he said— he would have us jailed for being illegal immigrants…or the transportation of illegal substances.”

“Illegal substances?” She doesn’t want to know. She does not. But she asks because she can’t not.

“Devil’s Seeds.”

It was what she thought then. Exactly… But wait…

“But…if…if he is transporting Devil’s Seeds then…”

“It’s a pointless venture,” Mr. Dalton says. Laki winces and Vivi looks back to see that he is looking down now. The rigid tension is gone and now he is just slumped there, looking small despite his large heavy frame. “We send our beloved zoans down, hoping that they will get to Alabasta safely… then bring up Devil’s Seeds to make more. It’s no excuse… but… what can I do? Not fight at all?” He rests his large hands in his lap, looking so lost that Vivi has to look away to keep her own tears from springing up. Laki is wiping at her eyes, but her expression is granite.

“Just once,” Dalton murmurs. “I’d like to work for a good man.”

It’s so— it’s all so— How can she— What can she do? She sits straight and stares ahead, resisting the temptation to bury her head in her hands. She wants to. She wants to do a million things but she doesn’t know what to do at all. It’s all so much rage and pain. The zoans that are suffering— have been suffering. Laki and her small family. Both of them struggling, failing, trying… and what can she do? How can she stop it? She must stop it. No one else can…

But right now all she has really are Zoro, Luffy and Sanji— that’s barely enough to cover one arena let alone— all the ones that zoans may be in. And getting back the bell—of course she must. It is not only important to Alabastan and Shandain heritage, it’s important to Laki and Aisa and all those here and all they lost. She must speak to Koza and all those hot blooded young men who are fighting for a man who only means to do them harm and betray them. She must stop the trade of Devil’s Seeds somehow… And Aisa…hadn’t she said that Father is doing bad things? What had she meant by that? What new horrible thing is on the horizon?

“Thank you,” Laki says into the silence and Vivi glances at her, about to ask why, but the woman continues. “I didn’t expect you to save Aisa. …I didn’t know what to expect. But you did…and Shushu, too.” A very faint smile appears at the corner of her mouth. “You and your friends helped all of us in fact.”

“It was a godsend,” Mr Dalton murmurs.

“No, please,” Vivi holds up her hands. “It was nothing spectacular. It was the only thing to do given the circumstances.”

“Not the only thing…” Laki says. “But you’re a brave person…and a very stupid one.”

Vivi blinks at the last, taken aback by the suddenness of it. Did she offend somehow? No it wasn’t anything like that… So what?

“I’m sorry?”

They come to a small circular clearing. Laki puts the golf cart in park, then rests her hands on the wheel. Behind them, Mr. Dalton is looking as somber as ever and Vivi feels something coming. Another strike. How many more will there be? Will she have to endure?

“Don’t you understand, Princess? This is a trap,” Laki says. Vivi reels back, at first she doesn’t think she heard the woman right, and then surges upward, stopping just short of banging her head on the underside of the cart.

“What?!” Oh no. Luffy, Nami and the others… they have no idea! She has to… But before she can go anywhere, the undergrowth rattles around her and more Shandians appear, camoflauged and holding guns. Vivi clenches her hands into fists and she wildly considers bolting past them. She may get shot— but as long as it’s not fatally… and the others must know! But no— no before something careless, she must examine all her options.

“Please,” she says, as Laki gets out of the cart on the other side, Dalton looks away. “Please, Luffy and the others have nothing to do with this! They have only helped and if you--”

“I know.” Laki paces to stand in front of her, arms folded. “I don’t plan to involve them.”

Vivi relaxes, but only a little. She is here and they are not. There are a lot of guns but..Laki is not unsympathetic, so perhaps she can speak her way out of it. But…what can she say? They already know how horrible that man is. Laki dislikes Father for reasons Vivi can’t fix at the moment. What can she do?

“Why?” she says. No matter the outcome, she must know the reason.

“Crocodile knew you were coming this way,” Laki says. “He told us if we caught you—dead or alive— He’d let us go.”

How did—?

Nico Robin.

Of course. She had told them not to go to the Oklahoma tournament, and so they went, right into a trap. It was stupid. She was stupid. How could she have not realized that?

“Laki, that’s not the whole story,” Dalton says, coming to stand as well. He leaves his crutch behind, instead bracing himself against the cart.

“It is,” Laki says in a hard voice. “Don’t—”

“He said,” Dalton says. “That if we didn’t capture you--”

“Dalton!”

“—He would destroy this place,” Dalton says. Laki makes an angry noise but says nothing more. Of course he did. And of course he would. Vivi doesn’t have enough left in her to become angry at this fresh injustice. She is only tired and a little afraid.

“I see…” she says, because what else can she say. “You already told him I’m here?” Because if not, it would still give some time for Luffy and the others to get away and— but Laki nods. Of course she called him. Of course he would send people after them. Of course the world would fall apart like this.

Laki sighs and raises a hand, then lowers it. The Shandians make surprised noises and one of them says her name. Laki gives them a hard look, and the guns lower. Vivi blinks.

“But you saved my Aisa,” Laki says. “So I’ll let you decide whether or not to be captured.”

And now Vivi sees why Dalton spoke and why Laki was angry with him. If it was just a case of Crocodile letting them go, Vivi might have considered against it. But to know this place was at risk…. Dalton’s sanctuary. Boodle’s and Shushu’s home. The owner’s dream. Even Aisa loved it here. How could Vivi put that at risk?

“How long do I have to think?” Vivi says, trying not to sound as numbed as she feels.

“We called last night,” Laki says. “There’s a contingent of billions not to far from here but they’ll have to have time to mobilize so probably… tomorrow afternoon?”

She nods. So tomorrow morning then… But if Laki is telling the truth, it meant they had, intentionally or not, given her two days to recover and she couldn’t help but be grateful for that. That…and this choice which was no small thing.

“Thank you,” she murmurs. But Laki just shakes her head.

“I’m the one who should be thanking you.”

There is no cause to be thanking her yet… or even at all, no matter what Vivi decides. It won’t solve the problem…but may perhaps ease it? She doesn’t know and can’t be sure. Either way, she accepts the woman having the last word with a grateful nod. Then heads back to the lake front on foot. There is much to think about.

—-


It’s strange… Vivi thought she would be angrier than this. Sadder than this. Afraid, even. But even with the choice unmade and so much hanging in the balance, the most she feels is…nothing. More than nothing. Apart. It’s as if she’s two beings, body and mind. The body is easy, transport and shield. She can feel herself smiling politely, hear her own voice, even, soothing, deflecting questions diplomatically until Nami’s eyes grow hard and she stops giving her that pressing, probing look. Her hands don’t shake and her shoulders don’t tense. Even the Shandians, who must know what had occurred, seemed to have relaxed.

Vivi watches them, her back to the darkened window. They are sitting around the worn sofa, watching some football game—soccer, she absently corrects herself. Usopp is with them and cheering with them. Whenever he cheers, so does Luffy who is sitting at a rickety card table with Aisa as they draw pirate flags and ships, mermaids and monsters, all kinds of fantastical beasts. Nami has gone to shower. Dalton has retired to rest, the poor man, and Laki is sitting by the island in the kitchen, sipping a cup of tea and looking out into space. She will not meet Vivi’s eyes for very long and Vivi cannot meet hers. Instead she looks past here where Sanji is clattering in the kitchen, doing dishes even if everyone had protested, though not for long.

It’s all so…normal. The world is spinning still and everyone spinning with it. Even Vivi is in body, offering a small apologetic smile and looking away politely as Sanji seems to notice her staring. Her mind however…is filled with haze. The Decision exists there, like a large stone, pulling the fabric of her mind toward it but— like a stone the most she can do is stare at it. Acknowledge it. But she has no tools with which to work it and her hands alone are not enough. Even the old rote is ineffective. What is the easy way? What is the hard way? What does it matter when both ways seem impossibly hard?

She doesn’t want to be captured. She’s afraid of it. Afraid of what may happen. What he might do. What might come of it. She can barely even trust the man to keep his word… but if she doesn’t… this place will be destroyed. It’s… on terms of just what is to be seen, this place is nothing but an old house and some wooden statues. If it is destroyed, Shushu will miss it surely. As will Mr. Boodle, Aisa, Dalton, Laki, the other Shandians. Ten people right in front of her.

If she were captured, however. If Crocodile had his jeweled grip on her, thousands of people could be in danger— though to what ultimate end, even she can’t be sure. Perhaps he will let them keep their homes. They are poor, yes, but it isn’t as if he can destroy them without losing a substantial economic base, not to mention propagation of the Devil’s Seeds… But they will suffer undoubtedly…
And whatever course she took, in the end there were those that were going to suffer from those seeds.
The zoans that Mr. Dalton tried to help. How wide was that problem? How far had the seeds spread? What could stop them? Who could stop them? What could be done? Even if she were to find a way, she certainly wouldn’t be able to implement it if she was his captive. Still—her hands may be tied regardless.

Also this place… as simple as it may appear… it means so much to those that live here. For Mr. Dalton who has lost so much…how can she ask him to lose more? And what if they suffer further? Vivi has no doubt that Crocodile is a capricious man. He could stop Dalton’s program altogether. He could melt down the sacred bell. The Voice of God. The glory of Alabasta and pride of Shandia. What would Laki have to return to after?

There are so many questions. So many ends she can’t know. The rock is large and her hands are too small to even grip it properly. But she must. She has to find some form. Some solution. Some shape in this. By tomorrow morning. How…

“Miss Vivi?” Sanji says, and even though she can see him standing right next to her, it takes her a moment to tug herself back into herself so that she can look up at him, public smile, as always, tugging at the corners of her weary cheeks.

“Yes?” she says, wishing he would go away. Wishing they all would and that time would slow down until she could hammer something in place. Something definite. Something secure. But it certainly would be rude to say so and they have helped her so much, unforgivable to even think it. But… he is speaking again so she must pay attention.

“…need help with something outside,” he says. “Care to give me a hand?”

“Oh…yes of course…” she says so absently, binding herself to it, but…whatever he needs help with can’t be too terribly exhausting— and when it is done, she can retire herself and just lie in the darkness without having to smile at anyone. She rises and follows him to the door, blinking as she has to navigate around Zoro’s legs from where he’s stretched them out, back against the wall, fast asleep with the swords propped up beside him.

“Shitty lump,” Sanji mutters, but Zoro doesn’t wake and Sanji says no more. Vivi comes up quickly behind him, just in case, trying to urge him out the door into the night. It’s balmy, but not unbearably so, and when she closes the door behind her it’s dark enough to see the stars without much trouble, even the faint ghostly strands of the milky way. There are fireflies, too, winking in and out of the darkness between the trees and a bullfrog croaks somewhere nearby.

Sanji bows his head, and she hears the snik of a lighter and sees the brief muted red of light through his fingers before he lifts his head and blows smoke skyward. It occurs to her that perhaps he’s not in need of any help at all. She folds her hands in front of her and waits.

“It’s a shitty choice to have to make,” he says and she wonders what he means and then…

“You know?” And then since that may be ambiguous, adds: “What Laki and Mr. Dalton…”

“Yeah, I heard.” He looks at her though his expression is hard to read in the darkness. “I didn’t mean to spy on you but this Crocodile seems like a cagey asshole— so I wanted to make sure you didn’t get hurt.”

“Thank you,” she says, for being there…for not attacking them when the guns were brought out. Finding out that he knows, though, something shifts. She wants to take it back for herself. It’s not his problem, nor should it be.

“But it’s nothing,” she continues, holding up her hands. “Please don’t concern yourself.”

“I damn well will concern myself,” Sanji says and Vivi bites the inside of her lip. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate their concern but—

“Mr. Sanji…”

“Miss Vivi, I don’t understand the full shitty situation and I’m not here to tell you what’s right or wrong—” He sighs and takes a drag of his cigarette before continuing. “…but you’re not alone, alright? We’re here for you, whatever you decide.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sanji. I’ll remember that.” Though utilizing it… It’s not that she doesn’t want their help, but in such an impossible situation how can she dare ask it? It’s one thing to fight in a circuit where there are some rules at least. But here…there are no rules, just doing what you can, facing forces so large she can’t even wrap her head around it.

Sanji finishes the cigarette and grinds it out under his heel before sliding the stub back into the pack.

“I’m going back in,” he says. “Do you need anything?”

“No, thank you, I’m fine. I think I’m going to stay out here for a while.”

“Alright,” he says, and seems to want to say more, but doesn’t— just turns and goes back in. The moment the door shuts, Vivi relaxes, letting out a soft breath as she passes both hands through her hair, scrubbing her fingers through the back of it. Horrible decision or not, it’s one that has to be made.

She crosses her arms low over her stomach and leans against the wall. This building is without support posts and it seems strange to her suddenly, all that flat space, rising up, facing the wind head on. It wouldn’t take much to tear it down. The thought sours her stomach and she tries to press it from her mind.

Because there is only one solution. She must go through with it. If she wants to protect everything, preserve everything, their home, her friends, she must. As for the others, all she has to do is to send them to Pell, with a note explaining the circumstances. In code of course so he would believe it. Though Karoo could find him easily and that he was comfortable with Luffy and the others would be proof enough.

Then they could even go on to Koza. Once they told him of her —of her capture, willingly or not, surely he would see Crocodile’s true intentions—as well as whatever other crimes Pell had managed to dig up in the interim. It wasn’t…the ideal solution but…it was the right one. Royalty was sacrifice— isn’t that what Father always said? Sacrifice and sacrifice and sacrifice…




Now she is tired and her eyes burn. She hugs herself and watches absently as Sanji and Zoro load the suitcases into the trunk with quick efficiency. Including hers. She wonders if the Billions would have let her take it with her in any case. Hostages certainly didn’t bring their own changes in clothes, right? Luffy, Usopp and Aisa were three sets of legs under the car as Usopp checked for devices, Aisa holding the flashlight, and Luffy…helping in whatever capacity he was actually helpful. The straw hat sat on his knees, she supposed, to keep it safe. He shifts and it flops off, caught by a faint wind and flops over again before Nami picks it up, dusts off the crown and puts it back where it belongs.
The orange haired woman looks at her, but says nothing. It’s as if she knows. But how can she?
Dalton and Laki are standing just outside the door as they are, watching her, not watching her, waiting for her to speak. Vivi shifts her hands under Karoo. The duck is bleary eyed, feathers fluffed up as if warding himself against the cold. She will miss him, too. The letter for Pell is in the little pouch at his side and if he thinks anything is strange about being given a letter to carry after so long, he shows no sign of it. She will miss him… but she will certainly see him again—she must remain positive on that.

Luffy and Aisa are grinning at something as the three emerge from under the car, probably the smudge of grease on Usopp’s nose that he wipes away with a cloth before doing the same to his hands. Now is the time to tell them, before they get too far along. Vivi closes her eyes, reminding herself of the precise wording, telling the nerves fluttering in the lining of her stomach to calm down, before taking a deep breath and opening her eyes again. Everything seems brighter somehow. Packed with meaning. She snuggles Karoo against her, steadying herself.

“Everyone…” she starts, but her voice is too soft and only Nami looks at her. She doesn’t want to try again. She doesn’t want to make this decision. She wants to tell them all to fight and for one daring moment, she considers saying so, imagining herself like a war leader giving an impassioned speech. But no. This will not be a war. This will be a massacre. She is not so selfish as to allow that to happen, though she almost faintly wishes she was and can’t help but feel a pang of guilt at the thought.
A warm hand on her shoulder pulls her out of it. She looks back, Nami's name on her lips until she sees it's Laki. The woman is watching her, dark eyes unreadable, and Vivi’s eyes sting. She places her hand over the older woman’s, feeling the warmth there, trying to take courage from it to do what she must. To that end, she hands Karoo to her, so that she may fold her hands in front of herself and look the part of regal princess. Of one who is confident. Poised. Chin up, as Terracotta says, even if you don’t feel it, you must show it… and so she does, hands clasped, chin up, looking down at them in the vibrant misty morning.

“Everyone,” she says again and they all look at her.

“Thank you for everything you’ve done for me,” she says, head up, shoulders straight, feeling the part of herself that is herself shake loose and the armor of princess slide in place just under her ribs.

“I couldn’t ask for a better group of companions. You have sheltered me and gave me hope where I thought there was none. But now I must ask once again for your assistance.”

“It better not be for anything stupid,” Nami says. She has her arms folded, looking almost casual, but her eyes are hard as diamonds and Vivi feels they could cut through her if she wasn’t annoyed by the interruption. No, she can’t afford to be annoyed. A princess wouldn’t be annoyed. A princess would be gracious and brush that aside, especially as Nami doesn’t understand, but once she does…

Please don’t understand, a part of Vivi says and she mentally shakes that away, along with the visions that had plagued her all night. Of handcuffs and worse. Of seeing that man gloating. Of… of watching too many late night movies with the other girls. Don’t hit her where they can see. But if that is her lot, that is her lot, and she looks to Aisa now, the girl standing there, unmarked, chewing on a honey stick with her baseball cap on backwards. Her father is dead but she is still alive. Her home will be saved and if Vivi is successful, she may return to the land she was born in. Alabasta. Shandia. Home of the river and the morning. She builds herself up again.

“Due to…” She must be careful here. She doesn’t wish to implicate Dalton or Laki. Especially not in front of Aisa or the others. It would only complicate matters. “…circumstances which have come up… I have…” she clears her throat, twists her head high and looks at some part of the trees. The mist is tinged yellow, now, the sun starting to come up.

“I have… decided to give myself as a hostage to Crocodile.” The words are easier to say than she thought they would be, even said in a rush as they are, but drop like a stone into the morning. Silence for a moment and then:

“Kweh?!” at the same time Aisa says.

“You can’t do that, Miss Vivi! That’ll be really bad!”

Except for Sanji cursing quietly, the others are silent. Zoro and Luffy even seem impassive about it. Though with the straw hat shading Luffy’s eyes, it’s impossible to tell his real expression. Vivi wonders at this but then decides that Sanji must have told them. Well— that was alright. She would rather have herself- but never mind.

“You better have a damned good reason for even saying something like that,” Nami says, and the line of her shoulders are rigid.

“Of course I do,” she says, but softer than she’d like. So she speaks from the diaphragm again though it’s beginning to feel worn by now. Every part of her as tense and raw as a wire. “Don’t imagine I’m doing this lightly. I’ve given it a lot of thought and I will tell you presently.” But what to do should come first. It was the most important that this be clear and unclouded…relatively unclouded by emotion.

“I need you to follow Karoo, he will guide you to Pell, one of the loyal retainers of Alabasta. To help this I’ve given Karoo a letter so that he won’t mistake you for kidnappers. Then you must stay with Pell until he is able to locate Koza. After which—”

“No way,” Luffy says. His voice hits her like a dash of cold water.

“Excuse me?” she says, feeling as if she’s out of breath. “Why not?” It’s not— the end of the world, she supposes. She can ask one of the others to do it. But that Luffy says such a thing, of all people, she can’t help but feel a little betrayed.

“I don’t care about that stuff,” he says standing, brushing off the back of his jean shorts casually as if this is just a conversation about the weather. He doesn’t care? What does he mean he doesn’t care? After all this time! Everything they’ve gone through! All the hopes that she had—

No. No he must mean something different. He must. She refuses to believe that this boy…who everyone had so much faith in—would actually be so callous. Blunt, yes. Perhaps… a little more foolhardy than most but she believes in him. Just as father believed in Crocodile, says a nasty small voice inside her and she pushes it away. She will not grow paranoid. Instead she straightens until she feels her spine is going to crack and says in the most level voice she can manage:

“Please, explain yourself.”

“If you give yourself to Crocodile I’m going to kick your ass.”

That was— Why would he even say— She clenches her teeth. He has a fist raised and everything. As if he’s serious about this. Serious. About this. When so much is at stake. When lives are—
No. He doesn’t understand. Of course not. She realizes her hands are clenched into rock like fists and forces her palms to lay flat, trembling against her shorts but that’s fine. Her whole body is shaking so hard she’s surprised her teeth don’t clack together.

“Luffy— Listen this isn’t easy. I said. There are circumstances-”

“Don’t care. No one said you could leave the crew.”

“What crew?!” she means to say it but ends up shouting it instead, she can hear her own voice, high and shrill like a bird cry. She’s close to him now, or he is to her. She’s not sure which one of them moved but she has to physically restrain herself from grabbing onto his vest and shaking some sense into him. The only thing that stops her is seeing Aisa out of the corner of her eye, small and still, and tries to modulate herself.

“What crew? What--? Listen, Luffy, we are not— pirates—or whatever your fantasy is! Stop playing this stupid game!”

“It’s not a game,” he says, voice low.

“Yes it is!”

“We’re crew!”

“No we’re not!”

His eyes snap and something slams into her face. The next thing she knows, she’s on the ground, breathless, her cheek aching, palm skinned against the gravel. What th—

Luffy’s fist is raised.

Did he hit her—?

Did he seriously-?!

Sanji says something and she faintly feels someone helping her up but she can’t hear and she can barely see anything but Luffy in front of her. As soon as she’s on her feet she charges, fist caged and hits him back as hard as she can. So hard they both go slamming into the ground but she can’t feel it. She can’t care. She grabs the front of his vest and shakes him.

“What the hell is wrong with you?! Don’t you understand if I don’t do something people are going to die!!”

“They’re going to die anyway, idiot!”

“Shut up!” she hits him again, soundly, but it only makes her angrier. His nose is bleeding. So is hers. “They’re not going to die because I’m going to—”

“Be stupid!”

She goes to hit him again but he grabs her wrist, his hand callused and hard.

“That kind of guy isn’t gonna stop just cause he has you. He’s going to keep going until he has whatever he wants!”

“Then what am I supposed to do?!” she shouts it at him, trying to tug her hand from his grip, her throat raw. “What am I supposed to do?! He’s going to destroy this place if I don’t! He has hundreds of men! Hundreds of them! I can’t even reach Koza and— and—” She digs the heel of her hand against her face, trying to scrub the tears away. She feels like she’s drowning. The air is buzzing. There is so much. So much! And she can’t— can’t even see the surface.

“We don’t gotta fight all of them at once,” Luffy says, voice somehow breaking through. “But we have to fight. Even if I do the Peller or whatever stuff, it’s not going to matter until someone kicks that guy’s ass.”

“But it’s going to take a year to even get on the circuit.”

“So we’ll just go straight to him,” Luffy shrugs.

“But everyone in between—”

“We’ll kick their ass.”

“Luffy, listen…even right now… there are about fifty men coming this way… maybe more. If you try to fight them alone you’ll be killed.” And that is what gives her the chill the most. That they will die because of her. For her. Like Igaram almost did. Like Pell almost has countless times now. He sits up, his eyes intense so much so that she can’t look away.

“I’m not fighting alone. I’m with my crew… my nakama. We’ve all decided to put our lives on the line for what’s important to you.” He looks up and she does too. Looks at the others one by one. Zoro who nods. Sanji gives her a grin, teeth clamped around the cigarette, hands in his pockets. Nami a thumbs up and the flash of a wicked smile across her face. Even Usopp nods, though his hands are jammed in his pockets and he’s rocking back on his heels as if nervous.

Her heart lifts and nervously, tentatively, she lets it. Should she? Is… is this right?

“But…” she looks back to Luffy again. “Why?” Why is what she wants so important to them.

“You’re our nakama. Let us help you.” Her lip trembles and for the first time in so long, the tears she’s trying to hold back aren’t from desperation. Chills wash through her body and she wants to speak but words…

“And you’re our princess,” Laki says and Vivi glances at her. The other Shandians arrayed behind her. Her eyes are dark but her smile is sharp “So we’ll protect this land in your name.”
“As Shandians of Alabasta!” Aisa says.

“Shandians of Alabasta!” the others chorus and Vivi has to press a hand over her mouth. They speak in one tone. One voice. Of their language that carries with it the tone of the bell. The honest voice of God.

“An old bull protects his home,” Dalton says, his voice soft but filled with presence. “I’ll fight, too. As much as I’m able.”

“You are welcome, brother,” Laki says even as Vivi nods.

“Okay!” Luffy says, holding up a hand, his grin wide but dangerous. “We’ll protect this place then go kick a gator guy in the ass. Deal?”

She half wants to say no deal. It’s not a fair fight and never will be. It will be long and hard and they may die. But she can’t hold them back any more than she could hold Igaram, or Chaka, or Pell or anyone who fights for what they believe in with their whole heart. When people give you their heart that much, as Father says, you must believe in them with every fiber of your being, as they believe in you.

“Deal,” Vivi says, clasping her hands to Luffy’s.

“Let’s go kick some ass!” he says, hands thrust in the air and everyone around him takes up the call. Somewhere in a faint corner of her heart, she does, too.



They are not ready for this battle. Vivi knows this as they walk down the buckled main road of Little Garden the town, seared brick buildings on either side, all with broken windows that have glass like jagged teeth. A church steeple blasted clean off and the smell of acrid smoke lingering on in the still air. It is neutral territory now, Dalton had said as they’d approached the town not ten minutes ago, the crumbled buildings like the spine of some decaying beast. A hole in the Whitebeard’s territory. Upstart gangs from all around still tried to come here and lay this place as their territory to build up strength and move against the Whitebeard division directly to the east. But they either broke up before they became a threat, decimating themselves through bloody infighting; or were otherwise scoured from the map by the Whitebeards themselves. As such, Little Garden remained a ground of intermittent war and fragile peace.

Vivi absently follows a twisted seam of disrupted asphalt with her eyes, and then up and over the town itself. So many places to hide, for the enemies and themselves. They could be being watched and not even know. Their whole plan could be destroyed. She clenches her fingers together in front of her and tries not to think about it.

She wishes the Whitebeards were here now. It would be nice to have that kind of power at her back for fighting Billions… Even one truck — fifty against fifteen weren’t the best odds. And if rumors are true, perhaps a bounty hunter as well. Of course they had sent Mr. Boodle and Aisa to implore the massive gang for help. The Whitebeards had been known to be altruistic. But they’d also been known to be cold. And they may not move without the division commander’s permission—only he was located hours from here near Kansas City. Well if help came or not, at least they will be safe for a time in that territory, not allowed to come back until someone came and got them.
So if they failed—

But they may not, she reminds herself fiercely, lifting her head to a faint sour wind that makes her wrinkle her nose. True the Billions have guns but with luck, only belonging to the key officers. After all, the government may sanction Crocodile’s actions to a point, but they would certainly frown on any glimmer that he may be starting a paramilitary force. So really all they had to contend with were… well some guns perhaps, and fighters of other stripes, fist fighters, martial artists, swordsmen and poisons, perhaps, Laki had said. There had been rumors. There are always rumors.

She looks at the faces of the others. The Shandians and Laki, their expressions closed and guarded. This will be another fight for them and she can see the bearing of the warriors they are in their shoulders, and were in tradition as guardian priests of Alabasta’s most sacred treasures. Her own companions are much younger in comparison, except for the stone faced Zoro and Sanji who seems, at most, blase.

Nami’s expression is flat and hard as she screws the ends of a metal staff together and Usopp— well is trying to look as stone faced as the others but she can see the twitching at the corner of his mouth and the faint sheen of sweat over his forehead. She should have suggested he accompany— no— guard Mr. Boodle and Aisa. He would have been safe there. Luffy’s expression is the hardest to read, though he seems almost casual as he walks along a low brick wall, jumping over the blasted gaps with surprising ease. She wishes he would take this a little more seriously.

Vivi tries to convince herself they will all survive this… but she only has so much optimism. But those in Whitebeard’s territory will be alive at the end, at least. And perhaps Mr. Dalton and Karoo who are standing watch in a field not too far from here, bull and duck respectively and hardly a target, she hopes.

“Alright,” Laki says as they reach the west end of the road where it curves away into trees and summer heat. “Is everyone still clear on the plan?”

There are various nods and grunts from the assembled Shandians. Vivi nods as do the others except Luffy who seems not to be paying attention, instead watching a circling bird high above. Honestly she wants to slap him upside the head sometimes. This is important.

“Then fan out. Don’t make a move until I give the signal.” The Shandians do, moving with a briskness of practice. Usopp hesitates, his arms folded tightly across his chest and Vivi bites her lips to prevent herself from asking him just to walk back to the car and wait for them. She’s certain his pride is stronger than that.

“Are you sure you can handle this?” Laki says gently and Vivi thanks her for saying something she wouldn’t dare.

“Whaat? Of course, I’m the great and powerful Usopp,” Usopp says, waving a hand in a jerky motion. “I do this stuff in my sleep. Ask anyone. I’m just sort of wondering what we’re planning to do if all fifty of these creeps have guns.”

“We’ll improvise,” Luffy says, crouching where he is on the wall and then moving into stretches as if preparing for nothing more dangerous than a workout.

“Improvisation is only suited for comedy and lies, I’d prefer a good solid plan.”

“There are no solid plans in this kind of situation, Usopp,” Vivi says, smiling apologetically and wishing she had something better to tell him.

“Yeah but even an inkling…”

“You’ll be fine,” Sanji says, lighting a cigarette. “You lie like the shitty wind most of time and, hey, come to think of it, your face is pretty funny so improvisation is right up your alley.”

“I don’t want to hear you talk about funny faces, snail face,” Usopp says, jamming his bendy nose into Sanji’s cheek.

“What is it…you guys plan on doing, exactly…?” Laki asks, seeming a bit unsettled by this display in the face of danger. Vivi can’t say she’s quite grown used to it herself and can’t help but empathize with the woman as nerves jump and twitch in her stomach.

“I’ll punch,” Luffy says with a grin, holding up his fist.

“I’ll cut,” Zoro says, hands on his swords.

“I’ll kick,” Sanji says, lowering his head and blowing a stream of smoke, the light glinting off the yellow tinted sunglasses he’d picked up somewhere.

“I’ll snipe,” Usopp says, folding his arms and lifting his head, Vivi tries not to stare too much at his legs shaking.

“I’ll leave it to you and hide until it’s over,” Nami says, sounding proud even as she taps the butt of her metal staff against the ground.

“Oi.” Usopp swats a hand through the air. “Why do you get to hide?”

“Because I’m the brains of this outfit not the brawns,” Nami says, canting her hips to the side.
“Anyway someone has to be alive to rob them blind at the end, right?” and she sticks out her tongue and rubs her fingers together in the money sign. Vivi smiles, faintly amused, faintly, because she should be and Nami wishes her to be, she assumes, but she just wants to say ‘please. Please, not now.’
Fortunately a low twisting whistle skirling through the ruins prevents her from saying anything. It’s a sign. The Billions are on their way. Get ready. Laki straightens, her whole stance seeming to change.

“Go on,” Laki says. “But keep out of sight until we’re ready.” The woman puts a thin brown cigarette between her lips, rests her hands on her jean pockets and then says: “Hey, Mr. Eyebrow, got a light?”

“Of course, Mrs Laki!” Sanji bellows, tornadoing himself closer before producing his lighter with a flare. “My heart is a bonfire of love~!”

She blinks at him, but takes the lighter anyway, ducking her head to light the cigarette before handing it back. Then Laki grabs the hem of her shirt and pulls it off. Vivi is surprised at first until she sees that the woman is wearing a blue tank top underneath. She peers closer at the woman, ignoring Sanji’s bellowing protestations of love in the background. Still she doesn’t understand…until Laki rolls her shoulders and Vivi notices the blue and red tattoos inked there. They are typically tattoos associated with men but in a burst of insight, Vivi wonders if they are some tribute to her late husband. The bell of Shandia shines proudly just below Laki’s collarbone and Vivi is comforted to see it.

“Don’t worry, Princess,” Laki says, placing a hand over the bell. “The Voice of God will tell us the way.”

“And guide the weary home,” Vivi says repeating the ritual quietly. Laki smiles and Vivi can’t help but return it. For a moment she feels completely at peace, but then the sound of a truck growls in the distance and the nerves return, but dulled somehow.

Vivi puts her hands behind her as if she is captured and Laki holds her wrists between her long fingers, as if helping. Dipping her head so that her bangs obscure her face, Vivi tries her best to make it seem as if she’s defeated. She hopes the others are hidden well. That they don’t do anything foolish. This is life or death, and should they fail so many would suffer. But—they won’t. She must believe that at least. She must believe in the strength of her friends, and her people. She is not defenseless either. She stretches her fingers a little to feel the edge of the slashers, coiled and hidden behind her. If worst comes to worst…

The truck comes into view now, tires crunching over loose gravel and broken glass. Vivi swallows against the knot of apprehension and feels Laki’s fingers tighten. Vivi lifts her gaze so she can see, but it’s difficult to tell who might be behind the windshield that is still reflecting light and the intwined branches of trees. The truck hisses to a stop and her throat dries. She hopes it is not Nico Robin who would be harder to fool. She hopes it is someone blind and foolish who will bring out their full force, so that they may see how many guns they might be up against before the surprise attack. Once upon a time she would have hoped it would be someone to be negotiated with, but she’s long since given up that ideal.

The man who steps from the cabin is one she faintly recognizes as Mr. Eleven, an officer agent, but she knows nothing more about him than that. He gives them a sneering smile as he comes closer. There is a rattling sound as the back of the truck opens and more men come out, more than a few with guns.

“I brought her,” Laki says. Mr. Eleven squints at them and then takes a photograph out of his jacket and looks at it.

“Lift her head,” he orders. Laki’s hand moves from Vivi’s wrists to bury in her hair and Vivi winces as she jerks her own head upward as if Laki has pulled it. Mr. Eleven comes closer and Vivi tries not to tense too much, her heart pounding in her ears. He is too close. It will be too difficult to enact the plan unless they get some distance. But how—?

“Looks more like a tramp than a princess to me,” he says, but at least seems satisfied because he puts the picture away.

“Who cares what she looks like?” Laki says. “We followed our orders, now follow yours.” And she gives Vivi’s head a little shove.

“Yes, of course,” Mr. Eleven says, his sneering smile widening as he reaches behind him. The Billions chuckle and Vivi tenses. “Thank you for your service, Mrs. Laki.” And he points a shining black pistol at Laki’s head. “The boss sends his regards.”

“What—?” Laki rears back.

Pachinko Star!”

Mr. Eleven blinks and then yelps, the pistol flying from his hand and skittering over the asphalt, going off with a bang.

“The great captain Usopp will not tolerate dirty shit!!”

Vivi catches Usopp flatten himself on the low roof of a building just before a hail of gunfire comes zipping at him, pinging off the brick. Idiot! Vivi fumbles with her slashers as Mr. Eleven dives for the gun, but Laki is quicker on the uptake, whipping her bola through the air three times before letting it go to wrap around his arms, the weighted end clocking him in the back of his head and sending him sprawling. Vivi is caught between snatching up his gun and releasing her own weapons.

“Go,” Laki says, picking up the gun herself and firing at some of the men who are still firing at Usopp. Other shots come from Shandians still hidden but it’s hard to tell— and in any case.

“Laki, I can’t—”

“Go!” A bullet sings past Vivi’s ear and she starts to turn, reluctantly, when she sees one of the men race around the truck holding a bazooka and pointing it at the building Usopp is hiding on.

“Watch out!” she cries. Luffy bursts from behind another building in a streak of red, throwing himself under the guard of the bazooka and skidding across the ground, throwing an elbow into the guy’s stomach and making him double over before kneeing him between the legs. He grabs the bazooka before the guy drops it and intentionally or not, fires it at the ground.

The roar rings in her ears and Vivi is knocked to the ground, by Laki, she realizes in an isntant, as the asphalt under the gunmen rips up and sends them flying in all direction, chunks of black rock raining around them. Laki is shielding Vivi from the worst of it, and Vivi winces as a clot of asphalt skins the woman’s bicep.

“Laki…” Vivi says, caught between thanking the woman and wanting her to stop. She has a daughter and people to look after.

“Don’t worry about me, Princess,” Laki says, a smile twisting one side of her mouth. “This vengeance is a long time coming.”

“Smoke bomb!” Usopp cries and Vivi closes her eyes just before it hits open with a pok followed by several others as the Shandians lob theirs. The air is soon full with acrid stinging smoke that makes her cough and sends tears to her eyes. Laki rises, pulling on a pair of goggles and a filter mask as she grinds the cigarette under her shoe.

“Get going,” she says. “You’ve got things to look after.”

Vivi nods and coughs against her arm as she hurries toward the low brick wall she can just see the fuzzy outline of. There had been no goggles left for her but Vivi fumbles on her own face mask so she won’t cough her lungs out. Only she nearly misses her target through a haze of smoke and tears before a slender hand grabs her wrist and tugs her behind it.

Vivi startles, hand going to her slashers when she sees its Nami and relaxes somewhat, pulling her slashers free to be at the ready as she crouches behind it with her. They are to guard the medical supplies, what there are of them. Bandages. Bandaids. Iodine. Tweezers to pull out bullets. One temporary splint.

“If anyone else says this is a good plan, shoot ‘em,” Nami says, her voice muffled by her own mask. Vivi laughs instinctively but doesn’t find it at all funny. What a situation to be in. She hates to be here, waiting, wondering. She can only hear the battle raging down the road. Some gunshots, who can say from which side? Muffled roars, the thud of fists or feet, the skreek and clash of metal against metal. Here they all are fighting for her, risking their lives. But… no, not just for her, she reminds herself. For their home, too. Their dream. They’ve got something they want to protect.

“How do you think it’s going?” Vivi asks after a while, peering around into the still swirling clouds of smoke.

“Who knows? But if anyone can handle it, they can,” Nami says. It’s not ultimately that reassuring but she tries to be reassured. Reassured and on guard, Vivi reminds herself, getting to one knee. After a moment or so, there is the hesitant crunch of footsteps on the road behind them and a raucous cough. Vivi glances at Nami who nods, gripping the metal staff. Vivi pulls down her mask.

“Who is it?” she asks. One of their own should say ‘me’ or ‘nakama’ in hopes that Vivi or Nami will recognize their voice. A Shandian should answer the equivalent in either Alabastan or the ancient language of the Shandian Priesthood.

“Found you,” says a voice, unfamiliar and rough with smoke. Vivi and Nami go at once from opposite sides of the wall. Vivi whips out the slashers, catching the hulking man around the ankles and knocking him off his feet to send him crashing back against the road, something clanging out of his hand. Nami claps him on the temple with her staff until he goes still, then pulls one of the lengths of rough rope attached to her belt and Vivi turns his bulk over with a grunt so that Nami can tie his hands together. Then together they grab the guy and haul him behind another shattered wall so that no one will see the body and get suspicious. Hopefully he’ll refrain from waking up until they are gone and the police arrive.

They do this four more times as the battle starts to quiet. It begins to become a routine. Trip, hit, pull over, tie, drag, return. It becomes so routine in fact that Vivi forgets to ask and Nami is a hairsbreadth from clocking a new attacker until he says:

“Wait, wait, wait!” in a familiar voice.

“Oh no,” Vivi says, recognizing the long nosed profile and crouching immediately to unwind the slashers from his ankles.

“Oh there you are,” Nami says.

“Don’t just say ‘oh there you are’ so casually when you’re the one at fault!” Usopp snaps.

“You’re right, forgive me,” Nami says, not sounding sorry at all.

“Not in a million years!” Usopp says. “I nearly had a heart attack!”

“I’m so sorry,” Vivi says as she winds up her flails and they duck behind the wall again. “I didn’t notice.”

“It’s fine. I’m sneaky like that,” Usopp says, waving a hand pushing his goggles up. Though it seems he immediately regrets it as his eyes well up with wet and he curses and rubs at them. Vivi checks to make sure none of the flails cut him, but he seems alright. Bruised here and there and a long peppered scrape on his arm, but it seems to be healing up already.

“You don’t seem injured…” Vivi says, wondering why he’s here. Perhaps he thinks it may be the safest place but…

“Well my nose is a little bent from where… Oh wait.” He snaps his fist into his palm. “Listen, Vivi, Karoo found me.”

“Karoo?!” Vivi says, reflexively clutching his arm. She doesn’t see the duck anywhere. Had he perhaps…?

“He flew right off again don’t worry. He’s safe,” Usopp says. “He had a message…where is it?” He reaches through his pockets. “I know I—”

“Shh,” Nami puts a finger to her lips and Usopp immediately shushes, sweat springing up on his temples. Vivi gathers the slashers again and listens, hearing the sound of heavy footsteps coming closer. Usopp has gone completely still, like a deer in the headlights and Vivi frowns. Whatever message Karoo had must have been important. Perhaps even vital and time sensitive!

“Find it,” she whispers. “Quickly.”

He blinks at her, and then seems to realize, going back to searching in his pockets. Nami slides a glance at her and Vivi nods, clearing her throat.

“Who—?”

She’s interrupted when earsplitting snarl of a chainsaw rips through the air and a huge woman barrels through the skirl of smoke to bury the chainsaw into the brick wall a milimeter from Nami’s head.

“IYAAA!” Nami and Usopp shriek in unison, Nami falling back and landing on Usopp’s lap in an attempt to get away, but he’s scrambling upward, too, knocking Vivi flat on her butt. The woman pulls the chainsaw from the wall and comes after her. Vivi has only just enough seconds to scramble to her own feet and out of the way. Usopp and Nami are tearing away and Vivi trips in an effort to catch up to them, the smoke making her tear up.

“Don’t just run, you idiot!” Nami shrieks. “Hit her with something!”

“With what?! All I have are pachinko balls left! You have a staff! You hit her!”

“I’m not getting near her, are you crazy?!”

“Neither am I!”

“W-” Vivi coughs. “Wait!” They are fast and so is the woman behind her. Vivi can hear her footsteps and the roar of the chainsaw, closer, closer and then further away as if—
—as if she’s swinging it back for a hit!

Vivi shrieks and launches herself forward, crashing into Usopp and Nami and sending them all crashing to the ground as she feels the wind ruffle over her hair. She coughs again, apologizing.

“Watch out!” Nami calls and Vivi grabs the back of Usopp’s overalls, yanking him out of the way in a roll as the chainsaw comes down between her and Nami who has rolled the other way. There is no getting any message with this woman in the way. She must be dealt with. Vivi gets to her feet, bringing her slashers with her, squinting through stinging eyes as the woman lumbers closer to Nami her arms raised.

Vivi whips the flail out, catching the woman around the raised arms, blood spotting under the flails edges. She pulls back but the woman in astonishing strength pulls forward and turns, sending Vivi stumbling and even lifting off her feet before the ring that connects the flail to her finger snaps and she goes crashing into Nami who has just started to get up.

It knocks the wind out of her and Nami, too, no doubt. But she can’t afford it. She needs to… She tries to tug her remaining flail free as the woman shrugs off the first slasher, but it’s trapped under Nami’s legs and she doesn’t want to hurt her.

“Hey! Koopa Troopa! Over here!” Usopp shouts. “Pachiko Star! Pachinko Star! Tabasco Star!” But no matter what he hits the woman with, it doesn’t seem to affect her. She raises the chain saw, Vivi flinches, tugging her finger free of the flail and flopping to her knees, trying to tug Nami to her feet. Nami grabs onto her shoulder, digging fingers into the cloth, trying to get herself sorted. Vivi looks behind and sees the chainsaw coming down—

She closes her eyes, bracing herself and there is a shrieking noise that only grows in intensity, piercing her ears. Vivi opens one eye and sees Zoro’s broad back, the chainsaw stopped on the white katana he’s holding between his teeth. The shrieking is the chainsaw blades going against the metal of the sword which…oddly doesn’t seem to be even chipping. The chainsaw itself is smoking though, sparks flying from the motor.

“That won’t work on me,” he says in a tight growl over the hilt of the katana. “Tatsu Maki!” In a motion that Vivi can’t quite follow, the woman is blown back, skidding along the ground and bouncing once or twice before disappearing into the smoke, her chainsaw sputtering and then stopping.

“Thank you, Mr. Roronoa,” Vivi says, rising to her feet, her legs trembling underneath her. Her heart is going so fast. Her lungs are stinging. This fight feels like it’s gone on forever and she’s still not sure who is winning. She realizes Nami is still on the ground and goes to help the woman up, but Usopp is already there, tugging her to her feet.

“This is crazy,” he says. “It feels like I’m in a Friday the 13th sequel.”

“A bad Friday the 13th sequel,” Nami says, then touches her side and hisses.

“What is it?” Vivi asks.

“I think I got stung by something right before you nailed me.”

“Why would a bee be out here?” Zoro says. Vivi presses her lips together. She’s sure it isn’t a bee and can’t imagine how Zoro even came to that conclusion other than— Oh but wait, now she remembers, that’s not important just now.

“Usopp, what was the message?”

“What? Oh.” He begins to search through his pockets again.

“Didn’t you read it?” she asks.

“I did but it was in Spanish. Here it is.”

He hands the wrinkled paper to her and she unrolls it but with the smoke and her tearing eyes it’s impossible to read.

“We have to get out of this,” she murmurs.

“Good idea,” Usopp says. “Zoro, you’re with us.”

“What? Why me! I don’t know how to get out of this smoke.”

“We know that,” Usopp says flatly. “It’s just that if we run into another ax murderer, I want to be prepared.”
“It’s easy, just don’t get hit by the ax,” Zoro says.

“How is that easy?!” Usopp snaps. Vivi ignores them as she gathers up her slasher. The other seems like a lost cause for now and she debates finding it in the smoke when she sees Nami leaning heavily on her staff, seeming dazed. Is it just some sort of ptsd?

“Nami?” Vivi says, reaching for her. Nami blinks, then straightens and smiles. “I’m fine.” She coughs. “Just this damn smoke. Let’s get out of here.”

Vivi agrees, following Nami’s lead and trusting her to know the way even if there doesn’t seem to be a way to tell any kind of direction in this mess. Zoro seems to follow reluctantly but they meet enemies enough to satisfy him, or so it seems. They even pass a shadowy corpse on the ground but Vivi keeps her eyes ahead, biting the inside of her lip. None of her companions seem to recognize it but—that doesn’t mean it isn’t a Shandian…

Still she won’t think about that. There are other things on her mind. The grubby message in her hands, Zoro grumbling. Two men charge out of the thinning smoke at them and Vivi barely has time to flinch before Zoro has taken care of them. The message needs to be read. Is it a warning? An all clear? Is he on the verge of being captured? Is it some secret new information?

“Nami?” Usopp says. Vivi glances over at the woman but doesn’t see anything wrong with her, other than perhaps her leaning on her staff more than normal, blood spotting under her shirt but not much.
“Just a loose rock or something. It’s so hard to see…”

“We’ll just find a place with no rocks…” Vivi says absently, still wrapped up in her own thoughts. Nami blinks at her. Usopp stares.

“Do you realize what you just said?” Usopp asks.

“Well, I—”

She’s interrupted as Zoro shoves her to the side. She stumbles, catching herself on Usopp just before gunfire rips up the place she’d been standing and bullets plink off the blade of one of his katana. There is a thunk, a strangled cry and Vivi sees a shadowy form hitting the ground, hearing something metal scrape the asphalt and the click of shoes, Zoro remains tense, though his swords are lowered, holding the white one and one of the black ones together as if it’s no problem. Another angled shape looms out of the smoke and Vivi drops her slasher down at the ready.

But it’s only Sanji, smoke curling from his cigarette. Vivi relaxes a little, realizing belatedly the note is crumpled in her fist and she puts it in her pocket.

“Nice defense, Mossy-boss,” Sanji says. “But if you ever shove my vivacious Vivi again I’ll flatten your brain pan.”

Zoro just grunts, looking ahead at something in the smoke that Vivi can’t see.

“Nice save yourself,” Usopp says, jerking a thumb at himself. “I would have had it if you didn’t but it’s nice to see you’re so reliable.”

“That’s an east wind,” Nami murmurs, as if to herself. “We’re in trouble.”

Vivi wonders what she means until she can feel it herself. The wind is starting to scour the smoke away. There are figures all around them. They are surrounded. She hopes for a moment that they are Shandian, but as the faces become clearer, she knows they are not. More Billions. Fresh faced even without the wear and tear of fighting. Twenty in all. The dim black outline of another truck. She wipes the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and tries not to let it get to her. How many of them are there? How many were sent?

They are all smirking. None of them seem to be holding guns and that is a blessing, but still, still… She shifts her weight, wishing she had the other slasher. Sanji straightens, shoulders back, hands in his pockets, smoking quietly. He’s had a bit of a fight, she can tell, a streak of blood across his cheek, a darker blotch of wet on his black pants and she hopes it’s not blood and, if it is, it’s not his own. Nami straightens, too, her face looking a little too focused as she shifts closer to Sanji. Usopp is somewhere behind Zoro, but back to back with him since they are surrounded and there is nowhere to hide.

“Where is Luffy?” Zoro asks, voice rough. Vivi can’t hear his voice but can’t hear much over the pounding of blood in her ears.

“Fighting a fresh wave of bastards who came in from the south,” Sanji says, biting the end of his cigarette. “But he’s got backup so I wouldn’t worry about him.”

“He’s right, you should be more worried about yourself,” says a woman that Vivi vaguely knows as Miss Father’s Day. “We’ve got another whole truck coming so even if by some slim chance you beat us, you won’t survive the next wave.”

Another truck. Vivi tries not to get sucked into the dizzy feeling that produces. Three trucks. How damaged are they now? Who has died?

“H’ooh, looks like you’re some kind of threat, Princess,” Sanji says casually, though he sounds strained to her. “Don’t worry, this is just a workout.”

Vivi hopes he is right.



Seventy-five or so Billions down, fifty more on the way and they have run out of rope to tie everyone up with. All that is left to do is wait for the next truck. The next fight. A Shandian is dead. Vivi doesn’t know his name yet, but will make sure to ask it later provided they don’t all die. No. She shakes her head wearily. She can’t afford to think like that. They will survive.

Zoro and Luffy are monsters and barely wounded. She has only scratches and scrapes, though her arm is tired from the weight of the slasher. Even the Shandians are standing more or less unscathed considering the force they had just been up against. There is not a single person who hasn’t been bloodied in some capacity. Nami is sitting on a small patch of grass, her head resting on her knees, the metal staff on the ground beside her. Vivi hopes it’s just exhaustion and not…not whatever else.

“Ahhh I’m starving,” Luffy says, flopping on his back right on the asphalt. Vivi is surprised he doesn’t crack his skull. “Sanji! When this is over you better make a huge lunch.”

“Aye, aye you bottomless pit,” Sanji says. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Vivi winds up her slasher, considering whether to holster it or not and goes to stand over Nami, knowing that if she sits she won’t want to get back up again. The woman is still sweating and looks a little pale.

“Are you alright?” Vivi asks, resting her hands on her knees and trying to get a good look at Nami’s face.

“Mm. Fine. Just tired.” Nami turns her head to the side as if hiding. Vivi frowns. Could it be just that? It has been a rather exhausting fight. Perhaps she should see if there is any bottled water left with the medical supplies. She puts a hand on Nami’s heated shoulder.

“I’ll be right back.” She straightens, closing her eyes a moment to compose herself, and moves across the buckled, scarred road, past Luffy who seems to be sleeping of all things, with his hat over his face. Zoro resting against a wall, seeming to be doing the same. How can they manage it? She has no idea. She ignores them and goes to where Usopp is sitting cross legged on the ground as he and a large Shandian… Genbou? Wind what bandages they have left. They will definitely need more by the time this is over.

The sound of tires on the road make them all freeze, and she looks over her shoulder with trepidation. She doesn’t want to use her slasher again. She wants it to be a miracle, somehow. Someone to save them from having to grind against this seemingly endless fight.

It is no miracle car that comes into view, but a familiar scarred black pickup that makes her breathe a sigh of relief somewhat. Dalton. Though, why has he returned? Have the Billions decided to turn around? Should she dare hope? Dalton opens the door and the most Vivi has in warning is a ‘kweh!’ before she his fairly hit with a rather ruffled Karoo who clings to her neck with his wings. Vivi smiles and holds him tight, breathing in his familiar— if somewhat overpowering at times— ducky scent.

Though as Dalton emerges, face somber, it’s evident that he carries no good news. Of course not. She scratches just under Karoo’s cheek where he likes it the best but he just heaves a sad duck sigh and she swallows and tries not to let the worry knot in her. She wants to call his name but she’s not sure she can speak.

“Dalton?” Laki says, standing from where she was sitting by the corpse. He shifts his weight on the crutch.

“I won’t be much… but I came to fight,” he says. “I can’t just stand out in the field any more.” He shifts his gaze to Vivi. “You got my note, I’m guessing?”

“Ah…” Oh that. She’d forgotten all about it. “Well, yes, but…”

“Add another truck to that list,” he says.

“What?” Vivi says. “Yo-you mean two besides these?”

“Shit,” Sanji says with vehemence.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Usopp says, but Dalton only nods, jaw clenching.

“Heard it on the CB. Two more, about thirty or so miles away. Probably twenty by now.” He shakes his head. “I should have guessed it. There were rumors that he’d try to get a foothold in Little Garden so he’d have a base for launching against Whitebeard territory but I never thought it’d be now.”

Vivi sinks to her knees. No… How can they…? This almost put them at their limit but two more trucks? Maybe a hundred more people…? How is it even possible to… to fight a world so big? A power so strong?

“Damn,” Dalton is saying and Vivi lifts her head to see that he is standing over the dead Shandian. “Poor Mayushika.”

“We figured he must have got hit with something,” Kamakiri is saying. “He dropped right where he was. We got the man that did it and he had this on him.” He shows Dalton something pinched between his fingers that Vivi can’t make out. “See? WT. Is that—?”

“Yes. Wapol Toys…” Dalton says with a growl. “Seems like that rumor was true too. Poor Mayu must have gotten it right in the vein since as much as I’ve heard it they at least get to suffer a few days.” His voice is bitter. It seems like another thing to add to the impossibly long list, but Vivi isn’t even sure what to do with it.

“Uh…hey, not to interrupt or be insensitive or anything,” Usopp says. “But two more trucks? Are you crazy? What if they have guns or more of that poison stuff or whatever it is? We’re all pretty strong guys, myself included, but we’re not an army.”

Vivi stares at him. As does everyone else. It’s true. They’re not. They’re at the end of their rope and facing overwhelming odds. This isn’t the time to point it out, perhaps but now that he has, she feels the despair growing in her. Usopp seems to shrink back, clutching the too small roll of bandages. She should say something. It’s what leaders do right? The King or Queen standing up to give a rousing speech, spurring their troops to battle and glorious victory against a swelling background score. But there is nothing in her. She feels empty. Sucked out.

“I-I mean I’m all for—you know— the A-Alamo or whatever b-but— I— I just don’t think dying h-here is our best strategy. I-I mean I could be wrong.”

“No… you’re right,” Dalton says, running a hand through his hair. “It is crazy…and too big for us.”
“Dalton…” Laki murmurs. Vivi clenches her fingers against Karoo’s feathers. The duck gives a concerned kweh and pets her cheek. There is nothing she can even say to soothe him but she must speak! She slowly rises to her feet, lifting her chin.

“Even if it is crazy,” she says, somehow raising her voice loud enough to be heard. “We will fight.” Fight and fight until they’re ground to dust in this place.

“No way,” Luffy says, stinging her and she wants to hit him again. Why does he always do this? She levels a tired glare at the boy who is standing, pulling his hat on. “They don’t wanna fight anymore and I don’t either.”

“Luffy!” she snaps. This is not the time to be giving up! Saying things like that! They’ve dedicated themselves to this and—

“No… He’s right,” Dalton says, and when Vivi, shocked, looks at him, he gives her a tired smile. “I am tired. I’ve spent my whole life defending places that I’ve cared about. Doing what I could to keep them safe. Blaming others for my failure… But I understand now.”

“Mr. Dalton! Forgive me, but you can’t give up! We have to fight! We can fight!” She can’t allow them to give up! If they lose here…! If they lose just one simple home— How can they expect to save Alabasta? What about everything else they are fighting for?!

“Don’t misunderstand,” Dalton says. “I’m not giving up but we should retreat here.”

“How can you say that?! Little Garden is—”

“A place. But even a fantastic place can be rebuilt. If not here than elsewhere. But I would rather it be burned to the ground then lose someone else.” He looks down at the deceased Shandian. Mayushika. Then shakes his head and looks to Laki. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She puts a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it. “He fought hard for what we all believed in. Now that it’s over… We’ll stay together until we can return to Shandia.” A ragged chorus of agreement follows that but Vivi can’t accept it. She can’t! It feels too much like giving up.

“Stop it with that dour expression,” Nami says by her ear. The woman is standing tall and strong, as if having gotten her second wind. “You’ve got other things to do, don’t you?”

“Yes, but…”

“No yes buts.” Nami shakes her and then wraps an arm around Vivi’s shoulders, but she’s looking out at the others with fever bright eyes. “Listen, everyone! Don’t act like this is the end. This is the television age for gods sake not every fight can be won by punching someone. Crocodile is not God, he’s just a bounty hunter and what he really needs is some negative PR. Get some incriminating photos to the right places and bam, we put him in a very uncomfortable spot.”

“And…maybe the government will pull its support,” Vivi says, a faint spark of hope glimmering again. Yes! But— “But the owner… your friend… Mr. Dalton, is this really okay…?”

“It’s okay,” Dalton says, the smile on his face…nothing that Vivi can place but it seems…peaceful as if—he’s come to terms with it already. “A man isn’t gone until he’s forgotten… and I haven’t… and I won’t.”

“And we haven’t, and we won’t, and neither will the camera,” Nami says. “Now we don’t have a lot of time, so Vivi? Usopp? Can you go get it?”

“Yes, but…”

“Hurry!” Nami says, giving her a small push. Vivi blinks, then sets her teeth and nods to Usopp who gets to his feet. As they’re jogging away, Vivi hears Nami say: “Mr. Dalton can I talk to you?”
This isn’t the best solution. She doesn’t like it but—

But it galvanizes her.

Because she can see it in her mind’s eye. Not just telling Koza and the Alabastans, but telling the world. Stripping all of that man’s secrets away and laying him bare for everyone to see just what kind of person he is. Just what kind of organization he runs. And punching him in the face. She still wishes to do that and she knows that Luffy can get her that far. He wants to kick Crocodiles ass and so does she, but they will devastate him. That she knows. That she is determined to do.
There will be nothing left for him when they are done.

---

Vivi sits in the front seat of the Impala, her hand resting over the golden bell necklace that Laki had put around her neck. To remember, Laki had said, what was really important. And also a symbol of a promise. To ring the bell of Shandia. The Voice of God. Signal a new age is beginning. Vivi will somehow. She’ll find it. She may even save it if she can.

She rests back on the headrest, watching the trees go by, listening to the quiet tunes of Usopp playing his game in the backseat. It’s so quiet in this car. They’ve separated. They had to. There were three roads the Billions could come down, Laki had said, and whoever was caught could help shake them off the others tails. Vivi was with Zoro and Usopp, taking the east road which was the safest, Laki had said, as it skirted Whitebeard territory. The Shandians had taken the more dangerous west road — and Luffy, Nami, Sanji and strangely, Dalton, had gone north.

Vivi chews on the inside of her lip. There is something there. She’s not sure what’s going on with Nami. But she had seemed paler than usual, Dalton and Sanji, too. In fact Vivi had overheard Sanji telling Luffy something about visiting Dalton’s friend and it was super important but don’t argue with him right now he’ll tell him later. Tell him what later? Vivi had wanted to know. But she’d gotten the sense that Sanji— well all of them were trying to protect her. Keep her from worrying. So she hadn’t pressed but she couldn’t help but worry just a little. She’d sent Karoo with them in hopes that… if anything happened…they would send her the news. Also so that they could find each other when they met in Las Vegas a week or so from now.

On top of that, Nami had ordered her not to listen to the news in any capacity and Vivi had promised, but that didn’t bode well. Fortunately at the moment Vivi was only mildly worried. Mostly because she felt numb from the emotional roller coaster of the past forty-eight hours. But it would bother her later. Usopp yawns hugely in the back seat and then sighs, his chin resting right by Vivi’s shoulder.

“Mannn I’m exhausted. I don’t know how you guys keep your eyes open.” A pause and then. “But good job, Zoro, keep at it.”

Zoro just grunts, fingers flexing on the wheel. He must be more tired than they are. His eyes are veined red. Well, perhaps they can pull over early once they are certain they’re not being followed or in danger of running into anyone. If she could drive, she’d certainly volunteer to do it for him but it was probably better that she didn’t. Still she tries to stay awake for Zoro’s sake. Someone needs to keep an eye on the road and…

“Please… please tell me that’s not what I think it is. Please someone tell me,” Usopp moans. Vivi opens her eyes, not even realizing she’s closed them, and sees a truck coming down the opposite side of the road. Another truck behind it. Something like dread fills her and she doesn’t even think that they may not be Billions trucks, or even that they won’t be recognized. Especially since they almost immediately the trucks slowed to a stop, the one behind pulling up beside the first to block off the road.

A dull sort of dread fills her as Zoro pulls over to the side of the road, staring at them a moment before saying:

“I’m going to get my swords and then you guys get out of here.”

“What?! You can’t be serious!” Usopp says. “Zoro! Zoro!” Usopp scrambles out of the car after him. Vivi feels annoyed at that. She wishes he would stay put so that they can run but on the other hand knows that she can’t. She can’t abandon him to face this. But knows that she must abandon him to face this. So that she’ll have a chance.

If only—

And suddenly the trucks explode into balls of fire with a roaring BOOM that rocks the car. The force of the explosion knocks the trucks off the road, sending them sprawling either side, engulfed in flames that boil across the center of the road.

Vivi stares. Well aware her mouth is hanging open.

What—

What in the world—

There is another sound that she can just hear. The growling snarl of an engine.

There is a black shape coming through the flames and then a motorcycle bursts through, the rider spreading flames from his jacket as he screeches to a stop, the bike squealing as it’s wrenched sideways, sparks flying from the road.

The bike was red and orange, and on it, seeming oblivious to the flames still dancing around him, was a dark haired man in an orange hat and a jacket emblazoned with the Whitebeard mark.

Whitebeard…

Whitebeard!

Vivi scrambles out of the car, nearly falling as she scrambles to meet up with him, her heart pounding in her throat. The flames seem to die down on her own and as he tips his hat up with a flame coated finger she hears him mutter:

“Assholes.”

“Ex—excuse me!” Vivi says, panting nearly out of breath as she stops a short distance from the bike. “Excuse me please!”

“Heh?” The man turns and he seems immediately like a dangerous guy, narrow faced and shadowed. Still he is a Whitebeard and so—

“I am— I am— Well Little Garden— It—”

“Little Garden? You’re from Little Garden?” he shifts to look at her more fully, his eyes sparking. “I heard there were dinosaurs there! That shit is awesome!”

“Yes… yes well er it’s… I mean the Billions—”

“I know all about that, ma’am,” he says with a wide grin. “That’s why I came out here. Well a couple a guys went ahead of me so you guys should be safe.”

Oh thank goodness. Vivi felt the knot unwind in her for the first time in days. This was too much for her. Entirely too much. But the Whitebeard was still talking so Vivi tried to be attentive.

“Guess Blenheim didn’t realize that was out here but, come on, dinosaur park. How cool is that? Can you eat ‘em?”

“Wha— uh…no…they’re wood…” What kind of question was that? Well never mind. “Thank you so much for saving us. If we can ever repay you.”

“Forget it. Those bastards had it coming.” He snaps his fingers. “Wait, there is something—” he reaches into his jacket pockets and then the pockets of his shorts before pulling out a photograph. “Heard my little brother was around here. Seen him?”

“Er…” She takes the photo and blinks, surprised yet again. He looks very young but there is no mistaking that face or that grin. “Luffy?!” What? “You’re Luffy’s big brother?” That’s…that’s…not impossible to believe but —

“You know him? Sweet! Where is he?”

“Yes, he’s my— we’re… nakama…” that word is still strange but… “I don’t know where… You see were were separated and…” She doesn’t really know how much to tell this man. She doesn’t know if she can trust him or not. He did help but there were a lot of people in this world so…

“We’re going to meet in Las Vegas in a week.” That should be enough.

“Vegas, huh?” The man pulls a toothpick from his pocket and wiggles it between his front teeth a little. “Sounds like fun. Mind if I tag along?”

“Well…I’m not…” entirely sure she wants to say, but she’s interrupted by Zoro saying:

“Portgas?”

“Zoro?!” the man’s… Portgas’? face lights up and he hops off the bike. Vivi has to catch the motorcycle before it falls over and she turns to watch the man swagger over to Zoro and clap him on the back so hard he almost falls over which is fine since then Portgas pulls him into what she’s heard termed as a ‘man hug’. “It’s been forever, you green bastard. Where’ve you been keeping yourself?”

Vivi stares as Zoro seems bewildered by Portgas’ very presence. She’s bewildered by Portgas’ very presence. She feels completely bowled over. After a moment she realizes she’s standing there holding a still running motorcycle with trucks in flames behind her and watching two men she didn’t even know had a connection reconnect. Well Portgas seemed to be doing much of the talking to be honest. Usopp sidles up to her.

“I don’t know whether to be relieved or worried about this,” he says, mopping his forehead with the handkerchief. His eyes look bloodshot, too. It occurs to her that she doesn’t see him as young anymore. He’s not a monster in any capacity of course, but she would trust him at her back.

“Either way stuff can just stop happening now,” he says making a gesture with both hands as if pushing said stuff away.

“I agree…” But she is still holding the bike and at the moment it’s most of what she can do to just hold up herself. “Um… Usopp can you help with…?”

“Oh sure.”

He turns off the bike and manages to find the kickstand and once that is situated they both sit shoulder to shoulder on the road, watching Portgas run his hand along the Impala while Zoro trails along behind.

“Mr. Roronoa looks a little lost,” she says distantly. Usopp makes a sound between his lips as if trying to hold in a laugh and Vivi glances at him, then suddenly realizes, laughing a little herself.

“Story of his life,” Usopp says and she laughs all the harder for it. He laughs beside her feeding it and it gets to so her stomach hurts so she has to rest her forehead on her updrawn knees.

“What’s wrong with you guys?” Zoro asks and ahh, she can’t! She can’t. Especially as Usopp starts slapping the asphalt. It’s good. It hurts but it’s good. The tension is easing. Things aren’t great. There’s still a lot to do… But… for the first time in a long time…things are starting to look up.


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The Remedy

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