(A/N: There's no excuse for how long it took me to finish this, I know. I don't even know what to say; other than, this is why I never write multichapters.)
As you walk, Luffy runs ahead and trails away and doubles back, a hurricane of energy; Usopp calls out, "Don't get distracted, captain," and the scarred boy tosses an urchin grin over his shoulder.
Because apparently that's what he was.
You should be more surprised than you are, but what else could he have been, really- a cook? Navigator? The musician, maybe. None of them sit quite right with the image of that boy in your head, and he doesn't seem the type any crew would hire for extra labor, or an extra fighting hand. Not with his round eyes and that worn straw hat.
"So how did that lad get to be captain of your crew?" you ask, and the little reindeer tilts his head.
"He's always been captain," he says, the way some people describe seawater as 'salty.' And his nose scrunches a little, like he's confused why you would ask.
These pirates, you're beginning to think, operate with laws of nature and reason all their own.
Brook laughs suddenly, startling you, and tips his oversized hat with a flourish. "Mr. Luffy saved me," he says cheerfully, "from solitude and despair. He found me drifting in a dark sea, and didn't scream at the sight of my face! Yohohoho!"
You stop walking to stare at him, because for all that he seems a little unbalanced, a little cracked, that didn't sound like a joke. Usopp reaches over to put a hand on Brook's arm with a sideways smile, sincere as he says, "You scared me at first, but now I dunno what we'd do without you."
Chopper bounces on his feet, waving his arms. "Mr. Innkeeper! For me, Luffy got rid of a bad guy on Drum, and then Doctor's cherry blossoms bloomed!" His eyes are huge in his face, but nothing next to the smile he's sporting as he all but shouts, "He called me his friend!"
You look at him for a long moment, back up at the skeleton who's still holding his hat in the air in something like a salute, and then you follow his empty eyes forward, to Luffy, who's been roped in by some children playing marbles on the sidewalk.
"We wouldn't be pirates if he wasn't our captain," Usopp says, fond and firm. "For every one of us, he showed up out of nowhere and changed our whole lives, and after that- when he puts out his hand, and asks you to go with him- "
"It must be impossible to say no," you finish for him, and he grins.
"It's impossible to think it. At that point, you're his already."
"And here we thought it was Luffy making you late," comes a deep drawl from behind your little group; when you turn, you're faced with the one-eyed boy from this morning, hair pushed back with a scarf and flannel shirt unbuttoned, to showcase a long scar crossing the length of his chest up to his shoulder. He looks stern and, at the moment, unimpressed. "But instead it was you guys."
"Zoro!" Chopper shouts, and beats on his leg with his hooves. "You're not supposed to be over here, you're supposed to be waiting at the wharf!"
"It's on my way," he says plainly- which didn't make too much sense, you think, since the wharf was definitely the opposite direction in which he'd been headed- and Chopper and Usopp both gape at him incredulously.
"You got lost, didn't you!"
"Ah!" That was Lu's voice, and he's looking up from the marbles in his hand with a wide grin. "Zoro! You're here! I knew that last flower was yours!" Unlike the way he sought out Brook, and ran to Usopp, and scooped up Chopper, he takes his time standing, and brushes off his knees, pushes his hat out of his eyes, waves goodbye to the kids, turns; and in that time, Zoro has walked to him.
They meet each other smile for smile, and Zoro- you could see it as he walked away toward Luffy, and so could the tittering pirates beside you- pulls the bouquet of flowers from behind his back. It's almost ridiculously large, wrapped in plastic and soft crepe paper; nestled in with the blossoms are beads and loops of ribbon, and confetti stars that stick to Luffy's hands and face as he breathes it in and runs careful fingers over delicate stems.
His grin is flushed and pleased now, and even though he doesn't say anything, and Zoro doesn't either, you feel like they've held an entire conversation in their silence.
A slip of paper falls from the bouquet's wrapping and lands at Luffy's feet. He snatches it up, with the flowers cradled in the crook of his arm, and holds it at Zoro. "What's this?"
"What does it say?"
You've gravitated closer to join them, and Usopp is peering over Luffy's shoulder, while Chopper jumps up and down in an attempt to see and Brook easily towers over them all. Bones protesting all the way, you bend and lift the little reindeer up, ignoring the subsequent ache in your back because the creature beams at you.
Coupled with Usopp's warmth and respect, Brook's gentlemanly way of pulling out chairs and holding doors, Zoro's command of attention and the scars on his bodies like trophies, the riddler, the map-maker, the cook, and the toy-builder, and Luffy; you think, These pirates are very dangerous people.
They've pulled you in like a puppet on a string, and you never noticed.
And, as Luffy laughs and waves the paper in the air- "All the flowers are saying something different! Robin wrote down their language on this page!"- you understand what Usopp meant earlier, because all you do is laugh along with them.
You see them off at the harbor, waving until their grand lion ship is out of sight. They all hugged you fiercely, the flower-makers introducing themselves to you warmly in the split-second they had before Luffy mobbed them with thanks and praise and awe.
You smiled fondly, because they blushed and preened under his attention, and Brook graciously offered to walk you back to your inn.
"That's alright, I can manage." Truth be told, you'd rather get the goodbyes over with. You're sorry to see these kids go. "Be safe out there."
Usopp shakes your hand one last time, smiling widely. "We really appreciate what you did for us today."
Chopper hugs your leg since it's about all he can reach, and says, "Thank you, again! Thank you!"
Luffy, with those stars on his face- and how did he get some in his hair?- turns to you with a grin, releasing the cook and reaching arms out toward you in turn. "I had fun, old man!" he says. "We'll definitely come back to this island someday, and chase flowers again!"
You hobble back to your inn as it gets dark, every muscle aching, and with that lively bunch gone you feel older than ever.
But when you push open the door, you're greeted with flowers. Easily hundreds of them, on every flat surface, open and blooming and beautiful. On the coat rack by the door there's a small note taped,
(We owe you the flowers; you've done plenty of chasing!)
and it's signed with a hatted Jolly Roger.
You think of orchids, and years spent watching families check in and out; think of the trinkets and books and pictures left behind, things you keep for the next weary traveler, things that come and go and sometimes stay.
When you make it to your chair, there's a single sunflower leaning there, almost as long as you are tall, and the day's newspaper.
As time goes by, people comment on the sunflowers you keep by the window; they'd say, "Those really brighten up the place," and they'd be right.
They never comment on the Wanted picture, cut out of newsprint and hung with care on the wall. Maybe they've never noticed it, or maybe they don't care.
If they did, they'd probably say it matched the picture hanging on the wall behind the counter of the little family-owned restaurant on the plaza, a picture with the same grin and the same straw hat.
And they'd be right.
As time goes by, you think less about orchids.