Chapter Nineteen: Nojiko
The crew headed north as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Maybe it was. Sanji was buried too deeply in Zeff's book to pay attention to much else, Usopp was doing his utter best to convince the distracted Sanji to call him "Your Royal Highness Prince Usopp," because he was supposedly the crown prince of some grand, far-off nation, and Zoro was off napping somewhere in the corner. As for Nami…
Nami was staring blindly off into the middle distance, gripping the railing hard enough to turn her knuckles the same shade as the paint. Her shoulders were so sharp and tense that it seemed her bones would burst through the skin of her back.
Well, that wouldn't do. Opening her arms wide, Luffy rolled up to her feet and jumped out onto Nami's back, her arms and legs wrapping round and round.
"Luffy!" Nami yelped, her head whipping towards her. Luffy leaned over and beamed into her face.
"Hi," she said cheekily. "Whatcha thinking about?"
"... Luffy," Nami sighed, calmer this time, and then she went quiet and still. Nami looked at Luffy for a long while—so long that Luffy began to wonder if she would say anything at all—before finally breathing deep and asking, "How do you know Arlong?"
Luffy went quiet as well, considering the question. It was an important one, and knowing the answer was important for Nami, after all. Indeed, she was surprised it had taken so long to ask; uncertainty about her relationship with Arlong had been brewing since Shells Town, but Nami hadn't said a word until now. Luffy had been hesitant to have this conversation because she wasn't sure how to create a narrative that would encompass both the real truth and the things that happened to be true, and so she had left it alone for as long as Nami was willing. But while Luffy still wasn't prepared to bare the entire truth yet, there was certainly a truth that she could give—in fact, the answer to this particular question was an easy one.
"I met him," Luffy replied simply, releasing Nami in acknowledgement of the gravity of this conversation, but still staying close. "Years and years back. He was… a bad guy."
Nami looked at her keenly. "How many years?"
Luffy considered this for a moment. "I dunno… it was when I was still on Gramp's ship, so I must have been a little kid."
Even though it wasn't much of an answer, if it could be considered one at all, it seemed to release Nami from some internal burden. The straight set of her spine slackened a bit, and she tried for a tentative smile, although it fell short. "I don't suppose he asked you to join his crew, too," she quipped, her weak attempt at a joke carrying an undertone of caution.
It hadn't really been meant to be funny, but Luffy laughed at that. "He told me I was the most annoying human brat to ever curse this world. I barely avoided getting stomped on!"
At Nami's curious, "How did you avoid getting stomped on?" Luffy went on to explain, "My gramps is a marine. Even Arlong doesn't have the balls to make trouble while being escorted by a bunch of warships."
Really, there were very few people from the Grand Line who would dare to make trouble while under Gramp's keen watch—and back then, when she was still running around underfoot, his watch had been very keen indeed. Bogard had even thanked her on multiple occasions, because apparently her being on the ship meant that Gramps actually did his job, every now and then. Personally, she thought that even if Gramps hadn't been determined to hover around her like someone would steal her away, he wouldn't have been so careless as to be asleep on his feet while escorting a Grand Line pirate. Well, probably.
A peal of laughter burst from Nami unbidden, breaking through the solemn mood. The anxiety that had made the corners of her eyes tight fell away. "You're the grandchild of a marine?" she demanded, her eyes beginning to tear up with humor. "You? I've never seen someone so determined to be a pirate. No way!"
"I totally am!" Luffy insisted, her tone affronted but her scowl without heat. A smile began to pull at the corners of her mouth. "Anyway, it's Gramps who's the odd one out. I don't think any of us understand all his weird choices. The rest of the family is far more reasonable about things. Like me!"
"Oh sure, he's the weird one," Nami shot back, her face suffuse with amusement. "Obviously, piracy is the only reasonable career decision these days."
Dead serious, Luffy nodded and replied, "Obviously."
Nami grinned and reached a hand out to shuffle Luffy's hair furiously, already wild black waves sent flying into a wilder mess. "You're an idiot."
"Oh," Luffy said, a little dazed from the attack to the top of her head. And then, realizing what was said: "Huh? No, you!"
"Nope. It's you. You're the idiot," Nami said fondly, moving away from the railing and back towards the rest of the crew.
"No, you are!" Luffy cried, chasing after her.
"En guarde!" someone called. A tall man came rushing down the road, wielding a broom and a determined face. Luffy cocked back her arm, ready to smack the stranger in the face, when Nami threw her hand out. She looked exasperated.
"I'll take care of this," she said, rolling her eyes. A tiny smile tugged the corner of her mouth.
Luffy watched curiously as Nami strode forward. Her bo-staff fell into place in her hand, and when the man came close enough, Nami smashed it down on his head. He caught the swing on the handle of the broom and parried it, and the two of them fell into a swirl of clashing weapons and agile feet. Both of them were obviously familiar with the other's fighting style, which were both so similar that Luffy couldn't tell who was winning.
Finally, after a brief scuffle, Nami spun her staff in a complicated little maneuver that swept the man's feet out from under him. He let out a yell and fell flat on his back.
Nami stood over his head and grinned cheekily down. Luffy and Usopp both dutifully applauded her victory as Sanji swooned about 'our graceful Nami-swan' something or other.
"You've gotten stronger," the man told her, looking pleased. He was acting as if he wasn't covered in scuff marks and sweating right into the dirt.
"I guess you've gotten a little bit less weak," Nami replied, swiping her hand against his outstretched arm and grabbing it.
She pulled the man up with a grunt as he complained, "That's mean. I don't know why you have to say it like that. Who taught you to be such a brat?"
"You did," Nami said without missing a beat. The man's lips stretched wide with a grin and he knocked her under the chin with his knuckle.
"That's right," he chuckled, dark eyes gleaming proudly. "I did, didn't I?"
"Are you going to introduce yourself anytime soon?" Zoro cut in, looking like he couldn't care less but also like he was a bit curious. It was a tricky arrangement of facial features that Luffy decided would be fun to mimic.
She schooled her face into her best approximation and turned towards Usopp. "I'm too cool to care but I care enough to ask about it," she told him, with as deadpan a voice as she could manage. Usopp assessed her with a very serious expression, a hand rubbing his chin.
"Hmm… the emotional expression is admirable, but the execution leaves much to be desired," he decided, nodding sagely. Zoro stared at the two of them like he didn't know whether to laugh or start yelling. "Six out of ten."
"Stop fooling around, idiots," said Nami, half-heartedly waving her staff at them. Everyone else ducked or moved back, but Sanji just stood there and let it conk him on the head with a dopey smile.
"Melorin," he said. The entire crew and their still-unnamed addition ignored him.
Nami carelessly fluttered her hand in the stranger's direction and he stepped forward. His face was unreadable, and his eyes dragged over them appraisingly. He was still covered in dirt and also limping a bit, which altogether quite ruined whatever effect he might otherwise have achieved. "Nojiko, this is my… my crew. They're all idiots. Guys, this is Nojiko, my older brother. He's an idiot too. Crew-idiots, greet brother-idiot."
Nojiko fixed the red cloth holding back his bangs and peered at them even more intently. "Crew?" he asked, looking dubious. "Like a real crew? A pirate crew? Argh-matey?"
"Argh-matey," Luffy agreed cheerfully, shuffling close to Nojiko to inspect him all over. She pushed and pulled at his arms and clothes, peered closely at his tattoos, picked at his hair, and made a general nuisance of herself in her curious investigation of his body.
Nojiko allowed it with the quiet bafflement of someone who'd long learned to yield placidly to demanding women. "What is she doing?"
"I don't know," Nami answered with great confidence. "That's my captain, by the way."
"Her? Really?" Nojiko said dubiously, squinting at the tiny woman as she fluttered around him with overly grabby hands. Usopp nodded emphatically. Sanji followed him with only a moment's pause.
Luffy, on the other hand, was paying absolutely no attention to the conversation around her, only studying Nojiko with great interest. "You're really a guy!" she exclaimed with genuine surprise, groping Nojiko's chest. It was flat, and hard, and not womanly at all. He was really, really, really a guy, and this was absolutely shocking to her.
From where he stood under the shade of a line of trees, Sanji eyed the scene with great envy, muttering, "If only that were me…"
Zoro, who had been leaning indolently against the tree next to him, shifted over and jabbed him in the side with the hilt of a sword. "Shut up, pervert cook," he grunted. Sanji turned on him with a great scowl and they immediately got into a scrap. Usopp casually retreated several feet and hid behind a tree to avoid being collateral.
"What the fuck," Nojiko said, very softly, still being groped.
Nami smiled beatifically at him.
They all relocated over to Nojiko and Nami's house on the outskirts of Cocoyashi. It was a humble bungalow on the edge of a sprawling orange grove. The inside was sparse in both furniture and decorations, but it had everything a family needed to make it a home.
Luffy left the others to deal with the niceties and spent the time glancing around nosily, looking at all the pictures on the walls and peering through all the windows. One of the framed photos on the wall was of the whole family when Nami was a child. A grinning woman that Luffy recognized as Bellemère stood proudly behind her two beaming children, both hands making bunny ears behind their little heads.
Her curiosity momentarily sated, Luffy plopped down on a worn but comfy sofa and stretched out on it. The ceiling was a soft wood colour, with old, tiny paint splatters in improbable places. She reached up and tried to catch one of the splatters in her hand as if they were stars.
Everything in this place was so full of warmth. She liked it.
A large hand with rough calluses caught her wrist and held it. "Watch it, Luffy," Zoro grunted, glaring indolently down at her. She flopped her hand back and forth over his grip and her fingers brushed perilously close to his nostrils. She laughed. The idea that her fingers could have gone up Zoro's nose was immeasurably funny to her.
"When did you get here, Zoro?" Luffy asked, wriggling so that she could angle her head comfortably over his lap.
"I was sitting here first," he told her, dropping her hand over her face. She let it fall, and grinned as her palm smacked against her forehead. "You just weren't paying attention."
"Sounds about right," Usopp agreed, as he approached them with a tray of juice and snacks. Luffy shot up, and Zoro reared back to avoid getting headbutted in the jaw.
"Sandwiches!" she cheered, immediately shuttling several off of the tray and into her mouth. She'd been beginning to feel a bit hungry, too. Zoro pressed close behind her, his arm reaching around her to reach for one of the sandwiches before they all fell into her stomach. His heat was a physical touch at her back, and Luffy leaned into it.
"Luffy," Sanji sang from the open kitchen, and she looked up at the call, her cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk. Her chef was puttering around in the sparse kitchen, his sleeves rolled up along his pale, smooth forearms. "There's lots more where that came from, so eat your fill, okay?"
"Your fawning tone makes me sick," Zoro deadpanned behind her, just as Luffy called a happy, "Okay!"
Sanji shot her a pleased grin and then did an about face and sneered at Zoro. "Not as sick as seeing your face makes me," he taunted. The two of them exchanged dirty glares and ugly looks with lips curled back exaggeratedly. Luffy laughed at them, glad that they were getting along so well.
"Look over there, Luffy!" Usopp hollered, suddenly pointing out the window with a very urgent expression. "It's a giant battle mecha!"
"Huh? Where?" Luffy yelped, her head immediately snapping away to look out the small side window. All that met her wide eyes was an orange grove that seemed to go on without end. "There's nothing there," she whined, turning back to Usopp, who had shoved the last sandwich into his mouth. Luffy's mouth popped open at the betrayal and she let out a wordless shriek as she launched herself at him. "You tricked me!" she yelled, diving headfirst into his stomach.
Usopp hacked over the sandwich half-stuck in his throat before he managed to choke it down, and then they began to tussle right there on the ground as Zoro carelessly moved aside the coffee table with an extended foot.
Nami stood with Nojiko next to the large front windows, the two of them separated from the lively scene by the dining table. They watched the Straw-Hat crew together. A warmth that Nami was only now getting used to beat steadily in her chest.
Nojiko stared at the rowdiness of the crew, and then at the side of Nami's face. She could feel his gaze tracing carefully over the quirk of her lips, the fond upturn of her eyes.
"Hmm?" she replied, turning a little so that she could face her brother better. "What is it?" she prompted, when he remained silent.
Nojiko watched her closely for another moment. Then, in a low voice, he asked, "Those people, those—pirates—are you happy with them?"
"Happy?" Nami repeated, her lips parting. Her lashes fluttered, and she fell into a moment of deep thought.
Happy? Was she happy? Was she really happy, going around with this ragtag group of idiots, these dreamers who called themselves pirates and yet were unlike any other pirates she had seen? Was she happy, calling a girl with such a big, dumb smile her captain, knowing she was powerful enough to kill Nami at any moment but trusting her not to? Was she happy, hoping even though she was afraid to hope, wanting to rely on others even when she knew she shouldn't? Was she happy?
"... Yes," Nami said, finally. "Yes, I'm happy."
"I'm glad. I'm really… I'm glad," Nojiko replied, as soft and quiet as a sigh. He looked away from her and ran a hand down his face. "Just—be careful. I can't help but worry about what'll happen if Arlong finds out."
Me too, Nami didn't say.
Once they had all rested—or rather, fooled around—sufficiently, Nojiko led the bickering Sanji and Zoro to town so they could purchase supplies to restock the ship. Nami had gone to take a stroll amongst the orange trees, probably wanting to check up on both the grove and her treasure stash, while Luffy and Usopp remained to watch the cabin. They were in the midst of a competition to see who could come up with the stupidest song when the sounds of a commotion drifted in through the open windows.
Luffy got up and curiously approached the front doors, where the doorknobs were suddenly rattling. Behind her, Usopp crept up to the windows.
There came a sudden burst of noise from outside. Nami could be heard shrieking, "Don't you dare touch Bellemère's oranges!"
Luffy frowned. Usopp gasped.
The door opened. A couple of men in marine uniforms began marching in. Without pause to think, purely based on the distress in Nami's voice, Luffy reared her fist as far back as the room would allow her and then smashed it into both of their faces.
"What's going on?" she asked, ambling over the pile of bodies and out the door. Gathered around the house was a squadron of marines; several of them were scattering off into the orange grove with shovels in hand. "Nami?"
Nami twisted to look at her. Her staff was in her hand, shiny with blood; her lip, too, was bloody from having been bitten through, a stark contrast against the livid cast of her skin. "Luffy," she said, her voice thick and unsteady. Looking closer, Luffy could see that her eyes were wet with unshed rage. A single tear quivered on her lashes; when Nami shook her head, it slid down her cheek. "They… Arlong, he…"
Yeah, that was about what she thought.
"You are interfering with the execution of the law," the rat-bastard wearing a captain's coat barked. "Cease and desist, or we will use forc—"
"Shut up," Luffy interrupted, rolling her shoulder. She cracked her neck one way, then the other, and when she was done, her furious eyes shot to the head marine. He visibly flinched, one foot sliding back. "You made Nami cry. You're first."
Nojiko and the rest returned from the village just in time to help clean up the unconscious bodies of the marines. As they did so, Genzo and Nojiko began to explain the whole situation to them; they told the crew about Nami's wretched struggle these past few years, about Arlong's extortionate tyranny, about the villagers' attempts to silently ease her burden.
Sanji and Usopp were listening with rapt attention. Zoro had put on a focused face, but then immediately closed his eyes and took a nap. Luffy also wandered off a little bit to prod at the unconscious head marine splayed on the ground.
She had not noticed Genzo's presence when she'd first started pounding marines into the dirt, but she certainly noticed him when he dove headfirst at the rat-faced marine captain trying to crawl away, sat on his back, and then proceeded to smack him with a stray boot.
She liked Gen-san. Nobody who wore a pinwheel on his head could be a bad guy, after all.
"So you guys knew this whole time," said Nami, shaking her head. She looked disbelieving, but also, perhaps, if you looked very close, a little happy.
"You've had it hard these past eight years, Nami," Genzo sighed, holding his forehead in his palm. "If only we could have done more, you wouldn't have had to risk your life to round up the money. You were just a child…"
"She may have been little, but by the time she started setting out to sea by herself, Nami could easily have trounced you, Gen-san," replied Nojiko, crossing his arms. "I trained her well, after all."
"Blocking me from leaving the island until I beat you out of commission doesn't count as training, dearest brother-idiot."
"Well it worked, didn't it?"
While the siblings bickered about whether Nojiko's tactics could be considered 'training', Luffy rifled through the head marine's pockets and found his baby den-den mushi, which she immediately confiscated. She also found his coin purse, which she saved to give to Nami, and some other odds and ends that she thought might be useful later. Even if she had to toss the stuff later, just being able to inconvenience the nasty bastard made this perfectly worth it, in her opinion.
Luffy was definitely still mad. Most of Bellemère's orange trees had escaped damage, but it didn't change the fact that a part of the grove had been damaged after all. Plus, he'd made Nami cry. Needless to say, that was enough to make Luffy hate him, probably forever.
"So did Arlong send these marines?" asked Usopp, interrupting the brief moment of light-heartedness. "I mean, we stopped them, which is good, but you can't exactly hand the money over now. Right?"
Nami became very quiet. Zoro, who had woken at the mention of training, finally turned his eyes away from Luffy's furtive shuffling and towards Nami. "Usopp's right; it doesn't look like Arlong's willing to honor his word. What will you do?"
"If I can't buy Cocoyashi from Arlong… then…" Nami trailed off, looking lost. It made sense; it was the one thing that had been driving her for almost a decade. Take that away, and what did she have? What could she do?
"I'll beat him into seafood paste for you, Nami-swan," Sanji volunteered, his face at once solemn and adoring. "Then it won't matter that you can't buy Cocoyashi."
"No," Luffy said, finally standing and turning towards her crew. "We can buy Cocoyashi back. But not from him."
She grinned with all her teeth, like a wild, savage thing. She lifted a hand and pointed it at the mass of marine bodies lying in the dirt of the grove. "From them."
haha look, an update… a year and a half later. writing this chapter was like squeezing blood out of a stone but at least it's got enough words that i can just toss it at you guys and make a run for it. also i keep meaning to edit or rewrite the past chapters and never get around to doing it uwu
answer for last chapter title's anagram: curly salt bae. it was still relevant back when i first started that chapter, okay...
to everyone still sticking with this story: thank you. to those readers who comment on every chapter in every story i throw out (you know who you are): thank you. to those who love(d) this story and eagerly waited and waited for my next update only to be deprived year after year: i humbly grovel for your forgiveness. hopefully I'll do better from now on, but please don't get your hopes up; sol has been a little far from my heart for a while now, although luffy is still near and dear to my heart.