It would be nice to have another girl on the ship, Nami had to admit. Vivi wasn't much like Nojiko--even less so, now that she had put aside "Miss Wednesday"'s attitude--but Nami was reminded of her anyway, somehow, felt comfortable around the girl as she did around her sister. There was an odd, natural familiarity there, the comradery of their common gender, knowing that she would implicitly understand things a guy wouldn't have a hope of grasping. Besides, she liked what she had seen of Vivi.
She wasn't the only one happy about having another woman on board. Nami couldn't help but grin a little as Sanji climbed up to serve them on the quarterdeck. The dancing was customary, but now he was positively floating, delightedly twirling and flitting like a black-suited butterfly while keeping the tray balanced on one hand perfectly level, even against the rocking of the ship. The performance finished with a flourish and a low bow, upon which he presented them with glasses of fruit and shaved ice drenched in sugar syrup, each topped with a perfect sprig of mint.
"Thank you, Sanji-kun," Nami told him as she accepted hers. The glass was cool and sparkling with condensation, perfect for the heat of the sun--the Grand Line's weather had stabilized for now, a little hotter than she would prefer. She tasted a strawberry, its sweetness enhanced by the lightest brush of white wine. "It's delicious."
"Thank you," Sanji sighed blissfully, then turned to Vivi. "How is it, Vivi-chan? I don't know your favorite fruits yet, if there's anything else you'd prefer--"
"No," Vivi said quickly, taking the other glass from the tray and gazing focusedly down at the glaze on the iced fruit. "This looks wonderful. Thank you."
"You're most welcome, Mademoiselle," Sanji glowed. "It's the least I can do, for the honor of your beauty on this ship." He lifted her hand, brushed his lips over it. "Truly, the Grand Line is worth the effort, if ladies such as yourself inhabit it."
Vivi didn't pull her hand away, but her eyes remained averted. One would think someone so fair would blush easily, but if anything her cheeks seemed to pale. It wasn't coquettish; her shoulders were too stiff, as if she were keeping herself from flinching. Nami swallowed her slice of pineapple, puzzled, but before she could say anything Sanji had waltzed away, promising something exquisite for dinner--"worthy of a princess," he smiled over his shoulder, and disappeared to the lower deck.
"I guess it's pretty rich, for a day this hot," Nami remarked, sipping the juices through the straw.
"Ah... No." Nami watched Vivi pick up the spoon, delicately between one finger and thumb, and prod a few berries. "It's fine." She raised her head, smiled. "Really, it's not that hot, Nami-san. Arabasta winter days are worse, in the desert."
"Well, good for sun-bathing, at least." Nami took another sip, sucking up gratifyingly chill ice as well. "Sanji-kun is a bit much, huh?"
Vivi twitched, the spoon chiming against the crystal. "He's very...eh..."
"Enthusiastic? Effusive? Idiotic? Don't worry, you get used to it."
"You don't mind it, Nami-san."
"No, I enjoy the princess treatment. But then I guess you'd know what the real deal is like." She grinned at the blue-haired girl. Hard to think that she was true royalty; one would expect a princess to be more used to getting her own way. "I know Sanji-kun can come on a little strong. If you don't like it, just say so."
"No, it's...fine." But Vivi's own smile looked fake, porcelain face curved in a doll's artificial cheer.
Nami's smile fell away. If she didn't know better, she would think the look in the other girl's dark eyes was fear, but she had seen her fight. That fragile shell camouflaged steel. "I can talk to him, if you're embarrassed."
"Nami-san, it's fine. Really." She sipped juice and melting ice, smiled a little more readily, or maybe just with more effort. "It is very good."
"Please," Vivi said quietly. "Don't."
Nami set her glass down on the railing, planted her hands on her hips and studied the princess. "If something's the matter--"
"No, it's fi--"
"You know, the more you say that, the less convincing it sounds." Usopp could have given her a lesson or two on lying, if he and Luffy weren't presently occupied chasing her duck in a rousing game of tag around the ship. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong." Vivi took another sip, then put her drink down beside Nami's and folded her arms over her chest. "It's a difficult voyage, that's all. I've been traveling this part of the Grand Line for two years, I know how hard it is. But you said you're strong. All of you. And Sanji-san is a fighter, isn't he?"
Nami nodded. "You might not believe it now, what you've seen of him, but he's good. He's not quite the monsters Luffy and Zoro are, but I've watched him fight." Even in the hot sun, the memory of Arlong Park was like a chunk of ice in her heart--a long time still before it would entirely melt away. But they had won. "He's strong."
"I need all of you, Nami-san," Vivi said, gently and undeniably. "I have to make it back to Arabasta as soon as possible. I know how much I owe you."
"Good," Nami said cheerfully, thinking of all millions of beli there must be in the royal vaults. The revolution wouldn't be going on forever, after all.
Vivi looked away. "So I understand, I can't afford to do anything that might...offend...any of you."
It was the subtle emphasis she put on the word that Nami caught, and still it took her a couple moments to get it. Upon which she began to laugh, hard enough for her stomach to hurt. "You mean--" Vivi glanced at her, and her disconcerted look just made it funnier. "You--you thought--"
Vivi's brow furrowed slightly. "Nami-san?"
"You..." Nami took a deep breath and got a firm grip on her composure, only a couple more giggles slipping out. She picked up her glass and took a long swallow of slush to drown them, exhaled and looked at the other girl. "You think Sanji-kun is going to...er...ask for payment, for his help."
Vivi met her eyes steadily. "Arrangements must be made, I know."
"Yeah," Nami said, "and I'll be making them. With your treasurer, when we reach your kingdom. None of these guys would know what to charge--oh, good grief."
"Gold can't cover all debts. Whatever I have..."
"Vivi." Nami clinked her spoon authoritatively against her glass. Princess or not, she had been in that criminal gang for two years; she had to have seen enough. More than seen, maybe, though Nami hadn't noticed those particular shadows in her eyes. "When Sanji-kun looks at you, does it really feel like that? Men must have given you it before, that look like they're calculating the price tag on your body--is that what this seems like to you?"
Vivi blinked. "Ah...no. Not exactly..." She shrugged uncertainly. "Not like that, but..."
"No one's ever looked at me quite like this!"
Nami gave her a grin. "That's Sanji-kun. Like I said, you get used to it. But he means it, all of it. He's hopeless that way. They all are." She shook her head. "You don't owe Sanji-kun anything--he doesn't think you do. That you're letting him help you is enough for him, as long as you're happy.
"Which isn't to say he doesn't know about the knothole in the bathroom door, so if you're worried about that kind of thing I'd make sure to take showers when he's busy cooking. He's nineteen, after all. But the only thing you really have to worry about with Sanji-kun is that if he finds out he was making you uncomfortable, he might try to stab out his eye or something... So don't worry. He's not that kind of guy, so you might as well enjoy the attention!"
For a long moment Vivi just stared at her, gradual understanding filtering across her face, hopeful as the sun after a storm. But hesitation, too, and finally she murmured, "You don't mind it, Nami-san?"
"That he...pays attention to me, too."
"Why would I..." It took Nami another moment to interpret those implications. Then she laughed again. "You want to know if you're offending me, now?"
Now Vivi did blush, just the lightest rose rising in her cheeks. "You...seem very fond of Sanji-kun."
"I am." Nami grinned. "He's my nakama. But that's nothing to be jealous about. Besides, any girlfriend he'd have would have to get used to him 'paying attention,' because otherwise she'd have a swollen hand from slapping him so much. I have to smack these guys around for enough other stuff, don't need that, too.
"And anyway, it's Sanji-kun. I've met guys before who think they're god's gift to women. It wouldn't be fair to keep one who actually is all to yourself. At least on the ship, I consider Sanji-kun to be communal property, he's a public resource for--Vivi?"
Vivi's head had dropped suddenly, her shoulders hunching over. When Nami laid a hand on her shoulder she felt the other girl quiver, asked in concern, "Vivi?"
"Oh--" Vivi's head came up again. "I'm--" Her eyes were bright, but not with tears. She covered her mouth with one hand but couldn't stop the helpless giggles. "I'm s-sorry, Nami-san, but--communal property?"
"Among us women. I'm sure Sanji-kun wouldn't mind," Nami said confidentially, and Vivi ducked her head again, clapped her other hand over her mouth as well.
"Th--that's awful," she stuttered, "p-poor Sanji-san..."
Nami grinned her most wickedly, leaned against the railing and looked out over the sea, listening to Vivi's breathy laughter and the flapping of the sail behind them. Luffy and Usopp must have finally caught Carue; their shouts had quieted to an excited chattering, carried to their ears sporadically by the vagaries of the warm breeze.
The princess finally straightened up, wiped her eyes and drew a breath. Her smile was calm as any before, but much more real. She braced her arms against the railing beside Nami, leaned out into the wind, her ponytail rippling like a sky-blue flag. "Thank you."
For a minute they watched the white wake in silence, as the ship plowed through the waves toward Little Garden. The merriment in Vivi's face faded a little, folding under the weight of her concerns.
What must it like to be a princess for real, to have an entire nation depending on you? To have to pay whatever price...Nami had never thought of it as a burden, not in all those years she had collected her own price; it was simply what she had to do. But Cocoyashi had been only a single village, and she knew every man and woman, had had the memories of all of them to comfort her at night. How much heavier would be the hopes of faceless millions; how much higher the price, for all those lives?
"You know," Nami said, still watching the sea, "we agreed to take you to Arabasta for a fee. But the truth is, now that Luffy has said he'll get you there, he will, no matter what. Even if you told him there wasn't a single beli in your kingdom--there is, right?"
"Good. But Luffy wouldn't care anyway; he'd do it because he promised to. And Zoro would because Luffy says to; and Usopp would to prove he could; and Sanji-kun's already been paid in full--he's getting to help a princess. I really am the only one who's going to charge you."
Vivi nodded. "Debts should be paid."
"No, I just like money. But these guys--it's not just Sanji-kun, it's all of them." She glanced at Vivi, making sure she was understood. "They're crazy. Absolutely nuts."
"Oh, I've noticed that much already." That smile was sweet, but the sparkle in the princess's eyes was pure mischief. "But I might as well enjoy it, right?" She picked up her glass, spooned up the fruit and finished the juice. "It is delicious."
Nami nodded, grinning back. "Dinner will be even better."
"I can't wait," and she sounded like she meant it.
"They're all a gift," Nami said quietly, turning back into the wind. "To everyone. Everyone they meet who needs them, and there's no charge, because you can't pay for what's priceless. You're lucky. We both are."
Vivi's eyes, watching her, seemed to see more than just her face. A strange feeling; none of the guys had ever looked at her with that particular sort of understanding. Of course she had never said anything like that to them, and wouldn't ever need to. But it felt good to say it aloud, even so. And it was all she needed to say, because Vivi was smiling again, slightly, as she replied, "I know, Nami-san."