Disclaimer: The characters of One Piece were created by Eiichiro Oda and is owned by him and Shueisha Publications. They are used here without permission. This fanfic may not be used for profit.

Spoilers for Water 7/Enies Lobby. Takes place after those events. NOTE: Chapter 5, the final chapter, also contains spoilers for early Thriller Bark.

Constructive criticism and other feedback would be quite appreciated.

A Quiet Walk in the Noonday Heat
A One Piece fanfic by Elin B

Chapter 1, A Town of Sand and Silence

-In which there is urban exploration and avian conversation.

The street was long and narrow, worn-down and dusty. Dead leaves and sand filled up the gutters where they were easily swept up and tumbled around by hot winds passing by now and then. The houses of the street looked oddly flat in the broiling sunlight. It was very quiet and completely empty.

Sometimes the distant buzzing of bees could be picked up, but the only other sounds were the rustling of leaves and the wanderer's soft footsteps. It felt like some time early in the afternoon.

Zoro had no idea what kind of town this was nor any recollection of how he had gotten here. He was pretty used to finding himself somewhere else than he'd intended to be, but usually not to this extent. He'd ask about it, if he could only find someone to ask. All the streets he'd seen had been just as deserted as this one.

Still, he had a feeling there was something he needed to do here, someone he had to fight. If only he could find the right place for it… But all these streets looked much the same, with their dust and sand and emptiness, and he wasn't even sure whether this was the right time. Maybe the fight would not be until tomorrow. Maybe it should have happened yesterday and he was already too late… Perhaps he ought to run in order to get there in time, but there seemed to be little point to that. And the air in this afternoon heat felt thick and sluggish all around him.

In many of the streets there were stretches of high stone walls that hid the buildings behind them from view. He stopped below one of them – an old mossy thing with big rough-hewn stones – to look down an alley that opened up on the other side. At that moment, he heard an excited flutter of wings and looked up to see a smallish bird with unruly black feathers landing on top of the wall.

The bird opened its beak and started to talk to him, asking him where he was going and what he was trying to do and if he was feeling okay or what. Zoro gave it a wary look and didn't say anything. Maybe he'd gone crazy enough to hear birds talking, but he was not going to act even crazier by talking back.

For some reason he couldn't put his finger on, he felt the bird looked quite a bit like Luffy. But then it twisted its head and took a little jump to one side and suddenly looked more like Usopp. Weird thing. Zoro turned his head, looking up and down the street for possible enemies and also, now, for hungry cats on the prowl.

When he turned back there really were two black birds on the wall - maybe one had been sitting behind the other, before? And a third bird had shown up as well, a more colourful, tropical-looking kind. It was mostly orange, with its breast a bluish gray, its wings and tail partly black, and it reminded him not a little of Nami. Sure enough, the orange bird started to boss around the black birds immediately. As she lifted her wings to scold them for something, he caught two circles of orange on black on the inside of each wing.

He waited to see if any other crewlike birds turned up. Logically there should be either a reindeerish bird or an idiot cook-bird next, but he could see no trace of them, nor of the other two. Nothing else appeared over the high wall, nothing came flying above the rooftops, and the streets were as quiet and empty as before.

"So here you are," said one black bird.

"So here you are. Really," echoed the other.

"What do you think you are doing?" the orange bird wanted to know. "Why are you so far away from your crew?"

Zoro glared at her but didn't say anything.

"He won't answer you," the Usoppian black bird told the orange bird smugly.

"Won't answer us, either," nodded the Luffyesque one.

Zoro started to walk off in a random direction. The three birds followed, flying above him. He had rather feared they would.

"I guess you're prejudiced against birds, eh, Mr Swordsman?" the Nami-like bird said sharply.

"Maybe he just wants an adventure by himself," said the Luffy-bird.

"Maybe he's hiding from something," said the Usopp-bird.

"Eh? Why would he hide?" asked the Nami-bird. "He's really strong, isn't he?"

"Yes, but he could still be afraid of something."

"Like what?"

"I dunno. He won't talk to us."

"I think he's going to challenge somebody!" exclaimed the Luffy-bird. "Some really tough swordsman who lives here!"

"Yeah, that makes sense…"

"Hm. I suppose…"

The birds were quiet for a moment or two. Straining his ears to the limit, Zoro thought he could hear the sound of faint snoring from somewhere. An open window, perhaps. That meant there were people inside the houses at least, even if they wouldn't get out in the streets. Could it be that they were all scared of something – him, maybe? Or were they simply staying out of the midday heat?

"But if that's what he's doing," said the orange bird, "don't you think he's abandoning his crewmates? After all, they might get into trouble while he's blundering about here…"

"Maybe so, but he's following his dream!" said one of the black birds (Zoro couldn't tell which one). "And that's always a good thing, right?!"

The other black bird agreed emphatically, while the orange bird muttered something about depending on the way you went about it. Zoro did his best to try and zone them out.

xxxxx

As he crossed a small bridge, he thought for a moment he could hear music from somewhere far away, a melancholy flutelike sound. About ten meters below him the sludgy green waters of a mostly dried-out canal trickled languidly, flanked by debris and stinking in the way sewers in summer tended to stink. A clock he couldn't see struck once. It was quarter past something, he supposed.

xxxxx

The sand and heat reminded him of Albana and other Alabastan towns, but the buildings didn't look much like what he could remember from there. Maybe more like Water 7? No, these houses didn't have those typical red rounded roofs of Water 7. A bit like Loguetown, then, he decided, but pretty different too, with a particular flattened-out, mirage-like quality of its own. There was probably a harbour around somewhere, unless it was a completely landlocked city, like Albana. And maybe he would find the ship, if he went there. But turning around to go look for it didn't seem like the right thing to do. No matter what the orange bird said, there had to be a purpose to his coming here.

It occurred to Zoro to wonder vaguely if he might be walking into a trap. Perhaps he wasn't actually going to meet the skilled fighter he (and the birds) was picturing, but merely an assortment of enemies waiting to ambush him, marines or bountyhunters or rival pirates or ship-dismantling street gangs or some other kind of would-be troublemakers. That would be considerably less interesting, obviously, but it might still be something he was supposed to do here, to take care of those people before they could become a real threat.

Worthy opponent or not, the first attack might come in any street or alley, from any direction. But it seemed to Zoro most likely that it would happen in some large open square or piazza, with plenty of space at all sides. So far, however, he'd seen nothing like that around here. There were just streets and alleys and the odd bridge, with dusty brick buildings and endless stone walls. The few shops he'd passed had all been carefully boarded up.

The birds were still following him or flying slightly ahead, not getting thrown off in the least whenever he chose an unexpected direction. They were chattering among themselves right now. He really tried not to pay attention, but it was hard. So very few other sounds could be heard.

"I'm huuuuungryyy…" whined the Luffy-bird.

"You had about ten nice fat juicy worms not long ago," remarked the orange bird.

"That was HOURS ago!"

"More like ten minutes ago. Or less, even."

The Luffyesque bird gave a piteous cheep. "Isn't there a butcher's shop around here?"

"Not that I've seen," said the Usopp-bird. "And if there is it's probably locked up. Doesn't seem to be anyone about at all."

"And don't even think of diving into garbage cans on your own!" the Namilike bird said sharply. "You'll only eat something really rotten and get sick."

"No I won't! I never get sick!"

"Well, then you'll end up eaten by some big mean cat just because you weren't paying attention!"

"Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I beat ten vicious alley cats single-handedly, with one wing wounded to boot?…"

Suddenly, Zoro noticed a shadow high in the sky above them, something moving down at great speed. He froze for a fraction of an instant, then drew the Sandai Kitetsu and cut the descending hawk in half, without looking. He'd sheathed the sword again before the dead predator hit the ground.

The birds let out squawks of terror and surprise: the blade had passed very close to all of them. Zoro opened his mouth and came very close to telling them exactly what he thought of their pathetic instincts. What kind of small bird didn't know enough to freeze or hide when the shadow of a bird of prey passes over them? These idiots hadn't even noticed. But he managed to stop himself in time and merely give them a meaningful glare of disapproval, hoping that would be enough of a hint to get them to shape up.

But it didn't seem like it would. The birds flew excitedly here and there for a good while, and then they all settled down on his head and shoulders.

"So you won't talk to us, but you will protect us," remarked the Nami-bird, whom Zoro was starting to think of as 'N-bird'. "Well, that's nice of you."

The black birds agreed fervently, with the Usopp-bird – or 'U-bird' – sounding grateful while the Luffyesque 'L-bird' sounded enthusiastic. - Meanwhile, Zoro was thinking that the orchard on his left side looked slightly familiar. He couldn't have walked past here before, could he? Nah, it was probably just the local style in gardens.

"He's a very useful person, isn't he?" remarked the U-bird.

"Terribly useful," the N-bird agreed.

"And really cool, too," added the L-bird. "That sword stroke was just awesome!"

"Yep, he's sure handy to have around," said the N-bird. "But I bet his crew thinks the same way. And, may I point out again, he's not with them."

"Huh. Well, one would think that they ought to think so," said U-bird thoughtfully, "but they might just take him for granted, you know? 'Cause sometimes people forget things like that, and don't know what they've got until they lose it."

The L-bird frowned. "But they're not going to lose him!" it objected. "He's just wandering around on his own adventure right now. Anyway, if they're that stupid he can always stay here and hang out with us instead!" He grinned wider than a bird should be able to, then leaped up and started to circle around Zoro with enthusiasm.

"You're just gonna confuse him by all that flying around," said U-bird. "Confuse him even more, I mean. I never saw anyone going around so much in circles before."

"True, that." N-bird nodded. "He's even worse than you, L-bird, so take it easy," she advised.

A dry wind passed by, shaking down chestnuts from trees growing behind another stone wall that were leaning out over the street. The birds flew down to see if they were edible, and then had to do a lot of shouting and hurried flying in order to catch up with Zoro again, who hadn't slowed down.

xxxxx

Not too long after that he walked up a short flight of stairs and found himself on the second bridge. Underneath it, about twenty meters below, was the stony bed of a completely dry river. There were lots of driftwood and other debris on the riverbed and the banks, including a couple of rowboats and a rocking-chair. At the apex of the bridge, Zoro thought he could hear piano music, but again could not distinguish from where.

xxxxx

He came to a street where there were quite a few shops, all closed though not all of the windows had been boarded up. But even looking at the window-displays, it was rather hard to make out what kind of things they were selling. He only recognised a bakery and what was probably a shoemaker's shop, nothing else. Most of the stuff lying in the window-displays looked rather odd to his eyes, and there were no helpful signs. Maybe they were just souvenirs. Still, he liked seeing all the shops there: perhaps he really was moving towards the centre of the town, as he hoped.

"You know," N-bird said pensively, turning to look at Zoro's face while she spoke, "there's something I don't get… We're supposed to remind you of your crewmates, aren't we?"

"We are?" said U-bird.

"We do?" said L-bird.

"Of course we do! Don't interrupt me, you two!" She picked at them both in passing: they whined a bit. "Then why aren't there more of us?" N-bird continued. "Why only us three? Why only those people?"

Zoro had no idea of that, not that he would have said anything even if he did. But he wondered what the orange bird might mean by 'supposed to' – who exactly did the supposing? He wouldn't have thought she believed in anything like destiny or fate. Nami didn't, as far as he knew.

He did allow her an eloquent shrug, however. Somehow it seemed fair enough.

"Well, obviously we're the coolest ones," said U-bird, "at least I am – Ow! Stop picking at me, N-bird. It could be true!"

"Right!" said L-bird, nodding wisely. "Or maybe it's 'cause this guy's got such a bad memory and can only remember the ones who've been with him the longest!"

"Hm, that makes a bit more sense," said N-bird, "Well, I doubt it's memory loss, but possibly his span of attention is just a bit too short…"

"Nah, his captain is the one with the short attention span," objected U-bird, "'cause he's like L-bird, right? But Swords-guy here is the first mate or something, isn't he? He has to keep track of the whole crew; he's gotta be able to pay attention." (Zoro blinked slightly at that.)

"Well, maybe that's too much of an effort at times," suggested N-bird. "Maybe he'd like things to be simpler when he's dreaming."

Hey, wait a minute, Zoro wanted to say, since when did we decide I'm dreaming this? Of course, that did seem like a reasonable explanation when he thought about it, and he felt pleased that the talking birds were actually rational enough to understand how irrational their existence was (after all, there was only one Human Human fruit, so no other animals ought to be able to talk). But this really didn't feel like any kind of usual dream, where places and people shifted almost constantly while your mind tried to make some kind of sense out of it. This was much more stable. And it seemed to last a lot longer.

"If he is dreaming," said U-bird, sounding doubtful as well. "I'm not too sure of that. But if so, then why are we here at all?" He beat his wings impatiently. "Or why isn't it just L-bird? He likes the captain best anyway, doesn't he?"

"Search me," said N-bird, shrugging.

"Nah, he wouldn't leave me here without someone to talk to," said L-bird, complete trust in his voice. "He's a nice guy."

"Yeah. I guess." The N-bird's voice sounded just a tiny bit dubious, and Zoro couldn't help but chuckle slightly, then nod in silent approval when N-bird went on to add, "He is a bit of a killer, though."

"Well, he's a nice killer," the L-bird summed up happily. The U-bird gave a short, nervous laugh.

There were a few moments' pause before N-bird opened her beak again.

"Hey, Mr Swordsman…" Ah, so she hadn't given up on trying to talk to him. "…Do you think it meant something that it was a hawk you just slew for us, and nothing else?"

"Huh? O-ho…" said U-bird slowly. "D'you really think so, N-bird?"

"What? Whaddya mean?" asked L-bird. There were a couple of whispers. "Oooh. You mean the guy he's gonna fight in this town is Mihawk Hawkeye, the greatest swordsman in the world?"

"Well, I'm not sure. It's a theory…" said N-bird cautiously.

"That's awesome! I wanna see that!" The L-bird raised his voice. "Hey, come out, Mihawk! Stop hiding!!"

"Actually," mumbled N-bird, "I was more thinking about what it might say about his subconscious…"

"Come on out, stupid hawk! You're in for the fight of your life!"

Zoro's hand shot out, clamping down on L-bird's beak. "Shut up," he said quietly.

They all froze and fell silent, staring at him.

"If he is here somewhere and I can't avoid it, then of course I will fight him," Zoro continued, keeping his voice low but clear. "But you shouldn't try to call him here ahead of his time. I'm not sure I'm strong enough for him yet." A brief pause, while he wondered what the hell he'd just said. Dammit, he knew he had far to go yet, there wasn't any "not sure" about it. It was just that…everything in this town seemed so strange and uncertain that it felt possible to wonder if somehow he'd exchanged his self for a later version, or had become someone slightly different, or might have come further along the road than he thought, without noticing. Like how he had wound up here without noticing – But it was a really stupid thought.

"I mean, I will know when I'm ready, understand?" He shook the captainlike bird to and fro. "It would be an insult to Dracule Mihawk to challenge him again before that."

He gave the other two birds a heavy look as well, one that stopped just short of being a glare; and possible it was that very restraint that seemed to take them aback. Then he loosened his grip around L-bird's beak but didn't quite let go yet, and the bird wasn't struggling to break free. It kept itself still, staring at him with wide, unbirdy, Luffylike eyes.

"So I don't think he's the one I'm meant to face here," Zoro went on, without raising his voice. "But if you guys keep screaming about it, maybe you'll force him to come here. Force him to be that guy when he's not supposed to be." It didn't make much sense to think that, but this place didn't really make sense either. And while he felt a bit ashamed over finally having succumbed into talking to birds, trusting instinct over common sense had never shamed him.

He let go of the L-bird completely. It immediately flew over to where the Nami-bird sat, flapping its wings excitedly.

"Wahahaha! I won, I won!" he exulted. "Admit it, N-bird! I won this time! Right, U-bird?"

"Woohoo! First prize goes to L-bird!" shouted U-bird, also flapping his wings and flying around a good bit. "Good work! Man, I thought he'd never crack. Guess you'll have to write off his debts now, N-bird, eh? You did promise."

"Yeah, yeah, L-bird won," snapped N-bird, raising her chin haughtily. "Don't be so childish about it."

"I won I won I won!" sang L-bird, circling around in a way that made Zoro dizzy and also slightly alarmed: with the way it carried on, the black bird might fly smack into something, and it didn't look to be made out of rubber.

"Goddammit," he sighed, "why do the three of you have to be so bloody noisy?"

"I'm not noisy!" the N-bird objected immediately, and rather loudly.

"YES YOU ARE!" the black birds shouted in unison. Zoro didn't even bother glaring this time – he only held his hands over his ears and grit his teeth. But amazingly enough, when he next looked up the birds were quiet and actually seemed slightly abashed (well, insofar as the latter was possible for anyone Luffylike). And the next minute or so they all flew above him in virtual silence.

xxxxx

He passed the third bridge, which led across a street, dark and cramped far below him. There was a decent view over the nearest rooftops, but he couldn't see any big buildings that might hint of where the city centre was. There was no snatches of music this time, only a faint creak like you get from old houses, and what sounded like someone closing a window. When he glanced up in the sky, he saw what looked like a couple of vultures, far away, circling slowly above the rooftops.

The clock he couldn't see struck twice.

(To Be Continued)