TITLE: Bottle Garden
SUMMARY: It's only a devil fruit ability, he reminds himself. Nothing beside the monstrosity cupped between all her palms. That could wipe out everyone on the island.
LENGTH: 3000 words
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, no profit, yadda yadda yadda.
NOTES: Challenge fic for the op_fanforall anonymous meme on livejournal, written to the prompt of "Robin saves the day".
The door creaks open after the most cursory of knocks, sending chimes to clack woodenly together and letting the breeze whisper through the warmed interior. Jame Mendelson looks up from a tray of seedlings. In the doorway, a tall woman dressed in dark colours is holding a plant in a pot made from hands.
After a moment's cessation of heart and breath he recognises the truth behind the macabre first impression: they aren't corpse hands sewn together, but an ability, growing up from her palm to cup the soil.
And that is the only reason it has taken him so long to pay attention to the plant itself.
The seedlings hit the floor, soil and green stems scattering. His hands tremble, he can barely frame words. "Y-you'd bring that here, so casually?" He takes better hold of himself. "To a town? Get out of here! Take it away!" He reaches for anything that might make a weapon. She watches through implacable eyes as he holds the shears wide, and watches just as calmly as the hands sprout from his chest, seizing his own and forcing the blades wide so he cannot cut either her or the vulnerable stem.
"That's dangerous," she states, gaze dark as midnight and voice calmly berating. "It's dormant. I'm not sure why. But it would probably defend itself if attacked. And I won't let you kill them."
"K-kill who?" he forces past his lips. Releases the shears, his limbs already shaking too much to put up a fight, and the hands release in return, disappearing back into his trembling body. The shears strike the floor, chipping the grimy tiles. He pats at his abdomen wildly. "W-where? W-what?"
But it's only a devil fruit ability, he reminds himself. Nothing beside the monstrosity cupped between all her palms. That could wipe out everyone on the island.
"My friends," the devil woman responds darkly. "This flower ate my friends. I need you to help me save them."
"Do you know what you're asking?" His juddering hands slam harder than intended upon the desktop. The contents leap and both of them stare with held breath at the psychocissus somnifera, now re-housed in an earthen pot, but it hasn't been tipped and doesn't stir. "This... this is an organism so rare that most of the time they don't exist, sometimes for generations! They'll take over an entire island, clear it of prey -- and by prey, young woman, understand that I mean life. No life -- no food -- dead plant! They're only ever encountered when an old seed washes up on inhabited shores, and once it takes root, there's no stopping it."
He breathes hard, shakes his head. He is only a botanist. "They say that a government team once picked up a specimen intact, but their findings were shrouded in secrecy. All else I have to go on is myth."
She is quiet; blinks at him slowly, and he wonders how anyone can be so apparently impassive and still breathing. She does not say, "Then let us call the government", even supposing they had time. She supplies, "This is the second psychomorphic plant species I have encountered."
"What?" For one person to cross paths with two of the most dangerous species in existence in a single lifetime... Much as it's a story he wants to hear, there is more he needs to ask. "Where did you find this one?"
Too far away and her nakama would already have been beyond retrieval.
"A cove, on the far side of this island. We found shrivelled corpses, adults and children alike, an empty village. My captain wanted to put a stop to whoever or whatever was responsible... and so." She shrugs gently, a tip of one shoulder. "At the last moment, I pulled myself from its grasp." A gesture sends an explanatory series of arms coiling outwards. "The rest were not so lucky. But I cannot say what is happening inside the this flower. A piece appears to be missing. Even this plant here is visibly different from the species we encountered before."
Such an organism would inevitably spell the island's eventual doom no matter where it lay within its shores.
"How did you escape, before?" he rasps.
She shakes her head. "I'm afraid my prior experience offers no clues, Dr Mendelson. I... remain uncertain what precisely even happened last time. And this time, there appears to be no symbiosis with a human who might be dispatched." He shivers at the way she speaks of that murder in such unmoved terms; a way to resolve a complication and nothing more. "We must find another way. That is why I came to you. I was told you are the foremost botanical expert on this island."
That is indubitably the truth, though it give him little joy to hear her say it.
Mendelson makes a point of examining every millimetre of the plant under a magnifier, squinting through the lens, sketching the shape of veins and cells in leaves with his free hand, holding the pencil in uncooperative joints that crackle and seize up. The light filters down onto his desk through the grimy glass. In this university's heyday, all those panes would be clean, but now there is barely enough light for his studies or the plants. Soon, he will have no choice but to himself have someone venture a ladder up into the web of iron and glass overhead.
The woman, introduced mysteriously and haltingly as "Robin", wanders about in a manner he finds distracting, ducking beneath the branches and dangling vines of his department's overgrown wilderness, unworriedly brushing spiders from the exposed skin of her shoulders and arms, crouching low and peeling back fronds to reveal the informational labels. The back of her skirt eases an inch too high.
Mendelson scowls and forces his eyes back down. He has, after all, an opportunity before him that may only previously have been presented to a select handful of government scientists. May only, or may not at all. He has always craved a greater claim than being the best in a single university on an isolated island. And being the first to have made these simple notations and observations, even if it kill him... well.
She was right, however. All is not well with the flower. Its reactions now are almost nonexistent, and it seems hardly like a sentient thing. He wipes sweat from his forehead and wonders, who are these friends of hers, and what have they done to reduce the terrifying entity of legend to this near-catatonic state?
Obviously he dare not cut into the plant, instead taking samples from brushing the surface of the petals, leaves and stem -- carefully, oh so carefully. Academic debate -- which in this case is all synonymous with speculation -- finds itself undecided whether the second, larger part of the flower is a construct of the psychomorphic abilities of the smaller plant or the other way around, or indeed if both are equally real... or, bizarrely, if both are equally unreal.
Robin wanders across his peripheral view, aiming for the other side of the collection, the more densely-packed jungle behind his desk. His temper snaps. "These specimens are university property! Please, young woman, if you must be occupied, then attend to your body's own care! The washroom is off the corridor outside!" He points to the door. She follows his finger, then looks curiously down at her own hands and arms, her skin stained the colour of soil.
It's much easier to concentrate with her absent but for the faint noise of running water. He finishes taking his samples and stares intently at the yellow petals, convinced that their movement is starting to look more lively now. He sets his machines to work analysing the chemical content, and when a noise alerts him and he finally looks up, he sees her standing there in the door, her hands clean and her hair damp, though she remains by necessity in the same dirty clothes, and there are still dirty marks at her shoulders. She did not take the time to shower. He wonders how long she has been there, watching.
"What have you found?" Her expression tightens mid-speech, and before he can stop her she rushes to the pot on the desk, fingers clutching its sides and reclaiming their muddy stains in an instant. Her chin jerks up. "They've been in there too long. Their voices grow weak -- tell me, Mendelson, you must have learned something? You have a chemical breakdown, so name a substance we can use to weaken the plant further and release my nakama unhurt. Anything else from your myths that might force it to give them up!"
It isn't the movement of her body causing the slight stir of petals. Not much longer remains.
It strikes him she seems little concerned for the larger picture. Inside the flower, her nakama's struggles have been keeping it outwardly dormant. Once they fail, the rest of the island would be in its path.
Mendelson tears off the punched sheet of results from the clicking and whirring machines. "Complex... tsk. We need a chemist." He smoothes his beard with his fingers, and crooks a wrinkled finger at her. "No non-faculty members permitted unsupervised access to a department. You'll have to come with me to the labs."
They leave the glass-paned architecture of the botanical section, and venture down the labyrinthine corridors of the grand university building, past the palaeontology department with its fossils and bones, past the library, across the stone paved courtyard where the fountain trickles in endless rhythm. Robin's wistful expression changes as she looks back at the shadows of vegetation behind the grimy glass they started out from. She drags her eyes forward again and stares at the astronomy observation tower that dominates the facility, pointing up towards the daylight-obscured stars. Students pass by them, uninterested.
The dark woman develops a crease between her eyes, and they continue to walk, she a few steps behind Mendelson, he on legs that quiver with the strain of exercise, and quiver all the more once they start to tackle the steps to the upper floors of Chemistry.
He watches her, in the corner of his eye. She stays paces behind, and makes no offer of help. Only stares down at the flower in her hands. It's growing more alert with every passing moment. Inside the flower, her nakama are running out of fight, and once the digestion process begins in truth, there won't be any chance left to save them.
"Luffy," she whispers, her knuckles so white on the pot he almost expects ceramic to crack. "Don't give in, not yet." Instead, he hears human anguish as her voice breaks. So all the terrifying steel that he's seen in her matters for nothing, when she doesn't want to be alone--
New hands clutch the plant against her side while her own tear at Mendelson's shoulders, thrusting him back against the passageway's stone wall, his feet tripping on the broad stone steps. "Where are your chemists?" She gives him no time to answer. "Give the results to me. I'm going on ahead." She rips them from his hands anyway, multiple sets of fingers retrieving the scatter of pieces and putting together the jigsaw.
She lunges into a run, forwards and upwards, long legs easily covering the ground, the improbable heels on her thigh-high boots no impediment on the steps.
Chemistry always did have a better budget and a bigger student intake, and the sneer of habit returns to him as he walks those halls. Enters Rykes' lab to find Robin already there, she and Rykes pouring over the figures. From the additional holes unlaced on the woman's bodice, he can see her methods of persuasion have invoked other figures. Well, Rykes always was an old lech.
"They're dying," she says, her stare fixed upon the plant. "I can't hear them calling anymore." Her eyes raise to his, and there's something inside them he can't place. "Do something." Her gaze jerks to Rykes, back to himself. "If there's anything you think you can do, then do it now."
Rykes stutters that he's not a miracle worker -- neither of them are -- she can hardly expect--
A petal twitches strongly. The plant is waking up.
"Then," she says, her voice full of harsh cutting edges, "If we can't save them, we have to at least try to kill it. Isn't that the case? There's a whole island at stake, after all. Before it wakes up. If we can--"
Mendelson doesn't know how she got the knife. It's the one he uses to trim dead leaves from the stem, rusty and dirty and old. Did she hide it slid down one of those ridiculous boots? Held flush against her back in an extra hand? It doesn't matter, aside from knowing she has planned this last resort. The flower -- his flower -- the rarest specimen there is--
She sees him start to move, and the direction of her own lunge flips. The knife, airborne, is caught by other strings of appendages; more flail at him and blind his eyes. The air is so full of hands he doesn't even see the knife sink in, let alone react in time to stop it.
She's a large woman, tall and hard, with strength and the power to duplicate it many times over. The blade is dull and rusty and blunt, but sinks easily into his chest.
"You're out of contact with the outside world, here in your own little bottle garden." Her voice already sounds distant. "The end of that life cycle you so kindly explained. Not enough visitors, not enough victims. This island -- so close to Enies Lobby, a place of learning, teachers, students, people who should be aware of world events -- and yet nobody here recognises who I am. Because your knowledge doesn't extend to Nico Robin, so neither does theirs.
"The flower -- you -- showed me what I expected to see, to distract me until you once more had power enough to ensure I was absorbed as well, to give me hope so that I wouldn't try to damage the plant. The reality? This entire island is dead already."
"And if you'd been wrong?" Mendelson rasps, with dying breath. Rykes has collapsed like a marionette and already the details of his body seem to be melting away. Nico Robin? Twenty years ago, before his curiosity ever caused him to nurture the unusual seed he found on the shore, he remembers the posters of the demon child, but they never caught her, and this is a grown woman. It is a small enough error to kill on...
The absence in her eyes tells him of no definitive answer.
Merely a simple choice and time running out.
The lab, stripped of illusion, is old, abandoned, broken and cobwebbed, with even a skeletal corpse in one corner. They spill out onto the floor at her feet in turn, six living bodies besides the body, one living skeleton besides the skeleton.
Outside the window, the glass of the botanical section has shattered, scattering shards that blink in the fading light and broken iron spars that draw twisted silhouette shapes amid the sparkles. The thing that was hidden, curled within the dense vegetation, is thrashing and screaming. Too close-knit in symbiosis with the human, and in its already weakened state it likely will not survive -- especially when its smaller flower is weeping sap, broken amid soil and shards of crockery on the floor.
Robin crushes it under the heel of her boot for good measure; sighs and sits down on the edge of a begrimed desk as her legs fold, no longer feeling the driving pressure to keep bearing her weight.
Their voices wash over her. Brook's surprised exclamation, Franky's choked sound of disgust, Nami and Usopp's shrieks... that turn into the former's shrieks to stop shrieking, dammit. Sanji climbs unsteadily to his feet, stares out of the window and murmurs "again--?", only to be cut off as Zoro lands on him and knocks him back down. Chopper's voice erupts shrilly from where the little reindeer clings to Brook's ankle, "Eaten! I dreamed I was being eaten!"
And Robin supplies, with dark humour undercutting relief, "You were."
The veins in Zoro's forehead pulse visibly. "Where's Luffy? I remember... we were fighting endlessly, in some weird, dark place. Everyone else went down, and there were only the two of us left -- he told me he'd finish it, right before I--" His hands close on his swords, but here, now, they're useless, and Robin can only shake her head and hold onto her faith in the captain.
Until, yelling and flailing, Luffy bursts into existence, shedding petal fragments, sap sliming his hair. "Aaagh! That plant-thing... Where'd it go? There was horrible stuff growing into me!" His hands, clawed, tear at himself, but the tracery of vein-like threads are fading from his skin. He freezes suddenly, and his eyes raise, dark and cold. "It stole my nakama."
He falters, blinking, and focuses upon them all. His breath exhales, his eyelids close. "You're all here..." His legs cave beneath him, too, and he sits down hard. "Was it just a dream, all that fighting?"
Zoro bends to snag a petal between his fingers, lifting it and turning it in the dim light.
Luffy's drained gaze slides over the dusty floor and finally casts down to where his hand rests, next to the greying old head of someone who probably did used to be a botanist, once upon a time, and isn't anything, now. "Who's this dead person?"
"It's not important," Robin says, bestowing on him a tired smile. "Now that everyone's back, it's not important at all."