Author's note: This is a daemon AU, the daemon concept (though not the setting) is from Phillip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials (note that there may be inconsistencies with how they're portrayed there and how I portray them). For anyone who has not read those - daemons are a physical manifestation of the soul, and take the form of an animal. Children's daemons change form as they please, and "settle" into one form over the teenage years. Searching for "His Dark Materials" on wikipedia will yield a more in-depth explanation!
The copy of this fic over at AO3 (name Tonko there as well) has pictures of the daemons in the story.
Please do let me know if you see any weird typos or leftover bits of HTML. It was a big chunk of text to format!
"Everyone get OUT!" Luffy's bellow carried across the blasts and explosions of the building complex as it collapsed.
The laboratory had been built over a canyon that bisected the whole island in some kind of fit of hubris, and it was all falling, now, the gleaming walls, metal beams, concrete and and glass, the cages and corridors of rooms that had been full of comatose people and daemons, all of it falling down that narrow, lightless canyon, to break on sharp rocks and dark river-strip of ocean water.
Usopp flinched as a last explosion boomed through the chilly late-autumn air, squinting through the smoke and trying not to cough as he looked for everyone else. It was impossible to see more than a few yards in any direction but downward, past the edge of the cliff. His gaze fell unwillingly to the churning icy shadows of the water where the shattered buildings had vanished.
Everyone else was... beyond that. Definitely. Yes. He was almost certain most of them had gone east as planned, and so they'd have ended up on the other side - the right side - of the ravine, the side with town and the bay Sunny was in. He'd been stuck scrambling for a westward escape after the guards had split them up; the first explosion had already gone off, making his original path a two-hundred yard gaping hole. Perils of fighting at range, that was all. He and Franky had timed the bombs well for their escape... excluding his own, and only because he'd dropped back to make one more shot.
There was really only one other person Usopp was worried about having taken the wrong route.
Thalassa was waddling at his feet, unwilling to even hover with this terrible visibility, and Usopp crouched down to scoop his daemon up in one arm. She worried at the strap of his overalls with her pointed beak. Her black head and back were lightened with settling dust but she was in no mood to bother grooming herself now.
"What next?" he wondered, nerves making his gaze dart over the immediate area. He had lost Kabuto - surely it was nearby somewhere, but he'd lost his grip on it in the last set of explosions when the debris had shifted underfoot and he'd staggered for stable ground.
"Get back from that ravine?" Thalassa suggested pointedly, shifting against him in urging, and he shuddered a last time at the sheer drop and did just that, stepping carefully and quietly through the masses of stone and concrete rubble, twisted girders and smashed glass.
At least it was over, finally. And some of those people, at least some, would have a chance.
At first they hadn't been sure what was afflicting them, the ones they'd found in those rooms - adults, children, people of all kinds - all flat on filthy beds, strung with intravenous needles feeding their bodies, but barely. They were starved, limp... their daemons in equally limp states in cages on a table or chained to the floor, depending on size.
Luffy hadn't led them in expecting that.
The one who'd perpetrated it all - under pretense of running a medical research facility, no less, the little man with the mild face and the knives hidden in his sleeves - had enjoyed explaining it to them. They'd invaded his stronghold because he'd stolen Mini-Merry. As seemed to happen at times like that, they'd discovered there was worse happening than boat theft.
"You see this?" Golden Racuna had giggled, grinning happily as a small child showing off, gesturing grandly from his perch on a platform across from the walkway Usopp and Luffy had barged onto. Golden had flung his arm back over the massive hangar that made up the bottom level of the complex, expansively taking in his whole operation. Golden's daemon, a giant termite with a throbbing slug of an abdomen, chuckled constantly under his words. "See it?" Golden repeated.
There were vats of water in the hangar, half-empty just then but huge, big enough to hold a coiled-up seaking and positioned under massive pipes. Each one was connected by heavy wires to the biggest breed of power-transformer snail Usopp had ever seen. Three to a vat, and all three connected in turn to a single raised platform like the one Golden was on.
"Yeah, I see it," Luffy glared angrily, stalking forward to the rail. Oma was on his shoulder, her lean spider monkey shape made larger as her dark fur stood on end in her fury. "But I don't care about that, I'm just gonna kick your - "
There was movement, and two guards came up onto the raised platform. Between them was Brook, limp, his long body clattering against the steps as they hauled over the top one. The seastone-weighted net that bound him gleamed dully, pinning his long limbs together, making him slump, dead weight for the guards.
Usopp's heart hit his throat and Thalassa whimpered. "Syrinx," she breathed, and Usopp saw it then and he wanted to vomit.
One of the guards, trailed by a deerfly daemon, was carrying Syrinx. With his hand. Touching her. Not using a cage or a container of any kind.
The little blue finch was as limp as Brook, the seastone effect working on her just as completely, and she was being carried by one wing like a used rag. Thalassa and Usopp lunged forward, and Oma screeched as Luffy seethed, cocking one arm back - but then the guard tossed Syrinx to Golden, and they all froze again.
Brook moaned, ghostly and pained. Usopp struggled not to arm his slingshot.
"Lovely what seastone does, isn't it?" Golden asked, shrugging happily. "The Marines pay a great deal for it, too. You must see why I need this, then, don't you?" He looked behind him at the massive vat. "It's hardly a small task. Oh, an isolated keratine particle, a nice big bucket of ocean, filtered, of course and with the most perfect salinity... that part's easy. But you have no idea just how much power," his voice turned thick and hungry, "it takes to turn it into the good stuff."
The guard carrying Brook hauled him to the middle of the platform, right by Golden, and dropped him with a clatter.
"That doesn't matter!" Luffy bellowed. "You took all those people. They don't have anything to do with your stupid rocks!"
"A few years back, you'd've been right, Strawhat," Golden said, walking in a slow circle around Brook and tossing Syrinx from hand to hand. Usopp ground his teeth so hard he expected to hear something crack. "I would need so much fuel, and so many snails, and even more space... I expect you couldn't even understand the scale." Golden looked at them, then shrugged a shoulder and laughed contemptuously. "But," he went on, eyes narrowing and voice gaining that throb of hunger, "I came across this fruit, you see. One bite, and now..."
He held Syrinx out at arms length, right above Brook, dangling her by one small foot between two of his fingers, and regarded the space between her and Brook. Usopp frowned, suspicion rapidly mounting of something that barely made any sense. Luffy lurched and Usopp snatched at his arm, holding tight.
"Just wait for them," Usopp gritted out, and hoped Luffy was listening, because there was no hope of actually holding him back by force. "Wait." The muscle bunched under Usopp's hand, but Luffy stayed put, his whole body a snarl.
"You people can't see it, but it's..." Golden sighed dreamily, and then laughed, a lilt that slid into a manic giggle, looking back at them again. "The connection, it's so... so bright," he breathed, and the light in his eyes was gleaming, crazed. "There's so much there, just sitting there. But kill either one and it dissipates, and what a waste!" Golden shook his head mournfully, holding out a hand with his fingers loose, as if sand were sliding through them. "What a waste. But I know it's there and you know what?" His face lit with that disturbing elation again, gazing down at Syrinx and Brook. "Now I can just - " he made a slicing motion.
Usopp screamed a "NO!" and Luffy roared. Golden whirled in a huffing motion to face them again, and rolled his eyes with theatrical annoyance.
"Oh, you are stupid, aren't you?" He looked behind him at the half-empty vat. "Does that look full to you? Hm?" Golden sighed, a whining sound. "Filtering takes so long. Hours yet til there's enough water in there." He turned in a smooth circle on his heel, tossed Syrinx from hand to hand, and then paused. And shrugged. "But you know... I am pretty bored now." He prodded Brook with the toe of his shoe. "Bored." He smiled. "So, if you want a demonstration..." Golden took a step back, and dropped Syrinx to the floor.
There was a mere couple of feet between her and Brook, hardly any distance at all, but one that neither could move to cross. The termite daemon's ugly chuckle echoed briefly as Golden stared down at them, eyes lit up, and put out a finger, as if to trace a line down the space that separated them.
Too much. That threat, whatever it meant, too blatant. No holding back now.
"STOP THAT!" Luffy lunged, tearing from Usopp's grip, and Usopp was halfway to loading a fire star when a tremendous deep CRACK of snapping concrete echoed overhead.
And that was when Zoro and Ida had came in through the ceiling, Robin and Zafir descending just behind them with only fractionally more restraint.
Many hands appeared, and many swords followed, and Golden had nimbly fled as waves of his guards scrambled to the top of the platform. They were set upon with no quarter from either Usopp or Luffy, and the others took their cue from that.
Usopp had extracted Brook from the net, Thalassa tucking Syrinx close with one wing until he was done. Brook shook when he reached for her, and at last cradled her against his bony chest with a shudder of obvious relief. Ida gently sniffed her, the black wolf daemon nosing delicately at the little finch daemon, who trembled but leaned into the contact, and returned the comfort with a faint couple of notes of her usual song.
They'd split up again after that, crisscrossing each other through the corridors as they swept through. Chopper and Sanji had started hauling the "patients" out of the building. The guards gave up Mini-Merry's location - a maintenance station some distance down the canyon river - and so while Nami had gone with Franky to rig the structural supports with the explosives Usopp had made, the rest of them had hunted Golden, cornering him in one of the central bunkers.
Then there had been gas spraying into the corridors, and then the bombs... and now Usopp wondered how many of those people Chopper and Sanji had gotten out before it all had finally fallen.
He resolutely refused to picture them not getting out themselves. Everyone was fine. They were all fine, on the other side of the canyon. They'd been well ahead of him when he'd been cut off, no reason to think anything else.
A not-nearly-distant-enough clatter of moving rock began, and he and Thalassa flung themselves to the very uneven ground before Usopp peeked up over the top, peering through the still-settling dust at the newly-raised cloud that was being flung up as chunks of stone and cement heaved and then finally fell away.
Zoro stood up, looking irked and brushing gravel from his hair. Ida emerged behind him, stepping carefully out and then planting all four feet and shaking as she did when she came out of the water.
Usopp fairly melted against the debris he was lying on before pushing himself to his feet and scooping Thalassa up.
"Usopp," Zoro said, looking up with faint surprise, and a bit of the tension in him relaxed.
Usopp clambered over the broken ground to join him, glancing Zoro over as he did. Minor cuts and scrapes as usual, just like he had. Somehow they seemed to have gotten through this one without either of them (anyone, he insisted to himself, anyone) risking their guts falling out or coughing up part of their lung or having some kind of brain injury.
"Seen anyone else?" Zoro asked, and Usopp shrugged a shoulder, and only hid most of his grin.
"I'm pretty sure they all went that way they were supposed to," he pointed across the vast divide, where the town was, and the docks, "towards Sunny."
"Hm." Zoro frowned staring into the obscuring dust. He glanced sideways at Usopp. "Not like you're over there either, longnose."
"I was at the back so I could put a sticky mochi star into the guards." Usopp raised a finger. "The Great Captain Usopp - " he cut off when Zoro stiffened and turned suddenly, unsheathing one sword. Ida started to growl and Usopp's insides went icy at her tone.
An enemy, and he had no Kabuto, and his ammunition was almost gone anyway, used to pack the bombs. What remained was too light to be thrown by hand. He crouched and groped for at least some rocks. Thalassa clacked her beak and hopped forward, wings half spread in preparation for flight.
"Thought that would put me down, did you?" The smooth voice wasn't giggling or casual now, but cold as cracked ice. Golden appeared, staggering up onto the top of a nearby debris pile. His daemon still clung to his shoulder, her abdomen swinging pendulously as Golden steadied himself. The man's clothing was torn, and blood soaked through on his shoulder and his side. He still had one of his knives. "Think that'll stop me?! you weaklings didn't touch me." He stared wildly between the pair of them.
"Beg to differ," Zoro returned, and pulled out a second blade, pointing the tip at Golden's ruined shoulder and taking a half step over that put him between Golden and Usopp.
Accordingly, Usopp dropped back slightly, feeling out the weight of the stones in his hand, the way they'd spin in the air. Thalassa launched herself aloft, rising to shoulder height.
"Not this time," Golden snarled. "I don't need to save you for later anymore." He threw his knife aside and reached out a hand, forefinger extended. Not at Zoro, and not at Ida.
Right between them. Just like Brook and Syrinx. Urgent foreboding spiked through Usopp's gut.
A line traced downwards in the air, a filament of utter darkness, edged by sparking dusty gold that spilled off and vanished.
Zoro and Ida went still, seemed to shake as if caught in invisible wires. The muscles of Zoro's back bunched and tightened but he didn't move, or couldn't, but Usopp jerked his gaze to the correct target before fear did the same to him.
He sidestepped enough to squint and aim and he whipped a rock at Golden, and then another one - and both were gracefully ducked, too crude and slow to be more than the desperate attempts they were.
Zoro still hadn't moved and Usopp looked. The line between Zoro and Ida was longer, that cut getting deeper. Colour leached from Zoro's skin, like someone was emptying him of blood. Ida's ears went flat against her head, her tail sagged limp and she whined.
The sound was unreal, and wrong, and Usopp jolted forward like he'd been pushed. Warring reflex made him halt, but then he held his breath and shoved forward past Zoro. Thalassa angled down and forward, looping around Ida with a hair's breadth to spare. They could be in front.
Because Thalassa could already go far away from him. Usopp kept her close but Sogeking did not.
She could fly as far as they needed, Usopp thought desperately. So what was there to cut? Golden could try that, see where it got him.
The black line faded when they got in the way, and Usopp felt his knees weaken with relief. Golden pulled in his hand, expression going dark, lips pulling back in furious irritation.
Usopp heard Zoro stagger behind him, felt him lurch heavily against his back. "Move!" Zoro gasped, grabbing at him. "What're you - "
"Shut up!" Usopp hissed, the last couple of rocks he held digging into his hand as he stared at Golden, darting a brief look away to see if he could spot where that knife had fallen... No. Then unease wound around him, tighter by the second because Golden still looked enraged, and not at all discouraged. But if they could stay in front, keep blocking, long enough for -
Golden raised his hand again.
"Know what?" he grinned, mirthless, feral and cruel. "I can do two at once." He extended his finger, then traced down, smooth and slow. Slower than before, and Golden's ragged shape was tight with concentration, but the cut in the air started again.
Behind Usopp, Zoro choked. And now Usopp started to understand why.
A hideous crawling contact began somewhere inside him, infinitely sharp, nauseatingly wrong and so deep within, and he wanted to scream at the sleek, unstoppable invasion of that touch.
Zoro heaved loud breaths, fingers digging into Usopp's shoulders, his weight bearing down more and more by the second. Golden seemed caught as well this time, shaking and frozen but for his cracked-grin cutting motion.
And for all the bile rising in Usopp's throat, Golden's touch did not hurt. It slid, horrifying but ineffectual, down alongside something that had already torn free, long ago, and healed over. Usopp swallowed and braced against the drag of Zoro's rigid hands. He shifted his fingers, mind barely thinking, but touch was enough. Among the last rocks in his grip, there was a smooth one, heavy for its size but evenly weighted, rounded and almost symmetrical.
His hand knew the value, his arm the trajectory. He tensed, held his breath, and between one of Zoro's gasps and the next, flung the rock straight at Golden, a hard, dense missile with even spin and all the power of his slingshot-pulling arm behind it.
It struck Golden in the throat and his hand wrenched with the impact, spasming into a fist.
The slice in the air twisted and snapped like a rubber band, the sparking dust spraying everywhere, like a dying daemon, before fading altogether, in less time than Usopp could manage to breath again. And then everything exploded.
Pain stabbed through Usopp's head like a pipe bomb packed with corkscrews. Zoro's hands ripped away like something had blown the two of them apart, and Usopp was flung forward to his hands and knees.
Over the noises of Golden choking on a crushed larynx came a scream, a raw, hoarse tearing sound, from behind Usopp. It trailed off with a ragged inhalation and the uneven thud of a muscled body hitting broken ground.
Usopp threw up, and threw up again, lurching on his knees and forearms with each heave of his body. There was a chill around the edges of him that was reaching deeper by the second, and a scraping sensation of not fitting, one that he did not remember from that night when he'd finally sent Thalassa far enough away that she was able to move freely ever afterwards.
Zoro's throat-wrenching howl came a second time and Usopp forced himself past the cold that was pressing in and the raking agony in his head so he could kneel up. Hands pressed to his belly, he turned to Zoro and closed his eyes in a moment of useless denial. Zoro was arched back against the jagged edges of the debris under them, eyes straining wide open, hands raised slightly, fingers grasping for something, finding nothing.
Ida was sprawled still and motionless beside him, eyes half-lidded and staring.
Thalassa had fallen to the ground and now looked as clumsy as Usopp felt. She staggered for Ida, slumping against the wolf daemon's side, pushing at her weakly. Usopp crawled to Zoro, having to stop after every few movements to try, mostly in vain, to quell the nauseating throb behind his eyes.
He bore it enough to make it across the scant few feet to Zoro's side.
Zoro didn't seem to see him, staring at nothing, his face contorted with uncomprehending loss. He shifted in a clench of muscle that looked nearly bonecracking, arching so abruptly that his head smack against the rock beneath it, and Usopp shoved his hand there before it could happen again.
"Zoro," he gritted, shivering. No response, just pained and seething breaths, the edges catching a little of Zoro's voice, the sound too close to weeping and Usopp did not want to hear that now, or ever.
In some kind of desperate attempt at selfish distraction, he dragged his gaze back to where Golden had fallen.
He was still as the scattered rubble around him. His daemon was gone.
They'd finished him, finally.
What had he done to them?
Brook was sitting, unwillingly, despite the shakes that he couldn't make stop. He watched Chopper and Robin and Sanji move among the scattered, still shapes of the people they'd dragged from the false medical facility.
He could help them, he was sure of it. At least aid in covering them with the pile of blankets Franky had rescued from a storage room on the way out. But Chopper had gone into heavy point and grasped Brook's shoulders with his large hands, pressing gently until Brook folded and sat.
"Just hold her for now and stay still," Chopper had said to him, one hand heavy on his shoulder blade, and Brook did as the doctor said, cupping Syrinx in his hands, close to his chest. There was no warm surface of skin under his fight-ragged shirt for her to lean against, but she made no move to go to her more usual place in his hair. Her feet grasped his hand bones and she sat, still and small.
"I'd rather help," she whispered, even while she trembled.
Sitting here he had time to feel the nagging absence of Usopp and Zoro. Sanji had sworn he remembered seeing Usopp and Thalassa take off towards the other side after the last bomb, cut off from them but heading for solid ground. Brook himself had seen Zoro and Ida pursuing a knot of guards in that same wrong direction. Between then and the final collapse had been ample time... the odds were... good.
And the Strawhat Pirates were good with odds.
At any rate, they did have to take care of immediate concerns.
He watched Sanji shift one of the smaller victims, holding the little thing carefully in his arms. The child was so young and wasted that Brook had no inkling if it was a girl or a boy. It hadn't reacted at all when Sanji had, after a long moment of hesitation, carefully lifted its puppy daemon in his hand for a moment to move it to lie on the child's chest. At his side, Kajoumi watched in serious concern. A large black-necked swan, she was vastly bigger than needed to carry that small daemon on her smooth back, but Brook had to agree with the instinct to keep daemon with human.
Still, the sight of Sanji's hand on that limp furry shape gave him an internal lurch of apprehension, completely uncalled for - Sanji would never everdo what those guards had done - but uncontrollable. Brook stroked Syrinx's smooth back with one fingertip, taking comfort, as he did so often now, in the bright blue of her feathers. The void-colour, beyond blackness, that daemons took when their shadows were stolen kept coming to mind...
But that was over as well, and Brook wished hard that he could control himself not to recall it at all.
Sanji was settling the child on one of the low platforms Franky and Acacia had made, carefully resting the emaciated hand over the daemon. The platform wasn't even a bed, even, just a smoothed plank, set up a few inches off the ground and conveniently made with places to hold it like a stretcher. Sanji turned to catch a blanket Franky tossed him, and tucked it around the child, shielding it from the cold air.
Footsteps approached to one side and Brook looked over. Chopper gave him an encouraging smile, and he returned it with a jerky nod. On Chopper's hat rode Wendeline, her speckled brown feathers shaken free of much of the dust that had coated them all when everything blew and collapsed.
"They're all stable, and there's help coming up the road now." Chopper said as Brook gave him a questioning cock of his head. Wendeline hopped onto the length of wall Brook was perched on. Brook unbent from around Syrinx enough to hold her close to the ptarmigan daemon's head, and she looked up to touch beak to beak. Wendeline began to gently groom her, carefully and lightly. Chopper shuffled, then took a breath to speak. "And I... wanted to ask you something."
"Ah... yes," Brook replied, trying to resist the wariness that Chopper's telling hesitation engendered in him.
"I'm sorry," Chopper said, apologetic but focused, and hopped up to sit next to Wendeline, regarding Brook with wide, earnest eyes. They went downcast a moment before Chopper took another little breath and went on. "Luffy was talking about what happened inside, before we got to the middle hangar. What almost happened," he corrected himself.
"I - " Brook couldn't find any words for a moment, and shuddered, bones rattling. "He said he could cut us apart." Brook turned his sockets back to that motionless child. "He was doing it to power that place. The requirement was... high." He didn't know enough to guess at the specific implications of what Golden had said, but the massive cords of wiring connecting those snails between that platform and the vat had still offered some idea.
"I... see." Chopper mulled that over, speaking quietly, half to himself. "So... he was using them to get power... okay, but... some of those people have been bedridden for months." Chopper looked out to where Luffy had joined the rest to move the afflicted off the ground. An earlier admonishment from Chopper had him treading with careful concentration as he lifted his armful of middle-aged woman. Oma moved on three limbs beside him, one arm cradling a small lizard daemon against her furry chest. "The sores and wasting some of them have come from that, not from... the other thing. You can tell which ones have been there for a long time."
Another layer of horror over the rest, Brook thought. "I cannot fathom why he'd keep them," Brook shook his head slowly, and stroked Syrinx's back again. "He did not strike me as a merciful character." The man had found guards willing to... to handle others' daemons. It was disgusting.
"The conditions... I don't think he was, either. It was like they just had to... not die."
"Kept alive..." Brook trailed off. "Do you suppose he..." and a vile sensation crawled through him, "...did it to them more than once?"
"But - " Chopper said with a frown, and then he narrowed his eyes at the rows of platforms and the people there in various stages of emaciation, the worst already strung with Chopper's intravenous supplement. "Then that would imply..." Chopper turned back to stare at Brook, a cautious optimism spreading across his furry face. "Brook... maybe it grows back, the part he cuts. Maybe it isn't forever!" Chopper stared across the rows of catatonic humans and daemons, rising on his toes with elation. "Maybe whatever he did... they recovered."
Brook stared at them, not able, quite yet, to see them as Chopper did. "And then he did it again," Syrinx murmured, her fluting voice quite chilly.
Chopper froze, then turned back to tentatively touch Brook's knee in apology. Feeling guilt in turn for squashing the little doctor's hopefulness, he covered Chopper's hoof with one hand, curling fingerbones in a brief squeeze.
Wendeline stretched her neck out to nibble comfortingly at the feathers on Syrinx's head. "But they are still alive. There is hope," she murmured to Syrinx.
"Maybe... maybe... it's just a theory," Chopper took a steadying breath, expression serious. "Just a theory. We have to see. But what other reason could there be?" He added softly to himself. He hopped off the ruined chunk of wall, and turned in a circle, clutching at the edge of his hat, as if unsure which way to go.
A hail was called out from some distance away, and all of them looked up. Brook could see Sara, the mayor, her porcupine daemon trundling along at her feet. Behind her, a small crowd.
"Hey! Town Boss Lady!" Luffy hollered back, and set off to meet them. Chopper trotted a few steps forward to follow, but stopped when Brook spoke.
"Let me help bring them back." Brook stood up. His empty insides still felt as though they shivered constantly, still revolted at the memory of the the foreign touch on Syrinx, but his hands were steadier, and he would most certainly not risk dropping anyone. "I do promise to stop if I feel at all unable," he vowed to Chopper. "I won't endanger your patients."
Chopper eyed Brook for a moment, and then nodded. Brook squared his shoulders and lifted Syrinx slightly, and she took off and flew up to land, imperceptibly light, in his hair.
There was a task at hand, to occupy his hands and his mind.
Zoro had suffered a great many injuries in his time, and a few truly severe ones, even by his own standards. Pain was something that happened, mostly to be ignored, and rarely much else.
Sometimes, when it really was bad, it took more than he'd like of his self-control to keep himself focused until there was time to let Chopper deal with it.
Never, though, had he simply been torn away from any mastery of himself whatsoever and so utterly unable to get it back.
Golden's cut had hooked into him and ripped through something he hadn't known was there to injure. Past physical, down and in to where he had no defenses.
Zoro had never felt so truly gutted; this emptiness was so near the literal sensation of something rending through the cavity of his abdomen and the vital organs it contained... only vastly deeper, the core of him torn and gaping and there was such a crush of isolation against him that he could hardly breathe. More paralyzing than Kuina's death, more visceral than getting sharp steel through his body. And there was nowhere to hide from it, nowhere to push it down to because it was everywhere in him.
In every breath, every blink.
Ida, being made separate from him. It was like being flayed, like being cracked open to have his innards emptied out, like having a limb torn slowly off. He bucked uselessly against the ragged edges of his own self, feeling himself close empty hands around nothing. His reflex to grasp had nothing to reach for, because it was just gone.
When the cutting ended, the pain didn't. Everything only settled slightly, with the finality of a sword sliding free of a wound, and the incomplete edges of himself scraped against the wrong thing. What was there was not what ought to be, it was all wrong. There was nothing in him or around him that was right.
"Zoro," he heard, distant and beyond the scope of it all, where some part of his awareness saw the overcast sky above, and the shape of someone hunched by his side.
Usopp, the realization skated over the accumulated agonies, along with a scattered, indistinct sense of relief.
Not all alone, then. Not alone.
Usopp kept his hand under Zoro's head, unwilling to pull it free, even though the original instinct had been pointless anyway - the rock would surely break before Zoro's head did - but the weight was warm, and Usopp was cold. He sat, rocking slightly, willing the pain in his skull to ebb, or at least even out.
It did, ever so slowly, though intermittent shivers began in its place.
Likewise, Zoro's crazed breathing eased somewhat and so did those horrible arching spasms.
Zoro just lay now, staring without focus, breathing unevenly, twitching with abortive reaching motions.
Ida was still sprawled still, still unmoving, just on Zoro's other side. Thalassa had come to rest leaning against the fur of the wolf daemon's belly. Ida's white-edge muzzle pointed towards Zoro, jaws parted, the great fangs visible and the tongue lolling limply.
"Zoro," Usopp said, every minute or so. "Zoro..." If he'd just close his eyes at least, Usopp thought, as he hunched against another bout of shivers. Sleep always helped him. The staring, the eyes not tracking, the expression so unfocused it had gone inward... not good.
Then Zoro answered, sort of. Usopp had no idea how long he'd sat there, trying to call him back, but at last Zoro reacted to the sound of his name: he swallowed, and the sound was so unexpected that Usopp startled, and stared, gaze darting between Zoro and Ida.
Ida was blinking now, vague and unfixed, but she pulled her tongue in, jaws working before parting again, but just slightly. Thalassa drew away from her side then, waddling nearer to her neck, settling against the bulk of her shoulder.
Zoro's face shifted, the strain turning from a rictus to a taut grimace, and he met Usopp's eyes.
"There you are," Usopp breathed.
"Hurts," Zoro ground out.
"Yeah," Usopp replied with an uneven nod. The shivers began again.
"No," Usopp interrupted. "Look. She's there." He slid his hand to a position where he could turn Zoro's head. "She's there. Just like we saw inside, with those people. He did that." The understanding was too late, now.
The confusion was so plain on Zoro's face that it hurt to see. Only rarely did emotion show that clearly. Usopp felt like he'd give anything for it to only ever happen on drinking nights from now on.
Zoro reached abortively, then struggled to sit up. Usopp grabbed at him, hauling at one heavy arm. He nearly fell back when Zoro heaved himself hard enough to nearly fold forward over his lap. Usopp let go, the slight exertion sending his pulse throbbing under his skull.
He wasn't the only one. Zoro's hands rose to his head, knuckles pressing at his temples.
"Feels like..." Zoro trailed off, then just let out a long breath. He cast a look at Ida and Thalassa, then slowly stared past them and around at their surroundings. His gaze caught on Golden's body, then moved on. "We gotta go," he gritted.
It was late afternoon, now. At the speed they were likely to manage, they'd end up trying to travel in the dark. Not happening.
"Gotta camp," Usopp corrected him. "I have... not-being-in-camp disease."
Zoro coughed, not really a laugh, but still a response.
"...Not my best," Usopp granted, trying to wrap his arms around himself a little more. His cape was in his bag, he'd have to get that out. "Can you even stand?"
Zoro didn't move, only kept pressing hands to his temples and ignored the question, tellingly.
"I can," Ida said, her low voice drifting from shuffled reluctantly back and the wolf daemon struggled upright, scattering shards of stone and glass as she tried to find proper footing. Her head hung until she got herself balanced, and then she lifted it enough to look forward. Her tail hung down behind her.
"S'good," Usopp acknowledged. If she could move, he could support Zoro, and they could go somewhere, at least, that wasn't here.
There was another small scrape of shifting debris as Thalassa stood properly as well, nearly upright and almost penguin-like, feet unsteady on the ground. She took a couple of halting steps. Usopp doubted she'd be flying just yet, but even that much was heartening right now.
Thalassa took another step and stumbled, lurching headlong the last few inches and landing with a faint thump against Zoro's hip.
Usopp, despite watching her every move, took long moments to realize that he didn't feel the contact.
Zoro's hand lowered, reached like an automatic movement, dropping from his head to rest on her back, sinking flat there as naturally as any person and their daemon would do, and the initial sluggish surprise solidified into an incredulity that struck like Luffy's fist.
Zoro was touching Thalassa.
Usopp didn't feel it.
He made a noise, something strange enough that Zoro looked up at him, still squinting with pain before concern overrode it and he followed Usopp's gaze down to where his own hand lay.
He snatched it away. "Sorry," he gasped, hoarse.
Usopp shook his head, a shuddering twitch. "That's not..." he tried again. "I didn't f-feel it," his voice came out strangled, high-pitched.
Zoro stared in blank incomprehension. Thalassa dragged her head to look up at Zoro. She blinked slowly, still leaning heavily against him.
Usopp leaned forward, a belated reflex sinking in, delayed for lack of the touch that he should have felt, and reached out to pick her up.
Thalassa shifted away from him.
It wasn't even a flinch, and not a recoil either. Just... the instinctive response of a daemon to keep some space between itself and someone else's human. Instantly comprehensible. Perfectly natural. And so very, very wrong.
Usopp's hands flexed in place as a volcanic surge of panic blew through him, and Zoro, galvanized into an clumsy scramble back, put a couple of feet of open space between himself and the murre daemon, broken cement clattering as he moved.
Thalassa became utterly still, and she seemed to shrink into herself, feathers flattening in anxiety, head pulling in, wings tight against her sides as she looked back and forth between them, her gaze resting a little longer each time on Zoro, while Usopp's breaths came faster, a light-headed daze spreading through the headache.
"What... that's not..." Zoro's words staggered and halted, and he looked to his daemon. "Ida?" he asked, roughened voice barely audible. Usopp looked up abruptly from Thalassa to watch Ida regard Zoro with mirrored apprehension. She took a slow, unsteady step towards him, and another. It was obvious, this time, in how her head angled carefully away from his hand before she held herself still and Zoro's fingers landed on her muzzle.
Warm trails bloomed softly inside Usopp, a light stroke like Zoro's fingers over Ida's face. The daze evaporated and every single inch of Usopp's skin came alive in a brief wash of sensitivity that, in other circumstances, could so very easily become -
"Stop," Usopp choked. And Zoro's fingers jerked back from Ida's dark fur. The chill settled back over Usopp, and so did the vicious tightness in his head, worse than before after that impossible, gentle touch.
The touch... the touch in itself wasn't the problem - they'd all come into more-or-less incidental contact with each other's daemons at some point, during battles or struggles with violent weather or when they were all drunk and piled half over each other. They trusted each other, and the contacts were warm, taken in stride. It was safe, like falling asleep and using someone else's arm as a pillow. The touch, that feeling, was not,could not be the problem.
It was... everything else, like Zoro's nerveless-looking hand dropping down, and the way Ida skirted him to pad exhaustedly away from him and towards Usopp's side. She sat, and then lay down, head between her paws, ears still flat in distress, and squeezed her eyes shut.
Zoro's dazed expression was half-gone once more to the overwhelmed vacancy of the pain inflicted earlier, and Usopp couldn't take that again. He looked at Thalassa, caught her eye, and jerked his head at Zoro.
Her reaction was instant; she rose and stumbled to Zoro, colliding with one bent knee and leaning there again.
"Usopp," Zoro said, voice a thread of strain and not much else.
"Pick her up," Usopp gritted.
Zoro's hands came down, halting but inevitable, and finally slid under Thalassa's belly, lifting her with not-quite-steady care to hold her against his chest, one arm cradling and the other hand heavy across her back.
He hunched over her, holding her near. The relief was very obvious and very strange. Until now, the nearest Usopp had ever seen to this was Zoro putting a hand briefly in Ida's ruff after a big fight, or tousling her ears.
But that wasn't Ida he held. Usopp shivered again, the chill edging still further in, and a helpless fear with it.
Golden had tried to cut them apart from their daemons - had started to, and succeeded at... something, that was obvious. But what? What hadhappened?
Usopp looked down at Ida, lying beside him. He knew her, she was familiar and safe. She and Zoro were security and power, a wall of strength in battles, usual lumps of obstacle asleep on Sunny's decks, antagonizers of Sanji and Kajoumi. The sight of her was as reassuring as any of the other crew.
Except now. She was there by his side but she was not his and - and that was it, he realized, awareness turning inward to that strange place where something didn't fit.
He looked back at Thalassa, grappling with a renewed desperation to go snatch her back, a desperation that, for all its sharp grip in his chest, could not shift him in the face of Zoro holding her like that.
It was unnerving to an exponential power, like Zoro was holding onto a limb Usopp couldn't feel. It should have been unreal, inconceivable, except that here it was before his eyes.
He clenched himself against a rise of hysterical panic. "A camp," he said, taking a breath and forcibly turning his gaze and his thoughts out towards their wider surroundings. "We need a camp. I'll look - I'll find the perfect one!" he interrupted himself with a parody of his normal energy. "I've written entire volumes on locating appropriate campsites." The words dropped inanely into the air, and he struggled up to his feet, turning away when he saw Zoro start to look up. "Stay here and... stay here," he finished, trying to sound officious, or commanding, or anything but cold and wobbly with headache.
Silently, Ida rose as well. and Usopp did not turn back around, absolutely did not want to see the look on Zoro's face at the sight of that.
There were piled-high mounds of debris in all directions, and he scaled one not ten feet away behind them - the opposite direction from the one by Golden's body. Inching to the top of a fortunately solid slope of broken concrete and girders, he made an effort to focus and survey the wider area.
Where they were was well within the fifty-yard arc of destruction around where the buildings had spanned the canyon. It was strewn with rubble of all sizes and still hazed over with the dust of the collapse. The heaviest stuff had cleared or settled, enough to make out the nearby area.
East was the canyon itself, sheer and impassable at this spot and for as far as he could see in either direction. Past the north edge of the rubble, the ground rose slowly, speckled with a few scrubby conifers among mixed patches of grass and bare rock, the very edge of which, in the distance, rose sharply to a snowcapped mountain. The trees thickened to a forest to the west of him, evergreens mingling with autumn-bared deciduous trees. The forest edge curved away the farther south he looked. As the land dropped away towards the island's edge it became rolling hills, mostly grasses and more scattered trees.
Not too distant in that direction, just a few hundred yards off and also well back from the canyon edge, was a little stand of evergreen trees. It was an isolated thicket of mostly spruce, with at least two properly huge ones that looked substantial enough to cut wind and rain, and the whole thing small enough not to have anything particularly large living in it. That could do for a night.
He skidded with a wince back down the debris mound and concentrated a moment, closing his eyes. He was fine. Nothing was wrong with him, not really. Not physically. The headache didn't count, and the chill didn't matter. It was just cold today.
"Alright," he called, trying for brisk. It sounded more strained. "Got something."
He made his way back to Zoro, and hovered a moment. Zoro raised his head and Usopp saw his neck flex as he clenched his jaw.
Crouching to get a grip around his arm, he hoisted as Zoro stood. Zoro tilted dangerously for a second, and then Usopp got the arm over his shoulders. Zoro's other arm held Thalassa against him, cradling her in one arm the same way Usopp sometimes held her, and the sight made his face sting. Zoro was heavy and warm against his side. Ida came up on Usopp's other side, nose rising more alertly into the air, now that they were getting ready to move.
"This way," he said, dropping the attempt at 'brisk' for a more reasonable goal of 'even'. "Not far."
Zoro grunted slightly in acknowledgment.
That was the last sound he made as Usopp started them walking. Usopp was almost equally silent, discovering quickly that walking was bad enough, but supporting and steering the extra weight was worse as his center of balance lurched erratically. His inner ear protested and his head pounded. At least it all overwhelmed the cold for the moment, the exertion burning it away, however temporarily.
At first, it looked like moving would get easier once they cleared the broken ground and the debris, but the gently waving meadow grasses turned out to be a knee-deep slog, riddled with low, knotty briars, and it only got more strenuous as they waded through, breaking a path that Ida followed just behind them.
'Not far' turned into a long way. When Usopp pulled Zoro through the narrow gap between a couple of the smaller, outer spruce trees, it was a great relief.
He let Zoro down carefully, then sat down heavily himself, hoping the headache would ebb again if he stopped moving for a minute. It was dim in here, the pine smell a clean undertone in the chilly air. He'd always liked the smell of it.
Ida sat near him, ears still back and head hanging tiredly, and he stared around, trying to concentrate on their new accommodations.
The ground was almost devoid of undergrowth, thick instead with fallen needles and spotted with pinecones. He vaguely recalled Robin explaining once that needles made the soil hard for most plants to grow in. That was fine with him. Less to clear. No ants, either, at this time of year.
The trees that formed the thicket were a couple of impressively tall spruce with an irregular ring of smaller ones around them that made a windbreak wall of dense green branches. There were a couple of whippy leafless saplings poking through here and there, and one old broken stump, the fallen trunk disappearing under one of the big trees. Both huge spruce had great drooping lower branches that hung nearly to the ground. A natural tent, or close enough. It wouldn't take long to make this into a decent camp, even with only the supplies he had on him.
And he'd get right on that. In a minute.
Zoro registered the piney scent as Usopp let him sit down on the faintly prickly cushion of needles that was spread under the trees.
He had a few faint memories of camping under big ones like this, Johnny and Yosaku and him a few times, on his own with Ida for the rest.
Holding what was so painfully not Ida close to him, he struggled for some kind of internal balance. There was nothing. Thalassa's warm, slight weight against him was the only anchor he had and she was not supposed to be.
The raw void had torn through all of him, and he couldn't focus, couldn't get away from it. If he tried to reach for calm, he only slid away, too aware of the pain it in all its detail, of each shred along the edge of himself, where Ida belonged, where she wasn't, where Thalassa had somehow been put instead.
Thalassa shifted against him, tucking her smooth feathered head under his chin. He adjusted his grip, freeing one hand to draw over those feathers, lightly. He touched her beak, drawing a finger down to its point, and sliding up below it to stroke down her breast. All so unfamiliar but he could not go without it. The solid reassurance he was used to came from Ida's soft ears and dense fur, her teeth when she mouthed his hand or the smack of her tail on the occasions she saw fit to wag it.
Touching Thalassa was a jarring tangle of steady daemon presence and the bone-deep awareness that he was doing something that crossed through the deepest boundaries of another person. Even given the insanity of what had happened to them, or perhaps because of it, the fact that he'd been allowed to hold onto her was almost unreal.
Zoro could not have felt deeper gratitude that Usopp had let him do this. He was heavy with it, if not nearly so much as with the leaden, persistent weight of his loss.
He drew his fingertips through the feathers on Thalassa's back, fighting to surface from the oppressive crush of it all. She was not supposed to be the one he held, but she was all that kept him from sinking to unrecoverable depths.
"We're making camp," Thalassa murmured, and he heard Usopp stand up. Uneven, unsteady, Zoro could tell by the sounds of his feet on the ground, and the irregularity in his breathing. But one long, shuddery breath and Usopp was off, moving slowly to and fro across the thicket.
Zoro's hand paused over Thalassa's back as he realized she was speaking to him, directly to him, before she went on. "We wrote the book on camps, you know," she said. "Encyclopedia, really. Lots of volumes. This one's just like the one we saw when we were three."
She went on, spinning out a tale of a thicket just like this, except composed of a herd of walking pines that had just stopped for a rest, and how it kept accidentally transporting weary travelers all around the island.
She fell silent at the same time that Zoro felt a hand on his shoulder, and realized Usopp was in front of him. Before his half-closed eyes were the familiar scuffed boots and overall cuffs.
By the time Zoro managed to lift his head, Usopp had slid his hand down to Zoro's upper arm and tugged a little. "Up, come on," he said, exhaustion colouring over the attempt at matter-of-fact. "S'all nice and cleared out in there... I took off all those little dead branches that are always under the big ones, almost enough room to stand, even. An' we'll, uh, we'll be warm... there's a dead tree that fell over taking up space under the other big one... not spruce either... maple I think... dry... good firewood..." Usopp trailed off and gave his arm another tug. "Come on... come on."
Zoro nodded dully and struggled upright again.
The jostle of the motion caused Usopp's thumb, where it gripped Zoro's arm, to slide along Thalassa's wing, and the curl of intangible sensation deep within made him suck in a breath.
Usopp's fingers twitched, digging hard into Zoro's bicep for a moment before he moved his grip higher. "Sorry," he said, voice tight enough to snap. Zoro made a distracted sound, all he could manage as the lingering sensation of the contact filled his mind with a too-quickly fading wisp of relief.
Usopp sat him down again on the other side of the wall of branches, where the pine scent was stronger and the light even softer and dimmer. He wasn't sitting on needles this time, none of that faint prickle. He dragged his gaze over enough to see the bright red of a familiar cape spread over the ground.
For a moment, both Usopp's hands were on his shoulders, holding him lightly, and Zoro tried to look up at him. Didn't succeed for the most part, only managed to notice Usopp had pulled out his blue cape as well, and put it on. "I'm going out to get some stones for a fire pit. I'll be back."
"Yeah," Zoro managed, and the hands squeezed before releasing him.
He heard the spruce boughs rustle as Usopp left, and Ida with him. Don't go away... the thought came to him, and he realized he was breathing hard.
He still clung to the last traces of that faint touch inside him, willing it futilely not to fade, as impossible as holding on to a breeze against his skin.
It had felt deep, and close, in the places no one ever touched, nor should they ever, except for those who'd been welcomed to, in the most comfortable of times, the safest ones, private and intimate.
Zoro had so many more memories of hostile contacts, strikes during battle that seared across the mind like a burn seared across skin, strikes that even honourable opponents may land without trying if grappling daemons fought close by their humans. And Ida always did.
But the touches that were allowed, the rare ones that were invited and hoped for... they felt... good.
He was so far away from any of that now that it made his skin ache on the outside, as if his body was trying to match the rawness inside. The contact Usopp had made had been fleeting, it had moved through him so briefly, but it had come to rest over the entire wealth of his pain. Hadn't erased it, that did not seem within anything's power, but it had been, just for that moment, one place that did not hurt, spanning the void like a spider's web over a canyon.
A measure of how weak he was now, he thought hazily. Couldn't hold up against this without wanting relief, and worse, without wanting Usopp to do something that only compounded the visceral inversion of what had been done to them.
He lay back with a thud, hearing the pained grunt it drove from him with a vague splash of further shame. Thalassa, partially dislodged from his grip by the change of position, wriggled out from under his hands to hop off of him and nestle in the crook of his shoulder and neck. "You know, pines are lucky," she said to him. Her voice was small and tired, but he could hear it perfectly well. "We were on an island once... where they wove the needles into thread, and the smell... " She went on, slow and steady. He turned his face against her feathers and lay still.
With her close, at least the headache had gone.
The headache would not end. Usopp stumbled around the vicinity of their spruce thicket, hunched under his blue cape that he'd found crumpled at the bottom of his bag along with the red one. He squinted for rocks large enough to make at least a minimal firebreak. Ida moved in constant trot around him, carrying back some scattered branches from around the spindly remains of the fallen maple's crown. There were no stones of any use just outside the thicket, and he at last moved further afield, Ida just behind, still looking with stolid concentration for any convenient firewood.
Ten more steps, though, and suddenly Ida made a terrible guttural whine beside him, and Usopp turned to her fast enough to aggravate his headache, seeing spots for a moment.
Ida's ears were flat again, muscles trembling, and she was frozen in place.
"Too far," she choked. Beyond her, Thalassa's piercing, wavering alarm call rose from the pines.
"Go back!" Usopp told her in horror, and Ida stayed still for an entire second of wrong, wrong, wrong indecision before bolting back across the fifty-odd yards and through the spruce wall to Zoro.
This was good - it was good, right? Usopp thought, in a moment of bewilderment that didn't have the energy to be hope. Of course Ida couldn't leave Zoro. She was his. The rest of this hadn't changed that.
He closed his eyes, squeezing hard against a particularly sharp throb of pain for the span of a few steps, and jogged back after her. He moved as quickly as he could, shoving back between the small trees and through the curtain of big branches to where Zoro lay gasping on Usopp's spread-out cape, Thalassa pressed against his neck and shoulder. Ida stood nearby, feet apart, ruff raised in agitation, ears flat and tail curled under.
"M'sorry, sorry," Usopp gasped, dropping onto his knees as Zoro rolled over onto his side, reaching mindlessly for Thalassa, who dove into his arms and was pulled tight against his chest. Ida paced in a circle, but came no closer. Usopp touched Zoro's arm gingerly, unsure what more to do. "Stay here, then, okay?" Usopp looked up at Ida. She met his eyes and lowered her head in acquiescence, sinking to the ground to lie on her belly, nose forward and body tense.
Usopp wanted to lie down too, now. Rest. Be still. Be warm. Stop his head pounding whenever he moved too quickly. But before that, he wanted a fire. He had to finish that first. He couldn't let it get dark without one. It was so cold. "I'll be back," he said, like before, and got up before he could give in to what his body was begging him for.
Pushing out through the trees again, alone, thoroughly alone, this time, he felt a memory bore its way forward of Golden's invading touch inside him, the way it had slid down that place where Thalassa's and his connection had long ago stretched and rehealed, the place where there'd been nothing for the cut to sink into.
He took another heavy step away from the trees. That healed-over spot that let Thalassa fly so far away, it hadn't changed. Usopp could still be far away from her, she from him, without the distress almost all others would feel. They'd done it before and they were doing it now. She could stay back there, Ida could stay back there. He wasn't trapped and unable to leave them. No problem.
He stared forward over the waving expanse of grass under the overcast and darkening sky, then hunched under his cape and moved.
Brook stared briefly across the town ballroom that had been transformed into Chopper's makeshift infirmary. The initial chaos had slowed to a frantic rush, and now was more of an urgent bustle. Some of the rescued townsfolk had gone directly to their families, and those too poorly for home care had gone to the town's own tiny hospital, quickly filling it over its capacity. The rest were in this hurriedly set up overflow ward.
That hadn't been the end of things, however. Because the overflow ward was also full of over forty individuals that no one recognized. Including seventeen children. Their small, wasted shapes made the most disturbing area in the room.
This island's ruggedness and rather localized resources meant that this town was the only one on it, grown around a small bay where ships kept stopping as their log poses led them here. There was nowhere else for people to come from, unless the foul Golden had brought them himself.
Mayor Sara had been stunned, and then furious, her weathered face dark with it. Ranka, her porcupine daemon, had rattled his quills with their fury as she stared at the rows of catatonic people and daemons who had nothing, not even identities, nor, despite Chopper's hesitant theory, sure certainty of recovery. It was too soon to tell on that count.
The Mayor had taken in the information in disbelief, then rounded abruptly on Luffy and Nami, who she'd been dealing with since they'd made port. She was taut as a violin string with the heights of her ire. "I cannot express the depths of my gratitude for your destruction of that... that place," she spat the last word.
"He took Mini-Merry," Luffy grumbled. His arms were thickly bandaged from meeting Golden's quick knives. "She's OURS." His response was frank, and certainly true as to the original reason they'd been drawn into this sordid affair, but Luffy glanced with unconcealed disgust across the rows and rows of beds and the inert human and daemon bodies on them. He, like Mayor Sara, like almost everyone, kept having his gaze drawn towards the visible cost of Golden's plans. "And that," he waved at the nearest victims, "is gross. Chopper was really, really mad." His voiced turned chill and steely at that.
Mayor Sara gave him a wary look, as if suddenly remembering just who she'd been thanking, and Nami added,"It was our pleasure." Her demeanour was more restrained, if only some degrees less dangerous in the wake of the day's events. Atsumeru's grey tabby form was, unusually, draped across her shoulders, staying close.
Oma, perched on Luffy's shoulder. leaned out to stroke one of Atsumeru's ears, and the cat deamon raised his head into the touch. "Chopper is really good at fixing people," Luffy offered, as if realized he might have spooked the nice Mayor who'd said they were free to visit the town, as long as they caused no trouble. He looked around at the people who'd been tapped to help the reindeer doctor. "And he likes your doctors, so they're good ones too."
"Yes, Captain Luffy, they are," Mayor Sara replied, the chill fury returning to the fore as they watched them work.
She had nodded then, brusque and stiff, then stalked out, her narrow, tall frame seeming rigid and fierce as a sword blade. Brook, sorting bedding near main entrance at the time, had been able to hear her snapped summons of the town councilman who'd been sent to make arrangements for local healer work shifts. The two headed off to gather the rest who'd be needed in planning around this influx of debilitated strangers.
Luffy had trailed Nami out afterwards and started to make noises about food. He'd been pointed in the direction of the town hall's kitchen where Sanji had installed himself, firing up the stoves and accepting donated supplies. The cook was now elbows-deep in the ingredients the hospital had provided him to make the nutrient fluid Chopper needed, along with more standard meal services for the temporary staff. And, as usual, a hungry captain. Nami had gone onward to the town archivist, to compare topographical maps of the canyons to the rolls of maps she'd taking from Golden's command center.
Brook had remained where he was, doing his small task with as much attention as he could make it require. He had found Mayor Sara's towering anger a comfort, not least because it reflected his own, which had rooted deep inside him, where he could not dislodge it to either express it or defuse it. It only lingered, wormed through the layers of crackling horror at the memory of what Golden's men had done to him.
He wasn't sure if being here among the stricken helped either. He didn't feel any better for it yet, only less useless, but it was at the least a reminder of how much worse it could have been, and why he had to be grateful for his own escape.
Now, some hours later and looking down at the person whose head he'd just settled on a pillow, he shifted his lower jaw in gnawing guilt at his own ongoing moping.
This patient, the last to have been bathed, sores cleaned and treated, and put in a clean bed, was a young man, and one of the less worse off victims of Golden's procedure, though in no way healthy. Not quite as frighteningly cadaverous as some, this fellow still had the now-ubiquitous feeding tube threaded through his nose and down into his stomach, a stark pale line over his grey-tinged dark brown skin. His daemon, a handsome gold and black male stag beetle with striking great mandibles, had been placed on the man's chest, and he rested there, dormant.
The young woman who'd helped Brook carry the man from the bathing area stood up and shook her arms out. "Thank you, Mr Brook." She ducked down respectfully and scurried off, mallard daemon waddling briskly at her heels. She was Lind Anelie, one of the apprentice doctors from the hospital, and had a great deal more work to do. He knew most of them now, by sight if not by name, since he'd been requested to stand in on a series of skeletal anatomy lectures the third day after Sunny had made port here.
He'd liked that, more even than when Chopper had spent a day studying and measuring him. It made him feel useful in a different way than his music or sword skills did. Hardly a vocational calling, but still something he was uniquely suited for.
But there was no use for that now. And yet all the urgent matters had been dealt with; he could do next to nothing, it was for the medical types to do the rest, and he couldn't stand to be aimless right now. If he remained still, all that horror would return, along with the shaking in his bones and the memories and -
Another one of the apprentice doctors, chinchilla daemon hanging off his sleeve, squeezed between where Brook knelt and the wall with a murmured apology, and Brook stood to remove himself as an obstacle for anyone else. Being in the way was worse still than doing nothing.
He looked a last time at the slack features of the man on the bed, trying to generate some sense of being fortunate in comparison, and then sidled around to the center aisle and strode for the door. Robin and Franky had joined the perimeter watch, remaining at the collapse site and sweeping the rubble for surviving guards. He could certainly manage that, he thought, tightening his grip on his sword-cane with resolve.
He forced a fast pace back there, competing against the darkening evening. He'd have expected Luffy to have been clamouring for this task, or to have been singlemindedly insistent that they all get across that canyon tonight, damn the dark and the deepening cold. But Luffy, cue taken from Chopper's urgency, had been singleminded about the massive crowd of casualties instead, shrugging off Nami's muttered worry about Usopp and Zoro being missing with a wave at the other side. "If they're not here then they went that way."
Perhaps for the best, he wasn't on perimeter duty either, Brook thought, as he reached the rubble-strewn ruin of the buildings. Down in town, his indignation regarding the victims could be defused. Out here in the dark, he may have been... dangerous.
The grim looks in Robin and Franky's eyes when he caught up to them, at least, were tempered by some restraint.
Brook's own reaction, when a thin, ragged figure limped into sight half an hour later, was only a roiling, sinking feeling, something like how he imagined seasickness to feel, when the foundation that held you up would not be still, and the horizon lurched in all the wrong ways.
The sound of shifting rubble alerted them just before they saw a survivor from Golden's guards, though Brook couldn't see how the man could have been trying to hide, stumbling straight ahead as he was, uniform torn and bloodied down one side where a head wound had bled profusely.
Robin caught him easily as Franky and Acacia circled separately around to surround him, the mandrill daemon, furry mane raised, slapping at the ground to advertise their aggression as Franky cracked his knuckles. Brook... did nothing at all.
Robin bent the man backwards just short of snapping his spine, her capture grip on him firm and utterly unforgiving, while he struggled to breathe. Zafir dive-bombed his giant millipede daemon, knocking her from his shoulder and then landing on her back, poised with his needle-like beak pressed to the back of her head segment. She let out a cry of fear, and did not resist him.
Brook stared at the man and tried to feel some kind of satisfaction. Syrinx didn't bother with the effort, hiding away in his hair. She didn't want to see it at all.
The sight of the man's ruined uniform made Brook feel ill, and as though his nerves were bared to all sensation, everything scraping him raw, the nauseating memories rising of hands on Syrinx, of that abominable, obscene incursion within him while he'd been rendered utterly powerless by seastone.
But watching the man held on the border of suffocation didn't soothe Brook's ragged spirit, even though he made himself look until Zafir had fully pinned the man's daemon and the arms that held the man in that tight arch vanished, to be replaced by different ones that merely locked his wrists behind his back. The man dropped to his knees, gasping.
"And you stay right there," Franky warned, voice dangerous. He strode forward and gestured Zafir away, When the hummingbird daemon rose, Franky slapped a mesh cage over the millipede, and slid home a bottom panel so he could pick her up.
The man went rigid with horror. "Please," the man choked out, eyes fixed upon his daemon as Franky stood up, and Franky sneered at him.
"Really? You rather she hold her?" Franky jerked his head at Acacia. She yawned a threat display, baring her large teeth, and Franky stood there and loomed, pointedly holding the daemon out of the man's reach. The man didn't seem to notice Franky's leaning bulk or Acacia's fangs, still watching his daemon and nothing else.
Brook felt light-headed, and a strange kind of angry, different from what wormed through his insides.
"Get up," Franky snapped, moving back and waving the caged daemon gently in front of the man as the irresistible lure it was. The millipede daemon crawled back and forth in her cage, pushing at the confinement. The man struggled to rise, and was still in the process of standing when Franky hit their limit at a mere six yards or so. Not a far one, as separation limits went. The daemon let out a piercing keen, flinging herself at the bars of her prison.
The man dropped, knees hitting the rubble once more. He folded at the waist, lowering his forehead to press to the broken ground. But he didn't do anything else, only seemed to wait, trembling.
Franky had already taken a hurried step back towards the man, but Brook strode forward and snatched up the cage from Franky's grip.
"Sorry," Franky, said, with a startle as though he'd just realized what he'd done. "I shoulda - "
Brook only shook his head, and Franky could interpret that as he liked.
Brook strode back to the man, who didn't look up or move at the sound of footsteps. "Stand up," Brook told him, the icy chill within coming out in his voice. The man lifted his head up as though its weight was nearly too much for him, then leaned up until he could start, once again, to stand. Streaked with blood and dust, dark brown hair matted with it, the man seemed nearly broken when he finally stood. Young-looking and thin-faced, he and peered at Brook with bleary, surprised eyes. Too far gone to be any more frightened, perhaps. His gaze drifted past Brook, and he frowned..
"Cyborg... Nico Robin..." he said. "Straw... hats?" he asked in laborious realization, an incredulous, reluctant hope sparking in his eyes. He didn't seem to know Brook, and likely he didn't. There'd been no new bounty issued on him so far.
"Yes. And I am Dead Bones Brook." Brook angled his head, subtly threatening. "What of it?"
A pause as the man's exhausted gaze turned momentarily inward, and then, "Kale... Anton... Marine Lieu... tenant... I - " the man's eyes unfocused and he swayed. Brook caught him by the back of the shirt before he tipped over.
"What'n hell?" Franky gaped, summarizing Brook's thoughts quite well.
"Please. They were... made. He got 'em," Kale moaned. "He cut 'em. He cut 'em. They were in th'wards."
"Made?" Brook repeated. What did that mean?
"Made, like..." Franky studied the man, "undercover... then not so much? Golden found the moles?" The - alleged - marine, listing heavily against Brook's grip on his shirt, grimaced and gave another groan in agonized confirmation.
"He cut 'em," Kale repeated. His hands twitched, grasping, still pinned behind his back. Brook couldn't bear it any longer, and pushed free the bottom of the daemon's cage with a shaking hand. He turned it so she could crawl back out onto the remnants of the uniform shirt. Kale's expression eased immediately as she climbed slowly but surely up to his shoulder, and Brook felt weak inside with shared relief.
"I imagine they were after his method," Robin said, looked past Kale at the rubble, voice hard, but her eyes less so.
Kale made a choking noise, between a laugh and a sob. "What he - what he - no... people were missin'... recon to... get his network."
They all exchanged glances, because the plausibility of that had to be acknowledged. "Well... that's what you say," Franky returned, with nonetheless attenuated suspicion. The sheer threat drained gradually from his posture in favour of a reluctant compassion. "Doesn't matter now. Let's get you back with the rest."
Franky took charge of supporting Kale, giving Brook another apologetic look and handling the injured man with a quite careful grip. He and Robin flanked Kale on the way down. Brook relinquished him without protest, trailing the three of them, who were at the rear of the troop of village militia who had unearthed six other haggard, surviving guards.
Their daemons were also caged, and held apart, the militia surely working under the same vengeful streak of cruelty that Franky had succumbed to, and Brook could not avert his gaze quickly enough.
How could it be that the sight of his enemies being ill-treated was what put Brook past his limit? He did not understand, but he found he could no longer ignore the faintness that was seeping into him, what he'd been forcing back since earlier to put himself to some use. The chill was on its heels, an inner cold unrelated to the rapidly darkening late autumn sky. Alongside that grew the ill feeling in the pit of his midsection.
Just a little farther was all he needed to endure, though, only back to the town. He ignored Robin's concerned glance towards him when his bones clattered in a great shudder.
And then a sharp BANG of controlled explosion sounded distantly from back over the canyon. Kale flinched and ducked, jerking in Franky's steadying grip, and everyone else turned to look. Brook swayed as he did, but didn't let himself topple, because that sound was quite wonderfully familiar.
"Usopp!" Franky said, elated. Three more exploding stars went up, flashes of bright fire going off one after the other after the other, with identical delays, in an arc pointing southward. Then the same sequence repeated, this time using some of his green firework stars.
"He's found Zoro, hasn't he?" Robin said, eyes on the green blooms of light. "They're together." Her voice was audibly relieved. Luffy's confidence had made it hard to dwell overmuch on worry, but this would ease all their minds.
How fine a development, Brook reflected dazedly, as he sank towards the ground to sit. It was much steadier there. Much steadier. Colder, but steadier. He might stave off this sick, twisted-up feeling if he had something to brace against.
"Brook?" Robin asked.
"Syrinx?" Zafir's voice was much closer, the hummingbird daemon hovering low enough for Brook to see him.
There was a new, much nearer explosion far over their heads as Franky unleashed one of the special Franky-stars Usopp had made him as a birthday gift. The impact of the firework so near was felt right through Brook's bones and he stared up at the cyan blue sparkles that Usopp had worked hard to create. It was hard to make blue fireworks, Usopp had said.
"Brook?" Robin's voice again, as Brook bent low, putting his hands, and then forearms, against the cold, rough and blessedly unmoving ground. Robin had a lovely voice, Brook thought. Zafir had such lovely feathers. "Thank you, Brook," she said gently, and an echoing murmur of the words from Zafir. Had Brook spoken aloud? How fortunate he hadn't been thinking about panties. "That would hardly be unexpected." Oh, dear. His teeth were rattling now.
Her hands were on his arm, guiding him upright again. He didn't want to stand, he wanted to stay still, stay steady, where things did not shift or part and where the knots within him would not heave and strain. Syrinx tumbled forward from her perch on his collar, landing with a soft bump on his hand. Zafir landed on the ground by her, and that was wrong, very wrong. He was not meant to be grounded. Too wrong. At the next urging, Brook rose, jaw tight against the sick part within, watched Zafir rise alongside in that perfect graceful hover of his, until he was high enough to land again on Robin's shoulder.
Robin was tall. Not as tall as he was, but still, so tall! So beautiful. He heard a soft laugh, it sounded worried, but still a wonderful sound, like bells. "Come," he heard her say, still worried, but still beautiful. "Come with me."
Yes. Brook pushed back against the twisting memories inside him, held them at bay a little longer. Yes, alright.
Usopp dropped his arms to his sides, this time holding tight to Kabuto, the detonation of his firework stars still ringing, sledgehammer-like, through his pounding skull. He could only barely believe he'd gotten the timing right on both. Hopefully someone was looking, would tell them -
A much more distant crack of firework explosion from across the canyon gave him a true rush of relief. The familiar sparkles of blue lit up the freezing, nearly-night sky in a brief but absolutely undeniable confirmation. They'd seen.
He raised Kabuto to his chest and kept it there as he closed his other fist around the makeshift sack he'd made of his cape. The last few rocks he'd needed were ones picked from the rubble field, and just as well he'd returned here. Kabuto's scratched haft had been a washed-out greyish green in the dimming light, he'd almost missed it, only interested in loading his cape with the size of stones he needed.
But here it was, the dearly familiar weight of it not a burden but a slight comfort, and he squeezed his nearly numb hand just to feel the pressure against his skin again.
He tried to hurry now. The spruce thicket was a black smudge against the twilight beyond it. The path they'd broken before made it easier, at least, and he just followed it, mindlessly stepping in rhythm with the surges of pain in his head. A game of fighting back the associated nausea had to be played alongside, until at last he came through the scratchy spruce wall around their needle-carpeted thicket and could stand still, at least for a moment, breathing in the frigid but welcome scent of the trees.
Ida stepped through the curtain of low branches that made their shelter, almost invisible in the deep shadows, until Usopp used one of his few matches to light the tiny lantern in his bag. There wasn't much oil left in it, but he only needed it until the fire was going.
Edged in the gold lantern light, Ida was a beautiful, daunting presence. She was a solidly built wolf shape, appearing bulkier still with the thicker fur across her shoulders. Her head was broader than a dog's, her teeth bigger and her bite stronger. Her muscles were well-defined beneath her rough, thick coat, and she was night-black except for the edging of white along her muzzle and the dusting on her belly and the insides of her legs.
Usopp had compared her to Thalassa once, black on top and white below, and the flat look he'd gotten from her and Zoro both had been worth it. Three feet tall at the shoulder and nearly six feet long with her proud tail, the wolf daemon surely dwarfed the murre daemon's foot-and-a-quarter height, and her three-foot wingspan. The playful mouthing Thalassa had earned for Usopp's teasing had underscored that further. Ida's strong jaws had closed lightly over Thalassa's middle, lifting her and carrying her, soft-mouthed as a golden retriever, in the direction of the galley. Usopp had laughed until he was short of breath while Thalassa giggled and pretended to struggle. Zoro had loudly predicted murre for dinner that night.
"They're asleep," Ida told Usopp now, and he grunted in distracted acknowledgement, juggling Kabuto and the lantern and the stones and rapidly mounting frustration until she paced forward to take Kabuto firmly between her teeth, then headed back under the curtain of branches.
Ida, he discovered, had ignored his admonishment to stay put while he was away, to a degree anyway, because the pile of firewood had increased some, with branches torn from the dead maple trunk under the other big spruce.
Zoro was indeed asleep. He'd pulled half the cape over himself and rolled onto his side, face pressed against Thalassa's side, one arm curled up around her. Thalassa was asleep too; another jarring impossibility made real as her state of consciousness matched Zoro's instead of Usopp's, just like Ida was awake now, along with Usopp.
He stared dully, then shook himself free of the momentary pause that overcame him at the sight, and got on with the task at hand.
He swatted the needles off a patch of dirt and set his stones around it, then scraped laboriously at the hard ground until Ida put her paws to it. He sat back and watched, blinking stupidly, until she had dug a couple inches of pit to hold the fire. He cleared away the loose dirt and dumped in the thinnest branches from their woodpile, and some dead moss he'd picked up outside, then set up the bigger branches over it all.
His fingers felt nearly useless when he finally was able to dig through his bag for the little pouch that held flint and steel in separate pockets. The sparks were shocks of brightness that hurt his eyes and his head and were utterly welcome. They caught on the tinder with the most beautiful little curls of flame he'd ever seen, sending up the sweetest possible smell of wood smoke. They grew rapidly, consuming the flimsy bits of moss and tiny branches, and moving on, he saw with a numbed sort of satisfaction, to the bigger branches that made proper fuel.
He added the last touch, a couple of log chunks that would burn slow and long through the night, then he reached for the lantern and blew it out. The fire was more than enough. It was low in its rock-lined pit, and small, well away from the nearest sloping branches. It was, more importantly than anything, warm.
He hunched near, feeling the heat settle against his skin, breathing it in. Ida padded over to stand next to him, and for long minutes he barely noticed, lost in the slow penetration of heat. The sensation even served to distract from the headache, for a time.
When the headache won out again, he raised his hands to put his comparatively cooler fingers against his temples and he realized Ida was still there. Still standing, not seated or lying down by the fire, only standing. Waiting.
"Uh?" was the best he could muster, and then she took another step closer, bringing her to within a bare few inches, and before he managed to lean away and restore her space, she sank down, chest to the ground, and rested her head on his thigh.
He froze and stared. Didn't move, even as a torrent of pure longing crashed through him with a breathtaking, chest-tightening instinct to just... reach... and...
He didn't move.
Ida raised her head, and he breathed again, but she looked at him and asked, voice rough as Zoro's in pain, "why?"
"It's... not - you're not - " he sucked in a breath of warming-up air, and looked at her only a second before staring instead at the fire. "You're not mine, and he - you - wouldn't want..." he shook his head, then gritted his teeth and wished he hadn't. "Anyway, I don't... need it, not like him, so. It's fine. It's... fine." It would be, if he could just get warm, and have some rest, and -
She shifted slightly closer, returning her head to where it had rested, heavy on his thigh and... and so warm. He looked down, despite himself, but held his arms rigidly up and away. His hands felt suddenly heavy as lead, his arms and back cramping with the strain of controlling himself, his head full of pressure like his skull would crack outward.
"We would want you to," Ida said, almost inaudibly, closing her eyes. "I do. Please. Don't leave me alone." Because she had been, all this time, unlike Thalassa.
And that filtered through the layers of everything he'd struggled to ignore so far about this entire situation. Everything he'd tried to pretend was not important or didn't signify could be pushed past with a will and a firm denial. But there was nothing in any of it that could keep him struggling on past that request.
He put one hand down, slowly. He closed his eyes when he was nearly there, felt the brush of one ear against his his fingers, and then she raised her head to meet him, pressing up without hesitation against his palm.
The pain in his head faded.
He heard a noise, a whimper, and who made it, he didn't know, because when his hand slid back over her smooth head into the fur of her ruff, he nearly collapsed over her. Forestalling that, she surged forward, half climbing over his lap, stepping heavily on his legs until they fell back against the pine needles. He clung to her, sank his hands into her fur, buried his face in that heavy ruff.
It wasn't as it should've been, wasn't smooth feathers and a cool, pointed beak, but thick fur and tremendous weight and soft, soft ears.
Enough for now. Respite, suddenly, finally.
"Sorry. M'sorry," he repeated over and over, muffled against her fur, and she twisted to lick his wrist, and then his chin, bumping his nose with her muzzle and then rolling so she could lie alongside him, her head on his chest. He raised one hand to touch her ears again. They twitched under his fingers as he caressed the soft fur, and she let out a long sigh. He heard the thump of her tail against the ground, just once.
His eyelids drooped, and he fought back just long enough to peer a last time towards the fire, glowing almost out of sight in its pit, casting its warmth out into their shelter.
Then he wrapped his cape around himself, threw one arm around Ida's neck, and slept.
Anton was only half-aware of the trip from the destroyed facility down to the village. All of him hurt, and something in his left wrist was like a hot nail twisting through the bones. He could hardly stand. The feel of Akilah's feet prickling his shoulder was all he wanted to even think about. She was there, so close, because the skeleton man had given her back.
How could it be that the Dead Bones pirate would've done that? That a pirate would've given her back? He couldn't guess. He couldn't even be surprised at a walking skeleton, so relieved was he.
He'd seen the strange skeleton once before, in the East Wing. The perimeter guards had caught a rail-thin intruder with enormous hair, limp as a dead thing, trussed in seastone netting. The intruder's pretty blue bird, being touched, and Anton had swallowed bile with the reflex of the past weeks of practice when they carted their captive past. Anton hadn't known who it was, then.
Not until now, hours after, not until everything had gotten well and truly exploded to pieces and the pirates had caught him did Anton put together everything he'd been running away from in the aftermath of the bombs. Now he knew who'd he'd seen, who the one with the blue finch daemon was with.
There'd been glimpses, during the battle, of three swords wielded by one man with a black wolf daemon, of an orange-haired woman with a grey cat slinging wind and lightning, of fiery kicks knocking walls in without visible effort and a black-and-white swan with wings that struck just as hard. All rampaging through the facility while Anton bolted in the same sheer panic as the rest of Golden's guards. He'd had had no intention of standing between those attackers and Golden, and had only cared to attempt that one thing he'd been failing to do for so long.
He'd got right up near the Wards, too. So close, only to find pirates storming through there as well, and the world had seemed to end for him. He'd thought, in that moment, that it was all over, his team lost beyond any recovery.
He'd been so ruined by this place, in so many ways, for it to have taking this long for him to realize who had been wreaking all the terrible havoc. Swords and kicks and the weather-woman... As if it could have been anyone else.
Two supernovas. Eight bounties. The Strawhat Pirates.
There were stories about them passed around some of the outposts and departments, here and there between the marines who shared an interest in pirates. Strawhat himself was linked to Vice-Admiral Garp... not officially acknowledged, but still known all over. The rumours about their exact link to two of Garp's non-coms... well, those were rumour rumours, like the stories about how madly the Strawhats took to battle, or plain craziness like them having a flying ship.
Quiet observations, shared in low tones and only among certain people, held that when the Strawhats were known to have passed through a place, they often moved through peacefully or left it in a better state than it had been. Drum Kingdom, now Sakura Kingdom. Alabasta.
Someone like Anton, head always deep down in his books and papers and recordings, sifting information like panning for gold, and feeding the results to the officers up past his pay grade, had been almost literally tied to his desk in Analysis. His leisure had been spent trading rumours like that. But even after being sent to Commander Malin's unit, even after taking a ship from HQ out onto the actual Grand Line... He'd never ever expected to really see pirates face-to-face.
And not these pirates. And not right here, crashing like a wrecking ball through the organization that had chewed up and almost swallowed his team.
He'd seen what they'd done, in the last stampede of the guards, after his moment of abject hopelessness and while he'd been sprinting headlong down hallways that were sliding backward into the vast gape of the canyon . The pirates in there, the ones he'd thought had come only to destroy it all, went and did something he never had been able to.
They evacuated the Ward patients before bringing it all down.
The height of Anton's gratitude was only matched by the great pit of his failure.
All Commander Malin's work, training him, and Anton's own gradual gathering, what he was good at, all of it had been destroyed with that place, his careful stash of documents and connection maps and incriminating proof, the network Golden had strung together, the contacts in the human trafficking rings and organized crime... lost like a handful of sand over a deep-ocean trench.
Pirates; wildcards, indiscriminate as an earthquake if the description was kind, purposefully and utterly destructive if it was not.
These ones had only needed to show up and Anton's team, their torture, their sacrifice, all of it turned pointless.
Anton's foot caught on something he couldn't see, and Akilah's feet clung tighter with the lurch that threatened to slam him against the stony ground. The Cyborg's massive hand steadied him with startling smoothness.
Pointless? Anton didn't care at all, not at all anymore. Those people in the Wards had been saved. His team was alive. He had been good for nothing, at the end, only the last one left. He'd been trapped and isolated and doing not a thing but trying not to be caught.
Doesn't matter, he told himself in a surge of briefly heated anger. His uselessness didn't matter. New baseline, old data not relevant. Start again. They were alive. There.
Now, he just tried to keep on moving, the Cyborg's huge, hard hands and their oddly light grip doing the work of keeping his face from hitting the road..
Then there was a far-off explosion, and three more, bang-bang-bang. The Cyborg halted at the first one, and Anton twisted slowly around in time to see green fireworks, way across the canyon.
It was answered in ear-splitting sparkling blue from the Cyborg's gun-arm, and then Dead Bones was on the ground, in a bad way for sure, and Anton stared at him, stick-skinny pile of bleached bone and ragged suit, crowned by a mass of hair, all of his towering height near-flattened.
Emotions were getting more distant the longer he kept standing, but the grateful daze that had come when Dead Bones had let him have Akilah back found itself half turned into sympathy. That skeleton had been fighting with all the rest, even after his daemon had gotten... gotten handled. And still Dead Bones had given him Akilah back, and no one had touched her at all.
They were terrifying as anything, but they'd saved the prisoners, and they had mercy.
The dark-haired nightmare woman, Nico Robin, got the skeleton moving again with jarring gentleness, and he got walking about as steady as Anton was. After that it was a long stumble through bitingly cold air towards the lights of town.
The Cyborg got him through a door into a huge hall, warm air and light pouring over them, and Anton blinked at a pretty young lady in front of him, with a white coat and a stethoscope and concern all over her face. A mallard duck daemon was at her feet, tidy and handsome, and much more in Anton's line of sight. Was getting hard to keep his head up. The Cyborg's mandrill baboon daemon came near to greet the duck with a shake of her ruff, and he dipped his bill in good-natured answer.
"Mr Franky!" the young lady's voice was surprised. "Is that one of the - What did you do to him?" The indignation in her voice... a real doctor, this one.
"Uh... he was mostly like this when we found him, little doctor-sis," the Cyborg said, sounding distracted for a second. Anton dragged his head up and saw Nico Robin guiding the skeleton off down a hall. He stared after them. Thoughts half-formed. Gotta... say thanks... Everyone, it was them. Wasn't me at all. Sorry, Commander... sorry... The Cyborg was speaking again. " - says he's a marine, was undercover - "
"It doesn't matter just yet," the doctor girl interrupted. "Come, this way."
"No," Anton interrupted. "Please, lemme see 'em." They had to be there, they had to be. He leaned forward against the Cyborg's grip. He had to find them. "Lemme go,"
The Cyborg's grip was immovable, but his voice wasn't so hard. "No can do. Yer filthy and yer head's busted, and yer wrist too, I'll bet cola on that."
"I think that's likely, Mr Franky," the girl confirmed. She sounded worried, and Anton wanted to tell her it could wait. "We have to take care of you first, sir," she was a light touch on his arm, and her voice was kind but decisive. The Cyborg steered Anton around, pushing gently but firm as a mountain until he had to stumble onward.
"Please..." Anton begged.
"Aw, hey," the Cyborg's voice softened as they walked. "Look, Chopper says no one's about to bite it anymore, now they got a proper bed and that nose tube and all. Let the doctor-sis deal with you. They'll be there afterwards."
Anton craned his head around as best he could. Where were they? His vision kept blurring, and his head spun if he moved it too fast.
He lost sight of the big doors after they turned a corner, and then he was turned into a room full of dark wood panelling, like the offices the higher-ups at work had. Definitely not meant for this sort of thing. There was a fancy desk pushed against the wall, and a low cot in the middle of the room, beside an expensive end table that had a dented metal basin of water and a cloth waiting on it.
They put him on the cot, let him lie down. And suddenly he was so tired... The doctor girl said her name, Dr Lind Anelie. Pretty name. Her daemon was Deverel, and he came near to have Akilah sit on his towel-covered back while Dr Lind worked on Anton.
He answered when he noticed her speaking to him. Did this hurt, did that hurt... yeah, yeah it sure did. She took his uniform off, that was good. He hated it, always hated it, the cut and the colour and the... he...
His vision faded at the edges and his body seemed to start tightening just before everything whited out altogether.
He came back to himself, and there was a light grip on his shoulders. "Back with us? There we go." She gently looked into each of his eyes, and got him to follow her finger. "Bit of a seizure, common with a concussion. We'll keep an eye on you for a while." The formalized care in her words was a comfort, and Anton mumbled something so she'd know he'd heard.
They washed him off, put a flimsy gown on him, and Akilah returned to curl around his hand after that, while Dr Lind wrapped some parts of him in bandages. A few times there were needles, and part of his scalp got numb while she stitched it up. So did his wrist, when she called it fractured and had to set it.
He drifted further and further on, fatigue unrolling on him like a lead blanket, pressing down with the dizziness to make him want nothing but a good sleep, like he hadn't had since he'd come to this island. He fought it back, trying to gather information. Size of the room. Colours in Dr Lind's hair. The steps from the triage room to a different bed... fifteen.. sixteen...
He woke up to cool, hard, oddly shaped fingers touching the hand with the bandaged wrist, and a light, murmuring voice. "Fingers seem bruised, nothing else... The cast has set really well..." Anton twitched and the hard fingers went away. The sounds around him were of a large room, dulled echos of one too full of people or furniture to resound much, but the shape was still there.
Issak would know, if he was awake to think about it. Was good at sussing out that sort of thing. The deep-down stab in his chest at that thought drove Anton the rest of the way to consciousness.
Akilah was a small, solid weight on his chest, familiar like always. He felt her uncurl from the tidy spiral she slept in, and opened his eyes. There was a round, furry face capped with a pink hat and antlers leaning close. A stethoscope hung around the furry guy's neck, and a brown ptarmigan daemon rode on the hat. "Hi!" the light voice came from the furry face, soft and friendly. "Please, I just want to look at your eyes."
Anton felt the bed shift slightly as the furry person moved. Anton saw the antlers and the ears and then the hands came into sight and he got it. "Zoan," he croaked, as small modified hooves came to rest on his face, tugging delicately at his eyelids to coax him to widen one eye, then the other.
"Pupils are even," the Strawhats' 'pet' murmured to himself. "Still looks good." He met Anton's eyes properly. "And you know that, huh? That's a good sign too, Mister Kale." The reindeer-guy leaned back and looked at him with the same intelligent concern that Dr Lind had. Their pet, Chopper... doctor-reindeer-zoan, Anton thought in slow, slow consternation.
That's not what the wanted poster bounty said, not at all.
The little reindeer-man moved back, and Anton realized abruptly there was someone else looming right over his bed. He flinched back against the pillow, and his hands came up to cover Akilah. The left one was a heavy lump of plaster cast, the right one tethered by an intravenous line, but he did his best to shield her anyway.
There was little resemblance to the poster, but Anton could still tell. Blackleg Sanji, bearing a tray, stood right there. Just feet away. Lean and tall, young face dark and ominous, his enormous black-necked swan daemon's eyes gleaming darkly right along with his. Smoke curled upward from the cigarette in his mouth, and Anton felt fear wash through him like icewater straight off a glacier.
He must have made some kind of noise, because the little doctor looked over his shoulder and startled. "Over THERE, Sanji! I said wait over THERE! You're going to cause stress!" Chopper jumped right off the bed and looked up at Blackleg with his little hooves on his hips.
Blackleg's mouth twisted a bit, though he didn't apologize.
"And stop smoking in here!" the doctor added, and his shape changed suddenly from small as a kid to a hulking, furry human shape, his voice still pretty high, but a little more resonant now. Hooves had changed to hands, and one of those hands snatched the cigarette away and pinched it out. The ptarmigan daemon, bumped from her perch with the sudden shove upward, fluttered down to the ground and tsked like a disapproving auntie at the vastly larger swan.
Blackleg did seem sorry at that, and the swan ruffled her wings and looked away. "Yeah, yeah fine," he muttered. His gaze turned back to Anton, landing on him with a dubious kind of disdain, and Anton wondered in a moment of wild-animal panic what was on that tray. This was a huge room, there had to be others here who wouldn't let torture go by - Blackleg bent and place the tray, on the low table beside the bed, and the most wonderful smells to ever have come from something cooked hit Anton's nose. There was some kind of fish there, and rice, a bowl of soup with steam floating up from it...
Anton's stomach growled loud enough to hear, and Blackleg snorted. Anton realized he'd gone up on one elbow, leaning towards the food.
The zoan doctor made a pleased sound. "No nausea, then? That's great!" Still in his big form, he crouched to get Anton sitting up, propped on pillows, and the tray settled over his lap on its short supports.
The smells were almost torture all on their own, but Anton barely dared move with Blackleg there watching him.
"Eat it. You're the only one in here to even cook properly for," the young man snapped impatiently, "and that's fucking annoying." The swan hissed with their irritation, underscoring the words, and Blackleg reached down to touch her head. "You waste my food, shithead, and I will do something to you."
So Anton dug in. At first, he wasn't sure his appetite would survive the unnerving presence, but after the first bite, he couldn't stop. Blackleg stood over him and glared until he'd chased down the very last grain of rice. It was too good to leave behind even without the pirate that close.
"Th-thanks," Anton said when he was finished.
"Hmph," Blackleg grunted, and moved the tray away. "What the fuck were the Marines thinking when they let you in? If you really are one." The dangerous bite to that last sentence was extremely plain.
"I-I was in - " he tried to speak properly, not shudder like some recruit, "in Data Analysis." He wished it sounded confident, or at least defensive, but it only came out pleading. It shouldn't have been. He'd done his boot camp, before the Academy. And he had gotten through Fred's training, too, after being shipped off to Malin's insertion team. But facing this pirate was not like hiding among the guards. The guards had thought he was one of them. Even going through the day in constant grinding fear of discovery was not like being stared at like a drowned worm by a pirate more dangerous than anyone Anton had encountered in the facility, except Golden himself.
When he didn't continue, Blackleg snapped his fingers for him to go on, and Anton tried to find a short explanation. "We... we found seastone gettin' onto the black market, I-I tracked that down myself and I didn't think it meant - well, anyway, after that report, they pulled me off other things to find out where, and how, and it was linin' up with this place, and the other data set, people were missin', and the timin' - then they needed people with... insect daemons, spiders. Like, uh, uh, like that." After all this time hiding among Golden's guards, he still felt the extreme rudeness of openly discussing daemon forms with a stranger. "Golden only recruited... those kinds of people." Whatever that had meant to that evil little man.
"We noticed," Blackleg said flatly, and Anton could hear the disgust in his voice.
He looked down at Akilah and she curled comfortingly around his fingers. He'd never gotten how people always painted all bug daemons the same. Akilah hadn't settled as some kind of disease-bearer, or parasitic fly. He traced the segments of her body, smooth and cool. "I'm not... this isn't what I do," The pirate was so right about that part. "But they needed me, so I - I did it. Please," he looked at the zoan doctor. "I wanna see 'em. They gotta be here." He dared a look at Blackleg. "I saw you... you were tearin' apart the Wards. You saved 'em."
The swan shifted her feet and tilted her dark head, sending reluctance out with each feather on her body. Blackleg's face went ironic for a second and then he and the zoan doctor looked at each other. "Yeah, there were some bug daemons," Blackleg confirmed, twitching with another faint reaction... Eyes widening just that littlest bit, hands tightening... oh. It wasn't bug daemons, anyway, Anton realized suddenly - daemons could never be mistaken for anything but what they were - but real bugs, creepy-crawlies, a normal fear that carried over. What a crazy thing to think of in a pirate, a fear like that one.
"Yes, there were," the little - the very large doctor said. "I also want their names and any medical background you can give me. These people... most of them in here are unidentified."
Anton gritted his teeth and sat all the way up and to look around. He ached everywhere still, but he mostly felt weak now, the general pain a background for the throbbing spots on his scalp and in his wrist.
His bed was right on the end of a row, and he couldn't see much of anyone else. The shapes on the other beds in the huge, fancy room were too far away for home to tell, but... "there have to be some of the missin' people we traced to Golden's network."
"That would be wonderful," Chopper said.
"This is wonderful?" Blackleg asked, glancing around the room of patients.
"Better... better'n dead," was all Anton could say to that. He'd been repeating it to himself ever since Issak had been taken. It had to be true. It was the only hope he had.
He stared down the row of beds past Chopper's hulking shape. A cat daemon, a spindly crane, a fiddler crab, all tucked on or against the human in the bed.
No... wait. That didn't... it wouldn't... "You gotta take their daemons off 'em," Anton said, frowning vaguely at the limp body of the calico cat lying on the young man in the next bed.
"The fuck?" Blackleg's voice was incredulous. The swan's hiss came again.
"They hafta be... not touchin'." Saying that did make Anton shudder, but it was the truth. "Makes it grow back faster." Where was his team? Anton tried to stand up, clumsy with the IV line and the heavy cast on his wrist. Chopper gently restrained him.
"Wait, wait, please," Chopper said. "We don't know this, and it's important. What difference does it make?" He put himself in front of Anton's gaze, and changed back to his little form as Anton gave in and sank back against the pillows.
"The guys in my barracks who worked in the Wards..." Anton only knew procedure from overhearing the Ward guards and orderlies talking so much. He'd been in Maintenance, mostly on the vat floor, where the screaming from Golden's cutting ability had regularly gone right through the machine noises. Golden hadn't bothered to sedate them, most of the time. "They said it was like... if they're apart, the cut-off places... I dunno, reach for each other harder." The words were a retold and retold summary from whoever had first heard Golden say it. What that man had been able to see, to even know that, Anton didn't have any idea. He'd only cared about what would fix all this, it was all he'd cared about for months.
"What was the interval?"
"Wasn't constant," Anton said, shaking his heavy head. The orderlies had complained about that the most of anything. Golden hadn't been shy about picking extras from among his own employees. "I guess it's like separation limits. Different for everyone. Sometimes days, sometimes weeks." He'd never heard a specific range, but he'd tried to work it out. "Outside end, three weeks? I dunno if they even got healed all the way when he did it again. I think he just... waited for 'em to wake up." Until they didn't.
He'd been sent to fill in a slot on the incinerator operator shift the third day after he'd arrived, the last of his team's staggered infiltration. It hadn't only been garbage that they'd burned and dumped into the canyon.
"How many times could he... do it?" Chopper's question was careful, and pained.
Anton stared at the ceiling. It was all carved fancy wood around the tops of the columns. Open spots were painted with sky and clouds and birds. Real pretty.
"Two, maybe." Just talking about this made him more tired. "Sometimes more. Then some of 'em had heart attacks when he did it." He'd been nearby for some of those, seen daemons spasm and slump and then fade in washes of bright dust that dispersed into nothing. "I think the rest that died just stopped getting better, and got worse instead."
"The ones he sent back," Blackleg muttered to the zoan doctor, and Anton blinked, remembering. Golden's trick to supplement his stock with the odd local had been in using his "doctors" to come down to town and diagnose people with a fake disease, then send them up to his "Specialized Research Facility". They'd been kept better than the ones taken from elsewhere. When they died, they'd been returned to their families with many condolences and promises about progress for the ones still inside.
Then Golden had gotten enough warm bodies to satisfy him, and announced a quarantine against new patients. The Ward workers had been glad they hadn't had to bother with the extra effort for the town patients anymore.
There'd been some friction with the town, too, over the last month, but nothing serious.
Until the rumours started going around last week that a pirate ship had made port, and that the ship had some useful parts...
Anton squeezed his eyes shut and made to heave himself up again. Enough of that. It was done. He just wanted to see his team.
This time, Chopper let him up and helped him to his feet. "Which daemons?" Chopper asked softly, while Anton stared down the rows of beds, looking.
"Sand-spider... " Anton said. slowly. "Stag beetle... black and - and yellow. A giant wood louse. Real big one." Blackleg made a grossed-out noise like a little kid, but Anton barely heard it, because the doctor was nodding. He recognized the descriptions, and a knot that had been in Anton for so long he'd gotten used to it unravelled all at once, making him gulp a single laugh.
"Come, this way," the doctor said, leading him forward. Blackleg stayed right behind, and Anton wondered if the pirate honestly thought Anton could be a threat.
Then he saw a face he hadn't been able to get near since before he'd had to listen to her being cut, in the vat room.
Commander Malin's bed was in the aisle one over from his, gaunt and still, lips cracked and eyes sunken, her angular face far sharper than it should ever be. Marcene was in an unmoving, unnatural sprawl across her chest, the sand-spider daemon's many spindly limbs at least arranged with care, but they weren't supposed to be flat down like that... The Commander's severely cropped brown hair had grown out a little, untidy, while she'd been in the Ward. She'd hate that when she woke up, Anton thought. But now she was in real bed, covered and cleaned, and Anton felt himself stand taller for her.
Chopper asked him a few questions, and he answered what he could. "Cut... twice," he said to the last one. "Three days ago, last time."
"Three days... do you know the time before that?" Chopper's voice was careful
He'd been counting them. "Twenty."
"Alright. So to improve recovery..." Chopper trailed off, flipped to a clean page on his clipboard and scribbled. He looked up again when someone passed by near them.
"Hal!" Chopper's voice raised for a moment, and the sandy-haired young man stopped in his path and trotted over, a chinchilla daemon in the chest pocket of his white jacket. "We need to change some stuff." Chopper gave a series of quick instructions. "When they regain consciousness they can touch again, we won't prevent that, but if they can understand it should be explained." He spoke like he was sure they'd all make it. Despite Anton's own desperate clutching at that idea, it was almost shocking to hear that from anyone else.
The young man dashed off for the supply of chairs, stools, end tables, and whatever else could be used to for the daemons to lie on and still be slightly away from their people.
Anton spotted Issak a few beds down from the Commander, looking around while Chopper was occupied. He walked carefully, partly to make sure he didn't fall on the bed of one of the other poor people here, partly because he wasn't really sure yet that this all wouldn't fade like a mirage at any second.
He put out his good hand, just far enough to touch the blanket where Issak's foot made it rise up. Issak was far worse off than the Commander. Haidee's flat, segmented body, smooth and speckled grey-on-grey, was eight inches of familiar relief. If not for her, Anton would not have recognized Issak at all. He almost didn't believe it, even with her right there. The tube stuck in Issak's nose, taped to his cheek and back above his ear, looked much worse than the one on the Commander, like it was invading him instead of feeding him.
They'd caught Issak first, and cut him four times. He had been a big, wide man, a wall of good-natured muscle, and the weight he'd lost was horribly obvious. His white hair hadn't made him look old before, but it did now.
"He was a bad one," Chopper said, coming up alongside Anton. "But he's stable now."
"Four times," Anton said faintly. The most he'd seen of anyone. "Fifteen days interval. Last time was five days ago." Chopper took notes steadily, and Anton had to answer the same set of questions as for the commander. "Bat-bat fruit, model: flying fox," Anton added at the end. He didn't know if that mattered, and was certain it counted as providing information to the enemy. Issak, for sure, would be mad, but Issak hated the fruit's effects no matter who knew.
"Ah," Chopper said, making a note, and murmured about higher sugars and a new protein balance.
Anton held tight to his IV pole, casting around for Frederik, but Chopper lightly took his elbow and steered him into the next row and down a few beds. And there Fred was. Anton sped up the last few steps, stumbling to a halt and staring.
All of them were really here.
He answered Chopper's questions again, but he was distracted, staring down at Fred's face. The grey undertone was bad to look at, but after Issak, he looked almost healthy, even with that tube in. "seven days ago. Twice. Nine days interval." Jaromir was in a fold of blanket over Fred's chest, his carapace shiny as always, his great big mandibles unmoving. Jaromir and Alikah had wrestled sometimes, off to the side, while Fred had put Anton through another new kind of self-defense drill. Fred was always nearly silent, serious and not bothered a bit as Anton panted and huffed and slowly learned how to move in a real fight. Boot camp hadn't instilled the combat skills into him as well as it had the discipline.
Issak would stay off on the side as well, laughing and applauding. He'd been good at mocking without making it sting too much, finding the good as much as the bad in his ongoing commentary on Anton's undeniably pathetic first tries at fighting Frederik. Anton had eventually managed to stop trying to ignore it and tried listening to it instead. It had helped.
Whenever he'd been allowed a rest, he'd gotten to watched the pair of them go at it, a heavy wrestler against a lean fighter, and evenly matched over years of practicing against each other. Anton had never been a natural fighter, even if Frederik was doing his best to make him a learned one, but he'd always been good at watching and seeing. Noticing how Fred's calmness got more like a smile when he faced Issak, or how his eyes softened when he looked at Issak and Issak was looking at something else...
His rage when Issak had been caught.
He's here, Fred, Anton thought. Everyone's here.
He looked at the hulking shape of the zoan doctor, who was still writing down notes, and then at the guarded, kind of hostile, but not overtly threatening shape of Blackleg, a few feet behind them.
They'd torn apart the Wards like the pirates they were, but... The Strawhat "pet" was a doctor. Blackleg Sanji had a fixation on feeding people, even ones he hated, and didn't like bugs.
You won't believe who got us out.
Zoro was locked within his own body, suspended over what he knew without seeing was a bottomless expanse of empty dark. He was still, like he was stunned, hanging in a dim, shifting mist. He drifted without control or volition. Couldn't move, not at all. Just trapped. His mind struggled with futile urgency against the paralysis as he sank through the barren fog, dropping closer to where there wouldn't be even that.
In the distance, a familiar howl spun into the mist, clear for a moment, then fainter and fainter. The mist swam apart under him, parting to show the endless void below. Panic choked his thoughts, thrashing in him beyond any control.
Then sound of wings came past him, came - and went. Came and went again. Just beyond his sight, and he could not turn to look, couldn't reach out. Lower he sank, the gradual descent pushing ordered thought to the fringes of his mind, incoherent dread crushing it there.
Unhurried and inevitable, the mist surrendered him to the silent void, and then the howl faded utterly as he was swallowed by the dark.
Zoro's eyes snapped open, the fading horror enough to make him heave himself up into a sitting position, gasping like a drowning man pulled onto a boat. Thalassa's wings flapped once and her claw-tipped webbed feet pulled her up over his leg and onto his lap. Zoro put one hand on her back and the other out for Wadou. He rocked slightly back and forth, back and forth. He could move. He could. He stared forward until his blurry vision caught up with his sudden awakening. Blood rushed in his ears and there was spruce and woodsmoke in the warm air around him.
He pushed his fingers into Thalassa's breast feathers, brushing the soft down, and she stroked her beak along his wrist. "Don't be afraid. We're not afraid," she murmured, the sound still distant to his ears. "Here I am. We're not afraid."
He squeezed his eyes shut a moment before forcing them open again. Flickering firelight lit the underside of the huge sloping branches in subdued yellow. He dragged his gaze over to the circle of stones surrounding fire. That hadn't been there when he'd succumbed to the sedation of sleep over the great gaping wound that was being awake.
The fire had burned low, but the greater part of two logs still fueled constant flames over a bed of glowing coals. Beyond the fire, there was something else that hadn't been there before. Two shapes lay, soft-edged in the slightly shifting shadows. Usopp and Ida slept there, and Zoro stared.
Usopp lay on his back, spruce needles mostly warded off by the blue cape he lay on and had wrapped half around him. He had one arm resting over Ida's shoulder, hand curled in her ruff, and her head lay across his chest. The rest of her was stretched out along Usopp's side. It was different to how she and Zoro slept, with her usually the pillow under his head on the deck, or her long body stretched on the floor by whatever bunk he was in.
Zoro slowly became aware of a new ache at the sight of them, less pure pain and more... something else that was thick and longing on its own. It rose to his throat and knotted there. His grip tightened slightly on Thalassa and she leaned hard against his belly.
He sank back and rolled onto his side again. Thalassa settled against his chest. Past the edge of the stones, he could see Usopp's head and shoulders. The angle of Ida's muzzle pointed across his chest, rising and falling gently with his breathing. Zoro could see spruce needles caught in the hair coming loose from his bandanna.
The sight of them drew Zoro's gaze like there was nothing else to look at, and he lay there and held Thalassa and watched them. The memory of the accidental contact from before rose through his sluggish thoughts, casting its stark contrasts through him, sharpening the pain abruptly against the recall of that brief thread of ease. But if Thalassa provided him a buoy against snapping away from all ordered thought, if she kept him safe from tumbling beyond recovery into the ragged pit that had been torn into him, the memory of that one brief touch seemed to be a beacon, a point to move towards, if it would just... just linger for long enough.
Usopp was so close, now, so near. He was touching Ida, he was touching her, now, and not granting that reprieve, and though Zoro certainly knew, with Thalassa held against him, just why that was... Reason turned in on itself to spawn an anguished frustration, an hard edge that wedged into him like a blunt blade driven into an open wound. It ground away at him, as if trying wear away his one tenuous grip on himself and drive him to demand Usopp... touch Thalassa just to make it better.
He would not, ever, ask that . Even this pain could not sway him away from that steel-clad certainty. This was all bad enough. He would not make it worse.
But he would not look away from them, finding the touch-memory stronger with the sight of them together, until the fatigue stole back over him again.
He woke to Usopp's firm hand on his shoulder, pulling him to fuddled wakefulness. Zoro felt a mostly drowned-out flash of utter disgust at his own debilitation, but even so, all he could manage of his own accord was to open his eyes. Usopp was leaning over him, his mass of hair in bad need of a comb, his face decorated with a smudge of charcoal down one cheek.
The sight of him was a welcome one, something that neither hurt nor confused Zoro, the way nearly everything else seemed to be doing right now. Usopp looked very drawn and tired, and not quite steady, but his eyes were alert and his grin stretched as Zoro blinked blearily at him.
"Aha," Usopp greeted in a relieved voice, peering down and examining his face. Worry encroached slightly until Zoro made a noise in his throat in response. Thalassa shifted from the circle of Zoro's arms, hitching closer up to his head, and raising her own head to look at Usopp as well.
The grin grew fully back at that, though with a shaky edge at the sight of Thalassa. Usopp squeezed Zoro's shoulder, then leaned back and took his hand away, moving to crouch by the fire, leaving only the impression of his palm and fingers behind.
Ida came to stand at Usopp's side as he opened his pack and peered into it. She leaned close and touched her muzzle to his cheek. That was not a playful contact, but a rare request that Zoro recognized. Usopp seemed to understand, and he raised one hand to rub gently under her chin, longer than Zoro would have needed to. Ida's eyes half-closed and she leaned in the touch, and Usopp's fingers worked upward to scratch around the base of her ear, while he dug through his bag with the other hand.
Watching them dredged the frustration up in him again, a knot that seemed to be growing, but it couldn't overcome the reassuring presence of them both there in front of him.
After a last rough caress of the thick fur around Ida's neck, Usopp pulled a canteen from his bag, and moved back towards Zoro. "Water?" he asked, holding the canteen up. Zoro rolled onto his back, and Thalassa hopped off his belly to sit beside him instead. Usopp glanced at her across Zoro's middle, made a sort of pained smile, then looked at Zoro again.
"Nn," Zoro agreed, and slowly realized he should sit up, take the canteen, but as he sluggishly started to rise, Usopp's hand slid behind his shoulders and raised him the rest of the way. He did give Zoro the canteen to hold, but kept his fingers against the bottom of it, all that stopped it from shaking its contents down the front of Zoro's shirt as he raised it to drink.
He drank, suddenly parched, and drained it all to quickly. "Whoa, whoa, that's all we have for now." Usopp slid the canteen from his hands. "Down? Yes." Usopp asked and answered his own question as his hand on Zoro's back moved back, and Zoro simply sank back with it. "I'm going to get more, I'll be back soon."
Don't... came the thought, and Zoro felt the frown cross his face unchecked. Usopp gave him a strange half-smile, surprise and sympathy combined in it.
"Won't be too long," Usopp said awkwardly, then he looked over his shoulder at Ida, back by the fire. "I won't, I'll be back soon." She considered him with a cocked head, then lay down, ears tilted back unhappily. Usopp sighed a little, then looked back at Zoro. "Okay? Sleep s'more, I guess, if you can. That always helps, right..?" His gaze darted between Zoro and Ida.
"It helps," Ida said, low and near monotone.
"Yeah," Zoro got the word out on an exhale.
Thalassa walked up to once again sit in the crook of his neck and shoulder, her feathers brushing against the skin of his neck every time she shifted. "We've got an army of bears on this other island," she started, pausing just slightly until Zoro put an arm up around her. He kept watching Usopp as her voice, with their familiar story cadence, fell into his ears.
Usopp fiddled with his cape as Thalassa spoke. He shook off the needles, a little too vigourously, and Zoro wondered if he'd really seen the few seconds where Usopp mouthed words as Thalassa spoke them. Then Usopp was tying his cape on, rummaging in his bag for a pair of fingerless gloves. He knelt by Ida and ran his hand slowly over her head, fingers pressing into her fur. He slid one of her ears gently between his thumb and forefinger for a few seconds, then finally rose to the bent standing position imposed by the branches overhead and pushed through to outside.
"Ah, snow!" Usopp's muffled exclamation was accompanied by a swirl of snowflakes and icy air into their shelter, and then Zoro heard the faint crunch of boots on snowy ground, heading away.
The fire eliminated the brief chill in seconds, and Zoro lay until Thalassa's rambling tale of the rebellion of the bears against the Koi King and his army of mudskippers wound down. The half-daze of an unfocused gaze against the branches overhead and the rise and fall of Thalassa's storytelling voice was the mental equivalent of the least painful position he could hold right then.
Some time after she'd finished, and he'd tightened his arm slightly in thanks, there was a snap and pop from the fire, and he turned his head.
No escaped embers. But Ida was there, still down flat on her belly, ears stills slanted back in that silent expression of discontentment.
Usopp had gone, leaving them behind. Leaving her behind, because for all that Golden had done to them, and for all that Ida had been torn from him and grafted to Usopp somehow, their inborn limit of separation had not been altered.
Usopp had left Ida here before. Zoro remembered that, just barely, through the memory of that second, briefer bout of more familiar agony, when Ida had hit their farthest extent of separation; Usopp had followed her back to Zoro, but then he had left again, unhindered.
Usopp did not leave Thalassa that way. He didn't... except.
Zoro also remembered the mask, the one that belonged with the red cape he lay wrapped in now. He remembered the self-styled sniper king and the massive bird beside him. Not a common black-and-white murre seabird, but a pitch-coloured albatross with piercing eyes and a wingspan better than twice Ida's length.
She had changed, like an unsettled daemon.
And that time... that time, she had flown so far away from Sogeking, soaring out with the release of sure-kill stars to drop from the sky like a missile, that ridiculous song in her voice, her accuracy as viciously perfect as the slingshot was on the marines surrounding Robin and Zafir on the bridge.
Usopp... didn't do that, didn't send Thalassa away, didn't move far away from her, not without the mask, but... he could, couldn't he. Ida was here, unable to go any farther from Zoro than normal. But Usopp had walked easily out of their shelter, and Thalassa remained.
And Ida remained too, alone, or as good as, despite Zoro and Thalassa's presence. Cut away from him, but not enough to let her stay with Usopp and venture out, not enough to let Zoro at least picture them outside, together, Usopp's long fingers winding in her fur, her shoulder at his hip.
He exhaled, shivering a little, despite the warmth, as the ghost of Usopp's brush against Thalassa came back again. His mind still pinned the feeling with the sight of Usopp's hands on Ida, even if that was only a mirage, and here, now, with Usopp gone outside, it wasn't even that.
Ida's black fur was edged by firelight on one side and the dim daylight that filtered through the spruce boughs on the other. Familiar as his own hand, every shift of her body as clear to him as his own thoughts; taut tension, mute discomfort, and a drained exhaustion he knew all too well.
But part of Usopp was here, wasn't she?
Zoro pulled his arm down slightly from where it curled around Thalassa, getting his hand under her to coax her up. "G-" he coughed once. "Go on," he said, and boosted her forward. She hopped a few clumsy steps with the momentum, then got herself properly standing and stared back at him.
Ida raised her head slightly, ears partly turning forward, jaws parting near-imperceptibly; veiled interest covering hope.
"We need to take care of you," Thalassa said in initial protest, but peered back and forth between him and Ida. "Oh... yeah. We need to take care of you." She dipped her beak at Zoro in acquiescence, but shuffled back briefly to nibble at his hair, and he brushed her wing with his fingers. She extended it and drew it softly across his face, and then folded it again, and turned back to Ida.
Ears pricked farther forward; anticipation.
Thalassa crossed to meet Ida's outstretched muzzle with a gentle knock of her beak. Ida sighed faintly, the whole length of her relaxing just a bit. She raised her head fully and Thalassa moved into the space between her forelegs and settled in. Ida shifted, adjusting herself against the ground so that she could rest her head alongside.
The feeling of the two of them together was... there. He was aware of it. A surface contact, not intensely intimate like another human's touch on a daemon, which was akin to a touch on the body's most vulnerable places. Ida shifted, pressing her head a little closer again Thalassa, and Zoro felt this the same way he'd be aware of another person in the same room as him - and on that spectrum of awareness, it was like watching Usopp and Ida, last night.
Thalassa, resting between Ida's paws, Ida's head resting close against her side, was the vague impression of fur and warmth and a sight that drew that ache up into his chest, but it was still a sort of relief, ease found in the sight of Ida's fading tension and the one slight twitch of her tail.
So, there, Zoro thought dimly. There they were. Not here, not right here, with him. But there would have to be enough.
Usopp couldn't believe how much had changed overnight. He'd realized the snow had fallen when he'd woken up, little drifts having come in under the edges of some branches. He'd pushed them out, packing a little dirt against them. A layer of snow against the thick branches wasn't all bad, though, would even improve insulation, if it got deep enough.
And it just might, he thought, looking upward through the twisting currents of air and snow. It was coming thick and steady, had to have been for most of the night. Not as utterly nose-bleedingly freezing as a deep winter day, but outside the shelter, the thick snowflakes and immense heavy clouds made a damp and creeping iciness that would be just as bad to be stuck in. The wind picked up again, driving fat flakes against his face just short of stingingly hard. A blizzard, or nearly so.
Visibility was poor now, and would be down to mere feet in the dark even with a lantern. He was even more grateful now that he'd found Kabuto last night. If only he hadn't been too tired to think of looking for food a bit before everything had gotten utterly blanketed...
On the other hand, there was certainly no shortage of water.
He took a long breath of the cold air and sighed it out, revelling for a moment in the utter lack of headache. He shook himself, adjusted his cape, and slogged on, feeling out each step carefully. Twisting an ankle now would just be stupid.
"There really has to be something edible in all that mess," he said aloud, then grimaced at the lack of response. But there was no call for dwelling on that out here - they were all safe, just back behind him. And Zoro had vastly more need of them than he did. Usopp shuddered, independently of the chill around him, at the memory of Zoro's utter collapse.
All the people in the fake hospital's wards - they hadn't been moving, hadn't responded to any noise or touch. Golden had cut them, and he had cut Zoro and if Zoro was nearly immobilized, the sheer scope of the pain had to have been... Usopp could not imagine.
And it had been done to normal, regular, civilian people. And to children...
But not to Usopp. For all the good that had done. "I was right, and it didn't matter," Usopp muttered bitterly. Golden hadn't been able to cut him like that, not exactly, but that immunity hadn't done a single thing to prevent damage to Zoro. And that final backfire of Golden's power - had Usopp caused that by putting himself there? Or by interrupting Golden before he'd finished?
Killing Golden was not a thing Usopp was willing to regret, but this cost, this unbelievable-except-it-just-happened consequence was so beyond explanation that - Usopp stopped moving, one foot in the air lowering slowly to a standing halt, as he suddenly thought, is this... permanent?
He had somehow avoided the idea so far, but now it held him and flung up a sudden unnerving projection of a strange future. Thalassa, forever staying by Zoro, and... Ida with Usopp... but Ida unable to follow him... how could they fight, like this? Each daemon preoccupied with the wrong person, each with instincts that complemented the wrong partner. Ida and Zoro's training, all their work, their goal... How..? Were they all locked together now, unable to move apart normally?
The wind changed direction suddenly, whipping his hair against his face and making the flapping ends of his cape wind tightly around his legs. The sting of snow-wet hair jogged him loose from his momentary shock, and he took a look in the direction that the village, was, and everyone else too.
The other side of the canyon was invisible to him now, no matter how hard he stared, shrouded by the gusting snow. But that was where Chopper was, and the rest of them, where they'd taken the victims, where, maybe, some answers were. Because Usopp had none of his own, not about this.
He took another long breath, and banished all of that. None of that mattered, not yet. They just needed to get through the weather, get Zoro mobile, and to do that, food would help. He moved onward. Hadn't he run through a cafeteria, on his way out of the exploding buildings? There had to be something left, surely. He stomped his feet in the indents he'd made in the snow, shaking loose some of what had caked onto his overalls. Time for some foraging.
Brook woke up under heavy blankets to the dimly-lit sight of a ceiling too ornate for their rooms at the town's inn. The small window had snow rising halfway up its pane, but the room was still warm. He felt exhausted, nervous, and... not quite nauseated, as if that particular sensation was waiting to unfold properly within him.
A warm brush of feathers against his cheekbone was Syrinx, sitting on the pillow, and he felt her stir.
He let out a breath and tried to recall how had ended up here. He'd left to help Robin and Franky and... oh, that unfortunate marine, and - Usopp! He and Zoro were safe... then they'd been headed back, hadn't they? And the other guards as well, and their prisoners...
"My goodness," he said quietly. "How terribly embarrassing."
"Terribly awful," Syrinx said, and a shaky chill repeated inside Brook again at the memory of the caged daemons.
He pushed himself up to sit on the bed, Syrinx hopping to his lap. As he did, the door opened and Robin came in, bearing a tray with a teapot and mismatched teacups. The shoulders of her jacket were damp, and some snow clung to her boots. She smiled at him, her eyes looking him up and down once. She wasn't Chopper, but Brook still always felt very closely observed when she regarded him like that.
As if she could see right into him - but then, she could, after all! He felt his teeth part at his own joke, the little gleam of humour lingering long enough for him to feel some actual amusement.
"Good morning. How are you feeling?" Robin asked, coming to set the tea tray on the table by the bed. Zafir took off from her shoulder and landed on the edge of the tray, leaning down to look at Syrinx. She went to join him there, tucking close against him, and Brook felt the faint feathery pressure of it.
"Much better, my dear, greatly improved." Perhaps if he repeated it enough it would eventually be true. He raised his hands to his hair. "If perhaps in need of some attention to grooming." He earned a little laugh with that, and the sound of was an honestly pleasant moment. "And you?"
"I am fine," she told him. "Sanji has made a breakfast for Chopper and his assistants. Would you like any?"
"I... perhaps later. Tea is more than enough, just now."
She poured him a cup and handed it to him. His hands shook slightly and she watched him for a few moments to see that it didn't spill the tea. "These bones have been rather rattled," he allowed. There was no hiding that, and the now-invisible sensation of a blush spread over his face, along with the shame. "But my unintended rest has helped, truly." Perhaps it had. The daze seemed to have cleared. He got the tea up to his mouth, and took a small sip. The heat and flavour was a tremendous comfort. It sank into him, quelling the lurking nausea. He sighed and tilted his face over the cup, catching the curls of steam against his cheekbones, around his eye sockets.
"How is our young marine?" he asked. The way the man had folded when Franky had pulled away his daemon...
"A concussion, a broken wrist." He heard the sounds of Robin pouring herself a cup of tea. "But I suspect he doesn't care about either. Chopper says he found other marines among the injured." Her voice had taken on a strange blend of coolness and pity. "Revealing himself to us that way was hardly without risk. There is little reason to doubt him." She sounded only slightly grudging. "We'll be asking him more when he wakes up again."
"That's fortunate," Brook said, strangely relieved that their damaged marine was proving to be legitimate. "Did he know anything useful? Anything that could Chopper with his patients?" He hoped for the latter. Details about seastone production was better off lost, in Brook's opinion, though he suspected Robin would not agree, even about information like that.
"That was exactly what it was, in fact." Robin replied, to Brook's surprise. "It seems that they will recover more quickly if their daemons are out of direct contact with them."
Brook felt his teeth click together as his jaw clenched. The caged daemons by all those beds. Of course. A wash of dizziness came and went. The cup rattled against his hands. No - his hands were shaking harder now. He heard Robin return her cup to the tray and then her hands were on his, stilling them.
She didn't try to take the cup, only followed his hands as he lowered it to his lap. She didn't take her hands away then, either.
"Brook," she said softly.
"No," he said, and he couldn't pull away, couldn't bring himself too, "no, it's... you see, it's hardly fair, that is, compared to what he did to them, I - This is nothing." Her hands on his were very likely all that was keeping the rising flood of memory at bay. Warm, firm, capable of precise combat and of the most delicate handling of old things - books, artefacts... his own old bones.
"Brook," she said again. "Should someone with one broken limb ignore it because it's not as bad as breaking two?"
"But I - " he had nothing to say, in truth, but was cut off anyway as a memory punched through of the jagged caustic pain when Syrinx had been carried, dangled by one wing, a cruel pinch of fingers on her wing burning into him over and above the mere stomach-churning fact of the invasive touch.
Then a light but irresistible warm haze obscured it all, and Brook could see what was before him once again. He stared down at his hands, the cup, Robin's fingers curled over his.
At Syrinx perched on Robin's lovely wrist.
Yes. That was... better.
Robin took in a quick breath, and Brook watched Syrinx for only a few moments before he made himself look up at Robin's face.
She looked at him with uncertain caution, while Zafir hovered low, landing on Robin's knee and watching Syrinx as carefully.
"Won't you?" Syrinx asked, perfectly still, asking for what they wanted. "We would... like it."
And Robin let go of Brook's hands, raising one of her own to cup carefully around Syrinx as she drew her arm in.
Brook said nothing, only took another trembling sip of tea.
"Certainly," Robin said.
There was a moment that seemed to stretch and linger impossibly, and then...
One finger, light and gentle, came to rest on Syrinx's small head. Warmth lit inside Brook, nothing to do with tea, and then spread as Robin drew her finger down Syrinx's back. The finch daemon relaxed under the touch, wings drooping slightly, the blue smoothness of her feathers turning softer-edged as they stopped lying quite so flat.
The unpleasantness and buried fury drifted even further away for the moment, and he let it. Not gone, no. But not constant. It could lessen, maybe stop, for a bit.
Brook sighed with the relief of it. His hands sank to his lap again, the nearly-empty teacup loose in his fingers. It was like relaxing into an embrace, but within, at the place that was shivering in horror still, and that no touch on his surface could reach.
Robin's touch became two fingers down Syrinx's back, and then she turned her arm and cupped her palm. Syrinx made the short hop and settled there, and Brook felt Zafir's tiny feet grasp one of his fingers. Brook twitched, almost touched the hummingbird daemon himself.
"Certainly," Robin said again, softer. Brook held his breath in, and brushed a fingertip against Zafir's chest.
On the distant edges of encompassing warmth was the threshold where the contact could transmute itself into a different flavour of heat, where sinking into comfort would become the heady descent into ardour and anticipation. Brook rested away from the intensity of that, though, only wallowing in the safety of Robin's hands holding Syrinx, her fingers soothing over blue feathers, and the return trust of Zafir's tiny weight on his finger.
The zoan doctor's broad hand was tight as a trap on Anton's upper arm, not letting him deviate so much as an inch sideways from the path as he drove him down the hall, past a few relieved-looking medical types and some curious local militia guards.
Chopper slowed at the small stairwell, but didn't stop even then, and Anton had to descend, one step at a time. He was downright morose, and it got together with his no-good balance to make going down painfully slow. "But - " Akilah ventured and Chopper did stop then, pinning Anton with a big frown. The ptarmigan deamon leaned down from his hat, fixing one bright, black eye right on Akilah and she fell meekly silent, retreating a ways along Anton's shoulder to curve around his neck.
"Tsk." Wendeline resettled herself on her perch, and Chopper propelled Anton on, steady as the Cyborg last night.
The downstairs was bare compared to the fancy hall and ballroom up top, utilitarian, more like, and Chopper moved Anton through a pair of swinging doors and into a long humid room full of the sound of sizzling pans and simmering pots.
Blackleg was inside, of course, standing at a wide stove, and half-dozen or so kids in aprons were here and there, working at the counter or trotting around carrying things. The smells that filled up the warm room and the bustle of the people in it was a plain-as-day promise of food, and plenty of it, too.
It would have been heaven, even to Anton's glum self, if not for the reindeer-man dragging him in and the annoyed eye of the blond pirate cook that landed on him and widened with disbelief.
If not for those things, plus the getting-familiar hiss of Blackleg's swan daemon rising with the hiss of steam from something on the stove in front of the pirate.
"The fuck, Chopper? I'm busy. Is he hungry?" The annoyance got worse, if anything, but Blackleg looked Anton up and down and actually waited for a reply, not turning back to his pan, only tossing it absently, the stuff in it flipping up and landing without a single bit of vegetable landing outside.
"No, he's not here to eat. Well, he can, but mostly he's here to get him out of my way," Chopper said. "He won't stay in bed, he keeps trying to help, and he can't stand up long enough to do anything." Chopper turned his frown on Anton again. "Except get out of bed, over and over."
He hadn't been able to just lie there and do nothing in that room. "I coulda - "
"You kept getting in everyone's way," Chopper interrupted gently. "You're wearing a cast. You're suffering from exhaustion. You're concussed! You are not handling anything to do with medicine, and not doing it near my patients either."
"And how is that good for handling food?" Blackleg's irked question made Chopper look at him again. "So he can't even carry a shitty tray - and you want me to give him a knife?! I - " Blackleg stopped short, thinking. "Actually... fine. Come here." He beckoned, and then pointed when Anton and Chopper were near enough.
There was a bored-looking kid on a chair in the corner, maybe ten or so, sitting in front of a couple of bowls on a table, next to a massive sack of unshelled walnuts.
"Efram, go start the apples." Blackleg jerked a thumb.
The sandy-haired boy bounced up, beaming like he'd won a lottery. "Yes, chef!" and he was off with his daemon in the shape of a sparrow on his shoulder.
"Walnuts. Go." Blackleg waved at the chair, and went away to pull open a cupboard.
"Walnuts," Chopper repeated, guiding Anton to the chair, and helping him sit. "And stay here." His voice wasn't mad anymore, but didn't give Anton room to argue either.
Anton hunched a little, and nodded. Chopper's eyes turned soft. "It's nice you want to help," he said. "But I have to watch out for all my patients. It's not good for you if you trip and hit your head again either. So you sit still here and do what Sanji tells you, and the ones upstairs won't have you knocking into their beds." He popped from his big form back to his little one, and patted Anton's knee as his daemon fluttered down to her now-lower perch. "I'll be back later to bring you upstairs."
Chopper trotted off, and Anton watched him go, until he got something soft and flat in the face. It slid into his lap - an apron. He looked up and Blackleg was there, looming again - how he kept doing that, Anton very truly wanted to know - and holding out a a rubber glove.
"Put that on," Blackleg pointed at the apron, "and this," he dangled the glove and Anton took it, "over that, so Chopper doesn't yell at me for getting stuff on it," Blackleg pointed at the cast that immobilized Anton's left wrist and palm, but left his thumb and fingers free. "I assume you know how to use this?" He picked up the nutcracker the kid had left on the table.
"Yessir," Anton said, all automatic reflex as he took the tool, and then he froze up with a fit of horror that he'd just called a pirate sir.
Blackleg looked like he wanted to laugh, but he didn't. "In here it's 'chef', marine, so don't give me that shitty expression." Anton felt his insides lurch at that word from the pirate's mouth, and a draining sense of shame that the man was calling him that at all. How was he deserving of the title, anymore?
The pirate hitched one hip against the table, his black suit switched out today for navy denim and a fuschia Doskoi Panda shirt under the same white apron everyone had on. The casual clothing was pretty strange after the formal things, but somehow no less intimidating. As Anton doggedly squeezed his cast into the glove, Blackleg laid out the best way to crack the shells, showed him a couple times, then told Anton on pain of "I'll kick your shitty head through the wall" not to throw out any of the nut meat out with the shells, or let Akilah get in anyone's way - as if she'd leave his side with Blackleg's daemon in the room - then left him to it.
The boy Anton had replaced was now standing on a stepstool, studiously wielding a large knife at a cutting board some yards down the counter, where he was slicing apples. A girl, maybe nine, was at the next cutting board over, carefully peeling garlic with a paring knife. Her daemon, currently a brown mouse, was up on her shoulder and out of the way, like the boy's sparrow.
Blackleg's immense swan was not so carefully removed from the action, though a glance at the rest of his team of child assistants confirmed theirs all were. The swan stayed by Blackleg's feet, her dangerous wings neatly folded, her dark eyes surveying the children as Blackleg worked the stove. She moved when he did, at his feet but never underfoot, their movements coordinated like they'd been doing this for years.
But then, they must have been. Anton's meal this morning had been exquisite, and Anton frankly imagine that this was how the admirals ate, or rich folk.
Or pirates. At least, these ones.
As Anton cracked nuts and watched the kitchen, Blackleg moved from stovetop to oven to counter like it was some kind of dance. No regular beat, but he was always in time to stir, move a pan, or add an ingredient. And interspersed with seasoning and basting and temperature changes were his inspections of his young helpers. He didn't curb his language at all, Anton soon discovered with some horror, though he seemed delighted whenever he found an improvement, and the kids seemed to find "fucking perfect!" to be the highest of praise, which balanced out the "shitty work, watch me now" that he prefaced his criticisms with.
And when one boy's father poked his head into the kitchen and summoned him to come home - amid many protests, until Blackleg raised his eyebrow - Anton realized this wasn't some orphan child labour team the Strawhats carried on the ship with them. Had he given that any logical thought at all, he would have realized that was unlikely, but then one never knew, with pirates. These youngsters, though, were just children from the town. That parents from the town had allowed in here. With a pirate.
Just as the mayor had let the reindeer-doctor have his temporary staff of doctors and medical apprentices.
And here was laid out before him the cost of his own organization's near-unilateral stance on pirates. Even though he'd known the Strawhats' unofficial reputation as a relatively benign force, unless - crucially - they were attacked first... he'd never had it so confusingly apparent before his eyes.
Resources were lost chasing these people down, Anton knew. Hours of labour, pay, materials, whole ships... thrown away to destroy the pirate threat. A worthy cause in so many cases. Blackbeard. Eustass Kidd. A cause that, just like Anton's case against Golden, had been undertaken on behalf of a greater good - something Anton believed in all the way down to his soul, always had. Working in service of the people had been his goal, and the Marines had taken him and trained him, uncovered his talent for wrangling data and put him to work. He'd been so proud... A small part of something large, in turn serving the whole wide world. Keeping the seas safe.
From these pirates?
Of course, there was the destruction at Enies Lobby - this crew, when angered, were apocalyptically dangerous and seemed to have no fear of anything, by all the secondhand anecdotes he'd heard. A Buster Call had been made - even if chatter persisted that it had somehow been in error - and had failed to stop them.
But... he still felt a strange mental stagger to imagine bringing in and executing this crew. This doctor and this cook, and that strange, merciful skeleton. Such a thing would be, he dared to think, an actual loss for the world in some ways.
These pirates, who'd risked their own hides to pull strangers from imminent death, were hunted and provoked, while the Shichibukai were... endorsed?
He knew, he knew the reasons for that. To keep order, to keep the strongest on a leash, and control the rest. Cure worse than the disease, ran one of the common unspoken opinions on base.
Because we can't do it ourselves, Anton thought miserably. I can't. He wasn't going to pretend to himself or anyone that he would or could arrest these pirates.
He looked up at the ceiling, towards the ballroom, where Fred and Issak and Commander Malin were. They'd be dead, he thought.
Not that the Strawhat Pirates were even close to government privateers. It wasn't as though the pirates had come on orders to save them, or anyone, Anton understood that. Not anything so heroic. They'd gone in, Chopper had explained when he'd asked, merely because Golden had stolen their landing craft. They hadn't known what Golden was doing until they'd broken into the facility. The Strawhats had only cleared the Wards out of compassion.
All on their own. Not needing anyone's orders.
He crushed another walnut shell, more viciously than necessary in a fit of hot, overwhelming frustration. Marine, the pirate had called him. He couldn't tell, anymore, if he didn't deserve the name, or if he didn't want it.
A clatter of a pan on the stove made him startle, and he looked around, expecting one of the kids to have put something down too hard.
Instead, Blackleg had abandoned something - safely off the burner - and was... Anton gaped... he was pirouetting towards the orange-haired woman with the grey tabby daemon who'd just come in. Cat Burglar Nami, Anton's stupefied brain filled in. Weather-wielder. Thief. Currently being attended by a Blackleg and swan daemon who'd lost any and all appearance of dignity and had done so with complete joy and abandon, as well.
Anton had to make a real effort to remember that the man was, in fact, incredibly strong and extremely dangerous.
"What is his estimated age again?" Akilah murmured to Anton. "Nineteen? Twenty?" One tended to forget that about crews with high bounties. Some of them were so young. Blackleg's swan was right there beside him, too, ducking giddily before the Cat Burglar's daemon.
"Nami, my loooove!" Blackleg trilled gleefully. Anton saw two of the nearest kids duck and hide giggles behind their hands. "To what endeavour may I apply myself to make your life better today?"
She smiled - vastly different from the steely-eyed glimpse Anton had gotten while dodging balls of lighting - and put her hands together charmingly. "Chopper said there might be extras of that cake you made for the families...?"
A couple of guards had come in earlier to collect those - cardboard boxes like from a takeaway restaurant, packed with meals for the people who'd just had a severely ill loved one return from Golden's facility, which was, Anton had gathered, the bulk of Blackleg's work down here. The carefully observed pots that contained what went into the patients' feeding tubes took meticulous upkeep but little actual visible effort compared to a roast or a stir-fry.
"Your wish is my command!" Blackleg glided off towards one of the doors Anton wasn't familiar with. A pantry, it seemed.
The Cat Burglar looked around the kitchen as she waited, and her eyes landed on Anton. He jumped. The apprehension that had filled him when faced with Blackleg for the first time returned anew. She hadn't been one of the ones who'd sat and questioned him this morning, the Cyborg and Nico Robin had done that. Anton had gotten a strange look from the frightening but polite Ms Nico when he'd asked after Dead Bones, but she'd still let him know that the skeleton was fine, thank you.
Each of the pirates seemed to regard him a little differently. Chopper felt like any doctor Anton had ever met, if... fuzzier. Blackleg seemed to disdain his Marine rank but not his willingness to work. The Cyborg looked at him kind of apologetically, and like he might break, and Ms Nico... was perfectly mannered, unnervingly unreadable, and Anton felt squirm-inducingly examined when she looked at him.
Cat Burglar Nami looked him up and down once, and then completely dismissed him.
He blew out a breath in reflexive, shameful relief. His questioning earlier had been a bizarre ordeal - having a pirate's undivided attention was a harrowing thing, even if it was these pirates. Perhaps especially so - their decency was one layer over the sheer power underneath it.
A tiny part of him, a strangely bitter, yet romantic part, thought that maybe he ought to be indignant, offended that she barely remarked his presence, or his affiliation with the Marines, and that he ought to protest to defend his pride and that of his organization.
But then maybe he also ought to go try and arrest the pirates, the more realistic portion of his mind responded mockingly. Not happening. Even the storybook-character ideal of his personal values didn't bother stretching along those lines, not now.
Feeling a sort of tiredness that didn't come from his head injury or yesterday's horror, he got back to his walnuts.
Some time after Nami had returned upstairs, Sanji noticed the marine nodding off over his, yeah, adequate effort at filling the walnut bowl, but then the soup stock started to boil, and he went to turn the burner down and taste a sample. Ah, not too salty, the hint of tomato acidity was just right and all it needed to was reduce a little more and then he could -
He heard the doors bump open from a vigorous entrance and looked over to see Chopper dash through, Wendeline's feet holding tight to his hat. Sanji lifted the ladle in greeting as Chopper hurried over and then pulled up short. Sanji looked back over his shoulder to see that the marine, who'd already looked almost completely wrung out back when he'd first come in, was finally asleep on the table, his millipede daemon curled on his shoulder.
"Oh..." Chopper said. He looked up at Sanji, ambivalent worry and relief in his big eyes.. "His friend woke up."
Zoro dozed fitfully on his side, sinking into a drift between numb sleep and oppressive, aching awareness. Ida's black shape and the white curve of Thalassa's breast feathers drew his eyes, whenever he managed to open them; solid contrasts when he could focus, blurring into a mingled white-on-black against the dry red needles when he couldn't,
Time passed, though he couldn't tell how much. He was awake when noise came from outside, though. Boots crunched on snow, the gait familiar but much heavier than when Usopp had left. The sound cleared the haze a little, and he saw Ida raised her head, ears turning forward and tail brushing across the ground behind her.
The branches parted, dropping splatters of accumulated snow against the ground, and letting fat snowflakes blow inside on frigid air as Usopp backed inside, covered in wet snow himself and hauling a ragged-looking tarp-wrapped bundle behind him, which caught among the branches.
Zoro blinked slowly, feeling slightly better than a moment before.
"Come on," Usopp grunted. With a last heave, the bundle was inside, and the branches sprang back, blocking the weather out again. Usopp turned around and his eyes found Zoro, his gaze meeting Zoro's half-lidded one with an initial not-quite-smile of reassurance. It altered abruptly to confused concern when his eyes slide down over the rest of him and didn't see Thalassa. "Where - ?" he started to say.
"She's here," Ida interrupted. Usopp looked at them, now blocked from Zoro's view by the tarp bundle. Zoro heard Ida rise, and then Thalassa appeared around Usopp's boots, waddling back towards him. She settled down against his stomach, and he sank his fingers into the feathers on her back, hearing the shaking breath he let out as he did.
Usopp, mouth still downturned with concern, lifted the bundle and carried it under the branches to the other side of the fire from Zoro, dropping it with a crunching, rattling thud. Zoro watched him unsling his bag and put it by the fire pit. He peeled off his gloves, then shook himself out, spilling yet more snow from the folds of his cape, his hair, his overalls. "Found some stuff," he said, "cookies, rice, some jerky. Instant soup. It's better than nothing, even if Sanji'd hate it..."
Zoro managed to curve up one corner of his mouth, mainly for the disproportionate grin it earned in return.
Ida had been waiting, and she stood back until the last snow-scattering headshake and foot-stomp, then she bumped Usopp's hand with her nose. Usopp's fingers stroked over her head and around her ears in a motion that looked like he'd been doing it for years, and the frustrated longing returned to thicken in Zoro's chest at nearly suffocating strength.
He took in every detail of the touch, Usopp's blunt nails digging in a slight scratch over the fur of her head, Ida's ear folded gently between two fingers, Usopp's thumb stroking over the tip before letting go.
She leaned into the caress and Zoro could only watch.
Usopp unfastened his wet cape and hung it from a broken branch bit on the trunk. He kicked at some of the unmelted snow, pushing it out under the ends of the branches. Ida turned and nosed curiously at the bundle while Usopp moved a few more chunks from the firewood pile onto the fire and used a wide bit to shovel out some of the ashes.
Zoro followed every move, his fingers working slightly against Thalassa's feathers.
Usopp's face was reddened from the cold and the exertion, eyes alert, and even if fatigue was evident in the overly-deliberate way he was moving, he looked... like himself
Zoro could barely find the muscle control to sit up, could barely contain his own expressions, was choking on pain instead of mastering it, and Usopp was moving around like all he'd had was a very long day.
There was little room for shame under his fixated attention now, though. What energy he could muster he used to keep his eyes open for more than a minute at a time.
When the fire maintenance was dealt with, Usopp came to get Zoro, hauling him upright and around to the other side of the tree trunk to relieve himself.
Could've been worse, the dim thought surfaced as he hung heavily from an arm over Usopp's neck. Remembering Usopp's earlier grin, he dragged that thought to its teasing conclusion, even if he couldn't exert himself to voice it just then. Definitely could have been worse; it could've been Sanji helping him with this.
Usopp was solid, though, any fatigue not evident as he held Zoro up, gripping his wrist securely and guiding him back around to lie down. He was a warm side pressed against him, steady arms lowering him, and though all of that seemed at a distance, Zoro could feel it. Like watching Thalassa and Ida lying together. Not enough, but... better, just a bit.
"Hey, thirsty?" Usopp asked, rearranging a few folds of cape to pillow Zoro's head a little. "Plenty of water now."
Zoro grunted affirmatively. As Usopp went to fish the canteen from his bag, Thalassa came to tuck herself under his arm, on the side opposite the fire and Usopp, nestling close so he could curl his arm around her.
Usopp returned to kneel by him, sliding an arm behind his shoulders to lift him up. Zoro got one hand up to hold the canteen and sip from it, while Usopp steadied it, just like last time.
Zoro's other hand moved before he so much as thought, before he realized. Only far enough to land on Usopp's knee, an involuntary motion as if to brace himself, if he'd had the strength for that. As it was, he could just barely grip at the snow-dampened denim. It warmed under his palm, and Usopp made a little noise, but nothing more.
When the canteen was drained, Usopp lay him down again. Zoro's eyes were closed by then, Thalassa warm in one arm, Usopp's knee still under his other hand. Didn't need to see, now.
Zoro couldn't bring himself to pull his hand back. He couldn't find even a single shred of himself willing to want that. He would not ask, he wouldn't. But, his exhausted mind reasoned, gathering a strange logic against the magnitude of his pain, he could reach.
Usopp held quite still, looking down at Zoro's pain-tightened face, and very aware of the hand gripping his knee, almost as if it was a phantom match to Zoro's arm around Thalassa.
He was so used - too used - to Zoro's recoveries involving nothing but sleep, followed by meals and more sleep, until he just got up and wandered out on deck, yawning and trailing bandages as Chopper chased him down for one last checkup and admonished him in vain to leave the weights alone for another day.
Usopp remembered - couldn't forget - the invasion of Golden's ability sliding through him, painless and yet still so incredibly, violently repellent... and then the tearing wrench during whatever had happened at the end. He knew what Zoro had endured was orders of magnitude worse; every second of what Usopp had felt and shrugged off had still inflicted precisely what Golden had intended upon Zoro and Ida.
And yet... Usopp had thought it would improve, somehow. It was Zoro - he always recovered. But what had Golden done that Usopp or anyone could even try to stitch or bandage? How would Chopper treat this?
Uncertainly, Usopp's eyes were drawn to Thalassa, hunkered worriedly against Zoro, drawn to him, to be near him now, but it was not enough.
What if... no. Surely not, at a time like this? But...
He put the canteen aside and put his hand on Zoro's arm, and felt the slight twitch of the fingers on his knee in response, tightening for just a second.
He looked at Zoro's strained face sidelong, even though his eyes were closed, and asked. "It's... not getting better, is it?"
Zoro's breath caught, and a grimace pulled the lines of pain tighter for a second. Usopp squeezed his arm gently, rubbed a little by reflex - what a useless motion, Usopp thought in instant, utter embarrassment.
Or maybe not entirely. Zoro's grip on his knee tightened again.
Ida's footsteps approached. She came near enough to brush against Usopp's back, reassuring, then went past, around Zoro to his other side. She stopped near his shoulder, lowered her muzzle to brush her nose against Thalassa's head. The murre daemon pushed up against the touch, and Usopp heard a faint murmur from the wolf.
Then Ida looked at Usopp, and he remembered something that already felt like weeks ago. It had only been last night. We would want you to.
He looked again at Thalassa, still skirting what he'd dared to consider, but circling ever nearer to it.
Thalassa was severed from him right now, attached like some kind of prosthetic daemon to Zoro. She was doing her best, as Usopp was, to help him, but she didn't hurt when Zoro did. Couldn't know what he felt any more than Usopp could. She was not a living extension of his being any more than a pegleg was of a pirate.
But Zoro's self rested against her like one, just as Usopp's did against Ida. And it wasn't a perfect comparison because the touch did come through - not dull pressure, but the real thing. Terrifying and startling when Zoro had touched Ida yesterday, but even then warm as... as nakama.
And that was as it should be. After all, sometimes... when they were all together on Sunny, warm and crowded, flushed with good drink and full of good food, where half of them were nearly asleep on top of each other and it was all quiet for a moment, before refilled mugs, between stories, between songs...
When they were all paused for a moment, even Luffy, watching the clouds or the stars or the sea or the way the light fell across someone's face or hair...
Then it was safe, if someone wanted, to put out a hand and touch the feathers or the fur of someone else's daemon.
It wasn't like that now, at all. Now it was agony and confusion and Usopp was so profoundly unhappy that the circumstances almost seemed to be calling for something like that. But whatever wound had opened in Zoro could not be reached any other way.
"Zoro," Usopp began, low and halting. Nervousness ran down through him, a tremble in his chest and along his limbs. "I dunno if - I mean." he shifted on his knees. Zoro's hand started to slide and Usopp put his own over it before it could fall away, his palm against the back of it. It was cold, and that bothered Usopp a great deal, because Zoro's solidity always seemed so warm. Cold was wrong, for him, just wrong. Usopp rose up on his knees, tightening his fingers where they curled around the side of Zoro's hand, and it tightened in return. "I mean," he said again, swallowed. "Maybe if..." he leaned forward, reached partway across Zoro's chest.
Ida stretched her nose out to touch his fingertips, then stepped back. We would want you to. She'd said that, when Usopp had been hurting. He dearly hoped, knowing their pride as he did, that it went both ways.
Zoro's hand was still faintly squeezing.
Thalassa didn't reach for Usopp with the same certainty that Ida had, of course not, this was all the wrong way around and she was as hesitant as he was, but she did stand, in the circle of Zoro's arm. She leaned forward, even as her wings half-opened with her protective reflex.
Usopp's fingers landed against her beak.
Zoro took a long, slow breath, and if it shook, Usopp heard no such thing.
Thalassa didn't move away. Her wings folded back against her. So Usopp reached farther to let fingertips move over her head, sliding over the smooth feathers, just like always. He stroked down her neck, biting his lip against sudden tears, and then Ida was back around by his side again, her shoulder warm against his, and she said to Thalassa, "Over here."
Thalassa looked at Usopp directly then, dipping her beak in a nod, and he reached for her, sliding his hands under her, lifting her, and it felt new, too new, like the first day she'd finally settled all over again, like when she'd changed on the Sea Train... like she was unfamiliar. Except she wasn't. Not at all. His hands knew exactly where to go, how to hold her, how light she was in when he held her.
He drew her close, heart racing with his own reaction and the vivid awareness that he was holding on to what was, for now, someone else's daemon.
Zoro made a low groaning breath, relief pure as any Usopp had heard, and then it cut off. "Sorry," Zoro breathed. He didn't sound sorry.
"I know, it's all weird," Usopp muttered thickly. "When is anything for us normal, anyway?" He thumped back to sit cross-legged, placed Thalassa carefully in his lap, hands on her back.
Zoro's eyes were still shut, but his head lolled slightly to one side, almost relaxed, and Usopp put a hand out. He hesitated, and then snorted because, after all, he was sort-of-not-really-at-all-but-for-now-it's-like-that holding Zoro's daemon in his lap. So much beyond than anything that had happened, ever, during those times on Merry and on Sunny. This wasn't a careful touch on Ida's flank or muzzle. Holding someone else's daemon... You didn't normally get much closer than this unless you were naked together at the same time too. Usopp shook his head, pushed aside his hesitation and put out a hand to flatten it on Zoro's chest.
Zoro found it with both of his, covering it with one, the other curling loose fingers around his wrist, like he meant to hold him there. Involuntary, of course. Couldn't read into things people did when they were in pain.
"Is it better now?" Usopp asked, just barely over a whisper.
Zoro's fingers stroked over Usopp's hand and yes, that had to be accidental. "Yeah," he sighed.
There was movement next to Usopp, and he looked over to see Ida lying down. Not stiffly or miserably as she'd so often done since Golden's attack, but easy, almost comfortable, and Usopp stopped stroking Thalassa for a moment to rub over her head. She met his eyes a moment, then looked at Zoro, and back at him, a question in her eyes and the set of her ears.
Oh... Of course. Usopp swallowed over a sudden heady feeling, strangeness and embarrassment, and an undeniable guilty flash of, Yes, I want that, even though it would - should - only be returning the comfort he'd gotten from holding Thalassa himself again.
"Here," Usopp said, voice scratchy, and he cleared his throat awkwardly while he took one of Zoro's hands and moved it to lie on Ida's head.
Zoro made a surprised sound and grew still when his fingers settled over black fur, and Usopp felt the soft, warm touch settle inside him as well. No longer shocking, just... nice. Incongruously so, but Usopp did his best not to dwell on that.
"It's alright," Usopp said, before Zoro could try to stop himself or pull back out of whatever idiotic stoic stubbornness was always at work in him. "I... I'm prescribing this. You have to. Chopper made me a deputy doctor. I took a correspondence course from that scary lady on Drum and I have a certificate, so you have to do everything I tell you."
Zoro stayed unmoving a moment longer, then relaxed once again, seeming to finally give in altogether. He even laughed a very little bit, a small, low chuckle, and Usopp felt himself grinning with the sheer relief of everything. Zoro's fingers curled slightly against Ida's head fur, underscoring it all.
Usopp stroked Thalassa's head again, slow and regular, while the persistent little embers of sensation from Zoro's hand on Ida made him realize, if he only closed his eyes and held his breath against the smell of spruce and their fire, how easy it was to imagine them somewhere else, back on Sunny, where everything was safe, comfortable...
Even like this, the two of them in this impossible knot of criss-crossed connections and borrowed daemons, Usopp touching Thalassa, and so touching Zoro, this much and... Except his mental image was more like... something else. The getting naked thing. And there was no other crew, no one in that image but them.
He shook his head, hard. That kind of good time was getting well past these extenuating circumstances and incredibly far ahead of... whatever was going on now. There was nothing to get ahead of anyway, not really. He opened his eyes again, looked at Zoro, dimly lit from the faint ends of daylight still getting through the spruce boughs and the yellow cast of the firelight.
He had to move soon, get some kind of food together. He was hungry, and Zoro had to eat too.
But maybe it could wait just a little bit more.
Waiting did not suit Brook's as-yet uncured restive inability to be still. A measure of calm, both mental and physical, had installed itself in him after his day resting, he no longer seemed to flinch at errant thoughts, and that was a great improvement... but after the chance to bathe and attend to the mess of his hair, he still very much wanted something to do.
However, he was firmly, if nervously, refused entry into Chopper's ballroom ward. The young medical student fidgeted as she blocked his way. She was very short, and stared up at him with wide eyes, but held her ground. Her silver gibbon daemon hung from her shoulders, his jaw set. "Sorry," the daemon added politely to her recited denial of his entry.
Indulgent amusement overtook Brook's aimless urge to find something to which he could apply himself. "Not at all, not at all," he said softly. He hadn't truly expected Chopper to want him in there now, but it had been the nearest to the room he'd woken up in.
Robin had come and gone through the day, checking on Brook, then leaving him to nap, and now she was with Nami and Chopper at a town meeting, helping to organize all the complications of this many sudden arrivals. Brook had no doubt that between them, all manner of logistic and monetary issues would be solved. For his part... he wasn't sleepy anymore.
"Please, don't let us keep you from your work," Syrinx said from where she was perched on Brook's palm, held up against his chest. The girl and daemon relaxed visibly. Brook lifted his hat and ducked a little bow, then turned and headed out through the entrance hall.
Daylight was fading now, and snow was falling thickly but softly, moving with light breezes, and not so fiercely as he'd heard it whistle past the window of his room earlier. No gale winds or any such thing at the moment. Trampled or cleared paths marked where people had walked, and someone had thoroughly removed snow from the steps he stood on. Spread before him, the town square's pattern of cobbles was shrouded under a blanket of snow, unbroken except for a couple of paths shoveled through so people could get across it without going around it all. Even then, the inn and the tavern, the library and the Mayor's offices, they all seemed farther away like this.
As the heavy wooden main door of the community hall settled shut behind him, he stepped down to the cleared path that edged the square, then headed for the inn, looking down along where the cleared routes extended out onto side streets. The falling snow was thick enough that the world seemed to fade after a few hundred yards, people and daemons drifting into or out of that soft border as the evening's business went on.
Originally intending to fetch his violin and perhaps find some solace in a little music, he was distracted by the snow-muffled sounds of familiar guffaws and unfamiliar shrieks of laughter down one of the side streets.
So that was where Luffy had gone to, Brook thought, and followed the noise.
In a wide lot between a warehouse and what looked like the back of a block of flats that made the street into a dead end, there was a snowball fight going on.
A three-foot haphazard wall of snow had been piled up, stretching outward from the trunk of a tall, bare-branched tree. Many smaller ones had been scraped together across the lot, some braced against the couple of other small trees, most just bumps on the snowy ground for children to flatten themselves behind as Luffy, popping up from the tall one, launched volleys of poorly aimed snowballs.
Someone had managed to stuff Luffy into appropriate winter wear, and he was a very clear target against the snow, his skinny body wrapped in a heavy brown coat, a violently orange scarf and red boots. Oma was in the hood of the coat, with a single red glove on her head. The straw hat remained on Luffy's, of course, and he still had his shorts on under the coat, but Brook still had to commend whoever had made Luffy notice the need for that much weather protection.
Striped green-and-purple mittens completed Luffy's ill-conceived combination of colours as he sent snowball after snowball arcing up over the children's attempts at cover, hitting almost none of the eight or so youngsters scrambling around and trying to fire back. Their daemons were using forms ideal for the exercise - there were a couple of snowshoe hares at least, and Brook spotted a lynx cub, though it became an arctic fox after a moment.
Somehow, the children didn't seem to miss as much as Luffy did, snowy projectiles bursting on Luffy's chest and arms, and after a few minutes, Brook saw Luffy be struck by a slow lob to the face, flung two-handed from over the head of one of the littlest combatants. Luffy groaned hugely, then sprawled backwards, lying still. Oma scrambled from his hood to fling herself dramatically across his chest.
"CHARRRRRRRRRRGE!" a girl's voice roared out, one short arm raising a blue woolen hat like a war banner. Her army of diminutive fighters barreled for the snow wall, the bare-headed girl in the lead, brown curls bouncing as she ran, a grey wolf pup daemon at her side. The children rammed the wall and it broke apart under their combined onslaught.
In what seemed to be a ritual, they surrounded Luffy in a circle and each child dropped one handful of loose snow on him, then waited, fidgeting and grinning at each other.
Eventually Luffy took a deep breath, and then sprang up with a bellow. Oma hooted wildly. The children and their daemons scattered, screaming in delight.
Making snowballs was a little more awkward with bony hands like Brook's, but he managed to pack one together, and sent it sailing through the air to hit Luffy on the side of the head. Luffy whirled to look, and then his face broke into a big grin.
"Brook!" he exclaimed. He turned to the children. "I gotta stop," he announced, and shrugged at the chorus of protesting "awwww"s. "Meika, you be the bad king this time," he pointed at the one who'd led the charge.
"Bad queen," she corrected haughtily, and dashed off towards the ruins of Luffy's wall. "I get a general, since it's just me! Caleb!" she summoned, and a little boy followed her, trailed by a grey squirrel daemon.
There were variously-size piled rocks and a few boulders marking the edge of the snow field, all along the sidewalk. The bigger ones nearest the block of flats had a few adults standing around them in a loose group, presumably parents. Luffy directed a casual wave at them, which was returned by some, but he headed towards Brook, near the other end of the row. Luffy hopped up to sit on the boulder Brook had leaned against.
"You look way better now!" Oma said to Syrinx, hanging half out of Luffy's hood and staring at her with wide, intent eyes.
"We are." Syrinx replied, and lifted from Brook's hand to perch on Luffy's hood. Oma's skinny arms went around her, hugging her close.
"We don't have the guys that were hurting you," Luffy remarked, kicking his feet out and letting his boot heels knock against the boulder. The chill that went through Brook at those words was strong, but not debilitating, especially with Oma embracing Syrinx. "I went to see the ones they found, but they were all other people." Brook felt Oma's arm around Syrinx tighten a little, and Luffy's chin tightened too. "I wanted those guys, but I guess they're dead," he said, voice cool, and Brook was glad he had not been in the town jail when Luffy had gone to see the prisoners.
"We'll be fine," Brook said. Luffy looked at him, head tilting and eyebrows rising for a moment in consideration, and then he nodded.
"Yep." The word was spoken as though it was a given. Oddly reassuring.
"M... Mister Strawhat Skeleton," a low voice piped up from near Brook's feet. A little boy with dark eyes was staring up at him from under the thick edge of a green knitted hat, a matching scarf undone and half sliding off over the shoulder of his snow-caked duffel coat. His daemon was a monkey at the moment, suspiciously similar to Oma in looks, if not in demeanour, as she clung to the boy's neck, and his mittened hands held her close.
"Er... hello there, young man," Brook said after a moment of surprise. He knelt down so he wasn't quite so distantly removed from the boy's eye level.
"Captain Strawhat says you also went into the bad hospital." The boy looked at the ground for a moment, jamming the toe of his boot under a little mound of snow. Brook glanced at Luffy, who gave him a shrug, then turned his gaze back on the snow-warring children. Oma rested in his hood, Syrinx still cradled against her.
"Yes. Our whole crew went in there." If only the whole crew had come out on the same side, he thought, with another pang of mild worry for Usopp and Zoro. He hoped they'd found good shelter from the snow.
"They hurted my mama," the boy said. "They said she was sick but it was lies and they made her sick when they took her, didn't they?" His young, cold-reddened face turned fierce and furious for a moment. "I couldn't do nothing. None of us could do nothing, not even Meika for her daddy and Meika's really strong. If she hits you, you get a bruise," he emphasized, then eyed Brook, momentarily thrown from his description. "Well, maybe you wouldn't. But if there's skin, then you do. She's the strongest one. But not like you and Captain Strawhat..." he trailed off, then took a deep breath. "Thankyouforgettingmymamaback !" he said in a rush, then turned and fled, wading back into the snow and ducking behind one of the low walls.
"You're most welcome," Brook said in automatic, but probably unheard reply. He stood up again slowly. Before he could say anything to Luffy, the low, ringing tones of the clock over the town hall carried through the air, slightly dampened but still resonating richly, this near the square. All the children paused. It rang seven times, and then the adults at the other end of the lot called out names and endearments. The children abandoned their game and ran to them.
"Supper," Brook guessed.
"Nah. Time for visits," Luffy said, and Brook looked again at the building he'd thought was flats. Between the new snow and this little street being a dead end, he hadn't realized - that was the back of the town's own hospital, the smaller rear entrance lacking the signage and small courtyard in front. He'd come only from the front entrance, those times when the medical apprentices had studied him.
He stared at it now, imagining the patients there, just as the ones in Chopper's temporary ward, still and silent and unaware, their daemons separated off to the side. He sucked in a breath, and clenched his teeth.
A snowball hit him on the chin, sending bits of packed snow into his skull, and he sputtered. Oma giggled, and as Brook shook the snow out he saw Syrinx peck her on the ear before taking flight and returning to Brook's hand. Luffy just grinned at him, and so did Oma, hopping onto Luffy's shoulder and hanging outward from a fistful of his hair.
"Well, I'm hungry now," Luffy said. "Let's eat!"
Brook found he wasn't averse to that idea at all, and they headed back towards the square. The meeting Robin had attended appeared to have just let out as well with the clock's chiming of the hour, and she and Nami and Chopper were among the small crowd slowly dispersing from in front of the Mayor's offices. Chopper saw them first and dashed over, dislodging Wendeline as he changed to his large form to see Brook from a better height. Brook reassured him he had only taken a little walk.
The other two approached a little more sedately. Zafir preceded Robin near their separation limit, darting to hover near Syrinx until Robin was nearby, alighting for a second on Brook's thumb before returning to Robin's shoulder, shining green against her dark blue coat. Brook saw Nami's eyebrows rising at that, and then her glance between him and Robin, but she said nothing, only shared a look with Atsumeru, in her arms to keep him off the snow. Their expressions turned to what Brook could only interpret as bemused unsurprise.
He was not bothered by it, though. Particularly when Robin slipped a hand up into his elbow. Instead, he inquired after their progress in the meeting.
It seemed that Nami had organized a set of exchanges of money and goods in both directions - Sunny did need restocking of some food items, but likewise, some of the supplies Chopper had stocked up on a few islands ago would be put to immediate use here. "We got a good deal," she said, and Brook was sure that was true. Robin had just begun describing plans to organize a clean-up of the rubble up at the canyon when Luffy's patience wore out.
"Okay, okay. But why are we still out here?! Let's go inside and see Sanji!"
Nami swatted him for interrupting, but they did start to move back towards the community hall.
Robin and Brook followed the other three at a little distance. She squeezed his arm, and he covered her hand with his own. "Will you be eating?" she asked, looking up at him. Her face was concerned, but not worried, and that was a relief to see, because he wanted very much to stop causing her - and all of them - any worry.
"I will indeed," he replied. "My tastebuds are crying out for the flavours of Mr Sanji's creations!" He clicked his teeth together jauntily, "even though I have none! Yohoho!" Robin granted him a slight smile for the joke.
He truly was hungry now, he realized. Sanji had visited him earlier with some soup, and stayed while he ate, too, but that had been hours ago and more substantial fare was called for.
Looking down at Robin's hand in his arm, he felt a pang of amused guilt for Sanji's eventual reaction to that. If he noticed - with Nami near, the chances were perhaps lessened.
Though, Brook thought sagely, it would be wise to curb any future requests regarding the lovely navigator's panties.
Anton couldn't help the smile when Chopper told him, but it was short-lived.
"He did wake up," Chopper said, sitting by Anton's bed in his small shape. The look on his face deflated Anton's initial joy. The solemn frown was enough to make Anton bite his tongue on his next reflex: to demand to know why they hadn't woken him.
"Early," Anton said instead, because by his count, he wouldn't have expected this until tomorrow, at least.
"Yes, I think that's a good sign. Proper physical care seems to have helped. To a degree." Chopper said. Wendeline was on his lap, now, not on his hat, and Chopper's hooves rested over her back, arms stiff, holding back from what Anton recognized as the reflex to hold on properly. Trying to be a properly professional physician, despite being a pirate.
"His daemon went right to him, but... he was very agitated," Chopper went on. "Not violent but... um, distressed. I was worried we would have to sedate him. The damage from the - the procedure." He gave in then, and his arms slid around Wendeline. She leaned her head against his small shoulder. "I expect it will be longer to recover from that than from the physical symptoms." His voice kept mostly steady, but Anton could hear a tremor that made him sound very young. With zoan sometimes you couldn't tell, and his usual little shape looked so toy-like Anton had felt that had to be only looks, especially after seeing the big one. He's a kid, Anton thought, mind sticking on that as if it didn't want to hear the other things. Chopper took a little breath and continued. "He did calm eventually, even took some food. But you need... you need to know that he's probably not... himself."
Chopper's unhappy eyes were too hard to meet, so Anton stared forward instead, trying to untangle hope from disappointment. Fred was awake. After being so... messed up, and Anton hadn't let himself think of this part, hadn't let himself do anything but be glad they were all still alive. So Fred was back, but...
"Yeah..." Anton shook himself slightly. "Shoulda... expected... just wakin' up, that's only the start of gettin' better. Please," he sat up straight, tried to look as not-tired as he could, "lemme go see him."
They did one better. Fred had been moved into a cleared-out side room, to allow him quiet and isolation when he was awake; they moved Anton's bed into the same room.
"All four would fit," he heard Chopper muttering to himself as he set things up, his large shape shifting furniture like it was kindling. "Five more rooms like this... and gotta get partitions for the ballroom, too..."
Because other people were gonna start waking up soon, Anton realized. He would've figured that was good, yesterday, and of course it was, but it just seemed bleak right now.
Anton sat on his bed, waited and watched, tried not to fall asleep as the noises of movement outside the door slowed and the office window dimmed. He got up to switch on the pretty desk lamp when it got too dark. It was on a chair instead of the fancy desk it belonged with.
The zoan doctor had shifted that out of here without even taking an extra breath.
Jaromir was in Fred's hand, held loosely up at his chest while Fred lay on his side, curled like a little kid. Fred was way too gaunt and still too greyish-skinned for Anton to pretend he was healthy, but the tube was out. That one change made him look a whole lot better to Anton's eyes.
His sleep was calm, looked normal, the whole time Anton watched, and he was glad of that. He talked to him a little, quiet so it wouldn't wake him up. "We're all here, Fred," he said. Told him how everyone looked better already. Even Issak had filled out already. Just a little. "He'll get better."
The town's big clock had rung its three bells in the night outside when movement caught Anton's eye. Jaromir shifted slightly.
Anton sat up straighter. Lingering dizziness swirled his head around as his heartbeat got quicker, but he didn't blink, just waited. Akilah moved down the front of his shirt to the end of his knee, raising the first few segments of her body and waving her small antennae avidly.
Long moment before anything more, and then Fred moved, fingers curling against Jaromir, stroking just a little bit over the shiny carapace. He took a deep breath, interrupting the slow even rhythm that Anton had been listening to all night, and lines of tension settled into every inch of him, tightening just enough to transform his body from one resting to one waiting to flinch from anything.
"Fred," Anton said, quiet, in case he wasn't really waking up. "Fred."
Frederik's eyebrows drew together, his eyes squeezed harder shut a moment before starting to open.
"Huh," he said, low and strained. "Huh?" His breathing sped up, his hand tightened on Jaromir, the too-thin fingers curling against the black and yellow. "Jaro," he gasped, and Jaromir's spindly beetle legs moved a little, tugging at the fingers around him.
"Here. Here," Jaromir said, thready-voiced but clear, and Fred curled closer around him.
Anton went still. Maybe Fred hadn't heard him at all. Maybe he shouldn't -
"Drydock?" Fred said next, voice catching on the gasps like cloth against a nail, and the nickname made Anton wince. The Commander had slapped it on Anton after he'd been inserted into her unit, a generic, usually derisive term for marines who didn't work on ships, but it had become fondly meant. Hearing it now brought back memories of drills and planning and their unforgiving but unflagging training of him to get him as near to their standard as they could.
And for nothing. All their effort and he'd been the one who'd done nothing, and nothing, and nothing, for weeks.
Never mind. "Here," Anton answered, kicking the blanket off his legs and padding the few feet between their beds to the other desk chair, the one that wasn't acting as a table for the lamp.
Fred unbent enough to look at him, his dark eyes wet and teary and only half-focused. They sharpened a little, clung to Anton while he came over sat. Akilah moved down his shirt to his knee, then nearly fell off trying to raise her foremost segments to look closer. "Jaro?" she asked.
Anton lifted her and, after a pause, slowly moved her towards Fred's mattress. Fred didn't protest, even relaxed his grip on Jaromir a bit as Akilah cautiously went to the big stag beetle daemon, butting against his sturdy abdomen. He turned in Fred's hand, strong insect legs dragging himself around, then let his underside lower again, too weak for more. Akilah pushed gently at his extravagant mandibles.
"He didn't get you," Fred rasped, watching Akilah, then looking at Anton, his eyes taking in the distance they were letting open between them. His fingers twitched, like a reflex to pull Jaromir even closer against himself. "Th' doctor said."
"No," he answered. I hid. He kept finding new depths of contempt for himself each time he thought about it.
One of Fred's hands lifted and reached and Anton caught it without thinking. Too cold, too weak. The strong, warm grip he knew from countless throws and holds and pulled punches wasn't there. The fingers were bony and trembling.
Fred's shoulders shook and he grimaced in a display of emotion like Anton had never seen, something between grinning and weeping, Anton couldn't tell which, and felt acute embarrassment on his behalf. This was too different from nearly impassive face Anton had known before, and Anton felt like he was looking at Fred naked. Seeing too much, more than Fred would ever want.
"Thought we'd... killed you." Fred's fingers got tight for a moment. "Oh god," Fred gasped, "thought we'd killed you."
"No," Anton said again, hot shame sloshing over him. "M'here. I'm fine." Akilah curled over and around Jaromir, tucking her head back below his. The faint click and slide of their hard shells against each other the only noise aside from Frederik's uneven, teary breathing.
"Sorry, Drydock..." Fred sighed, arm sagging, eyes sliding shut. He didn't let go of Anton's arm. "We were... s'posed to cover... our rookie. "
"M'fine," was all Anton could say. "I'm out. Everyone's out. The Commander. Issak."
Fred's face smoothed a little at that, almost a smile, and a fervent sound of relief, a welcome reaction no matter how much Anton knew usually-serious Fred tried to hide that sort of thing more than anything else. "How?" Fred sighed.
Anton was at a loss for how to tell him for a moment. There were ways to skirt it, but Anton did not want to lie. "Strawhat Pirates," he managed.
Fred made a noise like a sobbing laugh, frayed at the edges. It wasn't a bad approximation of how Anton felt most of the time since Nico Robin had almost broken him in half.
Anton reached out, hesitated, and then patted Fred's shoulder awkwardly. It felt skeletal under his hand. Feeling that was maybe even worse than the sight.
"G'wan, back to sleep," he managed, struggling to keep his voice even. "I'm stayin' right here till you wake up."
Fred subsided, mercifully quickly. He dropped off, his grip sliding loose. Anton caught his hand and set it down gently by reflex, not enjoying the sensation that he was handling Fred like he was fragile.
After a last light brush of her short antennae, Akilah moved back from Jaromir's slack shape. Anton scooped her up and she coiled around his fingers, cool and smooth, the familiar points of her many feet clinging to his skin. He leaned back in the chair, feeling shakier now than when the Cyborg had hauled him down from the canyon.
"We worried them," Akilah said, voice strained with their exhaustion and new guilt. "But... he didn't find us." At least his life was worth that much comfort to his team. Anton's pretend task on the inside, the job his undercover identity had been hired for, had been so menial he'd been beneath notice. That had saved him, in the end.
Golden, when in the mood or caught short, had taken victims from his own guards. The ones closest at hand were the most likely to suffer that fate, and the newest arrivals were the most vulnerable of all. They... hadn't known that, going in.
Anton had only rarely gotten anywhere close to Golden himself, and he hadn't ever found it in himself to wish it had been otherwise, even as he'd watched the man in an attempted to discover all the data he could.
A sour, sick feeling settled in the pit of his stomach, nothing at all like the dizzy nausea from his head injury. Slow anger at himself, for his uselessness. What could he possibly be worth to the Marines, after this?
But there was something... there was one thing Anton could do, even now. Even with his mind so unsteady, it hadn't been as abused as Fred's and all the rest. He remembered things, from inside. Disjointed and muddled, but it was in there. He hoped, at least.
"We need to write things down," Akilah said, her voice tired, but determined. Anton took a long breath and let it out. Maybe it wasn't all lost.
Which people had been near Golden? When? Who had left and for how long? Names filled his mind suddenly, dates marked indelibly as he'd tracked the state of his teammates. He had no incriminating documents left even to prove, in any court, that the water was wet or anything else about that place, but he didn't need those if all he wanted was to find a new trail. Information was still worth something.
The desk that Chopper had moved into the hall had blank paper and pens in one of the drawers. Anton took them back inside and started the first of many lists.
The fire was low again, the air had gone cool, and the morning light that Zoro could just make out when he looked up through the spruce branches wasn't getting very far into their shelter. He could see what he wanted to look at, though.
Usopp was sleeping. He was dreaming now, mouth moving slightly, eyebrows twitching. He was on his side, facing Zoro from barely a foot away, and half-curled with Thalassa in his arms. Close enough for Zoro to reach her, Usopp had explained, if he needed to. It almost looked normal.
Almost normal, because normally Thalassa would have been asleep too. Now, Ida slept instead. The wolf daemon was lying above their heads, muzzle pointed down to brush the mess of Usopp's hair. Zoro had moved his own arm up towards her, letting it lie on the bare ground so his fingers just rested against her flank.
Thalassa was awake, but quite still, watching Zoro, and had returned the rub of his fingers over her head when he'd woken with a happy murmur, pushing back against his hand. Apparently reassured that he was doing better, she was quiet and relaxed, head settled in against her breast, though still watching him carefully. The smoothness of her white chest feathers was a pale spot in the low light, interrupted by the dark lines of Usopp's fingers where he held her. Usopp's other hand was curled loose over her back.
Can't complain about those hands, Zoro thought, tracing the silhouette of them with his eyes. He could see it... and he could feel it. All five fingers, spread a little apart, a loose support under her chest, Usopp holding her effortlessly, in his sleep, and holding Zoro up now, too. The warmth of Usopp's arms around her, the press of his chest that changed a little with every breath... every bit of Usopp that touched her was... stable. A surface for Zoro to grip and hoist himself onto, sprawled like a ragged castaway on that little bit of safety between him that yawning pit of unnatural agony Golden had put in him. Zoro could pull free, at least partly, from the dragging weakness it caused.
Oh, it was all still there, right there, sucking at his heels, his fingertips, the back of his neck... his little island of clarity and calm shifted slightly with Usopp's movements and his own still-recovering hold on himself. But it stayed firm.
He'd sat up by himself last night. On purpose. Held the canteen himself, too. Might even manage to stand up and have a piss later without a human crutch.
Last night had been the first sleep since Golden that had done a damned thing for his weakness, weird as the whole evening had seemed at first.
Ida had barely moved the whole time, lying where she'd been when Zoro had touched her and felt her familiar fur like it was all new again, and he'd kept a hand on her the whole time.
After a supper of beef jerky, sugar cookies and rice - Zoro easily acknowledged to himself that he was missing the shitty cook, or at least his food - Usopp had puttered around with Thalassa held in one arm while Zoro tried for the first time since Golden's attack to do something approaching meditation.
Usopp had gone quiet for that without being asked, moving carefully and then eventually sitting down, cloak wrapped around him and Thalassa held gloriously close, to poke idly at the fire. Zoro had pulled his hand back from Ida, and Usopp had looked over, then turned back to the fire before Zoro could read his face.
Sitting up and taking the usual cross-legged position had worn Zoro out faster than it should have, compromising his ability to concentrate for long. Even so, Zoro had found and then held that calm, the feeling he'd been unable to even get close to since Golden. It hadn't been for long, just a few pathetically brief minutes before it had started to falter. He'd forced a few more breaths worth after the first flicker, just to prove to himself that he could, and then had needed to lie back down again, drained worse than if he'd just come from serious battle.
But Usopp had still been there, Thalassa still held close, Zoro still safe from being overwhelmed. The meditation, as vital an exercise as it was for him, had pushed everything away - that relief had gone too, along with all the pain. When Zoro had finally let both flood back over him, there had been also been the fresh awareness that, besides Usopp's touch merely letting him rest properly, it also... felt good.
Good, in a way that didn't only counter pain to give him that little oasis of balance, but also reached a little bit onward from that, like a hint to other things.
It was Usopp's hands, Zoro thought now, staring sleepily at them in the cool dimness of morning. On Thalassa last night, and all through the night to now, while Usopp slept... and on Zoro's arm yesterday, on his chest, when Zoro's control had crumbled and he'd held on for a little while, feeling warm skin and long fingers until Usopp had placed his hand on Ida for him. That had been a relief all its own, and a strange sense of closing the circle of their odd crossed connections.
So... Usopp's hands on him were good, that was all there was to that. Familiar, too, from when Usopp got grabby if he was scared, or when he poked or tapped to underscore something he said. Now familiar in a different way. And Zoro knew, he could imagine, that if it felt good, it could feel better.
Hard not think about that when Usopp was sleeping with his arms effectively around Zoro's wounded consciousness, giving him that secure contact to start warding away Golden's disgusting invasion and the wound it had left.
If he closed his eyes, he could see it like he really wanted it. Usopp not holding Thalassa, but Ida, when everything was the way it was supposed to be. Holding her like when he'd been sleeping that first night, and then more. Hands sinking into her fur, caressing her head like every time Zoro had watched it happen here at their camp.
He felt himself smile a little. Usually that sort of thing started with something else first, didn't it? Hands on skin. Mouths on skin. Bodies together. To touch someone's daemon like Zoro had done, and was still imagining was... beyond the boundary of kissing, or groping, or any of the rest.
So if you started here to begin with... Zoro moved his fingers slightly against Ida's flank, rubbing for a second through her familiar-strange fur.
Usopp made a little noise, like contentment mixed with surprise. The faint frown on his forehead from whatever dream he was in smoothed out, mouth stretching into the beginning of a smile, and his arms tightened around Thalassa for a moment. The feedback washed back through Zoro and he heard himself sigh.
It dissipated before it got anywhere close to arousal, though the edge of pleasure brushed through him, even lingering a little before the aftermath of Golden's cut encroached again.
Usopp woke and stretched briefly, his arms coming back around Thalassa to brush automatically through her feathers, until the smell of wood smoke sank in and he stopped himself, feeling his face warm up even before he'd rubbed his eyes open. Zoro was watching him, eyes a little wide, but nothing more. Usopp blinked, "Mmmmsorry," he yawned. Zoro shrugged and slowly sat up.
Something warm and pleasant inside him ceased, and Usopp realized Zoro had been touching Ida, which gave him an interesting little thrill. He's touching her 'cause she's his, he reminded himself. Only fair. Thalassa was a light, comforting weight in his own hands.
He sat up too, Thalassa moving to his lap while he pushed his fingers into his hair. Then he wished he hadn't. Tangled and unwashed, gritty with settled dust from the explosions that had in turn been wetted with melted snow and redried into a clumpy layer... his head felt positively caked in grime. He made a face, turning the grimace on Zoro, who scratched the back of his head, his short hair somewhat untidy with its own layer of accumulated grime and sleep-flattening, but hardly a nest like Usopp's. Zoro raised an eyebrow.
"Can cut it off," he offered, glancing at his swords.
Usopp took a scandalized breath, but Thalassa got there first. "You will NOT!" she stood up, theatrically indignant. She groomed a couple of feathers haughtily. "That hair is a sign of virility and health!" she informed the shelter at large.
Usopp grinned, further heartened when he saw the answering amusement in Zoro's tired eyes. Tired, yes, but not wrecked like before. This was definitely a better morning.
"It's a sign to attract nesting birds," Zoro grunted, dragging his legs around to cross them and slouching down with his elbows on his knees. "Obviously," his faint humour turned into a brief, pointed smirk at Thalassa, and she harrumphed.
"I don't think so," Ida said, coming to Usopp's defense. She got up and put her nose against his cheek for a second, then in his hair, and drew back to sneeze. "Though... a wash..."
"Oh, thanks, I do know that," he told her, grinning to know their real opinion on the matter. He scratched her behind one ear, then the other, then ruffled them gently. Ida leaned into the caress, and then lowered her head to bump Thalassa in morning greeting as well. Thalassa nibbled in gentle grooming motions at Ida's cheek, then shifted in Usopp's lap, peering past Ida's legs towards Zoro.
Her current instinct to be with him was not going to overcome what they all knew needed to be happening right now, and Usopp had been mostly prepared to pretend like he didn't have his hands all over not-really-but-kind-of-Zoro's daemon today, except that Zoro was looking back at her, not quite impassive enough right now to hide that he felt it too.
"It's all weird," Usopp muttered. He met Zoro's eyes, got a shrug of acknowledgement and half rose, closing the little distance between them so that he could sit cross-legged in a match to Zoro's position. They were knees to knees, and he expected Thalassa to move to Zoro, was ready to keep a hand on her while she did, but Zoro moved first, leaning forward so that Usopp had to lean back or else end up with their cheeks nearly pressed together.
Wouldn't mind, he thought. Then his brain caught up with his libido and not now, stupid, he thought next, a little wildly. His libido didn't seem to care.
Zoro glanced up at him when he drew back, but Usopp couldn't meet his eyes, instead drawn to stare at Zoro's hands moving over Thalassa, right there in Usopp's lap.
"I'll have you know murres don't even make nests," she was telling Zoro, turning her head away and pretending disdain even while she leaned into his hands with the rest of herself. The barely-audible chuckle in reply was unreasonably distinct to Usopp's ears.
It wasn't like Zoro was touching Ida - The feeling wasn't there, that lovely deep-inside warmth from the swapped connection was missing. But Zoro was touching Usopp's daemon regardless, and the sight of that, even without the sensation that was supposed to come along with it, was the very opposite of disturbing, now... What Usopp could see was dim and shadowy but his mind filled in all the missing details easily. Zoro's hands, that close and - and touching her, sent a billowing wave of heat straight up through him. And the rest of Zoro was right here too, his broad, muscled shape right where Usopp could reach out if he dared.
It made Usopp so alert, all of his skin feeling every tiny brush of air, the weight of his clothing, every little shift Thalassa made in his lap, every brush of Zoro's hands against the insides of his legs as he handled her. Even through the fabric of his overalls, he could feel it. With Zoro touching Thalassa like that, he might as well not be wearing anything, anyway.
And even though they both smelled of campfire smoke and old sweat and rock dust and the clothes they'd slept in for two nights now... all of that seemed to diminish into unimportance.
There didn't seem to be enough air, either, but it didn't matter; Usopp's body had suddenly decided that touching was all it wanted, oxygen not relevant now, thanks, and all Usopp wanted was - he swallowed, and the sound was so much louder than it should have been.
He still didn't look back up at Zoro, couldn't not watch the dim sight of those large, strong hands resting on Thalassa's plumage, thumb stroking over her head now, fingertips sliding under her feathers.
Usopp held his own hands apart, and they hovered awkwardly out at his sides, resisting the instinct to bury his own fingers in Thalassa's black feathers right alongside Zoro's.
It was easy to picture doing that in Ida's dark fur, too.
"Uh... Zoro..." he breathed, one hand coming in only enough to rest fingertips on Zoro's arm for a second, dragging a little line along the warm skin. This was getting... harder. So to speak. He was seventeen, erections were hardly unfamiliar - more like the complete opposite - but getting one right in front of Zoro, their knees touching and their faces inches apart, really was. He shifted where he sat, held his breath and finally dragged his gaze up, wondered if Zoro could feel the heat pouring off him from that close.
Zoro's eyes rose again too, still so tired, half-lidded, and he certainly wasn't blushing, which made Usopp's insides go into a knot of pinched embarrassment. But then Zoro opened his mouth just a bit. He said nothing, but his expression turned intent and he raised one hand from Thalassa's back and brushed it past Usopp's chin. He slid it over Usopp's shoulder, then to his neck, and, after a pause, back under the mess of his hair.
The grip was weak, for Zoro, and his arm hung heavily. Usopp let out a breath of questioning sound, high-pitched and amazed, and he grabbed at Zoro's wrist, holding him there. Zoro pressed his fingers in before he let go.
Usopp made himself let the hand slide away, the lingering sensation of the fingers on his neck feeling like it had been branded into his mind. "Alright," he said, almost giddy with relief that his ridiculous thoughts weren't so ridiculous. "Alright." He could wait. Sure. This is crazy, so crazy, very crazy, he thought. Not that he was complaining. No, no.
Zoro leaned back, his hands leaving Thalassa, one final rub of his thumb against her smooth beak, and she caught at it briefly before it got too far.
After that it was difficult to move away, like moving through all that snow, yesterday, especially with Zoro watching him with an unnerving but strangely enjoyable assessing look, like he might be thinking of what they could do, and Usopp wondered if he ought not to be so much more terrified than he was intrigued.
He pushed himself back, though, then turned around and tried to arrange himself so his erection wasn't so obviously... obvious, even though Zoro's quirked eyebrow when Usopp finally stood up made the effort kind of pointless.
Still blushing hot, but strangely at ease with Zoro's unruffled acknowledgement of his state, he shrugged. "Ah, ah... breakfast, huh? I'll get some food together." Food was important, couldn't not eat, after all.
"Yeah," Zoro answered equably, that flicker of amusement back again.
Fumbling a bit, Usopp tied his cape around himself in a sling, giving Thalassa a place to sit against him and providing him the use of both hands.
He poked his head outside first, though, taking a breath of cold, wet morning air and blinking at the brightness. Very chilly, the damp air still unpleasantly penetrating, but not actually freezing anymore. The sky was overcast, but the clouds were high, not threatening a blizzard any longer. The snow was still deep, but heavy-looking and wet, starting a slow melt. That would be like wading through mud, but if it melted now and then refroze when it got cold tonight, it would be a bumpy layer of ice. Which would then be slicked with water when daylight came back. Usopp grimaced.
He pulled back inside, where it was dark and suddenly very cozy, compared to out there. "Stopped snowing," he said. Zoro looked over at the branches like he could see through them, frowning slightly in thought.
"It's not very deep," Thalassa added. "Not like that ten-foot snowfall we saw back home one year. We tunneled out of that, though, there were migrating snow-moles - "
"You should fly back," Zoro said abruptly, and her beak snapped shut.
"Zoro," Usopp and Thalassa said together, the disagreement in their voices identical, naturally. The lingering heat of Usopp's arousal was chased away by the implications of that suggestion, visions of what Zoro had endured coming back full force. But neither he nor Thalassa said anything else, because Zoro had a point.
Thalassa could go back to town now, tell everyone they were still fine - or close enough - but more importantly, ask if there was any known way across the canyon that didn't involved rappelling down cliffs and climbing up the other side, or walking all the way to the coast.
As his eyes adjusted again, Usopp could see that Zoro was sitting straighter, shoulders squared, bracing already for something that would hit him somewhere that no amount of muscle could protect against. Ida too, was sitting, straight and solemn. She agreed with Zoro, of course, and knew the cost of it just as well.
Every second Thalassa was gone... the whole time Usopp couldn't touch her...
"I... think..." Better to leave soon, then. "Let's eat first, okay? We'll get out of here. Then just... wait until we reach the canyon, at least," Usopp said weakly. It wasn't even much time off Thalassa's journey - the canyon edge was visible from here, outside the thicket. It was a lot longer back to town from the other side. An hour walk along the road - a much faster flight, but even so... Less was better.
"Then, after, you go," Zoro persisted to Thalassa. It had to be a measure of just how awful he knew it was going to be, if he wasn't insisting Thalassa go now. That didn't make the delay much of a relief.
They found a sort of indented shelf of bare rock near the canyon's edge, rain- and wind-carved into having a slight overhang. There was space to stand that was nearly dry; snow and meltwater had all slid down into the canyon rather than settle in there, and Usopp chose that spot for them to wait. No snow fell, but the wind had picked up here by the canyon. He was glad he'd convinced Zoro to wear the blue cape. It was, like his own red one, a decent shield against the chill.
Still reluctant about this whole endeavour, Usopp crouched to let Thalassa stand on the ground. He kept one hand on her back as she gathered herself for those first few running steps, and Zoro crouched too, brushing his fingers along one wing, sliding against Usopp's hand as he did. Ida was standing back, ears flat with the unpleasant anticipation they all shared.
"Ready," Thalassa said. She looked behind her at Zoro.
"...Go," he said with the slightest detectable pause, voice rough, and Usopp felt a stab of dread, a pain in him that he knew was only the faintest shadow of what was about to hit Zoro.
Thalassa slid from under Usopp's hand and Zoro's fingers, her ungainly hopping take-off over in a few seconds and she was up, soaring out over the canyon's vast depth and rising on the wind to go onward to town.
The moment the connection broke, Zoro let out a sound like he'd been struck and winded. He lurched upright, then turned and put his hands out on the cold stone to catch himself. A shudder started and then wavered to a stop as he tried to hold himself rigid. His fists clenched, his head bowed, shoulders trying to bear up under something that had happened far too deep inside to push back against.
Ida paced in a small circle and stared fixedly at Thalassa's shrinking shape.
Usopp stood too, and reached for Zoro, arresting a surely unwise urge to just grab and hold him. He made himself only put a hand on his arm. Maybe even that was unwanted - seeing him take the blow out in the open wasn't like last night in the shelter - but he couldn't sit back and just watch it, not with knowing what he did now, not when Zoro didn't even have "his" daemon to hold. Usopp started to reach his other arm back for Ida, intending to bring her closer because surely her presence would be better than nothing at all.
Zoro's bicep bunched briefly tighter under Usopp's hand, and before he had to decide whether or not that meant he should back off, Zoro grabbed at him, clutching at his shoulders. Zoro was exhausted now, from the past few days and the slog through the snow to reach the canyon; he was weaker than when Golden had cut him and Ida apart, but that clinging grip was the same as when he had fallen against Usopp's back, that first time.
Usopp let himself be pushed back, slamming against the back wall of the stony nook as he caught Zoro by the upper arms in return. He let go with one hand to grab for the back of his neck and guide the headlong motion so that Zoro's forehead drove against his shoulder, and not the bare rock above it.
Ida made a sound between a whine and a snarl, still staring out across the canyon, then let out a short breath. Her voice was flat. "She'll be back soon."
"She will," Usopp said, his voice coming out much more strained, pinned as he was by Zoro's weight and pressure. She would be. Soon.
Not soon enough. He squeezed at the back of Zoro's neck. It felt worryingly cool, even with the insulation of cape's heavy cloth wrapped across his shoulders. Under the skin Zoro seemed hard as rock, or steel. He was still digging his fingers painfully into Usopp's shoulders, and he was holding onto himself just as tightly.
It became almost as horrific as those first moments after Golden, when Usopp heard Zoro's harsh breathing turn into seething through clenched teeth.
"M'sorry," Usopp said stupidly, pointlessly. He tightened his grip on Zoro, then let go with the hand on Zoro's neck to curve his arm over instead, sliding his hand up through Zoro's gritty hair, holding onto him right back. "Sorry. Sorry."
Zoro panted, swallowed, choked off something like a word, then tried again. "How" came the raw growl, muffled down in the space between them, and Zoro had to work through another bout of clenched-teeth breathing before he could finish. "How'd you - how can you - " he didn't finish, or couldn't, but he didn't have to.
Usopp stared past Zoro's rigid shoulders for a few seconds, at the white sky and the stark line of the other side of the canyon. Most people couldn't go beyond mere yards of separation. Some, only feet. Some, a few tens of yards. Thalassa was already gone, out of sight.
"I..." It had been a long time ago. "Whatever Golden was cutting, we... broke something like that, a long time ago. Permanently. You saw... how it was," he said, voice dropping of its own accord. He tightened his arm around Zoro's neck, for whose benefit, he wasn't sure. "At... at Enies Lobby."
Zoro's panting was evening out, and Usopp realized the distraction was probably helping. "Was that... when - ?"
"No," Usopp said, searching for some kind of lie, and finding himself unable to gather one together, for this. "When I was a kid." Ida turned abruptly, abandoning her vigil of the canyon to stare at him in disbelief. Zoro made an incredulous noise, and Usopp wondered if he'd think this was a lie. That was okay. "We wanted to... she would fly away, as far as she could. To, uh, find my dad. He's a pirate. He was at sea."
Zoro's hands twitched, tightened again, and he shoved himself back and free of Usopp's grip to stare at him. The strained pallor of his face was painful to look at. The horror-tinged incredulity was too, in a different way, and Usopp watched as Zoro examined his face, the horror winning out over the disbelief. "You did that... to yourself?"
"We had to try," Usopp said, looked away, past Zoro, out across the canyon again. "One time she got far enough that it stopped hurting." He pressed his lips together. "But my - well. We never did it anymore. We didn't really know what it meant, back then."
Standing back, now at arm's length, Zoro seemed stuck there. He made a little lurch forward, then locked his arms against it. A tremor ran across him, and Usopp didn't wait to give in to his first instinct this time. He grabbed a fold of the blue cape that looped over Zoro's shoulders, and pulled.
One moment of resistance, and then Zoro let it happen, a sigh escaping him as his arms bent, and then his forehead pushed at the front of Usopp's shoulder again. "Look, let's just sit," Usopp told him quietly. It felt daring as he put one arm up around Zoro's back and patted with the other at his waist, pushing with an effort away from the wall and turning them so he wasn't being squashed anymore. He pinched at the cloth of Zoro's haramaki and tugged while he started to sit down. He was faintly amazed when Zoro simply sank down with him.
When Zoro started to settle on his knees, Usopp just tugged slightly again, to see if... Closer. Come on.
And Zoro did, almost as close as physically possible. He sat right up between Usopp's legs, unfolded his own to hitch them over Usopp's hips, leaning heavily against him. Usopp suppressed a noise of surprise - but absolutely not of objection - at the sudden encroachment and massive armful of swordsman. He gathered him as close as he was able.
Zoro dropped his head on Usopp's shoulder and actually eased his grip as he did. It was as though the closer he was, the less tightly he had to hold on to Usopp, or to anything else; the rigidity in him was starting to bleed off. Zoro's hands moved down to Usopp's waist; his fingers pushed into the fabric of his sash just far enough to let the tension of the cloth keep them tucked there.
Usopp got one arm up around Zoro's neck, settling his hand in his hair again. The other arm stayed firmly across the span of his back, under the cape where it was warmer. "We oughta keep warm, eh?" Usopp said against Zoro's heavy shoulder. A slight twitch and noise of agreement, and Zoro pressed his face close against Usopp's neck.
He wasn't bothering with any self-consciousness about this, apparently.
Ida came to lie down beside them, leaning against the sides of their legs, and Usopp felt the contact between her and Zoro with a great deal of guilt, this time. Couldn't give that comfort back, not now, there wasn't anything he could do for this at all. But she was warm on the outside too, at least.
Usopp exhaled against Zoro's shoulder, feeling the heat pool in the cloth, and Zoro's fingers moved slightly under his sash, pressing back in response. This was so much better than the alternative. Usopp was profoundly thankful that Zoro hadn't shoved him away and spent the duration of Thalassa's absence grinding his fists and forehead against the stone, or flat on his back, gone all silent and stoic again on the basis of his one full night's sleep.
It was still easier to picture that than to imagine what they must look like, right now.
Brook was heading towards the community hall holding a stack of fresh linens that the lovely folk at the inn had washed for use in Chopper's ward. He still skirted the town square today, though it wasn't the smooth, deep bank it had been the day before. Not because anyone local had gotten around to the task of clearing it, though.
"Gum-gum... snowplow!" Luffy's voice rang out and a fountain of snow blasted upward. Brook wasn't sure the effort cleared the snow so much as... moved it in a variety of directions. He paused on the edge of the square nearest Luffy to peruse his captain's artistic endeavours.
Luffy was galumphing around in the wet snow. Aside from shifting it around so vigourously, he'd apparently come to take advantage of its superior stickiness for some big, lumpy... creations. None of the locals likely to join him were about - they were all at school - but he seemed content to pack the stuff as high as he could, humming and singing to himself, scarf dangling and Oma scrambling over the strange shapes.
"Hmm, beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder," Brook murmured. "Not that this beholder has any eyes to speak of." He chuckled to himself, and turned to go on.
He stopped short, though, when a faint, familiar cry of awk-awk-awk came to him, distant on the chilly, damp air and a ways overhead. He looked up and heard Luffy's gasp echo his own.
The black speck, nearly washed out by the vastness of white cloud behind it, was drawing nearer and nearer, and soon Brook could make out the shape of her wings. He heard the cry again, and prickling nerves warred with giddy relief inside him.
Not long after Brook had joined Luffy's crew, Brook had started to ask a question about the Sogeking poster in Luffy's hearing. He'd been interrupted from many directions, an indication obvious enough that he'd let it be. Sanji had pulled him aside later, explaining some things about that poster, and Usopp, and what they'd seen Usopp and his daemon do at Enies Lobby.
Brook had hardly believed it then, despite Sanji doing the telling and Usopp never having said a single thing about it. Brook had heard an astonishing account of how Thalassa had changed, had fought at the same vast range that Sogeking's slingshot had reached... and changed back in the middle of it all, when the mask had briefly been removed. She and Usopp been separated by a vast gulf then too, from Sanji's description of the destroyed bridge. So even then, they had had this ability... but Brook had not witnessed that himself, and this, now, was still a sight that he had trouble taking in quite rationally. It was both astonishing and - Brook knew precisely why but that did not stop it - deeply disconcerting.
"She looks well, but he's not here, they were on the other side... He's too far," Syrinx muttered plaintively, shifting in his hair with the same mingled relief and distress.
"Thalaaaaaassaaaaaaaa!" Oma's giddy shriek of recognition pierced their ambivalence, and the relief edged past the discomfort in Brook as Thalassa banked slightly and drew near, her wings spreading to brake, and doing so poorly, as usual, since the murre shape was best suited for diving at speed, or skimming over water, not high flight and ground landings. She put her webbed feet out to take the impact, but still plowed halfway into one of Luffy's snow piles.
"She's here, she's really here," Syrinx whispered, perched in his hair just by his earhole. Her voice was tight.
"Indeed she is," Brook replied.
A small circle of townsfolk had gathered, drawn by the unnatural-looking sight, unnerved and amazed and looks on them all, but not, Brook was relieved to see, any hostility.
"Witch," he heard murmured from a few directions, in awe more than anything. But it was surely best to get her out of sight. He darted aside to hand his stack of linens off to a nurse who'd stopped at the spectacle, and then returned to where Luffy and Oma were excavating Thalassa from the ruin of the snow construction.
Thalassa's black head popped up, prompting gasps from the people there. She was immediately tackled around the neck by Oma. "We got your message and we knew you were fine!" Oma said, rubbing her furry face against the dark feathers, skinny arms squeezing tight, "but we really want you guys to come back, now."
Thalassa tucked her beak right back against Oma, holding her close in turn, but only for a few seconds. "No injuries," she said, pulling free. "There was food and we had shelter. " She was moving nervously, not unlike how she did if she and Usopp were severely afraid. There wasn't actual fear now, but no calm either. She made no grand claims or sweeping announcements when she spoke, only went on. "We need to know a way back." She clambered doggedly out onto the top of the ruined snow sculpture, and Luffy sat back, face turning solemn at her edginess. "We're at the other edge of the canyon, we don't know - "
"Map!" Luffy said decisively. "Right. There's stuff like that, Nami was looking at 'em. Ummm..." he looked around. Brook realized Luffy had never been in the Archives. Which, admittedly, was safer for all involved.
"This way," Brook spoke up. Thalassa's obvious health meant only good things, her energy too. Her mere presence was an even better reassurance than those fireworks from across the canyon. But her tension was clear, her desire to turn and fly back as obvious as her black feathers on the white snow. Brook led her towards the Archives, the townsfolk parting before him without hesitation, with Luffy and Oma trailing behind.
Nami wasn't, in fact, there at this time; she had taken a train of carts down to Sunny along with Franky to supervise some trade exchanges. But Robin was here, and her eyes widened greatly at Thalassa's solitary waddle through the door behind Brook.
Brook faded back with relief while Thalassa spoke to Zafir and Robin. But he couldn't not look at her, even though so much of him was having difficulty with the sight of a daemon without her human. It was arresting for too many reasons, the good and the ill. Irrational panic licked at the back of his mind, and frustration with it - hadn't this gone away? - and it was so wrong that such a thing should occur at the sight of part of one of his dear friends.
But occur it did, reason no barrier against it, only a momentary restraint, because even though he could see, from looking at Thalassa, that Usopp was fine, the fact remained that he wasn't there. And he wasn't a witch, despite the townsfolk's understandable misinterpretation. That might have made this easier; Brook, in his distantly-gone army days in his home kingdom, had met a few. They were unnerving in their own ways - and Brook suspected that he would have a far less easy time with that now than he ever had then - but it had been their certain type of normal to be seen apart.
In the time Brook had known Usopp, he had never, until now, made use of this eerie ability. And so part of Brook's mind seemed to fixate on the superficial similarities to Brook's ordeal; Thalassa and Usopp had been together the last time he'd seen them, and now they were not. Sense memories of Syrinx being removed from Brook's incapacitated form twitched into focus and out again.
He refused to collapse again, though, and he didn't. Neither did he do anything else, just stood and watched, seeking only to hold onto himself until Thalassa departed again. Syrinx moved, fluttering from his hair down to the hand he raised for her, and he held her against his chest, gaze pinned unwillingly to Usopp's daemon.
It was Oma who tied the rolled-up map to Thalassa's leg, the knot clumsy and overdone, but pronounced secure by Zafir. To Brook's guilty relief, Thalassa did not linger, taking the exit provided by the window that the stunned-looking archivist opened. She flapped her awkward takeoff wingbeats, and then rose higher and vanished from Brook's sight, though not Luffy's, as the captain hung half of himself out the window to watch her go, hollering a goodbye along with Oma.
Robin was watching Brook now, and he realized it with a surge of shame. He stood up straight from where he'd taken support against the wall, trying to present himself better. Her worry had returned, and he disliked the sight of that intensely, very aware that it was his own weakness that had put that expression there. He realized vaguely that he was breathing quite quickly. The air here felt close, and hot.
She excused herself politely to the archivist, and came to him, touching his arm. "Come, let's go outside."
Certainly. Whatever she wished. Zafir hovered in front of Brook, keeping pace. He ducked through the door, and they moved through the thinning crowd of townsfolk, Robin's calm replies to a few tentative questions mostly unheard. All he did was keep his gaze on the top of her head and follow her. The cold air helped, but they had come nearly to the inn before Brook realized he had said nothing at all upon leaving to the archivist, his captain, the curious townsfolk, or even Robin.
"Ah, how terribly rude of me..." he said, coming to an uncertain halt. Robin stopped as well, turning back to him.
Luffy was a few steps behind them, his presence scattering the townsfolk and their daemons back to a more politely curious distance, and he kept moving until he was up alongside Brook, looking on towards the town square. He stopped and glanced up at Brook.
"Luffy..." Brook said, finding words difficult to locate at the moment.
Tilting his head, Luffy craned his neck to look back again at the direction Thalassa had come from, and thus, Brook imagined, had departed towards just now. "It's pretty awesome, huh." Brook only nodded "And really weird to see, too," he added, grinning.
"Yes... both, indeed," Brook acknowledged. Luffy did... appreciate that sort of thing, after all.
"Now they got a map - they're all coming back together!" Luffy said, stepping up onto the ridge of shoveled snow that bordered the cleared sidewalk and haphazardly redecorated square. He paused there, looking at Brook while Oma leaned out from his hood, reaching up to brush her fingers over Syrinx's back, and then he headed back to his snow artwork-in-progress.
"You needn't pretend," Robin said quietly, as Luffy plowed back into his playground.
Brook felt his shoulders sag. "I don't believe I could, as of yet," he murmured, He felt Robin's hand slide into the crook of his elbow. Zafir alighted alongside, his nearly imperceptible weight only barely noticeable through Brook's suit jacket.
"In time," Robin said to him, and he sighed. There was truth to that, of course. And yet, somehow, even though all his isolation in the fog should have taught him just how to wait... Well. He couldn't really claim that had made his mind any healthier, could he? But he had come through that, as best he could. This would surely be the same. And this time, so very fortunately, he was not alone.
"In time," Syrinx repeated. She moved from his hand to perch on where Robin's fingers curled up over Brook's arm, where she could lean against Zafir. Brook reached his other arm across to brush his fingers against the thin fabric of the shirt over Robin's arm, feeling the warmth seeping through the layer, and the slight give of skin against his hard bones. She hadn't put a coat on, he realized suddenly.
"Miss Robin!" he exclaimed, "you will catch a terrible chill staying out here like this! You've left your coat!" He turned towards her, tilting his head sternly.
Her oddly soft smile at his words disarmed him completely. It seemed warm as sunlight, even on this chilly, cloudy day, warm as her fingers under Syrinx's tiny feet. He stared at her, teeth parting with a rush of contentment.
"It's not so cold as that," she told him. Her hand squeezed tightly at him for a moment, and she leaned into him, resting her head against his arm. "But I find I appreciate the concern."
He shook himself slightly. "I will gladly repeat it as many times as you like," he told her, tugging her back towards the Archives. "As long as you allow me to do it inside."
She came along, still smiling slightly, simply indulging his concern in all likelihood, but that was a comfort all its own.
Brook glanced up, just before they re-entered, at the soft grey and white of the cloud cover far above, saw in his mind's eye that acutely strange sight of Thalassa again. A daemon, alone.
Syrinx was still perched on Robin's fingers, the light touch a soothing sensation on Brook's still-quivering nerves. Even if he couldn't feel properly calm about the whole affair, he was devoutly glad that Usopp could allow and endure a separation like that one - ability to be apart or no - without such a debilitating reaction. Brook's own persistent panic reactions aside, it was still a tremendous comfort to have seen Thalassa himself, and to know they were well.
Frederik was asleep again, and Anton, despite his own exhaustion, had needed to go outside, if only for a little while. He had gone for a few breaths of the cold, damp air outside the back of the community hall. A rear access door led out from the back hallway, and he'd sat down at the top of the steps that joined the door's landing to a stone path at ground level.
Farther over, past a dormant flower bed covered in patchy snow, were wider doors at nearer ground level for moving larger items in and out. In the cobbled loading area, depressions from constant passage of cart wheels were pooling full of slushy water, and from the the roof meltwater dripped steadily to the ground. If only the sun would come out to get rid of the rest of it...
A black spot against the sky attracted his unfocused, sleepy gaze. He sat up and stared as a black and white seabird daemon flew low over the roof and onward out of sight. Akilah squirmed on his shoulder at the strangeness. He raised his cast-free hand to slide his fingers along her back. Reports from Enies Lobby had mentioned a free-flying daemon with the Strawhats, a huge black albatross, linked by witnesses to the sniper called Sogeking. The murre was much smaller, and not attached to any of the crew on the wanted posters. Was it someone in town...?
Then the rear access door he'd come out through was kicked viciously open. "Shitty fucking assholes!" came a yell as Blackleg rushed out past him and stared upward, jaw clenched as he scanned the sky. The swan daemon was right behind him, taking a leap off an extended leg to launch upward. She rose to a rather impressive distance, well above the roof, before she faltered and Blackleg grunted in discomfort, still glaring at the clouds.
Anton had leaned back and away from the angry pirate's rush past, but Blackleg rounded on him as his daemon circled back down to the ground. "Did you see anything?"
"I, uh..." he managed, before the swan landed. "Bird daemon flew overhead. Black and white. Common murre."
"She's far off," the swan said, grooming a few feathers in irritation. "Heading back. Shitty seabird does look fine, though." She looked upward again, settled and resettled her wings with the same unease Anton had felt at the sight of the lone daemon.
Blackleg snorted, reached down to stroke the backs of his fingers over the swan's smooth head, then pulled a package of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one, sucking the smoke in and blowing it out with a sigh like someone who hadn't been able to smoke in a while. It didn't seem to bring quite as much calm as Anton was used to observing among his colleagues who smoked, though. Blackleg was still glowering upwards. "Shitty jerks better be alright," he muttered, eyeing the sky as if he could make it share information by kicking it hard enough.
So they did have a witch, or something like one, on their crew? Anton didn't feel particularly surprised.
Blackleg's narrowed eye lowered after a little while and landed on Anton. He was back in a suit today, and even with the apron on he was still a striking sight. Anton, by contrast, wore an oversized patched grey sweater over a slightly frayed black turtleneck, and had on faded blue denims and a pair of utility boots that were too big for him. All items donated by townsfolk, clean and in serviceable repair, for all that he looked like he was wearing an older brother's clothing. He shifted uncomfortably and realized he missed his uniform. His real one.
He'd gotten used to not wearing it, while preparing alongside Fred and the others, and then spent so long desperately maintaining his cover in Golden's lair...
He pressed his cast down against the thick folder of papers across his knees, and tried to sit up straight, present some modicum of dignity. He moved his other hand from Akilah to rest on the folder as well.
Blackleg's narrowed eye sharpened, and Anton had the sensation of an almost physical pressure against him as the pirate walked towards him, very like a predator towards something it knew could not run, except that there was no purposeful threat in it. That didn't mitigate the imposing approach at all, but Anton suspected that was due to his own awareness of just how strong this young man was.
"What is this?" Blackleg asked, peering down at the folder on Anton's knees. "Bringing some detailed intelligence back for your shitty admirals, are you?" He didn't sound concerned, just curious. Anton was well aware none of them found him- - or his team, in their current awful state - at all worrying, but it was still odd to hear that question asked so casually.
There'd be no way to resist him if he tried to take it, though Anton wasn't feeling particularly coerced. He handed him the file. Blackleg looked mildly surprised, and leafed through it, skimming the pages of Anton's neat handwriting. "Or not," Blackleg allowed.
"Not," Anton said, and Blackleg took a short drag on the cigarette, and blew the smoke upward, waiting. "It's all data on Golden's people. Daemons 'n shifts 'n changes 'n timelines and nothin' you people would care about."
Blackleg resettled the papers tidily, then closed the file and held it out. Anton took his papers back, gathering them against his chest.
"Unless we wanted to kill you, you'd report back anyway," Blackleg said with a shrug. Off Anton's choking noise, he looked at him with a mingled stare of amusement and the faintest hint of apology. "We're not going to kill you."
"I don't care about reportin' on you," Anton said. How many ways could he get court-martialed for that statement, he wondered.
He stared past Blackleg at the alley behind the hall's rear yard, and the sheds and fences of the buildings on the other side. Everything was dripping with melting snow. "I don't care where you all've been at or where you're goin' to, or the size of your ship or her ordnance. I don't care 'bout top speed or combat styles, or separation limits or anythin'." He clenched one fist against his knee. "I care about Golden's links outside of here, and who was givin' him people to cut," he snarled, surprised at his own voice, furious and low. Surprised that he was daring to defend his last remaining purpose to this man, of all people.
Blackleg seemed taken aback at his words, or his vehemence, maybe. "So that's why your team risked ending up in that shitty state." He tapped some ash off the end of his cigarette, then stepped over to sit on the other side of the steps from Anton.
Anton looked away and hunched his shoulders, names and numbers stumbling through his mind again. His memory was... uneven, too much fatigue. Everything was so sluggish in his head now... it was time to let what he'd dredged from his brain sit for a while, though. He'd look again when his mind had a little distance, and, he guessed, some sleep. Might see something new, remember something more. There was always something more.
He slid his hand over the file. "This here is... what I remember. It's what we were in there for."
There was plenty of that, though. More than he'd expected.
Blackleg hmmed. "Guess a lot of that information went into the pit with the rest of the place," he said. He didn't apologize. Anton didn't expect or want him to, either.
"My team's alive," was all he had to say to that. The words came out stiff, still angry, but Blackleg only looked over at him, and Anton met the eyes of a pirate and saw, plain as anything, a very real common ground. The man understood exactly what he meant.
Oddly shaken, Anton stood then, leaving Blackleg to his smoking and the chilly air and melting snow. He went back inside to his room, now shared with not only Frederik, but also Issak and the commander. The heads of Issak and Fred's cots, along with Anton's, were all against the back wall of the room. The commander's bed was lengthwise along the same wall as the door to the hallway. There was enough room to walk between each bed and little else, but Anton preferred this greatly over the wide-open ward of the ballroom, or the echoey hallway.
The commander drew his eye first, and he went to her side to stand for a moment of longing respect. She looked, he had to think, better than yesterday. He felt the twist of weak-kneed yearning in him for her to wake up now and take over, for her to take charge of the subordinates she'd commanded for years, rather than leave them to his fumbling attempts at care and comfort. He was the lowest-ranked, the least experienced...
Her clipped, no-nonsense tones rose up in the back of his mind. Like when she'd watched Fred toss him across the mats in the early days, quelling Issak's vocal mirth with one look, only to replace his lighthearted mocking with more serious and pointed remarks, Marcene likewise had not ever been shy about addressing any of them directly, her own voice carrying all the same authority.
Or when they'd first begun teaching him how to speak about his fake identity without sounding like he was reciting it from a book; she'd interrupted every other word he said until he'd finally snapped at her in anger, then gone stock-still in mortification, only to have her grin and Marcene actually laugh for the first time since he'd met them. She'd reached out to slap his shoulder, a smarting blow, back then. "Look, he does have a bit of kick under the manners! Respect over etiquette here, Drydock. Learn this shit, you can bow and scrape all you want when it's over."
He leaned down to straighten the blanket that lay across her chest. Akilah moved down his arm to likewise attend to Marcene, who had been placed on a folded sheet over a stool by the head of the commander's cot. Akilah gently nudged at her, adjusting the position of the sand-spider daemon's legs to a slightly more symmetrical position.
"Miss 'em," Akilah said quietly when he picked her up again.
"Yeah," Anton replied, and he raised his hands, holding her under his chin, where she arched and slid her cool, smooth back against the angle of his jaw.
Fred was still asleep, and still curled up like a child, but facing Issak's bed now. Haidee had been placed on a towel pad on the low table jammed between their cots, but she was not alone. Her speckled grey shape was joined by one in rich black and yellow; Jaromir was next to her.
The sight was an odd one to him now, like deja vu - though how that could be, Anton didn't know. There was no reason for the sight to be familiar; it had never happened before today, when they'd woken the second time, at midmorning and the beetle daemon had tried to go to Haidee, and Fred had lifted him there.
He'd let Anton help him drink some water first, and then he'd listened to Anton's account of the utter destruction done to Golden's operation. His main reaction was open disbelief as Anton explained what had happened there.
Anton had expected that reaction to his report. What had been far more difficult was Fred's harrowing reaction to the state of the commander and Issak, when Anton sat him up so he could see them.
Open weeping was something Anton had trouble with at the best of times. Dealing with it from Fred had been excruciating, not least because it brought his own emotions right back up near the surface, fear and sickening guilt lurching round in his belly. And it didn't matter how many times Anton repeated that Issak and the commander were safe, and they were recovering, there was no avoiding the shock of how they appeared at first sight, so wasted and still.
Jaromir had keened with their distress, and then struggled over to reach Haidee. Fred, shaking, had moved him the last few inches, until he was with her.
Now Fred slept and Jaro was dormant, leaning against Haidee; it was the one single pleasant sight among this evidence of damage to them.
It could be that the familiarity of it was just his own wishful thinking, imagining that the two of them could one day - but after the torture of Golden's procedure, could that even - ? Anton made himself stop that line of thought. For now he just wanted that sight that comforted to be actual comfort for them - wishful thinking again surely, that Haidee and Issak could sense it. Or maybe not.
Fatigue was trying to assert itself in earnest now, his thick behind-the-eyes exhaustion headache getting too intense to ignore.
It pressed heavily down after his hours awake waiting for Fred to wake up, and all the next ones with pen and paper, but looking at Jaro with Haidee still made him smile a little as he sat with a thump down on his own cot.
He hadn't slept since dozing off in the kitchen yesterday. He'd been out for a few hours, but had then stayed awake, waiting for Fred to wake up that first time. After that he'd been caught up trying to extract whatever data his mind could provide, waiting for the extra things his mind didn't know that it knew float upward as he studied it all...
He stared at Jaromir and Haidee now, Akilah's little weight on his shoulder the only other thing his senses cared to notice. He recalled Fred's hand, this morning, shakily shifting Jaro those last inches so they could share the daemon's closeness to Haidee. Fred, even in his weakness, had of course been careful not to touch her.
- told you, you want him back, go spend some quality time with the roach - Golden's voice, impatient and annoyed, drifted forward in Anton's mind like any other scrap of information his mind wanted him to notice, somehow relevant, no matter how disconnected it appeared. How couldGolden possibly have anything to do with Fred's feelings for his comrade? But this fragment had been dislodged by... what? Something. Quality time with the roach.
One of the unfortunates Golden had taken from his among own hirelings to cut, in Anton's second week, had had a forest cockroach daemon.
Yes - that struggled into clarity within Anton's swollen-feeling mind, the memory of the man being pulled, protesting and then screaming, from the technician team come to report on the progress of rewiring the second power-transformer snail. Anton had been up on scaffolding, replacing lights. So when would he have heard Golden mention that unfortunate fellow again?
Anton frowned, shifted uncomfortably as he sorted through few times he'd been within hearing distance of that disturbingly lackadaisical voice and its unpredictably careless cruelty.
What about that time... that time he'd been frozen in fear, trying to look as if his inventory of wire insulation tape was going smoothly, as Golden had passed nearby... was it then? Golden had been striding past, the man in charge of the generators scurrying at his heels. Sir, that can't be the only way?Yes... that was it. The man with the roach daemon had been important, his skills... they'd needed him functional again.
Golden had stopped, nearly behind Anton. He remembered the frigid terror keeping him still, Akilah rigid on his shoulder, Issak's stress-defusion techniques suddenly gone from his mind.
"Nooooo, of course not," Golden had drawled, voice dripping with sarcasm. Then it sharpened. "Are you suggesting I don't know exactly what I'm talking about?"
"N-no, no sir, of course not. I mean, sorry sir. But - "
"So I told you, you want him back, go spend some quality time with the roach. Or get one of the guards to do it. They don't mind." Golden had giggled, low and stomach-turning. "Course he won't wake up quite the same if they do, I suppose... but you're his friend, aren't you?" Golden had said the word like it was a joke. "You do it."
Golden had walked on, flanked by his usual pair of guards, and the generator tech had stood there for a few seconds, while Anton had tried to will himself transparent, before walking away with a heavy tread.
"The cockroach," Anton breathed now, plucking Akilah from his shoulder to stare at the dark patches that made up a millipede's eyes. "Remember?"
"Quality time," she replied, a shudder rippling through her, but her antennae quivered in realization.
"He told him to touch the daemon, didn't he?" Anton whispered, a prickling chill of cold sweat passing over him. The tech's reaction, which Anton had not been able to care about at the time, was so obvious in hindsight. That entire conversation had been one he'd barely heard, so scared had he been in the moment. But he'd remembered, even so.
He lowered Akilah, stared at Fred. Early, he'd said to the little zoan doctor, because Fred had woken up a day before Anton had expected him to... Chopper had said it was because of the improved care here, but... someone had handled Jaromir, hadn't they? Getting them out of the Wards, carrying them down.
A daemon's touch on another daemon... people felt that, of course. If the connection was forced to restore itself by the lack of contact, did the extra feedback through the separation - could it improve that even more? What else could Golden have meant?
And the strongest feedback was always, always a person's touch. Anton swallowed uncomfortably. Negative or positive, that was the most intense... and a perversion to contemplate even as a possibility of help, if Anton hadn't been so completely drained... but not totally exhausted, not yet.
He stood up again, stumbled, caught himself before he fell across Fred's cot, and swerved to leave the room again. No sleep yet. Where were the doctors?
"We'd deployed four garrisons around the fort, it was like a wall of terrible nasty pointy death," Usopp was saying steadily, working to maintain proper enthusiasm in his voice as he described how he'd stepped in to be an army general when the duke of an island he'd visited was under attack by hordes of looters after the treasure vault. He'd thought some nice violence would be the best option to help keep Zoro distracted.
He couldn't really tell if it was working. Zoro's breathing was still too controlled for Usopp's liking, and he was otherwise silent and still, just leaning in and making a poor imitation of the even respiration Usopp was familiar with from his meditation.
At some point, without noticing, Usopp had started to move his hand in Zoro's hair, rubbing in a slow accompaniment to his storytelling. When he'd first realized what he was doing, he'd stumbled over a word, his hand twitching briefly, but Zoro had grunted in faint protest when he stopped. So he'd kept it up, smoothing his palm up and down over the back of Zoro's head. "My lieutenants were so scared, I had to visit them all personally and reassure - "
Ida's claws scratched against the rock under them as she stood suddenly, ears pricked and tail up, as fully and completely alert as Usopp had ever seen her, all of her fixated out towards the canyon. Usopp's story halted and his hand stilled at the sight of Thalassa flying back towards them, her shape as utterly perfect to his eyes as ever, fitting into any view as the thing that made him complete.
"She's back, she's back," Usopp turned his head back enough to speak close by Zoro's ear, before looking outward again. Zoro drew in a deep breath and shivered, a tremble moving across his entire body, and lifted his head from Usopp's shoulder to look as well. His fingers slid free of the sash so he could grip at Usopp's sides as he stared, focused and intent as Ida.
Ida barked, once, low - too low for Thalassa to hear, but Usopp could; he felt a little surge of warmth at the sound that made his fingers rub once more in reflexive reassurance against the back of Zoro's neck.
Ida wasn't a dog, didn't descend into fits of urgent noise when she and Zoro were happy or enraged - she howled for communication sometimes - but she did use low, single barks to greet people, catch attention, warn people off... Her voice was familiar to Usopp, and that bark he'd just heard was one she used when reconvening after a battle, or when she and Zoro had been on ship watch duty for a day or longer and the rest of them had started to come back.
The sound was a greeting, but more, all is well now, alongside Zoro's acknowledging nods and the way he looked over whoever had just returned.
Thalassa's call came to them, as if in answer. The staccato seabird sound echoed off the canyon walls, more than loud enough for everyone to hear, and Usopp and Zoro and Ida watched as she angled down towards them. Ida backed up to make room as Thalassa came to land with a scraping of claws on the rock ledge, skidding straight up against Zoro's knee with a faint feathery thump.
Zoro's hands dug into Usopp's sides briefly, until he tensed all over, to Usopp's unsurprised frustration, and mastered himself. Usopp, however, didn't wait, just scooped her up into his hands.
And the tension left Zoro's body like a snapped rubber band. His grip went slack, and he made a noise in the back of his throat. Surprise, gratitude, involuntary relief - Usopp didn't care. He shoved himself back just far enough to bring her between them. Zoro dropped his hands on Thalassa's back and Usopp stared down, feeling the rush of relief and, guiltily again, his ever more familiar reaction to the sight of Zoro touching her.
Zoro sighed heavily. "I'm back," Thalassa said to him, and raised her beak to pluck at the folds of the blue cape hanging from his shoulders. "I'm back now." Zoro's fingers worked slowly against her, aimlessly except for the instinctive security of the act, and she shifted back and forth; into his touch and against Usopp's hands beneath her.
After a few moments, Usopp slid one hand free, hesitated, and then stroked her wing, past where Zoro's fingertips were tucked into her plumage. Zoro's breathing hitched a little, then he let out another sigh, one less heavy than before, so Usopp continued. He stroked her wing again, rubbed a knuckle down her neck, ran his thumb over the curve of her head. Once, and then another time, his fingers moved over Zoro's. Inopportune, perhaps, but encouraged by Zoro brushing back, each time.
And then Zoro sat up straight, exhaled, and regarded Usopp steadily. Like before, Usopp was willing to take that signal to leave this like it was, for now - funny how being on the side of a cliff made that easier than back under their tree. Even though this time he saw the heat in Zoro's eyes, brief and slight as it was before Zoro set his shoulders and his expression both.
And they both still had their hands across Thalassa's back.
Usopp took a little steadying breath and smiled at Zoro. Pretty stupidly, he was sure, but the glint he got in return took the sharp edge off his self-consciousness.
It also helped when Ida pushed her head between them, the pressure against Zoro sending reassuring warmth into Usopp again. She nosed at Thalassa briefly, even going so far as to lick the top of her head. Normally that was meant in mocking jest, and would've prompted reactionary indignation about dog drool. This time Thalassa only let her eyes half-close in contentment, and Usopp bumped his own forehead against Ida's furry shoulder, leaning against her for a little while.
Weird. This is all so weird. The thought was very nearly giddy, heightened with the knowledge that Thalassa was back and he didn't have to watch Zoro sit and endure any longer.
When Ida lifted her head again her ears were still pricked up, her tail waving slowly, jaws just parted in her lupine smile, and if Zoro still looked rather haggard, his gaze was steady.
They extricated themselves from each other, and Thalassa stood in Usopp's lap, trying to balance on one leg as he untied the rolled-up paper fastened to her. He laid it flat on the stone, a knee on one corner to keep it flat, Zoro's hand on the other side.
Holding Thalassa to his chest so they could both peer down at it, Usopp smiled. A map of the local area, the town and topography clearly marked.
"The canyon," Zoro said, pointing. Ida lowered her head to look closer, head titled quizzically.
"That's the coast," Usopp corrected, smiling a little wider for a moment at Ida's snort and Zoro's wordless grumble of reply. "This is the canyon." He ran his finger along the ink-marked gash in the island's land mass. "There's the forest off behind us, and the river goes down to the sea." The land sloped there, closer to the coast, lowering to meet the river's sides, and wasn't sheer cliffs or anything impassable at the coast, but that was far away from them, from the town, and from what had been marked for them on the map, very near their current location.
The neatly-pencilled addition to the map was in Robin's hand, tiny notes along the margin making Usopp lean in close and then sit back with sudden joy. "We want this." He traced his finger in a circle around the place Robin had marked. "Robin says this is where Mini-Merry is supposed to be."
Zoro's boots and Ida's paws landed on Mini-Merry's small deck with a solid thud. The sound was a good enough signal to the end of their slow way down the cliffside that he could let himself sit down, finally.
It had been... long. One foot before the other, one hand on the stone wall, eyes fixed on Usopp's cape-covered shoulders in front of him, the feel of a hand under Thalassa's chest clear in Zoro's mind even if the sound of Usopp's voice seemed too distant to really understand just then. The effort it took to concentrate on moving stretched every moment out of shape so each one seemed slow, longer, too long... but each had still passed, eventually. That had been almost meditative, in its own way.
The scrape of boots on stone had given way to the nearer and nearer sound of rushing water. The deeper they got into the canyon, the colder the air became, a relentless damp chill seeping into his skin, and then the narrow path ended.
It was darker down here. The overcast sky was a stripe of dull white far overhead. The walls towered over them, narrowing the world to just this corridor of cold, wet river and rock. Their destination had been what was formerly a utility pier, but was now only splintered beams and planks piled over with a dam of debris. Mini-Merry was aground and slanted against a massive, crumpled length of metal pipe, sitting undamaged but immobilized among the wreckage.
But she was theirs, and they had her back.
Now they just had to get her free. "Guess we didn't really think about this part of things," Usopp called down from where he was clambering over the enormous clot of beams, girders, chunks of wall and enormous lengths of massive frayed cabling and twisted pipes. The chagrin was audible in his voice, fatigue on the edges, but for now Usopp's tiredness seemed elbowed aside by his inevitable fascination with all the junk trapping their craft.
The bits and pieces that had formerly been part of Golden's building, now scorched and twisted from the bombs, had come down the river rapids from where everything had fallen in, and then had seized up at this narrowing of the canyon, where the small pier jutted out into the water.
There was a little shack here as well; it looked like a maintenance base for where the pipes feeding the giant tanks had sunken into the water. This river - not technically a river, Zoro thought, it being salt water that moved through this split in the island - had the tide pushing it all back and forth, and right now the rapids were high and the debris was crammed snugly into this narrow point. The pieces were too large to block the river, unable to form a truly solid barrier. Huge, irregular gaps let rushing water through without much apparent slowdown; but the weight of it all had still broken the pier, catching Mini-Merry up in its jagged edge.
"We blew it up once already... we'll get rid of it again," Zoro said, not sure if he was mustering enough volume for Usopp to even hear him over the dull roar of the moving water. He sat down hard on one of the seats, not caring just now about the slant of the little boat's ungainly positioning. Ida sat down in front of him, her gaze following Usopp's progress over the heap of destroyed building pieces, just as Thalassa's glinting black eyes were on Zoro whenever Usopp was turned in the right direction for her to look down from her spot tucked into the hood of his cape.
Sitting here, watching Usopp survey the mess they had to extract Mini-Merry from so they could finally, finally go back to Sunny, Zoro tried to shape his weariness towards a new meditative focus as he tracked Usopp and Thalassa on the wreckage. Sitting still seemed to weigh him down. The momentum was gone. He could feel Usopp's contact with Thalassa, but it was not as distinct as on the way down, not as easy to concentrate on.. He couldn't begrudge Usopp both hands to climb with, though.
It was... enough to let him stay some kind of alert. Just like it had given him the focus to make it down the steep sloping paths that had let them all descend along the canyon's side without having to resort to carving handholds or forcibly getting Usopp over a bout of allergic-to-rappelling-down-sheer-cliffs disease.
Usopp's tired face had still gone rather pale when they'd finally found the top of the narrow path, and Zoro had watched Usopp's nerves go to war with his pride and lose. Zoro had been unable to smile even a little by then, but wispy fondness had drifted through nonetheless. The shaky command had come for Zoro to follow Usopp, the Greatest Canyon-Climber in the World, downward to where Mini-Merry waited.
The nerves had fallen away now, though. Usopp had gone into a sprint at the sight of Mini-Merry, taking the uneven remains of the pier like a champion hurdle-jumper so he could get to her and examine her.
Ida had likewise started to run, and then stopped her own rush, curtailing her current reflex so that she stayed near Zoro, pacing his much slower progress. Usopp eventually turned back to them to grin hugely and present a thumbs-up. He deposited his bag and Kabuto by Mini-Merry's wheel before staring around at what had her trapped, and shaking out his arms determinedly.
He was yards above them on a large, split beam by the time they reached the boat, and so now they only watched, Zoro aching and exhausted and Ida tense, while Usopp scaled the wreckage.
He surveyed it and peered at it, prying at some pieces with a length of broken plank he'd picked up along the way, searching for the best way to get Mini-Merry a clear path out to the river. Bits of machinery, broken and unrecognizable, were jammed here and there among the larger piece, and Zoro dully wondered, for a moment, if something didn't exist - had existed, now surely destroyed as everything else from Golden's facility - to fix all of this.
Then he did feel an unpleasant lurch of disapproval at himself for the thought. To want take the easy way out of this... He tightened his hands into fists, hard as he could, which was very little, just now.
Zoro felt Ida lean slightly against him, saw Usopp pause and look over at the contact. Zoro, elbows braced on his knees, and head up only because it had to be in order to watch them, met Thalassa's black eyes and Usopp's inquiring head-tilt with a slow nod. He waited until Usopp's attention had, reluctantly this time, returned to the dammed debris again before swallowing and shifting to brace himself better. Head up. Keep your head up, he told himself, closing his eyes for just a moment.
It was the wrong moment.
The was a squeal of twisting metal, a massive lurch in the structure that rocked Mini-Merry enough to slide her down to an open patch of water, just as a mingled shriek and screech from one human and one seabird daemon rang out into the wet air and rebounded from the canyon sides, cut off abruptly by a splash that was nearly inaudible against the sound of the river.
Zoro's head jerked up at the moment of the splash, and he was unsteadily on his feet, clutching at Ida's ruff to stay upright on the lurching craft as the dam of debris resettled and sent waves slapping against Mini-Merry's hull. "Usopp!" he and Ida called, "Thalassa!" his voice far too feeble and hers a near roar that echoed off the canyon walls just like their screams had.
Zoro stared at the dam of wreckage, at the white water racing through it. The rapids foamed and broke against the suddenly precarious-looking tangle of ruined construction materials; the water was deep and black under the frothing surface.
Then his hold on focus ripped free as the void rose up in him, pressing his thoughts almost out of existence, crushing them thin and formless against the inside of his skull. Somewhere under the water's surface, Thalassa's contact with Usopp had broken.
He tilted, his hands landed on the deck. Before his eyes was the wood grain of Mini-Merry's planks. It wavered as he gasped and his eyes watered. "Don't, don't. Get up!" a familiar-since-birth voice snapped, and a sharp pain followed - Ida had nipped his ear. He dragged his head up, grabbed for the side of the boat.
A black and white flash rose up, spraying water from short, agile wings as Thalassa shot from the water and through a gap in the mess of twisted metal and shattered wood and concrete. She turned on a wingtip until she was pointed at Mini-Merry and then she fell, crashing to the deck and gasping.
Zoro's gaze had followed her the whole way, almost physically unable not to, but before he could drop down and reach for her, Ida snarled and hitched her forelegs over the side, staring at the water, and his attention wrenched back that way as he tried to look for what she'd seen.
Thalassa's strangled gasps, gulping air like a someone drowning, raked at him.
White froth and shadow-shrouded water suddenly gave up a flash of dark, sodden red cloth, and for one breath, Thalassa's gasping eased. "There," they both said, Ida's voice stronger, angrier and surer alongside his.
And for this moment he was thankful for their disconnection, no matter the disorientation of her shying away from him, no matter the agonizing void left by her half-removal from him that Thalassa didn't fit into, no matter the pain and the weakness, no matter any of it, because right now she was focused on entirely Usopp.
"Get him," he grabbed her scruff and heaved weakly as she pushed off with her own back feet. Up and over the side she went, and then he groped for Thalassa, feeling as if his own throat might close now, like the dim light here in the canyon was growing even darker. She reacted to his touch, twitching slightly and making a low, moaning cry when he picked her up, his cold fingers clumsy against her feathers.
The water had slicked off her already, some part of him found the reasoning to notice, grasping at something that wasn't vast pain or urgent fear. Water rolled off her seabird feathers - she was dry to his touch.
He still had one hand on the side of the boat, and he pulled himself upright again to see, Thalassa clutched to his chest - and then his vision seared over with spots as strangling, tearing pain ripped through the now too-familiar grinding agony of Golden's cut.
The tearing was something he was also familiar with, vastly more so. Ida had hit their limit, and she had not stopped.
The wood of the deck was hard under him, his side, his cheek, but he barely felt it, barely felt anything but how Ida was going farther away. He held Thalassa, her harsh gasping louder than anything else, now. If he still held her, if she was still here, Usopp was still - he was still -
The girder had been solid, certainly, Usopp had looked at it carefully, weighing things he'd learned from Franky against what he could see in front of him. No rust, no buckled spots, no welds that could snap. Solid.
What it had been resting on, however... hadn't been, and the warning sound of splintering wood and the squeal of metal-on-metal came mere instants before a decisive snap somewhere below.
Usopp shrieked in surprise at the fall, hearing Thalassa's similar cry, and hit the water with more indignation at his own misjudgement than actual fear, at least for the first half-second.
Then the water penetrated his clothing, he sank into liquid ice, the sheer cold expelling the breath from him even before he sank into the dark.
The dull throbbing roar of water filled his ears as he spun in the chaotic current. His head glanced painfully against something and he spun again before he even managed to think of trying to find the surface. He thrashed, hit something with one arm, the other wrapped cripplingly in the heavy, pinning cloth of his cape. He kicked, went up, broke the surface to gasp once, saw light past the stark black shapes of the wreckage, managed to turn himself that way before he was sucked under again.
His fingers, face - his skin, it was all already numb, but he was good at a very few things - and one of those was swimming.
He got one hand back over his shoulder, and it swept through the loose folds of his hood - Thalassa was gone, she'd gotten free, and only then did true panic ignite - Zoro - burning in his lungs and constricting around him like the dead weight of his boots and his clothes and his cape and - he broke the surface again, and there was open sky above, blurry through the water in his eyes - but the river was so fast. He was swept on in a rush of current, for all his weak efforts against it not be be carried too far - No - we have to...! - until he collided with a wall of sodden black fur.
Massive teeth flashed white, tongue pink, as wide jaws opened and went straight for his neck. They closed on the folds of his cape, and he could hear Ida snorting, sucking air between her clenched teeth, rapid breaths, saw her hugely opened eyes, wild and barely focused, revealing the whites around the irises, in terror or agony.
He thrashed and turned himself, clinging to her ruff and shaking his head to get rid of the water, only to be slapped across the face by another icy, stinging wave. He choked, tasting salt, and coughed as Ida held him above the surface, dragged him against the current, and he oriented himself to kick and help, until they slammed into a jutting boulder, slick and hard, but wide enough to brace against.
They were too far, too far, and Usopp willed his slowing body to move,move because this was twice as far, at least, as when Ida had had to turn back outside their tree shelter. Too far. But Mini-Merry was across the water, and not hopelessly upriver, and that was the only relief in this wet, freezing mess, because there was no fighting the power of the current to carry them away if they'd tried to swim against it for long. Even to get straight across that distance, without being taken farther and farther away, was impossible.
"Get me - there - " he choked, spitting salt water and then swallowing more when another wave caught him. Just back to the wreckage, where they could hold on.
Ten feet, from here to there, from this hunk of granite to the broken planks wedged between the pillars and that length of cabling that would be as good as rope if he could only reach it... ten feet against so much pressure per square inch of them... but this was Ida he clung to, who held him in her teeth, Ida who was part of Zoro, and ten feet of water would not overcome their will.
She seethed still with the distance between her and her human but she heard him and she swam.
It had never taken so long to cross so little water as this, fighting the power of a torrent, but she did it, driven by the same urgency that was keeping Usopp from letting the cold take over his brain as well as his body. Inch by inch they closed the gap, and he reached, moving fingers he couldn't feel, relying on sight to reach and grasp and finally wrap that cable around his arm, only the barest sense of pressure coming through. "Come on," he gasped. "Let's go."
Eyes fixed on Mini-Merry, he was the one now who towed Ida, pulling himself hand over hand as she clung with her teeth to his cape. He watched his unfeeling hands grasp at wood, metal, mesh, onward, over sunken beams and around jagged metal. Somehow, he didn't slice open his hands; he wasn't taking care what he grabbed, just frantically trying to get close enough for - and Ida's desperate breathing calmed as she was finally close enough to Zoro again.
That had not been the only reason to hurry though, and neither of them slowed.
The last few yards of their approach saw Zoro drag himself upright, staring over Mini Merry's side, the haggard expression was worse again, but he was moving, Usopp thought, the first thought in what felt like freezing, wet ages.
Then it was hands, not teeth, grabbing his cape and his shirt and the straps of his overalls all at once to drag him up over Mini Merry's side and into the back seat. Usopp missed the bench seat and slid against the deck, breathing hard.
Ida was hauled up next, the feel of Zoro's grip on her the only bit of warmth in him at all, as he lay and dripped and wondered when he'd start to shiver, when the pain of fading numbness would begin.
Ida collapsed next to him on the bottom of the boat, her dark fur plastered against her, revealing the shape of the muscle under her thick coat, and he rolled over just enough to mash his face against her shoulder. Wet or not, it didn't matter. He just wanted to feel her there.
No, no - wait... there was something else first.
"S...sorry." He rolled half onto his back, lifted one hand. Zoro was looking down at him and he appeared as wrung out as Usopp felt, hunched forward, hand white-knuckled on the back of the seat that separated them. He held Thalassa in one arm, her head pressed up in futile comfort under his chin. "Here..." Usopp managed, and struggled to sit up, hitching an unfeeling elbow across the seat, his other hand braced on Ida's shoulder to push himself at least a bit more upright.
Frowning with concentration, eyes half-lidded but determined to stay open, he reached up and Zoro met him halfway, catching his clumsily extended arm, and Usopp grunted at the contact. The pressure of Zoro's fingers around his wrist was a burning pins-and-needles surge of painful heat as his hand began to react to sensation again, hot throbbing of his own pulse in his fingertips and his face.
Usopp's hand was guided to Thalassa's back, the feathers too light a touch to register just yet, but Zoro didn't let go, instead Usopp felt the slip and shift of his tired grip, felt the rub of a thumb across his palm, as Zoro let out a breath of relief.
A rush of wind, the air sped along even faster by the canyon's narrowing, gusted over him, hard enough to feel, harsh enough to finally wring the first shiver from his muscles as it whipped icily over him. He had to get out of the wet clothing, he knew that. Even naked and dry out here was better than wet and vulnerable to every breeze stripping more and more body heat away.
But. In a minute. He was starting to feel Thalassa's feathers again. Zoro's hand was merely turning warm on his skin now, and not a prickling, burning brand.
And maybe he'd been in the water too long, because suddenly warmth bloomed inside him, fast as hot wind, thick and smooth as sliding sand, the sensation spreading out through him in egregious disregard of the water still dripping off his fingers and his nose, pooling under him, sliding from his hair into his face - it all felt far away for a few vague, floaty seconds. Usopp sighed at the respite from the penetrating chill, then felt himself start to shiver in earnest, felt the painful return of real sensations to all the rest of his exposed skin.
The strange heat started to recede, but didn't fade, the core of it solid and constant.
But - but - Usopp felt his thoughts start to work again, start to take that strangeness and spin it into potential danger, because warm wasn't how it went after falling into icy water. Wasn't normal. He'd heard that being cold for too long made people crazy, if they were too far gone they started to feel warm when they weren't, and then -
Zoro's grip on his wrist changed, derailing impending panic, the loose grip became surer. The underlying strength that had been missing since Golden's attack was back.
Ida made a bemused, pleased sound and got up, sliding out from under Usopp's hand on her shoulder.
He stared at her; blinked and dripped and shivered from his prone slump against the hull. She sat upright and looked at Zoro. Usopp turned to follow her gaze, saw Zoro staring back at her, almost smiling.
Thalassa shifted in Zoro's arm, leaning against where Usopp touched her, and the warmth in him shifted right along with her. With her, and all the places she was pressed against Zoro.
The cold-blurred shape of everything sharpened and the realization struck Usopp hard enough that he lurched up from the deck, backing himself away from Ida's bulk in the narrow space, and thudded down hard onto Mini-Merry's rear seat when his legs refused to hold him up.
"Hey - " Zoro started. Usopp shook his head wildly.
"It's - it - "
"Fixed," Zoro said simply. He leaned back, loosened his arm, Thalassa opened her beak happily and took a flapping hop away from him, landing against Usopp's chest. He gasped and didn't care about the sudden loss of Zoro's touch on her because she was here, she was here and she washis again, and he was hers. They were whole again.
She snuggled up under his chin, the top of her smooth head fitting where it always did, her cool beak resting against his neck, moving just enough to nibble at his wet cape. "Cold," she muttered, sounding as disinterested in that as he was for the moment, just pressing as fully against him as she could.
The sound of movement drew his attention partially outward again. Zoro was standing up now, not at all unsteadily, leaning forward over the seat to set one hand on Ida's head. His shoulders were square, his movements easy and devoid of what Golden's wound had done to bow them down.
He looked down at Usopp. The almost-smile widened, and then, for a moment, he beamed.
Usopp shook with cold and with joy, clutched Thalassa, felt suddenly dizzy, and grinned back. After all this time - which was hardly any time at all, was it? - they were switched. Switched back, he corrected himself dazedly, amazed that he even needed to remind himself of that.
Zoro was well again, there wouldn't be any more horrifying going to pieces in the rubble of Golden's compound, he wouldn't be struggling for awareness and the barest mobility on the floor of their camp again, he was...
He was back to normal. That wound, whatever had hurt him inside, looked utterly gone. He and Ida were regarding Usopp with the familiar steadiness in their expressions that wasn't anything like he'd seen while they'd been so drained.
There was relief, next, the feeling so utterly welcome Usopp almost felt he could float away, despite the weight of his wet clothes and the dullness in his limbs. Then the exhaustion he'd been holding off seemed to sink into him all at once because Zoro was back, his strength and his self-assuredness and all of it, so Usopp didn't have to try to do it anymore.
Pretending was hard. Doing it for real was so much harder.
And a strangely nauseating sense of disappointed realization wormed through him on the heels of all that relief,cold and clammy embarrassment for the way he'd - how he'd - he clenched his jaw and swallowed. The sheer difference in the way things had felt... if he held it all up against how things were supposed to be, it was... it didn't even fit together.
He looked at Ida, remembering how he'd... he'd touched her, as though he could ever -
"You're soaked, you have to change," Zoro said, startling him out of his spiraling anxiety, and he looked up to meet his eyes, finding the smile fading to serious concern, matter-of-fact pragmatism returning. Like usual, like always. Wrong or right or peculiar, Zoro's do-it-right-ness was one of his most comfortingly familiar features.
"Y-yeah, well..." Usopp said, forcing heartiness out through his shivers.. "C-cold water... today... M'the... polar swimming... champion... three years... running. This is... n-nothing. Nothing."
Ida was looking over the side of the boat, and then she jumped off. Usopp heard her paws hit wood, some plank or other, apparently much sturdier than that girder he'd chosen before, and the splatter of water droplets sounded against the surrounding surfaces as she shook herself.
Zoro watched her briefly, faint contentment visible again for a moment, then looked back at Usopp and frowned. "Come on. Get it off. You can use this now." Zoro pulled the blue cape off his own shoulders. It was still dry and Zoro ignored the cold air like they were standing on a nice summer island.
"...Right." Usopp nodded, wobbling upright again. Thalassa sat on the seat beside him while he started to struggle with the wet cloth hanging off of him. His shaking hands shoved the mass of wet red cape over his head so that it landed with a splat on the deck, but the rest was more difficult. The catches of his overalls confounded him so that it took almost half a minute to undo one.
"Here," Zoro said, gruff, and brushed Usopp's hands aside to undo the other one. A hot shame and not a little anger tumbled through him as he watched Zoro's now perfectly capable fingers separate the strap from the button - he was not a little kid - and he looked up, biting down a glower. It was stupid to be mad now, doubly stupid when he remembered Zoro not so much as flickering an eyebrow at him in annoyance at being manhandled and fed and all of that, only yesterday.
And indeed, Zoro met his look with an unconcerned expression, one hand still holding the strap, the other the overalls' front. Then he frowned too, just slightly, somewhere between worried and uncertain. The hand holding the strap let it go to slide back over Usopp's shoulder, and then after a little pause, came to rest against the back of his neck, a shock of warmth against the dripping chill of his wet hair.
All the embarrassment and frustration flip-flopped into hesitant recognition. Usopp's hand twitched and he raised it to grip at Zoro's wrist, holding him there. Like - like before.
Zoro's fingers pressed in briefly, and Usopp let out a shuddering breath. Zoro's shoulders seemed to relax slightly too, an impression Usopp could barely believe he'd really just had.
Ida clambered back onto the boat, still damp, but no longer dripping, and she nudged at Usopp's other hand with her muzzle, pushing her nose against his palm until he slid it back over her head. Like before. "Hurry up before you freeze," she said. Zoro's hand slid away, and Usopp let it go, feeling dazed all over again.
With Zoro's help - now welcomed - he got his waterlogged boots off, wrung out his hair, and peeled away the rest of his clothing while cursing at the intermittent gusts of wind. At last he was bundled into the cape to sit, shivering hard and certainly not yet warm; but dry.
There he sat and shook and waited, Ida damply warm against where his feet were tucked up on the seat - she was still too wet to offer much more - while Zoro was the one to finally free Mini-Merry from her trap. Pieces of debris were flung around like they were sticks of balsa wood rather than beams of hardwood, steel or concrete, and the patch of water that the little boat sat in - now tied against the current - was finally opening to the river.
"He's kind of handy like this," Thalassa observed from her spot on Usopp's lap. Usopp smiled behind the fold of cape his face was half tucked into.
Ida snorted without heat. Then she twisted and licked a long swath up Thalassa's neck and head, making her feathers stick up and causing her to squawk in predictable indignation. "You've been known to have your uses too," she told Thalassa, her voice dry. "Or so I hear." But her jaws stayed parted and her tongue lolled a little, at contented ease. Thalassa made no further protests, only groomed herself, eyes bright, until the sounds of Zoro shifting tons of wreckage ceased and he returned.
"Let's go," he said, untying Mini-Merry and holding the wheel against the current as she turned with the push of the water.
Usopp pulled the cape tighter around himself, dared to resettled his feet against Ida. "Let's go."
Anton's face was mashed into his pillow, Akilah a slight, smooth weight over the back of his neck, when he woke to the sounds of someone else in the room.
The footsteps didn't alarm him - the faint squeak in the sole of one shoe and the firm, light tread accompanied by the distinctive sound of mallard duck feet were familiar to him now. It was Dr Lind and Deverel. The little zoan doctor's tapping hooves or steady, large feet were very different, and the various sounds of the nurses and apprentices each had their own particular idiosyncracies.
He raised his head. The shade was drawn, though the room was well-lit enough from the grey daylight around the edges for him to see Dr Lind at Commander Malin's bed, checking the bag of fluids hanging there, and doing the series of responsiveness checks he was used to seeing by now; light in the eyes, knuckles rubbed down the sternum, pinches in the webbing between fingers and toes... no response, yet.
She turned her head to nod at him when his cot creaked as he turned over and sat up. As he rubbed his good hand over his face and back through his hair, she got on with her tasks, finishing with the commander and moving on to Issak with quiet efficiency. Her work didn't disturb Fred, who slept peacefully on, still more at ease like that than awake. Anton watched Dr Lind work, saw her turn from finishing her check on Issak to look down at where Jaromir and Haidee lay together.
She looked at Anton again as he tossed back the covers, then inclined her head towards the door. He nodded and followed her, his own feet bare on the cold floor. Deverel glanced up and murmured a greeting to Akilah, who responded in kind.
Out in the hall, Dr Lind looked him over rather dubiously. "Mr Kale, you really must get some more rest. I don't think you've slept a proper amount of consecutive hours since you arrived." At her feet, Deverel hmmed disapprovingly. As if they had a leg to stand on; the fatigue visible in the smudges under her eyes and the mallard daemon's slow blinking made him sure they hadn't had much more sleep than he had, if even that.
But Anton just shook his head. He and long shifts were well-acquainted since long before his being inserted into Commander Malin's unit. Coffee, files and his secured snailphone line to the archive had kept him going for twenty-four hour stretches not at all infrequently.
Not when he'd been struck on the head and had a wrist broken, but still.
The couple of hours rest he'd just gotten would do well for a while yet, if he needed them to. "S'alright ma'am. Just wondered if..." he trailed off. Even being used to research and information, even speaking about it to a doctor - where clinical discussion should be easy... he felt his own resistance to spelling it out rear up now that it wasn't urgent he speak about it. "If you... found out anythin' about... what I told you all before. The... contact."
He had no idea what they'd done, if anything, with the exhausted and likely semi-incoherent babble of information he'd unloaded on them earlier.
She nodded in understanding, her self-possession greater than his. "Some cases already corroborate what you told us, but we wouldn't have connected the factors if you hadn't remembered."
He stood up a little straighter as she described a few of the victims who'd woken up - almost all were among the ones who'd been able to go directly home - the ones, he realized belatedly, that were most likely to have family or lovers close enough to them that the contact with their daemons would have occurred naturally, from an existing relationship.
For those who didn't have that... it could be done for them, but...
To... to touch without permission, to molest another's daemon... Anton felt his lips thin, insides clench at the thought. He was still too near to the memory of Golden's influence to avoid the reaction, could only stay ahead of it.
He tried to imagine being faced with the dilemma those pirates had had when pulling everyone from the Wards. They hadn't hesitated, like any rescuer pulling someone from mortal danger - boundaries vanished in those moments. But that urgency had passed, and things were more complex. More than the urgency overcoming the taboo... and more than Anton's disproportionate discomfort at the mere thought. Yes, no, do it or don't...
Anton looked at the closed door to the room where his team lay. It surely had to be a benefit that Fred was able to hold his daemon, to see friendly faces, to know he and the rest were out of Golden's clutches. But Anton thought of the stress Fred's mind was under, and the way that would extend to his body, from a racing pulse to heightened blood pressure to a lack of appetite, simply from being awake and so easily frightened or driven to tears.
What was best?
He felt a hand on his arm and startled. He'd gotten lost in thought. Maybe he really did need more sleep. "The information is invaluable," Dr Lind told him, serious, and the concern in her eyes made him immediately sorry he'd made her worry. He nodded, still feeling unpleasantly grim about it all, a feeling he recognized - gathering data for any given operation did not always yield the desired results - but never before had it felt so incredibly heavy and useless.
He was unable to find anything to say to clear away that concern, only held her eyes, and sighed. Then he shook himself. "M'glad," he said, standing up straighter, "I - " he paused, cocked his head at the sudden sound of... violin music?
Dr Lind had heard it as well, and looked towards the ballroom doorway, the direction the music was coming from.
"What in the world...?" she asked, and went towards the sound. Anton followed, drawn as much by curiosity as by the music itself. Mellow and calm notes, soothing without being sad... Like a nearly-calm sea or a still summer's day on land...
They came to the wide doors together, and the sentry posted there looked around only briefly to see who it was before turning to look back inside again.
At the back of the ballroom, up on the narrow edge of the stage in front of the heavy velvet curtains, the skeleton pirate Dead Bones Brook stood, violin under his chin, bow sliding across the strings to fill the room with sound. His finch daemon, a spot of brilliant blue perched on the scroll end of the violin, was singing, sweet notes sliding into the resonance of the strings.
The melody was clear, but not overpowering, somehow did not seem out of place in a room where everyone did their best to keep quiet and calm. It seemed unlikely to wake a sleeper, or disturb someone requiring concentration. The low notes were gentle, even the high notes were soft instead of piercing, and Anton had never heard anyone bring such sounds of an instrument in all of his life.
Dead Bones had no proper face - no eyes, but Anton had the distinct impression that the skeleton had, in some manner, closed his eyes. Was it the tilt of his head? The angle of the shadows on the white bone of his eyesockets? But the slow sway of his rail-thin shape and the movement of his arms and shoulders seemed to be given over to the music completely.
The room had gone still, too, something Anton would never have pictured - there were always people and daemons moving in here, checking, cleaning, caring for some patient, organizing some supplies, conferring with each other - but now everyone, from the little zoan doctor to the orderly with an armful of laundry bags only stayed still, watching.
Even the couple of patients Anton could see with eyes open seemed affected. Their gaunt shapes breathed slowly, tension ebbing, just a bit. One even relaxed from a curled knot around her squirrel daemon to turn over and face towards the source of the sound.
Could the unwaking ones in the beds hear this as well? Could they feel it?
The stillness didn't last forever. Something in the music changed, just slightly, and the arresting hold slid almost imperceptibly away, until Anton found himself once again aware of his own body, the weight of his cast, Akilah's feet pricking through his shirt, the ever-present press of fatigue behind his eyes.
The hollow-faced woman with the squirrel daemon tightened her defensive curl again... but it was no longer quite so rigid.
Anton saw the little doctor shake himself, then tug at the sleeve of the apprentice next to him. In low tones, they picked up a conversation the music had briefly interrupted.
"That's somethin' else," Anton said. Akilah hmmed in underscore of their reaction, and Anton lifted one hand to stroke her back, eyes still on Dead Bones and his tiny bird daemon.
"Oh, yes," Deverel said. Anton looked down at him, and then up at Dr Lind and she shook her head in lingering disbelief, eyes bright. She smiled at Anton, a real moment of happiness that he felt himself returning.
"Do you think it's helpin' the ones that aren't woken up yet?" he asked her.
She looked back at the ward, the ever-present concern settling back over her face again, and Anton wanted to kick himself as the lines deepened around her mouth. "We don't know if they can hear it," she said, eyes rising back to the skeleton. "But if they do, it must be." She took a half step back, visibly reluctant, and excused herself, squeezing his arm as she did. "I have a meeting to lead," she said. "Please, try to rest some more."
"You too," he said to her, trying a mock-serious frown. It earned him another little smile, and then she headed off. He watched her scoop Deverel into her arms and stride away.
Anton had to step back from the door after another few seconds, to make way for a small army of orderlies delivering more supplies. He only made it a few steps back down the hall before he slowed and stopped. Akilah shifted on his shoulder with their discomfort.
After that bright spot, returning to his room was a prospect the filled him with a sudden exhausted dread. Around that corner and through that already too-familiar door, where Fred and Issak and the Commander lay, wasted and weak, Where Fred was a shadow of himself and every time he woke and wept Anton felt more drained than before.
He wasn't sure why he'd thought this would be better - and he couldn't understand how he thought it was worse, either, with them freed, safe - all the time he'd been maintaining his cover those last weeks, fear permeating every waking moment, and all the control needed to hide that far enough within that he wasn't suspected, all while knowing the three of them were slowly dying in rooms he couldn't reach...
But now they were saved and here and that was over... and he wasn't looking at it all as one day at a time anymore, even though he knew he still ought to be thinking only along those lines. But he couldn't turn off his mind, and the future stretching before them - with this damage, slow recovery... for how long? And how much?
Could he hope that they would resume their careers? That all their efforts were not rewarded with permanent debilitation?
Anton walked no further, only the last few steps he needed to sit on one of the chairs that had been removed from the ballroom and stored, if one could call it that, against the wall in the hallway around it.
"Why not us," he sighed. Akilah's body tightened, pointed feet digging in. "Why not us?" He didn't think he meant it, not really, he didn't have the energy to fuel the extent of survivor's guilt needed, not now. But even tiredly detached... It made no sense, it wasn't... wasn't fair. Any one of the others would've deserved to be spared instead, would've done better then on the inside, be doing better now, to handle this result...
"Hey, marine-guy!" a voice called, overlapping Dead Bones' violin like the sun's glare overcame a candle.
Anton froze and his stomach dropped, like it had done that first time waking up to Blackleg looming over him, even though now he kept reminding himself - for all the good that did his flinching reflexes - that the pirates had no apparent wish to harm him.
Somehow, each time he got near a new one, the reaction surged right back. And now, it was this pirate...
He sat up straight, started to stand. He managed not to swallow, didn't manage to keep his cast-free fist from tightening. He hid it behind his back.
The captain, Strawhat Luffy, stood in front of him, pulling snow-caked mittens off his hands with his teeth. His skinny, rumple-furred spider monkey daemon rode in the hood of the coat he wore, and watched Anton with the same wide, curious eyes as her human.
Tension rising, Anton waited while Strawhat stuffed the mittens out of sight. "You are the marine-guy," Strawhat asked, shoving the wet wool into the coat's big pockets. "Right?"
"Yes - " he bit off the 'sir' that something about this young man almost drew out of him, and stumbled on to repeat himself. " - yes." He tried to gather himself together. Anton wondered what was there behind those wide eyes that made Anton pay close attention. It wasn't like Blackleg's imposing presence, or Nico Robin's unnerving, eerie calm.
But... there was something.
"The mustache guard said you were," Strawhat waved behind him at the front door, where the sentry today was indeed sporting an impressive mustache. The pirate frowned consideringly. "You don't really look like a marine though."
Anton didn't say 'I know,' as much as he felt it. Some thread of pride held the words in. "I'm out of uniform," he managed.
"I guess. Uniform's not why people are marines though. Even though I like how they wear their coats," he said thoughtfully, and unfastened the buttons on his to pull his arms from the sleeves and hand it from his shoulders like a cape. He spread his arms, but the stiff wool didn't cooperate. The coat started to slide off, and he grabbed at it. "Guess this one doesn't do that." He put his arms back through the sleeves, and looked Anton up and down, at the borrowed, patched clothing. "But some people wear other stuff. Coby's friend wears a vest thing. Hey, maybe you know them?" Strawhat brightened.
"I don't think - " No, wait - he knew who that was. Vice-Admiral Garp's higher-ranking noncom, Chief Petty Officer Coby. His daemon was a dog - an akita. The other non-com, the skinny blond man, yes with a vest... Anton couldn't remember his name, only that his daemon was a dog too, a whippet. "I don't know 'em personally." Strawhat nodded in rather carefree disappointment, and looked around.
"Chopper told me there's three more, but they're not in there." Strawhat pointed his thumb at the ballroom.
"My team," Anton said, sitting up straighter. In a small, meaningless protective reaction, he declined to mention which room they were in.
"Franky said It's an... under the covers team?" Strawhat looked quizzical at the wording. "So you were all pretending to be bad guys. He said you stayed 'under the covers' the whole time, until we were in there and blew it up. That's like an Usopp-lie that doesn't end," Strawhat told him, mystifyingly complimentary, then studied him for a moment. "Guess you're good at that too - you look like a marine now."
Anton wasn't sure how to address that. "Because I am," he told him. Albeit one willing to stand and speak conversationally to a pirate?
Judgement call, after all. He regarded the young pirate captain steadily.
"Yep." Strawhat agreed, and studied Anton for a few seconds. His daemon leaned forward over his shoulder, and Alikah tightened but did not recoil from the close observation. "Hey, if you see Coby and Dayanand, say hel - mmf." The spider monkey daemon had shoved Strawhat's mouth shut.
"Say we're their enemy," the daemon said, grinning brightly, "and are gonna totally kick their ass when we meet up again."
Strawhat laughed. "That's it." He turned around before Anton had time to even nod, and headed towards the staircase that led to Blackleg's kitchen downstairs.
Anton sat down hard, glad he hadn't stepped away from the chair. Strawhat was marching off, and Anton heard him start to hum along with the sound of Dead Bones' music just before he got out of earshot. The song of the violin settled over Anton again, and seemed to impart some relief even now.
"I'm not sure that we can use official channels for that message," Akilah murmured after a few moments.
"Heh..." Anton let out a breath, closed his eyes and rubbed them. Sleep was calling again. "S'pose not." And maybe Strawhat didn't understand the sheer number of marines, or the massive sprawl of the bases and ships across the Blues, the Grand Line and the New World... But people who traded rumours about pirates sometimes traded more, and Anton thought the message might travel far enough, if he told the right person.
It was odd, it occurred to him, that this was the first time he had managed to actually picture himself back on base, back at his work. Even while he'd been making all his lists and notes, the information's ultimate destination had been vague to him. Another data analyst, perhaps. But somehow, he didn't think he'd quite be ready to hand it all over just yet.
And anyway... his base's veteran hospital was the nearest one to this island. It was where his team would be sent, once reported in. Later today he could request use of a snailphone. But sleep did have to come first, or he'd be incoherent.
He opened his eyes and looked down the hall, towards the corner he'd have to turn to get back to bed. He was overcome by a jaw-cracking yawn. He pushed himself upright, headed back to his team. It felt now like it had always been foregone conclusion, to be back on base alongside them. See that the doctors had all the information possible. Even if some of it was going to be repeated from that little zoan. Anton snorted quietly.
And then? Their ultimate prognosis...? It was too soon to know. But it wasn't... it was not too soon to hope.
Brook lifted the bow from the strings, letting the last note ease away. Syrinx completed the melody, twining her song into it so it didn't fade so much as drift off.
His arms ached in that familiar way they did after any long performance, and he welcomed that, stretching slowly before lowering his instrument. Syrinx came to rest on his shoulder, and he set down the violin. He raised his arms over his head and then bowed with a slow flourish. There was no applause here, but he wondered if he wasn't correct in feeling as though the room didn't feel quite so oppressingly grim as it had earlier.
He stood again, nodded graciously at young Hal, who mimed silent clapping and grinned. The apprentice was back to his current task within another moment, movements easy, steps quick but light, his chinchilla daemon upright and alert on his shoulder.
Brook stood up straighter himself. The calm of playing was one he wished he could keep ever-present. He had felt normal, for its brief stretch. Now, though, the usual satisfaction of having played well - he was not being immodest to think he had indeed played well - didn't come on quite as strong as he was used to. He sighed silently, tried not to notice the itch in his joints to start playing again right away.
Being in the ballroom ward was difficult; it kept him overly alert in an uncomfortable way, made him want to pick his violin up again, regardless of how fatigue would affect his music. But once he'd fetched his violin from where he'd had it stored in his room at the inn, there'd been nowhere else he could even consider playing.
But in order to play his best - and for an audience, the best was required - he could not tire himself unduly.
"Nice," he heard from off to the side. Mr Sanji's voice. Brook turned to greet him, and was presented with a small apple tart on a plate. "Let me know if it's crap, one of the kids made that one," Sanji told him, and Brook gave the tart another look. Aside from an unevenness in the apple slices, it certainly looked normal enough.
Sanji and Kajoumi watched him expectantly.
He took a bite. Perhaps the crust was a bit too dense. The filling slightly too sweet. But still most eminently edible. "A lovely snack," he assured Sanji. "Then again, they do have a fine teacher, do they not?"
Sanji looked to the side for an instant. He didn't have a cigarette in here, on pain of an indignant tongue-lashing from Chopper, nothing for his mouth to fidget with, and so Brook saw his nose wrinkle over a pleased smile for the briefest moment before the expression was controlled back to cocky confidence and he just shrugged.
The fondness that prompted in Brook made him click his teeth together to hide a smile of his own. Sanji and Kajoumi didn't always react graciously to having holes poked in their facade of "cool", and Brook didn't feel much like teasing, in here. Sanji watched him as he took a second bite, and then until he had finished the tart, and only when Brook was carefully brushing the last few crumbs away did he nod slightly, apparently satisfied with Brook's appetite.
"A few more in here can now appreciate your work," Brook said, glancing out over the ballroom, watching one of the nurses settle in with a small tray next to one of the patients who'd woken up. A woman, squirrel daemon in a tight curl against her neck, was propped on pillows, but able to handle a spoon with help.
"Yeah," Sanji too looked out over the room. "A good soup - well, really it's pretty damn bland, but it's right for this particular clientele."
"And who is that for?" Brook inquired knowingly, eyeing the other tart Sanji had come in with. That one was not a student's effort. Each apple slice was perfect, and the crust was browned exactly the right amount.
"Not you." Kajumou glowered at him warningly, and Sanji held the tart away, and Brook felt a peculiar relief that Sanji had no qualms about acting very nearly normal towards him. Chopper still treated Brook like a patient, and Franky kept shooting him guilty looks and talking in an overly genial tone - which, being Franky, was... extremely genial.
"My stomach weeps," Brook informed Sanji with a quiet, minor swoon, "even though I don't have one! Yohoho!"
Sanji smiled, mocking but also relieved, then he and Kajoumi peered out into the room. "My lovely Robin is rumoured to be in here, but I don't see her."
"She has been in and out," Brook confirmed. Nami had requested some shopkeepers be met with and further trades confirmed while she was away. Between meetings, Robin had been here with Brook, perusing a local history volume while he played. "Of course, you know you may leave that here," he said hopefully, eyeing the tart again. Sanji only snorted, and then perked up; Brook followed his eager gaze to see Robin re-entering the room. She gave them a smile and Sanji rushed to meet her as she went to the side of the stage.
Kajoumi, at Sanji's heels, was focused on Zafir. The hummingbird daemon rose from Robin's shoulder, dipped down briefly to touch his beak politely to Kajoumi's, and then darted forward to perch on the end of Brook's violin, where Syrinx moved to sit with him.
Kajoumi stared. Once Robin accepted her tart from Sanji and returned to the chair she occupied while listening to Brook, Sanji's reaction mirrored his daemon's, stare landing first on Zafir and Syrinx and then snapping over to Brook.
Brook waited, curious how the young cook would react, hoping dramatics would not erupt here in Chopper's ward.
There were none. It was almost certain there would be at some time later, so Sanji could vent to his pride's satisfaction, but this was not the place, and Sanji kept a lid on his temper. Even still, his eyebrows shot up, eyes widening hugely a moment. He glanced between Robin and Brook and his face made a mingled mess of expressions. Brook caught confusion, shock, indignation and then a clear flash of intense curiosity before a put-on glare wiped the rest away and Sanji turned it on Brook. The anger was utterly manufactured, the warning only partly so. Sanji narrowed his eyes briefly, and that was all. Brook hardly needed Sanji to command him to do his best by the lovely woman who deigned to spend time with him.
Even if he hadn't seen her panties yet.
His jaws parted slightly in a silent laugh at the persistent silliness of his own mind, but he closed his teeth again and inclined his head gravely at Sanji, acknowledging the protective spirit that was under the boy's overwrought interactions with any female, needed or not.
He did discern wistful jealousy as Sanji turned away, but Brook suspected he could be optimistic for this moment - that was a pleasant realization. He might have shocked Sanji just now, but not truly upset him. That jealousy had lacked any vindictive air, and if Sanji chose to throw a tantrum later, Brook would oblige him then by teasing back.
Folding himself to sit in the chair next to Robin, he was joined by Syrinx and Zafir, both landing on his fingers when he laced them together before him.
"Will you play again?" Robin asked him, reaching over to run her fingers along his, and then stroke once down Zafir's tiny breast, and then Syrinx's.
"As soon as I am assured I can meet my usual standard," he replied, holding his breath as the lovely sense of her touch on Syrinx ebbed away. Half an hour, certainly no more than that. He already wanted to fidget, and looked at the book she'd opened instead.
This chapter was about a long-ago civil war, one that had made this town separate from the larger nation on the next island, and turned out to be unexpectedly interesting, dredging up military memories from before his time as a pirate, which in turn prompted questions about that from Robin.
Their conversation, like all talking in the ward, was quiet save for the odd exclamation or laugh from Brook that sometimes exceeded the level of "quiet" to reach that of "low". Thus they both heard the rising cry of a child nearly as it began, the sound provoking a shudder Brook did his best to suppress. The wail was weak, but still carried with utter clarity to where Brook sat.
Nearly everyone who woke began that way, and the sound wound around his throat each time.
The sound of fast footsteps followed and neither Brook nor Robin restrained themselves from rising to watch from the edge of the stage.
A young girl had woken, one of those nameless children belonging to no one here, and her cry turned to sobs before anyone reached her. She heaved onto her side and reached for her daemon, where he'd been isolated from her on a stool by her bed. She gathered him up, his gecko shape shifting to a large puppy, soft fur and warm weight for his human to cling to.
Brook felt a sharp shiver, ice over his bones and still that noose of anxiety around his throat, a reaction he was beginning to become intimately familiar with - but he watched even so, needing to see in what way this particular victim would weather the awakening, hoping and trying not to at the same time. Robin's hand settled lightly on his hip bone.
A local doctor reached her before Chopper did, and he and Wendeline hung back, watching carefully. Brook could see him shifting on his hooves, see Wendeline's wings shifting against her sides, eager to intervene as well, but not willing to crowd the child.
The girl's weeping tapered off after a time, and Brook restrained himself from gasping when he heard her speak. He was too distant to understand her words, but when the doctor spoke, he could make out the murmur of her answer.
She'd calmed. She could speak. There was no hysteria or frantic sedation for this one.
"A good one," Robin murmured, as they watched Chopper nudge his way forward to speak to her as well. The girl's emaciated arms clutched her daemon, and her eyes were huge and haunted, but the spark of interest when she saw Chopper made Brook feel a hint of relief. Definitely a good one.
"Time for another song," he decided, sucking in air past that tightness in his throat. He reached for his violin.
Sunset across the water was beautiful, but they were edging close to a vicious drop in temperature when the sun dropped below the horizon. Usopp tried to curl up tighter inside the cape, but just then the coastal wind didn't have his attention, truth be told.
The beautiful sight of Sunny in the evening light held Usopp's shivery gaze for their entire approach. Even sitting calmly by the pier, sails tied safely up, only the slightest shift visible on the water... Not the most majestic view he'd ever had of that ship, but possibly his favourite, even so. They were home, at last.
There were two militia guards from the town, guarding the ship. The younger one, a woman with a massive wolfhound daemon, actually salutedwhen they climbed onto the dock, her daemon's jaws wide in a grin. Usopp, barefoot and naked except for the cloak, kept his eyebrows from rising with a serious effort, and just nodded, for once too tired to answer with appropriate prideful commentary.
"Welcome back," the other guard said, without the gesture but still with audible respect, his kestrel daemon upright and composed on his shoulder.
Zoro stowed Mini-Merry away, and then guards related to them that Nami had been here earlier. The young woman handed Zoro a note; he read it, snorted, and passed it to Usopp, who unfolded it and read it as Zoro and Ida leaped up onto the ship to toss the ladder down.
There is an assortment of new dry goods in the hold, which you may not touch. If you get there today, and you'd better, light the rear lantern so we can tell. If you need anything, send one of those guards, they've been tipped for that purpose.
P.S. There is no beer or rum or anything fermented in our new acquisitions. If you touch anything, Zoro, I'm raising your interest another half-percent."
"He's gonna look," Thalassa murmured as Usopp grinned at the post-script, shifting his bare feet against the dock's worn planks, half-covering one icy cold foot with the other. Thalassa puffed out her feathers against his chest. They looked up when the rope ladder dropped down Sunny's hull, thumping against the wood, and Usopp tried to work out the best way to climb without leaving the cape open for extremely unwanted drafts or indecent exposure, when Zoro leaned over the railing as well.
"Just get on, I'll pull you up."
And then, even before food, a bath.
Zoro vanished from the men's cabin after grabbing whatever clean clothing was closest at hand. Usopp took rather longer, pawing through his options - why were his best socks always in the wash when he wanted them? - until he had pulled out his most comfortable cargo pants and that new hoodie he'd bought on the last island, so new that the fluffiness on the inside hadn't gone away yet. Thalassa presented him with a pair of clean socks - second favourite pair, at least - and then he finally fled through the now very cold evening air up towards the bath.
And was met with Zoro exiting. Ida, fur damp again, but fluffed and looking well-shaken, wagged at him once. Zoro was still barechested, but pulling on a shirt, and Usopp watched the newly-washed expanse of chest be covered by one of those white shirts Zoro had seventeen of.
Thalassa hmphed quietly, disappointed, and Zoro met Usopp's crestfallen frown with a forestalling handwave.
"Tile's cold," he said with a shrug. "See you in the galley."
"Uh," Usopp said. "Huh. Yes! Okay." Also, there was food there. That was good too.
Ida laughed, a strikingly light sound, and then the door closed behind them.
Usopp stared for a moment, and then got to the task at hand. He scrubbed the accumulated sweat and grime of the past few days off with a great sense of relief. The dip in the canyon river hadn't done much in that regard. He found spruce needles in places they had no business being, for one thing. Soap had rarely been this welcome.
Thalassa groomed herself furiously, and Usopp did the same, moaning unabashedly when he dumped a whole bucket of as-hot-as-he-could-stand water over his head. And then came the hard part. He ended up working at his hair for far too long, all too aware of what was waiting for him below, but he couldn't not do this. He attacked the tangles with a comb and grim determination until the last dust of Golden's nightmarish works was gone.
When he could at last get the comb through without it catching eye-wateringly on knots, he tied his hair back and wrapped himself in clean clothing - dry clothing - clothing that he hadn't been wearing for three days straight. It was all clean. It was spectacular. He also wanted to crawl under a pile of warm blankets and stay there for a few days, but this was a good start. And priority-skewing hormonal interests aside, there was also no way he was going to sleep without having eaten something that was actually palatable.
And he could. Sanji maintained a special stock of supplies prepared for anyone who'd be on the ship when he wasn't there to cook. Even for times like now, when he'd had no reason to plan ahead, there was a small notebook of "shitty idiot level" recipes that he'd written down, with directions meticulously outlined, including stick-figure diagrams (the stick figures all wore haramaki and were helpfully labeled "dumbass" or "moron"), for the rest of them to use. Jars of preserves, bundles of quick-frozen vegetables and meat, pre-made soup stocks and other things were set aside in certain spots, along with a basic little selection of "use these and don't touch the other ones, or you are dead" pots and pans.
When Usopp at last made it to the kitchen, Zoro was sitting at one end of the couch, next to the end table where the recipe notebook lived in a drawer especially for it - along with a few decks of cards, a truly record-breaking chain of paperclips, five and a half rubber bouncy balls and a miniature backgammon case. Zoro was slouched back with the notebook out and was studying one of the recipes with a frown.
Ida was sitting too, leaning against his legs, her head resting on his thigh. Unusually - or, very much not, after what had just happened to them - he was stroking her, his fingers smoothing from the tip of her muzzle, between her blissfully closed eyes, and back over her broad head to fondle her ears. That and the fact he was seated made Usopp suspect that Zoro was tired now, too, and not so magically recovered as he'd seemed on Mini-Merry.
Ida's ears pricked up at the sound of the door when they came in, and she looked over and then Zoro did too. "Bird's nest dealt with," Zoro remarked with audible amusement, and Usopp made a face at him, tossing his damp ponytail haughtily. Thalassa squirmed and Usopp let go of her as he neared Zoro, tossing her forward. She flapped once and landed on the couch, clambering another few inches to greet Ida across Zoro's lap. She leaned against him as she did, just a little, and Usopp inhaled then breathed out quietly as Zoro looked down at her.
He didn't touch her himself, but Ida closed her eyes happily again when Thalassa nudged her. Usopp came the rest of the way over.
"You actually want to cook?" He asked. He had expected Zoro to have unearthed and already eaten some of the salted pork or something equally convenient.
Zoro shrugged. "You want this one? It's soup." He held up Sanji's notebook slightly, open to the page he'd been looking at. Usopp hmmed and sat with a dramatic thump. Between him and Zoro, Thalassa bounced slightly with the impact, resettled. The pressure of Zoro's thigh against her side made Usopp relax further against the cushions.
Ida sighed, shifted, backed up and stretched, and retook her position, this time between Usopp's right and Zoro's left legs. She leaned against Zoro, but her chin landed on Usopp's knee this time. Usopp slid his hand partway down his thigh, didn't touch. Yet.
"You know..." he declared, raising one finger dramatically, "I had invented, as a mere youth, the best soup pot across East Blue. People came for miles to use it. It cooked the soup for you."
He reached to take the notebook. Zoro's fingers, when Usopp's hand closed partly over them, were reassuringly warm. He had barely started to tug the notebook from Zoro's grip when Zoro caught at his hand, covering his fingers with a wide palm. "Your hands are cold."
The pressure and heat of Zoro's hand was immediate and distinct, and just nice. It settled into him, into the soft sensation of Zoro's light contact with Thalassa. Usopp felt a sudden chill at the involuntary memory of the blood-freezing cold of the canyon river and the wind-whipped ride back to Sunny. "You think...?" He shrugged a little, hunkering down into his sweatshirt. "Pretty much all of me is cold." He hadn't spent anywherenear long enough in the bath. Which was Zoro's fault, by the way.
Zoro watched him for a long second, just sitting there gripping his fingers and looking, then dropped the notebook back on the end table and lifted Usopp's hand to his neck. Thick muscle there for him to feel and grip, could move up to angle of his jaw or down to his shoulders. Very warm. Very strong.
Usopp's other hand splayed slowly, clenched, made an abortive grabby motion as nerves tried their best to overcome him, doubt spearing its way up, as always. "Do you really - I mean - " Zoro reached out and touched the end of his nose, which was another extremity that had yet to really warm up, and then his chin. "Because," Usopp continued, unable not to think these thoughts, "I seriously wasn't sure you - " oh, shut up, he told himself. Thalassa made a nervy, giddy chuckle, and scrambled up onto Zoro's lap. Zoro gave Usopp a knowing glance, a hint of actual indulgence showing when he looked down at Thalassa and slid his hand smoothly under her. "Yes. Okay. Good," Usopp breathed. He felt streaks of warm, radiating out, and in, deeply in, Zoro was touching her... ah.
A cool nose pressed against his free hand. Usopp didn't look for a second, too caught by the sight and sensation of Zoro's fingers caressing down Thalassa's neck. Then Usopp pushed his hand under Ida's heavy jaw, rubbing once, and then up over her head. He stroked her as Zoro had done before. Zoro exhaled slowly, and Usopp felt his fingers sink into Thalassa's breast feathers, felt her move against them. He shifted on the couch, and didn't bother trying to rein in the arousal this time. What a relief that was.
"You shouldn't be cold," Ida said, pushing up against his palm. He rubbed below her cheek, up behind her ear, and she leaned into it. This was so different from before, when she'd been... not his, but something like it. She wasn't anymore, not at all, and while the memory lingered, all his interactions with her before Golden's cut were foremost to him now. And "all" was very, very few. Touching her at any time outside of battle was such a rare thing and never ever like this.
"W-well. Warm me up," Usopp managed. She opened her jaws in a grin then, tongue lolling, and ducked away, dancing back, tail wagging in a couple of wide swipes. Usopp felt Thalassa slide from Zoro's hands, saw her drop to the floor with a hop towards Ida.
The wolf daemon lowered her forequarters, playful, eyes heated. Thalassa flared her wings out and bowed, then abandoned dignity and jumped at her. Usopp laughed, glanced at Zoro, and was pushed unceremoniously over. Usopp capitulated gratefully and ungracefully, falling sideways on the couch. He twisted onto his back and stretched out, hitching himself backward in as ungainly a manner as he could've ever imagined so he could make room while Zoro made something like a slow pounce, pulled along by Usopp's grip on his shoulder, landing on hands and knees over him.
"Getting warmer," Usopp said, and it came out like a pant. Getting breathless too. He let go and found the edge of Zoro's trousers. No haramaki, just his sides under Usopp's hands, solid source of heat through the cloth of his shirt.
Zoro looked down at him, and Usopp grinned, the hesitant rise of his eyebrows happening by reflex. He squeezed his eyes shut briefly and tucked his thumbs emphatically under Zoro's waistband. Zoro snorted, and leaned down. "Oh, that's attractive," Usopp murmured, and squirmed and grinned as Zoro mouthed at his neck, eyes closing again, this time in total contentment. Nothing like being warmed under a blanket of swordsman. The tingling, shivery sensation pooling wherever Zoro's lips pressed against him had nothing to do with cold. It radiated over his scalp, down his back.
Beside them on the floor, Usopp could feel Ida's heavy nudges against Thalassa, the usual slightness of that awareness turning more sensitized as the daemons romped, as arousal naturally caused. There was the soft thud of Ida dropping on her side while Thalassa climbed onto her, clawed tips of her webbed feet combing heavily through her thick fur, wings hanging loose in a feather-light embrace. There was a deep contented rumble from Ida.
"Heh," Zoro grunted, and Usopp swore there was a smile in his voice. Zoro dropped himself down closer, leaning on his elbow, his chest pressing Usopp down against the couch. His other hand found the bottom edge of Usopp's sweatshirt and came up underneath. He flattened it against Usopp's stomach and then around his side, thumb dragging over his skin as fingers dug gently in, then relaxed. Zoro slid his hand farther up, stroked with his thumb.
Usopp got an arm up around Zoro's back. Like this, with his eyes closed, it felt impossibly broad, and he could feel the slight shift of the muscles as Zoro moved.
Zoro lifted away from Usopp's neck, far enough to drag his mouth along Usopp's jaw, and up over the corner of his mouth.
"Hmm, watch out, dangerous territory, deadly weapon, etcetera," Usopp told him, but Zoro drew back far enough to meet his eyes with a pointed eyebrow-raise.
"I'll manage," he said dryly, and tragically removed his hand from under Usopp's sweatshirt to reach up and prod Usopp's nose. It bent obligingly, and Zoro leaned in and kissed him, head angled right the first time, and hey, they fit. Zoro's kiss was firm as his grip, warm, and the steady intent in it stoked Usopp's arousal like a blast of air on a bed of coals. Zoro started with his mouth open, for one, so Usopp promptly responded in kind, and then Zoro's tongue was as direct as any other part of him, waiting only for Usopp to open up to slide in, and the wet heat was thrilling.
As kisses went, Usopp thought faintly, this one was mind-meltingly thorough, and he did his utmost to reciprocate, almost (not quite) distracted from Zoro's weight pressing against the rest of him. A slow shift of his hips, and Zoro pushed back and then Usopp forgot about mostly everything except this.
In a brief, eventual pause Usopp found some breath to say, "y'know I'm responsible for a large proportion of eyepatch sales on the Grand Line." Zoro's mouth smiled against his.
"Sure," he agreed, and kissed him again.
"S'very... ah... lucrative," Usopp added at the next opportunity. And then, "I get royalties." Zoro didn't seem to be bothered by the chatter at all, didn't even interrupt him until he rambled a little too long at one point. "...and the manufacturing process uses a regiment of trained silkworms..." and Zoro pressed lightly against his mouth as he spoke. Didn't shut him up then either, just waited for him to trail off. "Mmmh..." was all Usopp said the next time.
Zoro had a knee on either side of Usopp's hips, and Usopp discovered, during another pause, that he'd shoved Zoro's shirt nearly up to his armpits in his exploration of his back. That was lovely. Usopp saw Zoro bare-chested all the time, but it was different like this, the shirt still frustratingly obscuring the view and anyway, he'd never gotten to touch like this before. Familiar view, novel perspective, all-new feelings under his hands.
Until Zoro leaned up, sat back on his heels, and Usopp hitched himself up on his elbows in grumbling protest as the shirt slid partway down again. He was breathing hard - Zoro was too, a bit, and that was flattering in the extreme.
Zoro pulled the shirt off in one movement, dropped it on the floor. "Oh, that's better," Usopp enthused breathlessly, and - was that...? Was that a faint bit of blush on Zoro's cheeks? His intent, focused expression hadn't changed a bit, and he didn't look at all self-conscious - that was probably physically impossible - but that was a definite hint of pink. Maybe Usopp should drop compliments now and then. "That's really just... hot." No lie there. He struggled up under Zoro's weight to sit without squashing his erection, as that would be extremely not good. Zoro shifted slowly, rubbing purposefully against him as he gave him the room to sit up, and then Usopp had himself a lapful of half-naked swordsman.
Off to the side, there was a low growly rumble. Usopp looked over and leaned against the front of Zoro's shoulder, rubbing up his side with his fingertips. Zoro's hands settled over Usopp's shoulders, and Usopp felt him breath against his hair. It was damp, still, probably smelled like soap.
Ida was stretched on her stomach, Thalassa between her front legs, one heavy paw gently pinning the murre deamon to the floor. Thalassa had her neck arched back, beak stroking against Ida's cheek, and Ida nosed gently in half-lidded response.
"What should we do?" Usopp asked. "What do you wanna do?" He leaned back, took a moment to shuck his sweatshirt, and then tucked his fingertips into Zoro's waistband and looked up, lifting one shoulder to trap Zoro's hand between his shoulder and his cheek. The obvious erection behind the cloth was right there, it was visible if he looked and he could feel it now in the strain of the cloth. He rubbed along it, got an exhalation from Zoro in response and a telling shift of his hips.
"I like your hands," Zoro said, voice low and mellow like Usopp had never heard.
Usopp felt his eyebrows rise, wondered if he was blushing now. He was warming up everywhere, it was hard to tell. He pulled one hand free from Zoro's waistband and spread it across his stomach, flat over that big scar and the muscles behind it.
"Touch... uh, whatever you want," Zoro added, maybe in an attempt to clarify. It was plenty enough for Usopp. "I like 'em." His tone was quiet, a sort of pensive lust, and he tapped at Usopp's hand on his stomach, then traced along his fingers and back. Usopp slid his hand to Zoro's bare side again, and pressed the knuckles of the other against Zoro's confined cock, dragged them up and down, and Zoro arched against the touch. It felt thrilling but so, so odd, handling one of the most powerful people he knew in a way that just made him... react. Somehow, he didn't feel powerful in turn, but almost... daunted. Do something wrong here and he might hurt him. Not injure him, no, but still. This kinda thing was... different to fighting. And Usopp had had quite enough of Zoro suffering, lately. Having him vulnerable like this, after all that had just happened was... Usopp swallowed. It was trust.
Hmm. Hands, then. So... what if he... "Wanna turn 'round?" Usopp suggested, and nudged at Zoro's hip.
Zoro did, with slow, deliberate movements and a faintly hungry look back over his shoulder before he settled again.. Usopp shifted to his knees, leaning against Zoro's back. It was reminiscent of a sun-warmed rock at a summer island, but on the other hand not at all, really. Zoro was nearly immovable except by his own volition, true, but his heat was alive and breathing. Waiting.
Usopp could feel every breath, where he leaned. He closed his eyes, mouth pressed to the muscle where Zoro's shoulder and neck met, and reached forward.
The skin of Zoro's belly was there for him to investigate. The uneven ridge of the scar rose under his fingers again, suddenly more distinct now that he had only his fingertips to observe it with. He traced up the trail it made, slowly, and left his other hand loose, dropped it down to cup over Zoro's groin. Zoro's back moved a little with an uneven sigh, and Ida rumbled.
Usopp reached the end of the scar, then didn't bother to follow it back down again, making his own way over the rise and dip of pectoral muscles, then abdominals, and then he struck cloth. He hooked his thumb under the waistband and flattened his other hand, pressing lightly with palm and fingers. Zoro rocked slightly up against them, then Usopp drew them back, fingertips dragging a little bit, and undid the top button.
He fingered the freed button, pausing.
"Yeah," Zoro said easily. Usopp smiled to himself, bit his lip briefly.
"Y'know, we got dressed for nothing," Usopp mused into Zoro's shoulder. "And now all this work." He undid the other buttons carefully, sliding each slowly through its buttonhole. The thinner soft cloth of boxer-briefs was beneath, and he touched Zoro lightly through that layer. "So much stuff in my way," he muttered happily. Unwrapping things was fun too. The heat poured right through, the cloth clinging; Usopp could feel the shape of him so much more distinctly.
Zoro made a low, rough noise, echoed off to the side by a very nearly identical one from Ida, and moved again. He pressed forward into Usopp's grip, then briefly back against Usopp's drape over him. "Yeah. Alright," Usopp murmured. He sank down a bit, sitting on his heels, resting his cheek against a warm shoulderblade and giving his arms a bit more reach.
There was a spot of damp where the tip of Zoro's cock pressed against the cloth, and Usopp grasped him properly, not quite firm, but closing one finger at a time around him through the thin cloth, until he could put his thumb over the damp spot. I did that. It's 'cause of me, he thought with a giddy thrill.
"In the way," he said, and let go long enough to shove at Zoro's trousers until they were kicked off. The boxer-briefs stayed, and he palmed Zoro through them, light as before and then more roughly, fingers reaching lower to cup his balls, and when Zoro opened his thighs in response, he rolled them a little through the cloth, only letting go to stroke his inner thighs and slip his fingers under Zoro's shorts, touching hot, smooth skin.
Zoro's breaths were coming quicker now, body reacting to this the way it didn't to anything else but the most intense fights. He warm, his breathing was fast... his hips were rocking slow and easy, in time with Usopp's hands.
Usopp opened his eyes briefly. On the floor, both daemons were nearly still, Ida's sides moving at the same speed as Zoro's breath, her tail sweeping languidly across the floor, head relaxed on her paws. Thalassa was tucked against her face, Ida's nose sinking into the white breast feathers, eyes barely open. Thalassa was stroking at her head, her ears, drawing her beak in deliberate slowness across the fine, thick fur.
Everything looked good. So good.
"Now these too," Usopp told Zoro, sliding his hands underneath the shorts, down over Zoro's hips, as far down his thighs as he could, until Zoro unceremoniously stripped them the rest of the way off and leaned back with a little sigh of relief.
Usopp did his best not to squirm, still stuck inside his own pants, took a second to adjust himself, then returned to lean against Zoro's back, his own erection pressed between them. Really couldn't complain about that anyway.
One of Zoro's hands reached back, tugged at his pants. "You too," he said.
"I uh - M'not trying to - that's not - " Awkward, suddenly.
"Nah," Zoro interrupted. "Not 's something else, if you want."
Hmm. Off with the pants, then.
Negotiating his fly seemed more difficult than it ought to have been by some orders of magnitude, but then he was naked too, and felt a moment of complete and utter strangeness at this situation, sitting there on the couch, until Zoro reached to tug him against his back again. The touch made it all real again, returned his mind to the task at hand, to the deliciously muddled blur of whatever was next.
Usopp settled with a swallowed noise at the feel of warm skin on his erection, discovered he was only almost overwhelmed, not all the way, not yet. Stamina was Zoro's forte, but he could muster some too. Just a bit, but enough for this.
Besides, he had something more interesting to focus on now. He knew his own dick like - well, his own dick. He'd certainly handled it often enough. The way it fit his hand was perfectly familiar, the girth and length and the shape and... Zoro's was not the same.
It felt so hot against his palm, silky foreskin like something altogether new. It filled his hand a bit more than his own... had a bit less of a curve... the texture of his hair there was different... fascinating, everything about it. With an effort he kept his eyes closed, even though he couldn't see anything from behind Zoro anyway. But he didn't want distractions now. Just wanted to feel. The slide of foreskin, the slight raise of veins that traveled under the surface. He stroked loosely down, then firmed his grip again, and traced the ridge of the head with his thumb.
Zoro grunted and rolled up into that.
"Hmm, here?" Usopp murmured, and kept that up. He went lower with his other hand. The sac under his fingers was loose and warm, he could curl fingers around it, squeeze - gently - and that made Zoro's breathing hitch, and the rest of him seemed to melt, so that Usopp had to brace himself under the sudden shift in weight distribution. That sent a thrill of amazement through him, and an echoing weighty throb between his own legs. He wanted to hold his breath but he couldn't, he needed that air right now. He didn't want to dull a second of this.
Zoro had been partly braced, so far, hands resting against the cushion, but when he relaxed he moved them, his broad palms landing on Usopp's forearms. For a second, Usopp froze, all his happy focus fleeing from a stab of worry - Thalassa sat up straight - but Zoro just rested his hands there, thumbs stroking at the inside of his wrists, not even so much as guiding him.
Usopp swallowed and felt that sharp worry turn dull and finally erode away under the insistent arousal that really didn't want to leave room for anything else at all.
Thalassa relaxed against Ida again, the pressure of the wolf daemon's muzzle resting over her back now, as welcoming as the non-grip on Usopp's wrists.
"Okay, okay," Usopp murmured, soothing words for no reason, really, he didn't need to tame Zoro. This wolf wanted his touch. "Okay." Now, just one more thing.
He stroked a gentle grip up Zoro's cock and then let go, tugged that arm out from under Zoro's hand. It tightened in protest. "Just let me - lemme get something. S'right here. One second." He snagged his pants where they'd fallen to the floor, and dug around in one of the pockets.
It wasn't like he had shown up completely unprepared.
The little bottle of lubricant warmed as he held it. Now he could picked up where he'd left off. But better.
Zoro was sitting, shoulders relaxed and head turned slightly towards Ida and Thalassa's black-and-white swathe of fur and feathers. "Hey, uh. Lie down?" Usopp asked. Zoro had gotten so relaxed, that had to be a better way, and Zoro apparently agreed. He settled onto his side on the couch, leaving enough room between him and the couch back for Usopp to squeeze right in.
Snug, warm, plenty of leverage. And lube. Zoro had a hand on his wrist again, loose, palm drifting, smoothing over him. Usopp dragged his slippery thumb across his slippery fingers a last time, just to check. Yeah. Alright. Zoro took the bottle away then. Both hands were free.
"So you," Zoro said. "Here," Usopp felt him shift, upper leg lift a bit, and with that, he got it.
"Between," he said. That would be warm and tight and oh. Yes.
He felt Zoro's hand slide over his own. Zoro's palm was wet with lube - that's why he'd taken the bottle, Usopp realized with a surge of arousal - and left some on Usopp's knuckles as he reached farther down.
Usopp held the inside of his cheek between his teeth as Zoro spread the lube on himself. "There," Zoro told him, and then Usopp squirmed down a little, nudging over Zoro's ass until the hard, warm muscle became slicked-up thighs. Zoro lowered his leg, closing smooth heat all around him and Usopp pushed forward, couldn't not, drew back and did it again before he reined himself in, breathing hard. He needed to keep his focus and his grip and his rhythm, here. He wanted his hands to learn this. Pay attention.
"Good... idea..." he managed, cheek against Zoro's back, pushed his forehead briefly against his spine in appreciation, breathed in his scent, faint fresh sweat and clean skin. "So like this," Usopp murmured, savouring everything. That part of him that couldn't believe this was going on remained, only quiet, spectating at the back of his mind. But sometimes reality just blew imagination out of the water. "I just... yeah." He allowed himself another shallow thrust, testing himself. He could hold on.
In more ways than one. He found Zoro's cock again.
At the first slick, gliding stroke, Zoro's hand squeezed and released Usopp's forearm. He rocked his hips up into it, and Usopp followed suit, eyes sliding shut. "So... so here we are. Okay?" He didn't have to ask, maybe, but it came out nonetheless.
"Yeah." The reply was rough and fervent, almost inaudible except that Usopp was so near. Heat rolled through Usopp on the heels of that word, and he hoped he wouldn't embarrass himself.
And having something else to concentrate on seemed to be enough, even something like this. He had Zoro in his hands.
He worked up to a smooth rhythm of stroke and tug and squeeze, curving his hand over the head of Zoro's cock every few strokes, the other holding and stroking his sac, little squeeze, little tug here or there, and Zoro's weight would shift and loosen against him, heavy and hot.
Usopp's grip felt almost natural now, like he was getting it close to really right, like he had learned it enough for it to be good. He felt the hitches in Zoro's breathing against his chest and his cheek. Zoro's shallow thrusts pushed against his grip, dragged Usopp's own arousal higher each time, and Zoro's hands covered his wrists, along for the ride but nearly still. Nearly.
Usopp felt a twitch of Zoro's fingers, a faint press down on an upstroke, then a tug urging a heavier grip, and Zoro arched back, slowly tensing. "Getting close?" Usopp kept his voice low, and it still sounded like panting. He stroked stronger, faster, one-handed, the other letting go to spread over Zoro's stomach, so Usopp could keep himself close and tight, and feel as much of this as he was able. "Yeah, you are," he whispered. "Come on."
One of Zoro's hands flattened over his, hot palm holding him there, and then Zoro gasped a little. Usopp felt him tense under his hand, felt his back stiffen against his chest, felt his body tighten and his cock pulse as he came, heard Ida make a moaning sound no real wolf ever would. Zoro's fingers curled between his where their hands were against his belly, and Usopp gripped right back, so close behind.
Zoro tugged Usopp's other hand from his cock, pressed it to his hip, and Usopp grabbed on, slid his hand lower, pushed Zoro's thigh as tight down as he could - oh, that was - that was good - he let go of the restraint he'd hung onto until now and just moved, heels digging into the back of the couch, Zoro a solid anchor, and by the little space he had to move in was more than enough. He wouldn't change a thing.
He wasn't sure how long it took, there was no trying to slow down anymore, he only chased the peak. The urgency tightened his grip and made each short sliding thrust better and better until there was no better left to feel. Then it was too much, and he sailed over the edge, clutching at Zoro's hip, other hand still held to Zoro's middle, Zoro clasping them together while Usopp breathed against his back, while a quivering Thalassa pressed against Ida's welcoming bulk.
At first it felt like he could stay there ages, wedged between Zoro and the back of the couch, warm, and still deliciously slippery in some spots, Thalassa likewise tucked between Ida's forelegs, the weight of the wolf daemon's head across half her body. Zoro didn't shift either, and Usopp, eyes closed against his spine, started idly tracking the rhythm of his breathing as he regained enough awareness to do it.
Not sleeping, Usopp didn't think. Just resting. Good idea.
There was only the slightest movement behind Zoro at first, the warm drift of Usopp's breath over his back, and the slightly sweat-damp, entirely pleasant press of Usopp's arms around his middle, those deft, eager hands and long fingers now carefully letting go, then resting loose and warm over what was too sensitive to really touch just now.
Ida was curled loosely up, Thalassa nearly invisible, tucked snug against her shoulder. They were so comfortable. So unlike the past few days.
After all of that, he and Ida could have been comfortable napping almost any way - they were whole again. But, Zoro thought easily, this wasbetter.
And he didn't want the couch cushions to start feeling rough against his bare skin, didn't want the wet spots on him to turn sticky, for the cool air to become less than comfortable on his bare skin. Of course that couldn't be avoided. But, as all the minor irritants started to make themselves known, he found he was glad to feel them.
After the past few days, discomfort so trivial was actually welcome. Slightly scratchy cushions were familiar. The sticky places were a satisfying aftermath. And so completely unlike his helplessness after Golden's cut... he could deal with this whenever he wanted. And he would... eventually.
And indeed, eventually, Usopp muttered and squirmed a little behind him, making some drowsy noises about the two of them getting glued together if they stayed like this much longer. Zoro smiled slightly, eyes closed, and hung one arm over the side of the couch, finding the shirt he'd let fall, and dropped it behind him on Usopp's side.
"That works," Usopp said, almost absently, and Zoro moved obligingly with each push and prod as Usopp wiped up the greater part of the mess. Self-consciousness nowhere to be found now either, as he poked Zoro's leg for him to raise it and then patted away the drying layer of lube and come.
Thalassa got up then, sliding from under the weight of Ida's head and waddling over. Ida rose as well, and as Thalassa reached the side of the couch, Zoro reached down again, found her soft back, smooth beak, the line of her neck. "That was fun," Thalassa said to him contentedly, eyes closing as he stroked his thumb lightly over her head.
Usopp hummed pleasantly, and then trailed off with a huff of laughter as Ida put her head over Zoro's side to prod at Usopp with her cool nose, and Zoro felt it, deep and penetratingly gentle, as Usopp stroked her ears, then sank his fingers into her ruff.
"Don't forget to eat," Ida said, leaning briefly against Zoro's belly so she could lick affectionately at Usopp's ear, which made him twitch and giggle. The fur of her chest was rough and soft and warm against Zoro's front, and he felt a ripple of that vast and elated relief from earlier, when she had become his again.
"Not likely," Usopp answered, and Zoro grunted amused agreement. Usopp didn't move, though, except to toss the shirt back on the floor.
This wasn't their little tree camp, with Zoro's bottomless, confounding agony and cold encroaching around the edges of the fire's warmth. This place was home, it was safe.
They didn't need to get up. Not just yet.
The snoring made it hard for Anton to concentrate. It wasn't loud, but he just couldn't ignore it. Akilah fidgeted across the paper as he tried to organize his thoughts, but the steady, snuffly snore went right through.
He set aside the file he been amending (Yama Haruhiko [Asumi - domestic shorthair cat; grey tabby], 24 - Witness statement:), straightened from his hunch where he sat on his cot, felt the crackling up his spine as it complained of his awkward position held for so long.
On the cot in front of him, Fred slept, Jaromir on his pillow, no longer sharing the towel-padded stool with Haidee. Fred wasn't the one snoring.
Issak's chest rose and fell with the rhythm of the soft snores, one arm flung up behind his head like Anton had seen back before their time at Golden's facility. Haidee was close against his side, her wide, segmented body curved as much as she could against his gaunt shape.
Issak had woken this morning. Silent, wide-eyed and barely responsive after an initial groaning strain to gather Haidee close to him, he'd submitted to examination by Dr Lind with distracted obedience. The only resistance was when they attempted draw his hands away from Haidee as they applied a new dressing for his bed sores.
The only word he said was "no," hoarse and harsh, when Dr Lind had suggested Anton leave and take Frederik with him while she and a nurse tended to Issak.
Issak seemed so... extinguished. There was no light in him, no smile - nor frown or anger either - only near blankness. So opposite to how Fred's self-possession had been ground away. Still, he had recognized them, nodded and shaken his head in response to questions. He was himself, if not as before, taking in Anton's abbreviated report of the current situation with visible comprehension.
Haidee had let Akilah and Jaromir greet her, had touched them once each with her weakly questing antennae, let Akilah crawl over her broad shape as Anton spoke, let Jaromir lie against her side.
Now they slept, and Anton sighed at the mental weariness from the now-familiar cycle of joy and despair at the state of him. Awakened, yes. Healthy, no.
Not yet, he reminded himself firmly. This was only the start. And by the grace of errant pirates, Issak was alive to have that start.
Anton looked at the commander. She was the last. The sight twisted his insides less now than it had, the guilt being edged out by hope. The pattern of recovery had become reinforced, maybe almost predictable, with each new victim that woke. Commander Malin had been cut the most recently. She would be the last to awaken.
But she would. Her body was gaining strength. Golden's cut would heal too.
"It's gettin' better," Akilah murmured quietly.
"Yeah," he said, and picked her up, dragging his fingers restively along her multitude of legs, the little points blending into a rough, tickling surface as familiar as the segments of her body. He stood, as silently as he could, stretched and released the last of the kinks in his back. He really was supposed to be using the desk he'd commandeered in the hallway. And he had been, for most of the past couple of days. Just... sometimes he needed to be in here.
But now he did go out, wanting a little movement for his stiff arms and half-numb legs. Issak's snore goaded him on out the door. That was a silly thought, but it made Anton smile a little. It was a silly thought Issak might've voiced, before.
It was early afternoon now, and the hall was at a minor bustle as one shift of apprentices and orderlies took a pause to eat near the stairs that led below, most of them doing it standing. And they did all eat, by now well trained under the stern eye of Blackleg, who, it turned, out, didn't just watch over the eating habits of the ill, but of anyone in his vicinity. Everyone ate a proper meal, even if, as now, he wasn't right there to glare the men into doing so, or to cajole the women.
Anton had had a few plates set down on his desk by now, and a few curt "welcome"s in reply to his thanks.
There remained something inside him that contorted against the interaction, some part disturbed that - at least with some of them - he was almost... nearly... familiar. Blackleg had never lost that unmistakeable dangerous presence; he was too strong, his pride was too blatant, for that to be really gone from Anton's impression of him. But Anton didn't fear him now, after nearly a week of exposure. His rudeness and foul language were... usual, by this point. Anton no longer gaped if Blackleg unleashed a curse in the vicinity of a child.
Though he had to admit they seemed to be picking up a few unsavoury verbal habits along with their cooking skills.
It wasn't like this with all of the pirates. Blackleg, and Chopper, Anton sort of knew, at least to a small degree - the rest, Anton regarded with wariness at best, lingering unease at worst.
But, he'd gotten... not used to it, but... it was just a fact that they were here, a fact that he had chosen not to waste his time or theirs by confronting them.
So he simply bore it, and focused on what work he could do. He could compartmentalize very well, at least once his concussion symptoms had eased. He had done it for months under Golden, and this was nothing compared to that.
Though he'd still felt a lurch of fight-or-flight when two new pirates had appeared at the town hall ward a few days ago. Anton had been aware that the entire crew had not been in town, two of them stuck across the canyon, but that hadn't prevented the reaction.
There'd been one with far too many swords and a solemn, sharp-eyed wolf daemon. The wanted poster rose to Anton's mind's eye in an instant. Supernova. The other one had a long nose, a blue cape, and a murre daemon that Anton realized was the one that had been flying alone, the one Blackleg had been so infuriated at missing. That nose vaguely resembled the Sniper King poster, but that murre was no enormous albatross daemon.
No albatross, but that murre, that sleek seabird... she had been flying alone, and Anton had not forgotten - it would be difficult for anyone to forget a sight as eerie as that. Separation, especially such as that, it was just... the ingrained wrongness, after so long in Golden's proximity, would not be reasoned away.
Anton had seen the two pirates from the vantage point of his borrowed desk that day, had scooped Akilah against him, then swallowed the initial reflexive fear because - as with the Cat Burglar, the Pirate Hunter's indifferent stare slid over Anton in a general glance around the hall lobby, the wolf daemon's gaze lingering only a second longer. The longnose glanced at him rather benignly, mildly curious, but nothing more.
Then the two were tackled by Strawhat, the captain's daemon leaping upon the wolf with a cackle, and joined by the murre as the swordsman stoically bore the embrace and the longnose returned it, until Chopper stuck his head out the ballroom door and barked for them to leave or be quiet, Wendeline stern on his hat. Anton had chuckled at that, then trailed off, realizing that the little doctor was now familiar enough to him that his bouts of stern reprimand had become funny, just like his giddy swearing and Wendeline's flustered dashing around whenever anyone happened to praise him.
Well, he was a good doctor.
After his initial displeasure, Chopper had realized who had arrived. The little zoan had darted out, turned to his larger form and peered at his returned crewmates closely, prodding and examining them while Wendeline spoke to their daemons. The wolf wagged her tail once and the murre submitted happily to affectionate grooming. Anton couldn't see anything wrong with them from here, though by Chopper's reaction, there apparently was a bump on the longnose's head.
They looked none the worse for wear for having been on the other side of the canyon for a few days, but Strawhat and Chopper's glee at their arrival was a sight - and Anton knew the feeling.
Examination over, Chopper had once again encouraged them all out the door, away from his ward, and then they were gone, dragged by Strawhat out into the square.
Blackleg had come up the stairs moments later, belated once again, swan daemon irked and flapping behind him. After the sentry pointed out the door, he charged out, his bellow of "HEY, SHITHEADS!" could be heard as the doors closed behind him.
Still, he'd been in a good mood for the rest of that day; there were desserts for everyone, not just the female staff.
Now, the hall was quiet, pale afternoon light coming in, and Anton walked towards the front doors. Some cold air would be refreshing.
He stopped, as was usual now, by the ballroom doors, peering inside. Dr Lind was there, back near the stage, speaking to a few of the apprentices. The beds were fewer now. The blank files, the ones with no names, loomed in Anton's mind for a moment, and Akilah tightened around his thumb in their distress, but there was nothing to about that but wait. Dwelling on it wouldn't help.
As Golden's victims woke, some had been barely more aware than when they were comatose. Some had been violent. All had been damaged. But many of them hadn't needed to remain here.
The smaller rooms of the hall, like the one where Anton slept with his team, now housed some of them, but others had been well enough to release. The younger ones especially. Natural resilience of an unsettled daemon? Anton didn't know, and while he'd heard the little doctor and Dr Lind discussing it with terms he didn't fully understand, he wasn't sure they knew either.
Some of the locals had opened their homes. There was an old couple there now, being introduced to a young girl who had woken up yesterday. They were Dr Lind's parents, silver-haired but still vital-looking, the man lean and the woman stocky and plump.
Anton had been there when Dr Lind brought them the first time, for another child who had woken up, a dazed but rapidly-mobile little boy, instantly prone to fleeing and hiding, too-thin body not keeping him and his ragged-looking daemon confined to a cot. A disruption and a danger in the ward, and the ward a terrifying place for him in turn. "He's in my brother's old room," Dr Lind had told Anton the next day. when he'd inquired how it had gone. "Ma says that he likes the books." Dr Lind had smiled, which prompted Anton to do the same. She looked exhausted, Deverel's head drooping whenever there was a moment's pause, but the smile still lit her up. Anton had tried to keep her talking, keep that smile up as long as he could.
Now, as Anton watched, the old man, Mr Lind spoke quietly, his stocky raccoon-dog daemon moving carefully until she touched noses with the child's rigidly protective tiger cub. The little girl's fists were twisted in the blanket over her lap, and she was staring fixedly down at them. The tiger cub trembled for a moment, then his paws shifted and he sat, not relaxed by any means, but not shying back. He leaned into the light contact of the raccoon-dog's paw patting his cheek. The little girl looked up slowly, and Mrs Lind sat carefully on the stool by the bed, her golden retriever daemon patient beside her.
Anton sighed. The child's reaction to them was better than any waking victim had ever had to him. Akilah scared most of them, especially the children. It wasn't like Blackleg's irrational fear of actual bugs - it was so much worse, it was fear of the daemon itself being that shape, as if that meant that the person would...
Golden's... fetish... had done this to them, and it made Anton feel guilty and unclean, made Akilah retreat under his collar in their shame.
Dr Lind's stricken, apologetic expression the first time one of the children had broken into sobs of fear when he'd come into the ward had not stopped her from propelling him back out the door and telling him not to come back. "It's not your fault," she'd told him later, and he realized that, but it didn't much help.
So the questions he had drawn up for the patients, the queries he hoped they had answers for, were asked by the nurses instead, and all he could do was compile and organize. That was fine. That was his job, his real job, and he was good at that. The frustration at being barred from collecting the data himself, well... he tried to focus it into energy to work harder.
Before his peek inside became long enough that the sentry had to remind him to move along, Anton drew back from the doorway. He made his way out through the front doors, emerging under the hazy cloud and into cold air. The light was bright, diffuse, and it really was cold; a snap of freezing temperature had moved in, enough to ice over puddles and bite bare skin... but not too bad for a few minutes, even in only a sweater.
Across the icy flagstones of the town square he could see a loaded cart, a couple of workmen tying things down. The long-nosed pirate with the murre daemon was there and Blackleg as well, his swan and the murre comparing webbed footprints in the snow while their humans talked, Blackleg pushing a pile of wrapped food boxes at the longnose.
The pirates weren't even stealing anything. Anton had heard that the Cat Burglar drove a vicious bargain, but all those goods were purchased legally.
The workmen finished, one of them speaking to the two pirates, and then Blackleg threw an arm around the longnose's neck, yanking him close for a moment. Likewise, the swan nudged the murre with one wing, then extended it over her and nibbled at the top of her head.
When Blackleg yanked at his bandanna, twisting the curly ponytail awry, the longnose squawked and extricated himself from Blackleg's one-armed embrace, and clambered up onto the crates. He sat, adjusting his headwear, as his daemon flapped up to land in his lap - natural and close but Anton still couldn't shake the sight of her alone. Blackleg waved a shoo-ing goodbye motion when the cart began moving, and then headed back towards the town hall.
He slowed as he reached the stairs, giving Anton a nod of acknowledgement. "We're leaving today," he said, and Anton nodded back. "Dunno what you've been telling your shitty bosses," he said, taking his cigarette from his mouth to blow smoke upward. "But if they chase, we'll fight." The warning in Blackleg's voice was matter of fact.
Anton had been granted use of the long-distance snailphone in the Mayor's office a few times already, had made a partial report to an extremely surprised officer at the nearest detachment - Commander Malin's unit code was distinctly Special Operactions - and had started the arrangements for a recovery unit. There would be a medical ship, and there would be a team from forensics. The wreckage remained, submerged as most of it was, and had to be searched.
The doctors would likely find more than the investigators - the information Dr Lind and the little zoan had compiled was greater, more detailed and less disjointed than Anton's piecemeal recovery of criminal data. Study into the daemon/human connection would be welcomed, treatment methods meant precedents could be studied for future cases.
And with Golden dead... his power would come again.
Blackleg's steady warning hung in the air. Anton regarded him, daring now to stare at the pirate while the pirate could see him doing it, took the time to study him from this close distance for a moment. Tall, lean, that impression of power and potential destruction just as present as before. And, as before, no intent to exert any of it, not on Anton, a marine right in front of him, not on anyone here. Except to feed them, as Anton had already seen. And indeed assisted with.
Aided and abetted a pirate, sir, yes. With supper.
Anton risked a glance at the swan. She stared right back, unconcerned with his rudeness, tilting her dark, graceful head and settling her strong white wings. He felt Akilah crawl a little down his shoulder, likewise looking, and looked back up to see that Blackleg was watching him back. A twitch of the corner of his mouth seemed to be the only remaining trace of his ingrained distaste for Akilah's form, nearly self-deprecating at that.
For a moment, Anton tried to picture the man in a uniform, in a line, with a unit. White and blue. Justice.
He could picture it, almost. Maybe it looked... good. But it didn't look right. It was... wistful and bitter, to imagine how this man's power could have improved the marines.
The picture didn't fit on Blackleg, though. Not on him, or any of them. It was like a dream - or maybe a nightmare - it was something too far away to see clearly, something that could never come into focus and probably shouldn't.
"I never saw any pirate ship in this port," Anton told him. He hadn't been down to the port since the end of Golden. Nor for months before that either. Akilah crawled back up to his shoulder, raised her first few segments, her antennae erect and certain. The decision was firm, even if the angles and justifications bruised parts of him where they had to fit.
"Hm." Blackleg replaced his cigarette. "Alright." He didn't go inside right away - Chopper wouldn't let him in with that lit, anyway - he just stood, and smoked, in the cold air, the swan still and silent at his side.
Anton said nothing else, and neither did Blackleg, until the cigarette was spent, and snuffed. Blackleg turned to go inside, probably to return to to the kitchen for whatever last arrangements he wanted to make. There was the crunch of his shoes on the layer of refrozen melted snow on the steps.
Akilah's legs rippled against Anton's shoulder as she shifted with the words Anton wanted to say, so Anton said them. "Thank you." He didn't turn, the words spoken at what was in front of him, to the square and pale sun and the town.
The footsteps paused for a moment, and the pirate answered. "Good luck."
It was good to be back on Lion-chan again, Brook thought, going up on his toes on the lawn deck and then settling back. The lawn itself was looking a little browned, the wintry weather not suiting the grass very well. Brook felt a rather irrational sympathy - the sooner they were away, the better it would be for both him and the not-so-green greenery.
He looked up the long, grey road to the town, not able to make much out now but shingled roofs edged with snow, and rising smoke from a few buildings. The chill of winter would be settling in properly soon, Brook thought, even without Miss Nami at hand to ask. He hoped the log pose would direct them to a warmer locale next.
Syrinx darted down to the railing in front of him, hopping along it, back and forth, as fidgety as he, now that they were almost set to depart. Brook rather wanted to play his violin, see them off with a song, but there was still a last cart to unload coming down that grey road.
He could make out Usopp on the cart too, perched on the tied-down mountain of supplies with Thalassa in his lap.
Seeing them together was still a great relief - too much so, irrationally so. The intensity of that reaction was diminishing slightly each time, hopefully to return to normal eventually, but Brook welcomed an overwrought sense of relief any day after the rattling distress of seeing Thalassaalone. He shuddered faintly now at the unwanted memory, and Syrinx returned to his shoulder, tucking against his neck bones.
In defiance of his discomfiture, he raised one arm and waved vigorously. "MR USOPP!" he crowed, and Syrinx added a trill to the words, though they were perhaps a little too far for such refinements to carry to Usopp's ears.
The galley door slammed behind Brook. "He's back?" Zoro's question preceded him, and then Zoro was at the railing too. Ida reared up to hook her paws over the rail and peer forward, ears upright.
On the wagon, Usopp stood, striking a heroic pose that Thalassa arced around in a very graceful accentuating effect.
The wagon hit a bump and Usopp wobbled, windmilled his arms, then caught himself and bowed extravagantly. Brook clapped with gusto. Zoro snorted, but it was amused, and Ida's tail wagged briefly.
"Indeed he is, along with our final supplies," Brook confirmed, altogether redundantly, and Zoro harrumphed.
"There had better be beer on that cart," he muttered. "Shit-cook's wine took up most of the last one."
Brook parted his teeth in a little smile, but declined to comment on the rather unexpectedly fine vintage of some of the bottles - Zoro's indifference to that sort of thing left more for the rest of them, after all.
"OI!" Zoro bellowed. "BEER?"
Usopp's arms raised again, double thumbs-up hard to make out, but his answer, faint, "beer!" was enough for Zoro, who looked at Brook and cracked an actual smile.
"And COLA!" Franky's announcement from the loudspeaker answered Zoro's yell in favour of his own preference. Acacia hooted in agreement, the baboon daemon swinging down the lookout ladder ahead of Franky to perch on the rail next to Brook. Syrinx's twittering laugh was met by a gentle poke from one dextrous finger, just as Franky reached them. "Nami did some super bargaining. And the cola here is great," Franky told them, as if divulging a deep secret. "Cook-bro liked it too, said the sugar balance in the syrup was something something and all that jazz." He grinned at Brook, and it was real, that apologetic caution nearly gone now.
"Provided it has sufficient carbonation," Brook said sagely, "for our own entertainment." Now would have been the time to punctuate that with an appropriately loud belch, but as the cola was on the cart... perhaps later.
Franky knew exactly what he meant, though, and slapped Brook on the back hard enough to rattle him - and if that wasn't a sign that Franky was relaxing around him again, Brook didn't know what was.
Franky jumped over the side to land on the dock, Acacia hanging off one huge shoulder. They met the cart driver and his wild turkey daemon and then the now-familiar process of moving cargo from cart to ship began.
Robin, alerted by all the bellowing, was there to lift things up the side of the ship while the rest of them went to and fro stowing things where they belonged.
There was indeed beer, as well as cola, among various and sundry other items. Once Luffy, Nami, Sanji and Chopper descended from the town, they would have everything and everyone they needed.
"Is everything ready for departure?" Robin asked him, once everything was put away and she had come from the final part of her tasks, stowing some of Nami's and her own purchases of books and paper.
"Indeed it is," Brook confirmed. Including himself. Robin's hand settled on his hipbone, and Zafir darted forward, his keen eye studying Brook's skull, his tiny wings too fast to see as he observed Brook.
Brook observed him in return, the iridescent sheen of his feathers, the way his feet were tucked up beneath him, the sleek point of his beak. Zafir bobbed in visible happiness at the regard, and Brook clicked his teeth in contentment at another thing he had that was good about his existence. The terrible things - there were many, and most of them predated Golden after all - did not erase this, nor his music, nor his nakama.
Not a balance, there was no way for him to weigh and tally such a thing. But even so.
Brook looked down at Robin, parted his teeth in a smile, and Syrinx lifted from his shoulder to circle Zafir and lead him back down to Robin's waiting hands.
Ah. Such warmth!
There was little left to do now until they actually set sail. Usopp and Zoro had attended to some preparations among the rigging, Franky had gone below to make small final adjustments in advance of departure, and then all three had retreated to the galley. Laughter could be heard through the slightly open door, and Brook foresaw that Sanji would arrived to an already tapped keg or two.
Since the cook's wrath would already be incurred, why not a bottle of wine as well? Brook extended his elbow to Robin. "Shall we?"
Chopper still wouldn't let Zoro or Usopp take a watch during their first night back on the water, even though by then they'd been back on Sunny for a few days, and doing just fine.
Of course, they hadn't told him what had happened with Golden until they'd set off.
Their doctor's fit when Zoro had explained what had happened to them had been explosive and strident and Usopp chased the screaming doctor around the lawn deck, until Thalassa bore Wendeline to the ground and Usopp sat on the little reindeer, and they all waited for him to stop hyperventilating in overwrought - and belated - panic.
"You will not be on watch. You both need - you need to recover, mentally!" He glared at them after supper was over and shifts were being settled on. Wendeline eyed Thalassa and Ida in turn with a stern, doctorly eye. The panic from earlier had gone, and Chopper's sternness was real now, underscored with a real fear that Zoro supposed came from all those people he'd treated from Golden's ward. "You need rest."
"I really don't," Zoro replied, but didn't argue any more than that, because while he could take a watch and sit through it as alert as he needed to be, thank you, he could still feel the fatigue.
Usopp started a tale of the sea monster that only he could spot, when it attacked between the hours of two and five in the morning, but trailed off under the weight of Chopper's frowning eyes.
And that wouldn't have mattered enough on its own, not for Zoro, and maybe not even for Usopp, but then Luffy said, "do what he says," and that was that.
There was an evening's easygoing celebration of being out at sea again, where they all found some reason to stay together for at least these few hours, drinking whatever Sanji made for them. The daemons arranged themselves into a snugly piled group, the undercurrent to the party, comfortable and close, before all of their respective natures scattered them out across the ship tomorrow.
Much later, Zoro was sleepily not-quite-but-almost-drunk. Usopp was attempting a slurred explanation to Nami and Robin about how various coin denominations differed in projectile potential, and Franky's off-key duet with Brook was not nearly as loud as it had been. Luffy was dozing on the daemon pile, his arm warm over Ida and the back of Zoro's mind. The good time suddenly became bedtime, and Sanji, on first watch, kicked the men and bowed the women out of the galley.
Usopp and Thalassa fell into into a bunk with an inarticulate dual moan that amused Zoro's beer-relaxed mind. It sounded like that noise they'd made, that other time. Pretty good noise.
Zoro took a spot on the couch, Ida jumping up beside to curl her back against his leg. Sleepy as they were, he found himself not dropping off right away, but just sitting, to watch Usopp sleep, and Brook, and Luffy and Chopper and Franky too, an orchestra of snoring filling the cabin. When sleep claimed him, he didn't even notice.
He roused when Sanji came in to shovel Luffy out of bed for the next watch. Ida shifted a little, but didn't raise her head, only opened her eyes and perked an ear at Sanji and Kajoumi' s familiar footfalls.
They watched the captain grump a little at being woken, Kajoumi prodding Oma towards the door with her beak, the sleepy spider monkey daemon sulking with each step. Then she and Luffy perked up when Sanji mentioned there were cookies in the crow's nest, and promptly vanished.
Sanji glanced at Zoro, raising an eyebrow that Zoro answered with a shrug of one shoulder.
Chopper hadn't been the only one who'd found the revelation of what they'd been through to be shocking. Brook's fit of shudders and near-collapse onto a bench had been the most apparent, and understandable, and of course Sanji had unleashed a torrent of swearing, Kajoumi hissing and flapping with the fury that didn't fully conceal the sickened tone in their voices.
Usopp had squirmed and looked down at the quieter mirror of Sanji's reaction in everyone's else's faces, and even Zoro had felt a weird, warm guilt, even if it was all over now, only words, at this point. The nauseated flinch from Nami, and the flash of rage in Luffy's eyes...
Well, anyway. They were all fine now.
The cook shucked his jacket, removed his belt and shoes, boosted Kajoumi into the bunk over Usopp's and hoisted himself up after. They settled in while Zoro scratched comfortably at Ida's ears.
"Oi," Kajoumi said into the dark. "You okay, stupid dog?"
Zoro snorted, and Ida's tail thumped against the couch. The two daemons had launched into a vigorous sparring fight earlier in the evening, as Sanji reamed Zoro verbally for daring to open the beer, and Zoro insulted Sanji's ridiculous wines. Zoro smiled into the dark. "Fine, ugly buzzard," Ida returned.
Sanji laughed a little, and Zoro knew he must be exhausted too. He'd done some marathon cooking this week. Shit-cook would want to feed the whole town.
The rhythm of Sanji's breathing relaxed, and his usual smoke-roughened sound joined the noise of the men's cabin. Zoro could pick them all out. Chopper breathed quickly. Brook and Franky were still sawing slightly different-sized logs.
Usopp was muffled now, and there was just enough moonlight making it in to see why. In his sleep, he'd tucked himself almost completely under his blanket, and Thalassa too; only the top of his head showed, the rest of him was curled up, blanket pulled tight around him like he was cold. There'd been some pre-departure laundry done, everything was clean and the beds had been made, but the pile of blankets Usopp had gathered to sleep under the past two nights was gone.
Zoro rose, retrieved the newest, thickest blanket from the locker where they were stored, and shook it out, an indeterminately-coloured stripe pattern in the dark. He draped it over Usopp. As it settled, Usopp shifted, burrowed down, disappeared a little more from view, hunkering into the warmth.
Satisfied, Zoro returned to the couch, replaced his hand in Ida's ruff. They dropped off again, listening to the snoring and the creaking of the ship.
He slept through the rest of the night, through the next watch shift change, and when he woke again, it was to an empty cabin bright with morning, faint sounds of small, Usopp-related explosions and Luffy laughing outside.
Ida's weight was firm against his side, and there was the soft weight of a blanket spread over him.
Usopp adjusted his legs in the rigging, then glanced down at Nami again. She gave him a nod, and he grinned - the wind was keeping steady, so shooting his smoke bombs off to starboard wouldn't send any of the smoke back over the ship. The breeze up here was chilly, but right now he didn't mind; he had two sweatshirts on, the sun was out, and Nami would announce any impending crazy weather.
Out over the water, Thalassa wheeled in a tight turn back towards the deck rail, dipping low to buzz the heads of their audience. Oma's screechy laughter rose to Usopp's ears as Thalassa's feet tapped her outstretched hands, and Luffy's whoop followed. "C'mon! More!"
"Last ones!" he called down in reminder. He was down the last three test bombs. He readjusted one ankle again, securing himself, then leaned out, drew back and fired.
With a nicely-timed triple BANG, coloured-smoke clouds burst a little ahead of the ship. Red, brownish-blue, greyish green hung in the air alongside as the ship moved forward. Thalassa made a spiral around the clouds, making a trail of mingled smoke. Luffy cheered and Usopp squinted, watching the dissipation ratio.
"Looking good, bro!" Franky's approval carried back from where he stood at the helm.
Everything did look fine, functionally, but he definitely needed to refine the colour mix, and of course the main reason to have coloured smoke bombs was for a little flair (as opposed to flares... those were an entirely different area), and what was the point of being a pirate if you didn't have flair?
"Show's over!" he called down, shrugging apologetically at Luffy's protest. No point in setting off any firework stars during the day. Maybe tonight. He leaned back in the rigging, feet set against the taut ropes, letting that support him, one elbow hooked through to keep him in place, Kabuto slung over his shoulder.
Thalassa came in for a landing, thumping against the ropes and flapping awkwardly for balance until he put his free arm under her and held her against his chest.
Really, he was just so glad to be underway, back on Sunny, with everyone together.
There was food, there were beds, nothing was blowing up (except for fun), there were no freezing river canyons, no tortured people and daemons, just... Sunny, and everyone. Maybe some of them a little banged up, but all safe now.
Okay, so Chopper's concerned frown would be there for a while yet, and Brook's jittery reactions weren't all hidden under skull jokes and music, as much as Brook was trying... and Usopp understood that perfectly. He himself had a more difficult time thinking about what he'd seen Golden do to Brook - and Zoro - than looking back on his own ordeal. Realizing half of Brook's reactions were to him and Thalassa, because he'd sent her back alone... well. They just kept close together, now.
Too bad distance wouldn't work as well as time to make it all better. He looked aft, to where the island was well behind them and long out of sight.
But Robin had her eye on Brook, and Zafir kept close to Syrinx - that was new and interesting and it had only taken one raised eyebrow from Robin to stop Usopp actually asking - and Chopper and Wendeline were doing almost hourly checks on them all, and Sanji kept asking what they wanted to eat...
So not quite settled, but Usopp had woken up warm this morning under two blankets, and so he had no complaints at all.
"Won't stay quiet forever," Thalassa murmured, staring out over the waves, and of course that was true. Except when it wasn't - like that story he'd have to tell Luffy later about going out to sea at age four and getting becalmed for seven weeks and taming a flock of gulls to tie to his boat and tow him home, except they'd gotten lost and then... something. He'd think of that on the spot, always better that way.
There was the sound of a door opening and closing below, and Usopp twisted in the rigging enough to look deckward.
Zoro had emerged from the men's cabin, and now stood blinking in the light and rolling his shoulders, Ida stretching and yawning beside him. They only got a few steps further onto the deck before Sanji intercepted Zoro with a mug of something that had steam rising from it, then moved on with the tray up towards the ladder to the crow's nest, where Brook was on lookout, and Robin was too (and Usopp still wasn't prying).
That wasn't fair. Was there no hot midmorning caffeinated beverage for hardworking snipers? "Where's mine?!" he called out in protest.
"Not losing any more mugs from idiots drinking in the rigging!"
"That's plain cruelty!"
Sanji only laughed at him and made his way to the crow's nest.
Usopp snorted in theatrical protest, and discovered Zoro was looking up at him, smirking just enough for it to be visible. Ida raised her head, looking at him with ears pricked and mouth open in a slight lupine grin of her own. Thalassa jumped from Usopp's arms and glided down to the deck, landing next to Ida and leaning cajolingly against her forelegs, light pressure that made Usopp grin, and try to look like he really definitely deserved coffee too.
Zoro glanced down at the daemons, looked up at Usopp and took a very slow and deliberate sip, and then lifted his mug. "You want some?"
"Oh, well! if you insist." Usopp replied, and started back down the rigging.