Author's note: This fic is related to my longer daemon AU Near Divide, but aside from it being a daemon AU, reading that first isn't required. 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!
Please do let me know if you see any weird typos or anything!
After supper, the doctor visited, like he did every day now, and Usopp and Thalassa sat on the floor outside Mama's room until he went away again. Thalassa was a rabbit, warm against his side, brown ears flat against her back.
"Come in, now," Mama called to him, and he picked Thalassa up and went in. Darshan was settled down on the blanket next to her, looking just as tired, but his eyes were as bright as Mama's smile.
Ready to do the job that the Mama had given him, Usopp got her the glass of water she needed so she could take her medicine, and then she lay back and closed her eyes while he got up on his chair next to her bed. "Do you have a story for me?" she asked. Her voice was like a sigh.
"Mama," Usopp said, scolding her a bit for that question.
"We always have a story," Thalassa added, hopping from Usopp's lap to the bed and changing, taking a shape to match Darshan's, only in grey. A common pigeon, instead of Darshan's dove-white. She hunkered down next to him and gently groomed his feathers, and Usopp started to talk, swinging his feet, holding on to the edge of the seat between his knees, until he needed his hands to show how big stuff was.
Mama watched him, smiling a bit, and he even made her laugh once. When her eyes got too sleepy, he stopped, but she opened them again. "Don't stop," she said, and she smiled again. "I'll hear you in my dreams."
After a while, when he ran out of story, after the Story-Usopp and Story-Thalassa had defeated the giant stone whale by finding its heart so it came back to being real instead of stone, Mama was definitely sleeping, her breathing long and slow, and Darshan's eyes shut tight, his head nestled down against his puffy chest feathers..
Usopp sat on the chair for a long time, watching her.
"Pirates are coming, Mama," he said. Thalassa looked up at him, moving from Darshan's side to his lap. She became a kestrel, the same as they'd tried last night, brown wings barred with black, grey head and curved beak. Her talons were sharp, poking slightly into his legs. "Hmm." he said, and shook his head. They had to try something new. She changed again, to a bird with a sooty black head and back, and white chest feathers, black webbed feet and pointed beak. A murre, a seabird that lived almost all the time on the sea. Usopp had seen real ones, mostly flying far off, except for once a year when they came to lay their eggs on one of the stony beaches on the island, walking almost upright like penguins.
He put his arms around her, lifting her carefully and sliding silently off the chair. He wouldn't go outside, that was too far away, and anyway it was dark out and he was allergic to the dark.
But Thalassa wasn't.
The window in the kitchen was the one that looked out closest to water, to the sea, where Dad and Sagara were.
He set Thalassa on the sill and pushed it open. He stroked his hand over her back once, while they both looked out into the night, and then she hopped forward, the murre shape's clumsy takeoff making her flap loudly a couple of times before she was high enough to catch the wind.
The hurting started, like it always did, and he held on to the windowsill, the edges digging into his hands. He tried to stay standing up as long as he could.
When Thalassa went too far, it hurt like he was tearing his skin off, like he was getting his insides burned away, like someone was cutting off a big piece of him with a horrible rusty saw. It hurt so much he almost couldn't breathe. But only almost.
The feel of the wood digging into his hands got far away. He stopped being able to hold on, and slid down the wall, curling up on the floor. Every night, Thalassa got a bit farther away before it was too much. Not far enough yet, though. She needed to go out, over the water, out to the sea. Dad and Sagara were there, they were there, if she could just find them, so they could come back.
And it did hurt, but it didn't matter, because Mama was sick and she was going to... she would...
This ripping inside him didn't hurt as bad as knowing that.
He huddled on the floor, holding onto his own arms, digging fingers into bruises that he kept making every night, face wet and nose running, while the tearing of Thalassa going away got worse and worse.
Stopped like slamming into the ground after falling from a tree. Suddenly he could feel his own skin again, his weight where he was lying on the floor, hear the silence of the empty kitchen.
He gasped and it seemed so loud, his breathing raspy in his ears. His eyes opened, staring across the sanded wood of the floor for a second before he rolled onto his back, arms sliding flat on the floor at his sides. He sucked in another breath, choked and swallowed the snotty tears sliding back down his throat.
His face hurt, it always got red and puffy when he cried for a while. His heart hurt, because Mama was sick and wouldn't get better again.
But the place inside him that had been ripping... he stared at the ceiling and blinked slowly. It wasn't hurting anymore, it felt... distant. But not gone. Maybe... stretched.
It was a little bit before sunrise, and Usopp was pushing himself up off the floor where he'd fallen asleep, waiting for Thalassa. His muscles hurt from sleeping on the hard boards, but he stood up anyway, and held on to the windowsill again, just like last night.
The town was still quiet. People would be waking up soon, but they weren't yet. The sky was still dim, except for that stripe of lighter blue above the orange smudge of where the sun would rise.
There was a speck, moving. A bird, but not a bird - Thalassa. No one would ever mistake a daemon for an animal, especially not their own. Usopp watched her, the speck getting big enough to see wings, and then soon enough she was coming downwards, and he saw the white flash of her underside, and her dark feet. She landed right against his chest and he flung his arms around her, hugging her close, not caring that her feet had little claws or that birds were too light and bony to really hug.
She solved that by becoming a rabbit again, snuggling up under his chin, and he rocked her against himself. "You went really far," he said. But here she was, back again.
"I didn't find him," she answered quietly, turning her nose against his neck, pressing there. He held her and pressed his cheek against her for a little while longer, swallowing down all the tears that wanted to come back, before he went to get ready to go down to the beach, before the town woke up.
He had to tell everyone that the pirates were coming.