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!
Atsumeru had taken many forms when Nami was little, following her as a butterfly, fox kit, kitten, sparrow, faun, wasp, mouse... as ready to try a new shape as she was to climb over the rocks at the island's edge to see for herself the shape of the island she was mapping.
Sometimes, where the water was calmer, she'd wade out and look for pretty rocks in the shallow spots, soaking the hem of her dress, and Atsumeru would turn into a fish or a duck, and swim around her, pointing out things they liked. When she came home, wet feet stuffed into sandy shoes, and with the skirt of her dress weighed down by her treasures, Atsumeru could be a bulldog or a grasshopper or a penguin.
If she was working on her map, Atsumeru sat or perched or balanced on the desk, out of the way of the light, and peered down as she worked hard at every bit of the line that made the shape of her island.
Then Arlong came.
Fishman daemons could move far from their person, and always stayed submerged, lurking in the water, and the wrongness of seeing the fishmen stand alone, like animals, or witches, made it even harder to face them.
When she made her deal, though, she forced herself to talk clearly. No crying, or baby sounds, or throwing up.
Atsumeru was a bear cub in her arms, heavy and black-furred with small, sharp teeth, and she held him tight. She pushed back the endlessly repeating memory of the bullet through Bellemere's heart and Sashura's foxhound shape collapsing into golden dust.
She clenched her teeth when they put clammy, cool hands on her, pinning her still and scratching the mark of Arlong into her shoulder with needles and ink.
She flinched against the pain, hissing air through her teeth, but didn't make a sound, her other hand clenched deep in the loose fur at Atsumeru's neck. He pressed warmly against her side, trembling with grief and fury, and silent along with her.
That was the last time he was ever big enough to hold on to.
The shapes he took after that were always small, small enough to carry in her hand and hide. Beetle, lizard, moth.
Daemons weren't animals, no one would ever make that mistake, so he could never be a true decoy. But he could surprise and make people jump enough to let her make a getaway, when he had to.
As a bat, or a spider, or a wasp, it all worked, and as time went on, it became part of their strategy as much as their wits and their lockpicking and their con artistry.
Until one trip home when she was fourteen. As she buried another sack full of money, Nami realized Atsumeru hadn't changed shape at all in the past few days.
He sat, now, on the ground next to the hiding place, a sleek black rat with glinting black eyes. His naked tail curved away behind him as he sat up on his hind feet, and he tilted his head at her when she stared at him.
"Are you staying like that?" she asked, feeling a coldness in her at the sight. Rats, weasels, ferrets... people with daemons like those were usually - but it was true for her too, wasn't it.
She could feel it in how the townsfolk looked at her. That Atsumeru had settled as this shape should not have surprised her.
Atsumeru curled over on himself, grooming at the fur of one back leg. His delicate whiskers vibrated with the movement. "This is how it is," he replied, voice as cool as hers.
When he was done, he scurried to her side and scrambled up to her shoulder. He settled against her neck, warm and soft, until she was done and stayed there on the long walk back to Arlong Park.
Being a rat worked just as well, she found.
Atsumeru was as able to climb as before. He was quick, and he had a vicious bite. His handlike paws were able to select her the right pens, and he was small enough to stay on her desk while she worked on Arlong's maps.
His shape made it easier to con her way onto pirate ships, too, and she couldn't complain about that. Rats were quick and clever animals, but overwhelming human opinion of them as vermin, treacherous pests, had its unavoidable effect. Vermin daemons were so common among pirates, among people who plundered and stole - from whom she plundered and stole - that with Atsumeru hanging off her shoulder, she fit right in, and it turned her stomach.
But it made her task just a little bit less impossible, so she used it, just like every other advantage she had.
Then a rubber boy fell from the sky, his grin matching the screech of mirth from the spider monkey daemon riding on his shoulder, and this time, even as she worked her con, still doggedly following the treasure, it was different. Something about him.
When she stole Merry, during the fracas at the Baratie... when she pushed Johnny and Yosaku overboard, their basenji and otterhound daemons scrambling to follow with barks of indignation, she did it with a smile, because Merry was an excellent prize and she was loaded with treasure. But despite the opportunity and the ease of it, and despite that she was only doing as she always had, and was so very, very close to paying off Arlong...
Nami couldn't deny the awareness of what she was leaving behind, even after such a short time. She curled one hand up around Atsumeru, who was on her shoulder, fidgeting with elation at the haul. "We sure had fun," she said, while Johnny and Yosaku splashed below. And she meant it, feeling some kind of sadness threaten to lurch to the forefront. She quelled it, mostly.
Atsumeru hopped down to the rail. "Tell them we hope we meet again," he called down, his tone deliberately teasing, but the words were not a lie. The bounty hunters' daemons replied with protests that grew fainter as Merry sailed on.
She gathered Atsumeru up and went to check their heading. This would all be over soon.
Nami bolted through the crowd, Atsumeru clinging tight to her shoulder. The ship was casting off, just like she'd asked. There'd be no long goodbyes, no drawn-out emotional lingering...
She moved fast through people and daemons, fleeing Nojiko and Genzo's shouts, not stopping for anyone, but reaching out a hand here, and there, and now there...
She made the jump and landed, and when she pulled up her shirt to let the fruits of her pickpocketing tumble to Merry's deck, the familiar angry shout of the townspeople rose one last time behind her. With that, she had it in her to say goodbye.
When the shout became a cheer, she felt Atsumeru lean forward on her shoulder, watching Cocoyashi get smaller as Merry pulled away.
"It's done," he said, just for her ears, and she felt a heaviness lift away from her. She nodded once, and turned around to look at the people who were - who really were - her friends.
This pirate ship was the first she'd been on that hadn't given her that crawling sense of similarity she hated - a thief stealing from thieves. She wasn't now - not really. And they weren't either.
This boy with his monkey and his swordsman friend with the wolf didn't match all those other pirates either. Neither did the ridiculous long-nosed liar and his murre they picked up along with the ship. Or the endearingly silly blond cook and his swan from the floating restaurant.
The next few days were... content.
Usopp's waddling seabird could sit down next to Atsumeru as easily as Usopp flung himself down to sort through his bag next to her and chatter away while she lay in the sun.
Sanji's swan arched her neck at Atsumeru in excessive romantic overture, just as Sanji's eyes glowed with enamoured glee at her whenever he offered her a drink.
And now, a week out of Cocoyashi, Sanji leaned down with one of those drinks. He paused abruptly, staring past her at the deck, and blinked. At his heel, Kajoumi moved forward, ruffling her wings in surprise. "Oh my, that is just as handsome," she gushed. Sanji looked back up at Nami with a suddenly completely earnest expression of joy, before glancing down again, at where Atsumeru had elected to lie, out of the direct sunlight.
"What...?" Nami leaned up on one elbow and peered down.
Where Atsumeru had been tidily curled before, his naked tail curved up around his smooth, black back, there was a cat.
Atsumeru lifted his grey tabby head and blinked vivid green eyes at her, bright and sharp as his black rat eyes had ever been. He uncurled to stretch once and then sat neatly upright, tail around his feet, and regarded Kajoumi with amused tolerance.
Absently taking the drink, Nami thanked Sanji, and, to her relief, he withdrew, Kajoumi following, both of them casting brief looks back as they returned to the galley.
Nami reached down with her free hand, sliding her fingers over smooth, dense fur, stroking behind warm ears, and Atsumeru stood and jumped up onto her chaise. He lifted a paw to his mouth and licked it, then drew it back over his face.
"Are you staying like that?" she asked, rubbing her fingertips against the softer fur under his chin.
"Yes," he said. "This fits."