The Howling Fruit

Chapter 4

The next morning, Gijun's eyes snapped open. She was up in a flash, silently, crouching protectively over Luffy with her knife drawn. Whatever had made the sound that had woken her, it was still there.

She looked into the jungle. There were some signs of movement, but none large enough to account for the noise she'd heard. It wasn't a loud noise, but it was a heavy one. Heavy and sure, like a human footstep. And since they hadn't seen any humans so far, it was obvious that the ones out there could go without being seen. That was either because they were good hunters or…because they were good at another type of hunting.

As if to prove her point, an arrow suddenly came straight for her, and she sliced it out of the air. She wasn't sure the others could handle them, but she couldn't protect them all at once, so she roughly shook Chopper awake.

"Wha…" he murmured, then Gijun dragged him several inches back as an arrow hit the ground in front of his face. "Ahhh!" he cried. "Everybody, get up! Help, help!"

Sanji and Franky got up rather quickly, but Luffy and Zoro were still sound asleep. The others quickly got into fighting mode, dodging the arrows and going after the still unseen archers. Gijun remained over Luffy, deflecting arrows. Then one happened to break the skin on her forearm as it flew by. She paid no notice at first, until a sickening sensation passed through her body. She staggered, nearly falling.

"Gijun?!" Chopper cried in alarm, turning back.

Desperately, she told him in the elk language, "Poison."

The little reindeer's eyes went wide, as Gijun's strength faded and she collapsed on the ground in front of Luffy.

Luffy and Zoro awoke moments later from the sound of the elk call. Both were yawning and complaining about the noise, until they saw Gijun. Luffy's face was in shock for a moment and then turned dark with rage. He grabbed her shoulder, ignoring the arrows flying all around. "What are you doing?! Didn't you hear what I told you?! Damn it!"

He raced out into the jungle with Sanji and Franky. Chopper immediately got out his supplies and examined the wound. A few feet away, Zoro was staring in shock at Gijun's completely still body. Something was inhibiting his ability to think properly. Why was she on the ground? Why did Chopper look so scared, and Luffy so angry? Why couldn't he move or say anything?

In the end, it wasn't necessary. Their attackers fled soon after that, though Sanji managed to catch one. He too was angrier than usual, his feet burning into the man's flesh without even a word of inquiry. The man screamed in pain, trying to tell them they were the ones in the wrong. This island belonged to his tribe, the Korowai, and that it was custom to eat all enemies. Evidently they, like the island itself, were very opportunistic carnivores.

It was from him that they discovered the poison was not deadly, but merely a paralytic. Having said that, Chopper explained, her organs could start to shut down if they didn't get an antidote in the next few hours, depending on the poison. Zoro was still in shock, but not about Gijun anymore. It was his own reaction to the situation he couldn't believe. A swordsman, rendered useless as stone by a fleeting emotion. It made his stomach twist with self-hatred.

It took Chopper a few minutes (the tribesman wasn't saying anything more) to figure out the plant on which the poison was based. He sighed with relief. "All right. Atropa belladonna. This could be very bad if left alone, but it's all right if we can find some Jaborandi bushes. There must be some on the island, or the native people wouldn't use this poison."

Sanji pumped his fist. "Just tell us where to look!"

"No, I should come with you. There's…nothing really I can do for now. And you don't know what it looks like. Just let me take another look at her condition, and we'll go right away."

Chopper opened her eyes, checked her pulse and listened to her heart. Sanji and Franky were ready to go, already discussing which way was least likely to run into the natives again. Luffy and Zoro hung back. Zoro was looking conflicted for a moment as he watched Gijun, then his eyes turned to Luffy. Their captain had a dark expression on his face.

"Will she die, Chopper?"

Chopper gasped, about to deny it, but then he saw the look in Luffy's eyes. It was not the one of someone that wanted false optimism. Chopper sighed. "Nightshade is very poisonous. The smallest variation in strength of the mixture can lead to coma in some people and death in others. She's not dead now, which is a good sign. But once she's in this state, we have a limited window to help. I would say…if we don't administer the antidote within the next two hours…then…" Chopper got a little tearful. "Then…her chances go down quickly."

Luffy nodded. "Okay."

"Wait!" Chopper said, then got out a pencil and some paper. "I have an idea. It's really faster if we split up. Here…you're looking for a short, green bush…with a long stem of red berries. They may be blooming in this weather, so they might have star-shaped, brown flowers. Here," he handed three sheets of paper to Luffy, Sanji and Franky respectively. "Zoro," he said, turning to him. "I don't feel safe leaving her here alone. Will you stay?"

Zoro's jaw tightened. However, he merely nodded.

Luffy clutched his paper and addressed them all, still with his dark expression. "This is the life of our nakama. Don't rest till you find it."

"Right!" cried Sanji, Franky and Chopper, and then they all split up and ran into the jungle.

Zoro watched after them for a long time. He lowered his head briefly. Without anything in particular to do, he sat down with Gijun at his back, and folded his arms in silence. Eventually, though he didn't want it to, his attention turned back to her. He shifted slightly to watch her face. The frown he already had deepened.

"Oi, ninja," he muttered, softly. "Can you still hear in there?"

Her eyelids fluttered in response, though she didn't seem to be able to open them fully. Zoro's chest ached, and he looked away immediately. What was wrong with him? This whole time, his emotions were all going strange, and it made him feel somehow afraid. Cowardly though it was, he decided to take his inner conflict out on someone else.

"Do I need to say it? This is exactly what I warned you about on the ship."

Of course, she didn't have any response for that. He glanced at her anyway, then gritted his teeth and looked away again. He was silent for a while, unable to think of anything else to say, and knowing on some level that he should stop talking. Then something occurred to him that he would regret for a long time afterward. He glanced at her with a hint of cruelty.

"I don't know how many times you're going to have to learn this lesson," he muttered. "But I can think of one way to snap your mind out of this master/ninja thing." Her breath caught, and understandably so, for she had more or less guessed what he was thinking.

Zoro looked at her for a long time. He raised his hand. He brought it within inches of her face, all the while her breathing becoming fast and harsh in fear. His eyes narrowed cruelly.

"Normally I supposed you'd have cut my hand off by now. But you can't do that now." Amid her harsh breathing, he thought he heard soft whining like a dog. His chest ached again, and once again his anger at himself reared its head. "If I take this off now, would you realize you're an ordinary human being? I wonder."

His hand grew closer, and he could just see tears forming amid her eyelashes, and beginning to drip down across her nose. Zoro's insides felt torn up with all sorts of things at that moment; so much he couldn't calmly examine them, he just knew he felt terrible. Slowly, he withdrew his hand. The moment he had, guilt overwhelmed him, and he rested his head on his propped up knee. He realized Gijun was still breathing hard.

"Relax," he muttered, hating the sound of his own voice. "I'm not going to touch you."

Nevertheless, though it slowed a little, her harsh breathing continued and a few more tears fell, occasionally punctuated by soft whimpering. Everything just drove Zoro's self-hatred deeper. He had to do something. He couldn't feel like this anymore, or he felt like he'd never be able to hold a sword with a calm heart and mind again.

For now, he knew her presence was unavoidable. If possible, he didn't want to interact with her anymore. Ever. But he knew Luffy had accepted her, so they were nakama now for better or worse. He'd just have to reduce his time with her as much as possible. He didn't want this confusion anymore.

"Hey, big fella," came a soft voice.

Zoro was amazed he hadn't heard anyone approach, and was on his feet with Kitetsu drawn in less than a breath. He didn't see anyone, not that he expected to.

"Hey, we want no trouble with you," said one of the tribesmen, still hidden in the jungle. "But that's our quarry you've got there." Zoro glanced at the paralyzed Gijun. "She's ours fair and square. If you give her up, we'll leave you alone."

Zoro considered, then he glanced skyward in contemplation. "I assume by your omission that I would be the only one safe from you. In other words, the others with me would all still be in danger."

"Still?" asked one of them with the sound of a smirk.

Zoro's heart flew into his throat. "What are you smiling about?" he asked in a deadly whisper.

He heard a few chuckles. "Let me make something clear. We've been watching you ever since you arrived, and you never saw us. You think we couldn't follow you anywhere on this island? I honestly don't know if we have your friends yet, but we will."

Another went on, "All we're talking about is you. And all you have to do is hand over that girl. Not such a bad deal, is it?"

Zoro glanced down at Gijun. To his annoyance, she looked perfectly calm, the total opposite of when he's been about to remove her mask moments ago. He gritted his teeth as he realized: She thinks I'm going to sell her out! She's convinced, the moron!

Zoro's petulant side flared up and he said loudly, "That sounds like a pretty good deal to me." No reaction from Gijun whatsoever. Apparently she was also absent of a sense of irony. Zoro growled and shook away his anger, then sighed. "But, well. The thing is, I'm under orders, more or less. So, unfortunately for both of us, I'm afraid the only way you're getting her is-" his voice suddenly dropped to a terrifying growl, "-over my stinking corpse."

With that, suddenly the air was full of arrows. Zoro closed his eyes and calmly felt their presence in the air. He drew Shuusui in an instant, and in nitouryuu, sliced or deflected every single arrow. The task itself was no problem, but he had to be extremely careful that none of the arrowheads touched either him or Gijun. Without Chopper having to tell him, he was sure enough a second dose would kill her. And then things got difficult.

The natives ran from the bushes and began attacking him with spears, while throwing rocks. He was used to fighting against numbers, but not against poison, so it took all his concentration. Then, disaster. One of the men hooked his foot into Gijun's collar while Zoro was looking away and dragged her a few feet away. Zoro's breath caught, and he lost concentration for an instant.

One of the spears brushed his neck.

His eyes widened. He sliced the man holding it, but the damage was done. He was starting to feel sick. Luckily, it hadn't broken the skin, but the poison was potent enough to start affecting his motor functions with just a touch. Zoro gritted his teeth. Forget about it, he told himself. Can't think about that now. If I go down, we both die. That's it. I have to…

He staggered. But he did not fall. He stood above Gijun still with a sword in each hand. He glared up at the natives who were still standing.

"Come and get her if you can, chicken shits," he snarled.

Though many looked terrified, they still began to attack again. This time, though he was making sure he kept some attention on Gijun, he wasn't paying good enough attention to his own back. A rock hit him on the shoulder. He grunted in pain, but couldn't let up his attacks. Every second that he staying standing was a fight against his own body. And though he had had the good sense not to think about this, their chances for survival were dwindling. Quickly.

I'm not going down, he thought to himself. The future best swordsman in the world can't let a girl die in front of him. I don't care if she does rattle me. She's not dying here, and I'm not dying here.

His legs stopped responding. He gritted his teeth.

You're not dying here, stupid woman.

He sliced a native, and missed another rock that hit him on the back of the neck.

I can feel you giving up hope from all the way over here. Knock it the fuck off.

Another rock hit him against the temple, and he collapsed on one knee, panting as blood dripped steadily down his face.

As his consciousness drifted off, he thought: We're not dying here.

To be continued.