A/N: Updates weekly. Illustrations if you check this out on AO3 (I wish I could post them here). I have to say- I can't figure out how to do strikethroughs on here, which may cause me some formatting issues. Anyone know whats up with that?
Chapter 1: The Rotting Island
Boin Archipelago. The main island, the one she was unfortunately touching down on, was clearly a giant plant, its petals splayed outward in what must have once been an impressive and vivacious display. By the look of it from a bird's-eye view, she guessed it once had the ability to close like a trap, pulling in some unnamed prey to sustain itself. Years ago, it probably was teeming with life, though evidentently not much in the way of human life.
It wasn't red enough for that.
Once all the animals died, corpses drained of nutrients by the newly materialized rival predator, the plant had no way to survive. The brittle edges of the extended peninsulas were curling in on themselves, wasted and shriveled chunks breaking off into the ocean. The main bulk of the island was dead, and a surprisingly potent scent of rot wafted up even as far as Weatheria was anchored. She was glad for her Coating bubble, a shivering ghost of reflected light around the Sky Boat, as she approached the marred surface- it kept out the surely-strengthening smell, however temporary that would be.
Through their research, the scholars had discovered mentions of this island as a food source, though dire warnings always disavowed the supposed usefulness of this knowledge. "A land rich in viable resources that could tempt any starving sailor…. few have returned alive from Boin Archipelago…" the old book had said, but had failed to clarify exactly what the danger had been. An island-sized carnivorous plant? Would have been pretty intimidating, had it been alive. Desperation had driven them here, but on the whole it was all turning out much better than she or the scholars could have imagined.
The text's afformentioned threat? Evidently, it was the carnivorous nature of the island itself, and that was long-since deceased.
The bigger, world-wide threat? Redvine was sparse, here, indicating the lack of human settlements- though, based on the previous warnings, they had expected as much. Who could live on the face of a monster plant?
She couldn't quite account for the smell, though.
This was not the smell of a regular decaying plant… perhaps its voracious eating habits had made it decompose in a much more animal-like manner? Or perhaps the mysterious food-source mentioned in their texts was decomposing, and they were wasting precious time here for nothing?
She grumbled as her Sky Boat finally reached the surface, adjusting her mask- the transport was supported by a weather cloud enshrouded in a bubble, as it always had been, but the surface of the boat had been Coated as well, ever since the beginning of… well, of the end. The bubble Coating added an extra layer of comfort and safety for the expedition crews- spores stuck to the surface, and it seemed the Redvine itself could not penetrate the substance. Hated it, even, if the survivors were feeling prone to project emotions onto their cold, unfeeling enemy. The Coating needed to be reapplied regularly, since the boat was never used in the actual ocean, but only in the air. Bubble Coatings were not designed for such use, but they made do with what they had. Any small additional layer of protection prolonged their tenuous lives.
Time. It was funny to think about, because all they had was time. They had no destination in mind- they were all on a leisurely cruise through the apocalypse. At the same time, they never knew when time would run out for them, a spore outbreak or starvation leaving a community of skeletons floating amongst the clouds of a dead world.
Too much time and never enough.
To the point of preventing them all from becoming skeletons (the non-moving kind, not the Brook-kind), Nami knew she had a goal to accomplish on the relatively-safe Boin Islands. A couple of goals, actually. She anchored her little floating vessel, cautiously pushed past the bubble, and set boots to ground.
It was squishy. The surface of the entire island was made of decaying plant matter, and its stiffness had dissipated considerably as it rotted away. Her boots left deep impressions, to the point where it almost felt like walking through ankle-deep snow… she would have to be careful. The last thing she wanted was to inadvertently stomp into a weak spot and fall through the skin of the plant into it's squishy center. It would certainly be an unexpected death, at least, in a world with so many more likely ends awaiting her.
She shivered, wishing once again that she didn't have to do this alone- but that was the way it worked. They didn't need more than one for reconnaissance like this. That was their best chance. It was her turn.
"I'm on the ground," Nami said into her pocket Den Den Mushi, unafraid of her volume. There wouldn't be any Sleepwalkers on an island with a population this small. In fact, if it weren't for the one tell-tale crossing of pulsating Redvine, she would assume it was completely devoid of human life altogether…. There had to be at least one person, then, on this island. Curious. Redvine didn't waste energy sticking around on an island after it cleared out animal life, unless there were human beings about. Sleepers.
"Alright," the smooth yet perpetually cross voice of the doctor responded. "Remember: we're not just looking for food-"
"Ignore him!" a female voice chirped, a crackling sound on the other end making it clear that the woman had wretched the speaker from the doctor. "Look for fruits, veggies- anything that might have viable seeds! Even if it's old or rotted, we may be able to germinate the seeds. Some cuttings from anything from the lettuce genus would be great-"
There was an audible growl from the man, who appeared to gain rough control once more. "The scholars have already covered that enough- she knows what she's looking for. But my needs take priority on missions-"
"Bullshit! We lost three plots last month-"
"I cannot start mass producing until-"
"-yeah, clearly! Doesn't mean she'll find it- when's the last time anyone did? Some nice kale, meanwhile-"
Nami rolled her eyes, not really interested in listening to bickering when it was her ass on the line, in enemy territory, on a land of rot. "Hey now, I was at the briefing. I have been briefed. I, in fact, have been equally panicked enough on both points for the past month. Besides, I don't need to prioritize anything- I think I'll have plenty of time here. No hurry- it seems pretty safe." She didn't add that the island seemed vaguely tropical, and she doubted the presence of the kinds of crops they could grow on Weatheria. Zifa would not be happy.
"No Redvine?" the man asked, as stoic as ever.
"Not much- just one line, as far as I can see; easy to avoid. I can take my time, follow it, and look for blooms. Let me know if you see any sign of a house or something while in the Observation Deck- there's dense vegetation here. We may have missed something…" There had to be humans somewhere, since the Redvine wasn't totally absent. Humans could mean some kind of agricultural stockpiles, despite the formerly voracious nature of the island.
He scratched at the small patch of hair on his chin, thinking as he closed his eyes, basking in the mellow afternoon sunlight. It was such a nice day… but the weather was a secondary contributor to the peace in his heart; it was more like he was absorbing the comfort of the calm before the storm, reveling in the feeling of relative safety, of being reunited with his crewmates.
Yes, the weather was nice, the plan was moving forward, he- the Master of Espionage Usopp!- had flawlessly followed through with his part in the plan to gather allies in the tumultuous country of Wano. Zoro and Luffy were the ones to go off-rails (as usual), but no one could say Usopp hadn't played his part flawlessly for weeks- weeks!
And now he could be himself. He had been reunited with at least a few crew members, returning from their mission to rescue Sanji (which he was eternally grateful he hadn't been present for, by the sound of it), and it was nice to drop the salesman act and just be Usopp. It was oddly lonely- he had been around people all day, every day, but he couldn't spend time with any of his friends. It would have been suspicious to see them gather together, so he understood the reasoning behind it… still, it had been lonely.
Usopp was a very social person. He missed laughing and goofing off with Luffy and Chopper, running around the deck or trying out some new addition to the ship from Franky. He missed swimming and eating Sanji's meals together and drinking at night on the lawn under the twinkling string lights… just being around everyone put him at ease, though of course their reunion precipitated what would no doubt be a terrifying battle.
For a while, he wondered what he was more afraid of: gruesome, possibly-fatal encounters with enemies, or just being alone.
He knew he may regret the notion later, in the heat of battle, but he was inclined to lean towards the latter option.
Nami was sitting close to him on the veranda of the village house. They were both dressed in the clothing style of the country- Nami, in particular, had commented that she preferred the demure kimono to the ninja outfit she had been put in earlier. Usopp had no idea what that meant, but the blue traditional dress did seem to suit her well, contrasting her bright orange updo. Usopp could tell, just by her face, that she was struck by a feeling very similar to his own- the comfort of a friendly face and a tranquil day.
The discussion of late, however, was anything but calming- some of their allies had been captured, and it wasn't the first time Usopp had heard the word "torture" being thrown around. What they were fighting for was important, but keeping a secret? Not worth any of their lives, in Usopp's personal opinion. Plans could be reworked. Tortured and murdered allies could not be replaced- especially if that involved him or any of the Strawhats.
"Torture, huh?" Usopp muttered. "Hmm… how long do you think you'd last?"
"Two seconds," Nami replied without hesitation, looking oddly cheery despite the dark subject.
"Ah! So fast…" Not that he was surprised, or took her response with more than the smallest grain of salt. Talking through the worst, joking when possible and planning seriously when necessary- that was the specialty of the two weakest humans on the future Pirate King's crew. It felt like another piece of the puzzle had fallen back into place- another spot of the loneliness he had felt wiped clean- as he talked with his favorite coconspirator in not-dying.
He felt just like that day in Sabaody- reunited with his family.
She smiled his way, and he had the strangest presentiment accost him… like he was suddenly falling, his whole body jerking as if to catch him. He gasped, a hand to his chest in surprise.
Again? What the hell was that?
Nami was frowning when he pulled his eyes back up to her, scanning his expression. "You okay there, Usopp? You know our nakama wouldn't actually let you get captured, right? You'd break even quicker than me!"
He wanted to respond with defensive humor, to throw a quip back her way about his own apparent bravery… but the words stuck in his throat.
This had happened before to him, the strange feeling of wrongness. It seemed stronger this time, somehow, that out-of-body dropping feeling… and it always happened when he was around her.
His mouth went dry at that thought. If he were to tell anyone else about it, they may suggest something stupid- like he had a crush on her or something. Being real, everyone probably had a small crush on Nami at some point in their journey, but Usopp certainly knew the difference between those kinds of feelings and the way he felt now. The way he felt now was very different from when he thought of home, for example, and… and of Kaya. Poetry aside, literally feeling the world drop out from under you was not some kind of romantic feeling.
Something was just off. He felt sick.
"Uh, yeah…" was all he managed. He tried to remember the first time he had felt this way…
Sabaody. The archipelago he had just been thinking of so fondly also happened to be the first place where he had felt that odd disconnect with his body.
That had been her, too. He had met her again for the first time in two years while a group of pirates harassed her and tried to get her to drink with them. He had made a rather suave entrance, himself, staving them off and reintroducing himself to the navigator with a tip of his hat and a cool, "Do you want to drink with me?"
Then she had hugged him, and it had happened. For a moment, he had felt like he was falling down a deep chasm, everything slipping away.
Shit. Put into words, it really did sound like he had fallen for her, didn't it? Any time he thought about mentioning it to Chopper, he was gripped with worry that he would be misunderstood- he would never hear the end of it, if his friends even suspected he had a crush on the brutal redhead (which he did not). He knew them too well; they were definitely the type to tease about that sort of thing, even if it wasn't true.
Something had to be wrong with him.
6/32/1520 The last good day
I haven't been good at keeping track of things since we separated. I don't have the logbook- it's on the Sunny. Not my job to keep the log, anyway. Maybe this is more of a journal? I wanted to write things down. Might keep my sanity while waiting two years to see the others. Weatheria is a place where I can learn a lot, but it's boring as hell. We're going down to a new island tomorrow to trade. That's something more than gardening, at least.
6/33/1520 Day 1
Something was wrong with that island. Herades didn't waste time- went back immediately. Ha! If I were with Luffy, I would have been dragged into something crazy, I'm sure.
There was an empty village overgrown with some kind of plant (?). I saw a dead animal in the street- I couldn't tell what kind. I was glad to leave, but I wonder where the people went? It was so quiet.
Herades looked worried. Cautious. Maybe he has a healthy amount of concern for his well-being, unlike some people. Maybe he just had a bad feeling.
6/40/1520 Day 7
The ocean is red.
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I have 100k words done, already, but I'm in the process of editing. I may be able to update more than once a week if there's interest!