It is like being submerged in water, walking into that room, a room that is not quite home but could be, if she tries. Maybe if she hangs some of her maps on the walls, buys enough books to fill the shelves, doodles on the desk by the window so that when she squints and tilts her head, it is reminiscent of their dinner table in Cocoyashi.
“Like I said,” the grip on her shoulder tightens meanly, “you can have anything you want.”
Those words, they burrow under her skin like ants. She bites the inside of her mouth, hands clenching and unclenching around a stack of paper bills.
What I want is —
Before they buried her body outside the village on that rocky outcrop by the sea, Bellemere had a saying she liked. There wasn’t much to do as a poor kid in a small village, so when the days got long and their hands were blistered and sore from tending to the trees, Bellemere would give Nami and Nojiko each a tangerine and they would sit on either side of her on the beach, watching the ocean steal the sand away and put it back. “Eat bitter, taste sweet,” she’d say, dropping the slices into their open palms, and when Nami looked up at her, confused and tired and a little resentful, she would say, “It gets easier.”
Bellemere was right about a lot of things, but she was wrong about a lot too. Wrong when she tried to explain how cyclones formed in the Grand Line, wrong when she blamed Nojiko for knocking over the harvest basket when it was one of the Genzo’s stray cats, wrong when she overestimated how much salt the orange chicken for dinner would need. Dead wrong about it getting easier, because it didn’t, not for years, not by a long shot.
The day Arlong’s ship anchored itself off the coast of Cocoyashi and Bellemere went from being dead wrong to just being dead was the day the word pirate became the crux of everything she hated. When Nami took Arlong’s mark, it became synonymous with her name.
That is what she thinks about when the boy in the straw hat asks her to join his crew, thinks about the stain on her tongue and the sting of the needle pushing under her skin.
But the two of them, Roronoa and the kid — they’re strong, and they’re stupid, and it would be child’s play to use them to get all the money she needs and then sail in the opposite direction. After all, the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and these two talk very, very big. Maybe that hadn’t been what Bellemere was trying to get at, but Bellemere is also six feet underground with a bullet embedded in her skull, so. So.
“I’ll join for the time being,” she says. “Looks like I’ll make a fortune if I stick with you guys.”
Beaming, the rubber idiot agrees. “Okay!”
The thing is, they don’t seem like pirates, not with their semi-decent morals and appalling lack of anything shiny or gold, but they call themselves pirates, and just like their kind, they are loud and overbearing, filled to the brim with the type of nonchalant, unearned confidence that will undoubtedly lead to disaster.
They leave Orange Town, and despite having only one job to do (re: sit still), the rubber brat, Luffy, manages to fall overboard twice, Zoro dragging him out of the water and reopening his wounds both times. The same day, Luffy pokes another hole in his hat, driving Nami up the wall with his pleading for her to “fix it please, Nami, I won’t do it again” before she clobbers him over the head and yells at him to shut up and watch for islands. It’s a little peaceful after that, Zoro’s snores intermittently cutting through Luffy’s bored whining from where he’s been banished to the dinghy, until —
“We’re out of food.” Nami stares in disbelief at the empty crates littering the ship compartment. “How are we out of food? It’s barely been two days!”
Apparently Zoro knows how, because he immediately sits up and wraps a hand around Luffy’s neck. “I should’ve known, you greedy bastard!”
He shakes him, making Luffy’s neck stretch like a worn piece of gum and his head sway below his shoulders disturbingly.
“He ate all of it?” Nami splutters. “That was a week’s worth of supplies!”
“I was hungry ,” Luffy whines as Zoro continues to thrash him. The force of it makes their dinghy rock violently, sloshing seawater onto the deck of Nami’s ship.
“All the food,” Zoro growls, shaking him harder.
“And the booze.”
“The booze isn’t even remotely the point - ”
“I didn’t drink the booze,” Luffy cuts in. He sticks his finger up his nose. “I didn’t want any of it, so I left it in there.”
Zoro pauses. “Oh,” he says. He lets go of Luffy’s neck, which snaps back to its normal length with a thwap, and leans back against the side of the boat, crossing his arms behind his head. “That’s fine, then.”
“No, it’s not fine,” Nami snaps. She can’t believe she has to spell it out for these morons. “We don’t have any food.”
Zoro yawns. “We’ll survive.”
“People die if they don’t eat.”
“You just don’t have the willpower.”
“That’s because I’m not a monster like you!”
“You worry too much,” Luffy says from the floor of the dinghy. If they weren’t separated by the two boats, she would have put her heel in his face.
“How can you be so relaxed about this?” Nami demands.
Luffy peels himself off the deck and slings an arm over the side of the dinghy to look at her. “You’re supposed to leave your worries on land,” he says seriously. “When we reach the next island, you can pick them all back up again, but out here, you should be free.”
He sounds so sure of himself, the way only an idiot can. On a more conscious level, Nami is aware that what he just said makes absolutely no sense, but for some reason, all the fight coiled up in her shoulders leaves them in her next breath. She looks at where his hand is trailing lazily through the blue waters between their boats, and something in her chest loosens.
“There’ll be food on the next island,” Luffy continues cheerfully. “So don’t worry!”
He makes it look so easy, Nami thinks. She sighs and rubs a hand over her face, resigned. “Well, I guess it can’t be helped.”
Really, she should’ve known better.
He smiles wide when he tells her, wide and sharp, and she is small and soft and scared, so scared.
It makes a home in her head, her hands, her bones, and everything becomes about that number, every waking hour is spent counting and scrimping every beri and coin she has. But she is ten, only ten, and that is not enough, will never be enough, so she goes out to where it’s blue and open and teeming and she takes and takes and takes, just like it has taken everything from her.
Sometimes Nojiko leaves the door to the house unlocked, and it isn’t all that bad then, a tangerine in one hand and the other tracing imaginary grid lines on the counter as the cool night air drifts into the kitchen from the open window.
But that thing that sleeps shallow under Bellemere’s tangerine trees. It is impatient.
And it always calls her back.
She disappears for three whole days and when she returns, she is bruised and battered and bleeding in more than one place. But none of that matters, because she is also significantly richer, her newly acquired sack of treasure digging into her back with every limping step she takes.
She’s half expecting to find the boats gone. The sight of Buggy’s flag flapping above the docks makes her remember how tired and sore she is, and spotting Zoro cleaning his swords in the dinghy makes her more relieved than it probably should.
“You’re back,” he says when she tosses the treasure into her boat. He barely looks at it. “We almost left without you.”
“Huh,” she says, not particularly concerned. “Why didn’t you?”
He shrugs. “Captain’s orders. Can’t leave a crewmate behind.”
Any other time, she would laugh it off, count herself lucky that they didn’t set out before she came back and push the last few days under the rug, but right now she is a single frayed nerve ending, raw from running and hiding and looting for what feels like the last century, and something behind her skull splits into a million agonizing fragments.
Painfully, she digs her fingernails into her palms.
“I’m not your crewmate,” she snarls, through gritted teeth. “I am not, and will never be, a pirate.”
They stare at each other for an uncomfortable amount of time.
Zoro looks away first, back down to the swords in his lap. “Okay,” he says in that annoying, impassive voice of his. In the same tone, he asks, “So how much until you leave us?”
Good. Good. She steps onto the deck, the boat dipping under her weight. “That’s for me to know.”
“Okay,” Zoro says again.
They leave it at that.
According to her logs, the island they’re docked at is famous for its agricultural sector, a local drink that calls for mixing fermented apples with alcohol, and a yearly feast that involves getting smashed on said drink.
The day they arrive happens to be the day of the feast, and upon hearing this news, Luffy and Zoro both demand to attend for different, but intersecting reasons.
“Fine,” Nami says. “But don’t expect me to join you.”
Approximately seven hours later, at three in the morning, the three of them stumble back to the docks, Zoro and Nami drunk off their asses, Luffy asleep with a full belly and draped over Zoro’s shoulder like a potato sack. The road feels like jello under her feet, and she and Zoro have to lean on each other to keep from falling over.
“You know,” Zoro slurs as they make their pathetic trudge to the boats. “I can’t figure you out.”
For some reason, Nami finds this hilarious. “Me? What about you guys?”
“What about us?”
“You know.” She trips over a loose rock on the ground and nearly dislodges Luffy from Zoro’s shoulder. “Why do you still keep me around, if you can’t figure me out?”
There’s a long moment of silence, before Zoro asks, “Why would we not?”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know you’re a greedy witch,” Zoro says, which makes Nami laugh, high and a little hysterical. “What’s the problem with keeping you?”
“Well, what if I betray you?” she asks, mostly joking.
Zoro looks at her like she’s just asked him if he thinks the sea is orange. “You won’t,” he says, sounding so certain, and Nami thinks yes, yes I will, but thank you for saying that, for believing that of me, because that means something, I think.
Judging by their surroundings, they are nowhere near the docks, but Nami knows how to get there quickly. Luffy is passed out still, and even sober, Zoro is hopelessly, directionally challenged. It would be so easy to abandon them now, take the boats and the treasure and sail away, but something makes her steps stick to the ground.
Maybe the alcohol’s getting to her.
She makes up her mind.
“Zoro,” Nami says slowly. “Do you know where we are?”
“What?” Zoro straightens up and looks around. “Of course I do.”
She seriously doubts that. “I seriously doubt that.”
“The boats are this way, I’m sure of it.”
“Zoro, we’re lost.”
“No we’re not. I remember, we passed this rock over here - ”
“Oh my god - ”
The next night, after they’ve set sail, she jumps the gap between their boats. What she’s looking for, she’s not sure, but old habits die hard, so she does it anyway, landing lightly on her feet so that she doesn’t rock the dinghy and wake them up.
Other than Zoro’s swords, they have no weapons. Nami is neither surprised nor relieved, but it’s nice to have her assumptions confirmed. They also have no food, which is a little concerning. She makes a mental note to buy twice as much meat and booze than usual on the next island.
Just as she’s getting ready to return to her boat, she feels the dinghy stir.
“You’re still keeping secrets,” Luffy says from where he’s laying on the deck. His hat is on his forehead shielding his face, and she can’t see his eyes.
“I don’t owe you anything,” Nami retorts. “Least of all, my secrets.”
Luffy doesn’t respond, though he tilts his head to the side quizzically.
“What?” she asks, defensive.
“I never said you owed me anything,” Luffy remarks. “I just said you’re keeping secrets. Which is okay.”
She’s unsure of how to respond to that.
“Nakama don’t owe nakama,” Luffy continues, sounding so reasonable that Nami kind of wants to smack him. “You don’t have to tell me anything.”
In another life, under different flags, they might have been friends. Maybe even crewmates. But this is not that life, and so Nami frowns and turns her back to him.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” she says, and steps back onto her boat.
She knows that the others, no matter how wretched they are, still have each other, and there is nothing like that for her, nothing but what’s already at the back of her mind.
So on the mornings when she has to leave, when it’s early and the sun is bobbing low in the water, she brushes away the dust and leaves gathered on the cross and she puts her hand on the ground, bows her head, low, low, and she thinks, wherever you are, I hope you’re not alone, because I cannot imagine a place lonelier than here.
Something funny, and by funny, Nami means incredibly infuriating: no matter how many measures she takes to ensure that their arrival on an island is quiet, and no matter how many times she reminds Zoro and Luffy not to cause any trouble, they always, always somehow manage to cause trouble.
This time, trouble comes in the form of a marine battalion on their heels. Nami’s not sure about the specifics, but she knows it involves Zoro stabbing the wrong person at a bar and Luffy being his usual, dense self.
“This is all your fault!” Nami shouts as they run through the winding alleys of the town. “If you had just listened - ”
“He jumped me!” Zoro yells back. “What was I supposed to do?”
“Not stab him!”
“Oh, like you wouldn’t have done the same - ”
“And you!” She whirls onto Luffy, who is running backwards and grinning at the horde of marines behind them. “What were you thinking?”
“Well they asked me who I was, so I said I was Monkey D. Luffy, the man who’s gonna become the Pirate - ”
“You can’t just go around telling everybody that we’re pirates!” Nami screeches.
“So it’s we now, huh?” Zoro says, smirking, and Nami nearly trips and falls on the cobblestone path. It takes every ounce of her willpower not to beat him over the head with the bag of supplies she’s carrying.
“Just shut up and run!” Nami snaps, and they book it to the docks.
It had happened one morning, when Nami woke up and noticed that apples tasted different, and that the word pirate wasn’t as bitter on her tongue as it used to be. She had leaned over the prow of her boat and smiled at her reflection, not hating being a pirate for the first time.
This is what she thinks about when she slides her foot out from under Luffy’s arm and stands up to stretch, brushing the salt from her clothes and taking in her surroundings.
Between the water barrels and the food crates, there’s not a lot of room. Zoro’s legs hang off the side of the dinghy whenever he naps and most days, Nami can’t walk across Buggy’s half-pint skiff without tripping over at least one rubbery limb. But somehow, between then and now, she has managed to find herself a space on their tiny morsel of a boat.
She is hungry and dehydrated, dirty from not having showered in several days and sore from sleeping on the hard wooden slats of the deck, and she is happier than she’s ever been.
Not unlike a sailor kissing the ground upon returning home, she stands there watching the water, breathing in the salt air.
She starts small.
“You remember the money you borrowed at the last island, to buy sword oil?”
Across from her, Zoro freezes mid-yawn. His eyes narrow suspiciously. “I paid it all back.”
“Right,” Nami drawls. “But I charged you two hundred percent interest, so you still owe me five thousand beri.”
“I’m not paying all that!” he protests, and Nami pouts at him.
“But Zoro, you promised,” she says, her voice lilting. “Don’t you keep your promises?”
His eyes widen, and she can see his moral code of honor warring with his sensibilities. It occurs to her that she should feel bad, but she squashes the thought down as quickly as it appears.
Honor wins out. “Fine,” Zoro grumbles. “But I only have a few hundred beri on me right now.”
Nami knows that already. “That’s fine, you can pay me back at the next island.”
Of course, he never does, because by the time they reach the next island, Zoro has succeeded in racking up a not-so-insignificant debt. Most of it is from charges for sleeping too much, getting sweat on her maps, drinking all the booze, steering their boats the wrong way. Little things that add up faster than he can pay back, but he is nothing if not persistent, and no matter how many times he insists that Nami is ripping him off, she knows that Zoro will never give up trying.
Sorry, she thinks, but this is the only way I can keep you.
With Luffy, it’s easier; she doesn’t have to cherry-pick for mistakes and errors. All she has to do is remind him of how much money she’s spent on meat for him.
“Don’t worry,” he always says, usually with his mouth full of food. “I’ll pay you back when I become King of the Pirates!”
Good, she thinks. Good, because I want to be there when that happens, so for now, I’ll keep you the only way I know how.
Her head hurts from where he’s pressing it into the table, and she is crying, tears making the ink run down the paper.
“You drew this wrong on purpose,” he snarls and she sobs, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again, I promise - ”
He lets go of her and she scrambles out of the chair and away from him, pressing herself into the farthest corner of the room. There is blood on her face, and she knows that there are finger-shaped bruises under her hair.
The desk makes a horrible shrieking noise when he drags his nails through the paper, scoring the wood and ripping into the tear marks and the splotchy ink. He flings the ruined map to the ground.
“Remember who’s holding the cards,” he sneers.
She is still crying when he leaves.
Arlong has made the newspapers again. Quietly, she takes the page with his wanted poster and crumples it in her fist, tosses it overboard and watches the waves buffet it until it is nothing but an illegible mass of soaked paper.
She knows she will have to return soon.
“Hey Nami.” She looks up to find Luffy and Zoro looking at her intently. She wonders if they saw her tear out the page, if they can read the rigid lines of her shoulders.
“What’s going on?” Luffy asks.
(Hey Nami, pass the salt, scoot over, hand me the newspaper. Nami, I need some money to buy more sword oil, hey Nami, my hat tore again and would you please sew it for me? Hey Nami, could you share some of your food, Luffy ate all of ours, Nami, I’m a little lost so show me which way to go, Nami, just one more favor, tell us, tell us what’s weighing you down so, and we’ll - )
But Arlong’s face swims into her view, and no, she can’t do that, not to them, because while there will always be a space for her, she knows there will never be enough room for her baggage, for the fishmen from Arlong Park and the destruction they bring with them.
“Just old news,” she lies through her teeth, holding the newspaper so it hides the shaking of her hands.
Usopp is a pathological liar with knobbly knees and quite possibly the longest nose she’s ever seen, and Nami wouldn’t have him any other way. He’s brave when he wants to be, and more honest than she could ever be, and she knows that he’ll fit right in with Luffy and Zoro. It’s a shame that she won’t get to know him better.
You take care of them for me, Nami thinks, as she watches the Baratie get smaller and smaller from the deck of the Merry.
It is time to go. It had been time to go, a week, two weeks, three weeks ago, but her feet had been heavier than her heart and she couldn’t bring herself to walk away. She’s grateful that Zoro’s two bounty-hunting friends had been the only ones on the ship; it had made leaving easier.
She watches the floating restaurant and her friends disappear, tiny dots on the horizon, and suddenly, she is ten again, ten and small and scared, in a strange room with the walls closing around her, and she has all the money she wants and yet she is still wanting, and what I want is —
I want my village back. I want to be with my friends. I want to sail the Grand Line with them. I want to draw a map of the world. I want, I want, I want.
“Bellemere, I want to be free!”