She had spent a good portion of her life being the heartless one, the cruel one, the one that did the wrong things for the good of the many.
Her hand shifted on the pistol’s grip, her finger already on the trigger, the girl, Khepri, on her knees before her, eyes downcast. Khe-- no, she was Taylor Hebert here and now, was waiting for her rewards, her just recompense for the sins she had committed. And yet those sins shone as brightly as a match next to a sun when compared to the sins of her executioner.
Contessa licked her lips and turned the gun to the side, just a little. “Path to making her find happiness,” she whispered.
The girl’s head whipped up.
The gun barked.
Taylor awoke with a gasp. The first thing she noticed was the sand around her, and the soft murmur of water lapping at a nearby shore.
She moved her arms... arm... she moved her arm around and through soft sand until she was position in such a way that she could push herself onto her stomach so that when she wretched it has a place to go that wasn’t all over herself.
After coating the yellow-white sand in a nice layer of her last meal and wiping heu hand over her mouth to get rid of the muck, she took a moment to look around.
Wherever that bitch Contessa left her it at least had a view, she thought wryly. Sandy beaches stretch out in either direction as far as she can see, all of them gently sliding into an ocean so blue it was hard to tell it apart from the distant skies.
There were crabs in those waters, and lobsters adventuring closer to the shore than they should. She could feel them all. A forest stood behind her, young trees, none too terribly tall but enough to cast shadows that look inviting, rather than terrifying. She could sense bugs within, buzzing around and minding their own business until her mind, her passenger, robbed them of their self control.
She let them be for now.
Standing up, Taylor stretched her neck way back to take in the cloudless blue sky, the sun beating down on her bloody head and the few fluffy white trails of smoke in the distance.
This wasn’t somewhere she had been before, but the scent of fresh sea air filling her lungs and the complete lack of anyone around her slowly forced her to relax.
Maybe this is heaven, or some sort of purgatory, she thought. It’s certainly pretty enough.
It took all of a minute for her to hate it.
There was nothing to do, nothing to see, no one to talk to, no goals ahead of her or enemies to fight. Her hand was already tightening and loosening itself trying to wrap around something.
This just wouldn’t do.
Taylor stretched her body tingling with the motions and her senses stretching out just a little bit further. Every insect in the forest, every crab that had snuck in and every worm and spider within twitched and became extensions of her will.
“So you’re still with me, Passenger,” Taylor said as she started to walk into the woods. She couldn’t see any predators, and most of the scary things that would live in a forest wouldn’t be able to handle a metric tonne of bug to the face. It leant her a certain amount of confidence.
After facing off against the likes of Scion, a forest didn’t have much that could scare her.
[Shard-Host-Connection Still Active]
Taylor tripped over her own feet and planted face first into soft sand. “What?”
[Shard-Host-Connection Still Active]
“Oh hell,” Taylor said as she translated the splash of images and ideas being shoved into her head with the grace and gentleness of an icepick. They were understandable, certainly, the image of a shard, a crystalline entity of massive size connecting to a tiny thing, bursts of information travelling to both of them with constant flashes. The ideas were strange, but clear.
[Shard Queen Administrator is Not Massive. Shard Queen Administrator Volume Within Expected Parameters]
Taylor took a deep breath because the realization that her connection to her passenger was this vivid, and that her passenger had body image issues, were both a lot to take in. Too much in fact.
She shook her head and looked to the sky. The smoke she had spotted earlier was still pushing into the air, easy to see against the bright blue of the morning sky. “We’ll need to... talk, later,” she said, then waited for the burst that would next come with gritted teeth.
Taylor winced at the stab of images needed to describe acceptance. It was going to take some getting used to. A problem for later. As long as her shard didn’t mean her any harm then maybe the company wouldn’t go amiss. She wasn’t sure what it said about her that she was willing to be friends with an alien space whale.
She moved through the forest, loose leaves and mounds of dirt shifting underfoot as she snaked through and tried to find a path around piles of broken branches and fallen trees. This wasn’t a park, or a picturesque, clean forest.
“So is it normal for... hosts to connect to their passengers like this?” Taylor asked.
[Connection Nominal. Additional Channels Opened During Host Recovery]
Taylor bit her lip as the images passed. “Recovery?”
[Host Brain Matter Damaged. Shard Queen Administrator Assisted in Repairing Injuries.]
Taylor stumbled. The images of her brain, her brain missing some parts, flashing through her mind at the same time as the impression of her shard poking at the missing bits and trying to fix them with all the skill of a blind mind putting together a 3d jigsaw puzzle with a hammer.
“Uh,” she said. “Thanks?”
She burst out of the forest at a stumble and took a few steps to right herself. She already knew what she would find, the disadvantage of having millions of tiny bug eyes looking ahead for her was that she didn’t get surprised by mundane things anymore.
A town was growing out of the side of a small hill, three plateaus with brick walls supporting them, each with dozens of small, cottage-like homes planted on them. Above it all rose a pair of sky-blue towers a seagull-like symbol painted on their sides and ancient canons poking out from the top.
The aesthetic was strange, but the dimensions were human enough and she could see people moving around near the town.
The smoke she had seen was innocent, just the slow puff from the chimneys of a dozen homes. It was at once strange, and peaceful.
A few fat ships sat in the port with the same seagull emblem painted onto their sails. Old ships, of the wood-and-cannons sort that she had only really seen in picture books and movies. Smaller boats moved out into the ocean, nets floating by their sides and lines pulling up the occasional fish.
She took in a deep breath of air that carried the faintest scent of baking bread and roasting meat. Her shoulders loosened, her breathing calmed. No violence, no explosions or capes or anything dangerous, just a peaceful little island in the middle of nowhere.
She didn’t have any money, or weapons or anything but a whole lot of bugs, but she was sure she could find some honest work.
[Non-Host Creature Approaching]
Taylor suppressed a wince and turned to see that her passenger was right, a man was walking her way. He was older, with a back that was bent by age. Every step he took was firm though, and his walking stick helped him shuffle along at a decent pace. “Ho, traveller!” he called out.
Taylor smiled. They spoke English, or something close enough. “Hello!” she called out.
The man’s eyes rolled up to the back of his head, froth spewed out of his mouth and he collapsed in a heap.
She stared, her arm still raised in a greeting that she hadn’t even finished delivering. “Passenger, was that you?” she asked.
She rushed over to the man’s side, falling onto her knees even as she turned him over with some difficulty and checked his pulse. He was breathing, his heart beating hummingbird fast, but he was completely out of it.
“What the hell.”
Taylor checked once more to make sure the man was breathing. He was, but it was faint, and he coughed out more foam every few moments. She looked up, judging the distance between where she was and the town by the coast. It wasn’t a long walk, just a few hundred feet to the very edge, more if she had to carry someone one-handed all the way.
But what had to be done had to be done. She leaned around and wrapped one of the man’s arms over her shoulder, then, with a grunt of effort, she pulled his up and onto her back in a rough fireman’s carry.
Her first steps almost sent her sprawling to the ground as she overbalanced, but she managed to stay on her feet. “Heavy, aren’t you?” she growled as she started towards the village.
Luck was on her side as the bugs she sent ahead to scout found people, plenty of people, all gathered out on the streets. She formed giant arrows of bugs that pointed her way and rejoiced when not everyone ran away from where she was pointing.
She was nearing the town when the first rescuers came over, men in simple, flowing shirts and pants with sashes holding their clothes in place, the kind of outfits perfect for mild, if warm weather on the coast.
“Oh lord,” one of them said as he rushed over. “That’s old man Gerald. What happened stranger?”
“I don’t know,” Taylor said.
She watched as the eyes of every person before her rolled up and they collapsed on the ground.
Some, those who were farther back and out of hearing range, stared wide-eyed.
Once was a coincidence, twice was enemy action.
She lowered the old man to the ground and started looking around, but found no one close enough to attack. The suspicion that the whole ‘knock people out’ thing was her fault was starting to niggle at her. “Is this your fault, Passenger?” she muttered.
[Negative. Sentient Control Systems Shut Down]
Taylor’s eyes narrowed. Somehow, someway, this was Contessa’s fault.
“I’m--” she stopped mid-word as another villager’s eyes rolled up and they flopped to the ground.
Taylor stood up, arm raised to make it clear to those gathering away from her that she was unarmed and didn’t mean any harm. When she imagined moving out of the woods it wasn’t to find herself facing off against a mob of random villagers.
Taylor cleared her throat, then reminded herself that all her attempts to speak so far had ended in disaster. Instead, she called in a small swarm of bugs to hover above her head.
Some of the villagers turned tail and ran, but she couldn’t do anything about that. Instead she formed giant words above in a half arc that she hoped didn’t look too threatening.
I come in peace. Talking is dangerous.
A few of the villagers looked between each other. She formed another line.
I will back away now. Help your friends. Please.
A few of the braver looking sorts darted forwards and picked up their comrades while an elderly man and two young men moved towards her at a slow, careful pace. “Hello, young Miss,” he said. “If I’m to understand your... insects, you’re responsible for all of this?”
Taylor considered blaming Contessa because it was obviously her fault, or maybe her passenger.
[Queen Administrator Shard is Blameless!]
She decided against either option. They would require far too much explaining in any case.
Perhaps, she wrote. I don’t think so.
He smiled at her. “Well then, I’m sure we can work things out if it was all just one big accident. We’ll need to explain things to the local Marines, of course, but nothing will come of it.”
If it wasn’t for her bugs listening in, she would never have overheard one of the helping men mutter under his breath. “Axe Hand will have her head on a block before the night’s out.’
Taylor raised one eyebrow then pointed up. Are these Marines fair? She asked.
The old man’s smile went a little brittle. “They’re Marines, of course they’re fair. You, ah, you aren’t a pirate, right?”
I am not a pirate, Taylor wrote.
“Good! Brilliant even! A few nights in jail and everything will work itself out.”
Taylor glared at the man.
He bent over backwards, froth pouring out of his mouth like a soda fountain filled with Mentos. The others around him fared little better.
Taylor hopped backwards and out of the range of the spittle, mouth twisting in disgust as she watched all the peasants flop to the ground. “Seriously?” she muttered.
“Wow lady,” a youthful voice said from nearby. “You’ve got scary eyes. Also, you made Coby take a nap.”
Taylor turned around and stared up, blinking back surprise at the boy that managed to sneak so close to her.
He was crouched atop a fence post some two dozen meters away, floppy straw-hat pushed back at a jaunty angle and huge smile on full display. Next to him and leaning against the pole he was on was another boy, his eyes rolling around and spittle leaking out of the corners of his mouth. “Hey!” he said before sticking his pinkie into his nose. “You hear me, scary lady?”
Taylor stood up to her full height, enough that even crouching on a fencepost as he was she could meet the boy’s eyes. “You’re not fainting?” she asked.
He wobbled a bit on his perch and for a moment she thought he was about to fall off the side, but he righted himself and grinned right back at her. “You sound like my grandpa when he’s angry!”
“I sound like...” Taylor closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay, do you know why everyone keeps fainting? It’s not very helpful.”
The boy shrugged then stood up from his crouch and stepped off the top of his pole. He was surprisingly tall, still half a head shorter than Taylor, but far lankier. “Dunno,” he said before his finger went back to his nose. “Are you a pirate?”
Taylor quirked one eyebrow. “I’m not,” she said.
He tilted his head to one side. “You look pretty tough. Wanna join my crew?”
Taylor didn’t even think about it. “No.”
“Aww, okay. Well I’m hungry, so bye.” He turned, bent over to pick up his friend and toss him over one shoulder, then started walking past her towards the centre of town.
But Taylor wasn’t done with him, she had questions, a whole lot of questions and he was the only one not fainting while around her. A swarm of bugs rose up and formed into a large cross barring the boy’s path. “Can you wait?” she asked while trying not to sound threatening. “I have questions.”
“But I’m hungry,” the boy said.
Taylor looked past him, and towards the town, then to all the bodies left on the street. Maybe it would be best to not be left at the scene of the crime. If this boy could resist... whatever she was doing, then others could too. Probably.
She hadn’t been a criminal in a while, but her supervillain senses were tingling, telling her to get the hell out of Dodge. “Do you know a place to eat?” she asked.
The boy shrugged, which made his buddy bounce on his shoulder. “Nah, but I can smell something tasty, tasty like meat.” He grinned and swallowed, then shook his head as if to clear it. “Hey, lady, are you the one doing the thing with these bugs?” he pointed at her swarm which was still flying in a cross formation before him.
“You’re only asking that now?”
“I was curious.”
Taylor sighed. Only one person wasn’t fainting at the sight of her, and he was an idiot. “Yes, yes those are my bugs.”
“Cool, so you’re like a bug monster.”
Taylor felt her jaw tightening. “I’m not a bug monster. Bugs just... listen to me.”
[Correction. Arthropodal Lifeforms Obey Queen Administrator. Queen Administrator Guides Them for Host.]
“They listen to my... power, friend... passenger thing. It’s complicated.” She shook her head.
“Alright!” He nodded. “You’re a magic bug monster lady.”
Taylor didn’t sigh, but she certainly felt like doing so. Instead she tightened her fist and looked deeper into the town. Her bugs could already feel people moving their way, including one group of armed men all wearing the same loose fitting white uniform. The local equivalents of law enforcement, no doubt.
By all means she should have surrendered to them and tried to explain things further. She had been the law enforcement for a while, she knew what the procedures we like.
On the other hand...
“You know any places to eat?” she asked the idiot boy.
His smile was dazzling.
The restaurant he found by sniffing the air and following her directions to avoid any crowded sections of town was called Food Foo, a quaint little place with a few tables filled with older townsfolk chatting over coffee and breakfast. It had the look and smell of a mom and pop kind of greasy spoon, the sort of place where locals gathered to have the same thing every morning and to trade gossip.
“I’m hungry!” the idiot declared as he barged through the front door, then stomped over to an empty seat. It wasn’t the least conspicuous entry Taylor had ever seen, but other than a few eavesdroppers, no one made a fuss.
He dropped his friend, Coby, onto a chair and sat his straighter, then plopped himself down next to him.
Taylor took the seat across from him.
“So, what’s your name, mystery bug lady?” he asked.
Taylro glared and he wobbled on the spot before giggling. “You look like my grandpa when you go all mean.”
She pressed her face into her hand. She couldn’t exactly talk without knocking the rest of the folks in the place out. So she had her bugs scout around for some paper and a pen, both of which she found near the cash register.
They flew over and dropped both before her and she started writing one-handed.
‘What’s your name?’ she wrote.
The boy squinted at the words for longer than he should have, then he smiled again. “I’m Luffy!”
Taylor smiled at the idio-- at Luffy. ‘I’m Taylor,’ she wrote. ‘Do you know why people are fainting all over?’
“Nope!” Luffy said after he read what she wrote. “Maybe they’re super hungry. Or maybe you’re just that scary.”
Taylor didn’t give in to her despair. It wasn’t as if she had put all that much effort into figuring things out yet. Maybe Contessa had covered her tracks really well and it would take a while for things to surface? The bitch.
‘Nevermind then. What are you doing here, Luffy. You don’t look local.’
Luffy snorted. “I’m here to find Zoro.”
The people eavesdropping screamed, one of them ran away and a few of them fell off their chairs. She couldn’t imagine a reaction that spectacular if he said he was looking for Jack Slash. Not that these people would understand that, in all likelihood.
‘And who is he?’
“He’s a pirate hunter, and a monster. I’m going to get him to join my pirate crew.”
Taylor closed her eyes. The kid was an idiot. If pirates here were anything like the historic pirates back home, then he was doing to equivalent of trying to recruit a hero while being a villain.
‘Good luck with that.’
“Thanks!” Luffy grinned.
A waitress came around and took their orders, not even blinking as Taylor wrote hers down and gestured sadly at her mouth. Maybe being temporarily mute wouldn’t be that big an inconvenience. She still had to test her swarm voice to see if it knocked people out.
Then the door to the restaurant burst open and a dozen men in uniforms barged in. One of them adjusted his cap and stared right at Taylor. “By order of lieutenant Axe Hand Morgan of the Shell Town Marine Base, you are under arrest, unknown pirate. Surrender peacefully and you will be brought to justice painlessly.”
Taylor stood up and slowly, gently moved her arm off to the side and away from her body. She moved her stump too, just enough that the officer stared at it then dismissed it as harmless.
“She’s surrendering,” he said. “Take her,” he ordered his men.
Taylor was all for letting law enforcement do their thing, but she didn’t like the way they were handling this. That and she didn’t feel like being accused of being a pirate. Her swarm flew into the room, a twisting, buzzing blob of insects to thick it might as well have been a physical barrier. The buzzing mass spun out before her, shutting off the Marines from her end of the restaurant.
The restaurant's patrons screamed, falling over themselves as they rushed towards the exit or took a more expedient route through the nearest window.
“I’m sorry,” Taylor said through the swarm, her lips still a flat line across her face. Just as a precaution, she flew a few butterflies over towards her face and hair and used them as a makeshift if colourful mask. “I didn’t mean anyone any harm.”
Judging by the looks of abject terror on the faces of the Marines, her attempt at appeasement had failed.
“T-take her down!” one of the Marines screamed as he fumbled to remove a flintlock from a holster.
The gun looked ancient and archaic, but a gun was a gun. “Stop!” Taylor said.
The Marine’s flopped to the ground like puppets that had had their strings cut.
“Are you sure you’re not a pirate?” Luffy asked.
Taylor groaned. When they woke up, and she wished they woke up, she would be labeled the worst sort of villain for this. She just knew it. And now her swarm was public knowledge. “Let’s just go,” she said before turning and moving towards the back.
Luffy grinned and shot into the kitchen. The bugs within gave her a picture of the boy scooping up everything edible and either shoving it into his mouth or carrying it against his chest.
She couldn’t fault him his pragmatism. They ran out the back, Luffy laughing even as he stuffed a chicken leg down his gullet. “Reminds me of home!” he said after swallowing it whole.
Taylor didn’t say a word, she just ran with her bugs guiding the way and finding the quietest route for her to take.
“I really want you in my crew now!” Luffy said.
Taylor was only a few hundred feet from her destination when something clicked in Luffy’s mind and he figured it out. “Are you going to the Marine base?” he asked.
She nodded. “I was thinking I could explain things to whomever is in charge,” she said.
“Okay,” Luffy said. “I can go get Zoro to join my crew while you do that.”
Taylor’s pace slowed down and she stared at the boy from the corner of her eye. “You’re Zoro’s friend, he’s at the Marine base?” she asked.
Luffy adjusted his hat so that it covered his eyes from the sun and grinned wide. “Yup! He got arrested a while ago.”
She closed her eyes and wondered if her new headache was her Passenger’s fault or because of Luffy’s idiocy. “Should I ask why?”
Luffy shrugged. “Some brat was being a jerk, so Zoro killed his pet wolf. Then they tied him outside and said they’d let him go if he went thirty days without eating. He’s really cool, so I want him in my crew.”
“That’s... what?” Taylor asked. Any doubts she had about Luffy’s intelligence fled as she raced to try and piece together what he said.
Luffy chucked. “Your face is looking weird. Do you need to poop?”
It was about then that Taylor’s insects, having begun to scout the Marine base for the main offices, found an open courtyard at the back and a tall man tied to a poll. “Is Zoro tall? White shirt... green hair?”
“Yup, that’s him,” Luffy said.
“And they just left him there?” she asked.
Luffy hummed and started walking again, arms folded behind his head.
She frowned but didn't comment as she trailed after the boy. The two of them and about a million bugs reached a high stone fence that separates the streets of the town from the courtyard of the Marine base. It was, if she had to guess from the oval of flattened earth surrounding the base, a training area of the base's personnelle.
Luffy jumped up and onto the fence with a hop and then reached down to give Taylor a hand.
She hesitated. On the one hand, this was definitely trespassing. On the other, it would probably only make the job of finding the base's leader easier.
"Hello!" Luffy called out to Zoro as he landed and started walking over to the prisoner.
"You again?" Zoro asked. His voice was a low growl, one part menacing, one part dry. She imagined that the Marines hadn't been giving him enough water, especially if he was stuck out under the sun all day. He turned shadowed, tired eyes onto Taylor. “And who’s this?”
Taylor eyed the green-haired man for a moment, and while she knew that she should have been more concerned about his well-being or about the fact that they were definitely trespassing, all she could really wonder about was his hair.
Bugs surged out from the town, first a trickle, then a swarm large enough that she would be partially hidden within its buzzing mass. As one, all the bugs landed on the ground around her and on her person. “Hello,” the swarm said.
Zoro looked at her, then turned to Luffy. “Is she one of your crew?”
“Not yet!” Luffy cheered.
Taylor snorted. He was persistent, she’d give him that. “I’m not part of his crew. And I’m not a pirate,” she buzzed.
“Right,” Zoro said. “Well, nice bugs. Now leave me alone.”
“Nah,” Luffy said. “Taylor got us into a bunch of trouble because when she talks people faint a lot, so now we need to run, and I didn’t want to leave you behind, you know?”
“I don’t think that’s a fair way of putting things,” Taylor’s swarm said. Somehow, her mild irritation sounded like petulance when said through the voices of a million insects.
“Whatever,” Zoro said. “You’re beginning to be annoying, go away.”
“Nope,” Luffy said. She was beginning to suspect he had all of the mental flexibility of a brick wall. “I’m going to be the pirate king, and that means I need the best people on my crew.”
Zoro gasped, eyes widening for a moment before he narrowed them again and glared at Luffy. “You think you have what it takes to be the pirate king?”
Taylor felt as if she’s just been left out of the loop. Zoro’s reaction suggested that the title was important but she was lacking a whole lot of context.
“Yup!” Luffy agreed with a lack of gravitas so utter and complete he might as well have been asked if he needed to poop.
“There are people coming,” she said as she turned her head towards the bigger of the Marine towers.
The doors slammed opened and two rows of Marines in their white uniforms and blue scarves ran out, all of them shouldering muskets which, upon forming up into two firing lines, they pointed right at the three of them.
Then a monster ducked through the entrance.
Taylor’s mind immediately labelled him a Brute. His jaw was covered by a metallic contraption from which a cigar poked out and his entire right arm was encased in steel, the end of it formed like an axe-head that had to weigh more than Taylor’s entire body.
“Look at all the rats scurrying around my base,” he growled. “And just as I was going to finish putting up my statue. I suppose your execution will serve as a proper celebration to inaugurate it.”
“Execution?” Zoro asked. “You’re going to execute these two?”
“Hah! I’ll execute all three of you! It’ll be a lesson in why no one defies the Marines, and especially not me!”
“We had a deal, Axe-Hand,” Zoro growled.
Axe-Hand laughed. “Fool boy, I just wanted to see you squirm before I kill you.”
Taylor felt herself tensing on the balls of her feet. Only a few of those guns were pointed her way, but that was a few too many. She had flies ready to jab the eyes of the Marine’s aiming at her, but she would need to be fast.
“And what about us?,” the swarm asked. “What crime did we commit that deserves death?”
Axe-Hand’s face twisted into an ugly grin. “You wasted my time.”
“Hey, Taylor,” Luffy said over one shoulder. “I’m going to take out the big one. Can you handle the small fry?”
“Tch,” Zoro said. “Hey girl, untie me. I need to go get my swords.”
Taylor was ready to start running, or maybe screaming if her voice alone was enough to knock them out. But guns could go off even if the person holding them was unconscious and a stray bullet would be more than enough to hurt her.
“Hey, bug girl, untie me, please?” Zoro asked.
Taylor wasn’t about to let him die without helping. A few hundred of her bugs moved over to Zoro, ants climbing up his legs and wasps landing around his hands to chew through the hemp cords holding him in place.
“Hrm, can your bugs tell where my swords are?” he asked. “There are three of them. One’s white, the others are in black sheaths.”
She stared at him, wondering if he was really more concerned with his swords than getting shot. Still, she already had insects in the nearby buildings scouting them out, and it only took a bit of buzzing around to find three swords leaning against a wall in the biggest office of the taller tower. Getting them down was going to be tricky, but she had enough bugs for it. Maybe her passenger could finally make herself useful.
[Queen Administrator is Useful!]
Luffy stepped up towards the Marines. “I’m going to kick your ass now,” he declared.
The biggest Marine, Axe Hand, grunted. “Shoot him.”
Taylor jumped to the side and rolled away, but she didn’t have to bother. Her bugs attacked every Marine in the line, her swarm rushing over. Half the Marines panicked and screamed as they were covered in biting and stinging insects. Some, kept their cool though. Half a dozen muskets roared, plumes of smoke bursting out of them as they fired at Luffy.
Taylor winced. The boy had been nice. A bit of an idiot, sure, and he could have used some growing up, but he seemed kind and fun-loving all the same. For him to die so... her train of thought crashed to a halt and she turned to stare properly at Luffy because she wasn’t believing what her bugs were seeing.
Luffy’s skin was stretched back with foot-long divots sticking out of his back where he’d been shot. “You can’t hurt me!” he said. “I’m a rubber man!”
Then the bullets shot out of him and crashed into the Marines that shot him.
“What?” Taylor asked.
No one heard her over the screaming of the Marines that were still swatting at the air. The only one still paying attention now was Axe-Hand.
With a grunt, he swiped his axe hand around in a tight arc.
The air rent. The wall of the tower behind him exploded, sending bits of masonry everywhere and her swarm was shoved aside by the blast of wind in the wake of his slice. “Annoying.”
Taylor hesitated for just a moment before years of training took over and she started to move. Not towards the brute fighting Luffy, but towards the Marine tower behind them. The Marines writhing on the ground were far too busy to even notice her, and Axe-Hand didn’t have time to spare for her.
If she was going to stay out of trouble, which seemed like a lost cause now, then she was going to do so from within the giant fortress building.
She ducked in and kept moving at a steady pace. Zoro wanted his swords, and while her Passenger was doing a good job of moving them over, it wasn’t exactly fast.
Outside, Luffy was weaving and ducking around Axe-Hand’s attacks with superhuman flexibility. His arms shooting out and stretching to smack the Marine in the chest and fast with meaty thuds that ran out across the courtyard. Still, the blows, while enough to hurt the Brute, weren’t taking him down.
She didn’t know what kind of world Contessa had tossed her in, but it was obviously a violent hellhole if there were this many superpowered people just walking around. Or maybe Luffy and the Marine leader were exceptions.
Taylor found three swords being carried by a crawling tide of ants and beetles and centipedes. She knelt over while running and scooped them up. It was hard to juggle three swords with one arm, but she managed to lock them in her armpit before turning back around.
Prioritising fetching someone’s swords might have been foolish, but something told her that Zoro wasn’t an ordinary human.
Her bugs sensed more people moving around, some of the Marines having gotten to their feet to run away. She let them. The rest were crawling around pitifully.
A few people not wearing Marine equipment were moving about, probably town folks attracted by all the noise.
She burst back onto the training field, grabbed all three swords by their sheath, and flung them as far as she could.
Zoro tore himself free of his bindings, stumbled forwards a step, and caught the blades out of the air. “Thanks!” he called back.
Taylor nodded and started to turn back towards the fight when she heard a click.
She whipped around and stared. There was a boy near her, no more than fifteen if she had to guess and with the sort of face only a mother could love. He was wearing a suit that was one size too big for him and crumpled besides. She thought he was just another civilian coming to investigate.
And now he was pointing a pistol at her in hands that shook.
“St-stop fighting or I kill her!” he screamed.
The battle paused, Luffy stepping back from Axe-Hand and the Marine turning to take in the scene. His growling laughter filled the courtyard. “Well done, Helmeppo!”
“Gumo Gumo no... Pistol.”
Taylor was still deciding which would be faster, her voice or her bugs, when Luffy’s fist rocketed across the courtyard and smashed into the boy’s head hard enough that when he hit the ground he bounced.
“Fool!” Axe-Hand yelled as he raised his arm to hit Luffy.
The idiot boy had sacrificed himself for her.
She watched, frozen for a moment as the axe came down.
Then Zoro was there, a sword in each hand and a third locked in his mouth to stop the axe mid-swing.
“Don’t just stand there... Captain.”
The three of them stood in a rough triangle around Axe-Hand, Luffy a few steps away, Zoro right under the Marine’s outstretched arm and Taylor a dozen steps behind.
Axe-Hand twisted his head to one side with a crack of bone and stretched his shoulders. “Goddamn pirates,” he growled. “You’re nothing more than low life bandits. Scum! Surrender to the might of the World Government and I’ll make your executions painless.”
Luffy tightened his fists until his knuckles popped, but he was wearing a wide, happy grin that didn’t match the tension of his body. “Nah. I’m going to be the King of the Pirates, and that’s not gonna happen if I let someone like you stop me.”
“Captain’s right,” Zoro said, somehow. Taylor brought a few flies closer to his mouth to see how he was talking, but it was useless. “I’m not going to become the world’s greatest swordsman if I let some noname like you stop me.”
Three pairs of eyes turned to Taylor, as if waiting for her to make some grand declaration. She shrugged. “I just want to be left alone,” she said through her swarm.
Luffy gasped as if she had just told him she wanted to kick puppies and eat kittens. “Taylor, that’s not a dream! You need to aim for the heavens, to try and do the impossible!”
“Trust me,” she said. “Getting people to stop antagonizing me is damned near impossible.”
“When you agree to be part of my crew we’ll go on big adventures and explore all the oceans and fight all the bad guys and eat all the meat!”
She glared. “That’s the opposite of what I want,” she said, but it sounded hollow, even through her swarm. She shifted a little, the uncomfortable truth that she wasn’t made for a solitary, quiet life niggling at the back of her mind even as she swore the opposite. “Aren’t we supposed to be fighting this guy?”
“You think I’ll be taken down so easily by scum like you?” Axe-hand roared and raised his axe hand to strike again.
Taylor rolled her eyes and covered him in wasps.
Zoro flashed forwards, moving so fast that even though she had bugs on him she had a hard time tracking his motions.
“Gumu Gumu no.... Bazooka!” Luffy’s arms stretched way back, then shot forwards with a whip-crack sound of rending air to ram Axe-Hand in the gut.
The Marine was folded in half as he flew back and into the wall of the Marine base.
He still tried to stand, even with thousands of bugs chewing at him, cuts across his entire body and a belly that looked like it had been tenderized. He almost made it to his feet before collapsing.
“Woo!” Luffy cheered. “We won!”
“Yup,” Zoro said before his eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed.
“That wasn’t me,” Taylor said, aloud this time.
“I think he needs to eat more!” Luffy said. “We need to get some meat before we run away.”
“Run away?” Taylor asked. She didn’t really need to, the scores of villagers rushing around the base and the additional Marines moving towards them were all pretty obvious to her bugs. They could fight them all off, it would be easy even, but those people were mostly civilians and probably innocent at that.
Taylor running next to a Luffy that has a man slumped over his shoulder is becoming something of a common occurrence. It was only twice in one day, but that was twice enough for Taylor to take note of it.
She had to sprint all out to keep up with Luffy in the longer stretches of roads, which was fine, she was nothing if not in shape and running away from trouble, while not something she had really practiced much of, was something she was more than capable of doing. “Passenger, can you reach further than me?” she asked.
[Range of Host is Minuscule Compared to Queen Administrator.]
Taylor winced and almost missed a step at the pang of pain sweeping through her head. “Can you not be so... painful?” she asked.
[Host Mind Weak.]
This time the pain came with a smug sense of superiority that really didn’t help Taylor’s mood much.
“Do you have a mystery friend?” Luffy asked.
“A what? No, nevermind,” Taylor said. “It’s too complicated to explain. Where are we going?” she said between breaths.
“We need meat to help Zoro,” Luffy explained as if it was the simplest thing.
She wanted to close her eyes and shake her head, but her day was bad enough without running flat-out into a wall. “Do you have money?”
Luffy laughed as he skid to a stop and kicked in the door to a little mom and pop dinner. With a sweep of his arm which stretched out to impossible proportions, he scooped up an entire chicken and the plate of fried next to it and placed them on Zoro’s back. Somehow he was able to keep it all balanced as he shoved a mouthful of fries down his throat and picked up more food.
The customers, of course, were too busy screaming to really wonder at his eating habits.
Taylor sighed and allowed her swarm to dive into the room to pick up whatever looked edible. Eating stuff that had been crawled over by insects wasn’t her preference, but when she had no choice on the matter she would do what she had to.
Luffy started running again and she followed after him, cursing under her breath the whole time until the broke out onto the town’s port.
“That’s my boat!” he said as he pointed to a small craft tethered to a dock.
Taylor took note of its size, the single sail on a mast in its middle and the tall sides, then compared that to what she knew of ships in general. It wasn’t much. “Fine,” she said.
Luffy dropped his cargo down, then let Zoro slump to the floor before he started pulling ores out from a rack to the side.
Taylor, meanwhile, grabbed one of Zoro’s swords and started hacking at the lines keeping them in place.
She would have prefered taking her time, but a crowd was gathering. An angry crowd. She didn’t know when a crowd turned into a mob, exactly, but this one seemed on the brink.
The final rope snapped, Luffy’s oars splashed into the water, and her swarm flew into the boat with a quarter of its own mass of food in tow.
Taylor watched as the dock slowly receded, the angry cries of the townspeople growing fainter as they moved with a decent clip away from the shore and around the island.
“Oh,” she said.
The swarm buzzed with sudden excitement, excitement that wasn’t mimicked on Taylor’s face as she pushed a foot against the base of her fishing rod and pulled as hard as she could with her one arm.
The line kept taut, and with one final yank, a fish was torn out of the water and went flying into the boat. It splashed wetly against the ground, writhing and bouncing around with the energy of a desperate creature, which she supposed it was.
Zoro opened one eye from where he was resting against the mast, then almost lazily he unsheathed a sword and ran the fish through. “Finally caught one?” he asked.
[Advise Host-Species Ally of Queen Administrator’s Assistance,] the voice of her passenger blared in her head.
Taylor winced and frowned at that. Her passenger had... been rather irate that Taylor was as bad at fishing as she was. She didn’t know what bothered the shard so much, but somehow the idea that Taylor couldn’t catch a fish even with her passenger blasting information in her head insulted it.
Unfortunately Taylor couldn’t quite understand any of the stuff being shoved into her head like an ice-pick. It felt like... telemetry data? Perhaps it was useful to know where the fish were, but that didn’t help otherwise.
“Food!” Luffy cheered as he looked back from his perch on the bow.
“We’re sharing that one,” Taylor said quickly. From the corner of her eye, she saw Zoro sway a little, then nod back asleep. He could resist her voice a little, but usually ended up falling asleep if she tried to talk too much.
Frankly, it was better than most of her attempts at talking to boys. He was only falling asleep, not running away, gibbering in terror.
She pried her hook out of the mouth of the fish, checked the line with a quick inexpert eye, and gave the hook to a few dozen flies.
By all rights she should have swung it out as far as she could, but doing that one-armed was a pain, so letting her bugs carry it out was for the best. Literal fly fishing.
She stifled a smile as she sat back down in the shadow cast by the sail and waited for something to bite. Of course, her Passenger decided to help by flooding location data of fish in her head again, but she was figuring out how to ignore her... It.
Fishing was almost fun. She could remember her dad occasionally hanging out with some of his buddies and coming back home with a few tiny fish while stinking of beer, but he looked happy and proud and a bit goofy about it.
She didn’t have any alcohol, which was too bad, it might have helped her relax a bit. Her problems were manyfold, notably, she couldn’t speak or glare or even think too hard without knocking people out.
Luffy was shrugging it off now, and Zoro was slowly gaining a resistance to her voice. In a few weeks he might even be able to hold a conversation with him.
She worried about it. Knocking people out by talking to them was a handy power, better than bug control in some ways.
[Queen Administrator Takes Offence!]
But it wasn’t controlled, it didn’t come with the instincts that her normal powers came with. So she assumed it was something else, something new.
Maybe, just maybe, it could be used for something other than just willing people to sleep.
That felt right. Willing, to want something enough that it happened, or to have enough conviction that it moved the world around her. Something about the idea clicked. But it was silly. Just wanting something wasn’t enough to knock anyone out on its own. Probably.
She would have to think about it some more.
The ocean was calm, waves gently lapping along the sides of their little ship as it cut a wake that trailed out behind them. The sail snapped and crackled as the wind picked up and dropped. The sun beat down on the entire crew, at once too warm and then, when a puffy white cloud would move in front of it, too cold.
It was nice, relaxing even.
“I’m so hungry!” Luffy screamed.
[Suggestion: Place Host-Species Ally ‘Luffy’ Beneath Water Until Noises Cease.]
“No, Passenger, we won’t drown the idiot, even if he’s being an idiot,” Taylor said. She was lounging back on the floor of the boat, her knees bent on the rails so that her bare feet could catch the watery spray when the ship bounced on the waves. Her arm was bent over her face, protecting her from the sun and keeping the world out.
“Is your mystery friend an animal?” Luffy asked.
“My Passenger isn’t a mystery friend. Or an animal. I don’t think so,” Taylor said.
[Queen Administrator Does Not Qualify as Feeble Organic!]
Zoro huffed. “Should we be concerned that you talk to yourself?” he asked.
“Should I be concerned that you talk to your swords?” Taylor shot back. She forgot to hold back her voice and heard the thunk of Zoro’s head against the mast as he wobbled on the spot. Some experimenting revealed that when she tried to sound meek and restrained her voice it wouldn’t affect the others as much.
Being meek should have come naturally to her, but years of trying to be the opposite had worn those old habits away.
“Zoro, don’t sleep, you need to feed me!”
“Piss off captain, you’re not the only one that’s hungry,” Zoro shot back.
Luffy flopped onto the deck, arms and legs going limp. “Taylor, you’re my first mate now since Zoro isn’t feeding me.”
“What kind of meritocracy is this?” Taylor asked. At the confused look on Luffy’s face she huffed and looked elsewhere. “I haven’t agreed to join your crew yet,” she said.
“You said yet!”
“Don’t read anything into it.”
“Bird,” Zoro said.
The two stopped squabbling and looked at Zoro, then as one stared into the sky where a bird’s silhouette was flitting between the clouds.
Luffy’s arms stretched out towards the very top of the canopy and grabbed on. “Oh no,” Taylor said as she put two and two together and came up with an answer higher than Luffy’s IQ.
“Gomu Gomu no... Rocket!”
Luffy shot into the air with a rubbery twang and described a near perfect arc towards the bird, and arc that ended when the bird bit him out of the air, wheeled around, and started flying away.
Zoro and Taylor looked at each other.
“You idiot!” Zoro roared as he jumped onto the oars.
“Somehow, someway, this is that fedora-wearing bitch’s fault,” Taylor swore as she grabbed onto the mast..
[Host Path-to-Victory not detected,] her passenger said. [Current Host only Host within 1 Unit]
Taylor frowned at that. “Still her fault.”
“Are you going to help?!” Zoro yelled from the bench where he was rowing, arms pumping like mad to make their little boat cut through the water.
Luffy’s faint ‘help!’ sounded out across the distance.
Taylor stared at Zoro, looked at the two oars he was holding, then raised her arm and with a sweeping gesture pointed at her stump. “Unless you want to scoot over a bit. I can grab the other oar.”
Zoro grimaced. “Nevermind. This is good cardio.”
She shrugged one shoulder and leaned against the mast as they brushed over the tops of choppier waves. Luffy was moving out of her range, the bugs she had tucked in his jacket and hat fading away. She could still see him with the array of flying bugs hovering over them.
Eyes that were individually poor weren’t too bad when there were literally millions of them all staring in the same direction. It’s why she noticed the three shapes bobbing in the water. “There are people swimming over there,” she said. “Three of them. Male. They’re... swimming our way.”
“No time for that. Luffy can’t swim, we need to catch up to him.”
“He can’t swim?” Taylor asked. “And he wants to be a pirate?”
Zoro glared at her and rowed harder.
“We’re gonna drown!”
Zoro took a deep breath and screamed at them. “I’ve got no time for you! Climb on board if you want!”
Taylor was mildly impressed at the acrobatics of the three men who grabbed onto their little ship and flopped over the sides. They coughed and sputtered and caught their breath for a moment. “Thanks,” one of them said before he pulled a knife. “We’ll be taking this nice little boat of yours now,” he said.
“Look, Zoro,” the swarm said as it poured out of Taylor’s clothes and the sails and the bottom of the boat. “Volunteers for rowing.”
“Y-you think we’re afraid of a few bugs?” One of them asked. “We’re part of the great pirate Buggy-sama’s crew!”
Zoro stopped rowing and glared at them.
They gulped audibly, but stood up, knives coming up as they prepared to fight.
“Your glare is weak,” Taylor said. “You’ve got the killing intent part right, but not the raw emotion that goes with it.”
Zoro looked at her. “You think you can do better.”
“Hey, hey, you two think we’re playing games here?” the fattest pirate of the lot said.
Taylor leveled a glare at the man, brows pinched, eyes at once flat and yet hinting at barely concealed loathing of everything that man stood for. One corner of her thin lips quirked up in a disgusted scowl.
The pirate’s mouth filled with foam and his eyes rolled even as his entire body shook. His knife thunked into the deck and he shuddered back a step before falling on his ass.
“See, that’s how you glare. You need to remind yourself that you’re so far above them that they might as well be an insect compared to you.” She turned back to the two pirates that still stood. They didn’t look nearly as confident. “Speaking of. There are two of you left and two oars with which to row.” Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t appreciate piracy.”
Taylor enjoyed listening to Zoro’s amused chuckling as they moved everyone around so that the pirates ended up at the oars and they could sit back and relax.
“So, how’d you idiots end up in the drink?” Zoro asked.
Taylor listened as they complained about running into a thief that stole their boat and their treasure. She had to hold back the urge to roll her eyes at pirates being angry that someone had stolen from them.
Her attention snapped up as she saw a form over the horizon. It took another minute for them to get close enough to discern what it was. “Land ho,” she said. “An island, I think.”
Zoro looked in the direction she was pointing in. “I can’t see anything.”
“My bugs are flying above us, they have a better view. Luffy’s being flown towards land. If he crashes in the water now he might be able to paddle to shore.”
“Row faster,” Zoro growled at the pirates who did as he asked with some alacrity.
They made good time towards the shore. Taylor kept herself busy by toying with the knife of the pirate she had knocked out. It was crude, and looked rather cheap, but it was sharp enough, and he had a sheath that she stole with no remorse and strapped to one leg.
“You know how to use that?” Zoro asked.
“Knives? Yeah. Swords, no.”
“I could show you the basics,” he said.
She hummed noncommittally. “Let’s find Luffy first.”
Taylor stood on the docks, neck stretched back as she took in the small town with her own two eyes, then she closed them and allowed the senses of millions of bugs to take in the environs.
[Small Human Living Location. Sub-Par Everything. Perfect for Host.]
“Don’t be a pain, Passenger,” Taylor muttered.
[Pointing out Obvious Inadequacies of Host Species.]
“That’s being a pain.”
[Other Than Host, Others of Species Irritating.]
“So you do love me?” she quipped and earned a sharp pang of pain between the eyes.
[Queen Administrator Cutting Communications.]
The town was decently large. A few rows of two and three storey homes next to a long dock that was built a little ways over the water. There was a plateau near the back of the town, and more, smaller houses at the other end. Fields that looked freshly plowed were laid out in neat rows deeper on the island next to orchards and some forests. It was a well-inhabited little town.
And it was completely devoid of people.
“Anything?” Zoro asked as he tossed the unconscious body of a pirate to the side. The three volunteer rowers formed a neat pile on the dock.
“Nothing, not a single inhabitant in the three nearest blocks. Some food is still warm. Ovens too. Some fireplaces have embers left in them. Whatever happened here happened recently.” She patted down her new knife to reassure herself that it was still there then checked on her swarm. If there was poison in the air the bugs would die before she did. She hoped. “No bodies.”
“Hrm,” Zoro said. He checked his swords which were tucked in the band around his waist. “Let’s move in then. Luffy can’t be too far.”
“Let’s hope so, yeah.”
They started towards the far end of town, aiming for the plateau. Zoro led her down a block of homes, through an alley, then back towards the docks, then he turned ninety degrees and back into the same street they had started down. Then another alley, and another, and they were back at the docks near their ship.
“Zoro?” Taylor asked. “Where are we heading to?”
“The plateau over there. The high ground will let us see farther.”
They marched down the same street again, then Zoro turned and walked into a house and out of its back door into a small garden. He jumped a waist-high fence which Taylor vaulted one-handed, landed in another backyard, and moved through another house and back onto the same street.
“Okay, stop,” Taylor said. “We’re going in circles.”
Zoro scratched at the side of his head. “Are you sure?”
Taylor pointed at the plateau. “It’s right there. Huge rock outcropping. Impossible to miss. Why are we walking away from it.”
“I thought this was a shortcut?” Zoro asked.
Taylor worked her jaw.
[Local Host-Species ‘Zoro’ Has Inferior Intelligence.]
“Okay, I’m leading from now on.” She pushed her swarm as high as it would go and blinked back in surprise at what she saw. Across the town, on the roof of what looked like a bar, were a whole lot of tiny forms moving around.
She found people.
“There’s a group of people about six-seven blocks down,” Taylor said. She pointed in the direction. “They’re on the roof of a bar. About... sixty people, give or take.”
“Is Luffy there?” Zoro asked. He shaded his eyes and tried to look in the direction she was pointing in but there were dozens of houses in the way.
“I don’t know. We’re too far for me to see that well. If we move closer I might be able to tell.”
Zoro shrugged one shoulder and started walking away.
“Wait, where are you going?” Taylor asked.
“To the bar.”
Taylor looked towards the bar, then the direction where Zoro was headed. “I literally just pointed it out to you!” she said.
Zoro stumbled a few steps. “I was looking for a shortcut?”
She took a moment to calm her breathing. It wouldn’t do to lose her temper and knock Zoro out. He was too heavy by half for her to carry and they were already down one friend. If she wanted to consider Luffy a friend. “Come here,” she said before grabbing one caloused hand with her own and pulling him after her.
“I’m neither your kid nor your boyfriend,” Zoro said as he tried to tear his hand out of her grip.
She didn’t let go, she didn’t even glare at him because with how warm her face was beginning to feel she was certain that would knock him out. “Shut up, Zoro. We both know you’d get lost again and I don’t want to waste bugs pointing you in the right direction.”
They made good time, walking right through some homes and breaking through fences instead of following the streets and wasting even more time.
Soon enough her range had extended over the party on the roof, and it was a party. There were plenty of bugs there already, some sipping at spilled beer or hovering over freshly cooked meat. The people she sensed were singing and dancing and laughing, all of them having the time of their lives.
They were also, dressed one and all, as if they’d just escaped a carnival. Clown outfits abounded, people were juggling knives or riding unicycles or standing on inflated balloons on one leg while chugging more beer. “What the,” she said.
[Host Species Bizarre.]
“What?” Zoro asked.
“Uh, they’re all dressed like clowns?” Taylor asked. This was strange, even for her.
“Buggy the Clown has a crew of clown-like pirates,” Zoro said with a shrug. “We could ask them if they saw Luffy.”
“Ask the nice pirates that emptied a town if they saw our-- your captain?” Taylor asked.
She shook her head and sent more bugs to scout through and around the bar. That’s how she found Luffy.
The boy was in a cage, neck stretched out so that he could bite at the bars holding him in place. Ropes were wrapped around his torso keeping him stuck in place and a lithe girl was kneeling next to him just outside the cage, a smug, almost familiar expression on her face.
There was also, Taylor noticed, a cannon being wheeled towards Luffy’s spot on the roof.
It took Taylor all of a minute to explain what she was seeing to Zoro.
“Well then,” he said as he pulled a sword an inch out of its sheath then dropped it back in as if checking to make sure it wouldn’t stick. “Let’s go free our captain.”
“Your captain, and you seem like you’re going in with fighting in mind,” Taylor said. “Have you considered not fighting some sixty pirates with just two of us?”
“I could take them.”
“Famous last words,” Taylor growled. “Look, even if we could take them all--and I’m not saying we can’t, they look like normals and they don’t usually do so well against huge tides of bugs-- we’re still outnumbered thirty-plus to one. Let’s try talking first.”
“Tch. Fine, have it your way. It’s not like I was going to sneak up to them anyway. I was just going to walk up and start swinging. Now I just need you to fail before that. No real change.”
She dug her elbow into his stomach to no avail and started walking.
They were spotted when they were halfway down the street, a couple of younger pirates who were drinking and chatting pausing as they saw the pair walking towards them.
She wondered what they thought. She was still wearing what were essentially the ragged remains of her costume and Zoro was carrying three swords by his hip. A swarm buzzed around her, not the random flitting of bugs looking for a meal, but coordinated wings of insects flying in tight V-formations and circular blobs that orbited around them like planets around a sun.
“H-hey hey, who are you?” one of them asked as he moved over. He looked a little less tipsy than his friends but still had a drink sloshing in a mug by his side.
“We are here to speak with your captain,” the swarm said.
His drink hit the ground with a splash. “Oh shit.”
She raised one eyebrow. “Today.”
“Oh, right, yes! I’ll... I’ll go tell Captain Buggy, wait here!”
They watched the boy scamper off then turned to look each other in the eye. “You’re giving them time to prepare,” Zoro said.
“Then let’s ruin that,” she said as she started moving. “I know where their captain is.”
Zoro muttered something under his breath but she dutifully ignored him. Pirates of every sort were looking around as her swarm moved into the bar and started gathering around the lip of the roof. It took some shoving and elbowing to make it through the dinghy bar and up onto the roof where most of the revellers were, but they got there in time to see the guard gesturing wildly in front of a throne.
Captain Buggy was just as strange as the rest of his crew.
Taylor inspected him with her own eyes as she came to a stop some dozen feet away, Zoro by her side and a mantle of bugs around her. He was laying back, a goblet of what looked like wine held in one hand and a cape draped over his body to hide most of his features.
He had the aire of a clown. A huge red nose, make-up that made him paler and a pirate’s costume in garish colours. “I can see that,” he told his guard. “They’ve come up already. Rather brave of them really,” he said.
“Hello, Buggy the Clown,” Taylor’s swarm said from around her. She nodded, to indicate that she was the one speaking.
A few pirates fell on their rears at the sound of her swarm, but Buggy kept his cool. “And hello to you too,” he said with a wide grin. “How can I help you this fine afternoon young miss and... if I’m not mistaken, Roronoa Zoro? Has the famous pirate hunter found himself a partner?”
“I’m not here for your bounty,” Zoro said. “And she’s not my partner.”
Taylor didn’t know why that last one stung so much, but she set it aside. “You captured a boy recently. Monkey D. Luffy. We want him back.”
“Oh hey, it’s Zoro and Taylor!” Luffy said from within his cage. “Hey guys! Look, I found a navigator for our crew!”
Taylor closed her eyes and let out a sigh. “I’m not part of your crew, idiot. I just don’t want to see you dead.”
“Ah, I’m afraid I can’t have that,” Buggy said. There was a glint of something dark in his eyes. “See, that boy is our entertainment for the night! We can’t just let you have him!”
Taylor eyed Buggy sideways. The clown pirate seemed set on either pissing her off or he really intended to use Luffy as crude entertainment. “Are you really so lacking in entertainment that you’d kill a kid just for fun?” her swarm asked.
“Gyahahaha!” Buggy chortled. “Well, if you can think of other ways to entertain us, then maybe we’ll reconsider!”
There was laughter from Buggy’s crew and a few ambled closer to her, knives spinning as they juggled them and lascivious grins splitting their features.
“Yeah girl,” one of the lankier, sleazier pirates said. “I betcha you could provide us all a whole lot of fun, yeah?”
Taylor heard Zoro’s knuckles pop as he tightened his grip on his sword.
She turned towards the pirate walking towards her and he froze mid step. “You are worse than an insect” she spat in her own voice, a menacing growl sounding in the back of her throat as she spoke.
The pirate flopped backwards, eyes rolling, froth pouring out of his mouth as if he was a well-shaken bottle of soda and entire body going loose. The two dozen pirates within hearing range fared little better.
She turned back towards Buggy to see the pirate captain with narrowed eyes. He had straightened in his throne and was watching her carefully now. “We don’t want any trouble,” her swarm said over the cries of those who hadn’t fainted and who were rushing to help their comrades. “We just want to take the kid and leave. We’ll be out from under your nose in minutes.”
Buggy’s entire body tensed and he barred his teeth, then his expression twisted into a sickly smile. “Oh, very well. Very well. Our sweet Nami already stole the key to Luffy’s cage, do take the brat and leave. I would rather avoid ruining our little party.”
Taylor smiled, and even if she didn’t feel entirely happy, she hoped years spent in PR training made it look genuine. “We appreciate it, captain Buggy,” she said with a small bow of her head. “C’mon Zoro.”
They moved to the far end of the roof, any pirate in their way moving away with some alacrity as they approached, as if they were afraid of being caught in their path. “That was... well handled,” Zoro said.
“You’re just annoyed that you didn’t get to fight anyone,” Taylor said.
They came to a stop near the cage where Luffy was locked up, the girl next to it giving them a rather nervous smile. “Ah, hi?” she asked.
“Taylor, Zoro, get me out of this cage!” Luffy demanded, his head banging against the bars.
Taylor rolled her eyes and squatted down before the box. “Yeah yeah, calm down in there.”
“So, ah, are you two part of his pirate crew?” the girl asked.
“Not a pirate,” Taylor said while pointing a thumb to herself. She wished her swarm could sound less menacing at times. “And Zoro’s a pirate hunter.”
“Whatever. You’re the Nami with the keys?” Taylor asked.
Nami nodded quickly and fumbled a key out of a pocket along the side of her skirt. Taylor was quick to snatch it and unlock the cage.
“Ahhh! I’m free!” Luffy cheered as he popped out of the cage and stretched, the ropes tearing apart where she’d had bugs nibble through them.
“I wonder if finding you guys all tied up is going to become a pattern. First Zoro and now Luffy,” Taylor said.
“Taylor! This is Nami, she’s going to be our navigator!” Luffy said as he pointed at the redhead.
“Uh-huh,” Taylor said. “Sure. Do you want to find something to eat then figure out where all the townsfolk are hiding?”
It was a laughing group that climbed down through the bar with the pirates still giving them plenty of space as they moved through the partying crowd. Nami stuck close to the group, head down as if trying not to be noticed.
“So,” Taylor asked her as they moved outside and started down the main thoroughfare. “Why are you still following us? You don’t actually intend to become Luffy’s navigator?”
“Buggy noticed me stealing the key to free Luffy,” she said. “I needed to get out of there while the going was good,” she explained.
“Nami is a thief!” Luffy cheered.
Taylor eyed the girl and was about to start asking some pointed questions when her bugs on the roof noticed Buggy’s crew shifting the cannon on the bar around in their direction.
“Run!” she screamed.
Buggy’s laughter echoed across the street from where he stood on the roof. “Fire!”
The world exploded.
Taylor shifted, her jaw clenching hard when a wave of pain rushed through her arm and along her side. “Ah.”
[Host! Confirm Status Immediately!]
“I’m here, I’m here,” she whispered as she tried to make sense of everything. Her bugs were moving around her, a cloudy swarm that took her shape and moved then dispersed back into a waving mass. And within that mass was the girl. She couldn’t remember her name, but she was swinging a pole at a bunch of pirates and smacking them into the ground while they were too busy swatting at her bugs.
Taylor started to get a sense of where she was. The street one block down was little more than a torn up mess, a huge crater blown where she’d been before. There was a trail of blood where she was, a small puddle that she was the centre of but that lead off into the street.
She blinked her eyes open and took in the inside of a small house, just a plain old home, but one whose door was kicked open, blood trailing to where she lay on a soiled couch. Someone had dragged her here and, judging by the girl still fighting pirates outside... it didn’t take much to put two and two together.
Taylor rolled off the couch and moved her arm to hold herself up.
“Ah, dammit!” she screamed as her arm protested the motion with a jolt of pain.
[Host is injured. Host nearly died. Host is unintelligent. Host is Stupid!]
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Taylor said. She flew in some bugs to take a look at herself, leaving the rest to... to her passenger who was doing a good enough job with them on her own. Her arm was a mess, definitely broken in a few spots and still bleeding though not enough to have her worried yet. “Damn.”
The girl rushed in from outside, polearm by her side, hair plastered to her sweaty forehead. “You’re alive,” she said.
Taylor paused before speaking and nodded instead.
“We need to run. Your friend, Luffy, ran off to fight Buggy and Roronoa is trying to fight some swordsman. We can’t stay here.”
Taylor took control of the swarm, the insects becoming hers again with only a faint bit of resistance as her passenger let them go. It took all of a second to find Zoro dancing around the sharp strikes of a man on a unicycle. And down the street Luffy was swinging around like the monkey he was named after while Buggy... split himself into small parts to avoid his wild attacks.
“Right,” Taylor’s swarm said. “Let’s go help Luffy.”
“What?” the girl said.
“Hey, what’s your name?” Taylor asked.
“I... I’m Nami,” Nami said. “You’re not seriously going back out there?”
Taylor stretched her neck from one side to the other. “Yeah, I am.”
“Your arm’s broken.”
“It is,” Taylor agreed as she stepped past Nami and into the street. Most of the mooks were already on the ground, Nami having ruined their afternoon and her passenger’s swarm only compounding the pain with thousands of bites. Few of them were dead though, her passenger was holding back just as she would have.
[Idiot Host. Could have obtained a better Host. Remained with Current Host. Was a Mistake. Current Host is an Idiot.]
Taylor chuckled and walked past the bodies. Nami probably thought her mad.
A huge form moved into the range of her swarm, bugs dying off all around it in droves until she pulled them back and took in what her bugs were seeing.
The man was wearing a strange, furry costume, one that made him match the lion he was riding straight towards her. “So, you’re still alive?” he asked.
“I am,” the swarm said.
He took her in before climbing off his lion’s back. “Just for now. Your bugs can’t harm me and Richie. We have bug spray!” he revealed a can of bug repellant with a showman’s wave. “I am Mohji, vice captain of Buggy’s pirate crew.”
“Cute,” she said before she started walking towards him.
He didn’t seem to expect her to walk right at him and his frankly gargantuan lion. She eyed the cat with a glare that had it back-pedaling until its master was suddenly alone in the middle of the street.
“You’re injured,” he said, sounding less than certain. “You’ll be easy to take out!”
He raised an arm as if to tell the whole world that he was going to punch her and started running right at her.
Taylor shifted, hips twisting and upper body spinning around in a blink of an eye while her leg shot out heel-first in a roundhouse that would have made her teachers at the PRT snort derisively. It wasn’t her best kick, but she figured it was good enough under the circumstances.
Her heel connected with a crunch of broken bones and the lion tamer tumbled to the ground with his eyes rolling into his head. His momentum had him rolling into an undignified heap a few feet away.
[Idiot Human should not have Engaged with Queen Administrator’s Host!]
The lion stared at its fallen master, roared in defiance and charged at her.
Taylor looked down and wiggled her boot to make sure it was still snug, completely ignoring the lion. When she was sure her boot wouldn’t fall off she looked up at the beast. “Back off,” she said.
The lion clawed at the ground to stop, whimpered and ran off with its tail tucked between its legs.
Taylor looked over her shoulder to Nami who was staring at her, wide-eyed. “Wanna help me save some idiots?” she asked.
Nami didn’t exactly know what to do. Her cat-thief instincts were telling her that high-tailing it out of the area was the smartest thing to do, but that burning pit of greed in her stomach urged her to push on and find Buggy’s stache, the treasure that he had to be hiding somewhere around here.
And then there was Taylor to take into account.
The girl was wearing little more than rags, moreso now that she’d been blown up. There was blood, still fresh, running along her side and her arm was bent at an odd angle. Her gait was a little bit off, as if she was trying not to put too much weight on one leg. And of course there was the unbroken arm, unbroken because it was simply missing.
She looked like a stray breeze could knock her over.
Nami had seen her scare off a lion by staring at it. Then she kicked the second in command of one of the East Blue’s scariest crew so hard his face broke. She was not going to underestimate her. Especially not with the enormous swarm buzzing all around them.
It had to be some Devil’s Fruit, something that she’d only ever really heard about and rarely witnessed. Buggy was supposed to have one too, if she wasn’t mistaken; his claim to fame.
“What do we do now?” she asked Taylor.
The woman looked over at her, eyes soft and curious as if they weren’t in the middle of a storm of insects. “We help,” The swarm said, buzzes and clicks forming the words that Taylor didn’t speak from her mouth.
It was pants wettingly terrifying, but for now Taylor was on Nami’s side.
“I... I think I know where Buggy’s treasure is,” she tried.
Taylor nodded. “I found it as well. Six buildings down, one block over. A warehouse next to the bar.”
That was surprisingly accurate. “Can you see with your bugs?” Nami guessed.
“I can,” the swarm said. “Come.”
Nami didn’t hesitate to follow. “There should be medical supplies around too. Even Buggy had to have a ship’s doctor or two.”
Taylor nodded. “My arm will need tending.”
“Yeah,” Nami agreed. She didn’t know enough to reset bones, but she could bandage a wound just as well as anyone else.
Taylor walked with the ease and assuredness of someone with nothing to fear, and maybe that was earned, but Nami didn’t have that same confidence and slunk along with more care.
They turned a corner and Nami froze at what she saw. Buggy’s chief of staff was spinning around on a unicycle, sword darting out to clang against one of the three swords Zoro was holding onto.
It would have been an impressive fight if Zoro didn’t look like death warmed over. He was even closer to the blast than Taylor had been and looked to have taken a beating besides. Still, even if his motions were slow and janky he was holding his own.
Then the swarm spiralled down towards the unicyclist.
“Don’t interfere!” Zoro roared.
The bugs paused, the swarm dispersing into smaller bunches that circled above. “You look like you need the help,” Taylor said.
Zoro snorted. “I was just finishing up,” he said.
“How dare you!” the unicyclist said as he wheeled around and charged at Zoro. “I’ll show yo--”
The swordsman flashed forwards, his three blades describing lines in the air that ended with he stopped a half dozen feet behind Buggy’s man.
Spurts of blood splashed into the air.
“Like I said.” Zoro stored his swords away. “I was just finishing.”
Taylor snorted, fortunately the sound came from her, not the bugs. “Come on,” the swarm said. “We need to help Luffy and rob this pirate jerk blind.”
“I wouldn’t say no to that,” Zoro said with a growing grin.
Nami had no idea what she’d just gotten herself into, but she followed the two of them as they started walking towards the sounds of violence as opposed to away from it.
“The girl’s coming with us?” Zoro asked as he pointed over his shoulder with a thumb.
Taylor shrugged the shoulder of her missing arm. “She helped me. I owe her one. And Luffy seems to think she’ll join his pirate crew.”
Nami was about to burst in and tell them that there was no way she’d ever be any sort of pirate when Taylor continued.
“He’s the worst pirate I’ve ever seen,” she said.
“You’re just saying that because you’re tempted to join too,” Zoro said.
“Shut up, sword boy. I’m no pirate.”
“Nah, pirates aren’t as scary as you.”
The banter continued as they moved onto the next street over to find a scene of pure absurdity.
Luffy was stretched out across the street, arms and legs shooting out impossibly far as he ducked and weaved around strikes from Buggy that came from every direction. The boy was twisting around as if he was made of putty to avoid knife swings and to juggle his hat out of the path of Buggy’s knives.
The clown captain was really gunning for the hat which already had knicks and cuts all along its brim.
“Do you need help, Luffy?” the swarm asked.
“Nah, I’m good!” Luffy called.
“Oh, you think I’d let you interfere, bug girl!” Buggy screamed. One of the hands holding a knife shot out towards Taylor.
She didn’t even bother moving.
Zoro unsheathed one of his swords and swiped the knife out of the air with a sweep that sent it flying into a pocket of yellow jackets.
Taylor turned towards Nami. “We’ll be a bit busy. Can you fetch the medical stuff? I’ll have bugs point you towards them.”
“Ah,” Nami said. “Sure.”
Taylor smiled at her, the look somehow turning her from a cruel, calculating warlord to a shy young woman that was just tired. “Thanks Nami.”
“Think nothing of it.”
The fight was winding down. Taylor had a sense for these sorts of things, from sparring, from fighting actual heroes and villains and from a life filled with more action than most people could endure.
Luffy had Buggy down to rights and was using his advantage to pummel the clown pirate. She was hardly shocked when the rubber boy flung a tiny Buggy out and over the edge of the city so hard and fast that even her bugs lost track of him.
His other body parts flew around lazily for a moment, then clattered to the ground.
They watched Buggy disappear over the horizon, then spent a few moments just... being. Luffy was the first to start laughing, a low ‘shishishi’ that grew louder as the adrenaline of the fight coursed through him.
“Hmpf,” was Zoro’s contribution to the laughter, though he was smiling, and the tension poured out of him until he took a few steps back and leaned against a wall while removing his bandanna.
Taylor looked around, took in the defeated pirates, the wrecked town, the fact that they had just accidentally fought an entire crew for next to no reason. She chuckled and shook her head. “Alright. That was something.”
“That was great!” Luffy cheered. “But my hat got cut.” He raised the hat to show to slices along its brim.
“There’s a millinery in this town,” Nami said as she rushed back to them. She had a small sack under one arm, and a much bigger one over her back. The latter clanged and clattered with the sounds of metal on metal. It didn’t take someone with near omniscience to guess that she had emptied Buggy’s treasures into one big bag.
“Is that meat?” Luffy asked.
Taylor sighed. “No Luffy, it’s Buggy’s treasure,” the swarm buzzed. She moved back towards the side of the street at Nami’s prompting. “A treasure that I’m sure Nami will split four ways?”
“Well, seeing as you’re one group and I’m another, shouldn’t it be a two-way split?” Nami asked.
She opened the smaller sack to reveal medical supplies that had been tossed together with more haste than care.
“That would be fair if you did half the work,” Taylor said. “Seeing as how you didn’t, I think one fourth is a generous amount. Plus a quarter of whatever we can convince the villagers to give us for services rendered. And someone needs to impound that huge clown ship at the docks.”
Taylor and Nami’s eyes met and there was a shared gleam of understanding between them. Taylor didn’t really care for the money, but they needed supplies, food, clothes and the help of actual doctors.
“Do you know where the townspeople are?” Zoro asked.
“Well, a mob of them are coming from that direction,” Taylor said. She pointed off to the side. At the same time, she had her swarm form large arrows in the air and the words ‘this way’ pointing in the direction of their crew.
“Oh, brilliant,” Zoro said.
“Don’t worry,” Taylor said. “I’m sure they’ll be more than accommodating to their heroes. The ‘or else’ hung in the air like a promise.
“This one is cute,” Nami said as she pulled a shirt off the rack. It was a fairly simple orange t-shirt with some lace along the bottom and a smiling face on the front.
Zoro shook his head. “That’s too vibrant for her. She’s a winter palette. Try something in a more subdued tone, maybe something like this.” He reached to one of the other racks and pulled out a full shirt, this one in a pale blue that had the silhouette of a butterfly on it. Turning, he pressed it against Taylor’s chest. “See?”
“Oh, I do,” Nami agreed.
Taylor, for her part, was wondering what the hell was going on.
The morning after their fight with Buggy’s crew and the subsequent town-wide party was supposed to be a relaxed affair where she could focus on healing and sleeping off the previous day’s excitement. A passing comment to Nami that she needed some clothes had ruined all of those plans.
How, exactly, Zoro had managed to tag along was beyond her. Somehow the swordsman was leading the whole outfit making affair because for some reason she couldn’t figure out, he had a great eye for fashion.
“Add it to the pile!” Nami declared as she tossed the shirt into a small basket that was nearly full already. Most of the clothes within were more functional than not. Tough cotton shirts that would endure work on a ship, cargo pants and shorts to stay cool. All rather functional and practical. She approved.
When she turned back to the others it was to find Zoro eyeing her carefully. “What are you looking at?” he asked.
“Me? Nothing,” her bugs buzzed.
He snorted as leaned over to see deeper into the store where a mannequin was standing, covered in a black summer dress with white trim along its edges. It had a sailor-style collar and pleated skirts that stopped just below the knees, the kind of dress even someone like her could feel nice in. “Really?” he asked.
She wanted to be insulted, but having Zoro of all people question her was making her more flustered than she should have been. She was allowed to like pretty things, he shouldn’t judge her for it! Especially not after showing off so much fashion sense.
The summer dress was bringing back old memories too, of time spent with Lisa being used as a doll by the smug girl who knew all the buttons to press to make Taylor feel self-conscious in all the right ways.
“I don’t know,” Nami said. “I think she can make it work.”
“It is in her colour range. And it’ll show off her legs,” Zoro muttered.
Taylor felt her cheeks warming up. The last thing she needed was for Zoro to start talking about her legs, even if it was rather complimentary. She had an ant bite her to snap her out of the strangeness. “Could you not talk about my legs?” she asked.
“It’ll make her, you know, look bigger,” Nami added with a gesture at her chest. She caught Taylor glaring and shrugged. “Hey, don’t worry. We’ve all been there. You’ll grow eventually.”
“I’m nineteen,” Taylor growled.
“Doesn’t matter,” Zoro said as he walked past and towards the dress. “Breasts are a waste anyway.”
Taylor choked. She swore that if her arm wasn’t in a cast she would have clobbered the idiot.
“It’ll make for a good shore leave outfit,” Nami said as she gestured a salesperson over. Ten minutes later Taylor was still mortified but she had a pretty summer dress stuffed in the bags Zoro was carrying for her.
Their next stop was to a store that sold nothing but jackets. Zoro picked up a deep green trench coat and the pair of them shoved a heavy raincoat at Taylor, one that dropped down to mid-calf and that was big enough to serve as a winter jacket in a pinch.
Their last stop was one Taylor insisted on making. She had had an idea ever since Nami had mentioned milinerie the day before. If she was going to be part of Luffy’s crew. Which she wasn’t. Then it would serve her well to have some sort of identifying mark.
The little hat store didn’t have a large stock, but she found what she was looking for almost right away. A wide-brimmed hat made of straw and dyed the same deep shade of black as her new coat and dress. It would protect her hair from the sun and could hide a few hundred bugs if she was clever about it.
Zoro purchased his own hat, a large round thing made of straw, more of a dome than proper headgear, but it did make him look like an ancient samurai. The roguish look suited him, she found.
“So, Nami,” Taylor asked as they moved back towards the bar that they had been staying at. “Where are you going next?”
“Ah, I thought I might follow you guys to the next island along. As far as I can tell your group is pretty aimless and I could use the protection until I make it back home.”
Taylor nodded, the sensation strange with such a large hat on. “That’s fair,” her swarm buzzed. “I think we would enjoy having you along. I don’t look forward to getting lost at sea again.”
“It’ll be fun!” Nami said.
Taylor paused at that. She had been having fun. Like her first days with the Undersiders all over again. She wondered if it would end the same way.
“Hit harder,” Zoro demanded.
Taylor didn’t glare at him for his demand. She knew how training worked. She had received her fair share and has spent plenty of time training others. Being a little tough was just part of the game.
“She’s hitting plenty hard!” Nami yelled back.
Having the two girls face off in close quarters on the deck of Nami’s little ship was probably some sort of weird game for Zoro and Luffy. The two boys were sitting at the bow, Luffy acting as the ship’s figurehead while Zoro rested under him with one leg drawn up.
Taylor didn’t pay them too much attention, she was busy circling around Nami who was holding her staff in a defensive stance. The little thief was faster than Taylor, and stronger, but not on the level that Zoro or Luffy were.
Technically, she was as good or better than the boys in a scrap. She knew how to fight, where to land a blow, how to deflect one. But they outclassed her in speed and strength and the ability to take a hit. Enough so that fighting them was rather futile.
There was definitely some power-related bullshit going on if Zoro could bench press three times his own weight without breaking a sweat. His lies about training hard to be able to become a Brute were obviously some sort of distraction.
Still, the fact that slim little Nami could hit like a truck was also galling.
Taylor noticed Nami’s foot shift, the first motion that would flow into one of her staff katas. Before she had time to resettle her weight, Taylor was moving in. Her arm was still healing, and her other arm was just plain missing. When it came to fighting in close quarters having literally no hands to use was a nightmare.
So she had to make up for it in other ways.
She sidestepped Nami’s first strike, then ducked into a roll when Nami swung her staff horizontally. The displaced wind from the blow passed through her hair as she came out of her roll, used her momentum to jump, then delivered a quick kick at Nami’s chest.
Nami managed to block the blow with her staff, but that only meant that Taylor had time to find her balance. She was well within Nami’s bubble now.
He next step forwards came with a knee strike that Nami avoided with a step to the side. She was letting go of her staff, fist cocked by her side to hit Taylor in the jaw.
It was a good idea. Abandon the now useless weapon in favour of delivering a potentially crippling blow. But Taylor was one step ahead, literally. She rammed her forehead down as hard and fast as she could.
Nami crashed to the ground, both hands cradling the side of her head. “Ouch! Damn it Taylor, that hurts!”
[Idiot Host! Connection to Queen Administrator within Cranium! Destruction of Head would mean loss of Communications!]
Taylor panted for a moment and carefully brought her hand up to rub the spot on her head where she’d hit Nami. “You were open,” she said to Nami, her voice as soft as it could be.
Nami wobbled a bit on the ground, then glared up at her. “I don’t get why you’re practicing so hard if you can just talk people into unconsciousness.”
“Because eventually I’ll meet someone who won’t faint, like Zoro and Luffy here.”
“She’s not wrong,” Zoro said. “You need to shore up your weaknesses if you want to live on this ocean.”
“Yeah, but she doesn’t need to break my head to do it.”
Taylor chuckled and extended her hand down to Nami. “Sorry. Did you want to take a break?”
Nami took the offered hand and got to her feet. “Yeah, sure. The water’s shifting a bit, I think we’re reaching a more shallow part of the ocean.”
“We are,” Taylor confirmed.
Nami blinked at her. “How do you know?”
“I can control the crabs and lobsters beneath us. Usually they’re too deep, but they’ve been slipping in and out of my range for a few minutes.” Taylor looked around, taking in the area they were in from the hundreds of eyes above them. “There’s a small island on the horizon. Other than that it’s just our two boats and a whole lot of water.”
“You’re handy to have around,” Nami said. She started moving towards the cabin at the back. “I’ll check the maps, give me a minute.”
“Just a little handy,” Taylor said as she gestured with her only hand.
“Shishishi!” Luffy laughed as he rocked from side to side on his perch. “That’s funny,” he said.
“Thanks. Got to laugh about it. Anyway, I’m not done training.”
“You’re not,” Zoro agreed. “We need to get your strength up. You’re weaker than a puppy.”
“Call me puppy again and you’re waking up with bugs in your nose,” Taylor warned.
The swordsman rolled his eyes and gestured to the middle of the deck. “Complain less and do more pushups,” he said before closing his eyes and going back to his nap.
She huffed, but did as he said. She was going to have to rely on only one arm. Having it be weak just wouldn’t do. She was grunting her way into the low twenties when Nami moved back onto the deck, a map held in both hands.
“It’s a small jungle island. Nothing much of note. We can sail right past it,” she said.
“No!” Luffy said. “Jungles have meat! Zoro start rowing!”
In moments, the two idiots were aboard their much smaller boat and rowing towards the island on the horizon.
“We could just leave them behind,” Nami said. “We have all that treasure aboard this ship.”
Taylor sighed and returned to doing her push-ups. “Nah. They’ll probably kill themselves if I’m not there to keep them out of trouble. Can’t have that hanging over out heads.”
Nami sighed. “Darn,” she said.
A moment later their ship shifted and started to follow after their idiots.
Nami’s boat hit the soft sand of the beach and came to a complete stop with a lurch. “And there you have it. Easy as pie,” Nami said as she let go of a rope that was holding the sails at half mast and moved away from the rudder. “Could you be a dear and lower the anchor, just in case we’re still here when the tide changes?” Nami asked as she jumped down from the elevated rear deck and onto the main floor of the boat.
Taylor nodded and decided that she was going to have to ask a few questions about ship terminology. Calling the front bit the prow was about as far as her knowledge went. She wasn’t even sure which side was port and which was starboard.
Shrugging to herself, Taylor moved towards the back, found a heavy anchor nestled against the side of the ship and, after making sure it was properly secured, tossed it overboard with a splash.
“Did you intend to come with me?” she asked Nami who was busy in the main and only cabin of the small ship. The girl jumped a foot into the air and spun around, coming face to face with the small swarm spinning in the air behind her.
“Taylor! You can’t just bug talk to people from afar! It’s creepy!” she shouted.
“Sorry!” her swarm said.
“Yeah, whatever. If I find out you’re spying on me while I sleep we’ll be having words. Or I’ll be having words while you learn how to swim after I kick your butt overboard.”
Taylor couldn’t help the small smile tugging at her lips. Lisa Nami was not, but she had that same kind of spunk her best friend had had when in a good mood. It was easy to fall back on old banter. “I’m going to find supplies. Water, something to eat. Did you intend to come?” she asked with her own voice as she stuck her head into the cabin.
Nami froze while she spoke, but a few quick breaths to recentre herself later she was fine. The girl was already developing a resistance to Taylor’s voice. “Yeah, sure. I’m coming.”
They landed on the beach with a crunch of sand underfoot and Taylor immediately cast her senses ahead. She had already been toying with the bugs in the jungle, but she hadn’t really been paying all that much attention.
“Uh,” she said.
“What?” Nami asked. “Did you find the idiots?”
“No. There are animals in there.”
Nami looked at her, then at the thick forest. “Dangerous animals?” she asked.
A fox with the head of a chicken shot out of the woods, clucking like mad as it sprinted past.
“No. Not dangerous, I don’t think.”
[Local Species Registering as Genetic Deviants.]
“Really?” Taylor asked.
“Really what?” Nami asked right back.
Taylor blinked at the girl and shook her head. “Would you think I’m crazy if I told you there’s an alien that lives in my head?”
[Host Cranium too Minuscule to Contain Queen Administrator.]
Nami stared for a long time, then sighed. “I had hoped that you were the sane one.”
“It’s true,” Taylor said.
“Of course it is,” Nami said as she patted Taylor’s shoulder. “I believe you,” she lied. They began moving towards the island proper, leaving a trail of footsteps behind them.
Taylor sighed but didn’t press. It might have been a mistake to admit anything to Nami, but it wasn’t as if she could readily prove anything, and she doubted Nami could do anything about her passenger anyway. Not that she wanted anything done with her passenger. Strange as it was, the voice in her head was something of a friend.
[Friendship is a Concept below Queen Administrator. Friendship is unnecessary. Host has Queen Administrator. Queen Administrator owns Host. Simple.]
“Love you too, passenger,” Taylor snarked back, earning a weird look from Nami. “My friendly space friend says that the animals around here are genetic deviants.”
“Not the only deviant around,” Nami muttered too low for Taylor to hear without her bugs.
“Hey now, I’m the one stuck with the brain parasite here,” Taylor defended herself.
[Queen Administrator could Leave Host! Queen Administrator merely finds Host Neural Pathways Enjoyable. Could find New, Better Host at any time! Idiot Host!]
Taylor rolled her eyes and tried to ignore the pounding headache she had earned for herself. “I don’t want to risk eating any of the native fauna. Plenty of normal looking fruit though, and the bugs I sense are all norm--”
Taylor’s heart hitched.
There was something ahead, something bizarre.
Taylor and Nami cut through the forest, swatting branches aside and stepping over bushes on a nearly straight path.
“You still haven’t told me what you found,” Nami said.
“My passenger found it first, really,” Taylor said. “And if I knew what it was I wouldn’t be rushing over to it like this.”
Nami huffed. “We should go slower, at this rate we’re going to be mosquito chow.”
Taylor stopped and looked at her, one eyebrow climbing into her hairline.
“Oh, right,” Nami said. “Still, if I get slapped by one more branch I’m calling it quits.”
“Then pay more attention to where you’re walking,” Taylor admonished as she pushed on. “Passenger, you have anything better to report than ‘interesting?’”
“And?” Taylor asked.
“You know,” Nami said. “I’m actually starting to maybe think that you’re not insane... mostly not insane.”
[Interesting Object is Sentient. Mind is Insignificant. Minuscule. Tiny. So small that it is almost beneath notice. Still larger than Host’s mind.]
Taylor rolled her eyes and ducked under a branch. She would have more time to bicker with her passenger later when they weren’t so close to... and then she burst into a small clearing, a spot where the jungle was cleared in a large circle, only a small stack of stones in the centre breaking up otherwise flat--if moss-covered--ground.
It was there, sitting on a stone and basking in the sunlight.
“Yeah,” Taylor said.
Her mind latched to it just as it did every other insect, but for all that she could feel it, that it was content and had just eaten and that it was enjoying a cat nap, she couldn’t control it.
The creature raised its head. “Mmroaw?” it grumbled as it stood up on a myriad of legs and stretched its back in an undulating wave that had the spiky fur all along its body rippling in black waves.
“Is that a cat mixed with a caterpillar?” Nami asked.
“Yeah, yeah it is,” Taylor said, just as dumbfounded.
The cat-erpillar slowly closed and opened bottle-glass green eyes and stared at them.
[Attempting to control Insectile Creature.]
“You’re trying already, aren’t you?” Taylor asked.
[Attempting different kinds of connections.]
The world shattered.
One moment Taylor was herself and a few billion bugs. Every insect in the jungle around her was hers. Then, in a blink, her range doubled and doubled again. She was the island, all the arthropods in the ocean for miles around. It doubled again and again, range extending out until she could feel the curvature of the planet.
[Range Issue Unresolved. Broadening Channels.]
Taylor screamed. All of Taylor. Her mouth, Nami’s, Luffys, the strange man in a box halfway across the island. Every bug and bird and mammal, every fish from the lowliest plankton to monsters roaming the depths. The world shook as they wailed.
[Proper Band found. Re-establishing Normal Parameters.]
Like a rubber band that had been stretched to its breaking then let loose, Taylor’s perception snapped back into her own body and she fell backwards onto her rump. She didn’t even extend her hand to save herself from the fall, too busy pressing it up against her eyes as she panted.
“What the fuck?” she said.
“Yeah,” Nami agreed. She was staring at her own hands, then at the woods around her. “What was that?”
[New insectile Lifeform Acquired.]
The cat-erpillar hopped off the rocks in much the way a caterpillar shouldn’t, then with wavy steps rushed over to Taylor and settled on her lap. It began to rumble. “I’m not controlling it,” she said.
[Lifeform is too Mammalian for Hosts Standard Parameters. Insectile Enough to grant Perception. Queen Administrator will Control Creature as Avatar of Self. Solves Multiple Issues]
“You... all that because you wanted one bug for yourself?” Taylor asked.
[Host can now shower Queen Administrator with physical affection.]
The cat-erpillar looked up to Taylor, green eyes flashing with evil intent. She couldn’t decide if it was just because it was a cat or if some part of her passenger was coming through.
“Taylor, what?” Nami asked, getting to the bottom of the situation in as few words as possible.
“My passenger... wanted a pet. It, uh, couldn’t figure out what channel this thing was tuned to. So it... tried all of them.”
Nami stared for a long time. “What?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” Taylor agreed as she placed the cat-erpillar aside and stood up.
[Queen Administrator demands that Host carry her avatar!]
Sighing, she picked up the cat-erpillar and stuffed it under her arm like a sack. It was about as formless. “We should get going,” Taylor said. “We’ll need to explain this to the boys.”
By the time they made it to the beach, there was a long line of crabs that stretched from their boat all the way into the forest, each one grabbing some fruit and berries and passing it to the crab next to them in a long chain that ended a dozen feet from its destination.
“Luffy!” Taylor barked. Her hand shot out to hold onto Nami whose eyes went wobbly at the sound of her voice. “Stop eating the fruit,” she said in a much calmer voice.
The so-called captain looked up, cheeks puffed way out and fruity juices dripping down his cheek. “What? Why?” he said, sending bits of fruit flying all over.
“Because that’s the only food we can gather for our trip,” Taylor said. “And don’t talk with your mouth full.”
[Anomalous Human is an Idiot.]
Her passenger’s avatar rubbed itself into the back of her neck as it twisted around to face Luffy.
Taylor poked the cat-erpillar in the side of the head. “Stop calling everyone idiots,” she told it.
[Stop Being an Idiot, Host, and Queen Administrator will Change Address to Mere Fool.]
Shaking her head, Taylor watched her crabs at work for a moment, then had one of them pinch Luffy when he reached for the fruit it was carrying. The boy howled and bounced along the beach, hand waving in the air to get rid of the crab hanging on, but to no avail.
A few crabs slid out of the cabin of Nami’s little boat, carrying a cauldron above their heads which they carefully moved to the edge of the ship and then tossed overboard.
“Hey, Taylor,” Zoro said from where he was sitting against a rock. “Your crabs are stealing a pot. Also, what’s that thing around your neck?”
“They’re not stealing it. They’re bringing it over here so that we can start boiling a few of them. And this is... ah, my passenger’s avatar. It’s complicated.”
Luffy bounced back over, crab still pinched to his hand but now forgotten in the excitement. “Is this your mystery friend?” he asked as he brought his face within inches of the cat-erpillar’s. It was a little too close for Taylor’s comfort.
“Yes Luffy, this is my mystery friend. She has a body now. Sorta.” She turned to Nami who was staring at the line of crabs with something between curiosity and apprehension. “Hey, Nami, Zoro, could you get a fire started?”
The two immediately started bickering about who would be in charge of fetching the wood and who would start the actual fire.
Luffy grabbed the cat-erpillar with surprising care and lifted it off her shoulders. Its long body flopped down, a dozen legs wiggling to find purchase.
[Order Anomalous Human to Lower Queen Administrator Avatar!]
“Cute!” Luffy decided before bringing its face close to his. “Hey, do you know how to cook or play music?” he asked.
“Awesome!” Luffy said. “You should join my crew!”
[Queen Administrator Failed to Sufficiently Underestimate Anomalous Human.]
The next few minutes were a frenzy of activity. Luffy was kept distracted with her passenger’s avatar while Taylor and Nami set up a pot full of water on some stones and lit a small fire under it. Zoro fetched wood in the nearby forest, but kept getting lost until she had swarms point him back towards the beach.
In no time at all the water was warming up and a few of the bigger crabs were climbing into the pot. “I’m not as surprised by the whole crab-controlling thing as I should be,” Nami said. “But seeing them jump into the pot is really disturbing.”
Taylor shrugged one shoulder and sat back on the soft sand. It was still only mid-day, the sun beating down on them from on high. “I started seeing anything that can’t talk back as expendable.”
“Speaking of things that can’t talk,” Zoro said. He gestured towards Luffy who was dancing with the cat-erpillar. All around him, crabs were waving their claws in the air to the rhythm of a beat other crabs were stomping against some logs.
“Right. Uh, can we skip past the explanations and just accept that I have someone living in my head?”
Zoro looked away from the lapping shore and stared at her for a moment. “Alright,” he finally decided.
Nami shook her head and buried her face in her hands. “I’m surrounded by weirdos.”
“Hey, Taylor!” Luffy cried from where he was dancing. “What’s your pet’s name?”
[Queen Administrator is NOT a Pet. Host is Queen Administrator’s Pet.]
“She doesn’t have a name, really,” Taylor said.
[Queen Administrator’s name is Queen Administrator.]
“Yeah, and my name isn’t Host, so there,” Taylor said. She sounded rather petulant, but had suffered through too many headaches to care.
“We can call you...” Luffy bit his upper lip. “Super Mystery Cat Friend.”
[Denied. Name is Queen Administrator. All Other Names Unacceptable. Use of Other Titles Equates to Demands of Eradication!]
“How about Fluffles?” Nami suggested.
[Death is Insufficient as Punishment!]
Taylor chuckled and laid back in the sand. Soon they would be off again, racing across the ocean to the next island and the next adventure.
It was nice.
“Poke poke,” Luffy said.
[Queen Administrator Demands that Host render this Human down to its Constituent Atoms.]
“You know, I can’t actually do that, right?” Taylor asked from her spot leaning against the mast. It was usually Zoro’s place, but he had gotten up to practice with his sword at the rear of the boat so she took it for herself. It was actually sort of comfy.
“What’s wrong, Queenie?” Luffy asked as he brought his face really close to the cat-erpillar her passenger was using as an avatar. “Are you sea sick?”
“I think she’s sick of you,” Nami deadpanned.
The missed swipe from the cat-erpillar was proof enough of that.
[Proper form of address is Queen Administrator. Not ‘Queenie.’]
“It’s just a nickname,” Taylor sighed. She wanted to sleep a little, but her passenger’s whining was sending a constant thrum of pain through her head. It was like a period headache only noisier.
[Queen Administrator is NOT Comparable to Hosts Disgusting Biological Functions.]
“I’m sorry,” Taylor said. “Did you want us to change your name?”
“I think ‘Queenie’ is pretty cute,” Nami said as she reached down to run a hand though the cat-erpillar’s fur.
[Queen Administrator will Appeal to Host’s Emotional Responses: How would Host Feel if Host were Called something Other than Host?]
“Pretty good actually. You could call me by my name.”
Nami eyed her for a bit. “You know, you really should curb the talking to your pal thing, the more open you are about it the less sane you look.”
“At this point I think it’s a lost cause,” Taylor said.
“I’m going to eat!” Luffy declared as he bounced to the back of the ship where there was a stack of fruit waiting.
Nami watched him go. “We should only be a few hours out from the next island,” she said. “Let’s hope we find something edible there.”
“Yeah,” Taylor agreed.
[Queen Administrator has Reached a Conclusion.]
Taylor turned back to the cat-erpillar to see it staring right at her.
[Queen Administrator will Allow Host to Call her Queen Administrator. In Exchange, Host will be named Taylor Hebert.]
Taylor worked her jaw. Reaching over, she picked up the large cat-bug and placed it on her lap. “Okay, I can work with that. Queen Administrator.” The cat-bug started purring, then stopped just as quickly as it started.
[Queen Administrator accepts Ho--Taylor Hebert’s Surrender.]
She snorted. “It’s not a surrender, it’s us being polite to each other. You’ll still need to convince the others to call you Queen Administrator instead of Queenie.”
“Not gonna happen,” Nami sing-songed as she moved back to her boat. “Keep an eye out for the next island, won’t you?”
“Sure thing,” Taylor said as she leaned back and rested her head against the mast. Her hand idly pet the cat-bug warming her lap as she tried to relax.
She was almost dozing when the cat-erpillar shifted.
[Host Taylor Hebert has been a good Host.]
She smiled a little and pet the cat-bug between the ears. “For all that I complain, you’ve been a good passenger, Queen Administrator. I... guess I was lucky to find you.]
[Idiot Host. Taylor Hebert was Not Found. Taylor Hebert was Chosen. Queen Administrator has Good Taste in Hosts.]
Taylor snorted again. “Sure, sure.”
Her good mood faded when an island appeared on the horizon. It was larger than the last one they had been on, and judging by the thick plumes of smoke rising into the sky, it was on fire.
“Luffy, can you carry the boy?” she asks. To be fair, the boy looks to only be two or three years younger than her. But Luffy just shrugs and tossed him over one shoulder like a particularly bone sack of potatoes. Some of the trinkets he has attached to his overalls fall, but Nami picks them up with a huff.
“What can you see with your bug vision?” Nami asks.
“Please don’t call it bug vision.”
[Small Human is Correct. Perception Comes from Ins--]
Taylor bopped Queenie on the head, stopping the explanation and earning a cat-like glare from the avatar. “As far as I can tell the pirates have taken over the village. I see... maybe fifty houses? There’s a group heading towards the... West. There’s a mansion that way. I think that’s where the villagers are hiding.”
“So two groups of enemies,” Luffy says. “How will I know which one has the captain?” Luffy dropped the boy to the ground and smacked his cheeks. “Hey, you. Where’re the good enemies at?”
The boy spluttered a little, then focused on Luffy. “P-pirate?” he mumbled.
“Yup!” Luffy said. “Now, where are the bad guys?”
The boy stuttered incoherently for a bit until Nami shoved Luffy aside. “Hey, we’re here to help. But we can help better if you tell us everything you know.”
The boy swallowed hard, but he began speaking soon enough. What he had to say wasn’t terribly useful. The butler from the mansion was an evil pirate captain and wanted to kill a girl called Kaya to take her wealth. The Black-Cat pirates were scary. That was about all her had to say.
“Darn,” Taylor said, and the word alone was enough to make the kid faint again. Taylor rolled her eyes. “Take the boy and Nami, head to the mansion. The villagers can watch over him and you can help defend them.”
Nami raises two fingers. “Two problems with that. One, I don’t need babysitting. Two, where will you be in all of that.”
“Two groups, which means I get to take one for myself. I can’t see more than a dozen, maybe two in the village. I can take those kinds of numbers.”
“Fine. I think you’re being stupidly overconfident, but that’s not my problem.” Nami poked her in the chest. “Just make it out alive, alright?”
“Of course,” Taylor said. “And I’m not alone, I have Queenie.” She rubbed the cat-erpillar wrapped around her neck between the ears.
[Queen Administrator will Observe Taylor Hebert.]
Taylor’s friends left at a quick jog, exiting the little patch of forest around the village and bounding towards the mansion in the distance. She didn’t know if they would make it there before the pirates reached the mansion walls or not, but either way she was certain Luffy could care for himself and Nami had a good head on her shoulders.
She shifted her shoulders as she started walking. Contrary to popular belief, she was never fond of fighting. More often than not it turned into a mess and she rarely came out of a fight without a scratch. It was better, in her experience, to put the fear of god in people.
And if there were no gods around, then there was always her.
The village was split by a dirt road that ran between two rows of houses and little shops and quaint little farmhouses. She came to a stop at one end of that road, aware that a few pirates had seen her already.
Her coat flapped despite the lack of wind. She reached up and lowered the brim of her hat so that it covered her eyes and made sure to thicken the swarm around her. Her shadow rose behind her in an insectile doppelganger that burst into another swarm, then kept reforming into clones that only lasted a moment before breaking apart into millions of bugs.
The swarm spun into images in mid air. Skulls, screaming faces. Half-formed people that clawed at the ground or acted as if they were choking or burning alive. All delivered with the incessant insectile drone of far too many insects that she had learned to find comforting.
She started walking.
It was a slow walk, enough that she would give every pirate plenty of time to notice her. Most had been busy looting homes, breaking into pantries and searching for valuables in the rooms and offices within. They all heard the low buzz of her gathering swarm.
“Dear pirates,” her bugs said. It was loud, loud enough that she was certain all but the deaf could hear. “I am here to evict you from this village. Leave now, leave peacefully, and I won’t have any problems with you.”
By then most of the pirates were running. Not towards her. They at least had enough common sense to avoid that. No, those unwise enough to not take to the hills were moving to the far end of the village where a man in a strange hat and long coat was gathering a crew around him.
The captain, or a lieutenant, she guessed.
Her walk brought her to within a hundred feet of the group, her swarm dancing in the air behind her.
“Hello hello, I’m One Two Jango,” the man said as he moved forwards with a swagger. “I’m vice captain of the Black Cats, and you, my buggy lady, are in our way.”
“I would argue that it’s you who are in my way,” she said through her swarm.
The normal pirates were cowering behind Jango. She labelled them as worthless mooks and refocused on Jango. She had seen plenty of nobodies near and around cape fights. From ABB thugs to Neo-Nazis with more alcohol than common sense in their heads.
“Oh oh, that’s rude!” Jango said. “Look at this.” He raised a pendulum and set it to swinging. “When I say ‘One Two Jango’ you’re going to fall asleep!” The pirates behind him turned away and he lowered his hat. “One Two... Jango.”
Taylor stared. “Was that a joke?”
Jango pressed a hand to his chest. “My ability failed?! No matter, it’ll work on my men!”
Taylor sighed. She was dealing with idiots again, and it seemed that talking them down wasn’t going to work.
“When I say, ‘One Two Jango’ you won’t be afraid of anything anymore,” Jango said as he swung his pendulum towards his men. “One Two Jango!”
The pirates roared. They were frothing at the mouth, though not in the way she had gotten used to. Their eyes went wild and burned with a fervour that made her nervous.
“Now, my boys,” Jango said as he spun around and pointed at Taylor. “Kill her.”
“Ah, shit,” she muttered as all twenty-something pirates rushed towards her, weapons raised. They screamed like absolute madman.
Her swarm descended, biting, stinging insects first. She felt mandibles pinch and stingers plunge into skin. The screaming changed pitch, but not one of the pirates stopped their crazed run.
“Oh, shit,” she said with more feeling as they started to cut the distance in half. She tossed more bugs at them, but other than blinding the fools it did nothing to stop their mad dash. “Go down, dammit!” she roared.
A few stumbled, one tripped, but they kept coming. Jango, at the back, took two steps and fell onto his knees, hands splayed out before him to keep him off the ground.
Taylor turned tail and ran.
She had made some slight miscalculations, she realized. Such as not gathering the biggest swarm she could, one big enough to outmass her enemies. She was still holding a lot of the more fragile bugs in reserve, those she used to carry spiders into the alleys between buildings to start building tripwires and patches of cloth to hold any prisoners she took.
The pirates were gaining on her, so she turned into one of the buildings that had been broken into and burst through the door, across the living room and out the back, flinging chairs and tables as she went.
One pirate fell to the weight of bugs on his back, another tripped over some furniture and knocked himself out by smacking into a wall. That still left more than a dozen on her tail.
She let go of some of her restraint, sending flies down throats and stinging eyes and noses.
By the time she reached the far end of the village there were only a pair of pirates left, both wearing goggles and with bandanas over their mouths. What skin they had showing was a blistered mess of stings and cuts.
One swung a sword at her, which she ducked under, but he was faster than her, and stronger too. His second swing was going to be harder to avoid.
She ran into him shoulder-first, pulling her knife out of its strap by her hip to plunge it into the man’s gut.
He screamed, but managed to smack her across the face with the back of his hand.
Taylor stumbled, then rolled to the side as the second pirate swung down with an axe. It buried itself to the hilt in the dirt next to her.
Rolling up, Taylor planted a boot in his nose hard enough to send him reeling back and dislodging his goggles. Her swarm gathered around his eyes, sending the man down screaming as he clawed at his face.
The pirate with the sword came back for her, but a quick bug clone had him swinging through a mass of bugs without so much as touching her. She rose to her feet, fist rocketing into his jaw hard enough to snap his head back. He flopped to the ground and was buried in insects a moment later.
By the time she finished panting, Taylor was the only person in the village still on their feet.
Their two little ships splashed through the water towards shore, each lapping wave sounding like a gunshot as they coasted towards the island and the large black ship that had ridden up onto the beach.
Taylor adjusted her long coat, then fiddled with the hem of her dress. She knew from the bugs around her that she was cut an intimidating figure in her black-on-black garb, hat pulled low over her brow and Queenie acting as a sort of furry neck protector. She hoped that intimidation was all she would need.
“Two aboard that ship. At least, two that aren’t in the infirmary,” she said, pointing to the black vessel lower down the beach from them. It’s smiling cat-faced prowl was mocking her, she knew. Nothing with a cat face was good.
[Is Taylor Hebert Comparing Queen Administrator to a Boat?]
“Of course not,” Taylor said. She was comparing the pirate ship to Queenie. That was entirely different. She smiled down at Queenie who was looking at her with narrow-eyed suspicion.
“Hang on,” Nami said.
Their ship sliced into the sandy beach and came to a sudden halt. They had made it, and with no alarms going off. Taylor nodded. “Okay, the plan is simple,” she began.
“Woo! Fight!” Luffy shouted as he shot off the ship with a rubbery twang and practically flew across the beach towards the pirate ship.
“Are you kidding me?” she asked.
Zoro shrugged and jumped off the edge and into the sand. “Guess not. Keep up girls.”
Taylor and Nami’s eyes met a moment before they scrambled off the ship and onto the beach. They had to jog to keep up with Zoro’s longer stride.
“Hey!” Luffy shouted up to the pirate ship. “What are you people doing here?” he asked.
A pair of heads poked over the side, one fat the other almost sickly thin. “Who are you?” the thin one asked with a nasally voice. “Are you from the village? You’re supposed to be dying with the rest of the peasants.”
“So your captain isn’t here?” Luffy asked. “Cause I really wanted to fight someone today.”
“No!” the fat one said. “Captain Jango is with Captain Kuro. They’re destroying the village and getting us some loot.”
“Oh, okay,” Luffy said as he turned. He paused mid-step and turned around again. “Hey, wait. You guys are bad pirates, right?”
“No! We’re the Nyaban brothers! We defend the ship and protect the loot!” the skinny one said.
Taylor felt Nami’s attention sharpening beside her. “Loot?” the girl said. “Hey, Luffy, you should fight these two and take their precious, precious gold. If they’re really attacking the village, then we could use the gold to help the village. A certain percentage of it could be loaned to them for repairs with just a slight interest rate.”
“Taylor, Nami’s being weird again,” Luffy said.
Nami smacked the boy behind the head, an action that Taylor would have prevented, but all it usually did was make Luffy’s head wobble around a bit.
Two thuds sounded out behind them as the Nyaban brothers lounged out of their ship and crashed into the beach. “Did you think,” Skinny began.
“That we would,” Fat continued.
“Let you rob us?” Skinny finished.
With a flourish, the pair revealed long, wickedly clawed gauntlets. “We’ll cut you apart!”
Zoro stepped up to the two strange pirates. “You guys head on without me. I need a bit of a warmup.”
There was a moment where the whole crew started at each other, then they all shrugged in unison. “Okay,” Luffy said. “We’re going to the village to eat their meat and save the people.”
“Get your priorities in order, dumbass!” Nami shouted as she rounded on Luffy again.
Taylor rolled her eyes and called upon the swarm she had stuffed in the two boats. Most of it was made up of flying insects, those she thought might be useful on the open ocean where crawling space was limited, but there were plenty of spiders and other useful bugs being carried along too. The swarm lifted into the air like a dark tendril and spiralled towards their spot on the beach.
Zoro ignored it, too busy tying his bandana around his hair.
“We’ll see you later, Zoro,” Taylor said.
“Yeah,” he replied as he pulled out first one sword, then another. “See ya.”
The group ambled up towards the only available path, a spot where the canyon-like wall of stone was broken up by a steep path that looked to be stamped by a hundred feet. There was blood here and there, and some slick oily residue was left coating parts of the ground.
“Caltrops,” Taylor said as her bugs unearthed some spikey traps half hidden by the sand. “Clever.”
She still had a few insects in the pirate ship behind them. A quick inspection showed that the half a dozen pirates in the infirmary all had injured and bandaged feet.
A quick moment’s attention to check on Zoro showed the man finishing up with Skinny and moving on towards Fat without having broken a sweat yet.
The swarm cleared the path ahead of them, more and more bugs joining from the nearby forest to remove the spikey obstructions from their path. It slowed them down, but not by much.
“There’s someone ahead,” Taylor said. She congregated her swarm around what she had initially thought was a dead body, but it was still breathing. In fact, it was almost unhurt. The boy, because that’s what it clearly was, was huddling against the back of a tree, tears streaming down his face and arms hugging his knees to his chest.
Her swarm pointed Luffy in the right direction when he went looking. “Hey! Are you there?” he asked.
The boy squeaked, jumped out from his cover and raised a slingshot into a firing position. Then his eyes locked onto Taylor’s and a veritable spray of foam poured out of his mouth and nose before he flopped back onto the ground with all the grace of a fish on land.
[Congratulations, Taylor Hebert. You have Successful Intimidated the Weak-Willed Non-Allied Human.]
Nami took in the scene with an expert eye. It was a common enough scene across every Blue.
On the one side a group of simple villagers, armed with pitchforks, cutlery and an assortment of weapons that had last seen maintenance before she was even born.
On the other: pirates. Vile, degenerate men in raggedy outfits, most sharing a common theme and all disgusting.
Behind them a mansion, towering and beautiful and most definitely on fire, flames licking out of the windows and pillars of smoke rising into the skies above.
“Oh man, looks like there’s going to be a big fight!” Luffy said, far too excited at the prospect of getting his chance to fight for Nami’s taste. Still, he was a nice guy most of the time. “Can you take care of this guy?” he asked, patting the thigh of the boy slung over his shoulder.
“Yeah, I can drag him around,” Nami said.
Two people moved out from the groups. A girl that walked past the gate of the little mansion and stood on the lot before it. She had a pistol held in two shaking hands. Nami doubted she would be able to hit the side of a barn with it, but she held firm before the pirate horde. Brave, if a bit stupid.
Nami caught sight of some kids running on the other side of the mansion. The girl was trying to win them some time to escape, she guessed.
Opposite her a man moved out from among the pirates. Tall, suave, in a dark suit that screamed refinement. He adjusted his glasses with the palm of his hand and smiled across at the girl.
Nami would be half a beri that there was some history between the two. “Luffy, I think it’s time that you step in.”
“Right!” Luffy said. He carefully placed the boy next to Nami. “Keep him safe, okay? He seems pretty cool.”
Nami rolled his eyes and watched Luffy bound forwards. He grabbed a tree branch with a stretched out limb and used it to shoot himself across the field the fight was probably going to happen in.
“C’mon, wake up,” Nami said as she poked the boy in the ribs with a foot. “I’m not carrying you.”
“Urgh,” the boy said.
“That’s right, get up or I’ll kick harder.”
Nami turned in time to see Luffy crash into the ground between the two fighters, cutting off any discussion they might have been having. “I’m here to fight you!” he screamed, one arm raised and pointing.
Pointing right at the girl with the gun.
“Luffy, you idiot! She’s a good guy!” Nami roared. She was surrounded by idiots. It was a miracle they remembered how to breath sometimes.
“Oh, right.” Luffy turned around and pointed to the pirate captain. “I’m here to fight you!” he screamed.
Nami shook her head and helped the boy next to her to his feet. He was still wobbly, but he was able to walk. “I failed. They... the mansion, Kaya. I couldn’t stop them all. There were so many and, and I couldn’t stop them,” the boy blubbered.
Nami sighed. “Yeah, yeah, come on, we’re here to save the day.” Or at least Taylor was. Luffy wanted a good fight and she gave good odds that Zoro was lost.
Truly, the entire crew would be lost, and poor, if it wasn’t for her hard work. “This Kaya girl, she’s the one with the gun and the burning mansion?” she asked. The boy blubbered something that might have been an affirmative. “So, she’s rich... rich enough to reward us, maybe.”
Yeah, Nami was the only one looking out for the crew’s most important member: its treasure.
Taylor moved her bugs around the town, checking on all the pirates she had knocked out or who were still writhing on the ground. She counted them quickly, then narrowed her eyes. Jango was missing. She had felt him moving while she was on the run, but didn’t expect him to escape her so easily.
But the bastard had run in the opposite direction she was running in and slipped out of her range. She hoped he enjoyed the bees following after him. If they met again she’d introduce him to the joy of crotch-wasps and eye-spiders.
Stretching, Taylor felt her muscles protest at all the sudden excitement. She had won herself a nice bruise across the cheek, but compared to the twenty or so pirates looting the town she was practically untouched.
With a final shrug, she started moving on. They pirates would be there when she returned, or they wouldn’t. It was no longer her problem. It’s not as if she could hand them over to any local authorities. Really, the Marines should have had a small outpost on every inhabited island if they expected to carry out justice in any sort of effective manner.
She could tell from her higher-altitude watchbugs that things hadn’t really started exploding with the other group of pirates, though the mansion was well and truly on fire now. Which left her with some choices.
Taylor hesitated for a moment before turning back in more or less the direction their ship was in. The fight had proven that in a purely physical contest she was at a disadvantage. She didn’t live as long as she did by failing to play to her strengths.
Basically, she needed a Brute. A meat-shield to place between her and any bad guys while she smothered them in their own body mass of bugs.
[Queen Administrator will not Bud with a Human just to Find Taylor Hebert a Brute.]
Taylor rolled her eyes and scratched Queenie behind the ears. “I’m not asking you to... bud or whatever. I just want to find Zoro.”
[Queen Administrator Disapproves of Physical Relationships. Human Reproduction is Sickening. Disregard Reproduction in Favour of Physical Affection Towards Queen Administrator’s Avatar.]
Taylor almost tripped. “Are you... Are you telling me that I should become a cat lady?” she asked.
[Queen Administrator is NOT a Feline.]
“Tell you what. You leave my relationship status alone, and I’ll never, ever ask about yours. Ever.” She shivered.
[Shards have Superior Mating Systems that Involv--]
“Never,” Taylor stressed.
She found Zoro a moment later, her bugs buzzing around him where he was walking towards the far shore just across a copse of trees. Ten feet to his left and he would have had a commanding view of the area and the impossible to miss landmark that was the burning mansion, but he had somehow missed all of that.
The bugs around him spun into a turnado-like swarm, then took the shape of a loose clone with one arm pointing in her direction.
Zoro shrugged and turned to walk her way.
“Hey,” she said as she met him halfway alongside a field filled with what looked like pumpkins.
“You’re still alive. That’s good,” he said.
“I’m pleasantly surprised to see you didn’t walk off a cliff,” she returned.
They grinned at each other.
[Disgusting Mating Habits.]
Taylor coughed and spun around towards the column of smoke in the distance. “Shall we?” she asked.
They arrived to find Luffy facing off against a man in an impeccable suit, a horde of pirates rushing around them towards the walls of the mansion beyond.
All that stood between the pirates and a host of civilians was one girl with a flintlock. A brave girl, Taylor had to admit as she watched her raise the gun and try to ward off the pirates, but still just one girl.
Soon, that one girl was joined by a swarm so thick it was impossible to see anything past her.
Luffy broke eye contact with the pirate captain and looked around until he spotted them jogging over. “Oh hey, it’s Taylor and Zoro. Hi guys!”
“Hello, Luffy,” the swarm said. She made sure to give her swarm’s voice a bit of a biting edge. The cascading bugs swirled and spun in time with the words, forming vague shapes in the air before bursting apart with violent force. All the better to distract the pirates. She left a wide open circle around herself and Zoro as they moved to stand in the path of the pirates.
“Are you here to stop the pirates?” Luffy asked.
“We are here to end them, yes,” Taylor said before she turned to face the forty or so pirates head-on. “There will be no crossing this line.”
“Okay, cool. I’m gonna kick this guys ass first, okay? No interfering.”
“You think that you can stan--” the pirate captain started only to interrupt himself when Luffy swung a fist at his face.
Her bugs spread out behind her like the massive wings of an angel, only instead of feathers and bone it was bees and wasps. And instead of looking pure and wholesome it looked more like the drug-fueled nightmares of a madman. In fact, Taylor was beginning to think that the angel analogy was falling apart. Those insects that couldn’t take to the air formed a corridor just a step behind her, three feet of squirming, constantly moving bugs that were climbing over each other in a line that was nearly a hundred meters long.
A nearby rabbit, spooked by the commotion, zipped around towards the pirates, saw all the humans and shot towards her bugs. It tried to leap over them, but the swarm formed pillars and grabbed it out of the air.
In seconds its skin was flayed and all that was left were thin, delicate bones.
“I will accept your unconditional surrender,” Taylor’s swarm said.
Next to her, the girl with the pistol stared at her with wide eyes. “Um, are those bugs yours, miss?” she asked.
Taylor smiled. She knew that the whole show made her look somewhat terrifying, but she hoped that at such close ranges she could at least reassure the young woman that everything was okay. “They are,” a smaller part of her swarm said.
“And you’re not a pirate?” she asked.
“I’m not,” Taylor confirmed. “We’re here to help. Think of us as travelling heroes if it makes you feel better.”
“Heroes, really?” Zoro asked as he tied his bandana around his forehead. “Well, you really nailed that look down.”
“Hey now, I didn’t choose ‘lots of bugs’ as my power,” Taylor portested.
[Could Change Scope of Administration to Non-Flight-Capable Birds Only.]
“Chickens, really?” Taylor asked Queenie.
“She does this,” Zoro explained to the girl. “Talks to her bugs. It’s the insanity catching up to her.”
“You talk to your swords!” Taylor complained. “And at least my swarm is alive.” She gestured at all the bugs who, by complete accident, formed a large hand with one finger raised.
Zoro stuffed a sword into his mouth. “Very mature.”
[Queen Administrator Chose Arthropod Administration Because of Similarities Between Host and Arthropods.]
“And now you’re calling me a bug,” she glowered.
Taylor was about to start ranting at her teammates, because they were both pains in the ass, but she was interrupted by the young woman’s giggling. The girl had lowered her pistol to the side and had one hand crossed over her stomach as she laughed. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said. There were tears in the corners of her eyes which she wiped away. “I... I was hoping that someone would save us, and now you’re here, and you’re so funny that I... I apologize.”
Taylor let out a breath. The wind had been taken out of her sails. “I was hoping for intimidating and scary, not funny,” she said. “But I’ll take what I can.”
“Again, I apologize,” the girl said before bowing to her, and then Zoro. “Thank you, hero-samas.”
Zoro scoffed. “I’m no hero.”
“I dunno, I could picture you in tights and with a cape,” Taylor said. She turned back to face the pirates because picturing that too much was doing things to her stomach that were best left for later. “I’m Taylor, by the way. This lump of muscles is Zoro.”
“I’m Kaya. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She bowed again. “I would usually invite you in for tea, but there are pirates here and my house is currently on fire.”
The pirates had been hesitating for nearly a full minute. They didn’t seem inclined to drop their weapons yet, but they also didn’t look like they wanted to be eaten by their own weight in insects.
Beyond them Luffy and the pirate captain were fighting. Or Luffy was fighting and the pirate captain was dodging out of his wild flails with minimal effort and trying to return the favour with slashes from a pair of clawed hands. The captain was an impressive fighter, and incredibly fast. She gave him a minute before Luffy clocked him out.
And then, from a little ways away, came Jango.
“He’s mine,” Zoro and Taylor said at the exact same time.
“You handle the mooks,” Zoro said.
“I have unfinished business with him,” Taylor shot back.
“Then I’ll finish it for you.”
“He’s already injured,” Taylor said.
“So I’ll be able to help you mop up the nobodies once I’m done.”
Taylor’s hand clenched into a fist and she glared at Zoro who glared right back.
“Oh my,” Kaya said.
The staring contest ended with a whistle as Jango threw something across the field. It cut through the air on a direct path for Taylor’s neck, grass and passing bugs being split apart before it ever even reached her.
She ducked, but not before Zoro stepped up and smacked a metallic ring out of the air with a dismissive wave of his sword. “He uses swords, which means he’s mine.”
“Those aren’t swords and we never agreed to that,” she said, but it sounded weak, even to her. “Fine, I’ll let you take this one.” She turned her attention to the pirates who, until then, were quite happy just standing around and living. “I’ll take the small fry.”
The pirates did the smart thing and tried to run.
The swarm spread out into a wide circle, cutting off any escape, then descended on the pirates to cover them all head-to-toe in bugs. The people she had been encountering were generally quite a bit tougher than those back home. She hadn’t pinned the reason why yet but she was determined to get to the bottom of it. Still, enough pain and they went down.
She particularly enjoyed it when they hit each other with their wild flailing.
“Miss Taylor, might I enquire about your presence in Syrup Village?” Kaya asked.
Taylor turned and took in the still calm young woman. “Oh,” she said with a few thousand nearby bugs. “We were just sailing past when we saw the smoke. Naturally we had to stop and investigate, and one thing led to another.”
“I see. How fortuitous for us, then,” Kaya said. Her shoulders slumped. “To think we were saved by little more than good fortune.”
She didn’t know what to say about that. The fights were all going well. The enemy captain had pulled some sort of Mover ability out of nowhere, but Luffy didn’t seem to care all that much, and one wild swing in ten still landed. The captain was slowing down now that his face was a mess of bruises and scrapes.
Zoro was... teasing Jango to try and make him fight harder. He looked like someone that had gotten the short end of the stick.
The horde of pirates were barely worth considering, seeing as how most were rolling on the ground. At least they had stopped screaming after she stuffed their mouths full of bugs.
And she finally found Nami running in and out of the mansion carrying out valuables while screaming at some villages to do the same. Because of course her priorities were to save the furniture.
“So, you come here often?” Taylor asked. She reached up to scratch the nape of her neck and found a Queenie in the way.
Kaya slapped a hand over her mouth and held in a giggle. “You are either a terrible conversationalist, or you’re trying to flirt with me. I doubt it’s the latter, with the way you were eyeing your swordsman friend.”
“It’s not like that,” Taylor denied immediately.
Kaya had a glint in her eyes that Taylor immediately found dangerous. It was scarier than the entire force of pirates she had faced already. “Of course it isn’t. Though if you ever want to talk about how much it isn’t like that, I happen to have my own bumbling idiot that I’m fond of.”
“Right,” Taylor said for a lack of anything better to say. “So, uh, what do we do with all of them?” Taylor asked as she gestured to the pirates. “I left a whole lot more of them like this in the village.”
Kaya’s eyebrows rose. “I suppose I ought to go tell the villagers that Syrup Village is saved. You will, of course, be staying for the festivities?”
“I suppose?” Taylor said. She would have preferred not to, but the likelihood of her successfully separating Luffy from free food and Zoro from free booze and Nami from free anything was... low. She knew when to pick her battles. “We came here partially because we were looking for a new ship. I suppose we might be able to, ah, acquire that pirate ship these idiots came here in.”
“I see,” Kaya said. “Let’s revisit this tomorrow, shall we?” she asked, her voice still as soft as smooth as ever. She smiled, a huge toothy grin that only hinted at the relief she had to be feeling. “I think I might have a solution for you!”
“That would be nice,” Taylor said. “Should we tell people that they’re safe?”
Somehow managed to miss posting chapter thirty. Fixed now, but if you're reading exclusively on AO3 you might have missed it.
“Urgh,” Taylor said as she brought her hand up and covered her eyes. She didn’t know what woke her up, and why it was so cruel as to not just let her sleep.
“C’mon, sleepyhead,” a familiar voice said from above her. A few bugs flying around desultorily were enough to paint a picture of where she was. Which didn’t help all that much until memories of the previous night came flooding back.
There had been eating, and some jeering at all the pirates they had captured. Then someone broke out the alcohol and as the evening progressed and the villagers grew more and more comfortable around her, she had given in and tried a pint of something foul and bitter.
Then Nami had pushed something sweet and rather delicious into her hands and... there might have been some dancing after that. She recalled Luffy bouncing around a lot, and Zoro being surprisingly nimble on his feet and even Kaya joining in a little with a stuttering and red faced boy.
Taylor opened one eye to glare up at Nami’s face. “This is your fault,” she said.
“Sorry, if I knew you handle your alcohol so poorly I wouldn’t have let you had a third drink. Here, water makes everything better.” A cold glass was wiggled in the air next to the couch Taylor was on.
She spun around and sat up, ignoring the twing in her head at the motion. “Ugh,” she repeated for good measure. “Where’s Queenie?”
“She was complaining about you a lot, so Luffy took her out for a walk. Well, he placed her on his head and ignored the scratching, which I guess counts,” Nami said.
Taylor should probably have been surprised that Queenie could move out of her range, but it made sense in hindsight.
[Host Taylor Hebert’s Range is Imposed by Queen Administrator in Order to Prevent Brain Death.]
“Oh, god,” Taylor said as she bent over double. “Passen-- Queen Administrator, please, please don’t talk. Please.”
[Host’s own Fault for Consuming Foul Toxins!]
“Urgh,” Taylor said. She decided that if she ignored her passenger than maybe the pain would go away. Reaching up, she took the glass from an amused Nami and gulped it all down in on go. “Thanks.”
“No problem. Did you sleep well?”
Taylor looked down at her summer dress and jacket, both of which were a little sweaty and in need of a good wash, then down at the lumpy sofa she had slept on. “Yeah, actually. Whose house is this?” she asked, gesturing at the home around them.
“No clue!” Nami chirped. “By the way, you’re the last one up. Everyone is waiting to talk by the shore. C’mon.”
With much grumbling and some complaints about the lack of showering and breakfast, Taylor followed Nami out of the house and through the village. The small town was in excellent cheer. People were helping each other fix the damage of the pirate attack while three youngsters flung pebbles at a corral full of tied up pirates. The cheers they received were nice in principle, but they were also loud and she could have done without them.
The side effects of her hangover wore off as they walked towards the shore where they had last left their little boats. Soon, Taylor sensed the others as well as Queenie and she picked up the pace.
“You’re alive!” Luffy cheered. His face was covered in scratch marks and his jacket was going to need some serious attention by a tailor, but he still held onto Queenie with both hands.
“Teetotaller,” Zoro greeted her.
She flipped him the bird, wishing she had another hand to double up on the gesture, then looked over to the one person there that wasn’t part of their little crew. “Hello Kaya,” she said.
“Hello Taylor,” Kaya said with the bright chipperness of a morning person. “I’m glad you made it out of the party all in one piece.”
Taylor nodded. “I’m well enough. So, what’s the gathering for? And is everyone aware of the boy hiding in the woods?”
“Ah, that’s Usopp,” Kaya said. “Please ignore him for now. I wanted to speak to your crew because, well, I have an offer of employment to make.”
“We don’t do jobs!” Luffy said.
Nami walked through their little circle, took Queenie away from Luffy, gave the cat-erpillar to Taylor, then punched Luffy in the nose. “It’s money you dumbass!”
Kaya giggled as a scuffle broke out between the two. “You friends are very enthusiastic,” she said.
“They’re something, alright,” Taylor said. “What’s the job?”
“I find myself somewhat homeless,” Kaya said. “Merry, that is, my butler, is gathering what things I have that are still intact, but they’re rather few. My family owns a small house in Loguetown, and an estate in the West Blue. I need passage to reach our old home and was hoping you could provide it.”
“We probably could,” Zoro said.
“Not with the small boats we have,” Taylor pointed out. “There’s no room for furniture, and hardly any room for one more person. Although.” She looked past his shoulder and to the Black Cat’s pirate ship still docked by the beach. “There’s a nice free ship right there.”
“I have a ship as well, a small caravel called the Going Merry. She’s small, but sturdy,” Kaya said. “But the choice is up to you!”
“So, this is goodbye, Usopp,” Kaya told the boy standing across from her. She had her hands folded before her, fingers interwoven and head down so that her long hair hid her face.
Usopp, meanwhile, looked like someone that just lost their puppy. His eyes were a wobbly mess, tears barely holding in and his mouth was moving as if to say something. Finally, after screwing up his courage, he spoke. “I could come with you!” he declared.
Kaya shook her head, one hand reaching up to gently touch his arm. “It’s dangerous. Far too dangerous. I’m sorry Usopp.” She turned and began walking away.
The scene broke up and suddenly the crew all found themselves rather sheepishly looking for anything else to do while Kaya climbed up the ramp leading onto their new ship.
“Are you okay?” Taylor asked the young woman as she passed by. She wished she could make her bugs sound more sincere, but there was only so much one could do when speaking through a whole lot of insects.
Kaya paused, distant eyes looking across the deck of the pirate carrack without seeing anything. “I will be. I... wish he could come with us, but despite how much I enjoy Usopp’s company, he’s still just a boy and... and yes. I’ll be fine.”
Taylor wished she had the sort of confidence needed to give Kaya a hug, but she was never the sort to begin that kind of thing herself. She held herself back. “Alright. Well, welcome aboard the Bast’s Pride.”
The name had been found in the ship’s records by Nami. It had been the ship’s proper name, before the Black Cat pirates took her over and it only seemed appropriate to return to its origins now that it had a new, more peaceful crew.
Taylor took in the ship with countless eyes.
For all that the Black Cats had been a despicable bunch they had kept their ship in good order. It had three decks above and two levels below. The bottomost level was taken up by the holds and was little more than a lot of empty space with some storage rooms at the very back for extra sails, some materials and gunpowder. The holds were being filled with barrels of freshwater, crates of food and slightly singed furniture from Kaya’s mansion, but that still left them nearly completely empty.
The second level was where the crew quarters, infirmary, kitchens and armory were stationed, as well as access to two narrow rooms that ran along the sides of the ship where the canons were primed and waiting. There was a sort of balcony jutting out of the back on that same level.
The three top decks were staggered. The forecastle was a large platform at the very front, the main deck was the largest and widest in the middle, and at the back, above the captain’s quarters (now the girl’s quarters, according to Nami) was the aftcastle with the wheel and most of the command structure for the vessel. Nami was there already, fixing ropes and checking things over with a careful eye.
Of course, the entire ship was crawling with crabs and a few lobsters. They needed more crew, but in the absence of proper people ludicrous numbers of arthropods would do.
“This is so cool!” Luffy said as he flung himself from the rigging like a monkey. She could see where he got that part of his name.
“Get down from there, you moron!” Nami shouted up to him, a fist raised in threat.
Kaya laughed. “Well, at least this trip will be memorable,” she said.
“I’m sure it will,” Taylor agreed.
Nearly an hour later the Bast’s Pride was gently coasting along the very edge of Gecko Island. It didn’t bob and sway the way the much smaller boats they had been using did. In fact it was a rather even platform except for some faint rocking.
Taylor was already appreciating the smoother ride.
“Where are we moving to next?” Taylor asked Nami as she joined the girl on the aftcastle.
Nami looked up from a map of the East Blue. “West, towards... well, a small island that’s not too far away. maybe three day’s voyage if the wind holds and the weather keeps calm, which I think it will.”
Taylor nodded. “Good. I won’t say I’m already eager to get back on land, but...” She let her words die out as she sensed something moving nearby.
Turning, Taylor looked over towards Gecko Island where something big and round was rushing through the forest at breakneck speed.
“Wait!” came a long, strangled call as a massive blur jumped off the tall cliffs of the island and sailed though the sky like a lead brick.
The form crashed into the main deck with a dull thud, almost smashing Zoro where he was resting against the main mast.
Everyone gathered around to watch as, from out of the bundle of bags, a thin, reedy boy stood up. He was wearing a wooden mask with goggles affixed to the front and a long, blunted nose. “G-greetings, sailors! It is I, Sogeking, the sniper king! I wish to seek passage aboard your vessel!”
“So cool,” Luffy whispered in awe.
Nami and Taylor’s eyes met and they both rolled them at the same time.
Still, she could see the beaming smile that Kaya was hiding behind one hand and didn’t begrudge the girl the presence of her not-boyfriend. More crew couldn’t hurt either.
“Welcome aboard,” Taylor said.
The boy fainted.
“This is not what I meant by training,” Zoro said as he glared at the board before him. He reached out, poked a beetle on the back, then gestured to a fly. “Eat,” he said.
The black beetle currently serving as a rook stomped across the checkered field and, with a bit of help from its wings, stomped on the fly which then flew off the board.
It was a decent move, probably the best one he could have made, but it opened his backline a little and Taylor knew she would be getting his King in check in about three turns.
“It’s good practice,” Taylor said as she leaned against the foremast of the Bast’s Pride. At the far end of the deck, Nami and Kaya were also playing against her. Nami wasn’t that great at chess, it turned out, but she did like checkers and it was easy enough to find some white paint to splash onto the back of some flies to act as pieces.
Kaya, meanwhile, was probably the best human player on the ship after Taylor herself. Though the categorically refused to use a spider as her queen. In fact, her entire team was made up of different kinds of beetles because those were, in her own words, the least disgusting critter.
Taylor had long ago gotten over any indignation she felt on behalf of her bugs at them being called gross.
Sogeking was off to one side, half on a chair, half off it with his face pressed to the deck. He had fainted when Taylor muttered something. But it took him twice as long to faint this time. It was progress. Maybe.
Luffy had played a few matches, but other than coming up with a few interesting strategies and refusing to give up, he wasn’t the most talented player. He was enjoying all the room atop their cat-shaped figurehead, lounging on it as if he too was a cat.
And then there was Queenie. The cat-erpillar reached out and touched a bug, then gestured forwards to the other end of the board.
Taylor sighed and complied. Her king, a wasp with a tiny paper crown, buzzed off the board.
[Queen Administrator is once more Victorious.]
Teaching her passenger to play was a mistake.
“I’m done,” Zoro said after inspecting the board for a while. He stood up, stretched, then pulled his bandana off of his arm. “Here, wrap this around your eyes,” he said as he tossed it to Taylor.
“What?” she asked as she caught the cloth out of mid-air.
“We’re sparring,” Zoro said as if that explained everything. In a way it sort of did.
“Okay then.” Taylor spent a moment trying to tie the bandana around her eyes, then gave up and let Zoro do it for her. Knots were not meant to be made one-handed.
“Oh my, Taylor,” Kaya said. “Getting physical with Zoro while blindfolded. Isn’t that... darring?”
Taylor rolled her eyes, but since they were hidden she added a rude gesture for emphasis. It set off Nami and Kaya, both girls giggling as she and Zoro moved to the main deck.
“Knives versus swords, really?” Taylor asked as Zoro pulled out two wooden blades from a barrel. He tossed her a wooden knife that she swiped out of midair.
“Yeah. It’s good practice.” He shifted, legs moving over wood that creaked just a little. “You’re weak, slow and can’t move nearly as well as you should. The least you can do is know how to move.”
Taylor snorted and weighted the knife. “At least we’ll get Kaya some practice,” she said.
Sparring was interesting. Sparing while blind moreso. As it went on, and she continued splitting her focus between the spar and the three boardgames on deck she realized that Zoro was purposefully taking out the insects she was placing on him and those she used to see around her. It was leaving blindspots in her vision, gaps that Zoro tried to exploit. Not that it stopped her from seeing them, or him from hitting her anyway. The bastard was faster than her by an order of magnitude.
It was... fun. Exhilarating to rely on instincts to try and parry Zoro’s contant sweeping attacks even if she knew he was holding way back for her sake.
They were finishing their fifth or sixth run around the main deck when Taylor saw something in the distance.
“We’ll need to cut this short,” Taylor said. Then, through all the bugs she had stationed in and around the Bast. “We have Marines on the horizon!”
If you like this story, then maybe give my new original story, Cinnamon Bun a try! It's available on Royal Road! I would really, truly appreciate the support!
The Marine ships were big, imposing vessels. Their white hulls and blue highlights hid them rather well in the swells and waves of the open ocean from afar, though that advantage was soon wasted as the ship moved to cut off their path.
Taylor vaguely remembered something about naval ships crossing the T or something. A tactic that would have the Marine ship aiming all of the canons on one side along the length of their hull.
She was not keen on the idea of sinking that afternoon.
“Hang it faster!” she called up the main mast.
“I’m doing what I can, you bug witch!” Zoro screamed back down as he moved up along the mast, a long white flag in his mouth.
“This isn’t fun,” Luffy pouted from where he sat on the Bast’s figurehead. “I wanted to fight them. Not surrender.”
Taylor rolled her eyes and surveyed the deck with her bugs. Everyone was standing around nervously, though Kaya was leaning against a rail to steady herself after Taylor had screamed. She was getting better, but Taylor should have kept her voice down.
Sogeking, of course, was tied to the rearmost mast so that he wouldn’t roll off the side if the ship lurched.
In good time, Zoro had the white flag fluttering above them and a quick check made sure all the gun ports at the sides of the ship were closed. They were about as unthreatening as they could be without having their hands raised in surrender.
“If they shoot us does that mean I can fight?” Luffy asked.
“If they shoot us then fighting will be a secondary concern to not sinking,” Taylor said.
“We can’t allow that to happen,” Nami said. “Luffy, if they shoot, jump in front of the cannon balls. My loot is on this ship and I won’t let some good for nothing Marines send it to the bottom.”
Taylor wanted to point out how it was their loot, not just Nami’s, but she had bigger things to worry about as the Marine ship turned sharply then reduced the number of sails it had out. Within minutes the two ships were nearing each other.
“I’ll send out a swarm to say hi,” Taylor said.
“Because that will certainly not convince them to shoot us out of the water,” Kaya said. “Perhaps allowing me to speak would be best? I do have some legitimate reasons to be aboard and I can claim that you’re merely the crew I hired.”
Taylor thought it over for a moment. “That’s fair. What if they react violently?”
Kaya hummed, nodded as though to herself, then walked off to the girl’s cabins on the main deck. A minute later she came back with a violin case. “This ought to be solution enough,” she said.
“You’re going to serenade them to sleep?” Nami asked.
“I’ll have you know that I’m actually moderately good with a violin. Unfortunately mine was in my mansion when it went up in flames. This case is for something else.” She carefully placed the case next to the rails where the Marines wouldn’t be able to see it, popped open the lid and pulled out...
“That’s a tommy gun,” Taylor said.
Kaya looked over at her as she slapped a drum magazine into the short machine gun with a clack, then racked back the bolt. “Why yes, it is.”
“I thought the only guns around here were flintlocks and muskets,” Taylor said.
Nami shook her head. “In the East Blue, sure. They’re cheap to make and easy enough to use. But along the Grand Line you’ll find bigger and better guns as you go. They’re apparently useless against some of the big pirate threats. It’s all about the cost of manufacturing.” She was eying Kaya’s gun with a greedy glint in her eyes. “That thing is worth a hundred Marine issue rifles.”
Kaya leaned her gun against the rails and tried to make herself presentable, dress flaring out in the wind as she stood by and waited for the Marines to get closer. Taylor had already changed into what she thought of as her battle dress and had brought up enough bugs from the hold to drown a thousand babies.
The Marine ship coasted up to theirs to reveal a whole lot of Marines running around the deck, though it was all with an ordered sort of chaos that hinted at long hours of practice. Right next to the nearest rail was a tall man in a Marine long coat. “Prepare to be boarded by order of the world government,” the man said.
“I think not,” Kaya barked right back. Somehow her voice had gained a whip-crack edge and a snootiness that had Taylor checking to see how far up in the air Kaya’s nose was pointing. “Taylor, Luffy, would you escort me aboard this... mere captain’s vessel.”
She began walking towards the Marine ship, never pausing as if she didn’t care that she was about to walk off the edge of their own ship.
Two nervous Marines jumped forwards and set a ramp across the gap just in time for Kaya to step on it and across to the Marine ship.
The captain was looking decidedly more nervous as Kaya, who was a full head shorter than him, stepped right up to his chest. “Well?” she asked.
“Ah, forgive me ma’am, I am Captain Fullbody, current Marine Captain patrolling this section of the East Blue.”
“I see,” Kaya said. “I am Kaya Capone. These fine people are assisting me on a voyage back to the West Blue where my noble estates await me. I was waylaid by some filthy pirates and have taken their ship as reward for defeating them. These are my companions.”
Taylor’s swarm thickened the air around her and sent more than one Marine scrambling back. “I am Taylor,” the bugs hissed.
“And I’m Luffy!’ Luffy said. “I’m going to be the king of the pirates.”
His declaration rang across the deck of the Marine ship like a death knell.
“We also have the famed Roronoa Zoro aboard and the pirate thief Nami as well. Will that be a problem, captain?” Kaya asked with a tone so acidic she was almost daring Fullbody to say that it would be.
“Of-of course not, ma’am,” he said. “No problem at all. Perhaps I could invite you all to, ah, diner as compensation for wasting your time.”
“You would invite a lady to your cabin?” the swarm asked.
“No, no, of course not,” Fullbody replied. “The famed restaurant ship the Baratie is nearby. The greatest eaterie in all of the East Blue, one that moves from port to port delivering famed meals across the East Blue. Perhaps we could dine there and discuss your lady’s needs?”
The Baratie, famed restaurant of the East Blue, was perhaps the strangest ship Taylor had ever laid eyes on. It was huge, far larger than their own ship and the Marine caravel, with two masts on either end and a huge fish head at the prow. There were docks built around the edges of the ship where smaller vessels were parked.
The Bast’s Pride was on the larger side, so they dropped anchor a ways from the restaurant ship and used a smaller row boat to approach.
“So cool,” Luffy squealed for the upteenth time as he looked up at the restaurant. “I bet we’ll find a cool chef here!”
Taylor made her swarm buzz a little before she spoke. “Perhaps. It might be a good place to hire some assistance,” she said.
“It certainly looks like a nice place for a date,” Kaya said as she wrapped her arm around Sogeking. “Don’t you think so, mister Sogeking?”
“Ah, ah. Hah, ah,” Sogeking said.
“Oh my, how forward of you,” Kaya replied as she placed a demure hand before her mouth. “I would love to accompany you.”
Nami, Taylor and Zoro shared a chuckle as the boy’s trembling redoubled. Their little boat hit the docks and Luffy jumped out with a cheer, leaving the rest of the crew to hop out and tie down the little boat to a pier.
“Miss Kaya, would you do me the honours of escorting you within,” Fullbody asked as he bowed and presented his hand.
“I already have a date,” Kaya said as she presented a shaking Sogeking. “This is the fearless pirate killer Sogeking, king of snipers.”
“H-hi?” Sogeking squeaked as the full ire of the Marine captain turned to him.
“I’ll go with you,” Nami said as she walked up to the captain. She clasped her hands and then bent forwards a little, her shirt straining as she pushed her chest out.
“Y-you would,” Fullbody asked. He was going very red. “I would be honoured to miss?”
“Nami, and it’ll only cost you one million Beri.” She grinned at the captain’s paling face.
“That’s, a hefty amount, but I suppose, for a night with such a--”
“A night?” Nami asked before tilting her head to the side. “Oh no, no, that would cost you a whole lot more.”
Taylor sighed and slid her arm around Nami’s. “Come on, stop teasing the poor man. I’m quite hungry.”
Nami pouted, but she followed the rest of the crew into the restaurant. They paused by the entrance where a waiter was fawning over Kaya who smiled and nodded and dragged Sogeking over to a table right in the middle of the restaurant.
By the time the waiter returned Taylor was growing ravenous. The entire room smelled delicious and was impeccably clean. There wasn’t a single insect aboard the ship that she hadn’t brought in herself, and she was being careful not to leave any bugs close to anyone’s food.
“Bonjour beautiful misses,” the waiter said as he bowed both to her and to Nami,. “Please, follow me everyone, I’ll have you seated in no time at all.”
Within a few seconds everyone was seated.
“Hey!” Luffy shouted. “What’s this?”
Luffy, Fullbody and Zoro were stuck in a small table tucked away in a corner while Taylor, Nami, Kaya and a Sogeking that was mostly hanging onto his consciousness were seated in the place of honour.
“Shut up and sit down at the kiddie table, dumbass,” the waiter said.
“Yeah, then why is Sogeking sitting with the girls?” Luffy shouted right back. He went to get up but with a lightning-quick twirl the waiter turned around and planted his shoe in Luffy’s face and pushed back when Luffy tried to stomp over.
“Because the beautiful lady Kaya, long may she reign over my heart, asked nicely. Now shut up and sit down.” The waiter was at the table in a flash, Luffy crashing into the ground without his foot holding him up. “My poor lady Kaya, please forgive me,” he said. “Would it be impertinent if I asked your friends for their names.”
“I’m Nami,” Nami said with a knowing smile, “The greatest navigator in the East Blue.”
The waiter spun around, hands clutching at his chest. “My lady Nami, you have navigated your way into my heart already.”
“And this,” Nami said as she gestured to Taylor. “Is Taylor, our resident tactician. She doesn’t talk, I’m afraid.”
Taylor raised one eyebrow at that, but it was a fair concern. Knocking out civilians while they were eating was just unkind. Instead she raised her hand to wave, only for it to be captured by the waiter who laid a gentle kiss on its back. “As charming as you are mysterious, lady Taylor,” he murmured in what he probably thought was a seductive voice. She rolled her eyes but didn’t pull back her hand until he let go. If he thought schmoozing with every vaguely female looking customer was going to earn him a better tip, then all the power to him.
Zoro’s teacup exploded in his hand and the waiter got up. “Watch it with the cups, you dirty barbarian!” he yelled before moving back to the side of their table and setting out some menus. “Please, pick anything at all, I assure you, there’s no food as good as the Baratie, especially when it is prepared with love.”
“Oh my,” Nami said as she surveyed the menu. “These prices. Mister waiter, I don’t know if I can afford all of this.” She batted her eyes at the man who swooned.
“For you, it’s free,” he sighed. “And I am no mere waiter, mademoiselle, I am Sanji, the assistant head chef.”
Taylor suppressed a smile. She hoped the food was as good as the entertainment.
“The first course, my ladies,” Sanji said as he bowed and placed three bowls on the table before each of them, then slid the needed utensils in place. Taylor took in a deep breath through her nose and her eyes almost rolled into her head at the smell that washed over her. It was, in a word, divine. Still, she couldn’t dig into it just yet.
Reaching out, she grabbed Sanji by the sleeve and pushed a folded up napkin towards the man.
His eyes lit up and he began giggling, his entire face turning doopey and dumb.
Taylor blinked and turned to Nami to figure out what was going on.
“He thinks you gave him your snail number,” she said.
Sanji paused mid-happy dance and opened that napkin to read what was written within. “Oh, ah, yeah, of course I can find some salad for your pet... caterpillar cat.”
He looked at her, then up to the furry thing around her neck when she pointed.
[Queen Administrator requires no Human food. Her Avatar merely needs refueling.]
“Ah, I see?” Sanji said before his beaming smile returned. “Right away, madam.” He moved off with alacrity, muttering about the best fish-plant combination for a half-insect half-cat diet.
“He’s rather sweet,” Nami said with a catty grin before she took a spoonful soup and popped it into her mouth. “Oh, wow,” she said. “This is excellent. We might have to kidnap him later if he cooks this well.”
“Mmmhmm,” Kaya said as she dug in with delicate motions. “This is wonderful. Did you know, Sogeking, that the way to a girl’s heart is through her stomach? Perhaps you should learn to cook like this?”
Sogeking sat ramrod straight in his seat. “I, I can learn how to cook,” he said.
“You’re such a helpful boy.” Kaya patted his lap. “Maybe I’ll take a bite out of you for desert.”
The boy started hyperventilating, so much so that when Sanji returned with a platter with two bowls on it and dropped one before him he squeaked and almost fell out of his chair.
“Here you go, miss Taylor,” he said as he placed a bowl by Taylor’s elbow, then brought a children’s stool closer to the table. The bowl was filled with greens and a sauce that smells vaguely like salmon.
Taylor grinned up at him and placed Queenie on the stool. The cat-erpillar sniffed at the food then began nibbling at it.
[This is acceptable.]
Taylor finished her soup in record time. It tasted far better than she had expected from the smell, and the smell was divine. She had just placed the bowl away when Sanji pun back to their table, picked up the dirty bowls, and whisked away towards the boy’s table with a couple of far simpler bowls. “Here, eat this and be happy,” he growled at them.
Luffy practically swallowed his soup in one go. “This is so good!” he yelled.
“No screaming in the dining room, asshole!” Sanji yelled into his face before smashing a foot down atop Luffy’s head and making it bounce off the table.
“The boys are having fun,” Nami said.
Taylor looked over to the other end and hummed in agreement. Zoro was eating his soup as if it had insulted his family, Fullbody was picking at his with a dejected aire and Luffy was slowly reaching for the food on the table next to his with long, questing fingers.
“We’re going to have to stay around here overnight, unless you want to set sail in the dark.” Nami gestured out of the windows where the sky was turning the dark blue of evening.
Taylor shrugged. Staying next to the floating restaurant wouldn’t be a problem. Especially not if they served breakfast.
Sanji soon came around with plates filled with fish and freshly steamed vegetables cut to form little flowers with delicate drizzles of sauce artfully crossing the entire meal. There was a cube made of smaller cubes, each block within a perfectly cut square of meat or some vegetable and a small silver platter held a biteful of caviar sitting on carefully placed rice.
Taylor dug in with gusto, each bite making her want to squirm on the spot. She knew from the few bugs she had slipped into the kitchen that Sanji himself had prepared all of their meals. Maybe Kaya was right about the way to a girl’s heart being through her stomach because the eccentric chef was looking far more handsome now that he had given her something so heavenly to eat.
Then the front door to the restaurant blew open and Taylor looked up from her meal and blinked at the emaciated form of a man that looked like he had had a rather awful afternoon.
Perhaps she should have left a few more bugs outside the restaurant, she thought as the man moved over to a seat and plopped himself down.
Then the screaming started.
Taylor huffed. She wasn’t even finished with her supper and didn’t want to miss out on desert.
I want to thank all of my patrons, including:
And my 100 other patrons!
Thank you guys; without your help I could never write as much as I do!
There was always this spark in the air before a fight started, a sort of tang that made the heart beat faster and the air taste more crisp.
It was usually a welcome thing. Taylor would never admit to being a battle junky. Too many of the fights she had been in had been ugly affairs. No one in their right mind enjoyed fighting the likes of Jack Slash. Still, she enjoyed the high of a good fight just as much as the next girl.
She let her bugs take in the room. There were thirty-nine civilians around and at the various tables, most of them looking ready to stampede out of the restaurant, then there were the chefs and staff who were gathering to see what all the fuss was about. Her friends seemed rather relaxed, and probably for good reason.
And finally the two sources of trouble. Fullbody, who was stomping over to the man who had burst into the room while adjusting the knuckles on his fists and the beaten and battered man who drew up a seat and had just demanded service.
This was going to turn into a fight.
She really just wanted to finish her meal in peace.
With a sigh, Taylor carefully set her plate aside then slammed an open palm into the table.
The wham of flesh meeting wood made everyone jump.
She slowly stood up to her full height while more and more bugs slipped into the room and started spinning in the air around her in tight little circles. The civilians were backing up, some of them muttering about devil fruits or somesuch. Sanji eyed the swarm, but none of them approached the food and that seemed enough for him.
“This place,” she said through the swarm. “Is neutral ground. You do not fight over neutral ground. Not unless you want me to end the fight with great prejudice.”
Fullbody licked his lips. “That’s Gin. He’s a criminal. The second in command of the Krieg pirates. And he just escaped my ship’s brig.”
Taylor spared some attention towards the Marine ship. One of the young Marines had earned himself a lump on the back of the head but was otherwise unhurt. “Your men are fine. You can toss him back in the brig once he’s eaten something.” She eyed Gin up and down, taking in his emaciated form. He definitely looked like he could use something to eat. “I’m positive the Marines wouldn’t let even a criminal starve to death?”
“Yeah Fullbody, you wouldn’t let scum like me starve, right?” Gin asked. He was trying hard to look tough, but Taylor had seen people in his position, had been there herself. He was one hard smack away from fainting outright.
“What’s all this?” a commanding voice roared across the dining room.
A huge man waddled into the room, his gait broken up by the pegleg he used to move around. His white chef’s hat was so tall it nearly brushed the ceiling with every step.
Taylor felt his eyes on her, then he turned his attention to Gin and finally to Fullbody. “Well. This is a restaurant. Someone get that man some food, dammit. And you, girl with the bugs. If so much as a single fly lands in someone’s soup I’ll kick your ass so hard you’ll be waking up in Paradise.”
“Very well,” her swarm said as it dissipated, bugs flying every which way so that by the time most of the civilians had blinked twice there wasn’t an insect in sight. She began to bend down to sit but Sanji moved up behind her and gently pushed her chair in.
“O, blessed is this fine day that I may serve such a fierce beauty of the seas!” He paused to spin on the spot a few times before carefully placing a fruity thing before her. “Please, o lady Taylor, accept the humble cook’s finest work with the knowledge that it pales before your own beauty and might.”
“Laying it on thick there, waiter boy,” Nami said.
“And oh, sweet Nami. Your wit is as sharp as a sword and thrice as cutting,” Sanji said. He was wriggling now in a way that Taylor found frankly disturbing. “With curves like ocean swells and--”
His monologue about Nami’s ocean swells was cut off as the chef with the peg leg kicked him across the room. “Less flirting, more working, dammit all! If you want to wax poetic about the ladies then you can follow them when they leave.”
Taylor sighed and pulled her plate back to in front of her. She ignored the world in favour of eating her delicious meal. Hopefully they would have a few quiet, uneventful days ahead.
Check out my new story, Cinnamon Bun, over on Royal Road (pretty please?)!
Taylor didn’t look up from the table she was wiping down. “I am, actually,” she said as she finished up and stood. The main floor of the Baratie was nearly empty. Most clients, it seemed, didn’t show up until the evening hours. Lunch was their quietest time of the day, according to Sanji.
[Queen Administrator is Conflicted. Watching Taylor Hebert Conduct Menial Tasks Brings Amusement. But Queen Administrator’s Host Should be Above Such Trivialities.]
Taylor eyed her passenger’s avatar who was basking in a beam of sunlight while resting in a basket filled with rolled up blankets. She made sure to meet the cat’s eyes before rolling hers. “How about you?” she asked as she turned to Nami.
The girl shrugged, pulled out a chair and sat backwards on it. “Kinda bored actually. I’m used to being on the move.”
Taylor wiped the back of her hand across her forehead and nodded. “That’s fair. We won’t be staying for much longer, I don’t think. The break was nice, but, well, I’m getting fidgety too.”
“Which is why you’re wearing an apron and doing busy work for chump change?” Nami asked.
Taylor shrugged one shoulder. “Why not? It gives me something to do, and Sanji pays me in desserts.”
Nami snorted. “You could get those for free if you asked nicely.”
Taylor shook her head. The idea of... of flirting to get a meal wasn’t foreign, exactly, it was the thought that she could be the one flirting that made her mind twist up into little knots of incomprehension. “I wouldn’t do that.”
Nami stuck her tongue out. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” she said.
“If I ever get it, I might,” Taylor said with a chuckle.
They settled into a sort of calm for a moment, just standing while the restaurant ship gently swayed underfoot. Nami stared out of the nearest window, her smile fixed but her eyes filling with some sort of tense worry.
“What’s bothering you?” Taylor asked.
“Nothing,” Nami said. Then she noticed the flat look Taylor was giving her. “Okay, so not nothing. Just, nothing I think you would want to help with.”
“We’ve known each other for a couple of weeks now,” Taylor said. “I would like to think that you know me well enough to know that I would do a lot to help, or I would try, at least.”
She smiled again, weaker this time. “It’s... well, you’re strong. You and Zoro and Luffy. Maybe, just maybe you could help. But you might also get hurt, and there’s another solution. I just hope it isn’t one that makes me lose my friends.”
Taylor frowned and looked around one more time. Not having any bugs within the building--by orders of a rather scary Zeff--left her feeling a little blind. “Nami, what are you talking about?”
Nami shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about it, really.”
“Okay,” Taylor said. “If you do, I’m around.”
Nami smiled at her, and this time it was a whole lot more genuine. “I might. I just might.”
“You did good work,” Zeff said.
Taylor didn’t move. She was leaning on one of the rails on the second floor balcony on the Baratire, her gaze looking across the ocean towards the distant shape of a ship just barely coasting over the horizon. “Thanks,” her swarm buzzed.
“You can talk to me straight, girl,” he said as he came up next to her and stood looking out to sea. “I’ve been on the grand line, I’m no stranger to your sort of voice.”
Taylor paused at that. “Oh?” she tried.
Zeff shifted a little but stayed on his feet. “Hrm, maybe it has been a while.”
“I can continue with my swarm, if it helps,” Taylor said slowly and quietly.
Zeff sighed, but didn’t fall on his back. “No, no. You have a voice. Use it. I haven’t had to endure Conqueror’s Haki in... well, decades. It’s good for the heart.”
“Conqueror's Haki?” Taylor asked.
The old chef raised one eyebrow at that. “Don’t even know what it’s called, eh? Well, it has a lot more names that I do. Folks like you use it to rule, to conquer, to become kings and queens and to lead their crews to victory. A rare gift, thank the seas.”
“Do you know how to control it? To turn it off?” she asked with mounting hope.
He shook his head, dashing it. “I’m afraid not, little miss.”
“Too bad then. I think I’ll find the knack for it, eventually.”
“Hrm.” Zeff turned his attention to the bowl balanced on the rails next to her elbow. “Sanji has been treating you well?”
“He’s a gentleman,” she said. “A bit of a flirt, but he isn’t pushy.”
“Good. Good. He’s a good lad. It’s too bad that he needs to leave.” Zeff’s jaw tightened for a moment.
“Leave?” Taylor asked. The kitchen had been rowdy, and Sanji didn’t seem to get along with all the cooks, but he didn’t seem too antagonistic.
Zeff nodded. “He’s grown too big for this nest. It’s about damned time he spreads his wings and fucks off to somewhere else to be someone else’s problem. Maybe find himself a woman that can lead him by the nose. Goodness knows it would take a strong lass but he deserves it.” Zeff eyed her. “You should take him with you.”
They both turned in time to see Luffy land with a thump on the deck behind him, a huge grin on his face. “We need a good cook on my crew!” he said.
“Then go get one, idiot,” Zeff said.
“Woo!” Luffy cheered as he bounced off.
Taylor chuckled. “That’s mean, setting Luffy on poor Sanji like that.”
“Bah, it’s probably for the best. If one of you cute lasses did it he might think that he wasn’t thinking with the right head come morning, then I’d have to deal with him returning to my doorstep.”
Taylor snorted. Now she was being called cute by a man old enough to be her grandfather. Her attention shifted to the ship on the horizon. A huge vessel, one an order of magnitude larger than the Bast’s Pride, and one that was in tatters.
“That looks like trouble,” she said.
“Aye, it does at that,” Zeff agreed. “But don’t worry, we’ve handled trouble before.”
The closer the ship got the more Taylor wondered at its ability to stay afloat. It was still far out of her range, but not so far that she couldn't make out the tiny forms of people walking across the deck and adjusting the few remaining sails. Those same people were moving with the slow lethargy of those on the very brink of starvation. She’d seen people like them in the aftermath of Leviathan.
Still, if that ship wasn’t trouble she would eat her own hat.
She left the top decks of the Baratie with some alacrity, aiming to get back to the Bast’s Pride where she could change into something more appropriate than the cargo shorts and t-shirt she had on. That, and she could wake the rest of the crew up.
The moment she stepped onto the little row boat they had brought aboard the Bast Sanji appeared behind her. “Oh, lady Taylor, tell me that you’re not going to sully your hands with those filthy oars,” he said.
She looked him over, noting how he was slightly dishevelled and how his suit was rumpled on the edges.
“Row for me and I’ll hide you from Luffy for a couple of minutes,” she said.
The trip to the Bast was quick, a lot quicker than it would have been with only one arm to row with. They tied the little boat to the side of the ship and Taylor gestured at Sanji to climb up first. The perverted chef didn’t need to stare up at her while she fought with the rope ladder. She had some pride.
The crew were all lazing about. Kaya was with Sogeking at the back of the ship, waving a rifle around while pointing at its different parts, Zoro had strung up a hammock between the mizzen mast and one of the sails and was snoring quietly and Nami was carefully making annotations in a book filled with maps.
Taylor gathered a small swarm, letting them make more and more noise until everyone was alerted of her presence.
“That’s handy,” Sanji said as he eyed all the bugs. He pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it up. “Scary though.”
“Bugs have their uses,” Taylor said meekly. Sanji was better than most at resisting her voice, but she didn’t want to push it. “I can control crabs and lobsters too, if you ever want me to grab some.”
“Poor people’s food, but serviceable if prepared correctly,” Sanji said. “And nutritious.”
Taylor didn’t comment. The others were all gathering closer. “We have trouble coming,” her swarm said. “I thought everyone should be ready to react in time to it.”
“What sort of trouble?” Zoro asked.
Taylor pointed towards the open waters where the huge pirate galleon was becoming visible over the slight swell of the ocean. “That sort. It might not turn into a fight, but we should all prepare, just in case.”
“Hmm,” Kaya said. “I hope it doesn’t. I’m not suited to fighting.”
Sanji was by her side in a blink, both of her hands in his as he knelt before her. “My dearest lady Kaya, I would never let these gentle hands be tarnished with the blood of ruffians.”
Kaya rolled her eyes and pulled her hands back. “I’m still part of this crew, Mister Sanji, which means that I’ll do my part or at least try my best.”
Zoro and Taylor nodded at that. Her attitude was great, exactly what they needed, really. “Good,” Zoro said. “This might be some good exercise. I’m tired of sitting around and doing nothing all day.”
“Yes, laying in your hammock looks so tiring,” Nami shot back.
“This isn’t the time for fighting,” Taylor’s swarm said. “We should form a plan of some sort.”
Zoro shrugged one shoulder. “You take care of the small fry. Luffy hits their hardest hitter. I take care of any swordsman that looks like a threat and no one gets in my way. The girls and shit-cook can sit back and watch.”
Taylor wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be insulted about not being included in ‘the girls’ or if she should have been insulted by the insinuation that the girls weren’t useful in a fight. Or maybe she should have been offended that Sogeking had been included in the ‘the girls’ bracket.
Then again, judging by the flat looks on Kaya and Nami’s faces, he had just inspired both of them to at least fight a little.
“Wh-what about me?” Sogeking stuttered.
“Oh, sweetie,” Kaya said. “You’re supposed to be a sniper. We’ll have you sniping, okay? You can be useful too.” She patted the boy on the head like an affectionate puppy.
“Right,” Taylor said as she everything about that. “Well I suppose it’s a plan.”