theremedy: (chopper)
[personal profile] theremedy
Present:
And If You Close Your Eyes

They were fighting hard. The rented gym reeked of sweat and adrenaline as they went at each other. Chopper couldn’t stop grinning as he watched them, feeling the reverberations of each strike of Sanji’s heel against Zoro’s sheathed swords rumble through him. He hadn’t seen fighting at this level in a long time and it reminded him of the arenas! The glare of the hot lights, the cheering of the crowd, the fear and adrenaline of getting in there ready to fight or run.

Zoro knocked Sanji back with a decisive movement. Sanji stumbled one step, another, wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his sweatshirt and came at him again, launching a series of lightning fast attacks with one leg that clattered and snapped against the wood.

“Goo, Sanji!” Chopper roared, lifting his fists in the air as Sanji got a drop hit on Zoro’s shoulder. Zoro grabbed his ankle and Chopper had the barest of inklings it wouldn’t go the way Sanji had hoped before Zoro twisted the ankle away, like he was trying to throw Sanji to the floor. But Sanji was too smart for him. Even as he was being twisted to the side he lifted his other leg in a powerful roundhouse, sacrificing landing on two feet to clock Zoro in the jaw and send his head sideways. Zoro let go reflexively and Sanji landed in a crouch.

“Point for me,” he said. Ahh it was too much. Too cool! He was getting over-excited and he knew it but it was like seeing real live ninja, only without actually being ninja. They were his friends which was even better.

“Score stands at ten to two in Zoro’s favor,” Usopp says, flicking out a hand in an awesome grand gesture. “Make a record, Ser Chopper!”

“Making a record Master Usopp!” Chopper says, writing a line in Sanji’s column.

“Too slow,” Zoro said.

“I’m just getting warmed up, shitty marimo.”

“I call a water break,” Chopper said, because they’d been going at it for the past hour and a half without rest and Sanji was losing a lot of liquid. Zoro not so much but Chopper knew better than to bring that up. Sanji glowered at Zoro who was sliding the swords against his side, and for a moment Chopper thought he’d have to insist. But then Sanji made the badass:

“Tch” ing sound that Chopper hadn’t yet perfected and came over to them. Chopper handed him a towel which he whipped away, rubbing the sweat from the back of his neck, and then rummaged around the cooler til he found a water bottle at the bottom. Honestly he just liked the ice water. Ice water was the best. He could duck his whole head in it if it wouldn’t look ridiculous. He handed the bottle to Sanji and then grabbed a handful of ice to munch, mindful of the legs that were resting on his lap.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself, my friend,” Usopp said, stroking his goatee. “You see the only reason Trainee Zoro is so strong is because he followed my strict training regimen when we first met.”

“What, really?” Chopper said, popping an ice cube in his mouth and crunching down. He could never get enough of stories of the old days. Especially Usopp having a hand in training Zoro. It might be true, it might be not, but who cared?

“Yes, really. Using a bed as weights, eighteen hours. Insane crunches, forty hours.”

“Getting lost, eternal,” Sanji said, raising the water bottle.

“Now you’ve got it,” Usopp said with a grin. Chopper waited for the baritone ‘oi’, but it didn’t come. Instead Zoro was looking at the wall, as if admiring the black and white photos of people they didn’t know. Or, at least, he didn’t think Zoro knew. Well—he knew what it was about anyway. Avoidance. Depression. He needed to get into more psychology classes to dig out the root of the issue but Docterine had encouraged him against that.

‘You can’t fix everyone’s everything,’ she’d said. ‘And you’d be a damn fool to try.’

He sort of wanted to be a damn fool. But he knew that she meant. He had to learn to do one thing the best and the best thing he could do was to keep his friends. His nakama. Chopper savored that word in his mind a moment. Going even at the brink of death.

He patted the bony leg on his lap and looked along it to where Usopp was holding Luffy in the crook of his arm, their captain’s face pale and sunken against Usopp’s broad shoulder. It was dangerous to have him out here, Chopper knew, knew it more than anyone. It was imperative for him to be at full strength if the plan was going to go through. But the plan might not go through. Or it might fail anyway. This might be the last.

Chopper still remembered reading study after study of otherwise healthy herd or social animals dying if left in isolation too long. Maybe there was something psychological here, too. After all, Luffy had always gotten strength from those beside him and wilted when left alone. He still remembered that last message on his answering machine.

‘Chopper,’ Luffy had said, his voice like cracked chalk. ‘Where are you? Call me.’

And he should’ve… And he would’ve…. But right then he’d had things to do and Doctorine to talk to because she had important news.He would have called Luffy back right after, he remembered thinking. It would be fine. He hadn’t known it would be the last thing they heard from him.

But you never did know.

And anyway it wasn’t the last last for definite yet because he and Robin had a plan.

He swallowed and set his teeth, trying to let that determination soothe the guilty, sad, knot in his throat. He realized Sanji was watching him and squared his shoulders, lifted his head, tried to be tough as he could manage. He had confidence. He had a plan. He wasn’t wanting to cry or anything.

“What time did Franky say he’d be here?” Sanji asked.

“Um…” Chopper wiped his hand, wet with melted ice water, on his pants and pulled out his Doctor Who fob watch, admiring the engravings a minute before clicking it open. “In about twenty minutes.”

“Good, we’ll go one more.” He set the water bottle down and whipped the towel from his neck. “Come on, mossy boss, I’ll mop the floor with you this time.”

Chopper clicked the fob watch closed, liking the official sound of it and watched Zoro pull out the sheathed swords. The men fell into place on either side of the mat, eyeing each other with a warrior’s coolness. Though he had to look away now and again to tamp down the bubbling excitement. He was glad that Franky had come a few days early so that they would have an opportunity to take Luffy for one la— for maybe one last ride in the Superrr RV. Chopper hadn’t seen it in forever! It wasn’t going to be a long ride or even an interesting one. Franky was going to stop by the hotel to pick up Nami and Vivi, and then them, and then to pick Robin and Brook up from where they were suit shopping and then a long, but not too long, drive along the water until bringing Luffy back to the care facility. Then they would put him up in that empty room— in those silent halls that smelled like sleeping… and not even a slow healthy sleep but something deeper than that, wearing him through layer by layer.

Chopper sniffed and focused his attention back on the fight. It was less intense now. Sanji was flagging a little though he was trying not to show it. That was the difference three years made, he guessed. No. More than that. When had Sanji stopped fighting altogether? Or…maybe it was because Zoro fought all the time. Chopper tried not to look too closely at his scars. There had to be a way to fix this. He looked to Usopp instead and found a strange expression on his face.

Strange for Usopp anyway. He looked older. Sadder. His face soft and weary as he held Luffy’s head against his shoulder, fingers resting on his hair. Chopper wondered at it. He usually looked happy, even if he was faking it, or at least angry or determined or avoident. But this… It was an ungarded moment, Chopper realized in a flash, and looked away, his face heating. He didn’t want to ruin it or embarrass Usopp by letting him know he saw. Sadness was important for healing. He knew that much.

But maybe there didn’t even have to be sadness! Chopper looked at Luffy’s bony legs on his lap and pressed his palms against them to see if he was cold but also to draw what strength he could from the touch. He wanted to tell Usopp all about their plan. About how close they were. About what might happen if he were right. If everything worked out. That there was no reason to be sad.

…Except there might be. Even if their plan worked and Chopper was right and they got everything they needed… there was still a chance that the Devil’s Seed wouldn’t take. Or it would be too little too late. It could be that they’d never get him back at all. And that kind of hope was…really far to fall from. Chopper felt his eyes and nose fill at the thought of it. The thought of coming so far and losing everything anyway… He sniffed and then excused himself to the bathroom, not wanting anyone to see him cry because they had their own things to do and their own feelings to feel and he no longer needed to be protected by them. Instead it was up to him to protect them!

He reminded himself of this, splashing cold water on his face. It was like something Doctorine said to them. ‘Sometimes giving tentative good news is worse than giving bad news. Bad news you can prepare for. Hope is hard to maintain. It takes a certain strength of character, so be careful, Chopper.’ And it wasn’t that they weren’t strong but they’d had five years of hope. Five years being strong. And he could see how weary to the bone they were of it.

Don’t worry, he thought, looking at himself in the mirror and trying out his most fierce face. Me and Robin have got this.

****


Chopper had wanted to keep his determined Trust me, I’m a Doctor, face throughout the rest of the day. But it was all he could do to keep from bouncing from foot to foot and grinning like an idiot as the Superr RV purred on down the road. It was huge, actually a large converted tour bus, and flashy with the Straw Hat Pirate Flag waving happily from the top and flapping in the breeze. He could feel a certain mood rise from his friends around him. A lifting of the chest. A lifting of the spirits. To see that big thing again. Technically the Superr RV was called ‘The Bus Going Merry over a Thousand Sunny roads.’ But that had been too weird looking to paint all of it on the sides. So the door side had the red ‘Going Merry’ that Usopp had painted and the other side had the yellow ‘Thousand Sunny’ that Franky had painted on it. But even cooler was the inside.

He was old enough not to wave cheerfully at the RV as it rolled up to the curb though he wanted to, excitement bubbling up and making him want to flail around or clap his hands and sing the Thousand Sunny Going Merry cheer song that Brook had made up. But he kept himself still. Except for the grin that split his face from ear to ear as the bus hissed to a stop. When the door opened, two unexpected people stood there.

“Aisa!” Usopp said at the same time Chopper said:

“Hi, Chimney.”

“Welcome to the Superrrrr RV!” the girls said in unison, making peace signs.

“Hey, hey, hey! That’s my line!” said Franky from the driver’s seat. Chopper’s grin only widened to see him there. He’d missed him, too. Franky grinned back, pushing his sunglasses up with a thumb, and then flicked his hand in a super cool three fingered greeting.

“Yo.”

“Yo!” Chopper said, his voice coming out in a near squeak. Chimney and Aisa laughed and he felt himself flush a bit, rubbing the back of his head as he laughed self-consciously with them. He always felt embarrassed around girls his own age. Especially these guys somehow.

“I hope it’s good that we bummed along,” Chimney said as she and Aisa stepped out of the doorway. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in somethin’ so fekkin cool.”

“Don’t worry,” Sanji said. “Having you guys along is shitty fantastic! And it’s good to see you, Miss Aisa. Anyone come up with you?”

“Oh yeah, everyone,” Asia said with a laugh. “Uncle Dalton even bought along the lapin you guys rescued!”

“He has to be about ten feet tall by now!” Chopper said, astonished. “Where’s he keeping him?”

“Us Shandians have our ways,” Aisa said with a wink. Then a grin. “You can come to our camp later on.”

“Sure!” It had been forever since he’d chatted with a lapin, especially that one. He wondered how Lapu was doing or if she’d ever stopped arguing with her father.

“That thing is cool as fekkin cod balls though,” Chimney said. “She looks ferocious!”

“She does,” Aisa said. “But she’s really a teddy bear. The other day…”

But then she trailed off, face paling, as Zoro went by with Luffy in his arms and climbed onto the RV. There was a moment of silence as everyone watched after him. The wind settled cold and he shivered slightly, despite not being cold at all. Aisa pressed a fist against her mouth, looking away, her eyes wide.
“I thought he was a doll…” she murmured, as if to herself. “Like a…a whatcha…a ventriloquist dummy.”

Chimney put a hand on her back. Chopper shifted from foot to foot, looking down at the cracked sidewalk. Why was it so much harder when other people were sad.

“He’s a real shitty charmer that one,” Sanji said brightly, voice cracking into the stillness. “So Miss Aisa, how is Mrs. Laki?”

“Oh...she's fine,” Aisa said. “She got a new palimono that she's crazy about…”

“Chopper,” Franky called. Chopper looked up at him still in the driver’s seat and the blue haired man jerked his head, indicating the interior of the RV. Chopper climbed up and into the space, which was narrower than he remembered. Zoro was standing in the middle, holding Luffy and looking pale and a little lost. He glanced at Chopper, shifting Luffy against his shoulder.

“Where…” Zoro started, then cleared his throat. “Where do I…” and he shifted Luffy again. It took Chopper a second to get it. Oh! Where to put Luffy. Yeah that was pretty important. Chopper thought a moment, then pulled one of the lower beds out of the cabinet space. He took a careful snuff, trying not to be too obvious about it— but of course he didn’t need to. The drawer itself had been cleaned and the sheets and pillows smelled freshly laundered and not stale at all. Franky took good care of them.

“Here is good,” Chopper said, unbuckling the straps and tossing them over either side before pulling back the blanket. Zoro knelt carefully and Chopper helped him situate Luffy on the bed. Chopper pulled a sheet up to his captain’s chest, just in case he got cold, but left the heavier blanket off for now because he didn’t want him to overheat. Ah but…

“Here um…” Chopper lifted one of Luffy’s arms. “Hold this for a second.”

Zoro did, holding Luffy’s wrist and hand in both of his while he watched with a single dark eye, faintly glassy. Chopper tried not to look. Instead he tucked Luffy’s other arm comfortably at his side and then belted him in, making sure the straps were loose enough. Then he took his backpack off and got his stethascope around his neck before taking Luffy’s arm from Zoro and feeling his pulse, checking it against his watch. After that, he blew on the sethascope and rubbed it with his hand to warm it before checking Luffy’s heartbeat, careful not to make a face, good or bad. He was fine for now, it seemed. A little weaker than he’d like so they’d probably have to cut the trip short by five minutes or so. Maybe even less than that. He was dehydrating, too.

“Pull out the seat,” Chopper told Zoro as he got out the stuff for the IV. Zoro did and after Chopper had successfully set it up, he handed the bag of fluid for Zoro to hold. Zoro took it and then seemed to go inward, away from them, just watching —and maybe not even seeing— but he would when he needed to- when they needed him to. Chopper cleared his throat and went up front when Franky beckoned him.

“What’s the time look like?” he said in a low voice as the others chatted outside.

“Um…” Chopper checked his fob watch. “No later than four.”

“Roger,” Franky said, saluting. Then flicked his glasses back down and called. “We’re shipping out! All you damn scrubs who don’t want to get left behind better get on board!”

Chopper went toward the table, having to go sideways around Luffy’s bed before settling himself down and finally having a chance to look around. It hadn’t changed at all— Well— it kind of had. There used to be more pictures than this around the walls. Most of them were in Luffy’s hospital room now. There used to be clutter, too. He always remembered the clutter. It wasn’t bad clutter or dangerous but the stuff of a bunch of people living in one place. It had been overwhelming. Homey. There were large cabinet type structures set into the wall on either side of the table. Beds came from the ones on the right, toward the driver’s side. Two of them in a row and then a place for the chair that Zoro was sitting in.

The far end of the other cabinet toward the rear of the RV was the second bathroom. It was so tiny Chopper, now, could use it and wash his hands in the sink. Also in that cabinet was a fold out piano keyboard that had a bunch of buttons, one of which you could press that would make a series of calliope pipes unfold from the roof above so that Brook could play for the whole world if he wanted to. The other side of the RV was dominated by a long kitchen with a wine rack and another fold out table or counter, whatever they needed at the time and sometimes both.There were two cabinet spaces at the far end of the kitchen, too. One which served as a pantry and the other which served as Sanji’s closet for his suits and stuff.

At the very back of the RV was the only real bedroom which Nami and Robin used to share and it had a closet and a bathroom with a shower in it and everything and Sanji had always noodled a bit when going into the sacred space, as he called it, and Usopp had said it was why he showered every day. Chopper had believed it then but now he wasn’t so sure. Otherwise there was a small space in the roof for people to sleep. Sanji and Brook usually took that one. Usopp usually slept in one of the fold out beds, but Luffy and Zoro would take out hammocks and hang them from special places on the ceiling to sleep. Franky usually slept in front where his chair converted to a bed and he could pull a curtain over it if he liked.

And then there was his favorite place of all. Just past the kitchen and before the door to get in was the access to the underside of the RV where, back in its tour bus days, it was used to store suitcases. They had kept some suitcases down there— but mostly it had been converted into a bedroom. A little hideyhole for him. And sometimes him and Luffy. And sometimes him and Luffy and Usopp and then it had gotten tight. But he remembered a nest of blankets and pillows and nights spent listening to stories or playing games or watching a movie, because there were little sliding TV screens everywhere. He was probably too big to fit in it now. The thought hit him squarely between the eyes and he swallowed hard.

Fortunately he had time to work through it as everyone got themselves on board and Franky started the engine. Chopper had a brief moment where he thought about doing the cheer, but everyone else was silent and so was he. It was like a game of trying not to look at Luffy but unable to not do so and the quiet was stifling. He had to do something about it. To help heal everyone’s spirits, but…what? Chopper wracked his brain trying to think as they rumbled away from the curb.
“Okay!” Usopp blurted. “What movie do we want to watch?”

“Charlie’s Angels,” Sanji said.

“Not that,” Usopp said, giving him a dry look that made Chimney giggle. “Never again.”

“Well what do you suggest, shitty longnose?” Sanji said, turning on the ventilation fan and putting a cigarette between his lips as he checked the pantry. It was stocked with stuff and it was such a familiar sight that Chopper felt a strange happy sad wriggle crawl through his stomach.

“How about, oh I don’t know, a Christmas movie?” Usopp said, then turned toward the girls who were perched at the other table. “Suggestions?”

“I don’t watch tv much,” Aisa said. “But what about um…Frosty?”

“Die Hard!” Chimney said.

“That is not a Christmas movie, I don’t care if there’s a tree in it,” Usopp said.

“It’s set at Christmas, ya punk!” Chimney said with a smile. “And it has Alan Rickman in it.”

“Oh, isn’t he that guy from the movies?” Aisa asked.

“Yep! Nice isn’t he?”

“Let’s try to have something a little more Christmassy, here,” Usopp said, chopping his hand through the air.

“Lethal Weapon,” Chimney said.

“No.”

“Batman Returns!”

“No!”

“Rrrrambo!” Franky said from the front seat.

“Are you taking this seriously or what?!” Usopp raged.

“Muppet Christmas Carol!” Chopper blurted out. Everyone looked at him and he tried not to sink in his seat, his cheeks reddning. He knew it was kind of childish but… well…he always kind of liked the muppets. They were definitely not human and sometimes not even something definable, but everyone treated them just like they were normal. And…and the Muppet Christmas Carol had the best songs. Still it did sound kind of lame and he was trying to think of something else when Sanji said.

“Sounds shitty good to me.”

“Muppet Christmas Carol it is,” Usopp said. “Hit it!” and pressed the button to lower the screen into the main cabin. “Try not to cry during the songs, Sanji,” Usopp said sweetly.

“Speak for yourself, shithead. What does everyone want to drink?”

Chopper waited for Usopp to say ‘hot chocolate!’ before he did and setled back as Usopp fiddled with the ancient vcr while Sanji began to move about the kitchen space, stance sure and steady despite the movement of the RV. Even though things were a little different, little by little, it was starting to feel like home.


****


It was starting to feel even more like home by the time they got everyone on the RV, and even more crowded than usual. Die Hard was playing despite Usopp’s protests because he’d been solidly overruled by Nami who was on her third whiskey sour and laughing as Bruce Willis crawled through the ventilator system. Vivi sat beside her, smiling but looking slightly disturbed, whether it was because of the movie or her drinking. Brook was sitting beside Usopp, alternately yelping at the sound of gunfire or commenting on what was going on or making bad blind puns that everyone ignored. Laboon was on the floor, resting half on Chopper’s feet, heaving doggy sighs. Sanji leaning against the counter and watching with a wide grin and Robin watching from the middle of the asile on a chair made of her own hands.

It was great. With everyone like this, it was easy to forget the bad things. Or at least put them from their minds for a little while. Despite the fact that part of it was right there with them, lying still, lying quiet. Chopper looked over every now and again. Checking the time. Knowing he should check his pulse again. Knowing he should probably check up on Zoro, too who had still retreated. But he wasn’t sure what to say or do so he just held back and, somewhat guiltily, tried to enjoy the movie. He was intent on watching it when a hand tapped his shoulder. He looked back and saw Robin’s hand sticking out of the seat. She pointed and he followed the gesture to his backpack where another one of her hands was holding up his phone.

It was buzzing.

Chopper swallowed and squeezed out of the seat, excusing himself past Sanji as he retrieved his phone and went into the back bedroom.Robin had gotten there ahead of him and gestured that he close the door which he did before sitting on the bed and looking at the number. It was Law. Something a mix between excitement and unease rose in him. He glanced at Robin who just watched him patiently, as if saying this was his decision. He nodded and saw an ear blossom next to the speaker before he pressed talk.

“Y-yeah?” he said, hating himself for stuttering. Law’s deep voice came steady and clipped.

“I can help, Tony-ya. Tomorrow at the place, 8am. Come prepared. Come alone.” And he hung up. Chopper set down the phone to wipe his sweating palms on his pants. So it was true. He had been right. There was hope. Even a small sliver of one. But… on the other hand…he would have to something he hadn’t done in a very long time to get it. And alone. That word stuck in his mind. Doing it alone. He trusted Law because Luffy had once upon a time. Though that had been when things were…well sort of normal. As normal as they could get being them. So who knew how it had changed. How things had shifted. But for Luffy’s sake… Ahh, it was still a little nervewracking!
“He’s sort of intimidating, isn’t he?” said Robin who didn’t sound intimidated at all or even look worried. Chopper nodded and puzzled his fingers together.

“But…I’m going to do it.” He was telling himself that as much as he was telling her. “I’ve got to…right?” Because it was the only lead they had, wasn’t it? It was the only chance at hope. That they could get…they could pull the person they wanted most back where they needed him most. He expected Robin to agree right away, but she looked thoughtful. She was so smart and mysterious it was difficult to say what she was thinking about but in this instance, not knowing made Chopper even more nervous. Was she changing her mind? She couldn’t! He couldn’t do this alone and why would she?

“Robin?” he said to catch her attention, trying not to sound as young and nervous as he felt. She folded her hands on her lap and pressed her thumbs together. Gunfire rang from the speakers in the other room, making him flinch and have the phantom memory of acrid smoke filling his nose. Gunfire. Shouting. Blood. It was muffled because that was a long time ago. A time so long ago that he hadn’t even known how to make sense of years yet. But it was still there and he shook his head to clear it before nervously fidgiting with his phone. He opened up Tetris and began to play, calming himself with the logical placement of colored blocks while Robin thought.

Finally she said:

“Let’s see what he has to say, hm?”

“Okay…” Chopper nodded. But…wait a minute. “We?” he looked at her. “He said I was supposed to come alone!”

Robin smiled faintly, tilting her head.

“As far as he knows, you will be.”

****


Despite Robin’s assurance, or somewhat assurance, he didn’t see another car since he parked Usopp’s by the side of the road and made his way to the Olallie State Park entrance, shivering from nerves and the early morning air. Frost was on the ground and shone dully in the pre-dawn light. The forest was silent, though. Pine trees stood solemnly beside their bare boned relatives that were all sticks and bark, poking into the sky. Chopper tried not to think of Luffy in them. He also tried not to think of who might be hiding behind the dark shadows of the trees. Or that gunfire could explode without any warning, lancing him with bullets or tranquilizers. He wasn’t sure what he hated most.

Chopper rubbed his arms, trying to keep his eyes peeled for threats without seeming too nervous. He didn’t want to do this. He really didn’t. Not only had he kind of stolen Usopp’s car, he kind of had to borrow some cash too, to fill it up and drive it out here. Out to this spooky place where he was alone. And on top of that he….he had to do something. Something he’d promised himself he’d never have to do again unless he wanted to, and now he really really really didn’t. That world was behind him now and had been for a long time. It had been because of Doctor Hiriluk and Docterine and Mr. Dalton. It had been because of Luffy, too, who had taken him along to see the rest of the world despite his hairy everything and freak nature.

For Luffy’s sake he’d return to it, he told himself. For a little bit. He’d take that risk. For Luffy’s sake and the sake of the others that waited for him. That needed him. But he wasn’t really happy about it. He didn’t have to be right? He started when he realized he was at the entrance already and moved further in until he found the trail head. There were no other cars. No sign of Robin. Not even an bird or an animal stirred. It was too early. It was too cold. But he felt all alone in the world. He wasn’t though, he told himself. He wasn’t. She would be here right? She’d hinted as much, hadn’t she? He waited by the trail head just in case, but when there was no sound of the brush of tires on the road or evidence that anyone was coming, he knew he had no choice.

Well, fine. He could do this! He was brave! He was a warrior just as much as they were! Chopper lifted his head and took a deep breath for courage and then went into the woods, moving parallel to the trail for a while until he spotted a thick clump of trees and brush that would have to do. He ducked behind it. Took another deep breath and set the borrowed messenger bag down before shakily undoing the buttons of his shirt. His fingers slipped with nerves and he almost tore one of the buttons off. He wished he had worn a t-shirt or something that was easily to pull off. Finally though he managed it and, looking for somewhere to put it, nearly cried with relief when he saw a long elegant arm gesturing for it from the trunk of a tree.

‘Thank you’, he mouthed. The hand raised a finger to the trunk, as if telling him to shh and then reached for it again. Chopper gave Robin the shirt and then watched another hand blossom and proceed to fold it for him. Feeling much better now he took off his socks and shoes, then his jeans and widefronts until he was standing naked. It was colder than it should have been, but that was because he had shaved recently and anyway it didn’t bother him. Chopper took a deep breath, let it out, then closed his eyes and focused.

Without much effort, his bones started to shift, rearrange, click into different formations. His face pushed out, flattened along the nose. His knees moved up, his feet grew narrower, the bone enlongating and soon he had to go on all fours to support his weight. Antlers pushed through the fabric of the pink hat that he wore and though he couldn’t really feel their progress, he knew what they looked like and could feel their weight. The forest came alive with noise, or actually he heard it. Birds from far away, cars from further, thinks skittering underneath. He could smell better now, too. The paths of animals. Other deer. Humans who had been there before. The faint floral scent of Robin. If he wanted to he could probably track her on that scent alone. A hand with that floral scent attached scratched just under his chin and he smiled and leaned into it a little before opening his eyes to…well a world that looked pretty much the same as it always did except his perspective was off. For some reason, the eyes never changed. Did that mean he was really a human? Or just a freaky reindeer? He’d never been able to tell.

But he wasn’t going to dwell on that now. Chopper shook himself, glad for the thick fur covering now but knowing he’d have to shave again when he got home or explain how he grew so much hair overnight. Not that it would be hard because he was a doctor and could make stuff up. But he was also a bad liar and Usopp would never fall for it. Usopp was too good. But he wouldn’t worry about that either.

He started away but the hand tapped his shoulder and he looked down to spot the messenger bag. Oh…right. How was he supposed to…?

Before he could worry about it, hands gathered the messanger bag up and he ducked his head so Robin could lay it across his shoulders. Yes. Perfect. The first hard part was out of the way. Now next to the even harder part. Chopper started through the woods, ears flickering back and forth, and felt oddly more at ease this way. He didn’t have to be able to spot danger, he could hear it and he could smell it before he even saw it. Not that he was entirely sure what he could do about it in this state— Well other than run. And if he ran, very few could catch him. Not in woods like these.

He made a quick pace but even so the sun was starting to creep to the trees by the time he managed to navigate the tricky steps and onto the bridge. The falls thundered here, making the air wet and vibrant. A small misty rainbow hung in the air but Chopper didn’t stop to admire it for long. He triptrapped over the bridge, up the steep incline, the went onto the John Wayne Pioneer trail for two miles until he smelled woodsmoke.

Chopper swallowed. This was it. His legs trembled a little but he held himself still with a flick of his head, snorting, his breath misting into a warm cloud until he turned off the trail and followed something that was no more than a narrow footpath. It was fine, though, he didn’t need it, he could walk in the underbrush just fine… Only he didn’t want to startle Law or do anything too unexpected.

Half a mile in, he saw him. Trafalgar Law. In a dark coat and a white spotted hat, sitting by a low fire. There was another scent nearby—well within maybe another fifty feet or so. It was something thick and heavy and he had smelled it on Law before, something like an animal. Whatever it was, it was nearby but hidden. That was fine. Chopper wasn’t worried. Even if whatever it was could smell Robin, it wouldn’t know what it was. Still—Chopper took another deep breath and deliberately stepped on a stick as he came into the clearing.

Law looked over in a violent movement, reaching for the long sword at his side. Then blinked and slowly rose to his feet, leaving it where it was, the tattoos dark on his fingers.

“Tony-ya?” he said, coming closer.

“Yeah,” Chopper said, stomping a front hoof nervously as Law approached. Then realized what he was doing and stood still. Law narrowed his eyes and reached out a hand. Then stopped.

“Can I?”

Touch him? Chopper guessed. Though he was kind of glad Law had asked.

“Sure…”

Law did. Gripping Chopper’s jaw and turning his head this way and that as if checking the movement of his eyes. Feeling his shoulders with his hands. What he was looking for, Chopper couldn’t guess, especially when he parted fur here and there as if checking his skin for something. Chopper shivered convulsively at the gust of cool air.

“How old were you?” Law asked, finally, standing in front of Chopper and holding up a phone to take notes. Chopper shook his head.

“I don’t know.”

Law glanced at him but said nothing.

“Parents?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Were you a deer—”

“Reindeer,” Chopper corrected automatically.

“Reindeer first, or human?”

That…was a question only one other person had ever asked him. Reindeer first or human first? He wished he had some gut feeling about it. He wished he could say he was definitely one or definitely the other but… He ducked his head.

“I don’t know…” he murmured. “I’m sorry, I can’t really give you any answers because—”

“I know.” Law pressed something on the phone and put it back in his pocket. “I’ve heard of that place. Headed by Wapol right?”

“Uh huh.”

Law nodded as if satisfied with something.

“Alright. I’ll fulfil my part of the bargain, you fulfil yours.”

“Okay.” Anxiety raised in him again as Law went toward his own messenger bag, sitting against the log. It was almost here. The solution was almost in his hands.

“You were right. He was given at least two levels,” Law said, digging into his bag and holding out Zoro’s medical file that Sanji had dug out of some facility before Chopper was even part of the team. Law handed it to him and Chopper grabbed it with his teeth. Then realized. Wait… How was he …

Law gave him a slightly strained look, then sighed and took the file from him, tucking it into the messenger bag at Chopper’s side.

“Two levels? How many are there?”

“Do you know at all how this works?” Law asked. Chopper shook his head no.

“Okay,” Law stood next to him, getting out his phone once more and opening some kind of drawing app. He drew a series of five horizontal lines with his finger. “This is…can you see this alright?”

“I’m fine. My eyes are normal.”

And when Law glanced at him with a raised eyebrow, Chopper added:

“Human.”

“But you don’t know whether you were human first?” Law said, sounding nothing more than curious. Chopper flicked his ears back, memories crowding the back of his mind. He didn’t want to see them. Didn’t want to be there. He nervously dug at the ground with a hoof and shrugged as best he could. He didn’t want to explain it. He couldn’t. It was in the past now so it didn’t matter right?

“Never mind,” he said. “So your friend, Roronoa-ya, was given the first level.” Law pointed to the first line. “That first shot is just to get a subject under. In order for the next few treatments to be efficient, the body has to be calm and under the least amount of stress possible. At this stage it’s no more than a heavy sleep. You can wake them earlier with a zolpiedm solution, but it’s not recommended. If left to their own devices they can usually waken within thirty to forty-eight hours. Within that window is usually the time to run experiments on the subject’s blood etcetera to see if they are a good fit for the procedure.”

“You sound like you’ve done this before,” Chopper murmured. Law said nothing. Chopper wished he hadn’t spoken. “So…the second level produces a coma?” he asked into the silence.

“Exactly,” Law said with no change of tone. “The next series of treatments after that,” He pointed to the third line. “Takes place over a several days and the subject’s body must be kept completely still and stress free. As much as possible.”

“And there’s no solution to wake them up earlier?”

Law hesitated and Chopper’s heart leapt. If there was something—!

“There is but…you have to deliver it within forty-eight hours for it to be effective,” Law said and Chopper’s mood plummeted again. Damn. “The next treatment has to be given for seven days, every other day. It seems to contain a trace amount of a Devil’s Seed solution, almost as if getting the patient’s body prepared.”

“And then the Devil’s Seed itself,” Chopper said, catching on. Law nodded, tapping his finger against the fifth line. But wait. “What’s the fourth?”

“That I haven’t been able to figure out.They say no one knows. Whatever secret it was might have been lost to the Red War, so I’ve heard.” He scratched his jaw and shrugged. Well if no one knew, no one knew. It wasn’t really something they could explore right now. They didn’t have time for one thing.

“So the Devils’ Seed will wake him up.”

“It may,” Law said. “It may kill him, too. He may lose his mind. But that’s even counting on him getting through the third level.”

“It’s…that hard…?” He didn’t want to believe that it was. That they were so close and yet so far. Law watched him seriously.

“It puts a lot of strain on the body, Tony-ya,” he said softly. “It’s rare that someone dies from it, but…” he sighed, looking away briefly. “Strawhat-ya’s dying already.”

“But there’s a chance!” Chopper said, tears wetting the corner of his eyes. “It just means its a chance he’ll die right? It doesn’t mean that he will!”

“He might survive. But chances are you’ll kill him quicker,” Law said, putting his phone back in his pocket. He rummaged around in his messanger bag again and brought out a box which he opened. Inside were a series of vials, seven in all, with identical liquid.

“If you want to go through with it, this is the next treatment,” he said, before shutting the box and tucking it into Chopper’s bag. “And you have to give him the Devil’s Seed solution within thirty-six hours of the last treatment.”

“Where is the Devil’s Seed?”

“That I can’t get you, Tony-ya. You’re going to have to find a way for yourself.”

That isn’t fair! Chopper wanted to say. Change your mind! And all the other things Luffy might say to change the fate of everyone. To change the will of the world. To do the things that no one thought possible. But it was fair. It was horribly fair and they were more lucky than they had any right to be and it hurt. They at least knew what was wrong with him. They knew how to possibly fix it. They at least had the peace of mind that there was nothing they could have done to wake him up beforehand. But to know that hope was so thin. To know that they had come so far and…might not even succeed. To know that they had to get a Devil’s Seed to begin with and how were they going to do that?

“Are you ready?” Law asked in a low voice and Chopper nodded, trying not to do anything but stand there as Law checked him over, took his pulse, heartbeat, took pictures of his face and eyes. Frustrated tears dropped to the ground before Chopper could stop them, hissing on the frost and he sniffed back snot that came out no matter what he tried to do. He felt Law reach under the fur of his neck to find his jugular vein and then said:

“I’m taking the sample now.” As he showed Chopper the needle. Chopper acknowledge this with a faint nod and looked out over the forest without really seeing it.
“Chopper-ya,” Law said, his voice so low that Chopper had to shift an ear to hear it. “The fact that Strawhat-ya is even still alive is a testament to his will. The odds are against him, a million to one, but if anyone can find that one, I believe it’s him.”

Chopper wondered if Law meant it. If Law even knew Luffy that well or was just giving him hope… He felt too dulled to believe it completely. To numb to everything against them. Everything about the world seemed hard and horrible again. Just like it used to be. He only realized Law was finished when the man was packing his stuff away. Chopper tried to pull himself together, nosing his own messenger bag closed. He felt unfocused and dazed and miserable. He muttered a thank you to Law and began to walk back the way he came when Law called his name. Chopper raised his head and looked over his shoulder. Law gave him a long look before saying:

“Watch your back.”

That sent chills through his spine and he nodded, wide eyed, before turning back into the forest, first at a walk and then at a brisk trot. He wasn’t even really paying attention to where he was going. Just to get away. Everything looked the same. What if he got lost somehow? What if he never made it back? What if Luffy died before they could even try? What if he died because they did? A rustle in the bushes made him startle and he whipped around but saw nothing. What was it? What? An animal? A ghost? A monster?!

“Chopper…” Robin’s voice sounded in his ears and the warm not weight of her copy self rested on his back while her hands smoothed in his fur. Had she heard everything? Probably. She was Robin after all.

“I’m sorry!” he said, in almost a squeak, but he couldn’t even say what he was aplogizing for. For everything. For being more frustrated and lost than he had been before.

“Don’t be,” she said. “Let’s go back into town and get something hot to drink…and we can talk about this when we’re ready, hm?"

It was soothing. She was soothing. And he let himself be soothed. A little. He may be frustrated and afraid and feeling like his heart was slowly beating itself to pieces against a rock but… at least…he wasn’t alone.


Past:
The lovers, the dreamers, and me



Chopper sighs as he keeps careful eyes on the beakers. Night presses in outside the cracked windows, but it’s still early enough for the fireflies to dance. Doctorine had left without him again. Running some errands in town maybe or seeing who needed patching up. Even out here in the sticks there are people that need help, she says. People that can’t afford to go to the hospital, paranoid loners who don’t want to go, new age hippies who take anything with the word herb in it be it good for them or no and try to pay with weed. Chopper has met some of them himself but as a reindeer only, standing quiet in the distance as Docterine does her work. He used to be able to get out more. But they are looking for him, she says. They want to take him back.

…and the world is too small. The last part she says when she’s deep in her plum wine, gripping the bottle and fine lines between her eyes. Chopper says nothing because there’s nothing to say.He doesn’t want to go back there, even if he only vaguely remembers it in fire and smoke and nightmares. And Doctor Hiriluk… but Chopper doesn’t like to think about him much. Except for his laugh and his kind smile and the way that he took him to a room. It had been a cave, really. But there had been rugs and it had been the first time Chopper ever remembered setting foot on a rug or smelling the fresh air or seeing the trees.It had been a big world and a scary one and Chopper hadn’t wanted to be alone in it.

But he is alone.

For right now anyway.

The timer dings and he lowers the heat and stirs the solution. An analgesic, but not a strong one. A good relief for mild headaches and cheaper than aspirin because it can be picked from the backyard and ground into powder. Every medicine, Doctorine told him once, can be made from a plant. You just have to know the right ones. And the wrong ones, she added when he nearly killed himself once accidentally eating poison sumac. But knowledge is power and when he learned to read he was able to find all sorts of plants by sight and smell and taste and touch if he were sure they weren’t poison sumac. Sometimes he even wanted to believe Doctor Hiriluk when he had said that Chopper would make a fine doctor some day. But that was a lie.

He could be really good at doctoring maybe. But who would he treat? He looks at himself in the window. The light in the room and the darkness outside make it like a flat plate mirror, only not very good. There is a mess of hair on his head and his eyebrows bristle like caterpillars and there is hair on his forehead and down his nose and over his cheeks and on his chin and his neck and shoulders, arms and chest and the backs of his hands and down his legs and feet. He is like Cousin It only not as glossy, or Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf only twice as hairy and no sharp teeth to speak of… or much athletic ability, even if he can fight. He needs to. Just in case. One day.

Restless he goes into the other room to lug in the little portable tv/radio and sets it on the table and then wiggles the coat hangar to see if he can get good reception. There’s nothing on but NOVA which is showing something about penguins. He watches and stirs and when the analgesic is done, pours it into a bottle and sticks the Witch of the Woods Herbal Remedy label on it. He likes the label. They designed it themselves and he painstakingly traced it until he had it just right. There’s a witchy black profile of Docterine’s face and she’s surrounded by four pink sakura petals. She hadn’t liked that, just scowled, but in the end drank and shrugged and said he could put what he liked, but not to believe in that sham’s claptrap—not at least without checking it up first. Doctor Hiriluk had said that sakura petals were sacred to the Japanese people because they were a cure all. They represented life and good luck. But that they didn’t use them for that kind of thing because they were too sensible and attuned with nature. But if you saw sakura, he’d said, you knew good luck would come your way.

There are no sakura trees in these woods though. Docterine had said so. There are some in DC where they bloom every year, she’d said, but that’s not somewhere where Chopper could go, because they might find him. Because he’s important. They are everywhere according to her and he believes her enough to not press. The fact that they’ve nearly been captured by them twice told Chopper enough that she’s cautious and smart. Also— also he can’t really go. Everyone would look at him funny. With fear or sympathy or pity— or ask him what’s wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with him, he wants to bristle. He’s just hairy! It’s a condition called hypertrichosis! Look it up! Read a book!

Except he can also turn into a reindeer so there’s that. And he can see and hear and smell better than most people. And he doesn’t even know how old he is which is just weird, though Doctorine thinks he’s probably ten or eleven. Chopper isn’t sure because sometimes he feels younger and sometimes he feels like a hundred.

The penguin show ends and he gets the tray of willow bark to crush up for fever reducer when there’s a tappity tap of claws on the window. Chopper looks over and sees the Lapin leader Fufu, filling up the entire window and trying to get his attention. He looks concerned. Chopper opens the window letting the fresh piny air.
‘We hear visitors over the ridge,’ he says in that animal talk of gestures and looks and grunts too low for humans to hear. Chopper doesn’t know why he understands this kind of stuff but he does.

“Visitors?” Chopper asks and Fufu moves back so he can stick his head outside. If it’s over the ridge, it’s still too far away for him to hear, but if he strains his ears he thinks he can imagine the grumble of engines. The Lapin have guarded this place for two years now, ever since Mr. Dalton left to help people. They could tell the locals who lived in town from the passersby… Though since it was pretty rural, no one passed by unless they were lost or looking for something.
“Who are they?” he asks Fufu who shrugs expansively and scratches under his scarred eye where a bullet must have winged him in the great escape. At least it means it is not them and Chopper is relieved. Docterine says that if they ever show up, Chopper is to take a rifle and run into the woods. Reindeer or human form, it doesn’t matter so long as he gets away. But it’s not them so he doesn’t have to worry. Well not worry exactly. The fact that Fufu is telling him about it at all means it’s something unusual.

‘Should we keep guard?’ Fufu asks, nose fidgeting. He’s worried, it feels like. He wants to keep guard and watch. Chopper can’t see any reason why not and so nods and Fufu bounds away, a great looming marshmallow shape in the dark. Chopper watches him go a little jealously. He wants to see who it is, too. He likes to imagine it may be new people. People like him who come from labs or other places like that who are new to the world. Or even old to the world and know what its like but wants to take him along and show him. But Docterine says that he has to stay away from strangers. Because even if they don’t know anything and were perfectly innocent, it only takes a few words in the wrong ear to wreck everything. He doesn’t want to wreck everything. But it's still kind of hard to be left behind sometimes.

He sets the tray of willow bark on the table. The clock ticks. The lights gleam yellow and it’s late. Docterine might be hours coming home. And…if he just looks, there’s no harm in that right? No one has to see him if he just goes to see who it is. And it’s dark so if he wears dark clothes, it’ll be even harder. Chopper considers this. Docterine will be really mad if she finds out. But what if it turns out that it’s a chance meeting? Doctor Hiriluk said that there were a whole bunch of those. It was a chance meeting that he, a world renowned shaman, decided to take up some extra cash as a janitor one day and happened to meet Chopper— so if there ever was a chance— Chopper should take it, because who knew who he would meet?

“Okay,” Chopper says to himself. To Doctor Hiriluk. “I’ll go.”

But first some precautiouns. He makes sure all the burners are off in the apothecary room, and puts the tray carefully back in its slot, turning off the lights. He puts the portable TV back on the dining room table. Then he goes to his room and arranges the pillows under the sakura pink bedspread so Docterine thinks its him if she cares to check up on him, before pulling on a black hoodie. It’s not completely black. It has some tour dates of a band he’s never heard of on the back in white. But that shouldn’t matter. That done, Chopper checks around, makes sure everything is in place— and sneaks out the window.

The night is cool. An owl hoots nearby saying ‘hello, I am here’. Crickets are doing a crazy mating song in the grass and a lot of them are pretty mad a tiny male who just has big legs apparently. Crickets are pretty dumb and he can’t help but grin at them. Chopper sees the red brush of a fox tail, caught for a moment in a shard of light from the house that’s managed to scatter into the woods, but the fox is too busy looking for a tasty mouse to want to say anything. If there’s more he doesn’t pay attention, because now he can see the winking light of the single street lamp that indicates the road nearby. If the visitors are coming over the ridge, they’ll have to pass by here.

Chopper jogs forward, just for the sake of running, skids down a little screepile and tumbles a bit but it’s no big deal and he’s back on his feet in an instant. He can hear the cars now. The engines are rumbling pretty fast. Almost is if they’re speeding! Chopper frowns. It’s dangerous to speed on this road. They’d had to pry a couple of teenagers from their pickup once after it had gone into a ravine and only just managed to save their lives. Though nothing could save them from Docterine snapping at them with her sandpaper tongue and kicking them in the ass out the door. Chopper wishes he could warn them and tell them to slow down. Maybe he can snap off a pine branch and stand by the side of the road, waving at them! Sure they’ll see him, but only a glimpse and if they do slow down he’ll just hide in the ditch.
It’s pretty dark even with his good eyesight so it takes a while for him to fine a pine branch suited for his purposes. His hands get stick with resin from it but that’s okay. It’s good against mosquitos. Excitement flares in him as he hears the roar of the engines come closer and he clambers down into the ditch, pine branch in hand. He see the headlights on the top of the second hill. There are two cars. No three. Four? All driving really fast. Woah they really need to be careful! Chopper grips his branch hard.

The cars disappear down into the dip and

BOOM!!

The sound shatters the night and Chopper shrieks, throwing the branch skyward as he startles. Ahh! A gun! It was a gun! No one said anything about guns!! Why are there guns?! He runs back and forth in the ditch, screaming, until it occurs to him to duck behind a tree, though he’s only just behind it when a pickup truck with horns on it surges over the crest of the nearby hill, its front wheels leaving the ground. Chopper screams again and clambers at the tree, trying to climb it but only shedding bark under his nails. What the hell is that thing?! What is going on?!

The pickup truck screeches to a spinning stop, leaving the smell of burning rubber behind it. The doors fling open and a man and a hunchback stumble out.

“Go on!” shouts a wierdly familar voice.

“But—” says the man.

“Look for the house!”

And then the truck guns again, doors still flapping open as it charges the cars behind it. There is the squealing of horns and Chopper can’t take any more. He yelps and bolts into the woods, trying to get away as his panic takes over, on feet or four hooves or two hooves and falling face first into the scree pile and into ditches.Finally he ducks his face behind one of their woodpiles and keeps a careful eye on the other side of it for the scary intruders. He can hear them coming up near him, breaking sticks and loosening rocks and squeaks, shivering and shaking as the panicked side wells in his throat. Finally he can see them in the gloom. Not very clear. The man and the hunchback. Like some really twisted fairy tale that Chopper never ever wanted to come true.

“They’re tenacious assholes I’ll give them that,” says the man and there is a brief flare of light as he lights a cigarette. “Nami, are you alright?”
The hunchback’s hunch stirs faintly and Chopper realizes it’s a person under a quilt blanket. A hand falls out onto the hunchback’s chest and the fingers grip loosely. There’s something wrong with the skin of the hand. It looks weirdly splotched.

“We gotta find a house, Sanji,” says the hunchback, shifting the person so the quilt falls away revealing a bent head and more strange splotches traveling up the arm onto the shoulder. The man, Sanji, Chopper guesses, puts the blanket back up.

“No shit,” he says. “We’ll find one. Just go slow and leave any of the fighting to me.” They started further up the hill. “That bastard better be alright after this,” he mutters as if to himself.

“He’ll be fine,” says the hunchback.

“How do you know that?”

“I just do.”

“That’s not a shitty basis for anything. We’ve discussed this.”

They continue walking, not seeming to have spotted him at all. Chopper peers after them and then, trembling a little, creeps along a safe distance behind. Something smells…weird about them. He can’t really tell what it is in this form but… There’s a thumpta thumpta thumpta and Chopper wonders what it is and remembers too late when one of the Lapin surges into view from Chopper’s side and raises a huge fist to attack the one called Sanji from behind. Before the furry fist can fall, the man whirls and blocks it with one long black leg. Chopper can feel the heavy thud of flesh and it surprises a squeak out of him. He darts behind a tree before the humans can point out the noise.

“Not today, shithead,” Sanji says and then, switching legs kicks it under the jaw. The Lapin goes down like a tree and the two move on. Oh no! Chopper rushes to his side, looking at it the best he can and then presses an ear to the Lapin’s chest. He’s still alive. Just dazed Chopper guesses. He’s so strong! Just with his feet! Who are these guys? Chopper shivers and follows once more.

“What was that?” the hunchback asks.

“Some damned giant rabbit or something.”

“I thought it was a bear.”

“Yeah, could be.”

“Maybe it was a guy in a costume.”

“You idiot, why the hell would it be a guy in a costume?”

“Maybe he was doing submurfuge, like a spy.”

“It’s subterfuge, and you ain’t going to be no spy dressed up as a giant shitty rabbit.”

There were more thumpta thumptas around them and Chopper sees the Lapin surround them on all sides, mostly hidden in the trees. A few more going to cut them off at the clearing. They’re doing their best as guards but… Chopper wonders if they should be. These guys seem harmless enough. At least right now. Chopper wonders what house they are looking for. They’re not going to find any all the way out here. He also can’t help but remember that familiar voice. What is it about—

‘Intruders,’ the Lapin say, one after the other, spreading down the line. At first Chopper thinks it might be the three people in front of him. But then he hears it. Crunching over the leaves. And then he sees the light of flashlights flicker through the trunks of trees. Oh no! Who is it! He wants to hide again but has to play a game of dodge the flashlight beam to do so and doesn’t want to attract the strangers’ attention either. The Lapin scatter from where they were guarding the trees, disappearing into the night.

“They’re all gone…” the Hunchback says.

“I don’t like the look of it,” mutters Sanji. Then “Shit. Look out.” And he tugs the Hunchback out of a flashlight beam and behind a stand of trees. Chopper freezes. He was going to go into that stand of trees! Where is he supposed to go now? What if they catch him? What if they catch him? Ahh!

“Are we gonna search all night?” says a voice.

“We have to. If we don’t get their heads, the boss is going to have ours.”

He didn’t want to give up his head!

Maybe if he verry carefully snuck away he can get behind that bush there and wait until it’s over. Sweat sliding down his face and shaking nervously, Chopper takes a quiet step

Right into a pool of light.

“What’s that?” says a man. Chopper creaks his head over and sees a bunch of men. Mostly shadows. A lot of them with guns. He shrieks and runs back and forth with his hands in the air as blind panic crashes over him.He’s gonna get caught again! They’re all around him! He’s gonna get shot! He’s gonna be tied to someone’s hood and run through town even if he doesn’t have antlers in this form! Craap!

“What the hell is that?” someone says.

“Shoot it!”

There is the crack of gunfire and something slams into Chopper’s back. He’s breathless, rolling, flailing, something holding him back. Oh no he’s bleeding out! He’s going to die!

“Doctor!” he howls. “Doctor! Doctor!”

“You’re all fucking right,” says a voice in his ear. “Stay here.” The arms let go of him and he pants in the snow to see the man get to his feet and move into the center of the grass where all the flash lights shine on him and his yellow hair.

“You assholes have got some nerve chasing us down. You want a fight, assholes, you got it.” There is a chkk as he flicks on a lighter. “You other shitheads get out of here.”

Chopper doesn’t want to leave. He sees the hunchback hesitating too, his eyes white and uncertain.

“Go!” Sanji snaps.

“Oh he’s not going anywhere,” a man says and raises the gun. Sanji moves, kicking the gun out of his hands and then crosswise across the face. There is a howl and a mess of noise and light. Chopper wrings his hands. He doesn’t want to go he doesn’t but. A bullet thuds into the dirt at his feet and he shrieks and bolts, tearing through the woods. Fufu thumpa thumpas up beside him and picks him up by the collar, putting him on his broad shoulders and Chopper hangs onto his ears.

‘We hide from the guns’ says the Lapin and Chopper can’t blame them. They are afraid of guns since that time. Guns mean going back to the place with the rooms and the needles and the change, now change, now change again. Lapin can’t change that he knows but he bets it ‘s the same thing.

“Can you warn Docterine?” Chopper asks. He knows it’s a lot but if she comes back into this mess she might get shot and he… He doesn’t want that… There’s no snow to seep up her blood but snow or dirt it’s all the same. The Lapin takes some time to consider.

‘Will,’ Fufu says, screeching to a stop in front of the house. ‘Guard kit.’

“Kit?” Chopper looks around and sees Lapu, worried by the door, making small whiny sounds. Chopper nods.

“Okay!”

Fufu helps him off and he opens the door for the kit but Lapu doesn’t seem to want to go inside, instead watching her father bound off. Chopper tugs her ear gently.

“He’ll be okay. Come on.”

Lapu shambles inside, looking upset. Chopper darts in after her and rests against the door, breathing hard. He shouldn’t have gone out. He should have stayed with the penguins. There is more gunfire and Lapu whimpers and pulls her ears down. Chopper pets the back of her head and then runs to Docterine’s study to get the rifle. He doesn’t know if he’ll need it and he doesn’t know if he won’t. He’s not even sure if he remembers how to shoot it. Docterine had told him once, just load it, point it and fire it. It’ll be enough to scare off the weasels, anyway, kakakakak.

Chopper loads the rifle then remembering what Docterine said, shuts off all the lights except for the small desklamp in the hall that doesn’t illuminate the windows enough for anyone to see in. Lapu comes beside him and he holds the rifle upward, then remembers and points it down. Shoot the floor not the ceiling if you’ve got to shoot anything, she’d said. He can do this. He sucks in a breath. Lets it out. Sucks in a breath. Lets it out.

He is almost calm when something pounds on the door, nearly making him shoot a hole through the floor.

“Let me in!” it’s the hunchback. “Let me in!”

“No!” Chopper calls back. No one is to be let into the house. Especially not a stranger. The door is hit harder.

“Let me in, damnit!”

“NO!”

Come on!” There is a crack and Chopper shrieks as the door moves like a living thing under him and showers of wood flakes fall on him. He looks and sees the door is dented in at the top. Lapu bears her claws and teeth, shaking. Chopper closes his eyes and keeps the rifle at the ready.

Go away he thinks. Please go away.

There is silence and for a moment he thinks it worked when the hunchback’s voice comes again, soft and breaking.

“Then…just let my friend in, okay? She’s really sick. She might die. She needs help. Please.”

It’s the please that gets him. Chopper thinks. Nods. Then gestures Lapu out of the way, holding the rifle at his side so he can open the door.

“D-don’t try anything funny,” Chopper says, trying to make his voice hard, but it comes out soft. The hunchback’s face looks drawn and worried in the half light. The girl that makes up his hunch has started to wheeze. She’s bigger than he thought and he’s not sure if he can carry her. Lapu growls a warning but Chopper shakes his head, pulling her ear to say he’s in charge now and then makes a decision.

“Bring her this way,” he says, going to his bedroom. He tears off the blanket and puts the pillows back where they belong. The hunchback carefully lays her down on the bed, putting a worn straw hat on her stomach. She smiles faintly and puts a hand over it and then seems to pass out. There is such a concerned look on his face that Chopper can’t help but speak up:

“I’ll make her better!” he says. The hunchback…whose not really but a teenager with a straight posture gives him a quick wan grin.

“Thanks,” he says with a grin which quickly fades. “They said to say that she was poisned by a toy or something.”

“A toy or something?” Chopper echoes. The sound of gunfire, closer now and the hunchback looks up. “I’ll be back!” he calls racing toward the .door. “But I’ll wait outside!”

Chopper wants to follow him, at least to shut the door, but the girl sucks in another wheezing breath, clutching at the hat. Chopper sucks in air between his teeth and rests the rifle on the bureau and hurries to pull the curtains closed before turning on the light. She’s covered with dull purple splotches and her nailbeds are blue. He doesn’t really know the toy thing but poison. It’s going to be hard to guess the right antidote. He feels himself slip into a calm state as he checks her vitals. Her pupils are dilated, her blood pressure is high, as is her heart rate and her skin is dry. He tries to ask if she hurts anywhere but she just moans softly. He can’t really tell if she’s even lucid right now. He thinks it’s something anticholinergic but he can’t really be sure and just ‘toy sickness’ is not enough to work with. But it’s so familiar.

He calls Lapu to watch over her and tell him if she stops breathing or vomits, then has the Lapin help him turn her to her side so if she does vomit she won’t drown in it. After he sees her taken care of, he goes to Docterine’s study and takes down some books. Flipping through them. Blue nailbeds though. That is…that is something different. He fetches Docterine’s personal journal and flips through it until he sees her mention it. Some kind of after effect of a certain kind of plant poisoning. Nothing about splotches though. Still it does give him some idea of how to start the treatment which he does, giving her an IV drip and putting her on a little respirator just in case. Whatever else, they’ll have to wait for Docterine to get home. Her eyes flicker under her eyelids and pain seems to cross her features.

“It’s okay,” he says, putting his hand over hers. “You’ll be safe.”

Then cringes at more gunfire and doesn’t add: I hope. Then he remembers that the door is still wide open hurries to bolt it. He turns off the main light of his bedroom and opens the curtains, pushing open the window with the rifle in his lap. He can see her well enough so that he doesn’t need another light on, and can hear and smell her better. It’s safer this way. At least for now. He needs to guard the house.

As Chopper stares out into the darkness, flinching a little at every repeat of gunfire, he has time to think and wonder again just who these people are. Why have they come up here? Why did the man Sanji save him like that? He remembers suddenly being tackled out of the way. Didn’t the man think he was weird looking, too? Even if he didn’t, even if he just caught a glimpse…It hadn’t been like that when the lab burned. Back then it had felt like everyone for themselves, human, animal…other strange creatures, sickly pale and staggering. Only the Lapin had seemed to work together but then they’d started out that way. Chopper remembered being nearly trampled half a dozen times as he tried to find a way out, almost in a panic as the flames rose and gunfire sounded outside. Just like it is doing now. Chopper jumps and grips the rifle. There is someone stirring outside. A movement.

Chopper sets the rifle to the side and leans out to see what it is. It’s hard to make out in the dark but seems like some kind of doubleheaded monster. It’s a little freaky and Chopper resists the urge to hide under the bed as he feels his skin prickle… But then he realizes it’s the hunchback again, someone with him this time. Chopper gestures for Lapu to wait here and goes to the front door, opening it a crack, and then all the way as he sees its’ the hunchback with the man Sanji who is… a mess. Chopper can smell the blood before he can see it and there’s a lot of it. Whatever happened the man can hardly walk.

“Sorry,” the hunchback says, adjusting the man’s arm over his shoulder. Sanji lists forward a bit and Chopper reaches up to catch him, but he steadies himself, barely, his head hanging. “I’m gonna have to come inside again,” the hunchback explains.

Chopper nods and thinks before pointing to the couch. It’s not ideal but Chopper doesn’t know where else to put him, cuz he still needs to keep an eye on the girl. He grabs some stuff like tweezers and antiseptic, cottonballs and bandages a needle and thread and puts some water on the stove so he can sterilize everything, then goes back out into the living room. The man is sitting up on the couch instead of lying down and the hunchback is standing in front of him.

“I’m going back out,” the hunchback tells him.

“Shit. I’m fine,” says the man. “I’ll come with you.” He puts a cigarette to his lips and tries to stand but then his skin goes ashen grey and he nearly collapses onto the floor. Chopper lets out a squwak of worry but the hunchback catches him and lays him down.

“I’ve got him,” Chopper says, racing over and beginning to undo the man’s shirt as he sees a fresh patch of blood. The hunchback nods, wavering on his feet a little and Chopper realizes he’s not in the best shape either.

“Are you sure you have to go out? You need to rest.”

“Yeah.” The hunchback’s face is stone. “I’ve still got someone I need to get.” He says it even as he’s...!

“Ahh you’re bleeding!” Chopper yelps. There’s blood dripping from his arm and face and his red shirt is darker than it should be and—

“I’ll be fine. This isn’t enough to kill me,” the hunchback says with a faint grin. “I’ll be back.” He jogs to the door, then half turns. “I might have to come in again.”

“Wait a second you’re not going to leave like that!” Chopper snaps. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with the hunchback but it’s his pride as a doctor in training to not just let him go. He grabs a roll of bandages and scowls at him. “Show me where you’re bleeding. I can put one on in under five seconds. The hunchback laughs faintly, a soft sound, then winces.

“You’re pretty handy, huh? Okay!”

“I am not handy, you bastard!” Chopper says, feeling his face flush as happy feelings roar through him. He wiggles. “Wait until I’ve done something asshole! Ahh!” He’s distracted a bit from his happy wiggling as the hunchback pulls up his shirt, revealing a wound on his side. Chopper tries not to think about it too much since he has another patient to treat first and bandages him right up in three seconds this time, tying it off.

“Thanks.”

“You can come in if you want,” Chopper says before he’s out the door. “A-anytime.”

The hunchback grins and then jogs off into the night. Chopper shuts the door. Then, on a hunch, leaves it open a crack. Just in case. He checks in on the girl briefly who seems to be stable at least before opening the man’s shirt and looking at the mess of red over his shoulder and side and chest. It’s difficult to tell where the blood is coming from but that’s alright. Chopper pulls on some latex gloves. He’s a doctor.

****


Doctorine must have had some unexpected surgery or labor in town because by the time she comes back, it’s nearing four-thirty and Chopper is exhausted. Thep person the hunchback had to get turned out to be Mr. Dalton which had nearly shocked Chopper right out of his skin to see him again. The hunchback had said he was going out to take care of the other people and Chopper had only been able to nod as he half wanted to cry at how messed up Mr. Dalton looked. One of his legs had been completely broken and there were cuts on his face and arms from glass, Chopper had soon found out. After that he’d had to give the girl another dose and go through her vitals once more before going back to Sanji and having to change his bandages. He had been taking a break and sipping chocolate powder stirred in milk when Kureha came in, Fufu behind her with a bandage around his arm.

“What the hell happened here?” Kureha asks. Chopper blinks at her blearily, unsure of even how to answer that. He can’t even manage a guess. Not with his mind so fuzzy. But Docterine is expecting an answer so…

“Um… visitors?” Chopper says. She raises her eyebrow.

“That much I see.”

“And Mr. Dalton is here!” Chopper says, remembering the weirdest part.

“Dalton?” Docterine repeats, her eyebrows rising further. Then she takes a deep breath and lets it out, pushing down her regular glasses as she looks at him over her hooked nose. “Alright, Chopper. Show me what you’ve got.”

He does. Though he wishes he’d taken better notes because his brain is fuzzy and Doctorine is wearing the look like she isn’t happy about something. The fact that she tweaks his ear tells him he messed up here and there, but in the end it seems enough because all she says is:

“Get some rest.”

He’s relieved that she can take care of it now. His eyes feel like sand and his arms and legs like lead. He goes to his room only to pull up short at the girl in there. Oh…right. But Docterine’s bedroom and the couch… Chopper blearily gets some blankets from the linen closet and makes himself a small nest in the living room when there’s another tap tap tap on the window. He wants to tell the tap tap tapping to go away. He wants to sleep. But the tapping won’t stop and so he raises his heavy head and jolts back into the coffee table.

There’s a duck in the window! A duck with a hat and goggles and curiously unwebbed feet for a duck!He’s never seen a duck wear clothes before. Cautiously, Chopper opens the window but the duck doesn’t fly inside. Instead it flaps and kwehs in anxiety.

‘Help! Help! Pretend you can understand me and help!’

“I can understand,” Chopper says, and this time it’s the duck that nearly falls out the window. It composes itself quickly and says:

‘My friend Luffy has fallen!’ He gestures a wing out the window. ‘He needs medical assistance!’

“Okay.” Chopper doesn’t know how well he can help a duck, but if he’s being asked he can’t say no. He stands up and gets his medbag, mutters something to Docterine and then pushes out into the cool morning where the sun is starting to rise. Tired though he is and wanting to faceplant into the soft dew laden grass and earth, he manages to keep up a brisk walk, following the duck who is flying ahead and then curving back so Chopper doesn’t lose sight of him, worry in every line in his body. Finally he flies ahead and begins to circle. Chopper hurries and then jumps as he sees the hunchback lying face down on the ground. Oh no!

Chopper kneels by him and carefully turns him over. The duck lands, kwehing with concern. He’s still alive but he’s pretty bloody and a little bruised. His pulse is weak, but he’s not dying—not yet anyway. Chopper bandages what he can, makes sure he’s taken care of everything that needs immediate attention, then tries to lever the hunchback up. Even with the burst of adrenaline ringing through Chopper’s veins, it’s hard to get the hunchback up to where Chopper is comfortable not dragging him over the ground.

“Oh no the gunmen!” Chopper remembers with a start. What if they were still around? What if they spotted them? Chopper couldn’t fight them and he didn’t know he could tow the hunchback to safety fast enough.

‘We’ve taken care of them,’ the duck says with a wing salute. ‘But I will watch the skies.’

“Uh…okay…” Chopper watches him fly off, deciding he doesn’t want to know what taking care of them means. Instead he focuses on the now, dragging the hunchback to the house. He manages to get there without any incident, though blearily wonders how he’s going to open the door— when the door opens for him and Doctorine is there, frowning.

“Another visitor,” she says.

“He fought really hard,” Chopper says with a nod. To get here. To get everyone safe. To keep everyone safe. Docterine suddenly cackles.

“Well it looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us,” she says. “Get him inside and get some sleep. When you get up I’m going to work you til your fingers fall off.”

Chopper nods, too tired to even be freaked out my by the imagery. There’s not a lot of places to put him so they lay him beside Mr. Dalton who is still assed out cold. But his leg has been set and it seems he’s breathing easier. Doctorine can take care of that.

As for himself… Chopper goes back to his nest and climbs in on it, asleep as soon as his head touches the pillow.
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The Remedy

March 2017

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