Present: I Can't Be Afraid,
It's My Turn to be Brave Chopper sat in the passenger seat as Robin drove, nervously fingering the messenger bag. He could feel the hard edges of the box that Law had given him under his fingers. It made him nervous just to have it. If anyone caught them with it…. If anyone caught them with it and knew what it was. And then figured out what they were… He swallowed and resisted the urge to hug the bag against his chest.
It made Robin nervous too. Or at least she was unsettled about something. She looked alright but he could see it in her dilated pupils and smell it in the air. He tried not to smell, though. Or to look at her too much to show that he knew. It felt obtrusive somehow. Normal people couldn’t do that. Robin could fool pretty much anyone if she wanted to, and him too, if he wasn’t paying attention— Almost anyone. Anyway smelling her panic made his own heart race a little and his hair bristle. It was bad enough that the change he did a few hours ago meant he was extra hairy now and he felt like he could feel stares whenever they stopped at intersections.
There was no need to be so nervous, he told himself. Law wouldn’t betray them to the cops or the NGTF people or anything like that. He’d helped Luffy once, hadn’t he? And he was a nice guy. Chopper was sure of it. Even if he was a little frightening. Also it wasn’t like they had a choice to trust him or not. They were already too deep. But…Robin couldn’t be as trusting and if she was nervous he couldn’t help but be. It was that anxiety which had kept them from even wanting to go into the coffee shop like they’d planned. Instead, they’d dropped Usopp’s car off at Sanji’s and were now heading to Robin’s hotel.
Where it was quiet.
Where they could talk in private.
He wished they could talk now, though. It was too quiet. There was nothing but the whisper of the tires on the road and the quiet woosh of the heater that was making him sweat a little. The sky was close and gray and seemed to muffle all the sounds. Even the cars driving through the melted dirty slush around them. It almost seemed like the world was waiting for something to happen. Whatever it was, Chopper hoped it wouldn’t be frightening. Things were tense enough as they were.
Chopper traced the faded Jansport logo on the messenger bag and tried to find comfort in the silence. Tried to tell himself it was all okay. That no one had known what they had gotten and no one knew what they had to do … and very few people in the real world even knew what they were; so the cop car cruising behind them wasn’t a threat at all. Chopper swallowed hard and Robin abruptly switched over into another lane, pulling into a Armadillo Gas Station. The cop car cruised on by and they both let out a breath.
“Pretty scary huh?” Chopper said, needing to say something.
“Mm,” was all Robin replied. She watched the rear view mirror a little longer before slowly pulling out and creeping back onto the road, taking the side street, Chopper noticed. Just in case…
The thought made him a little mad and a little sad and a little afraid and he snuffed in through his nose and tried to keep the mad so he wouldn’t end up feeling sorry for himself. He was stronger than that. But still! “Just in case” was the story of their lives! Never reveal too much, just in case. Be careful who sees what you can do. Just in case. Always know where the exits are. Always know where you can run. Where you can hide. The only time that hadn’t mattered much was… was when Luffy was awake.
Chopper sighed and frowned at the bag once more as they began to pick up speed. It was such a long shot, made even harder since they had to get Devil’s Seed from somewhere. That stuff was harder to find now than ever before— even though, according to Zoro, there were still plenty of Devil's Seed users in the circuits. It was like steroids or something; only twenty times more dangerous.
“This is going to be hard,” Chopper mumbled, half to himself. “How are we going to get some in time…”
“I don’t know…” Robin said, sounding sad and tired herself. Chopper’s face burned and he was glad she couldn’t see it under all his hair. He shouldn’t have said… He hadn’t wanted to make her sadder… But the truth was the truth wasn’t it? Whether he said it now or later it was still the same. They were still at the bottom of a really big mountain.
He was a doctor, wasn’t he?
He should try to lift her spirits, somehow, even if he didn’t know how he could. He looked up, watching the world pass by, waiting for inspiration to strike. Suddenly he realized he knew where they were. The neighborhood unfolded out before him like a familiar smell or a warm worn comforter. There was the dog park, and the concrete wall that Luffy used to use as a balance beam…and the college and… the Orange K where Sanji would drag anyone who wasn’t nailed down to help him haul groceries around.
“We’re going to the apartment?” he said, surprised. Robin’s fingers flexed on the wheel but her expression didn’t change.
“Is… that alright?” she said, her voice calm.
“Uh huh, it’s fine,” Chopper said automatically. And it…kind of was, even if it kind of wasn’t at the same time. He thought Nami had sold the place three years ago to help pay for Luffy’s expenses. It had made sense at the time since no one had lived there with himself and Usopp in school and Brook hanging out with Franky and his family. Zoro didn’t really crash there that much anymore and at that time the Baratie was always busy so Sanji had just stayed with Zeff…
…and…well no one had wanted to stay there, really…
He didn’t know if he wanted to go there now… The Super RV was one thing… that was a kind of cool nostalgia but… this was a lot closer to something a lot harder. But he would be strong! It must be important to Robin that they go there so he would do it for her if nothing else.
“I didn’t know you bought it back,” Chopper said.
“I never let it go….” Robin smiled faintly, though it wasn’t really happy. “He needs some kind of legacy, doesn’t he?”
“Mmhm…” Chopper said, looking back down at the bag as they got closer and pretending to yawn hugely so he could wipe the wet from his eyes. He didn’t know what kind of legacy an apartment would have. But maybe it was important somehow. Maybe they would all need it somehow.
Robin patted his arm gently, running her fingers through the long hair there as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and Chopper felt a little comforted. It would be okay. They would be okay. …Somehow.
Robin drove into the underground parking lot, turning off her lights as she went past the Super RV which occupied almost a whole row of parking spaces all on its own. The roof of it practically scraped the ceiling and Chopper had no idea how Franky ever managed to get it down here. All the windows were dark, though. Franky was still asleep, Chopper guessed.
After another floor down and all the way on the other side of the parking lot, she pulled into a space shadowed by a concrete pillar and they both got out. Chopper tried not to breathe too heavily in the stale cold air of the garage that smelled like oil and fumes. It would give him a headache if he wasn’t careful.
He tried not to be nervous as they got to the elevator, but couldn’t help but be a little tense. How would the apartment look after all this time? Did he want it to look the same? Would it be worse not to recognize it?
Robin wrapped her hand over his arm which calmed him somewhat. Then he wondered if she needed comfort too, and stood a little straighter. He could be strong for her. He was an adult now and not a kid who hid behind her. She breathed a quiet laugh like at some private joke and he couldn’t help but feel a little proud. He remained straight as the elevator doors opened with a gust of warm air and they headed down the short well-lit hall to the apartment.
He remembered the smell of this place. The hominess of it. Some of the neighbors had changed, he could tell already. But the curry and ginger lady was still there. She was really nice and when she had extra curry, which was often becuase her kids didn't come around much anymore, she would give some out to whomever that was camped by her door-- which had just been Luffy at first, and then him and Usopp and Luffy, and then him and Usopp and Luffy and Brook, and Franky and Zoro had gone once or twice, and Robin and Nami once and even Sanji had stopped by. He kind of wanted to knock on her door. But maybe then she'd ask about Luffy and maybe then he'd have to tell her and he wasn't sure he wanted to talk about that right now to anyone. So he looked away.
Their door was at the end of the hall, number 327. There was still the potted rubber plant outside, catching the light from the little window on sunny days, and the welllcome mat that Franky and Usopp had made, which was actually tied in to a really neat security system so they could see whoever was hanging out on there on a monitor just above the door. No one dangerous or bad had ever come to their door, but it was fun to pretend to be spies or secret agents and scope out the delivery guys or the salesmen or occasionally Grandma Curry.
All these memories... they weren't bad bad. In fact they were pretty good. He... he could handle going into the apartment. It wouldn't be a problem at all. Though his body decided his brain didn't know what it was talking about and his heart rate picked up as Robin pulled the keys from her pocket and slotted them into the door. The tumbler clicked. Chopper steeled himself and Robin pushed the door open and another gust of warm familiar air hit him in the face.
The apartment looked…
Almost exactly the same...
Though something was off. Something he couldn't put a finger on.
Chopper wandered in, feeling dazed, running his fingers lightly along the back of the maroon sofa. The apartment was much cleaner for one thing and smelled faintly of flowers. Luffy’s underused textbooks sat in an artfully haphazard pile on the coffee table, but were clean of dust. If Chopper opened them he knew he’d still see the doodles that they’d done in the margins to help cheer Luffy up when he was feeling too bored to live.
A peek in the kitchen and he saw dishes in the drying rack. It smelled homey, as if coffee had been brewed here not too long ago. Robin was staying here, he realized, faintly surprised. Had she been lying about staying in a hotel? He could kind of understand why. This place was kind of fragile to them and each memory seemed to hurt a little more but… but somehow it didn’t feel…right. Not that it was bad, he guessed, but it must be pretty lonely.
He tried not to think about it and instead pushed open the door to the boy’s room all the way. Robin made a noise, but it was too late. Even in the dim light, he could see the beds, all made in their style with different stuff to represent them. He recognized his old sakura pink bedspread that Robin had asked for a few months ago. But the top middle bunk caught his eye. A red blanket was tucked against a white pillow and on that pillow was a straw hat. Not—the straw hat, not Luffy’s but— it made him swallow hard anyway as it came to him what was wrong. It looked like home... but didn't smell like it. No one was here. No one had been here for a long while and their scents had just about been rubbed away. He almost wanted to bury his nose in the blankets on Luffy's bed to see if he could catch anything. But he was human and humans didn't do that. Besides, with the hat sitting where it was-- it looked almost like a memorial… As if Luffy was already gone…
Chopper turned away and saw Robin watching him, fingers threaded together, as if nervous about his reaction. He made sure to smile. It didn’t bother him that much really— and he understood why she did it and what she meant… and, and hey! If their plan worked and Luffy woke up then they could use this place again! So it was actually really convenient! He wanted to tell her this but somehow his voice kept getting stuck so he just cleared his throat and said:
“I’m going to take a shower.”
“I’ll make breakfast,” Robin said, seeming relieved. “You have clothes where you left them…”
“Where I left them…?” Chopper murmured and she gestured toward the room. He didn’t want to go in there again but— he was strong and brave. He could do this. It was just a room after all. He nodded and made himself go in, making sure to leave the door open. That didn’t stop him from remembering wild pillow fights that made Nami threaten to crack their heads open, and quiet times when Brook or Usopp would tell stories… or Franky or Luffy sometimes. He remembered one night that they’d all climbed out the window and went up the fire escape to the flat roof to look at the frosty stars. Chopper could remember the weight of his nakama pressed up against him for warmth and Luffy standing as if to look closer, hands on his hips and head thrown back.
He sniffed and pretended to sneeze so that Robin said bless you and went to the dresser, opening his drawer and finding one of his favorite cotton candy pink sweatshirts with a little ferris wheel on it in embroidery and and old pair of worn jeans. They smelled like they hadn’t been worn in a while but he tried not to think of that either and made his way to the bathroom.
There was more evidence that Robin lived here. A damp shower pouf. New shampoo and conditioner and body wash. There was a small bag of makeup on the counter, but packed together, unlike Nami’s which tended to sprawl everywhere. Robin knew what it was like to have to move quickly, he guessed. Chopper checked around and found heavy duty shaving stuff stashed in the sink cabinet. The bottle of shaving cream was even his favorite brand. Robin really knew him well. The thought made warmth flow through him and he tried to think of that and nothing else as he got undressed and stepped under the shower’s hot spray.
He felt much better when he got out, much lighter and almost cold as he always did after a good shave. He stuffed the excess hair in a plastic bag and knotted it tightly, intending to throw it away later, and then went out into the kitchen. Robin was already sitting by the table, a cup of steaming coffee sitting by her elbow and a dry bagel. She had taken the medicine box out of the messenger bag and opened it, staring at the vials with a distant expression.
Chopper got his own breakfast from the counter. She’d made him a bagel too, smothered with butter and strawberry jam. She had even made his favorite Venice dark roast organically grown espresso, blacker than a cave at midnight, which sat in a plain white mug, though he’d expected the one that had his Jolly Roger on it. But maybe she wanted to preserve that too. He sat at the table and took the mug in his hands, soaking in the warmth, watching her.
“Do you remember this?” she asked, running her fingertips carefully over the glass vials, then looked up at him. “From when… From that time…?”
“…No…” he looked down into the coffee. He still remembered a lot of it, but nothing helpful. He’d been given so many shots during his time at that place he couldn’t have said what did what. It always hurt, though, if it worked. If it didn’t, they would frown, scribble something on their clipboards and leave— sometimes for days, sometimes just for an hour and then come back with something else to try.
“Me either,” she rested her chin on the backs of her fingers. “At least not enough…”
“Well that’s okay, right? We can figure it out no problem.” It seemed straightforward enough except for the mystery ingredient. All they had to do was…inject Luffy with this stuff and hope he survived it. The only question was… He cautiously looked up at Robin once more.
“Should… we tell them now then?”
They had been holding off because Chopper hadn’t wanted to get anyone’s hopes up. But now that they had an almost cure, should they tell the others? Luffy might die anyway after all and what if they couldn’t find a Devil’s Seed? Was it really fair to give them that kind of hope and then just take it away?
Robin was quiet for a long time, staring into her coffee cup, but her mind was far away. Chopper waited patiently, eating his bagel and trying to enjoy it. It was a big decision and had so many pitfalls. If they told the others it end badly. If they didn’t tell the others— if everything worked out— it could still end badly. But then Luffy would be back so maybe it wouldn’t be bad for very long.
“Should we do it at all?” Robin said so quietly he almost didn’t hear her at first. He blinked.
“Should we…tell them?” Chopper said, hoping that was what she meant but having a sudden sinking feeling. Robin shook her head slowly and Chopper’s heart jerked. What did she mean? Was she having second thoughts? Had she changed her mind for some reason? Why? They’d worked for so long just to find this!
“Robin…” Chopper had to stop to swallow. “I… it’s our only chance! If we don’t at least try, he’ll definitely die!”
“I know…” she leaned back, holding her cup close to her chest as if for warmth… Or protection. “But if we don’t… at least he’ll go peacefully…” She took a deep breath, let it out. “Without pain.”
Even as she spoke she wouldn’t look at him. He wished she would. He squirmed, closing his hands into fists. He understood the sentiment. He did! He didn’t want Luffy to hurt either! And he knew just how much it would hurt! It might even hurt Luffy more his body was so frail already but…!
“Sometimes you have to suffer for a cure,” he said. Hadn’t Doctorine said that a million times? Shots could hurt and setting bones and going through rough medicines that made you feel like you wanted to die but… “But at the end you’re better!”
“I know…” Robin said with a faint smile, which almost immediately faded again. “But it’s a hard life to give him, isn’t it? Even if it does work, he’ll never be normal even if he wanted to be.”
Now it was Chopper's turn to look away. He stared hard at his bagel to keep back the tears that were hard behind his eyes. He knew that too. They both knew that. They both had lived that. If… If Luffy had a Devil’s Seed he’d definitely never be able to be safe. He’d always have to look over his shoulder for people coming to take him. And if they succeeded…
Chopper took a big drink of the coffee to chase away the cold that went through him. They wouldn’t succeed though. Luffy was so strong. Not just anyone could take him. And…and he wouldn’t be alone! They’d all fight to their last breath to keep Luffy safe! And he had other friends who would fight for him too, Chopper knew. It would be hard but… he could do it! They could do it!
“He’d be alive,” Chopper said, proud at how steady his voice was. “And he can go on adventures and have fun and he’ll be with us and everyone will feel better!” And they’d be a family again. If they were together— When they were together nothing could stand in their way!
He looked up her defiantly, expecting it to be a rallying cry, for her to understand and get confidence or hope for the future. They weren’t lost anymore. They were together and… and it would all be alright. But she didn’t look convinced. Instead she looked sadder than ever and Chopper swallowed in frustration. Why couldn’t he say the right words?
“I agree…” Robin said. “It would be wonderful… But it wouldn’t be his choice, would it? Do we have the right to take his fate in our hands? If it was just curing… But changing… Turning him into…” She shook her head. “Wouldn’t it make us just like them?”
The lab people she meant probably. The people who had done this to them and a bunch of other people. It wasn’t the same. Chopper refused to believe he’d be like them, because it wasn’t about seeing what would happen, but giving Luffy another chance at life. Giving them all another chance at life.
Except…what if Luffy didn’t like it? What if he didn’t want it? What if his ability turned out to be something weird or gross? Would he be mad at them? Hate them? Hate himself? Chopper wasn’t sure which was worse…
Even so… was it selfish to want him to live? If he went… where would Chopper go? What would he do? What about Robin? What about Zoro? Would everyone just drift apart? He could see Usopp going into the real world and shutting the door to everything that hurt too much to think about. Maybe Nami too. Sanji would still be there but would he be okay? What about Brook and Franky? What would they do?
But what if Luffy turned into a monster?
“Even… even knowing that’s a risk I… I still want him to be alive…” Chopper said. He was going to add: ‘but I don’t know what to do’ but Robin said:
“Me too,” in a muffled voice and when he looked up realized with a start that she was crying with her hand pressed over her mouth, eyes closed tight as if she wanted to stop but couldn’t. Chopper jumped to his feet, not sure what to do but wanting to do something to make her stop. He’d only seen her cry once before but this-!
Robin never cried like this!
What was he supposed to do?!
She shook her head, lips pressed together and stood, moving to stand in front of the window, her shoulders tense. He stared at her narrow back, fists clenching and unclenching. He wanted to hug her but… but did she really want that? Was he really enough right now? Or maybe Luffy being healthy was the only thing that would be enough. That would ever be enough. Or maybe him gone was the only thing. A way to move on.
What was best? He wanted her to tell him. To make the decision. But… Maybe she couldn’t.
Maybe he was the only one that could.
He was a doctor after all.
‘The hardest calls are always yours,’ Doctorine had told him more than once. ‘Life and death are in your hands and you can’t rely on anyone to tell you which is right.’
He hated it.
He hated it.
He didn’t want to be the one to do this.
But Robin was suffering. She was breaking under the pressure and he couldn’t blame her. She’d already done so much and fought so hard.
Chopper shored himself up and stood, hesitating only a moment before speaking.
“It’s okay,” he said, using his doctor voice and was surprised at how clear and controlled it sounded-- it was like someone else was speaking out of his mouth. He held onto that feeling as he went on. “It’ll be okay. Whatever happens you can count on me.”
And he gathered up Law’s box, making sure to make more noise than necessary so that she would watch him from the reflection of the window and realize what he meant. He didn’t want to say that he would make the decision. He told himself it was because he didn’t want to take it away from her. But as he put the box back in the messenger bag he realized he was hoping she would stop him. That she would say anything. Yes or no or even wait.
But she didn’t speak.
Chopper cleared his throat and pulled the strap of the bag over his head, settling it on his shoulder. Robin hadn’t moved. He shifted to one foot, then the other, realizing with a flash of guilt that he was still waiting on her to stop him but no…
No he would be the strong one now.
“I’m going,” he said. And then…realizing something he added, face flushing: “Can… Can I borrow your car?”
A nod was the only answer and she shifted, hugging herself as the heating kicked on in a quiet noise like a breath. That was that then. Chopper grabbed the keys from the front door table and went out.
It would be fine.
He could do this.
He was a Doctor.
He couldn’t do this.
Chopper sat outside the Resident Care Facility, staring blindly at an oddly familiar motorcycle as he drummed his fingers against the wheel. He had come here to make the decision and he’d wanted to—! But… It had been over an hour and a half and he still wasn’t sure what it should be. The pros and cons that he’d made sat on the passenger side seat, two pages front and back— but even that hadn’t helped much. It seemed whatever happened after it would be just as bad with only a little chance for it ever being good.
But a decision had to be made! And soon… before it was taken away from them completely. He couldn’t allow that. As Luffy’s doctor, he couldn’t just sit by and not do anything. But what should he decide? Chopper flexed his hands on the wheel and then rubbed his hands over his face. Maybe…actually seeing Luffy would help. It would be a step closer anyway.
Chopper got out of the car before he lost his nerve, pulling the satchel over his shoulder and strode toward the building. Butterflies danced in a frenzy in his stomach but somehow he kept placing one foot in front of the other. Through the double doors of the facility, past the front desk where some guy with 80's hair was talking to the male receptionist whose name Chopper couldn’t quite remember… As he got closer to Luffy’s door, his feet felt like lead and he almost stopped. Almost forgot how to breathe.
But he was a doctor. He had to do this. They were all counting on him to make the best choice!
And…and Luffy was counting on him too.
When he got to the room, though, seeing who was inside made him squeak and jump into the room, pressing himself flat against the wall. Smoker sat in front of Luffy’s bed wearing a dingy white motorcycle jacket lined with green fur.
Why was he here?
Did he know what they where going to do?
Had he come to take Chopper away?
Had he come to take Luffy away?
He couldn’t! It would kill Luffy for sure wherever he went.
Should—Should Chopper do something?!
Smoker lifted a hand as if reaching for Luffy and Chopper debated fiercely with himself whether to stop him or not. Fortunately Smoker’s arm curved as he reached up and took a lollipop from between his teeth, one of the big flat rainbow colored ones. Chopper blinked at it. Where did he even get that?
“Because of you I’ve had that damned coconut song stuck in my head for weeks now,” Smoker said, his gruff yet familiar voice seeming to fill the room, understated though he was. Was he talking to Luffy? Chopper wondered. Should he try to get a jump on Smoker and knock him out somehow just in case he tried anything? What if he succeeded? What if he failed?
Chopper swallowed, just about resolved to push away from the wall and do something when Smoker tilted his head back to look at him, making Chopper jolt.
“Are you going to sit down or what?” He sounded annoyed, but then, he always did. Chopper nodded, clutching the bag to him as he tried to mentally slow his heart rate and crept around the end of Luffy’s bed, giving Smoker a large berth before pulling up one of the arm chairs to the other side and sitting in it.
The arm chair was cushy and though Chopper usually liked that kind of thing, he hated the way he sunk into it, making him have to peer up a little at Smoker whose face looked like a storm cloud, even with the colorful candy in in his hand. He gave Chopper a long hard look, during which Chopper tried to look as innocent as he could even as t-shirt became damp with sweat. Finally Smoker sighed.
“I’m not here to bite your head off.”
“Then…why are you here?” Chopper asked, fiddling with the strap of the messenger bag.
“As a favor to Garp,” Smoker said, clamping the lollipop back between his teeth with a definite click like he was annoyed by that too.
“You must owe him a lot of favors,” Chopper said, surprised. Smoker snorted, seemed to want to say something, then waved his hand and leaned back in the seat—the metal squeaking dangerously underneath him.
They sat in silence for a bit, Smoker seeming content just to stare at Luffy with his arms folded. Chopper relaxed by degrees. Soon he was able to take the strap of the messenger bag from his neck, but he set it on his lap rather than the floor, feeling the hardness of the box under his fingers.
In the stillness, he tried to watch Smoker without being noticed, at first to keep an eye on any alarming twitch, but then just out of curiosity. Smoker looked a little older, but not by much. The lines between his eyes were deeper and his gray hair looked whiter. The biggest change though was the scar that seamed across his face. It looked kind of old and Chopper wondered where he’d gotten it— who had given it to him. There was also something else, something Chopper couldn’t put a finger on. There was something definitely different about him. Something big. His instincts told him to be on alert for it. But what it was he couldn’t guess. Maybe he was using cologne or a new detergent?
Chopper leaned forward a bit, inhaling through his nose, a deep breath so it wouldn’t look like he was sniffing when Smoker looked at him and he jolted back. The bag jostled and Chopper quickly grabbed it with both hands, having brief terrifying visions of it falling followed by the tiny sound of shattering glass.
“Tell me about him,” Smoker demanded. “What’s going on?”
Chopper was so out of sorts that the words just flopped out of his mouth without any input from his brain.
The words fell like a lead weight into the room. Smoker looked at him in shock, his usually grayish complexion paling. But then his eyes narrowed and for a moment he looked livid, the lollipop cracking under the force of his teeth. A bit of it broke off and he cursed, taking the lollipop out of his mouth to spit the remnant in the trashcan before throwing the rest of it alongside it.
It was a waste, Chopper thought dimly, hearing the bag rustle. Sanji would be mad. Not that Smoker was the type to actually care about that kind of thing.
“That’s it?” Smoker said, pinning him with a fierce glare.
“Nothing else,” Chopper echoed quietly. Smoker scowled, making a violent gesture toward where Luffy lay between them.
“Then why the hell am I—” He stopped himself, shook his head, folded his arms again. “Forget it. I guess it is what it is.” And then he glowered at Luffy who lay there pale and unmoving, looking almost like he’d gone already except Chopper could still just hear him breathing, and he’d seen enough corpses to know what they really looked like.
“Idiot,” Smoker muttered, but whether he was talking about Luffy or himself or Chopper or even Garp, Chopper didn’t know. He wasn’t sure what to say about it either which was fine as in the next second a man down the hall began singing at the top of his lungs.
“Denver City where the wind comes sweeping down the mounts, Denver City!”
Smoker flinched and Chopper did too. The singing wasn’t bad but he was surprised it didn’t knock everyone out of their coma. This was followed by racuous laughter that was maybe even louder than the song.
“That’s the stupidest version I’ve ever heard! And who the hell calls it Denver City anyway?”
“My dear sweet mother,” said the singing man in a hurt voice.
“Your dear sweet mother was a nut,” said the second man.
“I see,” said the singing man. “I will make amends for her failures!” There was a scuffling sound, the loud clatter of a bunch of things being knocked to the floor and the second man snapping:
“Cut that out!”
“Morons,” Smoker said with a disgusted sigh through his teeth. He nodded toward the door. “Come outside?”
Chopper rose as Smoker did, putting the bag back over his shoulder. Smoker took his phone from the night stand and pushed it into his back pocket before taking out two cigars from the bandoleer stitched into his jacket sleeve. Chopper was about to go ahead when he saw Smoker look down at Luffy and sigh. Then, reaching out, Smoker brushed Luffy’s bangs from his forehead in a motion that looked both annoyed and tender. Chopper looked away and went out the door, letting Smoker have just a little more time with him if he needed it.
In the reception room, 80’s hair was struggling with a long haired man over the control of some black object. Chopper thought it might be a gun but breathed a sigh of relief when 80s hair gained a brief measure of control and he saw it was just a stapler.
“Will you stop that?” the long haired man said as 80’s hair opened the stapler and, kneeling, placed it on his gut. “How am I going to marry your sweet mother if you staple yourself?”
“There is nothing I can…” 80s hair said. Then scowling. “You don’t even know my mother!”
This made the long haired man laugh again, just as loud the first time and 80’s hair bowed his head.
“Anyway I must. Farewell! Tekkai.” He pressed the stapler against himself. There was a click. A beat of silence. If this were some kind of samurai movie, Chopper was sure he’d see petals blow past. He waited. Nothing seemed to happen. A spent staple fell to the ground. “Tekkai,” the man said again and another staple joined it. And then he got on hands and knees and cried:
“Can I never join you, sweet mother?”
While long haired man howled in laughter.
Chopper wanted to see what happened next, intrigued in spite of himself, but Smoker passed him, already gnawing on unlit cigars and Chopper reluctantly followed, trying to look over his shoulder as long as he could as laughing guy said he maybe should try something else.
“Who the hell were those guys?” Smoker muttered as the door closed behind them, leaving them in the gray quiet. A light frozen rain had started to fall and the pellets clicked on the sidewalk and the window of the black car parked out front.
“I don’t know,” Chopper said, peering back again, but they were both turned away and seemed to be harassing the quiet reception guy. “Maybe they’re rehearsing for a play?” Though it was a weird sort of play if they were.
Smoker snorted and clamped the cigars harder between his teeth as he lit them. Chopper pressed his lips closed, half wanting to lecture Smoker about…well…smoking so much, but knowing it would just fall on deaf ears.
Smoker clicked his lighter shut and tucked it back in his pocket, but weirdly, some of the smoke seemed to follow him. At first Chopper thought his sleeve had caught on fire, but he didn’t smell anything burning… It was just a whispy trail of white, flicking and coiling as if leaking out of him somehow. Was it a weird patch of fog? Some kind of strange animal? Chopper reached for it and Smoker glanced at him, a question in his eyes. Chopper pointed to the fog thing and Smoker glanced at it, then grunted and seemed to focus on it. Chopper’s eyes widened as the smoke began to pull back, melting into his wrist.
That was why!
“You’re a logia?!” Chopper said, knowing that if he hadn’t shaved he’d be bristling right now. He’d only seen a few logias before! They were so rare! “When did it happen? Did someone catch you? How did you survive?!”
“Painfully,” Smoker grumbled. “But I chose it.” And before Chopper could ask, elaborated; “Was given the choice.”
Why would anyone choose it? Well he knew some people did because they thought it would make them stronger, but that had never seemed like Smoker to him. Smoker had always been stronger than everyone so what would he need a power like that for? The officer rolled his broad shoulders in a shrug and blew out a stream of smoke from between his teeth.
“Dangerous world out there,” was all he said. Chopper wanted to ask more but wondered if Smoker would even tell him. Maybe that was okay in the end. Chopper didn’t really need to know. But he couldn’t help but being startled. He wanted to see all that Smoker could do! To take notes and…
…And well…that wasn’t his business either. He wasn’t one of those scientists after all. He was a doctor just concerned with making people healthy again. Whatever they were like.
“Just…be careful when you go boating or swimming. For some reason water has a weird effect.”
“I know,” Smoker said. “I was briefed.”
More silence. The temperature had dropped a bit and the rain was mixing with snow now, but the small wet kind that fell fast and would soon cover up the roads. It wasn’t going to be fun riding on a motorcycle. Chopper wondered if Smoker would like a ride somewhere.
“Is that it, then?” Smoker asked quietly. “For the brat?” He didn’t turn his head but watched Chopper out of the corner of his eye. Chopper gripped the straps of the messenger bag and nodded yes, not trusting his voice. But then, eyed Smoker back and shook his head.
He couldn’t tell Smoker everything. Even if the man was sympathetic in some ways this was really illegal and he would have to do something about it whether he liked it or not. But…maybe Chopper could… get his opinion somehow.
“There…might be something but…I don’t know if it’ll work…” Chopper looked down at the curb, absently watching the dirty slush gather there. “And if it does work it might make everything worse. It probably will. And if it gets worse it’ll get really bad… But, if it works then it’ll work great! Only everything will change badly. But if I leave it how it is, it’ll be sad but he’ll be peaceful…”
When he finished there was silence and he wondered if Smoker had even followed that or not. Smoker had folded his arms and was looking out across the parking lot, rolling his teeth over the cigars.
“What do the others say?”
“I can’t tell them,” Chopper said. “That would just be cruel. If it doesn’t work at all then… then it’s just another hope gone. I can’t take it away from them.” He felt his eyes sting but blinked the tears back with pride. “I have to be the one to make the decision.”
“Then why are you asking me?”
“Because I don’t know what to do!” Chopper said, sounding more frustrated than he meant, but suddenly he couldn’t hold it back anymore. “How can I make a decision when everything ends up bad? How can I do it if everyone is going to get hurt no matter what? I’m a doctor! I’m supposed to be able to fix things! Not make them worse! But I can’t think of a way to make it better!”
He was crying, he realized, or his face was wet, but he was angry more than that, standing in front of Smoker, looming over him, glowering at him. Chopper wanted to pry an answer from his flat expression. Something he could work with. Something he could live with! It was too much for him!
“Ask your crew,” was all Smoker said. But he couldn’t! With this kind of decision—! What if Usopp left again?! What if everyone fought?! What if they shattered?! Why couldn’t Smoker understand that he couldn’t? That they might even break down like Robin did and be more hurt and paralyzed and unable to choose?! What if they did choose and regretted it?!
“I can’t ask! They can’t take it!”
“Then they’re too weak to follow that brat.”
“They’re not weak!” His own voice echoed off the stone columns and buzzed in his ears. He had shouted maybe. He was definitely holding Smoker by the collar, wanting to punch him for saying that. For that kind of insult! They weren’t weak!
Smoker just stared at him. Chopper wanted him to take it back.
They weren’t weak just…
“We can’t…” He let go of Smoker and scrubbed at his eyes. He couldn’t stop crying. He couldn’t bring the anger back to dry the tears. It just knotted low in his stomach and pulled everything in so he couldn’t stop crying.
“It—It’s Luffy…” If it were anyone else. As long as he was there. It would be hard but they would stay with him but... without him…
Chopper pulled his hat down trying to cover his face then sunk to a crouch, legs feeling weak, everything feeling weak. How could he do this?! How could they do this?! Why hadn’t anyone gone with Luffy that time?! Why had they decided that this life was a good thing?! And now—
And now he didn’t know what to do!
“Whether or not you tell them, the results will be the same as far as the monkey is concerned,” Smoker said. His voice was gruff but not angry. Still no matter what he sounded like that didn’t stop the cold bitter feeling that washed over Chopper with those words. It was true. It would be the same. This was the end. It really was. The point where you looked down at the patient and knew that soon you would be wondering how to tell their family, or if they had a family, or what you could’ve done differently even though Doctorine always told you not to think that way because it made men mad.
A cool hand on his shoulder made him peek up. Smoker was standing beside him, looking out over the parking lot. Was he going to say something? What could he say that would make any of this better?
“A crew isn’t there just for the good times,” Smoker said. “If they are, they’re damn pathetic, and not strong enough to chase after any truth, let alone the Truth of the World.” Smoker squeezed his shoulder, roughly but with warmth. “But that scrawny idiot believed in his crew with his life.” Smoker looked down at him, meeting his eyes. “You too, right?”
“R-right,” Chopper said reflexively. But then— as Smoker squeezed his shoulder again and walked off across the parking lot, Chopper realized it was true. He did believe in them. He was scared of what might happen but… but they weren’t weak… and…and they’d gotten through everything else…
And…and Robin might be sad and Usopp might want to run but…Sanji could stop him and Zoro always knew what to do when there were hard truths… And Brook had to make a decision like this before, hadn’t he? Maybe he would know what was best… And as for Franky and Nami and Vivi… Well Chopper wasn’t sure what they would say but… but maybe it would work out…
And…and he couldn’t decide this alone…
Chopper watched Smoker dust off his bike, pull on his helmet and then speed off, making a black track on the white surface. He watched the snow cover it up. He watched a car pull up at the 7-11 down the street and someone that kind of looked like Vivi’s driver pull down his hat and duck into the store. And then it seemed like nothing else would happen ever. The snow fell. The world became white and muffled. Chopper just wanted to stand there.
But he couldn’t…
People were counting on him…
He got out his phone, fumbling a little, and called the first person he could think of who could help in this. The phone rang. There was a click and the faint clang of dishes.
“Welcome to the shitty restaurant. Can’t talk. We have a rush.”
“Sorry…” Chopper said, cleared his throat.
“Are you alright?” Sanji asked. “Need someone to come down there? Need someone’s ass kicked?”
“No…” Chopper said, laughing a little, though he sounded more like a frog. “I need your help with something.”
And without a beat, Sanji said:
This was a little better, but Chopper was still feeling apprehensive. It was only about seven, but it was fully dark outside. The snow had turned back to rain and was tapping lightly against the windows. Inside Sanji’s house it was warm and toasty under the blanket. He was comfortably sandwiched between Usopp and Brook, absently watching the older version of Rudolph as Franky set up the Christmas tree and Robin looked on from her seat in the arm chair, the colored lights casting a glow over her closed expression.
Zoro was sitting in the other armchair, a beer in his hand— his fifth in the past hour. Chopper wished he would slow down a little. Laboon sat beside his chair, occasionally resting his chin on it for Zoro to scratch between his ears, while Karoo perched anxiously on the coffee table, feathers aruffle. He could tell his mistress was distressed and didn’t like it. Chopper didn’t like it either. It wasn’t good for Vivi to be in this state so long.
In the kitchen, Nami was chatting to someone and sounding frustrated.
“You didn’t have to go to the trouble,” Vivi said from the stairwell, Karoo looked up at the sound of her voice and Chopper did too. She was walking a few steps behind Sanji who was carefully maneuvering a rocking chair down the narrow steps.
“I would have been fine with one of the dining room chairs,” she said.
“It’s no shitty trouble at all for you~” Sanji said, wiggling a bit, but not enough that he was in any danger of losing his grip. When he’d made it safely to the bottom of the stairs, he set the chair almost reverently between the couch and Zoro’s spot, dusting off the faded mustard yellow cushion before sweeping a hand indicating Vivi should sit. She did so gracefully, Karoo flying into her lap, and Chopper saw Usopp give her an odd look before turning away and sipping at his hot chocolate.
“This is very comfortable,” Vivi said. “And well made. Mister Zeff has good taste.”
“It was more of a sh— more of a gift, really,” Sanji said with a grin. “But it’s pretty shitty great, right?”
Chopper guessed Sanji was talking to Usopp and expected Usopp to start saying how he’d made the chair or it was a present from some great king or something but he just smiled a little and shrugged and focused on the tv. Was there something wrong with him? Was he okay? Chopper bumped shoulders with him in a friendly way and Usopp bumped him back. Chopper exaggerated the fall a bit and bumped a little harder into Brook who said:
“More like a ton of moose,” Usopp said with a wider grin.
“I’m gonna kick your butt!” Chopper said, but he was so glad that Usopp was playing around he couldn’t help smiling a little himself.
“So…Chopper,” Vivi said, settling her hands around Karoo and the duck’s feathers smoothed a little. “You had something to say?”
Ah! She had asked so quickly! Chopper knew it had been coming but the shock of being asked so suddenly made him garble a little. Usopp went tense again beside him. Chopper wanted to reassure him somehow but he could barely gather his own thoughts which had scattered. He wasn’t even sure where to begin.
“M…maybe we should wait til Nami’s done,” he managed to get out, hoping he could at least have a little more time. Vivi smiled her polite smile, though strained around the edges and said:
“Alright,” and leaned back in the seat, lightly petting Karoo's neck. Chopper let out a breath and tried to calm himself in the experience of hot cocoa. The smell of it. The velvety hot taste on his tongue. The crunchy little marshmallows. He faintly wondered if Zoro still liked those. He didn’t really like sugary stuff much, or so he’d said, but he always ate the crunchy little marshmallows.
“So…” Vivi said as Nami’s voice rose in irritation in the kitchen. “This chair was a gift?”
“Yeah, sorta,” Usopp murmured before Sanji could speak. She blinked at him and Chopper did too, but he didn’t seem to be paying any attention to them. Vivi looked at Sanji who just smiled and said:
“Would you like some tea while you wait, my most vivacious Vivi?”
“Yes, please,” Vivi said, seeming relieved. “And a little cup for Karoo if you don’t mind.”
“As you wish,” Sanji said with an elegant bow. Though as soon as he’d gone, Vivi’s piercing stare rested on him again. Chopper looked away and pretended to be interested on what was going on the TV. Mostly though he turned over in his mind what he was going to say. He was going to tell them everything— that he knew. No matter how hard it was. No matter…how nervous they all seemed. He had to trust them. That was all. Like Smoker said. Trust them to be strong.
Reassured once again, he drained his mug and licked away the chocolaty foam, feeling the bristles under his tongue of the hair starting to pepper in again. Why didn’t it just stop. He grumbled and snuggled a little more under the blankets and then Usopp wrapped a hand around his shoulder and he felt a little better.
On screen, Rudolph was talking in jerky stop motion movements to one of the does, who shyly called him cute and made him literally leap for joy. Chopper sighed softly. He’d always liked Rudolph as a kid, and he still really liked the story now but— well— it wasn’t realistic. Girls didn’t go for hairy. He bet even Aisa would have trouble with that and she was kind of wild. He never would have had a chance with Emily even if she had liked him more than just lab partners. Anyway, all Rudolph had was a big stupid glowy nose. It even proved useful. He was still just as much a reindeer as any of them. As far as freaks were concerned he got off lightly.
“Ah, Chopper, don’t be despondent.” Brook said, patting his knee. “It’s never that easy. Not for anyone.”
“Really?” Chopper asked, feeling a faint twinge of hope. Brook nodded, the Christmas Tree lights reflecting off his dark glasses.
“As much as I’ve tried over the years… no one’s ever shown me their panties.”
“That’s not what I wanted at all!” Chopper snapped and Vivi laughed lightly.
“You’re incorrigible, Mr. Brook.”
“Ahh, Miss Vivi,” Brook said with a happy sigh. “Would you like to give me courage by allowing me to see your—”
“No she shitty wouldn’t!” Sanji snapped, appearing so suddenly he made Chopper start, popping Brook on the head with his heel; fairly knocking the old man off the couch and into the tree. He was saved only by Franky’s finger to his forehead which pushed him back into the seat.
“Can you try not to knock this over before I’ve even set it up?” he grumbled. “If you want to see panties so bad, we’ll get you a pack for Christmas.”
“That’s not the same thing and you know it!” Brook said. “Unless they were worn by a beautiful maiden…”
“I know what you’re saying,” Franky said. “But you can’t even see them anyway. What difference does it make?”
“How rude! I can always tell the difference!”
“How?” Sanji said, leaning on the couch near Brook’s other shoulder and looking intensely interested, an unlit cigarette dangling between his fingers.
“Can we not?” Nami said coming back into the living room and snapping the phone shut. Sanji looked for a single second like he might debate and then straightened, snapping off a salute that would make Smoker proud.
Chopper slumped a little himself. He’d been a tiny bit curious but maybe it was for the best he didn’t know. If he still wanted to know later he could ask Usopp he guessed. Vivi let out a breath of something like relief before she asked Nami:
“How did it go?”
“A disaster as usual. Do we really have to have Christmas parties every year?”
Of course! Chopper wanted to say. They were the best part...! Even if they'd been depressing for a while now... They always had some fun at the beginning, but by the end of it everyone got really sad and just stood around and wished Luffy were there to share it. And then they all went to see him one last time, wishing he would wake up, before going their separate ways until the next year.
Only... there might not be a next year.
Chopper gave a shaky sigh, feeling worse than ever.
"I wish you'd let me help more," Vivi said. "I know I'm not supposed to get involved too much but..."
“You help just enough,” Nami said. "You're giving us the venue, aren't you?"
"Well yes, but..."
"Then hush and stop worrying about everything under the sun," Nami said bonking Vivi lightly on the forehead with her knuckles, before sitting herself on the arm of Zoro’s chair and stealing a beer, ignoring his gruff ‘oi’.
“But it does mean that I have to get up early tomorrow,” Nami continued, taking a sip. “So, Chopper? Go.”
Suddenly everyone was looking at him. The nerves came back so that he pulled the blanket closer around himself.
He could do this.
Chopper took a deep breath and let it out, still unable to look at them so instead looked at the Christmas Tree reflected dimly on the coffee table. He opened his mouth but a loud commercial interrupted him, sending his opening thoughts scattering. Usopp picked up the remote and seemed to hesitate, as if he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to turn off the TV or not, but finally did. Chopper swallowed again. The waiting silence even louder than the commercial had been. Finally, Vivi spoke.
“Is it bad news?” she said softly.
“No… Just… Just hard…” He took another deep breath, gripped the corners of the blankets and spoke:
“Um so…for a while now I’ve been looking into possible causes of Luffy’s condition… and I think I found it.”
The energy in the room shifted immediately. Not everyone moved, but Chopper could practically feel their spines straightening, their eyes dilating. Zoro and Nami watched him with the same piercing expressions and even Laboon pricked his ears. Only Robin remained still, arms folded across her stomach and looking at the tree as if she wanted to be anywhere but here. Chopper chewed on his inner lip, wondering if he should have asked Robin about telling them...
But no, this…this was right…wasn’t it?
“Well?” Nami said.
“Oh! Um…well…” Chopper slipped his hands from the blanket to play with the mug once more, just to give his fingers something to do. “I mean…I wasn’t sure at first but Law confirmed it and…”
“Trafalgar Law?” Sanji said, propping his elbows on the back of the couch by Chopper’s head. “He’s become a pretty shitty dangerous guy, I’ve heard.”
“How did you find that out?” Zoro said, his voice low and hoarse for some reason. Was he catching a cold?
“I keep my ear to the shitty ground, Marimo,” Sanji said. “Not everything happens in the circuits you know.”
“In other words Gin tells him,” Usopp muttered.
“Shut up,” Sanji said, tweaking Usopp’s hair.
“More importantly,” Usopp said, batting Sanji’s hand away. “How did you manage to contact Law?” He frowned. “And why didn’t you tell me about him?”
“Well…” Chopper rubbed his fingers against the cup to avoid that frown. He hadn’t been wrong in not saying anything had he? “Robin wasn’t sure if he’d bring anything dangerous with him or if he was setting a trap…so….”
“Thank you for not telling me,” Usopp said, waving a hand and making Sanji donk him lightly on the head. “But wait—” Usopp straightened again. “Wouldn’t you have been in trouble if that happened?”
“Well yeah but…” Chopper shrugged. “I was kind of ready for it. It’s okay.”
“Like hell it is,” Sanji said, expression closed. “Your trouble is our shitty trouble. Even though the ravishing Robin could have protected your shitty ass and then some; if anything happened to her I would have knocked your head in.” But he said the last part without heat and Chopper knew he was really just worried about them. Still a little cold stung through him at the realization that he could have been wrong about Law after all. But Robin would have said something right?
“It’s….it’s okay …” Chopper said, wanting to defend them both. “Nothing happened.”
“Something could have shitty happened.”
“You’re super right about that,” Franky said from where he was working on something that looked kind of like a small bomb but was really the engine for the Rocket Man. “It’s fine if you want to do spy work on your own but at least let us know the details so we can come after your butts if something goes wrong.”
He glanced at Robin as he said this but it was if she wasn’t even listening.
“We’ll talk about that later,” Nami cut in before anyone could say anything else, her voice as hard as stone. “What did you find out, Chopper?”
“It’s about the Devil’s Seed, isn’t it,” Vivi said before Chopper could even open his mouth and he startled.
“Yeah!” he said. How did she know? She must be amazingly smart! She was a princess, though, so that made sense but he was just amazed at her knowing that so easily. Maybe it had showed on his face somehow?
Vivi didn’t look too happy to have guessed it, though. Her brow was furrowed and she was chewing on her lower lip, a sure sign she was worried. Karoo ‘kweh’d at her, just as worried, and snuggled in the crook of her elbow. This stress really wasn’t good for her and Chopper shifted uncomfortably, wishing he had something he could prescribe to her to make it go away.
“Go on,” Brook said, dragging Chopper’s attention away from them and he frowned into his empty cup, uncertain if he should go on. Well— he was probably too far now to go back so— better get it all out at once.
“Um…. Well to make someone a Devil’s Seed user you need five stages of medication.” He hesitated, wondering if he should go into detail, then decided they didn’t need to know the nitty gritty stuff and continued:
“Law and I agree that Luffy was injected with the second level…. It puts the body in a stress free comatose state to prepare it for the third stage…” The energy in the room shifted once more. Something knotted and complicated and Chopper swallowed and went on. “The only chance we have of waking him up now is going through with the process.”
“Then let’s do it!” Usopp said, gripping his arm in excitement, but he smelled sharply of anxiety too. “What are we waiting for?!”
“Please… It’s not quite as simple as you’re imagining,” Vivi said, holding up a hand.
“I don’t care how simple it is or not!” Usopp said. “Let’s do it! If it’s the only chance he has, then—!”
“Mr. Usopp,” Vivi said, her voice rough. “If you would please just listen—”
“No!” Usopp said so sharply and angry that Chopper startled a little, looking at him wide eyed. Even Vivi seemed startled and Karoo let out an angry Kweh that meant something like ‘hey!’ instinctively getting into defense position with all his feathers fluffed out. Only Vivi’s hands laced around his breast held him back.
“No…” Usopp said again, but a little softer. He rubbed at his face with his hands. “I just… why can’t it just be easy for once?!” He dropped his hands and hunched over, glowering at the coffee table. “Why can’t we just say we’re going to do a thing and do it? We always did that when Luffy was around!”
“It was never that easy, longnose,” Sanji murmured. Chopper chewed on his lower lip a bit, then reached over and stroked Usopp’s back, not even sure if it would do any good but hating to see him like this.
“Even if it’s the only way…” Chopper said and then hesitated, hating the next words but knowing he had to say them. He was a Doctor. This was his job. Even among them. “Even if it’s the only way…it’s…it’s not an easy way. He only has a slim chance of living through it… and…and even if he does there’s a chance the Devil’s Seed won’t take.”
“And even if it does, there’s a high probability he will go mad,” Vivi interjected solemnly, quietly, stroking her fingers through Karoo’s feathers as if to get him to calm as well. “Or be in incredible pain for the rest of his probably short life—” She shook her head, looking away, her lips pressing together tightly and going almost white before she relaxed a little. “I want…I want it to work out as much as you do but…isn’t it better to let him go?”
“Like hell I’ll just let him go,” Zoro grumbled, anger rising like a thundercloud, low and grumbly all at once and it made Chopper’s hackles rise a little to feel it. “Pain is nothing. He can get through it.”
“It’s not the kind of pain you can get through, Mr. Roronoa,” Vivi said, her own temper rising. “Warriors as strong-hearted as he is have died from it!”
“Luffy won’t die,” Zoro growled, the glass of the beer bottle creaking under his hand.
“How do you know?!” Vivi said, hands fisting on her lap. “And even if he doesn’t, are you really so comfortable giving him a life of torment?!”She squared her shoulders. “I know it’s tempting to be selfish in times like these but we must consider Luffy’s quality of life afterwards.”
Zoro seemed only a little mollified at this, hand flexing on the beer bottle like it was a stress ball, his face dark. Chopper was more worried for him at the moment than Luffy. He would go out and do something stupid if this got much worse. He had before. Chopper had patched him up more than once because of that. Sometimes even the wounds were infected which meant he’d spent too long coming to get help— though Chopper had never been able to tell if it was because he wasn’t sure if he wanted help or just because he’d gotten lost.
And…and if Luffy went…or they let him go…. Chopper couldn’t see Zoro wanting to come back at all. Chopper kind of wanted to sit on him or tie him up to keep him home. It was bad enough to possibly lose Luffy without losing Zoro too.
“We can’t say for sure what his quality of life may be,” Brook said softly. “How long have those in such chronic torment lived?”
Vivi blinked at him, then looked down, tucking a strand of hair over her ear, face concerned once more.
“I’m not entirely sure. Many of the Guardians’ secrets are—” she sighed. “Were kept even from the royal family. But tradition speaks of warriors who endured for ten days before succumbing. Some Shandian legends even have warriors lasting for months on end. In any case…” she lifted her head again. “It’s not a chance we should take.”
“But…wait…” Chopper said as something occurred to him. “These aren’t modern day legends are they? I mean… you haven’t heard of this sort of thing happening recently.”
“No, I haven’t heard,” Vivi said, sounding exasperated. “But like I said they are a very secretive group, and regardless the risk is still there.”
“Yeah but—” No wait, he couldn’t let his excitement push him too far forward. He had to ask the important question first. “Are there a lot of Guardians?”
“No. No more than a handful. Very few can survive the initiation and—”
“Yeah but there a lot of Devil’s Seed users these days, right?” Chopper said, mentally apologizing for interrupting her. “So maybe they changed the dosage somehow or modified it…”
“The Guardians probably had fewer shitty people to work with,” Sanji said, flicking open his lighter to light the cigarette between his teeth, then glancing at Vivi and flicking it closed again with a pained expression. “This Guardian thing is sacred, if I remember and they weren’t just yanking kids off the streets.”
“Oh yeah…” Chopper felt glum again. He should have thought of that. The biggest problem was he didn’t know if that made a difference or what kind of difference it made. This sort of thing would require years of study and control groups to even decide if it was the same or not and they didn’t have years even if he wanted to pursue that kind of thing. They barely even had hours.
“From what I remember, more survived than didn’t,” Robin murmured, tapping her chin. “But they were very young.”
“And Luffy is not young,” Vivi said quietly. “And very weak.”
It really did seem like a bad idea the more they spoke of it. He’d wanted to believe that it would work out but in his heart he knew what a slim hope that was. There was so much that could go wrong. So many ways Luffy could be hurt. So little chance of him not being hurt.
“Even if it’s impossible…so what?” Usopp muttered. “No matter how bad things have been, Luffy’s always pulled through and we always believed he would. Why can’t we do it now?”
“Pain can be endured,” Brook said, speaking low. “Even madness has moments of lucidity. And for my part, as selfish as it may be, I’d risk the chance for Luffy to see one more blue sky, or sing one more song or eat one more meal with us. To see his smile once more… Ah.” He paused, as if quietly shocked. “Even though I can’t see. Blind joke. Yohoho. ” And he listed forward, nearly falling into the tree if not for Franky stopping his progression with the blunt end of the screwdriver and sobbed quietly.
“Don’t tell blind jokes if you’re going to depress yourself,” Franky said, irritably, but he patiently held Brook up with one hand while with the thumb of the other, he pushed up his sunglasses. “And as for Luffy, I say we take a vote. We can talk ‘til we’re blue in the face but that isn’t going to get anything done if no one can agree.”
“Yes, it’s a good idea, Mr. Roboto,” Vivi said. “But what if the vote doesn’t…” She trailed off, frowned. Chopper could almost see her debating her word choice in her head. “…what if it … is unfavorable to one side or another?”
“Then whoever disagrees will have to suck it up and deal with it,” Franky said, giving Brook a nudge to gently ease him upright. “Just like Luffy did last time we voted. We could fight it out but it would be a piss poor way to remember him, whatever the outcome.”
“Very well,” Vivi said, Zoro just grunted but it seemed he agreed as well. Chopper wished Zoro would say more and stop looking like he was folding in on himself. He reached for another beer but Laboon got in his way, pushing the bottles aside with his haunches as he licked Zoro’s chin, asking for pets which Zoro obliged. Good dog, Chopper thought.
“If anyone’s got a piece to say, now’s the time,” Franky said. Chopper thought. Did he have anything to say? He didn’t think so.
“Keep in mind that getting the Devil’s Seed isn’t going to be easy, you know,” Nami said, folding one leg over the other and looking down at them from the length of her nose. “Even if we could afford to buy it on the black market, it’s going to alert every cop from here to D.C.. That means we can say goodbye to whatever normal life we had whether or not Luffy lives through it.” She drained her beer and rested her arm possessively on Zoro’s head, pointing at them around the bottle.
“But since we can’t buy it we have to steal it and that’s going to be ten times more dangerous and make us really powerful enemies unless we’re stupidly lucky. Again, whether Luffy lives or not. We’ll have to get back in that life with or without him… and it’ll be a long time before we’re even able to associate with Vivi again.”
“Oh…” Vivi held up her hands. “It’s alright. You don’t have to worry about me. I—”
“You’re nakama,” Nami said. “Of course we do.” And then she pinned Chopper with a glance once more. “How long do we have to get this thing anyway?”
“Um…” Chopper thought a moment. If it was seven days every other day then— “Fourteen days about… Maybe a bit longer but I wouldn’t want to push it.”
She nodded and then said: “I’m done.”
“Alright then I’ll go,” Franky said. “I’ve got two points. First, Chopper you should have told us a hell of a lot sooner. Probably even the moment you got the idea.”
“But—!” Chopper jerked a little. “I didn’t even know for sure then! And I didn’t want to get your hopes up!”
“Why not? If you were wrong then nothing would have changed. Since you’re right we could have decided what to do a while ago when we weren’t all having a bad week.”
“Oh…” he hadn’t considered that at all. Maybe…maybe he should have trusted them to begin with. “Sorry everyone,” he said, feeling red creep over his face.
“Eh your heart was in the right shitty place, anyway,” Sanji said, knocking on the top of Chopper’s hat in a gesture he didn’t think he deserved.
“Second,” Franky said, holding up the other finger. “We don’t have a lot of time to do this, but whatever you decide, decide it with a Don.”
Chopper rested his chin on folded arms as he laid on the air mattress, the blank slip of paper in front of him. He ducked his nose down against his arm so he wouldn’t blow it off the bed with his breath, and twirled the pen between his fingers. All he had to do was write yes or no and then slip it in the box in the kitchen. Yes or no with a DON. Except even though he had been fairly sure he was all for this in the beginning, the doubts had come creeping back until it was three a.m. and he still hadn’t been able to decide.
He groaned and set the paper on the carpet with the pen to cover it before rolling on his back and picking up his phone once more. He’d painstakingly written out another pros and cons list, this one shorter, but still impossible to decide anything from. He sighed and set the phone on his face, spreading his arms over the bed to distribute his weight, staring at the blue-white glow of the phone that filtered through his eyelids.
He wondered how the others were doing, or if they’d decided. It was hard to tell. Everyone was spread out all over the house so they could have privacy. The only one Chopper had seen more than once was Sanji, going from room to room, up the stairs, to make sure everyone was okay or if they needed something— but Chopper hadn’t seen him for a while now, so he guessed Sanji had holed up somewhere, trying to decide himself.
Vivi had decided already, that Chopper knew. Probably she had anyway. She’d left a few hours ago, hugging Nami goodbye, Karoo dozing in her arms. He was one exhausted duck over worry for his mistress. Chopper wished he was still small enough to be held in someone’s arms like that. To be told not to worry. To let others make decisions. Or at least tell him what decisions to make.
The phone went dark. Chopper puffed out a breath and lay there in the stillness for a moment before he heard the padding of bare feet on the linoleum of the kitchen. Who was that? He pulled the phone down and thought of craning his neck to see around the couch. The living room was dark except for the quiet winking of the Christmas Tree. It wasn’t his business, Chopper reminded himself. Though he still wanted to know anyway.
He put the phone on his face again to resist temptation and once more spread his arms out. Yes or no. What was the right thing to choose? Should they believe in Luffy’s ability to survive despite everything? Or should they just let him go? What was selfish? What was too selfish? What wasn’t selfish enough? How would they handle things if they went through the trouble and danger to help Luffy and he didn’t survive? How would they handle it if they didn’t help him at all?
How could he decide?
He didn’t know but it was giving him a headache.
Whoever had padded into the kitchen moved away from it and was now ruffling across the carpet toward him, stopping before the bed. Chopper lifted the phone from his face once more and saw Usopp standing over him, hands in the pockets of his plaid pajama pants. It was dark enough that his expression wasn’t easy to read but Chopper could kind of guess what it might be.
“How’re you doing, ace?” Usopp said after a moment.
“Alright.” Kind of. More or less.
Another beat of quiet.
“Make your choice yet?” Usopp asked.
“No…” and then because Chopper was curious. “You?”
Usopp sighed, his shoulders slumping.
“Is there room on that fail!bed for two?”
“Sure,” Chopper said, and scooted over a little. Usopp flumped on the air mattress next to him and Chopper was sure he felt the seams of the mattress shiver from the shock of added weight. If they popped it again Sanji was going to kill them. Still he didn’t say anything and instead shifted as Usopp did, trying to accommodate him. Pretty soon they were both comfortable, Usopp resting his head on Chopper’s shoulder with his big fluff of hair well out of the way of tickling Chopper’s nose.
He stared at the faint haze of color the Christmas lights threw on the white ceiling and sighed. Usopp did too at almost the same moment. A great gusty breath that came right from their diaphragms. Enough to scatter a hundred papers probably.
If Luffy were here he’d fit right between them and tell them not to worry and they wouldn’t… Well maybe they would a little because what didn’t worry Luffy was sometimes really worrying to everyone else— but for the most part they would be content and relax in his presence. Chopper wanted Luffy to be here. He wanted to go back in time and stop Luffy from going wherever he went so that he could lay between them and talk or sleep or send them all out bug hunting or star watching or start a massive pillow fight that had them all running from Sanji and then all running from Nami until the house was a giant mess.
“I’m just kind of hoping a miracle will happen,” Usopp said. “That we’ll go there tomorrow and he’ll be awake and we won’t have to decide anything.”
“That would be nice,” Chopper said. “But it would take months if not years of physical therapy for him to recuperate. He might only ever get to normal by normal people standards….” He scratched his chin in thought. “But on the other hand he’s had at least the second level and the Devil’s Seed has really awe inspiring levels of healing and regeneration. I read a report once where someone regrew half a liver! Though that study was badly sourced and hearsay on hearsay — and that supposed person already survived the Devil’s Seed transition….”
“It’s supposed to be a miracle,” Usopp said, thwapping him lightly in the chest with the back of his hand. “Don’t overthink it.”
There was a pause and then…
“But you really think the Devil’s Seed can heal him completely?”
“I think so. I can’t really be sure since it’s hard to find accurate data but— I think so…” Which sounded too good to be true. And in a way it really was. “If he can survive it.”
Another sigh which could have scattered a hundred papers. It was back to square one again and Chopper was beginning to wonder if having a little hope was worse than having no hope at all. At least if they couldn’t save Luffy they could prepare themselves to let him go. Not that he regretted looking for a solution— he could never regret that— but he kind of regretted finding one.
The phone buzzed in his hand and Chopper blinked, wondering who it could be. The only people who usually sent him any kind of messages were all in this house. He lifted the phone above his face and his heart jammed in his throat when he saw it was a text from Emily.
“Hey, isn’t that—” Usopp started.
“Yeah,” Chopper said, face going red as he closed his hand over the phone again, feeling like he was having a panic attack. She’d actually texted him! He’d given her his number before exams started, telling her to contact him if she needed any help or wanted to hang out, and now—! But what if it was the wrong number? It was probably the wrong number…. But what if it wasn’t?!
“Well what does it say?” Usopp said, nudging him in the ribs.
“I don’t know!” Chopper squeaked.
“Well read it, dummy,” Usopp said with another nudge. “I bet she likes you.”
“Shut up, she does not!” Or did she? What was he going to do if she did? Maybe he should ask Sanji’s advice first! Sanji always knew what to do about girls.
“Read it,” Usopp said, nudging him again.
“No! Not yet.”
“Read it! Read it! Come on! Man up!” More nudging, followed by tickling until Chopper was a giggling snorting mess and finally grabbed Usopp’s wrist, roaring:
“Knock it off!”
“Shut the hell up! It’s three in the damn morning!” Nami snapped from somewhere on the second floor. They stilled like prey animals catching scent of a predator but when Nami didn’t come thundering down the stairs herself to exact her wrath with sharp fists, gradually relaxed.
“Read it,” Usopp whispered, giving him a little poke.
“Okay okay!” It was probably nothing after all! He lifted the phone again and, taking a deep breath, opened the message.
Hey, Tony, it said.
“Tony?” Usopp said. Chopper squirmed a bit.
“Chopper’s kind of a weird name.”
“Yeah but it’s yours,” Usopp said, giving him another little poke.
“So is Tony!” Well technically it was Tony Tony he guessed, but that was even weirder.
“Oooh. Lab partners,” Usopp said and Chopper flushed even hotter.
“Shut up! I haven’t read that far!” he said, clapping a hand over Usopp’s mouth.
Sorry it’s so late, but I figured you’d be awake. :P I just found out we are taking the same organic chem class next semester! I heard Dr. Magharabi is tough but fair. Lol. That’s what they all say.
I hope we can be lab partners again. I miss the late night study sesshes at Rigoletto’s. See you soon, okay? And Merry Xmas! Hope it’s greaat!
“Wow,” Chopper said with a sigh, holding the phone to his chest. “Lab partners.” And Rigoletto’s! He didn’t really like the coffee there at all but Emily loved it and he would drink gallons of the stuff to watch her talk about the effects of protein synthesis in neurons during sleep or creating weird mnemonics for all the things they had to memorize. Organic Chem was all about memory so that would be really fun next semester. They might even have to stay in Rigoletto’s all night! And then maybe he could drive Emily back to her dorm and walk her up to the door and maybe even be allowed to kiss her on the cheek goodnight!
“Humph humph!” Usopp said against Chopper’s hand. Chopper unclapped his hand from Usopp’s mouth to wipe off the damp against the sheets and Usopp said:
“Hubba hubba. Go get ‘em, Tony.”
They had a brief but furious wrestling match, during which they nearly flipped the air mattress into the tree and sent the phone sailing across the room to hit the far wall with what sounded like the crack of doom. They both froze again but no one seemed to have heard it.
Only when Usopp thwapped his arm and wheezed at him to ‘get off’ did Chopper realize the phone might be damaged and lurched up, stubbing his toe on the corner of the couch and nearly tripping over the rocking chair in an effort to retrieve it.
“Hey, watch it!” Usopp said.
“Sorry, sorry!” Chopper said. “It’s okay!” He patted the yellow cushion to emphasize it’s okay-ness and scrambled to pick up his phone. It was okay. The message hadn’t even left the screen. Chopper sighed and flumped into the arm chair that Zoro had used, holding the phone in one hand and trying to think up how to reply.
No, way too weird.
No, that sounded stupid.
Maybe just okay, sure! To play it cool. But that sounded too abrupt.
Maybe he could just tell her he was looking forward to… to next semester… but…
“If we try to get the Devil’s Seed,” Chopper murmured. “We can’t go back…”
“Back where?” Usopp said, patting the rocking chair experimentally as if checking for damage before finally sitting on it, palms lightly resting on the curves of the arm rests.
“Ah. Who cares about that?” Usopp said.
“Aren’t you going to miss it?”
“Nah.” But his eyes were closed when he said it and Chopper had the feeling he wasn’t really being entirely honest. Usopp turned his head away and began to rock slowly back and forth, toes pushing into the carpet.
“You’re going to miss it though, aren’t you?” Usopp said, some emotion in his voice that Chopper couldn’t quite understand. In any case he shrugged and looked at the message once more without really seeing it.
“Mm.” He would, though. He hadn’t thought about it much but school was…really great. He felt he fit in there. Even though he really didn’t. He only fit in was because they didn’t know. Doctorine had pulled a lot of strings to make it that way— and because she was a well-respected professor— and done some kind of illegal forging of papers— it had worked so far. If he was careful he could even get a Ph.D.
And…Emily was there too… And he wanted to take organic chem with her next semester and listen to her talk and work side by side in the lab and maybe get to carry her books under blossoming spring trees.
But…there was no way he could go back to that life if they decided to help Luffy. Doctorine was one thing but he couldn’t even risk Emily being dragged into this. Even though she was super smart and super funny and the world’s scariest driver, she couldn’t fight and didn’t seem to know anything about circuts or arenas or gangs or anything beside what was in the history books. She was normal…and that’s what he liked most maybe.
She had a mother and a father and siblings and grandparents and a house. She had a dog and a cat and a car. She had big dreams, but they were of normal things like learning all the neurochemistry she could so she could help people with sleep disorders. There was nothing weird or scary about her life and it would be weirder or scarier if she even touched what might happen in Chopper’s…
And he’d have to leave Doctorine behind again too. But he was sure she wouldn’t mind. She’d always said he’d have a hard time trying to make it in the normal world, because he wasn’t normal and he never would be and those were just the facts. It had always hurt as much as he’d accepted it. And he always appreciated how she’d never said he couldn’t do it. Maybe he would have had a shot.
But the decision there wasn’t a hard one… He stroked the side of the phone with his thumb. He almost wished it was hard. It should be hard. But if it was a choice between Emily or even Doctorine and… and his family here… he didn’t want them to die or anything but if he had to give up one to save the other…
Still he couldn’t bring himself to delete the message. He couldn’t just leave her with no word— though what could he even say? Maybe she didn’t want to do anything other than be friends with him — and even that thought warmed him a little— but he couldn’t just say he’d never see her again. She’d be really worried. Or maybe upset.
He wanted to ask Usopp what to do. Usopp was always best with words. Even better than Sanji. But when he looked up he saw Usopp quietly rocking back and forth, seeming asleep or lost in his own thoughts. Even though Usopp was all about bringing Luffy back, Chopper wondered what he was giving up. He didn’t really care what the Bannermans thought— though they seemed to care what he thought even though he couldn’t see it. Would Usopp care if he didn’t get a Masters Degree in Engineering? Chopper didn’t know. Usopp could be really mysterious sometimes. An aspect of his personality that Chopper always admired! But he wished he could get a better sense of him.
“If we do this,” Chopper said, putting the phone to sleep and tucking it away for now. “What will you miss the most?”
“Me?” Usopp snorted. “I guess I’ll miss the safe feeling of knowing that a psychopath isn’t going to pop around the corner and try to murder me.”
“Well statistically you’re more likely to be murdered by someone you know,” Chopper said. Since, despite what Horror movies liked to have people believe, psychopaths weren’t necessarily murderers.
“That’s reassuring,” Usopp said blandly. “Anyway our enemies will definitely know us.”
Oh yeah. That was true.
“And if it wasn’t for me, then…” Usopp continued in a voice so low Chopper wasn’t sure he was supposed to hear it. If it wasn’t for him then what? He wanted to ask but Usopp waved a hand and went on.
“Anyway if you want to go back to school that— that’s— “ he seemed to be grinding his words between his teeth, fingers clenching against the arm rest.
“I don’t!” Chopper said quickly to relieve him of that tension. “I— I mean I kind of do, but I want to help Luffy more… even… even if it ends badly…”
Wait was he supposed to say that? The entire point of everyone being separated was so they didn’t influence each other or make each other feel bad but…
“Yeah, me too! Of course, of course,” Usopp said with a laugh that sounded forced. But he at least seemed to relax a little. “Even though it’s probably going to kill me, but what’s a little death between friends?”
“But you held up really well the last time!” Chopper said, hands clenched into fists. “You only had your left arm and leg broken, multiple contusions and sprains all over! If you can live through that nothing can kill you!” Well almost nothing. Nothing that Usopp couldn’t run from. Probably. Hopefully.
“Funnily enough I remember that vividly,” Usopp said. “You think I’d’ve forgotten being massacred by now but weird thing memory.”
“I couldn’t forget…” That Kuma guy had been really strong. Even now he still had nightmares once in a while.
“No, I was—” Usopp sighed and slumped back into the chair. “Never mind. The point is I’m going to have to figure out a way to get stronger or I’m really going to get crème brûléed.”
“But… but you are strong,” Chopper said. Even if they weren’t as strong as the others in their group, Usopp had always been one of the strongest to him.
“Chopper,” Usopp said waving a hand. “I know I told you a lot of stories but—”
“No, but you are!” Chopper said. “Physically you’re close to the peak of your condition compared to other men your age.”
“You sound like a textbook,” Usopp said dryly. “And anyway, that doesn’t—”
“And you’re a really good shot still. Even better now!” Chopper nodded. “And you’re the fastest at running away out of anyone I know! You’re even faster than Nami!”
“And you’re practically an engineer!” Chopper said, on his feet now, excitement driving him upright. “You could probably make some really cool ballistics!”
“Listen, I—” Usopp paused. “I really could do that, couldn’t I?”
“Yeah! Yeah!” Chopper nodded enthusiastically. He wanted Usopp to be enthusiastic too. He wanted to shake the enthusiasm in him but words would have to do. “You could make um… um…firework stars!”
“Or tracking stars,” Usopp said. “Or exploding snare stars. Or…” Suddenly Usopp went so still Chopper thought he’d had some kind of sudden stroke. But then he got up slowly and gripped Chopper by the shoulders, excitement tingling in the air like sparks, like it would ignite Chopper’s nose hairs if he wasn’t careful.
“The Kuro Kabuto,” Usopp said in a reverent whisper. “I could make the Kuro Kabuto.” Chopper shivered, goosebumps rising up on his skin. He didn’t know what that was, but just by the way Usopp said it, he knew it was awesome.
“I want to see the Kuro Kabuto,” he said in the same tone.
“Young Chopper, when you see the Kuro Kabuto you will die of excitement. You’ll be like a girl at a Beatle’s concert.”
“Yeah I’ll be a….” Wait. “Why am I a girl beetle?”
“Backstreet Boys Concert?” Usopp said. “Reading Twilight? You are my own personal brand of heroin? No? Not that I know much about it but….”
“Usopp,” Chopper said, taking Usopp’s shoulders gently. “I can’t understand you.”
“It’ll be like meeting Tom Baker in person.”
“No way that’s too exciting!” Chopper said overcome by the rush of feeling just thinking about it. “How can I even survive you using it if it’s that awesome?!”
“You’ll ju-u-st ha-ave to try-aye-aye,” Usopp stuttered and Chopper realized he’d started shaking him and went to hug him instead.
“I think I’m going to cry. Is it okay?” Was it manly? Was it? A Tom Baker like Kuro Kabuto! Ah. It was like drinking a gallon of coffee.
“Stay strong, young Chopper,” Usopp muffled. “Also I can’t breathe.”
“Oh sorry.” Chopper let him go. “When can you make it?” Soon, he hoped! Really soon! He’d need a lot of time to get used to it so it wouldn’t distract him in the midst of a heated battle!
“That’s the thing, I don’t know where I’m going to get the parts for it.” Usopp rubbed his chin. “Let alone the high tech ballistics.”
“Oh yeah…” That was a problem.
Usopp rubbed his chin.
Chopper thought some more.
But then he knew…
“We have a Franky,” Chopper said gripping Usopp’s shoulders once more.
“We have a Franky,” Usopp said, gripping Chopper back.
“We have a Franky,” Brook said laying his pale slender hands on their shoulders. Chopper nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Where did you come from?” Usopp snapped, having jumped a mile too. Brook startled as well, holding up his hands.
“I was in the coat closet!”
“What were you doing in there?” Chopper asked.
“Crying my eyes out,” Brook said. Then clapped his hands to his face. “Oh no! I really did! I can’t see a thing!”
“Oh no!” Chopper cried out, reaching for him.
“You were blind already,” Usopp snapped, whapping him on the head. Brook spun around, laughing wildly before landing perfectly angled with his head against the wall.
“Ooh,” Chopper said, applauding accordingly.
“Great perfect. Let’s go get Franky,” Usopp said. Spurred on by enthusiasm, Chopper was the first to the door as they tumbled out of the house and into the wild frosty night. There was snow on the ground, fresh. But the sky was clear and jumbled with stars and a Cheshire Cat moon grinning down on them. Chopper whooped and Usopp whooped but for a different reason as he nearly took a header on a patch of ice. Chopper laughed and helped him up and then ran, bare feet crunching over snow, to where the Thousand Sunny Going Merrily was parked at the end of the street.
Chopper skidded to a stop in front of the door, hearing Usopp and Brook loudly crunching up behind him and hammered on the door with all his might. It flung open in a great burst of anger and Franky and a pea shooter pistol finger to the face, but Chopper didn’t care, he was grinning too much.
“What the hell is going on with you guys?” Franky said. “You get into Zoro’s booze or something?”
“No, nothing like that,” Usopp said. “Damn it’s cold. Hey, Franky, let us in.”
“Well you better have a super good reason blasting me out of bed like that,” Franky said, capping his finger. “I’ve been having a bad week.”
“I can tell,” Brook said. “You have toilet paper stuck in your speedo.”
“What?! Crap!” Franky looked down to his perfectly okay boxer shorts. Chopper snickered. Franky looked up, pointing a finger at Brook.
“You are going down, afro man!”
There was a beat of silence and then Brook took off, yohohoing down the snowfilled street, arms in the air, with Laboon bounding at his side, happy but concerned. Franky was about to take off after him but Chopper stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Wait! We need you to help build the Kuro Kabuto!”
“Huh?” Franky pushed his sunglasses up. “What’s that?”
“It’s like Twilight Beetles or something!” Chopper said. “But really Tom Baker.”
“Run that by me again?” Franky said.
“I-It’s a w-w-weapon,” Usopp said, teeth chattering. “I ha-have a f-f-few id-deas b-but m-maybe w-we c-can d-discuss them i-i-inside.”
“Yeah and ballistics!” Chopper added.
“Well why the hell didn’t you start off with that?” Franky said, stepping back. “Come in and let’s see what you got.”
Usopp bustled in ahead of him, shivering and wiping snow off his feet and Chopper was about to follow when Laboon boofed down the street, asking for help.
“I’ll be back in a second,” Chopper said, before chafing his arms a bit against the swirl of bitter wind and going to look. Brook had yohoho’d his way into a little playground and gotten tangled up in a swing. Laboon stood by patiently, tail wagging slowly as Brook, half slumped over, swung gently back and forth.
“Are you okay?” Chopper asked, untangling him gently, and then because he noticed Brook was just wearing socks added: “Do you want a piggyback?”
“I’m not hurt. I just slipped. And cracked my skull and turned my ankle and ah— my arm has gone numb. But yes, I would love a piggyback.”
“That counts as being hurt!” Chopper snapped, but continued untangling him with the greatest care before helping him sit on the swing. He crouched to inspect Brook’s ankle, which seemed alright, and then his arm.
Maybe it was because of the quiet or the cold which finally began to sting his ankles, but some of the momentum of the excitement had faded away, leaving him with the creeping doubt that tickled his stomach. He still wanted to vote yes. Despite Vivi’s concerns and Usopp’s fear— And Chopper wondered guiltily if he’d somehow tricked Usopp into voting yes by being so enthusiastic about his talent. Usopp had more to lose than he did, after all. What about Usopp’s dreams? Chopper wasn’t even sure what they were… But he found himself even more guiltily thinking that he’d rather take a chance on Luffy.
“You seem preoccupied,” Brook said.
“Oh, sorry,” Chopper murmured, realizing he was just holding Brook’s arm. “You’re fine.” He turned and bent to give Brook his back and felt the thin hands flutter along his back and shoulders, testing and searching for where to go before finally settling along his neck, bony fingers clasping together. Chopper gathered his spindly legs, clad in soft cotton pjs, and hefted Brook’s slight weight, which felt only a little heavier than an overstuffed bookbag.
“Have you cast your vote?” Brook asked as Chopper carried him back to the RV.
“No,” Chopper said, feeling a little stung. He wanted to say he didn’t know what to do yet. But that wasn’t really true at all. The only thing that was true was: “I don’t want to.”
“Ah,” Brook said, as if understanding. Chopper wanted Brook to tell him not to worry about it. That it was just one vote and that he could rely on the others to make the final decision. But instead Brook said:
“None of us want to, I think. But we must.”
He knew they must. He knew it was only fair. He knew that there was no miracle that could save Luffy. Only hard work and dangerous risks. He knew no one could vote for himself and a single vote could change the tide. But— He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to be responsible. Even just thinking about it felt like trying to roll a huge rock uphill and the only way for that rock to go was down, even if he did reach the top.
But everyone was pushing their own rocks. And he knew that. And he had to make a decision. And he knew that too. But even imagining himself writing down a word on that scrap of paper made him break into a cold sweat. Still, he couldn’t just run away from it. He had to stand up just like everyone else was or he’d never be able to stand up with them again so…
Why couldn’t he just do it?
He was pulled from his thoughts a little as he approached the door to the RV and heard Franky talking in a low voice. There was nothing excited about his tone. Curious, Chopper peeked in and saw Franky and Usopp sitting at the kitchen table. Usopp had his head buried in his hands, fingers rooted through his hair, while Franky rested a hand on his shoulder. Franky noticed them and made a hand gesture, telling them to move on, and Chopper did, crunching over the snow which just minutes ago they’d been happily charging through. Now it felt like it had never happened at all.
“What’s happening?” Brook said, sounding anxious. “Why didn’t we go in?”
“Usopp is upset,” Chopper murmured. “Franky was talking to him.”
“Ah,” Brook said. And then after a moment: “Would you like to talk to me?”
“Mm-mm.” Chopper shook his head. He didn’t have anything he really wanted to say or anything he could say that Brook could help him with. At least he didn’t think so. But…Maybe…
“Hey… um… could you… keep me company? While I vote?” Because even if he had to vote alone, it wouldn’t be so hard maybe if he wasn’t completely alone.
“Of course,” Brook said. Chopper wished he felt more reassured by that, but he did feel a little reassured like a warm little candle flame in the center of his chest.
Sanji was sitting on the front steps, smoking and looking like he still hadn’t slept. He raised his eyebrow at their lack of shoes and muttered at them that they wouldn’t help anyone getting a shitty cold— but then opened the door for them anyway.
Inside the house was dark and warm. The Christmas Tree shivered with lights like a memory of happier times. The smell of wrapping paper. Stockings stuffed to bursting and hung on the wall. All three of them sleeping by the foot of the tree, Usopp with his hand on the string of a trap to capture any errant Santa Claus.
And in the kitchen the box sat on the table, gleaming dully red under the single light. It was made out of wrapping paper and cardboard and had the words, “Super Ballot Box II (non-exploding)” written in sharpie across it.
Chopper set Brook down, found his note card and pen and took one last look at the happy tree and then turned away, heading for the kitchen with Brook falling in step beside him, a thin hand on his shoulder and Laboon’s claws clicking against the linoleum.
He stood in front of the kitchen table, staring down at the box. Tomorrow, everything would change, for better or for worse. This was the last night when things were going to be certain for a long while. And as soon as he made the vote… he couldn’t go back.
“You’re almost there,” Brook said in a low voice. “Just a little bit more.”
Chopper nodded. Swallowed. Wrote “yes” in big black letters and folded up the notecard. He hesitated as he held it over the slit and then pushed it in, hearing the shift and scrape of it hitting others. Goodbye, Emily, he thought. Because even if they decided to let Luffy go, he knew, he couldn’t go back to the life of pretending anything was normal.
“Very good,” Brook said warmly. “You’re a man today, Chopper. Even if you are a yeti.”
“Shut it,” Chopper said automatically but his voice was creaky and he sniffed. Was he a man now? It felt hard to be a man. He felt faintly sick. There wasn’t much pride at all.
“Now the hard part’s done. Let’s get some sleep,” Brook patted his shoulder. “Tomorrow is going to be a long day.”
A long day. A long week probably. A long month.
Still, as Chopper turned back toward the air mattress with Brook beside him, he couldn’t help but feel a little something. It wasn’t happiness exactly. Nor was it relief. But it was like he had taken another step on some invisible staircase and he felt just a little more ready for whatever tomorrow would throw at him.