No Need to Say Goodbye
He is trying to perform surgery on the man named Sanji. The light overhead is a cruel eye, swinging back and forth as he digs around the open cavity, chasing down the bullet that makes a creepy melody as it dings against the ribs. That one of his hands is still a hoof doesn’t help.
“Sponge,” he says, and leans down, trying not to fall off his step stool so Lapu can dab the sweat from his forehead, her tiny nurse cap askew.
Across the way, Doctorine is working on Mr. Dalton, speaking to him in low tones as he lies strapped to a gurney, a rainbow of IVs pumping into his arm.
“Change” she says. “You’ll have to change or you’ll be in trouble.” But she seems concerned.
Chopper blinks and wonders why she’s saying this but Lapu informs him the snow is coming and the cave doesn’t have a door. More bullets are plinking on the man called Sanji’s ribs now; sounding like rain. Chopper grabs more tweezers, frantically trying to stop them before they can reach the spine.
“What about me? Hey!” The hunchback says, standing at the entrance to the cave in the shadowy snow that’s more like ash, holding the girl in his arms. “I need help. Don’t leave me. Don’t go away. Please.”
“J- Just a second!”Chopper tries to call to him but his voice is too small, just a whisper. So he decides to work faster only the man’s ribs are full of bullets now and they’re starting to rattle around as he breathes.
“I’ll take care of it,” Doctor Hiriluk says and Chopper finds himself sitting on the threadbare cot in one side of the cave. Curtains decorated with strings of beads and animal bones and feathers hang across the way but he can still see Doctor Hiriluk through the gaps. His friend is standing in the middle of the cave, blood pooling at his feet and dripping from the holes in his chest, trailing down his arms and from his mouth.
“I’m a doctor after all.”
But he is hurt! Chopper starts to tear up bandages from the bed sheets in increasing fury. He needs to stop the bleeding before all the blood is gone. The snow is falling thicker now. It smells like ash and ozone and burning things. Bullets whine in his ears and somewhere someone cries out. He struggles to get the bandages to Doctor Hiriluk, fighting against the deep snow, first on two legs, then on four.
“It’s okay,” Doctor Hiriluk says, reaching for him. Fading. Tears in his eyes. Warm on Chopper’s face. He can help this time! He really can!
”Live your life. We’ll meet again soon…” Doctor Hiriluk says even as he fades. Chopper shakes his head, eyes growing heavier and heavier with salt and tears. His heart feels like it will burst as he tries to make headway through the snow that’s rough like concrete now and just as thick. It’s hard but… But he can go on…!
He knows he can!
“Wake up!” Doctorine roars in his head.
Chopper wakes with a start and blinks the wet from his eyes, his heart thudding painfully against his ribs. He stares blindly upward until his eyes adjust to see the looming shapes of coats hanging above him. They smell like summer closet. Hidden and musty. A big furry meaty arm flomps over his middle, bringing with it the soft musky milky smell of a Lapin kit. He pets Lapu’s big arm comfortingly and stares at the thin needle of light that’s coming in through the crack of the closet door. He doesn’t know if it’s morning or afternoon or what.
It feels like they’d spent days hunched over the makeshift operating table in the apothecary room, first on Mr. Dalton who needed it the most and then the man called Sanji who had had a bullet worryingly close to his spine. Chopper had almost fallen asleep twice and chugged so much hot coffee he was sure he could feel his teeth still chattering from it.
Still after all that, or maybe because of it, he is still sleepy. He wants to turn into Lapu’s furry chest and doze in the warm security of the closet when he hears Doctorine’s voice, muffled by the door but needle thin and irritated.
“Well glad you’re awake finally.” There’s the slosh of liquor and then: “Better timing than when we were digging a bullet out of your thigh. Kek kek kek”
“You really are an evil witch to joke about things like that,” says a voice like rough gravel. It takes a second for Chopper to realize it’s Mr. Dalton. He pets Lapu reassuringly and pushes her arm out of the way receiving a sleepy ‘growf’ and peeks out of the closet, squinting in the morning sunlight. The door to Doctorine’s room is cracked open and though sleep still pulls him, he wonders if she needs any help.
Chopper carefully closes the closet door behind him and creeps across the open space but peers through the crack in the door rather than going inside just yet.
Mr. Dalton looks larger than life on Doctorine’s bed, even with his leg bandaged and his skin grey with exhaustion. Chopper has never seen him this bad before, but a doctor’s sense tells him he’ll be okay so long as he gets rest and fluids so his body recovers.
“A witch, am I?” Doctorine says. “Well I can’t argue with that. Especially since I’m feeling in the mood for a little ox-bone soup about now.” She sets the bottle on Mr. Dalton’s stomach with a thump, making him wheeze and Chopper wince a little in sympathy.
“What’s with you bringing those brats around here and disrupting our peace? Them and whoever it is that made sure you’re anemic right now. You never fail to bring troubles to our door.”
That’s true… Chopper picks at a bit of loose wood around the doorframe. He does always seem to bring trouble… Two years ago when they were still on the move, Mr. Dalton would go out to find zoans— kind of like Chopper!— nervous and edgy and wounded. It had been fine at first, but always they’d have to move again, because the ones who wanted whomever Mr. Dalton had freed would be right on their tail. Those had been scary times and the Lapin had been constantly on edge and Lapu’s mother had died from the stress of that and pregnancy but…
…but they had given those zoans a place to get help, if even for a little while. And as scared as he had been, Chopper always felt like he was doing something good. Something Doctor Hiriluk would be proud of.
“I won’t apologize,” Mr. Dalton says, gaze fixed on the bottle on his stomach. Even as he says it he looks like he kind of wants to. “They need your help. You’re the only one I know who can—”
“Save it,” Doctorine says, and then in a lower voice. “I don’t even know if I can help that girl. And even if I could, why should I? She won’t do us any favors.”
“I owe her favors,” Mr. Dalton says, meeting Doctorine’s eyes and seeming to get some color back in his cheeks from the effort of his will. “Her and the others that came with her.”
“Oh, yes, I’m sure you feel you do,” Doctorine says, lifting the bottle once more, then tilts her head back a little, the silver braid falling off her shoulder.
“If you’re awake enough to be eavesdropping, go check her fever,” Doctorine says with a sudden fierceness that makes Chopper jolt. “And tell that brat in the kitchen to lay the hell down.”
“O-okay!”Chopper says, scrambling to do as he’s told and as he goes he hears Doctorine murmur:
“How the hell do you expect me to protect that boy…”
Chopper’s ears burn and his face too. It isn’t like he doesn’t want to be protected. He would rather die than go back to a lab but… but he wishes he were strong enough not to need that kind of help! Especially since it meant that other people who were hurt or wounded or needed freedom didn’t get it.
He just has to try harder somehow, that’s all. Grow up faster so Doctorine and Mr. Dalton don’t have to worry about him all the time. He’ll just eat a lot of vitamins and exercise a lot and get really buff! That should help.
He clenches his fist in determination and strides toward his room where the girl is, only to slow and stop and press himself flat against the inside wall as he sees the hunchback awake. He is sitting with his back to the door, watching the girl on the bed.
His name is Luffy, Chopper remembers, and he is very strong. He hadn’t even been shot once! Just grazed a little here and there and cracked a rib. And even after that, he’d kept going out to bring all his friends in safe. Remembering that makes chills prickle up Chopper’s spine. That’s strength. To save everyone you want and still be alive afterwards.
But weirdly, even though he’s strong, he doesn’t look buff at all. And he doesn’t even look all that grown up! He looks like he could easily be on the set of a high school show.
Luffy shifts and Chopper startles, pressing himself even harder against the inside wall so he won’t attract attention. But Luffy stretches and then scratches the back of his head and after a moment, pokes her red cheek lightly.
“Oi, hang in there,” he says.
Oh, right, it’s doctor time. He has been sent on a mission to take care of her. Chopper clears his throat so he won’t startle Luffy and approaches the bed.
“I’m just going to take her temperature and stuff,” Chopper says, pulling the medkit from the top drawer of the nightstand where he’d stashed it last night. Or was it the night before?
“No problem!” Luffy says grinning and shifting to face him. “Hey, thanks for dragging me back. I kept falling asleep out there!”
“You were just asleep?!” Chopper says with a wave of shock. He had felt seriously unconscious!
“Yeah I couldn’t remember how to get back so I just took a nap.”
“Took a nap?!” Chopper can’t help but goggle at him. Out there in the forest with all those bad guys around? But then he remembers that duck Karoo saying that they took care of them all. Which is even more startling. How can a teenager and a duck take care of grown men with guns?
"How did you do it?" Chopper asks breathlessly.
"I did gorilla stuff..."
"Gorilla stuff...? Chopper asks, peering at him closely. What does that mean? He's pretty sure Luffy isn't a zoan. Or at least he doesn't smell like one, so that's a little strange. He's about to ask but the girl stirs on the bed, drawing his attention and he startles to see her eyes open, just the barest of slits, then wince as if the sunlight hurts them. She shifts to focus on him and a furrow forms between her brows as if she’s trying to make him out. He must look weird without his hat on.
“What’s the prognosis, doc?” she says in a voice that’s barely a whisper.
“I’m just the assistant,” Chopper murmurs. “And I don’t know what’s wrong … not yet. Um… Can you hold a thermometer?”
She nods, then closes her eyes and grits her teeth.
“Mm…” Chopper says. That’s worrying. He makes a note of it on the little yellow pad and gets out a thermometer. “How do you feel.”
“Head hurts. Everything hurts. Cold.”
“Want more blankets?” Luffy asks. “Or maybe one of the furry guys can lay on you.”
“Furry guys?” Chopper echos, not understanding at all but picturing massive gangsters in striped fur coats. He shakes his head.
“It’s probably the fever making her feel that way.” He sanitizes the thermometer and then patiently puts it in her mouth. It seems she can hold it well enough so he notes the unusual colored spots on her skin which don't seem better but also don't seem worse.
“Can we give her meat or vegetables to make her better?”Luffy asks. He’s shifted to sit on the floor, resting his chin on the bed, watching the girl intently.
“It might help her recover strength but either way it’s going to take a while.”
The girl shakes her head from side to side, then her teeth clench and her fingers claw at the bedspread. What’s wrong with her? Was she hurting? Chopper keeps his expression calm. Whatever it is he can’t help her right now and he feels Luffy watching him as if judging for reaction. The thermometer beeps and Chopper checks the temperature. It’s high, but not enough to worry so long as it doesn’t get much higher.
“Have to move. ‘For it’s too late,” the girl says, though slurs so bad Chopper can hardly make it out. He nods, sweat sliding down his face.
“Mm. I’ll tell Doctorine. You rest now.”
She relaxes but only a little, her eyes falling closed again but her body remaining tense. Chopper finishes the last of his notes and notices her IV bag needs changing— except they’re down to one now. This isn’t going to go well if she’s in this state much longer.
“The old hag can help her right?” Luffy asks.
Chopper wants to say yes of course! He wants to say it will be alright. He wants to reach in his medkit and pull out his last precious bottle of sakura water that Doctor Hiriluk gave him and have her drink it and let her know it was all going to be okay.
But he doesn’t know if it’s going to be alright and Doctorine can’t help her and the water doesn’t work. He knows it doesn’t because they had to bury Doctor Hiriluk under his tree because there’s hope, Doctorine had said, and then there’s reality.
“She’ll do her best,” Chopper says, which is as much as he can say. Luffy puffs out a breath of air as if accepting this and turns to watch her again, fidgeting a little with his feet as if it’s hard to keep still. Chopper doesn’t want him to be too sad, though, so adds helpfully.
“Doctorine’s really good though. So her best is better than just about anyone.”
“Really?” Luffy says, lifting his head a little and at Chopper’s nod he grins. “Great! Maybe she can join my crew.”
Crew? What did he mean by that? Chopper knew that sailors were in crews and that there were rowing crews, but there wasn’t any water for miles and miles. What else could he mean? Chopper’s curiosity is burning, but then he hears a clatter in the kitchen and remembers his other task.
“I’ll be right back,” he says. “Don’t go anywhere! I’ve got a question.”
Chopper hurriedly packs the med kit away and rushes to the kitchen, the wonder buzzing around his brain. Crew. No one said anyone was crew. Friends maybe. Family maybe. But crew?
The smell hits him before he is halfway there, almost but not quite side-tracking him from his questions. It is a good smell. The kind of smell that, if this were a cartoon, would have a tendril of smoke with a beckoning finger. Chopper follows it as if floating and finds that there were pancakes in the kitchen! Actual pancakes!
And bacon sizzling deliciously and making his mouth water. Lapu is already there, happily gorging on a plate of bacon that has been set on the floor for her and the man named Sanji stands at the stove, flipping scrambled eggs in a skillet.
Ahh! It is so beautiful! His stomach grumbles and before he can think to hide, the man called Sanji half turns and offers him a wan smile.
“Morning,” he says. “Better dig in before the shitty meathead gets a sniff.”
“Dig in? Really?” Chopper says, his voice practically a squeak. “What can I have?” It all looks so good! He doesn’t know how to choose!
“Anything you want.”
“Wow! Thanks!” It’s suddenly the most amazing morning of his life. He grabs a plate from the cabinet using his stepstool and then gets some pancakes with whipped cream on top, with bacon and ham on the side. Even better Sanji gives him a small plate of scrambled eggs that steam lightly in the air.
Chopper sets his plates almost reverently on the table— but before he can eat he pours himself a glass of milk, does a little dance at the sight of freshly made coffee and goes to pour himself that too.
“Hold on half pint,” Sanji says, putting a hand on top of the coffee maker. “I made that for your mom.”
“Eh?” Oh, he must mean Doctorine. “She’s my teacher. And she doesn’t drink coffee. This is mine.”
“Yours?” Sanji’s eyes widen. “That shit can strip paint! I felt my shitty nosehairs wake up just opening the lid!”
“Yep!” Chopper says happily, finishing pouring and setting them both on the table beside the plate. First he takes a sip of milk to get all the morning gunk out of his mouth, and then slurps at the coffee, juddering as the lightning sensation bristles him all the way to his toes.
“Shitty black and everything,” Sanji mutters. “It’ll stunt your growth.”
“That’s a common misconception. There might be a slight limit on your ability to absorb calcium but your body adjusts to that really easily.” Which doesn’t mean it’s healthy either, but coffee is his home and he doesn’t care if he has one unhealthy thing.
“No shit,” Sanji says, seeming completely dumbfounded. Chopper nods and picks up a fork to cut through his pancakes. Sanji stops him with a raised finger and dribbles some syrup on it—which looks almost as good as coffee as it slides and goops over the pancakes' golden brown surface. The fork cuts the pancakes easily with a pleasant resistance and as he pops it in his mouth it’s like heaven has melted on his tongue.
“Ahh so delicious~!” he croons, holding his cheeks and swaying back and forth on his chair. He wants to keep this taste in his mouth forever.
“Good?” Sanji says sounding amused.
“It’s better than Waffle House!” And that took some doing! Wow!
“Thanks, I think. You might want to start on that shitty bacon though.”
The bacon isn't shitty at all. In fact it is just the right amount of crisp and crunch and flake on his tongue and now he knows why Lapu is licking the plate and making happy growly sounds.
“So your teacher, huh? What is she your governess or something? Like Mary Poppins or some shit?” Sanji says, setting the bowl of scrambled eggs on the table, before straightening, flinching and putting a cigarette between his lips. Chopper gives him a hard look as he goes to light it and he looks back, sighs, and drops his hand, finger rubbing against the match absently like he really wants to light it.
Well he shouldn’t! Smoking is worse than coffee!
Chopper shakes his head at the question, though. He only knows Mary Poppins is a kid’s movie and it’s something about London and an umbrella, but he’s sure Doctorine isn’t anything like that.
“She’s a doctor. She’s teaching me how to be one.” He takes a bite out of the eggs and decides they are almost as good as the bacon and chews them happily. “She’s really good!”
“That’s shitty good to hear.”
Chopper can’t help but stare at him, fascinated. He says shitty so much without being sarcastic or anything! Is it some kind of weird verbal tic? What if things really were shitty? Would he still say shitty then too? Wouldn’t that be confusing? Chopper wants to ask but as his cheeks are bulging with pancakes now it’s sort of hard.
“Going to medical school one day then?” Sanji asks with a grin. Chopper looks down at his plate, some of his good feelings ebbing away. He doesn’t know if he can go to medical school. He can’t even go to regular school and don’t you have to start somewhere? Don’t you have to get grades and SATs? He swallows his pancakes, washing them down with milk so he won’t choke and asks:
“Do doctors have to go to medical school?”
“Pretty damn sure,” Sanji says turning back to the stove to put more bacon in a pan. Well damn sure didn’t mean he knew right? Doctorine hadn’t said anything about that and she’d been a nurse in the first war and a doctor in some of the second. She would have told him if he couldn’t be one, right?
Suddenly Sanji curses softly and hunches, gripping his side and with a start, Chopper remembers what he came in here for. In an almost panic he scrambles out of his chair, waving his hands.
“Hey! You’re still injured! You have to sit down!”
“I’m fine,” Sanji says, strained. “Just a shitty stitch in my side.”
“Yeah but you could rupture a suture if you’re not careful! Or do lasting damage!”
“You’re such a shitty good doctor that I’m not even worried,” Sanji says with a grin and Chopper gets warm all over. Ahh really? Sanji thought he was a good doctor?! He giggles and rubs the back of his head, kicking at the floor.
“I just did the suturing. Doctorine did the work. But even hearing that doesn’t make me happy, bastard, so shut up!” But don’t shut up! Say the word doctor again! Ahh it was so nice to hear he did well.
“Better drink your coffee before it gets cold, Doctor.”
He said it again! Ah!
“Yes, yes,” Chopper says happily, wiggling back to his seat. He’s only just perched in his chair when he realizes Sanji’s still standing.
“Oi!” Chopper bolts out of his chair and hurries over to him. “If you don’t sit down I’m gonna… I’m gonna…” What was he gonna do? He glances at Lapu who is watching the bacon making with interest, then gets an idea. “I’m gonna get Fufu to sit on you!”
“Fufu?” Sanji says with a raised eyebrow.
“Lapu’s father,” Chopper says with a gesture and Lapu grins with sharp teeth and makes a threatening baby rawr with her claws outstretched.
“What that big furry bastard?” Sanji asks and Chopper nods, folding his arms and mentally asking Sanji how he likes those pears. Sanji pales and looks at the bacon, fingers gripping at his side once more before he sighs.
“Fine. I’ll take a break. Just… let me shitty finish this alright?”
Chopper frowns. He supposes that’s alright. Especially if it means more bacon. But he gives Sanji the most fierce look he can.
“Fine but I’m watching you.” Sanji could really hurt himself if he didn’t take it easy. Chopper turns to find Luffy sitting at his seat. The sight makes him jump a mile. When did he get here?!
“Yo!” says Luffy, raising a hand. “You got a question?”
A question? Chopper’s blindsided for a moment before he remembers. He wants to ask him about crew!
“Um… why do you— HEY!” he blurts as Luffy picks up Chopper’s plate, wondiferous bacon and all, and slides all the food right into his mouth. “That’s mine!”
“Told you,” Sanji mutters.
“That’s not fair.”
“Shishishi Gotta be quicker!” Luffy says, grinning. Chopper glowers. He’s not really that hungry anymore but he’d been looking forward to it! In fact most of the food on the table seems to be gone already! How did he do that so quick?! There is something left, though. The bowl of beautiful light and fluffy scrambled eggs. Luffy reaches for it. Chopper pounces, sliding across the table and getting a facefull of scrambled eggs in the process.
Luffy laughs until Chopper sits cross-legged on the table, bowl in his lap and starts shoving eggs in his mouth by the handful. He’s going to eat every one of these delicious eggs!
“Hey!” Luffy says, grabbing handfuls himself and shoving them in his mouth and soon it’s a pitched battle.
“What are you, shitty five-year-olds?” Sanji snaps. “Eat right.”
“No way! Bastard!” Luffy says.
“Yeah! No way! Bastard!” Chopper echoes.
“Chicken butt!” Luffy says.
“Chicken butt!” Chopper says, liking the way that sounds.
Oh… Luffy doesn’t know? Can Chopper think one up this time?
“Goat?” Luffy asks. Chopper nods.
“Yeah! Cuz goats bleat like m-e-e-e-h.”
“Oh yeah!” Luffy says with a laugh. “That’s good! Swirly goat!”
Chopper’s never been heel-dropped in the head before and he’s not sure if he likes the sensation. It doesn’t hurt too much but it leaves his ears ringing.
“You done?” Sanji asks coldly.
“Sorry,” Luffy says, clutching his head. Chopper can only burble a little. It hurt but… but that was… fun!
“What noisy idiots,” Doctorine says and Chopper turns to see her standing in the doorway, she’s grinning but her arms are also folded and she’s tapping the plum wine bottle against her hip. Not a good sign. She glances at Chopper.
“I see he’s still standing.”
“Sorry, Doctorine,” Chopper says, wiping the eggs from his mouth with the back of his hand. “I was just letting him finish his bacon.”
“My bacon,” Doctorine says, striding over and getting a chair. “In my house using my medical supplies and corrupting my student.”
“My apologies, Madam,” Sanji says, flinching only a little as she drags the chair nearer to him, the feet screeching across the linoleum. “But I’ve saved the best plate for you.”
And he opens the oven and pulls out a plate with food that even looks more delicious than what Chopper just ate! There’s even the green stuff on it to make it look fancy!
“Firstly, enough with the Madam crap. I’m only in my youthful 110s. Secondly, how can I trust that’s not poisoned?”
Chopper froze! Ah, he hadn’t thought of that! He checks himself. Is he feeling sleepy? Drowsy? Nauseous? His head is ringing… Oh but that’s from the kick so that should be alright.
“Aside from the fact that my beloved Nami-swan is in your care, I wouldn’t poison that shitty idiot,” Sanji says, jerking his thumb at Luffy who is sucking down Chopper’s milk and flashing the peace sign. Chopper scowls and grabs his coffee before that disappears too.
“Also, your shitty monster rabbit is okay, isn’t she?”
That’s true! Lapu is doing okay and standing to peer at the bacon, reaching for a sizzling strip. Sanji nudges her hand away with his shin and pulls the strip out with a pair of tongs, blowing on it a minute to let it cool before handing it down to her. She growufs happily and rolls onto her back.
“True enough,” Doctorine says, her smile seeming a little easier now. “But for all that you have done, including disrupting our peace and assaulting Chopper which is something only I get to do… the least you could do is sit.”
At those words her fingers mov lightning fast and elegant at the pressure points on his spine. Sanji yelps and sits hard, though Doctorine has tilted the chair up to take some momentum off the fall.
“What the shit did you do?!” Sanji says as Luffy half stands.
“It’ll wear off in about ten minutes. Trust me I don’t want you hanging around.”
Sanji doesn’t seem happy about it and shifts and it almost seems he’s going to move his legs! But then he settles back down with a huff, a fine sweat glistening over his forehead.
“At least don’t let the shitty bacon burn,” he grumbles and Luffy settles back into the chair. Chopper sips the last of his coffee, glad no one got really mad.
“I suppose I could do that much,” Doctorine says, setting the plate Sanji had given her on the counter before going to attend the bacon herself.
“Hey, old hag,” Luffy says, licking the grease from his fingers. “Can you help Nami?”
Doctorine snorts, sliding the bacon onto a plate before turning off the stove. “Didn’t I tell you to quit with that old stuff? And if I can remains to be seen, but I haven’t found a good reason why I should.”
“Because we’re doctors!” Chopper says, shocked that she even said something like that. “And doctors help everyone even if they don’t know how or if they shouldn’t!” He hesitates. "Right?"
“So an old fool said long ago,” Doctorine says and Chopper frowns. She’s always called Doctor Hiriluk an old fool and he feels she doesn’t mean it badly but he’s not sure what she’s doing.
“But consider this.” She swings the tongs to point at Sanji. “We did how much work patching him up? And yet once they’re better, they’ll go right back to the life they left that had them being chased by those thugs.” She grins again, hard and white. “Am I right?”
“Right,” Luffy says with a nod.
“And just what do you think you’re going to get out of it?” Doctorine asks, pinning Luffy with a gaze that is scalpel sharp. Chopper has seen people wilt under that expression or stammer. Luffy just gets up and crosses toward her.
“I’m going to find the truth of the world and be the next Pirate King.”
Truth of the world? Pirate King? What does that mean? Chopper can’t even begin to guess but it sounds exciting and makes him bristle. Does it have something to do with crew too? He wants to know! More than anything! But now is not the right time to ask.
Doctorine laughs, and just under that, Chopper hears the soft thump bump of someone coming down the hall in crutches. He slides off the table to go and see if Mr. Dalton needs help with anything.
“I’ve never heard of a first Pirate King. As for the truth of the world." She cackles. "You’re an ambitious brat but you’ll be dead before you even get that far.”
“No way! More bacon!” Luffy says thrusting out a hand. Chopper hurries to the doorway and peers around the corner quickly, hoping that Mr. Dalton won’t need anything so he won’t miss anything interesting Luffy decides to do or say next.
Mr. Dalton seems okay, but barely, pale and sweating slightly with a file folder tucked under his arm that’s threatening to come loose.
“I’ll help,” Chopper says.
“Ah,” says Mr. Dalton and seems to want to say more but already Chopper has taken the file folder from him— and freezes as he sees Doctor Hiriluk’s handwriting scrawled across the front. File H.1 -HC.30. Room 12. Chopper wonders if he could still smell the sakura incense if he opens and shuts the file folder really quickly, but then decides he doesn’t want to know.
“Kureha…asked me to get it,” Mr. Dalton says awkwardly and somehow Chopper remembers to nod.
“It’s okay,” he murmurs, clutching the folder to his chest. Doctor Hiriluk used to risk his life going into the secret rooms of the lab to copy down these notes, at least so he told Chopper… but he must have been really good at it because even Doctorine is impressed.
‘All good doctors steal if they have to, to learn how it’s done,’ Doctor Hiriluk had told him once. ‘But I’m stealing it to learn how to stop them.’
Chopper wishes he could have helped a little more. He wishes he hadn’t been so dumb and known to run away and not trusted Mr. Dalton then. But that’s all in the past now so Chopper tries hard to remember it is.
“If you know that much you should go back to school,” Doctorine is saying to Luffy who is crunching on the bacon she made. Lapu stands just under him, her mouth wide and waiting for scraps.
“Don’t wanna. School’s boring.”
“School won’t get you killed,” Doctorine says, then after a pause adds: “Usually.”
“I found what you were looking for, Kureha,” Mr. Dalton says as Luffy finishes the plate of bacon and wipes his mouth with his hand. “You were right.”
“Damn. I hate it when I’m right. Happens too often for my peace of mind. Chopper?” and she holds out her hand for the folder. He hands it to her, fingers lingering for a bit before it’s taken from him. It makes him proud that she’s reading it even if it makes him sad to look at it.
“HB-278A1 is it?” Doctorine murmurs.
“Seems like it,” Mr. Dalton says, looking graver than Chopper’s ever seen him.
“What is it?” Sanji says, struggling to his feet even if it hasn’t been close to ten minutes and taking the plate from Luffy’s hands. “A cure?”
“More like a cause.” Doctorine snaps the file shut. “But I won’t be satisfied until I double check. Let’s hope I was mistaken.”
But she isn’t mistaken. Chopper doesn’t know what’s going on but as they all gather in the girl’s room, he can tell that something’s wrong as Doctorine frowns at the notes that Chopper made, and then at the girl on the bed, peering at her with her glasses on, then more closely without. The girls’ breathing has become erratic, spots of red flame on her cheeks and periodically her body tenses as if fighting off some great pain.
“Well that’s that,” Doctorine says, straightening. “She’s been hit with it all right. Lucky she wasn’t hit in an artery or it’d be all over. Or maybe she’s just that unlucky. Kek kek kek.” This time her laugh doesn’t seem happy at all and Chopper frowns. He doesn’t like where this is going.
“Care to shitty explain?” Sanji says, sitting on the edge of her bed and looking between the two of them. Doctorine gives Mr. Dalton a look with raised eyebrows and he sighs.
“I can’t tell you much about it, but, it was originally developed to help bring down zoans and other such creatures... anesthetize them I mean... but then someone tried to turn it into a torture drug. Designed to keep the victim lucid but in pain until the information could be extracted.” He swallows and closes his fingers around the grips of his clutch. “They never could figure out how to keep the victims alive as long as they wanted.”
Sanji pales at this too and Luffy just sits where he is on the other side of the bed, staring at the straw hat resting on his knees.
“Basically her body is warring with itself,” Doctorine says. “I’m guessing something like curare to paralyze her while the Devil’s Seed extract is trying to send her body into overdrive. If left untreated the stress alone will kill her.”
“Devil’s Seed?” Luffy says. “Is she going to turn into an animal?”
Chopper jolts, shocked. He knows about that? Chopper didn’t think anyone did except the people after them. But then he knows Mr. Dalton too, so maybe it’s not much of a surprise.
“She’ll need a lot more of the seed for that to ever happen,” Doctorine says, sounding amused.
“Aside from that,” Sanji says. “Is there anything you can do for her?”
“I can prolong it for a little while. Keep her together. But the only thing that’s going to make her better is the antidote,” Doctorine says. “Fortunately for you, unless they’re bigger idiots than they’ve let on, whoever shot her should have some on them.”
“So in other words we have to chase those bastards down,” Sanji says, chewing on the end of his cigarette as his fingers tap against his leg. It’s a definite sign of withdrawal and Chopper can’t help but be sympathetic. He can remember what it feels like. “Unless they’ve left.” Another look at Mr. Dalton who shakes his head.
“Not likely. If they’ve chased us this far, they’re not going to stop until one of us is dead.”
“If that’s true I’d like to know why they haven’t shitty attacked yet,” Sanji says, looking up at the ceiling.
“They probably haven’t found the house yet,” Mr. Dalton says.
“Yet.” Doctorine says pleasantly. “It’s nice to be caught in the cross-fire once again.” The bottle of wine is swinging again between her fingers. “Nostalgic even.”
“I never intended this,” Mr. Dalton says.
“Bullshit,” Doctorine fires back. Mr. Dalton closes his eyes as if in some great pain.
“Don’t worry, Ms,” Sanji says, giving her an intense look. “I’ll defend this house with my life.”
“That’ll be about ten seconds,” Doctorine says with a cackle. “You could barely defend milk from a cat in the state you are in right now. And even if you weren’t, who did I spend two hours digging bullets out of?” She shakes her head. “I’ll put my faith in my shotgun, I think.”
“In any case,” Mr. Dalton says. “This can be done, but it will take some strategy…between the three of us we can work something out.”
“The only planning you should be doing, Dalton, is figuring out how to get Chopper away from here,” Doctorine says, smiling but jabbing a long finger in his direction. He looks up at her annoyed and Chopper is startled a little to hear his name.
“It’s okay,” Chopper says. “I can stay and help.”
“It’s not up for discussion,” Doctorine says and Chopper is surprised again. She’s never been so stern with him before. Still, this is something he can do! And maybe they won’t attack the house at all. And if they do, he can hide in the storm cellar with the girl and take care of her there.
“But, I can…” he starts, ready to make his argument, but Mr. Dalton places a hand on his hat and Chopper can feel the weight of it and knows Mr. Dalton would be ruffling his hair if he wasn’t wearing it.
“She’s right. You shouldn’t be in danger. We don’t know if they’re going to move or how many of them there will be…” He had a kind of hollow look to his face that Chopper had seen before…
That night when Mr. Dalton had taken him back to the lab and all Chopper could do was watch his face through the narrow bars of the truck. He hadn't wanted to see the cave go away and Doctor Hiriluk lying inside it, unconscious. Chopper swallows hard at the memory and grips Mr. Dalton’s pant leg since it’s the closest part he can reach. Whatever’s going to happen, Mr. Dalton doesn’t like it at all.
“I’m not afraid,” Chopper says, though he is a little.
“Well you should be,” Doctorine says.
“Don’t worry,” Mr. Dalton says, with a smile Chopper can’t believe. “It’ll be fine. I’ll find a place for you to hide and then—”
“No, I said take him away,” Doctorine says, stabbing his shoulder with her finger and making Mr. Dalton flinch. “As in, as far as you can. As in, don’t come back.”
Wait… Don’t come back? What does she mean ‘don’t come back’? Does she mean go on without her? Chopper doesn’t want to go on without her!
“I’ll take him far enough,” Mr. Dalton grumbles, pushing her finger aside.
“Will you? What happens when we all die. Where does that leave him?”
Die? Chopper feels his hair bristle even more. They can’t die! It’s not that dangerous, is it? It can’t be! But it is. He knows it is. He remembers the bullets and the men that were behind them. Chopper grips Mr. Dalton’s pants leg tigher and tries to think of something to say. Anything to stop this!
“M- maybe we can find a new antidote!” Chopper says, trying to sound brave but his voice is too high. “Or maybe we can take her to the hospital.”
“I don’t think Nami-swan has that kind of time,” Sanji says giving him a sad Mr. Dalton kind of smile. Like he doesn’t like what’s going to happen either but he’s going to do it. Chopper blinks back the wet in his eyes, feeling small and helpless. There has to be something he can do. He knows there has to be something! There was always a way out of everything if you looked! That’s what Doctor Hiriluk said!
“We won’t die,” Luffy says in the same quiet rough voice. Chopper finds himself looking at him, the back of his red shirt anyway, a small seedling of hope in his gut. He sounds so confident. He sounds so cool!
“Says you,” Doctorine says with a cackle, draining the rest of her wine.
Chopper waits for Luffy to say something back, but he just leans over Nami, hat cupped in the palm of his hand and holding it a bit over her face like he’s shading her with it. He leans down close.
“Just hold on a little longer, okay?” he says to her. A faint smile lifts the corner of her mouth and she nods before her closed eyes squinch tighter and a faint tremor flickers through her body. Luffy puts the hat on her stomach then and heads toward the door.
“Where are you going?” Sanji asks.
“Out,” Luffy says, and passes by Chopper smelling of bacon and sweat and bandages and blood. Chopper watches him go out and listens to his sandaled feet on the hall floor. He wants to follow him but he’s not sure why.
“Shouldn’t he stay and hear the plan?” Mr. Dalton says. Sanji straightens and waves a hand.
“Nah, he wouldn’t listen to a shitty word of it anyway.”
“Well I have medication to make,” Doctorine says, pushing away from the doorframe. “The quicker you plan the sooner you can leave.” This to Mr. Dalton who seems to slump even more.
“Can’t we just—?” he starts.
“No we can’t just,” Doctorine says. “Either you go or I do. Chopper?” And with that she leaves the room, clearly expecting him to follow. Chopper hesitates, torn between apologizing and asking Mr. Dalton if there’s anything he can do to change her mind. But Chopper knows there isn’t. It’s got to be up to him. He hurries down the hall after her, knowing better than to talk until they are in the Apothecary room. He watches proudly as she ties her hair back and runs her narrow fingers along the spines of books and journals she kept on the shelves. She’s so cool. He wants to be like her too.
So he has to be brave like her.
“Doctorine?” he says. “I really can help. I’m not afraid… not much. And I don’t want to run away.” And he doesn’t want to leave her behind. And he doesn’t want any of them to die.
“What makes you so determined to help?” she says, giving him a tight smile that’s not really a smile at all. “You don’t even know what kind of war they’re fighting.”
“No… But that’s okay. You’re helping.” So it couldn’t be all bad. And doctors didn’t discriminate! That’s what Doctor Hiriluk said too.
“I am…” Doctorine says, putting two large binders on the table. “And I wouldn’t mind having someone who knows what they’re doing at my side.” She folds her arms and looks down at him, hip cocked to one side, smiling, but then she always is.
“But I promised that old fool that I’d keep you alive and that’s just what I intend to do.”
Chopper fidgets. It’s an important promise. He knows it is. It makes him feel warm inside that they care about him so much…
“It’s not your war,” she says, flicking him on the nose and almost making him sneeze. “When you’ve grown up to be a doctor in your own right, then you can pick and choose which battles you want to fight. Until then you have to do what you must.”
That’s not what he was going to say at all. He wants to help but… but he wants something else more. Or rather it’s something he doesn’t want to happen. If he goes with Mr. Dalton… he’ll be leaving Doctorine behind. He can see her now, watching from the door as they drive away, getting smaller and smaller until the trees swallow her up.
And maybe the trees would be on fire again. And maybe there would be bullets again. And maybe if he stayed, Doctorine would give him that smile, that was so wide and so sad and say: Go with Dalton. Live your life. We'll meet again soon.
But she wouldn’t because she would be dead and there would be no one to bury her under the sakura tree, because there weren’t any around here.
“Let me stay,” he says, softly. Maybe there will be all that stuff. Maybe it’ll be dangerous. Maybe he’ll die. But… He stares at her long bony legs as she takes a deep breath, something catching in the back of her throat. He wants to hold onto her leg and for her to pat him on the head. Even just that… But all she says is:
“Go and tend the Lapin.”
It feels like a door is shut somehow. He feels closed in all around. But he can’t figure out how to open the door again. He can’t work the knob. He can’t pick the lock. All he can do is stare at it and hope it will open, but knows that it won’t.
So instead he nods and gathers his supplies, tucking them into his med bag around the precious sakura water case. At least the Lapin will be there. They are his friends and they’ve been with him ever since that place. It won't be the same but... it'll be something.
The lapin are restless. As Chopper tends Fufu’s arm he can see them bounding around the clearing and even hear them further back in the woods, nervously checking their territory. Even though Fufu sits still for Chopper checking and re-bandaging his wound, his ears are in continual motion, swerving to catch the slightest sound, his nose working as he scents the wind. It’s strange for him to be so active in the day, Chopper realizes dimly. Lapin aren’t really nocturnal but moving at night is best on the run.
There is a muffled thumping in the distance and Fufu straightens and would have jerked the bandage from Chopper’s grip had he not let go. For a moment his body is rigid, then he thumps back a reply with his own giant foot. Chopper can feel the vibrations even through his sneakers and the wind from the passing stirs cool air over the hair on Chopper’s legs.
‘Is it done?’ Fufu asks in his own Lapin way.
“Almost,” Chopper says, trying his best to keep his good doctor voice on, to not think of everything that is going to happen very soon. “You’re healing up well and it doesn’t look like it’ll get infected. But I’ll check it again tomorrow.”
“I should at least look at it,” Chopper says, finishing the bandaging with a tug. “Even just to take this off…”
‘I will bite it off’
“But, why?” Chopper says. He doesn’t understand. Fufu is usually good about getting cared for. Why is he being so against it now?
Fufu shifts, settling down on his haunches so they are almost at eye level and turns his head, watching Chopper out of the corner of his eye. His ears, once active, are all the way back. It means he’s sad. Chopper swallows hard.
‘It is too dangerous to travel with you any longer,’ Fufu says. ‘And we have not forgiven the bull man’
Fufu’s large forepaw twitches and he raises it in the most unLapinlike gesture Chopper has ever seen, to rest it heavily on Chopper’s shoulder. He can feel the soft fur against his face and the heat from the pads on the bottom of Fufu’s paw leaking through his shirt. Chopper stares at it
‘But you are our friend. Even here. Even there.’ He cuffs Chopper lightly on the head. It is a warm bump, meant for kits— and Chopper stumbles only a little. ‘We will stay until you go’
“Okay. Thanks,” he hears himself say in a normal voice, as if nothing has changed at all. Fufu leans forward, pressing a soft nose kiss to his forehead, then pulls back, ears flicking up as another thump comes from further away.
‘Investigating. Watch kit.’
He nods, saying he will. Fufu bounds off, mind turned elsewhere— Chopper watches him go, a large marshmallow shape fading into the dappled shade of the forest. And he is alone save for Lapu chasing a butterfly a few yards away.
Chopper sits on the grass, pulling his knees up to his chest and flexing his fingers against his ankles, before absently stroking the pelt on his legs, and his arms too. It’s not even really human hair. It’s like fur almost. Doctorine says so. It is oily a little and soft underneath so that his arms and legs keep warm and smells musky on his fingertips and more if he doesn’t brush it out well. It’s not a human smell. It’s not an animal smell either.
He wonders what it would be like to be one or the other. He rests his chin on his knees and stares at the grass, watching it stir in the faint breeze. It’s not as if it would make a difference, he supposes. If he were human all the way he couldn’t stay with Doctorine. If he were animal he couldn’t stay with the Lapin. And even if reindeer had their own herds, he wouldn’t be welcome in one of them.
Chopper reaches up and traces his finger along the felt of the hat that Doctor Hiriluk had given him. They’d been talking about mothers and fathers and families and tribes and Chopper had been sad that he couldn’t remember any of his family — no matter how hard he thought about them. All it had ever been was people in white lab coats and masks on their faces. Sometimes dark goggles too, so he couldn’t see their eyes. Sometimes they patted him on the head or gave him treats when he’d been good, but they’d always left again. So Doctor Hiriluk had given him this hat, putting it on his head, and said they were family and tribe and if anyone had anything to say about it they could say it to him.
Chopper smiles a little, trying to remember everything about him— or at least the important things— like the second time he ever saw him, standing in the doorway of Chopper’s suddenly open cell, brandishing a mop, and Chopper had been afraid until he saw that the smile that had lit the doctor’s face.
‘Let’s go on an adventure,’ he’d said in a hushed voice. ‘Just you and me.’
He remembered being excited and afraid as they’d snuck down the darkened hallways, lit only by emergency lights. He’d almost turned back once or twice but Doctor Hiriluk had encouraged him with ‘just a little further’ or ‘it’s going to be amazing, just you wait.’ And for the most part it was terrifying but then—
He’d stepped outside the barbed wire fence of the lab for the first time he could even remember. In his animal form because he’d felt safer then. But there was snow on the ground, white and glittering from the moonlight. And the stars. So many of them blanketing the sky he could barely comprehend. More than in any picture book he’d ever seen. And real clouds too. Dark on the bottoms but laced white by the moon. Trees tall and dark. The mountains capped with white.
And the smells. So many of them he almost wanted to stop smelling. And the sounds! The creak of branches in the frosty breeze. The churning of a river nearby. The gentle hoot of an owl calling to its mate across the expanse of forest. Doctor Hiriluk’s breathing and his own too. The hammering of his own heart in his chest.
And then Doctor Hiriluk had thrown a snowball at him and few dozen more and Chopper had side checked him into a snow bank piled under a tree, sending the owl hooting angrily away and they’d laughed and played in the snow all the way back the cave that Doctor Hiriluk lived in on the side of Sakura Mountain. Or so he’d called it. And there Chopper had stayed for what seemed like days or months. Doing whatever he wanted. Waking up whenever he wanted. Eating or drinking whenever he wanted. Being a human or a reindeer or half and half and learning how to make all sorts of medicines including the special sakura water.
Chopper takes off his medical bag and roots in it until he finds the case. It’s made of cherry wood with a little bronze clasp and inside, nestled in cotton, is the only vial he has of the stuff Doctor Hiriluk said was sacred and could change the world, lighting up people’s hearts.
Chopper carefully takes the little cork on a chain off the vial and, with a steady hand, lets a single drop fall on the dirt. Then he watches a few of the blades of grass around it start to turn pink from the bottom up. It does lighten his heart a little. But it’s only a little matchstick worth as he remembers that he probably won’t be able to see it ever again. Or the Lapin. Or Doctorine. And one little drop of precious water to turn something pink isn’t going to make Mr. Dalton any less frustrated to be stuck with him.
Chopper imagines it’s going to be like two years ago… Only rather than hiding in a hotel room or abandoned house or woodshed or campsite with a crabby Doctorine, he’d be all by himself as Mr. Dalton tries to save every zoan he meets. That’s not a bad thing, Chopper tells himself, absently petting the grass blade with a finger. Maybe he’s not as good a doctor as Doctorine but he can stay and help—! Only… he kind of wonders if Mr. Dalton will forget him one day, or escape with a frightened zoan and leave him behind.
He sighs, slumping even further, and almost wants to flop on the ground entirely when a strangled ‘kweh’ gets his attention. Chopper looks up to see their duck friend, Karoo, flapping down to meet him.
‘Water,’ Karoo gasps, his eyes bright. Chopper nods.
“This way!” He leads the duck to a pump attached to a shallow stone trough. In the old days it might have been used for a horse or for the house that had once stood here but burned up a long time ago. Doctorine had had it fixed and cleaned of rust though so that the Lapin could use it when they didn’t want to come all the way back to the house.
He pumps some water for Karoo, watching fascinated as the duck clacks some water up with his bill, then takes off its cap and barrel and hops into the trough itself, letting the water flow over his head and through his wings. He’s a smart duck and a weird duck, but in the end he’s still a duck. Chopper can’t help but smile a little.
‘Thank you,’ Karoo says after he’s finished his bath and put his stuff back on with surprisingly flexible wings. He couples that with a little bow and then looks up at Chopper seriously.
‘In any case could you let me back into the house?’ he gestures with a wing to where he can just see the back of the house through a gap in the trees. ‘I have news for the Strawhat.’
“Strawhat?” Chopper echoes, then realizes who he must mean. “He’s not in the house, he went out to take a walk or something.”
“Kweh?!” ‘Now of all times!’ Karoo says, feathers fluffing. ‘I’ll go look for him.’ He shifts like he’s ready to take off, then cants his head at Chopper.
‘If you see him, could you tell him there is something dangerous about a mile north?’
“Dangerous?!” Chopper shoots a glance to where Lapu is rolling on the grass, limbs flopping. “What kind of dangerous? Is it those guys that were chasing you?”
‘No. Yes.’ Karoo taps his beak with a feather, then sweeps it out. ‘They’re of the same flock. In this case they are Officer Agents which makes the Billions and Millions look like fledglings. I don’t think they know we’re here but we should move out before they find out.’
“But if you move the girl she’ll probably die!”
Karoo flinches a little at this, looking sad for a moment and then prepares himself to launch again.
‘Strawhat will decide.’
Chopper can only nod to that and watches Karoo take off, wings beating steadily to get lift. He watches him go and then shudders a little at the thought of those guys being even more dangerous. Why did everything get so scary all of a sudden? Just a few days ago it was boring!
But it is sad too. Chopper watches Lapu, absently rubbing his arm. The girl will probably die if they move her. Her body is under so much stress as it is. But she’ll definitely die if they don’t get the antidote on time.
Except…if those guys— those… officer agents? Were really of the same flock, then they’d have an antidote too, right?
But they are super dangerous and Luffy probably wants to stay away from them. They will probably try to shoot Luffy on sight or something. He sighs and nudges the toe of his shoe against the dirt. If only there was someone who could sneak in that they wouldn’t recognize and then maybe…
The idea hits Chopper, inspiring and terrifying all at once. They… they probably don’t know about him do they? There are people looking for him, he knows, but not everyone.
Why can’t he sneak in and steal the antidote?
“Because they’ll skin you alive,” Chopper mutters to himself, pulling the brim of the hat down around his ears.
It is so risky. And even if he can fight a little, he can’t fight adults with guns! And Doctorine will be very mad at him. This is not his battle…
But he wants to do it anyway. He wants to make it his battle… Like Doctor Hiriluk would do. Had done. Even if he’d paid for it in the end.
A shudder of nerves rushes from the crown of his head to his toes but he tries to shake them off. How is he going to do this? He debates taking off his clothes and going as a reindeer... but it'll be embarrassing if he has to shift back to human for whatever reason. Still, it'll be faster covering the distance in his animal form so he should take off his shoes at least.
He does so, hiding them under a bush, and notices Lapu watching him curiously from the distance. Chopper averts his gaze, trying to pretend there’s nothing wrong, and ducks behind the relative privacy of a nearby oak tree. He takes a deep breath, filling his lungs with muzzy August air and changes. Almost immediately the mild summer heat turns almost agonizing with the thick insulated fur. This is why it’s better at night. But it’s not so bad he can’t bear it.
Lapu is hopping closer, curiosity in her perked ears and twitching nose.
“I’m going to check on something,” he tells her in his most commanding voice. “Stay here.”
And then he starts off, first at a clipped walk, then a trot, then a gallop, trying to outrace the nerves. He can’t help but imagine a million situations where he gets beat up or shot, or worse, captured and taken back to the square white room with no windows and the strong bleach smell that lingered everywhere, killing all other smells so that the people that came into observe barely even felt like people but ghosts. Doctor Hiriluk had smelled like a ghost too, but then a little later he’d smelled of mud and then soap and singed experiments and the strange potions he made as he tried his best.
Chopper tries to keep that image in mind as he settles back to a trot. Those memories in mind. All the tiny good ones. He remembers his first taste of cotton candy that Doctor Hiriluk brought him with real money from the convenience store. How sweet it had tasted like clouds made of sugar! Doctor Hiriluk had enjoyed it too and they’d gone back and spent the rest of the money to get all of it, and ate so much they were sick for a day.