theremedy: (chopper)
[personal profile] theremedy
Present
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas


Chopper came awake slowly to the sound of rain tapping fingers against the window, wanting to be let in. He didn’t want to wake up. He wanted to go back to the deep coziness of sleep. There had been hot chocolate in his dream and Luffy was giving it to him with both mittened hands, laughing. Chopper had been small, tucked up on Robin’s lap and comfortable smelling flowers and chocolate and seeing Luffy with full cheeks, ruddy from the cold.

The scraps of dream faded and drifted away from him and was replaced by the symptoms of a crappy night’s sleep accompanied with stress. Headache, dry mouth which tasted like a foot locker, sour stomach, a cramp working up his left leg. He stretched out his foot and dropped an arm over his eyes to keep even the dim light out. There was movement around him. Feet against carpet. The jingle of Laboon’s collar. There was a tic and the faint buzz of electricity before the Rocket Man started its unmistakable gait around the tree. Tickty tickity tickity boom.

“Hell of a thing to happen now,” Franky said, voice soft. “This much rain we’ll practically have to build a boat to get anywhere.”

“Ahh but it’s soothing,” Brook said and there was the click of ceramic as he set a mug down on a coaster. “Rain is more comforting than snow.”

“How do you figure?” Franky said.

“You can hear it calling to you, singing to you. Snow just melts and muffles everything.” There was a noisy slurp. “Besides which it’s just rude to hear everyone exclaiming how pretty it is. All I feel is ice water in my shoes! I don’t see why everyone says it’s pretty…”

“Ah,” Chopper murmured, his voice creaky to his own ears. “But you don’t see at all.”

“Don’t steal my jokes, you ruffian!” Brook said. There was a distant series of two soft thuds and then: “Did I get him?”

“Not even close,” Franky said. “But you nearly busted a picture frame so good job.” He sounded weirdly proud as Franky always did.

“Someone whack him with a cushion for me,” Brook said with a sniff. Chopper heard Franky come closer and opened one eye to see Franky standing over him holding a couch cushion in one hand.

“Morning,” Franky said. “No better make that afternoon. Curly left some iced coffee for you in the fridge so better drink it. It seems like it’s going to be a super bad day.”

“Mm…” Chopper didn’t want to get up. But now that his eye was open he had no choice. With a soft groan he sat up, both arms stretched zombie like in front of him, then hunched and scratched his hair watching the Rocket Man tickety tickety tickety boom itself over the tracks. One particular boom caught the little cloth angel on fire, but a tiny hose on the Rocket Man’s caboose put it out with a tiny squirt-- leaving nothing but a singe on the hem of the angel’s robes to match the others. Chopper felt sorry for it and moved it to a higher branch-- which doubled in getting him to stand up and stretching carefully, not wanting to knock into anything.

Outside the world was gray and wet. Nearly all the snow had melted except for frozen dirty mounds that the snow plow had kicked up until they were more like lumps of frozen coal. The street must have been bad, Chopper thought, rubbing his eye with a fist.

“Good morning, young Chopper,” Brook said as if he hadn’t tried to call a hit on him just seconds earlier. “Did you sleep well?”

“Not really.”

“Serves you right,” he said and slurped at his tea. Chopper smiled faintly, knowing he was teasing. “No, I apologize,” he said almost immediately after, resting the mug on his bony knees. Laboon sighed softly and rested his big black head against Brook’s leg.

“I know you didn’t mean it,” Chopper said, taking the cushion from Franky and tucking it beside Brook to help keep him insulated. Even though it was near stifling in the house for him, Brook was thin and old and didn’t retain heat well.

“Good morning, Zoro,” Chopper said to the swordsman who was leaning against the window casement, arms folded and staring out into the rain. He grunted but didn’t look at him. Chopper was just glad to see that he was still there. Sometimes when Zoro left they didn’t see him for weeks or months at a time.

Chopper looked around the room expectantly and suddenly realized something odd. He lifted his head but there were no other sounds in the house of someone taking a shower or snoring in another room.

“Where is everyone?”

“At the hotel helping out with the party, probably,” Franky said, sitting on the couch beside Brook and resting an ankle on his opposite knee. Oh right. The Christmas Party was today. That meant it was Christmas Eve. His birthday. He was a whole year older. No, worse than that; he was twenty. He was practically an adult and he didn’t feel any older than usual. He still felt young and kind of dumb…

The Christmas party was another big deal. It hadn’t been the same since Luffy’s coma… Just like everything else. But today, he had a feeling, it would be especially sad. He almost didn’t want to go. He almost just wanted to stay in the house and pull the covers over his head. Sleep it away. But everyone would be sad if he didn’t come. He would be just like Zoro, but in a bad way.

Outside the rain was a dreary song and Chopper suddenly wished it would stop or turn to snow instead.

Ugh. He needed coffee, stat.

Rubbing a hand through his hair he shuffled toward the kitchen.

“Let us know when you’re ready,” Franky called.

“Mm okay,” Chopper said, though ready for what he didn’t know.

Iced coffee was in the fridge as expected as well as half a grapefruit with a note on the plate that said it was just for him. Sanji had even drawn a little smoking candy cane by it and Chopper couldn’t help but grin while at the same time sighing inwardly at Sanji’s smoking habit. He turned toward the kitchen island, shutting the door behind him with a foot-- and paused.

The Super Ballot Box II (non-exploding) sat on the table. The wrapping paper around it was intact which meant it hadn’t been opened. The ultimate decision remained inside, heavier than the entire world, and suddenly he wasn’t hungry anymore. He put the grapefruit back and thought to return to the living room, but couldn’t stop staring at the box. It looked like a judge’s stand somehow; all wrapped up in green shiny holly covered paper and a big red bow. Why had Franky made it look like a present, he wondered. Who was it a present to? Maybe it was just to lift their spirits, but the more Chopper looked at it, the sadder he became.

He forced himself to turn and go back to the living room. Before he could even ask, Franky shifted over to the side and Chopper squished between him and Brook, feeling comfort from the arm Franky slung over the back of the couch. He sipped at the iced coffee but it didn’t taste like much. He didn’t want to look in the box and see Luffy’s fate. If they could just hold it off, he felt, if they could just live in this exact moment forever; Luffy wouldn’t die.

“We’d better get it over with,” Zoro said, pushing away from the window. Chopper bristled in sudden panic.

“Ahh! No, I’m not done yet! I’m not ready!” He slurped his ice coffee pointedly and tried to avoid Zoro’s tired gaze.

“It’s not going to get any easier if we wait,” he said. Chopper nodded, looking at the floor, his own big hairy feet against the carpet, wider than Brook’s and bigger than Franky’s even. He wished they were smaller. That he could just curl up against Franky or Brook’s side and be protected. But…

“Let him take his time,” Franky said. “You’re not the one that’s gotta stick him or let him go.”

Stick him? Oh, he meant Luffy. Chopper turned the glass around in his hands. That part wasn’t such a big deal. He was pretty sure that once…or if …the decision was made he’d be able to do it. He go into his doctor mind if he had to and whatever the result-- as long as everyone was behind it, maybe he wouldn’t even feel so bad.

Well if he could do that then, he could do this now. Chopper nodded to himself and chugged the iced coffee as quick as he could, feeling some of it escape and dribble out the corner of his mouth. The caffeine rushed cold through his veins in a welcoming surge making everything brighter, bringing the world into sharper focus. He could do this. They could get through it. He slurped it down until ice bumped against his lips and then crunched that too.

“Okay! Let’s do this!” he said when he was done, setting the cup down on a coaster and wiped his mouth with the back of his arm, ready to surge out of the seat in a burst of energy.

Except…except it was almost like he hadn’t spoken. As if his words had gotten muffled under some invisible snow. No one looked at him except for Laboon, perking his ears and giving him his attention. He shrank a little, wondering if he’d said or done something wrong, but then Franky whapped him on the shoulder in a friendly way.

“Let’s get this done,” he said.

They rose from the couch slower and not in so much a triumphant surge. Chopper followed behind Brook and waited until he’d navigated the coffee table and then walked easily toward the kitchen with his hand on Laboon’s head. Franky was ahead of both of them but Zoro was still by the window. Chopper wondered if he should say anything. If he should encourage him to come look with them or-- or maybe say it was okay for him to stay away. He wasn’t sure which was better.

In the end he said nothing and sat at the end of kitchen island so he could keep an eye on Zoro and make sure sneak out when they weren’t paying attention. Zoro didn’t even seem to notice he was watching. Franky moved the box to the center of the table and then took out a notepad.

“I’ll take ‘em out,” Franky said, passing the notepad to Chopper. “You write ‘em down.”

“Okay…”

“May I take them out instead?” Brook said. His voice was even and he was sitting straight. It was hard to see what he was feeling while he was wearing sunglasses… but maybe he just wanted to feel important and part of it.

“Yeah,” Franky said. He pulled at the bow which came off with a pop and a puff of smoke and the lid opened. Brook slid his hand over the table, searching for the box and Franky nudged it a little closer.

“Wait hold on a sec,” Franky said. He took his cellphone from the back of his at-home speedo and set it on the table, pressing the speed-dial. After a few rings, Sanji answered.

“Are you ready?” Sanji said, his voice was distant and staticy, the noise of people and clinking dishes around him.

“Yeah. You?”

“Shit, hold on.” Footsteps and the opening and closing of doors. The longer it went on the more tense Chopper became. Why was it so easy to be determined in the moment, but after that the nerves got in? He took a deep breath, let it out, checked on Zoro again. Still there. Okay.

Finally there was a click and the hiss of rain.

“Shit,” Sanji muttered again. “It’s pissing dogs out here.”

“We’re going ahead then,” Franky said, nodding to Brook. Brook clenched the edge of the box and then reached a pale hand inside and pulled out a bit of balled up paper. His hands shook lightly as he worked to uncrumple it and he fumbled it onto the table two or three times.

“Well?” Sanji said.

“This might take a while,” Franky said.

“How rude! I’m doing the best I can!” Brook said his voice thin and high strung. Chopper put a hand on his shoulder to let him know it was okay. It seemed to work because Brook relaxed a little and he finally managed to smooth the note card flat on the table. Though the words were facing down.

“Flip it over,” Franky said patiently and Brook did. A ‘yes’ stared back up at them. Chopper’s nerves flared and he quickly made a yes or no column on the notepad, jotting a checkmark in the appropriate place. He wanted to chew on the eraser or gum or something. He wanted it all to be over at once. Instead he could only stare at the handwriting, and try not to think too hard on whose it was. Sanji’s maybe. Or Robin’s, or Nami’s. Zoro’s? Ahh he wasn’t sure.

“We’ve got a yes,” Franky said. Brook let out a shaky breath.

“W-wait,” Chopper said. “What if we have a tie?”

“We have nine people,” Sanji said. “Won’t happen.”

“O-oh right.”

“Next one?” Brook said and Franky nodded.

“Go ahead.”

Another piece of paper. Folded up this time. Brook unfolded it it easier and managed to get it right side up. Another yes in delicate thin handwriting. Chopper grinned and felt giddy and then immediately after was tense again.

“Yes,” Franky said. Sanji muttered a curse and there was the faint click of a lighter. He had probably been smoking harder than usual all day-- but Chopper tried not to think about it.

“Next,” Franky said. This note card was just the torn off edge of one. A tiny yes stood black in the center with slash marks around it as if the rest of the note card was written by someone who couldn’t make up his mind. It was Usopp’s. That Chopper knew right from the start.

“Yes,” Franky said and Chopper marked it with a trembling hand. They would only need two more ‘yes’es to make the majority he realized in a flash of nerves.

“Yes,” Franky said and Chopper hurriedly wrote it down before peeking at the note card and knowing it was Franky’s because of the big blocky stars doodled all over the card.

“That’s four, right?” Sanji said.

“Yeah,” Franky said.

Brook swallowed hard, reached for the box and then took his hand away running his fingers over his face, under his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Ahh, it’s harder than I thought it would be…”

Chopper thought Franky or Sanji would say something encouraging. Sanji took a breath as if he was going to and then sighed it back out again. Franky just watched, hand braced on the table. He was tense too Chopper realized. He just carried it differently. It was in his shoulders and in his hips and the way his toes curled up against the floor. The clock beat loud in the silence. The rain fell louder still. Even the tinny rain from Sanji’s end seemed to want to drown out everything. Chopper bit his lower lip and then in a surge of panic, checked for Zoro.

Still there.

Good.

“Next one,” Franky said soothingly. “Come on, old man. You’ve got this.”

Brook remained as he was for a moment, then reached for the box once more. Chopper forced himself to keep watching. It could be a no. There was every real probability it was a no. He should just count on it being a no and relax a little.

Brook reached inside. There was the shuffle of paper. The pencil creaked in Chopper’s hand and he eased up a little, trying to breathe steadily as Brook picked up a note card between two fingers and unfolded it.

A ‘yes’ stared back at him. Bold and big and black. His own yes. The one he’d written last night knowing it’s what he wanted despite everything being so uncertain. His stomach dropped. He felt a little dizzy.

The world would change.

Their world would change.

Had changed already.

Everything was different.

Everything would be different.

He felt a little like he would die.

“Well?!” Brook said, sudden shrillness making Chopper jump and nearly fall off the stool. He fought the urge to dash away and hide beside the refrigerator.

“Ah sorry… something in my eye,” Franky said in a tight voice, rubbing his eye with a thumb. “Yes.”

“Yes…” Brook echoed.

“Shhit,” Sanji breathed. “Holy fucking shit.”

Shit was right. All of it was right.

The future was big suddenly. Like looking up the inside of a hot air balloon. Big and mysterious and exciting and terrifying.

“We should continue,” Brook said, calmer now.

“Wh-why?” Chopper said.

“We all voted,” Brook said, reaching a still trembling hand into the box. “We all must be heard.”

“Right on,” Franky said.

“Keep going,” Sanji said. Zoro said nothing. Chopper glanced over. Still there. But his eyes were closed now, arms folded. Chopper didn’t know what he was feeling or thinking-- but at least he was still there.

A sixth yes. A seventh. An eighth….

Once again the air was filled with tension as Brook pulled the last note card from the box and set it on the table. Chopper couldn’t speak. His throat was too thick.

“Turn…” Franky coughed. Swallowed. “Turn it over, skeleton-bro.”

Brook turned it over.

Chopper stared. Tears smarted in his eyes.

“Ah God,” Franky said. “I love you guys! I’m not crying! Shut up!” But he was, tears streamed down his face as they streamed down Chopper’s. The yes stared back up at them. It was hesitant and a little faint but it was the only word on the note card.

“Is it…?” Sanji said, voice thick.

“Yes,” Chopper said, before burying his head in his arms as the feelings surged over him. He couldn’t stop. He wasn’t even sure why he was crying just that he couldn’t stop.

“Stop blubbering, shitheads! I have to get back to work!” Sanji snapped, but his voice was full of tears too. Chopper laughed a little though it came out as a cry. The future was big and scary and uncertain and Luffy might die even still but they’d all decided together. They all wanted to give him a fighting chance.

As his nakama.

As his family.

A kind of calm fell over Chopper, as if this were the end of some show or play or book. The future was uncertain but the page had ended on a happy note, the curtain had closed, credits rolled over a melancholy ending song. Except it wasn’t an ending at all. Chopper didn’t know what he was expecting next, but it wasn’t Sanji clearing his throat and saying:

“Chopper…when are you going to….you know…”

Give it to him…. Chopper mentally filled in the blank. Stick it in him. Quite probably kill him if not right away then soon. He swallowed, the happiness fading a little as he twined his fingers together. Franky was looking at him and Brook had his head cocked in Chopper’s direction. Chopper glanced over at Zoro whose eyes were open and maybe was watching Chopper in the reflection of the window-- or maybe not. Anyway this was on his shoulders, even if they were there for him, he had to take the responsibility for this part.

“Um…soon,” he said. “Probably sometime today.” He could hold it off until tomorrow but he really didn’t want to. Who knew when he’d lose his window of opportunity? Who knew where it even was?

“If you’re going to do that I’d wait ‘til after the shitty party,” Sanji said. Chopper filled in the blanks again. In case he dies. He saw the sense in that, he really did… and he’d like for people to have a fond memory of the last Christmas--if it was a last Christmas-- but…

“I don’t know,” Chopper said. “I will if I can but for some reason Luffy seems a little stronger during the day. It’s just a small percentage but we need every percentage we can get…” He looked at his fingers again. “I… don’t want to ruin anyone’s good time but…”

“You know what’s best, doctor,” Sanji said and Chopper wiggled a little, happy that Sanji trusted him so much.

“I’ve gotta go,” Sanji continued. “Any of you shitheads who aren’t helping Chopper out, come and help set up.”

“Sure thing,” Franky said but Sanji had already hung up.

Now that that was over Chopper knew the next step was actually seeing Luffy and evaluating him. Maybe even….maybe even giving him the first dose and killing him in the process.

“You want company?” Franky asked. Chopper nodded. Shook his head.

“O…only if you want. I…it’s going to be pretty hard I think….” But he hoped they would want> or someone would want. He didn’t want to be alone there. He didn’t want to face this all by himself even if he was a doctor.

“I’ll take him,” Zoro said. “You guys go on ahead.” And when he turned away from the window finally to look at them, it was like his face was set in stone.

****



As much as Zoro meant well, Chopper didn’t feel very comforted. Zoro hadn’t said anything the entire twenty minute trip. His face was pale and washed out but there was a tic in his jaw like he was grinding his teeth together. Chopper wished he could read him better. To say something good or right that would make him relax his tense grip on the wheel, or maybe even smile at him. When was the last time Zoro had smiled? He must have but Chopper couldn’t remember. He just seemed as hard headed and mysterious as always.

Chopper sighed and frowned, smoothing his fingers over the messenger bag, the precious box inside. This was a problem, too. He was still trying to get his doctor face on, even while wondering if this would really work. The doubts that he’d given them false hope crowded in his mind again. He shook his head, reassuring himself that it was okay. He’d told them all the risks and benefits as he saw them and they had all decided to take the chance. Maybe they all had false hopes but maybe it was better to have false hopes together?

He leaned his head against the window, watching the rain streak past as the Resident Care Facility came into view. Anxiety knotted in him and he felt a little sick, but he swallowed it back, gripping the box… He closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose to calm down. The smell in this car was nostalgic. It was missing the smell of snacks and sweat and perfume and deodorant-- but still had the very faintest smudge of cigarette rubbed into the car’s being-- or maybe that was his own clothes, Chopper thought, wrinkling his nose a little. Either way it smelled like the past . Back when things had been better. He wished he could go back to that time… but he couldn’t. No one could. The only way to move was forward.

“Zoro will you go in with me?” Chopper asked, straightening as they sloshed into the parking lot. He didn’t trust Zoro not to take off and disappear into the world like he had so many times before. Zoro nodded and pulled into a parking space close to the awning. Chopper took another deep breath and let it out. He could do this. He was okay. It would be okay.

Probably.

Maybe.

He hoped…

He shook his head and shouldered the messenger bag, stepping out into the rain. It pattered on his hat and dripped onto his shoulders. It was a sad Christmas Eve. Even sadder as he noticed how few cars were in the parking lot. Only two rested side by side; probably belonging to the receptionist and whomever else worked here. People should come visit their families… But maybe they had, Chopper thought with a stab of hope. Maybe they had just gone already or… or maybe not shown up yet.

“Chopper,” Zoro said, and when Chopper looked up, jerked his head toward the door. Oh…yeah…

He set his jaw, flared his nose and marched forward. The paper Santas waved at him sadly as he went through. There was a blond woman as a receptionist this time. Not Conis, though, someone new with square glasses that flashed as she glanced up and back down again, buffing her nails. Usopp, no… Vivi’s driver was there, too, seeming to be sleeping on one of the chairs, magazine over his face and resting on his weird square nose.

“Is Mr. Blueno okay?” Chopper said, remembering the guy’s name as he signed the guest book.

“Just fine,” said the receptionist, adjusting her glasses with the tips of her fingers. “Thank you for asking.”

“Um…no problem,” Chopper said, and she went back to filing her nails as if she hadn’t even noticed.

Maybe Blueno was working the halls or something. All the doors were closed, so it was impossible to tell unless he was in the break room or something… There was also something else… Chopper cocked his head to the side. It was usually quiet in this place… but it seemed even quieter somehow. As if no one was here at all.

A door to a nearby room opened and an employee Chopper had never seen before stepped out. Chopper was relieved and sad to find someone on the bed in the room. A new patient. Very round. The door closed before Chopper could get a good look at him, but it was none of his business anyway.

“What are you doing here?” Zoro said, sounding defensive, his hand twitching at his side. Chopper blinked at him and then at the employee. He didn’t seem weird, though he smelled kind of funny and there was a bird also dressed in an employee’s shirt on his shoulder. Both the bird and the man held up their hands in perfect synch.

“I’m Hatori,” the bird said, gesturing to itself and Chopper goggled a bit. “And this is Rob.” The bird pointed at the man who put a hand to his chest and made a little half bow. “We’re new employees here. Please don’t be concerned. We’re here to look after our patients.”

“Wow a ventriloquist!” Chopper breathed. He’d never seen a ventriloquist bird before! It wasn’t even moving its beak but speaking even clearer than Karoo!

“Only because that dummy Rob is so shy,” Hatori said and Rob rubbed the back of his head, looking away. Though he seemed more bored than shy.

“Well you’re really good!” Chopper said.

“Thank you,” the bird said, making a little bow of its own. “Now if you’ll excuse us…”

Chopper nodded and got out of the way so Rob could walk past them to the receptionist desk. He wanted to talk to him more but Zoro patted his shoulder, reminding him of what he had come here to do. Chopper nodded and went into Luffy’s room ahead of Zoro, watching him glance down the hall and then shut the door.

“What’s wrong?” Chopper asked. “He’s new. I bet it’s pretty hard for him working this time of year.”

Zoro just nodded.

Chopper set the messenger bag on the chair and looked at Luffy. He seemed smaller and paler than ever, the red blanket seeming to almost bleed what life he had out of him. Chopper shook his head, took a deep breath and put on his doctor face. One step at a time. First, checking his vitals. Chopper went through the examination as best he could, checking Luffy’s pulse, blood pressure and temperature, the state of his lungs, the beat of his heart. As always it was slow and steady. Not much changing. But as he filled in the chart and compared it to one made just last night, he could see he had been correct. Luffy was stronger in the day. Only by a slim margin but…but maybe margin enough…

Which… which meant that…if they wanted the best chance…he…he had to do it now.

But then he’d already been prepared for this.

Now he just had to do it.

Chopper nodded, took a moment to center himself, and went to the messenger bag.

“I’m going to start the injections,” he said, hearing his own voice flat and serious even if he felt smaller inside. Small and young and uncertain… But he wasn’t any of those things now.

He was a doctor and Luffy’s doctor and the only one who could do this.

“I don’t know what will happen after this,” Chopper said as he slowly prepared. Giving himself a sanitized place to work. Getting out cotton and a bandage for later. Checking Luffy’s vitals once more, putting on gloves, taking the IV out… and then slowly preparing the syringe; not wanting to waste a drop of the precious, deadly liquid. Not wanting to stick himself either. Who knew what that would do?

“It could be nothing will happen or it could be dramatic…” He continued, his voice sounding fainter than it should be. He cleared his throat. “It could … He could…”

“I know,” Zoro said, voice tight and rough. Chopper nodded. He wished Zoro had something else to say. Something wise or helpful or…or anything but…but maybe there was nothing left to say.

Chopper watched Luffy a second longer, existing in the moment where life went on as they’d gotten used to for the past five years. When things were still in stasis. Except they weren’t in stasis. Luffy, breathing faintly, was dying, slipping away from them even if it didn’t seem like much of a change… and a long shot was the only shot they had to save him.

“Okay,” Chopper said, but thought at Luffy: I love you. and: please understand.

And then he swabbed an area in the crook of Luffy’s arm, finding the vein pale and blue and rope-like, barely hidden under the skin.

Please, he thought. Please…

And pushed the needle in, watching the liquid slowly disappear into his friend, their captain. He tried to tell himself if Luffy did die it would be quicker. But then he wondered if he should have waited for people to give their goodbyes. The thought distracted him and he grit his teeth and focused on the task at hand. He’d worry about the rest later.

For right now he pulled the emptied hypodermic out, set it to the side and placed cotton in the injection spot, pushing Luffy’s forearm up so the pressure would stop the bleeding. He was sweating too. He wiped the sweat away with the back of his arm, then carefully lowered Luffy’s arm to check the injection site and bind it up loosely with the bandage; tight enough to keep the cotton in place but loose enough so it wouldn’t be difficult to check for infection.

Then he stepped back.

Luffy took a quiet breath.

Another.

And then began to seize, arms and legs twitching, head jerking back and thrashing against the pillow. Chopper cursed, swooping the straw hat out of the way so Luffy wouldn’t crush it.

“Luffy!” Zoro’s panicked voice tore through Chopper as he shoved away from the door. Chopper didn’t have time to give him comfort.

“Stay back!” Chopper snapped. “There’s nothing you can do for him! Let me!”

He tossed Zoro the straw hat and then carefully rolled Luffy onto his side so he wouldn’t choke on what little spit he had. Zoro caught the hat and Chopper saw his blunt fingers clutching the edges of it before he turned all his attention back on Luffy who was still seizing. But even holding onto him could hurt him…. So there was nothing Chopper could do but watch and count the seconds.

Thirty seconds… Forty… Chopper clenched his teeth, knowing Luffy’s body couldn’t handle this sort of strain… Soon, though the tremors began to ease, muscles stiffening and he was still. Chopper sucked in a quick relieved breath.

“Luffy…” Zoro said in a near whisper. “God.” His voice broke.

“Shhh,” Chopper said.

He carefully rolled Luffy onto his back again. His eyes were open but rolled all the way back. Chopper waited to close them. Tried to feel for a pulse. Then pressed his stethoscope to Luffy’s chest. His heart was still beating, fast though faint. That had been hard on him as Chopper knew it would be. Still it was done and so now the only thing to do was wait.

He wanted to collapse by Luffy’s bedside, to cry maybe or give in to the feeling of hopelessness that was gnawing at his gut. Except Zoro was still standing there, head bowed, shoulders tense, holding the hat in his hands. Zoro’s breath shook and wet dropped onto his knuckle. Chopper felt his own heart turn over but drew himself up. He had to be the strong one now.

“He’s still alive for now but we’ll have to keep a close eye on him,” Chopper said, carefully closing Luffy’s eyes so they wouldn’t dry out. “Here, come hold his hand while I put this stuff away.”

And he turned his back to clean up so Zoro could have his moment. At first it was so quiet he didn’t think Zoro would, but then there were footsteps and the faint scrape of chair legs against the floor. When Chopper risked a glance over his shoulder he saw Zoro with both hands clasped around one of Luffy’s, resting his forehead against it. He looked away again before he saw anything else and focused on slowly putting things away.

As he put the gauze and the cotton in the bag, he couldn’t help but see the box that held the vials. One down, six to go. And still the Devil’s Seed to find and administer.

Do your best, Luffy, he thought. We need you.



****







‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ was playing again. For the third time on the third channel. It wasn’t even one of the channels that liked to play it all day. Chopper couldn’t even be mad at it anymore. He accepted it tiredly, watching Jimmy Stewart’s fictional life play out all over again, from noble hero to guy who took on too much and couldn’t take it any more. Maybe Chopper didn’t like it because he understood it. His life was a doctor’s life. You did everything right but in the end thanks to bad luck, or a mistake by yourself or someone else, or just plain nature taking its course, everything was undone.

At least nature hadn’t taken hold of Luffy. Not yet.

Chopper went to check on him as he had been doing every half an hour, upgraded from every ten minutes or so. Luffy had been getting stronger but now he’d seemed to have stabilized in a lower place than Chopper was comfortable with. He might get a boost once he’d had time to relax for a day, but who knew how much? Another round would send it straight back down again. He tried not to sigh as he lifted Luffy’s arm, peeking at the injection site. That was clean at least. He lowered his arm again and tucked it at his side, offering a bleary smile to Zoro who didn’t even seem to notice.

Well… That was fine.

‘What did you do with the money you stupid, silly, old man?’ Jimmy Stewart snapped at his hapless uncle. Zoro sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

“Change the channel would you?”

“Oh yeah sure. Sorry.”

He flipped through. Wonderful Life. Wonderful Life. Rudolph. Miracle on 34th, Christmas Shoes… Chopper scowled a little at that one. Then there was White Christmas-- but it was the sequel or remake or whatever, set after the Red War instead of WWII. He sighed and flipped to the classical music channel instead, just so there was something to listen to. It was Christmas music still, but at least nothing too depressing or too energetic. Anyway, Zoro wasn’t complaining.

Chopper settled back into the arm chair, resisting the impulse to check Luffy again. There was a slight buzz near his butt and Chopper jumped, pulling his cell phone from his back pocket, anxiety jumping-- But it was just Usopp updating the Strawhat Twitter feed. It looked like Chimney and Grandmother Kokoro had shown up to the party. Chimney had candy cane stockings and Chopper couldn’t help but notice how the high heeled boots made her legs look like they went on for miles. Grandmother Kokoro on the other hand….must have had fun trying to get herself into that dress.

It was interesting and all but Chopper couldn’t help but frown as he checked his messages just in case.

Nothing from Law.

He’d wanted to get his take on the seizure or ask him if there was anything they could do to improve Luffy’s constitution. Questions which he should have asked when he saw him, Chopper knew, feeling guilty. But he’d called Law twice in three hours and nothing. Just an automated message and not even one explaining where he was.

It was nothing to worry about really. Or well probably. After all three hours wasn’t a long time and tonight was Christmas Eve. Law probably had a lot of people to spend time with. Still Chopper couldn’t help but worry a little.

“Something wrong?” Zoro asked and Chopper realized how hard he’d been frowning at his phone. He practically could feel his brow unfurrow as he forced a smile.

“No… just… Grandmother Kokoro… Her dress is worse than last year.”

“Hm,” Zoro said. Wait…had Zoro even been at the Christmas party last year? Chopper couldn’t remember. Well never mind.

A savage melody rang through the air and Chopper’s heart jangled in anticipation, but he frowned again when he realized it was just Franky. Damn… He answered and then impulsively put it on speaker phone so Luffy could listen too.

“Yes?”

“How are things?” Franky said. There was the sound of a large crowd in the background and Chopper supposed he must be in the lobby or something.

“Um, he’s stable right now,” Chopper said, wondering if he should tell Franky and the others that he’d already given Luffy the first dose. Would it make them releived? Or would they worry? Or be mad at him for doing it without them.

“Super,” Franky said. “It seems like we’re finally on our way to a good week. Anyway, Kureha showed up.”

“Doctorine?” Chopper said, sitting upright. “I didn’t know she was coming.”

“That’s kind of the super theme of the night,” Franky muttered.

“Huh?”

“Neve rmind. Point is you going to come see her or do you want us to send her over your way?”

“Hmm.” Chopper glanced at Luffy, lying there breathing softly. “I probably shouldn’t leave him.”

“Go,” Zoro said, sounding stern even as he gently held Luffy’s still hand between his own.

“But…”

Zoro looked up at him. “Is there anything more you can do for him? If he seizes up? If…” He pressed his mouth closed and shook his head. Chopper swallowed. There was a million things that could happen if he was even gone for a minute but-- but nothing he could really do about any of them.

“No…” Chopper murmured.

“Then go… Luffy would want you to.”

That was true. Luffy would want him to go have fun…not that Chopper was sure he could do the fun part right now. But it was true there was a lot of people he wanted to see before they left town. Chopper debated a little longer before nodding.

“Okay, I’ll come for a little bit.”

An hour. Maybe two. It wouldn’t be so bad.

“Great,” Franky said, rolling his ‘r’s so he sounded like some TV commercial. “We brought your suit along just in case so don’t worry about it. Even one for the lost boy over there.”

“Oi,” Zoro growled but softly.

“Don’t oi me Roronoa,” Franky said. “You’ve gotta at least come to one of these things. You’re part of the family whether Luffy is around or not.”

“I’m not leaving him alone,” Zoro said. “Not tonight.”

“What…what if, you go when I come back,” Chopper said, and to Zoro’s scowl: “Only for a little while… People… really want to see you, Zoro.”

“Chopper…” Zoro said, face softening. He looked so lost for a moment. Sad. As if the worst had already happened.

Well it hadn’t, even if it still might-- but since everything was stable right now Chopper was going to look after Zoro’s emotional health the best he could.

“Luffy would want you to,” he said stubbornly.

Zoro winced then gave Chopper a faint smirk, shaking his head.

“Alright… Just for a little while.”

“Rrright on,” Franky said. “See you there.”

“See you.” Chopper ended the call and then stood. He didn’t really have anything to bring with him but his messenger bag but that should stay here. He felt weird leaving without it. Or maybe just weird leaving period. Anxious he rubbed his palms against his jeans and did another quick check of Luffy’s vitals, finding no change. Still…Chopper wondered if maybe he should stay after all. Just in case.

“Anything I need to know?” Zoro said as if trying to verbally shove him out the door. Chopper shifted from foot to foot and reminded himself that Luffy really would want him to go-- and there was nothing more Chopper could do for him right now.

“Just um…if he starts seizing put him on his side again. He shouldn’t throw up but just in case… Otherwise….” He scratched the back of his neck. “Call me if anything happens…”

“I will.”

It was time to go then…

Chopper cast one last glance at Luffy and then went out into the hall. The lights were dim. It was just as quiet as he went in…

No… Not quite. There were voices… The staff was talking just behind the office door. Maybe a human wouldn’t have heard them, Chopper thought guiltily, but even though they were muffled he could pick out their words.

“Will it be tonight?” the lady receptionist lady said.

“If not tonight or tomorrow we’ll have a difficult situation,” said a voice Chopper didn’t recognize. “Spandam wanted to know where we were.”

Hey! Wasn’t that the guy Nami worked for? Did these guys know Nami too?

“And you told him?” the receptionist lady said. A pause and then: “You need to zip your lip.”

“You zip yours. He asked.”

“That’s sexual harassment,” the receptionist lady said blandly. The other voice spluttered.

“Coo! Did you need help?”

Chopper nearly jumped out of his skin at the voice near his shoulder. It was the ventriloquist bird and his friend, pushing a cart full of towels.

“Oh… uh… no,” Chopper said, blushing and scratching the back of his neck. “Well…yes, kinda! I’m leaving but I’ll be back in a few hours so…” It was a little unorthodox he knew but this place let them do this thing all the time.

“Understood,” the bird said with a wing salute. “Please don’t forget to sign in when you arrive.”

“I-I won’t.”

As the man and bird carted away, Chopper felt he’d gotten away with something if only barely… but he didn’t feel good about it. Well maybe he’d ask Nami about them later-- or maybe it wasn’t his business. After all it made sense that Nami would want to make sure Luffy was cared for by the best people she could. He nodded to himself and lifted his head, feeling chagrined and a little hopeful as he went out. It had started snowing again, soft white fat flakes that flurried slowly. For a second it felt just like Christmas Eve was supposed to--

Then he saw Conis standing under a street lamp in the parking lot, dressed in green and white and looking at the building with a worried expression. Chopper hurried over to her, skidding a little on an unexpected patch of ice and waved happily.

“Ah! It’s nice to see you again, Miss Conis!” he said. “We thought you were on vacation!”

She startled a little, hand flying to her heart, but then an uneasy smile came to her face.

“Yes… I was…” She was smiling but he had seen enough tense smiles to know she was hiding something. Some deep hurt. Her hand moved to clutch the feathered edges of her coat and brushed snow against her cheek which melted softly, turning them pink.

“Are you okay?” Chopper asked, feeling torn. He wanted to go to the party but he couldn’t leave Miss Conis out here being sad. “The door’s unlocked still if you want to go in.”

“No…I was just stopping by…” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath and when she looked back up at him her smile was as tense as ever. “I was wondering… how is Luffy….? Is he…?”

Oh… it was about that? Of course…. Chopper smiled, proud that Luffy made so many friends even just lying there. There was something about him that made people care.

“He’s okay…”

“Will he…Is he going to….” she trailed off, squeezed her eyes shut once more. Was she asking if he was going to die? Chopper wasn’t sure how to answer that at first--but then decided to lie a little. It was Christmas Eve after all, she should be happy for a little while. He took a breath but she held up a hand.

“No… No don’t tell me. Don’t tell me anything.”

“Huh?”

“Oh Gan Fall, how can you be good in times like these,” she murmured, but it seemed almost as if she was talking to herself. Almost like a prayer. Chopper hesitated, wondering if he should lay a hand on her shoulder or if he could do something or say something that would at least put a smile on her face.

“Miss Conis…”

“Miss Conis,” said another voice and Chopper looked up to see Vivi’s square-nosed driver coming toward them with a friendly smile on his face. Chopper opened his mouth to warn him about the patch of ice but he didn’t even seem to notice it as he slid forward, not even breaking his stride. Snow fell on his black cap and shadowed eyes. “I didn’t expect to see you here so late. Did you forget something?”

“Oh… no…” Conis said, taking a step back, paling.

“She was checking up on Luffy,” Chopper said, wondering why she was so nervous. Maybe she thought she was in trouble? Maybe she’d actually been fired or something? If that was the case Chopper felt bad for bringing up the vacation.

“You’re a sweet lady to be caring so much when you’re on vacation.” The driver touched his cap, tugging it down a little in respect. “But I figure you’d better get yourself home before it starts icing. Doesn’t look like it’ll be good if you stick around here.”

“Of course…” She bowed her head, then looked up again, meeting Chopper’s eyes. “Be careful,” she said, laying a mittened hand on Chopper’s arm. She seemed to be saying something else with her eyes. Something she wanted Chopper to understand. But then she turned and got into her little white sedan and Chopper stepped out of the way so he wouldn’t be blinded when she put the headlights on.

“She’s a good lady…” Vivi’s driver said. It was weird that he knew her… weird that he was even here so late… but Chopper had seen him in the lobby earlier so maybe he was visiting someone. Chopper wanted to ask but it felt like it would be too intrusive so he didn’t. Vivi’s driver smiled at him.

“Well now,” he said. “Can I take you somewhere? The roads are mighty treacherous.”

Chopper was about to say no thank you when he realized he didn’t have Zoro’s car keys… and even if he did he didn’t want to leave Zoro stranded here if something happened.

“I don’t… have any money on me.” Or not enough to pay for that kind of ride.

“Aw shucks. Christmastime? I’ll do it for free.” He touched his cap again.

“Well if it isn’t too much trouble,” Chopper said. “Could you take me to Empire Suites?”

“Sure thing.”

When they got to the car, Chopper hesitated before finally deciding to slide into the passenger side. It felt weird sitting in the back when he wasn’t paying. The car had a cool minty smell and Chopper wrinkled his nose a little at the giraffe air freshener that hung from the rearview mirror, probably the source of the mint. He didn’t mind mint usually but only if he didn’t care about smelling anything else.

“I’m surprised you’re not all with him tonight,” Vivi’s driver said as they pulled out of the parking lot. “’Scuse me for being nosy but he didn’t look all that grand the odd chance I saw him.”

“We’ll come back,” Chopper said. “We always do after the party.”

That was a tradition too. They would troop to Luffy’s room, a little exhausted from it all. The air would fill with the scent of faint perfume and sweat and booze. Then they’d sit around and take turns telling things that had happened at the party. Sometimes talking about the past. The first Christmas they’d done it they’d stayed all night and into the morning though these days usually there were only three or four of them left by the time the sun came up. They’d all stay tonight, Chopper knew. All night. There was a lot to talk about still. A lot to hope for.

“That’s fine,” Vivi’s driver said, but in the old fashioned way that meant ‘good’. “You know, Miss Conis was right about tonight.”

“About what?” Chopper said.

“It’s a night to take care. Keep on your toes,” Vivi’s driver said, glancing at him from under his cap. “After all, anything can happen on Christmas Eve.” He spoke pleasantly enough, but for some reason the hairs on the back of Chopper’s neck rose.

****





By the time Chopper got to Empire Suites he was feeling a bit rattled. Vivi’s driver was nice enough but he couldn’t stop wondering what he meant by what he’d said… and resented it a little. Christmas Eve was supposed to be a happy time and it was hard enough with Luffy as he was. But maybe the guy hadn’t meant it like that. Maybe he’d just been trying to be friendly. Either way, Chopper was glad to be out of the car and away from the minty smell. He tried to think about the good time he’d have at the party. All the people he’d meet. Seeing Doctorine. He wondered if April had come with her.

He took a few breaths and let them out as soon as he got in the brass elevator that would lead him down to the ballrooms. It was hot and stuffy in here compared to the cold outside, but he preferred it. He took the time to center himself. Prepare his nose for the onslaught of smells, especially perfume, that would roll over him and intermingle until he was feeling a little dizzy. He thought of Doctorine and Grandmother Kokoro….and Chimney with her really long legs… and Emily, though a little guiltily because she wouldn’t be there and he’d never see her again… or at least not for a while.

But ahh, he wouldn’t think of that either!

“Have fun,” he muttered to himself, patting his cheeks. “Have fun.”

The doors wooshed open to a cacophony of sound. Chopper made his way down the hall where the B and C ballroom were side by side. There was a party ongoing in the B Ballroom, too, Chopper saw. There were tons of people there. Some of whom he recognized.

No…wait… a lot of whom he recognized. He blinked. Had they switched ballrooms?

He got his answer in a minute as Usopp peeked around the corner, Chopper’s suit flung over his shoulder.

“Oh there you are,” Usopp said. “Here.” He thrust out the suit and Chopper took it. “Be quick, Nami wants to see you.”

“What’s going on?” Chopper asked worried.

“It’s a madhouse that’s what’s the matter,” Usopp said with a sigh and Chopper noticed he had one of Nami’s cameras on a strap around his neck. “But never mind that. I’ll tell you when you get out. Oh and take this for your street clothes.” He waved a little bag.

Worried Chopper hurried to the bathroom, cramming himself into the handicapped stall and trying his best to get changed into the suit without bumping into anything. It wasn’t complicated. Not like some of Sanji’s fussy things. There was a vest though which Chopper wasn’t really happy about except it made him look good…even if after a few hours he was melting into his shoes. He pulled out the green bow tie that had little dark outlines of holly on it, wishing he’d gotten a clip on but oh well, Usopp could help. He draped that around his neck instead, grabbed the bag of his clothes and started to leave…

Only to be stopped by his reflection.

He hadn’t shaved this morning and looked practically like an ape man. The beard wired under his nose and chin and his brows had practically grown into one again. Not to mention the pelt of furry hair poked over his collar which made him had to close it and feel even more suffocated. There was hair on the backs of his hands too and his knuckles. He didn’t regret shifting into his reindeer form to help Luffy but he wished it wouldn’t come back to haunt him like this.

He sighed, testing to see if the pockets were big enough to properly hide his hands in when his fingers found a little case. Blinking, he pulled it out and saw a little pair of scissors wrapped in plastic as well as a sticky note that read:

‘Clean yourself up, shitty yeti.’

Chopper grinned, feeling a million years better and wiggled his hips a little until he realized Sanji had called him a yeti and so vowed happy vengeance on the cook. The scissors wouldn’t do much but at least he could trim his beard so it looked good and the hairs on the backs of his hands and knuckles. Buttoning his sleeves would hide the rest of it. He made quick practiced work and when he was done looked at himself in the mirror proudly. He didn’t look normal, not by a long shot, but for who he was, he looked good.

He tugged his suit jacket proudly, adjusted his hat and then went back across the hall where Usopp was waiting, leaning against the wall and looking really good in candy cane suspenders. Chopper was envious of those and wanted to borrow them but also didn’t want to steal Usopp’s classic style.

“What do you think?” he said, suddenly a little self conscious. Usopp grinned.

“You look great, Chopperman! It’s a good thing you’re a doctor because you’re going to have the ladies throwing themselves at your feet. Here let me get that.” He came over and Chopper lifted his head so Usopp could tie his bowtie. Chopper grinned as the perfect line came to him. He was so eager to say it he nearly choked himself looking down to tell Usopp.

“I’ll make sure not to step on Sanji when he catches them.”

Usopp laughed. Actually laughed. Ah he’d told a good joke! What a great feeling!

“You should tell that line to Zoro,” Usopp said. “He’d get a kick out of it. Now chin up and try not to strangle yourself this time.”

“You’re the one who tied it too tight,” Chopper said, lifting his head.

“That’s because you nearly concussed me with your stupid chin,” Usopp said without heat. “There… you look great. Here I’ll take that…” He took the bag of Chopper’s street clothes. “And yoou stand there.” He gestured to the open ball room doors.

“Oh okay.” Chopper did as he was told and made a peace sign for the camera. Then he tried a more suave angle. Then sticking out his tongue which made him laugh and he heard the fourth tiny click of the camera.

“Perfect,” Usopp said. “You’re pretty photogenic. I’d sell your photos to Esquire but they’d never be able to afford the asking price.”

“Really?” Chopper said, flushing a little. He didn’t know what Esquire was exactly but it seemed like something important!

“No doubt about it. You’re like a male model,” Usopp said, making a square with his fingers and peering at Chopper through them. “You should tell Vivi to let you model on the runway.”

“Mm it’s only because I’m buff,” Chopper said, flexing an arm. “But I’m too hairy to be handsome.”

“Are you kidding me?” Usopp said, shooing Chopper into the ballroom. “I know women who’d give their left arms for you to even look in their direction.”

“Who?” Chopper said, wanting to sound just curious but the excitement got there ahead of him. Usopp gave him a wide-eyed look before smiling and dropping a hand to his hip, shaking his head.

“Chopper, Chopper, Chopper. I can’t tell you that! Betray a woman’s secret? Not me! Not only am I the most trustworthy man in existence, I’m pretty sure Sanji would serve my liver as paté.”

“Then how will I know?” He’d like to meet a woman who’d give her left arm or…or even her number! Or a dance. Or a smile.

“You will know,” Usopp said, patting his arm. “And she’s out there. Trust me.”

Oh, he hoped so… Chopper thought as he followed Usopp through the crowd. Emily bubbled up in his mind but he shook it away. No, what was he thinking? There wasn’t time to be thinking anything like that. They had important dangerous missions to go on and this was only the calm before the storm. He lifted his head and squared his shoulders, trying to be serious and

“Woah! Where did all these people come from?!” Chopper yelped, boggling a bit as he finally noticed. The divider between the ballrooms had been pushed back and both of them were full of people. There were the ones who came every year, but there were others too that he hadn’t seen in forever, like Duval and his gang. Iceberg was here, too. Nojiko. Tonjit who was trying to drink from the punch bowl from atop his stilts from a very long straw. There were more people he never expected to show up. Buggy and 3 and Alvida and their gang watching sulkily from shadowy cloaks except for 3 who was wearing a shining gold vest and Alvida who had a neckline down to her belly button. Wow.

Wow wow.

There was even more people he didn’t know at all!

“Gawk later,” Usopp said, tugging at his arm.

“Luffy is really popular!”

“I’m not even convinced half these people know him,” Usopp said, pulling him toward their little area near the back. “Of course they’re eating the food like nuts and Sanji can’t stop serving food like nuts and that makes the cost go--” he jerked his thumb upward. Oh yeah probably Nami would be really mad. These parties were expensive enough as it was… even he knew that. But… He was sure that a lot of these people did come because of Luffy or because of people that loved him.

“I know it’s going to be hard but… I’m kind of happy,” Chopper murmured.

“Me too,” Usopp said, so quietly that if Chopper didn’t have good hearing it would be lost to the noise.

They wended their way through the party. Chopper waved to Mr. Dalton and Laki who were on the dance floor. Johnny and Yosaku were there too, awkwardly and drunkenly trying to dance with each other. Chopper had only met them once or twice but they seemed like nice guys. Chopper offered them a wave too but they didn’t see it as they staggered to wheel around a green-haired lady Chopper didn’t know, dancing with Paulie who looked like a cherry tomato.

“It’s so lively tonight,” Chopper said.

“If by lively you mean crazy.” And he really did sound harried. Chopper frowned and wanted to say something to cheer him up but his phone buzzed in the plastic bag that held his street clothes.

“Crap wait a second. Stop!” Chopper said, practically diving for it.

“Woah. Sure! What’s up?”

“Not sure.” Chopper dug out his phone, hoping to see Law’s number but-- weirdly it was a text from Zoro asking if he got there alright. It was really weird for Zoro to text or even really call unless he had something important to say.

I am here and it is crazy!!! You will meet a lot of friends. :) Yes That was good. Reminding Zoro he needed to come because people will miss him.

Usopp laughed faintly. “Man if you keep frowning like that I’m going to think something is wrong.”

“No.” Chopper pressed send and stuffed the phone in his back pocket. “It’s okay! I was just talking to Zoro.” And he plastered a smile on his face so Usopp wouldn’t worry.

“Ah…” Usopp started walking again. “Think he’ll come?”

“Definitely,” Chopper said.

Usopp nodded but said nothing more as they arrived at their tables, tucked behind a trellis divider winding with ivy. It was mostly a place to hide the equipment so the slide show and home movies that dominated the screen in the center of the ballroom could take center stage. But it was also a place to sit if they wanted to escape the questions or sad looks or well meant remarks. Or if they wanted to talk to someone away from the noise of the main ballroom. Even that said, they hadn’t even used these tables much--except for Robin and Zoro, when they could drag him--who preferred to stay in the shadows.

Only Nami was back there right now, though, face lit by the soft candlelight as she poured herself a glass of wine. Chopper could tell the bottle was mostly empty by the way it sloshed when she put it down-- and frowned. After this he should really look up some psychology books and find a way to implement healthier coping mechanisms. He was their doctor after all.

“He’s here, Nami,” Usopp said, and when she looked up, patted Chopper on the shoulder. “I’ve got to get back out there. A world famous photojournalist’s work is never done. Happy Birthday by the way.”

“Oh, thanks,” Chopper said, surprised. With everything going on he’d completely forgotten about that. Well it was partly maybe because they didn’t really celebrate it until a few days after Christmas now. To give everyone a chance to settle, Sanji had said when he’d suggested it. Give everyone a shitty reason to come back. Chopper wasn’t sure if he was the greatest reason. He wasn’t exactly the glue that held everyone together. More like the one that stitched them up when they fell apart.

“Did you do it?” Nami said, breaking him from his thoughts. Her voice was like stone and she didn’t look at him. He absently slid his fingers together looking at his thumbs.

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“He lived through it,” Chopper said. He wondered if he should tell her that he barely did or say that he doubted Luffy would survive another round or even ask about what she thought about Conis. But she looked a little more relaxed now, the tension eased a bit from her shoulders as if some hope had got in and he didn’t want to ruin that.

“Good.” She stood, candle light winking off the bells that rested in the holly at the top of her dress. It was a short one and Chopper was always surprised what Nami could do in those. “You may have noticed the crowd,” she said, gesturing toward the trellis.

“Yeah. Wow it’s amazing! All these people knew Luffy!”

“Mm well… maybe. They just kept showing up… it’s impossible to believe all of them but who knows who Luffy met when…” She trailed off. Shook her head. When he was away, Chopper knew she meant. When they weren’t with him. “Anyway, I need you to go around and get names….” She handed Chopper a little black notepad and a pencil. “And while you’re at it ask for cash donations to help support Luffy’s….situation.” She blew her bangs from her face. “I can’t stop Sanji from feeding them but they’re going to have to pay for it somehow. Plus we’ll need some for later…”

“I’ll do my best,” Chopper said. He wasn’t sure how good he would be at it but it couldn’t hurt to ask. Nami gave him a true smile then, if a faint one, then stood on tiptoe to press a kiss against his cheek.

“Happy Birthday,” she murmured, and then was heading out into the ballroom, her heels clicking with purpose against the floor, a wave of flowery tangerine perfume in her wake. He watched her go, smiling himself. He’d managed to cheer her up a little! But now he had another mission. Something equally important that Nami had entrusted to him. He couldn’t let her down.

After tugging on his lapels one more time as he’d seen serious people do in movies, he went out himself into the bright world of the ballroom and looked around for people he didn’t know. He spotted one in an instant. Head and shoulders above most of the crowd was a sleek woman dressed in a poinsettia kimono.

Chopper couldn’t help but gawk a little about how tall she was, but managed to rearrange his face before she caught him at it, looking down at him with a pale white powdered face and a small circle of lipstick over her much wider mouth.

“Hi, my name’s Chopper and I’m Luffy’s…” what? Nakama? Crew? Friend? It had been so long since he’d had to inform anyone he wasn’t sure what word to use.

“I know who you are,” the …woman? Man? Crossdresser? Transgender? Said in a surprisingly deep, lightly accented voice, looking over his shoulder at the screen which was highlighting that time they took a river boat trip and Luffy kept getting yelled at for trying to ride the paddle wheel. Chopper smiled faintly.

“Yeah…” He flipped open the notepad. “Since we have a lot of people here this year, I’m taking names… It’s kind of like a guest book.”

“I see… Well I’m Izo--” he hesitated. “Would you like me to sign it?”

“Sure!” Wow it was kind of like a Luffy autograph book. Chopper handed the notebook over. “How do you know Luffy?”

“Well, I don’t… specifically,” Izo said, writing with delicate precision. “Rather I’m his brother’s nakama.” He handed the notebook back and Chopper couldn’t help but geek out a little as he saw the English sitting side by side with beautiful kanji. Woow.

Still, knowing who he was, it was kind of sad…

“I guess you still haven’t found Ace, huh?” Chopper said. He’d seen Ace off and on since that time in Las Vegas, though mostly in dragging Zoro back from whatever he’d gotten into-- a fight he’d lost. Wounds he’d ignored. Dummy. And then one day Ace had just vanished… Though Chopper hadn’t even known about it until Luffy had been found in a coma.

Sadness flickered over Izo’s features as if he could read Chopper’s mind. But no, Chopper thought. He was probably thinking of Ace…

“Not a trace… And things being as they are….” He sighed and brushed his fingers over a medallion that sat between the cords of his obi. Chopper recognized the Whitebeard mark on it, stylized but still recognizable. He didn’t actually know much about them except they were supposed to be a pretty big deal.

“Well,” Izo said. “In any case I hope it’s not an intrusion. We came to honor one who was so close to one of our own…”

“It’s fine,” Chopper said. “He would have liked it.” He added the initials ‘WB’ next to Izo’s name so that they could remember it later on. “Are there any other Whitebeards here?”

“A few,” Izo said. “Haruta is here as well as a handful of our subordinates.”

“Haruta…” Chopper perked up. “I heard about them in New Orleans!”

“Oh?” that faint smile was back. “You should tell her. It would please her to know her name is so well known.”

“Sure thing!”

Chopper waved goodbye and continued to wend through the crowd, giving a wide berth to the scowling sulky Buggy and 3 group, and maybe staring a bit too much at Alvida’s dress. He looked away, face burning, and loosened his collar. He was so distracted he nearly collided with a short red-headed girl.

“Hey, watch it now,” she said calmly in a cool Australian accent, neatly side stepping him.

“Sorry!” Chopper said automatically.

“No worries,” she said with a smile. Then she gave him a nod and began to walk away. Chopper realized with a start he didn’t know her.

“Hey! Wait a second! Are you--”

“No,” she said, shortly, whirling to face him and he stopped short, blinking. “For the hundredth time to the hundredth person, I’m a Kiwi! Not an Aussie.”

“Um…. Busy?” he finished, rubbing the back of his head, heat stinging his cheeks. He was glad he hadn’t brought it up. Two circles of red appeared on her own cheeks and she cleared her throat.

“Sorry about that. How can I help you?”

“Um well I’m Luffy’s… crewmate…” did that sound weird?

“I know, I saw you in the pictures.”

Oh yeah… He had to stop saying that… His blush burned hotter and it felt like he’d singe his hair right off. …If only.

“Right… but… well we’re making an autograph book for him. Could…you sign it?”

“Yeah sure.” She took the book, pulling a pen from a hidden pocket in her dress and neatly signing. “How’s he doing by the way?” she said, handing the notebook back. Her name was Koala, apparently, and she had doodled a cute little koala next to it, winking. No wonder people were so confused as to where she was from.

“He’s hanging in there,” Chopper said.

“Much as we can hope for, I expect.”

“Mm. Um… how do you know Luffy anyway?”

Koala hesitated.

“Let’s just say… I’m here representing someone who has a vested interest in Luffy’s well-being,” she said. “I’ve never met him myself.”

“Okay…” Chopper said, wondering how to put that in. Finally he scribbled in ‘unknown rep’ and hoped he’d be able to remember what it meant.

“I’ll be rooting for him too,” she said with a smile, placing a small cool hand on his arm, sending an almost electric thrill through him. She smiled as if she knew and went on through the crowd. Chopper had to swallow a few times and shake his head like a dog shaking off water before he could finally feel safe to move again.

As he went through the crowd he found half a dozen more people he didn’t know and surprising ones he did. He’d just finished with a teary eyed woman named Dadan and turned away so he wouldn’t be blinded by her choice in Christmas sweater and was about to start across the room to the three men with bushy mustaches across the room that looked suspiciously like Coby, Helmeppo and Garp-- when he caught sight of Doctorine back by the wall. He nearly jumped out of his skin at seeing her, remembering that was why he’d came here to begin with.

“Doctorine!” he called, hurrying over to her. A smile lifted her face and her eyes but she took a long drink from the plum wine bottle and seemed to calm down a little.

“I thought you’d never notice, kek kek kek.”

“Sorry, I was doing something for Nami.”

She waved it away, then reached over and rubbed his lapel between her fingers.

“You clean up well.”

“Thanks. You do too.”

She was wearing a silver dress, something Nami would call a sheath dress he thought. It was a good look but it was weird not to see her bellybutton. She also had streams of tinsel tied in her hair, though he could barely see it except when it caught the light here and there.

“I thought you didn’t like holidays,” Chopper said.

“It’s something to do,” she said, though he didn’t know if he believed her. He kept his smile to himself though as she lead him to an out of the way table next to the wall. There were two wine glasses sitting on the table April’s messenger bag was slung over one of the seats. So she was here. Maybe. He tentatively poked the messenger bag to see if it was real. She could be really tricky sometimes. It really did feel like cloth.

“Yes, she’s here,” Doctorine said, pouring some of her wine in the empty glass. When it was about half full she pushed it over to him. “Happy Birthday, by the way.”

Chopper smiled at the sense of nostalgia that spread warmly through him as he took the wine glass and had a little sip. It was gross as it ever was, but it was a tradition that went back to the second birthday party he’d ever had, huddled in a cave with Doctorine and waiting for Dalton. It felt like they had always been waiting for Dalton in those days.

He took another sip, trying not to make a face at all and knew he’d failed a little when she grinned at him.

“I’ve never understood why you drink it if you don’t like it, brat,” she said fondly. Chopper smiled back.

“Just because it doesn’t taste good doesn’t mean it doesn’t make you feel good,” he said.

“Don’t say such sappy things to me. They won’t get under my skin.” But as she chugged down her wine he thought he saw a spot of red on her cheeks.

He took a bigger gulp of his, more to finish it than anything, but soaked in the warmth of them being together on his birthday. They hadn’t done this on this exact day in a long time it felt like. Usually celebrated on the first week of February when all the ‘damn undergrads’ as Doctorine put it, had settled down into the ennui of taking classes and procrastinating papers. It was nice to have a cup of plum wine on the exact day… Only…

Only… it meant a change.

Only it meant that he wouldn’t be returning to Doctorine’s side to help her out. He’d be leaving her again and for a more uncertain future for the first one. For a future that might not even work out. Would she be mad at him for it, he wondered. Would she be disappointed? He stared at the reflection of white lights on the dark wine and wondered how to tell her.

“If you’re going to say it, spit it out,” Doctorine said, throwing a leg on an empty chair and tilting the bottle back. The light flashed on her glasses as she took a long swallow. Then she wiped her mouth with her arm and pointed at him. “I’m not old yet but not young enough to have the time to wait around.”

That was the first time she’d even hinted she wasn’t young. It rattled him a little and he couldn’t help but see her hair, more white than silver now, and the wrinkles that lined her thin face. Where there more of them now? Was she taking care of herself?

“Don’t give me that look,” she said. “You have enough worries without me too. Focus on what’s at hand.” She tapped his knuckle with a single finger. Chopper nodded and tried not to worry. After all Doctorine knew better than anyone how to take care of herself. He looked down in the cup once more and turned it around and around in his fingers.

“I’m…not coming back to the school,” he murmured, waiting for her to say something. She didn’t and he went on. “I don’t think ever. Thank you for helping me with this opportunity but… but…” Could he say it? How much could he tell her? He really didn’t want to get her involved but maybe by knowing him she was already involved to a point.

“Something come up?” she said mildly. Chopper nodded.

“I… we found a way to maybe… help Luffy.” He sighed. “Only I don’t know if it’ll work. It’s his only shot but it’s also…” he looked around, dipped his voice. “Kind of illegal.”

She snorted but when he looked at her she seemed amused. She shook her head, crossing one leg over the other at the ankle, arm hanging over the chair back as she looked up.

“Am I supposed to be surprised that you would risk everything to save him?” she said. “Give up everything we’ve worked for to give you a shot at some kind of normal life?” She still sounded amused and he didn’t take it personally though he couldn’t help but feeling a little bad about it. She had done a lot for him -- and he respected and appreciated that. But… she didn’t need him either. Sometimes he wondered if he was the one holding her back from…whatever it was she wanted to do.

“But you’ll do it anyway regardless, won’t you?” she said, sitting up and giving him a look that was scalpel sharp. “Put yourself in danger even though people who care about you will worry. Put your future on the line.”

“I will.” Because even if he felt bad it didn’t matter.

“Why?”

“I--”

“Ahahaha What’s with those looks?” Luffy’s voice rang out, filling the ballroom and Chopper half turned, hope and excitement lurching in his throat.

“Lu--!”

But…it was the projection. Chopper swallowed hard. Who had turned the sound on. No one ever had the sound on since that first time!

Luffy was standing on the railing of the paddle boat ship, the water flashing and freckling by him. One of his hands was casually braced on the deck above but he was on one foot, too, scratching his calf with the other one.

“We’re worried about you!” Nami said from behind the camera. “Get down here before you fall in!”

“Ehhhh…” He shoved a pinky in his nose and rooted around with it. “Nahhh this is fun. Come on you should join me!”

“Not on your life!”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to get wet that’s why not.”

“Suit yourself.” He pulled his finger from his nose and flicked the booger away. Chopper laughed and a few other people did too. He blinked and glanced around, realizing he wasn’t alone in watching. In fact most of the ballroom had gone still. Even though the music was still playing, their gazes were turned to the screen. Chopper looked back himself.

Luffy had turned to look away, the light of the setting sun shining on his cheek, the wind ruffling his hair. There was a faint sigh from behind the camera, but a contented one and Chopper wondered if Nami had been smiling.

“Luffy…” she said.

“Hm?” He turned to look back at her then slipped on something, losing his footing, for a moment he flailed and then seemed to have it giving both thumbs up before falling in the water.

“Don’t pretend that you have it when you obviously don’t!” Nami snapped.

There was a curse from off screen and a double set of footsteps as both Sanji and Zoro catapulted off the side of the ship after him.

“Don’t both of you go at once!” Usopp said.

“Ahh Luffy!” Chopper heard his own voice shriek and remembered Usopp holding him back and saying:

“You can’t even swim!”

“Damnit, they’re never going to catch up,” Nami said coming in front of the camera, leaning her hands on the railing.

“I hope they aren’t eaten by alligators,” Robin said.

“Robin!” Usopp and Nami snapped and Chopper remembered struggling all the harder to save them from their fate.

“I hate to say I saw this coming,” Brook said. “But then again I didn’t. Blind Joke! Yohohoho.”

There was a sound of Nami facepalming and then she went back to the camera with a deadeyed look.

“Don’t worry I super got this,” Franky said, though Nami was blocking the shot. “Check out my new grappling hook.”

“Ooh.” Chopper heard himself and Usopp say. It was really cool he had thought and he still did now! He hadn’t seen a grappling hook like that before though Nami and Robin point blank refused to be saved by it. He still didn’t get it. Nami made a super annoyed face to the camera before turning it off

There was a flicker of blackness and a shot of Luffy, dripping wet and laughing, with Sanji and Zoro fighting behind him, both equally wet. That had been a good day, Chopper thought. A good week. Back when they’d thought anything could happen. Back when anything could happen even if they had been trying to live a normal life.

The snapshots continued. The music sank back in. Chopper slowly pulled himself from the memory and watched others do the same, some shaking their heads as if remembering their own times with Luffy. That was another thing. Chopper hoped, aside from them, he could bring Luffy back for all the people that cared about him. There were so many.

“Why did you do that?” he could faintly hear Nami say from across the room behind the trellis.

“Ah well…” Brook said, but whatever he said after was cut off by Doctorine’s faint cackle.

“A lot of energy that kid had,” she said, as he looked back at her.

“Do you think he’ll ever be that way again?” April said, chewing on a cracker. Chopper startled.

“When did you get here?!”

“I’ve been here the whole time.” April said it with such a bland expression that he couldn’t tell if she was lying or not.

“That’s a good question to consider, though,” Doctorine said. “Five years in a coma is no short rest. There’s a chance even if you can save him that he’ll never leave a wheelchair. Never be able to talk or communicate. What right have you to give him life?”

“The right of a doctor,” Chopper said. “And a friend. We all decided to risk it, Doctorine. Even if it’s just a faint hope… or if he’s not perfectly healthy…. It’s better to chase a dream then not try at all…”

“How poetic,” April said. Doctorine smiled, truly this time it seemed, and turned away, ducking her head to massage the bridge of her nose under her glasses.

“You’re that damn fool’s protege still,” she said her voice thick. “I’ve got to use the necessary.” And she got up, making her way out of the ballroom. Chopper smiled, wiggling a little at the thought of doing Doctor Hiriluk proud…and Doctorine proud as well. As he watched her go he saw two familiar guys slip into the room. It didn’t take him more than a second to place them…they were the ones that had been at the care facility the other day. The laughing one and the singing one who had tried to commit seppuku with a stapler. Huh. He didn’t know they knew Luffy too.

Actually the room seemed fuller now then it ever had before and there was something weird to it all, like metallic tang in the middle of a forest. He tilted his head. What could it be?

“I made you a present,” April said. “Would you like it?”

“Sure,” Chopper said surprised. She usually just gave him food or something. He watched her dig around in her bag, absently pushing a twisted braid out of the way. It was still kind of strange to him that she and Doctorine had lived together since a little after Chopper had left with Luffy. Doctorine had found her half starving and bruised from living in the forest, unable to go back for fear of what Crocodile or the other officer agents might do. For some reason Doctorine had taken her in and she’d started going by the name of April instead of Golden Week--though she’d never said why. It was kind of funny that even though Doctorine didn’t care about art and April didn’t care about medicine, they got along really well. It was good to see.

“Here,” she said, holding out little black cloth bag that wasn’t dressed up at all.

“Thanks…” He took it and peered inside. There were three colored balls, together small enough that he could almost fit them all in his palm. Even in the dimness he could see that there was a yellow, a green and a blue.

“Ornaments?” He opened the bag a little more but she closed at the neck with a pinch before he could reach in.

“No.” Her eyes were intense as she watched him over the bag; more intense than he’d ever seen. “Color Bombs. Mellow Yellow, Grievous Green and Blissful Blue. One time use. How well they work depends on your opponents will and intelligence…”

“Opponents…?”

She nodded. “But they are also good for a smoke shield. Use them wisely.”

“Huh?” Did…did she know what they were going to do? They’d only just decided! “How did you find out what we’re doing?”

“I don’t.” She thumbed the edge of her wine glass, making a faint thrumming whisper just on the edges of his hearing.. “But I know something is coming. Something big and something soon.” Her words were chilling even if her inflection didn’t change. He swallowed, hands shaking a bit as he cinched the bag tight.

“What is it? Can you tell me more?”

She shook her head slowly.

“I don’t know the details. If you look too deep into these things it starts looking back at you.” She canted her head to the side as if listening for something and said: “But it’s bad. Take care of yourself, Chopper. And I’ll take care of her.” She glanced away and Chopper followed her gaze to see Doctorine at the doorway, talking to Dalton and a large cloaked figure that loomed by his shoulder. It took Chopper a moment to recognize it as Lapu and he started out of the chair to go greet the lapin; but then stopped as the bag bumped against his wrist.

This dangerous situation… He should do something about it. Tell someone. Maybe it even had something to do with the weirdness that had been going on in the facility. Chopper looked to where Doctorine and Lapu were again, wanting to talk to them and after at least maybe being able to say goodbye, but there were more important things just now.

“Tell Doctorine…” Chopper hesitated. He couldn’t say he’d be back. He didn’t know if he would be. Maybe this was the last time he’d ever see Doctorine or April. “Tell… Doctorine…” His throat closed. He didn’t want to say tell her goodbye.

“I’ll tell her,” April said. Chopper smiled, glad that she knew what he meant but sort of sad too that they had to have this kind of conversation. He nodded and then tucked the color balls into his pocket and went to find the one person who would know what to do in a situation like this.

****



“What do you mean something big and bad is coming fast?” Usopp said, gripping his shoulders. “What kind of thing? Coming for who? You? Us? Luffy?”

“I don’t know!” Chopper said. “April couldn’t tell me any more! Just that it was coming.”

“April’s here?” Usopp looked around Chopper’s shoulder and then shook his head. “No, no not important but hmm…” He stroked his chin and the short beard that even Chopper was kind of proud of. He wished his own could look so neat! “Well she’s been out of action a while now right? You know? I bet that’s old news.”

“Yeah,” Chopper said. That sounded realistic! April had said she hadn’t looked too deeply.

“It’s probably nothing at all.” He waved a hand.

“Yeah!”

“Or they changed their minds!”

“Yeah!” Except… “But… things have been really weird tonight.” Usopp slumped. “And… she really does keep her eye on things since she’s still in hiding more or less…” Usopp slumped even more and Chopper, feeling bad, patted his shoulder and said quietly: “I think we’re actually in trouble.”

Usopp thudded his head against Chopper’s chest and groaned.

“It’s Christmas! Can’t you give a man a break? Just once?”

Chopper continued to pat his shoulder meaningfully, getting the feeling that Usopp was talking to the world in general and not specifically him. But then Usopp snapped straight, smacking his fist into his palm.

“Aha! I’ve got it!”

“You have?!” Chopper said, eyes shining.

“We’ll move to Mexico.”

“Mexico?”

“Yeah! It’s great this time of year! And best of all no one will count on us going there!”

He sounded so excited about it that Chopper almost hated to ruin it but he had to. There was no other way around it.

“We can only move Luffy if we really really have to and we wouldn’t have anywhere to set him up again.” They couldn’t just rough it in other words. Not even the Super RV could handle it in the long run. Luffy needed somewhere stable to rest. Somewhere climate controlled with a steady stream of IVs to keep him hydrated among other things.

“Geeze,” Usopp said, straightening and hugging himself, rubbing his arms. “I hate threats when I don’t know them. Hell I hate threats when I do know them… I’m going to do a great job helping out, I can tell.” He muttered the last, sounding annoyed.

“I believe in you!” Chopper said. And he did! He didn’t know how they could do anything without Usopp. “You’re the best at shooting and running away and all kinds of stuff.”

“Oi…”

“Plus Luffy would want to see you…if he wakes up…” Chopper had wanted to say ‘when’ but that hope was still too far in the future for him to even hold on to.

“Of course I’ll be there! He’ll be sunk without me, let me tell you,” Usopp said, his eyes over bright. “Who keeps him in line huh? But actually we really have to figure out what’s going on.”

“What’s going on?” Nami said, making her way over to them, a wine glass in her hand. “And did you get all of the names”

Oh yeah he knew he’d forgotten something.

“Not yet…”

“Listen, Nami, forget that,” Usopp said, all serious. “April says there’s something big and bad heading this way.”

“And soon,” Chopper added.

“Big and bad, huh?” Nami said, taking a sip from her glass.

“And soon,” Chopper said again because that seemed crucial.

“Hm. Well good luck with that!” she said, pivoting neatly on her heel and turning back the way she had come.

“Get back here!” Usopp snapped.

The lights flickered. Silence fell in stuttered beats across the ball room except for Garp who was smacking Smoker loudly on the shoulder and telling him to enter some donut contest. Chopper’s fur bristled. It couldn’t be happening already, could it?

No…

Conversation slowly began to pick up again but there was a kind of tension. Chopper could feel it rise and see it in the faces of others. Some were more alert. Some looked worried. A line had formed between Vivi’s brows and Koza put a hand on her shoulder while Igaram started across the room toward him.

He saw the Australian… no… New Zealander girl , Koala, standing against a bare wall, pose casual but her face was set as she looked around the room. What was she looking for? He rested a hand against the bag of color bombs, even if there was nothing to throw them at just now.

“Okay so what is going on,” Nami said. “What is this big and bad thing.”

“I…I don’t know,” Chopper said. “She didn’t know either…”

“Wonderful…” Nami said. A hand tapped Chopper’s shoulder and he half turned, but there was no one there. It tapped again and he noticed Robin’s finger resting there. It disappeared as soon as he noticed it and another one bloomed, pointing to the laughing guy and eighties hair seppuku guy who stood across the room. Oh right, he should tell Nami about that too.

“Chopper,” Nami said. “I don’t know how we can--”

“Weird stuff has been happening at the resident care facility too,” Chopper broke in. Her face changed almost in an instant and he had her eagle eyed attention. Usopp too, though he looked more worried than anything.

“What kind of weird stuff?” Nami said.

“New staff… Those guys were there the other day…” he pointed quickly hoping they wouldn’t notice. “I thought they were there to see Luffy but… I don’t know… Also it seems really empty…Oh and um… I saw Miss Conis.”

“Conis?” Nami’s shoulders grew rigid. Her eyes narrowed. “What was she there for?”

“I think she wanted to see Luffy but…she seemed scared.” He shook his head. “She told me to be careful… And…Vivi’s driver knew her…? And he said the same thing. He said…” Chopper scratched the back of his neck. What was it? “Anything can happen on Christmas Eve.”

“Right,” Nami said, pulling her cell from her cleavage in a deft move. “I have to make a call. Stay right there.”

“How does she do that,” Usopp muttered. The lights flickered again. Conversation fell to a low hum and Usopp moved closer, looking around. His butt buzzed and he jumped again, grabbing onto Usopp who grabbed him back.

“What? What?”

“Ah…” the buzz came again. “It’s my phone.”

“You scared the crap out of me.”

“S-sorry…” Chopper pulled it out and nearly dropped it three times before finally pressing answer. “Hello?”

At first there was nothing but harsh breathing. Chopper clung to Usopp harder, half expecting something spooky on the other side. He wanted to hang up but raised his head as bravely as he could.

“It’s close to midnight…” a man’s voice. Rough and strained in his ear. Somewhat familiar.

“I… I thought it was closer to ten-thirty…” he patted for his fob watch but he must have forgotten it in Sanji’s house.

“No listen. something’s …” a soft curse. “Tony-ya…”

“Law?”

“Get to your patient.” Law rasped. A chill went through him, goosebumps rose along his skin and he bristled, fighting the sudden instinctive urge to act. To fight or flee.

“What do you mean?” Was something up with Luffy? Did Law know something of the big bad thing that was happening? Silence on the other end.

“Law?”

Again no answer and he pulled the phone away to see that the call had ended.

Chopper cursed under his breath.

“What’s going on?” Usopp said. Chopper looked down at him but before he could answer, the lights went out. Chopper startled, hearing Usopp yelp beside him and several other startled cries erupt across the room.

“Pull tight,” someone said that might have been Igaram.

“Oh no it can’t be happening already,” Usopp moaned. “I’m not ready for this!”

Chopper breathed, slowly, in and out. Someone touched his shoulder and he jumped a mile until Brook said in a low tone:

“What’s going on? Are the lights still out?”

“Yeah…” Usopp said. “B-but I’m sure it’ll be alright I--”

Laboon gave a low whine, grabbing Chopper’s attention.

“Shh,” Chopper said. Usopp shhd and Chopper strained his ears. He could hear the muffled sound of boots in the hall. His fur bristled at the faint feel of something, like a drop in pressure and he flared his nose, hoping to get more. It was dulled in human form though. He heard the woosh of an elevator and a muted ding and then…

… was he hearing that right?

“A horse?” Coby said. Others repeated the word in whispers, sounding just as startled as he was. The hoofbeats drew nearer and then he could see it in the doorway, if only just barely. A ghostly white outline of horse and rider. What the--?

Suddenly a spotlight flicked on, highlighting the horse and rider. Chopper blinked, dazzled by the sudden light and saw a blond man in fancy clothes, holding up a megaphone.

“Hello, everyone. I am Cavendish, rising star of the Circuit world. Five time winner of the preliminary world cup…” Some beefy guy stepped forward with an armload of trophies. Chopper blinked. Impressed despite himself. Five was a lot! Even if she wasn’t sure what that was for.

“And Great and Noble Priest of the God Eneru.” He gestured to a patch on his fancy white suit. A lightning bolt inside a gold circle.

“Eneru?” Nami whispered.

“Welcome is to the Ordeal of the Ambush. No one is gonna save you…” The lights flicked on revealing about a hundred guys with guns and swords crowding the front. Even more had revealed themselves in the room and some were behind them. “Remember me as you die.”

Chopper squeaked and Cavendish caught his eye, and drew a straight sword from his hip before charging straight for them. He yelped and pulled Usopp and Brook back, trying to get them behind him.

“Not today!” Garp roared, and Chopper watched as if in slow motion as the buffet table flew through the air in a perfect arc, food flying as if they were floating along. It was graceful. Like a long square bird, cloth edges fluttering. It reached the peak of its arc then came down like a bullet, smashing Cavendish in the face and sending him flying off the horse and against the wall where it made a dent. The food fell as well. Around the room bits fell wetly and there was an enormous crash as the crystal punch bowl broke to pieces on the floor.

“Oi!” Nami snapped.

But there wasn’t even time for her to be angry as then all hell broke loose. Someone opened fire but Chopper couldn’t say who it was, and then Cavendish’s men right in front of them aimed.

“Smoke serpent!” Suddenly a bunch of them were wrapped up smoke while a candle wall appeared blocking another part of the ballroom. Chopper tried to get everyone down or at least away as gunfire rattled everywhere and some in the crowd drew swords, spears and other weapons, or sometimes fighting with their fists against people he knew.

It was pure chaos. He didn’t even know where to turn. He looked around wildly, holding onto Brook and trying to find something to hide behind.

“Down!” Brook cried and Chopper followed his lead, ducking as another table went spinning wildly through the air only to be cut in half by Tashigi. The two parts falling harmlessly on either side as she landed on a skid on one knee. She turned and squinted at them.

“All civilians to the west wall. Sir, please remove the bear costume. You’re becoming a target.”

“Bear costume?” Chopper echoed.

“She means you,” Usopp said.

“Oi!”

“No time for that. Come on,” Usopp said, tugging his sleeve. The five of them made their way to the west wall, Laboon straining eagerly at his lead, trying to get his master to safely. A big beefy man almost as wide as he was tall stepped in front of them.

“Where do you juicy bits think you’re going?” he said, grinning a gap-toothed smile. “Wherever it is you can cancel your plans. Anyone here is slated to die.”

Chopper pulled his hand into a fist, beside him Brook let go of him, flexing a thin hand on the top of his cane. Usopp shivered and ducked behind Chopper’s arm.

“You d-d-d-d-don’t want to mess with us!” Usopp said.

“Don’t I?” the man said, reaching a big meaty hand for Nami. In a second she had pulled her climatact basic out of her cleavage, snapped it together and popped the man between the legs so hard that even Chopper felt a little twinge. He collapsed with a yelp in a kind of comedic sort of hop.

“No,” she said blandly and held out her hand. Chopper gave her his and she levered herself over the guy’s still form and they finally had a clear path to run toward the wall. But it seemed just that, a wall. There was absolutely no one there! And it seemed closer than the last time.

Ah oh no! Was the room shrinking somehow?!

He saw Helmeppo standing in a shadowy corner, beckoning them onward and then jerking back as Coby slammed a guy twice his size on the floor and tied his hands with liberal vengeance. He looked up at them as they passed, sweat flecking his forehead and nodded.

“Come on, come on,” Helmeppo said, ducking back into the shadow which Chopper had to squeeze sideways past. There was the distinctive smell of wax and paint and… he saw the other side of the ballroom where all the civilians were. The non fighters. Though they were bruised and bloodied. Ah there was so much to do.

“Vivi!” Nami said, racing to where their friend was, sitting against the wall, resting against her father. She had blood on her cheek and looked sallow. Chopper picked up his pace and knelt beside her.

“I’m alright, thank you,” Vivi said, smiling at him while Cobra looked concerned.

“She nearly fainted,” he said.

“I did not faint!” pink flushed over Vivi’s cheeks. “I just got a little dizzy.”

“Hm….” Chopper checked the injury and saw it was just a scrape. Not harmful. Her pulse was erratic and…

“Excuse me,” he said, wishing he had his stethascope. She blinked at him until he gestured to her belly and then nodded, gripping Cobra’s arm.

“Where’s Kohza?” Usopp asked as Chopper knelt as best he could, resting his ear against her stomach.

“He’s looking for an escape route with Igaram.”

He closed his eyes, listening for any sign of something abnormal. It was so hard to tell really. He hadn’t had much experience with pregnant women though he’d been reading up on it. Still he could just pick out a heartbeat, small but steady. He nodded to himself and rose, sitting back on his legs.

“It seems fine,” he said. “But you need to stay off your feet as much as you can the next few days I think,” he added, noting how swollen her ankles were. “And…” he winced as a rattle of gunfire smattered through the other room. He didn’t want to think of how many people had been hit. How many of their friends would need his medical attention. Even in here there was a lot of work to do and he didn’t even have anything on him.

“And…?” Vivi prompted.

“Um… and…” What had he been going to say? He loosened his collar and finally undid his bowtie so he could breathe. “Oh stay out of action…”

There was a shriek of metal which made them all jump and Vivi paled even as she laughed. Chopper laughed a little too, seeing the irony in all of it but that stopped abruptly in surveying the room. Ahh he had to get to work. To start tearing bandages. He spotted Doctorine on the far side of the room, tending to someone lying down, Teracotta acting as a nurse-- and noticed that she had medical supplies.

“Wait, Chopper,” Nami said, stopping him in his tracks. “We have to go.” She was giving him an urgent look. “Remember?”

And then Law’s voice ghosted up in his memory. “Get to your patient” he’d said. That was right, they had to go. He bristled a little.

“The sooner we leave the better,” he said.

“What’s going on?” Usopp said. “Did I miss something?”

“Has something happened?” Vivi asked.

“Just taking precautions,” Nami said, though Chopper didn’t think Vivi was convinced. “When you see Sanji tell him I took the van. Also that I’ll text him.”

“Alright…” Vivi said. Hesitated. She leaned forward, away from her father’s hold, a hand fisted over her chest. “… If I can do anything…”

“Relax,” Nami said, thocking her on the head with the heel of her hand so that Vivi winced a little.

“Take my shoes then,” Vivi said. “You’re about my size. Trade with me. I… I would feel better knowing you’re not going to break an ankle.”

Nami hesitated and then smiled, bending to kiss the top of Vivi’s head.

“Will do.” She slid out of her heels and in a moment was tapping on Vivi’s flats.

“Stay safe,” Vivi called after them faintly.

Nami waved and they followed her toward the exit. The sounds of fighting grew louder. As if it had moved to the hall and gotten even more intense.

“Please tell me we don’t have to go out there,” Usopp moaned. No one answered him, but if Chopper remembered right, he was pretty sure they did. He tried to think of something nice and comforting to tell him. That they would be okay or it was worse than it sounded, but his throat was dry and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. There was a sound almost like a muffled sonic boom out there and handful of voices cried out in pain. Chopper felt like all of his hair was standing on end.

“M-maybe I should stay here,” Usopp said, stopping. “Y-you know h-help with the recovery.”

Chopper really wanted to stay with him, too. Anything was better than going out there but he needed to.

“Stay where you want,” Nami said, voice hard once more. “I don’t have time to make your mind up for you.” She stopped at the door and half turned, not quite looking at them over her shoulder. “But I believe in you, so…” she said the last almost like a murmur. Like wasn’t quite sure if she wanted to be heard.

“I believe in you too!” Chopper said, louder and with more enthusiasm, hoping to bolster Usopp’s confidence a bit. “You’re the greatest!”

“The absolute best!” Brook chimed in. “No one runs as fast as you do!”

“Oi…”

“Or lies as well!” Chopper added. It was true! He could rarely tell the difference unless someone pointed it out!

“It’s called story telling!” Usopp snapped. “But it’s not like it’s going to make me any good out there!”

“Yeah but… I’m not any good either,” Chopper said. It had been a long time since he’d fought at all.

“I’m rusty as well,” Brook admitted.

“So you could only help!” Chopper added, though didn’t say: ‘and Luffy would like you there, too’. He didn’t want to guilt trip Usopp after all, but he was sure that Luffy would do a lot better if Usopp were there, if only to hear his voice and his stories.

“Oh God…” Usopp said, in a way that meant to do it but was scared of it. “Oh God.” He straightened, pulling his arms apart from where’d been hugging himself and then set his jaw and marched to the door. Chopper inwardly cheered. He saw Brook was offering a low five and met his downstretched hand with a slap of skin on skin.

“Nami!” Usopp said imperiously in the way that Chopper knew so well. Glee filled him and then he said, with a slight bow, so debonair as to make Sanji proud:

“Ladies first.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Nami said in a flat voice. A second later something hid the wall hard enough for it to shudder.

“Oh right!” Usopp said with a false laugh, flapping his hand “We’re both pretty low end aren’t we?”

“And don’t you forget it!” she said. They turned toward them and said at almost the same moment:

“After you,Brook!”

“Ah! How kind!” Brook chirped, moving forward, then whipping his hand in the air: “I’m not going first! It’s dangerous out there! Anyone with eyes can see that! … Even though I have none yohoho.”

“Well someone’s got to go and you have a sword!” Usopp said.

“I’m just as much a coward as any one of you!” Brook said defensively.

Chopper knew then that he had to be the one to do it. He didn’t want to be the first one through the door. But he was twenty now. An adult. Time to stop hiding behind other people’s legs. He tugged at the brim of his hat, trying to get some confidence, and strode forward. At the door, he gently brushed Usopp to the side and pushed it open.

Only to shriek and jump back as an ax whistled past his face. It was so close he could feel the air from its passing. Once the ax was down, though, the guy’s face was clear. Chopper acted on instinct, balling his hand into a fist and popping the guy in the face with it, feeling the man’s nose give under his knuckles as he sailed backwards through the air and hit the opposite wall, slumping to the ground immediately after.

“Oooh,” Usopp and Nami crooned in the same voice, clapping. Chopper grinned as he felt heat rush to his face and rubbed the back of his neck.

‘It wasn’t that good, you bastards!”

“What happened?” Brook said, eagerly.

“Uh… tell you later,” Usopp said. Another good reason for him to come along so he could tell Brook all the cool things that he’d missed.

“Let’s go,” Nami said, gripping her staff.

Chopper went out first, nervously looking around, trying to be ready for anything. The hallway was a mess. The walls were dented or cracked entirely. He could see a lot of the men’s bathroom from the hole in the wall where a flying bruiser had crushed the urinal to pieces. Garp was in there, too, smashing two guy’s heads together like coconuts. Chopper winced. Bodies were lying everywhere and though Chopper guessed most of them were merely unconscious, it was hard to tell. Most of the other combatants had clustered around Koala who stood, back to the wall. One of the guys came at her, elbowing his two compatriots out of the way and she promptly kicked him in the stomach, something rippling in the air from the force of impact and sending him crashing into the others and denting the wall pretty severely. The woman looked at them, adjusting her hairpin with a flick of her fingers.

“The West Fire Escape is your best route. Miss Robin is there.”

‘Miss Robin?’ Usopp mouthed and Chopper shrugged.

“Left, Chopper, come on,” Nami said and Chopper went left, trying to keep ahead, winding among the unconscious and trying to ignore their moaning. The Western fire escape had an even greater pile of bodies and Chopper heard feet clanging up the stairs toward them. He stopped the others, flinging his arms wide to do so and braced himself for whatever it could be-- feeling like he had a giant target painted on his chest.

A handful of people burst out of the doors, bristling with weapons. One of them smirked and raised a pistol. Chopper winced and then relaxed when graceful arms sprouted from their bodies so they looked like centipedes.

“Clutch,” Robin said, torso blossoming from a wall nearby. Chopper winced again as the hands pulled and their bones cracked. She glanced at them cooly.

“Where are you headed?”

“Luffy is in trouble,” Chopper said quickly. “I don’t know from what but we have to go.”

Robin nodded.

“We have to move him to secure location anyway. The Whitebeard Gang will help.”

How did she know that? She was so smart!

“The Whitebeard Gang?” Nami narrowed her eyes. “I know they’re Ace’s but… What’s going on exactly?”

“What is going on exactly?” Robin said casually. The women eyed each other and Chopper was a little frustrated. There were so many secrets between all of them now. He didn’t even know what Robin was talking about with the Whitebeards and why they would help. But…

“The big thing that was coming came,” he said. “April told me about it. A lot of people know already. We need to get out of here and help Luffy. The rest we can figure out later, maybe.”

Nami nodded, pulling back. Robin did too. Closed her eyes.

“The fire escape is clear for now. Go ahead but be careful. I’ll tell the Whitebeard contingent when I can and we will meet up with you later.”

Nami nodded, then gave Robin a brief fierce hug.

“Come on,” she said to them and then they were racing down the stairs, feet clanging like alarm bells. Chopper expected any moment to be attacked from above or below. None came though and they burst out into the night. The snow had stopped falling. It was clear and cold with a slender slice of moon overhead. He could tell just by the harsh glint off the snow that it was more ice than not with heavy crust. He would have to go first and tramp a path for them.

He eased himself out of the narrow door and put down a foot in snow that crunched almost up to his ankle. There was a flash of movement from the rooftop and Chopper glanced up. Usopp made a gargled noise and pulled him back so hard Chopper stumbled and nearly fell on him. A gunshot snapped and a bullet drove up the snow near the door.

“Holy shit, just holy shit!” Usopp said, tugging in Chopper the rest of the way and shoving the door shut. “Who are those guys! Why is there an army here! Why does everyone want to kill us so bad?! It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours! We haven’t technically done anything yet!” He paused and looked up, face full of hope even in the harsh light. “Maybe they’re not after us specifically?”

“They are,” Nami said. “Probably. I’ll explain later.” She glanced at Usopp. “Can’t you pick off that guy somehow?”

“Me?” Usopp gestured. “It looks like I left my slingshot in my other set of pants. That I never use anymore. About the only thing I can do is huck a snowball at them.”

A snowball… Suddenly Chopper got an idea. He fumbled the pouch that April had given him out of his pocket, and shook one of the balls gently into his palm.

“What about this? Can you throw this and hit them?” Chopper said, holding the ball up between his thumb and forefinger. Usopp narrowed his eyes at it.

“What is it? What does it do?”

Chopper shrugged.

“It’s a color ball. April gave it to me. She said it would help.”

“It’s worth a shot,” Nami said.

Usopp took the ball from him and rolled it about in his hand, frowning at it. Then he pulled at his collar with a finger and Chopper saw a faint sheen of sweat start to form on his temples.

“I…I dunno, guys. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to do this kind of thing.”

“It’s quite a feat,” Brook said, resting a hand on Usopp’s shoulder. “But if anyone could do it, you can.”

“Yeah!” Chopper said.

“If I don’t get shot!” Usopp said.

“Oh right…”

“It’s either that or go up and around,” Nami said. “The clock is ticking. We have to get to Luffy.”

“R-right…” Usopp took a few deep breaths and then slowly opened the door, just enough for his nose to stick out. Then he yelped and slammed it shut again, nearly on his nose a split second before the sound of a bullet pinged off it, denting the metal. Chopper frowned. He didn’t know how Usopp would do this. He didn’t know how anyone could! But he just had to believe it, that was all. Believe in the impossible! Have faith in his friend.

For Luffy, he thought, hoping Usopp could feel it. For Luffy! You can do this!

Suddenly Usopp roared in a mad wild way, yanked open the door and threw the color ball at the gunman. Chopper tried and failed to follow its arc, but definitely saw it as the gunman shot it, green substance that looked almost like paint flying from it and hitting them in the face and chest. Usopp took deep ragged breaths and Chopper gripped his shoulder as they watched and waited. The gunman seemed to try to brush the paint off, lifted it to their face and then scowled. They lifted the gun again and Chopper was all set to drag Usopp back in when the gunman jerked once, twice and vomited. It was a clear steady stream of puke, glittering in the moonlight, looking almost pretty.

“Wow…” Usopp said. “I did it…”

“You did…” Chopper said in the same awed tone. And it looked like April had done it too as the gunman couldn’t even seem to stand up and continued retching in relative privacy.

“What happened?” Brook said impatiently. “What did it do?”

“Made them throw up,” Chopper said.

“Spectacularly,” Usopp added. “Of course it I didn’t have perfect trajectory it wouldn’t have even made the roof. Not everyone can be a crack shot like this guy.” He jerked his thumb at himself.

“So you knew what you were doing the whole time?!” Chopper said, astonished.

“Of course!”

“Great job,” Nami said dryly. “Let’s go. Chopper lend me your jacket, it’s freezing out there.”

“Oh okay.” He put it on her since he didn’t need it anyway and started off first, crunching the snow under him as he went. He sort of remembered his way around, but it was even quicker with Nami murmuring directions behind him, but when they reached the entrance for the service parking garage, they had to duck back around the wall again. There were twenty or so people there, some of them guarding, others seeming to be breaking into the parked cars. All them seemed to be wearing a lightning patch with a gold circle.

“How are we going to get past them?” Usopp whispered. Chopper shook his head. He had no idea. He only had two color balls left! Would they even be enough?

“How many?” Brook whispered.

“About twenty,” Usopp said. “In the parking garage.”

“Then… it is my turn…” He inclined his head, and then delicately flipped the cane into a smooth arc. He clicked his tongue and he and Laboon started toward the garage, cane sweeping over the snow back and forth. Chopper gripped Usopp’s shoulders, Usopp gripped him back. Nami remained slightly ahead of them, holding Chopper’s suit jacket around her. The guards caught sight of Brook immediately and Chopper bit his lip. What if it didn’t work? What if they shot him on sight?

But then one of the women gave a lazy grin.

“You’d better turn around, old man, unless you want something bad to happen to you.”

“Soul Song,” Brook said calmly, resting his cane on the snow.

“What?”

Laboon barked twice. Great rolling boofs that echoed all around the parking garage. Then Brook pulled his sword from his cane in one shining movement.

“Mad Waltz!” he said, and charged them, yohohoing. His sword flashed and danced among the confused guards and anyone who tried to come at him. But he knew where they were. It was some form of echolocation, Chopper knew, enhanced by Laboon’s bark. It was exciting to see again.

“Man even Brook’s at the top of his game,” Usopp said, sounding morose. Chopper patted his arm.

“I’m pretty useless too,” he said. “But we can get better.”

Usopp grunted but Chopper couldn’t guess whether he was arguing or agreeing. In any case Brook’s mad dance continued until finally he walked away from the knot of people, flicked the blood from his blade and said:

“Finito.” Sliding it home.

Nami started forward just before the guards collapsed like puppets with cut strings. Chopper followed behind, still with an arm around Usopp. He was a little awed by Brook’s strength still. Who wouldn’t be? Brook turned toward them elegantly and then clapped both hands to his face, grinning broadly.

“Ahh! I did so well!” he cried.

“You really did!” Chopper said.

“Yeah it was amazing,” Usopp said with a nod, though sounded a little strained. “You must have kept up practice.”

“Not at all. I guessed.”

“What do you mean you guessed?!” Chopper and Usopp snapped, slapping the air.

“I really thought I was going to die! I saw my life flash before my eyes! Even though--”

“You have eyes, Brook, that joke doesn’t even work,” Usopp said.

“Well what do you expect? I’m still terrified here!” Brook snapped.

“Can we save the comedy for the road?” Nami called over her shoulder, voice echoing.

Oh right. Chopper picked his way over the bodies, almost wishing he could drop off some bandages for them while at the same time half expecting someone to grab his ankle. No one did and they made it to the van safely, though the back window had been cracked it had held.

They had to take some time to remove the shelving inside it but even with that, the back of the van was more crowded with just him and Laboon and Usopp than he remembered. Still it was kind of nice. Kind of warm. He felt safer here, hidden away in the dark with his nakama.

Not that safe though. Anything could happen. He hardly dared to breathe as the van rumbled to life. He could see the parking garage pass by through the tinted and cracked window and then the street lamps outside. There was the distant wail of sirens and he wandered absently if they were coming here.

The roads seemed freshly plowed or at least recently, but still Nami cursed as the van skidded once or twice on slick patches. Nothing too alarming but enough to make his heart jolt. Still as they went on and there were no attacks or louder sirens, he found himself relaxing bit by bit. Looking around the sterile crowded van, he realized something.

“We need to take his blankets before we go, and more probably,” Chopper murmured half to himself as he ordered an inventory in his head. “And some IV bags and I hope there’s a climate controlled environment…”

“I don’t get why we have to move him,” Usopp said. “Why are they after us… Why should they be after us? What did we even do?”

Silence for a while and then:

“We were bleeding money,” Nami said. “We still are but a few years ago it was even worse. That was when we didn’t see Zoro for months at a time, remember?”

Chopper did.

“We still barely see him any more than that,” Usopp muttered, drawing a knee to his chest and resting his chin on it.

“In any case one day… well… I met Rob Lucci. I don’t know who he is or who he works for, but he offered to hire us on. Dangerous hits but for bigger payouts and we were allowed to vet the people beforehand. Zoro didn’t even have to kill them just get them down enough for the police or whomever to handle.”

“Bounty hunting?” Chopper said.

“Something like that. The point is, it was a risky decision but it gave us money and Zoro focus.” She knocked the heel of her hand against the wheel as if emphasizing her point. Chopper nodded. He couldn’t say if it was worth it for the money or not, but giving Zoro focus was important. If he had to keep living that life, Chopper knew it was better for him mentally if he was working toward something that would benefit them all and Luffy most importantly.

Nami let out a breath and then clenched her hands over the wheel.

“Enel -- we didn’t have a whole lot of time to vet. And we should have… I just…” She took a deep breath, her knuckles going white. “Lucci said that Enel was connected to whomever did that to Luffy. So even if-- even if Luffy doesn’t make it we can at least go kick their ass.”

Revenge? That had never really been their style. Not like that. Chopper felt it kind of, the rightness of getting some back, but it was faint because he knew in the end it wouldn’t solve anything. And right now it seemed the same as if trying to punch down a mountain.

“I didn’t think it was so big. I knew it was going to be hard but--this--?” She scrubbed at her eye with the heel of her hand and then set both firmly back on the wheel. “I didn’t think it would be so big.”

“It’s not surprising,” Brook said calmly. “Rumor has it that Enel has been gathering people. Even pulling the four priests to his side, from the highroller circuts,” he added as if knowing they wouldn't understand. “Though I don’t remember a Cavendish. There have also been rumors of people disappearing right before they get to those circuits. Of course, people disappear all the time. Stress, assassination, simply having achieved enough-- but a lot of those fighting were favorites and were destined to do great things. Even a few supernovas have disappeared. There are only a handful left in the circuits at all, that’s including Zoro.”

There was silence at this. Even though Chopper hadn’t really been in the circuits for a long time now, he knew what it meant. Not only were there a lot of people after them. There were a lot of strong people after them. He shivered and Laboon whined softly and licked his face, anxious but trying to comfort him. Chopper scratched him behind the ears.

After a while Usopp cleared his throat.

“But well I mean it’s not that bad right? Because Robin said the Whitebeards are going to come help us and no one would try to stand up to them. They’re incredibly strong. When we were going with Ace all people had to do was look at his tattoo.”

That was a long time ago, though. Chopper wondered if even was the same. And they wouldn’t be able to hide behind them forever anyway. Not unless they wanted to become part of the gang and he doubted that. But…

“But if you haven’t done anything to Enel yet--” and he didn’t think so because Zoro hadn’t left. “Why does he want us so bad?”

“Maybe he’s scared?” Usopp said hopefully. Chopper’s heart jumped at the thought. Yeah! Maybe he was!

But… then again he doubted it. They could be strong but the reason why they’d stopped in the first place was because they hadn’t been strong enough.

“I don’t know,” Nami said. “And it doesn’t matter right now. All we have to do is get Luffy out of there and to somewhere safe. We’ll figure out the rest later.”

Chopper nodded and gently pet Laboon’s head.

Silence again. Too quiet. Nami flicked on the radio and Nat King Cole began to croon: ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’.

Tears sparked Chopper’s eyes. He saw Nami reach for the dial but Brook put a hand over hers. It was good. It hurt. But it was good. It was warm. It gave him hope. He pulled Usopp in a one armed hug and Usopp hugged him back, petting his side.

They’d make it through somehow. It looked pretty bleak and they’d left their friends and family behind in a dangerous situation going into an unknown situation, but they’d make it through. They always had. Even if by the skin of their teeth. He just had to keep believing.


Past:

Chopper rearranges the cards in his hand, trying to get a better sense of what he has. He has an Ace, King, Queen, Jack and Ten. He can’t be sure if that’s a good hand or not. There doesn’t seem to be any way to judge a good hand in this game except by a matched set, also he has to remember what pairs he already has in the cards tucked at his side. That’s harder because the rumbling of the van will jostle them around if he’s not careful. He kind of prefers Devil’s Hand Poker that he and Doctorine and the Lapin played on Saturday nights sometimes, but Go Fish is a fun alternative.

“Do you have any sixes?” Luffy asks.

“Go Fish,” Chopper says cheerfully. That’s the most fun part of this game. Luffy groans and picks up a card, then groans again, slapping the card to his forehead and tilting his head back so it rests there.

“Aww I wanted a six! Not a two!”

“Um…” Chopper says, since he’s still not sure that Luffy gets the gist of this game. Sanji sighs, giving Luffy a look over his own hand.

“You got a shitty two?” he says in a flat voice.

“What?” Luffy says, dropping his head and snatching the card away. “No way! Just because I don’t want it doesn’t mean you can have it!”

“That’s the point of the shitty game!” Sanji says, making a ‘give me’ gesture. “If you don’t want to lose stop saying what you’ve got out loud!”

“This game is dumb,” Luffy says, handing the card to him with a scowl. “We should play Slap Jack instead.”

“I told you I’m not playing shitty Slap Jack with you again. You hit too damn hard.”

Luffy grumbles at this and puffs his cheeks up, but a second later lets the air out and a second after that starts humming some tune and wiggling his toes in his sandals. Chopper smiles, wiggling in a little jolt of happiness, then frowning a bit as his butt hits the weird dip in the floor again and scoots away from it once more.

It’s only been a day since he left Doctorine to come with these guys, and he feels like he’s still just getting over the shock of it. He doesn’t know them at all, or at least not very much, but despite that he likes them all a lot. He glances from Luffy to Sanji and then at Nami who is tucked against the other side of the van, needing blankets still, but her color is much better. She’s been able to sit up, too, a book tucked in her lap. It’s one of the seventeen copies of All About Me: The Life and Times of Mr. 3 they’d found crammed under the seats. Judging by the way she keeps frowning at it, it can’t be that good.

She glances at him and he bristles automatically, shocked at being caught staring. She sticks her tongue out at him with a wink and he relaxes.

“Are you gonna go?” Luffy says and Chopper realizes they’re both watching him. Oh right!

“Um…” he looks at his hand again. “Do you have any Queens, Luffy?”

“Go Fish!” Luffy says cheerfully and Chopper pulls up another Queen from the pile. He debates setting them to the side but then decides to hold out for a third. When he looks up again Luffy is leaning closer and peering at him.

“What’d you get?” he says. Chopper holds his cards closer to himself.

“I’m not telling!”

“Booo,” he says pouting at him.

“It was a ten,” Chopper says, wondering if bluffing will help or not. Sanji raises an eyebrow at him but says nothing. Chopper suddenly wanders how many tens he has.

Suddenly they are slowing down and gravel rattles under the tires as Mr. Dalton pulls to the side of the road. Chopper looks up at him and sees that his face has a grayish cast to it.

“Sorry, kids,” he says cutting the engine. Chopper leans back so Sanji can go past him and help Mr. Dalton get his leg on the seat to prop it up. Mr. Dalton grunts and sweat stands out on his face as he shifts sideways, and then slumps against the driver’s side door. Chopper sets his cards to the side and gets the bottle of ibuprofen as well as Mr. Dalton’s water bottle, handing both over.

“Thanks,” he says. “I should be okay in a few minutes.”

“Maybe you should take a break,” Chopper says. It’ll take longer than that for the meds to kick in.

“Might as well,” Sanji says. “Have to get some shitty lunch together anyway.”

Nami frowns but says nothing. Chopper frowns himself. He knows they’re in a hurry even if he doesn’t know why. It’s not really Mr. Dalton’s fault he can’t drive more than a few hours at a time; and he’s glad they understand that, but at the same time he wishes he could do something to make it a little easier. Sanji makes his way back and pushes open the doors to a bright, muggy day. It is so humid it makes Chopper’s hair curl in an instant. But he sets his cards aside to get up and go outside anyway, annoyed as the small section of floor dips again under his butt.

That is forgotten in an instant though as he tumbles out of the van after Luffy. They are in a little pull off by the side of the road. There is a field here, and a few feet away a cow pasture with a brown stream cutting through it. Chopper goes to stand on the lower rung of the split rail fence and rests his chin in his hands, listening to the sounds of the birds and the occasional lowing of cow gossip. Luffy comes to sit on the top rung beside him and it looks so cool that Chopper has to do it too, though he nearly pitches over the other side until he can steady himself.

“Look it’s Dalton’s friends!” Luffy says and Chopper has to cover his mouth to hide the giggles.

It’s nice though. He feels happy. Is this what freedom feels like? He looks over his shoulder to see what Lapu is up to and remembers all of a sudden that she isn’t there. His stomach does an uncomfortable wiggle and he clenches it.

“I’m hungry,” he says, though he isn’t.

“Me too.” Luffy grips the fence and leans all the way back so he’s practically folded on the other side. “Oi! When’s lunch!’

“It’s coming, shithead!”

Chopper tries this too, gripping the splintery wood as best he can and leaning back. But he loses his balance instead and lands on his back in the grass. It’s a soft landing though and makes him laugh a little when he gets his breath back. Luffy laughs, too, in that shishishi way of his and says: “Try again!”

Chopper tries a few more times. Falling off each time. But he finally gets it on the sixth time There is a hiss and the smell of sausage sizzling on Doctorine’s small camping grill. Chopper is still surprised she let them have that. There’s a lot of bits and bobs from the house tucked into the van. Not just Doctor Hiriluk’s notes. He likes it though. It makes him feel at home a little.

“Lunch time!” Luffy crows, flopping back onto the grass.

“Lunch time!” Chopper echoes and follows his lead. He’s fallen in the grass so much now he’s barely afraid of letting go! He flomps in the grass and follows Luffy in a meandering course back to the van. Sanji scowls at them.

“It’s not ready yet, it’s barely even shitty started.”

“But I’m hungry!” Luffy says with a frown.

“Me too!” Chopper says, rubbing his belly.

“Feed us, dummy!” Luffy says.

“Dummy!” Chopper echoes, liking the sound of it. “Dummy dummy! I’m hungry.”

Sanji gives them a hard glare and they shut up. Then he sighs and digs in is back pocket, drawing out some money and handing it over to them.

“Look I saw a gas station about half a mile that way.” He points down the road. “Go get us some shitty drinks alright?”

“’Kay!” Luffy pivots neatly on his toe and starts to head away.

“Okay!” Chopper echoes, trying to pivot as well but stumbling a bit. They walk along the roadside for a while and Luffy starts to hum again, walking along the white line of the road like a balance beam. Chopper tries, too, but it’s not as easy and he has to keep his hands out and tries to pretend there are hungry alligators underneath-- but that doesn’t stop him from accidentally stepping on the black. Luffy picks up a big stick, and knocks it against a few trees before propping it on his shoulder. Chopper looks around for a similar sized stick, but can only find twigs. But then he spots one high up and loose in the crook of a branch. He can almost get it if he stands on tiptoes. Chopper strains, groping at it with the tips of his fingers. Almost there…

Then he notices out of the corner of his eye Luffy is still walking away.

“Hey wait!” Chopper calls frantically. He doesn’t want to be left behind! He stands straight, ready to hurry after Luffy but to his surprise, Luffy stops and turns to look at him.

“What’s up?”

“Um… I want that stick.” He points to it.

"Okay." He puts the butt of his own stick on the ground. “Get the stick, Lieutenant Chopper!” He says with a fierce face.

Chopper giggles at the title. Ahh! It’s so cool! It’s like make believe like in all those kid’s programs! But then he tries to put on a serious face and salutes.

“Yes sir!” And reaches for the stick again. It’s harder this time and takes longer-- though mostly because he keeps watching out of the corner of his eye to make sure Luffy doesn’t get bored and wander away. He doesn’t though and Chopper takes the risk and moves onto the grass. He takes off his hat, gathers himself and jumps as high as he can, bonking the underside of the thick branch with his head. The stick shakes loose and clatters to the ground.

“I did it!” He says, scooping it up and showing it to Luffy. It’s great stick! Twisty and knotted and a little sticky with pine sap but great!

“Yep! Let’s go!”

“Okay!” Chopper says, hurrying to his side. Luffy begins to march, humming a bit more before singing.

“We’re men!”

“We’re men!” Chopper echoes.

“We’re men in tights!”

“Why are we in tights?” Chopper says with a laugh. “Are we doing gymnastics?”

“I dunno! That’s just how the song goes.”

“Oh…” Chopper thinks. “I don’t really want to be in tights.” Because he’s never worn them but they don’t look comfortable.

“Me either,” Luffy says.

“So it should be something else…” Chopper says, and then with a cautious look at Luffy. “Right?”

“Yeah, but what?”

“Hmmm.” Chopper thinks as hard as he can. What do they both have in common? Luffy is tall and cool, while Chopper is short and hairy. Luffy can fight and Chopper can sort of fight. Chopper can fix people up but…he’s not sure if Luffy knows how to do that. He absently scratches the back of his head just under his hat while he drags his stick along the roadside gravel to mimic Luffy dragging his own along the pavement.

“Usopp would know,” Luffy says after a while. “Usopp’d think up something great.”

“Usopp?”

“Yeah he’s really great! He knows all the best stuff. He can think up stories on the spot, too.”

“Oooh,” Chopper says. That sounds amazing. “Can we meet him one day?”

“Of course! He’s nakama! Crew!”

“Wow!” Someone else who is super cool! Chopper is suddenly unsure. If all of Luffy’s crew is super cool like that, how is he going to stand out? Maybe… if he was a reindeer all the time but he didn’t want to do that. He’d just have to think of something better that was all.

“Maybe we can be men with fingers!” Chopper says in a burst of frantic inspiration. “We both have fingers right?” He waves them.

“Nah that’s dumb. Everyone has fingers.” Luffy pauses. “Except when they don’t.”

“… Oh yeah…”

He thinks even harder. It has to be cool. Spectacular even! Something maybe even better than Usopp can come up with. The harder he tries to come up with something the less he knows. But he has to say something impressive! He puffs his cheeks out and tries to focus.

“Hey look! A fox trail!” Luffy says, scattering his thoughts. He’s crouched by the side of the road and pointing to a little trail of fox prints, small and faint in the dark earth. “Let’s go find it!”

“Okay!” says Chopper, glad to be off the subject.

They search for it for a bit without any luck. Chopper even tries to sniff it out but he can’t get much out of it in human form. He’d probably have an easier time as a reindeer but it takes too much to change and he’s shy now that Luffy knows-- even if he knew before. Still they follow the trail until it comes to the edge of a stream, maybe the same one that runs into the cow pasture but here it’s bright and clean. Even better there are some raspberry bushes nearby it, peppered red with fruit that a few birds are enjoying and soon so are they.

“This is great stuff,” Luffy says, picking them off and eating them by the handful. His lips are smeared with red and Chopper knows his are too.

“They’re not really sweet…” He’d like them sweeter-- with sugar or something. But it’s more fun this way! As he eats though he starts to get the niggling feeling that he’s forgetting something. Something kind of important. Was it the better ending to the tights song…? No… he doesn’t think so.

He glances at Luffy, wondering if he remembers, and sees him watching the stream thoughtfully as he slurps raspberries from his palm.

“Wanna see if we can catch some minnows?” Luffy says.

“Okay!” He’s never tried to catch minnows before! Or any kind of fish really. It sounded like fun! Just then though there is a faint voice sounding through the trees, as if someone calling from a great distance. Chopper tilts his ear toward the sound. It’s not any words exactly, just someone calling:

“Oiiii!” and then: “Where are you, shitheads?”

Oh! Chopper tugs the bottom of Luffy’s shirt to get his attention.

“I think Sanji is looking for us.”

“Is he? Okay. We’ll catch minnows later.”

Chopper nods. They take the time to gather more raspberries and then make their winding way back to the road. They manage to come out in front of Sanji who seems startled and then annoyed. Chopper shrinks back instinctively, peering at Sanji from behind Luffy’s leg. Had he done something? Had they done something? He can’t think of anything but that is definitely not a happy expression. He lights a cigarette and then frowns at them through the twining smoke.

“And just where the hell have you been?” Sanji says.

“Looking for a fox,” Luffy says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the woods behind them. He’s so brave. He doesn’t even care that Sanji is mad but Chopper can’t stop bristling. “And I found some berries, see? They’re tasty!” He shows the red mess in his other hand.

“What about the shitty drinks?”

“Oh yeah!”

Sanji sighs, not looking happy and Chopper grips Luffy’s leg as he comes closer, wondering what he’ll do, wondering if he himself can be brave enough to stand up for Luffy if he needs to. Though he’s not even sure why Sanji’s angry to begin with.

Sanji curls his hand into a fist, raising it over Luffy’s head, then very gently bonks him on the top of it, leaning in close to Luffy.

“Listen, it’s fine to goof off if we’re just traveling around. But don’t forget we’re still in a tense situation here. First, remember people are still after us and were shitty chasing us up to a few days ago. Second, Usopp, the vivacious Vivi and the green haired shit-wit are heading into danger and we’ve gotta catch up. That we’re slow now can’t be helped but we can’t afford to be shitty slower. Got that?”

Luffy nods and salutes.

“Okay! I’ll remember!”

“Good. Here give me the money, I’ll get the drinks and you--” He paused, picked one of the berries from Luffy’s hand, and popped it in his mouth. “Get some more of these and then head back. Here.” He hands Luffy a lumpy napkin. “Lunch.”

“Wahoo!”

Chopper watches, half laughing half amazed as Luffy crams three sausages at once and almost the napkin too! He can’t tell if it’s supposed to be funny or not but it’s super cool! Sanji makes a movement and Chopper startles a little until he sees a lumpy napkin is being presented to him! He takes it with both hands and carefully unwraps it to see two sausages that smell delicious. Two at once are definitely too much for him so he tries to fit one whole one in his mouth but chokes a bit and has to spit out a large chunk of it, but back in the napkin so he can eat it later.

“Yeah don’t try to be shitty him,” Sanji says, petting his hat. “He’s inhuman. Want to come with me?”

Chopper suddenly realizes he’s alone with Sanji. Luffy has disappeared back into the forest which seems to have swallowed him up. But not quite. He can still hear him singing. Chopper shuffles a foot in the dirt. He wouldn’t mind going but…

“I’m sorry for getting distracted,” he mutters, because he is and because he doesn’t want Sanji to be mad at him.

“Nah, you didn’t know. And that shithead can be hard to control the best of times. Like herding a damn cat.”

“Oh…” Chopper is glad he isn’t mad. He munches on his sausage and then his partly eaten sausage. He can see the gas station through the trees now and the scent of the gas makes him a little dizzy but not enough to bother him. Though he starts to wonder…. Why are they being chased? How did Luffy know ‘w’s clown friend? Who is Vivacious Vivi and…and the green haired whatsit?

He wants to ask but they are nearing the gas station now and there are people there. Anyone might overhear. Even speaking about it might get them in trouble. As they get closer he slinks back to the trees. His knuckles start to harden and fuse as he instinctively begins to shift back to reindeer form. He stops himself just in time, though, whipping his hand behind his back as Sanji turns to look down at him.

“Something wrong?”

“No…” Or at least he doesn’t think so! Is he missing something somehow? He tries to hear extra hard or feel for danger but there’s nothing at all he can sense.

“Then come on…” He puts a heel on the white line as if he’s starting for the gas station, though is still watching Chopper. Chopper starts as he suddenly realizes.

“You want me to come too?” he says, practically bristling. “I’m not even wearing a hood! And I’m all furry! Look!” He holds out his arms to show the pelt on them, wishing he’d thought to put on a longer sleeved shirt only it’s so hot.

“So?” Sanji grins. “I’ve got this shitty thing.” He rubs a thumb over his eyebrow which is a lot cooler than being furry. “If anyone gives you any grief I’ll kick their ass.”

“But… but what if there are more bounty hunters after me?” There’s always someone after him. Ever since he got away. That’s why he has to hide.

“Of course there are, you’re one of us now. We’re being hunted to shitty hell and back, remember?” Sanji says, but he is grinning and speaking as if this is something to be proud of. That’s right they are being hunted. He remembers that but…

“But aren’t you scared of getting noticed? Why don’t you hide?”

“If you’re going to hide all your life, might as well shitty let them have you.” Sanji shrugs. “Anyway we’re damn strong. If we go it won’t be easily.”

Chopper stares at him amazed. He’s never heard that kind of talk outside of Doctor Hiriluk! But Sanji is strong and even if he’s not stronger than the guys after them, Luffy is strong, too. He doesn’t know about Nami yet, but since she’s traveling with them, she must be strong as well. That means he has to be strong even if he’s scared.

“Okay.” He takes a brief moment to center himself, then takes a deep breath and starts across the road, heading toward the gas station, sweat dripping under his hair.

“Your arms and legs are in perfect shitty sync,” Sanji says. Chopper jolts.

“Is that bad?”

Sanji chuckles. It’s a warm, friendly sound. “Nah.”

Chopper wiggles a bit in happiness and feels a bit better about crossing the road.

It doesn’t look too scary at the gas station. There are two old men sitting outside on plastic chairs smoking and admiring nearby motorcycle. A stone faced tabby cat. And a little blue car. The doors open and three women get out. Chopper sneezes. He can smell their perfume from here and the gas smell is also everywhere. Ugh.

Sanji stiffens as if he senses danger. Chopper is immediately on the alert, ducking behind Sanji’s leg and scenting the wind. Nothing. The women giggle and a tremble goes through Sanji. Chopper squints at them. Are they bad? Are they after them? They don’t seem to have noticed them at all… Should they run away?

“Sanji?” he says, tugging on his pants, waiting for direction. Sanji seems to unfreeze a bit and reaches to his pocket.

“Here…” he says, holding out the small wad of money. He flaps it Chopper a bit. “Get some drinks.”

“Me?” Chopper says with a gasp. “You want me to do it by myself?”

“Yes.” Sanji kneels and presses the money in his hand, peering intensely into his eyes. “I trust you in this shitty completely.”

“I won’t let you down.”

Sanji squeezes his hand and then gets up and then throws himself at a wild twirl at the women.

“Your prince is heeereee, ladieeees!” Sanji calls. Practically sings! As he twirls toward them. Chopper stares at him wondering and then realizes it must be a distraction. He clenches his fist over the money, determined that it won’t go to waste, and hurries into the store. The old men don’t even watch him pass and the bleary eyed woman behind the counter only looks up then back to her magazine as the bells jangle.

It’s fine. He’s fine. He’s in the store. It’s nice and cold. All he has to do now is get drinks.

It’s harder than it looks because he’s never really been in this situation before! He’s been in gas stations and stores once or twice but always hooded and nervous, clinging to Doctorine or Mr. Dalton. He’s never been just by himself before! Or with money to actually buy stuff! And there’s so much stuff to buy! There are chips and jerky and instant ramen! There’s aspirin and cough syrup and bandaids. Batteries and dirty magazines. There’s even a stand of cotton candy. Chopper stares up at the swirled clouds of it above him, having tasted it only once but wanting to taste it again and in all the colors.

He…could even spend the money on that… if he wanted.

But no! He wouldn’t! Chopper shakes his head.

He has to buy drinks for everyone!

Only as he gets to the buzzing coolers in the back, he can’t think of what. There’s so many drinks. He doesn’t even know what anyone likes! He fidgets, remembering too that they are in a rush and Sanji can’t distract those women forever. He paces a bit, trying to decide and then notices a cooler with two liter sodas. There’s a cherry one on the top shelf and Chopper decides to get that one. After all, everyone he knows likes cherry.

He opens the cooler and then has to grip one of the lower shelves so he can push himself and reach for the cherry. It’s so high up there, the bottom only just in reach of his fingers. He thinks of asking Sanji for help and then decides, no. He has to do this himself. He has to be strong. He sticks his tongue between his lips and stretches. He can just get his fingers through the little bars and under the bottle. Maybe he can jostle it loose.

“Need help?” says a deep grumbling voice right behind him. Chopper shrieks and falls backward, grabbing for balance and accidentally taking the entire rack with him. He hits the floor hard and covers his head as coke bottles rain down and bounce all around them, opening with a popping hiss.

When it all seems settled, he opens one eye and shrieks again, scrambling and slipping to hide himself behind the cooler door and peering at the man through it.

He’s big! Really big! And wide too! And he has scary eyes and a snarling mouth clamped around two cigars. He’s looking down with those scary eyes now at his jeans and shoes now soaked in soda. Then up at Chopper. Chopper jolts and bolts away, slipping on a bottle and landing hard on his face, skidding across the floor. He tries to get up again, heart pounding in his ears, ready to get away. A hand plops on his hat and he freezes, hoping if he’s still the man with the scary eyes will think he’s a statue.

“Here,” the man says, and the bottle of cherry soda slides into view over his shoulder. “That’s the one you wanted right?”

“U-Um… yes…” Chopper takes it, holding it with both hands and then turns toward the guy. He looks down at Chopper, huffs a breath and then turns away and starts picking up the bottles. At least the ones that aren’t busted.

“Sorry for scaring you,” he says in the same gruff mean voice. Maybe… though… maybe that’s just how he speaks, Chopper thinks. He carefully sets the soda down and starts to help the man who grunts again. This time a thank you. Or so Chopper thinks. As they work, Chopper can’t help but stare at him. He is definitely strong. Even if his jacket wasn’t open, Chopper can still see the muscles of his arms move under it. But he’s also precise, too. Chopper watches him twist open a bottle of Pepsi, letting the air hiss out and it foam a bit and doing it a few times until it stops foaming. Chopper is so intrigued he tries it himself, only getting his fingers wet once or twice.

“That’s a lot of soda for a kid your size,” the man says, taking both their sodas and setting it on the shelf.

“I’m going to share it with my friends…” He feels a giddy flare of excitement at that word and wiggles a bit. Then frowns back at it dubiously. “I hope they like it.”

“Me too.” The man pets his hat and the door jangles and then jangles again violently as if someone had slammed it really hard. Chopper can’t really see over the shelves to see who it is. The man looks over his shoulder but then rolls his shoulders in a shrug and puts the last bottle away, leaving several busted ones on the floor. The woman behind the counter comes over giving them a dour look, holding a yellow cone.

“I’ll pay for the damages,” the man says. “And that one too.” He waves a hand at the cherry coke.

“R-really?” Chopper says surprised. The man nods.

“Go get you and your friends candy or something.”

“Thanks!” Chopper says, breathlessly. He’s not sure about spending the money on other stuff but maybe they can buy candy anyway. He hugs the bottle to him and starts out.

“By the way,” the man says, talking to the woman. “I’ve been tracking this man for a few days. Seen him?”

Whether she has or not, Chopper doesn’t hear, because he out the door into the hair curling heat.

But then gets another shock of cold.

Sanji… Sanji isn’t anywhere!

The two old men are still there but the womens’ car is gone!

Oh no what if he was kidnapped!

“Ahh! Sanji, Sanj--”

A hand claps over his mouth and he squeals and struggles, nearly overwhelmed by the cigarette scent until Sanji’s voice hisses in his ear.

“Calm down!”

Chopper does and looks up, still shaking. Sanji puts a finger to his lips and then makes a follow me gesture. He looks pale and drawn. Clutching the soda as hard as he can, Chopper follows Sanji to the trees beside the road, feeling jittery and nervous.

“What’s wrong?” Chopper says in a hushed whisper when he figures they are far enough away. “Did the women try to hurt you?”

“No they were as lovely as a shitty song~~” Sanji croons, almost too loudly. Then in a lower voice: “I’ll tell everyone when we get back.” He looks back at Chopper though and grins. “You got the shitty soda though. Good job!” He gave him a thumbs up. Chopper flushed bright red, happiness bursting in him like fizzy soda.

“Heeeheehee. Shut up, asshole!”

Ahh! Ahh! He’s done something right! It’s such a good feeling. Maybe he can get strong enough after all!



****

“So, we have a problem,” Nami says a little later when they are all in the van and Mr. Dalton is driving again. He freezes where he’d been shifting away from the pokey bit on the floor, holding the cup of cherry soda between his hands. Without waiting for an answer Nami picks up a cell telephone. Chopper’s seen one before in a movie and this one is only a little smaller than that one. It doesn’t look like a problem to him but… He nervously drinks his cherry soda and guards the remains of his raspberry parfait from Luffy’s sneaky hands.

“Of course we have another shitty problem. What is now?” Sanji says, leaning back against the van doors and looking tired.

“We’ve gotten two missed calls on this thing while you guys were out.” She sets it back down.

“Who from?” Luffy asks, finger-walking a hand toward Chopper’s other cup. Chopper snatches the parfait away and eats another spoonful, glaring at Luffy, but then humming happily at the taste. It’s good! It’s just the wild raspberries and yogurt and crunched up trail bars but it’s super tasty. Maybe even as good as the cotton candy.

“I don’t know who from!” Nami snaps. “I didn’t answer it!” She blew her bangs out of her eyes and then said: “But whoever it is, they’re looking for whoever was in here.”

“It’s dangerous in this organization to not to answer when you’re called,” Mr. Dalton says in the serious voice that just makes Chopper bristle a little. He’s scared but he’s not as scared as he would have been. He leans a little against Luffy’s side just so he can make some of the fear go away, but then away as Luffy reaches for his parfait again.

Grr! He is so greedy!

“Maybe it’s Vivi?” Luffy says, picking up Chopper’s cherry soda instead.

“Hey!”

“Could be,” Sanji says, knocking Luffy on the head casually with his heel. Chopper snatches his soda back while Luffy is distracted and crawls to the other side of the van near Nami, trying not to spill anything.

“You think so?” Nami raised her eyebrows.

“I gave that number to Karoo,” Sanji says, dropping his leg back to the floor. Chopper takes the parfait cup from where he’d been holding it between his teeth and sets it between his folded legs for safe keeping, then takes another sip of the cherry soda.

“Vivacious Vivi?” Chopper says. Then tilts his head. “What’s that?”

“It means she eats a lot,” Luffy says and gets himself heel dropped again.

“She eats just the right shitty amount!” Sanji snaps. “And that’s voracious, you mean! Though how the hell you even knew that word--” He shakes his head. “Anyway I doubt the shitty duck has gotten there yet but…” Sanji shrugs. “If he has and Vivi is calling us, it must be important.” He lifts a cigarette to his mouth and chews on the end of it. Chopper was glad it wasn’t lit or he was pretty sure he would die in this kind of space. “But if it isn’t her we’d be in a shitload of trouble.”

“Shitload,” Chopper echos to himself under his breath. There’s an awful lot of words with shit in them.

“We should answer it if it rings,” Luffy says, folding his arms and leaning against the wall. “If it might be Vivi.”

“But what if it isn’t!” Nami says. “It could be anyone! And the last thing we need is to draw attention to ourselves!”

“Why not?” Luffy says. “I’m already going to punch Crocodile in the face.”

Oh right. Crocodile. Chopper had forgotten about that part of the plan.

“Is he a zoan?” Chopper asks.

“No idea,” Nami says: “And no, Luffy. Absolutely not! It’s bad enough we’re in trouble stop trying to make it worse.”

Chopper deflates a little. Luffy pouts at her. Nami groans and puts her face in her hands.

“We’re all going to die aren’t we. Is it too late to go back to Florida?”

“I’ll protect you with my life, my queen!” Sanji says in the same yodeling voice he used for the women in the gas station, though he’s done the same to Nami before now that he thinks about it. Maybe he just likes being silly at women… It’s fascinating and Chopper can’t help but watch the changes that come over his face.

“That does help a little,” Nami says, though by the way she’s still slumped over maybe not that helpful.

“Does that mean I can answer the phone anyway?”

“No!” Sanji and Nami say in the same voice in the same tone. Luffy pouts but Chopper grins. It’s so funny. Their timing is great! He wonders if this means he can answer the phone but somehow he doubts it. That’s okay. He wouldn’t know what to say…

Sanji slumps against the doors again, stroking his thumb along the cigarette as if he really wants to light it.

“Shit between that and Smoker we’re really in the creek…”

“Smoker?” Nami says, tilting her head. Sanji blinks at her, then bonks his forehead with the heel of his hand.

“Ah damn, I can’t believe I forgot to tell you. Slipped my mind with every damn thing. He’s a cop or detective or whatever. I came down with him because he was looking for shitty Usopp who’d gone off with you.” He nods at Luffy. “He has files on you two shitheads, moss man and Nami too.”

“And you saw him here?” Nami says, sounding serious.

“At the gas station,” Sanji says. “Pretty sure he didn’t see me. He’s not a bad guy or anything but he’s really going to mess up our shitty day if he catches us.”

“Was he one of the guys smoking outside?” Chopper says. It would make sense with a name like Smoker. He tries to remember if any of them looked cop like.

“Nah-- the big white haired bastard with cigars.”

Chopper gasps.

“That guy! But he’s nice! He helped me out!”

“You should know better than that, Chopper,” Mr. Dalton says in serious tones and Chopper shrinks a bit. It had been pretty careless and nice people weren’t always nice. It’s how they tricked you and got you if you weren’t careful.

“Like I said he’s not a bad shitty guy. In fact I think he’s probably a good one.” Sanji shrugs. “But if he’s found a way to track us…”

“He said he was looking for a man…” Chopper murmurs, remembering. “But I don’t know who.”

“Well don’t worry about it.” Luffy yawns and leans back, folding his arms behind his head. “If he gets in the way I’ll kick his ass too.”

“That’s not the solution to everything,” Nami says, sounding frustrated. “We’re probably better off avoiding him completely!”

Luffy shrugs. “It’s too much work running away from everyone. It’s easier to just go straight through.”

He has so much confidence. How does he do that…? Chopper finishes his parfait and soda and throws them away before crawling back to Luffy’s side, pushing down the poky bit of floor so he can sit there cross legged by his side looking up at him. He’s so awesome. Chopper squirms around, trying to mimic his pose but knocks his head against the wall before he gets it.

“Well we don’t have to worry about it shitty yet,” Sanji says. He holds up the big phone again. “This is the problem right now.”

“There’s not much we can do about it I suppose,” Nami replies with a sigh, picking the book back up again. “Short of calling the number back.”

“More shitty waiting…” Sanji mutters, setting the phone down by his leg and staring at it. Chopper does too, finally feeling a little nervous. Especially since Luffy isn’t scared but he’s serious and Chopper wonders if that means this really is bad. He switches from his hands behind his head to rest his chin on his knees, staring at the phone.

“Is the Crocodile guyreally scary?” he asks after a while.

“Yes,” Mr. Dalton says. “Those Officer Agents you faced are under his command and not even the strongest. Moreover…” Mr. Dalton’s hands clench against the wheel. “He is rumored to be stronger than all of them…”

That’s not just scary that’s terrifying seems like a guy impossible to beat! They’d only just beaten ‘W’ and his friend and even then Chopper isn’t sure. Still on the other hand, Luffy doesn’t seem to be worried about it at all. And maybe he just struggled a lot because he was injured back then. Chopper wants to believe that and that everything will be okay but it doesn’t sit right. Whatever is going to happen is going to be hard and dangerous and he’d have to be prepared for it.

Somehow.

“Well let’s wait a couple days,” Nami says. “Give Karoo time to get there and by then, whoever it is, we’ll be prepared.”

“Seems like a wise decision, oh illustrious Nami,” Sanji says, but he’s only grinning a little. His grin fades completely though when Dalton says:

“Whatever we do we need to keep our eyes and ears open. We’re not out of the woods yet. They could come at any time.”

They’re still being hunted, in other words. Mr. Dalton has said it before in the same tone and it makes Chopper shiver and bristle a little. He wants to rest against Luffy and feel safe, but that’s not what a man would do, so he stays where he is and tries to think. Something to say to the scary Crocodile man. Something to make it okay. He can at least do that much, can’t he?

****



Chopper sighs as he sits on the edge of the van , feet swinging back and forth. It’s sunset now, scrubbing red and gold across the sky. They were parked under a clump of trees by a truck stop but they’ve only made it as far as Kentucky. Chopper’s pretty sure it’s not good but he doesn’t even know how far they still have to go. Also he still hasn’t thought of anything to say to the phone. Not that it’s rang at all. He sighs again and watches Sanji and Luffy spar while listening to Mr. Dalton’s uneven snoring as he sleeps in what has been Nami’s spot.

He’s still surprised at how strong his new friends are. Though he knew Luffy and Sanji could fight and really well, it’s different seeing them sparring like this, almost going all out. Chopper can just about tell they check themselves from doing any real damage but there will probably be bruises. Luffy fights hard and fast with his fists mostly but other things too when he can and doesn’t let up, and Sanji just with his legs though Chopper has seen him balance on a single palm once or twice. He seems to have trouble keeping up with Luffy but he’s obviously strong himself.

A lot stronger than Chopper could ever be…

Nami is pretty strong too. He hasn’t seen her fight yet but even though it’s only been about two days since she got the antidote, she had been well enough to cross the massive parking lot to the truck stop to get a shower. Chopper hopes she doesn’t have a relapse while she’s there but here color had been good and her pulse fine before she went…and anyway at least there are people in there that can help her or bring her out.

Still he looks anxiously toward the truck stop, and anxiously toward Luffy and Sanji, and anxiously toward the road. They could come at any time, Mr. Dalton had said. Chopper can’t say who they are but he can’t help but feel a little terrified whenever he thinks of it. It’s not a manly thing to do. No one else seems concerned at all. So he tries not to be, but can’t help but stare at every car or truck that rumbles in anyway just in case.

What if they see him staring though and think he’s frightened? He has to look tougher than this. Chopper fists his hands in his lap and tries to frown. But it’s hard to frown for long and it makes his head hurt. A truck revving its engine nearby makes him jump and pull his hat down a bit over his ears until he remembers he’s supposed to look as not caring as they do. Maybe it will help if he’s distracted. Oh! He smacks his fist into his palm as a thought occurs to him. He can read Doctor Hiriluk’s notes!

…and piece out the bad from the good, he tells himself, as he crawls toward the back of the van once more. Doctorine had told him that Doctor Hiriluk had a good heart but he was a fool of a doctor and as much as Chopper hates to admit it, even he can tell it’s more hope than fact sometimes. But it’s good to hope. It cheers him up that Doctor Hiriluk had so much hope for the world. As reaches for his backpack, stuffed in the corner by the seat, the floor gives under his knee and there is the little click that says the poky part has popped back up. Chopper snorts, frustrated. What is that thing anyway?

He flips back the blanket, careful not to disturb Mr. Dalton and sees a section of the floor has come up. It doesn’t seem broken at all… Chopper digs his fingers against the edge and carefully lifts it. There’s just enough room for him to get his fingers on the lock box nestled inside it. He lifts it out and clicks the floor back in place absently as he looks the box over. It doesn’t seem special. Just a black box with a ‘w’ engraved on it. He shakes it experimentally and hears a faint shifting but can’t tell what it might be. Then he tries to pry it open with his fingertips but has no luck at all.

Hmmm…

“Ahh, Miss Namii…” Sanji suddenly cries in a voice so despondent that Chopper practically bolts out of the van with worry. He expects to see her dead or wounded or…or a lot of other things but not really standing there looking at him annoyed.

“What?” she says, giving him a flat look.

“Even…even in a sweatshirt you’re beautiful,” he says sadly.biting at his tie. Chopper blinks. He doesn’t get it. The sweatshirt is pretty awesome though! It says ‘Sergeant Cool’ in neon pink with an ice cream cone between them. The ice cream part has a faceted look of a bunch of different colors.

Maybe…Sanji’s just overcome with the coolness of it? Chopper trundles over and pats him on the leg, just in case he needs the comfort.

“Thanks,” Nami says flatly. “I’ve got you one, too. It was buy two get one. It’s not great but at least we can save our regular clothes and show up in Vegas looking like hobos. Shower is a dollar twenty-five for fifteen minutes.” She slips him the change and the shirt. He sighs heavily and then salutes, wandering in a moping way toward the truck stop. He seemed more sad than overcome.

“Is he going to be alright?” Chopper asks.

“He’s fine just a little weird,” Luffy says with a grin.

“You’re one to talk,” Nami says. “You’re getting a shower too, by the way.”

“Whaat? No way!” Luffy says.

“Yes way!” Nami says. “I’m not going to spend the entire trip with you smelling like used socks.” She sighs. “But if you go for just fifteen minutes I’ll give you this.” She unfurls the shirt. It says Captain Pepperoni in neon green and has a slice of pizza on it with pepperoni that has the same faceted effect.

“It’s so cool!” Chopper says.

“It’s super cool!” Luffy says, reaching for it but Nami holds it away. “Shower first.” She hands out a fistful of money. Luffy grumbles at her but takes the money and meanders toward the truck stop himself.

“And you better get clean!” Nami calls after him. “If you’re smelly you can just forget the shirt!”

“You’re so stingy!” Luffy calls back over his shoulder. Nami snorts.

Chopper stares up at her, balancing on his toes, eagerly awaiting his shirt, too! He’d even shower for it! Though as a rule he really didn’t need to shower much. He jolts in anticipation as she looks down at him.

“What is it you have there?” she says.

“Huh?” Then he remembers he’s still holding the lock box. “Oh I found it under the floor. But I can’t get it open. I think it’s locked.”

“We’ll see about that,” Nami says, pulling a bobby pin from behind her ear. She starts to work at it, poking with her pin and grumbling as flakes of white fall out. “Who the hell put wax in this thing?” she mutters. But as she keeps on going it occurs to Chopper that he’s not going to get a shirt or an invitation to shower. He sinks back down, stuffing his hands in his pockets and absently kicking a rock.It’s fine. He doesn’t need either. There’s no reason to be sad about it.

Instead he watches her and then holds the box as she kneels on the ground and squints at it, grumbling the whole time under her breath. He watches her face go pale and red flush at her cheeks and knows she’s developing a low fever. He doesn’t know why she’s so obsessed with this box but…

“Maybe you should lay down,” he says.

“Hm? I’m fine.”

She’s not and he knows it, but he’ll wait a little longer before pushing.

He hears footsteps approaching and looks up to see Sanji and Luffy making their way across the parking lot toward them-- feeling another little stab of sadness at their matching sweatshirts, only Luffy’s has the sleeves rolled up. Sanji’s shirt has a faceted sausage on it and reads Commander Sausage. It suits him.

“H’ooh? What are you doing?” Sanji says, coming to stand beside them and peering at the box.

“Chopper found a hidden box,” Nami says. “I want to see why they hid it.”

“Maybe it’s treasure!” Luffy says sitting cross-legged on the asphalt.

“Luffy! You just took a shower!” Nami says. He blinks at her.

“Yeah so?”

Nami sighs and rolls her eyes.

“Forget it.”

Chopper tries to imagine why she’s so frustrated, but can’t guess. It’s not like he’s sitting in mud. After a little while Luffy gets up and wanders off and Chopper is about to press Nami to lie down again when there’s a soft click.

“Aha!” Nami says, and Chopper bristles in excitement as she opens the box. Inside are two tickets with pretty gold swirls around the edges and a piece of folded up paper. Her happiness fades immediately. “Just junk, huh?”

Is it? Not treasure at all? But maybe there’s something useful in it! Maybe Nami will find something and tell him: ‘thank you for the hard work!’ or ‘We couldn’t have done it without you!’ But he feels even that chance fading as Nami flips the tickets back and forth and makes a face at them.

“Can’t even tell what these are for…,” Nami says, clicking her tongue and putting them back.

“Hm.” Sanji takes the piece of paper and opens it, frowning slightly over his cigarette and scratching at his chin.

So that is a bust but.. But maybe the folded up piece of paper! Maybe…

“What is it?” he says excitedly.

“Looks like shitty marching orders to me. Time and date and place. Spider’s Cafe…” Sanji shudders. “Shitty name for a cafe. But ah…how beautiful…” A giddy looks comes over his face as he shakes three small Polaroids into his hand. “Marvelous Nami! Vivacious Vivi!” His expression flattens in an instant and he seems almost angry. Chopper bristles instinctively. “And mossbrain. How dare he put his shitty mug in among these beauties!”

“What? Let me see,” Nami says, taking the pictures. Then groans and puts a hand to her face. “I can’t believe they got photos of us. I mean, I saw them taking the pictures but they’re so damn clear!”

Chopper frowns, tugging his hat down a little and feeling his face burn. It didn’t look like he had been helpful after all. They were just more upset. He’ll… he’ll just have to find another way. He’ll just have to find something else. Otherwise… otherwise why would they even keep him around?

Something begins ringing in shrill insistence, breaking into his sad thoughts and he’s a little grateful.

Except…wait… Is that the phone?

Nami lifts her head slowly and he meets Sanji’s eyes.

Then the phone stops ringing.

“Yo! I’m Luffy!”

Nnnooooo!

Chopper moves faster than he’s ever moved before, racing back to the van and tackling Luffy around the midsection. Nami crushes him a second later and he sees her knock the phone from her hand. Then he can’t see as his face is pressed into Luffy’s midsection.

“You shithead!” Sanji hisses.

“Get it! Get it!” Nami says in a whispered shriek.

“But--!” Luffy starts and there’s a brief muffled sound as if his mouth is covered. Chopper’s is too and he flails, trying to breathe, finally managing to twist his head to the side.

“Welcome to the shitty restaurant,” Sanji says, face pale, fingers twitching a little over the lit cigarette. His voice is steady though, like he’s just talking to any old person and not a big scary person like Crocodile. If if was Chopper wouldn’t have been able to speak without stammering. Luffy lets out a huff of breath that Chopper can feel rather than hear. On the other end of the phone, Chopper can just hear the growl of the scary guy he's talking to.

"This is Mr. 0... Who was that just now?"

"Just some intruder. Took care of him though."

There was a pause and then: "That was careless.."

"It's a shitty remodeled hippie van. Not exactly Fort Knox."

Nami sucks in a sharp breath and swats Sanji’s leg. Sanji winces a little and gives her a sheepish smile, flapping his hand. The guy on the other end takes a quiet breath, almost too soft for Chopper to hear, but it doesn’t sound great.

“If you have the time for your puerile humor. You have time to report. Your late report,” he says, not loudly but there’s something menacing in it. Like the growl just before a predator strikes. He clings hard to Luffy, glad that he’s here and that guy is all the way over there. It’s surprising though, he thinks faintly, Luffy doesn’t seem scared at all. But maybe he can’t hear the guy all that well.

“Sorry about that, boss,” Sanji says. “We’ve been tracking the princess up the shitty East Coast. Last we heard she’s holed up in New York.”

Really? They’re tracking a princess? What princess? A real princess? That’s so amazing! Chopper doesn’t know anyone who knows a princess. In fact he doesn’t know any royalty at all! The closest thing is the fat faced bulldog called Queenie who had chased Doctor Hiriluk over the fence after he’d tried to steal some winter cabbages. He wants to ask! He’s dying to ask. But the conversation is still going on so he just watches, feeling a kind of awe, wondering what amazing thing he’ll find out next.

“How close are you to capture?”

“Hard to shitty say. We’re right on her tail though. Give us a few days, we’ll have her.”

Silence. Though Chopper can hear him breathing on the other end. There is something like a hissing sound, almost below even his hearing. Have they gotten away with something? Are they safe now?

“You are either lying or incompetent,” the man says, seemingly angrier than before. “Don’t think I don’t know exactly where you are.”

Nami sits up and Chopper does too, relieved not to be crushed anymore. Except when he looks at her she is tense and sweat is sliding down her face. Luffy is looking angrily at the phone, fingers clenched over Mr. Dalton’s wrist as if trying to pull Mr. Dalton’s hand from over his mouth. Mr. Dalton himself has the solid waiting look Chopper’s seen him make lots of times. The one that means he’s going to do or say something hard and sad.

“Well?” the man on the other end of the phone growls. Sanji makes a face.

Luffy moves and jerks Mr. Dalton’s hand from his mouth. Chopper jumps, wondering if he should cover it again so the scary man won’t see them. But he says nothing. Just glares at Sanji, nose flaring. Sanji meets his eyes. Chopper looks between them. There seems to be some conversation going on that he can’t hear and even Mr. Dalton stiffens, jaw working back and forth. Chopper wishes he could guess what they are talking about. If he were a man he would know. If he were Usopp he would know.

Maybe if he just thinks really hard he can understand.

But before he can the moment passes Sanji relaxes against the wall, relighting the cigarette. What’s going on?

“It’s too late if you think you can pacify me,” the scary voice continues. Sanji tilts his head back and blows out a cool stream of smoke that Chopper is impressed with even as he has to cover his nose so he won’t sneeze. Sanji’s going to say something awesome now, he knows it! Somehow he’s found a way to keep them all safe from this scary guy!

“Alright you got us,” Sanji says.

“EHHH-” The end of Chopper’s surprise is cut off when Nami slaps both hands over his mouth. Chopper had been prepared for something cool! But he’s just going to give in?

“Sanji!” Nami hisses.

“What?” says the scary guy, anger grumbling through the car.

“The princess is with us. She doesn’t have to be near you to stop your shitty plan. Did you think she was an amateur? You’re going fall right on your face, shithead.”

“He already has pictures of us, why are you trying to make it worse?!” Nami practically screams in a whisper. Sanji holds up a hand as if asking her to be quiet. Chopper wants to whisper scream at him too. He had been so close! Why did he give up? They were almost safe!

“You--” the menacing voice says.

“Us,” Sanji agrees. “And now a message from our sponsor.” Sanji holds out the phone toward Luffy. “Got something you want to say to the boss?”

“I’M GOING TO KICK YOUR ASS!”

Luffy doesn’t bother to whisper scream. His voice fills the entire van and makes the metal vibrate and Chopper bristles all over! How can he speak so confidently! Especially since, if Mr. Dalton is right-- this guy will almost be impossibly strong. What are they going to do? What are they going to do?!

He’s almost on the verge of panic when Nami nearly squashes him flat, leaning over him to whack Luffy in the head with the flat of her hand.

“What did you do that for, idiot!” she snaps. “Now we’re going to be in even more trouble!”

“It’s fine because we’re gonna fight him anyway!” Luffy says, folding his arms tightly.

“It’s not fine! You think we can handle Billions on our own? Huh? Only two of you can even fight!”

Chopper wants to say that he can fight, too! But he can’t even fight enough to make it worthwhile. He can say that at least he won’t be in the way! But that doesn’t sound like much. He wonders if they’ll realize it soon. If they’ll decide, like Mr. Dalton, it’s better for everyone if stays behind where it’s safe.

“So?! I’ll kick all their asses anyway!” Luffy says with so much confidence Chopper almost believes he can. But he’s hidden from those guys before and if it was just a few cars full of people, he’d believe Luffy could do it. But they ride in trucks and there are a lot of them. It seems like an impossible situation.

“Baseless confidence isn’t going to get you anything but killed,” Mr. Dalton is saying. Chopper hates to agree with him. He wants to think that Luffy can do anything. He wants to help Luffy do anything. But so far he’s just a kid and a tag along who finds useless treasure and talks to police, even if that Smoker guy had been really nice.

Chopper sighs and takes the box where it’s at Nami’s side, thinking to hide it again under the floorboard. There is a faint clicking sound, like something mechanical has happened. Chopper blinks and tilts his head toward the floor, almost wishing he was brave enough to go in deer form and hear it better-- because there’s something else that’s happening… a kind of muted beeping.

“Aside from that, we could use this to our shitty advantage,” Sanji says. “If that asshole thinks Vivi is with us than we can throw him off her trail.”

“I’m not sure if we have enough time,” Nami says. “As it is we’re barely going to make the Sandorea Cup.”

Chopper wants to pay attention to the planning but the beeping is growing in urgency. It reminds him of something really familiar actually, but he can’t place it. What is it? Where has he heard that kind of noise before.

Oh, right!

“A time bomb!” he says, remembering. They all look at him and he smiles.

“I hear a time bomb!”

….wait

“GET OUT!” Mr. Dalton roars but Chopper is already moving, scrambling out of the van as fast as he can manage as the beeping increases. In a flutter of panic he thinks to turn to look after the others but then the explosion rips through the air, lifting him off the ground and slamming him into the asphalt a few feet away.

Chopper screams and rolls to his feet, running and running and running, around parked cars, trying to find somewhere to hide, the sound of the explosion ringing in his ears. He is back there, in the snow, the research facility on fire behind him as bullets sing through the air and ash falls like snow. Get away! Get away! Get away! His mind cries. Doctor! He wants to scream but then remembers that Doctor Hiriluk is dead. And that Doctorine isn’t here.

He ducks behind the tire of a large semi, clutching the box to his chest, trying to catch his breath and to get rid of the shakes. Panic still beats behind his eyes and makes him start at every sound. He thunks his head against the wheel then lifts it again because the hat might get dirty. He needs to go check on the others. He needs to see if everyone is all right..

But… what if they’re not? What if they’re hurt and he just left them? Or what if they’re dead? He takes a deep breath and then another, trying to be brave enough to go out there and find out. But he can’t help but wonder if he’s all alone again. What is he going to do if he is? He sits on the ground, back to the tire and takes deep breaths. It’ll be alright, it’ll be alright--

“Chopper!”

Ah! Sanji! Chopper surges to his feet, grabbing the box, and then slumps a little as he realizes that Sanji probably hadn’t run away. He’d been brave and strong. He fingers the edge of the box and when Sanji calls again, notices that he sounds worried. Like Chopper’s just a kid. He guesses he really is. He takes a deep breath and comes out from behind the truck. Sanji stops short, surprised, then gives him a sort of smile like he’s releived.

“Sorry I ran away,” Chopper says, kicking a loose pebble. “I didn’t mean to.”

“We all did. Luffy ran like a shitty bat out of hell.”

“Mm…” Luffy was Luffy though and it was okay if he ran away from stuff because he would run back. Chopper hadn’t even been able to do that. Sanji pats his hat as they start to go back where the van is….

…was…

Chopper doesn’t want to go. Already he can smell the burning of fuel and rubber. It stings his nose and makes him dizzy. But he does anyway.

“Everyone has something that they run from,” Sanji says. “And only an idiot wouldn’t run from a shitty bomb.”

“But I want to be stronger than that,” Chopper says, holding his nose as they get closer. “I want to get strong! I want to be a Sergeant Sausage or Corporal Cool! Just like you guys!”

“Sergeant--?” Sanji says, then tugs down his sweatshirt, now smudged with soot and dirt, and nods, seeming to get it. Something floats past him and Chopper cringes at the sight of charred paper, blown by the wind. It must be one of the W guy’s books. Then he remembers in a burst of panic. Doctor Hiriluk’s notes--!

Chopper dashes toward where the van is. He can see it now, a raging fire that’s beginning to set the trees alight. Mr. Dalton and Nami are watching from a safe distance and Chopper slows as he realizes that there’s no way he can get to the notes now. The notes-- they’re gone… and all his medical supplies too.

He clenches and unclenches his fingers around the box, trying not to cry even as his eyes smart. It’s not all all gone, he tells himself. Doctorine has copies of them. But the stuff that Doctor Hiriluk wrote… All gone in fire.

“Chopper!” Luffy is calling distantly.

“Over here!” Sanji calls.

Chopper decides he won’t cry. Even if it’s horrible. He won’t.

“Oh! You’re here!” Luffy says. “Good!” Chopper sucks in a breath and nearly chokes on it because of the air, then turns toward Luffy, eyes strong and hard…

…and spots his backpack slung on Luffy’s shoulder…

“You got it!” Chopper wails, the box falling in a clatter as he tackles Luffy in a hug. “You got it! I thought it was gone!”

“Shishishi nah! It’s your treasure, isn’t it?” Luffy says, his voice like sunshine, seeming to vibrate through Chopper’s bones. He nods and cries and tries not to get snot on him.

“Nearly got himself blown up, too, the idiot,” Nami says, but there’s a softness in her voice.

“Thank you…” Chopper says, giving him another squeeze before letting go and holding up his hands for his bag with tear smeared eyes. Luffy hands it to him and he buries himself against it a moment, smelling the faint scent of sakura. Another explosion makes him jolt, but he grips Luffy’s shirt with one hand to keep from running and grips his bag with the other. He won’t run. Even if the memories come flooding back a million times, so long as he’s here with his friends he won’t run.

“Woooo,” Luffy says, following it and shielding his eyes as it goes. “Look at that!”

Chopper looks and sees something that could have been the steering wheel shooting up into the twilight like a firework. As if in answer to that there are shouts from the truck stop as people come running, carrying fire extinguishers. Sirens begin to wail in the distance and Chopper’s skin prickles.

“Let’s get out of here before we’re spotted,” Nami says. She takes a step and sways a moment before straightening. Chopper frowns at her. She has several bruises and lacerations, and Mr. Dalton does too; hanging onto his crutch for dear life. Chopper looks around at the other two. Sanji looks beat up as well, and Chopper’s a little worried about his leg and ribs still since it hasn’t been that long at all. But Luffy…

“You need to carry Nami,” Chopper says to Luffy.

“I can walk…” Nami says, smiling, blinking sweat from her eyes. “I’m fine.”

“If you push your body too hard you’ll make yourself worse.”

And they have to move.

“Sanji, you help Mr. Dalton…”

“No…” Mr. Dalton says. “Leave me behind I’m only going to slow you down.”

“No!” Chopper says. He can’t leave Mr. Dalton behind like this! Not when they’re being hunted. He’ll get hurt, too, Chopper knows. He’s in as much danger as all of them!

“But--”

“No time for that,” Sanji says, crossing the distance quickly and pulling Mr. Dalton’s arm over his shoulder. “We’ll discuss this when we’re safe. For now let’s move. Luffy.”

“Right,” says Luffy, crouching to offer Nami his back. She lets out a breath and lets herself be carried.

“Follow me,” Chopper says, pulling his backpack on and picking up the box. There’s woods all around this truck stop and Chopper will be able to see them best in the dark. Besides he can ask the animals along the way where humans aren’t likely to go. It will keep them safe, he thinks, shying away from the fire as much as he can, a cold sweat breaking over his skin. Safe at least for a little while.



****

It is full night now and they are in the woods backed up against a hillside and the falling stone ruin of what had once been a chimney once upon a time. They are far enough back he can barely hear the cars rush past on the interstate. A fire is crackling, providing the only light. It’s an uncertain light, but more than enough for Chopper to see by so he can tend their wounds. It’s oddly comforting. Or maybe his Doctor mind is calmer since he has to focus and, more than that, knows what he’s doing. He will need to find more bandages he thinks as he dabs antiseptic onto Luffy’s scrapes and abrasions; nothing bad but worth treating properly. He’ll need more antiseptic too and a bunch of other supplies that got lost in the explosion. He feels a little mad about it, surprising himself a bit. That could have been used to help people but now it’s all gone.

He’ll get some more, he decides. Somehow. Even if he has to tear up his own shirt for bandages. He snorts, setting this determination in his mind and applies the last band aid to Luffy’s stomach.

“You’re done,” he tells him.

“Great!” Luffy says, bounding to his feet. “I’m going to go hunting!”

“Sit down,” Nami grumbles. “Sanji will be back soon and we need you in case anything comes. Remember?”

“Oh, yeah.” Luffy sits back down again with a huff and Chopper feels kind of bad about it. If he were bigger and stronger, he could guard Nami and Mr. Dalton. Well, he might not be a fighter but at least he can take care of them. He moves to Nami next, checking her temperature and is glad to see it’s gone down. But he can also tell that she’s getting a little dehydrated-- hopefully Sanji will be back soon with some water.

“So, am I getting better?” Nami asks, resting her chin on her knees and smiling at him. He feels a little wiggly at the sudden attention and resists the urge to pull his hat down.

“Yeah. A little. But you should still take it easy.”

“Not that I have much of a choice right now,” she says with a sigh.

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Dalton says from where he’s resting against a tree, just outside of the circle of firelight. “I should have realized sooner that taking that van would be a bad idea.”

“It’s not your fault. We should have known, too. Zoro’s car was tracked and I’d forgotten all about that.” She rubs her hands over her face then rests her chin on her knees again, seeming deflated. “So much has happened. But maybe we’ve bought Vivi a little time.”

“It might be… difficult from here on out,” Mr. Dalton says. Though why it would be difficult is interrupted when Sanji comes back through the woods, hands full of plastic shopping bags.

“How much do we have left?” Nami asks.

“About thirty-seven dollars,” Sanji says. “I tried to be shitty frugal but--” He shrugs and tosses Luffy a whole pack of hot dogs. “Cook those first.”

“Woohoo! Hot dogs!”

Chopper watches eagerly as Sanji’s hand disappears into the bag again. Will he get a whole pack of hot dogs too? He can eat two or three or more of them if he tries! Instead he’s just handed a little can of beenie weenies and a bottle of water and he sighs. It’s fine. It’s not that he minds beenie weenies but it makes him feel small. Still he notices Luffy putting hot dogs on a stick so he finds himself a smaller twig, and, after a moment sits a little ways from Luffy before peeling off the lid and fishing out some weenies to roast.

“Egg salad sandwich and a tangerine, as you requested o beauteous one,” Sanji practically sings.

“Thanks,” Nami says.

“What’s the situation?” Mr. Dalton asks as Sanji sits and pokes a single hot dog on a stick to put over the fire.

“Shit,” Sanji says. “Place is swarming with shitty cops. Nearly got seen by Smoker again. Don’t know how that guy keeps following us.”

Chopper frowns, wondering if he’s said or done something that set Smoker on their trail. He didn’t mean to cause a problem but --he smacks Luffy’s hand away from his beenie weenies. Grrr why is he so greedy?

“Probably some Baroque Work bastards there, too,” Sanji says. “Overheard some guy calling for Mr. 11.”

“Most likely they want to make sure the job’s done.” Mr. Dalton winces and shifts his weight. Chopper wonders if his leg is bothering him but even if it is, there’s nothing Chopper can do to ease the pain right now. “The boss does not allow for mistakes.”

“So I gathered,” Sanji says.

“To that end… I will commend you kids for haven gotten so far but…” Mr. Dalton shakes his head. “I don’t see how you can go further.”

“We’ll make it,” Luffy says, eating one of the hot dogs right off the stick.

Chopper tries to do the same with the weenie but keeps burning his tongue in the process.

“Your baseless confidence is great, Luffy, but I wish we had a plan.” Nami rests her elbow on her knee and her cheek on her hand, peering into the flames. “Thirty-seven dollars isn’t going to get us far and there isn’t a circuit nearby that we can get into to make money. Even if there was there’s no way to get there short of hot wiring a car.”

“I can do that!” Chopper says cheerfully, glad he’s of some use. “Doctorine taught me!” It was probably bad but they’d had to steal some cars to get where they were going, being refugees and everything. They’d always left them in good shape though and in easily found places so Chopper never felt too terrible.

“That’ll perk Smoker’s shitty ears right up,” Sanji says. “I don’t know if he’s after us or what but if we don’t stay under his radar we’ll really be in trouble.”

Oh… right… Chopper deflates again and eats another weenie. At least it tastes really good.

“Wait.” Nami straightens. “Quick, what day is it?”

“The fifteenth,” Sanji says checking his pocket watch. “Why?”

“Mm… it’ll be close, but if we can get to Washington DC by the seventeenth, we’ll be just in time for the Pirate Festival.”

“P-Pirate Festival?” Chopper says. He doesn’t know what that is but it sounds interesting!

“Wahoo let’s go!” Luffy crows.

“What’s a pirate festival?”

“Shishishi no idea,” Luffy says and it just makes Chopper even more excited. Will there be guys with peg legs and eye patches running around? Will he get to pet a parrot? Maybe he can even walk the plank!

“It’s the biggest semi-legal feeder event on the East Coast,” Nami says with smile. “They’ll definitely be people trying to recruit last minute additions to fight in the Sandorea Cup. And if not, between you guys we can definitely earn enough money for a plane ticket.”

“It’s a shitty good idea,” Sanji says. “But how the hell are we going to get there?”

“… I know someone who might be able to help,” Mr. Dalton says softly, looking at Chopper over the firelight. “Do you remember Mrs. Hikingbaersson?”

“Yeah! I remember!”

She was one of the first zoans they’d met down here. They’d saved her from a traveling circus. Well, kind of saved. Mr. Dalton had actually bought her freedom using almost all the money they’d had. Doctorine had been so mad at him, Chopper was surprised she didn’t scalpel him on the spot. He hadn’t minded himself. Mrs. Hikingbaersson had been so grateful and happy to be free and was going to open a bakery as soon as she’d gotten her feet under her, she’d said. He wondered if she’d done that yet.

“But I’d rather get some distance between this place first,” Mr. Dalton says. “She’s lived too long in peace for me to bring trouble to her door.”

“If it’s just distance you need, that’s no problem,” Nami says with a smile, stretching out her legs. “I know just what to do.”



****

Nami’s legs are magical, Chopper thinks as they climb out of the truck that smells like tobacco and slightly damp panda. Three times she had stood on the side of the road with her jeans rolled up, turning her ankle toward the passing cars and three times a truck had stopped. Only once had the trucker made them pile back out after they’d piled in. The other two had just looked shocked though maybe because it was hard to get Mr. Dalton in since he was so big and they had to be careful with his leg. Chopper and Luffy had tried the leg thing once, just to see if they could, and were just yelled at to get off the road.

Chopper hops down to the cracked pavement and moves out of the way for Luffy to get out as well before waving goodbye to the weirdly Panda faced driver. He waves a slow, almost unbelieving goodbye back before Luffy shuts the door and they watch the truck drive out of the gas station, waving until they can no longer see the DOSKOI label.

“I’m gonna take a leak,” Luffy says, heading toward the woods across the road.

“Don’t go far,” Sanji calls, before laying out his sweatshirt on the curb and bowing elegantly toward Nami. “For you, my Nami swan.”

“Thanks,” Nami says, covering a yawn with her hand. Chopper is torn between waiting for Luffy and curling up in the soft grass and taking a nap. They’ve been up all night and then some. It’s mid-afternoon now and the clouds are low and grey and it’s oppressively hot. But the leaves of the trees are turned up here and there and he can smell rain and a bit of ozone. A thunderstorm is coming. He hopes Lapu isn’t afraid of it. He wonders how she is now and the other Lapin and Doctorine. It hasn’t been that long but it feels like forever ago. He wonders if they’re missing him too, even if it’s only been three days. He wants to tell them he’s fine and happy, and he is more or less, but he’s really starting to miss having a bed. He rubs the sleep grit from his eyes and yawns, the grass looking more and more appealing despite the gas smell that hung in the air.

“Take a load off before you fall over,” Sanji says, grinning and lighting a cigarette. Chopper realizes he’d been wobbling a bit on his feet Nami smiles at him a little and pats the grass beside her. Chopper grins, giddy at the invitation even though he’s too tired to flail about it. He is just about to settle down when Mr. Dalton calls his name. He’s standing beside the phone on the outside wall of the gas station. It seems so far away. Chopper doesn’t want to go. He wants to sleep on the grass. Only, Mr. Dalton has a serious look and so Chopper really can’t say no to him.

With a sigh and stifled yawn he hauls himself back to his feet, listening to the thunder grumble. He has to hold his breath and trot past the gas pumps though so he won’t get too dizzy. Inside is brightly lit and with a turning display of cotton candy meanly right near the window. He stares at it for a moment and then, remembering, searches the people milling around inside for the Smoker guy. It would be bad if he showed up here.

“Chopper,” Mr. Dalton says, pulling his attention. He looks grave and pale leaning on his crutch. Being on the cramped trunks probably hasn’t done much for him and he needs to be somewhere where he doesn’t have to move for a while. Chopper is immediately a little concerned.

“Are you going to come with us all the way to Las Vegas?” Because he really shouldn’t. Even with the speedier healing of a zoan, it would take longer for his leg to knit. A ghost of a smile flitted across Mr. Dalton’s face.

“No. I would only be in the way. Mrs. Hikingbaersson has said I can stay with her for a while. At least until…” the smile faded. “… If I can meet up with Laki and the others…”

“I hope you do…” Chopper murmurs. He doesn’t know anything about Laki or the others. Well he doesn’t know a lot about the people in Mr. Dalton’s life. But it’s obvious that he cares for them because he wants to go back to them. Chopper can’t ever remember him wanting to do that.

“You should consider staying with her, too,” Mr. Dalton says. “She’s agreed to take you in…”

“But…” Chopper starts, but Mr. Dalton won’t let him finish.

“And she has a full basement, and a child grown. I know your experience with Kureha and myself has been haphazard at best, but Mrs. Hikingbaersson can make a home for you.”

A home for him? Chopper can’t help but think that a home in a basement, no matter how big it is, is no home at all. And there won’t be any Lapin around to play with or Doctorine to help. He can’t imagine what he’d to just being taken care of.

“I want to go with my friends,” he says, gripping the straps of his backpack. He’s pretty sure he can call him that now. They’ve gone through so much together in such a short time.

“It’s a dangerous life they lead,” Mr. Dalton says softly. “And when they break up, where will you be? The world won’t be kind.”

Mr. Dalton doesn’t have to tell him that last part. Chopper doesn’t think he’s the type of person the world is kind for. But that’s okay. He’s always sort of accepted it for what it was. It’s the first part of that that gets him. He looks out to where Nami and Sanji are still sitting on the curb. Luffy has emerged from the woods and is talking to them about something with a huge smile on his face, gesturing with his arms. How is he not even a little tired? Chopper can’t help but boggle about that a bit. But he’s excited, too, and wants to know what it is. He can tell Nami and Sanji are interested in what he’s saying despite being tired themselves.

“They won’t break up,” Chopper says. They all seem so happy together. Even when they’re annoyed at eachother they are happy. How can they break up.?

“Don’t be so sure,” Mr. Dalton says, lying a heavy hand on top of Chopper’s hat. “Time has a way of changing people.”

Maybe it does, Chopper thinks. But maybe not to them.



****





Chopper sinks in a squashy brown chair in the middle of a warm cozy den with the rain tip-tapping the windows outside. He doesn't know about staying, but visiting Mrs. Hikingbaersson isn’t half bad! Initially Chopper had been a bit worried as it had been really hard fitting everyone into her tiny gray hatchback. It had been an hour and a half ride and he’d had to sit on the floor and half on Luffy’s feet which was fine up until they hit the gravel road and he found Luffy had really bony feet.

Still they’d made it to her house without getting blown up or arrested-- And it’s a nice house, too. Bigger than the one he and Doctorine had been staying at even. It’s back in the woods almost and there’s even a tire swing on the tree outside that he and Luffy were going to try tomorrow morning if it’s sunny by then.

It’s evening now, though, and he’s full to the brim with delicious stew and listening to the quiet drone of Law and Order: Gang Task Force. Mr. Dalton is finally resting up in Mrs. Hikingbaersson’s huge king sized bed that nearly takes up the whole room and Luffy is sprawled out like a reverse sloth on the back of her plum colored sofa, snoring and drooling a bit.

“My, but that was a good meal, and dessert besides!” Mrs. Hikingbaersson says, patting her stomach and sitting in the middle of the couch which sinks in comfortably underneath her. Chopper wants to try sitting on that next. “I would steal you, my boy, if I thought I could foot the grocery bill.”

“Shitty sorry about that,” Sanji says sheepishly from where he’s leaning in the doorway. “Luffy can pack away a hell of a lot.”

“So I’ve noticed,” Mrs. Hikingbaersson says, but cheerfully. “Are you sure he isn’t a zoan? We have quite high metabolisms, you know!”

“Is that right?” Sanji says.

“Yeah,” Chopper says lazily, burping a little. “I think because it requires a lot of energy to shift between forms and we can shift really fast if they want to. -- I mean zoans can!” he adds quickly. Mrs. Hikingbaersson just smiles at him.

“Maybe he’s a human zoan then because he eats like he’s five shitty people in one.”

“I like to see a healthy appetite,” says Mrs. Hikingbaerssson. “Makes a cook feel appreciated.”

“It would be nicer if it cost a little less,” Nami says and Chopper opens his eyes from where he’d been dozing a little. This isn’t the first time she’s worried about money. Is that a sign of them breaking up? He still doesn’t want to think they will but Mr. Dalton and Doctorine argued about money more than once. Mostly because Mr. Dalton kept giving it to other people. Well it’s probably nothing.

He shifts and starts to drowse again, not wanting to sleep quite yet because there’s still a strawberry lemonade by his elbow that needs drinking. A yawn overtakes him though and he has the feeling he’s going to lose the fight when a commercial about the Pirate Festival comes on. It’s not a really good one. It’s just really a bunch of slides and effects and chintzy music showing booths and games and people in old timey costumes and things like that. It seems fun but it’s hard to tell just from those pictures. The only cool things are all the different pirate flags and the costume and the weird platform sticking out over all of it.

“I’m surprised they advertise it,” Nami says. “Wouldn’t they want to keep people away?”

“Oh, well, they used to try back in the day,” Mrs. Hikingbaersson says. “Or well, that is to say it used to be an entirely different affair. More of a historical marker than anything. The death of Bloody Roger.”

Luffy stirs a bit in his sleep and turns his head to the side as if listening.

“Then it became a bit of a circus with gang affiliates gathering there to mark the day and they would fight and the police would try to bust them up and there were riots all up and down the mall. But after a while things calmed down and it became known as a pirate festival. Heaven knows why. Maybe to make it more family friendly since the presence of families and annoyed mothers does tend to beef up security.”

“Beef,” Luffy murmurs in his sleep. “I want to go get beef.”

“Give it a rest, punk,” Sanji says, though not meanly.

“Some people think it’s controversial,” says Mrs. Hikingbaersson without skipping a beat. “But I think it’s good fun. Gives families one last hurrah before school starts.”

Nami makes a face. “That just sounds off to me…”

“School, huh,” Sanji says faintly. “That’s in, what, two shitty weeks?”

“For us, yes,” Mrs. Hikingbaersson says. “I can’t wait to get back to my children.”

“Children?” Chopper says.

“I’m the librarian at the elementary school,” Mrs. Hikingbaersson says. “It’s wonderful to see all their shining faces growing up!”

Librarian is a lot different from Doctorine, Chopper notes. And if he stayed with her he wouldn’t be able to help her out at all. Still he briefly imagines staying with her, living in a nice room, and maybe even going to school one day and visiting her in the library. It’s a silly dream, though. Even if he did stay here he’d never be able to go out except in animal form because for one thing people were still hunting him and for another you had to have birth certificates and stuff to go to school.

He sighs and finishes his strawberry lemonade before sliding off the couch and heading toward the kitchen. Sanji is leaning against the sink, which is full of soaking dishes, and staring at the calender on the far wall. Chopper doesn’t think it’s a very good calender. It’s just a bunch of daisies with smiley faces and anatomically incorrect butterflies.

“I wonder…” Nami says, coming into the kitchen behind him. “Do you think it’s the same Pirate Festival?”

Chopper guesses she’s asking Sanji and not him, but Sanji seems not to notice at all. That’s really weird. Is he sick or something? Even Nami seems to think so, giving him a puzzled look.

“Sanji?”

“Hm?” He straightens. “Oh, I have no idea. We stayed away from DC. Dirty shit over here.” He pats the counter on the other side of the sink and Chopper slides his glass onto it and glances at the calender again. Did something on it worry him? Is it his birthday soon? Or is it the Monday labeled: “Start of School” and circled a few times in yellow.

He wonders…

Does Sanji want to go back to school? Is he still school age? It’s hard to tell! Chopper pulls a chair closer and stands on it to dry the dishes that Sanji washes, wanting to watch him and get up the courage to ask if they’re going to break up. It’s just a question after all and he probably already knows the answer so what is there to be worried about? Only he really is. But… he’ll never know the answer if he doesn’t ask so… Chopper takes a deep breath and steels himself.

“Do you think you’ll stay with Luffy forever?” he asks, not looking because he’s afraid to see Sanji’s expression. Nami stops at the doorway to the kitchen, looking at him over her shoulder. Chopper can see her in the reflection. Is she worried too? Sanji washes a few more dishes and Chopper wonders if he heard. Finally, though he speaks.

“Don’t know.”

What is that supposed to mean?

“Don’t you like it?” Isn’t it nice having someone like Luffy to be with? It can be scary and tiring and hard to eat beenie weenies in peace, but Chopper likes it a lot!

“Of course. And if it was just me I wouldn’t have a problem. The old man doesn’t care where I am so long as I’m doing him shitty proud.” Sanji carefully rinses off a glass pan. “But I’ve got that shitty long nose to think of. He’s got one year left. Just one measly year. But I can’t let him go back alone.”

“Can’t he go back to school later?” Chopper says. “Or maybe we can all go.” Or, well, they can all go and Chopper can wait for them to get out. He wouldn’t mind that.

“Can you imagine trying to confine that shit head to a classroom?” Sanji says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder where Luffy is. Nami leaves the kitchen then and it’s just them. Chopper frowns at the dish he’s holding and carefully sets it aside before taking another one.

“I’d miss you though,” he says, wishing he could think of something to say to convince him to stay. “You’re really cool.”

Sanji chuckles.

“Well don’t miss me shitty yet. Nothing’s set in stone. Now pay attention, you’re leaving streaks.”

“Sorry,” Chopper murmurs and tries to dry more thoroughly. He had been happy now he can’t help but doubt a little. What if Mr. Dalton was right? What if they did break apart? Where would Chopper go then? He tries to imagine himself alone, waiting for no one to come home, just himself somewhere in a big empty hotel room. It’s a scary thought but it doesn’t mean he wants to stay with Mrs. Hikingbaersson either. If he’d wanted to do something like that he’d have just remained behind with Doctorine. Still that doesn’t change the fact that if he did end up alone, he wouldn’t know where to go or what to do.

The thought stays with him, weighing heavy on his mind as he helps put up the dishes away and eventually wanders back into the den. He doesn’t want to sit there anymore and watch dumb TV shows. He almost wants to sleep but he’s not sure if he can.

He sighs and notices that Luffy has gone from the couch. A quick look around and Chopper finds him in the entranceway, sitting on a little bench beside their muddy shoes and watching the rain fall. He doesn’t look sad or tired or anything. There’s a faint smile on his lips which Chopper is envious of. He sits beside him and rests his elbows on the windowsill, watching as the rain turns the yard to mud. Thunder grumbles, trembling the window pane.

He wonders if Luffy knows about school and stuff and how Sanji might go. He wonders if Nami might go too. She’s school age too right? He supposes that Luffy has to know because he seems to know a lot and is smart about people like that. He shifts, sitting with his back to the wall, swinging his legs back and forth.

“Hey, Luffy… are you glad I came with you?” he says, looking at their muddy shoes across the way.

“Of course!” Luffy says in an instant. “You’re great!”

Great?! That makes him happy! Only…

“But I can’t fight!” he says looking at Luffy finally. “At least not very well. I’m not really strong and…and I’m not a great doctor yet. Doctorine says I still have a long way to go!”

“So what? You’re still great.” A smile cuts across Luffy’s face brighter than the moon. “And I like you.”

“Can--! Can I stay with you forever then?” Chopper asks, near breathless, leaning forward.

“For as long as I’m around,” Luffy says, holding up a pinky. A promise. “We’re nakama.”

“Nakama…” Chopper repeats the word and hooks his pinky with Luffy’s. Just like that the weight is gone and the rain is pretty and the future is bright. He doesn’t know what it’s going to be like or who he’s going have to fight or even if the others like Usopp and Mossyguy will be too cool for him. He doesn’t even care that he doesn’t have a cool sweatshirt like the others. Nothing matters so long as he can stay by Luffy no matter what.

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The Remedy

March 2017

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