One of the ironies of medicine, the great unfair things about being a doctor, was the frustrating imbalance of cause to effect. Viruses and bacteria, the least of all living things, could wreak the most terrible diseases. A bullet or a blade could in seconds inflict wounds that took weeks or months to heal. As a ship's doctor—as this ship's doctor—Chopper was all too familiar with those truths.
Then there were those wounds so bad that they never could heal, not completely, no matter how great the skills of the doctor who treated them.
They were returning to the Merry, running through Monsun's cobblestone streets for hopefully the last time, and Chopper was noticing how the sky was lighter behind the clouds—dawn was approaching, the night finally ending—when he heard an ulp and a splashing thud behind him.
They all skidded to a stop around their captain. Luffy's injury had overtaken him all at once; he blinked up at them confusedly from where he was sprawled in a puddle, mumbling, "Eh? Why can't I walk?"
"Because you're bleeding too much!" Chopper wailed. "Doctor!—oh wait, that's me," and he pushed up Luffy's shirt to examine the stab wound. It wasn't as bad as he'd feared, with Luffy's rubber muscles still holding his sides together. Chopper tied a bandage tightly around him to prevent further blood-loss, then changed to his human form and lifted Luffy up in his arms. "I can treat it better back on the Merry; let's go!"
Jogging through the rain, carrying an injured nakama, was a familiar feeling by now—though it was jarring to have Zoro keeping pace beside them. Even though that was where Zoro was supposed to be, it still gave Chopper an unpleasant start, every time he caught a glimpse of the swordsman. Even though Zoro had taken off his black bandana and tied it around his arm, and his swords were sheathed at his side—even though he was still Zoro, their crewmate, their nakama—Chopper couldn't help but shiver.
Maybe Zoro noticed, or else he got confused finding his way, like Zoro did sometimes, because he started falling back, trailing increasingly further behind them. They had all slowed down; with half the crew injured, they couldn't manage to keep up a run all the way to the harbor, even with Nami leading them on the shortest route. Sanji was less successful at hiding his limp with each step, and Usopp especially was starting to flag, though he made a good effort of not complaining, right up until he stumbled and nearly fell on his nose, saved only thanks to Robin's quick reflexes.
"I'm okay," Usopp mumbled, waving off Chopper, who was alarmed by the way the sniper was panting and shivering in the rain as he sagged in Robin's quartet of supporting hands. With his human nose Chopper couldn't smell if Usopp was bleeding through the bandages, but the chill was definitely bad for him, and he should really be off his feet.
"I can piggy-back you," Sanji said.
"No, you can't," Chopper vetoed. "Not with that ankle, and your ribs aren't even bandaged!"
"I'll walk and Chopper can carry you," Luffy said, squirming to be let down.
Chopper held on to his captain determinedly. "No, you won't!"
"Robin and I can carry him together," Nami suggested, and Robin nodded.
Usopp shook his head. "No."
"How dare you refuse Nami-san and Robin-chan's generosity—" Sanji began to rant, then abruptly stopped as Usopp lifted a shaky hand.
"You can carry me," he said, pointing at Zoro, halted in the street some distance behind them.
Zoro wiped rain from his eyes, frowning. "Me?"
"Yeah," Usopp said, "since this is your fault!"
"I..." Zoro said.
Luffy's laugh was weaker but sincere as always. "He's right, Zoro! You owe him."
"But—that's..." Zoro fell silent, shook his head once and without another word marched over to Usopp, staring down at him. Staring at the bandages showing under his overalls. Almost as if he didn't understand why they were there, though he should know better than anyone.
Usopp for his part met that stare with his own defiant boldness, that special trembling wide-eyed Usopp boldness that looked like terror on Chopper or most other people. It was just that he showed courage differently, he'd explained to Chopper a while ago. Though Chopper wouldn't have blamed Usopp for being actually afraid—Chopper himself wouldn't want Zoro frowning at him like that, and ducked his head to avoid the chance.
But Usopp of course was braver than that, even daring to yelp, "Hey, be careful, I'm hurt here!" when Zoro picked him up and put him on his back.
Zoro usually would have yelled back, but he didn't say anything now, not even when Usopp smacked his shoulder and ordered, "Left, go left! Don't get lost! And hurry up, we have to make sure the Merry's okay!"
He sounded stronger, to Chopper's relief, and they could go faster now, especially when Robin offered Sanji a hand that he was more than grateful to accept. And carrying Usopp, Zoro made an effort to keep pace with the rest of them, making it to the docks with only a brief detour or two.
The Marines hadn't found the Merry yet. Even with half the crew injured or otherwise occupied, they were ready to sail within the hour, just in time for Robin to return to the ship—"Where were you?" Chopper asked her when she climbed aboard; he'd been busy tending to Luffy and Usopp and Sanji, and hadn't realized she'd disembarked. "And come here, your arm's hurt."
Robin came into the infirmary corner by the galley to let him clean and bandage her cut arm, as she explained, "We had a debt to repay; it wouldn't do to leave an ally behind, I thought," and she unbuttoned her shirt to reveal the mesmerang. The little bronze snake was curled on her bosom, enjoying the warmth; it hissed a sleepy greeting to Chopper and uncoiled to slither into his furry arms.
"We'll let you off on the next summer island we get to," Chopper told it. "Meanwhile there's rats in the hold you can eat—Sanji will be glad for the help with them."
"No more biting men?" the snake asked hopefully.
"No," Chopper reassured, "you won't have to bite anything but what you eat ever again."
"Though perhaps you should advise it to keep a distance from the swordsman-san," Robin said. "He'd probably not appreciate the reminder."
As it turned out, there was little chance of Zoro seeing the mesmerang. In the days that followed the swordsman didn't bother going below decks, unless it was his turn to man the helm. He took the late watches, spending the night in the crow's nest rather than in his hammock in the men's quarters, even though it was quieter enough to be restful there, with Luffy and Usopp both confined to the main room per Chopper's orders.
During the days Zoro would exercise or take naps like always, but in out-of-the-way places like out on the yardarms or in the hold, instead his usual sprawling on deck underfoot. The crew saw little of him beyond quick glimpses when he helped rig the sails or raise the anchor. It was, Chopper overheard Nami and Usopp discussing, more like having a ghost on the ship than a swordsman.
For the first few days after they sailed from Monsun, Zoro also skipped meals with the crew. That ended on the fourth day. Chopper didn't see the start of it, but Sanji's shout was loud enough to be heard across the ship, "Get your thieving hands out of the icebox!"
That wasn't anything unusual to hear, except that Luffy was up on deck at the time, looking as surprised as the rest of them, as Sanji continued, "I mean it—drop that, you shitty swordsman!"
Which brought everyone to the galley as quickly as if dinner had been announced. Sanji was set in front of the icebox, looking like the incarnation of righteous culinary wrath in a black suit, while Zoro stood before him, saying, "Damn it, cook, it was just some leftovers—"
"If you want my cooking, you can turn up for meals like everyone else!" Sanji yelled, and spun around to throw a kick at Zoro—powerful but not too fast, and Zoro easily could block it, started to draw one of his swords to do so—
Then he looked past Sanji to the rest of the crew, gathered in the main cabin and staring—and Zoro stopped, let go of the katana's hilt and dropped his arm, so that Sanji's kick caught him square in the shoulder, nearly knocking him down.
"What the—?" Sanji said, posed with his leg still extended.
"Forget it," Zoro said, starting to turn away.
"Like hell!" Sanji snapped, twisting back around to deliver another kick to Zoro's other side.
This one Zoro stepped out of the way of, still not raising a sword or arm to block. "I said forget it, cook. I won't steal anything more out of the kitchen, okay? Promise."
"So what are you going to be eating, then?" Sanji demanded. "No way anyone starves on this ship—even shit-for-brains swordsmen."
"Then just give me some damn—" Zoro stopped, gritted his teeth and shook his head. He glanced again at the watching crew, then back to Sanji. "All right," he said, calmer and quieter than Zoro usually sounded when talking to the cook. "I'll wait until dinner, then," and he ducked past all of them, out the door and up to the crow's nest.
"Good," Sanji said, to none of them in particular, but he didn't look satisfied, burning through a cigarette in angrily rapid puffs as he glared at the door as if blaming it for some terrible crime. He only turned away to kick Luffy back from the icebox door. "You can wait for dinner, too!"
"But I'm hungry now!" Luffy pouted, while Chopper begged both of them to take it easy—Sanji's ribs were healing well, and Luffy was basically recovered, his rubber body having bounced back as ridiculously fast as always; but neither of them were as inclined to watch their condition as the doctor would prefer.
Chopper supposed he should be grateful that Zoro hadn't been too badly injured; the swordsman was never inclined to listen to medical advice at the best of times, and right now he maybe wasn't inclined to listen to any of them about anything.
But he showed up at dinner as promised, sitting at the end of the table, as far from any of them as he could manage while still being able to reach his plate. Which was still close enough for Luffy to reach it as well, if he stretched out his arm, and Zoro didn't try to stop him from stealing, letting Luffy help himself without so much as trying to stick him with a fork.
Everyone had gone quiet when Zoro had first sat down with them, but then Usopp launched into a dramatic recounting about how he'd bested the terrible Speckled Hyper-Squid of East Blue. The tale was so thrilling that Chopper almost forgot Zoro was there; he was so busy imagining the hundred writhing polka-dotted tentacles of the monster that he didn't notice Sanji's black-sleeved arm reaching across the table, over his plate, to Zoro's.
Not until Zoro growled, "What are you doing, cook?"—not loudly, but Usopp still broke off the story mid-sentence.
"Since you don't want your share, no point to wasting good food," Sanji said, his fingers on the roll on Zoro's plate—the last uneaten one on the table; Sanji's fluffy buttered biscuits always went fast. Zoro grabbed the cook's wrist, preventing him from taking it.
"Who says I don't want it?" Zoro demanded.
"Why'd you let Luffy have the others, if you do?"
Luffy chewed and swallowed, emptying his stuffed cheeks of the rest of the biscuits. "He's got a point, Zoro," he remarked.
Zoro let go of Sanji's wrist, fingers snapping open as he pushed to his feet. "Right," he said. "Have it."
Sanji dropped the biscuit back on Zoro's plate. "Ah, never mind, I'm not hungry for it after all."
"Cook," Zoro said, looking at Sanji.
"I'll have it!" Luffy cheerfully volunteered, reaching.
Sanji intercepted his hand, pulling it and snapping it back towards Luffy's shoulder like a rubber band. "No—Zoro-kun needs to eat something to keep his strength up." He also stood up from the table, smiling—or maybe more of a smirk, though Chopper couldn't tell why. Sanji always made sure everyone ate enough, and would stop Luffy from stealing from Nami or Robin's plates, so if Zoro wasn't defending his meal properly it only made sense that Sanji would step in.
But Zoro said, "I don't need your damn help, cook."
"Looks to me like you do," Sanji said, still smirking. "To me it looks like you're scared of lifting your hand to stop our idiot captain from stealing your food—what's the matter, shit swordsman, afraid of getting your ass kicked again?"
"Sanji-kun," Nami said, soft but intent.
But Sanji kept staring at Zoro like he hadn't heard her, for all she was right next to him. "Must be embarrassing," he said, "losing to an opponent who wasn't even trying to kill you—no wonder you're shy about taking him on again."
"Shut up, you curly-eyebrowed bastard." Zoro was staring back at Sanji—glaring, his brow lowered, and though he wasn't wearing the black bandana, that dangerous look was still familiar enough that Chopper shuddered.
"But don't worry, Zoro-kun, I'll protect your food for you," Sanji said. "After all, we can't have our swordsman getting so weak from hunger that he can't even hold onto his swords—"
"I said shut up!" Zoro shouted, and threw a punch.
A punch which Sanji easily deflected with one leg, and he was grinning when he lowered it, not the smirk but a real smile. "Ah, look at that," he said brushing off the knee of his slacks. "Didn't even break anything."
"Sanji-kun!" Nami said again.
Sanji looked at her, his grin widening to as big as Luffy's rubber smile. "I told you, Nami-san, I can always piss him off."
Zoro was still staring at the cook, still but for his shoulders rising and falling, breathing as hard as if they'd had a full-out fight instead of a single blocked punch.
Sanji took out a cigarette, lit it with an expert flick of a match. "Eat your food, marimo," he said. "It'll get cold, and our fight won't. Or sparring, or practice, or whatever you want to call it—not like you're going to hurt me anyway."
After that Zoro ate most meals with them, and if he didn't have much to say while he did, that was no different from how he usually was. And he batted Luffy's hands away whenever their captain made a grab for his plate.
Chopper almost thought things were getting back to normal, believed it for a few days, until he happened to be arranging a blanket nest for the mesmerang in the hold by the porthole, and overheard Nami talking with Zoro on the deck above.
"Zoro, what do you mean, how much?" Nami was asking, and Chopper stopped to listen.
"My katana, Yubashiri—what's it worth?"
"I don't know, do I look like a swordseller?"
"The dealer I got it from said my other two would go for a million or more, and this one's not far off," Zoro said. "Would that be enough for you?"
"Enough for me?" Nami repeated. "How much beri could possibly be enough for me? Though a million's not too shabby. And I could get more for it if I said it was Pirate Hunter Zoro's katana...but what's the point? It's not like you're going to be selling any of your swords—"
"Would it pay off my debt?"
Nami paused. "What are you talking about?"
"Can't leave the ship with debts," Zoro said. "If I can get a decent price on Yubashiri, would that cover the money I owe you?"
"...No," Nami said, after another, longer, moment. "Not even close."
"Just how much interest are you charging?"
"Doesn't matter; that wouldn't cover any of it," Nami said. "Because I'm not taking it. What is this, Zoro? What do you mean, leaving the ship?"
"I've been thinking about getting off on the next island," Zoro said, calmly, like it was no big thing. "Becoming a bounty hunter again. Or a bodyguard or whatever; there's a lot of jobs needing swords on the Grand Line."
Nami murmured something too softly for Chopper to make out over the splash of waves against the hull, then said, louder, "Why would you do that? You're part of this crew—didn't you just tell Luffy you're his nakama?"
"Don't have to be on the Merry to be his nakama," Zoro said. "Vivi's not."
"Vivi left for the sake of her kingdom, not to run away from us! If it's debts you're worried about—the best way to pay me back, to pay us back, is to keep protecting us, right? That's how you can make up for the damage your swords did—by using them to make sure nothing like that happens to any of us again. Not by selling them, and not by leaving—"
"It wasn't my swords," Zoro said, calm but flat—as impassive as when he'd faced them that rainy night on Monsun, and Chopper below decks shivered to hear him. "It was me. The blood stained the blades, but I was the one shedding it."
"That wasn't your fault—"
"I wasn't hypnotized anymore," Zoro cut her off. "I wasn't a puppet; I had full control over my body. And I wasn't seeing things. I remember it all perfectly—I knew exactly what I was doing, everything I did, and I chose to do it."
"But it wasn't what you wanted to do—you wouldn't have attacked us if you'd remembered who we were," Nami insisted. "Maybe you weren't being directly controlled, but you were manipulated, tricked into it. And it didn't work anyway; Morgan's plot failed."
"Usopp, Robin, the cook, Luffy—you call that failure?"
"You could have killed us," Nami said, bold and certain—she could be as brave as Luffy or Captain Usopp sometimes. Maybe braver. Chopper could only dream of having her courage. "Usopp, Chopper, me; Robin and Sanji-kun, too—you're so much stronger than any of us, and you had us cornered that night, taken by surprise; you could have killed any of us. And Luffy left himself open; you could've stabbed him through the heart—but you didn't. That was you, Zoro. Even after Morgan's mind games, you were still our nakama. You are still our nakama.
"None of us blame you, Zoro. We're not angry with you—unless you try leaving this ship, unless you try to cut and run. Then there's going to be hell to pay. But otherwise we're just happy to have you back."
"Maybe you don't blame me," Zoro said. "Doesn't matter, if you're scared of me anyway."
"We're not scared of you," Nami said firmly, unhesitating.
Zoro didn't hesitate, either. "Chopper won't be in the same room with me alone—hell, he won't even look at me."
Chopper had to press his hooves over his mouth to keep from squeaking, the mesmerang hissing at him in concern. He hadn't known Zoro had noticed; he'd thought he'd been concealing it well. He'd managed to stop himself from hiding behind masts and doors when he saw Zoro coming, instead found perfectly reasonable reasons for why he had to go elsewhere whenever Zoro came below decks, checking up on Usopp or Luffy or going on watch or other important things to do—
"Well, Chopper..." Nami sighed. "However smart he is, he's still a reindeer, you know. Even if he trusts you, you're a hunter, and he's a prey animal. He's got all his instincts to overcome."
"He was never scared of me before," Zoro said.
"When Chopper first met you, he'd already been dealing with Luffy and Sanji-kun trying to eat him, so by comparison... You've just got to give him time, Zoro. He'll get over it."
But how much time, Chopper wondered all the next day, observing Zoro out of the corner of his eyes, from a cautious distance—watching the way Zoro watched him, around the table at mealtimes, or up on deck when working the sails. It shouldn't feel so very odd, knowing Zoro was keeping an eye on him; usually it made him feel safer, knowing his crewmate was there. Now it made his fur bristle like he was in Guard Point, to feel the swordsman's attention on him. Though whenever he dared turn to Zoro directly, Zoro would look away instead.
At dinner that night, Chopper made sure to sit next to Zoro, and concentrated on keeping his fur flattened to his body, made himself smile and talk with everybody like always. Everybody but Zoro, who didn't say anything—but then he often didn't. After dinner, before Zoro could escape up the crow's nest to take the evening watch, Chopper steeled himself, faced the swordsman and told him, "I need to check your heart, to make sure it's doing okay, after the lightning."
Zoro hesitated only a moment before bowing his head and following Chopper into a private corner of the meeting room , kneeling statue-still as Chopper put the stethoscope to his chest and listened. He didn't even breathe, not until Chopper lowered his stethoscope.
"It sounds all right—" Chopper started to say, but Zoro stood abruptly and his swords clinked in their scabbards as he moved, steel blades ringing against the wood, and Chopper flinched before he could help himself, dropping the stethoscope.
By the time he had picked it up, Zoro had left, hand set over the sword hilts to muffle their sounds, leaving Chopper standing alone in the cabin.
He was still standing there some minutes later when Robin entered. At his face she knelt to look him more levelly in the eyes. "Doctor-san, is something the matter?"
"N-no," Chopper tried to deny; but doctor-patient confidentiality failed and he blurted out, "It's Zoro—he won't—his heart—he can't get better, and it's my fault—"
"Your fault?" Robin's frown creased her smooth brow. "Swordsman-san's heart is damaged after all? He's seemed well enough, when I see him working out—"
Chopped shook his head. "Physically he's better—as better as he ever gets; he's got so many old injuries and he won't stop exercising long enough to let them totally recover—but that's not it, it's not his body. He's leaving, Robin, he wants to leave the ship, and it's my fault, because I—I keep—" He had no reason for it; he hadn't even been hurt. Not like Luffy, who stole food from Zoro's plate and laughed at him same as always. Or Usopp, whose chest was still bandaged, but he yelled at Zoro for snoring too loud on deck when Usopp was trying to work. Chopper was the only one who flinched when he heard Zoro's swords, who couldn't look him in the eye.
He covered his own eyes now with his hooves, ashamed. "Luffy's going to hate me for making Zoro leave, and I can't stand it either, the crew's not the crew without Zoro—but I can't—he's going to go away, because I can't—and he won't talk to me, so I can't even apologize to him, for being so—"
Robin tipped her head to the side, thoughtfully. "And what of the swordsman-san? Has he apologized to you, Doctor-san?"
Chopped put down his hooves, blinking in confusion. "No, but he doesn't have to—it wasn't his fault, what he did—"
"Whoever's fault it was, he still frightened you. But you would forgive him, if he did apologize?"
"Yes, of course, but—"
"Then that's why he won't speak to you," Robin said. "Because there's nothing he can think to say to you that isn't an apology."
"So why doesn't he just apologize, then?" Chopper said, trying not to wail it. He rubbed his face, hoping Robin wouldn't notice the damp fur under his eyes. "Even if he doesn't have to—at least if he would talk to me—"
Robin paused a moment, looking off into a distance much farther away than the cabin walls in front of her, before saying quietly, "It's no easy thing, to receive forgiveness that is undeserved. Harder, even, than asking and not getting it."
"But doesn't it hurt anyway, to not be forgiven?" Chopper asked, and Robin looked at him and said nothing, like she realized he already knew the answer.
Nami had said to give him time. But it had already been too long; Chopper might be a reindeer, but he was also a doctor. It was his job to heal people, to do no harm and to let no one suffer if it was in his power to stop it; and now he was failing that oath.
So the next morning, Chopper mustered up what courage he had—not Nami's or Luffy's or any of his nakama's, but it would have to do—selected the proper tool with a surgeon's discerning eye, and went to attend to his most consistently stubborn patient.
The climate had been getting warmer in the last day—their approaching destination was probably a spring or summer island. A summer one, Chopper hoped; as much as he disliked heat, he'd had enough of rain for a while. And Zoro was on the forecastle, as he usually would be on such a pleasant morning—not napping or exercising, however, but sitting on the deck, gazing through the railing out across the water, maybe seeking the first sight of land. Though if he really wanted to see the island, he should be up in the crow's nest..
He glanced over as Chopper's short shadow fell across his face, blocking the sunlight—then, as he realized which of his nakama it was, he turned around in a scrambling hurry.
Chopper jumped at the suddenness of the motion—even though Zoro's hand wasn't going anywhere near his swords, even though Zoro wasn't wearing his black bandana and the furrow in his brow was no deeper than it ever was, after he'd just woken up. Even though Chopper had braced himself to come up here, determined not to be scared at all. But he was still a reindeer, in spite of himself, and he jumped, hopping backwards a couple inches, his hooves squeaking on the deck.
And Zoro froze, stone-still, then muttered, "'Scuse me," and moved again, slowly standing, back pressed against the railing behind him. Standing up, he loomed over the half-reindeer, and his eyes were locked on Chopper, watching him intently, as terrifyingly intently as a hawk watching a mouse.
Or, no—as intently as a mouse would watch a hawk. As if, as nervous as Chopper was, Zoro was more nervous. Even though Zoro was like Luffy and didn't get nervous, didn't fear anything. Zoro was too strong to be afraid—but he almost looked afraid now, looking down at Chopper.
Which was completely ridiculous, the very idea of Zoro being afraid of him!
Almost as ridiculous as he being afraid of Zoro...
They'd both been ridiculous long enough. And Zoro had stood to leave. "D-don't get up! Sit down!" Chopper snapped, marshaling his most commanding doctor's voice. Which wasn't terrible commanding, truth be told, but it was what he had. And while Zoro never listened to his medical advice, now he froze again, then obediently sat back down on the deck before Chopper.
"Good," Chopper said, nodding. "I need your help."
Zoro blinked at him. "My help?"
"Yeah," Chopper said. Reaching into his pocket, he took out the metal file he had borrowed from Usopp, and held it out towards his crewmate.
Zoro eyed the tool doubtfully. "What's that for?"
"My antler," Chopper explained, pointing. "This broken-off tip here keeps catching on things; I need it filed down, only I can't reach it myself like this, my arms are too short. And I don't have hands as a reindeer, and I don't have antlers when I'm in human form, so..."
Zoro looked at the broken point, frowning—not a frightening frown but a puzzled one; and then he remembered. Chopper could tell by the way his expression went still and flat.
"So you're the monster," Zoro had said to him, that rainy night; only it hadn't been Zoro, not in any way that mattered. It might have been Zoro's katana that had sheared off his antler's point; but the swordsman wielding it hadn't been his nakama. That swordsman's cold eyes would never be staring at Chopper the way Zoro was staring at him now.
But he took the file by its wooden handle when Chopper pushed it at him, set it to the antler at Chopper's instruction and carefully started shaving it down with firm, level strokes. The steady rasp of the metal was soothing, and the deck boards were sun-warmed when Chopper sat on them. With the warmth, he didn't have to pretend to relax; he almost might have dozed off, if he hadn't remembered his purpose.
The next swipe Zoro made across his antler, Chopper jerked and yelped, as convincingly as he could when in truth his antlers had no nerves to pinch, "Ouch!"
The filing stopped, and Zoro automatically started to say, "Sor—"
Then he cut himself off. When Chopper looked around at him, Zoro's jaw was clamped as tight shut as Sanji's refrigerator, his fist wrapped around the file with the knuckles whitening.
"It's okay," Chopper said clearly. "Just an accident, no harm done." He settled himself back down on the deck between Zoro's knees, reached up with his hoof to feel the broken tip. "That's better, it's almost smoothed away now, isn't it? How does it look?"
"...Okay," Zoro said. "But uneven," and he tapped his finger on the opposite, unbroken antler.
"That's all right. Pretty soon my antlers will drop off and grow back, and then you won't know this one was ever broken."
"But you'll remember," Zoro said, almost desperately. "You can't just file that away—"
"No, but even memories get worn down, eventually," Chopper said. "And new memories grow over the old ones. Antlers can grow back, as long as the root's still there; it's the same with memories, isn't it? As long as the people you make them with are still there..."
Zoro was motionless behind him, though still breathing; Chopper could hear the reassuringly steady rhythm of his lungs working.
Chopper sat there listening to him for a moment longer, then said, "You're going to stay on the ship, aren't you, Zoro?" When Zoro still didn't answer, he babbled on, "Please stay—I don't want you to go. Even if I've been afraid, I'm more afraid that you'll leave. We can't do this, not without you, all our dreams—we need you—" Chopper gulped. "I don't want to make you stay, but if I have to, for the crew, I'll—"
Chopper jumped to his feet and looked up at Luffy, standing over them. He hadn't even heard the slap of sandals on the deck, but now their captain was looking down at them, his straw hat shading his face from the sun. In the brim's shadow his eyes were hard to read, as was his even tone. "Zoro," Luffy said, "if you want to get off the ship, you can, the next time we reach land."
Chopper heard the swordsman shift behind him, a tiny movement, one of his knees bumping Chopper's back. "But," Zoro said, and his voice sounded hoarse, rusty like a sword left in a damp scabbard, "but I swore—"
"This once," Luffy said, "I'll let you leave. But if you do, you can't come back on, ever. Even if you say you're sorry or beg. You'll still be my friend, but you won't sail in my crew anymore. But you can go, if you want to."
Luffy cocked his head, looking down at his swordsman. "So do you want to go? Or do you want to stay?"
"I want—" Zoro swallowed, cleared his throat of the rust, and Chopper didn't want to listen to the answer. He wanted to cry out, to yell at Zoro that he had to stay, to cry or fight or tie him up; he wanted to get the mesmerang and make it bite Zoro again, and order him to never leave—wanted to do anything to make him stay, but all he could do was sit and listen.
"—I want to stay," Zoro said.
"You—you do?" Chopper gasped, twisting around to stare up at his nakama in astonished relief.
Zoro turned the metal file between his fingers. "I guess I need to be here, if I'm going to make up for everything. Right?" and he looked down at Chopper—not smiling, not more than Zoro usually did; but he didn't look away when Chopper met his eyes.
"There!" Luffy said, grinning, and he crouched to whack Chopper on the back, hard enough to make him stumble. "I knew you could make him better, Dr. Chopper!"
"I—I didn't—you can't make me happy just by calling me doctor, dumbass!" Chopper protested, squirming and blushing wildly. "I'm not even any good at psychology, so you can't say I am—"
"Oi," Zoro said, "keep it down, I'm trying to sleep," and he moved them to give himself room to stretch out on the deck.
And if Zoro only gently pushed Luffy aside, and carefully picked up Chopper and put him down again, when usually he would have just kicked them out of the way; and if he gave Chopper a little pat on the back as he did it, before Chopper's fur ruffled with involuntary nerves—well, in time that too would grow back to how it used to be.
For now, Chopper thought, watching Zoro tuck his arms behind his head and shut his eyes, settling into his nap like neither a hurricane nor a Sea King nor a Marine raid could move their swordsman from his place on the ship—for now, this was enough.
My greatest thanks, to everyone who made it! To everyone who read this monster, those who just discovered it and those who came back and those who were with it all along, waiting patiently for all those years. Especially to everyone who favorited it or took the time to leave a review - you made it all worth it. Even when the chars were being so stubborn that I despaired of ever reaching any kind of conclusion, knowing someone out there was reading, wanting more, was the best encouragement I could have.
And thank you, Oda-sensei, for creating one of the greatest stories ever told. I can't say whether I've done justice to your amazing series and its incredible characters, but I certainly enjoyed playing with them!