Note: Sorry about the spectacularly long wait on this update: life has been... ya. Also, I've had such a hard time with this chapter - it's been edited and flipped and revised so many times by now it's not even funny. Still not overly happy with it, but it does let me get to the next now, so... Anyway. If you're still reading this, thanks for sticking with it. ;)
"I"ll be outside if you need me..."
Chopper quietly closed the door to the galley and turned to look over the ship, contemplating everything that had happened, and remained to be done. Nami had been sent off an hour or so ago, and he could only hope she was resting by now; it took a lot to shake the normally brazen navigator, but she was clearly upset when she had returned.
He fought the urge to go check on her and sighed deeply, as he finally moved to descend the steps. Usopp remained in the galley, now, having since settled into a quiet routine; between checking the stove and absently tinkering with whatever tiny project he had brought with him for a distraction. He was visibly worried, but trying his best to hide it from the doctor, and for that, Chopper found himself oddly grateful.
Though the other never said a word of it, Tony knew he had to be agitating the sharpshooter with all his hovering- it was just that he was so anxious... and with Nami asleep now, and all his preparations complete, his unease was left no other distraction than aborted gestures, and nervous chatter.
Finally, deciding he didn't want to take his stress out on Usopp, he managed to pull himself from his planning and step back, leaving things as they were.
In any case, they were as prepared as they could be given the circumstances; his supplies were on hand, and the best precautions he could think of were in place. Blankets had been piled just inside to stave off the clinging frost, at the ready for their nakama's return - packed with freshly baked stones every ten minutes to maintain their heat. In keeping of the oven, Usopp had also been delegated to keep coco warmed and ready - both the heat and the sugar content being desirable in a fight with hypothermia; which, the longer the search for their wayward cook went on, became more and more likely the inevitable scenario.
For now, there was little else he could do.
With nothing further to occupy him until he had a patient to treat, Chopper slowly ambled over the lower deck, wandering aimlessly to the rail. A stretch of dull, white land lay before him, reaching out ahead as far as he could see, until it was muddled in the distance. When they had arrived, the horizon had been blurred in a thick, steady snowfall that easily blocked out the lay of the land. Now, the storm had largely passed, but he still wasn't certain if those were hills in the distance, or just gusts of wind kicking up the white substance in a frozen parody of fog. It was hard to tell; there was no discernable breeze on the ship, but he swore he could see motion in the diaphanous haze.
It wouldn't take much- the snow that had been left on the ship remained stubbornly unfettered, crystalline forms laying lightly upon each other, until the slightest breath of wind stirred them, dancing, into the air with seemingly no cause. Most of it had been cleared off, but patches still swirled with every gust that touched the ship.
Chopper hefted a sigh at the sheer sense of loneliness descending upon him. He thought this island would be soothing, remind him of home and the life he'd left behind, but it just seemed so empty. Right now, he wanted nothing so much as the comforting presence of one of the others, but those who weren't currently on the island had been ordered out of the elements some time ago. He knew he was being over-protective, but the furry doctor had been born for these conditions and the rest of the crew had not; the last thing any of them needed at the moment were more patients to treat.
Hopefully, he scanned the horizon for any signs of life, but it only took a few minutes of forced stillness before he abandoned that venue in favor of restless pacing; his view wasn't likely to change, and the endless white was starting to hurt his eyes. Alone on the deck, his hooves rang loud on the wooden planks, and the deep, rhythmic clacking soothed his nerves slightly, distracting from the frustrating stillness that seemed to envelop this island- a certain degree of normalcy allowing him just enough relaxation to lose himself in his own thoughts.
Time was the problem here- they had all been gone too long, now; swallowed up in the vast, unforgiving sea of white.
The more he dwelled on the subject, the more he was convinced he should have gone out after the cook himself, but Robin hadn't returned yet, and the captain was gone almost as soon as Nami arrived, breathless and worried- Zoro following closely behind. He couldn't leave as well, then- not when there were too many variables- too many possible injuries to any of them. He had to be here, he had to be dependable; if any of them came back needing help, and he was gone- what would happen? They were relying on him.
It was a frustrating decision to make…
Abruptly, the lonely resonance of his own steps was added too, augmented, and he froze, hope surging through him like a torrent. He held his breath, fearing to turn, lest his ears be proven wrong. When footsteps sounded once more on the deck behind him, he knew it was one of his returning crewmates. The thuds were too heavy and abrupt to be Robin, and lacked the slap-clap of Luffy's sandals- even too heavy a step to be normal for their resident swordsman, which meant-
"Zoro, you found hi—"
Turning, the words died in his throat. He'd seen something like that look before, when Zoro had been in the midst of battle - everything on the line and down to his last reserves... With no opponent, it lacked the focused weight, but even so, still pushed Chopper back a step, stomach tensing uncertainly. Even as instinct surged through his blood, warning of a predator, the doctor in him suppressed the impulse and stepped forward tentatively.
After all, he knew with no doubts that Zoro would never hurt him- and he forced himself to focus on the job at hand. Taking but a moment to reorder his thoughts, he looked them over, while planning what needed to be done first for treatment.
He was initially overjoyed that they had returned, but he couldn't find much comfort in the sight that greeted him, now. Zoro stood braced on the deck, arms conspicuously bare; coat having apparently contributed to the bundle he now bore. Familiar legs poked out of one end of the cocoon, confirming his initial suspicion of his crewmates return, but his motionless state was more than a little disturbing. Both were covered liberally in snow, and what he could see of the swordsman's skin was either an angry red or blotchy white.
"Zoro, what happened…?"
Peripherally, Chopper saw his mouth open, throat working soundlessly for a moment before he coughed, rasping, "Found the shit cook… had to carry the bastard back…"
He lifted the bundle slightly, by way of explanation, but the form within barely moved.
His eyes shot back up to Zoro's, any lingering trepidation washed away. The sound of his voice drove home just how long they'd been out. An analytical corner of his mind noted dehydration as a symptom to be visited later, but Chopper stifled the thought for now.
"He had already lost consciousness when you found him?"
Zoro nodded in answer, explaining briefly the condition in which he had found the cook, and the doctor's agitation grew until he finally darted forward, grasping the edge of his haramaki urgently, with a worried, "You need to come with me", and pulled him toward the shower room; pausing only long enough to bellow up toward the galley, "USOPP! GET THE SUPPLIES, THEY'RE BACK!"
Luffy had been wandering down this branch of the tunnel for some time when he heard it. Distracted momentarily, he crept forward, wondering what was making the noise- almost like a weak sniffling, but choked off before it could become more, remaining a faint, illusive sound.
He was proud of himself- he'd been watching how Zoro moved when he didn't want to be noticed; Luffy was almost certain he'd gotten it down, now. His sandals only made the faintest scraping sound, far too low for anything to hear him over the noise it was making, and he grinned as he stalked quietly forward, trying not to scare whatever it was he was looking for. It got slightly louder, clearer, the closer he got to the source, until suddenly it was behind him.
Blinking, he turned around, surveying the cave. He hadn't seen anything that could have been making that kind of a sound, but he was determined to find where that 'mystery noise' was coming from. Eyes scanned his monotonous surroundings; nothing seemed out of place- rock walls ended in rock floors, and above, much the same. Columns of stone rose upwards, in places touching the rock above- in others, ever reaching to that goal.
Backtracking carefully, he finally arrived at one such pillar; terminating only a few feet from the ceiling- other, smaller pillars crowding around its base. The thought of a mother herding her babies occurred to him, and he chuckled to himself, imagining entire packs of stone animals lurking beneath the surface.
As soon as that sound left his lips the one he had been following cut off sharply in a gasp. Startled, he looked up in time to see a tiny, frightened face peer down at him from the top of the tallest pillar, before ducking quickly out of sight.
"Hey!" He took a few steps backward, trying to better see the person now hiding at the top. "What'cha doin' up there?"
"N-nothing…" A tiny voice called out, high and timid, "G-go away…"
He blinked up at the child for a minute, before turning to walk away as asked. "Ok, have fun…"
He had only taken a few steps when the voice called out again, "W-wait!" She sniffled, watching him turn and approach once more. "I d-didn't think y-you'd really go…"
He cocked his head at her, taking in the rocks once more. "You asked me too..." He trailed off, with a shrug, wondering if this was one of those 'girls things' Nami had sometimes when she said something but meant something else. He'd have to ask her when he got back. "What'cha doin?", he asked again, craning his head up to better take in the child. She didn't look hurt from there, just scared; dirty face covered in tear tracks.
She started to tear up again, face crumpling in distress for a minute, before she bit it back, angrily scrubbing at her eyes with dirty hands. Even so, every few words were interrupted by helpless sniffles. "I was playing... and I hid up here... but... but... no one found me... and I've been stuck here for so long... and I can't get down..."
"Oh, is that all?" He smiled, then, pleased that it was an easy problem to fix. "Do you want me to get you down?" It wasn't high; he'd barely have to stretch.
She blinked at him, taken aback. "But you're too big, you can't fit up here too!"
He grinned, "Not all of me has to fit!"
Winding up one arm, he reached for the pillar she was perched on, gripping the very edge and holding tight. She almost toppled off the back when he lashed out for the hold, but managed to cling on, scrabbling back to the top. "Wha-what ARE you?", the girl sputtered, hunkering towards the back again.
"I'm a Rubber-man!"
He smiled broadly, and she crept forward again, scrutinizing the lengthened appendage with slowly lessening uncertainty. Hope is a powerful prompt, and it didn't take long for her to agree once he finally asked her to take his hand. "Hold tight." Then everything happened too fast to react; as soon as she had gripped him, he tugged /hard/, and she tumbled down off her perch. The arm pulled her down much faster than gravity had sent her towards the rocks, though, and she landed instead, harmlessly on Luffy's chest.
She blinked owlishly down at him for a few minutes before he grinned wildly. "Hi, I'm Luffy- what's your name?"
[I *promise* it will not take me this long to get the next chapter up... I've also noticed the site ate my line breaks from previous chapters, so I'll try to clean those up soon-ish, too.]