Fun fact: This was actually the first One Piece fic I ever wrote, posted on op_fanforall 12/2008 (four months before I originally posted Learning to Sleep over there). It took me this long to put this up here because uhhh I'm lazy. :D
A Small and Simple Thing
It is an inescapable truth of Chopper's profession that he must always work the hardest when anyone else would want to work the least, and the day after the war on Thriller Bark is no exception. Far from it: everyone is hurt, with Zoro an inch from death and Luffy an inch from gleefully wiggling out of his own bandages every other minute, and then there are so many other people there besides their own crew and Chopper can't keep himself from at least checking on every single one. The constant praise from the former members of the Victim's Association helps ease his own aches, even if he does have to break into his giggling that-doesn't-make-me-happy-you-bastard dance more than once.
Somewhere between helping clean a deep cut in a smiling stranger's leg and the twenty-seventh time he goes back to check on Zoro, it occurs to Chopper that he's sure he's missed one. It's not until the twenty-ninth time that the nagging feeling at the back of his overworked mind finally picks a name out of the crowd of faces that need his help. He frowns, picks up his black bag, and orders an unusually grim Sanji to take a break from cooking and keep an eye on their swordsman for a minute (and to ease up on the chain-smoking around so many injured people, dammit) before trotting off.
The skeleton has been quiet since the madness ended, and maybe that's why he managed to go unnoticed. From the moment their crew first met him, Brook has been a relentless tidal wave of noise and motion filling in every bit of empty quiet space in any room - and doing so with an air of mad desperation almost more off-putting than his appearance ever was. But he's been quiet ever since they all regained consciousness, and it's not Sanji's crushing brooding silence that forcibly grabs the attention of everyone in reach, either. Merely a simple, small quiet (though Chopper noticed him watching Zoro too, once or twice), and then at some point Brook seems to have slipped away entirely.
They've really only just met the man, but Chopper's already fairly certain he cannot have gone far. At the very least, he hasn't gone out of hearing range of all the people bustling about. That guess is proven correct; after only a minute or two of looking the little doctor finds their odd friend leaning back against the remains of an old stone wall, watching the open sea where it waits in the sun past Thriller Bark's outer ring.
Chopper is not entirely sure how to approach the question he needs to ask. Having a cyborg on the ship has given him some practice when it comes to patients with peculiar bodies (peculiar in a way that simply having Devil Fruit powers isn't), but Franky is loud and proud about his work on himself and there's never any need for delicacy with that one when it comes to medical questions. Despite the endless barrage of tasteless skull jokes (or possibly because of them, he's too tired to be sure), Chopper isn't convinced that the skeleton's situation is quite the same. It would be a lousy, thoughtless doctor that hit raw nerves regarding what this accident or that one had irreparably done to a patient's body. And dying...well, that was really a severe accident, wasn't it, and thinking about it like that places the whole business of walking skeletons into more familiar terms.
"Can I ask you something?"
Brook startles a little, like some long-limbed flightless bird that has just heard a twig snap. But when he turns his head towards Chopper, his voice is light and peaceful in a way that no one would have ever expected to hear from him. "Why - yes - pardon me, I've just been...woolgathering."
Without actually waiting for Chopper to ask anything (which would normally be annoying but on a day like this it's weirdly reassuring), he looks back out at the sea in the sunlight and murmurs, with a little wave of the hat held in one hand, "It's really something, isn't it?"
Somehow that's more wrenching than all the open weeping going on back among the former Victim's Association members. Chopper clears his throat and tries to steer things back on topic as gently as he can. "You...you said you were dead, right?"
Still that same dreamlike murmur: "That's right."
"But you can still eat and drink like when you were alive, right?"
"Does your body heal like when you were alive too?"
Brook stirs as though waking up a little, and when he turns his head briefly to speak his voice is brighter like he thinks he is reassuring Chopper. "Oh yes! When I fought here before, everything healed up quite nicely! With some time and some tea I shall be right as rain."
"Oh, good. That makes this easy." Chopper trots towards the skeleton, black medical bag in hand, and with every step his short legs take the sunlight reveals a little more. There are deep, clean slices along Brook's ribs and spine like the aftermath of some ungentle hand carving a cooked bird. At least two of those ribs are cracked near completely through. That fracture down the front of his skull would have never left a living person conscious if they survived it at all. In short, the man is a complete mess like the rest of them and that puts this whole business into more familiar terms too.
Chopper has to tug at his pants leg to recapture his drifting attention. "Sit down."
The empty eye sockets that suddenly look (a long way) down at him somehow manage to look more blank than usual. "What?"
Did he speak in animal-tongue by accident? Is he that tired?
Oh, to hell with it.
The height difference between the two of them is suddenly much less. Chopper's hand feels twice its already-massive size when he grabs Brook's arm (nothing but sticks wrapped in old cloth) halfway between elbow and wrist (I'm not scared of skeletons either!), and pulls downward with a strength that accepts no argument. He's not sure if he expects one. He's not sure what he expects - maybe all sword-wielders are as much of a pain to tend to as a conscious Zoro, or maybe he should brace himself for another barrage of awful jokes and loud laughter. Maybe he's going to have to scold Brook to keep still like he's had to spend all day scolding Luffy.
What he doesn't expect at all is meek silence, or such a complete lack of resistance. The skeleton sits slowly, as though the wall against his back is the only thing holding him upright, but he sits, and is still.
Not about to question his good luck too terribly much, Chopper shrinks again and digs quickly through his black bag for a roll of heavy cloth bandages. This may actually be even easier than patching up a body with flesh, now that he thinks about it, because he can just bind the bone fractures directly instead of having other layers of muscle and blood vessels and skin in the way...no risk of any sharp edges or fragments cutting the patient internally if they move wrong either...no scares over internal bleeding or blood loss at all...kind of a relief, really...
"I think I have one or two painkillers left in here, if you want."
Brook shakes his head once, his empty gaze gone far out to sea. Chopper hates when patients choose that, but there's already something brittle in the air and it doesn't seem right to meddle any more than absolutely necessary. He can only nod and pick up the bandages in silence, and then he's carefully tugging the old suit's jacket open a little more so he can get a better look at what's cracked and where.
There finally is a sound, soft and quick like the wind being knocked out of his lungs (he doesn't have lungs and yet) when Chopper first starts wrapping one of the fractured ribs. Not too tightly, of course, just support enough to hold the jagged crack steady while it heals over, stop that horrible little grinding sound that Chopper's reindeer ears can just barely hear in each breath and -
The skeleton has no eyes, no face either, and no muscles in his shoulders or back to go tense and rigid. His breathing catches only when one would expect in dealing with an injured man. There is nothing left of him that can betray his thoughts to the world when he is still, and when he is silent. And yet -
Chopper cannot quite shake the uneasy certainty that his patient is about to cry over so small and simple a thing as someone bandaging his wounds.