...


Caprice

Chapter X


Lord Eustass examined the dead body of one of his former servants, which had been laid out on the table in the kitchen. The corpse remained affixed to the table with a sharp butcher knife through the heart. The servant was one of his boys whom he'd had around for a while. Long enough to know the brat's name, at least.

"Caught him stealing money from your stores. I gave him plenty of chances to return it. Did you know he made a weekly habit of it?"

"I had no idea," the lord answered, turning his gaze to the hunched form of his housekeeper. Killer was sitting on the kitchen counter like a boy sits on a fence to watch cattle, his hands against the ledge and his back bowed concavely. He wore clothing now, very avant-garde fashions that had been brought in from the west side of Sabaody at Lord Eustass' beck and call.

Eustass himself preferred the high fashions of the west, the styles in which furs from small game were sewn together and made coats of among other things. He had on an unbuttoned and loose fitting white shirt and patterned slacks, which went marvellously with his newest servant's spotted silk shirt.

"Killer, dispose of the body in the gardens near the pond. And I will tell you only once that I don't give second chances. Once my good favour is lost, it is lost forever. Next time, don't wait to make a move."

"Noted, Master," the demon said. He scratched at his head, untangling an unruly curl of blond hair. In addition to the clothes to cover his body, the lord had gotten a sort of helm commissioned from an armoury nearby. It was a helm made for a knight, with a facemask and breathing slits along the front. Killer had subtly requested it in a passing comment made about the way Eustass' other housekeepers looked upon him with fear.

As they ought, for Killer had now proven himself to be worthy of fear.

As far as the lord was concerned, the creature could have whatever he wanted. So far Killer had cleaned up the entire estate, working mostly under the cloak of night, as was his preference.

Lord Eustass left his house demon to his own devices and strolled through his halls. The air was less stagnant and stale since he'd driven a knife into the heart of the old man. He hadn't thought he'd the mettle to do it, yet once the blade was in his hand and the arguments had started, he'd lost himself. It was a peculiar madness that had arrested his sense. He wasn't sure what to make of it, only knew that he was tense all the time, sexually insatiable, and deeply displeased.

Dark eyes and two glittering pairs of gold hoops occupied his mind.

The accursed demon doctor was never far from his thoughts, even when he suppressed his unruly emotions. Thoughts about him would always surface and he'd grapple with them, narrowly winning and putting the unwanted images and ideas back under the rubble that was heaped in his mind.

It was starting to get awfully taxing. Each fight he was getting closer to losing. Like an old horse whipped near to death in the coalfields, breaking point was imminent.

One of his older servants entered the hall in which he was pacing. The man stood off to the side, pressed as tightly as he could against the wall until he became but a fixture. For a few minutes Lord Eustass continued to storm past the man, back and forth down the hall. He found that pacing was the only way to keep his mind from idling and falling prey to that vampire.

On the third or perhaps fourth pass, the servant finally voiced his concerns. "L-Lord Eustass, t-there is a mark upon t-the front of t-the estate. On t-the front door…"

"So?" barked the lord.

"It is a word, me thinks," the servant hastily replied.

The lord paused in his pacing. "So what word does me thinks it is?" Lord Eustass asked none too nicely, spitting out his words upon the frightened servant.

The servant made a vague motion to indicate a shape, and the lord already knew he could not read, but his malice had prompted him to torture the man further. He grabbed the man's arm and marched him to the front door, throwing it open and passing through. He left it ajar to study the wood grains.

His eyes swept languidly across the crude letters carved in the wood, back and forth, pacing again. Finally he relinquished his grip on the servant and said: "It says Cambion, whatever that bloody well means."

The servant yelped, and the lord thought that perhaps his voice had startled the man, or that his nails had bitten into flesh. Yet he knew it was not so. The man was quite afraid of him, more so than before, looking between his pale skin and feral eyes and the word on the door.

Never before had a servant dared to bolt from his presence.

He let the man go, however, too perplexed by the damage on his door and the unfamiliar word that had been engraved there. On a normal day he would have flogged his servant. Today was not a normal day by his standards.

Killer appeared in the doorway, lured there by the sound of alarm the servant had made. His metal helm gleamed in the afternoon sun as he, too, studied the door.

Eventually, Killer turned to him. "Is that true? Do you want me to find the one who did it? His scent is still strong…"

"Is what true?" growled the lord.

"That you are of demon and human descent," Killer replied slowly, studying the lord from behind his facemask. "I mean, I have had my suspicions, but one cannot pass judgement on scent alone."

To hear it so bluntly stated did not excite the lord into a frenzy of madness; it numbed him. He would be a liar to his own soul if he couldn't admit to himself that he'd often wondered what exactly he was. Now here was a theory that had crossed his mind a few times, always rebuked by his sense of pride. He could not possibly be a demon. That was just absurd.

Yet it made so much sense that he felt faint.

He turned and stalked back inside the house, plopping himself down in the nearest chair lest he find himself on the floor. Killer hovered around him, surprised to see his master sitting for the first time in hours.

A very toothy smile floated around in Eustass' mind, one that belonged to a peculiar doctor. He had once wished the man dead, but now he was more curious than irritated with him. A demon. That was something that the doctor certainly implied. He had been examining him this whole time, so how much did he know and how soon?

Lord Eustass was hot-headed, surely, but he was no fool. What was on the door could only be the doctor's methodical conclusion.

"Killer, tell me, what is a cambion?"

"'Tis a demon child from either a succubus or incubus and a human other. I have known one in my lifetime, and I can see similarities between him and yourself."

The lord couldn't suppress the need to know what those similarities were. Luckily, Killer had grown fond of his master in the short time they'd spent together. This man was fascinating, in his opinion, simply because he already had a hunch that this man was not purely a man.

"Well, for one, your skin is deathly pale," Killer told him. "Your eyes are sanguine when you're content, but your pupils shrink away when you are upset. It is easy to notice that when mine own eyes do the same. It's a demonic characteristic that is more prevalent in certain species."

Lord Eustass remained silent, contemplating the surprisingly intelligent words of his housekeeper. He had often stopped for a minute in front of one of the mirrors in his manor after a long bout of pacing and saw that which marked him out as a half-demon in Killer's eyes. He had noticed the unnatural pallor of his eyeballs and skin, and had certainly developed immunity to his ever-changing appearance at the same time his servants began to grow fearful.

Over the next few days, Lord Eustass continued to pace, his thoughts plagued by a vampire's grin and his desire for intimate company peaking. Twice he visited a brothel, but the women he had did nothing to abate the ache. If anything, the burning only intensified.

Also over a span of a few days, the servants of the household left unannounced, fleeing for their lives as their master became increasingly violent, throwing knives and smashing architectural fixtures over the smallest of concerns. In vile response to the flights of his workers and wishing to test his new companion, the lord sent Killer to stalk them during the night, and to fetch them back.

Come morning, Killer brought only their heads affixed to a metal stake. With that, Lord Eustass concluded that he had one very important task for his blond boggart, one that would include the vampire that had so clearly made a mockery of him.

-oOo-

Dr. Trafalgar lounged in his saloon, an expansive room that had been built to accommodate a crowd. Across from him, sitting squarely on the edge of a bowed divan, was a great giant baring his teeth. Apart from the teeth, however, there was nothing truly intimidating about him. Not in the doctor's opinion, with his being the most important in the household anyway.

"Ah, so that is the story. Well, I'm terribly sorry those humans wished to capture and enslave you. I can assure you that they got their just deserves and met very bitter ends."

The giant nodded his massive head, strands of dark unkempt hair splashing into his face. His voice was a deep and grating rumble, a rockslide coming down the face of a mountain. "I know. I heard their screams as they were slain. Thank you."

Trafalgar hummed, bouncing his knee up and down as he thought about the prejudices the giant must hold against those who walked on two legs and possessed no demonic qualities. It would be a precarious situation to hold a tea party combining the two races. "I feel I should warn you that there may very well be humans in attendance tonight. But they will be harmless. Not those that have caused you so much grief."

"I'll think of them as flies on the wall," the giant assured him.

Trafalgar conceded that such imaginings would likely be the best he could get out of the giant and dropped the subject. "How would you like me to introduce you?"

The giant thought for a few minutes before answering him. "Jean Bart," he said at length.

Trafalgar nodded, and then asked for the sake of keeping up conversation: "How do you take your tea?"

"I did not know vampires knew how to make tea."

"You'll find vampires are quite accomplished, my friend." No sooner had the words left his mouth than a frenzied knocking upon the front door of the estate echoed through Trafalgar's home. He let loose a short laugh. "Well, it seems the guests are beginning to arrive. Will you bring them in, Shachi?"

Shachi jumped up from behind the hearth, where he'd been studying the giant from afar, and raced across the room and down the hall. More knocks were heard before they ceased, and Trafalgar's ears picked up on an exclamation of surprise.

"Oh, what a delightful creature!"

The doctor grimaced, for he had the feeling that Shachi was to be a pampered noble for the evening rather than his faithful little servant. He was right when a troupe of miscreants entered the drawing room, with a woman hugging Shachi close to her breast as if he were a precious doll. Trafalgar could not tell if his housekeeping demon was incredibly uncomfortable or quite the opposite, in a state of degenerate bliss.

"Miss Nami, you should put him down before he suffocates," advised a familiar voice that Trafalgar was quick to get to his feet for.

"Miss Robin," greeted the host, extending a hand towards the ebony-haired beauty that trailed behind Shachi's captor. She was more alluring than all of the king's courtesans, wearing a dark velvet dress that fit her curvaceous body. "It is an absolute pleasure to see you looking so healthy. In fact, you seem perkier than I remember."

"Thank you, doctor," Robin said with a mock smile. She allowed the man to raise her knuckles to his lips and press a firm, entirely suggestive kiss to her skin. Quick as a flash, a blur of blond severed their connection.

"Hey, watch who you're slobbering over, ya shi–"

"Sanji, he's simply an acquaintance and our host for the evening."

The man who'd broken them up by the forceful insertion of his own body into the space between the two snorted. The resentment in his glare did not recede.

"Sanji, this is Dr. Trafalgar Law. Doctor, this is the Straw Hat's new seafaring chef. He hails from overseas, but luckily his fame brought him to our shores."

The doctor said nothing, his smug smile daring Sanji to make a discourteous move first in his own lodgings. Sanji kept his composure surprisingly well, and the introductions continued with less of an unwelcome edge.

"Miss Nami is our navigator and treasurer." Nami, shapely in a brightly coloured gown and beaming at the whale-like demon the doctor employed, took little notice of anything else. So Robin moved on. "Toni Toni Chopper is our ship's doctor," Robin said next.

Trafalgar looked down to the ground to find a beast quite alike to his Shachi in size. It was a shapeshifter, that much he could tell, but this one was admittedly deer-like in appearance and did not have much more in common with Bepo other than the fact of his species.

"I'm not a raccoon," the creature assured him.

"I was not under that impression. You are some sort of rudiment animal, are you not?"

He was not anticipating the love and admiration that was immediately awarded to him for such a remark.

Next was the decidedly peculiar, unfashionable mason Trafalgar had seen around town who'd constructed a ship for the Straw Hats, revealing admirable shipbuilding assets. This impressed Trafalgar, but the brutish man was more interested in the portable cellar that held his stores of blood and kept them fresh. Apparently, it was a 'super sublime' invention. Trafalgar left him to his tenacious examining. A long-nosed man with shaggy hair joined him; Robin told the doctor that he was a great problem solver named Usopp.

"Where is Straw Hat himself? And the tiger-man?" Trafalgar asked Robin when he noticed their absence.

"Oh, Zoro got lost in the forest and Luffy volunteered to go get him. We let him go off on his own provided that he take our travelling musician along. They'll show up eventually; Brook isn't one to miss a party, especially when he can provide the entertainment. I believe you'll find him to be the most fascinating one out of us all."

Trafalgar decided he would hold the vampiress to her words and introduced the party to Jean Bart. The giant, he could see plainly, was amazed that the guests were not giving him strange looks, and Trafalgar guessed that the giant fancied himself one of the more sensible of the eclectic bunch that were at times positively absurd. Luckily, Robin took an interest in him, since she'd often wondered when she'd get the chance to meet Dr. Trafalgar's backyard begriser and share tea with him, as the doctor had once nearly promised her.

The doctor left the house to go outside just as Shachi managed to struggle out of Nami's hold and begin distributing tea and biscuits. He could hear a healthy clamour and guessed that the Straw Hat's cook was rummaging through the kitchen. He had anticipated this. He and Robin had been exchanging letters prior to this evening, and he had the basic profiles of all those in attendance, with the exception of Brook, whom Miss Nico chose to keep a secret.

Outside, Bepo had been given the duty of roasting the meat for the evening. It was a grand catch from deep within the forest, and Bepo had only volunteered for the task because it meant he could likely sneak the most delicate parts of the beast into his expansive stomach.

The doctor caught him at it, but did not hit him over the head for his deviance on account of a rush of hooves outside the manor.

"Holla, Lawsie!"

He turned to a beaming horseman with an antsy steed and his companion on a palomino mare. "Ace! You brought company. Well, the more the merrier." Even as Trafalgar uttered those words he judged Marco, who was gripping the pommel of his saddle tightly and staring wide-eyed at the white, almost spectral bear consuming something roasting on an open fire.

The doctor smiled as he approached to steady both horses. The horses did not favour his questionable aura, and they shied away only to submit when he showed them he would do no harm. Paying particular attention to the lord's valet, Trafalgar said, "Do not worry; Bepo is the least of your worries. He's a harmless creature."

Marco appeared hesitant to dismount, and Trafalgar was surprised when his partner gently coaxed him down with a tender hand on his calf. It appeared that, in the short span of time Trafalgar had seen the two last, the men had become somewhat more intimate with one another.

He could only guess, and simply guessing brought a wicked grin to his face that he concealed beneath the collar of his ulster.

"Come inside and meet the guests. They're a friendly bunch." Trafalgar motioned for them to follow, and he could see the hesitation in Marco's stare. He didn't expect anything less. He figured the lord would have briefed his servant on who might choose to attend the evening, but of course nothing could prepare a nonbeliever for the real, often frightening thing.

He was unsure if he was irritated with Lord Portgas for bringing his valet or intrigued by the decision.

"Who do you have over tonight?" asked the lord, and Trafalgar could hear the nervous edge to the lord's tone. He knew his friend did not want names.

He rattled some of the attendees off on his tattooed fingers. "A mountain giant, whom is recovering and really quite amiable, all things considering; a few shapeshifters, including dear Bepo; Robin, the lovely vampiress; a chef of high calibre, though his manners are otherwise; and that is the noteworthy ones I shall warn you of."

"Oh, Robin? I'd thought she'd set sail with my brother."

Trafalgar grinned. It was the surprise he was planning on keeping for a while longer. Hence he said nothing as they entered and were assaulted by the sounds of a party in full swing. Someone had found the stashed alcohol that he had been planning on saving for later and announced it to everyone else. Well, that and Shachi always made the tea with a dash of the strongest liquor to be purchased at Sabaody's marketplace.

Lord Portgas was surprised and pleased that Marco at least knew Franky. He introduced Marco to the two people he knew in what he thought to be the most painless way, which involved him simply parading Marco about the room with a supportive arm curled around his back. The touch alighted in him a fierce protectiveness, and he did well to keep his fiery emotions from erupting. More than once the thought of taking Marco away from the party and deeper into Trafalgar's manor sat at the forefront of his mind.

Out of those of demonic blood, they first approached the vampiress. "Robin, my dear, I'd like to introduce you to Marco. Marco, this is the lovely Miss Nico."

Marco was reluctant to take her hand in greeting, but upon seeing how nothing wicked happened and how warmly Robin regarded him, he relaxed his stance. Besides, his master had assured him that if anything problematic to his health appeared, he would be the first to react. While it wasn't outright stated, Marco had understood that the lord meant to protect him if anything went wrong.

He was unsure whether to be comforted by this fact or offended.

Marco continued to round the room with the lord at his side, and felt better knowing that the man with the confidence of a king didn't know many of the attendees. He memorized names as best he could: Nami, Usopp, Sanji, Robin and Franky… When it came to Jean Bart, the introduction was rather chilly on both fronts, and Marco didn't let it affect him much. The giant was intimidating enough; he didn't want to incense it any further. So he crossed the room in a casual retreat to a safe place he'd been eying since they entered Dr. Trafalgar's humble abode. Then he found his trousers were being tugged.

He looked down to see a hat covering some sort of brown fluff. "'Ello, I'm Chopper."

Marco blinked, his heart oddly calm considering he'd just been spoken to by an animal in a top hat. "Marco."

The hat bobbed in a friendly manner. "I'm a shapeshifter and a doctor. My pure form is that of a reindeer."

"I'm a human. Nothing too fancy," Marco said with a hesitant smile as the reindeer's cap fell back just enough to expose two doe eyes and a tiny bluish nose. He couldn't help but think there was nothing at all scary about this creature; it was just unnatural for something like that to speak.

"I like sweet things."

"Me too, when I can get them."

"Hot chocolate is good on a winter day," the reindeer said next.

"Oh, I agree."

Marco could hardly believe he was having a conversation with a fluff the size of the giant dust bunnies he'd cleaned out of the attic last spring, yet the ease with which he was able to speak to Chopper made him believe that maybe going along with Lord Portgas tonight was not going to get him killed, maimed, or hexed to the deepest pit in Hell.

The lord, after seeing Marco comfortable with the hoofed doctor, went off to visit with Trafalgar and ask where Luffy was. He had, by now, figured out that Trafalgar was holding this party not for himself, but for a certain patient he had helped out in the past.

After a while, Robin joined Marco and Chopper, taking a seat beside the flustered man on a sofa. Marco was especially wary of her, having heard his master say she was a vampiress, and Robin noted the rigidity in his posture. This did nothing to stop her from enquiring after his health.

"How are you tonight, Mr. Marco?" She sipped daintily from something unseen in a teacup, and Marco's imagination filled in the blanks. She had been served her drink last, and that was all the indication Marco needed to come to morbid conclusions.

Still, he managed to keep his voice steady. "Well, thank you. And yourself, Madame?"

Robin gave him a small smile and Marco could swear that there were iridescent white fangs just barely peeking out from her mouth, leaving miniscule indents on her rouge lips. "Not hungry, if that does anything to ease your fear of me."

Much to her surprise, Marco chuckled diffidently. "Not hungry? That I am glad of."

They retired to watching some of the Straw Hats fight amongst one another over foodstuffs, port wine, and the right to manhandle Shachi as if he were a pet. Nami won the latter, as there were no other competitors to challenge her. Chopper merely appeared relieved that Nami wasn't the one politely gushing over him and petting the fur on his cheeks.

Marco watched Shachi intently after discovering that he was not looking at a young boy. He was privy to the sharp, alien teeth, the slits on his neck that reminded him of an aquatic fish's, and the unnaturally spiky hair that came out from under his casquette.

He also paid attention to every movement the giant made. Though the giant didn't move often, every time he did so much as shift in his seat to speak a word to Trafalgar, a thunderous creak caught in Marco's sensitive ears. He wouldn't hesitate to admit that the massive giant unnerved him.

Someone started telling a tall tale about pirates. Marco remembered his name was Usopp. The fervour and detail with which Usopp told his story made Marco wonder if he'd actually been witness to such miraculous events. Nonetheless it amused him, and almost all the others, to no end. Time passed enough that Dr. Trafalgar called for a meal to be served. They all got up to relocate, some faster than others. Marco trailed behind, watching the Straw Hats make a beeline for the dinning room. That was when Marco got a closer look of Bepo, the bearish beast.

He nearly walked into the creature's face.

"Uh," Marco muttered, the beast having come around the corner from out of nowhere. His pale fur smelled like smoke and his muzzle was tainted a colour that suggested his part in the hunting of the meal.

"I'm sorry," the beast said, moving aside as much as he could. The movement was not much, considering the size of the hall in proportion to the size of the beast's hairy stomach. "Please pass. Sorry again for getting in your way."

Marco shook his head as if to excuse the bear, his eyes drawn to the gleaming fangs that poked out of his furred mouth. Behind him, Robin laughed lightly. Her ease with the situation was somehow a comfort and certainly spurred Marco on. By now he had lost Ace to the labyrinth of halls, but he could guess that his master had begun to follow his nose. He could smell the scent of cooked meat as well, and Shachi had snuck out of Nami's range not too long ago to prepare something for his master's guests…

It struck him as odd how easily and willingly the Straw Hats spoke to him and their companionability with one another reminded him of a time when he was on the ocean, sailing for a brighter future than the one presented in his early childhood. He recalled the waves that Usopp had talked into being with clarity, and remembered the cries of the gulls overhead and the tangy smell of the salt water.

He wondered if one day he might return to the ocean.

It was certainly a harder life than the one he led on dry land. He quite liked having fresh fruits and meat instead of hard tack and enjoyed how much nicer his clothes smelt when washed in water rather than the piss of sailors. Yes, he certainly would not miss that rancid smell. No, a life on land was much easier, but was it less fulfilling? His thoughts wandered on that question.

His lord was here, and so he would stay for now and deal with everything to young man thrust upon him. After all, he hadn't had an adventure like this in a long, long time.

They all sat down to eat at an extensive table laden with delights: meats, vegetable stew, pies with unknown fillings, and many more dishes that Marco had never seen before, much less knew the names of. He attempted to seat Lord Portgas himself, but the attempt was thwarted by the same man who instead pushed him down into a chair with a cheeky grin.

"Manners are nowhere to be found when you dine with pirates and demonic beings," the lord told him, taking a seat beside Marco. Robin, much to Marco's relief, sat down next to him. It was her or the mountain giant, and Marco wasn't sure he could handle the earthy stink of the latter. Jean Bart sat at one end of the table, and there was an evening breeze coming through a window that pushed his smell far away from the delightful aroma of the food.

Marco silently thanked the higher powers for their divine meddling.

"Enjoy," the doctor said plainly with a tiny half smile. Everyone already had knife and fork in hand, and more than a few mouths were stuffed to the point of being unable to reply to their host.

After a while, the story Marco had been so smitten with was continued by its creator.

"Usopp, the gold fish was not the size of a sea king!" Nami cried, throwing a carrot out of the vegetable stew. It landed on Usopp's plate, uncannily resembling the man's long nose. "Don't bloody well lie at this holy table."

"Holy is not the word I would have used for it, Miss Nami," the cook piped up, eying their host scrupulously.

"I wonder when Luffy's going to show up," Chopper mused, ignoring the argument brewing to the east of his tiny antlers. Lord Portgas, too, lamented the lateness of his younger brother. Marco heard all about the captain of the Straw Hats in a matter of minutes, and he had to admit the young man sounded like a handful. He wasn't sure if he ever wanted to meet such a crazy person. Then again, he would likely be a lot friendlier than the giant.

"You'll like him." Everyone kept assuring Marco and Jean Bart in intervals. "He's a complete idiot, but that's what makes him so loveable."

"Hey, save some for the idiot," Nami said as Usopp snuck another pastry when he thought nobody was looking. "Do you guys even know how upset he'll be if we eat everything?"

"Oh, we know," the crew chorused.

"I left the door ajar. Hopefully he'll catch a whiff of the food and come running in at gazelle speed, as he is liable to do." Dr. Trafalgar raised a glass to his lips and took the tiniest of sips. He sat at the other end of the table, at its head, and hadn't touched a single food item yet, much like Robin.

"The way everyone keeps talking about him makes me think of some kind of wild animal," Marco whispered to his lord. Despite his poor nerves he still managed to eat a plateful of food, since he so rarely was given the chance to indulge himself and wanted to make the most of things.

The man snickered and said, "Well, he is kind of a monkey."

Marco was alarmed to hear that.

Sanji, who had cooked the meal alongside Shachi, moved to clear away the plates from the ladies present. There was still plenty left over, and it was when a dull conversation concerning the weather outside (Nami's topic of choice) began to settle on the table that a certain monkey burst into the room.

Confusion followed as a lean man, very similar to his lord, Marco noted, sucked up the remainder of the food on the table like he was some sort of raving hungry beast.

Exclamations of "Luffy!" were shouted, and Marco was surprised when Lord Portgas flung an arm around the younger man's shoulders, then turned the friendly embrace into a headlock that resulted in choking.

"You should at least greet everyone before devouring everything in sight!" The older brother of the two did his rebuking forcefully, and Marco could clearly see who had a slight advantage over the other, at least when it came to muscle. Luffy, reprimanded, tried to spew out an apology, but the only thing that went spewing out was the particles of food already halfway down his gullet.

"Sorry! Hello, people and reserve meat!" Chopper, Marco could see, was clearly appalled and hid his face in his hooves. "Hey, where's Zoro and Brook?"

Nami and the rest of Straw Hat Luffy's crew looked at him incredulously. Then they shouted, nearly in unison, "I thought they would be with you!"

"Oh. Oh, yeah." Luffy looked around, his fingers wandering towards a pastry that quickly disappeared in a flash of teeth and moving lips. "Brook went to find a luthier to repair his violin bow."

"Out in the middle of nowhere?" Franky asked, somewhat perturbed.

"Naw, he went into town. I guess?"

"So what about Zoro?" Dr. Chopper asked with a twitch of his button nose.

Luffy laughed, the same golden, radiant laugh that Marco was already acquainted with. Of course, it was no where near the same tone and pitch of his lord's, but the odd warmness that was intrinsically expressed with it reminded Marco instantly of the older sibling. He found himself smiling, though Luffy had yet to even acknowledge him.

"Zoro got eaten."

"What?!"

"Naw, he's fine. I think. He probably sliced the mountain lion in half. Traffy, I didn't think you had mountain lions up here."

Dr. Trafalgar shrugged his shoulders in the subtle manner of one who thought himself the most important fixture of a room. "Neither did I," he said. "But weird things seem to follow that crew of yours. So, are you going to let me take a look at that wound on your chest or will I be made to wait while you gorge yourself on the food that sits on my table?"

With a flourish of his gangly arms, Luffy ripped off his red vest and tattered undershirt, exposing a rather nasty scar upon his chest. The skin appeared raw and patchy as if it had been meticulously put back together. It was in the shape of a skewed cross, and Marco couldn't imagine how one could even be given such a horrific wound.

"Luffy, that's rather indecent," Robin said with a soft giggle that Marco only heard because he was sitting next to her.

"I'm a pirate."

"You're a pig," Nami said with a roll of her cerulean eyes. In response, Luffy stuffed the shank of a swine into his mouth. Marco had never seen someone eat with so much fervour.

No, it reminded him of the boy's older brother. Only there was clearly less discretion for manners. All at once relief flooded through him. He could have been stuck with this man for a master instead of Lord Portgas. Thank goodness Fate had decided otherwise.

Marco had just begun to relax thinking about his good fortune when a man with moss green hair strutted in carrying an unsheathed sword over one shoulder.

"What did I miss?"

"You're damned late you directionless piece of sentient moss. Only a shithead like you could get so hopelessly lost pursuing a kitten," Sanji said. It had been a while since he'd last raised his voice against the crowd, and the room fell silent in anticipation of Zoro's response.

"That fucking cat could have killed a twig-legged cook like you." Zoro's voice contained traces of aggression that made Marco slightly unnerved. That and the blood soaked into the man's garb was rather off-putting.

"Like hell it could."

"Gentleman, shut up," Nami said. "Nobody wants to hear your bickering!"

Zoro grunted with mild indifference while Sanji turned a beaming grin on her. "Yes, Miss Nami! Zoro here is just an incompetent fool, and I thought it best everyone were warned of that."

Luffy decided, in between bites of pastry filling, to throw himself into the argument in the wake of his navigator. "Hey, Zoro. What happened to the mountain lion?"

"I ate it."

"I take it you're no longer hungry, then?" Dr. Trafalgar said with a tiny smile.

Zoro sheathed his sword and fixed it to his clothing, an interesting stomach ring of abrasive fabric that Marco had never seen before. "A man can always stomach a pint of brew. I smell rum. That's why I came. I don't like coming near the likes of you otherwise."

Dr. Trafalgar did not look shocked to hear that, though many sitting at the table sputtered in disbelief. "I enjoy conversing with someone as frank as yourself, Zoro. Help yourself to the port wine."

"I certainly will. Thanks."

The conversation certainly became livelier after that. Marco watched Zoro and Sanji both get increasingly drunk and more volatile, with Nami constantly interjecting their arguments with hateful remarks of her own that were more or less as rude as her male counterparts. Franky and Usopp cracked dirty jokes that amused Robin at the expense of baffling the innocent reindeer shapeshifter, who kept asking for an analysis of the witticisms. Luffy punched his older brother a few times playfully and got battered himself. At the same time, everyone seemed to have a profound respect for each other and, dare Marco even think it, a deep love for at least one other individual in the room, with the obvious exception of the newcomer Jean Bart.

He felt a pang of longing for such closeness.

He watched Dr. Trafalgar enlist the help of Bepo in pinning down Straw Hat Luffy, who certainly wore his straw hat proudly upon his head during the course of the evening. The doctor wished to examine Luffy's chest, and from what Marco gathered, the doctor had been the one to patch Luffy's grievous injury up. Of course, Luffy would only stay still if there was a steady stream of food being put within easy reach of his thin, supple fingers, and that was about when Shachi became a real help to his master.

"Bunch of lunatics, huh?" Lord Portgas remarked, looping an arm around Marco's shoulders and pulling him close. "And my brother, the biggest lunatic of them all."

"They're nice enough," Marco said as Luffy slammed his fist into Zoro's face for making some kind of observation at his expense. After that, the talking bear let him go and Trafalgar quietly receded into the background. Marco couldn't help but notice how the doctor never really ran his banquet like a true host, but rather let it run itself. His obvious passivity was quite interesting, even when someone picked up one of his pieces of cutlery and hurled it at another.

Only Sanji got angry when he saw Zoro toss a kitchen knife in Luffy's direction with no real intent to maim.

One by one, voices tapered off and Marco became aware of a violin being played. It was a pleasing sound that brought a certain tranquility to the party, and Nami kicked someone under the table in order to usher in a silence from them. The violin became louder and more erratic, and Marco began to grin along with his lord. What a talented musician, he thought as he listened to the quick succession of notes that raised from within him emotions that had long fell dormant.

There had been musicians on Whitebeard's ships.

"Truly a sporadic bit of music – a piece of capriccio, wouldn't you say?" Dr. Trafalgar whispered to Marco, appearing beside him like a phantom and melding into the background just as quickly. Marco had merely turned his head when Trafalgar was already across the room, seated in an armchair with his wineglass.

Out of all of people in the room, Trafalgar unnerved him in the most indescribable way. Knowing he was a vampire was one thing. Knowing he was a vampiric doctor that had lived in Sabaody for years and seen many patients was quite another.

Marco stood up with a few others, banishing thoughts of Trafalgar from his mind. He hung about as the violin came to a crashing halt and a rollicking laugh filled the silence. Since Marco was nearest to the hall from which most of the guests had been emerging, he did not remove himself. He wanted to see who exactly this magnificent musician was.

Nothing could have prepared him to come nearly face to face with a cackling skeleton.

A glimpse of shiny molars and empty eye sockets made Marco keel – backwards. Luckily, as had been the trend of the night, Lord Portgas was right there beside him. Or in this very lucky case, behind him.

Dr. Trafalgar once again appeared beside Marco, his limp form cradled by the strong arms of his alarmed lord. "You know, Ace, your valet did better than I thought he would; he almost made it through the night."


A.N.: Taking a break from studying for exams to post this…hah. The next chapter will have the conclusion of the tea party and an amusing (in my opinion) take on Brook's boniness.

Skull joke? Good grief, I think I need to go to sleep before I type something embarrassing.

Oh, and for those of you who are waiting for Dance to update again: I AM working on chapter sixteen, believe it or not. It's just extremely slow-going as I have a major block with that story and the next chapter is rather…actiony. If you catch my drift.