The Baratie is a first class music venue with a powerful reputation, it has never had to cancel an act. It doesn't sound like much of a reputation at first, which is until you realise that the Baratie is one of the last stops before musicians hit the big time and tour down the famous route to stardom known as the Grand Line. The Baratie is the last pit stop, in theory it's the last place you can be a big fish in a small pond, but in reality it's a high class venue full of people meeting their make or break moment. The place is always heaving with both talent scouts and fans alike.
And they never, ever, cancel a show.
Every person at the Baratie is a musician in their own right and if the lead guitarist cracks under the pressure and spends the night hurling his guts out from the stress, well, one of the Baratie's guitarists will step up in their place. The show must go on. Any band playing at the Baratie must submit their music in advance both recorded and sheet in order to be allowed to play, and each night everyone at the Baratie takes their copy and studies it, so on the slightest bit of notice any one of them can fill a spot on stage.
Right now the lead singer of a band that's headlining tonight has choked, got himself drunk beyond repair and is currently catatonic under the stairs in the back room. And Sanji is sat on the sofa reading sheet music and listening to the band's set list, preparing to take on the voice of the man currently only using his to moan out in his stupor and occasionally spit bile. The rest of the band are flitting around nervously, throwing alternately sympathetic and furious glances at their passed out singer and wary and grateful ones at Sanji.
"Alright assholes, get up on stage now or I'll kick you up there. The show must go on." Zeff growls, leaning around the door.
Sanji slides his headphones off, cracks his neck, grabs the sheet music and heads out the door first. The band trails nervously behind him but Sanji is as cool as the bottle of water he's casually throwing up in the air and catching again. He's done this hundreds of times before, he's been hundreds of different singers and tonight is no different. As he jumps up on the stage a fair number of the regulars notice him and cheer.
"What happened? Did the singer choke?" One shouts out to him.
"Ah… Unfortunately Kreig is sick this evening and Sanji here is filling in for us. So… I hope you enjoy it!" The guitarist Gin says nervously, standing too close to the mic. Sanji rolls his eyes, Kreig is gonna be feeling sick alright, but not until he wakes up.
"Choke!" The regulars cackle as the band plugs in. Sanji tries not to smirk.
The music isn't really his style, but it's easily in the centre of his vocal range which in fairness is remarkably wide. The music itself is hardly a stretch for him and he's able to easily mimic the passed out man and add his own little flair to it and as soon as Gin realises that they're not all screwed the rest of the band really gets behind it.
Ten songs and two bottles of water later Sanji hops off of the stage to raucous applause and saunters to the bar. He's not big on sticking around for the praise, it's the people who played and wrote the songs that deserve the applause, he just lends his voice to it. The rest of the band heads backstage, no doubt to awaken their stupid lead singer from his catatonic state.
He slides behind the bar and up next to his old man, he snags a bartending apron off of a hook and ties it around himself.
"Sounding a little strained up there lightweight. Sure you can handle this?" Zeff snorts at him.
"Fuck you old man." He shoots back easily.
"What can I get you?" He says to a couple of guys queuing on the other side of the bar. The man doesn't even really look at him and instead recites the order, glancing at the beers on the shelf behind Sanji. It often happens like this, he gets off the stage and behind the bar and people stop looking at him. He's never sure if he's disappointed or relieved by it.
His hands fly over bottles and pull drinks, he cashes up the order in his head and gives the total out to the guy before he's even done putting it through the register which of course just confirms his math. He serves the next customer and the next, after that his attention is caught by two beautiful women leaning on the bar looking right at him.
He rushes over, his face flushing slightly with the pleasure of being the focus of the attention of not one but two beautiful ladies. The first is leaning over the bar, offering Sanji a generous look down her shirt (though he tries not to stare, he is a gentleman after all!), her red hair flows gorgeously around her face and her big bright eyes watch him with interest. Her friend is taller, older and a fair bit more glamorous.
Older ladies, rather than girls in their teens like the first one, tend to have a certain self-confidence about how they look and this one is putting out an air of self-assured sex appeal. She looks damn good and she knows it, she's dressed to highlight the most beautiful parts of her and simply oozes style, her dark hair and wicked smile only make the affect even more dazzling.
"Ladies! What can I do for two gorgeous women like yourselves?" He beams at them.
"It's Sanji, isn't it? You were very, very good up there." The red head smiles at him.
"Why thank you, I hope I managed to carry the evening on, it's always a shame when a performer has to step out but we do our best to fill in the gaps." He nods modestly, accepting her praise with a little flutter in his heart.
"Oh, you were better than that. We've seen Kreig play before and frankly you were better than he was. Do you play with them often?" The dark haired one asks curiously.
"You flatter me, but no, it's the first time I've played with them." He says, shaking his head.
"So, what, if a singer just drops out you fill their place just like that? Even without practicing?" The red head asks in surprise.
"Well, yeah. If you play at the Baratie you have to submit sheet music first, along with a recording so if there's an emergency I can step in if it's a singer or one of the others if it's a guitarist or drummer or whatever. I was just sight reading and working from memory really. Can I get you anything to drink or were you wanting to know about playing here?" He asks, not able to quite place if they're here to order a drink or wanting to ask about performing. They look like the musical type a little bit at least.
"A little of both, if I could get a tequila screw – blood orange if you have it. And… Robin do you just want a double whiskey? And… something for yourself too." She smiles as he friend agrees and hands him a note.
"You can step into any singing role then? If so we might have a job offer for you." The dark haired one, apparently called Robin, says smoothly.
"I'm sorry ladies, I don't steal other singer's jobs. I get plenty of offers from bands who have difficult singers who just want the same voice and none of the problems. I won't put anyone out of work. Sorry to turn you down." He answers, shaking his head as he pours tequila into a glass.
"We don't have a singer, we have a guitarist that's filling in and really he'd be happier just playing his guitars. We haven't had a singer in this band, you wouldn't be replacing or ousting anyone. Oh, thank you." Robin smiles at him as she takes her whiskey from him. Both women are looking at him expectantly and Sanji finds himself frozen.
"Please come and audition with us, we could even come here during the day if you'd be more comfortable here. Please?" The red head asks, fluttering her eyelashes at him. Sanji knows when he's being manipulated but… well… she is very pretty and it's hard to say no to a lady. But still… he's not sure about this.
It's true his dream has always been to be in a band and play at the very best venues. Supposedly there's even this exclusive lounge in a venue along the Grand Line where only the very best singers get taken back to sing called the All Blue. The acoustics of the place are supposed to be perfect, enough to make any real singer weep from the sound. Even better is that in theory it's hidden within another venue, so unless you're good enough you could pass right by it and never know! He'd love to be there, even if people say it's just an urban legend.
Still, he has his responsibilities here. If he left the rest of the Baratie staff might have trouble filling in for him. There are a few other singers but none as good as him, and they find it a little harder to pick songs up so quickly. He'd hate to just step out and be responsible for the Baratie losing it's perfect reputation.
"I don't think I can… my old man needs me here to help run the place." He says, shaking his head unhappily and handing her the tequila screw she asked for.
"That's a shame. But… well, would you mind still showing us the place? You could sing for us then, it wouldn't have to be an audition and you wouldn't have to agree to anything, but I'd still love to hear you. Please?" the red head asks, popping the swizzle stick from her drink into her mouth and rolling it around with her tongue in a way that makes Sanji's mouth go dry.
"Sure, tomorrow. Yes." His mouth says without the permission of his brain.
"Wonderful, thank you!" She chirps happily, leaning over the bar to kiss him on the cheek before quite literally bouncing away from the bar.
"See you tomorrow Sanji, and don't forget that drink for yourself." The dark haired one purrs and slinks off after her friend whilst Sanji's head spins.
"Bye." He calls after them, feeling a little dazed.
He turns around to head down the bar to find some more customers only to come face to face with his old man Zeff's impressive moustache right in his face.
"What was that all about?" The old man asks him, the moustache twitching judgementally at him.
"Nothing. They're just coming to check out the venue tomorrow." He shrugs, stepping back so his face isn't right at facial hair level and he can look the old man in the eyes.
"It sounded more like an audition to me." Zeff says flatly.
"Well, it wasn't. They already have a singer." He shrugs, not quite believing their story about this guitarist that only "sort of" sings. He nods at a guy ordering a Budweiser and he quickly pops the cap off of one and hands it over, exchanging the money in his head and quickly ringing through the rill.
"That's not what I heard." Zeff remarks from behind him.
"Well, if you know so much you shitty bastard, why are you asking me?" He challenges, shooting an evil look over his shoulder at the old man.
The old guy just huffs and serves two older guys wanting some European beers. Sanji sighs to himself and fulfils an order for a Jack Daniels and coke.
"Good luck with your audition, I guess." Zeff says eventually.
"It's not an audition, and I'm not going anywhere old man." He snaps back irritably. As if he'd just leave this place and his old man, not after the guy taught him so much, helped turn him into the artist he is today. His old man even adopted him too, he's not even Zeff's kid and yet he owes him so much. Like hell he'd just leave him.
"Too bad. You should do something with your life, be happy." Zeff states, looking piercingly at Sanji.
For a moment he finds himself pinned by his old man's ice blue gaze, it's faintly accusatory. A lot of people assume that he's actually Zeff's biological son, what with them both being blonde haired and blue eyed, but in reality the old guy's death stare is proof enough for Sanji that there's no way he's related to that elderly psycho.
"I am doing something with my life right here, and I'm perfectly content thank you." He answers back, finally able to make his mouth work again.
"Content isn't the same as happy." Zeff points out and limps off on his fake leg, leaving Sanji dazed and numb.
Right. Okay, that drink sounds like a really good idea now. He pours himself a generous double of whiskey, necks it and gets back to work. The bar is winding down now that the acts have finished and soon it's last call.
It's only when he's flipping tables and sweeping the floor after everyone has gone that he realises that he forgot to ask those ladies what time they'd be coming by tomorrow. He groans and realises that it means that he'll have to be here all day tomorrow.
He manages to get lots done the next day. He cleans all of the table and actually has an opportunity to give the nice wooden ones some beeswax polish to protect them from watermarks from the fuckers too inconsiderate enough to use coasters. He cleans the floor properly and realigns all of the audio equipment and then because it's disgusting he cleans all of the equipment in the audio booth which appears to have been inhabited by some kind of gorilla, on a related note he must remember to kick Patty in the face next time he sees him. He's partway through inventory when the front door to the bar opens and the pretty redhead from yesterday peeks through.
"Oh, come on in!" He calls out to her and ditches his notepad under the bar.
She smiles at him and walks inside, with her dark haired friend behind her. To his disappointment the rest of the band that walks in with her is all male, but Sanji realises that he can't have everything in life.
They're a pretty eclectic looking bunch actually. There's a huge guy with bright blue hair and big star tattoos on his arms, who introduces himself as Franky and then tries to dislocate Sanji's arm with an extremely enthusiastic handshake. There's a bouncy looking dark haired guy who the beautiful red head (whose name is Nami) introduces as Luffy, she doesn't need to tell him that he's the drummer as by that point he's already leapt up on stage and attacked the drum kit with an enthusiasm that makes Sanji's ears ache. What does surprise him is that he's apparently the front man of their band.
A very worn out looking guy with a long nose and curly dark hair chases the drummer, telling him not to break anything and please get down from that. That apparently is Usopp, who is a keyboard player for the band. Surprisingly they've got a little kid with them, the boy can't be more than 14 and Sanji is actually a little uncomfortable around him. He has on comically oversized headphones and a giant pink hat.
"I'm Chopper, where's your sound system? Oh, there." The boy asks and then spots it, and scampers off to the area, immediately plugging himself in.
"He's far more mature than he looks. You're looking a little overwhelmed Sanji." Robin says smoothly in his ear, making him jump.
"I don't know, they're all just very… lively." He remarks, as from across the bar Nami screams at Luffy to stop climbing on the furniture and sit back down at the drums.
"They certainly are. They're the best though." Robin smiles secretively.
"What do you play?" He asks, looking up at her with adoration in his eyes.
"A little of this, a little of that. Violin and harp mainly. Not a lot of call for that in most of our songs but you'd be surprised where you can work it in, especially with an electric harp. Mainly though, I film." Robin answers, pulling a video camera out of her bag and showing him. It's a nice camera, Sanji doesn't know enough about cameras to say more than that but it certainly looks expensive and high quality.
"Smile, and don't mind me." She says, turning it on and pointing it at him.
Sanji grins awkwardly, suddenly finding himself a little camera-shy.
"Oh-ho-ho! I suppose this means I get to play the electric guitar today instead of the piano!" An older guy trills with laugher from the stage. Sanji glances up, he wonders if this is the guitarist come singer that he's concerned that Nami could be tricking him into replacing.
"Are you the guy who's been singing?" He asks, coming up to the stage.
"Oh no, that would be Zoro. He's our guitarist, but I've recently taken to playing though I'm usually on the piano. I'm not as good as him by far but I'm still capable, we try to make sure that I can fill in for him in case he's sick or injured, I understand that you run a similar system here." The older guy smiles down at him. He's skeleton thin but he seems happy enough.
"Yeah, we do." Sanji nods.
"Excellent. I'm Brook by the way." The guy introduces himself, giving Sanji a bony yet polite handshake.
"Nami says that you can pick up music just by hearing it right away!" Luffy yells needlessly loudly from the drums. Sanji stares at him and wonders if there's something wrong with his brain, he seems to be filled with the energy of about fifteen small children hopped up on red bull.
"More or less, usually I have a little bit of time, but yeah." He answers with a reserved nod.
"THAT'S SO COOL!" Luffy sqawks.
"Shut up Luffy. Here, I brought the sheet music and the music like you talked about. Would you be so kind as to perform for us?" Nami smiles at him, handing him papers and an ipod.
Sanji sighs. Zeff was right, he's been tricked into an audition. Still, it'll be fun and these guys seem friendly enough. It's not often he gets to goof off and just play for fun, he ought to do it.
"Sure thing." He agrees and pulls the headphones around his neck up over one ear.
"Is this the one that you're wanting?" He asks, switching on the little music player as he points to the top song.
"Yes, if you'd just sign this first though. It just says that you're not going to take our music, just to protect us of course." Nami says innocently, thrusting some paper before his eyes.
Sanji skims it very quickly, it seems to just say that he won't steal their songs, which is a reasonable enough request given his abilities. He scribbles his signature on the end and she quickly pulls it away from him, folds it and shoves it inside her bra with a catlike smile.
"Yeah, you didn't read that either did you? None of us did with things she got us to sign. I'm guessing that you did what we did and signed away your immortal soul to her, it's usually the second to last clause." Franky sighs from where he's sat on stage with his bass guitar propped on one knee.
"Wait- what?" Sanji exclaims, looking around at Nami again.
"Too late, you really should read things better. Anyway! Back to the music, this one please!" Nami smiles and taps on the paper.
Figuring there's nothing else to do for it Sanji just resigns himself to his apparently now soulless life and sits on the edge of the stage. The last thing he hears before he turns the noise cancelling on his headphones on is Usopp questioning whether anyone can really learn a song like that.
He selects the song on the player that matches the title at the top of the sheet music. "Lake Pontchatrain".
He lets the music play and reads along as he listens. The first listen through is try to get into the feel of the song and to analyse the singer's voice, only this time he doesn't have to mimic the singer, he can put his own energy into it a little more.
The song is really… really freaking weird. It's sort of a story, a horror story in fact. About a group of guys who go on a road trip and with the exception of the singer get hypnotised and drowned by some lake monster. It's really odd but… it's really fun as well, before the song is done he's grinning his head off. The energy in the song is huge, it's bouncing and fun and stupidly and deliberately melodramatic. The singer in the recording certainly has the power and gusto to pull it off, though his voice is a little unrefined and his range is somewhat limited. In short he's not a singer but doing a damn good job of filling in. Pretty much what Nami said he was.
He rewinds the song once more and burns it into his brain for eternity. When he does this he never forgets a song, as much as he's learnt some shitty songs over the years, he only needs to hear something once or twice before it's in there forever. He's memorised about nine billion radio jingles to the extent that he doesn't even have a radio in his car anymore because knowing them drives him completely bonkers.
At the end of the second listen he slides the headphones off of his head and the world returns to him. He stands up to find the band curiously watching him.
"Two listens and that's it? Seriously?" the keyboard guy asks him sceptically.
"I'm ready if you are." He answers cockily.
"Super!" Franky exclaims and starts with the guitar.
Sanji turns around and faces the right way. As Franky plays the guitar intro and Luffy comes in on the drums he relaxes into the music and feels it flow along as he saw it on the sheet. He opens his mouth and sings.
"I'll tell it like it happened, it was Darius and Noland and me
Just a few po' boys trying to get up outta Missouri
Took 55 to Louisiana, stopped by the highway to eat"
The guitar for the song is pretty cool and very much his kind of thing. He's not fussy about the music he sings on stage- in his job he can't be, but he always enjoys the opportunity to sing something that he'd listen to for fun.
"They both had crawfish, strictly chicken for me
Back out under thunderheads, the radio was southern soul
They interrupted Clarence Carter with a strange-ass local show
They were sayin'
Come down to Lake Pontchartrain
Rest your soul and feed your brain
That's where you will get to see
Everything the water can be"
He can feel the others getting behind the song now, perhaps feeling that he's not going to screw this up. Nami and Robin watch him from their places by the sound area with smiles on their faces, he continues unbroken.
"The rain was comin' down, the wind was howlin' outside of Slidell
It was the kinda night that makes you think the whole world's goin' to hell
We got off on an exit 'cause we couldn't read the map so great
Near the Choctaw Motel, we parked to deliberate
When out of the bayou came a man like the lake had a tongue
He was right up on the glass, all yellow eyed
Black teeth, bangin' on the windshield
Screamin' like a demon at the top of his lungs"
As he predicted when he was listening to it, his voice handles the pitch change there just fine without catching as the recorded guy's voice had. The recording had the others come in now and as he continues, they join in for the rather spooky chorus. Sanji's in time perfectly and their voices all merge together as if they'd sung it a thousand times.
"Come down to Lake Pontchartrain
Rest your soul and feed your brain
Free for you and all your friends
Crawfish 'til the bitter end
Come down to Lake Pontchartrain
Wade to where the shallows break
That's where you will get to see
Everything the water can be"
He has to fight down the grin, knowing it'll affect his voice. But it's hard because he's actually having a blast. The song might be weird as balls but damn if it isn't FUN. The song picks back up with him on his own again.
"I was driving out of there as fast as a Camry could
But the interstate was flooded and I had to take the road through the woods
Bad move in retrospect, the road disappeared in the rain
And I stood on the brakes when I saw the sign "Lake Pontchartrain"
Darius was yelling that he saw somebody out in the swells
He jumped out runnin' and Noland was goin' as well
Come back! Why the hell would they leave the car?
And that's when I heard it, make no mistake
The voices were calling them from under the lake"
And here Sanji really gets to show off some of his range and how easily he can change notes, it's a nice chance to sing with the rest of the band, although his natural volume is somewhat overpowering them so he tries to dial it back a little. Soon though, that bit ends and they're back to repeating the same creepy crazy line again.
"Come down to Lake Pontchartrain
Come down to Lake Pontchartrain
Come down to Lake Pontchartrain
Come down to Lake Pontchartrain
The crawfish were screaming, the waves danced in time
My friends went in deeper, the water had climbed
I watched in terror, the lake opened wide
And horribly roaring, it pulled them inside
That's how it happened, why would I lie?
There were no bodies, I've got none to hide
I'm just a boy, lost his friends in the rain
Any more questions, just go and ask Lake Pontchartrain!"
He finishes the song with a dramatic energetic flair that he simply couldn't resist. Nami and Robin cheer and applaud and there's an enthusiastic "super!" from behind him.
"I'm amazed that you managed to do that from only hearing it just now." The tall thin guy says with an impressed nod.
"So COOL!" Luffy bounces from behind the drumset.
The guy at the keyboard however is just staring at him thoughtfully, his eyes run over him assessing him and sizing him up. Sanji juts his jaw defiantly, if this guy didn't like him he can get bent, Sanji's sure he can't do any better or they wouldn't need a singer at all.
"I think this guy's better than Zoro, by a good margin too. This… this could work." He says after a moment.
"You think Zoro will like him?" The drummer asks excitedly, attacking the drum set with energy again. The long nosed keyboard player winces at the noise, and when Luffy's stopped he speaks again.
"Nah, Zoro's gonna hate him. But he'll respect him, he's got no ego and this guy here is more than good enough for Zoro to know the difference." Usopp remarks, flicking a glance Sanij's way. That raises Sanji's hackles, they're all talking about him like he's not even there!
"You're all acting like I've agreed to something I've not." He points out flatly.
"Join my band!" Luffy yells from the drum kit, his big earnest grin showing around the symbols as he bounces in his seat.
"Luffy's enthusiasm aside, we really would like to offer you the spot Sanji, you're very talented." Nami says, looking up at him from the bottom of the stage. Sanji shakes his head and jumps off of the stage, landing next to her.
"I appreciate the offer, but I really can't. And I didn't actually agree to audition, I was supposed to be showing you the venue, but I suspect that's not why you came here my flower." He smiles at her.
"You did agree to it being an audition actually, like I said, you should read the things you sign a little more carefully." Nami grins at him, tugging at the edge of the page that he signed where it sits tucked in her bra. To his credit his nose doesn't start bleeding at the jiggle that movement causes, though only just.
"Even so, I'm afraid I simply can't accept, I'm needed here." He apologises sadly.
"No you're not."
The voice makes him jump and Sanji turns to see his old man standing behind the bar, regarding him with a stiff look. Sanji scowls and turns to face him.
"What's that supposed to mean? I'm needed here." He challenges, folding his arms. There's no way that Zeff could ever replace him and the old man is family to him, it's not like he ever would anyway.
"Pft. You think you're the only one in the world who can sing? We have other staff who can do the job." Zeff says sternly. His words are like a smack in the face to Sanji. Sure he can think of a few of the other guys here who like to sing but they're not really singers. There's a huge difference from being able to sing and being a singer.
"No way, and even if they can none of them can pick up songs as quick as me, you need me!" He argues, not willing to admit the sting of his old man not thinking that he's better than those other guys. Even if he doesn't want to admit it, he does feel it in his chest, that tiny part of him that always wants so much for his old man to be proud of him is recoiling away from the idea that Zeff doesn't think what he does it worth enough to keep him.
"I don't need you. In fact, you ought to accept that job because you don't have one here anymore, you're fired." The old man says.
Sanji actually staggers back in shock at that. Fired? What?
"YOU CAN'T FIRE ME!" He yells loud enough to make the glasses on the other side of the room rattle.
"I already have, now take the job." Zeff orders, turning his gaze to Nami who is watching with interest.
"Look, I get what you're trying to do old man," he says through gritted teeth, "but you can't just expect me to join up with the first band that offers. I barely know these guys, and I'm pretty sure that they're not even from this city. How would I even play with them if I live so far away? It doesn't work."
"You're right. Get your shit, I'm kicking you out. You're nineteen now, I don't have to put up with your mooching here for free anymore. Go rent a place on your own, near the band you're in. Get out." Zeff says back, obviously entirely serious.
Sanji's head is swimming. He takes two numb steps towards his old man, but the shitty geezer's gaze doesn't get any more forgiving, it's hard and angry. What's he done to deserve this? What did he do that was so bad? He can't think of anything.
"You're kicking me out? But… I'm your son." He says in a small wounded voice, looking up at the only father that he's ever known.
"My son wouldn't just fritter his life away in some bar, coasting through on a job he could do in his sleep whilst his dream passes him by. You're no son of mine. Take the job, move out and I might not bar you from the place as well." Zeff snarls ruthlessly at him.
Sanji is close enough now that only the bar itself is separating them. He's shaking inside, pulling himself apart at the seams as all he's ever loved is being taken from him. He loves his old man, even if they argue all the time, he loves this bar and- fuck it, he loves the people he works with too. This place is home to him, how can Zeff do this?
"Zeff please, this isn't just some bar. It's your dream, it's my home. I love it here, please…" He whispers, his heart breaking in his chest.
"It's my dream, now get your own and get out. Useless kid." Zeff growls in his face and turns and stalks out of the room, leaving Sanji feeling like he's going to die.
The only sound that Sanji can hear in the bar is his own heartbeat in his ears.
"I suppose that this might be a good time to mention that there's a room with the job too, free as part of your contract." Nami pipes up quietly from behind him.
Sanji breaks into a run, dashing around the bar so fast his feet skid on the floor and he slides into the edge of the bar, jarring his hip as he knocks it. He sprints around the corner into the back that Zeff left through. He runs up the stairs two at a time, panic humming in his veins like a nest of bees. He doesn't even make it to the top before a suitcase smacks him in the chest. He catches it roughly only to be hit in the face by two empty duffle bags.
"Please, you're not serious." He pleads, climbing the last few stairs and looking desperately at Zeff.
"Get out. Pack your shit and go, don't let me see you again until you've achieved something." The old man growls as he turns and walks off into his own room, slamming the door after him.
Sanji stands frozen at the top of the stairs. Part of him wants to chase Zeff down, to bang on his door and beg him not to do this. But no. He won't do that. He's begged enough and if that bastard of a father of his- no, he's not his father, if he doesn't want him anymore then Sanji's not going to stay. He doesn't want to hang around being a disappointment to that shrivelled up talentless old shitbag. The only reason that he has the Baratie is because his band died before they made it to the top and Zeff never went for it again. They say those who can't do, teach. Well in this case those who can't do start music venues up for those who can. Well fuck him.
Sanji blinks repeatedly and storms into his room, cursing his hay fever, never mind that it's October because that's why his eyes are watering, nothing else. He grabs his things and throws them into bags and suitcases, stuffing clothes and shoes in together, not caring for once if things get scrunched up. He wraps his laptop in his hoodie and shoves it in his suitcase, throwing chargers and his toothbrush in after it. He curses the tightness in his throat and grits his teeth hard as he lets himself get truly angry.
How could that bastard do this to him? He'd thought that he'd cared but clearly he was fucking WRONG. God fucking damnit, this hay fever was making his eyes water. Smoking would cure that. He lights up and draws the calming nicotine into his lungs, the only man had always told him to quit, told him it'd ruin his voice. Well, he hadn't listened to him then and he certainly wasn't going to listen to the treacherous old shit head now was he?
He hefts his bags up, desperate to get out of his too small room and this bar and his life. He just needs to go. He all but runs down the stairs, bags over his shoulder and suitcase in hand.
"Geez Nami, you just made a guy homeless so he'd join. I know he's amazing but that's still pretty unethical." Franky's voice floats up to him as he comes down the last few steps.
"That's not my fault." Nami huffs.
"You didn't exactly stop it." The long nosed keyboardist points out as Sanji comes back out into the bar.
"I'll join. You mentioned that there was a room." Sanji says quickly, looking right at Nami.
The redhead smiles slowly and broadly.
"I did. We'd love to have you, I've got a contract here and ready for you." She smiles, pulling it out of the jacket she's since put on.
"Can I sign it on the way? I want to get out of here." He asks, feeling suddenly claustrophobic in this place.
This time the red-head's face is sympathetic. He doesn't blame her for this whole mess, he'd never be so callous as to accuse a lady of such a thing, but all the same she looks as if she feels a little bad for his predicament.
"Sure thing. Usopp can drive you or if you have your own car Franky can ride with you and give you directions." Nami offers.
"Quit just offering my car out." Usopp mutters irritably, glaring at Nami from behind his keyboard case.
"I've got my own car, you okay to show me where to go?" He asks, flicking a look at the blue haired guy.
"Yeah. You want to get out of here now?" the other guy asks, shoving his sunglasses up his nose a little more.
"Do I ever." Sanji mutters, leading the way and stomping out of the building. He resists the temptation to kick the door shut after himself as that would be rather childish and stroppy, but damn if he doesn't wanna kick the shit out of something right now.
He heads around the back of the bar to where his car is and throws his stuff in the back. The blue haired giant of a man follows him and carefully slides his electric bass guitar into the back and then gets in the front passenger seat.
"Left out of here and just follow the signs out towards Syrup, you know it?" Franky asks as Sanji turns the engine on and peels out of the car park.
He nods, he does know it. Syrup is a medium sized town on the outskirts of the city, not small but not huge either, just average. From what Sanji's seen driving through the place it has average bars, average people and average everything. He'd never seen himself living in a place like that, he's always thought of himself as a city guy, but then he'd always assumed he'd stay at the Baratie. Wrong.
His knuckles are white on the wheel as he grips it hard. He grinds his teeth on his cigarette and drives in silence.
"Hey, listen. I know Nami can be a bit manipulative but she didn't know anything like that was going to happen. But she's used to getting what she wants and if she gets to help you out and get the singer she wants… well, she's not going to say no. I just don't want you to think badly of her, her heart's in the right place most of the time." Franky says after a little while, with a sidelong look at him around his sunglasses.
Sanji peels his grip off of the wheel and ties to relax, rolling his shoulders out to try to ease some of the tension hiding there. He sighs a big smoky sigh into the air.
"I didn't think she had planned that or anything. I'm just pissed at my old man doing that to me." Sanji answers, crushing the butt of the cigarette into the ash tray in the car dash and lighting up another one handed.
"That was a pretty rough thing to do but… well, I get the impression that he thought he was doing it for your own good. I'm not sure that's how you go about doing that but… well, I don't know man. You know him better than me, I'm just guessing. Sorry you had to go through that either way." The other man offers him in a weak consolation.
Sanji inhales and lets the smoke float in his lungs for a little before breathing it out through his nose. He changes lanes and thinks a little. He doesn't know if Zeff was really doing that so he could chase his dream, but he's too mad to think straight about it, so he's better off just not.
"Tell me a little more about this band of yours… or… ours. I don't even know the name." He says eventually, looking across to his passenger.
"We're the Strawhats." Franky says simply. Sanji refrains from saying that's a dumbass name, but he thinks it really fucking loudly.
"I suppose we've been together a little over a year, but we were all in another band before that. Technically this band has never had a singer, but the band that we were all in before this one did." The other man continues as Sanji drives along the road.
"So I am replacing someone." He states flatly. He knew it, goddamnit. At least it's not someone who's currently there though, it sounds like they've been gone for a year, which is a little odd.
"Eh. Not really, and I wouldn't think of it like that, the singer left and we reformed as something new. But… well… I know the others won't want to talk about it, and don't bring it up if you can help it. But I don't like the idea of you walking in totally blind, as much as Nami might want you to." Franky says, pushing his sunglasses up into his coiffed blue hair.
"If you actually read that big ass contract that Nami's given you, you'll see that there's a whole load of standard stuff in there. You know, you agree to practice regularly, to a fair share of money we make from gigs, to show up at performances sober and not screw up. Usual stuff. But there's also a bit in there that whilst you're entitled to any royalties from any songs you write, you can't take the songs themselves with you if you leave and that all practice sessions are recorded." The bassist explains.
"That sounds a little odd." Sanji frowns. It must be weird getting recorded all the time, even if they're just running through songs for practicing. He's never actually been in a band before but he's sure that's not normal.
"Yeah. Three guesses as to what your predecessor did." The other man says flatly, sounding agitated. Sanji glances over at the other man, who by the way is wearing the teeniest hot pants ever despite it being fucking winter, looks uncomfortable and irritable. It's not exactly psychic of Sanji for him to tell that this is clearly a sore subject with the other man, it seems like the singer before him really did leave on bad terms.
"I don't know, what?" He asks, curiously.
"She stole about 80 percent of our songs and walked right out into a music deal that she got for taking them. Because nothing had been officially written down as to who wrote them and because that label had bags of money there was nothing we could do. We could have gone to court but we don't have the money for it and we'd lose, among other things. Hence the thesaurus length contract on your bag, if you write songs with us and leave you'll still get paid for them but nothing else." Franky says, jerking his thumb at the back of the car. Sanji flicks his gaze to the rear view mirror and indeed sees that the contract Franky's mentioning is seriously about dictionary thick.
"She? It was a woman?" He questions after a moment, making the other man roar with laughter.
"Oh man, out of all that I just told you that's what you took from it?" Franky guffaws, his black mood seeming to lift.
"Well I could tell you that's it's a shitty thing to do to someone but you already know that. And I could say that I've no intention of screwing you guys over, but then again someone who did would say that too, so it's meaningless to say. I'm just interested in the fact that it's a woman I'm taking over from, if you're all geared up to write for a female voice don't you think you might have made the wrong choice?" He frowns as he slows down for a junction.
"Nah, bro. Zoro's our main writer and the songs she took with her he either wrote with her or for her, we don't have 'em anymore and frankly it wasn't his best work. What we got to keep were the cool songs like the one you just did. They're ones that Zoro and Usopp wrote together and that Zoro would sing and hey, you've already proved that you can do that and better, that's what we want." Franky smiles encouragingly at him.
Sanji chews at his cigarette as he drives, he doesn't know what this band is actually going to be like. He's only heard just one of their songs and whilst they all seem like nice people he's got no idea what they're really like. And to top it all off he doesn't have much of a choice but to join up since his old man just kicked him out. What the hell happened to his day? Where did everything go so weird?
"Oh, just down here, then up the hill." Franky points out to him.
"This is all really sudden, I think I'm in shock here. That way?" He asks at the end, pointing up a long road.
"Yeah man, we're that one at the very top. Big long ass driveway, blue door. We all share the place, it's just easier for weird unsociable practice hours, and it makes it harder to lose Zoro." The man laughs, pointing the house out to him.
Sanji whistles as he pulls towards it, it's a huge house with about four stories and massive lawns on either side around it. The building is incredibly impressive and could easily be called a mansion. Unless music has started paying people a lot more than they used to at the level below performing at the Baratie then something is up here. Perhaps one of them is filthy rich. Still, it's not a bad step up from his current status of homeless.
There's a big garage to the side with easily enough space for four or five cars, so seeing as he can, he pulls into it. He drops out of gear and puts his handbrake on and then turns the car off. He still feels slightly dazed.
"Looks like you drive pretty fast when you're wound up, we got here before everyone else." Franky remarks, hopping out of the car and walking to the back to get his guitar out.
Sanji follows his lead and opens the back door to grab his bags.
"Nami's probably gonna want this signed when she gets here so…" The guy trails off, handing Sanji's sizeable contract to him.
He hefts it in his hands. He supposes it's not too late to back out, he could say he's changed his mind, give the contract back to Franky and drive off. He could stay in a hotel whilst he tries to find a new job and a place to live. But… well… being in a band and making it to All Blue is his dream, and they're offering him somewhere to live upfront and do what he enjoys doing. If he hates them and the place then he can always leave but he owes it to himself to take a shot at his dream, that'll show that old coot.
He flicks through the contract, spotting the bits that Franky had pointed out on the ride over here, including the odd clause about consenting to be filmed by the band whenever, and that all practice sessions will be recorded. It also seems like whenever he's working on anything musical he has to be in the studio to do it. Whatever. He flicks to the last page and signs where he's asked to. He hands it back to Franky who beams happily at him.
"Super! Nami will probably have keys and junk for you but the least I can do is show you your room, there's only one left in this building that's free." Franky says, grabbing one of Sanji's bags as Sanji grabs the other two.
As his hot pants wearing guide is unlocking the front door, a van pulls up and parks next to him. Sanji vaguely remembers seeing it outside of the Baratie but he was too furious about Zeff to really pay attention. Luffy bounces out of an open window like some overexcited puppy and bounds over to them.
"You signed right? You're really in the band! I knew it!" Luffy chatters gleefully, grabbing the signed contract from Sanji's hand and doing a pointless victory lap of the garage.
"Is he always-" Sanji begins.
"YES." Franky groans and shoulders the door open.
"I can't see Zoro's bike anywhere, I guess he's out. He doesn't have work does he?" Usopp frowns, climbing out of the driver's seat of the van and dropping to the floor.
"He didn't mention it, and it's not on the schedule if he did. But I suppose they could have called him in last minute." Robin muses as she gets out the van with Nami.
"Well, good. It'll give Sanji more time to settle in before- oh, thanks Luffy. Hey, did you chew on this contract?" Nami frowns, looking after Luffy who has already hurled himself in the back of the van with a clatter of cymbals.
Sanji decides to leave the ladies to that and follows Franky inside the building. Once he steps inside the door there's a big fancy entranceway with rooms branching off it on either side, in the middle of the room is a sweeping staircase that leads up to the next floor. It looks like something out of a fancy English castle almost, with red carpeting running up the stairs.
"Okay, we'll give you a proper tour later, but the studio is down in the basement, you get to it through there." Franky says, gesturing to a door set into the wall by the staircase that dominates the hallway.
"How can you guys afford this place? It's huge." Sanji wonders aloud as they climb the stairs.
"Well, it was in a bit of a state when I got here and my brother runs a construction company. The land and the original building had been given to Usopp by his… well, she's his fiancée now but then she was his girlfriend. So, my brother and I did the place up with everything that we'd ever need, mainly from things that were left over from other projects so it was free or super cheap. Because we don't pay rent for the building or a mortgage or anything the only costs that we have are the bills and maintaining the place, and like I said, my brother runs a construction company." Franky explains with a grin.
"And exactly how rich is Usopp's other half if she can afford to give him a place like this?" he asks, as Franky leads him up the second floor and up another set of stairs.
"Stupidly well off. Old money, you know?" the other man answers with a laugh and heads up another set of stairs.
Sanji adjusts the bag on his shoulder, he hadn't planned on climbing quite so many stairs, but they keep climbing!
"Your room is in the loft, it means it's really big but you gotta go up a lot of stairs to get there. It'll be quiet too, you'll just have Zoro across the way and you only have to share a bathroom with him. And believe me, if you lived on my floor and had to share a bathroom with Nami or Robin you'd appreciate not having to wait for hours." Franky grumbles. They head up the last set of stairs and into the loft space.
There's a bare wooden floor underfoot and a wide arched window at the other end, it opens slightly at the bottom and there's a slight breeze blowing the curtains. Franky turns to his right and opens the door and heads into the room. With a relieved sigh the tall (and mostly pantless man) drops Sanji's bags just inside the door.
The room is big and airy with a surprisingly high gabled ceiling, which even at it's lowest point is comfortably above Sanji's head height and at it's highest is well above what Sanji could reach even standing on any of the furniture in here. The room is painted almost entirely white, except for the dark ceiling beams and the bare beech wood floorboards. There's a bare mattress on a large bed which has to be king-size at least and desk across the other side of the room. Other than that the room is empty. It feels a little lonely to Sanji, he's used to his cramped little room above the Baratie that he's had since he was a little kid, and it hadn't been a big room when he was small either. To suddenly go to a place this big just highlights how far from his home he really is.
"Okay, you've got that bathroom through that door there. There's a door that leads to Zoro's in there so I'd lock both unless you wanna introduce yourself pretty awkwardly!" Franky laughs loudly, the sound echoing in the Spartan room.
"Where is this mythical guitarist anyway? How come he wasn't at the audition?" Sanji asks. The question had been bothering him for some time, and he'd initially thought that perhaps this Zoro fellow really was the singer for this band and he was being tricked into replacing him. He'd dropped that idea when he found about his mysterious lady predecessor, although that was another mystery he was dying to solve.
"Zoro? Who knows man, he's a bit of a mystery. Half time I swear he just wanders off and gets lost, he does when he's out with us anyhow. He'll show up sooner or later. Anyhow, I'll let you get settled." Franky says and, with a wave, disappears from Sanji's new room.
Sanji looks numbly around the room and after a few moments he walks over to the bed and drops down onto it. What the hell is happening to him? He pulls his feet up onto the bedframe and lifts his hips so that he can get his phone out of his pocket. There's no calls or messages from Zeff or anyone else at the Baratie, no emails either.
He scrolls through his phonebook until he comes to the old man's number. He bites his lip as his pride snarls at him, like hell is he going to call that old bastard after he's just abandoned him like that! If he doesn't care then Sanji doesn't care either. Shitty excuse for a father!
With that Sanji launches himself to his feet and throws himself into the job of unpacking his stuff. He finds places for his clothes and settles his laptop on the desk, he settles his shoes in the corner and arranges the few hastily packed books into a little pile. When he's done that he puts his bags in the back of a wardrobe and straightens everything out.
He heads outside of his new room and is about to descend the stairs when a noise makes him stop and tilt his head to listen. It's a voice. He pauses, one foot halfway to the stair below.
"And it feel so wrong,
to sing this song,
but maybe you'll hear me,
somehow, and hum along." The muffled voice sings.
Sanji's eyes widen, he knows that voice. It's the voice from the recording, it's a different song sure but it's certainly him. He knows it's not a recording because there's no music but it's him. He steps silently to the door and listens more.
"Maybe you'll be kidnapped by pirates,
And they'll take you to their hideout,
As pirates often do."
Sanji holds his breath and leans on the door, it's open so it swings in silently, letting Sanji peek around the edge.
The place is the same size as his room and a perfect mirror in structure, except for the fact that it looks like several wardrobes have just exploded over everything. There are t-shirts and jeans flung over every surface and boots littering the floor. In the middle of the room sits a green haired guy who looks to be about Sanji's age. He's sat on the floor in front of an upturned bicycle with tools in his hands, he's singing along quietly to himself as he does something to one of the wheels with a wrench.
"But I would find the secret map,
And I would vigilante bushwhack,
Through the jungles of Peru.
Just to save you and I'd take you North to Mexico,
And you could tell me your life story,
on the steps of a Mayan temple,
where we'd camp,
singing nonsense songs and-" The green haired guy suddenly cuts off, his body jolting and his head suddenly snapping around to look wide eyed at Sanji. He realises that he's actually taken a step into the guy's room, hypnotised as he was by the strange tale being sung.
The green haired guy yelps and flings the wrench in the direction of Sanji's head, making him cry out and duck.
"Sorry! I didn't mean to just barge in!" He apologises hastily, backing away. He eyes the dent in the wall left by the wrench and is exceedingly glad that it wasn't his face that it just hit.
"Who the HELL are you?! What are you doing in my house?!" the green haired guy yells furiously, leaping to his feet and advancing threateningly on Sanji.
"I'm Sanji! Franky brought me here!" He explains hastily, backing out into the hallway.
"Well why the hell are you in my room?!" the other guy snarls angrily.
"I didn't- sorry! I just heard you singing and I thought I should introduce myself but then I didn't want to interrupt so-" he continues.
"Why would I care who you are? Stay out of my room!" The guy snaps at him and turns to head back into his room.
"I just thought that since I'm the singer I should say hi at least!" He says back defensively.
That makes the green haired guy stop in his tracks. He stands completely still for a good couple of seconds before he turns around, slowly now and looks at Sanji with one eye twitching slightly tensely.
"I'm sorry, I couldn't have heard you right. What did you just say?" The guy asks him, sounding a lot less angry but certainly no calmer, if anything he sounds tenser.
"I… I auditioned today, signed a contract and everything. I'm the new singer." He answers warily.
The green haired guy's entire face seems to twitch.
"NAMI! GET YOUR ASS UP HERE YOU CONNIVING WITCH!" The guy screams at the top of his lungs, as he thunders down the stairs onto the floor below.
"OI! ASSHOLE! Don't shout for her like that! Have some manners!" Sanji snaps reflexively, chasing after the guy. Nami might be a little underhanded from what Sanji's seen of her but it's no reason to scream like that or to insult her so!
"You stay out of this swirl-face!" The guy snarls, jabbing a finger in his direction.
"Not if you're gonna act like a psycho, you Neanderthal!" he argues back, smacking the finger out of his face. The other guy turns and glares up at him from where Sanji stands on the last few steps before the floor below.
"Look, get your shit and go because there 'aint no singing job here. If that witch tricked you then that's your fault but get your scrawny ass out!" the guy orders him.
"Oh, there's a job. Don't you go anywhere Sanji, I've got your contract safe and sound." Nami says silkily as she makes her way around the corner.
"I don't need a singer! I've got this under control, we're fine. Tear up that contract now!" the guy shouts, his fists clenching tightly at his sides.
"Not your call Zoro, it's mine and Luffy's. Deal with it." Nami states firmly, stepping up to Zoro and standing her ground.
"Why you!" Zoro snaps, grabbing the front of her shirt.
Now, Sanji's not known for his self-restraint, however his ability to let shit slide rapidly approaches zero when someone threatens a woman in his presence. So he regrets nothing and he snaps his foot right through Zoro's wrist, breaking his hold on Nami. He leaps between the two of them and shoves the other guy back with his foot.
"Don't you dare grab her like that!" He shouts protectively.
"You stay out of this!" The green haired guy yells at him. Well, if this is going to get into a screaming match Sanji would bet any amount of money that he can scream louder, he's not met anyone yet that can force more power out of their lungs than he can.
"Over my dead BODY!" He shouts back, louder than Zoro.
"THAT CAN BE ARRANGED!" The manhandling ape yells back, upping the volume.
"TRY ME, COWARD!" He bellows even louder again.
Instead of fighting verbally though this guy, probably sensing that he's outmatched, simply swings for Sanji's face with his fist. Sanji brings his leg up to block and then kicks out, shoving the guy firmly into his range. He grew up in a bar for god sake, he's been fighting almost his entire life.
The asshole apparently doesn't know when he's beat though and lunges for him again. This time it's a little quicker and he manages to catch Sanji by the collar and slam him into a wall. Sanji grounds himself with one foot and twists the other leg around the guy's arm, snapping his grip and kicking him forcefully into the opposing wall. He flicks a follow up kick out but his attacker ducks and throws a punch which Sanji manages to dodge.
Going for broke the guy flings himself at Sanji and it's only when Sanji has sidestepped that he realises it was a trick as the punk-haired bastard throws out his arm and clotheslines Sanji to the ground. Then it becomes a grappling match of punches, knees and swearing.
A pair of hands rip the other guy up off of him and another pair haul Sanji back on his ass so that he doesn't kick the savage dick in the face. It's Franky who's got him in an arm lock and Luffy and Usopp who are holding Zoro back.
"I'm good, I'm good." He mutters, relaxing his arm so that Franky lets him go. He dusts off his shirt and scowls at the other guy. His opponent however seems to have no such sensible qualms and is snarling at the drummer. The rest of the band has appeared on the floor now, all watching the conflict with wide worried eyes.
"-the hell are you doing?! Bringing in this psychopath, we don't need him! I hate him!" Zoro snarls at Luffy.
"We need him and he's not going anywhere, I've made my decision." Luffy says seriously. The green haired bastard snatches his arm back and turns to face Luffy full on.
"Why?!" he demands. Sanji might be wrong but he could swear that the guy almost sounds a little wounded.
"It's best." Luffy nods.
"Usopp, you're in on this too? How could you?!" he asks, turning to the long nosed keyboard player. Usopp looks hugely uncomfortable and just averts his eyes.
"Well fuck all of you." Zoro snarls and storms off down the stairs. Usopp tries to go after him but Luffy holds him back and shakes his head.
"So much for good first impressions." Sanji mutters, feeling his cheeks flush. It's hardly the great first impression that he wanted to give his new bandmates, it doesn't exactly paint him as easy to get along with.
"I've never seen anyone give Zoro back as good as they got, it was rather interesting to see." Robin muses from the bannister, her smile coy and catlike.
"Well he grabbed Nami, I had to intervene." Sanji frowns, straightening his shirt out.
"Zoro's all bark and no bite, he'd never hurt me. He was just showing me how pissed off he was. Bastard." Nami scowls, glaring down the stairs that Zoro left through.
"That's still not okay. Are you alright?" Sanji asks worriedly as he looks over at Nami.
"I'm fine. Still… it's going to be interesting for Zoro to deal with you. When we've tried to hire singers before he's just intimidated the shit out of them or deliberately been impossible to work with, none of them have even got through the audition. But you… I think you could have survived that. Anyway, you're not going anywhere my dear, and Zoro's just going to have to deal with that." Nami grins, patting Sanji's cheek and making his heart flutter.
She flashes him a sneaky grin and returns to her room, the rest of the band going their separate ways. The fluttering in Sanji's chest fades leaving him only with the dead certainty that he loathes this Zoro guy and he's probably hate his shitty guts until the day he dies.
A/N: Songs aren't mine but belong to Ludo and are (in order) "Lake Pontchartrain" and "Hum Along"